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Filtering by Tag: annie dillard

Three Roads

William Coleman

"Green Gables House, Cavendish, P.E.I." by Markus Gregory / Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons “Look for contrast, look for repetition—you’ll find your melody.”    —Larry Sayler, violin teacher, Northfield School of the Liberal Arts (2005-2009)

My former colleague Larry Sayler said the words above to a sixth-grader during morning convocation at my school in 2008. His topic was the sonata form. He'd just played a particularly tricky one—a late example, perhaps by Mahler—on his beloved instrument. The boy’s hand went up. He was having trouble, he said, figuring out what exactly he should listen for inside of what seemed a jumble of noises. Where was the melody? He knew it was there, for he had learned that from Mr. Sayler already. But how could he tune his ears to hear it?

Mr. Sayler’s response immediately spoke beyond the subject at hand, and has become central to the way that I teach, for it resonates with the metacognitive process that underlies the understanding of every subject at hand: the progression the ancients called the trivium.

Grammar (broadly speaking, the defining and assembling of the basic units of any subject), logic (the practice of discerning how such units interrelate), and rhetoric (the communication of what’s being discovered) is central to any search for meaning. In this way, to discern import within a given work of literature (and perhaps within any given life?), one must

—distinguish and define individual “grammatical units” within the work itself (in the language of music, these take the form of notes and measures, key signatures, tempo; in literature, we speak of diction and syntax, etymology and connotation, images and meters, alliteration and personification)

—in order to find patterns within and among those grammatical units (what sounds are repeated? what images? what words? which words are dissonant? what images? which sounds?)

—so that we may arrive at an articulation of a theme, a meaning, that’s at play within the work (The etymology of “salvage” on the first page of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf contains the tension between the pagan and Christian world views that defines the Anglo-Saxon work as a whole)

Thus, whether reading The Tempest or Native American myths, The Divine Comedy or A Christmas Carola book-length poem in medieval literature or a back-page print advertisement in capstone rhetoric, we look for patterns of congruence and antithesis in order to arrive at meaning, the integrity of which we test in class discussion and essay-writing.

And, once we learn to discern themes playing within a given work—once we learn to distinguish meaningful patterns within a work—that book or poem or essay itself becomes, in essence, a unit of grammar, one that can be compared and contrasted with other works within its time, or with contemporaneous historical or scientific events that have become “grammatical units” to the students via their other classes. (In what ways is Macbeth lodged against—and within—the forces that gave rise to the Gunpowder Plot, and the cultural forces at work in its aftermath? How did the ideas of physicist Niels Bohr find passage into the poetic consciousness of one of his dinner companions at Amherst College in 1923, Robert Frost?)

What’s more, these larger grammatical units—these poems and plays and novels—though rooted in time, can be compared and contrasted with other grammatical works across space and time. (What lines of thought and feeling connect the Elizabethan Dr. Faustus with the Romantic Dr. Frankenstein? How does Plato’s Allegory of the Cave intersect with Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation”? Why does the rhythm and syntax of a line in Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek echo those of a line of William Wordsworth’s, written two and a half centuries before, and an entire ocean away?)

To read literature is to enter what Sven Birkerts calls “deep time,” a contemplative space where one can discern “the shadow of import alongside the body of fact.” In our classroom, the trivium’s three roads lead us into that space .

We read slowly. We read aloud. We talk about what we’ve read. We write about it. We strive to be people, as Henry James once wrote, upon whom nothing is lost. We want to hear the music.

Finding Livelihood: An Interview with Nancy J. Nordenson

Lisa Ohlen Harris

livelihood smallI first read Nancy’s work in 2006 when one of her essays, “Nothing Can Separate,” was published in Relief’s inaugural issue. My friend Karen Miedrich-Luo, Relief’s first creative nonfiction editor, recruited me to come on first as reader, and then as nonfiction editor. In 2007, Karen and I formed an online critique group along with Nancy and another Relief essayist, Jill Kandel. Karen, Nancy, Jill, and I now count five published books between the four of us – including Jill’s prizewinning memoir, So Many Africas: Six Years in an African Village. The four of us continue to challenge and encourage one another nearly ten years later via the online group.

Back in 2010, after more than three years of online friendship, I met Nancy in the flesh at NonfictioNow in Iowa City. I immediately liked her as much in person as I had online. Nancy is humble in all the best ways, considerate of others, wise and careful when she speaks, insightful, deep, and brilliant. And her writing is the same.

In 2013, Nancy and I both applied and were accepted for a weeklong summer writing residency with the Collegeville Institute at St. John’s University in Minnesota. In our application materials, we hadn’t revealed that we already knew each other, and yet we were paired as roommates, writing all morning, lunching together, reading or writing until late afternoon. With the day’s work behind us and the evening gathering still an hour or so ahead, Nancy and I would sit together and talk about our writing and our lives over slices of Dubliner cheddar and a glass of red wine. I vividly remember reviewing Nancy’s manuscript for Finding Livelihood (tentatively titled A Work in Progress) and earnestly discussing structure and treatment. “This is an important book,” I assured Nancy. “You will find a publisher.” But Nancy wasn’t as certain, and I’m no prophet. It’s hard to get a book published traditionally, and for most of us it takes a long time, with lots of perseverance and plenty of rejection along the way. Nancy came close a couple of times with agents and publishers, and she used those rejections to rework and strengthen aspects of her book and proposal until finally she landed the manuscript with Kalos Press.


Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure was published in spring 2015. Read this book! Finding Livelihood finds beauty in both blessed and difficult circumstances as Nancy examines employment and unemployment, labor and rest, hardship and security, and the (for me) nebulous concept of vocational calling –  all without glossing over the pain that undergirds so much of life. The book is honest, artful, and lyric.  


Lisa Ohlen Harris: First off, Nancy, please tell us about Kalos Press.

Nancy J. Nordenson: I’m thrilled that Finding Livelihood landed at Kalos Press. Kalos is a small press with a name rooted in the Greek word for beauty. It aims to give voice to literary fiction, memoir, essays, and Christian reflection that are outside the mainstream Christian publishing industry and are “beautiful in their literary form, and also excellent in their fulfillment of purpose.” I feel honored to be part of that vision and am so thankful for their kind and talented team.

LOH: At the end of 2008, I had the honor of editing your second publication in Relief, an essay titled, “A Place at the Table.” And that was the essay that launched Finding Livelihood. How did the essay – and the entire book project – come to be?

NJN: A year before I wrote that essay my husband had come home from work late one night, holding a cardboard box filled with his stuff, and told me he’d lost his job. I had recently started graduate school in the Seattle Pacific University (SPU) MFA program, a long-held dream of mine, and was on the verge of cutting back on my full-time medical writing work in order to give this graduate work my fullest attention. But this job loss changed everything and there was no easy answer. I needed to keep working more while going to school. The alternative was to drop out, which I didn't want to do. He felt “called” to his work; I felt “called” to the program; we were absolutely committed to our two sons in college, our mortgage, to putting food on the table, paying for health insurance, and so on. It all became very complex and difficult. While I had long been pondering the topic of work, and doing some writing about it, this time of his job loss is where all the experiences became a critical mass and said, “You need to look at me.” The many workplace stories that Dave and I had shared with each other during our decades-long marriage and now this new story we were living of a slashed income and mutually frustrated “calls” raised complex questions about the nature and experience of work. I wrote the essay “A Place at the Table” to deal with his job loss, to make peace with it, but it became the crystal for the book. I pulled in earlier writing about work and kept writing in order to make peace with work, to explore where it fit in a lifelong spiritual journey.

LOH: Finding Livelihood isn’t really a memoir. I suppose I would call it a themed essay collection – is that fair? How would you describe the structure of the book and its purpose?

NJN: I think of it more as a book-length essay, or idea-driven linked essays. From a book publishing perspective, I realize we are cautioned about calling anything an essay, lest readers get scared away, but essays have always had an important place in literature; consider, for example, the work of Annie Dillard or Joan Didion, two of my perennial favorites. Finding Livelihood has more structure than a collection of essays all on the same topic, so that’s why I don’t think of it as a collection. While the style is lyric, making the structure a little less obvious than a straight-forward book, there is a rationale for the way the essays are placed, how one leads to another, and how by the end, there is movement toward a changed way of looking at the questions triggered by work.

LOH: I had the privilege of watching this book form over the months and years and many drafts and revisions of essays compiled in these pages. When did you know you had completed the manuscript? How much restructuring and revising did you do for the book as a whole?

NJN: My Relief essay, “A Place at the Table,” was written in 2007 – with some of the writing from other essays dating back further than that – and the manuscript was accepted for publication by Kalos Press in 2014. The process took a long time, as you’ve noted, not only because I work full-time at another job, but also because the issues at stake took a long time to think through, work through, and find ways to write about. I was writing it organically and not from a pre-project outline. I haven’t even kept track of how many times each essay was rewritten or revised. There were two milestone moments that are worth mentioning here. The first was about mid-way through the project when I figured out the over-riding three-part structure. That helped me see the movement or trajectory of the book but also helped me see where there were gaps that needed more thought and writing. The second milestone moment came at the project’s final step. I had thought the book done, but something still didn’t seem right. At a writing friend’s recommendation, I hired an editorial consultant to read through the manuscript and give me her opinion. To sum up her response: the reader needed more help; the leaps I took may have been obvious to me, but the reader needed more landmarks, more pass-offs. I followed her advice. I checked into a hotel in the Mill district of Minneapolis and worked for 4 days. After that – but for a few more reader helps added a couple months later – I knew the manuscript was complete. The book still relies on the reader’s ability and willingness to take imaginative leaps, but I hope the reader senses that during those leaps, I’m there holding a hand.

LOH: Do you have any advice for writers who have themed essays or meditations – something that’s not a didactic treatment or straightforward memoir?

NJN: From my experience with this project, the advice I’d give to a writer of essays or meditations is to write broadly, deeply, and organically for a long time – be patient with yourself and the project – but then at some point, submit to a guiding structure. In revision, respectfully help the reader follow your thought train but do so in keeping with the project’s voice.  

LOH: And when an essay is complete, send it off to a literary journal! Essays from Finding Livelihood have appeared in both spiritual and secular journals, including Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Relief, Comment, Under the Sun, and Indiana Review. Did you consciously write for a Christian audience, or did you temper your writing to speak to a broad audience? How aware were you of audience or market as you were writing? What would you have to say to a Christian writer who is interested in publishing broadly for a religious and secular audience?

NJN: I didn’t set out to write for either a Christian or non-Christian audience; I set out to write something that would help me, and later readers, to explore this complex issue of work. Since I’m a Christian, that faith is at the core of what and how I write, but holding that faith in common is not a pre-requisite for a reader to join me on the page to ponder work, as evidenced by the secular journals that printed essays from the book. When editing and revising the book, I very much wanted the book to be accessible to readers who may not share my faith and so I made choices in favor of on-the-page hospitality. Those choices typically involved a check of voice and tone as well as quality improvements, rather than compromises of belief. I also wrote with the assumption that despite our culture’s religious diversity and the large numbers of people who claim no faith, Christianity is an ancient religion that continues to have an active place in the world today; therefore, its tenets and practices are still a kind of cultural currency and are not foreign to most readers.

LOH: After nearly ten years of friendship focused around writing and faith, I want to publicly express my gratitude for you, Karen, and Jill, and for what our critique and support group has meant over the years. We formed out of a far-flung handful of writers who connected via this startup literary journal and a Yahoo listserv. I’m honestly not sure I would have kept writing through the months and years of rejection and discouragement if I hadn’t had the three of you in my corner.

NJN: Writing is such a solitary endeavor, and there are so many rejections along the way, that there is something nearly miraculous that happens when you are connected with other writers who only want to further each other’s work and together you are a community. I think back to the week you and I were roommates, a pairing we did not orchestrate, at that summer writing workshop at the Collegeville Institute. The most important part about that week in the story of this book is that it gave me a place to talk about it with people who were writers and thinkers and who cared about this topic of work. I remember talking with you about my new table of contents when we were roommates, and your response assured me the book was now more whole and unified. What a gift and relief that was. What a gift our email-based writing group has been. What a gift the community that has grown up around the Glen workshop and the SPU MFA program has been. What a gift the community around Relief has been. Back in 2006, I read about the launch of Relief in a post on someone’s blog (I think it was J. Mark Bertrand’s blog) and submitted an essay, “Nothing Can Separate,” for its inaugural issue. It was accepted – my first ever published creative nonfiction essay – and received the Editor’s Choice award. I later served as a nonfiction reader for a little more than a year. The vision of Coach and Kimberly Culbertson to create Relief opened the opportunity for a community of writers and readers to meet together on the page, as well as in person and online. I'm excited for the future of Relief with Daniel Bowman at the helm as editor-in-chief. I know Daniel through SPU and have long admired his great passion for connecting art and faith and for connecting people to create community. That is what Relief has always been about.

The Holy Going, Writing as Exploration

Michael Dechane

snow walk-alexis-chartrand-3rdseasons Annie Dillard’s essay “Expedition to the Pole” takes two threads— observations from a real or imagined Mass at her local church and details she culled from historical records of failed expeditions to the North and South Poles—and begins winding them together in alternating blocks of prose. Her deft juxtaposition creates a third thread, at first invisible, to make a remarkable weaving which turns its nose up at the flattening simplification of allegory and rises above the common mystery of metaphor and seems to strain for the hallowed ground of the parabolic.

God knows one of the last things we need in the world is another reductive division of humanity, one more faulty ‘us vs. them’ delineation to add to the heaping bag we are carrying around. Just for a minute, though, and just for fun, let’s say there are two kinds of writers: those that adhere to the ‘write what you know’ creed and those that are in the ‘write what you want to know about’ camp. There are fine and enjoyable writers on either side of that fence, but my favorites are those skilled (and brave) enough to take both imperatives in hand and set off blazing a different track in the wilderness.

Early in the essay Dillard references the Pole of Relative Inaccessibility. Wikipedia tells us it is “a location that is the most challenging to reach owing to its remoteness from geographical features that could provide access. Often it refers to the most distant point from the coastline. The term describes a geographic construct, not an actual physical phenomenon. Subject to varying definitions, it is of interest mostly to explorers.” Her essay becomes, right in front of us, a writer’s travel diary of her expedition toward that Pole. With what she has known and lived in one hand, and what she believes is out there and wants to know in the other, she goes, and asks us to join her, not just as readers, but as fellow explorers.

At one point she makes the aside: “There is no such thing as a solitary polar explorer, fine as the conception is.” So, shall we let her lead us, or would you like to cut drifts in the snow for the rest of us awhile?

Clothed in Mystery

Adie Kleckner


After being out of town for a couple weeks, I climbed the stairs to my apartment, dropped my suitcase to the floor, and noticed the light had changed. The sunlight no longer blared with cool blues and purples; it filtered through thin chloroformed leaves leaving fluorescent green slatted across my wood floors.

Even now I write this in the light from my laptop screen. An unchanging, medical light of pure white. My cursor blinks with black insistence to cover the light with words.

When Justinian rebuilt Hagia Sophia, after conquering Istanbul and overthrowing her Islamic rulers, he sought to fill the halls with a holy light. Small windows circle the dome so closely set it appears to be floating. Under the dome, our position is not fixed; we are awash in illusionary light and shadow.

The gospel of John begins its account with light. A light so strange that the darkness cannot comprehend it. Can darkness know something that is not only its opposite but also its destroyer?

And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

Over the course of two years, Claude Monet painted a series of thirty paintings of the façade of the Rouen Cathedral. He painted at varying times of day and year. His view of the cathedral did not change, that is, he was not trying to paint the cathedral, with all of its complexities and architectural innuendos. He was trying to paint the light, the way it marked time and weather. But in order to paint light, you must also paint shadows.

The Impressionist palate did not include black. Rather Monet slathered the shadows in crimson, umber, burnt orange; light in mauve, rose, naples yellow. In some instances, the shadows and light are nearly indistinguishable. He adjusted value—the relative lightness or darkness of a color—by adding white. The colors found in shadow also appeared in light, and vice versa.

In order to snap a properly exposed photograph, the photographer must first establish the middle point between shadow and light. That is, the shutter time needs to be both long enough to capture the details in shadow, but not so long that the details in light burn out.

The dome would not hover in Hagia Sophia if there were not also edges of darkness.

Annie Dillard writes, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, “if we are blinded by darkness, we are also blinded by light. When too much light falls on everything, a special terror results.”

Back in my apartment, I watch the light change throughout the day. The northern light in my living room a consistent glow, the light in my southern bedroom crawling up and down the walls, the slow dimming of the close of day when the shadows spread and the distinction between darkness and light is clothed in mystery.

(Photo by Hiroshi Sugimoto)

Coming Undone

Tania Runyan

11 fault1-1

Just the other day I was paralyzed by these words:

“What would you do differently, you up on your beanstalk looking at scenes of people at all times in all places? When you climb down, would you dance any less to the music you love, knowing that music to be as provisional as a bug?. . .If you descend the long rope-ladders back to your people and time in the fabric, if you tell them what you have seen, and even if someone cares to listen, then what?”

The words are from Annie Dillard’s essay, “How to Live,” which first appeared in Image in 2001. I had been thumbing through the Bearing the Mystery anthology in the few minutes I had with my coffee before the kids came home. Now I heard the bus’s diesel engine rounding the corner and didn’t know what to do.

Writing that moves us, we say, makes us laugh or cry. It may even compel us to fight for justice, reach out to a stranger, say a prayer, or otherwise turn our lives around.

But this essay, this essay about my miniscule passions in “the infinite fabric of time that eternity shoots through,” rendered me helpless. I wasn’t so much overwhelmed with sadness or questions but numb, frozen-fingered in my ability to grasp anything. The fact that such a concept as eternity existed was enough, for the first time in my life, to make the floor tiles spin.

Some art does that—shifts the tectonic plates of our perceptions. It doesn’t inspire us but undoes us, haunts us until we view the image, listen to the piece, or read the essay again. I didn’t want to read it again. It made my stomach hurt, my breath shallow. But I went back to it later that day. Then again the next night. And the next. “Then what?” Dillard asks. Then what, then what, then what?

I still have no idea what to do.

But I know I would like to create something—even just one essay, poem, flowerbed or gingersnap—that leaves someone gaping like a caught fish.

Be still and know that you know nothing, the essay (Spirit? tiles?) seems to be whispering to me. Then work out of that.

Violence and Grace

Stephanie Smith

In my favorite novels, it seems that the characters come to the moment of illumination only after being confronted with great violence.  When Jane Eyre finds her former home and master have suffered a fire in her absence, the agony of separation inspires her to the realization that she loves Mr. Rochester.  In The Lord of the Flies, it takes the death of a comrade for Ralph to understand that the boys on the island have lost their childhood innocence.  And it is not until author Annie Dillard wrestles with the life-altering plane accident of a small girl (in Holy the Firm) that she sees God’s goodness in a crazy world.

It seems to be human nature to have thick heads that only extreme circumstances can penetrate.  In a state of comfort, we are sometimes too relaxed, too unmindful to learn what our lives actually depend on.  But if our child unexpectedly gets sick, our husband is laid off, or our friend is going through a messy divorce, suddenly our senses are awakened and sharpened in a way that lets us experience life a little clearer.

In the face of violence or tragedy, our daily concerns rearrange themselves according to an eternal reality.  When something goes suddenly wrong, the urgency of the situation mercifully clears away any petty anxieties that once occupied us.  And that is some small grace.  I remember last year driving home from a funeral of a friend I’d known from elementary school, and finding myself suddenly careless about the work I needed to catch up on and the wedding planning I had been stressing over. Instead I wondered whether or not I spent enough time with the people I loved, and then hurried home so I would make it in time for family dinner.

Shauna Niequist, in Cold Tangerines, writes, “You pray for honest, gritty, and tender stories, and then you pray to live through them.” The price of epiphany is often violence, and any prayer beginning with, “God, change me…” is a dangerous one.  Anyone who has ever prayed to know our Father better knows.  But with the violence we are ushered into grace, just as there is grace in the story of the Light of the World who had to suffer death and darkness before mankind could see.

Stephanie S. Smith graduated from Moody Bible Institute with a degree in Communications and Women’s Ministry, which she now puts to work freelancing as a book publicist and writer through her business, (In)dialogue Communications, at After living in Chicago for four years, traveling to Amsterdam for a spell, and then moving back home to Baltimore to plan a wedding, she now lives with her husband in Upstate New York where they make novice attempts at home renovation in their 1930s bungalow. She writes for and manages Moody Publishers’ blog,