Friday, November 30, 2012

Donald Hall’s “Christmas at Eagle Pond”

One of the best memories I have is of visiting my paternal grandmother in Shreveport, La. I called her Gram; everybody called her Gram except my father and his three sisters. To them she was “Mom.” Sixty-two when I was born, she lived in a two-bedroom frame house built by my grandfather with some help from my father. To visit her on my own, as I did from the time I was 7 or 8 until I was 14, was to experience the magic of a loving grandmother. My grandfather had died when I was nine months old, but his memory was part of the magic.

Donald Hall is a former poet laureate of the United States, recipient of all kinds of literary awards, and author of 16 books of poetry and 15 prose works. He had a Gram, too, and she lived with his grandfather in his favorite place in the world, a farm called Eagle Pond in rural New Hampshire. It’s where Hall himself, now 84, lives today. In Eagle Pond, published in 2007, Hall reflects on the farm, on change, on his family and on the nature of place.

The one thing Hall never did was to spend Christmas with his grandparents. And so he’s written himself a fictional memory that could easily be non-fictional. And he’s called it Christmas at Eagle Pond, and included beautifully simple illustrations by Mary Azarian.

It’s December, 1940. War is raging in Europe; even in rural New Hampshire they know London is undergoing a daily bombing blitz. Donnie, a 12-year-old boy and only child, is traveling to spend Christmas with his grandparents at their farm in New Hampshire. His mother is recuperating in the hospital from surgery (they did that back then), and Christmas is going to be spare and lonely if he stays in Connecticut. So he’s traveling by train to Boston, and then on to Gale, the closest station to Eagle Pond Farm.

Written is a simple, declarative style, the story is a very straightforward account of four days at Christmastime. Events unfold in a straight narrative fashion, one sentence after another. We are seeing Christmas celebrated in a way of life that was vanishing even then, with roads being paved, indoor plumbing being installed, and the old sleigh resting unused in the barn.

Donnie is a serious boy. He reads. He reads poetry and listens closely as his grandfather recites it from memory. He absorbs the stories about local characters and family members. He watches and notes everything, and little escapes his gaze. And he adores his grandparents; there is no place he’d rather be than Eagle Pond.

There is no mystery or tension in Christmas at Eagle Pond. But then, there shouldn’t be. This is a memory, or what would have been a memory had it actually happened. And it did happen, in imagination and desire if not in time. This is the story of four days spent by a boy with his beloved grandparents, at a farm called Eagle Pond.

Memories don’t get better than this. I know.


My post on Hall’s Eagle Pond.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Story of “A Light Shining” – Part 2

So I had a contract for what became A Light Shining from the publisher, but I hadn’t signed it. The manuscript was in the hands of both a reader and the editor. Early reactions seemed positive.

Then the reports came back.

Suggestions for wholesale cuts.

Too much focus in the first section on “the warehouse kids.”

Too much focus in the second section on, well, just about everything in the second section.

The suspense ended too far from the end of the manuscript.

The whole last section could be cut.

I set the whole thing aside. That I hadn’t signed the contract I saw as a good thing, because if I accepted the suggestions, what would be left was a longish novella.

For the next two months, I came to accept the fact that A Light Shining wasn’t going to be published. I was discouraged, tense, irritable and upset.

The one thing that stayed in my head was the suggestion by the editor for a new character, to help carry the suspense through to the end of the story. In August, I wrote a new first chapter, and posted it on this blog – essentially to test the reaction. The responses suggested I was on to something, although a few people said they were rather “creeped out.” Which I took as a good thing – that was the whole intent.

It was at that point that I signed the publisher’s contract.

So the new character was born. I started thinking about how to integrate him into the story. We went to London on vacation, and the manuscript (and my laptop) came with me. Getting away proved to be the best thing I could have done. I did spend some time working on the story in London, but not a lot. I spent more time reading the existing manuscript, deciding what to cut and what to add, and where to place my new character. I didn’t give him a name, because I wanted to come up with exactly the right one.

We returned from London, and the rewriting began in earnest. It was intense, and it happened within the space of a month. I slashed whole sections of the existing manuscript. I rewrote. I integrated. I rewrote what I had rewritten.

And then it was done. The new character still had no name. I fretted over it for a few days, and then realized he didn’t need one. In fact, the story worked better with my character remaining nameless. He had emerged as the major antagonist in the story – an antagonist that Michael and Sarah Kent-Hughes don’t even know exists until it’s too late.

The manuscript was finished. I sent it to the publisher, who accepted it, making only minor changes.

It’s a different book from the first manuscript. But it’s a better book.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Finding Rest – in Meekness?

At dinner the other night, my wife and I were discussing the changes that will likely be coming from Congress and our federal government on taxes and a lot of other things.

“Why had the stock market jumped in the past two days” she asked.

“The market is assuming a deal on taxes and the fiscal cliff is going to be reached,” I said.

“But taxes will be going up on everyone, business included. Why would that be good news?”

“Because there’s one thing the market hates more than costs, and that one thing is uncertainty.”

We spend considerable time and effort to control our lives and what happens to us. We hate uncertainty. We hate not knowing what’s going to happen next. We create elaborate structures in our personal lives and our work lives to minimize uncertainty. Uncertainty means we are not in control, and if there’s one thing we absolutely hate, it’s not being in control.

We consider uncertainty a burden, and we will go to great extremes to reduce or eliminate that burden. The stock market will accept (for now) higher taxes and costs because, well, at least uncertainty will be reduced. We will create new burdens to ease the burden we think is too heavy, because all we think about is a respite, or rest.

“The burden borne by mankind is a heavy and a crushing thing,” says A.W. Tozer in The Pursuit of God. “The word Jesus used (for burden) means a load carried or toil borne to the point of exhaustion. Rest is simply release from that burden. It is not something we do, it is what come to us when we cease to do. His own meekness, that is the rest”

Tozer is paraphrasing what Jesus said as recorded in the gospel of St. Matthew. He described himself as meek and lowly in heart, and said it is there we will find rest.

In today’s culture, seeking rest in meekness seems tantamount to becoming a doormat to be walked upon – not a way to find rest. Yet, like so much else that Jesus taught, meekness is counterintuitive. It does not mean to become a doormat; instead, it means to become more like Jesus.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been discussing Tozer’s The Pursuit of God. This week concludes our discussion of chapter 9, “Meekness and Rest.” To see more posts, please visit Jason’s site – Connecting to Impact.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

I didn’t like Camus

I didn’t like Camus,
too alien and strange
for a 17-year-old mind
but decades later I see
his point: we are strange.
Heinlein went one better:
strangers in a strange land
trying to grok through life.
I walk slowly through
a contemporary art museum,
knowing my mind stopped
at the modern, the modern
still makes sense,
still tells a story while
the contemporary makes
no pretense of making sense,
denies there is a story,
it just is and nothing more.
Strange is familiar and
no one knows the definition
of grokking any more.

This poem is submitted for Open Link Night at dVersePoets. To see more poems submitted, please visit the site. The links will be live at 2 p.n. Central time today.

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

Finding God with Emily Dickinson

We’re so familiar with Emily Dickinson today that we forget she was virtually unknown in her lifetime (1830-1886). She wrote more than 1,800 poems over her lifetime, but very few were published while she was alive. Various editions were published after her death, but it was until a definitive edition of her poems (unedited, as she wrote them) was published in 1955, notes author Kristin LeMay.

Contributing to the contemporary lack of awareness was Dickinson’s penchant for avoiding people. As she grew older, she stayed inside the family home in Amherst. Few visitors could persuade her to see them; occasionally she would talk to guests behind a door. She also wore all white, all the time.

A factor in the community’s judgment of “eccentric” was that, at an early age, she stopped attending church. And yet her poetry is filled with references to God, Jesus Christ, faith, the cross and other tenets of Christianity. This is what attracted Kristin LeMay to Dickinson, and how she used Dickinson’s poetry to answer her own doubts, questions, and uncertaintities.

To continue reading, please see my post at TweetSpeak Poetry.

“Dancing Priest” Free Today on Kindle

It was supposed to have been cyber-yesterday, but today my first novel Dancing Priest is free on Amazon Kindle. The predecessor to A Light Shining, it is the story of Michael Kent and Sarah Hughes. From the summary on Amazon:

Michael Kent…
A young man studying to become a priest finds love, and learns that faith can separate.
A university cyclist seeking Olympic gold finds tragedy, death and heroism.
A pastor thousands of miles from home seeks vocation and finds fatherhood.

Sarah Hughes…
A young woman living abroad finds love and loses family.
A university student meets a faith she cannot accept.
An artist finds faith and learns to paint with her soul.

Dancing Priest is the story of Michael Kent and Sarah Hughes and a love, born, separated, and reborn, in faith and hope.

Networking Poetry on LinkedIn

LinkedIn is the largest professional network on the internet. You join LinkedIn to network – to meet likeminded professionals, find a new and better job, develop potential customers, identify someone at an organization to talk with about a job opening, and engage in a discussion of topics of professional interest. Employers also use it to check and research job applicants.

As I started to participate more in the network, I began developing a theory. I suspected there might be a most unlike-business activity that was important for many people on LinkedIn – the activity being poetry. I’m not sure why I thought this; I had never seen anyone networking for a poet’s job and there might be five poets in the United States who make their living from poetry. It was just a theory, based on no hard facts of suggestive evidence.

To continue reading, please see my post today at TweetSpeak Poetry.

Photography by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Story of “A Light Shining”

So where did A Light Shining, the sequel to Dancing Priest, come from?

It was part of the original manuscript. The 82,000-word novel was originally joined to the 93,000-word novel that became Dancing Priest. Yes, that’s a total of 175,000 words, not including the original 5,000-word introduction and the 11,000-word “wedding scene’ (it was more than the wedding) that were both dropped, and the 50,000-word section that followed the conclusion of what is now A Light Shining.

Doing the math: 241,000 words, give or take a few hundred.

Long before a publisher ever showed up, even I knew that was way too long for a novel.

The writing of this grand epic extended from September 2005 to about the fall of 2007. The structure and main events of the story had worked themselves out in my head for three years prior to the beginning of the writing.

Once I started transferring it from my head to the computer screen, I didn’t think I was going to be able to stop. It didn’t pour out; it gushed. It was also a lot shorter in my head.

In the spring of 2008, I took the original introduction (the meeting of Michael Kent’s birth parents) to the annual Missouri Writers Conference. I received an editor’s critique (her first question: WHAT HAPPENS to Anna and Henry? – said just like that). I had a three-minute pitch session with an agent (“It’ll never sell. It has no vampires. Nothing sells today without vampires.”) He was so discouraging that I considered going home. But I stayed; he even came up to me later and asked me to send the manuscript to him. I never did; I knew he wasn’t the right person to be involved, and I wasn’t about to add vampires, werewolves or 50 shades of anything.

What kept me going was a roundtable critique session: 14 of us sitting at a big table and led by another agent. We didn’t read our manuscripts; we read each other’s manuscripts aloud.

I looked at the one I was to read, and realized from the first sentence that it was not just bad, but spectacularly bad. It had ghosts and other creatures (but no vampires), and the writing was just bad. Including the misspellings and grammar mistakes. A dilemma: I was holding someone’s hopes and dreams and hard work, and I could read it like it was written or I could do something else. I did something else. I put my speechwriting skills to work and essentially performed it like a speech, correctly the grammar mistakes as I went along (no one else but the writer and the agent would ever know). After the session, the writer told me that “you spoke it better than I wrote it.”

After the writer next to me read my manuscript, there was a kind of pause, and then the agent said, “I don’t handle your genre. If I did, I’d sign you right now.”

That was sufficient inspiration for the next two years.

I came back from the conference and divided the manuscript. “Dancing Priest 1” eventually became the published novel, Dancing Priest. “Dancing Priest 2” became the core of what is now A Light Shining.  The last 50,000 words became what is now entitled “Dancing Priest 3” – a rather raw and unfocused manuscript with a directional outline of what it is about.

Dancing Priest was rewritten and edited at least a dozen times. The interesting thing was that I didn’t think it would ever be published, but I kept editing and rewriting.

In 2010, a guy I knew in St. Louis who had set up a small publishing firm said he had heard I have a fiction manuscript, and could he read it?

I said no. By this time, I think I’d convinced myself it wouldn’t be published.

But he kept after me, and one day in 2011 I surprised us both and said yes, let’s do it. So we did.

I edited the second manuscript, and gave it to him. He sent me a contract.

But that’s when things got complicated.

I’ll finish the story on Thursday.

Dancing Priest is free today:

Today, known as #cyberMonday in internet-speak, Dancing Priest was supposed to be a free download at Amazon Kindle. But it looks like it will be tomorrow instead.  A Light Shining is currently available for Kindle and Nook in ebook format, and will be available in its print paperback edition in a few days.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Where do spots go?

I polish the wood, rubbing
fragrant oil in the spots left
by water, rubbing, wiping,
reapplying the oil with care,
in a circular motion, loving.
The wood responds; the spots
gradually fade and disappear,
leaving no visible trace, massaged
into endless oblivion. I wonder
at the spots’ willingness to leave,
perhaps to find a home with all
lost things on Mount Ararat, or
at least the lost and found. Some
enterprising few may find
their way to the special sale
table at the thrift store.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Saturday Good Reads: Tell My Sons

I’ve known David Murray for about two decades. I first met him when he was editor of Speechwriter’s Newsletter for Ragan Communications, and I met him in person in Washington, D.C., at the Speechwriters Conference at the Mayflower Hotel.

By any definition today, David and I should not even be speaking to each other. We sit on opposite sides of the great divide in American politics – he leans hard to the liberal side, and I don’t. He lives in Chicago, where the cemeteries used to vote but no longer have any need to. I no longer write speeches for my day-to-day job (I do occasionally freelance, though), and he’s editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, which in speechwriting circles is the top of the heap.

But we are friends, and we respect each other, bound by a mutual love for words and well-written (and well-spoken) speeches. David taught me that liberals love their children just as much as conservatives do, that family is important, that doing good and fine work is what you do because who really wants to be known for anything else.

That David and I are friends proves that civility is still possible in America. Even if he has weird politics.

On Wednesday, David posted an article on his blog about a book he’s co-authored with Lt. Col. Mark Weber of the Minnesota National Guard. I had no idea he was doing something like this. The book is entitled Tell My Sons, and it is about what a dying father wants his sons to know.

Lt. Col. Mark Weber is dying of cancer. And David has helped write his story.

The video below is of Weber and his son singing “Tell My Father” at a banquet in St. Paul, Minnesota. It’s a Civil War era song, and when I watched it I completely lost it.

I bought the book. It’s available through Amazon Kindle now and will be available in print later in December. I watched the video again. And I watched it again.

I thank my friend David Murray for doing the good work of helping write this book.

Friday, November 23, 2012

“A Light Shining” Publishes Today; “Dancing Priest” Free on Kindle

Today is the official publication date for A Light Shining, the sequel to my first novel, Dancing Priest. It’s now available in e-book format on Amazon Kindle, Barnes and Noble Nook, and other online sellers shortly. The paperback edition will be available in about a week.

The new novel includes most of the same characters from Dancing Priest, with a few new ones added, including a character born doing the editing and rewriting process this past summer. Giving credit where credit is due, the editor – Adam Blumer – suggested that a character be added (for a specific reason, which you have to read the book to understand). I worked this character for weeks stretching into months, and finally it clicked and the story was essentially recast and reborn as a result.

It’s a character who has no name, and he’s introduced on the very first page.

The story: Michael and Sarah are newly married, joining their names as Kent-Hughes, and back in San Francisco from their honeymoon in Hawaii. Michael continues to work as assistant pastor at St. Anselm’s Church, and he and Sarah are raising Jim, the young boy Michael became the guardian for in Dancing Priest. Within a few short weeks, they have a new addition to their family. They return to Europe on vacation, seeking the family of Michael’s birth mother.

Then comes the Violence. And everything changes.

Over the next few weeks, we’re planning interviews with Michael and Sarah, background on the writing of the story, some giveaways of the novel, a free pdf of the wedding story (cut from Dancing Priest and not included in A Light Shining), and some various other activities.

Today, to help celebrate the publication of A Light Shining, we (that’s the publisher and me) are making Dancing Priest a free download on Amazon Kindle.

I’m still somewhat surprised that all of this has happened. Dancing Priest in 2011, A Light Shining now, a novella in the spring, and a contract for another kind of book altogether signed and planned for the fall or winter of 2013 (more on that later).

And I’ve already been asked – will Michael and Sarah’s story continue?

The answer is – it’s possible. We’re going to see how these two novels are received, and then we’ll decide.

But there is a lot more to the story.


Laura Boggess reviews A Light Shining at The Wellspring.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving Blessings 2012

                                                             Cameron Young

                                                               Caden Young

Photographs by Stephanie Young. Used with permission from Cameron and Caden.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thomas Lux’s “Child Made of Sand”

As I get older, I find myself thinking more about my childhood than I did in my 30s and 40s. Perhaps I was too busy then, too caught up in career and family and life. As I get older, though, I find myself thinking about my grandmothers, my childhood friends, my extended family and scenes from childhood I hadn’t thought about in years.

Thomas Lux teaches at Georgia Institute of Technology, is a former Guggenheim fellow and the recipient of three National Endowment for Arts grant, and has published 12 books of poetry. I read his new collection of poems, Child Made of Sand, and I found I’m not alone. Many of the poems are about childhood, family, and relationships buried in the past, and how they collectively become memory. A fishing trip, the nicknames of boyhood friends, the farmhand working on the family farm, what the school cafeteria workers were called, a flower found in the forest, how dead horses were buried – all have become poems, powerful poems, poems that stimulate, and perhaps shape, the poet’s memory, and our own.

To continue reading, please see my post today at TweetSpeak Poetry.

Striving for Meekness

Years ago, there was a consistent refrain in my performance reviews. It didn’t matter who the boss was who did the review; there was always one comment that managed to fall into “development needs” (even then we were too politically correct to call them “weaknesses”).

“You need to be more aggressive.”

We like A-type personalities. We see them as natural leaders. It’s been my experience that the main leadership ability of A-type personalities is being able to talk louder than everyone else (that’s a joke, but not entirely). But the fact is that organizations, and especially corporations, like A-types. A-types suggest confidence and skill. They manage to snag a lot of attention.

I’ve seen a few A-types do things like loiter at funerals and memorial services for work colleagues, waiting for the senior executives to show up. That’s a bit more aggressive than I can stomach.

But the fact was – is – I’m quiet. I don’t do things that draw attention to myself in a crowded room. I don’t look for every opportunity to tell senior executives what I’ve done for them lately.

And I don’t loiter at funerals.

I’m quiet not so much as a deliberate effort to be meek and one day inherit the earth. I’m quiet because that’s my personality. Quiet until I get to know people, that is.

But I think about meekness, and I think about it a lot. It doesn’t mean being timid or afraid or unsure. It means something very different.

“The meek man is not a human mouse afflicted with a sense of his own inferiority,” says A.W. Tozer in The Pursuit of God. “Rather, he may be in his moral life as bold as a lion and as strong as Samson; but he has stopped being fooled about himself. He has accepted God’s estimate of his own life.”

I do not think of myself as bold as a lion and as strong as Samson in my moral life. My moral failings (and that’s “moral” in the “macro” sense) are not something I would characterize as lion-like. But I do know what God’s estimate of me is. I am sinner, and I am loved more than I can possibly imagine.

I may not be an A-type personality, and I may not be CEO one day, but I know my calling is to strive for meekness – meekness as defined by God.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been discussing Tozer’s The Pursuit of God. This week and next week we’re reading chapter 9, “Meekness and Rest.” To see more posts, please visit Sarah’s site – Living Between the Lines.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

My portrait painted, she said

I sat sedately while
the master painted me
in brush strokes sure and swift,
confidence unbounded.
I wore my new green dress
(which I simply adored)
matching my new green hat.
Do you find the likeness
fine and true, idealized?

Over at TweetSpeak Poetry, Seth Haines has a Surrealist poetry prompt – write a poem based on a painting by Salvador Dali or Pablo Picasso. I didn’t want to dally with Dali, so I went with a Picasso. You can see other submitted poems by checking Seth’s post.

This poem is also submitted to Open Link Night at dVersePoets. The links will be live at 2 p.m. Central time today. 

Can Poetry Save the Corporate Soul?

It was 1996. I was in a bookstore, likely the Barnes & Noble not far from my house. I spotted a small book with an unexpected title: The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America. The author, David Whyte, was a poet. His book wasn’t about how poetry might apply in the workplace, but how critically important poetry was if corporate America was to flourish and succeed.


I bought the book. I read it cover to cover. Three times. No book Published by man has had as profound an impact on my and how I understand the workplace as The Heart Aroused. “The poet needs the practicalities of making a living to test and temper the lyricism of insight and observation,” Whyte said. “The corporation needs the poet’s insight and powers of attention in order to weave the inner world of soul and creativity with the outer world of form and matter.”

To continue reading, please see my post today at TweetSpeak Poetry.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Coming Friday - at an Online Bookstore Near You

This Friday, the ebook version of A Light Shining, the sequel to Dancing Priest, will be published. The print version will follow about 10 days later. The publisher is planning some special promotions, a giveaway or two, and a few other things.

The story:

Michael and Sarah Kent-Hughes are married, and living in San Francisco where Michael continues his work as assistant pastor at St. Anselm’s Church. Together, they will experience love, family, change – and the Violence.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A hill of stones

A hill of stones: the path
barely discernible. The deer
were here before us. The trail
grows steeper, the rocks
smaller. The leaves turn
and fall against the rocks,
depositing eons of tannic acid
and leaving only the slightest
of stained indentations.

Photograph by Julie Gentry via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Saturday Good Reads: The High Calling Staff Retreat

Being writers and editors, and seeing each other face-to-face only once a year, it’s no surprise that The High Calling editorial staff went crazy with photos, blog posts, Instagram pics, Facebook posts and tweets (the crazy guy was tweeting) (if you want to see all of the tweets, search Twitter for #THCretreat).

What follows below is by no means complete, but it is everything I’ve managed to come across this past week, including a few of my own posts. Collectively, it will give you a good sense of what happened during our meetings at Laity Lodge, with one exception.

On Friday night after the retreat devotion meeting with Robert Mulholland, Jeff Johnson, and the Westlake Presbyterian Church group from Austin, several of us were in the main lodge room. A few of the staff were in a really serious discussion about The High Calling, while Tim Miller (our photography editor and a native of Australia) and I were sitting at a small table working at our computers.

Suddenly I hear Tom say something that sounded like, “Hey, look, there’s a SKAWpion.”

“What?” I asked.

“Right there,” he said. “A SKAWpion. Oh, it’s going away.”

I looked where he indicated – the concrete walkway outside the glass window we were sitting by. And sure enough, there was indeed a SKAWpion.

Except we Americans pronounce it “scorpion.”

Found in Laity Lodge Bookstore, Photo by Jennifer Dukes-Lee.

The Truth is Too Fragile, Photo by Marcus Goodyear.

Editors Retreat at Laity Lodge – 76 photos by Laura Boggess (on Facebook).

Farewell Frio – Photo by Jennifer Dukes-Lee.

Thank you, Marcus Goodyear – Photo by Jennifer Dukes-Lee.

Dr. Robert Mulholland speaking – Photo by Dan King.

There is so much love here – Photo by Kelly Sauer.

Dude, I just totally made this – Photo by Dan King.

Arts and craft time – Photo by Jennifer Dukes-Lee.

I love these people – Photo by Jennifer Dukes-Lee.

On the Frio – Photo by Jennifer Dukes-Lee.

The High Calling Retreat – Photos by Tim Miller (on Facebook).

Bluff at sunrise – Poem by Glynn Young.

An Element of the Sacred by Glynn Young.

The official High Calling “Hard Hat” photo – taken during the tour of the new Family Camp under construction at Laity Lodge.

Photograph: View from the Family Camp Worship Center, Laity Lodge. Kelly Sauer is at far left, with Tim Miller ("SKAWpion") next to her.