"This is not a 'How To' book," Pat Schneider writes in the notes to How the Light Gets In, "it is an invitation to a reader to look over my shoulder as I do the thing itself: write as a spiritual practice. In that way I hope it can act as a guide for individual writers, an example of using one's own life story to trace the presence of mystery and the outlines of grace." I had planned on reading her how-to book Writing Alone and with Others, in preparation for the fiction-writing class I'll be teaching high school seniors in the fall, but instead I was drawn to this book, which has fewer lessons (but not none) for teachers of creative writing.
At times it borders on straight memoir, actually, giving us a glimpse into the way Schneider uses writing as a way to understand her own past. The images she returns to in the practice she likens to prayer are all from her troubled upbringing: the peach tree under which she was "saved" into the church, the roaches in the sour bottles of milk in her tenement home in St. Louis, the bed in the orphanage. And we get to see the construction of some very wonderful poems out of these images in real time.
How the Light Gets In is less a book of instruction than a book of wisdom. It's separated into chapters that deal with broad experiential concepts--death, the body, freedom, joy--in which Schneider uses the writing process to explore these things and how they touch in her own life. (The poignancy of which is all amplified by her advanced age--though I am pleased to say she's still around and alive.) The content overlaps with the practice. For Schneider, writing itself is a kind of prayer in which she approaches what, having fallen out with her fundamentalist upbringing, calls only "the mystery." I was particularly struck by the chapter on "Strangeness":
Writing about writing, I have been exploring what I think I already know. But writing about mystery, I have tried neither to teach nor preach. I have tried to constantly veer away from that which is familiar and known, toward that which is just beyond my grasp. In writing, this is most commonly done in story and in metaphor. I have met strangeness again and again as I have been writing this book. Trying to describe strangeness is--forgive me!--strange. It requires story. It requires metaphor.
What a brief and lucid defense of the entire idea of literature! I want to frame it and hang it on my classroom wall. It resonates with Marilynne Robinson's assertion that the universe keeps showing itself to be stranger than we ever imagined. And this chapter, I think, I hope, presented to me a solution to a problem I had been having with the ending of the novel I've been writing. When I put it on paper I will let you know.
There are a few key moments I know I'll want to share with my students. One is Schneider's simple "acid test for the health of any group, class, or workshop one might try: When I leave, do I feel more like writing, or less like writing?" Another is an exercise in which she encourages her students to begin by considering the language of their own upbringing, because "we must first learn to recognize and value the strengths and the beauty in our languages of origin, and in our ability to tell our own stories in our own voices." I think that's a beautiful idea, and a spiritual one, linked to the assertion of the God-image in every person, though that's not the language I would ever use in the classroom.
The lessons I take for my own writing are much more difficult, perhaps impossible, to articulate. They might begin with admiration for Schneider's bravery in writing about her own experience, and the double bravery of writing about the writing process, which for me is secret and often embarrassingly messy. They also contain a deep sympathy for the idea of writing as a form of prayer, a way of approaching that for which ordinary didactic language has no words. This is a book I know I'll return to.