Tag Archives: finding inspiration

A Unique and Most Valuable Degree

About a dozen years ago, several of us founded a small online college. As I’m not patient enough to write the whole story here, I’ll only give the plot points.

Perelandra College got licensed by the state of CA to offer degrees and subsequently approved by a national accreditor. After a few years, for financial reasons, we gave up the accreditation, without which the license wasn’t worth all the work and money it required, so we also gave that up. Which left us as simply a provider of knowledge and encouragement.

We innocently believed that enough people just wanted to learn the writer’s craft to keep us afloat and perhaps help us bank enough to once again get licensed and accredited. But a cottage industry had arisen, offering to teach would-be writers the necessary craft and marketing skills, and all of this online. By now we’re competing with a legion of providers from blatant hucksters to the tolerably legit, among them Stanford University and James Patterson, most if not all of them far more capable of marketing than we are.

The obvious next step is to write off the school as a flop and move on. But since one of my tragic flaws is persistence, I’m not willing to give up. Another solution is to find an angle. I chose to follow the example of W.C. Field on his deathbed when somebody caught him reading a Bible and asked if he’d been converted, and he replied, “I’m looking for a loophole.”

Our first step in founding a college was to apply for status as a tax-exempt corporation. One of our partners knew an attorney with expertise in processing such applications for churches. So, we became a tax-exempt religious corporation. Which I recently learned can also exempt us from the cumbersome and expensive task of licensure, as long as “the instruction is limited to the principles of that religious organization.”

The ruling principle of Perelandra College holds that if artists diligently seek the source of inspiration with an active, humble, and open heart and mind, they will find what they need to make their work not only entertaining but true and of genuinely valuable. We view the source of inspiration in Christian terms, as the Holy Spirit.

When I first began teaching college creative writing, many of my classes were for beginners. Early on, I realized that most of the students might never, after finishing the class, write another story. So, I wondered, except for the sake of the few who were serious about learning the craft, what good was the class anyway? And soon I recognized that my goal was to teach creative problem solving — the use of both reason and intuition, both sides of the brain if you will, in the attempt to find the best answers to artistic problems. And I began to see that this skill is helpful, if not critical, in contending with the perplexing daily lives of most anybody. Which is why I believe the degree program, a Master of Arts in Writing and the Spirit — which I will soon propose to our board of governors — could also be called the Master of Arts in How to Live.

I imagine our board will approve and soon the primary goal of every class will be to find and apply inspiration, the highest form of creativity.

We currently offer certificate programs. But degrees are more valuable than certificates, and rightly so. Certificates are limited to skills. Degrees are meant to also offer a context in which the skills are applied, a holistic and rounded education.

James Patterson can’t (yet) offer a degree. Stanford University can, for about ten times the money we ask. And neither of them, or any of the others providers I know, has the nerve to claim they can help people get inspired, like we claim.

For a preview of what the Perelandra College degree program will offer, read Writing and the Spirit, free as an ebook until June 1.

Purple Rain

For no particular reason I can recall, I never quite connected with Prince, except that every time I happened to hear ”Purple Rain”, I thought, Whoa, that’s some mighty fine blues.

And now Prince died. I read a few articles and watched a couple U-tube performances the articles linked to, and learned to appreciate the fellow so deeply that a couple days ago, I downloaded “Purple Rain” and since then have listened to it obsessively. If I’ve ever been as moved by a song, the memory has flown.

I used to be mystified by the purple rain image, and a little put off by it, as some of us tend to be when we find ourselves clueless. But this past week, it only took a few times listening until I knew, as sure as I know anything, that purple rain is the holy spirit.

Skeptical? Listen for yourself.

Should you not believe in the holy spirit, call it the muse or whatever else you may consider the source for inspiration, or the part of our nature that guides us to and through what some call intuition, and into every sort of transcendence. No doubt many would contend it begins with or results in brain chemistry. No matter, the effect is so powerful, so transforming . . . see below.

I’m in Tucson for reasons probably irrelevant to this discussion. I’m alone, no Zoe to occupy my energy, fewer distractions than when I’m home. This evening, I listened to “Purple Rain” on the way to dinner at Rocco’s Chicago Pizza, a most delightful establishment (on Broadway, in case you should visit that part of the world). Only seconds after I took a patio seat, I heard a man at the next table telling a joke: the Pope dies. St. Peter takes him to someplace reminiscent of a Chicago El train stop. The Pope says, “I didn’t expect heaven to be quite like this.” As St. Peter begins to respond, a server interrupted my attention. If you know the end of that joke, please send it to me. I might’ve asked the man to repeat it, but he had already segued into a story about swimming in the ocean and running into a Portuguese man of war, which, as he pointed out, is purple. “Fitting,” he said, “since purple is the color of danger.”

Whoa, I thought. The holy spirit is dangerous all right. It can break “the frozen sea inside us”*; force us to witness us who we really are; and/or compel us to gaze into an abyss where we learn that “if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” **

If we survive, we are rich beyond measure. If we don’t, who knows?

Thank you, Prince. You have given me a bountiful week.

* Franz Kafka
** Friedrich Nietzsche

What Would Jesus Do?

Jesus would tell a story.

When my son Cody was 14 and more troubled than I can write about and keep from feeling my heart break all over again, I gave him a Bible. I had only recently begun attending church. Sometimes Cody would go with me, but though he would never admit to being baffled, I sensed he didn’t have the background required to take much from the messages. So I bought him a Bible of his own and suggested that if he read at least Matthew and Acts, he’d get some basics that would make church less strange and tedious.

Late that night, he ran upstairs. Sounding more animated than he had in a couple of years, he said, “Hey, I thought this Bible was a lot of preaching, but it’s a great story.”

Didn’t Cecil B. DeMille title his epic film, The Greatest Story Ever Told?
*
In his essay “Faith and Fiction,” novelist Fredrick Buechner contends that whether what we call inspiration comes from the Holy Spirit, from the muse (who or whatever she may be), or results from a lucky break in the process of imagining, it’s possible at least every now and then to be better than we are, to write more than we know. And he points out that St. Paul asked, “Do you not know that God’s spirit dwells in you?”

And 1 Corinthians 2:16 maintains, “But we have the mind of Christ.” Which could mean that Christ’s mind has entered ours, thereby giving us its capabilities. Or it could mean that we can use our minds in the same ways Christ used his.

Either interpretation tells me we are capable of tuning in and getting divine help with our essays, poems or stories. And if we aren’t tuning in, if the spirit isn’t helping, the problem may lie with our attitude.

One Sunday Gary Goodell, a pastor and former seminary professor, proposed that it may be through the act of communion that Christ enters our being.

Let’s suppose this is the case. Then having the mind of Christ depends upon receiving communion, and according to 1 Corinthians 11: 23-29, receiving communion (rather than just gobbling it) requires a humble and honest attitude.

So, attitude may be the key to the place (or places) the spirit (or spirits) rests. Our attitude may determine which spirit can move us, as well as how much we hear of what the spirit has to say.

What Might the Spirit Give Us?

Most obviously the spirit may give us lines that are either clearly or subtly profound and perhaps original, such as Dimitri Karamazov’s, “Only how is he [anyone] going to be good without God? That’s the question. I always come back to that. For whom is man going to love then? To whom will he be thankful?” That inspired question given to Feodor Dostoyevski resonated in my thoughts for weeks.

And the spirit might give us metaphors, such as Olga Savitsky so frequently heard and employed. Here’s one I’ll probably never forget: “Puny faith is like a rusty zipper.”

Maybe even some nonsense comes from the spirit, to lighten our hearts, such as Lewis Carroll’s “Kaloo kaley, we’ll eat today like cabbages and kings.”

The spirit may help us with structure or guide us to the right place in our story to use a certain thought or image, so that it can achieve the greatest impact.

The spirit may even provide a theme or epic narrative that will define our life’s work.

William Butler Yeats proposed that for each of us there may exist one archetypal story or explanatory myth that, being understood, might clarify all we do and think, and so explain our destiny.

From Writing and the Spirit. Read it all.