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Wednesday, July 25, 2018

How I Write in a Time of Crisis

Twice recently I've been asked about how I manage to write when I'm facing a crisis. I understand this question. Writing takes great concentration and a need to withdraw and reflect. How do I accomplish this in the middle of a time when the sky over my world seems to be falling?

The truth is that it isn't easy to talk about this. Indeed, writing is hard for me even when I'm trying to figure out how to handle a busy schedule. And we are all busy, and it never ends. I do not organize well. The best I do is to manage to prioritize projects according to when they are due. I put my best energy during the first part of my day into doing what needs to be done very soon. That way, I always meet deadlines.

But I also try to make mornings the time when I write during the summer months when I am not teaching. Evenings are for reading--usually after everyone else in my house is in bed. I give my mornings to writing as often as I can because that is when I am fresh. However, I did not accomplish everything I needed to this summer, so I am trying to think about setting aside an hour or two every afternoon this fall for writing on my new novel, which I am hoping to finish by the end of the year--at least as a rough draft.

The question above, of course, concerns writing during times when so much of my energy is taken by crisis. How do I manage to concentrate on writing a book when I'm facing something hard? How do I find ideas? Where do they come from?

I can't answer this for others. I can say that this summer I have worked hard to get ideas on paper, even though I know I will be revising them. But instead of trying to block out the hard times I've faced over the last ten months, I've been trying to let it in and make it a part of what I am writing about. I have divided my novel into four different point of view characters, and three of them are carrying pain that I have had to carry. As I write about them, I am interested in how they are going to do with the pain they are facing. What is it about them and what they are doing?

I find that this allows me to both write and to not block out what I'm feeling or struggling with. If I encounter some pain from the grief I am carrying at present over the loss of my son, that pain goes on the page for two of the characters in the novel.

I'm not guaranteeing that this will lead to great writing. I'm only interested in seeing where it is going to take me. This is the most autobiographical I have been with my work. I am looking for ways to make it work, to, in a very real way, write with and through my pain. This is work that usually starts in the journal I am keeping. I don't treat my novel like a journal. In the journal, the writing is raw and experimental. When I turn to the novel, the journal is the raw material to fashion into character, situation, and dialogue. 

I would be interested in your thinking about this. What do you do to keep writing when you are faced with pain or a crisis?

Thank you for reading.  

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Writing and the Warp of Grief

With my teaching done for the spring, I've begun to try to work on a new project. It's an idea I've had since last summer.

Though I initially thought about it with great hope, the idea has gone through some shape-shifting during the last few seasons as I have faced grief after my youngest son took his life. Now, a lot of grief has entered into the picture, and I've begun to layer this into my original idea. I'm not sure if I am doing this because I now feel partitioned off from the normal patterns of life I see around me, norms I view from a slant, and my hope is that in writing about this loss, I will make it more a part of the "norm."

I'm not sure what is going on with this.

I have also found that in keeping a journal over the last seven months, a second project has sort of emerged and even forced itself onto my desk because it seems so useful, so practical in ways that the fiction is not. So I am caught between two projects. The problem will be to make a decision and go with it.

As for the novel, the problem is that I don't see a clear story arch in this new material about grief. I don't see the character who is a survivor getting "better." I'm thinking that perhaps this is something that I should simply go with, because the material will provide a counterpoint to the main story arch, where there is change and movement. The problem is that I know that audiences can lose patience with a lack of clear story direction.

Choosing the Right Plan
 I've written about my new idea for a second novel in other places. It is called Radio Eden, and it concerns four men who take their pastor's sermon about Eden literally and go out to find the "real" Eden. In the process, they are taken hostage by a terrorist group. The novel focuses on the pastor who gave that sermon and how he and his congregation react after the men are taken hostage.

There are two other story arcs in this tale, one told by a young pregnant woman, and the other by a young man involved in theater. I also had a third story arc--this was my character who was a survivor of his son's suicide. I've gone back and forth about this. I've thought about putting that story in one of the other arcs.

I'm still in the planning stages of all of this. And I am not someone who outlines very much. I tend to draft with a scratch outline. This is my way of writing my way into the material, and sometimes I write my way into a corner.

Writing about Grief
As for the new problem child, the one that has emerged from keeping a journal about my grief process, it appears to be something that is nonfictional and is emerging in a pretty clear form and voice. This is my dilemma. I seem to be facing a choice between writing fiction and nonfiction, between a project that seems large and is still taking shape, and a project that is already clear in both shape and purpose.

Perhaps, as some people will always suggest, it is a matter of doing both, of clarifying ideas and feelings in both genres.

If that is to be the case, I should find a lot of time for both. I can see how this could work, especially if the nonfiction idea is as focused as it seems.

I know that John Lennon has been quoted widely on the idea that "Life is what happens while we are making other plans." That seems to be the case here. I'm not all that good at drawing lines between my creative projects and the life that feeds them. I'm not trying to make lemons out of lemonade, or some other cliche. The goal is to try to do something with what remains.

Perhaps next month I will have some answers.

Thank you for reading. 

Friday, March 30, 2018

Another Good Friday Reflection

This week I attended the Popular Culture Association Conference, held this year in Indianapolis. After reading a short story on the first day of the conference, a story I finished writing and submitted to the conference just days before my son Michael took his life last October, I was able to relax and attend several poetry panels.

 One of them was put together around the theme of grief and consisted of poets reading their own work on the grief and loss they'd experienced in their own lives. Humor and sadness were both fully represented in the very creative poems read by poets of different ages. Certainly, the panel reminded me that this season of my life is one where I still hear and laugh at jokes, and even tell them, even as I still feel sadness I've never known before. In this way, the panel felt real.

I also heard many poems that reflected strong poetic technique. Yet it was most interesting that the poems most affecting to me on this theme were poems that had both effective technique and a rich understanding of experience. I'm not sure what I was looking for in attending this panel. Since our loss, some people have given me poetry to read, some of it Hallmarky and some of it so severe in language that it didn't represent anything but a cold, distant cathedral not built for me.

The poems on this panel did not go to either of these extremes. Each poet's approach was different. I was most affected by one of the poets, Sally McGeevey Hannay, who wrote about the loss of her son five years ago in poems that explored the experience honestly in a number of different ways, but often drawing on the form of the sestina. I found empathy, identification, in someone writing from where I am living now, and I also found some hope.

Grief is that experience that is perhaps most universal. We all will die, and before we do we all lose people we love. I am writing this late on the night of Good Friday, and I am aware that this day marks the time of great fear and uncertainty when the followers of Jesus watched him being crucified, and then they ran shocked and horribly confused into hiding. I am aware that Christianity is first a religion of grief, before it can be a religion of resurrection. I am conscious of the fact that those first followers would have been in the dark at this point after sunset on Good Friday. And we need to face this for the moment; at this point in their journey, they were in grief, and they had no understanding, no hope, and no expectation that anything would ever change.

That it did is what is celebrated in churches on Sunday, of course, and if it is believed, it should be celebrated. But before we rush to Sunday, I would like to note that many don't like to stay in the condition that the first disciples found themselves in as the sun set on the death of their rabbi. Many of us don't want to dwell in that place where everything looks futile and final.

I'm not suggesting that we should want to stay there. I understand the desire for light and victory. But if we don't understand the deep sadness and shock that was the disciples' experience, as it is honored by our remembrance of Good Friday, then I'm not sure that we are getting all that the Christian experience is really about.

The poets on that panel I attended yesterday didn't all read poems that connected with me in that way. But it was clear that they knew something about loss and how it shapes us. And all of the poets had learned to laugh again. But it came with time.

As Christians, we should understand this about our own grief and the grief of others. Constant happiness is not a sign of a blessed life. Grief comes to everyone. There is nothing we can do to help, and we shouldn't expect to do that, and we also shouldn't ignore people because we feel we cannot help them.

The normal run of grief was interrupted by the triumph of Sunday in the story of the resurrection. That is not the story for most people who grieve. Before Sunday comes, we should attempt to understand something of the grief that tore at the disciples in those hours on Saturday. It may help us to stay with each other and understand our burdens a little more, because in a very real sense, death shows us our futility, and we are still looking forward to the resurrection that is to come. 

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.