By the time I was eight years old, I could sing, from memory, The Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom in Ukrainian. I didn’t consider this impressive, because I grew up speaking Ukrainian and because we attended a Ukrainian Catholic Mass in Detroit at least once a week. This was simply a skill I mastered by obsessively re-reading the prayer book I received for my First Communion. My goal here was simple: I wanted to stay out of Hell.
After a year of catechism classes at St. John the Baptist, and three years of daily religious instruction by the Felician sisters at St. Edith’s Catholic School, I was convinced that I’d been born with a soul darker than most; to avoid the eternal hell fires would require diligence and strategy. I would have to move through life ever-cognizant of my weaknesses, waging a spiritual campaign against my own flesh, and the memorization of words on pages seemed to me to be a possible tool in that campaign.
I had memorized several books by the age of seven—including the aforementioned Byzantine prayer book and the 1982 National Football League Record Book. Already, I believed that by absorbing books, I could save myself: when faced with my own sinful natures, I could resort to a litany of Lord, have mercy; when faced with what would now be labeled as a panic attack, I often recited the Top Ten All Time Leaders in Rushing Yards.
At family social events, I often had the prayer book and/or the NFL record book with me, reading silently in the corner, finding my various solaces there, while the men in my parents’ rather rough social circle called me a sissy for not wrestling with the other boys in the basement and the women suggested in barely hushed whispers that my mother might want to take me to see a psychologist, something that, in our immigrant community, was considered a drastic step.
But my mother did not take me to see a specialist, knowing that I was simply a very, very shy kid. She also knew that I possessed an obsessive streak when it came to the memorization of words on a page, especially when I was nervous, and maybe she also knew that she had added to this nervous compulsion by instilling in me a firm belief that God was watching everything I did.
When I did something that I was not proud of—called somebody a name or watched the Madonna videos I’d been told not to watch or snuck a bitter sip of beer when nobody was looking—I went to my room and said Mass. Sometimes, particularly after a day in which I had been bullied at school for being a “pretty boy” or on a Friday night when my father came home belligerent and drunk, I said the mass repeatedly. It was a spiritual experience in itself to know that you could tune out all sorts of violent racket from downstairs by saying a liturgy upstairs.
And so, I would lock myself in my bedroom, strip down to my underwear, put on a blue and red bathrobe (the closest garb I had to a priest’s vestments) and offer Mass, complete with a Eucharist made of Pringles and red Hawaiian Punch, and each time I whispered out Hospido Pomilyo (Lord, have mercy) I believed the Lord looked down upon me and was pleased. For a short moment, after closing my prayer book, I was certain that I was back in His good graces. Salvation was assured, and nothing would hurt me. I was certain.
I probably said my last Mass around the age of eleven, shortly after my father moved out and our house regained some quiet. This was also about the time puberty struck and my obsessions turned lustful, too embarrassing to acknowledge before the Lord, and also, probably because of this lust, some of my shyness was lifted and morphed into a desire to be the class clown. It turned out that girls in school were more impressed by my jokes and impressions then they were by my ability to recite the panachyda. (Though I still memorized, for my own comfort, the stats page of the Detroit Free Press’s sports section every evening. On any given morning, I could be found reciting the American League leaders in RBIs to myself as I boarded the bus and hoped to not get punched in the face.)
As much as I would like to say that puberty ended the first and only religious eccentricity I ever engaged in, I cannot say that. In the decades since those private bedroom masses, I have had a series of spiritual journeys that have involved a revival camp in the Adirondacks, a vision of Jesus on a beach in Mexico, being kicked out of Intervarsity Christian fellowship in college, preaching sermons as a failed applicant to Presbyterian seminary, teaching Sunday school, following Shamans to healing gatherings in the woods in which I pretended to be a snake, attending Quaker meetings, failing at transcendental meditation, participating in silent retreats in northern Wisconsin, chilling with nudists at a compound in California, and smoking weed on the banks of the Iowa River with prophets from the Community of True Inspiration.
All of these spiritual adventures, I see now, stemmed from one core need: an obsessive desire for certainty.
Now I am forty-five and an atheist, though that does not mean I am immune to spiritual epiphanies. A few years ago, while reading an essay about a musical festival I’d been a part of in Wisconsin, published in the Oxford American by the wonderful novelist Leesa Cross-Smith, I was reminded of a Bible verse I’d long forgotten, which Cross-Smith quotes in her essay. James 4:14: Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. (KJV)
I spent several days thinking about that essay, and that quote in particular, burdened by a nagging idea that soon became a veritable insight: Every bad decision I’ve ever made in my life, resulted from discomfort with the state of uncertainty. Conversely, the times in my life in which I’ve been comfortable with the uncertainty ahead, I’ve made decisions that have enriched my life (and work) in unexpected and beautiful ways.
In addition to leading me to this insight, the essay I’m talking about made me want to attempt to re-read some of my favorite books of the Bible as a born-again atheist. And so I did. And came away with one overarching feeling:
The Bible is the most narcissistic book in human history.
The entire narrative tension essentially comes from people asking God, “What about me? Don’t you love me? Tell me everything you know so I know everything too because I am your favorite and clearly your best follower. God, give me certainty.”
Or, as the late poet Tom Andrews wrote from his hospital bed in The Hemophiliac’s Motorcycle:
And for a moment, Lord, I think
I understand about you and silence…
But what a racket I make in telling you.
The Bible is series of short stories and lyric poems that feature characters crying out for certainty, a desire that time and time again, God rejects and refuses to provide. As my old professor Ralph Williams used to say in his legendary lectures on Literature of the Bible at the University of Michigan, “God never offers answers, only intimacy.”
And those in communion with God are furious. They want answers. They plead for certainty. They demand it, as Hamlet demands it from the Ghost, “O Answer Me! Let me not burst in ignorance,” a demand which echoes the lament of Job, who believes his suffering would end if he had some certainty: I would know the words which he would answer me, and understand what he would say unto me. (Job 23:5).
Something I see now, in midlife, that I didn’t see before: the characters in the Bible seem to know how elusive certainty is, how it is a fleeting thing, and yet, time and time again, they long for it. (This makes me think of Anne Sexton’s “Just Once” which begins: “Just once I knew what life was for,” a poem that echoes the book of Ecclesiastes, a plaintive litany about the desire for human certainty amid a fleeting order we will never understand (if there is an order at all).
The mass I had memorized as a seven-year-old is named after Saint John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople in the 5th century, because he is believed to be the author of the anaphora which forms the core of the mass. "Anaphora" is a Greek word (ἀναφορά) meaning a "carrying back" or a "carrying up” or "offering.” As a rhetorical device, it is simply the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses. One of the most famous examples in fiction comes from Dickens:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.
The anaphora, the comforting repetition of which is what I believe compelled me to love the structure of the mass as a young boy, also happens to be the core rhetorical device used in my one of my favorite books of the past decade, Kiese Laymon’s Heavy: An American Memoir, which begins with a stunning opening chapter in which the narrator admits that his book idea began from a place of certainty:
I wanted to write a lie. I wanted to do that old black work of pandering and
lying to folk who pay us to pander and lie to them every day. I wanted to write about our families’ relationships to simple carbohydrates, deep-fried meats, and high-fructose corn syrup. I wanted the book to begin with my weighing 319 pounds and end with my weighing 165 pounds. I wanted to pepper the book with acerbic warnings to us fat black folk in the Deep South and saccharine sentimental exhortations from Grandmama. I did not want you to laugh. I wanted to write a lie. I wanted to write about how fundamental present black fathers, responsible black mothers, magical black grandmothers, and perfectly disciplined black children are to our liberation. I wanted to center a something, a someone who wants us dead and dishonest. I wanted white Americans, who have proven themselves even more unwilling to confront their lies, to reconsider how their lies limit our access to good love, healthy choices, and second chances. I wanted the book to begin and end with the assumption that if white Americans reckoned with their insatiable appetites for black American suffering, and we reckoned with our insatiable appetites for unhealthy food, we could all be ushered into a reformed era of American prosperity. I wanted to create a fantastic literary spectacle. I wanted that literary spectacle to ask nothing of you, Grandmama, or me other than our adherence to a low-carb diet, limited sugar, weightlifting, twelve thousand steps a day, gallons of water, and no eating after midnight. I wanted you to promise. I did not want you to remember.
I wanted to write a lie.
I wanted that lie to be titillating.
I wrote that lie.
It was titillating.
You would have loved it.
I discovered nothing.
You would have loved it.
I started over and wrote what we hoped I’d forget.
This kind of anaphora occurs over and over again in Heavy, and the memoir itself begins to feel very much like an offering, the writer carrying back his experiences—both from his past and in his present attempt to tell his story— directly to his mother (and by extension the reader). The repetition the anaphora allows has obvious rhetorical appeal when making speeches—think of Lincoln or JFK or MLK or Obama, all of whom used the device extensively—but on the page it manages to convey the feeling of struggle—the writer actively trying to use language to make sense of what still feels senseless. It is a rhetorical device that mimics the stopping and starting, the stating and restating, that accompanies any quest for certainty and closure.
I love that Laymon admits how certainty failed him right out of the gate in Heavy. He had conceived of a book that would confirm the beliefs of an entire poisoned culture and do so in way that would be lapped up by the increasingly shallow world of big-time media. He wanted to write the lovable, easy to explain bestseller. But quickly (or not so quickly, as Heavy took years to write and revise), Laymon realizes that the only way to write the story he wanted to tell was to do so from a place of uncertainty, uncertainty about its structure, its voice, its publishability, its possibilities.
“For the first time in my life, I realized telling the truth was way different from finding the truth, and finding the truth had everything to do with revisiting and rearranging words. Revisiting and rearranging words didn't only require vocabulary; it required will, and maybe courage. Revised word patterns were revised thought patterns. Revised thought patterns shaped memory. I knew, looking at all those words, that memories were there, I just had to rearrange, add, subtract, sit, and sift until I found a way to free the memory.”
― Kiese Laymon, Heavy: An American Memoir (Scribner, 2018)
You can see why the anaphora becomes part of this process. The stating and restating, the trial and error of language. But I hope you can also see that beginning a book from a place of uncertainty is not something done out of timidity. Let’s dispel that notion right now. It is not about a lack of conviction either. Laymon is never shy in his digressions into social criticism.
“My body knew things my mouth and my mind couldn't, or maybe wouldn't, express. It knew that all over my neighborhood, boys were trained to harm girls in ways girls could never harm boys, straight kids were trained to harm queer kids in ways queer kids could never harm straight kids, men were trained to harm women in ways women could never harm men, parents were trained to harm children in ways children would never harm parents, babysitters were trained to harm kids in ways kids could never harm babysitters. My body knew white folk were trained to harm us in ways we could never harm them.”
― Kiese Laymon, Heavy: An American Memoir (Scribner, 2018)
What I hear in that paragraph, in both its content and structure, is a dramatization of Laymon’s struggle to find the right words, amid his own uncertainty about his own righteousness or moral authority. That tension between fierce bold social criticism and honest individual uncertainty, is best summed up by fiction writer Brandon Taylor, who so eloquently said this to Laymon in an interview on LitHub:
I think a beautiful thing about this book is how vulnerable you are as you wrestle with the ways that the world was brutal and unfair and ugly to you and at the time, you wrestle with the ways that you were brutal and ugly and unfair to others, even when you didn’t mean to be.
Being vulnerable is a challenging endeavor—but for a creative writer, particularly a creative writer in 2020, it is an essential one. And to me vulnerability is at the core of living with uncertainty: Will I ever write anything good? Will the people who love me always love me? Will I be able to keep my family safe? Will the entire planet burn? Asking those questions is human; admitting and accepting that those questions are unanswerable is a step towards the divine.
It is no secret that we live our lives among a constant chorus of people who espouse certainty, thanks to social media and the twenty-four-hour news cycle, but artists must protect themselves from this, because certainty is the antithesis of vulnerability and doubt. No good art ever came out of that position, because that position negates the act of discovery. You discover nothing new when you start out certain; without doubt, there is no tension. I can’t think of a single book I love that doesn’t draw at least some of its energy from the writer’s (and/or the narrator’s or speaker’s) uncertainty about the story at hand.
In the past four years, so many of my students and former students and colleagues have come to me and said, I can’t write. Writing fiction or poetry feels so narcissistic right now given what is happening in the world.
It is a feeling I understand, and one I’ve felt many times. But let me tell you something: You aren’t going to feel any more certain about the world and your place in it after Election Day, no matter what happens. The next two weeks are a time of almost unimaginable uncertainty, and yet, if we have any delusions that we will, inwardly, feel any more certain or any less scared about our careening world once the election is over, those come from our obsessive desire for certainty, which is perhaps the one human superpower that technology and science can’t provide for us.
But then I am reminded that even the writers of the Bible succumbed to a kind of self-centeredness in trying to tell the story of a God and His people. Self-centeredness is an essential part of the creative process; where it gets toxic is when certainty takes over. Where the struggle to tell the story or craft the poem no longer feels like a writer wrestling with doubt and darkness, but morphs instead into a toxic certainty that makes one’s work feel heavy-handed, pedantic, and stiff.
You should be uncertain of yourself and your work. You should have no idea if your peers will like it or get it, if your mentors will have anything useful to say about, or if the work has the slightest chance of ever finding a decent audience. You should be wholly uncertain about whether or not your story will matter to anybody in 2020.
The only narcissism in the process is the moment you think you deserve to start with anything else but that?
(One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard is some simple wisdom of Eckhart Tolle, whose work, despite the Oprah-stickered-pop-spirituality-marketing the publishing world has wrapped it in, has become deeply meaningful to me: When you become comfortable with uncertainty, infinite possibilities open up in your life. It means fear is no longer a dominant factor in what you do and no longer prevents you from taking action to initiate change.)
A few years ago, during a particularly weepy therapy session, I was regretting many of my life’s financial choices, including the purchase of a fully-loaded brand new luxury minivan in the weeks after my divorce. The payments on this van—which I love—are stupidly high.
My therapist listened to me flagellate myself and then said, “Well, you’d just moved out of the house you thought you’d die in.”
“And the person you though you’d grow old with had changed her mind about that future.”
“And you were going to be spending half of your days and nights away from your kids for the first time ever.”
“And you wanted your kids to have a nice ride between your new house and their mom’s house. And on all the vacations you took them on. You wanted there to be plenty of room, and movies, and you wanted them to be excited about the new van.”
“What else did you want?” she asked me.
“I was just trying to stay alive,” I blurted out, without thinking, and my eyes flooded with tears.
“Wow,” she said back to me. “You were just trying to stay alive.”
Soon, my sweater was covered in snot and tears. I had never admitted that before.
Writing is not political work or social justice work or psychotherapy. Writing is survival work. I’m not saying these other elements don’t co-exist with the work, especially in revision, but I am saying that, in the beginning, when the page is blank, don’t write something that will save the world. Write what you need to write to stay alive. Honor that initial impulse you had when you first picked up a pen. Many of you started writing, and reading, most likely, just trying to stay alive. So were the other writers in your communities. Do not expect any more certainty than that from yourself, or your peers, or even your mentors.
Adrienne Rich’s 1995 poem “What Kind of Times Are These” laments “our country moving closer to its own truth and dread” and closes with
… so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it's necessary
to talk about trees.
I guess what I am saying is this: If you need to start with the trees, start with the trees.
On that note, maybe it’s fitting that I leave you with some words of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom: Z myrom. Mudristʹ! Budʹmo uvazhni!
Peace be with you. Wisdom!
Let us be attentive!
This letter was adapted from January 2019 lecture given at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. You can purchase that lecture, and all my lectures, here (all proceeds go to scholarship funds):