Sunday, March 31, 2019

Writing as an Act of Worship

Writing can mean many things to many different people.

For me, writing is a means of expression—as an introvert, I struggle to voice my opinions aloud and often leave things unsaid in conversations. Writing is a means of discovering what I believe. A lot of times, I’ll have opinions about something, but once I write about it, I’ll come to a better and clearer understanding of what I think about a topic.

Writing, for me, is also a means of worship.

What exactly do I mean by saying “writing is an act of worship”? Worship doesn’t just mean singing a hymn or a contemporary praise song on a Sunday morning. Webster’s American Dictionary defines the act of worship (verb) as “To adore; to pay divine honors to; to reverence with supreme respect and veneration.”

In other words, my writing is a way of giving back to God. Writing is my way of imitating Jesus, who is described as “the author and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:2, NASB), and God the Father, who is often described as the “Creator” (Ecclesiastes 12: 1, Psalm 33:1, et al.).

On the other hand, I don’t mean that every story I write is intended to be preachy. As a chaplain’s kid, I grew up hearing plenty of sermons. I know what they sound like, but I’m not here to write them. I believe they have their place in the world, just not in stories, at least not in the sense that the story itself becomes a grand metaphor for how to live your life. Writing stories so that they’re super preachy can not only isolate a large portion of one’s audience, but it can also mean the writer is inserting their own meaning where it doesn’t necessarily belong.

Admittedly, it’s really hard to write a story—or even a blog post—without being preachy. Maybe one day I’ll get it down right.

Disclaimer: I realize that not all readers share my belief system. This post is not an attempt to bash you over the head with a brick or a copy of Les Mis. Rather, I will be talking about my beliefs as a Christian and how they influence my writing. I will mention some Scripture passages as a means of reference for those interested. This post will be rather unlike my usual ones. It’s part-confession, part-rant, and part-desire.


One summer, I participated as a volunteer for our local Vacation Bible School (VBS), a week-long day summer camp for kids. It’s kinda like Sunday school but with more food, games, and music. During one of the morning lessons, the speaker talked about the story where Jesus meets the woman at the well (see John 4).

In this story, Jesus (a Jew) is speaking with a woman (a Samaritan). In those days, Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate because of cultural and religious reasons any more than men associated with women who weren’t in their family. They talked about the promised Savior, and Jesus told her facts about herself that He couldn’t have naturally known, like how she had five husbands before. Their conversation helped solidify her belief in Him as the Savior, the Messiah.

The takeaway for the kids at VBS, however, was that Jesus loves you even when you feel alone. There was no mention of cultural differences, which the kids could grasp as we were Americans living in in Germany. There was no mention of the woman having had five husbands (who picked this passage anyway?), even though I’m certain a lot of the kids had parents who had been divorced and remarried. I could go on, but I’ll stop there.

While I realize you can only fit so much into a lesson fit for kids ages five to twelve, I don’t believe in watering down Scripture either. I’m not saying VBS is a bad program; I support the education it provides for kids and the respite for their parents. But we can do better.

To treat the Bible like a G-rated book is to do a great disservice and encourage censorship. Historical tours in Europe talk about death and the plague and beheadings (not that I’m saying they should, just that they do). In London, I’ve seen parents take their kids to see plays like Julius Caesar and Les Miserables—plays with lots of death, mind you—because of the cultural experience.

In many ways, fiction gives writers the opportunity to talk about tough topics. I’d like to see more Christian writers tackle tough issues through fiction rather than nonfiction. In his essay “Christian Apologetics”, C. S. Lewis wrote something similar:

“We can make people (often) attend to the Christian point of view for half an hour or so; but the moment they have gone away from our lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted. […] What we [Christians] want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects — with their Christianity latent.”

Like Lewis, when I write stories, they are not overtly Christian fiction, at least not in the sense that my story is part-narrative, part-devotional. I prefer the more subtle approach with good themes and realistic, well-developed characters.


When I write a story, I don’t believe in watering down truths so they sound nice and safe. Stories aren’t safe—they bite. While the most blood a physical book may draw might just be a papercut, books tend to impact readers on an intellectual and/or emotional level. For example, I wanted to throw March, Book 3 up against the wall because of the way it portrayed the horrific ways people treat each other. A Monster Calls made me ugly cry—I don’t usually cry while reading, but that day I was already having a bad bout of depression (I don’t recommend reading books you know will make you suffer more, by the way). While nonfiction tends to connect with the head, fiction connects with the heart.

As a Christian, I’ve written a fantasy series with multiculturalism and refugees. I’ve written a contemporary novel featuring mental health struggles and con artists. I’d like to write more stories that don’t shy away from topics like sex (believe it or not, I’m not against it; but that is a lengthy topic for another time), or I’d like to write stories that address gender stereotyping (my dad’s the emotional one, and my mom’s the logical one; I like to call them Kirk and Spock).

Now you might be wondering: That’s all good, but what do subtle themes and blatant truths have to do with writing as a way of giving back to God? What does it have to do with worship?

I may not be a pastor, but storytelling is a part of my ministry, the way I connect with people. Many of my stories contain themes that reflect my beliefs about God and people. The act of writing itself, for me, is also a sort of meditation, a way for me examine myself and the world. Writing is one of the ways I like to honor God.

Similarly, every morning—or afternoon depending on my shift—when I bike to work, I pray. I know that sounds super spiritual, but if I’m completely honest, I’m not very good at it. I’ll be halfway through praying for my family, friends, and co-workers, and I’ll get distracted by crossing the street or the sound of traffic or birdsong. It’s not that I have a short attention span either—I can focus on one project for hours on end and get in the zone—but I struggle talking with God.

Every time I write a story, I wish I could say every piece of writing is dedicated to God. But sometimes I get caught up in the story or the blog post. I get distracted by myself. Every day, I’m learning to readjust my focus. Every day, I’m learning that this world isn’t about me. As I learn what my writing is really for, I remember the words that one of my MBA professors used to quote—

“Three bricklayers are asked: ‘What are you doing?’ The first says, ‘I am laying bricks.’ The second says, ‘I am building a church.’ And the third says, ‘I am building the house of God.’ The first bricklayer has a job. The second has a career. The third has a calling.”
—Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Even when I don’t know what kind of day job I want next or even where I want to live, I know that I am called to write. I am meant to create stories as a way of thanking my God. I am called to worship.


***

Let’s chat! What does writing mean to you? What does your calling look like? How much truth goes into your stories, and what are some ways you write without being preachy?


Literary references: American Dictionary of the English Language (First edition reprint, 1828); the Holy Bible; Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables; William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; C. S. Lewis’ God in the Dock; John Lewis’ March, Book 3; Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls; and Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Let's Agree to Disagree: Reader vs. Author Opinion


Opinions run rampant in the publishing industry. Authors and readers alike come with plenty of bias. Some readers like classics and others don’t. Writers like their own stories and have favorites among them. All in all, it’s terribly hard to find objective reviews. How are we to know which opinion to trust?

Sometimes it takes practice. Often it takes trial and error. It took me years to learn that just because I have a different opinion from somebody else does not make them a bad reviewer or me a bad reader. It just makes us different. Then I had to find reviewers who shared similar tastes as I do, and even then, we don’t always agree.

Here are just a few popular books and how they may differ from readers to authors. This post is not intended to be a negative one. Rather, I will be looking at several books with the public’s opinion and the author’s opinion and comparing which I lean toward.


The Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle


“If in 100 years I am only known as the man who invented Sherlock Holmes then I will have considered my life a failure.” —Doyle

As much as readers love Sherlock Holmes, his author hated him. It’s been 131 years (132 in November, 2019) since the first novel, A Study in Scarlet was published, and Sherlock Holmes fans are still as avid and crazy as ever. That’s me. Hello. *waves* If you think Sherlock fans are fanatic today, just consider that in Doyle’s day, readers protested Holmes’ death so much that they forced the author to bring him back.

I’m pretty sure most people today aren’t familiar with Doyle’s other works, like The Lost World and The White Company. I tried reading the latter, but didn’t make it past the first chapter.

I’m so sorry, Doyle.


Call of the Wild and White Fang by Jack London


“Jack wrote to his publishers that he had decided to compose a ‘complete antithesis and companion book [to Call of the Wild; i.e. White Fang].’ He stated in his letter, ‘I’m going to reverse the process. Instead of a devolution or decivilization of a dog, I’m going to give the evolution, the civilization of a dog-development of domesticity, faithfulness, love, morality, and all the amenities and virtues.’” —from The Best of Jack London, Introduction

When I was a kid, I used to enjoy listening to the audio book for White Fang. I liked the juxtaposition of the savagery of nature and humankind and the beauty and grace that lies in both. It wasn’t until I was in college that I read Call of the Wild, though I certainly heard a lot more about it than I ever did White Fang. Truth be told, I was disappointed with the story. I can’t even remember that much of the plot. My sister was the same way. Actually, she’s a little obsessed with White Fang, so I bought her a Litographs poster.

Even London actually preferred White Fang, which focuses more on a wolf-dog learning to trust a man than a dog learning to be wary of humankind. In this case, I agree with the author and will continue to enjoy White Fang despite popular opinion preferring Call of the Wild.


Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained by John Milton


Of the two novel-length poems, Milton preferred Paradise Regained, and yet it’s Paradise Lost, the predecessor, that we hear about a lot. With running the risk of I saying that I prefer the story of the fall of mankind more than their redemption, I’m going to say that I liked Paradise Lost better than Paradise Regained. For one, the imagery in the former is spectacular while I found it to be nearly nonexistent in the latter.

That and I’m not sure why Milton’s choice of the narrative for Paradise Regained is centered around Jesus’ temptation rather than his death and resurrection. Sure, I can see the parallels between Paradise Lost where Satan tempts Eve and Adam and Paradise Regained where he later tempts Jesus, but I don’t see how this particular point in the biblical narrative is the redemptive point for mankind.

These are just a few of the places where authors and readers differ. I’m sure there are plenty more, but I have selected a few of my favorites. I’m sure readers and writers will continue to disagree throughout the future, but like I said, reading is subjective.

Let’s chat! What are your thoughts on the books listed? What are some classics that you side with the author when it comes to opinion? How about the readers?

*** 


Literary references: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes collection, Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang, and John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Guest Bloggers Wanted


This year, I’m taking an extended blogging hiatus to walk El Camino, a 35-day pilgrimage across Spain. So I’m planning some buffer time before and after the trip so I won’t have to stress about keeping up with my blog. Not that I don’t like blogging—I do! I just don’t want to promise a post when I don’t have time to write or when I may be without internet access.

Speaking of travel, I will not be posting next Sunday (March 17th) either.

During the buffer time for my extended trip this spring, I’d like to host some more guest bloggers. Without further ado, please welcome the theme for April’s and May’s guest writers:



Books about a journey.


Whether it’s a dwarfish quest to reclaim their homeland from a dragon or a road trip to meet up with family, tell me about your favorite books with a journey. Fantasy or contemporary, fiction or nonfiction, all are welcome!

Travel writing.


What does it mean to live out of a suitcase? What do you refer to as home when you’ve moved your whole live? What is the difference between being a tourist and a local? How do you share seemingly exotic or ordinary places with people who’ve never been? Whether you’ve travelled your whole life or never left your own country but are an expert on the local haunts, tell me about your experience and your tips for travel writing.

Other.


The topics listed are mere prompts. If you have an idea for a post that doesn’t quite fit these categories, feel free to pitch your idea. I’m open to suggestions.

Are you interested in writing a guest post? Feel free to get in touch! Contact me by commenting on this post, sending me a message on Twitter, or by filling out the following form:


Sunday, March 3, 2019

Poem: Romantic (Video)

If you haven’t already guessed—from the globe of London in my cover photo to my poems and posts about various places—I like to travel. There are many things, though, that they don’t tell you about in all the pretty little brochures. Culture shock. Jet lag. The disillusionment of place. Just to name a few.

I’m not saying that people shouldn’t travel. I’m just saying that every time I go someplace new, it’s never quite what I expect, in good ways and bad. I didn’t expect Germany to have so many immigrants. I didn’t expect Italy to look so dumpy. Then again, I didn’t expect to enjoy visiting the German bakeries every morning any more than I expected to start drinking cappuccinos in Italy.

Travel changes people. It teaches us about the world and our own cultures and selves. Despite Italy’s run-down nature, it is one of the most recycle-enthusiast countries I’ve visited. Because Germans’ often stoic behavior and brutally-honest words, I have learned to appreciate honesty even more.

The following poem contains just a few of my thoughts on Venice. You may recognize glimpses of the city in a previous poem, “Shadows”.



Romantic

People romanticize the canals
and arching bridges of Venice,
but have you ever gotten yourself lost
in the sticky, humid heat
down an alley that stinks of urine?

Don’t get me wrong,
I enjoy the way I stumbled
across a bookstore with volume
after volume laid out in rows
within a bathtub, within a boat
for when the city floods.

I relished watching the glassblower
tug at the liquid fire and mold it
and pull until he set a little red horse, solid,
on the table.

But try finding a place to park
outside the city inside a garage
where your car is no longer a car
but a sardine packed among sardines.

I would rather take the train
and not have to worry about driving
with these maniacs who don’t signal—
I would rather be told to stand
at the wrong platform—
then rush back
down the tunnel, up to the right platform
and board a train with cracked windows
and humid air. Pounding hearts. Less stress.

Is it worth it all?
Taking the time to travel
to walk the trash-lined streets,
sail under the Bridge of Sighs
taste the bread topped with olive oil and rosemary
smell the salt of the Mediterranean,
feel the cool water lap at my feet
as we escaped the throngs of people and pigeons.

The towers are crooked here,
but even in leaning, there are blue skies.

***

Let’s chat! What are your thoughts on travel? What’s the last journey you took? What did you think of the poem?