Friday, January 28, 2011

Why I Am a Writer (the confessions of an orthodox rebel)

G.K. Chesterton told a story once about a young lady that he knew. She had lived in mainland England her whole life and had never been to the coast, never been to the sea. Chesterton felt the need to rectify this and escorted her out there himself. They came to some random beach on the coastline and watched the dark green waves cresting and falling across white sand. Chesterton turned to the young lady and asked her what she thought. After a moment's hesitation, she said, "It looks like cauliflower." Chesterton would later say that he had never heard a more poetic statement.

Chesterton's assessment of that statement is why I love him. I don't always understand him, but that's not the point. It is his way with words that astounds me, how he understands the way that they work. I remember perusing some of his books online, and I got to his Father Brown collection. I only read the first line of the first story: "Between the silver ribbon of the morning and the green glittering ribbon of the sea, a boat touched Harwich and let lose a swarm of folk like flies." I stopped and immediately bought the book. I was in the middle of my college days back then, and I had no idea what to do with myself. All I knew was that I wanted that book and all the words it contained.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a cartoonist, mostly because I spent hours doodling and also because Garfield the Cat had reached a cult-like status for me. By the time I was biologically mature enough to go to college, I began looking into graphic arts programs. One of my cousins and her husband were both graphic artists, so I took some samplings of my best stuff to show them. I sat at their dining room table one afternoon, passing graphite-laced pieces of paper back and forth between them and myself. I asked what they thought. My cousin said nothing because her husband beat her to it: "You draw well, but you really need to be a writer."

He was right. At that very moment, I knew he was right. His statement seemed absurd, yet it was completely true. As he would point out to me, every single picture that I showed them had been accompanied by a story. Every doodle was a scene, every piece a part of some whole. I was a writer. It was instinctual to me. I wanted to be one. I had always wanted to be one. I just didn't realize it until a graphic artist told me so.

So I abandoned the graphic arts programs and enrolled in a literature program, because I figured (as only someone cusping the age of twenty could figure) that I could learn how to write by simultaneously writing often and reading great writing. Thus I spent four years as a fish out of water, surrounded by academic bookworms concerned with theories and research. I just wanted the books themselves and their words, words fitly spoken, burning like stars or cold like steel. After all, I had bought Chesterton's entire Father Brown series on the merit of its first sentence alone. Another time, for kicks and giggles I sat down and read T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. During "Burnt Norton," I got to these lines: "Garlic and sapphires in the mud / Clot the bedded axle tree. / The tilling wire in the blood / Sings below inveterate scars / Appeasing long forgotten wars." For some reason my whole chest felt like it was burning, and my head felt cleansed and clear. I read all of his poems soon after.

Only two of my professors seemed to really understand how I felt. One was Dr. Kieth Callis, a wry man with a small mustache and a thin strap of messy gray hair. He was a true academic and scholar, but he also loved the written word for itself. On occasion during class, he would be reading something (usually Shakespeare) and he would constantly interrupt himself with "oh that's just beautiful!" I came to understand this sentiment firsthand. Last year I was teaching an English literature class, and we were reading through The Faerie Queene. When Redcrosse Knight reached Lucifera's House of Pride, I read the line: "and underneath her scornful feet / the dauntless dragon lay." I paused. It was beautiful, and I let the class know it.

The other professor was a creative writing instructor. His name was John Walker, and he was paralyzed from the collarbone down. He spoke with a soft, soothing voice and always waved a limp hand in the air whenever he was making a point. His class was the only one that I purposefully took twice, and I often frequented his office. On one such visit, he asked me to pull a book off of his shelf and hand it to him. It was Hey Jack!, a book by Barry Hannah, his old creative writing teacher. He flipped through it, his hands moving like flippers, and read to me the first few sections of the first chapter. I remember standing mesmerized. Every sentence was perfect, and not a word was wasted. It reminded me of Chesterton. I bought the book about a week later and devoured it.

Reading Barry Hannah reminded me why I wanted to be a writer, why I loved writing itself. It's the words, the power and beauty that they can have, how they can fit together so perfectly, bouncing off of each other like light between a thousand prisms. There's music in them, a submerged symphony desiring excavation, and every note I hear (either from myself or others) makes me want to dig deeper. There's that image in the Bible from Ezekiel of the dry bones coming together to form a standing army. That's what writing does: it makes the bones live. And that's what I wanted to do.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011


  1. "surrounded by academic bookworms concerned with theories and research"

    Umm..did you forget I was in class with you as well. :)

    This is amazing Jon! I have been praying for you lately.

    Also love the imagery from Ezekiel!

  2. I don't think he minds academic bookworms. It's just that he does not consider himself one.

    I understand your feelings, but me...I write for the stories. They won't stop coming into my head.

  3. I was just commenting that I don't care about that stuff either! :)

  4. Jess:

    You know you're one of my favorite bookworms. 8^)

    Just FYI for everyone:

    This piece is actually a slightly pared down version of a Statement of Purpose that I just sent to a MFA program. There are many other minor factors that I could have included about why I am a writer (including my love of stories), but the statement could only be a maximum of two pages so I had to keep it short and to the point (like a knife).

  5. Well, as someone who constantly read your blog (do you have any printed book), I must simply thank God for the gift He has given to you. I'd like very much to have it, but He gave to me the gift to "write" "texts" in a very specific language: the language of the computers. :)

    God bless.

  6. Cristiano:

    Thanks, and no, I haven't published any books...yet.