Faith and the Writer: When Life Meets Art: Dinah Lenney at TEDxUSC

Translator: Tanya Cushman
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven I want to talk to you about
the relationship between art and life and how they influence each other. And starting with real life: My friend Kitty and I
used to hike up to Dante’s peak, which is up above
the Griffith Park Observatory. And from up there, on a smog-free day,
you can see all the way to the Angeles Crest on one side
and to the Pacific Ocean on the other. It is the most spectacular view; it could give you religion. It could. However, it strikes me
as an accident of nature; a conspiracy on the part
of geography and climate and time. Whereas, for me, human beings
reaching out to each other the way we do – whining and moaning
and wailing and sputtering – to bring that view to words,
or pictures, or music … that might be evidence
of something really divine. So, this is my way of admitting to you
that I am spiritually challenged. It’s not that I don’t appreciate
the natural wonders of the world. I do. It’s just that I’m looking to people –
to art and not religion, that is – to make sense of it for me. So, for example, take the full moon.
It’s breathtaking, right? And Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”
brings it close, reveals that moon to me, makes me think about it in ways
that I wouldn’t otherwise. Or trees. If I were inclined
to walk by a tree and not notice how remarkable it is,
I only have to look at a painting, by Cezanne or Pissarro,
and I remember how I feel about trees. And, here’s a good example for you: middle age. See, for those of you
who don’t know this yet, middle age is a kick in the ass. (Laughter) But you read about it in Tolstoy
or Virginia Woolf or Alice Munro, and you’re almost delighted
to be a member of the club. (Laughter) The point is, it’s the human urge
to mark and share the moment, via words and pictures and performance, that for me, inspires awe, and even faith. The question is,
where does this urge come from? What’s it all about? And as a writer and a teacher of writing, I’m inclined to try
to figure it out from that angle. Joan Didion famously said, “We tell ourselves stories
in order to live.” And I think it is true. We love stories, don’t we? We crave beginnings and middles and ends. We want to imagine that our lives
have an arc and a shape and that we can make sense of them
as we live them. See, I was one of those kids: my head,
my whole self was always in a book. I was Heidi. I was Peter Pan – and Wendy. And Charlotte, and Fern, and Wilbur. I was Robinson Crusoe
and I was Holden Caulfield, too. When I touched back down in real life,
with my real family and my real house, I wanted a story, naturally. I wanted burning buildings
and sinking ships. And high stakes and romance. I wanted to imagine my parents in love. And in peril. And so, one day,
I walked into the master bedroom, my mother was in there,
filing her nails on the big bed, and I asked her,
“Mom, did Daddy save you?” Well, she looked at me funny.
She stopped filing her nails. She said, “Did he save me? Honey, what are you talking about?
What do you mean?” “When you met him, did he save your life?” She went back to filing her nails. “Certainly he did,” she said,
“I was starving; he took me to dinner.” (Laughter) “That’s all? That is all?” How not to take ordinary life for granted, how to give our experience
weight and heft, how to prove that it matters. Well, Tolstoy wrote
that art is a means of intercourse. And he explained that it connects the audience, the viewers
and the listeners and the readers, not only with the artist,
but with each other, with anyone and everyone
who ever experienced that art, whatever it is. So, for me, the answer
might have something to do with the experience of art
as a way of reaching out and connecting with each other. And what do we want? Well, as with any relationship,
we want to be known. We want to see ourselves reflected. We want answers, sure,
but if we can’t have answers, at least we want to know that other people
are asking the same questions, right? We human beings, woe is us,
we have this two-pronged problem: One, we know we’re not getting
out of here alive. (Laughter) Two, we can remember. That means we can track
and account for every loss and failure every step of the way to death. But, memory and mortality
turn out to be motivating, I think. They make us want to pay attention. They make us want
to figure out why we’re here and how to live and leave some evidence
of that effort behind, with the idea that redemption,
if not immortality, might be in the offing. So, speaking of redemption – about the same time that I asked my mother
whether or not my dad had saved her, I ran into a spot of trouble. I was in third or fourth grade,
so I was eight or nine years old, and one day, I walked home from school
with two terrible boys, Howard and Doug. As previously, and secretly, arranged, we walked right by my front door
on Fellsmere Road, up the hill, across the street to Howard’s house, went down into his basement,
which was remote and windowless, and there I did as I promised because those bad boys said
they’d say I did it, if I didn’t. So, I lifted my polka dot sundress and I showed them my underwear. (Laughter) Which, I must tell you,
were not all that much to look at – white, high-waisted,
Carter’s, full coverage. (Laughter) So then, said Doug – the real bad boy,
the instigator – he said, “If you don’t show us everything,
we’re really going to tell.” And so I did. I pulled down my panties
and then I pulled them back up, and I walked home all alone,
and once there, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep,
I couldn’t read, I couldn’t do my homework. I couldn’t think of anything else. The agony of that secret and the shame, and the consequential urge
to spill the beans and so be purged, it was excruciating. See, I intuited that my way to relief
was to tell my story in my own way and my own time. So, knowing nothing of Catholicism,
this was my first confession, told to my mother, at bedtime, with her cigarette
doing loop de loops in the dark. And wanting to keep her there,
I told it in full and humiliating detail. And when I was finished,
she told me she loved me and I was good. And so I was able to sleep. I’ve been confessing ever since. (Laughter) It should come as no surprise to anybody
that eventually I wrote a memoir, only that it took me so long. My book is about
my relationship with my dad, and what you need to know
is that fifteen years ago, he was murdered
in a robbery gone very wrong. It was horror and grief
that got me writing – wanting to comprehend
the incomprehensible. But though the crime was the catalyst, it turns out not to be the main event
of the book, which, like so many
in this genre, is mostly about me – my attempt to make an arc,
to tell a true and meaningful story. I’m, therefore, surprised,
and a little embarrassed, when people offer me condolences
after they’ve read. “But, did you like it?”
I want to ask them, “Did you like the writing?” See, even though
the book is mostly about me, I’m dying to know that I created
something that touches you. And there’s another question that gnaws,
and I suppose it will gnaw for all time, although I’m insisting
on this relationship between art and life and the notion that they
illuminate each other. Is it okay that I use the events
of my father’s life to make sense of my own? And, even more than that, is it okay
that I’ve entirely reinvented myself since his death? Did my father have to be killed
for me to become the person I am today? And the really uncomfortable and difficult
answer to that question is yes. Yes, absolutely. You cannot have one
without the other. What choice do we have but to integrate
our experiences into our stories? We tell ourselves stories
in order to live. So, I want to tell you just one more. A few years ago, I took my daughter
to a screening of “Atonement,” with Vanessa Redgrave on board,
for a Q & A afterwards. Eliza was sixteen at the time,
and she had a question. She was a little bit too shy
to ask it herself so she scribbled it on a receipt
I found in the bottom of my purse, and I agreed to ask it for her. Maybe some of you remember the movie – it was quite faithful
to the novel by Ian McEwen. It begins with a little girl, Briony,
and she’s a storyteller. She tells a whopper of a lie.
It destroys a couple of lives. She grows up to be a novelist –
Vanessa Redgrave – and in her effort to atone, she gives
those people whose lives she ruined, a fictional happy ending. And Eliza’s question – I memorized it, I keep that little receipt tacked to
the bulletin board above my desk at home – she wanted to know, and I’m quoting her, if Vanessa Redgrave had played Briony as somebody who is
redeemed by the writing, or a coward for not telling the truth? So, it was a gorgeous question. Vanessa Redgrave was stumped
in the moment. She couldn’t answer. I chalked it up to her profession. It’s very hard for us actors
to judge the characters we play. So, I tried to answer the question
in the car on the way home. And I told Eliza that confession
and atonement, as far as I know, are inventions of the human imagination and that, therefore,
there might come a time when we have to accept that redemption
might not be in the offing. But now I wonder if Vanessa Redgrave’s
response wasn’t more honest. Because there aren’t definitive answers
to these questions, are there? There’s only that view from Dante’s Peak, and the moon and trees and middle age. There’s only what we make
of personal triumph and tragedy. We, who resolve to pay attention
to each other’s stories and visions and songs and dreams,
we are consequently connected. And it’s in that connection,
in the listening and telling, in the making and receiving, in the folding life into art
and art into life, that we stand to find
some solace and reward, never mind immortality and redemption. Our witnessing is an act of faith by which we stand to be comforted and inspired and transformed, here and now. Thank you. (Applause) (Cheers)

8 thoughts on “Faith and the Writer: When Life Meets Art: Dinah Lenney at TEDxUSC

  1. Dinah – thank you for sharing this and your stories. To say that your father had to die for you to live is no understatement. I guiltily constructed a narrative of my own "orphaned" self from my mother's untimely death at 35 to shape the rest of my teenage and adult life, but hadn't quite realized it from that perpective before. It helps me so many years yet to absorb the tragedy. Again, thanks.

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