More than a puny, inexhaustible, voice

What’s in it for me?

In Field of Dreams, the movie adaptation of W. P. Kinsella’s book “Shoeless Joe,” the main character, Ray Kinsella, wants to go into the cornfield with the players. He wants to know what is out there. Indeed, he believes that he is entitled to know, because of all that he has done – building the field at great cost to himself and risk to his family – to enable the players to return to corporeality and again play the game they love.

When Shoeless Joe instead invites writer Terence Mann to come into the cornfield with them, Ray protests. “I did all of this for you, and I never once asked ‘what’s in it for me,'” he exclaims to Joe. “What are you saying, Ray?” Joe calmly inquires. “I’m saying,” Ray replies in exasperation, ‘What’s in it for me?!”

We have quoted this exchange in our home many times, mostly as a parenting device attempting to teach our children not to be self-centered or self-seeking. We use quotes from movies as well as other sources, such as the Bible, to bolster our teaching. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests, but each of you to the interests of others.” Philippians 2:3-4. Our intentions are honorable, but can we really expect our children to comprehend this lesson any better than Ray did, or we do ourselves? It is our nature to be self-centered, and to seek first to understand what any experience means for us or to us. Further, we are drawn to – even while fearful of – the unknown world that exists beyond our current understanding. The knowledge of it looms inevitably in our future, but few of us anticipate it with joy. I admit to all of these emotions, and, oddly enough, they are why I write.

Most writers will admit that writing is the ultimate act of self-absorption. Can there be any greater narcissism than to believe that others need to read what you think? Similarly, is there any greater vanity than to write knowing that it is likely that no one, or at least very few, will ever read your words? As a social/political commentator that I read, Glenn Reynolds, often remarks concerning such blunt evaluations: “Harsh, but fair.”

However, even though these criticisms may be true as well as fair, I still believe that by writing I can move closer to an understanding of how to manage my human tendencies. The process may not be strictly in compliance with Paul’s admonition to the members of the church at Philippi, but it could lead me there.

Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s home, Oxford, MS (June 29, 2016)

My favorite writer, William Faulkner, said that the problems arising from “the human heart in conflict with itself” are the only true inspiration for good writing. I believe that fighting our natural inclination to ask “what’s in it for me?” is simply another expression of this struggle. Ray’s question may not be as poetic as Faulkner’s phrase, but it is certainly more recognizable. We all experience it every day. Learning to balance our inclinations to focus on ourselves with the recognition that we exist in a greater context of life – and for a wider purpose – must surely be a universal experience. It could also be one means to resolve the conflict within all our hearts.

Although his writing is noted for its brutalist’s view of mankind, evidenced by the unflinchingly destructive nature of his characters, Faulkner professed to have a positive view of man’s destiny. In his speech in Stockholm accepting the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature he rejected the notion that man’s existence will be perpetuated merely by his “puny, inexhaustible voice.” Rather, on the biggest literary stage imaginable, he boldly proclaimed:

I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. 

When I read these words I am not surprised to learn that Faulkner believed man is eternal or that he did not see man’s survival as meaningless. Rather I am struck that he cites as proof of such immortality and meaning traits that are most associated with the humility that Paul spoke of to the Philippians. “Compassion and sacrifice,” and the “endurance” that is inevitably required to exhibit both, are expressions of “valuing others above yourself,” and “seeking their interests before your own.” It is the writer’s duty, Faulkner says, to write about these things, just as Paul makes it the duty of his readers to act them out. As one who has spent a good deal of time studying the writings of both Paul and Faulkner, it should not be surprising that I am determined to follow the advice of both. What better guidance for one’s writing – and life – could there be?

Faulkner further said that it is the writer’s “privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.” Paul wrote that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.” (Gal. 5:21-22). Thus, Faulkner calls on us to be lifted by our past while Paul says that we can lift others in the present. I believe that these sixteen attributes they identify for this work will also provide the emotional fuel to propel us into a better future, perhaps even to heal the “human heart in conflict with itself,” and to cure our natural compulsion to ask first, “what’s in it for me?”

Endeavoring to inform my own writing with this understanding, I am further inspired by Faulkner’s promise that the voice of the writer “need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.” What more could I ask for myself? What more should anyone aspire to? Which brings me back to Field of Dreams.

Ultimately, Ray acquiesces to Joe’s judgment (“you aren’t invited”!), and reluctantly agrees that Mann is the correct human choice to experience the corn field. Why? Because he can write about it afterward. “It’s what I do,” Mann proclaims. “There is something out there, Ray, and if I have the courage to go through with this, what a story it will make.” When Mann disappears into the corn field, laughing, I am reminded that writers lift man’s heart. Writers are supposed to go where others can’t go or are afraid to go. Indeed, they are invited to go there for the benefit of others. By accepting the invitation and enduring the challenges that follow they can help their fellow man endure.

Although his name is little known, and his writing does not move me purely by the force of his words as does Faulkner’s or Paul’s, I consider W. P. Kinsella’s “Shoeless Joe” story a classic of modern literature. Phil Alden Robinson, the screenwriter and director of the movie adaption, arguably improved on Kinsella’s actual storytelling. Naming the writer Terrence “Mann” was a bit of genius, elevating the character to a symbol more meaningful than even J. D. Salinger, whose identity was used in the book. (Salinger could not be named in the movie due to his threat of a lawsuit. Was J.D. asking “what’s in it for him?” or simply continuing to protect his own privacy?). Even with this and other significant plot changes in the screenplay, the idea for Field of Dreams still originated with Kinsella, and it has caused many people to reflect on life and eternity for over thirty years now. The fact that it uses baseball as the background just heightens the attraction, in my opinion (See my “Other Interests” sub-page under the “About” tab.) It is worth noting that perhaps the most moving iconic literary work about baseball was written by a Canadian. That underscores that the love of baseball is not uniquely American, but also that question Ray seeks to answer is present in any human context. (Kinsella famously said that he did not even like baseball!)

Many criticize the story and the movie as overly emotional and dramatic, yet I am still being lifted by it after numerous readings and viewings. That is what writing does – it moves some and agitates others. I would be honored to have that impact on my readers even though my name may be little, or even never, known. Wouldn’t that prove Faulkner correct concerning the inexhaustible voice of man? And wouldn’t that also reflect the ultimate personal advancement beyond the question, “what’s in it for me?”

I had a memorable visit to the Field of Dreams with my son on August 19, 2015. The experience was enhanced by the appearance of this unnamed Black Sox player. However, the Edenic setting was somewhat spoiled by the low-hanging power wires in this picture. Such earthly technology reminded us that this was not Heaven, after all, but Iowa.

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