Reading is a Sacred Act: A Follow-up

A semi-companion to this post about writing and a direct sequel to this one about reading spiritual books by women. 

I promised, a while ago, to follow up my post about women’s writing (and why we should be reading more of it) with a list of some of my personal “must-reads” — the books by women that have most deeply impacted my heart and mind.

At the time, I didn’t quite realize what an impossible task I’d set myself.

How does one curate such a list? Even if the only criteria is “personal impact,” how is one to measure and define such impact? Especially across genres and years? How do I compare Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s Moccasin Trail, for instance, one of my favorite Newberry Honor books from grade school (which spoke to my heart deeply on the topics of exile and displacement — the losses and gains of straddling worlds) with Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, or (on an even more different playing field) Jeannette Winterson’s Art Objects? For that matter, should Moccasin Trail even be a candidate, given that its protagonist is male? And what about Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, loved so dearly for its lyricism and strangeness, which I would claim as one of my all-time favorite classics … but which boils down, in the end, to a masterfully told tale?

I can hear the hecklers already, It’s your list, do what you want. Yet it’s such a knotty business, choosing favorites. Publicly declaring, This matters more to me than all those others I left off the list. And whether one wants to admit it or not, the public aspect also gets messy. By posting this on a public blog, I’m not really saying, simply, Here are some books that moved me, challenged me, changed me. I’m saying, Here are some books I think you, too, should read. Yet, as a teacher, I recognize that my personal favorites are not always the best books for my classroom. Personal impact is not the same as “objective” worth (or general value). Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance, is an important read, and, dealing with gender and religion as it does, leaving it off the list seems almost irresponsible. It would certainly belong on a list of “books you should read.” Yet, while it was certainly thought-provoking, engaging, and worth my time, its personal impact was limited.

And if you’re thinking, Wait, I thought the whole point (as stated in the aforementioned article) was that these were meant to be spiritual books by women … well, that isn’t as simple as it might sound either. You see, there’s a reason I majored in literature in college. A reason I cared enough about what and how students were reading to become an English teacher upon graduating. Literature has been inextricably tied up with my faith journey since I read my first Newberry Honor book when I was eight. Earlier, actually, since I was already listening to stories (read aloud, played on tape, told orally) long before I could read them. I’ve read, and been deeply impacted by, my fair share of nonfiction over the years, but it is in the pages of fiction that I most consistently come face to face with the deep truths, beauty, and goodness that have drawn my heart, over and over, back to God.

If I hadn’t known Aslan as a child,1 or had my heart pierced by Justin’s sacrifice,2 or longed for the glory of Arthur,3 or tasted Hassan’s goodness4 — if I hadn’t had my imagination sanctified, over and over again, with glimpses of meaning, of sacrifice, of hope — if I hadn’t tasted life so often and so young — would I have recognized, in Christ, the fulfillment of my heart’s yearning? Or even known what I was yearning for?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that I came to God by way of story. By way of literature. By way of books. And for me there is no clear demarcation between the spiritual and the secular in this realm. Rather, there are books that send me back to the world alive and awake (to wonder, to beauty, to pain, to the search for truth, to the need for healing, to the yearning for joy) — and books that do not.

As a Christ-follower, I also believe that part of our calling, as readers, writers, artists, people, is to search for that goodness, coherence, meaning, and beauty in the world around us5 (to create cosmos out of chaos, as Madeleine L’Engle might put it6). Are some texts drivel that do little more than de-sensitize us to the sorrows and joys of our fragile, beautiful world? Of what it means to live, to love, to die — to be human? Undoubtedly. Pornography’s a real thing (the dangers of which go far beyond the boundaries of trivializing sexual encounter — for treating sex casually is nothing compared to treating people casually, treating life casually, treating meaning casually). Yet I’d rather be on the lookout for the sacred than spend my time decrying the profane. Which is why I’d happily declare Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and James Goldman’s Lion in Winter two of the most moral, spiritual, and powerful texts I know.

So, yes, I’m still working on those lists (which will probably appear as a series of several shorter lists — divided by genre, topic, etc. — to make the act of choosing less traumatic). It’s quite possible that many (most) of the selected books won’t explicitly deal with faith — or be written by those who identify as people of faith. Even so, I see them connected, inextricably, with the purpose laid out in that original blog post: to cast our nets wider and encounter the image of God in places we have long ignored (namely, the words spoken by women).

As you wait for my lists with bated breath, what are some of your favorite texts by women? Or some of the unexpected places where you have encountered God? What stories remind you that there is hope and goodness in the world? Something to fight for, something to gain, something to lose? Something to this business of living that matters and matters mightily? 

Footnotes:

  1. C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia
  2. Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
  3. Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy
  4. Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner
  5. Philippians 4:8 — “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
  6. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art

 

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Creation is a Sacred Act: An Ode to NaNoWriMo

My plan was to spend November writing a novel.

For those of you familiar with NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), this won’t seem like such an extreme goal. After all, hundreds and thousands of people engage in the challenge every year, many of them successfully.

In the last six years, I’ve completed NaNoWriMo four times — once independently, the rest as collaborative efforts with a long-time friend and writing partner. From historical fiction, to fantasy, sci-fi, and retold fairytales, NaNoWriMo has been an opportunity to experiment, create, and delve into the unknown.

I am by nature a slow writer. A precise writer. A perfectionist. In college, it was not unusual for me to write, delete, and rewrite an opening sentence for several hours before finally stumbling upon the right introduction — the right entry into my topic, the right angle for my ideas.

As a writing teacher, this is not how I encourage my students to write. Nothing is more deadly to creativity than fear of the blank page, the blank screen. Than the pressure to get it right. If we are to create — anything at all — we must be willing to get our hands dirty. One can’t complete a project — no matter how long or short — without beginning. Without risking those first words on the page. Without braving imperfection and failure.

The artist, while taking their subject seriously, must be free to take themselves lightly. To experiment and play with their medium — with brush and paints and words on a page.

To this end, NaNoWriMo is a powerful tool. It’s impossible to write carefully, precisely, perfectly when one is writing 1700 words a day. Impossible to allow one’s inner-editor to speak too loud. When one must progress the narrative from one day to the next (no matter how incomprehensible — how stuck or lost — that narrative may seem at any given moment), there is no time to second-guess (to write, delete, and write again) — no time for anything but the day to day discipline of showing up, of engaging with possibility.

And the miracle — like an image emerging from finger-paints, paper-scraps, and plaster — comes through the mess. In the midst of useless paragraphs, dead-end scenes, and mind-numbing prose, comes a sentence here, a character there, a moment, an exchange, that ring unquestionably true and would never have existed if the exercise had not forced you to put words to the digital page. When the month ends, there is no finished product, only an unwieldy conglomeration of words and characters and scenes (which may or may not resemble a traditionally defined “plot”1). But there is also the heady rush of creation — of something existing, taking up space in the world, that a month before did not.

Not to mention the intangible impact of the discipline itself. A practice of courage, of playfulness, of creativity, and of faith. Showing up, day after day (whether filled with hope or overwhelmed with discouragement), to enact a belief that faithfulness on this long, slow road — no matter how imperfect today’s writing might be — will lead somewhere in the end.

And maybe that destination won’t be publication or writing contracts or fame. Maybe we’ll discover — as Anne Lamott suggests — that it was an inner journey all along. A journey towards remembrance, forgiveness, wholeness, peace. A journey about slowing down, coming alive, and paying attention. A journey to set us free from fear.

Fear of the other. Fear of ourselves. Fear of the questions (the ones with answers and the ones without). Fear of the unknown. Fear of not getting it right.

“Our real illiteracy is our inability to create,” declares the artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. And if there’s one thing of which I’m convinced, it’s that fear is at the heart of this illiteracy. Every child comes into the world as a creator, an artist, inherently aware that the world is to be built with, played with, explored. The loss of that confidence represents an estrangement from our birthright — our identity as beings created in the image of a creator God.

The discipline, therefore, of showing up and reclaiming our creativity in the face of our fears (of worthlessness, of inadequacy, of imperfection) is much more than a cute hobby for young writers — it’s a spiritual act. An affirmation of sacred identity. A resistance of the accuser with their certainty that — as we are now — we have nothing of value to add, nothing of worth to say.2

To write, to create, to not give up is to affirm hope. Is to say yes to life.

If you completed NaNoWriMo on Friday, congratulations! Exult in that feeling of completion. In the knowledge that you set your mind on a goal (a pretty big goal at that) and followed through. That no matter how unfinished your work still feels — how messy or imperfect — you showed up. You said no to fear and birthed something into existence. Something that didn’t exist in October and would never have existed without your fingers on that keyboard (however exhilarating, or painful, those hours turned out to be).

But if, like me, that isn’t quite how your November went, take heart. Not stumbling isn’t the point; the point is to keep going once you do.

This was originally intended to be a post about why I failed to complete NaNoWriMo this year — but that ultimately seemed less important than why I believe in NaNoWriMo in the first place. 

Footnotes

  1. Some people seem capable of this particular aspect of novel writing. It is not, personally, much of a strength.
  2. You will be like God, the serpent tells Eve. You will know good from evil. You will be better. More. Enough.