Help, I Don’t Know What I’m Doing

Craig Jones

I was noticing how I increasingly don’t want to be inconvenienced or uncomfortable, as I get older, by any hassles, like weather and figuring shit out logistically and driving in heavy traffic and being on phone calls late at night and having to make a writing deadline. I’m glad to notice that tendency and maybe nip it in the bud earlier.

Makes me think of Steinbeck’s great section in Travels with Charley about his prep for leaving with his poodle and his truck named Rocinante. After a lecture from his doctor saying, “Slow down. You’re not as young as you once were” he wrote:-

“And I had seen so many begin to pack their lives in cotton wool, smother their impulses, hood their passions, and gradually retire from their manhood into a kind of spiritual and physical semi-invalidism. In this they are encouraged by wives and relatives, and it’s such a sweet trap. Who doesn’t like to be a center for concern? A kind of second childhood falls on so many men. They trade their violence for the promise of a small increase of life span. In effect, the head of the house becomes the youngest child. And I have searched myself for this possibility with a kind of horror. For I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment. I did not want to surrender fierceness for a small gain in yardage. My wife married a man; I saw no reason why she should inherit a baby.”

There is something deep in here about adventure and being able to put up with discomfort and not rolling over just because you are getting older. Keeping that hard on out in the world, that spark, still throwing breaking balls if you’ve lost a few MPH off your fastball.

I was bummed about my inability to really finish off the Legacy piece regarding Jesus and his men’s team for the April Fool’s issue of Legacy Magazine. My pal Dan Kempner did a nice job editing and working out the ending, though. Made me realize how challenged I often am really bringing longer pieces home. Much to dig into there. A lot of my writing has accreted over these years, for sure, but it’s hard to tug on a line that firmly runs through it all and makes it tight if you pull. It’s like an afterthought. I look up and realize “fuck, I have to end this.”

I’ve never really worked with an editor and don’t know how to do the dance yet. I think of Thomas Wolfe and his mounds and pounds of paper with Of Time And The River for example and editor Max Perkins and what they went through. Does it feel dishonest to call oneself the author if so much work has been done by another? I mean the concept of the disciples’ men’s team was mine, in some real sense, and the original notes pulled out of Miller’s “primordial flux (the best part of writing, he says)” were mine and I liked the process a lot. I wrote some good lines at the beginning, but then just couldn’t see a way to have it neatly tied off, but Dan did.

Where does my work end and his begin? I know writers acknowledge editors by saying without him or her I’d be lost. Is that the proper way of being? Is it OK that the writer gets credit for the book? Of course editors do get credit in print.

Anyway, I am grateful for his eyes and heart on this. It’s opening up some possibilities regarding where some of my real writing challenges might lie and how to get past them into a bigger place. I love giving him credit for helping me be a better writer, but it feels murky somehow when, for example, in the Legacy Magazine, it’s just “Craig Jones’ Notebook.” Is that OK with Dan?

He and my wife Karen (first fan and editor) have damn good eyeballs and they both have my back. I realized one dream I have is to be in a writers’ group with a men’s team feel, like a value-added Inklings, the writers group with which Tolkien and Lewis were involved at Oxford for 20 years. The Humphrey Carpenter biography noted how much Tolkien loved his wife Edith, but also how the best times in his life were in the company of men.

I realized what felt great, like with a men’s team, was Dan basically saying, “I got this” and publisher Justin LaBarge said, “Thanks for working so hard on this. I’ll look it over in the morning” and sent ideas from old Mad magazine covers. I didn’t feel diminished, but contributed to, like you can be bigger when you get help and just fucking let go.

I also needed to have the balls and the trust to, first of all, ask editor Jim Ellis for an extension, which he generously granted and for which I’m grateful, and then to press “send” anyway to these three (Ellis, Dan, Justin) when it felt shitty and like I was defeated. I really liked my idea but couldn’t in the end see it through, and they were there. I could get used to that, and I am grateful for the experience.

I pondered the Inklings and how brutal they were with each other’s writing and how loving and generous as well and how maybe we would not have the Lord of the Rings without CS Lewis. Tolkien gets credit, of course, but Lewis was there in the deep work. Maybe the same is true for The Chronicles of Narnia. Who knows? There have now been several of these for Legacy that I couldn’t or didn’t quite finish off and it’s good to see some sort of thread. “Happy is he,” wrote the Bard, “who can see his detractions and set them to mending.” Or, in the lingua franca of our circles: “I’m out of control, I don’t know what I’m doing, I need help.”

I was glad I got over my inertia and said fuck it and finished this article, for May, which was also dead in the water until Kempner e-mailed me with this:

“Once when I was about 13 our driving mower broke. We let the grass grow which the kids and cats loved. The neighbors didn’t and they complained. The grass was now too tall for the mower to handle – it was about 4ft high –  so my dad went out and got three or four scythes – yes, they still made them – from the hardware store and the family spent the weekend out there sweeping our arms back and forth until we had the goddamned half-acre yard mowed. That’s where you seem to be, in the weeds, and the only way out is to get a pen and sweep your arms from side to side.”

As I noted above, I increasingly don’t want to be inconvenienced. I have an almost 60-year-old bladder that isn’t very patient, which is inconvenient. I have Medicare. I have two hearing aids and a shoulder prosthesis, and they are all inconvenient.

It’s a win to push through discomfort from time to time and to have men in your life to do it with.

Here’s a good spot to remember the line from Young Guns:“See, you get yourself three or four good pals; then you’ve got yourself a tribe. And there ain’t nothing stronger than that.”

So, see to it, my men. Don’t pack your lives in cotton wool.

1 thought on “Help, I Don’t Know What I’m Doing”

  1. Thanks, Graig, I am 72 and play tennis 5 days a week. Every day that I walk into my tennis club I say thank you, god. And every day I make it back to my car from tennis I say thank you, god.
    Given I am an atheist that walks around in a body that needs to pray. I am a humble hypocrite.
    Thank you, God. You write like a poet. And I am in love with Jim Ellis for making my writings

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *