Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Wisdom from Hemojababala

Today, Tyler and I made a return journey to our old, ancient friend, Hemojababala. It had been months since we last chatted with the stone man of Rowntree Park who speaks wisdom as though it were water rushing quickly from a very, very long and bendy straw.

Today, Hemojababala graced my young son and I with these remarkable gems--which we held in our hearts and hands, and which were like a fire that did not burn us, but warmed us to the point just-before-burning:

  • Falling down is sometimes the best thing that can happen to you. It forces you to look up at the broad, blue (sometimes) sky above you. Alternately--if it happens to be raining--falling down enables you to remember that water is an important part of life.
  • Mud is awesome. It's not dirt. Nor it is water. It uses both but becomes something new. This, Luke and Tyler (and all of humanity) is paramount because you, too, must be like mud. Mud sticks to stuff. It is thick. If you try and tell mud, Give up, why don't you! mud will only slurp back at you, No way, dude. I'm not going anywhere.
  • Consider God's sense of humor: giraffes; kangaroos; the essential fact that all humans fart; the sound of flatulence itself--which is a daily reminder not to take oneself too seriously, even though many attempt to live in a way that denies the fact of their own flatulence.
  • I wasn't always stone. Before I was stone, I do not know what I was. This is a good thing. It reminds me that even I--the Great and Ancient Hemojababala--do not know everything. (I know more than most anybody else who visits me, but I do not know everything.) You, too, must remember that you do not know everything. And you definnitely do not know nearly as much as me.
  • Sometimes, when you feel as though everything is simply too hard: eat a lollipop. Consider the lollipop--it neither whines nor complains. Eat the lollipop, yes, but also BE the lollipop.
  • Take Andre Gide's words to heart: "In order to discover new lands, one must lose sight of the shore for a very long time." (I gave him that line, and I hold no grudges (even though he didn't properly credit me.))
  • Michelangelo once said: "I saw the angel in the marble and I carved him out until I set him free." (I also provided that line of wisdom when Old Mike visited me centuries ago; he was agitated, as I remember it, and I simply reminded him that the angel is already (and always) there: one must only carve, and carve, and carve it out until one sets it free: the creation is already accomplished, the carving remains.)
Thank you, Hemojababala, for the above gems of prodigious wisdom which you've dispelled to Tyler and I today. Whenever we drink from straws, we will remember your words, ponder them deeply, and then squelch through the mud.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Sometimes, Surviving is a Triumph

The last time I was in England--ten years ago--my oldest brother Christopher and I ran the London Marathon together. Ever since I was in eighth grade, Chris and I would run together: 3.5 miles each time out. The first time Chris brought me along on one of these 3.5 mile runs, I had never gone more than a mile.

What ensued: gasping, lunging, yelling, dizziness, curmudgeon-esque thoughts about life and everything within the entitiy of life, falling-down, thirst, and--eventually--triumph.

Arriving back home after that first 3.5 mile run, triumph didn't see me standing tall, swiftly running with a smile across my face and hope etched on my eyes.


Rather, triumph heard me yelling, "Triumph, you damn difficult, despicable, deploarable, detestable, deceiving demon you!"

(When I get mad, I resort to run-on barrages of language in alliteration. When very mad, assonance, consonance, and anthropomorphism join the party in full force. When very, very mad, I pretend that I am Denzel Washington, and I sternly look the anger-inducing-thing in the face and say with gusto and confidence, It hurts! It hurts! MAKE IT STOP!)

But after that first 3.5 mile run, Chris continued to challenge me to come along, and something inside my soul lunged at the chance.

So I kept going with him. It was my last year of middle school--and up to that point, I'd been chasing girls with various notes saying how much I loved said girls and asking friends to deliver said notes to said girls in the hopes that said girls would return a note my way with a message somewhat akin to what I had written: I want to go out with you.

I'd also been shoplifting.

A lot.

Comic books, baseball cards, anything I could get my hands on.

So when Chris began asking me to run with him, something inside me leapt like the dog that bit my inner thigh when I was in the fourth-grade (ferociously, and with not shred of forethought).

As Chris and I began to run together, my view began to widen. As a deaf man, Chris had battled more than I could imagine, and as he shared his experiences and his philosophy and his faith in God with me, I felt as though someone had just told me that all of the canned corn I had eaten in my entire life wasn't actually the real thing.


There was something called corn-on-the-cob, and on this entity, the little kernels of corn actually stuck to a very long ear (but not like an ear with a flabby, floppy bottom-part that tempts you constantly with Flap me, Dude! Come on, just flap me one time!).

Chris was welcoming me into a life where corn-on-the-cob eating was not only a reality, but it was a great joy. Something bigger, something wider, something more essentially awesome than shoplifting or chasing after girls with a note that held less poetic truth than a Coca-Cola advertisement.

(How dare you change the color of Santa.)

Right about this time--eighth grade--I also began to listen to speeches by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. on cassette tapes. I'd hear these powerful words about changing the status quo, about fighting a bigger, broader, wider fight than I had ever imagined existed.

There was something more dangerous than shoplifting.

There was something more meaningful than going out.

Homi Bhaba, the postcolonial theorist, once said that when we 'other' people, we cast them as distinct, different from us; and this makes it easier to categorize them, oppress them, treat them as less than human. When we stop othering the people we meet and hear about, we start seeing how they are us and we are them, and it radically changes the way we see not only them, but ourselves.

Jesus said it like this: Love your neighbor as you love yourself.

And because of the runs with Chris, the speeches by Malcolm and Martin, and this amazing teacher and savior named Jesus Christ, everything inside of me started to shift.

The very definition of Triumph in my life corroded like old iron (which may cause blood poisoning and, whenever piercing the skin, requires a tetanus-shot booster and I hate needles and am terrified of them though I did give blood once while my loving wife stood by and sympathized with me as I felt as though I were hiking Everest.)

I hate old, rusty iron.

And so I began to ditch my Old Triumph, whose definition went something like this: Get what you want. Look out for yourself. Maker it happen. Cross the finish line with a smile, even if it means hurting others or bending love.

But New Triumph started speaking into my ear, saying stuff like, Dude, Love doesn't bend. It's like new iron that will never, ever, ever get rusty. NT, once we were on nicknameable terms, also started to show me that when you're living for what really matters (when you're seeing how you ARE the other, and the other IS you, when you're trying to love your neighbor as yourself, when you keep running even though everything hurts and all you want to do is quit--or take a short-cut on love--) life has a way of getting both easier and harder.

Easier, because you feel this sense of humility, and you start to look at everyone else with this in your mind: You can teach me a lot. You start to see people this way--even kids. Even little kids. Even babies. And old people. And middle-aged people. You look at people and you want to hear their stories, because you know--as John Donne claimed--that the bell is tolling for them and for you. You look at people and you want to hear their stories because you believe it's crucial you do, and you want to honor people for the lives they are living, the battles they're fighting.

(I love what C.S. Lewis once quipped about humility: when you meet a truly humble person, chances are you won't walk away from them thinking, Dude, that guy was like SO totally humble! No, chances are you'll walk away thinking, That guy was really, really interested in my life. [my paraphrase of Lewis, of course; Lewis said pretty much the same thing, though with more beautiful language.])

Life is easier, too, because the expectations change. It's no longer about accomplishment; instead, it's about interaction, relationships, intersections.

But life gets harder, I think, when we trade in Old Triumph for New Triumph. Because NT doesn't promise a lot. NT doesn't promise that you're going to be rich. Doesn't promise loads of success. Doesn't promise an absence of suffering, pain, frustration, and definitely doesn't promise getting what you want all the time.

What New Triumph does promise, I think, is one thing: that you're going to be able to keep going. That you're going to have a deep energy that gets refilled like a bottomless cup of coffee at a great local diner. Just when you think you're finished, spent, despairing, here come the waitress or waiter, steaming pot of coffee in her / his hand, smile on her / his face, asking, Refill?

To which we respond by throwing ourselves on the floor with gratitude and exhaustion.

I love what Psalm 38 of the Old Testament says. Verse ten is pretty much where we end up--all of us--at some point, or at a lot of points: "My heart is pounding within me, my strength is gone, the brightness has left my eyes."

But then, five verses later, the psalmist makes this wildly bold and basically ridiculous claim: "But I will trust in the LORD, and I know that the Lord my God will answer me."

Pretty insane to claim that even though all circumstance and every outward fact points towards collapse, despair, and loss, the writer says, Hey, I'm still trusting. I'm still holding onto my faith. Because I believe that God is going to answer.


I think it's because this writer can see the waitress / waiter rounding the corner, coming out from behind the counter, pot of coffee hoisted high.



The ability to run a few more paces, write a few more words, work another day, kiss your wife's or son's forehead and say, Everything is going to work out fine.

But this kind of thinking and living is New Triumph thinking. It's not going in for the big kill, and it's not playing the lottery, praying on luck. Instead, it's banking on love.

When Chris and I lined up with twenty-odd-thousand other people to run the London Marathon ten years ago, we were smiling. We were happy. We were carefree and sure of ourselves and excited.

By mile 15, I was begging Christ to quit. Stop. We'd done enough.

By mile 17, Chris was begging me to quit. Stop. We'd done enough.

By mile 23, a guy running while carrying a full-size canoe on his shoulder passed us, saying, "Keep going, guys," at which point we felt immeasurably tiny and also partially-in-the-mood-of-yelling-at-the-guy: Hey, try carrying TWO canoes, why don't you pal!?

By mile 25, we were crying, wondering if we'd still be conscious and if not, would somebody please carry us across the finish line because, hey, come on, we'd already run 25 miles.

By mile 26.2, we held hands, ran like two 95-year-old grandmothers across the finish line, and then collapsed on the nearest patch of grass we could find.

It took us about five hours.

We didn't set any records; we couldn't claim any kind of glory--except the glory of averted-spewing--and we couldn't stand.

But it was triumph. It was that New Triumph, where we realized, in some small way, that it's not about the times in which we finish our respective races, nor is it about comparisons to others and how fast or slow they're running. (My brother-in-law, Paul Gant, once shared this beautiful pearl of wisdom with me, that he had read somewhere: Comparison if the thief of joy. Holy-crap-life-changing-idea.)

At the London Marathon, New Triumph was about one thing: not giving up. Not stopping. Not saying, Forget it!

And that kind of victory sometimes gets a C or even a C- or even a D (or, even though it pains me to write this as a teacher, yes: even a D-).

It sometimes finishes a marathon in five hours. Or six hours. Or two days.

It sometimes dances around in a circle in the living room while "Come on, Eileen" blares and the people dancing wonder how the money will come in to make rent or buy a new pair of shoes or another jar of instant coffee.

But New Triumph says, essentially: keep going.  It says: sometimes, surviving is a triumph.

Friday, February 17, 2012

On Breaking Rules

By the time we get to middle school, we're already indoctrinated into a whole host of "rules" that serve mainly to keep the status quo alive.

Boys are supposed to act, think, dress, and talk one way. Girls another.

The life you should seek is one which includes fistfuls of cash.

Don't take risks.

Don't question authority.

Look cool.

Fit in.

Wear the right clothes--even if they cost five times as much as the not-right clothes and you don't even like the way they feel.

And there are thousands more, over and over again pressured into our heads and hearts. But the trend can be stopped.

Reversed even--and it begins when we speak openly about the ways we've broken those rules in order to follow something deeper, more potent, more honest than a mob.

So I'm especially excited to share the news that a book entitled Break These Rules is going to be released by Chicago Review Press in Fall 2013. I'm immeasurebaly grateful to Joan Paquette, my agent at the Erin Murphy Literary Agency, for making the deal with editor Lisa Reardon at CRP.

All of the royalties from the projject will go to the Children's Defense Fund.

I'm also deeply grateful to the contributing authors whose essays and sage counsel on rule-breaking will appear in the volume: Kathy Erskine, Sara Zarr, Josh Berk, Carl Deuker, Francisco X. Stork, Matthew Quick, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, Leslie Connor, Wendy Mass, Carol Lynch Williams, Gary D. Schmidt, A.S. King, Neesha Meminger, Lisa Schroeder, Mike Jung, Anna Staniszewski, Jen Nielsen, Lyn Miller-Lachmann, Jennifer Ziegler, Brian Yansky, Chris Barton, Tara Lazar, Natalie Dias Lorenzi, Jennifer Reynolds, Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Mitali Perkins, Margo Rabb, Lisa Burstein, Rob Buyea, Chris Lynch, Pat Schmatz, Sayantani DasGupta, Tamara Ellis Smith, and Thanhha Lai.

Here's the official announcement.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Perks of Living in a Brick House

Besides being a time-tested detriment to the Big Bad Wolf, living in a brick house has other fringe benefits.

Take, for instance, the fact that bricks are red. And red feels, somehow, deep. That reddish hue that escapes narrow definition as a Valentine's Day heart or a tomato. Instead, it's that deep kind of red that makes you think, Dude, if this deep kind of red was a live human being, it would quite possibly be one of those human whom you know is constantly considering profound information and uncanny wisdom as it applies to essential life questions.

Take, as well, the fact that brick is a word with which much can rhyme. Therefore, as people who live in a brick home, we can feel quite free to rhyme our home with lots of other words as we craft spontaneous couplets and sing them loud and far and wide with our windows open, such as: This home is made of brick; / Our flu is gone, no longer sick! / We dance in delight while holding sticks, / Because--yes!--we live in a house made of bricks!

And even though the two aforementioned benefits of living in a brick house are formidable and even hard to swallow on the first read-through (or at least fully digest), here is, perhaps, the greatest perk of them all--one for which pictures will have to suffice, since, as the old adage goes: a picture is worth a lot of words, maybe even one-hundred words, or even one hundred words plus an awful lot more words.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

An Interview with Author Anna Staniszewski

I'm super-pumped (and in garlic-bread eating mood) to share this interview with author Anna Staniszewski. Born in Poland and raised in the United States, Anna Staniszewski grew up loving stories in both Polish and English. She was named the 2006-2007 Writer-in-Residence at the Boston Public Library and a winner of the 2009 PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award. Currently, Anna lives outside of Boston with her husband and their adopted black Labrador, Emma. When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time teaching, reading, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch. Her first novel, My Very UnFairy Tale Life, was released by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky on November 1, 2011. The sequel, My Way Too Fairy Tale Life, is scheduled for Spring 2013. You can visit her at

What first inspired you to craft My Very Unfairytale Life?

A few years ago, I was working on a dark, depressing story that was sucking the life out of me. I desperately needed something to cheer me up. So I sat down and wrote a scene about a girl named Jenny who comes home from school one day to find a talking frog sitting on her bed. Instead of being scared or excited to see a magical frog, Jenny was annoyed. In fact, she took that frog and threw it right out the window! I knew I had to tell her story.
Can you share a couple of the walls you hit during your writing process, and also a couple of the real full-speed-ahead parts of your writing process for this book?
I'm a total pantser so the story was all over the place in early versions. When I signed with my agent, she helped me to streamline the story, which involved cutting out two major characters and significantly simplifying the plot. She also suggested that I play around with the voice since it wasn't quite working. For years the story had been in third person, but when I decided to try rewriting it in first person, things really came together. I could practically hear Jenny saying: "Finally, you're letting me tell my own story!" Once the manuscript was in her voice, things really started to flow.

Jenny, your protagonist, has a lot of spunk and boldness. Do you find that her personality arose from your own life, from friends, or from other true-to-life examples?

Jenny is the person I wish I could be. She's fearless and outspoken, and she always manages to figure things out. Since I tend to be shy and wimpy, "becoming Jenny" for a little while gave me a chance to break out of my shell.
Can you share your own favorite line from the book?

My favorite line would have to be the opening: "You know all those stories that claim fairies cry sparkle tears and elves travel by rainbow? Lies. All Lies." This opening was the first thing I wrote when I changed the story to first person. Since Jenny was finally ale to tell her own story, this line feels the most like her.

What is one of your favorite books as a five year-old? Another as a ten year-old? Another of your current favorites?
When I was five, I was obsessed with a book of Polish Gypsy fairy tales that I made my parents read to me over and over. I was convinced that one day I'd grow up to be a Gypsy princess.
As a ten-year-old, I particularly loved fantasy and science fiction. One of my favorites was Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

My current favorites? Oh boy, there are so many! I'm still a huge sci-fi fan, but my love of fairy tales and fantasy is still going strong. I love anything that transports me to another time/place and makes me think.
How has the publication of your first novel changed your writing process--if at all?

Before I was published, my writing process was much less structured. I would write even when I had no idea where a story was going; this would often result in stories that stalled after fifty pages and never saw the light of day again. Now I approach projects a little more carefully. I'm still a pantser so I don't completely know where a story is going, but I try to keep the character's emotional journey in mind as I write. I also try to work out the character's main conflicts when I first start writing so I don't get stuck and give up after fifty pages. I'd like to think I make smarter choices as a writer while still giving myself plenty of room to play.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Sunflower Sword

Inspired by Mark Sperring's and Miriam Latimer's remarkable book, The Sunflower Sword, Jennifer and Tyler made good on Robert Frost's definition of poetry: "words that become deeds." See Jen's post about the book, on how she and Tyler brought it to life, and the awesome pictures here.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Creating from a Place of Compassion and Love

I first met my good friend Wade Austin when Jennifer and I moved to Flagstaff, Arizona from 2006-2008. One of those rare people who exudes both authenticity and joy, Wade has since been a remarkable friend, brother, encourager, challenger, and someone whom I deeply admire. In addition to many other talents and abilities, Wade is a gifted pianist and composer. Recently, I asked Wade if he could respond to some questions about his process of creation and creativity, as well as share some of his originally composed music (three YouTube videos follow the interview).

What inspires you most to create music?

Wow, great question: I would say several things inspire me. 1) Is hearing good music. When I hear good music, I ask myself and analyze what about that song do I like. For example it could be a good chord progression or an impressive melody, or excellent use of tension and release. Than I try to use it in my own music. 2) I also feel inspired when someone needs something. For example, if one of my friends needs a song for their wedding, or if they need a song to help them through a hard time. I feel very inspired to write.

When did you first fall in love with writing music?

I believe that in high school I first fell in love with writing music. While most people stand on the earth and watch the sun rise, I believe artists stand on the moon and watch the earth rise. It is a double edge sword, because artists get a unique perspective of the world, but they also tend to feel alone and misunderstood. Music allowed me to express hidden feelings and also share my perspective. In grief there is so much beauty. I believe that there is such a thin line between pure beauty and grief, and music walks that line perfectly. This is the aspect of music that I fell most in love with.

Can you share a story about a song you've written and the personal experiences out of which it arose?

There is a song I wrote for a wedding. The bride to be lost her brother and I felt like she really wished that her brother could be there. So, in this song I told a story about a woman/the bride who has a deep pain and she is embarrassed to bring this pain into the marriage. Later the fiance says I have pain of my own and I understand how you feel but with my strength I will carry your burden. In the future, the husband has his own burden, but the wife is free of her pain, but she never forgets. I can't play that song without tears coming to my eyes. It also reminds me of how God loves us. Despite whatever we bring to the relationship he loves us anyway. He also helps us get through our deepest grief.

What are your greatest joys and deepest lows when you work on music?

My greatest joy about music is seeing someone heal because of the music I was inspired to write. My greatest joy is when someone says, "I know exactly what that song meant," or "that song helped me through this hard time." My deepest low is when I struggle with feelings of inadequacy. I feel like the music I write is stupid, or people think that I am an amateur writer. It's difficult to compose when those feelings are haunting your mind.

What advice would you share with others who aspire to write music and share their work with audiences?

I would say never quit. Make sure that you always write for yourself. It is tempting to write something that will be popular or that people will like. I guess that is necessary sometimes, but always write something that you enjoy and blesses you.

Can you tell us about the song(s) to which the link or links go?

I put three songs on the web, and they are all songs that I wrote for my wife. They are all about different times of her life.

One of the songs is called "Orphaned Child." This song has special meaning because this is one of the songs to which we first fell in love. She asked me to write music to lyrics she wrote. After I shared the song with her, it blessed her tremendously. It was a crazy spiritual connection. We later walked down the aisle to that song.

The second song is called "Southern Belle." This song captures her experience as a missionary in Louisiana.

The third song is called "Celeste Movement I." This song captures a time in her life when she lost a good friend of hers in a car accident.

"Orphaned Child"

"Southern Belle"

"Celeste Movement I"

Thank You, Whitney

Growing up, my older brother Mike and I shared a room. I slept on the bottom bunk, he on the top. Four years older than me, Mike was always boldly himself. He never bowed to culture, never did something just because peers did it, or because it was supposedly "cool." Instead, Mike did volunteer work with Best Buddies--a program that paired a special education student with a student not in special education; Mike hugged everybody (read: everybody); Mike laughed like the wind; Mike always had time for children.

And Mike loved the music of Whitney Houston.

In our bedroom, Mike and I managed to cover the ceiling and walls with massive posters of three people: Whitney Houston, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. They were the ones we feel asleep looking at, the ones to whom we woke in the morning. They were constant reminders to us of boldness, courage, conviction, and the need to use your voice.

On timeless occasions, I would come inside from basketball practice to hear Whitney roaring from our stereo, "I will always love you" and even over and above Whitney's voice--though the stereo's volume was up to its highest decibel--there was Mike's voice: bold, believing, joyous.

Whitney came to represent something for my brother Mike--and she still does. She came to represent, in Mike's own words, "the importance of being real. Whitney showed us that your life doesn't have to be perfect. You sing with all your heart, and you love with all your heart--and your mistakes can never overpower the gifts you offer others in generosity and love."

And, through Mike, Whitney came to represent the same thing for me.

So it was a shock today when Jennifer came downstairs and told me the news of Whitney's passing. I felt this weird sort of stillness, and I was transported back to eighth grade. Mike and I, laying on our bunk beds, talking about life, and Whitney staring down at us from her perch on our ceiling, flanked by Martin and Malcolm.

As Mike and I talked on the phone today, Mike reminded me that her legacy lives on. "Remember to just sing a few lines of I Will Always Love You to everyone you see today, okay?"

And knowing my brother Mike--the effusive, love-giving, life-sharing person he is--he meant it. And the visions of Mike belting out Whitney's songs on family vacations, on crosswalks in public, and to friends and family are vivid, enduring.

So, from across the pond, I owe Whitney a big thank you. Thanks for meaning so much to my brother Michael and, by extension, to me.

Mike and I on his visit to York, England in 2011

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Heart of the Story

Today, I wrote a pivotal scene in a novel in progress. It's a novel that has seen two full re-writes already, and is now in its third round of reworking. It's the kind of scene that changes everything--redefines who's "bad" and "good" in the novel--makes the stakes higher, more tragic, more painful.


Why write a scene in which a central character has to endure something terrible? Something awful?

See, when I wrote the first draft of this novel, I avoided that kind of thing. It's a book about a ninth grade kid who wants to make his basketball team. (Kind of like...well...when yours truly was a ninth grade kid wanting to make a certain basketball team.) I wrote the original novel straight through in bursts and gusts like some kind of windstorm hepped up on the sound of catching, cascading leaves.

I wrote like fire on that first draft, all the while keeping my eyes on the finish line.

But in writing the novel like this the first time through, I only brushed the surface. I only threw a few minor obstacles in the path of my character (ahem, myself).

Okay: a minor bullying issue.

Okay: character locks up in basketball games, fumbles ball a a lot. Misses easy jumpers. Misses passes.

Okay: character has a crush on popular girl. Said girl does not, in any capacity, experience similar sense of crush-ness.

Resolution? Character's brother, teacher, father help character overcome these (minor) obstacles. Character makes team. Scores points.


It was, essentially, 135 pages of if only.

The second draft saw more obstacles come to the character--more nuances personalities of others involved, more suffering, more confusion. But still, too easy. Too fast.

It was, essentially, 155 pages of maybe life could be like this, but it's not really that interesting or inspiring.

So then I did what any hard-working, determined, courageous novelist would do: I started a brand new novel.  I didn't look at the other novel or work on it for another six months. I left that character (ahem, myself) stranded in a world without too many obstacles, without resolution or redemption for why he even wanted to make that team so badly, how his family was going to work things out, and a host of other confusing, plain-old-hard-to-forge-ahead dilemmas.

And the new novel was great fun! Such joy! Ah: the beginnings of things! Anything is possible, everything is possible.

But the other novel, when I was trying to escape it, kept doing small annoying things.

Like: when I'd be pumped about a great scene for the new novel, the old novel would whisper stuff like: Dude. Dude! You never even gave me a chance, did you? You wrote me up to a point, but just when you sensed that wall coming, you took cover and ducked out.

Like: when I'd think about other novel ideas to get brainstorming on, old novel would shake his head and say, And I was counting on you. Really. I was thinking we were forming a relationship built on trust. Commitment. Sticktoitiveness. At least I know how you REALLY feel.

New novel was fun. Brainstorming Novel was fun, too. There were (and are) some really neat ideas in both. But Old Novel saw right through me.

Then, something happened which made Old Novel's voice as loud as a Lion drinking five Red Bulls talking into a microphone attached to a state of the art sound system.

Francisco X. Stork came along and wrote a blog post which was beautiful, profound, moving, mesmerizing, and about one-hundred other adjectives. And one line in that one-hundred-plus adjective blog post took a walk off the screen of my computer, crawled across my keyboard, under my shirt, rock climbing up the many belly and chest hairs of my body, right up over my chine, lips, semi-large nose and directly in front of my eyes.

The novel you need to write is the one that scares you the most, the one you think no one will publish and if it is published no one will read and if it is read no one will understand, except perhaps another soul like yours.

The sentence joined forces with Old Novel and the two of them came at me like Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, like Milk and Cookies, like Dragons and Fire, like Laverne and Shirley, like garlic bread and more garlic bread.

I could no longer resist.

So I gave New Novel a few loving, tender words, and promised I'd return soon, and I opened up Old Novel and dug back in.

This time, however, I wrote intothe fear. I wrote into the places I didn't want my character (ahem, myself) to go. I wrote into the darkness and the confusion and into the pivotal scene I mentioned at the start of this post.

I cried.

A lot.

My heart was pounding, and I experienced a minor allergy attack, and the three people to my right in the computer lab kept looking over at me like, Why is that guy crying and sneezing and DOES HE HAVE TO TYPE SO LOUD?


Because in this last month of Old Novel's third re-drafting, I am finally writing into the heart of the story. And it's scary and painful and wonderful and incredibly gooey in there. Nothing makes a whole lot of sense (yet). And nothing is easy. And no redemption is going to be possible without a lot of learning, one hefty character arc, and loads of transformation, from outside and from within.

Kind of, ahem, like my life.

When we write into the heart of the story, we're no longer writing with a publishing deal in mind, or with a certain audience in mind, or even with a goal in mind. When we really find ourselves getting into the center of the story, we're writing what has to be written--the words announce themselves and we're choosing to allow them the space to be who they are, show us what needs to happen even though it's scary and painful and all we want to do is say Surely there's got to be another way?

But there isn't.

(In writing, or in life.)

Without the pain, the redemption isn't real. Without the obstacles, the triumph isn't beautiful. Without the confusion and despair, the clarity and the hope aren't authentic.

And we we were somehow able to all get together under the guise of having a Jimmy Stewart movie marathon or a garlic bread-eating contest or something typical like that, but instead, we arrived at the wide open space with no television and no oven, and instead we all started talking about the kind of lives we want to live and the kind of stories we want to write, I'd venture to say that we'd come to a pretty quick consensus.

We want to write and live the ones that aren't easy. Even though the surface of ourselves and our culture certainly claims otherwise, we know deep down that we don't want ease. We don't want clarity without confusion. We don't want triumph without despair. We don't want love without first moving through and past fear.

And the only stories worth telling and the only lives worth living are those whose words and arms open up wide enough to embrace the suffering and the joy--knowing that both are necessary to both forge and move our hearts.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Writing & Voice

Here's a three-minute video with some thoughts on writing with your authentic voice: