Presentation at the Convocation of the College of Fellows
"Making Things Up"
January 28, 2011
In one of Garrison Keillor's monologues on his Prairie Home Companion radio show, he relates:
Well it's been a quiet week in Lake Woebegone, Minnesota, my hometown out there on the edge of the prairie. Most of the leaves are off the trees, of course the corn is all combined, the beans as well. The fields are mostly just stubble. It's a November landscape, a reminder to all of us to look for our warm things, and to get ourselves a good windshield scraper. When the big storm comes in a week or two, you don't want to have to be scraping the ice off your windshield with your credit card. It would look like you weren't from here. It's a good time, winter, for all of us. It's a time when all the things that we've been postponing for months can now be put off for a good while longer. All of those improvement projects, including self-improvement, those can all be put off until spring because winter brings us back to basics: food and heat and of course the obligation that we all have to tell stories, which is why God put us here after all. [That] is to live rich, full lives and then to tell about it, or better yet, to know other people who have lived rich, full lives and tell stories about them.
American mythologist Joseph Campbell called those stories we find ourselves telling “a cacophonous chorus” that originated with our primal ancestors exaggerating their heroism in hunting expeditions and speculating about the occult world that the spirits of slaughtered animals journeyed to after their deaths. We all are fiction makers even when we feel we're adhering closely to the historical record (which is itself, of course, a fiction: a thing shaped or made), for even in our narratives of a trip to the grocery store there are elements we heighten or shade or color, there are amendments, excuses, and subtractions, there are invented comments or things we wish we would have said, there are failures at full disclosure. And always there is affect, our feelings about what happened to us, or, often for fiction writers, our feelings about what happened to others.
But the need to fasten one's stories to a page and hand out one's collected pages to strangers and to overtly deal on those pages with the things of religious faith is odd, as lots of reviewers of my fictions have said, and I have decided to use this occasion to say a little about the origins of that oddness.
One of my first childhood memories is a scene in the kitchen of our home on Fowler Street in Omaha. I was in my first year, in a high chair adjacent to my mother, and my twin brother Rob was in a high chair facing her. At the far end of the kitchen table, sunlight filling the window behind her, was my sister Gini, seven years older than Rob and me, and notoriously antagonistic to vegetables of all sorts. My mother was spoon-feeding my brother and me something dark green from a Gerber's bottle, mashed peas or spinach or whatever, and Gini, holding back a grimace, asked my mother if the boys really liked that stuff. My mother said, “They seem to eat almost everything.”
And I was struck, at the age of one, without of course comprehending what I'd learned, that the English language had been a kind of wild snowstorm around me until then, but whether my sister or mother recognized it or not, I now understood every word they said.
Half a century later, I found myself wondering why I so clearly remembered that kitchen scene until at a dinner party a lady friend who was a psychiatrist told me that language acquisition is the first step in the separation between children and their mothers, and I had stamped in my mind a primal scene in which that differentiation became luminous.
Even as I now am reading what I have written about making things up, I am joining you in our calling, our similarities, our joint aspirations, but I also am using these words, these verbal events, to fashion a new reality that wholly separates me from you. Writers in particular seem to have a greater need than others to do that, but it seems to be hard-wired in humanity in general. To paraphrase the British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: “Each mortal being does one thing and the same: / . . . myself it speaks and spells, / Crying What I do is me: for that I came.”
Rob and I, as twins, worked out a language of our own as many twins do. My father's father had made us a play table so that we faced each other with our wooden blocks and toys and my mother would duck her head into our bedroom to hear us happily chattering away in a vocabulary completely invented, and which we alone understood. When we were four or so, we were heading to downtown Omaha and about to bump over the railroad tracks beside the Nabisco factory. I turned to Rob and said a word like “hoarhound,” which meant railroad train to us and perhaps was a child's imitation of the wailing noise of a locomotive as it approached a crossroads.
My mother turned in the front seat of our car and asked with honest curiosity, “What does that word mean? You always say it here.”
We both stared forward, saying nothing, gun-shy, and that was the last time I can remember speaking our invented language. I now have forgotten our secret vocabulary, and I regret it.
I have written elsewhere about being accidentally excluded from a kindergarten Christmas pageant. Worried that it meant I was flunking out of kindergarten, I went up to my kindergarten teacher during recess and with fear and trembling indicated that she'd given me no part to play. The sweet nun saw my worry and was inspired by pity to say, “Well, we'll need a narrator. You can be Saint Luke.”
And so it was that I stood in front of a hundred grownups in folding chairs and recited from memory the gospel narrative of the Nativity, just five years old but up there on stage and being paid rapt attention not because of my performance but because of Luke's storytelling power.
My first grade teacher was Sister Clida, a harried Dominican nun who was handling her purgatory time here on earth in a classroom of thirty-two hyper children, some of whom were incompletely housebroken. And as comedian Bill Cosby has pointed out, “All children are brain-damaged.” One afternoon Sister Clida taught us some basic arithmetic and introduced us to the concept of a quiz on the material she'd just covered. We were handed out half-sheets of lined paper and were supposed to solve the addition problems she'd chalked on the blackboard. Well, just the night before that particular test I had learned to fold a paper airplane, and that sleek craft yawing and banking in fluent flight seemed, to me, far more interesting than the resolution of the problem, What is 4 plus 2?
She sidled down the crammed aisles of the classroom, collecting the quizzes, and I handed over my paper airplane with such gleeful innocence that she thought at first it was sarcasm, and even in seeing it was not she blew, as they say, a gasket. Her red face and sharp scolding revealed I had pushed her to the brink and, I suppose, fearing that she might do me harm, she took me by the hand and marched me across the hallway to the seventh grade classroom. There the nun who was teaching accepted me with calm and my sister Gini scowled as I smugly took a seat in a big kid's desk, my feet dangling, my folded arms as high as my chin on the writing table. I could not understand anything the nun there was talking about, but I felt I'd scored a major victory and skipped six grades with that paper airplane. I knew it was a snazzy invention; I just knew it. After an hour, when the older nun thought it safe, I was conveyed back to my first grade class and a pacified Sister Clida said nothing to me. I was happy, content, with zero remorse for my grand adventure, and getting away with that had more than a little to do with my becoming a fiction writer. The fiction I write seems to me merely grown-up versions of paper airplanes.
Although I grew up in the city of Omaha, there were still pockets of agrarian culture and half a block from our house were corn fields, railroad tracks, and the Snell Sash and Door Company, where there were forts of wooden pallets and where empty, wonderfully available railway box cars waited for their freight. All these were ideal hang-outs for boys. We dug foxholes and patrolled for Nazis like the characters in Combat, ate wild mulberries and sunflower seeds, clambered all over those box cars, and had our pennies flattened on the rails by passing locomotives. Once a railroad detective caught us and sent my father a letter warning of the mortal dangers of doing what we were doing. My father tried to reprimand us, but we could tell his heart wasn't really in it. Railroad tracks, he knew, were just so neat.
But gradually we boys got to an age when that make-believe world seemed like kids' stuff, even unmanly, and it was about then that a nun at Holy Angels assigned us the written homework of an essay on the Crucifixion. I instinctively realized I didn't want to analyze it, or quote sources on it, I wanted to write about the Crucifixion as if I were actually there on Golgotha, and I had the temerity to raise my hand and ask if that was possible.
Sister Pierce seemed confused at first, but since I was the only kid who'd requested to write fiction instead of an essay, she didn't think it would be a problem. I produced a short story very much like Ernest Hemingway's very bad short play “Today Is Friday,” which I hadn't yet read, about Roman soldiers who witnessed Jesus dying on the cross and speaking about it over grappa later on. Hemingway has a Roman soldier say in his playlet, “I tell you, he was pretty good in there today,” and my own version was possibly just as bad.
But I had discovered a way to indulge a desire that seemed peculiar only to me, the desire to make things up – essentially to improve on the life I had experienced either through reading or being knocked about as we all are. It is a kind of lying, but for the good of the characters, for the good of the audience.
In writing about his own poems in his book of essays, The Glass Anvil, Andrew Hudgins mentions the quandary poets and fiction writers face in making things up. “I'm always astonished,” he writes, “at how falsely I remember things, astonished at how plastic memory is. And even when I know a memory is incorrect, part of my brain cleaves to the wrong, imagined memory, and now I hold two images in my head, two memories – and the false one is more vivid and more emotionally significant to me than the actual one. Which, then, is the truest memory? It's convenient when the actual events adequately convey the emotional experience, but sometimes they don't and the writer has to choose.”
Often the choice devolves to which version provides the juicier words, for crucial to the urge to write is an interest in the English language that for me probably had its roots in the secret language Rob and I shared as twins. Etymologies fascinated me, and one of my grander moments in high school occurred when in my illicit reading – a book open on my knees but hidden out of the view of the teacher – I fell upon the word “onomatopoeia,” which is defined as the formation of a word by imitation of the sound to which it refers, such as bang, boom, and cuckoo. I couldn't remember ever having seen such a strange word before, so I puzzled over it for a while. The next thing I knew the English teacher in my Jesuit high school – a lay man in his twenties named Mr. Schaeffer – was giving us our difficult weekend reading assignment. A classmate, Mickey Deising, complained that the weather was going to be beautiful and the homework hard, couldn't Mr. Schaeffer let us off just this once? And the sporty teacher negotiated a deal with us: our class could pick one person and the teacher could pick a word. If that student could spell it, we'd have no homework for the weekend.
You probably see where this is heading.
To my surprise and trepidation, the class picked me, chanting, “Han-sen, Han-sen,” and so I became the chosen one, and Mr. Schaeffer, already clearly complacent about his victory, chose the most difficult word he knew. “All right, Mr. Hansen,” he said. “Spell onomatopoeia.” I couldn't believe the luck, and when I correctly spelled the word out, Mr. Schaeffer loudly cussed in his frustration and my high school classroom erupted in wild hoots and cheers. A measure of how miraculous that seemed to one classmate is that he recorded the anecdote in a book of favorite memories for our thirtieth class reunion.
High school began for me just after the closing of the Second Vatican Council and in our religion classes we became acquainted with the Council's new conception that our primary liturgical celebration was located at two tables: the dinner table of bread and wine, of course, but also the table of the food of written and spoken word, with both tables united by Christ, the Word Incarnate. Words were sanctified for their healing, nurturing, blessing, challenging, and gathering power, and homilies began to draw upon fiction, poetry, theater, and film as additional resources in guiding us toward holiness and the love of God and others. Writing itself, at least for me, was given the lofty stature of priesthood, as another way of imitating Christ.
All of us here have felt the urge or need to write or to work closely with the writing of others, so the occupation does not seem as strange to us as it may have to those worriers we call parents and loved ones. Someone said that behind every successful husband stands a surprised mother-in-law. At some point I suspect all of us here have had to deal with some mixture of doubt, puzzlement, and relief as we forged ahead with our career decisions.
I have had the good fortune to be rewarded for my writing. And yet I'm certain I would continue making things up even if I were, like Emily Dickinson or Franz Kafka or Gerard Manley Hopkins, writing only for an audience of a few choice friends.
Sir Laurence Olivier was once asked how one could properly make a decision about a life in the theater, and he simply responded, “If anything can keep you from acting, let it.”
That seems to me the choicelessness in writing, too. There is joy in the simple making of things that cannot be denied, that seems as essential as health, for creativity is a participation in the divine. Saint Augustine wrote in his Confessions, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” It happens incrementally, but that restlessness ultimately leads some of us to write about what God has created and puzzle out our place within it.
As you may know, in his Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius invented a helpful method for meditating on scripture and drawing profit from it. Each hour's meditation is done in the same way. We begin with a preparatory prayer and as a prelude to the meditation consider the history of the subject, such as Jesus appearing to seven of his disciples as they fished (John, chapter 21, verses 1 to 17), reading the Gospel passage several times until we can develop a mental representation of the locale and the people in it. We then ask for a grace; in this case, it is to be consoled at seeing Christ on the shore and to feel the joy and comfort of his resurrection. We see the fishermen hauling in their nets on the Sea of Galilee, hear the smack of waves against the boat's hull, feel the sunshine on our skins, smell seaweed and mackerel, taste the water we scoop up in our palm. With all five senses wholly engaged, we can be as shocked and happy as Peter was when he recognized that it was the risen Christ who was roasting a fish on a charcoal fire on the shore and plunged into the sea to wade to him. We hear Christ's instruction to Peter and we also enter the conversation – or as Ignatius puts it, colloquy – inquiring, perhaps, on how we ourselves can feed his sheep or just saying, like Peter, “Lord, you know that I love you.” We finish the meditation period with a standard prayer, such as the “Our Father,” and usually exercitants keep a journal in which they describe what happened in their prayer and its affect on them.
But for me and many others I have guided as a counselor, it is when we go beyond what is written in a biblical scene and freely imagine other conversations or activities within the location of the story that we have a fuller sense of God's love for us and His concern over the most humdrum events in our lives: the job we're seeking, the sinful temptations that persecute us, the strains and worries we all share.
So it is when I'm making things up and putting them down on a page. A subject first mysteriously presents itself to me as one I need to deal with, a story I have to tell. One by one fictional scenes occur to me like many stairsteps to an upper room. Seeing, hearing, and feeling the locale, the weather, and the characters enables me to become a participant in each scene and, no matter the topic, my own emotional, psychological, or spiritual concerns are highlighted or weeded out. I solve issues not in the random, chaotic way of dreaming but through orderly focus and conjecture.
A like experience happens as we read, for whether we're aware of it our not we're making things up just as the author is, putting faces on those who have not been described, filling in the details left out, questioning what we would do in those circumstances, or recalling times when we were vexed in just that way.
The Irish novelist John McGahern once said that religious liturgies were his “first book.” What he meant was the theater of the rites and the spare poetry of the spoken texts excited his imagination just as a children's book does, but without the nonsense rhymes and feel-good notions that well-meaning parents and educators sometimes insist upon.
I have visited some Twelve Step meetings with friends and have been struck by the earthy, frank, hair-raising, and sometimes hilarious reminiscences of men and women who are coming to terms with their alcoholism. The confessions are ways of repenting for a history of excesses, establishing transparency, reforming one's own life by connecting it with others while disconnecting it from the past, and sharing in the sheer gift of recovery.
Hearing those acts of reconciliation has always reminded me of Garrison Keillor's insistence on “the obligation we all have to tell stories.” We sit around a kitchen table or huddle over cups of coffee or queue up for a movie ticket, and as we confess or joke or prevaricate with each other, we may think we are just killing time, but we are forming a kind of church. There are grander things we can aspire to, magnificent projects we can take on, but it is the holiness of the ordinary that is, I think, what the writers of the twenty-first century are called to notice and seek out.
Jack London maintained, “I write for no other purpose than to add to the beauty that now belongs to me. I write a book for no other reason than to add three or four hundred acres to my magnificent estate.”
We are better for having written well. We are enlarged. And we are connected with something ancient.
On the first page of Look Homeward, Angel, Thomas Wolfe has it that: “Each of us is all the sums he has not counted: subtract us into nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas. The seed of our destruction will blossom in the desert, the alexin of our cure grows by a mountain rock, and our lives are haunted by a Georgia slattern, because a London cutpurse went unhung. Each moment is the fruit of forty thousand years.”
Each moment on earth is the fruit of forty thousand years and more. Instinctively we all know that, but there are still times when we feel like discoverers of something momentous and, like Jesus, feel the need to proclaim what has been hidden. And so we all make things up. We describe what we have seen that took on an acute and sudden importance for us. We repeat something we have heard not just to get rid of it, but to revere whatever inhabited it that gave it permanence in our minds. We tell each other stories to remember, entertain, console, repent, inspire, and in a hundred other ways flesh out our roles in the great drama of civilization.
“Faith and Fiction,” in A Stay Against Confusion: Essays on Faith and Fiction, HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.