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June 2015

Vivid images

Last week I started reading C. S Lewis' The Great Divorce and was impressed with the vivid images of his writing in the first chapter.  Here are some examples:

Time seemed to have paused on that dismal moment when only a few shops have lit up and it is not yet dark enough for their windows to look cheering. 

However far I went I found only dingy lodging houses, small tobacconists, hoardings from which posters hung in rags, windowless warehouses, good stations without trains, and bookshops of the sort that sell The Works of Aristotle. [That last bit is what I like.  The image made me laugh.]

It was a wonderful vehicle, blazing with golden light, heraldically coloured.  The Driver himself seemed full of light and he used only one hand to drive with.  [Again, that last detail is the impressively vivid one.]

Roberts is ignorant to a vicious degree

His entire dissent revolts as it, like the district court ruling it upholds, ignores the actual questions in the case.  I had hoped he would be persuaded by Judge Posner's brilliant opinion; alas, he was not.

Throughout he commits errors.  He has a woefully ignorant understanding of the history of marriage and human sexuality.  In preparation for this case did he read no scholarly works on that topic?  Nor the actual case law, such as that in the Prop 8 case, which explored the question?

It simply is not true that human society has always defined marriage the same way.  Marriage, as a either a religious or a civil institution, doesn't/didn't exist in every society.  Humans have attached with one another throughout history, receiving various forms of recognition by their societies.  Same-sex couples have always been a part of this human history, and at times did enjoy various levels of social acceptance and support.  What is being sought in this case is not overturning or radically altering some ancient, sacred tradition of marriage, but the receipt of very concrete rights, privileges, and responsibilities by a segment of humanity that has always existed but has been denied those rights by US law due to animus.

Which brings me to the point that really set me off.  He is upset that the majority believes the laws banning same-sex marriage were enacted through bias.  Was he in a coma in 2004?  Roberts is ignorant to a vicious degree if he actually believes those laws weren't enacted via bias.  He writes: 

By the majority’s account, Americans who did nothing more than follow the understanding of marriage that has existed for our entire history—in particular, the tens of millions of people who voted to reaffirm their States’ enduring definition of marriage—have acted to “lock . . . out,” “disparage,” “disrespect and subordinate,” and inflict “[d]ignitary wounds” upon their gay and lesbian neighbors. 
Even if he was in a coma in 2004 (and after) and not paying attention to the political rhetoric, didn't he read the evidence presented in the Prop 8 trial?  Or the ruling in Oklahoma?  Or Judge Posner's ruling?  All of those focused on the discriminatory bias and animus of the campaigns for constitutional amendments defining marriage.
Again, if he is this ignorant of history and the facts of the cases before him, then it is a vicious form of ignorance.
Furthermore, one cannot believe Justice Roberts or trust his moral and legal reasoning when he denounces what he thinks is a formation of a right that didn't exist before as he has voted for an individual right to bear arms that didn't exist before, a right to corporate personhood that didn't exist before, and a right to religious expression of corporations that didn't exist before.  In the common language that sort of speaking out of both sides of ones mouth is called "hypocrisy."

Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed 2

The participants of the Yale Writer's Conference were eager to meet Cheryl Strayed.  Rarely does an author become a celebrity.  Memoirists, including yours truly, were wondering--how do I publish a bestseller, get a movie deal, go to the Oscars, and have Reese Witherspoon play me (okay maybe I wasn't asking that last question about myself, though I'm sure Reese could do a great Scott Jones).

"You must write answering the question 'What does it mean to be human?'" was Strayed's simple answer to the unasked, but apparent, questions.  "That's really the only question of literature."

Yesterday I attended her Master Class and Craft Talk and interacted with her briefly in the lunch room.  This post is an amalgam of my notes of those presentations.

She drew upon F. Scott Fitzgerald to talk about the connection between heart and craft.  "Write big, even though your life is small," she encouraged.  "Our lives are not original.  We have a lot in common.  Your subject isn't original; your voice is.  Give your heart to your writing."

Strayed began her Master Class by stating that success is overcoming resistance and doubt.  "Tell the story you have to tell."  Have in two senses--the story you possess, that is yours, and the story that you must tell ("fire in the bones" from the prophet Jeremiah is how I imagine this).  

She charted on the blackboard the layers she believes any book or story must include.  I'll reproduce them here as a list (why didn't I take a picture of the chart?).

  • Your story--your obsessions, interests, experiences, things that happened to you, how you feel about them
  • Other experiences in you or your character's life that remind you of or echo your story
  • Other stories in the culture or in history/mythology that resonate with your story
  • What place does your story occupy in the narrative tradition?  Examples include hero's journey, fish out of water, stranger in a strange land, fairy tale, etc.
  • What is the question at the core of your story?  And this is twofold--your specific question and the universal human question you are writing about

She explained that not every layer must appear explicitly on the page, but that the author needs to have thought through every layer.  The universal question she was exploring in Wild was "How is it that we bear the unbearable?"

"Meaning is more powerfully conveyed the more discreet it is."  She isn't a fan of explicitly giving the meaning to the reader.  She especially doesn't like writing with a message.  "Wild doesn't have a message.  I didn't plant a message for people.  Readers can take whatever message they need from the book."

She instructed her Master Class to focus on objects and talismans in their writing.  Talismans are objects we imbue with meaning.  Some are cultural, like wedding rings.  Others are personal.  In Wild her backpack, which she names Monster, becomes a character itself.  She encouraged us to let objects do some of the narrative heavy lifting (was the pun intended?).  She enjoys writing that tells you what happened so well that it doesn't have to tell you how it felt.

Strayed began her Craft Talk by exploring the question, "Why would anyone want to read about me or about this fictional character I've made up?"  The answer is, "They don't.  No one wants to read about me or about a character I've made up.  People want to tap into the eternal voice asking what it means to be human."

She encouraged us instead of plotting the events of the book to plot the emotional development, particularly looking for revelatory moments, and to build the story around those.  In Wild the basic structure is 1) I can't do this, 2) I have to do this, 3) I'm doing it.  The first example is getting the backpack Monster on her back and starting the hike.  "The mundane revelations prepare for the big ones."  Eventually that structure is used to move her through her grief over her mother's death.

In the final Q&A there were many questions about success and the film.  "I wouldn't have gotten lucky if I hadn't done the hard work," she said.  "Every person who walks up and says 'this changed me,' I earned that by working hard."

My Writing Spot

I located my writing spot while here at Yale and have been working there the past few days.


Outside the dining hall are some stairs to the second floor. 


They lead to the Davenport College Library.


On the library tables you find such appropriate titles as:





Plus large volumes like: 


The plaque over the fireplace informs when the room was remodeled:


In the far back corner I found my nook.


When I take a break from writing and revising, I examine the shelves and the pictures on the walls.  Besides photos of Rev. Davenport's grave and the original campus of Yale, there are these pictures of gentlemen.  What do you think of men's fashion and grooming in 1871?


The nook contains some interesting books.



(Glad to know we are in the fourth edition of the Earth.)

I enjoy browsing an old library and exploring strange and interesting titles.  I picked up this volume . . .


. . . to see what the class of 1933 might have accomplished.  Apparently they enjoyed drinking before a fire.


And I learned that the freshman year is a "Dim, paleolithic time obscured by the ever increasing fog of intervening years" (maybe due to too much drinking before fires?).  


My little nook also contains early twentieth century works of natural history.


The Natural History of Selborne was rather dry, but I was drawn to Galapagos: World's End.  


Old books are works of art in the printing and the binding, not just the writing.

Henry Fairfield Osborn, the President of the New York Zoological Society in 1923 wrote the foreword in which he enjoys using exclamation marks in celebrating Charles Darwin.


Osborn reminds us that Darwin was in the islands for only five weeks, and then Osborn declares, "Only five weeks, but five weeks of Darwin's eyes and Darwin's powers of observation and reasoning were equivalent to a whole previous cycle of human thought. At the time he was only twenty-six years of age . . ."

The opening of the first chapter of the book does not read as boring natural history (no Natural History of Selborne this).


"winter camouflage of the aristocracy of yachts"--What a phrase!

And when I read of "sea-moss and barnacles acquired in alien seas on voyages of other years" I longed to snuggle up in one of the overstuffed armchairs and read of grand adventure on the high seas.

Alas, I have my own book to write, so back to the table and the laptop.

Amy Bloom


In her craft talk this afternoon Amy Bloom cautioned us writers.  "If you want to do something well to public acclaim, then do something else.  Like embroidery.  I recommend cooking.  Everyone likes a good meal.  And they will praise you."

"I don't write to recommend or to improve the lives of my readers."  

"Writing is not the toughest job.  It is a privilege.  It can be agonizing, but it is a privilege."

She encouraged us to read the work aloud, because then we would see where we make mistakes.  I wanted to hit myself upside the head.  I know this already, because I'm a preacher.  How many times has something looked correct to me on the page, only to be altered when I read it aloud?  But, I haven't been reading my memoir aloud as I've written.  Yes, I've read a passage here and there, but not the entire manuscript.  Damn.  Now I've got 72,000 words to read aloud.  Maybe that's what Sebastian will be hearing for the next few months?

A theme of her talk and her Q&A was character.  She spoke of how writers are lazy.  They put in just a few descriptors, just enough to "brand" their character in order to show the reader that the writer and the reader are in on something together.  Instead the writer needs to think about their characters and see the world from their point-of-view and describe them as actual persons, for there are no types of persons.  "Be your characters, don't describe them."  Describing them is simply creating a cartoon.

She added, "It is a big world.  You have to see past your own frame."  Asked more specifically how to do this, she said "Bring everything you know to everything you have imagined."

I left the talk realizing that I need to go over every bit of my memoir and look at how I've dealt with the other characters.  A few are more fully formed than others, but I realized that there are places in the book where I was lazy in my descriptions.

Asked when she knows she is done with revising a book, because you have to stop sometime, even though there are always ways to improve and revise.  She answered, "When I'm lying bloody at the finish line.  Then, I try to go a little further, and you can see the marks of blood as I go a little further."  I also realized that I'm not yet lying bloody at the finish line with my book.

But I was encouraged by one thing she said.  Speaking of endings she said, "My goal for the ending is that it transforms the work by shining a different light on all that came before it."  That I think I've done.  I think my ending is kick ass.

Lev Grossman


"Fantasy is a way to re-encounter what we struggle with in the real world," said Lev Grossman today in Linsly-Chittenden Hall with the Tiffany window looming nearby.  He admitted the intimidation of returning to speak at Yale where he had been a graduate student.  His nervousness apparent in his personal ticks, like buttoning and unbuttoning his jacket.

He referenced his depression in his lecture and was asked if he would talk about it during the Q&A.  "Yes.  You'll find I'm very confessional about it."  He continued, "People romanticize depression.  It is not where my fiction comes from.  Depression should be treated aggressively.  I was more productive as a writer after therapy and medication."  

"The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe taught me what novels are for.  And every time I've read the book after that first time as a child has been an echo of that primal experience" (here's a link to an article by Grossman on Lewis).  I resonated, for the Chronicles of Narnia have served a similar function for me.  Narnia represents a spiritual idea and ideal, luring me onto my best.  Which is why Grossman's The Magicians fucked with me so.  Then I preached about the novel.

Grossman had written and published for fifteen years without finding his authorial voice and began to believe that such a thing was a myth that other writers made up.  Then, in a conversation with Philip Pullman on what Pullman loathes about Lewis, he was awakened to the possibility that one could write a novel about the magic of adulthood instead of the magic of childhood.  And that he could talk back to Lewis, including all the things that Lewis and others in that tradition leave out.  While also leaving out of his story all the obvious organizing and meaning-making characters (no Gandalf, no Voldemort) because those were absent from his life.  As a young man he had to figure meaning out on his own.  Every day he didn't awaken with the task of vanquishing some evil force.  Real life was more complicated than that.

So, he wrote The Magicians literally sitting between a copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, aiming for Franzen's realistic style in describing the fantasy world of his novel.  (Here are the passages I copied down from Grossman's novel when I read it in 2013).

You might remember that I didn't like the ending of the novel.  I thought it drew back from the obvious end of the story--Quentin dying of acedia.  Grossman confessed today that he didn't go far enough in the novel.  I hope I get the opportunity to ask him about that further tonight.  I have not read the sequels.


Two other good nuggets from his talk.  "Reading Mrs. Dalloway is why I stopped being a chemistry major.  It is the greatest novel of the twentieth century."

Another was his discussion of George R. R. Martin, and the radical thing he did in the novel Game of Thrones using realism to write about this fantasy world.  Right now I'm reading Martin's Feast of Crows, the fourth novel in the Song of Fire and Ice series.  Martin is a skilled writer.  I stand in awe of some of his paragraphs (I should share some excerpt here, but I don't have my copy with me at the moment).  

Reflecting on Grossman's discussion of Martin, I realized part of what is missing in this season of the TV show and maybe one reason the season is unsatisfying.  Martin enriches his story with common folk.  Earlier seasons of the show allowed us to encounter this world through the stories of a prostitute and a smith, but those common folk as rich characters are largely missing this year.  There appears to be less realism this year and more fantasy.  Which fails the test of what Grossman stated in his lecture "Fantasy is a way to re-encounter what we struggle with in the real world."

George Pelecanos

George Pelecanos

"I wrote about things I needed to understand."  George Pelecanos grew up in Washington, D. C. where he was a minority and during a time of racial conflict.  His father owned a diner, and George began working at age eleven.  He said that American fiction is usually about people who win.  He wanted to write about those who don't.  Crime fiction and television drama are his genres.

He researches by spending time with the people he writes about--police, criminals, etc.  "You learn to write," he said, "by reading and living a full life."  I liked that last bit.

He said that life is long and that our window for doing our thing as writers is wide open.  Athletes and other artists may have some physical limitations to when they can do their work.  We can write until our deaths.

"My goal and your goal should be to be a better writer tomorrow than you are today."

He treats it as his business, dressing each day for work and locking and unlocking his writing space at home.  When he's working on a book, he writes seven days a week.

He doesn't outline or plot things out.  For him the stories arise from the characters.  He works on getting the characters correct.

He answered lots of specific questions about The Wire.  Of course many people argue that it is the best television show ever.  It's one of those I intend to binge-watch sometime, but have never seen.

His favourite film is The Wild Bunch and True Grit his favourite novel.  "I want to write a Western some day."

Joining the extremists

"Making the decision to be a writer is kind of like joining an extremist faction," proclaimed Mishka Shubaly.  

He is the number one author on the Amazon Singles market, here to discuss with us the changing face of publishing.  And like every guest speaker I've seen in the auditorium of Linsly-Chittenden, he glanced over at the Tiffany window and paused, taken in and maybe slightly intimidated by its grandeur.  Fewer speakers seem to note the reliefs of great thinkers that also surround the room.  Many, however, comment on the window.  Shubaly said, after looking over at it, "This isn't my normal gig."


But he had words of valuable writing advice:

"Insecurity and self-loathing are the business we are in."

"Send something in.  If you don't, your chance is zero."

"Not everybody will like it.  If everybody likes it, it's shit."

"Ask the dumb question.  Take the big stupid risks."

"Your writing has to be amazing, and you have to be fearless at inflicting your writing on people who don't want to read it."

His talk was followed by a "Craft Talk" delivered by Gish Jen.  The prominent guest faculty provide master classes in the morning to small groups and then a craft talk to the entire conference in the afternoon.  These talks vary in style and quality, though most  I've heard are good.

Jen's bored me.  She gave a prepared speech (with slides) on the different approaches to self in the East and the West.  Okay, sure.  Already knew that.  Also something of a false dichotomy.  I did like the picture of her family's genealogical record which is a series of bound volumes dating back to 1131.  I took no notes or quotes related to the craft of writing and learned nothing about it from her, which was quite disappointing.  Even during the Q&A, which I hoped would save the presentation by answering student questions about craft, did not redeem the time.  

Better to have been sitting on a bench in the sun reading.

Come to think of it.  I never saw her look at the Tiffany window.

What does it mean to be about something?

What does it mean to be about something?

Most of the fellow students in my workshop got something from my book which is not my primary question.  Yes, the thing they got is in the book, but it wasn't the deep read.  I don't resent that they got something out of it that wasn't my primary intent.  It did puzzle me, as I thought I had done a better job with my themes and questions and what it meant for me.  I've got more revising and writing to do than I anticipated.

But all this raises questions about aboutness, of meaning, of hermeneutics.

We learn in most contemporary hermeneutics that authorial intent (whatever that is) cannot determine the meaning of a text, especially an ancient text like the Bible.  Meaning is created by the community of authors, readers, commentors, etc.  I agree with those who contend that Rembrandt's paintings or Steinbeck's novels are just as helpful in interpreting the meaning of sacred scripture as Calvin's commentaries.

I do not think my job as a pastor is to establish the meaning of a text.  It is to open the text for my congregation to engage in determining its meaning.  Thus, two stories:

I deliver my candidating sermon on the Doubting Thomas story at CoH-OKC in April 2005 and when I sit down the Rev. Michael Piazza says, "You did such a good job of leaving it open such that those who believe in an historical, literal resurrection heard that and those who believe the resurrection is metaphorical or spiritual heard that."  To which I answered, "Yes, that was my goal."

When the Committee on Ministry of the Oklahoma Association of the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference of the United Church of Christ asked me to write a paper detailing my theological beliefs, I gave them a paper that excerpted a variety of stories from my sermons.  They said, "This isn't what we are used to seeing.  We don't think everyone will understand it."  "It's the only way I can fulfill your assignment with authenticity.  I don't believe in propositional theological language."

I have my questions, my reasons, my meaning in writing the book.  I'm excited when others get it, but if for them it is something that simply helps with the social issue of being gay and being Christian, fine, but that topic is banal to me.