01 December 2013

Follow the Logic

Recently I was rewriting a scene for my manuscript and I seemed to hit a wall. I wrote the whole thing; it seemed well and good on the surface, but something was off. I tried again the next day, wrote a new version. It wasn’t until the third attempt that I finally caught the scent of the story and was able to follow it properly.

There are two things that usually happen when I write a scene and it just doesn’t feel right. My favorite one is where I sleep on it, read through it the next day and the night’s sleep seems to have simmered it into something better and more flavorful than I had originally thought. The scene does work. And I move on.

The other one is where I give it a night’s sleep and the thing doesn’t budge. The scene is just as intractable as it was before. Second night’s sleep. Same thing. The scene is a problem. And it’s hard to tell why.

If the dialogue is doing all the very hard work you’ve asked of it, the prose is something you’re proud of, the action is tense and intriguing, how can the scene still not be working?

The dreaded answer: follow the logic. Somewhere (hopefully not too far back, but maybe it goes all the way to the first two words of the scene) something was forced. Somewhere, I made a character do something that was probably what they would not do, or something happened that almost certainly wouldn’t. I made a character say something that sprung neither from their nature nor from the context, simply so I could have the other character respond in a way I thought was clever or powerful.

Or I made a brutally exhausted character stay awake just to have a conversation I thought was interesting, but certainly they were much too tired for [note: this is the exact example as a result of which I am writing this post]. Or I forced someone to trust someone else much too quickly, just so that I could keep the plot moving.

This is some of the most exhausting work because I can literally stare at the text for hours (or go walking for hours), scarcely putting a single word down, trying to figure out what this person really would say and whether they really would get that angry that easily.

If a scene just isn’t working, there’s a 90% chance that somewhere, somehow, I dropped the logic/reality of the story and characters in favor of something I liked or wanted, but makes no sense. It doesn’t matter if everything that follows the error makes sense, the trajectory is mislaid. Even if I only knocked the story out of place by one degree, it’s one degree too much; the longer I keep trying to go down that path, the farther away from the real objective I’ll be.

It will look like progress on the surface, but it won’t be.

So that’s writing. But it’s also everything else. C.S. Lewis (sorry I can’t help myself, he’s my favorite!) summarizes this issue perfectly:

“Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer.
If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”

I think we often wonder how we or others can go so astonishingly awry. How does someone become corrupt? How does someone with a great talent utterly lose the divine spark? How does a person find oneself in a place they never thought they would go?

By a degree. Or a decimal point. A half-turn.

That sounds brutal and daunting. But it’s also factual. As factual in life and writing as it is by a compass, mathematics, or a road.

The thing is, we can trace back to the last marker of truth and logic and start again. We just have to be willing to do so.

13 November 2013

Red Days

So I haven’t blogged in quite a while; I finished my degree in December, and moved across a few states in May, did a few freelance jobs, and have been trying to put as much elbow grease into my writing project as humanly possible.

I think I may not be as disciplined as I once was when it comes to writing—or perhaps I never was. The mental disciplines are sometimes so much harder than the physical disciplines, for all that that seems illogical on the surface. It is very difficult to drag myself out of the door on a cold day and make myself go on a run, or to make myself run faster than feels comfortable.

But it can be just as (weirdly) daunting to drag myself by the scruff of my neck and do the little things: call the dentist (my husband all but had to force me to do this at gunpoint), organize household things, and—per my current work—sit down at the computer and try to cause good, quality words to appear on the screen. Then make them better. Then find out the whole thing needs to be scrapped, and try again.

On a broader scale, I have been struggling, trying to navigate what I should be doing job-wise. Every time I even think about going forward with something, conflict and confusion arises.

So I think I may be having a rather long red day(s).

Have you ever seen a red day? Red days are intriguing to behold and deeply unpleasant to actually be in. Here is a picture of a red day in Iraq:


There is no fiddling with the color there---I have approximately zero skill with a camera—if anything, this does not do the redness justice. Truthfully, I always found red days fascinating despite everything.

The ground is dry. Everything is dry. The wind stirs up the dust until it fills the air. At first the air is just thick and dusty and unpleasant. But the dust gets stirred higher and it has a pinkish hue to it so the sky looks very red. The further the sun sinks throughout the day, the redder the sky becomes. Not great for long-range visibility, or for activity; you get the dust in your nose, mouth, eyes, pockets, blankets, food...everything.

Getting anything done (outside) on a red day is obviously not pleasant. I think it would be very easy to get lost if you were on unknown ground, and you get buckets of dust in your lungs just trying to go anywhere.

But red days don’t last forever. When they end, it’s amazing how suddenly clear and calm everything is. You find that the dust has found its way everywhere, even indoors. You shake the dust off of your sleeping bag, your pillow, and your clothes and you go do what you need to do.

So maybe the thing here is to be patient. I have to keep working on the red days, but it’s not easy, and I won’t always be able to see very far ahead. So be it. I do hope the dust settles soon, but I don't want to lose hope just because the air is thick and red just now. If I can be intrigued by the real live red days, maybe I can learn to be intrigued by this. There's mystery in it, and perseverance, and even great anticipation, if I can figure that part out.

09 April 2013

Archtype or Ectype: How to Tell a Counterfeit

I’ve always had an internal debate regarding how much junk I can stand to hang around before I stop being able to differentiate the good stuff from the bad. And is it ever worth it? How much soggy literature do you read before you lose the temperament that aspires to the higher, harder, richer material. How much junk food can you eat before it’s all you crave? How many lies can you read before you start to mix them up with the truth? It’s all good and well to say “I just read that book for a lark” or “I just wanted to nosh” or “I was just doing research”…and all that may be true. But will it eventually effect you?

Well I suppose that depends on the nature of the encounter.

My constitution, at any rate, is not as strong and solid as I would like it to be and that makes me vulnerable to counterfeits. Most of us are. But we don’t have to be.

I was recently made aware of a practical fact that—as it would turn out—is often used as an illustration for spiritual instruction: that counterfeit money detectors are trained by touching and handling and looking at real money.  tests include counterfeits, yes, but the actual lesson focuses on the real thing. The illustration is designed to show that Christians should focus on the real material—scripture, prayer, sermons—rather than spend our time drinking in misinformation from secular sources.

I did some brief research and found that this illustration is indeed based on fact. Counterfeit detection is not a literary compare and contrast paper, it is a matter of detecting deviations from a known, memorized, and highly particular standard.

I have seen this illustration criticized as a way of getting Christians to hide in a cave and never interact with anything they disagree with, or anything which challenges their faith. Since there are many Christians who do this (retreat into “Christian cul-de-sacs” and fear all outside contact) I can see the concern. But I don’t think that is what the illustration really points to. Because that would certainly not be a life of faith.

This criticism ignores the fact that, no matter your starting point, if you lose sight of the original that you know is correct, you aren’t going to remember what it looks like and you aren’t going to know anything anymore. C.S. Lewis said that, as a Christian, he often had moods wherein Christianity seemed improbable. But then again, when he was an atheist, he often had moods in which Christianity seemed very probable. “The rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway,” he states. And if you don’t want to remain a “creature dithering to and fro” you have to keep your heading. To do that, you have to remember where you are coming from, where you are going, and why. If you lose track of either of these, you are going to get utterly lost…or in the matter of counterfeits, utterly swindled.

So. If a person’s job is to detect counterfeits they are no doubt going to encounter counterfeits ALL THE TIME. Not only that, but the greater one’s expertise, the likelier one is to encounter some very, very good counterfeits wherein the legitimate features are mixed in so-nearly-perfectly with the illegitimate that it would be easy to be confused. How to keep from being fooled?

By keeping eyes on the real stuff all the while. Calibrate to the original. All the time. Every day. And by not feeding on a diet of the fakes, because those are going to show up frequently regardless.

The only reason to fear encountering the fakes is if we are uncertain what the original looks like. If you find yourself confused about the original when dealing with a copy, that is when you have put yourself in danger. From experience I know that ending up in that situation is not, as some would have it, the business of learning and growing. It is decidedly the opposite. It is the business of unlearning all functional points of reference. It means real and fake cease to have meaning, nothing can be distinguished between them, and no choices can be made regarding them.

The spiritual application of all this is rather clear, but is no easier for that. It is one of the hardest things of all. It is discernment, and—above all—it is faith.

“That is why daily prayer and religious reading and churchgoing are necessary parts of the Christian life. We have to be continually reminded of what we believe. Neither this belief nor any other will automatically remain alive in the mind. It must be fed.” (Mere Christianity)

It isn’t a matter of what you encounter along the way. It’s a matter of what our meals are made of. What are we feeding ourselves?

The counterfeit detector does not have a conniption fit when he encounters false currency—be it cleverly copied, or just monopoly money—he sets about seeing if it lines up with what he knows to be correct in all its details. What he certainly shouldn’t do is try to use the counterfeit to measure the original, nor should he ever try and make purchases with the counterfeit to see if it will “work.” It’s his job to expose the counterfeit…not to try and feed himself or his family with it.

18 March 2013

Land, Land, Land

I am from Oklahoma. I love that state for reasons I don’t even understand. I may never live there again, but it’s mine-all-mine and I’m exceedingly proud the be from there. From a very young age I have taken ‘the local’ very seriously. As a child and teenager (and to this day) I scoured history and pop culture for Oklahoma references so that I could wave them like flags in other peoples’ faces.

Gymnast Shannon Miller! Runner Jim Thorpe! Actor Wes Studi (A true Oklahoman; Cherokee was his first language)! The Musical! That one tornado movie! Will Rogers!

Just the other day I discovered that a food blogger I greatly enjoy lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma and I said to myself: “Figures! Of course I like her cooking and her blogging. She lives in Oklahoma.” There’s no real logic to it; I just felt far more deeply justified in my appreciation of her skills. I felt a bizarre kinship to her just because of that fact (that and she cooks hearty, rich food, like I do).

This being the case, I have always loved regional histories. Just as with pop culture and food bloggers, I love to wade through historical events to discover proof that the places I love are worthy of the affection I already harbor for them. Places are meant to bear the weight and marks of their history. They are meant to give us, as C.S. Lewis puts it, “the pang of the particular”….that “local, unique sting.”

There are only a few places where the sting got to me, and I haven’t lived in those places for some time now. I have lived in places that have good qualities, interesting features, and reasonably interesting (if short) histories. But the land didn’t reach into me and influence me the way the others did. I miss that. There is nothing wrong with appreciating all locations, but I do not want to lose the ‘pang of the particular’ to nice generalities. I do not want to become the other being who:

“Cannot understand
Love that mortal bears
For native, native land—
All lands are theirs”

I think we are being culturally untaught love of native land. It is too often confused with jingoism or ethnocentrism for some, and seems meaningless or useless to others ‘in this global age.’ But I cannot see how homogeneity is any kind of improvement on the past. If you cannot conjure a love for that which was given to you first, how genuine will your affection for any new place be? It is like the old adage (or maybe it was just an adage in my family…my mom said it all the time): if you can’t love your siblings, get along with them, and treat them with honor, how long can you expect to be good and loving to any outsider? How you are at home is how you will (eventually) be elsewhere.

The other day I was asked: “But why is it that you love Iraq?” (one on my short list of land-loves)
I could scarcely explain, and I was repeating myself: the history, the Tigris, the Euphrates, the history, the people, the culture, Baghdad, the history! Its story can get into the blood against your will. It's not always a pretty story, mind you, but that is beside the point. Some of the best, deepest loved lands have some of the hardest, saddest histories (I’ve mentioned before that Iraq is often called the “Land of Three Rivers”…the third being of blood or tears).

It is not without meaning that God addresses both the people and the land all throughout the Bible. The land can be cultivated and loved…or it can become defiled (Leviticus 18:25). God desires it restored:

“O land, land, land, hear the word of the Lord!” (Jeremiah 22:9)

'In this global age' we may not understand very well. The world has been made to seem very small to us, the people and their lands increasingly interchangeable…our differences from one another, mere curiosities to cause a brief jolt of interest. But the land and the people have historically been intertwined and they mutually influence each other in unique fashion. People often carry their native land in them wherever they go, whether they notice it or not (whether they want to or not). Likewise the land bears its history and its people. It’s not everything, of course. But it’s not nothing either. We would do well to remember it.

23 January 2013

Room for Doubt and Rule of Fear

A closed mind is a sign of hidden doubt.”
-Harold DeWolf

Doubt is an important subject to me, as I so often struggle with it. What I learned from my Mom from a young age was that I shouldn’t fear it, but explore it wisely. Well here is one attempt to do so:


It seems as though the phrase “close-minded” is more widely applied to those who are religious than those who are not. The stereotype, if not the fact, is that a person of faith clings to their doctrines without examining or analyzing them, and the secularists or humanists are open to all options. I do think this happens sometimes, but I think that the opposite can often be true, and either version of close-mindedness (secular or religious) can be deeply obstructive to truth’s riverways.

There is a current cultural claim of being open-minded that is decidedly not. The post-modern young secularist has decided what the world is—it is what they want and feel—and anyone who challenges that will be promptly labeled “close-minded’ and dismissed. I find this sad and ironic.

It would seem—again, via stereotype—that people are more accustomed to the very notion of religious close-mindedness than secular, post-modern, or humanistic close-mindedness. Religious close-mindedness is an easier sell in our culture. Religion offers very certain instruction on morals, beliefs and behaviors and does not allow a great deal of room to maneuver away from those things. Most forms of secularism, per current perception, allow morals, beliefs and behaviors to be more malleable. Redefinition and relativism replace constancy and conviction.

I think that many religious people also buy into this notion, and can sometimes be nervous about having their convictions pinned down by someone secular, for fear of being called close-minded. Of course, the difference between living close-minded and living with conviction is vast, but that is another matter, albeit one not sufficiently explored.

What genuinely concerns me are not those creeds which openly admit that they are fixed, but rather those that champion, and claim to be, one thing—open-minded or tolerant—while, in fact, being something else entirely. The source for this concern does not arise solely from my desire to defend a life of deep conviction—though I do so---but from a chance encounter with a certain literary discussion:


Room for Doubt, or Not:

I love reading reviews for Young Adult (YA) Literature novels. The YA author and reader community is vibrant, interactive, and extremely internet savvy. They offer some interesting analyses of the works themselves, but also provide perspective on the young adult literary zeitgeist.

You can get more information than you ever needed, and I find the debates over various Young Adult novel controversies very telling. Often the debates seem more interesting than the works themselves, although that may simply be the fact that I am inherently drawn to controversy, and NOT terribly interested in reading novel after novel of paranormal dystopian love triangles.

For example, one debate surrounded a sixteen-year-old female character that chose a “friends-with-benefits” scenario with her love interest, versus getting married or any form of commitment. Did that make her feminist and independent, or did that make her fearful, selfish and unfeeling towards said love interest? Gender and sexuality debates are some of the most common controversies in the YA community. It would appear that this has much to do with the visibly high quantity of female authors, readers, and reviewers in this community.

Which brings me to a review of a book called “The Knife of Never Letting Go.” I should state right up front that I have not read this book, nor is this post ABOUT this book. It was about a small controversy which stemmed from it, and about how that debate was conducted, and what troubles me therein.



In the book review and the discussion it spawned, one reviewer was offended by the fact that, in the novel, there is a certain germ or disease that affects the minds and bodies of males in a decidedly different way than it affects the minds and bodies of females. This reviewer took this to mean that the author asserts there to be something essentially, or “qualitatively” different between men and women. The reviewer was appalled at this claim. Debate ensues.

Well fairly soon, another commenter chimed in with the very viable argument that there are some inherent “biological/physiological/biochemical” differences, and the author was not being sexist to build upon that in his novel. This argument was not well received, and most of the other commenters continued to insist that this notion that men and women are somehow different by nature is archaic and will throw us back to the Stone Age or some such.

The following comment boggled my mind and represents the death of any real debate:

“a lot of time merely implying that there exists room for doubt about something is too great a compromise”

I don’t want to be brutally unfair, but the moment my eyes came across that sentence I copied and pasted it because I could scarcely believe it was said. Neither the removal nor the addition of context does the sentence any favors. The blatant claim here is that the mere implication of any room for doubt is an unacceptable compromise. Apply this logic across almost any debate and you run into serious trouble. Ultimately, in this particular discussion (link provided here), the Implication is that there are essential differences between men and women, particularly physiological differences, the Room For Doubt is the possibility that those differences are in any way essential or immutable, and the Too Great A Compromise would be allowing this idea to be given a seat at any debate table ever.

I understand why the commenter feels this way…he fears the confines of “gender essentialism” and how women have been ill-treated and restricted by it. But fear is the key word in that sentence. No matter how good your argument, nor how valid your concern, deciding not to acknowledge and explore doubt is generally a fear-driven decision. And this is coming from someone (me!) who believes that doubt can be deeply foolish, deeply wrong, and can kill you if mishandled.

So why do I conclude that exploration of doubt is necessary and that this rather secular, open-minded, tolerance-advocating commenter is giving poor advice despite their good intentions? Because, as a person of faith, if I tried to dismiss every doubt about God that frightened me or challenged my understanding of the world, that would be implying that the truths I know, proclaim, and try to live by aren’t strong enough to stand up against the doubts. And since I believe they ARE strong enough, I HAVE to face those doubts without fear. I can’t say it is always easy, but I can say that it is important and I hold a deep conviction that I must strive to do this.

“Faith keeps many doubts in her pay. If I could not doubt, I should not believe”
-Henry David Thoreau


The controversy regarding faith stems largely from the idea that it is blind…that the entire merit of faith is the very lack of evidence. If that is the case, doubt would be an understandable and frequent occurrence.

But I don’t think that’s the whole picture of faith. I referred to the siren metaphor once before on this blog because the tale of the sirens speaks to the importance of tying yourself to a conviction based on evidence—on genuine knowing—despite how the current sense, circumstance, or temptation tries to demolish that conviction. The knowing came first. Faith is the thing that keeps you from forgetting what you knew, when everything and everyone around you would have you do so.

As in C.S. Lewis’ “The Silver Chair,” faith is remembering that there is a sun when you haven’t seen it in a long time, and everyone else is telling you it never existed, that it is a product of your imagination, that it is mere wish-fulfillment. But you basked in it before, and, if nothing else, your remember that in your very blood-stream.


The trouble with fear-based analysis is that it’s “see no evil” in its worst sense; it’s failing to face the chinks, the failures, the confusions. Ultimately it’s failing to learn and grow. And faith is meant to grow.

Again, one thinks of the phrase “blind faith”, but I think that is something of a misnomer. Faith is not recklessly blind; it believes in what it knows but cannot see. There’s a difference. Doubt will occur…the difference is the manner in which the doubt is handled. Fearlessly, or fearfully? Moored or unmoored?


Advance or Withdrawal

A good pastor once said that when one experiences doubt, don’t ignore it. Take it up and bring it to God, not away from him. He stated that when we withdraw from Him—“to get perspective” we claim—we are not able to truly get free of other influences and prejudices. There is no such thing as neutral ground. To imagine that as possible is to make a great mistake. Nature abhors a vacuum, does it not?

The illustration he gave was of how we sometimes come to doubt the nature of a friend that we rarely see, until we get together with them. Then we are reminded of their qualities and our confidence in them is reestablished. Withdrawal from a person is not the way to prove our theories about them, whether positive or negative…we go to the subject of the theories and dive in. Then we discover if we are right or wrong. Never by withdrawal.

This applies to all fields of study: the field develops (be it physics, medicine, or the social sciences) when someone approaches the conventional wisdom with a doubt or a suspicion. If they are wrong, the exploration of their doubt will strengthen that which is correct already. If they are right, something wrong, insubstantial, or misapplied will fall away (i.e. those thing which are “but rules taught by men”). One can see this happening when Jesus challenged the Pharisees. The core of truth remained. It was only the religious frippery that was sloughed off.


Giving up the Rule of Fear

Returning to the debate regarding “room for doubt” and the issue of gender essentialism, one begins to see what happens when room for doubt is not allowed in debate. Truth is neglected on behalf of conventional wisdom. The truth here is that there are basic biological differences between men and women which influence certain parts of life, including physical capabilities, bodily functions, and (occasionally) actual behavior.

The prevailing post-modern conventional wisdom is that what you want and how you feel about what you are trumps all of that…or, more extreme still, that all of it is a product of “social construction.” Ironically, the voice of someone advocating a concrete, provable, scientific view is drowned out by the voices of those reacting emotionally, fearing the consequences of any hint of gender essentialism, even if that hint is borne by fact.

Doubt is hard, and can be very uncomfortable. But ought it not to be taken hold of and made into something useful? The difference between acknowledging or examining doubt, and succumbing to it is the difference between hearing someone out—really listening to what they have to say and considering it—and simply being batted back and forth by every single argument you encounter. The only reason to fear doubt is if you expect the latter to happen to you…which it needn’t. It all depends on where you take it.