Friday, December 31, 2010

"What not what you read"

What counts, in the long run, is not what you read; it is what you sift through your own mind; it is the ideas and impressions that are aroused in you by your reading.

~Eleanor Roosevelt

First, a resolution
I want to track my reading habits in the 2011 Reading Woman engagement calendar my sister gave me for my birthday. Each week features a different painting of a woman reading and an accompanying quote about books, reading, or libraries. I kept such a journal two years ago, and it is fascinating to look back and see what I was was reading (and thinking) on a particular day, and as Kent suggests, to look for developing themes in my own life.

Top reads in 2010
I've read a lot of poetry this year, in the fifteen minutes before bedtime each night. A poem is so manageable. You read a poem and it doesn't have to make sense on a rational level, which is a good thing, since your mind is heading toward the horizon of the dreamscape. But a poem does mean, and you can come back to the same poem on any number of occasions, and the imagery (if it is good) will strike the senses fresh. Some poets I like to read are Christina Rossetti, G.M. Hopkins, Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, and Billy Collins. A poet I would like to know better is Christian Wiman.

Most memorable fiction award is a tie between Bradbury's Farenheit 451 and Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle for narratives that keeps you right between the pages!

To read in 2011
Like Lee Ann, I'm drawn to the lit classics, but I also want to read more contemporary fiction, more history and biography, more theology. I want to read the Bible in English and French.
How does one develop a well-balanced book diet? If it can be rich and balanced, that's even better. I want to know if you have any tips.

First up in the new year, besides the assigned texts for Prof. Littles' Mission of the Church at UGST, is Colum McCann's Zoli, a novel about the Roma people of Eastern Europe.

And because I like to keep my hands occupied with a knitting project, I'll probably be tuning in to LibriVox frequently for unlimited listening to free audio books that are in the public domain. It's a great way to get through the books you know you ought to read but haven't mustered the strength of will to lift them off the shelf! Because LibriVox is operated by volunteers, the recordings vary in quality. However, it seems that because people are reading because they want to and because they value the works being read, the readings are expressive and make for a most pleasant listening experience! Who knows? Maybe I'll sign up to record something myself!

Image: The 2009 Reading Woman engagement calendar

Reading Retrospect and Hopes

This year, my reading has been a little fragmented.

Last January, I embarked on a six-month stay in France (see posts from that time here, here, here, here, here and here) and my reading mainly consisted of reading comprehension exercises. I did take a literature course for my first three months and had the chance to read excerpts of contemporary French and francophone writers. But the only novel that I completed from start to finish this year was a novella by popular French writer Anna Gavalda, L'Echappée belle. I will admit to failures of reading about a quarter of a culture shock comedy, about half of a Christian female travel book called Go Girl: Finding Adventure Wherever Your Travels Lead, and the first two or three chapters of Mansfield Park. Ya win some, ya lose some.

A book that I've stuck with and will continue reading in sips is a creative nonfiction anthology called Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: I & Eye. I've been experimenting a little with the genre in personal writing and am thoroughly enjoying the thematic selections as well as the craft essays which give fresh, valuable insight.

Next year, I'd like to be a little more systematic about my reading. In the past I have followed a suggested reading list instead of wandering around in the wilderness. That wouldn't be a bad system to revisit. I should probably also go back and finish what I started. Leaving things unfinished is not a good habit to start.

Happy New Year!

Reading in 2010: Mysteries & More Mysteries

This was the year I devoured mysteries--from Hammett (if you're looking for sharp dialogue that crackles off the page, you must read The Thin Man) to Georges Simenon's Maigret to Scott Phillips (don't bother with the Ice Harvest) to a turgid Donna Leon Venice mystery to Darwyn Cooke's amazing graphic novel adaptation of Richard Stark's Parker to Wilkie Collins Victorian classic The Moonstone (which wasn't bad, though very heavy on dialogue and light on action) to Walter Mosley's first Easy Rollin's mystery, Devil in a Blue Dress (solid & interesting, though there are parts that must be elided).

I will say, from my experience this year, most mysteries aren't worth reading, but the gems sure shine in a firmament few other genres can match.

Happy 2011!

Ringing in the New Year with Reading

Some make resolutions. Others make a point not to make resolutions. For readers, January means a time to map out the year's reading list.

Something Old
Perhaps it's the literature teacher in me, but when it's time to start a new book, I first turn to the lit classics list. This year I'd like to explore some big writers I know nothing about beyond their famous names. So... Carson McCullers' The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse.

Something New
In November, The Instructions was released by new writer Adam Levin that I imagine we'll be talking about soon on this blog. Ingredients: +900 page novel narrated by a 10 year-old, faith issues, psychologically complex, theologically charged, and so on. Since it is faith-focused and is capturing the attention of critics, it may be a candidate for Word discussion.

On a lighter, offbeat note, I like the sound of Shane Jones' Light Boxes. The big picture: a nonlinear, creative look at seasonal affective disorder. The premise: a town perpetually stuck in February tries to get rid of winter. Maybe I'll take it up in February!

Something Borrowed
In 2010 my reading was centered more on nonfiction than fiction, which was a first. But there's no substitute for printed media when you're researching. (And again this year I'll be reading several more war memoirs for a research project I'm doing that will involve the help of our friendly local library.) Also with the library's aid, I'm hoping to finally get around to Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation six years after the rest of the world.

Something True
I've always been fascinated by Flannery O'Connor. I'd like to round out the year with a look into her life and work from her own voice through The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor.

So a diverse reading list I like to think. It should make for an interesting and eventful year. Best of luck to all of you with your 2011 reading pursuits!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Key to e-Books? Agents!

The Smashwords founder offers some fascinating insights and predictions for 2011, including this gem:

2. Agents write the next chapter of the ebook revolution – Agents, serving the economic best interests of the best-selling authors, will bring new credibility to self publishing by encouraging authors to proactively bypass publishers and work directly with ebook distribution platforms. Agents will use these publishing platforms for negotiating leverage against large publishers. The conversation will go something like this: “You’re offering my author only 15-20% list on ebooks when I can get them 60-70% list working direct with an ebook distributor like Smashwords or a retailer like Amazon?”

Friday, December 24, 2010

Ode to the Well-Stocked Shelf

This is why you keep a well-stocked bookshelf:
  • The kid, now 12, without encouragement and for no discernable reason, pulled The Big Book of Martyrs off my book shelf and began reading it. It’s a 200 page graphic novel about Christian martyrs. He finished it in 2 days.
  • Me the first week of December, drained and adrift. Decided I wanted to indulge in something different. Remembered a book of literary criticism I’d purchased 13 years ago that might be perfect. God and the American Writer offered fascinating insights into the works of Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, Dickinson, Eliot and many other American authors, as well as how God has remained a constant character within our greatest fiction. Good stuff. Exactly what I needed.

Parents and singles who bring 500 channels and millions of web sites into their homes, but offer little tangible proof that reading matters only do themselves and their God a disservice. (Sorry folks, but we’re people of the Word. That’ll never change.)

I know physical books are expensive (e-books are solving some of that problem), but they remain amazing resources for anyone seeking solace, refreshment, and intellectual stimulation. When you don’t know what you’re going to read, you run your finger along the bookshelf until you (re)discover an unrealized treasure. Don’t fret if you still haven’t read that fascinating title or much-lauded classic on your shelf. If you listen, it’ll be calling your name soon enough.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Appendix A: 2010's Personal Reading List

How many books did you read this year?

Stephen Covey (7 Habits of Highly Effective People) said he read a book a week, that if you start tracking your readings, you can build up from a book a month until you will also read a (real) book every week. I didn’t believe him, but decided to try it. It works.

I can’t do it without audio books (21 this year, but often it's higher), but I’m going to hit 60 by next week. They’re not all doorstops, but my personal baseline is 100 pages. Anything less than that is a short story (35 this year) on my list.

Favorites this year include (in no particular order):

Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome by Anthony Everett, Good to Great by Jim Collins, For the Beauty of the Church by W. David O. Taylor (Editor), Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling by Andy Crouch, The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, The Emotionally Healthy Church by Peter Scazzero

If you don’t track your reading, you need to try it. Not to induce guilt, but to trigger memories of where and when you read it. It’s fun to see what the themes of your year might have been, as well as any notable accomplishments

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Appendix A: More on Rossetti's Bleak Midwinter

Having recently considered Christina Rossetti's carol, "In the Bleak Midwinter," I was interested to read Sara's observations on the same over at Transpositions:
And while [Annie]Lennox might want to strip away the ‘religiosity’ of the hymns she covers, one cannot ignore the theological implications that Rosetti is addressing in this hymn and the resulting reminder of what the Christmas season prepares us to receive.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

"In the Bleak Midwinter:" A Reading of Rossetti's Carol

"Winter in the Ozarks" by R. Newton, 2008

In one of Rossetti's best known poems* that is also a beloved Christmas carol, Rossetti imagines that it was against the backdrop of “the bleak midwinter” that the ultimate transcendent truth was displayed in the birth of Christ.

“In the Bleak Midwinter” seems indicative of Rossetti’s poetic vision on a whole, encompassing her ideas about art and faith. Here, she uses the physical setting of winter (supposing that Christ was indeed born in December) to correspond with the spiritual state of man in the fall from grace.

The world is bleak and dark and cold, and into this scene comes the Light of the world, illuminating mankind’s existence. In her rendering, Rossetti portrays the humble circumstances into which the King of Kings “comes to reign.” It is as if the material “stable place” and a “mangerful of hay” where Jesus is born are viewed as representations of His own earthly tabernacle.

In this context, it becomes easy to see the world as a whole as that “sacramental universe” to which Ruskin refers. Rossetti, in pointing out the significance of the physical setting for the Incarnation, does function in the role of prophet, giving readers a vision of God’s nature as a Servant of His people that helps us see the humility with which we should approach Him.

When the poet ponders what it is she can give the Christ child, she concludes that, poor as she is, the best gift will be her heart. Of course, this is what God desires of each and every one of His children: a place in our hearts.

And this place for the Truth in our hearts is something the poets-as-prophets such as Christina Rossetti help to evoke.

*To read the complete text of "In the Bleak Midwinter," see Poetry Foundation. To listen to an instrumental arrangement of the carol, try this one by Loreena McKennitt or this one by the Kings College Choir at Cambridge.

Works Cited
Harrison, Antony H. Christina Rossetti in Context. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
Packer, Lona Mosk. Christina Rossetti. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1963.
Christina Rossetti: An Overview. Victorian Web, 2009.

"That angelic demon of a Christina"

"A Christmas Carol" by D.G. Rossetti, 1867

In the spirit of Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac, today is the 180th birthday of Christina Rossetti. A prominent member of the Victorian canon, Rossetti was born in England in 1830 to an Italian émigré and his wife. She began writing poetry at a young age but also displayed such a strong temper so as to provoke her father to call her “that angelic little demon of a Christina.”

Always grappling with the paradoxes of the human experience and Christian faith, Rossetti found in her poetry a place of meditation. For her, art, like faith was a matter of both beauty and truth. Even a cursory glance at Rossetti’s poetry will assure a reader of one thing: her personal faith does play a crucial role, not only in her poetic vision, but in her purpose for expressing that vision.

Rossetti is not merely concerned with didacticisms or self-expression but instead cares to explore both her world and her heart in intimate detail as she attempts to understand the ways of God. For her, as for Ruskin (19th century art critic) the physical world and personal experience do seem to afford glimpses of the divine nature.

When these glimpses are observed and portrayed by the artist or the poet, the renderings become the means of grace, conduits, as it were, through which truth may flow. And, as Antony Harrison points out with regards to Ruskin’s philosophy, the poet herself becomes something of a prophet.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Writing Something in a New Genre

So a couple of weeks ago, I was waiting for a ride at the mechanic. Can’t remember how it started, but I got inspiration to start a Christmas play. For someone who’s never written anything other than short stories and nonfiction projects, it was an entirely new venue.

What Was Tough

  • Creating dialogue that didn’t feel stilted but showed what the characters were feeling.... I didn’t realize how often in my short stories I rely on the narrator to explain how the characters are really feeling and what they’re thinking.
  • Thinking about what characters need to be doing behind the scenes.... An eye to the logistics can help bring more clarity to how realistic action is.
  • Capturing the dramatic element without it feeling cheesy.... Tougher when you can only use blocking and dialogue.

What Was Cool

  • I got to think on multiple levels: sound, lighting, set design, blocking, etc.
  • I got to use media tools—video, audio, projection screens.
  • The challenge to think in these new areas makes me approach standard fiction projects from a new outlook with an eye for the visual.


See if there are new genres you can try. It’s fun. And it can help you return to your regular projects with fresh perspective.

Afterword: Writing Opps

Call for Papers
A scholarly journal of Lindenwood University is accepting submissions for its first issue. We need some A/P writers to get to work and add our voice! Deadline Dec. 15, 2010. Click here for details.

Writing Workshop Scholarship
Scholarships are being offered for IMAGE's Glen Workshop for writers, songwriters, and visual artists. Click here for details.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Vacation Book as Photo, Memory, Story, Life

So what do you read on vacation?

I used to go on vacations with more books than clothes, somehow believing any travel would elongadate time to the point I might finish a title every day, and still have time to enjoy the sights. No more. Now I hone my selections to a bare—but varied—minimum, always with one title too many so that there’s flex room in case my mood changes.

Then, strangely, a book often comes to symbolize that entire vacation for me. The memories of reading a unique story in an unusual place glows on the shelf when I espy it months or even years later. Occassionally, the book becomes the single metaphorical memory of the holiday—intertwining its existence as a physical object and an engrossing story with my vacation locale and all of its related activities.

It’s not hard to scan my shelves and see:

  • The Jungle Book and Lolita become Portugal, our final trip before becoming parents, the most delicious food we’ve ever had overseas, my embarrassing order of peanut sauce when trying to speak Portuguese, great seafaring monuments, stifling heat. In reflection, I have no idea how I combined these two titles together for this trip, except that their contrasts framed our days away.

  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame becomes our first trip to Rome—The irony of reading the quintessential book about Paris in Roma somehow didn’t seem ironic until I was reading it on a small bed in a tiny hotel room with a balcony revealing this amazing view of the ancient city. Yes, we saw and enjoyed all of the amazing history and art, but it all starts with this twisted fairy tale.

  • Truman is a Youth Retreat in Carlinville, Ill—I remember yanking it out during a lull on the first night and everyone gasping at its size. Yes, I was reading David McCullough’s bio at the time, but I also brought it to impress. (I was young and naïve!) I remember staying up all night to play Risk. (I lost.) I remember the Lord moving. I remember discussing Bill Clinton’s election possibly being a good thing for Pentecostals to stay engaged in the political process. I remember beautiful weather.
  • Twelfth Night becomes London. In truth, it’s not fair to choose a single anything to somehow magically represent a two-month stay in England due to work (one of the most blessed periods in my life), yet this book resonates because London reimmersed me in the classics. An unknown publishing house called Wordsworth was offering all the classics (no matter their size) for 1 pound each! 1 pound! I gobbled up most of Shakespeare, Hardy, shelves of poetry(!), Austen, the Brontes and even some Dickens. There was always something to read! So it was that I happily chose Twelfth Night during my second month there, alone in the company’s seond-story flat. My bedroom window overlooked an angled roof, hard against the back wall. It beckoned to me. So one beautiful day, I climbed out onto the roof to read Twelfth Night. It seemed like the most appropriate way to read Shakespeare in London. Twelfth Night is still my favorite comedy, and the first title I think of when I revisit London in my mind.

  • Sun Tzu’s The Art of War becomes Sanibel Island, Florida on our honeymoon. Everyone—coaches, businessmen and politicians! Everyone!—at the time was recommending this must-read title, so I tossed it onto my pile (without thinking, obviously) before we traveled south. It was only when Nita pointed out the timing of what I was reading that I realized my error. All I can say in my defense is that this title saved our lives when an army of vengeful Samurai cornered us one evening . . . nah! I blew it! Don’t bring it on your honeymoon.

Finally, I can’t explain why one book becomes that overpowering metaphorical travel memory while the other titles on the same vacation drift away. It’s not the nature of the trip, as I’ve been to many locales—Milan, Phoenix, Paris, Chicago, Scotland, and Ontario—where no books resonate afterwards. I just know certain books seal my story into theirs to create something far more powerful than any group of photos ever can.

So what do you read on vacation?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Failing Better; or What I Learned at Nimrod 2010

Insert mental image
of failure--
it looks different
to each of us.

In the words of Cesare Pavese, we do not remember days; we remember moments. Fourteen days have passed since the Nimrod conference. Understandably, my memories of the day are fleeting. What I remember of the day is jogged by the bullet point entries made in my Moleskine notebook.

I remember moments.

I'll never forget a stranger's telling me I look just like Natalie Merchant.

And I'll see David Wroblewski, author of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, with his shiny bald head, a big smile, and crisp white shirt, greeting attendees crammed in the conference room for the opening panel session with a jubilant: "Do you know how many standing-room only audiences a writer sees? This is great!"

Attendance was up this year, and attendees ranged in age from adolescent to octogenerian.

The conference theme centered on "Spinning Legends, Telling Truths." It is the central irony of the written word that truth is conveyed through the fiction of a construct, whether that rhetorical construct is a story, a poem, or quite another form. As one participant expressed it, "Literature is shaped truth."

I remember Jude Nutter asserting it's okay to tell a lie in serving the truth. Is she right? How do you know when you've carried the lie too far?

I remember Colum McCann's paraphrasing Samuel Beckett's admonition: Fail better. You have to take risks in life and writing. His formula for success: 70% talent + 100% effort. How many people do you know who would set off on a bicycle ride across the United States to overcome writer's block? Or spend a year and a half in the New York subway to experience the lifestyle that they will be writing about?

As McCann advises, "Be promiscuous in your research. Use obscure details that are true. Tell the stories of characters relegated to the corners of society." And he does.

He speaks of the power fictional characters can hold over our imaginations: "I know Edgar Sawtelle better than I know anyone in this room!"

And these days, I'm getting better acquainted with Edgar Sawtelle myself. Ever since Ann reviewed the novel last fall, I've had it on my must-reads list. I knew the time had come when an editor I met with at Nimrod huge had this to say about my writing: "Your imagery is every bit as good as Edgar Sawtelle. Have you read it?" I figured I should see what I'm up against. Oh, it's good alright; that Wroblewski knows a thing or two about writing. But while my imagery might compare on some level, my narrative skills are nowhere near.

I, for one, need to learn to fail. Better. More often. I need to remember those moments of failure, along with the moments of inspiration and success. If I'm not willing to fail, am I actually taking any risks? It wasn't as if I set out to look like Merchant or write like Wroblewski, but somehow being compared to them sets the bar higher for my own craft. And if I fail, it will be for trying to jump too high.

And maybe, just maybe, in trying, I'll actually learn to jump higher.

Where have you failed in your writing, and what are doing to fail better the next time around?

Ever tried.
Ever failed.
No matter.
Try again.
Fail again.
Fail better.
~Samuel Beckett

(Beckett's advice has even inspired a literary journal. Who'd have thought?)

Friday, October 22, 2010

Extra, extra! - Page-a-Day Tool

Having trouble keeping up with your page-a-day writing goal? Here's a website that makes it easy:

Trying to figure out how to market your work? Here's a link that gives some how-to's for a successful pitch:

Creating a Culture that Fosters Writing

Something there is in a postmodern that loves to hear a story. But... postmoderns should also love to tell a story.

Kent said it best: We need more Lukes!

Cut to my life. I’m overjoyed to report that since I last blogged on helping one of my students start a book, a second student has come to me about writing a novel! (All this while I helped a first-semester student publish some short fiction, and she’s raring for more.) I truly am happier about seeing my students progress with their writing than I am about any of my own projects.

We do need more Lukes, and I think it’s incumbent upon both teachers and experienced Apostolic writers to encourage our peers and those coming after us. So on the heels of Kent’s post, I want to figure out how we can foster and encourage more Lukes.

Why the Surge in Writing?

Here’s why I think writing is starting to blossom at our college:

1)Our administration over the last ten years has implemented writing across the curriculum. While there will always be some students who struggle with this, I believe it has shown students the value of writing, and the practice has developed articulate students who can communicate aptly through written word. The policy itself says to students that writing matters.

2)I believe that now its fifth year, the Writing Center is achieving one of its purposes. It is initiating student writing projects by giving them both a place to seek guidance and encouragement as well as technical support and training.


It Just Takes One

Maybe the biggest factor is just how contagious writing can be. When word got out that the first student was writing a book, it encouraged the second student to take action on a dream he’d never (for whatever reason) been able to pursue on his own.

The point? Alone and isolated, the idea of writing—much less getting published—seems foreign and unattainable. But when you see the testimony of someone else, you have a model that builds your faith in the process and the possibilities.

So How Do We Apply This

If we agree the world needs more Lukes, we need to help writers around us. Here’s what I came up with by applying what’s worked for us at the college.

#1 – Support through Community.... If you know someone with an interest in writing, get them connected to this blog. It can provide them with a network of support as well as practical writing help.

#2 – Partner with the Writer.... Help someone with those “getting started” woes—you remember how overwhelming it was. A positive word can validate and give courage to what could be one of our next great Apostolic writers. Help him/her—we don’t need lone ranger Apostolic writers out there battling with no support. Writing is a solitary enough act as it is; at least be a positive voice for the fledgling writer. Encourage, encourage, encourage!

What’s in It for Me?

I subscribe to the belief that in helping others, your writing craft will be strengthened. Not some kind of help-them-and-the-universe-will-one-day-give-back-to-you-the-perfect-novel-of-your-own karma vibe, but in seeing where these writers struggle and helping them through it, I’m learning how to apply this to my own writing one day. And most importantly, and it’s incredibly fulfilling be part of the process of a writer finding his/her voice.


A - Who do you know who has a story that needs to be told? Help him or her. It’ll strengthen your ability as you look from the outside-in over someone else’s shoulder, and you’ll bless that person whose story needs to be told and the world who needs to hear it.

B - Let's create a list of helpful books for beginning writers. What 3 must-read books would your recommend to a new writer getting started? Won't you share?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

For How Shall They Hear Without A Writer?

To me, the saddest verses in the Acts of the Apostles are where Paul and Baranabas split up forever. Acts 15:39-40 says:

“And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other: and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus; And Paul chose Silas, and departed, being recommended by the brethren unto the grace of God. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches.”

I’m not sad that there was an angry scism between these two Apostolic giants. (And make no mistake, Barnabas was a spiritual giant on par with both Peter and Paul.) Holy Ghost-filled humans are still humans. Both continued in successful ministries separately, probably respecting and admiring the other.

No, why these verses are so sad is because Luke didn’t follow Barnabas and John Mark. But if he did that, then Paul’s ministry would have been overlooked, you say? No one would know of this amazing missionary’s many triumphs! And that’s why I’m so sad. If only another Luke had followed Barnabas and John Mark to record their amazing miracles and multiplying revivals! Barnabas’ incredible minstry disappears from our minds because there was no one to record it. But he kept living and bringing people to Christ. Think how many more powerful chapters could have been added to the Acts of the Apostles if someone had done that!

Of all the multiple thousands involved in the First Century Church, only Luke seems to have recognized the importance of writing all of these miracles and wonders down. We think it must have been obvious - Acts is swarming with incredible spiritual events! - but evidently it wasn’t to the locals, because no one else wrote it down.

Luke was a physician by training, but a writer by calling. No one told him to do it. No one paid him to do it. But what if he hadn’t done it?

Humans have never had more tools to record stories than they do today. You can blog, video, tweet, text, snap, and email with the simplest effort. Our problem is the problem of the rest of the First Century Church—we don’t recognize the importance of what’s going on around us. What are the Acts of the Apostles in Tulsa, OK? What are the Acts of the Apostles in Denham Springs, LA? What are the Acts of the Apostles in Long Island, NY? What are the Acts of the Apostles in Montgomery, AL? What are the Acts of the Apostles in Chicagoland? Are we overlooking the Barnabas revivals in our lives just because we’re “busy”? Will future generations never hear of any local moves and miracles in 2010 because we don’t have the clarity to see what’s right in front of us?

It’s time for a generation of Lukes to arise and record that God is still alive and participating in the world today. Are you up for the challenge?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Appendix A: Facebook, Twitter, Books! Oh My!

More to come soon, but until then enjoy the links!
  • This is old news: Anne Rice quit Christianity (but not Christ). Naturally the media gave this much more attention than when she announced her conversion. Oh well.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Appendix A: Your Marriage Is Too Easy

  • Apparently you didn’t want to be married to Leo Tolstoy. (Not that you ever had a chance.)
  • Don’t buy the media hype, as too often the echo chamber ignores the truth about print: Bookstores can thrive in the 21st Century!
  • Benjamin Percy has been on the horizon as an author to watch. Here’s a full interview about his latest novel.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Appendix A: Are Labels Useful?*

Anna has an interesting discussion going on over at Transpositions on whether there is (or should be) such a thing as "Christian Literature". What do you think?

*Edited for spelling. Thanks to whomever pointed out "lables" should be spelled "l-a-b-e-l-s". Just checking, folks!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Nimrod 2010

OK, so admittedly my research skills are a bit rusty...What do the University of Tulsa's literary journal and the first mighty man, a hunter, of scriptural fame have in common? The name Nimrod. I've just never been able to discover the connection between the two or even imagine one.

An easier connection to make is the one naturally occurring between the Nimrod literary journal and the annual conference by the same name held each year. It kind of figures that if you publish a world-famous literary journal, you should name your prestigious conference after the journal. Wield that mighty pen, O Nimrod!

A connection I will be making, God-willing, is the one from here to Tulsa where said literary conference is being held October 23.

Between now and then, my pen-wielding hand will be revising odd fragments into great art. This year, the Nimrod theme is "Spinning Legends, Telling Truths". Besides breakout workshop sessions with such notables as Molly Peacock (How to Read a Poem and Start a Poetry Circle) and David Wroblewski (Edgar Sawtelle), there are one-on-one sessions with an editor. Fifteen minutes with a pro can be worth a semester of half-hearted peer reviews. This I know from experience.

November fast approaches, comrades. Are you ready for the challenge of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)?

With a milestone birthday occurring in November, I think thirty days of dedication to the novelist's craft might be just the way to celebrate.

Reading: G.M. Hopkins' "Hurrahing in Harvest"
Listening: Kate Rusby's folksy "Old Man Time"

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Helping Others Write Their Stories

Wow… 3 Years of Writing
Did you know we’re starting our fourth year of the Word blog? Yep, my first post was July 9, 2007, where I mused on how we define the canon. Since then my focus on the blog has shifted from “we had a neat discussion in my World Lit class today” to “I think I can do this writing thing” to “I’m committed to being a writer but I’m struggling wit

h…” and so forth.

Another Shift of Gears
During these three years, I have wavered back and forth with my commitment and success. But for this season of my life, I’m content.

The Numbers Don’t Lie
I went through my folders, and in these three years since we’ve started the blog, I’ve written in the neighborhood of 50 short stories and started an outline for one non-fiction book. I’ve entered writing contests, which challenged me to stretch to a higher level. All in all, it’s been a good three years.

No, I’m Not Quitting, But…
That last paragraph made me squirm because it feels a little self-congratulatory, but I’m simply reflecting on the journey, of which this blog has been a lifeline. Yet… I feel like the writing season is waning. Now granted with seven new short stories due in 3 weeks to my editor, I’m by no means quitting. But the drive to write isn’t there the same way. There are a number of possible reasons why, but this feels more like a seasonal thing.

A Time to Every Purpose
At the risk of this sounding self-absorbed, let me try to bring this home. While I’m in a season with no writing drive myself, a student has come to me with a manuscript borne out of a writing assignment from our class last year. He has a story. A good story. No, a great story. I have more of a burden to help him tell his story than I've ever had to tell any of my own. I don’t know if this is seasonal or if it means I’m really an editor/teacher at heart, but either way I’ll take it. I’m finding the greatest sense of fulfillment by helping him put this incredibly meaningful experience on paper—maybe the task the last three years of my writing experiments was preparing me for(?).

John Gardner was a prolific writer but might be known most for his influence on other writers as teacher and mentor.

So What This Means Is….
I don’t know, but I believe in my student's story. We are eight chapters into it, and I have no idea what the future holds. But we’ve got options for printing it and we’re in that starry-eyed “sky’s the limit” stage. Sure, there will be a lot of work to reshape it, but the story is there and with that, a commitment I’ve never had for my own work.

So I’m reading books from the genre, questioning other writers and editors who’ve been down this road already, meeting with the student to coach him along, and believing for the best.

Now about You….
While this has been borderline diary, my point is that there is a very real joy from helping others tell their stories. If you’re like me and you’re struggling to find a story of your own to tell, look around you. Maybe God has blessed you with certain talents and resources to help others. Maybe after that He’ll give you a story to tell yourself. But if not, write/edit/coach/encourage/push/plan/dream with those who have the story. You’ll love every second.

Currently Reading: One Shot, One Kill by Sasser & Roberts; Getting the Message: A Plan for Interpreting and Applying the Bible by Daniel Doriani

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Writing Quote: E. L. Doctorow

"Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you make the whole trip that way." -E.L. Doctorow, author of Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, The March.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

This Is Why We Don't Write

Last night I went to Panera Bread Company after work and knocked out 1,500 words rewriting/writing a scene I'd been struggling with for some time. From the first line, it melded together into a greater whole. By the end, I was spent, though I'm pretty sure most of it will endure the final cut. (Though the female character's voice might still need some tweaking.) I left the restaurant feeling clean and satisfied.

Tonight I went to the same Panera Bread Company, arriving within an hour of when I arrived yesterday, drank the same soda, then stumbled through 994 words of a scene within the same chapter I worked on yesterday. From the first sentence it fought me; each line refusing to cohere to the next. Like varnish, it'll probably all have to be written over so that the original disappears beneath future shiny competence. I left the restaurant feeling confused and frustrated.

And this is why it's difficult to write daily - because no matter how identical the circumstances are when you start, the results can be so radically different. Why spend a couple hours on a scene or a page or a paragraph that refuses to comply? One hour can equal a page or a paragraph or a sentence or a complete book outline. Who knows what's going to happen until you do it?

Yet if you don't do it, nothing will happen.

If it's your calling, you don't stop trudging forward - you write, you attend writing classes and conferences, you write, you read writing books, you write.

To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton's famous quote on Christianity: "Writing has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried."

Don't let the uneven results keep you from your calling. God put it in your heart for a reason. Put it on paper for him.

Image borrowed from the Miscellanies blog.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Appendix A: Justifying the Grotesque

In her essay "The Fiction Writer and His Country," Flannery O'Connor writes this:

The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume it does not, then you have to mke your vision apparent by shock--to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the blind you draw large and startling figures.

  • Do you think O'Connor's is an effective means of communicating truth?
  • Is there a chance for the Christian writer to become addicted to the "distortions" and no longer feel repulsed by them?
Just food for thought, folks!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

"To you it has been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom"

"To you it has been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have in abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand."

~Jesus Christ, Matthew 13

It's a rather cryptic passage, isn't it? Jesus' answer to His disciples' question "Why do you speak to them in parables" has always puzzled me. It does seem as if He's speaking in code.

A question rings in my mind: if the disciples already understand Jesus, and the people are altogether deaf and blind to the mysteries of the kingdom, why does it matter what Jesus says to them, whether He speaks in parables or not? Couldn't He just as well speak the plain and simple truth?

And yet, I have heard my creative writing instructors, including Robert Olen Butler repeatedly appeal to Jesus' use of parables as evidence of the effectiveness of storytelling.

I'm reminded of the time a professor of mine asserted the importance of fairy tales in developing childrens' moral imaginations: "Fairy tales cut a groove for truth." (I think it's an argument he borrowed from Tolkien's "Tree and Leaf.")

Not to put parables on the same plain as fairytales, but isn't Jesus using them similarly, "to cut a groove for truth"?

The stories Jesus tells, likening the Kingdom of Heaven to the Sower, the Weeds, the Mustard Seed, the Leaven, the Hidden Treasure, a Pearl, a Net, possess an immediate appeal because they link the abstract unknown with tangible reality.

Jesus asks His disciples if they understand Him. And they say yes. Whether they have understood the deeper significance of His parables or not, they have certainly made some sense of the stories, which deal with physical objects and familiar settings while engaging the imagination. And on some level, Jesus' larger audience has heard these stories, too. And it's the first faint etching in that groove for truth that may over time deepen into a trench.

It's a fundamental principle of effective teaching: to take the student from the known and to the unknown and seemingly unknowable by explaining the unknown in known familiar terms. When you begin to build a bridge, you use the materials on this side of the river.

  • How can our use of storytelling reflect the divine purpose for story?
  • By communicating the tangible, is there also a way to hint at "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen"?

Image: Emile Claus (1849-1924), A Meeting on the Bridge,

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Daniel Silva on Writing

A couple months ago, I shared the advice of literary prize winner Richard Russo’s thoughts on writing and publishing. Though he had scored some serious prizes (Pulitzer), Hollywood experience, and stories recreated on TV, Empire Falls is by far his best-known work and I’d guess it’s not a household name.

So I thought it’d be a nice contrast against a legitimate bestselling thriller author, a guy whose books start at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller lists—Daniel Silva. His protagonist is Gabriel Allon, a semi-retired Israeli spy who also restores paintings by the Old Masters. It’s a unique mix that’s just believable enough to work, as Silva is quite good with the details. His The Kill Artist was amazing, though a later work I read was a great deal less impressive.

The Reading

On July 29, 2010, Silva arrived for about 200-250 people at the St. Louis County Public Library wearing a tie, suit jacket and complementary pants. (The most dressed up I’ve ever seen of an author at any reading.) When the host announced the winner of the drawing for a signed copy of his latest book, The Rembrandt Affair, he took the book from the host and walked it to the winner, shaking her hand. It was a classy touch.

Here are some highlights from the Q&A:

Writing a Thriller

  • For every thriller, he reads between 50-80 non-fiction books while he’s writing—“I don’t have any time to read fiction.”
  • He researches “all the way to the end.”
  • Due to the realities of the publishing world, he must write 1 book a year, so basically he starts every January in his basement. So 1 book = 5 months of intense labor.
  • He goes through every step of the different world-wide locales in his books to make sure he gets his facts correct. For The Rembrandt Affair he went to every locale, but one (because his daughter caught the swine flu), so another person went for him.
  • He can’t enjoy reading his books until they’re in paperback.
  • He has to crack open the past books to remember details about his characters. He says he’s started suffering from short-term memory loss.


  • He said Allon was meant to be a minor character in The Body Artist, but he took over the book. He had switched publishers, so they asked him to pursue something new. He decided to focus on a Palestinian terrorist. That’s how he started, but that’s not how it ended. He’s been writing massive bestsellers ever since.
  • He supplies “World Tour” T-shirts to anyone who purchases his latest book on-site.
  • A fan came from Kentucky (at least a four hour drive) to attend this reading.
  • Silva said St. Louis is his favorite spot on book tours because it generates his biggest crowds. He said earlier on the 2-week tour, he’d been at a Costco, stuck between tires and cans of tuna. “The cans of tuna were as big as the tires.”
  • He cut off at 7:50, after about 45 minutes, because he said his voice was going (after nearly 2 weeks on the book tour).
  • When someone good-naturedly asked about his wife and two kids, his face froze hard for a moment. This topic was obviously verboten. He answered generally and moved on.
  • He turns 50 this year.
  • Naturally, he’s been approached by Hollywood, but has rebuffed their efforts so far because he hasn’t been happy with the directing and writing talent involved. One executive told him, “What’s wrong with you? Just take the money. You’re the only one who won’t sell your books. You and that … that guy who wrote Catcher in the Rye. Are you afraid we’ll make a bad movie? Of course we’ll make a bad movie. That’s what we do everyday.”

Appedix A: Hemingway?

I’ve heard of others experiencing this, but I’ve never had this happen to me before.

Whenever I’m seriously depleted, I try to read voraciously (and sleep) to recharge. So I’d finished a major freelance project Monday night, and began devouring non-fiction and magazines so I could return to some stories I’m working on. Then I bounced through a Joyce Carol Oates essay that mentioned Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” short story, featuring his eponymous character Nick Adams. Had to read it. Happily, I have a first edition of The Nick Adams Stories on my shelves (purchased in San Diego, if memory serves), so I read it. And the next one. And the next one.

They’re different. Terse. Short. Often purposely incomplete. Memorable.

Then I couldn’t write my own stories. His style was overpowering. My writing voice is completely incompatible with his. I realized I could either finish devouring the stories or write with my own voice.

The Nick Adams Stories is back on my bookshelf.