Thursday, April 29, 2010

Wood for the Table

[Cross-posted from Boise's Novel Orchard, where I'm finishing up a stint as the guest blogger.]

“Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry… Both are very hard work. Writing is almost as hard as making a table. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood.”
~Gabriel Garcia Marquez

As writers, we work with the material we have at hand—which is reality, and the words we use to describe that reality. Now, I’m a nonfiction writer, so reality is a bit more of an issue for me, since the reader expects my pieces to be fact-checkably “real.” But fiction and poetry have an equal responsibility to reality. Because unless the writer can create a world in her story that’s as detailed and rich as the world we inhabit, the reader’s not going to stick with it. We’re using reality, but we’re also competing with reality, which is already a sensory overload experience.

Which is why good writing draws from reality. The best dialogue has the same rhythms as conversations we’ve heard before. The best characters, while unique in their own ways, often share characteristics with people we recognize from our own lives. Even sci-fi and fantasy worlds may not correspond to “reality” as we know it, but a good writer can fill these worlds with so much realistic detail that we hardly notice.

It’s these details that can make or break a story. So where do we get these details from? The details that allow people to enter the worlds we create, and be able to see and smell and touch the world around them, clearly? How do we gather the wood for our table? Here are a few suggestions:

Get out in the world, and take notes. This is crucial for nonfiction writers—to get out there and experience the reality we’re trying to convey. We can actually go to the settings of our stories, and get details there. But this can be a useful tool for fiction writers too. If your characters happen to be musicians or doctors, see if you can find some musicians or doctors in the real world to shadow. If you’re writing a bustling town scene for your historical/fantasy book, head down to the farmer’s market and watch how people interact with each other there.

Take a notebook and a camera (or a cell phone camera if you’d rather be more inconspicuous) and watch what’s going on. Write down the little things: colors, sounds, smells. Notice the way people move and talk to each other. You could even try to scribble down snippets of conversation, to get a feel for the rhythms of dialogue. Try not to particularly think about your story at this point: if you focus on what you’re writing, you might miss something that’s happening around you. Afterwards, when you read your notes over, you can work the details into your story.

Follow your obsessions. Tamora Pierce (author of the popular Tortall teen fantasy series) said that she watched “The Three Musketeers” movie 17 times during her years at college. Did it have anything to do with her work at that point? Probably not. But it gave her material later on. This is one of the most fun parts about being a writer—the license to be obsessed with anything and everything. Read books, blogs, websites. Watch and re-watch movies. As Pierce says, “All creative people--not just writers!--expose themselves to as much information, in as many forms, as possible, in the hopes that it will be useful down the road, or even right now. You never know what will spark something new!”

Write what you know. I know, it’s an old cliché, something writing professors like to say… and then they end up with a stack of dorm-drama stories on their desk. You may think that “what you know” is too boring to ever interest anyone else. But I’m willing to bet you know some pretty odd things. Just through 20-odd years of life experience, I’ve become (perhaps too) familiar with church politics, long-distance relationships, and wasp-proofing my house. Just to name a few! Go ahead. Take ten minutes, and write down everything in the world you know about, everything you’re an expert on. Maybe one of your characters will love the same band you do. Maybe your summer job waiting tables at a resort will give you the idea for a story.

How about you? How do you come up with the details that bring your stories to life?

Friday, April 23, 2010

All Creatures of Our God and King

St. Francis of Assisi may be the patron saint of the environment, and one of the most quotable saints around. But he’s not celebrated in my family. Mostly because of his feast day—the Blessing of the Animals, or as my mom calls it, the dreaded “Doggie Day.” In honor of St Francis’s love for animals, all the pets are invited to church for a blessing. And my mother (not an animal lover by any stretch of the imagination) has to put up with a horde of barking, tail-wagging, excitable dogs, roaming through church.

Francis may have invited the beasts and birds to hear his sermons, but in this ancient hymn, he widens that invitation to include the greater scope of creation. The lyrics to “All Creatures of Our God and King” come from a poem attributed to Francis, known as the Canticle of the Sun—or in some translations, the “Canticle of Brother Sun.” In the original Italian, Francis names various parts of the creation with family names: “brother sun,” “sister moon,” “brother fire,” “sister water,” and even “sister death.”

I love that in this canticle, we are praising God along in communion with all creation, not just the anthropomorphic animals we love. The dogs we bless in church on “Doggie Day” are already often accepted parts of our family. It’s easy to love one individual dog, when he’s wagging his tail and cuddling in our lap. But fire and water and earth are less tangible, less huggable. If fire and water and earth are our brothers and sisters, then what does that mean? What would the Christian story look like if, like this canticle, it emphasized humans’ place within the family of creation, instead of remaining separate?

Contrast that to the story we as Christians have been telling so far. Yeah, sure, God created the world and all that is in it, and God said that it was good… but then we get to the good bit of Genesis, right? The bit where we’re supposed to be fruitful and multiply and take dominion over the earth. That’s the part we understand. Theologian John Cobb calls this God’s only commandment that humans have managed to obey to the letter. We look at creation, at trees and rivers and animals, for how they can help us.

What I think Christians lose sight of sometimes is the fact that we humans are part of the creation. The earth, the seas, the plants and the animals have been lovingly created by God, and pronounced to be very good. And so have we.

Even “sister death” is not demonized here but welcomed into the family. After all, death is how the life of creation sustains itself. The death of one creature nurtures the life of another. Maybe there’s room for us to fit into this cycle of life, instead of trying to remake the Good Creation into what we want it to be.

What sets us apart from the rest of creation, of course, is our image of God. We know the story. We are creation made conscious, in a way that, to our knowledge, no other part of creation shares. And that means we have the responsibility to be good stewards of this creation. But maybe we can see our relationship to creation, not as domination or subjugation, but as relation within a family. On this Earth Day, we can join the earth in song. With our brothers and sisters, four-legged and two-legged, with and without voices, we can praise God together.


Thursday, April 15, 2010


[This is cross-posted from Boise's Novel Orchard, the rockin' writing community that's asked me to be their guest blogger for the month. Check them out here.]
I started taking organ lessons in college, for basically one reason: I wanted to play an instrument that was larger than my dorm room. At organ concerts, I’d admired the beautiful pipes and felt the sound rumble and echo through the concert hall. I couldn’t wait to climb up to the organ loft and pull out all the stops, to feel my whole body shake as I made music.
But after signing up, I realized I only got a few hours a week to play the “big organ.” Most of the time, I was relegated to a tiny practice room. This instrument is tiny; you could probably stack ten or twelve of this little organ in the big organ loft. There are only two stops, or varieties of sound (as opposed to the big organ’s 53) and the highest one is tinny and whiny, slightly off-key. But this actually makes the practice room a better place to practice.
When I talk about practice, I mean the slow, painstaking process of learning the notes. Figuring out how to move smoothly from one note to the next. Playing slowly, one note at a time, until it hardly sounds like music anymore. When I practice, I’m teaching my fingers the path between notes, locking down the fingerings into muscle memory, so when the lights are up and the concert hall is full of people, my fingers will know where to go. And I’m also memorizing how the music sounds. Soon I can hear the next note before it’s even played. I’ll know what it sounds like when it sounds right.
So what does this have to do with writing?
Many of us write in search of those “concert hall” moments—flashes of inspiration. Maybe a word or phrase gets stuck in your head, or a character comes to life suddenly in your imagination. Soon the words are pouring effortlessly out onto the page. But what happens when those flashes don’t happen?
What sustains me as a writer, day to day, is not those fickle flashes, but rather approaching writing as practice. Then it becomes less about the sheer power of your words, but about the little things instead. The feel of the keys as they click under your fingers, letter by letter. The smell of the ink from your ballpoint pen. The more you sit down to write, the more these sensations get imprinted into your muscle memory, into your unconscious.
The sounds of sentences are making their way into your memory too, when you practice. You might try a short punchy sentence one day, or a long rhythmic list the next. You’ll experiment with colons and semicolons and commas. And you’ll start to hear your own voice coming out.
That’s why I consider journaling, blog posts, forum posts, to be writing practice as well. You’re still sitting down to the computer, still working on finding the right words to express your ideas. You are teaching your fingers their way. So when you do get a sudden inspiration, and you grab for your notebook or computer, your body knows how it feels to sit down at the desk. Your writer’s “ear” knows the variety of sentences available to you, and can choose the right one. And the writing that comes out of this “performance” is stronger than it would have been without those hours of practice.
Malcolm Gladwell (an amazing nonfiction writer who you should check out, if you haven’t already) recently wrote a book called Outliers about what it takes to be successful. In this book he tells the story of the Beatles (way back before they were, you know, The Beatles) and a series of concerts that they played at Hamburg, Germany. This was a brutal gig—they played at noisy clubs to rowdy patrons, 8 ours nonstop per night, 7 nights a week. By the time they became a US rock and roll sensation, they had performed 1200 times. Twelve hundred. Most bands don’t perform 1200 time in their whole careers! That, according to Gladwell, was one of the things that set them apart from other bands. They had performing in their blood, in their muscle memory. They had put in their practice time.
Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become truly great at what you do. 10,000 hours! If I stuck to the college concert hall schedule, it would take me 39 years to be a great organist. Truth be told, I don’t care about the organ that much…but I do care about telling stories. And so, each morning, I sit down with my notebook, grab my ballpoint pen. I’ve got a lot of practicing to do.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Poet or Philosopher?

“Theologians are not poets, but neither are they philosophers (as, in the Christian tradition, they have often become). Their place… is an anomalous one that partakes of both poetry and philosophy: they are poets insofar as they must be sensitive to the metaphors and models that are at once consonant with the Christian faith and appropriate for expressing that faith in their own time, and they are philosophers insofar as they must elucidate in a coherent, comprehensive, and systematic way the implications of these metaphors and models.” ~Sallie McFague, Models of God
I’m not a poet anymore, really. I called myself that for years—since the fourth grade, when I wrote poetry instead of listening to boring classroom lessons. Then I got to college and discovered that (a) there are people who are good at and even enjoy revising poems, and (b) I am not one of them. The craft of shaping line breaks and subtle punctuation just can’t hold my attention. I’m not knocking myself or my poetry, just being honest. Some people like poetry no matter how long it takes them to decide on where exactly to place that last comma. I am happy to leave the professional poetry to those people.
But there’s a part of poetry that I still am drawn to: the images. My early poems tended to focus on a single image, trying to describe it perfectly so someone else could see it. Even now, images still get stuck in my head.
And now I live on a seminary campus, surrounded by IDEAS. My community, full of grad students in philosophy and theology, never stops talking about racism and sexism, history and criticism—questioning always why we believe what we believe. Sometimes, I’ll admit, it’ll be too abstract for me, going right over my head. But other times, there are ideas—like Sallie McFague’s poet/philosopher dichotomy—that I can’t stop thinking about. What’s the middle ground between poetry and philosophy? Is there a way to combine images and ideas?
Christians have a wonderful story to work with, full of rich images: storms and mountaintops, gardens and tombs, bread and wine. I want to write between the lines of this story, to work with these images that have always been stuck in my head. And I want to be conscious of their implications too. If we’re supposed to be loving God and our neighbors, how do our images help us toward that goal? Good creative nonfiction, and good theology, can inhabit this middle space that McFague talks about—afraid of neither images nor ideas, with the creativity to search for images and the patience to unpack them.
Drew told me once about a dichotomy in how we approach theology. I did it to find out who I am, and he did it to create something new. Well, who I am is a writer. I’ve known that since the fourth grade. And I figure the best way to figure out the rest is to write. It’s served me well so far. To unpack, to reach that stuck point and unpack, freewrite, dig deeper, explore.
Maybe I’ll start with creating a new job description. Not philosopher, no longer technically poet. Some sort of ragtag theologian? Maybe. I am a beloved child of God, and for whatever fool reason, that God has trusted me to help in the work of creation. As she trusts us all.