Faith, Art, and Staying Out of Pigeonholes

My daughter gave me her copy of Madeline L’Engle’s Walking On Water a few years ago. Knowing that I was deep in the process of writing my novel, she thought I’d enjoy L’Engle’s profound reflections on faith and art. I was grateful for the gift and excited to read it (A Wrinkle in Time has long held a solid place at the table of my favorite books as a child), but for some reason, I set it on the book-laden desk in my bedroom and forgot all about it.

lengle booktable

Fast-forward to the present: After the painstaking work of writing and even MORE painstaking work of querying my manuscript, I finally received an offer of publication for my book. (Side note for those waiting for that magic acceptance email: A Wrinkle in Time was rejected TWENTY-SIX TIMES before being accepted for publication! So never, ever give up!) At the same time, I finished reading my latest “devotional” (I usually have one spiritual, non-fiction reading going, along with at least two fictions) and was searching my book table for a new one. I spotted Walking on Water, opened it up, began to read the first chapter, and felt God settle next to me for a chat. This was the perfect book for the moment—since finishing my novel, I’d been struggling with my role as a writer who is a Christian but doesn’t write “Christian” books. What did that say about me? Was I not using the gifts God had given me in the “right” way? What choice did I have but to write the way I write? While I respect Jeannette Oake and her ilk and am grateful for the gift she shares so joyfully with her public, I can neither enjoy her books personally, nor can I write books like hers. They’re just not my style. My joy of future publication became mired in uncertainty–what if I disappointed those who believed in me and expected something I didn’t have to give—in truth, didn’t want to give?

L’Engle’s book is about a Christian writer who doesn’t write “Christian” fiction. Her novels’ themes are often threaded with spiritual truths and are grace-filled, but she freely and happily admits that she never, ever set out to be a Christian-fiction-writer, saying:

“But I am a writer. That’s enough of a definition. (I infinitely prefer to say that I’m a Christian than to mention any denomination, for such pigeonholing is fragmenting, in religion as in art.) So, I am a Christian. I am a writer . . . Because I am a struggling human being, trying to make sense of the meaningless of much of life in this century and daily searching  for revelatory truth in Scripture, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever want to write novels of pessimism or porno, no matter how realistic my work. But I don’t want to be shut in, labelled, the key turned, so that I am not able to grow and develop, as a Christian, as a writer. I want that freedom which is a large part of the Christian promise, and I don’t want any kind of label to diminish that freedom. It is sad and ironic to have to admit that it does.”

madeline (2)

She is what I want to be, what I want my work to reflect: A Christian who happens to write fiction. She is bold in her reminders that the Bible is full of things that a genre Christian-fiction-writer wouldn’t touch, like rape, incest, erotic poetry, and then reminds us that God is the author of imagination, and the job of a writer is to explore and share the life we’ve been given–every beautiful, messy, painful, horrible, wonderful bit of it. Our love for God and desire to please him in our work is what makes a Christian writer different. We shouldn’t flinch in writing about the ugly, but we shouldn’t stay there or glorify it, either. We look for the grace and the hope, as we should when experiencing troubles in real life.

Even more darling in the reading was the discovery that my daughter had annotated the book as she’d read it, filling it with notes cheering on science, smiley-face-“haha” giggles in the margins, and sweet notes of encouragement to me  (“Your book does this, too, Mom!” “Just like your character, George!”).

 

Balm of Gilead to my soul, given to me exactly when I needed it the most. As we say in Kenya, Mungu ni mwema.

Where Stories Come From 1: Pa

The idea for my soon-to-be-published novel germinated a long, long time ago during a visit to my maternal grandpa, who we called “Pa.” Since my Nanny’s death that July, I’d been trying to check in on him more. Every time I visited, my Pa would begin to reminisce about Nanny, about how much he loved and missed her, and he’d begin to cry– something I had never seen before. It was difficult to know what to say, especially since I was dealing with my own grief over losing her. It was unsettling to see her blue-gray easy chair sitting there in the living room, empty; I kept expecting her to wander in and say, in her throaty, husky voice, “Well, hello, there, Hon. How’s Becky doing?”

One day when I dropped by, I somehow got Pa started on telling me a story about a notorious local woman who he remembered seeing when he was younger—a former carnie who stomped around town wearing men’s clothing and swearing at the sheriff. He talked and talked, getting tickled as he relayed the story, delighting me with the tale so much that I went home and ordered a seven-page booklet from a local author about the woman’s life. That spark of interest and research would eventually become the basis for my upcoming novel. Looking back on it, the more important part of that day was that my Pa had not even mentioned my Nanny, let alone cried, the entire visit.

What a gift that afternoon was.

The next time I went to my Pa’s house, I immediately shared the booklet I had read with him. That started him telling me another story about the day he saw a rough, mean fellow shoot four men in cold blood on the porch of a bar as my Pa, a child then, stood around the corner and watched. I was again instantly entranced. My Pa had an amazing memory for details — he could recall names and dates and how each person he knew was connected (“kin”) to everyone else. He was a good storyteller, too — very linear in his recounting so everything made orderly sense. He talked for an hour and needed very little input from me, and I was sorry when I had to leave to pick my kids up from school. As I hugged my Pa goodbye, I shouted in his ear (he was a mite deaf), “I’ll be back soon — and I want some more stories.”

He grinned, that sweet-as-honey, big bear of a man who always dressed only in denim overalls, the same outfit we’d bury him in a year later, and shuffled his feet a little. “Waall, Beck,” he said, “I don’t know . . . but I do have some stories to tell, I guess.”

pa in overalls

He surely did. And I’m so grateful—as someone who’s chosen to become a story-teller herself, it’s quite a legacy he left me.

 

Editing Tool to Rock My World

Error patterns: All writers have them. Some struggle, with comma usage rules, sprinkling commas, in their prose, like farmers, throwing seeds, on, a, freshly, plowed, field. Others fear commas so they allow their sentences to pile up on one another like cars on crowded busy freeways in California at rush hour causing the reader to mentally crash before reaching the end of the sentence. (Phew.)

Still Others think that Every word should Be capitalized at Will, making the reader wonder what was so important about “every” and who “Will” is. And oh, the error pattern of the misspeller, who doesn’t understand using “you’re” when he means “your” can make some reading his mistake physically hurt in their soul

I teach academic writing in college, and much of my time is spent helping students identify and then fix their own personal error patterns in writing. I assure them that they are not alone, that almost everyone has a writing “bugaboo” he or she struggles with, and that the writing problem one person struggles with may not be the same as someone else’s. The key is to follow Alcoholics Anonymous’s first rule: Admit you have a problem. Once you get that out of the way, it’s simply a matter of learning what the problem is, how to fix it, and then being diligent in not making that mistake again. I have all kinds of tips and tricks to help my students with their various writing problems, and when they use these tricks, I watch their error patterns disappear. It’s gratifying to see.

Like my students, I have my own personal error pattern. My brain moves faster than my fingers, and as such, I have problem with forgetting put in words. (Oh, sorry–I meant that I have problem with forgetting to put in words.) I can read a document over and over and think I’ve fixed every missing word problem, then the minute I hit “submit,” my eyes clear and I see allll my mistakes and spend the rest of the day in shame and despair, feeling like a fraud.

To combat my error issue, I used to read every piece of writing aloud, following the words with my finger as I did. It was a tedious process, but it was mainly effective. I’d resigned myself to this tortured, slow way of revision, until recently I discovered a feature on Microsoft Word that rocked my editing world. I felt like Dorothy and her pals in The Wizard of Oz when they were told that their brains, heart, courage, and way home had been with them all along. Archetypes: The Wizard of Oz (Part Two) - Go Into The Story

My wonderful, commonplace tool is the “speak aloud” function in MS Word. I just had to realize it existed and enable it.

speak aloud

So allow me to say: I LOVE THIS FREAKING FEATURE! I revised my entire novel manuscript using the speak function, and though I’d revised it six times AND had friends adept in English read it over for me, I now caught several words I (and they) had missed. And not only did I notice my error-pattern-errors, listening to that flat robot voice read my book aloud allowed me to hear (and fix) some repetition, “flow,” and confusing structure issues. Even cooler: Sometimes while listening to the robot read my book to me, I’d forget I’d written the words and think, “Wow, that was a good phrase! Wow, that is an exciting scene! Wow, I really like that character!” Then I’d remember, grin, pat myself on the back, and say, “YOU wrote that good phrase, lovely character, and exciting scene, you author, you!”

(Words of affirmation are my “love language.” Sometimes I have to remember it’s okay to love myself.)

I Love Me | Official Johnny Bravo Merchandise | Be Awara

Maybe I’m the only person in the world who didn’t know about this excellent tool, but in case I’m not, I highly recommend it. For me, it works better to listen to my writing a paragraph at a time while I read along and pause to fix errors. This stops me from becoming overwhelmed or zoning out. When I revised my book this way, I’d listen to a few pages in a sitting several times a day, with a brain-break in between. This process took about two weeks (my book is currently around 93,000 words), and when I was done, I was really pleased with the results. Now I use the feature for everything—important emails, bios, comments on student writings, and yes, blog posts. I write everything in Word, hit the “speak aloud” button at the top of the page, listen and fix, CTRL-A, CTRL-C (if not a document), and save/send/submit.

Ain’t technology (sometimes) grand?

Napoleon Dynamite: Yes, I love technology

 

 

“Patience Is a Virtue, Virtue Is a Grace . . .

. . . Grace is a little girl who wouldn’t wash her face.” Well, scour that stubborn pate, Grace, because patience finally paid off! After three long years of research, writing, revising, submitting, shrugging bravely at rejection, submitting some more, revising some more, eating vats of comfort chocolate upon more rejection and refusing to give up, my book has finally found a publishing home! TouchPoint Press , a traditional, royalty-paying publisher has offered me a contract for publication and I accepted.

Let the wild rumpus begin!

I will be posting more on this site about my experiences in the publishing journey. So far, I’ve signed a contract, filled out some author data forms and had headshots taken for the website and book cover. (My goofball selfies make me look unserious, go figure. However, I resisted taking a stark black-and-white picture of me in a turtleneck, my hair scraped back severely in a bun, my chin resting ever so lightly on my hand, my index finger thoughtfully grazing my cheek.) I’ve also resigned myself to having to return to Facebook. Cue big dramatic sigh.

As we say in Kenya, Mungu ni mwema!

 

 

Clyde Kilby’s Eleven Resolutions: Timely and Timeless

Dr. Clyde S. Kilby, former professor of English at Wheaton College and renowned scholar on “the Inklings,” developed the following eleven resolutions for daily life. He shared those resolutions with his lucky students every year by copying them into his course syllabi. Rather than resolutions for the body (get fit, lose weight, eat better, sleep more), they are resolutions for the care and feeding of the soul. I decided to share Kilby’s resolutions today as a reminder to myself and my readers to take a deep breath, thank God for this season of spring, and try to make this day, this moment–the only one we’re really promised–count for something good.

  1. I shall sometimes look back at the freshness of vision I had in childhood and try, at least for a little while, to be, in the words of Lewis Carroll, the “child of the pure unclouded brow, and dreaming eyes of wonder.”
  1. At least once a day I shall look steadily up at the sky and remember that I, a consciousness with a conscience, am on a planet travelling in space with wonderfully mysterious things above and about me.
  1. Instead of the accustomed idea of a mindless and endless evolutionary change to which we can neither add nor subtract, I shall suppose the universe guided by an Intelligence which, as Aristotle said of Greek drama, requires a beginning, a middle, and an end. I think this will save me from the cynicism expressed by Bertrand Russell before his death, when he said:  “There is darkness without, and when I die there will be darkness within.  There is no splendor, no vastness anywhere, only triviality for a moment and then nothing.”
  1. I shall not fall into the falsehood that this day, or any day, is merely another ambiguous and plodding twenty-four hours, but rather a unique event, filled, if I so wish, with worth potentialities. I shall not be fool enough to suppose that trouble and pain are wholly evil parenthesis in my existence, but just as likely ladders to be climbed toward moral and spiritual maturity.
  1. I shall not turn my life into a thin straight line which prefers abstractions to reality. I shall know what I am doing when I abstract, which of course I shall often have to do.
  1. I shall not demean my own uniqueness by envy of others. I shall stop boring into myself to discover what psychological or social categories I might belong to.  Mostly I shall simply forget about myself and do my work.
  1. I shall open my eyes and ears. Once every day I shall simply stare at a tree, a flower, a cloud, or a person.  I shall not then be concerned to ask what they are but simply be glad that they are.  I shall joyfully allow them the mystery of what Lewis calls their “divine, magical, terrifying, and ecstatic” existence.
  1. I shall turn frequently to imaginative things such as good literature and good music, preferably as C. S. Lewis suggests, an old book and timeless music.
  1. I shall not allow the devilish onrush of this century to usurp all my energies but will instead, as Charles Williams suggest, “fulfill the moment as the moment.” I shall try to live well just now because the only time that exists is now.
  1. If for nothing more than the sake of a change of view, I shall assume my ancestry to be from heaven rather than the caves.
  1. Even if I turn out to be wrong, I shall bet my life on the assumption that this world is not idiotic, neither run by an absentee landlord, but that today, this very day, some stroke is being added to the cosmic canvas that in due course I shall understand with joy as a stroke made by an Architect who calls Himself Alpha and Omega.

(Clyde S. Kilby, 1902-1986)

Handling the Madness in Rural Oklahoma

Living in this corner of America during a pandemic means the following:

My life has only changed in that the powers-that-be continue to make broad, sweeping, sometimes unconstitutional decisions about what I can or cannot do and where I can or cannot go. (Reminder to my fellow Americans: Our constitutional rights, including Freedom of Assembly and Freedom of Religion, do not go away just because people are sick and scared. Beware a government who takes away your rights “for your own good.” Our church went to online services without the need of a governor mandate because they have common sense and don’t want the elderly in our church exposed to possible illness. Elon Musk, Ford, and GM started working on making ventilators without the government demanding that they do so; the same is true for distilleries who are now making hand sanitizer and places like our local t-shirt company who is now working on masks for healthcare professionals. To paraphrase and add to an old chestnut: America is great because she is good–but only if her people are allowed the freedom and the trust to be so.)

I will now be conducting my college English I and II classes online. Since I teach reading and writing, it isn’t too much of a stretch. That library job I was so excited about still exists, though we shut our doors to the public. I must say, the way people rushed in to check out books like we were the Walmarts with the last rolls of toilet paper on the planet did my heart good. Literacy lives, people!

Living in rural Oklahoma during a pandemic means:

Nature hasn’t been told there is a pandemic. Grass is growing, morels are begging to be hunted, and flowers bloom and bloom and bloom. I forgot that my Irish skin needs to be slowly coaxed into a suntan and got my first serious sunburn of the season yesterday when I sat outside for an hour on a bench (yes, at a safe distance), visiting with my lonely 84-year old widowed neighbor after taking her some lasagna. I’ve wandered over to see my folks a couple of times this week, and they are busy cutting grass, hunting morels, and watching those flowers bloom and bloom and bloom. The red wasps are out (devil insects!) and I’ve joined the fat furry carpenter bees in fighting them off. The bees chase them relentlessly, and if any get past, I am ready and armed with long-range wasp spray. We shan’t rest until every crimson demon and its unnecessarily aggressive stinging is vanquished!

Instead of stress-eating, I’ve been stress-hiking–through the acres of land surrounding my own, up and down hiking trails, down country roads and back. Alone, there is no one who shouts “social distancing!” at me or asks me to ring a dang bell when I approach (that’s the latest suggestion from the city when using their trails–absurd). I march around the countryside 5 to 7 miles a day, praying out loud, listening to great audiobooks, whispering new possible book ideas to myself. I come home exhausted and sometimes covered in ticks, but my mind is clear and I’m fine.

Really, I’m fine. I hope you are too, in your corner of the world.

No Dream Is Too Small

I’ve always loved a good library. When I was a kid growing up in Kenya, East Africa, in the mid-1970s and 1980s, I didn’t really know what a library was. I’d never see one, and the idea of a place that let–nay, encouraged–you to read their books FOR FREE was as foreign a concept to me as color tv and letters not written on blue aeograms. It’s unfortunate that I was such a voracious reader, then–my only option for a variety of books was the used bookstore in the capital city, six long hours away from my town. I’d agonize over my two or three book choices, weighing my interest against sheer size–it would be a long two months before I’d return to sell the books back to the bookstore owner at a reduced price and make new choices. After much soul-searching and gnashing of teeth, I’d buy my books and have the first one read by the time we reached home.

Cue my first encounter with an AMERICAN library. I was in fifth grade, and we were in the States for six weeks on deputation. When my grandma took me to the library and told me that I could borrow up to ten books FOR FREE, and, when I finished, could return the books and borrow ten more, continuing the cycle all summer long until we flew back home to Kenya, I honestly thought I’d died and gone to heaven. It was then and there that my life-long love affair with libraries began.

And so, when I saw an ad for a job as a library page in our town, I decided it was time to cross something off my bucket list. A word about my feelings about bucket lists: I have no interest in jumping out of a plane, going white-river rafting down the Colorado, or deep-sea diving in the Pacific. Maybe because I grew up in a foreign country and have visited many different places and experienced other cultures in ways that lots of people have not, my bucket list items are, well, small.  Everyone I know thinks I’m nuts for taking the job–I’m still an adjunct professor at our local college where I’ve been teaching English for over eleven years now, and my colleagues are bemused by me. My husband thinks I’ve lost my marbles, and even the ladies who hired me seemed a little astonished that I applied–“You do know this is just a part-time, low-level job, right?” they asked me at one point, to which I nodded and beamed.

I told my English Composition students about my new job the other day, and I ended that day’s lecture with the exoration, “People always tell you to dream big–to reach for the stars. I’m here to tell you that there is nothing wrong with dreaming small, either. If you want to shelve books part-time for minimum wage at the age of almost-fifty just because you’ve always dreamed of doing it, well, then go ahead.” Their smiles told me that either they understood where I was coming from, or that they’re used to me being a little crazy and this was just par for the course. Either way, I’ll take it.

What’s next on my list? Oh yeah. Getting that novel I wrote published. I just hope I don’t have to wait forty years for that one.

 

And Just Like That, the First Draft Is Done

 

book first draft (2)

And by “just like that,” I mean after HOURS and HOURS and HOURS of research, planning, bleary-eyed writing, and a first rough edit. Dreaming about characters, fussing at plot, boring all my nearest and dearest with how I need to FIX my plot, closing my eyes and seeing black letters on white pages marching along . . .  . Also I lost my capacity to spell. Or type. At the end of some days I couldn’t even make my fingers unbend. But who cares? 86,000 words+ later, 276 printed pages that stand almost 2 inches tall, the first draft of my novel manuscript is DONE.

book depth.jpg

Can I get a hip-hip, huzzah, y’all? Now is the time on Sprockets when we dance !

 

 

 

Where Writers Write

Roald Dahl’s desk, found in his “writing hut,” was a winged-back chair with a long tray that was covered in dark green billiard cloth. The tray/desk was balanced arm to arm on the chair, sometimes supported by a rolled pillow. Before settling himself into the chair and positioning the writing tray across his middle, he would first stick his legs in a sleeping bag in order to stay warm. (Now here was a man who no doubt would have appreciated a good Slanket. Alas, for him, progress moved too slow.)

dahl

Jane Austen wrote at a dainty octagonal wooden desk while seated in an uncomfortable-looking, cane-bottomed chair that was positioned by the window for the light. Flannery O’Connor’s schoolroom-style desk and straight-back chair were wooden too, minus the cane bottom but with the addition of a floral needlepoint pillow. Virginia Woolf, Kirkegaard, and Nabokov eschewed seats altogether and often wrote standing up.

nabokov

Some people are coffeeshop writers, enjoying the white noise of conversation as they create. Others write in quiet libraries or peaceful parks. When searching for advice to writers on where to write, you may find the mildly offensive exhortation to “Designate a room in the house as an office, and when writing, always sit at a chair and desk as if you were at a real job.” Fair point; after all, Hemingway once said that “There’s nothing to writing. All you have to do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

Pfft.

I do have a writing office in my house, and I love it–it’s a tiny room upstairs, narrow because of the enormous built-in bookshelves stuffed with things that I treasure (like my ever-expanding collection of signed books–getting literary superstars Margaret Atwood, Amy Tan, and David Sedaris to sign my books ranks up at the top of my “I can die happy now” moments), things I use (like my too-many books on teaching college composition), and things a Lit major like myself is required by Lit-major law to dig (Shakespeare, Edward Albee, and Euripides have to hang out on the shelves with Stephen King and Yann Martel, because all the shelf’s a stage, and all authors merely players). The entrance to my office is a wooden Dutch door, salvaged by my husband from one of his jobs. I don’t care that it’s supposed to be an exterior door–it is for ME and I love it so.

office door

My desk seat is a red vinyl director’s chair, a hammock for the butt. My writing desk is another salvage–from the 1930s and enamel-topped, it was given to me by my late Grandma Jean. I had to scrape and scrub to get the rust off of the legs, but it was worth it. Once while watching the awful movie Walk on the Moon,  starring terrible Diane Lane and only-good-in-LOTR Viggo Mortensen, I yelped in delight when I spotted my table on the screen. Then I finished watching the movie and was sad for both me and my table.

desk
Holla at my girl Miranda Hart and her “What have you done today to make you feel proud?” Heather Small tributes. Heather keeps us all accountable.

So yeah, I love my table, but let’s get real–I am more of a recliner than a sitter. Therefore when I DO write in my office, I shun the butt hammock and too-good-for-Viggo desk and instead stretch out on the antique fainting couch I found at a local flea market. Obviously I have smothered it in pillows because comfort (and Michael Jackson) are king, and I am queen.

fainting couch.JPG

But to be really, REALLY honest, I spend 98% of my writing time not at a desk, not in an office, but propped up on more pillows on the bed in my bedroom. Regardless of how uncool it is to admit that my writing is best when I lounge on the bed, gazing out at the trees beyond the window (So unprofessional! Not like a real job at all!) it’s the truth: a semi-prone position works for me.

bed desk

Now before you judge me too much, allow me to direct your attention to other lie-abed writers such as Truman Capote, Mark Twain, and Edith Wharton. And as to the question of where the best place is to write, I humbly submit that we vein-openers should do what we do in the way that we do it, and we need make no apologies.

 

 

 

See? I Told You It Works

Referring to the previous post:

word count

Go forth and do likewise. (Whoah, that got bossy real quick. Go and do likewise if you want to. I mean, I’m not your mom.)