Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

07 July 2007

Faith Envy

I have finally begun—for the third time—Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, and I am l-o-v-i-n-g it. I don’t know why I had so much trouble getting into it the first two times. Must not have been ready for it.

I am having a curious reaction to the book: I am beset with a bizarre faith envy. I keep comparing my faith to the main character’s faith, which I suspect mirrors Marilynne Robinson’s. I wish I were more like the two of them as a believer. More relaxed in my faith. Less squinchy-eyed about everything. And, above all, more just plain kind.

Both Reverend Ames and Robinson, I fear, would disapprove of me as a Christian, especially with my long-held view—which I’m starting to question, the book is so convincing—that spiritual development only occurs through struggle. On page 24 of the paperback, the Reverend reflects, “It seems to me some people just go around looking to get their faith unsettled.”

That’s me, I keep thinking. Worrying. But he’s talking about people who get all bent out of faith by reading Feuerbach, whom Ames characterizes as an atheist. (Feuerbach called himself a theist, but he pretty much believed we make God up to address our needs.) The Feuerbachs of the world are not what unsettles my faith. Rather, it’s a struggle with myself, mostly, and with what it appears to me the Bible is calling me to be and do. I struggle with God, in fact. Maybe that’s an okay way to struggle. Jacob did it and won a blessing. Not that Jacob is someone I want to emulate. I'm probably not alone in finding him one of the least likeable God-followers in the Bible. Right up there with Lot.

Robinson’s writing just undoes me. So clean and simple. So many surprises in such plain, straightforward sentences. It’s like getting a beat up package in the mail, wrapped in grocery bags turned inside out, and opening it to find a delicate treasure from far far away, from some person you’ve forgotten, a porcelain bowl so thin you can see light through it. You think, how did it ever survive? The story of Ames trekking out to Kansas during the drought to find the grandfather’s grave. Man. I read it aloud to Kris at the breakfast table yesterday. So real. So horrible. So funny. Or when they baptize the kittens. I keep wishing I had written it, not her. Or, as Jim Whitehead used to say, “I wish I had written that book, and she had written a better one.”

Apropos packages containing delicate bowls. In one of my moves in my traveling years, I sent a bowl I couldn’t part with to a friend in Boston to store with some of my other things. It was pale slick green on the inside and matt brown, almost black on the outside. About the size of a cantaloupe, but more oval, wide at the mouth with a very small footprint—like the bottom of a drip in midair. Just the perfect bowl. Very old. Made by someone with a very light hand: thin enough, as I say, to see light through it, even though it was glazed dark on the outside. I sent it hurry-scurry, in the midst of buying a plane ticket and paying bills and packing, so I didn’t have much time or energy to devote to it, and all my tools—scissors, tape, etc.—were all packed away. Somehow, I got it in a box, with squashed up bags stuffed around it and to the post office, and years later I went to my friend’s house to get my things, and there it was on top of my trunk in the half-darkness and damp of her cellar, this old beat up box tied up with string the way we used to do. The box looked hardly bigger than the bowl in my memory, and I expected to find just shards when I opened it. I opened it carefully, nonetheless, and, miraculously, it was not in the least damaged. I held it up to the light bulb dangling above me to see the light through it, and at that moment I slipped or tripped on wet, uneven concrete, and the bowl dropped. Exploded into tiny black and green shards. I can still feel that moment in my stomach when I think about it—of loss so nearly coincident with such a surprising and delightful recovery of what was precious to me. Ach.

I ordered Anita Brookner’s The Next Big Thing through Interlibrary Loan, so that’ll be next.

I wish I could touch your faces and bless you all, like Ames with those kittens.

02 July 2007

Editing, the Rant, a Question, and a Proposal

By working like a crazywoman and making myself unavailable to my bored daughter (Charlotte went off to a class on the Enlightenment at Duke and left Lulu alone and feckless) and a crank to my patient husband, I got the food memoir edited exactly on my deadline. When I sent it in, I immediately got back one of those automated email replies that my editor would be out of town until 9 July. I would have had, in other words, another week and a half, had I known.

I'm glad, though. It's done. I can—and need to—work on other things. And I like the work I did: Minus the 16,000 words I cut—and the resultant rearranging I had to do to cut so much—the book is a more successful narrative, as a whole, more integrally a book.

It seems to me that ought be a metaphor for something: that cutting about a tenth of the book's length improved it so much. Like cleaning house, I suppose. Or losing weight. Or weeding. All of which has been going on in my life of late. I haven't lost 10% of my weight yet, but I'm past halfway--thanks to my new habit of running (i.e. jogging) 3 miles every other day. And Kris has cleaned out the garage and the two studies. It is interesting to consider how invigorating loss can be.

In the editing process, I learned that I don't like diatribes and that I am given to them. It is something I can now be alert to, like clichés. It's funny to learn this now, so late in my teaching career. And also to learn it right after having read an interesting book—Lad Tobin's Reading Student Writing—in which the author recommends the "rant" as a legitimate form. I had been thinking I would assign a rant the next time I taught English 1. But then I read aloud a chapter from the food memoir to Lulu—she was sick, so she wanted me to read to her—and found myself getting bored not two paragraphs into it, even before Lulu said anything. Rants, I would argue, are never interesting. As essayist Rebecca Solnit writes in "Locked Horns," "Everyone's encountered bad divorces, noise-obsessed neighbors, monomaniacs who let a grievance take over their lives to the exclusion of everything else, a sort of psychological starvation." A rant is an indulgence in just this sort of monomania, resulting, I would argue, in not only psychological but intellectual starvation—i.e., boredom. One becomes, that is, a bore. And, now that I think of it, students of writing, if they have anything to say at all, don't have to be taught how to rant. Ranting comes naturally to the best of us. So I won't be teaching it.

Tobin's book is worth reading, though. It represents what he refers to as a hybrid of academic and personal writing on the subject of teaching writing—or, well, on one aspect of teaching writing: how to think about and value (but not evaluate, mind you) student writing. It's not a terrifically practical book on teaching writing. In fact, more than anthing else, it is a defense of the hybrid writing he practices. Such a defense is warranted in our field, perhaps, but he sounds defensive in making it, which is unfortunate. I've been getting away with a hybrid of academic writing and personal writing since I was an undergraduate and have been promoting it in the classroom for coming up on thirty years (shudder). I kind of wished, as I read, that he would just do it and get on with it, rather than expend so much effort and, well, ranting on how it's a worthwhile way of writing.

Anyway, currently in the garden: every sort of squash, cucumbers, green beans, peppers, and unripe tomatoes. Now to think about Jesus's parables.

(This post feels more like a typical blog than usual, to me: formless, solipsistic, wandering. I don't think I like it. Verzeiht!)

Oh. One last thing. Two matters of usage interested me in revising my book: One is the question of whether or not to capitalize the first word of a complete sentence that follows a colon (as here), and the other is whether or not the pronounced s of a possessive following an s should be included, as in "Jesus's parables." Both usages—which I was taught and which I, on occasion, also mention in class—seem to be in flux, at the moment. What are your thoughts? Although both rules are still found in usage manuals, Kris, a stickler for correct usage, disputes and never even heard of the sentence capitalization following a colon rule, and every source I find on apostrophe usage, even those that promote the phonologically determined rule I was taught, seems to make an exception for Jesus's. It's all esoteric, as my publisher will have its own rules that will be the final word, but it interests me nonetheless.

One last last thing. I'm about to read another Anita Brookner novel, The Next Big Thing, as soon as I can get it through special order at Barnes & Noble or through interlibrary loan. I also have Marilyn Robinson's Gilead on my bedside table and want to reread Housekeeping—one of my favorite books ever—soon. Anyone want to join me by reading concurrently and exchanging thoughts?