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?

Free At Last; Free At Last; Good God Almighty I’m Free At Last!

I had a wonderful brief chat with the owner of a top-notch marketing firm today and came away with a great deal of clarity about the next step in my writing career.

And the answer is?

Freelance.

Yes, the path to making a living in writing (whether it be journalism, creative, marketing, or technical) is to produce a portfolio of work, build a reputation in the writing community, and establish a network of relationships.  In other words, pay your dues.  Then, maybe your efforts will pay off and your talent will be discovered.

At first, I felt a measure of disappointment.  The prospect of building another career (with no guarantee of income) is rather daunting.  But, as I drove along I-65 South, I began to feel liberated.  I am confident of my writing ability.  Now, instead of dividing my attention between writing and looking for employment, I can devote myself to writing and finding the right avenues for my work.

Free at last.  Free at last.   Good God almighty I’m free at last.

Of course…. there is a cost to freedom. Fortunately, I have lived simply and not accumulated debt.  With the help of family, living expenses are minimal.  There may be only a thin safety net, but I trust God will provide if I do my best.

In the meantime, I appreciate your prayers and encouraging words.   I already have one project I’m working on and some leads on others.

“So be sure when you step, Step with care and great tact. And remember that life’s A Great Balancing Act. And will you succeed? Yes! You will, indeed! (98 and ¾ percent guaranteed) Kid, you’ll move mountains.”   ― Dr. Seuss,  Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

Dr. Seuss from C’est Si Bon in Seussville

Can You Get to God Without Following Christ?

Today, at Grace Church PCA, we had a discussion on the second chapter of Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God.  In the book (and accompanying video) Keller responds to common objections contemporary people have about Orthodox Christianity.  This morning, we watched a video where Keller posed the question, “How Can Christians Claim to Know the Only Way to God.”

The respondents, predominantly religious skeptics, added to the question a variety of concerns, making comments like —

As a deconstructionist, I understand a religion’s motives for making exclusive claims.  I just don’t know if I can trust them.

It would be unfair for God to selectively reveal the Truth to only some and not others.

All religions share common ethical teachings.  To say one is True above all others is an arrogant claim.

Keller listened carefully and responded prayerfully to each concern and question raised.  He concluded the segment with an appeal to understand that when Christians make exclusive claims about Christ, it is not because they have an infantile need to always be right.  It is because we strive to be faithful to the One who said,

“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  No one comes to the Father except by me.”

One thought I came away with was that there is a distinction between religious pluralism and inter-faith dialogue.  Religious pluralists make the arrogant assumption that no religion has the Truth and tries to pour all truth claims into a melting pot of their own making such that all who profess faith get burned.

Inter-faith dialogue occurs when two or more Truth seekers, each committed to distinct truth claims – who humbly recognize the Truth is bigger than their own understanding – share their unique faith openly and honestly.

I believe Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life – yet I do not “possess Christ” more than any other flawed human being.  It is very possible that some poor fisherman in Indonesia who hasn’t even read the Bible is following Christ more closely than I am.

As a faithful Christian missionary, then, it is not my job to convert lost souls to become more like me.  Instead, it is to genuinely commune with those very different from me in such a way that together we might grow in the knowledge and spirit of Christ.

There is a story (perhaps legendary – yet it reveals truth) that Mahatma Ghandi was once asked what he thought about Christianity.  He replied –

I rather appreciate the teachings of Jesus.  I might even had become a Christian, had I ever met one.

“ghandi” from Nadja Cx in Family

Pursuing God in Art: In the Words of Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh  Autoritratto 1887

I’ve been reading Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh and finding there much spiritual treasure.

Van Gogh originally set out to follow in his father’s footsteps as a pastor, but for reasons that are only somewhat revealed, it doesn’t work out.  During this period of preparation for ministry, Van Gogh describes a foreboding sense –

These are really happy days I spend here, but still it is a happiness and quiet which I do not quite trust.  Man is not easily content: now he finds things too easy and then again he is not contented enough.

Though not terribly dissatisfied, Van Gogh senses something is missing, something is not quite right.  He wonders if this “dis-ease” could have a spiritual basis.

There may be a time in life when one is tired of everything and feels as if all one does is wrong, and there may be some truth in it — do you think this is a feeling one must try to forget and to banish, or is it ‘the longing for God,’ which one must not fear, but cherish to see if it may bring us some good?  Is it ‘the longing for God’ which leads us to make a choice which we never regret?

One thing I’ve noted early in this collection of letters to his brother Theo is that when Van Gogh describes something about pastoral ministry, his words are distant and generic.  When he describes the visual world or artistic representations of them, however, he comes alive.

As we have in our Brabant the underbrush of oak, and in Holland the willows, so you can see here the blackthorn hedges around the gardens, fields, and meadows.  With the snow the effect just now is of black characters on white paper, like the pages of the Gospel.

After a disruptive experience in his academic pursuit of a pastoral vocation, Van Gogh moves to Brussels where, thanks to a small stipend from his father and monies from Theo, he is able to eek out a living while devoting himself to his art.  He first concentrates on studying and copying the masters where he tries to “understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious matters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God.”

Ultimately, he picks up his pencil and finds great relief.

Though every day difficulties come up and new ones will present themselves, I cannot tell you how happy I am to have to taken up drawing again.  I have been thinking of it for a long time, but I always considered the thing impossible and beyond my reach.  But now, though I feel my weakness and my painful dependency in many things, I have recovered my mental balance, and day by day my energy increases.

I look forward to reading how Van Gogh’s describes his pursuit of God in his art, (and discovering how this pursuit was perverted as his mental illness progresses.

I’m also interested in hearing from you.  What do you see in Van Gogh’s art and what does it “tell you” that leads to God?

(image above “Vincent Van Gogh Autoritratto 1887” from Alessandro Tanner in Vincent Van Gogh)

Flannery O’Connor: A Beautiful Mind in a Broken Body

Flannery O'Connor with one of her many beloved peacocks

Flannery O’Connor wrote some of the greatest short stories ever published.  Most of her writing life, she was confined to her family farm house, Andalusia, outside of Milledgeville, Georgia.  Yet, her stories reveal a vibrant moral and literary imagination unparalleled by much more travelled authors.

When I was struggling through the “rock-bottom” phase of my life, I read a number of contemporary novels which consumed my time and attention, but nothing lifted my spirit like The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor.  This charming, witty, spiritual, wise woman who wrote her last letter about a month after I was born spoke directly to me as she reflected on literature, art, God, partridges, and (only infrequently) her illness.

Her illness – the “thorn in her flesh” – was lupus.  It caused her excruciating pain and greatly hindered her productivity.  Yet, it did not rule her mind or her spirit.  She died as she lived – full of faith and hope and the promise of a better life to come.

In this afternoon’s mail, I received a copy of The Habit of Being and I’ve already started thumbing through its pages.  I thought I’d share a few choice quotes to give you a sense of this beautiful mind in a broken body –

I didn’t mean to suggest that science is unreliable, but only that we can’t judge God by the limits of our knowledge of natural things.  This is a fundamental difference in your belief and mine: I see God as all perfect, all complete, all powerful.  God is Love and I would not believe Love efficacious if I believed there were negative stages or imperfections in it.  (To “A” 15 September ’55)

I am learning to walk on crutches and I feel like a large stiff anthropoid ape who has no cause to be thinking of St. Thomas or Aristotle, however, you are making me more of a Thomist than I ever was before and an Aristotelian where I never was before.  I am one, of course, who believes that man is created in the image and likeness of God…  (To “A”, 24 September, ’55)

The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction.  I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail.  She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.  (To Maryat Lee, 31 May ’60)

I’m sorry the book [The Violent Bear It Away] didn’t come off for you but I think it is no wonder it didn’t since you see everything in terms of sex symbols, and in a way that would not enter my head -… Your criticism sounds to me as if you have read too many critical books and are too smart in an artificial, destructive, and very limited way.  (To William Sessions, 13 September ’60)

I asked the doctor if I could sit up at the electric typewriter and work.  You can work, says he, but you can’t exert yourself.  I haven’t quite figured this out yet; anyway, I am confined to these two rooms and the porch so far and ain’t allowed to wash the dishes. I guess that is exerting yourself where writing is officially not. (To “A”, 15 Sept ’55)

(photo above “Flannery O’Connor with one of her many beloved peacocks” from Kobo in Animal Muses)

The Purpose of Pain

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.  (Colossians 1:24)

We live in an culture where countless resources (time, talent, and money) are spent trying to escape suffering.  Whether it be the pharmaceutical industry manufacturing drugs to relieve pain, the entertainment industry developing technology to relieve boredom, or the lottery and casino industries creating a false illusion of relief from financial hardships – we are constantly sold the idea that suffering (in all forms) is a terrible enemy to be avoided at all costs.

The Christian view of suffering runs counter to the world’s.  Paul says he rejoices in his suffering.  We don’t know everything that Paul suffered – but from what is revealed, we know that he suffered profoundly – physically, emotionally, relationally, even spiritually.

Yet, Paul saw purpose in his pain.  He believed his personal suffering benefited his brothers and sisters in the church, strengthening the body of Christ.  His willingness to choose the hard road of faith in spite of his suffering has been an inspiration to others throughout the ages who would likewise suffer much.

I think of the suffering a good friend is facing right now as she agonizes over the decision to choose the familiar, seemingly comfortable path of addiction or the long, arduous road of recovery.  I pray for her, and her friends and family who are suffering with her and making choices themselves whether their support is investing in her recovery or contributing to her addiction.

I pray that the pain we are experiencing now would have purpose – that it would strengthen us individually as believers, draw us closer to the body of Christ, and lead us to a deeper relationship with God.

A world of pain and love by Marco Piunti

“A world of pain and love by Marco Piunti” from  Nina Kassai in Pencil + Paper + Idea

A Response to Generational Sin in “Accidental Racist” (and elsewhere)

“The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.”  (Numbers 14:18)

The past several days, I’ve been reflecting on generational sin – in my own family and in the lives of others.  You can debate the theology that under-girds the reality, but it is hard to deny that certain damaging and destructive “predispositions”, “attitudes”, and “behaviors” are passed on from one generation to the next.

One man turns to alcohol, neglects his wife and children and becomes divorced and remarries.

His son pledges never to be like his father, yet uses marijuana to escape harsh realities, his wife divorces him and he engages in serial relationships (at the expense of his children).

This man’s daughter marries young, hoping to be cared for by a “father-figure” who ultimately abuses her, introduces her to illicit drugs and theft.  She is so afraid of losing companionship, she follows along.

This story, and others like it, could be my own – or yours.  It is a tragic reality for so many who battle addictions, abuse, and attitudes that de-humanize others (or themselves).

Racism is one of the generational sins that has been passed on for ages.  This morning I read a very compelling post called – “Accidental Empathy: An Open Letter to Brad Paisley and LL Cool J” by rodelina.  In it, she commends the song and its makers, but takes exception with one line –

“I try to put myself in your shoes, and that’s a good place to begin, but it ain’t like I can walk a mile in another man’s skin.”    -Brad Paisley,  Accidental Racist

Rodelina goes on to write (as if to Paisley)

Maybe you don’t have time to read much…

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” – Atticus Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Maybe reading is the place where empathy is incubated. I know, for me, as a child reading about the lives of Laura IngallsJo MarchMax, and Pooh and Piglet, and that tree that loved so selflessly, I found myself taking their struggles and triumphs in and holding them like treasures. Scary beasts like the Grinch and Boo Radley somehow acquired three dimensions complete with hurt but beating hearts in the pages of the worlds in which brilliant authors had created for them.

I had kids of my own, and we’ve come to know others so unlike ourselves, and yet so deeply human-so much like ourselves, that our hearts seem melded to theirs as we have sat together reading aloud their stories. CassyFrodoJiroRalphTien PaoEstaban, and Buran, among a host of others, have shown us that while our geography, our faith, our politics, and our history may differ, the human heart is a thing worth treasuring and nurturing, regardless of the shell it in which it resides.

By reading quality literature as a child, I think an accidental empathy for people is developed, and I am watching that empathy arise in my own children. Whatever else they learn in our home, it is my hope that that empathy will under-gird their decisions, and help them become more human human-beings.

Reading great literature may not be the complete solution to resolving generational sin such as racism, but it is a tremendous start.  Rodalena offers a wealth of great characters and stories that inspire “accidental empathy”.  I would add to these such Biblical stories and characters such as Esther, Ruth, the Good Samaritan, and the Father of the Prodigal Son (just to name a few).

The Bible is so much more than a guilt-induced rule book to be avoided in order to achieve optimum mental health (as some would say).  It is, in addition to being God’s Word, a fantastic story book that can motivate us to do our best – in relationships with others and with God.  Through the ages, it has inspired authors as diverse as William Shakespeare, Fyodor Doestoevsky, Flannery O’Connor, and many others to produce volumes of more great literature which helps us better understand our humanity so we can respond in more Christ-like ways.

photo “Brad Paisley Defends ‘Accidental Racist’ Duet with LL Cool J”  from ExtraTV onto Extra! Extra!

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)

Early Morning Meditations from Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton

I was up early this morning – too early.  I was awakened by one of my “vocation dreams” where I imagine doing something new and different in my life and then wake myself up analyzing if it is possible.

Today, there was no going back to sleep, so I decided to look for a decent documentary on Netflix.  It took some searching, but I found one called Merton: A Film Biography.

Thomas Merton was many things in his life.  A little French boy of artistic parents, orphaned by age 15.  A bright, yet carousing student at Cambridge, then Columbia.  A Roman Catholic convert, received into the Cistercian order at the Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky.  A hard-working Trappist monk devoted to the contemplative life of prayer.  A poet and philosopher who sought to bring healing to a desperately wounded society.  A hermit who found in Buddhist writings and friendships companionship for a Christian walk.  A spiritual pilgrim who bridged the distance between East and West.

There have been many things written by and about Thomas Merton.  To dig deeper, I encourage you to visit the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University (I think I may take a pilgrimage myself there soon).  For today, I simply want to share with you a few of Merton’s own words (and a prayer) to challenge and inspire you – as they have me.

Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.  (source unknown)

The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.    (from The Seven Storey Mountain)

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.    (from Thoughts in Solitude)

(photo of Thomas Merton from Wesley Ramey in People I Admire)

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)