Talking Shop: Dead to Oneself; Alive to the Work

by Daniel R. Jones

I’ve enjoyed the work of Wendell Berry for quite some time. His books often exist at the confluence of multiple topics: conservation, agriculture and husbandry, poetry, and his own faith. Berry is the son of a lawyer, and perhaps as a result, he always writes with crystal-clear diction. He is also a farmer, and so he writes with that archetypal hint of familiarity and down-to-earth warmth. 

Recently, while reading A Small Porch, which includes both poetry and an essay on the topic of Nature (with a capital “N,”) the following passage leapt out at me:

How does an instructive poem instruct? The answer seems obvious – by containing something worth knowing – but there is one condition: It must teach without intending to do so. In support of this I offer a sentence by Jacques Maritain, who said of the cathedral builders: “Their achievement revealed God’s truth, but without doing it on purpose, and because it was not done on purpose. The point, I believe, is what the cathedral builders were doing on purpose was building a cathedral. Any other purpose would have distracted them from the thing they were making and spoiled their work. Teaching as a purpose, as such, is difficult to prescribe or talk about because the thing it is proposing to make is usually something so vague as “understanding.”

And later,

Just so, an honest poet who is making a poem is doing neither more nor less than making a poem, undistracted by the thought even that it will be read. Poets, or some poets, bear witness as faithfully as possible to what they have experienced or observed, suffered or enjoyed, and this inevitably is instructive to anybody able to be instructed. But the instruction is secondary. It must be embodied in the work.

I believe there is a truth to be gleaned about the Christ-follower as a co-creator here. 

The cathedral-builders described by Maritain bring to mind Bezalel and Oholiab, the namesakes of this website. Those men were described in Scripture as “filled with God’s Spirit, with wisdom, understanding, and ability in every craft to design artistic works…” (Exodus 31:1-5, HCSB.)

I believe what Wendell Berry is after here is that as artists, we are often better able to reveal truth— God’s truth – by getting lost in what we are doing. Rather than following a step-by-step, prescribed process, we are better able to accomplish our artistic vision by, well, forgetting about it.

This might sound a little mystical. Maybe it is. But put simply, I think it cuts to the heart of where many of us go wrong when we try to create a “Christian poem,” or a “Christian painting,” etc. I believe a lot of creatives who love Jesus sit down, and say to themselves, (maybe not in so many words,) “I am going to create something beautiful with a Christ-honoring message. I’m going to create something edifying, with a definite moral.” 

And to be clear, this is a noble goal. 

But sitting down with a pre-meditated intention for the theme of your work is rarely the bet way to accomplish that goal. Most art can’t be reverse-engineered in this way: picking first the desired effect you’d like to make on your audience, then choosing the theme accordingly, dressing it in a plot, and finally adding in characters and dialogue. Such approaches to art can stifle the life out of the work. At very least, they certainly deprive it of its mystery. The end-result often falls flat.

In a thought-provoking conversation published in the New Yorker, Berry paraphrases the artist David Jones, saying “to be dead to oneself is to be alive to the work.”

Call it self-abandonment. Call it getting “lost in the moment.” Call it the dissolution of ego.

Whatever you call it, there’s a recurring notion that high-caliber, Christ-honoring art is less about meticulously checking off a prescribed list of boxes to shoehorn a creative work into the category of “Christian art” and more about seeing the work through to its completion—staying true to the work at hand. The final product is often an homage to the Creator, unquestioningly glorifying Him, anyway. 

In a sentence, art that glorifies God most often comes out of a natural overflow of who we are in Him.

I think Wendell Berry’s word serves as a good reminder: Let’s get out of our own way. In so doing, we may succeed in not only creating better art, but also accomplish that loftier goal stated by John the Baptist: “He must become greater; I must become less,” (John 3:30 NIV.) 

The Second Greatest Commandment

(by Daniel R. Jones)

He wasn’t bleeding by the side of the road
to Jericho, or ransacked
by a group of marauders

or bruised
or naked
or left for dead.

He just needed a ride home from work.

He didn’t bother asking.
He’d already asked a couple times this week.
His eyes did the asking:

“I know you’re a Samaritan,
but will you be good?”

But my last cup of coffee and my Aleve
were wearing off in tandem,
and my wife and son were seated, already,
around some quickly-cooling Stroganoff.

Father,
brother,
forgive me.

The Numinous in Lovecraft: A Christ-follower’s Thoughts on Horror

Jewelers refer to the brilliance of well-cut diamonds as their “fire.” There are a variety of factors that allow a diamond to sparkle: the quality of the cut, the clarity of the diamond’s surface, the carat size.

The same can be said, I think, of literature. A writer’s brilliance can be determined by a number of things: the quality of craftsmanship, the clarity of the message, the sheer enormity of the story.

But ultimately, the written work, like the diamond’s fire, is only as good as the light pouring through it. Often, I’ve marveled at the multifaceted worlds of some luminous writer, and thought to myself, “What beautiful intricacy, but what a dingy light.”

I regret to say this was my reaction to much of H.P. Lovecraft’s work.

As I’ve culled through the mainstays of his work, I must admit, I’ve been blown away by the cohesive universe he built around the Cthulu mythos. Previously, I’d read “The Dunwitch Horrors” and “The Music of Erich Zann.” Recently, I’ve delved into “The Call of Cthulu” and “At the Mountains of Madness.” Most of Lovecraft’s corpus of work weaves seamlessly into the fabric of the Cthulu universe–populated by “Old Ones,” multidimensional beings, and non-Euclidean geometry.

But the aspect of Lovecraft’s work that most interests me most is his particular attentiveness to the numinous.

I’ve written in depth about the concept of the numinous in the past, which can be broadly defined as the “uncanny” or “wholly other” impression left upon human beings by the supernatural. In spiritual terms, the numinous is the aspect of holiness beyond the grasp of human’s rational mind. But in Lovecraft’s pulpy, weird tales, the numinous takes on a much more ominous connotation. His works are replete with beings and knowledge that exceed humanity’s reach. These alien beings overwhelm and mystify Lovecraft’s protagonists, driving them to madness, homicide, or suicide.

What makes Lovecraft’s stories so chilling is that they have a basis in reality: the numinous devoid of benevolence is unsettling.

It’s one thing to think of God in terms of the numinous. As we read scripture, many of us have grappled with the thought of “fearing God.” We may wonder if the Hebrew or Greek word for “fear” connotes the same feelings of trepidation as the English one. C.S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain that when we experience the numinous aspect of God, we “feel wonder and a certain shrinking.”

But no matter how you define the “fear of God,” we as believers in Christ can ultimately put our trust in Him because we know that his intentions toward us are good, and that He is loving.

Not so with Lovecraft’s creatures. The numinous divorced from holiness becomes something utterly profane. They’re not supernatural, but instead become something preternatural, and eventually even subnatural.

In Lovecraft’s works, he imagines entities from other realms beyond humanity’s understanding–aliens as malevolent as they are beyond us, and that is what makes his work truly horrifying.

Inspiration from Hafiz: A Hole in a Flute

Sometime, Christ-honoring poetry can come from unexpected places. Consider, for instance, “A Hole in a Flute” by Hafiz, a Sufi poet from the 1300s:

A Hole in a Flute

I am a hole in a flute
that the Christ’s breath moves through.
Listen to this music.

I am the concert from the mouth of every creature
singing with the myriad chorus.

I am a hole in a flute
that the Christ’s breath moves through
Listen to this music.


 

Though it cannot be argued that Hafiz was a disciple of Christ, this poem speaks vividly of the Lord’s enlivening πνεῦμα (Greek “pneuma”–breath, or spirit.) The poem calls to mind the words of John the Baptist, when he said “He must become greater, I must become less.”

If we study closely, we can see clear evidence of the Image of God being reflected in His creation, whether the author of said words had a full understanding of Christ’s role in eternity or not.

 

Mindfulness Meditation for Prewriting

“He said when things were really going well, we should be sure to notice it.”
-Kurt Vonnegut

Lately, I’ve been on a mindfulness meditation kick.

A simple 10-15-minute morning practice has refocused and grounded me, combating depression, alleviating anxiety, and allowing me to live in the moment. I’m absolutely sold on its manifest usefulness.

But in addition to its improvement to my mental health, I’ve found that it’s a powerful tool to wield for artists. In fact, I’d venture to say, it may even be our most powerful prewriting exercise.

Hear me out.

How many times have you sat down with your notebook or word-processor and instantaneously became distracted by the worries of the day?

How will a certain bill get paid? My lower back aches. I wonder if I remembered to lock my car door? That comment my boss made earlier in the day—what did he mean by that?

This inner chatter is what some mindfulness meditation experts call “monkey mind:” a constant dialogue in which your brain seeks to analyze and fix problems that don’t truly have the potential to be fixed, currently. To use a computer analogy, our brain has a few “windows” open in the background, and it’s constantly trying to work out problems subconsciously for you.

It’s no surprise that this invasive chatter fills our thoughts when we sit down to write. Today, people are so preoccupied throughout each minute that we rarely have time to sit quietly with ourselves. If the 30-minute block of time that you’ve scheduled for writing is your only alone time in your day, it’s likely that your brain will utilize it to attempt to solve those nagging problems that crop up throughout the day. It happens for the same reason that your brain keeps you up at night when you try to sleep: your brain wants to tie up all the little loose ends, bringing closure to the problems you encountered throughout your day.

The problem is that it’s easier to sit and worry for 30 minutes than it is to write. Soon enough, your timer goes off and you’re more frazzled than when you sat down. What’s worse: you’re still staring at a blank white page.

So how does mindfulness meditation help this problem?

If you want to write from a blank slate, you’ll need to quiet down your brain so you can focus on the task at hand. Meditation grounds your mind. It helps you to see your thoughts as transient ideas passing through your consciousness, and helps you to dissociate your thoughts from your consciousness itself.

We’ve bored our neural pathways deep. We need a blunt instrument to till the ground of our consciousness—to weed the garden of the passé, banal ideas. Only once we’ve weeded our consciousness can we begin to sow new thoughts and words.

I challenge you with this simple task: try mindfulness meditation for 10-15-minutes prior to writing. I think you’ll be astounded by the results.

A Taxonomy of Tired Tropes

If life imitates art, we’d do well to be careful what we put on our canvases.

Yet, at times, every artist is guilty of being a bit slapdash or lazy in their approach to their craft. How often do you find yourself groaning at a trite “truism” while reading a poem? Or rolling your eyes when an overused trope is rolled out again in a novel you’re reading?

To be truly exceptional, we must learn to write as writers and edit as readers. This means eliminating the tiresome, worn-down shortcuts we’ve taken in our writing process.

As a cautionary exercise, I think it would be fun to maintain a list of platitudes, thematic cliches, and tropes that are over-used. Some examples might include the following:

– Writing scenes in which a character looks at her reflection in the mirror and pores over every detail of her appearance. This is often used as a shortcut to having to deftly work in physical descriptions. Cut it out.
-“The moon” used ad nauseum in poetry
-A man who is denied justice by the usual channels, so he starts taking vengeance into his own hands.
-A nerdy, girl-next-door type gets a makeover and becomes irresistible to her crush.
-A former criminal tries to walk the straight and narrow, but is reluctantly dragged back into “one last big job.”

What examples do you have to add? Any scenario irk you in particular?

I leave you with the following quotation from the poet Gérard de Nerval: “The first man who compared a woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile.