Moby Dick And Shelby Foote

Moby Dick And Shelby Foote


I finally read Moby Dick start to finish.  I started it a decade ago but, obviously, was not ready for it.  At 35, I picked it up again and could not have done this any sooner than now, regrettably true as that is.  But age is just a number; a point of departure; an index.

I’m one day old in Moby Dick years.

In reading this I learned there are whole islands submerged within the human experience, just beneath the visible surface, which may as well be a mile, for I cannot see them without assistance. Not yet anyhow.

Books like Moby Dick uncover, reveal, and shed light on something beneath the tide of information I always confuse with intelligence.  It’s a sea rescue without shipping out—the rescuer asking no fee, only my participation.

But completing a great story, greatly told, is the beginning of a mystery, not the end of one.  The creations of Melville’s mind which he first conceived and then wrote about, are fathomless.  Somewhere in the book, just before you lose it again, you realize what he’s on to, then it’s gone; always fleeting, never found.  I think I’ll start all over again.

A great writer, and admirer of Melville, said that once you know where a writer is going you can study how he got there by rereading the work.

That was Shelby Foote.

He Did It His Way

Foote did it his way—like the way he did his military time.  First, he joined the Army, was then asked to leave, and then joined the Marines where he found a better fit.  But the war ended before he could get into it and so he went to college.

He skipped class in his own way too.  He wasn’t sleeping in.  He was in the library reading and studying literature of his choice; Proust, Shakespeare, Faulkner.  He knew what he liked, saw that it wasn’t hurting anyone and, so, did more of those things.

As a professional writer, he rarely got dressed for the day, aside from wearing pajamas all day long—you can go to medical school for the better part of a decade to exercise this privilege.  But, like those people, he was hard at work.

He wrote books the way he wanted to.  The facts, he said, aren’t truths until you love them.  We can love a story, but never a fact.

When Google became a thing, he avoided it as best he could.  Instead, he’d find books as close to the topic as possible and begin reading.  He believed the discoveries sought were the ones he didn’t know he was seeking.  They were hidden within the journey rather than the destination.

That’s how he wrote his million-word, three volume series on the American Civil War.  He read 300 books on his chosen subject.  He also visited the battlefields on the anniversaries of the battles fought on them.

He’d have to tell you why he did that.

It’s What He Loved

He didn’t just write, he made writing the study of his life.

I was eight years old in 1990, the year I first saw Shelby Foote on Ken Burn’s documentary the Civil War, where he made over 80 cameo appearances.  The made for TV series “Lonesome Dove” also aired for America around that time.

Those are deep, cultural events imprinted on me—like the novel I just finished.  Why? Because, the truth sticks with you.

Truth is art and vice versa.  Art has value and is therefore elusive; scarce in forms fit for human consumption—though surrounding us always.

The internet, we are finding, is a fact machine rather than a truth machine.  Google is a great tool but a terrible master.

The Writer’s Search For Truth

As a pep talk to himself Hemingway would say “all you have to do is write one true sentence…write the truest sentence that you know…a true simple declarative sentence.”  But he’s writing fiction, I think to myself.  What does he mean?

I’m not sure.  Maybe I’ll find out.  But you feel it when you see it.  It means the same thing as Robert Duval’s performance as Gus McCrae.  When the feeling is there it rings true.  And truth, when encountered, sticks.

Writing is dangerous work, if you will.  Dangerous to the psyche of the creator. Foote has his critics, some of them harsh, and they have understandable grievances.  His chosen topic was America’s very own crucible.  The Civil War, he said, made an adult of America where before she’d been an adolescent.

When a work reaches an epic status, as his did, the parts left out feel unheard, as if the defining version of truth, omitted their story.  But no version is definitive.

If he failed to capture truth perfectly, he is human.  If he captured it at all he is an artist. The facts he searched for, the books he wrote, were mere azimuths set by the wandering traveler vaguely aware of his reason for traveling, aside from the air in his lungs.  He wrote because it was his joy to write.

The Price Of Wisdom

The longest he ever followed one of those azimuths was 20 years—the time it took him to write his epic three volume series.  When someone noted how it took him five times as long to write The Civil War as it took the participants to fight it he pointed out “that were a good many more of them than there was of me.”

His bliss was in the journey.  He was in no hurry.

What lovely weather and beautiful surroundings they had on days devoted to the wild slaughter of their brothers.  This is what he would have seen and felt in his battlefield visits.  This is what he tried, and succeeded, in recording.

He said that the writer’s final summit was plot.  I imagine all professions have a summit and if you’ve been in it long enough you know what it is.

To him this was the ability to “[weave] the diplomatic, political, and military situations all into a narrative,”—what he called plot.  He was vividly aware of the power of story alongside fact; the human element.

Moby Dick

I didn’t have to give away anything, there was no data exchange.  I received something from thin air; nature’s bounty.  But I had to participate, and almost wrestle with myself, at times, in reading that novel.  A snippet, perhaps, of what it must have been to write it.

It seems impossible when you view the work in its entirety.  But then you remember he was just a man, who wrote it.  Somewhere in between those two lie faith.

I remember Joseph Campbell saying that’s what poets do.  Create doors rather than explanations or walls.  That’s what Melville did for me; one small step.


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“Follow Your Bliss”


“Follow Your Bliss”

Winter has returned to our Southern lives.  I remember the 90’s and the camo jump-suits that served as our “second skin.”  We were rarely outdoors without one.  The idea was to read the temperature and then get dressed for that level of cold.  Then, for good measure, put a jumpsuit on over that as you head out the door.

They had the old, camo pattern that was globular and unnatural, fooling no bird.  But that is the look we had.  Maybe I’ll see some of the old pattern today as I drive through this icy storm.

But regardless of the weather, I want to “follow my bliss.”

It’s a quote by Joseph Campbell.  Campbell wrote down and codified the story of the typical hero which we now read about and watch in cinema, and TV, as the hero’s journey.

It’s a theme that, personally, I’ve always taken for granted, not realizing it follows a set pattern.  George Lucas famously based “Stars Wars” on the basic concepts Campbell wrote about.

Before ever stumbling on Campbell’s “follow your bliss” philosophy in his interviews with Bill Moyers, I came across Shelby Foote in Ken Burn’s Civil War documentary.

Broadcast by PBS, it had my family glued to the TV for 11 hours over the course of a couple of weeks in 1990.  Foote was a great interview; with the ability to tell the human story in history.  Also, his southern drawl—he pronounced war “waw-ah”—was compelling and great for TV. Foote became something of a celebrity.  He was a Civil War writer and historian, but he said that with the documentary Ken had “made him a millionaire.”

I remember hearing him say in an interview with Brian Lamb on CSPAN—yes, I sometimes watched CSPAN in college and if I’d had the courage of my convictions I would have majored in history rather than environmental science—that, to him, a university was a library with a bunch of buildings surrounding it. He loved reading his own selection of books in the library rather than going to class.

In the same interview he said that true happiness is going to bed at night knowing exactly what you’ll be doing as soon as you wake up and being hardly able to wait for it.  He was referring to his writing desk.

His struggles with hierarchy and order in college followed him into the military.  Once out, he took a job working at a media outlet until he earned his first $800 dollars writing.  As soon as he did, he quit the job and began writing for himself full time.

Once you find out what it is you love to do it’s hard to do all the other stuff too.  But, of course, we must.  Maybe all the stuff we don’t like doing makes us better at doing the things we like.  It’s where we gain experience and empathy.

Foote pointed out that he was raised in a small southern town that sent all of it’s children to the same high school.  He said this was the greatest education which, like the military, gave him contact with everyone rather than divisions that seem based on class or race.

When You Follow Your Bliss

Speaking of following your bliss, there is a movie out about Winston Churchill I want to see.  I haven’t read any reviews, but I’ll usually see a movie if the subject matter interest me or a director I like has made another movie; like Paul Thomas Anderson who has “Phantom Thread” coming soon.

Churchill spent his life following his own bliss.  This made him a pain to his military superiors and in the editorial room at the paper he worked at; not to mention politics.

But when the time came to save the world, the world turned to someone who had the energy and enthusiasm, from a lifetime of bliss seeking, to respond to the challenge.

His entire life had been preparation for that moment.


Following your bliss does not provide security or comfort to the enemy, i.e. your ego.  Doing what we love is, it turns out, hard.  It butts heads with what Steven Pressfield calls “the resistance”—the ego’s idea that sticking your neck out will just result in your head getting chopped off.

It may even leave you homeless or destitute.  That is the lesson of James Mitchener’s book Poland.  In Mitchener’s telling of the story, Poland is the historical buffer between massive hierarchical establishments known for order and control—Germany, Russian, and Austria.  It’s the no-man’s land in between.

The Polish people, for better or worse, through the centuries, could not be controlled.  Not truly.  Maybe they would be conquered for a time, but to be in chains does not conquer people.  The soul decides that.  Their bliss was freedom.

They refused, over and over, to conform to the great powers around them.  This independence is, like most aptitudes, a double-edged sword.  At times Poland was too undisciplined to compete with her highly organized and autocratic neighbors and would be overrun, destroyed, and pillaged.

At other times, however, once the rigid autocracies became unimaginative, outdated and weak as a result, Poland’s genius for freedom and inventiveness would be called upon to rescue all of Europe from invasion.  But between these changes spanned whole centuries.

It was an inherent philosophy of freedom that nourished them.  Bliss, or doing what you love, is not necessarily a means to physical or material security.

We are here looking, not for meaning, but experiences–the most profound experiences possible from our time on the planet (Joseph Campbell).

When we follow our true bliss everyone benefits.  Joseph Campbell, Shelby Foote, Winston Churchill, and the entire story of Poland are mentors for this.



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Believe In The Experiment


Believe In The Experiment

A baby was born out of wedlock in the Caribbean.  To the child everything was interesting.  The child became a restless young adult.  The young man, in his early teens, was the type of employee business people dream of; always figuring out ways to make things operate more smoothly; never reaching roadblocks, always coming up with solutions; hungry to be of use.

The young man was an eternal optimist, seeing the potential in people.  He thought the way to get things done was to set the right example; working tirelessly until those around you are likewise infected with a desire to succeed.

The Gift Of Obstacles

He was a force of nature.  The island could not hold him.  He had the vague idea and belief that great things were possible.  But, his mother had him out of wedlock.  This, in his time, was a terrible disadvantage; one which would eventually bar him from high political office.  It was a significant hurdle to overcome.  It gave him a chip on his shoulder.

It was the best thing to ever happen to him.

He’d heard of America.  He had the sense that great forces were adrift, and he could make his mark in that chaotic place where everything was pure potential.

He managed to obtain a letter of introduction to someone in the states.  Then, alone as a teenager, he boarded a ship to America.  Shortly thereafter, war broke out between the 13 colonies and their English masters.

Through pure, relentless effort and natural ability, in a very short time, he’d become George Washington’s most trusted adviser.  He would become the nation’s first treasury secretary, and do more to establish our system of money than anyone.

He would write the Federalist Papers, which interpreted the Constitution into a working system of government, and he founded one of the first two major political parties.

The man was Alexander Hamilton.

How Did He Do It?

Let’s say you have a vague idea that you want to do something great—you get to decide what is great.  But, you have that sense.  You just can’t put your finger on exactly what it is you want to accomplish.  But, you can feel it.  You know it’s there.  What to do?

The physical act of experiencing something great, or seeing something great, is as important to doing great things as anything else.  For Hamilton, it was the experience of cutting the chord with his birthplace.  He went to America and his life was drastically changed.  He saw that great decisions create great outcomes.  He made the leap.  He fell short again and again, but he landed in strange new places along the way.

I wonder if the physical act of traveling on a ship, blown across the ocean by wind powered sails, and landing in New England, wasn’t as important as anything he learned towards achieving what he did.

We know, through science, and awareness, that we “know” things on a gut level long before we are conscious of them.  Belief precedes the action.

A Strange New Land

Could that explain the outsized success of first and second-generation immigrants in American history? The parents had the life-shaking experience of resettling in a new land.  They passed it on directly to the child.  Then, that wonder is lost in the next iteration of the generations.

Instinctively, we want to be amazed so that we can believe in amazing things.  The deep belief that those things are possible is as important as knowing how to do them.  Nature–and we are a part of nature–will find a way.  But, we must believe that it’s possible.


Before Einstein it was not believed that light could be bent.  Gravity’s properties were assumed, and no one knew the other secrets of the universe.

No one knew to look for them because no one knew there was anything to discover.  Einstein, through what at the time appeared to be an accident of absent-minded daydreaming, discovered principles of physics that changed the world.  Everyone could suddenly see what he’d seen.

When Roger Bannister ran the 4-minute mile, the next year dozens did the same.  But those same people had been trying their entire lives to do it.  Now, when they knew in their gut it was possible, they were able to do it themselves.  The belief was the most important element of their success.

I need to go see incredible things that on a mental level I don’t really believe I can do.  I need to see other people do them, so I know its possible.

The Three “E”s

When we feel creative we believe it will last forever.  It won’t.  We have to act on our ideas.  We have to explore and experience and experiment.  The three “E”s.

Knowing that there are experiences out there, right now, that if we had them they would change our lives in ways we cannot imagine is the most important component to discovery.  The belief system comes first.

Einstein discovered that gravity isn’t a force pulling us to the Earth.  He discovered that it was a force pushing us into earth.  He discovered that every object in space, even my laptop, creates its own force field by displacing space which presses back towards the void.

Gravitational pull is, actually, universal push.  Objects are pushed into one another.  The greater object displaces more space and so creates more push from the universe on objects within the displacement.

It creates a vacuum that wants, naturally, to close.  Einstein was not “looking” for this discovery.  He was conducting a “thought experiment.”  What we call daydreaming.  And he discovered his theory of relatively while on the train grabbing lunch.  But he was always exploring boundaries.

The Destroyer Of Pessimism

Anxiety is the result of inaction.  But it’s more than that.  It’s a signal that we’re avoiding something.  Anxiety is fear of fear.  But the fear, itself, points to something that really matters.

We can’t avoid the things we know we need to do without paying a price.  Fear happens when I engage life.  Anxiety happens when I avoid it.  Fear is where the good stuff is.  It’s where I am exposed and risking something.

Anger happens when we allow fear to take over.  Its when fear has brought us away from what is right in front of us.  Avoiding fear gets us “carried away” with anger.  Picture a cornered dog.

Hamilton had no idea what that ship passage would bring.  Somehow, though, he believed. He and Einstein had similar experiences.  They both left home to find new worlds.  We can do this every day and we don’t have to get a passport.

We can reconnect with the spirit of experimentation.  It holds everything in it.




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