Friday, June 26, 2015

Prayerful Eyes

Observing and Writing with Reverence

Forgive me if I take a moment, reader, to discuss something close to my devotional heart.
I promise I am not a proselytizer. Nor have I ever identified as a "religious writer," "Catholic writer," or faith-based writer of any kind. Those are terms that, unfortunately, have come to connote the kind of cheesy, depthless work one often sees among Christians trying to promote godly messages with no regard to artistic talent. I know I'm not a good apologist, so I usually steer far away from explicitly religious topics in my writing. Call me cowardly, if you like -- I think it's honesty.

This does not mean I've drawn a line between my religion and my art, however. Far, far from it. My Catholicism is my life. It confuses me when I hear people use the phrase "Religion isn't everything" as an excuse to write it off. No, I don't believe "religion is everything" -- that one's every word, thought, or deed must directly pertain to one's spiritual life. But (and I say this emphatically) everything is religion, in that I believe it's impossible to live a single moment without encountering something that whispers of the divine. If all good things (spiritual, physical, intellectual, and emotional) belong to God, then religion is everywhere, whether we want it to be or not. It may sound like a fluffy, narrow perspective to say that my Catholicism is the lens with which I see the world, but one mustn't forget that "catholic" means "universal" -- all-embracing. Rather than denying the physical world, or blurring it with a spiritual brush, my religion allows me to see it plainly, widely, and to love it passionately.

Perhaps, reader, you are non-religious (which is fine, I'm not here to convert you), and don't relate to the idea of finding a daily connection between spirituality and the physical realm. Let me present it this way: everything we see, whether we look for it or not, hints at something deeper, something hidden. Maybe you don't believe in the soul, but you believe in the mind, so you know that human interactions go beyond external acts -- each movement of the body connects to the brain that powers it, but also contains the nuances of feelings, thoughts, motivations. Simply being aware of those hidden elements is what gives physical humanity the kind of other-worldly aura that artists have tried to capture and lovers have tried to hold for centuries.
What does all of this mean as a writer? Even though religious concepts are mainly lacking in my writing, I want my writing process to nevertheless be permeated with the view that everything has spiritual depth. As a writer, an appreciator, a lover of the world, I am striving to see things with a prayerful eye, by which I mean four things:

First, to observe with a sense of searching. In spite of stereotypes that religion consists of blind acceptance of spoon-fed beliefs, true Catholicism (universalism) demands inquiry, study, reflection -- a careful examination of all areas of life and what it means. In examining her surroundings for inspiration, just as in religious study or literary analysis, the prayerful writers strives to look beyond surfaces and immediate impressions, believing that there is something deeper to be found (even if it's only an invented metaphor).

Second, to observe with humility. I don't know if other writers experience this, but the most moving moments in my life are when beauty (stars, conversations, musical voices) compels me to realize that creation isn't mine; humanity could write and paint for millions of years and never come close to articulating the full splendor of the natural world. Yet somehow, that helplessness to express it -- and the knowledge, as a spiritual person, that it was all created with love for us -- is what makes the prayerful writer desperate to praise, to at least write to this beautiful existence: "How will I ever adore you enough?"

Third, to observe with love. I honestly believe this: there is a virtue in loving beautiful things. If there are callings in life, I believe mine is simply to love and find beauty in whatever is in front of me. Love has many forms, but in the writing process it means having a deep appreciation, an avid attentiveness for the details of everything.  In observing, the prayerful writer must acknowledge that all persons and daily things possess hidden value and story-worthy essence. In actual writing, she must try to express that value. Writing is little more than a love letter to whatever and whomever one encounters.

Fourth, to observe, well, with prayerfulness. While I'm a die-hard church-going girl with traditional ideas about liturgical worship, I'm not one who thinks that God can only be found in explicitly godly things. Like G.K. Chesterton's practice of saying grace before concerts as well as meals, I believe that one can -- and should -- serve God by pursuing our passions ardently, whatever they may be. As Vincent van Gogh stated, "The best way to know God is to love many things" -- which is why I equate seeing a beautiful painting or reading an exquisite poem to a religious experience. Being a writer is my simple, silly way of praying, saying thank you, attempting poorly to give something back. I pray with my eyes open.

My faith has never limited my view of the universe -- only enhanced it. It makes me love and appreciate things passionately, knowing that they have a depth, a meaning; that it's all a glimpse of something more. Whether you believe in deities or not, I think we would all benefit to treat this life with reverence.

Grace and peace to you.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Publication Alert: Life in 10 Minutes

Dear Reader,

Well, talk about a surprise this morning.

Here I was, doing my semi-routine check on submission statuses (I've been sending a lot of work out lately -- hurrah submissions!), when on a whim I wandered over to the Life in 10 Minutes website and saw that the flash fiction piece I submitted to them recently was published last week.

Ironically, the piece is called "Realization."

I discovered Life in 10 Minutes only a few weeks ago, but I'm already an adoring fan. For this blog-style venue, the concept is simple: what can you express, invent, indulge in, or confess in a matter of ten minutes? Form can be almost anything -- fiction, non-fiction, poetry -- so long as it's "flash," spur-of-the-moment writing. I used to despise the idea of flash-anything, but over the years I've seen how the condensed space and (in this case) the time constraint gives one permission to freely explore the emotional aspect of the piece -- the moment-ism -- without getting caught up in details of structure. Once in awhile, it's good to shut off that analytical side of the brain, and just let go.

You can read "Realization" here.
About the work: There is a whirlwind of emotions surrounding this little publication. I am, of course, surprised and excited at the news of another publication, and also slightly flabbergasted to see that someone took a liking to my attempt at flash-fiction -- which can be a delightful bridge between poetry and prose, by the way. (The single-sentence, stream-of-consciousness style here is probably also indicative of my current Virginia Woolf obsession.) But it occurred to me, after I did my initial inner hurrah-another-published-story dance, that this is actually a significant milestone for me as a writer.

I've been trying to write a lot this summer, and although I haven't mastered it as a daily habit, I've been steadily producing at least one solid piece a week. It's frightening, sometimes, trying to approach the craft independently without a professor or deadlines to keep me in line. Occasionally I find myself staring at a new poem or story, wondering if it's any good, or if I'm incapable of producing publishable work on my own.

What makes the publication of "Realization" important to me is the fact that it was a summer project, something I wrote independently outside of any academic setting. Aside from this blog and its appearance on Writers Get Together, it is my first published creative piece that I wrote, edited, sent out, and had accepted entirely on my own (rather quickly, too), without feedback from a teacher or fellow writers. It took trusting my own judgement to know it was well-written, well-edited, and presentable work. It was a leap of faith, and somehow I made it. Few things have felt as validating as this.

I hope you enjoy the piece, and I hope to have more independent work to share with you soon.

Grace and peace to you.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Guilt Factor

Motivation by Fear and the Means to Empathy

For me, the need to write has always had a face.
Whose face that is and what expression it wears varies. Typically, it's been the face of a writing professor that's haunted me during those long middle-of-the-night writing sessions. It doesn't matter how fair or kind the professor is; for some reason (maybe it's the dark and caffeine jitters), my imagination paints them with a steady frown, causing my stomach to knot over every word with the thought that they might be unamused by my metaphors. Other times, the face has been warmer -- that of a close friend, perhaps -- but with eyes sad and disappointed as they strain to find some value in my work. More recently, the face has been the loved one in Army training, patient and smiling, invoking a twinge of pain in me as I remember my promise to write novels in his absence, his cheerful voice saying, "It's okay, don't feel too bad about it."

There has always been a sense of guilt associated with my work, and that guilt has always felt personal because I've associated it with important people in my life. It's not that uncommon of a trait among overachievers, I suppose. How often have we psychoanalyzed the artist driven by a neurotic need to please an ever-dissatisfied parent or mentor, even years after the latter's demise? Whether it is for God or husband or mommy dearest, history is full of creators desperately striving to impress someone.

Why? Isn't love of the art enough?

For my part, guilt in its worst moments has caused the writing process to be miserable. Mainly because those disappointed faces in my mind are entirely fictitious, not at all founded upon reality. I'm naturally self-critical to begin with, and for some reason or another I often project that criticism onto others. Even if any of the people whose faces I see tell me my work is fine, a small corner of my subconscious doesn't believe them, doesn't want to believe they're being honest in their praise. There's a fine line between constructive encouragement and being too nice, and I'll be damned if I can tell the difference.

But whether those frowns are fabricated or not, my fear of disappointing others says something interesting about the writing process, I think. I would like to believe that love of writing could be its own motivator, but for me it isn't so. Even as one who thrives on solitude, I find myself needing others in my writing -- for validation, for support. Call it insecurity (and I'm sure it is, partly), but I suspect that it has more to do with empathy. While "writing for the self" is a popular trend these days, and valid in its own right, I think it fails to see what makes great literature great: its ability to evoke something in another person, to touch something deep in his roots and make him see a commonality between himself and a stranger on a page. Writing gives the guise of speaking as an individual, when in reality it speaks of humanity.

While I have no grand illusions about inspiring millions, I can't bring myself to pull the "misunderstood writer" card and write without any regard to what others think. It goes against what has impacted me as a reader, and consequently what I can only hope to achieve as a writer: if what I write doesn't inspire, if it doesn't resonate with someone, I have failed.

But I know I don't have to please everyone, nor do I want to. In his part-memoir, part-advice book On Writing, Stephen King explains that "you can't let the whole world into your story," but you can -- and should -- let in those who matter most. According to King, every good writer must have an Ideal Reader (I.R., for short); someone for whom you write, someone who, in flesh or in spirit, is always "going to be in your writing room." As King points out, sometimes a writer's Ideal Reader (like the neurotic patient's mommy dearest) is miles away or many years dead. It doesn't matter. An I.R. gives the writer a tangible audience, a direction for the writing process; someone who the writer wants to make think, laugh, cry, and feel deeply. "And you know what?" King adds. "You'll find yourself bending the story [for them] even before the Ideal Reader glimpses so much as the first sentence [sic]."

It takes a certain empathy to write with another person in mind, and to know that person well enough (at least, to think one does) to impact them. And that's marvelous, because empathy -- seeing and valuing each other's common humanity -- is what writing's all about, isn't it?

As for myself, I've found that guilt is not such a terrible thing to live with after all. That fear of disappointing my reader is what forces me to analyze my own work critically; it makes me take a second, third, and fourth look at everything, asking myself, "Is there anything else I can do to improve this part?" Having someone else in mind, moreover, often gives me a reason to write on my darkest days. As a naturally self-deprecating self-critic, I find it easy to conclude on a bad day that I'm not worth the time or effort to write. But, because I'm a compassion-driven person, someone else is always worth the work.

So, in spite of its bad rap, I don't mind living with guilt. If a visitation from a frowning face is what produces the work, so be it. Maybe, someday, I'll finally make that face smile.