Creative Tip: The Closer To Disaster, The Closer To Perfection

I’ve been thinking about a post for the past couple of hours. There are different avenues I can go, but instead of hitting those, I’m choosing to write on something whimsical–ooh . . .

My day job is in education. And one of the most difficult things about it is to see what learning is (mis)construed to be, and what it actually is. I read an article today that children’s imagination is taught out of them by a system that is test-based and self-perpetuating. There is a well-known longitudinal study done on creativity, presented by Sir Ken Robinson in a famous TEDTalk, that showed that the longer one stays in school, the more one’s creativity is arrested. One of the main reasons is that students are taught linear rather than divergent thinking (one way in which creativity is measured). But another reason is that students are not taught to risk. As children we’re taught to play it safe, stay organized, don’t risk, and whatever you do don’t fail!

In watching the Mogul competition last night on the Olympics, a maxim struck me that I can’t get out of my head: The closer one gets to disaster, the closer one gets to perfection.

It reminds me of a talk I heard once by the contentious Malcolm McLaren, called Authentic Creativity and Karaoke Culture. He was recounting his first day in art and design school. His instructor, disheveled and bearded, sat down and asked, “Who here wants to be a successful designer?” A group of young students raised their hands. The instructor’s response: “Then there’s the door–because everyone knows that as an artist it’s much better to be a glorious failure than any banal success!”

The closer to disaster, the closer to perfection.

Do you ever just dive into something without looking before you leap?

Do you ever just follow a hunch not knowing where it’s taking you?

Do you ever get off track, run the car off the pavement and off-road it for a while pushing the machine to its limits on unfamiliar terrain?

My writing coach is amazing–it’s Steven Pressfield (though he doesn’t know it). I get his weekly newsletters. He writes the Wednesday posts, and he has a team of writers contribute the other days. There was one post–it wasn’t written by Pressfield–that struck me, and that came to my inbox right when I needed it. I don’t remember the specifics of it, but the main message was that if you’re writing something that is nothing but a struggle, that you have no handle on where it’s going, and that you want to quit writing every other day, then that’s the book you have to write.

Why?

Because you’re taking the risk, you’re hitting that tension between disaster and perfection, and in so doing, you are digging deep into yourself and pulling something out that is unique to who you are.

It’s that razor’s edge between disaster and perfection–it’s the sweet spot of creativity.

But let’s not be melodramatic here. The great disaster, the glorious failure, is really just a piece of paper. When you crash and burn, simply pick up a new snowy white sheet, and begin again.

Advertisements

Dostoevsky Part 2: The Way Of Transforming Love

Dostoevsky has a way of invoking emotion. His scenes are so carefully built up, and his characters often so heavy and burdened and emotional that you the reader can’t help but feel them.

In a previous post, I commented on a scene from Dostoevsky’s hagiography of the Elder Zossima, namely the conversion of his brother Markel from atheism to Christianity–a conversion so deep and transformative that the once hardened atheist was now weeping for the birds and asking for their forgiveness! Dostoevsky is so beautiful in these scenes, taking the rational to the crazy and showing that the crazy is actually the rational–he takes human life and turns it upside down revealing truth itself. That what the Greeks thought foolishness is actually the real, the true, the good. To some, the elder’s brother is a madman–this kind of reader would fall into the character of the doctor who diagnoses Markel with a kind of madness resulting from his illness and proximity to death. But for others, those who believe that a love for God and creation is an important kind of crazy, a humanizing foolishness, this is an expression, indeed a revelation, of truth itself.

There is another crazy scene in the Brothers Karamazov that I couldn’t believe when I read it. It is the scene when Alyosha, the young monk and symbol of faith in the book, has a crisis of faith after the death of Elder Zossima, and flees the monastery and goes directly to Grushenka’s house. Grushenka is known as a prostitute, a shrewd business woman, and a mesmerizing one at that. In his heart, Alyosha seems to know that Grushenka is waiting for him–at least there has been some encounter with her that if he wanted to, he could have relations with her and vice versa. So off he goes, and he’s joined by fellow monk Rakitin who is a victim of his own spiritual crisis from which he has not been able to recover.

They enter Grushenka’s house, and Rakitin mocks Alyosha who is gloomy and reticent. Grushenka can’t make sense of it all, and finds her moment to possibly seduce Alyosha. Here’s the scene:

“Will you let me sit on your knee, Alyosha, like this?” She suddenly skipped forward and jumped, laughing, on his knee, like a nestling kitten, placing her right arm tenderly around his neck. “I’ll cheer you up, my pious boy. Yes, really, will you let me sit on your knee, you won’t be angry? If you tell me, I’ll hop off.”

Grushenka confesses that she loves Alyosha with all her soul, but “in a different way” than the others, including her suitor Mitya who is another brother Karamazov. She claims that in the past she has “had sly designs on you before. For I am a horrid and violent creature. But at other times I’ve looked at you as my conscience. I’ve kept thinking, ‘how any one like that must despise a nasty thing like me’.”

But here’s where the scene shifts and the magic begins. The tensions been set: the voluptuous Grushenka is seated on the young monk’s lap. Alyosha is in a spiritual conflict: on the one hand he feels protected by God from temptation, but on the other he is feeling attracted to Grushenka (indeed a normal emotion given every other male character’s response to her). But now the shift:

Rakitin breaks to Grushenka that the Elder Zossima had died that day and had crushed Alyosha in sorrow. To this Grushenka reacts in a surprising way:

“So Father Zossima is dead,” cried Grushenka. “Good God, I did not know!” She crossed herself devoutly. “Goodness, what have I been doing, sitting on his knee like this at such a time!” She started up as though in dismay, instantly slipped off his knee and sat down on the sofa. Alyosha bent a long wondering look upon her and a light seemed to dawn in his face.”

And now the arrow of love that pierces the darkness!

Alyosha to Rakitin and Grushenka:

“Rakitin,” he said suddenly, in a firm and loud voice, “don’t taunt me me with having rebelled against God. I don’t want to feel angry with you, so you must be kinder, too. I’ve lost a treasure [Elder Zossima] such as you have never had, and you cannot judge me now. You had much better look at her–do you see how she spared me? I came here to find a wicked soul–I felt drawn to evil because I was base and evil myself, and I’ve found a true sister, I have found a treasure–a loving heart. She spared me just now . . . . Agrafena Alexandrovna [Grushenka], I am speaking of you. You’ve restored my soul just now.” Alyosha’s lips were quivering and he caught his breath.

Rakitin takes it all in with a mocking vituperation:

“She has saved you, it seems,” laughed Rakitin spitefully. “And she meant to swallow you, do you realize that?”

And now the moment of Grushenka’s repentance:

“Stay, Rakitin.” Grushenka jumped up. “Hush, both of you. Now I’ll tell you all about it. Hush, Alyosha, your words make me ashamed, for I am bad and not good–that’s what I am. And you hush, Rakitin, because you are telling lies. I had the low idea of trying to swallow him, but now you are lying, now it’s all different . . . .” All this Grushenka said with extreme emotion. “They are both crazy,” said Rakitin, looking at them with amazement. ” I feel as though I were in a madhouse. They’re both weakening so that they’ll begin crying in a minute.” “I shall begin to cry, I shall,” repeated Grushenka. “He called me his sister and I shall never forget that.”

The crazy scene continues leading to Grushenka sobbing on the couch repenting of her sins and Alyosha having nothing but love and forgiveness in his heart for her.

But what happened here? What is Dostoevsky revealing to us?

He is revealing to us none other than a simple truth, a truth that if we all lived it–according to Markel in the Elder Zossima scene–we would bring heaven down to earth: That all of us, no matter how dark or sinful or distorted or broken, all of us are made in the image of God. And if you look closely enough at a person–any person!–you will see that image born out of their eyes. And when we see one another as created in the image of God, then objectivity becomes subjectivity–we cease seeing one another as objects, and instead engage as subjects, as icons of God Himself. This is the beauty, the broken distorted beauty, of Dostoevsky. This is truth unfolded. And this truth is a beautiful truth, for it turns the world upside down to where a “nasty thing” like Grushenka becomes a sister of light, a sister of truth. Further down you will read that in fact Grushenka had paid Rakitin to deliver the young monk to her for the purpose of swallowing him. And this is part of her confession and repentance. But Alyosha is full of the transforming love of God. He cannot see her as anything but a saint.

And what of Rakitin?

He is the voice of reason. He is the cynic in all of us who don’t want to believe such stories, who don’t want to go to the place of crazy radical love, who think it’s all too messy and crazy and messed up. His is the voice of reason; the place of reason that the love of Christ overturns like the money tables in the temple. There’s no place for the rational, the careful, the risk-free in this crazy love that is the Kingdom of God. In fact, it’s fair to say that we all must drive the Rakitin out of our hearts if we are to enter this crazy love that is the Way of truth and light and love.

What power. What vision. What radical beauty!

On Lent, Philip Roth, And The Grace To Fall Forward

It’s Lent. If there’s one time of year that causes fear and rejoicing at the same time, it’s Lent. Last year was my first time. I asked my friend who has been my spiritual elder for many years what I should do for Lent–how I should approach it. I went over to his house in the first week of Lent, and we shared pita bread dipped in olive oil and balsamic vinegar and chased it down with Arabic coffee sweetened with maple syrup (east meats west–I’ll leave the typo as a pun!).

“So, how do I approach this time of fasting?” I asked, dipping a torn off piece of flatbread into my speckled puddle of olive oil and vinegar.

“How do you fast?” He asked, rolling up his sleeve and adjusting the black wool prayer rope that dangled from his wrist.

“How do I fast?”

“Ya, how do you fast?”

“Um . . .” I had to think about this one. My mind raced to the various Wednesdays and Fridays when I tried desperately to fast during the day, only to binge on snack foods at night. “Well, in actuality I’m probably the worst faster in the world. Is it a good thing to have indigestion before bed on a fast day?” He laughed.

“Ok, so first of all, no one is a worse faster then me,” he qualified. “I know exactly how you feel. And to be honest, Lent is really hard for me. What you need to try to do is just not eat–to go hungry.”

“Not eat . . . At all?”

“That’s right. You need to really feel the hunger. Christ says to hunger and thirst for Him. He is the Bread of Life; He is the Living Water–right?”

“Ok . . . I thought it was just vegan . . .”

“It is, but the whole point of it is to go hungry; to make hunger your friend; to fend it off for as long as possible, and ultimately to make room in your heart for Christ, and prepare for His death and resurrection.”

I dipped another piece of bread into the puddle, and took a swig of my coffee feeling the fine grounds like chalk across my teeth. “Befriend hunger . . .” I thought.

I think it was Solzhenitsyn who said that there is nothing worse for a writer than comfort. A writer who is comfortable has to conjure up scenarios to write, which typically leads to prose that is shallow or bourgeois. This is the case in all areas of life–we like to engage those who are the work-horses; we love to cheer for the gritty underdog who gets knocked down but gets back up again. It’s like the story in the Bridge of Spies of the Jewish man who in the concentration camp was beaten down; but each time he was beaten down, he stood back up again.

For a writer, we need to have that steely-eyed tenacity; we need to have the hunger, the eye of the tiger, whatever it is. Without it, we’re done! Maybe this is what happened to Philip Roth. Why else would you walk off stage, retire as a writer in your seventies? He lost the hunger, the will to fight, the steely eye of the tiger. It’s a sad thing. It makes me wonder if he had the eye of the tiger in the first place (though his prose would answer in the affirmative). Incidentally, before hanging up his hat, he read all of his books, then those by his favourite authors, one of whom is Dostoevsky.

To be an artist is to hunger. To befriend hunger–same as the spiritual life in pursuit of God. See how these things are so intertwined?

This is where writing is an ascetic practice–an ascesis. To practice asceticism is to deny yourself (your will, your agenda, your ‘style’, your past, your present, your future), and cleave to God–to give Him everything. It is to hunger and thirst for Christ. It is to befriend hunger and allow room in your heart for Christ to pray and fast through you. To write, then, becomes a way for the Lord to speak through you to your readers; to convey a message, to open a window, to create an opportunity for the Lord to speak through your words to the reader. And so your life as a writer and your life as a seeker after God, after Truth, are one and the same. I will write more about this because it is something I have only recently caught a glimpse of. It informs everything. And it is here that we are more than just writers–we are human beings; we are icons of God, for we bare his image.

The friend who gave me advice last year, whom I was able to spend a day or two of Lent with, is spending this year in a monastery in Alexandria Egypt. He was ordained this past week as a Coptic priest. It’s amazing to me how the grace of God can radiate from one person to others even thousands of kilometres away. He will spend 40 days and 40 nights there, fasting, praying, performing liturgy. He rises at 4am. There is only one meal a day–the same meal every day. My imagination says it’s bread, water, and salt, but who knows. I’ll have to ask him. His name is Father Joseph.

He wrote me a text the other day that I can’t stop thinking about.

“Look–” he said, “You won’t believe it. Everything I’ve read about saints and monks and these monasteries is real! If only you could be here and take part in liturgy and see the monks whose faces literally radiate! You would weep for hours, then write like never before!”

He gets it.

Art, the pursuit of Beauty and Truth, and the desperate, hungry pursuit of God are one and the same.

So tomorrow I wake up to my prayers, and then I scribble out my lines for 30 minutes. The rest of the day, I try, desperately try in this consumptive over-abundant western world, to go hungry. I will fail. I will eat. I will fall. But in the falling, I will remember that the point is not to fall, but after having fallen, to get back up. By the grace of God to fall forward.

May the Lord grant us all a desire, a hunger, for Him, and the courage and strength to get back up.

Dostoevsky And Art As The Pursuit Of Love

DQmZEnb455soKZVnzTsQ97r9LXTojDRrZd6yXqih4DiTobg

There’s something that’s been on my mind–a lot: What is my inspiration for writing? I mean really, what is it that inspires? Where do the ideas come from? What am I trying to get at and why? Fundamental questions, no? Margaret Atwood once said that if you don’t have an idea about what you’re going to write, then you’re probably not a writer. So what is it? And where does it come from?

I wrote in my previous post that my inspiration comes from God through prayer, through worship, through struggling daily to give up my will to Him. Like the prayer of St. Francis, “Lord make me an instrument of your Peace…” This is writing: to be an instrument, a channel, for the Lord. I wrote in that post also that this is where I find my true self, my authentic self, my real self. And this is what art is: to live according to one’s true authentic self. For me, this real authentic self is that which I was created to become; created to become by the hands of God Himself. I am His child, and He lives inside me as He is everywhere filling all things.

But what does this mean? What is the meaning of this prayer that God is everywhere filling all things?

Ilya-Glazunov-Dostoevsky

Painting by Ilya Glazunov

 

Here I turn, as many do, to Dostoevsky–I cannot get enough of him. I’ve been reading his Brothers Karamazov for months now. And as I’ve been on this path of authenticity, of struggling to follow Christ, this book has opened itself to me even more. It is a very spiritual book. But listen, let me show you more.

One of the great characters in the book is the Spiritual Elder Father Zossima. And in that section in which Dostoevsky writes a hagiography of the great elder, Zossima himself tells his life story, the opening of which includes the story of the elder’s brother, Markel. Zossima describes him as one who during Lent “would not fast,” and “was rude and laughed at it.” ‘That’s all silly twaddle and there is no God,’ Markel would say.

One day, Markel became very sick. His mother begged him to go to liturgy, which he did “solely for your sake mother, to please and comfort you.” But his illness worsened, and he took to his bed choosing to take the sacrament at home. He became weaker, and as he did, his faith grew more into a fervent love for all things. Here, read this:

“Don’t cry mother . . . life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we won’t see it; if we would we should have heaven on earth the next day.”

And later on Markel would “get up every day, more and more sweet and joyous and full of love.” And the doctor told him he would live many more days and years, to which he replied,

“Why reckon the days? One day is enough for a man to know all happiness. My dear ones, why do we quarrel, try to outshine each other and bear grudges against each other? Let’s go straight into the garden, walk and play there, love, appreciate, and kiss each other, and bless our life.” 

Here Dostoevsky is not only painting the picture of the transformation of a man from atheist to Christian, but also painting a picture of the artistic life itself–that authentic way of being in the world. A way of being that doesn’t quarrel or try to outshine another person; a way of being that seeks out creation, and to walk and play and love in it, to appreciate it and love all beings that dwell in it.

But my favourite passage comes a few more lines down in this narrative of Markel. Here, the doctor claims that Markel is dying, but in this slipping into death, we see a kind of resurrection taking place in this young man that culminates in the life of the great elder Zossima. Listen, I shall write it for you.

The windows of his room looked out into the garden, and our garden was a shady one, with old trees in it which were coming into bud. The first birds of spring were flitting in the branches, chirruping and singing at his windows. And looking at them and admiring them, he began suddenly begging their forgiveness, too. “Birds of heaven, happy birds, forgive me, for I have sinned against you too.” That none of us could understand at the time, but he shed tears of joy. “Yes,” he said, “there was God’s glory all about me; birds, trees, meadows, sky, I alone lived in shame and dishonoured it all and did not notice the beauty and the glory”

See this? See this love for all of creation? That is art. That longing for beauty, that longing to be at one with all of creation, to love it, to beg for its forgiveness, to live in harmony with it–that is art.

What is this love? This love that seeks forgiveness from creation; a love that for one moment sees heaven in the eyes of all who walk past. That love that notices the beauty and glory of God in all things. What is this love?

It is a crazy love. It is a thirsty, hungry love. It is not a love of possession or ego. It is a love that springs from the heart when we are quiet, when we are open to God, when we let go of our own plans, our own agendas, our own desires. It is a love that springs from the dance between our gifts and the Giver of them, the Way, Christ Himself. It is a love that struggles to become more and more like God, and thus more and more human.

To live this love; to yearn for it, hunger for it, seek it as the most beautiful treasure, to enter into to, and then to write it–like Dostoevsky did–this, this is art.

On Writing, Coltrane, Hemingway, and Getting What’s In, Out

I work a full-time job, and have a growing family. To write is to be disciplined. What I’ve learned from J.D. Salinger, Steven Pressfield, and others is that writing is a lunch-bucket job. It’s a punch in/punch out kind of thing. People will say they don’t write until they’re inspired. I get up in the morning early. I am inspired by Murikami’s hour of 4:30 am. I’m not quite keeping monks’ hours (they get up for prayers at 4am), but I can always work toward that. I get up and say my morning prayers. Morning prayers are critical for my writing. I find myself in my prayers–my true self. Creativity is a way of being. Creativity is the authentic expression of who one truly is. I pray to see myself as I truly am: my brokenness, my weakness, and that all too often overlooked image of God within. Without the prayers, there is no writing.

After prayers, I have only about 30 minutes to write, which means I have to really hit it. I pull out the paper, and follow a hunch that has been building over the past 24 hours. Following Hemingway, I write hard until I have drained the tank, but not to empty, and then I leave it. During the day I am too busy to think about writing, but I know that my heart is there seeking out the next stint, preparing for that moment in time the following day when I can write. In that 30 minutes, I am getting about 3 pages of work. I am not going for gold here, just getting out everything I need to get out.

What I’ve learned from J.D. Salinger, Steven Pressfield, and others is that writing is a lunch-bucket job. It’s a punch in/punch out kind of thing.

John Coltrane was a master at this. Once while Coltrane was playing with Miles Davis, he cranked out a long solo. After the gig, Miles asked in that classic raspy voice (I can only imagine), “What was that?” Coltrane replied, “I was only trying to get what was in, out.” This is writing. This is any act of creativity–getting it all out. And that’s what I’m after in that 30 minute writing stint: just trying to crank out what’s sitting in there, in my heart.

That’s the other thing: You’ve got to write from your heart. I write on a simple wooden clipboard that I stuff with plain white copier paper, along with the added up pages of my manuscript. On that clip board I’ve got two lines from Hemingway that I really like: 1) Write what you know, and 2) Write what is true. To write what you know comes from the head. To write what is true comes from your heart. And writing is bringing the head and the heart together–that’s what makes it so damn hard.

After the gig, Miles asked in that classic raspy voice . . . , “What was that?” Coltrane replied, “I was only trying to get what was in, out.”

I write everything in ink–the whole damn manuscript. If I were a writer worth his salt, I’d write the draft out again by hand–is this not what Truman Capote did? That’s how his sentences could be so clear and concise–Hemingway’s too. That’s what I’m looking for: that clarity, that conciseness, that simplicity. Truth is simplicity. Whatever is not simple is not truth. So to write what is true is to find truth in your heart, and then impart that truth on the page. There is a lot to be written here about that.

So that’s all I can do right now–take those 30 minutes and turn them into something, and then let that something build up every day until I’ve got what’s in, out.

The 3 Bridges To Your Next Writing Day After One Has Passed You By

Didn’t write this morning–woke up a bit later than usual (being up in the night with small children can mess with sleep patterns), and had to be out of the house early. I’m not going to worry about it, but simply pick it up again tomorrow morning.

But how will I stay in the momentum of the book having missed this morning’s writing session?

To do this, I utilize a few tricks I’ve picked up along the way over the years of false starts, slothfulness, and self-doubt. Here they are:

Morning Pages

The first is daily pages, which I got from the wonderful book by Julia Cameron entitled The Artist’s Way. If you’re a writer and haven’t read this book, you must. Her book is a kind of program for blocked artists; and one of the ways you unblock is by writing again–through daily pages. This took years for me to learn. I have been an avid note-taker and have innumerable journals throughout the house, but did not develop the discipline of daily writing (hence the name jour-nal).

In order to retrieve your creativity, you need to find it. I ask you to do this by an apparently pointless process I call the morning pages . . . . What are morning pages? Put simply, the morning pages are three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream of consciousness . . . .

– Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way, 9-10.

Cameron really awakened me to the importance of this discipline, and I’ve been diligently doing my morning pages now for several years. I don’t write in them everyday, I must confess, but most days. Daily pages are particularly useful for working through the book I’m writing, or jotting down ideas from the books I’m reading, or just flickers of insight. So when I miss a day of book writing, I can rely on my daily pages to both keep the ink flowing as well as keep me in the momentum of the book.

Active Notebooking

The second tool is just carrying around a notebook, a small one. Again, I don’t rely on mobile devices because a) I can be a Luddite, in spite of working professionally with technology, and b) I don’t want my intimate ideas being beamed up to a cloud somewhere on a google-barge off the California coast. My notebooks are small. The best kind are slim softcover notebooks. I particularly like ones that Rhodia puts out: they’re very slim and the paper is very kind to fountain pens. These notebooks can fit seamlessly in my denim or blazer pockets. And when an idea hits, I jot them down immediately, being sure to date the pages. I will go later into my system of notebooks and note taking, but am just mentioning it broadly here.

Beating Resistance

One of my mentors–though he doesn’t know it, for I’ve never (yet) met him–is Steven Pressfield. In his book The War of Art, Preston pinpoints the most destructive force that every artist faces: Resistance. There are many ways we fall prey to resistance, but only one way to beat it: work–plain and simply. Just sit down and write. The hardest thing for any writer is simply sit down. The hardest part for me is the moment my alarm goes off at some crude hour of the morning and I am left with the fateful decision: get up and go downstairs to write, or drift back to sleep. If (a) I will be successful for the day; but if I choose (b) Resistance has defeated me.

[Joseph] Conrad, who could spend days looking at a blank page, didn’t start writing fiction until his thirties. Nevertheless, he averaged a book or play a year until his death at age sixty-six . . . . Only a few of Conrad’s pieces are masterpieces, but the ones that are didn’t come from a mere few years’ inspiration; they came from Conrad’s ability and willingness to dedicate nearly his whole existence to his creative activity.

John Briggs, Fire in the Crucible pg. 204.

So this third trick of mine has a bit of a crude name: Sitzfleisch, which is German for ‘sitting down flesh’. The trick is to commit to sitting down everyday to write, unless another commitment takes you away. Some writers write 7 days a week. I write 5-6 days a week, taking Sunday off (but still keeping my active note taking). When I am committed to writing everyday, it doesn’t matter if I miss one, because I know that tomorrow morning my alarm will go off, and I’ll stagger downstairs, set up my workspace, and get down to business continuing where I left off and using my notebook(s) as a bridge.

Writing In The Mystery: Thomas Merton And Art As Ascetic Practice

I just finished a writing stint–it’s 7am, and I’ve written for about an hour. Though tired, I feel energized. I’m following Hemingway’s prescription to stop when you have more left in you–to avoid draining the well.

The book I’m writing is about a lost man, an attempted murder, and a hermit. I started writing it four days ago, but the story itself has been on my mind for months when the idea first struck while at a dinner party–the greatest ideas come at dinner parties! There is a famous writer, the name escapes me (I’ll try to add it later), who was known for suspiciously hanging his head at dinner parties–his wife would elbow him and urge, “Stop writing!”

As a writer, I’m always looking for new ideas. My notebook and pen go with me everywhere–I don’t trust mobile devices. When an idea strikes, I immediately write it down, unless I’m driving of course.

My thoughts while writing this book are on solitude–the solitude from the heart, and what it means to write from that place. I’m hoping, praying, that this desire of mine for solitude somehow comes out in the life of the protagonist who, I have him state at the book’s opening, just wants to “draw deeper into the mystery . . . ”

I’ve got a book proposal to work on now, but I’d much rather be writing. It’s tough to pull myself away from the thrill of ink flowing in lines of words, but that’s the discipline . . .

16 Hours Later…

It’s approaching 11pm. I used to be a night owl, burning the midnight oil till all hours. Being a father of 3 changed all that. The quiet hours are those stolen in the early morning. 5am wake-up call will come early. That is the hour of solitude, of quiet, of prayer.

Today I read Thomas Merton’s theology of creativity, found in his Literary Essays–a brilliant series of essays–in which he describes art as an ascetic practice. That the artist first becomes his or her authentic self by giving up the ego and reaching out to Christ:

[It] is the renunciation of our false self, the emptying of the self in the likeness of Christ, that brings us to the threshold of that true creativity in which God Himself works in and through us.

This is what I take with me to bed, that desire to put the false self aside and be-come like Him; to rise up in the morning to meet Him, and allow Him to write through me when the nib of my pen is pressed to paper.

This is different from seeking a ‘muse’ or some kind of creative ‘experience’–this is seeking the Creator God, and asking Him to guide and direct me in my art, which is an act of becoming. Art becomes life becomes Art. As a friend and spiritual advisor of mine recently told me, we are be-coming, but He always is.

It’s 11:00…

Sufficient unto the day.

The Singularity or Everlasting Life?

For a number of years now I have thought a lot about longevity: I’ve read Ray Kurzweil’s books and regaled myself with Aubrey de Grey’s various talks on TED etc. “Would I chip, or not chip?” has been a lingering nagging question, the weight of which brought on by Bill Gates and others who warn us that if we do not enhance our brains technologically we risk being conquered by ever and rapidly advancing artificial intelligence. If Ray Kurzweil is right, we’ll want to enhance our brains through ‘chipping’ not only to avoid intellectual but also existential obsolescence.

I’ve asked myself so many times, “What’s my longevity plan?” It’s a big issue. As we’re moving closer toward singularity, I have had innumerable conversations with people about the importance of enhancing our brains–I’ve even consulted people in such directions for business plans and other strategic points of departure.

Aren’t we geared toward thinking of our future? Isn’t that a primordial, fundamental human concern? What will happen tomorrow? Will I live or will I die? Will I have enough? Will I grow ill and be unable to recover? What happens in the moment of a catastrophe? Am I ready?

Biotechnological solutions are ways for us to insure a future for ourselves; to shore up against age, disease, dementia, and even career obsolescence.

And what about from a Christian perspective, for those who are? Would you chip? What does it mean to take it? To what are you wired up? Whose controlling whom? And even outside of the Christian context, what about basic human liberty–are you free if you take a chip?

“Yes–” one would argue, “but look at the benefits! Living for the next 300 years with an amped up brain capacity that would make Einstein look feeble! Who doesn’t want that? Besides, computers and all external forms of data gathering, are passe, not to mention onerous.”

It wasn’t until I sat in the Pascal Lectures by John Lennox that I came to a crazy realization that I have been taught since Sunday school, but in the course of ‘becoming educated’ withdrew from consciousness: That as a Christian, a believer in Christ, I have everlasting life. What does this mean?

In the story of Genesis, we see human beings with these amazing bodies and minds: supple, youthful bodies, and minds one-pointed and straight-edged. But at the fall, everything changed: our bodies became degenerative, and our minds divided. When Christ came, he revealed to us not only that He is God (in the beginning was the Word), and not only that He suffers with us, but most importantly that He defeated death through His resurrection.

In the book of John, Jesus appears to Mary, Martha, and the disciples. Did they recognize Him at first? No. In fact, He chose to reveal Himself to them, after which they recognized Him. John tells us that His body was so magnificent, so glorious, that He was unrecognizable–even by His closest friends and mother. And through His resurrected body, Christ shows us what our bodies will be like in Eternity–unrecognizable, and like the bodies of the first humans prior to the fall.

If you worry about the singularity and your longevity plan, and are a believer in Jesus Christ, I urge you not to worry–you have the real thing, the real longevity plan; only this plan is for eternity with our Creator and those we love, and not built on the hubris of human advancement that will surely perish.

If you are not a Christian, I urge you to check out the John Lennox lecture at my previous post. There is Hope. You don’t need to worry about whether you can afford the technologies of the Singularity, or about some ambiguous longevity plan about which the greatest minds have only limited belief based on conjecture. God created you and offers you eternal life through His death and resurrection–it’s a beautiful thing. Christ will restore your heart, will heal your body, will bring you joy.

Boris Groys On Art & A Christian Response

This is a very interesting interview with Art Historian and philosopher, Boris Groys. Here he claims that it is everyone’s responsibility to be an artist, which is, essentially, self-expression: to create oneself in one’s image.

However, as I’ve maintained in an earlier post, there must be something more to that, unless one thinks of ‘self-‘ as one’s authentic self. As a Christian, I believe that one finds one’s authentic self through the redemptive work in Christ, and the creative dance between oneself and God through the long and arduous process of repentance (or, in the Greek, ‘metanoia’.).

And it is on this point that I believe Groys’s statement to be correct (though he most likely would not agree with the context): That as human beings created by God, we are to seek out and live our true selves as our primary responsibility on this earth, and thus, as Groys maintains, become artists; but not creating ourselves in our own image, but rather being molded in the image of God, as we’ve been truly created. 

This, however, does not mean that we become conformists to some kind of Christian gestalt particular to a denomination, but rather that as we live according to Christ’s redemption in our lives and thus become more of our selves, we become more truly and fully unique–as God created us. Hence, the life of art is not only to live authentically, but also to live in freedom–freedom to become truly ourselves.

And as much as Groys seeks to eliminate the soul from the definition of what art is, while still ironically seeking that which is ‘transcendent’, the Christian seeks to bring more of the work of the soul–that process of smithery–out into the materiality of his/her particular art.

Regardless of what one’s inherent beliefs might be, there are always things we can glean from the thought of others. In an article, titled “Immediations” from the The Research Journal of the Courtauld Institute of Art, Groys is posed a question about his suggestion that philosophers have a naturally closer relationship to art than do art historians, to which he makes this, to me, insightful reply:

We can look at art in two ways. First as if we were biologists trying to construct a neo-darwinian story of ‘our species’: how artists develop, how they succeed, failed, survived. In these things, art history is formulated like botany or biology. The second way of of considering art is part of the history of ideas. . . . So the question is whether we consider art history more like botany or more like the history of philosophy–and I tend more to the latter, because the driving force of art is philosophical (Vol I. No 4, 2007, pg. 4).

This explains how I became interested in art in general, and literature in particular. A friend of mine, who is now a professor of philosophy, once told me many years ago at the beginning of my philosophy studies at the University of Toronto that the best modern philosophers were found in literature. It took me a while to figure out what that meant, until I worked through and landed on some of my favourite 19th/20th Century writers (Joyce, Eliot, Dostoevsky, Beckett, Camus, name a few), and began working at fiction on my own.

What I draw from when writing is this history of ideas that I have been indoctrinated in, which as such remains a blessing and a curse: the former simply because new ideas and the dialectical approach to bringing numerous together and finding a new one, comes rather easily; the latter (namely a curse) because as a Christian writer, I find much of the history of ideas to be of a certain kind of citadel called ‘the history of reason or consciousness’ that I believe Christianity attempts to push us beyond–to very dramatically liberate us from. This requires a great deal of explanation, but I will say this of the matter: That in spite of all the talk of ‘soul’ and ‘reason’ and even ‘conscience’ one finds in philosophy, it will not teach you to love more, to become less self-centred, and, ultimately to give yourself to God. It may speak of those things, gloss over them, or bring them under some kind of straw-man judgment, but it will not give you love for God and your fellow human being. You may even read all the Kierkegaard you want, but, and he too would say this to you, it will not save your Soul–you must reach rock bottom and assent to God yourself. He will be there when you leap, but there’s no elevator, no automatic switch that you can simply intellectually dally with in your mind.

And what I attempt to write about is this very tension between the rational and salvific (I avoid using ‘absurd’ for those not versed in Kierkegaard and would thus interpret the connotation of that word as somehow subservient to reason), drawing out the existential struggle in pursuit of God within the overbearing ambiguity of existence itself. And the contexts I draw from are those closest to that history of ideas mentioned by Groys; those ideas held most dearly by the great thinkers whose works have shaped our western collective (un)consciousness.

Being a Christian Writer

Prefaces are about beginnings–and I have had, and continue to have, many of them. In the Christian life, our Way is made up of many false starts, detours, crash landings and stalled engines, all of which require some kind of re-entry into Life through the Grace of Christ, and some of which lead to the telling of one’s story–a way of prefacing the new life or beginning: “Well, things have been getting better these last couple of months, but you should’ve seen me a year ago at this time–man was my life a mess!”

For new books, I always read the Preface–it’s the best way to get inside the author’s head, or heart, and have a good thumbnail print of the work itself. One of my favourite prefaces is Schopenhauer’s The World As Will and Representation in which he suggests to the reader that if he or she doesn’t like the book, then it can be easily set upon a coffee table and used to hold a cup of tea (or something to that extent–the book’s not with me). So this blog is about prefaces, new beginnings, and the narratives that accompany and often precede them. Sometimes the ‘old life’ is simply one’s absence from church for a period of time spent gorging oneself on too many episodes of House MD in a row; however, there are other ‘old lives’ that are full of the rawness and grittiness of life itself–and those tend to be the stories I am interested in, both writing and reading about.

Are there Christians who seek out literature that draw the bow tautly between, as it were, the sacred and profane? Or, has fiction been bifurcated into a Christian stream that simply draws neat little parallels to scripture and blithely answers all of life’s questions, and, conversely, that of ‘secular’ fiction that enters into the funk of life, but with little in the way of redemption?

What does it mean to be a Christian artist anyway? I resonate with Tolstoy’s What is Art? in which he designates art as that which involves a struggle with the divine, with one or more transcendent topics that one must toil to get out; and it is in the toiling, the existential struggle, the dance with the Divine, that the product can be considered art. With this as my operative definition, I feel comfortable actually scrapping the ‘Christian’ and simply call such experiences ‘art’. Indeed, Merton talks about this as some kind of creative process: that as we give God our gifts (our writing, oration, visual art, etc) that He gives them back to us, and it is in this dance with God that we create. This creative process, this art, then, is the artist’s struggle with life, existence, despair, anxiety, guilt, and the redemption he or she finds in Christ.

What I want to know is if there are Christians out there who want to read such literature, and thus are not shaken or driven away by prose that is steeped in the funk of life; art that draws out the tension between the profanity of life and the redemption found in Christ.

If you are interested in this, please post me some feedback, whether you agree or think I’m way off.