“Old so-and-so”–A post on peculiarity and affection

“Old so-and-so”–A post on peculiarity and affection

Lately, I’ve been reading Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow, after Brianna and I put the kids to bed.

It’s a story about the “unique” people one comes to know during a lifetime in a small community.

Jayber

A key takeaway is this: When no one is a “stranger” we see more clearly that everyone is strange.

But far from being merely a cause for mockery or bullying, peculiarity can spark affection.

Case in point: ‘Ol Ab Rowanberry, with his rifle and his chamber pot.

Yet another sight I used to see [around town] was uncle Ab Rowanberry shuffling by, carrying a rifle, a lantern, and a sack containing a chamber pot, a cowbell, a corn knife and a long leather purse tied with a rag string. He would be on his way between daughters.

The paragraph is random and ridiculous—and delightful.

The scene continues:

Ab carried with him all his worldly possessions, the terms of his independence and self-respect: the rifle with which he provided a little meat for the table and with which he could defend himself if attacked, the corn knife in case he needed it, the lantern and the chamber pot to preserve his dignity when he had to get up at night, the cowbell to ring if he fell down and couldn’t get up. […] I observed him carefully and have remembered him always.

The last line is vintage Berry.

EXAGGERATED?

Some would allege that such colorful depictions of human beings amount to “tall tales” that exaggerate the strangeness.

I disagree.

As a case in point, I recall a similar critique as it was levelled at the southern gothic stories of Flannery O’Conner. In defense of Flannery, the poet Elizabeth Bishop wrote the following:

Critics who accuse her of exaggeration are quite wrong, I think. I lived in Florida for several years next to [a church like those described in O’Conner’s fiction].

After those Wednesday nights, nothing Flannery O’Conner ever wrote could seem at all exaggerated to me.

CONCLUSION

What’s the point of these forays into human idiosyncrasy?

Since I’m in the middle of a fiction-writing project myself (MS due in about a month!), one reminder is to “Include a rifle and a chamber pot” in my own way (i.e., Don’t be afraid to highlight the peculiar features that make people interesting people).

But there is also a spiritual lesson to be learned.

For Berry (and for O’Conner), the goal is not to mock our strangeness, but to weave a spell around it so that even oddity can become a mark of beauty and belovedness.

As C. S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves:

The especial glory of Affection is that it can unite those who most emphatically, even comically, are not [alike]. Growing fond of “old-so-and-so,” at first simply because he happens to be there—[rifle and chamber pot in tow!]—I presently begin to see that there is “something in him.”

This realization also connects with another theme from Lewis’ most famous essay (The Weight of Glory): There are no ordinary people. No mere mortals.

We are all odder and more broken than we look; yet more beloved than we dared imagine.

 


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Adorning the dark: A post on the creative process

Adorning the dark: A post on the creative process

“I’m convinced,” writes Andrew Peterson, “that poets are toddlers in a cathedral, slobbering on wooden blocks and piling them up in the light of the stained glass.”

The colorful description comes in a book on the beauty and the pain of making things—whether one is a poet, a preacher, a musician, or an artist of some other stripe.

ADORNING THE DARK

I just finished Peterson’s new book, Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making.

adorning.jpg

I’ve appreciated his work for years.

Despite a voice that (allegedly) sounds a bit like Kermit the frog with a sinus infection, his music has always moved me.

  • Brianna and I chose “Canaan Bound” to be sung at our wedding.
  • My kids loved Peterson’s fantasy novels (The Wingfeather Saga), with Lucy proclaiming them to be even better than Harry Potter. (Not true. But still.)
  • And his entirely original, Behold the Lamb of God, is my favorite Christmas album of all time.

Adorning the Dark is different from these other works. But there are still some helpful lessons for those involved in the creative process.

Here are four:

1. Write the bad ones too

Peterson tells sheepishly how a fan once approached him after a concert with a request for him to write down some songwriting advice on the inside of a CD case. Being a bit tired, Peterson wrote, “Don’t write bad songs.”

Seeing the somewhat snarky inscription, Peterson’s bandmate Andy Gullahorn wrote his own advice: “Write the bad ones too.”

Gullahorn’s insight was not just that one should be kind to fans, but that “quality control” is not the chief skill an artist must cultivate: Output matters too.

The two pre-requisites for getting published are (wait for it…) writing and finishing.

So make something, even if it isn’t great.

Excellence is for editing (and re-writing).

2. Artists need “resonators”

A second take-away is that art nurtures community and community nurtures art.

After being dropped by his record label and nearly bankrupted by the post-Napster death of album sales, Peterson founded a collective called “The Rabbit Room” with a ragamuffin group of Nashville artists.

These friendships not only allowed for cross-promotion between artists; they also provided encouragement, community, and feedback.

I’ve been blessed with fantastic “resonators.”

  • My colleague, Dr. Jerome Van Kuiken, is the smartest person I know, and he provides invaluable critique on everything I write for publication.
  • My wife Brianna reads my blog posts, and she often weeds out the lines that could get me fired and/or tarred and feathered.
  • I also have friendships with folks like the up-and-coming novelist K. M. West, who provides not only encouragement but also a (silent) reminder that there are people out there busier than me who still write consistently—and at a high level.

Art nurtures community. Community nurtures art.

Artists need resonators.

3. Boil it down

After reading Wendel Berry, Peterson tells how he and his wife sold their comfortable suburban home and bought a small, ramshackle cottage on several tree-lined acres near Nashville.

If artists need resonators, they frequently need nature too.

Since the property had maple trees, Peterson Googled “How to make maple syrup.” He was stunned to learn that a person gets one gallon of syrup for every forty (!) gallons of sap.

If you were to taste the maple sap before you boiled it down, which I did, you’d find it hard to believe there’s any sweetness hiding in there at all.

Writing is like that too.

The sweetness often comes in “boiling it down.”

I was reminded of this yesterday when I picked up a copy of my book, Long Story Short: The Bible in Six Simple Movements. For the most part, I am proud of the writing—which is significant since I first hammered it out over a decade ago.

That said, upon re-reading what I’ve published, my overriding critique is that I could have cut a few more words from certain sentences and paragraphs.

I could have lost some empty calories and gained some “sweetness.”

Boil it down.

4. Plant the berries

The most moving story in Adorning the Dark involves a trip to Sweden that Peterson’s family took in 2016 after a season of busyness, burnout, and depression (another commonality of artists).

While abroad, he sought to locate the old stone cottage of his great-grandfather.

After much research, the general location of the ruined house was found, and an ancient local Swede agreed to take the Petersons by bicycle into the dark, thick forest to find it.

[The Swede] explained [through a translator] that he was looking for a certain kind of berry that would tell him where the old foundation stones would be.

A hundred years ago, he said, the berries were planted outside the cottage for food, and long after the house fell into ruin, the berry bushes lived on. If you want to find the remains of a dwelling in a Swedish forest, [he] told us, look for berries.

Lo and behold, they found the berries—along with the home.

The story forms a parable for the kind of art that matters.

As Peterson concludes:

“One day, perhaps, when I’m dead and gone, and my songs and stories lie in the ruins of some old forest and no one remembers my name, whatever good and beautiful and human thing that the King of Creation called forth from me will fall to the earth and grow brambly and wild, and some homesick and hungry soul will leave the well-worn path and say, ‘Look! Someone lived here.

Praise God, there are berries everywhere.’”

Good art is the “berry” that adorns the darkness.

And homesickness leads home.

 


I’m going to open the comments on this one.

Fellow writers, preachers, musicians (etc.): What’s the most helpful advice you’ve found about the creative process?


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Cut these words for better writing

Cut these words for better writing

Scot McKnight has a helpful post (here) on “No, no” words for writers. These are terms that are often overused and lead to clutter.

So if you’re a writer—or a student typing papers for my classes—listen up! 🙂

Scot’s post builds on a book by Benjamin Dreyer (here), in which a challenge is issued:

Go a week without writing

very
rather
really
quite
in fact

To which Scot adds

just
so
actually
of course
surely
that said

It’s not that these words should never be used.

Note my use of “So” above (#Can’t_Stop_Won’t_Stop). But in most cases, they should be cut faster than a University of Kansas grad at an NFL training camp.

THE EDITOR THAT GROANS WITHIN US

I’ve written previously (here) about the helpfulness of a “firm but patient editor.” And I likened that role to the Holy Spirit’s work in the believer’s life.

That post came to mind again as I’ve been editing a manuscript in preparation for a December deadline (Eeeek!).

To be blunt, the“No-no” words are lighting up my page like Christmas lights. Here’s an example of how I was able to cut eleven words (or word parts) from two short sentences.

eleven words

Not a single nuance was lost, which means every one of those words was bloating my book like empty calories in a bag of Doritos.

My favorite book on writing is the classic by William Zinsser, On Writing Well.

In his words

“Writing improves in direct ration to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.”

Indeed.

So take the challenge.

And check out Scot’s blog if you’re interested in issues of Bible and culture. It’s great.


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How do I approach time management?

How do I approach time management?

A former student asked me if I’d write a post about how I manage time successfully.

Answer: I don’t always.

And writing a “How to” on the topic is like writing a book about prayer. No one does it without a sense of hypocrisy.

Still, here are a few things I try to do:

1. Don’t spill things on the laptop.

I did that last week. Much time was lost. Also, half my screen is currently cloaked in a dark haze. Maranatha.

2. Get up early, even when you don’t have to.

I rarely work late. But I do get up early (5:45am), regardless of whether it is “Summer Break” or not. It’s amazing how much one can accomplish when few people are awake to interrupt you, and when the coffee flows like rushing river in a repetitive early 2000s worship chorus.

My early wakeup is bookended by an equally geriatric bedtime (9:05pm). Though in my experience, very little “time management” happens after that anyway.

3. Avoid unnecessary meetings.

Like the plague. This is a touchy one because it’s not always possible, and it can prevent one from “climbing the ladder” in certain settings.

But if you are trying to make the most of your time, unnecessary meetings are Dementors that will suck your soul and leave you wondering why a single, carefully-worded email would not have sufficed. Not all meetings are like that, but some are.

4. Reading before Netflix

Since a fair amount of my work (writing, preaching, teaching) benefits from time spent reading, I bookend my morning research (usually theology) with evening fiction or biographies. This summer that has involved some Steinbeck, Alan Jacobs, C. S. Lewis, and Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian [#yikes]).

If I do writing before bed, I can’t sleep. I just rehash it all night long in a kind of editorial fever dream. But reading fiction for about 45 minutes before switching to Netflix helps redeem the evening time. It makes me a better writer; and it’s fun — unless I’m reading Blood Meridian.

5. Sabbath

When I moved to Boston for Seminary, I didn’t know a single person. And as an over-achieving firstborn, I felt like the best way to maximize productivity and stave off loneliness was to work seven days a week and in the evenings too.

(Fun fact: I also had mono, so you can guess how well that turned out.)

The next year, Brianna moved closer, and I started taking evenings and Sundays off. In short, I took a Sabbath. One might think this made me less productive, but it actually did the opposite. My grades were better. My mood was better. My soul was healthier. And (after a tonsillectomy) my mono finally left the building.

Sabbath: It’s almost, like, a commandment.

6. Name your non-negotiables

There are only so many hours in a day. And on many occasions that means that something on my “to do” list isn’t going to get done. The question is just which “something” that will be.

I have a few non-negotiables that will happen regardless of Hell or high water: (1) Early morning time in Scripture; (2) at least some time writing and researching every weekday; (3) evenings with family; (4) four to five workouts per week with my buddies (if I’m in town).

This blog isn’t on that list. Nor is Netflix. Nor is time spent reformatting a New Testament lecture that I’ve given twenty-seven times.

Some of my non-negotiables may seem odd since they have nothing to do with my job requirements. I am not required to publish. Nor am I required to workout or spend evenings with family. But those things matter; they make me feel alive; and that enables me to do the stuff I don’t like nearly as much.

Your non-negotiables will be different. But it’s helpful to “name” and “claim” them (~Kenneth Copeland).

7. Figure out what can be done on “Empty” and what must be done on “Full.”

The cerebral frontal cortex is expensive to operate. That’s the part of the brain that controls much of our higher cognitive skills, emotional expression, problem solving, memory, and language. And it takes a lot of energy to run well. Mine starts shutting down around noon (see Point #2).

That means that I need to save activities that I can do “on Empty” for the afternoon, while reserving activities that require more “cerebral bandwidth” for when I’m full (i.e., full of caffeine). Sermons must be written on “Full”—so too with books and any creative activities. Grading, answering emails, dish-washing and (oddly) workouts can be done on “Empty.”

In fact, doing the workouts on “Empty” often has the surprising effect of making me feel “Full” again when I head home to be with the kids.

CONCLUSION

There are a hundred other things that could be added to such a list. But I’m probably not very good at those. And I’m out of time.


 

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