Why Studies in Hope

IMG_8243“My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours. Maybe nothing is more important than that we keep track, you and I, of these stories of who we are and where we have come from and the people we have met along the way because it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us most powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but spiritually.” Frederick Buechner

It’s hard to come up with a title for a blog.  Around this time last year, this site was private, had only a few entries, and a different title entirely.  When I shared the title with my ninety-two year old spiritual director, without pause she said, “Oh no, that’s no good.”  I value her bluntness because I know it’s always said in love, it often leaves us both laughing, and so far she’s always been right.  “That’s too negative.  Try to think of something else,” she said plainly.

So many ideas are already taken when you try them.  I mean really surprising names like words in Greek, Latin, or French that you wouldn’t think too many people would even know- all taken.   Coup d’essai, an attempt, was a strong contender.   I always liked how the word essay comes from the word “to try or attempt.”  When I write, it is just that- an attempt to work something out, to articulate something I can’t yet grasp in my mind.  The emphasis on yoga as a “practice” is always soothing to a perfectionist like myself.  We practice yoga. We attempt writing. “For us, there is only the trying.  The rest is not our business,” wrote Eliot in Four Quartets.  Coup d’essai was, of course, already registered to someone else.  Would’ve been hard to spell anyway.

A few months into this trial and error of choosing a title, I started to feel stuck, like I’d never get the momentum back to create something worthwhile.  I often get waylaid in the details, and trying to get something “just right” but that’s because the meanings of things are very important to me.  It turns out, as I jotted down words and tried out different groupings for a few hours on some evenings, what I was really doing was trying to figure out what I was going to write about, and if it mattered.  I can’t claim to have put a lot of effort into making this blog a neatly packaged “marketable” idea or platform for me as an author.  But the hours I spent thinking about a title did delineate my personal reasons for writing and what I hope to gain from it.

I write because I can’t afford not to.  I express myself better on the written page than almost any other way.  I read and think a lot throughout my day, and if I don’t get to create something out of all that energy, it usually manifests itself in the form of anxiety or depression.  It’s energy that simply has to go somewhere.  “Because we are all creative, we all have daily creative urges, large and small, that, left unattended, will fester into sadness and resentment,” writes Julia Cameron of the Artist’s Way in her more recent book, “The Artist’s Way for Parents.”  If you struggle with depression or anxiety, ask yourself if you’ve made anything lately.

When I write, I do not come to the page with an agenda or a presentation for my readers or myself.  I come, usually, with a question or the beginning of a reflection that I don’t quite understand the meaning of.  Sometimes I come with the events of an ordinary day. In graduate school, one of my writing teachers, Vivian Gornick, taught us the basic tenant of her book, “The Situation and the Story.” “A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom,” writes Gornick in her book. A good narrative must contain both the raw material and the wisdom- the situation and the story. “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened,” she goes on. Then she quotes V.S. Pritchett, “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.”

We all experience seemingly ineffable, bittersweet, heartbreakingly beautiful, and truth-pointing situations in our daily lives. Some of us don’t notice them at all because we’re in a hurry or because we have a long to-do list for the day. Many of us do notice, but can’t quite articulate why a moment was both heartbreaking and beautiful or what it all meant. The writer, however, has an obligation to notice, and to then spend the time making something out of it- making the ineffable somehow understood- or at least to try. “You get no credit for living.”

I usually approach my writing page with mostly the situation- then comes the attempt for the story. The very act of writing leads me down avenues I don’t travel in my mind alone, creating a new raw material from the original. The sum does not equal its parts.  Hemingway said it like this: “From things that have happened and from all things that you know and all those things you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality. That is why you write and for no other reason.”

So, back to my search for the blog title. I needed an active word in my title to describe the above process. I tried out annotate, resonate, and meditate.   I settled on “studies in.”  Studies because the worst kind of writing in my mind is the one that has an agenda- the one that neatly bookends an idea with an outcome that the writer intended all along.  Studies because when you’re living a life that often seems senseless- the knotty side of a tapestry- bookend writing isn’t going to cut it.  Studies because I am the student. The best kind of reflective writing has this exploratory aspect; it reads as though the writer may not genuinely know how this thing is going to end up.  It reads with no agenda, but it does read with authority because although the insights and epiphanies seem as though they are a surprise to even the writer- and they often are at first, once the insights have been revealed by the raw materials, those materials are carefully positioned and purposefully carved out by the writer.

My first idea was simply “Studies in Words,” which I discovered with a little research, was the title of a book exploring language by C.S. Lewis.  I felt I was in good company and therefore on the right track, but I didn’t want to use the same exact title.  I’ve found that a good rule of thumb in writing poetry is a balance of the concrete with the abstract. Studies, though not as tangible as an object, was my concrete. I settled on hope as my abstract.

On my husband’s cream-colored funeral program, I had printed a verse from 1 Thessalonians: “We do not grieve like those who have no hope.” In the weeks following, I listened to dozens of Tim Keller sermons online- including one in which he proposed that if those who suffered rubbed hope into their suffering, the way people used to rub salt into their meat to preserve it, they would become wise rather than bitter. I made a note to myself then that I’d rather be wise than bitter. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that this notion of “hope” kept me alive. I received emails from the readers of my old blog, “Dear Audrey,” many of them from people who were also grieving, and I started to sign my replies, “Hope, Julia.” One of those readers became a friend of mine, and I wanted to get her something special on the anniversary of her husband’s death. I ended up choosing a simple silver charm necklace with the word hope printed on it in a typewriter font.   The Etsy artist who made it sent me one as well, and I haven’t taken it off since (You can read the complete story here). Sometimes, one needs a tangible reminder of the abstract, something physical to grab onto.

Hope, like the word love and like the Mona Lisa, is so overly familiar, and so often thrown into an everyday sentence, its true meaning and magic has become clouded. It’s a symbol, like all language, for a very subtle concept that is difficult to describe using other words. But we can recognize it by its qualities. As we often do, we turn to metaphor. For Dickinson, hope is “the thing with the feathers- That perches in the soul- It sings the tune without the words- And never stops- at all-” From this we can ascertain that hope transcends language. Andy Dufresne, in one of my husband’s favorite underdog stories, “Shawshank Redemption,” describes it simply: “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” It is lasting and persistent. “What future bliss, He gives not thee to know, but gives that hope to be thy blessing now. Hope springs eternal in the human breast: Man never is but always to be blessed,” writes Alexander Pope in “An Essay on Man.” So, even though hope speaks of the future, it only lives in the present, predicating that hope itself is a powerful blessing- not just a means, but an end.

We are meaning-hungry creatures and I would suggest that above all else, to live in hope is essentially a belief that there is meaning and narrative in what sometimes appears to be a jumbled mess of days and years. To read one’s life closely, is to make connections between the raw materials of our days- the text- until we find that moment of resonance. Hence my subtitle, “A Close Reading of the Everyday.” I’ve always found a certain thrill in close reading and making connections within a text, staying up all night writing papers in college and graduate school, reading and rereading literature, searching for parts of the narrative that somehow matched or came together like a puzzle. You don’t always know what it is you’re searching for, but you do recognize it when you find it.

And I do prefer to think of it as a finding, a discovery, rather than an imposing upon. A NY Times article last week entitled, “Writing Your Way to Happiness,” reports that the practice of writing to “rewrite” your life narratives can have transformative results. Dr. Wilson, author of “Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By,” and professor at my alma mater says, “Writing forces people to reconstrue whatever is troubling them and find new meaning in it.” Certainly writing does possess this power. In a 2005 NY Times review of Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” the reviewer writes of Didion and her husband, “Writing for both of them was a way to find out what they thought; the construction of a narrative was a means of imposing a pattern on the chaos of life.”   In my own reading and writing, I too have attempted to make sense of the randomness. But what most surprised me during the darkest period of my life was my writing’s natural and persistent inclination towards hope. Although I never planned to write in an encouraging style, hope always seemed to sneak up on me at the end of a piece. When I sifted through what felt like the charred ruins of my life closely, threads of narrative and beauty and meaning were also there- whether I wanted to admit it or not.

And so, I cannot give the writing process itself full credit for editing or revising my life narrative. That kind of writing always feels forced no matter how one tries to mask its inauthenticity. Having a crappy day and putting a positive spin on it with words would just suck. I wouldn’t want to impose order on chaos through my writing just as I wouldn’t want to have blind faith in a God because the notion comforts me. Rather, because I have always felt a piece of writing or a song to preexist its creation, it makes more sense to me that the process is a tool that opens one up to truths already there, that one was otherwise unable to see. It is somewhat like the invisible ink in my six-year-old’s secret agent kit. The writing is there already, but you just can’t see it until you shine the little blue light on the top of the pen on it.  Then, suddenly, a blank white sheet of paper that one might have written right over, reveals letters, words- a message.

Although the sheer act of writing can serve in a therapeutic way, writing that has become art transcends rather than repairs.  Just as the Ignatian practice of the Daily Examen looks back over a day to find God present in all things, art is not a rewriting of the raw materials of life, but a close reading. Not a revising, but a revealing. It most reminds me of the excavation tools my daughter gets at the Museum of Natural History to uncover “dinosaur fossils,” – the sharper tool that chips away at the sand, and especially the brush that gently reveals, to her delight, the bones underneath. If ever I should take up my studies, my archaeological tools and discover only brokenness and shattered things, I’ll have to change this blog title. Until then, it is studies in hope.

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