Writing On The Door
May 10, 2013
Writing On the Door
Every wall is a door
One should be open to the use of doors.
A few years back, my friend Agamon gifted an old oak door to me. Walking me out through tall gold grass, wild flowers and aspen trees to one of those classic red and white North Idaho barns Agamon explained that when he saw the door hanging way up in the rafters he thought immediately that I should be the one to have it. After some difficulty lowering down from high above, he leaned the heavy rectangle against the side of the barn to await my next visit.
So, door use number 1: a door can be a gift.
My visits to Agamon’s home were usually coupled with session work. A few yards from his house he had constructed his recording studio to keep company with the aspens, the gold grass, red barns and the like. A beautiful setting to be asked to visit, and better still, to be invited to play drums. It is a flattering thing to be the “first call” drummer for studio engineers and friend audiophiles– and certainly a privilege when doors open to such beautiful places and creative collaborations.
My friend Agamon, Colorsound Studios, 1994
We stood before the barn, both of us with a steaming cup of coffee, and he said, “Well, what do you think? I found it for you in the rafters.” I scanned the scene: red barn, white trim, pink and yellow flowers along the foundation, heavy steel farm decor, a stout wood door, you know, the like, and I shrugged. “The door,” Agamon said, “I think you should have that door.” I looked again and there it was. A large oak door. Brown. Small hole where the nob was supposed to fit. Heavy by the looks of it. And, well, rather doorish.
“That’s good. I will add it to my collection,” I said, deadpanning. Then I smiled (because that seemed appropriate), and thanked him while in my head I rattled through a series of past conversations– did I tell him I needed a door? My place doesn’t need a door, does it? No. Do I know someone who is need of a door? Well, I suppose I could replace my front door with this door…
Door use number 2: a door can be a door.
“No, no, no,” my friend said noting my confusion. “You need a desk, right? I thought you could use this door as a desk top.” I had mentioned that I was looking for a desk in order to have proper place to sit and type– and strangely, I’d not once thought about balancing a door on bricks, milk crates, or boxes to use as a desk. But then, it suddenly seemed like a very good idea. Who needs to purchase a desk when you can fashion a desk out of a door and some well placed cinder blocks? One should be open to the use of doors. What a wonderful, magical gift.
Door use number 3: a door can be a desk top.
I agreed enthusiastically. We loaded the door into the back of Samwise (my VW van) and then began our recording session. When I arrived home that evening I managed to fit the monolithic slab opposite my bed, setting it on concrete blocks, and milk crates. An old coffee cup filled with pens and a small thrift store book shelf filled with favorite books, and my computer rounded out the desk top necessities. I wrestled a chair into place, and voila, a desk door. Now, to write.
Between the ages of nine and fourteen, that magical crux between fervid boyhood imagination and that impossible to escape attraction to girls, I was hunched over a desk in my bedroom, month after month, scribbling stories into notebooks and keeping tabs on my day to day dealings. Being hit at nine with Star Wars with my parents, and then shortly thereafter, my Uncle Stan pummels me with The Lord of the Rings, I was set on an obsessive lifetime course of imagination– of operatic proportions. I read. I wrote. I thought about making movies every day. I even wrote plays for my friends to perform at recess (particularly Star Wars based scenes). To be a part of the working machine that produced an event that people could come and lose themselves was, to me, the ultimate achievement. A way of sharing magic with others. That was where I wanted my life to take me.
me and my Dewback, 1979
Little did I understand my mother’s distress when she would knock on my door on late July, 93 degree afternoons in an effort to engage my enthusiasm: “Michael, don’t you want to go outside and ride bikes with your friends? They are going to ride down to the beach. . .” She’d then crack the door open and find me leaning into a desk full of pages with weird scribbled symbols. “Not now,” I remember saying to her once. “I’m trying to work out this new language I’m making up for the elves (then to myself), ‘cause I shouldn’t name things on the new map of their world that I made without the names meaning something. I mean, that would be stupid. (Then to Mom), so I’m working out the dictionary and. . .” Mom closed the door before I could finish telling her about the runes in the letter system. No matter, I would think, and carry on with my monkish duties. She told me much later that she had considered making an appointment with a child psychologist to learn if there was something wrong with me. In those days, there’s a good chance the psychologist would’ve put me on drugs.
The occasional neighborhood sword fight would invariably get me out for some exercise, but not without my pad of paper and pencil. Sword fights with sticks and trashcan lid shields would often turn to choreographed fight scenes for the new movie I was going to make. I would sketch out storyboards (though I didn’t know to call them storyboards back then), and direct the neighborhood kids in dramatic battle scenes. There was always a horde of orcs and a group of battle hardened knights battling over the front lawns of my childhood kingdoms. My best friend in those days, Morgan, will remember many of these raging clashes, along with the stories and drawings we both made.
But it wasn’t solely the sudden notice of girls that began to interfere with my writing obsession, as one would think. With girls came another seduction that would enchant and frustrate me to this day: the drum kit. The new desk.
When I am asked these days how one might begin to play the drums, or a parent wants their child to learn drums, I usually have two items in reply. First, I’ll remind them of the old proverb that goes something like this: “Buy your enemy’s child a drum.” If that doesn’t dissuade then I simply suggest that they buy a practice pad and some sticks and see if the student takes to the activity. If so, you’ve got a drummer. If not, and the sticks and the pad are stuffed under the couch, you’ve saved yourself a few hundred dollars along with countless, percussive headaches.
Because I didn’t have any money to buy drums (or cymbals), becoming a drummer became an exercise in creative carpentry. When my partner in all things swords and sorcery, Morgan, received an electric guitar as a birthday present, and he needed a drummer, I was the obvious choice. I gathered together several coffee cans, set them up on a board at just the right angle, and with a pair of number 2 pencils (pencils being the literary bridge from the desk to the drum kit– just sayin’), I began my career as a drummer. My older brother took some interest in my kit one day and managed to fashion a snare drum (snare can) by putting a few tiny wads of tinfoil in the bottom of the container. When hitting the plastic lid, the tinfoil balls would vibrate giving the can a snare-like, crack quality. Pretty smart, my brother.
Michael Criss and Morgan Simmons, 1979
So here again did I find myself on hot summer days, cloistered in Morgan’s basement recording our strums and tappings onto cassette tapes, and listening to his Dad’s records on breaks. Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, Kiss and Cat Stevens among several others come to mind. Morgan and I were so completely mesmerized with the sounds we were hearing and making that our sessions became daily, eight hour basement cacophonies. Morgan’s frazzled mother was forced at one point to negotiate with my mother and make arrangements for us to play every other day at my house. So, every other morning, Morgan and I would pack my coffee can drums up in a box and with his guitar and amp we’d hoist them up the stairs, out the door and lug it all down the block three houses to my basement. My first experience with touring.
It wasn’t until after Morgan moved away to Montana (the archetypal childhood best friend separation story I’ll revisit at another time) that the coffee cans turned to real drums and the pencils, well, the pencils turned to real drumsticks (I really like the idea of drumstick pencils– I should make some). It was when I found myself playing in my first band (Anthem) that my beloved desk bounded back through the door of my life. Music should have words, I thought, so I’ll write lyrics. With my drum kit set up in the basement, and my desk upstairs in my bedroom I would go from one desk to the other, smashing out rhythms and beats at one desk (or both) and scribbling out lines at the other (or both). And as weird as it may seem, very little has changed to this day. Certainly, I’ve improved both as a writer and drummer from having practiced for over twenty years, but what keeps me truly fascinated is that I feel that I can never learn enough about either activity. Simultaneously, the more I learn, the less I understand. I can swing from a place of confidence and joy to utter frustration, and back again in a single sit-down session.
I discovered that girls did that to me too.
Door use number 4: a door can be a creative portal.
I sometimes imagine that I can stand up from my chair, reach to an imaginary door handle fastened to the desk door top and pull it up and open. Gazing down through the door I can see a mysterious light bursting from the opening, illuminating the room behind me. Stretching out from the doorstep is the next adventure, the next road twisting out into the distance– the next line, and I need only open the door, move through it and let the experience turn into words. I like to think that I am working atop the lid of a chest full of secrets, and when I want to be reminded of how to start my pen wandering, I need only open the door and peek inside, or hurl my mind into the treasure. One should be open to the use of doors.
The memory of a book cover from my childhood has always come to mind when I think of the falling through the desk door. The Forgotten Door, by Alexander Key was a book my older brother, Bob, had laying around his room when we were growing up. I don’t recall the story as well as I remember the cover. I was very young when I first saw it, and the image of a boy falling through a door and into the unknown has always intrigued, and mostly, scared me.
This weird little tool has been useful to me over the years when I find myself stuck and unable to get into the right frame of mind to write. Most writers have ways of getting the ink flowing. I guess mine has been the idea of hurling myself down into the abyss beneath my desk door and getting good and scared.
For the longest time I had myself talked into the notion that I could only write seriously (whatever that means) at my desk. I suppose if I look back at some of my most creative work, written at my desk, I guess the notion holds. Perhaps not solely because of the desk but also because of the things on the desk, the quiet room surrounding the desk, the shelves filled with the things I’ve collected through the years that provide some kind of experience-echo. There is a lot of time spent staring down onto the desk as if it were some translucent memory generator flipping through lifetime colors and feelings cross-fading across its flat surface. Years ago, the ashtray that cradled the smoldering bead of a cigarette would be the hypnotist, or the lacing braids of smoke that would tangle up through sunlit beams leaning in from the window. Even the earthen dappled and cracked coffee cup that my wife made for me has a meditative quality. Getting in, sitting down and falling out through the door (whether an actual door or not), was to me, paramount to prolificacy.
Over the years I’ve managed to create and maintain a strict writing schedule, but not without serious focus and determination. It can be challenging with wife, little son, friends, family, teaching, recording, performing– all at the speed of life. But being wise enough to know that I must adapt or perish, I devised ways to keep the scribbling up even when time would not allow a regular schedule. I got good at what I call line writing. Yes, that is a kind of short hand for scribbling single lines whenever they happen along– but more accurately, I mean, I write standing in lines— at the grocery store, waiting for a street taco, for a frighteningly ice cold gin martini– I’ve got a pen and pad, or my hand held device, and I’ll write. If there’s one thing I don’t enjoy, it’s waiting in line, so, I am forcing myself to do what I love to do where I would be least likely to do it. And for me to do that– that’s serious business– and I guess, serious writing.
Door use number 5: a door can be a wall.
Then there’s writer’s block. Or, as one of my writer friends tells me: “There is no such thing as writer’s block. One is either a writer or a block. And you’re a block.” I think I agree (sometimes). Or better yet, there’s Emerson’s “Every wall is a door.” When I’m stuck and can’t seem to produce, and the desk door won’t open no matter how hard I try, I’ll look at the walls and turn them to doors– the doors to relationships, responsibilities and recreation (the 3 Rs). Have I been inattentive to my friends or family? Am I not having enough fun and working too much? Or vice versa? You know, the simple questions. The kind of questions that are so simple that we seldom ask them– and when we do, we’re suddenly surprised at how closed off and isolated we’ve become because we’ve not noticed the doors slamming around us. Have I been open to the use of doors? In the end, writing is the answer.
I’m no fan of closed doors, nor do I like closing them (unless it’s cold out side, of course), though it is certain that some doors should be shut, locked and the keys destroyed: meth, mainstream media, war, etcetera. And it is also certain (and unfortunate) that doors get closed between people. Sometimes with an unexpected slam or a slow, creaking pivot. Closed doors turn people away. Locks become mechanisms of fear. Doors become walls.
Door use number 6: an overused metaphor
A closed door can keep the cold out, and sometimes the pain. But a closed door also shuts out a point of view. Sure, the metaphor is an old one, and has certainly been explored by a lot of smart people, but I’m finding that its relevance is no less potent no matter how many times I’m reminded not to shut things out. Even those hard to deal with sorts of things. One must try to stay open to the use of doors.
But still, tired metaphor or not, my desk door is cool.
The door and the road, both tired and well used symbols for transition, change and the life journey. Professor Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins’ use has always been my favorite: “It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” The very action that makes for good tales: exiting, or entering, depending upon how you’re seeing. Doors represent hope, opportunity, transition and transformation (makes a great band name too). The point on a circle from which the journey both begins and ends. I’ve often wondered if that is why Tolkien’s hobbits preferred circular doors– the there and back again portal, the ring that is everlasting.
Door use number 7: both the entrance and exit
And here while I type upon my desk door and I glance around my office I am thankful for the weird and unusual things that make up my life. Fencing swords on the wall, a library of books and records, guitar in the corner, paints and brushes, sticks and a practice pad, photos of dear friends, family and my wife and little boy, and this gift of desk-door beside my newly constructed round hobbit door. That’s right. I built a round door to my office. Something I’ve always dreamt of doing since I first read the books all those years ago. And each time I go into my office I am reminded that a journey should take place. Doesn’t always happen, but still. . .
But of all the uses that a door performs, I think my favorite, in the end, is that a door can be a gift– a gift to be used as, say, a desk, a creative outlet, the exit from old to new, the entrance to a creative adventure, or just as the covering to the hole in your house. And now, its become a kind of journal entry. So this short collection of paragraphs on desks and doors I gift to you, with the hope that it has somewhat transported you out and away for a spell, and the wish that the seemingly mundane, boorish doors you go through everyday might become as interesting as the passage to a dragon’s treasure horde– even if, after all, you’re really waiting in line to enter the DMV. If either of these things have happened while reading this, we’ve both achieved something wonderful and magical. Something came knocking at the door, and we let it in.
MBK, May 2013