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John Milton

John Milton the Cat weighed four ounces. He pawed and scratched the couches, the table legs, the bookshelves (bowed into slumping parabolas with the weight of books), the rugs, my bike shorts. John Milton the Cat is my friends' cat. Across two hours spent in their hot apartment eating lunch and talking in circles about politics and anxiety and the Cubs, John Milton the Cat did not once paw or scratch his scratching post. When conversation died, we looked at John Milton, fumbling around on four week-old legs, frustrated in the heat, licking.

The fans blew a hot funnel of air westward from the back porch to the humid front room, as if delivering news that it was no cooler back there, so no one should bother checking.

In the back of the house, they gave me a tour of their small garden. A single stalk of corn growing in a paint bucket. Tomatoes and peppers in raised beds. Greens and cucumbers and sunflowers. Three brainless chickens circling a dusty pen, frantically looking for something they'd lost. Do chickens lose things? Do chickens sweat? Summer sounds: a cycle of ice cream truck jingles, kids playing on the crabby ball-field across the street, cicadas.

A friend emailed to ask how to get words on a page. Who knows?

As best as I can tell, one is supposed to describe plainly -- just to start describing the most ordinary scene possible (though, sure, what counts as ordinary is itself a decision based on mood, social circumstance, level of sobriety) using eyes that wander around and then hold for a moment to ask a question about a thing. Wander and hold again. Ask again. And so on. The tenor of the scene starts to emerge and the stakes are (again, theoretically) supposed to follow. It doesn't always work, and very often it instead rips apart and one must storm out of the room to drink more scotch. But if one can be patient with description, the description begins to evolve into the slow articulation of a problem or organizing set of questions. Not a definitive answer. Writing toward an answer, a solution, or a certainty fails 75.378% of the time (and it's typically not as much fun).

Writers talk about getting into a rhythm. Well, when describing at a good clip, the prose starts to feel like it has a beat (I'll often nod as I'm writing, like a weirdo, then realize that I'm nodding, then stop nodding, then not be able to describe). Sometimes description stalls out and other times it sprints ahead of one's capacity to capture all the things that feel necessary to be captured. But the words that end up on the page are enough to start with. Revision is the process of re-seeing the scene through the lens of the words and polishing the pace of language to the desired sheen. Sometimes it's better to let the readers feel the pace. Sometimes, it seems better to keep the pace concealed as possible.

Maybe it goes like this -- one writes to describe and one describes to remember. Or maybe -- one writes to remember and one remembers only through description. Or -- we describe what we can remember while we remember it, if only to store for shared protection against lonely, cat-deprived, winter nights: our kittens, our friends, and our warm summers.