Dillard is more radical than I supposed—radical, that is, in the original sense of “forming the root.” She understands creativity to work at a metaphysical level, transforming the basic stuff of the universe. Related Stories - Unpublished But ...


Shouting to the Heavens and more...

Shouting to the Heavens

Recently I was digging around on the Internet in search of the source of the Annie Dillard quotation I’ve been reflecting on for months. Turns out it’s from her book, Living By Fiction. Here’s the immediate context:

The most extreme, cheerful, and fantastic view of art to which I ever subscribe is one in which the art object requires no viewer or listener – no audience whatever – in order to do what it does, which is nothing less than to hold up the universe… Thoughts count. A completed novel in a trunk in the attic is an order added to the sum of the universe’s order. It remakes its share of undoing. It counteracts the decaying of systems, the breakdown of stars and cultures and molecules, the fraying of forms.

Dillard is more radical than I supposed—radical, that is, in the original sense of “forming the root.” She understands creativity to work at a metaphysical level, transforming the basic stuff of the universe.

I found this source through a 1982 New York Times article by Anatole Broyard called, “Reading and Writing; the Perfect Audience.” (I don’t think I’ve seen a semicolon in a headline in decades.) Broyard uses Dillard’s quote to introduce an anonymous friend’s soliloquy on writing for no audience. Despite its grim view of humanity, its skepticism about the power of literature to affect change in readers, and its antiquated machismo, I love it so much I’ll quote it here in full.

“I used to write for people,” he said, “and my reward was a confetti of rejection slips or an occasional acceptance from a magazine with a name like a rock group. But even if I had been published in The New Yorker or The Atlantic, what difference would it have made, except for a few bucks? What can you hope for from people? Think of how parochial, how limited, how small people are. Writing for them is like shouting into the wrong end of a megaphone.

“Now I go to the source. I hurdle right over their heads and address myself to the world. As Hamlet said, I ‘conjure the wand’ring stars and make them stand like wonder-wounded hearers.’ I’ve got a real audience at last: generous, warm, receptive, immense. Every line I write is a ripple that travels to infinity. I’ve replaced an indifferent public with a passionate universe. What’s a best seller next to that?

“Think of the challenge, the dilapidations all around us, a havoc of exploding, colliding planets – and only a man [sic] with a pen in his hand can put it all back together, can rewind the great clock of the cosmos. Think of acid rain, yellow rain, the pollution of our oceans and rivers, the depletion of our fuel sources. Think of the frescoes flaking in Italian churches. Think of Venice sinking, great ocean liners rusting, blocks of abandoned tenements in the Bronx. It’s a [woman]-sized job.

“When I open the paper in the morning, I see nothing but cries for help—floods, cyclones, earthquakes, forest fires—and I take these as assignments. I sit down at my table to do battle with this mischievous perpetual motion machine. When I start writing I can sense, as Fuller says, ‘the intellect taking the measure of energy … the physical tending to be disorderly and the metaphysical apprehending, comprehending, and putting together.’ Just listen to that: ‘apprehending, comprehending, and putting together.’ There’s a definition of art for you. Show me a literary critic who can touch it.

“On a really bad day, when there’s a kind of cosmic vandalism in the air, I try to write strict stuff, a maximum of order. Sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, heroic couplets: I see these as emergency measures, stitches in the great gashes of time and space. Other days, when the demolition is comparatively mild, I can hang loose with blank or free verse, dithyrambs, odes, aubades. I might even try for a belles lettres essay, a short story, a few pages of a novel…

“There are times when I think that entropy is winning, days when I can actually feel the universe coming down on me, pressing, as if the ceiling of my studio were falling in. Like those bombing victims in the war who were buried in rubble, I have to dig myself out. But I can’t quit, I’ve got to keep going, because it’s not like writing for people. With them, if you miss a few weeks they’ll muddle through, but, man, you turn your back on the universe and the whole damned shebang’ll come down around your ears.

“When it starts getting to me, I think about my novel in a trunk in the attic. I don’t have an attic, so I keep it in the house of some friends in the country. It’s not a big trunk – in fact, it’s an old footlocker I found in an Army-Navy store – but it’s big enough. I can feel my book pulsing in there, beating like a heart against the turbulence, and I say to myself that I’ve done what I can, I’ve taken the heat. Though nobody has actually read my novel, I’ve shouted it to the heavens, and I know I was heard…

“It’s a tough life,” he said, in so soft a voice that he might have been talking to himself, “but once you take it on, you can never be satisfied with less.”

I’m a great fan of audiences, especially you, my faithful reader! And I believe in literature as a powerful force for social change. But I also think Dillard and this writer are onto something. Creative work in and of itself matters. And this belief radically transforms how and why we write.


There’s one last opportunity to write together in 2018!  Join me at Wisdom Ways on Friday, December 14 from 1:30-3:30 to re-imagine revision. We’ll explore revision as a form of play, as a means of listening, and as our central work as human beings.

In this season of generosity, consider giving the writer in your life (or perhaps yourself?) a companion for the journey:

Writing the Sacred Journey book cover





Practice, Practice, Practice

The old joke goes like this: A visitor stops a local on the streets of New York and asks, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” The New Yorker replies, “Practice.”

Every morning before school, Gwyn practices piano. She’s a musical kid; when she was four she begged for lessons and we made a family commitment: Piano would be our means for nurturing Gwyn’s natural interest. But Gwyn’s enjoyment of music, her inherent musicality, and her fantastic ear don’t add up to a love of practice. Practicing is hard, so we routinely endure the pre-practice, baby buffalo huffing with arms crossed. Practice is Gwyn’s means to screen time (read: bribery), and most days she needs our physical proximity on the piano bench in order to stay there.

Why bother with all this effort? (“Why do I have to?” Gwyn whines.) None of us have any interest in Carnegie Hall. What Gwyn wants (and gets just enough of to keep going) is to impress her friends by pounding out “The Halls of Montezuma.” She wants to fill the house with the gloom of Chopin’s “Funeral March”, “Pray for the dead and the dead will pray for you,” especially when she’s mad. She wants to pick out the chords to the pop song, “Zombie.” Despite her resistance, music brings her alive.

What Emily and I want for Gwyn is all that practice teaches: How with every new piece we’re a beginner, how repetition builds skill, how persistence pays off, how talent amounts to nothing without hard work, how to foster a work ethic, how to make mistakes and keep going, how over time and effort what seems impossible becomes possible. How any discipline (music, science, language, faith) opens into ever greater possibilities the deeper we go. How real transformation only happens with practice. How practice becomes the whole point.

I’m thinking about Gwyn’s piano playing because, after a life-time of habitual church-going and an adulthood of being on a spiritual quest, finally, finally, I’m engaged in a genuine spiritual practice. I can tell it’s genuine because every morning part of me metaphorically crosses my arms and huffs. It’s hard—very hard. I need others to hold me accountable, to remind me of the value of sitting with silence when it seems insane, and to teach me, over and over again, how to do this. Religion has given me a moral code, a community, a culture, a language, a tradition, and a slew of hang-ups. Buried deep within my religion, as in all major traditions, there’s a practice. It’s a path of transformation. I may never get to the holy equivalent of Carnegie Hall, whatever that might be, but I have a renewed sense that any goal misses the point. Life, love, and meaning? They all come with practice.  –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew


Only two more opportunities before winter break!  But Wisdom Ways spiritual memoir sessions continue on the second Fridays through the new year.  Please drop in!

November 16: Living Revision: The Writer’s Craft as a Practice of Transformation at the Loft Literary Center, 10am-4pm.

December 14, 1:30-3:30Re-Imagining Revision with spiritual memoir, Wisdom Ways drop-in session.

February 9, 2019, 9:00am-12:00pm: Writing the Sacred Journey: An introduction to writing spiritual memoir at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.


Adding to the Universe’s Order

I’m still unpacking Annie Dillard’s statement that a “complete novel in a trunk in the attic is an order added to the sum of the universe’s order.” Why? It seems to me that creative people value our work almost exclusively with external measures—the fact of being published, sales numbers, reviews, literary recognition, etc. Sometimes we’re wise enough to value the process over the product; sometimes we orient our hearts toward how our stories impact the internal lives of our readers. But when it comes to feeling like our work matters, most often we lean on external measures for validation.

Dillard says that on some subterranean level, a fully developed but unread creative work makes a metaphysical difference in creation. Okay. Do we writers need to take this on faith? Or can we find concrete evidence?

Here’s the latest bit of evidence I’ve dug up. A few issues ago, Poets and Writers magazine published an intriguing article by novelist Daniel Wallace. Wallace has written six novels, including a New York Times bestseller. In other words, he’s “made it” as a writer. Thirty years ago, he began submitting his short stories to The New Yorker. He, like many writers, considered publication in The New Yorker to be the pinnacle of literary success. His stories landed on the desk of Daniel Menacer, who repeatedly rejected them. Eventually Menacer jotted “a little something” on the rejected pages. “I had no idea who this person was,” Wallace writes. “And it didn’t really matter because at that time in my life, editors were all-powerful demigods whose approval would allow me entry into the world I hungrily watched from afar.” Over six years, Menaker’s rejections grew personal—an encouraging sign in the publishing world. One story he even called “very good…as far as it goes.” He invited Wallace to continue submitting—the best kind of rejection possible.

Over thirty years, Wallace submitted more than fifty stories. None was published. Eventually Menaker left The New Yorker to become executive editor (and later editor-in-chief) at Random House; he now writes novels and teaches in the MFA program at Stony Brook. Recently, on a whim, Wallace looked him up. Menaker remembered him and agreed to meet over a meal, which turned out to be ordinary, connective, and lovely. They’ve been in touch ever since.

“Do you see what just happened?” Wallace asks us. “After a lifetime of rejection, I had been accepted. I had made a friend.”

What I find remarkable about Wallace’s story is how he saw creative potential within a relationship comprised of rejections. Sure, this wasn’t the outcome he’d initially hoped for. But those unpublished stories had done good work opening up a connection between the two men. Wallace found a spark of life underneath decades of seeming failures and he kept it moving. He’d found a tiny bit of “order” his stories had added to the universe’s order. Isn’t a new friendship an ultimately worthy outcome? –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew


What a whirlwind fall!  Only three offerings remaining before winter:

November 9, 1:30-3:30:  Re-Imagining Loss with spiritual memoir, Wisdom Ways drop-in session.

November 16: Living Revision: The Writer’s Craft as a Practice of Transformation at the Loft Literary Center, 10am-4pm.

December 14, 1:30-3:30Re-Imagining Revision with spiritual memoir, Wisdom Ways drop-in session.


Stories in the Genes

During my childhood, I was aware of only six relatives on my father’s side beyond his siblings’ families. It seemed as if the Delessios popped onto the planet from nowhere. They were Italian—I knew that much—but the first generation ditched their names and kept quiet about the past; my great-grandmother abandoned Catholicism when one Sunday she took the Eucharist and returned to her pew to find her purse gone. My dad’s generation never learned the language or the family recipes or anything about their heritage except the sketchiest of stories: My uncle was born frozen on the stoop. We weren’t really Italians, we were Albanians. After my great-grandfather’s first wife died, he ordered a second one by mail. He spoke Muschitan, a name that sent us into hysterics because surely someone made it up.

That’s the extent of what we knew.

This tragic loss is likely the result of anti-Italian prejudice at the turn of the century, the traumas of poverty and immigration, and the savvy survival instincts of my great-grandparents. Family history on my mother’s side is only slightly better, which means that I, like many European Americans, live with the sense that my family huddles in the present, isolated from the past and unaffected by our ancestors. I am my own person. I make my own decisions. I’m responsible for the life I’ve created.

About five years ago, however, my dad learned of a small village called Maschito where they do indeed speak a dialect called Maschitan and are descended from Albanians. My parents and I traveled there, dug around in government records, and found there the D’Alessio name in elegant script. That trip opened a portal; information kept coming. When a few months ago my aunt and uncle discovered old documents in their closets, we decided another genealogical research trip was in order.

In preparation, I got my DNA tested. And there, hidden in my genes, I found the enormity of my family story: Two hundred living Italian relatives who’d also been tested; the legacy of French and Turkish invaders in southern Italy; the pride of Albanian refugees; the grandparents of my grandmother who had seventeen children; the surname signaling that an ancestor had been abandoned; my great-grandfather’s three marriages; his father’s three marriages; deaths of children, deaths of wives, so much death.

I contain all this. I’m made up of my people. Their losses and resilience and courage vibrates in my cells. A person is a person through other persons, Desmond Tutu says, and I know this now. In Maschito, the young mayor translated for us the motto on the village flag: Our blood is everywhere. She gestured to us and said in clear English, “See? You’re evidence of this.” My ancestors are with me, in me. Their stories are my story, and somehow this is comforting. I’m not alone. I’m living out our story—and it’s so big, surely it’s holy.  –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew


For the last few years I’ve been wondering whether the final stage of the writing process–that period after completing a project which we usually call “publishing”–can be creative, transformational, and life-giving for the writer.  This Saturday I’m offering a new workshop at the Loft based on my new thinking called The Launch: Reimagining Publishing with Integrity, Freedom, and Generosity.  I’d love for you to join me!  From 1:30pm-4:30pm.

Also coming up:

November 9, 1:30-3:30:  Re-Imagining Loss with spiritual memoir, Wisdom Ways drop-in session.

November 16: Living Revision: The Writer’s Craft as a Practice of Transformation at the Loft Literary Center, 10am-4pm.

December 14, 1:30-3:30Re-Imagining Revision with spiritual memoir, Wisdom Ways drop-in session.


Adding to the “Sum of the Universe’s Order”

“A complete novel in a trunk in the attic is an order added to the sum of the universe’s order.” Or so Annie Dillard believes. This is a peculiar metaphysical statement: Creative work makes a difference regardless of audience. How is this possible?

I posed this question in my newsletter a bit ago and received some remarkable responses. Today I’d like to share Liz Olds’ story.

I had a difficult relationship with my mother. There have been times when I hated her, and most times I was at least ambivalent. My feelings about my mother often got in the way of the writing. I feared if I was honest about not liking her, in fact hating her at some points in the memoir, that several things would happen. I was sure my sister would never speak to me again. I feared other people in my family would be upset. My mother was considered a saint by almost everyone, myself apparently the only one who had seen the other, darker side.

But more important, I feared that my feelings of betrayal, dislike, disappointment and hatred would overwhelm me. I feared I would not be able to do the work of writing this essential part of my story.

As I wrote about my mom, I felt a gradual transformation. My mother was a talented, intelligent and interesting person. I have come to believe that she had anxiety and depression which made it difficult for her to meet my needs as a child. I felt myself coming to have respect for her. I began to understand just a little of why everyone who didn’t rely on her to have their needs meant thought she was so cool.

I also began to see the facts about her – she was trapped in a bad marriage with an abusive alcoholic. I think she was often just keeping her head above water.

When she was 57 she was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer and died two years later. I had not processed my anger toward her at that time and felt no compunction to help her. Living 1200 miles apart made it easy to justify not participating in her care.

I began writing the memoir about the same time I began a course of therapy to help me with my own mental health issues. My therapist suggested using my writing as part of the work I was doing. I thought less and less about publishing. Writing became healing.

This is where the memoir really takes wings for me. I wrote with an eye to craft as well as healing. I meant to write a publishable memoir, but I also a desired to work out the hatred of my mom. I wrote honestly about the ways she had hurt me and the things I wish had been different. I also wrote about the good things. I wanted the writing to help me understand, to help me grow and change.

After six years of writing, the words I wrote enabled me to forgive my mother. I forgave other people too, in fact the memoir was a font of forgiveness. But forgiving my mom…that was the big deal. Many people in my family tell me I look like my mom, and I have many of the same interests. In forgiving her I feel like I am also forgiving myself for many of the times I haven’t been able to help friends and relatives who needed me.

It doesn’t matter a bit that I haven’t published this book. I’m not saying I don’t want that, of course I do. But it is so much more important that I deeply changed in the process of writing it. I began to know myself better, to understand the things about my thoughts and behaviors that used to baffle me. I realized I had strength and had done more than just survive my family legacy. I had forgiven. No matter what happens with the book in the future, I will always have this.

In our product-driven, results-oriented culture, we like to think creative work gains worth by its impact on an audience. Liz’s story illustrates that who we become for having done the creative work is an equally important “product” with significant “results.” An order of forgiveness is added to the world’s order and this, it seems to me, is of ultimate worth. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew


I still welcome testimonials—what’s your experience of your finished creative work still exerting an influence on the world?

If your curious to explore with me a new way of relating to your writing post-completion, I’ll be introducing some of my thoughts and questions at the Loft on October 27: The Launch: Reimagining Publishing with Integrity, Freedom, and Generosity, 1:30pm-4:30pm.  I’d love to see you there!

Also coming up:

October 12, 1:30-3:30: Re-Imagining Prayer with spiritual memoir, Wisdom Ways drop-in session.

November 9, 1:30-3:30:  Re-Imagining Loss with spiritual memoir, Wisdom Ways drop-in session.

November 16: Living Revision: The Writer’s Craft as a Practice of Transformation at the Loft Literary Center, 10am-4pm.

December 14, 1:30-3:30Re-Imagining Revision with spiritual memoir, Wisdom Ways drop-in session.