The following is adapted from the commencement address for the Seattle Pacific University Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing delivered on August 7, 2010.
This program is blessed to have its intensive, ten-day residencies at two of the most beautiful places on the continent: the high desert of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the water’s edge on Whidbey Island, Washington, where we look across the Strait of Juan de Fuca at the Olympic Mountains. At the graduation ceremonies held at the conclusion of these residencies there is always a chance that nature will make a dramatic entrance. Here at our Santa Fe graduations it’s monsoon season, when the thunderheads build up over the course of the day and you can see curtains of rain stretching for miles across the valley. In March on Whidbey Island the blustery early spring weather can blow in off Puget Sound with such ferocity that it can almost knock you off your feet.
We’ve been thinking a great deal about nature at this residency, where our Art and Faith seminar has been focused on two of the natural world’s most sensitive chroniclers, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Annie Dillard.
Both writers tend to be remembered for their lyric—and occasionally ecstatic— celebrations of nature’s beauty and bounty. To think of Hopkins is to recall his praise for pied beauty, “For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; / Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings....” Dillard’s encounters with creatures of all kinds come to mind, such as her famous eye-lock with a weasel, “thin as a curve, a muscled ribbon, brown as fruitwood, soft-furred, alert.”
And yet, as we’ve discovered in our intensive engagement with their writings, these authors can also plunge us into the horror of a shipwreck in frigid waters or a flood that carries all before it. Hopkins may help us to see the kestrel or “windhover” as a magnificent master of the air currents, but he can also write about feeling despair like a vulture that has made carrion of his soul. Dillard has a special knack for delivering up tales of insect and reptile behavior that are the stuff of waking nightmares.
That nature can encompass both heart-piercing beauty and mindless destruction has given us much to think about—raising many of the big philosophical and theological questions. But what strikes me as especially apt for this moment is that the approach to nature shared by Hopkins and Dillard provides us with analogies to the writing life itself. In the act of exploring nature’s mysteries, they teach us how to write.
The process might be described as a four-fold effort involving sacrificing, seeing, stalking, and sacramentalizing.
I put those words in that order deliberately. While it might seem that seeing the world is the first step for a writer, both Hopkins and Dillard are convinced that seeing is a more complicated act than the mere opening of our eyes. They are convinced that we cannot see truly without first practicing a kind of sacrifice. The world may be charged, in Hopkins’s phrase, with the grandeur of God, but that glory too often remains obscured from view.
Many things get in the way: boredom, weariness, fear, alienation—and the persistent human tendency to hold the world at a distance, to prefer the cleanliness of ideas to the capacity to be fully embodied, fully present to our experience.
In short, we get in the way. So what do we do about that?
Sometimes we don’t have to do anything. From time to time we may be vouchsafed moments of vision that come as pure epiphany—the irruption of grace into our lives—like the tree full of lights that rocks Annie Dillard’s world.
But while it is true that we cannot earn such grace, we can and must labor to place ourselves in its precincts. Hopkins understands this paradox and then reveals its cost. Describing the beauty of the night sky with its “bright boroughs” and “circle-citadels” of stars, he says: “it is all a purchase, all is a prize. / Buy then! bid then!—What?—Prayer, patience, alms, vows.”
What needs to be sacrificed before we are able to see is...us. Or at least our selfishness and fear and abstraction. Our sense that we are detached, solitary observers. The disciplines that Hopkins says are required to purge these flaws are valuable in themselves but have their secular equivalents in the habits of the writer. Dillard agrees. She says that there is a type of seeing that is methodical and analytical but that there is a better kind “that involves letting go. When I see this way I am transfixed and emptied.” We need, she says, to regain our innocence. “What I call innocence is the spirit’s unselfconscious state at any moment of pure devotion to any object. It is at once a receptiveness and total concentration.”
At the very moment we lose ourselves to true seeing we suddenly realize that we are also seen. As Dillard writes in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:
I walk out; I see something, some event that would otherwise have been utterly missed and lost; or something sees me, some enormous power brushes me with its clean wing, and I resound like a beaten bell. I am an explorer, then, and I am also a stalker, or the instrument of the hunt itself. I am the arrow shaft, carved along my length by unexpected lights and gashes from the very sky, and this book is the straying trail of blood.
Dillard tells us that to get a glimpse into mystery is to become like Moses sitting in the cleft of the rock so he can get a peek at God’s “back parts.” The discipline needed to make that kind of seeing possible—the ability to wedge ourselves into that cleft—she calls “stalking.” It demands patience—the kind of patience one needs to wait, perfectly still, in a bush for forty minutes just to catch sight of a muskrat. (“The writer should never be afraid of staring,” says Flannery O’Connor.)
Now I’ll grant you that there’s something slightly absurd about the image of the young Annie Dillard stalking a muskrat by sitting in a bush for the better part of an hour, chain-smoking cigarettes, but she’s already anticipated that. The muskrat may be a silly little thing, but perhaps another part of the sacrifice we need to make involves giving up some of our dignity and our aloofness. Perhaps we need to play the fool in order to approach even the smallest creature with something akin to sacred awe.
Dillard quotes a Hasidic master who said: “When you walk across the fields with your mind pure and holy, then from all the stones, and all growing things, and animals, the sparks of their souls come out and cling to you, and then they are purified and become a holy fire in you.”
The irony here is that the writer’s form of stalking generally takes the form of sitting at a computer for hours on end. Even as one’s “back parts” grow numb, there is still a chance that the imagination will venture out and take its place in the cleft of memory and begin to see.
I sometimes say that half the value of this MFA degree is the effort we make to instill in our graduates the habit of sitting at that screen for at least a couple of hours a day.
So, when the creative writer has sacrificed self-consciousness and begun to see clearly and stalk her prey, what happens next? Here we encounter a twist in the plot.
As Hopkins and Dillard have shown us, it turns out that the creative writer’s goal is not simply to explain the meaning of what has been glimpsed. Rather, it is to recreate—to enact—the very process of sacrificing and seeing and stalking.
The literary artifact invites the reader to enter into a collaborative search with the author. Either our writing becomes a shared journey, a participatory act, or it leaves the reader outside, looking in—reinforcing solitude and separateness.
If a piece of writing is to authentically dramatize the process of seeing, then it cannot fall into the trap of pride, the notion that the artifact can somehow be perfect and self-sufficient. Rather, it must in some sense deconstruct itself, reveal its own inadequacy. Thus Hopkins can write of the windhover’s mastery of the air as an analogy for God’s grandeur, only to realize that his metaphor falls short, too partial to account for the fullness of truth. He comes to a moment of recognition that the light of grace flashes out not only from rarely glimpsed majestic birds but also from the “sheer plod” of ordinary life, where a plough’s blade can pass through the soil only to emerge and catch the reflection of the sun. But even that metaphor cannot bear the weight of reality and so he pictures grace as the ashy, dying ember of a fire that can suddenly crack open and reveal its red-hot heart—life emerging from death.
As the students pointed out after their group discussions on Hopkins, the movement “The Windhover” traces is essentially an act of revision—a journey of discovery—from heaven to earth, aristocratic images to those associated with the common man. The metaphors at the end invoke Christ’s incarnation in the dust of this earth so that the humblest things become sacraments.
In Holy the Firm Dillard writes about toting wine in her backpack: “Here is a bottle of wine with a label, Christ with a cork. I bear holiness splintered into a vessel, very God of very God, the sempiternal silence personal and brooding, bright on the back of my ribs.” A sacrament is meaningful not because it is esoteric but because it is ordinary; in the course of the rite the world that has been lost to us is restored. In the Eucharist the drama enacted is the movement from sacrifice to seeing. By the end we have literally been brought to our senses.
So I say to you graduates: this is the end toward which your writing must always strive, the weaving together of words so as to invite the indwelling of the Word. As you embark on your writing careers, practice self-sacrifice, see the world truly, and stalk the spirit within the flesh.
Then you will be able to confect sacraments that unite your journeys to those of your readers—and to the journey of the one who descended from air to earth, who was gashed and galled by our pettiness and vanity, only to rise again and ascend through the air, but not before he revealed through the gash in his side the burning heat of his sacred heart.