Finding Each Other

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It’s been well over a decade now since people began to murmur about a renaissance of Catholic literature. A great deal of progress has been made in that time, from the establishment of journals and publishing houses (Dappled Things remains a trailblazer; we’re a good bit more than a decade old), to the emergence of too many talented novelists and poets to list. As Joseph Pearce recently pointed out in The Imaginative Conservative, the piece of the puzzle that’s still missing is the patrons. The great writing is out there. It’s the audience that is proving elusive.

But as the movement of Catholic literature has grown, it faces another problem, which is that so many people had the same idea around the same time—to foster the growth of Catholic literature—that the various groups working toward this goal often do not know the others exist. Sometimes, they even unknowingly step on each others’ toes. For example, on September 19-21 of this year, you can attend the Catholic Imagination Conference at Loyola University in Chicago, or, on September 20-22, you can join the Catholic Writers Guild Online Conference… but you can’t do both. A little cross-pollination between the groups might result in better planning and a healthier literary culture.

This is only one example of a frustrating trend I’ve been observing for years now. From Facebook groups and blogs to conferences and guilds, the Catholic writers are getting together, but only in niche groups that often seem to operate in vacuums. You can find the high-end literary folks in one place, the sci-fi aficionados in another, the poets here, the devotional writers there, the YA writers here, the people who struggle with faith but still identify as Catholic over there… Many groups are inclusive, in the sense that they welcome all sorts of different voices, but there’s still such a multiplicity that no one can keep up with them all.

All of this is good. The more, the merrier, and it’s always been true that birds of a feather flock together. Writers need support from other writers who understand their voices and perspectives. Also, the more outlets there are for finding some kind of entrée into Catholic literature, the more people will come in. Multiplicity is beautiful. But it can also be divisive.

One solution is to rally the troops around a central organization. The Catholic Writers Guild already exists. It’s small and imperfect, but the groundwork for a real professional guild is there, and the more people who join (and volunteer!), the better able it will be to serve.  But beyond that, I see a real need for all of us to reach out—to leave our comfort zones, forget our preconceived notions of what a Catholic Literary Renaissance ought to look like, and explore what it really is. Those from traditional publishing backgrounds need to read self-published books, and vice versa. The academics need to talk the less scholarly among us, and the less scholarly need to appreciate and understand the work of academics. Those who are hosting conferences need to include voices that don’t sound like Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene, and those whose work is less traditional need to appreciate and understand tradition.

I’m aware that this proposal is vague. That’s partly because I don’t have anything more concrete to offer right now, and partly because my aim is to foster a much longer conversation. Please, join in. Use the comments box below, or bring this question out to whichever groups you belong to and propose it there. We are all the Body of Christ. Some may be called as teachers, others as apostles, others as poets, others to write children’s books, or literary criticism, or fantasy, or memoirs. But we are all one body, and without the least of our parts, we will falter. Let’s find each other in charity and work together in Christ.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Mining the Public Domain

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As you may have heard, because of a 1998 revision to U.S. copyright law, January 1, 2019 marked the first time in more than 20 years that any copyrighted work entered the public domain. And while we all rush to download legal copies of works by Robert Frost and Edith Wharton, this also means those cherished works are now available to be used and abused by artists of every stripe for our own creative endeavors. So, it’s a good time to reflect a little on the creative process, what we owe our forebears, and what might or might not constitute an appropriate way to borrow (that is, steal) other people’s intellectual property.

I freely admit to being a shameless raider of the public domain. My first novel, Jennifer the Damned, is loosely based on Crime and Punishment (though I probably could have gotten away with publishing it even if the original were still under copyright.) My second novel, Cinder Allia, would certainly have owed royalties to both The Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault if their copyrights hadn’t expired. I’m currently working on my most flagrant act of plagiarism to date, converting two related short stories by George Washington Cable into a novel. It’s blatant thievery… and it’s legal, and I fully expect to be able to say of the finished product, “This is mine.”

When I recently discussed the public domain with some friends, they asked me, “Wouldn’t you be horrified if someone else took the characters from your books and wrote whatever story they pleased?” Of course, my answer is Yes. I picture poor Margaret Mitchell rolling over in her grave at the publication of Scarlett (which was commissioned by her heirs; Gone With the Wind is still under copyright), and the thought that someday, some second-rate hack might do the same to Jennifer makes my blood boil. If I think about the public domain’s potential consequences for my beloved books, I suddenly want nothing more than to remain an obscure nobody in the hopes that my work will die with me.

I am an absolute hypocrite when it comes to the sanctity of intellectual property, and yet it is a hypocrisy from which there seems to be no escape. An author (or musician, artist, etc.) must be granted the sole proprietorship of his creations, or share it only with the appropriate collaborators, not only to ensure that he is paid fairly for the work but to maintain the integrity of the work itself. Yet there does come a point when it’s just silly to continue to extend royalty payments to someone’s heirs. Can you imagine the legal nightmare if we still had to hunt down the rights-holders every time we wanted to stage one of Shakespeare’s plays? It makes sense that there comes a point when creative works belong to everyone. The artists have lived their lives, earned their pay (or not, as the case may be), and they leave us with a treasure that becomes literally priceless. Their works become a layer in our cultural consciousness, a foundation not of bedrock but of clay. Their stories become ourstories, a past out of which we build our present and our future.

Of course, once a work has entered the public domain, there is no way to police who does what with it anymore. If you want to write Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, no one can stop you. If you want to turn Pachelbel’s Canon in D into an incredibly annoying Christmas song,  alas, you can make millions. If you want to reimagine Crime and Punishment as a vampire novel, I might sue you, but only because I thought of it first. The clay is universally available to every would-be sculptor, which is both a blessing and a curse. What responsibility do we, the artists who mine and mold the public domain, have to the artists who came before? At what point should their artistic integrity give way to our creativity, and at what point do we need to rein ourselves in? How do we reverence the works we build on, and how do we build rather than destroy?

There are no easy answers, and it’s unlikely that any group of artists would reach a consensus on these issues. I will offer a few of my own thoughts, but I welcome all of you to chime in in the comments.

      First, it is possible to find a work that speaks to you, but which really could stand to be improved. This happens frequently in music when the cover version of a song far exceeds the artistry of the original. In the case of “Say Something” by A Great Big World, their lackluster single caught the attention of Christina Aguilera, who then collaborated with them on a new version that is about four million times improved, if we use the sales figures as a measurement. She added the dynamic, harmonic, and tonal contrast that the song sorely lacked, and the results speak for themselves. This is obviously not a case of mining the public domain, but the same principle can apply. In my current project, Cable’s stories speak to me, but he made deliberate narrative choices that required him to skim the surface of character development and conflict. Where he skimmed, I want to dive. Discovering a work like this is like finding a glorious but half-polished diamond. The desire is not only to finish the job, but to create a whole new necklace in which to set the newly-polished original. It cannot be done without reverence for the original work; why would anyone waste his time adapting something he thought was terrible? The point is to showcase the original in a new, more glorious light. Yet the process may very well require chipping away at pieces the original author would have been loath to part with, and any artist will bring his or her own unique perspective to the tale. In this life, I will never know what George Cable thinks of my story, and that’s probably for the best. But I can thank him profusely for providing me with the diamond, and hold myself to the highest possible artistic standards in the hope that I can play Christina to his Great Big World.

More often, however, it would be pure arrogance to think we could improve the works we’ve borrowed. Dostoevsky certainly doesn’t need my help; Cinderella has been adapted a thousand different ways, and her story still transcends all our meddling. So why do we bother? What is the appeal? There is an argument to be made for adaptations as the lazy man’s version of creativity, and an even more compelling argument that the appeal is easy-to-sell brand recognition. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies… Cool, I’d like to see Elizabeth fighting the undead. Hey, that Christmas song sounds like something I heard at a wedding… It must be good, even if those kids are pretty shrill. It is certainly possible to use the public domain as a shortcut to success, even when the new work is decidedly less artistic than the old.

But for those of us who profess motives other than gimmickry or brand recognition, there are more layers to uncover. Adaptations can be true art. Scarlett might be an abomination, but the 1939 film adaptation of Gone with the Wind remains one of the greatest movies ever made. Romeo and Juliet is one of those works we now think of as prime fodder for ridiculous adaptations, but it is itself an adaptation of Pyramus and Thisbe. Jonathan Larson’s Rent was based on Puccini’s La Bohème, which was based on the collection of stories called  Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger. The world of storytelling, in whatever medium, would be very impoverished without adaptations.

It’s been said that there are only seven plots in all of literature, so it is to be expected that different writers will tell different versions of the same tale. The human experience is vast and unique to each individual, but also universal. We all experience the same emotions, if not always in the same proportions, and we all grapple with issues like survival, love, and justice, even if we come to different conclusions about how they should be achieved. Every now and then, a story encapsulates some aspect of our human experience so well that it becomes difficult even to imagine that part of our experience through any lens other than the story. If you think about falling in love with the “wrong” person, does your mind not inevitably draw you back to Romeo and Juliet? It doesn’t matter if the “wrong” person is from a different race, social class, religion, etc., or if the real people involved live someplace far removed from fair Verona. Two Indians of different castes have fallen in love and face resistance from their families; can you write that story without being influenced by Shakespeare? Even if an author who had never read Shakespeare made the attempt, readers and critics would draw the parallel. Some stories are so deeply embedded in our consciousness that we cannot possibly escape them.

So, too, some stories become so deeply embedded in an individual author that it would be ridiculous to deny their influence. It is simpler, cleaner, and wiser just to acknowledge our debt. I could not have written a story about a terrible sinner who is dragged by grace toward redemption that did not use Crime and Punishment as a mold; Dostoevsky’s seeds had already taken far too deep a root in my imagination. This type of adaptation is not about slavish adherence to an original, and less still about enhancing the original, but only about making use of the raw materials that beloved stories have left within our minds and souls in order to give shape to our own creations.

That, to me, is the gift we receive from mining the public domain. Every story, every piece of music, every work of art we encounter has the potential to plant a seed in our minds, to become clay for our souls, to help shape our understanding of the world and what lies beyond. The public domain gives us permission to allow those seeds to blossom, that clay to take shape. The law is designed only to affect the works of artists who are long dead. Just as the artists’ bodies decay but then give shape to flowers, grass, insects—or even rats and plagues—their works are left to fertilize new generations of artists in new and unexpected ways, both beautiful and terrible. The real miracle of the process is that, unlike a body, a work of art does not have to die to be reborn.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Reading Without Pictures

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For the past eight years, my husband and I have been enveloped in the world of communication disorders because both of our children have difficulty comprehending language. However, it is only in recent weeks that a particular symptom was brought to the forefront as a factor in our children’s difficulties: they don’t visualize what they hear or read. Words don’t form pictures in their heads, or at least not very vividly.

When I heard this, I thought, So what? I don’t visualize words, either. I listen to them.

It shocked me to discover that the speech-language community views this as a symptom of poor language comprehension. I’ve scored at the top of every verbal aptitude test I’ve ever taken, earned a master’s degree in screenwriting, published two novels, and I have the privilege of being the managing editor of Dappled Things. I think it’s safe to say that my language comprehension is just fine. Nevertheless, I cannot deny that my children inherited this particular symptom from me.

I took an informal poll of some of the smartest people I know, and as I suspected, I am not alone. I don’t know how many of us are out there, but there is a small percentage of people who do not experience language through visualization, yet we are strong, avid readers. Our experience of story is just as vibrant and affecting as the imagined movies that most strong readers report seeing in their heads. However, we experience this sensory immersion primarily through sound. For the sake of posterity, or curiosity, or just because I’m still trying to figure out what, if anything, all this means, I’ve decided to try to articulate to the visual-dominant world what it’s like to be an aural-dominant reader.

I do not have aphantasia, or “mind’s eye blindness,” a condition in which someone is unable to form any mental visualizations. I can bring to mind pictures of things I have actually seen as well as the next person. I can close my eyes and still “see” the computer on which I am typing this, complete with all the clutter on the desk around it. The breakdown for me enters with language: words do not usually translate into pictures. If you say, “cat,” I can picture a cat if I want to, but the word itself does not trigger the image. “Cat” to me is a symbolic representation of an abstract idea, much like a number.

What do you picture if you see

1 + 1 = 2?

Do you picture one apple, or one person, or one piano, which then has another apple or person or piano added to it? Or do you understand that there is an abstract concept corresponding to the symbol 1 that your brain can access without the need for concrete imagery? If the latter, then you can understand my response to “cat.” I access it as an abstract concept, not an image.

But words do not only exist as single entities; the genius of human language is our ability to combine these abstract symbols into infinite permutations of sentences, paragraphs, and longer works that convey everything from tax codes to the divinely-inspired Word of God. Understanding the one-to-one symbolic equivalence of

cat = a four-legged furry creature that says “meow”

is called decoding, and it is only the first step to comprehension. There are other technical skills, such as fluency and sight-word recognition, that must be learned to facilitate reading, but I want to focus on the more mysterious skill that allows a reader to feel transported by a book, especially a work of fiction. This skill allows us to experience life through the characters’ “eyes” and be fully absorbed into the world of a story. It is usually called visualization, but I would like to propose a less sensory-specific term: immersion. To become immersed in a story is to experience it at the deepest level of the imagination. But despite the visual roots of the word “imagination” and the lack of an aural-equivalent English word, this immersion does not necessarily have to happen through pictures.

The ultimate goal of fiction—the true benefit of immersion—is empathy. Countless authors, readers, and critics have emphasized this across centuries:

“The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from them in everything but the broad fact of being struggling, erring human creatures.” – George Eliot

“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

“We all suffer alone in the real world. True empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with their own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.” – David Foster Wallace

The goal, then, is not to see what the character sees, or to experience the majesty of an unfamiliar time period, country, planet, etc., although these can certainly be part of the pleasure of reading. The true goal of immersion is to feel what the characters feel and to find in them some glimmer of one’s own self. For an aural-dominant reader—or at least for me—this experience of empathy is very similar to finding an emotional connection to a piece of music. The imagined sounds of the words, combined with my abstract knowledge of their meaning, create a soundscape through which I experience all the highs and lows of human drama. I hear the text as if a world-class voice actor were reading every word, highlighting rhythms and cadences, a symphony of elongated vowels and clipped consonants that sweep me along at the exact tempo of the action. The literal meaning is important; without 1+1, I cannot reach the conclusion, 2. The concepts behind the words provide the structure, but the emotion is built into the sound. The way I felt after reading The Book Thief was very similar to the way I felt after hearing a live performance of the Shostakovich tenth symphony. Both were exhausting in the most glorious way, as if my soul had run a marathon using my ears as propulsion.

Immersion is not possible for me if the language does not have cadence, rhythm, and tone. I cannot become immersed in clunky prose no matter how glorious the story it attempts to convey. I also cannot become immersed in language with too many minute visual details. Much of what visual people call “description,” I call “breaking up the flow.” Perhaps it is my screenwriting background more than my aural dominance, but INT. JOE’S APARTMENT — DAY is adequate scene-setting for me. Any details an author chooses to include must reveal the tone of the story or the characters’ interior lives, or else reading them is like listening to the same boring I-IV-V-I chord progression over and over again.

I do sometimes create pictures in my mind when I read, but doing so requires conscious effort, and I use the strategy only as a last resort. If I stop to visualize, it means I’m confused. The language has become too focused on pictures for my aural/ abstract processing to handle. I can build images in my mind’s eye, but they are strictly functional. Take the blue coat; layer it with gold embroidered flowers; add a ruffled collar and a head protruding from it that bears a handlebar moustache. It’s tiresome work and, for me, it does not produce immersion. It creates the new concept file of “what this character is wearing,” but that’s all. Sometimes these files are necessary for comprehension; sometimes they’re a lot of excess fluff. Either way, they require work to build, and they inhibit immersion. Any attempt to describe a foreign or fictional country in map-like terms might as well be written in Greek. Or twelve-tone. My brain doesn’t know how to listen.

What about the fun stuff? Pirate ships and hoop skirts, Gothic spires populated by gargoyles, desert wastelands and tropical jungles, wizards with pointy hats, talking trees, disembodied aliens? It’s all fun stuff to me, too. If I had lived in a time before movies and television, I suppose it’s possible that I would have been unable to form reasonable concept files to access these kinds of images, but here in the twenty-first century, they’re all duly tagged and stashed away. If I did not have those ready-made pictures, perhaps I would have been a less avid reader. Or perhaps I would have done the tedious work of visualization. Or perhaps I would have been perfectly happy not to know what such things looked like, because after all… Gothic spires populated by gargoyles. Isn’t it music?

Empathy through fiction comes to me as darkness. I hear the roaring tempest of my new friend’s thoughts as he tries in vain to sleep. I hear the cries he is too afraid to utter. I hear his conscience like a pedal tone, unchanged despite the long cacophony of sin that has deafened him to its pitch. I hear the hallowed whispers of his joy. Empathy comes to me as warring melodies that fight to be heard, as discord, as harmony, as suspended chords that may or may not resolve. Empathy comes to me as conversation. I hear you, my friend. Sometimes, it seems as if you can hear me, too.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

The Literature You Save May Be Your Own

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Have you ever wondered what happened to good books? The kind that told good stories without worrying about whether they were “speculative” or “literary” or “mass market trade”? The kind that fearlessly followed the characters into the depths of their genre-bending darkness and the heights of their non-ironic joys? You know… the kind that I write? Wink-emoji

Wiseblood Books wondered that, too. That’s why Dr. Joshua Hren founded the company: to help bring back the kind of literature that takes chances. Literature that brings us epiphanies of beauty. Literature like my debut novel, Jennifer the Damned.

Wiseblood is a non-profit company that exists only because of private, tax-deductible donations from readers like you. They are currently holding a fundraising campaign to help them  grow their mission to “foster works of fiction and non-fiction, poetry and philosophy that find redemption in uncanny places and people; wrestle readers from the tyranny of boredom; articulate faith and doubt in their incarnate complexity; dare an unflinching gaze at human beings as “political animals”; and suffer through this world’s trials without forfeiting hope.”

If that sounds like a cause worth supporting, I hope you’ll take a moment to visit their fundraising page and make a donation, no matter how small. Generations of future readers will thank you.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Trying to Say ‘God’ Recap

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It started with a miracle.

I mentioned recently that I was preparing to attend the Trying to Say ‘God’ conference about Catholic literature at Notre Dame. However, a few days before I was supposed to leave, Tropical Storm Cindy took aim at my airport in New Orleans. It was scheduled to make landfall right about the time I was scheduled to fly out. I sent an urgent prayer request to my fellow conference panelists and Dappled Things cohorts to ask Our Lady of Prompt Succor to let me come. She’s the patroness of Louisiana and protectress of our coasts. Then this happened:

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That’s a screenshot of the radar on the morning of my flight. See that giant hole in the storm right over New Orleans? My plane took off on time and in sunshine.

I was predisposed to find grace at the conference, what with the Blessed Mother having opened the heavens to allow me to attend, and the people I met there lavished me with it. I think I laughed more in the course of those three days than I have in the past three years. Finally, I got to put not only faces but living, breathing humans to so many of the names I’ve interacted with in the writing world: the entire staff of Wiseblood Books, who published my debut novel; friends from the Catholic Writers Guild with whom I chat online weekly and even daily; and our own dear DT fiction editor, Natalie Morrill, to

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Angela Cybulski of Wiseblood Books, me, and Natalie Morrill

name just a few. Of course, there were also many new names and faces added to the list of my dear friends, some of whom are so accomplished, it takes my breath away to think of myself as their “friend” (rather than their “gawking fangirl.”) And, because all things grace-filled are also loaded with weird coincidence, I ran into two former parishioners from my church, two beautiful and Christ-filled women whom it did my heart good to see again. If I hadn’t attended a single actual conference event, the trip would have been worth it just for the fellowship.

But of course, I did attend many of the panel discussions and keynote talks, including the one where I somehow got to count myself among the likes of Suzanne Wolfe, Angela Doll Carlson, Caroline Langston, and Kaye Park Hinckley, with Angela Cybulski moderating, as we discussed The Marian Effect: Building Strong Women in Writing and Life. Grace piled upon grace as those brilliant women allowed the Holy Spirit to speak through them. “Mother and artist are not career choices. They are states of being that are given to us.” -Suzanne Wolfe. “You become a part of the a story you want to tell people.” -Kaye Hinckley. I could have sat there all day. You can come help us keep the conversation going over at our new Facebook page set up by Angela Carlson.

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Amazing women saying fabulous things

My favorite conference event actually had nothing to do with literature, but everything to do with “trying to say God.” The Notre Dame Vocale, a group of twelve singers with their conductor, presented a concert of Gregorian chant, Renaissance polyphony, and modern compositions based on both. It was forty-five minutes of pure bliss.

However, the big question for people who didn’t attend the conference is, of course, what did you observe? What is the state of Catholic literary culture? Who’s doing what, and is any of it working? For what it’s worth, from my limited one-person perspective, I observed first and foremost that the talent pool is deep and broad. Catholic writers are many, well-educated in both the craft of writing and the Faith, and unafraid to wear their Catholic identity on their sleeves. I also observed that Orthodox Christians—of whom I met several—are not only our brothers and sisters in Christ, but also very much our brothers and sisters in literary tradition and sacramental imagination. There were also a handful of people from other faiths, and a smaller handful who professed no faith but nevertheless found themselves curious enough to come. All were welcome, and good will reigned. How rare a gift that is.

However, it was also obvious to me that a good deal of ignorance and intransigence exist within the Catholic literary community. It’s ridiculous for a panelist to say, “No one publishes Catholic literary fiction,” when Joshua Hren, the founder of Wiseblood Books, is sitting in the room. It’s frustrating to hear Catholic publishers emphasize the cold reality of the bottom line without acknowledging room in their business models for the action of the Holy Spirit. It’s disheartening to hear that writers feel disconnected from, and not supported by, other Catholics when the Catholic Writers Guild, whose mission is to do just that, has a table set up in the next room. So much of the work we need to do moving forward is to divest ourselves of the fears and frustrations we have carried for too long, to come out of our introverted, writerly bubbles and simply help each other—and of course, one of the huge benefits of this kind of conference is to allow people to discover each other and do just that.

Finally, I’d like to say that this conference made it clear to me that the old cliché, “Beauty will save the world,” isn’t true. Beauty isn’t good enough; you must have love. Beauty can be cold, austere, and unforgiving, like an Antarctic landscape; love is always warm and transformative. Beauty can easily become an idol, a good sought for its own worth rather than as a pathway to God; love—when it is real, selfless, Christian love–cannot become an idol because God Himself is love. The speakers who sent their audiences out feeling that they had been nourished at a literary Eucharistic table were the ones whose messages overflowed with love: love for the subjects they spoke about; love for their craft as writers, editors, publishers, etc.; love for the work they produced; and most of all, love for the people they were addressing. As I’ve already said, the most valuable thing I took away from this conference was the fellowship of so many dear friends, old and new. The one thing I took away that actually matters is love. Heather King said in her keynote, “Love is our vocation,” and every ounce of her radiated the truth of her words. If all of us engaged in any aspect of a literary vocation can get love right, then we have already succeeded. For art to be truly Christian, its beauty must lead us to love.

Oh, and there was this bit of awesomeness, too:

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Bro. Guy Consolmagno, director the Vatican Observatory; Johnathan Ryan of Sick Pilgrim; and renowned sci-fi author Tim Powers, sending everyone to Catholic Geek Heaven

You can find recordings of some of the conference sessions here.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also a regular Meatless Friday chef for Catholicmom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Stammering

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I’m preparing to attend a conference at Notre Dame in just a few weeks called Trying to Say God: Re-enchanting Catholic Literature. I’m terribly excited to finally meet face to face many of the movers and shakers of the Catholic literary world. It’s an honor and an opportunity for which I’m deeply grateful. However, the conference organizers recently sent a list of essays as preparatory reading—many of which I had read before, and which I’m sure many of you will recognize—and I noticed something that disturbed me. All of these essays deal directly or tangentially with the perceived dearth of a Catholic literary culture in our current age. They are:

Dana Gioia,  “The Catholic Writer Today,” Dec. 2013, First Things

Paul Elie, “Has Fiction Lost its Faith?”  New York Times, Dec. 19, 2012

Kaya Oakes, “Writers Blocked: The State of Catholic Writing Today,” America, April 28, 2014
Randy Boyagoda, “Faith in Fiction,” First Things, August 2013

 

Francis Spufford, “Spiritual Literature for Atheists,” First Things, November 2015

David Griffith, “The Problem with Waiting” Image – Good Letters

There’s an awful lot of good stuff here, many very salient points and much healthy debate written by people far more learned in these matters than I. I am grateful to all of them for their contributions to this very necessary conversation, and I agree with at least portions of every essay. However, in (re)reading this list in close succession, I could not help but be overwhelmed by the distinct lack of emphasis on what ought to be a Christian’s first and only goal: to do the will of God. Just to make sure I was paying attention, I went back and ran a search through each of these essays for the following words: vocation, discern, pray, love, humility. Some of them never appear; a few appear in passing, as in the titles of quoted works, or in a very general sense. For example, Gioia says of the past literary “golden age”: “Catholicism was not only seen as a worldview consistent with a literary or artistic vocation… the Roman Church was often regarded as the faith most compatible with the artistic temperament.” It’s the only time he mentions vocation. The author who comes closest to proposing prayer and humility as solutions to the problem of the Catholic literary culture is Spufford:

Wild justice—justice unmediated and unfiltered—is different from the thing we painstakingly try to make in courtrooms. Wild charity—love unmixed and uncompromised—is fearfully unlike the adulterated product we are used to. It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

That’s it. Six essays about how to create a Catholic literary renewal, and only one mention of “love unmixed and uncompromised.”

Maybe this is our real problem. The focus of anything we build in the name of Christ and His Church ought never to be on the product or the people who build it, but on the One who works through us and through our works.

I am the least and the lowest among Catholic writers. My résumé looks like a post-it note next to those of the authors above. But I dare to say: the solution to whatever lack of Catholic literature there may be lies not in changing the attitudes of publishing houses and periodicals, nor the outlook of universities and academics, nor in establishing our own periodicals and publishing houses, nor in the coming of some great literary genius to inspire and renew the languid modern imagination—though it is not wrong to seek any of these things. But to speak about such practicalities without speaking about the proper spiritual context in which to pursue these goals is to put the cart before the horse. The real answer to our literary woes lies in the same place where the answer to a spiritual problem always lies: in prayer, trust, humility, and the action of God’s Holy Spirit. Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his Letter to Artists:

The particular vocation of individual artists decides the arena in which they serve and points as well to the tasks they must assume, the hard work they must endure and the responsibility they must accept. Artists who are conscious of all this know too that they must labour without allowing themselves to be driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity, and still less by the calculation of some possible profit for themselves. There is therefore an ethic, even a “spirituality” of artistic service, which contributes in its way to the life and renewal of a people.

I do not doubt for an instant that the authors of all six essays are prayerful people who have devoted themselves to this “spirituality of artistic service.” But are we—even as Catholics speaking mostly to an audience of other Catholics—afraid to say that Christ is the Way to our literary, as well as our actual, salvation? Are we afraid to forego the language of the academic essay in order to address our own spiritual sickness? If we cannot “say God” even in our appraisals of our own Catholic culture, how do we propose to do it in our poetry, our fiction, our memoirs? God, who has the words of everlasting life, has no need of a Catholic literary culture; if one exists, it is only by His gracious will. If you and I desire such a thing, then let’s get down on our knees and beg for it with humility and hearts that are open to God’s will. Perhaps if we seek first the kingdom, then all these things shall be added to us besides.

All artists experience the unbridgeable gap which lies between the work of their hands, however successful it may be, and the dazzling perfection of the beauty glimpsed in the ardour of the creative moment: what they manage to express in their painting, their sculpting, their creating is no more than a glimmer of the splendour which flared for a moment before the eyes of their spirit. Believers find nothing strange in this: they know that they have had a momentary glimpse of the abyss of light which has its original wellspring in God. Is it in any way surprising that this leaves the spirit overwhelmed as it were, so that it can only stammer in reply? (John Paul II, Letter to Artists)

Christian artists are called to gaze in awe at the splendour of our Creator, who spoke us into being. Only then, and only if He grants us the vocation to do so, do we humbly go forth and stammer.

Literature, It Is a-Changing

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bob-dylan

In case you missed it, this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Bob Dylan.

Yes, that Bob Dylan.

What does it mean for the world of literature when the best it has to offer is not a poet (in the traditional sense) or a novelist or a playwright, but a rock star?  In the words of the Nobel committee, Dylan received the award for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”  Dylan’s poetry is certainly poetry, capable of standing on its own in a volume of black and white print.  But the real power of his poetry lies in the fact that it is sung.  Is it even possible to read, “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,” without hearing the melody (whether in Dylan’s voice or Joan Baez’s) echo through your mind?  Unlike the lyrical works of many great poets that were later set to music by other people, Dylan’s poetry was born on the strings of his guitar.  It was delivered to the world by the vibrations of his vocal cords.  If only the black and white print existed, does anyone believe he would have been half as influential as he is now?

So, the obvious question arises: Is music literature?

As both a musician and a writer, I have so long been intimate with both forms that my neural pathways are hard-wired to see (or rather, hear) good music and good writing as a single string being plucked in different ways.  For me, writing is music and music is story.  When an idea runs so deep that it cannot quite be grasped in words, it is the job of music to convey it; likewise, when the abstraction of musical sound is not concrete enough for human understanding, words step in to frame our thoughts and tell our tales.  Each serves its own purpose, and each can exist quite well without the other, yet the marriage of the two is as old as humankind.

But is music itself literature, or only literature’s symbiotic partner?  That depends how you define the word “literature,” of course.  Most dictionary definitions confine it to the realm of the written word and thereby condemn the Nobel committee’s choice.  There is, after all, something to be said for labels, organization, and not confusing everybody by trying to redefine well-established concepts.  But there is also something within a strictly writing-based definition of “literature” that fails to capture its spirit.  Writing is only a visual representation of sound.  Writing exists only as an extension of the oral – and aural – traditions of language.  How many of our most cherished folk tales were passed on by mouth before they were ever written down?  What of the troubadours, who recorded history with song?  The psalms would never have reached us if they had not first been sung.  Music is the foundation and the beating heart of literature.  The traditional structures and rhythms of literature can all be traced to the mathematics of music, just as the traditional dynamics of music correspond to the dynamics of storytelling.  Literature and music might be two separate branches of human endeavor, but they carry the same waters from the source.

Or maybe – if the Nobel committee is right – there’s no distinction between them at all.

As Dylan might put it:

Gonna change my way of thinking, make my self a different set of rules. Gonna put my good foot forward and stop being influenced by fools.

Karen Ullo is the author of the vampire saga Jennifer the Damned.  To find out more, go to www.karenullo.com.