Writing Toward Grace And Beauty: A Process Of Faith
“A faith beyond the last desire to possess faith.” —Brigit Pegeen Kelly
“Lose faith. Pray anyway.” —Tobias Wolff
The radio comes on at 4:00 a.m. Some mornings it is the B.B.C. from London headlining the horrors of the night, the horrors to come. Sometimes it is the first word from National Public Radio, no more enticing to rise and write than the word from London. The radio is in the den, far enough away to only nudge me awake, not so near I can’t imagine Southern California breakers rolling into shore, the admonitions of seagulls, the hum of a sports car fading toward Malibu. Down comforter and my grandmother’s quilt readjusted over my ears, I can assume another five minutes before Lucy insists I get up and turn off the radio.
A pushy Australian shepherd dog is not my choice of muse, but she is faithful in her obsessions—get Bob out of bed; wait while he measures coffee and water and selfishly pockets his Dove dark chocolate; remind him to let the dog out, let the dog in, reward with three treats; return to the fleece mat; sleep until 6:00 when Bob stops doing whatever it is he does with notebook and pencil and laptop; go out for the newspaper; feed the dog. This is not necessarily a spiritual process, but I have come to believe it is a blessed time, a routine that testifies to a faith I did not anticipate, a process I now consider an order of worship.
In the beginning . . .
Let there be light . . .
And God said,
Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters . . .
And God said,
Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place,
and let the dry land appear . . .
And God said,
Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree
yielding fruit . . .
And God said,
Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day
from the night . . .
And God said,
Let the waters be alive with living creatures and let birds wing their way
above the earth in the open firmament of heaven . . .
And God said,
Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle and
creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind . . .
And God said,
Let us make man in our image, male and female, after our likeness . . .
And God saw that it was good.
From nothing, something. The first creative process. Word after word shaping a world. Those who sit before lined notebooks beneath desk lamps’ manufactured spectrum of daylight know the word leading to word, the ending neither anticipated, nor, for now, hoped for, faithed for. This is the joy and terror of creation. We have all experienced this paradox, each of us engaged in a process of creative inquiry and discovery, an act of creation that defines us to ourselves—the garden for which we dug up our backyard; the ’57 Chevy we’ve been restoring since 1995; the recipes that out-Julia, Julia Child; the fielder’s mitt we re-laced and rubbed with Neetsfoot Oil and presented to our son.
Being a poet who traverses the page as if looking through the apostle Paul’s glass darkly, I understand more each year of my writing life what the psychologist Rollo May means, in his 1975 book The Courage To Create, by the “receptivity of the artist” (80), the process writer’s “holding him- or herself alive and open to hear what being may speak. Such receptivity requires a nimbleness, a fine-honed sensitivity in order to let one’s self be the vehicle of whatever vision may emerge” (80). May calls this receptivity “an active listening, keyed to hear the answer, alert to see whatever can be glimpsed when the vision or the words do come” (81). This birthing generates May’s “anxiety and agony” (81) in the mature poet, this passionate process no longer that of the “innocent spontaneity of youth and childhood” (31). The process becomes an addiction poets cannot exist without. What we desire, May recognizes, is “encounter,” that which he asserts is the “basis for all creativity” (26). And risky though it is, encounter also contains “a profound joy” (May 35), the realization, Rollo May argues, that “we are helping to form the structure of the new world. This is a creative courage, however minor or fortuitous our creations may be” (35). May celebrates poets’ need, their love of immersing themselves “in chaos in order to put it into form, just as God created form out of chaos in Genesis. Forever unsatisfied with the mundane, the apathetic, the conventional, they always push on to newer worlds” (32).
The Gospel of John celebrates creation. The poet apostle understood the grace and joy, the lyrical power, of language: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Creation is an act of love—Let there be light. John the apostle quietly and with assurance says, “God is light, and in him is no darkness. . . ” (1 John 1: 5). I believe John understood the creative process as an act of faith, a spiritual process, the poet’s own small speaking of a word letting light be from darkness, overcoming darkness for the poet first and later, maybe, for those who read the poet’s words. Rollo May says poets “express the spiritual meaning of their culture” (24); “there is something in the act of creating which is like a religious revelation” (69). I doubt that many poets would openly don the spiritual mantle, but they might acknowledge the classical Greeks’ divine madness. May, a poet himself, celebrates this “madness” as poets’ “encountering and wrestling” with “non-being,” that void and formlessness, that darkness (93). He honors poets’ refusal to flee from the blank page, the monitor’s pulsing cursor: “They knock on silence for an answering music; they pursue meaninglessness until they can force it to mean” (93).
I may have always intuitively understood writing as a seeking after grace and beauty. I know I felt this desire on the sandlots of my childhood, the school playgrounds, where my friends and I gathered on paced-off baseball diamonds, scraps of wood for bases, each of us bringing our gloves, the leather oiled and hand-rubbed, a tenderness we could express, the ballet of baseball our ignorant, righteous art. Other poetry came later, poetry that required quiet, an island of exile, the only sound a pencil shaping letters into word upon word, palimpsest of layered desire. In love, we do not anticipate, and certainly do not hope for, the end. It is the loving that matters. And when it ends, each time we may discover a meaning that was present from the start.
In 1977, I started getting up at 4:00 a.m., my wife and two-year-old twin sons safe and sleeping, the house, except for the suspirations of one-hundred-year-old oak floorboards and studs, quiet. It was a good time, alone with what came in the early morning darkness, assurance of the coming light, what Robert Frost calls “the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew” (56). This process sometimes led to a kind of spiritual epiphany, a faith that the depicted experience contained a discovered value.
My writing time became a kind of prayer—writing toward grace and beauty, toward love. In celebrating the word as creation, John the apostle also celebrates love, the love he declares to be the commandment we received in the beginning—“that we love one another” (2nd John: 5). Poems are a depiction of experience, human experience in all its complex, ambiguous, paradoxical beauty and truth. Most, if not all of my poems, and my literary nonfiction as well, focus on people experiencing what it means to be human, allowing me to share in their process of discovery.
When my dad died in 1987, I found myself reading through his Bible. The margins were filled with his commentary. Turning to the apostle Paul’s letters, I recalled a theologian telling me once that there was no poetry in Paul’s epistles. I don’t know what the theologian meant, but I know Paul was a poet, and he was definitely human, as wonderfully complex as Jesus’s disciple Peter. As I read my dad’s Bible, I began to line out poetic passages from Paul’s letters, and I studied the disciple’s life as recorded in the book of Acts. Getting to know Paul, I felt as if I were getting to know myself and to better understand my dad. Out of this process came what some have read as a book of anger, guilt, and confession: The Tongues of Men and of Angels. For me, the book charts a healing process, poems forgiving and asking forgiveness. A human need.
The title of my 2005 book of poetry, Tracking The Morning, suggests a discovery process, a quest, and isn’t that what we are all engaged in—a life quest, every day, as Jesus said, sufficient, and sometimes our daily bread offers nourishment we did not expect. For me, the path to this sustenance often comes though the creative process, the need to discover meaning in the unfolding experience.
Rollo May and John the apostle both celebrate the word as creation, as love—beauty and truth from the void, taking shape, becoming solid and dynamic, becoming. The faith I continue to discover through the process of writing poetry is the truth of human beings—God’s creations whom Jesus loved, their beauty, especially the unlovely, the seemingly unloved.
Out of that which was without form, out of the void, the darkness upon the face of the deep, the Spirit of God moved. Let there be light: and there was light (Genesis 1: 2-3). I continue to rise at 4:00 a.m., brew a pot of coffee, sit down at my desk, take up my pencil, and begin, trusting in the word, its beauty and truth. A kind of grace.
The Bible. King James Version. Genesis 1: 1, 3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 25, 26.
Fink, Robert A. The Tongues of Men and of Angels. Texas Tech UP, 1995.
—. Tracking The Morning. San Antonio: Wings Press, 2005.
Frost, Robert. “The Figure a Poem Makes.” Modern Poetics, edited by James Scully. McGraw-Hill, 1965, pp. 55-58.
Kelly, Brigit Pegeen. “Wild Turkeys: The Dignity of the Damned.” Song, by Kelly, BOA, 1995, pp. 42-43.
May, Rollo. The Courage To Create. Norton, 1975.
Wolff, Tobias. “Last Shot.” In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War, by Wolff, Vintage, 1994, pp. 219-21.
“Writing Toward Grace and Beauty: A Process of Faith” was published in a shorter version as “2nd Opinion: Writing Toward Grace and Beauty” in the digital edition of The Baptist Standard 18 May 2011. http://www.baptiststandard.com