Whenever I scratch out the short list of writers who, whenever everything is said and done, will have been my companions and teachers over the long story, Wendell Berry will certainly be there. Several months ago, I had the chance to visit with Wendell on his front porch, a misty day when the clouds were gray and the breeze steady. The conversation was rich, and there was much laughter. Later, a friend asked about the time, and I found myself saying, “You know, I felt enjoyed…” For a man who has spent his life writing of the necessity of presence, on that day Wendell practiced what he preached. And I am grateful.
Today is Wendell’s 80th birthday, and in the Collier house, birthdays are a big deal. I did not want the day to pass without wishing Wendell a wonderful 80th.
Among the many things we chatted about on that quiet Kentucky day was the work of writing. I shared with Wendell how I often feel pulled in disparate directions, that my life does not have simplicity of focus. True to form, Wendell dismantled the idols of our age, the idols of our art. The notions of the aloof writer enveloped in a cocoon of creativity, where the craft takes precedence over everything else — that is not true to the human soul, to any work we do that is truly good. Wendell shared much with me, and I will share this little bit with you:
You have been given a gift to help you resist the temptation to believe that your writing must never be interrupted. The modern idea that our art must always come first and never be interrupted is complete BS. I can’t live that way with my land. When you have a mule and it needs something, you can’t tell it to wait. I can’t tell Tanya to wait. I couldn’t tell my kids to wait, I still can’t most times. I can’t help but be interrupted by my neighbor. Now, I have some ways of being unfindable when I have to be, but I’m going to be interrupted.
Happy birthday, Wendell. That’s 80 good years. Here’s to the beauty of interruption. And to being unfindable here and there.
In the winter of 2004, I found myself in unexpected conversations with a publisher about the possibilities of my first book. In unfamiliar territory and attempting to wrap my brain around the strange world of publishing (and particularly, the far stranger world of publishing houses that cater to the religious market), I asked the acquisitions editor if I could talk to one of their authors to get a feel for how their press operated. The editor suggested I chat with Robert Benson, and there were few names she could have given that I would have welcomed more. A year earlier, Miska read Between the Dreaming and the Coming True and Living Prayer, an encounter which moved Robert onto that special section of our bookshelf reserved for our beloved writers, writers who had something of substance to say but who offered this substance with tender care for sentences and stories. We like the writers who do not beat the mystery off the page.
Robert and I chatted on the phone, arranging a meet up at the Frothy Monkey in Nashville, one of his haunts. I stood outside in the March cold, and a large black Mercedes slowed to the curb. As we’ve later rehearsed our meeting, Robert promises me he has never owned a Benz, but that is precisely how I remember it. Perhaps in my subconscious it’s just that Robert seems like the sort of man who deserves to own a Benz, if anyone does. Robert wore black pants, black long sleeve shirt, black shoes, a greying pony tail poking out from under his Yankees cap. He looked like the literary version of Robert De Niro. We ordered coffee, and Robert welcomed me into the writing world. He gave me advice providing a wise corrective for an upstart suffering from the temptation to strive too hard to manage his reputation (a reputation I didn’t even have). “Don’t take yourself too seriously,” Robert said. “simply be thankful when someone will pay you to put words on a page.”
In the years since the Frothy Monkey and the Benz that doesn’t exist, Robert and I have stayed in touch, though not as often as I’d like. A quick email. An off-the-cuff phone call about something one of us has written or just a hello. A couple visits. I now consider Robert a friend, and I trust he would say the same of me. In an email between myself and another good friend, Robert referred to me as “Our man in Virginia.” I like that. Funny what strikes you, huh?
There are a small cadre of writers I deeply respect, for their years tending to the work and settling comfortably into their well-weathered voice. It’s a real achievement in this world to labor, over a lifetime – refusing the fast way (if there really is such a thing), paying honor to the craft, staying quiet when silence is required, keeping clear of the dog-n-pony show as much as possible (and it’s never entirely possible), being a good human, helping others be good humans. It’s also a thing of beauty to encounter a writer who is a storyteller in the old sense. “Story” is all the rage these days, but I’m not sure if many of us know what we’re talking about. True storytellers do not let their too-many words get in the way. True storytellers believe the human experience powerful enough and painful enough and joyful enough to stand on its own, so their pen simply opens up the possibilities for us to hear it and see it fresh. I think most of us are too self-conscious for this kind of simplicity. Maybe we just need more years. Maybe we need more hunger. Robert is a true storyteller.
This is why I wanted to dote on Robert a little. I want you to know how much I admire him, how much I cherish him as one of our good writers. Robert has just released his newest book (or as Robert says, “no one unleashes one of my book upon the market, so much as they come and tell me it is time to give it up…”), and this is one Robert has teased me with for a long time now. Dancing on the Head of a Pen: The Practice of a Writing Life reflects on the intersection of spirit and art. If you are a writer, you’ll find every shade of joy in these pages. If you love reading good words, you’ll cherish this book at your bedside table. If you think about beauty or useful work or being human, Robert will be a friend to you.
Robert has been a generous friend to me. He has encouraged me in my writing when the terrain looked bleak. He’s been an advocate for me. Everybody needs a few friends in their life like Robert Benson, and I’m thankful.
Once Robert told me: “When in doubt, make sentences.” I’ve found this both helpful and hopeful. You can replace “sentences” with whatever your good work happens to be, and it shakes out just as well.
One of the great temptations of a pastor is the greedy pull to say too much. We get so enamored with the sound of our own voice that we interrupt every silence and chatter over every mystery, spraying our neon pronouncements where sparse and hallowed words would do. We grow accustomed to being the first to pick up the mic, the first to have an authoritative or conclusive word. In an enflamed, issues-driven culture, this temptation prods with unrelenting aggression. Perhaps we fear irrelevance or fear losing our following. If we no longer scratch people’s itch, who are we then?
Of course, pastors no longer hold a monopoly on this narcissistic seduction. Technology has made it so that anyone with ten minutes and a couple fingers can unload a screed or a 140 character denouncement. If there’s an opinion to be had or an opportunity to show our intellectual (or theological or cultural, what have you) superiority, we’re quick on the draw.
Some of the best – and most troubling – advice I received from my pastor was when I asked him how he would have handled a particular hot-potato issue if he were still shepherding his parish. “My position,” he said, “would be to not take a position.” This is not at all to say that those of us who write or preach or craft lyric or verse never say anything with bite and commit only to accepted talking points. God help us, no. I’ve certainly never known my pastor to back away from a stout word when the moment required it.
This is, however, a suggestion that we refuse the pernicious allure to stay on top, to grab the momentum, to make sure we’re heard, to maintain the admiration of our tribe (or the attempt to build a tribe). It would do our souls well to, every once in a while, abandon speaking and get comfortable with silence. We might get comfortable shrugging our shoulders and saying, “I don’t have the foggiest.”
My suspicion is that a fair bit of our prattle (and perhaps I should only speak for myself) comes from fear. We fear uncertainty. We fear being left out. We fear the important people and important ideas (whoever and whatever those are) will move on without us.
One of my favorite sections of dialogue in Marilynne Robinson’s Home is when Congregationalist minister John Ames and his best friend, the aging Presbyterian Robert Boughton, have another roundabout concerning predestination. At one point, feeling a tad testy, Ames says,
I’m not going to apologize for the fact that there are things I don’t understand. I’d be a fool if I thought there weren’t. And I’m not going to make nonsense of a mystery, just because that’s what people always do when they try to talk about it. Always. And then they think the mystery itself is nonsense. Conversation of this kind is a good deal worse than useless. In my opinion.
These days, it may be the way of things to catch whatever fire’s blown up and add wind to the flame, but I suspect we’re losing something vital in the exchange. I also believe this blabbering posture hurts the poignancy of those moments when we do have something true to offer, some true fire burning in our gut. A poet who keeps me piqued with razor-edged vigilance will ultimately lose me. She may have sold me her verse for a bit, but I will not have found myself amid her one-pitch offering. And I will be unable to follow her into this world that knows too narrow a space for the whole of me, the laughter as well as the siren, the unsettledness as well as the dogma.