Flannery O'Connor - Fiction is About Everything Human

I like to peruse old copies of The Writer's Chronicle and have recently been enjoying an essay by Brett Lott about Flannery O'Connor from the October/November 2010 issue. Here's an excerpt that really made me think about writing (and made me want to read O'Connor's work!) I have not yet read anything she has written but now have her complete works reserved at the library. Says Lott: "She believed in the art over the artist, for she knew intimately that the artist was a human, rife with his own failures and prejudices, and his days fleeting at best. She understood that the story would be what remained - not on the shelf of the library somewhere, and not as a citation in a book of critical theory, but as a residual element of the should of the story's maker. And so the story, in service to its truest creator, had better be damn good, and had better speak loud and clear about what matters."

He then adds an excerpt from her work "The Nature and Aim of Fiction"

"One of the most common and saddest spectacles is that of a person of really fine sensibility and acute psychological perception trying to write fiction by using these sensibilities alone. This type of writer will put down one intensely emotional or keenly perceptive sentence after the other, and the result will be complete dullness. The fact is that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and its you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn't try to write fiction. It's not a grand enough job for you."

Lott goes on to say,

"The humble recognition that we are all made of dust is the primary element of humility; we can't approach mystery at an esoteric and abstract remove from the smelly rabble of which we are all a part. And if there is any approach to be made to the eternal, to the mystery, to that which in a work of art 'must not be able to be completely explained in words' it has to become through a confrontation with the concrete reality of human kind.

It has to come through confrontation with ourselves."


That, Above All Else, You Should Not Do

"You are looking outward - and that above all else you should not do now.  Nobody can console and help you.  Nobody.  There is only one single way.  Go into yourself, search for the reason that bids you to write.  Find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart.  Acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write.  This, above all else, ask yourself in the stillest hour of your darkest night "must I write?'.  Delve into yourself for a deep answer.  And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple 'I must' the build your life according to this necessity and your life, even in its most indifferent and slightest hour, must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it."

Nothing Comes from Nothing

"I’m continuing to follow the ongoing and now very heated debate about religion and atheism, and was shocked to hear that in a debate last week Richard Dawkins defended his views against those of Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, by maintaining that what all religious people have the most trouble accepting is the idea that the universe – and therefore all of life – came from nothing.

This argument is simply scientific illiteracy. As any high school student of physics is taught, nothing comes from nothing."

Thanks, Lynn McTaggart.  Read the full post here:  Making Something Out ofNothing

Image is from the HubbleSite: a "rose" made of galaxies highlights hubble's 21st anniversary

Oh, Ernest

I have to begin by saying that I am in no way qualified to write about Ernest Hemingway.  So I'll write about how he affects me.  Because that is the magic of Ernest Hemingway.  For some reason he seems to cast some sort of spell over anyone who takes a close look at him.  Some writers think he's one of the worst celebrated writers ever.  Others think he had the writing life figured out.  All I know is that every time I peer at Ernest he reflects something back to me.  That's magic. Most recently it was the result of a book that I picked up at the library.  My husband likes to go to the library on Sunday afternoons and since I always have a pile of books at home waiting to be read, I try to restrain myself from checking out a bunch of new ones.  So I peruse.  I browse.  For me, it's better than Nordstrom Rack, really, the unbridled delight of the free treats just waiting to be plucked from the local library.

Well, on this particular Sunday I ambled over to the "New Books" section and stumbled on this wonderful coffee-table sized book by Boris Vejdovsky  and Mariel Hemingway Hemingway.  A Life in Pictures.Yes, I checked it out.  Who could resist?  There was Ernest in hall of his sexy masculine splendor staring at me from the cover.  I spent the rest of the day immersed in his life.  And here's where I went on that particular day.

What is the magic of Ernest?  What does he represent for us that we continue to be enamored with his work and his life?  Maybe it's that Hemingway seemed to have a lust for the extraordinary.  Looking at his life in pictures made me think about my own desire for the extraordinary experience in my life.  And I started to day dream about an African Safari, a Spanish bull-fight, a life with intellectuals in Paris, deep sea fishing off the Keyes.  Extraordinary from my frame of reference.  But the more I began to dissect this idea, the more I thought that, really, all of those extraordinary experiences are still made up of fairly ordinary moments.  And perhaps it was the extraordinary that Hemingway worked so hard to tease out of each experience in his writing.  That moment when the adrenaline rushes through an experience and you feel really alive.

But that moment is so elusive.  And perhaps that's why I am drawn to Hemingway.  he chased it and then he captured that moment.  But this particular book seemed to shed some of that glamour and show a Hemingway beyond, below, deeper than that surface persona that he created around himself.  And it made me realize that to the bullfighter, maybe bull-fighting wasn't so extraordinary.  Maybe it was made up of very ordinary days of practicing a repetitive set of movements so that when he went into the ring it was as predictable as possible. Maybe the chase for the extraordinary is elusive because flashes of the extraordinary are always built into and embedded and perhaps even buried in a series of rather ordinary moments.

Because, really, living in Paris during the 20's would have been extraordinary.  Perhaps living there today would be extraordinary.  But it would still be filled with minutes and hours and days and weeks and months of the ordinary.

So I can spend my days fantasizing about how great my writing would be if I had the same extraordinary life that Hemingway had.  Or I can practice, as I believe he did, seeing the extraordinary, teasing it out, getting it down.

The Monk's Bowl

Long before Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love gave us a glimpse of a woman's journey inward, another American Woman embarked on an extraordinary journey of the soul at a Tibetan monastery in Thailand.  Her name is Jane Hamilton-Merritt and she was a foreign correspondent, photographer and bush pilot in Vietnam and Laos during and after the Vietnam war and has become a strong defender of the Hmong people of Laos and activist during their persecution, torture flight, and for many forced repatriation. In the early 70's Hamilton-Merritt decided she wanted to learn and practice Theravada Buddhism and requested to enter as a student at the Wat Muang Mang Monastery in Chiang Mai Thailand.  In a rare exception to their restrictions regarding women as students, Hamilton-Merritt was accepted.

In her diary of the experience "A Meditator's Diary:  A Western Woman's Unique Experiences in Thailand Monasteries"  she describes her first observation of the monk's alms bowl.

Another monk approached the gate, his alms collecting apparently completed for the day.  A middle-aged Thai lady, neatly groomed in her ankle-length skirt so popular in the north, appeared from nowhere and called softly to him.  He stopped at the call of her voice and turned around, keeping his eyes downcast.  As he pulled back his robe to reveal his bowl, she hurried toward him carrying a reed tray filled with what appeared to be rice sweets packaged in green banana leaves and three white lotus buds.  He took the lid from his bowl while she slipped out of her shoes before placing the food and flowers in his bowl.  When she finished, she knelt on the ground and way-ed.

He never looked at her nor spoke to her.  He slowly took the flowers from his bowl in order to put the lid back on and with the flowers and bowl tucked beneath his robes, he also, turned toward the gate. 

The woman had made merit by giving food to the monk.  The monk, in turn, was doing a good deed by being available so that the woman could make merit by giving him food. He was in  no way begging.

And so it was - as it had been for centuries...

Her close up observation of this practice reminded me of another reference to the alms bowl that I read in Sue Bender's book Everyday Sacred that makes this practice a sort of parable for daily life.  She describes getting an image of what she called a "begging bowl" as she was thinking about writing the book.  She says:

All I knew about a begging bowl was that each day a monk goes out with his empty bowl in his hands.  Whatever is placed in the bowl will be his nourishment for the day.  I didn't know whether I was the monk or the bowl or the things that would fill the bowl or all three, but I trusted the words and the image completely...

Like the monk going out with his empty bowl, I set out to see what each day offered.  I began noticing, the way an observer might, what I was doing - all my thoughts, feelings, and experiences that  might be connected to everyday sacred...

...When I began looking, I found teachers everywhere.  Some were officially designated "wise people."  Others were not, but were equally wise...I learned from everything and everybody.

And her book is full of stories about that experience.  And ever since I read that I get these occasional reminders to begin the day with my empty bowl, and offer it out to see what fills it.  And then, so important, to accept whatever I receive as sacred.

At first I was going to say that the toughest part of that is accepting whatever I get that day.  But really, the toughest part is receiving.  Being open in the first place.  To begin my day by letting go of maybe just a few of my preconceived ideas about life and people and the things that I encounter so that I can be open to receiving the sacred in all of those things.  The act of humbly receiving can be at least as powerful as that of humbly giving.  I'm not much good at it.  But I have found a few wise teachers who have shared their experiences with me and made me more aware.  A pretty good first step.

Today I am grateful to both Jane Hamilton-Meritt and to Sue Bender for what they shared through their writing and what I have been able to receive from them.

DH Lawrence The Naturalist?

I was reading the other day in Matthew Fox's book The Hidden Spirituality of Men (why? a topic for another blog post, certainly) and I came across this quote of D.H. Lawrence:

"What a catastrophe, what a maiming of life when it was made a personal,  merely personal feeling, taken away from the rising and setting of the sun, and cut off from the magic connection of the solstice and the equinox!  This is what is the matter with us, we are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars, and love is a grinning mockery, because poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the tree of life, and expected it to keep on blooming in our civilized vase on the table."

I read it and then went back to the attribution.  D.H. Lawrence?  Really?  Must be some other D.H. Lawrence, not the D.H. of Lady Chatterly and Women in Love.  But then I thought about it.  Yes, of course.  To write the way he wrote, to see the way passion can capture us, demand our attention, sweep us away, he must have and love a connection to the mysteries of nature.  Love is a grinning mockery when we separate it from all that is its source in the very essence and nature of the universe and expect it to stand alone in a vacuum of merely human interchange.

It made me think of the deep wells that exist in writers and all of the interchange of ideas, thoughts and emotions that flow beneath the surface of what is actually produced and birthed in the written word.  Here's to cultivating those deep wells this year as I allow the richness and the mysteries of the earth and sun and stars to open to me and to somehow dwell in the writing that I create.

Black Milk by Elif Shafak

I recently finished reading Black Milk by Elif Shafak and found so much to digest there.  In identifying the many facets of herself as "Thumbelinas" Elif helped me to identify with and honor all of the different aspects of my personality.  She also helped me to laugh at them and not take myself so seriously.  Anyone who can help me do that gets five stars! But I have read books that have helped me to do that before.  This book was just sort of a reminder platform to jump off into something else:  understanding which those aspects contribute to my writing life and which ones are trying to hold me back.  She deals with these complex questions in her present experience of pondering motherhood, all the while referencing fairly well known women writers and the glimpses of their choices around motherhood that we get to see.

I have been a mother for nearly 23 years.  I still find it demanding, exhilarating, heartbreaking, and one of my greatest achievements.  I didn't discover my literary self until my oldest was 14, and so did not struggled with the choice of becoming a mother v becoming a writer.  (Though I think Elif would agree that it doesn't have to be a choice).  However, the idea that my children are now grown so I can devote all of my time and energy to writing is a bit of an illusion.  Even grown children have taken up residence in a mother's heart, teasing out all aspects of our being:  nurturing, caregiving, empowering (why don't people every talk about a mother's role as that of empowering her children?)  The myth of being free of anything and unencumbered to write is just that, a myth, an illusion.  Whether it be a significant partner, children, a business, social contributions or any number of fractions, there will always be parts of ourselves that take us away from writing.

Be gentle with them, Elif taught me.  Humor them.  Let them come and go as they please.  But don't ever let any one of them completely take over your soul.  Then you will not write.  That is what I have been doing.  Letting them, one at a time, take up residence in my soul.  One would move in for awhile, then get bored and go away and I'd invite the other.  Elif has names for each of her Thumbelina's and I'm sure you could come up with names for yours.  I am acknowledging my own Thumbelina's and with a heavy sigh and a bit of throwing my hands in the air and rolling my eyes, accepting their place in my life.  But they no longer get to control.  As Elif says, this will not be an anarchy!