On Tending Art, Heart, & Hearth:
Reflections from Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
The old joke goes like this: A visitor stops a local on the streets of New York and asks, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” The New Yorker replies, “Practice.”
Every morning before school, Gwyn practices piano. She’s a musical kid; when she was four she begged for lessons and we made a family commitment: Piano would be our means for nurturing Gwyn’s natural interest. But Gwyn’s enjoyment of music, her inherent musicality, and her fantastic ear don’t add up to a love of practice. Practicing is hard, so we routinely endure the pre-practice, baby buffalo huffing with arms crossed. Practice is Gwyn’s means to screen time (read: bribery), and most days she needs our physical proximity on the piano bench in order to stay there.
Why bother with all this effort? read more…
I’m still unpacking Annie Dillard’s statement that a “complete novel in a trunk in the attic is an order added to the sum of the universe’s order.” Why? It seems to me that creative people value our work almost exclusively with external measures—the fact of being published, sales numbers, reviews, literary recognition, etc. Sometimes we’re wise enough to value the process over the product; sometimes we orient our hearts toward how our stories impact the internal lives of our readers. But when it comes to feeling like our work matters, most often we lean on external measures for validation.
Dillard says that on some subterranean level, a fully developed but unread creative work makes a metaphysical difference in creation. Okay. Do we writers need to take this on faith? Or can we find concrete evidence?
Here’s the latest bit of evidence I’ve dug up. read more…
During my childhood, I was aware of only six relatives on my father’s side beyond his siblings’ families. It seemed as if the Delessios popped onto the planet from nowhere. They were Italian—I knew that much—but the first generation ditched their names and kept quiet about the past; my great-grandmother abandoned Catholicism when one Sunday she took the Eucharist and returned to her pew to find her purse gone. My dad’s generation never learned the language or the family recipes or anything about their heritage except the sketchiest of stories: My uncle was born frozen on the stoop. We weren’t really Italians, we were Albanians. After my great-grandfather’s first wife died, he ordered a second one by mail. He spoke Muschitan, a name that sent us into hysterics because surely someone made it up. read more…
“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. read more…
On a long plane ride yesterday I skimmed the magazine-length New York Times article about how we could have stopped global warming forty years ago. We didn’t, and now the planet’s prognosis is grim. Heck, the present is grim. We’re seeing extreme storms, wildfires, drought, and all the consequent disruptions for people, mostly poor, who are effected. My daughter will know a significantly harsher, less-trustworthy earth than the one I know. I closed the magazine, feeling sick. There I was, looking down on shimmering Lake Michigan with its glorious, populated shoreline—looking down on my beloved, fragile planet, from a plane spewing exhaust and contributing to its demise so I could visit my father. My despair was immense.
From the air, borders between countries are meaningless, divisions between people seem silly, and our earth is stunningly united. read 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. read more…
“This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job! … There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence.” –Toni Morrison
Writers, this is our moment. Artists, truth-tellers, beauty-makers, people who make parts into wholes, all of us who connect the private, hidden stirrings of the heart to our complicated human communities, history now calls us. Now is the moment to put everything we’ve got into creative engagement. Why? Creativity is an act of love; it teaches us to believe in possibility, it trains us to revise (re-see) the world. It demonstrates that “the interior life is a real life, and the intangible dreams of people have a tangible effect on the world,” as James Baldwin wrote. We need all this. Now. read more…
This morning I woke up in a cloud of birdsong. It was 5 a.m., already light out, and the air was filled with otherworldly music. I went downstairs, poured my tea, opened all the doors and windows, and sat for a while. The robins, orioles, finches, and who know what else poured their sparkling soundscape into me, into my home. So much chirping! The twitters seemed to resonate and carry, as though early morning acoustics were different from other times. All together, the sound felt round. It encompassed the city like a mystical, golden secret. I listened, and the chorus erased me. read more…
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