This Is How You Beat Failure And Find The Razor’s Edge Between Disaster And 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…
Why We’re All Afraid Of Failure
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.
Creative Versus Karaoke Culture
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?
If You’re Working On Something That’s A Struggle, It’s Probably The Right Thing
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.
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.
This is How Dostoevsky Shows The Way Of Transformational Love In The Brothers Karamazov
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.
The Way Of Atheism To Christianity
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.
The Way From Erotic To Agape Love
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?”
The Way of Crazy Repentance
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.
Cynical Rationality vs Transformational Love
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!
What Art, Philip Roth, And Lent Have To Do With Each Other
What My Elder Told Me About Lent
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.
The Pitfall Of Comfort
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 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 pursuit of Beauty and Truth, and the desperate hungry pursuit of God are one and the same.
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.
Everything I’ve Read About The Saints Is True!
“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.
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.
This Is What We Can Learn From Thomas Merton About Art And 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.
Sufficient unto the day.