Thursday, October 23, 2014

Letter to a young writer

Having received a friendly inquiry this morning from an aspiring young author regarding the willow imagery in The Secret of Salix Babylonicus, I thought I would share my response [though not his full name or the content of his e-mail].

Dear Nick: 

Thank you for your e-mail. It is always good to hear from an aspiring writer. Your research and writing sound very interesting. 

It is certainly heartening to know that Salix Babylonicus has been noticed, and I'm grateful you took the time to inquire about it. 

I confess I am not as familiar with the far eastern view of the willow as I am with its near eastern portrayal in the Bible, and its role in English literature (Graeme, Tolkein). My own interest basically proceeded from two primary angles: (1) personal experience, and (2) biblical narrative and the particularly poignant symbol of the willow as mentioned in one of the imprecatory psalms (Psalm 137), notable for the description of Jewish exiles in Babylon, unable to sing because of their grief, hanging up their harps in the trees, and for the startling outburst of rage against their captors, in which they declare happy those who will take the children of the Babylonians and dash them against the rocks. It is a starkly angry moment in Scripture that has proved difficult for many theologians to reconcile with their sense of Judeo-Christian ethics.

In the first instance, I had good memories of a willow in our side yard, which inspired a poem on the same topic, "Psalm 1" in The Just, Quiet Wind, and which I set to music on The Word in the Wind (CD). It was "a great climbing tree" which I came to regard as a personal friend, or less extravagantly, as a good hiding place. But it was also an ambiguous character. One year the roots got into the sewer, and our basement was flooded with ... well, you can imagine. 

As a pastor serving in my first church, the subject of willows came up and I heard a friend dismiss them as a pest, basically a "weed," he said, for this very reason: they are such a thirsty tree, normally located by streams, but also able to wreak havoc with domestic plumbing. I found myself leaping to the defense of the willow. About that time I was taking a course on narrative preaching and theology; this found me (1) thinking through the work of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann on the Psalms, who has always advocated for the Psalms as highly cathartic literature, in which one is often shocked to find the psalmist expressing all sorts of anger and frustration to God ... on the way to a clearer head; and (2) wrestling with that particular Psalm 137, about which I remembered an old song from the musical Godspell, entitled, "On the Willows" (c. 1971). As a preacher I was trying to work out just what in the world such an angry psalm was doing in the church's lectionary (the schedule of texts on which preachers preach), for it seemed at odds with the general tenor of Christian teaching: "turn the other cheek," "love your enemies," etc. But it had also inspired that lovely ballad or lament that I had remembered so well. 

So I wrote Salix in the mid 1990s as a way of trying to reconcile these questions, and the willow played a basically friendly role in that process, as a pastoral counselor or non-judgmental listener. The heuristic moment for me came when I went to my own pre-Wikipedia source, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and found the Latin genus name, and discovered the etymological connection — Tolkein, a linguist, was big on this sort of thing — between the name salix and the compound derived from its harvesting: salicylic acid, a key ingredient in pain reliever. The irony was palpable. We cut down these beautiful trees and grind them up to make pain relievers, when if we simply stopped and looked at them, accepted their invitation to their quiet shade, stepped beneath their drooping branches and the "tent" or the shelter they provide, and considered their name: "weeping willow"—perhaps we might find a safe place to pour out all our grief, our tears, our pain, our frustration, and do so without fear of judgment. But no, we kill them and turn them into pills. Hence, the willow in Salix becomes a sort of Christlike, self-sacrificial character. 

There is a stream of thought in biblical theology (from a Reformed Protestant perspective) that views the psalms as the songs of the Holy Spirit, and this too became a point of leverage in Salix Babylonicus, enabling me to draw the story forward through New Testament times and into the present day, so that it might offer comfort to widows, orphans, the persecuted, the oppressed, or anyone who may be, as Bruce Cockburn so eloquently put it, "swollen up with unshed tears, bloated like the dead." 

Thanks again for your question. It was fun to go back over all this and reconstruct the thought process. As I recall, that is pretty much how it came together. 

With every good wish for your fruitful labors as an author. 



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