for years now, it’s been an annual rite of november — and i don’t mean the rite that stars the plucked and very plump bird. i mean the one where i pile up my books on writing, pore over the pages i find richest and wisest, scribble then type pages of notes, and shlep off to the high school, to try to impart a thing or three about the fine art of writing from the heart, searching for epiphany, making your story reach across the abyss that exists between us, between strangers, and sometimes even bedfellows, to cinch the space, the hollow, to fill it in with the communion of sparked connection. the one that comes when we dare to tell our truest true stories. when our truest true stories are heard, in that way that mysteriously, miraculously, defiantly opens — and channels — two hearts.
it’s litFest at the high school where my sweet boy is now counting down the days toward Triumphant Escape. he’s a senior. and litFest is only for seniors, so later this morning when i plug in my laptop, and fire up my modern-day slide show, i will more than likely be looking out at a sea of faces i’ve known since long before any one of them could read, let alone hold a pencil or squeeze out anything resembling a paragraph. (i’m told that a whole flock of my sweet boy’s best chums — the ones who know me only as the silver-haired marm who long drove the carpool, flipped the french toast, cheered from the side of the soccer field — they are coming to witness the fact that i have a life beyond the care and feeding of two growing boys. and they’re hoping i’ll tell a tale or two about their chum who’s long been my very best muse.)
i’ll be asking each one of them to write one true sentence about themselves. then i’ll ask them to write four more true sentences. and to circle the sentence that would be hardest to write about. to draw a rectangle around the one that most begs to be written about. and to scribble some form of a star next to the one that’s most uniquely their own story to tell, but also most likely to intersect with a story others know as their own. i’ll ask them to think a bit about what keeps them from plucking the sentence that’s circled or rectangled or starred, and plumbing its depths. then i’ll leave them alone with their thoughts while i talk to them about epiphany, and how the one fine thing that lifts a personal essay out of the belly of navel-gazing and into the realm of revelation, of the connectedness that comes between reader and writer, is the courage to tell the truth, to be willing to be vulnerable as you sift through the tangles for some glimmering shard of understanding, a deeper knowledge of what it means to be human — in all our foible and wobble and sorrow, and, yes, our occasional triumph and glory.
or, as the writer vivian gornick puts it: the narrator in personal narrative is “the instrument of illumination,” the “truth speaker.” the writer, she tells us, “is on a voyage of discovery,” comprised of almost equal parts narration, commentary, and analysis.
what makes personal narrative serve the reader, gornick says, is that “[w]e are in the presence…of a mind puzzling its way out of its own shadows — moving from unearned certainty to thoughtful reconsideration to clarified self-knowledge.”
put simply: the writer is leaning into question, searching for the why that propels the story, the self; not knowing quite what truth might be unearthed, but unearthing anyway. or as e. l. doctorow once explained: “it’s like driving a car at night; you can only see as far ahead as your headlights, but you can make the entire journey that way.”
i will remind these young writers that we’re using the tens of thousands of words in the dictionary just as the symphony uses its strings and its timpani, and as the painter dips her brush into infinite blendings of color. we are, as john cheever once wrote, trying to reach toward this narrative bar: “a page of good prose is where one hears the rain and the noise of battle. it has the power to give grief or universality that lends it a youthful beauty.”
or, as eudora welty once said: “no blur of inexactness, no cloud of vagueness, is allowable in good writing; from the first seeing to the last putting down, there must be steady lucidity and uncompromise of purpose.”
and then i will look out to the sea of seniors in high school, this classroom filled with kids who are spending the day immersed in spoken or written word, and i will ask them to put their fingers to keyboard, or pen to paper. i will ask them to pick one of their five sentences — including the one that might be the hardest to write about — and i will ask them to write without stopping — not for pause or punctuation, just push the truth out to the screen or the page — for the next 10 minutes. and then, without revealing a word out loud, i will ask them to look at their words and see if they’ve stumbled on one bit of self-understanding they’d not before known.
if one single one of them ever again remembers to reach for epiphany, or considers the power of telling true stories when the truth is your own, well then i’ll have taught the lesson i set out to learn.
what’s the one true story you’ve found the courage to tell? or for which you might some day muster said courage?
** and while we’re at it, here’s the latest chicago tribune roundup of books for the soul, published nov. 1:
“Sermons on the Parables” by Howard Thurman, edited with an introduction by David B. Gowler and Kipton E. Jensen, Orbis, 208 pages, $25
Howard Thurman, pastor to Martin Luther King Jr. and long considered one of the great spiritual thinkers and most powerful preachers of recent times, died in 1981, so his voice no longer shakes the sanctuary walls. But a new collection, “Sermons on the Parables,” is the surest dose of what’s needed in these fraught times: a clear, compelling voice that rises up from the page, illuminating a sacred way toward all that’s good and just.
It’s the closest we might come to counting ourselves among the blessed in his pews. All that’s missing is the rustling of fellow worshippers, shifting in their seats, and the booming decibels of the gifted preacher who aimed in his sermons for nothing less than “the moment when God appeared in the head, heart, and soul of the worshiper.”
The treasure here is not only the 15 previously unpublished sermons on the parables of Jesus (brilliantly retold and examined by Thurman), but the rich commentary that rightly refocuses the spiritual world’s attention on this extraordinary 20th-century luminary. It’s a book born out of conversation between editors David B. Gowler, who holds a chair in religion at Emory University, and Kipton E. Jensen, associate professor of philosophy at Morehouse College.
Oh, to have rocked beneath the rafters with Thurman at the pulpit.
“A Lens of Love” by Jonathan L. Walton, Westminster John Knox, 216 pages, $16
How fitting that Jonathan Walton, the Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, opens this serious and heartfelt biblical study in the intimacy of his Cambridge dining room, logs crackling in the fireplace nearby, as an eclectic mix of dinner guests steer conversation awkwardly toward the intimidating 66 books that comprise the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.
Walton, who is beloved in the classroom and at the pulpit, writes that a “silence born of biblical insecurity” among his dinner guests is what stirred him to begin the monthly scriptural study that underpins “A Lens of Love.” And it’s that posture — a certain humility — and approach — a serious sociohistorical analysis (“no text without context”) — that makes Walton’s work so unshakeable.
He brings a critical voice — that of the progressive evangelical, counterpoint to the conservative strain of American Christian evangelicalism — to the table. And he is driven, first, to illuminate the ancient world in which the Bible was produced, to lay bare its timeless teachings, and ultimately to apply those moral imperatives to our own wrestling with “the big questions of contemporary life.” His inquiry is guided at every turn by both a critical mind and sensitive heart.
In these pages, under Walton’s tutelage, we find a God who “sides with those on the underside of power.” Walton never shies from the unbearable questions of how God allows suffering. And he takes head-on his disillusionment with so many public professions of Christian piety in the Age of Trump. In Walton’s hands, the Bible becomes — for all of us, skeptics to die-hards — a tome of fathomless instruction.
“Tiny, Perfect Things” by M.H. Clark, illustrated by Madeline Kloepper, Compendium, 40 pages, $16.95
For this experiment in soul stretching, you might yearn for a young human to plop on your lap, but that’s hardly necessary.
What we have here is a picture book with text penned by a poet fluent in the fine art of paying fine-grained attention. Poets often are the prophets, the seers, among us. The book’s bold, colored-pencil pages — drawn by Madeline Kloepper, a Canadian artist who employs equal parts sweetness and curiosity — will reach out and not let you go.
“Tiny, Perfect Things” wants to slow you — and your optional young reader — to a somnolent amble. Learn to look closely, seems the instruction. Practice here — in the luscious pages of the picture book extolling the wonders of the world all around — and you might learn to apply the technique to the rest of your life. The litany here, as a young girl and her grandfather head out for a walk as day turns to night, is simple enough: a spider’s web that’s caught the light, a snail that’s climbed a fence post, an invincible flower rising from a sidewalk crack, even the magic of shadowplay.
It’s the beholding of the oft-unnoticed that is the blessing. And this is a book that invites you to practice through the slow, simple turning of page after tiny, perfect page.
Barbara Mahany’s latest book,“The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published last spring.