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.
I was going to write about The Myth of Sisyphus, but can’t find the damn book. It’s late, and I’m prone to ambiguous sarcasm and slop.
Looking for Sisyphus
I looked all over for the damn book. My shelves are stuffed with books of all kinds. I’ve got books on so many different topics that I can’t keep it all together. So many times I’ve wandered by the shelves only to berate myself that they’re all out of whack and there’s no order to ’em and I can’t find a damn thing when I need to.
What My Son Had To Say About Sisyphus
My six year old son even joked with me tonight just after I helped brush his teeth.
I said to him, “Look, if you find the Myth of Sisyphus let me know ok?”
So he went into his room and said, “Dad–I found the Myth of Sisyphus. It’s right here.”
He got me–for a split second.
“Just kidding!” And then he started to laugh a mischievous laugh. The whole thing was absurd anyway, I mean what kind of six year old kid can find the Myth of Sisyphus among thousands of books on several different floors of the house all in complete random order–it’s absurd.
And I would argue it’s just as absurd for a six year old to even mention the title of The Myth of Sisyphus anyway–I mean really, how damn absurd is that?
Absurd Combinations–Or Are They?
So anyway, I went looking everywhere for the damn book. It’s small. Paperback (I should buy a hard copy!). The perfect size to get tucked in somewhere between a book on the history of India and another on the Boer War.
Or squished in between one on the Ottoman Empire and another of the best of Garfield or the Far Side Gallery or something.
Ah–what I think it would best be suited next to would be (say) Slavoj Zizek’s Paralax View and Kierkegaard’s Either/Or–no, way too damn obvious.
How about Baudrillard’s America and Alice in Wonderland–no, way too damn obvious too!
How about the King James Bible and Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf? All too linear!
I’ve got it–Barney Sharing and Caring and Karouac’s On the Road?
Ah forget it!
On Buying Houses Just To Store Books
What bugs me, what really burns my backside, is that I have it somewhere! The threat here is that I somehow lost it or gave it away to someone and forgot about it. That’s why I should never give away books, especially those I think I’ll need in the future. But at that rate, I’ll need to buy another house just to store my books! (Not a bad concept actually. I’ve read about people like this–real bibliophiles: they’ll collect so many books that they need to buy another house to put them in. But not in these times–no. Now we have the cloud, so we can store stuff anywhere but in the physical world. But people need to still collect stuff and buy houses for them, so I’ve read now that people are buying houses just to serve as a giant walk-in closet. Imagine doing that for books? Buying a whole house just to put your books in–well, that would be a library I guess. But still, not a bad concept, really.)
Charles Dickens Loved Late Night Walks
So I was going to write about flaneury–no, not ‘flattery’ you damn spellcheck! For as I was looking for The Myth of Sisyphus I spotted a book on those writers who loved to go for long walks at night, such as Charles Dickens. I must say, I’ve never done that before. When I wake up in the middle of the night, and can’t get to sleep, my first inclination is not to get up and go outside in the dark and walk 20 kilometres through the city to another house; but that’s just what Charles Dickens was known to do. He’d get up–he was a terrible sleeper–and walk out of the house and wander the streets in the middle of the night. It sounds splendid, but I believe it just wouldn’t work as well out here in the suburbs of Calgary in -25 degrees celsius. It just wouldn’t.
But you see, Dickens did this, and he loved it–oh the writing that oozed out of him at the end of these walks! He wrote about how alive he felt after walking almost eight hours straight in the middle of the night and finally reaching his destination. The walks kept him energized–he couldn’t write without them!
I read that and then think about what it would be like for me to do that.
Death In The Snow–Or The Beginnings Of The Next Great Canadian Novel
It’s 2am–can’t sleep. I get this frantic urge to go for a walk. Slipping downstairs, I stretch on my winter jacket and fumble around for half an hour in the dark for my gloves–can only find one . . . Then when I finally find my gloves, another ten minutes for my hat . . . Then I pull my knee high winter boots on, the ones that protect one up to -65 degrees celsius. I open the door as the wind blows a foot of snow into my doorway. I venture out, my heart pounding and this drive to be outside takes hold of me–oh the prose that shall pour forth! Then, I get about two blocks down the street and am overtaken by the cold. My face freezes up, my feet slip on a glassy surface of ice, and I tumble into a snow bank where I freeze to death belly up. Then–it starts snowing.
Sounds to me like the ultimate Canadian novel . . .
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.
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.
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.”