Truth: The Deeply Rooted Idea


On writing and art making.


While My Pen Gently Weeps

While My Pen Gently Weeps


My daughter Gracie was helping me prepare dinner one evening. We were doing the boeuf bourguignonne from Virginia Willis’s amazing cook book Bon Appetit, Y’all, which puts a southern spin on every recipe—this one, by adding bacon.

As Gracie stood on her cooking stool and crisped the bacon at the stovetop, the aroma filled the kitchen and mixed with the onions I was cutting at the counter. She talked over the bacon’s hiss and sizzle about being a chef someday, quitting cross country, girls at school she liked and didn’t like, boys.

I drifted as she chattered, but snapped back to attention when she said, “And if you’re going to be a writer—”

“I am a writer,” I cut in. I wasn’t sure how we’d come to this.

Without a pause, she said, “You know what I mean: a writer everybody knows. Like Dr. Seuss.”

My first thought was of an interview I once saw Tom Petty do in which he said, even with all his accomplishments—including induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame—his own kids were utterly unimpressed until he finally got a guest spot on The Simpsons.

Jesus said a prophet gets no respect in his own hometown; likewise, a parent’s accomplishments go largely without notice at home.

My second thought was of Joseph Grand, the hapless novelist in Albert Camus’ The Plague. I’ve always loved poor Joseph Grand. He’s a government worker when the plague strikes Oran, and he steps in to labor alongside Dr. Rieux combating the disease.

Every night he goes home and he writes. What does he write? What could he possibly find worth writing when death and disease wreak constant havoc all around him?

Eventually we get to see what he is working on so diligently: a single opening sentence to a story, one sentence that he revises and rewrites obsessively, “Evenings,” he says, “whole weeks, spent on one single word…Sometimes on a mere conjunction!” And why does he work so hard to perfect the sentence? So that someday his publisher will read it, stand up and say to his staff, “Gentlemen, hats off!”

We writers are—I suspect it’s true for artists in general, even the very successful ones—an insecure bunch. We need recognition. Not from our sisters and best friends, who will always say something like, “This is amazing. You should publish it.” We want recognition from those in the business whose approval we think will serve as a kind of validation.

Camus’ narrator calls Grand the “insignificant and obscure hero” of the novel. Why? He has, “a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal.” What is that ideal? What is it Joseph Grand, the lonely creative artist, stands for?

It is simply the belief that there is goodness and beauty in the world, even under plague conditions. There is meaning beyond the suffering, and art is the path to it.

I believe that. What keeps me coming down to my basement cave at five every morning to get in my couple hours of writing before the kids and dogs strike up the morning noise, is the thought that I could someday create something that lasts, something that when I’m long gone will remain in the midst of other woe.

Still, I have my doubts. My wife works with the local neighborhood development foundation, helping the poorest of the poor. Last weekend she introduced me to another lady she works closely with, a bulldog lawyer who aims her considerable brains and energy entirely at fighting for the weak and disenfranchised.

Me? I write fiction. I spend my best energy every morning telling stories, with no clue who might ever read them.

I think now of George Harrison’s lines, “I look at the floor and I see it needs sweeping. Still my guitar gently weeps,” and I know the feeling. The art must be made, and it is important.

Yet the doubt remains. What if the lines go, “I look at the children and see they need feeding,” and my guitar keeps gently weeping then? What does that say about me?

Joseph Grand worked tirelessly on his one sentence. He stood for the seemingly absurd ideal that the perfect sentence had value, even in a world ravaged by plague; but Joseph Grand also spent his days in the trenches battling sickness and suffering.

I pour myself into my writing. I leave for work already tired, with this persistent fear gnawing at the back of my brain that it isn’t good enough.

I think what serious artists want is not so much to be famous—like Dr. Seuss, as Gracie said—but to be assured that what we are giving our lives to is worth something in the end.

The doubt will always be there, but a little recognition gives, for ever so brief a moment, a glimmering reminder that there is value to this work of art-making—not relative value alongside other, more useful tasks, but value in itself.

It is more than enough.

originally posted at “Good Letters” Wednesday April 18, 2012

On Art and the Pursuit of Happiness

This Is Your Brain on Art


In the November 27 New York Times Book Review Jim Holt gives a fascinating review of Thinking, Fast and Slow, a new book about how we make decisions by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner in economic science.

The gist of the book is that we are not the rational decision makers we believe ourselves to be, information that has obvious and serious repercussions for economic science.

In his review Holt notes that Kahneman does not care to deal philosophically with the nature of rationality; what he wants to discuss is what he sees as its goal: happiness.

When talking about happiness, Kahneman differentiates between “experienced” well-being and “remembered” well-being, and discovers, through experimentation—one cringe-inducing experiment dealing with painful colonoscopies—what he calls “duration neglect” and the “peak-end rule.”

This just means that when we remember pain, we forget how long it lasted and only remember the peak of the discomfort. Also, if it ends pleasantly, we remember it more favorably, even if we experienced more actual pain.

This is where it gets fascinating for me. Holt quotes Kahneman—“I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.”

Holt then writes that Kahneman might not have gone far enough in saying the experiencing self is a stranger, that “There may be no experiencing self at all.”

He offers as evidence a study done by Rafael Malach and his colleagues at the Weizmann Institute in Israel. When subjects absorbed in an experience—watching a movie in this instance—“the parts of the brain associated with self-consciousness are not merely quiet, they’re actually shut down (inhibited) by the rest of the brain.” Holt concludes, “The self seems simply to disappear.”

So science is bearing out what we already know. When having an aesthetic experience, the self-conscious parts of the brain are literally shut down, turned off. When they open back up, the aesthetic experience disappears, becomes an object for your remembering self to look at, discuss, inspect.

You cannot be both aware of yourself and absorbed in a work of art—whether or not the work of art is good is not important for this discussion; the test subjects in Malach’s study were watching The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

Self-consciousness then is an an-aesthetic. It deadens the experience.

Our brains are like air locks, those pressurized chambers which makes it possible to move safely from inside a cramped space ship out into space. The door of self-consciousness has to be sealed shut before the door to the experience can be opened. They simply cannot both be open at the same time.

Maybe this explains why I can no longer sit through a television show unless I’ve rented it and can see it commercial free. The commercials aren’t just annoying; they repeatedly drive away the experience by knocking open the self-conscious part of the brain, reminding me of myself and all the crap I should want to buy.

Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but I find it maddening. I can’t last a whole show.

There’s more to the self-consciousness problem than the enjoyment of art. Annie Dillard says that it is “our very self-consciousness” which all religions recognize as “the one thing separating us from our creator.”

There are simply places you cannot go and bring yourself along. People who have had epiphanies, who have lost themselves and experienced mystery, have had it happen to them in many different places and many different ways. It isn’t something you can manufacture.

Art appears to be the most reliable way to shut down self-consciousness, the one most necessary condition. Art seals the little door closed, and holds you there in the air lock, sustains you in a state of readiness–and every now and then, the big door opens and we get a glimpse.

As for whether or not we are happy: when we are lost in a work of art, when our souls are open to it and fully alive, the question is irrelevant.


originally posted at “Good Letters,” Tuesday January 24, 2012


The Unbearable Badness of Ayn Rand

The Unbearable Badness of Ayn Rand

Originally posted on “Good Letters” October 19, 2012

My good friend Marcelo has decided to read Ayn Rand’s fiction, to “see what all the hype is about.”

He has started with Fountainhead, the story of Howard Roark, the architect who heroically refuses to sacrifice his individual principles to the collective, no matter how they treat him. Marcelo is an artist, and he likes Roark’s pluck, his faith in his own artistic vision. Plus, Rand speaks with such conviction, it’s hard to resist him.

As many young people do—in my experience, mostly young men—I once went on a Rand bender: Atlas Shrugged, We the Living, The Romantic Manifesto. I devoured the book by her disciple Leonard Peikoff,Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.

She starts with existence exists, which is her axiomatic principle, the starting point from which she builds her belief system. From there she is quick to deny even the possibility of spiritual reality. Eventually she ends in a place where selfishness is a high virtue, altruism a despicable vice, and capitalism the only sane economic system.

Her philosophy is harshly categorical, and corresponds to the developmental stage of black/white either/or thinking of youth. No wonder the people I run across who take her philosophy seriously are always young, at least in their thinking.

As unsavory as these aspects of her philosophy might be, that isn’t what makes her writing bad. She herself says, “The fact that one agrees or disagrees with an artist’s philosophy is irrelevant to an esthetic appraisal of his work qua art.” With this I agree.

In the intro to Mark Musa’s The Portable Dante we are told that the great poet intended for his writing to work on four levels: the literal, which is the observation of what actually happens; the allegorical, which gets at underlying theological or philosophical meaning (for example Virgil as the embodiment of human reason); the moral or didactic, for teaching the reader; and finally the anagogical, which opens spiritual or mystical truths.

The fact that Dante consciously designed his poetry to work on all these levels is not what brings readers back to him. The literal level is where the thrill of recognition grabs you.

For example, Dante describes souls writhing in the seventh circle of hell, plagued by fire from above and burning sand from beneath: “They were in fact, like a dog in summertime / busy, now with his paw, now with his snout, / tormented by the fleas and flies that bite him.”

I am transported to my childhood in West Virginia, to the dirt road that ran between the church parsonage where I lived and the garbage truck garage. In the road is a mangy black dog with fur clumped into flat cakes, dropping to scratch, spinning to bite at fleas.

There’s the grotesque description of one who sowed schism in life, ripped bodily in half, “from his chin to where we fart…. Between his legs his guts spilled out, with the heart / and other vital parts, and the dirty sack / that turns to shit whatever the mouth gulps down. I remember shot deer split open by the hunter’s knife, its glistening innards in a twisted pile next to it.

Dante is excellent on multiple levels, yet he begins where all good writing—all good art—must: true to the literal, so carefully observed, that you cannot help but trust it.

Rand’s fiction sucks for the same reason so much Christian fiction sucks. It is endlessly didactic, so busy preaching it forgets to pay close attention to life. Her characters deliver lectures. You don’t have to look closely to see they are puppets with Rand’s own lips moving eerily under the mask, her angry eyes staring out through holes in the rubber face. The bad guys in her books are straw men called collectivism, and altruism and they speak only in bromides and Rand gleefully bats them down.

Is it unfair to hold her to such a high standard as Dante? How about her contemporary Flannery O’Connor, who also saw her own writing as working on all four levels? Again Rand comes up short, and not simply because she’s not as good a writer—which she surely is not—but because her own aesthetic draws up short. She is writing bad fiction by design.

In her Romantic Manifesto Rand says, “The greater the work of art, the more profoundly universal its theme.” So far so good. She writes, “Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.” What exactly does that mean?

Rand believes the work should set forth the author’s vision of an ideal world, not deal with the world as it is. Art, according to Rand should deal only with what is “important,” which sounds fine, but the problem is that when, as Rand consciously does, the artist lops away parts of human existence she believes to be unimportant, we get substandard art.

The artist knows what she is out to prove and sets out to do it. No discovery for the writer, then none for the reader. Rand never lets the story itself say anything meaningful. You want to tell her to shut up already and tell the story. Or find a form more suited for argumentation, like an essay.

We come to art to find something important, no doubt. But it is in careful attention to the literal, physical details—quotidian, often smelly and unpleasant, sometimes even disgusting and scary—that we find the important thing for which the work is aiming. The artist is as surprised as everyone else to find the discovery hidden in the muck of life.

It is also in this close attention to the literal that paradoxically we glimpse the transcendent.

The lotus flower floats on the surface of the water, blooms in the sunlight and air; but its roots are down deep underwater, in the muck and slime of rotting leaves. It cannot be otherwise.