Wednesday, November 28, 2012

When the Writer's Well Runs Dry

I have been unable to write much of anything lately.  Blame the busyness of the coming holidays and the lack of quiet time. Or it may be just the necessary fallow period that many writers go through. It's not a matter of concern.

Sometimes they call it writer's block, but I see these dry periods when nothing quite interests me enough to focus on it as opportunities to observe. And wait.

Today I observed wintry trees--maples and sycamores--reminiscent of my northern youth. I keep reminding myself that we in central Florida do indeed have four seasons, as the cool weather and scattered yellow leaves attest.

What happened after this observing, other than memories of my St. Louis growing up? Not much.  Then I connected it with gratitude. I was grateful to the universe for these beautiful trees.  When all else fails, I can fall back on being grateful for more things than I care to enumerate.

I like the idea (advanced by David Steindl-Rast and others) that gratitude is the heart of prayer.  True prayer for me is not asking for favors but affirming that life is good despite all the problems and realizing how fortunate or blessed my life has been.  Usually this is done without words.

What else can writers do when the well runs dry? Invariably, in my case, reading some the vast material on the Internet will get me started reacting to something, or I will have a nagging question from a movie or book.  Questions themselves can get writers moving, too.

I thought of this as I watched again Terence Malick's remarkable film,
The Tree of Life. I recommend using subtitles since the narrative is whispered, like a prayer. 

There are many questions about memory and time, death and love, loss and hope in this richly imagistic film. What other movie, I asked myself, poses so many major questions about the meaning of life or presents its narrative and images in a cosmic context of time and eternity? 

The film, like everything, has its flaws, but I am grateful to have seen it and to have had the leisure to see it again. I am grateful for the odd or imperfect things in nature, as G. M. Hopkins says in his poem "Pied Beauty."

When my friend John lent me last week the new collection of poems by Mary Oliver, A Thousand Mornings, I was struck by their bold clarity and colloquial directness.  I was reminded at times of Rumi, yet the voice of this American poet (new to me) is original. I wanted to write about the poems, but what response can I there to such memorable pieces of art?  And: how did these poems emerge? What is the creative process that leads some people inward and then outward into verse?

All I can say is that I am grateful to have questions to think about, even if I don't feel moved to write. The well is never really dry; it just seems that way.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Is E-reading really Reading?

There have been, and will no doubt continue to be, hundreds of books and articles on the decline of print, the value of traditional books, and the advantages and disadvantages of reading electronically, especially on Kindle and other book-like devices for e-reading.

The latest to catch my eye is an excerpt in of a new book by Andrew Piper, who says that e-reading is not really reading.  What does he mean, you might ask, by reading?

It is not, he tries to show, merely a matter of brain and intellect and eyes but of touch: reading is a physical, tactile activity. "It is something with do with our bodies" but especially our hands, he says, since at least the time of St. Augustine in the 4th century, who recounts in a famous passage of his autobiography how he opened the codex before him (not a scroll) and, after reading a biblical passage, saw that he needed to read no more. He turned the page in his life, finding answers to his doubts about Christianity in what he had read. He was converted.

Ever since, Piper argues, books held in the hand and turned by the hand have shaped our reading and our self-perception.  He does not develop the idea explored by others that private reading "turned readers into individuals"--a huge claim--but the interiority of the reading act is widely known. As are the private spaces people in Western society eventually created so that they could be alone, silently reading.

The book as a graspable thing, in a material as well as spiritual sense, has given it great power over the centuries. In taking hold of a book, in Augustine's sense, we are taken hold of by books, in Piper's words.

But not by e-books, whose digital contours are hard to determine: there is always something "out of touch" about the digital book. Such a text, he says, can't be grasped as a totality.  Where exactly digital texts are, in a physical sense, is vague, complex, even forbidden: we cannot see, let alone touch, the source of the screen's letters, Piper writes.  If the touch of the page brings us into the world, the screen keeps us out.

And yet, of course, touch is involved in new ways in digital reading (touch screens, etc.) as the industry keeps downsizing the computer--from large rooms to a desk to our hands. The computer world has been trying to insert the tactile back into the digital, but with mixed results.

Since there are no pages to turn in the old sense, e-books may try to look like printed ones but the differences are important.  Pressing buttons repetitively is quite different from slowly turning pages.

My summary of some of Piper's main points in the excerpt reinforces my own objections to digital reading. To do much of this kind of reading is bad for my neck, and every period spent facing a screen has to be punctuated with periods of stretching and moving.  This type of physical activity in reading is not, in my case, healthy.  The main point is that e-reading does not afford me the type of reflective, inward escape into another world that a printed book, held in the hand, does; and this is the main purpose of my reading.

E-reading is (I would say) a way of reading but not in the full, historical sense that Piper has explored. Just as I believe in the physicality of writing, it is good to be remind of reading as a physical act--and to think seriously about what occurs in reading and how mysterious the process ultimately is.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

What's in a Title?

I have been thinking lately of book titles, looking over a little collection of memorable ones and wondering how important a great title is for a book.

This topic has a connection with something that writers often fear, at least unconsciously (I know I used to): How can I possibly say anything original?

It's true that most of the great themes--love and war and jealousy and greed--have been well mined over the centuries; yet each writer of fiction brings his or her own experience and perspective and style to the subject.  As Tolstoy said in the famous opening of "Anna Karenina":  every family is unhappy in its own way.

There are endless permutations of unhappiness, alas, and so material to keep fiction writers free of the worry that there is nothing new under the sun. And as for my area, non-fiction, the Internet is a daily demonstration of the infinite variety of topics that the layperson can learn about and address.  This blog, in fact, is mainly a series of reactions to things I have been reading. Most writing of this type is a creative exchange and borrowing. ("Good writers borrow, great writers steal.")

Back to titles: many great works have plain, ordinary titles that end up capturing the essence of a book: Great Expectations, for example, or Middlemarch (a pedestrian title for a great novel). Shakespeare put little imagination into his titles, which, except for Much Ado about Nothing and maybe one or two others, are unexciting.  So if we can't judge a book by its
cover, we can't predict too much from a title.  Great titles can promise much more than they deliver. Others are just right. I have been skimming a new novel by Amor Towles, Rules of Civility, which perfectly suits his unique story of Manhattan cafe society in 1938.

So my advice to writers: Don't worry about the title of your story, novel or article or whatever: it will emerge, often as you complete the text. Or your editor or publisher will suggest one. Often I have seen in films a struggling author sitting at an old typewriter and beginning with the title and his name; afterwards he is stuck and angrily begins again. This is not how writers work!

As for great titles that are memorable, some are poetic (From Here to Eternity, Gone with the Wind, For Whom the Bell Tolls, etc.), some clever, offbeat, or wacky. Here is my list of favorites:

1. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
2. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat
3. Vile Bodies
4. Flaubert's Parrot
5. Where the Wild Things Are
6. Paradise Lost
7. The Sound and the Fury
8. Welcome to the Monkey House
9. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
10. The Kalahari Typing School for Men
11. Tears of the Giraffe
12. Reusing Old Graves
13. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
14. A History of Lesbian Hair
15. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

This last one, simple but just right, is not clever or poetic or whimsical, just a memorably concise indicator of Gibbon's history. Much the same for Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky.

One of my all-time favorites is a little-known import from the U.K. by Alan Coren, GOLFING WITH CATS, which has nothing to do with either golf or cats but, as the author indicates in his Preface, these subjects attract book buyers, so he put them, along with a swastica, on the cover.  (Cats, as I learned with my Writing with Cats, sell books.)  This is a good example of a title being greater than the book, which was not a bestseller.

What makes a bestseller? A lot more than the title. But I can't resist the joke about how, in non-fiction, an ideal title would be: "How to Lose Weight, Get Rich, and Find God." If only I could work cats into that one....

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The church is not my religion

A good friend, who happens not to be a Catholic, expressed surprise that I have been openly critical of the church in some of my posts, even though he knows that I remain a faithful Catholic.

I recalled at once the words of Mario Cuomo:  "If the church were my religion, I'd had given it up a long time ago. Christianity is my religion, the church is not."

It takes someone with a broad view of history and the reality of church politics, perhaps, to make this important distinction, which many Catholics do not make.  If they remain active in the church, they may disagree with or ignore the statements that come from the Vatican or the American bishops, especially when it comes to moral and social issues.  They may seek advice from their confessors on such topics as contraception or follow their own conscience.

We who remember the spirit of the Second Vatican Council know that the church as a human institution should be the object of criticism, and, as Cardinal Newman said more than a century ago, the laity have a responsibility to play a role in the ongoing reform and renewal of the church. The Council also reaffirmed the primacy of conscience for all who constitute the church.

People like me, who have read a great deal over the years and have a critical view of clerical power, need an awareness that "Rome has spoken" is not necessarily the final word.  I think of the crisis in the priesthood, as an obvious example, and the large defections by angry ex-Catholics weary of official teachings on sexual morality that do not conform to the reality of people's lives.

I do not attend Mass because of church doctrine or theology or because of what priests say or do as men but because of my spiritual needs, which are fed by the Eucharist and the word of God. I need to be part of a community of prayer, preferably one with deep roots.

I know that, when the faithful disagree with a teaching of the church (such as the ordination of married men or women), we who are the church have an obligation in conscience to respectfully disagree. Don't patriotic Americans have an obligation to critique unjust laws and corrupt government practice?

Hence the recent tours by "nuns on the bus," who challenged the bishops in some of their appeals to the conservative cause, by emphasizing the needs of the poor and hence the need for Obamacare, among other things during the recent election campaign.  Many of us who consider ourselves liberal Catholics cheered these nuns and their long record of courageous service.

One of them, Sister Margaret Farley, a theologian censured by Rome, asked a telling question this past summer:  :"Is it a contradiction [in our Catholic tradition] to have power settle questions of truth? Or to say we know all we can know?"  A bold and important question.  History is replete with thinkers who have been unjustly silenced by the teaching authority of the hierarchy, only to have their views later validated by history.

Hence someone like Garry Wills, a Catholic intellectual whose historical books and articles reach a wide audience, is among those faithful to Catholic tradition who look critically at what the official church says--not in matters of settled dogma but in those moral issues on which there is divided opinion.

The church has, in a sense, been kept alive, theologically, by discussion and even dissent, by critical inquiry--at least among the elite. Now that lay people have become as well educated as priests, they can look, as I try to do, with a broad historical view at the church and can, as mature Catholics, respectfully agree to disagree with certain practices and teachings. Thus I can make a distinction between  my faith, a personal matter, and my adherence to the church, whose efforts in many areas I support, especially outreach to the needy.

I have chosen to remain within the troubled institution of the Roman Catholic Church, aware of its imperfections and sins, yet mindful of what is more important: the tradition of public prayer, the liturgy that enables the religion itself, not the institution, to survive and flourish.

Recently, the retiring Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams made one of his many astute observations that is relevent here: "Christianity is not essentially a big idea we must try to spread by arguing the truth, but a cultural tradition, centered on the church's ritual."  In this cultural tradition, he goes on, supreme authority belongs to the cross and resurrection, which the church performs in the Eucharist.

So the church is an essential vehicle for communicating something more important than the institution itself: the life of faith, sacraments, and prayer through an ancient and ongoing tradition of practice. My religion is not about theology or philosophical arguments.  As the old saying has it, what we believe is secondary to how we pray and what we do, the cultural language we speak.

I choose to remain faithful to the cultural language made possible by the church in which I was raised, mindful that "church" means much more than the men who run it.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Lessons from the Election

It's a great relief that the election--the most expensive in history at something like $4 billion in campaign funding--is at last over. 

There are several lessons to be learned. Among them:

1. Americans are not stupid or lazy or apathetic. The majority are progressive and think about the future. Millions vote, even if the lines are long. And they are not greatly influenced by all the money-driven ads and negative campaigning.

2. The campaign season is obscenely long and costly and should be changed. The big bucks of PACs organized by Karl Rove and others are wasted.  Why not use this money to help where it's really needed?

3.  The right-wing take-over of the Republican Party must give way to reality. We are not a nation of 1950s white Americans who think like Mitt Romney. The majority of the country is diverse, ever-changing, ever-creative.

4. The Catholic bishops should stop their politicizing. The faithful do not listen to them on topics relating to women and marriage. They voted heavily for Obama; they know that gay people are here to stay--traditional marriage is not threatened by gay marriages--and that the church should focus on social justice issues. The alliance between right-wing politics and religion has done great harm and has now become an embarrassment.  Let us move from moral battles to social reality, finding ways to heal divisions and develop new jobs.

5. The superb Obama campaign would be nothing without the unusual man who deservedly got re-elected--not merely because he should finish what he boldly began four years ago but because he has been a steady, intelligent, widely respected world leader. I admire a man who listens to the voice of history, who reads widely and writes much of his own material, and who thinks before he speaks.

As one of my GOP friends said on election day, "May the best man win."  He did. It is hard for many white men of my generation to admit that an African-American is not only gifted but worthy of re-election.

Obama was a classy candidate who now needs the prayers and support of the country.  He leads a deeply divided America, polarized by the very political system he has mastered.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

What is history?

Somewhere in my reading, I encountered a statement by Robert Kaplan: History has its basis in geography. It's about places, he says.

As a non-historian who spends much time thinking about the past, I can understand this point of view: the waterways give way to trade and to towns and cities and thus to capital and thus to possible fighting over land.

But I have always agreed with Thomas Carlyle's statement, no doubt simplistic, that history is essentially biography.  It is the written record of human events, of what singular individuals say and do.

As I have been reading in recent months about 13th century Italy, what strikes me, as with the later Renaissance, is the role of the individual: rulers like Frederick II, inventors, early architects, philosophers (Thomas Aquinas), and writers (Dante, Chaucer) who shaped a culture and the languages they used. In every period, society is changed (and history made) by what certain people do.

However history is defined, whether as human story of people or as a chronicle of economic and social forces, it is more complex than any single formulation. But I would still say its most fundamental basis is the person.

As I write this, millions of my fellow Americans are standing in line to vote for the next president, an individual whose personality and decisions will shape the future. Future historians are watching and waiting.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Do we stay the same person?

William Boyd, whose novel Waiting for Sunrise I enjoyed for its style, is an accomplished English writer.  This week, I watched a film adaptation of another of his works, Any Human Heart (not my favorite title), and I was sorry to see that Boyd wrote the screenplay (not usually a good idea).

The result is a 6-hour TV movie involving three separate actors playing the central character, Logan, shown in his 80s looking back on the remembered fragments of his colorful (sexually active) life. In the process, the narrative voice, more than once, comments about how we never stay the same person. The central lesson of his life is that the things that happen to a person makes him or her a different person.  Is this true?

Logan, like the protagonist of the Boyd novel I read, is a passive pawn of fate and his active libido (over which his will has little control). The narrative tells us that we can't do much about what happens. The screenplay makes this explicit several times (in case we miss the point) that life is nothing but luck.

I beg to differ with this simplistic idea.  Of course, luck or chance determines many aspects of our lives, but so do our choices. We shape our own destinies; and as we change by a combination of biology, time, circumstances, and experience, we retain our core selves. We are not totally transformed, like a character in the Metaphorphoses, losing our essential identity or personhood.

This, at least, is what I have learned from years of reading the major writers from Augustine and Boethius, who wrestled with issues of freedom and fate 2,000 years ago, to more modern thinkers. To me, the freedom of the will is basic to morality, and the true self, as Thomas Merton called it, remains constant: he said it was the self impermanent to time, the self as seen by God.

Others (mystics in various traditions) have called it the center or ground of our being.  Some call it the soul.

Isabel Dalhousie, the philosophizing Edinburgh sleuth in the novels of Alexander McCall Smith, is open-minded enough (says the author of The Lost Art of Gratitude) to recognize that the self, or the soul, might just survive death, as she says.  "The rigid exclusion of that possibility could be seen as much a statement of faith as its rigid assertion," she tells herself, keeping her options open in a postmodern world.

The creator of Isabel Dalhousie may be less highly regarded than William Boyd in today's literary scene, but her reflections here are more valuable than the philosophy underlying much contemporary fiction, which, like Boyd's, has a pessimism rooted in a totally materialist notion of life. This means that even the possibility of something permanent in ourselves existing, and surviving us, is not seen as possible or worth discussing.

Merton may have a hard time spelling out what the "true self" is (James Finley does a fine job articulating this in a book on the subject), but at least he believes, as I do, in the self, that mysterious inner core of our being that G. M. Hopkins called the "selfless self of self, most strange, most still." 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

A Priest Confronts Same-Sex Marriage

Like Obama and many others, my acceptance of the idea of marriage as applied to two people of the same sex has been evolving. If opinion polls and the media are right, Americans' attitudes toward this reality have been changing. This does not mean an automatic decline in homophobia but a greater acceptance of gay couples in society.

Attitudes in the Catholic hierarchy move with exceeeding slowness. Lately, they seem to be going back rather than forward. So, when the Archbishop of Baltimore recently asked that a letter be read in all churches urging the faithful to vote against a civil marriage protection amendment, one man, Richard T. Lawrence, was emboldened to speak his own mind.

As pastor of St. Vincent's church in Baltimore for 39 years, according to National Catholic Reporter, Father Lawrence gave his own respectful and carefully worded response. He is to be applauded for his courage.  No doubt his Archbishop is not pleased.

Here is what Fr. Lawrence had to say (I summarize the account in NCR):  I am in awe of parents and of all couples whose faithfulness to one another, in good times and bad, is a sacrament, a sign of God's faithfulness to all.

Clearly one of the Vatican II priests of the John XXIII era who are becoming more and more scarce, Lawrence cites that landmark council as signaling an eventual change in church teaching whereby we could recognize "the total, exclusive and permanent union of gay and lesbian couples as part of the sacrament of matrimony." Wow!

He cites the line from Genesis: "It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a suitable partner for him." So what if a guy's suitable partner is another guy?

Citing the church practice of marrying couples beyond the age of childbearing who pledge to devote themselves to each other, he asks, How can it be sacramental to bless the union of an elderly couple (straight) and not a gay couple? "Neither," he said. "will procreate but both can be sacraments of God's faithfulness..." 

Lawrence, a pastor who obviously has learned a lot about human needs in his long ministry and who values experience as well as doctrine, believes this is a line of future development in theology and perhaps even in church teaching. But if this is not even a possibility, can we not at least say that the civil marriage of gay and lesbian couples should be allowed by the state, if not the church?

Neither I nor Fr. Lawrence will live to see any change in the sacrament of marriage to include same sex couples, but I hope to see a change of heart, a more pastoral and caring openness--the type bravely displayed by Fr. Lawrence--on the part of bishops and others in authority toward homosexual unions.  Civil unions, apparently, do not suffice in most states, especially when a same-sex couple is raising children, as many do.

I don't see why we can't bless such unions and so honor the love they represent rather than add to the hatred and bigotry so often directed to homosexual people. (I say "we" because we who are Catholics are the church, as those in Rome tend to forget.)

The growing change in my attitude to this topic is far from unique and reflects human reality in the 21st century. Still, it's hard to use "marriage" and not mean a man and a woman. We are a church of tradition, yet this is a living, and lived, human tradition.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The value of writing

Andrew Sullivan's blog "The Daily Dish" has an amazing diversity of links, making it an ideal internet site. Today, readers are directed to a brief but very valuable bit of advice on writing by James Somers.

He says, in no uncertain terms, that more people should write. Like me, he has friends who are thoughtful and intelligent, who read a good bit, but tend to keep their ideas to themselves.  Somers' thesis is that "you will live more curiously if you write." 

You will be more open to nature, people, and the world around you. You will pay closer attention and also remember what you observe. I might add that the writer cultivates an interior life, a kind of spirituality that many of us unknowingly long for.

He reminds us, as I always do to my students feeling nervous about committing anything to full sentences, that writing need not be formal; you can "just talk onto the page."  If you can talk, you can write. The rest is revising and editing. Don't be crippled by old fears of not knowing "the rules" or of remembering your high school English teacher's red marks.

As Somers says in his post, writing emails in which we share our thoughts and feelings with others might draw out from them a similar type of thoughtfulness and interiority.  I find talking on the phone personal and immediate, but I would rather engage with my far-flung classmates and old friends in writing emails since it is in this medium that I can explore my thoughts more thoroughly and express them more clearly.

So I am grateful to Mr. Somers ( blog) for this fresh bit of encouragement to the many people who want to write but are reluctant to do so.