by Lyle Enright
My wife always spoils movies. Not because she’s seen them before but because she can predict what’s coming. At my worst, I discretely check Wikipedia while she runs down her hypotheses. Eight times out of ten, she’s right on the money. I tell her sweetly that we’ll “see what happens,” but there I am, cuddled up to the armrest of the couch and grouchy as hell.
In John Gardner’s Becoming a Novelist, the author names two kinds of writers. One is fascinated by their own inner world, crafting characters as they appear before them. I think of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway — the complex inner-life of a woman receiving the world like she’s casting a net into the sea and is more interested in how the net does its snaring work than in what she hauls in. Gardner says that this sort of writing rings truer to some than others. I have first-hand experience with this, sitting at a table with dedicated Woolf scholars, not getting it and realizing it probably has something to do with my chromosomes.
But I do resonate with Woolf, for the same reasons I resonated with Joyce or Pynchon: the brain-bursting paralysis, the insane conviction that insight ought to give way to action: if I could only think this thing aright, then—!
The other writer Gardner describes, the one with far more promise, is the one who is fascinated by other people. For her, as for Umberto Eco, everything is a possible center of something else. She is the sort of person who watches a terribly-written movie and predicts its outcome, generously invents motivations for characters whose actions otherwise make no sense.
Working in mental health has only honed my wife’s insights. She comes home emotionally spent, not from contempt but from compassion. She understands the complex cages that neurons sometimes build, trapping souls inside of them. She lives those tangles during the day, and at night, in soft pants and with a glass of wine, she can turn on the TV and relax to a period crime drama, its carefully-crafted twists and turns having nothing on someone with schizophrenia.
I don’t have a cage like that, but I do have something; a propped-up box or mousetrap, something so obvious and so embarrassing to be caught in. But catch me it did, recently, and robbed my wife of some of that normalcy she counts on. I was behind a window, bouncing off it like a fly. She wanted me back in the world with her—in a place where my students don’t have energy to waste hating me and where our lives will not come to a halt if my best isn’t up to my own standards.
I think this was how I learned that just because the sky that’s falling is your own doesn’t mean it won’t still kill someone on the way down.
Cognitive behavioral therapy, I’ve since learned, isn’t too different from what Gardner describes as the work of the novelist. Some pain is an obstinate lack of lucidity; you must fight through it and back into the world. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that good fiction does much the same work. I did that work, mostly as a way of coping and preparing for disastrous course evaluations; I would survive the falling sky.
Then I learned that, no, my students did not in fact have time or energy to waste on hating me. In fact, they were pretty happy. My mediocrity had not crippled them for four months, only me—because I was thinking of me, and not them.
The sky didn’t fall, did not implode. But it split up the middle, reminding me of the sun and space and of how very, very small my world had become.
“Whoever loses his life will find it,” Christ says, and I think I’m only lately getting it. The new self—the attentive, curious, observant self—can never emerge unless self-love dies. It takes profound trust in profound promises to let the anxious self go under, slough off, believing that something good is waiting underneath— Eustace the dragon ripped open, his true self torn out of him by the claws of Aslan.
But somehow this gives me joy. The person emerging from this process is the person who takes pains and can spoil movies. This person is free to notice the boy and girl in the booth beside him: nailed in conversation, neither knowing where to put their hands, his fly everywhere like knives in a kitchen while she keeps hers close and bundled. “Abundant life” means being free to see these things, and it’s encouraging to think that this is the life that God wants for us; that maybe it looks like becoming a novelist.
Lyle Enright is a writer and doctoral candidate at Loyola University Chicago where he studies late modern literature, philosophy, and theology. He has written widely for both academic and popular venues, and you can find some of his recent work at Christ & Pop-Culture, The Englewood Review, and Ruminate. You can also follow him on Twitter @ynysdyn.