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 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.

Talking Shop: Tone and Voice

(“Talking Shop” is an ongoing series on the craft of creative writing.)

I’ve talked a little about David Shields’ seminal book Reality Hunger in a past post. Today I want to respond to another quotation from that same book. Here’s a statement quoted in his chapter about flash fiction:

“Even as they’re exploring extremely serious and complex material, short-short writers frequently use a certain mock modesty to give the work a tossed-off tone and disarm the reader. The reader thinks he’s reading a diary entry, when in fact it’s a lyric essay or prose poem.”

Shields goes on to cite examples, one of which being “Morning News” by Jerome Stern

Although I certainly agree with Shields that this “mock modesty” is common in flash fiction, I’m unsure that it’s fair to say that microfiction utilizes this technique across the board.

This does, however, bring up the topic of tone in flash fiction. As writers, we have to ensure we don’t confuse our tone with our literary voice. One of the best ways to ensure we don’t confuse the two is by having a proper definition of each term.

Tone is the writer’s attitude toward his subject, his audience or himself. One can have a sarcastic tone. One can be flippant or somber or self-reflecting or abrasive. All of these are examples of a writer’s tone in a particular piece.

Literary voice, on the other hand, is the distinctive style a writer has. Hemingway was known for his concise style. It made him have a distinct voice. Douglas Adams is known for his humorous approach to science fiction. F. Scott Fitzgerald is known for his flowery prose.

So how can we confuse tone and literary voice? Well, left unchecked, our stories can all share the same tone, and run the risk of becoming formulaic. For example, I love using irony in my microfictions. But If I’m not careful, I will use it in all my stories, and pretty soon they’ll all read in a very predictable manner.

Have you ever enjoyed the first track of an album, only to find that each subsequent song sounded exactly the same? As writers, we have to ensure we vary our tone from piece to piece while maintaining our distinct voice.

How do you find this at play in your writing? Do you gravitate toward a certain tone in your work? If so, how do you avoid falling into a rut? What makes your literary voice distinctly you?

Talking Shop: Minimalism and Flash Fiction

(“Talking Shop” is an ongoing series on the craft of creative writing.)

Minimalism has turned our society upside down.

Apple products have left consumers spellbound by their simplicity. Room decor has become increasingly elegant. Web designers succeed or fail, depending on how effortless their websites are to navigate.

What might be less obvious, however, are the ways in which minimalism has infiltrated our art.

For instance, sparse instrumentation and simple words created the smash hit “Say Something (I’m Giving Up On You)” by A Great Big World.

I believe that a similar frame of mind dominates some of the best flash fiction.

An old writing maxim is “Show, don’t tell.” In other words, rather than describing a character as “a nervous type,” show these traits by what the character does: give him a nervous tic, make him ring his hands, give his speech a stammer, let him pace the room, etc.

The same applies to flash fiction, but sometimes the most revealing aspects of a character or a plot lie in what isn’t revealed.

Consider, for example, the poem “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” by Randall Jarrell:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Though it isn’t microfiction, this piece of writing perfectly illustrates how writing can be made more luminous by what is left out. The narrator didn’t give you the gruesome details of the how the ball turret gunner died. Instead he turned your stomach by simply stating: “When I died, they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”

In the New York Times article “Hearing the Notes That Aren’t Played,” David Mamet writes,

How much can one remove and still have the composition be intelligible? This understanding, or its lack, divides those who can write from those who can really write. Checkhov removed the plot. Pinter, elaborating, removed the history, the narration; Beckett, the characterization. We hear it anyway. Omission is a form of creation.

This idea that “omission is a form of creation” seems to me at the crux of many great pieces of writing. What are some examples you have found of this principle at work? Do you know any great flash fiction that utilizes this technique? Let’s talk in the comments below!