DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #82: The God of Doing it Anyway

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Dear Sugar,

Do you think there will ever be room for me in the art world? I love words, art, culture, ideas, and, most importantly, people. I read The Rumpus every day and my reading list savagely grows with titles I intend to devour. I am planning to go to graduate school within spitting distance of San Francisco because of its amazing literary culture. My dream is to take all the painful, gut-wrenching, soul lifting, breathtaking, fucked up and ordinary life experiences and turn them into stories that are beautiful and meaningful. I’m young and inexperienced and am desperate to learn and experiment with writing.

But there’s something that paralyzes me. I’m a Jesus-loving Christian.

The grad school I’m aiming for is a seminary because seeking understanding of my faith and reveling in its mystery is incredibly important for me. I don’t believe out of fear, but rather love. But I’m afraid that the beautifully open, tolerant writers and artists, like those I read circling in The Rumpus orbit, will not have room for someone like me because of what I love.

Christians have a terrible reputation in the art world now, with due cause, but it wasn’t always the case and I hope that starts to change. There doesn’t seem to be a place for people like me yet. We are too liberal for most other believers, and too conservative for most liberals of other belief systems. I want to be a part of that change, but I need the push. I don’t want to beat people with my Bible. I just want to share my story honestly and connect with others without having to strip my beliefs from my writing.

Do you think tolerance and love will ever go far enough to take in someone who reads e.e. cummings, soaks up Wallace Stegner, Deitrich Bonhoeffer and the Bible, and has books like “The Adderall Diaries” on my reading list? Or had I better prepare myself to start out without an audience and with a handicap? I’m standing at the edge. Should I jump or not? Is it okay for a Christian to “Write like a Motherfucker?”

Culturally and Spiritually,

Paradoxed

Dear Paradoxed,

It was one year ago this week that I implored Elissa Bassist to write like a motherfucker. That so many others took up the writing like a motherfucker call—even those who are not writers—speaks to an essential fact about art making and love making and life making: to do it well, to do it right, to do it like you won’t be sorry later, you must live out your truth.

Even if your truth is that you’re gaga over Jesus Christ.

To think that you will be alone at the Christian writer table tells me you’ve got some reading to do. There’s a rich and varied tradition of such writers. Flannery O’Connor, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Anne Lamott, C.S. Lewis, Kathleen Norris, Reynolds Price, and Mary Karr spring to mind, among many others. What they have in common, aside from their Christian faith, is that they write like motherfuckers: full-throttle, no excuses, with humility and nerve, with intelligence and grace, with exactitude and audacity and love.

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That’s your job too. Which is, of course, the hard part. You must apprentice yourself to the craft, bow before the word. But most of all you must stop using Jesus as an excuse.

I don’t think you know this yet, sweet pea, but I’m pretty certain you aren’t writing to me to ask if it’s okay that you write about your passion for Jesus Christ and whether the generally heathen lit world will accept you into the fold. You’re writing to me for the same reason Elissa Bassist did last year, though you use different language. You’re asking me if it’s okay to be you. You want me to give you permission to write your truth with honesty and heart because doing so scares the living crap out of you. I’m here not only to give you permission, but also to say that you must. There is no other way.

I know because I’m right there beside you, walking down the same path. And so is every other writer on the planet, every other artist, every other person who ever felt outside of who they thought other people believed they should be.

In life, we have to make ourselves. In art, we have to make that self over and over again and present it to the world. We have to put it up on the wall or down on the page or project it on a screen or allow it to resound or glide or crackle across the room. And each time we do that, we must endure the sense that perhaps all has failed, that no one wants this, that we are too much that. Too ordinary or female or obsessed with turtles or experimental or rural or Jewish or derivative or slutty or neurotic or sentimental or gay or Jesus-worshipping or Asian or emotionally restrained or outside-the-whole-MFA-thing or linguistically dense or offensively lewd or just incredibly stupid and weird and boring.

Each time!

This is the reason I laughed when I came to the line in your letter that wonders if you should prepare yourself “to start out without an audience and with a handicap.” Yes, darling, you should. We all start out without an audience and with a handicap. And many of us end up that way too. But the whole deal with making art is you have to be brave. Which is different from not being afraid. You have to dare to inhabit the alternate universe of your original mind and create something for us from that and then stand by and hear what we have to say. The other side of fearlessness is fear. The other side of strength is fragility. The other side of power is faith.

You think writing this column doesn’t terrify me? You think I don’t have a constant loop of horrible words running through my head about all the things one could mock and condemn about my writing and life? You think I’m not self-conscious about my passions and obsessions? Every time I write about my mother, there’s a little voice in my head that says, Oh for the fucking love of God, would you please shut up about this! We know you loved her. We know she died too young. How many times can you hash this over? Enough!

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And yet, at least so far, there seems to be no limit to the number of times I can hash this over when it comes to my mother—(look: here she is! even now!).

I had to struggle to be okay with this, to do what I call trusting the heat, to write what must be written in the way only I can write it. And everything about what you’re asking me has entirely to do with that, Paradoxed. Your Jesus is my mother is someone else’s turtle. Show us his light.  Do it so righteously that we can’t help but look. Don’t worry. Don’t apologize. Don’t cower behind the defeated security of there is no “room for someone like me.” There isn’t room for any one of us. It’s up to you to make a place for yourself in the world. So get to work.

I went to graduate school with a small group of very talented writers. We wrote in a range of styles about a variety of subjects and we spent a lot of time discussing whose style and subject was most interesting or valid or important or artistic or financially rewarded or culturally sanctioned or critically condemned. I felt delicately crushed by many of these conversations, but now I see that they were good for me. They complicated my path, but they clarified the way. You could say those contrary, brilliant people baptized me. They pushed me to answer the question at the core of your question, Paradoxed—is it okay to be me?—and they compelled me to assert that the answer was yes often enough that I went ahead and became her: the writer of plainspoken prose who would not shut up about her grief.

Many of my grad school mates went ahead and became who they had to be too, as all of the writers I most admire do. They wrote about turtles if they were obsessed with turtles. They put their faith in the magic of heat. They worshipped the god of doing it anyway, even while their doubts and fears ran constantly alongside them. The thing that is so apparent and so very cool is that, regardless of our differences, we are the same. The thread that connects our work is that we did the work we had to do. Our writing rose out of necessity and desire and whatever it was that wouldn’t let us go.

And that’s a stronger thread than any of those things we argued back in the day.

I hope you’ll grab hold of that thread too, sweet pea. It’s yours to for the taking, but only if you have the guts to give us everything you’ve got. Doing that is more vital, more real, more sacred than anything.

Yours,

Sugar

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