On Tending Art, Heart, & Hearth:
Reflections from Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
Recently a friend who is going through a prolonged stretch of care-giving asked me how I understood the tag line at the end of my email. For years this quotation has traveled with me, guiding my work and ending my every correspondence:
Aliveness springs from our making something of what we experience and receiving what experience makes of us. –Ann Belford Ulanov
Genealogy held absolutely no interest for me up until three months ago. When friends waxed enthusiastic about their lineage, my eyes glazed over. When my memoir students are passionate about their ancestors’ stories, I’ve responded with impatience; the past means nothing if it doesn’t change the present, and what defines memoir as a genre is exactly this dynamic interaction. Your great-grandmother’s experiences are interesting enough, but how do they impact you? read more…
Recently I was digging around on the Internet in search of the source of the Annie Dillard quotation I’ve been reflecting on for months. Turns out it’s from her book, Living By Fiction. Here’s the immediate context:
The most extreme, cheerful, and fantastic view of art to which I ever subscribe is one in which the art object requires no viewer or listener – no audience whatever – in order to do what it does, which is nothing less than to hold up the universe… Thoughts count. A completed novel in a trunk in the attic is an order added to the sum of the universe’s order. It remakes its share of undoing. It counteracts the decaying of systems, the breakdown of stars and cultures and molecules, the fraying of forms.
Dillard is more radical than I supposed—radical, that is, in the original sense of “forming the root.” She understands creativity to work at a metaphysical level, transforming the basic stuff of the universe. read more…
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…