from “Adorning the Dark” by Andrew Peterson
During our first ten years in Nashville our family lived in four different houses. We liked the adventure of a new place. But after Jayber Crow I was done with transience. I was stirred by a longing to care for the land under my feet, to work in partnership with the earth instead of in opposition to it, to learn the names of the birds and the flora and fauna as well as the names of my neighbors, and to shepherd some corner of this planet for the sake of the kingdom. As far as it was in my limited power to do so, I wanted to mend the world—even if it was just a few acres of it.
As nice as it was to live in a little Nashville subdivision, pushing a stroller through the neighborhood in the evening and being close enough to Percy Priest Lake to take our little Sunfish sailboat out at a moment’s notice, Jamie and I both knew it wasn’t the house we wanted to die in. Our neighborhood, like so many subdivisions, practically embodied the word transitory. Neighbors came and went. New streets were always being carved out of the tree line. Every other day, it seemed, a “For Sale” sign showed up in someone’s yard. It wasn’t the kind of place we could imagine our grandchildren getting excited to visit.
By then, several of our friends had moved to East Nashville, where at the time you could still buy a pretty bungalow and renovate it on the cheap. There were cool restaurants and historic neighborhoods (a little known fact: the outlaw Jesse James lived there for a while while he was on the lam). Now East Nashville is the hipster center of town and the bungalows are priced like mansions, so we missed that boat. Then one day we visited some old college friends who had just found a farmhouse in South Nashville. Only minutes from the city, a winding road took us past cattle ponds and ramshackle barns, over bridges that spanned Mill Creek, and finally up a gravel drive to their hundred-year-old farmhouse. As soon as we arrived, I broke the tenth commandment. Sort of. I didn’t exactly covet my neighbor’s house, but I coveted the land. I coveted the peace and quiet, the story of the farm, the stands of hackberry and white oak and cedar. I immediately wanted to move there. By this time I had found in Nashville a people to belong to—could this be the place?
I sat on their front porch, eyeing a little house across the pasture. “Do you think any of your neighbors will ever sell?” He told me it was doubtful since the other houses on the hill were occupied by members of the family that had grown up there. But, come to think of it, the old cabin at the top of the hill was for sale. Jamie and I drove up and checked it out, but it was on twelve acres and well out of our price range. As we disappointedly crunched back down the gravel drive I had a vision. It burned itself onto my imagination so brightly that I can still see it now, clear as day. I saw Skye as a little pigtailed girl in overalls tearing through the meadow in the spring, the air full of sunlit pollen. Even as I pictured it I grieved because it didn’t seem possible that we’d ever live there. So we kept looking. I continued to wrestle with my discontent: was it worldliness or was it the Holy Spirit pulling me toward something? I just couldn’t tell.
Then about a year later my old roomie called and said his neighbors had in fact decided to sell, at a price we just might be able to afford. Jamie and I met with the owners, then we drove out there every day for weeks, dreaming, wondering, praying. I drove friends out to show them the property, asking their opinions, seeking wisdom. One day Jason Gray and I sat on the front porch of what would one day be our home and he prayed that God would give us the wisdom to know if we should try and buy it.
The catch was, the house was 25 percent smaller than our current one. And it wasn’t exactly pretty. The kitchen was literally the size of a walk-in closet and the décor wasn’t, shall we say, “aligned with Jamie’s taste.” But the building itself wasn’t what interested me. All I could see when I looked out the front window was that daydream of Skye’s pigtails bouncing through the meadow. (The boys probably weren’t in the daydream because they were busy building forts in the daydream woods.)
In the end, we went for it. Without knowing America was on the verge of the Great Recession, we sold our subdivision home for a tiny profit and bought a house in one of the last rural pockets of Davidson County. The day we moved in, Jamie cried. They weren’t happy tears, mind you. Our kids were growing by the minute, I was touring more or less constantly, and we had just done a very un-American thing: we had downsized. We had also down-styled. The old vinyl flooring was, well, old. One corner of the outdated carpet had been chewed up by the former owners’ cat. The kitchen, as I said, was miniscule. None of this would have been hard for her except that we had gotten used to the relative niceness of the subdivision house. “But look at the land,” I would say, encouragingly, with a grand sweep of my hand. Bless her heart, she took a deep breath and dug in. I love that woman.
“Can we please replace the carpet sooner than later?” she asked on the day we closed.
“Of course,” I said without really looking at how bad the carpet was. “We’ll get to it.” My mind was on cutting trails and building tree houses. I went out for a weekend of shows and came home to a shock. There was a pile of old carpet in the front yard. Jamie had singlehandedly torn it up and hauled it out with an iron will.
“Now. About that carpet,” she said with a smile. “Here are some choices for hardwood flooring.” Like I said, I love that woman. Without delay, she began making our house beautiful. And I started reclaiming the land. When we moved in I was finishing my first reading of Richard Adams’s masterpiece Watership Down, about a community of rabbits on a great journey to find a new warren. Not only was our new place built on the side of a very English-looking down, there were always rabbits in the front pasture.
We named our place the Warren—not only because our journey mirrored Hazel and Fiver’s, and not only because of the rabbits that abounded, but because the new house was so small that there were times—especially when the kids had friends over and it was too rainy to play outside and we were stepping on Legos and bumping into each other in the tiny kitchen—when we felt like we were living in a little underground rabbit hole.
Don’t get me wrong. I know many people don’t have homes at all, so I shouldn’t be complaining about the size or weird layout of the house. I’m just saying that downsizing ain’t easy, especially with three small children. Especially—especially when one of the two parents has a job that requires weeks of travel. (Sorry, Jamie.) But when the kids came in with skinned knees from climbing trees, or when the sun threw golden light at the hill in the late afternoon and we all went out to watch the clouds catch fire, or when we woke in the misty morning and walked the trails in Warren Wood and saw the kids’ tree forts quietly awaiting their return, or when we sat on the porch on warm nights and listened to the barred owls calling to each other from the dark branches, we knew we had chosen wisely. God had provided a place we could love, a place our grandchildren could love as much as our children did. About five years in, we were able to build an addition that made the inside as lovely as the outside—and once again it was because Jamie, too, had a picture in her mind, and did the hard, creative work of incarnating it.
I tell you all this because place matters.
Of course, not everyone can move to the country, nor should they. But wherever you are, you might as well go ahead and pull up the carpet. Make it beautiful, even if you can’t afford it. Let your imagination run wild. Give your house a name. Watch how it changes the way you treat it. Let thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in our house as it is in heaven. I started keeping bees. Those bees pollinate the flowers we put in the ground. I planted apple, plum, pear, and peach trees, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries that feed the people who tend these acres.
Jamie hung pictures on the walls. She keeps candles lit in whatever room we’re hanging out in, year-round. If we ever move (and I hope we don’t) we will have left our mark on this home and on this property—in the same way our children, who are too old to play in the woods anymore, have left behind clubhouses and stone paths and Wizard of Oz signs nailed to the trees that say, “HAUNTED FOREST” and “I’D TURN BACK IF I WERE YOU.” When I walk the trails now I can hear the memory of their laughter echoing in the trees. We have become members of this place, members of this community, of this kingdom—praying his will to be done in these woods as it is in heaven.
I have very specific ways I read to feed my writing.
I consider a day without working the crossword in the New York Times has been lived considerably less than to the fullest. I can live for a day without sunshine, or orange juice for that matter, but a day without a shot at bringing famed puzzle master Will Shortz to his knees is hardly worth living.
I find it better to read autobiography or memoir by day and fiction or history by night. The daytime reading helps me to focus, to concentrate, to do the writer’s work before me on any given day.
On discouraging days Herr Rilke will remind me why I write. The Reverend Buechner will point out that a small episode in my life that I am journaling may well reveal something important if I keep scribbling.
Ms. Dillard will kick me in the pants. “Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio,” she says, quoting Michelangelo. “Draw and do not waste time.” I can hear the rest of her admonition even though she has never spoken to me—“Write, Robert, write. Write and do not waste time.”
The night reading helps me to rest and to wonder and to wander and, perhaps, to dream. I believe I sleep better after sailing the seas with Captain Jack and Dr. Maturin and Mr. O’Brian, after staring down Karla with Smiley and Le Carré, or after wondering with Mr. Foote at the courage of those who charged across a Pennsylvania field on a hot July day at the behest of General Pickett.
Reading these writers gives me time away from the places and things and people I am writing about. The rolling seas, the streets of Berlin, the battlefields of our own sweet land keep me from staying too hunkered down in the work I must tend to on my board tomorrow morning.
– Robert Benson, from “Dancing on the Head of a Pen”
Kurt Vonnegut’s 1967 entreaty to José Donoso.
This is why so many inexperienced writers get writer’s block. They try to edit before the generative flow is finished. They start thinking analytically too early, and so the material stops coming. This probably happens regularly to students who are trying to write to deadlines. Especially if you put off writing a paper until a couple of days before it’s due, you’ve got no time to allow the creative flow to generate its material. And the creative flow is important no matter what kind of paper you’re writing. Intuition and vision work just as well for research papers as they do for short stories. You need to tap your deeper wisdom regardless of the topic or purpose of what you’re writing. Yet most of our education about writing has to do with outlines, propositions and so forth. I’d like to see what would happen if teachers began incorporating “free writing”-the quick writing that you do automatically-into homework schedules. What would happen if students were encouraged and trained to tap their creative flow? If they had really interesting material to work with, then the left-brained part of it wouldn’t be such a chore.
I can’t stress enough that you can trust this flow. You can trust it because it is merely raw material; it is not the finished product that you’re stuck with. Once you consider all your words raw material, you will be much freer to just write whatever comes. And you will also be much freer to do whatever you need to do with what comes.
– from “The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life” by Vinita Hampton Wright Loyola Press
A great many writers are interested in memoir because they understand it to be a spiritual practice. On the surface, writing memoir may seem like a flat transcription of memories, but once you begin writing you discover it is more like call-and-response. You set out to write one funny mishap (say, the time your parents accidentally left you at the gas station during family vacation) and find yourself reflecting on abandonment. You write your reflections on abandonment, including other memories, and discover a rooted belief that all love entails leaving. When you ask yourself what this might say about the sacred, you feel an onslaught of anger that’s been welling since that first mishap. You let your anger rip the page. Upon revision your story grows textured, multilayered.
The balance of expression and receptivity, of solitude and relationship, that emerges from writing provides an opportunity for personal growth. The core reason for writing may not be to generate an end product so much as to engage in the creative process.
From “Writing the Sacred Journey: The Art and Practice of Spiritual Memoir” by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew Skinner House
Unfortunately, nobody tells a writer how hard cobbling together a voice is. Look under “voice” in a writing textbook, and they talk about things that seem mechanical – tone, diction, syntax. Doh, the writer says with a forehead smack. Diction is merely word choice, what variety of vocabulary you favor. Syntax is whether sentences are long or short, how they’re shaped, with or without dependent clauses, etc. Some sentences meander, others fire off like machine-gun runs. Tone is the emotional tenor of the sentences; it’s how the narrator feels about the subject. Robert Frost said anytime he heard wordless voices through a wall, tone told him what was angry, who bemused, who about to cry. For me psyche equals voice, so your own psyche – how you think and see and wonder and scudge and suffer – also determines such factors as pacing and what you write about when. Since all literary decisions for a memoirist are offshoots of character, I often find that any bafflement I face on the page about these factors is instantly answered once I find the right voice.
– May Karr, “The Art of Memoir”
“Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” writes William Wordsworth in his preface to Lyrical Ballads essentially the opening sentence in Romantic literature. He goes on to say that a poet does not see or hear or feel things that others do not see or hear or feel. What makes a person a poet is the ability to recall what she has felt and seen and heard. And to relive it and describe it in such a way that others can then see and feel and hear again what they have already seen and felt and heard and may have missed.
– Robert Benson, from “Dancing on the Head of a Pen”
Hint: Don’t Wait For Your Loved Ones to Die
A few years ago I had lunch with a friend in Chattanooga. His name is Chris Slaten, and he’s an excellent songwriter, performing under the name Son of Laughter. I’m envious of his beard. I asked him how his songwriting was going, and since he’s a schoolteacher I wondered where and when he wrote. Did he have an office? He smiled between bites of tortilla chips and tapped his temple. “I do it up here,” he said.
This may come as a surprise to you, that a song could be written in that miraculous space between a human’s ears. It surprises me, even though I’ve done it before. Chris said that the other day he had a doctor’s appointment and he sat in the waiting room with a copy of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. He opened the book for a moment, then shut it and decided instead to work on a song. He stared at a fake plant in the corner for twenty minutes and bent his will to the task. He said he was sure that he looked strange, staring all that time without really moving. But he made progress. He got home, grabbed his guitar, and tested out what he had “written,” then helped his wife with dinner until the next time he had twenty minutes to think—which was, he said, the next morning’s commute to the school.
If you wait until the conditions are perfect, you’ll never write a thing.
It’s always a matter of the will. The songs won’t create themselves, and neither will the books, the recipes, the blue-prints, or the gardens. One of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets, Richard Wilbur, is called “The Writer.” Look it up. Seriously. Right now, go find a computer, Google it, and read it twice. Then head over to a bookstore and buy his collected poems. Keep the book on your nightstand and read one of them each night before you sleep. Writing is always a matter of life or death, he says, and finding the right arrangements of words is like being a bird trapped in a house, trying to find its way through the open window.
When I was in college I wrote most of my songs during class. I often sat next to my friend C.J., who was not only my college roommate, but was the guy who taught me to play the guitar ten years earlier at church camp. The first song I ever learned on the guitar was “Patience,” by Guns ‘n Roses, which starts in the key of C with a whistle solo, and I must say that there are much worse first songs a guy could have learned. C.J., who was hard at work learning to write songs even in high school, also happens to be the guy who introduced me to the music of Rich Mullins. I have happy memories of the music we made at C.J’s house during his senior year of high school. We’d pull out the guitars and Belinda, his mom, would belt out “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’” by Journey. Man, did she have some pipes. The whole family did. Those “na-na-na’s” at the end of the song provided me one of my first opportunities to sing harmony. I was the skinny kid in the background, trying to keep up, trying to learn to sing in tune.
When I look back at those days I’m overwhelmed by their kindness. The Fluhartys encouraged me to sing, to play, to write, even though I was sloppy and flat and overeager. When C.J. graduated high school and went to Bible College, I followed suit, partly because I had nothing better to do.
So there we sat next to each other in Old Testament survey classes, covertly passing lyrics back and forth. I watched the way he wrote his songs, the way he ordered the words on the page, arranging the stanzas so he could keep track of the meter of each line, the way he anguished over the syncopation of the syllables. I had still not managed to finish a song of my own—nothing worth sharing, anyway—but I felt a burning desire to contribute to our little college band’s body of work.
I was a freshman, and fresh out of a pretty intense relationship with a girl. Then along came Jamie. She was beautiful and funny and full of life. She was a junior, and it was impossible to ignore her. We fell in love in a matter of weeks, and I knew without a doubt that if we kept dating we’d be married before you could sing the chorus of “Patience.”
That was what scared me.
I had just started college, I had dreams of playing music with a band, and was utterly unprepared to marry anybody, even if she was beautiful and wonderful and encouraging beyond measure. There were days when I wished I could retreat to a simpler place where there were no big decisions to be made. These are the lyrics I worked on for those early weeks of college.
I take a walk down a dusty road and I
Sink my feet in memories of colder days gone by I don’t want to go, but it’s all downhill
And it seems so easy, I think I will
Could you tell that I’d been crying When you talked to me today?
I’d been running from the words inside I never meant to say
So come on with me and I’ll walk you around Through the backstreets of this old ghost town
Come along and you will see
There’s a place where we can be Far away from you and me Way down
I’ll spare you the rest. To be honest, reading it now I don’t really know what it means. Something about memories, something melodramatic about wanting to escape all the questions so we could just hang out like the lovebirds we were. Apparently there was some kind of tearful discussion about our future, but I don’t remember it now.
I don’t mean to diminish what must have felt at the time like a big deal, but the obscurity of the lyric makes it difficult for me to take it seriously. There are two more verses equally vague and earnest, but at the time I couldn’t find the chorus. One afternoon in apartment 418 my nineteen-year-old self mustered the courage to play my unfinished song for C.J. and ask him what he thought. Where should the chorus go? What should it be about? Was this all terrible?
No, he said, it wasn’t a bad start. He liked it in all its “Toad the Wet Sprocket-ripoff” glory. He looked over the lyrics, pointed at the part about the ghost town that ended with “way down” and said, “That’s your chorus. It already has one.” Then he took a bite out of his apple and walked over to the courtyard picnic table with his guitar to work on a song of his own.
Sometimes you’ve done all the planting you need to do, and it’s time to start weeding the garden.
from “Adorning the Dark” by Andrew Peterson