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 . . .
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 . . .
Interesting reads from across the literary landscape . . .
Lost Evelyn Waugh letters reveal thwarted love for ‘bright young thing’, by Dalya Alberge for The Observer
Poets in Partnership: Rare 1961 BBC Interview with Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes on Literature and Love, by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings
Flannery O’Connor’s Last Novel, Paul Elie in conversation with Kevin Spinale, S.J., a podcast for America Magazine
One of the things I most appreciate about major league pitchers is their ability to throw a variety of different pitches. They have an entire repertoire at their disposal – the knuckle ball, spitball, slider, fast ball, curveball, change-up – and the pitch used varies depending on the need; however, it is possible for a pitcher to master a particular pitch, to become known as a career expert at throwing the fastball, for example.
Much like any other creative endeavor, the day to day of life on the mound is a variation between art and form: the action of art — the pitch — stays the same; but the form, or the way the pitch (the art) is expressed, can change based on need or change in circumstance. This practice presents a valuable lesson for writers trying to write through the curves their own lives. Too often, perhaps, we cling to a rigid practice of form when we might experience less stress and greater productivity if we allowed ourselves greater flexibility of form as the circumstances of our writing lives change.
Writers staring down the curveballs may become depressed or discouraged when they find they can no longer maintain the same momentum in their writing project. This is understandable. But like the pitcher that doesn’t give in to frustration because his slider isn’t working to strike out the batter he’s facing down, perhaps the answer lies in trying something else, in writing something else.
In my case, the parts of my brain required to build the world of my novel and live there for any length of time with the characters has become increasingly hard to access. This is largely due to the type of health problems I’m having, but there are other reasons as well, some of which I have alluded to in this series and all of which have escalated, hence the reason why the series is not yet finished. My own personal challenges here aren’t really relevant. The operative point is upheaval has changed my writing life to something unrecognizable. So what do I do? How do I keep writing when what I’m used to doing clearly won’t work right now? Like the pitcher, I continue on with the art of writing, but I feel free to change the form – I continue to work on my novel at less of a fever pitch, with less drive and force than I have been until now, and instead allow myself to write something else now and again. Like the pitcher, I don’t give up writing, I simply throw a different pitch by writing something else, by writing some other way. With the curveballs, it seems to me more important that I simply CONTINUE TO WRITE. As long as I am writing something, I’m in the game. To not write at all would be the death knell.
We use different parts of our brains for different writing tasks – kind of like you use different muscles for different exercises or sports. Writing something else – a poem, a short story, an essay, a letter, a blog post, a book review, a lesson plan, a writing journal, etc. — can be a relief, especially if that other form comes easier for you than the one you typically work in. For me, writing nonfiction is like breathing, while fiction writing is new and more difficult. At this challenging time in my life, as long as I can fall back on the form of writing that comes easiest to me and keep my mind and imagination limber, while still making time to engage my fiction, I am being faithful to my call to write.
So if things on your plate are roiling like a maelstrom, try writing something else – blog posts, essays, poetry, journals, letters to people you know or would like to know. The important thing is to keep exercising those muscles, keep writing. Something is better than nothing at all and your project isn’t going anywhere. It will still be there for those moments when you are able to attend to it.
I’ve never been much of a princess chick. Not only have none of them ever looked like me, but they are almost always passive, helpless, and silent, waiting for someone to come and rescue them from life. This has never been my style.
Enter my hero, Merida from Disney/Pixar’s film Brave (well, she looks nothing like me either, but just go with me on this) — spunky, obstinate, independent, spirited, intelligent, gifted, and perfectly capable of speaking and acting for herself. She’s feisty, quirky, graceless, and wild and she simply doesn’t fit in to the prescribed roles available to her. Boy, does she have a lot to learn. But that’s one of the things I love about her. She’s flawed and growing and not afraid (to adapt a saying from a dear friend) “to go through life hard.” Merida is certainly unlike any other princess unleashed by Disney. But I think that’s the point. Merida is authentic in a way no other “princess” is: she’s a person first, as opposed to a type, and that is key.
My favorite scene in the film is when Merida secretly enters the archery competition to determine which one of the clan suitors will be given her hand in marriage.
This scene speaks to me for a number of reasons, both as a woman and as a writer. Merida deliberately resists the conventions that seek to confine and define her. It isn’t so much that she doesn’t understand or respect these conventions; it’s simply that she feels she cannot follow them, at least not at this point in her life. She rebels against the fact that there are no other options, neither are any other options considered. When she rips through the ornate gown restricting her natural movements, she is in effect tearing through the cloth symbol of the suffocating life that awaits her if she bows to the pressure to marry one of the “men” on offer. It isn’t that she WON’T marry, she simply doesn’t want to marry in THIS way: because she is told to and has to for the sake of preserving tradition. Her reasons are good, even if she goes about defying them in the wrong way.
Words as much as arrows are Merida’s tools. Words are important to Merida; throughout the film we see her use them to express her feelings, articulate her needs, tell stories, think through problems, argue and curse and warn, and finally forgive and ask for forgiveness. She speaks, loud and clear; she isn’t a passive, helpless observer or victim. In the scene shared above, Merida proudly asserts that “I’ll be shooting for my own hand!” She states clearly and emphatically that no one can take from her what she herself refuses to give — her ablility to choose her own path in life.
And this is why I believe as a character Merida has such value and why she can serve as a model for women and writers. Merida lives in a world where story is paramount, where decisions are made and relationships are built upon the stories and roles of the past. These are important, both to her people and to who Merida is, but ultimately Merida’s desire is to write her own story, one in which she isn’t wholly defined by anyone else, but one in which she can coexist with the stories of those who have gone before, necessarily bridging with those elements that still hold true, but with the complementary freedom to write bridges to new ways of thinking, doing, and being, as well. The scar on her cheek in the close-up in the archery scene is telling: Merida is real, not a pristine untouched and untouchable beauty. She has been hurt in the past and has survived. She isn’t afraid to get hurt again fighting and speaking out for what she believes in. In this, she reminds me so much of the Madonna of Czestochowa, whose cheek is also marred and who serves a symbol for millions of people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, for resilience, perseverance and the growth, power, and quiet strength of character that come through suffering properly ordered.
As a result, one of the things Merida has to learn is that her words and choices have great power: to heal and bring positive change — by way of telling the truth and being honest — as well as to inflict great pain and destruction — through lies and uncontrolled anger. Merida has to confront the truth not only of her bad actions, but of her failure to use words accurately to reflect and illuminate truth: because of her pride, she chooses wrongly to use words to obscure and manipulate truth. As women and as writers, this is always the wrong choice and Merida’s journey shows us the cost — to self, family, and community — when we fail to act and speak in union with truth.
So often, bravery is based on the way the world judges actions. But Merida shows that true bravery first means letting go of pride and having the humility to acknowledge the truth about oneself, including one’s needs and limitations. This is a quiet, everyday type of bravery, but at times no less daunting than an all-out physical battle. Bravery also means refusing to be silenced when the core of who you are and what you believe is being violated. Bravery means using the gift of language and words to express yourself in clear precise truth, it means having the courage to hear another’s truth and listen fully and honestly without judging, and it means telling the story of that sharing and listening in the very best and most accurate way you know how. Being a woman and a writer requires the tempered kind of bravery Merida exemplifies every day, often on a very great scale.
I have a picture of Merida, poised to let that arrow fly with extreme accuracy and precision, to remind me to go through hard, and to tell the truth of my experience, in both words and deed, with all of the accuracy and precision I can muster.
As an extension of this reflection, my dear friend sent this Sara Bareilles song my way today — a very happy event. Entitled “Brave,” it seems to me an apt theme song for all of us “Meridas” in the world. I include it here as a thank you to K., who inspired this post, and as an inspiration to others who might be searching for the courage to let their arrows fly. Cheers, all.
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.