To be a writer is to betray the facts. It’s one of the more ruthless things about being a writer, finally, in that to cast an experience into words is in some way to lose the reality of the experience itself, to sacrifice the fact of it to whatever imaginative pattern one’s wound requires. A great deal is gained, I suppose, a kind of control, the sort of factitious understanding that Ivan Karamazov renounces in my epigraph. When I began to spiral into myself and into my family’s history, it was just this sort of willful understanding that I needed. I knew the facts well enough.
But I don’t understand, not really. Not my family’s history and not my childhood, neither my father’s actions nor his absence. I don’t understand how John could kill someone, or by what logic or luck the courses of our lives, which had such similar origins, could be so different. I don’t understand, when there is so much I love about my life, how I could have such a strong impulse to end it, nor by what dispensation or accident of chemistry that impulse could go away, recede so far into my consciousness that I could almost believe it never happened.
It did happen, though. It marked me. I don’t believe in “laying to rest” the past. There are wounds we won’t get over. There are things that happen to us that, no matter how hard we try to forget, no matter with what fortitude we face them, what mix of religion and therapy we swallow, what finished and durable forms of art we turn them into, are going to go on happening inside of us for as long as our brains are alive.
Read some of Wiman’s poems and listen to his interview with Krista Tippett here.
Flannery O’Connor famously called our South a “Christ-haunted” place. If so, he haunts it indiscriminately, whether you want him to or not, whether you spend your Sunday mornings with the New York Times or with the Pentecostals. He’s in our songs, our history, our family reunions, and he’s on our interstate billboards. Exactly why he haunts the South is the question that launched a thousand doctoral dissertations. But here’s this column’s working theory: He haunts the South because sin haunts the South. Our past, whether preserved in the marble of a hundred Confederate memorials or in the photos on our shelves, is heavy with guilt. And wherever guilt is, you won’t find religion far behind. Why does The Oxford American need a religion column? Because the South is a religious place.
Modern spiritual consciousness is predicated upon the fact that God is gone, and spiritual experience, for many of us, amounts mostly to an essential, deeply felt and necessary but ultimately inchoate and transitory feeling of oneness or unity with existence. It is mystical and valuable, but distant. Christ, though, is a thorn in the brain. Christ is God cryingI am here, and here not only in what exalts and completes and uplifts you, but here in what appalls, offends, and degrades you, here in what activates and exacerbates all that you would call not-God. To walk through the fog of God toward the clarity of Christ is difficult because of how unlovely, how ungodly that clarity often turns out to be.
I suffer from the primary carpet-bagging compulsion of the northern writer living in the South: I long to appropriate southern tragedy for my own personal gain. It is unseemly, I know, but ever since I moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, I’ve wanted to write about the 1898 Wilmington massacre, in which the white gentry murdered scores of African Americans and overthrew the liberal local government, in the only successful coup in American history.
But I have kept the impulse in check. For a century and a half, outsiders have come to the South to explain what’s wrong with it, which is of course very annoying to southerners. Think about it: If you hear someone saying nasty things about your hometown, you’ll likely find yourself defending it, even if you hate your hometown. I think this natural defensiveness at least partially accounts for the post-Civil War lies that dominated the 20th century—and which have been incredibly detrimental to southern race relations—so for three years, I refrained from writing about the massacre. But a few months ago, something happened.
I am on record against using ‘creative’ as a noun (read a great essay I found about this), but I still really like this series on creativity on Ross Gale’s website. He asked thirteen writers to write about how they create.
I write poetry and nonfiction essays mainly, because I can’t get past the beauty, tragedy, hilarity, and terror of things that actually happen. And I am in awe that they actually happened when an infinite number of things could have happened instead. I spend a lot of time feeling like Stanley Spector at the end of the film Magnolia, who looks out his window as giant frogs rain down and says, “This happens. This is something that happens.”
7. When I put pen/cil to paper, I hear the voice of a teacher telling me to read my writing out loud.
8. I’m a teacher. I do the calling. No one needs to read anything out loud.
Some even speak of creativity as a gift from the Holy Spirit—a sort of latter-day dove that descends and gives us the strength to summon up the courage to start. But to me, all of these descriptions always ring hollow because I am not very good at believing in things I cannot see. I need the verifiable and tangible. That I’d encounter this disembodied sprite who descends invisibly and suddenly I’d start typing like mad, alive with ideas—it seemed to work well enough for many others, but not for me.
As I watched the reactions come in for the C.S. Lewis post I wrote, I started wondering why people tried so hard to prove that C.S. Lewis did in fact say “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” I think it’s likely to be a fruitless endeavor, honestly, but a number of people insisted that 1) he said it or 2) if he didn’t say it, it’s in line with his theology. I think a large part of the issue is that having C.S. Lewis’ name attached to the quote lends it some credibility.
But what was more interesting to me, as I have gotten somewhat consumed in finding apocryphal quotations ascribed to other Christian authors, was that there was something particularly powerful in the very quotability of the saying. It is the perfect length to tweet. It is short and snappy enough to post to your tumblr and get reblogged all over the place. This version has almost 30,000 notes on it, which I find depressing.
Quotations can take on a life of their own, in a way that I’m sure was impossible before the internet. Today, there is an almost unlimited ability to people to just repeat things that they like, without checking the source. Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and an endless number of personal and group blogs all enable - or even incentivize - the spread of misattributed quotations.
One particular example I’ve been thinking about is this one, where apparently President Obama said the following about the contraceptive mandate for Catholic institutions:
No, you can’t deny women their basic rights and pretend it’s about your “religious freedom.” If you don’t like birth control, don’t use it. Religious freedom doesn’t mean you can force others to live by your own beliefs.
Say what you like about Obama, but he didn’t say this. Whether this quote is used by the left in a self-congratulatory manner or by the right to prove how anti-Catholic the president is, reblogging or otherwise furthering the spread of this quote does no service to the credibility of either side.
Checking sources should be a first step whenever you want to post or reblog something that sounds a little too good to be true, and that probably goes double for theology quotes. And if you want help finding a source, I would be happy to help you search Google Books and the rest of the internet for the answer.
A compilation of John Steinbeck’s writing advice, published in The Paris Review:
I hear via a couple of attractive grapevines, that you are having trouble writing. God! I know this feeling so well. I think it is never coming back—but it does—one morning, there it is again.
About a year ago, Bob Anderson [the playwright] asked me for help in the same problem. I told him to write poetry—not for selling—not even for seeing—poetry to throw away. For poetry is the mathematics of writing and closely kin to music. And it is also the best therapy because sometimes the troubles come tumbling out.
Well, he did. For six months he did. And I have three joyous letters from him saying it worked. Just poetry—anything and not designed for a reader. It’s a great and valuable privacy.
I only offer this if your dryness goes on too long and makes you too miserable. You may come out of it any day. I have. The words are fighting each other to get out.