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On this blog’s new mission statement and creative moratorium

I’ve spent the last several months trying to figure out where I belong as a writer outside of school.  It’s been hard.  The “real world” has a different structure to it than the academic world as far as writing is concerned – it’s slower paced, with a complete lack of deadlines, a need for writers to develop their own sense of balance.  In terms of balance, I haven’t fallen down on the job – between my recent poetry experiment, my brief foray into nonfiction, and NaNoWriMo, I’ve generated nearly 200 pages of material since I started my job in September.  My energy is divided toward more places than it was in school, but I’ve still managed to make writing a priority.
So what’s the problem here?  The thing that’s wrong with this picture lies in the first sentence of this column – the fact that I’ve been “trying.”  There are two issues here.  The first is that no good creative work ever came from the author forcing it out – it’s a surefire way to put yourself through a lot of pain and in the end, produce something that isn’t really worth keeping around.  As I’ve said before, that was NaNo for me – forget that I spent two months prior to the actual event planning my strategy and my project.  It was still trying too hard.  It’s about spontaneity – and I planned my so called spontaneity in advance.  Sound paradoxical?  Maybe, but that’s how it felt to me.

The more important thing that’s wrong here is that what I’ve been doing is counter-Biblical.  Rather than trusting in the Lord to lead me to the right project, I’ve been trying to figure it all out on my own, and this is a route to failure that will take you there every time.  A friend of mine told me that the source of anxiety I’ve been experiencing since I started work is rooted in an inability to turn all of my life over to Him – rather than “presenting yourself a living sacrifice, wholly” as Romans 12:1 commands us, I’ve been holding onto something and keeping it for myself.  I now know that this thing is my creative life.  Instead of giving God control over how I use my talents and what I use them for, I’ve been trying – and failing – to do it by myself.  The Bible gives us many words of advice on how to proceed with matters like these, where the temptation to take hold of one’s own life becomes too much:

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not to your own understanding.  In all your ways, acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your path.” – Proverbs 3:5-6

“He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 1:6

“Whatsoever you do, do it heartily, as unto the Lord, and not unto man.” – Colossians 3:23

“Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the Lord.” – Psalm 27:14

I’ve been remembering these things in terms of every aspect of my life – relationships, my spiritual life, my work life, my family life – except for my writing.  I’ve spent too much time denying this, so much so that I’ve probably wasted valuable time trying to direct my own creative path.  I’ve been dwelling on past accomplishments and wanting to get published again; I’ve been proud and not content with my circumstances, when I have no right to be anything but completely happy with where I am.  The Lord has provided for all my needs – I have a job, a place to live, a spiritual community, and friends.  And yet, I’ve been letting myself get extremely frustrated because I’m not working on a project.  I’ve worried that people who look down on my working a minimum wage job when I have a masters will think I’m a failure if I’m not writing – which is one of the most prideful, self centered statements I could make.

I feel like I need to do something I should have done a long time ago – maybe even immediately after grad school, but I was still too ingrained in my type A attitude toward writing to consider it.  I’m going into literary detox.  In order to keep from taking myself down the path of leaning to my own understanding, I’m going to put a moratorium on writing for awhile.  The only way I’m going to keep from putting pressure on myself is to just lay low, until the Lord sends me the right project.  In the meantime, I’m planning on doing two things.  The first is to commit myself to the intensive Bible study I’ve always wanted to do, but have never had time for.  I have a million books, most of which have come from work, that I need to read; I want to learn basic New Testament Greek.  I want a better understanding of the Bible as a cohesive unit.  I’m convinced that this will not only help me spiritually – it will actually make me a better writer.  This change in focus is me clearing all of this anxiety and pressure out of my head.  I’m no longer afraid of losing my skills as a writer – they will be waiting for me when I’m ready to come back.

Second, the purpose of this blog has changed.  It was originally created so that I could share my insights about being a new MFA grad working in a bookstore and balancing my life for time to write.  This worked for awhile, but I’ve found that the more committed I’ve become to my spiritual life, the more the Lord’s influence on and complete credit for my writing abilities became topics of discussion.  Therefore, this blog is now devoted to the connection between my identity in Christ and how, through my study of scripture and eventual move toward a project, He is working to use my gifts of language.  My blog is excluded from the literary moratorium – I am hoping to write about how not writing or not pushing myself to write is helping me creatively.  We’ll see how things go as I move forward with this.

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Kori and the Great Genre Switch – Episode 2

Once again, my attempts at getting back on track with fiction writing have been thwarted. I thought that writing an essay, reading the Christian craft book, and doing some soul searching about why it is that I’m doing this would push me to the point of having some kind of worthwhile idea. Unfortunately, it just isn’t happening. Right now it’s getting to the point where I just need to be writing something. I don’t care if it’s fiction or nonfiction or the text on the back of a cereal box. I’m just getting desperate. I’m really happy right now, and although the Bible tells us to be content in all circumstances (writer’s block or no), I feel like the one thing missing is some kind of creative endeavor. It isn’t that I’m distracted or too busy with other things. It’s just that it just isn’t happening.

So what did I do? Since switching to nonfiction helped me to get my fingers moving by writing about myself freely, I decided this week to try something completely different: a return to poetry. Although nonfiction and I have the most fickle relationship of all the genres, I used to be really apprehensive about writing poems. I used to have a serious problem with wordiness, and the idea of reducing a description or idea to just a few words gave me serious discomfort. It was, however, something I got better at. My first published work was a poem, and that’s worth noting. But I still carried a lot of reservations about my poems, in spite of the fact that my adviser at Ohio Northern was always extremely encouraging. I’ve always been hard on myself and tend to take praise even harder than I do criticism. I think it’s an affliction a lot of creative types deal with.

In graduate school, I took a poetry workshop with Mary Ann Samyn. She’s a brilliant poet, the author of several collections of poetry that wowed me before I even really talked to her or set foot in her class. To be honest, I was intimidated – my poetry skill set was limited, and hers was astonishing. Quickly, though, I found that her unique way of folding criticism and praise for her students work in onto themselves meshed well with my own tendency toward hypercriticism. Mary Ann was completely honest about my work, in both its strong points and weak points – and in such a way that I was comfortable receiving both positive and constructive remarks on my poems in a way I wasn’t before.

I was also quickly inspired. Most of my poems for the semester comprised an interconnected chapbook of persona work about the 1965 murder of sixteen year old Sylvia Likens by her foster mother and several neighborhood children. However, I also found myself exploring other topics – the Kent State shootings, which figured prominently in my thesis, Mrs. Beasley of Family Affair fame, Robert Altman films, and my battle with an autoimmune illness during college. I was pushed to explore different writing styles and model my work after the poets we we read, people like Charles Wright, Jorie Graham, Brenda Hillman, and Lucie Brock-Broido. By the time I left workshop, I felt comfortable with myself as a poet, although it would be over a year before I attempted it again.

I wrote poetry last summer as a post-thesis decompression exercise, but this marks my return to the genre, the first since starting my job last fall. Having been snowed in for the past few days from the monster blizzard of the midwest, I started thinking about potential poem topics, and gradually, that rush I get from being driven to produce began to return. I wrote two poems yesterday; an additional two today. And the array of subject matter was astonishing – a memorable night walk in the woods, Buddy Holly, Biblical stories, and my life according to Disney movies. All of them were completely different in style, subject, and tone – and proved to me that even though my abilities appear to have gone into hibernation, they are still there. Poetry is funny like that. Between it and nonfiction, poetry always seems to bring out the best in my writing when I’m not into fiction.

I often wonder if I’m poisoning my desire to write fiction simply by dwelling on it so much. I think primarily of Psalm 37 – “wait on the Lord.” Patience has never been something I’m good at, and what I’ve found is that when I pray for patience, He always gives me a situation where developing patience is required in order to get through it. This is one of those times. Part of me thinks that I need to get hooked on chapbook writing again. I’m done doing the dead girl thing – I should have given up writing about child murder cases awhile back, actually, and this is one reason why the NaNo novel ended up being crap. Sometimes you just have to let some topics go because they’ve outlived their welcome. But I think that if I can find a poetry project that I can really wrap myself around, that can drive my thoughts forward in a way that only thinking about writing can, I might be that much closer to finding my project. At least this is what I’m praying for – an expansion of small ideas, of phrases and details.

Book Report: The Art and Craft of Writing Christian Fiction by Jeff Gerke

When I was in graduate school, I was seriously into studying principles of the craft of fiction writing.  When it comes down to it, that’s really what getting an M.F.A. is all about – you come to workshop knowing the elements of creative writing and bring your talent with you, but then you actually have to crack the thing open and see how it works.  It’s like working on a car engine.  It’s not enough to just start it up and hit the road.  You’ve got to know how it starts up so you can hit the road to begin with.  It’s no wonder why “workshop” is the word we use for writing classes and critiques – that’s exactly what it is.  Grad workshops are garages where we bust out the toolbox, pop open the hood, and see what’s working and what’s keeping it from running smoothly.

I read Jeff Gerke’s The Art and Craft of Writing Christian Fiction because, as I’ve described in earlier entries, my new goal with my writing is to glorify God in my work.  One of my friends asked me once if this meant I was going to “go all Anne Rice on my writing.”  This isn’t going to happen.  There’s nothing God glorifying about someone who writes vampire stories and erotica and then turns around and writes books about Christianity.  It’s just too much of a double standard for me to swallow.  In any case, I’ve faced a number of dilemmas about how to evaluate my writing process and understanding of craft within the realm of bringing spiritual themes into my work.  This book has been more than instructive in all these areas.  Step aside, John Dufresne and John Gardner, authors of my favorite books about writing fiction.  This is the best craft book I’ve ever read.

I think that the shift in focus from literary to Christian fiction is what made Gerke’s work so affecting to me.  Authors such as Dufresne and Gardner are writing for largely academic literary audiences – they explain the rules in their own unique ways, offering challenges and exercises for writers to put the skills of point of view, voice, place, dialogue, and narration to work.  As a result, most of the concepts overlap from craft book to craft book, tempting seasoned writers to skip pages about frequently discussed topics.  What sets this book apart is that it is completely author focused – teaching the reader these elements of craft, but asking her to consider the ways that those elements might go to work in her own project.  Gerke, founder of Christian publishing company Marcher Lord Press and author of numerous speculative works of religious fiction, has a voice that is at once instructive and witty, even quirky and downright hilarious.  He is unpretentious and consistently engaging, making a page turner out of what most might imagine to be a dull topic.

As a result, I took three important lessons away from this book in particular.  These aren’t just tips for Christian writers.  They’re good rules to follow for all writers.  All of them are things I’ve heard before – but again, the use of a Christian lens allowed me to see them from a new point of view, really understanding why these elements are important for a book to succeed.  Let’s talk about them, shall we?

1. Understand Your Motivations for Writing: Before even launching into the principles of good Christian fiction, Gerke implores readers to examine their goals and desires as a writer.  This might seem like an odd question – at least it did to me.  “Duh,” I thought.  “I write because God gave me this talent and I want to use it to honor Him.  I write because I love it.  I write because it’s the only thing I’ve ever really felt good doing.”  All of these seem like good reasons…but gradually, the more I read, the more impure motives began to rise up.

“I write because I want to be published.”

“I write because I want validation.”

“I write because everyone told me I’d fail, and I want to prove them wrong.”

All of these, Gerke states, are terrible reasons to want to be a writer.

This was the moment of epiphany for me as I read.  Gerke recommends that “If you are an approval addict, or a perfectionist,” readers should acquire The Search for Significance by Robert McGee, a book that allowed him to let go of his own unquenchable thirst for approval and acceptance and “begin writing – and living – simply for Him.”  After I read this chapter, I immediately checked the shelves at work – and found a copy of McGee’s book.  I haven’t read it yet, but what I do know is that this is an area I need to work on.  Several weeks ago, I wrote about my frustrations involving the mental constipation of ideas I’ve been experiencing and the parade of rejection letters I’ve received.  “When am I going to get published again?” I’ve asked Him.  But it isn’t the right question, or the right prayer.  What I’m remembering when I pray about publication is the thrill of opening the envelope or e-mail and reading the one line statement that says the editor would like to feature my work in her journal.  And of course, the best part came when the copy arrived or was published online, and there were my stories, available for anyone to read.

But now, I question where that thrill really came from.  It was an honor, yes.  It was confirmation that I’ve grown as an artist, indeed.  But like the question of why I write to begin with, the answers get strung out priority wise pretty fast.  I think what it was really about for me was pride and greed – two of the worst sins we are inevitably going to commit.  And both create idols in our lives that are not God.  “If you’re looking for a publishing contract to make you content, then you’re looking to a piece of paper to do something only God can do,” Gerke tells readers.  And he’s right.  A huge thing this book made me do was reevaluate my needs as a writer.  I freely admit that getting published was a good feeling – not just because it validated my talent, but because when people found out, I felt like I gained respect.  From having twenty congratulatory compliments on my Facebook page??  It almost seems laughable now.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be published, or wanting people to read my work.  After all, we write to share thoughts with others.  But it’s about having a proper perspective, and I don’t think that’s something I’ve had lately.  Through this next project, I want to write for the right reasons, to let God work that through me.

2. Find Ways to Not Use Profanity: This might seem obvious given the subject matter, but really, it’s good advice for fiction in general.  When I was writing my thesis, I bumped up against my main editor multiple times because of my overt use of profanity in my stories.  He told me that not only was it not honor to the Lord, but I was a better writer than to take the easy way out through cheap words.  At the time, I told him that he was wrong – I was writing about hippies in the early ‘70s, who traveled around Ohio in a rock band.  Of course they would drop F-bombs!  My responsibility was to portray life as it really is!  In yet another convicting segment of the book, though, Gerke set me straight about how I should be going about the use of language in my work.

Using the “writer as filmmaker” analogy that Gerke weaves through the whole book, he likens the way to use bad language in one’s work to how older movies used to handle sex scenes: “The door shut and the screen faded to black.  We knew what was going on, but it wasn’t onstage.”  It’s not like that anymore.  Our standards have changed so much over time that now it’s completely appropriate in the eyes of the general public to have full frontal nudity and explicit sex in movies.  And 99% of it serves no purpose to the story at all.  It’s the same thing with language.  For me, movies stand out when there is a lack of bad language – not when the characters are obviously getting off on using four letter words.  When the language becomes noticeable and distracting, it begins to bother me and interfere with my perception of the story.

A prime example is The Departed, the film that won Martin Scorsese his Best Director Oscar (finally).  It’s a fabulous movie – top notch performers, an innovative use of music, and a high risks story that makes viewers care about the characters and their situations.  Did I like it?  Yes.  Will I ever watch it again?  Probably not.  A brilliant script, for me, was marred by a highly excessive use of the F dash dash dash word.  The Internet Movie Database trivia for the film reveals that the word and its derivatives appears 237 times in the 150 minute movie – the most uses of the word in a film that has won Best Picture.  It makes me think about movies like The Third Man, older films with the same pacing and energy as The Departed.  Can you imagine that Ferris wheel scene with racketeer Harry Lyme busting out some four letter words in that speech about why he’s made the selfish and brutally destructive decisions he has?  Absolutely not.  The truth is that whenever a word – any word – shows up that much in any context, it loses its power and ultimately its meaning.  It just becomes a sound with a vague emotion attached, if any at all.  “Anyone can write in a cuss word,” Gerke explains.  “It takes real talent to give us the feeling of the cussing without literally spelling it out.”

3. “…and they live happily ever after” – Don’t Convert Your Characters: In a chapter titled “The Bad Boy Gets Saved,” Gerke discusses the cliche plot of Christian fiction that nearly always derails the books he’s read as a publisher.  In these stories, the major dramatic question has no substance other than “Will Bruce come to know the Lord?” (Not necessarily Bruce specifically, but anyone).  The book is an internal struggle with life about whether or not Christianity is for him.  There’s a scene in a church where the pastor gives a sermon that says EXACTLY what Bruce needed to hear, and he turns his life over to God.  At the end, he falls to his knees in the driveway, rain pouring down all around him, and sobs because he’s wasted so much of his life.  And that’s all folks.

Yawn.

The reason conversion stories don’t work, Gerke tells us, is that they aren’t believable as fiction.  Yes, there have been many times when I’ve gone to church and heard sermons that hit me so hard that I know God meant for me to be there on that day, just to hear those words.  But in fiction, scenes like this come across as phony and preachy.  It’s also just plain unrealistic.  Nobody becomes a Christian in one split moment, from hearing one person say one thing – for most people I know, it was a process that took years and years before they reached the decision.  And in terms of craft, conversions just don’t make for interesting stories.  Or endings.

And here’s the kicker: it’s a good thing I heard this.  Because that was exactly what my original novel idea was going to be.  Thanks, Jeff Gerke, for keeping me from wasting months of my life on something that probably would have made my NaNo novel look like The Great Gatsby.

So where does this leave me in terms of my forthcoming project?  The more I think about it, the more I think a mix of Francine Rivers, Nabokov, C.S. Lewis, and Flannery O’Connor is the way to go.  Wow, you might say.  That sounds like the world’s weirdest writer’s conference ever.  But they each bring something unique to the table of my creative process – Rivers is a master at using Biblical stories as a foundation for her own original fiction, Nabokov and O’Connor created some of the most depraved characters that we love to hate and love to read about, Lewis was not just a great writer, but a great critic, theologian, and writer about writing.  That’s the kind of book I want to write.  Currently, I’m searching for Bible stories that aren’t often quoted or discussed to use as a parallel for a modern day narrative.  I want characters that are dark, but relatable, sinful, but not to the point of seeking conversion.  Most of all, in spite of the subtle way I wish to explore Christianity, I want to write with the Lord Jesus Christ as the center of my thoughts.  Not publication, not approval, not showing people who don’t agree with my career choice who’s boss.  As Gerke tells us, Christian fiction writers create for not just an audience of one – but an audience of The One.

Watch the famous Third Man scene here!

Long May You Run: Eulogy for a Dying First Car

The day it became my car - August 19, 2006

Last Saturday night, I was driving back to my parents’ house from work (about a forty five minute trip).  The last leg of the trip is about ten miles of winding backroads that are nice to look at in the day, but become frightening at night.  I always take this route to avoid the traffic that comes from going the more conventional way, and there’s usually no one on the road at eleven at night, when I’m typically heading home after closing at work.

I was just about to the border of the city where my folks live when a car passed on the opposite side of the road.  I dimmed my brights (I really don’t want to be THAT driver who blinds oncoming traffic).  Before I had the chance to turn them back on, a truck-sized spare tire appeared in the path of my vehicle.  I do mean “appeared” – it was completely dark against the blacktop.  In the six seconds or so that followed, I was presented with the choice of slamming on the breaks at forty miles an hour, making a go at swerving around it, or running over it.  In a quick thinking process that I can only dissect after the fact, I knew that the first two choices were likely to leave not only my car damaged, but leave me more seriously injured.  I gripped the steering wheel, prayed for God to deliver my car back to the road, and drove over it.  I made it home in spite of the obvious poor condition of my car – it was leaking oil and most of the bottom of the vehicle was hanging down onto the road.

Since this happened, I’ve been told numerous horror stories about people who did this and did not emerge unscathed.  My car mechanic had a customer once who ran over a tire and was thrown into a telephone pole.  Another person told me about a guy he knew whose car flipped over entirely.  Therefore, when my mechanic told me this afternoon that my car was damaged beyond the point of being worth repairing, I wasn’t too broken up.  A car is a car.  It can be replaced, in spite of the frustration this usually entails, but I’m extremely lucky that I walked away from this.  It’s me over my car any day.  In the end, the situation’s been resolved – I am buying my grandfather’s old car from my mom, and while it wouldn’t be my first choice, I prayed for the Lord to provide me with a car, and He has.  Without a car, there’s no way I’d be able to drive to see the people who mean the most to me, or go to church, or be able to run menial errands, let alone get to work.  I’m willing to be content driving a car I don’t especially like in order to have those things.  Material things have never meant that much to me, and living for three and a half years on a minimum wage budget has taught me what little use I have for possessions.  Aside from basic needs, I need to be able to commune with the Lord, write, and be with the people I love.  Beyond that, it just all seems stupid to want anything else.

But I’m not going to lie.  The loss of my car has left me full of misty eyed nostalgia the likes of which you can only get from a Neil Young song.  It was my first car, and I now understand the sadness my friends have felt over the last several years, as their own first vehicles have given out.  There’s something about the connection you have with your first car that I think sets the bar for every one you’ll own after that – it just won’t be the same.  For me, it’s that my history with my red 2000 Toyota Echo goes further back than just being That Car.

Even though my parents got it the year I turned sixteen, I did not get my driver’s license until I was twenty one.  I was a broken soul when I was in high school, with untreated depression and anxiety, who let a wolf pack of bullies and mean girls take my empty shell and fill it up with their negative and insecure perceptions of me.  There was no way I was capable of driving at that point, and I knew this.  Still, the car meant something to me from the day we got it, like I somehow knew that when I reached that crucial step, it would take me there.  I remember it was July, and I was taking health class in summer school because the thought of an entire semester of STD and drug use prevention and sex ed really just made me sick.  Class was over, and I was standing on the curb in front of the high school waiting for my dad to come pick me up.  Our old minivan had recently bit it and getting a new car was imminent – the question was just which one it would be.  Then, I saw what would be my car come driving down toward the school and make the turn into the parking lot – my dad was driving and Diamond Rio’s “How Your Love Makes Me Feel” was blasting out the window.  I was in love with that song that summer, and what strikes me as odd about that moment is that my dad absolutely hated it.  And yet, he chose to play it the day he showed up and surprised me with our new car after class.  It was like on some level, that connection between the car and I started from the first minute, like he knew someday, I’d be driving it myself.

There’s a whole list of things I’ll always remember about that car.  Driving to Georgia with my mom the summer she and my dad had a fight and he went to work for an art supply company down south, listening to Nanci Griffith’s Flyer album, which contained a song called “Traveling Back to Georgia” that was so beautiful it made me ache.  Riding in the passenger seat the day I graduated high school, the red satin cap itching on my head.  Watching the orange cones dance in my side view mirrors as I took my maneuverability test in the parking lot of an abandoned strip mall.  My senior year of college, when it became “my car,” and I made the three hour drive to school all by myself for the first time, blasting the B-52’s greatest hits out the window.

That car has been through more in the four years I’ve owned it than in its entire life.  It got me through West Virginia, and that in itself is a miracle – a little tiny car somehow limping up those hills, the icy driveway of my old apartment building.  The back is completely covered in the white scars from old bumper stickers.  Given that I spend a lot of time driving now, I couldn’t have expected it to last much longer.  Really, that guy who left the tire in the road did me a favor – it was going to happen eventually.  Better now in a way that left me untouched that in a way that could have been much more dangerous.

Farewell, my car.  As Neil Young would say, “maybe the Beach Boys have got you now.”

Kori and the Great Genre Switch

A couple of nights ago, something amazing happened: I finished my first piece of writing that is actually pretty good since I got my MFA.  Again – I know NaNoWriMo was a feat of strength, but in the end, that’s pretty much all it was.  I’m sure that novel will help me when I decide to take on a new project, but I call it more of an experiment than something that has potential.  As I mentioned in my last blog, there’s a lot I feel I need to deal with in terms of the changes I went through last year and especially my relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, things that I believe have stood in the way of my being able to create something with potential and that I have a drive to finish.  I’ve had an idea for about a month or so now, and I even wrote a few pages just to try it out and see how it would feel.  It felt natural to me – but I still didn’t feel ready.

About a week ago, a friend from graduate school suggested that I pull what I like to refer to as The Great Genre Switch.  In the past, it’s been a way to redirect my thinking away from the kinds of things I typically write and allow my creative reset button to get pushed.  During my second year at WVU, I took a poetry workshop, and the change in form from short stories to poems caused me to see fiction differently, to have a fine tuned ear for voice, language, brevity, and rhythm.  In fact, even though I was in the fiction concentration of the program, it was one of the most valuable classes I took.  When my friend told me that I should try writing in a different genre as a way of stopping my block and despair about not writing, I remembered how helpful this was in school, and decided to take that advice to heart in writing my testimony essay I described in my last post.

I haven’t written an essay in over two years.  For me, nonfiction is way, way harder than writing fiction, because somehow, writing about myself directly makes me feel uncomfortable.  And really, it makes me kind of bored.  I’d rather just make stuff up and channel my experiences into the story.  Somehow, though, it came naturally to me this time, and I found the words coming in a way that felt honest and unrestrained, but still in control, unlike NaNo, which was pretty much just every word for itself.  And this was the transformative part – I found myself being honest with myself in this piece in a way that I never have in my nonfiction before.  I admitted things to myself about my relationship with Christ and my troubled background with religion that were difficult to put on paper, but were liberating to see looking back at me, as if some weight I’d been unable to recognize or reach was let out.  I find that my best writing happens when I feel a connection with what I’m trying to say on a mental and physical level – I can feel my fingers moving on the keys, but am taken somewhere else in my mind, where the story is happening, or the connections I’m making with my experiences being to link together.  The minute I start thinking about what I’m saying, the more insincere it becomes.

But the best part of writing this essay was the realization that no matter how discouraged I’ve felt about my writing recently, regardless of whether I’ve had anything to say or I’ve written 150 pages of complete crap, I’ve still got it.  I was afraid that the process I’d learned about in graduate school – of writing, rewriting, and rewriting some more, and even the creative minutiae of writing itself – was gone, that the rote tasks of bookstore operation had drained it out of me rather than fueling it.  I was wrong.  The process of writing, for me, was like riding a bike.  For the time I was writing and rereading that essay, I could have been in my old apartment in West Virginia or at the Starbucks across from the health sciences campus where I wrote much of my thesis.  Even though I’ve gone through so much since grad school that I feel much like a completely different person, I feel like writing this essay has helped me reconnect with Kori of the WVU days, that she’s reminded me that what I learned in my MFA program will never go away; in fact, my daily encounters with new things strengthens it.

So it’s been decided.  I’m going to continue revising this essay, but I’ve also started reading The Art and Craft of Christian Fiction by Jeff Gerke.  I want to give this a go, and I think I’m ready to do it now.  I know about writing literary fiction – and I want to find a way to glorify God within it.  The Lord reminded me this week that He began a good work in me when He gave me this give – and when He begins something, He finishes it.  It’s time to move forward.  Stay tuned.

Rejection letters, patience, and letting God lead

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions because they imply a reliance on the self – as I addressed briefly in my last blog, I believe that the only Person we can rely on is God.  One thing I’ve learned this year is that whenever I try to intervene in a situation that’s troubling me and do it on my own, things inevitably become disastrous.  We’re people of imperfect flesh, and to lean to our own understanding is to discount God’s promise to direct our paths.  I’ve spent my whole life being such a control freak that this has been a hard concept for me to grasp, particularly because I’ve gotten in the bad habit of letting my emotions run away with me.  I’m a writer, and my job is to make up stories.  Often, though, I create anxiety when I spin such elaborate “what-if” tales that they begin to seem like a very real possibility.  This is just a very long way of saying that I don’t believe in “resolving” to do things.  My only resolution is ongoing and not renewed at the beginning of the year – I resolve to let the Lord write out His own plan and follow it.

Does this mean that I’m successful at this?  No way.  I’ve gotten better at controlling my reactions to situations, but I’ll never master it.  The old sin nature is still there.  I know God has something in mind for me, and that it’s even better than the aspirations I’ve held for myself as a writer.  But I still can’t let go of some things that I want creatively, and when I think about them, I find myself growing impatient.

Probably the biggest thing is that I haven’t had any prose accepted for publication in almost a year.  The last time was in late January of last year, when I found out Shenandoah would be publishing “Enduring Chills.”  I’m not complaining.  To be featured in my favorite of the country’s prestigious literary journals with a slew of writers I really admire – and in an issue devoted to Flannery O’Connor, my favorite writer, to boot – is probably the greatest honor I’ve experienced in regard to my writing.  To get a mention in a review of the issue on NewPages.com was also incredible.  But rejection letters bother me now in a way they haven’t before.  It seemed okay to get those slips of paper back in my self addressed envelope when I was in graduate school, surrounded by my peers, who were having the same thing happen to them on a daily basis.  We commiserated in our offices and read the rudest of the letters aloud to each other.  Each of us had a unique story about being slighted by various journals.  One of my colleagues had a piece accepted at StoryQuarterly, only to be told less than twelve hours later that they had made a mistake and wouldn’t be publishing her piece after all.  We all rallied around the thread on her Facebook page, throwing metaphorical stones and vowing never to submit our work there (Sidenote: If you’re into New Year’s resolutions, that might be a good one.  Don’t submit to StoryQuarterly.  You might get burned).

The point is that now that I’m not surrounded by writers anymore, rejection doesn’t seem like something that’s quite as routine and normal as it was.  As prideful as it might sound, I’m dying to get something accepted again.  And I’m not proud that the reasons are all really self centered – I want my thesis stories validated, I want validation of my own that I’ve still got it.  None of this is one iota as important as being validated by God, and once again, I know that I’m being pushed toward something that is going to be great – and whether it involves publication or not isn’t up to me, and shouldn’t be.  God has His own timeline, and all I need to do is let Him work it out.  Like I said – the more I keep my focus on myself, the less likely good things are to happen.  In fact, nothing good will happen.

In closing, I had someone ask me recently “what’s up with all this Jesus stuff?” and add “I don’t know what your thing is.”  You might even wonder, based on my last few entries, why I keep bringing up spiritual issues on a forum that is supposed to be writing related.   Here’s the deal – we all have a way as writers that we make sense of the world.  Trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ with everything – including and especially the creative gift He’s given me – is the only way things make sense for me, especially during this period I described in my last blog, where I’m trying to figure out how all the pieces of my life since graduation fit together.  As I mentioned, this blog is about my experiences as a writer in a nontraditional working environment post-MFA – and all of this is part of that experience.  Christian or not, all creative folks deal with issues of patience and worries about whether or not anything we do has meaning for others.  My experience is that I’m letting Him get me over these hurdles.  Once I get a new project started, things are going to change tremendously.  But it’s going to be the project that is right for me at this particular time.  As for publications – that’s out of my hands as well.  The same rules as in grad school apply – keep submitting, keep sending stuff out the same day the rejection slips come in.  Nothing has changed, even though it feels like it has.  I’m still a writer.  My biggest question now is what that means in the context of where I am now.

On Faith and having nothing to say

It’s been awhile since I’ve blogged.  It isn’t lack of time, and it isn’t blogger’s block.  It’s just that I haven’t had anything to say.  Now I do.

It’s Christmas, and I have a lot to be thankful for.  I have a job.  I have a place to live.  I have friends and family who love me, and health insurance, and a dog.  There are a lot of people right now who don’t even have one of those things.  What this whole year has done is put a lot of stuff in perspective.  I lost two very close family members and my sixteen year old dog.  I got my master’s degree and faced three months of anxiety, worrying about where I would go now that I’m finished with my education.  I had a major publication – and nothing at all for months.  And then, I got a job, started attending a church where I’ve made a whole new family of friends, and felt my life changed spiritually on a level it hasn’t reached since I first came to know Christ four years ago, after dealing with a very difficult illness.  Suddenly, everything I’ve experienced seems vital and important, and tremendous gifts.

There’s one thing I’ve struggled with, though, and that is my writing.  Some people warned me that the first year after your MFA is really hard – after pushing yourself creatively for three years, you suddenly find yourself forced to do it on your own in the midst of reacclimating yourself to the real world (Yes, I said “real world.”  There is no profession more honorable than to take on the task of educating college students, or receiving advanced degrees.  But it is a world unto itself, as I’ve learned after three months of being separate from it).  I was also warned that I probably wouldn’t do a lot of writing, and NaNoWriMo set aside, these people were right.  In the midst of my recent studies of Christian doctrine and scripture, I’ve tried to consider exactly why it is that I’m not writing.  It isn’t that I don’t still have the drive to do it, or that I feel it isn’t important.  It’s of extreme importance to me, both because it’s what I love and because it’s a talent God’s given me to use for a greater purpose.  I reached a conclusion about this situation the other day while talking to a friend: it’s because I haven’t taken the time to process graduate school.

I went directly from graduation to moving back to my parents’ house, where I hadn’t lived since I was eighteen.  My summer was consumed with applying to jobs and caring for my dog in the last months of her life, as well as raising Flannery.  Then I actually got a job and spent three months transitioning into a world that is very different from the one I’ve previously inhabited, and admittedly struggling with it.  In the midst of all this, I attempted to keep up the same rigorous reading and writing routine that marked grad school for me – I spent every moment when I wasn’t working outlining my NaNo novel in September and October, and then actually writing it.  And in the end, it just didn’t work.  It was a mess of emotional vomit.  I know that’s the goal of NaNo, and I understand that the first draft is always awful.  But I’m not feeling that project anymore.  It just isn’t the book I’m supposed to write.  At least not now.

My point is that I’ve spent the last six months bouncing back and forth from one place to another and not really letting myself settle down.  Settling down is something I’ve never been good at – I drove myself hard in college and even harder getting my MFA, and one thing that’s challenged me about my current job is that it doesn’t require that kind of constant brain power to the point of utter collapse.  I feel like what I need to do now that the bookstore is gradually becoming a routine thing is put any serious writing on hiatus.  I need to consider where I am as an artist and the kind of writer I would like to be, then let God make me into the kind of writer He wants me to be.  I need to work out my spirituality and commit to Bible study, which has consumed my mind and emotions over the past few months.  And then, Lord willing, there will come a day when I will wake up and know exactly what project I’m supposed to take on.  But in the meantime, I need to rest, both physically and spiritually.  I plan on writing a spiritual autobiography chronicling both my testimony and what I believe as taken from scripture and scholars whose work I’ve studied.  I don’t know if anyone will ever read it, or if I’ll even desire for anyone to read it.  But it’s something that I need to do, and I don’t believe I’ll produce any work of significance until I’ve processed all of this.

That said, the tone and subject matter of this blog may seem to change both slightly and drastically – but I offer that it’s actually quite the same.  This project is supposed to be a chronicle of my experiences as an aspiring educated writer adjusted to a nonacademic life – and these are true issues that any writer who chooses this life over teaching will face.  I trust the Lord to put me in the place where I need to be because I know I can’t figure this out on my own, and if I try, I’ll fail.  Proverbs 3:5-6 tells us to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not to your own understanding.”  Likewise, Paul’s letter to the Philippians offers us hope and a reason to not go it alone: that “He who has begun a good work in you” will finish it and not abandon us.

God will finish my work as a writer.  In the meantime, I’ll keep on, and keep on blogging.  What will I write about as I go through this investigative process?  You’ll just have to wait and find out.  So will I.