Tag Archives: art

Imagination

You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.

— Mark Twain

 

It’s probably time for an update.

A lot has been happening around here. The end of the school year kept me hopping for a couple of weeks. Not only were we swamped with school programs, field trips, and end-of-year parties, but we also had to fit in a fundraiser, an award ceremony for my AHG troop, and a birthday party.

And the garden still languishes.

I’m digging out, slowly but surely. And it feels like it will probably just always be that way, at least until I can finally let go of some of my volunteer duties.

But that’s not the most significant update, nor is it the reason I was prompted to finally write a blog post.

The biggest update I have to share is . . .

I put my books back on Amazon about a week or so ago.

I’m still not sure how I feel about that.

And this is where I don’t know what to say next.

[An hour later . . . .]

I’m ambivalent and anxious and stuck. I have the books up there, and with that act comes the implicit promise of at least a sequel for the novel. But when I try to re-read the novel, I am only struck by how amateurish and poorly written it is. I can only hear the whispers of negative reviews and the criticisms of readers past and future who think the story is too dull, too traditional, too . . .

[fill in the blank]

It’s hard for me to remember that self-flagellation is a form of pride. This has dawned on me before. Many of us–especially women, I’ve noticed–mistakenly equate humility with self-deprecation, scolding, reminding ourselves and others of all the things were bad at, etc. We somehow mistakenly got the idea that humility means thinking less of ourselves.

As the great C. S. Lewis reminds us:

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”

So I stand again at the gate of pride, beating myself bloody over perceived mistakes, imperfections, flaws, etc. that may or may not even be in my work. And it is pride, because yesterday, I found myself in a spiral of “this sucks–I hate this–my work is hideous–who would like this” and on and on.

That’s not thinking of myself less. Indeed, it’s thinking of myself more.

My eyes were on the wrong place. Once again, they were back on me–my work, my writing, my stories. Even my pronouns are wrong.

Where should my eyes and heart be?

On Jesus, the great Author and Storyteller Who asked me to write these stories in the first place.

I have no idea what He wants to do with this stuff. Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe the entire point of having my stories out there is to grow me for some future task. Maybe this is just about building my obedience muscle.

But the point is, that’s not up to me. That’s up to Him.

I ran across this Mark Twain quote earlier: You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.

My imagination was out of focus yesterday. Not my creativity–not my ability to put words together or create worlds or envision what happens next.

No, what was out of focus was my perspective on Who I belong to, Who owns my talent, and Who I’m writing for in the first place.

Dictionary.com says that imagination is “the faculty of imagining, or of forming mental images or concepts of what is not actually present tthe senses.”

It’s not my creativity that was out of whack. It was my imagination–my ability to form a mental image or concept of my Heavenly Father’s delight in my obedience, or of the moment when He says “well done, good and faithful servant,” or of the glory of Heaven itself. My imagination was conjuring mental images and concepts that were not heavenly, but earthly–and more than earthly, they were so earth-bound that they kept me from doing what God has asked me to do.

That’s pride. And more than pride, that’s allowing the Enemy to hijack my usefulness and my joy and my strength.

I won’t give him that power any longer.

And so when my imagination is out of focus, I can’t trust my eyes. Yesterday, my eyes were telling me that my work was amateurish, unsophisticated, boring, ugly, and all the rest.

But if my imagination had been properly focused, my eyes might have said, “yes, it’s imperfect, but that’s okay. Some of the imperfections can be fixed. Some can’t. Some make it more beautiful. Some are just subjective. The point is, you wrote the story you were supposed to write. And whether you were obedient then or not, you’re being obedient now. That’s the point. That’s what counts.”

This is not a clean, tidy, perfect journey, but then, what journey is? And isn’t that the point of my stories–that none of us have perfect journeys? That redemption is a messy, uncomfortable, beautiful process of fits and starts and loss and gain? That sanctification doesn’t happen overnight?

Well, most of you probably don’t know the point of my stories. But let me tell you that yes, that’s pretty much the point of most of my stories.

I have no time at all to devote to writing or editing fiction right now, and yet, here I am–staring down the gaping maw of a sequel that I promised years ago, a sequel that, apparently, a dozen or twenty people still want to read.

So I take a deep breath, and I repeat to myself the verse that took me through the last year as a first-year Troop Coordinator: “And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10, NASB)

Till next we meet . . .

J M

Resolved

I surrender all, I surrender all,

All to Thee, my blessed Savior,

I surrender all.

— I Surrender All, Judson W. Van DeVenter

Once again, I find myself driven to my knees before the Throne of Grace, begging for forgiveness. This time, though, it’s different from the last time–the time when God pried my writing out of my clenched fists.

This time, I have begged forgiveness for depriving the Body of Christ from something I am uniquely qualified to give.

Once again, I have been prideful and arrogant. I thought I knew best. I thought God was a fool for giving me the desire to write and the gift of the written word. I thought He made a mistake. I thought I could stifle this gift (or curse, as I often considered it) and these stories by serving, by engaging in other hobbies, by focusing on any one of a hundred other things.

But this week–this time–I have realized that I was wrong.

So, here I am with open hands and heart, resolved to take and to give whatever He wishes. I am tired of fighting Him. I am tired of giving the enemy a toehold in my heart–a way to keep me distracted and unfocused on the Savior. I am tired of my pride, fear, busy-ness, and all the rest coming between me and what my Lord wants me to do–how He wants to use me.

Only a fool would fight the Living God and assume she could win the argument.

I have been meditating this week on how often the Bible mentions fear and exhorts the members of God’s kingdom to put aside fear and trust that God is for us. God knew how weak-willed we would be–how fearful we are. I asked myself this week–what is it that I fear in God’s Kingdom?

Death? No. I don’t fear death.

Missions? No. I intend to participating in some kind of foreign mission at some point–just waiting for the right open doors.

Serving? No. I serve Him daily, weekly, at American Heritage Girls. While my position was terrifying at first, I’ve sort of settled into it–and indeed, have rested upon the assurance all along that His strength is made perfect in weakness.

Being called a fool, a bigot, a liar, a moralizing prude? Yes, a bit. But while such words sting, they are only words. Christ was called worse. I can stand it, given a bit of time.

Failure? Now we’re getting closer to home. Yes, I fear failure. But if I am obedient, then am I ever really a failure? If I trust God with the outcome, then I have to trust that His outcome is the successful one, whatever form that takes.

Sharing my writing? This is the fear that paralyzes me. And this is where I had to open my hands and realize that I was still clinging to my writing.

Still. After all this time. After all this pain. I was still holding onto it.

A hard truth.

So, this week, I am resolved.

I am resolved to trust God. Right now, He’s only asking me to write. I can write. I can be faithful with the gift He has given me. And if I am faithful in this small thing, then perhaps I will eventually be trusted with bigger things.

I am resolved to ignore the whispers of the enemy in regard to current literary trends. It does not matter that much of modern fantasy is trending dark with dark antiheroes. It does not matter that the self-publishing trend has flooded the market with a plethora of truly awful, yet successful, books. It does not matter that editors at major publishing houses said my work wasn’t worth buying. The publishing trends don’t matter. They don’t affect what I write. I will just write the stories God has given me to write.

I am resolved to make good art–to write the best stories I can write, using all of the tools at my disposal, and actively work to improve my craft.

I am resolved to move forward with a spirit of courage, putting aside a spirit of fear and kindling afresh the gifts that God has given me. As Craig Groeschel recently reminded in his sermon series on Fear, we are responsible to be obedient; God is responsible for the outcome. I can be obedient.

I am resolved to believe, actively, on a daily basis, that God has given me a gift, and that to squander it is as disobedient as idolizing it.

My hands are open, Lord. Place in them the story you want me to tell, and I will give it back to You daily as a sacrifice. Do with it as You will. And when it is ready–when it is told to Your satisfaction–I will share it, if that’s what You ask of me.

I surrender all, Lord.

Reading for Writers

Quite some time ago, I embarked on a reading challenge designed to improve my knowledge of my chosen genre (speculative fiction, or, more specifically, fantasy). I found a list of the top 100 best books in science fiction and fantasy, crossed off the books I’d already read (which was a rather dismal few), and started at the beginning.

Shortly after I decided to read through that list, I decided that I should probably be sure I was reading other fiction, too. I compiled a list of about 350 books from a variety of “top 100” reading lists I found online.

After I compiled that list, I started making note of other books I wanted to read. I realized I was woefully under-read in church history, theology, and apologetics, so I started a little list of those kinds of books. Then I started a list of histories and biographies that I want to read. Both of those lists keep growing. Another list that keeps growing is the “I want to read just because people have recommended this” list.

Right now, my whole “TBR” list stands at approximately 450 books.

There are two problems with being a writer who reads, as I alluded in my last post. (Side note: Dear God, I’m calling myself a writer again.) Problem number one is that reading bad-but-popular stuff (and yes, I’m sorry, I do believe there is a great deal of writing out there that is objectively bad and popular for no discernible reason) frustrates, irritates, and maddens the writer who is competent but unpublished (me now) or unpopular (me two years ago). Problem number two is that reading really good books–and not just interesting stories, but really, really good books that have the whole package–compelling characters, tight plots, brilliant prose, and captivating settings–frustrates, irritates, and maddens the writer who knows he/she will never be that good (me, always).

I know that Stephen King (or someone) has famously posited that “the first million words are crap,” but I’ve written the million words, and I’m pretty sure it’s still . . . well, if not crap, certainly not worth publishing. And the thing is, you kind of know when you hit that point of diminishing returns–where you just know on a gut level that you’ve reached your pinnacle, that you’re really about as good as you’re going to get. And yes, I do believe I hit that point, and my best is not good enough to compete (hence the concept of just giving it away and taking the pressure of competition off my shoulders).

But I do still think it’s important to read, and especially important to read really good books. And I think it’s important to read across genres, styles, and the like. I think everyone should read and read often, but it’s especially important for writers to read. We pick up so much from other works. We learn how to use language, what works, what doesn’t, how to build characters, how to structure books, and on and on. Reading non-fiction is important, too; I think that histories (especially war histories) and biographies should be a regular part of every fantasy and science fiction author’s rotation, because studying the past will help build better fictional worlds and conflicts.

When I unpublished everything and went dark, I decided that I would not return to writing and/or publishing unless certain conditions were met. One of those conditions was that I had to finish my massive TBR list (at the time, it was still in the 350-ish range) before I would consider returning to writing on any level. That condition has proven rather unrealistic, especially since I’ve added another 100 or so books to the list in the interim and have, simultaneously, dared to open and play around in my story worlds again. But still, there’s a sense in which I won’t feel like I can really compete legitimately in the world of literature unless I can say that I’ve finished this massive list. Only then will I feel like I can justify participating on any level–competitive or otherwise–in the world of literature.

But the problem is that the list keeps growing, and good books keep getting published, and I have a limited amount of time to read. I signed up to take the Goodreads challenge this year and committed to read 75 books in a year. So far, I’m basically on track (a smidge behind–I read long books). Let’s say I read 75 books this year and for every subsequent year until my current TBR list is finished. It would still take me six years to finish the whole list. Should I really put all of my writing on hold for six years because of this arbitrary condition I set for myself?

I can, certainly, wait six years to publish again. I am in no rush at all on that side of things. There are other conditions which must be met that aren’t negotiable; one of them is that I will never again publish part of a series without having the rest of the series waiting in the wings, ready to go. It will take time to write, edit, and polish the remainder of the two series I had started before I unpublished.

But I’m not sure I can wait six years to write again.

So I’m not sure what to do about this condition. There is still a huge, huge part of me that really feels like a pretender in the world of writing. Even if I don’t share my work with anyone else, I need to write satisfactorily for myself, and I’m not sure I can if I’m constantly comparing my work to the stuff I’m reading (my work does not come out smelling like a rose in such comparisons).

But on the other hand, the writing bug is there, and it’s getting more insistent. So . . .

I don’t know.

What do you think? Do you think there is some kind of threshold for writers–a level of reading/literary knowledge that he or she must attain before being “legitimate” in the world of literature? Or do we all just always feel like pretenders no matter how much or what we’ve read?

 

Literature

This is my new favorite C. S. Lewis quote:

Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.

Lewis had a deep and profound understand of the power of story. Everything we need to understand about the power of story is summed up in that one statement.

It’s probably time to put a little Lewis into my reading queue. One needs a good dose of Lewis now and again.

 

Unbalanced

Sometimes, my creative anxiety just bubbles up out of nowhere, and the constriction in my soul overflows from my eyes and heart.

I don’t know where these days come from. Just when I think I’m getting over the tension of not writing, just when I think I feel a little more balanced or in control of my emotions and creative anxiety, something triggers this . . . overflow. I don’t know how else to describe it. Perhaps it goes back to the grieving process, which is something I do think I went through when I unpublished everything and went dark in late 2012. It’s been off and on for some time.

I don’t mean to minimize the grief of losing a loved one, but there is a sense of loss when one gives up something as significant as a career. And it does come in waves, usually catching me unawares.

I haven’t figured out what triggered it this time, but I can tell you that:

1) I’m exhausted, and exhaustion always seems to trigger strong emotion.

2) I’m overwhelmed by my responsibilities for American Heritage Girls, and part of me longs to just lose myself in an imaginary world and forget about all of that.

3) I’m reading Stephen King. All of King’s self-deprecation aside, the man is flipping brilliant. One does not read King for the poetry of his writing, although he does have some pretty good turns of phrase. One reads King because he takes the reader on a ride of breathless, agonizing, fierce, page-turning excitement, intricately plotted and brilliantly executed. Reading Stephen King is humbling.

4) I have a strong sense right now that my chance to really make a go of this whole writing thing has passed. I’m in my mid-40s. By the time my kids are gone, I’ll be in my mid-50s. Can grandchildren be far behind that? I don’t see myself with many opportunities to indulge in the pursuit of a writing career. Some say the career side shouldn’t matter, but . . .

5) . . . I struggle with the idea of creating just for myself. If I never share it, if I never pursue a career as a writer, then it seems rather pointless to create anything.

And as these recent emotions were bubbling to the surface, I found myself in two places yesterday: Pinterest and Twitter. On Pinterest, I kept running across words of encouragement for writers, and I found myself with two knee-jerk responses to said encouragement: snark or tears. So I closed Pinterest (not an easy thing, mind) and went to Twitter, and there I found an author I admire who seemed to not mind answering a few of my questions. Which, because of the nature of Twitter, led to other conversations with OTHER writers and artists, and . . .

Now I find myself stuck in a spiral of fruitless creative frustration.

I tend to end up in this kind of spiral, where emotion feeds on emotion and devours my peace and courage and balance. In these kinds of moments, all I know how to do right now is withdraw, compose myself, and return when I feel a little more . . . centered.

So while I know it’s been some time since I posted, and while I doubt that anyone has been waiting with bated breath for words of wisdom from me, I just want to say that I’m taking some time to compose myself. I’ll be back when I feel a little more balanced. That may be tomorrow (when I finish Wizard and Glass), three days from now, or three months from now. I just can’t say.

In the interim, I wish you peace and prosperity in the new year.

Till next we meet . . .

J M

Comfort Zone

Whatever you do, He will make good of it. But not the good He had prepared for you if you had obeyed Him.

— C. S. Lewis

At dinner with my husband tonight, I found myself ruminating on the topic of stepping outside of a comfort zone. My thoughts were prompted, in part, by today’s sermon, in which our pastor gently but firmly reminded us all that staying in one place isn’t necessarily God’s plan for His people. From the beginning, God was all about sending people away from their comfortable places in order to further His purposes in the world.

I have certainly been challenged to go beyond my comfort zones over the past year. From the moment that I took on my current volunteer position with American Heritage Girls, I have been pushed to learn new things and function in new ways. It was never the administrative detail about this job that scared me–it was, rather, the realization that I would have to be “up front” a significant portion of time. First, because of my position, I’m the primary communicator for the troop. I give announcements, devotionals, information, and the like to girls and parents. I run leader meetings and board meetings. I act as liaison between our troop and our charter organization and between the troop and AHG in Ohio. That position is not a natural one for me. My nature normally relegates me to the back row, where I like to slide in a minute late, sit quietly and sing softly, and duck out a minute early.

But the second and more difficult position is the one where I am required to act as mediator between other adults. I can handle it between kids or young adults. I’m a mom. That kind of mediation is in my job description. But to be the mediator between people who should know better and be able to get along . . . That’s the tough part. I’m not good at interpersonal relationships under the very best of circumstances. When the circumstances are less than optimal, I fear I am positively dismal.

And yet, here I am, being pushed outside of my comfort zone, occasionally even surprising myself by some of the fairly reasonable and relatively calm words that come from my normally snarky and reactionary mouth. I know this must be the Spirit protecting AHG from me, and I thank Him for His mercies. Left to my own devices, I’m 100% certain things would be falling apart right now rather than coming together.

So here we were at dinner tonight, discussing comfort zones and the leaving behind of such things. Mr. P and I were discussing some of the current pushing we’re experiencing and what some of our own thoughts were during the sermon. And then I confessed that, while I considered my AHG experiences first, I eventually came back to my writing. What if I’m supposed to be outside this safe place–this place where I don’t write, don’t share, don’t publish? What if the safe place isn’t the right place? What if God does have something else in mind here, and I’m being stubborn and uncooperative?

As a side note, I have been in a place of being stubborn and uncooperative with God before. I am here as a cautionary tale: Humble yourselves, dear brethren. If you wait for God to do it, it’s so much worse than if you start the process yourself.

The truth is, I have every reason to think that if God really wants me to do something, He will most certainly make His wishes known in unmistakeable ways. But what I really fear is that He would love for me to be writing and sharing because what I have to say is important in some way, and because this is not a matter of real eternal significance, He’s simply letting me be stubborn, fearful, and stuck. God, being a gentleman and a great respecter of persons, does not seem to wish to force us to do anything. Rather, He wishes us to love Him so much that we choose obedience to Him, no matter what the cost.

Including the cost to our personal comforts.

And there is a second huge fear–namely, what message am I sending my children by resisting the pursuit of the one great vocational passion of my life? By saying that it’s not worthwhile, it’s not good, I’m not good enough to make a living, I don’t have time, I’m too afraid of sharing it, or any one of a thousand other excuses I’ve made in the last year, what am I telling them?

Whatever it is, I don’t think it’s what I wanted to teach them.

Mr. P surprised me. “I think you should go back to writing,” he said.

That wasn’t all he said, but it was probably the most definitive statement of his opinion about my pursuit of this chosen vocation since I left it over a year ago. Like God, my husband has been a gentleman about my struggle. He has not demanded or cajoled or wheedled or insisted or in any other way attempted to talk me into returning to my work. He’s simply listened, watched, waited, and quietly encouraged when I have dipped hesitant toes back into the creative waters.

So here I sit, on the edge of yet another comfort zone with a wilderness before me. In my honest moments, I confess that I knew I would end up here again. It was rather inevitable. The stories and ideas and need to write are still there.

The question now is . . . what do I do? Do I step into the wilderness? Or do I play it safe?

I fear that the wilderness isn’t the right place. But what I fear even more is that my Canaan is beyond the wilderness, and that I’d rather stay stuck in Egypt making bricks than find the milk and honey.

Till next we meet . . .

J M

 

At Last

The massive volunteer editing project is done. DONE. D-O-N-E. DONE!

Imagine me doing a Snoopy dance:

I cannot even begin to describe the absolute elation and lightness of being I feel in having this project off my plate. It was not a fun project in the slightest. Aside from the fact that a huge portion of what I did was take out wonky formatting, I had to also reword, delete, and edit some of the most painful sentences ever recorded in the English language.

All right. I may be exaggerating a bit.

Of course, I’ve gone right from the frying pan and into the fire . . . In the midst of this editing project, Thanksgiving snuck up on me. Of course, Christmas tends to follow very closely on Thanksgiving’s heels (even closer than usual this year–we don’t even have a full month between!). I’ve also had to confront three rather intense personal conflicts in my American Heritage Girls troop–all of them unrelated to each other, but all of them serious enough to merit discussion. And I don’t know if any of you can tell from this blog, but I’m actually not very good at the interpersonal stuff. I’m not good at relationships in the best of circumstances. I’m about a thousand times worse when there’s tension of any kind.

But also in the midst of this whole turmoil and through the pressure of getting my editing project done by the deadline, I made some decisions. They are not earth-shattering or mind-blowing, and the most important of them will take some time to set up. I won’t share too many details as some of them would be too revealing, but suffice to say that the next several months will be approached intentionally with a specific goal in mind–namely, setting up my life to re-introduce writing fiction on a regular basis.

I suppose the biggest thing I’ve learned over the last year is that there are only so many spots this leopard can change. I’m a writer. I need to write. Even if nothing ever leaves my hard drive, I need the outlet. And I have to just write and not worry about what other people think . . . so I will write without the intent to share it. It will be a hobby, but a hobby I won’t feel guilty about pursuing.

To that end, there are certain things I have to do:

Rebalance my spiritual life: I have fallen out of the habits I established when I left writing over a year ago. This editing project and the AHG responsibilities have just sucked the time right out of my schedule. And it’s true (and ironic) that when I’m stressed, the first thing to be sacrificed is my spiritual health. I neglect reading my Bible, I neglect prayer, and I neglect my Bible study. I have to rebalance that part of my life before I fall over.

Draw back on my volunteer duties: It always seems to be the case that 5% of the people do about 95% of the work. I certainly feel like I’m doing more than my share of work in the AHG troop, but I’m hardly doing anything at my kids’ school and nothing in my church. I have a plan for drawing back on the AHG duties. It will take several months, but it will make a big change in my schedule (and in my sanity).

Knit, sew, and read: The massive amount of volunteering I’ve been doing has also cannibalized my time for knitting, sewing, and reading. The result is unbalanced creativity and a frustrated spirit. I think what I’m realizing is that I have to just allow myself hobby/creative time, and then I need to give myself the freedom to do whatever my spirit needs that day, whether it’s knitting, sewing, reading, writing, crocheting, or even–gasp!–scrapbooking.

I know that I tend to retreat into busy-ness to avoid the hard things–in this case, writing. The problem is that it isn’t a permanent solution. It doesn’t work. Being busy doesn’t make me any less of a writer. It just makes me a more frustrated writer. My head still produces the stories. The characters still whisper to me in the quiet stillness of my restful moments. I still think, “what a fun piece of dialogue that would be” or “cool name–I should use it in a story” when I overhear interesting tidbits. And when I watch anything even remotely connected with the fantasy genre in any way (meaning, if you put a sword in a story), I immediately go to my own worlds and wish to renew my acquaintance with them.

So this is not an earth-shattering, ground-breaking post by any means, and it’s not as if I am making some kind of major announcement. But I am back, at least for now, and I’m feeling . . . well, if not at peace, at least in a place of greater clarity.

I think . . . I think that is a good thing.

Till next we meet . . .

J M