calling all creative writers

Well, folks, it was a good weekend for football.  The weather was unseasonably crisp (more like October), which made it perfect for the college game I attended Saturday night.  Yesterday was a good football day too.  I’m wearing black and gold today, and it’s not because of Hufflepuff Quidditch, if you know what I mean.

That has nothing to do with my topic today, but a good Monday football conversation never goes amiss.

Here’s my quick post: I need your help.  If you 1) have done any kind of creative writing (even if you have no intention of publishing) and 2) have conducted any research for the benefit of your writing, I want to hear your research stories.  Have you ransacked the personal archives of the obscure historical figure you’re basing a novel on?  Have you slept on the ground with no sleeping bag to know how the characters in your quest fantasy must feel?  Have you asked your mom for some unusual names of townships north of Pittsburgh?  (I did that last week.)  Have you Googled a lot of stuff?  All of that counts as research.  I’m developing a course on creative writing research, and I want to find out how other people do it.  So pause and expand your definition of research, and then comment below to share your stories.  Thank you in advance!

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the war that launched a million stories

The thesis of my blog post today is going to make you say, “Duh.”  Here it is: There are a lot of books and movies about World War 2.  (Really?  I didn’t know that.)  It’s just something I’ve been thinking about over the past couple of days, ever since I watched the new Christopher Nolan film Dunkirk on Sunday night, listened to the YA verse novel American Ace by Marilyn Nelson in the car yesterday, and then started listening to another YA novel, Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys.  Also on Sunday, my grandmother told me she’d been watching some documentaries on the war (which took place when she was a young girl) and observing that there was a lot more to it than the heavily-narrated European front, and I recommended that she read and/or watch Unbroken, the story of American POW Louis Zamperini.  Even in the murder mystery that I’m reading for book club, Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, the detective-protagonist of the book-within-the-book (this story is very meta) had been in a concentration camp, and the fictional novelist modeled him after Ben Kingsley’s character in Schindler’s List.  So now we’re telling stories about stories about World War 2.

This is not meant to be a philosophical post on causes and consequences, but I want to offer two (again, really obvious) reasons why we can’t seem to stop telling stories about World War 2.  One is that the war changed everything: It brought whatever Victorian optimism was still lingering after the first world war and the Great Depression to a screeching halt.  It reminded the world that the human race is capable of committing–and of surviving–horrors so outlandish they seemingly can’t be narrated (but they can be, of course, as writers and filmmakers have proven over and over).  It changed the way we think about ourselves–and “we” includes those of us born many years after the war.

The other reason there are so many World War 2 stories is that it was a world wara sprawling, complicated event that encompassed hundreds of battles and thousands of stories–millions, if we consider the story of every person who was affected.  So there are always new narrative angles to be taken and under-researched events to be reported.  To use the examples above, Dunkirk and Salt to the Sea are both about massive water evacuations (one in France, one in Germany) that I knew almost nothing about before the release of the movie and book.  American Ace is about a present-day white teenage boy who finds out that his real grandfather was probably one of the Tuskegee Airmen, the squadron of African-American fighter pilots whose story has only recently begun to receive wide exposure.  Unbroken focuses on the war in the Pacific, which I know very little about compared to the war in Europe.  A children’s book I listened to earlier this year, The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, is about the children who were sent to the English countryside before the bombing of London–who were, functionally, orphans during that time.  Other than the frame narrative of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I had never read a book or seen a movie about the experiences of these children.

These stories not only teach us the facts of history, which are important to remember if we want to avoid repeating history, but they also give us examples of hope, sacrifice, and courage.  Again, you’ve heard this a hundred times.  But there are millions of stories from World War 2 that we still haven’t heard.

a gallery of picture books

I am teaching a college class about children’s literature, and today our topic was picture books.  Truly, we could spend a whole semester on these beautiful works that are not merely cute stories (I challenged my students not to use the word “cute” in any of their papers for the rest of the semester) or fond memories from childhood.  Picture books represent an astonishing variety of artistic styles and mediums; they tell stories that may incorporate irony and sensitive characterization, and–yes–they sometimes teach lessons ranging from basic counting to eating in moderation (both of which are found in The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, a simple and delightful book that doesn’t feel like it’s teaching any lessons).

During the 75-minute class period, I had time to read seven entire picture books to the class, while pausing to point out important details in the text and illustrations.  Here are the books we read, along with a few observations about each.

  1. Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, words by Charlotte Zolotow and pictures by Maurice Sendak.  This book draws from two very grown-up artistic traditions.  Magical realism, a literary tradition in which bizarre events happen to normal people and are treated as no big deal, is evident in the protagonist’s conversation with a rabbit who is taller than she is and from whom she has no problem taking advice.  Meanwhile, the pictures in the story, with their pastoral setting, pastel colors, and blurred brushstrokes, seem to fit into the school of impressionism.
  2. The Story of Ferdinand, words by Munro Leaf and pictures by Robert Lawson.  The text, about a bull who would rather smell flowers than fight, is laugh-out-loud funny (I say that because I actually laughed out loud while reading it), and the black-and-white line drawings are amazingly detailed and delightful.  We don’t expect to find irony in pictures books, but the whole impact of this story comes from an ironic reversal involving the key word “mad”: Everyone wants to make Ferdinand mad so he’ll fight, but he ends up making everyone else mad when he sits down to smell the flowers.
  3. Tuesday, words and pictures by David Weisner.  This almost-wordless book, in which frogs launch off on lily pads and begin to fly through an average neighborhood, is illustrated in a style that our textbook calls surrealism, and I have to agree.  I bet Salvador Dali wishes he thought of painting a picture of a guy eating a sandwich in his kitchen while frogs are flying past the window.  Another wonderful thing about this book is that the ending isn’t really an ending–there’s an indication that more magic is going to happen next Tuesday.
  4. The Very Hungry Caterpillar–I’ve already mentioned this one, and it’s so well-known that there’s not much more that I can say about it.  For a very short book, there’s an awful lot going on, and it’s brilliant.
  5. Come Away from the Water, Shirley, words and pictures by John Burningham.  This is a very funny book about a little girl having an adventure with pirates while her clueless mother keeps admonishing her not to get tar on her shoes or to pick up any smelly seaweed.  There is huge irony in the layout of the book; the parents’ boring day at the beach is illustrated in washed-out colors on the left-hand side of each page spread, while Shirley’s simultaneous adventure is depicted in bold colors on the right.  The deliberately naive drawing style reminds me of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts.  (Shirley’s head is perfectly round, like Charlie Brown’s.)
  6. Make Way for Ducklings, words and pictures by Robert McCloskey.  This one might be my favorite of the ones we read today.  The sepia pencil drawings aren’t necessarily eye-catching at first, but they grow on you as the story continues, taking you flying above real locations in Boston (this book has a strong sense of place).  I love how the police officer, Michael, is so serious about helping these ducks get through the city safely that he gets practically the entire Boston PD involved.  This books has it all: onomatopoeia, repetition, and even a quest narrative.
  7. Where the Wild Things Are, words and pictures by Maurice Sendak.  Speaking of books that have it all: this one is also a quest narrative, with a chiastic structure, internal rhyme, and a plot that make psychoanalytical theorists go crazy.  But it’s also a story about a boy who feels wild and out of place, learning that he belongs right where he is, where his mother loves him and keeps his dinner waiting for him, still hot.  Now that’s a good story.

Picture books aren’t just for children or people with children.  Read some this week!

Jesus’ 30th birthday

Here’s an interesting fact: The English Romantic poet John Keats died when he was 25 years old, but not before he’d written some of the greatest odes in the English language.  I sometimes share this fact with my students, with a mild joke to the effect that they’d better get busy over the next few years.  Although I’m not trying to make my students feel like they’ve wasted their lives up to this point, I sometimes feel that way myself when I look at what I’ve accomplished and compare it with the accomplishments of luminaries in various fields.  The disparity is particularly striking when I compare myself with people, like Keats, who died very young.  Heath Ledger, for example, was only 28 when he passed away back in 2008, and he’d delivered a few stunning, even epoch-making performances in the few years prior.  [Did his Dark Knight tour de force usher in the dominance of the mischief/chaos-making villain in present film?  I think so, but that’s another blog post.]  And then, if you went to Christian school like me, you also have some big-name servants of God (I hesitate to call them rock-star martyrs) with whom to compare yourself, like David Brainerd, who died at 29 after wearing out his health in service to the Native Americans back in the 18th century.  It’s hard not to look at people like that and think, “Basically, I’ve accomplished nothing so far.”

I’m going to turn 30 next month.  So I took notice this morning when I read Luke 3:23a: “Now Jesus Himself began His ministry at about thirty years of age.”  Until that point, Jesus had been living in obscurity, probably working alongside his adoptive father Joseph in the “secular” profession of carpentry.  During that time, we can assume that his heavenly Father was quietly preparing him for those crucial–and short–three years of ministry that would follow.  God the Father didn’t look down at Jesus on his 30th birthday and say, “You’ve been messing around building tables long enough; now it’s time to do some real Kingdom work.”  In fact, because we know that Jesus was sinless and that his whole life was directed toward a mission, we can confidently say that the tables were not a waste of time.  Backed by Colossians 3:23, we can go so far as to say that they were an act of worship to his Father.  Building tables was part of what Jesus was born to do and part of how he readied himself for the history-shattering events to come later.

It may be helpful to ask from time to time, “Have I accomplished anything that’s made an impact?”  It’s a tricky question, though, because our actions have effects that we don’t see and that we can’t control.  I think it’s more useful to ask, “What kind of person am I becoming?”  That, with God’s help, we can control.  So as my birthday approaches, I’m trying to tell myself that it’s okay that I haven’t written a poem to rival “Ode to a Nightingale.”  Here’s what I should really be asking myself: Am I loving?  Am I joyful?  Am I thankful?  And am I ready for whatever big things may come later?

Born to raise the sons of earth

It’s that time of year again when we celebrate the founding of this blog (thanks for another great year, dear readers!) and–far, far more importantly–the advent and incarnation of Jesus Christ.  If you’re new to my blog, I should tell you that each December I write several posts about my favorite Christmas music, movies, experiences, etc.  This year I’m thinking of doing one on Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas,” but first, I want to tell you about my favorite Christmas hymn.

What’s the Christmas song you’ve known the longest–maybe one associated with your earliest memories of Christmas?  Mine is “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”  I’m pretty sure there’s a video of me singing snatches of it as a toddler.  It’s really an odd song for a little kid to be singing, because it’s full of weighty doctrine and includes some archaic language.  My understanding of it at the time must have been far from perfect.  I think A Charlie Brown Christmas was the reason I knew it.  Remember how near the end of the show the kids all stick their noses up in the air and “loo, loo, loo” to the tune (all lowering their heads and breathing at exactly the same time)?  Then during the end credits they actually sing the lyrics.

I still love “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” both for the music and for the lyrics.  The tune, by the well-known classical composer Felix Mendelssohn, is the perfect vehicle for the song’s strong message.  It’s both joyful and stately; it’s complex and wide-ranging yet very singable.  You won’t find any creative young worship leaders trying to write a new tune to this song.

And the lyrics, by Charles Wesley, are even better.  In just three verses, this song elucidates the paradox and mystery of Christmas: God, who has no beginning, was born.  The eternal Christ became a human baby named Jesus, yet he remained God at the same time.  The end of the song also tells why he came.  If you want to know what Christmas is all about, you can ask Linus and get a very good answer from the gospel of Luke, chapter 2.  You can also fast-forward to the end of A Charlie Brown Christmas and listen to this song.

Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King;

Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.”

Joyful, all ye nations, rise, Join the triumph of the skies;

With angelic hosts proclaim,” Christ is born in Bethlehem.”

Christ, by highest heav’n adored, Christ, the everlasting Lord;

Late in time behold Him come, Offspring of a virgin’s womb.

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail, th’ incarnate Deity!

Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.

Hail the heav’n born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness!

Light and life to all He brings, Ris’n with healing in His wings.

Mild He lays His glory by, Born that man no more may die;

Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth.

“The last scud of day”

I think what stuns me the most about Walt Whitman’s poetry is how old it is chronologically, and how new (or young?) stylistically.  He wrote much of his audaciously hubristic, rhythmically unrhymed, New Agey but never fuzzy poetry before they had electric lights, before he saw the Civil War tear up America.  England was just warming up to the Victorian period, man.  This’ll blow your mind: the first edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was published in 1855; that’s just five years after William Wordsworth died.  Wordsworth was the guy who called for poets to write in the language of the common man, and tried to follow his own advice.  Before Wordsworth, poets were pretty much still writing like John Milton.  Too bad Wordsworth couldn’t have lived a little longer to see Whitman do this:

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me,

he complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,

I sound my barabaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me,

It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow’d wilds,

It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,

I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift in in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,

If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,

But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,

And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,

Missing me one place search another,

I stop somewhere waiting for you.

(from “Song of Myself,” 1855)

Two texts that inquire into the moment just before death

“If I Only Knew”

a poem by Nelly Sachs, Holocaust survivor  and Nobel laureate

If I only knew

On what your last look rested.

Was it a stone that had drunk

So many last looks that they fell

Blindly upon its blindness?

Or was it earth,

Enough to fill a shoe,

And black already

With so much parting

And with so much killing?

Or was it your last road

That brought you a farewell from all the roads

You had walked?

A puddle, a bit of shining metal,

Perhaps the buckle of your enemy’s belt,

Or some other small augury

Of heaven?

Or did this earth,

Which lets no one depart unloved,

Send you a bird-sign through the air,

Reminding your soul that it quivered

In the torment of its burnt body?

“The ’59 Sound”

a song by The Gaslight Anthem, the greatest presently active band in any genre

Well, I wonder which song they’re gonna play when we go.
I hope it’s something quiet and minor and peaceful and slow.
When we float out into the ether, into the Everlasting Arms,
I hope we don’t hear Marley’s chains we forged in life.
’cause the chains I been hearing now for most of my life.

Did you hear the ’59 Sound coming through on Grandmama’s radio?
Did you hear the rattling chains in the hospital walls?
Did you hear the old gospel choir when they came to carry you over?
Did you hear your favorite song one last time?

And I wonder were you scared when the metal hit the glass?
See, I was playing a show down the road
when your spirit left your body.
And they told me on the front lawn.
I’m sorry I couldn’t go,
but I still know the song and the words and her name and the reasons.
And I know ’cause we were kids and we used to hang.

[Chorus]

Young boys, young girls, ain’t supposed to die on a Saturday night.