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Wednesday, February 28, 2018

How Many for a Listening Tour?

On Monday, I had my creative writing students go on what I like to call a listening tour. Politicians typically do this when they are thinking about running for office; they go out into public and claim to listen to what the voters want from today's office holders. It's hard for me to imagine any politician of any party actually doing this--listening, actually holding their tongue and just letting others tell them things. I suspect that they are listening to see how much of their own message they can get to line up with what they are hearing.

I tell my students that this is something each one of them can do any time they'd like. They can decide to stop talking and start listening to what is going on around them. Part of this attempt is not just that we stop talking. Part of it is that we also quiet our minds enough so that we can hear how we are inwardly responding to everything around us. Even an hour spent like this--what most monks or mystics do most every day--can be incredibly freeing. We can really learn a great deal--about ourselves and others--just by listening.

I instructed my students to go out to the campus squares where people meet and listen for an hour and write down everything they heard. "Listen to the way people say things," I said. "Notice that we are not always direct in what we say." The hour spent in this activity is designed to get them more attuned to the way that people talk so that they can write more believable dialogue. Maybe they will continue to do this more in the future--that is, maybe they will get practiced at listening.

I have been having the same wish as I have been tuning in to social media sites lately. It seems that everyday I see various friends on Facebook and elsewhere basically talking past each other. Rather than listen to another's point of view, one friend will hear certain terms, phrases, or ideas that will serve as triggers, and then they are off on a whole series of tangents meant to be refutations for arguments they imagine they have heard else where.

This is not healthy discourse. It isn't enjoyable. It is not dialogue, which is often productive. It is noise. I refuse to engage in it. I have refused to post what I think about various issues in the news lately, even though I am strongly committed in my opinions and think I am thoughtful about them. But I don't want to be a trigger for someone else's tirade.

Instead, this week, I posted the same invitation to my Facebook and Twitter friends that I gave to my creative writing students. I posted an invitation to all to go on a "listening tour" for the day.

I am sincere about this. It's worth trying. People need me to listen these days more than they need me to talk. I am not against giving them this, and I don't care if they don't stick around to listen to me. That is not that point.

Listening is one of four literacy skills, often paired with speaking. There is reading and writing, listening and speaking. Too many people today are writing and speaking. Who is willing to read and listen? What might change if we switch our emphasis and work on the receptive side of things?

I don't think I will join the other party. But I may not see those who belong to it as the idiots, clowns, and generally bad people they are seen to be in the public discourse.

Maybe this will make our "public square," whether on Facebook or in a town hall somewhere, more worthwhile and productive.

It's worth a listen, at least. 

Sunday, January 28, 2018

A Journal: Grief at about Four Months

Enduring grief, like happiness, is not a permanent, wall-to-wall, all encompassing state of being that consumes every minute of every day. It comes and goes a bit more than it did a month ago. For a friend of mine who lost her sister a year ago, it is still present and seems especially to come up at occasions like birthdays.

It is always there, for the most part, for someone like me, four months in; I pretty much know that it is going present in some form every day.

For the most part, it comes like clouds in the Midwest. This isn't to wax poetic about it. The weather I grew up with in Michigan really is an appropriate image for it. People used to say, "If you don't like the weather in Michigan, wait five minutes." And it was true that rain in the morning could be followed by generally sunny skies in the afternoon. Like those skies I knew in the Midwest, the moments of sunshine that break through can feel like sudden moments of relief. And they often seem unacceptable and unearned. I feel guilty for not thinking about the loss I've experienced. The point is to let them come and let them pass.

When I look for metaphors--again, not to be poetic, but to be accurate--one does come to mind right now. Four months after the loss that has happened to my family, the grief feels as though buckets of gray paint have been splashed over everything in our lives, even over things that we enjoy doing. The grayness is always there and kind of has ruined everything around me. When I go to certain restaurants, I am reminded somehow of what my son thought of them--what he ordered or what he didn't like about them. When we drive to a movie, I remember the streets on which he rode or walked to Goodwill stores. Even when I try to read, it sometimes comes to me that I spent too much time reading and not enough playing basketball with him. There is always something there in the background to think about.

But also, none of this is the stabbing grief or the kind of earth-shattering realization that came earlier. Now I just seem to be living with it. I think this is called regret.

Part of the point in all of this is that while I'm generally doused or muted, I'm not always thinking about the grayness all around me. Sometimes I'm thinking about my book, about my teaching, about my family, or about something in the news. I get into the moment and it has nothing to do, temporarily, with the loss. Sometimes I'm thinking about nothing at all. I was feeling guilt over this, but now, not so much. My friends and colleagues around me, of course, have been very helpful throughout all of this, but also there's another dimension that resolves around questions we commonly ask, or at least I used to: How do I help someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one? Do I bring it up? Do I tell them I am thinking about them? Or do I leave them alone?

These questions are tough. Most people seem to do one thing or the other. Either they bring it up and try to give hugs, or they ignore me. I should add that I can only answer them for myself. I hope this helps and yet also doesn't lead to overgeneralizing.

First, I appreciate people who don't ignore me. They acknowledge me, but they also let me feel "just okay" if that is where I am--where the Michigan clouds have broken apart temporarily. I appreciate also friends who don't assume anything and are quietly willing to talk if I am. It's not that complicated, really. It's a matter of understanding what we all go through. I suppose that grief comes like this for many people.

Thank you for reading. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A Reflection on Genre as a Tool for Writers

Depending on who is talking in an English department, the concept of genre can take on a variety of meanings. To the literary scholars present, it represents a historical and sometimes fixed concept that only the greatest writers can bend. 

To the creative writers in the department, genre means specific markets for writing. There are poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers, with many subgenres to play with. And there is plenty of playfulness to be found in all categories, even mixing and bending. 

Talk to the composition person in the department, and the idea moves yet again. Genre becomes a tool of invention because writers are often thinking about their genre as they write. And genre is fixed and raises certain expectations for what will be said and done, including guiding ideas about style. But as with the creative writers, genre will also be a certain way for the writer to bend, mix, and change.

Here's the thing. All three spokespersons are accurate. But all reflect different ideas about genre, which in the commercial marketplace can be seen as consisting of romance, science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery, detection, and action adventure. Each has its subcategories--for example, there can be historical romance, high fantasy, or cozy mystery. For this piece, I would like to say just a few things more from the perspective of the writer, particularly the religious writer, simply because genre always does raise expectations and what seem to be boundaries. 

Genre Sells

First, of course, for writers, there is the market place. Genre helps editors and booksellers sell their books. Genre helps to categorize books, set up different sections of bookstores and libraries, and promote new works on websites. Editors also know that readers base their buying behavior on their love or dislike for certain genres. Lovers of mystery go back again and again to find the same writers and pleasures, and buy new writers on the basis of recommendations from established writers. People also avoid works on the basis of genre--I have friends who will never read science fiction, for example, while I personally find horror to be manipulative and usually will not even attend a film in that genre. Get Out has been the one exception, partly because I don't think that film is pure horror. It certainly is not supernatural horror. 

Thinking as a composition person, I think that for writers, genre is double-edged. It can be an organizing, even creative principle. Or it can be limiting. Talking to editors for the first time for me was a rude awakening. I was presenting my book, Apocalpyse TV, for their consideration, and their first question had to do with what genre it was. And while both the editor and I were thinking about potential readers, my ideas didn't excite them. I was thinking "literary," by which I meant "playful, even satirical." But the editors all heard, dull, obscure, and few readers or sales. What they wanted was a quick category they could use, not challenges to be overcome. My conversations with them didn't last very long. 

Genres Bend

 No genre is ever really static. Even the old epic poem has had its innovators. When John Milton came to write Paradise Lost, his epic poem, in the 17th century, he did more to bend the genre, partly because he wanted to write a Christian epic, if that were possible, rather than something broodingly pagan. The old heroes, whether the adolescent, offended Achilles, or the wily Odysseus, weren't going to fit his view. Some have said the same for Shakespeare's Hamlet. How, after all, does a playwright in Elizabethan England write a "Christian" revenge tragedy (The original genre for the Hamlet material was cast as a Spanish Revenge Tragedy)? 

Both poets drew on the fixed elements of genre. Milton began by inviting the muses. And he engaged in the idea of the hero of the epic. And yet both also played with those elements. Though many romantic poets saw Satan as Milton's hero, other more recent critics have argued that Milton used Satan to subvert the old hero of the epic. In his poem, the hero of a Christian epic may be many people, or it remains unclear. 

Genre as a Tool of Invention

Genre is like that for writers. When I began writing my novel, I was thinking of my favorite writers, most of whom would be classified as literary. I wasn't thinking of writing in one genre. As a Christian writer, I was especially driven by a desire to challenge Evangelical thinking and identity. I wanted to think about how people of faith grope toward some firmer, more authentic faith than the one they started with. 

I wanted to write a religious, even a Christian novel, but I didn't mean by it the kind that is found today in the marketplace, with there being one point of view espoused, one where feeling subverts thinking, and one person or group is saved at the end and joins a church. I was thinking about faith as a questioning faith. That was my idea of my genre. 

At the root of the word "question" is the word "quest." The question for many--this also ties into questions about genre--is where we can truly have both faith and an ongoing quest together. Most of the time, I don't think we think this way. In the same way that marriage is seen as the culmination of a romance story--at least that's how I read all of the Jane Austen novels, where marriage is the happy ending--faith in God, when found, is seen as the culmination of the quest and the ending of the Christian novel. We wish to support the happy ending, the idea that apocalypse, or revelation, comes at the end of every movie or story. They world changes forever into a fixed happiness we find in serving God. 

What I have found, however, is that while I am happy believing in God, the world has rarely changed, even temporarily, for the better. Instead, the world merely absorbs new trends in a jaded way. And many classic Christian writers have noticed this. To them, faith might be seen as a new beginning to new adventures, to new questions and concerns. But no one is dead yet. 

This is how I saw my novel. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end to it. But there are also new quests to be made--perhaps none as important as finding faith. But they are tied to the idea of finding and moving on. 

In this, I am working on a new genre of the novel. My hope is that new ways of thinking call out new genres from old ones. 

I am calling my new genre the "pre-apocalyptic novel." And I am only half in jest. 

I would value your response to this. 

Thank you for reading. 

Monday, December 18, 2017

Not Just Another Blog about the Christmas Blues

Last week, as I held the last final exam periods for my fall semester, I realized I was dreading even thinking about the holiday season. It occurred to me at some point that many people I know are themselves experiencing similar feelings. Over the last fifteen weeks, I have learned that many of my students were experiencing anxiety or depression over the loss of someone. Perhaps I noticed this only because of what I had to go through myself. For whatever reason, I decided as my creative writing class met for our final workshop reading to share a poem I wrote years ago after my sister's death. Here is the poem:

Some Lines Written Down Nine Months after the Funeral

What I say to myself
here in the basement among your
things that remain, no one
wants it.
I can't give it away.

Keep it.
Keep daily the silence
and give away the other things--
if you can.

I am not anywhere near the place described in the poem. I am not ready to begin turning from deep feelings of loss to making a life out of giving to others. But my students seemed to appreciate talking about this. It seemed strange that I had experienced loss and yet had not talked about it. So after I read the poem, we talked briefly about how grief was something that we writers may have to face more than others, and our challenge was that we could learn how to channel it into our writing for the benefit of others. 

I should note that I have long resisted the suffering artist stereotype that has so taken over our imaginations as we think about people who are creative. Even so, friends reflecting on my son Michael and what they heard his friends talk about at his memorial service said that they saw him as a suffering artist, and perhaps there was something to this. I am only now beginning to really understand how much he was suffering at the end, and I am only now understanding because he wasn't willing to let anyone else know what he was really feeling. He was creative and unique. I do think that his suffering also kept him from finishing things. 

It is this last reflection behind why I've rejected the idea that creative people suffer more than others. I've held to an older, pre-Romantic era idea of art captured by Aristotle in the word techne, which includes the important idea of craft in it and suggests long, disciplined study, not merely intuitive knackery.

I still think this. I still hold to the view that the artist is the one who engages in enough craft and discipline to create something worthwhile. This is what keeps me going as a writer, keeps me returning to the page, returning, sometimes, to healing. And that is what I tried to urge on my students last week. 

I hope that I can listen to my own teaching on this as we enter the Holiday season.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Tips for What to do When Entering the House of Mourning

There is a saying from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes: "Fools dwell in the house of mirth, but the wise in the house of mourning."

Granted, the book this statement is from has not always been popular among Christians, who mostly account for its "wisdom" (it is counted among the books of Old Testament wisdom literature) as being in some way pre-Christian. That is, this was the way men of God thought before the full revelation of God in Christ. Many pastors and teachers I have known have also tended to do a little ad hominem number on the presumed author of this book, saying that it was written by King Solomon after years of engaging in pleasure and forgetting God.

Yet I'm not always sure that these statements take in the whole picture. There is wisdom, however sad it is, to be gained from dwelling among the mourning, but the truth is that we Christians (I include myself here) are not usually very good at mourning. Most of our talk is chipper. We have scriptures to help us get through virtually everything we face, and we don't like downers or those life events we face that don't quite fit a scriptural principle. We are aligned, in our Easter Sunday triumphalism, as one friend of mine has put it, and when we encounter someone facing loss, even though we believe in the resurrection, we don't always "know what to say." We do not spend much time in the house of mourning. We don't even really like to stop by it or even go past it.

When we do enter, we are very honest to say, "I don't know what to say." This is better than someone who enters having a scripture ready to cover the situation. The reason is because most of those scriptures usually leave the person in mourning feeling as though they have failed to have faith.

Regardless of our comfort level, the message of Ecclesiastes is clear. The wise dwell in the house of mourning. Job's friends, made famous for their dubious advice, did start out rather wise with their "no word" policy. They spent a long time simply mourning with him, and as we pause on the rightness of this response on their part, I would add that there seems to be a rather strong tradition within Judaism that gives Jews the form to know how to mourn. Passages in the New Testament show mourners at work. There is the story in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus sends the flute players and mourners out, telling them that the dead person is only sleeping. They laugh at him.

Job's friends only seem to go wrong when they stop simply sitting with Job in his misery and begin arguing with him, telling him why horrible evil has befallen him. Some of their reasoning might even fit. In Job's case, they are wrong. The evil has come because of a heavenly wager about how much the good man can take.

At my son's memorial service four weeks ago, I found myself wondering about that. Why did we lose him? Was it a heavenly wager? Did I sin or my wife sin? Did we lack faith? During the service, a family member sang a Jewish song of mourning. And it really fit with where I was sitting. It reached me deeply where I found myself--missing my son and wanting him back--wanting the impossible--wanting something that goes beyond our frail mortality.

Over the past seven weeks, my wife and I have found so many in our church coming to us to comfort and provide wonderful meals for us. I am not pointing a finger at anyone I know when I write these words. I do know that I have occasionally made people uncomfortable because of my sadness. People don't want to say the wrong thing. They don't want to make matters worse. And really, what they'd like is to make things better. "If there's anything I can do," they say, "please call me." I know that they mean this.

But going through this, and coming to dwell as a mourner, I've thought about that passage from Matthew, where Jesus chases out the mourners and raises the dead. It hit me that as a Christian I have sometimes wanted to do that to people who were mourning the loss of a loved one. I've wanted to walk in and kick the mourners out. The big difference here, of course, is that I was never able to do what Jesus did. I couldn't give those in mourning their loved one back.

None of us can do that.

So in my own grief, I've stumbled upon a text I would use for a sermon on this problem people like me suffer from when it comes time to dwell in the house of mourning. The truth is, this is where we encounter people in the midst of deep loss, who want their loved one back. And this is a reason to mourn, to be sad, to recognize our mortality. As much as we want Jesus to show up and restore what was lost, that is not how he works. He's not showing up.

We must continue to mourn.

I don't know if I've made much sense in this. I don't mean for it to sound as though I lack all faith. Of course Jesus does show up. He just doesn't show up in the way we want him to. Instead, we are asked to, as Paul puts it, "mourn with those who mourn."

This doesn't mean we or anyone else lacks the proper faith. Please don't make that mistake about those who mourn. What it really seems to mean is that we recognize the deep sense of mortality that we all share in and all must face. 

Sunday, October 29, 2017

A Poem for Michael

Yesterday, we held a memorial service for Michael, our youngest, who took his life three weeks ago after struggling with depression. We miss him and really benefited from hearing stories from his friends about him at the service. The following is a poem I wrote for Michael, which was read by his cousin Chloe.

For Michael--

What is length of days
but the endurance of sorrows
when to go out for your season
was to see the fragrant and flowering and,
though broken among the broken,
to frame jokes and
healing in friendships before
the light was lost and you
slipped away from us.

Though your choice
includes you no more
we will not say you are lost; lost
sounds our words shaped to
blame and loss

not carried away
by wind, by time, by
whatever is and will

We go and mourn now.
In the days to come that will now not be seen
you will not stop being our son
you are held forever
in what remains of this length of days.

--Love, from Dad

Thank you for reading.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Religion, British Reality TV, and my New Novel*

In a recent New Yorker magazine, Sam Knight writes about a British reality tv show that was produced last year while news of Brexit and the American presidential election dominated the headlines. In an article titled "Back to the Garden," Knight retraces the steps of a program that posed the question, "What if we could start again?" The show seemed to promise in its promotional material images of escape from what Knight calls "the pointlessness and the cruelty of late-capitalist existence." Perhaps not surprisingly, the show ended in cancellation, with the isolated show contestants left in their fenced off "Eden" still acting out their roles, unaware that no one was watching them, their re-boot society moving in a direction we've seen before in William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies.

"A nation's reality shows do not arise from nowhere," Knight writes. His litany of productions from Russia, Japan, and Norway, to the Greeks' focus on Survivor suggests a range of blatant attempts to act out otherwise subconscious aggressions and desires for escape from limiting economic. spiritual, and cultural boundaries. Perhaps in this light, the English attempt to bring religious images to the screen should be admired. They've attempted it before (more on that in a moment). But the collapse of British Channel 4'sEden production could have been predicted. No matter how unspoiled the land or skilled the human beings involved, we remain fallen creatures or, as might be said today, post-Edenic in our insecurities. The attempts to "get back to the Garden" have been made before in history, always with the same result. One wonders why we still might believe that TV could change any of this. But there we have it.

As noted above, Eden might remind us of an earlier British reality show that tried to bring religion to mass audiences. About ten years ago, a reality show aired in England in which Christians traveled around London and attempted to get random people on the street to attend church services. It was this old series, in fact, that got me thinking about the idea for the reailty show in my novel, in which a group of believers travel around America and try to reach others for God.

My idea is not typical of American TV. Our focus always seems to fall on talent, schemers, bachelorettes, winners, and survivors. Our dreams and visions move toward individual success and failure, not so much communal living and utopian desires. We seem to want to build things on our own rather than trust anything to others. We are Robinson Crusoe. Every man is an island.

Even so, it was that old British production that first got me onto the idea of writing about a religious reality show in which things go wrong. I should add that I don't really watch reality shows myself. But I remain interested in how what are billed as "games" can take on realities of their own. 

*This is a repost of a recent newsletter.

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