10 February 2014

Last fall I got to help with a series of Advent videos for my Church. They tell slightly altered stories found in the book of Matthew as though Jesus were here today, as the owner of a run-down apartment manager. I've never been part of making a film and I loved the process. I was able to work together with a team of people to make something that we are all passionate about, but at the same time I was able to go hole up in a corner and do my writer thing. Here they are. Please don't use them for anything other than personal viewing unless you ask me.

Written Into Our Story || The Soldier from Ferguson Films on Vimeo.

03 February 2014

All Nature Writing Should be Like This - A Review

There are beautiful books and there are important books. Winter: Notes from Montana, by Rick Bass, is both of these because through its beauty it tells us something important about how to interact with nature and then how to write about it. Profoundly moving, honest, and beautiful, it chronicles the journey into the interior of Bass’s discovery of himself in northeastern Montana’s Yaak valley. The mystery of the book is that it blends the author’s embrace of the landscape and the land’s actual physicality into a single voice. To say that the setting of the book is a character as well as the scene, is an understatement. At times it is difficult to tell if the story is about Bass or whether it is about a land exulting in and enduring winter. I’m curious about this dynamic, about the relationship between scene and writer. What makes a scene leap off a page and quicken the pulse of a reader? Does a writer come to so perfectly describe nature that nature itself lends its unspoken power to the page, or does the magic flow through the words from the reader’s own experience of the land? In other words, does the precision of the writer’s description move readers, or does the power of the author’s recollection and affection do so? In some ways this is splitting hairs. In other ways, it makes all the difference in the world. Could Rick Bass have described a picture or a video of the Yaak Valley in the same way that he could describe it after having lived there? I don’t think so.

30 January 2014

Overcoming Fear

Here is a parable for writers:

Writers are like a man whose wife has compelled him to diet. One night he wakes with a craving for chocolate. He turns softly in bed to see if his wife is deeply asleep, then slowly slides out of bed and down the hall to the kitchen. He wrestles gently with the wrapper, slides the chocolate down his throat, regrets the sweetness. Somewhat brazenly he returns to bed, only to find that all is still very quiet.

In a nutshell, writers, and specifically writers trying to create for God's glory often write hesitantly because of fears from many directions. These fears create a lack of confidence that stifles our energy and we give up, only to make another run at it some time later, with similar results.

When we think about writing, the greatest obstacle that we face is not one of flat characters, uninspired language, or any other technical element. It is not practical considerations such as how to make a living. Rather the greatest obstacle between us and God-honoring art is fear. We fear that that we would spend hours on a piece that is our soul, only to have those outpourings flutter through the world like a plastic grocery bag flung through autumn and eventually blown up against a chain link fence to trap leaves and garbage, totally unnoticed.

Even before that terror, we fear that when we sit to write, nothing will bubble up from the dark unknowns of creativity—that we will sit like a barren woman longing for a child. What would it say about us if the well of creativity has run dry? What if there is nothing left this time? Is it not better to rest on the successes of the past?

Then there is the fear that even if writing happens 'successfully' the writing itself will have no real value, that it won't matter for anything in the long run. For the Christian, there is always that question lurking in the shadows, "Is what I am doing worthwhile in an eternal sense?" And this question, while valid and important in an age wholly given over to trivialities and the desperate search for novelty, keeps us in doubt as we approach our craft. Doubt of this kind will slow our thoughts and inspiration to a trickle, and knowing this, we fear even more.

26 January 2014

The God of Nature Poetry

In graduate school I wrote a paper comparing the way several distinct cultural collections of poems approached the concept of the 'other' or the supernatural that is found in nature. This post is not a summary of that paper, but an affirmation that a poet's sense that there is something 'else' in nature is almost always right, but that the poet runs the risk of missing the whole point if he or she focuses only on the feelings that nature elicits. I'll quote a few of the poems that I cited in my paper:
Paiute Ghost Dance Song
              Snowy earth
         of the whirlwind
                             of the whirlwind
              snowy earth
(this is a traditional song of the Paiute tribe that has been recorded as a poem)

Noon in the mountain plain:
There is a scant telling of the marsh –
A log, hollow and weather-stained,
An insect at the mouth, and moss –
Yet waters rise against the roots,
Stand brimming to the stalks. What moves?
What moves on this archaic force
Was wild and welling at the source.
(by N. Scott Momaday)

I could go on and on, but the point here is pretty clear - nature often catches us up and gives a sense that there is something other than ourselves. From these examples, it is a quick jump over to William Wordsworth, who codified the otherness of nature in his epic, "The Prelude" where he recounts times of physical illness and euphoria in response to his experiences in nature. All of these poets look at nature and sense something greater than and different from themselves. Where this gets interesting for me is that a common view of this experience is to say that religion has invariably sprung from a culture's association with nature. People and cultures, critics say, attempt to explain  the vastness of nature by creating myths telling how the nature around them came to be and how to live in harmony with it. The theory is that the cradle of all religions is a desire to connect with and find explanations for an overwhelming experience (often a terrifying one) in nature.

25 January 2014

Attempt to define what I'm doing

There is a tension that I feel every time I think about writing. Part  of me says, "I want to do this as a Christian, for God's glory. I want everything that I write to point to Him." Then another part of me says "No you don't." The first of these I understand and embrace. Here's what I mean by the second. 

By identifying myself as a Christian writer, I run the risk of instantly being marginalized or lumped into the same category as writers of Christian pop fiction. A lot of the fiction that is being written by Christians has to do with heavy-handed preaching, loose copying of secular fiction (except that someone gets saved at the end), or ineffective attempts write good prose. It's kind of like Christian radio in that sense. What ends up happening is the power of the gospel is watered down or completely lost, and the only people who end up reading it are Christians who buy it because it is a 'Christian thriller'.  I don't want to be thrown into that group by announcing my intention to write Christian fiction/poetry. To be perfectly honest, I am hesitant to tell people  at my church that I am interested in writing because so often they ask me if I have read the newest novel by Frank Peretti. To be fair, I have read some of his novels and they are not bad. They are just in no way what I am getting at. I want to write fiction that will invite those who know nothing about Christianity to read along. I also want to write stories that will invigorate Christian readers. Hopefully it will be stories that will make people think, and maybe even squirm a bit.

19 March 2012

The Car

Here is a story of mine.  I've decided to just link to the google doc rather than post the entire story here. But I'll give you the first page or two here.

They bounced alongside the interstate on the abandoned dirt road, each silent, if not exactly in thought, in an attempt to look thoughtful. His right hand and her left rested on the center console, close enough to touch if either of them wanted to. His fingers tapped anxiously on the front lip near the clasp and hers dangled, almost slipping down into the shadow between the seat and the console. He scanned the bumpiness ahead with intensity, looking for any glimmer or waver in the air that would let him know the gypsy lady hadn’t lied. Susan, who could not believe the gypsy woman, rested her head against the side window, staring through her graying hair out at the dust. It  swirled around the car in billowing eddies that belied the clean, ‘new car’ interior. For five years she had put up with this pilgrimage as Arlin meticulously traced the route they had taken so haphazardly on their honeymoon twenty years before. She was ready to be with the nonsense.

Arlin believed in the gypsy ju-ju because he had to. The promise that being in an exact place where they had been in the past at an exact time of the day when they had been there would allow them to go back and relive the past was a narcotic to him. Susan didn’t believe any of it, but told Arlin that she did, sure that the tarot cards and fortune telling had been carnival tricks to fool the gullible and the desperate. On the way home from the fair, when he told her he wanted to try to find where they had stopped the morning after they got married so that they could go back and fix things, she’d simply added the idea to the long list of his deficiencies. She never thought he would take it so far as to go out and look for their old Chevy Malibu, though and only accompanied him because it was the only thing the worked on together.

If you want to read the rest, open this google doc.

12 March 2012

Night and Day

Another poem of mine. I still have edits I want to make. In fact, I removed the second half of the original poem because they were clashing a little bit too much.

At night, the lights from the barrios are the Milkyway.
At dawn, slum and slime wash
over the hills of houses.

The sun sucks life from the morning-glory.
That shriveled flower of the hill where nothing grows,
except faerie-girls named Flor,
All day they sleep off regrets,
Preparing their hidden blooms for night's enchantment

When those hovels are fields of fireflies,
the world is enchanted forest,
haunted by revolution, parity, and miscast god-
mother spells

Pistils and stamen quiver,
petals contort.
The wink and dance and fleeting payoff –
the hum of Flors' wings.
Every pin-pricked light gleams
burnished solidarity.
The fairies and ogres blow themselves out
at the stroke of dawn
when incandescent glass slips into second place.

23 February 2012

Sunset on the Beach

Here's a poem I wrote last fall.

Sometimes my daughter and I waltz on the beach.
I bow, she curtsies, and music rises from across the world.
How gracefully evening serenades the sea.
Does the foam know
those wind-whipped harmonies
are a dirge?

What if the star that winks our cadence
has already burst,
scattering dregs of afterglow
over our wishing?
Would the shattered spindle curse her
Even as she reaches almost far enough to touch
evening's first pinprick.

The sun is just over 8 light-minutes from my head. That half-circle
nesting on the horizon makes up 99.8 percent
of the mass in the solar system. And then there's Jupiter.
We are only an asterisk.
Why can't I just dance and wish for unicorns?

Until now, I've mostly hidden my faults.
And while she still orbits me,
Other lights, brighter,
more massive, threaten to collide.

Her clapping hands will always fit between my fingers, won't they?
I capture this moment. My fists are strong to clasp it to my heart.
The next wave laps my ankle and my daughter's hand
slips from mine as she dances up the beach without me.

04 June 2010

The purpose of fiction

One of the questions that most frequently rattles through my head is, "What is the purpose of fiction?" Actually, I wonder this about all art, but quickly dart into the fiction corner for fear of overwhelming myself. A related question has to do with the place of story. Story is not always fiction, and for me that's where things get a little muddled. Story lets us experience the life, the thoughts, the existence of someone else. The most effective stories welcome us in to such a level that they move us as we observe characters' actions and feelings. Many things can do this and some are extremely specific to the reader. Nostalgia, poignancy, and shared experiences jump out as examples of this. A reader's and a writer's cultures also affect this process greatly. Nevertheless story has always been a bedrock of each people-group and culture throughout history.

I understand, at least more than I do with fiction the importance of story. But fiction is a crazy concept. Here's why: It starts with a drive or urge inside someone to express an idea, an urge strong enough to compel that person to spend a long time thinking, planning, evaluating, and finally writing something down. Through the miracle of creativity, once vague or disconnected observations coalesce to form a coherent, meaningful, and hopefully understandable piece of work. This piece of work is unified throughout and is inextricably tied to the writer's world-view. In addition to all that, when well done, it can be a thing of beauty. That astounds me. The creative process runs its course and results in a beautiful contribution to the voice of humanity. That God would allow beauty to stem in such a way from a corrupt people is truly amazing.

But that's not even the best part. Take this beautiful labor of love and consider that it speaks to the experience of another soul who reads or hears it. A work of fiction can be paradigm shifting for the reader. The ideas, the flashes of insight, and the questions that percolated in the writer are able to effect change, stretch ways of thinking, and challenge the world-views of those who read it. Lives have been changed by reading fiction, both for good and for evil. Well written fiction can be terribly powerful, able to alter the course of a life, or even of history.