Writers on Writing #63: William Bradley
The Essayist’s Creed
“You can have my isolation / You can have the hate that it brings.” --Nine Inch Nails
I. In some ways, I feel like I have been friends with the essayist Dave Griffith since before we met. If that doesn’t make sense to you, then I propose you need to read more personal essays. Granted, as scholars of the form sometimes point out, the essayist’s persona on the page is never an exact replica of his mind or personality, but it has been my experience that the essayists I find myself “liking” as personas in a piece of writing generally turn out to be people I like in the “real world”, if and when I meet them. This has happened several times, with writers such as Bob Cowser, Steven Church, Maureen Stanton, Kristen Iversen, and Dinty W. Moore. I guess if you can craft yourself into a personable, amiable “character” in an essay, it stands to reason that you realize what qualities also make for an enjoyable personality when you’re actually interacting with other people.
I enjoyed Dave’s first collection of essays—A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America—a great deal. Of course, there’s something to be said or someone who can somehow find thematic links among David Lynch films, Flannery O’Connor short stories, Star Trek, Andy Warhol, and the photos of detainee abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. That’s just a sharp, creative mind. But there was more to it than that. I appreciated the fact that Dave—and I’ve met him and he’s spent the night in my house, so he’s Dave to me, not the less personal “Griffith”—dealt with the pressing political, social, and moral issues of the first decade of the 21st century without resorting to simple-minded, partisan rhetoric. Sure, he was horrified by the detainee abuse, but—unlike a lot of people I knew in 2006, when the book was published—he wasn’t satisfied to say that it was just a Lynndie England problem or just a military problem or just a George W. Bush is a bloodthirsty warmonger problem. He was after a deeper truth, something about the culture that could allow such atrocity to happen and then completely disavow it, pretending that what happened half a world away had nothing to do with any of us back at home.
The thing I admired most about Dave’s book is that he calls us to look at ourselves even as he peers within himself. He’s not content to say that injustice or brutality are the result of “evil people” in opposition to his own innate goodness. He doesn’t trust the false dichotomy of “us vs. them” the way so many of us so frequently do. He makes a compelling argument that our important conversations have been corrupted by a reductive Manichaeism, and he urges us to resist such manufactured divisions, as comforting as they may be sometimes. A belief in our own moral superiority is a sin of pride—perhaps the deadliest of the seven deadlies—and, Dave writes, “sets us against each other,” causing us to “forever see ourselves as innocent and exceptional—a chosen people ordained by God to rid the earth of evil in a War on Terror.”
As the title of the book suggests, he uses Flannery O’Connor’s fiction to help illustrate his point. There’s no “good and evil” in “Good Country People” or “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” There are just flawed people whose encounters with the grotesque help them to eventually discover Grace—the Grace promised by the God O’Connor (a devout Catholic) believed in.
A lesser writer might have left it at that, but Dave goes deeper, exploring his own religious faith without embarrassment, apology, or a cocoon of irony. When he speaks of his own Catholicism and the way his faith influences how he perceives the world, his sincerity jumps off the page. Not in a proselytizing way, but just in an attempt to explore and explain his own thoughts, how his mind wrestles with these ideas. He’s not writing a polemic—although his opinions are in there, sure—but he is interested in moving beyond an overly-simplified dialectic where two sides, convinced of their own virtue, simply shout at each other.
As a lapsed Catholic who married into Lutheranism with some ambivalence, I admired such a firm statement of his own conviction. I only knew two churchgoers when I was in graduate school and Dave’s book was released. One of them was my wife, and even she felt uncomfortable talking about religious doctrines, instead focusing on religion’s influence on the culture she lived in and the literature she studied as well as the sense of community she experienced when she went to church.
Me? Oh, I hid behind that familiar line, “I like to think I’m spiritual, but organized religion is corrupt and isn’t for me.” I avoided talking about the issue, which was relatively easy. Even my most thoughtful, philosophical friends tended to avoid talking about their personal belief systems, preferring abstractions and theories about faith to actual discussions about what they believed. The truth was, I did believe in something larger than the individual, the community, the world that we live in. I did believe in God.
But I couldn’t express such belief. Not the way Dave could. Not then.
II. Recent polls suggest that nine out of ten Americans believe in God. Most—but by no means all—of these believers identify themselves as Christians. However, according to the Barna Research Group—an Evangelical Christian polling firm—only 9% identify faith as the most important thing in their lives. An Associated Press/GFK poll indicates that nearly eight out of ten Americans believe in Angels. A National Geographic poll conducted in 2012 found that 77 percent of Americans believe that there is evidence to suggest that aliens have visited earth (only one in twenty said that, in the event of coming into contact with an alien, they would “try to inflict bodily harm”; I guess that’s a pretty good statistic). About a third of Americans believe that the destruction of the World Trade Center was “an inside job.” Three out of ten Americans believe Bigfoot is real.
I guess you have to believe in something. Maybe most of us need to believe in something bigger than ourselves that can affect or even control our fate. As Bob Dylan sang during his Evangelical Christian phase, “Well, it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
III. I served as an altar boy when I was a kid, in two churches—St. Monica’s in Willows, California and Holy Rosary in Buckhannon, West Virginia. My sixth grade CCD teacher served the Lord by telling us that children in Africa were starving because children in America weren’t Praying the Rosary. My eight grade CCD teacher served the Lord by telling us that Martin Luther protested Vatican opulence and split off from the Catholic Church because “he wanted to be a big shot.” He also suggested that I might serve the Lord by becoming a priest someday—a suggestion I took quite seriously. If you believe in Catholic doctrine—and I did, deeply—what’s a few decades of celibacy and poverty compared to the eternal rewards that await you? If I hadn’t developed this nagging agnosticism in high school, I might be a priest today.
My seventh grade CCD teacher—my neighbor, an obstetrics nurse who was then ten years younger than I am now—served the Lord by telling me once that I should abstain from sex until marriage, but that if I did have sex, I should make sure to use a condom, regardless of what the Vatican says. And though the Pope and the American Conference of Catholic Bishops and William Donahue would say she was completely wrong to say such a thing to a 12-year-old, my own moral compass tells me that she was the one spiritual authority during my middle school years who told me something that was right and true.
IV. I taught for four years at a small Baptist school in the south before the campus minister proclaimed that I am an immoral man unfit to teach at a Christian university. My wife thinks that, at some point, I must have said or done something that the campus minister found insulting. Indeed, according to the provost and president, the minister claimed that I had complained to her that there was “too much prayer and such” at certain campus events. That I had never said such a thing—would never say such a thing—was beside the point. She said I said it. And she had God on her side. So.
Aside from accusations of Godlessness, the campus minister felt that the creative nonfiction essays I wrote illustrated my depravity—specifically, an essay I had written years before I’d even heard of the school demonstrated my lack of moral fiber, according to her. The essay recounts a rather humorous Key West vacation when my wife and I found ourselves the only monogamous couple staying in a bed and breakfast that was otherwise rented out entirely by swingers. It concludes on the observation that my own sex life is quite conventional—ten years of heterosexual monogamy with the woman I’m married to—but that even those whose sex lives may seem “bizarre” to those outside their relationship deserve to have love and happiness too, if they can find it.
In short, an essay about love cost me my job at a Christian university. I had to leave my home to take a job fourteen hours away, while my wife stayed behind for the year and continued to work with the people who had, effectively, driven me into exile for my heresy.
I am convinced that the campus minister didn’t really understand the essay’s central point—she encountered language and descriptions that she found objectionable and couldn’t get past them to see the larger context. I can’t really be angry about that—it’s not her fault if she didn’t “get it”; in fact, it could be that the writing wasn’t clear enough for the larger context to be comprehended. I can acknowledge that—her misreading of the essay might be the result of my flaws as an essayist. But here’s what I am angry about: the woman has never said a word to me about her objections to the essay. She has never expressed concern for the state of my soul. She never indicated that she would pray that I would see the error of my ways. Instead, she decided that, to serve the Lord, she would campaign to have a popular teacher (I had been nominated for the school’s awards for both teaching and scholarly productivity) fired. That losing my job might mean losing my house, losing my dignity, and perhaps even losing my marriage—the most important thing in my life—did not give her pause.
This may be bitterness talking, but I cannot for the life of me see a person who could cause such pain as an agent of a loving God. And the administrators who sacrificed academic freedom on their campus because they feared that a controversial faculty member might have a negative impact on fundraising strike me more as agents of Mammon.
V. I have friends who are atheists, but I am not an atheist myself. I get down on organized religion—the Catholics who want to restrict access to birth control, the Evangelicals who think some types of love need to be “fixed” through debunked and unscientific “therapies”, the Baptists who caused my wife to cry at least once a day for an entire month as they were trying to hurt us. But the fact that human beings are stupid, prideful creatures prone to sin is no reason to abandon God. In fact, Dave Griffith writes, “For O’Connor, God’s providence was realized not despite our sins, but through them. Removing sin from life—or fiction—meant essentially cutting yourself off from the possibility of grace.”
I want grace very, very badly. I want to be cleansed of my iniquities and purged of the hatred I have in my heart. I want to be forgiven—not for writing a “dirty essay,” but for the rage that fills me when I hear the essay described in such terms. And I want to have the capacity for forgiveness as well.
So to find grace, it seems to me that I have to believe in it. More than that, though, I see evidence of the divine every day. In the small kindnesses that people afford each other. In my friendships. In music and art. And, most frequently, in literature.
If you’re looking for the sublime, read Andre Dubus’s “A Father’s Story,” which ends with its narrator, horse breeder Luke Ripley, talking to the God he has worshipped his entire life, explaining why he has allowed his unconditional love for his daughter to lead him into sin by covering up a fatal crime that she has accidentally committed:
So, He says, you love her more than you love Me.
I love her more than I love truth.
Then you love in weakness, He says.
As You love me, I say, and I go with an apple or carrot out to the barn.
Or consider Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych, who learns at the end of his life that superficial pursuits have kept him from truly living his life and whose self-centeredness has tormented his family. On his deathbed, he has “revealed to him that though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified.” He apologizes to his family, and tries to ask for absolution: “He tried to add ‘forgive me,’ but said ‘forgo’ and waved his hand, knowing that He whose understanding mattered would understand.”
And of course, there’s the grandmother in O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” A woman who, face-to-face with the man who intends to murder her, suddenly realizes how connected we all are to each other: “Why you're one of my babies,” she tells the Misfit as she faces her own death. “You're one of my own children!"
These stories, I am convinced, reveal truth, just as I tried to reveal truth in my essay about love and sex. I have faith—not in a vengeful God who sends hurricanes to punish gay people, but in a God of mercy and beauty. The God revealed in the works of Dubus, Tolstoy, O’Connor, and others. These are works that convince me that there is a certain divinity to be found in all who live, placed there by a loving creator who wants us to understand that we deserve to love and be loved.
VI. I don’t pray in public for the same reason I don’t write in public, the way you sometimes see young poets scribbling in their moleskins in a Starbucks or writing professors pecking away at laptops in the hotel lobby at the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. These activities are sacred, and are not merely performance. Something about the guy who prays over his Sbarro pizza at the mall food court or the woman who works on her chapbook while sipping her soy latte suggests to me that being seen demonstrating this commitment is more important than the commitment itself. I could be way off-base on this. I probably am. Nevertheless, that’s always my kneejerk reaction to seeing such a public display of something that I only do in private.
VII. But when I pray, I pray with fervor and sincerity. I clarify my thoughts, focus on this communication between myself and my audience—as I do when I write, although in this case, the audience is a force that I can’t quite understand, and won’t understand in this lifetime. A force misunderstood by most who claim to know It—particularly by those who claim that their personal relationship with this force makes their judgment in all matters practically infallible. I don’t want to sound like one of those people who say “I’m spiritual, but not very religious.” Not anymore. I am religious, but I’m comfortable with ambivalence. I can’t claim to know much more than the fact that O’Connor is right—Manichean dualism is nonsense, and any belief system that turns us prideful and compels us to look down on another person is a false belief system. But that is something I know for certain.
So here’s my prayer. My Essayist’s Creed, if you will.
Dear God, cure me of this arrogance. Allow me to resist being judgmental without sacrificing my own moral code. Permit me a greater understanding of the world You created and the people who inhabit it—especially those who I am most inclined to judge, in my weaker moments. Lead me not towards prejudice or bigotry, and if I must hate—as, occasionally, I have to admit that I do—do not allow that hate to overwhelm me, do not let its fires consume me, and give me the strength to resist the urge to act on such hate. Above all, remind me each day that every human life has a spark of Divinity, placed in it by You, and that all people are worthy of attention and love. For these things I pray to you, O Lord, forever and ever, Amen.
William Bradley's work has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including Fourth Genre, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Normal School, and The Missouri Review. He lives in Canton, N.Y., where he teaches at St. Lawrence University, and he has recently finished revising an essay collection of his own titled Cells.