On Sunday, I had the honor of speaking before the United Church of Christ in Campbell. What a beautiful building! And I had the pleasure of meeting some very nice people.
When I was invited to come and speak to this congregation, I thought this would be an easy gig. After all, over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about creativity and God. I have a lot of ideas on the subject.
It has turned out rather more challenging than I expected. I think one’s relationship with God is extremely personal, so coming up with a way of describing it has been an interesting challenge. So, thank you.
I was raised an Episcopalian, which you probably know is the American version of the Anglican faith, the Church of England, the one Henry VIII made up when he wanted a divorce.
In preparing to give this talk, I was reminded of the Anglican minister over a century ago who was asked to preach before Queen Victoria. He was pretty nervous so he went to the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, and asked for advice.
Disraeli said, “If you preach for 40 minutes, Her Majesty will be bored. If you preach for 20 minutes, she will be pleased. If you preach for 10 minutes, she will be delighted. “Yes,” he said, “Very well, but what can I talk about in ten minutes?” “That will be a matter of indifference to Her Majesty.”
So, as your visiting lay Anglican, “indifference” and “ten minutes,” make a pretty low bar. I will try to do better than that.
My reference points are pretty much Euro-centric, as my way of seeing the world comes out of my study of European history. I was also brought up with God as the father. I experimented while I was working on this with changing the pronoun, but that seemed odd to me, I’m not used to it. So I hope you will excuse my traditionalism.
I have been a writer all my life. Some of my earliest memories are thinking up stories, and then acting them out. When I learned to write, I wrote them down. By the time I turned fourteen I knew that my purpose, what I was here for, was to be a writer.
I read some advice that Alex Haley, the author of Roots, gave to would-be writers. He said, write two pages a day for two years. It doesn’t matter what you write about, just write two pages a day. This turned out to be very practical. If you write two pages a day, the physical act of writing, becomes effortless. You stop being aware of it.
I committed to writing a minimum of two pages a day, every day, before I slept, and I kept that up for about 35 years. In that time there were maybe five days when I didn’t write two pages a day. If I didn’t have a play or a book or a story I was working on, I wrote in a journal. Keeping a journal is a very good way of practicing writing. You are reporting the important events of your day to yourself. If you do it truthfully, and without exaggeration, you end up mining your own life and your own emotional integrity, and that is the best possible practice for being a writer.
Writing, being a writer, was very much tied up with my relationship with God. That’s a little hard to talk about it.
I had this idea, that this is what I was for, what my life was for, I was here to be a writer. The reason that it is embarrassing is the assumption I made in the wake of my offering to God. Here is my life, I will spend it for this purpose. In return, I will be a great writer. And I will be a successful writer. You see the hole in my thinking. But I kept my bargain.
When I was fourteen I had an accident, hurt my knee and ended up in the hospital. The first time I’d been badly hurt. Scared myself. A few weeks later I had what the Buddhists call a Kensho experience, a moment of enlightenment, where you see the world with your spiritual eyes, and feel this connection to God. Something like that. I don’t remember the exact circumstances. I know I’d been writing poetry, which is like mainlining inspiration, heady stuff. And it was the middle of the night, and it was pouring rain. And there may have been dancing in the back yard. And after that there was a lot of babbling and writing long into the night. Scared my Mom. But I was ecstatic.
What I remember is a sudden understanding of how very, very short our time is. Of course I was fourteen so my time here had been extremely short. So here we are in this very brief span of time, and what a miracle it is that we are here, and now, and human. And that of all the people who have come before, and are not here not, and all the people that will come later, and are not here now, we are the ones who are sharing this time together. I am sharing my time here with you and you and you, and we need to honor the people we are here with. We’re here, right now, we’re in this together. This is a miracle. This is a very good lesson for an introvert.
I wrote my first play when I was in 6th grade. My whole class was in it. We performed it before the school, and then we were told we had to perform it again the next day because everyone liked it so much.
I wrote a play in high school and submitted it to a contest. It won and was published, and a few years later it was picked up by a theater to be produced. By then I was on my junior year abroad at the University of Lancaster in England. They flew me back to Iowa for a few days, to see my play performed.
I had a ceramics teacher in college who told me he never knew a creative person who wasn’t creative in many directions, but what you end up focusing on is what you are first rewarded for. So that may be why I got so serious about playwriting. Then again, it’s the theater. Theater for me, is magical.
By the time I finished college I had written fourteen plays and three novels. I had it all planned. I would support myself as a teacher, and write on the side. I was accepted to the Claremont graduate school to get a master’s in teaching. I was set.
My senior year I was writing a novel as an independent study with the head of the English department. I walked into her office to make an appointment when she was sorting her junk mail. She had a flyer in her hand that was on the way to the trash can when she saw me, and handed it to me instead. It said “send us your actors, your directors, and your playwrights,” to the MFA program in drama at Rutgers University. So I applied there. I was accepted, and they gave me a full scholarship, I was a Levin scholar. And off I went. To New Jersey.
At the Mason Gross School of the Arts I took acting with the actors, directing with the directors, scene design with the designers, and playwriting. Before me, every playwright in the program had come in with a play that got them admitted, and worked on it until they gave up on it, wrote a couple short plays, and then another full length play that became their master’s thesis. I wrote seventeen plays in three years, and sixty-six drafts of nine of them. I had three productions of my plays, won the Cabbie Award for Best Script. And in my last year a play of mine was optioned by a theater company in New York to be produced the next year as a workshop. Can you see why I thought I was on a short leash from God?
Through a friend, I knew a man who had been hired to be the librarian at the Episcopal Seminary in New York City. The seminary is in Chelsea, just eight blocks from where my play was being produced, and his family offered me house room for the duration. So I lived in Manhattan for the six months of pre-production and production, in the garret of their house, and walked down to the theater six days a week.
Since I am an Episcopalian, and it was the Episcopal seminary, I took full advantage of the experience. I went to Morning Prayer every day, noon Eucharist, sung evensong, and every night at our house we had the compline service before bed. I learned all the words by heart.
Some people need the act of worship. It feeds us in some way. I still go to the Episcopal Church sometimes, just for that reason. In the Middle Ages, when you were given land to hold by your lord, the lord would cut out a piece of the soil, and give it to you, as a symbol of what you were to hold. Communion, for me, is taking seizin from God, of my bit of the earth, my life.
I met a lot of future priests. Many of them told me that when they decided to study for the priesthood, they had chosen between acting, or the theater, and God. And they liked to point out to me that by choosing God, they had gone with the longest running play in the history of the world. The mass has been performed every day for over two thousand years now, and ritual is theater. All the forms of theater began in the church. The original purpose of theater is to call down the gods. And then it got kicked out for being too fun.
At the seminary many of the top hierarchy of the church came through. As a matter of fact, when Bishop Tutu won the Nobel Prize, he was staying at the Episcopal seminary. It had happened just a few months before I got there, and they still talked about it. The way they announced that he won was by arriving at the seminary with a huge bouquet for him.
The Episcopalians, at least at the seminary, are very tolerant of heretics. I am a heretic. The word of god is set, it is this, so if you think this, and get carried away by it, you’re a heretic.
One’s relationship with God isn’t static. It goes through phases. Sometimes you can be really close, sometimes you move away. Sometimes you decide God isn’t there at all.
Atheists say there is no God. If they’re right, then, fine. It’s a correct description of the universe. If they’re wrong, then essentially their standing in a room with this infinite being going “you’re not there, I don’t see you, you’re not there.” But turning away and ignoring someone is still a relationship. Sometimes it’s a very healthy relationship, as many of us have found with some special family members. If there is a God, then every being is in a relationship with him. Even if the relationship is that one of us is ignoring the other.
The Episcopal seminary in Chelsea is whole square block, with the buildings built around a close. There’s an entry way through a lobby, into a courtyard surrounded by three-story houses, the chapel, the library, the refectory, the paths across the close. No one ever comes through the doors into the close without going, Aaahhh. New York is noisy, crowded, smelly. You walk through those doors into a courtyard of peace and beauty.
Not many years before I lived there, is was not allowed for women to walk in the close. There are tunnels under the close, so that the women could get from one part of the seminary to another, without walking across the grass. Heretics bore their own tunnels. They walk up the sides of the buildings. They look for their own views. Someone has to.
By the time I finished graduate school I understood that I couldn’t be a writer on the side. Writing is thinking. Thinking first, then writing. It is the cultivation of the world of the mind. The physical world is a distraction. Working full time would keep me concentrated in the physical world far too much of the time. I couldn’t work full time, and think on the side. It wouldn’t leave me enough time to think. So instead of getting a job and writing on the side, I wrote, and supported my habit with temporary jobs. That’s what I’ve done all my life.
The general belief is that to write a book or a play or a screenplay, you need an idea. You get a great idea, and then you write the play. That isn’t how it works. You get a great idea, and that is going to be the main problem of the story, the overall plot line. Great. Now, you need all the characters that will inhabit this story, their back stories, the arc of their journey through the story, and developing each of those characters takes more ideas. Then you need each of the scenes that is going to carry the story from the starting point, to the first turn, to the series of events that will carry the main characters through to the climax, and the ending. When you pick up a book, or see a movie or play, you are looking at a conglomeration of hundreds of ideas, woven together in a purposeful pattern.
If you are planning to write a book, and you have a great idea, want you want then is another great idea, and another and another. Take three or four great ideas, and the wider apart they are, like an orphaned giraffe, a disaffected soldier, a woman running from her abusive boyfriend, you put all these together and you will have a rich and interesting story. Not just one idea but a bucket of them, a wide breadth of them, so when you braid them together it will be full of surprising textures and events, colors and passions.
The book is like the tip of the iceberg for a whole lot of thinking.
So after doing that all these years, this is how I see the world. I live here, behind my eyes, and I look out at the physical world, the world that I take in with my senses, I see it, hear it, taste it, touch it, feel it. But right here is also the crossroads for the world of the mind, which I explore with my thoughts, and where I build cities or sometimes whole planets, and inhabit them with all kinds of beings.
The physical world is infinite. I can step out into it, and there will always be another step to take, another direction to go. The world of the mind is infinite as well. You can never get to the end of it.
It used to be that people thought that the physical world had an end. Sometimes it was the sky, or the mountains, or the ocean. At the end of the world, that is where we put god. Above the sky, on top of the mountains, beyond the sea, there was god. And this limitation became dogma within the church. The earth is the center of the universe, the sun revolves around the earth, the stars revolve around the earth as well in parallel spheres of perfect harmony. Then Galileo got his telescope and took a look. This sent paroxysms through the Church, which pushed back hard to sustain their dogma. But what about God? What about the Creator?
The god I imagine is all-powerful, all-knowing, infinite. The creator of the universe. And what is creation for if not to delight and amaze? To increase yourself to your utmost limits? To discover how far you can go? So when Galileo picked up his telescope and saw the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, and how the solar system revolves around the sun, God must have been going yeah, see that, see what I did, that is so cool.
Where better to look for the creator, than in the creation?
I did temp work for about ten years to support my writing, and then I got into substitute teaching, which led to longer-term teaching gigs. At one point I taught 4th Grade for a year at Trace Elementary School in San Jose. We had a very strong bilingual program, teaching the curriculum in Spanish. I wondered about that. I thought, if kids are going to learn English, doesn’t immersion work best? Many people have said, they come to America, they learn the language in about two years, and make a success of things from there. Why teach in Spanish? Doesn’t that slow the process down?
I asked one of the bilingual teachers about that and she said yes, immersion works very well, if you are well-educated in your own language. The kids who need to be taught in Spanish are ones who came to her classroom with only a few hundred vocabulary words in their own language. You have to teach them ten thousand words of Spanish, before they can learn them in English. If there is no word for something, you cannot think it. It won’t translate.
Judaism began about 2500 years ago when God attempted to explain everything to some very bright shepherds. “Four billion years ago I made the earth.” “Four? Four hundred year? That’s a long time.” “No, more than that.” “Five hundred?” “No. Much more. Way more.” “Six hundred? Six thousand? Six thousand years?”
If God was explaining to these guys how long ago the earth was created, the shepherds may just not have had a word for billion. Thousand may have been the largest number they could conceive. Trying to explain the creation to people who didn’t know any physics, biology, chemistry, and astronomy, to people whose claim to scholarship was that they were literate, I think caused a great deal to be left out of the story of the Creation. Probably, almost all of it. A lot of what is objectionable today in the Old Testament, the stuff about destroying the enemies of the Jews, and the laws that must be followed to stay right with God, that don’t make sense today, like never wearing two kinds of fibers, or having to marry your husband’s brother if your husband dies, or stoning people, sound today like they were shaped by the political needs of the writer, rather than being a mainline inspiration from God. So the Old Testament, while it has some beautiful writing and some interesting stories, doesn’t seem like the best interface with the Creator of the Universe.
Then, five hundred years later, there was a reset when Jesus came to tell us, love God, and love one another, and that is the law and the prophets.
If scripture is the communication between human beings and God, then I think the language that the next scripture will be written in, is mathematics. Mathematics is a symbolic language for describing the physical world. It is a language in which, if you make no mistakes, you can only speak the truth. Your truth may not be complete, but it will be an exact description of the creation.
Using the language of mathematics we are in the process of describing the universe truthfully. Once an element is described by mathematics, scientists follow after and make experiments until they demonstrate its truth. String theory, described by mathematics, has lately postulated that there are twenty-six co-existing dimensions. And our minds expand to take in this new understanding.
I started out writing plays, and did that for about 35 years. Committing your life to something when you are 14 is not always the smartest thing you can do. It took me all those years to figure out that only about eight playwrights a year make a living. And of those eight, they all probably live in New York City. And I don’t. And I don’t want to. Script writing took me to screenwriting, which took me to writing for video games, and webisodes. Nowadays I write novels, because it’s still storytelling, and a lot of people do make a living at novel writing. A lot more than eight a year, in any case.
My heart is still in the theater, though. Why? Because theater is alive. People come to the theater, they sit in expectation, the actors come out, and they take on the aspect of characters in the most important moments of their lives, the moments that change them forever. If you write your play correctly, you can take everyone in the room on that journey. When you hold them rapt, they live the experience through the minds of the characters. A room full of people, all living inside the minds of the characters I have made. In many ways I feel like a stranger in this world. But in the theater, for a little while, a whole roomful of people dwell in my world. You can hold them enchanted, change their minds, and break their hearts. It is intoxicating.
When the play is working, there is energy coming from the audience to the stage, and from the actors on the stage to the audience, and when the play is working, there is a gyre, you can feel it. It spins, slowly. This happens in church, too. Church services create the same energy.
So. We all live in the physical world, and the mind world at the same time.
Originally, the job of defining and cultivating the world of the mind belonged to the church. Back in the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, when you had starving peasants slaving over the land, and warriors fighting to hold the land, or steal more land, or steal everything, and almost no one was literate, what learning their was, was found in the Church. And they told people how to think. This is how you should think about the world, this is how you should think about God, this is how you speak to God, here are the words to say. These are the questions that you can ask, and these are the answers to those questions. Now you know everything you need to know.
The fact is, the world of the mind does need to be cultivated. So some guiding pathways through the infinite expanse of your mind are helpful. What you don’t have words for, you cannot conceive or understand. The church defended its territory within peoples’ minds with stringent barricades, and threats of consorting with evil, and hellfire and damnation. Think this, and you’re a good person, think that, and you’re a bad one. And we may have to burn you. But the limits had to fit the smallest minds in the congregation, one size fits all, so I am glad those days are over, for us here, at any rate.
And nowadays we have many more sources than the Church for cultivating our minds. It used to be humans told or sang stories around the fire. Now, storytelling has metastasized into theater, books, film, the music industry, television, the internet. We are inundated by forces telling us how to think, what to think. Many of those forces are selling us things. There have never been so many stories.
But the world of mind, just as the physical world, is a realm of God. God being the infinite creator of all things, then there is no realm that is not of God. As far as you go in your mind, God is there. There is nothing that I can think that God has not thought.
There is nothing new in defining God as being part of all things, or for looking for the Creator in the Creation. Nor in trying to see things the way God sees them.
When I have a finished draft of a play, I can see the whole thing at once. The beginning, that set my characters on their journey. The middle, where events complicate their lives. The climax, where they are changed forever. I can look at the whole thing all at once and see, okay, this needs to change here, because then this will line up better here. This doesn’t make sense so it needs to be cut. The whole story exists all at once. When the play goes up, it runs, moment by moment, across time, consecutively. But I can see it all at the same time.
God must see the universe the same way. We go through our lives moment by moment, through time, but for God, time is and is not, simultaneously. God sees it all at once, the whole multidimensional tapestry, alpha to omega, one great design. One glorious creation.
I need God to see it that way.
Here are the books I have written. This one was published five years ago, this was published last year. All these years later, here they all are. Exactly as written. And so they will be, until they disintegrate. Books are pretty permanent.
Plays aren’t like that. I’ve had about thirty productions of my plays. The run, one performance, ten performances, thirty-six performances. And they’re gone. As though they never happened at all. But God sees them. Every moment. The beginning, in darkness, the lights come up on a character, doing something, and a major problem about to sweep her away into desperate choices, tense decisions, laughter, hopes desire, appalling consequences, surrender, absolution, and redemption. Peace, and joy. And then again, the darkness. And the applause. They are gone. But God sees them. Every moment.
The work I did still lives, because God sees it. The little time that we share here, is eternal. We are a part of God’s creation, a part of the glorious tapestry, and all that we do and say and think is an expression of God’s creation. And thus we dwell, now and forever, in the mind of God.
God bless us, every one.