Those other deaths

April 14, 2012

“The feeling of having to obey every impulse and gratify every desire seems to me not happiness, but a kind of slavery… nobody talks about it as such though.” – David Foster Wallace, in a 2003 interview

Lately I’ve gotten to write several reader reports for fiction, so I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a happy ending.

In a few of the manuscripts (and a few published novels) I’ve read this semester, the author chose to resolve the story by having their protagonist get what they want (and modern “happily ever after”s are often bizarre…they involve things like divorcing boring husbands or dropping lousy friends). There is little sense of sacrifice or humility; it’s all about “finding oneself,” which sometimes is just another way of saying “doing what I want to do.”

As readers, do we admire these characters, or do we just like them because they give us permission to live like they live? (I could ask myself this question about a lot of things…the shows I like, the blogs I read, the music I listen to.)

I wonder if admiration is important in literature anymore. Of course, it’s not like every protagonist should be admirable; often characters teach something true about life or about humanity by being ugly. But it seems like too many novels (and memoirs) today are trying to celebrate ugliness, to call the slavery that Wallace talks about above freedom. (By the way, it’s crazy cool to me that a greatly respected secular novelist like David Foster Wallace so closely reiterates the Apostle Paul’s words from thousands of years ago.)

I don’t know how my own writing project will end, but I don’t want it to be just about my character getting what she wants. I’m not sure how to write an admirable character (that is, at least not cheaply admirable), and I think a big part reason why is that too many of my own days are about getting what I want.

Sometimes I trick myself into thinking that if I were to indulge myself less, I would be missing out…that if my day became less about me, it wouldn’t be as full. But Madeline L’Engle (and Jesus before her) reminds me that it’s just the opposite really.

“I must never lose sight of those other deaths which precede the final, physical death, the deaths over which we have some freedom; the death of self-will, self-indulgence, self-deception, all those self-devices which, instead of making us more fully alive, make us less.”

Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn

Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn

P.S. I also just read that one of DFW’s favorite books was The Screwtape Letters…That is really unexpected and exciting to me. More motivation to re-read it this summer.


Working the earth

December 2, 2011


“If I don’t struggle to pray regularly, both privately and corporately, if I insist on waiting for inspiration on the dry days, or making sure I have the time, then prayer will be as impossible to me as the C minor Fugue without work.”

The Summer of the Great Grandmother, Madeleine L’Engle

I think I have shared this quote on here before, and I have come back to it this week in thinking about prayer, specifically the practice of Morning and Evening Prayer within the Anglican Church.

Later on in her book, L’Engle also compares praying to writing, an analogy I find more applicable to my own life (as someone with no musical abilities whatsoever). I am in fiction class right now, and it didn’t take me long to learn that trying to complete one story a week by writing only when I feel inspired is impossible. In fact, though I have found pockets of time when I feel like writing (15 minutes here, 15 minutes there), almost all of my stories this semester have been the result of sitting down and writing when I felt nothing.

I consider it a rare gift that each time I have sat down and started typing with a bad attitude, I have found my way into the rhythm of the story and, by the end, felt relieved and joyful and (sometimes) giddy. I say “rare” because, if writing really is like prayer, I know there will be days when I feel nothing all the way through.  Like prayer, the struggle won’t always be immediately rewarded with a feeling of closeness to God or self-realization.

In Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris shares that “the ancient monastics recognized that a life of prayer must ‘work the earth of the heart.'” I think there are a lot of reasons this metaphor is fitting, one of them being that when you plant a seed, you do not see the fruit of your work immediately. Of course, we are not the planters, but we are, in a lot of ways, in charge of the soil. And this takes patience and discipline.

The purpose of recited prayers is not to stifle genuine engagement. They might cater to passivity, but only when I abuse them. To pray words already written involves effort, a submission and conforming of the heart that is easier on some days than others.

Henri Nouwen says,

“Only in the context of grace can we face our sin; only in the place of healing do we dare show our wounds; only with a single-minded attention to Christ can we give up our clinging fears and face our own true nature.”

 This is why after Confession comes Thanksgiving, why after The Creeds comes intercession.

I have found that instead of being burdensome and regimented, practicing Morning and Evening prayer has, among other things, taught me about grace.

When I have been lazy or angry or careless and have not stopped to pray, there is tomorrow morning.

When I am too empty or angry to form my own words, the words on the page remind me who I am, and they become my own.

Postcards and plums

January 18, 2011

Yesterday I came down pretty hard on literary “fakes,” but as I was writing I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of empathy for those men. I wonder if we all don’t feel a little fake sometimes. Surely in the way we live, but maybe even in our creativity.

One of the main reasons I started this blog was to discipline myself into writing regularly. Since I have not been in school for the month of January, “regularly” has meant everyday (though I am sure this will change once my classes start). And it has been difficult. Especially so in the moments when, after working on a post for an hour or two, I realize I have not learned much in the process. Of course I cannot expect to be inspired every day, but then why post those days? If this were a more public blog, I don’t think I would. But since my main purpose in starting it was to force myself into practicing what I love, those entries that make me cringe a little to re-read (and some I have not mustered up the courage to re-visit) are posted. And sometimes, I feel a bit like a fake for it.

Not to mention that so far I have not been able to resist piggybacking off writers that I respect, quoting their work as if it somehow validates my writing. Does this make me a fake too—this inability to see a situation through my own eyes? Am I like Thierry Guetta? I’m not sure if I will ever be to go through a day without hearing the words of characters or authors I have read; how can I ever mail a postcard without thinking of Milan Kundera’s The Joke, or eat a plum and not think of William Carlos William’s “This is Just to Say”? And maybe I don’t want to…I haven’t decided. But it undoubtedly affects my writing.

One thing I am sure of (admittedly only through the wisdom of those very authors): writing is a discipline. And even if I convinced myself that every thought I wrote was completely original, there would still be days I feel like a fake; this is simply a consequence of being disciplined.

Sometimes when I pray, I have absolutely no sense of God’s presence; I am sure I am talking to the ceiling. How relieved I was to learn that Madeleine L’Engel used to feel the same way when she was alive. But, she points out, as when writing seems fruitless and even embarrassing, this is no excuse to stop:

“If I don’t struggle to pray regularly, both privately and corporately, if I insist on waiting for inspiration on the dry days, or making sure I have the time, then prayer will be as impossible to me as the C minor Fugue without work.”

I want to learn to play the C minor Fugue. (Metaphorically, that is; I have given up all hope of ever being musical.)

(A note of caution: With discipline sometimes comes arrogance. Occasionally I find myself actually stopping in the middle of a prayer to think, “Oh, that was a good one. Yes, I said that just right.” Well, L’Engle helped me with this one too: “If I am conscious of writing well as I am writing, those pages usually end up in the wastepaper basket. If I am conscious of praying well, I am probably not praying at all.”)

Crummy writing

January 12, 2011

I cannot get this essay off my mind.

“If you’re truly talented, then your work becomes your way of doing good in the world; if you’re not, it’s a self-indulgence, even an embarrassment.” – Kathryn Chetkovich, in her essay “Envy”

Can a writer be content without ever being published?

Chetkovich doesn’t seem to think so. Though I’m not sure it would be fair to label the above statement her philosophy of writing so much as an honest expression of self-doubt, it is interesting to note that she does not go on to correct this sentiment anywhere in her essay.

Isn’t there any intrinsic value in the act of writing, in artistic expression? Remember Didion’s confession that she writes “entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means”—is this merely “self-indulgence”? Of course, Didion is the “truly talented” one in Chetkovich’s statement, but if she were never published, and her books never did any good in the world, would that deter Didion from writing? Not if she was honest when she stated her motives (notice she says this “finding out” is the entire reason she writes).

And consider what Madeleine L’Engle, another writer whose words have been haunting me for the past few weeks, has to say:

“Our truest responsibility to the irrationality of the world is to paint or sing or write, for only in such response do we find the truth.”

Whoa. L’Engle’s creative act is not “self-indulgence,” but in fact just the opposite: it is a responsibility. L’Engle also answers to Chetkovich’s hasty dichotomy of the talented and the untalented artist:

“Humility is throwing oneself away in complete concentration on something or someone else…Mostly, no matter how inadequate my playing, the music is all that matters: I am outside time, outside self, in play, in joy. When we can play with the unself-conscious concentration of a child, this is: art: prayer: love.”

I suppose much of the contrast here could have to do with the way one sees the world: if there is no truth to be found, if prayers are useless, then perhaps crummy writing, and every other form of inadequate art, is closer to self-indulgence than responsibility.

This is not to say that rejection slips did not break L’Engle’s heart. She talks openly of her low spells after each publisher’s dismissal and of her elation when A Wrinkle in Time was finally accepted. Nevertheless, in the midst of a dry spell, she never questioned whether or not to keep writing:

“We each have to say it, to say it in our own way. Not of our own will, but as it comes out through us. Good or bad, great or little: that isn’t what human creation is about. It is that we have to try; to put it down in pigment, or words, or musical notations, or we die.”

I only hope to have a spirit so willing to fail.

What is sand

January 5, 2011

“It’s a good thing to have all the props pulled out from under us occasionally. It gives us some sense of what is rock under our feet, and what is sand.” – Madeleine L’Engle, The Summer of My Great Grandmother

I recently started the fourth and final book in L’Engle’s non-fiction series The Crosswicks Journal, and I am sad. It is always more difficult for me to finish a series than a single book; I feel like I am getting ready to say a premature goodbye, seeing off an old friend I was expecting to stay longer.

I think this sadness is okay, as long as I do not try to turn L’Engle’s gift—this small, beautiful bit of sand—to rock.

Of course, I couldn’t if I wanted to, but even trying is dangerous. In trying, I forget to be grateful. When I pinch the sand between my fingers and try to mold it into something it is not, try to build my house upon it, it loses much of its beauty. And if I instead simply pretend my sand is rock, then when the rains come down, when the streams rise, and when the winds blow, my house will fall with a great crash (Matthew 7:27).

I remember singing “The Wise Man Built His House Upon the Rock” in Sunday school, but I never thought about what “the sand” was. The foolish man built his house upon it, so it must be bad, right? But the sand Madeleine L’Engle is talking about is her husband’s good health: she wrote this when his doctors suspected a tumor in his brain. Surely good health is not evil, but rather a gift. And a lot of the sand in my own life—authors who have said what I am afraid to say, friends who remind me of truths I so easily forget—is good.

But then why is the foolish man so foolish?

It is not the sand itself that is bad, but our “building our houses” on it—our refusal to acknowledge the sand as temporary, and able to be washed away—that is dangerous. I have spent much of the past few years trying to figure out what, if anything, is unshakeable and eternal rock, and what is sand. I am learning the two are to be treated differently; one demands my complete trust and the other I must not trust too much. But I am also learning that both can be beautiful.

The first time I really found myself tempted to turn sand to rock was a year and a half ago, when I was preparing to say goodbye to some dear friends. We had spent 6 months together at a school in rural England, and had grown very close. We knew we would most likely never be all together again; three of us lived in Canada, one in America, one in Germany, and one in Holland. There was a constant sadness in each of us during our last few days together, and any talk of “staying in touch” was painful. Once, in a moment of frustrated honesty, my German friend Tim said it might be best if we just never spoke again. A lot of me agreed with him—it scared me to think that in a few months these deep, inspiring friendships would be reduced to e-mails and rescheduled Skype dates.

Looking back, I think Tim got some things right. Our time together was a gift, and we were to be thankful. To try to hold on to this gift, to drag it across continents and stretch it across years, would have been silly. We actually have stayed in touch (I have even gotten to visit with the two Canadians since), but our friendships will never be what they once were. There is a sense of loss, and none of us ignore it.

Sometimes I daydream about going back to England, away from all my responsibilities and back to that familiar intimacy. Sometimes, reading a book in my living room, surrounded by my family, I am so overwhelmed with happiness that I wish time would be still. This is when I must remind myself to be thankful for the temporary gifts I have been given, and to never try and turn sand into rock.