I used to get real serious about my work, to the point where I would get stressed out. Those thoughts of not being good enough, of not being smart enough, of not being creative enough, or unique enough would overwhelm me. These thoughts were part of my creative blocks and depression. Days and weeks and months would go by and I would write nothing. My strategy was to wait for the inspiration to come. The problem was, it never came. And if it did come, it would be something I would riff off in a notebook at a manic pace without any real way to connect it to anything ongoing and substantial.
One of my favourite past times is to read biographies of creative people. To me, creativity can be taught as a series of habits, rituals, and routines. I read a biography of Goethe once while I was in a major funk. I was writing a novel that was unfolding along with my personal experiences–how else do you write a novel? But it was in that verbose, serpentine biography where I discovered Goethe’s notion of the serious jest. I loved this notion–and still do. To think of writing, of creating, as a kind of play to which the artist brings a high level of intent and intensity. Jazz music is indeed a good example of this. Watch any great jazz band like Herbie Hancock and Marcus Miller–watch how they play! The looks on their faces tell it all: one time Hancock is smiling and laughing, another moment he’s cringing, wincing, another he’s nodding his head to someone else’s solo. At the end of the set, there’s typically laughter and even cheers by the band members. This is a wonderful example of serious jest.
“Goethe war gut . . .”
This concept helped me a great deal, but I still couldn’t incorporate it into my work. After my conversion to Christianity after two-decades of atheism, I was looking for an authentic way to create art. And it was here that I turned to Merton.
Merton is known for his letters to writers. He wrote endlessly. One of my favourite letters is to the English poet Evelyn Waugh found in the book The Courage for Truth: Letters to Writers. Jacques Maritain played a tremendous role in the cultivation of Merton as a writer. In fact, in Merton’s Seven Story Mountain he lists Maritain, along with St. Augustin, St. Thomas Acquinas, and William Blake, as writers who “turned him on.” Now, in this letter, Maritain is aging, and seems to be having difficulty maintaining intensity and focus in his work.
“Do not push too hard with the work, God will take care of everything, and will give you strength to do all that needs to be done. The rest is in His hands.”
What is this? A prescription, by a monk no less, to not push too hard, followed up with a seeming platitude to just give it all to God? Is this not the antithesis of writing? Is not good writing pure ego towards a greater will to power? How is one to take that as advice? How is one not to see here a kind of giving up, rather than an artistic letting go?
Then Merton really lays it on thick:
“Realize yourself to be entirely in His love and His care and worry about nothing. In these days you should be carried by Him toward your destination, and do what you do more as play than as work, which does not mean it is not serious: for the most serious thing in the life of a Christian is play.”
It’s seemingly absurd to the point of being childish! Give your self to God. Rest in His love. Be carried by Him . . . Again, where’s the drive, the will, the Promethean fire?
It’s not there. Because the point of creativity is to let God do the work, not you. In fact, the more you divest yourself of your ambitions, the more you are open to receive guidance and ability from God.
But what about this play stuff?
“The seriousness of Christian play is the only genuine seriousness. Our work, when it develops the seriousness of worldly accomplishment, is sad indeed, and it does nothing.”
Do we not hear the echo of Goethe here? I would say so, but what we also see in Merton is a redemption of Goethe’s serious jest; that the serious play of the Christian is transcendent creativity. When it is at its best, it is bereft of ego, it relies wholly on God; it sees the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God as its greatest objective and focus, rather than fame and fortune. Indeed, it is the remedy for Tennessee Williams’s The Catastrophe of Success, for this authentic creativity is about relying on God and letting Him work through our pens, not our egos, whims, desires, and ambitions.
“But of course it is normal to work ‘against the clock’ when one’s time is clearly measured, and to feel anxiety about not finishing. But this too is part of God’s play in our life, and we will see it in the end . . . . All life is in reality the playing and dancing of the Child-God in His world, and we, alas, have not seen it and know it.”
God is everywhere filling all things. All things are filled by God, and we are part of that interconnectedness of all Creation, especially our creative lives. Here Merton is showing how we can take part in the Creation of God through our creativity–but it takes offering ourselves wholly to Him.
This is why we see in certain areas of Merton’s thought the notion of writing for him as an ascetic practice. That just as important as the writing part is the living; living our lives for God; offering ourselves to Him in surrender saying, “Not my will but Your’s be done.” This is authentic creativity.
What Merton is also talking about here is the false versus the real or authentic self–it is classic Merton. Further down towards the end of the letter, Merton gives us an insight into this dichotomy that separates serious Christian play and inauthentic creativity.
“Dear Jacques, you are going to your journey to God. And perhaps I am too, though I suppose my eagerness to go is partly wishful thinking, for there is yet work to be done in my own life. There are great illusions to be got rid of, and there is a false self that has to be taken off, if it can be done. There is still much to change before I will really be living in the truth and in nothingness and in humility and without anymore self concern.”
There is a lot going on here in these sentences that point to authentic creativity and the connection between creativity and asceticism. The seriousness of the play is that we realize our sinfulness before God and others; that we see the “great illusions,” and struggle through the grace of God to get rid of them. There is no hope in ourselves; but we must rely wholly on God. Merton says that “the false self that has to be taken off, if it can be done.” But there’s another important tie in here, namely the objective: “living in the truth and in nothing and in humility and without anymore self concern.”
This is one of the things we read about in the lives of saints: that when we rely wholly on God, we stop caring about ourselves; we lose that sense of self-concern that we all carry around with us that causes us to feed ourselves, seek comfort, seek attention, seek fame and glory.
This is the ascesis of writing, of creating.
And the playful part?
It’s becoming more of who we have been created to be; it’s taking on more of the likeness of Christ, which elevates our whole lives, and, not least, our creativity, our writing, our Art.
It remains a secret–well, a partial one. To those who know me, I’m a hack writer: I haven’t published yet, and depending on what day or time of day you talk to me I won’t mention writing at all.
Writing In Cognito
Then there are those who don’t really know me, and, because I rarely talk about it, have no clue that I have a very precise routine for writing 5-6 days per week. They don’t ask, I don’t say anything.
So there are two groups of people who are completely unaware that I am constantly monitoring for information everywhere I go. To me, the perfect line could drop in mid-conversation at a dinner party; a line that could change everything. Just last week, I was at a dinner party when out of nowhere came this brilliant line–it was slung across the table and smacked me right between the eyes! It was brilliant! I laughed my head off, gave the friend all the respect and admiration he deserved, then filed it deeply into my long-term memory.
Those around the table, other than my daughter, have no idea I’m a writer, and thus have no idea that part of my bantering and getting “into the issues” was trying to dig up good information for the next morning. And yes, I had a catch. Now reservedly it wasn’t a brilliant catch–I’ve had greater–but a catch nevertheless. I would say it was a good small mouthed bass, which, if you’ve only been pulling in small perch for a while a small mouthed bass is a very nice catch, and definitely one to keep in the boat with you.
You see, that’s the whole point: that with writers, there’s nothing purely subjective–we’re always mining for information.
The Neil Simon Volumes
One day I was at the library with my kids. It was one of those overcast, windswept late March days that draws one in-doors with a heightened state of awareness of comfort and even intrigue–a perfect time to hunt for books. My kids took off into the kids’ section, just outside of which, in the hallway, were several shelves of bargain books. My eyes scanned the shelves swiftly but carefully, picking up three volumes of Neil Simon’s Collected Plays–what a catch! They were fifty-cents each. But what I realized after cracking open the first volume was that Simon’s introduction was alone worth the price of the books; for it’s all about his secret life as a writer.
The Writer Is Loose!
“A look, the sound of a voice, a stranger passing on the street–and in an instant the transformation takes place. The mild-mannered Human Being suddenly dashes for cover behind his protective cloak called skin and peers out, unseen, though two tiny keyholes called eyes. He stands there undetected, unnoticed, a gleeful, malicious smirk on his face watching, penetrating, probing the movements, manners and absurd gestures of those ridiculous creatures performing their inane daily functions. ‘How laughable that woman dresses . . . How pathetically that man eats . . . How forlornly that couple walks . . .’ The writer is loose!” (Collected Plays, Vol. I, Pg. 6-7).
And this is why we’re not safe–but aren’t we?
Leo Tolstoy On Art
What are we as writers trying to do anyway?
I would say we are trying to capture the essence of what it means to be human. We are trying to find truth. We are trying to disclose the meaning of existence. We are trying, struggling, to create symbol that transcends daily life.
In Leo Tolstoy’s “What is Art,” he states that art is a struggle between the artist and the divine. God places something in the heart of the artist, and the artist is trying to get what’s in, out. This spiritual struggle between the artist and God is the creative process. And so when I am mining for information in my seat at a dinner party, or sitting in a meeting, or walking the street, I am in a struggle with God over what He wants to show me and what He wants me to communicate. It is indeed a struggle for Truth. And so as a writer, I would argue I’m one of the safest people to have around; for I am always looking for something bigger than me; always looking for redemption; always looking for Truth; always trying to find that light at the end of the tunnel.
Writing In Cognito–Then Lying About It
It’s evening. My friend and I have been travelling all day from Toronto to Calgary. We’re at a hotel in Regina. The drive was a gong-show. My friend was receiving calls from people who are highly respected in their respective fields, but so hilarious. At one point I was so distracted by my friend on the phone next to me–he had burst into laughter so loudly that he started choking. I thought he was having a heart attack–that I lost track of my speed and was pulled over by the RCMP. That night, while he was watching “Call the Midwife” on his tablet across on the other bed, he looked over at me. I was frantically writing down everything I had heard and witness before it had faded from memory.
“What are you writing?” he asked.
“Nothing.” What else am I going to say?
“So . . . you’re not writing down all that stuff that went down today are you?”
“Nah . . . Just stuff. I try to write a little bit every day–that’s all.”
My only consolation in lying to him was that he knew I was lying to him. He is one of the few who knows I’m a writer. He chuckled, slipped his earbuds back into his ear, and left me to it.
Now that stuff, that stuff I was frantically jotting down, that was pike material; it was game-changing stuff. And when you’ve been catching perch and suddenly have a pike at the end of your line, you’re going to do everything you can to reel it in, and take it home. That stuff I wrote down in that hotel room in Regina has gone directly into my latest manuscript. It was a game changer because it opened up a whole new set of truths in the book, and created the leitmotif I was after–because it was all about redemption, about truth, about Being, about God, about mercy, and transformation.
And that’s why it can be a very good thing to have a writer at your dinner party.
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.
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.