All posts by Keanan

author, editor, amateur photographer

Create Anyway

Could you live your life in obscurity?

Could you — would you — still write, paint, draw, sing, act, dance, compose music, play music, take photos if no one ever knew your name? Never discovered your art?

What if you somehow lost the ability to write or play the music you hear in your head? The images you see? The stories you imagine?

What if you were crippled by arthritis, lost your sight, lost your hearing, lost control of part or all of your body, lost your vocal cords or damaged them just enough to still be able to talk but not to sing? What if you started to lose your mind, and you knew it?

Would you consider your efforts vain? If you lost the ability to create before what you had already created was discovered, would you consider your life wasted?

They’ve become almost cliche, as many times as they’ve been passed around the internet, but these words* written on the wall in  Mother Teresa‘s Calcutta orphanage still resonate with me:

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.
Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.
Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.
Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.
Be honest and sincere anyway.

What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.
Create anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.
Be happy anyway.

The good you do today, will often be forgotten.
Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.
Give your best anyway.

In the final analysis, it is between you and God.
It was never between you and them anyway.

I used to work at a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving the youth of the local community, and I posted those words often. Sometimes I’d catch kids looking up at the bulletin board or stopping outside my office window to read them. We didn’t discuss them much — kids will often absorb more via osmosis than they will by being lectured — but I referred to them on occasion when having to correct one of the members.

Had to remind myself, too, of the merit in pressing onward when life is bleak and there seems to be no reason to keep striving.

One of my early freelance newspaper articles involved an interview with a man suffering from MS, unable to physically write and barely able to shift himself from his bed to his chair, and yet he wrote stories by using a speech-recognition program on his computer.

A large writing group I once joined was led by a woman whose spinal and hip bones were deteriorating, and whose hands and wrists were arthritic, and yet she wrote in short sessions, refusing to give in to the inevitable.

A few years later, my critique buddy was a seventy-something alcoholic novelist whose anger and depression and regrets — the things he said he didn’t carry but which were evident in the stories he told — compelled him to write.

Via social media and e-zines, I have met several fellow writers suffering physical difficulties that not only impede their ability to interact in society, but also often obstruct their ability to write.

There was a long stretch of time when I, too, was barely able to function physically or mentally, and had to crawl back toward the light. At the moment, I’m in a greyness, a struggle with body and mind, that dims the light. And yet forward I must go.

Many creative folk I’ve known have been almost desperate to finish their work, “just in case”.  One writer also painted, and wanted to leave a legacy for her children and grandchildren. Another wanted to tell her mother’s story.  Another — one among myriad, I suspect — strove to fulfill a youthful dream set aside to raise a family and live her life.

Artist, singer, author, and speaker, Joni Eareckson Tada, is also quadriplegic, an inspiration and an encourager wherever she goes. The great composer Mozart died before he could finish Requiem, and Beethoven went deaf and became suicidal, thinking he no longer had a reason to exist — and yet he composed some of his most widely-recognized work after his hearing declined, including his Ninth Symphony and its famous “Ode to Joy” passage.

 

Keep going.

We cannot but create.

“We are all pencils in the hand of God.” -Mother Teresa

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* Click here and scroll to the end of the page to read The Paradoxical Commandments written by Dr. Kent M. Keith, upon which Mother Teresa’s version is based.

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Freeing Truth

On social media, a fellow writer and fellow Christian posted regarding the weird zone a pastor must walk between complete honesty and diplomatic reticence, lest his congregants be offended by truth and kick him out, and how the same weirdness exists in the Christian publishing industry: Can’t offend the readers, so let’s publish this not-quite-truthful fiction because it’s “clean” and it’ll keep us in business.

Below is a comment I almost posted in response:

The lack of complete honesty is one reason I stopped working for a Christian publisher: I quickly learned editors were expected to praise, not to correct. After all, praise was encouraging, but correction was negative and mean. It was okay to fix commas, but not to suggest deep revisions. It was okay to talk to a young writer about his/her first novel, but it wasn’t okay to tell them they need to do much more research about characters / history / health matters with folks who were experts in their fields.

I started holding back and doing the diplomatic thing. After all, maybe I was too intense. Maybe I was too demanding. And, after a time of introspection and second-guessing, I admitted there were a couple of instances when I coulda said something a bit more diplomatically, but I also admitted that I had never not told the truth.

“Encouragement” and “praise” aren’t synonymous.

Encouragement, as seen from the word’s construction, means “to put courage into” someone, and (according to Merriam-Webster Online) “to make (someone) more likely to do something” or “to tell or advise (someone) to do something.” (Sounds like editing, to me.) Praise means “to express approval” — and in today’s language that also means accepting without question or revision the thing or the person being praised.

An editor can praise a writer’s creativity without accepting that the manuscript is publish-ready. Praise for storytelling does not equal acceptance of clunky dialogue or run-on descriptive passages.

All writers need to be willing to receive feedback that isn’t blanket approval. Otherwise, they may never see weaknesses in their writing or their stories. They may never understand what works already or what needs improvement. They may never understand why their books aren’t selling.

In other words, unless they are willing to learn, they will never grow in their craft.

There’s another reason writers need completely honest feedback. If they only receive praise but  never encounter negative responses, they will never look at their own work critically and contend for it.

What does that mean?

If a writer must provide a reason for a line of dialogue, for a plot element, for a character, for a descriptive passage, he begins to think deeply about how the story fits together, about what’s necessary and what needs to be pruned. He begins to think like an editor.

That perspective, coupled with the fact that the author is the creator of the story, has great power in determining the quality of the final product.

Tell the truth. Receive the truth. The truth will set you free.

Author v. Editor

In response to a request for suggested topics to be included in a book, a conversation thread started in a group on Facebook as writers and editors weighed in with advice about the author/editor working relationship.

KB“Patience, grasshopper!” Many writers I’ve worked with are first-time authors, and they’re unfamiliar with the process, the back-and-forth of revising, of how long that process can be and how many times a book may need to be proofed, edited for content, re-read from the beginning, etc. They don’t set the book aside for a time and gain a new perspective before working on it again. Rather, no matter my advice or encouragement to wait and do the hard work, they become frustrated and anxious, and often send off their book to publishers or they self-publish long before their work is ready.

EAPWhen working with a publisher’s editor, first thing the author should determine (and this is mostly based on feeling) whether the editor/publisher is receptive to ANY form of author’s input and/or objections. If not — well, there’s only two choices for the author: withdraw you book (often not possible) or go with everything the editor wants. If the author feels strongly he/she will not be able to work with the editor, he/she can ask the publisher for book-contract cancellation…

If, however, you are assigned an editor who is ‘willing’ to discuss your (author’s) objections, then you need to choose – and choose wisely here I say – which things you’re going to quibble over… Pick your battles…Then make a case for why you want to keep what the editor wants you to change or delete. 

While most of the editors profess to be working from the Chicago Manual of Style nothing could be further from truth. I’ve yet to meet two editors who agree on placement of commas. So, whatever small punctuation changes the editor wants, go with it… After all is said and done, do the professional thing and thank the editor for all his/her hard work and then do some soul-searching. Do you want to remain with this publisher or find another one or go solo? It’s actually a good place to be.

KBWhen I was an editor with a publisher, I was the tough guy who had to tell authors to make significant changes — not because I was trying to make over their work in my image, not because their work was terrible, but because they were writing historical fiction and therefore needed to be true to the eras. One concerned the settling of the American West, and was crammed full of cliched characters and events that were more Hollywood than history. The other book was set in Israel during the occupation by the Roman Empire, and the author tried to turn Herod into a more personable guy than he really was.

So good editors will tell their authors the hard truths, even if those authors cry to me on the phone and later complain to the publisher, as the above two authors did. The first author backed out of her contract, because — in her words — her book was perfect as it was. The second author was going through other stresses in her life that added to her resistance to change, and she cried often, but she eventually made the changes because (I hope) she saw that I had only her best in mind.

I wanted more from these authors than they were willing to give. That, I think, is often a source of contention. The author’s vision (what he thinks he’s written) can be radically different from what the editor actually sees on the page. Therefore, in the author’s mind, the editor is just obtuse and irrational, and in the editor’s mind, the author needs to knuckle down and get it right. Somewhere between them, they can hammer out a pretty darn good novel.

PEHThe manuscript is like the author’s child, and the editor is like a teacher. The same way a teacher improves upon a student by giving him or her knowledge is how an editor works with the manuscript. The teacher is just making that student better.

Questions, suggestions, advice? Continue the conversation in the comments below!

“Awake” — a romantic short story

Keanan here with a brief publishing update:

I’ll be posting some short stories to Kindle in the coming days and weeks, and they’ll be around .99 or so, and will cover a variety of genres.

The first is “Awake”, a romance in brief — in house robe and slippers, to be more precise — told from the perspective of Cale, a photographer who’s not sure he has what it takes, and Penn, a writer and long-time friend who talks in her sleep. It’s a quiet little tale, but it’s inspired by real people, a real dog, and a dream.

Click on the image below to order the story. Enjoy!

DB-MFK cover

“The Greatest of These…”: Maturity v. Offense

Living one’s life in offense means never quite growing up.

No, it doesn’t mean one is more sensitive to the plight of others; it means one’s skin is so thin that others must always blunt the truth. They must be less honest or less than complete in their speech lest one take umbrage and skew the conversation by one’s own assumptions, judgments, or screeds.

Maturity—and true tolerance—listens to the opinions or arguments of others, and is not threatened by them. It does not need to shout down or shut down those with whom it disagrees. It does not need to be malicious toward them, nor does it need to smear them with altered facts, half-truths, or nasty names.

Maturity speaks and acts from a place of strength. It is confident. Its sense of right and wrong does not depend on the opinions of others, nor on their good will or ill will, nor on any narrative written out in the media, in popular culture, in activist groups, in church dogma, or in group-think, but assesses matters for itself and comes to its own conclusions.

It recognizes truth, even if that truth alters one’s previously-held beliefs.

Offense pushes onward against the tide of truth, and demands conformity with itself. It is akin to a child throwing a temper tantrum, refusing to acknowledge the truth it knows but is too proud and willful to admit, especially if that truth contradicts the narrative.

In this case, narrative is the accepted story—it is not necessarily reality. It is not concerned with facts or actual events, with provable data or the weight of evidence. It is the story in one’s own head, the story one wishes, expects, or assumes.

If maturity’s narrative is confronted with dissonant facts, with an alternate narrative, or with a conflicting truth, maturity weighs those differences, examines them, and then accepts or rejects them.

However, offense filters everything through emotion, and reacts with anger and arrogance, which can often disguise themselves as something noble. Yet continued anger, scolding, snubs, smears, demands, dishonesty, and haughtiness push for conformity—from others, not from oneself.

They also reveal the stunted growth, the blindness, the egocentricity, the blunted thinking of the one choosing to live in offense.

There are also groups which stir up and depend on the feelings of offense carried by their adherents. These groups are varied in nature—political, religious, cultural, sexual—and they operate much the same way as offended individuals do, but often with greater consequences. Anyone who dissents or offers an alternative is in danger of a damaged reputation, of difficulties at work or in the marketplace. That’s the least threat. The greatest threat is to self or loved ones because one does not conform.

Offense, therefore, encourages dishonesty. It thrives on anger, foments strife, and places itself as supreme judge. It brooks no argument—no matter how reasoned, truthful, or sound it may be—and is shrill in its agenda.

Maturity, however, will present its case but not push it. It will set boundaries and honor them. It will not be ashamed of its heritage, its faith, its culture, it political views, but will respect the differences of others, even if it cannot agree with them.

Maturity does what is right even if those actions are misunderstood, misrepresented, or misjudged. Even if people are offended. Because maturity is not ruled by immaturity.

It takes the long view, and considers the future consequences of its current actions. It knows it will be validated in the long run, perhaps after the current kerfuffle is long forgotten. And yet it does what it believes is right, even if it will not be the recipient of any good that might come of its actions.

Maturity is not so short-sighted that it lives only in the untempered, ill-informed emotions of the moment.

Maturity is not controlled by the fomented emotions of those who exalt the activist but denigrate the statesman. Due to speeches, marches, and “awareness” campaigns, the former is often credited with creating change, while the latter actually creates change by leadership despite opposition, threat, or lack of fanfare. One drums up support; the other earns respect. One is strident; the other may not even need to raise his voice.

There are advocates who are sometimes labeled activists, but they are most often for something rather than against something else: for aiding battered women, for increasing literacy, for feeding the homeless. The terms they use tend toward the positive, and they are less likely to be militant in their approach, although the lack of militance does not mean any lack of strength in their belief or actions. The difference lies in their lack of reliance on offense in order to garner support for or awareness of their cause.

Borrowing from one of my eldest niece’s favorite shows, “Green Lantern“, episode 2: “We know what you’re fighting against, kid, but what are you fighting for?”

Maturity is a process. It begins with recognizing not only one’s goals but also one’s limits, one’s need to learn and grow. Maturity exhibits as much frailty as any other human state, but it also extends patience to itself and to others. It may experience frustration, anger, even offense, but none of those are its constant state or its usual response. It is not ruled by negative emotions, nor by naïve, la-la-la optimism, even if it experiences them from time to time. In general, maturity is measured, pragmatic, and wise.

In the end, offense, being self-centered, cannot truly love. It cannot see beyond itself, its own cause, its own emotions, its own narrative. It loves only those with whom it agrees.

However, maturity realizes love—that thing so touted by a certain generation several decades past—is more action than emotion. It is a messy reality, not a hazy ideal, and true love reaches out even to its enemies.

If I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

I Corinthians 13 (NIV)

All I Have to Say

When it comes to the events in Ferguson, Missouri, I’m not interested in being stirred up or pooh-poohed, in being lectured or being scolded, in being told what to think or feel or be or do.

I worked many years with youth and families of various ethnicities, and found that the vitriol coming at me — a person of European and Native American descent — was much more aggressive and bitter than I could have ever expected. All manner of prejudices and evil-doings were assigned to me by people who didn’t know me, but who accused me, verbally abused me, and called some creative names because I had to discipline their children or make judgement calls in disputes among their children.

I can’t recall the number of times I was told that only white people can be prejudiced. The irony of that statement never seemed to strike my accusers.

For me, race was never an issue. I looked on everyone as one race — the human race — and all capable of failure and folly. Right was right, wrong was wrong, and iffy needed some finesse. Sometimes wrongs were corrected, but many times wrongs were allowed to continue because someone might be or currently was offended. Offense and fear prevented good from being done.

Offense, anger, fear, and pride are burdens too heavy for me to carry. They hobble my steps, bow my back, and rob my vision. I may not be able to solve the ills of the world, nor may I be able to make my voice heard above the shouting, but I can shed my own blighted thinking, skewed perspective, and shackled living.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

Novel v. Sermon

Last week, I posted this on Facebook:

If you’re a believer of XYZ faith, and you want to preach a sermon, find a pulpit and do so.

If you’re a writer of XYZ faith, tell a story.

Let your faith inform your story if you’d like, and let there be characters who practice that faith, but — please — don’t make folks of other beliefs into caricatures or idiots or villains simply because they believe differently.

And avoid proselytizing. Don’t lure readers with a promise of a good yarn, but then turn the tables on them and present a sermon instead.

They won’t praise you. They’ll distrust you.

There’s not much more to be said, I thought at the time, and that post sums up my thoughts.

Since then, however, this has been kicking around in the back of my mind, like a restless kid shuffling back and forth and playing kickball with rocks because his friends haven’t shown up yet on the playground.

I am a Christian. I am not ashamed of that, nor do I hide it.

Yet, due to other folks’ experience with people sporting the “Christian” label, I am sometimes hesitant to use the word:
1) Will they shut down and refuse to speak with me?
2) Will all their prejudices or poor encounters come rushing to the fore, creating a boundary that doesn’t need to exist?
3) Will they assume that anything and everything I write is a sermon? And do they expect me to start sermonizing right now?
4) What do they think a Christian is? An ignorant backwoods hick who believes in fairy tales? A self-righteous loudmouth? A corrupt individual who uses the gloss of religion to hide his misdeeds? A hypocrite? A prim prude who thinks she’s perfect?
5) Will everything I do or say be measured by their assumptions or misperceptions of what a Christian is, and therefore they will obstruct or impede my endeavors because they’re already predisposed to dislike or misjudge me?

But despite my hesitation — and all those questions zooming through my mind — I declared myself a Christian to a couple fellow writers who are of different mind, and their stories reflect those beliefs and questions, just as my stories reflect mine.

The conversation came about because one writer said she was considering modeling a shady and powerful organization after Christianity and/or the Catholic Church (I forget which precisely — the conversation occurred a few weeks ago). I asked her why, but she really wasn’t sure yet on some of her world-building. Knowing she is an atheist who has had poor experience with some bewilderingly clueless Christians, I cautioned her against turning a religion into a villain simply to jab at its adherents. After all, it’s not original, and it makes her story snarky, ugly-minded, and not the interesting, darkly funny, unusual urban fantasy that we’ve been reading in our writers meetings.

But, let’s be honest, we Christians do ourselves no favors when we puff ourselves up and expect everyone else to operate according to our (flawed) parameters. We do not reflect well on Christ when we flaunt our Bibles but misbehave in public. Or when we writers try to hook readers with the promise of an international spy thriller but we pull the ol’ switcheroo, story suddenly becomes sermon, and everyone is “saved” by the end of the book. Or when only the Christian characters are wise and good and noble. Or when the Christian characters can do no wrong and always make the right decisions.

Wow, are Christian characters often the least interesting ones. And, wow, are the other characters often cut-out caricatures — insulting, shallow versions of reality so we can play the puppet-master and make everything come out just the way we’d like it.

Oh, and God thinks like we do.

It’s the same thing that nonbelieving writers sometimes do: Make God in their own image — or their version of what they think He’s like — and then turn believers into bigoted, wishy-washy, whiny, or arrogant cartoons. *

Such storytelling serves no one but the readers who already agree with XYZ stance. If those readers are your intended audience, then your field is narrow, because it excludes the broader audience of eclectic readers who are willing to entertain good writing and excellent storytelling from various points of view.

I am such a one, and have read books written from worldviews far different from my own, simply because they were well-written stories that spoke to humanity and opened the door to perspectives I had not yet considered.

And yet, to be perfectly frank, I’m not interested in reading books that denigrate rather than entertain. Show people of faith in an honest, compassionate way, and even if they’re the bad guys or just average, flawed human beings, I’ll stick around. Show them as cartoons, as buffoons or criminals simply because of that faith and not because they made bad choices or need help or have other issues,  then I’ll bail. I don’t need to feed my mind and spirit on someone else’s bad attitude, ugly-minded agenda, or personal vendetta. **

Whether we realize it or admit it, whether we are theists or atheists, we write what we know — and what we believe. 

As a fellow writer and reader, I just ask that we consider how we present other points of view, and let’s not rely on just our experiences or our own agendas, but look past them to look through other eyes.

Research, ask questions, conduct interviews, ask why.

Listen. Contemplate.

And then, when we sit down to write, be honest, be compassionate, be real.

We just might find our own perspective has changed.

 

*  Sermons and agendas do not belong only to Christians or people of other faiths. There are political and religious themes in television shows, movies, and novels. For a specific example, I could link to various news stories and blog posts about James Cameron’s film, Avatar, which he admitted is propaganda. However, a Wikipedia article, Themes in Avatar, is a good one-stop source.

** Wesboro Baptist Church, Al Qaeda, ISIS, and others of their ilk use their religious beliefs as a cover, as an excuse to misbehave. That’s a conversation for another time.