Middling

Last night, Bryan Kunz and I were talking after a committee meeting about getting things done. And we agreed that at some level, you just have to say, “I know it will get done.”  Whatever it is.  But here’s another way of thinking about getting things done–or not.

This morning on Morning Edition, Anne Tyler, the famously reclusive novelist, did an interview after 35 years of avoiding journalists. It was a lovely talk. ( http://www.npr.org/2012/03/30/148926821/the-art-of-the-everyday-the-alchemy-of-anne-tyler). But one thing she said was especially moving to me, and makes me think of our work in this learning community.

Tyler said she hates starting novels; that part of the project is stilted and artificial and contrived and just awful. Remember when you started your Honors Work in the major this semester?  Or when you started that chemistry course?  Or your third music theory course?  Remember how awkward everything was, how hard it was to figure out how to stand up at the start of it all?

Tyler also said she feels sad when she has to let her novel characters go and send them off, bound in a manuscript, to New York after finishing the book. (She says she hates to think of her shy novel characters in Manhattan.) Similarly, in a few weeks, this semester will be done.  Perhaps you won’t feel immediately sad.  You should have a sense of accomplishment. I think I will feel some melancholy, though.

But Tyler’s favorite part of the novel is right in the middle. I think she loves that part of the book because she is then inhabiting most fully the pursuit of perfection.  All possibilities are open.  New goals emerge.  Things to try for. 

Anyway, she then said the most striking thing: “I always say, when I die and go to heaven, I’m going to have an 11-year-old daughter and a new cat and I’m going to be in the middle of a book. I’m just trying to get there.”

Think of that. It’s hard for me not to think of it, the wonder of those metaphors. Quite literally, I have an eleven-year-old daughter, and a ten-year-old as well, and, you know, they’re slender and lovely and all legs and arms.  They’re like gazelles, so large-eyed and beautifully strange. They’re so not-a-child, so not-yet-a-woman, still finding their own way to be themselves.  They’re in the middle of the book, all possibilities open. 

And Tyler’s metaphor of the new cat is a wonderful image, too, though my wife forbids me to enjoy that one too deeply.

But don’t you love that bit about heaven being like middle-of-the-bookness! Heaven as the middle of a writing project when you have hope it’s going to really be something.  Not the start of writing, when there’s just this blank screen, nor the end of writing when you realize the shortcomings of what you actually accomplished.  But the happy middle time where you’re feeling productive and on your way somewhere.

Here’s something that Eric Robbert and Dan Bryant in a reading group just this morning enabled me to understand: being in the middle of a writing project is like those moments in salvation history when all sorts of new things, new possibilities, are opening up, as when God becomes flesh and dwells amazingly among us—or when, at the end of this part of history, heaven joins earth. That’s not a completion, any more than the Resurrection was; it’s just the middle of things going in every direction.

So I pray for you a good Holy Week, a good realization of how this tide of the Christian year is a chance to root ourselves more deeply in the middle of the gospel story–a chance to be more deeply in the middle of the story that Father, Son, and Spirit are writing.

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2 comments on “Middling

  1. Helen Van Wyck says:

    Craig, this column is a flowering tree in spring, the loveliest kind of right-in-the-middle in its beauty. Thanks for the fragrance and sheer beauty of it. Anne Tyler is one of my favorites. And by the way, even older cats can be a joy. (They PURR — it’s one of their finest qualities!)

  2. Karen Dieleman says:

    Thank you for reminding me why I break my head trying to start a new writing project, and why I’m not fully excited (though perhaps relieved) when it’s … well, not finished, but ended. It’s for that middle moment, every time.

    Karen

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