Sunday, November 12, 2017

On finishing, writer's guilt, snacks

It's November 12, 2017, 20 years plus a day since Joe and I started being an item, and I'm writing from a tiny kitchen table in Ashtabula, surrounded by woods and frost and knotty pine.

The foundation of this post, saved as a placeholder but never published 10 months ago, when 2017 was still young:

I have some aspirations for this year... among them, reviewing more books, maybe writing one, writing more about Biblical musings, perhaps building a little community around this blog. I'd like to save up to visit a friend in a gorgeous, far-flung and slightly dangerous place. I'm in the process of training to be a crisis counselor with Crisis Text Line. I'm also in my sixth week of an extended Ignatian retreat called the 19th Annotation... and I have mixed feelings about it thus far.
My word for this year... as uninspiring as it sounds, is "Finish."
See, I have a nasty habit of dreaming up lots of things and never finishing them... sometimes never even starting them. But for now, I want to focus on simply finishing what I've started and worrying about the things I haven't started later :-)
And I want to finish well. I want the divine sigh of relief that accompanies God's voice saying "Well done, good and faithful servant..." at the end of my course.

Sometime not long before I started drafting the above post, Trump got elected.

This garish new light on democracy put me in mourning for several weeks. My soul sat around in the dust and rent sackcloth and fasted the Internet. I felt traumatized. Blindsided. Nauseated.

Then, after a little while, gasping back the air that had been knocked out,  I decided I needed to do something. I needed to apply love to all the hate, to live creatively, not destructively or judgmentally. I would take to heart and action the words of Galatians 6:1-5 (MSG)

Live creatively, friends. If someone falls into sin, forgivingly restore him, saving your critical comments for yourself. You might be needing forgiveness before the day's out. Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ's law. If you think you are too good for that, you are badly deceived. Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don't be impressed with yourself. Don't compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.

It would seem creative love expands in the doing. So I applied and trained with Crisis Text Line, and started volunteering as a counselor, helping people cool down from their boiling points, to put away their guns, blades and pills and instead take deep breaths and recollect the good. Then I applied for and was offered a full time job at a nonprofit in downtown Cleveland. Now I write for a living and type as a volunteer. These aren't airtight excuses for why I've been entirely absent from my creative ambitions of nascent 2017. But that's the practical side of what happened to Emily The Writer these past several months.

The impractical side looks something like this:

She's been wandering around in her brain tinkering and muttering to herself, not writing all that much. Unsure of whether she should go back into those rooms she knew so well, and whether to open the new doors that have appeared or to tread softly down freshly discovered corridors. Might they lead outside into the fresh bright daylight or into a version of myself I've been wanting to meet? Or something more sinister and upending? Maybe I'll just head back to the kitchen to get a snack instead.

And so six months or so into the new job, a coworker asked if I still find time to do creative writing. Time? Ha! I dodged the question by asking a question, since that's what journalists do. After all, are we talking fiction (at which I suck and will only do if Son One asks me to write him a birthday Minecraft story with himself as the protagonist) or creative non-fiction, which I try to do most days in my handwritten journals that never see the light of day. As we both have jobs and kids and mortgages, my coworker let me off the hook easy. But I couldn't quite shake the question.

Fast forward some weeks and I'm here on my unofficial 20th-anniversary-of-being-a-couple getaway with my Writer Husband, and I thought it could be my ribbon-cutting back into some semblance of a writing life. I'd find solitude in the wind-whipped woods. Let the muse swoop back in and nest, hopefully to lay a nice round blog post.

As I envisioned it, yesterday was to be my return to beholding and reflecting, my resurrection day. But... I somehow found it much more satisfying to eat lots of snacks and read a book I've been meaning to reread since the first time I read it as a geology major in college. It's a 650-page book about North American geology and geologists. And it won the Pulitzer. So, you know, very important reading that I have to catch up on right now. God help me.

That was yesterday. I sit now in the dark of a snackless Sunday morning, fingers chicklet-ing out much less of a master post than I'd hoped, because even if the writing is mediocre, it feels good to sink myself in and finish something.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

A Review of L'Engle's "Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art"

I think 2016 went out with a fizzle for me. I've been down about current national and world events and moods. And, ever the introvert, discontentment with external events is eventually subsumed by disillusionment about my own lack of apparent contributions to the betterment of society over the last 38 — better make that 39 — years. I've been down on my writing, parenting...wife-ing... friend-ing...Christian-ing. And, as it turns out, being down on myself does not translate into becoming a better version of myself. 

I begin 2017 thinking about many of the thoughts contained in Madeleine L'Engle's classic book on being a Christian creative.There's this little flicker of hope when I read Walking on Water, first published when I was 2 years old, and now reprinted in portable paperback form with a lovely sunny rainy cover and a nifty reader's guide at the end. I've been reading and re-reading this book for a few months now, hesitating to write my review because then I'll have officially "finished" the book, so packed with treasures, tips, observations, philosophy and theology.  In L'Engle's theology, creative work is a spiritual discipline— a prayer— and listening to the work is the same as listening to God. 

To work on a book is for me very much the same things as to pray. Both involve discipline. If the artist works only when he feels like it, he's not apt to build up much of a body of work. Inspiration far more often comes during the work than before it, because the largest part of the job of the artist is to listen to the work and to go where it tells him to go. Ultimately, when you are writing, you stop thinking and write what you hear. To pray is to listen also, to move through my own chatter to God, to that place where I can be silent and listen to what God may have to say. But if I pray only when I feel like it, God may choose not to speak. (140)

Monday, December 5, 2016

Asking Myself: When has God intervened in your life?

This is the 32nd post in my series "Asking Myself," in which I weekly ponder one question posed in Teresa Blythe's excellent book, 50 Ways to Pray. You can find the start of the series here and my previous post here. The first nine posts focused on theological musings, while posts 10 to 25 prayerfully consider the specific questions Jesus posed in the New Testament. Posts 26 to present focus on Questions on Spirituality.

Q: Can you think of a time when God intervened in your life?

First off, what do I think about the term "intervene"? Is this some kind of saving grace at a time when I didn't deserve it or couldn't muster it myself? Is it something I didn't even know or think to ask for? Or is it a clear answer to a desperate prayer? Intervention of old (and new testament) seems to entail the supernatural: shipwreck survivals, gospel-preaching teleportation, earthquake prison releases and the like. 

I do not have any clear-cut, undeniably hand-of-God moments in my history. But, as usual, I buck against this obvious interpretation of the idea of intervention. And I wonder, might God be intervening momently... keeping the earth in motion and the sun burning and us tiny humans from blowing each other to smithereens? And doesn't he work specifically in my own life-- intervening in matters of the heart? But to answer what I think the question is actually asking, yes, I do have a handful of incidents that I attribute to God's intervening hand. And I will tell them to you:

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Asking Myself: Have you ever felt resentful, angry, or afraid of God?

This is the 31st post in my series "Asking Myself," in which I weekly ponder one question posed in Teresa Blythe's excellent book, 50 Ways to Pray. You can find the start of the series here and last week's post here. The first nine posts focused on theological musings, while posts 10 to 25 prayerfully consider the specific questions Jesus posed in the New Testament. Posts 26 to present focus on Questions on Spirituality.

Q: Have you ever felt resentful, angry or afraid of God?

I wanted to write about anger and resentment because I have a ready wellspring of life episodes that fit this category of my dynamic relationship with God. But, I realized, all of them were deeply personal; writing about them on the internet just didn't seem safe or fair to the other people intertwined in these moments.

So, I moved on to my third choice-- a time when I feared God. I touched on the topic of fear a couple of posts ago. But this time I want to tell a story of fearing God--- or maybe, more precisely, of fearing because I didn't trust God's goodness. I feared that God's will would not be for my own good. 

Winter in Taiwan, 2002.

Taipei winters are wet and breezy. Sometimes typhoony. Sometimes with earthquakes. Clouds and pollution settle on the city's mountain-rimmed basin. Fist-sized snails suction themselves to the palm trunks, and the geckos come inside. (I add these latter details not to creep you out, but because I'm actually very fond of both geckos and giant snails. I digress.) The main trouble with Taipei's winter and the 24-year-old version of me was that I was damp and bone-chilled and tense and allergic and asthmatic and covered in eczema, and having diarrhea 8 times a day. I was also prone to nightly anxiety attacks. 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Asking Myself: Who was God for you when you were a child?

This is the 30th post in my series "Asking Myself," in which I weekly ponder one question posed in Teresa Blythe's rich book, 50 Ways to Pray. You can find the start of the series here and last week's post here. The first nine posts focused on theological musings, while posts 10 to 25 prayerfully consider the specific questions Jesus posed in the New Testament. Posts 26 to present focus on Questions on Spirituality.

Q: Who was God for you when you were a child?

Try as I might, I don't have a cogent essay to answer this one. Instead, I present here a hodge podge of memories and impressions.

God as Protector
You know, as a child, I think I always felt pretty safe. I was secure in God's protection. This is surely in part a product of my loving and secure upbringing and the fact that my country was not war-torn or in a state of unrest. But even on a spiritual level, I didn't worry about losing or being lost.

There is a dream I had that seems to speak to this question. I might have been about eight years old. It was realistic in that it seemed ordinary- my house was my house, I was me, the lighting and quiet were all very much they way they were. (I point this out because usually my dreams merge people and places into new composites that are as much fiction as they are nonfiction.) The one strikingly abnormal thing about the dream was that there was a an evil presence against me in some way, perhaps Satan himself. He'd slipped into the normalcy of my house and his intentions were for ill. And in my dream I went to the top of my staircase and belted out a song from Sunday school; it echoed against the vaulted ceiling of the stairwell.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Lisa Cron's "Story Genius" urges aspiring authors to get to know their protagonists

These days a lot of books like to tout brain science in order to seem wiser and more cutting-edge. I found the subheading of Lisa Cron's Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel, to have that same draw. The literary agent and now story workshop teacher proposes that humans are sucked into story because we feel that learning how other people like us face their challenges might help us navigate our own. She also throws in a few random statistics about the percentage of would-be authors who receive rejection letters and book sales averages in an attempt to show that the failures are due to stories that lack the blueprints she outlines in the book. I found this introductory part of the book that debunks the supposed myths of prevailing writing camps (the plotters and the pantsers) to be what many introductions are: a sales pitch for her methods and perhaps for her workshops. 

While the book doesn't quite live up to its "sciency" promise, I have been finding it very helpful in its clear course of action and encouragement as I attempt to flesh out a story idea that's been running around my brain for a while.

The fun part about this book is that Cron's friend and fellow writer, Jennie, plays the role of the guinea pig, offering up her own flicker of a story idea and developing it according to Cron's steps so that it gradually unfolds over the course of Story Genius. Following Cron's steps, Jennie fashions a storyline that follows a topic I find utterly insipid (a woman adopts a dog so her dog-loving friends will think she's normal as she deals with the fall-out of a romantic relationship gone awry) into something that tugged my heart strings and even caused me to shed tears. 

In short, Cron asks the right questions, such as who is the protagonist at her core, what event made her that way, what myth is at the core of her worldview, and what event will totally upend her current way of thinking? By skillfully answering these questions, Jennie made me actually care about her budding dog-lover. 

I can see how some writers might find Cron's methods limiting... there are indeed great stories out there that don't quite fit her protagonist-centric mold or perhaps leave the ultimate meaning of the book ambiguous so that diverse readers can find their own message. 

But as a complete novice to novel writing, I'm pretty excited to follow Cron's detailed advice, if nothing else, as a way to keep myself motivated in the face of so many distractions and procrastinations!

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Asking Myself: In what activities do you feel blocked from God's presence in your life?

This is the 29th post in my series "Asking Myself," in which I weekly ponder one question posed in Teresa Blythe's rich book, 50 Ways to Pray. You can find the start of the series here and last week's post here. The first nine posts focused on theological musings, while posts 10 to 25 prayerfully consider the specific questions Jesus posed in the New Testament. Posts 26 to present focus on Questions on Spirituality.

Q: In what activities do you feel blocked from God's presence?

Well. I hate to say it, but I often feel blocked from God's presence. Perhaps this isn't as bad a thing as it seems at first religious glance. After all, it's better to feel blocked, than to be completely unaware of it. Hopefully that dry, dismal feeling is the impetus I need to seek him out or to assess how actions and frame of mind might be contributing to the distance.

Yet it's hard for me to single out specific activities that unilaterally hide his face. I supposed the safe answer would be: I'm blocked when I'm sinning. Yet, sometimes sin triggers the conscience alarm that makes me most aware of of the Almighty. So what actually blocks me from God?

My off-the-cuff answer produced these three activities that I find to be fairly sure-fire ways (for me) to be blocked from the joy, peace, love and creative energy that come from God's presence.

1. Spending any more than 5 consecutive minutes on social media.
Especially in our polarized political and cultural climate, any amount of time spent skimming through or clicking within my various feeds makes me prone to the habit of outrage so many articles and posts seem crafted to inflame. These days, I find that doing anything more than "liking" a few of my friends' kid pics leads to being sucked into the world of injustice and idiocy. More than feeling my blood boil, I feel the urge to retaliate, to set the record straight. The impulse is checked only by the observation that most of the opinions expressed on social media are fixed. Facebook is not (for me) a place of humble reflection nor an open marketplace of ideas where people feel safe enough to consider another perspective. Jesus did act on his righteous anger over the money changers in the Temple, but I don't think he purposely fed his indignation by returning over and over again to turn tables.