Creativity Series: “God, the Artist, and the World” by Judith Hougen


When I was sixteen, my father retired from the military, initiating the last move of my childhood to a small town in Wisconsin. I was once again the new kid, the outsider seeking a space, a community, to call my own. That summer, I found myself drawn to night skies, the warm swirl of darkness and stars freed of suburban glow. Laying in the front yard of our home, surrounded largely by farmland, there was something about vastness that eased my loneliness, my wretched anonymity.

I remember cool grass under my shoulders, the sawing of crickets, and a growing sense of immensity. In that space I contemplated my life and the God whose existence I couldn’t shake. That scene remains for me a picture of longing, an attempt to grapple with, to reconcile, the random awkwardness of my small existence with an expansive and patterned universe.

In my life as a writer, I find myself back in that yard, metaphorically speaking, my face toward the heavens, earth solid beneath my back—my human form caught up in both realms, negotiating these two wonders. For me, this is a picture of the artist of faith in the world.

Catholic theologian and philosopher Gerald Vann says that, by its very nature, humanity has a “duty” toward both the physical and spiritual worlds. He writes, “Because of his psycho-physical nature, man is a mediator. To his ontological status as the midpoint between the world of matter and of spirit there corresponds a mediating function: to incarnate—to give material expression to—spiritual reality and to spiritualize or humanize material reality.” At her best, the faith-filled artist embodies these two dynamics. Human life is a divine invitation to be fully alive in both our physical and spiritual natures and to experience these two natures as fully alive within each other.

What I experienced on those summer nights is the incarnational nature of reality, a world where “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” where God relentlessly upholds creation as a point of spiritual access and relationship. That this is the case is no small matter for the artist. In my writing, I see the physical and spiritual as inextricably fused. My work, then, as a mediator is a call to recognition, to a wide and penetrating vision, and to live as fully as possible in both spheres, enfolding both within my writing. Great artists rightly recognize and express the spirituality of the material and materiality of the spiritual.

Such a vision invites me to a certain posture toward my writing practice. I traffic in meanings, and incarnational reality signals, if nothing else, that the universe is rife with meaning and significance. I remain open and sensitive to how meaning will impress itself upon my work, not attempting to create or impose it. Meaning is already present because God created both language and the world. It is intuited and received, not conjured.

But there are difficulties in this largely countercultural approach to creating. Writers often are encouraged to adopt a production mentality about their work. Writing is a product obtained by exercising dominance over language and ideas, a doing-unto the text. And, generally, we have been rewarded for the outcomes of this kind of approach. In my younger days, writing was a way to accrue social and academic capital, something to prop up my identity. Even now, I can become overly invested in the results, restless and demanding, too attuned to the winds of social media, and find myself despising the beautiful hiddenness that is a crucial element of the writer’s path. Such a posture is at odds with Vann’s vision of our role as holy mediators. Caught in that place, I sense a deep-down hunger for the solidity of a star-laden summer night.

To immerse myself in this greater vision is part of my calling, and for that I need a more contemplative approach to life and writing. I need to learn how to be quiet and to breathe, to move slowly and pay more attention, remembering that small details matter and learning to truly see them. Flannery O’Connor, an unashamed fan of staring, touches on this more contemplative way of being and working, saying, “The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you will see in it.” Through such careful seeing, she says, “The artist penetrates the concrete world in order to find at its depths the image of its source, the image of ultimate reality.”

We were made for mystery, and that mystery is the expansiveness of the world, the Spirit, the love and meaning that is each moment’s possibility. Writers of faith must trust and lean into other powers to accomplish their art. In such an atmosphere, our work with words becomes a gift, a gratitude.

I’m a long way from that teenager in the Wisconsin countryside, living in St. Paul these days, but looking back I see a beauty in her and her quest to reconcile the worlds around and within. I identify with the goodness she sought, alone on the lawn as the stars pressed close, her implicit recognition of meaning in a spiritually charged world.

As I work and write amid the determined movements of early spring, I know I cannot control the night sky or the first shoots of green that still slumber beneath my feet. Mystery is all. What I can do—and what I believe is my vocation—is to cultivate vision, to be a loving witness as I mediate earth and heaven, holding the tensions of clay and spirit, scatteredness and order, and out of such holding to find words enough to glimpse the glory of what is.

Judith Hougen is an Associate Professor of English at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota where she has taught writing for twenty years. She has written two books: The Second Thing I Remember (poetry) and Transformed Into Fire (spiritual formation). When not endlessly grading, she works on her own writing, currently a collection of essays on faith and the writing life. She blogs at Coracle Journeys and lurks on Twitter at @JudithHougen.

Creativity Series: “I Stand at the Untitled Piece” by Addie Zierman


The show at the Walker Art Center is called This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s, and I am struck.

It’s the work of the first generation of artists to grow up with televisions at home, and it’s angry and beautiful and profound. Mixed media and mixed voices and lots of old, clunky TVs spinning on loops.

A question on the introductory placard pulls me down hard like a magnet: “In a world increasingly filled with mass-media images, what is the role of visual arts?”

I was too young in the 80s to remember much of the political turmoil. I don’t really know the stories that the art here is retelling in broad, unconventional strokes. But I know about mass media. I know about the loud, brightness of it, that heady cocktail of color and content. Ad and information all mixed up together, shaken and poured.

Home-grown in the evangelical world, I am especially aware of the way mass media has permeated Christian culture. The spirituality that I learned to swim in was steeped in how-to books and t-shirts. Bible covers, teen magazines, hit songs, ads.

The deep questions about Jesus and culture and how Christians are to be in the world bounced like pinballs around the media, louder and bigger and more forceful with each telling.

At the Walker, I stand for a long time at Doris Salcedo’s untitled piece – two stiff columns of men’s scuffed work shirts, pierced with long, sharp poles. She created it as a response to the testimonies of 40 Columbian women who saw their husbands murdered for participating in organized labor struggles.

Just shirts. Just a little plaster and some dirt. Just everyday objects, placed one on top of the other, saying something wildly profound about grief and injustice and the emptiness of loss.

In mass media Christianity, you learn this: that your life only matters if it is blown-big with passion, large-text and bold, like a front-page headline. The purpose of your life should be quick and fluorescent, ten words…twelve tops. It should pulse and sparkle like a neon sign, a city-on-a-hill turned up to a hundred thousand watts, bright as Vegas.

In mass media Christianity, the questions we ask are What are you doing for God? and How are you changing the world? We measure success with words like “revival” and “revolution” and “how many souls were saved?”

And in a faith increasingly loud with revivals and mass media and conferences and speakers, you have to wonder how it matters, this sitting quietly by the window, waiting for words.

But I just keep coming back to those shirts at the Walker. They stay with me, sharp and lonely in my mind. They are prophetic and beautiful and more powerful than a thousand newspaper headlines.

I am not a visual artist in the way of Salcedo, but I feel a kinship to her because I write, primarily, within the genre of Creative Nonfiction. Which is, in many ways, a genre of found objects.

When you are a writer of essays, of memoir, of true, rooted-in-facts kinds of things, you have to get down on your hands and knees and dig through the sand of your life. You pull out average, unimpressive moments. Dirty work shirts. Empty folding chairs. That time in kindergarten when you wore a construction paper three-cornered hat and went on an imaginary trip to Holland.

Your work has to do with choosing to believe that these unimpressive things matter. That they have lodged in your heart because there is something wholly beautiful and uniquely true about them. That God speaks less through a bullhorn or billboard than through an ordinary bush, burning wild in the desert.

Your work is largely that of seeing, digging, putting ordinary things side by side to create something simply and strikingly true. It is more than telling it how it happened. More than facts lined up one after another. It is structure. Sound. Fact connected to the current of creativity. The electric shock of meaning.

It’s the work of individual white shirts, folded and stacked, pierced and forever piercing the heart of the one who stands awe-filled next to it.

In a world that is obsessed with creating something NEW! EXTRAORDINARY! BRIGHT!, your role is less about creating the next big thing than about recognizing what no one else sees: symbol, metaphor, beauty, art.  Quiet work. Important work.

It’s like this: there are a hundred thousand images flashing by, and your job is to find the hidden thread of truth. The one that holds us all together. Pull it out, even if it tugs at your soul like stitches on a wound. Arrange it fresh and new.

Put it out there, small and strong, thin and unwavering. It is just waiting to quietly change the world.

Addie Zierman is a writer, mom, and Diet Coke enthusiast. She blogs twice a week at How to Talk, where she’s working to redefine faith one clichè at a time.

Creativity Series: “Tossing Ferdinand Magellan” by Tyler McCabe


Most writers I know have a pet metaphor for this station, the ultimately strange role of writer, and I suppose I do, too, though lately I have grown suspicious of it—or rather, him. I am considering tossing Magellan.

I think he originally occurred to me during a college entrance exam. I recall composing a long flowery rant about the writer as an explorer; I wrote something like, “an explorer sees the world as an oyster into which he readily forks his tongue.” (My youth blinked past the innuendo.) I hyperventilated on about, yes, lapping at that goodness.

And once I stop blushing, I admit there’s some truth to that because the world is sweet. This is a world that repays exploration.

I think Tolkien had this exploration in mind—a kind of discovery of the real—when he wrote his bit about humans refracting “a singular White,” and although I think he probably wrote that sentence like I wrote my entrance exam essay, missing its problematic undertones, I think he probably wrote it in earnest as I write (generally) in earnest, and perhaps he even wrote it next to a window overlooking sea like the one I write by now, because who can deny witness to the light shattering over water and the salt-clean air and gulls in pines, bleating? The world is sweet.

I’m sure Magellan thought so, or he wouldn’t have died trying to circumnavigate it.

But I no longer think of writing as a true exploration of a beautiful world, a discovery of the real, and here’s why: having created this art for some time, it’s occurred to me that the vista out my window is a variegated color beyond the written word. I experience the complex color sea, and I can write a sea-like sentence, sure, add rising and falling sounds, a certain swish, harp the moribund S, but I cannot write the sea as one actually experiences it. The ocean—human experience—is ornate beyond serifs.

To Tolkien I say: this white light burns my eyes.

Which isn’t to raise any more controversy than this: the writer, if anything, is not the explorer as we tend to think of him, Magellan at the prow of his ship, laying his plans upon his desk, drawing up lands as he encounters them. Something stranger is in art happening. The writer is parting darker waters.

Considering this Christianly, I’ll hijack for a moment the story of God giving Adam reign to name Earth’s animals.

And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

This might be the most important parade in the entire Judeo-Christian tradition. So I apologize for this quick and somewhat distorted analysis: I believe Adam was, like any writer I can bear to be friends with, a little bored and lonely, and luckily for him, God intended all along that Adam not only explore the sweetness of the world, but alter it, reconcile himself to it, leave his shadowy strange mark on it: beginning with a syllable. Crow.

For the creator-artist and the viewer both, art is an extra mode of knowing that is just as likely to muddle Tolkien’s light as it is to coax it into spectrum. That is why we call some books good books, and also why we can’t pick The Best Book Ever. It is why we writers feel there is something left to be written: because we are not exploring the actual world in words, but through playing with words coming to situate ourselves in the actual world.

Playing with words, we organize the world, fillet it, direct it, sharpen it, slow it down, speed it up, deceive it, chop it into manageable pieces or amass it into unspeakable wonders.

Most writers will tell you they are in love with words themselves—I am in this camp—and I will venture a guess that most of us get into this business not because we are looking out windows on beautiful vistas that compel us to record them shoddily, but because the last paragraph of “Dover Beach” is so rhythmically compelling. Because the opening sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude gives us goosebumps.

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

The best creators are Adams—transfiguring one blackwing flurry into crow, for love of that open sound, soft punch.

All this to say, my first metaphor’s soured. A writer isn’t really an explorer discovering the world; what she offers is other-worldly. Her work transforms the world.

Then again, I may be tossing Magellan unfairly. Words are elastic. Maybe I need only revise the way I imagine him. Sure, a creator is like Magellan as I can picture him now: stepping from the dock and sliding off the map, returning from uncharted space, notebooks full, and changing the way we relate to the world, for better and worse, muddling and concentrating that foreign light.

Tyler McCabe is the program coordinator of Seattle Pacific University’s MFA in Creative Writing program and managing editor of Image journal’s bi-weekly e-newsletter ImageUpdate. He has also written for Ruminate and SPU’s Etc. magazine.

Creativity Series: “The Active Creator” by Sam Mahlstadt


I am more writer than theologian, but neither by trade. However, as the concepts I learned during my education in the written word and my my experiences in the local church mingle, I’ve realized something quite alarming.

In writing, there is a great temptor and persistent foe called the passive voice. When a writer slips into passive voice, the subject of the writing is subjected to certain actions, as opposed to the subject of said writing taking action. The cat was chased by the dog, as opposed to, the dog chased the cat.

In passive voice, our characters are at the will of the world aroung them. In active voice, however, our characters are influencing and creating their own destiny. Unless you’re writing dialogue for Yoda, passive voice is to be avoided. Correct, that advice is.

What’s worse than passive voice, though, is passive living.

I’ve notived a tendency among comfortable Christians to be lulled into passive lives. When you are living a passive life, you cannot view yourself as a co-creator with God. It is impossible to create, actively, when you are reacting to life as it happens.

If we are to break out of our passive lives and join God in the renewal of all things, we must reframe our role. We must reclaim our place as co-creators. In Genesis, we see God create man and woman, and command them to take part in creation. One translation says that God told the man and woman to dress the garden. After the fall, however, we see the man and woman literally dressing themselves with the garden. It’s a shift from active to passive. And the implications of the fall, the transition from active to passive life, are felt in our lives everyday.

But the story doesn’t end with the man and woman standing in the East of the garden. Through the restorative work of Jesus, we can reclaim our place as co-creators. We can join God’s work of renewal. We can point to the Kingdom that is breaking forth into our world, by actively joining God in his work.

I’m not much of a writer or a theologian, but this I know: Through the power of the Holy Spirit, you and I can be co-creators with Elohim, the creative spirit that spoke our existence into being. You and I can shape eternity.

Sam Mahlstadt is compelled by the written word and the story of the Gospel. He writes at, and recently released his first book, Creative Theology.

Learn more about the “With Flames Upon Their Head” Creativity Series by clicking here.

Creativity Series: “Tiny Glory” by Kolby Kerr


When we read the Bible—if we read it well—we are never far from paradox. We are introduced to one in the opening act, just as God has set all the characters on the scene. We are informed that Adam and Eve, primordial man and woman, who have been culled from the newborn dust of the earth, have been made in the image of God.

They—and we, if we are brave enough to accept their legacy—were made to look like God. The form pleases God; He calls them very good.

You might recall a certain forbidden tree of knowledge of good and evil and perhaps a certain smooth-talking serpent. And his line, so enticing to Eve and the conspicuously mute Adam: “You will not surely die…for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God.”

Yes, you ought to take the tempter’s words with a grain or two of salt but still in this we hear from the outset a pretty clear definition of sin: striving to be like God.

There’s a nuance here that feels too arbitrary, too litigious for this huge story, like gumming up The Lord of the Rings with an Elvish verb declension chart. The story requires specificity and we clearly see the stakes are high, but we’re already off and running again with narrative.

The Bible, pre-Paul, seems almost joyously unconcerned with getting its theology laid out neatly.

But we are talking about writing and the act of creation. And still I’m sitting with my back against the forbidden tree, wondering if it is my God-given right to stretch out for the upper bounds of the human experience, or if this is my serpent-side building Babels again? (We diaspora Baptists have special clearance to mix our biblical metaphors, thank you very much.)

Every time I write, the question creeps in again: Is this hubris or is this human? Am I, as has been quoted so often to me, “adding to the available stock of reality” or am I merely enlarging my own little metaphysical plot of real estate in the universe, increasing the acceleration of my sphere’s gravitational pull, slowly drawing all things unto myself?

But I’m not offered answers—I’m not sure I’m listening anyway. I can’t quit creating, and I don’t have the time or inclination to trace my motivations to their source. There are some strings you just don’t pull.

Let’s go back to the garden and God scraping dust, marshaling dirt clods into livers, spleens and spines. He hovers over the provisional creatures as he hovered over the formless deep. And then he breathes. The breath of God rivering into all that matter, filling it with the nonspace of wind, of spirit. It was the moment of inspiration.

And we putter around our four score or so, filling our days with respiration, the again and again reminder that we are made of stuff and something else, the physicality of flesh and the ethereality of air.

To speak a word, even our most unimportant one, we draw that breath again. We are presented with the humbling truth that we are not the closed systems our staunch corporeal presence suggests, but are at every moment contingent on the negative space of our landscape.

But having hauled in all that foreign gas, we aren’t even halfway home to speech. That breath fills our lungs, excites the infinitesimal alveoli who barter for the oxygen. Those same lungs compress the air metered by our trachea, strumming our manipulated vocal chords and loosing into the mouth, the cathedral arch of our hard palate.

Our tongue thrashes, teeth reverberate and lips press and burst to release the music of our speech. Every word we speak is spirit borne wildly from our flesh.

Poem, from the greek poiema, means simply a thing that is made. From the verb to make or create. It refers most often to a simple thing, say a piece of pottery. Something made with mud, clay, water. Something made with the slap of palms and sweat of brow. Something set to dry in the sun, becoming as solid and final as it is delicate and dependent on the care of everything around it.

What keeps me from resignation is a dogged faith in the material of language.

While we’re at it, let’s call our work what it is—recreation. As we write, we redeem what is around us by articulating undiscovered combinations—metaphors, images, wordplay. The writer’s craft is to see creation precisely as it is, but present it as new to an audience often inoculated to the curious splendor of stuff. We are creating again.

There may be a time when I am able to slice more exactly the moral nature of my impulses toward this recreation, when I can know if I am living as the image of God or if I am nibbling forbidden fruit hoping to take God’s place.

In the here and now, I’m left only with the simple joy of utterance, of finding the creation I’m capable of (language) and uniting it with the creation only God can tackle.

I’m left in childlike delight at the eclipse, the fleeting, perfect alignment of word to thing, when, as B.H. Fairchild puts it in his poem “What He Said”:

the white dove of genius
with its quick, wild wings has entered our souls,
our immaculate ignorance…
…And so is conceived and born
the thing said, finally, well nay perfectly

To write is to trust the stuff of us, even after Eden, and wait for that lucky wind to full our lungs. It’s to take—with our meager ration of gratitude—our given breath and make of it what we might, which is to say a tiny glory.

Kolby Kerr lives with his wife and son in the great state of Texas. He is a poet, Texas Rangers fan, and a high school teacher.

Learn more about the “With Flames Upon Their Head” Creativity Series by going here.

Creativity Series: “Three-Part Harmony” by Nancy Nordenson



In the beginning, you have an image, a question, a word that won’t leave you alone. It keeps coming back. Knock, knock; here it is again. You pull out a notebook and make a note. A day or two later you scribble something on the back of an envelope. On an index card. Scratch, scratch. A thought comes to you in the shower, an idea at the grocery store. You send yourself an Evernote note, an iPhone note, a to-do list reminder (“think more about…”). These memoranda are hydrogen and oxygen, carbon and phosphorus, nitrogen and sulfur, elements of life ready to ignite into something that never before existed. You mix this with that, stir and shake, shape and fill out. You concentrate and daydream. You write and write. You save and delete words at a ratio of 1 to 10. A paragraph, an essay, a short story begins to emerge. One day it will stand on its own. It will be a single united whole that would bleed if you cut something out. You will call it good as you put down your pen and pull back, waving and watching as it goes on to have a life of its own.


But for now, you have further to go than your prowess with words can take you. You may be creating a paragraph, an essay, or a short story, a book or a novel if you’re lucky, but you are not the creator of the heavens and the earth. You pray a prayer of humility and proceed. Layers of created order draw you deep and high; clues beckon like golden keys waiting to unlock hallways through what calls to be explored. You strap on a light as you walk into the darkness. Now and always you ask, What’s really going on here? On one hand you write “mystery” and on the other hand “the known”; you want handfuls and handfuls of each, gathered together, mingling, heaped and overflowing on your writing desk. But the weight of discovery is not yours alone to carry. The Christ’s ancient promise holds: ask and you will receive. You empty your hands of what you’ve found and now hold them open. You listen for the still small voice that is not yours. You wait. It is not a secret truth that you seek, but a quickening, a veil dropped, even just the first breadcrumb of a path forward and through. When the word—the Word—finally comes you pick up your pen and write some more, stir and shake again, your eyes closed, your head bowed.


The stakes just got higher. You jumped the track, caught a wave, launched skyward on the see-saw’s pivot. You’re not just creating a paragraph, an essay, or a short story, a book or a novel even, but something bigger. The words catapult you into the realm of participating in the ongoing creation, new hearts, new minds, the world as yet to be. Words alive in the eternal now, fruitful and multiplying, where will they go? What will they do? How will the words catalyze, how will the words comfort, how will the words change even you, the one who laid them down on the page? Theological debates rage on whether God’s creation surprises him or not, but indeed the words you’ve written surprise you. “This chokes me up,” a reader says. Me too, you think but don’t say. “After this, I see things differently,” says another. You nod, feeling the shiver. The words, no longer a product, become teacher, guide, and friend. “I don’t feel so alone,” says yet another. You nod again, walk away from the desk, and rest.

Nancy Nordenson lives in Minneapolis and writes about the intersections of thought, beauty, and faith in everyday life and work. She is the author of Just Think: Nourish Your Mind to Feed Your Soul (Baker, 2004), holds an MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University, and is currently finishing a book on the nature and experience of work. Her essays have appeared in Indiana Review, Comment, and Under the Sun, among others, and have received multiple “notable” mentions in Best American Essays and Best Spiritual Writing.

Her essays have also been anthologized in The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God, edited by Leslie Leyland Fields (Cascade Press, 2010), and Becoming: What Makes a Woman, edited by Jill McCabe Johnson (University of Nebraska Gender Studies, 2012). When not scribbling on a creative project, reading, cooking, or daydreaming, she can usually be found earning a living at her medical writing desk. You can contact Nancy at her website,, or follow her infrequent tweets @NancyNordenson.

Learn more about the “With Flames Upon Their Head” Creativity Series by going here.

We’re just echoing awareness, not creating it.


Pierce Gleeson wrote a short story titled “Four Million Followers” about an unemployed post-grad who starts writing and managing the Twitter page for a popular beverage company called Quark Cola.

More than a soft critique on corporate communication or Twitter, the story examines how our interaction becomes where, “We’re just echoing awareness, not creating it.” This leaves a lot of sad lonely people in the world. You’d think technology could solve a problem like this (*wink).

He was staring listlessly at the incoming tweets one Tuesday afternoon when a message appeared. Hey @quarkcola, I’m going to commit suicide tonight. Thanks for all the sugary memories. The icon next to the tweet was an ordinary self portrait of a young man. He checked the user’s page and found it had been active, intermittently, for more than two years.

He replied with three tweets in quick succession. The first was a link to suicide prevention hotlines in the man’s apparent country. The second: @gregorpegor You need to tell a real person before you do this. Just in case you are confused and they can help. Thirdly, he recommended the man read Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus.

There was no reply in the following days. The user was a very infrequent poster, and so the lack of follow up could not be considered proof of anything. He informed Samantha about the incident, and she submitted it to the legal team, who advised him to forget it, but to ignore all such entreaties in future. The very act of responding to such a message made you an active participant in what followed. Were a user to later kill themselves, then their family could potentially claim damages against Quark Cola for its interference. A non-reply could reasonably be interpreted as an unseen message, and would as such clear Quark Cola of any potential liability.

Two weeks later, during which he often agonised over his replies to the suicide announcement, he received a direct message from the user…

Facebook is the tool which represent the past (ie. yesterday’s pictures, last month’s vacation, that one crazy night, etc.) while Twitter represent the consciousness of the present. This is one reason why Twitter is utilized to analyze an audience reaction to a television show or a politician’s speech.

After Obama’s State of the Union address Florida Sen. Marco Rubio gave his rebuttal and took an awkward pause to drink from a Poland Springs bottle of water. The Poland Springs marketing department must not exist. While Twitterverse blew up with memes and jokes, Poland Springs Twitter lay dormant.

Poland Spring Water hasn’t Tweeted since July, 2010. Right now, their rep is frantically trying to remember the password. #PolandSprings

— Jory John (@joryjohn)

Read the story because I imagine you’ll laugh and relate. But then also think about some of the broader implications of what it means to @reply, hashtag, and direct message. They’re more than ways of living or learning or being. And they have little to do with Twitter.

(story found via kottke, image borrowed/manipulated via ffffound)

Also read: A Series on Creativity.

One Day at a Time by Evan Kingston (Guest Post)

This Series is about the challenges writers face while working a day job and trying to make it as a writer.

Today’s post is from Evan Kingston. He lives in St. Paul, MN. He runs the frozen department in a grocery store, writes literary romantic comedies, and maintains The Oldest Jokes in the World, a blog about the relationship between humor and literature. He is currently the Fiction Editor for Red Bird Chapbooks.


Over the past year, I’ve received dozens of correspondences from agents and publishers regarding my first novel, Half Drunk. There’ve been short emails, letters on gorgeous stationary, and messily photocopied half-sheets; many have mentioned “the current state of the publishing industry” while others have taken a kind moment to draw attention to “the many admirable qualities” in my work. But they’ve all said, “No, we’re not interested in your novel.”

I usually read them right after I come home from my morning shift at the grocery store, when I check my mailbox and inbox before heading out to the library to write for the afternoon. And with each one I get, I can’t help but wonder why I don’t just stay home, to relax and/or wallow. It seems, for a moment, like giving up would be easier.

I worked hard for a long time on Half Drunk. The novel was my MFA thesis, and I composed its five drafts over the course of four years, workshopping it through a half-dozen classes before concentrating on it one-on-one for a year with my incredible advisor, Sheila O’Connor. In part, each rejection feels like a rejection of the time I spent on it, a letter letting me know all those lonely hours in the library were wastes of sunny days.

Even worse, they sometimes feel like rejections of a whole part of my life. A literary romantic comedy about addiction and recovery, Half Drunk is based loosely on my struggles with alcoholism. In detail, the connection to my real life is very loose: the plot involves magical strains of marijuana I’ve never smoked, a villainous rapper named Dr.MC I’ve never fought, and a 100 ft bike jump into the Mississippi River I’ve, thankfully, never jumped.

But the larger themes—my exploration of how we finds the strength to change our lives within those parts of ourselves that are ultimately immutable—are some of the few things I have from the drunken years of my early twenties that are worth sharing. At my most despairing, the rejection letters feel like a refutation of those hard earned lessons.

They really make me wonder why I even bother. But even when I can’t think of a good reason to, I go to the library and write anyway. I don’t need an answer; all I need to do is think of the alternative.

In my early twenties, I didn’t have a daily writing routine and regularly excused myself from the few commitments I made for myself. As I’d worked my way through a BA, my binge drinking grew steadily worse, but rarely so bad that it interfered with my class assignments. The moment I graduated, though, I stopped writing and took up drinking like it was my calling. I considered myself a writer, but was less interested in actually writing than in acting like I thought a writer should act: sometimes vain, sometimes depressed—but always drunk.

When I did manage enough time between hangovers and buzzes to sit down at my desk, I mostly just scribbled notes for novels I was sure would prove my genius once I found a little more time. Whenever I forced myself to make the time, I tortured a few sentences—dissecting and reassembling them with slightly different punctuation, just to change it back and see how it would feel if the main character had a different name—until, unable to find the perfection I thought would let me move on to the next paragraph, I quit to the bar. Once there, I drank until I could forget the work I should be doing so I could more easily brag about being a writer (though I often overshot and blacked everything out completely).

As fun as I tried to make it all look, I was miserable. I wouldn’t change, though, because I wanted something to change me: I told myself I would start a new short story once a magazine accepted the one I’d written as an undergrad; I would cut back on my drinking once I found a nice girlfriend; I would finish the first chapter of my masterpiece once inspiration hit me with a better first line. Chalk it up to addiction or immaturity, but I just couldn’t understand that no girl would want me until I sobered up or that I’d never know what the right first line was until I’d written through the first chapter, all the way to the end of the book.

I hope it doesn’t ruin the end of Half Drunk for you, but through a series of personal events I still don’t fully understand or remember, I finally quit drinking. In part, I think I realized I needed to be sober to make it through the school—but then I also remember looking forward to how much more authority my drunken rants would hold with an MFA behind them. It was more than just school: I’d thought of a hundred good reasons to quit over the years, and various friends had plied me with a dozen more, but I never lasted more than a few weeks. I’m still not sure why this time stuck. It involved a strength I was sure I didn’t have—a strength I still think isn’t my own—so all I can say is that God helped me, and besides that, I just tried to stay sober one day at a time.

As it is one of the few activities I’ve tried that is as hard as quitting drinking, I try to think about writing the same way. The part that is under my control is showing up to the page every day and doing the work. Whenever I skip a few days in a row, I can’t help but feel like I’m blacking out my chance to be great, rejecting myself before anyone else has the chance to. I know I can’t just wait for something to happen to me that will change my work into something publishable. All I can do is study my craft and be as present, honest, and exacting as possible every day.

I believe that, as with my will for sobriety, the inspiration that will make my work great needs to come from something greater than me, something ultimately out of my control.

In any event, it is totally out of the control of publishers and agents, so I don’t let what they have to say keep me from doing my part. They have their own part to play, and hopefully, one day, that will involve writing me checks instead of rejection letters. But I can only reach that day by writing one day at a time.

Also read: Writers Series: “Writing for a Living” by Amanda Fanger

I’ve watched you trying to teach and you are really not very good at what you do

This is from an essay by Kim Stafford about success and failure:

Some years ago, during a graduate-level writing workshop on a cold November night, a student asked me at the break if she could talk with me after class. “Of course,” I said. After the second half of the workshop, which I felt it went pretty well, the others melted away into the rain and she sat down to face me.

“I have been watching you trying to teach,” she said, “and I have to say, you are really not very good at what you do. People come to a class like this to make structured progress on their writing, and all you really have to offer is exercises to make new beginnings. I thought someone should tell you this, in case you have other options for a career.”

As she spoke, I felt my heart rattle, heard my mind fill with the sounds of clank and clunk as her words shifted the gears of despair. Yes, said a voice within me, you are probably right. My teaching is bad, and I am bad. Far from being a surprise, your assessment finds companion thoughts buried deep in my own mind. I have long known what you are saying.

Several weeks later, this student asked me to write a letter of recommendation for her. I got out a crisp sheet of bond with my college’s letterhead, and produced a glowing assessment of her skills and prospects. She got into the MFA program of her choice and now seems to have a thriving career. My failure and her success are both by-products of what is truly at work in each of our life episodes: survival, learning, forgiveness, and change.

Kim makes a list of his respectable accomplishments and then describes how they’re also failures. I do this, too, and I don’t have nearly as many accomplishments.

Isn’t that like your worst fear as a teacher? It would be mine. But in general, it’s like a constant general fear that someone is just going to call you out as not very good at anything.

My brother, we speak in silence

This is an essay I’m currently writing and working on. Decided to share some of it today. The title makes reference to my oldest brother’s inability to talk. That’s not really discussed here. In French (I think) it’s: Mon frère, on parle dans le silence. Because I like to translate my titles into French.

My mother told me once, after my oldest brother’s death, that I might not quite feel the gravity of it all, of death, of losing a brother, of his disability. I understood then that this was probably true, but even now, so many years later, I still do not quite understand it all and I have given my life to understand something of death, of growing up without an able older brother—without two able older brothers—and I continue to come back to the themes of longing for a childhood where I could be the younger brother, where I could be teased by Aaron in words and outrun by KC in the fields.

We sang Amazing Grace at Aaron’s memorial service. When we buried the metal box with his ashes, surrounded by oaks and weeds, pillars of dust rose up from a rusted tractor in the field below. I could also see the high school and the baseball field in the distance. It was there, behind the dugouts, where I imagined the namer of this small town stood, when he pointed up to the sky at a bald eagle circling, it’s wings opened wide. This Native in my mind holds his hand in the direction of the bird, but does not name it, for it is too beautiful and too majestic. He therefore names the land in its shadow after it.

Yoncalla. This is where I grew up. Where I lived when Aaron died and where he is buried now underneath the oak trees on the hill, underneath the shadow of what we cannot name.

I remember Aaron standing in the bathroom, his diaper at his feet, and my mother leaned over, wiping him. The Cubs game played in the living room and hot dogs boiled on the stovetop. It was Saturday. If Aaron had lived with us, my mother wiping him and the stink of it down the hallway would be a common scene, but he only visited.

When Aaron turned three the doctors diagnosed him with tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC). His mental faculties diminished and he stopped talking. He used to say Daddy and Mommy, afterward he hardly looked them in the eye.

TSC is a rare multi-system genetic disease that causes non-malignant tumors to grow in the brain and on other vital organs such as the kidneys, heart, eyes, lungs, and skin. A combination of symptoms may include seizures, developmental delay, behavioral problems, skin abnormalities, lung and kidney disease.

I had to Google search TSC much like my mother did in 1994 when we first connected to the Internet in our house. She spent hours in front of the monitor, waiting through the slow loading process, and coming to the same conclusion as the doctors: Aaron would live a long life.

1979, the same year Aaron was born, Manuel Rodríguez Gómez, head of the Mayo Clinic’s Pediatric Neurology department, edited the only textbook on TSC for the next twenty years. And in a 1991 Mayo Clinic publication, “Causes of death in patients with tuberous sclerosis,” states, “Leading causes of death include…status epilepticus or bronchopneumonia in those with severe mental handicap.” My mother no doubt read that line, “those with severe mental handicap.” With autistic like conditions, severe seizures, and an inability to take care of himself, she understood severe mental handicap. She felt it in her back and bones. She raised five children in all. When Aaron was nine my father made the difficult decision of putting him in a group home. The effort to raise so many children with so many needs, my Father realized, would break my mother physically and emotionally. But moving Aaron out of the house broke her no matter what. In all those hours of studying TSC and the obvious, the inevitability of Aaron’s death so thoroughly disclosed itself from her. She called it an act of grace.

Two weeks before Aaron’s death he was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia. I was almost 12. A few days before he was hospitalized we drove to Roseburg and picked him up from the group home and went out for ice cream. My mother fed Aaron vanilla ice cream from a dish, but the ice cream hurt Aaron’s teeth so Mom offered it to me. Aaron drooled and his drool grossed me out so I didn’t eat his leftover ice cream. That was the last time I saw him, afraid of his drool in an ice cream shop in Roseburg, 1997.

When Aaron was born my mother and father were juniors at the University of Idaho, she an art education major and he business. Their plan, before Aaron, was to teach at the same high school together. But the only art class she ever taught was when she home-schooled the four of us. Before Aaron passed away she painted with watercolors and sold many of her paintings or gave them away as gifts to friends and donations for auctions. She taught us about the primary colors and how to make green and orange and purple. Once, we mixed all the colors together thinking we’d concoct a super color, but it only made black and from black we could make nothing more.

I begin with the color black. I begin with all the stories poisoned on the palette. I don’t know where the colors come from, but when I tell the story they begin to form. At least I think I see them. To anyone else they could be monochrome pictures. To me they’re apparitions rising in the sky. Stories about my childhood are stories about who I am, but I cannot understand them. They rise too high and too far for me to understand their truths. I can only point at them and watch their shadows streak across the ground.

This is the story of my brother Aaron. Over there is the story of my brother KC. And there, much closer and lower, that’s my story. Sometimes they blend together, other times they’re separate. We live in a liminal space where we think we know something about the world when really something bigger is happening. Isn’t time so strange, how it let’s us be comfortable with the present and then we realize how different our present is, how distant our past, how short our future? It’s so hard to look away from my beginnings. In contemplating my story I gain the growing sense of something beyond the story. A majestic power floating in the sky, but I cannot point to it and I cannot name it. It eludes my grasp. Is this an act of grace?