"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

29 June 2010

Writer's Meme

Stolen from LuCindy

1. What's the last thing you wrote? A course syllabus, sad to say.

2. Is it any good? It has to be; it’s a contract.

3. What's the first thing you ever wrote that you still have? I still have a couple of pieces from grade school, for what it’s worth (which isn’t much). I have been a bit startled to see how many of the same themes have arisen in my work in later years that were there in my K-12 years.

4. Favorite genre of writing? Creative nonfiction.

5. How often do you get writer's block? It would be easier to tell you how often I don’t.

6. How do you fix it? Depends. Sometimes I just pretend that I don’t want to write anyway, which has the advantage of not having to fix the block. However, when I begin to go so insane that no one can stand to be around me, I will usually try to write a post for Inscapes that has at least some merit; sometimes just quoting someone else helps get the gears grinding. Of course, the main problem is time . . . or, rather, the lack thereof. One needs time to reflect to write anything truly meaningful, and that time is exceedingly hard to come by. There is also the most annoying phenomenon of being exceedingly busy and sitting in a meeting somewhere and the ideas suddenly flowing like lava . . .

7. Do you save everything you write? Unfortunately, yes. I fear dying before I’ve gone through it and gotten rid of at least the worst. LuCindy, I hereby appoint you my literary executor, with strict orders to get rid of at least 99% of it, and perfect freedom to get rid of 100%!

8. How do you feel about revision? “Writing is rewriting.” Getting words on the page is a great feeling and a good start, but if those words are not revised and edited with great care as many times and for however long it takes, then they are nothing more than that – words on a page, useless for any worthy purpose. Any writer who wants to make a mark takes the time to serve his readers by revising and revising and revising again, until he gets it as nearly right as is humanly possible.

9. What's your favorite thing that you've written? Probably my tenure essay, on the value of literature to life.

10. What's everyone else's favorite thing that you've written? I haven't a clue; not enough people read my work to get a take on it!

11. What writing projects are you working on right now? Course syllabi and comments on student essays and exams – ooh, lovely! A review of John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction for The Christendom Review (on spec). A book(let) for possible use in our composition classes on the writing process. Ongoing notes for a takeoff from the tenure essay.

12. What's one genre you have never written, and probably never will? The romance novel or its sanitized Christian version called “inspirational fiction.” It seems to me fundamentally untrue in its premises and conclusions and thus a disservice to readers. I love mystery novels, but haven't the mind to plot one out myself, as I lack the imagination to create a sci-fi world of the sort I also love.

25 June 2010

Prayer, Please?

I don't often use this space for prayer requests and merely personal information. However, this is a gravely important situation, and I know that those few of you who read here regularly would want to know and to pray. Our older daughter has just discovered that the cavernous angioma in her brain has enlarged. She is seeking a neurologist to discuss whether surgery is necessary, which is obviously a sobering and frightening prospect. A cavernous angioma is a tangle of blood vessels, in her case almost certainly congenital, that causes seizures when it bleeds. It was first diagnosed 6-7 years ago; the last time it caused seizures was last summer and this MRI was a follow-up. There is no treatment for the angioma that I am aware of except surgery; the fear is that it will begin to hemorrhage at some point, but of course there are also tremendous risks to the surgery and the angioma is deep in the brain. Please pray for wisdom on the part of all, and grace and peace for our daughter and her three young children.

20 June 2010

Choosing His Light

I’ve been dragging myself about all the summer thus far, weary and wearier, longing for sleep (except even good sleep doesn’t help), just wanting to feel half-way normal and genuinely rested. I spend a lot of time tired even at my best; I have never had much energy, even when I was young. But this has been extraordinarily severe.

So I took stock the other day and decided I should be grateful that I’m on my feet at all. (My partial stock-taking list is below if you’re really interested. I’m selfish enough to post it, but you needn’t be so masochistic as to pay it any heed.)

I know that everyone is busy, and to many I’m sure my list would look small enough and I seem quite sluggish to find it too much. But combine it all with chronic pain and difficulty sleeping (and exhausted, burning eyes), and for me and the level of energy I am endowed with . . . . well, it is too much and I begin to feel hopelessly overwhelmed.

I’ve just finished Paul Mariani’s biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins. The poor man was responsible for grading thousands of exams every year in classical languages for university entrance, on top of his teaching. He was always exhausted; of course, he may have been ill with Crohn’s disease, unknown in his day – that, combined with typhoid, probably caused his death at 44. But what struck me in the biography (so much of which makes remarkable use of Hopkins’ own words) was this sense of never-ending exhaustion. A holiday – a genuine holiday of no work at his schoolmaster’s tasks – would revive him remarkably, but within a week or two of return to exams and classes he would be worn down again.

And this weariness and overwhelming work kept him from the writing he loved; he seems to have had far more unfinished projects and ideas for projects in his 44 years than the hundreds that languish in my own drawers and the corners of my mind with over a decade more to concoct them. Of course, he was a genius, and his genius seemed to be slowly wasted away in grading schoolboys’ Latin translations.

He complained of this at times to dear friends. But they and all others who knew him spoke of him invariably as a man who loved life, who laughed, who gave generously and kindly of his time and his mind, who lifted the spirits of those around him. His poetry, of course, explains why: even in the very darkest of the Terrible Sonnets, he cannot waver in his knowledge of God’s love for him; he cannot waver from his obedience no matter how onerous and purposeless it might seem. And he keeps coming back, in his yearly meditations and in his sermons and in his poetry, to this: it is not I who name myself and choose my work, it is God.

Some say of Hopkins – certainly his friend Bridges did, and I’ve read contemporary critics who agree – that he was indeed wasted by the Jesuits, his genius destroyed in make-work, his life itself cut short by their not understanding who and what he was. How much more he could have given us, they say, had he lived in honored ease and into old age. Perhaps. But the poems that mean the most to us were wrought of great weariness of body and soul, out of despair that arose directly from his circumstances. Would some larger body of work created in an easier life carry as much value for us today, would he speak to us as he does if he had never known despair and weariness and yet clung to his Lord in faith and hope?

Well, he is my hero, all the more so now that I know yet more of his life. I pray to struggle on with the burning eyes and the weariness and the chronic pain and, yes, the all-too-often despair, to struggle on, as Mother Teresa prayed, with “a hearty Yes to God and a big smile for all.” If life seems hard to me, how much harder for such as these and for so many, many others – and surely I can find the strength in His strength for the simple yes and the heartfelt smile in the midst of my own such lesser trials. I fall so short: I am part of a broken humanity in a broken world and I demand to name myself. Yet His name for me, the story He has written for me, is enough, if I find the faith to live that truth and not merely know it. "Come be My light," Mother Teresa heard Jesus call to her; I long to desire that call, to desire to be His reflected light in the darkness of this world, no matter what of light or dark may be mine.


(for those who might care: what taking stock reminded me of)

* I haven’t had a break from work since last August: Fall Break and Christmas break I spent developing the online course of the second semester of freshman composition; Spring Break I spent developing the online course of Intro to Lit.

* I taught the online comp course in the spring, as an overload above my four regular courses – the first time I’d ever taught online. The learning curve and the time investment in discussions and feedback was far more time- and energy-intensive than just a normal overload, even though the class number was small. And I was involved in intense committee work and department changes which took both time and emotional energy. (Same committee work in the fall; I don’t remember much else from that semester except that it was harried, very harried.)

* Spring semester I became very ill from an infected tooth; lost two weeks of teaching that had to be made up for and didn’t feel physically recovered for a month or more.

* My daddy went into hospice care in March. I reworked all my classes to complete them before finals week so we could leave as early as possible to visit with him.

* We drove to Texas and back, gone for only a little over a week – exhausting physically and emotionally. I worked every day during that time on finishing up the development of the Intro to Lit, and got home the day before the course actually began. I’ve been working on it hours a day every day since, with two more weeks to go.

* I’m also reading new texts for preparation of one completely new course, one nearly completely new course, and one old course with almost completely new books, all of which spin in the mind constantly. I’ve created the tentative schedule for one of these (the two sections of our new freshman comp I’ll be teaching in my 5-course load). I’ve exchanged innumerable emails over departmental business because of the changes made last spring.

* I ought to be hemming our curtains and doing some legal research and editing a colleague’s dissertation. Because I’m not, these weigh on the mind and create the weariness of guilt. And I’m obligated to revise the online comp course for the fall semester and I wonder if I will get so much as one full week of not working before the new round – 5 classes! – begins again in August. After all, July is almost here.

10 June 2010

On Moral Fiction

I'm revisiting John Gardner's On Moral Fiction this summer, thanks to the quotation from it which Bill Luse posted at Apologia, and -- since I seem incapable this week of formulating any thoughts other than those required for the class I'm teaching -- I thought I'd post some quotations that have intrigued me this time through, ones that caught my attention the first few times I read the book and have done so again because of their remarkable applicability today, over three decades after its publication.

On art as instructive:

"Moral action is action which affirms truth. [. . .] It was once a quite common assumption that good books incline the reader to [. . .] morality. It seems no longer a common or even defensible assumption, at least in literate circles, no doubt partly because the moral effect of art can so easily be gotten wrong, as Plato got it wrong in the Republic. To Plato it seemed that if a poet showed a good man performing a bad act, the poet's effect was corruption of the audience's morals. Aristotle agreed with Plato's notion that some things are moral and others not; agreed, too, that art should be moral; and went on to correct Plato's error. It's the total effect of an action that's moral or immoral, Aristotle pointed out. In other words, it's the energeia -- the actualization of the potential which exists in character and situation -- that gives us the poet's fix on good and evil; that is, dramatically demonstrates the moral laws, and the possibility of tragic waste, in the universe. It's a resoundingly clear answer, but it seems to have lost currency."

Later, there's this:

"In a democratic society, where every individual opinion counts and where nothing, finally, is left to some king or group of party elitists, art's incomparable ability to instruct, to make alternatives intellectually and emotionally clear, to spotlight falsehood, insincerity, foolishness -- art's incomparable ability, that is, to make us understand -- ought to be a force bringing people together, breaking down barriers of prejudice and ignorance, and holding up ideals worth pursuing." He indicts American literature of his day (the book was published in 1977) for largely not doing this well, of instead posting "cynical attacks on traditional values such as honesty, love of country, marital fidelity, work, and moral courage. This is not to imply that such values are absolutes, too holy to attack. But it is dangerous to raise a generation that smiles at such values, or has never heard of them, or dismisses them with indignation, as if they were not relative goods but absolute evils. The Jeffersonian assumption that truth will emerge where people are free to attack the false becomes empty theory if falsehood is suffered and obliged like an unwelcome -- or, worse, an invited -- guest. Yet to attack a work of fiction on moral grounds seems now almost unthinkable."