Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower

A few years ago, not more than four, I decided it was time to enlarge my understanding of period of American history I had studied very little: the 17th century, give or take, from the arrival of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower in 1620 through the aftermath of King Philip’s War (1675-76).

I bought three recent books and began reading the first, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower, a New York Times bestseller and winner of the National Book Award a few years ago. It’s a very readable book, and I immediately began to enjoy it. That it took me until I was on a recent flight to Seattle to finish it is no reflection on the book itself. It is simply a consequence of the fact that, though I read quite a bit, my reading time mental energy for history and in a situation where I can sit and mark up a book is quite limited. So I read dozens of other books — mostly fiction — while I was reading this one off and on.

Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower

Some of the roots of our national founding are in that period, I knew — including some of our early challenges with respect to religious freedom. I also expected the ambivalence of Pilgrims, and later Puritans, toward the indigenous peoples. I expected fear, heroism, bloodshed, confusion, brutality.

I suppose I expected insights into the challenges of diverse peoples attempting to coexist. But as I began to read, there were some interesting surprises on that theme. And there were sad accounts of what I had mostly forgotten, the beginning of the slave trade in New England, involving native slaves.

Ann Padgett on Writing: “I Learned How to Forgive Myself”

From Ann Padgett’s “The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life” (This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. New York: Harper, 2013, pp. 19-60)

Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration? . . .

Art stands on the shoulders of craft. If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment. The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the freshwater underneath.

. . . I got better at closing the gap between my hand and my head by clocking in the hours, stacking up the pages. Somewhere in all my years of practice, I don’t know where exactly, I arrived at the art. I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling I killed it along the way. I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it.

. . . I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is the key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself. (pp. 28-30)

Marilynne Robinson: “As if People Were Less than God Made Them”

From Marilynne Robinson, “Freedom of Thought,” in When I Was a Child I Read Books (New York: Picador – Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), pp. 3-18:

At a certain point I decided that everything I took from studying and reading anthropology, psychology, economics, cultural history, and so on did not square at all with my sense of things, and that the tendency of much of it was to posit or assume a human simplicity within a simple reality and to marginalize the sense of the sacred, the beautiful, everything in any way lofty. I do not mean to suggest, and I underline this, that there was any sort of plot against religion, since religion in many instances abetted these tendencies and does still, not least by retreating from the cultivation and celebration of learning and of beauty, by dumbing down, as if people were less than God made them and in need of nothing so much as condescension. Who among us wishes the songs we sing, the sermons we hear, were just a little dumber? People today — television — video games — diminished things. This is always the pretext.

Ann Padgett on Writing: Robyn the Critic

From Ann Padgett’s “The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life” (This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. New York: Harper, 2013, pp. 19-60)

(Robyn is a graduate teaching assistant in a college poetry class.)

I admired Robyn and was terrified of her, and soon I had so assimilated her critical voice that I was able to bring the full weight of her intelligence to bear on my work without her actually needing to be in the room. I could hear her explaining how what I was writing would fail, and so I scratched it out and started over. But I knew she wouldn’t deem my second effort to be any better. Before long I was able to think the sentence, anticipate her critique of it, and decide against it, all without ever uncapping my pen. (p. 26)

 

Ann Padgett on Writing: “Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV”

From Ann Padgett’s “The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life,” in This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage (New York: Harper, 2013, pp. 19-60).

Logic dictates that writing should be a natural act, a function of a well-operating human body, along the lines of speaking and walking and breathing. We should be able to tap into the constant narrative flow our minds provide, the roaring river of words filling up our heads, and direct it out into a neat stream of organized thoughts so that other people can read it. Look at what we already have going for us: some level of education, which has given us control of written and spoken language; the ability to use a computer or a pencil; and an imagination that naturally turns the events of our lives into stories that are both true and false. We all have ideas, sometimes good ones, not to mention the gift of emotional turmoil that every childhood provides. In short, the story is in us, and all we have to do is sit there and write it down.

But it’s right about there, right about when we sit down to write that story, that things fall apart. (p. 21)

C. S. Lewis on Prayer and More

I was looking for some things C. S. Lewis said on praying for people we don’t like, including tyrants, for something over at FreedomHabit.com, when I encountered these gems:

  • “In praying for people one dislikes I find it helpful to remember that one is joining in His prayer for them.” (a 1951 letter)
  • “We must lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us.” (Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, Chapter 4)
  • “For most of us the prayer in Gethsemane is the only model. Removing mountains can wait.” (Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, Chapter 11)
  • “You don’t teach a seed how to die into treehood by throwing it in the fire: and it has to become a good seed before it’s worth burying.” (3 December 1959 letter)

The last of these suggests a good goal: to become a good seed, “worth burying,” before I am buried.