Thursday, October 31, 2013

Spooky Story Challenge

 (Author Anne Elisabeth Stengl challenged readers to write a short story on Halloween based on a childhood fear. Here's mine.)

The Doll Without a Name

Gramma Lottie’s doll is not to be played with. That’s a rule. A serious one, not like when Grampie Joe says you can’t have any dessert and you really can. It’s a real actual antique, like in shops where everything can break.

They keep her up on the top shelf, all locked up, in the guest room. And when I visit I sleep in that room ‘cause I’m a guest then.

She looks really pretty, with a lacy blue dress and really long eyelashes. And I wonder if she’s got those fancy underpants that they used to wear, only I don’t know because I’m not supposed to touch her.

“Hey, you should probably let me open up that case,” I say one day while Gramma is making brownies. “I watched Toy Story last week, and it says that toys don’t like being in cages.”

“Cases, dear,” Gramma Lottie says.

“Yeah, whatever. What’s the doll’s name?”

“She doesn’t have a name,” Gramma Lottie says firmly, in the voice she usually saves for when I’m in trouble. Except I haven’t even broken a rule yet. “Because she’s not real.”

“Okay,” I say, because I don’t know why she’s using that voice, but it’s dangerous. Time to drop the subject. I start to leave.

“I never liked that doll,” Gramma Lottie says, all quiet.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

NaNoWriMo Cometh

Peer pressure can be a wonderful thing when you happen to have friends who are talented, intelligent, and just humble enough that you don’t hate them.

That’s a long way of saying that I got conned into doing National Novel Writing Month this year. I have resisted in the past, but it’s time I caved. Because who needs free time anyway? Certainly not me.

For those of you who don’t know, during National Novel Writing Month, starting on Friday, you are encouraged to write 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days. It can be done, and it has been. Those 50,000 words will almost certainly be terrible—the roughest rough draft you’ve ever thrown together and called a story…but they will be written, and that’s the key.

Only problem is…I haven’t decided what to write yet. Which, y’know, I should probably do, since the last day of indecision is tomorrow. I’m not much of an outliner, so that shouldn’t be problem, but there’s a pretty big difference between an Amish dystopian and a Wild West romantic comedy.

Yep. You heard me right. Those are my two options right now. Here they are in a little more detail (but not much):

Option 1: A feverish, unconscious girl is smuggled down from an anti-technology separatist colony and left with the local gravedigger with the warning that someone is looking for her. Probably involves an incinerator, a spy who infiltrates the separatist community, a sociologist from the Bureau of Propaganda, Mr. Tumnus, a dramatic escape scene, and Robert E. Lee.

Option 2: A newcomer tries to shut down a Wild West tourist trap, not realizing how hard its residents will fight to save it. Probably involves a ridiculous hat, fake gold nuggets in a hokey gold mine tour, a teenager who tries to rob the local bank and everyone thinks it’s a joke, an extremely cheesy Western hoedown musical, and jr. high dioramas where everyone makes trees out of broccoli.

The first one would be a more serious, action-based story. The second would be pretty darn hilarious. Both options sound good to me at this point, and I could see both giving me motivation to crank out an insane word count in a short amount of time.

I should add that I will most likely write both stories's just a matter of which I write this month.

This isn’t exactly a democracy…but I would like to hear your thoughts. Any story you’re leaning toward here?

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Postscript to the Church from the Lonely

So, for those of you who read my recent post, “A Letter To the Church from the Lonely,” this is a follow-up.

It turns out that the church I described is actually a great place full of nice people. I’ve met some of them now. As it also turns out, a number of them meant to meet me that first week, but their child spit up on them or they really had to go to the bathroom or they got sidetracked by the worship leader. (I know this because they told me this when they introduced themselves the next week.)

Guess I was supposed to experience a really lonely Sunday. God works in mysterious ways, including baby vomit.

Anyway, I went to a singles event that this church hosted. Interestingly enough, one of the points that the pastor addressed in his message to us that night was loneliness. He said that singles—and married people—need to find the answer to their loneliness in a deeper relationship with God. Then he quoted something he remembered John Piper saying about singles asking why God hadn’t provided them with a husband/wife: “That’s like asking for a glass of water when you’ve been given an entire ocean.”

This is God's love. There are lots of songs comparing it to an ocean, so that's cool I guess.

For the most part, I agree with all of that. But one question kept going through my head over and over:

“What if the reason we ask for a glass of water in addition to the sea because God made us thirsty?”

Not for marriage necessarily. Just for relationship with other people.

It’s interesting to me that when Adam was alone in the Garden, God didn’t say, “Hey, you have a relationship with me. That should be enough for you.” He said, “It is not good for man to be alone.”

Did you catch that? Alone. Even with God—even in a relationship with God that was unbroken by sin—it was possible to be alone, and thus lonely. The ocean wasn’t enough.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Why Jesus Calling and The Message Scare Me

(Note: This post is not saying that these books are bad/dangerous/evil. It is also not saying that I’m judging you if you’ve read and enjoyed them. Just clarifying, right from the start. If you want those rants, I’m sure there are many places on the Internet where you can find them. But not here.)

I remember a few Christian books that, when they came out, the firestorm wasn’t exactly about the content itself, but more about the format of that content.

In Jesus Calling, Sarah Young gives encouraging devotional thoughts to readers like they would receive through prayer.

In The Message, Eugene Peterson seeks to portray the Bible as it would have been written today to get the gospel across to modern readers.

The main problem that many people seemed to have with these two volumes is that they made their words into God’s words.

In a way, this is nothing new. I do it all the time, on this blog, on my Twitter account, when I say things to friends about my theological opinions while waiting in line for something. It’s a pretty weighty thing, when you think about it. Whenever you say “I believe,” you are interpreting the Bible and weighing in on who you think God is.

On the other hand, I do my theology in my own voice. This is Amy Green’s opinion, branded with her distinctive style and sarcasm, and usually qualified with the admission that I am not always right.

It is Amy Calling, not Jesus Calling. It is My Message, not The Message. And every single person reading it will know that.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Seven Logical Fallacies of the Internet Age

The world of Internet debates can be a frightening thing. Whether it’s with strangers on a blog or with sorta “friends” on Facebook, it can be tricky to know how to proceed. If you want a real primer on logical fallacies, try this site. But I personally think some of the classical fallacies, around since the days of Plato and Socrates, need an update.

So here they are: seven ways to be really bad at logic on the Internet.

Ad Namecalling: “If I apply this negative label to you, people will stop listening to you and also like my comment because it’s fun to call people names.” You can dismiss almost any argument by calling someone “sheltered,” “radical,” or “ignorant.” This has the added benefit of making any debate more personal and emotional, so you’re much less likely to walk away thinking, “Hmm, I feel like I’ve learned something and broadened my perspective as a well-reasoned human being.”

Straw NarrowmindedArrogantBullyExtremistIdiot: “You are both stupid and a product of your culture and did not give any thought to your response. Therefore, I will assume what you meant was the most offensive and ridiculous extreme of your position and argue against that.” Similar to Ad Namecalling, but applies the negative assumptions to the actual statement the person is making. Both can be avoided by assuming that the person who disagrees with you is a relatively intelligent, somewhat-well-intentioned person. If you can’t manage that, then at least assume the person who disagrees with you is…a person. That way, you can avoid the same phenomenon that is behind racism, objectification, and genocide. (This is sort of a transition to the next fallacy. But really, now. It’s also kinda true.)

Slippery Thread: “If I don’t continue to reiterate my point whenever someone in this thread disagrees with me, I have lost, and then the world will not know the truth, and then everyone will die.” This one is more about the way arguments on the Internet work: everyone wants to have the last word. Even if that last word is repeating something they just said. Several times.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Rereading Cair Paravel

I have a confession: I never really read the ending of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Don’t get me wrong…I sort of read it. But, after the final battle scene, who really follows the last few pages that carefully anyway? The rest of the book is just laughing at the four siblings because they start to talk funny and skimming their culture shock when they come out of the wardrobe.

Because of this, I missed—well, a lot of things, probably, but one section in particular that stood out to me this time around:

“The castle of Cair Paravel on its little hill towered up above them all; before them were the sands, with rocks and little pools of salt water, and seaweed, and the smell of the sea and long miles of bluish-green waves breaking for ever and ever on the beach. And oh, the cry of the seagulls! Have you heard it? Can you remember?”

And you can find it there, in those words—the longing of a grown man who can still hear the echoes of seagulls from a childhood holiday. Maybe the castle there was listing to one side, the foundation a crumbling mess, all ready to be swept away by the tide in a few short hours.

But it was Cair Paravel, just for a moment, because he was young enough to truly believe that all was right with the world.

I don’t have strong positive memories of the seaside, but I have others: brief snapshots of joy where for once I wasn’t afraid or tired or angry or vaguely disappointed with the way this world has turned out. Times when I was safe and warm and loved, and that’s all I felt, for just a little while.

Those are the moments when we are quite sure that Aslan has won and we are kings and queens, moments when we look out over the sea and it is beautiful.

Sometimes we forget to enjoy those moments. Other times, we forget to remember them. Not in a way that makes us live constantly, miserably in the past. But as an act of faith, as a way of saying, “I believe we’ll make it to Cair Paravel again someday.”

The scene is not always a coronation; the sound is not always seagulls. It’s the second chorus of “Silent Night” sung in the glow of candles. It’s in the rousing finale of a Broadway show that reminded you that “to love another person is to see the face of God.” It’s the quiet snoring of someone you love. It’s children’s laughter and guitar solos and conversation over coffee and film credits and windchimes in the garden.

It’s in the sound of church bells, but also in every sound, every memory that reminds us of our true home, someplace where we can be children again, safe and triumphant at last.

Have you heard it? Do you remember?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Happy Blog Birthday 2!

Today Just the Fiction Ma’am is turning two years old! Isn’t that cute!

(Actually, its real birthday was yesterday, but I was busy dealing with a crisis coffee cake situation and didn't have time to post this. Don't tell it, okay?)

To celebrate, I put together a “Best of” post. If you want to catch up on a year’s worth of my blogs without actually reading the 104 of them from this year, here’s a great summary. (And here's last year's roundup if you want a few more.)

Most Popular Post:

The Problem with Sexy Disney Princesses. This was the runaway winner, with almost 1,800 views, mostly because it was posted on the Facebook and Twitter of Christians for Biblical Equality. But also because comparing Disney princesses to porn stars is interesting.

Although, in a surprise dark horse candidate rush at the last minute, A Letter To the Church From the Lonely is  trying to surpass this one. We'll see...

Best Keywords That Sent Someone To My Blog:

“Why sarcasm is a sin.” Three people have searched for this, only to be directed to Christian Satire: Is Sarcasm a Sin? To give you a sense of their great disappointment, the first sentence of that post is “No.” Maybe they learned not to prooftext their opinions via Google search. Or maybe I’m just being optimistic. 

Best Title:

Go Shopping, Fight Nazis. Who says Hitler and Black Friday don’t mix? Also, I am seriously considering naming my hypothetical first daughter Julie because of the awesome old lady in this blog post. 

Most Informative:

By all rights, given the topic of this blog, it ought to be something related to writing. But no. The winner in this category is: Bacon in World Religions, where I explain why I think Christianity is the only major world religion that allows its adherents to eat bacon. It’s based on the final paper for my Eastern World Religions class, so I actually did legitimate research instead of looking stuff up on Google. That helped up the informative quotient.

My Top Three Posts:

Based entirely on blatant favoritism, in no particular order.

Mourning Inspector Javert: In which I talk about my favorite character from Les Miserables and why his story had such an impact on me.

Seeking a Homeland: My way of coping with change. Turns out, our early 20s are a time of instability and insecurity. Actually, a lot of the posts I've written over the past month have been my favorites, probably because I have more time for introspection than I did while in college.

When It Is Not Well With Your Soul: What to do when you can't honestly sing the words of your favorite hymn.

Most Controversial:

You’d think this would be the one where I talked about gay marriage. Or the one about bikinis. Most of that debate took place via Facebook and private messages, so you can’t see it. But not everyone agrees with me on these two. Which is fine with me.

But, really, my most controversial post was Four Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Write Letters. I had over a dozen concerned people ask me via Facebook message and in person if I was really boycotting sending mail. Sometimes I forget that satire doesn’t always translate over the Internet.

Most Unusual Format:

Be a Heretic Monday Starter Kit. Where I basically ask a ton of perplexing faith questions and don’t answer any of them. Let me tell you, that was fun.

It's been a good two years. There might be changes in store in the future. Because, as you might have noticed, almost every single post that I really enjoyed was not about writing, the ostensible subject of this blog.

Let's just say that I might have a new blog in mind. Still in the plotting...I mean, planning stages. But I'm looking forward to what comes next.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

A Letter to the Church from the Lonely

Today is church day. It’s Sunday; that’s what you do. As I leave the apartment, there is one man slumped on the concrete steps outside the door, smoking. His eyes go from my Bible to my dress, then roll a little.

I don’t know his name and avoid looking at him. I’ve said exactly three “good mornings” and five “thank-yous” to people who live in my apartment building, and nothing more.

The church I picked from the Internet meets in a middle school, and it is my kind of church, filled with people who care about deep things. I can tell because I actually hear some guy with glasses say the word “exegetical” as I go past, the first I’ve heard it spoken out loud since leaving Taylor University. It sounds a little like home.

Inside, a guy with a banjo is playing somewhere. Lots of young people, everyone wearing jeans. In the auditorium, the chairs are a blessed shade of orange, the same tacky color of my home church’s pews before the remodeling, the color of community as I knew it growing up, the color of child-like faith. I actually smile, seeing their ugliness.

Hardly anyone is there yet, because I am perpetually early. So I sit down off to one side, right in the middle of a row so that people will hopefully have to sit next to me.

Except they don’t, because the auditorium isn’t full. There is plenty of space. So I people-watch for the next ten minutes. These are good people, I can tell. They smile like they mean it. They love their kids. They gesture as they talk about things of God, because they really care.

I hear snatches of conversation from people around me, but they’re talking over me. Maybe they are so involved in their small groups that they don’t know who’s new. I should go and find someone, but the auditorium is tiered on different levels, and for some reason, that makes it seem more deliberate, more intrusive. Besides, what would I say?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Jesus Doesn't Need Your Bucket

I was reading the gospel of John in a different translation than usual, and came to chapter four, featuring the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well. Jesus, with a great attention-grabbing opening line, says that he can offer the woman living water.

And she responds, “But sir, you don’t have a rope or a bucket, and this well is very deep.”

For some reason, this struck me as hilariously funny. The Son of God is sitting right next to her, promising her an eternal source of life and refreshment, and she thinks he’s going to be stopped because he doesn’t have a bucket.

Except I realized I say things like that. All the time. And I actually know who Jesus is, unlike this woman.

Basically, I want so badly to feel like I’m in control that I’m okay with limiting what God can do.

Not seeing the connection to the woman at the well story? Okay, let me explain. My need for control usually shows itself in two different ways: first, I try to get God the right supplies on my own.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Tips for Dealing with Distractions

When you're writing a first draft, a very important thing to do is tell the red pen inside your head to shut up. You do not need to be fixing typos at this point. That will slow you down, distract you. Did Frodo stop to sweep cobwebs out of Shelob’s lair on the way into Mordor? No. He knew his goal: get to Mount Doom.

Of course, there were also plenty of distractions that got poor Frodo distracted against his will. That’s the way life works sometimes. We can be as single-minded and determined as we like, but distractions will come up. Here are a few bits advice about how to deal with them.
  • Good life rule: people are important. Especially people close to you, like your friends and family. Remember that guy in high school who ditched all his friends because he started dating his first girlfriend? Don’t be that guy with your novel. Be realistic in what you can accomplish without becoming an anti-social jerk.
  • When people find out you’re writing a novel, they are going to ask you, “So, what’s it about?” I never have an answer for this one. Summaries, for me, come after I’m done. If you want to avoid answering this one 700 times, only tell a few people what you’re doing. That takes some of the pressure off anyway.
  • Don’t beat yourself up if circumstances come up that make you put your writing on hold for a little while. A new baby, a move, a funeral, a summer full of activities and weddings and graduations…those things happen. If you can write a little bit even in busy times, that’s great. If not, just promise yourself you’ll go back to writing later…and actually follow through.
  • It’s probably not a good idea to let someone read your novel before it’s done. The exception might be if you just want a yes or no answer to something like, “Is this interesting?” But, often, people want to give advice on how to improve. That’s a super important part of the editing process…but you’re not there yet.
  • Writer’s block: This one cannot be shoved aside in just a sentence or two, because there are so many reason that writing might grind to a sudden halt. Lucky for you, I've already written a post about it. And another one. And I'll probably write several more in the future.
  •  For many people, it helps to set aside a consistent time to write. Schedule it into your life. Maybe that’s unrealistic for you. But give it a try. And turn off your phone, for goodness sake. And social media. Checking Facebook every five minutes doesn't help with your word count.
  •  Reward little victories. Celebrate every chapter, even if you don’t know how you could possibly write another one. With each sentence you type, you are getting closer to a goal that most people abandon somewhere before page five. 
Writing is hard work, and can be frustrating, time-consuming, and exhausting.

Maybe it shouldn’t be that way. Maybe writing should be…well…fun. When you loved to do something as a kid, you didn’t have to force yourself to do it. Writing can be like that. It won’t always be. But if you can get back to the place where it feels like snapping one Lego brick on top of another, slowly creating a more complex masterpiece, then do it.

Tune out the internal voices that say you’ll never be good enough for this. Don’t worry about what other people will think. It’s not the time for that, not yet, and maybe not ever.

Just write because you love it. Try things. Take a break from your novel and write something just for the fun of it. Re-read something that turned out just the way you wanted it to. Remember that you’re telling a story, and remind yourself why you want to tell it.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Why We're So Cynical

This is funny. Why? Because it’s true, and we like the fact that someone was willing to say it so directly.

We laugh because in this artwork the cliché kindergarten advice: “You can be whatever you want to be” is shown to be a cotton-candy fluffpiece of rhetoric that melts away in the dreary rain of reality.

Guess what, kids? Cinderella’s castle is mostly just an empty façade, constructed entirely for its commercial value. And that pretty woman in the ball gown? She’s not really a princess, either.

And this is a good thing. It would be delusional to live in Fantasyland. So we laugh at cynical drawings like these.

But sometimes I think we laugh because it hurts and we don’t want to admit it. We have seen dreams die. We have told ourselves we will never be good enough for something—marriage, a career, a goal, a eulogy filled with purpose and impact. We know people with the potential to be something great who have been shoved down by circumstances of life. We are surrounded by broken things and failures and big blank pages of our future stories that we have no control over. And it scares us, but we don’t know how to be scared.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

13 More Places to Get Ideas

(See last week's post for the original thirteen idea sources.)

Museum Staff: If you find someone working at a museum or history society or any kind of group that specializes in a particular area, ask them, “What’s something here that you think most people miss?” or “Why do you care about this particular subject?” or “Who is the most interesting person/piece featured here, in your opinion? Why?” In my experience, museum people are usually passionate and love the fact that you’re asking them something other than where to find the bathroom.

Notes on Posters: Look at notices on bulletin boards and see if anyone has penciled in a witty comment, corrected grammar, or otherwise marked up the content. One of my favorite examples of this was a “Muslim Beautique” ad pinned up on the bulletin board in the prayer room of a mosque. The clip art of a woman’s face was scribbled out, with “Pictures are not allowed in the prayer room” written beside it. In another handwriting, it said, “Images not intended to be worshipped are halel [acceptable].” There’s conflict here. There’s a story.

Olympic Sports: Or any kind of competition, really. Observe how the winners react, and how the losers do as well. Is the silver medalist disappointed, and if so, what does that mean? Think about what might motivate the athletes besides the obvious lure of winning. What would those motivations look like applied to other situations?

Pop Songs: Look up the lyrics for the current Top Ten songs and pretend—I know it’s a stretch, but stay with me—that the people involved in the song are really, really deep and interesting and someone just wrote out a simple version of their story and made it into a song. What plot might be going on between the lines?

Questions: Think about what would happen if you put a jar that said “Questions for God” in a hospital emergency room. Or a jar labeled “Questions for Rude Customers” in a diner. Or a jar with “Questions for My Parents” in an inner city junior high. If people could write anonymous questions in any of these situations, what would they ask?