This Is How Victor Hugo Inspired Me To Get Myself A Wolf


The Library

It was the day after my birthday. My family had flown out ahead of me to Calgary where we were planning to move. I had spent the night of my birthday alone–just me, the dog, left-over Chinese food, and a book I had picked up on sale at Value Village on Hemingway’s boat (a truly aesthetic thing to read Hemingway when alone on the night of one’s birthday, don’t you think?).

The following day, my aunt invited me over to have lunch with her. She had prepared a decorated table in my late uncle’s rare book library. Being a prolific internationally acclaimed author himself, the place is a writer’s dream. After lunch, my aunt gifted me a leather bound six volume set of Victor Hugo’s Collected Works–exquisite!

Victor Hugo’s Wolf


One of the stories of Hugo that I can’t stop thinking about is found in the book, entitled The Man Who Laughs. The opening story is about a man named Ursus and his wolf Homo. The two live together in a trailer that the wolf pulls around from village to village.

“On hard roads and ascents, when there was too much rut and too much mud, the man buckled the trace-band about his neck, and pulled fraternally, side by side with the wolf.”

It says that the wolf never bit, but the man bit sometimes. And the two grew old together travelling from place to place, the man giving monologues, impersonations, and even providing the services of a herbalist treating people of various ailments.

It says that Ursus found the wolf by a river deftly catching cray-fish. Ursus saluted the wolf and the two became friends.

“Homo was more than a companion to Ursus, he was a counterpart. Ursus tapped his hollow flanks and said, ‘I have found my second volume.’ He also said, ‘When I am dead, he who wishes to know me will only have to study Homo. I shall leave him behind me as an authentic copy.'”

The Hugo Volumes

The volumes were so beautiful: leather bounded, gilded spines, marble flyleaves–the works. I couldn’t wait to get them home. The house was empty, but the volumes immediately warmed the place up. The dog followed me around the house as I was moving books from one shelf to another and from one box to another, making room on my living room shelves for them–their new home. My uncle had exquisite taste in books, and these were no exception. I put them up on the shelf, lining them up perfectly, the gilded spines capturing the dim lamp light from the living room. I wanted to dig into them, but where does one begin with almost 2000 pages of Hugo?

The Mystery Of A Man And His Wolf


So I want a wolf. A friend of mine lives out in Ghost Lake, Alberta. He had a dog that was half-something, half wolf. When his wife gave birth to their first child, the wolf-cross was out. What is it about a wolf?

Again, reading Hugo my mind is captivated by this mendicant and his wolf sharing a book-stuffed, candle-lit hut together; the wolf sprawled out on the floor, the man working away on some obscure manuscript or herbal remedy. My mind goes to those stories of St. Francis of Assisi and the wolf; how he made friends with it, and brought it back to the town it had been terrorizing to apologize. The town forgave the wolf, and the wolf became the town pet.

“Ursus had imparted to Homo a portion of his talents, –standing erect, diluting his wrath in times of ill humour, growling instead of howling, etc.; on his part, the wolf had taught the man what he knew,–to do without a roof, to do without bread, to do without fire, to prefer hunger in a forest to slavery in a palace.”

What is this paragraph? So brilliant and mysterious! There is a reason here why the wolf is called Homo, or ‘man’: He and Ursus are almost one and the same–the wolf is Ursus’s double, his second volume.

What does this say about ourselves and creation? There is this affinity we read about with certain characters and their wolves. I go back to the wolf in the Laurus that plays a mysterious role. Yes–mystery! The wolf shows the mystery of creation; that we are not cut off from creation, but can become one with it as God is there filling all things.

I Was Inspired To Get Myself A Wolf

So I read through Ursus and Homo several times captivated by it, but needing time to process. Then suddenly one day, and I’m not sure how it happened, but an inspiration hit: I need a wolf! This is the time, and the manuscript is the place!

For the longest time I have had this thing about wolves in stories, and now it was my time to write one into mine. Just this morning, as the clock was nearing 6:15, I picked up my pen and began to write my first wolf scene infusing it with all the mystery that I love about characters and their wolves. It felt so good.

It’s amazing, the timing of a book–the way it inspires seemingly out of the blue. It’s a cold February day, and I’m 3000 kilometres from my aunt’s house and the old family house we moved here from. It seems like years since I brought these volumes home from my uncle’s rare book library. And I remember the first time I brought them home wondering if I would be inspired by them. I’m only on the first story of many, and all ready I am filled with wonder.

Wow–my own wolf! I finally have one of my own.

This Is How Kierkegaard, Merton, And An Obscure Book On Spinoza Helped Me Become A Writer


Where does the writer begin and the self who was there prior to becoming a writer end?

This is a question I ask myself from time to time, especially when reading or having read a biography. When did Steve Jobs become Steve Jobs, or Mozart become Mozart, or Hemingway become Hemingway? To me, there seems to be a point at which there is a leap from T0 in which one is not, say, a writer, to T1 in which one is. My writing coach (who does not know he is my writing coach) Steven Pressfield calls it “turning pro”: that time when you go from the amateur hobbyist to the persistent unflagging professional writer.

An Obscure Book On Spinoza

My first discovery was that of reading somehow leading to writing. I was taking a class in modern philosophy in my first undergraduate year at the University of Toronto, for which I took out a book on Spinoza: an obscure work entitled, Behind the Geometrical Method: A Reading of Spinoza’s Ethics But in this book I found something I didn’t expect to find: a simple quote on reading and writing:

“It is a general observation that people write as they read. As a rule, careful writers are careful readers and vice versa. A careful writer wants to be read carefully. He cannot know what it means to be read carefully but by having done careful reading himself. Reading precedes writing. We read before we write. We learn to write by reading. A man learns to write well by reading well good books, by reading most carefully books which are most carefully written” Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing.

This was it! I didn’t know at the time that I would become a writer, but this quote took me into another world–this simple quote haphazardly stumbled upon while looking up something for my modern philosophy class! I hadn’t read anything like this simple passage; and it became some kind of rite of passage for me, for I knew then that I had to become a reader, and a careful one at that! I printed the passage out and stuck it on my wall and read it daily.

Why did I do this? Did I know I wanted to become a writer? I would say my heart knew, but I was not aware of this–all I knew was this opened me up to another world and gave me a sense of meaning and purpose. “Reading precedes writing. We read before we write . . . .” Unbelievable! This, and Kierkegaard’s journal entries, were the opening to my calling to be a writer. Later, I would be drawn to the little work by the Emerson scholar Robert D. Richardson, entitled First We Read, Then We Write.

Kierkegaard On The Vocation Of Writer

Another turning point for me, albeit a hazy one, was when I was first exposed to Kierkegaard. I still remember the lecture hall at University College at the University of Toronto. It was a night class on existentialism from 6-9pm. The hall was packed; and I know I wasn’t the only one who anticipated it would be all Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. But the instructor surprised all of us with a roster of unusual suspects: Martin Buber, Soren Kierkegaard, Nietzsche (ok ok, this one wasn’t unusual), and Gabriel Marcel. I was outraged: “What are all these religious philosophers doing in existentialism class!”

But it was Kierkegaard who really got to me. I hadn’t read him before, having just been introduced to philosophy through western theology: Barth, Tillich, Kung–those modern protestant usual suspects. We read in class Philosophical Fragments, and while at times confused, I fell deeply into Kierkegaard’s musings about his life and his vocation as a writer. I still remember when I read that one journal entry of his in which he wrote that,

“I need to get straight what I am to do; what is the life that is true for me.”

It was this vocational cry to God that really struck me; this struggle to somehow get straight who he was not only as a human being, but a human being with a calling, a purpose–to understand that life that is true for him. This is no relativistic claim, but rather a subjective one–and not in the subjectivism that is a mere smoke screen for relativism, but a subjectivism that, for Kierkegaard, is the necessary condition for the possibility of finding God, and therefore Truth itself.

I was hooked: I read more of Kierkegaard’s biography, and relished those parts of his story when he realized his calling and couldn’t turn back–he wrote endlessly and prolifically in the short time before his death at 42 years old.

But I still didn’t understand what this vocation was for me. I wasn’t a writer, and certainly didn’t even know what that meant.

We Read Before We Write

It’s 2001, and I’ve graduate from the University of Toronto and I’m preparing my grad school applications. I am inflicted with a cold flu that has me in bed for 3 full days. During that time I read like crazy: Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and a couple of others. And suddenly I am struck with a story, a plot, a novel! It caught me off guard, for my writing ambitions at that time were simply academic or scholarly–but here in a hazy way was the formation of a vision for a novel. It caught me so off guard that I didn’t know what to do. I know I held it for a long time; but the more I thought about it, the more beautiful it became.

Fast-forward two years. I have just begun my Ph.D. studies at Stanford with a focus on Martin Heidegger with some Kierkegaard and Kant thrown in for good measure–a little Nietzsche too–and in a crisis: my wife wanted something different for our lives, and I wanted her, so . . . .

I remember when I made my decision to leave Stanford, I took my advisor’s bike (his wife’s actually–he was kind enough to lend it to me), and rode to my apartment. I remember just coasting in the warm dry California sunset thinking, “Maybe I’ll write that novel . . . .”

The Crisis Of Faith–Kierkegaard Style

Now fast-forward a decade: I come to another Kierkegaardian crisis–that of faith; that teetering on the edge of rationality staring out over 33,000 feet of water. I had tried to live my life in a rational way; I tried to be self-reliant; I tried to be a free thinker in that Heideggarian sense of pursuing truth without religion–but it didn’t work. I stood on the precipice of crisis and had two choices: death or Christ.

I cried out, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me and save me a sinner!”

And that was that . . . my life was changed.

There was, and remains, a whole process to it, a process of repentance, but my life as I knew it and as I practiced it had changed. I was a new creation–the old had gone and the new had come. I was a new being. And what happened in that time of metanoia, that time of turning 180 degrees to Christ? He gave me back all that I loved: my wife, my children, my friends (some old friends from whom I had become disconnected), and my vocation, my calling.

He gave me a story, and then another one, and another.

He gave me that life that I was called to live.

It doesn’t mean it isn’t without struggle–spiritual practice is a struggle–but I am not alone. And I look back to those milestones in my life, to those places where I had inklings–true inklings!: Kierkegaard, Merton, Spinoza, Camus, Sartre, Heidegger, Emerson, and many others, and see a process of becoming.

It is said that one of the most terrifying things that can happen to us at the final judgement, when we stand before God, is that He asks us this one question:

“Why did you not become the person I had created you to be?”

Vocation As That Narrow Road Away From The Crowd

This goes right to the heart of our vocation, our calling; that calling that takes us away from the crowd, as Heidegger does such a good job at explaining; that calling that takes us down a narrow path, through a narrow gate, that leads to our true selves, but takes a lot of struggle, a lot of prayer, and the grace of God to get there.

Another inspiration just prior to my conversion. The story of another conversion that was mystical and beautiful and surprising, I’m sure, to those around him: Thomas Merton. Like many, I loved the Seven Story Mountain, but could only love it through a glass dimly, for I hadn’t yet tasted that powerful conversion that Merton wrote about. But the more I entered into conversion and tried to understand it in light of creativity and art and beauty, Merton was, and remains, a tremendous help. And thus, I’ll end with one of his most well-known prayers.

The Merton Prayer

It is a prayer for me, and I hope it is or becomes a prayer for you. We are all children of God. And we have all been created for a purpose in this life. There is a reason why you are here on this earth at this particular time in history. But you can’t realize that calling alone. You need to open your heart and receive Jesus Christ–the One Who Is, the True Being, the One who gives you breath.

“My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

What Stories About Befriending Wild Animals Can Truly Teach Us


There’s a story of a monk who loved animals. He had many dogs and cats in his hut, and in spite of being a rather bullish man, his love of animals seemed to radiate through.

One day he went to a house in the village for a house blessing. As he came through the gates, he was met by the family’s massive German Shepherd that was known throughout the village for being aggressive and vicious. The dog was the size of a small pony! The family stood in shock as the dog ran up to the monk and jumped up on him putting its paws up right on his burly shoulders. The monk just laughed. “Want to wrestle?” he growled at the dog with a chuckle. The dog replied by licking the man’s face. The monk looked toward the stupefied family and laughed. “Aw he’s my friend now! He knows how much I love animals–these dogs are very sensitive, you know!”

There’s something wonderful about these stories of humans encountering and befriending seemingly vicious animals. There’s a teaching here that we can gain insights from about how to become truly human. In the case of the monk, the seemingly vicious dog has an encounter with this man as if it is encountering God; and, it seems, the same can be said about the monk.

Here’s another from a favourite novel of mine, Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin. The novel traces the spiral-life of Arseny: a physician, nomad, and holy fool. As a young boy, Arseny is taught by his grandfather Christopher the medicinal use of innumerable herbs. One day walking through the forest, young Arseny and his grandfather came upon a wolf.

“Once they saw a wolf while they were gathering plants. The wolf was standing a few steps form them, looking them in the eyes. His tongue dangled from his jaw and trembled from panting. The wold was hot.

“We will not move, said Christopher, and he will leave. O great martyr Georgy, do helpe.

“He will not leave, Arseny objected. He came so he could be with us.

“The boy walked up to the wolf and took him by the scruff. The wolf sat. The end of his tail stuck out from under his hind paws. Christofer leaned against a pine tree and attentively watched Arseny. When they headed for home, the wolf set off after them, his tongue still hanging like a little red flag. The wolf stopped at the border of the village.”

The wolf eventually becomes Arseny’s house pet, lying with him by the fire. There is something magical about this world, something evocative somehow. I will not go into more detail about the wolf without ruining the plot of the story, but the wolf becomes an icon in the book of what icons are supposed to do: bring heaven and earth together.

Arseny’s befriending the wolf, or any stories about monks and wild animals for that matter, is an icon of this real connection humans share with all of creation. And that it’s not the animal’s fault that there exists at times this vicious barrier between it and a human being, but that it is really our fallenness that gets in the way; that if we were actually saints in the true sense of the word, more of these kinds of interactions would be happening. Hence, these stories of wolves and other wild animals are icons of what we all need to become, what we all as humans need to strive and struggle toward by the grace and mercy of God: to become more and more in the image of the One by Whom we were created.

These are the kinds of stories I love; the kinds of stories that reveal how the grace of God can radiate from one so much that even otherwise vicious animals are at peace. Whether it’s the well-known story of St. Francis of Assisi and the wolf, or stories of hermits in the forest who feed bears, these stories show that in Christ we are connected closely to all of creation. “Be at peace with God, and a thousand of others around you will be too,” to awkwardly paraphrase the saying of a desert father.

These stories encourage us to reach beyond ourselves, to reach beyond our fears, our anxieties, our immediacies, our possessions, our mandates, our intellects to something beyond: to tasting heaven here on earth and bringing all of creation along with us.



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.

Crazy Love

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.

Dostoevsky And Art As The Pursuit Of Love


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?


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.

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.

It’s 11:00…

Sufficient unto the day.