Monday, October 31, 2011

The Power of Biography

Book News
So what's the most popular book on the shelves right now? Well, Forbes is slating Steve Jobs' biography to be the biggest seller of the year. There is even a bio aimed at young adults under Macmillan's children's book imprint that is also focusing on Jobs' story.
Steve Jobs Hits China
Shoppers in China stood in line before stores opened and bought all 250,000 copies of the Chinese edition within the day. The story of an American entrepreneur having such an impact in China is noteworthy. Among the cultural, economic, and sociological implications, I am wondering why this is so popular specifically.
What Readers Are Saying
Cheng, Shanghai resident, said:“I am buying Jobs’ biography for my son and I want him to learn about the spirit of the great man.”
Ms. Pan, who took part in an online discussion with users of Twitter-like microblogging service Sina Weibo, said:“We hope reading about his experiences will inject vitality into our hidebound culture, lead young people to dare to seek out change, dare to be themselves, dare to push the limits and pursue creativity.”
Notice the concern with the story educating young people? That's similar to what the children's book publisher creating a young adult bio sought.
"I think Steve Jobs is one of the most important figures of our generation," says Feiwel of her decision to publish the biography. "He is of interest to kids not just for the computers, iPads, and iPods he created, but for who he was and how he lived his life. He was a visionary who was very complicated, and he had his ups and downs, which makes him very human and appealing."
Likewise, a Chinese reader commented:
“I felt like he was talking to me face-to-face, I’ve been touched by his astonishing honesty and absorbed in meditation over his ideas.”
The Pentecostal Steve Jobs?
If the power of biography and personal narrative can be so effective, isn't there a prominent place for telling our stories, especially the early figures of Pentecost in North America?
For me, this is personal. I remember reading Bug and Nona on the Go as a child and it changing my life. I assumed that was a coming-of-age experience for all Pentecostal young people. But recently I asked my English class how many had ever read a book by Sister Nona Freeman. I anticipated a room full of hands shooting up to prove my point on the value of writing as a ministry. Yet only 3 of the 33 students said they had read any of those books.
A generational gap? Perhaps. But what do we do to bridge that? What is the next version to share the power of personal narrative?
Next Steps
  • Maybe the next wave of biography will come through video? Is it time to turn to film for storytelling?
  • At the very least we should explore online options. Blogs offer an avenue for anyone to tell his or her story so we can catpure and share personal narratives. Maybe we can start by telling our own stories and also use this to share those of our elders.
  • Check out UGST's Symposium site for papers soon to come on this year's theme "Telling Our Story." In the words of Dr. Vinson Synan, we should be recording the stories of the older people among us. We have lost many from our first generation, but we can still capture many stories critical to the history of our movement.

There is power in a personal story. It is incumbent on us to use this power. As we tell our stories, we build a bridge to tell His story.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Trophy of Language

"Language is the armoury of the human mind; and at once contains the trophies of its past, and the weapons of its future conquests." -Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Booker Winner Announced. Betting Endorsed.

If you missed the shortlisting for the Mann Booker Award (I did), they announced the winner last week - Julian Barnes.

This is the British Commonwealth's most prestigious (and, I believe, best-paying award), so it's always healthy to take a look at their winner, their short list (the finalists) and their long list (the contenders) to see what the Brits consider quality. Of course there's always a clunker now and again, but --hey!-- it's chosen by a committee! What do you expect?

The other aspect I like (but I shouldn't, as a Christian), is that they allow the British Isles to bet on the winner. Of course, for people to bet intelligently, they have to read the books first. So, if you dont' have Oprah, then betting on books gets non-readers to read and that's not a bad thing. (Is it?)

The Perverse Monstrosity of Our Beautiful Work

Another thoughtful article on writing by L.L. Barkat that helps put criticism into perspective: "It’s important to be realistic in two directions. You need to be realistic about your weak points, but you also need to be realistic about your strong points."

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Strange Sources

I’m still plugging away on a long project, updating it almost daily – sometimes a new paragraph, sometimes a line edit, sometimes 2-3 pages of rewrites. As I do this, I find myself veering into unusual reading terrain, as I know of no working author who doesn’t voraciously read, be it for research or inspiration and instruction.

To dig deeper, I find myself reading music criticism (because the language offers a precision on topics I rarely describe), a book on smiles (because I want to see how a professor classifies the physical difference of a smile of lust and a smile of love; a politician’s smile and a parent’s smile. I can implant this authenticity into my piece.), and even the liner notes from the albums of jazz great Miles Davis (because it’s the background color and history for some amazing music).

My audio book choices have veered as well. I’m suddenly listening to 18th and 19th century tales of adventure: Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Three Musketeers (all choices I now regret passing over earlier in life) because somehow contemporary stories (which I’m writing), especially those with a strong voice, taint my own writing through their influence. It’s terribly hard to explain except to say there’s too much contemporary overlap for me to remain uncorrupted – especially when I’m making progress on my own work – so I must discover founts from other eras.

In the meantime, these tales by Dumas and Stevenson offer a certain timelessness with tricks (Dumas makes a loooong conversation between the four musketeers riveting because his protagonists bet they can eat breakfast in a battle zone for an hour. It’s a lovely case of moving the story forward, revealing character, foreshadowing, and straightforward action.) I would do well to learn.

New language. New ways of seeing my areas of interest. Writerly insights. If it stops, then my writing is likely to wither away. There’s always something new to discover.

It’s a strange state to live in—but it’s working.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Why Do You Write

It's International "Why I Write" day! You can add your reasons @ #whyIwrite or read the reasons of others on Twitter!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Monday, October 10, 2011

Worth Reading: James Wood on Denis Johnson

New Yorker lit critic James Wood offers some great insights on writing and choosing the best word in this short review of Denis Johnson's Train Dreams.

Like this:

There are continuities with Johnson’s earlier work; the visionary, miraculous element in Johnson’s deceptively tough realism makes beautiful appearances. The hard, declarative sentences keep their powder dry for pages at a time, and then suddenly flare into lyricism. The story’s unaffected tact and honesty are admirable. There are several compactly realized minor characters, caught in a sentence or two; Johnson’s gift for quick, glancing portraiture is evident. Johnson’s fiction has always turned on questions of vision. His characters are often weirdly privileged noticers, sometimes stoned. Grainier is not stoned, but he is a steady noticer of the natural world, and the prose follows his eye with frequent exhalations of beauty, for example, a cluster of butterflies, fluttering “magically like leaves without trees.”

Thursday, October 6, 2011

E-Book Readers or E-Mag Readers?

Great article in The New York Times on the changing nature of book and magazine reading.

“On the one hand, a Kindle or a Nook is perfect for reading a 1,000-page George R. R. Martin novel,” said Eric Simonoff, a literary agent. “On the other hand, these devices are uniquely suited for mid-length content that runs too long for shrinking magazines and are too pamphletlike to credibly be called a book.”


"Many of the works sold as e-books are more of a hybrid between a long magazine piece and a serialized book. Each Random House-Politico e-book will be in the range of 20,000 to 30,000 words, and the releases will be spaced out over the course of the campaign."

“We think that the nature of a book is changing,” said Jon Meacham, an executive editor at Random House and a former editor of Newsweek. “The line between articles and books is getting ever fuzzier.”

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

They Lived Where?

Narrative Magazine offers fun Tuesday literary puzzles. Recently they offered a look at the homes of favorite authors - from Twain to Louisa May Alcott to Nabokov!

Take a peek! (You'll need to scroll down.)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Writing Tips: New Yorker's Book Bench

The New Yorker, that bastion of the short story, always interviews the writer who wrote that week’s story in their Book Bench column. Whether or not you’ve heard of the writer, or like their story, they often have great insights into the writing process. For instance, Ben Marcus shared these gems:

On Setting

I first used Ohio as a setting because I hadn’t been there and knew almost nothing about it. It seemed like a perfectly plausible place to live, and it kept me from relying too much on autobiographical details, which would, I was sure, lure me into terrible spasms of sentimentality. I felt that I needed to avoid this at all costs, so I leaned on places totally removed from my experience. I prefer using personal experience that is emotional—feelings I’ve had, feelings I’m afraid of having—rather than experience that is specific to geography. Denver gets this treatment, too. “Write what you don’t yet know” is maybe the motto. I think the vacuum I sense around a place I haven’t been, like Cleveland (I guess I’ve been in the airport), is helpful to me, absolving me from being a tour guide, letting me focus on the story itself.

On Using Real Life

I’ve noticed how flashbacks (childhood causes, memories, back story, etc.) can take the sting out of a story, trading drama for information, mystery for facts.

Character Tension

The reader, by having access to Paul’s thoughts, the little crimes of his mind, has much more information than Paul’s parents and sister. But these characters, in turn, have information about Paul’s past that the reader doesn’t have. Maybe a tension becomes possible because of this, everybody knowing something different, no one on the same footing?

Be sure to bookmark Book Bench for regular visits. There’s always something interesting going on.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Characterization: Radical Uncertainty

The Guardian (of the UK) has consistently been the best literary spot on the web for the devoted reader for about 10 years now. Apparently, they're also sponsoring Master Classes on writing fiction.

They've got a bunch of short, tantalizing articles on "Creating Suspense," "POV," and this on "Characterization" that I quite liked:

“At its simplest, its barest, characterisation is about a writer's grasp of what a human being is. When we set out to write, we do not do so out of a sense of certainty but out of a kind of radical uncertainty. We do not set out saying: "The world is like this." But asking: "How is the world?" In creating characters we are posing to ourselves large, honest questions about our nature and the nature of those about us. Our answers are the characters themselves, those talking spirits we conjure up by a kind of organised dreaming.”