Wednesday, January 26, 2011

thoughts on story craft and hank the cowdog

"When I took this job as Head of Ranch Security, I knew that I was only flesh and blood, four legs, a tail, a couple of ears, a pretty nice kind of nose that the women really go for, two bushels of hair and another half-bushel of Mexican sandburs. You add that all up and you don't get Superman, just me, good old easy-going Hank who works hard, tries to do his job, and gets very little cooperation from anyone else around here." – The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog

“Only the Maker of galaxies would have thought to give mankind such a marvelous gift as a dog.” – John R. Erickson, Story Craft

One of the most helpful books on Christian writing I’ve ever read is Story Craft by John R. Erickson. Ever heard of the Hank the Cowdog series? Same author. Never heard of Hank? Now that’s a tragedy. You can learn more about Hank at the author’s website, and a little bit more about him right here.

The Hank books center on the adventures (or misadventures) of Hank and his buddy Drover, two dogs who live on a ranch with their (human) family and constantly get themselves into hilarious scrapes. Any one who has ever owned or loved a dog will cherish these books. They are funny, memorable, and “true to the essence of dog.” They are also very nourishing to the soul, and deeply Christian at their core – even though the salvation message is never mentioned, and Hank is certainly no preacher.

In Story Craft, Erickson describes his approach to writing, shares his thoughts on the vocation of writing (especially in relation to faith and contemporary culture), and offers practical advice to younger writers. He is very resistant toward pop culture—more specifically, toward its rejection of structure, moral order, and art as nourishment. Stories are to strengthen the soul as bread or water strengthens the body; they are not to poison the reader with despair, chaos, and emptiness. Story Craft reminds us that the best stories are ones that uphold the structure of a universe created by all-wise and all-wonderful God, a God who is the source of all that is good and pure and strong, and yes, a God who is the source of all beauty, joy and laughter. (Who else could have thought up a dog?)

As Dr. Gene Veith reminds us in the introduction to Story Craft, “The purpose of every vocation…is to love and serve our neighbors. […] A writer is supposed to love and serve his readers.” [xi] But Erickson is also resistant toward mediocre, didactic, “Christian” literature that confuses the role of storytelling with the role of preaching. Both might deal with the “structure of the universe” and ultimately point to the same conclusion, but they must travel separate routes:

But Hank never talks about Jesus, some might object, as if dogs were objects of salvation. Mr. Erickson’s vocation is not one of preaching. The Christianity in these stories is not on the surface. It is deeper down. The very structure and the craft of his storytelling: the nature, and human nature, and animal nature that he writes about; and the moral truths that even his dogs have to deal with are in accord with the reality that God created. Consequently, as he points out in this book, though his stories do not have a religious content, they have a religious effect. [xiii]

That isn’t to say that good stories can’t have religious content. But when it comes to storytelling, it is much more effective to show truth than to simply insert moral truths into the mouth of a talking head and leave it at that. A story that is “sentimental and dull, with characters who speak in soft tones and smile all the time,” is a bad story—even if it exhorts the audience “to think on the things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, virtuous, and worthy of praise.” [101] These things are the very “things” that make good stories so nourishing and worthwhile, and yet good storytelling requires an approach that is different from good preaching. Showing – not telling – is the key here. The Hank books set a good example:

[x] The animals, as in the time-honored fables that go back to Aesop, remind us of people, including ourselves. Hank’s constant temptation to eat the chickens illuminates our own temptations. Hank’s pride is completely counterbalanced by his shortcomings. When we laugh at Hank’s blustery ego, we are missing the point if we aren’t also laughing at ourselves…[1]

101. “Hank wants to be a good dog, but he’s involved in a constant struggle with his nature: a short attention span, food lust, and an exalted opinion of his role as Head of Ranch Security. He’s a sinner. Sometimes he rises to heroism but he doesn’t stay there long. That describes every dog I’ve known. It also has some very funny parallels with the human condition.”[2]

This is a topic we’ve touched on before, and it is important. But Story Craft covers plenty of other ground as well. If you find yourself in need of good solid advice on writing, consult Story Craft. I trust you have heard some of these rules before: Good writing is clear, not obscure; active, not passive; deals with the specific rather than the general. Moreover, good writers “learn by writing.” They revise and polish. They discipline themselves to perfect their craft. But they also have something to say, and this requires that “Before we write, we should live.”

If you want to write, you must have something to write about. And if you want to write about “life,” you must first experience it. It doesn’t do to hide in the attic, you know (my lifelong temptation) – how will you ever find material for stories? You have to go out there and get it. Keep your eyes open, wherever you are, and observe; get involved in life; interact with people; contemplate God’s creation; pursue knowledge; seek God’s face.

That ought to spark something!

Story Craft is a book I highly recommend. I have only touched on a few of its topics, but there’s much, much more that Erickson has to offer. The book is divided into three parts: 1) “One Writer’s Journey”; 2) “Faith, Culture, and the Craft of Writing”; and 3) “The Top Twenty: If I Were Teaching a Class on Writing.” Interested? Check out his website here. And if you have the time and opportunity, I’d definitely encourage you to buy or borrow a copy of Story Craft sometime. Definitely a worthwhile resource for a serious Christian writer.

[1] Gene Veith in the introduction to Story Craft: Reflections on Faith, Culture & Writing From the Author of Hank the Cowdog by John R. Erickson (Perryton: Maverick Books, Inc, 2009), x.
[2] Interview with John R. Erickson by Susan Olasky, World Magazine, December 2, 2006, pp. 26-7 (quoted in Story Craft).

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

a writer's resources

Hello again. :-) I’m glad to be back at PHC, back into the swing of things! I do apologize for missing last week’s post. In the bustle of extended travel and a late arrival on campus, it just didn’t happen. :-/

So far, we’ve discussed topics such as the Christian imagination, didacticism, writer’s block, etc. While we may touch again on some of these topics in the future, I think from now until the end of the contest we will focus more on highlighting helpful resources that are available to the Christian writer (indeed, any writer). One idea is to interview various creative writers from the PHC circle – students, alumni, possibly professors – and ascertain what resources best helped them nourish their creativity and hone their skill as writers. Interested? Please feel free to jump in and list your own favorite resources—the more, the merrier.

And now, our first interview!

Name: Mary Sue 
Class:, Junior. I think.
Major/Degree: LITERATURE!!!!
Favorite book: Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers is usually in the top three. :D

What encouraged you to start writing fiction in the first place? 

    Books!! I love stories, and there are a lot of wonderful stories still waiting to be given a voice!  

What technical books or resources (essays, articles, lectures, journals, etc.) have most enabled you to improve your writing skills? 

    It would be an absolute betrayal if I didn't here mention the A Beka Language curriculum! I had the privilege of being homeschooled up through high school and my parents used straight A Beka for me. The rote memorization drove me batty sometimes, but I can now see how that has benefited me. Somehow, it sticks!! Knowing the ins and outs of grammar and composition before striking out on one's own as a writer helps the author to be versatile - to know what works and what doesn't.

        Second, there is the Institute for Excellence in Writing. For several years, my sister and I and a number of fellow homeschoolers watched and worked through Andrew Pudewa's writing course. Although one should be careful in using his writing forms for collegiate work, I found that his course really helped me develop a personal, individual style of writing. His teaching definitely taught me to vary my sentences!
    Thirdly, here at school my literature professor and advisor, Dr. Steven Hake, had us read several of his own essays in our Western Literature I course last year. His essays were really beneficial in teaching me about the ethos and logos of storywriting - the heart of the matter, so to speak.

Which works of literature have most encouraged you, inspired you, and/or taught you how to write?
    Ooooh, I like this question :). 

    Naturally, I begin with the Bible. From a strictly literary viewpoint the Bible has so many strengths. It combines the very best of fiction with an absolute reality for something I like to call "the luxury of absolutes." How amazing it is that the seeds and the truths and all that is beautiful in fiction, in poetry, in action, history, story, and CHARACTERS find their locus in the Bible! The solidity of such a foundation in what is grounded reality has given me something to write and to understand things from. For the longest time, I felt crippled when it came to experience in writing - what do I know of love and grief and strength and pain and courage and heartache? But in one of his essays Dr. Hake said something that really struck me. He said that our experience as writers is found at least partly in the Bible. As something we hold nearer and dearer to us than anything else, what more can one understand of love and sacrifice besides Christ's death and resurrection for us? Use that knowledge to draw from.

    Secondly: once upon a time - oh, about twelve years or so ago, a kindly librarian introduced me to Dorothy L. Sayers, the incomparable, the magnificent, the talented, the absolutely splendid Christian apologist and creator of my favorite aristocratic detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, and his detective novelist wife Harriet. I fell in love with Lord Peter. Sayers had crafted a character whose stories are full of layers of complexity. Sayers was an incredibly literate woman who regularly referenced classical literature and poetry; had snippets and whole passages in Latin, Greek, and French; and knew her classics, music, and history very well. Now, whenever I revisit her stories I always find something new - whether an illuminating passage from Donne that I just read or a phrase here or there in Latin that I can only just translate. Add to that incredible wit and taste and you might be able to get a sense of what kind of woman she was. Or you could just start reading :). 

       And as any other good homeschooler, I must acknowledge my debt to my beloved Tolkien. Under duress, I will admit that yes, perhaps to the uninitiated, his descriptive passages are a bit of a slog. But the world he created and the characters he populated it with are truly beautiful. Tolkien taught me the impact of the bittersweet and the importance of virtue and revering knowledge and history, as in the fading of the Dunedain, the passing of Beleriand and the West, the loss of Boromir and Denethor, and the fading of the Elves. However, all that is set against the backdrop of the unbelieving joy of toppling Sauron and I think it reflects life so beautifully; the frailty of man tempered with the victories of Christ and that ultimate sacrifice of His that ends in such joy for us. When I think of Tolkien the characteristic that comes to mind is Beauty - a real goddess, not just the Greek ideal, who finds beauty in both the sweet and the bitter. Maybe Grace is the better word. But this is the quality I really desire to attain in my stories - the half-wistful, half-hoping attitude that finds the beauty in, and accepts, every circumstance it finds itself in.

    But I'm beginning to ramble, so I'll just stop with this: Soli Deo Gloria!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

writing as an act of worship

Well, we’ve reached the (approximate) midpoint. In a couple months the judges will have made their final decisions, and the contest will come to a close – but before that happens, I want to give you a chance to have your own questions about writing (and its connection to Christianity) answered. Are there any topics or questions you would like us to explore on this blog during the remaining half of the competition? Post them in the comment section, and we’ll be happy to explore these issues further.

So far, we’ve covered a few larger themes on this blog: writing as a vocation, dealing with writer’s block, writing Christian fiction, and so on. Today’s topic is similar. A friend and fellow PHC student, Alicia Constant, explores writing as a specifically spiritual calling. While we’ve touched on this before, Alicia draws out new facets to consider, and I definitely think you’ll enjoy them. :-)

Alicia’s article, “Writing as an Act of Worship,” is the second post in a series on her blog, A Beautiful Ordinary.

Writing as an Act of Worship

By Alicia Constant

What is writing? In its strictest sense, writing expresses meaning through symbols that represent language. Writing is communication and creation, expression of ideas in some form more permanent than the spoken word.

Good writing, on the other hand, is much more difficult to define. Critics have haggled over definitions and opinions for centuries, probably since the dawn of written language. And, aside from the mechanical quality of the writing, what about the ideas behind it? Must good writing, by necessity, reflect the good, the true, and the beautiful? Or can masterfully crafted writing that communicates the antitheses of God’s truth still be considered “good”?

Either way, the ability to create with language is a reflection of God’s image. Though He could have created the world some other way, He chose to use language: “Let there be light.” (Genesis 1:3) God reveals Himself to us through His written word, which, aside from its perfect, divinely inspired nature, is also a work of intense literary beauty. As I was reading Job 38 this morning, I was struck by the powerful imagery of the language that God uses: the waters become “hard like stone” at His command, the seas “burst out from the womb” and are clothed with clouds and darkness. In his book God at Work, Dr. Gene Edward Veith describes our creative works as “an imitation of God’s work, a participation in God’s creation and His creativity…. these are what God does, and yet God gives them as tasks to human beings.” (God at Work, p. 62)

Our attempts to wield the written word are finite, and, of course, can never measure up to His perfection. We are created beings; thus, our ability to create is limited by both our lack of knowledge and our fallen nature. He has made everything, and without Him, nothing was made (John 1). Our most original creations are dim reflections of His artistry. Nevertheless, He gave us the ability to create for a purpose.
The main point I’m trying to communicate is this: Writing is a deeply spiritual calling. It’s not something to take lightly or treat selfishly. As writers, we should use the tool of language to create something beautiful.
Ultimately, our purpose returns to glorifying and worshiping the Divine Author, Jesus Christ. None of the glory we attain from our “works of literary excellence” should belong to us. Psalm 115:1 says, “Not to us, LORD, not to us, but to Your name be the glory, because of Your love and faithfulness.” What we write as Christians ultimately reflects on Christ. Our goal should be to know Him more, and as we grow in that knowledge, to help others see Him more clearly.

How can we accomplish this goal to the best of our ability? In other words, what makes writing good? I’ll leave you with this quote from C.S. Lewis: “There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to Him and bad when it turns from Him.”

Questions to consider:

a. How seriously do you take your calling as a writer? If you took it more seriously, what would that change, if anything?
b. What do you believe are the qualities of good writing?
c. How can you make your writing an act of worship to God?