Tag Archives: religious writing

How to Write with Negative Capability

12 May
Joni Tevis' nonfiction collection The World Is on Fire is a collection for a future culture, with references to atomic bombs, Buddy Holly, the Alaskan wilderness, Liberace, and that old time religion.

Joni Tevis’ nonfiction collection The World Is On Fire is a collection meant for some future race, with references to atomic bombs, Buddy Holly, the Alaskan wilderness, Liberace, and that old time religion.

One of the most famous terms in literature is negative capability, coined by the poet John Keats. It’s so important that it even gets its own Wikipedia entry—not bad for a term that Keats mentioned once, and only once, and not in a poem or essay but in a letter to his brothers. So, if it’s such a big deal, then we probably ought to know what it means and how to use it or make it happen in our writing.

A recent essay that uses negative capability in a dramatic way is Joni Tevis’ “Fairy Tales of the Atomic Age (Rock City).” It is included in her new collection The World Is On Fire and was originally published in Orion, where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

Probably no term has been more analyzed than negative capability, so let’s just start from the beginning, with Keats’ own words:

“it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”

Here’s an even shorter version, as restated by F. Scott Fitzgerald:

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

So, the short answer to the question, “What is negative capability?” is that it’s the ability to give equal consideration to (or even believe) two contradictory ideas. So, what’s this have to do with writing great prose? Take a look at this passage from “Fairy Tales of the Atomic Age (Rock City)”:

I loved the world, believed its every inch paved with treasure, but knew it could be ripped away at any moment. Death was real; the preaching we heard every Sunday underscored that. A farm accident instantly killed my grandfather. A girl my own age, eight or nine, lost her mother one Friday night when her car was forced off a bridge. You’re no different, the preachers said, and I had to admit their logic. They’d start in on the scary parts of the Bible: Ezekiel, Daniel, Revelation, the moon turning red on that great and fearsome day. The Battle of Armageddon could start at any moment, the preachers would say, even now, while we’re sitting here in this big beautiful sanctuary, and are you right with God? Well, who could be? There will be a blast of wind, the rivers will turn to blood, the preachers said. Matthew 24:29, The stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken. What a relief when we could all file out of the barnlike church, shaking the preacher’s hand on the way into the bright sun, past the blooming crepe myrtles and the old crabapple tree. How could we go out for fried chicken after that? How could I lie on the living room floor and read the funnies or look at the paper’s boring pictures of boring debutantes? I asked my parents about the end of the world, and they said, Try not to worry about it too much.

Tevis has set up contradictory ideas, a contradiction that is set up in the first sentence: 1) the world is beautiful and amazing, and 2) all of that beauty can be taken away. In other words, as the next sentence states, we’re all going to die. This might not seem contradictory. After all, both things are true. The world can be pretty great (though it’s not always), and everyone now living will die. Put that way, most of us will likely say, “Sure. Of course.” But what the paragraph does is make us feel the contradiction. It’s the same feeling that we often get at funerals or after hearing about some tragedy or horrible act in the world. We’re going to die, and it might be really terrible. That’s the message the preacher has, and when Tevis walks out of the church, she blinks at the light and delivers a line that I absolutely adore: “How could we go out for fried chicken after that?”

We know the passage has worked because there’s no good answer to the question. Her parents say, “Try not to worry about it too much,” which is no kind of answer. Or, it’s almost exactly the definition of negative capability, a term that is often considered a goal for good writing. In “Fairy Tales of the Atomic Age (Rock City),” Tevis suggests that believing in contradictory things is an inevitable and natural part of the human experience and that drama, the stuff of good writing, comes from a character’s inability to tie together those contradictory elements. The goal shouldn’t be, as Keats puts it, to avoid “irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Instead, it should be to reach for that fact and reason and find it missing. As with all writing, you want the reader to ask, in some form, the question, “Now what?”

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create tension with negative capability, using “Fairy Tales of the Atomic Age (Rock City)” by Joni Tevis as a model:

  1. Set up the conflicting ideas. Tevis uses “life is beautiful” and “we’re all going to die.” This isn’t so different from what Stuart Dybek does in his famous story, “We Didn’t.” He pairs sex and death. If you wish, you can stick to religion: “Jesus loves me” and “sinners in the hands of an angry god.” Or, you can move toward a personal conflict with others: “I’m a good person” and “everyone hates me” or “I’m horrible” and “everyone loves me.” Or, you can create an internal conflict: “I want to do good” and “I love doing bad” or “I love my children” and “I want to be free.” The goal is to put two incompatible ideas or beliefs in the same place, at the same time. It doesn’t really matter how small or large, personal or cosmic those ideas are. The important thing is that they should resist being held together.
  2. Make the reader believe one of those ideas. Tevis does this beautifully with the sentences about deadly accidents and the quotes from the preacher. The deadly accidents give us visceral proof of the idea. How can we argue that we all die when it’s happening in front of us? The preacher creates a philosophical framework around that proof; he’s telling his congregation how to think about the proof that they witness. This two-part structure is important. If anything that happens to a character/person/narrator is worthwhile, then that person has given it significant thought and has formulated a story to tell about it or mental approach to it. How we think about something is just as important as the reason we believe it.
  3. Introduce, quickly, the other idea. This is what happens when Tevis brings us out of the church, into the beautiful world and asks how we can bear to eat fried chicken. She’s juxtaposing the beliefs. She sets beauty (sunlight and crepe myrtles) against the preacher’s version of the world, with its real proof (untimely accidents). If the juxtaposition is sharp or harsh enough, the reader will understand, on a visceral level, the impossibility of both things being true. We will question (or understand the characters when they question) how both can be true at the same time.
  4. Answer the question with negative capability. Have someone say, as Tevis’ parents did, “Try not to worry about it too much.” If you have any experience with Christianity, you may be attaching a word to this dilemma: faith. We accept, on faith, things that we cannot understand or that seem not to be possible. But faith cannot exist without a crisis of faith (otherwise, it wouldn’t be a matter of faith; it’d just be obvious). What you’re setting up is a moment where the narrator or character understands that two ideas cannot be held together, but there they are, together, and they must deal with the mental trauma of trying to make congruous this incongruous pairing. In other words, someone must say, “Don’t think about it too much,” and that mental avoidance must come to seem impossible or undesirable. When that happens, the reader will automatically want to know, “Then what?”

Good luck.

How to Write an Ending that Doesn’t Resolve Conflict

23 Dec
Owen Egerton's essay about his parents' odd Christmas tradition appeared in Salon last Christmas.

Owen Egerton’s essay, “Jesus never gave Christmas porn,” about his parents’ odd Christmas tradition is heartfelt and excellent.

The best essay about Christmas that I’ve ever read is by Owen Egerton. I don’t make this claim lightly, given that there is no shortage of holiday-themed writing this time of year. The essay is notable for its perspective (Egerton grew up a humanist, became a fundamentalist Christian, and now writes searching novels about faith) but also its content: as a kid, the Egerton children rushed downstairs to find their stockings stuffed with pornographic magazines.

After Egerton experienced a religious epiphany as a teenager, these gifts still appeared, and the essay explores the inevitable tension with his parents. I can’t recommend the essay highly enough, especially its ending, which manages to draw the tension to a close without resolving it. “Jesus never gave Christmas porn” was published at Salon, where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

The essay sets up two clear belief systems. The first belongs to Egerton’s parents, especially his father:

My father grew up as the son of a minister in rural England. He never embraced his own father’s faith. Instead he became a practical man of medicine who viewed sex as a pleasant and necessary part of the human life cycle. Sex was never a taboo subject in our house. Sex was something to talk about, laugh about and responsibly explore. Sure, buying your kids pornography might seem at tad unorthodox, but at the heart of the gift was my parents’ desire to instill a healthy view of sex in their children.

This humanistic view of sex was paired with Egerton’s parents’ attitude toward Christianity:

There was another reason my parents felt compelled to give flesh mags. Pornography was a way to simultaneously celebrate the holiday and keep its more religious themes at bay. Christ got no preferential treatment in our house.

The result was stockings filled with Christmas-themed pornography magazines. Like most children, Egerton went along with his parents’ beliefs when young. But as he reached his teens, he began to explore ideas outside of those accepted at home:

The summer of my 16th year, I spent a week at a Christian summer camp and came back home a born-again Christian. The very night I returned, before my bags were unpacked or my new Adventure New Testament was cracked, I opened my bottom desk drawer, removed three years of well-used Christmas pornography and dumped it in the trash. I didn’t even take a final peek.

With one swift act, I replaced my father’s humanistic view of lust for a moralistic, evangelical view. Lust, I now understood, was in itself a sin.

Like any teen with a new idea, Egerton tried to convince his parents of its worth:

I put my parents through laborious conversations and countless clumsy metaphors, trying to get them to see what I saw so clearly. They were patient, nodding at my testimonials and refilling their wine glasses, but they were not to be moved.

This is where the essay reveals its greatness. As readers, we want endings to resolve tension. But how can this tension be resolved? Egerton’s parents weren’t going to change his minds, and he wasn’t going to change his (at least not for several years). He could have ended by fast forwarding to that subsequent conversion, but what would it accomplish? Many people change their minds about things—even about beliefs that, like religious tenants, are often central to our identity. And, of course, most of us make ridiculous claims and arguments when we’re teenagers. So, an ending that resolves the religious conflict avoids, in a way, the basic tension of the essay: when you love someone but don’t agree with them, how do you live together?

As a teen, Egerton handled the conflict by giving his father a rolled-up scroll with a hand-written Bible verse. In the essay, he handles the ending like this:

We sat in our living room on that Christmas morning, he with the scroll of verses and me with an unopened Penthouse, both feeling his gift had not been appreciated, both sure the other just didn’t get it, both believing the other was drifting down a path that led to something like damnation and wanting more than anything to rescue them. I was trying to save my dad and he was trying to save me. And neither of us knew how.

In the end, Egerton doesn’t try to resolve the conflict. Instead, he can only acknowledge the impossibility of resolving it.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s conclude a moment of tension without resolving the underlying conflict, using “Jesus never gave Christmas porn” by Owen Egerton as a model:

  1. Identify the conflicting beliefs or desires. This likely seems like an obvious step, but it’s surprisingly easy to write an entire essay or story without clearly defining this conflict. Or, we’ll define one but fail to put that belief or desire into direct conflict with a competing belief or desire. (A story about someone in love who never makes the feeling known is a story without a conflict.) So, try this exercise with the major characters in your story or essay: Have them say, “I really want_____” or “I really believe_____.” Force them to make explicitly what might presently only be tacitly understood.
  2. Put the beliefs or desire into conflict. Perhaps you have a major conflict in mind (a clear destination for the story), and, if so, that’s great. But you may want to introduce the conflict in a smaller way before the big blowup arrives. In Egerton’s essay, we know that he’ll get porn in his stocking even though he’s become a born-again Christian. But Christmas morning is not the first appearance of the conflict. Instead, he shows public scenes of dinner-table debate and private signs of belief (dumping the old magazines in the trash). These scenes end politely but with the conflict clearly unresolved. How can you introduce the conflict so that everyone behaves well? How can you create the anticipation in the reader of a bigger blow-up to come?
  3. Consider the possibility that the conflict will never be resolved. An ending that resolves the conflict neatly—so that all tension that was created in the beginning is now gone—can be disappointing. To avoid this let down, consider this what-if question: If the conflict cannot be resolved, and the characters cannot permanently separate themselves, what then? This is the conflict that causes so much stress during the holidays. People move away from their families (often a source of conflict) but then are forced to sit at the same table and stay in the same house as them for a few days. Every year, you’ll hear people asking, “How do I get through the holiday?” Let your characters ask this same question. What does it mean to remain close to someone with whom you have an essential conflict? The answer may be your ending.

Good luck and happy holidays!

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