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: http://www.bartleby.com/141/.

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.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

bypassing writer's block

For today, Sarah Pride kindly contributed an article on writer’s block. Sarah is a PHC alumna currently working on campus as an internal journalist; she also helps make short films and teaches Tae Kwon Do. Her article, "Bypassing Writer’s Block," briefly examines some of the causes of writer’s block and suggests a blunter, more commonsense method of confronting it. As Jack London once said, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

Next week, if all goes well, we’ll look at a similar topic: “writing what you know.” This is also very helpful to solving writer’s block. In the meantime, I have a request to make of you. What are your thoughts on writer’s block? Do you know any tips, writing exercises, or other ideas to help jog the creative juices? If you do, please share them! My hope is that you will not just read the articles posted here, but interact with other writers and learn from each other. As iron sharpens iron, so one man (writer) sharpens another.

And now, the article. Enjoy. :-) 

Bypassing Writer’s Block

I don’t believe in writer’s block, and here is why—writing is craft, not magic. This means that we write actively, rather than waiting for it to happen to us. Small wonder that many of America’s famous authors began their careers as journalists. They learned to turn out stories on deadline, whether they felt like it or not.

Still, I’m not denying that sometimes powerful feelings or sheer brain fog envelope us, hindering us from putting down words we know are there. If we name them, they become easier to defeat.

False Perfectionism

When I graduated college and began my job as an editorial assistant, I wrote articles several times a week. Fresh off of academic writing, at first I found these articles a real challenge. I wrestled and struggled and couldn’t produce what I felt I saw in my head. But I didn’t have an option. I had to turn something in, whether I liked it or not. The truth, I found, is that only I know what was in my head. If what comes out on paper is helpful, I count it a gift.

Also, editing and writing should happen in two different stages. We need to give ourselves permission to draft imperfectly, and then we need to allow for enough time to edit.


What if we write something awful? Truth is, we probably will. I currently teach Tae Kwon Do, a Korean martial art. To reach my current rank as a first-degree black belt, I had to begin with a white belt. I couldn’t do even a basic kick. Sometimes I fell down. If I had stopped then, I would never be able to enjoy the level of physical exercise and performance I now do. Writing is the same way. To master it, we also have to be willing to fail.


Often, especially when we are just starting out, it surprises us to find out that writing is hard work. We expect to sit down and find ideas fall into our minds. Sometimes they do. More often, we have to do some research. Read some history. Talk to an elderly relative.

The other day, I needed to write a screenplay scene about an eccentric person I knew. I chose one of my fellow Tae Kwon Do instructors as the character, and I decided to make him a nanny. Then I got stuck. After an hour or two, I realized my trouble—I didn’t know anything about being a nanny.

A quick Google search turned up two facts. First, male nannies, or “mannies,” are becoming more popular, especially for single moms who want a male influence for their children. Second, most of the parents in an online forum agreed that the wisest thing to do was to install small cameras to keep an eye on their nannies. Those two details provided just the hook my story needed to progress.

In summary, nobody else is going to write our stories for us. We have to do it. And we can’t let ourselves give in to the excuse of writer’s block.

Friday, November 5, 2010

update: submitting your entry

Just a brief update from the web page, where you can access the entry form. 

Because of certain difficulties, we will not be able to post a link to the online payment option until next week. To submit your manuscript now, please fill out the entry form (you can type in the PDF) and send it to us with a check for the appropriate fee and a stapled hard copy of your manuscript. You can also email your manuscript to shortstory@phc.edu as a MS Word document. (Please be aware that if you choose to email it, it will be set aside until your entry form and fee are received in the mail.)

Submit all fees, entry forms, and printed manuscripts to the following address:

ATTN: PHC Short Story Competition
Patrick Henry College
10 Patrick Henry Circle
Purcellville, VA, 20132

Manuscripts will not be returned, so don’t submit your only copy.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Christian Imagination

First things first. As some of you have noticed, the online payment option is unavailable at present. We are experiencing technical difficulties at the moment, but we do expect to solve the problem within the next couple of days. I will post an update here and at the original web page as soon as I have that information. Thank you so much for your patience! :-)

And now, I am very pleased to present a short essay by one of my professors, Mark D. Filiatreau. Professor Filiatreau lives nearby with his family in Fairfax, VA, and teaches part-time at Patrick Henry College. As a student in his classes, I have greatly benefited from and am grateful for his teaching, insight, and advice. I am very glad to be able to share this with you, and I believe you will enjoy it as much as I did.

Make It Real: The Christian Imagination

There is a new name for you, so personal and fitting, that to hear it spoken is to know a completeness and an intimacy such as angels can never know. 

There is a sound so enchanting that to hear it is to feel one’s heart is leaving one’s chest. 

There is a pain so great that to experience it for a second would shatter the mind completely. 

There is a face so beautiful that to see it is to have one’s heart broken, yet healed forever. 

There is a scent so wondrous that to smell it is to forget all pain forever, is to know the love and familiarity of the perfect homecoming and the intrigue of the most exotic foreign land all at once. 

There is a feeling so sweet that to feel it is to make all the pleasures of sex, food, sport, or music seem like dust in the mouth. 

There is a touch so divine, that to let it wipe a tear from your eye is to be healed of the wounds of every murder, war, betrayal, heartbreak and sadness from before time began. 

To things such as these the Christian imagination directs us. 

We live still in the shadow of a rationalistic age, when the Christian imagination was nearly starved completely.  The church has been both victim and perpetrator of this starvation.   It’s been the case in the Protestant world for a long time, until fairly recently, that human imagination is something to be distrusted.
This distrust seems to have strong Biblical warrant, especially in the King James Version.  There the words translated “imagination” are always in a negative context.  For example, way back in Genesis, the reason that God sent the flood:  for man, “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”  “Imagination” is equated with “vain imagination,” the source of idolatry.  Throughout scripture, it seems, the ear is elevated and the eye condemned.  We are to be people of the word: God’s word, his pronouncements going back to the garden of Eden—those are truth.  His commandments to Moses.  The words of the prophets.  In the Hebrew language, the word for “hearing” is the same as the word for “obeying.” In other words, to hear God is to obey him, to disobey means that you haven’t really heard.  His voice is reality.  “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  By contrast, the idolaters had images, statues small and large, pillars on high places, temples.  But of this God, the true, God, the second commandment forbade images.

So there has been a long thread in Christendom of distrust in the imagination, because it is considered inherently deceptive.  To imagine something is to concoct something that isn’t real, isn’t true, isn’t part of God’s creation.  

At first the church welcomed the use of the imagination.  In the first centuries of the church, paintings depicting Christ won the “clash of the gods” in public art, for Jesus Christ contained in himself what pagan images of a magician, a healer, and a god were all searching for.  During the medieval period, the church in Europe expressed the gospel in the very art and architecture of the cathedrals, and by traveling plays performed in villages.  The vast majority of people were illiterate and had no access to books, and this way they could understand some of the Bible.  But during the Renaissance more plays were created and presented that had no obvious gospel intent.  When the Puritans came to power in England in the 1640s, they closed the theaters.
But the fear of the imagination itself is based on an incomplete understanding.  The imagination doesn’t only make unreal things seem true.  It also makes true things real. 

And we use it this way every day.  We hear a voice on the radio and imagine what the speaker looks like.  We try to picture where we last saw our car keys.  A person feels overwhelming love and they try to make it real to their beloved by expressing it in a poem. Nothing else will do.  The imagination is trying to make something true into something real.  There really is a person behind a microphone somewhere.  The car keys really are somewhere.  The love between a man and woman is truly there; a large family can be built on it for many generations.

Likewise, one function of the Christian imagination, one role for the Christian creative writer eventually, is to make true things real.  Things that are true but not yet, or true but invisible.   There really is a pain so great that it will shatter the mind.  Some people, according to Matthew 5, really will see the face of God.  There really is a mission so serious that new weapons must be invented in order to carry it out.   Spiritual weapons.  Intellectual and emotional weapons. 

And the Bible does not really condemn imagination, either, if we re-examine it, and it even more surely does not condemn imagery.  We can start with Genesis 1, the creation itself, the source of all sensory imagination.  “Is your imagination of God starved?” Oswald Chambers wrote.  “If so, set it upon His amazing creation all around you.”

God uses imagination at the beginning of his plan of redemption, and at the end.  At the beginning when God tells Abraham that he will make a great nation come from  him, he doesn’t simply tell him in abstract terms and command him to “have faith.”  He takes Abraham out to look at the stars and says “the number of your descendants will be greater than these.”  Another time he says that his descendants will be like the dust of the earth “so that if anyone can number the dust of the earth, then your descendants can also be numbered”  (Gen 13:16). 

Do you know when the Bible first mentions the Holy Spirit entering a human being?  It is in Exodus 31:3:

1Now the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,
 2"See, I have called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah.
 3"I have filled him with the Spirit of God in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all kinds of craftsmanship,
 4to make artistic designs for work in gold, in silver, and in bronze,
 5and in the cutting of stones for settings, and in the carving of wood, that he may work in all kinds of craftsmanship.

The Holy Spirit is first given to an artist

And he has his job cut out for him.  Exodus 25-30 and 35-40 present in painstaking detail how God wanted for worship in his tabernacle, detailing the measurements, the curtains, the ark and the mercy seat, the table, the boards, the veils, bronze altar, oil, the priests’ garments.  God cares about the imagery; it matters.  Just don’t confuse the imagery with holiness itself.   

Later in Biblical history, the prophets especially Isaiah use intensely violent and poetic imagery, to warn Israel from its wrong path or to comfort Israel when it seems all is lost.  Jeremiah and Ezekiel were even commanded to dramatize, with their very bodies in sometimes bizarre and extreme ways, what God was going to do with Israel.  

Then God himself appears, Jesus.  He is the “image of the invisible God,” Colossians 1:15.  The disciples are at great pains to ensure their readers that the Lord was not only embodied, and not only a spirit in a body—which is a conception unknown in the Hebrew vocabulary, by the way-- but a new creation entirely—as Paul especially makes clear.  John’s first letter starts:  “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life….we proclaim to you.”  The risen Jesus asks Thomas to touch him, so that he knows it is not a ghost, a mere appearance.   

And in the end, the new heaven and the new earth are presented in staggering imagery.  In Rev. 21-22, the Holy City comes down to earth, “like a bride prepared for her husband.”  We are told “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”  The city is made of precious stones, and its walls shaped in a perfect cube, each side with three gates, each wall of a specific length–about 1400 miles.  Within the city flows “the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street...” On each side of the river stands the tree of life, that belonged to the Garden of Eden, and its leaves grow now for healing entire nations.  Sunlight is gone, because God is now the light.  It beggars the imagination.  So, clearly, God is not against imagery per se, in favor of the spoken word only.  Rather, imagery, like creation itself, is what has been, is being, and will be redeemed and renewed. 

And likewise it seems this is God’s desire for the imagination. 

To distrust the fallen, unredeemed imagination is a good thing. We find its poison within ourselves at times, and in the world we are surrounded by its insidious, ugly, and idolatrous products and I don’t need to detail them here.  But there is more to the story.  Christians have been and are being renewed, and if we are being renewed in our entirety, this must include the imagination also. 

If for fallen men and women, every imagination of the thoughts of their hearts were only evil continually, could it be true that for redeemed men and women, some day, every imagination of the thoughts of our hearts will be only goodness, continually?

This is a vision for the Christian imagination, and for the Christian artist:  to be fully in touch with reality and all its ugliness and beauty, but also to make real to the world that which is true but invisible, to express the One who is too good for this world but whose goodness re-imagines the world.