On Self-Forgetfulness...Again

I have a friend named Laura who shows up at our front door every now and then with a cake she's baked or a pot of soup she's cooked. "This is fabulous," she always says. "I want y'all to have some." There is neither pride nor false humility in her utterance, but bare, declarative fact. Everything she brings is fabulous. 

Laura's motives, it appears to me, are as pure as any artist's motives could be. She loves food enough to perfect her art as a baker and cook. She loves her friends enough to share her creations with them. Her pride, her humility, her self-consciousness--none of these things seem to enter into the equation one way or another. She loves the work. She loves her audience. 

Last week I wrote about self-forgetfulness. Laura on the front porch with her oven mitts is as good an example of creative self-forgetfulness as I can offer. "This is fabulous. I want y'all to have some."

That kind of self-forgetfulness in the face of one's own good work brings to mind one of my favorite passages from "The Weight of Glory," the sermon by C.S. Lewis. In heaven, Lewis writes, we will bask in the pleasure of God's approval. That may sound like the ultimate vanity. But, as Lewis argues, it is the purest, even the humblest pleasure of the creature, to please the One who made you for his pleasure.

There will be no room for vanity then. She will be free from the miserable illusion that it is her doing. With no taint of what we should now call self-approval she will most innocently rejoice in the thing God made her to be, and the moment which heals her old inferiority complex for ever will also drown her pride.

Lord, haste the day.

 

 

 

 

Writing Tip: Be Less Introspective

You write, presumably, because you have seen something in the world around you, and you want to show it to someone else. Why, then, do you spend so much of your writing time thinking about yourself? You're there at your desk, trying to work out the next sentence, and before you know it, you're thinking about yourself instead: your failures, your ego, your word-count goal. You speculate on how you're going to feel when you make your goal. You get a jump-start on the self-loathing you'll feel if you fall short. You wonder what people are going to think when they read what you've written. You wonder if anybody will even read it. You question whether anything you've ever written was actually good. You buck yourself up, remembering that, yes, you've written plenty of good pieces--brilliant pieces, in fact. Which makes you suspect that you've already used up all your brilliance. You think about your friend whose blog gets twice as many comments as yours, in spite of the fact that he can't write his way out of a paper bag. Then you ponder Edgar Allen Poe, who died penniless and alone in a Baltimore gutter. It occurs to you that you'll never write as well as Edgar Allen Poe. In short, it takes about 45 seconds to decide that you're the piece of crap that the universe revolves around.

Just in the writing of this little post, I have experienced this self-absorption in many forms. I was going to knock it out and post it last Wednesday. Wednesday came, then Friday, and I still hadn't sat down to write it. When Monday rolled around, I had officially missed my stated goal of posting once a week, and my teaching semester had started, so now I had something resembling an excuse, but also the nagging feeling that I was letting down the 140 people who had signed up for the Writers' Consortium...and being a bad example too. But since my post was overdue, I would need to make it extra-brilliant--more brilliant than I felt I was up for...

Saint Augustine (among others) spoke of sin as incurvatus in se--a curving in on the self. This truth is nowhere more evident than in the neuroses and dysfunctions that so often accompany the act of writing. Self-absorption, self-consciousness, self-promotion, self-loathing, self-justification, self-doubt, self-aggrandizement--incurvatus in se.

Writing demands a certain amount of introspection. But introspection doesn't have to become self-absorption. In my own writing life, I have found that writing can be a means toward blessed self-forgetfulness. As I get absorbed in a subject I'm writing about, find that I am freed from self-absorption--and I am able to do good work. When I stop asking "What will my reader think of me?" I start asking, "What will my reader think about this person or event or idea I'm writing about?" And good things start to happen. I don't live in that place all the time. I don't even live there most of the time. But I don't get much good writing done when I'm not in that place.

In A Preface to Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis evoked the idea of incurvatus in se as he explained why Satan rebelled against God and lost his place in heaven: "in the midst of a world of light and love, of song and feast and dance, [Satan] could think of nothing more interesting than his own prestige." I write because I live in a world that is full of wonders and I count it a privilege to point out a few of those wonders to a few of the people I share this world with. I write because I live in a world that's a whole lot more interesting than my own prestige. And yet I am forever stalling out because instead of looking outward at this astonishing world, I look inward. Instead of wondering at the world, I wonder what the world is going to think of me.

So here's my challenge to you, my writerly friend: be less introspective. Look outward at the world and at your reader, and leave yourself out of it. See what you see, and then write it down.  

 

 

Writers' Consortium: The Goal Roundup

I've been looking over the goals articulated by the the 100+ writers who have joined the Further Up and Further In Writers' Consortium. They're pretty interesting. More than thirty of you hope to finish novels this year. About a dozen of you plan to write memoirs or family histories. A dozen of you are looking to write poems. A whole lot of you have committed to regular blogging (the Lord bless you and keep you…a blog is a hard master).

It was exhilarating to see what many of you hope to bring into the world: fiction for mentally handicapped high schoolers, a concept album based on GK Chesterton's Orthodoxy, a book about gluttony. Some of you are writing to chronicle or memorialize or work through pain--the pain of cancer, the pain of a hard season of ministry, the pain of watching a mother disappear into Alzheimer's.

Many of you stated your goals in terms of process rather than end product. You have committed to write every day, or once a week, or one Saturday every month. I admire you commitment to the work and your trust in the process, which can hardly help but yield good things.

I do get the sense that some of you view your process-driven goals as somehow humbler or less ambitious than the product-oriented goals--novels and memoirs and sonnet cycles. This is not true. Those writers with sexier goals will have to commit to the process too: they too will have to say, "I will write X hours on Y days of the week, starting at Z o'clock in the following location." Those of you who have committed to big, product-oriented goals, take a cue from your process-oriented peers. I will soon be asking you to describe the very mundane routine that you are willing to commit to.

Having said that, I do have a couple of questions for those of you who have defined your goals in terms of process rather than product. First, if you backslide some day or week or month--and you almost certainly will--what can you put in place to ensure that you get your butt back in the chair the next day rather than giving up on your goal (which, technically, you have already failed to accomplish)? If your "Read through the Bible in a Year" plan has ever crashed and burned somewhere around Leviticus 2, you know what I'm talking about. Have a plan that balances no-excuses rigor with a willingness to extend to yourself the same kind of generosity and mercy that you would extend to anybody else you love.

Here's my second question for those of you whose stated goals are entirely process-driven: are you sure you can get up and write every day (or every week or every month) without having a clear sense of the end product you're writing toward? I only ask because I know I can't. I can keep a very rigorous schedule if I'm finishing a chapter or an essay. But if I'm not pushing toward a clearly defined goal, I find the snooze button very tempting. I know there is real value in sitting down every day and keeping the pen moving to the rhythm of whatever is on your mind. Good things come out of that discipline. I've just never been able to do it with any consistency. 

So to recap, if you are able to commit to the process without an end product in mind--if you are able, as T.S. Eliot suggests, to "take no thought of the harvest,/ but only of proper sowing," then good on you. Proceed with my blessing. But you also might find it helpful to commit to an end product. 

In writing, as in may facets of life, it's important that you do do whatever works best for you--whatever keeps the pen moving across the page. But you should also be open to the possibility that you don't know what works best for you. 

Next up: I reflect on your reactions to one another's goals and ponder how we prevent the Further Up and Further In Writers' Consortium from becoming a shame factory.

The Next Light Pole

I've taken up running in recent years, and it's done me quite a lot of good. Besides feeling better physically, I have benefitted from knowing that I, an old dog, am still capable of learning new tricks. I'm not a natural runner; cultivating the discipline to do it has taught me lessons that have applied elsewhere in life, including my writing life. Here's the most important thing I've learned from running: when I find myself miles from home and exhausted already, I've learned not to ask, "Can I run all the way home?" The truth is, I usually don't know whether I can run all the way home. I have learned instead to ask, "Can I run to the next light pole?" The answer to that question is almost always "Yes." And once I've made it to the light pole, I start thinking about the next light pole.

Of the few books I've read about how to write, my favorite by far is Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. That book has done much to shape my day-to-day approach to writing. Lamott compares writing a book to driving at night. Your headlights don't illuminate any farther than the next turning. But you keep going anyway, knowing that by the time you make that turn, your headlights will light the way to the next turn. And eventually you get where you set out to go.

Writing a book is a daunting task. Writing, like night-driving or distance running, requires a certain amount of faith. You set out for a destination without knowing exactly how you're going to get there. For me, at least, it helps to remember that I don't write books. I write sentences. A book is what you have after the fact. On any given day, I'm only writing pages. I'm only running to the next light pole.

Further Up and Further In: A Writers' Consortium for 2015

Do you have a big writing goal for 2015? Do you want to write a novel? A memoir? A sonnet cycle? An opera? Do you find it difficult to know where to start or how to keep going? Further Up and Further In is a community of writers who have taken the (rather large) step of stating, "My writing goal for 2015 is ____________." Throughout the year, we will offer each other encouragement, accountability, advice, and--hopefully--a growing conviction that the long journey of the writer is worth the effort. 

What should you expect from this consortium?

Good question. To some extent, we'll be defining the process as we go along, depending on what members of the group need. At least once a week I will post a consortium-related article here at jonathan-rogers.com. That article may be about the writing process or about crafting better sentences; it may answer a question that has come up in the consortium that week; it may be a writing prompt. These articles will be part of my regular blog and will be available to anybody who visits the site. Some of the consortium discussion, however, will take place in a private Facebook group inhabited only by those who have joined the consortium. For instance, you will state your writing goals, your schedule, etc., in that private group, not on the public blog. Though I am the host of the gathering, much of the value of the consortium will derive from the members' interaction with one another. Perhaps the most important function of this consortium is to provide a place for writers to say, "Here is my intention," and to be taken seriously by people who have stated a similar intention.

What should you NOT expect from this consortium?

In Further Up and Further In, we will not be discussing publishing issues such as finding an agent, writing pitch letters, marketing, etc. There are many excellent Internet resources on these topics; I'm sure you can find them. This consortium is all about the writing process and writerly craft. Also, while critique is a vitally important part of becoming a better writer, we won't be critiquing one another's work in this consortium. I ask that everyone refrain from posting excerpts from works-in-progress on the blog or in the Facebook group. I imagine that some of you will choose to share your work with one another. Please do so via direct communication--private messaging, email, etc.

How to join Further Up and Further In

To join our writers' consortium, fill out this short form. It simply asks for your name, your email address, and a few details about your 2015 writing goal. I will add you to the private Facebook group, and the next time you begin to doubt that you are a "real writer," you can remind yourself that you are a full member of a writer's consortium.

Beyond the Region of Thunder: Flannery O'Connor's Last Days

Fifty summers ago, Flannery O'Connor was thirty-nine years old. She had battled lupus for most of her adult life, managing the disease with massive doses of corticosteroids, which themselves had serious side effects. As she wrote to a friend, "So far as I can tell, the medicine and the disease run neck & neck to kill you." In the spring of 1954, a major surgery reactivated O'Connor's dormant lupus; the tell-tale "lupus rash" broke through the protective steroid barrier, signaling that the disease was back in earnest. O'Connor spent a month in Atlanta's Piedmont Hospital--from May 21 to June 20.

A prodigious letter-writer, O'Connor kept up her correspondence from her hospital bed. Through her many hospital stays, she almost always kept up her letter-writing. But she tended to put off fiction-writing until she could get back to her typewriter. The fact that she wrote much of "Parker's Back" in Piedmont Hospital, in longhand, suggests a sense of urgency that was unusual for this most deliberate writer. 

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The Origins of The Charlatan's Boy

The other day my sister, a teacher, was trying to help a student fill out some form or other. The form asked for Date of Birth. The girl knew her birthday, but the idea of a birth date, a specific day of a specific year, had her baffled. "The day you were born," my sister said, a little exasperated, "what year was that?" The little girl was exasperated herself. She gave my sister a squint and, teeth clenched, said, "A little baby don't know what year it is."

When I sat down to write The Charlatan's Boy, the first sentence I wrote turned out to be the first sentence of the finished product: "I don't remember one thing about the day I was born." Grady, the narrator, is grappling with the same epistemological dilemma that was troubling my sister's student. Anything you think you know about your birth, your origins, is something you got second-hand. Somebody has to tell you where you came from and how you got here. Grady's troubles stem from the fact that the one person he knows who might be able to tell him anything about his origins is a liar and a fraud.

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Discussion Question: The End of the Carnival

What do you make of the fact that the local preachers band together to shut down the carnival at the end of "A Temple of the Holy Ghost"? It seems clear that the freak show (or, in any case, a second-hand account of the freak show) brings our young protagonist closer to a place where she is ready for the Eucharist to do its work on her. That being the case, there is a certain irony in the preachers shutting the thing down. On the other hand, if part of the preachers' job is to raise the moral tone of a community, you can hardly blame them for taking a stand against freak shows in general and the hermaphrodite's unseemly exhibit in particular. I'll just throw this little tidbit out there as a discussion starter: In one of her letters, Flannery O'Connor wrote, "I think most people come to the Church by means the Church does not allow, else there would be no need their getting to her at all." I suspect that quotation has some bearing on this question. (Forgive me for wrenching that quotation entirely out of context; you can find it on p. 93 of Habit of Being if you prefer your quotations in context).

The Misfit's Hat, Mr. Shiftlet's Car, and Symbolism in O'Connor's Fiction

Earlier this week, Madeleine asked the following question:

Did FO write these stories with all sorts of symbols and hidden meanings like a rich treasure hunt waiting for persistent readers, or was she writing good stories with some meat to chew on? I'm just wondering if I should be thinking every detail is important to extra meaning or just a detail important to setting a mood or a backdrop for her story. (And yes, the answer can be both, but some writers lean more one way or the other.)

That's a tricky question, and one that gets at the very heart of what we're doing in the Flannery O'Connor Summer Reading Club. Madeleine is asking, in effect, "How do we get from the concrete details of the story to the meaning of the story?" If there's a more fundamental (or important) question a reader can ask, I don't know what it is.

The last thing I would want to do would be to dissect O'Connor's stories (or anybody's stories) in such a way that they are drained of the pleasure that is to be had in them. If I had to choose between enjoying a story and understanding it, I would choose to enjoy it every time. However, I'm convinced that, when it comes to reading, enjoyment is one of the surest paths toward understanding. So was Flannery O'Connor. She wrote:

In most English classes the short story has become a kind of literary specimen to be dissected. Every time a story of mine appears in a Freshman anthology, I have a vision of it, with its little organs laid open, like a frog in a bottle.

I realize that a certain amount of this what-is-the-significance has to go on, but I think something has gone wrong in the process when, for so many students, the story becomes simply a problem to be solved, something which you evaporate to get Instant Enlightenment.

A story isn't really any good unless it successfully resists paraphrase, unless it hangs on and expands in the mind. Properly, you analyze to enjoy, but it's equally true that to analyze with any discrimination, you have to have enjoyed already, and I think that the best reason to hear a story read is that it should stimulate that primary enjoyment. (Mystery and Manners p. 108)

So then, whatever we do with the concrete details of O'Connor's stories, let us not turn our reading into an exercise in dissection. O'Connor told a story about a run-in with an English teacher: "'Miss O'Connor,' he said, 'why was the Misfit's hat black?' I said most countrymen in Georgia wore black hats.' He looked pretty disappointed." There is symbolism in O'Connor, but I don't think symbol-hunting is especially helpful as an initial approach to a story. A good fiction writer uses concrete details to create a world that the reader can believe and inhabit. If those concrete details can also serve as symbols, all the better.*

There is a kind of symbol that is more or less arbitrary. We all agree that a wedding ring is a symbol of marriage. But it's a symbol only because we choose to agree it's a symbol; I've heard the preacher say the thing about the ring having no beginning and no end, etc. etc., but if somebody hadn't told me that a gold band was a symbol of holy matrimony, I wouldn't have guessed it in a hundred years. Consider, on the other hand, the car in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own." It's a symbol too, but a very different kind of symbol than the wedding ring. It symbolizes freedom, independence, a sense of being unmoored, for better or for worse. And anybody who has ever turned sixteen understands that without needing any explanation. When Mr. Shiftlet's yearns after the Craters' car, there is symbolism at work, but it's not a secret code by any means. Or consider Mr. Shiftlet's missing arm; it's an outward expression of an inward incompleteness and brokenness; it's a symbol. But it's a "natural" symbol--something that any reader is equipped to pick up on if he or she is paying attention.

So when Madeleine asks if O'Connor included "symbols and hidden meanings" in her stories, I would have to say that there are plenty of symbols, but I don't think there are all that many hidden meanings. In the comments on the previous post, there was some discussion about what peacocks represent in traditional symbology. I don't mean to suggest that those discussions are irrelevant or uninteresting, but they are secondary to what O'Connor offers right there in the plain text:

The priest let his eyes wander toward the birds. They had reached the middle of the lawn. The cock stopped suddenly and curving his neck backwards, he raised his tail and spread it with a shimmering timbrous noise. Tiers of small pregnant suns floated in a green-gold haze over his head. The priest stood transfixed, his jaw slack. Mrs. McIntyre wondered where she had ever seen such an idiotic old man. "Christ will come like that," he said in a loud gay voice and wiped his hand over his mouth and stood there, gaping.

The peacock symbolizes glory because anybody who has ever seen a peacock knows that it is glorious.

Or to return to the Misfit's black hat, there is a long tradition in American storytelling whereby black hats represent bad men. Okay, but of all the ways O'Connor shows us that the Misfit is a bad man, surely that is one of the least interesting and least compelling. An English teacher stands in front of Flannery O'Connor herself, and that's what he wants to talk about? A serial killer wearing the kind of hat that old boys in Georgia wore in the 1950s--I'm more interested in that detail as a piece of world-building than as a symbol of evil. And, as Madeleine has observed already, it can be both.

I want to conclude with one more observation that is not directly related to Madeleine's question but is relevant to the larger project of the Flannery O'Connor Summer Reading Club. I have written at some length about the fact that there is typically a moment of revelation (which is also a moment of violence) in an O'Connor story, and that in that moment, a main character has an opportunity to receive grace. I still think that's one helpful way into a story. But I don't want to give the impression that I have given you the formula for reading and understanding all of O'Connor's work. These stories are complex--and none of her short stories are more complex than "The Displaced Person." The "moment of revelation" is just one tool on the reader's tool belt. Keep pulling out your other tools.

 

*An allegory works the other way around, by the way; any concrete detail is there to symbolize some abstraction, and if it helps to create an inhabitable world, that's ok too. I have to say, however, that I don't really know of any allegories that depict an inhabitable world. That's why I'm not very interested in allegory--not even Pilgrim's Progress. (I realize I'm not supposed to say that out loud.)

Flannery O'Connor on Freelance Protestantism

I hope you have had a chance to read through the discussion on "The River" over the last couple of days. It has been extremely insightful and lively--and also courteous, I might add. One thing that has become evident is that a reader's interpretation of the story's end hinges on how that reader understands the baptism--big Bevel baptizing little Bevel. If that is a true baptism, then Harry/Bevel's being pulled down by the river at the end is a rescue from the clutches of Mr. Paradise. If it is a false baptism, then the boy's drowning is a terrible sadness, and Mr. Paradise is a benefactor who tried and failed to save him. Those aren't the only two possible readings, but they do represent two poles of interpretation. Given the fact that O'Connor was both Catholic and highly educated, it would seem that she would have little sympathy for the countrified Protestants in her stories. In fact, her stance toward them was complex. I offer up these quotations from O'Connor's letters as a catalyst for further discussion...

On Wise Blood's Haze Motes:

Haze is saved by virtue of having wise blood; it's too wise for him ultimately to deny Christ. Wise blood has to be these people's means of grace--they have no sacraments.The religion of the South is a do-it-yourself religion, something which I as a Catholic find painful and touching and grimly comic. It's full of unconscious pride that lands them in all sorts of ridiculous religious predicaments. They have nothing to correct their practical heresies and so they work them out dramatically. If this were merely comic to me, it would be no good, but I accept the same fundamental doctrines of sin and redemption and judgment that they do. (Habit of Being, p. 350)

 

To a Protestant correspondent:

The Catholic finds it easier to understand the atheist than the Protestant, but easier to love the Protestant than the atheist. The fact is though now that the fundamentalist Protestants, as far as doctrine goes, are closer to their traditional enemy, the Church of Rome, than they are to the advanced elements in Protestantism. ... It's the Catholic Church who calls you "separated brethren," she who feels the awful loss. (Habit of Being, p. 341)

 

To a friend who said she couldn't quite believe Christianity because it wasn't emotionally satisfying:

I can never agree with you that the Incarnation, or any truth, has to satisfy emotionally to be right. ... There are long periods in the lives of all of us, and of the saints, when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive.... The thought of everybody lolling about in an emotionally satisfying faith is repugnant to me. I believe that we are ultimately directed Godward but that this journey is often impeded by emotion. (Habit of Being, pp. 99-100)