Writing like a pilot

Glorious clear days mean flying.

Cessna 172 Skyhawk

Chris is building pilot-in-command hours. There is a ridiculous number of categories and designations of flying privileges, starting with private pilot. The common denominator is each level requires more time in the air, so he gravitates towards Cessna 172s whenever winds are calm and visibility good.

He bought me a Bose noise-cancelling aviation headset to match his. It’s the sweetest and least-likely gift I’ve ever received, and the most useful. Without it, I’d be as deaf as a newel.

The first time we flew together was in Ann Arbor. Bouncing around in the choppy air, I kept reminding myself that at least we’d die together.

I’m braver now, though it still takes real effort to not grip his arm in panic when we hit a bump. Don’t mess with the hand that controls the trim wheel.

The last two days we logged five hours and I’m starting to get a teensy bit hooked on it. Chris is patient with my incessant (in-Cessnant?) questions: What’s that gauge? What does it mean when the controller says that? What happens if you push that button?

Ready for take-off

Piloting is intensive, but not in the ways I thought. Most of the Cessna 172s at the rural Mississippi airport Chris flies out of date from the 70s. They remind me of VW Bugs. The instruments are basic. Some of them run off gyroscopes which whir away after the engine is off, like bees running out of buzz. Flying a single-engine plane is mechanics and talking. Before we even get in he does a full circuit, checking the fuel, oil, tyres, struts, air intake, and assorted bits of which I have yet to learn the names.

Once we’re buckled in and have our headsets on he reviews the controls, oil pressure, engine heat, fuel mix, lights and so forth. Laminated checklists guide every step from pre-flight to taxi to take-off to flying to landing. Chris also carries a little clipboard with notepaper to scribble down weather information and radio frequencies. These are the single most important thing once the engine kicks over. Radio navigation is the fundamental tool for getting from point to point; it’s what keeps planes from colliding in midair; it’s how lost pilots get found, and planes come safely through clouds.

Flight charts

Flying seems like magic but all it requires is the pilot understand and abide by simple standard practices. Check the equipment, know the frequencies, listen, trust the instruments: you’ll get where you’re going. Writing is the same.

Good writing may look like sorcery but it has patterns, structures and guidelines. Different types of writing have different “checklists” but even wild free verse or stiff academic prose follow basic rules of logic and language.

If you write beautifully by ear you can still learn
a huge amount (and gain courage) by understanding the principles of good writing. Before you know it, you’ll be flying.

Stay tuned for some of my favourite guidebooks… and share yours in the comments!




Write as if you were dying

“Write as if you were dying”. Annie Dillard’s advice (The Writing Life, p 68) has echoed in my head since I scribbled it in my notebook yesterday.


“What would you begin writing,” she asks. “If you knew you would die soon?”

Yesterday’s answer was: I don’t know.

Today’s answer is shaded by the news of he-wh0-shall-not-be-named’s immigration ban. My mind keeps casting for a flicker of hope or relief. The hook comes up emptyemptyempty.

What would you write if sanity and morality were dying in your world, leaving good people gasping, upside down, like fish in a poisoned lake?

What the fuck can I say in the face of that?

Tweet. RT.

#resist #notmypresident #imanimmigrant

Someone, Natalie Goldberg maybe, said if you can ask a question you can answer it. Fine.

If I were dying, I’d write about not knowing where I belong. I’d write about the rain and the pine trees. I’d write about riding the old red Routemaster bus from Finchley Road to the Strand. I’d write about the nights drinking on Old Compton Street, and the Weatherspoons on Charing Cross Road. I’d write about making boots out of pink acrylic fur and wearing them to hard house raves beneath the arches at London Bridge. I’d write about buying Andy a Kinder Egg for Easter and watching him repair his trainers with superglue. I’d write about waiting for hours for a minute of conversation with Will; about the night he bought me a bottle of champagne in a drafty club in Elephant & Castle. I’d write about how extraordinary the stars are in southern Idaho, miles from the nearest town; and how the Nevada desert doesn’t look real beneath the pearly light of the full moon. I’d write about how the air smells at night in Ibiza and the whorled trucks of ancient olive trees. I’d write about the ribbon-like roads of the Amalfi Coast and the way the wind topples turquoise waves into streamers of white foam on the Mayan Riviera. I’d write about learning to taste wine and chargrill aubergines. I’d write about the dead men who make me grind my teeth. I’d write about feeling lost. I’d write about the books that shaped me, the ones I turn to for comfort. I’d write about being a god-fearing child and agnostic adult. I’d write that the most important thing in the world is being able to walk away. Then I’d contradict myself and say the most important thing is to know when to say.

Amalfi Coast, Italy

What I’d be trying to say, through all of it, is I don’t know. Maybe you do. Maybe someone does. But me? Nope. Not a clue. I don’t know what it means to be here, to be me. I don’t know what picture the pieces make. All the memories and experiences, all the fun and all the disasters, all the friendships and the distance.

This is where I should trot out a pithy homily and – zi-zang!- all will be clear. But it’s not that kind of day; arguably, as of today, we don’t live in that kind of world. There are no pat explanations or obvious answers. All I know is that we have a fundamental human obligation to treat each other with care and respect. Everything else — our histories, preferences, quirks, interests, opinions — are inconsequential compared to this single, immense obligation. The only question any more is What can I do to help?

Support: Amnesty International Support: Human Rights Watch Support: ACLU



Birthday Poem: ‘Trouble’

On encountering Jack Gilbert’s ‘Trouble’ I had to look up Saint Chrysostom. Turns out the holy man in question was the Archbishop of Constantinople and his feast day in the Eastern Orthodox calendar of such things is 27 January. On that note…

Summer in the Mediterranean — Ibiza

by Jack Gilbert

This is what the Odyssey means.
Love can leave you nowhere in New Mexico
raising peacocks for the rest of your life. The seriously happy heart is a problem.
Not the easy excitement, but summer in the
Mediterranean mixed with the
rain and bitter cold of February on the
Riviera, everything on fire in the
violent winds. The pregnant heart
is driven to hopes that are the
wrong size for this world.
Love is always disturbing in the
heavenly kingdom.
Eden cannot manage so much ambition.
The kids ran from all over the piazza
yelling and pointing and jeering
at the young Saint Chrysostom
standing dazed in the church doorway
with the shining around his mouth
where the Madonna had kissed him.

Buy Jack Gilbert’s ‘Collected Poems’

Share your birthday with an interesting character ? Share in the comments

Highway 61, Visited

Clarksdale, Mississippi is where, according to legend, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. The alleged swap took place at the junction of Highway 49 and Highway 61, crossroads now marked with a blue-and-white sign and a guitar. Across the street: Church’s Chicken and a gas station. Opposite, Abe’s Barbecue “Swine dining since 1924.” You can judge a place by the length of time since anything noteworthy happened.

Carnegie Library

There is a Carnegie Library, built in 1913. Blue plaques commemorate Ike Turner and WROX Radio. Ground Zero blues club, part-owned by Morgan Freeman, looks like a cross between the set of The Wire and the toilets in an indie rock club: busted sofas, a bench seat from some ancient automobile, scrawls and music stickers slapped on the walls. Its patio looks like Miss Del’s “garden” a few blocks down — a concrete plot sprouting mismatched furniture beneath a wall blazoned “God Speed the Plow.” Miss Del’s garden, like the adjoining General Store, is slumped and peeling. The only bright spot a crisp red-and-white “For Sale by Owner” sign.

Ground Zero Blues Club


Whoever sells these signs has the only growth industry in town. The grocery store is boarded over; sheets drape the windows of Dependable Appliances; the Sunflower Building is a rambling corrugated iron shed that betrays no sense of purpose; “Customer parking only / Others towed at owner’s expense” warns a sign in front of a derelict drive-through. Mag-pie Gift shop is one of the few establishments that looks alive but it’s Sunday afternoon. What business gets done in Clarksdale doesn’t happen on the Lord’s day. Especially not as dull a one as this.

Highway 61 runs through pancake flats of mud broken by lines of black, leafless trees. Rain falls, unremitting, feeding shallow silver pools of water. Occasionally a line of bright green-and-yellow John Deere tractors breaks the monotony; less predictably, a shack roofed yellow parachute fabric. God gave good advice: If you want some killing done, no one will notice here.

Highway 61, Mississippi delta

Above, flat silvery clouds; alongside, sodden fields; ahead, burnished concrete ribbon unspooling at the speed of our tires. For an open space, it feels awfully cramped. Tension splits the sullen sky and black Delta mud. This land’s richest days sprang from the slavery. Its finest heritage is heart-cries of anguish distilled through despair to bittersweet blues. What becomes of a place whose only pride is the beauty of its ugliness?


Judging by Clarksdale, it crumbles, contracting in a permanent spasm of hopelessness, too broke to sustain even the liquor store. You can buy beer at the gas station next door, though. A big, elderly black woman stands between thebattered gas-pumps and the shop’s iron-barred door, her red sun hat blooming like a flower above a royal purple dress. She’s the only sign of life on the streets, apart from a heavysetman wrangling two small children across an empty intersection. Do they bother to teach kids to look both ways here? Is anyone ever coming?

Clarksdale town center

Levon’s Bar and Grill is the only place to get a drink or assurance you’ve not stumbled into a nightmare. Two white-haired white guys play the blues. On the guitar, Mr Pony-tail, beret and handlebar mustache; on harmonica, vocals and kick-drum, Mr Clean-shaven in a loose-fitting black button-down, says he has a wife but doesn’t wear a ring. They play “Sunshine of Your Love” and “It’s Alright Mama”, run through a joke about topless hippies that’s as threadbare as knees on old Levi’s.


Behind the bar, Mr Birdsong chirps. His daddy is a retired firefighter-cum-blues historian who tends bar across town. Mr B the younger, a “fourth or fifth generation” Clarksdaler, got away all the way to Tupelo (two hours east) to apprentice as a portrait painter. Spent 13 years learning his art then moved back, 14 years ago, tended bar with his daddy till Levon wrangled him. “I have kids running around, ex-wives on my nerves,” he says, grinning.

There are half a dozen of us in the room. A tattooed tourist from Milan wearing a fancy-dress take on Easy Rider chic: denim vest over a leather jacket, cowboy boots, red bandana tied over a frizzy curls that swish around his shoulders, rings on every finger. Sharing his table, a big man with bloodhound jowls wearing overalls and hoodie. Tucked in the corner is a tidy, middle aged couple in matching black puffa jackets. They’re from Brazil, which means they must have read about the Delta Blues Museum and Highway 61, must have come looking for some magic. I wonder if this enough.

Crossroads, Clarksdale

Blues was survival music. Here in Clarksdale, whose famous sons and daughters include John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Bessie Smith, Son House, Sam Cooke, Johnny B. Moore, and many others, it still is. Those fields of Mississippi mud aren’t likely to birth anything better and it is a long way to somewhere else on Highway 61.

Read: Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters, Ted Gioia

Listen: Bob Dylan, Hwy 61 Revisited


2016 in a word: Attention

Is any part of life excluded, on which attention has no bearing, any that you will make worse by attention, and better by inattention? Nay, is there anything in life generally which is done better by those who do not attend? Does the carpenter by inattention do his work better? Does the helmsman by inattention steer more safely?
~from Discourses by Epictetus

I struggled to concentrate in 2016. Looking back over the year, the thing that stands out most is how difficult it was to pay attention. Maybe I’ve always been this scattered but I don’t think so. There was a time when I could sit down and finish a task. These days, the mere thought of a project sends me into nervous fits. Doing one thing seems neglecting something else and the swirl of thoughts, ideas and emotions makes it difficult to focus. Everything is out-sized these days: hopes, anxieties, plans, fears.

An Eye on London

Partly this is a function of politics and society. Twenty-sixteen was a year of blood and thunder. Britain is Brexiting because half the population couldn’t pay attention to reality long enough to see past the Leavers lies. America elected as president man whose communication habits put a Ritalin’d up teenager to shame. Shouting was the most highly rewarded mode of public discourse. Good people died in droves. Many whose names we’ll never know sank beneath the waves while fleeing hell at home, or were blown apart by partisans of one sort or another. Others, whose names are carved on our memories, died in their homes, leaving us to mourn their legacies as best we can—by listening to their music and cherishing their spirit (RIP Leonard Cohen, Prince, David Bowie, Muhammad Ali, and so many more).

It was a hard to be attentive with so much clamour, sorrow, tumult, and emotion.

He flies for work, he flies for fun…

My personal attention deficit was aggravated by my boyfriend’s globe-trotting work schedule. When we were apart I was always half in his time-zone: setting my alarm to wake up so I could say goodnight, or waking at 3AM to catch him before he went to work. Our time together was a perpetual ticking clock. We drove ourselves to sleep deprivation because we couldn’t bear to waste the hours sleeping.

As the relationship reshaped my life it got increasingly difficult to be present. The last few months in Ibiza were spent wanting to be somewhere else, and planning my departure. This literally gave me headaches. Walking through sun-dappled pine woods, or sitting on the beach staring at the perfect turquoise sea, I’d chide myself for not paying more attention. I wanted to absorb it all, to appreciate it as it deserved to be appreciated, but my heart was elsewhere and my mind was spinning like wheels in sand.

Sand — peaceful till you get stuck in it

This year is my first real experience of not being able to pay attention and it’s scary. Inattention triggers a cycle of un-productiveness, anxiety and insecurity. I write badly; ideas dry up; I wonder what the fuck I’m doing with my life; everything I haven’t done looms huge in my mind; I feel like a failure; I don’t know what to do next. I literally can’t remember what day it is or where I’m supposed to be. My confidence evaporates. Some days, I’m barely capable of getting myself out of bed and into clothes. It astonishes me I’ve managed to survive this long.

The world is huge and, if we choose to believe the news, on the verge of collapse. Twitter, Facebook, Feedspot, The New York Times, The National Enquirer—anywhere I look, it’s a jerky, attention-fucking montage of violence, celebrity meltdowns, funny animal videos, and advertisements. Everything is for sale. Nothing matters. We’re all going to die. Did you hear the latest about Kim and Kanye?

I need a better filter.

All that really matters… friends and the moment

My best memories of 2016 are the times I was paying attention. A fine afternoon on Cala St Vicente drinking red wine and lemonade with my nephew Luis. Hiking with my dear friend Sarah on a sunny afternoon in France. Walking through the plaza of St Peter’s in Rome at twilight with Chris. Many other clear, bright moments with people I love. Tonight promises to be another: New Year’s Eve with my family, friends and partner.

Moving forward, my intention for 2017 is to attention. It’s the only way to stay grounded in a world that’s spinning too fast.

Share your new year’s intention in the comments or tweet @CilaWarncke

Savour your surroundings

Walking London, West End

The other morning I met a friend at the V&A. We toured the Undressed exhibit then lunch. Afterwards, I wrote in my notebook:

He tells me, “I’ve lived in London for 25 years and been so busy I’ve never walked through Regent’s Park”. Now he walks everywhere, to pace himself amidst the rush of the city.

His words struck a chord. For seven years I nine-to-fived in London. Walking as part of a commute is the antithesis of the mindful ambulation endorsed by philosophers from Epictetus to Henry David Thoreau. The commute walk is head down, upper body tense and tilted forward, watching for gaps in the flow of bodies approaching the ticket gates on the Underground, gauging the steps you need to cut past the guy with the roller bag and hit the escalator before the mum with the double buggy makes it impassable.

Work-day walking was a little better. At Q, I ran errands: shopping for a piano-key tie on Carnaby Street, collecting prints from Soho, buying biscuits and net bags of clementines from Marks & Spencer on Oxford Street. These forays acquainted me with Liberty of London’s faux-Tudor architecture and elaborately dressed windows; with the vegetable vendors and record shops of Berwick Street market; with the Photographers’ Gallery on Ramillies Street; and the assorted production houses, coffee shops and restaurants clustered thickly on Soho’s small streets.

West End London

What I missed in these region-specific forays was a sense of the city’s continuity. Tottenham Court Road, Liverpool Street, Waterloo were dots on the Underground. I knew the area around them, but couldn’t traverse the spaces in between. It is only this year, as a visitor, I had time to walk between stations.

When my friend and I parted ways after lunch I set off on foot through the West End, stringing together beads of memory.

Covent Garden, 1997

Covent Garden shopping

My sister took me to the UK as a high school graduation present. I was obsessed with England, my idea of it, anyway. Growing up, she read me British books: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories, Sherlock Holmes. Fiction and reality collided in Covent Garden, a familiar name exploded to vivid life. We walked the cobbled square, ogled the glittering windows of the tiny arcade shops, stared at the silvered street performers frozen beside their upturned top hats. It was the beginning of my realisation that London could be more than just a fairy tale.

The Strand, 1999

One of my reasons for being an English major was Penn’s exchange program with King’s College London. Our lectures were in Aldwych, next to Somerset House, the nearest tube: Charing Cross. The Strand, which connects the two, became as familiar as the main street of my childhood. There are two pubs there where my friends and I drank, for reasons lost to history and habit.

Lyceum Tavern, The Strand

One, the Coal Hole, was where I tried to impress James by drinking a pint of bitter. In the end, I had to order a pint of lemonade as a mixer. The Lyceum was our other haunt. It’s where we drank till closing time then staggered up to Trafalgar Square in pursuit of night buses, where we celebrated birthdays and end-of-term. Where we argued, made out and made up. It was such a part of our emotional landscape that it’s where we met for welcome back drinks when I moved to London in 2001.

The London Eye, 2002

Millennial projects like The London Eye were still fresh when I started life in London. My first boyfriend in the city took me on a ride in the London Eye before it was even branded. It was a lovely, romantic gesture. I was thrilled until we got about halfway up and my lifelong fear of heights kicked in. The glass bubble felt unspeakably fragile, the motion of the wheel excruciatingly slow. For most of the ride I stared stiffly at the horizon, trying to convince my body it wasn’t hundreds of feet in the air.

London Eye from Hungerford Bridge

Charing Cross, 2003

The messiest, most joyous years of my London life were spent in 4 Mallet Road, Hither Green, SE13. My university buddies Andy and James were kind enough to let me move into

Charing Cross, south facade

the spare room. The carpet was threadbare, the plumbing shot, the heating unreliable, and my behaviour for most of our joint tenure, outrageous. But it had a beautiful garden, an accommodating sofa, and they were — are — two of my favourite people on earth. Charing Cross was our London terminal. I can’t walk through it, or past it, without a rush of gratitude for the years it represents.

Old Vic, 2012

All love affairs go through phases. In 2007 I left London for Ibiza. For the next few years the city was at most a stopover. Then, in 2012, in a fit of respectability I got a staff writer job based a couple streets away from the old Q office, moved into my ex-husband’s spare room, and resumed the commute.

The Old Vic Theatre, The Cut

The chief bright spots in that long, grey year were weekends with my friend Ruth. It was she I roped into going to Playboy of the Western World at the Old Vic one Saturday night. It was with her I drank three bottles of wine the night before. She had to steer me from the station the the theatre, and wait while I was sick during the interval. It wasn’t a great production of Playboy but it was an unforgettable outing.

Big Ben, 2016

My boyfriend and I made our first trip together to London. It gave me the pleasure to which Tom in The Great Gatsby alludes of feeling more at home in place by virtue of introducing it to someone else.

Big Ben and Houses of Parliament

When he wasn’t working I took him to my old haunts like Bistro in Soho, Gordon’s Wine Bar on Embankment, and Itadaki Zen in King’s Cross. We discovered new ones together: Tostado on St Anne’s Court, Simmon’s in King’s Cross, Artisan Gluten Free Bakery on Upper Street.

I also introduced him to one of my favourite walks — along Victoria Embankment, over Hungerford Bridge, and up the Southbank to Blackfriars. On this route you see Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, the National Theatre, the Shard, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London Bridge, and strange, sleek new buildings like The Shard. It is a journey that makes me fall in love again. For all its flaws and foibles, London is the city that shaped my life.

St Paul and Blackfriars Bridge from Southbank London

Writing, like walking, is a way of paying attention. It takes us deeper into the world around us. Thinking or talking can be like the commute — you get from A to B but don’t notice the surroundings. To write, you must slow down, look close. It is difficult, though not impossible, to blurt onto a page. (Write “I love you” or “I hate you”. Compare it to the feeling of saying the words out loud. The very act of typing, or forming words with a pen, adds a layer of composure, whether you like it or not.)

If you want to fall in love with your life, start writing about it. You will begin to see small beauties in the quotidian blur. You will find clarity in hard situations and peace amidst emotional turmoil. If you can, write. If you feel you can’t, walk till the words flow.

Home to America, 2000

In the spring of 2000 I was an exchange student from Penn to King’s College London. During my hiatus from I wrote a bi-weekly column for The Daily Pennsylvanian. The following was published at the end of April, as my second and final term ended. franny

Nearly 17 years later, I am experiencing the same mix of nostalgia, love, and uncertainty. As Salinger wrote in Franny & Zooey “There are no real changes between eight and 80.” Here’s to the never and ever-changing self.

As James Joyce no less said, “It is dangerous to leave one’s country, but still more dangerous to go back,” words that resonate more to me with every day that creeps toward my dreaded farewell to England. It doesn’t seem so long ago that I was staring from the window of a 747 down on a grey-green smudge of island and thinking — half in panic — I live there now; I’m going home. Then, in September, thinking of London as home was an exercise in abstraction, like visualizing myself as a plant.

In a way it was terrifying, surrounded by 18-year-old first-year students, all as adrift as me. Mercifully, the common-sense British attitude toward alcohol meant we spent the first fortnight getting rolling drunk together, which greatly accelerated the bonding process. There were still moments of sober anxiety, though, sitting looking at the dirty cream walls of my room wishing they enclosed a more hospitable space.

From being surrounded by love and friendship in Philadelphia to being utterly alone and unattached in London was a shock. Sometimes I despaired of ever finding another circle of friends. Not having had to make friends for the better part of two years, I was sure I had forgotten how to, at least I couldn’t remember what had worked back when I was a freshman.


To be honest, I still don’t know how it happened, but suddenly I’m as inundated with companionship here as I ever was at Penn. Which has a lot to do with my burgeoning dread of the day I get on another transatlantic flight.

How do you leave people you’ve loved, fought with, partied with, worked with, stayed up all night smoking and talking-with? I’ve done it once before, so I ought to be able to answer that, but I can’t. It makes my heart almost burst to imagine saying goodbye, so I try to pretend it won’t happen.

Instead, I concentrate on living, and every day find myself more in love with a life that I’m going to have to leave in a matter of months. The smallest daily routines are rife with flashes of magic, like taking a double-decker bus into central London and rumbling past the postcard-perfect scene of Piccadilly Circus. Or taking a break from lectures and wandering to Victoria Place to munch on sandwiches as you gaze across the Southbank skyline from the Tower Bridge to Big Ben.


And there are the bits that don’t make the guide books: standing in Trafalgar Square in the freezing cold at 4 a.m. with a nascent hangover, waiting for a night bus; stumbling into kebab shops at 2 a.m. for a lethal dose of Turkish cuisine; arguing with minicab drivers; going to the gym and seeing Rupert Everett doing crunches; or sitting around on a Friday night trying to work out whether or not you can afford a pub or if you’ll have to go out for some cheap wine instead.

What is also rarely mentioned in the Rough Guide is how lovely British people really are. Five months working at a pub has given me an unparalleled opportunity to observe the Brits in their natural habitat, and I can safely say that their reputation for being snooty, superior and generally “up their own arses” is almost without exception undeserved. Sure, some are obnoxious jerks — Chelsea Football Club fans for example — but the vast majority are laid back, friendly and unfailingly courteous.

Another facet of England’s considerable charm is the refreshing safety of even its largest city. I will never forget walking down the street one day and spotting a poster advertising that day’s Evening Standard, “Man killed in ‘drive-by’ shooting” was the headline — complete with apostrophes. Awe-struck, I just stood there, gaping at the words, trying to wrap my head around the idea that in Britain drive-bys are so unheard of they still deserve quotes.

Sadly, though, the clock is ticking, and unlike Joyce I don’t have the option of staying happily exiled. So, for now, I’ll brace myself to return to grubby, lovely Philadelphia, and the wonderful friends I’ve made there. Hoping only that I won’t find the return too dangerous and that someday, when I’m home again, I’ll look back on my final year at Penn with as much gratitude and delight as I remember my first year in London.


Your turn: Dig out an old notebook and share a story from your younger self.
Don’t have one? Start one!