Clipping through the Book of Revelation

Usually, I encounter Scripture through discrete chunks we call “texts” — single verses or clusters, or, if one follows some reading plan, several chapters at the most. Every once in a while, however, I will read through some book of the Bible in one sitting.

When I do this — read an entire book at a time — I’m often surprised. For one thing, it rarely takes as long as I expected it would. The very fact that the books are broken into verses and chapters, I suppose, plus the fact that whole sermons are sometimes devoted to a few verses, plus the burdens (both positive or negative) of certain verses upon vast areas of our lives (I’m thinking, for example, of texts as diverse as Romans 8:28 and I Timothy 2:12,13) — all this conspires to make us think individual books are as large and strenuous as Mount Everest.

So it’s a good surprise how a sense of scale and shape return, and more quickly than expected. It’s like shifting the Google earth screen to a larger view, in which essential contours and proportions can be seen. One gains a new and necessary specificity about the book as a whole.

And then there’s the landscape one sees by clipping along through it from beginning to end.

Last week I read the Book of Revelation this way. I’m not naturally drawn to fantastical creatures or to blood, nor interested any more in the End Times jigsaw puzzles around this book that I was set to decades ago. I know that the Revelation was written for a time of terrible persecution for those who refused to worship Nero et al., and wanted to keep that context in mind, but otherwise hoped to see it as if for the first time. Impossible to do so, of course, because there’s only one first time and for me it’s long gone. But here it was again, a vivid, very visual, and action-packed display, yes, but one of consolation, of God’s protective power and zeal on behalf of God’s suffering people.

What really struck, and stayed with me, in this particular reading, however, was how the author had built his vision of hope upon earlier Scriptures (which we now call the Old Testament). I realized this because I used The Jerusalem Bible version, which has allusions and quotations in italics and so makes obvious how many there are. I saw old sources built into a striking narrative around the central fact and figure of Christ.

Such building, it seems to me, must be what it means to “let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Colossians 3:16). I think of challenges that I or others in my family and community face. Can I too, more openly and imaginatively, let the Word’s “old” words, phrases, images, and people gather in me to form “new” narratives of hope?

On reading to write: a short interview with Shirley Hershey Showalter

A talented and determined young writer I know (Angeline Schellenberg) commented on my previous post and in the process raised with some good questions on the relationship between reading and writing. While thinking about this, it occurred to me that I must ask Shirley Hershey Showalter, whose blog 100 Memoirs  I read regularly, for her thoughts on the subject. Shirley — “a farmer’s daughter turned college proessor, then college president, later foundation executive” — is writing a memoir about growing up Mennonite in America (1948 to 1966) and she’s going about the learning/reading side of it very deliberately.

Today, between a visit with a friend and picking her green beans, Shirley graciously sent me her answers to three questions.

1. You set out to read 100 memoirs, with the intention to write one yourself. What are you looking for?

I am following the advice of Heather Sellers in her book Chapter by Chapter. She says that before trying one’s hand in any genre, first read 100 good examples. Most of us have read 100 novels if we are readers, but not too many people have read 100 memoirs. Hence the goal.

What am I looking for? Structure, voice, sensory detail, and tone. The story itself is secondary to me, although I find some lives more interesting than others. How the story is told fascinates me most.

2. How does the experience of reading affect your own project?

I am just now starting on what I call the long arc, or a full childhood memoir of 40,000-60,000 words, having published five short memoir essays of 2,000-5,000 words that received modest praise. ( I am easily encouraged. :-))

I make notes in the margins of the memoirs as I read them. Other people’s memories ignite my own. When I review the book, I usually comment on structure, voice, and tone. One good thing about blogging is that you have a collection of searchable material all located in the same place. I am hoping to finish the long memoir and may occasionally go back to the 272 blog posts to find a quote or remind myself of a particular model.

But I doubt I will do that often. I hope to sit in a dark room in the early morning and throw away all the models. I want to be like Thea Kronborg in Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark. I want to stand in the stream of history and feel all that is not me fall away so that all that remains is what I was created to be. I want to sing!

3. Do you find, as A.S. noted, that reading other examples of what you’re doing can be reactionary rather than generative, and that it makes it harder to hear one’s own voice? What advice do you have to make the experience generative, to keep your own voice?

It’s okay to copy the masters–like Rembrandt’s students did–and like many, many young artists do when still impressionable. You will learn from the process. Don’t be intimidated by a great writer’s voice. Instead, get inside it and explore. You could find your own voice in the process. Back to Thea Kronborg. She had conventional voice training first, learning what others before her thought was important. Then she stepped into a landscape that was bigger than herself and bigger and older than her training. When she returned from her experiences in the desert Southwest, she sang from a new place and had her own great voice.

Harold Bloom has written about the anxiety of authorship here summarized, and Susan Gilber and Sandra Gubar responded. I personally prefer Willa Cather’s imagistic explanation better than all these post-Freudian theories. A woman writer stands in the stream of literary history, but lets it fall away to reveal the purer self that sings naturally in her own body, in her own voice.

Thank you Shirley! You’ve given us some wonderful wisdom here (and some provocative links), for writers, yes, but for practitioners of anything really, from preaching to parenting, all who must absorb the influence of others while honing their unique approach. I’m very much looking forward to the song you’ll sing in your memoir!

Unlike Philip Roth, I’m still reading fiction

A tiny tempest, perhaps, but a tempest nevertheless, when renowed and prolific novelist Philip Roth announces he no longer reads fiction, and this with no further explanation than “I don’t know. I wised up…”

So it’s fallen to others to puzzle it out, to wonder, to agree or disagree. As, for example, Laura Miller at Salon, who finds that Roth isn’t alone in the company of fiction quitters and suggests it’s a function of aging, and Russell Smith at The Globe and Mail, less willing to let Roth off the hook, who says it may be, subtly, the desire to be rid of “the noise, the competition, the striving” —

And to switch off all the insecurity that reading others’ work gives a writer, all the reluctant admiration and envy and performance anxiety. Not to mention the sheer stress of having to keep up with all the brilliance being spewed out by thousands of younger people, all the must-reads that pile up like the Sunday New York Times, piles of guilt.

Some decades ago when I was trying my own hand at fiction, timidly, with little experience and tons of insecurity, I picked up the notion — advice given by some writing guru, no doubt — that one ought to stay away from novels while working at one’s own. So I did, more or less, at least while in the heaviest throes of the project. I’m not sure, looking back, if that was good advice or not. I might have amended it, at least, to eschew only the writers I didn’t much admire (though read for various reasons) and allow myself to bask in the style of those I liked and wanted to emulate. Smith is surely right to wonder how a writer of novels can’t be reading them. “Reading fiction,” he says, “is still the best rehearsal for writing it.”

Miller’s piece draws a distinction between fiction and non-fiction — the latter offering “instruction or information” and fiction, “an experience.” I’m not sure it’s quite that clean. Both fiction and non-fiction can offer instruction and information — true stuff, if you like — and an experience. Either can feel easy, or effortful. So much depends on the book itself.

So, I’m reading non-fiction — and lots of fiction. If aging’s the issue, I’ve still got some good years of stories to go before I reach 78. And I’ve got an impossibly long way to go to reach his output, at which point, perhaps, one’s own stories reel endlessly in the self and are all the nourishment one needs.

I’m reading to rehearse, because I’m working on another novel. I’m reading for information, instruction, and experience —  and for stretching understanding and love (which I spoke of in “Some reasons why I write”). I’m reading to exercise my admiration and fight envy — to practice a kind of community life, as it were, by reading the books of my peers or betters, say in a geographical zone or genre. And, I’m reading for the sheer pleasure of story.

One can’t possibly keep up, that’s true. But it would be just as hard to stop!