Monday, April 30, 2012

Building a Life Out of Words

You’re in your early 30s. You have four children. You have a small painting contracting business that is not a wild success but it’s doing fine and paying the bills. And then the economy of 2008 arrives. In a flash of time, the business is gone, leaving behind a pile of debt. Faced with the inability of being unable to afford your home, you leave Virginia for your boyhood home in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to live with your family in the basement of your parent’s home.

Words come to mind. Scary, Humbling, Self-image. Guilt. Shame. And faithfulness. Out of these words and others you will build a life, a new life. You will embark upon a journey of building a life out of words.

This is the story Shawn Smucker tells in Building a Life Out of Words. It is a kind of memoir, yes, but it also a status report of a work in progress, for this story has not ended in literary and financial success. It hasn’t ended at all, because to live a life of words is to live a life of faith.

It’s faith to continue writing when even your friends believe words are cheap – and you’re asking for too much money to write, to edit, to rewrite.

It’s faith when a potential client balks at your proposal, convinced they can do it themselves (and the rarely can, and rarely do).

It’s faith when you have an income that’s month to month, or even week to week. Or there’s $12 left in the checking account.

Yet things happen, people return a call, projects arrive, creativity comes.

Smucker tells his story, amplifying his words with short stories by others – Ed Cyzewski, Jeff Goins, Bryan Allain, Kristin Tennant and five other writers. All of them have lived a version of Smucker’s story, and all have something important to say about the writing life.

What the reader somes to understand is that Smucker’s experience is common to all writers, and perhaps even more common to writers of faith. Some of us have day jobs; some of us have spouses who provide for the main part or of the family income (and medical benefits).

Building a Life Out of Words proves the value of ebooks. Few if any traditional publishers would consider a book like this – the memoir genre is flooded and the number of memoir manuscripts floating around agents and publishers is staggering. But this is a book whose sentiments and understanding need to be in the hands of anyone who has wrestled with words, struggled with a writing career, or considered the possibility of a writing career. And anyone who has struggled with doubt about what they’re doing.

It’s a story of faith and it’s a story that’s not finished.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Parable of the Right and the Left

The right, she asks,
and the left, she asks,
a question engendering
a question. Can you, he
asks, can you drink
this cup, he asks.
Of course, of course, of course
we can. Sadness of the ages
crowds his eyes, and
something else. You will,
he says, you will drink
this cup, he says.
On the hill that day
I looked to his left, I looked
to his right, understanding
only then what we had asked,
knowing only then what
cup he drank for us.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Saturday Good Reads

A meditation on prayer. A poem about mail order brides. The collision of two worlds. A poem about cowboys – or a cowboy – like I never read before. John Cleese reads The Screwtape Letters. And Wendell Berry with a marvelous lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities. So much good stuff.


Pay the Writer: What do you think?” by Kathy Richards at Katdish.

Tebow” by A.G. Harmon for Image Journal.

In hall bathroom” and “Reflection on Scratch Paper” by Harriett Gillham at The Other Side of the Mountain.

Lost and found” by Billy Coffey at What I Learned Today.

Letting go, I become that which I hold onto” by Louise Gallagher at Recover Your Joy.

8 Core Beliefs of Extraordinary Bosses” by Geoffrey James for Inc. Magazine. (Hat tip: Jim Schmotzer)

Two Worlds Collide” by Jeff Jordan at To My Children If They Are Listening.

The Work of Prayer” by Daniel Donovich at The Itinerant D.

Why Storytellers Lie” by Maura Kelly for The Atlantic (Hat tip: Billy Coffey)

It All Turns on Affection,” 2012 Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities by Wendell Berry.


Who do you love,” “Sky” and “Day” by Nancy Rosback at A Little Somethin’.

Yun Tongju” by D.S. Martin at Kingdom Poets.

I Was Thinking” by Jim Schmotzer at Faithful Skeptic.

Mail order brides from the coffee shop” by Brian Miller at WayStationOne.

What Light Fell and Burned After” by Maureen Doallas at Writing Without Paper.

Ars Poetica” by Chris Yokel.

Two Wings Align” by B.K. McKenzie at Signed…BKM.

Cowboys Flirt, Mouth-First” by Darlene at Simply Darlene.

Paintings and Photographs

Aspiring to Altitude: A Door Opens” and “Aspiring to Altitude: or Fear of Landing” by J of India at Neither Use Nor Ornament.

Housekeeping 101” by Susan Etole at Just…A Moment.

Silvery Checkerspot” by Tim Good at Good Photography.

Over the Sea,” watercolor by Randall David Tipton at A Painter’s Process.


John Cleese reading ‘The Screwtape Letters,’” via Justin Taylor at Between Two Worlds.

Bourne Vivaldi” by The Piano Guys (featured above).

Friday, April 27, 2012

Pleasantly Disturbed Friday

It’s been awhile since I had a pleasantly disturbed Friday, although I’ve had a number of disturbed Fridays without the pleasantly.

Yes, that is my grandson Cameron in the photo above, taken by his grandmother on Wednesday in a small park behind the city hall of the little suburb where we live. They had had lunch, discovered a fountain, and then wandered over to the park. He wasn’t too sure about what was going on, until he saw the slide. And then he knew. He also discovered the swing.

Cameron has a little brother due at any moment now, but if he holds off today, I’ll be having lunch with Cameron and my daughter-in-law. If he doesn’t, I may be having lunch just with Cameron.

We’re on the verge of having two of these characters. It’s wonderful.

I’ve been reading the Collected Poems of R.S. Thomas 1945-1990. Thomas was an Anglican priest whose parish was in Wales. He was also a prolific poet, and if I’m reading him correctly, he really didn’t think too highly of his parishioners at the beginning. But the poems do change and soften.

Coming up on the “finished reading/books to review” list are Tripp York’s The Devil Wears Nada (I love the title) and You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake: Poems by Anna Moschovakis (I like that title, too). Coming up on the “to read” list are Travis Thrasher’s novel Temptation, Dale Cramer’s novel The Captive Heart, Shawn Smucker’s Building a Life Out of Words, Joel Jacobson’s Water the Mud and C.S. Lakin’s The Unraveling of Wentwater.

Last Saturday, I met a gardening consultant at the local plant nursery, and burned through some plastic. We got plants for the back garden, which is shady; plant for the east garden, which is sunny and shady, and plants for the west garden, which gets the noon sun with a couple of hours on either side. She picked out some cool stuff. I picked out things that looked cool but which we mostly didn’t buy.

We’ve been watching the flowers in the front of our house with some sense of awe. Last fall, we had winter non-hardy pansies planted about a small maple tree. The winter was extraordinarily mild, and the non-hardy pansies survived and have been doing quite well, thank you. It’s been a strange spring overall – an unusually warm March when everything bloomed early, roses in April instead of May, a lot of the bulbs coming up on schedule but confusing everybody.

I got another bike ride in on Wednesday night – my third this year. I’m riding my hybrid instead of the road bike – you lean forward less on a hybrid – but the therapist has said I can start easing into the road bike when I’m ready. I have to smile to think that 20 miles on the bike used to be a typical first half or first third of my ride; and then I remember last August, when the only comfortable position for my back was flat on the floor, and the pain was excruciating. Yeah, I’m not where I used to be, but I am vastly better than I was last summer.

I’ve talked about my writing on other posts, and there’s nothing new to add. I did have a young colleague from another team at work come into my office yesterday and say he’d finished reading Dancing Priest, and that he thoroughly enjoyed it. He asked all kinds of questions about how long it took to write, about the characters, about the sequel – he was truly interested. For some reason, it always surprises me when people show this kind of interest.

Of course, I’m always glad to talk about it.

Photograph: Cameron Young by his grandmother, Janet Young, April 25, 2012.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Act of Creation

I’ve been working on a novella inspired by a YouTube video inspired by a symphony inspired by Romanticism. I’ve shared the title with only one person – the photographer whom I’ve asked to find a photo that might work for the cover. (If it’s published, it will be in ebook format only, but a cover is still needed.)

The draft is its current form is 11,500 words, on its way to about 20,000 words. The story is about two people – a kind of improbable love story – but it’s also about art and music and creativity. Two of the backdrops are art museums – one I know well and one I know only through the internet. Two of the backdrops are symphony halls – neither of which I know personally but it’s amazing what you can learn on the internet.

And the main settings – two urban areas – I know. I’ve walked the streets. I understand the “smells.” I’ve sensed what the people are like as they go rushing by. I’ve looked at the lunchtime food shops and the cracks in the sidewalks. I’ve seen buildings dirty from automobile exhaust and the ones that have been cleaned. I had lunch in the hotels and restaurants.

When I had those experiences, I never considered them as elements of a story. But that’s what they became, and all that was required was a YouTube video to serve as the catalyst. I wasn’t even thinking of a novella when I first watched it – I was focused on editing and rewriting the sequel to my novel Dancing Priest.

But I saw the video, and was taken with the expression on one’s person face, a face I placed in a particular geography. And all the pieces, or most of them, began to fall into place.

How does this happen?

And why does this happen?

The human imagination is a marvelous thing. While we often lament how derivative everything seems to be (my wife wore clothes in the 1960s and early 1970s similar to what is being sold today), the fact is that the human mind is – can be – a wildly imaginative “device.” We can pull an enormous number of things together – events, histories, ideas, feelings – and swirl them around until they become something new. For some of us, they come spilling out as stories, poems and articles, or as paintings or sculptures, or as music.

Or even a novella.

If we indeed made in God’s image, and I believe we are, then we can’t help but be creative and wildly imaginative. A God who created the ostrich, or a porcupine, must have one wild and wacky sense or humor. A God who created mountains and clouds must think like a painter. A God who created songbirds must  be a symphony conductor. A God who created humans with emotions must be a novelist, too.

And in His image, we strive to do the same, even if we always fall short. Even if we don’t believe in God, we are still made in His image, and we can’t help but imagine ourselves as creator (little “c”), doers of the creative act. Even when our art or writing is considered blasphemous, we are still creating in His image – because it is “blasphemous” for a reason.

We write. We paint. We conduct and play. We create.

Sometimes I’m amazed at the wonder of it all.

Photograph: Graffiti by Michael Drummond via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Learning from Little Things

I’m strolling through a local plant nursery with a gardening expert. We’re working on a kind of makeover of the gardens at our house. At one point she smiles and says, “This is like a candy store for you.” And it is. I’m struck with wonder at this small slice of the diversity that is God’s creation.

I get an email from someone who’s read Dancing Priest and loaned it to a relative. The relative read it and said, “For the first time, I understand what you’ve been talking about when you talk about faith.” An executive at work stops me in the hallway and tells me his 14-year-old son read it and loved it.

Our grandson squeals with delight when he sees our car pull into the driveway.

I read about the Secret Service scandal with Colombian prostitutes, and I grieve for what’s happening to the character of our country.

I hear that Charles Colson died, and I feel thankful for his incredible wxample of redemption and God’s grace. And then I read that Franky Schaeffer, the son of Francis Schaeffer, uses Colson’s death as an occasion to attack both Colson and evangelicals. He actually wrote two blog posts but took the first one down, because it didn’t go far enough.

I’m sitting in a discussion group, and I hear people speaking who sound like my father, my son and myself. I begin to understand what the discussion group is about.

I read about growing hostility to Christians around the globe – China, Russia, Sudan, Egypt, Nigeria, the United States – and I think “they will hate you because they hate me.”

I see the move “October Baby,” and I marvel that Samuel Goldwyn would help produce it.

Little things, really, Little ways. Little means God uses to speak to us.

In Kisses from Katie: A Story of Relentless Love and Redemption, Katie Davis speaks of the little ways through which God touches her life – a comment as a gas station, a children’s fight, hearing of the murder of a child she doesn’t know, hearing the voice of one of her adopted children and knowing it’s one of hers, getting a van to help transports food and children. Each way is both an encouragement and something new to learn.

In what little way have you experienced God’s love and teaching?

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading Kisses from Katie. To see more posts on this chapter, “A Different Kind of Education,” please visit Jason’s site, Connecting to Impact.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Why Publish?

My head’s swirling. I’m editing, rewriting, drafting, doing other projects, maintaining a rather hectic if not torrid pace when I’m suddenly stopped cold by a question.

Why do I want to publish?

I have one novel published. A second one is being edited.


It’s not as if the first one has been so wildly successful that I can live off the royalties. So why am I doing this again, when this second one has turned out to be more of a wrestling match than I expected.

Is it because I feel called by God to do this? Actually, no. I’ve talked before about “being called” to be a writer, and I’ve never heard that call. My call is the call of every Christian – to know God, and to honor and serve God in all I do. That includes my family, my friends, my job, mu church, people who don’t particularly like me, how I deal with rudeness and trials and setbacks and successes. That includes writing, too, and publishing a second novel. But I’ve ever felt “called” to publish.

Is it personal pride or vanity? I think the answer to that question is also no. Publishing a book is to travel to the land of disappointments, unmet expectations, surprises, uplifting encouragement and depressing discouragement. The world is not going to beat a path to my door. I’m not going to get oohed and aahed over at writers’ conferences. No, publishing a book isn’t about pride or vanity. If that is even a part of it, you’re going to be brought down to reality pretty quickly.

The fact is, I knew all of this going into it. I had seen enough of others’ experiences to know what to expect. It’s a trial for first-time novelists, but even well established ones find themselves with a large, well known and respected publisher who overlooks marketing (except for a press release), or editors suddenly changing and the latest manuscript of no interest to the new editor, or the publicity firm dropping the ball, or a million other things.

So unless your name is Karen Kinsgbury or Max Lucado or Billy Graham or Stephen King or John Grisham, you can’t take anything for granted (and I suspect even those authors can’t take anything for granted).

So why do I want to publish?

The reason is simple. I have a story to tell, a story that’s been part of my life for a decade or more, and it was and is time to push it out and let others see it.

In Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity and Writing, L.L. Barkat has some good advice about publishing:

Learn if you’re really ready to tackle the story you want to write. Sometimes you need to calculate the cost, and I’m not speaking of the financial cost but the emotional and even spiritual cost. The story you have to tell may still be too raw, too “unborn.”

Write for small audiences first.

Learn how to connect (or network) and how to hold back  or “not network” – there are ways to “not network”).

Understanding the economics of publishing – what a publisher has to risk and what you have to risk if you self-publish.

I followed some of this advice. But for what advice I didn’t follow, I knew I wasn’t following it. And I knew why.

I still went forward.

Over at TweetSpeak Poetry, Lyla Lindquist is leading a discussion on L.L. Barkat’s Rumors of Water. This week, we’re covering the six (short) chapters on publishing. The links for other posts will be live on Wednesday.

Monday, April 23, 2012

A Movie and a Talk

On Friday, my wife and I watched the 2010 movie “Sarah’s Key,” starring Kristin Scott Thomas and based on the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay. The movie is two stories that become one story – an American journalist (played by Thomas) named Julia Jarmond living in Paris with her French husband and teenaged child, and a young girl caught up in the Vel d’Hiv – the roundup of more than 13,000 Jewish men, women and children in 1942 Paris for eventual transport to Auschwitz.

The name “Vel d’Hiv” is taken from the name of the bicycling velodrome where the 13,000 people were brought – with no sanitation and no food.

The journalist is doing a story on the event, but the story takes a turn for the personal. The apartment in the Marais where her in-laws lived for more than 60 years, where her husband was raised, and which she and her husband are remodeling prior to moving into – belonged to a Jewish family who disappeared in the Vel d’Hiv.

The journalist is drawn into the story of this family, and what her in-laws did and didn’t know. Then she discovers she is pregnant. She’s been told she couldn’t have more children. She’s thrilled – but her husband isn’t. He doesn’t want his life to be disrupted, and he doesn’t want to be “an older father.” He wants his wife to abort the baby.

The movie is about many things, but it asks the question, can one live without hope? Can one escape from internment and certain death only to find a more difficult prison to escape from – the prison of memory and guilt and the prison of one’s own mind? The character of Sarah will answer the question one way; the character of Julia Jarmond will answer it another way.

That was our Friday night. On Saturday, we attended a talk by Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias, He is a marvelous speaker and possesses a marvelous intellect. He talked about his latest book, Why Jesus: Rediscovering His Truth in An Age of Mass-Marketed Spirituality, and a lot of other things as well. And he said this:

“The most empirically identifiable fact, and the most intellectually resisted fact, is the depravity of man.”

The scenes from the movie kept running through my mind as I listened. I suspect the movie, as good as it was, ultimately can’t truly convey the horror of what those 13,000 people experienced, and the six million other Jews, and the five million Poles, Russians, resistance fighters, homosexuals and others who died in the Nazi death camps.

We want to believe we are all basically good, that it’s culture or society or something else that causes us to do bad things. Most people don’t rob or kill or hurt or maim, right? We know that if something like the Holocaust confronted us, we would stand up for people, right?

Or would we close our eyes, shut our doors, pull down our curtains and hope they don’t come for us? Or help the authorities round up the Jews, like so many Parisians did? Or separate the fathers from their families, and then the mothers from their children, and send them off on separate trains to the east?

Twenty years ago, a vice president at the People for the American Way suggested that fundamentalist Christians needed to be exterminated. She was criticized for her words, but not much criticized.

Peter Singer, a professor of something called “applied ethics” at Princeton University, criticizes the pro-abortion position by saying they’re attacking the wrong premise – that life begins at conception. The premise to attack, he says, is that it’s wrong to kill an innocent human being, because these kinds of decisions should be based upon a “utilitarian calculation” that compares the preferences of a woman against the preferences of a fetus.

And how exactly does the fetus express its preferences?

The problem is not society or culture. And it’s not “the devil made me do it.” The problem is within us.

Zacharaias also said this: “Maybe we should stop asking if Jesus died on the cross and instead ask why he died on the cross.”

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Listening to Ravi Zacharias

Last night, my wife and I heard Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias speak at one of the local churches in St. Louis. Our own church, Central Presbyterian Church, was the host, but our church sanctuary is too small to accommodate the crowds that would come to hear Zacharias.

And come they did.

We first heard him speak on a radio program some 14 or 15 years ago. We were returning home from a family vacation at Gulf Shores, Alabama, and my wife was trying to find a radio station somewhere in rural Mississippi. She finally found one, and we listened to an incredible program, by a man with a wonderful speaking voice and an intellect to match. We had never heard of him before, but now we have, many times.

Here are a few of the notes I took last night:

“The hostility of atheists to Christianity is nothing more than hate and venom masquerading as intellectual thought.”

“Truth is that which conforms to reality as it really is. Truth, by definition, excludes. Truth is exclusionary.”

“Sin is never rational. Sin is never common-sensical. The human heart is desperately wicked.”

“God still uses us in spite of ourselves.”

I’ll have more on what he said tomorrow.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Saturday Good Reads

An argument with a mother, some advice for a father, a man remembers playing baseball with his father, a poetic response (or introduction) to a summer blockbuster action movie, a photograph aspiring to altitude, and did you ever wonder what makes old books smell like…old books?


He Took a Bullet for Me” by Doug Spurling for Kingdom Bloggers.

The Persistence of Beauty: The Dearest Freshness Deep Down Things” by Anita Mathias at Dreaming Beneath the Spires.

The Mob” by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative.

The Showdown” by Billy Coffey at What I Learned Today.

In the Moment of Where I Am” and “Let me do in Love” by Louise Gallagher at Recover Your Joy.

Plea/Bargain” by Daniel Donovich at The Itinerant D.

Because she’s my mother” by Duane Scott at Scribing the Journey.

Fathers should not Trouble the land” by Jay Cookingham at Soulfari.

Infinity, Plus One” by Amanda Hill at Hill + Pen.

The Robe Upon My Back” by Seth Haines for Deeper Story.

Wise in Our Brokenness” by Jason Vana.

It’s Not Easy Being Green” by Greg Sullivan at Sippican Cottage.


Reflections on a Ballerina” by Jerry Barrett at Gerald the Writer.

Cloud’s Lining” by Robbie Pruitt at Poetry by Robbie Pruitt.

Petrarch” by D.S. Martin at Kingdom Poets.

Purgatory” by B.K. Mckenzie at Signed…BKM.

Code-Breaking” by Maureen Doallas at Writing Without Paper.

As we walk” by Brian Miller at WayStationOne.

"Don't Listen" by Laurie Kolp at Laurie Kolp Poetry.

"Circular" by Chris Galford at The Waking Den.

"Summer Blockbuster" by Brendan MacOdrum at Oran's Well.

Paintings and Photographs

Aspiring to Altitude: Almost There” by J of India at Neither Use Nor Ornament.

This Old House” by Susan Etole at Just…A Moment.

A Gift in Time” by Davis Rosback at A Little Somethin’.

Skies” by Timothy Good at Photography by Tiwago.

Trout Pond in Spring” by Steve Gravano at Take a Look Around.


Why Do Old Books Smell?” by Richard at Abe Books.

Photograph: Green Hotel by Vera Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Friday, April 20, 2012

It's All Changing

I’m working on a presentation about social media (my full-time job) (except for the other stuff that’s not social media), and I deliberately carved out some time to think about the impact it’s having on the work that I’ve been associated with for more than 35 years.

You have to carve out the time – block out the calendar and close the office door, or find a space if you occupy a cubicle – to think. Social media has a tendency to make you do that – forcibly block out the time to think, that is.

The first indication I had of the personally transformative impact of social media happened three years. I was giving a speech in New York – and the editor of a trade publication was livetweeting my speech. The people back at the office – and those in the room with access – were following what I said and how I answered questions. Fortunately, everything went well.

That doesn’t happen all the time when a speech is livetweeted. There are plenty of stories of what happened when an executive’s speech was livetweeted – and people in the audience started following the tweets – and people inside and outside the room started fact-checking – and all of it was being tweeted and retweeted. The people in the room began to talk among themselves, and the speech (and the speaker) ended up trashed.

This is the world of social media. Remember Toyota’s problem with reports of brakes failing? It started as a single tweet on Twitter. It ended months later in a government exoneration – but Toyota went through a smashed quality reputation for a considerable period of time.

At work we’ve learned that Twitter and Facebook function like headline news alerts. We see information faster on Twitter than you can get via Google news alerts. Beyond just alerts, social media collectively is replacing traditional journalism as news sources. A business journalist writing for CNBC recently pointed out that his main sources of information have dramatically shifted – today, he relies upon StockTwits.

First lesson: With social media and the ease of using the various channels, everyone has become a journalist. Traditional journalism has been in decline for years. It’s not dead, and it won’t die anytime soon, but its power and influence are much reduced from 30 and 40 years ago.

Related to that is the second lesson: Expertise counts for less than it once did; influence is what matters now. If people trust you as a source, they will believe most if not all of what you say and likely retweet it on Twitter and share it or like it on Facebook. And who needs experts anyway if you can find everything you need online?

This is especially frustrating for people with expertise. People with PhDs in one of the sciences, say biochemistry, are shocked to learn that what they say will usually count less than an actress or a popular book author. Our culture’s fixation with celebrity has contributed to this. The inability of a lot of experts to speak in understandable language is also a factor. Plus experts are usually (and rightfully) cautious; they know what all the studies and tests and evidence say and how far they can go with that; people on social media have no compunction about proclaiming something – no matter how ridiculous – as true.

These changes suggest a third lesson – social media inevitably cause conflict within an organization. Employees have access to more information than ever, including bad news. Traditional communication departments struggle to deal with what looks like the Wild West, a free-for-all and total chaos. Many executives deliberately choose not to involve themselves in Twitter and Facebook, and so don’t understand what it’s about, how to deal with it, and how to resource it.

A fourth lesson: you can’t not participate, even if it’s only to watch and monitor, learn and understand. Many public relations people will tell you that you can’t properly do any communications job today without being at least involved in and have an understanding of social media. And no matter what kind of work we do, if we’re working for an organization, we’re communicators, no matter what the work at hand is.

And someone out there is tweeting the kind of work you do, posting it on Facebook, creating a short video for YouTube, blogging about it, adding photos to Pinterest and Flickr, creating a new App for your phone and a new iBook for your iPad. (If you want a good example of how an entire industry can be transformed in a fairly short period of time, look at the publishing industry.)

It’s all changing. Yes, it’s wild. But participation is no longer an option.