Monday, June 30, 2008

The June Report

Although I did not set any goals at the beginning of the month, I think I should give a report on my stewardship as a writer during the past month. If one is called, one should be a steward of that call. This month I accomplished the following in my writing.

My main activities were following up on the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference in May. This included: a large number of e-mails to faculty and fellow conferencees; recording of expenses and proper filing of receipts; filing of conference materials.

I worked on two of the three proposals requested of by an editor and an agent. One is down to final edits (tonight, I hope); another is almost complete. The third one I will start on tomorrow. This will be a main project for July. The other requested item, a couple of page outline of a mystery series I have in mind, will follow the last proposals (translated: nothing done on these last two items this month). However, I did finish the research for the third proposal subject matter.

I found a new critique group and began attending this month. It meets every-other week; I attended both weeks available, and received good feedback on the two chapters of In Front of Fifty Thousand Screaming People that I shared.

I wrote two poems: one haiku, which I posted for critique and pretty much finished; and one rhyming, metrical poem not to any pattern. This one is simmering, waiting for additional self-editing, then posting for critique.

Critiqued seven poems at Absolute Write poetry forums. Each of these was a thought out critique, with a fair amount of time in it.

Read in several books that will add to my writing efforts. This included: The Letters of John Wesley, The Lost Letters of Pergamum (re-read), the letters between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Carlyle, Dune by Frank Herbert (about 1/3 the way through), and several on-line helps for writers.

And, blogged here quite a few times.

All in all, a productive month.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Writer's Calling: Usefulness

If writing is a calling, similar as how we think of the ministry as a calling, then the writer must somehow recognize the calling. I've been thinking about the same three items that have sometimes been used to describe a minister's calling: grace, gifts, and usefulness. Today I'll look at the latter.

Question: How do you know if you have the calling to be a teacher?
Answer: They ask you to teach, and you don't fall flat on your face doing it.

Question: How do you know if you have the calling to be a lawyer?
Answer: You have the ability to understand the law, and are able to use that ability as an advocate.

Question: How do you know if you are called to be a writer?
Answer: Your writing makes a difference for someone.

That's what "usefulness" would seem to be to me, in the context of a writer. If you write, and no one ever benefits from it, are you called to be a writer? This may not mean publication (though that is certainly one manifestation of making a difference and hence usefulness). Emily Dickinson had almost nothing published in her lifetime (mainly because she didn't seek to be published), yet her poetry has influenced millions after her death. For every Stephen King or Jerry Jenkins there are probably thousands of writers who have the calling, yet never achieve acceptance from a major publisher.

So how would I define usefulness, if not acceptance by a major publisher. I think I would define it as, after the writer applies the grace given and the gifts given and enhanced through education and experience, the writer looks at his composition and decides, "Somebody other them me needs to see this." Now, who that somebody might be, either a loved one, or near a acquaintance, or a critique group, or the people that reads the local newspaper, or an agent, or a publisher, I'm not prepared to narrow that down. It may not even be someone in the present, but someone in a future year, or age.

Of course, in making the decision "Somebody other than me needs to see this," the writer should not be fooled or limited by his own experience. Such a claim should be made in the full knowledge of what good writing consists of, and a judgment by the writer and others that this indeed should be read by others. This has been the toughest part for me, finding others who know good writing, and who are not my relatives or close associates to look at my work and say whether it measures up.

Usefulness. The third yardstick I need to use, alongside grace and gifts, to know whether I have a calling to be a writer. I'm starting to acquire enough independent reviews to believe that I have the call to be a writer. The next step: submit those three proposals and series sell sheet, and see what some decision makers in the publishing world think. Stay tuned.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Writer's Calling: Gifts

Grace, gifts, and usefulness. These are means by which a minister recognizes the calling of God to be a minister. Last post I considered how these may also mark the calling of one to be a writer, and what grace would be for the writer--not the grace that saves you, but the grace that is evidence of a calling.

Today I'll consider gifts. It seems to me the writer should certainly have specific gifts:
- to be able to find, combine, and manipulate words to communicate effectively
- to be able to tell a story in a compelling manner
- to have ideas, things to write about, or
- to be able to communicate the idea of another with words.

The use of words may or may not be an inherent gift for the writer. We generally call this craft, and it ranges from the breadth of vocabulary to correctness of grammar. Grammar can be learned. Vocabulary can be expanded. Dictionaries and thesauruses can be consulted. Perhaps this is a "gift" the writer can learn.

Or maybe not, or only partially. Much learning in this area is no doubt possible, but I wonder if some special inherent gift of words is still essential. Knowing the words and grammar, and knowing how to use them effectively seem to be two different things. I don't want this to sound snobbish, as if I'm saying unless you are born to be a writer you can't be a writer. Not at all. Appropriating teaching and expansion of skills should be possible. But I think some kind of gift for words should be present to produce the spark that later ignites the tinder and kindling of ideas in presence of desire.

Yet, words are not enough. Story-telling is critical. Is this something learned, or something given to the writer? I wish I knew. You can certainly study plots, and learn the essentials of a story told in a way to capture an audience. Or, with non-fiction, you can learn how the "plot" is the organization, and how to pace the material to keep the reader's interest. Either way, both fiction and non-fiction require their own brand of story-telling. As with words, how much of this is a gift given and how much is a gift learned is beyond my ability to say.

The transformation of an idea into a story first requires the capturing of an idea; recognition of something in life that registers on the brain, which then says, "Ah ha! I must write about that!" Or, when someone says, "I have this idea for a story", to be able to recognize whether that is truly a workable story or not. Not all ideas can be made into stories (though maybe more can than we realize). I ask (myself) again: how much of this is a gift given, and how much is learned by experience, by trial and error? It seems much is gift, which can be enhance by experience and trial and error.

I may just be talking to myself here, because I'm not sure about all this. But it seems to me, at this stage of my pondering, that a writer must have certain inherent gifts, of language ability and of story-telling and idea recognition, which become the sparks that eventually must be built on and expanded to fuel the finished product.

Next time: usefulness.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Writer’s Calling: Grace

As I mentioned in this post, I want to explore the idea that a writer is called to be a writer. This would be especially true for writers who seek to convey a message, rather than only entertain the reader. Are writers called, in the sense that a minister is called to the ministry?

I, for one, have never felt God saying to me that I should write. At Christian writers conferences they will almost always ask, “How many of you feel the Holy Spirit is calling you to be a writer?” I cannot raise my hand, since I have never felt a direct call to write. I have a burning desire to write, a desire that has intensified and expended over the last seven years. As I look back on my adult life, I realize this desire was in me from the first year after college, when I almost applied for a writing conference scholarship from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. That year I also wrote a poem, a pastiche of “Vincent” by Don McClean.

A few years passed before I again thought of writing creatively. Those were years of business writing, engineering stuff. Hundreds of letters, contracts and specifications for maybe a hundred construction projects, technical reports both long and short, conference paper presentations, a trade magazine article, technical standards, how-to design guides, and marketing materials—brochures, project descriptions, resumes. For years, wherever I was in my work, the writing tasks always seemed to fall to me. Writing became almost second nature, never creative writing (well, maybe some of the marketing materials were creative), but always chances to learn and improve grammar, work on spelling, and learn that different language use is appropriate for different documents and end purposes.

So, when about 1998-99 I got the creative writing bug, and when in 2001 I was diagnosed incurable, I had had twenty-five or more years of training in writing, the training I shunned to the greatest extent possible in high school and college. That’s not a bad apprenticeship. But I’m digressing from my original intent.

Am I called to be a writer? In the absence of a specific statement from God, or a bolt of lightning or some such visible evidence, does my life and writing exhibit the needed grace, gifts, and usefulness? Is the desire within evidence of this calling? Grace, for the writer, would mean embracing writing and loving it to the point where that’s what you want to do. Gifts would be evidence of ability: acceptance of writing by the more knowledgeable and by the intended audience. Usefulness would be the writing having an impact on the audience.

Just dealing today with grace, I suppose I would define the grace to be a writer as embracing all that is required of a writer, and deciding that is for you. If you learn what a writer must go through, and balk at some part of it, but go on to try to publish just the same, maybe you don’t have the writer’s grace. Sometimes I get so angry at all the hurdles to becoming published, I sometimes wonder whether I have the grace needed. But, I believe I can change, and perhaps learn to embrace what now I tolerate and which once I loathed.

Does a writer grow in grace? I hope so.

Monday, June 23, 2008

More Thoughts on "Lost Letters of Pergamum"

Yesterday I posted a review of Lost Letters of Pergamum by Bruce W. Longenecker. I feel that I left some things out of that post, or rather, that I did not develop my thoughts adequately and give examples.

After posting yesterday, I decided to begin reading it again, since I read only limited segments of it before my review, and those for a different purpose than for review. I read 57 pages last night (lots of white space in this book, though), and found some examples of the points I made yesterday.

I said sometimes Longenecker seems to throw in some statements presumably made by the 1st century writer that seem designed to inform the 21st century reader, and thus did not seem natural in the letter. Here's an example:

"But after a two week hiatus, Rufinus and I met outside the city walls in the temple of Isis, the mistress of Pergamum, to continue...."
Sixth Letter Series, letter from Antipas to Luke, pages 61-64, quote from page 62.

I doubt a first century writer would have added "the mistress of Pergamum", as this would have been common knowledge to educated people in the province of Asia at that time. Another example is the discussion on page 63, in the same letter, where Antipas describes the leading cities of Galilee, for the purpose of contrasting them with the low status of Nazareth. After several he says "built [or re-built] by Herod Antipas". This seems unnatural. Perhaps this statement is justified in that, later in the letter, Antipas remarks on how John the Baptist was critical of Herod Antipas, and thus Antipas wanted to build Herod up by highlighting his pubic building projects. Possibly, but it still has an unnatural feel.

On the other hand, the same letter shows what appears to be Longenecker's faithfulness to the Roman culture. In the discussion of the lowly position of Nazareth, Antipas says "If the goal of your narrative is to demonstrate Jesus' claim to honor, it will have a lot of ground to cover." Thus, the honor of the man is linked to the honor of the town. All I have read confirms this as a dominant thought in the Roman-dominated Mediterranean region. So Longenecker's having Antipas make this statement adds believability to the book.

He (Antipas) also has this to say about John : "...the John who baptizes...certainly seemed a troubled soul...those priests would not have appreciated John either." Thus, Antipas seems to be echoing the general thought of the day, that heroes must be perfect. Longenecker shows how this would have been a stumbling block to an educated Roman or Greek who considered Judaism or Christianity. After all, their founder was a liar who wouldn't protect his wife. The most famous king was an adulterer and a murderer. Their military champions were often nobodies, or corrupt nobodies. Their prophets at times refused to prophesy and, when they did and the people repented, they sulked instead of rejoiced.

I don't want to make too much of this point. In Greek and Roman mythology, their gods were far from moral. It seems, though, that their human heroes were pretty close to perfect. Been a while since I read Homer, however.

I repeat what I said yesterday: it's an excellent read, just not a page turner. I suppose that's why the publisher was Baker Academic.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Book Review: Lost Letters of Pergamum

I first read the Lost Letters of Pergamum (Bruce W. Longenecker, 2003, Baker Academic) a couple of years ago, at the recommendation of my son-in-law and with his copy of the book. He knew that I love reading letters as literature, as regular readers of this blog will know. My collection of books of letters--some read, some in the queue--include Charles Lamb, Emerson with Carlyle, George H.W. Bush, John Wesley, Cicero, Pliney the Younger, Dylan Thomas, Teddy Roosevelt, Charles Darwin, and a few others. Some of these I accessed on-line and formatted for ease of printing/reading, and printed them.

He also knew I was working on a book about the writing of the gospel of Luke (Doctor Luke's Assistant), and so recommended this since it deals much with Luke's gospel. These letters are fiction, created by Longenecker to represent the typical letters of the era, and show how the gospel of Luke might have been viewed/interpreted/accepted by the educated, wealthy class of the time. The protagonist is Antipas, son of Philip, a wealthy merchant/landowner, late of Tyre and now of Pergamum. He writes to Calpurnius, son of Theophilus, of the city of Ephesus. This eventually turns into a series of letters between Antipas and Luke, who lives in Ephesus and is a friend of Calpurnius, the letters being about his gospel (called his "nomograph" by the correspondents). Slowly, Antipas is drawn into the faith. By the end of the book he is a Christian, and dies a martyr to save the life of Simon, of the common people. The relations of the rich to the common is one of the minor themes of the book.

Longenecker makes this Antipas the same person mentioned in Revelation, the the letter to the church at Pergamum: "Antipas, my faithful witness,...was put to death in your city [Pergamum]--where Satan lives." This is a reasonable basis for the main character. He is further made to have been named in honor of Herod Antipas. The book includes three appendices, which include maps and the characters. The third appendix is the author's notes of what he feels like is true in the letters, i.e. what can be defended historically, what is speculative but which he feels is probably true, and what is fiction. This is an important addition to the book.

If this book has a fault, it is that the letters sometimes include information that a letter writer would not really include, which appears added only to educate/inform the 21st century reader. Some is tolerable, such as in the first letter to someone who is a stranger. But I think Longenecker gives us a bit too much of this. Certainly, these items help us to better understand the correspondence and times, but make the letters a little less realistic.

I recently reviewed some of these letters to get Longenecker's take on some of the historical facts. As I read through them for making this post, I was again struck by their excellence, and may keep them a while longer and read them once more before returning them. I highly recommend this book for any who are curious about the early days of Christianity, and how the growing faith was viewed by the educated people of the Roman world. The book has no three-act structure, no conflict, no real angst. No thrilling plot. It's just great writing in its style.

Please see also the next post on this blog, More Thoughts on "Lost Letters of Pergamum".

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Book Review: Elijah

About the time I was to begin teaching my lesson series on Elijah and Elisha to our adult Sunday School class, I came across, in our boxed away books, Elijah by William H. Stephens, (1976, Living Books, an imprint of Tyndale House, paperback ISBN 0-8423-4023-8). I began reading it in March, and finished in late May.

Stephen's purpose, as stated in the Preface, was "Elijah's story needs to be told today. The parallels between ninth-century B.C. Israel and twentieth-century A.D. America are striking. The current emphasis on economic power by large corporations and wealthy men, along with the sex orietation that runs throughout our society from advertising to side street pornography, together call for Elijah's story to be told. Perhaps we can learn from his, and from Israel's, experience."

Stephens says he has been true to the biblical record. I find that to be so, with one exception. He fleshes out the biblical narrative found in 1st Kings and 2nd Kings with cultural items, between scene details, travelogue type narrative, and dialogue. Where the writer of Kings gave us the much abridged version due to the expense of paper, ink, copying, and distribution, Stephens tries to give us what might have been written had publishing been as inexpensive then as it is today. How exactly was Elijah fed by ravens? What exactly did he experience on Mount Horeb? How did the mantle ceremony with Elisha progress? What was it like in the midst of the whirlwind near the chariot of fire?

Stephens adds a few supporting characters, of course: a corrupt priest of Yahweh who becomes involved in Baal prostitutes; a greedy business man/farmer; people who sell themselves into slavery; other friends of Elijah. Journeys are described in considerable detail: what route did people take? What was the terrain like? How long did it take them? How did they find provisions and lodging along the way. These are the sorts of things an author might include today, but were left out in the Bible.

The one place where Stephens seems to stray from the biblical record is in the area of Elijah's first recorded servant. On Mount Carmel, after the fire from heaven scene, Elijah had a servant that the Bible does not name. Elijah left this servant at Beersheba when he went to Mount Horeb over forty days. Stephens names this servant: Elisha. Yes, he makes the assumption that Elisha was a servant of Elijah before the mantle ceremony, but went back to farming when Elijah disappeared into the desert until Elijah designated him his successor. I find this improbable, for I would think the Bible would indicate if Elisha was the first servant, since he later becomes the prophet-designate. I could be wrong, but then again Stephens could be wrong.

This is not a page turner, but the writing is good, the characters and dialogue believable, and the read enjoyable. If anyone can find this older book, it is worth the read.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Book Review: Coaching the Artist Within

A few months ago a co-worker loaned me Coaching the Artist Within, by Eric Maisel 2005 New World Library. I read it sporadically for a couple of months, then mid-May I attacked it with purpose and completed it.

Eric Maisel is a creativity coach. This is a relatively new profession (see the appendix in the book), but it has educational and qualification standards. Eric works with artists of many mediums--painters, writers, actors, musicians--to help them reach their potential in creative endeavors.

The book is built around twelve skills the artist (this word used to mean anyone in the creative arts) can learn to coach themselves, to become more creative more consistently. These skills are:

Becoming a self-coach
Passionately making meaning
Getting a grip on your mind
Eliminating dualistic thinking
Generating mental energy
Creating in the middle of things
Achieving a centered presence
Committing to goal-oriented process
Becoming an anxiety expert
Planning and doing
Upholding dreams and testing reality
Maintaining a creative life

For each of these skills, Maisel presents two exercises. He also offers personal experience he has had where he worked with a client-artist to show them how to use either the skill or one of the exercises to improve their creativity. The book includes a list of references and an index.

This book helped me. I bogged down in the first chapter, as the suggested exercises seemed hokey to me (talk to yourself, moving between two facing chairs to let your creative and non-creative sides have it out). The second chapter was better, but I still wondered at that point if I should finish the book. By the end of the third chapter, however, I was rolling and learning much. I was especially helped by Chapter 6 Creating in the Middle of Things, Chapter 7 Achieving a Centered Presence, and Chapter 9 Becoming an Anxiety Expert. This last one helped me the most, I think. The difficulty of the writing process gets me down, perhaps to the point of depression. This chapter explained how that is really anxiety, and gave help to overcome that.

After completing the book, I went back and re-read the first chapter. I still found that exercise hokey, but I did get more out of it. I recommend the book for anyone who wants to create, but finds it difficult to do so on a regular basis. Eric, if you should stop by, I'm sorry my having borrowed this book didn't add to your royalties, but perhaps this post might help.

Carlyle: writing contemptible to me

After Emerson wrote to Carlyle that every writer is a skater, a sailor, and that a book has more variation than a surveyor's compass (see my post on June 17), Carlyle had this to say in reply.

How true is that you say about the skater; and the rider too depending on his vehicles, on his roads, on his et ceteras! Dismally true have I a thousand times felt it, in these late operations; never in any so much. And in short the business of writing has altogether become contemptible to me; and I am become confirmed in the notion that nobody ought to write,--unless sheer Fate force him to do it;--and then he ought (if not of the mountebank genus) to beg to be shot rather. That is deliberately my opinion,--or far nearer it than you will believe.
Carlyle to Emerson, 2 June 1858

Carlyle is a difficult writer to understand. His motivations for being a writer are unclear, except that he could. No doubt his statement that the business of writing has "become contemptible" to him is an exaggeration, an over-statement at a time of physical or mental exhaustion. Yet, in all his correspondence to Emerson, Carlyle always complained about whatever he was writing: how difficult it was to do the research; how the book never came together as he wanted it to; how he had to change directions often in midstream; how he would go mad if he continued to write. I'm sure Emerson's statement of the nature of writing and of the book was somewhat in response to prior complaints by Carlyle.

Carlyle was either considerably down in the dumps or revelling in over-statement to say "nobody ought to write...unless Fate force him...and then he beg to be shot rather." Yet, I suspect these words contain a large measure of truth. While I would ascribe it to a calling rather than to Fate, perhaps the writer ought to make sure he has a calling for it, with proofs of the calling equivalent to the preacher's proofs: grace, gifts, and usefulness. An urge to write may not be enough.

I think, in a future post, I will write about the writer's grace, gifts, and usefulness, and see where that takes me. Not tomorrow, nor maybe this week, for I have some accumulated book reviews to post.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The journey is a joy

Today marks the 34th anniversary of beginning my first job after graduating college, so perhaps my few readers will indulge me if I make a second post today on this non-milestone anniversary.

I began work in Kansas City for Black & Veatch, one of the leading engineering firms in the nation. I remember much about that first day: the layout of the large room; the empty desk right behind my reference table, of the man who was on assignment in Duluth; the man in front and kitty corner to the front (Bill and Stan, respectively); of being told I would be drafting for the first few months (turned out to be only two), not engineering; of quickly realizing how much I didn't know; the heat walking to and from the remote parking lot; the team across the room who flipped coins for coffee every morning about 9 AM.

I've had four jobs in my career, this last one lasting more than seventeen years. It would have been only two or three jobs had Iraq not invaded Kuwait in 1990, keeping me from returning to my expatriate home away from home. Most of the time the work has been pleasurable. Challenging, fulfilling, interesting, almost always giving a feeling of accomplishment. They say that if you love what you do you'll never work a day in your life. And I have loved the engineering I've done, even as the career changed. First designing wastewater treatment plants, then designing lattice-steel transmission towers, then studying water distribution systems, then designing water treatment plants and other water works, then moving into a project management/department head roll of a crew mostly designing wastewater collection systems, then designing a mixture of wastewater and water works, including an award winning reverse osmosis water treatment plant, then on a major wastewater system study and related work in a management position. And that's just the first 17 years! After that it is a blur of design, management, new roles, much work and many hours.

My interests are slowly changing, as I tumble to a retirement that, unless plans change, is only 8 years, 6 months, and 13 days away. Writing has certainly taken over the non-engineering hours, and even sometimes the engineering ones, forcing me to work the extra hours to put in my time. When someday I write my memoirs, should any one care about them besides my most immediate family, I expect the title to be The Journey Was A Joy.

Every writer is a skater

As time allows, I continue to read through my ancient volume of the letters between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Carlyle, a letter or two at a time in the evening, every few days. I came across this tidbit from Emerson.

Every writer is a skater, who must go partly where he would and partly, where the skates carry him; or a sailor, who can only land where sails can be safely blown. The variations to be allowed for in the surveyor's compass are nothing like so large as those that must be allowed for in every book.
Ralph Waldo Emerson to Thomas Carlyle, from Concord 17 May 1858

These two friends had been writing for twenty-five years. Emerson had made two visits to Carlyle in England during that time, but Carlyle never ventured across the seas to America. In all his letters, Carlyle always complained about the books he was writing. Each one was an arduous task he would love to be rid of (I'll cover that specifically in a future post); each was likely to cause his death; each resulting work was terrible. At present Carlyle was about done with his longest work, a biography of Frederick the Great, and he complained about it in every letter to Emerson (these letters now being a year apart, with Emerson the reluctant to write).

I think these words of Emerson might have partly been in answer to some of Carlyle's complaints. The writer begins a piece, Emerson says, but the piece winds up only partly where the writer expected it to go. Just as an ice skater sets his direction, but is somewhat at the mercy of skates and ice (depending, of course, on the skill of the skater). The exact direction and stopping point is unknown. The writer chooses the subject of the book; does the outline; maybe even writes a synopsis of the chapters; but the book takes on a life of its own as the writer writes.

Or, as Emerson says, "the writer is...a sailor, who can only land where sails can be safely blown." Now of course, a skilled sailor, with a good ship or boat, properly rigged and outfitted, can reduce the variability of the landing spot. I remember my brief sailing days, and the frustration at trying to get my 10 foot trimaran to do what I wanted it to do on Point Jude Pond. A skilled sailor learns how to use the variable direction and strength of the wind to his best advantage, yet can never quite tell exactly what spot of water he will be on at every given time, nor exactly where he will land.

So with the writer. The Olympian skater has much less variability in where the skates take him than do I when I get on the ice--which I haven't in at least twenty-eight years. The writer must acquire skills and experience to allow the things he writes to be more under his control. As the vessel carrying the sailor must be properly built and maintained, the writer does not get where he wants to be except with similar preparation and outfitting. Still, just as the best skaters sometimes end up not exactly where they thought they would be, as the best sailors still have variable conditions to account for, so the writer's work is never quite as imagined from the start.

It's something for me to think about as I progress on this journey.

Next blog post: Carlyle's reply.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

This week in review

It was a good week--finally!

After several weeks in which something always seemed to occur to make the week less than stellar, last week was better, much better. Hopefully it's not because I'm batching it. Some highlights from the week:

- I completed the proposal for my study guide on The Screwtape Letters. Only a couple of days of polishing remain before I send it to the interested editor.
- I was able to concentrate on my work at work. I didn't complete my major project, a flood study, but I made progress on it, including planning how to make it work. I organized my new work space, and completed a number of minor things that I started months ago, but had let lag.
- I tallied up my continuing education credits for the year and organized the certificates. This is important because, until this year, we had a staff member who did this, but cuts have put this back on licensees.
- I kept up with housework in Lynda's absence, unlike previous times she's been away.
- I worked on maintenance tasks around the house.
- I kept up with reading and blogging and e-mailing.

I'm excited about almost having the proposal done. I think this is possibly my best current work as related to being accepted for publication. And I think I did this right: plan out the book; prepare sample chapters; prepare a one-sheet promotional to show at the conference; then prepare a proposal at the editor's request. In preparing the proposal I used Terry Whalin's Book Proposals That Sell as a guide.

Also this week, my reading produced several ideas for future blog posts.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Not Without Cheerfulness

Continuing from yesterday with the John Wesley letter. Here's the applicable part.

You seem to apprehend that I believe religion to be inconsistent with cheerfulness and with a sociable, friendly temper. So far from it, that I am convinced, as true religion or holiness cannot be without cheerfulness, so steady cheerfulness, on the other hand, cannot be without holiness or true religion. And I am equally convinced that true religion has nothing sour, austere, unsociable, unfriendly in it; but, on the contrary, implies the most winning sweetness, the most amiable softness and gentleness.
Wesley writing from Savannah, Georgia to Mrs. Chapman, somewhere in England, on 29 Mary 1737

Down through the years so many people have thought that being a Christian meant giving up joy. Macaulay wrote how the Puritan would ban bear fighting not because it was cruel to the bear but because it would give pleasure to man. No doubt he was exaggerating, possibly misinformed about the full nature of Puritanism. But the view he expressed was by no means uncommon.

Wesley strongly disagrees. A relationship with God, which is what Christianity is, should give pleasure, not sorrow; joy, not depression. Wesley said it well in the letter. I can't write much to add to it, and certainly not to improve on it. I have often prayed for joy, or myself or for a loved one I was concerned about. It seems to me that loss of joy in serving Christ is the first sign that something is amiss in the Christian's life.

Pray for joy, for yourself and others, and practice it.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Friendship Stronger than Death

I thought I had one more post I wanted to write about the message of the unsaid, but whatever it was escapes me right now. I have a few minutes before I start my work day and want to write. As before, I find inspiration in a letter of John Wesley.

True friendship is doubtless stronger than death, else yours could never have subsisted still in spite of all opposition, and even after thousands of miles are interposed between us.
You seem to apprehend that I believe religion to be inconsistent with cheerfulness and with a sociable, friendly temper. So far from it, that I am convinced, as true religion or holiness cannot be without cheerfulness, so steady cheerfulness, on the other hand, cannot be without holiness or true religion. And I am equally convinced that true religion has nothing sour, austere, unsociable, unfriendly in it; but, on the contrary, implies the most winning sweetness, the most amiable softness and gentleness.
Wesley writing from Savannah, Georgia to Mrs. Chapman, somewhere in England, on 29 Mary 1737

Looking at the first paragraph in this post, how I have found this to be true in my own life. I have lived a vagabond existence, of sorts. First was the move to Kansas City upon graduating from college; then the move to Saudi Arabia in 1981; then to North Carolina in 1984; then to Kuwait in 1988; back to North Carolina for a few months in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion; then to Arkansas in 1991--where I remain, though likely not where I will retire. I am the only one in my immediate family who has wandered so, drawn by employment and advancement.

The bad part of all these moves is leaving friends behind in each place. The good part of these moves has been leaving friends behind in all these places. It's a two-sided coin. Rhode Island friends from school and college remain, most still in Rhode Island, though some scattered. I found one in Louisiana in April, the man with whom I was in an auto accident junior year in high school. I found him through the miracle of the Internet. In December I found a preacher-friend I had last seen at his wedding in Kansas City in 1975, and have re-established a little bit of correspondence with him. How I would like to make contact with the expatriate group we were friends with in Saudi. We keep in touch with one of those families, but what of the six or seven others? What of those we were close to in Kuwait, with whom we shared the survivors' bond?

Warren Henry (a character in Winds of War, by Herman Wouk) decried how his family had grown apart as the three siblings moved into adulthood, freeing the parents to take an overseas assignment without them. Torn apart and blown away like tumbleweeds by the winds of war. I see much truth in that in my own life.

Yet, re-establishing relationships with those old friends is a hard thing. They haven't seen or heard from me in 20, 30, or in one case almost 40 years. They have a life full of relationships, of activities. Is there time to get to know again a Rhode Island vagabond who now thinks he's an Arkansas? I must hang on Wesley's thoughts, that "true friendship is...stronger than death" and can subsist despite when "thousands of miles" and, I add, decades of life "are interposed".

Pray, Lord, let it be so.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Message of the Un-Said: Inner Thoughts

I alluded to this topic in my last post. In the story being considered, no where are we given any inner thoughts of the characters. Inner thoughts are common in modern literature, and are a frequent topic at critique groups: how many inner thoughts to give; how to format them; how long to make them; how many point of view characters to give the inner thoughts for. Get in the characters' heads, we are told by writing instructors.

The writer of 2nd Kings didn't do that. He merely gives us the characters' action and words. They did this. They said that. They responded thusly. We don't know the motivation of the Shunammite woman as she first asks Elisha for dinner, then asks her husband to build a room for him. We never see her say This is a man of God; we must be kind to him; what can I do? We never see her husband say Why is this woman always wanting to spend my money? Well, he is a man of God. As I mentioned last post, we don't know if he thought She can't possibly get back from Mount Carmel before dark. What's going on between this "man of God" and my wife? Instead, the writing draws us in. It insists we dig deeper, try to figure out what the characters are thinking based on he condensed telling of their actions and words.

That wouldn't work today with a modern readership. Can you see someone with a Tom Clancy novel saying, "Now what is Jack Ryan thinking at this moment?" No, now readers want the full story--shown, not told, with limited points of view. Paper and ink are no loner objects of concern; attention span is. Still, perhaps the writer of 2nd Kings has given me something to think about, something to try to work a little bit into my writing.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Message of the Un-Said: Factors of Time and Distance

Continuing the thoughts from my June 1 post, not knowing the time and distance (space) factors involved in a story can leave you confused. In the 2nd Kings 4:8-37 story about the Shunammite woman, her husband, and son, and how Elisha helped them, the text says little about the times, and nothing about the distances. Without looking at a map, we don't realize that Shunem is a perfect spot to break up a trip from Samaria to Mount Carmel, or that it is slightly off the most direct route between the two. In the story of the son's death, we learn he died about noon. Before that, he had gone out to the field to be with his father, become sick, been carried back to his mother, and sat on his mother's lap for an unknown amount of time.

Here is where the time and distance becomes interesting, and critical to fully understanding the story. The woman "called her husband", meaning, I guess, that she sent a servant to the field to ask him to come back to the house. Or maybe, since it was noon, he was already at the house eating lunch. She asks permission to go with a servant and a donkey, obtains it, makes the minimum preparations for the trip (we assume), and leaves with the intent to "go to the man of God quickly and return." At that time it is after noon, perhaps about 1 PM.

But Mount Carmel is 15 to 20 miles away. The poor donkey, if spurred and whipped, can go about 5 miles per hour. The servant, if walking/running beside, could probably only go three or four miles per hour. If riding, the servant will slow the donkey even more. The the woman cannot possibly arrive at Mount Carmel until 4 or 5 PM, maybe 6 PM. If she turns around and comes right back, it will be 9 PM to midnight before she returns to Shunem. That's no time for a young woman to be out, even if she has a single servant for "protection".

This leads us to consider what the husband is thinking. We know he questioned the need for the trip, but he was thinking about the fact that it was not a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath. From those we can conclude that the woman must have been in the habit of visiting Elisha on some of those occasions. But he must be thinking, "What is this woman thinking? Will she travel these dangerous roads at night? Why will she go there and 'quickly return'? What's wrong?" Or, might he also think, "She's sure going to see this man a lot. New Moons, Sabbaths, and now this unplanned trip with no hope of returning tonight. What's going on between them?" This adds a richness to the story that cannot possibly be understood without considering what a map tells us.

Will modern readers stand for such ignoring of time and distance in stories today? We are not hampered so much by the expense of paper and ink and delivery systems. The need for conciseness of language has mostly passed; not that we should be wordy or include unnecessary description. Now our problem is time available for our readers to read, and for turning away from the television and Internet to read. We are told readers don't want to read anything except conflict. They don't want to take the time to read how characters get from point A to point B, unless there is conflict along the way that is integral to the story. As a person who wants to know about the details, this is going to make my writing more difficult.

Time and distance. Something to think about.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Change of Plans

It always happens. Despite the best intentions of coming back to my topic in a day or two, I was unable to. With my wife gone I had some extra things to do around the house. Also, I put in some extra hours at the office relocating my work station. I was not under a deadline to do so, but I thought, once they assigned me the different space (and good space it is) I'd better make the move ASAP. Then, I was expecting to be home all last week, and gone today through Wednesday, helping our daughter, son-in-law, and grand baby move from Kansas City to Oklahoma City, but it turned out they need me more last week, so I changed plans and drove north on Thursday. Thus, I blogged not.

Tonight, I'm also working on a change of plans in my writing. I see myself mostly a novelist. I have no platform--best defined as a ready-made audience to whom I can directly market any non-fiction ideas I have, so fiction seems right for me. Plus, the fiction ideas came to me first, and continue to come more frequently than do non-fiction. However, as hard as it is to break into fiction (non-fiction outsells fiction 8:1, or maybe 10:1), non-fiction seems an easier sell. But again, not having an established audience is a hindrance to breaking in there. So, I have been casting about, trying to figure out what to write, and it hit me: Bible studies, and small group study guides.

For sure, I lack credentials in this area, other than the experience teaching adult Sunday School. I'm currently teaching a study I planned and wrote, titled "The Dynamic Duo: Lessons From The Lives Of Elijah And Elisha." That seemed to be something I could expand from my two page weekly handout into a full length Bible study. Then, a study we did previous to this was of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. I was substitute teacher for that, and taught maybe 25 percent of it. We were hindered by lack of a good study guide. I found one I purchased through, but it was written for a high school level literature class, not for an adult Sunday School class or small group. So I thought "I should write the study guide we didn't have for class." I wrote four sample chapters, the beginning of a proposal for both studies, and went off to the Blue Ridge conference.

The good news is: an editor for a very good publishing house for this sort of material is interested in both! He asked me to get proposals to him by about June 13th. So, this week all fiction is shoved aside for the two proposals. I'm finding the writing difficult, and am having trouble concentrating. It is so different than writing the actual material. I plug away, get a little bit done, then find myself pulled away to mindless things. Hopefully taking time to do this blog post will move me back on track.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Message of the Un-Said

In my study of 2nd Kings 4:8-37 this week, as I finished preparations to teach it in our adult Life Group today, I was struck by how well the story was crafted. The full story came out only when I examined what the author didn't say--which I learned by examining what he said and filling in gaps, examining factors of time and space, and assessing motives of people based on what little the author told.

I've thought about this before as I have critiqued poems at the Absolute Write poetry forums. The poet has presented us with a few lines for some purpose. He/she made choices of what to include in--and exclude from--the poem. Looking at the inclusion is easy, for the few words are there for me to pick apart, to ponder as a series of lines and as a complete work. Exclusion is harder to evaluate. What has the poet chosen to leave out? The choices are as broad as the language itself, as deep as human experiences of body, soul and spirt, though clearly narrowed by the context of what is included. I only do this occasionally, for the exercise can be very time consuming and mentally draining. I actually wrote one poem using this method, consciously thinking inclusion-exclusion as I wrote each line.

Back to 2nd Kings 4, and the story of Elisha and the woman from Shunem. How much the author has said by what he has not said! I must digress briefly to consider the nature of writing in antiquity. Paper, in the form of scrolls made from papyrus strips laboriously cut, wetted, woven, dried, and trimmed, was expensive. Ink, made up of fire ashes, water, and other ingredients, was expensive. The writing process, without the benefit of computers, typewriters, erasers, even cut and paste, was difficult. Dissemination of the completed work, through manual copying and hand delivery, was both expensive and difficult. I think writers must have learned that every word counted; hence repetition, fleshing out of characters, and back story were all kept to a minimum. We actually have a story significantly condensed from what could have been written. Often I wish the Bible were ten times longer than it is, doubling he length of the stories it has and giving five times the number of stories. Ah, but better it is as it is, methinks.

Back to the story, this passage includes five characters: Elisha, his servant Gehazi, the man and wife from Shunem, and their son, born following Elisha's prophecy. The actions of Elisha, Gehazi, and the Shunammite woman are somewhat well described, though even for them some inclusion-exclusion analysis aids in understanding the passage. The husband, however, must be the strong, silent type, for we hear little from him. We know that he was responsive to his wife's requests for building a rooftop room for Elisha, and for the donkey and servant to go visit Elisha. Otherwise, we see him only in the matter of his young son becoming sick while they were out in the fields with the reapers: he sends him back to his mother.

Consider, however, what we can learn about the husband from these actions of the wife, or by the actions of others.
  • He did not invite the traveller Elisha to the hospitality of a meal; possibly he was out in the fields when Elisha came to town.
  • He didn't think about building the room for Elisha, to better aid the man of God in his travels.
  • Elisha didn't ask what could be done for him, but what could be done for his wife. It appears, by this, that he did not develop much of a relationship with Elisha.
  • After his son died, and his wife went to see Elisha (having hidden the boy's death and her grief from her husband), he doesn't seem to have enquired about the boy, hasn't found his body in the prophet's room, hasn't arranged for his burial.

From this, we can draw interesting conclusions about the Shunammite husband. He is somewhat absorbed in his work, not even bothering to develop a relationship with the premier man of God in Israel who regularly sleeps under his roof; he seems to love his wife and is responsive to her requests, but their relationship is best described as strange.

I have more to write on this, but the post is too long now. I will try to get back to this tomorrow, or the next day.