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“Calling transforms life so that even the commonplace and menial are invested with the splendor of the ordinary.” (Os Guinness, The Call)

My seventeen Professional Writing seniors are closing in on the end of their careers at Taylor. I’m privileged to be teaching what our program calls the “capstone” class — three credit hours together to “cap” their time at Taylor U and their time in our major.

It’s a daunting class — and this was the first time I’ve taught it.

From the start, I knew the class needed to have a writing element, it needed some self-inventory, it needed some interview and job hunt practice and information, and it needed some “adulting” conversations. Three solid weeks, 3-1/2 hours per day. And I wanted all of it to feel practical and meaningful and purposeful.

And that’s what I’ve tried to do.

One day, we talked about our “callings,” considering the definition in Os Guinness’s classic book. How calling can be to many types of work, not just “Christian” work per se. How calling can be simply to finding splendor in the ordinary. How calling can change the world in small ways. How calling, with the acknowledgement of a Caller, gives meaning to life. That was the initial part of our self-inventory.

Then we did what one of my colleagues calls “the red thread.” Each student went through all of the classes taken at Taylor, noting what they liked and didn’t about each — trying to understand how they like to learn, how they learn best regarding type of class, type of instruction, type of content, etc. This traces a “thread” that serves to remind them of the many types of information and skills they’ve gained across these four years.

A highlight was a bus trip to Grand Rapids to visit Zondervan Publishing House, RBC (Our Daily Bread and Discovery House Publishers), and lunch with author Travis Thrasher. The students were encouraged that many of the folks in jobs they hope to have got there in convoluted ways while learning much about themselves along the way.

 

The Zondervan folks were incredibly welcoming, even offering us a panel discussion. They shared with my students about their pathways to their “dream job.”

taylor students

In the lobby at Zondervan. The mission statement applies to my students as well.

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Travis Thrasher has gone from being an employee at a publisher to being a full-time writer. We enjoyed hearing about his fiction writing and ghostwriting.

 

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At RBC (Our Daily Bread and Discovery House), we learned about their incredible worldwide ministry, got to see their printing presses in action, and heard from two editors who told about their pathways to where they are today.

The takeaway? Be patient. Try on a lot of jobs. Learn what you can wherever you are. Network with people and let them know the kind of work you’re looking for.

And this was pretty much just week one. I’m excited to watch my students get excited about their possibilities for the future. They are well prepared to become publishing professionals.

Stay tuned for more adventures in Professional Writing capstone!

 

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Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.

C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

Finding that perfect word that says the thing I mean, what I really mean, is a struggle for the writer — and I know all writers experience it constantly.

But it’s not just a writing problem; it’s also an editing problem

As an editor, my job (especially at the copyediting phase) is to make a manuscript sing. If I read your story or essay or article or devotional, I’m looking closely at the sentences and the words — and I’m asking if the words I see are the best words. Sometimes something I read makes me stumble. I have to go back and understand the sentence, or visualize the scene, or simply try to comprehend what the author means to say. I stumble because something isn’t working.

And if it isn’t working for me — the editor — then it isn’t going to work for the readers either.

Maybe I need to replace a blah verb with a stronger verb — or better yet, an adverb and verb with a strong verb. “He slowly walked across the street.” Ugh. Adverb. Not helpful. Many strong verbs can picture a slow walker, but the verb needs to be the best verb for the scene. Does he amble? trudge? shuffle? Amble sounds like he’s carefree . . . trudge sounds like he’s sad . . . shuffle sounds like he’s elderly or injured perhaps . . . I have to study the scene and suggest a strong verb, the right strong verb.

Or maybe the descriptor isn’t quite there. A “shiny” item might better be described as shimmering or glittering or glistening or gleaming or glossy (wow, lots of “g” words there).

At times, I look for a word that will add some alliteration — if it works with the tone of the piece.

It takes a writer, a reader, a word lover to be a good copy editor, to massage the message, to tame the tome (see what I did there?).

the best

Some sentences just make me stop in wonder. Some words string together like the notes of a beautiful melody. They take my breath away. (I gave a few examples in this post called “Word Power.”)

It’s hard work, this writing, editing, and trying to say what we want to say or trying to help authors say what they want to say.

But when a sentence sings, when we “say the very thing [we] really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what [we] really mean” as C. S. Lewis writes, it’s all worth it.

We live for those moments.

Ever have one of those times when it all came together?

 

I’m experimenting with another kind of writing not common to me called flash nonfiction. Flash is typically under 1000 words, and this particular piece is topping out at 250. I like to write about commonplace things, seeking the splendor in the ordinary. This one is called “Hands” and was inspired by some moments with one of my granddaughters.

Hands

“Grandma, what’s wrong with your hands?” My five-year-old granddaughter’s voice betrays concern mixed with a bit of awe.

I look down at the hand in question. My left hand is placed on the “treasure box” (an old jewelry box) that she and I are exploring. We have plopped together on the queen-sized bed and into the soft comforter. The morning sun filters through the lace curtains, bright and harsh on this clear and cool April Saturday and puts the blue veins of my hand into sharp relief, like a topical map of mountains and valleys. I too am a bit stunned at how odd my hand looks.

hand mine

“Those are my veins,” I explain.

Ari splays her little fingers and feels the back of her own hand. “Mine is smooth,” she announces and turns back to the jewelry.

I look at my hand again, moving it back and forth in the sunlight. I haven’t ever noticed these veins so pronounced before. Blue lines, mixed with brown age spots, travel around the back of my hand creating an impressionist pattern of muted colors. I’m in my sixtieth year, a grandmother, hands no longer smooth and strong, clearly betraying the age that I so desperately try to camouflage on every other part of my body from my graying hair to my slowly bulging middle.

These are old hands, these hands with the convex veins.

Nothing wrong with them, dear Ari. Just evidence of a life being lived.

 

Just a Smell

It is just a smell.

Something in the air as I walk across campus. It strikes with subtle but unmistakable force. It makes me stop, sniff.

It isn’t Chick-Fil-A or the lunch aroma from the college dining commons.

In fact, I can’t pinpoint or describe the smell; it is simply in the air. Closing my eyes, the smell has transported me. I am at Houghton College, walking the sidewalk that encompassed the quad, a new freshman, terrified, lonely, missing my family, worried about being a failure, that I can’t cut this whole college thing.

Now, as I stand on the sidewalk surrounded by the buildings of Taylor University where I teach, I am not here — I am traveling in time. I am not a publishing professional and faculty member. I am an eighteen year old with no fashion sense and big glasses and low self-esteem. A girl who doesn’t know what she wants to major in or why she’s at college or who will be her new friends or if she’ll have friends at all.

Standing here in these passing moments, I open my eyes and see a a lone student slouching toward me, eyes downcast, heavy backpack, sad face. My heart goes out to him. I know, in that moment exactly how the young man is feeling. Exactly. I am right there with him. Overwhelmed with distress from four decades ago.

backpack

I want to grab him, to hug him, to tell him it’s all going to be okay. He’ll figure it out as each day goes by. Tell him that God will be faithful. Tell him to just take it a day at a time, a step at a time.

But of course, I don’t. I can’t. The young man walks by. I sniff again and return to the present. But I vow that any moment I can, I will tell these dear students with their wide eyes and their fears and worries that it will indeed be okay.

I can testify to it.

It is just a smell. But how powerful the memories it evokes. It gives me a mission, for it reminds me that four decades ago I, too, was slouching along a sidewalk, overwhelmed, deeply distressed, trying to figure out life. God walked with me each step of the way.

All it took was a smell.

 

Last post, I discussed my discovery of ekphrasis and how much I enjoyed using it in my classroom to help the students write the details. The practice helps them to notice and employ those details in whatever they write.

This is my ekphrastic piece about the photo below, a photo of me and my youngest son, taken in the early 1990s.

Sweet Sonme and sean

He snuggles into my lap—my sweet youngest boy, born a mere eighteen months after his brother and thirty months after his sister. His blue shirt and green shorts are most likely hand-me-downs from his siblings. The Velcro shoes revealing that he has not yet learned to work with laces.

Always moving, he is caught for a moment. Perhaps as he ran by me while I sat outside on our deck, I reached out and scooped him onto my lap as my dad snapped this photo. It’s summer, circa 1994, my parents still able and willing to make the eight-hour drive from their Pennsylvania home braving Chicago traffic to visit their 1-2-3 grandkids who had arrived in 1-2-3 fashion and then grew too quickly. These are their only grandkids at this point as my sister—eleven years younger—has only recently married.

Dad captures these moments on slides, his trusty and omnipresent camera yielding trays and trays of slides. He stores them upstairs in their home and, at every family gathering, is happy to haul down the screen and projector asking, “What years shall we revisit tonight?”

For Christmas one year, dad sorted his hundreds of slides representing a half-century, and downloaded them onto his computer. He then created a flash drive for each of his siblings and children with only the slides featuring them, creating a wonderful chronicle of them young, then with young families, then with grandchildren. My flash drive begins with me as a babe in arms, works its way through the hobby-horse days, every birthday and vacation, my awkward cat-eye glasses stage, all the way to me and my kids.

So the reason I have this particular photo is because I’m in it. I see my young mom self—newly out of the haze of caring for three toddlers in diapers and getting no sleep. At this point, finally everyone can pee and poop and sleep on their own.

Yet for me, the photo is all about my little boy. I have my arms around his sturdy body as he curls into me, his hands touching each other, mine cupping his shoulder. He smiles that mischievous smile that for a moment captures the fact that he is here now but mentally on to his next act. The large Band-Aid across his left knee attests to some misadventure.

He and I are close. His giggle could light up a room. He approached life in a lighthearted way, laughing at even those scrapes on the knee (after a few appropriate tears). A hug from mom or dad and he was soon on his way to what life offered next.

He will grow up to see what I don’t see—make films, create art, dive deeply into a realm that is beyond my sensibilities. He and I are able to snuggle this way for many years until slowly I begin to lose him to depression and, one day, an attempted suicide.

But he is back now. Stronger. Growing.

“You saved my life,” he says. “I am still here because of you.”

I wish I could still hold him this tightly. Protect him from the scrapes and sufferings and hurts that life inevitably gives. Let him know that it’s going to be all right.

Yet I do hold him just as tightly.

In my heart.

Every day.

I didn’t know what the word meant either.

I was first introduced to it in an MFA class with Dr. Root. And the minute we began to read examples and try it for ourselves, I was in love.

Wikipedia defines it this way: “Ekphrasis has been considered generally to be a rhetorical device in which one medium of art tries to relate to another medium by defining and describing its essence and form, and in doing so, relate more directly to the audience, through its illuminative liveliness.”

Basically, for me as a writer, it’s me using my words in as creative a way as possible to describe another form of art, such as a painting or a photograph (although it takes on many other forms).

For example, this painting titled “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” has inspired many pieces of ekphrasis.

In Greek mythology, Icarus was the son of Daedalus who created the labyrinth. Daedalus and Icarus tried to escape Crete with wings made of feathers and wax. Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too high and thus too close to the sun because the wax would melt. Icarus ignored his father, flew too close to the sun, his wax wings melted, and he fell into the sea. His pride destroyed him.

Now look at Brueghel’s painting:

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“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” Pieter Brueghel the Elder, circa 1558 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ekphrastic writing about this painting draws us back to study it more closely, seeing what the writer saw in what the painter presented.

For example, William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) wrote a poem titled the same as the painting: “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” Read it here, and then come back and study the painting. Williams studies what the painter has done, showing us a regular world of common people plowing or sailing while the mythic event unfolded. (See the little legs of Icarus as he splashes into the water on the bottom right of the painting?)

W. H. Auden (1907-1973) also wrote an ekphrastic poem from this painting titled “Musee des Beaux Arts.” Notice Auden’s take on how life goes on even as tragedy unfolds.

One more: Michael Hamburger (1924-2007) wrote a poem “Lines on Brueghel’s ‘Icarus.'” He focuses on those foreground details while Icarus is “left to drown.”

The point for me is the value of noticing, of looking closely, of then writing in such a way as to illuminate the picture or painting, to draw us in and make us look again and see what the writer sees.

I find this exercise helpful because looking at a picture and writing about it seems to turn on the creative spigot and help me dig deep into myself.

I’ve tried the exercise with my Freelancing class, asking them to bring in a photograph (or they can choose a painting or movie poster or something similar) that means something to them. They then are challenged to describe the picture, tell us a story, and draw us in.

To say I was impressed is an understatement. We put the photographs on screen in the classroom and the students read their ekphrastic pieces. From the student who had a photo of her mother’s gravestone, to the family portraits, to the four guys on a road trip, to “us-sies” with family members or significant others, to interesting places they traveled, their writing drew us in, helped us study the details of the photographs, and gave us insight into their lives.

Next post, I’ll share with you my own experiment with ekphrasis.

Have you ever tried this kind of writing? How did it work for you?

 

 

 

Getting It Done

I don’t know where anyone gets the idea that professors have summers off. I mean, I haven’t had to dress up every day, put on makeup, and fix my hair (so there’s that), but every day has been filled with tasks.

This summer brought some changes to my job — some new classes to teach. Some fears and disappointments. Some outright shocking situations.

Then I’ve had freelance work with multiple frustrations and clients missing deadlines (which meant the “hurry” part landed on me).

And I’ve been planning a writers’ conference.

On a few of these hot summer days, it all got to be too much. Moments of feeling completely overwhelmed. I won’t lie. I shed buckets of tears of fear and frustration and anger. And I felt inadequate to the tasks.

My kind husband took me for a few drives and let me cry and spout my fears, while he just listened. Then, in a break in my tirade against the unfair world, he would remind me that I’m capable of handling the new challenges.

I needed to slow down, breathe, and remember who I am.

breath

I think about you all out there, my readers. The ones I don’t know. The ones who are new friends, like Terry, who met me at a conference last week and thanked me for both my book and this site. The old friends. All of you are facing your own challenges every day. I don’t know what might be going on in your life right now, but I want you to know that I’m thinking of you and saying a prayer for you.

We’re all just trying to do this thing called life the best we can. If we’re people of faith (as I am), we know that everything is part of God’s bigger plan. That it all happens for a reason. That it’s all under control.

When I remember that, when I remember that this is all bigger than me, then I can trust that God will give me the strength to do what he’s called me to do. The task is not too big. Not when I remember who I am and whose I am.

My friends, whatever you’re facing today, you will not just survive but thrive.

We can get it done.

Message me on this site or write me at lindataylor5558{at}gmail.com and let me know how I can pray for you.

hands

 

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