British Screenwriter Frank Boyce on Saints, Writing, and Imagination

Brilliant and hilarious lecture by Frank Boyce on the conversion of John Henry Newman from Anglican to Catholic and what spurred Newman to leave the ivied towers of Oxford and take up the life of a Catholic priest in Birmingham. Well worth reading Boyce’s newman-lecture-2011, especially if you want a look at the side-splitting, seedy side of Catholic saints. But below is a nice section on the surprising power of stories. Happy All Saint’s Day.

[Writers] have our mission though we may not know what it is. We commit ourselves to something without knowing how it’s going to turn out – but isn’t that also true of parents, of cooks, or teachers, of anyone who starts any project that seems to be failing but which they keep going? Maybe he should be the patron saint of anyone who keeps going in spite of doubt and failure? The patron saint of anyone who can marry strong belief with a toleration of others?

There is an ecology in the World of Knowing things. An Ecology that is often forgotten or undermined. Intellectual rigour can only thrive if our other means of apprehension – imagination, faith, emotion, pleasure – are all at work too. These are all intertwined and when we try to unravel them, we lose. In the current face off between fundamentalist science and fundamentalist religion, for instance, one group has switched off their intellect, the other their sense of wonder.

We think in stories. Before you can build a rocket to go to the Moon, you have to dream of being able to do so. Before you can sail across the Atlantic to America you have to dream of Hy Brazil or the Happy Isles. Think of what an important part of your mental equipment the story of The Ugly Duckling is, or Frankenstein, Cinderella or the Prodigal Son. These stories are like scientific discoveries – they name something that exists in the world but which we couldn’t see clearly – or feel clearly – until we were told the story.

The truly creative act – I’m speaking about writing because it’s what I know but it’s also true of parenting, teaching, evangelising, engaging with others – is a kind a scientific experiment in which all our different ways of knowing are fully engaged. It’s a voyage of discovery. Every voyage of discovery has to begin with the possibility of failure. Almost every discovery made in the history of thought was not quite the discovery that the discoverer was hoping for. You have your definite purpose. You may not know what it is. But you do have your definite purpose.–British screenwriter and novelist Frank Cottrell Boyce, Inaugural Cardinal John Henry Newman Lecture 2011

Read the whole newman-lecture-2011.

Dispatch from Prison: “There, but Not There”

Hope House families with Carol Fennelly (center)

The final day of A Lesson Before Dying workshops at the federal prison went really well. I was more relaxed than yesterday and the writing that the guys came in with this morning from yesterday’s assignments was just phenomenal. I was really moved by it and more importantly they “moved” each other with what they’d written.

The homework assignment was based on the opening line of the book we are using (Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying), which is: “I was there, but not there.” Some wrote about missing – because they were in jail – the deaths of their parents, friends, or grandparents. A few wrote about missing the births of their children. One wrote about the Southern Freedom Riders who integrated the bus system making it possible for this man to travel where ever he wanted to go — even though he wasn’t there during the time, he “was there” and was grateful for the impact it had in his life. Another wrote about how proud he was when President Obama was elected and how mad he was at himself that he couldn’t go to the inauguration because he was incarcerated. “There, but not there.”

In the afternoon, I asked them write a riff off another line from the book, “My Gray ’46 Ford was parked in front of the house.” It was so wonderful to hear these guys read of litanies to the cars they loved — all the intricate technical detail that some guys carry around in their heads about their favorite cars!

Finally, I asked them to write a letter to one of the characters in Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying. Someone who they’d like to have dinner with and interview. I thought most of them would write to Jefferson, the guy on death row. But only a few wrote to him. Some wrote to Tante Lou, one of the lead women characters. Others wrote to the minister, interrogating him about his “pie-in-the-sky” theology. A couple wrote to the shopkeeper who was murdered in a robbery at the beginning of the book — some of those letters contained some very personal reflections.

This assignment is a set up for them to work on a 1000-word essay to be completed by the end of the summer that is a letter to their children or family on the topic of their own lessons from life or lessons before dying.

As for me, it was a really excellent experience. I was genuinely honored to meet these guys. And I was impressed by the staff also – especially in the education department. They are tough as nails, but also show a genuine interest in working with the inmates to give them as many skills as possible before they are turned back out. The staff was really grateful for us being there. One person thanked me for giving the guys something that he couldn’t give them herself — a certain knowledge and skill about writing and a safe environment to really build community in vulnerability. I know it must be crazy-making and hard to work inside the prisons for years and years – and also, a few times, rewarding.

Tomorrow we head to the Maryland state prison to offer the same program, though I think the class and dynamics will be entirely different.

Carol Fennelly invited me to participate in this program – funded by the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. – and made it possible for me to come teach these classes as part of the National Endowment for the Arts “Big Read” program. The book that D.C. has chosen to read and that we are discussing in these workshops is Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying, which takes on the question: Knowing we are going to day, how should we live?

Hope House DC was established by Carol Fennelly in 1998 to help keep those D.C. families with someone in prison together and keep incarcerated fathers active in the lives of their kids. Hope House also works to reduce the isolation, stigma, and risk families experience when fathers and husbands are imprisoned and raises public awareness about prison issues and this at-risk population.

After today’s workshop, Carol posted some comments on Facebook about her experience. See below:

Carol Fennelly: Just thinking about the prison writing classes this week. The depth of the conversation that emerged yesterday was so profound. In my old age I have become a cynic, I think. But the genuine probing of self and give and take in that process got to me.

Responder: Proving, yet again, that we should not jump to conclusions or pigeon-hole people and that redemption is, indeed, possible?

Carol Fennelly: Yes. that is true. but we also had great material to spur this conversation, a great facilitator, a first class group of guys ALL of whom had read the book before class, and there was real magic. in stark contrast to the absolute civility in the room, outside on the compound competing gangs got into a fight with several guys locked up as a result. looking back it was almost surreal.

News of a Bookish Nature

I’ve been out sick this week, so this little ephemeral artifacting project–called blogging–has languished a bit. But: Here’s the news.

Who Killed Donte Manning?: The Story of an American Neighborhood, my first book, is due out in spring 2009 from Apprentice House press at Loyola College in Baltimore. It’s been an interesting process working with Apprentice House. I’m learning so much! And I’m really excited about the prospects of getting this little book into print and into the world. I’m geeky that way, I guess.

Apprentice House is only campus-based student-staffed educational publishing house in the United States. I think that’s really cool!  It’s run by Gregg Wilhelm, who also runs Baltimore’s CityLit program. Here’s part of an interview with Gregg from the Baltimore Sun:

What makes Apprentice House different from other publishing houses?

Apprentice House bills itself as the country’s only campus-based, student-staffed book publisher. All those words are important—there are newspaper publishers on campuses, there are journal publishers on campuses that are student-staffed. But we are the only book publisher in the sense that we’re not a university press, which are very different animals and have a very different mission. We’re educators first and foremost.

We are at the production stage where I am giving them a final manuscript and Gregg has assigned it to Emily, a student in Loyola’s design program, to work up cover treatments. I’ve still got some fact-checking to do, footnotes to complete, and a few research leads that I hope to track down before printing. But, otherwise, the book process is moving forward–and I’m excited!.