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Archive for the ‘reflections’ Category

I’ve been posting much more often over here these past few weeks, and I think that reflects my general state of being. I am very busy with teaching and being a student and writing, but it isn’t what occupies my mind for the time being.

I feel this sharp juxtaposition right now between “grad school” and “real life.” I guess because I’m getting married, planning for the future, dealing with the stuff of adulthood. (Because really, grad school doesn’t completely require you to be an adult, although it helps.) That juxtaposition is part truth and part illusion, because life is whatever and wherever you’re living in a moment, not some abstract concept. And yet when it comes to where I imagine myself being, and who I imagine myself to be, this MFA program is transient. Important, desired, but over in another year. I’m not entirely certain what lies on the other end of that year, but I’m eager to find out.

Committing regular time for writing has been difficult. Partly because of this blasted business, but also because my attention has been focused on other things. I find that writing requires a balance of stillness and activity. Too much of one leads to stagnation, too much of the other doesn’t allow one(/me) that interior quiet that’s necessary for creation.

If good writing captures the spark of life, it seems to me that it’s necessary for the writer to life a full life (which isn’t the same thing as a busy one). But when life is exceptionally full, I often find myself drawn away from writing, or simply forgetful. (Except there is always that guilt gnawing away at the corners of my mind, asking me how I can call myself a writer, which will only be silenced by writing, and writing, and writing well.)

I’ve no conclusion to this train of thought.

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The latest tweet I read this afternoon: “Anyone else outraged by the cathedrals all over Europe, mere feet away from where thousands were torn to pieces by Christian extremists?”

It was posted by ESQPolitics, and I found it via American Papist’s tweets in my feed. To be honest, I’m not sure what events this tweet refers to. But my first response is to wonder whether I, as a Christian, should be “outraged” by the Colosseum, were Christians were literally “torn to pieces” by starving animals and died many other unpleasant deaths? Should I, perhaps, insist that the Italians tear the Colosseum down because of this? Even if I were not a Christian, how many thousands of people have died because of this building, because of the values and attitudes of the culture it represents, a culture that enjoyed violence as a pastime? Is it not an outrage?

Actually, I rather like the Colosseum. I think should be preserved, appreciated, and admired. Why? Because it is a significant cultural and historical landmark, not to mention a thing of beauty. Because the Romans were a remarkable civilization, and you can’t remove them from history without having a huge gaping hole in the world as we know it. Because they did some nasty things, and also some amazing things.

Cathedrals are not exactly the same thing as the Colosseum. For one thing, they don’t represent a single culture or period in history, but many. They do represent one religion, of course; and all religions (like all civilizations), being composed of human beings, have a history attached to them of the horrible things that human beings are capable of doing to each other. If the tweeter of ESQPolitics is offended by cathedrals, surely he should be happy that the Swiss banned minarets, seeing as Muslims have also torn their fair share of people to pieces? Not in Switzerland, but that is beside the point: if the attitude behind this tweet is correct and a religion’s architecture is an outrage because members of that religion have performed gruesome acts, minarets ought to go.

But minarets–and cathedrals–aside from having value as representations of a religion’s cultural identity, have a cultural value beyond belonging to the religion’s members. I’m thinking of Notre Dame, of the Cologne Cathedral, of Chartes, of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, all of which are incredible examples of architecture and craftsmanship, many of which have been named World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. The cultural, historical, and aesthetic value of these buildings is inestimable.

And if the Colosseum was used for the worst in Roman culture, cathedrals are surely monuments to the best of Christianity: to the beauty that flourishes within it, to the heights that humanity can reach because of it.

I could go on, particularly about the Church and her hospitals, her contributions to art and science, etc. If anything is outrageous, it is ESQPolitic’s tweets, not cathedrals. I don’t know of any balanced people who walk around Europe getting angry every time they see a church.

Unless they’re just trying to make waves. Cheap waves.

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The first time I was asked to do a reading, I was ridiculously nervous. It was in front of about 80 people, most of whom were strangers (was that better or worse?). I had chopped up my story because it was too long to read all of it, and wasn’t sure if it was going to work. The reading was part of a larger end-of-the-semester English ceremony, a combination Sigma Tau Delta induction and Rock Writing release party. The reading came near the end, and I was nervous and dry-mouthed through most of the ceremony.

But when I stood up and faced everyone and started to read, the nerves went away. It was like the words belonged in my voice. At least, words and voice certainly knew what to do with each other. The words carried me, and my story came off of the page and lived.

Since then I was invited to read at Your Inner Vagabond coffee shop (now closed, sadly) and Pitt’s MFA reading series. It is much the same experience, and always begins with nervousness, with a feeling of the inadequacy of my writing. But the words always carry me as I read. They open out into the world and it is beautiful.

I’m pretty sure this is not because my writing is breathtakingly brilliant. Perhaps it is because words are meant to be spoken. Perhaps because we write stories to share them, and reading them aloud is much more immediate and intimate.

All this because I have found a recording of Flannery O’Connor reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and her lecture, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.” This has made my month.

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A few weeks ago Maud Newton and Sven Birkerts were scheduled to speak at Pitt about The Future of the Book. Then snow happened and things got postponed.

However, this did not stop us students in Cathy Day’s workshop from reading selections of Birkerts The Gutenberg Elegies and watching the panel that Maud moderated about “Literature in a Digital Age.”

I am of two minds about this whole digitization of the book thing. Part of me reacts with a visceral sort of disgust. Or I guess several parts of me. One part is just traditional about things–and this inevitably affects other parts of me. Such as the part of me that already spends too many hours looking at computers both out of necessity and addiction to social networking sites, and needs a break from screens. And of course, there’s the part of me that simply loves books: in my hands, in bookstores, on bookshelves. I love the thing-ness of them. I love owning them. Every time another row fills up on a bookshelf, it gives me pleasure. I even love books about books, like Inkheart and The Book Thief.

At the same time I don’t think all books are created equal. It is the content that determines the value. They are not some mystical entity to be worshiped. That part of me doesn’t freak out about books becoming digital. A more reasonable part that says “wait and see,” that tells me not to get riled up. Not only wait and see if digitization is for better or for worse, but if it really will become the way people read fiction. One of my favorite authors once said that as soon as he heard that an innovation was “here to stay,” he knew it wouldn’t be around that long. I don’t know if that’s the case for ebooks, but the principle makes sense to me. Both those who defend and demonize ebooks start sounding too much like prophets.

Either way, I don’t believe that the nature of narrative, of story, changes according to the medium. Perhaps the delivery is affected, similarly to the changes that occur between printed and oral storytelling; but it remains the same art. And when I think of books, I guess that’s what I think of—the ones that hold stories, as opposed to the ones that store information.

In his Elegies Birkerts argues that the way we receive information changes our experience, and I do agree with this. I’ve always had very little patience when reading fiction on a screen. I start skimming, I get bored, I can’t sink in and take pleasure in it. Maybe this is just me, but there is a different feel to it. But I don’t think that fiction itself changes much when translated into a digital form. Last week I went to the panel Joel Lovell organized, and the future of reading was discussed, along with all the different possibilities that digitization opened up. One of the opinions given was that while nonfiction (magazines, newspapers, and other forms) would change, fiction (especially the novel) would not.

In the panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival, Dwight Garner stated that even if fancy extras are added to fiction in digitized form, real readers will push past all the extras, will ignore them and actually read. This makes sense to me. It reminds me of the interviews with the author you sometimes find in the backs of books, especially young adult fiction; they are not the story, not what stays with us. They are not the experience.

I can see literary journals going digital, short stories being published online. And I can see the market for ebooks growing. But I honestly don’t think that the novel in book form will become outdated. Digital reading is about convenience. We want convenience when finding information, reading the news. And it’s convenient to be able to take several books on a single device when you vacation or commute or whatever.

But people read fiction to relax, to receive pleasure, to experience something. It isn’t about convenience. And I think that, aside from the novelty (which provides a different sort of pleasure), reading novels on a Kindle or and iPad won’t fit that need—at least not for many people; not the way books do. We are not just walking brains. We have eyes that need to rest from screens; we have fingers that touch things. We’re material creatures, and things in their thingness matter, because they speak to our materiality.

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I am up for workshop on March 23rd; but what I didn’t realize was that I had to be up a second time, since I was only doing a half workshop. We have to submit 40-50 pages during the course of the semester; for a half-workshop it’s 20-30.

So I’ve signed up for March 2nd as well. Which means that my stuff has to be posted by February 23rd. (The date I am giving my book report.) Which means, approximately: panicpanicpanicpanic.

What I am hoping it also means is that this story I’ve been struggling with will have more motivation to let me write it. (Although possibly it, the story, does not care at all whether or not I’m humiliated in class.) I have, I think, solved the point of view problems, and the solution–which came to me suddenly and unlooked for–was simply to extend the ending to encompass Other Things. I don’t know whether or not Character B will realize he was lied to, but the reader certainly shall.

This extension also will help the story be about what it’s actually about, which is what I’m still figuring out. Because a story’s “aboutness,” while a different thing than what happens in it, is not separable from plot or character and what happens therein. Or else it wouldn’t be a story; it would be a moral, or a sermon, or an intelligent saying.

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Speaking of fiction, for those who write it and are under a certain age, the Kenyon Review is having a contest. Submissions are open February 1-28. I haven’t poked around much myself yet to see what types of stories have won in the past, but it’s being judged by Louise Erdrich, author of Love Medicine. Worth checking out.

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Taking a break from writing posts and venturing into other territory.

So how about that Pat Robertson.

I’m not going to repeat what he said about Haiti, because everyone knows it, and everyone was horrified by it, and there’s no point in my reiterating what tons of other people have already said. The most recent blog post I saw in reference to it expressed a typical sentiment: “No real Christian would say that sort of thing.”

Is that true?

Here’s my question. Who or what is a “real Christian?” Someone who is never stupid? Someone who never says something nasty? Someone who never sins?

Here’s the thing. The Church exists not because of saints, but because of sinners. If there were no sinners, there would be no need for the Church. In fact, the miracle is that the Church continues to exist and proclaim Christ not only despite the people in it, but through them.

Now note that I am NOT approving or whitewashing anything that Pat Robertson said. Of course it was wrong. It was disturbing. Equally disturbing, though perhaps less surprising, are the way people have jumped on him in a foaming rage, telling him to go to hell and so forth. Even those Christians who aren’t so vehement want to put him far, far away, to disown him as somehow not a “real Christian”–in anger, or in embarrassment.

Well, okay. I distance myself from him too, for many reasons. Have for a long time. So I am not particularly embarrassed, as a Christian, by what he said, since I do not identify with him.

But when it comes down to it, the man is not a moral leper, any more than you and I. Or at least, not for this particular statement. Or let me rephrase that: you and I are just as much moral lepers as he is.

It is much easier to be hard, damned harsh on a mostly good man (or one who tries to be good, who tries to stand for and spread the good) who has fallen than on one who isn’t trying to communicate any high moral expectations and thus isn’t measured up to much. We are very strict judges: we don’t permit anyone to fall.

Oh, we talk about falling and being forgiven and getting up again. But we don’t really think ourselves capable of something nasty, something truly gross and horrible. The Catholic Church distinguishes between venial and mortal sins, and it has a sacrament to deal with both of them–because people who see and acknowledge the truth, who should know better and live better, still commit both of them. They lie. They steal. They sleep with other people’s spouses. They rejoice in the misfortune of others and say they had it coming. (And I think you’d be hard pressed to say Robertson is glad about what happened in Haiti.)

But (thank God) it is not the lack of falling that makes someone a “real Christian.” It is getting up again.

And while Pat Robertson certainly ought to be held accountable for his words, it is better for ourselves if we don’t act in anger.

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Trust

As I prepare for the semester to start tomorrow–for my own classes, and the nineteen freshmen faces that will look at me with expectation that I will Know Things and be able to teach them–I am once again lamenting how short break is. Two weeks is not long enough.

It also strikes me as crazy that I am entering another semester of grad school. I am firmly lodged in this phase of life now. It almost feels like home. And that is what I love about academia–the familiarity of it, even while it is ever new.

A couple of days ago, I phoned a friend I hadn’t seen or talked to in more than a year. We last saw each other in the summer of 2008, back when I still had long hair, wanted to be a missionary with FOCUS, and was still aching from the events of the previous spring.

So we had a lot to catch up on–not little stories to tell, but the big picture. Which was pretty big, considering that I graduated from college, moved to the city, and started grad school–none of which were even on my mind last year. What I told her on the phone boiled down to a summary of 2009, and she was amazed (as I continually am) at the unity of it, how everything that has happened came together like threads in a story. That doesn’t happen very often.

Another friend of mine asked me what lesson learned stuck most in my mind from the past year. The answer is the thread that binds my stories together: I have learned about Trust.

As I neared graduation, I felt pretty ambivalent about my future. I was applying to grad school–one grad school–and to be a missionary with an organization called FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students). But I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about either of them. Mostly, I was scared I wouldn’t get accepted anywhere, and would be stuck working at the grocery store with a Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing. Or, that I would get accepted to both places, and would make the wrong decision.

It was the latter fear that ruled me when I got accepted to the University of Pittsburgh with full funding. That day I went to the chapel and cried, asking God: “You aren’t going to make this easy, are you?”

But I learned a very important lesson: that you need not fear when making a choice between Good Things. That who you are matters more than what you do, and that life is a collaborative effort between you and God; and He can shape all things into something beautiful, if you live with an open heart.

Trust, in this case, was not waiting for a sign. Rather, it was discerning where my heart was leading me and believing that God would bless my decision, whatever it was.

I have learned, too, how to trust and live in the present moment. Or at least, I am learning this. To accept the gifts of the present–a relationship, for example–without the fear of losing them; to accept something as holy and blessed and beautiful in itself that will be brought to its proper fulfillment in the right time. Here, perhaps, trust sounds passive. Not at all! Patience and waiting are anything but passive, even if they are at times still. Trust is a dance, not a homogeneous and unchanging state of mind.

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned about trust is that it is not felt, but lived. (Oh, there are so many things that are like this! Love, faith, patience … all the virtues, even at their most human and least spiritual levels; but it is trust that makes the living possible without the feeling.)

I have, sadly, learned also of the places where trust doesn’t fit. The relationships it no longer belongs in, or the varying levels it operates at–where it opens doors and where it must close them. Whether it is appropriate for forgiveness to renew trust, or leave it in the past. In human relationships where trust is absent, where it must withdraw and close the door, the trust must rush upward. When there is nothing more to be done, it must be given over. And that letting go–that leaving people at God’s feet, or inside the tabernacle with the Eucharist–that is trust.

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