Tuesday, April 30, 2013

When It Is Not Well With Your Soul

Sometimes, when I sing songs in church and chapel about God remaining faithful in hard times, I can't really relate at the moment. My life is good, and it feels almost dishonest to sing about how I can still love God in spite of suffering. Does “It Is Well With My Soul” mean anything on sunny, happy days? Probably not, or at least not as much. 

So you know what I do?

I sing those songs to the future. I say the words with everything in me, almost like I’m pouring them into a bottle and wedging in a cork. Saving them. Waiting.

Then, when the hard days come and I’m struggling to believe that God loves me and acts justly in a world that is very, very broken, I take them out again. Because on those days, I cannot sing those words and mean them. It is not well with my soul, the name of the Lord is not blessed, and while he may give and take away, I cannot praise him for it. I’m not strong enough, not brave enough.

Which leads me to think that faith is not always what we think it is.

It is not dispensing pithy Christian sayings or inspirational Bible verses to someone who is grieving. (Not that those things are inherently bad, but that would be like taking your sick child to the doctor and having the doctor give him a toy from the treasure chest and a Batman Band-Aid instead of acknowledging and dealing with the real problem.)

Faith is not easy answers and gritted-teeth determination to be happy despite pain. I don’t even think it’s always being serenely at peace with everything that happens, although that peace may eventually come.

Real faith sometimes has to use the bottled praise. It clings to the memories of a distant promise, even when nothing around it seems to fit with that promise. It tries to sing, but when only laments come, those laments are still worship, because they contain a courageous defiance that says, like the psalmist, “I will yet praise him.”

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Questions and Answers

Sometimes, when we want easy answers, we get hard answers.

Probably the best Biblical example of this is Job. If you slog through his monologues, he basically thinks he can call God into a courtroom and get everything straightened out. With a little cross-examination of the distant deity, his friends will suddenly understand exactly what was going on.

When God shows up, the reader expects him to talk about the bet with Satan, the drama that went on up in the courts of heaven. That would still vindicate Job, although in a different way than Job himself was looking for. It would still be an easy answer.

Instead, God launches into a speech about his own power, and his relationship to creation. It’s about what he values and what he can do and what would happen if he wasn’t constantly sustaining it all. Which is interesting and all, but makes you wonder things like, “What does this have to do with anything?” “If God is totally in control of nature, does that mean he is responsible for the deaths in natural disasters?” and “How is this just?” God’s speech to Job seems to raise more questions than it answers.

That’s fine with me, most days. I love hard answers. There is a kind of beauty in the gray areas of paradox, and a certain smugness that goes along with believing two seemingly opposing things. It’s the same kind of smug feeling I get when I tell people that I love the windy, rainy weather. You are just too unsophisticated to understand the true beauty of storms, I think to myself. Oh, sure, sunny cloudless days are nice. But there’s a power in difficult weather that you have to be really deep to appreciate.

But guess what? Sometimes, when we want hard answers, we get easy answers. And that teaches us humility too.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

15 Ways to Make Your Story More Believable

Last week, I talked about how to write convincing fiction using Aristole’s Triangle of Rhetoric. This Wednesday, the focus is on one of his three emphases: logos, or why your story should be realistic.

Actually, the why is pretty simple: people don’t like fiction that’s not believable. The how is a little bit longer. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but here’s an editing checklist of tips for making sure your story doesn’t make readers think, “Wait, what? That doesn’t make sense.”

Characters and Dialogue

  • Go through the story and read through all of one character’s dialogue. Is it consistent? Is it distinct from other characters?

  • When you have a child character, ask a teacher or a parent who has a child that age read the dialogue and tell you if it sounds right.
  • With a dramatic revelation or a death or a love scene, try reading the dialogue out loud and see if it sounds too cheesy or not.
  • If you’re writing a character who speaks only broken English, make sure the vocabulary he knows and the grammar he uses are consistent. What I usually do is figure out what I could say after two semesters of Spanish, and what grammar mistakes I would make at that point. Sometimes I literally translate what the character says into Spanish, then back again.
  • Ruthlessly eliminate any information-dumps: places where you used dialogue to tell the readers something they needed to know, but that the character probably wouldn’t say out loud.

  •  Villains tend to be primary offenders for unrealistic dialogue. If you understand what motivates your villain and makes her personality unique, you won’t have to resort to cliché lines. (See also the evil overlord list. This is hilarious and contains all the cliches you could possibly use with your villain.) 

  • One simple, yet overlooked question: would my character be smart enough to think of this? Make sure you know your character’s general intelligence level, how perceptive they are about social things, and how good their memory is. Then keep it consistent.
  • Have someone involved in theater read over your story specifically for dialogue mistakes. They usually have a pretty good ear for how people talk.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Myers-Briggs Conspiracy

If they had a place to subtitle blogs (or if I was self-confident enough to use a colon in the title of something that isn’t an academic paper), this post would be called The Myers-Briggs Conspiracy: Or Why My Personality Is Culturally Advantaged.

I am an ENFP. Here is a cool graphic representation of what the personality test people think this means.

Seriously, look at the words written on the head. I sound like the most delightful person you would ever want to meet. I practically exude rainbow-colored light all around me and cause flowers to bloom in my path.

You know what it doesn’t say? It doesn’t tell you what I struggle with and what my weaknesses are, even the ones that are directly tied to my ENFP-ness. Expressive? Yes, to the point of being a show-off. Persuasive? Mm hmm, with manipulative tendencies. Value authenticity? Right on, and I might actively avoid you if I think you’re shallow. Sociable? Sure, and also dependent on the approval of others.

(I didn’t put up just this picture because I’m a crazy egotist. I just couldn’t figure out how to download all of them as one picture. Here's the rest of the gallery--find your own type. If you don't know your type, check out a quiz I posted a while back.)

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Non-Philosophical Introduction to Aristotle’s Triangle

In high school, I learned that there are basically three ways to get anybody to agree with you.

It would be much easier if they were just magic words. Or some kind of subliminal message you could write in light gray text in the margins of your essay. Actually, like most worthwhile things in life, this takes work. It involves Aristotle’s triangle of rhetoric.

If I didn’t lose you at that last sentence, you’re probably giving me one shot to make this interesting. Please take a moment to picture the triangle lit on fire, with a bunch of motorcyclists shooting arrows through it.

Very good. Thank you.

If you want a more philosophical explanation, read about it here. But these are the basics. When you’re writing or speaking something to persuade someone else, there are three general approaches that work together to make what you say more convincing.

Monday, April 15, 2013

I Would Rather Not Need You

This title made me laugh, mostly because I know people would think it’s some kind of joke or exaggeration that I would explain later on.

But it’s completely not.

I actually mean that. I would rather not need you. If possible, I would like to be completely and ruggedly independent, like some sort of pioneer lumberjack, except without the beard. Or the lumber and its need to be cut down. Or the lack of indoor plumbing.

Anyway, let me explain this somewhat-hostile-sounding statement. For one of my classes, we read an excerpt from a book about compassion, titled (shockingly) Compassion. Here’s one part that struck me:

“We have lost the simple but difficult gift of being present to each other because we have been led to believe that presence must be useful….Simply being with someone is difficult because it asks of us that we share in the other’s vulnerability, enter with him or her into the experience of weakness and powerlessness, become part of uncertainty, and give up control and self-determination.”

While I read this, I thought, This is great. And really, really true.

As long as it’s your vulnerability. Your weakness. Your uncertainty. I can be the listening, hug-giving, encouragement-note-writing, deep-theological-truth-articulating superhero who is present with other people. I can field emotional breakdowns and give advice and pray for you without judging you for your struggles.

I love compassion as long as I’m the one giving it.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Four Reasons Why I Don’t Want a Secret Admirer

Let’s start this off with a confession: When I was writing out my college bucket list last year (things I wanted to do before graduation), I almost added, “Have a secret admirer.”

Because, admit it, that sounds cool, right? I could just picture it…I’d get a note with letters cut out of a magazine…in a code based on the Gettysburg Address…with flowers arranged according to the art of Victorian floral language. (Because if a guy was willing to go to that much trouble, he’d totally be leaving me an anonymous note.)

Then I thought about it for another five seconds and realized that this was not something I actually wanted. This became especially true this week when a “Secret Admirers” Facebook page for my university popped up, where people could leave anonymous notes of love, dramatic tributes to a secret crush’s good qualities, or ridiculously obvious jokes.

Content issues and general creepiness aside, most of the posts are harmless and pretty entertaining, even if you know half of them are written by the person’s roommate as a prank. Still, it made me think about secret admirers again, and why I don’t want one. Here are a few reasons:

One: It’s too easy. 

I think I’ve said this before (wait…I know I have—here): I can sometimes be extremely awkward about accepting compliments. Or giving them. But, in general, things that are hard for us are also really good for us. So maybe venting our emotions anonymously on a Facebook page really doesn’t do much as far as developing our personal character, especially in areas like courage, honesty, and self-control.

Along these lines, a lot of people on the Secret Admirers page will post or comment about the fact that people should just muster up the bravery to tell the guy or girl about their undying affection in person instead of posting anonymously. And I see their point. But I think you can take another angle on this too: in some circumstances it might be better to not tell the guy or girl to their face OR post on Facebook.

Let me explain (and also give the warning that this may sound somewhat heartless). Many of the posts are to people who are already dating or engaged, or from people who say the guy/girl is “out of my league,” so they’re clearly not ready to be in a relationship with that person. If you know that, why not have the self-control to keep your crush to yourself? Or better yet, stop pretending that puppy love is this irresistible force that makes you dream about a guy or girl who is not yours to dream about. It’s not. Just because we have the capability to anonymously post our every emotion on Facebook doesn’t mean we should.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Ice Cream Tantrums

Confession: whenever families came into the ice cream store I worked at for several summers, I would play a little game inside my head called “Good Parenting, Bad Parenting.” The object was simple—identify which adults had the role of parent over their children instead of the other way around.

The dad who prompted his three-year-old to say, “Thank you” to me when I handed him his sundae? Good parenting. Start ‘em young.

The mom who said, in a whiny tone, “Stoooooop,” to her first grader when he started throwing napkins all over the floor? Bad parenting. Especially because those napkins remained on the floor when they left.

Some scenarios were gray areas, but every week or so, I’d witness a clear moment of truth: the temper tantrum. I always watched with fascination when a kid decided to throw a fit to get what she wanted. The technique of the child was interesting, of course—did he stick out his bottom lip? How good was she at the fake cry?—but the parents’ reaction was the crucial part.

Everyone within earshot was wondering the same thing: will the kid get what he wants or not?

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

22 Words On How to Write Compelling Nonfiction

Here they are:

In the first draft, focus on what you have to say.

When revising, focus on how you want the audience to react.

That’s it. Really. It’s especially true of opinions articles or blog posts, but also just your run-of-the-mill reflections on life designed to get people thinking.

If, by the final draft, your writing is all about you and the commentary or wisdom you want to share, it’s going to come off as arrogant, even if that wasn’t your intention at all. There’s really no way around this.

But, if you take the time to ask, “What would make people care about this topic?” or “If someone posted this on Facebook and asked for reactions, what would the comments underneath it say?” or “Is there any way to make this old topic new and interesting again?” it’s going to be much more interesting.