The Ignored Familiar

“This or that particular, in nature or in a person, which will probably be the ignored familiar, is not to be forgotten or overlooked; it is to be noticed, and maybe (in the world of a great artist) made to glow with light.” —Michael Mayne[1]

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard opens up the agony and (occasional) ecstasy of writing. “This writing that you do,” she says pitilessly, “that so thrills you, that so rocks and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else.”[2] The reader comes in from the noise of the street of life, and picks up your book, she says. He or she can’t hear a thing. “It will take half an hour to pick up the writing’s modulations, its ups and downs and louds and softs.” Learn a trade, she cautions the young writer. Something to support your consuming addiction of laying down a line of words and seeing where it leads.

Perhaps less tongue-in-cheek, but no less heartfelt is George Orwell’s famous admission that “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”[3]

We who love books can only be grateful that these tortured souls persevered. From their travail is birthed for us flights of imagination, ladders to the sky, that line of words laid down which carves a path through the wilderness. Seamus Heaney, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature (1995), found that “The achievement of a poem, after all, is an experience of release… A plane is — fleetingly — established where the poet is intensified in his being and freed from his predicaments.”[4]

At the end of a long journey of false starts, glimmers of light that dance away and fade, rockslides that block the path and countless other metaphors, there is a moment in the bracing sharpness of clean, mountain air. From the summit, one takes in the view with joy and gratitude. However momentary, that is reward enough. Down below, in the shadows of one’s achievement, is the valley which one must traverse on the way to the next peak.

The popular stereotype about writers, that they wait for inspiration, is only half right, but it’s the half that students often claim in the backwash of a late paper. Writers do wait on inspiration, but it’s a waiting that is active. “Arse in the chair,” says Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin, and other bestselling novels. That’s the only way the words will show up, and if no one is home or that writer is mesmerized by YouTube, the moment may pass with nothing to show for it. “You lay out a line of words,” says Annie Dillard, the most basic and necessary move that can be made.

“An intellectual must always be ready to think, that is, to take in a part of the truth conveyed to him by the universe,” wrote the Dominican priest, A. G. Sertillanges, in 1921. “The Spirit passes and returns not. Happy the man who holds himself ready not to miss, nay rather to bring about and to utilize, the miraculous encounter! Every intellectual work begins by a moment of ecstasy…”[5]

Sertillanges wrote his book, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods, for anybody who wanted to think — and capture those thoughts — in a more disciplined and systematic way. His book, while compact and serious, is not an “elitist” work; that is to say, it does not recognize the great divide artificially constructed by those in American culture who regard “book learning” with suspicion. For him, thinking and studying, writing and art, are avenues of the Spirit. “Listening to oneself is a formula that amounts to the same thing as listening to god. It is in the creative Thought that our true being lies, our self in its authentic shape.”[6] This takes time. The most mediocre mind, he says, can come up with a brilliant idea: the difficulty is cutting that into a jewel and placing it in a setting that illuminates its brilliance.

Colum McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer, strikes me not only as practical and wise words for writers, but as a witty, philosophical, and tender parallel to the work of faith. Yes — I put those two words, “work” and “faith,” together. More on that later. “Do not allow your heart to harden,” McCann encourages us. “Enjoy difficulty. Embrace mystery. Find the universal in the local… Transcend the personal. Have trust in the staying power of what is good.”[7]

***

Annie Dillard’s first non-fiction book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), garnered her the Pulitzer Prize at the young age of twenty-nine. It chronicled a year that she spent in the company of Tinker Creek, a tributary of the Roanoke River in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. It is a work of seeing — of regarding, with attention and patience — the life beneath the leaves and the waters. Dillard thinks of it as a “work of theology.”

She notices that a flock of migrating red-winged blackbirds are noisily feeding in an Osage orange tree down by the creek. She approaches carefully — and a hundred birds fly away. She walks closer and another hundred lift off and vanish into the sky. “Finally I walked directly to the trunk of the tree and a final hundred, the real die-hards, appeared, spread, and vanished. How could so many hide in the tree without my seeing them?... I wandered downstream to force them to play their hand, but they’d crossed the creek and scattered. One show to a customer… It’s all a matter of keeping my eyes open.”[8]

How much is there, just beyond our present gaze, close enough to fingertips, welling into consciousness, if only we are aware! I am beginning to understand how a God who is near to us but not visible, transcendent but accessible through the world and the Word, can be apprehended. Michael Mayne, one of the handful of great poet-priests in the Anglican tradition, writes of the cantus firmus, the deep bass line that anchored medieval plainsong, as being akin to that which we discover is authentically ours and authentically us. He sees it as comprised of three strands: human love and friendship, experience of beauty and order found in art, literature, music, and nature, and “the third strand, undergirding the whole, has to do with those ultimate existential questions that come under the general heading of ‘faith.’”[9]

It is the business of writers, artists, musicians, to notice and to pay attention. That which counts as inspiration — the drawing in of breath — comes as the shock of the new emerges from the “ignored familiar,” to use Mayne’s phrase. The familiar story in the Gospels, read a thousand times until its edge is dulled, comes up fresh and new through the eyes and thoughts of the writer, the preacher, the artist, each of them alive to story as the touchstone for unexpected treasure.

To be sure, this experience is not always a common one. Sometimes we go through the motions, looking but not seeing, reading but not comprehending. This is where the Spirit enlivens us as we are receptive — and that, I think, is key — when we look for the unseen and expect the unexpected. Like a writer, this waiting is not passive, but an active receptive spirit tuned to the faintest vibrations that may come to us. Our faith is our constant experience of seeking and finding, rousing ourselves to “lay out a line of words” in the hope and trust that it will lead us to our story.

Amidst the din of our culture and times, this seeking takes effort. It may seem that the signs around us point in any direction but toward the Spirit. We must be alert; there will be no thunder and lightning, no shaking of the mountaintop. The Welsh poet-priest, R. S. Thomas, muses about the Spirit’s movements, so essential in our understanding as people of faith and as thinkers and writers:

“As I had always known

he would come, unannounced,

remarkable merely for the absence

of clamour. So truth must appear

to the thinker; so, at a stage

of the experiment, the answer

must quietly emerge.”[10]

All our seeings — the remembered, the present, the yet-to-be-seen — are blazing portals to the holy. Leaping through, we may glimpse a burning bush, hear “a still, small voice,” squint against the light cast into the desert by a stairway to heaven, and — catapulted forward by centuries — peer through an open door to a room where a man asks for a piece of fish from his dumbstruck friends. All these stories transcribe the notes of the cantus firmus by which we live and sing.

Notes & References:

[3] Orwell, George. Why I Write. Great Ideas ed. New York: Penguin, 1984, p. 10

[6] Sertillanges, p. xx.

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, ethics, and communications for 37 years at universities in Maryland and Washington, DC. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. Email him at darmokjilad@gmail.com.

Photo credit: Erico Marcelino on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9816
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Barry, I find your writing to be thoughtful and full of wisdom.Confronting an upsetting experience through writing allows me to have a less emotionally laden assessment of its meaning and impact. Once organized, events become smaller and smaller and therefore easier to deal with. Writing moves us to resolution. U have found for myself that expressive writing to be most healing, wI need to get beyond my tendency to only vent. The greatest health benefits of writing occur when I write a story with structure, causal explanation, repetition of themes, and a balanced narrative.

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Sam, thank you. And I think you just proved your point!

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Barry –
There is a recent movie out that characterizes the agony
and exhaustive energy that good writing consumes.
“The Man Who Invented Christmas”. A short story about
Charles Dickens and his book, “A Christmas Carol”.

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Sam –
Creativity, of which just writing something down is one of the higher
levels of thinking, is Right Side brain activity.
It allows the Right Side to talk to the Left, to sooth and hold the
Left as it trudges through the day to day issues of life, work and
non-work.
The Right Side forces us, if we allow it, to take a break, and look at
the beauty of things around us. to describe the sun, light and shadow,
a star, the moon, birds singing their lullabies to their babies at night,
squirrels picking up their bedtime snacks, the insect voices, even
pictures in the clouds.

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@niteguy2 and therein lies the problem, doesn’t it. To folks who “don’t like poetry”, men stuck on “logic only”, prisoners of the left brain, this makes no sense.

Perhaps the curse of Babel was God performing a corpus callosotomy on men.
Women seem to have much less problem with bi-hemispheric brain communication.

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Well said. Thank you Steve!

“To defend what you’ve written is a sign that you are alive.” —William Zinsser, WD

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Sometimes sitting there, allowing all the many vibrations of nature
in the evening invade one’s senses – skin, eyes, ears, one can
think of friends.
Last year in the late evening as the sun was setting, it came to
mind that my Sunset was the Sunrise for a Facebook friend in
Melbourne, Australia. He would be on his way to work. I enjoyed
that thought, but could have missed it if indoors.

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It has been said that the networks connecting the two hemispheres of the female brain is similar to an efficient 8 lane highway, whereas male’s brain is connected by what is likened to an over-grown cow path.

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Poetry? What is that Steve? My brain does not even process the word… :wink:

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Hey George, is this a joke?:rofl: I didn’t know @Timo is Steve!

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Give me an appointment to see you asap Elmer! … LOL I had to pretend a mistake because Timo could just get exasperated seeing me addressing to him … : laughing

Sitting in the doctor’s room, waiting for him to knock on the door. Appears to be a carpal tunnel issue on R hand. Writing too much on Spectrum may be his conclusion… lol

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I especially like about the article that waiting is part of the creative process. Our societies are so obsessed with the outcome, they don’t acknowledge the process how it’s done.

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No wonder men fear asking for directions!

Hey, is there something we can do for our friend @GeorgeTichy ?
He’s knockin’ up on my Spectrum door mumbling about Steve but talking to you whilst pretending to believe I have right sided CTS and acting like he expects me to be exasperated by his “mistake” all the while he is claiming to be waiting in his office for me. Did he finally crack his nut? I sure hope he’s just trying to be immorigerous, but i might be mistaking it for the real thing. Praying its not refractory or recurrent, poor guy, i believe he means well but he tries too hard. i suppose it was inevitable. Please reiterate to him that I am grateful for his concerns, but that I am still honestly ambidexter[sic] and my Rt. carpus is uninjured. Hopefully that will help allay his fears. However, my stenosing tenosynovitis of the right forefinger is in exacerbation hence i am resting my thenar eminence and texting this utilizing my digitus manus primus
(or pollex, in case i am coming across all thumbs)

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You’ve been swimming up against the tide lately here at Spectrum & Fulcrum7. Time to push your reset button, amigo. Too much stress…,

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Barry,
In my 9th grade HS class we had (were blessed) to memorize this poem. It’s message helps one survive on Spectrum.:slight_smile:

IF- BY RUDYARD KIPLING

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster (That’s Triump George…not Trump!.. :slight_smile:
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

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There was once a poster who identified himself as Red @Red . He, @Arkdrey and you share common histories I wonder whether all three of you are one and the same.

Just curious.

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Not me amigo. It’s just me Pat. Arkdrey’s heritage it seems was behind the iron curtain. Mine is below the Mason-Dixon line.:slight_smile: Ancestors came from Scottish/Irish in 1700’s and settled Virginia and the Appalachian Trail.
As to Red, don’t know him either. Probably more info than you were looking for!

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Not me, myself or i. Just Red. Dad born in China… maternal grandfather from South Africa. Born in Southeast Asia… lived in Africa and traveled around the world. Need my blood type? It’s RED.

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What part of SE Asia?
Do you have “white privilege” with that background? :slight_smile: