Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Praise Her at the City Gates

Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship
September 20, 2015
Proverbs 31:10-31

Over the last ten years or so I’ve been unlearning the interpretation of Proverbs 31 that I grew up with, a reading that governed much of my adolescence and young adult life, as it does for so many girls in traditions that are concerned with raising godly women, ushering them into carefully defined and controlled ways of being feminine. And in that sense, it’s important to not merely talk about the text itself so much as how Proverbs 31 has been, and in many ways continues to be, misused.

This text was always at the forefront of “Girls Night” at the Christian summer camp I attended. Each summer I would jealously watch as the boys marched out into the woods to play capture the flag for “Guys Night,” while we young ladies prepared to have a spa night and watch Everafter. I have no particular problem with spa night or Everafter, mind you -- it’s the prescribed nature of the thing, the assumption that our identities are so narrowly defined. The fun activities were just the beginning of the night, though.

At some point in the evening we would inevitably listen to a talk about what it meant to be a godly woman. A Proverbs 31 Woman. This woman was so ingrained in both the young men’s and young women’s minds by the time we were in high school, and then working as staff in college, that we’d abbreviate it: “Yeah, she’s a real P31,” a male counselor might say, of his girlfriend who was coming to visit that weekend. It was somewhat tongue in cheek, but always somewhat serious, as well. You wanted to be a P31, because P31s were who good Christian guys wanted, and good Christian girls wanted to marry those good Christian guys. And if God didn’t bring you a husband, there was a good chance it was because you hadn’t yet lived up to the P31 standard.

And so, in curving script, using dry erase markers or possibly pink lipstick, counselors would write on bathroom mirrors: Charm is deceptive, beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Proverbs 31:30. I don’t have to look it up to quote it to you, because it’s written on my mind, forever. As a reminder that one’s worth as a woman, or dare I say as a person, doesn’t come from physical beauty this seems all well and good, but the tyranny of effortless perfection can take on other, equally insidious forms. The P31 woman will forever stand in my mind alongside supermodels and professional athletes, an archetype of a different sort, a seemingly unreachable standard to which we nonetheless compare ourselves.

I distrust archetypes. I distrust ideals. There is too little grace in them, too little of God’s love for our imperfect selves.

In this sense, I don’t think it is wise to separate this passage from its history of misogynistic interpretation or application. I know that Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis wrote a wonderful essay on Proverbs 31, which illuminates the agrarian context of the passage in a way that could be described as empowering. I also know that -- as blogger Rachel Held Evans has popularized -- another interpretation of the opening phrase, “a capable wife” is “woman of valor.” But neither of those things changes the way this passage has been used to shape and pressure girls and women. Nor does the emphasis on getting the interpretation “right,” now, diminish the perceived standard of perfection that I see embodied in this passage. At the end of the day, it is still about how to be an ideal woman.

We might emphasize how independent and industrious she is, making clothing, buying property, selling her merchandise -- she’s a producer, a maker, not just a consumer. Her contemporary equivalent would no doubt have an Etsy shop, grow and can her own vegetables, maybe even brew her own beer. She probably does CrossFit or runs marathons, too -- not to be beautiful, for beauty is vain, but to be strong. “Strong is the new pretty,” they say. Reading the passage through this lens, I think of every overachieving, over-extended woman I’ve known. And I honestly just wonder, if she is really doing all of this, when does she sleep?

The text says that her lamp does not go out at night, so perhaps she simply doesn’t.

The real clincher comes at the end though, for me: “Give her a share of the fruit of her hands,” the writer says, “and let her works praise her at the city gates.” Her husband is still the authority, over the household, over its resources, over her. She gets a share. I don’t know that there’s an interpretive dance we can do to get around that one. Understanding a passage and its context can’t magically erase every difficulty we encounter in scripture. Some texts are messy, and alway will be.

In Proverbs 31, today I find not so much as model as a warning about how our notions of virtue can crush us. Conversations with women around me echo my sense that this passage, these pressures, are a burden -- and not the holy kind. Refusing to acknowledge the pain such interpretations have caused perpetuates a cycle of self-doubt and perfectionism that seems to be pretty far removed from who we believe God to be. Instead of praising women for “doing it all,” I like to imagine a world where we feed them cupcakes and they get to take naps -- a world where women are multidimensional, imperfect, with needs and desires of their own, not separate from the needs and desires of those who depend on them daily.

I am many things, as are each of you -- women and men alike. But I am not a woman of valor. I don’t make my own clothes. My garden consists of a single tomato plant. If my alarm goes off before daylight I will get up, but I will grumble -- even though I’m only going as far as the next room to write in my pajamas, rather than off to consider a field and buy it. I’m not weaving wool and flax; I’m no good with a distaff.

I’m sure you could make a list of your own, of the ways you fall short of ideals, the reasons you feel don’t deserve to be praised at the city gates by your partner. And while there is much to admire in this passage, much that men as well as women might reasonably emulate, I come back again and again to the fact that society and the church expect so much of women, while still offering so little in return.

Some days, I wear strength, though often I don’t. And we need to be a community where, on the days our strength fails us, others will pick us up. A place where we can speak words of wisdom, but, likewise, a place to say the hard things, in a community of love that can hear the difficult words, too. A place where it is safe to name our needs, to acknowledge our insufficiency, to ask and receive help.

Charm is deceptive, as Proverbs 31 says. And I think this valiant, hardworking “How does she do it?” P31 woman is charming. Rather than a mere prescription for “womanhood,” I hear in this text a warning against the ways society continues to break women’s spirits, by expecting them to do it all, have it all, and give it all away to those around them -- always with a smile, for “she laughs at the days to come.” And that image, there, is perhaps the worst deception of all -- woman as superhuman, perfect without her efforts ever showing sweat and exhaustion -- rather than a fellow human, who must cope with the inevitable limitations and heartbreaks of our precarious lives.

What if women didn’t have to be exceptional in order to be praised at the city gates? What if the options weren’t as cut and dried as fleeting beauty versus this perfect, industrious standard of godliness?

What if this Proverbs 31 woman, like every other person I have ever known, had good days and bad days, and needed to be loved on every single one of them?

Monday, August 17, 2015

On Hospitality

I am doing laundry. I am vacuuming. I am stocking the fridge. I am -- maybe -- going to clean the bathroom. If I have time.

I am preparing to host a friend from out of town for a night.

Did I mention that I live in a 350 sq ft apartment?

I am, at heart, a minimalist (as I’ve studied the Enneagram this summer I’ve learned that this is a characteristic of my type five personality, and my lifestyle choices make so much more sense now). I love my tiny apartment. It is plenty big enough for me. Sometimes it even feels like more space than necessary. It is more space than necessary, if I am honest, but it is good space and I inhabit it well, I think. There is plenty of room for books, if not quite enough for pots and pans -- but then, I own more books than I do pots and pans, so perhaps all is as it should be.

With the exception of a year and a half in which I shared a 950 sq ft two-bedroom house with a friend in grad school, I have always lived in small spaces (though 900 sq ft is small by contemporary standards too, it felt large to me). I dream about buying a bit of land and building a tiny house, or perhaps a cozy A-frame, and living out my days in stuff-free bliss.

People admire my small space. Or they seem to (sometimes I wonder if they’re just being polite). But even those who genuinely appreciate my choice to live small express reservations, lists of reasons why they could never do what I do. Most common is this: “I want to have enough room to have people over” or “I want to have a spare room for guests to stay in.” Ah. Hospitality. I understand the hospitality response. There are limited places to put people in an apartment of this size.

Ironically, such responses are sometimes voiced by people who are in my apartment.

I resist the urge to deliver a sarcastic “OH REALLY?” I do host people, though not perhaps as much I could or should, for reasons I’ll try to explain. Heck, two years ago I sold my bed and replaced it with an IKEA futon precisely because it is more hospitable seating for guests than a bed (and more comfortable for quiet nights spent reading on my own, to be honest). When people come from out of town, the futon sleeps two, and I can roll out a sleeping bag in the 70 sq ft space I use as an office, effectively transforming my studio into a quaint B&B for the night.

If I am frank, what I hear in this statement, “I want to have enough room to have people over,” is a subtle judgement. It stings when someone you have invited into your home implies that you don’t have enough room to host people well.

My apartment is not fancy. It’s not even particularly comfortable once you put 6 or 7 adults and 4 children into the main room for supper. But there is enough room to offer you a place to sit, a bowl of soup, a chunk of bread (and I don’t care if you get crumbs all over the floor, because I can just sweep them up after you’ve left, having never bothered to buy a rug).

Still, I’m not sure when it became normal to imply that one can only host overnight guests if one has a dedicated guest room. If you do, that’s lovely, but what friend in need of a free place to crash would argue with clean sheets and towels and a reasonably comfortable futon? If you’re lucky, I’ll even make you coffee and cinnamon rolls in the morning (though the cinnamon rolls might come from a can, because I can’t do it all).

I’ve hosted small parties, numerous deacons meetings, church dinner groups that filled my space with laughter and warmth. I once hosted my mom and sister for an entire week. (That was a stretch, I admit. But I would do it again in a heartbeat.) Somewhere along the line we confused hospitality with that thing we see in Martha Stewart Living and Dwell magazine. But real hospitality isn’t like that -- even if you do have a spare room and a guest bathroom.

Hospitality means that what I have I will share with you (or, in Merriam-Webster’s definition, “generous and friendly treatment of visitors and guests”). That this space, which is enough for me, has enough room for you, as well. Just as there is room for you in my life, when needed I will make room for you on my couch. I will wash my spare set of towels. I will do the dishes that have been piling up, if for no other reason than we can then get them dirty again cooking dinner together.

There are many reasons to want or need more than 350 sq ft. But I am tired of people pretending that hospitality is one of them, as if living small is a failure of virtue. Every time I hear this line of reasoning, I wonder again how to feel about welcoming people into my home. What is my hospitality if others reject it? If they declare that what I have decided is enough is not, in fact, good enough for them? (When I told a church friend about this conundrum, she suggested I call this piece “You need new friends.” Thankfully, I don’t actually need new friends...but I hope you see her point.)

It has taken me a long time to learn that my apartment doesn’t have to be spotless to welcome you into it. (I didn’t have time to wash the cat hair covered futon cover before my friend’s arrival for the night, and that is ok -- though it will still drive me nuts, because my mother raised me to be clean, if nothing else.) That even though “cozy” is used as code for “tiny” in craigslist ads, my tiny apartment really is cozy. That I don’t need to be embarrassed that I can’t offer my guests their own room and a private bathroom.

It’s likely that this sounds judgmental, and that is probably because it is, a bit. I feel my capability at offering hospitality is judged based on my lack of space, my thrift store pots and pans, my worn but clean towels, my apartment that lacks those shiny, matching items you may or may not have registered for at Bed, Bath, & Beyond. There’s not room for the “beyond” in my apartment, so it’s just as well I’ve had no reason to register for it. And so, if I come back at this perceived judgement with a little judgement of my own, so be it.

In Works of Love Kierkegaard discusses how mercifulness is a work of love, even if it is able to do nothing and give nothing. The short explanation of how I understand this playing out in the book is that a person’s ability to show love is not limited by his or her circumstances -- material, emotional, or otherwise. I am, here, discussing hospitality rather than love, and yet the Kierkegaardian in me thinks there’s some connection. My ability to offer hospitality isn’t dependent upon looking like a page out of Dwell. I don’t need a pretty, or large, space in order to welcome you. If I had such a space, I could welcome you there too, but hospitality is not made of granite counter tops and matching towels. I’ve worked hard to make my space welcoming, even if most of the time I am the only one in it. I like to be comfortable, so I try to make my space as comfortable as I can with the limited means at my disposal. I’ve lived in this apartment for five years; it is no longer just another apartment to me, it is my home.

At the risk of being trite, or self-righteous (not to mention totally out of liturgical season), I cannot help but think of Mary and Joseph, of the story of an unwed mother making room for a child, of an inn with no room, and of a dirty, smelly stable in which God was welcomed, born of Mary’s messy hospitality.

I’m not asking you to sit in straw and animal shit. I’m offering you a cup of tea and a cat hair covered futon. And that is enough.

Friday, July 3, 2015


I dared to hope that the decisions in yesterday’s delegate sessions at #MennoCon15 would surprise me. They did not. Yet last night I felt as stunned and hurt as if I had actually believed a better outcome was possible, as if I was shocked the Membership Guidelines resolution passed, as if I had expected better of my church. Perhaps it is only that I wish I could have expected better. But working for inclusion in recent years has made me cynical and reluctant, withholding of trust, and perhaps it hurts that much more to be hit when you see it coming, when a peace church chooses to continue its practices of internal violence, when so much screams that inclusion is a lost cause.

Love should never feel like a lost cause.

It’s hard not to feel that way though, when just this morning on Twitter a Mennonite brother called me, and others, lame and ignorant for our support of Pink Menno. Is name calling, being bullied and then told one needs a “thicker skin” and “isn’t ready for this” (whatever “this” may be) what disagreeing with one another in love looks like?

I don’t go around calling Mennonites who disagree with me names; I have never called the conservative voices in our church lame or ignorant. I know our disagreements are more complicated than that. But that’s the thing: I know I will be held to a higher standard than those carrying the majority opinion. I have to tread carefully. I have to be polite and well behaved, a nice, sweet church lady, or else no one is going to give me the time of day. Straight men with authority can call me names, and they will lose nothing. Nothing but my respect, which perhaps means nothing to them anyway, since to some I am just an ignorant woman. I am not ignorant, though – I understand something about power, and I know that playing by the rules doesn’t help you change them. That disruption, resistance, direct action, and strong words are necessary. (Strong words, yes; name calling, no.)

That both the Membership Guidelines and Forbearance resolutions passed simply confirms what I already suspected: that plenty of people are happy to pay lip service to the idea of bearing with one another in love, so long as they can continue the practices of exclusion they've held to all along.

I am tired of playing nice. I am tired of being your well behaved church lady, tired of writing with nuance and balance, tired of trying so hard to get you to listen. Yet here I am again, because as we saw yesterday, you are not going to listen to your queer sisters and brothers when they try to help you understand their lives and their experiences. You aren’t going to listen to their stories – that you have made unbelievably clear.

You are scared. I can see that; anyone can see that. And this decision will do nothing to dispel your fears.

Perfect love casts out fear. But this? There is no love in this. And so your fears will grow, they will fester, and beautiful, faithful Mennonites will continue to be silenced by your fears, and by your violence.

Make no mistake: this is violence.

Do not call it unity, when you widen the cracks in this already fractured body. Do not call it unity when you reject God’s own. Do not call it unity when you choose to ignore not only queer voices but the very voice of the holy spirit moving in your midst, clothed in pink.

I fear that after remaining controlled and polite and gracious for so long, I will lose it. I will give up, or break down, or turn tables. I will tell you what I really think – to your face – instead of letting someone vet my words first, helping me edit out the passion, the anger, the indignation, helping me play the political landscape in hopes that maybe then you’ll listen.

I can do all of that, and still you will not listen. You will never listen because you do not want to hear. This much I know to be true.

Why won’t you listen, when we want so much to gather with you, to sing with you, to live with and worship with you?

What are you so afraid of?

Are you so afraid of what might happen if love goes unchecked? If you give in to the immense, overflowing, gracious, abundant love of God? If you trust that love, vulnerable as it may be, would not overwhelm us, but would bring us together?

I keep looking for a turning point here, a hopeful conclusion, a place to stand and look forward to a better future, but I can’t find one. Can’t – or won’t.

You don’t deserve that today. What little hope I had you crushed.

For now, at least.

Friday, June 19, 2015

When Squirrels Attack

Friday link roundup, Kierkegaard Camp edition, means not many links, because I’ve been reading a lot of <gasp!> books. I love books. But enough about that...

The Two Ages, Søren Kierkegaard

Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, Søren Kierkegaard

Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography, Joakim Garff (this sucker is over 800 pages and I am afraid I may never finish it).

Girl Runner, Carrier Snyder: get this novel and read it, now.

“Stranger in the Village,” in Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin.

The Writer on Her Work, ed. Janet Sternburg: Found on the St. Olaf library free table, includes Joan Didion’s “Why I Write.” ::swoon::

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the history of the confederate flag. White supremacy survives, in part at least, because of the lies white folks tell ourselves about who we are and where we've come from. Times like these I grow frustrated with my inability to know where to even begin to dismantle a structure so basic to American society, an evil so prevalent, but here is one thing: take down the Confederate flag. Tell the truth about that history. Tell the truth, and take it down, and then figure out what's next. As long as we labor under the a-historical illusions that allow that flag to fly, I despair as to whether we can get anywhere at all. Baldwin is right I think: “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”

Jesicca Valenti on sexist bookshelves: “...passive bias is still bias - and it has ripple effects into the broader culture. Is it really so much to ask that we pay attention to what shapes our tastes?”

WOMEN’S WORLD CUP 2015. If you care about the men’s World Cup but not the women’s, I have NO TIME for your sexism. Red cards for all misogynists. BYE.

Here’s the thing about being at Kierkegaard Camp. I am already a person whose head spins with more thoughts than I can pin down, and here I have these long, wide open days to write and think and read and think and talk and think and...you get the idea. Sometimes I just need my own mind to shut up for a bit. So, I take a lot of long walks with headphones and have a lot of dorm room dance parties. Music of choice? I’m so glad you asked:

Taylor Swift’s Red and 1989, respectively, because the line I knew you were trouble when you walked in sums up...well, most of the boys of my youth, I guess. And because singing “Blank Space” while dancing around in my pajamas reminds me I’m still young and reckless, all evidence to the contrary. (Did I mention I have a birthday next week?)

Tyler Lyle’s latest, The Native Genius of Desert Plants

Mandolin Orange’s new album, Such Jubilee, which is simply stunning and has me all homesick for North Carolina right now. Check out their performance of "Little Worlds" on NPR's Folk Alley.

Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, because it’s good rainy day, staring out the window, moodling music, and I’ve been doing a lot of that.

The Shadowboxers, Red Room: because harmonies. See also any number of solid covers on their YouTube channel, especially this one, if like me you grew up on Simon & Garfunkel:

I got to see the guys play a show in Minneapolis last weekend, and it was a delight. They’re hitting the east coast next, so check ‘em out.

Finally, a link that didn’t fit anywhere else. Here’s the aftermath of the squirrel invasion in my St. Olaf dorm room:

A video posted by @meghanpauline on

It’s time to go home, kids.

Friday, June 12, 2015

lightness has a call that's hard to hear

I'm trying to tell you somethin' about my life
Maybe give me insight between black and white
And the best thing you've ever done for me
Is to help me take my life less seriously
It's only life after all

I always feel a little weird about how much I like the Indigo Girls “Closer to Fine,” given that I majored in Philosophy and have spent some of the most formative summers of my life at grown up philosophy “camp.” Then again, it makes sense that a Kierkegaardian would be skeptical of “the doctor of philosophy/With a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee” while simultaneously being, well, a philosopher. This week my suitemate and I discussed an elaborate analogy for how Kierkegaard fits into the wide world of philosophy: he is like the crazy uncle who gets seated at the kids’ table at Thanksgiving because, well, we know he’s one to start food fights, so let’s just be preemptive and put him in the corner now, shall we? Good ol’ Uncle Søren. In certain circles, studying his work isn’t going to make you any friends, but I like sitting at that table.

Yesterday, during the first Summer Fellows seminar, we had a lively conversation, each person reading a passage from Kierkegaard’s work that is meaningful to us and sharing why. After one person started, others slowly piped up, picking up a thread from the person who had spoken before, noting that perhaps her passage resonated a bit with his, and carrying the discussion forward. Our interests are wide-ranging, yet certain ideas echoed throughout our chosen passages and research interests.

Visiting the library these past few years has been for me both an academic testing ground (a place of great seriousness and searching), and a place I have learned to take my life less seriously, as the song goes. Not that I am actually much good at taking life less seriously, but at least I know that about myself, now. My first summer here I arrived a ball of nerves because I wasn’t sure I could hack it at the big kids table (I can), but throughout that summer those knots started to loosen. And now, when I return, I feel myself begin to unwind as soon as I set foot on campus. To be as high strung as I am capable of being, as serious as I have been for much of my life, and study a philosopher-poet as playful as Kierkegaard is a bit silly, isn’t it? Then again, he’s also intense beyond anything I have ever been. What a vibrant (if also heavy) inner world he must have had. I relate to that, the flurry and mess of my own mind so wild I can barely keep up with it. I admire the way Kierkegaard set those imaginary constructs down on paper, painstakingly, day after day. And that, perhaps, is why lately I am so interested in the man himself.

My days here find a neat rhythm, one free from certain practicalities of daily life, and that too helps me to unwind. It helps me to settle those wiley thoughts a bit, to set a few down on paper myself.

Well darkness has a hunger that's insatiable
And lightness has a call that's hard to hear
And I wrap my fear around me like a blanket
I sailed my ship of safety till I sank it
I'm crawling on your shores

Friday, May 29, 2015


If you only have time to click through one link today, let it be this one: New Rule by Tariq Luthun on The Offing.

Also from The Offing (have I mentioned you need to check out The Offing?), poetry from Victoria Lynne McCoy.

Edith Wharton on Starbucks is everything you never knew you wanted.

Poetry from Kim Addonizio.

Feministing’s Dana Bolger responds to Meghan Daum’s piece on campus sexual assault the LA Times. Full disclosure: I didn’t read Daum’s piece. The clips I read from it, to be frank, were enough to make me think that reading it in full would make me physically ill. Not only did the content of those excerpts bother me, the knowledge that those comments came from another woman is, I think, what unsettles me further. I am sadly used to men not taking sexual assault seriously. But a supposedly progressive feminist woman? I’m sure you’re getting lots of hits and making waves for being "controversial" by criticizing these young women. In any case, Bolger’s response seems spot on based on those bits of Daum’s piece I could stomach reading, and she makes important points that stand on their own, apart from responding to Daum, anyway.

Tyler Lyle explains one of my favorite songs.

And finally, books: This week I read Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child, and then moved on to YA novelist Sarah Dessen’s Saint Anything. I’m about to start Girl Runner by Carrie Snyder. Getting my fiction in before I head to Kierkegaard Camp, you see.

This NPR piece on books and e-readers, mostly because it begins with a bit about one of my favorite used book stores, Capitol Hill Books, but also because I’m working on a personal essay with some overlap.

If you follow me on Twitter you already know: I’m watching, and live tweeting snarky feminist commentary on, The Bachelorette on Tuesday nights.

I  also watched the last episode of Inspector Morse, and then I ugly cried that it was all over. (That last part is not hyperbole, I really did cry.)

I woke up on Tuesday and though, “Cinnamon Tea Cake would be just the thing for breakfast.” So I baked this, and found that I was correct.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Thinking Against Oneself: Kierkegaard's Godly Satire and the Art of Nonfiction

The following paper was presented at the Kierkegaard and the Present Age conference at Brigham Young University in November 2013. As promised, I'm publishing it here as a small token of my gratitude to those who contributed to my summer research project.

As a writing tutor, I repeat myself a lot: “Your thesis needs to be a statement, not a question,” I say. “In your paper you are going to answer the question proposed in the paper prompt, not “explore” it, not “consider” it, not hopefully possibly maybe show that such-and-such could be the case,” I continue. “Make a statement. Answer the question.”

When I am not hammering this thesis mantra into students’ heads, I am debating the appropriateness of the use of the first-person “I” in academic writing. The goal of supposed objectivity, as well as residue from high school english composition courses, leave most of the students I work with convinced that they are to remain invisible in their papers. Instead of “I,” they write, “This essay will argue,” and I cringe. Worse still, they turn to the passive voice, and write  “It will be shown.” It will, will it? By whom? By zombies?

Though I primarily teach academic writing, I have some concerns about how it is practiced. I tell students to write in a way that I secretly think is unhelpful at this stage in their education. Rather, I think that they need to wonder before they prove. They need to understand and acknowledge themselves as interpreters, and to develop a voice that converses with the texts that they study.

With regard to Kierkegaard, I have two main concerns in relation to the situations I’ve narrated: first, to consider the tension between exploration and argument in the essay, and second, to discuss the possibility of the nonfiction writer becoming a character in his or her own work, and the rhetorical possibilities thereof. Given this, I will first provide some background on the essay as a literary form, before embarking on a dialogue between Søren Kierkegaard’s The Point of View for my Work as an Author, and contemporary nonfiction writer Phillip Lopate’s To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction.

I am primarily interested here in Kierkegaard’s use of what he calls “godly satire” and its ability to “deceive into the truth.” By discussing the essay as a literary form, my intent is to show how one can appropriate the fluidity of genre Kierkegaard employs in his philosophical writings to both creative writing and writing pedagogy more generally. The difference between the essay as it is taught in creative writing courses -- what we would now call a “personal” or in some cases the “familiar” essay -- and the thesis driven thing now normative in undergraduate composition courses is unfortunate, if not pedagogically disastrous. At the very least, it results in a lot of boring papers. I would like to suggest that Kierkegaard’s approach to philosophical and theological writing provides a way to bring these two kinds of essay writing into conversation, with broad implications for how young scholars learn to think and write.

So. What do I mean when I say “essay”? The word itself means an attempt or trial, and as such the essay is an adventurous form. It is a process -- a becoming. Beginning with Montaigne, who is often cited as the exemplary model and one of the earliest practitioners of the form, Phillip Lopate explains that the essay is generally not concerned with providing logical proof. It does not read like a legal brief, nor does it even have to have the singular goal of persuading the reader of something -- though it might also do so. There is a fearlessness to it, in that the essayist need not fear refute, for the point is not getting it right so much as thinking it through, issuing and accepting an invitation to surprise. An essay may be as full of ideas as narrative; it is philosophy plus personality. It shows and tells. An essayist of this sort does not sit down with an outline containing an intro, three points, and a conclusion. She may have a sense of where she wants to go, but she invites her reader into her process of discovery. She creates a dialogue along the lines of that which Montaigne’s essay “Of the inconstancy of our actions” describes when he writes:
If I speak variously of myself, it is because I consider myself variously; all the contrarieties are there to be found in one corner or another; after one fashion or another: bashful, insolent; chaste, lustful; prating, silent; laborious, delicate; ingenious, heavy; melancholic, pleasant; lying, true; knowing, ignorant; liberal, covetous, and prodigal: I find all this in myself, more or less, according as I turn myself about; and whoever will sift himself to the bottom, will find in himself, and even in his own judgment, this volubility and discordance. I have nothing to say of myself entirely, simply, and solidly without mixture and confusion.
What Montaigne gets at here, and what the essay form specializes in, is the process of thought, the variance, the way we can change our minds as we sift through ideas. The essay also captures the delight in doing so.

Reflecting further on this, Lopate notes that, nonetheless, his own essays,
...always contain an implicit argument and make an attempt to persuade (or at least seduce, entertain, distract the reader into amusement, which are other means of persuasion, ones that Montaigne himself was happy to use). Even when I set out with no end in sight, I still am aware as I am writing when an argument is building underneath, and I nudge the prose along in ways that accentuate the architecture. (Lopate 108)
Considering the essay as a process of discovery in this way has pedagogical implications, insofar as it is perhaps somewhat backward to berate students about the need to settle on a thesis when they do not yet know what they think. Why do we put such “unreasonable pressure on students...before they have explored their thoughts on the page,” Lopate asks (108). Furthermore, here we begin to see the Kierkegaardian connection emerge:  Whether he is genuinely sifting through ideas and altering his opinion, or purposefully crafting a persona, on the page this is often what Kierkegaard looks like: that is, like the essayist who appears to be changing her mind. She sets herself up as wondering, yet underneath that she works intentionally -- or does she? You can never quite be sure. In any case, the process is as important as the end point.

Sadly, what the students I work with are expected to write are not essays in this traditional sense. We operate with a split between composition and the personal essay that is only as recent as the 70s and 80s, according to Lopate, and most courses expect students to stay on the composition side of the fence. Even among practitioners of the essay, in fact, there is some conversation about what constitutes an essay, and the subsets thereof. Essayist Anne Fadiman reflects on the state of affairs in the preface to her collection, At Large and At Small, where she writes, “Today’s readers encounter plenty of critical essays (more brain than heart) and plenty of personal -- very personal -- essays (more heart than brain), but not many familiar essays (equal measures of both).” Fadiman’s take on the personal essay understands it over and against the familiar essay, which strikes me as a bit off. Much of what is labeled “personal essay” these days, in the way Fadiman references -- more heart that brain -- is actually more like short-memoir, which is not the same thing as an essay in the vein of Montaigne, and is not what I am talking about here. Rather, Lopate considers the personal essay to be close kin of the familiar essay. He lays out a distinction first between the formal essay and the informal essay, with the personal essay as subset of informal, and the familiar as subset of personal. If there is a difference between these last two, he says, it is that “The familiar essay values lightness of touch above all else; the personal essay, which need not be light, tends to put the writer’s ‘I’ or idiosyncratic angle more at center stage” (xxiv, The Art of the Personal Essay). I bring this up not as mere tangential digression, nor to split hairs about genre, but because this marriage of what Fadiman calls “heart” and “brain” is what I am trying to get at here, and where Kierkegaard fits into this conversation: in short, I think that there is room for more “heart” in my students’ essays.

Still, the informal  or personal essay may be perceived as a quaint, curious thing, easily dismissed by intellectual heavyweights. Lopate writes, “I once shared my introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay with a learned English department colleague who pronounced it ‘charming,’ which I took to mean insufficiently theorized and dilettantish” (To Show and To Tell, 110). The tension between the formal and informal forms can result in what feel like a nice pats on the head to the traditional essayist -- as if one cannot be charming and also intellectually astute. As if it would not be a worthy goal for my students to learn to be interesting.

Delving further into what makes the essay, despite its lack of a thesis or pointedly driven argument, an intellectual as well as artistic exercise, Lopate speaks of purposefully “planting knots” in in the body of an essay which he can then untie along the way in order to move the essay forward. He notes, finally, how one of his colleagues refers to Plato’s Dialogues as, other than Montaigne, “the writings of [one of] the greatest essayists” (111). How could a dialogue be an essay, Lopate wonders, only to conclude that “all good essays are dialogues, and all partake of both exploration and argumentation” (111). The essayist never lacks for a conversation partner, because she specializes in self-interrogation. She can argue with herself.

I hope that I am beginning to sound Kierkegaardian at this point, though one might wonder what there is to say in comparing a writer as long winded as our dear Kierkegaard with any writer who works in a form as compact as the essay. Length aside, I would venture -- indeed, I might even argue, hesitant as my essayist impulse may be to do such a thing -- that Kierkegaard thinks like an essayist. Furthermore, thinking of him as such has implications for how we teach his work, and how we require students to write about him.

Kierkegaard writes of his work that, “The movement of the authorship is: from ‘the poet,’ from the esthetic -- from ‘the philosopher,’ from the speculative -- to the indication of the most inward qualification of the essentially Christian” (POV 5). His work, he asserts, articulates a path, a movement -- specifically, “the Christian movement” (POV 7). He sets out in The Point of View to explain his process, what precisely he’s been up to with his varied and contradictory authorial voices. He claims that now, here, he will explain his “author character” (POV 26).  Insofar as we determine that we can take him at his word here -- for there are few things of which I am more certain than that Kierkegaard is nearly always messing with our heads -- he presents his own work as an attempt at communication as reflection. His goal is “to deceive,” albeit with the intent that such deception is ultimately revelatory (POV 7). If one is to reach the goal, though, this deception cannot go on indefinitely. It is merely a means of uncovering the truth. Sooner or later one must take a more direct approach, but this directness, this simplicity, is the better for having followed this process of, “in working also to work against oneself” (POV 9). Is he in earnest here? Is he making claims about his work’s intentionality that cannot be substantiated? Possibly. As any essayist could tell you, “intention” is rarely that simple.

For Lopate, as discussed, the use of contrariety is at the heart of the essay. “Let us begin with the assumption that the essay feasts on doubt,” he writes, “on self-doubt, ambivalence, contradiction, and paradox” (Lopate 64). This is a characteristic he calls “Thinking against oneself” -- a process that sounds much like the Kierkegaardian idea cited above, namely, to work against oneself. The essayist is mischievous in this way -- messing with your head by exploring the nooks and crannies of her own. For Kierkegaard, this thinking against oneself takes place via pseudonyms, full-fledged characters he creates for himself. Here, again, Lopate’s description of the essayist is illuminating. He argues that characterization, perhaps often assumed to be the domain of fiction writers, is a key component of the essay. One must turn oneself into a character on the page. “The art of characterization,” he writes, “comes down to establishing a pattern of habits and actions for the person you are writing about and introducing variations into the system” (To Show and To Tell, 18). Doing so is a way of creating some distance from oneself, “to see yourself from the ceiling”(18). The essayist must create a memorable/compelling narrator, must dramatize herself, must highlight her own ambivalence and internal contradictions. “The reader must find you amusing,” he writes, “amusing enough to follow you, no matter what topic you propose” (22). There is a strategy in Kierkegaard’s work of “esthetic incognito” -- a sense in which he understands himself as “a kind of secret agent in the highest service” (JP 1858-1855, 6192) -- and uses the esthetic to his advantage. He assures his readers that we needn’t be concerned by his use of deception, however, for one can “deceive a person into what is true” (POV 53). He is not lying; he is making a point. And it is through this seeming lie that the truth can be revealed. He goes all in, not merely considering conflicting points of view, but becoming them. As Lopate instructs the essayist, “You must get in the habit of inviting, not censoring, the most far-fetched, mischievous notions, because even if they prove cockeyed, they might point to an element of truth that would otherwise be inaccessible” (Lopate 24). This last line seems to me to speak to the heart of the confusing pseudonymous dance Kierkegaard enacts, for what is writing in the way that he does if not wild? Brilliant, but strange? Lopate would likely say to embrace such an impulse.

It is all well and good to note such similarities between Kierkegaard and Lopate’s description of the essay, but why should this matter to us? Why is this thing Kierkegaard calls “a godly satire” good, or perhaps even necessary? (POV 17) Why ought one attempt to “deceive into the truth”? (POV 7) For that matter, what if we do sum all this up as the author simply changing his mind? (POV 29) Does it matter whether he really changed his mind, or was merely acting? Here looking at Kierkegaard’s work from the angle of creative nonfiction becomes particularly fruitful. Like the essayist, who crafts a given piece to take the reader through a tangle of ideas, to lead her to a specific thought or feeling, a certain revelation or sense of delight, each move is purposeful. In creative writing we call this craft. It’s not something philosophers speak of -- or at least not in my experience. But it is at play in Kierkegaard’s authorship, from word choice to imagery to characterization.

This matter of craft is central, as is the role of human personality in analysis. When considering a thinker often characterized as the “father of existentialism,” it stands to reason that the human subject, in all her malleability, would be visible. Lopate writes:
Personal essayists from Montaigne on have been fascinated with the changeableness and plasticity of the materials of human personality. Starting with self-description, they have realized they can never render all at once the entire complexity of a personality. So they have elected to follow an additive strategy, offering incomplete shards, one mask or persona after another: the eager, skeptical, amiable, tender, curmudgeonly, antic, somber. If ‘we must remove the mask,’ it is only to substitute another mask. The hope is that in the end, when an essayists lifework has been accumulated, all these personae will add up to a genuine unmasking. (The Art of the Personal Essay, xxviii)
There is a sense in which it is only by embracing our own varied masks that we can reach the place vulnerability in which such genuine unmasking can take place. Kierkegaard wholeheartedly embraces this contrariety which is so characteristic of the essayist -- so much so that he doesn’t merely play the curmudgeon for a paragraph or two, but creates entire personas with authorships of their own which he can variously interact with, contradict, or affirm. Ultimately to read one of these characters without consideration of the others may even leave one with an incomplete understanding of the point of the given persona. The dialogue, the conversation, is only half-finished if you don’t consider one voice in comparison with others. Which voice is really Kierkegaard’s voice?

All of them -- even those we might argue are speaking words he doesn’t believe. The essayist will play devil’s advocate to herself if need be, whether she has really changed her mind or not.

The question arises, then, as to what it means to be an author in this way. As Kierkegaard asks, is it “to be an x, an impersonal something that, by means of printing, addresses itself abstractly to thousands upon thousands but itself is unseen, unknown, living as secretly, as anonymously, as impersonally as possible, presumably so that the contrast between the enormous means of communication and being an individual human being does not become obvious or glaring”? (57). I think not. In all of this, I hope we might see an invitation, quite simply, to squash this business about being invisible in our work. Not only is it an act of self-deception to think the individual is not present anyway, despite our efforts, but we also destroy the possibility that our collective intellectual work might actually be strengthened by the well-defined and clearly articulated voices of individuals. Revisiting the essay itself as a form, along with a kind of Kierkegaardian posture of authorship, creates potential to infuse life and accessibility into academic writing in way that moves it out of the academy and into public discourse and communal imagination.