Wednesday, December 29, 2010

thoughts on "story"

Last week in her article, Dr. Libby raised a point that bears repeating. As Christian writers determined to “do all for the glory of God,” we may be tempted to “get our point across” by explicitly stating the moral of our story or by quoting a plethora of Bible verses in our story. Of course it is imperative to live uprightly and to constantly nourish one’s soul through Scripture—but a story must first of all be a story, not a thinly-disguised piece of didactic advice or moral instruction.

This doesn’t mean your stories can’t be Christian (even explicitly), or that your work cannot plumb the depths of ethics and theology in detail.[1] It does mean that this Christian element must be natural to the story; must arise from it, instead of being tacked on to it; must have power and substance in itself, and not rely on Scriptural quotations or witty proverbs to back it up.[2] (After all – if your story relies upon such gimmicks, why should someone read it at all? Wouldn’t it be far better for your readers to consult the original source – the very life-giving Word of God?)

And in all honesty, I think this is very freeing. It allows you to explore the fantastic realms of your imagination without first setting an agenda for yourself – which is one of the quickest ways to kill off the spirit of a story. Anyway, if this Christian element “bubbles out” of the story itself, as Lewis suggested, it is far more likely to plumb the depths of Christian thought than a purely didactic story. It is also more likely to have a lasting (and positive) impression or influence upon your readers.

But that’s enough of my jabber. Below are concrete examples of what I am talking about. Neither of them reference God or are explicitly didactic, but they are inherently Christian, quite relevant to our day to day thought and conduct, and deeply moving.

From The Princess and the Goblin (by George MacDonald)

Context: The two protagonists, Princess Irene and the miner boy Curdie, are attempting to escape out of the mountain where the goblins had imprisoned Curdie. Irene was able to find and rescue Curdie because she followed a magical thread which led her into the mountain and is now leading her out again.

“I told you already,” answered Irene; --“by keeping my finger upon my grandmother’s thread, as I am doing now.”
“You don’t mean you’ve got the thread there?”
“Of course I do. I have told you so ten times already. I have hardly – except when I was removing the stones – taken my finger off it. There!” she added, guiding Curdie’s hand to the thread; “you feel it yourself—don’t you?”
“I feel nothing at all,” replied Curdie.
“Then what can be the matter with your finger? I feel it perfectly. To be sure it is very thin, and in the sunlight looks just like the thread of a spider, though there are many of them twisted together to make it—but for all that I can’t think why you shouldn’t feel it as well as I do.”
Curdie was too polite to say he did not believe there was any thread there at all. […The thread leads them out of the mountain.]
“Now, Curdie!” she cried, “won’t you believe what I told you about my grandmother and her thread?”
For she had felt all the time that Curdie was not believing what she told him.
“There! – don’t you see it shining on before us?” she added.
“I don’t see anything,” persisted Curdie.
“Then you must believe without seeing,” said the princess, “for you can’t deny it has brought us out of the mountain.”

Moral: One might sum up the “moral” in a few phrases: faith is what is unseen; faith is reasonable, founded on evidence; faith increases sight and disbelief instills blindness.

From The Silver Chair (by C. S. Lewis)

Context: After entering the magical world of Narnia for the first time, Jill Pole is separated from her companion (Eustace Scrubb) and, becoming extremely thirsty, encounters an enormous lion (Aslan) beside the stream where she stops to drink. Scrubb knows Aslan, but Jill does not.

            “Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.
            “I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill.
            “Then drink,” said the Lion.
            “May I—could I—would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.
            The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.
            “Will you promise not to—do anything to me if I do come?” said Jill.
            “I make no promise,” said the Lion.
            Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
            “Do you eat girls?” she said.
            “I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
            “I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
            “Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
            “O dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
            “There is no other stream,” said the Lion.

Moral: There is only one way to be saved, and that is through Christ. God is not “safe,” but we must trust Him.  

Now, which did you find more interesting: the excerpts from the novels, or my interpretations of them? Which would you rather spend time thinking about? Which would you rather “have more” of?

The excerpts, surely! That’s what I thought. :-)

[1] Lewis certainly did! Think of The Screwtape Letters—better yet, if you haven’t read it, pick up a copy from the library or a nearby bookshop. It will both astound you and enrich your soul.

[2] Of course, there’s an exception to everything: while your story should have its own power and “substance” instead of relying on Bible verses, it isn’t always “bad”or un-literary to quote such verses. You’ll find verses and allusions to Scripture heavily sprinkled throughout many of the best and most beautiful works of literature ever written. The catch is that you must tell your own story, and not rely upon other quotes to give it depth. Use Scripture as a supplement if you like, but tell your own story.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"writing good stories"

Hello, all. Here is Dr. Libby's article, as promised. :-) Let me know what you guys think!


Writing Good Stories
By Dr. Bonnie Libby

First of all, know the fundamentals of good narrative practice.  That is, know what goes in to telling a good story, one that will capture the interest of readers with unexpected plot turns, full and interesting character development, enough vivid description to set the tone of the story and lend it a note of reality, and dialogue that fits the characters and advances both the plot and “feel” of the story.

Modern author George Saunders proposes a theory about novel writers, and I think we can apply this to writers of short stories, too.  In his introduction to the Modern Library edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Saunders proposes a narrative theory about Mark Twain’s novel that uses the metaphor of a PeopleMover (you know, those moving beltways at the airport that make you feel like you are walking really fast).  Saunders writes:

Imagine the novelist as a person standing at one end of a PeopleMover, with a shovel, in front of a big pile of dirt.  The Pile of dirt represents The Thing This Writer Loves to Do, and Does Naturally.  The writer started writing so that he or she could endlessly and effortlessly do this thing and nothing else—be funny, say, or verbally brilliant, or write lush nature vignettes, or detailed descriptions of the interiors of rich people’s houses—and then be declared Wonderful, and buy a nicer car.  But all writers soon find that their Dirt is not enough.  Yes, their readership stands at the far end of the PeopleMover, eagerly awaiting this Dirt, but if the writer simply dumps shovelful after shovelful of Dirt onto the PeopleMover, the PeopleMover grinds to a halt, and the readership walks away to see a movie.[1]

You can tell that Saunders is a humorist himself, and that he admires Twain’s humor (his “Dirt”) and appreciates as much of it as he can get.  However, Saunders knows that Twain’s readers need something more—they need a story, a narrative with causes and effects, events that are surprising but not random.  A good story is what moves things along and allows the writer to “shovel out” that which he most likes to write, be it humor, description, or even, as some of you may want to write, Big Important Ideas.

You may be tempted to start with a theme based on the prompts for A Call to Pens, which is all well and good, but remember to keep your story first.  Human beings like stories because that form reflects life itself, the reality in which we live.  Certainly we each experience our share of “twists and turns” for which we may not see an immediate reason, but nevertheless the human story—history—is one of causes and effects, with a beginning and an ending, both for individuals and for humanity on earth.  There is purpose in our existence, plain and simple.  Much modern literature denies this purpose, denying the causality of life, and therefore killing good narrative.  We as Christians have a chance to redeem narrative, to restore stories to their honored place as truth-bearers: “The narratives we encounter in epic poems, in plays, and in novels are anything but fanciful alternatives to real life.  The fact is that we never get away from stories.  In and out of literature, stories tell us who we are and what we might become.”[2] 

We may categorize life into abstractions like Love, Hate, War, Peace, and even Faith and Redemption, but until we relate stories that demonstrate those abstractions, that show them being lived out, we do not access the reality behind them.  The Bible itself is a narrative—a true one—that shows us God’s ways and character.  We may consider God’s patient lovingkindness, but until we read of His care for the complaining Israelites wandering forty years in the desert, we don’t understand it fully.  We may think we know about His grace, but until we read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ excruciating death on the cross, we cannot grasp it.

These are all true stories.  What about fictional stories?  Well, they must have the same elements:

--Realistic characters with human flaws but also potential for nobility or love or kindness.  Think of stories you like and the kinds of characters they contain: Elizabeth Bennett with her good sense but her tendency to misread people, or Huckleberry Finn with his funny disdain of civilization but his well-meaning heart and growing moral consciousness. This is not to say that all characters must be human; readers love Bilbo Baggins with his initial timidity but increasing response to the call of adventure.

--A plot that moves along and involves some kind of important conflict, either interpersonal or with an external force or, most likely, within an individual.  The best stories contain more than one kind of conflict.  Think of Sydney Carton embroiled in the bloody French Revolution, but also waging a war within himself against drunken apathy but that ultimately results in sacrifice.

--Causes and effects.  The Count of Monte Cristo becomes a wealthy man not through randomness, but rather a combination of determination, hard work, and, yes, a bit of luck in happening upon the old priest in prison, but why was Edmond Dantes in prison?  Because some bad men frame him out of jealousy.  And why were they jealous?  Because Edmond has the love of a beautiful woman and a promising naval career.  You get the idea--events in the plot don’t just happen.  Authors have a world full of human actions and reactions to draw from; in real life, one person’s success very often does elicit both adulation and jealousy from others, and wicked deeds naturally cause the desire for revenge, unless something else intervenes, something like love or grace in the form of human relationships.  There is room for coincidence in a fictional narrative, just as there is in life, but most major events must be related causally.

--Story structure.  Most stories follow the usual pattern of beginning, middle, and end or, more technically, rising action, climax, and falling action.  But consider playing with the order of events using flashbacks or flashforwards.  Create suspense by jumping to another scene right when the first scene is  building up to a climax.  Tell a story within a story, where the narrator listens to another character narrate a story, then return to the “present.”  This could take up the whole story or just be an episode.  Play around with narrative point of view: tell the same episode from the perspective of two different characters, alternate narrators throughout the story . . . you get the idea!

--All the rest.  Of course, don’t forget vivid and fresh description, realistic yet interesting dialogue, scenes made memorable by facial gestures, body language, and all the other ways that humans communicate with one another.  It’s the little touches, sometimes, that make a good story great. Stories are meant to be concrete, alive with detail.  But if your plot is weak, uninteresting, or untrue, no amount of embellishment will save the story. 

And the truth we want to relate as writers is so important that working hard on the form it takes is worth all the effort.  C. S. Lewis began his immensely popular series The Chronicles of Narnia not with a moral that he worked to relate to his readers, but with a picture.  He says:

Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument; then collected information about child-psychology and decided what age-group I’d write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out ‘allegories’ to embody them.  This is all pure moonshine.  I couldn’t write in that way at all.  Everything began with images; a faun  carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion.  At first there wasn’t even anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord.  It was part of the bubbling.[3]

So take Lewis’s advice: don’t begin with a moral and try to build your story around it.  Tell a good story, and the moral will come out.  Write characters and events that interest you, that capture your imagination; chances are you will find some readers who share your preferences.  Keep that PeopleMover of plot moving along, while you merrily dish out striking images or humor or dramatic dialogue or whatever you like.  Avoid the clich├ęs of “Christianese” by using realistic language and events.  Tell a story you would like to hear, not one that you think your audience should hear.  Pay attention to details, but remember to have fun!

[1] George Saunders, introduction to the Modern Library edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Random House, 2001), x.
[2] Susan V. Gallagher and Roger Lundin, Literature Through the Eyes of Faith (New York: HarperCollins for Christian College Coalition, 1989), 30.
[3] C.S. Lewis, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said,” in On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966, 1982), 46.

Monday, December 20, 2010

just a quick update

Just in case you have not noticed, the guidelines page has finally been updated. You can access the online submissions form there or here.

Also, I missed last Tuesday's post in the flurry of leaving school for Christmas break, but I shall post the article this coming Tuesday, tomorrow. It was written by one of my very own literature professors, Dr. Bonnie Libby, and I think you will really enjoy it and get a lot "out of" it. She is a wonderful professor, just so you know. :)

Merry Christmas to you all!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

a question for you

I hope you all enjoyed Dr. Hake’s essay last week! If you didn’t get a chance to read it, I would definitely recommend looking it over. It’s tightly packed with invaluable insight you won’t want to miss, and quite readable. It might seem a bit long, but I promise you it’s worth it.

Anyway, I think it’s time for me to answer a couple of questions posted on the blog several days ago. Celerina asked:  

Can you please elaborate on the contest guidelines requiring self-editing? What sort of helps would I be allowed to receive from my parents or friends that would not violate this guideline?

It’s a somewhat tricky question, because there’s often a fine line between what is acceptable and what is not. In some circumstances you just have to use your discretion. It is fine for a friend or parent to proofread your manuscript for technical mistakes (typos, glaring inconsistencies, etc.). But the story itself has to be your own: no one can write it for you. No one else can decide your plot, invent your characters, or structure your story. Friends and parents can give minor suggestions here and there, but try to keep their advice to a minimum.

SoulsforChrist7 asked:

Miss Richey,

I wanted to ask a question about one of the hints.

“2. Edit and revise several times before you submit. Clarity of style and grammatical excellence are both a “must.””

I just don’t quite understand this. If these things are “musts” then why have many of the winning entries of past years not shown this. I just don’t understand. If you don’t really judge by this what do you judge by? Thanks so much for organizing this contest, I always enjoy it.


Ouch. Hmm…that’s definitely worth looking into. Thank you for raising the point! To clarify, though, let me say that clarity of style and grammatical excellence are “musts” in that they are highly preferred, and they definitely do matter to the judges. However, the stories are judged for other qualities as well – originality, strength of theme, realism of presentation, and so forth. If some winning entries have not always exhibited grammatical excellence in the past, then they must have excelled over other entries significantly in some other area. However, winning entries are almost always more grammatically accurate than other entries: a few typos won’t wreck your chances, but consistent violation of the basic rules of grammar will do so.

And finally, several people have inquired whether historical fiction is an appropriate genre for this contest. This answer is: Yes. :-) You may write in any genre you choose. 

And now, I have a question for you. Consider the following quote:

"Poorly written novels - no matter how pious and edifying the behavior of the characters - are not good in themselves and therefore not really edifying." - Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners

Do you agree? Disagree? Can you think of any specific books that might fall under O’Connor’s condemnation here? (I can.) We’ll touch on this next week, but in the meantime, what do you guys think?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

why study literature?

Welcome to December! I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. :-)

Today’s essay was kindly contributed by Dr. Steve Hake, a Professor of Literature here at Patrick Henry College. The topic is “Why Study Literature?” Now as creative writers, you might think the answer obvious. Literature is fun. It allows us to express ourselves. It permits us to share what we think, feel, and believe, with other people. Not only that, but it allows us to understand – not only with the mind, but also with the heart – what other people think, feel, and believe. Dr. Hake not only deals with these topics (and others) but also connects them to the Christian faith on a profound level. I have found this essay very helpful as a reader of fiction, but also as a creator of literature; it has clarified and profoundly enriched my own understanding of my vocation as a Christian writer, and I think you will find it intriguing for the same reason.

Here are a few highlights from the text that should pique your interest:

1)      Literature interprets life. “It doesn't simply reflect life—it focuses it.  It's a mirror, but a special kind of mirror.  It's a mirror in which we can see ourselves even more clearly, more vividly than in an ordinary mirror.”

2)      Literature asks and attempts to answer the big questions: A) Where have we come from? B) Where are we going? C) What is the meaning of our existence?

3)      Literature can cause us to “awake.” “It can help us to really listen and hear, smell, taste and touch…It can teach us to savor our experience, to take in, reflect on and appreciate the beauty around us.”

4)      Literature “can deepen our thinking by helping us to become not only more aware of our own values and worldview, but also those of others throughout the world and throughout history…We can explore…the implications of various values and worldviews…Literature gives us truth digested.”

5)      Literature is instructive, but it is also fun and delightful.

6)      Christianity is a profoundly literary religion, and Christians should be more interested in literature than anyone else.


Why Study Literature?

Steve R. Hake, Ph.D.   Professor of English Literature, Patrick Henry College

            When there are so many things to study today, why study literature?

            Traditionally, at least two answers have been given to this question. 

            One is that literature is fun.  It's delightful.  One of the basic pur­poses of literature has always been to entertain, and anything that is genuinely entertaining has value.  The other answer is that literature teaches us many things.  It not only delights, it instructs.  Those two answers are as old, or older than the Roman poet Horace.  Let us first look more closely at the second of these two answers and see what literature teaches us.

What is literature?

            Let us begin by asking the question, "What is literature?"  First of all, what is literature all about?  What is its subject?  Its subject is nothing less than human life, human experience.  Every poem, play or story deals with some aspect of human life and experience.  It has some­times been said that literature is like a mirror that reflects life for us.  What, by contrast, is the subject of linguistics?   Language.  In linguistics, we look at language itself, but in literature, we use lang­uage to look at life.   Literature, as one of the humanities, thus parts company with the sciences.  The sciences, like linguistics, all specialize (and analyze), looking only at one aspect of reality, whereas the humanities generalize (and synthesize), looking at the whole of life. 

            How then, does literature deal with life?  Does it deal with life in a concrete or an abstract way?  In a concrete way. We can say that literature presents human experience; it doesn't discuss it.  It shows; it doesn't tell.  It appeals to our senses and to our feelings as well as to our minds.  It enables us to see, hear and feel characters in ac­tion.  In a sense, it recreates experience.  Philosophy also takes human life or experience as its subject, but it deals with life in a theoretical rather than a concrete way.  To cite just one example, a philosopher might write a book explaining to us the defects of the philosophy called  “utilitarianism"; but Charles Dickens, as a writer, wrote a novel, Hard Times, in which he exposed concretely, through a story, the problems with utilitarianism.  He enables us, in this way, not only to understand the problems with our minds, but also to see and hear them with our senses and feel them with our hearts as well. 

            We have said that literature reflects life.  How then is a novel about a twenty-four hour period (such as James Joyce's Ulysses) different from a book that merely records everything that happened in twenty four hours?  Or how is a movie different from someone with a movie camera who simply walks around at random for two or three hours and shoots whatever he sees?  Don't both "reflect" life?  But literature doesn't simply record life—it interprets it.  It doesn't simply reflect life—it focuses it.  It's a mirror, but a special kind of mirror.  It's a mirror in which we can see ourselves even more clearly, more vividly than in an ordinary mirror.  Through a process sometimes called "artistic selection” the writer or poet or movie maker simplifies experience, yet at the same time he clarifies and deepens it.  He selects that which is most important, most basic.  In other words, he tries to make sense out of life.  He reflects on the meaning of life.  So there is implicit in every poem or play or story a "worldview," a set of values.  Literature (as well as philosophy) asks and answers the "big questions":  1) Where have we come from?  2) Where are we going?  3) What is the meaning of our existence?  Literature not only asks these questions in a searching and eloquent way, but also provides us with a wide variety of possible answers. 

            How then does literature differ from history?  The controlling purpose of history is to record or reconstruct human life.  The controlling pur­pose of literature is to simplify, clarify, deepen and focus, e.g. to interpret human life.  So Byron in Don Juan speaks of past heroes who "shone not on the poet's page, and so have been forgotten."  Poetry makes the deeds of past heroes more clear and vivid and so more memorable.  It has been said that journalism (history) tells you what happened yesterday, whereas literature tells you what always happens, e. g. what is most characteristic of human nature in its deepest reaches.  We might summarize this part of our discussion with the following table: 



Social Sciences?
Physical Sciences!



Note also the relationship of the three basic “sisters” of the humanities to the trivium.  History corresponds most closely to “grammar” insofar as it is primarily concerned with the basic facts of a circumstance.  Philosophy corresponds most closely to “logic” insofar as it is primarily concerned with connections and meaning within and between circumstances.  Literature most closely resembles “rhetoric” insofar as it is primarily concerned with the powerful communication of the meaning of a circumstance. 
            So what is literature?  So far we have said that literature is an interpretive presentation of human experience.  But our definition is not quite complete. 

            How is literature related to art, to beauty?  Let us first ask the question, "What is a work of art?"  If I took a famous novel and tore out a few pages at random, are those few torn pages a work of art?  If I took a canvas, blindfolded myself and threw paint at it, would the resulting "painting” be a work of art?  If not, why not?  The essence of all art and beauty is form or order.  Art, by definition, is not the product of chance, but of intelligent creativity.[1]  In a painting art takes a visual form.  In a poem, story or play art takes a verbal form.  Any work of art contains the following aspects of artistic form (among others):  pattern or design, unity, theme or centrality, balance, contrast, recurrence, variation, intricacy or complexity, and progression.  So the writer or poet as an artist asks himself not only what he wants to say, but also how he wants to say it.  Beauty of form is just as important in literature as truth of content.   Artistic form is the powder that drives the bullet of content or truth into our hearts where it can explode with great force.  So then, we can define literature as an interpretive presentation of human experience in an artistic form (Ryken 13-14).[2] 

What, then, can we learn from literature?

        Let us now go back to the question we asked earlier (What can we learn from literature?) and attempt an answer based on our definition.  First of all, because literature is concrete and appeals to our senses, literature can help wake up our senses.  It can help us to really look at and see the things around us.  It can help us to really listen and hear, smell, taste and touch.  In Robert Frost’s, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," the poet takes a few moments to appreciate the quiet beauty of a wooded field slowly filling with snow.  My wife once mentioned to a friend as they sat outdoors that the clouds were particularly beautiful that day.  Her friend looked up and said, "Just clouds"--her senses were sleeping.  My wife's family, as she grew up, would often take a few minutes during a rainstorm to simply sit and listen to the sound of the falling rain.  Literature can encourage us in the midst of our frantic twentieth century lives to slow down.  It can teach us to savor our experience, to take in, reflect on and appreciate the beauty around us.  God has given us both our senses and a beautiful world full of  “all things richly to enjoy.”  Christ said He came that we might have life, and have it to the full. 

            Has literature woken up your senses?  Surely this honors God and has great value! 

            Since literature appeals to our feelings as well as our senses, it can enrich our emotional life.  Lyric poetry in particular celebrates such great lyric subjects as love and friendship.  The emotional high points in our lives are thus captured and explored.  But also our feelings at low points such as separation and death can find relief through expres­sion in literature.  The Psalms, the Song of Solomon, Lamentations and the book of Job are all excellent examples of this.  My former classmate and long-time professor of Old Testament, Tremper Longman, has co-authored a book with Dan Allender, The Cry of the Soul, exploring the emotional depth and honesty of Biblical poetry (Navpress).  Literature can make our senses more alert, our feelings more sensitive.

Building Blocks

            Literature can deepen our thoughts as well.  Because literature interprets, simplifies and focuses our experience it helps us realize what is most important, most basic, in that experience. These most basic aspects of our experience are called literary archetypes.  These archetypes might be thought of as the basic building blocks of all meaningful human experience.  Our experience can be broken down into a wide variety of different aspects, such as the supernatural, human charac­ters, human relationships, clothing, the human body, food, etc.  In all these different aspects there is both an ideal and an un-ideal dimension.  There are archetypes in each of these different areas.  Some examples might include archetypes of an ideal landscape like a garden, grove or park or an ideal building such as a rustic cottage with a bright hearth, as well as archetypes of an un-ideal landscape such as a sinister or dark forest or an un-ideal building such as a prison or dungeon.  The Bible, it should not surprise us, is widely recognized as the great treasure-trove of literary archetypes.  God Himself focuses life for us most clearly in His Word.   Literature can thus deepen and make more vivid our experience by sensitizing us to what is most important and precious in it (Ryken 85-89). 

Ultimate Context

            In addition to alerting us to the basic building blocks of human experience, literature also shows us the ultimate context of our experience.  It does this by concretely embodying a worldview or set of values.   We have said that literature asks and answers the big questions.   These might also be called the worldview questions:  What is prime reality--the really real?  Who is man?  What happens to man at death?  What is the basis of morality?  What is the meaning of human history? (Sire 18)  Each one of us as a human being has a set of values on which we base all our decisions.  In Taiwan, people would often knock on my door in the evening and ask if I could teach them English.  I would tell them that I worked in the day and so liked to spend my evenings with my family.  They would say, "But you're not doing anything and could earn more money!"  I would say, "I'm sorry, but spending time with my family is even more important to me than making extra money."  The person would often walk away shaking his head thinking, "What a strange fellow!"  But my response was based on my values, and this is true of all of us.  The person asking me the question divided human activity into watching television and making money.  Since I was not watching television, I must be available to make money.  Each one of us has a worldview.  We may never have thought too much about it, but still we have one.  We have all assumed certain answers to the worldview ques­tions above and these assumptions control the way we look at life and our experience.  They form what we could call the ultimate context of our experience, the parameters or outside edges of it.  Literature can deepen our thinking by helping us to become not only more aware of our own values and worldview, but also those of others throughout the world and throughout history. Because literature embodies these things in a concrete and vivid way, we can see values and worldviews in action.  We can see what happens when we adopt a certain set of values or look at life in a certain way.  We can explore, almost experimentally, the implications of various values and worldviews.  Literature can thus be thought of as a laboratory in which you can put human experience in a test tube and examine it from different angles.  Literature gives us truth digested.  This is exceedingly valuable.  Literature gives us an excellent opportunity to examine our own ultimate assumptions about life and to compare them with those of others.

A Brief Worldview History

            Historically in the West the earliest major worldview was that of the Greeks and Romans in which a host of personal yet finite gods were dominated by an impersonal, infinite Fate.  This was a man­-centered worldview in which man was "the measure of all things."  This was completely superseded by Christian theism in which an infinite-personal God created us and all things.  This worldview is of course definitely God-centered and remained the dominant view for many centuries.  In the l700's it was gradually replaced by a worldview called Deism in which God could be said to be shrinking and becoming more remote.  This in turn gave way to what is still the dominant worldview in the West (and indeed in much of the rest of the modern world):  naturalism.  In this worldview, God has completely dis­appeared ("died" as Nietzsche said) and we are left with only finite-personal man in an impersonal, material universe.  This worldview is of course definitely man-centered.  This in turn led in the minds of many thoughtful people to despair and the negation of all worldviews:  nihilism.   As Dostoevsky said, "If God is dead, everything is per­mitted." 

            Much of the twentieth century can be thought of as a (vain) attempt to transcend, in a variety of ways, the despair of nihilistic naturalism. One of the major efforts in this direction has been existentialism as represented by such writers as Sartre and Camus.  The heart of existentialism is an attempt to create values out of nothing, as it were, in an absurd universe.  Many in the West have also turned to the East for answers and adopted eastern pantheistic monism as their worldview.  In this worldview (lying behind Hinduism and Buddhism) ultimate reality is seen as an infinite-impersonal God (the Cosmos) into which we are absorbed like a drop of water into a river.  The biggest stumbling block for many in the West, though, that prevents them from adopting this worldview whole-heartedly is that it says that neither personality nor individuality are ultimate in the universe. 

            Finally, there are many in the West today who are turning to a relatively new worldview.  This has been called the new consciousness­, or new age, but is actually very similar to ancient animism, a belief in the existence of many powerful spiritual forces in the world.  All of these worldviews are variations on the basic non-Christian worldview in which man is at the center and thinks he does not need God.  Another way to view this is through the seven eras of literary history.  In Western Lit I we cover the first three:  Classical (classical worldview), Medieval and Renaissance (Christian theism).  These three eras can also be thought of as “pre-modern” as they all assume the reality of a supernatural world.  In Western Lit II we cover the last four:  Neo-classical (Deism), Romantic (moving towards Naturalism), Nineteenth Century Realism and Naturalism (Naturalism and Nihilism) and The Twentieth Century (Nihilism, Existentialism, Eastern Pantheistic Monism, New Age).  The first three of these correspond roughly with what we call “Modernism” (no longer believe in God or the supernatural, but still believe in truth, reason, and man’s ability to save himself—the Enlightenment mentality).  The last ushers in the full-blown postmodernism that is so much with us today (an irrational, usually despairing but sometimes “playful” relativism in which we construct our own realities). 

            So literature, then, vividly embodies and portrays these various worldviews.  It enables us to see and feel them and to under­stand their implications.  We can feel the despair of the nihilist in reading Kafka.  We can see life with God at the center in Gerard Manley Hopkins.  We can become more aware of our own values and worldview and compare them with other major alternatives.  We can also very clearly see how true is the Biblical claim that only God’s way leads to life while all other ways lead to death.[3] 

Shape Over Time

But literature does more than show us the basic building blocks and the ultimate context of human experience.  It also shows us what we could call the shape of experience over time.  This has been called the monomyth or "one story" of all literature (Ryken 77-81).  It seems very simple; yet dwelling on its implications both for life and for literature is very fruitful:  

(The story of summer)

Tragedy                                                  Comedy
                                  (The story of fall)                                (The story of spring)                                                                    (The story of spring

(The story of winter)
     This basic pattern, from the ideal to the un-ideal and then back to the ideal, is repeated each day (dawn, noon, evening, night), each year and in ever bigger ways in our lives (birth, maturity, old age, death) and in history (creation, fall, redemption).  This is also the most basic pattern in lit­erature.  This is the shape that the human imagination gives to experience over time.  It also alerts us to what has been called the deepest theme in all literature, the "paradise lost" theme.  There seems to be a very deep conviction buried in each human breast that we have lost something very precious and there is a correspondingly great desire to somehow regain it.  This we see again and again in literature as it answers to something very deep in our own experience.  This is a remarkable example of how a deep study of literature, as of philosophy and all the humanities, points us toward God and the Bible as meeting our greatest needs.  Truly God has not left himself without a witness![4] 

Christians Should Be More Interested in Literature Than Anyone Else

            As Christians we should have a special interest in literature. 

            Christianity is a profoundly literary religion.  We might not realize this, being in the middle of it, but consider the following:

            The greatest of all literary classics are found in the Bible.  This is widely recognized by prominent literary critics even if they are not Christians themselves.  This makes sense.  God is the great Artist and has revealed His truth in a variety of beautiful literary forms.  Christianity has also inspired a rich abundance of literary and artistic effort, from Dante’s Divine Comedy to Milton’s Paradise Lost, from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel to Handel’s Messiah. 

            We usually think of Christ as a great Teacher, the Great Physician, but seldom as a great Poet, yet he was the greatest of all poets.   His teaching effectively used a profusion of figures of speech and literary devices.  The essence of the poet’s gift is his ability to make connections between the natural world and the spiritual world, or the outer world and the inner.  Christ did this constantly, in describing His followers as salt and light, for example.  This is at least one reason why the common people heard Him gladly.  His teaching had the qualities of great literature, it was vivid, clear, interesting and memorable. 

            Christ’s use of parables alone is enough to convince us as Christians of the power of literature to teach.  Jesus clearly believed this and demonstrated it throughout His public ministry. 

            Finally, insofar as many parts of the Bible are specifically literary in nature, a literary approach to them is both valid and very helpful.  Approaching the psalms as poetry, for example,  aids both in understanding and appreciating them. 

Literature Invites us to Look at Life

            So literature can help us live thoughtfully, deliberately.  It can help us examine our lives.  What is the alternative?  To live mindlessly as so many do today!  It is to live like a vegetable or a stick or a stone.  Is the study of literature useful?  Yes!  All the outward "busy­ness" of our daily lives loses meaning if we never look at the foundation under all that busyness.   Literature helps us do this.  We can learn how to make money in a business course.  We can learn of the wonders of the human body in a biology course.  All of these are valu­able studies.  But only literature gives us a concrete and vivid look at our lives themselves and what is most basic and ultimate in them.  Are you interested in literature?  I hope at least you are interested in life!  I hope you haven't already given up all hope and settled for a mindless life:  a life in which your senses, feelings and thoughts are all deadened or dying, and you are simply caught up in a whirl of meaningless activity.  If you haven't, literature has a lot to offer you.

The Best Literature Should Be Most Exciting to Read

Let us, finally, go all the way back to the beginning.  We have spent a long time looking at what literature can teach us.   It can wake up our senses, enrich our feelings, and deepen our thoughts by showing us the basic building blocks, ultimate context and shape in time of human experience.  But that was just one reason to study it.  The other was that it's fun.  It's delightful.   Is it?  Television, movies, videos, comic books and pop music are all very closely related to litera­ture and are all very popular.  But what about "great" literature, the "classics"?  I hope that in studying them you can experience even greater delight, have even more fun and find them actually even much more exciting.  Studying literature is like going on a journey, an adventure.  You can find both exquisite beauty and profound truth.   Literature can change your life.  Look beneath the rush and many pressures of your everyday life at its foundations. 

[1] Of course many nihilistic artists today deny this, yet in their very act of denial they contradict themselves.  Art can never really be nihilistic.  It depends for its very life on both meaning and form. 
[2]  A friend of mine observed parallels between this definition and John 1, in which Christ as the Word reveals the Father.  I don’t want to push this, but I mention it for you to think about. 
[3]  This entire discussion of worldviews is heavily indebted to James Sire. 
[4]  Triumphs of the Imagination  (Leland Ryken) and The Universe Next Door (James Sire) have together aided me greatly in finding my bearings as a Christian in the world of the literary imagination. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

the elements of style

Happy *almost* Thanksgiving, everyone! I hope you all have a great holiday this week. Truly, we have much to give thanks for. This morning I read a passage from 1 Peter 1, and while it has nothing to do with today’s post, I found it highly relevant (considering that Thanksgiving is just around the corner!):

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.” (1 Peter 1:3-4)

Need I elaborate? If there’s anything in our world worth celebrating, this is it!


And now, our post. :-)

Have you ever read The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr? If not, you may want to consider buying it. It’s short, concise, and practical, and covers the basics of English grammar, style, and composition. Unlike other grammar textbooks, however, The Elements of Style is not only clear and readable but downright enjoyable! The author has an engaging style and knows the virtue of brevity. Even if you are not fond of style and grammar, consider that all writers must work with the same material – that is, language. The ability to communicate clearly and concisely through the written word is an essential tool for any serious writer, and The Elements of Style is an excellent guide and resource for writers at any level.

Interested? You can read it or skim it online:

That said, let me share one of my favorite passages from The Elements of Style. This is absolutely essential to good writing, and if you apply this principle to your own work consistently, your writing skills will truly improve:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

A word to the wise – it would be a very good idea to skim through The Elements of Style while proofreading your manuscripts for the contest. This little book discusses many of the grammatical and stylistic errors that A Call to Pens entrants have committed in past competitions. While your story won’t be disqualified for a simple error, it does factor in. So do stay on top of things!

That’s all for now. Have a great Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

writing what you know

“One ought only to write when one leaves a piece of one's own flesh in the inkpot, each time one dips one's pen.”  ~ Leo Tolstoy

“How can I write about what I know and have it be interesting?” This is one of the toughest questions for writers to tackle, especially for younger writers or those who feel they do not have experiences interesting enough to use as writing material. The following article attempts to answer this question, and uses concrete examples that I think may be very helpful to you in your own writing. The author, David Carver, is another Patrick Henry College alumnus who has kindly contributed an article to this blog. As always, please share any thoughts or ideas that come to mind!

Unfortunately, I seem to have mislaid the title of this piece. I’m not quite sure how I managed it, but I did. Oh well. :-/ Here it is!

*  *  *
By David Carver
One of the toughest questions with which a young, educated, affluent, untraveled person has to struggle is the following: How can I write about what I know and have it be interesting? It is on its face difficult to answer satisfactorily. Without age, one doesn’t have an older person’s knapsack of experience to rifle for the odd story idea. Without travel, one can feel that he or she hasn’t met enough people, and enough kinds of people, to write a story with connecting, inspiring power across cultures, as recent works by Marquez, Soyinka, Milosz, and Endo might suggest. And affluence has been a source of guilt (not only creative) for no small time in the West. The average American college student, in most cases, feels that the only way to generate interest, based on personal knowledge, is to plumb the most intemperate and morbid of their feelings or to pluck experience out of thin air by conjuring fantastic, impossible worlds a la J. R. R. Tolkein.

Neither of these, I think, address the heart of the problem. The rut seems deep, but it is after all and on reflection a shallow one. Like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, all we need is the hand of Help to get us out of our artistic quagmire. We must always remind ourselves, no matter how quotidian our routine may seem to us, that as human beings we have in our own hearts and minds access to an unending storehouse of insight, emotion, reflection, intuition, and empathy. When we really sit, quiet ourselves, and contemplate, we find that our vision is much like the description of Heaven in C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle: “Further up and further in.” Virginia Woolf, for example, used to take time to consider how she thought, why she thought of certain things instead of others, what words her mind used, and so on. This is not a complicated exercise, but it can be meticulous. It requires the desire, and the decision, to use one’s single mind toward the project, without extraneous distraction. So watching television or listening to music while writing may help you understand television or music better, but it will drown out the sound of your own mind. As Plato said, gnosthe seauton: know thyself. That is most important.

In the second place, you must know other people. Our relativistic climate has led us to think that our knowledge of other people falters if we only know, say, similarly cultured friends and family. To really know people we should have to have met the stoic Zulu, the honorable Japanese, the garrulous Venician, etc. When you muse on this it really dismisses the importance of any people other than those unlike yourself. In that sense it is above all an invitation to leave off the first, crucial task of knowing your own temperament and inclination, which is powerfully done by seeing it played out by people near you. In addition, this places interest in the category of the fantastic; like the European Romantics, it looks to the mysterious and the alien as appropriate material for really new and captivating work. However the greatest pieces of literature claim our attention because they speak to that which is most simple, yet most significant. The thunder that bellows “through the vast and boundless deep” only holds us past the point of terror and wonder when we see the character whom it has pursued, an angel who “witnessed huge affliction and dismay / Mixed with obdurate pride and steadfast hate.”

Have you attended a family reunion recently? Think of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” a little story about a snowy get-together in Dublin. There is no overpowering marvel in that story, no ruthless angst, but there is on the contrary only (but a very tough only!) a series of personal observations about generations, memory, love, loss, and expectation. Joyce’s characters aren’t anything noteworthy to start with: two aunts, a few servants, the nephew, the nephew’s friend, the nephew’s wife, various acquaintances, a special guest. Where Joyce excels is his portraiture of these people. The aunts, for instance, fuss about, the one more staid, the other more jocund, each organizing and guiding the evening in her own way. Joyce invites us to see, here, what kind of person this is. What is she doing? Let’s take a look - now she’s at the piano emptying some pistachios into a bowl of milk glass. Here she is dispersing a possible row between the Irish nationalist and the more cosmopolitan scholar.

I’ve forgotten whether, in the story, the aunts actually put nuts into a bowl. But the story has told me what kind of people these women are. They have entered my mind as, really, characters, discreet personalities, a colorful species of humanity. (On that note I recommend Theophrastus’ Characters as a piece for young writers to imitate.) You do not need to have met globetrotters or madmen, or be one yourself, to uncover the most compelling and rich sort of material. When you treat only the people of extreme characteristics as interesting, the whole world becomes a little dimmer, paler, less worthwhile. That attitude also stifles your ability to make even the phenomenal players stand out. I recently saw a YouTube clip criticizing the new Star Wars movies for their complete lack of interesting characters. This was demonstrated by posing the following challenge: as the following names are mentioned, describe the character without referring to appearance or plot events - only use their qualities. The dramatis personae of the original Star Wars yielded a multitudinous assessment; that of the new movies, a few strained, searching words.

The point is: in writing, we may perhaps initially respond to a narrative full of all that’s weird and unprecedented, but once the thrill wears off we will only stick with it to find out the fate of people we have come to care about, for good or ill. It’s unnecessary that every character have the moral fortitude of Christian. Some may even be as destitute of virtue as Don Juan. But it is essential that they have humanity, and not some manufactured “interest,” but a smack of the real, an aura of people as they are. Don’t worry about drafting the depths or ascending to Heaven; don’t feel that you need to remake the world or make a novel one outright. Relax and observe. If you don’t have the opportunity to see a lot of people, that may work in your favor! You can more closely educate yourself on the foibles, quirks, excellences, and depravities of a few well-known figures. And never forget to, when appropriate, look at yourself in the world - how are you carrying yourself? Why? What thoughts run through your mind? You need not engage yourself as narrowly and psychologically as Virginia Woolf; nevertheless your self-interest should be, while not selfish, as keen as possible.

Finally, fatally, you need to care. Some writers, such as Joseph Conrad describes himself in the preface to Nostromo, feel they have exhausted the capabilities of their reflecting soul. He had the right to doubt, having already produced Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness. Too often young writers imagine they are in that same boat, while, truth be told, they are covering for a very adolescent laziness. If you are framing your need to write solely in terms of creating material, getting something on the page, doing it right, you’ll flounder in the shallows. (You should, of course, discipline yourself to write every day.) Rather, your goal must be to create material for - for your own enjoyment, for others, for God, etc. With that in mind you will be more likely to take seriously the people around you and the setting in which you live, and more importantly, you will respond better to criticism, recognizing that its last effect is not to tear you down but to refine the textual thing to which you invite an audience. And in fact, in this mood you will often find yourself having “more experiences,” a misnomer for experiencing more what is already before your eyes.