All posts by kenkuhlken

Dear Darcy, It Is Finished

This past week, I finished my most ambitious novel. I call it For America, because it is meant as a gift I hope will delight people who sense the need for a different ruling class (which in a democracy means the voters, no?), and help some others recognize that need.

I have worked on this story whenever inspiration struck since my big girl Darcy, who is now a school administrator, was tiny.  

One day when little Darcy noticed me staggering around the house with my head in the clouds  she said, “Oh no. Crazy ol’ Daddy’s working on The Grass Crisis again.”

She got most of that right, the crazy part and what I was working on. Only the title back then was The Gas Crisis.  Not The Grass Crisis.

To Bribe or Not to Bribe

For those who can’t afford to, or would rather not, bribe, here are some thoughts for anyone facing college admission.

Coming from a family of teachers at all levels; having spent most of my working life in one college or university or another,  including a dozen years as an academic advisor at a major university; being the parent of two college grads and of a current high school junior with high ambitions and qualifications both academic and athletic, I’ve got more thoughts about the subject of college and college admissions than any most busy person (meaning most anyone alive today) would have the time or patience to read at length about.

So I will attempt to give only what seems most important.

Anyone who doesn’t know that money can boost the odds of admission to an elite college and would like to understand a legal way the practice can work should watch The Gilmore Girls, in which Rory finds her way to an elite college through diligence, generational wealth, and an elite prep school. This, I believe, is an excellent route, but it might take several generations of hard work to achieve.

Another way, this one open to many of us currently in the financially bottom 99 percent, is sports. When my Zoe was eight years old, playing softball in a small, local recreation league, at all-star tournaments her mother and I often witnessed that the girls from our more prosperous competing leagues had textbook swings, quite different from most of our league’s girls. Meaning the prosperous families hired professional coaches. Since Zoe’s mom’s best friend was a pitching coach, we got a deal on that skill, and after year or two during which we came to believe Zoe would stick with the sport, her pitching referred us to a good and reasonable batting coach. Over these past eight years, we have paid well over $10,000 to her personal coaches. And since she eventually moved on to travel softball, that has cost us another couple thousand a year plus the gas money and lodging tournaments require and later the fees for showcase camps where college coaches come scouting. I’ll estimate we have spent around $20,000 on softball. And, we certainly have no guarantee that softball will factor into her acceptance to a college. Still, I don’t in any way begrudge those expenses. Softball has offered us lots of good times. Where some folks take dune buggies to the desert, we play softball. My advice here: if your kid loves a sport, give her or him every advantage you can afford, and have some fun in the process, but don’t bet the bank on it. For a closer look at the college sport scholarship route, read this article.

The same goes for private high schools. Because Zoe has always been eager to learn, we visited and considered two elite private schools but decided to give our local school a chance. Our high school has good reputation and has served Zoe quite well. We know several students who paid close to $30,000 per year at elite private schools, and we haven’t seen evidence that the choice substantially benefitted their kids as far as college admission. This is not to disparage private schools, because they are clearly the best place for some students, especially those who are more comfortable in smaller classes and will benefit from more personal attention from teachers. Again, if you can afford a private school, or have reason to believe a scholarship might be offered, look into that option.

Now that Zoe is a junior, we have faced the SAT and/or ACT test score challenge. And these days, every student aiming for college should spend some energy on test prep. A few options (in order of ascending cost) are reading a fat book; taking a daily summer or weekly class; and private tutoring. Since students can take the tests multiple times, we let Zoe choose what prep she preferred. She spent some hours on free sources from Kahn Academy and Princeton Review, mostly learning test strategies, and scored so high, not only did it save us the cost, and her the time, of tutors or classes, she has since begun tutoring on her own. So, in all, we have been blessed, as I wish all families could be. But such is not the case.

Before deciding how much stress to put on yourself as the parent or yourself as the student regarding test preparation, try asking, “What are my (or my student’s) reasons for college?” Because from this should come answers about what colleges to choose and consequentially how much test scores matter.

One of Zoe’s travel softball teammates could hit the ball so far over the fence it made us spectators gape in awe. She was also a straight A student, a great infielder and a quite personable girl. But at sixteen, she gave up travel ball, and one reason was, she had no interest in playing college softball and wanted to pursue other pastimes. Though she intended to go to college, she didn’t care much about a scholarship because her school of choice was the local state university whose tuition was relatively low, and her career goal was to become an elementary teacher, for which the state university offered a well-respected curriculum.

Other teammates of hers hope to become doctors, veterinarians, physical therapists, and since many colleges are known for their reputation in preparing students for particular careers, to identify a goal early on can narrow the choices of where to apply, and consequently which schools to read up about.

Deciding what kind of education would most benefit a particular student can be tricky.  Zoe, for example, is great at math and science, but is that what she should pursue, and why?  She has aptitude, but what career would make her feel most fulfilled, or most benefit our troubled world? And suppose she decides upon a STEM field, what specific major (math, engineering,  biology, chemistry, physics etc. ) will she most likely pursue.

Also, it’s wise to ask about each particular student, how mature is he or she, how motivated, how good a reader, listener, test-taker. I believe most everybody should attend college, but which one. Stanford or USC is hardly the best route for everybody.

A too often overlooked question: should the student go straight to a four-year college, or begin at a community college. I can testify that community college can in many cases be a far more beneficial arena in which to spend the first two years than state universities. Classes, in general, are smaller, and the same instructors may be also teaching at the local university.  My son and older daughter, who were hardly traditional scholars in high school, began their higher education in community colleges and are now quite pleased with their working lives. One is high school teacher, the other a school district administrator.

As an academic advisor, I often encountered students who should not have come to a university right out of high school. One common reason, they had no clue what their education should lead to. In hundreds of cases I witnessed, once students without career goals chose majors they found excitement in learning about, they  brought their grades (and their happiness) from poor or mediocre to excellent.

One girl I remember well returned to the college after flunking out and spending two years at a community college before she could gain readmission. She had earned straight A grades at the CC while, she told me, “My dad wouldn’t give me a dime. He said if I earned my way back into [the state college] and got a B average, then he’d start giving me money again. You watch, I’m going to get straight A’s. I’ll show him.”

With all the recent news about bribes being paid to assure admission to an elite university, it’s well worth asking, what’s the big deal about an elite college?

Several reasons to try for an elite institution come to mind:

Academic challenge, a mighty good reason, and one that can help in job placement following graduation and in making a good start in life-long learning. Many profs at elite colleges are smart and stimulating.

Opportunity to meet influential people, a decent reason, I suppose, though I have to wonder why don’t these people wealthy enough to bribe already know their share of influential folks.

Bragging rights. No comment, because you might just catch me one day sporting a bumper sticker or wearing a t-shirt from Zoe’s elite school, should she attend one.

At least one of the students admitted through a bribe cited her reason for choosing that school was its good parties. Do you suppose this kid told her parents that was her reason? And if so, did they bribe anyway? And if so, how does anyone that stupid make lots of money?

Whether using money to assist in college admissions should be considered unethical is not a question given to easy answers. In my mind, it depends upon whether the student deserves admission based upon merit. Because not all worthy students can be admitted. Too many excellent students seek to fill too few available seats.

If I were outrageously wealthy and any kind of decent human being, I would be looking for places to donate large sums, and if Zoe chose to go to go to an elite school, I might bestow a few million, if she met their qualifications, and I might be miffed if they didn’t accept her, and for sure I would look for another place to donate next time. Because I know that often the decision is based upon standards as suspect as money,  like ethnicity quotas or performance in very minor sports that don’t offer a whole lot of competition, or essays written by paid essay writers, or SAT scores that don’t mean a whole lot since the kid spent a year and a half in a prep class. Anyway, I would hope my donation went to build the school’s endowment, which would allow it to offer admission and reduced tuition to students who would otherwise need to mortgage their future and perhaps their family’s future to the student loan racket. And this is what endowments can do.

As the president of Perelandra College, I belonged to an organization of private college presidents, and at our annual meeting I sat in on discussions of whether or not colleges should willingly comply with some Education Department proposals that would require them to advertise the real average net price rather than the before common discounts.  To bring this down to earth, imagine you are in the Ritz Carlton and notice the posted rates in the room (the rack rate), and the rate for a double queen is $800, when you just paid $320 for your room. Now transpose this to the pricey private college that becomes much less pricey once you start the bargaining. Apparently some folks are so rich, they don’t bother to bargain, so they get hit with the rack rate, on account which the college can discount the tuition for you the bargain seeker.

Please don’t mention the above to your multi-millionaire friends.

Instead, bargain like crazy, and look at every other option including shopping colleges before you agree to a dime of student loans.

Student loans, in my humble opinion, rank at or near the top as the curse of our times. Because I am old, I can look upon them from a studied perspective. During the years I was an undergraduate, state taxpayers covered 80% of my college’s budget. Last year they covered 10%.

Now, if, as most of us believe, we all benefit from an educated population, why in the devil are we relegating our students to years of indentured servitude?

 

The Puzzle

One: In a Christian Bookstore

A couple years after I became known as a mystery writer, when my novel The Angel Gang came out, Alan Russell and I set off on a book signing tour. Somewhere in Central California, when we happened upon a Family Christian Bookstore, I said to Alan, “Hey, this place ought to carry The Angel Gang. I mean it’s got a heroine who’s a Christian and hangs out with angels.”

Alan said, “Not a chance. Do you know what drek these Christian bookstores carry?”

“Nope,” I said.

Not only was I a newcomer to this mystery business, I had only recently become a churchgoer and was as yet nowhere near as acquainted with either mysteries or contemporary Christian books as I hoped to become.

So I suggested we check out the store.

In non-fiction, I found a few worthy authors: C.S. Lewis, Philip Yancey, Dallas Willard, but mostly self-help on topics such as lose weight with a Godly diet or save your marriage with these six scriptures, and a few biographies of Church founders and missionaries.

Alan gave a told-you-so nod and we moved along to the fiction section.

To my horror, I saw no Dostoyevski, or Flannery O’Connor, or Graham Greene, all of whom had guided me toward conversion. Wondering if they were excluded because two were Catholic and the other Eastern Orthodox or because they were not particularly easy reading, I browsed long enough to realize the majority of books were Christian romance. And hardly of the Jane Eyre sort, I suspected, since these were the kind with Fabio clones on the cover only different than the secular kind since he wore a shirt.

While I walked out of there grumbling, I noticed a decal on the door that clued me the store was a member of the Christian Bookseller’s Association.

“Who are those guys?” I asked Alan.

Two: Who Are Those Guys?

The Christian Bookseller’s Association was organized in 1950, and inspired by the concern of primarily fundamentalist and evangelical churches who believed their flock needed help and guidance if they were to find the kind of reading most instructive and/or least offensive to people of the Christian faith.

So CBA established guidelines for books sold by its member stores to prohibit offensive content including profanity, alcohol consumption, and references to luck. At least according to Wikipedia, when a significant minority of customers at CBA’s member stores take offense to a book, CBA pressures all member stores to stop selling books by that book’s publisher.

Much like the auto industry can be convinced to make cars in accord with California emissions standards because so many of us Californians drive, publishers who want to sell to CBA bookstores make books that meet the CBA’s standards.

For those who find a typical evangelical statement of faith informative, I’ll give the CBA’s, for brevity leaving out the scripture citations:

We believe that there is one God, eternally existing in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each of Whom is fully and equally God

We believe the Bible to be the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.

We believe in the Deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His vicarious death and atonement through His shed blood, in His bodily resurrection, in His ascension to the right hand of the Father, and in His future, personal and visible return in power and glory

We believe that man was created in the image of God, that he was tempted by Satan and fell and, because of the exceeding sinfulness of human nature, regeneration by the Holy Spirit is necessary for salvation which is provided by God’s grace and appropriated through the believer’s faith in the atoning work of Christ on the cross .

We believe in the present ministry of the Holy Spirit by Whose indwelling the Christian is enabled to live a godly life, and by Whom the Church is empowered to carry out Christ’s great commission

We believe that as a witness to the world, and in obedience to God, the Christian believer is called to conform to the values and principles set forth in the Bible.

We believe that the Christian’s life should adhere to God’s revealed design for sexuality, for one‐man‐one‐woman marriage, and for family life, and, as God is the author of life, to His authority over gender .

We believe in the bodily resurrection of both the saved and the lost, those who are saved to the resurrection of life and those who are lost to a second death through an eternal separation from God

So, I wonder, does that mean that in addition to the absence of alcohol, profanity and luck, authors who hope to find a CBA affiliated publisher would be wise to keep their characters and themes within the bounds of the CBA prescribed faith.

Maybe. or maybe not. I will opine about that in Part 3.

Three: What to Do?

As a young writer, I didn’t consider writing for the Christian market, even after my first published novel was all about Christian people and themes, because I wanted everybody to read my books. Especially, I wanted people who supposed all who believe in Christ are nitwits to wise up.

But over the years, I slowly began to wise myself up, and to accept that the world is the way it is whether I like it or not, and that publishers, to sell a book, need to find a target audience.

Still, I was at a loss about whom to target.

Meanwhile, the agent who represented me bought another agency, got doubly busy, and passed me along to an associate who subsequently bungled what might’ve been a game changing sale. When, at church, I told a couple of smart writer friends about this mishap, they suggested I send something to a fellow they considered tops in the Christian agent business.

I did so.

He replied, “I surely like the book, but I don’t think I can sell it.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“Well, it’s got too much Christian content for the secular market and too much sex for the Christian market.”

I said. “Well, it’s not preachy but I can see why secular publishers might shy away. But too much sex? How can that be? There’s not any sex in it.”

“Right,” he said, “But Clifford thinks about sex.”

“Who doesn’t?” I asked.

“Pretty much nobody,” he said.

Now, I hadn’t written graphic sex, nor did I plumb Clifford’s mind specifically when he admired a woman or two. Maybe the part about him coming home from surfing and finding a pastor running out of his house pulling up his jeans would offend CBA readers. But as the last two churches I had attended suffered from such pastoral indiscretions, I felt the scene fairly not only realistic but one many churchgoers would find familiar.

A while thereafter, someone invited me to teach at a Christian writers’ conference and for several years, I taught at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference and the Florida Christian Writers conference. Those times were always enjoyable and rewarding, especially being in the company of kindred spirits, or at least people with whom I shared beliefs, passions, and ambitions.

But some of what I learned dispirited me.

An editor from Harvest House told a gathering of faculty that recently a bookstore had passed along a customer complaint about a Harvest House novel including somebody who drank wine. Regrettably, the editors decided henceforth not to allow such depravity.

In a class I attended, the editor/teacher asked our favorite Christian Writers. When I mentioned Graham Greene and Flannery O’Connor, he responded with a scowl. Anyone who hasn’t yet read The Power and the Glory or “Revelation”, please do.

Mount Hermon offered what they called a Master Class, attendance limited to students who had published at least one book and to faculty. What I found was terrifying to a rather shy man. Not only was I the only male in the gathering of twenty-some writers, I was also the only one whose specialty wasn‘t romance novels.

Now, I have no particular prejudice against romance novels except rumor holds they require adherence to a mighty strict plot formula. For followers of Christ drawn to write romance, I suspect the CBA and secular romance formulas aren’t far apart. Which may explain why I found myself in such an extreme minority.

Anyway, I decided neither the CBA nor the romance genre were the best fit for a fellow who probably couldn’t follow a strict formula if he wanted to. And I also had reason to fear that neither was the “mainstream” of commercial publishing the right place for a guy who seems incapable of disregarding his faith while pursuing his craft.

Then where, I wondered, is my place. Some of you may likewise wonder.

Soul Survivor by Philip Yancey offers examples of believers in Christ who have forged successful writing careers while exposing their honest faith.

In Part 4, I’ll address how they managed to overcome.

Four: A Few Survivors

In Soul Survivor, Philip Yancey credits a dozen people as the foremost influences that allowed his survival as a Christian after a childhood witnessing the bigotry of his “Christian” family and church. Among these influences are several contemporary writers from whom we might gain some insight into overcoming the obstacles of cynical mainstream and narrowly focused Christian publishers.

Frederick Buechner was an accomplished and moderately successful writer before he turned serious about te Christian faith. Once he made the commitment he returned to college to study theology, and subsequently became both the creator of a Christian studies program at Phillips Exeter Academy and a preacher, and during a sabbatical created The Final Beast, in which he combined his dual callings as a minister and a novelist.

Biographer Marjorie McCoy wrote: “Buechner in his sermons had been attempting to reach out to the “cultured despisers of religion.” In his novels, he has attempted the same. Would that more of us could succeed in such an attempt.

Annie Dillard is most worthy of our study not only for the extraordinary precision and beauty of her prose but also for her brilliance of insight. Her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a nonfiction narrative about the natural world near her home, led a critic to call her “one of the foremost horror writers of the 20th Century.” Acclaimed author Eudora Welty commented: “admirable writing” that reveals “a sense of wonder so fearless and unbridled… [an] intensity of experience that she seems to live in order to declare.”

Lessons we all can learn from Annie Dillard are to take our every word seriously, to follow our original light, and to believe that if we become good enough at our craft, people including publishers are apt to take notice.

Shusaku Endo used his own experience to inform his historical novel Silence, which has been called one of the 20th century’s finest novels. The story tells of a Jesuit missionary sent to 17th century Japan where he endures persecution in the time of  “Hidden Christians”. Its theme of a silent God who accompanies a believer in adversity was greatly influenced by the author’s experience of religious discrimination in Japan, racism in France, and a debilitating bout with tuberculosis.

Those of us looking for a way to tell our story and find a vehicle for our theme might consider, as Endo did, finding a popular context or genre, such as historical fiction, in which to place it.

In Part Five, I’ll note some other inspiring successes from whom we can learn, and through learning, possibly become valuable to a whole mob of readers.

 Five: Success

To study how other writers have succeeded in finding their audience is of course not only valuable to Christian writers, but it may be more critical and perhaps harder for us on account of current prevalent attitudes toward Christian thought and stories.

Graham Greene, especially in The Power and the Glory and The End of the Affair, wrote about problematic people: a humble yet deeply flawed priest, and a woman trying to live out her faith during times of tragedy of both worldwide and personal tragedy. But he also wrote spy stories he considered entertainments as opposed to the novels he approached with profound care and gravity. The entertainments were meant to support him and build his readership. The novels, which ask to put aside simple answers, are serious literature.

Ron Hansen is a dedicated Catholic who has written fine novels in which Christian themes or characters don’t figure. But his Mariette In Ecstasy is decidedly Christian though it avoids being cast aside by secular readers by showing the story, an account of a young nun enduring a stigmata experience, in what appears to be objective detail. For those unacquainted with the term, stigmata is the mysterious manifestation of wounds on a person’s body that correspond with the crucifixion wounds suffered by Jesus. The experience may be viewed as form of hysteria or a  miracle, and Ron Hansen leaves the answer to the reader.

Flannery O’Connor, an earnest Christian, was a boldly critical observer of Christian life and culture, often exposing the hypocrisy of churchgoers. Also, the characters she created are often larger than life, exaggerated almost to cartoonish proportions.

Anne Lamott, like Flannery O’Connor, is refreshingly original. Her brash, commonly profane, and self-revealing style and humor are probably what have made her work succeed remarkably with mainstream readers. Humor can win over most anybody.

John Irving is also a master humorist, and though he doesn’t profess to be a Christian, A Prayer for Owen Meany is a novel that takes Christian beliefs including the miraculous and prophetic quite seriously, and the book became and remains extraordinarily popular, perhaps because Irving has the gift of making the wild and outrageous stuff believable. I studied with him in Iowa and learned that he learned much about style and storytelling attitude from Charles Dickens

Six: Brand Yourself

I trust you will pardon a digression on account of something I read this week in Philip Yancey’s Christians and Politics: Uneasy Partners:  “A few decades ago an overwhelming majority of respondents with no faith commitment still viewed Christians favorably. According to George Barna researchers only 16 percent of young “outsiders” now have a favorable impression of Christianity and only 3 percent have a good impression of evangelicals.

As a writer lacking a retirement income that alone would allow me to subsidize Zoe’s college or travel much farther than say, Yuma, Arizona, I think about my writing income when considering what Mr. Yancey points out. Because the less favorable impression “outsiders” have, the less likely they are to buy my books. And since I don’t write primarily for the “insiders” who are more likely to read CBA books, which mine aren’t, I’m in somewhat of a fix.

The church I favor grew out of Calvary Chapel and is classed evangelical. So according to Mr. Yancey, most readers consider me homophobic, judgmental, hypocritical, old-fashioned, illogical, and convinced that whoever doesn’t agree with me will go to hell. Now why would anyone want to read an author about whom they think all that?

More to the point, how can I persuade them that’s not me.

Branding, that’s how. What I, and perhaps you, need is a brand that not only identifies me to readers as a Christian who is no more homophobic, judgmental, hypocritical, old-fashioned, or illogical than they are.

Here’s a fairly comprehensive look at what makes an author brand, which you ought to read when time allows. Meanwhile, though, so as not to lure you away from my compelling thoughts, here is an outline.

To Establish Your Brand:

First, identify your reader.
Then, develop your brand voice.
Also, figure out your unique selling point.
And set some expectations. Tell readers what they can expect from you.
And know what you’re branding. You are branding you, not your book
Be sure to choose a look, a color palette, maybe a smile, a sneer, a style of headgear, or a logo.
And once you’ve got the brand, apply it everywhere.

Now, you had best start branding. And if any insights about branding yourself, branding me, or about anything worthy of contemplation come to mind, drop me a note at ken@kenkuhlken.net

Seven: An 
Original Makes a Small Fortune

Apologies for the long delay. As usual, I got little done over Christmastime. Then, beginning with the new year,  almost everything I own broke, meaning I apparently own too much stuff.

Amidst my stuff, I discovered the novelist Joseph Girzone.

Mister Girzone’s books — so far I have read Shepherdand Joshua and the Children  — are quite unique, not only extremely Christian but also harshly critical of both contemporary churches and the history of the Christian church. To him, the whole Christian business, plagued by attitudes of exclusion and rivalry, is essentially a latter-day gang of scribes and Pharisees.

His basic story, repeated in one Joshua book after another, features Christ returning to earth in the attempt to show how his message of love and forgiveness is supposed to work. Mister Girzone spells the message out in dialogue, monologue, and narrative written at a level accessible to even young readers.

Though he is no poet or master stylist, I find him refreshing and will continue to read his books. In fact, today I ordered Joshua in the Holy Land. 

The story of his life as a writer I find compelling and worthy of study. A Catholic priest until health issues required that he retire from active ministry, he then turned to full time writing and speaking. After failing to find a publisher for his first novels, he published them on his own and began selling them at speaking engagements. Once his books gained a following, a Catholic imprint of Doubleday took them on. With national marketing, his Joshua novels sold in the millions, enabling him to provide for people in need much like his character Joshua does.  However, (from Wikipedia) “After that long period of success, (in 2007) due to changes in the publishing industry” Doubleday dropped him.

Early in this century, the publishing industry changed radically because of buyouts of midsized publishers by the multinational corporations, now known as the big five. Along with that change came a major attitudinal shift. No longer could an editor acquire and publish a book simply because he or she loved it. Instead, marketing and sales departments became the de-facto acquisition editors.

Eventually, the takeover of publishing by the multinationals may result in a wealth of new, smaller but vital publishers. Some of that has already happened.

Keep an eye out. Any you find or already know about, please let me know. I can help pass the word.

News and Notes 10/18

From Gary Swaim, Perelandra College Professor Emeritus:

I wanted to let you know that I have received my latest publication:  QUIXOTIC NOTIONS.  Approximately 150 pages and is available on both Amazon and Barnes and Noble.  The book is a collection of both some of my older poetry and some new poetry, along with a variety of my paintings (placed when possible in relationship to one another).  I’m very pleased with it and would love to have you or someone in your cadre of people review it, if possible.  I’m very proud of both its appearance and its substance.

I’m already working on two other books: one with the working title. . .10 IN A BROKEN LINE. . .perhaps with a subtitle, as it will essentially be stories in a creative non-fiction style and historical in nature, all related to fascinating people in my DNA-verified Swaim family line.  It’s intended to cover a very expansive period of time, as I have over 11,500 people in my tree ranging from numerous ggrandfathers who were from the Plantagenet family of kings to my 5th ggrandmother who was a freed slave married to my ggrandfather, a white man, who lived in North Carolina in the mountains away from even small communities, of necessity.  The second book, almost finished is a collection of short stories based on the county where my Father was born in Northeast Texas.  Still staying very busy.

Best,

Gary D. Swaim, Ph.D. 
Faculty Advisor, Creative Writing, Southern Methodist University
Minnie Stevens Piper Professor of Excellence for the State of Texas
2011 Texas Senior Poet Laureate
CONFLUENCE, Emeritus Editor-in-Chief
Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Programs, National Office, Duke University

 

And again, thanks to the generous businesses that sponsored the Perelandra College second annual fundraiser golf shindig.

They are:  Mission Trails Golf Course
Tecolote Canyon Golf Course
Bonita Golf Course
Berry’s Athletic Supply
Sprouts Market
Nandos Taco Shop, 8025 Broadway, Lemon Grove

How about playing a round or buying something from them? Or, if you live far away, send them a thumbs up text message and cc a San Diego friend.

Find Out Who You Are, Part One

According to the TV show Joan of Arcadia, which I recommend buying on DVD (for some insidious reason, it got cancelled), St Augustine wrote, “To know yourself is to know God.”

Telling our stories is an adventure. We might know what has happened in our past, but as we write or tell it, new insights and meanings come clear. In the process of telling our stories, we discover our lives.

As storytellers who draw on our experience, we see evidence that life isn’t a random collection of events. Rather, it appears to move in accord with some larger plan that forces us to confront our fears and weaknesses. We remember strange happenings at crucial moments. Events we once saw as catastrophes now appear as blessings.

Our life stories may become a foundation of our faith. In his essay “Faith and Fiction,” Fredrick Buechner maintains that our faith has the same beginnings as our fiction, in “the awareness of events in our lives that lead from one to the other and thereby give each other meaning. The ups and downs of the years, the dreams, the odd moment, the intuitions.”

The plots of our lives are foundations of our faith as well as the germs and cornerstones of the stories we write. Never mind whether we call the stories fact or fiction.

Read a whole book of these observations of mine.

Be Indomitable

Master Jeong taught that the Tae Kwon Do spirit (probably not to be confused with the spirit that moves us) is an indomitable spirit.

Sometimes when your world has crashed, it’s wise to tell yourself, “I have an indomitable spirit.” Say it enough, you may believe it. Believe it, and it may come true.

I used to keep a file of rejection letters, thinking once they stopped coming, I would use the collection to wallpaper a room. That was before I realized they may never stop coming. I got one this morning.

Here’s a grim fact of life. If you’re not getting rejected by somebody for something, you’ve probably stopped dreaming, which may be the most dangerous thing an artist can do.

Rejections may come from friends. Suppose you spend a year writing a novel, you give a copy to a compadre, and learn a few weeks later that he has not only put off opening your book, but during that time he’s bought and read two Dean Koontz thrillers. No matter what excuse he gives, your feelings get hurt.

In writers’ groups, we judge the worth of our stories by every remark, sigh, modulation of voice and facial expression. If our feelings don’t get hurt even a little, either we have achieved something like nirvana or become experts at the dubious skill of turning hurt to anger, which sooner or later will either kill us or send our spirits into exile.

Agents and editors sometimes reject us in brutal ways. I once submitted a baseball novel and after about four months received a note, “Sorry you struck out with us.” Either this prominent editor hadn’t gleaned that people who devote well over a year to a project don’t consider their work a joke, or she had a mean streak the size of and a heart the temperature of Siberia.

Suppose that after ten years of dedicated work you publish your first novel and feel you deserve at least a modicum of respect. You’ve gotten fine reviews. Then you pick up another review and think it must’ve been written by somebody who didn’t read more than five pages of your novel and, moreover, mistook you for the guy who stole his wife.

Anyone who has suffered such a review, or had a nightmare about receiving one, should read Tobias Woolf’s short story, “A Bullet in the Brain,” in which a book reviewer who gets taken hostage by bank robbers criticizes his captors until the joyous ending, which I won’t give away any more of than I already have.

In case I haven’t made my point, it’s this: as a writer, you’re going to get rejected. So you’d better protect yourself by learning how to cope with rejection.

Friedrich Nietzsche gave the simple answer to this problem. He wrote, “Creators are hard.”

Okay, but the best creators are also soft. They’re vulnerable, open to a deep and wide range of emotion. They’re pliable, willing to ditch their most cherished preconceptions for new truths and inspirations.

So let’s define “hard” as “resilient” rather than as “solid” or “dense”. Let’s be willing to stretch ourselves even to the breaking point by mustering confidence in our ability to repair our hearts or by trusting that God will repair us.

A few gimmicks have helped me recover from rejection. The simplest is realizing that no one person can determine how other readers will react. Midheaven, my first novel, went to three editors. The first reported that he liked the story but not the narrator. The second liked the narrator but not the story. The third liked both and bought the book.

Still, many times I have needed to wallow in self-doubt and agony until I remembered that critical success may not be as important as the health of my family and friends.

Many times I’ve survived rejection by already having in mind a next book and being so excited about it I can convince myself no sane person could reject it. In this state of mind, I remember my writer friend Don Purviance asking, “Are you in it for the long haul, or aren’t you?”

Quit Making Excuses

At least until you get six-figure advances, when you meet people and they ask what you do, beware of telling them you’re a writer. Too often they’ll think you make lots of money. If you’re honest, you’ll admit you don’t. And suddenly they won’t appear to find you as interesting as they did when they saw dollar signs.

Or they’ll tell you they too are going to become writers as soon as they can find the time.

Nobody I’ve ever met has ample time to write. We get the time by stealing it. We take jobs that give us long weekends, and/or find part-time jobs or husbands or wives who won’t expect much money out of us, and/or take our kids to day-care and hustle or pray for tuition money, and/or resign ourselves to five or six hours of sleep a night and/or pass up weekend softball leagues or vacations. When our family suggests a day trip to the beach, we often ask them to go without us and spend our first hour of freed writing time suffering flashbacks of their parting looks or comments.

One evening in Tae Kwon Do, when the time for my black belt test was nearing, I encountered Master Jeong in the locker room and explained why I wasn’t coming to class often enough and admitted I realized that to progress required at least three classes a week. I meant to come more often, I told him, once Little League season ended and released me from managing Cody’s baseball team.

Master Jeong listened to all that. Then, without a nod, a grimace or a word, he turned and walked off. I supposed he was preoccupied.

A week or so later, I found him in a congenial mood. We chatted about some mutual concerns before, once again, I explained my failure to attend more often.

Without expression or comment, he walked away.

After three or four such responses (I’m not always quick-witted), I recognized that people making excuses, reasonable or not, might as well be invisible, and inaudible.

Why we fail to perform doesn’t matter. Our reasons are of no consequence. Missing classes (or writing sessions) because of working the three jobs I need to send my daughter to college will affect my performance in the same way as if I missed them because of an addiction to Survivor.

To earn a black belt, I needed to change my habits. Simple.

A Time for Everything

I was considering writing about a feeling that has come over me, as though I think differently from everyone I know and consequently can hardly open my mouth without risking an argument.

While contemplating this predicament, and wondering if this year or era is especially argumentative, if all the warring factions that have either risen or come out of the closet have pushed our society to a new level of interpersonal alienation; if the constant reminders of our differences in gender, race, religion, generation, social class, education and all won’t allow us to consider anyone as simply as a person, meaning they are probably more like than unlike us.

When I was in college, as a literature major, we studied Camus, Sartre, Elliot, Duras and others who tackled the theme of alienation. But though I’m well aware that what I’m feeling is nothing unique or new, I suspect the separation between people has become a sort of disease.

As I reflected upon this gloomy vision, I got inspired to take a look at Ecclesiastes 3:1:

A Time for Everything

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

So, I came away thinking, we writers ought to ask and/or pray about, in this particular and mighty peculiar age, what time is it? What should we be doing, writing about, ranting about, keeping silent about, or going to metaphorical war over?

I suspect for each of us the answer will be different. Which is a very good thing. As my mom, a cliche master, asserted regularly, “It takes all kinds to make a world.”

For quite a few years, I wrote feature stories for the San Diego Reader. My editor, Judith Moore may well have been an angel. At least, she was one of the wisest counselors in creation. When a friend of my cousin Patti got accused of Satanic child abuse in the nursery of a large church and his arrest and trial became a local and national media sensation, Judith asked me to write about the controversy. What I learned infuriated me. I became livid about certain attorneys and therapists who either played the case for their own advantage or were astonishingly ignorant. And I wrote the draft of a feature story with that fury impelling me. But Judith, when she read the draft, simply said, “Ken, you don’t do angry.” And she was right, with a caveat: because I didn’t do angry then doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do angry now.

Maybe my time to write angry has come. I will pray about it.

Job or Life, Take Your Pick

College should be more than vocational training. It should also be the introduction to a rich and satisfying life.

Here’s a passage from a recent New York Times article:

“’The largest problem of skills in the U.S. today isn’t a shortage of young workers with specific competencies,’ Eric Hanushek, researcher and Stanford professor, wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. ‘Instead it is a need for more general cognitive skills that give workers the ability to adapt to new circumstances and new jobs.’

“Clearly, this country still needs more and better vocational education. It remains a path to good blue-collar jobs for many Americans, and it could be a path for even more. But vocational education is not a perfect solution to blue-collar wage stagnation, and it can’t be the only solution.”

“We also need to think about how to retrain people as they age. And we shouldn’t be promoting vocational education at the expense of general education. Expanding the number of four-year college graduates also deserves to be a national priority. They continue to fare much better in the job market than people who have not had the benefit of a broad, flexible education.”

Please consider the benefits to you, family, or friends, of pursuing a broad, flexible education at Perelandra College, and perhaps pass along our message.

 

Get Courageous

When I was in graduate school at the University of Iowa, I read in the college newspaper an interview with the director of the Playwrights’ Workshop. The reporter asked for his advice to would-be playwrights. His response was so outrageous, I remember it after a bunch of years.

He advised, if you have a boyfriend or girlfriend, get rid of them. If you’ve got a husband or wife, disown them. If you’ve got kids, drown them.

I suspect he was practicing dramatic hyperbole. Yet I, like Saint Paul, agree with the basic principle: lovers and dependents can get in the way of our work.

If you dedicate yourself to writing, at some point you’ll suspect people are conspiring to stop you. They will demean your efforts overtly or by lack of appreciation. Your family will fail to hide their resentment of the time you spend dreaming over the keyboard and the fact that you don’t make as much money as you could if you applied the same effort to pulling weeds for minimum wage.

And when you’re having a creative reverie, or even if they catch you transcribing directly from the spirit, they will interrupt.

We can’t blame them. When pursuing our art, we’re lost to the world. We’re remote, boring, often cranky. We’re loners who may elicit jealousy when our loved ones begin to doubt we really need them.

But most of us do need them, at least in times when we’re not creating. So, if I were asked for advice on this issue, I might suggest we try hard to be extra good to our loved ones whenever we break away from our art. And we might try putting a lock on our office door.

In practicing art, we risk alienating family and friends. That’s a fact. Artists aren’t recognized as the best husbands, wives or parents. But neither are soldiers, policemen or preachers, other occupations that require courage.

As Olga Savitsky taught me, King David was “a man after God’s own heart” because he was both a warrior and a poet. I imagine David composing his psalms with the same focus, zeal, and courage as he used attacking Goliath or the Edomites.

Read on in Writing and the Spirit

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