Posts Tagged ‘reflections’

The week before last my Readings class read Didion’s essay “The White Album,” the first line of which is a famous quote of hers: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

I have seen this quote pretty often, and have probably used it more than once. It stirred me in the deepest places; it rang as true. It’s always presented as inspiring, affirming–which, standing there by itself, it is.

However, “The White Album” is one dang depressing essay. At the risk of being too reductive, the feeling it leaves you with is that the stories we make of our lives are largely meaningless and artificial. Although she is a writer, and thus always creating stories and attempting to impose meaning on events, she ends the essay by saying:

Writing had helped [Paul Ferguson], he said, to “reflect on experience and see what it means.” Quite often I reflect on the big house in Hollywood, on “Midnight Confessions and on Ramon Novarro and on the fact that Roman Polanski and I are godparents to the same child, but writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.”

Although I’ve gotten better at reading stories as they are, I occasionally struggle with projecting a tone or atmosphere on them and rejecting them for something that isn’t there. For example, when I first read Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, I didn’t realize it was funny. I thought it was horribly depressing. Then I saw Smoke Signals and thought that perhaps I shouldn’t have written a long letter to my cousin complaining about how awful the book was. When I reread parts of it they make me laugh.

So it is quite possible that when I say I sense this meaninglessness in Didion’s prose, I could be reading it into the stories myself. I sense a searching, a struggle, a determination to try and make meaning anyway; but in the end the best you can do is make yourself feel a little better. And it makes reading Didion unpleasant for me, unless I really zero in on the craft of her sentences, her dialogue, what a marvelous talent she has.

This week one of our readings is Flannery O’Connor’s “The Nature and Aim of Fiction.” Joel asked me to present it–whether by intuition, perception, or chance, I don’t know, but I am very grateful–and in fact, I am a little stuck, because she lays things out so clearly there’s not much more to be said.

This presentation is actually what I should be working on right now.

It’s due tomorrow evening.

BUT. This post is relevant.

One of the things Flannery explains is that she does not write “to make the reader see what I see,” and that writing is not “a missionary activity.” This is very different from Joan Didion’s statement that writing is a hostile act, “of saying I, of imposing upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.

But this springs from an even more fundamental difference in their views of writing and what it does. O’Connor sees stories as aiming after truth. Not truth as an abstract concept, but as expressed and embodied in reality. This is what makes writing art. She explains:

[…] all I mean by art is writing something that is valuable in itself and that works in itself. The basis of art is truth, both in manner and in mode. The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth, in an imaginative sense, no more and no less.

(See? How am I supposed to talk about this, when she’s already explained it all so beautifully?)

Flannery O’Connor believed in the vision of truth her stories presented. Joan Didion, it seems, didn’t believe such a vision was possible. I admire Didion for continuing to write nonetheless, for looking chaos in the eye and staring it down. But whose stories are more powerful?

To search for truth seems one of the fundamental marks of being human. To believe what you’re searching for isn’t possible is madness.


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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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That I am a procrastinator, and always have been, and probably always will be, is not shocking news to the world. If, by some miracle of God, I were ever to become a canonized saint, I would be the patron saint of procrastinators.

The Internet, whom I like to think of as my friend, is actually the enabler of my weaknesses. (See: this blog post, written while I have approximately one hour to read six or seven student essays, pick one, and build a workshop around it.)

I actually like the feeling of getting things done. I like the idea of sitting down for a day of work and crossing bunches of stuff off my to-do list. I love lists. I need lists. If I don’t have a tangible, written list, I keep a list in my head, or try to, and that eventually drives me crazy. So, written lists. I like Gmail’s task feature.

I love planning out how and when and for how long I’m going to do things. Give me a free day, and I will map it out with things to do, to accomplish. Give me the morning of the free day, and I will sit around in my pajamas. Give me the afternoon of the free day, I will poke around on Facebook and Twitter and follow all their rabbit trails. Give me the evening of the free day, I will read a book. And give me the day after, and I berate myself for having gotten nothing done.

Give me a deadline, and I will get things done. In the few days before a thing is due. This is, sadly, how the majority of my work gets done.

The crazy thing is, despite my procrastination, and despite my general lack of organization (lists aside), I am also a perfectionist. This really is *not* a happy combination, in terms of my stress levels. But I suppose that perfectionism is what keeps the negative effects of my procrastination in check.

And now that I have procrastinated by reflecting on my procrastination, I must return to my students’ essays. I’m not sure what it is, but I swear that this is the second or third time I’ve found one of them using the word “perspicacity.” I don’t like it when I have to look up a word a student uses. Have they ever heard of astute or shrewd? Simpler words, but I like them better.

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I guess everybody’s talking about snow today. There certainly is a lot of it. Snow photo albums are popping up all over Facebook (even by my mom!), and I guess I’d make one too, if I had a camera. There’s a good two or three feet out there. It’s hard to tell whose car is whose in the parking lot.

Oh, and then there’s the giant snowman.

(By giant I mean seven or eight feet.)

Luckily it is not sitting in the driveway, which is where its bottom portion was located for a long time last night. People were also having snowball fights on the fire escapes of neighboring buildings. It’s just like when we were kids and snow was awesome.

Awesome like the giant snowball fight scheduled on the Cathedral lawn tomorrow afternoon. Heck yes!

Later today the boyfriend and I will probably brave the roads to an Olympic party. (The sensible thing would be to cancel it, but I highly doubt it will be canceled, and so we are going.) Until then I have all day to get things done. Snow should be good for writing, shouldn’t it? With a cup of tea or cocoa and a bowl of soup. This sounds good. Very good.

There is something incredible about snow. How it can be this big, powerful thing–I see these massive overhangs on the roof outside my window, and the trees are laden with snow, and the cars cannot drive for snow, and I thought we were going to lose electricity last night. But for all this power, it is quiet. The world is calmer, very still. You can shout and it soaks up your voice and returns it to silence. There is nothing sharp about it, but the clarity of the senses–hearing, feeling, seeing–so penetrating.

There is something wonder-full about that.

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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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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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