Love Your Work

Flannery O’Connor was one of the great originals. She could be honest, profound and outrageous all at once. So I value her opinion more than most people’s.

In Mystery and Manners, a book of her essays, she proposes, “If writing is your vocation, then, as a writer, you will seek the will of God first through the laws and limitations of what you are creating; your first concern will be the necessities that present themselves in the work.”

O’Connor explains, “If the writer’s attention is on producing a work of art, he is going to take great pains to control every excess, everything that does not contribute to this central meaning and design. He cannot indulge in sentimentality, in propagandizing, or in pornography and create a work of art, for all these things are excesses. They call attention to themselves and distract from the work as a whole.”

O’Connor contented that writers ought to push their talents to the outermost limit of the kind of talent they have.

Modern writers, she argues, “…are not content to stay within our limitations and make something that is simply a good in and by itself…. Yet what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God.”

We need to love our work for its own sake, to take it to the outer limits of our current talent and ability, but not beyond.

And we need to disallow the temptation to use it as a vehicle for preaching or propagandizing except insofar as the stories themselves call us to.

“The artist has his hands full and does his duty if he attends to his art,” O’Connor maintains. “He can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists.”

She would have us Christians realize that Christian stories are not necessarily about Christians and their concerns but are simply fiction “…in which the truth as Christians know it has been used as a light to see the world by.”


Love Your Characters

From Writing and the Spirit:

I told my daughter Darcy I’d been convicted to take more seriously the injunction to love our enemies.

“But suppose,” I said, “a neighbor comes roaring home daily at 3 a.m. in his ’55 Chevy with dual glass-pack mufflers. And suppose when I ask him to quit roaring he only says, ‘You think I should walk?’ Then he laughs and slams his door on me.

“Now, my question is, what does it mean to love him? If I act like his friend, he might take that attitude as approval of his behavior.”

Darcy said she believes loving your enemy means doing your best to understand him by considering the things that might’ve caused him to act like a jerk. An ethicist or theologian might call that interpretation of love simplistic. Still, it’s useful. Most often, if we can understand what fears and insecurities might lead somebody to offend us, we’ll let go of a grudge and be healthier for it, and not act rashly against the person.

We can apply this sort of love to our characters. Read any Dickens novel and you’ll notice that, with few exceptions, the author appears to have a deep sympathy for all his characters. He relishes their uniqueness and does his best to present their quirks and motives in ways that make them come alive and that remind us to beware of passing judgment.

Love Better

From Writing and the Spirit:

In church, Olga said she believed that when people prayed for her, the prayers were effective because the people who prayed loved her. A light flashed in my dim brain and I saw that prayers given in love will always be the ones most acceptable to God.

Because God is love, God exists in a dimension of love, and for us to communicate in that dimension, we have to enter that dimension and speak in that dimension’s language.

Similarly, the more able we are to approach our writing with an attitude of love, the closer we will be to the dimension where the spirit that moves us resides, and the better we’ll be able to translate its message.

In the book of Matthew, Christ says to “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that spitefully use you and persecute you.” He explains that if we only love our friends and do good to those who treat us well, we are no better than the worst of humanity. So the more and better we love, the closer we’ll get to being like God, to becoming perfect.

If we need to become perfect before we can make perfect art, then the key to perfecting our art is to grow in our capacity to love, and to exercise that capacity.

In light of the above and Saint John’s injunction that “perfect love casts out fear,” let’s suppose the Beatles were right in singing “Love is All You Need.” Then let’s exhort ourselves to love even the antagonists of our lives and our stories. And let’s allow the power of that love to help us create fearlessly, without worrying about the judgment of readers, editors, reviewers, or the folks who sit next to us in church.

With our hearts and minds lightened by love and the absence of fear, the spirit can easily move us.

Be Perfect II

Pointing to some children, Jesus said, “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

Which implies we can’t be perfect unless we can be like children.

Since we all have been children, we’re able to take real or imaginary journeys back to the places of our childhood, and to the people and dreams of that part of our lives. And once we get there, we can let those places, people and dreams refresh our minds and help us cast off jaded parts of ourselves, and go to the territory on the boundary of the kingdom of heaven where the spirit most often seems to reside.

When I first got married and started a family I became someone other than who I am. I became somebody I’ll call “Responsible Man”. My ex-wife and probably my grown children might argue, “You weren’t all that responsible.” But, though I did quit jobs and spend what I otherwise might’ve saved on the time and opportunity to write, we always had a home and food. We never had to shop in thrift stores, except for furniture.

Master Jeong had us students sit in meditative posture. “Think about who you are,” he said. “Not what you do. Think about who you are at your essence.”

We are not who we generally feel we are. What we feel we are is what we’ve become. Who we really are is closer to who we were as children.

Therapists sometimes guide people to seek their inner child. New Age gurus take men out into the woods and have them yowl and wield big sticks.

I tell myself to banish “Responsible Man.” I can do that now that I own a home in California and my big kids are grown and educated and have real jobs, and my little Zoë has a professional mama and income from me that she’ll get no matter if I land in some asylum. But “Responsible Man” won’t let go of me. He has become a parasite. Maybe he’s my evil twin. Or maybe he knows that without him I’ll go wild and wreak havoc upon the world. “Okay then,” I tell him, “at least go to sleep when I’m writing.”

All of us artists would be wise to learn how to put whoever we have become asleep long enough every day to let us be who we essentially are, because that person is closer to perfect than the one we’ve become. And the closer to perfect, the less programmed and jaded, the more like those children Jesus pointed to when he proposed that to enter his kingdom we needed to become like them, the better at hearing the spirit.

From Writing and the Spirit

Become Perfect

Somebody asked a master painter how to paint a perfect painting. He answered, “To paint a perfect painting, first become perfect, then paint.”

So, I translated, to write a perfect story, become perfect then write.

I labored over this advice, judging how far from perfect I was, and wondering how far from perfect one could be and still create a masterpiece. And I considered that what I know about certain writers of masterpieces makes me believe they were not much more perfect in a human or spiritual sense than I am.

I decided the advice made no sense unless we interpret it this way: It’s not essential to our writing that we be perfect, or even close, all the time, only when we’re writing.

When we sit down (or stand up, or pace around) to write, we need to cast off imperfections such as our tendency to rush to judgment, our impatience, our preconceptions, our worries about whether we’re going to succeed.

We need to clear our minds of anything that keeps us thinking or feeling out of accord with the fruits of the Spirit as described by Saint Paul, and try to approach our stories from an attitude of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Then we can treat our creations with deep respect and compassion. Even if we don’t approach perfection for a nanosecond (most of us probably won’t) the closer we come, the closer our creations may come to realizing their possibilities.

And the process of writing (or gardening, or fiddling) will be a spiritual exercise that draws us closer to what God would have us become.

Find more wisdom in Writing and the Spirit

Number One is Patience

Master Jeong taught: “Number one is patience, number two is patience, number three is patience.”

Deadlines help some of us. They make us get up and work. They offer us the vision of some respite from the pressure once we meet the deadline. They teach us discipline, something we can’t be writers without.

But when deadlines rule us, we can lose our way. What should rule our writing lives is a pursuit of quality that persuades us to relegate deadlines to their proper place, as tools.

Unless we’re salaried journalists, as writers we will either be the imposers of our deadlines or else we’ll agree to them. Friends of mine who have become commercial successes with popular fiction are urged by their publishers to bring out a new book every year. The implied threat is that if they fail to do so, their bank accounts will suffer.

And many writers complete and publish a dozen books a year. These folks might tell you that they need to produce like that to make a living.

A writer who chooses to make a living by working on such deadlines is making product, not art. Maybe the spirit will in some instances inspire commercial products. But as a rule, art requires patience, not deadlines.

Andre Dubus, author of some inspired short stories, tells of a method he calls writing vertically: “One day or night I decided to try a different approach. I told myself that I would not leave a sentence until I knew precisely what Anna (the story’s main character) was feeling. For years, I had been writing horizontally, trying to move forward; now I would try to move down, as deeply as I could.”

We can’t expect a spirit to reveal much in an instant. To hear God, we usually need to quiet our rampaging minds and senses and listen.

If it takes an hour of sitting and waiting to find the right words, to make a scene come alive or to deepen the truths it reveals, any artist will agree that was an hour valuably spent.

Albert Einstein once said, “It’s not that I’m so smart. It’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

Repeat after me: “Number one is patience, number two is patience, number three is patience.”

For plenty more wise guidance, read the whole Writing and the Spirit book.


Do It Like Olga

Olga Savitsky taught me (by example, as most important lessons are taught) why David was a man after God’s own heart.”

I used to believe David got that reputation because of his creative side, that God’s heart was reflected in the David who wrote psalms. But Olga taught me about David’s warrior side.

After she got diagnosed with cancer, Olga became an avid fan of ultimate fighting, which at first troubled me. My son Cody had taken up the sport. I don’t enjoy watching anyone get beaten, and the last man I’d ever want to see hit, or kicked, or thrown down and wrenched into submission, is my son. The second man I’d least want to see treated that way is anybody Cody might do it to. So, I failed to appreciate anybody for encouraging my son in that sport.

Meanwhile, Olga came to love ultimate fighting because it was as close to real fighting as our civilization allowed, with few restrictions except eye-gouging and murder. The fighters, she told me, go at it with every fiber of their bodies, nerves and wills, which gave her examples to follow in her fight against cancer.

Like David, Olga was a poet and a warrior, who during the battle devoted her all to believing; to studying scripture and applying its promises; to praying and meeting with the friends who lifted her spirit; and to avoiding those who weakened her, though she might love them. Sentenced to death, she devoted herself to the art of staying alive. To her, ultimate fighting was a perfect metaphor for the way God wants us to fight for all good things.

Which led me to better understand King David.

Before Olga, I tended to view the Old and New Testaments as separate books, since much of the Old Testament is stories and prophecies concerning strife and war, and the chief themes of the New Testament are love, redemption, and the peace they bring.

Olga made the books into one by teaching me that we can live in peace while at war. The better we love, the more peace we find. And to love better, we need to battle the powers of heaven and earth that create discord, destruction and all evils that use hypocrisy and lies in the effort to haunt, confuse, and embitter us.

To seek truth, as artists are called to do, is to battle against lies.

My grandma was Mary Garfield, a poet, story-teller and painter who insisted that lying was the behavior that grieved her most deeply. And I’ve come to feel the same. Among other evils, lies can lead even people of good will to do awful acts.

While Olga helped me to understand Cody better and to admire him more (though I continue to hope he’ll switch to a gentler sport), she taught me that King David was a man after God’s own heart because he, like Olga, was both a warrior and a poet.

The warrior battles material enemies. The warrior poet battles lies.