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,