Goldstein’s First Law

My uncle likes to declare laws. He’ll say, “Goldstein’s First Law is don’t believe everything you hear. Goldstein’s Second Law is don’t necessarily disbelieve it either.” Then he gives you a characteristically cheeky grin. My cousins also come up with laws. We are all named Goldstein, so Goldstein’s laws vary by the one who declares them. It’s all very confusing.

This Goldstein’s First Law of  Writing is “know thyself.” I tell my students they have to understand how they work in order to get words on the page. Don’t try to write at 5 am if you are a night owl. Don’t try to write an outline when you’re really a pantser (i.e., a writer who “flies by the seat of her pants” or doesn’t figure out what she’s writing about until she is done, as per Joan Didion). You get the idea.

Sometimes, however, you are so caught up in the draft that you forget yourself. I spent two weeks at a writing residency in May. My co-resident Cathy observed that every time I said to her over breakfast that I hated my chapter, I turned a corner and had an epiphany by happy hour.

I texted her yesterday. “I hate chapter 3. That’s a good sign, right?”

“Yup,” she texted in response.

I hated chapter 3 all morning. I found myself looking for things on etsy and checking facebook ten times a minute. I couldn’t figure out where to work and drifted from porch to yard to table to couch. Anything but look at the page.

Then at noon I realized what I had been doing wrong. I moved a middle chunk to the end and fixed my major problem. The chapter is coming together. I live to fight write another day.

What are your patterns?


On Father’s Day

Father’s Day and my father’s birthday are exactly a week apart. When I was a smart-ass child, I gave my father a right-handed gardening glove on Father’s Day and its left-handed companion on his birthday. I thought I was hilarious; he was not amused.

My father died a few days before Father’s Day when I was 24 and he was days from turning 75. For years after that, I would get sullen and gloomy in June, prone to talking too much about my father and crying. I hated Father’s Day for its mindless gender assumptions (Dad grills! Dad drinks whiskey! Dad plays golf!) and for the grief it caused me.

As more time has passed, Father’s Day does not cause me acute pain. I still get mad at the gender assumptions, but the rest has faded into a dull ache. One of the things that helps is that my friends have become fathers, and it makes me happy to see them celebrated.

On this Father’s Day, I am writing about William and George Bond. This father-and-son team were the first two directors of the Harvard Observatory, working in the early-to-mid nineteenth century. George’s sister-in-law wrote the following about watching them work:

“One observer, with a sharp pencil, traced the [sun] spots as they were reflected on the paper, while the other wrote down any notes or observations . . . it was fascinating to watch the certainty and accuracy of every touch, their enthusiasm and delight in the work, and the quick response and recognition of either to a remark or suggestion of the other.”

George Bond was a single father late in his (short) life. He let his two daughters play in his office when he was working as long as they didn’t fight. One daughter described him as the kind of man who would walk around a child’s game of marbles on the sidewalk, rather than one of his colleagues, who would walk right through the game.

Like my own father, he taught his girls constellations and bird calls. Unlike my father, he died in his 40s from TB, exacerbated by cold and drafty working conditions in the observatory.

This post is in honor of good fathers, wherever we may find them.


(photo credit: https://hea-www.harvard.edu/~fine/Observatory/all.html)