Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Real Work: Gary Snyder and Inheriting Experience

Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's all-time home run record on my birthday. April 8, 1974. I was two years old, possibly smashing cake all over my face. That is one of those singular moments in sports that will be remembered forever by all who were alive and following baseball, or American sports at all. Culturally memorable.

Go back about 20 years before that, to April 8, 1956. Much less culturally relevant to most, and with no fanfare, Beat Generation pioneer, future Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder began a book that would take him 40 years to finish. The book is only 152 pages long. It's not like he was going "War and Peace" on us. But that's how long it took "Mountains and Rivers Without End," as the back cover describes it, "an epic (poem) of geology, prehistory, and mythology."

Snyder is a big deal to me. So much so that the idea for my next tattoo, a sleeve on my left arm, began with the cover art for his book "Turtle Island." He is a game changer, both as a writer, for what he has written, but also as a human, for how he has lived his life. Let's see if I can explain.

If you live a life interesting enough that Jack Kerouac bases one of the characters in his novel "Dharma Bums" after you, chances are you're living a pretty fu**ing cool life. Snyder is one of those writers that has not lived his life behind a desk dreaming things up. He has experienced life. He has lived it. And that's what he writes from: experience, of the world, of the soul, of the planet, of the cosmos, of the human condition.

You can get at what I mean just by looking at a list of the jobs Snyder has held: logger, fire lookout on Desolation Peak, steam freighter crew, translator, carpenter, poet. He has degrees in literature and anthropology and has studied linguistics and Asian languages. When he wanted to dig into Zen Buddhism, he moved to Japan and spent 12 years in intense study. His experience is not limited to books, nor does it shun them. He wrote the first poems that he would published while working as a trail crew laborer for the U.S. Park Service. He was also studying classical Chinese at the time. Of course he was.

The first time I remember really thinking I would like to write for a living, I was 14. I loved and lived skateboarding, body, mind, and soul. It was something I wanted to always be a part of (14 year old me would like to know that 42 year old me still digs skating, I reckon), but I knew I wasn't good enough to be the next Tony Hawk or even a pro skater. So I thought, I'd like to write for "Thrasher" Magazine. Tell skating stories, dig into the culture and become a voice of skating.

For all the various times I've pictured myself as some sort of writer, and for all the words I've written, I've never wanted to live life at a desk. Writing is the outlet, not life itself. It is how I make sense of my life and the world around me. It is how I try to relate to things. But it is not living. I want to experience, to live an interesting life, to imbibe perspective, and then write. If you read Snyder, he gets that.

I have a friend working on a book right now. She's researching, interviewing, transcribing, compiling, writing. Of all of it, she says the writing is the hardest part. What she looks forward to the least. It is draining. It saps her, and then she needs to go recharge, by doing anything but writing. Running, photography, traveling with her husband, playing with dogs.

I function largely the same way, and I think a lot of writers would say the same. Writing is a release, it is a pouring out. It empties you. And then it is your job to go refill your soul. If you don't, what will you have to write about?

In his book, "The Real Work," Snyder posits that he:

...hold(s) the most archaic values on earth... the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth, the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe.

I need to post that on the refrigerator with artwork and photos of our daughters, so that they can read it every day as well. In Mountains and Rivers, the book started on my birthday 20-ish years before I was born, Snyder scrolls:

'The Fashioner of Things
         has no original intentions
Mountains and rivers
         are spirit, condensed.'

The work Snyder is doing, "the real work," that is the inheritance I want to earn.

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