Learning to be a Steward

by Guest Blogger March 06, 2013

Ruminate Dinner & Retreat 2012 by Aubrey Allison
Last September, at the beginning of a new school year of writing classes, I had the opportunity to fly up to Fort Collins, Colorado, for Ruminate's annual Dinner & Retreat weekend. I got to meet my fellow interns, shake hands with the Ruminate contributors I’d been emailing, and take pictures and video of the events (you can watch the video below). Most of all, I got to be in the same room with a bunch of interesting, engaging people and listen to them say things. And take notes.

I looked through my folded-up pages of notes today, and I found things like, “Poetry: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts and don’t you forget it,” and this line from a Li-Young Lee poem: “Birds don’t alter space; they reveal it.”

But what stood out as the scrawled little reminder that has proved most significant was this paraphrase of something our guest speaker, Marilyn McEntyre, said: “You named it, but you didn’t nail it. There is a silence behind the word. An unnameable mystery.”

In my college education so far, this idea has come in forms such as deconstruction theory in my History of Literary Criticism class, or in a New Media Art professor’s musings that an installation involving online users’ “I am” statuses reveals the ultimately unnameable nature of a person.

In the college classes I’ve been part of — especially during lectures on Derrida — this recognition can feel like futility, like a kind of dead end. If we’re never going to capture anything anyway, what are we doing? If this does not force an aspiring creative writer to turn around and try for ad copy writing instead, it at least makes her feel insecure about her aspirations.

How, then, when Marilyn McEntyre said we can name a thing but never nail it, was she not closing off the possibility of meaningful language, but rather opening language up?

The distinction came in McEntyre’s theme for her speech at the Feasting Toward Beauty dinner: we are stewards. At the Ruminate retreat, the writers, readers, and artists around me saw themselves in training for stewardship rather than for mastery.

When our job is to be a steward of language instead of its master, we can let go of outcomes, of the myth of coverage. Someone at the retreat said and I wrote down: “You’ll alight somewhere, look around, offer some observations, and that’s all you’ll be able to do.”

This is not to say that there is nothing demanding about stewardship. Along with the words of T.S. Eliot: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business,” I also have a page of notes full of imperatives to not allow our distillations to become reductions, not allow simple to become simplistic, and to really listen.

Being a steward of words calls for an attentiveness to them: we don’t just use language; we tend to it. When language has been contaminated and co-opted, for example, as by political memes—maybe we need to let the words lie fallow for a while. This agricultural metaphor contrasts with some of the other ways I am liable to think about writing, especially when a personal essay is an assignment. It can become a puzzle or a formula—I need a concrete example here, some vulnerability there. Or words can become weapons of rhetoric—choose the word with the sharpest connotations, place it strategically.

These ways of thinking about writing have value to them. But they’re not the same as that phrase I wrote in my notes: “let words lie fallow for a while.” This makes me imagine words not as objects I can hold, but as fields, as expanses out of which life grows.

In my months of classes since the Ruminate Dinner & Retreat, all the thoughts I managed to absorb from that weekend have stayed with me, and they have been edifying. This year I will graduate with a BFA in Writing. But my expectation now is not that I will at some point reach an elusive master status and an ownership of language. Instead, I will continually become a more capable steward of the names of unnameable mysteries.


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