“Old so-and-so”–A post on peculiarity and affection

“Old so-and-so”–A post on peculiarity and affection

Lately, I’ve been reading Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow, after Brianna and I put the kids to bed.

It’s a story about the “unique” people one comes to know during a lifetime in a small community.

Jayber

A key takeaway is this: When no one is a “stranger” we see more clearly that everyone is strange.

But far from being merely a cause for mockery or bullying, peculiarity can spark affection.

Case in point: ‘Ol Ab Rowanberry, with his rifle and his chamber pot.

Yet another sight I used to see [around town] was uncle Ab Rowanberry shuffling by, carrying a rifle, a lantern, and a sack containing a chamber pot, a cowbell, a corn knife and a long leather purse tied with a rag string. He would be on his way between daughters.

The paragraph is random and ridiculous—and delightful.

The scene continues:

Ab carried with him all his worldly possessions, the terms of his independence and self-respect: the rifle with which he provided a little meat for the table and with which he could defend himself if attacked, the corn knife in case he needed it, the lantern and the chamber pot to preserve his dignity when he had to get up at night, the cowbell to ring if he fell down and couldn’t get up. […] I observed him carefully and have remembered him always.

The last line is vintage Berry.

EXAGGERATED?

Some would allege that such colorful depictions of human beings amount to “tall tales” that exaggerate the strangeness.

I disagree.

As a case in point, I recall a similar critique as it was levelled at the southern gothic stories of Flannery O’Conner. In defense of Flannery, the poet Elizabeth Bishop wrote the following:

Critics who accuse her of exaggeration are quite wrong, I think. I lived in Florida for several years next to [a church like those described in O’Conner’s fiction].

After those Wednesday nights, nothing Flannery O’Conner ever wrote could seem at all exaggerated to me.

CONCLUSION

What’s the point of these forays into human idiosyncrasy?

Since I’m in the middle of a fiction-writing project myself (MS due in about a month!), one reminder is to “Include a rifle and a chamber pot” in my own way (i.e., Don’t be afraid to highlight the peculiar features that make people interesting people).

But there is also a spiritual lesson to be learned.

For Berry (and for O’Conner), the goal is not to mock our strangeness, but to weave a spell around it so that even oddity can become a mark of beauty and belovedness.

As C. S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves:

The especial glory of Affection is that it can unite those who most emphatically, even comically, are not [alike]. Growing fond of “old-so-and-so,” at first simply because he happens to be there—[rifle and chamber pot in tow!]—I presently begin to see that there is “something in him.”

This realization also connects with another theme from Lewis’ most famous essay (The Weight of Glory): There are no ordinary people. No mere mortals.

We are all odder and more broken than we look; yet more beloved than we dared imagine.

 


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Adorning the dark: A post on the creative process

Adorning the dark: A post on the creative process

“I’m convinced,” writes Andrew Peterson, “that poets are toddlers in a cathedral, slobbering on wooden blocks and piling them up in the light of the stained glass.”

The colorful description comes in a book on the beauty and the pain of making things—whether one is a poet, a preacher, a musician, or an artist of some other stripe.

ADORNING THE DARK

I just finished Peterson’s new book, Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making.

adorning.jpg

I’ve appreciated his work for years.

Despite a voice that (allegedly) sounds a bit like Kermit the frog with a sinus infection, his music has always moved me.

  • Brianna and I chose “Canaan Bound” to be sung at our wedding.
  • My kids loved Peterson’s fantasy novels (The Wingfeather Saga), with Lucy proclaiming them to be even better than Harry Potter. (Not true. But still.)
  • And his entirely original, Behold the Lamb of God, is my favorite Christmas album of all time.

Adorning the Dark is different from these other works. But there are still some helpful lessons for those involved in the creative process.

Here are four:

1. Write the bad ones too

Peterson tells sheepishly how a fan once approached him after a concert with a request for him to write down some songwriting advice on the inside of a CD case. Being a bit tired, Peterson wrote, “Don’t write bad songs.”

Seeing the somewhat snarky inscription, Peterson’s bandmate Andy Gullahorn wrote his own advice: “Write the bad ones too.”

Gullahorn’s insight was not just that one should be kind to fans, but that “quality control” is not the chief skill an artist must cultivate: Output matters too.

The two pre-requisites for getting published are (wait for it…) writing and finishing.

So make something, even if it isn’t great.

Excellence is for editing (and re-writing).

2. Artists need “resonators”

A second take-away is that art nurtures community and community nurtures art.

After being dropped by his record label and nearly bankrupted by the post-Napster death of album sales, Peterson founded a collective called “The Rabbit Room” with a ragamuffin group of Nashville artists.

These friendships not only allowed for cross-promotion between artists; they also provided encouragement, community, and feedback.

I’ve been blessed with fantastic “resonators.”

  • My colleague, Dr. Jerome Van Kuiken, is the smartest person I know, and he provides invaluable critique on everything I write for publication.
  • My wife Brianna reads my blog posts, and she often weeds out the lines that could get me fired and/or tarred and feathered.
  • I also have friendships with folks like the up-and-coming novelist K. M. West, who provides not only encouragement but also a (silent) reminder that there are people out there busier than me who still write consistently—and at a high level.

Art nurtures community. Community nurtures art.

Artists need resonators.

3. Boil it down

After reading Wendel Berry, Peterson tells how he and his wife sold their comfortable suburban home and bought a small, ramshackle cottage on several tree-lined acres near Nashville.

If artists need resonators, they frequently need nature too.

Since the property had maple trees, Peterson Googled “How to make maple syrup.” He was stunned to learn that a person gets one gallon of syrup for every forty (!) gallons of sap.

If you were to taste the maple sap before you boiled it down, which I did, you’d find it hard to believe there’s any sweetness hiding in there at all.

Writing is like that too.

The sweetness often comes in “boiling it down.”

I was reminded of this yesterday when I picked up a copy of my book, Long Story Short: The Bible in Six Simple Movements. For the most part, I am proud of the writing—which is significant since I first hammered it out over a decade ago.

That said, upon re-reading what I’ve published, my overriding critique is that I could have cut a few more words from certain sentences and paragraphs.

I could have lost some empty calories and gained some “sweetness.”

Boil it down.

4. Plant the berries

The most moving story in Adorning the Dark involves a trip to Sweden that Peterson’s family took in 2016 after a season of busyness, burnout, and depression (another commonality of artists).

While abroad, he sought to locate the old stone cottage of his great-grandfather.

After much research, the general location of the ruined house was found, and an ancient local Swede agreed to take the Petersons by bicycle into the dark, thick forest to find it.

[The Swede] explained [through a translator] that he was looking for a certain kind of berry that would tell him where the old foundation stones would be.

A hundred years ago, he said, the berries were planted outside the cottage for food, and long after the house fell into ruin, the berry bushes lived on. If you want to find the remains of a dwelling in a Swedish forest, [he] told us, look for berries.

Lo and behold, they found the berries—along with the home.

The story forms a parable for the kind of art that matters.

As Peterson concludes:

“One day, perhaps, when I’m dead and gone, and my songs and stories lie in the ruins of some old forest and no one remembers my name, whatever good and beautiful and human thing that the King of Creation called forth from me will fall to the earth and grow brambly and wild, and some homesick and hungry soul will leave the well-worn path and say, ‘Look! Someone lived here.

Praise God, there are berries everywhere.’”

Good art is the “berry” that adorns the darkness.

And homesickness leads home.

 


I’m going to open the comments on this one.

Fellow writers, preachers, musicians (etc.): What’s the most helpful advice you’ve found about the creative process?


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