Monday, November 28, 2011

On Creative Non-fiction

I have been re-reading some classic pieces by Gay Talese, who has graced the pages of Esquire, The New York Times, the New Yorker, and other periodicals for 45 years with the art of creative non-fiction, which he helped invent.

The son of a tailor, Talese (named for his grandfather Gaetano Talese) writes perfectly tailored, seamless sentences that are elegant yet never call attention to themselves. No has written about New York City, its doormen and its cats, its bridges and taxis, the way he does.

No one has written about Frank Sinatra the way Talese did in his 1960 breakthrough piece, now a classic, "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold." He writes: "Sinatra with a cold is like Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel--only worse. For the cold robs Sinatra of that uninsurable jewel, his voice, cutting into the core of his confidence..."

About the George Washington Bridge: "The bridge is never completely still. It trembles with traffic. It moves in the wind....It is an almost restless structure of graceful beauty, which, like an irresistible seductress, withholds secrets from the romantics who gaze upon it, the escapists who jump off it, the chubby girl who lumbers across its 3,500-foot span trying to reduce, and the 100,000 motorists who each day cross it, smash into it, shortchange it, get jammed up on it." (Three short sentences, followed by a long one, rich in descriptive detail.)

What would I do to write such a sentence? As I tell my students in the prose style workshop, if they want to write non-fiction and turn it into an art, as Talese does, they should read carefully writers like him and then try their hand at sentences that are varied, poetic, flowing, or tense, as the occasion warrants. Good writing, as Katherine Anne Porter once said, cannot be taught; it can only be learned--by practice.

To read some of his best work, get The Gay Talese Reader and you will see how an ordinary topic can become extraordinary. If you are a writer, you will learn lessons from a master.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

What Does Happiness Look Like?

If you want to see what a happy man looks like, see the documentary "Bill Cunningham New York" (2010), which we watched with great delight last night (courtesy of Netflix).

Bill, a fashion photographer for the New York Times, has bicycled around the streets of Manhattan for 40 years taking pictures of interestingly-dressed people, mainly women. His work is seen in the weekend editions of the Times. He also catches celebrities at the charity events covered by the Times.

He does all this, at age 80, with Franciscan simplicity. "Money," he says, "is cheap." He wants and has found something more importrant and hard to find: freedom. Freedom to search for beauty. He does this every day with great passion.

He has always found beauty and pleasure in the way people dress themselves. And although he hobnobs with the rich and famous, he lives in a tiny studio apartment, alone, with bath down the hall, without a TV and with files everywhere around him stuffed with pictures he has made recording New Yorkers on the streets in their finery. Bill himself dresses in a patched poncho and simple blue jacket. He eats sparingly and doesn't want honors. He says he is embarrassed by displays of wealth.

To live simply and honestly in such a world is a heroic endeavor, but Bill Cunningham, with his disarming charm, is the last person to see himself as special, much less heroic.

He laughs and talks a lot but when asked why he attends church weekly, and what his Catholic faith means to him, he is stymied. He is not one to explore the inner life. If anyone can be said to lack a private life, Bill is that person.

He has lived for his work, and in this--and the people he encounters--he has found life-long happiness.

I am reminded of what the Dalai Lama said: "In order to be happy, one must first possess inner contentment; and inner contentment cannot come from having all we want; rather it comes from having and appreciating all we have."

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanking the Universe

Here in the U.S., as we celebrate Thanksgiving, various celebrities are invariably asked by the media what things they are most grateful for. Their responses usually avoid mentioning God. The question is, can we be grateful without acknowledging the existence of God? And: can life have meaning without a belief in God?

Although I am a theist, I believe the answer is Yes--in a sense. Each day as I acknowledge the little things around me or the events that have made my life more bearable, I am grateful--without explicitly thinking of or thanking God or recognizing a supernatural hand in my daily routine. Right now I am grateful to have this blog, and for those who read it in various parts of the world, and for the computer itself: none of this was part of my life 15 years ago. So I am grateful to the universe, I suppose, since I do not believe that God is necessarily involved in arranging the details of my days.

Chance plays an enormous role in the traffic flow that makes driving easy or hard, in the coincidences that make serendipidty happen. At the same time, I believe that gratitude in general is a spiritual as well as religious phenomenon; by this I mean, to be grateful for beauty, for a chance encounter with a friend, is to recognize and affirm the good. It is a recognition of the optimistic side of life and its many positive features.

The basic question is whether meaning can be found without belief. As a recent reader of Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish blog said (11-15-11), it cannot be said that if there were no God, life would be without meaning: the lesson of the universe, from stars to atoms, is one of amazing life. Yet she goes on to say that all this--the 7 billion of us on this planet, the rumbles and earthquakes, the fleas as well as the planets--are all part of God. If the universe is vast and uncaring, there is a "constant explosion of love and sadess through the enormous sweep of the cosmos" (the correspondent writes).

We must rid ourselves of the stereotype of God as a bearded man up in the sky controlling everything. As Thomas Merton discovered in his reading of medieval philosophy, God is not a being but Being itself; God is the unknowable but loving presence that underlies all existence and is the ultimate source of all.

So for me, even when I am grateful for little things, this is an implicit recognition not merely that the world makes sense despite evil and suffering but also that God is present in the suffering as well as the joy. To be grateful is to implicitly recognize that reality.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Perfectionism and Steve Jobs

When I began to read about Walter Isaacson's biography of the late Steve Jobs, I laughed: he and his wife discussed furniture in theoretical terms for eight years before settling on anything to furnish their new home. And at the end of his life, Jobs ripped off the hospital mask he was wearing because he hated the design; he ordered five options from which to choose. If he had lived longer, would he have driven himself crazy?

Jobs also ran through 67 nurses before he found three he liked. And so it went with this compulsive, difficult man, who, just after his death, was praised, understandably, as a genius. But it seems that his drive for perfectionism was a maddening obsession that made his life and those of colleagues and family members difficult.

"He needed things to be perfect, and it took time to find out what perfect was," writes Malcolm Gladwell in the current New Yorker , commenting about the authorized Jobs bio.

Obviously, perfectionism can be a dangerous thing and far from a laughing matter.

So when the student I tutor told me this week he always aimed for perfection, I paused with mild alarm, knowing that my own striving for "perfection" can be frustrating and a recipe for disaster. I encouraged him to be the best he can be at school but reminded him that criticizing himself for not being perfect in every subject, at every test, is not a good idea. Where does such a compulsive desire come from?

I told him he has to allow himself to fail and to accept some failure, just as he has learned that he cannot win every game. Perhaps he has been intimidated by his teachers, who remind him regularly that every assignment must follow the guidelines perfectly, use Word Perfect, edit everything precisely, and submit it on time. God forbid any deviation from the rubric, which is enough to instill fear even in me as I read it before helping my young friend with his homework.

I can easily recall as a boy admiring the proverb "Whatever is worth doing is worth doing well," and decided by age 12 to make that my personal academic motto. Later I would come to apply it to my appearance and speech and would be impatient with myself for any lapses from the ideal. Then I learned, gradually, to be more realistic.

I remain grateful for my demanding teachers, and have tried myself to be demanding as a teacher, but I have also striven to remain human, since perfectionism is more a divine than human attribute.

Educators and parents, as well as athletes, have the difficult challenge of striking a balance between the extremes of laxity and perfectionism, which I associate with fear. Fear breeds more fear, terror and/or anger.

Obviously, learning cannot succeed in such a volatile emotional context nor can happiness hope to flourish, as Steve Jobs tragically found out.

We can learn valuable lessons from the lives of others, which keep reminding us of what success and happiness are and how being perfect is not part of the formula for either.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

On memory and mysticism

Mysticism has gotten a bad press. Too many people associate it with something vaguely mystifying or occult. Although it is a term impossible to define, I am convinced that all of us have mystical moments in which we are able to step out of ourselves and feel a brief sense of union with something greater than ourselves. Often this happens when time seems to stand still and we are struck with wonder and awe at creation.

It seems that much great art and music, like contemplative silence, has this capacity to give us a sense of the timeless present, a taste of eternity in the here and now. Many writers have tried to describe such transcendent experiences. One was C. S. Lewis recalling a moment from childhood and overcome by a desire "from a depth not of years but of centuries."

In his autobiographical Surprised by Joy, Lewis says he tried to find words to convey the strength of his sensation, which was a feeling of desire so brief that it was gone "before I knew what I desired." Then the "world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing which had just ceased."

How many of us have had such moments "in and out of time," as Eliot calls them? In the first part of his Four Quartets ("Burnt Norton"), T. S. Eliot explores the relation between time and the timeless, specifically the way memory can give hints of transcendence, evoking half-forgotten childhood moments in what he called the rose garden, which represents both some memory of an unfulfilled desire and a place of spiritual fulfillment, a hint of eternity.

Recalling the "unheard music" of ghost-like presences hidden in the shubbery of a childhood garden, he describes, or tries to describe, a vision glittering like Dante's vision of heaven with its "heart of light." This is not an easy poem, as the poet recognizes when he mentions the struggle with language that all mysticism involves. The mystic wants to describe his or her vision yet words strain, "Crack and sometimes break."

Reading all this again, I was reminded of one or two moments in which time and place seemed to give way to a sense of something that could be called eternal--one in my childhood, one in my 20s, when I found myself enjoying a picture-perfect day in a park in St. Louis, looking at ordinary trees and grass and sky yet feeling, almost like Thomas Merton in his famous epiphany at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville, a moment or two of longing that seemed to transport me briefly into an unknown part of my childhood. I felt safe and removed from the ordinary reality of my daily life, as if in a corner of the garden of Eden.

In somewhat the same way, an old song from the 1940s can pull me out of the present into an era I hardly knew, evoking scenes with couples dancing to such music in formal ballrooms somewhere. What's interesting is the way several levels of memory come together with imagination, since the music brings with it a visual sense, never experienced but only dreamed of or half-remembered from old films.

I find I am having the usual difficulty of trying to describe the ineffable, if that is not too grand a term for the rich sense we have of a reality beyond time, bits of which come to us when we're open to receiving them. It seems that we all have such mystical experiences. If we are lucky, we remember them; if we are talented, we can write them with enough clarity to make them memorable again.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Attention Deficit Disorder: There is Hope

For the past year or so, I've been thinking about the importance of attention as a spiritual discipline, an essential quality that keeps us focused on the reality of the present in a world of multiple distractions.

At the same time, I have been tutoring a high school boy, a family friend, who has ADHD, as attention deficit disorder is generally known. I knew the boy as a hyperactive child,so I was not surprised that he has been a restless, impatient student, sometimes impossible for me to work with.

Now, only after reading a few key sources, I understand how typical he is among those with attention deficit disorder (and how my original ideas about attention mean little to many people). I learned the challenges faced by about 10% of the world's population: talented, creative people with ADHD don't outgrow the brain dysfunction whereby focusing becomes difficult and attendant emotional distress inevitable.

Hyperactivity leads in adolescence to a restlessness in which forgetfulness and a lack of organizational skills are common. Parents and teachers need to understand what I have recently learned: that ADHD people can be helped. The two M.D.s who wrote the book Driven to Distraction--Edward Hollowell and John Ratey--discovered during their medical studies that they themselves had an attention deficit disorder, yet they not only graduated from Harvard but got through the ordeal of medical education. Now they have written books and are helping others in their medical practice.

In my own teaching, I had little awareness of this disorder, and assumed that most requests that students be given more time or help were due to dyslexia (or simply that the students were among those who didn't belong at the university). I now know how much patience a teacher and parent must exercise in repeating ideas, suggesting ways to structure reading and writing assignments, helping students prioritze their work so they don't feel crippled by the effects of a common problem. Because these students are generally gifted, not backward.

A topic like this involves the complexities of learning and problem solving. Things I take for granted--planning a schedule and writing an essay--require subtle skills that my high school friend lacks. He easily becomes impatient with himself, angry, and depressed when he runs into a blank wall. He knows that anxiety is often a part of attention deficit disorder, but we tell him that he is not mentally ill or damaged as a person.

He is getting help not just from me and from his parents, who are attending a workshop on this topic this week, but from medication and the patient guidance of his teachers. I remind him of the many gifted people in the past--Mozart among them--who are assumed to have had ADHD or at least trouble organizing the plethora of ideas they had; they were, like many great people, poor performers in the structured environment of formal schooling.

So it is important to remind students like mine that, along with the negative symptoms, they are likely to be creative, imaginative, warm and outgoing people with a great sense of humor and a great deal of spontaneous talent to share with the world.

I have been learning, again, how difficult learning is as a behavior and how our under-valued teachers have enormous opportunities to turn a challenge like ADHD into a channel for good. What we who educate need are patience and understanding.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Why Rilke Matters

I am not about to convince you that reading Rainer Maria Rilke can change your life, though it might. Of course, you have to understand his poems, which can be quite a challenge because it really means understanding the German originals. Even in the various good English translations, I find complexities and would find teaching them impossible (in a way that teaching Dante is not).

Yet I have always sensed a mysterious power in his taut verse, which searches for the ineffable in a pre-modernist mode--he died in 1926--that speaks to the secular world of the early 20th century about matters of the spirit.

Although most people who read them admire his Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, I have a devotion, thanks to Robert Bly's translation, to his earlier Book of Hours, or, as Bly calls it, A Book for the Hours of Prayer. This was Rilke's first major book, written 1899-1903.

Here Rilke shows himself to be the poet of solitude and silence, the poet of darkness, the darkness of fertility and unknowing, as in the mystics of the medieval tradition. Although Rilke rejected the smothering piety of his mother's Catholicism, he was deeply affected by its traditions and by the value of prayer, especially the via negativa.

Rilke is the poet of inner spaces, as if interiorizing the desert image found in other writers. He is also the poet's poet, the careful craftsman who lived largely in isolation in various parts of Europe, waiting for the great outbursts of inspiration that produced both lyrical prose and incomparable verse. Although he can be faulted for seeming self-centered, Rilke speaks with a cosmic voice, as when he says (Bly's trans.), "I have faith in nights."

This poem begins by addressing God or the creative darkness: "You darkness that I come from,/I love you more than all the fires/ that fence in the is possible a great energy/ is moving near me." You see what I mean: the English is uniquely direct, simple in style, yet subjective, elusive and untranslatable. He is like a modern John of the Cross. (I am reminded of T. S. Eliot's statement that we do not have to understand a poem in order to appreciate it.)

The holy in these poems is deep down within, dark and distant yet always close, too, beyond time and place. Bly says that Rilke's final sonnets are essentially poems of praise, so we have poetic prayers of appreciation and longing in verse that is religious despite its rejection of religion in the usual sense.

From his prose, I must quote some memorable lines from his "Letters to a Young Poet":
"Be patient with all that is unresolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves. Do not seek answers which cannot be given to you now because you would not be able to live them now. And the point is to live everything, to live the question now."

And: "Believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without ever having to step outside it."

Saturday, November 5, 2011


I don't think often about saints, but when I was asked to give a talk for All Saints Day, I said 'yes' with some hesitation and uncertainty; I finally decided to focus on the most obvious saint, everyone's favorite: Francis of Assisi (d. 1226), a tormented man of peace.

The 2009 book by Paul Moses, The Saint and the Sultan, gives me some fresh insight, both psychological and political, into the life of St. Francis, the young rich man's son who gave up everything for God. How explain his erratic behavior after he spent a year in prison (taken prisoner and contracting malaria)?

Many saints are tormented and afflicted, so much so that their stories are often enough to repel the reader. But Moses makes clear that Francis, in addition to suffering severe anxiety attacks, must have had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder since his earliest biographer talks about his depression and self-loathing, even while he impulsively began to give generously to the poor.

His revulsion from combat--he had just sold his horse and armor--was one way to coping with his depression and trauma; along with this: a renunciation of wealth and power. Before he gathered a group of friars around him, the beginning of the Franciscans, he was reborn as a peacemaker.

One remarkable aspect of his peacemaking took him in 1219 to meet the Sultan Malik al-Kamil during the Fifth Crusade. He traveled to Damietta not with a desire to Christianize the Muslims but to intervene with the Cardinal who had refused the Sultan's offer to negotiate a peace. The weapons Francis used were simple: Gospel values. He preached that war was not God's will, a point lost on the Cardinal.

The mission was a failure in political terms, but the real miracle, greater than those recounted by later hagiographers, was that the nephew of Saladin and Francis of Assisi met on equal ground, in peace, for several days during the bloody battle. Throughout his life, Moses shows, the Sultan, without giving up his devout Sunni faith, respected Christians, guided in part by that part of the Koran which requires Muslims to recognize their affinity with Christian monks.

There must be a lesson here: that mortal enemies can respect each other as individuals and tolerate their differences, even working toward a resolution of their conflict. I don't know if the Islamaphobia of many Americans has lessened during these past ten years, as I would hope it has. But the more we learn about people like Malik al-Kamil, and the damage done by the Crusades, we more we can understand the roots of this hatred. We fear less what we understand.

At the very least, we can see in the heroic mission of Francis to the Sultan a much-needed human gesture of good will, a concrete demonstration of the seemingly trite conclusion from the peace prayer attributed to St. Francis: "Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me."

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Understanding the Dead

The Day of the Dead, or All Souls' Day in my tradition, has always had great resonance for me. It reminds me of my connection with that undiscovered realm beyond the natural world and also with remembering, which sometimes means re-membering.

Some years ago I read a book by Frederick Buechner, an eloquent spiritual writer. In it he says that memory is more than a nostalgic look back at a time past. It is, he says, "a looking out into another kind of time altogether where everything that ever was continues not just to be, but to grow and to change with the life that is in it still."

The implications of this powerful statement is that, in remembering and re-connecting with deceased loved ones in our families and with favorite authors and saints, we come to understand the dead in new ways; perhaps they come to understand us, and through them we come to understand ourselves.

This sounds mysterious because it is, because time and the timeless are mysteriously connected, as great art can sometimes remind us. I am reminded of my own last post, with that statement by Faulkner about the past as ever-present. I tend to apply this to prayer, which bridges the gap between the two realms. Today especially I join with others still living as we pray for the dead, not as they were on earth merely, but as they are now--and for ourselves and what we might become.