Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Writers (Disagreeing) on Writing

I love reading quotes on writing by writers. They’re not only experts on the subject matter, but they also tend to express things well.

Sometimes, though, they are just so very sure of themselves, able to make sweeping generalizations about everyone everywhere who adopts the title of “writer.” And often, there’s another writer who thinks the exact opposite. Here are a few contradictory bits of advice I’ve found recently.

On How Much You Should Enjoy Writing:

“Only amateurs say that they write for their own amusement. Writing is not an amusing occupation. It is a combination of ditch-digging, mountain-climbing, treadmill and childbirth... But amusing? Never.”
— Edna Ferber

“Do you suffer when you write? I don't at all…I never feel as good as while writing.”
― Ernest Hemingway

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
― George Orwell

“I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like child stringing beads in kindergarten, - happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another.”
— Brenda Ueland

Sunday, July 28, 2013

It's More Blessed To Receive Than To Give

If you think I made a typo in the title, you’re wrong. In a Christian culture that emphasizes serving others and doing great things for God, it can be a strange message. But, here it goes: STOP GIVING.

Or, at least, stop just giving. Contrary to popular belief, being needy is not a spiritual weakness. Sometimes, giving too much and refusing to ever take from others can actually be a sin.

You might think that sounds crazy, right, or at least mildly anti-Christian. But wait. Wait right there. I have C.S. Lewis on my side for this one.

Take that.

But, just in case name-dropping a popular Christian writer isn’t enough for you to blindly accept my claim, here’s the actual logic behind it.

This is a passage from The Four Loves, where Lewis talks about charity, the love that’s completely undeserved: “This, though a sort of love we need, is not the sort we want. We want to be loved for our cleverness, beauty, generosity, fairness, usefulness. The first hint that anyone is offering us the highest love of all is a terrible shock.”

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Four Annoying Things About the Internet

You may have come to this post looking for a rant.

But you won’t find it here. Oh no.

You see, anyone can complain about the Internet. But not everyone can turn obnoxious uses of social media into something entertaining and educational. And that’s what I have for you today.

Here are four annoying things about the Internet, with suggestions for what to do about them other than complain. Because otherwise I would have had to list a fifth item to the list: “People Who Use Technology to Complain About Technology.” And that would be so many layers of irony that it would be like an irony lasagna.

One: Wrongly Attributed Quotes

I’m pretty sure that, according to the Internet, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, and C.S. Lewis said everything deep, funny, or Christian (respectively) that has ever been said. We have an entire library’s worth of encyclopedia information at our fingertips, and somehow it’s still too much bother to look up whether that meme has cited its source correctly.

Instead of being frustrating, though, this should be inspiring. If anyone can be witty or profound just by attaching their name to a witty or profound bootlegged quote, why not you? Or just become the kind of person other people attribute quotes to at random. Elementary, my dear Watson. (Which, incidentally, Doyle’s Sherlock never said.­)

Two: Bad Spelling and Grammar

Blame autocorrect, blame instant sending of messages when you hit the enter key, blame that fact that spellcheck highlights every proper noun in existence so people start ignoring it. Blame whatever you want.

Or, instead of blaming people, you could make a delightful grammar guide like this one.

Also, you can screenshot all of the mistakes and put them together in a funny coffee table book.

And rejoice that you will get better scores in Scrabble or Words With Friends than any of these people. Unless by making a spelling mistake they actually spell another word you didn’t know about…

Any of those reactions are better than being “that guy” who constantly corrects people’s grammar, on the Internet and in real life. If your friend is about to make a mistake in a research paper or a tattoo, tell him. If it’s a Facebook status, let it go.

Because as soon as you become “that guy,” you are no longer entitled to make any grammar or spelling mistakes. Ever. And that’s just too much pressure.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Fairy Tale Jesus, Part Two

A year ago, I talked about how presentations of the gospel sometimes makes Easter seem like a fictional story, and not a very interesting one at that. Once upon a time, Jesus did this, said that, rose from the dead, and everyone who believes in him lives happily ever after. We all know the ending. Yawn. No surprises here.

That’s why I think that the gospel is not just a three-point outline of sin sacrifice salvation. That might be necessary to make it fit on a tract, but it misses the beauty of the story that goes throughout the whole Old and New Testament. We lose the building of tension, the solutions that looked like they might work until the people failed God time and time again, the hints of a future Savior. We miss the sheer impact of the crucifixion and resurrection as plot twists when we repeat them over and over out of any historical or Biblical context.

And so our kids miss it too. And we wonder why they leave in church after they stop getting free pizza from youth group events. They know the stories. Noah and the ark, David killing Goliath, Daniel in the lions’ den. And they know it’s important to be honest, kind, and obedient. But do they know the God of the stories? Do they know the overwhelming love that motivates right actions?

Last week, I suggested that it’s important to teach kids that the stories in the Bible really happened, and not just by saying that phrase somewhere in the lesson or storybook. This week, I’m going to make the claim that there’s something else we should teach kids: This points to Jesus.

That doesn’t mean stretching symbolism to figure out how to tie in Baalam’s donkey to a New Testament parable. But it does mean looking at the stories of the Bible as steps in the process of redemption that came to fulfillment in Jesus. There’s a reason this story was included in the Bible. What is it supposed to teach us about ourselves, God, or what’s coming next?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Orthodox Heretic

Today, I posted on Facebook about how I accidentally completed an online doctrinal questionnaire that I didn’t really need to fill out for the job I was applying for. Doing so, though, helped me think about some really important things, so I thought I’d put some excerpts here.

These are not the actual words I wrote. I sounded smarter, gave examples of how this impacted my life, and generally tried not to pick any fights. What I have here is the spirit behind what I wrote for many of these.

They’re important things to think about…even if you don’t have to fill out any applications in the near future.
The Trinity:We believe in one God — eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent existing as three persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one in nature, attributes, power, and glory.”

You want a God that makes perfect sense? You’ll have to invent one. And believe me, you won’t end up with something that even remotely resembles the God of Christianity.

Also, Jeremy Begbie’s illustration of the Trinity as a three-note chord, which is quite literally the only metaphor for the Trinity I’ve ever heard that doesn’t wind up as some kind of heresy if you think about it too hard.

Jesus’ Nature: “We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ… is both true God and true man.”

Basically, when you talk about Jesus’ nature, you’re saying, “This is true…and so is this other thing that’s pretty much the exact opposite.” And I love that.

Lots of people make fun of these type of paradoxes in the faith, but see my answer to the Trinity question above. That doesn’t mean that we should just shrug off any questions we have about our faith without trying to understand them. It just means that we need to have the humility to say we might not be able to find all the answers.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Fairy Tale Jesus, Part One

"Am I teaching kids to behave Christian-ly without teaching them Christianity?"

So wonders Phil Vischer, creator of VeggieTales, a delightful series of Bible stories that he now says falls short of what it means to teach children about God. (Watch the interview. DO IT. This guy is seriously my hero.)

He points out that a lot of times, when it comes to writing for children, we hand them a moral instead of a story.

There’s a place for that. Sermon illustrations, Aesop’s fables, and coloring book captions are too short to get much into character development and plot. If the purpose is to drive home a point, illustrate a concept, or briefly refer to something else, it’s okay to have less than a story.

It’s also okay for stories to contain a moral of sorts. Think about your favorite stories as a child, from your fairy tale and very hungry caterpillar days to the chapter book series you read in later years. Most of them probably taught you things about the way people should act, the dangers of being greedy, or the importance of teamwork. Those are all good things.

But a moral by itself is not a story. It’s a fragment of one. Put into proper context, morals are the powerful underlying messages that can change our lives. By themselves, they’re pretty weak and unconvincing, left looking nervously around for narrative, foreshadowing, characters, and conflict to back them up and make them worthwhile.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

To the (Non) Stereotypical Teachers

I was reading Linchpin, a book by Seth Godin, blogger extraordinaire, and came across this paragraph: “Hand in a paper with perfect grammar but no heart and soul, and you’re sure to get an A from the stereotypical teacher. That’s because this teacher was trained to grade you on your ability to fit in….And that’s how school stamps out (as opposed to bakes in) creativity.”

Right then, I stopped reading, because I realized something very important: that was not my story.

I am a creative person. Always have been. Eight-year-old bowl-cut Amy, an enthusiastic little dweeb who wore brightly patterned shirts and a perpetual smile, decided one day that she wanted to be a writer. And people told her she could be.
Also, I was fascinated by everything. This is totally not posed.
One example in particular comes in mind, one that goes against Godin’s entire chapter about how our education system is designed to repress creativity. I got an A on a high school history essay once. But it wasn’t an essay. It was a one-act play about the life of Louis XIV. My teacher, Mr. Gilmer, had me read parts of it out loud to the class.

At the time, I didn’t even know how to read the Roman numeral in Louis’s name out loud without looking at a clock (it’s the fourteenth, just for the record). But I did know that having people fight over roles in your academic paper was pretty cool.

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Myth of "Good Enough"

I learned something while editing the other day: I don’t like fixing things when it’s hard.

Usually, editing is a lot of fun. I can worm my way around plot holes, tune up dialogue so it’s punchy and true to the characters, and tweak chapter beginnings and endings to get them where I want them.

This time, though, I’m deleting the middle eight chapters of my book and completely starting over on them. Suddenly, I’m not exactly looking forward to the amount of work that goes into this project.

I mean, come on. I have a full manuscript of the right word count. The characters are great, there are a lot of funny parts, and I like the beginning and ending. That should be enough, right?

But I can’t just leave it the way it is, as much as I’d like to, because I know two things: first, it’s not as good as it could be, and second, there is a way to fix it. It’s just that the fixing is going to take an awful lot of work.

And that’s how I realized that the old saying isn’t really true. Good isn’t always the enemy of best. Sometimes it’s the necessary precursor to best. And maybe terrible is the necessary precursor to good. It takes a lot of work to get from one stage to another, but that work is necessary for creating an end product that’s really excellent.

The problem comes when we get comfortable with good—with just “okay,” the generic, passable good of those little mass produced stickers we got in elementary school for copying out the right answers. When we think what we produce is good enough, we stop trying to improve it.

This is true in writing. And this is true (ouch) in character.

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Problem with Sexy Disney Princesses

I was reading an interesting article today that points out that, while Disney creates “strong leading female characters in its movies,” they suddenly get changed before the merchandise comes out: “they’ve all been reduced to flowing hair and off-the-shoulder dresses and coy looks in their post-cinematic incarnations.”

As I soon as I read this, something clicked. You know why Disney movie heroines are brave, wise, and kind, and the merchandise princesses are just sexy?

Because stories do something for women that images cannot.

When a princess is a picture in a coloring book, a figure to hang pretty clothes on, or a design on a notebook, she is there to look pretty. That’s the whole point. And, in just about every other area of life, that’s fine. You wouldn’t necessarily want to buy a dishware set with an imperfect pattern, or seek out wallpaper that was ugly.

Somehow, though, this standard changes change when it comes to people. We instinctively realize there’s more to them than just aesthetics. People are not lawn ornaments that we arrange around our lives for decorative purposes.

For example, take a look at the pictures you have in frames around your house, attached to the fridge with magnets, or displayed on your Facebook page. The images there probably aren’t of perfectly designed and sculpted looks, (unless all your friends are models who don’t allow any candid pictures, in which case I feel sorry for you). Those pictures are imperfect…and completely wonderful, because you know and love the people in them. They are not just images. They are people.