The Poetics Of Uncertainty

ffw-logo-shadowAttending the Festival of Faith and Writing has given me more thoughts than I can possibly handle in a lifetime. This may seem like hyperbole, but as poet Geoffrey Nutter, one of the Festival speakers, pointed out using the words of T. S. Eliot: “Human beings can not bare that much reality.”

And that’s what I got today. A lot of reality.

But I think more than that too, because it wasn’t so obvious or so conclusive. As Nutter talked about the “radical uncertainty” of his poetry, I began to get glimpses of images that will probably tumble around in my head for a very long time. The reader (and writer for that matter) are meant to grapple with the words. Most of us know this. It’s an old idea.

But spawning from this wrestling springs a “joyful spontaneity” for those involved. This is another term for faith, I’d argue. “It takes faith to suspend our need for resolution,” says Nutter. Just as it takes strength to suspend our desire to wrestle the text into submission, which, if comprised of true images rather than mere deductions, shouldn’t be possible at the point of the final period. Continue reading

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Earthsea: An Overview

earthseaHaving finished the third installment and halfway point of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series, I feel I should look back through the books and record my thoughts. There are few fantasy books that have the same moral and philosophical horsepower, so the temptation to reflect is just too great.

The Farthest Shore (#3) is not as atmospheric and charming as A Wizard Of Earthsea, but neither is it as dark as the second book, The Tombs of Atuan. It lies somewhere in the middle. More adventurous, perhaps, than its successors, but the adventure is not the purpose of the book. Le Guin is often vague on details, and there’s hardly the suspense you’d normally associate with a fantasy like this. Rather, the focus is on the discussions of the characters and the sum total of their experiences that lead to a feeling more of spiritual/mental journeying than of physical, though I don’t think an allegorical hypothesis of the book would hold water. Continue reading

Immigrant Reader

Posting only when I’m inspired obviously hasn’t been working for me all that much these past weeks. Being disciplined too. I’ve had the time, but I guess my mind has been other places. Since my new job, my brain has been tossed spinning into the land of SEO and inbound marketing. But growing up with Facebook and a general social media-plus-internet-language proficiency has cut my learning curve blessedly short. And so the roller coaster ride down into marketing has been cushioned by familiarity. I can actually say truthfully that I write blog posts for a living…although that’s not all there is too it.

Despite being distracted temporarily from my published author of novels dream, I’m still throwing myself equally as head-long into the worlds of other’s imagination. Post school, I’ve found a place in which I don’t always have time to read, but I can always read whatever I want when I do. It’s spoiling me. Instead of reading less, I’m almost reading more (just look at my Goodreads account for the last three months. Don’t actually. You’re not that interested, and if you are, I worry). Continue reading

Post-Graduate Life:The Long Home

Nothing has changed.

No, I’m kidding. It’s been a while since I’ve managed to find time to blog or write, and my life has felt scattered and unorganized because of that. Writing is truly one of my biggest centers. A focuser. And apart from that, many things are different–the biggest of which has the been the move.

Everything feels more temporary than it used to. More rushed. Not busier; it’s not at all what I thought. But it is less easy to define a day’s activities in a sentence than it used to be. Everything that happens seems to be punctuated with commas, breaths are shorter, and I’m looking around for what I might call “home” not just as a more permanent living place, but in the work place and other aspects of life.

Finding time to write more often will undoubtedly help with that.

This whole thing reminds me of a Christian Wiman poem I read recently while watching the Arizona clouds meander by in the West’s infinity skies. It was during a road trip with some long-time friends that this poem struck me with thoughts about home.

Home is momentary, a way of seeing, a sweet lingering in a cloud before it drifts beyond the form [we’ve] found for it.

Life is about transitions, I suppose. Everything settled is an in between-time spent preparing for the next transition. I used to hate transitions and moves and changes. Still do to a degree. I used to be afraid of unfamiliar places. Part of me still is. It’s the part of me that looks, or hopes to find the same shape in the cloud I just saw. And it’s the same part of me that not only misses that shape but also wants to move on too. Get things over with.

But things are never over with.

The cloud is still there, and there’s a new shape, and it’s made up of all the same principles, and even (in my case for now) people.

So home is a thing of fine fluidity, and transitions are adventures.

And no matter how melancholy it may seem, things were never meant to stay the same. Life has as many metaphors as it has transitions, so I won’t go on. But I look around me, and I find that all the things that have remained the same are the things that count most, that will hopefully never change.

One of these is writing, and I will have to adapt to different schedules, write in smaller places–create as fiercely as ever. Oh, and on the best days I’ll have to share them here with you all.

There are still so many more words to be written and to be read. So many more adventures to have.

I have an aphorism artfully written on a board I keep with me. It says: “Life is a novel. Let God be the novelist.” There’s more to be said about that metaphor–stuff about characters and about freewill. But sometimes I’ll say it to myself, and I like to let it hang in the air and be what it is.

And I feel at home.

Chautauqua Writers

This past week I had the unforgettable experience of heading off to upstate New York’s Chautauqua Institute with a group of nine other writers. This is an interesting place. It has always had a history of being a market of intellect where brains crammed together in a relatively small area even before there were houses there. Before the houses were tents, and Mark Twain, after a visit, said it was so crowded that “you could hear the women changing their minds.” Now there are houses, and it’s still used by lecturers and learners in the summer months, but in the winter it’s almost entirely a ghost town.

Let me give you an image: picture Twain’s hemmed in rows of tents, now a cluster of old Victorian-esque houses equally squeezed, subtract the people, add a foot or two of snow, and—the last touch—add the massive sheets of canvas that folks cover those houses with in the winter to keep the…I dunno, winter out. A ghost town covered in white sheets. It was a little unnerving how often the few locals jokingly referenced Stephan King’s horror The Shining.

So we were there to write—none of us being Stephen King. And from 1:00 to 5:30 each day we wrote. I’ve never sat in a room with other writers, all silent, frowning down at the brain-sucking computer light, all spilling out their imaginations in front of the gas fireplace (It was a decidedly un-hipster event). We weren’t working on the same project, but we were working together, doing what we were made to do and helping each other complain about it. I can’t tell you how therapeutic it was to collectively groan. And I can’t tell you how amazing it was to write together and share our craft with one another.

What struck me the most, being a part of a community of writers and not just working alone, was the realization that writing can be a community orientated activity. The image I had before the trip was more or less individualistic—each of us heading off to coffee shops or separate rooms. Sometimes that’s what happened. But one of the best moments of the trip involved a fireplace, a couch, a collection of mismatched chairs, and five or six writers hard at work.

We were in our own worlds, but every time I drifted far enough back into our warm, shared world, I’d see them doing what I was doing. We had an unspoken connection. It was a connection of furrowed brows and mugs of hot tea (sometimes two mugs at the same time). A connection of slippers and craned necks and journals and thoughts, and, ultimately, of a gift.

Most of us had never shared that gift with other people before. Writing can be an odd, private thing if we let it become that. If we wish, we can set ourselves apart and keep our gifts close and hidden. We can fret over what people think and worry about how we look sharing something that we do well.

But I’m of the opinion that gifts are made to be shared.

I learned more from the feedback, and from the time spent with other authors than I thought possible. And the best thing of all…we avoided all Chautauqua chainsaw massacres.

A good time in my book!

Notes from the North

Us having a great time at Mackinic IslandCamping is my favorite!

I always say that and, in theory, it’s true. Camping is one of my favorite weekend activities. Not, like, ALL the time, but sometimes. The great outdoors. Building character. Oatmeal. You know.

So I hit the road with some friends and some others that were soon to be friends, and we rolled into a sparsely wooded camp ground by Mackinaw City at about 9 o’clock to find out we might freeze to death. We knew it would be cold. We knew it would likely rain. But we meant to have a damn good time if it killed us. I think that’s really how camping goes for me most of the time. It’s all ra, ra, ra until I get there, and then I’m a practiced stubborn blockhead practically falling over myself to “have a good time” (another way of saying I was a boyscout).

Yea, I can rough it.

“I only packed one backpack, and it’s not even full.” (I said that)

“Showers? Who needs showers?” (Said that too. There’s a record of that cause I said it on FB before we left)

…Guess who made use of those showers?

Yes, yes, so I’m like some other men who think there are dude-points to be had by being uncomfortable and roughing it. Point given and taken. But I began to realize this past weekend that there is something more to spending some time in less than optimal comfort. I like my showers, but sitting around a fire with as many extra layers as I can find, everyone staring at those flames and ducking the nastier gusts of wind – there’s nothing like it.

The week leading up to our expedition had been rough – pushed me down to a low place, and I saw this as one of those escapes. Just needed to get away and get to a space where there was enough room to think. I needed a lot of room because my thoughts were big and too loud for the dinner table. Part of my worries had to do with the future; graduation sneaks up and real life pounces from those taller grassy areas we spend our lives avoiding. I spent half the ride up to Mackinaw with this insane idea I’d move to England after they handed me a diploma. It was sort of like the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day…Can we move to Australia? I can take all my friends and leave all my problems.

I even texted my mom to see what she thought about York in a part-serious part smart-ass attitude.

“You chasing a girl or a job?” she asks.

I laughed and told her I was kidding.

But just at that moment I don’t think I was, and I thought about it after. Until that week I had been chasing after a life of comfort and security. I was comfortable where I was with the friends I had and I didn’t want to budge. No thanks God.

God shakes the snow globe and I get a headache.

Heading off first thing to England was a strong reaction, possibly inducing a heavenly chuckle or two, but in hindsight camping that weekend was enough to shake me awake a little. There were so many of those “morning alarms” I don’t know where to start: Some of the greatest people you’ll ever meet, a peaceful island with no cars, scary man-eating geese, my peculiar aversion to loosing a finger to frostbite.

It was all so anti-TV-and-couch-sulking I finally had the chance to realize that it’s in the times we are not so comfortable that we feel the most alive.

This isn’t a bro claim. Bros can claim it, (or hipsters) but I think it’s truth and it caught me by surprise. It may sound obvious to many of you, (I received a comment to that effect on the ride back when I shared), but it wasn’t to me the week before, and the whole weekend centered on that point.

During our trip it rained off and on as we figured it might, but we were never once caught in it. Always we had shelter just when it started getting wet, and by the time we had to leave that shelter (the car, the tent, the ferry) it would let up.

I came to realize I was more up for an adventure than I thought I might be, and I probably don’t have to run off to another country to find it (although I’m still open to that). I just have to be willing to set aside that treasured security we spend our lives burrowing in around us like a fox hole.

Let’s be real. I’m not the biggest fan of freezing by buttocks off. But that weekend I felt like I was on top of America!

Redemption In a Bleak Story

Since college, my favorite author has been Steven Erikson. His Malazan Book of the Fallen series is just the sort of expansive, exciting, and deeply emotional tale I like. His writing style is clipped and gritty, yet beautiful, and, on occasion, long-winded. But too much of a good thing is often forgivable, so I roll my eyes a few times every 1000+ page book and continue on to find more adventure. There is always more adventure. Always more vibrant dialogue. Always more relevant history (almost 30,000 years worth). And it always leads to a chaotic climax that put most action films to shame.

Oh, and there’s one more thing: Erikson’s Malazan world is a veritable nightmare.

His eighth book, Toll the Hounds, which I finished recently, is almost 1,300 pages of stinging, pummeling bleakness. It throws more darkness, more gore, and more sordid hatred at its readers than any of the first 7. Although Erikson has pushed boundaries from page one. Toll was so intense I had to put it down a few times just so I could think of something innocuous before I continued. It’s like a mental breather.

Puppies are nice.

Ok, now back to the scene in which our heroes hike through a field of scarecrows that turn out to be actual people who were drowned in black blood. Details. Details. Someone vomits. I think about following suite. Puppies. Cute, lovable, adorable puppies…

It got to the point where I wondered how much more I could put up with. I told myself that the end had to be worth it despite the fact the many of his other books, while not as dark, still felt drawn toward fear in the end. I decided that I needed to see some redemption in the conclusion for the darkness to be worth it or maybe I was done with the Malazan Empire.

I got my wish, and much more…and I got a little excited in my school’s library where I received a look from some girl. Thanks girl, you have no idea what I’m reading here!

I don’t know if Steven Erikson is a Christian, but the themes at the end were overpoweringly Christ-like, and I realized that this was where the whole book aimed at.

SPOILER ALERT!

“Speak truth, grow still, until the water is clear between us,” goes the old saying of an ancient race in the Malazan world. And we end here. We walk down a road where one character forgives the only entity in the book that seemed unforgivable. Where another that didn’t need to lose anything, pays a debt and sacrifices himself for his people. And a third finally finds his home, and finds hope. And with these separate acts the water is clear and calm. The blood washes away.

If you know nothing about Erikson’s books, all that will sound cryptic, but for me every ounce of bleak horror in the journey (if bleak horror could be measured in ounces) became worth it to see that climax. Many of the other books found their climax in a convergence of physical powers. The lines between good and evil were fuzzy at best throughout. But with Toll the Hounds, Erikson draws that line, and it is exactly where I hoped, but didn’t expect him to draw it.

The darkness here has a purpose. And that purpose was so that the light will shine that much brighter by contrast. I was almost blinded.

You have to read it to believe it.