Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Conversation with God on Thanksgiving Day

"Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me leave to do my utmost!" 
– Isaak Denison, "Babette's Feast", 1953

So I am thinking, today, of Karen Blixen, the wonderful Danish writer of royal blood who wrote under the pen name of Isaak Dinesen.

I'm thankful, in a season of thanksgiving, for Blixen's work, especially for Winter's Tales. Especially for one tale within this volume entitled, "The Young Man with the Carnation." It's about a young writer--Charlie--who is tormented by the fame his first novel has generated and is paralyzed by the fear that he will never again write anything of significance. He has run amuck at a hotel in Antwerp where he has checked into the wrong room, gotten drunk with a group of sailors and has thrown his second manuscript unceremoniously into the sea.

As a writer I can so relate to this. All of it except maybe the sailors. I especially love the conversation Charlie has with God at the end of the story:

"Who made the ships, Charlie?" he asked. 
"Nay, I know not," said Charlie. "Did you make them?" 
"Yes," said the Lord, "I made the ships on their keels, and all floating things. The moon that sails in the sky, the orbs that swing in the universe, the tides, the generations, the fashions. You make me laugh for I have given you all the world to sail and float in and you have run aground here, in a room of the Queen's Hotel to seek a quarrel." 
"Come," said the Lord again, "I will make a covenant between me and you. I will not measure you out any more distress than you need to write your books." 
"Oh, indeed!" said Charlie. 
"What did you say?" asked the Lord. "Do you want any less than that?" 
"I said nothing," said Charlie. 
"But you are to write the books," said the Lord, "For it is I who want them written. Not the public, not by any means the critics, but ME!" 
"Can I be certain of that?" Charlie asked. 
"Not always," said the Lord. "You will not be certain of it at all times. But I tell you now that it is so. You will have to hold onto that." 
"O good God," said Charlie. 
"Are you going," said the Lord, "to thank me for what I have done for you tonight?" 
"I think," said Charlie,"that we will leave it at what it is, and say no more about it."

Charlie always makes me smile. The creation of art is so rife with self doubt and raw vulnerability that we writers are continually seeking validation.

As children's writers we grow weary, at best, of all the people who think of us as a lesser breed, as though it somehow takes less craft and less dedication and less talent to write books for our youngest readers. I get mad at these people sometimes. I want to holler at them, sometimes, holler right into their red faces. Think about what this says of your feelings for children, book people! We are the ones who creating the readers of books, for crying out loud! Don't patronize!

And then a child comes up to me at a reading and asks if the character of Uncle Joe, in My Name is Not Easy is based on a real person and I sense in his question a deep longing to know, for certain, that the possibility of a person like Uncle Joe exists somewhere in this uncertain world.

And it is enough. I can hold onto this.

As writers writing from the heart of marginalized cultures we often get frustrated, at best, by those who fail to "get" our work, frustrated even by those who give us glowing reviews that somehow manage to miss the point. No! we want to holler. No, that's not it, that's not it at all. Look deeper! Look beyond your assumptions. 

And then a woman comes up to me at church and taps me on the shoulder. My book, she tells me, has healed her. "You are the anointed one," she says.

And it is enough. More than enough.

Anointed. It's so heavy with connotation, this word, so carefully chosen, I sense. There runs through it a deeper meaning which not even my wonderful dictionary of entomology can articulate.

It holds within it all I really need, I think. I will hold onto it.

Okay, I return you now to your regularly scheduled Thanksgiving programming wondering, of course, if anyone ever reads these little missives of mine, fired off at such irregular intervals. Wondering if it even maters.

Okay, yes it matters.

Leave me a note if you are inclined to do so.


  1. Thank you for this, Debby. That conversation is, indeed, worth reading. And remembering.

  2. Debby,
    I was surprised to find you referencing Dinesen, as I have just been re-reading Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass. In the latter she writes that she only got off the manuscript for Winter's Tales in 1942 by sending it from the British Embassy in Stockholm to her British publishers. "I can sign no contract and I can read no proofs. I leave the fate of my book in your hands," she wrote. For three years she did not know what had happened to the book.

    I'm writing about Blixen for my blog "Women and Mountains," as one of the women in literature who has been a teacher for me. For you too, I see!

    All the best, as a fellow northern Minnesotan (in some sense)!

  3. I hadn't heard the story about the publication of Winter's Tales, Connie. Thanks for sharing! I love the way the story I quoted from above circles around itself. I do feel akin to Dinesen. Her work makes me think of Ursula LeGuin who suggests that, “the natural proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.”

  4. Debbie, thanks for that passage by Isak Dinesen. I haven't read her for many years and had forgotten how wonderful she is. Also, note, I'm trying to revive blogging so let me know if you know of any good northern/Alaskan books to showcase. Or have one of your own. ( )