The Civic Society

I have been introduced to James Baldwin this year and I find him to be such a compelling voice, both in his time, and surprisingly, now: both within me and within the culture I live in; a culture seeming to carry around remnants of past sins as it plunges into a future of unprecedented darkness. This is not what I mean to write about, but I think part of me needed to say those words, make them concrete, see them in black against a white screen. Now I have, and a space that was occupied with tension inside me is eased slightly and I can move on to what I mean to write about. Baldwin writes:

Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent- which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it. On the other hand, it is only because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important.

As I have begun writing this past year (I think I will always say that I have just begun it) I have noticed some interesting and perplexing effects. The one I anticipated was isolation. To read and to write are occupations of retreat, though I suppose it depends on what type of writing and reading it is. But for the most part, the reader retreats into the mind of the writer, either to the writer’s thoughts or to a world within the writer’s mind. The writer does the same. In writing, he retreats into his own mind. Even if the writing is nonfiction, even autobiographical, the writer leaves the world of reality to enter only his own reality. At this point, two lives are being led: the extrinsic and the intrinsic. Moving between one and the other is one of the hardest things for me to do; maintain a life of balance. John Steinbeck wrote his friend and editor, Pascal Covici, about this very thing as he was writing one of my favorite books, East of Eden:

When I work on a book to this extent and with this concentration, it means that I am living another life. As it goes along, increasingly I give to the second life more than to the first. Then I must be very hard to live with in real life, not because I am mean but because I am vague. Things ordinarily done are forgotten. My expression must be one of fogged stupidity- my responses slow.

I believe this is why I stopped writing when I had children and why I was so resistant to taking up the pen again some years later, which I wrote about in an earlier post. Soon after I started writing, I noticed how my body interacted with the real world around me- doing dishes, giving a bath, having dinner with my family- while my mind was still in retreat. All of a sudden, having everyday conversations when I picked my daughter up from school became a difficulty. In fact, engaging with others in general became something that required intentionality and anomalous effort.

What I wanted to do was blend the two lives; bring my inner life out into the open. I quickly found that the outside world was not in a place to receive my second life. When asked the question, “What’s new with you?” I would answer with opening the door to the inner life of my mind, by talking about what I was reading or what I was trying to write. This was mostly met with a concentrated brow of confusion or encouraging nods as the other person pretended to actively listen as they occupied themselves with other things. Either way, the conversation was ended, usually awkwardly. I cast no blame in this- they just didn’t know how to respond. After a while, I closed the door, answered “Nothing really,” and the gulf that separates those two worlds grew larger.

For a whole year I continued in this, relying heavily on one or two friends to bridge that gap. The evidence of my life has proven to me time and again that despite being introverted, I require community. I have an innate hunger to interact with others. The connection between author and reader via text is a treasure to me, but it is surpassed by the interaction between author, reader, and other readers. The discourse that follows from that group collectively takes the text further than any one of the individuals can carry it. This is why book clubs abound. We are a people hard-wired for community. Our joy in reading something reaches its height when we praise it to the point that someone else reads it and returns to us praising it as well. Pleasure leads to worship which culminates in corporate worship. (Look to sports fans and one will see this clearly.)

The world seems to be growing more and more “frighteningly indifferent” to the arts, but I am young and have a history of only thirty-four years. In my naivety I can assume rarity in our culture that is no stranger to the past. The pendulum always swings. But as Balwin notes, the very indifference of the many raise the passion of the few. I began my search for “the few” and have found some of them. I am a member of the Fort Worth Women’s Chapter of the The Civic Society and have joined a writers group with Art House Dallas. In my time with these two groups, I have been gifted with encouragement and fellowship. At these meetings I am galvanized by the ideas of others and valued for the work I do. The door between my two lives is left open and the people, and I, walk back and forth.

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The next Civic Society meeting is Saturday, February 17, and we will be discussing George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” If you are interested in joining me there, send me a message.

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