Assessment

Earlier this week I finished Anne Lamott’s book on writing, Bird by Bird. The author offers useful advice about the writing process, and I especially like what she has to say about paying attention and workshopping. The book has brought me to ask myself not only how I should write, but what I should be writing.

Lamott says that “there is ecstasy in paying attention…. Anyone who wants to can be surprised by the beauty of pain of the natural world, of the human mind and heart, and can try to capture just that – the details, the nuance, what is.” Annie Dillard’s writing demonstrates this kind of surprise and delight. I have been reading and rereading Dillard’s nonfiction since I was 16, and if someone decided to destroy all the poems in the world, I would still find solace and joy in Annie Dillard. I appreciate the intuition that goes beyond reason, all meanings manifest in a single word. What Hopkins did with inscape in his poetry, Dillard does in her prose. I don’t know if I could ever write like Dillard, but she always reminds me how much I like writing, because I really like paying attention.

Lamott also describes the value of getting people to read your stuff and providing honest, constructive feedback. I always get nervous whenever I have asked friends and reliable readers to critique my writing, but it’s ultimately beneficial to get another perspective. (I’m actually waiting on some feedback right now.) And people’s comments often emphasize that being a good writer also means being a good reader, and I need to revise my work with that in mind.

I’ve had the opportunity to give feedback on several projects friends have been working on. I can’t help feeling that these readings are little nudges to get back on the horse. A friend asked me to look over her blog post, six solid and enjoyable pages of funny anecdotes and observations of a roadtrip. For the past three years, I’ve been looking over a friend’s phases of a book he’s working on, at least 80,000 words. And I recently read the 30-page outline for another friend’s really fun-sounding book. I can’t get over how brilliant these friends are. They do so many incredible things with words, and I always feel self-conscious in my comments on their work. I always feel humbled that they would ask me to read their writing.

Whenever Reilly and I walk by the YA section of a bookstore, Reilly tells me that we could easily write a book better than most of those on the shelves. So what about my own writing? Writers use SO MANY different sources. Do I write about my limited, but really cool travels? Do I try to fictionalize intense personal experiences? Do I draw from mythology or a specific point in a culture’s history? Do I try to show up 98% of the YA writers in the world? I haven’t been participating in NaNoWriMo, but should I do it at least once? The short and not very definitive answer to these questions is: Yes. At least it has been affirmed that:

I have a pretty good sense of how to arrange words into sentences sometimes
I can write a blog/online journal post
I can write an outline for a novel/memoir

It’s time to saddle up.

Knee-Jerk: A Few Wonderings

“Whether the photograph is understood as a naïve object or the work of an experienced artificer, its meaning–and the viewer’s response–depends on how the picture is identified or misidentified; that is, on words….But one day captions will be needed, of course. And the misreadings and the misrememberings, and the new ideological uses for the pictures, will make their difference.

“Central to modern expectations, and modern ethical feelings, is the conviction that war is an aberration, if an unstoppable one. That peace is the norm, if an unattainable one. This, of course, is not the way war has been regarded throughout history. War has been the norm and peace the exception.”

–Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

I have been working my way through this essay for the past year. I’ll pick it up at random and catch a paragraph or two, and if I’m lucky, these moments will coincide with the phases in my life when I’m angry at particular aspects of the world. War photography and photojournalism that captures human suffering: How do viewers react to/experience it? (How) Do their feelings change as this form of expression evolves? What effects does the photographer intend? In what ways do s/he and the audience share a conscience?

“God does not demand that we give up our personal dignity, that we throw in our lot with random people, that we lose ourselves and turn from all that is not him. God needs nothing, asks nothing, and demands nothing, like the stars. It is a life with God which demands these things.

“Experience has taught the race that if knowledge of God is the end, then these habits of life are not the means but the condition in which the means operates. You do not have to do these things; not at all. God does not, I regret to report, give a hoot. You do not have to do these things–unless you want to know God. They work on you, not on him.

“You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require nor demand it.”

–Annie Dillard, Teaching A Stone to Talk

I wonder about God as a photographer, if what I see in the world requires anything of my conscience. I wonder whether captions are necessary, or if the experience itself provides sufficient commentary. I wonder how much of the experience I am in control of.

A Long Enough Quote

Sometimes God moves loudly, as if spinning to another place like ball lightning. God is, oddly, personal; this God knows. Sometimes en route, dazzlingly or dimly, he shows an edge of himself to souls who seek him, and the people who bears those souls, marveling, know it, and see the skies carousing around them, and watch cells stream and multiply in green leaves. He does not give as the world gives; he leads invisibly over many years, or he wallops for thirty seconds at a time. He may touch a mind, too, making a loud sound, or a mind may feel the rim of his mind as he nears.

“To entreat and to intercede is to transform situations powerfully. God participates in bad conditions here by including them in his being and ultimately overcoming them. True prayer surrenders to God; that willing surrender itself changes the situation a jot or two by adding power which God can use. Since God works in and through existing conditions, I take this to mean that when the situation is close, when your friend might die or might live, then your prayer’s surrender can add enough power – mechanism unknown – to tilt the balance. . . . God’s activity is by no means interference, but instead divine creativity – the ongoing creation of life with all its greatness and danger. I don’t know. I don’t know beans about God.”

– Annie Dillard, For the Time Being

Really interesting and compelling commentary on prayer and the power of God. Church leaders from many denominations can agree generally on the transforming powers of prayer.

Ms. Dillard says she doesn’t know beans about God. And this comes close to the end of her book, almost 200 pages of philosophizing and observing and sincere searching. She doesn’t know beans.

I don’t know beans.

But, we probably know more than we think we know. And God always gives us credit for what we know.

At a regional conference in the Marriott Center on Sunday, one of the speakers, Julie B. Beck, suggested that we’re doing better than we think we are, but we could also be doing better than we really are.

I bet the “mechanism unknown” involves faith, if it’s not faith itself.

We pray when we want perspective. We pray when we want God’s help.

I needed both last night after talking on the phone with someone.

Paradoxically, surrendering myself isn’t the same as giving up. It’s anti-quitting.

I know I could be doing better.

I just don’t know how I’m doing.

The Same Yesterday, Today, and Forever

“It is a weakening and discoloring idea, that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time – or even knew selflessness or courage or literature – but that it is too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less.

“There is no less holiness at this time – as you are reading this – than there was the day the Red Sea departed, or that day in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as Ezekiel was a captive by the river Chebar, when the heavens opened and he saw visions of God. There is no whit less enlightenment under the tree by your street than there was under the Buddha’s bo tree. There is no whit less might in heaven or on earth than there was the day Jesus said “Maid, arise” to the centurion’s daughter, or the day Peter walked on water, or the night Mohammed flew to heaven on a horse. In any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger. In any instant the bush may flare, your feet may arise, or you may see a bunch of souls in a tree. In any instant you may avail yourself of the power to love your enemies; to accept failure, slander, or the grief of loss; or to endure torture.

“Purity’s time is always now. Purity is no social phenomenon, a cultural thing whose time we have missed, whose generations are dead, so we can only buy Shaker furniture. ‘Each and every day the Divine Voice issues from Sinai,’ says the Talmud. Of eternal fulfillment, Tillich said, ‘If it is not seen in the present, it cannot be seen at all.’

“[Joel Goldsmith] says that God has nothing to give you that he is not giving you right now. That all people at all times may avail themselves of this God, and those who are aware of it know no fear, not even fear of death. ‘God’ is the awareness of the infinite in each of us.”

– Annie Dillard, For the Time Being

I cannot get over the way this woman writes and thinks.

Micro

“‘Never lose a holy curiosity,’ Einstein said; and so I lift my microscope down from the shelf, spread a drop of duck pond on a glass slide, and try to look spring in the eye.”

-Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

My circumstances are nowhere near those of Ms. Dillard when she wrote those essays.  I don’t live near a creek bed in Virginia, away from all technology, except a trusty pen and notebook; I don’t own a microscope anymore. Abundant nature still surrounds me, though I’m too far away from the crickets and frogs and can only hear my laptop’s hum:  one note, subsonic, between a whistle and a sigh.

I do still rely upon a pen and a notebook, carrying them with me wherever I go. Ideas rarely come conveniently; usually while I’m driving or walking or during conversations; especially during church. Sometimes really compelling stuff comes while I’m supposed to be worshiping. Maybe that’s a form of worship.

Little things oftener catch my attention than the grandiose. Give me a negligible  smirk or a slightly raised brow; let me catch your eye subtly shift or see your back just barely tense; let me notice the tiniest edge or softening to your voice. All the action is in the nuance. I want a front seat. The blatant leaves nothing to satisfy.

We’re supposed to wonder. We’re supposed to search. Our desire for knowledge is inherently sacred. The glory of God is intelligence, or in other words, light and truth 1. This is [God’s] work and [his] glory, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man 2.

Transitively, intelligence leads to eternal life.

Not that nothing can’t be learned from the obvious. It happens all the time, and it all becomes obvious, with enough desire and faith. Ignorance can’t really be bliss if our wonderment is consecrated. Not that I’m perfectly probing, always asking the right questions; “I’m not unfaithful, but I’ll stray” 3. Sometimes it’s all I can do to look eternity in the eye, one moment, one question at a time; a single drop’s revelation expanding my purview.

Worship, indeed. To be wholly inquisitive is inherently divine. It is to have holy curiosity.

1 Doctrine & Covenants 93:36
2 Moses 1:39
3 Tegan and Sara, “Back in Your Head”