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).

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