Tag Archives: Elizabeth Easter

The Purpose of Fantasy

ThePurposeofFantasyThis is a good book.

I could end my review right there and still have told the complete truth, but that wouldn’t tell you why or what, or how you can acquire your own copy of this useful, soon-to-be essential, little volume.

The WHAT and the WHO: The Purpose of Fantasy: A Reader’s Guide to Twelve Selected Books with Good Values & Spiritual Depth by Philip Martin. I met Phil many years ago at a writing conference in Oklahoma City, back when he still worked as the acquisitions editor for The Writer Books. He’d recently published the first edition of A Guide to Fantasy Literature (now revised and with a new cover, although I much prefer the dragon on my copy!). Since then, he has formed his own publishing house, as well as offering consulting and mentoring services for fellow writers.

The WHY:

As a writer of fantasy and science fiction, I have defended my chosen genres to writers who deem them lower forms of literature, as pop-lit or pulp fiction. (Well, I ask, doesn’t the “pop” in pop-lit mean the form is popular? There must be a reason for that.) Fantasy has been and will always be a viable and powerful literary form, and Philip Martin is its apologist:

Fantasy is different from other types of fiction. It is a wonderful approach to storytelling, and “wonderful” here means literally full of wonder. Unfortunately, it is often used in a very small-minded sense to segregate off a small type of adventure fantasy into a sub-genre, a ghetto of bookstores and libraries, where you mostly find books with sword-wielding barbarians, bushy-eyebrowed wizards wearing star-studded gowns, Arthurian knights galloping across medieval countrysides, perhaps a castle in the background, perhaps a scaly dragon sailing overhead, perhaps a warty, axe-wielding ogre lurking in the shrubbery. But fantasy is far more than this. Fantasy combines wonder and whimsy with a richly non-rational, spiritual, philosophical look at matters such as good and evil…Someone said that the difficult thing about fiction is that it has to make sense. Fantasy makes sense, but it doesn’t show us reality. It shows us an inner truth, without any need to be any more real than an occasionally invisible hobbit with hairy toes. (Kindle locations 134-150) (emphasis mine)

Martin goes on to say, “At their core, fantasy stories are about what we believe about some matter of spiritual beliefs; they tackle core issues of good and evil, and how we should deal with it all” (Kindle locations 155-156).

Amen, brother! Preach it!

But this is not a religious book, nor is it a book of faith, but a discussion of how the spiritual is illustrated by and becomes accessible because of fantasy literature.

The HOW:

His three criteria for choosing the twelve books included in The Purpose of Fantasy:

  1. They had to be really entertaining.
  2. They had to be worth rereading.
  3. They had to be worth discussing.

As a result, and without prior design, most of the books that made the cut are generally marketed to children.

C.S. Lewis wrote: “When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” Albert Einstein said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” (This may apply to adults as well.) What is clear is that the foundations of a person’s moral character are strongly shaped by influences and lessons absorbed in childhood. And the two things that fantasy is most about – imagination and issues of right/ wrong – are naturally in rich abundance in children’s books and stories. (Kindle locations 234-240)

However, the questions raised and the themes throughout are decidedly the realm of adults.

Some writers of fantasy have been quite annoyed to see their stories labeled as “for children.” These authors included the great fabulist Hans Christian Andersen, who insisted “my tales were just as much for older people as for children, who only understood the outer trappings and did not comprehend and take in the whole work until they were mature.” (Kindle locations 274-276)

Again, the WHAT (the books Martin discusses in The Purpose of Fantasy):

Momo by Michael Ende
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis
Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
The Rope Trick by Lloyd Alexander
Gifts by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
The 13 Clocks by James Thurber

Reading this book was a joy. It reacquainted me with beloved books I haven’t read since childhood, and nudged me to become friends with books that have long been on my “to read” list. (I first learned of Momo from a popular South Korean television series, My Lovely Sam Soon, aka My Name is Kim Sam-Soon, and have been wanting to read it ever since.)

For me, there is a danger in reading interesting books that are also well-written. When I find something I like, something that speaks to me or draws me in, I will blitz through it. I skip across the water rather than immersing in it. This time, however, I read slowly, as Martin recommends we do when perusing the stories he suggests. Savor them, ponder them, ask their questions of ourselves. Feel the wonder.

Fantasy’s gift is to allow us to see our own world in a state of surprise and grace. (Kindle locations 475-476)

Or, as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes in The Little Prince,

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

But fantasy is more than the fantastic or the spiritual. In the chapter titled “Is Fantasy Subversive?”, Martin opens with this statement:

 Some authors have seen fantasy as a good way to introduce a type of creative questioning, one that can shake up, or sneak by, a conventional perception. (Kindle locations 492-493)

And bolsters it with this:

Ursula Le Guin wrote that some adults are uneasy with fantasy’s inconvenient tendency to reveal truths – to tell stories in which emperors have no clothes. (Kindle locations 504-505)

I grew up in a strict church that, despite its words, seemed more concerned with appearances than with truth, and eschewed obvious sins while indulging in the more subtle, more insidious sin of pride. I was that kid who stirred up controversy by pointing out what was, to me, as plain as sunshine: There’s something wrong. There’s a disconnect between what they said they believed and how they behaved.

One of the teachings declared that most fiction was useless and even sinful, because it was lies. However, as a voracious reader, I consumed fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, mysteries, fairy tales, folklore, and the like, as well as the many stories in the Bible, and gained much from them all. In a Native American folktale, I might learn about wise choices, which backed up a concept I might have learned in Sunday School or heard preached from the pulpit. In an African fable, the evil of lying might be reinforced.

Martin asks,

Do stories question authority? How often, for instance, do stories and books for young readers contain dunder-headed or threatening adults? Does that mean that those stories are anti-adult? More accurately, they encourage young readers to think twice, and compare what they see in real life to those fictional tales. (Kindle locations 576-578)

It’s not important which church I grew up in, or what I observed. It’s important that I read widely and asked the questions. Eventually, I came to see value in much of what I was taught, because it was true and solid and a good guide for life. However, there is also much I abandoned as untrue and harmful.

For a time when I was in elementary school and junior high, there was a fear among the adults who knew me that I would mix up reality and fantasy, that the fiction that so enthused me would overtake my reason or my faith. When I wearied of defending myself and the books, I hid them behind more acceptable volumes, read them under the covers, sat in secluded corners.

The key to opening the mind is to be able to imagine something else, to ask “what if.” But “what if” does not answer questions. It simply creates a portal, an opening to build the structure of a story on top of those questions…Minds of young readers are not so malleable or gullible that they swallow everything they read or are toldFantasy stories raise the question of Truth. But they don’t create it, and readers know that, because the worlds of fantasy are so clearly invented. Even more so than all the other branches of fiction, they are impossible worlds. (Kindle Locations 587-603) (emphasis mine)

It seems I cannot write a book review without applying it to my own life. That’s a good thing, perhaps, because it shows how well the book relates to me. Is it true? Interesting? Vital? Engaging? Well-written? The Purpose of Fantasy is all those and more. I recommend this book to writers and readers everywhere, especially those who see the wonder beyond the skin of the world.

Martin concludes the “Is Fantasy Subvervise?” chapter thus:

The solution, in a fantasy book, often comes from the smallest one who asks the biggest questions. (Kindle locations 608-609)

What’s your question?

*  ~  *  ~  *  ~  *

In addition to being an excellent and engaging writer, Martin is also an editor, mentor, and publisher. He’s the founder of Great Lakes Literary and its two imprints, Crickhollow Books and Crispin Books. Martin is blogging about the books he explores in The Purpose of Fantasy ( Mary Poppins, for instance), and readers are invited to join the conversation. Readers can also visit the Crickhollow Books page on Facebook.

One last note: Check out that awesome cover art! It’s called “Looking for a Good Book” and is by Greg Newbold. You can check out more of his work on his site.

Cold Heart, Kindly Meant

In recent months, I’ve been approached by new writers seeking to self-publish their work, and have participated in a few discussions about and with independent authors. As a result, I’ve come to this conclusion: Regardless of literary skill or monetary remuneration, one’s self-discipline and willingness to keep learning are important to one’s success. (And one’s definition of success is important, as well.)

Some of the authors I’ve met understood their manuscripts’ need for good editing, but have wanted it at little or no expense. I understand that. I’d love to obtain excellent products at no cost to me. Free housing, free utilities, free whatever — that’d be great, huh?

But we appreciate and cherish that which we gained at great cost, that for which we sacrificed.

So, despite how cold-hearted these words may seem to new writers in search of praise and handouts, I say, “Suck it up. Work it out. Learn. Strive. Improve. Don’t whine. Grow up. Bind your wounds. Stand on your own feet. Know when to ask for help. Keep fighting. Know your worth. Be humble. And in the words of Bill and Ted, be excellent.”

Cold Spell ("I'll get you, my pretties!") c2013, EE
Cold Spell (“I’ll get you, my pretties!”)
c2013, EE

Signposts of Hope

I photographed this little fella on a warm day last month, when the sun and the clouds fought for supremacy, and the autumn leaves waved brilliant colors to the wind. Surprise blooms from tenacious roses caught my eye. I grabbed the camera and contended with the wind and the ever-changing light.

This one looks like he’s smiling, a mischievous cross between a rose and the image that “snapdragon” conjures in my mind:

c2013, EE
c2013, EE

And more roses nearby, clinging to a brick wall then flying out of shot whenever the breeze wandered by — the precocious pink flirts:

c2013, EE
c2013, EE

Though no longer blooming, these cannes lily plants were sturdy, green, fresh, as if they grew in spring rather than in schizophrenic autumn, chill one day and summery the next:

c2013, EE
c2013, EE

Maybe ten feet away from all this new life was this tree, covered in the vibrant colors of waning life:

c2013, EE
c2013, EE
c2013, EE
c2013, EE
c2013, EE
c2013, EE
c2013, EE
c2013, EE

The end is not necessarily the end. There are signposts of hope, if you know where to look:

c2013, EE
c2013, EE

Now that tree limbs are bare and flowerbeds barren, now that my life hasn’t turned out as planned and my writing is taking new directions, these pictures are reminders that not all death is tragedy, not all unwanted change is failure, and not every loss is cause for mourning.

Two-Timer

It’s not jet lag but NaNo lag–that draggy, lazy feeling after completing the flat-out run of National Novel Writing Month.

71tOzSj59eL._SL1241_Aside from final edits to Marianne Jordan’s first novel, The First Christmas Carol: A Miser, a Manger, a Miracle, I set aside all editing tasks for the month of November, and wrote. Just wrote.

Oh, the luxury!

And the agony.

I’ve been a stranger to my novels, so becoming reacquainted with them was awkward and stilted. Ideas were pulled along rather than being willing participants; it’s as if they were rusty gears that had to be oiled and finessed until the teeth caught and the wheels turned. And when they started, wow, did they run!

So, now it’s December, and a freelance project is waiting for my editing expertise, but I’ve had an epiphany of sorts. It’s one of those it’s-so-simple-and-obvious-how-did-I-miss-it epiphanies: I tend toward all-or-nothing when I work, but that’s bad for my writing, and bad for my peace of mind. So, simple fix: Edit only two or three hours per day, then write.

That may seem counter-productive, but it might curb frustration and stress, which will lead to greater productivity.

Gonna try it this month.

Gonna hold hands with my novels, maintaining relationship and finally reaching the end, while still doing my job as an editor helping other writers achieve their publishing goals.

Yep. I’m gonna two-time.

 

 

(Note, 12/12/13: Nine days later, it’s still working.)

Matthew, Mark, Luke — and Dickens?

What if the innkeeper in Bethlehem had been named Ebenezer?

What if, like his Dickensian counterpart, he was a miser?

What if he met the Holy Family and turned them away — not because there was no room at the inn, but because the price of the room was too high for Joseph to pay?

71tOzSj59eL._SL1241_

The First Christmas Carol: A Miser, a Manger, a Miracle by Marianne Jordan is a brief, powerful book combining classic elements of A Christmas Carol with the Biblical account of the Nativity to form a fresh-yet-familiar story.

Ebenezer turned and stepped through the doorway, his elbow brushing against the mezuzah hanging on the frame. Like the one at his home, it had been a fixture of the inn since its construction.And like the one in his home, the mezuzah was severely cracked and chipped. It was amazing it remained attached at all. Ebenezer refused to fix either. To repair them would have been an unnecessary expense.

Most Jews who came through the door automatically reached to kiss the small scripture casing, only to find pieces crumble in their hands. Ebenezer had all but forgotten it was even there, but now the disintegrating symbol caught his attention.The small indentation appeared to be the image of a woman’s face.

Was that—? No, it couldn’t be.

He squeezed his eyes and shook his head, slinging drops of sweat around him. When he looked again, the silhouette had disappeared. He tilted closer, running his fingers over the fissures. Impossible.

Ebenezer’s old partner, Jacob, is dead, but that just means more money for Eb. He’s reveling in the census, because that means more travelers coming to his inn. He ratchets up the prices. Who’ll complain? It’s not like they have a choice.

Just as Scrooge was visited by three ghosts sent by Jacob Marley, the innkeeper is visited by three angels announced by Gabriel. And, just as Scrooge was forever changed by revisiting his past, experiencing otherwise unknown aspects of his present, and seeing his future if he doesn’t alter his ways, so too is Ebenezer powerfully affected by similar journeys to different moments in his life.

He is especially unsettled by his encounters with a young teacher — the man that the infant being born in his stable becomes.

As the rabbi turned to resume his walk, he looked at Ebenezer. It happened every time the innkeeper was in the man’s presence. Ebenezer shivered. Could the man see him? There were even times when Ebenezer thought the teacher was speaking specifically to him.

“The more lowly your service to others, the greater you are. To be the greatest, be a servant. Those who think themselves great shall be disappointed and humbled, and those who humble themselves shall be exalted.”

Ebenezer and the silent angel of the future follow the rabbi all the way to his crucifixion. Ebenezer sees the empty tomb, but instead of gaining hope, he despairs, broken by deep realization of his unworthiness.

He is returned to the present, and goes to the stable in time to join the shepherds and others gathered there to worship the infant Savior. Hope returns, and the innkeeper will never be the same.

His heart is not the only one that needs opening. Interwoven with Ebenezer’s story is that of his assistant, Aaron, who is also changed the fateful night he and his family helps Joseph find lodging and Mary give birth.

Full disclosure: I edited this book. From the moment is was assigned to me, I was intrigued by the premise, and enjoyed watching this book change and tighten and gain power. I believe that reading The First Christmas Carol alongside the Book of Luke would make an excellent addition to family Christmas traditions, and I will be adding this book to my personal library.

The First Christmas Carol is available as an e-book (Kindle) and in paperback.

BONUS: Enter to win a Kindle Fire!

Blessed Betrayal?

On a social media site this week, a fellow writer started a new discussion thread:

What is the most valuable piece of advice you’ve received? Mine is a quote from from Peter deVries: “I only write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired every morning at 9 o’clock.”

The answer that sprang to mind wasn’t a famous quote or advice from a famous author, but something said about fifteen years ago by a writer who encouraged many others toward publication while she herself remained obscure: “So what?” and “Who cares?”

The best advice I’ve received wasn’t intended as advice, but as an offhand, snarky question: “So what?”

So what if Character X did thus and so? Why should the reader care?

That question revolutionized my storytelling.

I’m still learning all the time, and my drafts can be sloppy, meandering affairs, but when it comes time to edit the mess and turn it into something worth reading, “So what?” is a constant guide. It helps me determine what stays and what goes. It helps me revise dialogue from bland to tense, or turn an otherwise dull “just going from point A to point B” passage into a suspenseful journey.

In the end, because I’ve already asked the question of every scene, conversation, event, and plot thread, my hope is that no reader picks up my work, shrugs, and says, “So what?”

I don’t know where she is, the writer who tossed the casual question, or even if she still walks the earth, but she came along at the right moment in my life, when I struggled to return to writing after many years of literary muteness. For a few years after our chance meeting, she welcomed me into her inner circle, and many of us learned so much and were so encouraged that we took her word as gospel.

Then something happened — I don’t really know what — that changed everything. Maybe someone misunderstood something said or written. Maybe there was a power struggle, like children vying for a parent’s attention or approval. Maybe the teacher saw the students leaping past her, succeeding where she had not. Maybe we started questioning some of the advice and thinking more independently.

Whatever the reason, the kinship broke, and some of us were cast outside the circle.

We were angry, hurt, confused, but fledgelings might feel the same. The warm nest is no longer home. They must fly alone.

So we did. Alone together. And we succeeded. We won contests. We published our work.

That tight little group of survivors has broken once again. One married and moved away. One divorced and is selling her house. I moved to another state to help family. Another remains right where she always was, but is surpassing us all with her publishing achievements.

Still, some of the best advice we ever received was from the one who embraced us then betrayed us, and that, too, became a blessing.

So what?

The question ever remains: Had we stayed in the embrace, would we ever have left to become the writers we are now?

Always Greener: Extended Edition

Ever feel like you’re contending with / against your own life?

Everything’s a struggle, even when it doesn’t have to be.

Someone at work takes a notion not to like you. Your boss makes demands of you (he calls them “challenges”; you call them “soul suckers”). Family or friends know what’s best for you, even when they don’t. Especially when they don’t. You seem to live life in a hamster wheel. Dreams wither. You’re your own worst enemy.

Just as you’re the hero of your own story, you’re the villain in someone else’s. Or, if not the villain, at least the antagonist. Some folks enter your life to knock of your rough edges and help you grow stronger. In turn, you’re the sandpaper and fertilizer to others. (Take that statement as you will.)

Someone once wisely said there should be a statute of limitations on blaming our screwed-up lives on our parents.

Agreed. At some point, we have to stand on our own, look around, decide who and what we want to be, where we want to go, and shed all the crap that keeps us from getting there. If we don’t achieve our goals, let it not be said we blamed others and never really strove for the prize.

But, truth be told, some people do seem to exist simply to crush the dreams right out of us. How much joy can there be for someone who must always be right or in control? They often only see the bleakness in life, or all the bad possibilities, so they use their words, attitudes, and actions to cripple anyone else who might dare leap despite the risk. Well, maybe not leap. Maybe the optimist dares build a bridge that the pessimist refuses to cross. After all, it might collapse. And how dare anyone ignore or usurp the control he’s trying to wield? How dare they step beyond that boundary and live and think and dream for themselves?

Respect or control?

Whether they realize or acknowledge it, everyone wants to be respected. It’s not a matter of pride, but of common decency among fellow human beings. It’s nigh inherent in freedom-loving souls. I live my life, you live yours, we respect one another’s boundaries, and one need not dominate the other.

But what happens when someone’s negative attitude affects the group? Nothing’s ever done right. No one else can do it as well as that person. If one small hiccup occurs in the plans, then might as well scrap the whole day.

If anyone does something differently, then they’re usurping that person’s perceived authority, or they’re just ignoring them. While that may be true in some cases, many times the control-addict is not allowing anyone else to think differently, approach a problem or situation differently, or be in any way independent of the controller

Kinda reminds me of a totalitarian government, one which decides for its citizens what is acceptable or forbidden, what is right or wrong, who will live and who will die — but what is that government’s criteria for morality?

It’s a way to keep the people on edge and subservient, afraid to do anything that might rouse the ire of the monolithic motherland that can destroy them because today she’s feeling put-upon, threatened, or out of sorts.

This kind of thinking and behavior gorges the ego, and creates strife where none need exist.

So, like me, are you at war with your life and striving to take back control that’s been scattered to others who shouldn’t have that much power over you?

Or are you trying to exert control over everyone at work or at home, or elsewhere in your life, and you just need to let them be?

Once we get this sorted out, we’ll be much happier, you and I.

Well, perhaps not happier, but more content, more relaxed, able to see the world clearly and weather whatever life sends our way.

The grass isn’t always greener elsewhere. We need to tend to our own sod. Maybe the life we’ve always wanted is in our own backyard.

Always Greener

March 2012, c EE
March 2012, c EE

We work all week so we can rest for a couple days. We scurry through chores so we can sit down and enjoy a moment of quiet, watching TV, reading a book, playing a computer game, solving a puzzle. We dream about winning a million dollars, retiring from a decades-old job, having more time, doing only what we love.

The grass is always greener. Our lives are always better. In some rosy far-off paradise in the future, everything will go our way and we’ll have everything we want.

In your mind, how does that future look? Who will be there? How will you spend your time? What does happiness look like?

In the present, I’ve caught myself complaining about things I once loved but now cause my jaw to clench. They chase away sleep and inspire rants.

Am I someone who is above being pleased? Never satisfied, plagued by perfectionism or idealism or just plain I-want-more-ism?

Maybe that’s not it.

Yeah, I’m like ‘most everyone — I dream of that nebulous someday — but what if the source of angst and complaint is something fixable? Not a bad attitude and “it’s all about me”, but something more tangible?

I’m reminded of a story told by Philip Yancey: He once served as the managing editor of a magazine, a job he could do but one that robbed his sleep, stressed him, and took away from his writing time. So, after trying and praying and plodding onward, he quit. Best decision. Now he could sleep.

A while back, I left a long-time job, and suddenly I could sleep. When I woke, I was rested.

Now, the sleep-thief is back. I’m doing a job for which I’m perfectly fitted, skill-wise, but temperamentally, not so much. The perfectionist in me expects more of others than they may be able or willing to give.

Do I quit?

Or do I alter my approach?

Do I change myself but still quit?

I’ll let you know.

Moment of Truth

Everyone stresses. Even those of us who meditate or pray, or try to set aside burdens that are not our own and let others take responsibility for their own actions — we all stress about something.

One person’s concern is not necessarily another’s. What angers one may make another laugh. What makes one cry may make another contemplative.

I try to be balanced in thinking and reacting to whatever life hands me, but have been known to let my train go screaming spectacularly off the rails over the stupidest things.

There’s no train wreck now, but a quiet, intense waiting. Earlier this week, I told the truth that had been roiling inside me and expressed to everyone but the two people who needed to hear it the most. For months, I wrestled with this truth — let resentment build, and anger. I worried that I might be wounding a tender young ego (the author’s), or might invite the wrath of an older but still tender ego (a founding editor’s).

So, instead of speaking truth, I stressed. I ranted. I grit my teeth and got to work, knowing that all these hours of labor might very likely be in vain when the egos refused to admit the same truth: the manuscript is weak, full of holes, and displays a lack of insight, knowledge, and life experience that can only come with maturity and hard work and a few knocks from the mere act of living.

But I, as the editor, am supposed to fix all that and make the novel worthy of publication.

I remember being a young teen author, maybe thirteen, maybe only twelve, when a novel-in-progress was critiqued by a local author. At the time, I didn’t appreciate her effort and time and wisdom. All I saw was the stuff she didn’t like, the flaws and the corrections. I didn’t absorb the truth. Not for many years, sometime in adulthood.

Then, finding her notes one day while looking for something else, I read again those words printed in pixelated font on yellowing paper. She thought I was a good and imaginative writer. She liked the story. It’s good; now, here are a few ways to make it better. If she didn’t think it or I were worth the time, she wouldn’t have written such a long critique.

In that moment of realization and shame, I wanted to thank her, but surely she’s long passed, and I don’t even recall her name.

So, decades later, I am hoping my own honest critique, written in the spirit of encouraging the author while still telling the truth, will be received in the way I intend.

Worry is fear, and I don’t want to be ruled by fear: fear of what others may think, say, or do; fear of a future that hasn’t arrived. Come what may, truth has been told. Stress is gone.

A Rose in the Wind

I’ve been in search of focus, calm, a quiet core of creativity and peace. However, like this rose blown about in the wind, the goal eludes me. The camera strives to focus, but can only capture pieces of clarity.

a rose in the wind      (c2013, EE)
a rose in the wind (c2013, EE)

There is light.

I’ve been finding old stories, pieces of unfinished poetry, barely-decipherable notes on odd scraps of paper towel or restaurant napkins or torn half-sheets from spiral-bound notebooks.

After long weeks and months of literary drought, ideas are coming, rain to parched ground.

No final decision has been made, but perhaps it is time to set aside editing for others, and write. Only write. Write until the dreams come true.