Citing in the Trenches

In my academic work, pretty much all writing is actually a conversation. What has this person said about this issue? What has that person said about that? Academic writing is not to be an exercise in mere opining. It is an entry into great conversations. And when that works well, well, it can be rather exciting.

I recently wrote a paper that was exactly that: a delight to write. I had completed a good bit of reading and research in preparation for it, and the paper nearly wrote itself. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I feel as if the heavens have opened and I have been given a gift: the ideas came flowing in, and I couldn’t write fast enough. When that happens, I have the important task of noting which ideas I am building on, and which ideas I am refuting, and which ideas are my own. The first two bits are really quite easy; it’s the last that is somewhat vexing. When I’ve read reams of material, I want to make sure I give all the authors I’ve read their due: I want to make sure that it doesn’t appear as if my seemingly novel idea is novel when, in fact, it builds on the thought of another. Sometimes in the flurry of writing, I’ll make a note: “citation needed.”

When editing time comes, this note-to-self is most trying: “citation needed.” It demands that I get back inside my head: was I referencing something I remembered someone saying; was I uncertain about the idea and wanted some support from another thinker; did I simply need to think more about the matter under investigation? When I’m editing, and hit this, I feel like I am doing nothing but grunt work.

But here’s the thing. When I was a teenager, I spent a summer working for a construction firm, and did nothing but grunt work. I tamped dirt in preparation for cement; I hauled about forms that shaped a place for the cement to land; I pushed wheelbarrows full of cement. This work was not intellectually challenging, but it was incredibly important. Without a solid foundation, a house is soon uninhabitable.

Without solid ground-work nothing holds together. The same is true with writing. The preparatory work makes the writing a pleasure, and the need to acknowledge those who have fed you is an ethical obligation. Yesterday I spent a number of hours chasing down a handful of references. It isn’t as heady as experiencing an idea arrive in my lap, but it is just as important: ideas don’t arrive without further ado. They are the gift of my conversation with scholars who have proceeded me. I honour them by making sure I give them credit that is due.

A day spent tracking down quotations and making sure that commas and footnotes are in place isn’t my favourite way to spend a day. But I take a certain satisfaction in knowing that when I take care to credit sources informing my ideas, I am doing a good thing; the right thing, really. I expect it of my students, and when I expect it of myself, I remind myself that I too, am a student. There is certain giftedness in this realization that I will always be sitting at the feet of masters who have generously made space for me to say my piece in this conversation that is life.

This is Gift

Robert Frost noted that a poem begins as a “lump in the throat” or a “homesickness” and never as a thought. Poetry is born in the body, and the accompanying sense of displacement that is a part of our experience from cradle to grave. We are ever trying to negotiate both where we are along the way along with the sense that “where we are” is a way station. And this awareness of our constant dislocation is born in our bodies. Each and every experience that we have is imprinted on our bodies. In this instance I sweat my panic and in that I smile my joy; here I shiver my pleasure and there loss wets my cheek. My jaw clenches this memory into place and my cheek flushes an intimacy revealed. My body inscribes that I live both in and beyond each experience. But for some reason, some of us are not content to leave it at that.

A poem may begin as a lump in the throat, but it seems that many of us want to memorialize our experience, or perhaps exorcise it, by putting it to print. I suspect that this need to memorialize is true, as well, for authors who are not poets. In the end, authors have their own reasons for putting pen to page, and as I think through my experience of writing, I realize that it is as varied as the genres I employ in my writing life. When I write a report I inform. When I write an essay I try out an idea. When I write a sermon I bear witness. But when I write a poem, I turn flesh to word. I see something; perhaps a person piquing my curiosity with theirs, or perhaps a sky that is so large as to fill my eye. But that experience of seeing is not yet enough; it demands an accounting, not in the sense that it needs to be fit into a budget of sensibilities, but in the sense that a convincing exploration of the experience is pleading for the light of day. The riches of the experience preclude a simplistic cause and effect narrative. Poetry redeems the day by pointing beyond the author and her words. Good poetry launches us and leaves us in a strange place where we see the world in a new way.

In a way, poetry takes us from body to word to body again. A poem is a boomerang. It takes leave from the flesh and straddles the heavens only to return again to the earth that we stride and the earth that we are. A poem is a storm, flashing across the orb of my eye; raining song on a scorched earth; winding questions into the cracks of armored certainties that shut people out and pain in. Poetry de-calcifies us. It doesn’t scratch an itch so much as it itches a numbed world. Poetry truly begins as a lump in the throat, but that lump is there because a wider world is in the wings and aching to be explored.

My path into poetry has been, in the end, the surreptitious path of poetry into me. Here an author unsettled a satisfied me; there a hymn not only named a yearning but birthed another. Over and over again I find myself indebted to that lump in my throat that announces that I am alive and this is gift.

Hoarding’s End

“Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now” Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, p. 78.

This is not only good advice for writers, but for all artists, for scientists, for believers, for all.

Some of us hoard our way through life:  waiting for the right moment, the right person, the right opportunity to give.  But that tendency is at cross purposes with a true gift – at least a spiritual gift.  A spiritual gift comes unbidden from a spiritual giver who is not looking for a perfect person, but a person in need.  When need announces itself it is time to give: a word, a picture, a gesture, a hug, a hope.  Now the astounding thing about giving gifts in this key is that the giver gets more than she gives.  Jesus said that it is more blessed to give than to receive, and we can only imagine that he spoke from experience.

Of course our experience isn’t only that it is hard not to hoard, but it is also exceedingly hard to receive (taking, of course, is much easier).  To receive, to receive the blessing that attends generosity’s upending of parsimony, that is difficult indeed!  We are embarrassed by the wonders that wind their way to us when we give.  It may be more blessed to give than receive, but it is surely more humbling to receive than to give!  Yet the paradox is that when we give, we receive and so find ourselves in face of the realization that we were truly poor when we hoarded.

Give.  Truly this affords us a richer life – but it comes at the cost of being counter cultural. After all, many voices announce scarcity as the state of affairs in our world.  Yet the astounding testimony of those who visit the so called “two thirds world” is that those who have the least give the most.  Those who have next to nothing know that what sustains us in times of trial is community and community comes by sharing: our goods, our words, our wonder, our fear, our faith.

How might you move beyond a posture of hoarding this week?  Will you dare to share a poem with a friend?  A meal with a stranger?  A hug with someone who hurts?  “Give it.  Give it all.  Give it now.”

Living, Full Stop.

“Our universe was fired in the kiln of the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, when all existing matter was compressed into a singularity, a point no larger than the period at the end of this sentence.”  David Suzuki and Wayne Grady, Tree: A Life Story

Suzuki writes further of the expansion of this period-come-cosmos and so inspires me to imagine that we are living in this period, this full stop.  There is something mind altering about this realization, that we are fixed at the end of a sentence, in a full stop, a pause.

Most of us don’t much like to pause, and so to be a pause, well, that’s quite the call: to know that enough has been said, that it is time to rest, to relax, to allow the word to resonate for all with ears to hear.  It is a challenge to be a pause.  It is hard to leave control in the ears of the hearer; it is hard not to try, even subtly, to bend the hearer to my intentions, to make the hearer obedient, to make the hearer in my image.

It is hard to pause period.  So much gets in our way of stopping.  There are so many important things to do: laundry to launder, reports to write, the cat to feed, the universe to fix.  There are, of course, many important things to do and I don’t mean to belittle them.  But every now and then, we need to be reminded of our responsibility to stop and to yield to the fact that we are not God.  Sometimes it is hard not to be God.  I think Jesus knew something of that.  Not pulling the God-card landed him on the cross.  That might not be our story, but giving up on being in charge sometimes results in our own crosses: I cross others who have expected more of me than I can deliver; I cross myself in being the human that I am; I cross a great divide and become authentically human when I stop and accept my  finitude, my Sabbath.

It actually is a gift to be a pause; to be the between, to be the space that allows that expansion of the self that is my neighbour, my friend, my enemy.  Indeed, it is a gift to stop and to be in the presence of people who become more as I accept them unconditionally.  I stop demanding more of them; I stop ordering them around; I stop finishing their sentences, their chapter, their story.  I stop, and in stopping I discover that it really isn’t the other that has changed so much as me.  I have paused, and in pausing I am of a piece with a sentence: full stop.