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At What Is: Writing and the Way of Wonder

December 5, 2020

Corey Latta


Wonder is the province of what we might call two-directional consciousness. When considering wonder, it’s not enough for the self to be aware of itself as a self. We’ll call that inner-directed consciousness—the reflexive experience of being aware that I am, as I sit here to write this, having an experience. To be sure, being aware that I am an I can produce astonishment. But the wonder I’m trying to write about is a matter of outer-directed consciousness, that is, the awareness I, as a self, have of other selves. That I can know that there are other Is, other objects or abstractions, other displays of sentience, is outer-directed consciousness.

Now, if wonder begins anywhere, if it comes to be at some point, then I’d say it begins at this outer-directed awareness of something beyond my self. I don’t believe mere acknowledgement is enough when we’re discussing wonder. It’s not enough to simply say, “That’s a tree” or “There paces a lion” or “He’s my neighbor.”

Wonder requires a stronger incantation. Wonder begins when my awareness of someone or something outside myself converts into a kind of surrender to that person or thing.

While this experience of wonder is available to any conscious mind, it belongs properly to the artist. Whereas a banker might not have any philosophical or practical notion of what it means to surrender to that which lies beyond his own borders, the artist does. It’s the writer, the painter, the musician, the one whose vocation is to marshal every modicum of his inner consciousness to create something about the experience of outer consciousness, who knows what it is to surrender, to wonder.

The writer helps enchant her own experience of wonder when she discovers something other than herself to which she can surrender. Whatever the writer finds to say about that thing becomes her submission to it. To submit to something greater—and all things other, even lesser things, are greater to the writer—is the artist’s particular portion of wonder.

There is another side to this act of surrender: the thing the writer submits to, the thing that invokes the wonder, in turn submits itself to the writer. Submission is a gift to the writer, given by the very thing to which he offers his outer consciousness. Surrender is a bestowal by the real world. The world, whose nature is givenness, presents itself to the writer. The sooner the writer accepts that the craft is a way of reception, the more generative the world appears.

The world is the writer’s manna. God bids him eat.

The writer’s work is his reception of this gift of surrender. The novel, the song, the painting—these are homages to the generative world. Writers are bestowed upon so that they can, in turn, bestow. The world is the patron to whom the artist spends his life offering alms of articulation. The artist lives in reception to the very reality he offers his craft to.

In one of my favorite demonstrations of this holy exchange, The Peregrine, J. A. Baker recounts tracking two pairs of peregrine falcons over coastal East Anglia. Baker becomes absorbed with the peregrine. He studies and stalks the falcons from autumn through the spring, giving himself to the pursuit of the peregrines, yielding to the imagistic world—“I was possessed by it. It was a grail to me.”

Baker enters into the natural world until writer and what’s written collapse in on one another. The Peregrine reads like the memoir of a man obsessed with telling the truth of what’s there to be told. He writes in wonder of those creatures to which he’s devoted himself, and those creatures have offered him the gift of attention. We’re taken into Baker’s imaginative reception, brought into his submission to living images, as he marvels at the Peregrine’s movement.

He rose upon the wind, and climbed in a narrow spiral, wafting a thousand feet higher with lyrical ease. He skimmed and floated lightly, small and slowly spinning, like a drifting sycamore seed. From far above and beyond the church on the hill, he came down to the orchard again, hovering and advancing into the wind, just as before. His wide-spread tail depressed, his hook-shaped head bent down, his wings curved forward to hug the gale.[1]

The falcon’s turn is grace to the writer. It isn’t only mastery, but a grateful reception that defines the writer’s craft. The writer receives what’s before him.  He doesn’t want to exploit the image. Exploitation isn’t a part of craft life. An artist can’t submit to what he merely seeks to use. Nothing’s used that isn’t also given to. The writer is only as free to use the image for art as a husband is to use his wife for love. Like the husband, the writer asks for nothing he doesn’t also give. The writer brings his full heart to the image. Without the image, there is nothing the writer can bring his heart to. The writer must have something real to break his heart against.

As artists, we look for the truth in things, and it’s the truth of things we try to represent. The truth of any subject doesn’t lie outside of that subject but within it, there in its felt existence. Every writer, each in his own way, must subscribe to William Carlos Williams’s dictum, “no ideas but in things.” Every Christian writer will know this as incarnational language, the kind of expression that brings us closer to that event in history when ultimate Consciousness submitted itself to something lesser in hopes that we might wonder at something greater.

What else is offered the writer but the world he was born into? It’s his. Submission is his stewardship of it. The world and all that’s in it belongs to the writer.

The world, the dimensional, material, whatever’s measurable by picometers and miles, is what the writer surrenders to, and surrendering to, draws from. In art, even spiritual truths are handled by the grips of a bestowing materiality. Made for a world of molecules and mountains, wisteria and splendid fairywren, the writer ingratiates himself to nature, accepting reality on reality’s terms in the welcome of artistic receptivity. Nature bears what it declares, carrying in every equinox the weight of the everlasting. The writer yokes himself to nature. He watches it, looking for the veiled glory within. He longs to say something clear about the givenness of reality. The writer surrenders to what he is not in order to wonder at what is.

[1] Baker, The Peregrine, 43.

The featured image is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and used with her glad permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project. 


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  1. June says:

    As with most poetry, I find that I understand less with my intellect and more with my soul.

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