Meaning and Estrangement: The Risk of Making Literature

Fiction is one long, sensuous derangement of familiarity through an altered point-of-view. How would you recognize your world if it wasn’t yours? What might you look and feel like if you weren’t you? . . . Fiction plays on that overlap between self-composure and total, alien bewilderment, and it navigates by estrangement. . . . [The] act of bottomless, estranging kinship is probably the main goal of reading and writing novels. . . . Only inhabiting another’s story can deliver us from certainty.
 —Richard Powers, from a 2007 interview with The Believer

Creativity is a spiritual issue. Any progress is made by leaps of faith, some small and some large. 
—Julia Cameron, from The Artist’s Way

Photograph by Aaron HousholderWe just wrapped up the biennial Making Literature Conference at Taylor University: three exciting, challenging, and very busy days of papers and essays, stories and poems, coffee and conversation. I often worked fourteen hours at a clip, and I received so many texts and calls hourly about flights and meals and room reservations that — were it not frozen solid — I entertained the idea of throwing my phone into the small lake on the corner of campus. But now I’m happily hydrating and sleeping at night and seeing my family for periods of more than five minutes. And I’m ruminating on all the great things that happened. Yes, the conference was a lot of work, but as Kelsey Mitchener intimated, these events can bring a renewed sense of meaning

Meaning abounded at Making Literature 2015. Angela Shannon read powerful poems about the link between Jesus and B.B. King, about the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013, about water and memory and prayer. Miho Nonaka gave a brilliant paper on Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence, highlighting several problematic passages in William Johnston’s 1969 translation in light of intricacies in Japanese culture and language, and using Flannery O’Connor’s ideas in Mystery and Manners as a critical lens. West Virginia novelist Jessie van Eerden spoke about “Midrashic impulse,” and read from a deeply textured and lyrical new work of fiction. I lost myself in van Eerden’s fascinating tale in which she renders scenes from the life of Rizpah, a woman in the Old Testament who was most famous for keeping a five-month vigil over the murdered bodies of the seven sons of Saul.

Making Literature is an undergraduate conference, so — though we treasure our keynotes — the students are the real stars, and their work makes up the bulk of the sessions. Student work was extraordinarily good this year. I heard visiting writers, veterans of dozens of conferences, say things like, “That sounded more like an MFA reading than an undergraduate one,” or, “That paper might’ve been written by a colleague.” 

I was especially thrilled when we received the results for best creative work: the judge selected the graphic narrative “Dies Cinerum” by Rebecca Hartman, one of my own (best) students at Taylor. The citation accompanying the award heaped praise on the piece; I hoped this would buoy the fatigued young artist. A word like “painstaking” barely begins to suggest the number of hours Becca spent not only crafting a sophisticated convergence of the story’s dual narrative arcs, but also completing thirty meticulous watercolor paintings, producing an acutely layered and meaningful work.

Meaning. It enveloped us, reminded us that the solitary days and nights of devoted study and writing matter. As much as awards, the gathering of community was itself a celebration: friendships began, or were nourished; learning and growth became so immediate and immersive that the often-hidden processes were at times nearly palpable. John Gardner wrote in On Becoming a Novelist, “In a writer’s community, nearly all the talk is about writing. Even if you don’t agree with most of what is said, you come to take for granted that no other talk is quite so important. Talk about writing . . . fills you with nervous energy, makes you want to leave the party and go home and write.” The conference was simultaneously a break from the work of writing and a spur to create again, very soon.

* * *

As I’ve reflected on some highlights from Making Literature 2015, I saved one for last: Scott Russell Sanders’ keynote reading on Friday evening. It offered much meaning, only in a way that has been trickier to parse. But let me try.

Some context: though I’ve not read it all, I love the work of Scott Russell Sanders. I find an excuse to teach the exquisite essay Buckeye in nearly all my classes from freshman composition to World Literature to Advanced Creative Writing. It’s a small masterpiece in Writing from the Center, a book that was important for me when I made the move from New York to the Midwest to teach at a liberal arts college in Indiana. Sanders’ work guided me as I negotiated the physical and psychic spaces of this new place, a place he’d resided in and written about for many years. 

I first met Scott on Whidbey Island off the coast of Seattle, where he read from the marvelous book A Private History of Awe, and I later heard him read in Massachusetts from his selected essays Earth WorksWhen I sat down last Friday night, I expected to hear an essay — fresh, different, perhaps unpublished — on one of his go-to topics, whether the environment, social justice concerns, or some other aspect of intentional living. Since the day I’d booked him, I’d been waiting for the moment when he’d take the stage and begin reading — his deeply rooted ethos already apparent, piercing — and then I would steal glances around the room to see the shock of recognition on the faces of my students, see the visible signs of narrative transport taking them to a new place with a master at the helm.

But something else happened. Not something bad, not less than . . . just different. 

At first I was quite thrown off. Over the past few days, though, I’ve been processing the experience and, I think — and pray — I’m coming to understand it better and appreciate it more. 

Here’s the crux: he read fiction. Not just a short story or novel excerpt; in those cases I may have had time to adjust to a new character and voice. Instead he read multiple flash pieces, each in the voice of a different character from a very diverse cast. I couldn’t help it: I felt panicky and discomfited from the beginning. I’d known and loved the voice in his essays; I wanted to bask in it again as I’d done so memorably before. Instead I heard not just a different voice and point of view, but many, and quickly, up to and including the points of view of animals.

I let my expectations get in the way of experiencing the richness of the moment. I had become the fan who goes to a favorite band’s concert, anticipating his favorite song, but early in the set the singer says, “We’re really excited to play all new material for you tonight.” The fan feels betrayed. That’s his song! The melody, the instrumentation, the memories associated with the lyrics — the song had become so entrenched a part of the fan’s reality that it would be unthinkable for the band not to play it, as absurd as Jimmy Buffet forgoing “Margaritaville” in front of ten thousand parrot heads in tropical shirts.

That kind of expectation causes the fan, ironically, to wish away the very elements that produced his favorite song in the first place: the artist’s creative drive, autonomy, playfulness, originality, and the sense of not just a single successful project but a career, a writing life . . . in essence, the artist’s sustaining vision, which requires leaps of faith, some small and some great. I was guilty of this kind of wishing. Aside from questions of how well the flash pieces worked, I could see that I’d been, more or less, foolishly opposed to them on principle.

I see the reading in a broader light now, and I admire the leap of faith, which I think is bigger than a writer simply working in a second genre. That, I understand; many of us need the space and freedom to work in multiple modes, to stretch, to refresh our imaginations, to break contracts with readers we never intended to enter into, to give expression to images, characters, or lines that wouldn’t work in our primary genres. But again, I think the leap of faith I witnessed was even more important and meaningful than that; I think it was an act of “navigat[ing] by estrangement.”

Not to take for granted the hard work behind any writing (or to suggest that Sanders has written monolithically in the past — he’s published plenty of fiction over the years, including sci-fi and children’s books), but one assumes it would be far less difficult for a septuagenarian to continue with the kind of essays that have brought him the most notoriety. Yet here he was, navigating by estrangement through this risky new project in which each of the tales features a completely different cast of characters. The sampling we heard included a small boy living in poverty in Central America, as well as a young woman who had joined an Occupy-like protest. And yes, at least one piece is from the point of view of an animal. 

This is an undertaking requiring great courage for any writer. We can, and should, carefully consider the results in due time (that’s premature and unfair to do here, since I heard only a tiny bit of the overall project in process) — but the gesture itself is admirable, and, I think, points to a way of regarding the writing life that is instructive. The project embodied the humility requisite to take a new leap of faith despite a lifetime of celebrated accomplishments. We are a small Christian liberal arts college that had never hosted Sanders before. He might’ve read any of his most famous essays and pleased us all exceedingly. The short trip might have meant, for some writers, an easy paycheck and a stroke to the ego.

Thankfully, however, Scott Russell Sanders is not that kind of writer; he’s a risk-taker and teacher, and I think he taught us well. I’ve heard of venues that contractually obligate a writer to read from the genre for which he or she is most acclaimed. I understand the appeal; one wants to give an audience the best possible experience. But I wonder if we’re shortsighted in this, as — to return to a music metaphor — a young listener is shortsighted in wanting only a band’s slickly-produced greatest hits, a manageable dozen tracks each cut to a sub-four-minute radio edit. I wonder if, from time to time, it’s healthy for us to see the artistic life in its fullness, the messy processes enacted — to observe the varieties of risk, reward, failure, success. A life of integrity honors the process, not merely the result — and so must we, if we are to call our conference “Making Literature.” At a student-centered event in particular, I see value in writers modeling work that risks, that navigates by estrangement, by investment in the very core of literature: the attempt at better understanding the world in its unfathomable nuances, and better empathizing with its wild spectrum of inhabitants.

Novelist Richard Powers puts it like this: “Fiction is one long, sensuous derangement of familiarity through an altered point-of-view. How would you recognize your world if it wasn’t yours? What might you look and feel like if you weren’t you? . . . Fiction plays on that overlap between self-composure and total, alien bewilderment . . . ” I was privileged to witness a veteran writer set aside familiarity and self-composure to accomplish something that may turn out to be more meaningful than just another great essay. He grappled with the consciousness of not just “the Other,” but many others, when there was frankly no need for him to bother. In doing so he showed us not only how to fashion a successful piece of writing but rather a writing life, to walk a path of integrity through humility that doesn’t suddenly end one day when you’ve “made it,” but continues on.

If we are to be faithful writers and people, we too can’t allow ourselves to stop considering questions like the ones Powers poses: “How would you recognize your world if it wasn’t yours? What might you look and feel like if you weren’t you?” At every stage we must decide, like Sanders, against resting on our laurels — in the miraculous event that we accomplish anything approaching such a word. If Powers is right, if “Only inhabiting another’s story can deliver us from certainty,” let us take that risk to the very last, for as Anne Lamott has often noted, “The opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty.” Let us take leaps of faith, some small and some large, in our lives and work to the end of our days; let us navigate not by what we think we know, but by humble, frightening, beautiful estrangement. 

Daniel Bowman Jr. is the author of A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking Country (VAC Poetry, 2012) and Beggars in Heaven: A Novel. He lives in Hartford City, Indiana, and teaches at Taylor University.

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