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?

Preview of Delight in Disorder: Autobiographical Prelude I

I am getting very excited about the publication of my spiritual memoir — Delight in Disorder: Ministry, Madness, Mission which is due for public release in March of 2014.  To give you just a taste of the upcoming feast, I thought I’d share an excerpt from the poetic prelude: “To Nineveh (and back) — A Memoir of Faith and Madness.”

To read more, click on the title below –

“Delight in Disorder Preview: Autobiographical Prelude I”

Social services & the fostering world....many sad children....all they want is a home & people who love them!

from Montana Gypsy

Built to Last (inspired by John Prine’s “One Red Rose”)

Our Cabin by Rick Scully

The rain came down on the tin roof, creating a soft white noise that Lydia found soothing.

“That roof is built to last.”  said her Grandfather long ago and again and again in her childhood

Each time it rained.

“Not everything is built to last.  But that roof will outlive me.”

It rained the day of his funeral and the tin roof held.

Shielding them from the sorrow of their loss.

#     #     #

“Did you remember to give Phoebe her umbrella?” Lydia asked.

“No.  I thought you did.” replied Donald.

Lydia sighed, weary of words that went no where.

Her parents had given Donald and Lydia a week’s retreat at the family cabin,

An anniversary gift to the two of them,

And a birthday present to Phoebe, who shared the day with them.

They hoped it might help.

“It’s the least we can do,” they said.

#     #     #

“Why don’t we go to bed early and save clean up for tomorrow?” suggested Donald.

Lydia was too tired to protest.

She took one last look around the room.

Dirty paper plates.

Crumpled paper streamers.

Half-hanging cardboard sign.

She walked away, leaving the kitchen light on.

#     #     #

As Lydia walked to the bedroom, her eyes fell on the family Bible.

She opened it up and found the rose pressed between the pages.

She heard her Grandmother’s voice from the day Lydia shared the news of her engagement.

“Marriage is hard work,” said her Grandmother.

“I want you to have this.”

She gave Lydia the Bible.

“This is the holy alphabet for your marriage.”

She opened it up to a rose.

“Your grandfather gave me this rose on our wedding day.”

She closed the book and handed it to Lydia.

“I want you to keep this.”

#     #     #

Now, her grandmother was gone.

Lydia closed the Bible on the rose.

Some of its remains fell to the floor.

Some things just aren’t built to last.

This poem first appeared as a blog post on January 3, 2013.  It was republished in thematticuskingdom on March 26.  You can hear John Prine sing “One Red Rose” – here.

(photo: “Our Cabin” from Rick Scully, some rights reserved)

The End of the World (as they knew it)

Tonight I’m doing a reading for the “Upstart Poets Series” at the People’s Bar in Bloomington, Indiana.   Here’s one of the pieces I’m going to share.

+     +     +

 

There was a knock at the door and suddenly the Christmas lights went out.

“It’s the end of the world!” said Maura, an avid reader of apocalyptic literature who had yet to give up on the Mayan 2012 prediction.

“We need to pray.” said Paul, who, at 16, had found his way into a youth group at a local evangelical church.

“First we need to confess our sin,” said Father, rather quizzically.  He was a lapsed Catholic who hadn’t been to Mass in years and he wasn’t sure of confessional rules in the End Times.

“Okay, I’ll go get my cell phone.  I just downloaded a confessional app.” said Thomas who, after a season of doubting, had found a link to a site called “The Virtual Vatican” that had given his life new meaning and purpose.

“Let’s just answer the damn door and check the breakers!”  said Sonya, who had come out last year as an atheist.  Two years ago, she came out as a lesbian.  The year before that, as Bipolar.

Sonya answered the door.  Nobody was there.  She checked the breakers.  None of the fuses were blown.

“I tell you, it’s the end the world!” repeated Maura.

“Let us pray.” said Paul, bowing his head.

“First, confess.” said Dad, a little more certain.

“Where’s my cell phone?” asked Thomas.

“You guys are nuts.” declared Sonya.  ”I can’t wait to post this on my blog!”

“YOU ARE A BLOGGER?” they all exclaimed.

Sonya just smiled and quietly brushed a strand of hair from her face.

+     +     +

 

What do you think?

God’s Obituary Revisited

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

God did many wondrous and mysterious things

Blessing a people to bless others

Delivering them from slavery to a Promised Land.

Rescuing them from self-destruction

Showing them mercy from everlasting to everlasting.

 

Then, some time ago, God died.

It might have been by the pen of Frederich Nietzsche,

Or in the ovens of Aushwitz.

Or on the tongue of Dr. Matthews, in the Spring of 1983

Who taught me that theology was no longer the study of God,

But the exploration of what it means to be human.

 

When I was young, God was very much alive.

Spewing fire and brimstone from the pulpit

Of the First Mount Pleasant Baptist church.

Kneeling beside me when I asked Jesus to come into my heart.

Holding me tight on nights I would hear my parents screaming at each other,

Softly whispering to me – “I am with you always.”

 

When I read Elie Wiesel’s Night

The gallows scene where the young boy hangs there –

His tongue hanging out, swollen and bluish,

One man asks, “For God’s sake, where is God?”

Eliezar says to himself,

This is where – hanging here from this gallows…”

 

I thought of Jesus hanging on the cross,

Instead of sympathy, he received scorn.

If you are the son of God, save yourself and us.”

Instead, Jesus looked up to heaven and said,

“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.

 

Then God died.

And though he came back to life three days later,

We  killed him again.  And again.  And again.

 

At the pen of pompous philosophers,

In the gas chambers, the killing fields, the executioner’s chair

On the tongues of tenured teachers.

 

But the voice of God keeps calling out to us

From beyond the pages of the obituaries

(in His best Mark Twain voice) –

“The news of my untimely departure,

Though much celebrated,

Has been grossly exaggerated.”

Elevator

“Elevator” from Constantine Gavrykov in Creative Mind

High Above a Stately River: The President Honors the Arts at Hanover College

Nestled high above the Ohio River rests Hanover, the oldest private college in Indiana.  It is still a lively place, particularly for the arts.  Many theater students under the tutelage of Tom “Doc” Evans, Mark Fearnow, and now Jim Stark, have gone on to make pretty good careers in acting, directing, and the like.  (One of them is a certain former bartender from “Cheers” who now hypes hemp and was once nominated for an Academy award for playing a porn hustler.)

Tonight (April 13), beginning at 7:30 p.m., in Fitzgibbon Recital Hall, Lynn Center for Fine Arts there will be a special event.  The President Honors the Arts features performances and works from Hanover’s top students in music, theater, creative writing, art and art history.  The price is right – it is free and open to the public.

Performances include –

The Hanover College Chamber Singers doing Keith Hampton’s “Praise His Holy Name!”

Featured selections from violinist Ellen Morganett (Bloomington, Ind.), soprano Autumn Barger (Clarksville, Ind.) and pianist Chen Wang (Renshou, China).

“The Everything Store,” a short play by sophomore Kayla Snabl (Huntington, Ind.). Directed by junior Brandon Derk (Evansville, Ind.), the cast features junior Gracie Taylor (Middletown, Ohio), freshman Josh Anderson (Centerville, Ohio) and freshman Shawn Franklin (Louisville, Ky.).

Kyle Hunteman (North Vernon, Ind.) presenting his senior thesis, “No Struggle, No Progess.” Through sculptures and video, Hunteman’s work shows the evolution of the figure demonstrating the importance of struggle in striving toward improvement.

Senior poet Dan McCormick (Cincinnati, Ohio) will read selections from his poems “Kenilworth Castle,” “The Globe Theatre,” “The Queen’s Head,” “The Carousel” and “Spencer (Sons of Cain).”

McCormick has written some of his poetry into songs and performed them on two collections – Devotions and Benches Beat Fences.  For a review of his song “Sandy and Creole”, see – “An Angelic Call; A Luminescent Fall…”   It tells the story of two passionate young woman – one plaintive, one playful –

Sandy says that best friends will never grow apart,

and she makes faces at the clouds.

She cuts pretty pictures out of magazines,

and if it rains we watch T.V. without a sound.

 

Creole fills her pockets with cigarettes and pills,

curing boredom with anything she can.

She says, “You can find your answer in the melody.

Forget the rest—it all means nothin’, man!”

 

And Sandy says she’s gonna be a star.

She says, “I’ve got this debutante thing down.”

Creole says, “I don’t care if I don’t have any money.”

And she sobers up and drives back into town.

 

Sandy gives me chewing gum and giggles all the time,

and we lay in circles in the grass.

She says we’re perfect just the way we are,

and she wonders how we can make the summer last.

 

Creole pulls my jacket off and takes me by the arm,

and we dance like feathers in the air.

I can see her busted up and smiling,

tumbled over with blood in her hair.

 

And Sandy says, “Tell me all your dreams.

Can’t you hear that sweet angelic call?”

Creole says, “God is dead, so let’s get drunk instead,

and we’ll celebrate our luminescent fall.”

 

It should be quite a performance.  I’m certainly looking forward to it.  It’ll be the first time I’ve been back on campus since Al Gore invented the Internet.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

April is the Cruelest Month: Walking Through the Waste Land

Wyndham Lewis ~ T.S. Eliot, 1938

April is the cruelest month,

breeding lilacs out of the dead land,

mixing memory and desire,

stirring dull roots with spring rain.   ―     T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

Yesterday, I felt like I was wandering in the waste land.  Though the sun was shining and there was a cool breeze blowing, I couldn’t see it or feel it huddled beneath my sheets, praying for sense out of suicide, light in the darkness, life after death.

I thought of the Warren family.  I don’t know Rick or Kay Warren personally.  But, like many people, I know of their ministry and the positive impact their words and work has had on so many lives.  I can’t say I embrace their theology wholesale, but I greatly respect the depth of their faith and would not question their profound relationship with Christ.

And now, this.  The death of a child must be the greatest grief any parent must face.  Compounded with this grief is the threat to meaning and purpose, to hope and, yes, even faith, that strikes when a loved one chooses death over life.  Rick Warren expressed gratitude yesterday for the overwhelming support of people around the world expressed after Matthew’s death, but no amount of community support can alleviate the lonely journey Rick and Kay and their other children must now walk.

As I laid in the darkness, I thought of my own children and my wife.  Memories came flooding back – that night 5 years ago when I swallowed handfuls of psychotropic meds as a desperate measure to end my misery.  My family was little more than an afterthought in that moment.  I didn’t even compose a proper suicide note – just scribbled off a few perfunctory lines as if writing out a prescription.

Thanks to God’s amazing grace, the drugs that should have killed me didn’t.  Instead, they put me in an all-night stupor.  I kept stumbling to the bathroom, crashing into walls, unable to straighten up, leaving a mess my wife had to clean up.

Yesterday, I wandered through the waste land with mostly dead memories and only a hint of desire for something better.

Today, the sun came up (as it typically does).  It took me until noon to rise.  I ate lunch instead of breakfast.  I read some encouraging messages.  I reflected on God’s Word to “choose life, that you and your offspring might live.”  I felt grateful – not glad, exactly – but grateful to be alive.

They say rain is on its way.  Spring rain to enliven the dull roots dormant underground, hiding from the harsh winter.  Breeding lilacs will appear.

In May, I’ll travel home – to my children, and my wife (if only for the day).

It will be “a day that the Lord hath made”.  And we will “rejoice and be glad in it.”

(image above “Wyndham Lewis ~ T.S. Eliot, 1938” from Jude W. in art :: paintings I love)

Happy Birthday Bobby Frost and that Williams Boy…

Robert Frost by Yousuf Karsh

I have a mind myself and recognize
Mind when I meet with it in any guise
No one can know how glad I am to find
On any sheet the least display of mind.     (from  “A Considerable Speck” by Robert Frost)

Tennessee Williams

“— What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof? — I wish I knew

…Just staying on it, I guess, as long as she can …

[More croquet sounds]

Later tonight I’m going to tell you I love you an’ maybe by that time you’ll be drunk enough to believe me. Yes, they’re playing croquet …

Big Daddy is dying of cancer …

What were you thinking of when I caught you looking at me like that? Were you thinking of Skipper?

[Brick crosses to the bar, takes a quick drink, and rubs his head with a towel]

Laws of silence don’t work …When something is festering in your memory or your imagination, laws of silence don’t work, it’s like shutting a door and locking it on a house on fire in hope of forgetting that the house is burning. But not facing a fire doesn’t put it out. Silence about a thing just magnifies it. It grows and festers in silence, becomes malignant ….

Get dressed, Brick.”   ―        (from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” by Tennessee Williams)

image of Robert Frost by Yousuf Karsh from Moi in People who have inspired me/Would love to meet or wished to have met

image of Tennessee Williams from Barbara Worn in People I admire and some I don’t but they take a good picture

Virtual Communication

 Talking on a cell phone in a phone booth ... lol

Why did you hang up on me?

You know how much that bothers me.

I don’t call you just to hear myself talk.

Can you even conceive how rude that is, how inconsiderate?

It’s as if you don’t even care.

Do you even care what happens to me?

Have you lost all feeling?

Are you some kind of robot?

Where is your mind these days?

Thomas, did you hear me?

Thomas!

Hello?

(first line provided as Write Now Prompt from Today’s Author)

Wendell Berry’s Apology for Theology

Wendell Berry

Having written some pages in favor of Jesus

I receive a solemn commendation crediting me

with the possession of a “theology” by which

I acquire the strange dignity of being wrong

forever or forever right.  Have I gauged exactly

 

enough the weights of sins?  Have I found

too much of the Hereafter in the Here? Or

the other way around? Have I found too much

pleasure, too much beauty and goodness in this

our unreturning world?  Oh Lord, please forgive

 

any smidge of such distinctions I may

have still in my mind.  I meant to leave them

all behind a long time ago. If I’m a theologian

I am one to the extent I have learned to duck

 

when the small, haughty doctrines fly overhead,

dropping their loads of whitewash at random

on the faces of those who look toward Heaven.

Look down, look down and save your soul

 

by honester dirt that receives with a lordly

indifference this off-fall of the air.  Christmas

night and Easter morning are this soil’s only laws.

 

 

(Poem VII. in Leavings by Wendell Berry)