Monthly Archives: February 2015

A Masterpiece

Long ago, in Chico, California, I was with students in a taco shop after a creative writing class I taught at the state university a few blocks away.

A student, a black-haired beauty incongruously named Mord, said, “Writing is so hard, I wonder if it’s worth our time to maybe spend our whole lives writing stories and maybe not make any money with them.

“Why do you do it?” she asked.

“I have this dream,” I said, “that if I write enough stories and work hard enough, one of them will be a masterpiece.”

“Okay, but how will you know it’s a masterpiece?”

“Maybe I won’t,” I said. “But somebody who reads it might tell me it moved them to have a better life, or to see the world more clearly.”

Later, in Tucson, Arizona, Jonathon Penner, a writer and professor, asked, “How do you think we can draw the distinction between art and commercial or hack writing?”

I thought a while and said, “Beats me.” But over the years I’ve discovered a better response.

Art, I’ll contend, isn’t the creation but the process of giving all our powers to make a creation as superb and honest as we can. The creation may become what we call great art, good art, poor art, or lousy art. But art it is, if the creator gave it his or her all.

And our powers aren’t only about innate talent or developed skill, I’m convinced. The power we have, the one that can make our efforts transcend our talent and skill and birth a masterpiece, is the power to get inspired.

From Writing and the Spirit

A Perhaps Line — A Review

By Elizabeth Kropf

Gary Swaim’s book A Perhaps Line asks readers to not only wrestle with the division between the material and immaterial, but with the placement of the poems themselves. The poems are divided into two sections, “Poetry of the Material World” and “Poetry of the Immaterial World.” The first section, “Poetry of the Material World,” does contain poems rooted in the physical, especially “The Artist and the Model” and “Accordion Dreams.” However, the fifth poem in the book is the first of several about a six month coma, which masterfully addresses physical limitation, hallucination and the journey of the mind. The placement of these poems is striking, as it influences the readings of later poems such as “Nausicaa” and “Scaramouche.” Are these explorations of literary figures born from dreams and coma-induced hallucinations? After all, we learn in the poem “These Arms, These Shoulders” that the coma brought Milton, Rilke and Dante to the mind of the narrator (disclosed as Swaim in the preface).

Swaim claims an “arbitrary” placement of the poems in the book. However, the tension in the placement creates stronger meaning. The second section, “Poetry of the Immaterial World” holds a series of poems about Adam and Eve, which are so anchored in physical lust and dissension it makes the reader ask “what is immaterial in this?” The placement itself adds a layer of meaning and exploration that would be lost if the poems were in the first section. “Stations of the Cross” is rooted in the physical and unbearably graphic. The depravity creates an ache for an escape to the immaterial (or the immaterial described physically at least)–for Christ risen in heaven. Yet the poem closes with only the hope of the Resurrection.

Even an insightful arrangement of poems is not enough to carry the weight of a collection, and Swaim’s poems do not disappoint. The poems have strength individually and reach from life towards death, and create a yearning for life from death. The poems “What Night Questions” and “Three Penny Nails” accomplish mourning a father’s death without sentimentality. The reader is left with the concrete nature of loss (wood shim and window jambs) and the rising that echoes throughout the collection. The book travels through terror of near death, too soon death, the agony lust can bring, and yet the final poem “Nine-Eleven” ends with the assertion that “all things rise again.” We are left holding a book that looks at the frailty and evil in life and chooses to have faith. We are encouraged to do the same.

Gary Swaim is a Professor Emeritus of Perelandra College

 

Isaiah’s Rules for Writers (1)

In State of the Union, I suggested that Isaiah, in chapter 61, while prophesying the ministry of Jesus, may have also offered career advice to us writers.

Suppose he did, and suppose a writer who decides to follow the prophet’s advice chooses to start with the assignment “proclaim the good news to the poor.” Now the writer may ask, “What exactly does this mean to me?”

Let’s say she’s writing a novel. In the context of a novel proclaim could mean present by example in the life of a character. The content of the good news she proclaims could effect a change for the better in the character’s actions, situation, or attitude. Since the good news as a whole is way too broad of a theme for a single novel, this writer will need to ask herself exactly what element of the good news she feels most passionate about. Maybe she deeply values freedom. Perhaps freedom from fear, or greed, or lust, or vanity.

Basic knowledge about her novel’s main character and the good news she means to present can give her what is commonly called a story arc.

The story arc in the film Tender Mercies: Mac is a country singer whose life has fallen into ruins on account of guilt and alcohol. Then a woman’s love and faith help deliver him from overpowering guilt. His life rises out of the ruins. Here the good news of freedom from guilt is proclaimed in a simple story so well done it won five Oscars.

Suppose our writer wants to proclaim a piece of good news that Jesus offered during his Sermon on the Mount: the merciful are blessed because they will receive mercy. Say a character’s conflict is that she suffers under an abusive husband. Maybe she flees to protect herself and her children. Now the writer could imagine a dozen ways the character and her kids might get blessed with mercy. As soon as she picks one way (or more), she has a story arc.

Warning: the story arc isn’t a roadmap. It’s more of a compass, to consult when lost or unsure of the direction.

When a good ballplayer steps up to bat, she quits thinking about her swing and just swings. Likewise, a good writer stashes analysis and preconceptions in the back of her mind, then lets go and lets the story take on a life of its own.

State of the Union

I listened to President Obama’s state of the union address.

A wise old friend of mine split the world into two kinds of people — those of good will, and the others. Mister Obama appears to be a person of good will.

But on every issue, what he addressed was essentially the application of Band Aids.

I mean, every woe he hopes to fix or lessen is a symptom, each of them caused by people acting in their own “interest” rather than in the interests of all.

Ebola would not be nearly such a problem if extreme poverty had been eradicated as it should have been long ago.

Global warming would not be an issue if not for our lust after and addiction to extreme luxury and comfort.

Wars, obviously, would not happen if not for our inability or unwillingness to consider our fellow humans as important as ourselves or our families.

Here is Isaiah, in Verse 61, the prophetic passage Jesus later quoted to introduce himself:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me
1. to proclaim good news to the poor.
2. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
3. to proclaim freedom for the captives
4. and release from darkness for the prisoners,
5. to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
6. and the day of vengeance of our God,
7. to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them:
8. a crown of beauty
 instead of ashes,
10. the oil of joy
 instead of mourning,
11. and a garment of praise
 instead of a spirit of despair.

I numbered the challenges for emphasis because I believe we who think of ourselves as Christian writers, or as both writers and Christians, should consider:

If we think writing is our calling, which most of us do; and if we believe that as followers of Christ we should attempt to model our behavior on his, which is what most of us profess; then we ought to base our mission on his, which Isaiah stated clearly and in detail.

Whether or not we’re anointed, as Isaiah claimed to be, is another issue. Still, I’ll suggest that we at least try to live so that if anointing (inspiration) is available, we can grab it and pass it along.

Back to the state of the union: if we who call ourselves Christians had acted in accord with the teachings of Christ, then surely, over 2000 years, we could’ve created a world in which good will would so obviously prevail that there would be little need for Band Aids.

Mahatma Ghandi famously answered a fellow who asked why, since he essentially followed the precepts of Christ, he was not a Christian. His answer was something like, “If I had ever met a Christian (i.e. someone followed the leading of Christ) maybe I would be a Christian.”

Perhaps he hadn’t looked very wide or hard. I mean, even I with my limited experience could point to several true Christ followers. Still, Ghandi’s point is well taken. Most of aren’t likely to be noted for our selfless, sacrificial behavior.

But to quote from a ’60s anthem, “Don’t think it can’t happen just because it hasn’t happened yet.” History aside, if as writers we think of ourselves as Christians, shouldn’t our primary goal be to awaken readers to what Christ stood for? And if that’s our goal, I’ll suggest we take our cue from Isaiah.

Which is why I believe in Perelandra College, whose mission is essentially to help people of good will promote good will in others, by (1) cheering them with good news; (2) offering solace to the hopeless and brokenhearted; (3,4) leading those in all kinds of captivity toward freedom; (5,6) giving our readers a glimpse of eternity and comforting them with glorious visions; (8) creating and sharing beauty; (9, 10) presenting the multitude of reasons for joy and gratitude, and in all ways lobbying against despair.

So, let’s get busy.

The State of the Union

I listened to President Obama’s state of the union address.

A wise old friend of mine split the world into two kinds of people — those of good will, and the others. Mister Obama appears to be a person of good will.

But on every issue, what he addressed was essentially the application of Band-Aids.

I mean, every woe he hopes to fix or lessen is a symptom, each of them caused by people acting in their own “interest” rather than in the interests of all.

Ebola would not be nearly such a problem if extreme poverty had been eradicated as it should have been long ago.

Global warming would not be an issue if not for our lust after and addiction to extreme luxury and comfort.

Wars, obviously, would not happen if not for our inability or unwillingness to consider our fellow humans as important as ourselves or our families.

Here is Isaiah, in Verse 61, the prophetic passage Jesus later quoted to introduce himself:

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,

because the Lord has anointed me

1. to proclaim good news to the poor.

2. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,

3. to proclaim freedom for the captives

4. and release from darkness for the prisoners,

5. to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor

6. and the day of vengeance of our God,

7. to comfort all who mourn,

8. and provide for those who grieve in Zion—

to bestow on them:

9. a crown of beauty
 instead of ashes,

10. the oil of joy
 instead of mourning,

11. and a garment of praise
 instead of a spirit of despair.”

I numbered the challenges for emphasis because I believe we who think of ourselves as Christian writers, or as both writers and Christians, should consider:

If we even suspect writing is our calling, which most of us do; and if we believe that as followers of Christ we should attempt to model our behavior on his, which is what most of us profess; then we ought to base our mission on his, right? And Isaiah stated Christ’s mission clearly and in detail.

Whether or not we’re anointed, as Isaiah claimed to be, is another issue. Still, I’ll suggest that we at least try to live so that if anointing (inspiration) is available, we can grab it and pass it along.

Back to the state of the union: if we who call ourselves Christians had acted throughout our history in accord with the teachings of Christ, then surely, over 2000 years, we could’ve created a world in which good will would so obviously prevail that there would be little need for Band-Aids.

Mahatma Ghandi famously answered a fellow who asked why, since he essentially followed the precepts of Christ, he was not a Christian. His answer was something like, “If I had ever met a Christian (i.e. someone who obviously followed the leading of Christ) maybe I would be a Christian.”

Perhaps he hadn’t looked very wide or hard. I mean, even I with my limited experience could point to several true Christ followers. Still, Ghandi’s point is well taken. Most of aren’t likely to be noted for our selfless, sacrificial behavior.

But to quote from a ’60s anthem, “Don’t think it can’t happen just because it hasn’t happened yet.” History aside, if as writers we think of ourselves as Christians, shouldn’t our primary goal be to awaken readers to what Christ stood for? And if that’s our goal, I’ll suggest we take our cue from Isaiah.

Which is why I believe in Perelandra College, whose mission is essentially to help people of good will promote good will in others, by (1) cheering them with good news; (2) offering solace to the hopeless and brokenhearted; (3,4) leading those in all kinds of captivity toward freedom; (5,6,7,8) giving our readers a glimpse of eternity and comforting them with glorious visions; (9) creating and sharing beauty; (10,11) presenting the multitude of reasons for joy and gratitude, and in all ways lobbying against despair.

So, let’s get busy.