Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Break Time!

Maybe your life is going swimmingly right now, and you can’t imagine wanting, much less needing, to take a break of any kind from it all. Maybe you’re at the keyboard even as you read this (which isn’t all that impossible!), and before you read this, your fingers were flying over the keys with ideas popping forth so fast you couldn’t keep track of all of them…and you’re only pausing for a few minutes to read your favorite blog (hint, hint) before you go right back to that wonderful white-hot creative fire, at the end of which time you’ll have written deathless prose of a quality that will amaze even you. OR…maybe not! :-) This brief sojourn, however, isn’t so much about taking a break from work it is about breaking free in a bigger sense. Breaking out. Breaking away from old habits, if you need to and if you feel strong enough to. Breaking out of your shell around other people. Breaking out of the mold your job has put you in or out of the clique that’s getting old and timeworn. Breaking out… …of your own box. Doesn’t that thought just give you tingles? So what have you done in the past, or can you do now, to break yourself free? To take a slightly different path? What could be the first domino in a chain of change that might send you on a whole new journey or—even better—bring you back onto a path you’ve been on before, but got off, and have missed (without even knowing you missed it)? Some things that have broken people free: 1) buying that top-of-the-line bathing suit, even though you don’t have a “bathing suit” figure—and enjoying how great it makes you feel in the pool or the lake 2) jogging outdoors instead of indoors on a treadmill, sniffing the last heady scents of summer on the air—or the first crisp air of autumn 3) swallowing your self-consciousness, marching up to the counter at that exotic coffee or tea place, and ordering something outrageously wonderful without worrying about looking like a schmuck who’s never done it before 4) picking up a sketch pad and a package of crayons or water paints, sitting on the floor, and playing with color 5) walking to church, to a corner store, to the library, to the post office, to a park, even to work—anywhere you can get to without risking major life and limb damage—and talking with all the cats and dogs you see on the way 6) taking a drive in the country, or even just the suburbs, moving fast, with your favorite music cranked up to the point of pain…and singing along 7) trying your hand at something physically challenging and/or new: dancing (ballroom, line, or belly!), handball, kayaking, rock wall climbing, mini-golf, rollerblading, water ballet… …or many, many more. I started thinking about these things, and more, because today I engaged in just such a breaking-free exercise. I used a sporting-goods gift card I earned through a work-fitness program not to get something for one of my kids—which I was tempted to do—and not to plan ahead on a Christmas present buy for someone else, but instead, I used it on myself. For my very own, official NBA, indoor-outdoor basketball. With which I am going to dribble, shoot, and otherwise make a glorious fool of myself in my very short driveway. But because my falling-down garage came with a dilapidated basketball hoop on it…and because for years I’ve promised myself that when I had a basket, I would do this very thing…I decided the time, and the opportunity, had come. Basketballs are pretty reasonably priced, and they’ll even ship them to you, which means I don’t have to shell out gas money and try to finagle car time to go buy the thing…I can have someone else do that rushing around for me. Feels good? You bet it does. I’ll bet you’ve got something like that you’ve promised yourself you’re going to do. And I’ll bet you’ve promised yourself that for a long, long time. And I’ll also bet that, if you look hard at the circumstances of your life, you already have the ways and means of keeping that promise…and doing the thing you’ve been keeping in a “SOMEDAY” file cabinet. Well, today, I encourage you to take out one of those things—and check it off the list. Do it. Make it happen. And when you do, see what else it invites you to do. See how else you can break free.And then see how well you sleep tonight! Thoughts? Janny

Monday, September 17, 2007

Wanted, a little unreality...part 2. Or, Are You a Minister?

At the risk of irritating and/or offending several people who read this blog, I have a point I need to make. My writing is not a ministry. Repeat. Not. A. Ministry. My writing is a business, and a craft, and primarily, a gift and a talent, and I'm grateful for it. But a ministry? Nope. Sorry, Charlie. Not this girl. I've encountered more than one aspiring writer of faith who, when they hear other people bubbling about God “calling” them to do this, or that, or the other kind of writing, actually get a little panicky. Or even a lot panicky. Why? Because they didn't hear any calling. Because their writing isn’t “anointed.” It’s a profession, a craft, a talent, a gift…but it’s not a “ministry.” Which somehow, in a sense, makes it seem to be…not so good. Gertie Goodscribe takes up writing because it’s something she’s always loved to do, she’s good at it, and she wants to keep at it. She’s willing to work hard for the dream of seeing her own books on the shelves of the local bookstore. She’s getting closer to that reality by the day. Then she joins a group of Christian writers, and all of a sudden, the rules change. There, enjoying the writing, even being good at it, even being gifted enough to sell it, isn't what it’s all about. In fact, when the group finds out Gertie’s writing something she’s enjoying immensely, they very tenderly tell her that it’d be a good idea to look that stuff over closer, even with a jaundiced eye if need be, “just in case.” Just in case what? Apparently, to ensure she's not having fun instead of serving God. (The fact that these two things somehow don't seem to go together is, clearly, another story for another day But, I digress.) To Gertie’s dismay, she soon learns within this group that it doesn't seem to be quite Godly to just write what she loves, without thinking about all the readers who may be “looking for salvation” in her stuff. It’s not even quite okay to dream about publishing and selling…because that’s not what’s important. (Never mind that professional acknowledgment is what separates the women from the girls, so to speak; to this group, that doesn’t seem to be the case.) On the contrary: if she’s a real Christian, by golly, she will shun goals of earthly success. What matters is spreading the Gospel, which of course is why God gave her that writing skill to begin with. So her writing had, first of all, better let the world know she’s a Christian. It had better be edifying to somebody, and offending to nobody. And if it happens to sell, she’d better not make too big a deal out of it, because that might also be a worldly desire she will need to confess and surrender… Hearing all these strings attached to both her salvation and her gift, Gertie finds herself tearing up. Which is a not a good thing. Things like this are happening all around us. Things that discourage our sister writers. Things that make them feel “less” when they should be feeling blessed. Which is why my writing is not a “ministry.” And why I truly believe that calling fiction writing a “ministry,” no matter how well-intentioned, is a minefield-strewn trap that can backfire in ways that not only don’t make gains for the Kingdom…but can lose us ground. I’m anointed to tell stories. Many of us are. And there’s nothing wrong with that.Whether or not a clear Gospel message comes out of them will end up being between us, our readers, and the Holy Spirit. Which is, I believe, where it should lie. No, my writing’s not a “ministry.” And, in the context of “ministry” as I’ve seen it presented too often, I hope it never becomes one. Thoughts? Janny

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Picks and Pans off the Summer Bookshelf

So what are we reading besides the blog? :-) No, I’m not going to go into the anniversary of 9-11—there’ll be more than enough of that on other channels to keep you busy, if that’s the way you want to spend some time. But for our purposes this morning, it’s time to catch up on the reading we’ve been doing, or trying to do, of late. Tried to read: The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield. This story starts out promisingly enough, even charmingly, in that quirky sort of way that ‘literary fiction’ likes to call its own. (Whether or not this is considered ‘literary’ is immaterial. If it quacks like a duck…) But then, the endless story of the wild twins and their nonsense goes on, and on, and on, and…I finally said, “Enough, already” to these amoral, maladjusted people and their exploits. Frankly, the 157 or so repetitions of how “special” and “unique” and “remarkable” they were for simply being born unconscious of anyone else’s importance or value in the world (which means—hello?—they were mentally ill!) had exactly the opposite effect: it didn’t make me sympathetic or even fascinated by them as much as it merely made me irritated with everyone around them who enabled them. At that point I knew it was time to climb out of the byzantine, self-indulgent litany and put the book back on the shelf. I understand this is presented as a long, complex, layered story, and I only went halfway through it. However, at the halfway point, I was increasingly getting that sinking feeling one gets when a “highly touted” book is 105 pages’ worth of story told in 400. (“Boys and girls, can you spell ‘overwritten’?”) Those of you who have finished this thing may have a totally different picture of it, but I’ve learned over and over again that when I ignore that sinking feeling, the book ends up hitting the wall anyway. So I saved my arm, the book, and the wall the trouble and put it back into the library. (I was just glad I hadn’t bought it.) Tried to read: Widows and Orphans, Susan Meissner. This really sounded promising, to the point where I did buy it through the book club. I love mysteries, I love suspense, and this was presented as having both…so I dove right in, despite seeing pictures of Asian characters on the cover and thinking, “Oh, no, not something about Chinese adoption…!” Please understand, I have nothing inherently against that kind of story (or the character types involved). But had it been hinted in the book’s presentation that there was a foreign element involved, or that someone had to go halfway across the world to start the plot, I may have passed—only because that’s not first on my list of the kind of story I like to read. And had it been hinted that the heroine, whom one meets first, is less concerned about other people than she is about her own inconvenience…well, suffice to say I felt nothing after the first chapter. I wanted to feel something positive for these characters. I didn’t. In fact, in short order, I got fed up with the heroine, who wavered so close to whining in Chapter One that I didn’t want to spend any more time with her and wait for her to go into full-blown self-indulgence. (Notice a pattern here?) If the reader grits her teeth during the first chapter, for that reader, the writer has failed. ‘Nuff said. Tried to read: Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven, Fannie Flagg. This, once again, sounded charming. I’d never read Fannie Flagg, who sells and sells and sells, so I thought I’d give this one a try. And for a good ways into the book, it’s a cute piece. Lots of humor, lots of down-to-earth characters, absorbing and pretty true to life. And then, the character gets to “heaven”—where she’s only stopping temporarily, mind you—and the thing goes into utter touchy-feely counter-religious “unitarian” nonsense. I won’t spoil the “surprise” for those of you who may want to wade through this—but just be forewarned, the “people you meet in heaven” in this book are liable to make your blood boil. Think George Burns in Oh, God!, only taken to a sacrilegious extreme for the sake of “humor,” and you’ll get the idea. That blatant disrespect for faith, in a book that could have taken a lighter hand, made it impossible for me to read on. I wanted to, but I’ve gotten to the point in my life where when or if an author insults my faith, however innocently it’s “intended,” I get too irritated to want to finish the story. In that respect, yanno, the author has failed…in that, unfortunately, she’s reminded me it’s only a book, and a book in which she’s taking a perverse and screwed-up doctrinal stand. (Call it preaching in reverse, I guess.) Once again, I was glad it was a library book! Lest you completely despair that I liked anything over the past few weeks, however, here are a couple of picks: THE ELEVATOR, Angela Hunt. Three women trapped in an elevator, in the path of an approaching hurricane, soon learn they’re bonded in ways none of them expects. Gritty and compelling, so much so I read it in 24 hours. (Ah, the joy of a weekend with a new book!) The few details about setting that I found confusing and/or unresolved don’t hurt the story overall; it’s a keeper. THE HAUNTED RECTORY, Katherine Valentine. Katherine Valentine is a successful author of the Dorsetville books, which seem to be an attempt at being the Catholic answer to Jan Karon’s Mitford series; I say “seem to be” because I never got into Dorsetville. I tried. I read a few pages into one of the books, stifled a yawn, and put it back. People think “nothing happens” in the Mitford books, that all they are is a presentation of small-town life, so if you just start turning the lens around the street of a small town, it’s automatically fascinating…but suffice to say they’ve got it wrong, and IMHO Valentine’s got it wrong with Dorsetville. But this one? A whole ‘nuther story, literally. Pick this one up for more than the cute play on words involved in the “St. Francis Xavier Hookers” (a group of women who hook rugs, of course!). Pick this one up for a chilling, realistic, and yet hopeful portrayal of Satanic power, of possession, and of all-too-realistic people struggling against the depths of darkness. You may not want to read this one more than once—it’s that kind of book, if you know what I mean—but you’ll probably want to pass it on to others. If I’m advising Katherine, I’m telling her to stick with the St. Francis Xavier hookers for a few more books. They’re great ladies, and Fr. Rich Melo is one of those wonderful things—a true Catholic priest, a man who struggles to believe but who nevertheless, when the chips are down, acts faithfully and consistently as the kind of priest we’d all like to know. The author’s hit a stride here that she’d be well advised to keep on with! More to come—I read way more than I seem to be able to write about, unless I put my mind to mini-reviews as part of this blog. But since I don’t really want to become a book reviewer by trade, I’d love to see you all chime in as well. What are you trying to read? What did you set aside? What’s the latest wall-banger, or what’s got you staying up past your bedtime? Inquiring minds want to know, and fall is prime getting-back-into-the-TBR pile for many of us. Share your finds with the world! Thoughts? Janny

Monday, September 10, 2007

WOW, WOW, and WOW again

Talk about a pertinent addition to our conversation! Just stumbled upon this today while browsing Google looking for...well, you can probably tell what I was looking for, and if not, I'll be glad to elucidate after we do this Required Reading for the day. I couldn't have said this any better, British or not. It's just a pity that even though he gave this presentation some time ago, that so much of it, alas, is still true... But read this. It's long, but trust me, it's worth it. In spades. And if you've a heart to do so, share it. It's worth the trip. Awesome, awesome, awesome, and Amen! Janny

Monday, September 03, 2007

Wanted: a little unreality, please

For a long time, we in the Christian fic biz have been talking (and talking and talking!) about the idea of writing “real” people, “real” characters, and “real” stories. Stories that reflect the way real Christians—or even non-Christians—live in the real world. Stories in which people can be weak, sinful, or maybe don’t even all come to salvation at the end (I know, I know, just deal with it :-)). For too long, we’ve put up with stilted vocabulary, avoidance of “euphemisms” that are so strict they’d make a Pharisee blush, and “no-nos” all over the board—prohibitions on a glass of wine at dinner, on a divorced hero or heroine, on single parents, on dancing, playing cards, movies, or gambling. This is, of course, in addition to the standard prohibitions on excessive violence (and the definition of that is subjective), sexual tension for its own sake, and a list of other land mines that seem to largely depend on which publisher you’re asking and what time of day it is. (!) But is “reality” in our books actually what we need more of? I might have said an unqualified “yes” just a few months ago. Now, I’m not so sure. I think what we’re after is “authenticity”—but that isn't the same as “reality” with all its bumps, grinds, spills, crises, depravities, and seediness. Because, you see, I don’t read fiction to learn more about the real world—I have a real world I live in every day (!), and if I need to learn more about those nuts and bolts, I can read enough nonfiction to choke a horse. But I read fiction for escape. For that lovely, delicious period of time suspended in someone else’s world, not as an eager student, but just as an observer. A fellow-traveler, if you will. For those purposes, more and more lately, I’ve found myself wishing that more Christians took that aspect of “unreality” a little more to heart. You know the kind of “unreality” I’m looking for: Vivid words. Compelling people. Deep emotions. In other words, just a plain good story. Not one with a “message” you hope I’ll get…so you hit me over the head with it. Not one that’s a “ministry” or a “tool to reach the unsaved.” Not one that shares “a spiritual truth the author needs to learn.” If you start out writing fiction with those things in mind, you’re already cheating. Because, gentle writers, fiction isn’t the place to preach. It’s not the place to pontificate. It’s not the place to tell me your version of the world is the correct take, and if I’ll just ask Jesus into my heart…. ENOUGH, already. You want to preach, write tracts. Not fiction. On the other hand, if you’re really brave—really authentic—you’ll share a story with me. And that’s a whole ‘nuther ball game than writing “to reach me” in some way. Heck, it doesn’t even have to be a certain kind of story. I love sweet, and I love sinister. I love urban, and I love homespun. I love city, and I love country. I love suspense, and I love soothing. I want my stories uplifting overall, but if I'm reading a Christian author, I'm going to assume they believe in the fundamental triumph of good over evil, so nihilism really isn't the problem. But the sensation I get that some authors are hiding their authenticities behind the Gospel...is. So I would challenge my fellow authors out there not to be “real” so much as to be authentic. That is what we're looking for as readers, isn’t it? If your story is authentic, it’ll take me where I want to be—which is in that lovely, delicious place that is someone else’s world, just for a few hours. Just for a few hours, it will give me the break from what’s sometimes a harsh reality here in the vale of tears. (Gotta love us Catholics and our Purgatorial mindsets. :-D) But best of all, if you obey the rules of authenticity in your storytelling…you’ll get all the rest of the “spiritual” stuff across as well. It’ll be there. Trust me, I’ll find the treasure you put there—or, even better, I’ll find some other treasure of my own. If we need any more proof that what we need to do is tell stories, just think about Jesus versus his cousin. John preached. Jesus told stories. Of course, there’s a place for both of these things…but the Man whose words we can read every day of our lives and get something new out of them every time isn’t the man who preached; it’s the One who told stories. Most of those stories Jesus told were “unreal”—fiction—in that they weren’t told about knowable people that anyone could point to and say, “Nyah, nyah, the preacher’s talking about you, buddy.” No, they were posed more along the lines of “a guy goes into a bar, and…” And yet they’re among the most authentic stories you’ll ever hear, and stories that stay with you all your life. Seems to me we could do a lot worse than aiming for that brand of “unreality.” Thoughts? Janny