D.L. Mayfield

living in the upside-down kingdom

Filtering by Tag: Robert Coles

Writer's Gonna Write

from Austin Kleon, "The Life of a Project"  

 

There's this thing where writers tag other writers to answer questions about writing. I would hate it if it wasn't so darn interesting. My fancy writer friend Christiana tagged me (she's in my online writing group, she writes killer YA, and she is bursting forth into the world with her wonderful creative non-fiction--where she writes about Mennonite intentional communities, chickens, and death. Also, she is a poet, and once sent me a magazine of poetry in the mail. Swoon.)

 

So here I go. Writer's gonna write (especially about themselves!)

 

1. What are you working on?

Big picture: I already finished the manuscript for my first book, and it is currently off in the wilderness. I look forward to a rigorous editing process, hopefully sooner than later.

Small(er) picture: I currently have 2 different book reviews due (I love reading and I love talking about books--but writing about books can be so difficult at times). One is Americanah by Chimamanda Adiche, and the other is Life, Interrupted, a book on trafficking into forced labor. Reading these books (especially the latter) has led me down many rabbit trails, specifically in the area of how the U.S. has historically treated migrants (hint: abysmally). I have been sucked into the worlds of James Agee, Robert Coles, and an exceptional Edward R. Murrow documentary. I think I have something else due as well, but it is currently escaping me. Not very professional, D.L.

I am also working on some other creative non-fiction stuff (which isn't fit for public consumption). And I would die if I didn't journal/do morning pages nearly every day.

 

 

2. How does your work differ from others in its genre?

How do you answer this question without sounding terrible? To be honest, sometimes I feel like I am in a unique position of being someone who lives and works among the poor but who also devours McSweeneys, Image, and O! magazine (just keeping it real). People writing about life in the margins of American society tend to be male, make their own clothes out of burlap, and are not too concerned with literary merit. I love those guys, but that ain't me. I do, however, have a similar message in regards to finding Jesus in the outskirts of the Empire.

I like writing about poverty and privilege, and I also like taking a piss at myself every now and again. I am also deeply interested in how writing can be beautiful, and am not too terribly concerned with things being tied up neatly (either theologically or in a story arc). Where I live, there is a lot of sadness, despair, death, and destruction. There is also so much beauty and humor and people who transcend the word "survivor". I really, really like to write about failure, which seems to not be a super popular thing to do. So I guess that is different? I also use a lot of the "passive voice" and "run-on sentences" which I think is arty but my good friend Amy makes me edit out anyways.

 

 

3. Why do you write what you do?

My life choices are an obvious jumping point. I often find myself overwhelmed with life and writing helps. I also see huge gaps in the narratives we are being fed about who the blessed really are; I see how many of us have no real concept of what it means to be poor in America. As I catch a glimpse now and then I can't help but share what I am seeing, mostly out of a sense of isolation. If it was prime-time news I think I wouldn't feel the urgency.

I wrote my book primarily because the world could always use another reminder that the the upside-down kingdom is here, all around us. Also I think it is intrinsically an interesting story--one where I start out trying to convert everyone, and slowly start to realize how heretical my own view of God is. As an activist at heart, a small part of me must believe that what I write could change a minds towards a belief in the words of Jesus. Because once we start to believe what he said, everything starts to change.

I also have made a conscious decision to write for people who might not agree with my conclusions. It is important for me not to get bogged down in an echo chamber of agreement--only interacting with other writers/readers/thinkers who believe the same thing. I like writing about WIC for conservative Christian websites. I like disguising an essay on downward mobility and reconciliation as an argument about alcohol for a traditional Christian magazine. I like being surprised by what I read and I want to do the same thing with my writing.

Remind me of this the next time I complain about the haters, mmmmkay?

 

 

4. How does your writing process work?

 

I am forever in the throes of a busy season. I teach ESOL to non-literate learners 4 days a week. I also take care of my daughter in the afternoons/evenings. I have a variety of community events/relationships I am involved with and I also have multiple commitments with the non-profit I work for.  For an up-coming writers workshop I am supposed to write down when I write. Thus far it looks like this:

Wed: write during nap time. 40 minutes.

Saturday PM: write for 30 minutes, fall asleep.

Every Other Friday: write for 1 hour, check FB and Twitter for 45 min.

 

Soooooo, not great. The problem is that by the end of the day there is not a blessed thought in my head. But I am loathe to wake up early (as my many talented friends do). I am hoping for a few reshufflings in my schedule for the fall, but I never know what will happen. For now it is a very part-time gig, and I have honed my skills at writing fast and furious when I get a chance.

As far as what I choose to write--when the mood strikes, I often pitch ideas to various places and usually find myself writing at least 1-2 essays a month. I try and scare myself a little each time I write. Blogging is currently not a huge priority for me (see: time) and as I have said before the crazier it gets the quieter I have to be in my writing. For now I take the stolen minutes I get and type into my laptop (usually sitting on my bed, or the couch) and I consider myself lucky. When I get super stuck for ideas or I hit an editing fog, going on long runs really seems to get my thoughts in order (also, cake helps). Being in an online writing group has been the best motivation ever (they believe me! they really do!) and now I am in an awesome IRL one as well. I am basically surrounded by beautiful, talented writers who force me to keep producing content. It is awesome, and I highly recommend this to everyone.

 

 

 

 

Oh man. Now I'm done talking about myself and my "craft"! So now I get to gleefully tag two writer friends so they can also answer these questions and populate the world with more art and beautiful (and sometimes cranky) words.

 

The first writer is Becca over at Exile Fertility. I just love everything that comes out of her mouth. She gets it. She gets that everything is terrible and everything is beautiful. She is my favorite writer when it comes to womanhood, birth, beauty, and radical self-care. I wish she would write more, but I understand that her arms are very full at the moment. Go on over to her place and check it out.

The other writer is Kevin Hardagan, who I think is the Joel Osteen/N.T. Wright of Ireland. He could go either way, really. He is wicked smart, a little cantankerous, half the time I do not know what he is talking about but when I DO I really like it. And he always makes me think (a good sign, right?). I would dearly love to know what he is working on in regards to his PhD (I think it has something to do with mammon. Mammon!) and everything he writes is funny. Including a response to a blogging round robin.

 

 

So there you have it. I would love (and I mean this from the bottom of my heart) to hear from any of you in regards to what you are working on, what your process is, and how you see yourself fitting into the writing world. So please comment and share!

 

 

 

 

 

War Photographer: K Mayfield

I am so thrilled to have my dear husband here today to talk about art, therapy, movies, and the importance of repentance over outrage. He has some good things to say. And he is the cutest. And the nicest. And the smartest. I married up, ya'll. I couldn't think of a good pseudonym for him, so feel free to give me your suggestions in the comments. 

I have had a strong desire to express our family’s experiences these past few years; our continual encounter with the Kingdom of God, how it turned everything upside down. But as it turns out, it’s really hard to do so without seeming preachy. So, gathering from the likes of some of my favorite artists like Why?Mewithoutyou, and Freud, I tend to write and see what comes out, hoping the adventures of my super-ego will meet yours along the way. Besides, metaphors work well as free-association techniques. Typically, rather than choosing a particular topic or theme, I write about my life in general to see what emerges. And hopefully, the Kingdom peeks through alongside lots of latent issues surround identity, vocation, etc.

I think that social justice is such a tricky subject to talk about; many  musicians who engage the topic walk a fine line between something artistic and three-point Sunday sermon on the topic. However, my greatest concern about justice themes in art is that rather than prophetically pointing the way to justice, it can create a false imitation of it.

I watched a movie a few years ago where George Clooney takes on a corporation, and throughout the movie I felt the weight of oppression that corporations can wield. But as the movie resolved, my anger dissipated. And of course it did; a major film company isn’t going to release a movie that actually motivates people to action against the system and culture which it benefits from. Documentaries be better or worse than the typical box-office affair. They can also be overwhelming, with a notable absence of resolution (and if you’re my wife, this means you find yourself sitting horrified, paralyzed and grieved at the end of the five hours or so of The Corporation). But watching these documentaries produces an emotional, if not physical response to what we have seen, and we can tend to focus on that--as though adding something to my Netflix queue has helped change the world.

It’s way easier to consume in order to feel that I am producing change. We are a very aware society, aware of what is wrong (sweat shops, global military presence, the flaws in the political system, the educational system, genetically modified foods, etc.). And in response, I will quickly pay to feel that I am on the side of social justice (e.g. Toms, Charity Water, Warby Parker, short term mission trips). And we will pay our artists to give us the experience of taking part in social justice simply through reading a book, listening to a song or watching a movie, as though experiencing that media is the same as responding to it.

There is a gap between seeing the problems in the world and responding to them. I think that gap is our discomfort with facing our own brokenness that contributes to the these existing systems that. I can call for change of a particular system, but until I face my own greed, racism and disproportionate priority of convenience and low prices over the human value, my wishes are hollow.

I recently came across an old article by psychologist and author Robert Coles in which he reviewed a 1967 documentary titled Titicut Follies, about the mental hospital attached to the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, where the criminally insane were housed and treated.

The film received fierce heat from the local authorities, even the superintendent who initially authorized the documentary, in hopes of receiving improved facilities. Coles points out that this was hardly the first exposé on the low standards in mental health institutions of the day, nor was Bridgewater anywhere close to the worst he had personally seen, as a psychologist. But what differed about this documentary was not the physical setting, but the relationships and humanity the viewer came into contact with. And, Coles argues, the most impactful part of the film is not the patients or the fragile, unsettled air of insanity, but the doctors and the professionals. He suggests that the way the doctors failed to see humanity in the patients, the way they labeled and categorized and withdrew these men from society is recognizably familiar urge that we ourselves experience. Coles points out that the difference between this film and others like it is that instead of being forced to look at a broken system, we are forced to look at our broken selves.

And this is why the filmmaker, at the time Coles wrote, had multiple civil and legal suits charged against him. Coles writes, “Titicut Follies is a brilliant work of art, and as such it will not go unnoticed, despite the opposition to it.  We are asked not to be outraged at others – a cheap and easily spent kind of emotion – but to look at ourselves, the rich and strong ones whose agents hurt the weak and maimed in the name of – what?” (p .25). Strangely, it was the implicit individual reflection rather than a systematic critique that really upset the powers that be.

Those of us who wish to share the stories of the oppressed often do so in order to encourage our audience to do justice and compassion in our world. But it is a thin line between kindling the desire for justice and satiating it. Does our audience leave with a feeling that they have already participated in social justice when they are simply enjoying a good, artful experience? Or are they challenged and empowered to make changes in their own lives -- and their own hearts? As artists, I believe we need to ask: through the way we tell stories, is there a way to not only confront evil systems, but to identify and indict the parts of us that are complicit with these systems?

The fact that Titicut Follies upset the powers that be demonstrates that the empire knows, as Cole says, outrage is a “cheap and easily spent emotion,” but internal reflection and response has the power to make real change in the world.

After some time facilitating group therapy, I’ve learned that anger is a paper tiger next to mourning. Yelling begets yelling, yet tears pave the way for reconciliation and change. Walter Bruggeman says it this way: “Tears break barriers like no harshness or anger. . . when one addresses numbness clearly, anger, abrasiveness and indignation as forms of address will drive the hurt deeper, add to the numbness . . . this denying and deceiving kind of numbness is broken only by the embrace of negativity, by the public articulation that we are fearful and ashamed of the future we have chosen”. I love the communal terminology here, which is particularly appropriate in such a global climate; we, at least in some way, have chosen for the world to be as it is today. Thus, anger is somewhat impotent, as it is only useful against others; sadness is a response to our own actions, the fruit of internal reflection.

And perhaps this is why, out of all the ways to be wronged, God often chooses adultery as a metaphor for our broken relationship with him. In an affair, anger is just the tip of an iceberg of deep mourning. Likewise, Bruggeman suggests that “Jesus wept” is one of the most powerful verses in the cannon. God isn’t angry at us, but he’s really sad about the world we’ve chosen.

As good war photographers, it seems our goal is to not only bring us to tears over the injustice against the least of these, but also the potent experience of weeping over the choices we have made in our own lives that lead to such circumstances -- and weeping over the ways in which our hearts still wish it so.

601380_10152602957695648_1255881302_nK Mayfield is married to D.L., and father to the cutest/most spirited child ever. He is a therapist with the heart of an artist (or is it the other way around?). You can find his music here. He is the best at growing beards. 

For more posts in the War Photographer series, click here.

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