Category Archives: essays

The Week in Words (August 7)

At the Editor’s Desk

After last week’s big reveal of my other project, I think it’s time to get back to a real focus on what brings us all together here: hating Dan Brown.

Freelance Services

It’s a shame that I’ve never gotten around to preparing a sales page around here, but as some of my blog posts in the last couple weeks have probably hinted, I do have some valuable services to sell. In addition to my own extensive experience with creative and technical writing, I’ve done writing coaching, document design (fiction and nonfiction), story editing, voice editing, line editing, copy editing, and several types of copy writing.

At the moment, I’m working on breaking into grant writing, and I’m in talks to maybe do a ghost writing gig. It all sounds like a lot of fun.

Incidentally, since I don’t have a strong sales process set up at the moment, I’ve got some open availability, so if you find yourself in need of some of those services, you can feel free to send me an email (or use the site’s Contact Form) to ask me for an estimate. I’m not cheap, but I’m terribly good.

The Girl Who Stayed the Same

There’s the technical and the creative writing to do, though, and I’m still going strong on my current work-in-progress. This week I finished chapter seven and started chapter eight of The Girl Who Stayed the Same.

Someone finally asked Jonas if he was an angel (and he answered with a qualified no), and we also learned that Jonas is really terrible at chess. He’s also pretty emotionally unstable, but what do you expect from a dude who hangs around with artists all the time?

On Unstressed Syllables

This week we covered two major topics: following directions and preparing a document according to the rules (specifically grant applications), and following the rules and writing stories with due respect for your readers.

Sunday I introduced the Technical Writing series on grant applications with a story about my three-year-old daughter learning to read…by memorizing the shapes of words. It’s limited in a way phonetic alphabets aren’t supposed to be, but it’s also advanced in a way three-year-olds aren’t supposed to be, so I’m considering the whole thing a wash.

Then on Monday I talked about grant money, selection committees, and how grant writing is just like the slush pile all over again. It’s frustrating in ways, but it also gives experienced novelists a leg up on the competition.

Then Tuesday I took it a step further, saying that grant writing is just like writing Shakespearean sonnets. The metaphor isn’t perfect, but the application is — if you can learn to express your ideas well within someone else’s strict structure, you’re ready to call yourself a professional writer (and start raking in the dough).

On Wednesday, Courtney waxed domestic with a story about sewing up some torn garments, and in the process taught us how to patch up holes in our stories’ plots. It can be a lot of work, and it’s certainly the sort of thing we’re often tempted to let pile up on our To Do lists, but a little extra effort can save a story from becoming scrap, and turn it into a perfectly serviceable Saturday shirt.

Thursday I introduced the Creative Writing series on writing rules with a story about Trish trying to watch The Da Vinci Code in spite of all my lecturing. The lecture’s got to go someplace, though! So I spilled it through onto Friday and Saturday, too.

On Friday I talked about respecting your readers, and specifically focused on understanding and deliberately crafting your book’s reading experience. When you consider how your story affects your readers (and what they’re offering in exchange for your storytelling), it becomes far easier to stick to some of the core rules of writing.

Today’s article tied that up with a detailed look at what some of those rules are: premise, verisimilitude, and the unforgivable sin named “Deus Ex.” It’s been a pretty academic week, and if you’ve followed along you probably deserve a couple hours of college writing credits for it. Alas, my blog isn’t yet accredited.

Around the Web

I also found a couple of good articles around the web this week, that I thought you might find interesting. They’re certainly relevant to our most recent discussion.

  • Writing this week’s aggressive broadside against popular novelist Dan Brown, I couldn’t help thinking about literary agent Nathan Bransford’s fantastic article last week, The One Question a Writer Should Never Ask.

  • Wouldn’t you know it, though, Bransford followed up with another excellent post this week on the same topic, Writing vs. Storytelling. Be sure you read both of these — you’ll be a better writer for it.

Social Anxiety

I woke up this morning with grand plans for a blog post all about the role of vampires in fantasy literature. I spent much of the morning thinking about it, composing, and then over lunch something happened. As I was leaving the restaurant, a small group went out ahead of me: three grown men, and a young boy. He couldn’t have been older than six, but as the four of them crossed the parking lot he was joking with the others, carrying on an effortless conversation in the most natural way.

As I got in my car, I realized with a shock that I could remember that. I’d been that boy, years and years and years ago.

Sometime in the last couple years, I’ve started using the phrase “social anxiety.” It’s become a tag for my blog posts, it’s become an excuse for missing social events, and it’s become a lot of misunderstanding. I imagine it’s become a little tiresome, too. I’ve made an effort to be open and honest about it — sharing as much of myself as I can to those people who’ve earned some explanation. The last time I tried, someone asked me if I could remember when it started, but my memory failed me. Seeing that little boy outside Buffalo Wild Wings reminded me of a life I’d lived before social anxiety, though. And then I realized that, even though very few of my friends have experienced life with social anxiety, I’ve experienced life without it. That gives me a touchstone, if nothing else.

I know a handful of extroverts, but the one who stands out most in my mind is Brent Lightsey, a fellow in our small group at church. He’s so outgoing, so anxious to meet new people and make them feel at ease. It’s clear anytime you’re around him that he takes energy from that interaction and delights in everyone he meets. Social encounters really make his day.

I know a lot of introverts, too, and I’m certainly one myself. When it comes to introverts, social encounters are draining. It takes effort to be friendly, even with people you like, and when the social experience is over, an introvert needs a little time alone to get back up to speed. Then there’s the person with social anxiety. When it comes to real anxiety, it’s not just draining. It’s not just uncomfortable. Social encounters make me feel like I’m dying.

That’s not an exaggeration, not hyperbole to get your attention. If you want some corroboration, go look up the symptoms of an anxiety attack. They come in varying degrees of intensity, but even moderate anxiety attacks are often mistaken for heart attacks — to the extent that a person’s first anxiety attack almost always takes him to the emergency room. You can’t catch your breath, and you feel like you’re about to throw up. Tension builds in your chest until it aches, and often your heart races until you can feel your pulse pounding in your ears. Your limbs go weak without warning, and if it’s bad enough you find yourself unable to focus your eyes, to maintain a train of thought.

That’s not shyness. Shy doesn’t send you to the hospital. That’s not being an introvert. That’s not antisocial, either, because it has nothing to do with your attitude, with your intentions, with how much you like the person you’re talking to. It’s a physical response, not an intellectual one.

That’s not Asperger’s, either. There are people who are incapable of normal human interaction, either because they fundamentally cannot understand other people or because they haven’t developed basic social skills. That’s not my problem. I’m not the most charismatic guy in the room, but I can play my part. I can make friends, I can charm, I can be the life of the party.* It’s just that, for days beforehand and days after, I’m crippled by the physical toll of it.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ve probably noticed I’ve been talking a lot about Courtney in the last month. Courtney is arguably the first new friend I’ve made in seven years, and part of the reason that actually happened is because we have so much in common. Courtney and I are both writers. We’ve both been writers since high school. We’re both long-time fans of the fantasy genre, and of sci-fi, and just basically both huge nerds. We’re both multi-lingual, fascinated with linguistics, and interested in all the languages of Man. We both went through the same degree program at OC — just a couple years apart. We were both in the Honors program. We both grew up in the same faith. We’re both monarchists.

After our writer’s group last month I stuck around to talk with Courtney some, to share stories about our lives. We’ve exchanged novels and shared fantastic feedback and discussion. We’ve compared music and movies and favorite authors, and we’ve read each other’s blogs in all their verbose monstrosity. It’s fair to say we’re real friends at this point.

And then last Wednesday night, in the four-minute break between class and service, I caught Courtney to comment on her novel and borrow a book she’d recommended. We stood in the aisle between two rows of pews, and discussed some of the same sort of things we’ve exchanged (literally) hundreds of pages of digital communication on, and I spent the whole time feeling ill.

The topics were things I was perfectly comfortable with, so a sane part of my mind carried on the conversation, but at the same time another part of my brain was screaming in frantic panic, trying to figure out what to do. “What am I going to say when she stops talking? Am I going to sound like an idiot?”Neither one of those was a problem — that other part of my brain was responding casually, easily, but the irrational fear was there anyway. “How long are we supposed to stand here talking? When is the bell going to ring? Are we in people’s way? Should I be talking to Jeff? What about Nicki? I just got up and left them in the pew. How am I going to wrap up this conversation? What can I say to get out of it? Maybe I should just run away. I’d look like an idiot. But I look like an idiot now, right? What am I going to say? What am I going to do?” All of it a screaming fury that I had to pretend wasn’t there.

And all of it absurd. Don’t feel bad if you laughed at any of that, because it’s ridiculous. The moment the bell rang and Courtney said, “Oh, I guess we should sit down,” it was gone. All of that frantic panic. All of the thoughts that had gone with it. But it’s not just the fleeting nature of the experience that tells me it’s false. I can find the words, I can identify the specific fears, and I recognize them as totally baseless. I do know what to say next. I’m fairly confident I don’t sound like an idiot (because people keep wanting to talk to me). I even know how to wrap up a conversation. To me, that frantic voice has to be a manufactured expression of something physical. Something more primitive, and outside of my reason.

It happens every time I talk to anyone, though. I described my encounter with Courtney so you could see the absurdity of it, because we have so much in common, and that social encounter was predicated entirely on the things we have in common. True, she’s a new friend, but I feel the same thing when I find myself in a one-on-one conversation with Kris, or even Dan. I’ve been friends with Dan for as long as I’ve been me. I experience the same thing when I call up Trish to ask her if she could pick up some Dr Pepper while she’s at the store, or anytime I walk into my boss’s office to talk about work.

It’s fleeting. Minutes after that conversation with Courtney I was better — albeit a little bit ashamed — and that’s the way these things go. The physical symptoms that went with it were maybe a little difficulty breathing, maybe a little pain in my chest, but nothing you’d really be surprised by. The full anxiety attack usually grows out of big events: a long weekend spent with family, a Halloween party with our small groups, a writer’s group where I’m going to do a lot of talking.

If I see it coming, that panic starts a long, long time before I ever lock eyes with anyone. It messes with my sleep schedule, sometimes for weeks. It messes up my appetite for days beforehand, and hits me with real nausea all day the day of. In the hours before the event, I often find myself wandering around aimlessly, unable to concentrate on anything at all. I’ll usually lie down somewhere dark and quiet, and tell myself it’s just an anxiety attack — it’ll be over soon enough — and mostly I just try to breathe.

Then when it’s over the let-down is almost as bad. There’s almost always a severe headache from the sudden disappearance of all that stress. I can never sleep the night after, with the sickening rush of adrenaline still in my system, and usually I still feel sick to my stomach, too, after days of irregular appetite. The worst of it, though, is the real shame that comes from realizing how much of the last few days (and weeks, and months) I’ve spent agonizing over something so trivial.

That’s social anxiety. In case you were curious.

* references available upon request

The Secret to a Successful Marriage

I was at lunch at Taco Bueno today and T– called to talk about a garage sale she wants to do sometime next month. At the end of our conversation, we spoke over each other a little saying, “I love you, bye.”

We do that at the end of pretty much every phone call. Sometimes it’s, “Hey, I forgot the garage door opener. I need you to hit the button so I can come in the house.” The call still ends with, “I love you, bye.”

I was thinking about that, after I got off the phone, and realized how important that little exchange is. It’s just something silly — and you could easily say it’s something overdone, undervaluing the real meaning of the expression, maybe, repeated so often — but it’s something we started doing when we were going out in high school. It started out as a stupid teenager thing, and we just never stopped doing it. Now we’ve been married for ten years, and I’m ready to call it the secret to a successful marriage.

I’m not talking about communicating affection, or keeping the romance alive, or anything as vague and trite as that. There’s nothing particularly beneficial about the way we end our phone calls, but there’s something special about the fact that T– and I — who have been romantically linked for, what, seventeen years now — are still caught up in a habit we started way back then. The important part isn’t even the habit. It’s the seventeen years.

Because when it comes right down to it, the real secret to a successful marriage is having a long marriage. That’s it. I can say that with some confidence, because everyone I’ve ever talked with who’s in a successful marriage has made that same point, in one way or another. That’s what it means when someone says, “Oh, we’ve had some rough times. But we toughed it out, and we’re better for it.” That’s what it means when someone says, “You’re not always in love with each other — heck, you don’t always even like each other!” That’s the whole reason the ceremony is built upon vows instead of love poems. Forget forging a bond between two destined lovers, forget the charming image that is one soul inhabiting two bodies.

The cornerstone of a strong marriage is staying married. The longer you do that, the better it is. Because in the end, it’s not about having someone to make you laugh or someone to make your skin feel tingly. It’s about having another person you can rely on, you can believe in, you can trust every bit as much as you do yourself. That’s what you’re working toward, and the only way to get there is through pain and suffering — through hurt and betrayal and disappointment and life situations that just make staying together impossible. Do it anyway, and that makes it just a little bit easier next time, and all those next times stack up, until you don’t worry anymore. Someday, somewhere down the line, you realize it’s not even a question anymore. There’s two yous that you can count on when things get rough. There’s somebody else sitting next to you on the couch when it’s cold outside. It takes dedication and courage and, at times, sheer obstinacy, but the result is what everyone was looking for from the very start: A relationship without fear, without doubt, without a shred of uncertainty.

The recipe is simple, but entirely unfair. The only secret to a successful marriage is succeeding at marriage, again and again, even when you fail. Sorry .

Writing Workshop: Verily. Verily

An easy rule in good writing (or, specifically, rewriting) is this:

Steadfastly avoid using the word “very.”

Furthermore, when you go to cut it out, try to resist replacing it with a more specific adjective (“vastly,” “immensely,” “extraordinarily”). Any of those is better than “very,” but they don’t dodge the problem. It’s much, much better to say “She moved at a jog” or “She moved at a sprint” (see how much control over the visualization that gives me?) than to say “She moved at a very fast pace.”

There is a perfectly explicable reason behind the rule. When you are narrating a story to someone, your goal is to make them believe it. When you say, “The castle was big,” as the narrator, your goal is to make the reader think of a big castle. And, helpfully, the reader’s fist instinct is to believe you, and imagine a big castle. You can say it was “enormous” or “monstrous” or “ponderously large” and all of those evoke slightly different variations on the mental image. However, when you say, “The castle was very big,” it doesn’t actually make the image any bigger. “Big” already told the reader what to imagine. When you say “very big,” the reader’s first reaction is “How big?” And, immediately on the heels of that comes the thought, “Wait, how big was it really?

In other words, the effect of adding “very” to any description in text actually serves to make the reader question the authenticity of the narrative. Your goal as a writer is to make the reader believe you (except in rare and artsy-fartsy circumstances), and by instinct the reader does, right up until you toss in “very.”

You can get into even more trouble using words designed solely to convey authenticity, throwing in “honestly” and “truly.” It’s natural for writers to do this — it’s exactly how someone would convey intensity when telling a story around a campfire — but there is a vast and inescapable difference between a campfire story and a novel.

It’s not just a matter of style or voice, either. It’s a matter of psychology. When your audience is reading a story, they process the information provided to them in a fundamentally different manner than they use when someone is telling them a story in person. Good speakers often have the same problem as good storytellers when they try to write down a story, because the rhetorical tricks that people use in speech, even employed flawlessly in book, just don’t work the same way in print. In fact, effect is often the opposite of what you intended.

Because, just like with “very,” when your narrator says, “honestly she was relieved that he had fainted,” the reader’s immediate reaction is to think, “Wait, how honest is that really?” And that’s the opposite of the effect you want. That’s the reader questioning your narrator, which means for a while he won’t believe anything the narrator tells him.

Exception!
Whenever I give rules on the construction of sentences (and, just, generally the way you say things in a book), there is a major exception in place for dialog. In dialog, your only goal is to realistically represent the way people sound when talking. You can do characterization by having a character use weak verb forms. You can cast doubt on the credibility of a character by having him say “honestly” and “truly” every other sentence. You can use mixed metaphors and sentence fragments all you want in dialog, because it’s supposed to sound how that person sounds, and most of our bad writing habits come from perfectly acceptable speech.

So you don’t have to go through your book and delete every single “very,” because some of them will be in dialog, and people say “very” all the time in speech. Actually, that’s an important point. The reason we don’t bother teaching people (other than writers) to avoid “very” is because you don’t have the time to pick the precisely accurate noun and verb for every sentence when you’re rattling off ideas one after the other in a conversation. That’s also why I clarified at the top of this post that avoiding “very” is a rule for rewriting. It is perfectly fine to use in a rough draft narrative, but needs to be cleaned out in the rewrite, when you do have time now to pick the right words.

Greatness: Heart’s Desire

There’s a verse in the Psalms that took me by surprise, first time I read it.

“Delight yourself in the Lord; and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

That’s Psalm 37:4. It’s in a familiar vein, “Ask and you shall receive,” and the kid asking his father for a loaf of bread, and even the insistent widow. That’s all Jesus, though, right? I mean, he was a generous guy. It struck me, though, reading the psalmist saying the same sort of thing….

Prayer is a serious thing, in the Bible. It’s a powerful thing. We are encouraged and ordered to use it. And not just for meditation, not just as an opportunity to spread our lives before God, and hopefully gain a new perspective. We are directly instructed to ask for what we want, because God wants to be our provider. He makes that clear, again and again. Look what he was trying to do in Eden.

That Psalm caught my attention when I was a boy, back when I was about sixteen, and I put it to the test. I felt confident in that time, because I did delight in the Lord, I was certain of that, and more importantly, I knew without a doubt the desire of my heart. And I didn’t have it.

So I prayed. I prayed, and in the night I had a dream, a glimpse of the life I wanted to have, years off, and that was enough for me. I took confidence from that moment, and I received what I asked for then.

That was a powerful experience for me.

A prayer isn’t a birthday cake wish, y’know? I don’t think it needs to be a secret. Sitting in church last Sunday, the man was saying this or that about relying on God, about letting him exercise his power within your life. That’s something I believe in, as all of you know. I believe the world is a malleable thing, that reality can be bent for the purposes of God or man. I nodded, understanding and encouraged, even, and suddenly I remembered high school, and that desperate prayer….

I have a heart’s desire, in my life today. I have lots of things to ask for (and hope that they will be given). We have a baby on the way, and I want her to be healthy. I want Trish to be healthy through it all, and I worry about that. I want lots of little things, the comforts that require wealth beyond what I already have. I pray a lot. I ask for a lot. But those are just things. Somehow, in my head at least, I’ve separated such prayers, such petitions, from the sort of desire the psalmist was talking about.

My heart’s desire, today and now, is to be a best-selling writer. I want to publish a work, and have it read by the world. I want to write, stories and lessons and snapshots, to show readers what the world was and is and could be. I want my name to be remembered, for the words that I said. I have a message that I want heard, I have talents, gifts, that I want to use. I want the money. Not that — I want the opportunity. I want my writing to be my life.

I was an A student in elementary school. I was good at everything except multiplication. I could teach myself, given the right books, and I usually managed to get them. I had a lot of plans for the future. For most of my childhood, they had nothing to do with writing.

A lot of you have known me for a long time, but if you haven’t heard me tell this story, you don’t know this story. That is to say, most of you know me as a writer, but none of you were there, at the crucial moment, when I discovered why I was a writer. Maybe Josh, but no one else.

I was maybe twelve. Probably eleven. We’d had a handful of writing projects over the last year, and I’d done well enough on them (but, then, I did well on all of my projects, as long as they weren’t based on multiplication). One day I was thinking through the writing process, though. The actual job description, of the sort of person who writes stories, and I realized it would be a home job. Maybe a nice office, maybe just a pad of paper on the kitchen table, but it would be a home job.

I wanted that, because I wanted to be home for my kids. I wanted to be home with my family, even when I was working. That picture stuck in my head, and I’ve never shaken it. Even times when I was certain I didn’t want kids, it was mostly because of some variation of the disappointment at realizing I wouldn’t be able to realize that picture.

I was twelve. That’s how I thought when I was twelve. Yeesh.

That’s my heart’s desire. I have a great job now, a fantastic one, that pays well and demands nothing of me but those things at which I excel, those things I can do easily and quickly and well. Given some of the things that have been discussed recently, it could get even better. And it’s a better job than I deserve, considering the effort I’ve put into it. I chalk that up to a blessing, a gift. I’m in no position to complain, and I realize that.

But my heart’s desire is to be a writer, just a writer, completely a writer, for my family. That last bit matters, too. I could have been a starving artist. I could have refused to take a job, and chased after every avenue available to me to get a book sold (in a market that is incredibly difficult to get a foot in the door), but it’s about more than that to me. That’s why I described my picture, my goal when I was twelve. I want it for my family, not in spite of my family. I want something better than I deserve to have, something I maybe had a shot at in the past, but I’ve squandered my opportunities. I want something that would completely change my life. I want it as a gift, served up on a silver platter.

Why not? It’s happened before.

I do delight in the Lord. Maybe not as loudly as I did back then. Certainly not as dogmatically. But I do. And I crave this, looking through the few short days between now and then, I want this very much. Please, let it be so. Amen.

God and Greatness: The Writing Process, and Censorship

My older sister Heather has started reading Sleeping Kings, and she somehow stumbled across this website (and pity to her for that), and she read and responded to my post on The DaVinci Code (something none of you regulars were brave enough to do!).

That conversation was here:
http://www.xanga.com/alexpoet/487784416/greatness-the-power-of-the-written-word.html

I started to reply to her comment, and in my reply I said some things that I wanted everybody to hear, so I’m making a new post instead of a comment.

Now, in response to Heather’s direct questions, I have this to say: don’t ever feel guilty about writing something inconsequential. My complaints against The DaVinci Code were based on the fact that he wrote something extremely consequential and treated it as though it weren’t. It is hard to go too far in that direction (pretending your stuff matters).

In fact, I think the most important element for a writer is to care, which you (Heather) obviously do.

There are writers who write just to play with language (think Alice in Wonderland), or just to tell an interesting story. That’s okay, as long as you’re writing insignificant things (or things clearly established as fictional, which is the difference between, say, Kate and Leopold and The Patriot). The DaVinci Code goes out of its way to seem real, while playing extremely fast and loose with the base elements of people’s worlds (as one would expect from fantasy).

Mainly, it’s important that you, as a writer, try to write responsibly. Sometimes you’ll do a good job of it, sometimes you’ll make mistakes. Both aspects are important to your learning process (and, as a direct result, to your eventual potential to do good).

Please don’t misunderstand me. Every story should be interesting. Most of them should be entertaining. Those aren’t inherently bad things, but when you’re writing (or reading) just to get that feeling, it becomes like eating just for the taste (and ignoring the far more important aspects of nutrition).

Like anything, though, the learning process is not the same as the master craft. My advice to you, now, is to focus on the stories you most want to tell, for whatever reason. Every single page you write at this point benefits you in a dramatic way. As a writer, and as a person. Writing, no matter what the topic, is a process that involves examining the world you live in, finding your place within it, as well as the place of your topic, and trying to understand and communicate. These are the most basic elements of human existence, and the foundation of human society. So, yeah, I realize I’m a writer and this sounds self-aggrandizing, but the very process of writing makes a person better at being a person.

Not necessarily a good person. That depends on what you’re writing, and what you’re thinking, and all of that.

Now…as to that. Heather asked me specifically which stories to tell, what lessons to teach. And, again, my answer for someone just starting to write is, “Anything that interests you enough to keep writing about it.” Once you’ve gotten past that, though — once you’ve learned to commit yourself to writing in order to get something accomplished, then the process of choosing which story to tell is no different from choosing anything else you could communicate in any other medium. On this point, I’d like to mention something Milton once wrote.

Milton (of Paradise Lost fame, and the author of the bulk of our religious imagery and mythology) became involved in a massive political debate on the topic of censorship. He wrote a fairly well-known (to Lit majors, that is) essay on the topic, which he published as part of the debate.

I should mention that he was an extremely conservative Christian. He held fairly extreme opinions on the idea of obscenity, and it’s safe to say that he was on the “against” side. When the king began taking serious steps in support of censorship, though, Milton strongly opposed him. Milton was a man of considerable social influence at the time (so there was no chance his opposition would go unnoticed), and, yeah, this was that time in history when opposing a king was still a Very Bad Idea.

So Milton, a total prude of a man, risked life and limb to oppose censorship. His reasoning went thus:

* We, as Christians, believe that good is good, in itself, not just because of our belief and support.

* We believe that good is stronger than evil, that right will triumph over wrong.

* Therefore, any idea or message that is right should win out over a message that is wrong, in a state of free competition.

* It follows, then, that any message that cannot stand without our protection is not entirely right. If we have to force an idea (or protect it from attack or ridicule), then it is not of God. It is not right.

* It also follows that any message we know to be wrong should be exposed to public scrutiny, rather than hidden from it, so that the idea can be destroyed in free competition (or, perhaps, proven right in spite of our expectations). If the idea, freed from censorship, stands against our wishes, that means the idea is not as wrong as we wanted to believe.

* Right and wrong are not a matter of our comfort, or our preference. After all, Jesus said a lot of things that a lot of strongly religious people wanted to keep quiet. Part of the reason we believe today, is because Jesus’ ideas were able to stand the test of time.

Okay, I studied that essay about six years ago, and I’ve thought about it a lot since then, so I don’t know 100% how much of that logic was Milton’s, and how much of it is mine, derived from Milton’s basic points. I think it’s got a lot going for it.

One thing that I know he said, and that I cannot possibly overstate, is that — based on these other ideas — the Christian as a reader ought to strive to become exposed to absolutely as many ideas as possible, so as to learn about right and wrong, so as to test them. We earnestly believe that good will triumph over evil, and every time we try to protect good, to hide the right from the ravages of wrong, we deny our own belief — we show clearly that we don’t have faith in right’s rightness.

Greatness: The Power of the Written Word

We went to see The DaVinci Code yesterday….

Here’s the thing. I’m often going to be called a snob, or just generally hateful toward popular culture, and to some extent both of those things are true. I mean, I just hate Tom Hanks because I hate him — I’ve got no good reasons.

The DaVinci Code, though, and that damn Anne Rice — those I hate for different reasons.

See, I’ve lived most of my life thinking of myself as a writer. And, as all of you know, I’m a very introspective sort of person, so I’ve paid close attention to what I was doing. More than that, I’ve always felt it was my religious calling to write, that my gifts were given in order to accomplish something.

And that leads straight to my point. Writing matters. Art matters. Our cultural symbolism and stories shape the worlds we live in, and they can do that in very powerful ways. This includes popular music and dime novels and all of it. Interview with the Vampire shapes our view of the world in exactly the same way that Stoker’s Dracula does. Except, of course, for the new shape presented.

And if that’s true, then it says something about the role of writers. Not just that they’re important (which, of course, I believe is true), but that they have a responsibility. If I’m writing two hundred pages of chitchat to entertain you in your free time, then my sole responsibility is to write something that entertains. I could throw in some deep, thought-provoking dialogue if I wanted to, as long as it didn’t detract from the entertainment value. That’s how Kris, for instance, feels that most popular entertainment works. I think that’s how most people approach it. “It’s just a movie.” That sort of thing.

But if our entertainment shapes the way we view the world, then everything changes. Then every book you read and every movie you write changes your world (for better or for worse). The entertainment value, then, is not the point of the piece, but the bait that keeps you in the trap long enough for it to have its full effect.

Everything I’ve seen of literature (and believe me, I’ve seen a lot of it) indicates that the latter is true. And, as I’ve said, not just for high literature but for every soap opera or trashy romance novel you ever read (or, hitting closer to home, every opinionated website or goofy collection of flash animations). There’s a thousand ways in which it works, too.

First, we all build meaning in our lives based on stories. You learn that the stove is dangerous through an autobiography: “And then, in spite of all the ‘nos’ and ‘hot! bad!’ from Mom, I touched the hot stove, and it hurt.” That story gives meaning to “no” and “hot” and “bad.” They’re no longer just shouted admonitions, and no longer just empty instructions, backed by the threat of punishment. They are meaningful warnings of the dangers the world holds.

As we get older, we get better at interpreting and applying stories. We learn to listen to biographies. “Tommy got caught lying to teacher and he got fifteen swats!” And so we add pieces to our picture of the world without having to directly experience them. Of course, this is also when we become vulnerable to lies (and fiction) misshaping our world.

And, of course, we eventually learn to respond to fiction, to allegory, to metaphor. We learn to listen to a story that’s not real, or not about anyone we know, or not directly applicable to our lives, and take the meaning out of it that does apply to our lives. Think of your favorite parable (Zen or Christian, doesn’t matter), and you know exactly what I’m talking about.

A major portion of the human experience comes from listening to stories and applying them to our lives. A major portion of the adult experience is burying that process so deep beneath our conscious awareness that only Literature and Film majors are expected to ever talk about it, and they’re considered a little goofy for doing it.

But you do it. You internalize the messages of the media that you participate in. This doesn’t mean you ape the actions you see on the screen or read on the page. Watching a violent movie or playing a violent video game doesn’t make you a violent person. Rather, it adds a vivid awareness of violence to your view of the world. There are some people who really believe the world isn’t a violent place, and for them, watching (I dunno) Pulp Fiction or playing GTA would seem so terrible….

You know why? Because it’s actively challenging and reshaping their world.

And here’s the thing: violent games can make violent people act violent. It’s not the game making them violent, though. It’s a part of their personality made visible in their environment. If violent games couldn’t do that to us, then inspiring stories couldn’t lead people to do great things, and romantic stories couldn’t melt hardened hearts. The world around us is far too big to take in all at once, so we view it, constantly, through personal filters. Dynamic filters. Stories help us to change the filters, ever so slightly, to see something that was hidden before, or to see something familiar in a new light. In the most dramatic cases, this leads to action (good or bad), but far more often it’s a subtle change, that will persist until the next story changes your filters again….

It’s a deliberate process, too, from the writer’s point of view. Let me use an example that I mentioned to Trish yesterday, after watching the movie. There’s a scene in the movie (I doubt this is any kind of spoiler) when Joe and Magneto are debating some of the finer aspects of mythical history. They accept from the start that the church is a fraud actively perpetrated against humanity, and (from that base) get into a really heated debate about whether the fraud was perpetrated this way or that way. It’s easy to get caught up in the debate.

That’s something we are taught in Creative Writing classes. It’s a fantastic trick. Because the reader, who (knowing they are reading fiction) is actively working to believe your fantasy story (at least enough to keep reading). Part of the unconscious process of reading fiction is distinguishing which parts of the story you’re supposed to take for granted (just as part of the story), and which parts you’re supposed to consider suspect (such as individual characters’ motivations). If I wrote a book on Church history and said outright that this or that had happened, you would stop and think, “No, that can’t be right, it goes against so much other historical evidence.”

If, though, I hand you a fictional story and say, “Read this, it’s entertaining,” and then within the story I suggest that the same thing happened, you are trained to accept that just within the confines of the story. That works out really well for sci-fi and fantasy, because usually the fantastic premise is something that you’d have to work really hard to incorporate into your regular worldview. Something like “the Catholic church is out to get us,” though…that’s something a lot of people want to think anyway. So it’s a lot easier to accidentally take it with you when you put the book down.

So, back to my example from the movie. When Forest and Gandalf are arguing the fine details (“The Christians started it!” “Nuh uh, the pagans started it!”) you evaluate these items the way you normally would a story element (that is, decide to accept it within the story, but reject it once the story is over). The very action of their debate keys you in that this is something you’re supposed to consider suspect. And, by contrast, the things that they agree on seem even more reasonable and less suspect than it normally would, because these dissenting voices agreed on it out-of-hand.

It’s just one of the tools that we, as writers, are taught to use to deliberately affect the way you, as readers, view the world. Sneaky little things that we drop between paragraphs while we’re crafting a story that’s entertaining enough to keep you reading. That’s the work of the author, and he has a responsibility to treat his readers right. Every orator out to change his audience’s mind has the same responsibility. The better you are at it, the more compelling your message or the more receptive your audience, the greater your responsibility to impact their world in a positive way.

Naturally, there have always been those who have abused the power of oratory. Some earnestly believed the message they were preaching (corrupt though it may have been). Some manipulated others for personal gain. The worst, though, are those so irresponsible that they toss world-changing words on a crowd at a whim, without thought of the consequences. Those who twist words for a quick buck, or just for the spectacle it produces.

I’ll spend most of my life striving to be able to impact people with my words, and the rest of it trying to make my words worthy of the people who hear them. It disgusts me, deep down, to see someone abusing that power.

That’s all.

Greatness: Archetypes

Daniel and Brad and I used to sit around discussing such things, and we once settled on a set of four symbols, four archetypes to define the various kinds of Great Men — those people living the deliberate, examined life.

These are the ones we settled on: the Shepherd and the Wolf, the Poet and the King. The Shepherd and the Wolf are pure archetypes, the Poet and the King are hybrids. I eventually defined them based on their focus, and their intended goal — self, or others.

The Shepherd
The Shepherd focuses on others for others’ sake. The Shepherd devotes his life to truly understanding the people he encounters, and to making their lives better.

The Wolf
The Wolf focuses on himself for his own sake. (These are mythical characterizations, not naturalistic ones — yes, I know that the wolf is actually a highly social animal, but I’m playing off the symbolism, not the science. So shove off!) The Wolf is highly independent, and most fit for survival in difficult circumstances.

The Poet
The Poet focuses on himself for others’ sake. He examines his life, his world, his thoughts and emotions to try to find some Truth to share with others. Unlike the Shepherd, he’s an introvert, independent.

The King
The King focuses (you’ve probably already guessed this, if you’ve been paying attention) on others for his own sake. The King is highly social, capable of getting along with others (through charm or manipulation or authority, or any combination of these), and focuses highly on the people around him in order to attain his own ends.

Just some things I find interesting. Thought I’d put them down on paper, as it were. My navel-gazing post prior had me feeling a little embarrassed, but then I decided, based on my archetypes, that it’s okay to do that from time to time (since I do strive to be like The Poet), so there you go.

And, anyway, that got me thinking about the archetypes, and I thought they should be documented somewhere. Comment if you like.

Greatness: Silence

Daniel has often commented that the time he spent with my whole family growing up has had a big impact on his friendship with me, as he has had the opportunity to see the dynamics and factors that went into making me who I am.

One of those factors, from the time I was about six, was noisiness. Most of you know or have my met sisters, and most of you probably won’t think that what I’m about to say is a fair characterization, but remember it was the appraisal of a six year old boy, concerning a seven year old girl and a four year old girl. Or something like that.

Anyway, that age was probably the earliest point in my life when I really stepped back and said, “I can see people behaving this way, and I choose to behave that way.” Heather had a good friend who lived nearby (and I didn’t, and that probably plays into this to some extent), and when she and Cheryl would get together, they would just talk and talk and talk. Chatter, it’s called. It wasn’t the volume, so much as the quantity, and the perfect obviousness of the fact that it was all nonsense. I mean, second grade gossip, how valuable is it gonna be?

And then there was Shannon, and with her it was the volume. She was the little one, and the last one, and she had to speak up to be heard at all, and when she caught on to that, she sure went all out. I think there was something wrong with her hearing for a little while, too? I’m not sure on that one. Anyway, she made noise.

And, even at that age, I decided that I really didn’t like all the noise, all the ruckus. I spent a lot of time playing by myself, out in the trees and pasture below our house, so I got used to the quiet anyway, and I just decided that that was more valuable, to me. Well, no, that’s not true. Back then I wasn’t so generous. I decided that noisiness was awful and horrible altogether, and that being mostly quiet was ideal.

And, of course, when I got together with my other friends, all six year old boys, I’m sure we raised quite a racket. I don’t remember doing that, but I’m sure we did. Whatever. The point is, I decided that an aspect of my personality was going to be silence, and I incorporated that into who I was.

I was talking with Trish about this on Monday, driving home from Little Rock, in case you’re wondering why I bring it up here. It’s not really something I’ve thought about recently, but it occupied my mind quite a bit in high school. I’ll get to that, in a moment.

So, way back then, I had a handful of friends from church, but church was about half an hour away, and most of them lived on the other side of it, so it’s not as though we saw each other at all aside from church events (and occasionally inviting one or two friends over for the afternoon on Sunday). Other than that, as I said, it was mostly the playing by myself. So this philosophical choice I’d make about Silence was pretty much a foregone conclusion, anyway.

But when I was twelve, my family moved to Wichita, and I was enrolled in a school that had a Gifted Program (and, y’know, more than 200 people K-12 — probably well over 200 people just in the middle school). This meant a lot more people for me to have someone in common with, and for the first time I had a group of friends at school. Friends I interacted with on a pretty much daily basis.

And most of my interacting was just practicing silence. It seems almost imagined, when I think back on it now, because it’s so different from who I am today. I would sit in a group of people who, adjusted for age, pretty much exactly matches the group of people I hung out with in high school, and the group of people I hung out with in college and, though the number has shrunk, the group of people I hang out with now.

Talkative people. People who listen to the news and ponder life’s big questions, and talk out of their ass from time to time just to sound sophisticated. People who debate constantly, trying to find an answer, or score a point, or challenge someone in a way that will make them think something new (or just get a rise out of them). It is a constant babble, but somehow it strikes me as different from the chatter, the meaningless blab that I’d discarded when I was little. So I didn’t mind it so much.

However (and this is the disconnect), when I was a part of this group in middle school, I would sit for hours and listen to them talking, but I wouldn’t participate. Not much. I mostly just listened. I assume I was the same way with the youth group, but I can’t say for sure, and the only people who really could (aside from maybe my parents) have known me for too long since then to answer with any more clarity than I can, I think.

But I definitely remember the dynamic among my friends at school, and for a rather embarrassingly vain reason….

Okay, I’ll tell you. When I was in sixth grade, I wrote my first novel. It was called The Scorekeeper, and it was about…errr…an archangel who came down to Earth (well, not Earth, but to the world where my fantasy novels are set) to convince four prophesied heroes to fulfill their destinies and save a kingdom. However — here was the tricky bit — even though he had foreknowledge and immense power, he wasn’t supposed to interfere. The heroes were supposed to have the adventure, because it was a human situation and humans were supposed to resolve it. So he followed along, watching these people, occasionally having a hearfelt discussion with one or another of them, and without ever touching the world he subtly, gracefully led them along the path for which they were destined.

Err…okay, it was my first novel, and I was in sixth grade, so the grace and subtlety weren’t what they should’ve been, but that was the point of the character.

And I remember one day, shortly after finishing it, I intervened in a conflict among a couple of my friends, and resolved it to everyone’s satisfaction, and Haley Rumback (I had such a crush on her at the time) stopped me in the hall between classes and said, “You really are the Scorekeeper, aren’t you? You’ll save us all.”

Okay, this whole post has been worth it to me, just for the warm memory. I’d forgotten that bit, mostly, until I worked my way up to it.

Anyway, that wasn’t something I’d intended at all, in the conception of the story, and I’d never thought of myself in that way, but when she said that, I thought about it heavily (as I tend to do), and I recognized this aspect of my interaction with my friends. The thing I’m talking about in this post, I mean, where I would sit back and listen, barely participate at all, but really listen, and when I did speak up, I had something so worth saying, that they all paid attention. And, at least that once, I was able to really help.

Man, those were good days….

Then there came a time, early in my high school career, when I decided that I could be sociable. That it was a matter of behavior, not genetics, and all it took was getting up and participating in the conversation, rather than hiding from it. This is one of my mom’s proudest memories of me, because she saw me learning to face social challenges, but it’s also one of the things I most regret about my own development.

Because it worked. I was successful, to an extent. You all know that I’m still a pretty shy person, that I still am very uncomfortable meeting someone for the first time, and I’d much rather interact in a small group than a large one (or out in public), but even so…I’m way better than I was in middle school.

Mostly, though, it’s just a matter of participation. I jump into the mix. I make wry comments when the opportunity arises (well, I think they’re wry). I start conversations, rather than waiting to see what others will talk about.

(I’m not bragging here — I’m not particularly good at any of these things, it’s just that I do them at all.)

Anyway, I devoted most of a year (probably my Freshman year in high school) to learning to do these things. I really worked hard at being social, and my circle of friends grew. I got to know a lot more people, and more people thought I was fun to hang out with. I don’t remember anyone really coming to me for advice, though. I don’t remember solving a lot of problems. I do remember regret. By my Junior year at the latest, I was missing what I’d once had. I’d gotten to the point that I spoke up a lot more, but I said a lot less. That really bugged me, and I decided to go back to the way I’d been.

I’ve decided that at least once a year, ever since then. I’ve never succeeded, not even a little bit. I wish I could be the contemplative listener, the thoughtful observer, instead of the shining socialite I’ve become.

And what’s the point of all this? What’s the point of the post? More chatter, I guess. Something I should’ve kept to myself, but said out loud instead. I guess this is really more of a diary entry than an essay, but there you go. At least I wrote something today.

There are some lessons, though. You can choose to shape your own personality, within limits. You can choose to become something you admire, or avoid something you dislike. There’s a certain gravity to some characteristics, though, and those are particularly the shallower ones. There are some evils that, once invited in, are hard to chase back out. And sometimes they look beautiful as strangers, but once you’ve gotten to know them, you wish you didn’t have them at all.

So maybe it is a topical post after all. For Julie, at least, who has been discussing these things lately. Here’s my personal experience, with all of the issues you wrote about today. Maybe it’s worthwhile. Maybe it’s worthless vanity. Make of it what you will.

God and Greatness: Absolution

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about absolution — about sin in general, and the afterlife as well.

In my time, I’ve been a lot of different places on the topic of life after death. There was a long time when I felt like there was no NEED for a life after death — on a personal, individual base, the extent of your consciousness IS eternity, after all. I built up a big argument for it, trying to work my way around to “Live life to the fullest,” I guess, but it just doesn’t match with anything I believe, long-term.

I sort of outgrew that phase, without really replacing it with anything. I just settled back into default, I guess.

Then I started this blog, about a year ago, and sometime around a week after I wrote “The Magic Architect,” I really started understanding what I really believe these days.

(And I was already arguing the supporting points back at the very beginning, but it’s only recently that the pieces fit together into a big picture, y’know?)

So. What is salvation? What is grace? What about “neither height nor depth” separating us from God, and whatnot? What about Love keeping no record of wrongs?

I asked these questions before. You’ve seen me mull them.

Why would Jesus give up his divine life, so that we could walk a knife edge that we’ll almost certainly going to fall off? That’s a huge sacrifice for a pretty risky investment. We’re told he died to save us from everlasting death, not just to give us a fighting chance….

Me, I see people screwing up. People screw up all the time. Life is just a big string of terrible mistakes. Daniel asked me recently if I thought people ever really stop sinning, if anyone ever really overcomes temptation, and I said I’m pretty sure that happens when people die, and not really before.

And I don’t mean that as a pessimistic statement, and I don’t mean it as a snarky way to score a conversational point. I think Life is a kind of hell — or, to use someone else’s terminology (and I’m mostly thinking of Lewis here), a kind of purgatory. It’s not where we’re supposed to be, and it’s not something we’re good at, and it’s got more negatives than positives about it.

I think that (as I’ve said before) thanks to the gift of absolution, humans having to suffer through Life is a kindness. It’s an opportunity that we desperately need, to learn the important lessons without facing the eternal consequences for the little mistakes along the way.

I cherish Life, for this reason. I’m proud of all those people I see living it, really participating in the experience. Which is not say those going out of their way to make mistakes, in the hope of learning from them (or, to use someone else’s words again, those people who are “going on sinning so that Grace may increase”). No, I think anybody rushing blindly into folly after folly after folly without trying to learn from it is setting himself up for some long-term suffering.

But there are some people who try to really experience Life, who try get everything they can out of it. And let me tell you (as if you didn’t already know), living life boldly will result in mistakes, and missteps, and grand catastrophes from time to time. Living life boldly will result in sins, and addictions, and suffering (and, to make sure it’s real suffering, it won’t just be your own, but your mistakes will cause suffering to those that you care about). Living life boldly means that, from time to time, you will be viciously, horribly guilty.

And that’s where absolution comes in. We are not called to a spirit of timidity, but to a spirit of boldness. We could try to hide behind a Law, we could try not to commit sins, and we could commit a whole life to not being bad, but that would be — listen carefully — that would be a life wasted. That would be nothing learned. That would be all the pain of temptation rejected, and in the end you are where you started — you know what is wrong, and what is right. Hiding behind rules does not mature you, does not better prepare you for tomorrow, or for infinity.

To do that, you must come out from behind the Law and experience Good and Evil. You must enter into the actual knowledge of both, and choose Good. But doing so will leave you marked with all the filthy stains of your journey, all the wickedness you surrendered to along the way. By the time you’re in a position to choose Good, you’re too filthy a thing to do so.

And, of course, our God provided an answer. He paid a heavy price, but it was a price he was willing to invest in his children. Absolution. He invested Christ, not in the goodie goodies who avoid mixed swimming and run away from temptations (the older sons, as it were). No, he invested the blood of Christ in all those who have tasted everything the world has to offer, the Good and Bad, and who, having seen the fullness of what the devil has to give, are willing and able to reject it in favor of the kingdom. Those are the ones who will truly know the value of what they have obtained, and it was for them that the blood was shed.

All things are permitted to me, but not all things are good for me. Life…life is an opportunity to learn both halves of that statement. Get started.