Tag Archives: writing

Pay Your Dues

After his victory over the tempter in the wilderness, Jesus returned in the “power of the spirit.” In other words, Christ had to face temptation before the full power of the spirit was available to him.

Likewise, we may need to prove ourselves ready for the gifts of inspiration.

During graduate school, at a party after a reading, I was talking to Sara Vogan and C. E. Poverman (alias Buzz). Sara was my friend and fellow student. Buzz had come to give the reading. Sara asked Buzz, who had finished Iowa’s writers’ workshop program a few years before, how long it usually took graduates before they sold a book. Buzz replied that even the writers who succeed most always take ten years from the time they got serious about writing.

He was dead right, I’ve observed. And who can count the ones who fail or drop out along the way?

I began to write in earnest soon after I realized my dad, not I, was the musician in our family, and I was the storyteller.

By “in earnest” I mean every chance I could. If the workdays burnt me out, I would write all weekend. If kids demanded my weekends, I rose early and wrote.

I hauled a wife and baby to Iowa largely because I imagined earning a graduate degree that qualified me to teach writing at a college would allow me more time to write than most professions would.

I don’t mean to whine. If anybody sacrificed because of my choices, it was my family, not me. My life has been a great adventure.

What I do mean is this:

If you want the spirit’s help with your writing, the spirit may require that you make writing your top priority.

I heard about a South Korean man who instantly became a hero of mine. Having been imprisoned in a North Korean labor camp for some political crime, he and another former prisoner wrote and were producing an operatic musical about those camps. They found potential backers, but the South Korean government pressured the backers to withdraw and thereby avoid public outcry that could damage economic cooperation with North Korea.

So this producer mortgaged his kidney to pay for the production.

Let’s think about him when we lament missing Saturday morning volleyball in favor of writing.

Love Better

From Writing and the Spirit:

In church, Olga said she believed that when people prayed for her, the prayers were effective because the people who prayed loved her. A light flashed in my dim brain and I saw that prayers given in love will always be the ones most acceptable to God.

Because God is love, God exists in a dimension of love, and for us to communicate in that dimension, we have to enter that dimension and speak in that dimension’s language.

Similarly, the more able we are to approach our writing with an attitude of love, the closer we will be to the dimension where the spirit that moves us resides, and the better we’ll be able to translate its message.

In the book of Matthew, Christ says to “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that spitefully use you and persecute you.” He explains that if we only love our friends and do good to those who treat us well, we are no better than the worst of humanity. So the more and better we love, the closer we’ll get to being like God, to becoming perfect.

If we need to become perfect before we can make perfect art, then the key to perfecting our art is to grow in our capacity to love, and to exercise that capacity.

In light of the above and Saint John’s injunction that “perfect love casts out fear,” let’s suppose the Beatles were right in singing “Love is All You Need.” Then let’s exhort ourselves to love even the antagonists of our lives and our stories. And let’s allow the power of that love to help us create fearlessly, without worrying about the judgment of readers, editors, reviewers, or the folks who sit next to us in church.

With our hearts and minds lightened by love and the absence of fear, the spirit can easily move us.


I have trouble envisioning either heaven or hell. And I’m increasingly coming to understand St. Paul’s comment in 1 Corinthians 15:19,  “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

I mean, though we may or may not be actively persecuted for our beliefs, trusting in the primary instruction of Christ–which is essentially to continually love and sacrifice for even those who abuse or demean us–is at odds not only with the messages our culture throws at us but also with our human natures, as we are essentially selfish creatures.

By the way, isn’t Christ’s instruction what President Obama in his State of the Union address meant when he (at least twice) urged congress and the American people to practice “unarmed truth and unconditional love.”

Anyway, the closer I get to eternity, the more I want to believe in the reality of an afterlife. I suspect I could believe more fervently if I can better learn to imagine what eternity looks or feels like.

Long ago, I got blessed by a glimpse of heaven. I’ll address that blessing in a post all it’s own. For now, here’s a passage from my novel Midheaven inspired by that experience: “I’m painting a mural on the whole north wall, a canyon and beyond the canyon a row of cedar decked out with golden and silver bells. Between the canyon and the cedar is a garden of fruit and blossoms maybe brighter even than Van Gogh would’ve made them and pathways lined with a rainbow of flowers and a different moon for each evening. I’ve painted twelve so far. At night I hear the bells play lovely tunes, sonatas and lullabies.”

What’s on my mind today, though, is hell.

Jack Kerouac described the feeling of an especially vile hangover as certainty that he should not have gotten born, a dread conviction that his life was a hideous mistake.

I’m hardly such an expert on hangovers as Kerouac, but I have suffered a few and awoke to the horror of recalling and passionately regretting my comments and/or behavior of the previous night.

I wonder if that state could be a glimpse of hell.

Not that I intend to go to hell, but just in case, or should the theory of purgatory prove valid, I’m rededicating myself to behaving and thinking in ways I hope will please God. And even more deeply, I’m determined to write what I believe pleases God.

I don’t consider fear the best motivator, but sometimes it works. Fear has kept me a couple decades without a hangover. And I certainly dread even one hour in a purgatory of shame and remorse, hungover from life.

Imagine the horror of those whose motives for writing were money or pride. God have mercy.

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.

I’m and artist and so are you

An Artist?

“We are God’s art, created in Christ Jesus to do works of beauty, which God has prepared in advance for us to do.” Ephesians 2:10

“So God created mankind in his own image… male and female…” Genesis 1:27.

We are made in the image of the master artist, the creator of all creation, to create works of beauty.

Though we may not be called to quit our day jobs, run off to Tahiti and paint our impressions of the islanders, we are meant to view our work and our lives from an artist’s perspective.

Whether our goal is to provide announcements for a church newsletter, to make of our home a refuge from the storm outside, to save stories and lessons from our lives, to create happiness by loving well, or to compose a novel or film masterpiece, we are called to approach those projects with attitudes guided by the motive of creating works of beauty.

John Keats, in “Ode On a Grecian Urn”, wrote “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all you know on earth, and all you need to know.”

Real beauty, whether in the eye of the creator or the beholder, is an expression of love.

Christ insists, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works [works of beauty] and glorify your father who is in heaven.”

We are created in the image of God so that we can make art of and through our lives so that our art can draw people to God. And because God is love, we can draw people to God by helping them love better, which is best accomplished by loving them better.

In my novel The Good Know Nothing detective Tom Hickey and his sister Florence, who works for evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, are on a road trip when she asks:

“Tommy, do you want to know why I fell for God?”


“It’s all your fault,” she said.

“How so?”

“See, when you really know love, when you find yourself being truly loved, you can’t help thanking God.”

A tiny sob issued out of her. Then she scooted closer and kissed her brother’s cheek. Tom sat speechless, wondering if his heart might explode.

Florence rode with her head on her brother’s shoulder. As distant headlights approached, she said, “The thing is, when you truly thank God, you sort of feel him smile. Then you fall for him. That’s all.”


Why Write?

A prologue: Though I have plenty (probably too much) to say about many subjects, I need to limit my blogging or else give up other pursuits, such as writing novels or helping with my Zoe’s softball. I’d rather limit. A blog post once a week seems to fit my inclinations and circumstances.

The first week of each month goes to a blog for my mystery publisher, Poisoned Pen Press. I try to post something that might be of interest to mystery writers and readers. My day is the 8th.

And as I’m the guy in charge of communications from Perelandra College, I attempt to post on the college blog insights primarily relevant to writers who are Christians, which lots of our students are, though I hope those posts might also resonate with other writers.

The last week of each month I devote lots of time to The Scoop, a newsletter mostly about happenings within the Perelandra College community (you could subscribe through the link on the college website home page).

Which leaves me about a week a month to pursue thoughts about a subject dear to my heart, which is living as a writer, how to do so with the minimum of tragic or debilitating consequences and instead with the maximum of inspiration and joy. So, I’ll try to offer some words on this gnarly topic each month. Please note the word “try”.

Today I’ll tackle a question at the heart of the matter: why do we choose to write, anyway? Because, if we can’t answer that one, how can we begin to make sense of our lives?

I’ve attended dozens of writing conferences. Almost always, the keynote speaker tells the story: How I Got Rich and Famous. I find that story offensive, because in the context it implies that the reason we write is to get rich and famous.

In the film Citizen Kane, the tycoon’s old and wise advisor tells a reporter, “Well, it’s no trick to make a lot of money … if all you want is to make a lot of money.”

If I chose my career for the sake of making money, I would turn to buying, selling and developing real estate, and thereby boost a thousandfold the odds of my getting rich, if not famous.

So if not to get rich and famous, why should anyone choose to be a writer?

Some of us may be cursed by a need for closure. A story idea comes to mind, perhaps as a character or an image, and we get obsessed by a craving to follow it and see where the story goes.

Once I went to a party in a cabin on the shore of Lake Tahoe. In the living room were two distinct groups. One group was reading and discussing the Bible. The other group was passing a joint and laughing about something (probably about the Bible fans). A pretty girl stood between the groups, staring back and forth, appearing bewildered by the decision to join one group or the other. At last, she turned and rushed outside, ran straight to the lake and plunged in. I watched until she came out and trudged in her sopping boots, jeans and t-shirt, away down the beach.

I should’ve run after her and tried to make friends, but I’m shy. So instead I made her into a girl named Jodi, got inside her head and wrote Midheaven.

Even now, some decades later, I love that girl.

I miss her and wonder what became of her after I wrote The End, which I intend to find out in a year or two when she meets Clifford Hickey, another of my favorite people.

By the way, Writing and the Spirit, my book of reflections about inspiration and how to find it, was released not long ago by OakTara Press. Every writer and other kind of artist ought to read it. No kidding.

Clerks and Errand Boys

The other day I read about a writer for Guns and Ammo magazine who was abruptly fired after an article of his questioned the notion that any regulation of guns was unconstitutional. Apparently advertisers suggested that if the writer stayed, they wouldn’t.

One Friday evening I attended church and heard the pastor utter a phrase that astonished me, given his evangelical audience. He said, “Look, if you think ‘My country is always right and the enemy’s always wrong,’ you’re not getting that from the Bible.”

On Sunday, I returned to see if he repeated the phrase to the much larger and generally more traditional audience. He didn’t. For a couple weeks I was furious, until I began to look at the log in my own eye and realize that I, like everyone who speaks or writes for a living, to one degree or another plays to his or her audience.

As do we all, whether our audience be a public, a boss, or an institution.

Still, whenever I’m reminded of how much our careers depend upon not only upon what we do or say but also upon what we don’t do or say, I recall the Marlon Brando character Kurtz in the film Apocalypse Now.

A soldier named Willard has been sent into the jungle to terminate Kurtz, a renegade American army captain who appears to have gone mad and resorted to the most savage tactics.

Here’s the scene:

Kurtz: You are an assassin?

Willard: A soldier.

Kurtz: You are neither. You are an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.

I had the privilege of meeting the author Kurt Vonnegut when I was studying at the University of Iowa and he came for a visit. At a party, a few of us were in the kitchen when Mr. Vonnegut offered some theories about how the world works. A big issue at the time was the price of gasoline. He said, “Suppose you work at a gas station and I come to buy gas and you charge me a dollar a gallon, and I argue that you’re out of line charging so much, and you say ‘I have to charge you that much, because that’s the price my boss set.’ You see, that’s a lie. You don’t have to charge that much. You don’t have to keep that job.”

Certainly there are rebuttals to his argument, but they all are pragmatic, and they lead me to think about another fine author, B. Traven (who, by the way, appears in my upcoming Tom Hickey novel The Good Know Nothing). Traven argued that we always have a choice. If, with a gun barrel pressed to our temples, we are commanded to do something, we can refuse, and die.

Which makes me think of our challenge as writers, or students, or employees of any sort. Because the degree to which we cater to our audience, even though the effort may oppose our own aesthetics or values, may well determine our material success or failure.

I’m not advocating that we should approach our work idealistically, pragmatically, or with a moderate dose of each attitude. That has to be a personal decision.

But I am suggesting that we would do well to recognize our freedom and now and then stop to ask “Am I an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill?”

Or what?


To Theme or Not to Theme

To Theme or Not to Theme

My new novel, The Good Know Nothing, scheduled for summer 2014 from Poisoned Pen Press, not only has an overall theme, it uses the theme as its title.

Being so forthcoming has concerned me, since I studied and taught in several university writing programs where the concept of theme was commonly viewed with disdain.

No doubt that attitude developed in opposition to the tendency of many student writers to approach a story as if it were a fable, only valuable insofar as it offered a warning or a moral. The stories written from that perspective were usually painful to read.

Yet I’m convinced that trying to avoid theme is equally mistaken. A few years ago, while judging a competition for a state writing fellowship, I read 100 stories. The language and style of about ninety of them were so polished, I imagine most the writers had attended university writing programs. But only five of the 100 stories gave me the least satisfaction.

So I’ll argue that either writing with a theme as the goal or with disdain for themes is courting failure. To create something that will captivate, entertain and satisfy, better to allow the story to flit here and there until it finds its own theme (or themes), then to use it (or them) as a guide.

I wrote about half of what is now The Good Know Nothing before I came upon this quote: “For only the good doubt their own goodness, which is what makes them good in the first place. The bad know they are good, but the good know nothing. They spend their lives forgiving others, but they can’t forgive themselves.” Paul Auster, Man In The Dark, New York: Henry Holt and Company, p. 63.

The truth of that statement startled me, and as I recovered I recognized that my new novel (like most detective novels) was about somebody attempting to get at the truth. But, at least in reality, the truth is damned illusive. Even “facts” are slippery.

As I returned to the novel with that theme in mind, elements that hadn’t quite worked began to feel right. I hope readers feel the same. If they do–thanks, Paul Auster.

To read about the Tom Hickey California Crime series including The Good Know Nothing, go to: www.kenkuhlken.net

Give It Up?

I was finishing draft five or six of a novel and wondering how many times more I would go through and make changes, when I realized I had best give it up or I might still be working on it when death does us part.

Raymond Carver commented that we know we should quit working on a story when we find ourselves going back and inserting the commas we removed last go through. But he was a short story writer, whom I believe never fulfilled his intention of writing a novel.

Once Dashiell Hammett got mixed up, through Lillian Hellman, with the “literary” set, he spent many years on a novel he never finished, though the part he wrote is mighty well-honed.

I have a friend, the wife of an English professor, who wrote a novel about Sigmund Freud and an “hysterical” patient. During the very early 1980s, she completed a compelling and finely crafted draft. She was ready to submit to agents, but changed her mind when an idea for revision came. The last time I checked, a couple years ago, she was still revising and had still submitted it to no one.

When Alan Russell and I team up for book tours, he tells about the short story I once began and didn’t stop writing until 1500 pages later. But that’s only part of the truth, which is that I have cut and reformed and made those pages into a trilogy, then condensed them into one novel, then expanded again. Though I’ve been working on the project for slightly over half my life, I’m still determined to finish it to my satisfaction.

And there’s the answer for which I’ve been groping. When I’m satisfied, I will give it up.

For now, I will submit this blog post and get back to revising a novel.