Everything is gestation and then bringing forth. To let each impressions and each germ of a feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s intelligence, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living the artist’s life: in understanding as in creating.
“ Routine is the condition of survival.” – Flannery O’Connor
Is ritual necessary to the making of art? I hear arguments on both sides. While I have recently heard several writers I respect more or less say that for them writing rituals are anathema, the truth is that artists throughout history have settled themselves into the necessary frame of mind and physical space by marking the time set aside for the practice of their craft with some type of highly personal ritual. And it appears as though the having of a ritual is more the norm than not having one, at least that is one thing I gathered from exploring Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, edited by Mason Curry.
One of Curry’s goals with the book is to “show how grand creative visions translate to small daily increments; how one’s working habits influence the work itself, and vice versa.” In essence, it is these small, often seemingly insignificant, routines and rituals that box off the incremental bits of time necessary to make art, that in fact create the space between daily life and artistic practice which allow an artist to set aside not only the time, but her very self, to become an instrument in service to her unique gift. Read more . . .
“I’m hyperventilating right now,” my 12-year-old son whispered to me and gripped my hand hard. He was waiting excitedly (and obviously breathlessly) for Marvel’s newest superhero film, Thor: The Dark World, to burst onto the screen in all its glorious action.
It’s no secret to anyone who knows our family that the Marvel heroes are preferred to the DC group and that my son measures time by when the next film, Lego set, or Nintendo game is scheduled for release. Thor was autumn’s happy milestone and now he has set the April release of Captain America as his spring marker. Not only does he spend countless hours reading his classic comics digests, lost in imaginative fantasy and wrestling with hefty issues of good and evil, but he hones his memory skills by memorizing intricate plot patterns and character details, regaling us with various character back stories, correcting egregious errors in the film or cartoon adaptations, while also filling in weak or missing elements in those same story lines. (And no, concerned reader, my son’s literary diet is not confined to comics. He gets plenty of classic literature, so have no fear. Also, consider how memorizing intricate story lines via the comics preps him for memorizing long passages of Shakespeare to rival Kenneth Branagh and you will see there is a method to this seeming madness.) Read more. . .
To everything there is a season . . .
Lots of changes have been taking place in my personal life which have encouraged me to re-examine and reorient my priorities such that regular readers will likely see less activity on Persephone Writes in the near future.
My newly increased teaching schedule is taking up the majority of my time, leaving precious little to devote to my writing. Finishing my novel is a priority (I’m so close!), and since some of my health issues have improved, I plan on directing my energy to finishing my book. To assist with meeting this goal, I enrolled in a writing class/workshop which comes with its own demands for my diminishing time. All of which means I have had to choose to spend less time and energy writing for both my blogs.
In addition, I have cause to celebrate. My journey towards living a literary life has opened up in other ways which I feel compelled to explore. Regular readers know my passion for exploring and living the nexus of my Catholic faith and the practice of my art. Many of my posts here explore that pointed focus, to which all of my creative energy is directed. An invitation to deepen this exploration came my way recently when I was invited to be a regular contributing writer to Deep Down Things, the blog affiliated with the gorgeous quarterly literary/art journal Dappled Things. This is a wonderful opportunity for me and I am excited to work with such an inspiring, enthusiastic, and devoted group of writers and editors. The entire Dappled Things project is truly a labor of love — all of the time to produce the journal and website/blog is donated by individuals committed to reinvigorating Catholic arts and letters. The combined effort of these talented people results in high caliber prose, poetry, and art, an unusually beautiful print edition of the journal, and a growing, engaging online presence. I hope you will celebrate this new opportunity with me and follow my writing on Deep Down Things and perhaps even consider taking a subscription to this unique literary journal. My first essay, a meditation on living the writing life inspired by St. Therese of Lisieux, can be found here.
I do plan to write here when time and energy allow, and I’ll definitely post updates to my pieces published on Deep Down Things. But my intention is to take something of a sabbatical and use it to focus and quiet my mind to make progress on those larger projects which are very important to me. I hope you’ll continue to stay tuned . . .
For the last few months, I’ve been privileged to participate in the Literary Wives series, a virtual book group, with some amazing women. We’ve read, reviewed, and discussed four books centering on wives within various types of marriages and time periods: American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld; The Paris Wife, by Patricia McClean; A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick; and The Aviator’s Wife, by Melanie Benjamin. We’re wrapping up our discussion with a final post before the others go on to commence part 2 of the series.
The focus of the reading and reviews was to examine the role of the wife in these novels, both how she viewed and defined herself and was viewed and defined by others. In my opinion, the wives in these novels suffered due to a lack of acknowledgement of their personhood. In some cases, this was a personal choice: for example, the choice Alice made in American Wife to continually keep her inner life, desires, and needs a secret from her husband. She chose not to assert herself in any meaningful way for reasons that are certainly problematic. But in other cases, the lack of acknowledgement of personhood came from the husband, and from the culture at large.
In general, the husband in each novel had more power and authority over the wife in question and used it to control her and to prey upon her emotions to such an extent that each wife felt responsible for her husband’s happiness and ability to use his gifts to his fullest extent. It is too easy to judge these women and say that they should have had more courage to stand up for themselves, to ensure their needs were being met in the marriage. However, it is the nature of woman to be a caregiver, to facilitate the development of life in all it’s aspects. By preying upon and taking advantage of this trait, the husbands in these novels forced each woman to choose between her own needs and his. It was not until much suffering had been endured that these women found ways to assert their own creative gifts, interestingly in each case through the inspired voices made real through the narrative of their individual experiences, as each of the books (except Goolrick’s) was told from the POV of the wife in question. In this way, the novel as artifact becomes a testament to and actualization of the voice that has been hidden, as well as the genesis of the creative power possessed by each wife. The merits and motives of each “voice” must be determiend by each reader; however, I generally found these written testaments powerful and hopeful, perhaps with the exception of Alice’s text, simply because I believe in the act of writing it she offered the ultimate act of betrayal in a marriage with betrayal as its foundation. I discuss this in more detail in my post on the novel.
The main point across the four novels is that it IS possible for a woman to be a generative force for life within a marriage — to be a good wife, mother, home-maker — but that she has a right to expect from her spouse support in exercising that generative power towards her own creative gifts, if she possesses the talent for it. Clearly both Anne and Hadley, in The Aviator’s Wife and The Paris Wife respectively, possessed great creative potential which they were forced to subsume due to their husbands’ inferiority complexes. Love given freely should not be afraid to allow each person to express themselves in the way true to their respective gifts and talents. As persons, we strive to be women and men first, perhaps spouses next, then, in some cases, parents. But these roles are not all there is to a person. Each man and woman is blessed with certain gifts and talents which must be actualized if they are to be a whole human being who contributes fully to the purpose for which he or she is created. The characters of the husbands and wives in these four novels are no exception, and this rule is played out successively in each narrative.
In my opinion, it is this central issue which is the larger significance across the novels. We are responsible for the talents given us and will be called to account for our stewardship, or lack thereof. How did we use our gifts for the good of others? To help our fellow man? To raise hearts and minds to think of higher things? To bring beauty into the world? By it’s very nature a marriage should contribute to this wholeness of persons and thereby to communion, between the spouses, within the family, and, through them, with the larger society. The books all depict marriages that are disorered and flawed — this is to be expected as humans are flawed; however, my main concern is that in none of the books was there any hope that marriage be otherwise (except perhaps in Hadley’s second marriage at the end of The Paris Wife, but we are given little detail about this, except the crucial fact that fulfillment has been found in true support and self-giving love which is not afraid). Interestingly, in three of the novels, the point is made that faith has been abandoned by the couples. The exception is a flagrantly shallow “conversion” by the husband in American Wife, but in this faith is only a tool, a way for him to win votes, and is in no way a means towards realizing wholeness with his spouse. One wonders, then, in what has hope, faith, and love been placed? If solely in another flawed human being, then it is no surprise the marriages remain empty and devolve into deeper and deeper darkness. Moments of grace occur over and over again and sometimes are realized and accepted; but more often than not, the opposite is true, and I find this persistent lack of possibility a bit depressing.
The hearts and minds of both spouses in the novels are ordered towards wrong ends. The husbands in the novels are completely self-absorbed and their self-image inherently tied to their work — as writer, politician, explorer, miser — (in American Wife, the husband was obsessed with leaving a “legacy” but it was such an empty one — a monument to his sense of self….nice) becomes an idol that crowds out any and all concern of others. The wives — perhaps with the exception of Alice — do express a tendency, even a yearning, towards self-sacrifice, often to a great and admirable extent, but it is at the expense of their own gifts and in the end is not life-giving, either to themselves or to their spouses. Love means being able to set limits and it means being able to say “no” when someone tries to hurt you, or tries to hurt themselves. In every marriage, the husband was hell-bent on self-destruction. With rare exception, the wife’s silence contributed to rather than allayed this tendency. To be of interest, and to raise the mind and heart above mere entertainment, the novelist is called to write the truth of human experience, in all its facets. One wonders whether the truth of a marriage based on the full recognition of personhood, committed to honest self-sacrifice and self-giving love, complete with all of its requisite pain and suffering and difficulty, with a goal towards accompanying the spouse on the road towards real, whole personhood, is to be found in the “wife” novels of the day? Elisabeth Leseur comes to mind as an example of this. . .
I’d like to thank my co-hosts for the opportunity to participate these last few months — it certainly has been eye-opeing and has provoked much to think about. Unfortunately, personal circumstances prevent me from continuing on with the group at this time. Please visit my co-host’s blogs — The Bookshelf of Emily J., One Little Library, and Unabridged Chick — to find out what they thought of the novels in part 1 and what is planned for part 2 of the series.
It was probably inevitable that I would read Ann Napolitano’s A Good Hard Look, a modern Southern Gothic written around characters and themes Flannery O’Connor likely would have appreciated and which casts Flannery herself as a character in the center of uncomfortably interlaced conflicts. The gorgeous peacock feathers gracing the cover remind the reader of the ubiquitous presence of the fowl in O’Connor’s life and tip her off that they will figure prominently and hauntingly in the novel, as well.
The story moves along at a good clip and the unbearably tense situations the characters both create and find themselves in are gut-wrenching and shocking. The character of Flannery variously touches the lives of each person in the conflict and so their lives also touch her own. She reacts with varying degrees of hesitancy and wariness, graciousness and understanding to each sympathetic intrusion into the carefully cultivated inner sanctum of her private life. Napolitano resists the temptation to keep O’Connor out of the messy dramas that ensue when tragic missteps result in lives destroyed, and instead courageously places the character of the famous author in the center of it all, allowing her to both experience and demonstrate real human frailty and emotions.
Conflict is an integral part of the structure of the book, which is divided into three sections, each reflecting one word of the title. Each word in isolation creates a thematic grouping of characters, choices, and consequences. The main problem raised in the novel is the difference between what seems to be good and what really is in fact good. What appears to be “good” may not be so, and choices made based on the value of an apparant good may have “hard” consequences which can only be survived and learned from by “looking” them squarely in the face and admitting the truth about one’s motives. This is the pattern of all deeply drawn character development and the pattern for all real human growth. Napolitano pulls it off with ease and forces the reader to confront her own ideas about what is true and real, in both the human and the spiritual realm, while also directly confronting the problems that arise when rationalization interferes with the wrong use of reason, when reason is no longer at the service of actions based in real as opposed to seeming moral goodness and truth, but is rather merely used as a tool for self-gratification without limits or concern for the web of humanity of which each character is a part.
Napolitano is no slouch — she has read and researched O’Connor and the characterization of the famous author rings true in the way she writes her — an accurate, respectful and appreciably real picture of O’Connor comes through. Readers familiar with O’Connor’s non-authorial voice will recognize her own voice faithfully rendered in the dialogue of A Good Hard Look. Similarly, the gift for rendering the grotesque, for sifting through dross for the moments of grace presented to every human being in the exercise of the gift of their free will is masterfully rendered by Napolitano in a way that O’Connor herself would appreciate. Napolitano is faithful to O’Connor’s style and concerns as a writer, and even perhaps to the Catholic tradition she felt it her duty to write in.
Having read everything Flannery O’Connor has written, including her published personal correspondence, I have to say that there were moments when it was hard for me to believe the Flannery O’Connor in the world of Napolitano’s novel was in any way like the real O’Connor. I don’t know that this is the result of any hagiographic worship of the author on my part so much as the fact that O’Connor’s life and religious beliefs are so clearly layed out in her letters and essays that it is hard to imagine her in the center of a conflict which might force her to call all of those things into question. For me, it weakens her some how, because I have always been drawn to her strength of faith and her ability to articulate it clearly. But perhaps it is here where Napolitano wields her master stroke as a writer — fiction writers always ask “What would happen if….?” and then proceed to create a world and characters and events that tell the story that would answer that question. What Napolitano bravely takes on is positing for the fictional O’Connor a conflict unlike any she’d experienced in her life and then imagining how O’Connor would have reacted to it and handled the consequences of her choices and the choices of others whose lives she allowed to touch hers.
“Pascal in The Rum Diary,” By Way of Beauty
“Literature: The Hope of Walker Percy,” by Fr. Damian Ference Word on Fire
“Midnight in Paris: A Parisian’s Review,” Becoming Madame
“The Writer’s Job,” by Tim Parks The New York Review of Books
“Be Brave,” Barbara Abercrombie Writing Time
“My Life’s Sentences,” by Jhumpa Lahiri NYTimes.com
“The Library as Incubator Project,” slideshow from Poets & Writers
Shakespeare Meets The 3 Little Pigs
A New Vision For The Independent Bookstore
Art and Faith, Authors, Books, Comics, Faith, Film, Free Comic Book Day, Heroes, Inspiration, Marvel comics, Reading, Shakespeare, Spiritual lessons, Stan Lee, Superheroes, The Avengers, Virtues, Writers, Writing
Yesterday two unrelated events unexpectedly converged and got me thinking….always a dangerous enterprise.
Event 1: It happened to be Free Comic Book Day, an event my 10-year-old son, Skippy, has been waiting for since LAST year. We went as a family to the local comic store, which we visit periodically throughout the year, and all received a free comic book — there were many to choose from and we all chose Marvel Super Heroes. Skippy was outfitted for the event in a new Avengers tee-shirt from Old Navy and afterwards was treated to the big surprise — a trip to see the new Avengers movie at the local cinema. We all had the BEST time and if this film isn’t the equivalent of Star Wars for this generation of kids, I don’t know what is.
Event 2: It also happened to be Cinco de Mayo, which we celebrated with a fiesta dinner with friends at their home. While there, I was introduced to and chatted with a woman who is also a high school English teacher, though at a private academy where students must test in and are exceptionally brilliant. Somehow during the conversation, my son’s tee-shirt was noticed and I mentioned the comics and The Avengers and … was met with a completely blank look. This woman affected to know nothing AT ALL and merely said to me, “What is that? Some kind of super…thing… or something…?”, persisting all the while in a horrifically blank stare. Now this woman seemed nice enough and I’d like to believe that this was not the insulting slight I was beginning to perceive it to be — that she knew all about the comics and the film, but that it was all beneath her notice and completely devoid of any intellectual value. How could you NOT know, assuming you do live here and not in a cave in the Antarctic? I mean, my husband and I haven’t had television for over 20 years now, and while we missed out on the whole Seinfeld, ER, and Friends crazes, we did know about them…..sooooo…what was really behind the woman’s feigned ignorance?
The fact that this woman might have been silently calling me on the carpet for allowing my son to stoop so low as to be exposed to things that couldn’t possibly have any redeeming value in her eyes got me thinking, and not for the first time, of the potent and powerful message the right super heroes can send to a young mind, and in fact, to all of us, if we’re open to listen. I was unable and unprepared to articulate any of this in my conversation last night, but next time, I’ll be better prepared with an adequate defense for why I allow my son to read comics and watch his favorite characters coming to life on the big screen or in various animated series. (Note: This is not an endorsement of the comic genre as a whole, nor am I suggesting all of the superhero-comic-to-film-efforts are appropriate for young children. Obviously, extreme prudence is required and parents must vigilantly supervise what their children see and read. However, there is a unique value in certain niche characters and series that cannot, in my opinion, be denied).
Super Heroes teach us:
2. Weakness is not only a strength, but a gift, because it teaches humility;
3. Temptation to power and the drive to feed the ego is a constant battle, even for the best of men;
4. Compassion for the weak, vulnerable, and defenseless among us is an essential character trait of a hero, as are bravery, courage, perseverance, and teamwork;
5. There are things worth making deep sacrifices for, even to the sacrificing of one’s life, including the defeat of evil, freedom from tyranny, the ideals of one’s country, oppression and brutality, and saving one’s friends and loved ones. Super heroes revive the nobility of martyrdom in a world which has lost its faith;
6. That each individual is possessed of unique gifts, some of which don’t always count for much in the eyes of society or those in power, but with which the individual is particularly charged — as a debt of honor — with perfecting and using for the greater good;
7. Gifts used to serve self end in disastrous consequences — it is often this “school of hard knocks” which a super hero needs to experience before he or she can be ready to use their gifts to help others and perhaps atone for the wrongs they have done through their pride and self-serving ambition;
8. About evil in its many guises, another reality and truth which a world without faith is apt to forget exists. Shakespeare reminds us in King Lear that the Devil is of noble birth — he is a gentleman. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of the super hero, where evil is often masterfully disguised and played out under subterfuge, blending carefully, attractively, and seemingly innocuously into the surroundings, ready to strike when least expected;
9. Evil within is ultimately manifested without — one becomes what one is on the inside.
10. That if one is still alive on this earth, even after experiencing the most traumatic and painful events, then that means one has a purpose to fulfill and a reason for being and one must persevere in hope until that is achieved.
The Ultimate Lesson
The ultimate lesson the super heroes have the ability to teach, perhaps without intending to, is a spiritual one. Yes, you read that right — a spiritual lesson. Cap’s line in the new movie when he’s told the bad guy is a “god’ is confident and quite clear: “There’s only one God, m’am, and I’m certain He doesn’t dress like that.” If you know anything about Steve Rogers/Captain America, you’ll know this statement is quite in keeping with his character and it points to a larger truth in the genre, (perhaps especially with the Marvel characters, whom we are partial to in this house) and that is that while not every super hero believes in God or even has any direct faith at all, every super hero believes in something higher than himself, a higher power, a greater good which points towards truth. In general, they operate in the realm of natural law in terms of morals. To read or watch the super heroes is not to be preached at. But it is to encounter characters with very real moral struggles and weaknesses in constant pursuit of goodness and truth — and this truth is not relative. Watching them wrestle with these dilemmas and the influence of clear and present evil helps us examine how we handle our own moral crises and why. It forces us to ask what we believe and to question if how we live reflects those beliefs, or if we are living a lie.
It doesn’t take a genius to see the parallels between the great line that Stan Lee (via Voltaire) wrote for Spider Man — “With great power comes great responsibility” — and Jesus’ words in Matthew 13:12 — “To whom much is given, much will be asked.”
I rest my case…..
But come to think of it, the Avengers and the X-Men and the Green Lantern Corps don’t need me, or anyone else, to defend them. Their stories — both in words and actions — speak for themselves.