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Literature


Art of Survival

Cold kitchen floor
Smooth basil leaves
Dog’s rubber tongue
Tree’s hardened skin

Bricks under foot
Grey chalky clouds
Paint sculpted on wood
Her shadow on blue

Steel’s sharpened edge
Soft swollen vein
This very pen
This scribbled painting…

Your hair. Your nape.
My fingers. Your lips.

All these surfaces
That I touch
Fade into stone.

A Passage from William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep

A Passage from William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep

William Deresiewicz (who will be speaking at our upcoming conference on Friday afternoon, 4/28!) made waves in 2008 when the American Scholar published his essay, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.” His full length book from 2011, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & The Way to a Meaningful Life, expounded upon the earlier essay and was a bestseller. The book’s premise is that kids arrive at Ivy league schools and other elite colleges proven experts at jumping through hoops. But beyond their noteworthy ability to ace tests, students are woefully unprepared for the real world. Deresiewicz found,…

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Pastoral – Mischa Willett

A timely one from the gifted poet’s terrific new collection, Phases (reprinted with permission):

Let us not overlook, he says looking out over
us from the lectern like a shepherd
with a crook of words bent on folding
us back into our pen, or penning
us back to our fold, the stupidity
and defenselessness of sheep.
We bleat: in this analogy, who
are we? He proceeds. Goats, you
see, can handle themselves. Horns
and hoofs, cranial helmets they ram
full tilt into posts, or other goats. But sheep
mind you, sheep have no homing device,
which is why stories begin with a lost one;
they’re even known to head toward danger
—oh look, a wolf! Let’s check it out!— in dumb
allegiance to the interesting, which I find
interesting, and think: how to amend
our sheepish ways? But he, to drive
home both the point and oh ye,
sighs it’s beyond you; beyond me. 

“Say Yes” – Tobias Wolff’s Parable of Faith

“Say Yes” – Tobias Wolff’s Parable of Faith

In Tobias Wolff’s 1985 short story, “Say Yes,” a husband and wife are washing and drying the dishes. He is clearly proud of himself for what a considerate husband he is to help with household chores. But whatever goodwill he has earned evaporates when, in casual conversation, he expresses his opposition to interracial marriage. When she challenges his regressive views, he immediately declaims on his long and positive association with blacks. When she presses him for reasons, he claims that “a person from their culture and a person from our culture could never really know each other.” She responds:…

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Hallelujah Anyway: Anne Lamott’s Latest on Rediscovering Mercy

Hallelujah Anyway: Anne Lamott’s Latest on Rediscovering Mercy

I have loved Anne Lamott since I read her first memoir, Traveling Mercies, when I was in law school. In a world where I was, quite literally, surrounded by law, I heard grace in her words, and it was the drink I didn’t even know I was thirsty for. Later, Lamott’s Operating Instructions, her memoir about her son’s first year, prepared me for motherhood in a way that all of the What to Expect books failed to do.

Naturally, I wanted to share my enthusiasm for my favorite lay theologian with my friends, some of whom scoffed at Lamott’s personal history: how could they…

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Reading the Tidal Pool: Poetry in The Mockingbird Journal – A Conference Breakout Preview

Here is another preview of a breakout session from our upcoming conference in NYC. This one is brought to us by Brad Davis, the poetry editor for The Mockingbird, and the author of Opening King David and Still Working It Out.

At its best, a print journal like The Mockingbird is to human experience as a tidal pool is to the ocean. True, some things cannot fit in a tidal pool that fit easily in a journal, like schooling bunker or mating nurse sharks. And unlike a print journal, an actual tidal pool undergoes a thorough flushing twice a day. But so much of the analogy is appealing. In this breakout session, Brad will read and discuss a selection of poems—April is, after all, National Poetry Month—from the journal’s first eight issues, focusing on those moments in the poems that won us over to them. This breakout (Friday, April 28 at 3:30PM) should appeal to poetry lovers and haters and prove beneficial to writers, too.

Register for the 10th annual Mockingbird conference here!

The Idiot Redux

The Idiot Redux

Elif Batuman takes the title of her first novel, The Idiot, from a Dostoevsky classic. Her young protagonist, Selin, mirrors the innocent Prince Myshkin of the Russian novel. Although an allusion to that giant makes Batuman’s literary ambitions clear, for her sharp narrator, the title may be too self-deprecating. Selin’s a Turkish-American student starting at Harvard with dreams of becoming a writer. From the first pages, we are introduced to her primary writing medium for her early college years: email. Batuman said that when she first finished a draft of the novel in 2001, she had no idea that the…

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Liars and Madmen and You: The Art of Narrative – A Conference Breakout Preview

Here begins our conference breakout previews–sneak peeks of the various topics we’ll talk about in NYC this April! Check out the conference site for more details

Most people will recognize Stephen King’s It as the one about the killer clown. Which it is. But at 1100 pages, it has to be more than that, you know? In his dedication King writes: “Fiction is the truth inside the lie”—which, I’ll admit, I still don’t fully get—but that’s nevertheless a good place to begin investigating one of It’s running themes: extracting the truth from the lies, particularly the ones we tell ourselves. Centered around a group of raggle-taggle tweens, It is a story about growing up and facing fears, about selectively remembering (and discarding) our early painful memories. What the characters develop, as their first line of defense against the killer clown in question, is an elaborate but ultimately fragile method of narrative construction that carries them into adulthood: Mike Hanlon, one of the story’s protagonists, explains, “We lie best when we lie to ourselves.”

It’s true for all of us. With the recent deluge of social studies concerning #confirmationbias, and with the self-righteousness of American politics cropping up wherever we look—not to mention moral dispatches from Starbucks cups—there’s never been a better time to take a second glance at the stories we tell ourselves. If spun right, “taking control of your narrative” can sound just as liberating as “taking a trip to Aruba”; but the late David Carr, in his memoir, The Night of the Gun, illustrates the exhausting side of this self-embossed coin: “You spread versions of yourself around, giving each person the truth he or she needs—you need, actually—to keep them at one remove.”

So let’s get all our narratives in one place and talk about them, Friday, April 28, 3:30PM, at the 10th Annual Mockingbird Conference. We’ll discuss some of the best stories told by liars and madmen, including some by me and some by you. And—of course—we’ll talk about the great, final page-turner that illuminates the truth about us and pulls us into it, not as tragic heroes but as pardoned villains.

Register for the conference here!

Preaching and Needing Grace, Again and Again

Preaching and Needing Grace, Again and Again

After I became a Christian during my junior year of college, I found myself attending a church where I heard the gospel of grace at Church every Sunday morning, at small group gatherings every Sunday night, and while sitting around kitchen tables and coffee tables with my new Christian friends as our conversations about Jesus lingered into the late hours of many nights. I soaked up the solid teaching and theology that was handed to me every time I turned around. At first I wondered why everyone kept talking about the gospel and how we all needed to “remind each…

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The Struggle of Dying

The Struggle of Dying

This meditation on Lent and healing prayer comes to us from our friend Laurel Marr. 

In his book, The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane tells the story of Henry Fleming, a young soldier who enlists in the army in hopes of fulfilling his dream for glory. But, a long time goes by before his regiment is called forward to battle and the fear of dying begins to set in his mind. Henry wonders if he is really brave enough for battle. Then, upon seeing the enemy for the first time, Henry’s courage fails and he flees the battlefield.

Thank you, Stephen Crane…

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The Ultimate Apocalypse

The Ultimate Apocalypse

Just in time for spring, this one comes to us from our fellow survivor, Zack Verham.

“Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves?” – The First History Man (Mad Max: Fury Road)

“And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.” – 1 John 5:11 (NRSV)

My all-time favorite book is Frank Herbert’s Dune. It’s a complete four-course science fiction buffet for nerds across the land, and it’s fundamentally post-apocalyptic. The world-building Herbert undertakes is extravagantly meticulous, and the universe as it stands when the…

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A Rabbi and a Psychiatrist Walk into a…

A Rabbi and a Psychiatrist Walk into a…

My love language is books. If you know me for any length of time and I like you, there will probably be books arriving. I might even send you books if I don’t like you. Two that will be among the first to arrive are The Prophets and The Sabbath, both written by the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. There is much to be said of Heschel, but for my money, all you need to know about the author is communicated by the tears running down this brother’s face:

Today I was thinking, rather randomly, about something Rabbi Heschel said in…

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