“A complete novel in a trunk in the attic is an order added to the sum of the universe’s order.” Or so Annie Dillard believes. This is a peculiar metaphysical statement: Creative work makes a difference regardless of audience. How is this possible?
Sometimes a theme rises up from our days, uniting otherwise random events. Consider these, from my last week:
- I’m at a parenting class on how to use nonviolent communication with our kids. Like many parents I use coercion and shaming—instinctively, impulsively—and only recently am I coming to see this. The instructor draws a flow chart: Your kid does something that stimulates you. You can go down the path of control by judging the situation, thinking up a strategy, and demanding action, or you can go down the path of connection by observing, feeling your response, identifying your need, and requesting action. I’m amazed by how hard it is to take this second path.
- I’m reading my church newsletter. The interim pastor has written a column challenging us to ask ourselves during this time of transition, “What do we notice?” Our habit is to see a change and jump to an opinion or judgment. He encourages us to first simply observe.
- I’m leading a class in a tried-and-true writing exercise: Begin with an object from childhood. Describe it in detail. Only once you’ve brought it fully onto the page, allow it to lead you to other memories. The class, as always, is profoundly moved by what emerges.
- I’m doing Centering Prayer, my candle lit, my knees on the floor. Ideas for this column pop into my head. They’re good ideas, but I remember Thomas Keating’s advice: Even should the Virgin Mary Herself tap me on the shoulder, I’m to say, “Not now, dearie; I’m doing my Centering Prayer.” I observe my thoughts then let them go.
Over the past few months I’ve been mulling over the writer’s version of the question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” Does a developed, completed creative project that remains unread still exert an influence on the world? This might seem like a Zen koan, an unanswerable question, or a waste of time. But I think it points directly at the heart of why writers write and why great literature makes a lasting impact on us.
I posed this question in my newsletter and received some thought-provoking responses. Over the next few months I’d like to share their stories. (Please send me yours!) The first is from Erika Alin, who completed a childhood memoir after many years of work. (more…)
The most well-known fiction-writing exercise comes from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, in which he asks us to describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war—but without mentioning the son, war, or death. The goal is to inhabit a character so completely that you see how they see, and you bring to bear on your seeing their history and loves and losses. It’s a great practice. When I’ve used the exercise in classes, I add other scenarios as well: Now describe the barn as seen by a teenage girl who’s just developed her first crush. Now describe it as seen by a weary farmer who’s recently gone bankrupt. Now by a weary cow…
Fiction writing is an exercise in empathy, or perhaps a state beyond that—a thorough imagining our way into the lives of others. (more…)
When I was teaching seventh grade and also going to night school for my masters degree, one synchronistic day I taught a lesson on writing dialogue to my twelve-year-olds only to show up at my evening class—to a lesson on dialogue. Of course I told the kids the next day. The lovely (and ironic part) of practicing any art is that you’re never done. Every facet of the literary craft has infinite depth. I’ll be learning how to write dialogue for the rest of my life. (more…)
Recently I’ve been asking a literary version of the perennial question about a tree falling in the woods with no one around to hear: If a creative work is complete but unread, does it wield any influence in the world?
I’m curious because writers spend a lot of angst and energy wondering whether their writing has value. I feel confident saying that the writing process is valuable; if engaged with an open heart, writing transforms the writer. And we all know that stories with the capacity to move readers are valuable. (more…)