My sister left this comment on my Facebook page: “You’re the Quoting Queen these days!”
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She was right. I looked back over my recent “status updates,” and more often than not, they weren’t status updates at all. They were quotations. Wise or funny or pithy little remarks – some well-known, others obscure – all eloquently expressed by someone other than myself. I knew I’d been suffering writer’s block, but ‘til then, I hadn’t realized just how far gone I was.
You know that old saying, “Those who can do, and those who can’t teach”? I always found it unfair. Seems to me that teaching is quite a “doing” in its own right. But I’ve come up with my own twist on the adage, and I think it’s pretty accurate: “Those who can write… write. Those who can’t… quote.”
And that’s been me, lately. A writer who can’t write. A commentator with no comment. A lowly purveyor of other people’s thoughts. I’ve been penning this column for over ten years now, and y’all know I’ve been through my dry spells before. Usually, they signal some internal conflict – or “cognitive dissonance” – as two contradictory ideas or impulses duke it out in my brain. I don’t always recognize the opponents, but that doesn’t stop them from wreaking havoc. Sometimes there’s a knockout, and this mental boxing match ends in a clear victory. Other times, the reigning champ and contender end up in a hearty bear hug, and I call a tie. But always, always, I have to suffer the punches – and counterpunches – for as many rounds as it takes. That typically means lots of reading, lots of pacing, lots of tossing and turning, and very little peace. If I’m lucky, I’ll come out a better writer, with a sharper, clearer vision… not to mention some fresh prose that floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. (Dang. There I go again…)
Since I’m currently stuck in this philosophical limbo – but can’t bear the shame of missing another issue – I thought I might review the quotations I’ve been posting, lately, and see if they provide clues to the state of my seized-up psyche. If you’re game for this experiment, stick around. If not, there’s some great stuff in this issue. You may move along, with my blessing.
“From politics, it was an easy step to silence.” – Jane Austen
This one’s obvious. I think I’m literally depressed (in a writerly sense) about the state of our political discourse. It’s increasingly futile – and frankly, masochistic – to attempt this type of discussion… in print, online, or even in person. There is no end, anymore, to the ways in which liberals and conservatives misunderstand and misrepresent each other. And I think it’s willful. That part frustrates me to the point of… well, silence. I ran across an excellent article in Utne Reader recently, called “Liberals Aren’t Un-American; Conservatives Aren’t Ignorant.” The author, Tom Jacobs, who self-identifies as a liberal, challenges the common wisdom – that liberalism is more “evolved” than conservatism, and will eventually “win out” – and argues that throughout human history, both impulses have been with us and probably always will be. Jacobs believes that’s a good thing. He argues persuasively that one’s tendency to lean “left” or “right” is as natural to an individual – part genetic, part environmental – as any other “natural” trait, and that the tension between these two dispositions is absolutely necessary to a healthy body politic. Isn’t that refreshing? Doesn’t it just make sense? If we could start thinking in those terms – respecting each other’s “diversity” in this area like we strive to in every other – what a different country this would be! Sure, we’d still have our struggles as we worked to maintain the right balance. But these ugly, personal attacks that assume the worst of our “opponents” and pander to the basest instincts of our allies? They would be seen as just another form of prejudice… and people of good will would cease to tolerate them.
“The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of a passionate intensity.” – William Butler Yeats, ‘The Second Coming’
I posted this one soon after the Jane Austen quote. It reflects a similar state of mind. I rarely listen to AM talk radio anymore, but when I do tune in, out of curiosity – and always with trepidation – the “passionate intensity” from the right chases me off pretty quick. That same “passionate intensity” is on display from the left every night on MSNBC. I like passion, and I even like intensity, but when they drown out reason and fairness and empathy, they cease to serve the common good. That’s what we’ve got going on here, folks. And if you think it’s just coming from the “other side,” chances are you’re caught up in it. We all know it’s hard to be objective in the throes of intense passion. Same goes for passionate intensity. My advice? Step away from the cable news and the talk radio. It won’t mean you “lack all conviction”… although, in Yeats’ futuristic vision (which feels eerily current) that would make you one of “the best.”
“Do what you will, there is going to be some benevolence, as well as some malice, in your patient’s soul. The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbours whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus become wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary.”
– C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
For those who haven’t read this brilliantly funny, wise little book, the character speaking here is Screwtape, a “senior devil,” advising his nephew Wormwood, a devil in training. The “patient” in question is the human to whom Wormwood has been assigned. Wormwood’s mission: To corrupt the man’s soul and win him over to the forces of Evil. While re-reading the book recently, this passage jumped out and practically choked me. I’ve been so sensitive, lately, to public figures like Keith Olbermann and Bill Maher, who proudly agitate for “humanitarian” causes but seem to have so little charity toward actual humans. I find myself wondering how much these scorn peddlers really care about the poor and disenfranchised, or about the “common American” they claim to champion, but who always seems to be the butt of their jokes. I wonder if they spend their free time building Habitat houses and working in soup kitchens and delivering Angel Food, like so many of my church friends, people who cheerfully give their time and money and energy, with no recognition, and who even manage a good-natured chuckle when they hear some late-night comic make yet another crack about Christians. Thinking of these people, and their simple grace, I’m suddenly ashamed of my own uncharitable thoughts. Olbermann, Maher, the late night comics… they, too, are my neighbors. They, too, deserve my benevolence. If I expect them to put themselves in the shoes of others, I have to try to put myself in theirs. Otherwise, Screwtape wins.
“When in Rome, do as you done in Milledgeville.” – Flannery O’Connor
This is my Facebook profile quote. It lives on my page permanently. (At least for now.) In a world moving quickly toward global homogenization, I like what it says about place and culture and regional identity. I lament the loss of these things… I mourn the coming sameness. I’m from somewhere, and I’m glad, and I don’t care if it’s old-fashioned. (I also think the quote’s damn funny.)
“Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.” – George Eliot
Do I really need to elaborate on this one? Fall is coming! That fact alone makes everything I’ve written above seem practically irrelevant. Nature’s like that. Isn’t it amazing?
“I’m just a girl who cain’t say No…” – Ado Annie, from the musical “Oklahoma”
When I posted this, I was scolding myself for once again biting off more than I can possibly chew this fall: performing in a play about the Hunting Island lighthouse… doing the yearbook at my daughter’s school… re-joining my church choir… among other things. But looking over this list of commitments, it occurs to me it just might be my salvation, the thing that pulls me out of my writer’s slump. Reading and thinking are great, but there’s nothing like getting out of your head and actually doing something. And so I will. And the inspiration will return, as it always does.
And when it does, I hope I can find time to write about it.