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The Slow Growth of Ideas, Part 2

Read the first part of this series here.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to attend my first writing conference. Having never been to one before, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but I ended up gleaning a lot of great advice from the experienced writers, editors, and publishers who were gathered there.

One moment that particularly stuck out to me was during a panel discussion, when one of the writers dropped a comment that has been on my mind ever since. He referred to the work of writing as being a creative “long obedience in the same direction” (which is a quote from Nietzsche but has also been popularized by author Eugene Peterson).

Aging Into Art

It’s likely you’ve never heard the name Katsushika Hokusai, but his work informs our thinking when it comes to what we perceive as Japanese art. For example, you’ve probably seen some form of his most famous painting (above), known simply as “The Great Wave,” which is part of a larger series called 36 Views of Mount Fuji. Hokusai lived from 1760-1849, and started training as an artist around the age of 12, but only produced his most important work, including “The Great Wave,” after 60.

I had a chance to view a special exhibition of his work this past week at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Amidst the many prints was a quote from the artist himself, which caught my attention:

From the age of six I had a penchant for copying the form of things, and from about 50, my pictures were frequently published; but until the age of 70, nothing that I drew was worthy of notice. At 73 years, I was somewhat able to fathom the growth of plants and trees, and the structure of birds, animals, insects, and fish. Thus when I reach 80 years, I hope to have made increasing progress, and at 90 to see further into the underlying principles of things, so that at 100 years I will have achieved a divine state in my art, and at 110, every dot and every stroke will be as though alive.

Hokusai’s thoughts present a startling contrast to our culture obsessed with youth and quick success, and they hint at the long, disciplined process of mastery. What do you think of Hokusai’s words as they apply to the life of the artist, or to life in general?

The Slow Growth of Ideas

Writing is a process in which we discover what lives in us. The writing itself reveals what is alive.   -Henri Nouwen, “Theological Ideas in Education”

I was born impetuous and energetic by nature. I’ve spent a good part of my life hitching myself onto ideas born in the moment, dashing them off, and catching the next ride. There was a time when I was the answer man, and it didn’t take much to let me blast you with my expert 17-year-old opinion.

Thankfully, life and a little maturity happened and taught me to shut up and listen a bit more, to read and think a little longer before speaking. And yet, as I started to get serious about writing in my late teens and early twenties, the impatient fire continued to burn in other ways. I was under the impression, in those early days, that all good and genuine creative writing had to come in the moment, and that to later change or edit this inspiration from on high would somehow destroy the purity of the work.

The Legacy of Terry Pratchett

Several weeks ago, I heard the news that Sir Terry Pratchett, British fantasy author extraordinaire, had finally succumbed to the terrible disease of Alzheimer’s. At the time I happened to be in the middle of reading one of his Discworld novels, Unseen Academicals. The sad news led me to recall my first encounter with his stories, and the impact they’ve had on my life.

I first came across Pratchett’s fiction while I was in grad school doing research on my master’s thesis. I was studying postmodern fairytales, particularly those of A. S. Byatt, and while doing so I read an essay in which she discussed his novel Witches Abroad, which cleverly turns the fairy tale structure on its head. So in the name of “research” I got my hands on a copy and dove in. From this encounter I realized a few things. First, Terry Pratchett is the most hilarious author that I’ve ever had the privilege of reading, and I’d argue probably one of the funniest writers ever. The man’s wit knew no bounds, and he was liberal with it. I’d often find myself chuckling over small asides like this one from Guards! Guards!: “The Supreme Grand Master opened his eyes. He was lying on his back. Brother Diddykins was preparing to give him the kiss of life. The mere thought was enough to jerk anyone from the borders of consciousness.”

Poetry and Pressing Into Lent

Back about 10 years ago, three things converged in my life that would prove momentous to my personal growth: I started getting serious about writing poetry, I was discovering the literary legacy of Lewis and Tolkien, and I was also beginning to uncover the riches of the church calender. As it happened, Easter was approaching, and I was eager to practice Lent. I had always been soberly and mysteriously drawn to Passion Week in all its agony, ecstasy, and wonder, and I wanted to honor the story in my own way. Having steeped myself in the ambitious poetry of T. S. Eliot and the epic recreations of Tolkien, I thought to rewrite the Passion as a heroic “lay,” in an exercise of personal devotion. So week by week, I poured over the Gospel accounts, and let my imagination cast the story in the mode of a bard. Sixteen poems later, I had completed the last part of what would eventually become The Lay of the Lord trilogy: Birth, Life, and Death & Triumph. I had attempted to present the spirit of “True Myth” which J. R. R. Tolkien talks about in “Fairy Stories,” without getting too archaic for modern sensibilities.

Engaging in such a project enabled me to see the story of Jesus with fresh eyes, to recapture a sense of the drama and the characters involved: the impending doom of Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem, the intellectual parry and thrust of His sparrings with the Pharisees, the darkness of Gethsemane, the gloom of Golgotha. Doing so allowed me to slip past the watchful dragons of my own settled thoughts about these all too familiar tales.

A Wilderness In The Neighborhood: Annie Dillard and the Art of Nature Writing

Recently I stumbled across an interesting piece by Diane Saverin in The Atlantic about Annie Dillard and the writing of her Pulitzer Prize winning work Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Dillard’s book, like many works on nature, has been shrouded in a sort of holy aura by readers. There’s this sense that all such writers disappear into the wilderness to sit on a log for several months in order to get in touch with the sublime spirit of the rocks and trees. The Thoreau mythos prevails. And yet, as Saverin’s article reveals, Dillard was an ordinary Virginia housewife living in the suburbs at the time she constructed her book:

She wasn’t a man living alone in the wild. In fact, she wasn’t even living alone. She was residing in an ordinary house with her husband—her former college poetry professor, Richard Dillard. Before she published her book, she scribbled in her journal, wondering who would take her book seriously if its author was a “Virginia housewife named Annie.”

Saverin’s essay is a fascinating look at the process behind one of the 20th century’s most enduring works of non-fiction, and touches on many other issues along the way. Here are a few excerpts.

Cracks In The Canvas: Encountering Art

The other day I had a chance to visit the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Even though most of the exhibits remain the same, I like to go at least once every year to refresh my experience and my memory. As a creative and art-conscious person, there’s something pilgrim-like about it. We travel to such centers of art in order to expand our vision and our senses once again. I was thinking something along these lines as I wandered the galleries.

I was particularly struck by how galleries remind us of the “reality” of certain types of art. It seems today that more and more art is coming to us through digital means. We pick and download songs through the internet. We stream films or television shows likewise. We can even look at famous paintings or photographs via our computer screens. Granted, real flesh-and-blood artists played real instruments in a studio and created those sounds. Real actors got dirt thrown on them or played out their scenes on sets or somewhere out in the world. But that sometimes gets lost in the magical digitalization through which most of this comes to us.

But at the MFA, I was in a repository of real, immediate, touchable art.

Superheroes, Space Outlaws, and the Church

What do a bunch of space outlaws, a raccoon, a sentient tree, and a handful of human and alien superheroes have to teach us about the church?

Quite a bit actually.

I had the chance to see Marvel’s summer blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy back in August. With its story of a group of space misfits and outlaws coming together for a greater cause, it reminded me a bit of the TV show Firefly, the brainchild of none other than Marvel director Joss Whedon. Firefly, which attained cult status after its very brief run on Fox in 2002, follows the adventures of Captain Malcolm Reynolds and his crew on the ship Serenity. These characters, all brought together from various walks of life and for sometimes questionable motives, are initially at odds. But over time they become a quirky family who learns to work together for a greater purpose, which in Whedon’s follow up film Serenity becomes unmasking the corrupt Alliance government. What Whedon excels at is giving each character their own screen time and back story in which we learn about the ways these loners and oddballs have been broken or wounded, and why they really need each other.

Whedon, of course, went on to direct Marvel’s massive tag-team film The Avengers, in which Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and their associates come together to defeat the threat of Thor’s adopted brother, the scheming and narcissistic Loki. Avengers plays out this theme of misfits coming together on a larger scale. For a superhero film, it’s fascinating that Whedon spends almost two thirds of the time exploring the dynamics of these slightly dysfunctional, damaged, and extraordinary individuals coming together as a team. As Whedon has said about the film, “Ultimately these people don’t belong together and the whole movie is about finding yourself from community. And finding that you not only belong together but you need each other, very much.”

In Praise of Christmas

In praise of Christmas
raise your voice
and join the boisterous angel chorus
who celebrates the holy Son
of heaven sent to earth.

In praise of Christmas
light your candles,
deck your trees in red and gold,
proclaim the dawn of Light
upon a cold and darkened world.

In praise of Christmas
give your gifts
to loved ones and to strangers both;
reflect the generous King
who gave His only precious One.

In praise of Christmas
mark the feast
and raise your glasses high together,
for the child’s laughter
tells us hope has come at last.

In praise of Christmas,
laud the Father,
laud the Spirit,
laud the Son!
Incarnation now accomplished,
redemption’s loving victory begun!

Sacred Groves: An Autumn Reflection

I arrive
just in time to see
one yellow leaf
at last let go, slowly
spinning
through morning sunshine
to quietly ripple the stillness
of the pond

On mornings like this, I can begin to understand why the ancients set aside sacred groves and sanctuaries of nature as places for communion with the gods. I think […]

The Thin Places of Fantasy

Why would you go back to normal, if you found out that life could be so much more? If you found a reality so much better than what the world was offering you?

This is what some of the best fantasy literature reminds me of and points me toward.

Now when it comes to fantasy, there are different kinds. There’s the fantasy of a Tolkien, which immerses us in an entirely different realm from our own. Then there’s the fantasy that starts grounded in the normal world then pulls back a veil into a realm of wonder. This is the fantasy of Lewis’s Narnia books, of the Harry Potter series, and of some of my personal favorites like Stephen Lawhead’s Song of Albion trilogy and, most recently, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and Neverwhere. And while I love Tolkien, what I particularly love about these latter books is the way they reawaken me to the magic threaded through the fabric of creation. Alan Jacobs argues along these lines in a recent essay, “Fantasy and the Buffered Self”:

[T]he desire for a world resonant with spiritual meaning, of one kind or another, does not easily die — perhaps cannot die until humanity itself does. Technology is power, but disenchanted power. And so the more dominant mechanical and then electronic technologies become as shapers of the social order, the more ingenious grow the strategies of resistance to their disenchanting force — the strategies by which we deny the necessary materiality of power. In the literary realm, the chief such strategy is the emergence of fantasy genre.

Why is this drive to re-enchant ourselves so tenacious? Or even further, why is it important? The reason is that such fantasies, while not true, do point us to a truth about the world, that the physical is woven inextricably with the spiritual.

Hobbits and Adaptations

So the first trailer for the last Hobbit film has been released, which means the re-commencement of The Battle of the Five (or more) Opinions of The Hobbit Films. Here in the Rabbit Room we are passionate about our books, our films, and our books made into films. When it comes to Peter Jackson’s second foray into Middle-earth, I know there are strong opinions on both sides. All of this brought to my mind the idea of adaptation, and how we think about that.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to teach The Hobbit to high school students. One week I had them watch the two films, and then we discussed the films vs. the books. In my own search for material, I stumbled across a very helpful discussion of adaptation, and how we think about book-to-film adaptation, by Tolkien scholar Corey Olsen. He deals with the buildup to The Desolation of Smaug, but also spends a bit of time discussing general principles of adaptation. The lecture is pretty long at 2 1/2 hours, but well worth your time if you’d really like to listen.

Listen here

Olsen’s lecture, and the reemerging discussion with the release of the last Hobbit trailer, has brought some questions to mind that I thought I might share here, and spark some discussion on adaptation in general:

1. How much responsibility does a filmmaker have to adhering strictly to a text vs. creating their own vision of a text? Is an author’s opinion and vision of their own work the final authority? Consider that when you read a story, how you imagine the characters and environment may be very different than how the author does. Does this make you wrong?

2. Is it possible for a filmmaker to improve upon a book in some ways?

3. Is it possible to love both a book and a film adaptation of the book, even if they are significantly different, without betraying a sense of “loyalty” to the original story?

4. How do we navigate the gap between two very different mediums, which require two very different storytelling styles, in a knowledgeable way?

Let’s have a good, respectful discussion. Duels are only allowed over whether Galadriel is the fairest of them all.

The Making of a Home

Clean your little corner up and see what starts to change” –Andrew Osenga, “Don’t Lose Heart”

When I think of myself being “creative,” I default to my natural gifts, poetry and songwriting. But in the past few months those have been hard to come by. I had to prepare for one of the biggest changes of my life: finding a home and getting married. Back in February I was lucky to find a small third floor apartment from a kind old lady looking for good tenants. Jen and I stared at the blank walls and empty rooms, awaiting our touch like the unwritten days and weeks of our new life together.

March was a month of hard labor and going to bed tired every night. You see, I’m not a tradesman by any means. I teach and read and write for a living, so while I’m not above physical labor, it’s just not what I’m involved in every day. But that month I did more painting than I’d ever done in my life. I also became a frequent friend of hardware and furniture stores. I became obsessed with this new domestic space—how to make it better, how to make it pleasing for my soon-to-be wife.

And yet, it felt like it was taking me away from my “creative” endeavors. Almost every spare minute after work and other responsibilities was poured into it until I collapsed on my bed at night. Something felt missing, like life usually feels when I’m not writing something.

The Power of a Building Block

Note: This post contains some major plot spoilers for The Lego Movie

When I was a kid, my brother and I had two boxes of treasure. You could run your hand through them and hear the clinking cascade, or grasp a fistful and watch the pieces fall through your fingers. So much opportunity, so much potential to work with.

One was a box of Playmobile, the other a box of Legos.

We spent many long, creative afternoons beside that Lego box, which represented a conglomerate of various sets collected over the years. Nothing stayed in its original state very long, but was sacrificed to the common hoard of building blocks. The results were wonderful and varied. A medieval castle might arise from the icy foundations of an arctic science laboratory. A pirate might don a space helmet (no wonder I love Firefly and Andy Osenga). Wild and incongruous creations emerged from our uninhibited eight-year-old minds.

Lenten Trilogy

Lent I

On Noah

In your dreams
you saw water and death.
In your days
you saw darkness and evil.
How far we have come
from the gates of paradise,
spewing a wretched trail in the wake,
vomiting the rotten fruit of our first sin.

And yet
how does this horror of water and blood
manage to be our sole salvation?
I run to the secret place and hide,
resolving to cling to the dark mystery of grace.