Richard Rohr: Reflections on Marriage and Celibacy

Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest who founded the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico, wrote an article for Sojourners magazine back in May 1979 (not available online, alas) called “Reflections on Marriage and Celibacy” which I had to quote here for several reasons. First, because I’ve been frustrated by how some Christian conservatives idealize the nuclear family, particularly the woman’s self-sacrificing role therein, as if codependence were not a form of idolatry just as dangerous as cold-hearted careerism. Second, because the last line quoted here (boldfacing is mine) beautifully expresses how my relationship with God is so precariously balanced between adoration and terror.

For Jesus, the kingdom is the possibility of universal compassion: it is community and not just kindly coupling. Marriage is a school, a sacrament, and a promise of the coming kingdom, but not itself the final stage. Jesus dethrones married love in order to enthrone it in proper perspective. The specific love points to the universal, but only the “love that moves the sun, the moon, and the other stars” can finally protect and make possible the specific love of a man and a woman.

Jesus seems to be concerned about widening the family circle to include all the life that God is offering. He knows how paralyzing and even deadening the familial relationships can be when they have cut their lifelines from the larger truth and more universal love. Family can be both life and death. Church also can be both life and death. Church and blood family both have the greatest power to wound and the greatest power to heal.

The gospel believes in family, but it is never going to limit itself to the blood relationships and call that alone family: “Anyone who prefers father or mother to me is not worthy of me. Anyone who prefers son or daughter to me is not worthy of me.” Good American Christian religion would never dare to say those words on its own. When we do, we recite them falteringly, because we cannot really understand the radical nature of Jesus’ vision….

If the community model of church has seldom taken hold, it can probably be attributed to many causes: individualism, authoritarianism, clericalism, fear, plus an overly intellectualized communication of the gospel. But the cause that I would like to deal with here is a certain kind of apathy (a pathos: no feeling), a fear of passion, which has consistently and ironically kept our incarnational faith from dealing with relationships, sexuality, emotions, bodiliness, and the power of love in general.

I am hard put to find a single century in our 2,000-year history since the Word became flesh in which there has been consistent and positive church teaching on the sexuality of this enfleshed creation. We have run from it, denied it, camouflaged it, sublimated it, died to it, sacramentalized it (thank God!) — but we have only in rare and mature instances really faced it, integrated it, and allowed it to raise us to God. We are afraid of the Word become flesh, we are afraid of heaven much more than we are afraid of hell. We live in an endless fear of the passion of God, who feels fiercely.

Blogging the Bible at Slate

columnist David Plotz has been taking a lively tour through the Old Testament at Blogging the Bible, a series that combines chapter-by-chapter plot summaries with humor and contemporary cultural references. The column’s subtitle, “What happens when an ignoramus reads the good book?”, captures the essence of the project: reading the stories with fresh eyes, unencumbered by a religious (or anti-religious) agenda or the stiff piety that shies away from the Bible’s earthiness and flat-out weirdness. As Plotz said in an interview with Christianity Today:

The danger is that if you sound too casual, then people might think you’re not taking the Bible seriously. But it would be a lie for me to write in portentous language. If I were using high liturgical language or high rabbinical language, that wouldn’t be me.

Also, the Bible is often taught like that—in a formal way with moral lessons attached—but you miss the fact that this is an incredibly bawdy, hilarious, fun—hellacious, even—text. There’s a lot of sarcasm and wordplay and glee and craziness. Sometimes, I think to myself, I can never be as crude as the stuff in Judges. Or, I can never be as sarcastic as Elijah.

So, no, I don’t think I’m being too flip. The Bible is flip all the time….

There’s a notion that the Bible is pure and holy and full of family values. Thous, thees, shalls, shants—that’s all there. But what’s also there is human behavior at its most base level. Behaviors that are weird and gleeful and strange.

The writing is like that, too. There’s no stiffness to it. It’s loose and playful. So I feel like the blog should be like that, too. Obviously, I’m making allowances for my own writing, but I think there’s license to do that. You misunderstand the book if you think the only way to write about it is in an awed, distant, timid way. It’s a book that demands appreciation for all its liveliness.

US Challenged on Psychological Torture of Prisoners

One of the great non-stories of our post-9/11 world has been the brutal, depraved way that the US government treats so-called “enemy combatants” seized in the war on terror. We have incarcerated hundreds of people without trial, often based on secret evidence, and denied them access to counsel. These are not individuals who have been tried and convicted of terrorist acts. The American public and media have no way of knowing who these people are and whether they have committed any crime. The Bush administration simply says “trust us”.

Amazingly, the suspension of due process and human rights standards in America’s military prisons (as in America’s prisons generally) is no secret. It’s reported in the media, but somehow this shredding of the Constitution has never generated the same level of outraged buzz as, for example, a picture of two men kissing. 

In an article by political commentator Naomi Klein, Friday’s Guardian newspaper (UK) reports that our government’s widespread practice of deliberately driving prisoners insane is finally being challenged in court:

Something remarkable is going on in a Miami courtroom. The cruel methods US interrogators have used since September 11 to “break” prisoners are finally being put on trial. This was not supposed to happen. The Bush administration’s plan was to put José Padilla on trial for allegedly being part of a network linked to international terrorists. But Padilla’s lawyers are arguing that he is not fit to stand trial because he has been driven insane by the government.

Arrested in May 2002 at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, Padilla, a Brooklyn-born former gang member, was classified as an “enemy combatant” and taken to a navy prison in Charleston, South Carolina. He was kept in a cell 9ft by 7ft, with no natural light, no clock and no calendar. Whenever Padilla left the cell, he was shackled and suited in heavy goggles and headphones. Padilla was kept under these conditions for 1,307 days. He was forbidden contact with anyone but his interrogators, who punctured the extreme sensory deprivation with sensory overload, blasting him with harsh lights and pounding sounds. Padilla also says he was injected with a “truth serum”, a substance his lawyers believe was LSD or PCP.

According to his lawyers and two mental health specialists who examined him, Padilla has been so shattered that he lacks the ability to assist in his own defence. He is convinced that his lawyers are “part of a continuing interrogation program” and sees his captors as protectors. In order to prove that “the extended torture visited upon Mr Padilla has left him damaged”, his lawyers want to tell the court what happened during those years in the navy brig. The prosecution strenuously objects, maintaining that “Padilla is competent” and that his treatment is irrelevant….

Many have suffered the same symptoms as Padilla. According to James Yee, a former army Muslim chaplain at Guantánamo, there is an entire section of the prison called Delta Block for detainees who have been reduced to a delusional state. “They would respond to me in a childlike voice, talking complete nonsense. Many of them would loudly sing childish songs, repeating the song over and over.” All the inmates of Delta Block were on 24-hour suicide watch.

Human Rights Watch has exposed a US-run detention facility near Kabul known as the “prison of darkness” – tiny pitch-black cells, strange blaring sounds. “Plenty lost their minds,” one former inmate recalled. “I could hear people knocking their heads against the walls and the doors.”

These standard mind-breaking techniques have never faced scrutiny in an American court because the prisoners in the jails are foreigners and have been stripped of the right of habeas corpus – a denial that, scandalously, was just upheld by a federal appeals court in Washington DC. There is only one reason Padilla’s case is different – he is a US citizen. The administration did not originally intend to bring Padilla to trial, but when his status as an enemy combatant faced a supreme court challenge, the administration abruptly changed course, charging Padilla and transferring him to civilian custody. That makes Padilla’s case unique – he is the only victim of the post-9/11 legal netherworld to face an ordinary US trial.

Read the whole article here. (The reader comments are also worthwhile.) Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine: Rise of Disaster Capitalism will be published in September.

Meanwhile, veteran civil-rights crusader Nat Hentoff keeps the spotlight on our government’s shameful treatment of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who was kidnapped by the CIA and secretly deported to Syria, where he was tortured for 10 months in an underground cell before Syrian officials admitted that he had no connection to Al Qaeda. Heads have rolled in the Canadian government, which provided the shaky evidence to the CIA, but US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales continues to deny responsibility for the incident. Read the Village Voice story here. (Hat tip to Catholic bloggers Eve Tushnet and Mark Shea, who have done a heroic job challenging the pro-torture line taken by some Christian conservatives.)

Write to your representatives. Donate to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Do something!

Poem: “Poem for Simone Weil”

To think of faith as mine
is to bar the door.
My precious, my purity,
truth’s little coin I can bestow
or hoard, or nail up to gleam
like the prize on Ahab’s mast.
Is it humility that dumbs
men who should beg for this?
They affront me who have not seen death
shining in the plattered fish’s eye
and on the sleek braided bread,
death diving through the blue air
on the metal wings they trust.
A spoonful of ashes
where the tower stood.
Or still stands. Time collapses
in my eyes like God’s.

This thing I believe
happened once to a man
who possessed nothing but his death—
father-forsaken, letting the light
of the nations go out
like a match dropped from burnt fingers.
What obedience to refuse
to set an example
of faith’s triumph, which is but a subtler
triumph of the will.

I was on that hill, on the spit of land
where the walls fell into flame
and all around me wept, amazed and bloody
as babies after a hard birth
into all that cold space called the world,
their first permanence shaken.
Now you see what I see,
I thought
with relief, God help me.

      published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Spring/Summer 2003

Diana Butler Bass Gives Up Lent for Lent

This article on Beliefnet by Diana Butler Bass (author of Christianity for the Rest of Us) helped me understand why I give up such strange things for Lent. Things like my superego, or going to church, or worrying about my soul. It does feel odd to relish this season as a 40-day holiday from guilt while my friends are skipping meals (something I despair of ever doing). Now I have some company. Says Diana:

A few years ago, I stopped struggling with my bad attitude toward Lent. I gave up Lent for Lent. I skipped Ash Wednesday, made no promises to God, and instituted no rigorous prayer schedule. I wanted to enjoy one March with no onerous spiritual obligations.

An odd thing happened, however, during my Lenten non-observance. I began to understand and experience Lent in new and deeper ways. When freed from expectations and requirements, sermons and scriptures spoke to my soul. By the end of Lent, I found myself willingly attending extra services, including two Good Friday liturgies. On Easter Sunday, the resurrection broke over me with unexpected power – with love joyfully overcoming the intense introspection that built during my non-Lenten weeks….

When I gave up Lent for Lent, it become clear that I needed to give up the idea that certain religious disciplines would bring me closer to God. This belief had plagued me since I was an evangelical teenager struggling with my congregation’s expectation for a “daily quiet time.” Never able to maintain this program of spiritual rigor, I felt like a Christian failure. When I finally admitted that I could not do it, I experienced a new freedom in prayer. Giving up led me to a richer and deeper connection of God in prayer, and led me to practice prayer in ways that resonate with who God has made me to be – unique, meaningful, and transformative. Not a program, but a way of being.

Lent tempts Christians to try to fulfill other people’s expectations of what spirituality should look like, usually related to some sort of religious achievement or self-mortification. But Lent is neither success nor punishment. Ultimately, Lent urges us to let go of self-deception and pleasing others. These 40 days ask only one thing of us: to find our truest selves on a journey toward God.

Giving up Lent for Lent meant giving up guilt. Although I have been back to church for Ash Wednesday many times since I gave up Lent for Lent, that year freed me from spiritual tyranny and helped me understand Easter anew. The journey to Easter is not a mournful denial of our humanity. Rather, Lent embraces our humanity – our deepest fears, our doubts, our mistakes and sins, our grief, and our pain. Lent is also about joy, self-discovery, connecting with others, and doing justice. Lent is not morbid church services. It is about being fully human and knowing God’s presence in the crosshairs of blessing and bane. And it is about waiting, waiting in those crosshairs, for resurrection.

C.S. Lewis on Love versus Unselfishness (from “The Weight of Glory”)

If you asked twenty good men to-day what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Read the whole essay here (PDF file).

Ash Wednesday Meditations

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Christian penitential season of Lent. This is often a time of great joy and liberation for me, when I try to give up not just a worldly pleasure or two, but those more subtle attachments (usually some form of works-righteousness) that seem outwardly commendable but actually are taking me further away from God. This year, for instance, I’m giving up “Queer as Folk“, the Episcopal Church (no, they’re not the same thing), and having unnecessary opinions.

What does it mean to give up my church? I think it means continuing to pray for it, but ceasing to worry what will become of it. Continuing in loyalty to the vision that made me join–a church that values intellectual inquiry, diversity of beliefs, and the worship of God through the arts and the sacraments as well as through words and concepts–while recognizing that my primary loyalty is to Jesus, and I have to go where he is worshipped, first of all.

As a dear friend reminded me today, Christian community is not optional. We are called to be the body of Christ, so we cannot worship solo. And yet, this Lenten season, I feel a deep call to withdraw from “church” because worrying about the church, arguing within the church, and longing for full acceptance by the church have all become crutches that I use to avoid relying on God alone. It’s time to go where there are no words, where certainty gives way to faith.

Leaving my parish feels like a painful divorce. I’m not ready for a new relationship. I went to a Catholic church today with some friends for the imposition of ashes. For a moment during the service, I really did feel like all the strangers there were my family, because we all loved Jesus together.

Weren’t the desert saints also members of that body, even if they practiced their faith in solitude? In a much less ambitious way, I need to turn inward, but I believe I am still connected to my fellow Christians, in my old parish and beyond. Or maybe I’m making a big mistake. For me, Lent has always been about the freedom to make such mistakes in search of God. I could give up sex, chocolate, and the sight of Gale Harold‘s nude posterior, but if I still think I’m saved by expressing all the right opinions about the Trinity, I’ve missed the point of salvation by grace alone.

From the Book of Common Prayer:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

(Being able to get the entire BCP and a sing-along version of the hymnal online is almost too much temptation for me never to return to church. Call it liturgy porn.)

Well…I’ve just spent an hour writing about everything I was supposed to give up…sin sin sin. Back to you, Tom.

by T.S. Eliot

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.


Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to satiety
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
Bones live? And that which had been contained
In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:
Because of the goodness of this Lady
And because of her loveliness, and because
She honours the Virgin in meditation,
We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled
Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love
To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.
It is this which recovers
My guts the strings of my eyes and the indigestible portions
Which the leopards reject. The Lady is withdrawn
In a white gown, to contemplation, in a white gown.
Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness.
There is no life in them. As I am forgotten
And would be forgotten, so I would forget
Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose. And God said
Prophesy to the wind, to the wind only for only
The wind will listen. And the bones sang chirping
With the burden of the grasshopper, saying

Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Rose of forgetfulness
Exhausted and life-giving
Worried reposeful
The single Rose
Is now the Garden
Where all loves end
Terminate torment
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
End of the endless
Journey to no end
Conclusion of all that
Is inconclusible
Speech without word and
Word of no speech
Grace to the Mother
For the Garden
Where all love ends.

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of the day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert. This is the land which ye
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance.


At the first turning of the second stair
I turned and saw below
The same shape twisted on the banister
Under the vapour in the fetid air
Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears
The deceitful face of hope and of despair.

At the second turning of the second stair
I left them twisting, turning below;
There were no more faces and the stair was dark,
Damp, jagged, like an old man’s mouth drivelling, beyond repair,
Or the toothed gullet of an aged shark.

At the first turning of the third stair
Was a slotted window bellied like the figs’s fruit
And beyond the hawthorn blossom and a pasture scene
The broadbacked figure drest in blue and green
Enchanted the maytime with an antique flute.
Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown,
Lilac and brown hair;
Distraction, music of the flute, stops and steps of the mind over the third stair,
Fading, fading; strength beyond hope and despair
Climbing the third stair.

Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy
but speak the word only.


Who walked between the violet and the violet
Who walked between
The various ranks of varied green
Going in white and blue, in Mary’s colour,
Talking of trivial things
In ignorance and knowledge of eternal dolour
Who moved among the others as they walked,
Who then made strong the fountains and made fresh the springs

Made cool the dry rock and made firm the sand
In blue of larkspur, blue of Mary’s colour,
Sovegna vos

Here are the years that walk between, bearing
Away the fiddles and the flutes, restoring
One who moves in the time between sleep and waking, wearing

White light folded, sheathing about her, folded.
The new years walk, restoring
Through a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoring
With a new verse the ancient rhyme. Redeem
The time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream
While jewelled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse.

The silent sister veiled in white and blue
Between the yews, behind the garden god,
Whose flute is breathless, bent her head and signed but spoke no word

But the fountain sprang up and the bird sang down
Redeem the time, redeem the dream
The token of the word unheard, unspoken

Till the wind shake a thousand whispers from the yew

And after this our exile


If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice

Will the veiled sister pray for
Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee,
Those who are torn on the horn between season and season, time and time, between
Hour and hour, word and word, power and power, those who wait
In darkness? Will the veiled sister pray
For children at the gate
Who will not go away and cannot pray:
Pray for those who chose and oppose

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Will the veiled sister between the slender
Yew trees pray for those who offend her
And are terrified and cannot surrender
And affirm before the world and deny between the rocks
In the last desert before the last blue rocks
The desert in the garden the garden in the desert
Of drouth, spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed.

O my people.


Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief t
ransit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth
This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

Walter Mosley’s Advice to Novelists (from Poets & Writers Magazine)

Best-selling author Walter Mosley lays out some strategies for the first-time novelist in the latest issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. The full article is not yet available online, but all the writers who read this blog should be subscribers anyway — what are you waiting for? Here are some highlights to whet your appetite:

The most important thing I’ve found about writing is that it is primarily an unconscious activity….I mean that a novel is larger than your head (or conscious mind). The connections, mood, metaphors, and experiences that you call up while writing will come from a place deep inside you. Sometimes you will wonder who wrote those words. Sometimes you will be swept up by a fevered passion relating a convoluted journey through your protagonist’s ragged heart. These moments are when you have connected to some deep place within you, a place that harbors the zeal that made you want to write in the first place.

The way you get to this unconscious place is by writing every day. Or not even writing. Some days you may be rewriting, rereading, or just sitting there scrolling back and forth through the text. This is enough to bring you back into the dream of your story.

What, you ask, is the dream of a story? This is a mood and a continent of thought below your conscious mind; a place that you get closer to with each foray into the words and worlds of your novel….

Self-restraint is what makes it possible for society to exist. We refrain, most of the time, from expressing our rage and lust. Most of us do not steal or murder or rape. Many words come into our minds that we never utter — even when we’re alone. We imagine terrible deeds but push them out of our thoughts before they’ve had a chance to emerge fully….

The writer, however, must loosen the bonds that have held her back all these years. Sexual lust, hate for your own children, the desire to taste the blood of your enemy — all of these things and many more must, at times, crowd the writer’s mind….

Your characters will have ugly sides to them; they will be, at times, sexually deviant, bitter, racist, cruel.

“Sure,” you say. “The antagonists, the bad guys in my book will be like that but not the heroes and heroines.”

Not so.

The story you tell, the characters you present, will all have dark sides to them. If you want to write believable fiction, you will have to cross over the line of your self-restraint and revel in the words and ideas that you would never express in your everyday life….


Another source of restraint for the writer is the use of personal confession and the subsequent guilt that often arises from it. Many writers use themselves, their families, and friends as models for the characters they portray….She (the writer) wades in, telling the story in all of its truth and ugliness but then, feeling guilt, backs away from it, muddying the water….

This would-be novelist has betrayed herself in order that she not tell the story that has been clawing its way out from her core. She would rather not commit herself to the truth that she has found in the rigor of writing every day….

[But] you should wait until the book is finished before making a judgment on its content. By the time you have rewritten the text twenty times the characters may have developed lives of their own, completely separate from the people you based them on in the beginning.

A whole book of writing advice from Mosley, This Year You Write Your Novel, is forthcoming from Hachette Book Group in April. (But do I have time to read it and follow his advice to write 90 minutes a day? And here I felt so proud of myself for writing once a week!)

Novel Writing Advice from Caro Clarke

When I tell people I’m writing a novel, their first question is usually, “What’s it about?” (Not “Are you a masochist or something?”, which would be the logical question for anyone who had first-hand experience of the process.) I usually dodge by saying it’s a “family saga,” because as yet I have no idea which of its several storylines is the main one.

A friend recently directed me to this very useful series of articles by Caro Clarke, originally written for the magazine NovelAdvice. Clarke’s got my number in essay #9, “Pacing Anxiety or, How to stop padding and plot!” She distinguishes between the premise of a novel (e.g. “timid Jenny moves to Alaska to open a B&B”) and the plot, which is the actual conflict that drives the action. Most beginning writers have only a premise, Clarke says, and so they find themselves without anything to say once they’ve set up the scene:

Your premise implies that Jenny, feeling stifled, heads to Alaska to improve her life. Your plot, therefore, is about a woman who creates a better life for herself by accepting challenge, and everything you write has to develop to this resolution.

Challenge implies battling something, overcoming opposition, and this is the heart of novel writing. Fiction is about the challenges that the protagonist either triumphs over or is defeated by (EMMA or MADAM BOVARY, for example). A novel must have conflict, not just in its overarching idea, but in every single scene. Your premise is merely the novel’s opening action.

So far, I have the opposite problem. My inability to choose the book’s central conflict means that I have 100+ pages of scenes that develop the characters and help me understand their voices and motivations, but I’m still very far from throwing these people together into the confrontation that I originally understood as the linchpin of the story. For pity’s sake, the character who has taken over the book was supposed to be dead before it even started!

However, this early in the game, I feel that too much writing is a better problem than too little. Maybe only a quarter of these scenes will make it into the book, but I’ll still know something about the characters that I couldn’t have discovered any other way. From essay #3, “Don’t get it right the first time,” it looks like Clarke would agree.

Poem: “Melting”

Snow is melting on the breast of the hill
like milk, the comforting familiar sour smell
of the waking body rises from the earth

and I, who have gone through every day delirious
into featureless night, stunned by the drill 
      and whine
of the frantic machinery of my mind

never resting nor reflecting, conscious yet 
as a passenger all night waiting for flight
to a steel city whose name he can’t recall–

in waiting to see you I find my ease
and lightness, the way the wind suddenly lifts 
      a leaf
from the still hard ground, or the shining smear 
      of rain

streams down the sunlit glass, the drops of water
such fertile transient sparks. It’s a gift
I don’t know how to hold.

Like honey it’s too rich for reality,
too protean to grasp, too sticky to get free 
it changes things, stains them with sweetness.

All I know is I can’t sit with my back to the sunset
in this high sterile chamber, the entire mortal show
of vanishing light only seen on my walls in 

So let a warmer wind play on the harp of the 
      bare trees
and the branches fill up with leaves like notes:
I, too, will sing.

Not smooth and not solid is the crust of the earth
when thawing water cracks and wrinkles 
      the ground.
Our feet quickly grow muddy, heavier to lift.

But above us the frosted trees drop their 
      common diamonds
of melting ice: not imperishable, but in lovely 
And so it goes on, moment by moment.

         from A Talent for Sadness (Turning Point Books, 2003)