Wednesday, July 23, 2008


I deeply appreciate the passion and talent of most of the authors who present their work at the Sewanee Writers Conference this year, but I’m also a bit troubled about the tone and content of a few of the short stories I’ve heard at public sessions. Now, I’ve written my share of “bleeding heart and rue” in poetry during my 73 years, so I don’t exclude myself from that which often seems to exude from some contemporary writers—the phenomenon called “profound angst.” However, two succeeding days, I’ve returned from readings feeling like a monstrous cloud hovered over my head – war, unsuccessful affairs of the heart, death, disease – I know they’re part of the human condition, but I was very glad when two poets, who seem to be able to look back and be accepting and even amused by ruptures of life and love, got up to read.

I have a close friend, a retired Distinguished Professor of English and writer, who says she once thought that profound angst was a mark of sophistication, but she believes the old “everything is too bad to be true” attitude doesn’t enrich her life. Today, in retirement, this friend studies music, sings in a choir, writes, works out, cooks, reads omnivorously, perfects her French, and says she’s grateful for a devoted beau who escorts her to functions that feed her soul. She doesn’t have time for angst. And the beautiful prose in her blogs reflects that absence of angst.

I have a box of unpublished manuscripts, many of which are so terrible in their recognition that “the end” is always imminent, the writings would probably qualify me for a diagnosis of depression. What is this “oh sorrowful me” song writers sing, at the expense of readers who want a little joy and resolution – or even inspiration – when they read a novel, a short story, or a poem? The expression, “provide a point of identification with universal suffering” has certainly become hackneyed enough when we narrate the sufferings of this world. Well, readers can identify and empathize, but at some place in the denouement of a story, they need a little redemption – hope – faith that the real world is not just a place where we’re wounded and keep sticking our hands into the wounds so often that we prevent them from scarring over…we need to help the readers move on toward their engagement with joy. Things are bad, yes, and Lucretius did write: “Hath God designed the world, it would not be/a world so frail and faulty as we see,” but we also experience many moments of real rapture…peace…and contentment during our lifetimes. And that doesn’t mean we’ve just become simple-minded or senile when we enjoy those moments of being.

For me, some of the feelings expressed in the stories I heard emphasize that man is alienated from what is good and holy, but I want to stand up and shout that the world is yet a place filled with innumerable wonders and with men whose good is more than gold, as C. S. Lewis described his mentor George McDonald. I think that readers yearn for a bit of “fantastical reading,” such as that of C. S. Lewis and George McDonald, and his Inklings friends Tolkien and Charles Williams, to name a few who carry us beyond our feelings of alienation and give us hope in both the magical realms of the world and the mystery of the beyond.

This morning as I sat before the altar at St. Mary’s I noted the orange and yellow butterflies, wings outspread, embroidered on the altar hangings. They reminded me of a poem contained in a book of writings by children of the Holocaust – a beautiful, throat-catching piece that described a butterfly which flitted by and delighted a young Jewish girl before her ultimate entry into the ovens. And she wrote about her engagement with the beautiful insect. It was all joy and all faith, a hymn of the fruits of the Spirit in which the child gave readers the idea that before she passed out of her short life and in the face of the cruel existence in the camps, God “blissed” her. Yes, he blessed her but he also blissed her.

I wish I could relocate the poem. I’d post it on my desk and send out copies to all my writing friends, exhorting them to come out of their profound angst and into the light, to allow readers to be “surprised by joy,” as C. S. Lewis wrote about his conversion from being an avowed atheist to becoming a person who believed in a Higher Being.

P.S. And then I walked down and heard Tony Earley from Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN read from his novel in progress –and was “surprised by joy!”
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