Talking Shop: The Case for Frivolity in Art

This blog resides at the intersection of two subjects: that of spirituality and art.

If you believe in either of the two, the subject probably matters a great deal to you. What could be more important than your relationship with God? And why shouldn’t you care very deeply about the very expression of your soul? 

Of course you should care. These two subjects are taken more seriously by their–practitioners, we’ll say, than anything else.

But at the same time, both topics also demand a sense of levity that can be markedly absent from their discourse, writ large. How often have you heard a sermon that was devoid of liveliness? And how often have you read a poem by someone who clearly takes themselves too seriously? In truth, you’ve likely experienced both at some point in your life.

G.K. Chesterton, a theologian and a creative-writer, never shied away from employing a little lightheartedness. In fact, he once stated, “What can one be but frivolous about serious things? Without frivolity, they are simply too tremendous.”

If this sounds like an oxymoron to you, well, he wasn’t called “the Prince of Paradox” for nothing!

In any event, he was so adamant about the above quotation that he reiterated its sentiments multiple times throughout his life, stating, “It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light,” and even, “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”

While the full import of Chesterton’s statement can be difficult to discern, this much is clear: he believed that a relationship with Christ was anything but stuffy and stifling. After all, isn’t joy a fruit of the Spirit?

But if the church can fall prey to a stifling seriousness, academia is certainly no better. Many self-important painters, poets, and novelists have churned out example after example of joyless art. In fact, literati as a whole tends to eschew work that they view as “low-brow” or less serious, whether it be *gasp* “genre fiction” or “light-verse” poetry.

But what’s wrong with utilizing some tropes, if it’s effective in conveying a point? (See Ursula Le Guin’s masterful works of sci-fi and fantasy, for example.) And some of the greatest writers in recent memory dabbled in light-verse poetry, including W.H. Auden, Dorothy Parker, and–notably, Chesterton himself.

In short, I think we would all do well to take ourselves a bit less seriously at times. Perhaps my opinions on the subject can best be summed up in the following aphorism by the Samurai master Miyamoto Musashi: “Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world.”

May we all strive to do so.

Code 10-39 (Flash Fiction)

(by Daniel R. Jones)

It was 1:27 a.m. when I awoke to a knock on our front door.

“Wasn’t Kaylee’s curfew midnight?” I asked my husband as I rose and peered through the blinds.

Two policemen wearing navy-blue peaked caps stood on our doorstep.

“It’s the police!” I told my husband.

“Are their hats on or off?” he asked, now sitting upright in the bed.

“Now what does that have to do with anything?” I asked.

But by the time I opened the front door, their hats were off.

Maternal Charades (poem)

(by Daniel R. Jones)

I walked in on my wife
playing charades.
Our children didn’t know
they were part of the game.
Some days, she didn’t know either.

TWO WORDS

Rubbing together two needles
like the legs of a cricket,
she conjures hats, scarves,
amigurumi monsters
the children take to bed.

FIRST WORD: MATERNAL

If I squint it looks like ritual,
the tedium of bedtime routine:
overnight diaper, dinosaur jammies
read two books and brush your teeth.
Boys to the bunkbeds, girl to the crib.

SECOND WORD: LOVE

Golden curls encircle
lavender bubbles;
soap-soaked fur of a
labrador doodle.
This is love by proxy.

Care for the children
through care for the dog
bought for them to care for.
A pantomime, an acting out
of the second word.

MATERNAL LOVE

This motherhood is a lifelong game of charades.
The children have an inkling, I think,
that the swabbing of walls stained with crayon,
and the meticulous slicing of hotdogs
is pantomime, a charade of that larger abstraction.

The clues are there and the message pans out.
But they never do understand the scope,
the magnitude of what’s being hinted at.
Even as a parent myself, I suppose,
I never plumb the depths entirely.

The two types of writers: Writing vs. Written

Dorothy Parker famously quipped, “I hate writing. I love having written.”

While I adore the Queen of Wit, her and I part ways on this subject. 

So often, in the literati parlance, you hear the same sorts of adages. People down through the ages have echoed the same mentality. Some famous examples to illustrate the point are as follows:

“I am not at all in a humor for writing; I must write on until I am.” – Jane Austen

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed.” – Ernest Hemingway

“I am irritated by my own writing. I am like a violinist whose ear is true, but whose fingers refuse to reproduce precisely the sound he hears within.” – Gustave Flaubert

A large quantity of writers throughout the years have seemed to prefer “having written” to writing. On the surface, it’s pretty easy to understand why. There’s nothing quite as dopamine-inducing as looking down at a completed manuscript and knowing that it only exists as a fruit of your labor.

Still, I can’t quite agree with the sentiment.

For me, the writing–the actual act of putting pen to paper or clicking the keys with my fingertips approaches sacramental. Perhaps you can chalk it up to my affinity for poetry, but I actually prefer the “main event” to the moment when I can throw my pencil down with a sigh.

At the risk of sounding reductive, I think there’s a fairly black-and-white distinction to be made between two types of writers. Much like you can supposedly divide novelists into the two groups “plotters” or “pantsers,” I think you can divide writers by those who enjoy the writing and those who enjoy “having written.” 

You can think of the writing/written binary as Apollonian vs. Dionysian. 

The Apollonian writers enjoy having written. The process is but a means to the end. What really counts is having the ink dry. Each of the quotations above illustrates this point of view.

Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with Apollonian writers! I, too, love checking boxes and hitting deadlines. With that said, I think there’s another (perhaps rarer) type of writer that doesn’t fit this schematic.

The Dionysian writer revels in the process. The actual intoxicating act of thinking up new ideas is where it’s at for this type. The writing is as important or more important than the finished product. I believe myself to be among these types.

Here are a few quotations from the greats that serve as a sort of “counterweight” to the aforementioned “Apollonian” writers:

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” – Anais Nin

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.” – Anne Frank

“If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often. It’s a mysterious condition. It’s much like the life of a Catholic nun. You’re married to a mystery.” –Leonard Cohen

“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” – Ray Bradbury

What about you? Do you think that this division of writer-types is valid? If so, which do you count yourself among?

Whitesnake and Carhartt’s

(by Daniel R. Jones)

Poets have a tendency to play hard to get, in the literary sense. They speak in riddles, only to gripe about dense readers who misunderstand them. Or worse yet, they tire of explaining the very lines they themselves constructed. There’s really no placating them.

I was working on deciphering just such a poet’s verse when Jack interrupted my thoughts by abruptly turning the stereo dial full-blast.

“It’s Whitesnake!” he said, elated.

The rest of the van was asleep on our long commute home after a particularly long graveyard-shift. I nodded, absently, unversed in ’80s glam rock.

“I used to have this CD I burned, and all 15 cuts were ‘Here I Go Again’ by Whitesnake,” he continued, with no loss of enthusiasm. “Every time I got fired, or had a girlfriend dump me, I’d just jump in my car and pop that sucker in the stereo. I’d drive for hours like that if I had to. By the end of the drive, all the bad stuff was behind me, and I had a new start. This song was the rebirth. It’s like…the Phoenix rising.”

He bellowed out the lines he remembered and hummed through the rest.

It was no secret that Jack was going through some personal struggles. His girlfriend, who was 8-months pregnant, had just left him. He was trying for the life of him to finally get clean; all while staring down the barrel of what looked to be a vicious custody battle for his first son.

Still, Jack sat, contented, drumming on the steering wheel, singing off-key.

And there, on I-94, just as the sun rose, I saw it. Out of grease-covered, musty Carhartt’s, Jack was being reborn. And a big old, campy Phoenix was rising.

J.R.R. Tolkien vs. Flannery O’Connor- Escapism in Fiction (Craft)

(by Daniel R. Jones)

Suppose you were to take out a notebook and a pen and list off the best Christ-following authors you could think of from the 20th Century. 
Chances are, the names “J.R.R. Tolkien” and “Flannery O’Connor” would both be listed on Page One.

But despite their larger-than-life status as novelists and forerunners of Christian thought, both authors had a decidedly different take on the creative life. Consider, for example, the following two quotations, which represent almost diametrically opposed truths about writing:

Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!” -J.R.R. Tolkien


I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.” -Flannery O’Connor

So what gives? How is it that Tolkien advocates for escapism in writing and O’Connor denounces it? Which is correct, artistically speaking? Which is the right mindset, spiritually?

The answer, of course, is nuanced. 

Let’s start with the artistry aspect. It helps to look at the distinction in writing styles between Tolkien and O’Connor. It’s hard to imagine two writers so entirely unalike: Tolkien, the Oxford-educated, high-fantasy-obsessed polyglot, was famous for his epic and elaborate tomes. O’Connor, on the other hand, was Southern Gothic through and through, and her most famous works were short stories that explored the grisly reality of human nature.

Is at any wonder that their fiction reflected their views on craft? 

Since both writers contrast so drastically, it’s a more useful question to ask whether they succeeded in their particular aims. Luckily, the answer to this question is much easier to answer: it is a resounding yes. Both J.R.R. Tolkien and Flannery O’Connor have received much critical acclaim and popularity. Their works have stood the test of time, and serve as insightful literature that speaks to the human condition. Undoubtedly, both were–and are, successful. 

The two took drastically different artistic approaches, but both shared common themes: unexpected grace, (compare Tolkien’s concept of the “eucatastrophe” and the character “Bevel” in “The River,) the duality of humankind (consider Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings and Julian in “Everything That Rises Must Converge,”) redemption of a deeply flawed individual (think of “Boromir” and “Gollum” in The Lord of the Rings and “the Grandmother” and “the Misfit” in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”)

These shared themes that run throughout the corpus of work these two literary heavyweights are not a happy accident. They can be traced back to the same source: they were both profoundly impacted by their love for Christ and their Catholic faith. So while they took two contradictory approaches to the creative life, the similarities that bound them were significant enough and elucidated well enough to make them both correct.

Perhaps a final quotation can best illustrate this point. C.S. Lewis, who famously disliked T.S. Eliot’s poetry, acknowledged that the two served the same God. As such, he said about Eliot: “I agree with him about matters of such moment that all literary questions are, in comparison, trivial.” 

May we all take such a mature view.

Don’t phone it in

Students of history may be familiar with the famous (or perhaps, infamous) perfectionism of Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State and National Security Advisor under the Nixon and Ford administrations. Politics aside, there is an illustrative story of his uncompromising standards during the late sixties:

Winston Lord, the Ambassador to China at the time, was tasked with writing a speech for Kissinger. Kissinger, a gifted speechwriter himself, had exacting standards for those who served under him.

The story is told that Winston Lord brought the first draft of the speech to Kissinger one evening for his feedback and approval. The next morning, Kissinger called him back and asked, “Is this the best you can do?”

Lord thought it over. He thought he’d done his best. He answered, “I’ll try again.”

A second time, he tinkered with his speech and brought it back to him after a few days had passed. And again, Kissinger asked him, “Is this the best you can do?”

Lord was shaken up, but stated he could do better.

The process continued for eight drafts. Each time, Kissinger resolutely asked, “Is this the best you can do?” After the ninth draft, Lord finally responded, indignantly, “I know it’s the best I can do! Not a word can be improved upon!”

Henry Kissinger looked on Winston Lord and replied, “In that case, now I’ll read it.”


Maybe this story made you smile. Or maybe it made you cringe at the unrelenting perfectionism showed by Kissinger. In any event, I believe there’s a takeaway for each of us, as artists, from this anecdote.

They say that artists are perfectionists by nature. I didn’t get that gene.

The first time I read this story, I felt a sort of conviction related to my writing. True, I’m not delivering important, policy-shaping speeches to heads of state…but how often do I just “phone it in” when I’m working on a new piece of writing? If I’m being honest with myself, it happens more often than I’d like.

Steven Pressfield makes a great case for rugged self-discipline when it comes to writing in his book The War of Art. If you’re struggling with writer’s block, I highly recommend it to start winning “your inner creative battles,” as he puts it.

That book (and this post) is not for everyone. Some writers edit and revise their pieces to ribbons. Some artists trash their seventeenth version of a painting before tearing their hair out. But if you’re like me and you sometimes struggle to “give it your all,” I hope this blogpost acts as the kick in the pants that you need.

Extraterrestrial Tanka (poem)

(by Daniel R. Jones)

[Note: this poem was originally published in the quarterly print edition of Star*Line on July 1, 2017.]

amber-dotted skies.
paper lanterns wink:
night of the Chinese New Year.

scores of UFOs phoned in:
we slip under the radar.

Convicted by the Sun (Prose Poem)

(after Job 12:7-9)

Ill-tempered and cross-grained. My key off its hook. I’m out through the breezeway. Into the throes of a weekday morning. My brain deplete of dopamine, I scan my surroundings, hoping to find the inconveniences that will justify my cantankerous mood. 

Instead, my eyes are met with a horizon dyed the color of mulberries. Two-century-old oaks applauding in glee. A glistening sunrise saying, “I told the truth each morning since I dawned upon Eden. You are the one out of sync here.” 

I saw a sparrow plucked from the page of a D.H. Lawrence poem. It chirped out Morse code, which, when decoded read, “No personal tragedy is ever so great that it buys you the right to be ungrateful.”

The sun, in swift rebuke, agreed: “The heavens declare the Glory of God. The flowers are clothed in splendor. The rocks themselves are crying out. So, who do you think you are? Who, exactly, do you think that you are?”