Category Archives: Inspiration

A Reading Wonderland

Some of my most calming, curiosity-piquing, wonder-filled memories are of libraries and bookstores. Even the smallest or dimmest or least organized are magical places, perhaps made more so by their imperfections and the sense of exploring a cavern of delights.

Years ago, I used to spend my lunch breaks at The Snooper’s Barn on Towson Avenue in Fort Smith, Arkansas, poking through the dusty stackes in the back where history books and old volumes — some antique — were shelved higgledy-piggledy, sometimes in precarious Jenga-like towers.

I recently introduced my eldest niece to an excellent independent bookstore in Oklahoma City. When we entered Full Circle Books — serving readers for more than three decades — we stepped not through the looking glass, nor through a wardrobe, but through a modern glass and metal door, yet the magic still welcomed us.

entryway, Full Circle Books, c2015, KB
entryway, Full Circle Books, c2015, KB
fireplace and sitting area, Full Circle Books, c2015, KB
fireplace and sitting area, Full Circle Books, c2015, KB
an old friend, c2015, KB
an old friend, c2015, KB

She fell in love with the rambling space filled with hidden rooms and cozy nooks, and the old-fashioned ladders that travel back and forth on metal tracks in need of oiling.

The children’s rooms are well-stocked with old friends and new, including a French copy of Dr. Seuss’s One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish — my niece’s first excuse to climb a ladder, but I don’t think she really needed a reason. 😉

children's reading room, Full Circle Books (c2015, KB)
children’s reading room, Full Circle Books (c2015, KB)
IMG_2986^cropped
the red ladder (c2015, KB)
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by the light of Winnie the Pooh (c2015, KB)
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French Seuss (c2015, KB)
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I love Sandra Boynton books. (c2015, KB)
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another old friend (c2015, KB)
IMG_3006^vignette pale
familiar author names (c2015, KB)
IMG_3003^HDR soft
funky covers (c2015, KB)

Same spaces have the atmosphere of a comfortable corner of someone’s home, and every doorway welcomes.

a comfortable study (c2015, KB)
a comfortable study (c2015, KB)
c2015, KB
c2015, KB
IMG_3008^HDR soft
c2015, KB
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a cheery welcome at one of the several doorways (c2015, KB)

I came around the corner and encountered mysteries. There’s a metaphor there, I’m sure.

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c2015, KB

My niece later found another reason to climb a ladder — various collections of Edgar Allen Poe, to which she coined a pun: “If one is perusing the works of Edgar Allen, one could be said to be reading Poe-etry.”

We are a silly lot.

Jamie reading Poe (c2015, KB)
Jamie reading Poe (c2015, KB)

On the mantel of one of the fireplaces stands this whimsical fellow:

c2015, KB
c2015, KB

If you ever visit Oklahoma City, try to carve out time to visit Full Circle Books, especially if you’re an independent author. The staff are friendly and professional, and the store supports indie and local authors, and the variety of books is vast.

front desk and beyond (c2015, KB)
front desk and beyond (c2015, KB)

 

reposted from Adventures In Fiction

I Lay Me Down

I forgot the deadline, so missed a chance to enter the Writers’ Police Academy Golden Donut Short Story Contest this year. Entrants were supposed to use the image below as a focal point for their story, and the winner will receive free registration at a 2016 WPA event.

image courtesy of the Writers' Police Academy
image courtesy of the Writers’ Police Academy

Here’s my would-be entry, exactly 200 words (title included), but sans any critical feedback, so maybe it’s a good thing I mistook the date:

I Lay Me Down

Two by two.

I almost expect to hear Dad holler at me for handing him the wrong lumber: “Two-by-four! We’re buildin’ a house, not a table.”

He was murdered last year. Suspect’s alibi was hinky, but witnesses were sketchy and the jury couldn’t agree.

Two by two is how graves are laid out in the Bellingham family plot. The newer portion is marked by clusters of four stones each, as if pairs of family members pushed their beds together, headboard to headboard, for an eternal sleepover. In the older acreage, graves are tombs capped with stone carvings, as if the Bellingham ancestors aspired to interment at Westminster Abbey.

A new grave has been dug among the elders, and its coffin-length cap lies waiting outside the rope barrier. I toss the shovel onto the grass then hop out of the shallow hole awaiting the concrete casement that will hold the remains of Miss Clarise, aged 103. I beat dirt from my clothes and breathe an apology for the indignity of placing below her an unwelcome gravefellow.

I return the shovel to the shed, and study a knoll above the cemetery.

A good place for a picnic table.

c2015, EEaster

It’s been a long while since I wrote flash fiction, and this piece may not win any contests, but it’s a good exercise in loosening up a long-unused creative muscle.

 

Penworthy News, In Brief

When the blog falls quiet, it’s not abandoned. Think of it as the companionable lulls that occur in conversations between friends: they’re a sign of trust, respect, the comfort of one another’s presence.

For us at Penworthy, the conversation is by no means at an end. The silence simply means we’re creating.

Here are a few notes to catch you up on our doings:

1) Black Gate magazine posted an excellent review of Dragon’s Rook:

Black Gate sidebar_bg_mag_sigilLike all genres of fiction, fantasy has a growing list of clichés and played-out tropes: the orphaned farm boy who’s actually the chosen one, the quest for a magical artifact to save the world, the generic medieval European setting, the Tolkien-lite denizenry of humans and elves versus orcs, goblins, and trolls…. On one hand, it’s surprising to see these tropes crop up new cover^for Smashwordsover and over again. Authors are supposed to be imaginative. Is it really that hard to come up with original ideas? On the other hand, it makes a good bit of sense to see certain recurring tropes. Fantasy is, after all, rooted in mythology, and one can make a strong case that fantasy taps into symbols and archetypes coded into the human psyche, whether we’re talking about Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey or the simple Jungian archetype of the shadow representing the basest of human instincts.

In practice, of course, the truth lays somewhere in the middle. Mediocre writers reuse certain tropes and make them cliché because they do nothing new with them. Expert writers create new tropes or take old ones and make them new in the context of unique characters and original words.

Read the entire review here.

SuSAn2) Suzan Troutt has been helping a fellow writer, Fred Rothganger, promote his science fiction novel, SuSAn, which we think is fitting, given the name. (wink and a smile)

Susan stands on the threshold of Singularity, a nexus where all the forces of history converge. What world waits on the other side? 

She has no “laws of robotics” built into her program, only the restless desire to be loved. She does everything to please her mother, a manipulative and driven scientist. As she grows from a trusting child into a rebellious young woman she faces a terrible choice: risk her very soul in more experiments, or stay stuck as an unfinished creation. 

She searches for a man who can embrace her as both machine and human being. Her final step in development is the most difficult of all: learning to love him back. The affair between humans and technology will determine the shape of our future.

Read more at Suzan’s blog, at the book’s Facebook page, or at Fred’s blog.

Gothic Tones logo

3) Suzan’s online jewelry store, Gothic Tones, is gaining more and more attention, which is making us quite happy. After all, we like to see one another succeed.

Suzan offers new, vintage, and offbeat items for customers looking for sophisticated, unique, or quirky jewelry. She also offers original artwork, a survival bracelet (for guys or girls), and customers can make requests.

 

Author Interview: Keanan Brand

Donovan M. Neal, a blogger and the author of the Biblical fantasy series The Third Heaven, recently interviewed one of our authors, Keanan Brand, about his journey toward publication, the challenges in writing and in life, and how his faith informs his writing.

Below are a couple excerpts:

new cover^for SmashwordsWhat advice would you give new novelists?

“Patience, grasshopper.”

I lifted that line from the old Kung Fu television show, but it’s a solid Biblical and literary concept, too. Patience isn’t staying still, necessarily. It’s persevering, it’s trying again, until the goal is achieved.

What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

The adage about having to write a million words before being able to call oneself a writer? I don’t know how many words I’ve written in my lifetime, but I produced at least the equivalent of three copies of Dragon’s Rook before finally settling on a completed version that worked…

I am pleased with the end result, and early readers have said that portions of it stay with them, coming to mind long after they closed the book, and some have said it is far different from what they expected of a swords-and-dragons yarn. One reader (who had never read fantasy) said she couldn’t put it down. I hope that you, too, enjoy this tale.

RiseofFallenStars

This is only a fraction of the interview — read it here in its entirety. (Read more about Keanan here and here.)

We thank Donovan M. Neal for his generosity.

Coming soon: A review of The Rise of Fallen Stars, the first book in Neal’s The Third Heaven series.

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!

Captains Courageous vs. A Little Princess: tales of children growing up

These two books were favorites of mine in childhood, for different reasons. I enjoyed daydreaming about what it would be like if I were rich like Sara Crewe when she came into a fortune in diamond mines. And who wouldn’t want to see a brat like Harvey Cheyne get his comeuppance by working for little pay on the We’re Here!

Bad kids learn lessons, hard work has rewards, someone will rescue you, dreams are previews of reality. These stories have their magic.

The interesting thing I didn’t notice when reading the books many years ago is that they are BOTH about spoiled rich kids thrown into circumstances beyond their control. I’d always kind of identified with scullery-maid Sara. I saw A Little Princess as a rags-to-riches story. It’s really a riches story, with a bout of poverty thrown in.

Parallels in A Little Princess1905) and Captains Courageous(1897):

Sara Crewe and Harvey Cheyne are rich kids, both spoiled by indulgent parents. We like Sara because of her modest attitude, while we hate Harvey for being entitled.

—Harvey is lost at sea, his parents think he is dead
—Sara becomes lost in London, her guardian thinks she is dead

—Harvey adapts to working hard after Captain Disko Troop punches him for accusing the crew of stealing money
—Sara adapts to hard work when Miss Minchin forces her to work as a maid to pay Sara’s debts

–Harvey gains a mind for business after being put to the test
–Sara doesn’t change much in attitude, but begins reaching outside her circle to give

There are more things alike between the two books, but which author handled the “fish out of water” character circumstances the best?

I’m actually weighing anchor on the side of Kipling. Captains Courageous is practical from start to finish. In fact, it kind of reminds me of a self-help book, with phrases like:

“Tis dollars and cents I’m putting in your pocket.”(Long Jack teaches Harvey the ropes on the ship)

“No good gettin’ mad at things, dad says. It’s our own fault if we can’t handle em.”(Dan)

“I tell you two boys here they after you’ve made a mistake–ye don’t make fewer’n a hundred a day–the next best thing’s to own up to it, like men.” (Salters)

It’s SO practical, in fact, that A Little Princess seems dreamy in comparison. But Sara’s world is different–more about compassion and mental tricks to help one get through tough times. I think the story here causes it to be more my favorite tale than the other:

“I can’t help making things up. If I didn’t, I don’t believe I could live.”(Sara)

“Left just one bun for herself….and she could’ve eaten the whole six–I saw it in her eyes.”(baker after Sara gives her food to a beggar girl)

“Somewhere in this world there is a heavenly kind person who is my friend–my friend. If I never know who it is–if I never can even thank him–I shall never feel quite so lonely.” (Sara)

Two different sets of coping mechanisms for the characters. Sara lives like the Princess she imagines herself to be, kind to others but spirited through persecution. Harvey learns and adapts to the ways of life on a rough fishing boat, leaving soft comforts behind.

Of these two, which is your favorite, and why?

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Penworthy Press Presents: Dragon’s Rook by Keanan Brand

The Penworthy Press collective—sounds like a cult, doesn’t it? But we’re just writers, honest!—announces the first book published under our logo:

Dragon’s Rook, book one of The Lost Sword duology by Keanan Brand.

This epic fantasy tells the story of two kingdoms at war. The kings are brothers-in-law—Morfran’s late wife was Damanthus’ sister—but the conflict has nothing to do with family and everything to do with the Territories, a long strip of forest and hills ruled by neither kingdom. The people there govern themselves, but have no standing army.

When Morfran’s soldiers invade, a young shepherd name Gaerbith journeys to the Dissonay capital and begs help of Damanthus to keep the Skardians at bay.

Disson engages Skarda in war, and pushes the invaders out of the Territories and back into the western Plains of Skarda, near the Highlands, a hallowed and feared place where the dead are said to dwell.

When Dragon’s Rook begins, the war is at an impasse. Both sides have lost heavily, and ground has been neither gained nor given in a long while. Gaerbith is now a seasoned soldier and captain of the Fourth Lachmil. His skill in battle has gained him a reputation as possessing magic, but anything special he attributes to the fact that his mother was a Keeper, one of a group of immortals charged with keeping the Great Archive, a storied trove of learning and art that many think is just a myth.

His mother, Uártha, entrusted him with a secret that can only be unlocked when he takes the oath of a Keeper: the hiding place of Azrin, the lost sword of Kel High King, who in ages past slew a Dragon and freed the people.

Yet, even if Gaerbith takes the oath and learns the secret, he can do nothing without Kel High King’s nearest descendant, the only one to whom the sword will answer.

Dragon’s Rook is the name of a cave in Kel Tor near the village of Shea, where a blacksmith lives. He possesses a dagger decorated with the same metal from which Azrin was forged, and he remembers nothing before the day the previous blacksmith found him as a child and took him in as an apprentice.

Kieran Smith and Captain Gaerbith set out on unexpected journeys—the blacksmith to learn who he really is, the soldier to do his duty to a king—and along the way they face great foes, make new allies, gain love or lose it, and must decide whether or not to do the most frightening thing of all: trust their lives to the leading of the Voice.

Dragon’s Rook is currently available as an e-book (visit Keanan’s website or his blog to select which version you prefer), and will be coming soon in paperback.

The cover art and design are by another member of the Penworthy Press collective: artist and writer, Suzan Troutt. She can be found at Gothic Tones blog, at her online jewelry shop, or at Jade’s Journal.

Advance readers have commented favorably on the cadence and detail of the writing, and on the characters, especially the female protagonists. Some readers have selected the story’s quieter moments—not the battles, not the wonders, but the human interactions—as some of their favorites.

Although there are fantasy tropes and archetypes in Dragon’s Rook, there are few mythical creatures—aside from Dragons, there are bloodthirsty giant crows called Nar’ath, invented for this story, but expect no dwarves, elves, ogres, trolls, and the like. The author freely admits to the classical influences of Tolkien, Lewis, folklore, mythology, and the Bible, and built the world of Disson and Skarda on a mix of American and European geography, but weaves a story all his own.

We at Penworthy Press are proud to present this novel to the world. May it and its successors bring joy to their readers for many years to come.

“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)

Nobel, Patrick Modiano, and Me

Never heard of Patrick Modiano?

It might help if you lived in France.

I didn’t know there was any past kerfuffle over the Nobel committee’s tendency to be Euro-centric in its selections for the literary prize, but I don’t mind getting to know about excellent writers outside my own country.

(K)eep in mind that while foreign translations from most literary writers can be hard to come by, there really isn’t reason to complain about Nobel winners being inaccessible. After all, the vast majority of winners since the prize’s debut in 1901 had written in English.

What’s more, awarding the honor to little-known writers — at least, from an English-reader’s perspective — can help introduce authors to a wider audience. Shortly after Jelinek won the prize in 2004, the American distributor of her book The Piano Teacher ran out of copies because demand was so unusually high. That was famously one of the goals of the Swedish Academy’s previous Permanent Secretary, Horace Engdahl, who once responded to criticism saying, “The purpose of the prize is to make them famous, not to tap them when they are famous.”

That prospect has already excited fans of Modiano’s in France. Anne Ghisoli, the director of the Parisian bookstore Librairie Gallimard, told the Times she had long been a Modiano fan, “but this prize will help raise the global profile of one of our consummate writers.”

[Gibson, Megan. “Why You Haven’t Heard of Patrick Modiano, Winner of the Nobel in LiteratureTime, 9 October 2014.]

A portion of his speech is highlighted in today’s issue of Shelf Awareness:

Time has speeded up since then and moves forward in fits and starts–explaining the difference between the towering literary edifices of the past, with their cathedral-like architectures, and the disjointed and fragmented works of today. From this point of view, my own generation is a transitional one, and I would be curious to know how the next generations, born with the Internet, mobile phones, e-mails and tweets, will express through literature this world in which everyone is permanently ‘connected’ and where ‘social networks’ are eating into that part of intimacy and secrecy that was still our own domain until quite recently–the secrecy that gave depth to individuals and could become a major theme in a novel. But I will remain optimistic about the future of literature and I am convinced that the writers of the future will safeguard the succession just as every generation has done since Homer.

I can identify with that need to put up a shield against the noise and the constant connection that eats at the soul.

Although I won a few prizes for speech-giving while in school, I dislike standing before crowds because my hands and voice shake and my thoughts scatter. Modiano, too, expresses his discomfort:

Calling to mind the way school lessons distinguish between the written and the oral, a novelist has more talent for written than oral assignments. He is accustomed to keeping quiet, and if he wants to imbibe an atmosphere, he must blend in with the crowd. He listens to conversations without appearing to, and if he steps in it is always in order to ask some discreet questions so as to improve his understanding of the women and men around him. His speech is hesitant because he is used to crossing out his words. It is true that after several redrafts, his style may be crystal clear. But when he takes the floor, he no longer has any means at his disposal to correct his stumbling speech.

Ah, yes. The need to constantly edit and revise. That explains my current profession.

Gustave Flaubert, a 19th-century French writer whose work ethic and precision with words one might well admire and imitate, even if his personal activities were best left behind the curtain, once wrote, “The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.”

And, I might add, it is in the act of writing that you realize not only do you have something to say, it is worth saying.

I also belong to a generation in which children were seen and not heard except on certain rare occasions and only after asking permission. But no one ever listened and people would often talk across them. That explains the difficulty that some of us have when speaking – sometimes hesitant, sometimes too fast as if we expect to be interrupted at any moment. This is perhaps why the desire to write came over me, like so many others, at the end of childhood. You hope that the adults will read what you write. That way, they will have to listen to you without interrupting and they will jolly well know what it is you have on your chest.

Listening — truly listening — is a great gift.

We may not understand all we hear, we may not agree with all we hear, but if we listen, we will learn, we will build bridges, we will encourage.

I was a child whose early, stumbling, terrible writings were listened to with patience and encouraged by adults. It was my peers who made me mute. They mocked, they misunderstood, they shrugged. Without the listening ears of a few grownups I respected and loved, I might not be a writer today.

Akin to truly listening is truly reading. There are few things more encouraging to a writer than knowing his words are being read. And not just read. Loved.

The announcement of this award seemed unreal to me and I was eager to know why you chose me. On that day I do not think I had ever been more acutely aware of how blind a novelist is when it comes to his own books, and how much more the readers know about what he has written than he does. A novelist can never be his own reader, except when he is ridding his manuscript of syntax errors, repetitions or the occasional superfluous paragraph. He only has a partial and confused impression of his books, like a painter creating a fresco on the ceiling, lying flat on a scaffold and working on the details, too close up, with no vision of the work as a whole…

So yes, the reader knows more about a book than the author himself. Something happens between a novel and its reader which is similar to the process of developing photographs, the way they did it before the digital age. The photograph, as it was printed in the darkroom, became visible bit by bit. As you read your way through a novel, the same chemical process takes place. But for such harmony to exist between the author and his reader, it is important never to overextend the reader – in the sense that we talk about singers overextending their voice – but to coax him imperceptibly, leaving enough space for the book to permeate him little by little, by means of an art resembling acupuncture, in which the needle merely has to be inserted in exactly the right spot to release the flow in the nervous system.

A certain short story comes to mind, one in which I purposely included certain themes but in which readers found other connections, better connections, than I intended. That was, I think, the first time I realized that a writer and a reader encounter different stories, though the words are the same.

The rest of Modiano’s excellent speech is dense with historical and literary references, and is literature itself. I highly recommend it to every writer, and to every reader who wonders where writers find their stories.

It and other speeches can be read at the Nobel website. Photos of the author can be viewed at The Telegraph, and an introduction to/review of some of his works may be read at The Guardian.

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.