Creativity Series: “God, the Artist, and the World” by Judith Hougen

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When I was sixteen, my father retired from the military, initiating the last move of my childhood to a small town in Wisconsin. I was once again the new kid, the outsider seeking a space, a community, to call my own. That summer, I found myself drawn to night skies, the warm swirl of darkness and stars freed of suburban glow. Laying in the front yard of our home, surrounded largely by farmland, there was something about vastness that eased my loneliness, my wretched anonymity.

I remember cool grass under my shoulders, the sawing of crickets, and a growing sense of immensity. In that space I contemplated my life and the God whose existence I couldn’t shake. That scene remains for me a picture of longing, an attempt to grapple with, to reconcile, the random awkwardness of my small existence with an expansive and patterned universe.

In my life as a writer, I find myself back in that yard, metaphorically speaking, my face toward the heavens, earth solid beneath my back—my human form caught up in both realms, negotiating these two wonders. For me, this is a picture of the artist of faith in the world.

Catholic theologian and philosopher Gerald Vann says that, by its very nature, humanity has a “duty” toward both the physical and spiritual worlds. He writes, “Because of his psycho-physical nature, man is a mediator. To his ontological status as the midpoint between the world of matter and of spirit there corresponds a mediating function: to incarnate—to give material expression to—spiritual reality and to spiritualize or humanize material reality.” At her best, the faith-filled artist embodies these two dynamics. Human life is a divine invitation to be fully alive in both our physical and spiritual natures and to experience these two natures as fully alive within each other.

What I experienced on those summer nights is the incarnational nature of reality, a world where “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” where God relentlessly upholds creation as a point of spiritual access and relationship. That this is the case is no small matter for the artist. In my writing, I see the physical and spiritual as inextricably fused. My work, then, as a mediator is a call to recognition, to a wide and penetrating vision, and to live as fully as possible in both spheres, enfolding both within my writing. Great artists rightly recognize and express the spirituality of the material and materiality of the spiritual.

Such a vision invites me to a certain posture toward my writing practice. I traffic in meanings, and incarnational reality signals, if nothing else, that the universe is rife with meaning and significance. I remain open and sensitive to how meaning will impress itself upon my work, not attempting to create or impose it. Meaning is already present because God created both language and the world. It is intuited and received, not conjured.

But there are difficulties in this largely countercultural approach to creating. Writers often are encouraged to adopt a production mentality about their work. Writing is a product obtained by exercising dominance over language and ideas, a doing-unto the text. And, generally, we have been rewarded for the outcomes of this kind of approach. In my younger days, writing was a way to accrue social and academic capital, something to prop up my identity. Even now, I can become overly invested in the results, restless and demanding, too attuned to the winds of social media, and find myself despising the beautiful hiddenness that is a crucial element of the writer’s path. Such a posture is at odds with Vann’s vision of our role as holy mediators. Caught in that place, I sense a deep-down hunger for the solidity of a star-laden summer night.

To immerse myself in this greater vision is part of my calling, and for that I need a more contemplative approach to life and writing. I need to learn how to be quiet and to breathe, to move slowly and pay more attention, remembering that small details matter and learning to truly see them. Flannery O’Connor, an unashamed fan of staring, touches on this more contemplative way of being and working, saying, “The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you will see in it.” Through such careful seeing, she says, “The artist penetrates the concrete world in order to find at its depths the image of its source, the image of ultimate reality.”

We were made for mystery, and that mystery is the expansiveness of the world, the Spirit, the love and meaning that is each moment’s possibility. Writers of faith must trust and lean into other powers to accomplish their art. In such an atmosphere, our work with words becomes a gift, a gratitude.

I’m a long way from that teenager in the Wisconsin countryside, living in St. Paul these days, but looking back I see a beauty in her and her quest to reconcile the worlds around and within. I identify with the goodness she sought, alone on the lawn as the stars pressed close, her implicit recognition of meaning in a spiritually charged world.

As I work and write amid the determined movements of early spring, I know I cannot control the night sky or the first shoots of green that still slumber beneath my feet. Mystery is all. What I can do—and what I believe is my vocation—is to cultivate vision, to be a loving witness as I mediate earth and heaven, holding the tensions of clay and spirit, scatteredness and order, and out of such holding to find words enough to glimpse the glory of what is.


Judith Hougen is an Associate Professor of English at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota where she has taught writing for twenty years. She has written two books: The Second Thing I Remember (poetry) and Transformed Into Fire (spiritual formation). When not endlessly grading, she works on her own writing, currently a collection of essays on faith and the writing life. She blogs at Coracle Journeys and lurks on Twitter at @JudithHougen.

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: “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.

My brother, we speak in silence

This is an essay I’m currently writing and working on. Decided to share some of it today. The title makes reference to my oldest brother’s inability to talk. That’s not really discussed here. In French (I think) it’s: Mon frère, on parle dans le silence. Because I like to translate my titles into French.


My mother told me once, after my oldest brother’s death, that I might not quite feel the gravity of it all, of death, of losing a brother, of his disability. I understood then that this was probably true, but even now, so many years later, I still do not quite understand it all and I have given my life to understand something of death, of growing up without an able older brother—without two able older brothers—and I continue to come back to the themes of longing for a childhood where I could be the younger brother, where I could be teased by Aaron in words and outrun by KC in the fields.

We sang Amazing Grace at Aaron’s memorial service. When we buried the metal box with his ashes, surrounded by oaks and weeds, pillars of dust rose up from a rusted tractor in the field below. I could also see the high school and the baseball field in the distance. It was there, behind the dugouts, where I imagined the namer of this small town stood, when he pointed up to the sky at a bald eagle circling, it’s wings opened wide. This Native in my mind holds his hand in the direction of the bird, but does not name it, for it is too beautiful and too majestic. He therefore names the land in its shadow after it.

Yoncalla. This is where I grew up. Where I lived when Aaron died and where he is buried now underneath the oak trees on the hill, underneath the shadow of what we cannot name.

I remember Aaron standing in the bathroom, his diaper at his feet, and my mother leaned over, wiping him. The Cubs game played in the living room and hot dogs boiled on the stovetop. It was Saturday. If Aaron had lived with us, my mother wiping him and the stink of it down the hallway would be a common scene, but he only visited.

When Aaron turned three the doctors diagnosed him with tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC). His mental faculties diminished and he stopped talking. He used to say Daddy and Mommy, afterward he hardly looked them in the eye.

TSC is a rare multi-system genetic disease that causes non-malignant tumors to grow in the brain and on other vital organs such as the kidneys, heart, eyes, lungs, and skin. A combination of symptoms may include seizures, developmental delay, behavioral problems, skin abnormalities, lung and kidney disease.

I had to Google search TSC much like my mother did in 1994 when we first connected to the Internet in our house. She spent hours in front of the monitor, waiting through the slow loading process, and coming to the same conclusion as the doctors: Aaron would live a long life.

1979, the same year Aaron was born, Manuel Rodríguez Gómez, head of the Mayo Clinic’s Pediatric Neurology department, edited the only textbook on TSC for the next twenty years. And in a 1991 Mayo Clinic publication, “Causes of death in patients with tuberous sclerosis,” states, “Leading causes of death include…status epilepticus or bronchopneumonia in those with severe mental handicap.” My mother no doubt read that line, “those with severe mental handicap.” With autistic like conditions, severe seizures, and an inability to take care of himself, she understood severe mental handicap. She felt it in her back and bones. She raised five children in all. When Aaron was nine my father made the difficult decision of putting him in a group home. The effort to raise so many children with so many needs, my Father realized, would break my mother physically and emotionally. But moving Aaron out of the house broke her no matter what. In all those hours of studying TSC and the obvious, the inevitability of Aaron’s death so thoroughly disclosed itself from her. She called it an act of grace.

Two weeks before Aaron’s death he was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia. I was almost 12. A few days before he was hospitalized we drove to Roseburg and picked him up from the group home and went out for ice cream. My mother fed Aaron vanilla ice cream from a dish, but the ice cream hurt Aaron’s teeth so Mom offered it to me. Aaron drooled and his drool grossed me out so I didn’t eat his leftover ice cream. That was the last time I saw him, afraid of his drool in an ice cream shop in Roseburg, 1997.

When Aaron was born my mother and father were juniors at the University of Idaho, she an art education major and he business. Their plan, before Aaron, was to teach at the same high school together. But the only art class she ever taught was when she home-schooled the four of us. Before Aaron passed away she painted with watercolors and sold many of her paintings or gave them away as gifts to friends and donations for auctions. She taught us about the primary colors and how to make green and orange and purple. Once, we mixed all the colors together thinking we’d concoct a super color, but it only made black and from black we could make nothing more.

I begin with the color black. I begin with all the stories poisoned on the palette. I don’t know where the colors come from, but when I tell the story they begin to form. At least I think I see them. To anyone else they could be monochrome pictures. To me they’re apparitions rising in the sky. Stories about my childhood are stories about who I am, but I cannot understand them. They rise too high and too far for me to understand their truths. I can only point at them and watch their shadows streak across the ground.

This is the story of my brother Aaron. Over there is the story of my brother KC. And there, much closer and lower, that’s my story. Sometimes they blend together, other times they’re separate. We live in a liminal space where we think we know something about the world when really something bigger is happening. Isn’t time so strange, how it let’s us be comfortable with the present and then we realize how different our present is, how distant our past, how short our future? It’s so hard to look away from my beginnings. In contemplating my story I gain the growing sense of something beyond the story. A majestic power floating in the sky, but I cannot point to it and I cannot name it. It eludes my grasp. Is this an act of grace?

Creativity Series: “I Thought I Saw It” by Dyana Herron

The Bereshit Bara Creativity Series asks 13 Creatives to wrestle with how they make the first move, write the first word, fling the first brush stroke, peel back the first layer of clay? What inspires them, what moves them, what drives them? Last week featured the poet Elizabeth Myrh and the teacher/writer Derek Smith. I’d also like to hear from YOU. Send me your thoughts or a link to your post wrestling with these questions at rossgale4@gmail.com. You can listen to the podcasts of the series. I highly recommend listening to today’s post as you read along.

Download episodes or Subscribe to the Podcast on iTunes by clicking here.

Listen here:


When I was a kid, I thought a gorilla lived in the woods lining my back yard.

When I told my mom it was out there, that I had seen it, that it was living in those thickly-leafed limbs, its black face and golden eyes staring out at me from above, menacingly, she assured me I was mistaken. Because, you know, we lived in Tennessee.

I wasn’t fully convinced. I considered my mom a pretty reliable source, but I definitely felt something out there. I was cautious in the woods. If I listened hard, I could hear breathing.

As an adult, I understand that a gorilla living in the deciduous forests of Southeast TN is all but impossible. But what did I see, then? Moving shadows? The bulk of a squirrel’s nest? Or did I, in the magical, transformational way of children, externalize other darknesses I sensed in my life but could not fully articulate?

Did I see it?

I still see things. Most of them are real, but sometimes I see things within real situations that probably aren’t real. Confused? Here’s an example. Once I was in the supermarket and saw this old man shopping alone. His cart held a couple Hungry Man frozen dinners and a few cans of cat food. In the cereal aisle, I caught him looking at me. Common enough, right? But I thought, immediately: “I wonder if I remind him of his dead wife.”

Who would think that? It was most likely not true. I probably had food on my shirt, or my fly was unzipped, or something like that. Or he was just looking at me, like I was looking at him. But what I really saw, or thought I saw, was sorrow. And while my imagined scenario was probably not real, sorrow is real.

Life is a constant mediation between things that are, or that happen, and the meaning we assign to what is and what happens. It can be overwhelming. There are so many things that are, and so many things that are happening, and so many more ways now for us to know about them all. It’s difficult to process. Some people don’t struggle with it so much– I guess maybe that is not their purpose in life. Others do. It is their calling, and maybe their curse.

I write poetry and nonfiction essays mainly, because I can’t get past the beauty, tragedy, hilarity, and terror of things that actually happen. And I am in awe that they actually happened when an infinite number of things could have happened instead. I spend a lot of time feeling like Stanley Spector at the end of the film Magnolia, who looks out his window as giant frogs rain down and says, “This happens. This is something that happens.

Fiction writers address the world too, I know, in ways that are just as true. I will leave it to you to sort out for yourself just what a true story is.

The way that I deal with things that happen is that I write about them. I have an M.F.A. and I write things and try to find homes for the things I write, and I think this makes people think that I like writing a lot. But when I’m just thinking about writing, I don’t feel like I like it very much. Sometimes, in fact, I feel like I hate it. Here’s why:

It’s hard to do well, it takes a long time, few people will read it, of the few people who read it not everyone will like it, it will not earn me money, I’m shy, I’m self-critical, I often do not like the sound of my own voice, I feel that no matter how well I write I can never do justice to what I experience, I know I’ll never be as good as the people I admire, and my extended family finds the practice confusing at best and vaguely shameful at worst.

There are many other reasons. Here’s a big one: most of the time, I don’t know what to say.

So what happens? What finally convinces me to take on the extravagant challenge of finding the words, and putting them down?

I’ve thought about this hard, and here’s what I think is closest to the truth. It’s fear. Fear of dying. Fear of not being. When I create something, I am also substantiating myself. Writing is my way of fighting against powerlessness and chaos. It is my way of celebrating and paying homage to love and joy and the miraculous. It is not just a way of saying “This is,” or “This happens,” or “Here’s something,” but a way of saying “I am here.”

Maybe that sounds selfish, but it’s true.

Getting started can be the most difficult step to take in the world. Sometimes it makes me want to vomit when I think about it. But usually, after I dive in, like my mom always said to dive in to cold water instead of wading out, I feel the most amazing thing. A sudden thing.

The Innocence Mission has this song called “The Lakes of Canada.” I love it. You can see a cool video of Sufjan Stevens covering it here. My favorite part is when he sings:

There’s a sudden joy that’s like 
A fish, a moving light. 
I thought I saw it. 

Whether it’s gorillas or fish I see, darkness or light, or whether I see it or only think I see it, I feel called and compelled and even obligated to bear witness to it. And it is–the existence of someone who creates–something to bear, to be born. Thank God that burden eventually gives way to the ecstasy of birth.


Dyana Herron is a writer and editor originally from Tennessee. She now lives with her husband in Philadelphia. You can visit her at dyanaherron.com.

Here I Am. Can I Miss Out on God’s Calling?

If you haven’t yet, click over to Burnside Writers Collective and check out my essay, “Here I Am. Can I Miss Out on God’s Calling?” which is about my journey as a writer. If you do check it out, could you leave a comment? I want BWC to get lots of love. I’ve been a fan of their site for years so I’m grateful they accepted my piece. And check out the other articles. Lots of good stuff to find.

This essay is the first piece of writing I’ve done by hand, start to finish, since 5th grade

Since I write both by hand and on the computer I found this essay appealing. Kevin Hartnett (whose image I include–the actual image of the essay) writes the entire essay by hand and notices some differences compared to writing on the computer:

This essay is the first piece of writing I’ve done by hand, start to finish, since 5th grade, 1992. I drafted it using a Uniball Signo pen and black notebook while sitting at my desk. I edited it in the same way. When it came time to enter the essay into the computer so that it could appear on this website, I typed it in almost exactly as I’d put it down on paper…

When I write by hand the correlation between the thoughts in my head and what ends up on the page is a lot closer to 1:1. This is good in one sense: When I write by hand the process doesn’t prevent me from putting into words what I already know. It might be bad in another sense: My ideas as they come straight out of my head aren’t necessarily my best ideas; it’s possible that all the reconfiguring I do on the computer produces more sophisticated thoughts and better forms of expression. I don’t know.

Writing by hand also alters the relationship between forming a thought and recording it in words. When I write by hand I almost always form a complete sentence in my head before I write it down. When I write on the computer I tend to start typing at the onset of an idea or a sentence that I then figure out how to complete during the process of recording it.

Put another way, my process for writing sentences by hand looks like this:

THINK THINK THINK THINK WRITE WRITE WRITE WRITE

Whereas my process for writing sentences on the computer looks like this:

THINK WRITE THINK DELETE THINK WRITE THINK DELETE THINK WRITE…

(thanks to David for the tip)

As you read, some memory comes back to you. Now, in your own mind, you are inventing a story.

Now, as you read, some memory has come back to you. Now, in your own mind, you are inventing a story.

In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes described the studium and punctum of a photograph. There are elements of composition and subject matter the photographer chooses consciously or deliberately. This is the studium.

And there are elements that pierce the frame by chance. For instance, the photographer is “shooting” Nicaraguan soldiers, and two nuns pass by in the background. This is the punctum, the unplanned, unchoreographed moment the photographer sees (gasping, no doubt, in wonder) and records. Barthes says the “adventure” of this photograph comes from the co-presence of these disparate elements.

Now, as you enter the adventure of your own memories, leave space for the unplanned, the unexpected, the piercing impressions that shatter the frames of individual lives.

Every story offers you the possibility of transcendence, the opportunity to imagine, to love the ones who have stepped into your frame and forever altered your experience.

We speak because we will die; but while we breathe on this earth, every moment is eternal.

–From “The Heart Breaks, and Breaks Open: Seven Reasons to Tell a Story” by Melanie Rae Thon (via Glimmer Train)