#19: David Dark 2016
Own the Content of Your Life, August 18, 2017
Writer and culture critic David Dark examines what “religious” means, considering the actual forms that our loves and appetites take. Writers especially need to mine their “attention collections”—the memories, fascinations, and little obsessions that stick with us. Zombies, King Kong, communion in a Kroger parking lot—whatever we have gathered from experience can yield insight about culture, our loves, ourselves. In our desire to “hurry up and matter” Dark recommends “bring forth what is in you” and ponder how it might be shaped into something of use to others. Opening conversation with host Lisa Ann Cockrel and young adult novelist Sara Zarr.
- David Dark,
- The Gospel According to America
- Life’s Too Short To Pretend You’re Not Religious
- The Sacredness of Questioning Everything
- Louise Gluck, Proofs
andT heories,“The Education of the Poet”
Lisa Ann Cockrel (host): [00:00:00] Welcome to Rewrite Radio, the podcast from the Festival of Faith & Writing. I'm Lisa Ann Cockrel, the director of the Festival, and I'll be your host. This is the place you can listen back to conversations we've had with writers and readers as we've celebrated the written word together for over two decades. In each episode, you'll hear a session that took place at the Festival. It might be a reading, an interview, a lecture, a panel conversation, or something else entirely.
Today's episode features David Dark talking about attention collections at the 2016 Festival of Faith & Writing. Attention collections are memories, fears, even playful obsessions — anything that has left a deep impression on us. David encourages writers to examine these things in service of this question — "What do I have in me that may be of use to someone else?"
David is the author of several books including The Gospel According to America and most recently, Life's Too Short to Pretend You're Not Religious. And he teaches at both Belmont University and the Tennessee Prison for Women Charles' Bass Correctional Facility. Sara Zarr was at that session in 2016 and joins me here to discuss why she appreciates David's own collection of attention. Sara is the author of five novels for young adults, most recently The Lucy Variations. Her first book, Story of a Girl, was a National Book Award Finalist and was recently made into a TV movie starring Kevin Bacon.
[music, phone ringing]
Sara Zarr: [00:01:31] This is Sara.
Lisa: Hi Sara, it's Lisa.
Lisa: Well thank you so much for joining us today Sara. Where did we catch you?
Sara: You caught me in my pajamas—
Lisa: [laughs] Nice
Sara: —inside my house [both laugh].
Lisa: Well those two things go together nicely.
Sara: I set my alarm. I've been really tired because I went camping for the last two nights
Sara: And I was sleeping in my van and it was sort of an experiment sleeping in my minivan and it was not as comfortable as it sounds, surprisingly! And I was so tired that I knew this morning I'm just going to want to stay in bed but I have to get up and make sure I'm ready for this phone call and so I set my alarm and immediately started listening to the David Dark audio as soon as my eyes were open and then just made coffee and had breakfast while I was listening. And I'm still in my PJs.
Lisa: Awesome. Well, I think you prioritize things really well.
Sara: In Salt Lake City, Utah! [both laugh]
Lisa: Very good. Well, I was excited. We talked a little bit about who we might talk about from past festivals and you immediately were like, "I would love to talk about David Dark and his session and his book Life's Too Short To Pretend You're Not Religious.” And one of the things that seems like the session from the Festival, it seems to be really great for people who want to be writers especially as he asked people to examine their own what he calls "attention collections," which he thinks of as memories, and fears, and obsessions, kind of anything that leaves a deep impression on you and kind of to think about what that's about [laughs]. So he says this line in there, he says, "There is information in my obsession with ‘The Walking Dead,’ you know” [laughs].
Sara: Right, yeah [laughs].
Lisa: It encourages us to kind of like think about that in service of this question of "What do I have in me that might be of use to someone else?" And I wondered how you responded to that idea and if that kind of concept has served you in your own work.
Sara: What I love about David's work, this new book Life's Too Short to Pretend You're Not Religious, as well as an earlier book of his called The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, is that I do think they're particularly useful for writers and full of important ideas and questions for writers to consider. But I think also just for humans who might not think of themselves as writers or creators but as people and how do I work through the world and what's going on inside me and what is out there that is bringing forth something in myself. And the way he put it was when he's teaching writing he always asks, one of the first assignments he gives, is for them to write about artists that have called them out. Who are the artists who have brought forth something in them that they might not have known was there or not known how to express it.
Lisa: Who was one of the writers or some of the writers that have called you out?
Sara: The first one that stands out the most and I think brought forth the writer in me, when I was around high school age, was Robert Cormier and particularly his book The Chocolate War. He was this devout Catholic whose books were always in the top one hundred most challenged or quote "banned"—I don't think that word is accurate—but when they show up on reading lists and schools and such they are always challenged because they sort of have a bleak outlook and don't have happy hopeful endings. But I loved that because when I was in high school I just felt like "This feels accurate," you know, and I think that's something that started to pull something out of me,
Lisa: [00:05:23] So you started to pay attention to him.
Sara: Attention to him and also, you know, just that attention like you were talking about that David talks about too—what is going on inside you, why do you like that thing. Thinking what is it. And to me, it was like I said, it just felt real and I realized that reality was really important to me and that continues to be something important to me in my work.
Lisa: Yeah. One of the things that I was thinking about in relationship to you, to this talk, and to your own work and the work of writers, that of course the whole title of his book is Life's Too Short to Pretend You're Not Religious and part of what he is calling out there is this need to recognize that we all love and that we worship different things and to pay attention to our desires whether or not we call them religion or religious desires just to recognize that desires are, in some ways, a kind of religion. But anyway, I think that there's this kind of parallel between the longings experienced by maybe more explicitly religious people and the longings experienced by writers and that by taking longings and emotions seriously, as I feel like you do—the full often teenage experience—those emotions you take very seriously. So we talk about the real world. It seems to me that you are very interested in and take very seriously the world as understood by young adults and kind of write in that space.
Sara: Yeah. And the everyday, I really care about the everyday small moments. The things that don't necessarily make for great Hollywood movie adaptations where there's like portals to other worlds and magical owls and stuff like that. But I have always loved the little real moments because I think our actual lived experience, whether we are teenagers or adults or whatever, are almost entirely made up of those little mundane everyday, like David puts it in the talk,"How did I get hurt, how did I get misunderstood, what am I trying to answer."
Trying to clarify who we are for other people so that we don't have that alienation of feeling misapprehended in some way. Those are definitely things that are interesting to me and then the work is how do I make it interesting to other people. Because they're small moments and there's just family life and mundane things—how do you craft that into compelling stories? And I love that about David's work. I think he's very invested in reality and not just telling lies to ourselves all the time. Which you know, is there in the title of like "Don't pretend you're not something that you are." You could just call it "Life's Too Short to Pretend, " period.
Lisa: It's a good point.
Sara: I mean, just kind of trying to get in there, into reality.
Lisa: Well, thanks again for spending some time talking about David.
Sara: Oh it was great; I loved it.
Lisa: And for coming to the Festival in 2016! We're excited to have you back in 2018.
Sara: I'm excited.
Lisa: Yeah, I think it's really going to be a really good year.
Sara: Alright, take care!
Lisa: [00:09:03] And now, David Dark at the 2016 Festival of Faith and Writing.
David Dark: [00:09:20] So I'm going to define attention collection, I'm going to explain the title a little bit, but I'm also going to say a word or two about this book. The title came late. The original title was "Weird Religious Background: Mine, Yours, and Everyone Else's" [audience laughs]. So that too was a provocation in my attempt to get folks to own the content of their own lives, to note that we're always broadcasting in one way or another, we're always worshipping in one way or another, we're all formed in one way or another. But then actually at this festival I was having a conversation with someone who had grown up under a reading of the Bible that they later concluded was destructive and dysfunctional and they needed to escape somehow. This person converted to Catholicism for a while, but this person's experience in a Catholic community was not going wonderfully either. So a little estranged from the experience of Catholicism, I'm driving to a restaurant in Grand Rapids and this person said to me, "I don't know why I'm so reluctant to call myself religious." And I said in an attempt to just get the conversation going, "Well maybe life's too short to pretend you're not religious."
And that became a great little umbrella for a lot of what I wanted to say. It's been observed that it could as easily be called, "Life's Too Short to Pretend You're Not in a Cult" [audience laughs]. Or "Life's Too Short to Pretend You're Religious." I'm not arguing for religion exactly, but I am arguing that if religion, I do want argue that religion is a concept that has become catastrophically unexamined in our headlines. When the Pope can observe that you probably shouldn't think of yourself as a Christian if you are primarily devoted to the building of walls in your life and a perceived target of that criticism can say no one should criticize my religion, no one gets to judge my religion. Of course, my thought is what else is there to judge if not religion? So it's a catastrophically unexamined concept in our day and I've gotten worked up over it. And I want to change the conversation. And I feel slighted, I feel sympathy pain whenever someone else is dismissively referred to as religious. But I want to note that I'm not trying to talk anyone into describing themselves as religious. I just don't want the word "religion" to always function as somebody else's problem. I want it to be a common thing.
But I got into that a little bit more than I wanted too. So I'm going to get into a little bit of the motivation behind writing—a little bit about the hope that is very present at this festival to be a part of a community of writing, to be accepted into that community, to be loved in that community, to find your place in that community. So there's, I want to speak a little to the anxiety of being heard, being published, mattering in one way or another.
Often when I'm checking emails or looking to see if somebody liked something that I posted online my wife will look at me and say, "Did somebody write me?" [audience laughs] And I think, "No, okay, so what she's doing there is making fun of the ease with which I am pulled away from the possibility of real community—say one of my children, say her, say a friend—in the name of reaching for, reaching Gollum—like, for the pseudo-intimacy of the far away affirmation of a stranger who might possibly find something that I said or did interesting. So I mean to speak to that anxiety a little bit as well. Oh and I want to mention too that that spirit, another phrase from my wife, Sarah Mason, who has played here before, is the spirit of "hurry up and matter," that we live in a world of "hurry up and matter" that can sometimes estrange us from our best sense of ourselves, our best version of ourselves, our most quiet, fruitful, wise part of ourselves.
But, so, as I get into that I'm going to read just a tiny bit from Louise Gluck's Proofs and Theories. She's a poet that many of you might know. I weirdly have stumbled onto her prose and I have a passage that I'm going to be reading from. This is from a chapter called "Education of the Poet". It's from her book Proofs and Theories, and a couple of sentences in here are going to help me break up a lot of what I have to say. Okay, so this is "Education of the Poet."
[00:15:03] "The fundamental experience of the writer is helplessness. This does not mean to distinguish writing from being alive. It means to correct the fantasy that creative work is an ongoing record of the triumph of volition, that the writer is someone who has the good luck to be able to do what he or she wishes to do, to confidently and regularly imprint his or her being on a sheet of paper. But writing is not decanting of personality, and most writers," I want to say most people to some degree, "spend much of their time in various kinds of torment. Specific to writers, wanting to write, being unable to write, wanting to write differently, being unable to write differently. In a whole lifetime, years are spent waiting to be claimed by an idea."
I'm going to repeat that one. "In a whole lifetime, years are spent waiting to be claimed by an idea.” The only real exercise of will is negative. We have toward what we write the power of veto. It is a life dignified, I think, by yearning, not made serene by sensations of achievement. In the actual work, a discipline, a service, or to utilize the metaphor of childbirth which seems never to die, the writer is one who attends, who facilitates, the doctor, the midwife, not the mother. And I'll call attention to attend, attention, attentiveness. I use the word writer deliberately. Poet must be used cautiously. It names an aspiration, not an occupation. In other words, not a noun for a passport.
Honing in on that line that I repeated, "in a whole lifetime, years are spent waiting to be claimed by an idea," I want to note that while the idea might not come quickly, what I'm calling the attention collection is already there. There are already memories, there are already sentences, death sentences, life sentences, images that stay with you, memories, for some reason or other, that stay with you, and we get to attend to them. That's a part of what I'm calling the attention collection, but also a part of the attention collection is stuff that got through to you and helped you in one way or another. I've noted with the binge watching that is going on these days, whether it is Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Better Call Saul, Call the Midwife, Grant Chester, which I'm really happy with lately. We sometimes speak of the binge watching as if it’s, well we call it a guilty pleasure, and I think when we call it a guilty pleasure we are ripping ourselves off a little bit because we are not noting, we're not really taking an inventory, of the fact that we are drawn to a particularly story. We are not taking an inventory of the fact that, and this gets into this question of our religious commitments, that we're pulled into this for a reason. There's information in the fact of my love, do I want to call it love, there's information in the fact of my fascination with The Walking Dead series. And we get to look at that information, in the same way that there's information in our anger, in our distractions, in our behavioral patterns.
[00:19:17] But more broadly, the attention collection and the work of this book, when I was trying to figure out what to do with my notes, and that is the way my books come to be is that I take notes and then I have to do something with those notes. Or a title comes along or an idea comes along or an issue under which I can have a kind of umbrella and start putting my notes into some form of prose. For mine, oh this is a strange one to get into but, Sarah Mason noticed that I was really worked up in the way folks my—I guess the Christopher Hitchens stuff, I guess the Sam Harris stuff, the new atheism stuff—I believe the concerns, I take them seriously, I relate to the anti-religious literature I guess we could call it that.
But I also felt like it was an evasion of our own liturgies, our own lives. It seemed to me that when somebody says that they are not religious and especially defensive way, it's kind of like saying, "Only other people were born into a context," or "Only other people have a body" and my provocation, which I've been doing for years when folks are up for it, is "show me your receipts, show me your gas milage, show me your online footprint, your internet history, a transcript of everything you've done and said in one day. Show me what you are, show me what you read, and we'll begin to get a picture of your liturgies, of the forms of your devotions." And a little definition in there is your religion is your witness, is the form your love takes, for better and worse. Oh goodness, another way of putting it is the form your appetites take in some sense. And my formula there is what you believe is what you see is what you do is who you are.
But there was anger in that, for sure, and I was invited to access that anger a little bit and to look at some memories. So here were some of my memories, seemingly unrelated. I once drew a picture of Godzilla for my grandmother and I handed it to her. And she looked at it—it said Godzilla—and she handed it back to me and said, "There's only one God." [audience laughs] So it wasn't all that bad, it was kind of funny, but it was just this little "Come on!" So, but that on the weird religious background end, you can think, "Oh, well he's come upon his weird religious background honestly [audience laughs] if he had that kind of thing going on." So I had that, that was one odd little memory that was in there, and I also had the memory of once—I grew up in the Church of Christ background and after I was baptized it was very important to have communion each Sunday.
One Sunday I was working at a movie theatre and I had skipped church—I had been baptized a couple of years before—and I looked at the clock and it was about a quarter to midnight and I realized, "Oh my goodness. This could be it." [audience laughs] Princess Bride was playing, I believe, maybe No Way Back, maybe Top Gun. But yeah so this could be it. So I asked somebody to mind the store and I ran down to a Kroger, I was wearing wing-tips then as well, and were you there you would see me running up and down the aisles, making my way to the register and stumbling into the parking lot, saying a prayer and then trying—I didn't want to eat and drink judgement onto myself so I knew I needed to be in the right frame of mind. I tried to be. And then there I had communion. I ate the crackers, I drank the grape juice, and I looked at my watch and I had made it with seconds remaining. And this was a memory, as I'm trying to figure out what is this, and I noted too in that moment I laughed to myself. I knew I was serious, I was doing exactly what, as far as I could tell, God required of me, but I also knew that it was a little bit funny and how could I access the fact that it was a little bit funny?
Well I was a big Steve Martin fan, and so I wondered what Steve Martin would make of it [audience laughs]. I watched a lot of The Twilight Zone, watched a lot of Star Trek—both of these traditions offer the viewer, as all science fiction does, some critical detachment, some cultural relatively if you like. And I could imagine Kirk and Spock deciding that if they had witnessed somebody on a planet who thought they had to do that at a particular time in order to escape eternal torment, they might think, "We need to go ahead and violate the prime directive [audience laughs] and educate this poor soul because it's not fair. It's not fair. Screw the Federation."
[00:24:40] But yeah so that was a memory. I didn't know where to put it. Similarly, I had the memory of once—I was very into King Kong when I was six years old, the Jeff Bridges—oh she's on that horror series [audience member says Jessica Lange] Jessica Lange! Jeff Bridges, I had a King Kong lunchbox, and somewhere in there a local fast food restaurant advertised the King Kong burger. And it's like, well goodness I've got to get that. And I was a minimalist with burgers [audience laughs] but, and the King Kong burger is not a minimal burger, but the commercial, it, because they called it a King Kong burger I thought for sure there would be a little doll or figurine or something, and I made my mother take me there. And she knew dang well that it wasn't going to be anything but a messy burger that I didn't want, but she walked me through it—through sort of my commercialism catechesis—and we sat there and I looked at it, couldn't even touch it, and it was a very unhappy meal [audience laughs]. And it turned out, it turned out that the Kong was a con game. There was no Kong in this burger. And the con game of commercialism—which I do think of as a call to worshipfulness, a form of religiosity—the con was on and it went way beyond Kong.
So I have, I had, and I'm going to throw in one more memory on the zombie thing, which I am very very into, Sarah again said, "Why? Why do you like these zombie films?" And I said, and that brought to mind a very strange SNL skit involving Will Ferrell from the nineties in which he's on a news show and he and his cohost are doing their morning show, and then suddenly the teleprompter breaks. And they are left, it's called "Wake up and Smile," you can google it and find it, once the teleprompter breaks they are really nervous at first, they have to ad-lib. And Will Ferrell says, "So I just say whatever's on my mind, that's okay. Somebody should go clean out those ghettos." [audience laughs] So this raging hate, like all of this stuff that is in there, comes out and before it's over it's murder, it's mayhem, and somehow that connected with the zombie thing, this question of what do you do when the teleprompter breaks, what's in there when you stop just going with the given dictates of your culture, your environment.
So all of this tied into the religion question. I think all of these episodes are about cultural formation where what we give our consent to, what we pledge allegiance to, how we worship. And so though none of them connected easily initially, in time I was able to tie them together in a meaningful way to make this point to assert this argument concerning religion. Yeah, so we all have an attention collection—we get to deep-mine it, we get to see what's there.
There's a moment in The Empire Strikes Back when Luke is being trained by Yoda and there's this dark cave, it often comes up in my Bible classes because we are trying to figure out what—in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus goes out into the desert with the wild beasts and the angels and that's it. You don't have these details about the temptation, the accuser, and we try to figure out is that something that happened in Jesus' mind on some spirit level, is it something you could catch with a video tape? What was Jesus struggling with in that moment? Relatedly, to go back to Star Wars, sorry for that little tangent, when he's looking into the cave, and he asks Yoda what's there, Yoda says, "Only what you take with you" kind of thing. It's just this great line. I think that's kind of applicable to poetry and Scripture. What's in there? Well to a degree what you take with you. And finding out—who is it?—Carolyn Forche talks about open up the book of what happened. I think that's what we are called to do with our attention collections. To own our enthusiasms, to own our memories, to hold them out with open hands to one another.
[00:29:27] Going back to the Gluck line, she says we have toward what we write the power of veto. And we do—we can decide what we're going to write about. We're going to decide what we're going to put in that song, that book proposal, but I would say we don't have the power of veto over what we've experienced. What we've experienced is what we've experienced. We don't have the power of veto over what frightens us, and we don't have the power of veto over what we love. What we've experienced, what we've seen, what we've loved—love is a fact, and we don't have control over what got through. I may be a little ashamed over my zombie film fascination, but nevertheless it's there and what is it? What is it about that?
The Netflix series that I can't get enough of, that I sit up watching until 3 a.m. I may decide not to do it, it might have been a bad call, but there's something there in the fact that it speaks to me. Is there some unacknowledged despair that is better articulated by Breaking Bad than other stories—other songs, other verses. Going over what I've loved, really thinking through it, I knew, and this is to go back to my insistence, I never want to get caught saying we're all religious, but I do want to say we are all formed, we're all inhabited by language, we're all at the mercy of words in one way or another, we are all in relationship. And ultimately I think that concern was my fear that the denial of religion is a denial of relationship, is a denial of community.
But, looking back at my own memories back to my grandmother a little bit, sorry [laughs] that's so strange, back to my grandmother, when she had this way of speaking, and I bet some of us are familiar with it, maybe some of us do it. If I said to my grandmother, "I'll meet you at the Wendy's in Murphysboro tomorrow at noon," she would say—maybe you can guess what she would say [audience murmurs]—Yeah, she would say, "If the Lord wills, you're going to meet me at Wendy's" and it's like "Dang gum it! Why do you have to pull that into everything?" And yet—so I was angry, but often, oh my gosh often, the folks that we're angry with are folks that we wish we had a different relationship with. And often, oh my goodness I think this is the case, often if somebody openly criticizes the person that they know you voted for for president in front of you, I like to think, and this might be completely insane, but I like to think that when they do that, on some level they're trying to create a conversation. On some level, on some—maybe they're trying to start a fight! But maybe the fight is born—I mean, wrestle is a very ambiguous word kind of thing—that they want to get something started. They want to get something resolved. And it could be that they feel very disrespected by you because of the way that you're voting and you're voting that way plus you probably believe this this this and this. But I—and it may just be a mental trick on my part—that there's a cry for help in every gesture. There's an effort to be social in every gesture. Social, I want to say, in one way or another.
So, as I was going over that with my grandmother, I found I really respected this thing of trying not to say that you're going to do something when it is not within your power as a finite speaker to guarantee that. And of course that too it seems to me is at the heart of Jesus' teachings about never swearing, vowing, oathing, or pledging. Let your yes be yes and your no be no, anything extra is of the evil one. So I had this begrudging, still have this begrudging respect for my grandmother and her position on watching your language. Oh man, I'm all about watching language! Absolutely, I think that's it. I think, I mean I'm wrong, but I feel like if we watch our language—even with something like religion—if we really think through what it means, if we are willing to let it mean more than one thing, if we are willing to let there be such a thing as bad religion as well as good religion, true religion, false religion. I found when I was going through these memories that I maybe had a little more, I was a little more on her team than I realized even though she didn't accept my Godzilla offering.
[00:34:50] So I think what we are called to do again is to keep going back to what happened and in that, and of course we know it happens in our dreams, if we don't do it. I'll sometimes have an unpleasant thought and think, "I need to see this thought through, because if I don't see it through now it's going to come to me later in my dream." And anyone who has done some reading on dreams will maybe note that it is commonly believed that we are everyone in our dream in one way or another and we are trying to interpret, and we're trying to figure out what that was about. We're trying to figure out what we were maybe trying to show ourselves in that dream, and of course there's deep biblical precedent for the idea that God is often showing us something in our dreams.
John Darnielle yesterday afternoon, the Mountain Goats fella, as he was speaking he was a little, he started saying "you," and it was as if he had became uncomfortable with the way he was putting it out on people and he said, "When I say you, I mean me," which was just a very funny thing to say but I think it also happens in our exchanges with people. We project, when we are angry with somebody for how they are going vote, there is this fear, at the heart of it, of estrangement, relationship not being a possibility. And often, as we know, we project on others our own neuroses, our own fears, so I want to say in this deep diving of our attention collections—our dreams, our memories, our mental blocks—that there's always going to be, this isn't a work that is just to be undertaken by folks who hope to see their writing published. It's a work for everyone. And in that work, I'm not asking anyone to write this saying in your Bible, but there is a saying from the Gospel of Thomas in which a saying attributed to Jesus that I found very helpful in my creative writing classes, I kind of start with it sometimes.
According to the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is alleged to have said, "If you do not bring forth what is within—" Oh I’m sorry, I screwed it up. Dang gum it! [laughs with audience]—"If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you." I'll say it again: "If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you."And I teach in incarcerated communities, and that's become a very popular saying in our class. It is of a piece with Carl Yun, whose insight that if you deny the inner situation, your inner situation, it will become fate and will control your life. If you deny the inner situation.
So I think that is a work, a difficult work. I would have liked to have written a book with a less possibly misleading offensive title. I really wanted a book, I wanted it to sell. I still want it to sell, believe me! But this was the book that I have in me at this point in time and now it is also the book that whatever I have in the way of wisdom if you were to say. "David, that stranger who just walked by, what do you have for them?" It's like "I think what I have, in under 200 pages, is this thing called 'Life's Too Short to Pretend You're Not Religious,' this weird, thing." And I think in our desire to become better known, to be heard, to be read, we sometimes evade that work of "what do I have in me right now that might be of help to someone?" And I think that that's the better question, not just in writing but in all of life. Frederick Buechner says—I'm going to screw up this quote, I'm sorry Frederick Buechner—he said something like, “vocation is where your deepest joy meets the world's deepest need.” And the work of vocation, of discerning your vocation, is forever, is always with us.
[00:39:48] Let me see, I wanna—yeah I'm going to keep on going but I'm going to stop in a moment to take some questions. There's a song—well Michael Stipe of REM has a song called "E-bow the Letter" on New Adventures in Hi-Fi, and it is a tribute to Patti Smith, who is part of the recording. And he is singing a song, giving an account—it's very similar to Bob Dylan's "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie." It's very similar, it occurs to me, to U2's Joey Ramone song, and we could probably name all kinds of songs that are songs written by people to people who took them over in one way or another. People, Dylan talks about Johnny Cash, hearing “Boy Named Sue,” and he said, "It was as if I heard a ten thousand year old voice saying to me, 'What are you doing there, boy?'" or something like that! That we hear people call us out and one of my first writing assignments, maybe it's the assignment of a lot of writing, is—one of the first writing assignments that I give is, tell the story of a time that you heard your own voice in someone else's voice.
And especially for students who don't know how to indent, who aren't sure what a paragraph is [audience laughs], that kind of thing—I didn't intend. I know it's funny to say it [laughs], I intended to voice it in a way that was less "those people." So I have students who don't know how to indent. And if I can get them to at least recall to me a time that, even if they heard it on television, heard it from a relative, or someone said something to them, and it's like "Oh that's a big one," because just then you got inside my own experience. You got inside my own mind. It can be a film, it can be something heard in a newscast. I think that's the beginning, or one beginning of vocational discernment.
I think REM's "E-bow the Letter" is his version of that, as is REM's "Man on the Moon." Because Andy Kaufman would be the one who called out the singer in that one. I'm sorry to get kind of minutia on you, on this [audience laughs]. But that work brings to mind Ralph Ellison's saying, when Ralph Ellison talked about his love for Dostoevsky and Faulkner, and there might be, because Ralph Ellison was African American, there were those who thought, "Aw, well it's going to be African American writers for you." And he said, "Well you don't understand. You're stuck with your relatives but you get to choose your ancestors." [audience laughs]. You're stuck with your relatives but you get to choose your ancestors. So one of my sayings is choose your ancestors carefully. And note that you have them! The idea that anyone is ever just starting from scratch on this work, finding out what's in there, finding out what's in your attention collection, I think is part of the good work to be done.
On this too, the good work to be done, there is on YouTube Fred Rogers, in 1969—that's Mr. Rogers—whose name has come up in a seminar or two already within this festival. Fred Rogers was trying to persuade the senate to fund public television, and it was early on with his show—it was half an hour then, it involved puppets, all that kind of thing—and he said of his show to this tough minded senator—it's really holiness on Youtube if you watch this exchange so if you do, "Fred Rogers Senate Hearing" there it'll be. Be ready to weep uncontrollably as you're watching this thing [audience laughs]. But there's this whole theory of culture, there's a whole anthropology at work in this video, and as he's explaining his show to this senator who’s never seen it, he says, "My show is an expression of care." And that phrase I've held on to.
I think of writing as an expression of self-care and an expression of communal care to the degree that our writing is for particular situations, for particular crises. When I note—I'm going to get back to Fred Rogers—but when I note that Herman Melville dedicated Moby Dick to Nathaniel Hawthorne, and there's all these great letters between Nathaniel Hawthorne and Melville, I like to think that they got to a bit of a block in their theologizing, in their questions about predestination, the meaning of America, slavery, and then at some point Melville's like, "Okay, I think what I want to tell you now, Nathaniel Hawthorne, I can only tell you in this story called Moby Dick. It's for you."
[00:44:56] And I think the dedications are to write within the context of relationship rather than writing in a kind of theoretical "maybe this will go over well with somebody somewhere." I think love requires a context. I think Wendell Berry tells us that the context of love is the world, and I think of Flannery O'Connor saying, "Somewhere is better than anywhere." So the somewhere—the local, the relationship, the "how did I get hurt," "how did I get misunderstood," what am I trying to answer with this writing." I think these are questions we get to bring to it. But on that too, back to Fred Rogers for a moment, Fred Rogers tells the senator, "My job is to address the emotional life of the child and to help the child to know that feelings are mentionable and manageable." And he says, "And I think if I can do that, the little proverb feelings are mentionable and manageable will be contributing something to the mental health of our country" type thing. Feelings are mentionable and manageable.
I share this video with Bible students around the time we're looking at the Psalms, and we're noting that one third of the Psalms, pretty much, are complaint, lamentation, dark psalms that often end with things like "Will the wicked prosper forever? Why have you forsaken me?" And the big casepoint, the 137th psalm, which concludes with the desire on the part of the psalmist that the psalmist's oppressors' babies will be horribly killed. Psalm 137—it's the by the rivers of Babylon psalm—and when we get to that I try not to skip to a resolution with my students most of whom don't realize that psalm is there even though they've been brought up reading the Bible. When I arrive at something like Fred Roger's "our feelings are mentionable and manageable," and we wonder why the Jewish community would think it appropriate to keep something that strange and that shameful within the collection of Psalms. And eventually we get to the idea that maybe God, maybe the God born witness to in the Jewish community is a God who welcomes every emotion. Is a God who accepts every emotion, which isn't to say endorses every emotion or approves it, but that God—well goodness, the alternative of burying such sentiments, such passions, such desires, instead of acknowledging them, we know where that goes in terms of repression and denial and more violence.
So, let me see, just about reaching that part—God welcomes every emotion and I'm going to note too—now I'm going to tell a little bit of a story. I have a son who runs track, and he's very obsessive about his track, he's very obsessive about beating his time. And my son also, I hesitate to say it but I'll say it quickly, he has an autism diagnosis, but I want to say that his autism diagnosis is as such that he's very verbal, he doesn't have an aide, he's doing quite well in spite of his diagnosis. And he runs and part of his diagnosis, being on the spectrum, it has served him well, his obsessive compulsion when it comes to his running. But when the track team does amazingly well and he contributes to that, but he's nevertheless in third place, and it's his team—they've done it. All top four are his team, but he's third. And it's confusing to him because he wanted to be first.
And he just recently, he started weeping. And it's like, look, your team won, okay? This is the time to be a team player. But what we do with that—what we do with our weeping and our family—is we say, "Okay, you're afraid. You're sad. Why? There's an answer." And why why why, eventually "because I'm afraid." Oh my gosh, it's very like Yoda's assessment of the young Anakin Skywalker—I sense fear in the boy. Fear leads to hatred, hatred leads to anger, anger leads to suffering, or something like that. But anyway, so we walk him through it, and "why why, why are you upset? Why are you afraid?" and for him there's a little more invested in coming in third rather than first because he's worried about reverting and losing the progress that he's made. And he says, "Well I'm sad because I'm afraid. I'm afraid because I'm afraid of being alone." And part of our job, I think and I made it a little more Sam-centric than I meant to, because what we try to do is say, "Me too." We're all afraid in one way or another. And I want part of our job with Sam, part of our job with ourselves when I'm checking to see if anyone liked my Facebook post or retweeted me, or my Amazon.com sales rank, or any of this! All of it—there's a fear, and we get to be open about that and consider the possibility that in spite of our fears of aloneness that maybe we have what we need.
[00:50:59] Maybe we already have an audience. Maybe we already have a few people who are interested in what we have to say, and maybe that's enough. And maybe having that is preferable—well we know that that is preferable to the sort of psycho false covenant of having lots of people who you try to cultivate a pseudo-intimacy with, but who you aren't ever going to be able to follow up with in one way or another.
So yes. Maybe the resources for dealing with our fear and our sense of aloneness in not being heard are more present to us. I know they are more present to me than I realize when I'm in "hurry up and matter" mode. And with that I think I am going to—does anybody have a question? Yes, Sara.
Lisa: [00:51:55] Hey, Lisa here. The questions from the audience are hard to hear on the recording, so I'm going to restate them as we go. The first question was from none other than Sara Zarr. In thinking about what goes in our attention collections, she asks David, "You say I can't veto what I love. But do I always know what I love or if it’s actually love?"
David: Yeah, oh there you go, that's good. Okay, so back to the "can't veto what I love," I think you pointed me in the direction of an answer to a question with that last part, is this love? Does this serve? Does this lead to wisdom and thriving and goodness and honesty and candor? With the binge-watching thing, if my Walking Dead obsession makes me more alone, makes me more alone with my fear. This can be a problem, I think, and if it can be an indulging of despair rather than thinking hard about questions of neighborliness, and thinking hard about accessing neighborly thriving, shalom, goodness together with others. I think that's part of what's happening there.
Video games—I have devoted a degree of my life to video games [laughs]—for some reason, I think of video games and the kind of black hole that some video games can be, or rather the black hole that I can go down in my relationship with video games. But again my love for it, if the video game is a way of avoiding something, what patterns of avoidance are at work in my pursuit of this? And a really weird one there—I ate too many onion rings at Sonic [audience laughs] one night before I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron, and I was very ashamed. It was weird, because I ordered one order but they gave me two, and I thought, "Well I'm just going to do both of these." [audience laughs] And I did! And I had a cell phone in my pocket, and I was getting out of the car and I put the bag down to throw away, and as I reached over to get something, my cell phone fell into the onion rings. And I picked it up and it was all grimy grease right there. And in a living dream kind of way, it's as if my body was making me see what I had just done to it [audience laughs], by way of getting onion ring juice smeared over this appliance that I gaze into way too often anyway.
But yeah, what really serves? And what will serve—there are films that have helped me that people I love need never sit through and perhaps mustn't ever sit through [audience laughs]. So there's going to be some differences there. But what helps, how am I going to feel later, and what am I avoiding by wanting to watch Walking Dead now instead of responding to that infinitely valuable human being who wanted to hear from me, kind of thing. So always questions of what's going to serve I think. Thank you. Yes?
Lisa: [00:55:15] You talk about examining our attention collections in an attempt to understand what we have to offer each other. But how do I avoid just being another person out there with something to say? Aren't there plenty of people with more interesting or helpful things to offer?
David: I think that our experiences having compassion on ourselves, having compassion on others, being able to—this can feel self-serving, but I was on a podcast and I told the story of my crackers and grape juice weirdness, and the podcast was called Everyone's Agnostic. And the podcast leans a little more towards "oh, what religion did to me" kind of thing, and the host—it's a great podcast—said, "We have a lot of people on, and I can imagine someone telling that same story about freaking out over taking communion and it being a very, very bitter tale about an abusive situation. Why is it that you don't see it that way?" And I guess, it could be my personality, but I think there's also a fact that I'm the recipient of many acts of hospitality, intellectual hospitality, on the part of people who might have thrown me under the bus for believing the strange things that I did at one point in time.
And I think we all have experiences like that, and if we can hold those out, again I keep using this phrase, holding out our own experiences with open hands, if we can with good humor and self-deprecation tell stories of estrangement that others are experiencing with a very different posture—still drowning in it as it were. I think we all have experiences that if we testify concerning them, they're going to speak to people whose circumstances are similar. And the songwriter Peter Case, who's one of my favorite folks, once I heard him addressing some songwriters, and he said, "How old are you?" And they were mostly 18, 19, 20. He said, "Well you've seen enough to write good songs, but the question is have you seen what you've seen?" You've had your experiences but have you experienced your experience yet? And I think when people do that—when we chronicle, when we tell, when we narrate our own lives as thoughtfully as we can in a posture of confession, repentance, honesty—I just think that that always helps in one way or another. Does that speak to it a bit? Yes sir?
Lisa: [00:58:03] When I think of the word religion, it means pretentious and judgemental. Is it possible to save that word, or should we just shelve it?
David: I try to make clear very on in the book that I'm not arguing for the concept, but the way that it's deployed in our day, in our headlines. It is deployed, I think, in a catastrophically unexamined way. When there's, the Boston Bombing occurs and two of suspects it turned out were seen at a mosque, and suddenly the headline says religion played a role. Religion was involved, to which to me is like saying “culture was present” [audience laughs]. Language played a small role in that situation kind of thing. So I'm not arguing for it, as a treasured concept, but I would note too in that tragic situation in North Carolina in which a fella shot three Muslim students over a dispute over a parking spot. And if you look at his Facebook wall preceding that murderous decision, and one of the things he had said was "your religion started this." Which might not have been addressed to Islam in particular, but that way of talking about it is with us in a big way. And especially when we want to say that a suicide bomb is religiously motivated but a drone strike is just the reasonable demands of national security, I like to say let religion name all of our liturgies if we're going to use the word.
But I'm not stumping for the word as if we've got to keep it in currency. But the fact of the way that it is current in our time is something that we have to contend with because I think we are, I say somewhere—there's a chapter called "Policy is Liturgy Writ Large," and especially when saying that an entire population of people are backwardly religious and violent and so we're going to have to carpet bomb them in order to have peace, that's where the word is being applied in a way that we have to rethink, I believe. Thank you so much for the question. Yes?
Lisa: [01:00:33] What is your writing process like? Do you use an outline or just start writing and see where it goes?
David: Yes I do. I like taking notes, and if I could somehow—I just take so many notes, I check out library books, I mark things with a pencil and then I write out stuff from those books before I return it, and then I get an idea. It was weird religious background, an obsession, a preoccupation, and then I start trying to figure out—maybe I could have some chapters, chapter titles, maybe—and again, what I read before about—so I had the crackers and grape juice, I had Godzilla, I had the Saturday Night Live skit. So like, I know these things need to be in there somehow, I don't know where they're going to go. But eventually it's "okay, that's going to go in that chapter." And it really isn't until I'm at the end of it that I know where things are going to go. But taking lots of notes, writing down—and I do quote people, but I often have quotes that it's like "man I'd like to come up with a quote kind of like that"—an awful lot of paraphrasing, all of it. So the notes eventually lead to the prose, eventually lead to the larger project kind of thing. Thank you for that question. I think we're out of time. Let me say real quick I'm online. You can find my email address and I'm interested in pursuing these conversations with any of you as long as we both shall live. Thank you very much.
Lisa: Many thanks to David Dark. You can learn more about him at daviddark.org and catch him on Twitter @daviddark, where he regularly comments on politics, pop culture, and #liturgy. Thanks also to Sara Zarr. You can learn more about her at sarazarr.com and she's also on Twitter @sarazarrbooks.
Rewrite Radio is recorded at the Festival of Faith & Writing on the campus of Calvin College and produced by the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing. Our team includes Jon Brown, Don Hettinga, Jennifer Holberg, Scott Hoezee, Bob Hudson, Lew Klatt, Deb Reinstra, Amanda Smart, Sarah Turnage, Debbie Visser, and Jane Zwart.
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Thanks for listening to Rewrite Radio. I’m Lisa Ann Cockrel. Back soon with more from the Festival of Faith & Writing.