Turning Limitations into Advantages: Writing as I Go
May 29, 2020 § 38 Comments
By Barry Casey
About 15 years ago, after a divorce, mid-way through a teaching career and suddenly alone with my books, I looked at them and thought, “Alright, time to earn your keep.” All these books, many of which I had not read yet, were calling me, so I began keeping a common book, a journal for writing down quotes and ideas from the books I was reading. History, politics, theology, ethics, philosophy, social issues—I was reading up and writing down what I learned, what intrigued me.
So I began blogging.
In the evenings, after I’d finished grading my communications and philosophy courses, I’d jot down interesting sentences I’d come across. Then on Friday nights I’d choose one as an epigram and look for two or three quotes from authors in wildly disparate fields—the farther apart the better. Eric Hoffer and William Blake, Thoreau and John Stuart Mill, Emerson and Albert Camus, Thomas Merton and Nietzsche. The pleasure was in pulling together ideas from opposite ends of the spectrum and creating an essay that made sense and sparkled.
I’d start about nine p.m., write for four hours, post it, and go to bed. I rarely rewrote. The ideas were pouring out of me. It was exhilarating. I called the blog “Wretched Success” because I liked the way it sounded.
Three years later came another fracture. The president of our small college took a position at another university and a new president was imposed on us. He alienated almost everybody. Within three months he had slashed several departments and, without cause, fired two of my colleagues in our department. I resigned in protest.
Without a job, but with a wonderful woman as my fiancée, it felt like a leap and a liberation. In the next couple of years we married and I took an interim position directing a faculty development program at a local university.
When that was up, I began adjunct teaching. That meant hours of commuting and teaching five or six classes per semester at three universities. At the end of every week I was exhausted. I stopped writing. Whatever fountain of creativity I’d enjoyed had dried up.
But I knew I still had much to explore, so eventually I began again, in a herky-jerky fashion, a paragraph here and there between classes. This time around I found that the words did not flow; the ideas came laboriously. It was difficult.
Instead of splashing together ideas for the sheer joy of it, I was struggling. It felt like hearing voices through a wall, but not clearly enough to make out the words. I needed some structure, some idea of form. Perhaps what I lacked in spontaneity I could gain back by adapting within my limitations.
“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means,” Joan Didion once wrote. That became my touchstone and the subtitle to my new blog, Danteswoods.com—“Writing to see what I think.”
I began reading essays voraciously, like Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay, Samuel Johnson’s essays from The Spectator and The Rambler, and favorites from Didion, A. C. Grayling, George Orwell, and Emerson. I began to see patterns, new approaches, ways to begin and to conclude. It was exhilarating all over again.
I discovered that what I needed to start writing was a phrase, a fragment, that could serve as an evocative title. Or, more often, an epigram would set me on a trail to answer a question. I took Didion’s line seriously, asking myself what I honestly thought, felt, understood, about what I was reading, what I was experiencing. At the same time, I fostered a kind of innocence, an openness to going where my curiosity led me, to follow the path the narrative was carving through the underbrush.
Sometimes, I got stuck. I couldn’t find a finger-hold on this sheer cliff of an empty page. In those times, my fallback was Annie Dillard’s first sentence in her 1989 book, The Writing Life: “When you write, you lay out a line of words.” That was often enough to give me the jump-start that I needed. And I knew that the first few paragraphs were not the beginning of the essay—they were the warm-up act for the real one.
Almost three years ago, I was offered a weekly column, writing for an international publication on spirituality and faith. Every week I would explore something I had been wrestling with in my own experience. Often, I would imagine my way into one of the Gospel stories, trying to feel the intensity of a first-century encounter with an itinerant healer named Jesus. My essays took on a lyrical aspect as I immersed myself in Albert Camus’ Lyrical and Critical Essays, and those of his mentor, Jean Grenier. From Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss and Mark Oakley’s The Splash of Words, I learned the value of a singular thought amplified and collaged with other fragments into a whole. I took my time, choosing my words, cutting and rearranging paragraphs, spending time on the details.
Just over a year ago I retired from teaching after 37 years. In November 2019, my first collection of essays, Wandering, Not Lost: Essays on Faith, Doubt, and Mystery, was published by Wipf & Stock. I am finishing up a second collection and working on a book about Albert Camus with a friend in England.
I am grateful for the mentorship of a myriad of writers to whom I am unknown. And I’ve learned to adapt to my process of writing and claim it as my own. My limitations become advantages when I work with them, not against them.
Barry Casey is retired after 37 years of teaching philosophy and communications. He writes a bi-weekly column for Spectrum Magazine and is a contributing writer for Mountain News in Colorado. His first collection of essays, Wandering, Not Lost: Essays on Faith, Doubt, and Mystery was published in 2019 by Wipf and Stock.