Thursday, March 18, 2021


seeking permission

Another month!  Like the last, except slightly warmer!  I've been out painting (in the car, yes, but with the window rolled down), and birds of spring are returning to our yard (saw the first song sparrow this morning, under the cedars), and the snow is nearly melted away (some blue ghosts remain at the edge of the field).  I've set Thoreau aside for now; I never did finish Volume Seven of his Journal.  I'll get back to it another time, I hope.  From what I read in the Thoreau biography about how it progresses, I'd rather leave him here now, before he gets much older, darker, and sickly.  Perhaps around 3000 pages of the Journal is enough for one winter.  All in all he's been a most excellent readerly companion, over these last few months.  I opened my own diary at random to see if I could find a quote or two to illustrate this, but instead saw some passages I'd copied from Emerson's tribute to him in the Riverside Thoreau collection Miscellanies (snippets from pp.18-23):

"It was a pleasure and a privilege to walk with him.  He knew the country like a fox or a bird, and passed through it as freely by paths of his own.  He knew every track in the snow or on the ground, and what creature had taken this path before him.  One must submit abjectly to such a guide, and the reward was great.  Under his arm he carried an old music-book to press plants; in his pocket, his diary and pencil, a spy-glass for birds, microscope, jack-knife, and twine.  He wore a straw hat, stout shoes, strong gray trousers to brave shrub-oaks and smilax, and to climb a tree for a hawk's or squirrel's nest.  He waded into the pool for the water-plants, and his strong legs were no insignificant part of his armor....  His power of observation seemed to indicate additional senses.  He saw as with a microscope, heard as with an ear-trumpet, and his memory was a photographic register of all he saw and heard.  And yet none knew better than he that it is not the fact that imparts, but the impression or effect of the fact on your mind.  Every fact lay in glory in his mind, a type of the order and beauty of the whole....  His eye was open to beauty, and his ear to music.  He found these, not in rare conditions, but wheresover he went."

The essay-slash-obituary is very moving, however Emerson also says that Thoreau lacked the kind of ambition that he, Emerson, wished that Thoreau had possessed, so he could be a leader on the world stage, " for all America," rather than merely "...the captain of a huckleberry party." (p.29)  I tend to think, after reading many places that indicated as much in Thoreau's letters and writings, that Thoreau did not seek that kind of power, ever, and mistrusted it, and disliked it.  He looked and looked, but didn't see anyone like himself in literature, or politics, or even society in general, and subsequently traveled his own path.  And wrote into existence a new way of being in the world.

In his Civil Disobedience (also printed in the Riverside Miscellanies p.146), he says "I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad."  Take that, Emerson!  Also (p.156): "I was not born to be forced.  I will breathe after my own fashion.  Let us see who is the strongest.... I am not responsible for the successful working of the machinery of society."  And that!  Phew.  And yet, here he is, in his life and writing: pointing, forcing the issue, attempting to open eyes wide.  Bracing stuff.

I always feel like there is much more I could say, and want to say, but there's only so much time, and we have to go pick up our grocery order soon, and then I have paintings to finish, in my studio.  So I'll leave Thoreau for now, in a stack of unfinished reading, with many bookmarks throughout.  There's a new stack at my elbow, as we speak, with nary a Thoreau title among the many:

Mmmmm, new books.  Nothing like them.  I ordered up a storm in January, and this is some of the fruit, to mix metaphors.  Let's look at two more closely:

Brand new, these ones.  I just got the Anne Lamott book in the mail.  And I continue to love all things Tom Cox.  His Notebook (Unbound 2021) contains various selections from his own handwritten notebooks.  I've sampled a few pages here and there and am about to read the whole thing cover to cover.  I can't wait - reading other people's journals and diaries is turning out to be a life-long fascination of mine.  I will also say that his work reminds me of Thoreau in some ways - especially in his book of nature memoir essays in 21st-Century Yokel (Unbound 2017).  If Thoreau collected vinyl records and wore bell-bottoms, which he might well have done, had he lived at a later time.  And I was going to say if Thoreau was edgy, because Tom Cox is, but Thoreau certainly was.  And if they both love cats (check), and music (check), and rambling the countryside (check), and the minutae of nature (check).  Anyway, read Tom Cox...!  He is high on my list of exemplary authors for all kinds of reasons, but one of the most recent is this: he recently granted me permission to quote him, in my own book.

Since finishing the book, my memoir Autobiography of an Island, in January, I've been doing something I should have started a long time ago: seeking permission to quote from various authors and artists.  In writing in general, I've always copied long and short passages from other people into my diaries.  I started keeping a commonplace book for quotations when I was around ten years old, and I have it still.  Here on this blog I've always had the habit of quoting others for purposes of review, or general adoration, or every so often, dislike.  I think that (most of?) what I've written falls well within the bounds of fair use.  But when something is going to be printed, in a book, the situation changes.  I want to use other people's words as chapter headers, and I want to quote the people I admire, within my text.  So in late January I made a long list, and started writing to ask permission.  Most publishers have an online submission process, which is fairly easy, so I completed a lot of forms, wrote explanations about my book, and sat back and waited.  So far, 75% of the permissions I requested have come back affirmative - yes, I can quote, with an endnote citation.  In a few cases, I paid to use the words I want to use.  They are worth it, to me, and I thought I'd have to pay a lot more, to be honest.  But again, most of what I quote does fall within fair use guidelines.  Some of it's even within the public domain.

The best part about seeking permission to quote has been being in touch with BOOK PEOPLE from all over the place.  Book people are wonderful, and I've missed them, since I "retired" from my own open shop, and from the world at large during the pandemic.  I've corresponded with literary estate executors, publishers in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., archivists, and a librarian.  Even a record label, for a song lyric I hope to be able to sing, in print.  I'm only waiting now for a few final permissions to clear (or not - I did have one rejection, and had to rewrite two paragraphs), and the process will be complete.  Then I'll work on designing the book, or have someone else design it for me, and hopefully print it in July.  It would be earlier, but I already have a lot on my plate, work-wise.  No rest for the self-employed!  And gladly so.  When I rest, I don't rest.  I worry.

The only times right now I'm not worrying seem to be when I'm reading, or painting.  Thought - and anxiety - goes, and I'm in the moment, a place I dearly love to be.  So I work a lot, and read a lot.  When I set Thoreau aside, I re-read some of the novels of Ruth Moore.  She was originally published by Morrow, and now her work is being reprinted by Islandport Press, in wonderful softcover editions with cover images from the original first edition dust jackets.  Her novels about Maine are unsurpassed, in my opinion.  My favorites are Candlemas Bay and SpoonhandleThe Weir is a close third, tied with The Fire Balloon.  She has a gimlet eye when it comes to characterization, and so many of her people are unforgettable.  We know them.  She writes about families, and entire small towns.  The good people, and the bad seeds.  I ordered a few of the Islandport Press editions, even though I have most of her work in hardcover first editions already, just to support their endeavor, and to triple-check the quotations I'm going to use in my book, and the copyright citation.  The good folks at Islandport granted me permission, which I'm so grateful for.  I don't want to hide behind the words of others, when I quote from them.  I want to use what they say to illustrate what I myself believe and care about.  That's what I've tried to do - draw up a bucket from the great well of world literature and art and then offer a dipper to drink from.  Read the quote, then go buy the book!  Support the publisher, the author, and their heirs.  This is how books will continue to be written and published, by people who care about such things.  Us!

In closing, for today.  Requesting permission has another facet to it.  As I worked my way through my list of quotations for the book, I realized that the very act of asking for something has never come easily to me.  It's like asking permission to exist, in a way.  Calling attention to oneself.  Stating one's intent clearly, with no obfuscation: I want do do this; or tempered for politeness, I would like do do this.  Part of what my book has become, in writing and rewriting, is a statement of this kind: I exist, and do what I love to do, with no one's permission sought or needed.  It took me a long time to come to this place.  Decades, I'd say.  But here I am now, and it's a good place to stand.  The view is fine.  Almost Thoreauvian.  Until next time, be well, and... keep buying books.

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