I first met the poet David Biespiel sitting in the green wooden bleachers at a Southeast Portland Little League baseball game. His son Lucas was on the same team as my son Eric. I had climbed out to get something from the snack shack, and when I got back, Susan pointed out to me the guy sitting a few rows down from us watching the game while reading a book of poems by Dylan Thomas. After the game, I said hello and asked what was up with Dylan Thomas. I didn’t that season get to know David, but neither did I forget his telling me about his Attic writing studio. I was working my corporate gig at the time, where poetry, unless you had X-ray vision, remained hidden behind any number of cubicle kept faces.
Over a decade later, finding “myself growing grim about the mouth,” as Melville’s Ishmael said, I took early retirement, returned to adjunct work, and eventually found my way back to David at his Attic studio, where I volunteered to help build bookshelves and organize the library, and also joined a seven month writing cohort called “Hawthorne Fellows” (the Attic being located in digs on the second floor of an old building on Hawthorne Boulevard), where I worked on “Penina’s Letters.”
I started reading David’s work, attended the book launch reading at Powell’s on Hawthorne of his Charming Gardeners, later putting some notes up on the Toads about that experience. I stayed in touch with a few of my cohort acquaintances made in the Hawthorne Fellows, dropped out of the Attic library volunteer work, growing increasingly busy with new adjunct work. It wasn’t hard finding adjunct gigs that provided no benefits or job security, and pittance pay, and while the work was hard, I felt at home in my newfound community, and found more time but more importantly more desire to write. And I continued to learn – about writers, about the academic tyranny of composition rules, about writers and readers, about writing and reading venues and communities.
I read a number of popular as well as hard to find how to books: Stephen King, On Writing; Annie Dillard, The Writing Life; William Zinsser, On Writing Well; Walter Mosley, This Year You Write Your Novel; Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manual; Francis Christensen, Notes Toward a New Rhetoric; The Use and Misuse of Language, an old paperback from my shelves, edited by S. I. Hayakawa; Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several short sentences about writing; and Every Writer Has A Thousand Faces, by David Biespiel.
Any kind of writing can be a good teacher to a discerning reader. We’ve as much to learn from bad writing as from good writing. But we can’t know bad from good if we don’t know how to read. And most of us are poor readers, particularly of our own writing. That’s because, in part, it’s harder to read our own writing, to proofread our own writing, than it is to read another’s writing. We don’t see what we don’t expect to see. And we read for our favorite mistakes, and happily call them out, as if that criticism somehow makes us better writers or more discerning readers. And, as we don’t necessarily see ourselves as others see us, our pictures of who we are or what we look like don’t match up, so too we don’t see our own writing as others see it.
And all of that is what I like most about David Biespiel’s Every Writer Has A Thousand Faces. It’s as much about how to read as it is how to write. In it, David talks about looking:
“What Phil created in that time was version after version of my face, throwing dozens upon dozens of discards onto the floor of his studio or hanging them up on the wall until he came to a point of an understanding about drawing my face that provided him with, well, further understanding about drawing my face. He wasn’t going to revise to make a finished product. He was going to make versions from the same material in order to make more versions from the new material. One version of my face after another” (page 68 of the 2010 edition).
And that might help explain why the 10th Anniversary edition of Every Writer Has A Thousand Faces, launching today, March 30, 2020, from Kelson Books, adds four more faces to the cover of the 2010 edition, pictured here:
I’ve ordered a copy of the 10th anniversary edition, and I hope you do, too. In doing so, you’ll be supporting more than just David. You’ll be supporting a writing community. But that’s not the main reason for showing an interest in it. And, as David makes clear in his book, it may or may not help improve your writing. But it will help you look at yourself and what you’re trying to do in different ways and means. It will help you discover new faces of yourself.