“The part you must jettison is not only the best-written part; it is also, oddly, that part which was to have been the very point. It is the original key passage, the passage on which the rest was to hang, and from which you drew the courage to begin.” Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
As I complete edits on my doctoral thesis, I was stupefied to trip over this nugget several weeks ago. A month or so earlier, I heeded the wise advice of my supervisor and ripped out an entire section of a chapter that I had written and formed the whole motivation for my research and writing. It was agonising, and even though that work was at once the genesis and culmination of what I was writing towards, it was the right move. Though a valuable piece of research and writing, it does not “fit” into the thesis as it stands. It has another place in which it can stand on its own merits – but not in the thesis on which I’ve worked so hard for many years.
Lent is upon us, and I’m drawn back to Annie Dillard’s thought over and over again the last week or so. In recent years, the age-old practice of self-denial and fasting from a particular enjoyment has, in many communities, been approached differently. Rather than view Lent as a time of sacrifice in this season of preparation, a suggestion is to add something healthy or positive to our daily life. The idea is that by adding something good to our lives, whether it be spiritual reading, taking a daily thematic photo or committing to a particular health routine, we must give something up, something extraneous and unnecessary, to make room for the new addition.
There have been years in which my approach to Lent, to give something up, has been to consider Lent as something of a chore. Something to be endured, a prolonged period during which I faithfully swore off chocolate, diet soda or some other item I enjoyed, only to look forward to Easter when I could add it back into my life again guilt-free. And, when I’ve taken the positive approach, adding something new and beneficial has, too often, just been adding one more thing in an overcrowded life.
However, this year, in light of Dillard’s quote, I have considered what it is I need to sacrifice in order to find life — as I did when I jettisoned part of my chapter, parts of my thesis which were (and still are) my favourite bits. How does self-denial allow for the addition of something good? How does fasting bring about wholeness? What parts of me must be cleansed in order for God to do a new work in me? Maybe in approaching Lent differently, there will be a different outcome – something more lasting and true.
“Create in me a clean heart, O God. And renew a right spirit within me” Psalm 51:10