(Almost six months ago I wrote a letter to the author Richard Russo in response to his memoir Elsewhere. As yet, I have not received a response. So consider this letter to be a book review of sorts. And if you cannot tell from the letter, yes, I recommend this book wholeheartedly.)
December 12, 2012
c/o Alfred A. Knopf Publishers
New York, NY 10019
Dear Mr. Russo:
Thank you for your courage and willingness to be vulnerable in the writing of your recent memoir Elsewhere. Though a book does not seem to be part of what is known as ‘call and response’, still I feel compelled to respond to what seemed to me, a prayer.
In the last paragraph of the chapter entitled “Unsettled” you come to understand that you possess some of the same tenacious qualities that plagued your mother. You describe novel writing as triage and obstinacy, then go on to use several metaphors to illuminate a rather dark process. Though you did not intend to, in those metaphors you also portrayed a life of faith and how I have come to experience what it means to serve the Church as ordained clergy. The Church is nothing if not obsessive, at least with its own survival if nothing else. If the Church is to survive, it must live with and welcome uncertainty, experiment again and again, welcome clutter, surrender a good idea for a better one, put one foot in front of the other, and so on. And one more thing: forgive.
I’m not sure that obsession is something to be cured so much as one needs to find meaning, a purpose in which obsession can thrive and accomplish something, a magnum opus. I have always felt the need, heard the call to participate in something larger than myself. Though many of us lead small lives in small towns or big cities, our dreams long to be made visible on a wider stage. My own mother struggles with OCD but as a hoarder; she has often felt the need to find a larger purpose other than wife, mother, sister, grandmother—which I know has not been enough for her, nor for many women or myself. I too recognize some of the same traits in myself, yet I do not believe it was only dumb luck or grace that expanded our worlds as you suggested.
You and I and countless others made a conscious choice to have a different life. We put our obsessive energies into something positive— resolutely we put one foot in front of the other. Some might call it evolution. We adapted. Author Octavia Butler wrote in her book Parable of the Sower, “Prodigy is, at its essence, adaptability and persistent, positive obsession. Without persistence, what remains is an enthusiasm of the moment. Without adaptability, what remains may be channeled into destructive fanaticism. Without positive obsession, there is nothing at all.” In the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is quoted as saying, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.”
The journey for all of us is the congruency, the integrity of our inner life and our outward being, something I learned from Jenny Boylan. We were all given the ability to create, to make manifest, to bring into Being, but life has a way of thwarting us as much as it is the source of inspiration. You found the means by which your imagination, your persistence, your obsession could find a positive expression but with a good measure of humility, grace, and dumb luck, as well the choice you were compelled, perhaps called, to make: to be a writer.
Like many sinful saints before, that mystery that we name as God calls the obsessively compelled. I mean, who else is going to get the job done? Who else makes a story so engaging? We hope the pendulum is going to swing one way rather than the other but we know better and on the story will go. And on we go as well. Because we must. We can’t help it. The Bible calls it ‘steadfastness’. To me, that’s what faith is all about.
Peace be with you,
Rev. Cynthia E. Robinson