Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Artistic Temperment and Self Delusion: Why alone I can accomplish nothing

“I don’t really think it is discipline you lack, if you are thinking of discipline as the ability to sit down and work, to do it, to keep at it, etc… Rather than something you lack, it may be something you have too much of…[it may be that] you simply don’t know how to control your own sensibility -too much sensibility…The writer [requires] ..a certain fanaticism..an automatic control to the sensibility.”
~Flannery O Connor

Reading this advice, from Flannery to her playwright friend Maryat Lee, I began to think differently about discipline. We’ve talked before about the discipline of writing, the sacrifice of writing - and now, the fanaticism of writing. The context of the quote is, I think, important to this discussion. Maryat is distracted from her writing by her passion for equality. She has flung herself passionately into the racial turmoil of the fifties and sixties. Her involvement in the fight for social justice is intruding on her writing. Flannery is not a part of the movement, not because she is for segregation, but in part because she has that fanaticism necessary to the writer. Her writing, set in the south, does deal with racial issues (I’m thinking especially of the stories Artificial Nigger and Everything that Rises Must Converge) but she is comfortable in her role - a vocation to see, reflect, and inspire rather than a more active and public vocation. Perhaps the fanaticism comes from the awareness of her role, or the awareness from the fanaticism, the “automatic control to the sensibility” that calms the desire to run off into the world and do.

That isn’t to say writing isn’t ‘doing something’. Anyone whose ever stayed up all night to write a last minute term paper, or to give shape to a story that’s been rustling around inside for days knows there is nothing passive about writing. But it is a quite, lonely activity. One that takes us out of the world. And often, and choice has to be made between writing and the call of sensibility.. Or not. Flannery’s words make me think that sometime, some writers don’t have to choose. They have that ‘certain fanaticism’ which automatically controls sensibility. Jenna seems to have it, as she mentioned in a past response. Flannery had it, Tolstoy did not. Which comforts me, because it shows that even the distractions of an over-developed sensibility can’t get in the way of the artist’s vocation - if there is enough genius to make up for all the time away. I can’t make any assumptions about my own genius - it looks bad - but I can at least hope that my ever changing moods and obsessions will inform my art, rather than strangle it. And I’m grateful to Flannery for making both extremes appear so attractive - to be overwhelmed by your own sensibility and to write with artistic fanaticism..I could happily be either, if I weren’t so obviously the former.

I hope this advice, and the comforting feelings of understanding and sympathy I get think of Maryat Lee trying to devote herself to both her writing and her cause, don’t lead me down the easy path of excusing my distraction, and allowing the effects of sensibility to ruin my commitment to art. It is always a temptation, I have very few perfectionist tendencies, and more than enough self-delusion to bury them. Maybe this post is less about discipline and personality than it is about perception. It is easy for me to see myself as an artist, and even if I produce nothing in my life, I will die confident that I could have, if I hadn’t been so attractively at the mercy of my own ‘artistic temperament’. Thank goodness I’ve married a man who refuses to let me rest on my own, unearned laurels.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Christian hospitality has been weighing on my mind. A friend came last month, to stay for dinner and a morning of canning. She had recently come from a winter as a guest at a Christian intellectual community in England and we spent a good deal of the visit discussing hospitality - what it is in our lives and what we want it to be. Soon after her visit, I picked up the book “Untamed Hospitality”. I’m just beginning it.  But already I love the tone of the book and the spirit of the arguments for a reclaimed sense of hospitality informed by and rising naturally from the hospitality of God, and against the consumer-driven, entertaining hospitality of our culture. It is a book that makes me long to have a table full of long lost friends, pots of coffee, cakes, conversations late into the night.

Thursday, July 26, 2012


John Steinbeck always makes me restless. It doesn’t matter how completely contented I am in my life. It doesn’t matter how settled I think I am, John Steinbeck calls me to wander. Earnest Hemingway always makes me crave cold white wine and oysters, or beer, bread, and sausage. Reading him, I want to wander through late-night streets, in and out of cafes, watching the crowds go by. There is an energy to every author that gives his writing a soul, and that energy affects me.

I’m too easily attracted to change. I’ve been moving furniture these past few weeks, in an attempt to freshen up the look of my house, I have an appointment with a stylist to chop off and darken all my long, blond hair. I still love the “I drink way too much coffee, read a lot, and don’t sleep,” look from high-school, combined with “I’m only not a hippie because I have a job and don’t smoke pot” look (also from high-school), and my defaut - "I just got off the boat" look, but I’ve never been able to limit myself to a style, in life or in fashion. The world is too full of variety, and the writers I love have too much influence on my inclinations. When I finish Steinbeck, I’m moving on to Seamus Heany. I wonder where he will take me.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Truth, Lies, Fact, and Fiction

“She says miracles aren’t allowed in fiction and makes other statements of a like nature. I haven’t read it…I am really only interested in a fiction of miracles.”
~Flannery O Connor

We've discussed art as truth here before, but I want to revisit it, in a more focused way. Jenna's post on Monday brought my mind around to truth and fact in fiction.  Flannery O Connor’s writing is often dark. Darker, at least, than much of the fiction we would call “a fiction of miracles”. We like miracles of light, we like a supernatural world of sweet baby angels and gentle spirits. In her tales the miracles are so Catholic they’re almost pagan - dark and dangerous and hidden. Modern miracles in a modern world, but with the taste of something primitive. A friend once told me that she “doesn’t read fiction because [she] likes to learn something” from her books, and fiction, not being factual, can’t teach. I was devastated - how do you not learn from fiction?

Part of the trouble is our relationship to truth. We tend to equate truth with fact. If something is true, it must also be factual. And so fiction is troubling to us - it is often too obviously true, while being just as obviously not factual. But how do we who believe in the truth of fiction, particularly the fiction of miracles, explain the truth that exists outside of fact?

I suppose I should spend some time defining my terms first of all, because definitions are often a huge stumbling block in discussions. By truth, I am referring to the foundation on which reality is based. It encompasses reality, but is not bound by it, and because of that there are many things that are true without being factual. Facts, the provable bits of reality are true, but so are the unprovable bits - miracles, dreams, and visions; and, more important for our discussion, so are many of the fictional stories, existing outside the factual world, but within the world of truth.

“To get back to the accurate naming of the things of God…The only way I can explain that is by repeating that I think evil is the defective use of good. Perhaps you do too..”
        ~Flannery O Connor

And that is the trouble - the defective use of the good is often harder to detect than an out and out bad would be. Subtle failings can be more seductive and more damaging than obvious flaws. Fiction should be true, not cluttered with half-truths and tiny lies. Beautiful, good, and full of mystery.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Simplify, Simplify

Recently, I found a fantastic list of suggestions for simplifying life. We aren’t in any way pursuing a minimalist lifestyle, but rather a sort of extravagant simplicity, and many of the recommendations were things we knew in an intellectual sense, but hadn’t really incorporated into our life. I’m feeling particularly driven toward simplifying our lifestyle - toward deepening my commitment to living passionately and intentionally in the world. One of the first steps in this pursuit is a purge. We are purging our home of unwanted excesses (the wanted ones will stay forever) this weekend, when the humidity breaks. A huge part of that purge for me, will be primarily a great clearing out of clothing and papers.

As much as I love tossing things, really cleaning out is difficult. I'm full of good intentions, and full of excuses. But slowly, slowly we'll be clearing out, not only the house, but the shed and the piles and piles of papers - no longer relevant. Reducing distractions until, hopefully, life is filled only with the beautiful, the useful, and the loved.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Secular Writers and the Religious Imagination

“The Catholic fiction writer has very little high-powered “Catholic fiction to influence him…But at some point reading them reaches the place of diminishing returns and you get more benefit reading someone like Hemingway, where there is apparently a hunger for Catholic completeness in life, or Joyce who can’t get rid of it no matter what he does. It may be a matter of recognizing the Holy Ghost in fiction by the way he chooses to conceal himself.”
      ~Flannery O Connor

Most of my favorite fiction writers are non-religious writers. This is in part because I don’t trust the writers of religious fiction to write honestly about the world they see, and in part because in an attempt to write accessible religious fiction, they too often seem to be writing without respect for the story. It’s I see in many religious writers - whether the religion is Christianity or any other, but it isn’t true of all religious writers. I love Flannery, I enjoy Lewis, and Tolstoy manages to meld writing and the religious sense richly. What are they doing right? When people ask me, “why Lewis but not Pullman?” I’ll generally say that Lewis feels natural, Pullman tries too hard, it’s jarring. But Flannery explains in better, “A writer’s moral sense must coincide with his dramatic sense.” A religious writer, any writer really, can’t write with discordant senses. A moral sense that is non-existent, or that sticks out of the text to beat the reader over the head is jarring, as is a moral that builds a sense of wonder in a cynical tale.

“When I said that the devil was a better writer than Mlle. Sagan, I meant to indicate that the devil’s moral sense coincides at all points with his dramatic sense.”
   ~Flannery O Connor

Flannery encourages the writer to work from his “felt life” a term she takes from Joyce, and a term I read as the need for the writer to be honest in his created world. If he experiences the world in one way and writes it another way, the effect is jarring and unpleasant to the reader. For me, reading secular writers, like Joyce and Hemingway can be a fascinating look at what the inherent long for God does in the soul of the secular artist. It’s difficult for me to imagine without their writing to guide me. And their writing raises me up in a way that many Catholic writers do not, because they write honestly of all the torments the soul can feel when it searches for what it doesn’t know.

Thoughts Jenna? Or Mr. Pond (I'm ever-hopeful)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

National Blog Posting Month..

 Really, there is one.. I'm sort of amazed. And, since this July is way too hot for me, and I'm escaping a lot during the day, I'm going to try posting more often. Why not? Not everyday, obviously that won't happen. But often.

I'm grateful we don't live in the mid-west. 80 degrees and humid is much better than the 103 NPR predicted today for Michigan.

I'm hiding out in a cafe looking up ways to put my life in order. No, it isn't falling apart, but it is disorganized, and that is exactly what I want to avoid. I want attractive files and folders, I want an organized cork-board and good habits. Instead I have an over-used french-press and an abundance of misplaced pens.

Pretty blogs with pretty photos are an inspiration, so here I am, saving advice onto the desktop and watching Petka wave at strangers. The sky is hazy blue and air is almost drinkable.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Bits of Days

I think my daughter is in love with the Infant of Prague. She whispers his name as we pass by, giggles and waves and looks shy when we meet him in the outhouse, and laughs with him on his holy days. Today she looks like every bit the baby bohemian - barefoot and layered in skirts, her hair tucked up and her eyes full of delight. A sweaty bohemian, it's hot again today.

I'm waiting for my books to come in the mail. I've been ordering books more often and love the whole "getting packages" experience. I'd been walking to the mailbox with Petka, but deer-fly season is in full swing, and the walk is dangerous now. So we wait for Seth to bring the mail in the evening, hoping every time for something new and interesting.

Luba and I are united against the chickens, who are determined to eat all the green tomatoes before they ripen. We chase them, yell, and harass them, and I hope it will be enough to save the tomatoes.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Music for Hot, Summer Days

The sky is heavy and hazy with stale air. The deer flies are biting. Another 90 degree Sunday afternoon. We've escaped to the bookstore to read in air-conditioning, but the heat is out there, waiting for us.  But hot days are good days for reconnecting with favorite summer songs - here are a couple of mine:

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Birthday week

Yarrow's first birthday was Monday. My family is up for the celebration. I'm just in shock. When did a whole year pass? The weather was lovely, and my husband hung pretty headscarves across the drive (our version of Tibetan prayer flags, I guess). I baked in my new oven a bright yellow, lemon cake and covered it with berries.
In my family it's a tradition that the child, on her first birthday, is presented with three items: a coin, a rosary, and a shot glass to chose from. The choice reflects her future. Yarrow was offered her choice, and she confidently grabbed for the rosary. My little, holy one. I wonder where it will take her.

Not looking very holy.
We've been socially busy these past few weeks, and it's beginging  to take it's toll on me. Visits one after the other, lots of driving and errands to run. I would like to string up a hammock out in the woods and disappear with my books and iced tea and scones with heaps of butter and jam on them..a picnic would be just the thing right now. A private picnic all my own.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Talking Art

That terrible mood of depression of whether it's any good or not is what is known as The Artist's Reward.”

Jenna touched on something really good last week when she said “the desperation with which I want to be an artist is the sort of thing I can't speak openly about." To respond to it I have to leave Flannery for a week and fall back into Hemingway. Hemingway is the sort of writer who can understand this feeling. He wants desperately, and he understands the sacrifices the writer makes without even realizing they are sacrifices.

It's hard to talk about art when you're in it, and it's bad luck because, as Jenna says "you follow the desire of your heart into Oberon's wood, ignoring rebuffs, with no hope except that you might possibly be overheard by sympathetic magic—" and we all know that magic hides from acknowledgement, twists and changes itself to avoid gratitude. Better to keep your mouth shut, magic comes when and how it choses - even when we try to manipulate it.

Jenna's post is honest and open, and even not talking about the sacrifices of art, she manages to say more about those sacrifices than I did.  How do we talk about art without distracting from the art itself, and without being "one of those people"? You know the kind who only talk about "this book I'm writing..and can I just read a bit to you, to get your opinion, you know?!" Because talking about art often kills it, which is why I am rarely open about particular projects until they're nearing the close, because I hate talking specifics when in comes to writing, and unless I'm directly involved in the editing process, I don't really like hearing specifics - it's like hearing the details of a birth over the phone, or reading them on facebook. I like speaking of generalities, not specifics. Jenna is right when she describes the desire for art as primal. It is, too personal for blogs, for daily conversation, to be cheapened by common talk.

"The good parts of a book may be only something a writer is lucky enough to overhear or it may be the wreck of his whole damn life and one is as good as the other."

When people ask about my writing I tend to mumble a bit, drop my eyes, and say something banal.  Writing grows best in silence, as the artist does. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012


This past month I’ve been buried in books. Our shed is still full of them, and, hunting for The Lord of the Rings -which I found in the last box, full of yarn and traces of recent mouse occupation - I came back with a book on Benedictine ritual, Flannery O’ Connor’s letters, Chekhov’s plays, a book on beekeeping, and the phone book I’d wanted a month ago. Along with these books, I’m on my second read of Harry Potter for Nerds: Essays for Fans, Academics, and Lit-Geeks. I’m not a Harry Potter fan. But I’m so glad I picked this book up. Both Jenna and Mr. Pond have essays in the book, and their essays fulfilled at least some small bit of the desire I have to ply them both with liquor and discuss the whole series late into the night. The books fascinate me because of the fan reaction to them, and so though I’m not a fan, nor an academic, I’ve been reading and discussing the essays at home for weeks. Now, I’m thinking of taking a bit of that discussion here. Jenna’s given me permission to comment on here essay, which is one of my favorites in the book. Her essay is on love and it was a joy to read. So look for that, if you’re interested.