Friday, October 26, 2007

Striving to Prove Yeats Wrong

A few evenings ago I sat down in eager anticipation (for I had been meaning to catch up with this for a long time) to watch Ken Burns' documentary film on the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The films opens to a black screen and the following quote appears, the first thing you see:

"The intellect of man is forced to
choose perfection of the life,
or of the work, and if it takes
the second must refuse a heavenly
mansion, raging in the dark."
-William Butler Yeats

No doubt this is a famous stanza but I had not heard it before, and knowing something about both the genius and the tumultuous personal life of Mr. Wright, I was struck by how perfectly appropriate it was for the subject matter at hand... but perhaps even moreso by its profound relevance for anyone who is interested in pursuing some kind of artistic vocation, and balancing that desire with a healthy and (if one is a Christian) even a holy life. I mention the holy there not only because of the concerns that undergird this blog, but also because Yeats himself hints at it there in his allusion to the 'heavenly mansion' an artist, or so he seems to imply, chooses to forsake in the earthly pursuit of his art.

It is a troubling quotation for those of us interested in balancing dreams of creating great art alongside hopes to become worthwhile men/women, husbands/wives, fathers/mothers, and, finally, disciples of Christ.

A Christian artist (and by this I mean a Christian who strives to create art, not one who has necessarily been recognized as an artist by the society in which he or she lives!) fearfully recognizes both the warning and the challenge in Yeats' quatrain. My brother and co-creator of this blog, Mutt, knows this struggle all too well. I know it too, but at this point in my life am not pursuing my own artistic dreams with the vigor and determination equal to his (for various reasons). But Mutt is aware, sometimes painfully so, of the extremely difficult balancing act that is required of him as he tries to pursue his chief calling, that of God-fearing husband and father, while at the same time chasing down that elusive but worthy dream of becoming a novelist. Each of these pursuits exacts a personal price, but in the first case it is easy to see that the returns are well worth the struggle. This is not so clear, however, in the case of the second. And therein lies some of the danger. If a man allows his frustrations and disappointments over the second stuggle to interfere with his attempts to lead a good life, is he not somehow morally, or even spiritually, compromised?

This is one of the questions implicit in Yeats' words, and he seems to be holding to the line that a man cannot possibly be both 'great' in art and 'good' (in a moral sense) in life. But a Christian artist must strive in his own life to prove Yeats wrong. As Christians, we have no higher calling than to pursue a place in that 'heavenly mansion,' and if we are fathers and husbands, the way we will work out this salvation is through a life of faithful and loving service to our families. But this should not preclude us from also putting into practice whatever artistic talents have been gifted to us by our Creator. I do not believe that God has made it to be a rigid, either/or proposition. The witness of so many great artists in Western (and at least nominally, Christian) culture can lead us to despair on this question, but we should not take any one man's (or woman's) case as our norm. The Lord has called each of us by name, to pursue a vocation unique to our own souls. Let us live up to that great challenge he has set before us. Let us never be afraid to pursue the True, the Good and the Beautiful, in all of its forms, with integrity and passion -- but let us refuse to compromise our attempts at holiness in order to do so. Our success is not up to us... but our spiritual lives are indeed our own responsibility.

So, to echo Pope John Paul II (echoing Jesus): "Rise, let us be on our way..."

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #57

Here's one for all true book lovers out there... some wonderful imagery in this poem from Charles Simic, the recently-named Poet Laureate of the United States. I love the idea of untold riches lying in wait within 'dark unopened books,' if only we would take time to pull them off the shelf and explore them... then again, more and more these days we are not doing so. And the poem brilliantly gives us a glimpse of what it is we're missing...

"The books are whispering"... we must slow down, quiet ourselves and try to hear what it is they're saying. Is it too much to say that our very souls depend on it?


In the Library

There's a book called
"A Dictionary of Angels."
No one has opened it in fifty years,
I know, because when I did,
The covers creaked, the pages
Crumbled. There I discovered

The angels were once as plentiful
As species of flies. The sky at dusk
Used to be thick with them.
You had to wave both arms
Just to keep them away.

Now the sun is shining
Through the tall windows.
The library is a quiet place.
Angels and gods huddled
In dark unopened books.
The great secret lies
On some shelf Miss Jones
Passes every day on her rounds.

She's very tall, so she keeps
Her head tipped as if listening.
The books are whispering.
I hear nothing, but she does.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Journal of a “Novel”-Entry 38

Chapter IV Title Revealed

Boy, if that doesn’t get you fired up, I don’t know what would……little by little I am slowly making progress towards completing Chapter IV of the novel. I have two segments to write after the one I am working on presently, and it will be done. I think the chapter is turning out pretty well, especially in light of the fact that it has to account for three years of time that has been skipped over (this is the first chapter, aside from the Prologue, not set in 1924 – it jumps forward to 1927). For Chapter V, I am trying to decide if it will skip ahead another few years, or pick up where Chapter IV leaves off – still to be determined. Before the end of the novel, the story has to advance out to at least 1941, and possibly up to 1960, depending on decisions to be made later about what to include from the full arc of Brogan’s lifetime.

The current chapter, Chapter IV, is officially called “A Lawyer Returns, Life After Death”. To me that title captures the main events of the chapter well without revealing too much. It also contains an element of mystery that may or not be what the reader expects. It’s certainly a lot of fun to give these chapters their titles; some of them probably work better than others. And in the case of the first chapter of the novel, “Sweet Music, Pretty Flowers”, the title was provided by a real-life source, a newspaper clipping from Mishawaka, Indiana, circa the turn of the last century, reporting on the wedding of my real-life great grandfather, Valoris Lovell, to Florence Gilman. (I altered it slightly for my story.) Maybe for no other reason that symmetry or even convenience, I decided that the other chapters would be titled the same way – two elements contained within the chapter separated by a comma. Sort of a comma splice, really, but I like it for its balance – each title having a similar structure to me will look interesting, potentially, on a Table of Contents page. For example:

A Novel


I. Sweet Music, Pretty Flowers
II. A Premature Death, New Experiences
III. The Fiery Cross, Revelations
IV. A Lawyer Returns, Life After Death
V. Blah blah, blah blah

Et cetera……

Anyway, this is all I really wanted to mention here. I still have two critical sequences to compose for Chapter IV so it is by no means in the books, followed by the usual 2-3 part editing process, before I can move on. I have some loose ideas surrounding the next chapter, but they are fairly nebulous at this point – it will take settling in to the work on that chapter to get it moving. For now I hope to continue what for me constitutes reasonably steady effort on the rest of this chapter and see it through to the strong and hopefully resonant conclusion it definitely requires.

Stay tuned, for anyone who tunes in in the first place…..

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Truly Mindblowing Short Stories

It's a theme we've been tackling here for some time now (Mutt mostly has been leading the charge, with me, being much less well-read at least in short fiction, yapping behind him like a junkyard dog!)(actually come to think of it, I've been doing that more or less my whole life... uh... let's pick that up some other time...). But it simply refuses to go away, and now it seems like everywhere you turn, people are writing and commenting about it. Famous people, like Stephen King and Joseph Epstein and Philip Roth and others. What am I talking about? Simply this:

Where have all the truly mind-blowing short stories gone? Why can't we (generally speaking) seem to write them anymore, and what will take to bring some back?

Stephen King, who was recently asked to edit the Best American Short Stories, 2007 edition, offered up this essay that was printed by the New York Times (, taking on these very questions directly. It has generated a lot of debate and comment. And then just today, I come across this quote from perhaps America's most respected essayist, Joseph Epstein... which, while perhaps not directly related, gets to the same issue Mutt and I have been discussing that may well hold the key to this mystery:

"Belief goes to the heart of the problem: if you don't know what you believe in, you cannot construct moral dramas, which leaves you with making jokes through elaborate literary constructs to make the sham point about reality not quite existing, or that life is really no more than a dream, sha-boom, sha-boom."

Mutt, I sure don't know if he was thinking of the recent crop of stories from the much-ballyhooed New Yorker when he wrote this, but it sure does seem like the shoe fits in this case, don't it??

Well, I certainly am not the guy who's going to deliver the answer to these questions, not here or not anywhere else. But, to celebrate all that the craft can truly be, and secondly, because lists are just plain interesting, here is my personal list of truly mind-blowing short stories. My criteria for this list is simply that these are some of (certainly not all of!) the stories that stopped me dead in my (figurative) tracks when I read them, that lingered in my mind (in most cases) not for days, but for years afterward... and are obviously still there. These are stories that I, in fact, never expect to fully leave, and I don't want them to. They are pieces of writing I truly savor, go back to and will continue to go back to be reminded of the soul-shaking impact great fiction can have on your average ravenous mind.

As always, I end with a challenge: which stories would be on your list?


"A Distant Episode," Paul Bowles
One of the most powerful -- and appropriate -- endings I've ever read in a short story.

"Murders in the Rue Morgue," Edgar Allen Poe
The greatest whodunit ever conceived? Hollywood wishes it could conceive of a "twist" this shocking.

"Wickedness"/"Nebraska," Ron Hansen
The "bookend" stories of Hansen's only collection deserve to be mentioned together... perfect depictions of the malice, and the miracle (respectively), of nature.

"The Enduring Chill," Flannery O'Connor
Of course I could have picked literally ANY O'Connor story for this list... but this one's final image of the Holy Ghost descending in a stain on the ceiling might just be the perfect summation of her inimitable, sacramental art.

"Roman Fever," Edith Wharton
One of these brilliant stories whose final line changes all that came before it.

"An Incident at Owl Creek Bridge," Ambrose Bierce
Reads like a 19th-century era Sixth Sense... haunting and unforgettable.

"Mothers," Shusaku Endo
A remarkable, moving portrait of a hidden band of Japanese Catholics who have been making it up as they go along on a windswept island, without the spiritual or practical aid of any priests, for decades.

"To Build a Fire," Jack London
A story that is absolutely terrifying in its plausibility and detail. Makes a great companion piece to Hansen's "Wickedness."

"Benito Cereno," Herman Melville
A short but complex masterpiece without equal, I think, in American letters. Light years ahead of its time, like almost everything Melville ever wrote.

"Trilobites," Breece D'J Pancake
This story, written by a virtual unknown (at the time), is stunning from its opening lines and never lets up. Bleak, brutal and beautiful, like the West Virginia landscape he describes down to the exact geologic layer.

"The Falls," George Saunders
This last story from his amazing second collection Pastoralia is the one that proved to me there's a lot more than great humor to Saunders' fiction.

"Prince of Darkness," J. F. Powers
This classic about a selfish priest pining for a parish of his own has one of the greatest -- and most devastating -- last paragraphs I've ever read.

"The Dogs of the Great Glen," Benedict Kiely
Maybe it's my Irish sappiness coming out, but I was almost in tears at the end of this wonderful short tale about an American teacher visiting the land of his ancestors.

"In the Penal Colony," Franz Kafka
Like the entire Inferno in miniature, this horrifying story of a torturous machine incribing one's crime into one's skin is like the reading equivalent of a root canal.

"The Open Boat," Stephen Crane
A fascinating existential parable that prefigures Sartre and Camus, with men struggling on a flimsy boat against the endless, raging sea.

ALL of Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson
I literally can't pick one in this astonishing collection, which to me is the first truly great work of American short fiction. I've never read any better collection... nor a better book on youthful passion and the desire to break away and make something for oneself. The stories are heartbreaking, but they hit you like the best poetry -- straight in the soul.

"The Races," Jude Joseph Lovell
I happen to know the author and know he will scoff with embarrassment at this choice, but it was the first story he wrote that caught me off-guard, hitting me in the soft underbelly where the emotions are vulnerable... a truly moving little tale about the fragility of young boys' dreams, and the tragedy when they are ignored.

"The Ballroom of Romance," William Trevor
This story of a young woman going to a local dance in a small Irish village manages to convey the heartbreak of wasted youth and unfulfilled love about as well as anything I've ever read. Another devastating last sentence.