We spent last week at Chautauqua where I offered the Sunday sermon, Spirituality for the Skeptic, at the Unitarian Fellowship. On Monday morning we had an open discussion in response to the sermon, which stimulated me to wish I could do a re-write.
The theme speaker for the week was Roger Rosenblatt and Friends. His writer friends included a poet, Billy Collins, three novelists: E. L. Doctorow, Joyce Carol Oates, Amy Tan, and Doonsebury cartoonist Garry Trudeau.
Rosenblatt interviewed each on consecutive days, prying into their writing styles, habits and general philosophy, including occasional references to religious issues.
Billy Collins said, “Poetry is what comes into play when the limits of prose have been exhausted.” His comment reminded me what Joseph Campbell said about myth, that ‘a myth is a Truth story; it’s not intended to be a true story.’ Collins said, “Poetry is a quiet, intimate, almost whispered language.”
Rosenblatt asked E. L. Doctorow about an incident that occurred when Doctorow took a course in journalism at Bronx High School of Science. He was assigned to find someone to interview and write about it. He talked about Karl, a wonderfully interesting man who was the stage doorman at Carnegie Hall – a German Jew who had escaped from Hitler just in time. He described Karl in fascinating detail – a sweet man who was loved by all the musicians who performed at Carnegie Hall.
The young Doctorow turned in his assignment and the teacher said it was so good she would publish it in the high school newspaper, and have a photographer take Karl’s picture. Doctorow suggested that Karl was really a private, shy man. “Shy,” she responded, “well, he talked to you, didn’t he?” “Well, not exactly. I just made him up.” Thus began his career as a novelist.
Joyce Carol Oates traces her writing career to age 8 when she first read Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Alice captured her imagination. She said, “When we write, we’re trying to explain something about the human spirit, using words.” I thought, “The same could be said about sermons, or the letters I write in Soundings!” She explained that writing ‘breaks down the barriers between people.’ That’s how ‘dear friends’ are created!
Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club, among other award-winning novels, said, “In writing fiction, you’re finding truth in a way that makes sense emotionally.” She explained, “I don’t know exactly where I’m going when I write. But I must have the voice and the setting – a sense of place. I also need to have a question I want to answer. Not logical answers, necessarily. I know approximately where I’ll be at the end, but not precisely.”
Garry Trudeau’s career as satirical cartoonist began in college when he wrote a strip on sports for the college newspaper, centered on a particular football player. After the strip had been running for four weeks or so he got a letter offering him a job, which he took, and at which he’s been working ever since. While each of the four other writers read from their works, Trudeau’s lecture was illustrated with PowerPoint images of his comic strips on whatever topic he was discussing. Trudeau offered a fascinating end to a very special week at Chautauqua.