Where’s Your Foundation?

As a Christian publishing professional, editor, writer, and now faculty member teaching Professional Writing, I have been considering my responsibility to my students about their responsibility as Christian writers.

The first concern, as noted in this post, is that my students stand firmly on the foundation of their faith. From the first day of the 101 class to the last day of capstone, I want to help them understand that they must stand on solid foundational truths that will undergird their writing (and, by extension, their lives).

bitumen waterproofing of the foundationMost of my students have a foundation of faith that drew them to Taylor University. Most are Christians but with a wide variety of perspectives on doctrines, social issues, and politics. There is room for all of those perspectives in my classroom, but I always want to draw them back to where we all agree: belief in Jesus Christ as Son of God and Savior. Scripture is pretty basic: “If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9 NLT). We have our theologies and our beliefs and our opinions, but it really comes down to that.

So where do they land? Where is their faith, personally? Much of this exploration occurs outside of my classroom in other classes, at chapel, in their small groups in the dorms, and just in living lives as college students. I want them to wrestle with these questions so that as they take the classes across the Professional Writing curriculum, they stand on a foundation as they think critically about how their faith matters in their lives and how it affects their writing.

It matters because their faith matters first and foremost. They don’t know if their words will ever get published into the world, but they do have a responsibility to write where they are called to write. They must not make their reason for being or their standard of success tied to getting published—that should never be the “be all and end all” for any writer. Far more important is their obedience to God wherever He places them and whatever words He gives them. Their relationship with God trumps anything else in life—it trumps every success and every failure, for it is ultimately what matters most.

I encourage them to pay attention in the Biblical Literature classes, to explore Scripture in small group studies, to read the Bible all the way through, to listen to God in a quiet time (in whatever way that looks to them). I want them to understand how God’s Word is “alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires” (Hebrews 4:12 NLT) and how Scripture needs to be a daily “lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Psalm 119:105 KJV). I want them to love the Bible.Bible

So then, what it means to be a Christian is to have foundational belief and, I would add, to seek in individual, faulty ways to live and act on those foundations through a daily personal walk with Jesus. It means staying in Scripture and prayer so as to always walk closely with the Father. This doesn’t mean that all Christians will believe the same, act the same, apply those foundations the same, or carry that faith into the world in the same way. We are each working out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12-13). But still, the biblical faith foundation is vital.

Christian writers must be marinated in Scripture, in prayer, and in a daily walk with Jesus.

That’s the foundation we must have.

Christian writer friends, how do you keep your faith fresh and alive?

The Challenge of Christian Writing and Publishing

It’s been an interesting challenge, this past school year, as I’ve taken on new classes (translate—learn what I need to teach and then figure out how to teach it) and gotten out of my comfort zone.

But it has forced me to do some deep thinking about what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and what really matters.

Why do I teach writing and publishing?

What do I really want my students to know?

In the past few months, three things have become more clear to me. For the Christian writers who come through the Professional Writing major at Taylor University, I am committed to them graduating with the following understandings:

  1. as Christians, I want them stand strong on the foundations of their faith, understanding that Scripture and their faith impacts every aspect of their lives; I want them to fall in love with God’s Word and see its power for the rest of their lives;
  2. as writers, I want them to understand that their love for and ability with words is a calling and a gift from the Caller that they should and must continue to hone and improve;
  3. as Christian writers, I want them to comprehend the power of those words and their responsibility to God for how they use their giftedness with words, especially as they seek to publish those words into the world.

How can my faith intersect my discipline as I teach the Professional Writing curriculum? How can I—a Christian publishing professional, editor, writer, and faculty member—bring these fundamental truths into our program? How can I bookend my students’ learning from their 101 introductory class to their final capstone class with these truths that matter?

It feels like a very heavy load.

But down deep in my soul, I sense that this is vital. This is more important than anything else I can do.

It is incumbent on Christian publishing professionals—whether authors or editors or publishers or marketers or bloggers or social media experts or agents—to deliver material that is well written, winsome, true, biblical, and honors Jesus Christ.

In a recent discussion, one of these Christian publishing professionals told me, “Too much of Christian writing is either preachy or saccharine. We need to bring wisdom, winsome words, and truth from our foundation into our writing.”

But what does that even mean anymore? The world is so deeply divided. Even among Christians there is so much division we sometimes act like a circular firing squad. I wonder how we can impact our world for good. How can we disagree about living out our faith (our politics, our work lives, our theological beliefs) but do so in a winsome and respectful way? How can we engage the questions so important in our culture, even as we disagree, while still being able to help others find what we have discovered in the foundations of our faith? In the end, that foundational piece is going to be all that matters to us anyway.

How do I guide my students to these understandings—even as we learn good writing and style tagging and editing and platform building and how to do a book proposal?

How do I guide them—even as we look for truth in Scripture and perhaps disagree on many other areas?

How do I help us all “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling” and work out our writing and publishing lives in the same way?

There’s a lot to unpack here, and I invite you to join me both as I prayerfully seek God’s guidance and express my thoughts in the blog. I invite you to comment with your own thoughts and ideas as I think this is a big conversation worth having.

Writers have a lot of power with their words.

And the world needs our very best.

 

The Splendid Work of Writing

I’ve been reading the essays of author Andre Dubus, considered a master of the short form. In his book, Meditations from a Movable Chair (New York: Vintage, 1999), Dubus writes an essay called “First Books” and offers this encouragement to writers:

An older writer knows what a younger one has not yet learned. What is demanding and fulfilling is writing a single word, trying to write le mot juste, as Flaubert said; writing several of them, which become a sentence. When a writer does that, day after day, working alone with little encouragement, often with discouragement flowing in the writer’s blood, and with an occasional rush of excitement that empties oneself, so that the self is for minutes longer in harmony with eternal astonishments and visions of truth, right there on the page on the desk, and when a writer does this work steadily enough to complete a manuscript long enough to be a book, the treasure is on the desk. If the manuscript itself, mailed out to the world, where other truths prevail, is never published, the writer will suffer bitterness, sorrow, anger, and more dangerously despair, convinced that the work is not worthy, so not worth those days at the desk. But the writer who endures and keeps working will finally know that writing the book was something hard and glorious, for at the desk a writer must try to be free of prejudice, meanness of spirit, pettiness, and hatred; strive to be a better human being than the writer normally is, and to do this through concentration on a single word, and then another, and another, and another. This is splendid work, as worthy and demanding as any, and the will and resilience to do it are good for the writer’s soul. If the work is not published, or is published for little money and less public attention, it remains a spiritual, mental, and physical achievement; and if, in public, it is the widow’s mite, it is also, like the widow, more blessed. (162-63)

dubus

Writers, we must endure. We must keep working knowing that the words we write are worth it . . . it being the process, the “splendid” work, the worthy and demanding work.

No one said it would be easy. No one said it would be a sure path to fame and fortune. But as writers, we must be true to ourselves, to our giftedness and our calling. We must reach and try and write and rewrite and reach again because it matters.

If we’re true to our giftedness, then we will continue to write — no matter whether published or not, read or not. It is the “widow’s mite” that we offer up, and we are blessed.

 

That Elusive Perfect Word

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?

 

Hands (Flash Nonfiction)

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.

 

My Experiment with Ekphrasis

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.

Ekphrasis, My New Inspiration

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:

Bruegel,_Pieter_de_Oude_-_De_val_van_icarus_-_hi_res
“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?