A New Book, New Voice, New Vision

For me, though not for all writers, the creative life has to be like a symphony program: major works have to alternate with minor works (or, at least, smaller works), and different instruments (in the form of different literary voices) have to come to the fore.

Joseph was a major work — the most monumental I’ve ever undertaken. It required absolute fidelity to facts and the historical record, while moving a story forward without undue license in prose description and dialogue. What it called out of me was a subtle use of point of view: I had to look at every situation as if I was one of the participants, and had to use the language and description that gave proper voice to the way that particular participant saw and thought. It was gruelling and very constrained — like a poet writing in sonnet form or strict iambic pentameter. I couldn’t invent; I couldn’t embellish; I couldn’t intrude. In effect, I as an author had to become invisible. I was a storyteller; I was not part of the story. My task was to make sure that the story was well- and accurately-told — nothing more, nothing less.

After four years of this ferocious interior discipline I needed to let some air into my prose and imagination. I also felt the need to do a bit of introspection. So I signed on to do a small book as a companion to Simple Truths and Small Graces.

Those of you who have been around for awhile remember when I asked for your thoughts on Small Graces and your ideas for a title. Well, I took your counsel to heart in the writing, and passed the title ideas along to the publisher. They came up with a title that feels a little too precious, but may be just fine: The Hidden Beauty of Everyday Life.

What I’ve done in Hidden Beauty is to take a series of moments from my life during the past several years and tried to look at them in the light of their spiritual significance. These are profoundly ordinary moments — meeting a young boy on a bike while I was sitting on a park bench, going into a classroom where a young girl was giving a presentation, sitting in a cafe overhearing two women have a discussion about religion and child raising, wandering through a cathedral in Florence with Louise — events that are part of the ordinary passage of ordinary days.

As the book started to take shape, I realized it had a slightly different spiritual cast from my other homiletic books. It is a bit more textured and nuanced in its spiritual vision, and it ranges more broadly from moments of lyrical sweetness to events with a darker tonality. I think it has a complexity that is not apparent at first glance. It’s like a wine that tastes sweet and simple at first sip, then becomes more subtle and complicated as it sits on the palate.

I’ll try to post a selection from it sometime next week.

I’ve also been teaching and speaking. I find that I enjoy them both. The teaching is rewarding for the simple pleasure of working with young minds. The greatest virtue of the speaking is that it allows me to be both reflective and immediate. Writing allows you to be reflective, certainly. But its immediacy is conceptual, not actual: you feel in the present tense when you are writing well, but your effect is months or years down the road. It’s like thunder — heard long after the actual occurrence. Speaking is like lightning — it cracks and explodes, for better or for worse, in the instant it is happening.

This is a good mix, this writing and speaking and teaching. I hope the opportunity to do all three continues. It seems healthier, just as a forest is healthier with biodiversity than as a monoculture.

Within the next few weeks I’ll probably make some decisions on how to fit all three together. If I decide to emphasize more teaching or speaking,I’ll probably reach out to you to see if any of you has any venues to offer. You’re certainly welcome to contact me with any thoughts or ideas you have at this point. But, for my part, the change is just beginning. I feel fortunate at my age to have such opportunities for change and growth. It is one of the true solaces of a career in the arts, and one that I would point out to all the young people who have dreams of being a painter, a musician, a dancer, a writer, or anything else where creation is at the center of your life.

To put it in aphoristic terms, “If you work in the arts, you may never get rich, but you’ll never get old.” And that, in its own way, is riches enough.

Thanks for staying with me during my all too-frequent disappearances.

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