Category Archives: Writing

Loving Through Excellent Artwork

Your Writers Group has been talking about excellence.

[Christians] don’t push toward excellence with the same do-or-die dedication since deep inside we know God accepts us anyway. We are never alone in the universe with only this creation to show we existed, never alone without God to fall back on. We place too high a value on family and others over our “personal” achievements with the talents God’s bestowed and we care too little about the establishment of a great work. We are (rightly) not as irrationally driven to prove our own worth and purpose through our creations. Our higher value is love, not art. . . . [But] maybe it’s because of love that we should give ourselves more fully to the creative impulse. If we, as Christian artists, would simply learn to love through our art, we might realize our greatest task.

He’s got a point.

A fictional lie

Hunter Baker has written a very generous review of The Year Of the Warrior, which he has double-posted at his Southern Appeal blog and at the American Spectator blog.

Woo hoo!

(That, for the uninitiated, was a Moment of Optimism. I have them once or twice a year. I’ll keep you posted if it happens again.)

I forget how old I was, or what grade I was in, in elementary school. I forget who the teacher was (though I could make a guess).

She assigned our class to write a short story about Conservation. (Conservation, children, is what we used to have before we had Environmentalism. It was abolished because of its association with Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican.)

I sat down and wrote an easy, boiler-plate, Department of Agriculture Information Office-style tale about a farm family that teaches its old-fashioned neighbor a lesson in Crop Rotation.

I opened it with a line something like this:

“Neighbor’s complaining about his fields eroding again,” said Dad as he came in for supper.

When I’d finished, the teacher looked it over.

“You have to change this dialogue,” she said. “It’s not proper English. You have to say ‘The neighbor’ or ‘Our neighbor.’”

“But this is how people talk!” I protested.

“This is an English class,” she replied. “We write properly in this class.”

I knew it was wrong. I knew that no farmer in this hemisphere ever walks into the kitchen and says, ‘The neighbor…’ or “Our neighbor…” He drops the article. That’s how farmers talk. I lived on a farm. I knew these things.

But I changed the dialogue, because I was a child under authority.

There are people who claim that fiction is a lie, and therefore Christians must not write it.

They are wrong. Fiction is not a lie. Fiction is a shared creative enterprise, in which a storyteller and a reader collaborate to build an imaginary world on terms mutually understood. There is no deception involved, and therefore no lie.

But what that teacher made me do that day was a lie.

The Will to Power

Here’s another sentence from a published book: “By sheer force of will, she typed in the access code and held her breath.”

I think understand this emotion, but is this a good way to describe it? I remember in other stories that characters willed themselves to continue. They . . . had . . to hang . . . on . . . (gasp)! How do you think pushing against emotions should be described?

When Is a Town Beautiful?

My sister pointed out this sentence so I want to ask you what you think. How does sentence, published in a novel, strike you: “The beauty of [the town] was evident even in the autumn twilight.”

The paragraph goes on to describe the beauty of the town, especially in autumn with its tree lined streets . . .its hair with a luster as Fall hits the air. . . . I know you in Autumn, and I must be there. I’m sorry. I lost myself in another thought for a moment.

Anyway, what do you think of that sentence?

I Thought the Phrase Was ‘Cut the Cheese’

A couple language links:

  1. Today, I learned of the Big Bad Book Blog through Books, Inq. The most recent post addresses words and phrases with sound similar to the ones the speaker/writer intends, like “cut the muster” which is meant to be either “cut the mustard” or “pass muster.”
  2. Phil Schroeder of Thinklings wonders if the phrase “criss-cross applesauce” is a p.c. attempt to relabel “indian style” sitting.

Both of these posts get me thinking about the natural changes in language. “Cut the muster” could become the “right” phrase for describing something that meets our standards. I suppose it would be ignorance ushering in the change, but isn’t that part of a living language? I believe “criss-cross applesauce” is a mislabeling of cross-legged sitting, but give it several years and it may become correct.

I enjoy reading about English peculiarities, and I want to write and speak correctly, but I know that living languages don’t toe the line of the stickler, as it were. They change usually for bad reasons. Now, we no longer say “art,” “wert,” “gloam,” “eftsoons,” or “peradventure.”

Mark Bertrand on That Reoccurring Question

Mr. Bertrand talks about some pitfalls with that oft-discussed question of Christian artistic excellence.

Fiction has been called “a lie that tells the truth,” a paradox that goes to the heart of the difficulty — and explains why, historically, evangelicals have been suspicious of art and its makers. Many evangelical artists have internalized their community’s critique of art, which has led them to seek ways of doing art that evade the ‘evils’ their fellow believers have articulated. This desire not to be tainted by the criticism has, I think, contributed to the mediocrity problem. Some have been quick to dismiss what they didn’t understand, just to remain in solidarity with other evangelical critics.

For related post (as if he needs me to point out his good posts), see Mr. Bertrand’s posts on “edgy fiction”: Edgy Fiction: A 5-Part Spectrum and Mauriac’s Edgy Fiction

Watch Out for the One in the Black Hat

When I pointed to Jana Riess’ post on Christy Award nominees last Friday, I remembered some criticism of a Christian suspense novel which I didn’t mention here on BwB. I’m uncomfortable with negative reviews–well, at least of living authors.

I heard Musician Michael Card talk about criticism of his music from the press. I think he said it was almost entirely unhelpful, but he may have said only the negative reviews or pointed critiques were unhelpful, the reason being that the critic is outside the artist’s community. The artist has no relationship with the critic in the press, so negative comments have no context for interpretation. Does the critic really know his subject when he says the artist’s song is a pseudo-type of a purer form (e.g. He says a song has a wanna-be gospel melody. This could be informed feedback or snarkiness.) Card’s point was that artists should live in an active, supportive community with people who can criticize the artwork in a way that builds the artist. Card said he has received only one negative review which helped him, and he thought it showed that his community had failed him by not giving him the same critique before the album was published.

So maybe it’s the same idea that holds me back with some negative criticism I have. I probably should spill forth with vigor and contagious energy whatever positive or negative criticism I can harvest from my fertile brain. And I probably won’t.

Enough of that–what about the book? It was a mystery or suspense novel, so I expected the bad guy, who first appeared in the late middle of the story, to be one of the major characters, maybe one of the more developed minors. There were only a few developed characters, so my expectation didn’t make much sense, but I held it nonetheless. The police floated suspected names from the back-story, not actual characters, but of course if the story went in that direction, it would have felt hollow with no real enemy at all.

The bad guy turned out to be a slightly developed minor character whom my sweet wife had spotted at a distance. She said he was the only character presented in a bad light. I didn’t notice the lighting, but I remember him being an antagonist from the start. I didn’t suspect him because I thought he was too minor a character. And, yes, the story felt a bit hollow because of it.

Another problem I had with this novel was the unannounced Christian flavor. I wasn’t ready to assume the characters were born-again believers before given evidence of their faith, so when the main character prayed quietly, “God, this is a terrible situation,” I assumed he was talking to himself. He did it again later, and I suspected he was praying. At one point, a character was introduced as an unbeliever, and I think that should have been my guideline. Assume faith unless told otherwise. I don’t think that’s a habit I can make.

Cliches and Lowing the Boom

I learned through Rebecca of Rebecca Writes about ClicheSite.com and the handy Cliche of the Day. At first, I thought this a cool little resource. Now, I think I’ll avoid it. If I fill my head with cliches, I’ll become a twisted and disturbed old man. Maybe I just need the cup of tea I just steeped for a better mood. Maybe I should go out for some live steel combat.

You know, that reminds me of the warning the thespians gave before the start of Julius Caesar at Atlanta’s Shakespeare Tavern. They told us to go the bathroom before or during the intermission, because afterward angry men with real swords could be running through the hallway at any time–which they did. It was great.

Subjects Worth Writing About

Mark Bertrand quotes Melville’s Moby Dick on what great book should tackle: ” . . . Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.” Read the rest of this short post and tell him what you think.

James Thurber’s Guide to English Usage

[first posted October 22, 2004] In an earlier post, I referred to this collection of useful usage articles by James Thurber. On the question of using “bad” or “badly” within a sentence like “I feel bad(ly),” Thurber advises not to use either word.

There is, of course, a special problem presented by the type of person who looks well even when he doesn’t feel well, and who is not likely to be believed if he says he doesn’t feel well. In such cases, the sufferer should say, “I look well, but I don’t feel well.” While this usage has the merit of avoiding the troublesome words “bad” and “badly,” it also has the disadvantage of being a negative statement. If a person is actually ill, the important thing is to find out not how he doesn’t feel, but how he does feel. He should state his symptoms more specifically—“I have a gnawing pain here, that comes and goes,” or something of the sort. There is always the danger, of course, that one’s listeners will cut in with a long description of how they feel; this can usually be avoided by screaming.

Tell It Like It Is

I plead with you not to tell me stories which improve on the world. Instead tell me stories about the world as it is, strange and real and full of grace.

This spring I finally got around to reading Moby Dick. (I told you I was a bad reader.) Its opening sentence is one of the most famous in English fiction. “Call me Ishmael”—this is something strange. This is something beyond myself. And yet I’m then plunged into a story that is lavishly involved with the real world of whaling and the anatomy of whales, of ships and the anatomy of ships, of the ocean, and not least of the human heart.

And this is the most basic test for quality in fiction, it seems to me: is it absolutely faithful to the real, and absolutely faithful to what is strange and extraordinary within the real? For the Christian this is another way of saying, is it about grace? Because grace is the interruption of the unexpected in the real. Cheap stories barely touch reality—they present a simplified simulacrum of reality, a version that is easier for the storyteller and for the reader alike. And cheap stories are never really surprising. No one was ever surprised by a game of solitaire.

From Andy Crouch’s address at the 2005 Christy Awards.

Substandard Spelling

The Chicago Tribune aulso got into th act, uezing simpler spelingz in th nuezpaeper for about 40 years, ending in 1975. Plae-riet George Bernard Shaw, hoo roet moest of his mateerial in shorthand, left muny in his wil for th development of a nue English alfabet. . . . But for aul th hi-proefiel and skolarly eforts, the iedeea of funy-luuking but simpler spelingz didn’t captivaet the masez then — or now.

From the article, “Push for Simpler Spelling Persists,” by AP Writer Darlene Superville. She says the idea of overhauling English spelling has not captured “th publix imajinaeshun.”