Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

Addie Zierman wrote an article I appreciated in Relevant Magazine about rethinking Christian cliches.  The funny thing is, I wasn’t overly familiar with the cliches she referenced in the article, but I know that in every environment, not just Christian communities, we use these verbal shortcuts as part of our common language, for connection.  I’ve attended three churches in six years (lived in different places, that’s why), and one of the most interesting parts of entering a new church community is figuring out the local Christian cliches.  I think they are unavoidable.  But I connected with this article because I’m constantly trying to teach my students about why cliches suck the impact out of whatever they are trying to say, or generally, they do.  Overused language allows the listener/reader to pass by ideas without much thought.

I really like this connection Zierman makes with “fresh language” and Jesus as God’s Word:

But at the heart of the Christian faith is this: we were broken and we couldn’t figure it out and, instead of sending us some tired cliché, God sent Christ. The Word, John called Him. He had hands and feet, dust-covered from all that walking.

Here is what happens when the Word of God brushes against humanity: Stories. Discussion. Fresh metaphor, strung together like so many beads on a string. The Kingdom of God is like this … and like this … and like this other thing over here. It’s a seven-mile walk to a place called Emmaus without a Gospel tract in hand or the Roman’s Road paradigm to quote—just the messy truth of it all, hashed out among new friends.

Stories, fresh metaphor–sounds good to me.

Going back to the theme I’ve been sort of mulling over lately, about how Jesus’ teachings help us to live better in relationship to God but also to our neighbors, I like this idea of choosing language carefully, paying attention to how we’re communicating ideas, and attempting to prevent, through word choice and storytelling, our own indifference to the things we see and know about God’s work in this world.


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I just played this video for my students while they free-wrote, responding to one of the two prompts:

1. Give a history of your life  by listing the different books, television shows, movies, songs, bands, or albums you were obsessed with at various ages.

2. Write what comes to mind when you hear this song.

I usually respond to the prompts along with my students and this time was no exception.  I chose the second one.  I’m writing and thinking, do my students know they are listening to a song about resurrection?  Does it at all ring true to them?  Do they yet know how much death is required of them if they want something good to come out of their lives?

I keep coming back to this song (the first time I heard it was in 2002, when I was roughly the same age as my students) because I find it to be a good reminder, true on so many levels–spiritually, materially.  Just today, I met with my professor about my thesis novel and we decided that it really needs to be told in third person limited.  Those who knew me know that I wrote a hundred pages in third limited, switched perspectives from a 30 year old woman to a 10 year old girl, and then switched to first person retrospective, looking back to when the narrator was a ten year old girl.  Each time I make one of these switches, it’s like I have to die to the book again and hope that it resurrects as something better.

The thing that this principle asks (you have to die if you want to be alive) is pretty simple:How much do you want it? How much do you want this book to be a good piece of Literature with a capital L?   How much do you want Life with a capital L?


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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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I just got home from the AWP conference in Chicago.  I forget what the acronym stands for: Academics, Writers, and Publishers, that sounds about right.  The conference was sold out; 10,000 people attended.  Writers took over the Chicago loop.  Last time the conference was at the Chicago Hilton I had no idea if I wanted to be a writer.  There were only 7500 people at that one, and that seemed like too many.  Four years later, I am more confident (success and experience and a larger writer network definitely helps) but I still spent about an hour and a half in the lobby staring at all of the people as they walked by (most with noses as leads in their posture).  Good God, I thought.  Do we all really think we’re going to be writers?  The cold and gray weather did not help this less-than perky perspective.

Ah HA. This is going to be a Why I Write Post, which I just remembered I wanted to take time and hash out each year after AWP, thanks to Jhumpa Lahiri’s compelling “Why I Write”-themed key-note address last year.  Okay, so Why I write, the 2012 edition:

I met my cousin for breakfast yesterday and we discussed how writing is in so many ways an act of faith.  It’s the only disciplinary act of faith that I really understand.  I mean, I pray and read my Bible and attend Bible studies and church services.  (I wish I did more service activities. I wish I could blur the line more between my sacred and secular activities. I’ma save this for another post.)  But I think of those activities as ways of seeking God.  I don’t do them so I’ll be a better person.  I do them because I need to acknowledge God.  I need the things of God swimming around in my brain, or else I’ll start seeing a lot of damage–in my brain, in my relationships. So I do them out of necessity, more than discipline.  These days I do, anyway.  If I don’t, I’ll start to resent my students and complain about them.  That’s how I know I’m really off course and in selfish-ambitiondome.  These things help keep the conversation going that God’s having with me.

But writing?  Some people might say it’s also a way to connect to God but I’m just not going to go there.  I mean, it would be awesome if the ideas I came up with were all handed to me by God like a sack of gummy bears.  But they are not.  Sometimes they are really, really bad ideas.  Sometimes they are really good ideas trapped in really bad sentences.  There are some beliefs necessary to get myself to write.  The more I do it, the better I will be.  If I want to have a book, I have to write my ass off.  Well, if I want a good book, anyway.

Here is where I see the similarity between these two practices of praying and writing: they both have the same distraction: selfish ambition.   If I’m praying because I want something besides God,  I’m no better than the prodigal son asking his father for an early inheritance.    If I’m thinking about where this story is going to go once I finish it instead of where it’s going to go in order to finish it, I’m in trouble.  In other words, if my story is the means to something besides, say, the story itself, I have a totally flaky story sitting on my word document. It’s a heartless waste of time.  Besides, who is about to write in order to become famous, rich, or loved?  There have got to be less painful and tedious ways to to have these various versions of happiness.   You might have to write 10 bad pages to get one good paragraph.  You might have to write four bad stories in order to come up with one good one.  And the more you do it, the higher your standards, and the more miserable it makes you when you can’t reach them.

Okay, so writing takes faith.  You have to do it when you don’t feel like it.  Actually, you don’t have to do it at all but it’s good to do it if you’re a writer because if you don’t, you’ll start to resent everybody and every thing and nobody will enjoy your company anymore because you are such a draining person to be around.  And by you, I mean me.  This is what I get like when I neglect my writing.  It’s also what I get like when I neglect God.  Huh.

But writing, for a person of faith, a person who wants to have God be the focus, is, like all human activities, an opportunity to understand something about God, an opportunity to learn something from God.  And from what I can tell, writing is good for me because it teaches me to put my ambition away so I can concentrate on what’s in front of me.  Ultimately, the hours I clock in to write are opportunities to become better at praying, i.e., better at listening, at having a conversation with God.

I have a feeling that the same thing could be said of cooking, of walking the dog, of doing anything at all.

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This mini-essay came out of a writing exercise (the first one in “The Practice of Poetry,” edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell).   It’s a collection of exercises written by poets.  The first one is from Ann Lauterbach and she just says to write about an early experience with words.    She says the purpose is to “trigger your initial experience with language” (3), and to link experiences with reading and writing.  I did the prompt and thought it was something worth archiving in my blog. I may keep working with it and better shape it–polish it, but here it is in its rough form. Also, I may have written something like this on the blog before because it’s a memory I come back to a lot. Whatever. Enjoy.

Each Sunday my parents took me to a meeting with their Christian fellowship. We met in an elementary school.  I was younger than six and too young, at least for me, to wonder what was the function of the room when it was not used for the Sunday meeting.  The room was simply where we went on Sundays before I went off to Sunday school; it was the place where I must sit still and endure three songs, sharing, and a prayer.  I recall a brown carpet, folding chairs.  The room was narrow and there was a hallway with a staircase nearby.  Sunday School was up these stairs and in another room that was small and also brown and had lots of bookshelves.  I was too young to wonder what kinds of books these were and I don’t know if I was old enough to read.  This is the very fact that makes me think that in this memory I was too young to read.  If I could, I would have been more interested in the books because I am pretty sure I have been obsessed with books since I knew how to use them.

Our church was never called church but called “fellowship” and our services were never called services but “meetings”, which now strikes me as a bit cult-like, but really, the gesture was meant well; the grown ups did not want to align themselves with the unattractive aspects of how Christianity had evolved over the years.

We began each meeting with singing; these songs were not planned out beforehand but requested on the spot from fellowship people.  In other words, we sang what other people felt like singing. It was democratic. We used a songbook somebody in the fellowship put together by numbering songs and sticking them in a folder with a table of contents.  (These folders were definitely brown, though the other brown details I am unsure of.  It could be that because these folders were brown that I see this entire memory in different shades of brown).  The lyrics were typed on an old type writer and I believe ridden with typos, though I didn’t notice this yet because, again, I couldn’t read.  Most of the songs were hymns, popular hippie christian songs (a crust of bread in a house of peace is worth much more than the finest feast), or songs people in the congregation wrote.  My mother had a song in this book that I would hear many times before I knew it was hers.

So, we were singing.  It was right before my father prayed for the kids to go off to Sunday school–or as I later joked, “prayed the kids out of there”–and one of the songs, called “Yahweh,” had an eerie tune.  I took interest in darkness even as a toddler and I tended to prefer songs set in a minor key.  I still prefer them.  In the song we sang, “Though I walk through the fire, I will not be scorched or burned.” I realized what the song was saying and thought about them somewhere along the lines of: whoa. shit.

I was sitting next to my Sunday school teacher, Claudine (a Swiss woman who was the mother of my best friend at the time), and I asked her what those words meant.  Why was the speaker of the song walking through fire (and the sea in an earlier verse)?  Wasn’t that dangerous?  She asked me to bring it up in Sunday School.

I don’t remember what Claudine said about it to the other children.  Undoubtedly, something about God’s protection. I don’t remember who else was in that room or what the other children said.   I probably said a lot.  I talked a lot then in class as I do now.  All I can remember is that I understood that the fire in the song was not a literal fire.  I think this was my first time understanding that language can be figurative, that language can have layers, that it can be used in different ways to connect to people.  In this case, an image: walking through fire unscathed.

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I’m going over the syllabus for this term’s writing workshop and I came across this line under “Ground Rules”  :

Anyone using “but it really happened like that” as a defense for shoddy, unconvincing fiction should enter journalism. They’ll love you.

I like this workshop already.

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You arrive late to a classroom packed with writers sitting around a seminar table, below an enormous dry/erase board.  Your writing instructor (in this case, the director of your current program) has written a long, complicated paragraph about what the story you are about to write must contain.  Some elements you must include: a rich brother, a poor brother, a farm, a fortune teller, seven rings, a talking pig.  (Ugh, you say. Cliché)

You recognize some of the other writers: the kid who used to pick on you in 5th grade, who is now an author,

the nineteen year old from the Dallas airport who was flirting with this kid on the tram between terminals, bragging about the novel she’s currently writing,

the other fiction writer in your year who makes everything her pen touches turn to gold;

your brother, who has never been to writing school but writes better.  He catches you up on everything you missed.

The clock is ticking…  Your brain is dead.

The other writers hack away at their notebooks.  They finish.  You are left alone in the room.   Some dude with a buzz cut comes in and starts asking you about your writing.  “Buzz off,” you tell him.

Alone again, you’ve finally come up with a gripping, quirky, comical opening sentence, which unfolds into a tight and interesting paragraph.

And then you realize the story is supposed to be written in Spanish.

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