30 January 2006

Captains of Industry

“If you really believe what you just told me,” my professor said. “I don't think you can write a Senior Thesis. You need to write a story.”

I had just proposed the subject of my crowning project as a literature major. At a meeting over lunch, I laid out all the books that I wanted to work with, the questions I wanted to ask, all about aesthetics and art in the church and truth and beauty. It sounded pretty good and high-flown and intellectual. It sounded plausible and interesting, at least coming out of my mouth. But when he asked me what I thought my thesis would become, I told him the truth, I voiced my intuition.

It's not very quantifiable. It's not very intellectual. Christian art has to do with the transformation of the artist. It has to do with worship. Standards have to do with the spiritual more than the actual, they are a matter of appetite and above all a matter of faith. God is multifaceted and the church is full of variety and there is no pattern to follow. If you want your art to be pure, it must be because you are filled with a discernment that is growing within you as part of your sanctification. This is not something you can deduce in a thesis paper. This is something you must do in your own art and can recognize the sense of in the art of others, but it is not something that you can really express without doing it.

“It seems that you can sense it and you can recognize it and you can begin to describe it. But the very nature of what you're saying demands action. Hannah, to live your thesis you have to actually do it.”

He is right, but I am at a loss. I am being pragmatic; I want to graduate and I don't have a story or a mentor to grade it. I have a thesis paper idea and an adviser for that—he signed my sheet, he said he'd oversee the essay, he understood the practical side of things, the mess that my odd little major has me in. I want to finish. I told him this, I told him how rudimentary my ability is, how little I know about writing at all, how I've only written a few stories since coming here and hated all of them, how hard it is to gouge out the truth that is so vivid in your mind, how stubbornly it curls and peels and takes a shape you don't even like when you try to paste it onto the page. I don't know the basics about writing fiction, even though that is what I want to do. I am much better at simply observing, comparing, quoting, relating, than actually doing.

He made me promise to try to find a mentor and undertake a sister-project. This project will be my young attempts to learn the anatomy of fiction. Character sketches. Props. And I feel so young and ignorant, here in my senior year. I had much clearer ideas about who I wanted to be back as a red-coated little freshman, striding around with my fake glasses and my flipped out hair and my ideas about becoming a presidential speech writer. The lines were so clear back then, the black and white so comforting, my goals so definable and concrete.

What is it to have a lot of dreams that are vague and undetermined? Things you can only recognize or feel the sense of but that you cannot describe? Things that you will only know when you're actually doing them?

I paid $14.95 to mail a dream across the country this Saturday—all my best essays enclosed in a vellum folio, with a freshly-printed cover letter, a short resume, backed by the promises of two letters of recommendation from the professors who have made me struggle the most to take hold of my ideals.

If I get this fellowship I'll live in Seattle for ten weeks this summer and spend a week at the Glen Workshop in Santa Fe studying songwriting under Over the Rhine, among other things. But even so, this is just a piece that I feel a sense of recognition about, a piece of a much larger dream that I am not even ready to talk about.

But our task now is to create a new man within ourselves. We must make our men of action into men of ideals and our poets into captains of industry. We must learn to live out our dreams--and to transform them into action. Previously, men gave up or lost their way, we must neither loose or way nor give up.
-Albert Camus, Carnets


melissa said...

writing fiction is one of the strangest and scariest things i've done.

i started Real Presences, and what you wrote about having to actually write fiction reminds me of what is said in the first section of that book. Steiner criticises criticism in the secondary form, that is the derivative essay on a work of art, and states that the best criticism of any art form employs the same form as that which is commented upon. what the writer or artist mimics or preserves is equally as important as what is omitted or changed(he cites the comparison between Middlemarch and a Portrait of a Lady or Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina).

Steiner's comments also reminded me of our conversation about the validity of being within the canon.

The hardest way to talk about it is to do it... it's kindof like the difference between showing and telling. your professor is so spot on.

I will totally keep you in my prayers.

You're rad, Hannah. :)

Nathan said...

you've got an amazing
(from the little i've wittnessed of it)

i hope and pray you actually get the fellowship