Call me a spiritually obsessed literary geek, but the little spiritual wisdom I can claim I’ve gleaned from grammar. For example, take the memoirist’s point of view, first person singular. This is the “I” voice, the one every journal-keeper cherishes, as in “I do love grammar!” After memoirists’ initial honeymoon with the first person singular, during which the “I” is a magnificent, unfolding mystery, they go through a predictable period of discomfort. Alice McDermott described it this way: “The sight of too many first-person pronouns dribbling down the page tends to affect my reading mind in much the same way as too many ice cubes dropped down my back affect my spine.” “I” seems self-referential, self-obsessed. Innumerable memoirists try to eliminate the word “I” from there stories for fear of calling attention to themselves.
This discomfort isn’t limited to writers. (more…)
Years ago, when flakes of old paint began falling on choir members’ heads, the trustees of my small United Methodist Church spearheaded a fund-raising campaign by parading around the pews carrying signs saying, “Repaint! The time is at hand!” I’m happy to say that moment was the closest to a call for repentance I’ve ever experienced in church.
The trustees’ joke returned to me recently because Emily and I took five days off of work to repaint our stairwell. (more…)
Isn’t curiosity marvelous? Something sparks your interest, and you’re off—questioning, learning, exploring, pondering. Say you meet someone new, share a bit about yourself, and they’re genuinely curious; suddenly you’re deep in conversation, sharing details about yourself or your work that you rarely otherwise disclose, and you begin to wonder whether this person might become a friend. Or say you receive a new artistic medium, a set of oil pastels; you’re eager to feel one in your hand, run it across a blank page, be surprised by the streak of color. Or say you’re a writer with one idea that leads to another, that leads to a few weeks buried in the library stacks and then a few years pursuing a project; you’re absorbed, you’re riding the rails of your heart without a clue where the train is going.
The gift of curiosity is this: We lose ourselves. (more…)
When seekers trekked out to the desert in the early centuries of Christianity, the wise Abbas and Ammas there advised them to “go to your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
I’ve been mucking around in this pre-original-sin wisdom lately, and, let me tell you, it’s mind-bending. Mistakes, weaknesses, temptations, sins—Augustine hadn’t yet made of these cause for guilt and shame, so instead they’re understood as unavoidable, even necessary to the life of faith, and worthy of gratitude. In story after story, thieves create chances for the monks to release material attachments and exercise compassion. The devil comes not as the temptation to do bad things but rather as distracting thoughts. This is a topsy-turvy faith, barely recognizable today as Christianity. (more…)
Okay, folks; hang on tight: I’m going to go metaphysical on you today. I think I’ve located a fallacy within how writers think about creation, and I want to unpack it with you. This fallacy is relevant to all artists and everyone committed to transformation, of self or society, so even if you’re not a writer, come along for the ride.
When writers work, we imagine ourselves as the source of an idea or at least as the channel for inspiration. We identify closely with our idea; we generate text; we revise; we as authors are the dynamic moving the project forward. At the other end of our project, we imagine a publisher acting as a gatekeeper to an audience, who will read our work and be entertained or educated or transformed by it. We picture this timeline like this:
Here is sure evidence that I am a born writer: By high school, I couldn’t walk down the hallway or open my locker without a little story-teller voice whispering in my ear, “With stealthy steps, Elizabeth paced the institutional hall, fluorescent lights buzzing overhead, until she stopped, suddenly, at a combination lock.” My every lived moment was instantly narrated. Call it a self-consciousness, psychosis, or literary genius, regardless, I had an instinctive, even impulsive need to relate events which was only released by writing.
Over the years my inner narrator has served me well, mostly because I’ve learned to work with her. She’s the story-teller in me as well as the essayist, the self that happily hops on a train of thought and rides it across the page. As a teacher, I’m particularly good at facilitating the development of my students’ reflective voices. “What’s your story?” is a great question to begin with, but it must be followed by “What do you make of your story?” before creation really begins. What do you think—and feel and wonder and deeply know—about your experience? (more…)