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Essay

IN ONE OF HIS MONOLOGUES about the fictional Minnesota town of Lake Wobegon on the Prairie Home Companion radio show, Garrison Keillor relates:

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 describes those stories we find ourselves telling as “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. In both oral and literate cultures, stories function to make coherent, expected, and tolerable the collective experiences of the people, whether the negative ones of sickness, death, and conflict or the happier problems of marriage, childbirth, hunting and gathering, and making ends meet.

We all are fiction and poem 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 narrative of a trip to the grocery store or our paeans on the glories of nature there are elements we heighten or shade or color. There are amendments, excuses, and subtractions, invented comments or things we wish we had said, failures of full disclosure. And always there is affect, our feelings about what happened to us or to others.

But the need to fasten one’s stories to a page and hand out one’s collected pages to strangers is odd, and I have a little to say about the origins of that oddness.

 

One of my first 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 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 jar, mashed peas or spinach, and Gini, holding back a grimace, asked her 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 comprehending what I’d learned, that the English language had been a kind of wild snowstorm around me, but now, whether my sister or mother recognized it or not, I 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 psychiatrist told me that language acquisition is the first step in the separation between children and their mothers. I had stamped in my mind a primal scene in which that differentiation became luminous.

Even now as I write this, I am joining you in our calling, our similarities, our joint aspirations, but I am also using these words, these verbal events, to fashion a new reality that wholly separates me from you. Writers seem to have a greater need than others to do that, but it seems hard-wired in humanity in general. To quote Gerard Manley Hopkins: “Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / …myself it speaks and spells, / Crying What I do is me: for that I came.”

Rob and I 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, which we alone understood. When we were four or so, we were in the family car, 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 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 have now forgotten our secret vocabulary, and I regret it.

I have written elsewhere about being accidentally excluded from a kindergarten Christmas pageant in 1952.

Sister Josefina selected Cynthia Bash, the prettiest girl, to play Mary, and John Kocarnik, the tallest boy, got to play Joseph, choices I probably would have made if asked. Three boys I found at best annoying were assigned the roles of Magi, who got to wear the fanciest costumes, and a handful of girls were joined into choirs of angels, and finally Rob and some troublemakers and oafs were handed the non-speaking jobs of shepherds. And that was it. My name had not been mentioned. Of all the kindergartners at Holy Angels Grade School, I was the only one without a role in the Christmas play.

I was afraid that I’d flunked kindergarten, as I’d seen some whiny and incontinent children do. Wanting to know for sure just how bad my situation was, I got the gumption to walk up to Sister Josefina at playtime and, fighting off tears, tell her she’d left me out. To my astonishment, she was not irritated with me. She seemed, instead, embarrassed. She probably had intended to recite Luke’s nativity story herself, but on seeing my worried face, she was inspired by pity. “Well, we’ll need a narrator,” she said. “You can be Saint Luke.”

The last shall be first.

Classmates looked at me with stunned envy when I confided about it, and even my parents seemed impressed. My friends were each given little scraps of paper printed with their lines and told to practice them aloud with someone who could read, but I handed over to my mother a full page of a Big-Chief tablet filled with handwriting I couldn’t yet decipher.

We’d sit at the dining room table at night, and she’d read a sentence from chapter 2 of Luke until I could repeat it, and then she’d go on to another sentence. I have a sense of the great language acquisition gifts of children when I recall how little we actually practiced those lines before I had them fast in my head.

On the night of the Christmas pageant, as a hundred people found their seats on folding chairs, I stood off to the side in a turban made from one of my sister’s pink towels and in my own striped bathrobe from home, but unfortunately without the filthy charcoal mustache and beard that my friends who were shepherds wore, so my pleasure was incomplete. While the kindergarten girls sang “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” I saw my folks grinning hopefully at their sons, while Gini frowned at me in a way that said, Don’t screw this up. I have friends here. And then, with the song finished and Sister nodding me forward, I walked to the front of the stage and, in the high scream of a five-year-old projecting his voice, I announced, “At that time, there went forth a decree from Caesar Augustus that a census of the whole world should be taken!”

On and on I went, reciting sentences I didn’t fully understand. “And it came to pass while they were there, that the days for her to be delivered were fulfilled. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”

When I finished, I felt Sister Josefina’s relief that I hadn’t forgotten anything, and I watched as my friends completed their histrionic pantomime of star-gazing, childbirth, and adoration. The Magi sang “We Three Kings of the Orient Are,” and we all joined in on “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” and then it was over and the families applauded their own.

I have frequently been asked when I first had the impulse to be a fiction writer, and I often find myself thinking of that kindergarten play and those hundred grown-ups and older children who I knew weren’t listening to me but to those fascinating and archaic words: betrothed, swaddling, manger. I felt the power that majestic language had for an audience. I knew they’d been held rapt not just because of what Luke and I reported but because of the way we said it.

My first-grade teacher was Sister Clida, a harried Dominican nun who was doing penance here on earth in a classroom of thirty-two hyperactive children, some of them incompletely housebroken.

One afternoon Sister Clida taught us some basic arithmetic and introduced us to the concept of a quiz. We were handed half-sheets of lined paper and asked to solve the addition problems she’d chalked on the blackboard. Just the night before 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 four plus two?

When Sister Clida sidled down the cramped aisles of the classroom, collecting the quizzes, I handed over my paper airplane with such gleeful innocence that she thought at first it was sarcasm. Even when she saw it was not, she blew, as they say, a gasket. Fearing, I suppose, 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 was talking about, but I felt I’d scored a major victory and skipped six grades with that paper airplane. 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 it 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 large-ish city of Omaha, there were still pockets of agrarian culture, and half a block from our house were cornfields, railroad tracks, and the Snell Sash and Door Company, where there were forts of wooden pallets and where empty, wonderfully available railway boxcars 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 boxcars, 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 what we were doing. My father tried to reprimand us, but we could tell his heart wasn’t in it.

But gradually we 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 our religion class to write 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 an imaginative version would be permitted.

Sister Pierce seemed confused at first, but since I was the only kid asking, she agreed. I produced a short story 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 just as anachronous and maudlin.

Sir Laurence Olivier was once asked how one could properly make a decision about a life in the theater. He replied, “If anything can keep you from acting, let it.”

There is a choicelessness in creative writing, too. And I had discovered in that Holy Angels classroom a fascinating, isolating, and still inchoate need that seemed peculiar only to me: the yearning to make things up—essentially to improve on the life I had experienced. It was a kind of lying, but for the good of the characters, for the good of the audience.

In his book of essays The Glass Anvil, poet Andrew Hudgins mentions the quandary poets and fiction writers face:

I’m always astonished 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 a fascination with the English language. For me, this fascination probably had its roots in the secret language Rob and I shared as twins. I recall one short story from my freshman year of Jesuit high school—a sort of Rod Serling Twilight Zone thriller—only because I managed to fit in the fancy, tailorish word “habiliment,” rather than “clothing.”

I recall a cartoon from our freshman vocabulary textbook. A little boy tells his mother, “We learned a new word in school today. Can you surmise what it is? I’ll give you three surmises.”

I was that kid.

Etymologies engrossed me, and one of my grander moments in high school occurred when in my illicit reading—a book open on my knees but hidden from my English teacher—I fell upon the word “onomatopoeia.” I couldn’t remember ever having seen such a strange word before, so I puzzled over it a while. The next thing I knew, our teacher—a layman 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 offered us a deal: 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.

I became the chosen one, and Mr. Schaeffer, already complacent about his victory, picked the most difficult word he knew. “All right, Mr. Hansen,” he said. “Spell onomatopoeia.”

I couldn’t believe my luck, and when I correctly spelled the word, Mr. Schaeffer loudly said “Shit!” and the classroom erupted in hoots and cheers.

 

At age sixteen I was given a summer job as an assistant greenskeeper on a nine-hole golf course, hosing off the dew first thing each morning, mowing the greens, then resetting the cups and pins. I hated my ignorant, racist, ex-con of a boss, but I loved the outdoor, barefoot, shirtless work, and I was home before three in the afternoon each day with nothing to do but read. Suntanned a mahogany shade and still in my jean shorts and T-shirt, I once wandered into Kenwood Drugstore after work and turned the metal paperback rack until I fell upon John Updike’s The Centaur. And reading the praise on its jacket, I felt a spasm of good sense and bought it.

Interweaving aspects of the Greek myth of Chiron, the wise centaur who taught Achilles, Asclepius, and others, with autobiographical fragments about the kindly schoolteacher George Caldwell in a small Pennsylvania town in the 1940s, The Centaur was an intelligent, experimental, classically inspired novel about a father-son relationship that was also so gorgeously written that it won the National Book Award for its author at the age of thirty-one.

Updike’s intent, he once said, was “to give the mundane its beautiful due.” My enthusiasms in grade school had been for the grotesque and arabesque, for Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe, and a World War II memoir, Back to Bataan, the first book I can recall rereading immediately after I’d finished it. But in John Updike I found the exact writer I wanted to be. And it was Updike who later noted in his essay “Religion and Literature” that the English Victorians generally wrote with the presumption of a religious sensibility on the part of their readers, but that the modernists—responding to the wreckage of conviction wrought by Darwin, Freud, and Marx—sought to make art itself their religion. And so the twentieth century became, for many, an age of disbelief. He wrote:

Yet it remains curiously true that the literary artist, to achieve full effectiveness, must assume a religious state of mind—a state that looks beyond worldly standards of success and failure. A mood of exaltation should possess the language, a vatic tension and rapture. Even a grimly tragic view, like that of King Lear, Samuel Beckett, Céline, and Herman Melville, must be expounded with a certain rapt celebrative air. The work of literary art springs from the world and adheres to it but is distinctly different in substance. We enter it, as readers, expecting an intensity and shapeliness absent in our lives. A realm above nature is posed—a supernatural, in short. Aesthetic pleasure, like religious ecstasy, is a matter of inwardness, elevation, and escape.

Writing a bestseller would be welcome, but was never an important goal for me. Writing a good story was, and still is. Were I not financially rewarded for my writing, 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 a few choice friends. There is joy in the simple making of things. For creativity, as Ignatius of Loyola pointed out, is a participation in the divine.

 

Consider that famous Gospel statement in John 3:16. In the King James Bible it reads: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Consider that opening phrase: “For God so loved the world.” There are aspects of our world that we can repudiate and even despise, but our foremost commitment as people of faith is to find and give description to those aspects of his creation that God so loves.

The Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Galway Kinnell once said, “To me, poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.”

Look at our New Testament. Christ’s words are sanctified for their healing, nurturing, blessing, challenging, and gathering power, but he generally spoke in familiar terms and by analogy. For the Gospel of Matthew tells us, “he told the crowds all these things in parables; without parables he told them nothing.”

“At its simplest,” the Welsh theologian C.H. Dodd wrote, “the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”

Our Bible is an anthology of such stories, each having what may be a very personal meaning and one that can only be “teased out” or arrived at through interpretation or, better, meditation. In a similar manner, imaginative writing has the possibility of serving as a religious experience, as the fiction writer, playwright, or poet uses invented lives and language to entertain, educate, and perhaps guide readers toward correct moral and ethical choices.

Elsewhere I published an essay entitled “What Stories Are and Why We Read Them” in which I noted that:

Stories teach by example, and by permitting us to safely participate in crises we hope to never get near. Quotidian life seldom offers opportunities for glorious heroism or grand agonies of defeat, but fictional entertainments offer those opportunities in abundance…. Ethical grayness characterizes much of our human experience; and we change only incrementally, through a host of seemingly inconsequential decisions. The zest of good storytelling comes from its gross exaggeration of the frightening and mysterious process of change, so that we see heightened in The English Patient or Schindler’s List the horrifying possibilities of wrong choices and the health to ourselves and others in choosing rightly.

Making things up, for me, is both extraordinarily simple and rather mysterious. I recognize first that I am gripped: a subject 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 or not, we’re making things up just as the author is, putting faces on those who have not been described, filling in details left out, questioning what we would do in those circumstances, or recalling times when we were vexed in just that way.

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 addiction. The confessions are ways of repenting for a history of excesses, establishing a new transparency, reforming one’s own life by connecting it with others and 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 that we all have to tell stories.” We sit around a kitchen table or huddle over cups of coffee or queue up for movie tickets, 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 better for reading. 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, in fact, is the fruit of eons. Instinctively we all know that, but there are still times when we feel like discoverers of something momentous and feel the need to proclaim what has been hidden but now is found. 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.

 


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