Great Writers (and me) on Writing

Tony - Writing

I have some great news for which I am very thankful.  I have accepted a position as a writing instructor at a local community college.  The course is called “Introduction to Academic Writing” and it is primarily designed to teach beginning students to construct well written, persuasive essays.

To make the most of this educational opportunity, however, I want to share my passion for writing as well as the mechanics of how to do it well.  To prepare, I have pulled out part of a post (below) I wrote on writing.

A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song. ― Maya Angelou

The primary purpose of good writing is not to fix a problem, but to make it more meaningful and beautiful to live in a world filled with problems.  This is one reason I don’t read more Charles Dickens and why I haven’t even started Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.  I’m thinking more of fiction here, but even good non-fiction should steer clear of one-dimensional moralism if it is to be effective.  The song must be sung, not explained or advocated or shouted out.  Which leads to my next quote –

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. Anton Chekhov

Again, while this is true for any writing, I find it especially true for songs and poems.  Don’t say you’re depressed because your girlfriend broke up with you and then go on for 500 words telling me the symptoms of your depression.  Pay a therapist to do that.  Instead,  paint a picture of your sadness, like John Prine in the chorus of  “The Blue Umbrella” –

Blue umbrella
rest upon my shoulder
hide the pain
while the rain
makes up my mind
well, my feet are wet
from thinking this thing over
and it’s been so long
since I felt the warm sunshine
just give me one good reason
and I promise I won’t ask you any more
just give me one extra season
so I can figure out the other four.

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. ― Mark TwainThe Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain

Here is where I’m going to put in a plug for self-editing. I read a lot of blogs about writing and I notice that many writers mark their progress by their word count.  Some even set goals of writing 1,000 or 2,000 words a day (or some such amount).  I believe if your goal is good writing, you should lo0k instead at how many words you delete.  I knew of a college professor who set page limits to essays.  If you exceeded the number, he would rip off the extra pages, throw them away and write across the paper, “It seemed a little incomplete.  Try again.”  One right word yields far greater power than two (or three, or one hundred) wrong ones.

One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple. ― Jack KerouacThe Dharma Bums

I like this quote both for its humility and wisdom.  The truth is, we never really get it “right” in this writing life.  Becoming better writers should always be our goal for some distant “one day.”  The direction we should be headed to get there, however, clearly should not involve complex formulas but simple methods of telling it like it is better than we told it the last time, possibly even better than anyone has told it before

Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. ― Flannery O’Connor

In terms of writing material, we have a lot within us into which we often fail to tap.  It’s true if you are writing on any subject, you should do good research and not just sit back in your writing chair (mine is a recliner) and write what is on your mind.  Still, if we just pay enough attention to our lives (and the world around us), we will have plenty to start writing every time.

In old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody. ― Oscar Wilde

What may have been witty hyperbole in Wilde’s day has become almost literal truth today.  I visit many blogs that have few (if any hits).  E-books are being published that sell almost no copies.  You can’t even give them away.  We could debate what is worthy to be read, but I believe three of my primary obligations as a writer are to read, read, read.  Read what others are writing on their blogs.  Read new books being published by known and unknown authors.  And then, to relax before bed, read (or listen to) the classics (including the Bible) to let my mind be refreshed by the gifted wordsmiths of days gone by.

What are your thoughts on writing?  What quote sums up what you believe most true for you as a writer?

A Living Promise (from Delight in Disorder)

This is my comfort in my affliction,

         that your promise gives me life. (Psalm 119:50)

It is so easy when our lives are off balance to lose hope for a better tomorrow.  As we look around at present reality, we are tempted to give up and give in to the voices telling us things will always be just as miserable as they are right now.

In college, when I “came clean” and stopped using the illicit drugs that were in essence holding my psychotic symptoms at bay (yet costing me mental stability), I hit what many addicts call a “rock bottom,” I was living alone in a downtown apartment, lying on a used mattress on the floor, working a job stuffing millions of plastic bags into cardboard boxes.  I had nothing but time on my hands to look within myself and look around and wonder just what I was going to do with my life.  I was lost.  I felt miserable.  And alone.

Then I started reading the Bible.  Again, but like it was the first time.  The promise of God’s Word is that the life we often settle for is so much less than the abundant life we are promised in Christ.  New life is experienced in the person of Jesus Christ, in his healing touch and saving hand.  In a world filled with broken promises, this is a promise we can rely on – now and forever.

New life in the resurrection of Christ is more than just a pie-in-the-sky hope for a future resting place for our disembodied souls called “heaven.” The new life we gain in Christ impacts how we live each day, each moment.  Our lives, even as we go through ups and downs, become more abundant, richer, more full of purpose and meaning.  Life begins to make delightful sense in the midst of the messy disorder within and around us.

With this hope in hand, I began to make the most of the present and envision a better future.  I left the factory and did a summer mission stint in a Christian community in South Georgia called Koinonia (Greek for “fellowship” or “communion”).  Time I had spent escaping with drugs I now spent communing with God and others through prayer and worship.  Instead of packing plastic, I was planting vegetables.   Instead of isolating myself on an assembly line, I built relationships with children in Bible study and older adults over community meals.

The promise for better days ahead in Christ, when properly received, does not cause us to give up and let the world go to pot.  Quite the opposite.  Knowing that God cares deeply about redemption, restoration, resurrection, and renewal, we can look beyond ourselves and join God at work making the world a better place – for generations to come.

Working at Koinonia did not magically heal me of past hurts or remove present temptations.  But while I was there, God set me on a course of away from seeking self-comfort to looking to serve others.  I’ve taken many detours along the road, but I’m still moving forward towards that heavenly fellowship, that divine communion, the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

thumbnail imageVisit our mission site and help us reach our goal by 11/20!

Going to a Family Baptism

We don’t choose the families into which we are born. In a spiritual sense, neither do we choose to be adopted into God’s family. God chooses to adopt us as His children through the prompting of the Holy Spirit within us and the prodding around us.  Yet, when we profess faith in Christ and receive Him in our hearts as our Lord and Savior, it is as if we are signing our name on the adoption papers. These papers give us a new lease on life. The waters of baptism show us that our sin, which leads to spiritual death, is washed away.

To read more, click on the title below…

“A Family Baptism”

Baptism...

Baptism… from Ana Pinto in What Makes Life

Riding on a Roller-Coaster : A Week of Rejections

I had crashed.  I know myself well enough to know I’m at risk for sliding into a depressive episode, so rather than give into the temptation to go back to bed, I heated up a cup of coffee and sat down at the computer.  In my e-mail, I found a reply to one of my job queries that simply made my day.

Hi Tony,

You are a superman with words!

The good part: Impressive, both your proposal, your profile and all the other information. Icing of the cake — your slogan.

The bad part: Just that, by the time we did all this, we had exchanged about half a dozen of messages with some other writer.

To read more, click on the title below —

“My Roller-Coaster Week: From a Traumatic Rejection to a Terrific One”

Rollercoaster monks

“Rollercoaster monks” from Raeanne Nickerson in Love People

Finding Life (in obvious places) – The House

Today, I walked down a street I used to wander as a child. Old houses an arm’s length apart, old paint peeling away at the edges. My grandparents used to live around here. Sunday afternoons we’d play croquet in the front yard and watch the neighbor, Mr. Shepler, sweating like a pig and yelling at his lawn mower and three children. Mrs. Shepler would come out with a pitcher of iced tea and listen to him curse the weather, how hot the summers were getting.

To read more, click on the title below –

“Finding Life (in obvious places) – The House”

vintage metal lawn chairs

“vintage metal lawn chairs” from Rhonda Zoch in Home ~ Goods

Finding Life (in obvious places)

This afternoon, partially inspired by Leanne Sypes’ post about her accordion-file time capsule, I dug through my big-bin of writings.  Like my mind, there was great disorder — to-do lists from last month crammed in with devotionals from 1983.  Father’s Day notes my daughters had written to me brought a smile to my face, as did love letters from my wife, but mostly I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness.  I am not at all at peace with who I’ve been –  as a husband, a father, a pastor.

To cope, I retreat to my writing studio with a book I found — a book I wrote before becoming all these things, back when I was a 21-year old, single, aspiring writer totally unprepared for the war that would rage within (with mental illness), ill-equipped for responsibilities I would frantically assume.

What follows is the opening of Life (in obvious places).  It is a work of fiction, but as I do not possess a wild imagination, it is firmly based on experience.

To read more, click on the title below…

“Discovering Life (in obvious places)”

The Walk - Fallen leaves - Vincent van Gogh  -  Completion Date: 1889    Place of Creation: Saint-rémy, Provence

“The Walk – Fallen leaves – Vincent van Gogh – Completion Date: 1889 Place of Creation: Saint-rémy, Provence”

from Carlos Leiro in Van Gogh, Picasso, Joan Miro

Stopping Along a Well-Paved Road: My Birthday Blog Hop Story

RestingBench

(randomly generated) Mandatory words: potato, magazine, carrot, day, cough

A balding 49-year old Hoosier with an unquiet mind and a way with words lifts a voice recorder from his shirt pocket and pushes the “record” button.

49 years old and what do I have to show for it?  Another rejection from an on-line magazine.  A former smoker’s cough.   A body that increasingly looks like a potato. 

Still, it’s a beautiful day.  The road is well-paved before me.  I can’t see into the distance, but well-rooted trees line my path.

He clicks the “stop” button.  He puts the recorder back in his pocket, sits down on a bench and pulls a carrot out of a brown paper sack.  As he puts it to his lips, two squirrels scamper up to his feet.

He smiles, breaks the carrot in half and places a half on the ground next to the squirrels.  One squirrel begins to munch on the carrot.  The other looks up at him with a pleading expression.

He smiles.  “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away,” he says to himself, laying the other half of the carrot next to the second squirrel.

Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Word Count: 199

Analytical Creative Work for a Savvy, Connected Man

 

 

Yesterday, I was actively pursuing my career as a “writer for hire”.  In addition to the connections I mentioned (“God Speaks Through WordPress, G-mail, LinkedIn, and Facebook”), I developed a draft of a business website and recruited some feedback from a few faithful followers.

I was so revved up when I went to bed last night, I couldn’t sleep.  I stayed online sending messages to current and prospective LinkedIn connections.  I went to the job postings page and my eyes fell on one particular listing.  It began like this –

Job description:  Convince. Inspire. Educate. Entertain.  Are you the perfect blend of creative and analytical? I bet your friends even describe you as savvy and connected.

I immediately thought after reading the first line – hey that’s me.

Though I scored a 720/800 (before grade inflation) on the Math section (analytical) of the SAT, I valiantly pursued and obtained a B.A. in English and theology and completed a novella (creative).

For 18 years, I studied ancient texts for their essential meaning (analytical) and brought them to life in story-sermons (creative) that were engaging for all ages.

After leading 4 church organizations in faithful community building and fruitful mission funding (analytical), I am now devoting my talents to crafting a spiritual memoir and sharing stories to reach people around the world in unique ways (creative).

A perfect blend of creative and analytical?  Well, nobody’s perfect, but I’d say that fits me to the tee.

As for “savvy” and “connected”…. well, it depends how you define the terms.

As I’ve written before, I graduated from college well before Al Gore invented the Internet, back when you could only store about 25 pages of material on a 64-inch floppy disk.  Over the years, I met the tide of e-mail, Internet, WordPress, Facebook, Twitter, etc., with a mixed measure of irritation and glee.

I’ll admit I sometimes get extremely frustrated with simple technological instructions and quickly yell “Help!”  I have the “Happiness Engineers” at WordPress on speed-link.  But, in many ways, I am a quick learner.

In just about 6 months of blogging, I have built up a faithful following of over 400 engaged readers, resulting in 100+ views a day and often over a dozen thoughtful comments.  One lesson I carry over from my days as a pastor is the importance of maintaining your following with intelligent content, not just rushing after the latest trends or posting regularly about your most recent satisfying bowel movement.  (Once is enough.  Well, this makes twice.  Twice is okay.)

So, I applied for the job.  I even proposed doing an Internship at a reduced salary so I could enhance my skills and demonstrate my value.

This may seem like a step in the opposite direction – away from freelance writing.  My plan, however, is to do both.  I may not be the best at balancing, but as I read in a piece by a very wise woman, it may be more about integrating than balancing (thanks Leanne Sype).  My day job can stimulate my freelance work and my freelance work can inform my day job.

In the meantime, I will try to get to bed a little earlier so I can get a good night’s rest and wake up refreshed for whatever God has in store for me that day.  You never know what it’s going to be, but I will do my best to meet each challenge with analytical creativity as a savvy and connected man with an unquiet mind who has a way with words.

(image above “Perfect Balancing!” from Colin Dean in Beautiful Outdoors)

George Jones’ Choices

It was almost midnight when I got the news that country-and-western legend George Jones “The Possum” died yesterday.  He was 81.

When I told my Dad this morning, his first response was “We’re going to the funeral.”  Then, he remarked sadly, “His drinking finally caught up to him.”

It brought to mind a lyric from the John Prine song, “Please Don’t Bury Me” (an anthem for organ donation) that goes –

Give my stomach to Milwaukee
If they run out of beer

If Jones drank up to even half his reputation, there is no doubt that his kidney and liver must have been pickled, but in his case it seems to have worked as a preservative.  “The Possum” performed his music over a span of almost 60 years, much of it heavily under the influence of alcohol.  According a New York Times article

“White Lightning,”a No. 1 country hit in 1959, required 83 takes because Mr. Jones was drinking through the session. On the road, playing one-night stands, he tore up hotel rooms and got into brawls. He also began missing shows because he was too drunk to perform.

I had the pleasure of seeing George Jones at the Little Opry House in Nashville, Indiana in 1984.  True to form, he was late appearing on stage as his crew frantically worked to sober him up.  When he did arrive on stage, it took two large men (on either side of him) to hold him up and keep him in the general vicinity of the microphone.  Yet, his voice remained strong as he belted out –

They call me No Show Jones.
(They call him No Show Jones)
I’m seldom never on
(He’s seldom never on)
The stage singin’ my songs
My whereabouts are unknown.
(They call him No Show Jones)
They call me No Show Jones.

The audience went wild – cheering on this man who could get away with so much yet sing so well.

One of the paradoxes of George Jones is that while he clearly broke nearly all the rules that lead to life (drinking, drugging, failure to support wives and children), his music still affirmed a moral universe.  His Grammy-award winning song “Choices” expresses this well –

I’ve had choices since the day that I was born

There were voices that told me right from wrong

If I had listened, no I wouldn’t be here today

Living and dying with the choices I’ve made

George Jones was perhaps the second greatest male country singer who ever lived.  And unlike the first (Hank Williams, Sr.), he was able to beat the odds, to live the hard life celebrated in song, to drown his sorrow and come up just in time for air time and time again.  He was able to temporarily put off his pain in pursuit of pleasure.

God only knows where this pursuit has ultimately led him.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live…  (Deuteronomy 30:19)

(photo above “George Jones – Rest in Peace” from  Laurie in Books & Movies & Music & TV & People)

The Broken Nonsense of the World and the Beautiful Sense of Christ

N.T. Wright is the definition of a b@d@ss theologian. The outfit speaks for itself.

“Made for spirituality, we wallow in introspection. Made for joy, we settle for pleasure. Made for justice, we clamor for vengeance. Made for relationship, we insist on our own way. Made for beauty, we are satisfied with sentiment. But new creation has already begun. The sun has begun to rise.

Christians are called to leave behind, in the tomb of Jesus Christ, all that belongs to the brokenness and incompleteness of the present world … That, quite simply, is what it means to be Christian: to follow Jesus Christ into the new world, God’s new world, which he has thrown open before us.”  

―     N.T. Wright,  Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense

Yesterday I had a conversation with a friend about who God is.  We both have attended liberal seminaries where professors have abandoned classic theologies (based on plain readings of Scripture) in favor of contemporary critiques claiming to be theologies (feminist, liberation, process).  As one of my professors put it, “The question of contemporary theology is not who God is, but what it means to be human.”

Much of what claims to be theology these days – both from liberal and conservative camps – is little more than pop psychology, amateur sociology, even strategic business writing.  The writers attempt to sell consumers what they can get out of God, not who God is and how we are to therefore respond.  Forget about the God of Scripture who is the great “I Am” or, better yet, “I will be who I will be.”  Now, it’s primarily about how I can get God to enhance my life.

N.T. Wright, on the other hand, seems to be an exception to this rule.  While he does not restrict himself to orthodox conclusions about classic doctrines, he takes Scripture seriously (and he puts God first).  The quote (above) is a good example.  To illustrate his point, visit a local library or bookstore (if you can find one).  Or, just go on-line.  Notice –

How many books in the “spirituality” section are actually about personal self-help?

How many books labeled “joy” or “happiness” have more to do with sensual pleasures, like sex?

How many books calling for “justice for the poor” are written by angry academicians whose income is high by worldly standards?

How many books on “relationships” talk about making changes for personal benefit?

How many blogs are filled with poems that convey sentimental clichés rather than glimpses of beauty in the real world?

We live in a deeply wounded world.  But those of us who call themselves Christians (and anyone who would like to be more like Jesus) are called to live a different reality – one that is based not on brokenness to be critiqued, but beauty to be embraced.

(photo of N.T. Wright from Eric Carter in BA Theologians)