Evil for the French novelist François Mauriac was necessary to tell stories of hope and love and redemption. Stories of childhood and innocence also required to be stories of evil and violence. But it is not the easy, cookie-cutter projection of evil prevalent among characters today (ie. bad guys in movies).
Evil is a mystery. How does the Christian storyteller understand this mystery? Mauriac wrestles with this question in his 1952 Nobel Prize in Literature speech:
For a Christian, evil remains the most anguishing of mysteries. The man who amidst the crimes of history perseveres in his faith will stumble over the permanent scandal: the apparent uselessness of the Redemption.
The well-reasoned explanations of the theologians regarding the presence of evil have never convinced me, reasonable as they may be, and precisely because they are reasonable. The answer that eludes us presupposes an order not of reason but of charity.
It is an answer that is fully found in the affirmation of St. John: God is Love.
Nothing is impossible to the living love, not even drawing everything to itself; and that, too, is written.
I sometimes wonder why I write or paint at all. This bewilderment grows not because the craft is long and hard—-although it is surely that—-but because once having written an essay or etched the image I am dissatisfied. Even when the words or paintings garner praise from people whose opinions I most value, I remain unconvinced. While the craftsman in me can always find grist to revise, the dissatisfaction with my art has deeper and less certain roots. C.S. Lewis once said, “What does not satisfy when we find it, was not the thing we were desiring.”
In recent years I have become a gardener of flowers. To the surprise of family and colleagues whose memory of my earlier years included disparagement if not ridicule of those who spent precious time tending roses, I now expend abundant energy creating a multi-colored perennial garden. To my surprise, since becoming a gardener my winters are filled with a visceral yearning to feel spring’s warm sum against my cheek and spy the first lime shoot pushing through the black soil. I endure Colorado’s blustery early spring days while working the gardens bare cold earth, despite near frost-bitten hands and a reliably sore back. I tend my flowers with the same reckless frenzy my grandchildren inflict upon the wrappings of their birthday presents.
I confess that some of this anticipation and subsequent dissatisfaction is inherent in all I do—like say when I add or subtract flowers or revise a manuscript or return to a canvas. It is art embedded in a false hope, a myth that some penultimate hoop can be negotiated, that I might actually obtain, as Curley in City Slickers suggests, “The One Thing.” But somehow, my longings seem, or at least I imagine them to be, larger than hoop jumping. Rather, with an embarrassing ardor that despite the winters slush and cold not only persists but grows, I am motivated by summer’s lushness and color. It is within the memory of last August’s late afternoon sun dappled across the delphinium’s purple blooms that births a deeper longing, a longing I know but cannot name, a longing pointing beyond my garden.
I view my writing and painting studio like a garden. I often come to the blank page with a fiery desire to transform the words of my mouth into a meditation of the heart. I become mesmerized by my words, oblivious to time or surroundings. Indeed, as the movie Miss Potter suggests, “There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story.” But my art contains both flowers and weeds.
When others read my manuscripts they do not see or smell or hear my memories. Often I get a response with some variation of, “Your writing needs more “sense” prose.” That is, the words describing the smells and sounds and tastes of my characters or scenes in addition to visual and aural clues would, so the wisdom implies, make these people and places more “vivid” or “real.” What I think my well-meaning advisors mean by suggesting such a cure is the addition of sensory details incites the reader’s memory, allows the recall of their previous experience with a particular taste or smell, a lived experience that now becomes fused to words creating a new, revised image making the story more real or at least, more memorable.
I still remember the startled Saint Matthew sitting among the dandies counting his money while Caravaggio’s Christ figure pointed that beckoning finger and dazzling expanse of painted light. Christ’s finger and light exploded off the painting calling both an astonished Matthew and me. It was a finger pointing to a world bigger than the canvas or the Contarelli Chapel or anything else I knew. But, that memory remains yoked to two other sensations: the smell in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi—a drafty dank odor found in the air of all Cathedrals over 300 years old—and the magical almond chocolate flavor of my first Roman Gelato, an ambrosia consumed just prior to standing before The Calling of St. Matthew. Years later I cannot enter an old church or taste chocolate gelato without the smell or taste conjuring Matthew’s look of astonishment or of my own.
I write in the early morning. I set fresh coffee on the desk, murmur Psalm 19 as my morning prayer, and with an old-fashioned ink pen and yellow pad copy two or three paragraphs from the work of a favorite writer’s prose. I did not always follow this plan. During the discipline of graduate school, I would arise early and after the first coffee sip plunge into writing. But then the words stopped. I desired to write but while the hoops remained, I no longer had hops.
A wise friend suggested I would know what to write when I allowed my memories to speak. But I don’t think that advice is quite right. After Joshua led the Israelites across the river Jordan and into the Promised Land, God instructed him to place twelve stones from the river as a monument. When asked why, the prophet said the stones would remind their children that this was the place where God allowed Israel to cross on dry ground. My memory does serve as a fertile source of desire and a rich experience repository, a resource needing careful stewardship. But memory like the stones is not the end and cannot satisfy. I meditate upon my memories, murmur the Psalmist’s poetry, and read the graceful words of writers upon whose shoulders I stand—my own stones—because when I remember rightly they point to why I write. I desire to write, to put that word on the page, because I long to tell of a Beauty I have not experienced but a beauty my experience has seen and tasted and heard.
David Clark is a physician, writer, and visual artist. After publishing forty professional articles as a University professor of medicine/surgery, he now maintains a printmaking studio, writes short stories and creative non-fiction, and teaches English part time at Fort Lewis College. In addition to recently earning a M.F.A. from Seattle Pacific University, Clark writes a regular column—The Occasional Reader, edits a medical journal, and blogs at Art, Words, and a Journey of Wonder. He and his wife Terry live in southwest Colorado. Contact: www.davidclarkart.com
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In the beginning, I created only when the skies rained inspiration—when ideas pelted my brain and irrigated my imagination from above. When inspiration descended and I failed to capture the runoff, it was lost forever.
It was my friend, Kansas City-based artist Danny Joe Gibson (@DJGKCMOUSA on Twitter), who taught me a more practical approach to creativity. At age 33, he has already created well over 2,500 works of art, and posted over 30,000 original photos on Flickr.com. If he only created when inspiration rained down readily, he would need to be Methuselah’s age to create as many pieces as he has.
I can tell you with absolute certainty that Danny does not live in the creative equivalent of the Pacific Northwest, where it rains ideas daily. Instead of waiting for the rain, he does the creative equivalent of a rain dance: He wakes up every morning at 5 am and begins creating in time with the rhythms of his imagination. Sometimes the ideas trickle down. Other days, he finds floods.
But his rain dance is a daily discipline—an act of work that begets wonder.
Somewhere along the way, I decided to follow Danny’s example. I began waking up at 5 am to perform my own writerly rain dances. I knew I loved creating enough that I was not satisfied to do it solely when rainclouds loomed on the horizon. I learned from experience that, if I sat down to create, my work often gave way to wonder, too.
I also learned that if I did not make time for creativity, life would not freely give it to me. Danny and I both have day jobs in the Joe Versus the Volcano sense. At the end of each day, our brains are sizzling in our brainpans like the fried eggs in the frying pans in the anti-drug commercials that dominated network television in the ‘80s. “This is your brain. This is your brain after your day job. This is your brain after your day job with a side of bacon-flavored regret. Any questions?” Fried brains rarely offer much in the way of ideas. But at 5 am, fueled by ambition and coffee, my brain’s yolk intact, I find my footing most days.
I no longer have any interest in waiting for the weather to prompt me to create. Muses come and go as they please. I would say they are fair-weather friends but, for the longest time, my muses primarily appeared precisely when life’s weather turned foul. In my teens and early twenties, I only wrote poetry and songs whenever I was heartbroken over some poor girl who never asked to be the subject of a tragic work of epic scope. In retrospect, I’m a little surprised none of them threw handfuls of Prozac at me.
By creating only when I found myself mired in the same swamp of sadness that claimed Artax the horse in The Neverending Story, I limited my creative output to one decidedly drab emotional hue. But worst of all, creating only under the influence of the muse has the potential to reduce would-be agents of creativity to mere recipients of inspiration.
I recently watched a Swedish film titled As It Is In Heaven, which was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2005—and rightly so. Directed by Kay Pollock, the film focuses on a renowned orchestra conductor who is forced to pursue a life outside of the glow of the concert spotlight when his health begins to fail him.
Eventually, he finds himself leading a small church choir in the rural town that was his childhood home. He tells the members of his choir—and I am paraphrasing him here—that music is hanging in the air, waiting for people to harvest it, if only they will reach up and bring it down. What initially sounds like foolishness to the choir becomes reality as its members bring melodies worthy of Heaven down to Earth. They do not merely receive the music—they harvest it from the heavens themselves.
Unexpected rains fall from time to time, and I am grateful when they do. But many of the creations I cherish above all others were fueled not by flash floods of inspiration, but by a commitment to create. I walk a strange tightrope, teetering between labor and luck, when I create.
If I do not show up to create with intentionality, I am lucky to recognize the creative opportunities that do manage to surface serendipitously. That is, like a stuffy old codger who’s forgotten how to enjoy himself, I am inclined to open my umbrella when it rains instead of catching the droplets of water on my tongue like a child.
Each day, I watch the sky and perform my rain dances, and work until wonder guides me. But there are other ways to ensure a good rainfall: First, I write exclusively from my particular patch of sunlight. My wife and I have five felines, and there is skylight in our living room that cuts across the floor with the movement of the sun during the day. The cats follow it wherever it goes, as if that light is the Sun of God, and they are its dimwitted disciples.
Like my cats, I follow a patch of sun where writing is concerned. I let my brain guide me, not to ideas that seem like they will please someone else, but to ideas that set my brain alight with excitement. I only write about those things that bring me some amount of joy—that offer the promise of warmth when repeated revisions bring the threat of boredom. So I curl up in the sun, where the ideas are warm and alive, and I write.
I also know that if I do not salt the clouds as well—if I do not engage in the creative equivalent of cloud seeding—all is for naught. So I stack the creative deck. I put the odds in my favor that work will beget wonder—that my rain dance will actually lead to rain.
I load my brain with culture: the works of writers I admire, films of all flavors (including Swedish ones, of course), books, and music. I pour all of these things into my brain and, as I engage in the creative process, I find the clouds are saturated like colossal sponges—ready to yield buckets full of ideas. The old adage, “What goes up must come down,” is apropos here: If I store up cultural treasures in my mind, they percolate there, and the result is a steady trickle of associations, ideas, and possibilities.
In the end, then, the first keystroke in a piece of writing is not just a physical act—at least not for me. It’s like training for an athletic event, albeit an extremely sedentary one that makes my posture even worse than it already is. I rain dance in my desk-chair until the words begin to dance onscreen. Eventually—the rains fall.
Chad is a writer, blogger, artist, singer-songwriter, and publicist who resides in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife Rebekah, their daughter Evangeline, and five felines. He is represented by Seattle-based literary agent Jenée Arthur, who is currently shopping his manuscript, “The Stained-Glass Kaleidoscope: Essays at Play in the Churchyard of the Mind,” to publishing houses. Visit him on the web atwww.chadthomasjohnston.com and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Saint_Upid.
At least once a week I have this overwhelming feeling of mortification and I seriously consider deleting my entire internet presence and going off the grid. It’s a mixture of embarrassment and horror that I would write and then share my work. I’ve been in the blogging game since ’03 (began with Myspace) so you’d think I’d be over this fear. I don’t know if the fear will ever fade.
I’m afraid I’ll be exposed as a fake and a fraud. That someone will call me out for what I really am, just a person thinking they know something about something when they don’t.
The fear is always present and is probably what holds me back with a lot of engagement not just online, but in person as well.
I have to remind myself who and what I am to get past this fear for the moment. I go through that list of identities (husband, son, writer, friend, brother, etc.) and remind myself most of all who I am in Christ.
This is just a reminder to remember who you are, how special and needed you are. Your story, your voice, your friendship, so very much needed.
I used to base my success as a writer on publication. When that didn’t happen as often as I hoped, I changed it to how much I could accomplish. But since production varies on my schedule I changed how I measure success completely.
I now ask myself if I’ve done justice to the story. If the answer is no, then I keep writing. If the answer is yes, then I keep writing.
A friend once told me he wanted to write a book about marriage. He described each chapter in detail and told me his three keys to a successful marriage (sex was #3). I thought it was funny because he’d only been married for one year.
It’s thrilling to write what you care about. Some stories should probably wait to be written, allowing experience to sharpen the narrative. But then again, some stories need to just be written, to go through the process; to take in life, to possibly die and rise again.
I hope my friend writes that book and I hope he’s been writing it in the first years of his marriage. For when the story is ready and ripe he’ll see so much more of reality.
That’s what our first drafts do–our throw away and deleted paragraphs–they shape the way we see.
We had two black labs growing up. They were dumb as rocks and chased after anything that moved: footballs, nerf guns, cars, leaves, deer, cats, shadows, and tails. The sheriff arrived at our doorstep one day and said our dogs had chased some rancher’s cows and they were going to take them away. Apparently it was some kind of canine federal offense to chase cattle and the dogs had to serve the maximum punishment. Probably the death penalty.
My Dad had some friends over at the time doing a baseball fantasy draft back before it was even a thing on the internet. My older brother started crying and threatened to call the cops on these uniformed men who were taking the dogs away. I liked the dogs, but knew if they were gone it’d save me like a millions chores and I wouldn’t have to worry about leaving anything outside to get chewed up. But my brother threw this fit and said he would walk to wherever the dogs were being kept to free them. It embarrassed me in front of all Dad’s friends.
But now I wish I hadn’t been embarrassed. I don’t remember anyone’s face except for my brother’s. I don’t know what I could have done to save the dogs, but I could have done something to help my brother mourn.
It’s just one of those times when I close myself up to everything that’s going on around me. It’s an awareness thing, a selfishness thing, a compassion thing. Does it ever get to a point when what I’m chasing catches up to me? When I’m locked up completely behind my own selfishness and blindness?
This is what writing does for me: it opens locked doors.
I stood outside the room with the coffin and was asked if I wanted to go inside. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to see the body. I thought about my decision and hoped I wouldn’t later regret it, as if refusing to see the dead was like refusing an expensive gift. A gift of what though? Wisdom? Truth? Appreciation for life?
I think about what I would have seen, a pale wrinkled face in a bright and gaudy dress. The dress is blue in my mind and the body’s lips are bright red. If I had decided to see the body in the casket would I now remember? Would it be this real?
Does not seeing, but imagining bring more life to the image? Or more nothing, more imaginings and questions? My life is one where I refuse to go into the room to view the body because I don’t always need to see. I need to imagine.
I’m not talking about death or experiences. Sometimes creatives need to stand outside the crowded room to help us see what we’re really looking at.
In a park two strangers sit on a bench in the dry heat of the afternoon. Beads of sweat gather on the their foreheads and upper lips and they stare off into the distance when one man says to the other some bit about his life, some small nugget of truth like, “I miss my daughter,” or “It’s hot,” or some other kind of cliched phrase one stranger might say to another.
To which the other replies, “Word.”
And here we’ve come into some kind of agreement, a pact, if you will, of two men saying truth has just spoken and we align ourselves with this truth. Hence the phrase, “Word,” which moves in and out of fashion (probably out by now), but which stays with me because of it’s irony, that “word” in its literalness is also truth, “Word-up,” or “For sure,” which is just music. We’re singing to each other now. We can say any number of variations which is all lyrical and musical and essentially poetry speak that’s created a reality between two people. Something that did not exist is now fully alive, yet, invisible.
Or we can answer silently, by nodding our head or in our hearts confirming, thus we are always creating new realities in twos and more, that interaction is based upon acceptance and rejection, deflection and disagreement.
We speak poetry to each other every day. In the mundane and unmemorable moments we’re singing poetic connection.
“The relationship between the poet, the poem, and the reader not as a static entity but as a dynamic unfolding. An emerging sacramental event. A relation between an I and a You. A relational process,” (Edward Hirsch). Like how reading Scripture places us within this process with our Creator. Or hearing the stories about a spouse’s day connects one to his/her feelings and emotions.
The secret knowledge I seek, I now believe, is embodied by and embedded in the number two. Just as two defines the information coding of computer science and genetics, two has become in my mind the essential number to create meaning in all texts, most visibly in short texts: Jesus wept. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee…
We may have the analytical skills to slice a long work into several parts. But when we seek the sources of energy, again and again it seems to resolve itself to two.
Here is the idea of noun and verb colliding and connecting the way a reader connects and collides with stories and poems.
As Emily Rapp faces her son’s inevitable death, she realizes how little she once understood grief, or how to help a person in pain.
Stories: the only thing we’ve got, the arbiters of this human process of rocketing between hope and despair, and it’s why every person’s is vitally important. It’s why it doesn’t matter if you’re a mess, or put together, or even a success according to arbitrary standards; what matters is that you are conscious of the world around you, in all of its terrible beauty…
The world can be a horrible place at times, but we don’t have to participate in this, we don’t have to harden our hearts as we’re taught and told to do, in order to survive or be sexy or attractive lovers or perfect parents or interesting people. We do not have to make ourselves into mysterious gifts, waiting to be chosen or read or understood by those who will earn us, unwrap our secrets, and then what? We can be something more authentic, and speak from a different place, a different planet. This is why I like being a writer, because what it demands is both simple and incredibly hard. To be a human being. Does anyone even know what that means anymore? Why don’t we allow for mess? Why are we so afraid of it? What do we expect from the veils we pull down over our eyes, our minds, our hearts? How can we possibly connect if we never let people see what we truly are and what it would take to make us free? Now, when I can’t fake a single emotion I don’t feel (or at least not for long), I wonder how I’ve lived this long being any other way. Maybe it’s that I haven’t really been living, and that now I am like Adam, like Eve, my feet still wet from being newly created, awkwardly learning how to walk on dry land.