[Editor’s note: The newest addition to the Rabbit Room Press catalogue is Letters from the Mountain by Ben Palpant, a memoir of the craft of writing and living delivered as a series of letters to his daughter, Kiale. In this special piece that follows, Kiale interviews Ben about the intersections between art, vocation, family, and faith.]
Kiale Palpant: You began writing Letters from the Mountain over two years ago. What’s it like looking back at the origins of the process? And perhaps more importantly, what was the first idea or image or conversation that sparked what would eventually become this book?
Ben Palpant: I started writing emails to you when you went off to college as a way of continuing what had long been our habit of talking about the intersection of your faith and your creativity. You’ve been imitating me since you were a little girl. You’d watch me writing at my desk or corresponding with other writers or underlining in the books on my shelf. I’d find you sitting in a corner with one and writing in it with complete seriousness at the age of three or four. Just yesterday, I pulled a book off the shelf and found your old underlines throughout. At any rate, I knew that you would need more than just imitation, you would need guidance if you were to avoid my pitfalls. You have always asked such thought provoking questions. I think it was your questions about creativity and faith as much as my own desire to learn more that forced me to read so much about it. And then, what’s more natural than to pass that knowledge along? And at the end of day, who would I rather write for than my own daughter?
KP: It’s interesting hearing your side of those interactions. I mostly remember the admiration I felt for you. In a lot ways, it was inspiring getting to follow in your footsteps and have such a great role model but, as we’ve talked about before, it also came with its own set of pressures. You worked hard to make sure that I was still able to be my own person and have the freedom to explore the things that I felt called to the most without standing in your shadow. I think we’ve been able to navigate a lot of those pressures well, but I am wondering what kind of pressures exist on the other side of that relationship? Do you feel a sense of pressure or tension having a artistic daughter who imitates you? How do you handle that pressure? What is it like when you aren’t just a writer for yourself, but also a writer for me?
BP: Hmm, how honest should I be on this one? I’m not quite ready to demythologize the picture you have of your father. Of course, the myth is probably standing on one leg already. I might as well admit to feeling quite overwhelmed, especially early on. But I feel a bit awed by it even to this day. It’s not as if there are easy answers to these kinds of questions on creativity and faith. The older I get, the less confident I feel in my answers.
One of the ways that I navigated that pressure to be right in my daughter’s eyes was to offer her principles rather than simplistic answers. Principles allow us to move fluidly with wisdom rather than paint by numbers and I think this area in particular needs that kind of navigation. I wanted my letters to be helpful in navigating some of the practical difficulties that arise, but I also wanted to establish the why. Typically speaking, once we figure out the why, the how follows quite naturally.
But I might be veering from your question. The real pressure that every father feels deep down in his bones is the need to be right, to not make mistakes. Generally speaking, the temptation is threaded through every man‘s efforts. Navigating that temptation with my daughter is, I suppose, like navigating it in life. I had to throw off the desire to be praised, the longing to have my preciousness petted. I had to practice living honestly and humbly in front of you. Creativity is a hard and stumbling road up the mountain with periodic vistas to enjoy, but mostly it’s just a long, hard slog. One step and then the next. You have to put your head down and trudge forward. Life is like that, too.
You were always so observant and I knew that you would see me trip a lot. On my best days, I did not hide it from you. On my best days, I gave you a chance to see me not only fall, but get up again. That’s life, isn’t it? Quite a bit of falling on your face, but a lot of getting up again in God‘s grace to move forward in the power of his spirit. Living openly in front of people, especially one’s children, is as good a teacher as any, I suppose. But I thought it might be helpful to have something that you could physically pick up and read once I was gone, rather than relying on your memory which might fade with time. That’s a meandering and long answer. I’ll try to behave myself and stay concise in my upcoming responses.
KP: Probably mostly from watching you, but also from our conversations, I learned very early on that tripping up in life is an enormous part of creativity. But I believe a large part of your admission of failure involved not just showing me the moments of tripping up but actually celebrating them. Many of my clearest memories are from the moments when you would throw a dinner party over a rejection letter or pat me on the back when I failed an assignment. How did this reversal in technique (from being ashamed of failure to celebrating it) come about in your life? How did teaching me to celebrate failure impact your own ability to cope with it? And how does the act of failure change when it is admitted to others, especially to your daughter?
BP: Ah yes, I remember some of those celebrations! Celebrating failure was a great idea that I wish I could claim! Alas, it came from talking to successful people or reading about them. Regardless of their field, failure seemed to be a common denominator. Even the most spectacular failures proved to be steppingstones to growth.
One of the most egregious myths about successful artists is that they were born with a level of talent that the rest of us lack. Sometimes that’s true. Most of the time, however, successful artists, like any successful people, have simply finished the work that others dropped at the first sign of opposition. If a person fears failure too much (we all fear failure to some degree or another), that person will not likely accomplish much. True achievement requires not only a high tolerance for failure, but an embrace of it. I wanted my children to learn it sooner than I learned it. As you know all too well, I had high expectations for my kids, but those expectations would have strangled you if I had not embraced failure along the way. To be human is to fail. The most noble and Christlike people I know have learned to turn failure into something beautiful.
KP: Well the heart of this book is the idea that we are all traveling up a mountain, watching and following those who have come before us. You quote Antoine de Saint-Exupery at the beginning of the book when he says, “Think of those who went through it before you, and say to yourself, ‘What they could do, I can do.’” Obviously some of those people inspired this spirit of celebration, but many of them also inspired your writing and art. If you are this person for me, who are the authors and artists who have served as guides in your life?
BP: Yes, yes! I wanted you to know that you’re not alone. That’s what so many other authors have done for me. You are familiar with many of my guides already: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engel, Thomas Howard, Makoto Fujimura, and Andrew Peterson come to mind. That’s a short list of people who have encouraged me in the old sense of that word—they’ve given me courage. As far as I can tell they haven’t tried to make a name for themselves so much as give their gift away. They’ve also given me different ways to see what God has made beautiful and what I’ve been missing along the way. So they’ve helped me to think better and live better and they’ve been a good example of steady faithful productivity over a lifetime. You have your own list, I’m sure. Who have I missed on my list that you would push to the top? Who are the writers who make you feel less alone?
KP: I think this idea of giving courage is really important, and I think it connects to a second part of encouragement and mentorship that you have consistently reminded me of: gratitude. Those who have gone ahead of me have not only taught me how to have courage but have also taught me how to be grateful along the journey, both of which are essential to being able to keep your eyes focused upward on the mountain. Gratitude seems to prevent me from constantly looking down, something that’s easy for me to do when I’m afraid or unsure about who I am or what I am doing.
I think my some of my favorite authors—Rainer Rilke, Flannery O’Connor, Norman Maclean, Mary Oliver, Dostoevsky—have shown me the idea of gratefulness and courage, and the people I most admire—like you and mom, my grandparents, my teachers and professors—have shown me how to live those traits out. How do you think this dynamic between people in your life and writers you have read has looked in your life? And perhaps a second, less related question: as our relationship has developed and changed, how have our places on the mountain looked in your life? Have there ever been moments when I gave you a hand up the mountain or has it been pretty consistent? How has this felt for you?
BP: I may be misunderstanding your question about the dynamic between people in my life and authors but I think there’s a connection between the direction my parents set in my life and the authors I’m reading along the way. My parents tried to point me in the direction of the mountain and I’m trying to follow it with varying degrees of success. The authors that meant a lot to my parents have had their impact on me as well and I have added to my parents’ list as I climbed behind them.
In terms of your second question, I think there is a fluctuation in distance that’s quite natural. Early in your life, the distance was easy to see. As you’ve grown up, that distance has shrunk. There have been distinct moments when I felt that you were right on my heels and might even pass me if I didn’t keep climbing faithfully. It’s one of the most beautiful parts of parenting, to witness your children surpassing you in so many areas. Our job is to continue climbing. It’s not a race. It’s a calling. We’re simply answering the call. What are the ways that your childhood and my parenting helped you hear the call and answer it?
KP: Well I think “the call” can be interpreted in a lot of ways. That’s part of the fun in life and also a cause for quite a lot of the confusion found in trying to figure out “calling.” My childhood and your parenting clarified that calling in a couple of ways. The first one was your constant reminder that, at the root of it all, I was called to do very simple things, usually explained by Micah 6:8, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” The second thing that I found growing up was that both you and mom constantly encouraged me in any pursuit I felt drawn to at a certain age, whether that was art or writing or even science. That encouragement helped me feel comfortable with some of this uncertainty around what a calling is, helped me simply enjoy the process of figuring it out. And in the meantime, I tried to fulfill those simple commands in Micah that you both reminded me of constantly. How has being a parent helped you hear the call and answer it?
BP: I think parenting has helped me remember some of the things that I shouldn’t forget. Parenting forces the issues. I can’t very well forget the principles that I keep repeating to my children and my children tend to need those reminders on a regular basis. That doesn’t change too much with age. But yes, we feel so much pressure when it comes to “God’s calling” and much of that pressure is entirely unnecessary. Life is full of complications, but much of our calling in life is rather straightforward. I spend some effort in this book to help remind us all of some of those basics. I think by keeping the vision clear and achievable, next steps and practices are likewise more down to earth and achievable. Much of artistry comes down to just getting to work and much of the Christian life is the same. That being said, life has many competing demands and learning to prioritize is a necessary part of growing up. I can’t say I have achieved it, but having children has helped me realize that some of the urgency I felt in other areas of life could not compete with the little souls in front of me. Writing that poem or finishing that novel is important and not to be neglected in the long run, but real people in real time are far more important than the audience I may or may not have for my work. Calling and community are inseparable and we tend to find our calling by seeing the needs within our community and identifying the gifts God has given us to meet those needs.
KP: Over the years, we’ve talked a lot about how community shapes creativity and faith, but another part of our ongoing conversation has also touched on the importance of place in our creativity. For instance, rivers are really important to both of us and have dramatically shaped both our imaginations. The memories of you taking me fishing on the St. Joe River have grounded some of the most significant things that I have created and written. How do you think the place and landscape of one’s childhood contributes to creativity, or even further one’s calling? How should Christians, whether as artists or otherwise, pay attention to the place they are in? What are ways they can learn to do that well?
BP: Place plays a gigantic role in shaping us and, therefore, in shaping our creativity. Ironically, the impact is so huge that it’s practically invisible to most of us. An author I respect very much even went so far as to suggest that we are shaped by relationships and not by geography. He’s one of the wisest people I know so I feel sheepish disagreeing with him. We are, indeed, shaped by the people around us but we are also shaped by place. How can we not expect a country kid and a kid raised in a slum to be impacted differently by their surroundings? I have difficulty sleeping at night when I travel to cities because I grew up in the silence of countryside. I know people who have a hard time sleeping in the country because it’s so quiet. The quiet is too loud to them. Anyways, I think each of us is shaped by those things and what we make is colored by not only our relationships but our placeness. Someone growing up in the inner city will write differently than someone raised in the jungles of Asia and neither has an advantage over the other. They can be equally excellent.
That’s why you should embrace what Faulkner called your “little stamp of native soil.” Explore it. Maximize it. Brand it on your memory. Find in it what is beautiful and redemptive. It’s really about paying attention and we are notoriously bad at it. As an artist or writer, your job is to pay attention. Artists rarely make something entirely new; they generally just wake us up to what we have failed to see all along. This might seem tangential, but it’s worth exploring how the desire to be exceptional is connected to our desire to be someone else with someone else’s experiences rather than being content with our place and our childhood. Don’t we all feel discontented, as though we might have done something worthwhile had we been born at a different time and in a different place?
KP: Your last question, I think, is why it is so important to pay attention to the place we are in and find the aspects of it that we should listen to and let feed into us. As Mary Oliver writes in her often-quoted poem, we should “pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” That, I think, is a very succinct way of describing the way place ought to feed into creativity and how equally important it is to be content where we are. How easily our focus strays to other places or people or times that we wish we could experience. In some ways, the place we live in becomes its own being and character by influencing us. To what extent do you think place is just a context? Or does it function with its own kind of character and life and being? How does place and land function as its own kind of character within the books that you’ve read and your books in particular?
BP: I think that’s a great way of looking at our “little postage stamp of native soil.” It is its own character in our lives, touching us and shaping us in unique and deep ways. Growing up on a small river—the sound of running water over stones, the call of Osprey, the anxious behavior of the sandpiper, the smell of river water—has shaped my heart’s speed and inclination. The rhythms in my prose and poetry find their source in the countless hours I spent walking up and down that river fishing each morning and evening. That’s why I am drawn back to water so much. When I’m away from it, I grieve its loss as I would grieve the loss of a dear friend. I miss the way it makes me feel, the way it informs my thinking, and the way it steadies my restless heart.
C. S. Lewis famously said that every good author makes the geography of the book as compelling as its characters. His beef with Alexander Dumas was that Dumas had no place in his stories, only plot. Many of us don’t slow down to pay attention and are in grave danger of losing place-ness in our art. The rate of living and the technological push to live more efficiently have robbed us of the ability to know even the names of the plants at our feet or the names of birds that we hear singing in the long grass. I’m as guilty as the next man. I’m not saying, by the way, that place is as important as people. I’m saying that the effect on my soul is similar.
KP: Dad, let’s shift trajectories as we come in for a landing. This book of yours gets to go into the world and have its own effects on people’s souls. What are your hopes as the book goes from your own mind and heart and into the lives of other people? How do you think this book might effect and encourage people in ways that your other books might not have?
BP: To some degree every book is like a child. You raise the child as we’ve raised you and send her into the world and trust God to use the child (or the book) for good, but you can’t control the results. The results are often surprising. My first book, A Small Cup of Light, recounted my journey through suffering and a health crisis that has impacted me to this day. That book has encouraged many people through their own valley of despair and I give thanks that the Lord has redeemed my suffering in that way. My two poetry books have likewise had an impact, but largely in strengthening souls for the encounter with life and with God. This book is unique in that it is an intimate dialogue between a father with his daughter over ideas that are precious to both of them. I can’t predict how it will be received, but I know that it comes from a place of deep feeling and conviction and love. I hope it provides some of the why for Christian artists as well as the how. So, for example, why should you create? What is that thing that compels you to write? Or how does an artist deal with criticism or anxiety or ambition or balance a day job? Or how does craftsmanship and community work together to make something beautiful?
So many other wonderful writers have written books on creativity and faith and I could never claim to be the final word on the topic or to have superseded them in excellence. All I know is that I did my best work for you, dear girl, and I trust that it will have a universal appeal as a result. The planting is finished, the harvest is up to the Lord.
The timing of your question is also interesting. I am in the middle of reading The Gift of Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. He writes, “Art begins when someone interprets, when someone sees the world through his own eyes. Art happens when what is seen becomes mixed with the inside of the person who is seeing it.” I suppose that in the end, that’s all I have tried to do: create something beautiful, how I see creativity and faith mixed with the inside of me. I hope the results are lovely to more than just the two of us.
KP: Well, I think your last comment about how art begins when someone interprets is key to both the writing process and the way in which this book takes on a life of its own upon entering the world. While you may give principles that are consistent and steady, the applications and nuances of these letters will change and take on character as each reader interacts with them and puts them into practice. It creates a kind of continuum, or perhaps a very tangible representation of what it means to travel on a mountain—each person adding to the handholds and giving a hand to others.
BP: Indeed, you’re reaching an age that gives you more and more opportunities to lend a helping hand to your father as he continues up the mountain. What a joy for me! I don’t see this book as the end-all answer to all questions but as a continuation of our conversations and an invitation to more dialogue. Of course the book is full of principles that don’t change, no matter where you are on the mountain, but the applications might change given where you are in life. I’m hoping this book serves as a reference point as we continue together up the mountain.
Here’s a question to wrap up this interview. How do you see our conversations on creativity and faith changing in the years to come? I certainly hope they continue for a long time.
KP: I think you’re right that our conversations have gradually grown from you guiding me to a more mutual respect in each other’s writing projects. A huge part of this has been the fact that I have gotten to take my own path into the writing world. I think being able to accumulate my own arsenal of experiences has allowed me to bring new ideas to the conversation just as you have done for so many years. So, in answer to your question, I can only see the conversation growing as we grow—continually bringing in those new experiences and lessons, even while we share those key principles and creative longings that have made our relationship so close and sweet for all these years. This book is a reference point then, not just to review and look back to, but also to mark this moment in our lives even as we continue to move up, to find new paths up the mountain, and make mistakes and successes as we go.
BP: I’m so glad you feel that way. If I believed in luck, I’d say I’m incredibly lucky to have such a sweet relationship with my daughter. I’m so very blessed that God would give me such a gift with you and your four siblings. Great relationships between a father and his kids seems to be more and more rare these days. How much more rare is it to actually share a similar calling and to be climbing the same mountain together?
Well, this has been super fun! We’ll have to do it again some time. For now, whether it’s too smarmy or not, I’m going to close this interview with the blessing I used to speak over you at bedtime: The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and give you peace. I love you.
KP: Thanks Dad! I love you too.
Ben Palpant is a memoirist, poet, novelist, and non-fiction writer. He is the author of several books, including A Small Cup of Light, Sojourner Songs, and The Stranger. He writers under the inspiration of five star-lit children and one dog named Chesterton. He and his wife live in the Pacific Northwest.