When We Are Hungry: Reading & Writing as Spiritual Endeavor
This essay first appeared in a print edition of The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies (now Confluence: The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies)
Dorn: Hey-a bit excitable, aren’t you? Tears in your eyes – Now, my point is this. You took your plot from the realm of abstract ideas, and quite right too, because a work of art simply must express some great idea. Nothing can be beautiful unless it is also serious. I say, you are pale.
Treplev: So you don’t think I should give up?
Dorn: No. But you must describe only the significant and eternal.
Anton Chekhov (Safire 115-16
We do not always understand what makes a story significant and eternal, yet we often recognize it when we read it. The best writing changes us, and before we can protest, we emerge from the page a new creation. Writing as art must do more than entertain because writing and reading are inherently spiritual endeavors, whether we want them to be or not. In his essay “The Power of Stories,” Scott Russell Sanders tells us ten of the reasons we need stories. “Stories entertain us; create community; help us to see through the eyes of other people; show us the consequences of our actions; educate our desires; help us dwell in place; help us dwell in time; help us deal with suffering, loss, and death; teach us how to be human; and acknowledge the wonder and mystery of Creation” (Sanders 115). Sanders lends us this framework to begin to understand what makes a story writing as art.
The order of Sanders’ list intrigues, from one to ten; and it is not surprising to find that the first need is basic while the final deals with matters of the universe. Sanders writes: “In scriptures we speak of God’s thoughts as if we could read them; but we read only by the dim light of a tricky brain on a young planet near a middling star. Nonetheless, we need these cosmic narratives, however imperfect they may be, however filled with guesswork. So long as they remain open to new vision, so long as they are filled with awe, they give us hope of finding meaning within the great mystery” (126). What is it that happens to us when we discover something miraculous play the essential part of an essay or a story or a novel or a poem, when we suspend all disbelief and just trust that the writer is telling us the truth? In the best stories, no one presents the answer, instead they offer the questions. The best stories ask us, certainly without telling us, to be better. The best stories might even make us want to be better.
It seemed to me that this life that we live in half-darkness can be illumined, this life that at every moment we distort can be restored to its true pristine shape, that a life, in short, can be realized within the confines of a book!…is to be found probably only in worlds other than our own and the presentiment of which is the thing that moves us most deeply in life and art.
Marcel Proust (Safire 38)
What are we after when we sit down to read, when we sit down to write? Sanders says: “we may all be fed and even restored by a tale that speaks to our condition” (Sanders 115). And writer Patricia Weaver Francisco says that a good story is like food; you should feel like you’ve eaten (Francisco 2003). When we are hungry, if we are starving even, and we sit down, we are not looking for an empty plate, or a plate filled only with sweets, or loveliness, or nonsense. Whether we make the meal, or eat it, we want it to be substantial. We want to be satiated. Often, as Sanders points out, what we are really hungry for is hope.
When describing the classification of Western Apache narratives Keith Basso, an anthropologist and writer to whom Sanders refers in his essay, first provides a definition of: “‘myths’ (godiyihgo nagoldi’e; literally, ‘to tell of holiness’)” (Basso 48). Later, Basso goes on to say: “myths deal with events that occurred ‘in the beginning’ (godiyaana’), a time when the universe and all things within it were achieving their present form and location. Performed only by medicine men and women, myths are presented for the primary purpose of enlightenment and instruction: to explain and reaffirm the complex processes by which the known world came into existence” (48-49). Only the most spiritual members of the community could “tell of holiness.” Who do we trust to tell our holiness? Beyond the respective myths of our childhood, where do we look for “enlightenment and instruction” today? Not every story can be every story, nor should it. And like the Western Apache, sometimes we want the other forms of narrative that Basso explains; we want “gossip” or “saga” or a necessary and accurate “historical tale” (48). But the writing of Jane Austen would be wanting if she only gave us the neighborhood gossip; we need and want more. And sometimes we are looking beyond our community, beyond our countries, and even beyond our earthly past and future. Sometimes we are very hungry, and it is very dark, and what we need more than anything is some light and wisdom. No matter how enlightened the story teller, no matter what the subject, the style or the genre, what the best stories try to do is give us a little light and wisdom.
And what about those stories that leave us wanting? No, not every story can be every story, and our hungers are not always the same. Yet we all feel betrayed when a story we believed in fails to deliver. A friend we thought we could trust has disappointed us. We flounder, we may even grieve.
And we defend a story we love as if it were our child or our lover. Why does it matter? Because this is not a matter of reason or logic; this is not the stuff of the mind. We are puzzled and even saddened when our friend cannot see what we see. “Look! Look!” we say, pointing to the beautiful words, and our friend just slowly shakes her head. It is a lot like faith: we simply believe in it.
Life is not a series of giglamps symmetrically arranged; but a luminous halo, a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration of complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible?
Virginia Woolf (Safire 21)
Sanders’ list of why we need stories and Basso’s types of narratives leads us toward another orderly shape, Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs.” We recall Maslow as the father of humanistic psychology. He called this approach the “third force,” and saw it as both an answer to and a necessary companion of psychoanalysis and behaviorism. It is important to understand that Maslow believed human beings are inherently good (Corsini 342-3), and that when things are not so good, in one’s psyche or behavior, human beings want to and are capable of change (Magill 454). Key to humanistic psychology was this assertion: a person must have his or her basic needs met in order to begin to work toward self-actualization, which has been defined as: “a biologically and culturally determined process involving a tendency toward growth and full realization of one’s potential characterized by acceptance, autonomy, accuracy, creativity, and community” (679).
Maslow recognized that individual growth is not static; for instance, crisis or grief can cause a person to need the most basic of things, to feel unsafe, or to question his or her self-worth. It was most useful, therefore, to understand the minds of those considered healthy, even highly self-actualized, in order to help those who were psychologically ill (Corsini 343). It seems that Maslow was interested in prevention, recovery, and potential. It seems that Maslow, like Sanders today, was interested in hope
Maslow found that when individuals reached a high stage of self-actualization they shared some common traits, including: “identification with humanity…emotional depth…a philosophic rather than caustic sense of humor…transcendence of the environment…creativity” (343). Does this sound anything like someone we might trust, anything like a story worth believing, anything like the way we might someday hope to be? We would be foolish to think that the writers we love, those who time and time again give us writing as art, were or are fully self-actualized creators. Nor are their characters or the worlds they inhabit fully self-actualized creations. They may, writers or characters or imaginary worlds, even be lacking the most basic of needs. Neither do we miraculously become self-actualized human beings after reading writers like Scott Russell Sanders, Bharati Mukherjee, Gish Jen, or Lucille Clifton. But these stories, the best stories, are somehow headed in the same general direction. Writing as art accomplishes this in surprising ways that we do not fully understand, probably too many ways for a list or a pyramid. Writing as art can show us what is missing, so that we see the potential, the hope. It can knock us down with honesty and make us want to be honest, too. It can work toward meeting the needs we did not even know we had. It can go to work in us and through us, toward making us see, making us understand, making us better than when we began.
The artist must raise everything to a higher level: he is like a pump; inside him is a great pipe reaching down into the bowels of things, the deepest layers. He sucks up what was pooled beneath the surface and brings it forth into the sunlight in giant sprays.
Gustave Flaubert (Safire 25)
Look again at Sanders’ ten reasons we need stories. It makes sense when Sanders suggests that good stories often meet several of these needs for the reader. And a story that just entertains, or just shows us our place in time, or just creates community may be a very good story; good at what it is doing, well written, well worth reading and enjoying.
But writing as art always does more; writing as art always aims high. Writing as art must deal with Chekhov’s “significant and eternal.” Stories that try their best to meet one of Sanders’ final three needs, stories that “help us deal with suffering, loss and death; teach us how to be human; and acknowledge the wonder and mystery of Creation” (115) are also working toward meeting our highest needs — toward our need for self-actualization, toward our need for someone we trust to “tell of holiness.” These are the kinds of stories we can call writing as art.
When we look at trouble, such as in Bharati Mukherjee’s short story, “The Management of Grief,” we see that writing as art can “help us deal with suffering, loss and death” (Sanders 115). And we can see why Sanders quotes Baldwin, saying: “‘[W]hile the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it must always be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we have in all this darkness’” (Sanders 124). We grieve with Shaila Bhave, whose husband and sons were killed when a terrorist bomb caused their plane to crash into the sea. We trust Mukherjee, in large part because she asks our questions. Like several of Shaila’s friends and neighbors, Kusum, too, has lost children, and asks: “Why does God give us so much if all along He intends to take it away?” (Mukherjee 181). A woman boiling water for tea says, “I got the news first. My cousin called from Halifax before six A.M., can you imagine?” (180). And we might remember an early morning call; we might think, yes, we can imagine. Mukherjee also forgives her characters, and us, for being so very human. Shaila thinks: “I am a freak. No one who has ever known me would ever think of me reacting this way. This terrible calm will not go away” (183). And we remember our own dull shock, or the shock we witnessed in someone we love. Mukherjee lets the ghost of Shaila’s husband, Vikram, visit her in a temple one day. This is told simply, without alarm, as Virginia Woolf would have had it. For awhile Shaila’s nights are filled with visions. She seeks understanding everywhere, but she knows nothing is simple, and so do we. Later, we hear Shaila wonder, “How to tell Judith Templeton that my family surrounds me and that like creatures in epics, they’ve changed shapes?” (192) And Shaila hopes because “it is a parent’s duty to hope” (186). She watches for signs. Then, her family leaves her again, because they believe in her, and they tell her that it is she who is ready to “Go, be brave” (197). When we leave this story, we hope that in grief we, too, would notice the signs, that we would someday be ready, and that we would, once again, be delighted; that somehow, we might triumph.
When we look at how much we still have to learn, such as in Gish Jen’s novel Typical American, we see that writing as art can “teach us how to be human” (Sanders 115). And we see why Sanders contends that “while stories may display skill aplenty in technique or character or plot, what the best of them offer is wisdom” (125). Ralph Chang, his wife Helen, and his sister Theresa are Chinese immigrants working to make a life and a family in America. This story does not force any truth, but rather Jen asks some difficult questions and trusts us to find our own wisdom. Ralph Chang thinks: “Xiang banfa – An essential Chinese idea – he had to think of a way. In a world full of obstacles, a person needed to know how to go around. What banfa did he have, though?” (Jen 27). After moving from Ralph and Helen’s home in anger, Theresa asks herself: “Is to leave a family to embrace it?” (211). When Helen’s affair is still a secret, Ralph, ever consistent in his inconsistent adherence to Chinese traditions, questions why his wife is suddenly so talkative. Helen wonders: “had breaking one enormous rule enabled her to break others?” (258). Ralph later thinks: “Even China, enormous China, had fallen, fallen, until it became a thing recalled…How should he prove more durable?” (271). These questions are timeless and essential. If we dare ask them of ourselves, what might happen inside of us? The right question, at the right time can change our minds; it can change us at our core. We answer yes or no or take too long to reply, and everything turns. This can happen in life, but it can also happen on the page; it can be less painful on the page. So if we are notice, and are listening, we might learn something about being human.
When we dare to look beyond what we think we see, such as in Lucille Clifton’s poetry collection The Terrible Stories, we see that writing as art can make us want “to acknowledge the wonder and mystery of Creation” (Sanders 115). And we understand why Sanders shares this particular advice from Borges: “‘I think one should work into a story the idea of not being sure of all things – because that’s the way reality is’” (125-126). Like Jen in Typical American and Mukherjee in “The Management of Grief,” Clifton asks questions in her concise and enormous poems. And like Mukherjee’s Shaila, Clifton’s narrators are visited by ghosts; grandmothers speak in tongues and waltz down church aisles with angels; and in her final section of poems, Clifton’s narrator speaks entirely through the voice of the Old Testament David (Clifton). Clifton affirms the artist as creator and the Creator as artist. Though a familiar metaphor, we trust her when she lifts up art as creation and the universe as Creation. Clifton makes it personal, because she asks us, again and again, to dare to make art, to dare to tell our stories. She asks this ancient and essential question, should one make art in an often tragic world? And then she answers, essentially: Yes! We must! The very best way to see Clifton’s nod toward wonder and creation are found in her words, not mine:
what manner of man
if I am not singing to myself
to whom then? each sound, each word
is a way of wondering that first
brushed against me in the hills
when i was an unshorn shepherd boy.
each star that watched my watching then
was a mouth that would not speak.
what is a man? what am i?
even when i am dancing now i am dancing
myself onto the tongue of heaven
hoping to move into some sure
answer from the Lord.
how can this david love himself,
be loved (i am singing and spinning now)
if he stands in the tents of history
bloody skull in one hand, harp in the other?
Does Clifton know that her poems might make us want to believe in something? Does Jen know that her novel might make us want to be better people? Does Mukherjee know that her story might make us want to live well, to pay attention, and to hope? When they sat down to ask questions, when they sat down to write, did they know that their stories would “describe—the significant and eternal” (Safire 116) and would work toward meeting some of our highest needs? Did they know that their stories would become writing as art? It doesn’t really matter, because, as Keats says: “The Genius of Poetry must work out its own salvation in man: it cannot be matured by law and precept, but by watchfulness in itself. That which is creative must create itself” (Safire 57). The best stories ask questions, they ask more of themselves, and they ask more of us. In writing as art, we must encounter the beautiful and serious together, because that is exactly where they belong.
Basso, Keith. H. “Stalking with Stories.” Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 1996. 37-70. Print.
Clifton, Lucille. The Terrible Stories. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions. 1996. Print.
Corsini, Raymond J. ed. Encyclopedia of Psychology. vol. 2. New York: John Wiley and Sons. 1984. Print.
Francisco, Patricia Weaver. “A Night of Fiction, Stories, Craft.” Hamline University. St. Paul, MN. 28 October 28 2003. Lecture.
Jen, Gish. Typical American. New York: Penguin Books. 1991. Print.
Magill, Frank N. ed. Psychology Basics. vol. 2. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press. 1998. Print.
Mukherjee, Bharati. “The Management of Grief.” The Middleman and Other Stories. New York: Grove Press. 1998. 179-97. Print.
Safire, William and Leonard Safir, eds. Good Advice on Writing: Writers Past and Present on How to Write Well. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1992. Print.
Sanders, Scott Russell. “The Power of Stories.” Georgia Review 51, no.1. 1997. 113-26. Print.