Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Life You Save May Be Your Own.

I don't know that I've ever needed to read a book about writers as much as I needed this book by Paul Elie -- THE LIFE YOU SAVE MAY BE YOUR OWN.

I'd met Elie at Breadloaf in 2000. He was there in his role as editor at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. I felt out of place at Breadloaf -- having brought my family, staying at a lodge off-campus, the youngest of the three kids still nursing. I was there as a scholar in poetry and so my reading consisted of poems. Elie saw me after the reading. He told me that he'd liked my poems, felt the best were the ones that were straightforward and candidly funny. Or at least that's what I remember him saying. I liked the honesty. I liked that someone had listened enough to have an opinion.

I don't know how I came across his book in 2004. In general, I'm not drawn to accounts of writers' lives. But, I found it early that summer. I was struggling to find out what it meant to be a writer -- in particular a writer of faith. I found myself writing a book of poems called 52 Sundays. (Although most of the poems are published, I never sought to publish the collection. In fact, I don't think I got past about 30 Sundays.) I was about to uproot my family and take my post at FSU. Things felt up in the air and my poems were turning to ancient themes and struggles.

I wasn't happy about being a poet who writes about faith, actually. I'd heard not to write about children because it makes women poets look, what? Soft, or something like that. My first collection was already out -- THIS COUNTRY OF MOTHERS. Ah, well. Damage done.

But a writer of faith? It seemed like it could so easily be mistaken for rhyming devotional poems -- and this terrified me.

What was I? A literary kamikaze?
(What's next children's books? Well, in fact, yes.)

A few years later, I was up for tenure at FSU. Letters were sought by outside sources. After tenure was granted, I was allowed to read the letters. One letter was from Ernest Hebert -- a great endorsement, however he claimed that he couldn't tell what my theme was, exactly.

I seized with panic. Theme? What the hell was my theme?

And then I read Richard Russo's letter. My theme was clear to him.


I was a writer who wrote about faith.

Since then, I've decided he's probably right. My characters ask those questions because I ask those questions.

But in 2004, I wasn't thinking about themes. I simply knew I was desperate to read Elie's book and couldn't stop. I found the company of these four writers of faith -- and not just any faith. Catholics. From the book description at Amazon:

"Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk in Kentucky; Dorothy Day the founder of the Catholic Worker in New York; Flannery O'Connor a "Christ-haunted" literary prodigy in Georgia; Walker Percy a doctor in New Orleans who quit medicine to write fiction and philosophy. A friend came up with a name for them-the School of the Holy Ghost-and for three decades they exchanged letters, ardently read one another's books, and grappled with what one of them called a 'predicament shared in common.'"

And, okay, I'll make the claim. Out of all the Christian denominations, it strikes me that the Catholics have taken "the word made flesh" very seriously -- the passion. Our crosses are rarely empty. We don't hold back on the images of Christ's suffering. We allow for the flesh in "the word made flesh."

I know that it's my job to make the word as close to flesh as possible. Show don't tell. Flesh not simply words. It's all driven down deep into my wiring that there's no way around Catholicism for me. I understand the 'predicament shared in common.' I understand the eye that can't help but veer toward God.

I've struggled with Catholicism, in particular the Church (and have written about those struggles). I don't want to get derailed by the Catholic Church. I'm trying to get at faith and what I circle back to, as a person, as a writer.

I don't want to be devout. I don't want to be a staunch atheist. I want to struggle. As a writer, it's the struggle, after all, that keeps me coming back to the page.

[This Country of Mothers is now a free downloadable pdf. If you want it sent to you, request by sending an email to davegwscott@gmail.com.]