Chimneys Dark & Spirits Bright

This post was originally published in 2012. 

On the eve of Christmas’s reemergence in England,Charles Dickens and Washington Irving began a correspondence. It’s no secret, especially at this time of year, that Dickens was the father of Victorian Christmas. English folk had all but forgotten the festivities once surrounding the advent season, thanks to a superstition-wary protestant reign. By means of one well-timed Christmas story – A Christmas Carol – the upper classes were reminded what “keeping Christmas” meant, and were ready to dance quadrilles, deck halls, sing carols, and wassail to their stomachs’ content in the name of the holiday. They were also reminded of their country’s less fortunate, the Tiny Tims and workhouse families that remained hard up and left out, particularly in this time of heightened merriment.

Over in America some thirty years earlier, Washington Irving had done much to revive Christmas sentiment, as well, with his sketches of traditional English celebrations and a reimagined St. Nicholas. Dickens later admitted he drew inspiration for his own festive scenes from Irving’s descriptions. And so when, in 1842, Irving wrote Dickens to express his admiration, Dickens responded immediately, overjoyed to receive acclaim from the man who had authored the satirical Knickerbocker’s History of New York, which Dickens had “worn to death in [his] pocket.” It was only one year before Dickens would publish A Christmas Carol. These Victorian-era Fathers of Christmas, one British, one American, shared an appreciation of humorous satire, of keen social observation, and of England – particularly English Christmas tradition. Also, Charles Dickens and Washington Irving both had a thing for sending people up chimneys.

Dickens was against the practice, actually. He hated the tight climbing work that ruined – and often ended – the already miserable lives of London’s poorest child: the iconic Victorian chimney sweep. He knew about the physical dangers of bodies in small spaces, the carcinogenic effects of breathing soot, the after-hours life that usually involved no sort of family. And so the dark structures loom as a backdrop to many of his stories’ gloomier moments, grim monuments foreboding the death knell of many a hapless orphan. His more familiar characters like Oliver Twist barely escape such a fate. Alternately, the blazing chimney hearth shines in Dickens’s tales as a symbol of the warm potentiality of home. Dickens hoped for betterment in his economically fractured and morally broken city, and he put most of his eggs in the basket of home and family. In stories like the Christmas tale The Cricket on the Hearth, a bright fireside illuminates the family’s – and the reader’s – way.

Dickens himself never made a workplace of the chimney, but he was no stranger to child labor. The tale is familiar: his father found himself in debtor’s prison and a young Dickens found himself affixing labels to boot-blacking pots. Despite his early education, sharp mind, and vivid imagination, he was, for a time, a working boy, rubbing up against the lower classes. He never forgot it. In his young adult years, as his first fiction stories were just taking shape, Dickens served as a parliamentary journalist, actively reporting on proposed reform that had direct bearing on the suffering poor. And so the plight of the poor and the government’s response – or lack thereof – bled into his fiction. In 1843, at the age of 31, Dickens’s tendency toward keen observation of the human condition intersected with all he had seen and heard, andleft him with his most popular story to tell. Ebenezer Scrooge and the three Christmas Spirits formed themselves in his imagination, and he jumped on the idea like Santa to his sleigh. [1]

A mere three and a half decades before Dickens penned the landmark holiday tale, Washington Irving sent a different type of figure down a chimney for the first time: St. Nicholas. The “new” St. Nicholas Irving described in his 1809 Knickerbocker was neither the dignified bishop of Dutch wooden shoe-filling lore, nor the fat man in red we Americans now know best, popping a Coke top with a twinkle in his jolly, commercialized eye. There’s a rendering of St. Nick in Smithsonian Magazine’s December Art Museum feature, as interpreted by artist Robert Walter Weir. Irving’s version, like Weir’s painting, imagines a different type of Christmas spirit, darker and less trustworthy than the traditional Father Christmas, for all his glorious gift dispensing. As the article points out, it is a “mischievous St. Nick” about to disappear back up the chimney with his bag of toys, his finger to his nose, and, possibly, “the family silver.” It isn’t actually certain that Irving’s version descends and ascends chimneys in a like manner, but he certainly lights on rooftops and drops “magnificent presents down them [2]” throughout the Christmas season (which is an odd and rather creepy practice, if you pause to think about it). Here, in that very Knickerbocker’s History of New York that Dickens so loved, is a Santa who steals in like a thief reminiscent of those blackened London chimney boys. When it comes to the Irving’s jolly Christmas icon, there’s some strange, if unsettling, charm in the thought. In the matter of Dickens’s child sweeps, the idea is outright troubling.

Which may be why that particular purveyor of Christmas cheer – Dutch, impish, Coca-Cola-imbibing, or otherwise – doesn’t figure in Dickens’s versions of Christmas, though they are full of fireplaces and chimneys. Dickens knew what a nasty place, both literally and figuratively, the chimney was. He easily passed many a chimney sweep on the London streets, possibly as young as four years old – weary, sooted boys earning a dangerous, miserable, and likely short living, and reaping the contempt of London’s more civilized citizens. The wealthy of Victorian London looked upon the chimney sweeps and saw villains in the making. They depended on those blackened boys for household cleanliness and warmth and, above all, safety, but wouldn’t trust them farther than they could throw their stockings.

You could argue Dickens’s Ghost of Christmas Present bears some resemblance to the older, original Dutch Father Christmas, surrounded by gifts and food and imbued with a deeper concern for the important things in life – compassion and generosity, to start. Scrooge even discovers the “jolly Giant” before a flaming hearth in his home, suggestive of this invader’s good intentions, but it is fairly certain that this particular spirit never descended or ascended a chimney with a bag of presents to pay his Advent visits. He is a different sort of Christmas spirit. He is more interested in morality than in stocking filling. And it’s safe to assume he cares more about the welfare of chimney sweeps than about being Jolly ol’ Saint Nick. As the ghost preceding him declared, he is in Ebenezer’s house for the wretched man’s reclamation.

Not that cultural reclamation wasn’t an interest of Irving’s, too, especially by means of political satire. Nor did he leave chimney sweeps or their destitute like entirely out of his own tales. But the young sweeps Irving observed during his England travels are rendered as romantically as his Christmas-decked Bracebridge Hall, charming sidenotes to city life. Dickens, on the other hand, made his home in the same city as these destitute boys. He saw them out far too early and too late on the unfriendly city streets. There were no cheery-faced singing and scampering Dick Van Dykes in the bunch. Admittedly, Dickens could sometimes use the chimney sweep to comic effect. He also made use of the sweep’s perceived villainous side, as in Oliver Twist’s sweepmaster Gamfield, who represented the dangers into which a young boy without family or support might fall, circumstances that struck at the heart of Dickens’s concern for his city.Who knows?Perhaps Irving’s mildly disturbing St. Nicholas indicated Irving knew Christmas was not all full stomachs and bright, scrubbed faces. Either way, Dickens took the influence of Irving’s earlier, romanticized depictions of English Christmastide and did as he always does: he added in the urban neediness of the London poor, and also the pervasive neediness of the human spirit, whatever the financial circumstances.

There is no Santa Claus herein. There are only the chimneys themselves, bright symbols of the cheery, loving home and dark images the deepest filth the city – or the human soul – can scratch up. It might be said that Dickens’s fiction – holiday and otherwise – plumbs the blackened, sooty depths of human depravity to ultimately offer hope in visions bright as a blazing hearth.

A different type of Christmas spirit, indeed.

[1] In the new biography Charles Dickens: A Life (Penguin Press 2011), Claire Tomalin details this moment (p.148-9), as well as the many circumstances that developed Dickens’s deep concern for the lower classes.

[2] Irving, Washington. Knickerbocker’s History of New York, Complete. Kindle edition.


On Publication

Just as lawyers are asked legal advice over dinner and doctors are asked to diagnose conditions over cocktails, so writers are regularly asked to give free consultations on How To Get Published. Much more rarely are writers asked How To Write Well. The second is a lifetime’s vocation; the first should be the natural result of that lifetime’s vocation, but is more often seen as a quick route to affirmation, wealth, confidence, and a host of other impossibilities it rarely produces.

Because I have frequently been asked How To Get Published, I have developed some points of advice through teaching classes, browsing books on publication, conversing with other published writers, taking and leading workshops, and engaging in good old trial-and-error.

 1. Read

First of all, read the great classic masterpieces in your chosen genre. If you are a poet, read through the “canon” of great poetry in English starting with Beowulf and working your way through. You can really start almost anywhere except with the 20th century; if you start there, it will take longer to develop a sense of the rhythms of English. Learn from their eyes, ears, and ideas. Learn what works (and what doesn’t), train your ear, gain a knowledge of quality and tradition. If you are a novelist, read the great classic novels of the 19th centuries (not the popular novels of today; they’ll spoil your syntax and sense of narrative subtlety). If you write biography, memoir, or history, read the stock works in these genres from the past few centuries. Don’t read only what’s being written now, because that is often based on fads that will not last.

 2. Study

Next (and at the same time as #1), study the techniques and methods of your chosen genre. Learn all the literary terms that apply. Learn all the forms. Learn about the skills, patterns, and tools used. Take literature classes, read textbooks, browse anthologies, study literary theory, and look through literary dictionaries. You need to develop your “palette.” You need to have all the colors of paint before you can paint a masterpiece; you need to know all the rules of the game before you can be a winning athlete. So, too, you need to know all the nuts and bolts of writing. Increase your vocabulary; learn the history of words; become familiar with the denotations and connotations of words; master the forms of figurative language. This is true whether you’re writing newspaper articles or epics.

3. Practice

Start by imitating the masters. Set yourself exercises in which you take a little bit of their writing (the rhyme scheme, meter, first sentence of each paragraph, plot structure, a character, etc.) and then try to write something like theirs. Set yourself tasks that force you to try out various forms, techniques, and methods. Practice hard, every day, for at least a few years.

4. Repeat steps 1-3 for several years

Seriously. If you are writing just to get published—well, that’s a kind of mental prostitution. Of course, there are many careers in which frequent publication is required—academia, journalism, etc.—but one must be a student before becoming a master. So be in a hurry to write, but not in a hurry to publish.

5. Establish Writing Partnerships

A good writing partner is as hard to find as a good spouse! If you find one, “grapple them to thee with hoops of steel.” Meet and exchange work, critique each other’s work, act like English teachers marking up papers with red ink. Share ideas. It’s great if you can get published writers for critics, too, as long as their work is masterful and not merely popular.

6. Revise

Once you’ve written works of which you’re proud, put them away for a while. Then take them out and rewrite them. Then send them to your writing partners and rewrite them. Take them to workshops and conferences and let a group of strangers rip them apart. Then rewrite them again.

7. Attend Workshops

Find out what other people are writing in your genre. Attend their workshops, talk to them, listen to their writing, listen to lectures on the craft of writing. However, a caveat here: Beware The Workshop Poem. Workshops tend to have a kind of cookie-cutter effect on participants, causing them to churn out sound-alike poems (or stories, or plays, and so forth). Don’t attend the same workshop more than once. Find leaders who vary wildly. And never use workshops as a replacement for studying the classics.

8.       Attend Conferences

Now we’re starting to move towards the actual answer to the publication question, assuming that you have learned how to write really well. Find out what the newest books are in and about your kind of writing, meet or at least listen to the masters, get inspired, compare your work to others, and start to learn who the publishers are in your field. These are good places to meet agents, as well, which will be of great practical help—so I have heard, although I have never used an agent myself.

9.       Submit to Magazines/Journals

Once you know that your writing is skillful, relevant, and polished, you can start sending it out into the world little by little. Start with submitting short pieces (poems, articles, chapters, short stories) to periodicals. Here you’ll need a good resource like Writer’s Market or Poet’s Market. These books list the periodicals that accept submissions of work, and say what genres each likes, whether they’ll take work from beginners, whether you need to write a query letter first, and so on. People at workshops and conferences can direct you to other resources for your genre. You’ll usually need to spend a few years getting little pieces published and getting your name known before submitting a full-length work for publication. Here you will also need to learn how to write cover letters, format your work for each submission, and generally follow the ettiquette of the World of the Literary Journal.

 10.     Submit to Contests

Contests are a great way to get your work published without having to hire an agent. Just read all the contest guidelines, including deadlines and number of pieces/pages to submit, and voila! Most contests will charge an entrance fee to cover their costs, so try to choose contests that you think you have a chance of winning. Look at the work of past winners, if possible.

 11.     Try a Small Press

Very small, family-run publishing companies are more likely to take work from beginning writers than the big-name presses. This is a good place to send your first full-length MS. However, they often operate through contests, so look there first.

12. Get an Agent

While books of poetry, short story collections, and first novels of a more high-brow sort can often see the light via contests and small presses, you really do need an agent if you want to land a valuable contract or launch a best-seller. I have a poet friend who has an agent to organize everything for him. Twice a year the agent writes and says, “OK, send me X number of new poems” and then the agent does all the work of formatting MSS, choosing the periodicals, writing the cover letters, sending out the work, and keeping track of acceptances and rejections. That leaves you more time for simply writing—if you can afford it. For novels, nonfiction, and most other prose, you just really need an agent. Most publishers simply won’t look at work that doesn’t come from an agent. You can often meet a potential agent at a writer’s conference, or through a writing partner who has been published.

13. Finally, send out a “real” book to a “real” press!

So, years will go by before you send a full-length book to a reputable publishing company. That’s the way it should be. After you’ve spent years writing just for the sake of writing and after you’ve honed and developed your craft, maybe you can send out your masterpiece.

One more piece of advice: don’t self-publish. If you can’t get your book out there any other way, well, stop and consider why it’s getting rejected all the time. Maybe you just haven’t found the right niche; maybe it isn’t as good as you think it is. Stop and compare it to Shakespeare, Hopkins, Dickens. For real. But never, never pay money to get your book published. You may have to pay entrance fees to contests or a percentage of royalties to an agent, but you should never pay for the actual publication of your book. Again, that is a kind of artistic prostitution. If your book really is good and no one appreciates it, write another. The first one will keep.

I Have No Opinion

How much time does it take to write articles that engage mainstream contemporary culture in order to both praise and refine that culture?

I’m typing into a box right now, WordPress widgets all around. On my right is a big blue “Submit for Review” button that blinks sleepily each time the post auto-saves. How easy it can be to click that button and send these thoughts on their way.

But how long should it take? Can engaging culture ever be rushed, and what are the consequences? Is it ever okay to refrain from voicing opinions about controversial topics, or is there a mandate that demands that culture-making, culture-engaging people engage all culture all the time?

The writing I’m most proud of flows from convictions, and the true convictions I hold have cost something. When I was in my teens and early twenties, I would refer to “my convictions” flippantly, and usually in the negative. I had “convictions,” and I had them against things. At least, I thought I did. What I generally meant was that I had a gut feeling, or had looked up a word in the slim concordance in the back of my Bible, or that my parents’ actions and beliefs, which actually took them time and pain and fiery trials to solidify, would do for me in a pinch. The lesson of late college and early adulthood was that “convictions” won so cheaply won’t be there when you need them most.

True convictions are worn into my being through habits of mind, heart, and body. Actions I’ve taken, both noble and regrettable, engrave them there. Conversations I’ve had with people who think differently challenge me indirectly or head-on to refine these beliefs. The words I let live in my brain can reinforce beliefs and, if well-chosen, separate truth from lies. The lesson of my later twenties has been that a true conviction has the power to startle me, as if I stepped on the ground expecting moss only to find sharp rock underneath.

I doubt I’m alone in the slow way my convictions accrue. So, what does this mean for those who are committed to engaging and creating culture?

I’ve been avoiding this fact for several paragraphs, but I’ll say it now. It was the recent Jared C. Wilson internet brouhaha (his post has since been taken down) that inspired these thoughts. Wilson clearly wanted to engage mainstream culture, or engage his Christian readers in thoughtful response to mainstream culture, by commenting on the bestselling erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey on his blog. To comment on why the novel’s depictions of sadomasochistic sex have been accepted enough to make the novel a best-seller, Jared Wilson brought Christian author Douglas Wilson’s controversial words into the discussion. And at that point, the focus permanently shifted from engaging the culture to furiously, explosively–and quite justifiably– debating about Doug and Jared Wilson’s views on authority, submission, misogyny, marital sex, and gender roles.

As an attempt at engaging culture, Wilson’s post didn’t work. That part of his intent got lost in the explosion. Because not all attempts at engaging culture work, it makes me wonder if sometimes writers rush to publish, to engage, to be timely. Reflecting on a bestseller list should take a lot of time, a lot of knowledge, a lot of familiarity with books, reviews, and discussions that have come before, and a careful consideration of the source material that is best suited to dialoguing with the culture. I know there is at least one “timely” article I wrote without knowing enough about an author’s oeuvre; I hope to write a follow-up article soon.

A culture-making, culture-engaging community can and should be one in which writers and artists take the time necessary to reflect, carefully and in the context of a diverse community, for years if necessary, and then speak. We should surround ourselves with people whose differing convictions and opinions encourage a creative kind of conflict. We can create a community in which the people who mentor these artists can ask the crucial questions to draw out reflection and test depth of knowledge.

To do that, we need to cultivate a quiet spirit. William Pannapacker of Hope College praised the strength of introverts in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article. There, he partially paraphrased Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, writing that excluding the reserved and cautious introvert has “led to”–among other things–“a culture of shallow thinking.”

We can draw on the strengths introverts’ reserve and caution bring. As artists, writers, and talkers, we can create a community that thinks deeply and carefully about culture, refusing to rush to comment on all culture all the time and refusing to spawn a sub-culture of shallow or hasty thinking.

To further avoid shallow and hasty thinking, perhaps we should specialize even more. I love the advice Yale professor Nicholas Wolterstorff gives to “those who would be Christian scholars” and consider it applicable to many thoughtful writers. Wolterstorff advocates patience in scholarship, saying that for years or maybe even decades a Christian scholar might “feel in his bones that some part of his discipline rubs against the grain of his Christian conviction” but not be able to pinpoint the conflict. And then after that, it might be years or decades before he can offer any alternative.

If it might take years to have that much of a handle on a subject area, let’s get started. Let’s find ways to reflect on what we do know, and encourage others to reflect, to taste ideas, to test convictions, and to be okay with maybe having no opinion at all for a while.

Day Job Magazine


Day Job is a publication for anyone who has ever had a job they’ve loved, a job they’ve hated, a life-long calling or a way to make an easy buck. In short, it’s about work, a celebration of the everyday ways in which we spend our time and energy. As the inimitable Studs Terkel describes working, “It’s about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash.”

Day Job is a biannual print publication that explores modern work culture through the personal pursuits and values of people around the world. It is a magazine about good work for its own sake, about earning a living, and about the search for some utility and meaning in the way we spend our day.

At Day Job they are interested in the personal details of everyday working life—the stories, environments, tools, exploits, perks, and pains of doing a job. It’s a publication that tries to investigate not just what we do, but why we do it. It’s about people and the variety of ways in which work brings all of us together.

Each issue will feature a collection of interviews, profiles, personal essays, and stories from people around the world all tied together under a broad theme. Issue #1 is all about process.

You can keep up-to-date with this project via their  kickstarter page. Check out their website, facebook, and twitter feeds for more information about the project and details about our issue #1 launch party:




Channeling Affections: Whitney, Modigliani, and Me

I keep thinking of things I’d like to read, eat, or clean today, (Lauren Winner’s new memoir! Roasted Tomato and Eggplant Cous Cous! The guest bathroom!) instead of doing what I know I should be doing– writing.

In the last few months I’ve spent a lot of time and energy talking to artists of faith about their process, about the importance of showing up for their work, even if, especially if– in that day, or that hour, it isn’t any good.

But today I am squirming; I am doing everything I can think of to avoid just that.

Here’s the thing– if I’m honest, I’m terrified of writing something “not very good.” And I’m also afraid of writing something really good. I’m afraid of being corny, or revealing too much. I’m also afraid of revealing too little. I’m afraid my work matters, and I’m afraid it doesn’t. I’m afraid this essay isn’t as good as my last, that you’ll see the truth about me- that on my best day I’m quite mediocre.

The one thing we obsess over more than building an artist up is watching them fall apart.

Even though we were both Jersey girls, I never met Whitney Houston, though some of my childhood friends did; her spectre loomed large in our small, North Jersey bedroom community. Back then she was one of a kind, the only female artist who could seamlessly blend the vocal gymnastics and conviction of gospel with the catchiness of pop. I sang her songs each night into my bathroom mirror, slicking back my hair in imitation of her first record cover, heart longing and prepubescent voice straining to emulate this beautiful, powerful woman.

As I sit here in my pajamas two decades later, avoiding my work, I cannot imagine the mounting pressure Whitney Houston experienced with each profound achievement. Back then it seemed each song, each album or movie was more wildly successful than the next. And with those successes came our scrutinizing glare. No matter how much we claim to love our artists, our culture doesn’t allow them to fail– not creatively or personally. The one thing we obsess over more than building an artist up is watching them fall apart.

After decades of unfathomable success, in the last handful of years Whitney Houston’s personal demons, her abusive marriage, and struggle with drugs and alcohol, threatened to eclipse her triumphs. It was like watching a train derail, and most of us, no matter how much her music meant to us, preferred to look away.

I recently watched a film called “Modigliani,” about Italian born artist Amadeo Modigliani. It was an interesting time to watch such a movie, all about the struggle of a profoundly gifted artist to survive his addictions, to keep up with his more successful contemporaries (Pablo Picasso) and leave a meaningful legacy. And though he left behind a magnificent body of work, his story, his difficult life and painful death, is one of the most tragic in modern art. Someone once told me I resemble a Modigliani painting– and so when I went to the MOMA in New York to see a collection of his work I was shocked by what I saw. Not by the paintings resemblance to my features, but by their resemblance to something unnameable in me I thought I was doing a good job hiding from the world. Modigliani’s paintings saw me. And obviously, I am not the only one who feels this way.

“I Will Always Love You” came out a few months after a high school friend of mine died in a car accident. I was sixteen, and I remember listening to that song over and over on my headphones, walking each day to the subway that would take me to my classes at the High School for the Performing Arts & Music & Art. With my broken heart lodged firmly in my throat, I found it very hard to sing in those days. But something in me resonated when I heard her sing. Something in her voice elevated my grief above the black and white and grey of everyday. Something in her voice, in that song, heard me. And of course, millions around the world felt exactly the same way.

I’ve been singing since I was a child, and for much of my life music bordered on obsession. So when I first moved to Texas almost ten years ago, I decided to ‘fast’ music, in much the same way one might fast coffee or meat for Lent. The previous year I had performed a lot to support my first CD, one that took me forever to record and absorbed all my meager savings. I hauled my cheap keyboard up and down the east coast on the Chinatown bus, sometimes playing to 100 people, sometimes 10. A song of mine was being played on an influential college radio station in Boston, and its success struck me with terror– how could I ever repeat this? Music was my golden calf, I had no doubt; it was something I worshiped in the place of God, something I loved even though it couldn’t love me back.

When I stepped away from music the ugliest parts of me came out. I was paranoid, I feared I would never make another record, that I’d missed my window of relevance, that I’d ceased to matter as an artist. I scrutinized my songs, convincing myself they were never very good to begin with, but deep down I feared I was worthless without them. It took some time– about six months actually. As I waited for God to give music back to me, I learned a lot about myself. And when He did give it back to me, it wasn’t in the way I’d expected.

I remember standing outside the double glass doors of the church on the rainy, Friday evening, sweating, heart pounding in my throat, trying hard not to run back to my car. I had never sung in church before, and feared I would be struck by lightening. I hardly thought myself pious, and I was a new Christian, but I’d accepted the invitation to sing, and later as I did, I experienced peace for the first time in a long time. The pieces of my musical identity that had been so scattered, so painful, seemed to fall directly into place. A small voice whispered to my heart, “This is what you were made to do.”

As artists, our relationship to our work is complicated. I am still often guilty of foisting unreasonable expectations on my creative work, of expecting it to tell me who I am, to tell me that I matter. It’s only when I step away, when I pause to listen– not just to my own hopes and fears, but to God, that I learn who I truly am; I am more than my work. I can only wonder what would’ve happened, what songs and painting and stories we’d have from the artists we’ve lost too soon, had they stepped away from it all, had we let them, even if for just a season. What would’ve happened if the songbird from Newark, or the Italian-Jewish painter, had stepped away from their work before it consumed them?

A friend once described worship leading as “channeling affections;” of drawing the love of the people for God and reflecting it back to Him. I am convinced this is just what artists must do, no matter what their medium. When an artist channels the affection of her audience back to God, never letting it rest long on her, then and only then can she escape being crushed under its weight, under the pressures of its successes and failures. Perhaps then will she have the courage to see herself as God sees her; not through the lens of her last song, or painting, or essay, but through the lens of the Great Artist, the Creator, the one for whom she is the greatest masterpiece.


Listening Past a Writer’s Block

At the end of the summer, an old friend asked about the latest writing venture I was working on. The question was nothing out of the ordinary from this man who, for years, has been one to wave a fan at whatever burning embers he saw in my creative hearth before I ever trusted the heat glowing there. I had no answer. I wasn’t writing and I hadn’t for at least a month.

After a pretty steady stream of short stories, various essays, and some novel development, I was in a place that many call Writer’s Block. I’ve driven down that particular block a few times, seen the various shanties and campsites of other lost, muse-abandoned creatives waiting for their purgatorial moment to pass. What I was experiencing looked nothing like this. But in my determination to figure out why I was not inclined to write, I considered that I might be in a different part of the same neighborhood as Writer’s Block. I started to question if I was really a Writer at all.

Photo by Maggie Stein.

Summer turned to autumn. Leaves turned yellow, orange, red just before the first big snowfall. I headed up to the mountains to help a friend split wood for the oncoming winter and expand his deck. It’s a yearly tradition that gets me out of the city, off the technology, and into simple things. It’s a day of pure, high-altitude, manual labor that requires more endurance than thought. Few words are spoken.

We worked from sunrise to sunset, fingers slowly losing feeling as the light disappeared and the cold filled the air.  The following morning, I had nothing to do but keep my coffee warm and listen to that silence that comes when there is no perpetual humming of cars blazing down concrete streets, no semis jake-braking their diesel engines like the gurgling sigh of a dragon, no sirens of emergency or pursuit. The only noise that time of year in those mountains is wind blowing through pine trees, snowing the Aspen leaves in golden blizzards.

As I listened to that silence I still wondered with an almost grievous angst why my writing seemed to be so dead in the water. I was reading Frederick Buechner’s Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation. It’s a reminiscence of Buechner’s early days, when he was trying to determine if he was a writer or a minister, or if there was such a place for one who is both:

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life is grace.”

Somewhere in the gazing out a massive window on the Collegiate Peaks covered in snow, in letting these words tumble around inside, I “heard” this: “You are a Writer and always will be. You just stepped back to listen for a time before writing again what you hear.”

The anxious questions ceased.

I am like so many: if I spot an interruption on what I believe to be the road to Somewhere, then surely something must be wrong. I will try to force what can’t be forced. In my gazing down the road I expect to see the next key moment, forgetting that they are all key moments.

In all the angst and doubt, all the trying-to-figure-out-where-things-went-awry, it never occurred to me that listening was an option. Listening to hear anew how a story is told, how words play together. Listening to the sound of voice–be it an elderly foreign accent, a little child’s self-musings, a regional dialect with its pauses and short stops. Listening, even, to the noise of everyday life, for that is where texture and characters are shaped. Sometimes there is a legitimate case of Writer’s Block, but what if to simply listen–and not force a thing–is all that is required?

There are plenty of inspirational books and essays out there about the creative process–the kind that make you think you could be the next Wordsworth or Rembrandt. There are even books on the neurological mechanisms of Writer’s Block. There are few that say, “Don’t beat yourself up. Just put the brush, the pen, the camera down…. and listen.” This listening is an art form in itself. How else will the good stories, the kind that speak to the True, ever be heard and, thus, written?

It wasn’t long after that weekend that I ran into the same old friend who asked me again about the latest and greatest words on a page. Instead of conjuring up some frantic cover for anxious unanswered questions, I simply said, “I’m still not writing much if at all. I guess I am listening for a while. Somewhere out of that listening I will write again.”


The Still Point of a Turning World

Photo by Jennifer Teichman

I don’t know what possessed me. At the end of this past summer, I agreed to teach five college writing courses on three different campuses for the fall semester. Five writing courses. One of the more interesting periods of my life, it can only be described as somewhat equivalent to trying to juggle while riding a unicycle on a tightrope over a pit of flames. There have been moments where, trying to keep track of what assignments I had graded for what student for what class (oh and what was I supposed to be lecturing on today?), my brain peered over the edge and into the abyss of insanity.

Thankfully, it was also this fall that I discovered a small wonder in my corner of the world: Weetamoo Woods and Pardon Gray Preserve, a wildlife sanctuary near my home that soon became my own sanctuary. It also taught me something about creativity and my work as a songwriter and poet.

When I get really busy, as I have been this fall with all my classes, my creativity seems to largely evaporate. No inspiration, no insights, no words, no melodies. Or at least very few. As is often the case, I am not able to make a living off my artistic endeavors, and so the bills must get paid some other way, which means time and energy invested elsewhere. And I’m not complaining about my job. I am grateful to be doing something I enjoy that relates to my interests in writing, especially in this economy. Still, time spent grading papers and teaching college students how to research or write an analysis essay is time not spent crafting notes or piecing together new metaphors, much less being able to think about them. Such is the life of the artist who is not able to make art for a living.

For the most part, I assumed this silence of my soul was the busyness of my schedule, and that my brain was simply being overwhelmed with work information. But when I escaped into the woods, I realized there was something more going on. When I was on my walks, I could actually feel the quiet rhythm of the forest, and it began to settle down my busy mind. I could notice details like birch leaves glowing with the suffusion of sunshine, the ripples in the flowing brook, the small footpath tracing its way through a green, misty meadow. I could feel the softness of moss sheathing piles of jagged rock into green velvet. I could hear the eternal babble of little streams or the chatter of birds reflecting off the trees. I could be still, and being still I could see, not just look at. Artist and author Frederick Franck points out the difference between the two when he says:

We have become addicted to merely looking at things and beings. The more we regress from seeing to looking at the world—through the ever-more-perfected machinery of viewfinders, TV tubes, VCRs, microscopes, stereoscopes—the less we see, the more numbed we become to the joy and the pain of being alive, and the further estranged we become from ourselves and all others. [1]

It was then I realized that the creative perception that one finds through stillness comes about one of two ways: it can sometimes just happen by accident, or you can choose it. I had only subliminally been choosing it by virtue of my escapes into nature, probably because deep down somewhere my soul knew that it needed the rest, the recovery.

To be a good artist, stillness is something that we should choose and practice. We simply cannot wait for it to happen. Seek it out. It’s a vocational requirement. We must find it, for only then will we understand. In her book Walking On Water, Madeleine L’Engle wonderfully encapsulates, “When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening. I will never understand the silent dying of the green pie-apple tree if I do not slow down and listen to what the Spirit is telling me, telling me of the death of trees, the death of planets, of people, and what all these deaths mean in the light of love of the Creator who brought them all into being; who brought me into being; and you.”

Consider a few ideas. Create spaces for stillness. For me, this was retreating to the woods. For you, it may be a quiet space in your home or apartment, or a bench in the park. Then actually spend time there, regularly. Reduce distractions. Instead of going out with smart phone in hand and iPod in ears, ditch the iPod and put the phone on vibrate in your pocket. Keep your senses open.

Do some people watching, or squirrel watching, and see life happening around you. As Dennis Dunleavy observes, “The art of observation begins with immersing ourselves in the textures and tones of life.” [2] You can’t immerse yourself in anything while skittering along the surface of it.

In these times, give your mind time to wander, rather than spinning like a frantic hamster in a wheel over everything you have to do, or what’s happening in your social media world. Daydreaming isn’t just for children;it’s an artist’s most powerful tool because it is the place of possibility. I think some of these ideas are a good place to start.

We need this now more than ever in a world spinning madly on. This is why we need artists, and particularly artists who practice stillness. For in the silence, they will begin to catch glimpses of the meaning behind the motion, which they will then speak, and write, and paint, and sculpt. The artist is one who must stand at the still point of a turning world and simply watch, and in watching, see.


An Epistolary Confession

I live for good snail mail days. I either rush out to the mailbox when I hear the mail truck scoot away, or bat my eyelashes and lazily ask of my husband (headed out to a drum gig or errand), “Will you puh-lease check the mail? If there’s anything fun, will you bring it inside?” By “fun” I mean the latest issues of Books & Culture, Comment, Image, Poetry, The Paris Review, the Toast catalog, and the like. Oh, and paychecks.

Or even better, an envelope or package bearing return addresses from family and friends. My mom might send interesting magazine clippings with sweet notes tucked inside. Or a friend will loan me a book with a handwritten poem slipped between the pages that I don’t discover until I’m well immersed in the story.

A recent postal excitement was the thoughtful gift of a ceramic bird-shaped whistle from a friend, which was a thank you gift for a gift I sent her in the hopes of imparting some kind of peace and joy in a very dark time of her life. I was astounded by her thoughtfulness in the midst of personal chaos. Not only did she ship the pretty whistle, but also a thank you note in an envelope bearing an Adolph Gottlieb painting-stamp, two 10 cent “J” stamps just for kicks, and rubber-stamped blue flowers on the front. On the back, a Bunting Bird sticker sealed the message inside — all of it such inspiring artistry. A Brown Wren perched on the front of the card; again, my friend remembered what would cheer me when she needs all the cheer in the world right now. Inside, her penmanship spoke:

Dear Jenni,

Just a little birdie

for your sill. Put a little

bit of water in and then

blow for birdsong. And

when you do remember there

is a friend who appreciates you.



I hung my head, wept, and prayed for my friend, seared by her suffering, strength, and humility.

Another recent snail mail discovery was from a different friend. ‘Twas a white envelope with a comforting texture, and this penmanship I knew all too well. This friend’s handwriting should be an electronic font, honest to God. The seal on the back of her envelope was that perfect script, “Hello! (See, look — I not only call, I send mail too!)” She referred to a personal joke of ours where I pretend to be irritated that she never calls, lives far away, boohoo . . . Whatever. She’s a busy mom for God’s sake.

The envelope did make me smile, but the note inside made me laugh out loud:


So, here’s what happened . . .

this weekend I was looking

through my box of memorabilia

from Italy & I found this post-

card that I never sent to you.

I am not sure why . . .

But anyway — here it is — 4 years

late. [smiley face] See, and now the cat

is even more appropriate since you just found Lily . . .

Enjoy the postcard!

(Now I miss Europe . . . [sad face] )



Her note was written on an old index page of a ledger and she, too, adhered a bird sticker to the faded surface. She ripped the page right out of the book; I loved the spontaneous, rustic aesthetic. The postcard did in fact bear her greeting from four years ago as well as a dignified black cat on the glossy cover along with French writing — she went to Paris, too. Belated, yet thoughtful. I don’t know many people who’d realize they’d forgotten to send a postcard four years ago, then actually send it upon the moment of realization. My friends are a rare, whimsical, priceless bunch.

Though I did send a little gift to my kind, suffering friend, my efforts at handwritten letters and notes have dwindled and ceased.

I once joined the Letter Writers Alliance with sincere devotion to their revolution. I was assigned a lovely pen pal, we exchanged several letters and notes, but then inexplicably, sloth settled into my fingers. We are now Facebook friends, not mailbox friends.

And ashamedly, I’ve even slacked off writing to the Compassion child my husband and I sponsor: Denise, who lives in Uganda. She is in our constant prayers, yet I can’t sit down and write a letter? What’s worse is that she writes to us faithfully, coloring the illustrations on the side of the Compassion stationery: an ingoma (drum), akabindi (pot), ingabo (shield), imbehe (dish), and an icyansi (milk container). She often begins her letters:

Dear John and Jenni Simmons,

To my sponsors.

I am greeting you in the name of Jesus . . .

Such a greeting reminds me of the Epistle books in the Bible, each page delicate as a butterfly wing.


My aunt died suddenly, recently. As my family and I sorted through her belongings in her apartment, we kept items that were special to each of us. I gratefully placed into cardboard boxes classic vinyl (the Beatles, Willie Nelson, Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan . . . ); children’s books she read to me and my brother; plastic food-shaped magnets I used to arrange on her refrigerator; a green glass jar full of stones with words painted on one side and a short definition on the other; an old wooden piano-music box. My family bestowed to me two beautiful rocking chairs. And they also instructed me to cart back home my aunt’s photo albums, and a plastic bag full of letters and cards she received, organized and bundled neatly by large rubber bands.

I’m slowly finding the right places in my house for each memory of my aunt. The boxes are only partially unpacked. The photo albums wait alongside in a plastic blue crate.

I still feel the scars of guilt and remorse. I’d meant to call her for one of our rich, deep conversations the week before she died. I ache with that standard element of grief: if I’d had one more phone call and oh gosh, sent one more letter or card.

Missing her voice — vocal and written — I sat on my couch and held the stack of envelopes sliced open neatly at the top by a letter opener. She had grouped the correspondence by person: my late grandfather, his wife, my uncle, my mom, cousins, friends, and me.

Me. Before my eyes were cards that I’d carefully selected for her birthdays, to thank her for gifts, or just to say, “Hi.” One coffee & cream-colored envelope caught my eye. I pulled out the card with an angel and a quote on the front:

One is not born a woman — one becomes one.

—Simone de Beauvoir

On the inside I wrote:

Happy birthday Pat!

This card reminded me of

you, since you were a great

part of me becoming a

woman. [smiley face]


I love you!


(talk to you soon)

As each year of our lives passed, she truly did help to shape me into who I am today. She and my mom (in-laws) used to joke they “co-mothered” me. And my aunt was an excellent card-sender. Sometimes they were her only gifts on my birthdays, but I cherished finding them in the mailbox each November. She picked just the right cards, and wrote just the right loving words in blue ink from aunt to niece.

There is something about grief and death that also resurrects life — through remembering and sharing stories of loved ones. Caring for their possessions entrusted to us, and seeing that person when we pass by or pick up those objects in our homes. And for me, there is a period of introspection.

How could I have been a better niece? I hope she really knew how much I loved her. I hope I am like her in many ways. I want to be a better woman, who God created me to be. I want to live life well.

My grandfather wrote inside one of the cards to his daughter:

I’m thinking of the many

times you have helped

me and mine along the

way. I love you very,

very much.



(Joy sends love)

Continuing to cultivate a life less of myself and lived more for others includes the resumption of hand-writing letters, notes, and cards. I confess my epistolary indolence and now I move forward. I’ll sit at my desk; pick up my my favorite Uni-Ball pen and one of my many neglected boxes of stationery or cards; put together belated boxes of gifts; return loaned books. You’ll see. Check your mailbox. Most likely you’ll spy a brown sock monkey stamped somewhere on your envelope or box, and find a few tea bags inside.

All photos by Kierstin Casella.

Writing in a Cabbage Place

Today I am feeling the pressure of cabbage. Really, cabbage. The opaque vegetable  reminds me of a fat baby-faced candle you keep peeling back, only to find it has no wick, just a ruffly heart that, at the last, clings to a core of root flesh and holds nothing but air.

It is not particularly in the nature of cabbage to pressure people who have too much to do and too much on their minds. Cabbages are rather humble things, yielding to knives for the sake of coleslaw and to peasant hands for a laying open to receive stuffings of onions, rice and ground beef.

The other day I met a man who knows about stuffed cabbage. He and his wife like to eat it. They also like to eat pierogies. I ate both as a child, because these foods were part of my stepfather’s Eastern European heritage. I still like the pierogies and have recently taken to buying them, but I never learned to like the glumpkis, which is what my stepfather called the stuffed cabbage, or maybe just what my mother called them because that’s what she thought he had told her.

I don’t know what the man I met called them. The word he used also began with a “g,” but it was different. I admit I was lost in my own memories and so didn’t pay close enough attention to the sound, or ask for the spelling. I was busy recalling how I had been forced to eat them, and now I’m remembering just part of why I resisted.

After all, we also dubbed these rolled packages pigs-in-a-blanket. There is no pork in the cabbage (at least there wasn’t in ours). It’s just the way the stuffed rolls look when you lay them side by side in a long glass dish: little pigs in blankets that, once baked, turn to wilted translucence, absorbing the red sauce on their backs, to finally reveal a pulse of gelatinous rice and fat innards. In contrast, I always preferred pierogies— dough half moons fried in butter, their coverings browned to a crisp, their hearts of potato and cheese kept secret, until I chose to reveal them with the pointed application of knife and fork.

Like I said before, it is not particularly in the nature of cabbage to pressure people. But I’m feeling the push, because I have a theory about something I call writing-in-place, and I want to show that is not just an idle idea but a real technique that actually works. Enter the cabbage.

At my bedside is the new print issue of Englewood Review of Books. The winning painting for their food-art contest is on the cover. It is a beautiful, artful rendering of… cabbage. The artist took a top-down view, which shows how cabbage is a fist that keeps losing its sense of holding on, as the outer leaves gradually yield to gravity and lay themselves down to sun and dew and a painter’s keen eye. In this way, a painter can capture not just the ruffles and the layers and the variance in tone, but also the very veins that thread through leaves and somehow seem to be part of the opening process.

As fate would have it, I am on the cover with the cabbage. In delicate sea-green print, I am noted to be the subject of an interview on play and prophecy in poetry. There are a few other names on the cover too, but mine is closest to the cabbage.

I remember the day I first saw the cover. “I’m on the cover with cabbage,” I observed in a Facebook status update. It amused me to say this, but now I know it has become a somewhat more serious issue. For the reality of the placement has invited me to prove my writing-in-place theory, on a day when I am overwhelmed and cannot think of a single thing to write about. Me, beside the cabbage, is a challenge to tell the world that the writer is never at a loss— nor the dancer, the painter, the musician, nor maybe even the scientist or the mathematician.

Because, somehow, rooted in place, even in place with a lowly cabbage, we have everything we need to get to the heart of things, to open the hand of time— to reveal our past and maybe to shape our unsure future.

Yoga is like writing

From Good: The Joys of Absorption.

Therein lies the key to my love of Power Yoga. I am told not to think. I am absorbed.

This wondrous vacation from my head is also why I love writing. Sounds counter-intuitive, I know. But in an essay, “Why Write?” Alan Shapiro nails this addictive sensation mid-essay. He suggests that we write for the pleasure of “perfectly useless concentration.” We write, Shapiro tells us, “for the total immersion of the experience, the narrowing and intensification of focus to the right here, right now, the deep joy of bringing the entire soul to bear upon a single act of concentration.”

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

From The Believer: Dancing About Architecture.

I just published a novel about music. Early in the process of writing it, I was warned by a similarly music-obsessive friend that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Since that first somewhat menacing reminder, I’ve heard the line frequently.

At first blush, the claim is a smugly dismissive one: verbal descriptions of music are doomed to be pointlessly, perhaps even ridiculously, inferior to actual music. As a reader, I resisted this idea; it just felt false, though I couldn’t quite say why. But as a writer, this assertion paralyzed me: I didn’t want to waste two or three years trying to produce something that could not be produced. I tried to put aside the line’s foundational snobbery (“My music is too ineffable for your inky art”), and then, reassuringly, it seemed like nothing more than a truism: words are words and music is music. And perfume is perfume; paintings are paintings; facial features are facial features. Yet writers are never counseled against attempting to evoke paintings or smells or faces or feelings or buildings or the nonmelodic sounds of jackhammers, thunder, or snoring. What was so elusive about music that it couldn’t be captured by words?

What did you write today?

From the LA Times: The Truth About Writers.

But we writers have a secret.

We don’t spend much time writing.

There. It’s out. Writers, by and large, do not do a great deal of writing. We may devote a large number of hours per day to writing, yes, but very little of that time is spent typing the words of a poem, essay or story into a computer or scribbling them onto a piece of paper.

In my own experience as a writer, I’ve found that this is more true of people who don’t work on deadline – word to the wise!

Cheating? or Creativity?

From Prospect: Cut-and-paste writing.

I imagine some may consider this cheating: reducing the art of writing to an elaborate game of cut-and-paste. But authors have long written quotations on index cards. My system simply makes it easier to move virtual index cards around. The old techniques of pinning cards on a cork bulletin board, or shuffling them around on your desk, is just a crude way of getting the kind of elegant serendipitous thinking that such software allows.

Midway through a
Mike Rose Semester

Photo by Alexandre Laurin

Rita, a student of mine, came to my office last week to discuss an upcoming paper. “How’s your research going?” I asked.

“I am a bad writer,” she said.

At the start of the semester, Rita wrote an essay describing the shame she felt whenever she sat down at the computer. Sentences conspired to reinforce her feelings of inadequacy. When she asked people to help her, they labeled her a “bad writer.”

Rita spoke Spanish with nearly everyone she cared about, yet the page made her push her fluidly-dancing ideas into the boring English sentences she knew were the “right” structure. When she wrote informal assignments – letters to a friend in the class – she created scenes where life “got out of control like a car in the snow” and a drunken man’s expression changed like “flipping channels on the television.”

I don’t know what you’re thinking at this point, but this sounds like an excellent writer to me.

This is why Mike Rose matters so much to me. Rose, an award-winning author and professor at UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, argues that people who have been shut out of education or labeled as remedial have vast knowledge that educational structures don’t tap. He urges educators to value thought processes that academia typically does not embrace, and to see that even error reveals learning.

Coming from a blue-collar background, Rose esteems the intelligence that he saw growing up. On his blog, Rose says:

I am troubled by the way we as a society readily acknowledge the intelligence required for white-collar and professional occupations, but rarely honor the thinking involved in physical work.

His mother, a lifelong waitress, saw restaurants as “laborator(ies) of human relations.” Anyone who has been a server can concur that waiting tables means reading social cues from other workers and customers while keeping your own emotions in check. This combination of perceptiveness and self-regulation is literally called emotional labor. “There isn’t a day that goes by in the restaurant,” Rose’s mother always said, “that you don’t learn something.”

Since Rose values the intelligence needed in work dubbed non-intellectual, he argues for the potential of students who struggle in higher education.

In his classic, Lives on the Boundary, he describes his own education in south Los Angeles, where the school switched his files with another kid named Rose, and sent him to the lowest-level classes for his first two years of high school. His biology teacher discovered the error, and from then on, teachers pushed him at every step of the way: a teacher who had “found a little school” in south L.A. and wanted to “teach his heart out,” a professor who invented classes just so Rose and his friends could “read and write a lot under the close supervision of a faculty member,” professors who gave him “a directory of key names and notions” in their disciplines. Teachers carried heavier loads just so one or two students could succeed.

Rose reflects:

We live, in America, with so many platitudes about motivation and self-reliance and individualism – and myths spun from them, like those of Horatio Alger – that we find it hard to accept the fact that they are serious nonsense.

Living in south L.A. or Chicago’s south side or “any one of hundreds of other depressed communities,” he says, will require “support and guidance at many, many points along the way.”

But Rose also mentions that many kids from depressed communities have learned to “daydream . . . to avoid inadequacy” or to “reject the confusion and frustration [of grasping complex ideas] by openly defining yourself as the Common Joe.”

This makes me think motivation has to be part of achievement, too. Sometimes a teacher catches students when they are still openly motivated. When I asked Rita if she’d like a tutor, she said, “Yes! I want to get better!” But sometimes the right chemistry of individual motivation and teacher prodding isn’t there yet; or, maybe when I’ve been at it longer, I’ll learn to recognize it better.

For Rose, the alchemy was there when it needed to be, and if this much was given to him, he knew he would need to teach his heart out, too. In Lives on the Boundary, a gripping blend of memoir and analysis, he explains how he began to cultivate a love of language in his students, and also began to teach students how to “pick the academic lock.” Teaching veterans who had just returned from the service, he realized that so-called good students have certain ways of thinking and articulating, while other students become marginalized because they haven’t learned basic tools of academic thought: summarizing, classifying, comparing and analyzing. He designed his course for the veterans around these tools of thought.

Later, tutoring at UCLA, he discovered that error reveals learning. He tutored a woman named Suzette who kept writing in fragments because she wanted to vary her sentences. She didn’t want to keep starting sentences with “‘She . . . she . . . she . . . I . . . I . . . I . . . ” she said, “It doesn’t sound very intelligent.” Suzette was not making grammatical blunders – at least, not just – she was trying to find a more intellectual voice.

Rose’s pedagogy urges what I’ve been hearing again and again as I’ve taught a sophomore ethics course this semester – valuing the other. For Rose, it means valuing a student’s individuality. It means holding the carefully-planned assignment a little more loosely when a student offers an idea that lets her build on her knowledge. It means seeing error as an opportunity for progress. It means understanding the gaps in a student’s academic repertoire and figuring out how his experience, or some extra teaching, can fill those gaps.

Mike Rose expresses an ethic of care, directly wanting the good of “the other,” and as a model of this ethic, Rose is an exemplar for more than just teachers. Anyone who seeks to understand another person’s needs could use Rose as a model, particularly in their day-to-day vocation.

Teaching one’s heart out is just one way of living life to the fullest, breaking through a self-centered outlook, and living a life that centers on other people’s needs.

Quotations are from:

Rose, Mike. “The Intelligence of a Waitress in Motion.” Weblog post. Mike Rose’s Blog. 22 Aug 2008. <http://mikerosebooks.blogspot.com/search/label/work%20and%20intelligence>

Rose, Mike. Lives on the Boundary. 1989. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

Shutting Up Our Inner Censors

In a chapter of his beautiful and esoteric book of essays, Maps and Legends, novelist Michael Chabon reflects on the fear of writing. In an essay about the golem, a man-made being that comes to life through enchantment, Chabon compares the creation of the golem to the process of writing. Just as the golem you create can get bigger than you intended and slip out of your control, like Frankenstein or the Golem of Prague, so Chabon says, “Anything good that I have written has, at some point during its composition, left me feeling uneasy and afraid.”

Some writers have to weigh each word because of the fear of censorship or persecution. Chabon writes that for him, it’s the fear of exposure since people sometimes confuse him with his characters – assume that he’s homosexual, or uses drugs or is a terrible father because his characters are. People assume that he thinks what his characters think.

Chabon writes that a writer has to get past this fear of exposure:

Telling the truth when the truth matters most is almost always a frightening prospect. If a writer doesn’t give away secrets, his own or those of the people he loves; if she doesn’t court disapproval, reproach, and general wrath, whether of friends, family, or party apparatchiks; if the writer submits his work to an internal censor long before anyone else can get their hands on it, the result is pallid, inanimate, a lump of earth.

Someone who can use words well – aim them as weapons – has the power to inflict greater damage than someone who can’t. But she can also tell the truth the best and have it matter the most, which always means arousing general wrath. Writers trying to tell the truth when it matters will always have the temptation to anxiously submit everything to their “internal censor” to avoid inviting the world’s unrighteous wrath. It’s a censor both miserably cowardly and harsh, and listening to it shrivels your creativity.

I discovered this during my latest bout of writer’s block. Like Chabon, I’ve had people make sweeping judgments about me – sketch the entirety of my character, identify my sins and point them out – based on a couple of sentences in a couple of my blog posts. Friendlier people have read my writing and assumed they know all about me – made breezy generalizations, even given me advice – because they imagine the fraction of myself that I show through my writing is actually the whole.

Not so long ago, I wrote a hasty blog post courting “disapproval, reproach, and general wrath.” I was telling the truth but I was also mocking somebody, who then found the post and responded without figuring out who I was. This unsettled me and because I was also tired of the lazy judgments people made about me, I decided to subject everything I wrote to a strict internal censor. I set up a list of rules for myself: only write things I would not be ashamed to attach to my name, only write things I would not be ashamed to have the person in question read, and wait 24 hours before posting anything.

Instead of writing good things, I wrote nothing at all. At first I composed blog posts and deleted them. Then I didn’t write at all. Whereas before, the impulse to express myself was instant and important, I lost not just the urge but the ability to communicate. The internal censor shriveled up my creativity, like censors always do, and I experienced a miserable case of writer’s block.

I only recovered after I was forced to write in The Curator and Patrol. The prospect of an inexorable deadline meant the internal censor had to be squelched. Once I muffled it and submitted something imperfect and full of flaws, it became easier to muffle the censor again and eventually restore a measure of my shriveled creativity.

My dad worries that I’ve put too much of myself out on the Internet for people to read and that when I’m old and wise, I’ll never be able to escape my young and foolish self since nothing on the Internet goes away. My philosophy is that expressing my young and foolish self will help me to become old and wise. For me writing is not just what I think but the way I think. It helps me think things through.

So yes, the things I write are sometimes half thought. But a censor is someone who takes away not just the freedom to say what’s true, but also what’s false. If you submit all you write to this internal censor – paralyzed by the fear of saying something that your old, wise self will regret – then the source of your creativity dries up and you never learn. Sometimes it’s only by submitting your work to the critical world that you can discover what’s false. It’s only by inviting the wrath of your friends, family, and strangers that you can find out that you’re wrong.

The world’s general wrath can also temper your own. Once I made the mistake of picking a theological fight with someone who liked to fight dirty. It was another case of telling the truth but impetuously, at the wrong time and in the wrong forum and to the wrong people. Seeing how gladly someone would defame an opponent in the name of doctrinal purity tempered my own zeal. You learn to check your own anger when you feel a similar anger directed at you.

Chabon goes on to say, in the last line of his essay, “The writer shapes his story, flecked like river clay with the grit of experience and rank with the smell of human life, heedless of the danger to himself, eager to show his powers, to celebrate his mastery, to bring into being a little world that, like God’s, is at once terribly imperfect and full of astonishing life.”

The internal censor tells us the “terribly imperfect” isn’t worth creating, but it is. We have to be willing to write something bad – even something false – before we can write something good and true.

Maps and Legends , by Michael Chabon, was published by McSweeney’s and is available on Amazon.com.

Why The Curator?

Why another culture magazine?

When The Curator was just a seed of an idea, the question kept floating around in the back of my mind. After all, there are a lot of magazines out there, and even more that publish on the internet, and plenty of them include fine, well-written culture coverage. Do we really need to be adding more to the already-crowded field?

I think we do. While there are many excellent publications which are worthy of your attention, the mission of The Curator is, I believe, unique:

The Curator is a web publication of International Arts Movement (IAM), which announces the signs of a “world that ought to be” as we find it in our midst, and seeks to inspire people to engage deeply with culture that enriches life and broadens experience.

In keeping with IAM’s belief that artistic excellence, as a model of “what ought to be”, paves the way for lasting, enduring humanity, The Curator seeks to encourage, promote, and uncover those artifacts of culture – those things which humans create – that inspire and embody truth, goodness, and beauty.

Here, we’re providing a place for you to find artifacts of culture which we believe are worthy of your time, either to contemplate as a reflection of the good, the beautiful, and the true, or to cause you to ask important questions about the many dimensions of humanity – thought, expression, faith, citizenship, mortality, recreation, and our relationships with ourselves and each other. Our goal is that you will find the ideas and cultural objects presented in The Curator to be fresh, insightful, and thoroughly worthy of your attention.

We aren’t here to write simple reviews. After all, if you want to find out which movies are bad, which artists are lazy, or which movements are socially irresponsible, you can read the review section of any good newspaper or magazine. Instead, we seek to uncover only the creative, the good, and the honest, provide context for its existence, and explain its cultural significance in order to inspire you to engage your culture and start creating. Each week, we will publish several articles, and we welcome your feedback and perspective. (Interested in writing for us?)

The Curator also represents a bit of a paradigm shift in how we treat our contributors; instead of receiving assignments pegged to current trends and interests, our writers are encouraged to write about whatever strikes them as important or noteworthy, whether it’s a new development, an old book unearthed from the attic, or somewhere in between. Anything is fair game. Each of our contributors were chosen for their expertise in a given field and/or their evident delight in many areas. It’s our hope that delight-driven writing will re-invigorate the writing process (and make up for the fact that they’re all volunteering for now!).

These are big ideas, and we’re in way over our heads. But we’re glad you’re along for the ride. Let us know what you think.