Originality may be the most overrated of the writerly virtues. Much more important is the skill of seeing what’s in front of you and rendering it faithfully. The world is a varied place; every person in it is a miracle; every setting is unusual; every event, every encounter is a thing that has never happened in the long history of the world. On top of all that variety is the fact that every observer’s vision is unique. If you will allow yourself to see what you see, and then write what you have seen, you can be sure that originality will take care of itself.
That’s not an easy thing to do. Few people write what they have seen. More often, they write what they think they ought to have seen, or they shoehorn experiences and people into familiar categories. It’s a hard habit to break; categorizing and sorting the firehose-blast of experiences and ideas that come our way is a necessary survival skill. But writing is different. Writing is a chance to release experience from man-made categories and say, “Look at this—this thing that exists in the real world.” Writing comes alive when you do that. Oddly enough, faithful imitation is the front door to originality.
[Editor's Note: This Sunday, August 3, is the fiftieth anniversary of Flannery O'Connor's death. This memorial is adapted from Jonathan's biography of O'Connor, The Terrible Speed of Mercy, which is available in the Rabbit Room store.]
Fifty summers ago, Flannery O’Connor was thirty-nine years old. She had battled lupus for most of her adult life, managing the disease with massive doses of corticosteroids, which themselves had serious side effects. As she wrote to a friend, “So far as I can tell, the medicine and the disease run neck & neck to kill you.” In the spring of 1954, a major surgery reactivated O’Connor’s dormant lupus; the tell-tale “lupus rash” broke through the protective steroid barrier, signaling that the disease was back in earnest. O’Connor spent a month in Atlanta’s Piedmont Hospital–from May 21 to June 20.
A prodigious letter-writer, O’Connor kept up her correspondence from her hospital bed. Through her many hospital stays, she almost always kept up her letter-writing. But she tended to put off fiction-writing until she could get back to her typewriter. The fact that she wrote much of “Parker’s Back” in Piedmont Hospital, in longhand, suggests a sense of urgency that was unusual for this most deliberate writer. O’Connor seemed to understand that there was something different about this hospital stay, about this recurrence of a disease that had come and gone but had been mostly manageable to that point. The letters she wrote that month didn’t have the same cheery tone that she usually assumed in her hospital letters. “I don’t know if I’m making progress or if there’s any to be made,” she wrote her friend Maryat Lee. “Let’s hope they are learning something anyhow.”
“Ball,” he said, and he gestured to the heavens. I looked where my little boy was pointing and saw a full moon hanging high in the winter sky.
“That’s right, you brilliant boy,” I said. “It is a ball. The moon is a great big ball.”
He didn’t know more than four or five words at the time: Mama. Daddy. Ball. Dog. Plane. What a remarkable thing—to have words only for one’s favorite things in the world.
“The moon is a ball,” I told my boy, “and so is the earth we’re standing on. This whole world is one big ball set spinning in the universe.”
He smiled at me. It was not a smile of comprehension, but of contentment. To me it seemed to say, “Of course this whole world is a ball! And why shouldn’t it be? It’s a great ball where dogs trot and planes soar overhead and my mama loves me and my daddy holds me in the cold night and tells me what I suspected all along: that the moon is a ball, and the world is too.”
Next Tuesday, April 1st, the poet Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, is coming to Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville to speak on “Why Beauty Matters: The Significance of Beauty in Art, Faith, and Politics.” The event is being put on by The Trinity Forum. Tickets are $10 (register in advance), and the event includes a reception with excellent hors d’oeuvres and conversation. I’ve been to a couple of these Trinity Forum events, and they are very fun and stimulating. Here’s the link to register.
To whet your appetite, here’s one of my favorite poems by Dana Gioia:
The Country Wife
She makes her way through the dark trees
Down to the lake to be alone.
Following their voices on the breeze,
She makes her way. Through the dark trees
The distant stars are all she sees.
They cannot light the way she’s gone.
She makes her way through the dark trees
Down to the lake to be alone.
The night reflected on the lake,
The fire of stars changed into water.
She cannot see the winds that break
The night reflected on the lake
But knows they motion for her sake.
These are the choices they have brought her:
The night reflected on the lake,
The fire of stars changed into water.
My friend Hilton grew up poor in South Alabama. He and his older brother didn’t have a lot of toys, but they did have one tricycle to share between them. Only Hilton’s brother wasn’t much of a sharer. He rarely gave five-year-old Hilton a turn, and when Hilton did get on the tricycle, his brother was likely as not to knock him off and ride it himself. Which made it hard to relax and enjoy any tricycle time he got.
One day the two boys were playing at a creek not too far from the house when the older brother stepped on a leg trap—picture a snap-jawed bear trap from the cartoons, but smaller and without the teeth. Still plenty painful, though, on a little boy’s bare foot. The older brother howled in agony while Hilton sweated and grunted, trying to open the jaws of the trap enough to free the foot. But he was only five. He couldn’t do it. The two boys together, in fact, couldn’t open the trap. “Go get mama!” the brother bawled. “Get her quick!”
[Editor's note: This one is a couple of weeks old, but the "everywhere but Nashville" line still holds true.]
This week’s snow and ice (everywhere but Nashville) has made me think of a favorite poem by one of my favorite poets–“Boy at the Window,” by Richard Wilbur.
“Boy at the Window”
Seeing the snowman standing all alone
In dusk and cold is more than he can bear.
The small boy weeps to hear the wind prepare
A night of gnashings and enormous moan.
His tearful sight can hardly reach to where
The pale-faced figure with bitumen eyes
Returns him such a God-forsaken stare
As outcast Adam gave to paradise.
The man of snow is, nonetheless, content,
Having no wish to go inside and die.
Still, he is moved to see the youngster cry.
Though frozen water is his element,
He melts enough to drop from one soft eye
A trickle of the purest rain, a tear
For the child at the bright pane surrounded by
Such warmth, such light, such love, and so much fear.
Bonus media: My daughter, a devotee of the movie Frozen, introduced me to this different take on what it means to be a snowman:
Baylor University’s Ralph Wood is one of the great Flannery O’Connor scholars. His Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South has done more to shape my thinking about O’Connor’s work than any other secondary source. He’s just as strong on Lewis and Tolkien. Also Dostoyevsky. He is the best sort of literary scholar: while his colleagues in English departments throughout the land are going to work on the texts, Dr. Wood gets out of the way and lovingly allows the texts to do their work.
Dr. Wood will be giving four public lectures in Nashville on Monday and Tuesday of next week (March 10-11). These are going to be great. All four lectures are free and open to the public. If you are in Middle Tennessee, you really need to attend as many of these as possible. I insist.
Here’s the lineup:
Monday, March 10, noon to 1pm
“C.S. Lewis and the Matter of Moral Formation for Physicians”
Vanderbilt University Medical School, Light Hall 208
2215 Garland Avenue (615) 343-4664
Monday, March 10, 5:45 to 7pm
“C.S. Lewis on Driving the Devil out with Laughter”
Montgomery Bell Academy, Lowry Hall, Dead Poets’ Society Room
4001 Harding Road (615) 298-5514
Tuesday, March 11, noon to 1pm
“J.R.R. Tolkien: Writer for Our Time of Terror”
4210 Harding Road (615) 297-7545
Tuesday, March 11, 6:30 to 8pm
“Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Flannery O’Connor, and Christ Pantocrator”
Vanderbilt University, Benton Chapel
411 21st Ave S. (615) 322-2457
[Editor's note: Tomorrow is the last day to pre-order the Rabbit Room Press edition of Jonathan's Wilderking Trilogy. Pre-orders will start shipping soon. Everyone else will have to wait for the books' public release.]
At the most recent Hutchmoot, Andrew Peterson and I gave a talk called “Writing Close to the Earth.” Andrew got on the subject of sehnsucht, that unexplained and unsatisfied longing that was for C.S. Lewis such an important clue to the meaning of the universe. Lewis’s autobiography Surprised by Joy is punctuated by moments in which some earthly experience awakens him to the truth that there is more to the world than mere earthly experience. A little model garden in a biscuit tin, Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of the Ring Cycle, a flowering currant bush—seemingly commonplace things—each gave Lewis “the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing” for a world beyond this world.
In Andrew’s words, these episodes are “moments that are lodged in our memories as significant, though we don’t always understand why—moments where the veil is lifted for a moment, and we’re left with longing, or with a new revelation of the wild beauty of the world.”
Andrew asked the audience to describe such moments in their own lives. There were a lot of mountain vistas, sunsets and sunrises, encounters with music and with art. For me, the question brought back a memory that sheds light on all the fiction I’ve ever written.
“I was terribly shy as a boy,” the man said. “Excruciatingly shy. But in third grade there was a girl I liked, and somehow I mustered up the courage to tell her so on the school bus. And she said she liked me too.” He smiled a wistful little smile as he told it. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. She liked me too. So I thought I’d strike while the iron was hot. I asked her if she’d like to be my girlfriend. She said ‘Sure.’ It was like I had been transformed in a moment, from a loser to somebody’s boyfriend. Even my big brother noticed something different about me when I got off the bus.”
He paused as if to savor that memory before going on. “The next day,” he said, “I picked some flowers and gave them to the little girl on the playground. Everybody stared at me, but I didn’t care at all. Except that the little girl stared too, just like the others. ‘What are these for?’ she said. ‘They’re for you,’ I said. ‘Because you’re my girlfriend.’ The girl’s mouth dropped open in horror and she shrugged her shoulders and gave the other kids one of those looks that said, ‘This boy’s crazy.’
We’re now taking pre-orders for the Wilderking books. Order now, and you’ll get your books in early March, two or three weeks ahead of the April 1st release date. Besides getting your books early, you will also be helping to fund the first print run with your pre-order. As much as we like regular orders, pre-orders are worth even more to Rabbit Room Press because they help us order longer print runs and save significantly per unit.
In honor of this new edition of the Wilderking Trilogy, here’s an anecdote in which Jonathan explains where the feechiefolk come from (hint: they come from very close to Warner Robins, Georgia).]
Here’s a story I once heard about a colorful character somewhere in the great state of Missouri. It was told to me for the truth. The fellow who told me the story had been a lawyer near Kansas City. He was coming out of the courthouse one bright afternoon, he said, when he saw a family across the way: a four- or five-year-old daughter, a mother, and a father whose hair was styled in a feechie-ish manner—short in the front but cascading in the back down below the scoop of his white tank top. Also, he had a parrot on his shoulder.
The father nudged the little girl and pointed up at the upper floor of the courthouse. “Baby,” he said, “wave hello to Granddaddy.” The little girl waved enthusiastically, and the onlooking lawyer looked up to see a wizened old hand reaching through the bars of the upstairs cell window to wave back. “A touching scene of filial devotion,” I think was how the lawyer described it.
The errand of mercy complete, the little girl looked up at her father and sweetly asked, “Diddy, can you take me to McDonald’s to get some french fries?”
“I sure can, darling,” the father answered. Then he pointed at the parrot on his shoulder. “Just let me swing by and take Freebird home first.”
Before I heard that story, it had never occurred to me to want a parrot. Now I want one just so I can name him Freebird.
Bonus parrot-related anecdote: A friend of mine has a parrot named Mr. Quito. (To my friend’s chagrin, Mr. Quito turned out to be a she-parrot—a fact that came to light when Mr. Quito was several years old.) When my friend moved to a new house, he locked Mr. Quito in the closet below the stairs so that s/he would be out of the movers’ way and wouldn’t be stressed out at the sight of the house being in such disarray (who knew parrots were so particular?). But Mr. Quito was a little stressed out in spite of it all. He spent much of the day repeating, “Let me out of here! Rrrawk! Let me out of here!” It was discomfiting to the movers, who gave each other concerned looks every time they walked past the stairs. Finally, unable to stand the cruelty of it any longer, one of the movers leaned down and called through the keyhole, “It’s all right, Grandma—we’ll be out of here in a little while. I’m sure he’ll let you out then.”
My cousin Jason worked for an heating and air conditioning company when he was in high school. They took care of the huge air conditioning units that sat atop the local mall. The mall had pigeons. Looking up through the skylights, a shopper could see them bobbing and strutting on the roof. They were picturesque, but when they took up residence in the air conditioning units, they played havoc with the interior climate of the mall.
Jason, the youngest (and, presumably, the least skilled) of the company’s employees, was assigned the task of discouraging the pigeons. So one summer morning he carried a BB gun to the mall and climbed through the roof hatch with it.
Jason was popping away on the roof of the mall when a shopper looked up and screamed at the sight of a young man aiming and shooting a gun.
I love that moment in “The Ugly Duckling” when the poor, persecuted duckling, set upon on every side by ducks and hens and cats and henwives, sees a flock of swans:
The duckling had never seen anything so beautiful. They were dazzlingly white with long waving necks. They were swans, and uttering a peculiar cry they spread out their magnificent broad wings and flew away from the cold regions to warmer lands and open seas. They mounted so high, so very high, and the ugly little duckling became strangely uneasy. He circled round and round in the water like a wheel, craning his neck up into the air after them. Then he uttered a shriek so piercing and so strange that he was quite frightned by it himself. Oh, he could not forget those birds, those beautiful birds.
Was there ever a better depiction of what it’s like to be a child? The duckling, so full of self-doubt, marvels and trembles at the thing he is destined to become. We know what he doesn’t know: he will be that beautiful someday.
Beautiful someday. The duckling’s great revelation is that he is himself a thing of wonder. He admired the swans, but it never occurred to him to aspire to swanhood. When he finally comes face to face with the swans, he assumes that they will kill him for his ugliness. Bowing his neck for the fatal blow, he sees his reflection in the water. And there he sees a swan.
It’s the divine comedy. Our wildest dreams turn out not to be wild enough. Our fondest hopes turn out to be pale beside the truth. And we long and ache for that which turns out to have been true all along.
“I am doing a new thing,” God said. “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” The weak things of the world will shame the strong. The foolish things of the world will shame the wise. And the King of Heaven will be born in the muck and filth of a stable, attended by goats and jackasses and hardscrabble shepherds. The hope of Christmas is that God has done a new thing—that he has made a home among people who have a hard time feeling at home here themselves.
In the midst of ambition and striving and disappointment and homework and housework, it all seems very unlikely. As Chesterton wrote, “our peace is put in impossible things.” So rather than wrestle with impossibility, we enfeeble our expectations. We reduce Christmas to an experience we can stage-manage, something we can make marvelous for our children, something we can do something about. That sort of Christmas can’t begin to bear the weight of our longings.
Let’s all remind each other of what we often forget: God is forever at work, bringing wild impossibility to bear on the things we struggle to keep under our own control. Here’s to something new, even impossible this season and in the new year.
When my mother-in-law was a young girl, a traveling ballet troupe came to her small town in Georgia. Sitting in the hard seats of the auditorium, she and her friends marveled at the grace and the beauty of the dancers. In Newnan, Georgia in the 1950s, a ballet dancer was as exotic as a gazelle or an elephant. The women moved like angels. The men, so strong and lithe, were a revelation.
In an especially moving pas de deux, a male dancer took a ballerina in his arms and lifted her right up off the floor and turned around, slowly, slowly. As he turned his back to the audience, a huge mole asserted itself through the seat of his white tights, straining against the stretchy fabric as if it wanted to get out and walk amongst the audience. The way my mother-in-law remembers it, it was about the size of a halved new potato. The little girls spent the rest of the performance watching for the mole to rotate back into view, and stifling their laughter when it did.
That was nearly sixty years ago. My mother-in-law still remembers that first ballet she ever saw. But mostly she remembers the mole. There’s more than one way to get exposed to culture.