Something Universal: Sallie Tisdale on Faith, Creativity, And Investigation
Tisdale’s work appears in national magazines (The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New Republic, and Salon) and she has published seven books, including Women of the Way, The Best Thing I Ever Tasted, Talk Dirty to Me, and Stepping Westward. She has received an NEA Fellowship in Belle Lettres, the James Phelan Award for Creative Fiction, and a Pushcart Prize. She has been working for some time on a book about our reflex toward charity—what it means to do good, how one knows what good is, how many ways it can go wrong—in the context of a small clinic in Africa founded by Oregonians. She also has several essays in various stages of completion.
Propeller’s Rachel Greben recently asked Tisdale about health, religion, the role of truth in nonfiction, and what compels her to write.
Propeller: There’s a consistent interplay between strength and weakness, illness and health in your writing. How would you describe this interplay? Why do you feel these binaries have been compelling subjects to you as a writer?
Sallie Tisdale: The interplay between strength and weakness, bluntly exposed by illness, is just the interplay of our lives. That we are bound to decay is fascinating, terrifying, bizarre, unfair, unbelievable, exciting and a lot of other things. Birth, illness, old age and death—the foundation of more or less all of human thought...philosophy...religion. I don’t think of illness and health as binaries. Where’s the dividing line? It’s a continuum. It’s like beauty and ugliness. Show me where one becomes the other.
Propeller: While birth, illness, old age and death are clear mileposts on a life continuum, we are so often surprised and caught off guard as we hit these phases.
Tisdale: All I can add is that the path from birth to death is the territory of the Buddhist, the writer and the scientist. All those points of view are important to me.
Propeller: Your work intersects many points along the continuum and explores what takes place in these spaces, i.e. sex, religion, charity, sickness, food, death, and decay. In turns fascinating, terrifying, and exciting, your writing hones in on difficult issues with a voice that remains objective, intimate, and direct. How do you sustain your intense focus in documenting hard truths?
Tisdale: Most of us, most of the time, do what we want and what feels good, don’t you think? I like thinking about these things. I like exploring complex and difficult questions. Intimacy with others and with my own experience give meaning and color to the world. It’s more painful to avoid and ignore reality. Curiosity and a detective’s fervor sustains me. Topics just reveal themselves and sometimes I have to wait around for that—very annoying. There are many dead ends, many cul de sacs between essays.
Propeller: You have written different pieces involving religion, which is striking, because spirituality is an awkward topic for many contemporary writers. What kind of relationship do you find between faith and creativity, especially in your own writing?
Tisdale: Funny, I feel like I’ve avoided writing about religion somewhat, because there is so much about it—especially American Buddhism, and most of it shallow, self-serving or at best simplified. I’ve always said that I didn’t want to write a contemporary Buddhist book. Then I wrote Women of the Way, which was pointedly not about me, although of course derived entirely from my own limited understanding of the women’s lives and struggles. Now I’m working on a “Buddhist-inspired” book. A slippery slope.
In fact, religious seeking and investigation has been so inextricably woven through my mental life that I forget it’s there; I’ve been reading old journals (age 17, 18) for a memoir I’m writing and it’s striking—the same questions, the same discoveries year after year.) In Zen terms, you might say that proves I’m a sleepy, stupid Buddha... we do tend to need the same lesson more than once. Regarding faith and creativity—faith for a Buddhist is a different beast than for theists. Religious feeling and creativity are not two things to me. Neither is separate from me.
Propeller: Your essay “Grace” talks about sharing a spiritual practice with children. Having the rare good fortune of freedom to choose, many of us have shrugged off participation in organized religion. Yet we want our kids to have it all, including faith in something.
Tisdale: “Grace” is old! But still reasonable, I guess. I have been a practicing Soto Zen Buddhist since I was in my mid-twenties (just hit 30 year anniversary). That means a clearly defined, initiated, institutional kind of religious practice. We started a Dharma School many years ago (my daughter was in from age 3 until 18 and now practices with the adults), and from the beginning many people came to leave their children for a religious education they themselves did not want. I don’t understand this. Why wouldn’t we want to be congruent with our children? Why wouldn’t we want to share a world view with them to the extent that we can? We “shrug off” organized religion for a lot of reason—bad memories, rebellion, laziness, disinterest, fear, all kinds of reasons. Many of these are reasons worth exploring, just as we would explore a fear of intimacy, bad memories of school, laziness about work. Religion is a human impulse. I certainly believe atheism is a legitimate belief system—I would argue that it is a religious belief system of a kind, as atheism is about the nature of reality and the meaning of our lives, like all religion. Anyway, the Dharma School had to insist that parents participate in the temple, and we have a waiting list.
Propeller: With the abundance of choices and lack of spare time that many of us face, how do we choose what to believe in? How do we get beyond all the shallow, self-serving, marketable solutions?
Tisdale: Do you really think we choose what to believe in?
Propeller: You say you have been searching since you were young. What has driven this search? What are the discoveries you continually make?
Tisdale: I’ve been a seeker from a very early age and I see the same questions arising throughout my writing—many of them to do with ambivalence, ambiguity, what you might call emotional dissonance as well as cognitive dissonance.
Propeller: Please do talk a bit about how you define faith and how it infuses your work.
Tisdale: In Buddhist terms (and I owe a debt to Francis Cook for this way of describing it), faith is the investigation of a rumor. One touches something, or sees a person living in a way we want to live, or moving in the world with a confidence or comfort for which we long, and one looks into that. What is this thing I’ve touched? What does that person know that I don’t know? Does this method work for me? Does that vocabulary-behavior-point of view make sense? One investigates the “rumor” until it is proven true or not. Then faith disappears and is replaced with knowledge. In Buddhist terms, that knowledge is expressed in confidence—not in certainty. The latter is a dangerous and closed position. Confidence allows one to have many doubts and questions and explore them with joy and curiosity, because of a belief that the method of exploring works.
For myself, I was desperately looking for a way to describe the world, and I knew nothing of Buddhism. When I began to ask what Buddhists believed, it was like hearing a language I’d learned as a small child and forgotten. The vocabulary of home. Instant recognition and sense of going home even though I didn’t intellectually understand any of it! Something in me had the sense to stick around and investigate that.
Propeller: “The One in Front of You” describes your journey to Uganda to provide volunteer medical aid. Among your initial sensations—the smell of bonfire smoke in the moist evening air—was a feeling of home. Is there a connection with this place and the vocabulary of home you find in Buddhism? Have you returned to Uganda?
Tisdale: I do continue to go to Uganda, to help at the clinic (though we have little need for American staff now, as the Ugandans are doing a fine job) and to see friends. There are places in the world that just seem familiar and we can never predict these. I felt it in Rome, in Uganda, in Hawaii. But not in other places where it might make more sense. The relationships between charities, between volunteers, between our good intentions and the results—these are really interesting to me. What we’ve done in Uganda is not an unalloyed good. On balance, it’s good, but we shouldn’t be afraid to see the complications.
Propeller: You’ve written about the difficulty of the idea of “truth” in writing. With that in mind, casual readers might wonder what compels you to write nonfiction, a genre many interpret as truth-oriented. What are your thoughts about truth (or the lack thereof) in your work?
Tisdale: I have always been a rigid stickler for truth-telling in nonfiction and a vocal, one might say acerbic, critic of writers who conflate characters, mess with timelines, invent (“re-remember”) dialogue and so on. I’m much more interested in how difficult it is to remember clearly or know for certain what happened. I can go on about this for a long time! Given that, I know that what I do remember, no matter how carefully I investigate it, is not going to be what someone else remembers, not exactly. I just don’t think that gives me the right to demand that I win the argument. See my essay “Violation” from Tin House for a detailed exploration of the entire topic.
Propeller: You mention in “Violation” that when you look over your past writing, it was “clearly written by someone else.” Can you describe that sensation?
Tisdale: Oh, it’s awful to read old journals until you have some distance. I am able to see that young woman as a past life. A person from whom I inherited many characteristics and qualities, for better or worse. I am not her, but she is part of me. I am the one who knows what I am afraid to say and what I don't want others to know, and sometimes that drives the work—who wants to read a perfect narrator or a writer who is all hindsight? Boring—and unbelievable. We are all marked by regret, confusion, wistfulness about the past. We all wonder ‘what if’ we had made other choices. It’s important to be able to disclose that interior monologue in an authentic way, but the writerly task is to take that and make something universal of it. A diary does not make a memoir. Personal essay and memoir require a rigorous internal honesty in order to give the reader the truth in a context that is itself honest, but not simply personal.
Propeller: Shafts of light filter through your writing in unexpected places. Does this have any correlation with the act of writing for you?
Tisdale: Oh, I’m quite an optimist. I’m cranky as hell, full of opinions, and irritated with many of the world’s difficulties. But I really am happy in my life for the most part, cheerful most of the time, and believe that we are all doing the best we can. Which is pretty awful a lot of the time, but gradually improving, all in all.
Propeller: You have many talents and interests—Buddhist, scientist, and writer, to name a few. At what point did you realize that you could link this all together in writing? Or from another angle, why do you write?
Tisdale: I didn’t choose to write! It’s just who I am.
Sallie Tisdale’s essay on headaches, “An Uncommon Pain,” appeared in the May issue of Harper’s. A complete list of her books and essays is available at her website.
Rachel Greben has written recently about the work of George Saunders and about the Cindy Sherman retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.