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.
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.
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, www.nancynordenson.com, or follow her infrequent tweets @NancyNordenson.
Tyler speaks for and to the millennial generation and produces a convicting book about an important subject everyone needs to hear. “Holiness is not just some fine ideal destined for generations past; it’s the unyielding pursuit that defines every Christian life.”Read more here.
After her parents are killed in a rare grizzly attack, the author is forced into a wilderness of grief. What? Yeah,go here to find out more.
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.
I began to wonder: why is peace so hard to think about? Or conversely, why is violence so easy?
Margaret Paxson, an anthropologist, wrote a sort of prelude to her future book about peace, specifically peace within the French town of Le Cambin sur Lignon, whose residents saved Jews from Nazis at great risk and peril to their own lives.
Paxon attempts to give peace shape. She argues that war and violence have a quantifiable reality that peace often lacks. She wants to be able to study and analyze peace, in all its gritty details on the ground and face to face so that others can see what peace looks like in the flesh.
What if it can be seen not as timeless, but as dynamic; not located in the beginning or in the end but in the unfolding; something not of the ether but of lived soils and grounds? What if peace is, actually, something flawed and rough-grained?
Well then, social science can handle that. It can do dynamics. It can look towards the longue durée, settling happily into the study of actual, imperfect behaviour. That kind of research doesn’t require calls to the angels or to Elysium.
You just look into the faces of real people and the connections they make or don’t make with each other, and the stories they tell or don’t tell, and the ways they decide or don’t decide to treat a stranger as one of their own.
To give you an example of the thing-ness of evil, I point to apiece of art titled “HIM” by artist Maurizio Cattelan. It’s a statue of Hitler as a young boy, as he sits on his knees praying. The statue is usually shown so all you can see is the back of the statue down a long hallway. It’s currently on display in Warsaw. Whether or not it’s supposed to help you reflect on the nature of evil, remind you that evil can start out as a sweet little boy, or insult you, I guarantee it will elicit a reaction.
If evil can appear, at some point, so small and plain and innocent, then so can peace. Not just any peace, I’m thinking of a redemptive peace. Maybe it depends on your perspective, how you look at the world, or the statue, or those around you. We can choose to only see evil or we can choose to seek and find redemption.
That’s what I see or hope to see when I look at “HIM”.
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?
This is a new series (different than the Creativity Series Part 2 that’s coming). You might be asking what’s up with all these serieses? I don’t know, they’re just fun to do. For this Series I asked some writers about the challenges they face in their daily lives while working a day job and writing. Thanks for taking part.
Today’s post is from Amanda Fanger. She grew up on a farm in Central South Dakota where she was homeschooled. She works for her hometown newspaper, reporting news and doing marketing, and tries to keep all the fictional stories in her head from spilling over into her workspace. On the side, she plays piano, reads, rides horseback and blogs about how she’s applying life lessons to her writing. Visit her at amandafanger.blogspot.com, Twitter, and Facebook.
Journalism. Fiction. Blogging.
I’ve been told that I’m one of the lucky ones who gets to write for a living, but I view these three as flaming torches – each torch representing a branch of my talent – that I must juggle while being careful to avoid burn.
For about as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer; my mindset has almost always been focused on becoming a published fiction author. It’s always been a passion burning deep within me.
The week before I graduated home-schooled high school I landed a writing job at my hometown newspaper. (I can only think God was responsible for getting me into the journalism field because of the specific series of events that happened within a precise timeframe.) It was a dream come true and a weight off the shoulders of a very apprehensive 18-year-old who had no idea what she was going to do with her life. I had prayed and God had answered with a telephone call from the newspaper’s editor.
She heard I liked to write. I heard she needed a reporter. She was borderline desperate for help and I was completely frantic for want of a direction in my life. The two of us struck a deal.
When I came to the newspaper, I had to totally rethink the way I wrote. Up to that point, I wrote fiction for my eyes only and with a deadline of someday. But journalism was a very different beast and I suddenly found myself writing for thousands of eyes with a deadline of Tuesday or else.
It was trial by fire, to be sure, especially because I hadn’t gone to journalism school and all I know of newspapering came from ‘on the job experience.’
During my first few years, I sometimes fumbled and the torch burned me, searing an endearing lesson into my hide. But all of the pain felt worth it when, in 2009, I was named Outstanding Young Journalist by my statewide newspaper association.
Finally, after five years into my career at the very newspaper that gave me my start, I realized I’d lost sight of what had drawn me into writing in the first place; fiction. My dream of becoming a fiction author was still as real to me as ever.
Finding my muse once more, I tried to pick up on my stories where I’d left off and failed. The stories had moved on and I was forced to start from scratch.
As frustrating as it was to realize that part of me had forgotten how to write fiction, I also discovered that I’d gotten better; there were lessons about writing that I’d picked up from the newspaper. I now wrote in a consistent voice; brought characters to life on the page; and my brain was exploded with new ideas for background and settings after being given the opportunity to hear so many real-life stories first-hand while reporting.
Excited by what I’d discovered and the possibilities I knew awaited, I threw myself into the frenzy of the work and started a blog, hoping to share my newfound knowledge with other writers. Looking at my increasing number of blog followers, I take comfort that at least these few readers have found worth in the words I write.
Although I report hometown news, write fiction and blog about it all, when people ask me what I do for a living, I say I’m a writer because I cannot imagine my life without this daily task.
There is simply a fire burning deep within me that won’t let me stop.
I could tell you that writing fiction feels like making some sinuous watercourse. A river. A creak. A stream.
I could describe my ideas—my characters, even—as the traveling water. The outer banks, you see, could be my imagination. With time and movement, with the mysterious back and forth of my work, these banks would change—expand, and widen. Excitement, clarity, compassion, eloquence—those would be words of my widening. And I would write hoping that when (if) a reader came upon my finished ‘river’ someday, they would be widened, too.
Or I could compare starting a story to carving an elaborate design into a stone. This design would be made from a continuous pattern that bends somewhat wildly, but also repeats. So there would be order in it—an inherent sensibleness to its intricate, echoing motif as I chisel it into place, sentence by sentence.
I suppose, in this scenario, I would hope for my final reader to be both comforted and provoked by my creation’s strange symmetry. That its curvatures would mimic their own experiences, and yet also invite them to the unknown—the challenging realities of others.
But I can’t compare beginning a story to making water rush or slowly chiseling stone. In the six or so years I’ve been seriously attempting short fiction, starting out has felt much different.
Most of the time it just feels like…rambling. Like roaming around without my shoes.
Unless I accept this—live it out at the desk—writing fiction scares the… Bereshit Bara out of me. I have the abandoned paragraphs and orphaned pages to prove it—words that never really became real in the beginnings at all.
So to fight stasis, I have to embrace some seriously nonsensical seeming wandering. Some zag and some zig.
Often I start with an image—but not always. There is no always in this process, for me.
Sometimes I start with snatches of dialogue of fragments of setting. Like many writers I know, I have entire documents and notebook sections that don’t contain a single complete sentence—odd testimonies to my nomadic process.
I might begin by mimicking lines (often first lines) I love—sentences that are mysterious and simple in all the right places. My own creations are shoddy in comparison, of course. But, I am writing. And I am writing sentences, and I am starting something, here.
Forget that someday-reader, I tell myself—I am writing, now. I am meandering, but not—as the common definition of the word suggests—moving about from place to place without aim. My aim is to make, and making I am.
The only truly aimless days are the days I dismiss these raw pages. I deny their place in the process, too afraid to see them as the beginning of what could one day be called…literature.
But lately I have come up against this halting fear armed with etymology. I allow myself to think about a single word in whatever I have written—to pause on it, mull over it, and suss it out. Why is this word in my twisted little sapling of a story draft? And where did it come from, anyway?
To give you some idea of how it works, even if just in the process of writing a (this) non-fiction piece–consider the word: meander.
Meander: a turn or bend along the course of moving water.
Meander: an ornamental pattern of winding or intertwining lines used in art and architecture.
Meander: the title of aStanley Plumly poemthat I have read at least five times this month while struggling to get a story started. A poem that unpacks this word with spare eloquence and sensory imagery by speaking of:
endings as beginnings, the egg, the moon, the perfect snow, geometry and physics of completion, symbols of certainty, the formal beauty of arrival.
These are but a few of the meanings and histories to spill out from this one word. They remind me that I am not language’s Creator, but created to re-create.
When I write fiction, I might not be making a river, but I can be the bend in it. I can be a curved line in a design already completed, even if I cannot see the end from where I am. There is pleasure in scrabbling around, through the cadence of just-made prose or details of character.
There is early joy, even if its raw source makes me uneasy. I can’t test my writing unless I trust it as writing—at every stage.
Novelist Michael Ondaatje believes: “The first sentence of every novel should be: Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human. Meander if you want to get to town.”
He is speaking here of assurance offered by an author to his reader. But the assurance I seek as I write sounds nearly the same. In them I hear God’s urging—first to get going, and then, once the tracks are there, to go with them for as long as I can. To be a triumphant meanderer, praying as my stories moves.
And as I go about my making, I will try to remember the winding watercourses I have seen from airplane windows. How their twisted, even snake-like bodies had an order very faint, very earthly. They were not quite holy—not yet. But they were beautiful as they flowed, and flowed, and followed.
When I began this journey back in May, it started out as a selfish quest for an answer. I’d started writing my novel and kept running into the same roadblocks of fear: fear of failure, fear of wasting my time, fear of not being good enough, fear of being made fun of. So I went to some friends and some people I’ve never met and asked them the questions that resulted in this Series.
From you I learned that creativity takes courage.
I feel like Meister Eckhart is speaking to me when he asks, “Why is it that some people do not bear fruit? It is because they are busy clinging to their egotistical attachments and so afraid of letting go and letting be that they have no trust either in God or in themselves.”
This Creativity Series has shown me I need to trust, not only in myself and in the process, but also in God, that he his faithful and he will do it. Do what exactly? Move when I move, jump when I leap, walk when I take that first step, and be present when I write that first word.
I was very afraid to do this, but I went ahead and…
It is available for the Kindle, the iPhone and iPad, on your computer, or other devices like the Nook.
It is 99 cents and any profits will go to the charity I work for: worldschildren.org. It might be silly to charge a dollar for a book you can read for free, but you can at least feel really good about the purchase and know you’re making a difference in a poor child’s life. I haven’t told the charity I’m doing this. I want it to be a surprise. Hopefully a big surprise. If you feel so called I’d really appreciate it.
Adele Konyndyk’s post tomorrow will bring to a close the Bereshit Bara Creativity Series, but the Creativity Series will continue with Part 2 and I’ll have more information on that next week.