Doug Bruns

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Of Writers

In Books, Literature, Memoir, Travel, Writers, Writing on September 4, 2012 at 6:00 am

I am traveling, in the mountains of Colorado. I leave you with a favorite post, published earlier this year in April.


Bruce Chatwin observed that there are two types of writers, “the ones who ‘dig in’ and the ones who move.” Chatwin was a mover. When I read him I hear the cadence of his restless feet traversing ancient causeways, just as when I read Melville, I smell salt air.

Once, in London, traipsing around Bloomsbury, I sought out the home of Virginia Woolf.  It is not open to the public, and is now converted office space. But the brass plague confirmed the address. I was reduced to peering in through a barred street window. There were fax machines and furniture, a woman in a beige sweater pounding away on a computer and the flurry of activity one associates with commerce. I tried to imagine Mrs. Woolf there but failed–a “dug in” writer who slipped through my fingers. The failure was particularly poignant in that she had so famously observed, “A woman is to have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

Likewise, I found Gertrude Stein’s Paris house, her salon at 27 rue de Fleurus, the place she shared with Alice B. Tolkas. Stein called Alice “Pussy” and Gertrude was “Lovey.” There is that awful scene in A Moveable Feast, where the young Hemingway, standing in the foyer of Miss Stein’s house, overhears her upstairs: “Then Miss Stein’s voice came pleading and begging, saying, ‘Don’t, pussy. Don’t. Don’t. Please don’t. I’ll do anything, pussy, but please don’t do it. Please don’t. Please don’t, pussy.’” She was dead eighteen years when Hemingway’s memoir of Paris and being hungry was published–”But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.” Of his writing, Miss Stein said, “Hemingway’s remarks are not literature.” He got her back in the end.

Hemingway is nowhere to be found at his Key West home, despite its well-preserved museum condition. I suspect his spirit has been trampled by hoards of tourists over the years. Papa too was plagued by their presence and had bricks shipped from Baltimore, where they’d been taken up from newly paved streets, to construct a wall around the place, protecting his privacy.

I went to Prague seeking Kafka, the writer who perhaps more than any other, ushered us into the modern era. But he too had disappeared. The City of a Thousand Spires, however, remained true to a fashion and I gave myself to its dark alleys and endless cobblestone streets. “Prague doesn’t let go,” he wrote. Though Prague invites the exercise of transmutations, to this pilgrim the city is more given to music. Smetana and Dvorak are easier to find than the man of The Castle. I do not think this unusual as music, once released abides ripe in the atmosphere, whereas the written word must be sought out.

The spirit of Joyce is to be found in Dublin, though ironically he wrote in self-exile. Thoreau’s cabin at Walden is lost to history, but Emerson’s house in Concord remains and it is easy to imagine the great man dug in, to use Chatwin’s phrase, surrounded by his books and working intently.

And of Chatwin? I found him a desert stretch removed from the Minaji Plain in Rajasthan. But that is another story for another time.


Road-Trip Thoughts

In Death, Dogs, Happiness, Nature, Travel on June 26, 2012 at 6:00 am

Road-Trip Action

Road-trip thinking is the anthesis of distraction. Long-distance driving delivers you to a place of somnambulated stability that invites the mind to run wild. I observed this firsthand last week on our road trip through New Brunswick. Here are a few of the wild-running notions that skittered across the highway of my brain.

  • I should try to act more manly. I think people are inclined to take you (more) seriously if they deem you manly. For example, among writers, who do you take more seriously, James Thurber or Ernest Hemingway? See? I decide to resolve this by smiling less frequently. (I don’t know how this works for women. Women have too many challenges as it is. I don’t know how they do it.)
  • My favorite animal is the North American painted turtle. Its rudderless house on its back, affording complete flexibility and mobility, it’s apparent aimlessness–all qualities I admire. It is a simple animal, self-contained in its rambling and curious elegance.
  • What is the thought from Peter Matthiessen I just read? His life-long goal is not to simplify his life necessarily, but to simplify his self.
  • Of my good and dear friend Stuart, who just got a lab report from a biopsy: “It’s not good,” he said. We all die, so why is it so difficult when we know we are dying? I don’t know, but it is.

The thinking is interrupted as I see an object in the road and, too late, rush over it, recognizing it to be a bird. In my rear-view mirror I see it pulled by the vacuum of our truck and tumble like a wind-blown leaf. I pull over. It is a yellow-rumped warbler, just a little fleck of an animal. It is alive and blinks at me. Their bones are hollow and in my hand it seems to weigh less than air. I walk to the brim and place it in the tall side grass. Continuing on:

  • At camp last night, the dogs played like children. There is such joy to that, especially as the sun goes down and the fire is built.
  • When did I start sleeping in a tent? I used to sleep under the stars. Some things happen you simply can’t understand.

Saturday Quotes

In Books, Creativity, Writers, Writing on June 23, 2012 at 6:00 am

Words, words, words.

As has become my habit, here are some Saturday quotes to consider. Specifically, today, writers on words:

  • Words are loaded pistols. ~ Jean-Paul Sartre
  • Words are the supreme objects. They are minded things. ~ William Gass
  • Words are…awkward instruments and they will be laid aside eventually, probably sooner than we think. ~ William Burroughs
  • Words are an albatross to a writer–heavy, hopeless, fateful things. One writes to make words mean something new. ~ Joy Williams
  • Words have basic inalienable meanings, departure from which is either conscious metaphor or inexcusable vulgarity. ~ Evelyn Waugh
  • Words are like leaves, and when they abound / Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found. ~ Alexander Pope
  • Every word is like an unnecessary strain on silence and nothingness. ~ Samuel Beckett
  • The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightening bug. ~ Mark Twain
  • For your born writer, nothing is so healing as the realization that he has come upon the right word. ~ Catherine Drinker Bowen
  • All my life I’ve looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time. ~ Ernest Hemingway

I am likely–as this post goes up–turning south, considering a return to Maine. Hoping to be at my desk again next week–perhaps with a tale to two to share.

Thanks for reading.

“Sometimes, like right now…”

In Depression, Life, The Examined Life, Writers on June 8, 2012 at 6:00 am

Black dog

Sometimes, like right now, this evening, when the black dog nips at my heels, I look out the window and attempt to remember what matters. Then something rises in me and suggests that it all matters, if only I pay attention. For instance, I paid a high degree of attention to that last period, after the word attention. I read recently that in poetry a period is an exclamation mark seen from above: down the shaft and the dot driven into the sod. That is, indeed, a high degree of attention and is enough to serve a person well for a while.


I wrote the above paragraph three months ago and saved the draft thinking I would get back it to. Never got back to it. I don’t remember writing it. Nor do I recall being chased by the black dog. (I have held for many years that it was Hemingway who labeled depression the black dog. Now, however, I am given to understand that Dr. Johnson was first with the phrase, though he would have been alluding to melancholia, as they called it back then. I am intent on not settling this. Occasionally I prefer to live in an imagined pre-Google world of ambivalence.) I find it interesting that I chose to write about paying attention, yet have no recollection of doing so. It is too frequently a personally inconsistent and troubling world.

Maine, three years on.

In Life, Memoir, The Examined Life, Travel, Writing on May 30, 2012 at 6:00 am

The Great State of Maine

We moved to Maine three years ago this week. As I’ve observed previously, place matters, though I did not understand that truly until settled-in here in the northeast. (In a society where transience seems valued, such musings must seem quaint.) Of the world places I’ve seen, Maine is favorite. That I’ve seen a lot of the world, makes Maine the more significant. I’m not going to attempt to explain it. Ineffableness is how the important things are best realized.

There are other places that pique my interest. Colorado is such a place, as is Montana and Wyoming. Mountains and rivers, remoteness, low population, challenging weather–these are factors in favor of a place. A consideration of my travel resume reveals my interest in places appealing to the few. A family member, upon hearing of the minor hardships endured in Nepal recently, asked why I wouldn’t rather go to a place like Hawaii. That question obviously cannot be answered as it requires of the asker an impossible comprehension.

My father, who is ninety years old, still talks about living in a cabin aside a river in Alaska, where he will fish for his dinner and tend to a garden, where he will live in a manner fashionably now called sustainable. Of course no such place is left him, nor is much of him left for it. It was a dream. He also dreamed of living on a boat, a more reasonable quest, but also unfulfilled. Instead he worked his way up through the ranks at International Harvester until he retired as early as he could. His modest life, shared with my mother, included cutting the grass once a week and cleaning the gutters in the spring, caulking and painting the window frames, and attending to the weekly trash. He said to me this very morning that it’s best to have left that world behind, that he would not be able to walk behind a lawnmower now. Though he is still of sound mind, he talks of someday getting another motorcycle, like the Harley he had as a young man. I humor him, but suggest he also get a sidecar in which to store his walker.

It is fortunate that, unlike my father, I have made progress pursuing a dream or two, though my dreams have never been so concrete nor vividly imagined as his. The nature of my life has been more that of the rising stream during spring run-off. It will likely follow the course it took the year previously, but one cannot be sure and there is a thrill in that unknown. Eventually, as occurred three years ago, something might nudge it out of its ancient bed and turn it toward parts unknown. Therein is a natural cause for celebration.


It does not escape me that this is the second post this week using a river-stream metaphor. I think a little Hemingway might be in order. Here is the last paragraph of his two-part short story, Big Two-Hearted River:

Nick stood up on the log, holding his rod, the landing net hanging heavy, then stepped into the water and splashed ashore. He climbed the bank and cut up into the woods, toward the high ground. He was going back to camp. He looked back. The river just showed through the trees. There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp.

Amen, Ernest.

On late travels.

In Travel, Writing on April 5, 2012 at 11:12 am

Scheduled on the late shuttle home last night and waiting for my flight at the bar and drinking a beer or two, I realized how generally annoyed I was with the noise and the people and garish lighting and the incessant televisions–sports, Fox News, Shopping Network–and the elbow to elbow experience of drunk travelers shouting over pounding music and just wanting to be home in bed at that moment, quiet and maybe drifting off with the New Yorker in my hands. Perhaps it was everyone too drunk and consequently annoying, or perhaps was me working in that direction but not yet there that everything and everyone seemed so very hyperbolic and frenetic.

The woman to my right leaned into me and asked the time. I looked at her and told her the time and her eyes, which I recall black like I understand Picasso’s eyes black, bore through me and out the back of my skull and in that instant I was reduced to something far from manhood and turned quickly away and back to my book, feeling very and profoundly inadequate, and for some reason embarrassed, to be entirely truthful. She turned from me, sensing I’m sure my instantaneous shortcomings, and to the gentleman at her right, asking a question of him and their ensuing din of politics and pop culture and business and law and travel washed over me, fixing my already stained mood.

The man to my left, a lawyer, I overhead him say, was reading his best friend’s manuscript, a novel, as he reported to the traveler on his left. This piqued my interest but not so much as to disrupt my mood of contemplative dissatisfaction, so I let it lay, as he let the manuscript lay. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that he was on page sixteen.

I fly this shuttle, Portland to Baltimore, every four or five weeks, a day trip, early morning, late night flights, and because of that cumulative mileage I frequently, as I did last night, get bumped up to business class where the drinks are free. This can be a challenge as the temptation of free alcohol is something I find particularly cruel. After my second Jack I was reminded of Hemingway’s admonition to compose drunk and edit sober.

My dismissive mood lifted as we flew over Manhattan and the luminescense of that island broken only by the black rectangle of Olmsted’s park, a perfect void extinguishing the light. A lovely sight indeed on a clean night and a reminder to always sit fuselage left when returning home.

And alas, the script, “Welcome Home,” suspended in the jetway claiming all challenges acceptable and filling me again with grace.