Hooks and moving “beyond the world of the ordinary”

bell hooks is one of my favorite people.  I have several of books.  I heard her during my first week as a student at Hampton University, long before I knew what a great education was.  And I listened to her at Northwestern a few years ago.  She’s always engaging, insightful, brilliant, loving, and fearless.  If you are a writer and haven’t met her printed work, you must.  If you’re interested in learning about love, read her.  Here’s a passage from Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work.  Her words would be considered opposite what I’ve read and learned relative to publishing, which makes her counsel all that more valuable when it comes to writing.

Writers should not dwell on the issue of audience.  However, it is essential for any writer who wants to speak to a general audience without perpetuating structures of domination to write in a manner that welcomes any reader.  Writers do not need to worry about whether our words can carry us across the boundaries of race, sex, and class.  Words invite us to transgress–to move beyond the world of the ordinary.  If that were not so the world of the book would have no meaning.  This does not mean that writers should not be vigilant about the way we use words.  Here the old truism “It’s not what you say but how you say it” holds.  Irrespective of the subject matter, whether it reflects a common experience or not, readers are capable of great empathy.  Writers must trust that readers are ready to receive our words–to grapple with the strange and unfamiliar or to know again what is already known in new ways.

Death, Writing, and the Season of Lent, pt. 4

I have a habit.  I have these dreams.  I haven’t tracked them for too long in the past.  But I started noticing the dreams a couple years ago.  My mother gets dreams too.  I’ve known that for years.  Her dreams range from scenes which show up when somebody’s pregnant to scenes which wake her up with a caution that I’m supposed to pass on to a friend to other things I won’t go into. 

I dream when people are about to die.  Not all people.  I’d never get any sleep.  No, just some people.  I haven’t figured it all out.  Indeed, I’m not really trying to figure it all out!  I wake and pronounce to my wife as I did two years ago that “This is going to be a hard year,” and when she asks what I mean, I explain that a lot of people I’m connected to will die soon.

Today is the fourth Sunday of Lent, the time where Christians reflect on the life and death of Jesus.  It’s the time leading to Easter, the lowest and highest event in the Christian calendar.  As I move through Lent, I’m thinking about this disturbing habit of mine.  Part of it is the normalness of death.  It becomes increasingly normal as you age, right?  I’m not that old, but the longer I live, the more I notice death.  People have died since we’ve started reproducing, but noticing death takes time. 

One of my spiritual mother’s funeralized her mother Saturday.  I read of Manning Marable’s death in a tribute by Professor Michael Eric Dyson over at the Root.  Another spiritual mother and mentor continues to grieve her mother’s death from last Christmas.  I feel “in between” as I think about Rev. Beans, a father and friend to me, who died two years ago, about Michael Bailey, a CPD officer whose death still goes unsolved, and a long list of other people like Christopher Gary, Darlene Johnson, and my father-in-law, John McKinney–all of whom died last year.

I think about death in one form or another all the time.  I feel like I’m aware of death whenever I “make my Easter speech,” when I preach publicly, because, in some way, the Christian message always passes over the grave.  It doesn’t end in a tomb, but death is inevitably there in the message.

I think about death as a writer.  The nagging words of one of my favorite teachers from the text, bell hooks, come back.  When talking about the writer’s life, in Remembered Rapture, she invokes the role of time and death.  She talks about how writers have to find time to write but that we also write against time.  She says, “Without urgency or panic, a writer can use this recognition to both make the necessary time for writing and make much of that time.” 

As I think about time and death, the inescapable entrance in something else, I have to connect my work as a church servant, my work as I writer and parent and person to what comes after death.  That’s why Lent and Easter take on significance to me. 

There are many little deaths.  The unexpected departure of a friend when you made a pact to stay in the same community.  Being fired from a job.  A rejection letter by an agent signaling what could be the death of a potential novel.  A struggling marriage which releases another piece of that dreamy romantic idea of what you thought you had.  A comment that changed everything by someone you thought cared for you.  A diagnosis, any diagnosis.  Deaths are everywhere.  Which is why I run to Easter, trip to it, and push myself to look up inside that mystical empty tomb, from all the big and little deaths.  I think of resurrection, the stronger event after death, when I wake from another one of those wierd dreams, even when it takes me days to forget waking up as I catch my breath and look over at my wife whose eyes pop open to see me gasp.  I think about death and for the Christian, what is the next fundamental event.  Both are real, but I can’t help but be grateful for the hope that death isn’t all there is.

bell hooks on Writing and Gardner Taylor on Preaching

I’m pulling quotes from two of my favorite people, bell hooks and Dr. Gardner Calvin Taylor.  I consider preaching (or pastoring) and writing to be my two main works.  So, as I reflect on my labor, I offer you their thoughts.  First, bell hooks.

bell hooks is a writer, teacher, and lecturer, and her areas of strength and interest are the politics of race, class, and gender, sexuality and human relationships, and writing.  I suppose there are many others.  I’m drawing this quote from her book about writing, Remembered Rapture, a book every writer should have.  In this quote, professor hooks is talking about writing inside and despite the structures and strictures of the academy in the chapter, “dancing with words.”  You can see several synopses of her books at South End Press.

Writing to fulfill professional career expectations is not the same as writing that emerges as the fulfillment of a yearning to work with words when there is no clear benefit or reward, when it is the experience of writing that matters.  When writing is a desired and accepted calling, the writer is devoted, constant, and committed in a manner that is akin to monastic spiritual practice.  I am driven to write, compelled by a constant longing to choreograph, to bring words together in patterns and configurations that move the spirit.  As a writer, I seek that moment of ecstasy when I am dancing with words, moving in a circle of love so complete that like the mystical dervish who dances to be one with the Divine, I move toward the infinite.  That fulfillment can be realized whether I write poetry, a play, fiction, or critical essays.

Dr. Taylor served as Pastor of Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn, NY for 42 years before retiring twenty years ago.  His exemplary preaching style and content is instructive, but his words about the role and task for preachers is what I’m pulling from in this post.  The quote is from the Yale University Lyman Beecher Lecture Series in 1976.  The particular lecture is “Preaching the Whole Counsel of God.”  Dr. Taylor is speaking from a passage in the book of Ezekiel where the watchman’s role is discussed.

It is the watchman’s job to watch.  Such a person is expected to scan the hills and to peer toward the valleys with the eye straining to see the rim of the horizon.  On who is chosen to watch is freed from the regular occupational responsibilities of those who select him or her to be watchman…It is the watchman’s job to see, since for this cause came he or she to the appointed lookout tower.  The watchman has been given the vantage point of an elevated position in order to see.  The watchman has, likewise, no right to claim indifference or indolence or sleepiness, for he or she is spared many of the irksome annoyances of the workaday world.  The sentry has no right to claim poor vision, since the capacity to see, to see clearly and accurately, is one of the principal requirements of a watchman…There is little place for ranting by the preacher, but there is a very large place indeed for urgency and for an earnest, honest passion.  The stakes are high!

These are two people, among too many others, who anchor me in my work.  If you like, tell us who anchors you in yours?