Bookshelf

After a two-year hiatus from reading fiction, I’ve picked it up again.

While in grad school, I immersed myself in the writing of great nonfiction authors: Agee, McPhee, Kidder, etc. You name ’em, I at least tried to read ’em. I was undeterred from nonfiction even during holiday breaks, alternating between narrative journalism and memoir in an effort to learn as much as I possibly could while I had immediate access to nonfiction experts (my professors).

To be honest, I didn’t even know how much I missed my cozy novels. I was even a little reluctant to read fiction again. After all, it had been so long, and I tend to treat books – and by extension, genres – like friends. How in the world would we get reacquainted after so much time had gone by? Would it be awkward? Would I lose interest?

Perhaps, I thought, it might lessen the shock to begin with historical fiction, or a smattering of short stories.

Bookworm

But no. As soon as I read the first page of Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, fiction and I were back in good graces. Reading about make-believe characters in a make-believe world reminded me of the delicious escape books can provide. It tucked in the driven, learning-oriented side of my brain, giving it permission to take some much-needed rest.

For once, I wasn’t analyzing the book’s structure as I read, or its author’s interviewing techniques. I was reading for pure enjoyment, having returned to a playground that allowed me to grasp for the monkey bars or clamber across the jungle gym instead of spending all my time building things – or fighting – in the sand box.

Not that we nonfiction writers can’t learn a lot from our fiction sisters. Claire Messud’s descriptions of her characters are priceless. She rounds them out with impressive zeal, making them tangible – describing them more tangibly, even, than many accomplished nonfiction writers portray their real-life subjects. She notes one character’s “resemblance to a baby seal,” and another’s “Nabokovian brow.” Brilliant.

Messud also captures every detail of her characters’ surroundings, knowing – in an almost eerie show of authorial intuition – just what we readers need to see, noting, for example, “a long, plump, pillowed sofa stretched the length of one wall,” at a dinner party. Better yet, she writes that “upon it four women were disposed like odalisques in a harem.”

Yum.

In celebration of my return to a multi-genred life, I’ve set up a “Bookshelf” here on my blog, where all you lovely people can see what I’ve been reading, and where you, too, can recommend great books from your own libraries.

Happy reading …

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Prove It!

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend about the existence of God.  We never said it that way, as in: “Do you believe in God?” – but that’s what it was about.

We were discussing a recent research project in the news, from which scientists had discovered the part of the brain that collects memories, thereby explaining that eerie sensation of deja vu. In response, this friend – let’s just call him H – said he believed that science would eventually explain everything, and that all the myths and “hocus-pocus” we’d been taught by our parents would one day be laid to rest – proven, for once and for all, to be completely untrue.

He said that 95% of the members of the National Academy of Science are atheists, and that all the progressive, intellectual people he knows are moving that way, too – an all-out migration to the sensible world of unbelief. “People of faith should have to prove their positions,” he said, “the same way scientists have to prove hypotheses.”

This entire conversation I had with H totally depressed me. I haven’t been able to shake it. And not because I was suddenly moved to atheism, or because I wanted to damn anyone to hell, but because his own perspective was just as boxed in and immovable as those with whom he disagreed.

As a person of faith, I am constantly challenged to reconcile the world’s tangible and intangible inconsistencies.  Living in a culture no longer drawn to imagine and question the unknown would be like having a birthday surprise perpetually spoiled.  The opportunity to merge a progressive, thoughtful faith with science (or social responsibility, or any other secular point) is a gift. It is an impetus for forward thinking, expansion and enlightenment. It is an invitation to become more open-minded and all-encompassing than before, driving out mean and narrow preconceptions, lifting up a shout to the unknown with joy and trepidation – a salute to what we all know already: that we are not in control.

And while my faith might be strengthened by this grappling as another’s is challenged to the breaking point, how terrible to silence those conversations, to so limit the scope of the human spirit that it becomes something that can be read on a data chart.

I didn’t want to argue with H because I wasn’t in the mindset to respond thoughtfully.  He’d caught me off-guard, and our conversation wouldn’t have been productive.

But if I had responded, really responded, I would have turned to Annie Dillard, who wrote, “No; we have been as usual asking the wrong question. It does not matter a hoot what the mockingbird on the chimney is singing. The real and proper question is: Why is it beautiful? ”

How do you prove the existence of love? Or of mercy? Beyond the realm of science, what, exactly, can anyone prove?

When it comes to faith, my hope is for curiosity, for more probing with less vexation.  My hope is that we might have the bravery to sift through our world’s inconsistencies without shutting down; to wrestle with them, knowing we may never know the answers.

In time, with discernment, perhaps we can find ourselves on a place in the path that is marked less by fear than by wonder, with an ultimate respect for the unknown, and an appreciation for surprise.

On the Outskirts of a Forest

“Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise. ” — Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Gosh, I love Annie Dillard.

I cannot get enough of her sentences. They breathe. They literally inhale and exhale with such natural rhythm that to envy them would be to envy a baby’s sound sleep. Who but one with a gift for true loveliness would write of life as a “faint tracing of mystery,” or find inspiration for that thought in a leaf?

Recently, I’ve been analyzing what the point of writing is and why, more specifically, I’m so obsessed with it. Why all this fuss? Why the stress? The deadlines? The reading of a manuscript out loud, and then silently, and then, after a few more sentences have been adjusted, out loud again?

It is utter madness. But as much as I recognize how warped my perspective can be at times, there is such redemption in the act of writing, and in the act of reading other people’s. Sentences are a dark tunnel with light at the end. Or, they should be.

I think of this on the day after having announced my intentions to leave my current job. For almost two years I’ve been processing accounts payable for a property management company. Because I’ve been in graduate school while doing what would make most writers crazy, I’ve enjoyed it. It is predictable, structured, and completely rational – three things my writing and my writing life are not.

Because I have enjoyed this job and respect the people I’ve worked for, I had to stop and wonder if finishing graduate school were such a great reason to quit. I thought I might take the safe path – keep the financial stability, continue to reserve my writing time for 7pm to midnight and try to “make it work.”

Earlier this week, though, as I was loading numbers into an excel spreadsheet, contemplating whether to keep my job or give myself to my writing, I had a realization. Dividing my time between accounting and writing suddenly felt disabling, as though I would be cheating myself out of what Annie Dillard calls “the wider view,” allowing myself only a parcel of land, as opposed to an entire landscape.

And, as crazy as writing can make me, there is life in it; in it there are ideas from which conversation, reconciliation and enlightenment can arise. Even if all you people stop reading my blog and I never publish anything, I can still wander out into the world’s forest of words and pick all the wildflowers. And even if I’m the only one who gets to enjoy gathering them and arranging their bouquet, that will be – has to be – enough.

Numbers really do it for some people, and for them, I’m glad. My husband, for example, is a good bit smarter than I am and is fascinated with the sort of language of numbers. But as much as I appreciate and fear their complexity, I can’t find depth in them, or life in them, or anything about them that would make me want to stay up past my bed time.

So yesterday, I surrendered to language. Turning away from the practicality and structure of a numbered life, I stand on the outskirts of a forest, waiting for it to take me in.

W E L C O M E

 

My name is Towles. I’m a writer.

Often, when I tell people I’m a writer, they ask, “What do you write?” Right now, I write whatever anyone will pay me to write. But what I really love is narrative journalism, essay and poetry, and if I could spend my life doing any combination of those three things and make enough money to feel legitimate (which, I’ll admit, isn’t a lot) – I’d die happy.

Until just recently, I hadn’t been able to own being a writer, and even now, after completing an MFA in creative nonfiction, I feel a little shy about telling anyone that’s what I do, or who I am.

I think I feel this way because I hold writers – real writers, established writers, writers who do indeed make a living putting words together – in such high regard. I don’t quite feel worthy of the title.

I also feel a little shy about admitting this because it is, for me, an intimate detail. I might as well tell anyone who asks what I do that I pray, or that I am a pray-er.

Nevertheless, I’m trying to get used to the awkwardness of it all.

Welcome to my blog.

Word Box

I remember the day I fell in love with language.  I was in kindergarten, and my teacher, Mrs. Buchanan, had given us all a box full of words. 

The words were written in a bold, black magic marker on what were probably snippets of old manila file folders.  They were placed in a box we’d brought from home. 

Mine was an old stationery box – square and deep with a clear top that allowed me to peer inside without opening it. 

Before it became my word box, and after it served its purpose for stationery-holding, my sister and I had used the container for our Christmas ornament decorating projects.  It held glitter, sequins, and kid-sized tubes of Elmer’s glue. 

That it was a hand-me-down, reused kind of box didn’t matter to me.  In fact, I vaguely remember wanting my word box to be special, demanding that my mother find another place – a shoe box, most likely – for our art supplies, so that I could house my words in the deep, perfectly-proportioned, clear-topped shell.  

When Mrs. Buchanan gave us our words, I remember staring into my box, understanding – in whatever way five-year-olds can understand such things – that each word was like a ticket of admission to a new world, a sort of secret code-breaking powerhouse.  Words were precious things, meant to be protected.  They held mystery and magic, and I was completely fascinated with them. 

Over the years, my obsession with words has only intensified.  I’ll use this blog to explore them, to rejoice in them, and to figure out how to put them together.

Confession

Before fairly recently, I thought blogging was kind of a nerdy thing to do.  I pictured bloggers as sort of intense, socially-challenged people who weren’t getting enough out of life and were therefore forced to turn to their computers for companionship. 

But then my friend Traci, who is one of the cooler people I know, started a blog (Down and Out).  And then my sister-in-law, Jenn, started posting online entries on her design & life blog, SeymourCornelius.  And then, my friend Maggie, a writer living and working in South Africa, started talking about ramping up her own blog, and insisted that I do the same. 

So, here I am. 

Uncomfortable as I am with this sort of world-wide journal entry-type stuff, I’m going to make my best effort at wandering through life with an eye and an ear for ideas, and posting them as they come my way. 

Wanderings will be my idea section, the part of the blog that allows for questions, confessions, musings and observations.