One of the best things about my MFA program is the people I have met. Sarah and I have been roommates during many 11-day residencies, and I'm so thankful to know her and call her a friend. And I'm glad she shared her words here on reading, writing, creativity, and grace.
1. What's something you've read recently that has stayed with you?
I just finished Edwidge Danticat's book Create Dangerously, The Immigrant Artist at Work. Written after 2010 earthquake in Haiti, it's an elegant and subtle book that explores what it means to be an artist in Haiti, an artist from Haiti, an artist who art has consequences for others, art that is also a means of witness. Our rector recently reminded us in church one Sunday morning that the word for witness or testimony has a similar connotation to the world martyr. In Haiti, Danticat explores that idea (to witness is also to be a form of martyrdom) in understated, and I mean, sublime prose. I'm still reveling in the brilliance of how she writes what she writes. Her style is so straightforward and even simple, but I had chills up and down my spine for most of the book. I think a little bit of that comes from the fact, that in Haiti, to be an artist has meant a way to secure the execution of the artist and the relatives of the artist. She quotes Osip Mandelstam who said, "Only in Russia is poetry respected--it gets people killed." It's put some things in perspective for me and I'm mulling over what powers words have--and who fears them (do I fear them? do I fear them enough?) and why.
2. What's one of your favorite writing prompts?
I do not do writing prompts! I take long car rides, hopefully by myself (or if with kids, when they're napping or unexpectedly quiet), long hot baths, long walks, basically anything that starts me daydreaming. Sometimes I just go on a long rant in my head about something upsetting me and I find it turns into an inner monologue that then sparks a story or an idea or an image that I try to write down as soon as I can. Whatever I actually write down becomes something I start working on. Pretend conversations with people I'm angry at can really get some of my creative juices going, as does solving with imagination some sort of terrible social, emotional, or political problem. What I write is never ever close to what spurred it on, but rather the goal really is to get some words worth elaborating on, on paper, which hopefully leads to more writing.
3. Why do you think it's important for us to nurture our creativity?
If we call God our Creator and we believe we're made in his* image then we must follow in those footsteps in order to know him more. Creating is a very spiritual act that helps us gets to the core of our humanity. If we don't participate in creating, I think we miss out on why we were created to begin with. There is something divine and sacred about the process of creation of some physical object, even if it's just a sentence. There's more to say about incarnation, capturing the infinite in the finite, as one does when one creates artifacts of beauty, and more to say about the revelatory and excruciatingly hard process of doing just (to make something beautiful is so dang hard). I'm sure others have probably said it better, but there is a case to be made that being creativity gets us in touch with the divine. It's probably as helpful, like going to church is, in terms of figuring out spiritual matters. Maybe even more so. But I'll leave that to other folks to debate about.
*I think God is a genderless being, or all the genders, even the ones we don't know about-- if I had to guess about God being God, I think he would be a God who wouldn't limit himself all the time to gender binarism. So he/him, etc. is meant to be inclusive, even as it's not...
4. Where have you noticed grace recently?
My students have been showing me a lot of grace recently, as have my two kids. I teach math and tutor full time (maybe over time) and that means I'm on for a good chunk of my days and weeks. I try really hard to be awesome at what I do, but sometimes I'm not. My kids and students can pick up on it when I'm struggling and extend me grace when I need it. I mean, I'm talking about a student reminding me to change the date on my whiteboard kind of grace. Or a simple, "Are you sick, Ms. Hudspeth?" when I have a stuffy nose and a little snappy about their work. It's when my youngest wants to tell me a story he made up and desires my attention. These are little moments of unexpected human connection that send a wave of grace over me and tell me "this is what it means to be human."
And I guess with all the social media, facebook, trolls, terrible news outlets, these un-looked-for moments of grace remind me why I teach, why I write, why I work with young people, and why I exist on this planet. They register as little moments of what my yoga instructor says after Shavasana: "the light in me bows to the light in you." And the fact I'm supposed to be the one offering them something (that light within) and having it turn and it being offered to me makes me grateful, humble, and aware of the topsy-turvy presence of true humility and true grace. It reminds me that the Kingdom is not built from a pulpit and that grounds me in a lot of ways that I need. My students, my children accept me and want to engage with me and I try not to take that for granted.
5. What are your thoughts on any connections you notice between reading, writing, creativity, and/or grace?
I recently saw Rogue One (I know, I know, I like to take my time with pop culture and Star Wars franchises) and the major theme or line that the characters repeat in that film is hope. It was a smart move on the part of the producers because it set up nicely the oldest Star Wars "A New Hope." Now that I have my MFA I'm constantly trying to figure out why a story works as a story. And so, Hope is the answer to this question. Reading, writing, creativity, and grace give us lowly, screwed up, stubborn, ungrateful, ambitious humans hope.
When I first saw Stars Wars as a kid, sometime in the early nineties, the garbage compactor scene in "A New Hope" was the scene I'd have dreams (nightmares?) about. The thought of being trapped and dragged under trashy, dirty water by a pernicious creature and then squished into bits and pieces, spoke deeply to all my fears. To be stuck in the Death Star, then a detention center, with storm-troopers blasting you, to travel to a garbage shoot where then the walls close in. It's great drama, great dramatic tension. The situations keep getting worse and worse and we the viewers react at a deeper and deeper level of our psyche. As one of my writing group buddies likes to remind us during a session, pile on conflict--pilling on suffering--that gets us to a great story!
So even as I'm talking about watching a story, I think the same goes for reading. We read to experience conflict-and then, after all hope is lost, somebody like C3-PO comes in on the com-link--and, boom: we're saved!
Tolkien talks about that feeling of salvation as a eucatastrophe in his essay "On Fairie Tales." He argues that when we read, we read to experience eucatastrophes. We read to experience conflict and then grace (salvation). These ideas are what I'm trying to bring to my writing right now: take a situation, make it the worst possible scenario for a character and then take them deeper into conflict. Make it as bad a situation as I possibly can, because what readers want--what humans want--is that moment of when all hope is lost. And, after they have that moment, they want the moment after. Tolkien calls it the un-looked for moment of joy, something that should have never happened and would never be repeated comes, surprises us, saves us. And he says it's a mirror to the truth of the Gospel. It's an act of grace, what should happen--given all the terribleness of conflict--almost magically, reverses. We don't end up smooshed and dead. We humans want to know that no matter how bad it gets, we will be saved.
My job as a writer is to use my creativity to write something of that arc. And I'm not talking about happy endings. I'm talking about characters (and readers) facing fears and finding strength and resilience; finding dignity as a created being even when others take it away. Resolution. Hope. To go back to Danticat's book, her thesis that takes this idea to an expected conclusion--and I highly recommended reading her take on it.
Lastly, I'm sort of into the Enneagram right now--it's my husband and mine's side hobby--and the Enneagram, as Riso and Hudson coined it, is supposed to be "the bridge from psychology to spirituality." I think Literature and writing are a similar bridge to life and existence. Books, articles, words can bridge our experiences to others experiences, hone some psychological and spiritual matter in a relatively safe space, and help us sort out "how now we should live." Grace is tactile in a story. It's a way we can sense what it means to be saved. There's hope to be found in reading, in writing, in creating. Again, it's where we find that hope of grace, where grace is that power that will undo the injustice, brokenness, sickness, and wrong in the world and in ourselves. We need to know it's there and that it's real and that it exists. We need to know that there's beauty in spite of conflict and tension. It's an odd paradox and theodicy, but it's what I'm learning right now as I hone my writing. I have to put more conflict and tension in my stories. Conflict is absolutely necessary for any moment of grace worth having. I have to take my characters to the worse places to find out what grace is, what it means to be saved. In any case, I hope I have the courage to take my characters to Scariff, the Death Star, garbage compactors, to their execution and places of torment and conflict, in hopes for a little whiff of grace--a vision of the beyond, where we are all united in differences and our tensions and idiosyncrasies, and are loved with the light that is within and throughout this freaking universe.
Sarah Hudspeth writes in Durham, NC. She has fiction forthcoming from the Saint Katherine Review and an MFA. She thinks there's more that unites humanity than divides humans, that differences between human are superpowers, and that the Great Barrier Reef is a great metaphor for what Christians should shoot for in terms of diversity in the body of Christ.