In the winter of 1959, Richard Wilbur was told that a word in a poem he'd submitted to The New Yorker had to be changed. It possessed the "wrong connotation" for the magazine, the interim poetry editor wrote, relaying the wishes of editors higher up on the masthead, including, presumably, William Shawn himself.Read More
Filtering by Category: Writing & Publishing
Four of the five years I spent selling myself to creative writing programs, I used this gem in my personal statement: I am overwhelmed by my bookshelf. Everything that’s been written in the canon of literature has said all there is to say. I do not purport to say anything new. It’s a wonder why they rejected me. Who wants a writer who thinks they have nothing new to say? Especially when that writer goes on to swing a metaphor as dull as a spoon: My aim as a writer is the toil of the porter… All I strive to do is haul my bookshelf up a floor.
However much it hurts to read that conjured bit of word magic, ten years removed, I wonder if it’s true. Do I have anything new to say?
Josh Ritter spoke candidly of a phenomenon I’ve been experiencing while at work on something that looks and smells like a novel in the same way a pickle resembles a cucumber. He called it feeding the monster, “a creature so voracious… it lives deep in the synaptic jungle, its tail twitching lazily, its slow-breathing bulk heaving sulfurous sighs as it waits. You have to feed the monster everything you come across, be it books, music or movies, your friends and enemies and any other shiny baubles you find strewn in your path.” The sanitized notion of this is probably “research”. That process of pouring through books and essays and poems and personal experiences for information that you can use to fashion a story. But how do I use that?
A writer I deeply admire once told me about a particular line in their story, “I stole that from Denis Johnson. Here’s a writing tip: steal anything you can.” My head must of cocked at a visibly affronted angle because it immediately was clarified. “Obviously don’t rip it off verbatim. But steal the hell out of everything you like.” I went back and compared the lines in the two stories. Unrecognizable unless you knew the other author, the story, their love of Denis Johnson, and, even then, had heard the confession itself.
Stealing the hell out of other works has occurred throughout history. It goes back as far as Genesis and the story of the Flood, where non-Jewish cultures already had their own flood stories. The late literary theory wizard Umberto Eco believed that all works were birthed from other works: “The reader has to fill the blanks in the text and to relay it to the intertextuality from which [the text] is born and in which [the text] merges.” Texts are going to arise from other texts and then speak on behalf of or point to those other texts. Springsteen certainly helped point many unlikely readers toward Flannery O’Connor’s writing in his famous song Nebraska.
For this novel project I’ve cracked a small notebook and filled it’s pages with lines from novels and memoirs and essays I’ve been reading. Ritter claims to satiate the monster is crucial, “If you don’t give the monster what it wants, the damned S.O.B. will never give you anything in return. But if you do a good job feeding your monster, it’ll occasionally let you have a little inspiration.” And my notebook is annotated with sentences and words and phrases I hope to alter the time signature of and make dance to the tune of my own work.
But it’s a fine line to tread between plagiarism and creative license, isn’t it.
So am I stealing? Or simply bringing ideas up to the next floor?
More importantly: do I really have anything new to say?
The sun is snuggled still sleeping behind the mountains. He pulls their snowy peaks over his head and indulges in another hour of sleep. Not me, though. I’m awake. I’m out in public. I am caffeinated and somewhat functional. I am not necessarily in a bad mood. It's just a morning one. I am working the opening shift at the cafe. The sky is still dark.
“Why?” a customer asks when I tell her what time I have to leave my apartment, 4:00 AM. “That’s ridiculous,” she says and orders a sugar-free, nonfat, vanilla latte. With whip.
But before that, before the customers, the questions, and the sunrise, I clock in, turn on the lights, the coffee maker, and the espresso machine. The espresso machine yawns out streams of room temperature and then hot water. Two espresso shots pour directly into the sink, and the machine spits out more water to wash away all evidence. Now it is awake and ready to work. Well, good. At least one of us is.
Who told you that you have to write in the morning?
Well, there is Julia Cameron and her morning pages. Somewhere along the line, there was a Christian artist that equated the first hours of the morning with the first fruits of the harvest. The writer of Ecclesiastes spoke of new mercies that come with the morning, and someone convinced me that mercies should be used immediately after arrival. There is also the serpent. I drank the kool-aid that I was told to avoid.
I don’t have a problem writing three pages or setting aside time for writing. My problem is the morning itself. Despite the demands of my profession, I am not a morning person. I despise them. I am like the sun, best and brightest at around 1:00 in the afternoon. Dancers are taught not to read too much of the first dress rehearsal because it will be bad. Writers are told not to judge the first draft. Baristas throw out the first espresso shot. Why, then, do we demand so much from the first hours of the day?
Yes, there are people who thrive in the mornings. As a writer friend of mine once said, “Good for those people. Jesus loves them.” But I have to wonder if we get so caught up with the Biblical authors’ praise for the morning, that we forget the stories about God walking with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening, or the one about Jesus asking his friends to stay awake a little longer. There is room for them in the Bible. Shouldn’t there also be room for them in our workshops and libraries, or is creativity limited to when and not if it is done at all?
At the literal and figurative end of the day, there are few things like falling into the arms of a good, firm (or even a mediocre and squishy) mattress and feeling the days work drain from your spine. This a gift that, in my mind, is far superior to the first few notes of my alarm clock that stab me awake well before dawn. When it comes, shades of orange and pale pinks stretch and shift across the sky. The sun takes it time rising, and the sky is still dark, but give it a moment. Light always comes later in the day.
I tag along with my wife to her work functions, mingle with people whom I am trying desperately to assign names to faces. I get the question often enough. And it’s begun to rattle me like empty dinner glasses.
So, what do you do?
I infer that “what do you do” is really “how do you make money”. For a long while my answer was simple and I gave it without thinking: I work in television. But these days I don’t get a paycheck. In The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, a visiting parent to a university in Wisconsin observes that “it’s only Americans who insist on asking everyone what they do.” Perhaps because we are a country obsessed with wealth.
Maybe it sounds like I’m offended by the question? Resentful because I’m a man and I don’t make any money? I’m not. I see and know the value in being a stay-at-home father homeschooling three kids. And I love doing it. So this has become my polite response. After all, it adheres to the social mores of the casual conversation of the dinner party. And this way I can wrap it up and get on with enjoying my steak.
But my answer bothers me like a hangover.
In the Episode 3 of the Relief Podcast, D.L. Mayfield speaks about her hesitancy to call herself a writer. I don’t hesitate to call myself a writer. But I hesitate to say that writing is what I do.
The main character of The Art of Fielding is Henry Skrimshander. Without a doubt he is a baseball player with a work ethic not merely American, it’s near Herculean. I’m an athlete—or was until Howard proved me otherwise—and I can’t even fathom the lengths to which Skrimshander subjects his body. By the end it’s his singular determination to ‘doing what he does’ that becomes his undoing.
Maybe this is why I don’t want to say writing is something I do. I don’t do writing and then not do writing. It’s more than something I do. It’s who I am.
Recall Jesus with his disciples. The men and women who hung out with him. Followed him for years. Christ did a lot of things: healer, reformer, prophesier, miracle-worker, comedian, storyteller, etc. But it wasn’t a question of wondering what he did.
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks.
Imagine the eyes if I were to posit that question at a party: “Who do you say that you are?” I’d follow it up by finding another bottle of wine, or beer, and quoting Over The Rhine:
Come on lighten up Let me fill your cup I’m just trying to imagine a situation Where we might have a real conversation.
But I think it’s the better question. Because there’s a spark of being human we are snuffing out with innocuous questions about how we make money that waste, as Mary Oliver opines, “this one wild and precious life”.
On the second day of our impromptu beach vacation, Dennis decides to buy an electric planer at a local hardware store. “The oak panels need to be thinner, so they will resonate more once the harp is complete.”
“Uh, what,” I ask. “I thought that was the reason for sanding the pieces before we left.”
“Yes, but thinner wood will make the sound so much better.”
A parade of images flashes through my mind. Sawdust filling every crack and crevice of the beach condo. Neighbors beating down our door because sawdust has drifted to their condo. Various kinds of bodily harm due to malfunctioning equipment.
I love my husband. We have been married for five years. He is building me a harp because I once played years ago, and it delights him to make things with his hands. As he builds, as the tools and sharp objects pile up, my nerves feel frayed. I have trouble with disorder. My own chaos is fine, but pairing it with my husband’s is an uncomfortable challenge. The older I get, the more I see my own hypocrisy, but this awareness doesn’t prevent it from sprouting like a rogue chin hair.
I sit on the couch and write but mostly stare out the window to the ocean. Dennis is on the balcony operating a planer that sounds like the world’s loudest dentist drill. I try not to watch. Focus on your writing. He pauses and pokes his head in, his curly hair coated in fine dust. “Too loud,” he asks softly, and then,“It won’t take very long.” Instead of saying, Yes, it’s too loud, and this feels crazy, I say, “No problem.” This is what you say when your spouse is building you a harp.
My parents have been married for over forty years, an impressive feat given they were both previously married. They taught me much. I seemed to have missed the lesson about how your spouse’s delight can also drive you mad at times. Not only is it pure joy for Dennis to work on the harp, it is an offering in celebration of my talents. No one told me something so gracious could make me irritable and petty. Our premarital counselor, Stephen, never mentioned this possibility. Stephen was on point when he ended our final session with, “One of you will need to decide who is in charge of opening the mail.” At the time, I thought he was making a joke. At the time, I didn’t realize the full consequences of marrying someone with virtually the same personality preferences.
This means many things. It means we are drawn to spontaneity and living in the moment. Once, while driving from Arkansas to Washington, we ran out of gas two days in a row. We were caught up in telling stories, and the needle slid past my notice. The inconvenience turned into an adventure, and we loved it. It also means we are reluctant to open the mail, and I usually reward myself with a good cry after tending to home finance. Our similar personalities mean we both love creativity, and we often make messes in the process. Sometimes our creativity coexists peacefully as we write or read. Sometimes Dennis’s creativity is loud when mine is quiet.
I wake in the morning to find Dennis organizing his tools between the dining room and the balcony. “Where will you work this morning,” I ask. “I’d like to write.”
“I feel like I’m running you off,” he says.
“No, just tell me where you’re going to work, so I know where I can write.”
The back bedroom with a closed door and shuttered window turns out to be the best place to write. I’m not tempted to stare out the window to the waves crashing. I will not become an expert in sea gulls. Dennis lends me his high tech headphones to cover my ears entirely, and I begin typing.
Read Part 2
Just last week, during prayers at bedtime, my youngest son thanked God that piano lessons were over for the summer. I’m not sure when it became law for upright pianos to be stationed in every household, to break the backs of the fathers who move them there and to break the minds of children who, coming home daily from school, find not freedom but piano lessons, but it’s a law I resent even as I continue to abide by it. In one corner we, too, have a breaking-down piano like a hulking mushroom.
I took piano lessons from third to sixth grade—until I broke my arm, thank God—and honestly never played one song that had life or actual music in it. For me, the piano was a parallel art: it was an art that ran parallel to my life and never once broke into my own playing. One night, after I tearfully struggled through my lesson, going through the motions, I got out our old typewriter and began happily copying encyclopedia entries. First, I did “Temperate Forest” followed by “Desert.” Climate descriptions, animal lists, whatever. I plunked them out and felt every one of the clicks and thunks, felt the energy transferred from my fingers to the simple levers of the keys that punished the paper with staccato precision, marking it with elegant letter after elegant letter. That rhythmic mechanical process clicked off something in my brain. I loved it.
Dad was a musician, or rather a musician turned farmer, with short muscular fingers at least a key-and-a-half wide from milking cows for forty years. The night of the plunking typewriter, he scolded me sharply for my miserable attempt at the piano while I could type out meaningless stuff easily enough. He was right. There was certainly no music to the words, nothing like he could do on the old upright. He’d modeled what music might sound like, playing from memory an old ditty in which his hands jumped from the keys with life and verve, his thick torso swaying back and forth, a conduit of emotion and energy even if he didn’t hit all the right notes. In a man of his size, it was something to behold.
As I sit this morning and wonder what it is I’m doing at this keyboard, I can’t conjure as much emotion as he did for those little ditties. It wouldn’t be safe. Or sustainable. And yet it’s exactly what I want in a way—to grasp and hold lightning for a minute like he did, for meaning to flow through the conduit of my body and out these ten tangled fingers.
So I get up morning after morning, sit before the keyboard, and bend myself to the lessons, waiting for lightning to strike.
The simple answer to the question is: I’ve read enough great books to just know. But this isn’t about that answer. It’s too simple anyway—and carelessly arrogant—however satisfactory it is. Instead this is about the question I found myself contemplating after reading the opening salvo of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and knowing this would be the best book I’ve ever read.
The whole restless mob of us spread on blankets in the dreamy briny sunshine skylarking and chiacking about for one day, one clear, clean sweet day in a good world in the midst of our living.
I immediately read this passage aloud. Twice. Interrupted and read it to my wife. I have quoted it at length to people since then. Here, in one instant intake of words, was the story, the voice, the language that would entwine all the experiences in this book. And I just knew that this sentence (and many, many, countless others in this book) was sublime, exquisite, everything. Never has an opening to a novel forged such an indelible first impression.
To me this has always been an antiquated notion: that wonderful opening line to the novel as an edifice on which an entire story rests. Opening lines are great, but a novel is a marathon; how you get out of the blocks doesn’t really effect the race. So I’ve come to disavow any initial first impression of a book. I want to believe that I’m better off reading into it fifty to a hundred pages before I make any judgement. But this single sentence in Cloudstreet stripped that practice away like decaying plaster. I was given over to something instinctual. And I couldn’t ignore it. Couldn’t talk any doubt into myself. Why? Why did I trust this first impression? And why was it so very right some four hundred pages later when I read the last line and flipped back to this opening sentence?
I went back to Malcolm Gladwell’s compelling read Blink. At length Gladwell talks about snap judgements, those based on the merest of slices of information. We are, he writes, “innately suspicious of this kind of rapid cognition” and that ours is a world “that assumes that the quality of a [judgement] is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it.” Gladwell concedes there is a fallibility in making snap judgements. However, there is just as much, if not more, good here as well. That these rapid assertions can be educated and controlled. We can trust our instincts. Blink is a long argument about how and why we should cultivate first impressions.
This brings me to the gospel story of Peter and Andrew. Upon hearing Jesus’s words, they made a snap decision to drop everything they were doing and could ever do. And what did Jesus say? “Come. Follow me. I will show you how to fish for people!” I think of them, there, in the dreamy briny sunshine in the middle of their living. This first encounter with Christ. How was it they had cultivated themselves, their spirits, for this moment? Did they know in an instant that trusting this sliver of a saying, this presence there on the hillside chiaking about going fishing for people, would be so significant?
Rabbi Abraham Heschel writes this in The Sabbath, “The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information [a thing], but to face sacred moments…A moment of insight is a fortune, transporting us beyond the confines of measured time…It is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to a thing.”
So think of that initial pulse from a person, a work of art, a book, a song, a place. The feeling that transported you. Did you trust it? Should you have?
Sometimes, when I’m burnt out, I look to Rilke. Not his Letters to a Young Poet, or his masterpiece, Duino Elegies, but to his very first collection, Wegwarten. It was self-published, and he handed it out on street corners. One version of the story even claims he did this while “dressed in the black habit of an abbé with long curly hair.”
I really hate feeling foolish. I think, perhaps, it’s my deepest fear. I know, I know….my deepest fear ought to be something more lofty or noble, but honestly, embarrassment terrifies me.
I teach junior highers, so basically, I spend my days with 130 walking manifestations of this fear. They are never still—always tucking, brushing, fixing, sweating, lip-glossing, whispering, watching. They are little machines of anxious, self-protective energy.
When I think back on my own junior high years, I remember how intensely I wanting to blend in—to disappear, be it through diets, trends, or the right hedge of friends who would shield me from the blinding glare of individuality.
Even as a writer, even all grown up, I struggle with this. I obsess over how to write what I think editors want to read. How to snuggle into a writing community in which my voice will be welcomed and lauded. I skip certain contests and journal submissions, just to avoid the embarrassment of unrealistic expectations.
Of course I also fear writing forgettable poems, yet my pride steers me away from topics that would fuel really memorable poetry—family dysfunction, social justice, feminism, sex. Topics with the potential for embarrassingly spectacular failure.
In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury writes,
You're afraid of making mistakes. Don't be. Mistakes can be profited by. Man, when I was young I shoved my ignorance in people's faces. They beat me with sticks. By the time I was forty my blunt instrument had been honed to a fine cutting point for me. If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you'll never learn.
As I write this, I am a few days away from working The AWP Conference & Bookfair, and I know my first instinct will be to try to blend in with the crowd. But I’m going to try to shake off that fear. I’m making it my goal to embarrass myself early and often, for the sake of celebrating writing. To strike up a conversation with the writers I really admire, or share poems with fellow attendees, or hit up an open mic. Knowing me, it probably won’t go 100% smoothly. I’ll probably suffer at least a slight scrape to my pride.
After the sting fades, I’ll remember Rilke handing out his poetry on the street. Wegwarten was universally panned. In that moment, Rilke looked pretty foolish. But you know what? It worked out okay for him.
Over the holidays, my mom popped in our battered VHS tape of The Music Man. This was my favorite movie as a kid. Somehow I never grew tired of watching Professor Harold Hill dupe the citizens of River City, Iowa.
Hill is a total fraud, but he’s so slick that the town believes his promise to form a boy’s band. Under his spell, the troubled youth stop being troubled, the tightly-wound maiden librarian unwinds, and the whole town gets together in the park and dances the Shipoopi. Everyone is too delighted to notice the lack of an actual band. He excuses away his lack of musical knowledge with “The Think System.” He tells his band, “if you want to play the Minuet in G, think the minuet in G.” The boys nod solemnly and warble in unison, “La de da de da de da de da, la de da, la de da…
Half-way through the movie, I realized I’d found my writing resolution for 2016. I’m giving up “the think system.”
See, the discipline of daily writing is grueling. Facing down a blank page at the end of a day of work is daunting. Submission is nerve-wracking and painful, and rejection is inevitable but still discouraging. It’s much easier to just think about submitting, or think about what it will be like once I’ve submitted, or think about which residencies I’ll attend whenever I find time to apply, or think about searching for a writer’s group that will help me hone my craft.
In The Brothers Karamazov, Father Zosima expresses this same idea when he says, “active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with the love in dreams.” He is, of course, speaking of Christianity, but the quote applies to writing, too, as it does to most disciplines.
I’m not saying writing should never be joyful. What’s life without a little Shipoopi? We must have moments of joy to cling to. A breakthrough in revision, an acceptance letter thanking me for “sharing delightful work,” memories of a sunrise kayak session at a writer’s retreat…I hope every writer has similar moments to return to on hard days. But those are the exception, not the rule.
At the end of the Music Man, Harold Hill is put on trial, and to save him, his “band” miraculously manages to squeak out a horrible rendition of the Minuet in G. After a moment of stunned silence, the parents of River City rise to give a standing ovation. They loved it! It turns out River City didn’t need music, when they needed was an experience. It’s sort of a beautiful, if illogical, premise. By believing so fully in his lie, the town has transformed it into their truth.
It’s a sweet and clever ending for a musical, but it’s not the way I want my own story to end. I don’t want my daydreams of success to become my best product or to give my own mediocre work a standing ovation and call that a happy ending.
So this year, when I catch myself thinking about writing instead of doing the work, I picture the River City Boy’s Band, singing the Minuet in G over and over and never touching their instruments. And I get back to the real work, harsh and fearful as it is.
Underneath my mother-in-law's table sits a bucket with a lid. In it, fish sauce—made from four ingredients: fish, salt, water, time—rots its way beyond rot to the salty-savory goodness. It's fermenting, condensing into a flavor so intense that it will almost level you, like strong drink.
She tends to it by opening the pail occasionally—though never in the presence of guests—and turning the contents, perhaps adding more salt. Then she closes the pail again and returns it to its position under the table. And waits.
I think I first heard the word distillation used, literarily, in association with Emily Dickinson. That ideas could be that intense yet held in your hand, distilled, that was a powerful thing.
It's counterintuitive, distillation. In a country of gushers and booms, and in a time of series and tomes, the idea of waiting on a few distilled words seems, ironically enough, wasteful. Then again, this just isn’t something one says about the Harper Lees of the world.
I suppose ripening is a handier metaphor for the process of writing growing into itself. Then again, ripening may be what reading groups and MFA programs are for. But what happens post-reading groups, post-MFAs? I’ve waited so long for some of my essays to take shape that I'm afraid their peak flavors are past and they’ve moved into the logical outcome of the ripening metaphor: rot. Distillation, too, can be a cover for procrastination.
It can also backfire. There are essays which I put in the pail under the table and come to stir them only to find a sweet, cloying smell where there should be umami. This is the hardest, to throw something out.
But in general what’s the advantage of time? And how much time?
I found the ending to an essay—in writing a Relief blog, no less—about a year after I thought that essay was finished. Fermentation. Others of my essays, bloated to self-important lengths, I seem to be waiting to reduce down.
But how long is enough—or too long? Why do some combinations of words, like aged liquor, just get better? And is there really a recipe? Is it really as simple as the right ingredients, process, vessel, and time?
“I want you to write a review for the magazine,” said Greg Wolfe, publisher and editor of Image. It was my first week on the job as managing editor. “Choose a couple books you love.”
I chose Effort at Speech by William Meredith, and Laura Fargas’s An Animal of the Sixth Day (which included “October-Struck,” the poem my fiancée, Sanda, and I had recently chosen for the cover of our wedding invitations).
I read and read. I plumped the margins with ink. And then I wrote my words, the best ones I could imagine.
Seventeen hours later, I had my pages back, accompanied by a single-spaced, laser-printed letter nearly as long as the piece I’d handed in. Wolfe praised what deserved to be praised, and took the rest—which was nearly everything—apart: sentences that wandered from native intent, phrases that hoped to make their way on charm alone, images that, if they knew any ideas at all, knew them only in passing.
I was, to say the least, upset. Every teacher since I’d been ten had praised my prose! Why, one professor in college even said…
I vented. Sanda commiserated. And then I got to work. I considered every query that was posed, and thus was led to more precise attendance to the turns of phrase and thought within my work. Slowly, painstakingly, and at long last, I began to see my words not as tender nerves composing precious me, but as the matter of the medium within which I lived and worked—out there, in here—to be formed in accordance with reality I’d perceived.
Greg had spent a good deal of a day tending to my words, hours he could have fruitfully spent elsewhere. It was an act of caring, this critique, and an act of faith.
A month later, my piece was put into print. I held the issue again and again, reviewing the now-familiar table of contents, turning to the memorized page. It was the best thing I’d ever written.
That was seventeen years ago. The same age as some of my students.
“This is where we’ll talk in an essential way,” I say to them when I hand back their first essays of the year, about their writing and about my snaking comments that inevitably encircle the whole of each page’s rectangles of text. “The amount I write is a measure of my engagement with your writing,” I tell them. "My teacher made me a better writer because he paid attention to what I wrote."
Here at Relief, we are ever thankful for the art-and-faith community that sustains us: that large but loosely affiliated group of people around the world who value excellence in writing and the arts, and who also are followers of Christ. This is our tribe, and together we’re shaping the landscapes of literature and belief.
We plan our attendance at the Festival of Faith and Writing or the Glen Workshop a year or more in advance. We zealously await new books by Marilynne Robinson, Wendell Berry, Kathleen Norris, or others whose works are the cornerstones of our reading lives.
And we read, publish in, blog for, work at, or otherwise engage art-and-faith journals such as Image, Books & Culture, Rock & Sling, Saint Katherine Review…and of course the beautiful Ruminate. Here is where emerging voices—are own among them—find homes alongside award-winning writers.
Some of these journals are housed at universities, or are part of organizations that can help financially sustain their work. Others are run independently, operating entirely on the goodwill of savvy and passionate volunteers.
* * *
Ruminate has been independent since its founding. Its staff have day jobs and often do their work at the journal on nights and weekends, between family and professional commitments. These dear friends and colleagues have found that this model is no longer sustainable.
That’s where we come in. We can provide balance to numbers that are dramatically skewed.
Did you know that Ruminate receives and carefully reads over 5,000 submissions a year? How many of those submitters offer any support in return? Well, the journal has around 500 subscribers, a number of which are libraries, along with four monthly donors and about fifteen one-time donors per year.
It’s clear that the vast majority who send to Ruminate—who expect and receive excellent attention to our work—are not doing our part in the relationship. Now is our chance to change that trend.
They’ve launched a fundraising campaign, and they need every one of us in the art-and-faith community to give something. A one-time gift of $30 or $60 is doable for most of us, even if it requires a bit of sacrifice. If you can give a little more, please consider doing it. They’ve already raised over $13,000.00 but still have a long way to go. If they cannot meet this financial goal, Ruminate will be forced to close its doors in 2016.
We’re all in this together. If one art-and-faith journal goes out, we’re all much worse for it. Ruminate knows how badly our world needs the comfort and challenge of excellent faith-infused art. Let’s show them how much we love what they do.
Please take a moment to read this note from Ruminate’s Editor-in-Chief Brianna Van Dyke.
Then click here to do your part.
Please spread the word in your own art-and-faith circles by sharing these links. Thank you!
On August 30, Kanye West won an award for being a brilliant artist of some sort. During his acceptance speech he claimed that awards shows were ridiculous, called himself an artist’s messiah, confessed to smoking pot, and announced that he would be running for president. A year ago, maybe even a month ago, I might have sighed and muttered, “Oh, Kanye,” but this time, with the nagging realization that I probably have more deadlines than talent, all I could do was think about how I will never be able to write like that and have people support it. Everything felt so meaningless.
There is a picture of Idris Elba saved on my computer. His hands are folded and he wears an expression that quite attractively blends judgment and concern. “Shouldn’t you be writing?” the caption asks. Yes. Yes, Idris, I should be writing. I should be penning down my every thought, victory, tragedy, and curiosity on paper and online, but the blank page and I are in the midst of a staring contest, and so neither one of us has much to say.
That may not be exactly true. There are a lot of things going on that would make excellent essays, or at least mediocre essays that I could edit into readable ones, but I don’t feel like talking about those things. It doesn’t matter, though. The lack of something to say and the lack of will to say something both yield the same result. Nothing. Yet, I’m still suffering from the urge to create. In spite of the fact that millions of thoughts get published and posted every minute of every day, I have the tiniest bit of hope that I can water and nurture and grow something special where nothing used to be.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” God introduces himself as a character by speaking light, ecosystems, and cows into existence. I know what the Bible says. I know what the lesson is for the artist: Words have power. I guess that is true. Words do things, change things, create and destroy things. But, is the inverse also true? Is the artist powerless when he can’t find the words or when he isn’t big enough to speak them? It feels that way. I feel drained and empty when I sit down to write and all I can do is stare out of the open window and watch the trees let go of leaves that weren’t strong enough to keep trying.
The first sentence of the Bible does not interest me because I do not understand people who always have something to say. I do not trust people who brag about how easy creation is. What grabs me is second sentence. I like the part where the narrator reveals with a sort of flyaway detail that, prior to everything, there was a whole lot of nothing. If I were given this manuscript in a workshop, this is the part I would circle and highlight as the big point. As both a reader and a writer, I would ask the author, “How long did you stare at nothing before you found something to say?”
In James Lord’s A Giacometti Portrait, Alberto Giacometti often refers to Cézanne out of reverence for his work and competence. At one point, Giacometti says, “Cézanne discovered that it’s impossible to study nature. You can’t do it. But one must try all the same, try—like Cézanne—to translate one’s sensation.”
I find the word sensation to be so precise in what I try to create with words. Sometimes I try to copy nature exactly as I have experienced it, and sometimes I try to create a new sensation. But even Giacometti knew that “a semblance, an illusion is, in any case obviously all that can be attained...But an illusion is not enough.” It’s not enough because one is compelled to go further and to perfect one’s vision.
Giacometti never stopped perfecting. When Lord thought that he was done with the portrait of him, Giacometti would continue it further, seeing something that could refine his vision. Some might call this madness. (Madness perhaps exactly what is needed to create something never seen before, to display the inspiration and originality.) What Giacometti strove for “was of course impossible, because what is essentially abstract can never be made concrete without altering its essence.” Which is why the story I write in my head is never completely the story that I write down on paper. It’s always different and off. I can move closer to it the way Giacometti moved closer through his continuous rebuilding, and the closer I nudge and edit and strengthen, the closer the work becomes “both ridiculous and sublime.” But that is never easy. It can be both discouraging and freeing.
It’s inspiring to read the way Lord describes Giacometti floundering and how he continues to work toward the small hope he believes is present in his work. Which is why the best writing advice is to always keep writing. Keep working. Even when it seems the work is getting worse and worse and impossible to do. It’s a daily wrestle that requires a commitment to begin again.
This blog is late. I don’t mean a couple days after deadline. No, I mean it’s-been-months-and-I-still-haven’t-found-a-topic-to-write-about late. I have so many emails sitting in my inbox kindly, and more recently, desperately, asking me if I have a blog written yet. And would I please, please, please write something?
This week, a biography of the New Yorker journalist, Joseph Mitchell hit bookstore shelves. A reporter who immersed himself in the mid-century streets of New York City to capture the eccentric of the everyday, Mitchell immortalized a city between modernism and what came before—gas lamps and saloons and the Depression.
What has captured the imaginations of most of his readers (and is the subject of the biography) is not his prolific profiling and immersive journalism, but the thirty years he wrote nothing. For the final chapter of his career, Mitchell rode the elevator to the New Yorker headquarters. He sat in his office. He went to lunch. But his office was silent—no clicking typewriter keys, no shuffling of papers.
Several years ago, Anthony Marra stopped by Lemuria bookstore (and also my place of employ) to sign his novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. He wore the same blue, button-up shirt he wore in the author photo. He was kind and asked as many questions about us as we did about him. In a quiet moment, before the storm of people came demanding his autograph and a witty answer to their questions, Tony and I talked about writing.
A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and a Stegner fellow at Stanford, Marra had done everything right. His debut novel was a smashing success and would go on to become a finalist for the National Book Award. We talked about his girlfriend who lived in New York City and the poetry she wrote. We talked about his Pushcart Prize, the short story that became the seed of his novel. And we talked about what he was working on next.
“Nothing,” he said. “I sit down to write, and all I can think about is what I have already written. It’s terrifying. What if this novel is the only story I have?”
Isn’t that what all creators fear—that what is behind us is also our last? “You are only as good as your last plate,” is the chef’s motto. But how many days, months, years can pass before you are no longer a chef, but instead someone who once cooked?
This week I found out that Anthony Marra’s next book releases in October. It might be a weak replication of his first, as second-novels tend to be, or it could be a step in a new direction. But that’s not what this is about. This is about trying and failing and trying again to write. Sometimes you succeed. Sometimes you are blinded by the blank page.
The first sentence is for someone else; prove to your audience, the critics, your high school class that you have something to say. The second, third, fourth, etc. are for you; to prove to yourself that you still have something to say.
My grandfather was a builder. Self taught, he came home after a grim year in a WWII German prison camp, took a few architecture classes on the G.I. bill, and began building houses that still stand all over Winn parish. He could make anything out of nothing in particular, and as a child of the Great Depression, he had grown up tough, gruff, and unbelievably resourceful.
I still have the peashooter he carved for me from scrap lumber. Most mornings, my coffee cup rests on the table he made from odd cuts of Louisiana pine. Once, when he fell from a tree stand in the dense woods of North Louisiana, he managed to piece together a crutch from fallen branches and staggered nearly a mile with a broken leg and a handmade crutch to his parked truck. And though I have forgotten some of the details of his funeral, I distinctly remember this: a bearded man even my grandmother struggled to place shook her hand profusely, saying over and over, “He built our house stout. ”
When I was a kid, my grandfather built our first real house, too. My sisters and I played in hills of scraps for months—piles of sawdust, wedges and squares of cut wood. Best of all was the huge hunk of discarded concrete, shaped as if a giant ice cream scooper had ladled a vanilla rock out of fresh slab and rolled it under a sweet gum tree that grew alone, raggedy and twisty, somehow a survivor of the dozer that cleared the path for our gravel road. I loved that ugly rock and scraggly tree.
No one but me had any desire to sit in the Louisiana sun under a mostly branchless tree and read LM Montgomery books and write stories. And because my desire was so odd, so unlike what my sisters wanted to do, I sought a space of my own, a quiet, strange and solitary space where I could unabashedly keep company with the characters and stories in my books and journals. I had read enough to know how witches and frogs and velveteen rabbits had all been loved into beauty and reality, and I loved that concrete block and tree into an importance that no one looking at it from the road would ever have imagined.
In what may be his most famous poem, “Digging,” Seamus Heaney honors the way his father and grandfather built their lives in the soil, digging turf, “stooping in rhythm” (line 8), “nicking and slicing neatly” (line 22), and planting potatoes like craftsman and artists. Heaney admits that he has “no spade to follow men like them” but offers this alternative: “between my finger and my thumb/ the squat pen rests./ I’ll dig with it” (lines 28-31). While Heaney’s family worked in the realm of the tangible, crafting something solid and palpable from land, writers can sometimes feel left out and invisible—like a girl sitting on an old rock under an old tree, making something that no one can really touch or see.
Perhaps, part of being both human and an artist (in whatever context or medium we work within) means longing for spaces and communities to which we belong in particular and authenticating ways. And while writers often experience this sort of community in beautiful, brief oasis moments at conferences and writing residencies, we don’t get to stay in those places. We go home to the sweet gum tree and the old rock, often missing feeling known and significantly part of a unified group, or starving for the experience of a firm handshake and an acknowledgement that we have built something “stout.”
I don’t know that there are any clear answers on how to find and build writerly communities in the miles and times between those meetings and moments. But ever my grandfather’s girl, I believe in honoring whatever resource the space I live in offers. After all, writers build whole worlds from the slightest scrap of sound and image. Part of living in any space or community means learning to live in the long distances between gatherings and validation. Perhaps in learning to honor the space I reside in, in making the most of the raggedy rock and tree, that space can become more than anyone looking in from a distance might imagine it could be.
When I was about seven years old, my grandmother let me sit at her electric typewriter. Her office, housed in a cold and unfinished basement, had equine pencil drawings from a talented granddaughter on one wood paneled wall and photos of her and grandpa posing with a variety of friends on another. The chrome chair boasted about seven mismatched seat cushions of differing colors, textures and sizes. On the back of the chair hung oversized wool sweaters, cotton throws and a crocheted blanket of a startling mixture of colors. The result was a chair that looked something like a tiny vanilla cupcake loaded with five inches of layered pink, yellow, blue and green frosting, sprinkles, and patriotic flags, all sliding off to different sides.
Because she was notably hard of hearing and spent surprisingly little time in the kitchen, search and find was usually always a better option for locating her in their big creaky house than mere call and listen. Down the squeaky parquet stairs, I could usually find her perched atop her heaped and leering chair: my grandmother, the perpetually cold, tall, boney, straight backed and bespectacled woman who was always in a warm mood. “Oh honey,” she would say, “I’ve got to finish this one thing first, but then we’ll make some lunch. You must be hungry.” Time of day or proximity to last meal: these things had very little reign over her appetite. And if she was hungry, naturally anyone around her must be too. Of course her hunger, and subsequent offerings of poorly tasting snacks (my grandmother, a Scot, ran the blandest kitchen I’ve ever step foot in), was an avenue for the expression of her compassionate spirit.
I really don’t think it had much to do with her age, her tendency to intermix names of family members: mine, often intermixed with my mother’s, confused with a cousin’s, or an aunt’s. Early on, grandma just interweaved some syllables from the names of her two daughters as a multi-purpose designation for both—voila! Confusion avoided. She only had to call the one name and both faces would appear. Years later, when the girls left home, this technique continued to be just as handy for grandma, or at least she continued to employ it. The interesting thing is that, to my knowledge, no one in the family found this practice insulting or diminutive to their sense of individuality or relationship with her. Perhaps they unconsciously understood something about the nature of affection that others of us are still learning.
I’ve been reading Time and the Art of Living by Robert Grudin. In it, he describes a dream in which memories of his younger brother are mixed with feelings for his son. He goes on to suggest that just as one may have emotions of homesickness in college when leaving parents, so too homesickness may strike in moments of separation from one’s own children. He concludes that recognizing the common denominator in these feelings is important in recognizing the very nature of love and our capacity for affection. As guests on an interconnected planet; as parents, children, siblings, spouses, nieces and aunts, our expression of affection links us as fellow human beings; our capacity to love and be loved reminds us of our commonality. Grandma was far from demonstrative with her affections, or even materially generous, if we’re being completely honest. But, perhaps during those moments when she called us by the name of another, we were secure enough in her affection for us. Her very lack of self-consciousness when misnamed introductions were made to strangers increased our confidence that we didn’t need to be self-conscious either: her affections were broad enough we needn’t be intimidated at the prospect of temporarily sacrificing a mere name; her love saw the family as an interconnected whole. And that was enough.
That day she sat me behind her typewriter had no reason to be so vivid in my memory. Nothing exceptional happened. Tipitty-tap-tap, Tapitty-tip-tap-tap, my fingers purposelessly sashayed from key to key. It was the sound of pushed and released keys I was after, not the meanings of their combined impressions on the paper. Perhaps it was in the imitation of her boney fingers moving from key to key, the slow, but rhythmic dance of colons and space bars and commas and dashes that entranced me. Perhaps it was just sitting on her elaborately pillow bedecked chair. Perhaps it was being between those two walls that evidenced care. It wasn’t until nearly two decades later I even had aspirations to write. Sometimes though, I wonder if the feeling of warmth, safety and security in that basement; that keen intimation of a profound place in her interwoven world of love, the unmistakable sound of pushed keys and acceptance regardless of articulation had a role in my now unshakable urge to continue tapping those keys.
I am a sucker for a good how-to, easily taken in by the alluring simplicity of a numbered list of steps. Luckily, this is the age of the Internet tutorial, with the tackling of all manner of life’s mysteries now available in slideshow format. How to build a yurt. How to clean a dishwasher. How to make a fishtail braid.
However, not all how-to’s are created equal. Last month, I followed a free tutorial for a maternity dress and ended up with a house-sized pink-flowered pillowcase that would have comfortably clothed me and two of my pregnant friends—an interesting challenge, but not exactly what I was going for. Sometimes, one man’s how-to is not another man’s treasure.
Tania Runyan’s How to Read a Poem is a glittering exception. It’s a pocket-sized literary guide and anthology that does—perfectly— what I’ve long tried to figure out how to do: introduce the new and skeptical reader to the necessity and beauty of poetry. Or perhaps not Poetry with a capital P.
This is a book about how to read a poem, just one poem that knocks the wind out of you. That’s how you get hooked, and poem by poem, eventually gain the confidence that develops into passion.
With simplicity, friendliness, and humility, Runyan gently guides the would-be reader of poems into a world she is clearly familiar with. She uses the Billy Collins poem “Introduction to Poetry” as a chapter-by-chapter template for encountering and enjoying a poem. After each short chapter, she offers a handful of startling and widely-varied poems to consider, encouraging the reader to try out a new lens with each grouping: imagery, sound, line breaks, discovery. Her selections are personal and unusual, modeling the way a reader of poems collects pieces that are meaningful to them, not necessarily those that are well-known or serious or understood.
Reading her book as I get ready to lead a high school writing workshop, I feel a sense of relief and excitement. I don’t have to have all the answers to a poem before introducing it to a class. I don’t have to explain what can’t be explained, because if I “get” it on a gut level then it’s likely the students get it, too. We can talk about that.
How to Read a Poem does that rare thing few how-to’s do: it admits its own limitations. It leaves the essential mystery of poetry intact, respecting the space between reader and poem where vital connection happens.
At the same time, however, I’d been teaching improvisation, and the first rule of improv is to say yes.
And so, though I felt panicked, I said yes, and the moment I did, an extraordinary thing happened. I felt like some Midwestern Robert Burns, composing a tune: “My way is: I consider the poetic Sentiment, correspondent to my idea of the musical expression; then chuse my theme … [and] I walk out, sit down now and then, look out for objects in Nature around me that are in unison or harmony with the cogitations of my fancy and workings of my bosom…”
With the theme I’d been given playing always in the background, I experienced the world differently. The news of the day, the way my daughter turned a phrase, the words of a student’s essay: everything felt charged with meaning with which I wanted to connect. I extended every conversation with my wife. I read more. I took walks.
I was seeking what T.S. Eliot sought: “When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work,” he writes in “The Metaphysical Poets." "[I]t is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.”
I started to feel what Wordsworth longed for us to feel: a sense of a consciousness that experiences the world and its inhabitants not as commodities to be gained and spent but as possible occasions for the marvelous:
Great God! I'd rather be A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn; So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
And when some unforeseen experience—receiving W.S. Merwin’s Migration as a Christmas present from my wife and daughter, or hearing a young couple in a coffee shop discussing Kierkegaard’s sense of irony—chimed with what I was trying to discover, I felt the jolt David Kirby felt when composing “Get Up, Please,” one of his witty poetic fugues:
“Anybody can stitch a bunch of parts together to make a creature—the secret is to know when to apply the current. In this case, the limbs and torso of my poem were just lying there when a stranger slipped them the juice.”
Throughout the Christmas holiday and well into the New Year, I grew more attentive, and so my relationships flourished. Because I was compelled by the rules of play to say yes to writing, I came to love the world more. I came to love life more.
“So here’s to music, poetry, and chance encounters that give you exactly what you need,” Kirby continues, “especially when you don’t know it’s coming your way.”
When I sit down to write, I pretend I am speaking at an event. I’m the plenary at the Festival of Faith and Writing, for example. Or I’m giving my acceptance speech for this year’s Newbery Award. Once, I pretended I was giving the commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame. I was never a student there, but I did teach step aerobics and my inspiring, motivational, and encouraging personality led the university to request my presence at graduation. In my fantasy, they would be giving me an honorary doctorate. For teaching aerobics.
I came up with the idea to pretend in order to write in the spring of 1998. I was in a study carol in the library at Calvin College. I was supposed to write a term paper for Dale Brown’s American Literature class, and my usual treats, a large bag of gummy worms and a Poor Man’s Mocha (a mixture of coffee and hot chocolate that cost me fifty cents), were not providing the jumpstart I needed to pick up my pen and write.
I was probably supposed to explore a theme in my paper. But it’s been a minute since 1998 and I don’t remember the exact assignment. What I do remember is sitting in Dale Brown’s class on the first day of my last semester of college and hearing him quote Toni Morrison’s Beloved: “Anything coming back to life hurts.”
Crap, I thought as I wrote that sentence down and circled it. I was interviewing for teaching jobs in South Bend, Indiana where my fiancée was a graduate student. I was looking for a wedding dress with enough tulle that would make Scarlet O’Hara both approve and be envious. I was wondering if my soon-to-be husband would agree to living in an apartment by the St. Joseph River. I wasn’t interested in the idea that we are only fully alive if we are in pain. No thank you, I thought, as I shifted my left hand so the diamond on my ring sparkled.
Morrison’s words were the first notes I took in American Literature. I still have the navy blue Mead notebook. The letters from the sentence and the circle around it are shaky, not my typical neat handwriting. That’s because I trembled when I wrote them.
And I trembled when I read the stories Brown assigned for class: “A Soldier’s Heart,” by Ernest Hemingway, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” by Flannery O’Connor. They all bothered me. I walked around that semester feeling as though I’d just been shocked by the morning alarm after being in a deep sleep. I felt like I needed to figure out where I was and what I was supposed to do now that I was awake.
The worst of the stories was, “Where Are You Going And Where Have You Been,” by Joyce Carol Oates. I sat in the back of the room with my head bowed, hoping not to be called on the day we discussed that story. Not abnormal behavior for me, but that morning I was raw from reading about the teenage girl who opens her screen door and walks away with the devil. She knew who he was and he knew she knew. Can Jesus still get to her now? I didn’t want to say a word about this story because I was sure I’d been that girl. I was sure I’d be that girl again. I sat as still as I could and silently pleaded with Jesus to always have a stronger grip on me than the devil.
So I’m in my study carol, the one I always went to because if I leaned a smidgeon to the right I could see a sliver of the campus, and I decide to pretend that I am the valedictorian of my class. I would write an address to my fellow students to be given in the field house upon graduation. The idea was hilarious given my history of being a solid C student (give or take a minus), but it provided enough of a boost to my ego so that I wrote.
The paper was about how what we read should wake us up and shake us around. I argued that reading stories like the ones we read in Brown’s class is vital in forming who we are and how we ought to live. To this day that paper is one of my favorite things I’ve written.
And I think I fooled Dale Brown. He gave me an A on the paper. He wrote that he suspected my speech would be better then the “real” valedictorian address. He called me “one of those” students referring to the sort he’d never forget. He told me I was a writer.
Dale Brown helped me see myself differently. He helped me believe I might have the capability to wrestle with the tough stories. I can still see that girl, almost twenty years ago, leaning close to the words she’s trying to figure out, ignoring the gummy worms and the coffee that’s gone cold, in pain from trying to understand how to come back to life after seeing herself in the girl who walked with the devil, or the grandma in “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.”
Today, in order to get myself to write this piece for Relief, I’m pretending I’m giving Dale Brown’s eulogy. He died last year. He was riding his bike and swerved to avoid a car, but was knocked off and suffered injuries he couldn’t survive.
I’d prefer to pretend that he is still alive saving lives through his teaching; waking all of us up and helping us walk around the world with startled, awe-stricken eyes. I’d prefer to pretend that I am speaking at a banquet thanking him for his years of teaching. I’d prefer to pretend I am that girl twenty years ago, writing down that terrifying sentence about coming back to life, and waiting for Dale Brown to show me what that sentence means.