“I am to be an artist. Not in the sense of aesthetic frippery but in the sense of aesthetic craftsmanship; otherwise I will feel my loneliness continually…I do not want to be lonely all my life but people only make us lonelier by reminding us of God. Dear God please help me to be an artist, please let it lead to you.” -Flannery O’Connor
My love for Flannery O’Connor has only grown this year, as I read “Revelation” and “Parker’s Back” and saw my own hypocrisy and self-assurance. Often, stories tap or beckon; rarely do they jerk. Flannery flat-out jerks me around – jerks me out of my complacency and into a sense of uncomfortable unrest. But never rudely; she’s ever well-mannered and gracious. I don’t read her stories; they read me.
Across the table from Flannery, we have my friend Graham Greene, the novelist who just about restored my hope for the Christian faith when he gave to Sarah Miles in The End of the Affair honest human words to speak, prayers such as, “I’m a bitch and a fake and I hate myself” and “I’m tired and I don’t want any more pain. I want Maurice. I want ordinary corrupt human love. Dear God, you know I want to want Your pain, but I don’t want it now. Take it away for a while and give it me another time.” So prayers can be honest. A sense of relief and familiarity raced through my body as I read. Thanks be to Graham Greene for giving me permission to pray honestly.
To his left sits a small man with a wiry frame, conspicuously dressed in priest’s garb. The one who told me that the world is charged with the grandeur of God, a phrase I often repeat to myself absentmindedly and presentmindedly both. Father Hopkins, the man whose voice sang out in Victorian England, who declared that all things harmonize in Christ, only in Christ, consonance is only present when Christ is present. Anything less is dissonance, is destructive interference, is cacophony. Thanks be to Gerard Manley Hopkins for riddling that words aren’t really so very different from music. Not so very different at all.
And so many others. So many others. Lewis, Berry, Huxley, Frost, Dickinson, Yeats, Buechner, Wordsworth, Shakespeare. Too many to name.
Sometimes when I read, I gradually become sad. Because I don’t like my voice, and I wish it was someone else’s – I wish it was better, more stylistic, more shimmering. It seems to trudge along, out-of-breath, behind the rest, the one on the hiking trip who is always stumbling over roots and always borrowing other people’s water bottles. To me, that’s my writing voice. I wish it wasn’t.
I just read over all my blog posts – all of them from before Africa until now. And not only is my voice decidedly unstylish, but it’s been doe-eyed and dishonest. It has been trite and pat, and it hasn’t gotten to the heart of things. It has tacked unrelated Christian themes onto the end of posts at random, and it has not said what it meant. It has hesitated to speak the truth of my experience; it has covered and glossed over many things unhappy in favor of dull religious jargon, when in fact, exploring the unhappiness would have been the more truthful thing to have done. And, of course, I speak of my voice in extended third person, because I wish not to confront the fact that I’m describing not my voice, but my past self, even myself today. Usually, I’m pretty ashamed of anything I’ve written more than ten minutes ago.
“I want my students to view all writing as communicating with another person,” writes my professor. And if I did that, I wouldn’t parade dull religious jargon before my readers; I would open a vein and write painfully, like Flannery says. I would be sensitive and careful, and I would be honest. And I would be true.
Please help me to be an artist, please let it lead to you.