In Defense of the Writer In Residence

Chera Hammons. Photo Credit: Daniel Miller

West Texas A&M University employs a writer in residence. As a WT alum, this is a source of pride when I speak about my education, but admittedly, I’m a little wistful. This position didn’t exist when I was a student there. I wish it had. Despite studying great works of literature by writers from all ages and all over the world; despite pursuing a course of study focused on writing, there wasn’t anybody from our area with whom I could have had a conversation. There were simply writers I read who lived elsewhere or in some other time. As one writer I know said as he expressed his frustration with this area: “Writers around here either languish or leave.”

Currently, the office of writer in residence is ably filled by Chera Hammons, award-winning poet, novelist, educator, and advocate for our area in the larger literary world. Recently, that position has been under scrutiny from a new administration who has to make tough budget decisions. This has me wondering about the value this position holds.

WT was founded in 1910 to train and supply teachers for the burgeoning Panhandle population. In the subsequent century, WT has increased the local human resource by training young people to specifically address the needs of our area in business, agriculture, engineering, nursing, and technology. WT also has the Sybil B. Harrington College of Fine Arts producing, among other things, writers.

Good writers, or writers of a beneficial imagination, flourish on the same resources as writers of bad imagination. For every credentialed, large-hearted Chera, there are also a hundred online commentators producing noxious reactions. Our local university should subsidize a writer, especially of Chera’s talent, to indicate that certain types of stories should be valued above others.

Ag producers are subsidized to produce five specific crops because they feed and clothe the world. One-fifth of these crops produced in America are grown in our High Plains region. The subsidies provide stability for producers to weather fluctuating markets and fickle circumstances. Surely, we believe our stories, our view of the world, would also benefit the imagination of America. The Texas Panhandle could produce a Twain, a Dickinson, and a Hawthorne if they had the margin to write without being harried by the market. Subsidizing a single writer to produce, as well as supplement the instruction of a team of professors, is a minimal investment that has far-reaching benefits for our region, and ultimately the university who made the investment.

If you’re interested in writing on Chera’s behalf, you can email Dr. Neil Terry (Provost of WTAMU), or Jessica Mallard (Dean of the Humanities).

Art does not need to be religious. There are great masterpieces that have no hint of religious transcendence. What I am suggesting is something more subtle and complex. Culture is a conversation. A vigorous culture contains different voices, often in active debate. The voice of religious faith enlarges and enlivens the overall dialectic of culture, even among non-believers, just as the voice of secular society keeps religious writers more alert and intelligent. Once you remove the religious as one of the possible modes of art, once you separate culture from the long-established traditions and disciplines of spirituality, you don’t remove the spiritual hungers of either artists or audience. You satisfy them more crudely with the vague, the pretentious, and the sentimental. The collapse of the culture that supported O’Connor and Porter, Powers and Merton, led to the culture that consumes teen paranormal romances, ghost reality shows, and internet Wiccans.

The Catholic Writer Today
Encouraging Catholic writers to renovate and reoccupy their own tradition.
Dana Gioia

From the Amarillo Daily News, October 30, 1928. Author unknown:

…One of these factions is Catholic, the other protestant. I know that Protestants pray, because I have prayed with them. And I know that Catholics pray, – and pray direct to God, – for not long since I passed by a little Catholic graveyard in the vicinity of Umbarger, Texas. It was small and its grave stones were simple and humble indeed. There, kneeling by a grave, was a man and five little children, each pair of hands in prayerful attitude, and each face lifted toward heaven. I was touched by this sorrowful scene. I asked the inhabitants of the neighborhood about it, and was told that the man is a Catholic, and that once each week he and his children repair to this little cemetery and offer prayer beside the humble grave of a departed wife and mother. 

There was a man with me who was wearing a button on the lapel of his coat with this inscription: “I am a Democrat for Hoover.” I saw him pull off that button and quietly drop it to the ground, as he remarked:

“I had but one reason for wearing that button. I will not vote against my party on account of any man’s religion or his method of worshiping God." 

The man praying by the grave was my great-grandfather, Paul Artho. The oldest of the five children in prayerful attitude was my grandmother. She was seven.

We found this newspaper clipping in my grandmother’s attic after her house burned down in February (the day before my second son was born). In that house that burned, she and I used to pray an "Our Father” over meals, and then I’d listen as she prayed for the souls of the faithful departed in their journeys through Purgatory. 

On the second day of a trek into the Sawtooth Wilderness, in Idaho, we were all invited to spend twenty-four hours by ourselves…very soon, although the day was bright and unthreatening, I was cowering in my tent. Apparently, all it took for me to become aware of the emptiness of life and the horror of existence was to be deprived of human company for a few hours…What enabled me to stick it out – and to feel, moreover, that I could have stayed alone for longer than a day – was writing.

Jonathan Franzen. “Farther Away”. The New Yorker: 18 April 2011, p. 83.

Franzen, and his friend David Foster Wallace, shared the belief that the novel (writing) is a response and antidote to loneliness. In this essay, he asserts that he was able to enter community more easily after having responded to his loneliness by writing. Franzen ends by going back to a community of sorts, after his retreat into the wilderness, with a gained understanding of his friend’s despair.

Put that next to Wallace’s most recently (post-humously) published story in the New Yorker, in which a young boy begins a years-long quest to kiss every single inch of his own body – where the boy retreats further and further away from the community into this absolute solitude. 

Question: What does this say about art? Tolstoy, an influence on Franzen, maintains that Art is a primary “means of intercourse between man and man” – that the “capacity of a man to receive another man’s expression of feeling and experience those feelings himself” is the basis of art. So for Franzen, to write (make art) is to respond to and overcome loneliness, and to experience community with man. Whereas, for Wallace, art became a way to indulge in loneliness; be utterly alone (which may speak to his intentional inaccessibility; impossible vocabulary, etc. although I’m unqualified to make a real claim there).

Andy Crouch makes the observation, in his contribution to “For the Beauty of the Church”, that God created man and culture for each other, and after the Fall, mankind exploits and perverts culture by covering himself/herself with fig leaves. “[Culture] becomes a defensive measure, an instrumental use of the world to ward off the world’s greatest threat – the threat, suddenly a threat, of being known, of trusting one’s fellow creatures and one’s Creator.” Culture can be used as an attempt to reach back to the community of Eden – pointing toward the Gospel; or culture can be exploited in order to keep from being known – a fig leaf smokescreen.

For further reading, David O. Taylor has an interesting article on the development of artists in community here.