The Saviors of Literature? Neurohumanities vs. Psychology

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Gregory Currie’s NY Times Opinion piece argues literature is dependent on psychology to prove its merit and use.

He isn’t satisfied by leaning on the adage of faith (or even mystery, although so much of literature is ambiguous and mysterious), but rather wants the facts proving literature’s benefit:

Everything depends in the end on whether we can find direct, causal evidence: we need to show that exposure to literature itself makes some sort of positive difference to the people we end up being.

That will take a lot of careful and insightful psychological research (try designing an experiment to test the effects of reading “War and Peace,” for example). Meanwhile, most of us will probably soldier on with a positive view of the improving effects of literature, supported by nothing more than an airy bed of sentiment. I have never been persuaded by arguments purporting to show that literature is an arbitrary category that functions merely as a badge of membership in an elite. There is such a thing as aesthetic merit, or more likely, aesthetic merits, complicated as they may be to articulate or impute to any given work.

While he admits this may take some time, I find the dichotomy between “everything depends” and “casual evidence” shaky. And I doubt psychologies role in the matter.

On the more advanced side we have Neurohumanities. Which are pressing for similar cerebral answers.

Neurohumanities is the ultimate response to—and rejection of—critical theory, a mixture of literary theory, linguistics and anthropology that dominated the American humanities through the 1990s. Critical theory’s current decline was somewhat inevitable, as all intellectual movements erode over time. This was exemplified by the so-called Sokal affair in 1996, in which a physics professor named Alan Sokal submitted a hoax theoretical paper on science to Social Text, only to unmask himself and lambaste the theorists who accepted and published his piece as not understanding the science.

She anticipates that neurohumanities influence will begin to seep into the actual culture of art:

It’s not hard to imagine a future when neurohumanities and neuroaesthetics have become so adulated that they rise up and out of the academy. Soon enough, they may seep into writers’ colonies and artists’ studios, where “culture producers” confronting a sagging economy and a distracted audience will embrace “Neuro Art” as their new selling point. Will writers start creating characters and plots designed to trigger the “right” neuronal responses in their readers and finally sell 20,000 copies rather than 3,000?

How to be ahead of your time as an artist: Daft Punk as Pioneers “five years ahead of people”

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Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo of Daft Punk, work with an acute self-awareness of their innovation, and of their audience’s incomprehension of their ingenuity and impact.

“To jump from 1,800 people to 40,000 was pretty brutal,” he says, stretching out the word. “Because of the anonymity, the relationship with our audience until that point was an abstract concept, so to feel this energy was very strange. It felt like we had validated something that had been so abstract— in French, it’s called le concrétisation…”

De Homem-Christo offers a translation: “Make it real.”

“We like the idea of trying to be pioneers,” continues Bangalter, “but the problem with that is when you’re too much ahead, the connection doesn’t really happen at the time. At Coachella, we still may have been five years ahead of people, but the connection was happening at that moment. It was the most synched-up we ever felt.”

Regardless, they still want that fan connection. It’s strange to think their “show”, the costumes and helmets, which separate them from their fans, in fact allows for that real connection to happen through the music.

Bangalter recalls a well-behaved teenage acquaintance who wished to be an accountant because he could “have a cool retirement plan.” The pair, who were among only a few in their school who were into the likes of Spacemen 3, My Bloody Valentine, Primal Scream, Big Star, the Beach Boys, and the Velvet Underground, quickly bonded. And, in their own way, they’ve been bucking the status quo ever since. It’s why Daft Punk are more punk than almost any punk band of the last 20 years: They refuse to take the familiar path, all in the name of keeping themselves— and their audience— engaged. Random Access Memories, their first proper album in eight years, takes this impulse to the extreme.

How to be ahead of your time as an artist:

1. Know your history

Daft Punk is incredibly knowledgable about where their type of music came from and where it’s going. It’s strange to think disco has done so much. Go into the history of your art form. You’ll find that history has already shaped you and can grow your potential even more.

2. Find inspiration in those who came before you

Dead or old, the masters of your craft, many you’ve never heard of, will teach you more than you’re ready for. Seek them out. Copy them. Learn their strengths and weakness. 

3. Collaborate

Daft Punk realized their limitations as artists so they shared their vision with other musicians. Not only did they develop their craft, but the inspiration challenged their vision.

Listen:


Creativity Series: “I Stand at the Untitled Piece” by Addie Zierman

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The show at the Walker Art Center is called This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s, and I am struck.

It’s the work of the first generation of artists to grow up with televisions at home, and it’s angry and beautiful and profound. Mixed media and mixed voices and lots of old, clunky TVs spinning on loops.

A question on the introductory placard pulls me down hard like a magnet: “In a world increasingly filled with mass-media images, what is the role of visual arts?”

I was too young in the 80s to remember much of the political turmoil. I don’t really know the stories that the art here is retelling in broad, unconventional strokes. But I know about mass media. I know about the loud, brightness of it, that heady cocktail of color and content. Ad and information all mixed up together, shaken and poured.

Home-grown in the evangelical world, I am especially aware of the way mass media has permeated Christian culture. The spirituality that I learned to swim in was steeped in how-to books and t-shirts. Bible covers, teen magazines, hit songs, ads.

The deep questions about Jesus and culture and how Christians are to be in the world bounced like pinballs around the media, louder and bigger and more forceful with each telling.

At the Walker, I stand for a long time at Doris Salcedo’s untitled piece – two stiff columns of men’s scuffed work shirts, pierced with long, sharp poles. She created it as a response to the testimonies of 40 Columbian women who saw their husbands murdered for participating in organized labor struggles.

Just shirts. Just a little plaster and some dirt. Just everyday objects, placed one on top of the other, saying something wildly profound about grief and injustice and the emptiness of loss.

In mass media Christianity, you learn this: that your life only matters if it is blown-big with passion, large-text and bold, like a front-page headline. The purpose of your life should be quick and fluorescent, ten words…twelve tops. It should pulse and sparkle like a neon sign, a city-on-a-hill turned up to a hundred thousand watts, bright as Vegas.

In mass media Christianity, the questions we ask are What are you doing for God? and How are you changing the world? We measure success with words like “revival” and “revolution” and “how many souls were saved?”

And in a faith increasingly loud with revivals and mass media and conferences and speakers, you have to wonder how it matters, this sitting quietly by the window, waiting for words.

But I just keep coming back to those shirts at the Walker. They stay with me, sharp and lonely in my mind. They are prophetic and beautiful and more powerful than a thousand newspaper headlines.

I am not a visual artist in the way of Salcedo, but I feel a kinship to her because I write, primarily, within the genre of Creative Nonfiction. Which is, in many ways, a genre of found objects.

When you are a writer of essays, of memoir, of true, rooted-in-facts kinds of things, you have to get down on your hands and knees and dig through the sand of your life. You pull out average, unimpressive moments. Dirty work shirts. Empty folding chairs. That time in kindergarten when you wore a construction paper three-cornered hat and went on an imaginary trip to Holland.

Your work has to do with choosing to believe that these unimpressive things matter. That they have lodged in your heart because there is something wholly beautiful and uniquely true about them. That God speaks less through a bullhorn or billboard than through an ordinary bush, burning wild in the desert.

Your work is largely that of seeing, digging, putting ordinary things side by side to create something simply and strikingly true. It is more than telling it how it happened. More than facts lined up one after another. It is structure. Sound. Fact connected to the current of creativity. The electric shock of meaning.

It’s the work of individual white shirts, folded and stacked, pierced and forever piercing the heart of the one who stands awe-filled next to it.

In a world that is obsessed with creating something NEW! EXTRAORDINARY! BRIGHT!, your role is less about creating the next big thing than about recognizing what no one else sees: symbol, metaphor, beauty, art.  Quiet work. Important work.

It’s like this: there are a hundred thousand images flashing by, and your job is to find the hidden thread of truth. The one that holds us all together. Pull it out, even if it tugs at your soul like stitches on a wound. Arrange it fresh and new.

Put it out there, small and strong, thin and unwavering. It is just waiting to quietly change the world.


Addie Zierman is a writer, mom, and Diet Coke enthusiast. She blogs twice a week at How to Talk Evangelical.addiezierman.com, where she’s working to redefine faith one clichè at a time.

Creativity Series: “What it is to be Us” by Kyle Burton

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From the moment we acquire as toddlers the capacity to interact with our world, the best way to understand it is to imagine. As children we play with toys—blocks, dolls, action figures—or, if without the luxury, turn a stick into a sword, the empty lot into a dessert, a few trees and a bush into the queen’s enchanted forest.

We intuit onto plain bushes, plastic, rocks the properties of grandiosity and wonderment. We project. Because we have no other means by which we can peacefully come to terms with the complexity of human existence.

Instinctively, we understand the futility of that bush, of that rock—of us—because though we may not have yet cohered finding a dead spider, furled up in the corner with the mortality of our loved ones, ourselves, we, instinctively, understand the limit of life. Our play, our imagination is one of the few processes unscathed, as a notion, by time. Of course, we may one day lose it—to disease, to the world—but to lose something is not to see it break.

The role of the creator is the role of the human. Whether one believes that to be a reflection of a Creator-capital-C or an exercise of coping, creation, if it is true, is something only of the most synchronized of us. Synchronized with self, with nature; with order, chaos, complexity, spirituality, reason, ideation; ambiguity; with phenomena, commonality; with beauty, empathy.

Creation is not something we merely stumble upon, nor is it something we can shape. It is Stephen King’s “fossil”. It is Emerson’s Intuition. The ability to capture the human experience, however one sees fit, render it wonderfully, and communicate it to one’s fellow man is a privilege withheld from many. Most, probably.

Unfortunately, not all people can write a captivating story, paint a stunning picture, or, more tragically, bare children. Obviously, such people are no less human. In fact, in large part, once we grow up and refine our sense of imagination near indistinguishable from reality—or a version of it—we tend to reinvent those very people. They allow for communication. They open bridgeways.

We do not exist for the purpose of our medium. Art did not exist before man. We create art so that we could continue to exist—so that, instead of telling another our experience, our feeling we can provoke in them what is to be us.

But let us widen the scope. Art is certainly not the only form of creation. Rather, the venues for imagination are innumerable. Wider still: “imagination” implies a degree of conscious decision making, which isn’t necessary. Instead, any activity in which we aim to make something new—or anew—is creation.

To create is to exert in about the only way absolute control over an element of your life. Unintended incidents (spilling paint on a canvas and being called postmodern, accidental pregnancy, etc.) do not invalidate that control. The acts of painting or sex possess an intrinsic element of control. We do not fault Sex for the baby bump, and we do not fault Painting for the tasteful splotches. We who participate are at fault, thus the term unintended. We failed to properly seize control in our choice.

Creation is how we ensure longevity—lineage or cultural. What does civilization value of a people? Its technology?—long forgotten, abandoned, or improved upon. Its politics? Its history? Its art? Any of the four, plus others, could be argued. Their connection: each has been created as a means of conglomeration, of understanding. Not history?

I once had a brilliant American history professor who told us that historians formulate a narrative around occurred events in order to assert over a historical era a relevance as they see best fit. Politics, then. Well, here in America, these disparate, hostile party lines politicians and news networks would have us believe unconquerable—they don’t much exist. Extremist identifiers—socialist, fascist, bigot, etc.—are tossed around as a way to also create narrative. Perhaps it’s an American thing, but goodness we love an arch with respectively admonished and beloved bad guys and good guys. In that, creation is equally accessible for bad and good.

As a junior in high school I lived in a good home, in a good suburban neighborhood, went to a fine public school, and could claim as my life’s greatest misfortune only moving from Minnesota to Missouri halfway through the ninth grade. Yet, I desired instability. I relished the idea of turmoil introducing itself into my world. I felt it necessary.

In eleventh grade English, when the rupture never came, I invented it. My teacher’d assigned us a personal narrative assignment. Perhaps, given the assignment’s title, cheating it with a lie is impossible.

Because I lied, hard. I fabricated a dramatic and powerful story of being attacked at a friend’s house and then rescuing a girl friend from being raped by one of the attackers. Our lives had been in substantial danger, and I happened upon getting us out of it. It was the type of story scoffed at, if presented as fiction, for absurdity. When presumed to be true, it scored wealths of tears. This was not a singular incident—neither in that class nor among close friends. It was exhilarating.

I envisioned the stories so thoroughly, they blurred with memory.

I confessed, to the close friends, not because I grew troubled by my envy of grim disturbance, nor by the guilt of lying. I confessed because I accepted that I didn’t feel all that bad. I do not at all like deceiving those for whom I care, but that’s not what the lies had been about.

I’d stumbled upon, within myself, a need for outlet. Reconnected, I should say, as childhood friends and I recollect now with profound nostalgia our games—unfilmed movies, really, where I essentially directed, and always played the villain. I feel a lot of power in destroying, and my writing reflects that. Part of it is a bleakness (surprise!), I can admit. But the greatest part is my impermeable belief that all of us are a sum of performances and that the sum is no less true than any offered opponent.

We may not all be conscious creators. But we all are a collection of creations, learned or constructed, and to mimic this formation, as is the role of the creator, is therein utterly of mankind. Cheers, my fellow players.


Kyle Burton lives in Missouri. He lived in Minnesota. He’d go back to live in California if either he could afford to or Oregon didn’t selfishly persuade him otherwise. He watches movies. He writes. He writes about movies (Imperfect Movies). And he watches some more. Perhaps one day we’ll say ‘make’. He graduates from Mizzou in May, and is waiting to hear back from MFA programs. He played football for a long time, his best friend is about to play in the NFL, and he will resort to fist-to-cuffs if anyone belittles Adrian Peterson’s greatness. Even his girlfriend. Who’s a loathsome Bears fan. If he were to try to sum up himself succinctly, he’d say: ‘I can’t. But that’s what the writing’s for.’ (Check out his Best of 2012 Compilation.)

Learn more about the “With Flames Upon Their Head” Creativity Series by clicking here.

Creativity Series: “The Active Creator” by Sam Mahlstadt

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I am more writer than theologian, but neither by trade. However, as the concepts I learned during my education in the written word and my my experiences in the local church mingle, I’ve realized something quite alarming.

In writing, there is a great temptor and persistent foe called the passive voice. When a writer slips into passive voice, the subject of the writing is subjected to certain actions, as opposed to the subject of said writing taking action. The cat was chased by the dog, as opposed to, the dog chased the cat.

In passive voice, our characters are at the will of the world aroung them. In active voice, however, our characters are influencing and creating their own destiny. Unless you’re writing dialogue for Yoda, passive voice is to be avoided. Correct, that advice is.

What’s worse than passive voice, though, is passive living.

I’ve notived a tendency among comfortable Christians to be lulled into passive lives. When you are living a passive life, you cannot view yourself as a co-creator with God. It is impossible to create, actively, when you are reacting to life as it happens.

If we are to break out of our passive lives and join God in the renewal of all things, we must reframe our role. We must reclaim our place as co-creators. In Genesis, we see God create man and woman, and command them to take part in creation. One translation says that God told the man and woman to dress the garden. After the fall, however, we see the man and woman literally dressing themselves with the garden. It’s a shift from active to passive. And the implications of the fall, the transition from active to passive life, are felt in our lives everyday.

But the story doesn’t end with the man and woman standing in the East of the garden. Through the restorative work of Jesus, we can reclaim our place as co-creators. We can join God’s work of renewal. We can point to the Kingdom that is breaking forth into our world, by actively joining God in his work.

I’m not much of a writer or a theologian, but this I know: Through the power of the Holy Spirit, you and I can be co-creators with Elohim, the creative spirit that spoke our existence into being. You and I can shape eternity.


Sam Mahlstadt is compelled by the written word and the story of the Gospel. He writes at creativetheology.com, and recently released his first book, Creative Theology.

Learn more about the “With Flames Upon Their Head” Creativity Series by clicking here.

Creativity Series: “Tiny Glory” by Kolby Kerr

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When we read the Bible—if we read it well—we are never far from paradox. We are introduced to one in the opening act, just as God has set all the characters on the scene. We are informed that Adam and Eve, primordial man and woman, who have been culled from the newborn dust of the earth, have been made in the image of God.

They—and we, if we are brave enough to accept their legacy—were made to look like God. The form pleases God; He calls them very good.

You might recall a certain forbidden tree of knowledge of good and evil and perhaps a certain smooth-talking serpent. And his line, so enticing to Eve and the conspicuously mute Adam: “You will not surely die…for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God.”

Yes, you ought to take the tempter’s words with a grain or two of salt but still in this we hear from the outset a pretty clear definition of sin: striving to be like God.

There’s a nuance here that feels too arbitrary, too litigious for this huge story, like gumming up The Lord of the Rings with an Elvish verb declension chart. The story requires specificity and we clearly see the stakes are high, but we’re already off and running again with narrative.

The Bible, pre-Paul, seems almost joyously unconcerned with getting its theology laid out neatly.

But we are talking about writing and the act of creation. And still I’m sitting with my back against the forbidden tree, wondering if it is my God-given right to stretch out for the upper bounds of the human experience, or if this is my serpent-side building Babels again? (We diaspora Baptists have special clearance to mix our biblical metaphors, thank you very much.)

Every time I write, the question creeps in again: Is this hubris or is this human? Am I, as has been quoted so often to me, “adding to the available stock of reality” or am I merely enlarging my own little metaphysical plot of real estate in the universe, increasing the acceleration of my sphere’s gravitational pull, slowly drawing all things unto myself?

But I’m not offered answers—I’m not sure I’m listening anyway. I can’t quit creating, and I don’t have the time or inclination to trace my motivations to their source. There are some strings you just don’t pull.

Let’s go back to the garden and God scraping dust, marshaling dirt clods into livers, spleens and spines. He hovers over the provisional creatures as he hovered over the formless deep. And then he breathes. The breath of God rivering into all that matter, filling it with the nonspace of wind, of spirit. It was the moment of inspiration.

And we putter around our four score or so, filling our days with respiration, the again and again reminder that we are made of stuff and something else, the physicality of flesh and the ethereality of air.

To speak a word, even our most unimportant one, we draw that breath again. We are presented with the humbling truth that we are not the closed systems our staunch corporeal presence suggests, but are at every moment contingent on the negative space of our landscape.

But having hauled in all that foreign gas, we aren’t even halfway home to speech. That breath fills our lungs, excites the infinitesimal alveoli who barter for the oxygen. Those same lungs compress the air metered by our trachea, strumming our manipulated vocal chords and loosing into the mouth, the cathedral arch of our hard palate.

Our tongue thrashes, teeth reverberate and lips press and burst to release the music of our speech. Every word we speak is spirit borne wildly from our flesh.

Poem, from the greek poiema, means simply a thing that is made. From the verb to make or create. It refers most often to a simple thing, say a piece of pottery. Something made with mud, clay, water. Something made with the slap of palms and sweat of brow. Something set to dry in the sun, becoming as solid and final as it is delicate and dependent on the care of everything around it.

What keeps me from resignation is a dogged faith in the material of language.

While we’re at it, let’s call our work what it is—recreation. As we write, we redeem what is around us by articulating undiscovered combinations—metaphors, images, wordplay. The writer’s craft is to see creation precisely as it is, but present it as new to an audience often inoculated to the curious splendor of stuff. We are creating again.

There may be a time when I am able to slice more exactly the moral nature of my impulses toward this recreation, when I can know if I am living as the image of God or if I am nibbling forbidden fruit hoping to take God’s place.

In the here and now, I’m left only with the simple joy of utterance, of finding the creation I’m capable of (language) and uniting it with the creation only God can tackle.

I’m left in childlike delight at the eclipse, the fleeting, perfect alignment of word to thing, when, as B.H. Fairchild puts it in his poem “What He Said”:

the white dove of genius
with its quick, wild wings has entered our souls,
our immaculate ignorance…
…And so is conceived and born
the thing said, finally, well nay perfectly

To write is to trust the stuff of us, even after Eden, and wait for that lucky wind to full our lungs. It’s to take—with our meager ration of gratitude—our given breath and make of it what we might, which is to say a tiny glory.


Kolby Kerr lives with his wife and son in the great state of Texas. He is a poet, Texas Rangers fan, and a high school teacher.

Learn more about the “With Flames Upon Their Head” Creativity Series by going here.

Creativity Series: “Three-Part Harmony” by Nancy Nordenson

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I.

In the beginning, you have an image, a question, a word that won’t leave you alone. It keeps coming back. Knock, knock; here it is again. You pull out a notebook and make a note. A day or two later you scribble something on the back of an envelope. On an index card. Scratch, scratch. A thought comes to you in the shower, an idea at the grocery store. You send yourself an Evernote note, an iPhone note, a to-do list reminder (“think more about…”). These memoranda are hydrogen and oxygen, carbon and phosphorus, nitrogen and sulfur, elements of life ready to ignite into something that never before existed. You mix this with that, stir and shake, shape and fill out. You concentrate and daydream. You write and write. You save and delete words at a ratio of 1 to 10. A paragraph, an essay, a short story begins to emerge. One day it will stand on its own. It will be a single united whole that would bleed if you cut something out. You will call it good as you put down your pen and pull back, waving and watching as it goes on to have a life of its own.

II.

But for now, you have further to go than your prowess with words can take you. You may be creating a paragraph, an essay, or a short story, a book or a novel if you’re lucky, but you are not the creator of the heavens and the earth. You pray a prayer of humility and proceed. Layers of created order draw you deep and high; clues beckon like golden keys waiting to unlock hallways through what calls to be explored. You strap on a light as you walk into the darkness. Now and always you ask, What’s really going on here? On one hand you write “mystery” and on the other hand “the known”; you want handfuls and handfuls of each, gathered together, mingling, heaped and overflowing on your writing desk. But the weight of discovery is not yours alone to carry. The Christ’s ancient promise holds: ask and you will receive. You empty your hands of what you’ve found and now hold them open. You listen for the still small voice that is not yours. You wait. It is not a secret truth that you seek, but a quickening, a veil dropped, even just the first breadcrumb of a path forward and through. When the word—the Word—finally comes you pick up your pen and write some more, stir and shake again, your eyes closed, your head bowed.

III.

The stakes just got higher. You jumped the track, caught a wave, launched skyward on the see-saw’s pivot. You’re not just creating a paragraph, an essay, or a short story, a book or a novel even, but something bigger. The words catapult you into the realm of participating in the ongoing creation, new hearts, new minds, the world as yet to be. Words alive in the eternal now, fruitful and multiplying, where will they go? What will they do? How will the words catalyze, how will the words comfort, how will the words change even you, the one who laid them down on the page? Theological debates rage on whether God’s creation surprises him or not, but indeed the words you’ve written surprise you. “This chokes me up,” a reader says. Me too, you think but don’t say. “After this, I see things differently,” says another. You nod, feeling the shiver. The words, no longer a product, become teacher, guide, and friend. “I don’t feel so alone,” says yet another. You nod again, walk away from the desk, and rest.


Nancy Nordenson lives in Minneapolis and writes about the intersections of thought, beauty, and faith in everyday life and work. She is the author of Just Think: Nourish Your Mind to Feed Your Soul (Baker, 2004), holds an MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University, and is currently finishing a book on the nature and experience of work. Her essays have appeared in Indiana Review, Comment, and Under the Sun, among others, and have received multiple “notable” mentions in Best American Essays and Best Spiritual Writing.

Her essays have also been anthologized in The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God, edited by Leslie Leyland Fields (Cascade Press, 2010), and Becoming: What Makes a Woman, edited by Jill McCabe Johnson (University of Nebraska Gender Studies, 2012). When not scribbling on a creative project, reading, cooking, or daydreaming, she can usually be found earning a living at her medical writing desk. You can contact Nancy at her website, www.nancynordenson.com, or follow her infrequent tweets @NancyNordenson.

Learn more about the “With Flames Upon Their Head” Creativity Series by going here.

One of the cool things about being me is that I have a lot of really cool friends. Who also write books.

Strangely enough, a lot of my friends are coming out with their own books. I’ll share a few now and some more later.

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I really have been searching for a book like this for a long time. Go here to read a sample.



Tyler speaks for and to the millennial generation and produces a convicting book about an important subject everyone needs to hear. “Holiness is not just some fine ideal destined for generations past; it’s the unyielding pursuit that defines every Christian life.” Read more here.



After her parents are killed in a rare grizzly attack, the author is forced into a wilderness of grief. What? Yeah, go here to find out more.

One Day at a Time by Evan Kingston (Guest Post)

This Series is about the challenges writers face while working a day job and trying to make it as a writer.

Today’s post is from Evan Kingston. He lives in St. Paul, MN. He runs the frozen department in a grocery store, writes literary romantic comedies, and maintains The Oldest Jokes in the World, a blog about the relationship between humor and literature. He is currently the Fiction Editor for Red Bird Chapbooks.

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Over the past year, I’ve received dozens of correspondences from agents and publishers regarding my first novel, Half Drunk. There’ve been short emails, letters on gorgeous stationary, and messily photocopied half-sheets; many have mentioned “the current state of the publishing industry” while others have taken a kind moment to draw attention to “the many admirable qualities” in my work. But they’ve all said, “No, we’re not interested in your novel.”

I usually read them right after I come home from my morning shift at the grocery store, when I check my mailbox and inbox before heading out to the library to write for the afternoon. And with each one I get, I can’t help but wonder why I don’t just stay home, to relax and/or wallow. It seems, for a moment, like giving up would be easier.

I worked hard for a long time on Half Drunk. The novel was my MFA thesis, and I composed its five drafts over the course of four years, workshopping it through a half-dozen classes before concentrating on it one-on-one for a year with my incredible advisor, Sheila O’Connor. In part, each rejection feels like a rejection of the time I spent on it, a letter letting me know all those lonely hours in the library were wastes of sunny days.

Even worse, they sometimes feel like rejections of a whole part of my life. A literary romantic comedy about addiction and recovery, Half Drunk is based loosely on my struggles with alcoholism. In detail, the connection to my real life is very loose: the plot involves magical strains of marijuana I’ve never smoked, a villainous rapper named Dr.MC I’ve never fought, and a 100 ft bike jump into the Mississippi River I’ve, thankfully, never jumped.

But the larger themes—my exploration of how we finds the strength to change our lives within those parts of ourselves that are ultimately immutable—are some of the few things I have from the drunken years of my early twenties that are worth sharing. At my most despairing, the rejection letters feel like a refutation of those hard earned lessons.

They really make me wonder why I even bother. But even when I can’t think of a good reason to, I go to the library and write anyway. I don’t need an answer; all I need to do is think of the alternative.

In my early twenties, I didn’t have a daily writing routine and regularly excused myself from the few commitments I made for myself. As I’d worked my way through a BA, my binge drinking grew steadily worse, but rarely so bad that it interfered with my class assignments. The moment I graduated, though, I stopped writing and took up drinking like it was my calling. I considered myself a writer, but was less interested in actually writing than in acting like I thought a writer should act: sometimes vain, sometimes depressed—but always drunk.

When I did manage enough time between hangovers and buzzes to sit down at my desk, I mostly just scribbled notes for novels I was sure would prove my genius once I found a little more time. Whenever I forced myself to make the time, I tortured a few sentences—dissecting and reassembling them with slightly different punctuation, just to change it back and see how it would feel if the main character had a different name—until, unable to find the perfection I thought would let me move on to the next paragraph, I quit to the bar. Once there, I drank until I could forget the work I should be doing so I could more easily brag about being a writer (though I often overshot and blacked everything out completely).

As fun as I tried to make it all look, I was miserable. I wouldn’t change, though, because I wanted something to change me: I told myself I would start a new short story once a magazine accepted the one I’d written as an undergrad; I would cut back on my drinking once I found a nice girlfriend; I would finish the first chapter of my masterpiece once inspiration hit me with a better first line. Chalk it up to addiction or immaturity, but I just couldn’t understand that no girl would want me until I sobered up or that I’d never know what the right first line was until I’d written through the first chapter, all the way to the end of the book.

I hope it doesn’t ruin the end of Half Drunk for you, but through a series of personal events I still don’t fully understand or remember, I finally quit drinking. In part, I think I realized I needed to be sober to make it through the school—but then I also remember looking forward to how much more authority my drunken rants would hold with an MFA behind them. It was more than just school: I’d thought of a hundred good reasons to quit over the years, and various friends had plied me with a dozen more, but I never lasted more than a few weeks. I’m still not sure why this time stuck. It involved a strength I was sure I didn’t have—a strength I still think isn’t my own—so all I can say is that God helped me, and besides that, I just tried to stay sober one day at a time.

As it is one of the few activities I’ve tried that is as hard as quitting drinking, I try to think about writing the same way. The part that is under my control is showing up to the page every day and doing the work. Whenever I skip a few days in a row, I can’t help but feel like I’m blacking out my chance to be great, rejecting myself before anyone else has the chance to. I know I can’t just wait for something to happen to me that will change my work into something publishable. All I can do is study my craft and be as present, honest, and exacting as possible every day.

I believe that, as with my will for sobriety, the inspiration that will make my work great needs to come from something greater than me, something ultimately out of my control.

In any event, it is totally out of the control of publishers and agents, so I don’t let what they have to say keep me from doing my part. They have their own part to play, and hopefully, one day, that will involve writing me checks instead of rejection letters. But I can only reach that day by writing one day at a time.


Also read: Writers Series: “Writing for a Living” by Amanda Fanger

I’ve watched you trying to teach and you are really not very good at what you do

This is from an essay by Kim Stafford about success and failure:

Some years ago, during a graduate-level writing workshop on a cold November night, a student asked me at the break if she could talk with me after class. “Of course,” I said. After the second half of the workshop, which I felt it went pretty well, the others melted away into the rain and she sat down to face me.

“I have been watching you trying to teach,” she said, “and I have to say, you are really not very good at what you do. People come to a class like this to make structured progress on their writing, and all you really have to offer is exercises to make new beginnings. I thought someone should tell you this, in case you have other options for a career.”

As she spoke, I felt my heart rattle, heard my mind fill with the sounds of clank and clunk as her words shifted the gears of despair. Yes, said a voice within me, you are probably right. My teaching is bad, and I am bad. Far from being a surprise, your assessment finds companion thoughts buried deep in my own mind. I have long known what you are saying.

Several weeks later, this student asked me to write a letter of recommendation for her. I got out a crisp sheet of bond with my college’s letterhead, and produced a glowing assessment of her skills and prospects. She got into the MFA program of her choice and now seems to have a thriving career. My failure and her success are both by-products of what is truly at work in each of our life episodes: survival, learning, forgiveness, and change.

Kim makes a list of his respectable accomplishments and then describes how they’re also failures. I do this, too, and I don’t have nearly as many accomplishments.

Isn’t that like your worst fear as a teacher? It would be mine. But in general, it’s like a constant general fear that someone is just going to call you out as not very good at anything.