Tag Archives: Light

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.

Musings: A Story Needs Trouble

Friday, I took a walk, a reward to myself for completing a freelance project, and a chance to be away from the computer and revel in the sunlight. (Aaaaaah! My eyes! My eyes!) When I returned home, however, I didn’t want to return to work. If there is an autumn equivalent of spring fever, I have it.

There’s not much story there, other than the old one: brain takes a walk while the body struggles to complete tasks by itself. Not very literary, eh?

How ’bout this: Little kids know a good story when they meet one.

A few days ago, four-year-old Sunny ran through the house, narrating as she went: “…and then there’s a tree…Oh, no! Watch out!…but Sky swoops in…”

She complicated her play by introducing obstacles and problems, but also enabled her pretend self and other characters to overcome those blocks by imbuing herself and her imaginary friends with creative skills or tools to deal with whatever occurred.

Last night, while re-watching a Korean television series that a friend had not yet seen, I saw specific points where — if the characters had been wiser, had been less ruled by fear or grief or anger or greed, had been quicker or stronger or less driven, the story would have ended much sooner than it does.

I was frustrated by the ugly motives that led to unnecessary tragedy, but acknowledged that — without them — the rest of the story would not only lose its power but its purpose. An intriguing, funny, poignant, suspenseful series would not exist.

To borrow from another post on this blog, stories are interesting because bad things happen.

Or, to borrow from the Chinese, “May you live in interesting times.” It’s a curse, not a blessing, the most interesting times being those with wars and natural disasters. Kinda the ancient Asian version of “Go to hell.”

I’m close to wrapping up edits on a client’s fictionalized autobiography…although I like this book, the ending is thin…

I headed downstairs this afternoon to fill my cup with fresh, hot tea, and that’s when I saw the problem: There’s a positive change in the lead character’s life, but there’s no transcendence.

Sure, the guy overcomes a crappy childhood, a weak and aimless youth, and a bout with addiction and alcoholism, and he’s definitely in a better place now, but–

What now?

And why did he finally decide that addiction was not the life for him?

Even in true-to-life stories, characters need a reason, a motive, and then action to back it up.

Otherwise, it’s not just the editor who’s falling asleep, but the audience is, too.

[borrowed from my post on Adventures in Fiction]

A horror story is playing out in the Middle East — not only there, but around the world — as adherents to a violent ideology behead, crucify, rape, torture, hang, beat, and exile anyone weaker or who doesn’t believe the same way or to the same extent as they. Similar atrocities have occurred throughout history, perpetrated by different groups in different places. Mankind conjures insane evil against itself and calls it good and justified.

And yet from this darkness arises life-changing, life-affirming stories.

One such is the recent travails of Miriam Ibrahim, a Sudanese woman accused of apostasy and adultery, and imprisoned in chains, because she married a Christian man, an American citizen. She even gave birth while in chains. She and her family were rescued and brought to the US in summer 2014.

Another such story can be read in The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom, which recently became a banned book in some libraries. It details how the ten Boom family hid Jews from the Nazis, how Corrie endured and survived a concentration camp, and how faith sustained her.

Powerful stories will be born of the current horror, as well. Tales will be told of pointless tragedy and humbling self-sacrifice, crushing dominance and inexplicable mercy, breath-stealing loss and unexpected gifts. Violence so vile it can scarce be imagined, let alone described, and yet compassion so kind one cannot help but weep.

Stories need something to overcome, and they need a reason to overcome it.

A candle is lost in the sunlight, but shines like a star in the dark.

Telling Our Stories (Part 2)

In Part 1 of “Telling Our Stories”,  an adaptation of a presentation given to a female group of non-writers, I discussed editing, faith, and how and why God is a storyteller. In this half, I discuss why we need to tell our stories, and then I’ll share a bit of my own.

My favorite Bible stories teach and encourage me:
Queen Esther
Mary, the mother of Jesus
Ruth
Elizabeth, her wise cousin
David and Goliath
the Resurrection
Elijah and Elisha
the Acts of the Apostles
and many, many more.

Jesus told parables involving women (the lost coin, the ten virgins), and there are several stories in the Gospels of His interaction with women:
woman taken in adultery
Jairus’ daughter
woman at the well
Peter’s mother-in-law
woman with the issue of blood
Mary at the wedding in Cana
the Syro-Phoenician woman
the women among His followers

The Old Testament is also full of strong female role-models: Esther and Ruth, of course, as well as Deborah the judge and Rahab who—even though she was a prostitute—came to trust God and was an ancestor of Jesus. The stories of Abigail and other women not only captured my imagination, but planted truths in my soul that helped me grow in my faith, even as a child.

3

God invites us to be storytellers.

Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
Whom He has redeemed from the hand of the enemy
Psalm 107:2 (NKJV)

Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story—
those he redeemed from the hand of the foe
Psalm 107:2 (NIV)

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. Deuteronomy 6:4-6 (NKJV)

But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, 15 and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 2 Timothy 3:14-15 (NKJV)

So, why don’t we share our stories?

Pride? Fear? Distrust?

Perhaps we think people will judge us or won’t care.

Maybe we don’t know that our stories matter.

Maybe our stories are difficult—not just difficult to hear, but difficult to tell.

If so, here’s a secret:

Stories are only interesting if something bad happens.

If the hero never faces a challenge, never has an obstacle to overcome or an enemy to defeat, what’s the point? If Goliath was a wimpy little fella, why tell the story?

If it were a movie, people would fall asleep in the theater. If a book, it would never be read.

I’m not saying we should be happy when trouble enters our lives, but we can recognize it for what it is: another twist in the plot, another event in the story of our lives.

Yaquina Bay Bridge, Newport, Oregon (c2013, KB)
Yaquina Bay Bridge, Newport, Oregon (c2013, KB)

We’ll tell others about it later—how we faced down death, came back from the brink of financial disaster, survived homelessness or alcoholism or physical abuse. Stories are bridges between hopelessness and purpose, failure and perseverance, darkness and light.

Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. Romans 5:1-5 (NKJV)

THAT’s why we tell our story.

4

I always wanted to be brave, but knew I was a coward.

I loved to read stories of heroes from history, heroes of the faith, everyday people who were strong and stood for what was right.

However, I wouldn’t tell the truth when I should, out of fear of the consequences.

In childhood and even into my twenties, I attended churches with intensely evangelistic environments that could be compared to high-pressure sales: no one was getting away without hearing our pitch.

I hid from that by—ironically enough—carrying my Bible on top of all my schoolbooks, hoping other kids would ask me about it without me having to approach them first.

I’d stand up for my friends, but mock my faith, my overweight appearance, my bookish ways, and I’d back down and hide.

At age four, a huge fear entered my life, and with it came nightmares.

In the early 70s, my cousin DJ and I witnessed a fatal accident while playing in our grandparents’ front yard. We’d wanted to play in the ditch, but the grownups wouldn’t let us because 1) it was muddy, and 2) it was outside the fence.

We heard a screeching crash, and looked up to see what looked like one car with two back ends. A drunk driver in a Thunderbird had rounded the corner and veered into the inside lane, crashing head-on into a family’s station wagon.

He was thrown into a blackberry bramble on the far side of the road, and survived with only scratches and a broken collar bone. As I recall, only the father and one child survived in the station wagon.

In the confusion to help the victims, someone handed me a blanket, and I did what everyone else was doing, and toddled out to the ditch so I could give one of the rescuers a blanket. Recall, I was only four, and this was before the days of 911 and rescue vehicles being coordinated in their response times.

I reached the ditch, and saw my father straddling a body with no face. Whenever he would push down on the chest, air bubbles formed in the blood where the face should have been. I held out the blanket. He reached for it, and then he realized who was standing there. He yelled at me to get away, and I thought he was angry with me. Only later did I understand he was trying to protect me.

From that day onward, I had a fear of accidents, of wearing my seatbelt or not wearing it, of being cut by glass or being thrown out the window or hitting face-first against the seat in front of me. Riding in cars was stressful for a good long while.

Much later, in late teens and early twenties, I lived in a long dark tunnel of depression. The first time, I was suicidal. The second depression was shorter, I recognized it for what it was, and came out of it stronger than before.

I’ve survived automobile accidents, workplace bullies, foolish choices, church gossip, and even my own family.

Shortly before my twelfth birthday, my maternal grandfather and my uncle resorted to violence to settle a problem so minor it could have been resolved with a conversation. It didn’t even bear mentioning.

And yet they held a knife to my eight-year-old brother’s throat, and guns to our heads.

They threatened to kill our parents if anyone came to get us. They disowned my mother, and said many other things best forgotten. Peace I cannot describe came over me, and I knew God was in charge. We were going to come out of there alive.

There’s more to that story, but I’ll tell you later.

In my twenties, a suicidal woman named Carol pointed a gun at me and my friend, intending to kill us and then herself. I didn’t move, didn’t speak, but just continued leaning against the window A/C unit and sent up a silent prayer. I didn’t know what else to do. Again, I was strangely calm in that moment. I was ready to die.

Carol put down her gun and wept. Many nights later, she was drunk and met me in the church parking lot, but wouldn’t look me in the eyes. She said the reason she couldn’t pull the trigger the first night, and why she couldn’t look at me now, was because of the person she saw with me, the person looking out of my eyes. Not me. Someone else was looking at her. She wanted the love she saw, but felt unworthy of it. Could I help her?

In my thirties, I hit an icy patch on the road and rolled my truck. The man who helped me get out expected to find a dead body. Instead, I blacked out only briefly. Although I had a concussion and strained muscles, I was cognizant and fully able to move.

When I look back on the events of my life—the miracles, the healings, the long troubles that seemed never to end—I can see the story God has been telling.

But only when I look back. It’s hard in the moment to see the story.

5

Why Stories?

Stories are powerful.

They convey truth often better than a lecture, an advice column, or even a sermon.

And how are sermons illustrated? By scriptures and by stories.

Jesus used stories to point to the kingdom of heaven, to show people how to live, to show how much God loves us. However, to do so, He also showed us ourselves in our imperfections. In the parables of Jesus, people make mistakes or wrong decisions:
a rebellious son squanders his inheritance
a man forgiven his debt refuses to forgive someone else
bridesmaids arrive unprepared
wedding guests refuse to accept a generous invitation

For centuries, histories were kept alive by storytelling. Now we write history in books.

In past generations, classic stories pointed—directly and indirectly—to God and to Biblical truths: Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan; The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis; Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace; The Darkness and the Dawn by Thomas B. Costain; and more.

Strong stories often contain Biblical truths or concepts,
although they may not outright preach them.

I reiterate, stories are powerful.

People who might never pick up a Bible will pick up a novel.

Stories can reveal truth in ways that will capture the minds and hearts of readers who otherwise might never come into a church to hear the sermons.

In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not [overcome] it. John 1:4-5 (NKJV)

Stories spark the imagination.

They ask questions and rouse curiosity. They engage the mind.

Remember the disciples asking Jesus what His parables meant? The disciples were interacting with the stories. They were engaged.

Stories are why novels, role-playing games, stage plays, television shows, and movies are so influential in our culture.

To Be Told
Click the book cover to read a sample chapter

To further answer the question, “Why stories?” read Dan Allender’s excellent book, To Be Told. In it, he shows how God uses our stories to guide, heal, and direct us, and to help us minster to others.

6

Remember when I said there was more to the story involving my grandparents and my uncle?

The police took my brother and me away from the house in the wee hours of the morning. The grownups said everything was my fault.

My parents considered pressing charges, or at least getting a restraining order, but because of what my grandparents and uncle told the police, I was afraid they would lie in court. I didn’t want to have anything to do with them. I just wanted everything to quiet down and be normal again.

About a year or so later, my grandparents announced that my grandfather’s heart was failing, and begged to come see us. I tried to be cool about it, but I couldn’t wait for them to leave.

A couple years after that, near Thanksgiving, my grandfather died. Mom mourned him, but I couldn’t understand. Yeah, he was her father, but he’d been abusive to her, and he’d tried to kill me and my brother. I was relieved he was dead.

This August, nearly thirty years later, Mom and I traveled out west to see my grandmother and uncle. I didn’t want to, but I knew it mattered to Mom, and we’d had a trip to the West Coast planned for several years.

I’d forgiven my grandmother and uncle a long, long time ago. Yet, rather than accept the responsibility for their actions, they continued to blame me.

But when we walked into the rehab center, Grandma was sitting in her wheelchair near the door, and the first thing she said to me, tears running down her face, was “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” No blame, no lies, just repentance.

Life is messy.
It’s also full of blessing.
Life is hard, but God is good.
And that’s my story.

–The Story Never Ends–

Telling Our Stories (Part 1)

Think about the word destroy. Do you know what it is? De-story. Destroy. Destory. You see. And restore. That’s re-story. Do you know that only two things have been proven to help survivors of the Holocaust? Massage is one. Telling their story is another. Being touched and touching. Telling your story is touching. It sets you free. ― Francesca Lia Block

I know the truth of these words. Oh, the stories I could tell! And you—what is your story?

Our stories must be told. Not necessarily the fiction, the things we imagine, but the truth, the things that happened to us, the things we did.

Below is the first in a series of blog posts addressing the need to tell those stories. It was originally conceived as a presentation to a group of non-writers, then was abridged as a talk to a small Bible study group.

Although I originally addressed Christians, much of the material applies to fellow writers and to people in all walks of life, especially those who have dealt with tragedies, abuses, things they can’t find the words or even the will to reveal to others. Perhaps something written here will inspire them to open their mouths or take up their pens and tell their stories.

1

Since we came to know Christ, storytelling has been—or should be—a natural part of our lives. When we minister to others, when we give an answer for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15-16), we have opportunity to tell our stories of what God has done for us.

I’ll begin by discussing my work as an editor, segue into the importance of storytelling in the Bible, and then how we are storytellers in our everyday lives.

As an editor, my job is to help authors shape and correct their work.

It’s not my job to write the story for them, but to help them present their best work.

Sometimes our journey seems to be all uphill, arduous and never-ending. Writing and editing can be the same. (c2013, KB)
Sometimes our journey seems to be all uphill, arduous and never-ending. Writing and editing can be the same. They don’t have to be. We’re not responsible for the condition of the road, but our attitude determines the quality of the trip. (c2013, KB)

Whether they’re freelance clients or authors under contract with a publisher, the most difficult writers to work with are those who don’t see their need for change. They don’t think they need to improve anything. They’ve fallen into the trap of pride.

They just want someone to tell them how good they are, to approve of whatever they write, and to require nothing else from them—not revising, no researching, nothing but collecting the royalty checks.

Problem is, if there’s not a quality product for sale, then those royalty checks will be rather thin.

We’re all imperfect humans. We all have room for improvement.

Even editors are not infallible or all-powerful. There comes a point when I have to step back and let the writer have his way. After all, it’s not my story. I’ll lead, I’ll guide, but I won’t write the book.

My favorite writers to work with are those who are humble and teachable. They don’t have false humility, an insidious form of pride. They know they have a good story. They know they can write, but they’re always striving to be better, to improve their craft.

They want to present their best work to the world. If they’re Christians, they also want to glorify God above all else.

Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God
I Corinthians 10:31 (KJV)

Before I can begin editing a manuscript, there must first be words on the page.

Sometimes, writers can’t create because they’re too concerned with perfection. The story doesn’t arrive fully formed, with the characters alive, the sentences in the correct order, the words flowing with a beautiful cadence—and so the writer stalls.

The process isn’t neat and orderly. It’s messy and requires hard work. Therefore, the writer is blocked. He can’t move forward. He spends his time perfecting the words he’s already written, polishing them until they shine, but he writes little or nothing new.

How many of us are like that writer?

How many of us aren’t really living forward? We spend our time looking backward at the past. We play the what-if game, the if-only game, but don’t expand our horizons or accept new challenges, because doing so is hard—especially when we fail.

Some view failure as the end. Some view it as only the beginning—a lesson learned on the way to a greater goal.

Some writers lose contest after contest before they win anything. Some send out manuscripts over and over only to be rejected time and time again before someone sees the potential in the story and publishes it. Those writers never give up despite failure. They have a greater goal in mind, and they are perfecting their writing each time they write a new story or revise an old one.

Do we defeat ourselves before we even begin?
How can God shape our stories when we give Him so little to work with?

Take movies, for example.
The version we see in theaters is the theatrical release.
Some movies have another version—the director’s cut.

The director’s vision for the film may differ greatly from what is seen in theaters. It may have more scenes or even alternate scenes, and contain details that expand or enhance the story. Therefore, it is usually longer than the theatrical release.

In our everyday lives, how many of us only want the theatrical release?
We want to skip to the good parts, the interesting and action-packed parts, and forget the rest—the boring everyday stuff, the sad or tragic scenes?

But life is the director’s cut, and we have to live every moment of it.

2

God is a storyteller.

The first book every printed on a press, His has outsold all others.

The Bible is full of stories. Jesus used them to illustrate the Gospel. Recall this phrase: “The kingdom of heaven is like…”? It precedes several of His parables, a sacred “once upon a time”.

Why did He tell these stories?

That We May Believe

And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.
John 20:30-31 (New King James Version)

And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen.
John 21:25 (NKJV)

–to be continued–

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.

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.

Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations

51ct7umFcIL._SY346_Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations is a memoir that reads like a coming-of-age novel about two young girls who meet while music students, then reconnect as adults when their former teacher’s younger daughter goes missing.

The authors, Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky, are a journalist and a violinist, respectively, and Kupchynsky is the elder daughter of the aforementioned “one tough teacher”, and the sister of the missing young woman, Stephanie, who also grew up to become a music teacher.

I love music. I love singing, and plinking around on the piano or strumming a guitar, but I’m good at neither singing nor playing. The lessons I took as a child and a teenager were minimal, offered by kindhearted folks at church, or by persevering teachers at school. I was that student who thought she wanted to be better, but never had enough perseverance or patience to actually put for the effort to be better.

Writing and storytelling, however—those I did want to improve. Hours passed before I realized, especially if a writing session was going well, or if I was absorbed in studying or researching, or simply reading for entertainment. I didn’t need someone standing over me with a stern look, a stick, and an eye for the clock, because I was motivated all by myself.

But what happens when uncertain, shy, and even seemingly untalented students encounter a loud, particular, demanding teacher who is determined—by shout, by thwack, and by sparing praise—that they are going to succeed?

Mr. K’s subject, of course, was music. But the lessons he taught his students are universal: about resilience, and the power of optimism, and achieving success. And about humor, too, not that he was necessarily trying to be funny.

It’s hard to imagine a Mr. K in today’s world. Parents would be outraged; administrators would be pressured to fire him. Yet he was remarkably effective. His methods raise the big issues we grapple with now ourselves, as parents. Are we too soft on our kids? How do we best balance discipline with praise? How hard do we really want our kids’ teachers to push them? And if our kids do complain, how do we know when—or if—to interfere?

The latest research on kids and motivation, it turns out, comes down squarely in Mr. K’s corner. Recent studies show that overpraising kids makes them less confident and less motivated.

One study of fifth-graders—kids the same age as Mr. K’s beginning string students—is especially striking. Psychologist Carol Dweck and her colleagues divided the children into two groups and gave each a simple test. One group was then praised for being smart, and the other for effort. The result? The “smart” kids became far less confident, while the group praised for hard work became more confident, performed better, and in subsequent tests was eager to take on more challenging tests.

“The whole point of intelligence praise is to boost confidence and motivation, but both were gone in a flash,” Dweck noted… “If success meant they were smart, then struggling meant they were not.”

The concept that hard work trumps innate ability is at the core of current thinking about business success, too…

…(R)eal experts don’t want soft teachers: They want tough ones. Unsentimental ones. Ones who give them “painful” feedback.

We couldn’t imagine a more accurate description of Mr. K. (Foreward, xv-xvi)

Back in the 1970s and 80s, I was one of those kids praised for intelligence rather than effort, and came to equate difficulty with failure or stupidity. Or, horror of horrors, no talent.

…(T)o Mr. K, there was no such thing as an untalented kid—just a kid who didn’t work hard enough. You are going to fix this problem, he said when he diagnosed whatever was wrong, and there was never any question. Of course you would. It was just a matter of trying and trying and trying some more. He yelled, not because we’d never learn, but because he was absolutely certain that we would. (p83)

Joanne comes from a nice, middle-class family that Melanie envies, while Melanie grows up with an invalid mother and a driven father, who essentially becomes a single parent when his ailing wife can no longer live at home. She plays piano, and he violin, and he passes that skill to their daughters—whether they want to learn or not.

As for his school students, well, they adapt—sometimes humorously. Once, in his Ukrainian accent, he denounces the group’s “cheeken plocking”, and a rubber chicken flies from the back and lands at the podium.

One day, Joanne’s parents drag her to a recital. She’d rather go to the fair or read Harriet the Spy.

I yawned and fidgeted in my seat as the first few groups played, daydreaming about frozen custard and Ferris wheels. But I was jolted back to reality by a commotion on the stage. Mr. K was clomping across the floor—my, could he do anything without making a racket?—looking for something. I watched as he noisily dragged over a podium to the center of the stage.

(The) quartet drifted out from the wings: three teenage girls and Melanie, Mr. K’s daughter. Melanie was wearing a smock dress and shiny black shoes with ankle socks…Melanie’s red hair was even shorter than mine, and her jagged bangs looked the way mine did that time I got hold of my mother’s scissors and started snipping away… .

Melanie was tiny, so it was a good thing she had the podium to stand on. Hauling herself up the two big steps and positioning herself on the top of the box, she lifted her little violin with a theatrical flourish. The other violinists looked toward her expectantly. Michele, who so easily lorded her authority and wisdom over me at home, was gazing at this little girl with respect. She sure never looked at me that way. (pp 58-57)

Eventually, Joanne braves Mr. K’s furious methods, learns the viola, and joins the quartet, playing with Melanie and her sister, Stephanie, who plays the violin.

Melanie recalls a performance:

I can feel how nervous Steph is. She and Joanne play alone for the first few notes. Steph’s bow is wobbling. I suck in my breath and hold it, trying to will her to be calm.

…(M)y dad is right. We are ready, and after the first few measures we settle in to doing what we have done so many times before. The music flows. The audience seems to recede into its seats, and even my dad fades into the background. We stop thinking about the crowd and focus on the music and on one another. I only have to nod slightly, or glance up from the music to lock eyes for a millisecond with the other girls, and we all lean in to the music, or play softer or louder, or dig in to a passage together. We really are breathing together. We really do feel the music as if we share one brain…

When we get to the end of the piece, we all exhale at once. This is something none of us has experienced before, a secret bond that we’re sure nobody else can understand. The audience is cheering, but it barely matters to us…

When it’s all over, my dad hugs each one of us in turn. He plants a kiss on Stephanie’s cheek…”Go celebrate,” he says. “You earned it.” (pp98-9)

Praise from Mr. K is rare, subdued. When “Again!” and a thwack across misaligned fingers is common, a nod, a quiet “pretty good”, is enough. More than progress, it means a job well done.

When he chooses a difficult Brahms piece, Joanne wonders what he could possibly be thinking.

What made him think his orchestra was up to snuff to perform a piece better suited to college symphonies and the New York Philharmonic? (p103)

But she and her sisters gather their instruments and go to the practice room to warm up before the performance. The other quartet members are there, too, but scattered throughout the room as the orchestra struggles to play in time with one another.

“Quartet weel demonstrate proper way to play,” he announced. “Girls, you play.”

The hair on my arms stood up strait. My heart dropped to somewhere in my bowels…

The four of us timidly tried the passage. We were used to looking to Melanie to give us a nod to start, and then to each other as we played. But the other girls were nowhere in my line of sight. As we started to play, they sounded impossibly far away…The notes came out all wrong, the timing out of sync. My heartbeat sounded louder to me than my own playing.

Mr. K scowled. “Again!”

Tentatively, we tried it once more. I was so nervous that my bow skittered along the strings. Melanie sounded louder, more insistent this time, as she tried to lead…from the other side of the room. You could tell the rest of us were straining to follow.

“Again!”

I took a deep breath, mustered my courage, and attacked. This time, the four of us cut through the silence in the rehearsal room with a precision I had no idea I was capable of. Mr. K glanced at the high schoolers arrayed in front of him with a look of satisfaction. “Like that,” was all he said. (p104)

The orchestra wins competitions, as do individual musicians, and Mr. K is acknowledged as an effective instructor. He takes his students to nursing homes, and they play at events, even at the funeral of a classmate.

Generations pass. Those early students grow up and send their children to be taught by him.

Then, one busy work day at The Wall Street Journal, Joanne receives a call. Mr. K. His younger daughter, Stephanie, is missing.

She never misses lessons with her violin students. Where is she? Is she even alive?

How do her family, friends, former classmates deal with life with that terrible question hanging unresolved?

Her mother dies before it is answered. Now elderly and retired from teaching in public school, Mr. K remarries, moves down the street, gardens, teaches a few private students, and compiles a book of poetry written in Ukrainian.

Life moves on, only to be interrupted again, this time by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Then Mr. K dies.

Gathered to perform at his funeral, former students try to polish rusty skills while exchanging reminiscences.

Joanna:

Across the room I spotted my old classmate Ted Kesler, the boy whom Mr. K picked on so relentessly, who sat at the back of the first violin section. When I thought back to Mr. K at his toughest, Ted always came to mind. I could still see Mr. K forcing him to play alone—”Again! Again!”—while the rest of the kids in the orchestra watched. Ted was a college professor of education now. We greeted each other warmly, but I was puzzled. Why show up for a teacher who tortured him so?

“In some ways, Mr. K was a terrible match for me,” he readily conceded.

But then Ted told me something I didn’t know when we were kids. His mother had died when he was in grade school, before he moved to East Brunswick. His father was a Holocaust survivor who was raising for children on his own; other family members had perished in concentration camps. Mr. K showed his father a respect, a deference, that you didn’t see with the other parents. “Mr. K was hard on me in part because I was lost and aimless and unguided,” Ted said. “You know, he wanted more from me.” What’s more, “the orchestra kept me connected within a community,” he said. “It sustained me. All of those musicians in the group effort kept pushing me forward…That kept me going: the collaborative energy.” (p309)

Mr. K was a youth in Ukraine during World War II. He knew what Ted’s father had survived, and he knew what Ted could overcome.

On his way home one afternoon, he heard something that stopped him cold: the sound of a violin. He was transfixed. The music wafted through an open window and to the street below where he stood, motionless. Inside, a German soldier—one of the occupying forces—was practicing.

The music transported Jarema [Mr. K’s first name]. It took him away from the war, away from the death surrounding him, away from the uncertainty that was his future. It opened up, instead, a world infused with beauty. The music filled him with so much joy that it pushed out the darkness. Jarema yearned to play the instrument, too. It was a revelation, these melodies that lifted him up and chased the demons away. It was an escape. It sparked in him an almost spiritual belief in the power of music to heal.

“I want to learn the violin,” he told his mother.

“You will,” she said. “We will get you lessons.”

She was never able to deliver.

One day, the window was closed. There was no music. There never would be again. The soldier was gone; to another posting or to his death, Jarema would never know for sure. (pp256-7)

Ted was right. Mr. K understood better than anyone the bond music creates among people who play it together. Beyond his bluster—and behind his wicked sense of humor and taste for Black Russians—perhaps that was his lesson all along. (p310)

On sale October 1, 2013, Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations is a story of survival and understanding, perseverance and courage, and most of all love—love for music, love for country, love for a tough teacher who accepted nothing less than the best. It’s recommended reading, not just for teachers or musicians, but also for anyone from any career field or walk of life.

I finished reading this book several days before attempting a review, but the impact is such that, even now, I’m letting the book speak for itself. Although my copy is an ARC (advanced reader copy) with a paperback binding covered in quotes and information rather than the nice image of the final published copy, and although this ARC has spelling errors and missing punctuation, it will remain in my library. After all, just as Mr. K didn’t have the distinguished manner one associates with an orchestra conductor, this book may not have a pretty cover, but what matter is the music, not the face.

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.

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.