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Your imagination is no more than this: Your ability to ask, “What if?” And to keep on asking it until the write idea presents itself and you can go on.

~Barbara Shoup and Margaret Love-Denman, NOVEL WRITING, “The Book in the Mind”


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Writing that novel feels essentially like this:  You have seen or felt or dreamed something that you can’t name, but you know you can’t live without.  You set off on a journey to find it.  There is no map; no one has ever been to this place.  You barely know the people you are traveling with–your characters–but you know that they are the only people who know the way.  You watch them, listen to them.  You follow along, putting down the words to mark the path they make.  It is a long journey, with many wrong turns and surprises.  Every day, or as often as you can, you go into the world of the novel.  Months pass.  Sometimes years.

~Barbara Shoup and Margaret Love-Denman, Introduction to NOVEL IDEAS

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“There is no such thing as writing. There is only typing.”
~Steve Barthelme, via my writing buddy/editor friend John W.

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On Patriotism


The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.

Whitman, Preface to Leaves of Grass

I recently read an essay from Patricia Hampl’s book, Memory and Imagination which was essentially about being young in the 1960s, reading Whitman, having patriotism and hope.  Just now I reread Whitman’s preface and I have to say, the idea of American patriotism is strange to me; it’s theatrical, naive, safe, communal–something like Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village (Ford’s collection of buildings he tore down and reconstructed in Dearborn, Michigan so as to confuse generations of children into believing he grew up next to the Wright Brothers and down the street from George Washington Carver’s one room schoolhouse).  As a kid, we had this June Day celebration in our neighborhood that consisted of a parade with a calliope, a few contests, beanbag tosses, hotdogs, a musical performance at night.  In the morning on that day, a man would go through our streets sharpening knives on a cart he pushed, clanking for our attention.  For some reason, this memory is the closest thing I can invoke when it comes to my own sense of patriotism.  It seemed so American to me, as a kid, that this guy would sharpen knives for people.  I’m not even sure if I ever saw him; I probably just heard him.  I have no idea whether or not he charged money for his service or if he just did it for free.  I am also uncertain as to whether he sharpened knives on June Day Saturdays or if he sharpened them on the Fourth of July.  Or maybe it was both.  I have no idea, but for some reason, he sticks out to me as indicative of Good, perhaps because he’s indicative of Old, America.

This is not to say that I don’t have pride for a place–I have more pride about coming from Detroit than I have about anything else, I’m sure of it. I sometimes wear a Detroit D around my neck.  But is this patriotism?  I left Detroit, so it’s hard to imagine what I feel for the place fits for the American Heritage definition: love and devotion to one’s country.  Detroit is not a country; or is Detroit is its own country, abandoned by its country?  And I hate the place viscerally just as much as I love it viscerally.  I am Detroit-haunted.  It shows up every time I sit down to write, even if I don’t write about it, it’s there.  I don’t know if this is devotion and love or if this is just a psychological condition I have no control over.  I have no idea whether Detroit will improve or worsen, but Whitman’s patriotism seems to be rooted in possibility as well as what’s in front of him.  He’s devoted to the complexity of America; he’s compelled to make something beautiful from its complexity.

In Thailand, my boss had this Chinese television station interview him about Thai teenagers–he’d just ran a poll about them–and he called me into his office to find out what I thought about Thai teenagers.  I’d only been there for a few weeks and  told him, as far as I could tell,  Thai teenagers were materialistic and patriotic.  I was living in Bangkok, which I learned after two years of living in Thailand is the most materialistic place in the country, perhaps the world.  People cared much more there about brand names than any other place I’ve lived; Asians come from all over to walk around the Paragon Shopping Center; commercials for the Thai version of Sunny D play on the sky train, and billboards–Good God the billboards were as tall as a six-story building.  I left for America with an iPod, a new camera, and four bags of clothes (two of which I donated to charities, one of them being Mother Theresa’s mission in Kolkata) as a testament to the way Bangkok’s materialism rubbed off on me.  The materialism was definitely a Bangkok thing, not a Thai teenager thing.

Two years later, I also understood that the second part of my impression of Thai teenagers–the patriotism, was not necessarily a Thai thing but more a developing nation thing. We hang not nearly the amount of flags I saw on street corners, porches, fences in Thailand, Vietnam, India. Everyone is proud of their country in these places, it seems.  It seems.  Hell if I really know.  In America, where we’re divided in our fear of government abandoning us or intervening too much with us, we’re also divided over how patriotic we want to appear.  Why is it that those who want more government also distort American flags in their protests, replacing stars with corporation symbols, while those who want less government are the ones who wear more red white and blue?

I’m thinking that when Whitman says the united states make the best poem, he’s referring to the diversity of experience (which makes sense when thinking about how he celebrates that diversity in his poetry).  The best poems are complex.  Not shy. To be an American poet is to claim it all in the poetry, conquer the ugly in the name of beauty, etc.  This might have been an easier idea to stomach before we started playing with atom bombs and occupations–before we were an imperial force to be reckoned with and before we reckoned with halfsie states like Guam and Puerto Rico.  And maybe this is why I think of patriotism as nostalgic; it’s easier to be proud of a place that hasn’t done much damage to the world.  Whitman wrote those words when Americans were on the brink of destroying each other and each other’s towns, but it was still a developing nation.

But then we have James Baldwin’s quote about patriotism in his “Autobiographical Notes”:

I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.

In this sense, if the Occupiers and Tea Party Folks share not a common solution to the common problems, they at least share a common right to criticize.  And if patriotism in America allows for critique, then I suppose I can get behind that.

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(Thanks, family and friends, for  your responses and giving me a reason to think about this more.)

I HAVE been thinking about this a bit more, especially in the context of what I believe Jesus’ gospel is: The Kingdom of God is at Hand; in other words, God is directly accessible to us. I’m also thinking about something else that I heard a lot from a teacher back home, which is that my relationship with God is something only I can have with God. With both thoughts, it’s interesting to factor in the idea of interacting with people who are hurting and unaware of how accessible God is, unaware of the peace and love available to them if they want it. Our job would be to “point them towards God,” somehow and I think we, embedded in our culture, look for shortcuts or formulas to make this job easier.
When I think of your ministry at Servant Partners, though, or what I know of it–the idea of living among people in order to show them Jesus, first by learning their language, next by taking care of their children, praying with them, going to the temple with them (I am thinking of Lexie’s post from a while back that totally kicked my ass), I’m really, I don’t know, grateful to know about it? Encouraged.  I suppose there is good strategy and bad strategy and living among the people you want to introduce to God seems pretty great.  It seems as though if you were talking and listening and living with those you were ministering to, you’d have a hard time thinking you could rely on a formulaic approach to God.   The anecdote of marketing might be just what I see happening in your community: getting to know people well, forgiving them, offering them peace, interacting with them the way Jesus said.

Maybe the trouble with marketing strategies is that they are so impersonal.  Or maybe, if we want to flip this thing around, we could see Jesus using a strategy that is personal.  We see that he doesn’t have formulas when it comes to healing people (his healing methods vary, as do the methods of talking to people one-on-one.  He’s all over the map), but when speaking to the masses, the strategy is to tell a ton of stories that force his listeners to seek God and ask questions.  His goal is to bring them to God out of the masses so that they can be consumed by his love.  He doesn’t want to give us five steps that are easy to remember because he likes it when we need to return to him to ask for a reminder of what to do next.


I just read Home and Gilead last semester. Wonderful, wonderful books.  I wish you could meet Lisa, who introduced them to me.  Which book did you like better?


I miss BKK a lot, too, though the fact that we have good pineapple in Florida does help with the sadness part.

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Marketing Faith

All it takes is to see that my friends are adding to their blogs for me to go back to mine.

Right now I am thinking a lot about this Moth Podcast I heard about a woman who left her church and Mary Kay at the same time because she was tired of looking at people as “lost sheep”.  That wasn’t her quote, but that was the essence.   She was on the “core executive” committee for her church because she was so good at selling things.  She decided to step down (and move to NY) when she heard her pastor say that they needed a five step plan, or something, about salvation with five words to help people remember it.  And, he said, all of the steps had to begin with the same letter.  This sickened her, as it did me, and made her leave the church.

I’m scared of  marketing infiltrating into faith communities, I will admit.  It sickens me.  The idea of manipulating people to follow Jesus with a good marketing strategy seems about as evil as it gets.  It presents Jesus’s love as something to be consumed, rather than something that should consume us.  And I do believe love should consume us.

Look at his life.  He didn’t use marketing strategies.  He just taught what he knew about God.  Sometimes it drew people to him.  Sometimes it turned them away.  Jesus never turned people away, but sometimes he said things that made people throw up their hands and turn around.   His goal, clearly, is not to attract masses but to teach about God.  What do we make of that?

I’m really asking myself.  What do I make of that?  There’s a feeling I get from capitalism: obligation.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing by itself, I suppose.   I don’t want people to feel obligated to believe what I believe or worship where I worship, the way I worship, etc.  Whenever someone does something for me and I can tell they feel an obligation, it makes me uncomfortable.

I’m not writing with answers here.  I’m trying to work this out.

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Haven’t done one of these in a while.  It’s late.  I need sleep. But… Oh Well.

Reading:  Collected Works of Raymond Carver and a bunch of Wordsworth poems for classes; listening to “Home” by Marilynne Robinson on audiobook while I clean dishes.

Listening to:  audio books (see above).  I just finished Gilead this week, also.  I’ve been listening to podcasts of an NPR show called Being (formerly Speaking of Faith) and this morning I shook it to James Brown.

Writing:  poems and stories for workshop

Teaching: Freshman Comp (1102) about how to write research papers. Woo.

Eating:  Beans and rice.  Gourmet beans and rice.  Also, I’ve been drizzling goat cheese with honey and almonds and baking it for 5 mins.  It’s so good.  It’s a miracle.  Eat it with bread or apples, crackers–you’ll be glad you did.

Watching: Madmen.  Just finished the second season.

Needing: to be writing more.  I don’t write enough.

Buying:  the bare necessities.

Enjoying: Tallahassee folk, catching up with new and old friends, my apartment, which is cute and clean since I’ve been here.

Cursing: my tendency to get discouraged about my writing.  to write for workshop rather than the enjoyment of it.

Thankful for:  the opportunity to keep studying. my students,  who have been fun this semester.  new friends.  the church i’ve been attending here, (Called E3)

Should be:  sleep.  going for more walks.

Shouldn’t be: on the internet but hey! I’m almost done so I might as well finish it.

In the habit of saying:  crude and shocking words.

Missing: Thailand, Detroit, family

Anticipating: turning in my story on wednesday.  and my essay on Carver due the same day. the next season of Madmen. my next trip to Bangkok (December, y’all!)  My next trip to Detroit (Thanksgiving! Even sooner!)

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