Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

It’s David Foster Wallace day in the creative nonfiction class I’m teaching to advanced freshmen.  I just played for my students the (ultra famous) commencement speech he gave to graduates at Kenyon College back in 2005.  If you haven’t heard it, I recommend you listen–especially if you’re feeling kind of sad/frustrated/in your own head lately.

If you would prefer to just read it, you can read it here, though you will probably miss some of the speech’s most charming moments, which come from audience response and interaction.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes (though I left the even better moments to surprise and delight you if you take the time to listen):

[On] most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you what to consider.

Here’s part one:

and part two:



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I just got home from the AWP conference in Chicago.  I forget what the acronym stands for: Academics, Writers, and Publishers, that sounds about right.  The conference was sold out; 10,000 people attended.  Writers took over the Chicago loop.  Last time the conference was at the Chicago Hilton I had no idea if I wanted to be a writer.  There were only 7500 people at that one, and that seemed like too many.  Four years later, I am more confident (success and experience and a larger writer network definitely helps) but I still spent about an hour and a half in the lobby staring at all of the people as they walked by (most with noses as leads in their posture).  Good God, I thought.  Do we all really think we’re going to be writers?  The cold and gray weather did not help this less-than perky perspective.

Ah HA. This is going to be a Why I Write Post, which I just remembered I wanted to take time and hash out each year after AWP, thanks to Jhumpa Lahiri’s compelling “Why I Write”-themed key-note address last year.  Okay, so Why I write, the 2012 edition:

I met my cousin for breakfast yesterday and we discussed how writing is in so many ways an act of faith.  It’s the only disciplinary act of faith that I really understand.  I mean, I pray and read my Bible and attend Bible studies and church services.  (I wish I did more service activities. I wish I could blur the line more between my sacred and secular activities. I’ma save this for another post.)  But I think of those activities as ways of seeking God.  I don’t do them so I’ll be a better person.  I do them because I need to acknowledge God.  I need the things of God swimming around in my brain, or else I’ll start seeing a lot of damage–in my brain, in my relationships. So I do them out of necessity, more than discipline.  These days I do, anyway.  If I don’t, I’ll start to resent my students and complain about them.  That’s how I know I’m really off course and in selfish-ambitiondome.  These things help keep the conversation going that God’s having with me.

But writing?  Some people might say it’s also a way to connect to God but I’m just not going to go there.  I mean, it would be awesome if the ideas I came up with were all handed to me by God like a sack of gummy bears.  But they are not.  Sometimes they are really, really bad ideas.  Sometimes they are really good ideas trapped in really bad sentences.  There are some beliefs necessary to get myself to write.  The more I do it, the better I will be.  If I want to have a book, I have to write my ass off.  Well, if I want a good book, anyway.

Here is where I see the similarity between these two practices of praying and writing: they both have the same distraction: selfish ambition.   If I’m praying because I want something besides God,  I’m no better than the prodigal son asking his father for an early inheritance.    If I’m thinking about where this story is going to go once I finish it instead of where it’s going to go in order to finish it, I’m in trouble.  In other words, if my story is the means to something besides, say, the story itself, I have a totally flaky story sitting on my word document. It’s a heartless waste of time.  Besides, who is about to write in order to become famous, rich, or loved?  There have got to be less painful and tedious ways to to have these various versions of happiness.   You might have to write 10 bad pages to get one good paragraph.  You might have to write four bad stories in order to come up with one good one.  And the more you do it, the higher your standards, and the more miserable it makes you when you can’t reach them.

Okay, so writing takes faith.  You have to do it when you don’t feel like it.  Actually, you don’t have to do it at all but it’s good to do it if you’re a writer because if you don’t, you’ll start to resent everybody and every thing and nobody will enjoy your company anymore because you are such a draining person to be around.  And by you, I mean me.  This is what I get like when I neglect my writing.  It’s also what I get like when I neglect God.  Huh.

But writing, for a person of faith, a person who wants to have God be the focus, is, like all human activities, an opportunity to understand something about God, an opportunity to learn something from God.  And from what I can tell, writing is good for me because it teaches me to put my ambition away so I can concentrate on what’s in front of me.  Ultimately, the hours I clock in to write are opportunities to become better at praying, i.e., better at listening, at having a conversation with God.

I have a feeling that the same thing could be said of cooking, of walking the dog, of doing anything at all.

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Rembrandt at the DIA

A friend from home just reminded me about the Rembrandt exhibit I saw at the Detroit Institute of the Arts when I was home for Christmas.  My dad took my boyfriend and me there to see it.  It’s called “The Faces of Jesus,” and the main point seemed to be that Rembrandt was unique in that he used Jewish models for his depictions of Jesus.   He was, it seemed, one of the few of his day to recognize that Jesus was Jewish.

I noticed something else.  This is one of the earlier paintings, where Jesus is making eye-contact with something we can’t see–presumably, he is looking up to heaven:

Then his eyes went this way for a few paintings:

Towards the end of the exhibit, in what I think are the later paintings, though this might just be the work of the exhibit designer, Jesus’s focus changed again and he was looking this-a-way:


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I began this summer between MA coursework with a list of things I hoped to accomplish, mostly books to read and stories to polish for submission.  I’ve done some of that, but I found myself hooked on the HBO Wire seasons.  The show came up a lot during our workshops, on the radio, talking to writers, conversations with friends–pretty much everywhere.  We had a visiting writer come in and the first thing he asked us was “How many of you have seen The Wire?” I think most of us hadn’t, so he proposed, in jest, that we just spend our entire time watching it.  He noted its complex characters and plot development as good study material.  With that in mind, this isn’t really a confession of wasted time–I can’t say I’ve been watching thoughtless TV all these hours.  It does serve a purpose.

I just finished Season 4 this afternoon, about the school system, and I feel the need to promote the show here on my blog to other writers, humanitarians, people who respect intelligence, etc…

I went to church today and after hearing a good sermon (about communion), I felt compelled to introduce myself to the pastor, which I hadn’t done yet though I’ve attended the church for a while.  I hesitated because I’m an English teacher, and university English departments have a reputation for pushing liberal agendas on students.  The pastor asked what I was doing here and I told him I was teaching and he asked if it was through the English department and I couldn’t help but wonder if he was worried… Probably a little surprised that I attend his church.

Anyway, the reason I bring this up is because I know I have a shameless liberal agenda and the Wire reminded me why.  My political stance springs from my Detroit, or  inner city, upbringing.   I’m quite passionate about urban issues and my students know it.  They debate with me, they make me angry sometimes, but I feel those suffering in America’s city, due to our failed institutions, should be a part of any academic experience.

The Wire‘s writers share my convictions about wanting to introduce the public to the forgotten city in America.  The show didn’t do too well, and in the commentary the creators (actors, writers, producers) gave a lot of reasons why, mostly that it’s a tough show.  People go to the TV to escape from their problems and The Wire forces them to confront everything about our society they don’t want to know.   Watching it reminds me of how much I want people to acknowledge these things, to see how complicated they are, and to recognize themselves in the brokenness.

I hear the word “agenda” among Christians quite a bit.  It’s a negative term, it scares people.  But we all have agendas.  Let’s be honest about them.  I can say that I just want people to read good stories, or that I just want to teach my students how to write, and it’s true–I do want these things and I do believe they are powerful.  I also want people to understand life with God’s awareness, which I believe he offers freely to those who are serious about this love idea.   I want my students to have courage when interacting with people who don’t come from the same background.  I want my readers to ask why our systems fail.

Besides the fact that The Wire didn’t do so well with viewer ratings, it was completely overlooked by the Emmy Award committee.  If you’ve seen it, you’ll know why this is such a shame.  The acting is great, the writing is even better.   Among the other things that I think the show can teach us, the series reveals that the public doesn’t want to confront life’s tough issues.   As a writer and a teacher, it reminds me I need courage to tell the truth, courage because truth doesn’t yeild comfort (See The Four Gospels…)  I recommend the show to anyone who holds similar convictions.

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The Road

I just finished Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and then I stepped outside to the 80 degree April day and stood on the cement slab of my apartment building’s porch.  Those who’ve read it know that book is black and white and gray, so the effect of green Spring was overwhelming.  It’s strange to have spent so much time with a survival story, reading about people beating odds stacked high against them.  It’s a good story for people who feel that way and I guess I do sometimes.  Wanting to be a writer makes life feel like that, maybe wanting to be anything during this economic plunge makes life feel like a survival story.  I suppose the odds are stacked against us all.  But read that book and then go stand outside.

Everything is alive today and loud–the birds call, the bees are fat and they make noise among the flowers.  Neighbors are rustling upstairs, dogs running back and forth across the floorboards.  The refrigerators are humming.  Cars rushing past. Someone’s playing bass.

Read that book about everything dead or dying and then realize everything is alive and will be.

Read that book because it has a great last line.

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I just listened to Rob Bell’s sermon from 3.29.09, “Stunned and Spent.”  You can find it on Marshill.org, in the teaching archives.


I would say I’m supposed to be in church.  I have a list, a task schedule with time slots–2 hours on this, 2 hours on that.  It’s the only way I can come to terms with how much is expected of me at any given time but I never really follow it.  I try, but something always comes up (like my lack of discipline).  So I’d slotted reading in my schedule last night, to be in bed by 12am, to be in the neighborhood church this morning, etc.

At about 8:30pm last night, my friend asked if I wanted to join a group of our friends in Indiana for some karaoke.  I’ve heard some of the writers in our program are stellar karaokiers, so I jumped at the opportunity.  And it was fantastic.  My friend’s  parents were in town, they covered our drinks, they nailed their karaoke selections.

For the first time I felt I could understand my surroundings; this small town, run down like my hometown, this dive bar, brown and faded with loops of tacky neon; this music, smoky country voices singing  about promised lands and cheatin’ hearts.  And these friends, who I’d heard about, they were awesome.  Incredible. They’re performing (the karaoke classics: You Outta Know, Bohemian Rhapsody, Sympathy for the Devil) and I’m thinking “Now we have to go back to grad school?”  Do you realize how much talent is in the world?  This is a world where people spend week days discussing literature, theories about how to read, how to define literary phenomenons and bend genders, etc, and then the next thing you know, it’s the weekend and they are in dive bars tearin’ it up.    I used to say I only liked Asian-style karaoke (closed off living rooms) but this was something else.    This was small-town American escape.  It was heart breaking and beautiful.  And it lasted until 3am.

Okay, so no one told me Indiana bars are open till three a.m.  I woke up at 10:15 on this Sunday morning, rain pattering on my windowsil,  and church was not going to happen.  Still, I felt hungry for God, as I do most mornings (not just Sunday) and remembered Rob Bell sermons online.

While I lived in Thailand, I didn’t have any kind of teaching in our small church fellowship (we functioned more like a weekly discussion that usually was about the Bible, but oh, not always) so I started listening to the weekly Bell/Marshill as a way to sort of stretch my God-mind, if you know what I mean.

The sermon was about lamentations.  It was about the need for lament, about how change brings some sort of loss, even if the change is good, it’s about knowing when to protest and turning those protests into poetry.

Turning protests into poetry, he said.

And here’s the point, the thing about God that I want to share.  He’s alive, and that means he’s with you when you’ve been out karaokeing, He’s with you while you’re karaokeing.  So, sure, I sat down feeling guilty, like I was in the wrong place (the place not indicated on my schedule), and so I and told God (prayer) that I was sorry, I should be fellowshipping with the marvelous folks he’s put in my life here in this church, and that I knew I had better weeks when I check in with him more often and by that I mean get my ass up for church on Sunday so that at least I have something to think God-related to about all week, at least have some nice conversations with people who love Him.  I asked him, please, please don’t let me make this a habit, don’t let me start down that ugly road psalmists mention from time to time, you know, the one where we stop praying and then start believing we have everything figured out in our lives, or that we need to have everything figured out, and when we don’t we start to grumble.

I put on the sermon, found out it was about Lamentations, thought: Okay, God.  I guess I deserve some fire and brimstone.

Fire and Brimstone?  Rob Bell?  The sermon is about Lamentations, sure, but it was so full of little things that I thought were said just for me, important to me, like little love letters from the risin Christ. Bell made points about Detroit,  about poetry.   I wonder if anyone else can relate to the sermon as much as I can–I mean, I really can’t imagine that those people in Grand Rapids felt it as much as I did–but they probably did.  This is often how God works.

This is often how God works in my life.  I find myself in a position that I feel like I shouldn’t be in, due to some choice I made, and then He hits me over the head and says: Do you think you’ve stepped outside of my love for you?  Where do you think you can go where I can’t reach you?  I’ll make you grateful for every decision you ever make.

All of this is to say God doesn’t like us to waste our time.  So he doesn’t let us.

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