The Best Five Answers: If You Could Improve Your Life in One Way, What Would It Be?

What one thing would most improve your life? More money? Better health? More sleep? A dog? Two brains? More motivation? More exercise? More time? Better relationships?

Those were among the answers I received to this week’s question. Other people focused on things they would like to delete from their lives rather than on anything they might add. They wanted to get rid of stress, eliminate self-criticism, or abolish peach-flavored yogurt (see below).

I invite you to read the Best Five Answers to this week’s question, and please take a moment to answer the new question at the end.

If you could improve your life in one way, what would it be?

5. “If I could improve my life in one way it would be the elimination of the peach flavor from the Yoplait Yogurt variety pack at Costco. I have a stack of that damn peach flavor in the back of my fridge. I can’t get a new box until I finish them, and I just can’t stand the sight of them.”

–Joey Smith

4. “You know, this is a question I find myself pondering every now and then, particularly when I’m having a bad day for whatever reason. And every time I do I put together a mental list of things that I think might somehow make my life better. And yet I always end up reaching the same ultimate conclusion: I’ve got a family that loves me, I grew up to have the career I wanted ever since I was a kid, I’ve got friends who accept me for who I am, I’ve got a roof over my head and I’m able to pay the bills (late sometimes, sure, but they do get paid). So really, what is there to improve?”

–John Small

3. “To re-engineer this 53-year-old body to an 18-years-of-age body and take it back through the fun times I had to get it to the shape it’s in today.”

–Terry J. Robichaud

2. “Only do the things where I add the most value, and delegate the rest!”

–Bruce W. Martin

1. “Let go, stop worrying, and finally accept that this is only a journey to our final home.”

–Jerry Vachon

Please answer next week’s question in the comments section:

Would Jesus use Facebook?

 

 

The Best Five Answers: What Time Period Do You Wish You Had Been Born In, and Why?

I have always felt that I was born in the wrong era. Like the main character in the film, Midnight in Paris, I always felt I would have fit in better in the era of some of the literary geniuses I admire from the 1920s and ‘30s—writers like Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. This week’s question was:

What time period do you wish you had been born in, and why?

I received some fascinating responses to this, and it was hard to choose the Best Five Answers. A surprising number of respondents said they are content with the era they were born in. The 1800s was a popular era, and so was the future. Will Cook would have been happy to have been born in 2125, when he imagines he would have a “half-synthetic, half-flesh body,” and Kay Smith would like to have been born in an unspecified time in the future “when women are treated as fully human in the church.”

With many great responses to choose from, here are the Best Five Answers, followed by next week’s question:

5. “16,000 BC in current day location of Cyprus. Pretty sure I could have walked to Atlantis and witnessed the true precursor to the pyramid civilizations before global meltdown and flooding covered them. (Yes, I am serious and, no, I’m not a nut!).”

–Robert Green

4. “The same period I was born in, 1983. The reason being is I’ve gotten to see so much technological changes/innovations as I’ve grown up. One of the first things I learned to do was operate a record player. CD’s took off and now digital downloads are the norm. Same goes with music videos, used to VH1 or MTV was the go to place for that, now you can pull up YouTube and see just about any video you want. The Internet also has made it easier to stay in touch, reconnect or make new friends.”

–Nathan Webb

3. “Before watching Midnight in Paris, I probably would have answered the question with the 1840s because of the music, fashion, and historical events. After watching Midnight in Paris I realized, like Owen Wilson’s character, that I wouldn’t want to be born at any other time than I was. He rightly says something along the lines that the present is unsatisfying because life is unsatisfying. This, right now, is my Golden Age.”

–Sara Flores

2. “I wish I had been born in the 2200s because then I would probably be able to teleport. But hopefully the world’s resources wouldn’t be decimated by then….”

–Abbi Mleziva

1. “I would be born in 1935, I would be but a child as the war swelled and then ebbed, just old enough to have been able to look up over London into a rumbling sky filled complete by thousands of USAAF B17 bombers, each guided by diesel propellers leaving four elegant streams of blue trailing behind the formation. Fighter escorts aligned like geese surround the bombers top, bottom, and side. The entire earth would rumble as countless thousands of steel bombers and fighters ripped through the grey London skies on towards Germany–the might of American economies of scale and mass production all slowly growling out over the English Channel to break the back of the Axis. Minutes pass and finally the sky would be empty again for hours before evening when the steel birds would come limping back overhead, bombless and bleeding black smoke. These thunderous fleets of aircraft will never again be witnessed—technology raced ahead so quickly that war waged in the skies is now invisible and supersonic and remote. Men don’t take to the sky by the countless thousands lined as far as they eye can see now. And this I lament because of its ephemeralness. It must have been a strangely harrowing sight to peer up, nine years old, bright blue eyed, and see no sky but only smoke and steel.”

–Brian Kraft

Now I invite you to respond to the question for next week:

If you could improve your life in one way, what would it be?

The Best Five Answers: What is the Best Way You Have Found to Handle Disappointment?

Let’s get one thing settled from the start. According to the answers I received this week, can you guess which treat was mentioned most often as disappointment comfort food?

Ice cream.

I am happy to launch the first post in a new blog feature called “The Best Five Answers.” Each week (for now) I plan to ask a question and seek answers from friends, students, blog readers, strangers, and anyone else who is interested in chiming in. Then I will choose the best five answers and publish them on the blog.

If you would like to participate, please see next week’s question at the end of this post.

The first question in the series was, “What is the best way you have found to handle disappointment?”

I loved the answers I received, and many of them made me rethink my own behavior in the face of disappointment. Here are the Best Five Answers:

5. “I remember that I don’t ‘deserve’ anything. Everything in life is a gift, even just the fleeting chances.”

–Charles Crowley

4. “The best way I have found of handling disappointment is to journal. When I’m really disappointed I don’t like to talk about my feelings, but journaling seems to help me make sense of things and process what happens. It’s like a silent prayer and helps bring healing.”

–Alyssa Martin

3. “I handle disappointment by praying about it and talking it out with those around me that I consider my support team. Disappointments are always difficult to take in the moment and I need to express that to someone to avoid inner build-up, but in the long run what I often find is that God had some other plan for me. That plan is usually considerably better, so when faced with situations where things go awry I try to remind myself of all my good ‘disappointments.’”

–Anna Christensen

2. “The best way I have found of handling disappointment is not to dwell on it and to accept that there are events in this world that I can’t control. Letting disappointment engulf your thoughts ruins your ability to enjoy the next thing life throws at you. I’ve endured the most extreme disappointments and I’m probably the happiest person you’ll ever meet.”

–Karly Adair

1. “Throw a short pity party for myself, eat something sinful, and then give thanks for the blessings that I have. Even with big disappointments, my glass is still way over 50% full.”

–Kenneth Litwak

Thanks to all who responded and to my Facebook friend Dennis Skarvan, who alerted me to the photo of Cape Disappointment, in Washington.

Now I invite you to respond to the question for next week:

What time period do you wish you had been born in, and why?

Quit Griping that “Everybody Gets a Trophy”

I’m tired of hearing about the “Everybody Gets a Trophy” generation. When I recently heard someone use that phrase again, I wondered, was it just my imagination, or were people constantly using that cliché to describe today’s generation in their teens and twenties?

I Googled “everybody gets a trophy” and came up with nearly a million articles, blogs, news stories and other items that use the phrase, so I guess I’m not imagining it. I read through some of the endless news commentaries and blog posts about this “syndrome,” as some of them call it, and I ended up even less convinced about it than I was before.

The basic concept is this: These young people are the spoiled products of a self-esteem culture in which they (or at least their parents) are afraid of failure. In order to prevent these delicate egos from facing any hint of mediocrity or failure, their parents put them on soccer teams and baseball teams and other activities in which everybody gets a trophy regardless of any lack of talent, achievement, or actual victory over the other team.

Because of this, the kids grow up thinking they’re far more talented than they really are, and they expect unqualified approval in every area, from academics to sports to the world of employment. Coddled and arrogant, they fail to learn how tough life really is. Their weakness of character erodes our entire culture, but someday they’re in for a rude awakening.

What utter nonsense.

As a college professor, I have spent years interacting with people in this generation. As a parent of teenagers who play sports, I have spent years watching what happens with the trophies. I simply don’t buy the usual “everybody gets a trophy” analysis.

Let’s start with the trophies themselves. My son and daughter have played on many teams in several different leagues over the years. They have played competitive softball, baseball, basketball, football, soccer, and probably a few other sports I’m forgetting. They do get trophies in most of those, or medals, which amount to the same thing. On most of the teams it is true that everybody gets one of these, win or lose. The trophy or medal is bigger or better if the team wins the championship, but everybody gets something regardless of the outcome.

The thing is, kids are smart about these things. I have never seen my kids or any of the other athletes interpret these medals or trophies as signs that they are all winners or that the loss of a game or championship is somehow not a failure. They understand failure. They know who the good players are and who the bad players are. If they’re not as good as the other athletes, it certainly doesn’t take the withholding of a trophy to make that clear to them. They know. Their teammates will make it clear to them in many ways, and so will the coaches, and so will the spectators. It’s absurd to think that a trophy or lack of a trophy changes that.

What, then, is the purpose of giving a medal or trophy to everyone? My own kids have their medals hanging in their rooms and the trophies are displayed on shelves around the house. These are not signs of egotistical triumph. They are mementoes of being on the team. My daughter also has her softball caps from her various softball teams displayed on the wall on one side of her room. They’re a way of remembering the experience.

I once worked at a magazine devoted to the sport of trapshooting. At a national tournament, I worked at the booth where we gave out metal pins that commemorated the event. Most tournaments gave out such pins, and competitors would attach those to their caps or shooting jackets as a way of showing how many tournaments they competed in. They were eager to get those pins, and when we ran out of them one day, they were angry until we got some more. They were meaningful, but they did not signify success. They were simply a souvenir. That’s the way it is with the trophies.

The men and women who coached my kids were certainly not interested only in the athletes’ self-esteem. They worked them hard. They taught them. They punished them. They encouraged them. They wanted them to win. My kids have plenty of trophies, but they have also tasted plenty of failure.

Regardless of what generation we’re in, life offers abundant lessons on how to handle failure. I wouldn’t be too worried about a few extra trophies being handed out.

What I Wish Someone Had Taught Me About Writing

What is the best way to approach a writing task, whether as a professional writer or a student? Do you procrastinate until the last minute and then start writing on page one and hope for the best? Or is there a better approach? My friend and APU colleague, Tom Allbaugh, confronts that problem in a very helpful guest post this week. Dr. Allbaugh is an accomplished writer who is celebrating the release of the second edition of his excellent writing textbook, Pretexts for Writing. I think you will enjoy what he has to say.  

What I Wish Someone Had Taught Me About Writing

By Tom Allbaugh

In the first chapter of Pretexts for Writing, I tell a story about when I was a student in a freshman writing class. I tell of how I waited, like most students I see today, until one or two nights before the deadline to get started on my research paper. Even though this was 1974 and I had to write on an old typewriter, I pretty much started by sitting down to write what I hoped would be the final draft.

Teachers call this “top-down writing.” We see it all the time in the movies. The writer starts typing without planning, hoping that inspiration will show up. In the movies, of course, the writer becomes rich and famous. In real life—in my life, for that first college assignment—I struggled to complete six pages. I didn’t even think about my main point until well into that “final” draft.

Many of my students have told me that they like that I tell this story. They say that it helps them connect with my ideas. I’m glad that my plan to demonstrate an idea also serves the second function of connecting with my audience.

Why Didn’t Someone Tell Me?

Today, I do often wish that someone had taught me that writing needs to be planned. A plan can be simple and personal, but it will usually involve us in generating ideas, thinking about genre, and making audience considerations.

The writers I know or have read about in interviews sometimes discuss their composing process, and their approaches can be idiosyncratic. We know, for example, that C.S. Lewis took long walks. Beethoven did this also, planning his works as he went. Looking at his fragmented writing in his notebooks, with his scratched out notes and revised ideas, anyone can see the years of work it took him to sketch out his symphonies. Some have suggested that it took this composer a lot of digging to connect with his unconscious. Getting the unconscious into the writing act is perhaps what prompted Ernest Hemingway to stand at his typewriter at chest level and Mark Twain and Truman Capote to both write lying down.

Especially among creative thinkers, planning usually has this “mental” element to it, but it will also allow writers into the more conscious work of considering the kind of writing being attempted and who their audience is.

When I started out in college, I wouldn’t have thought like this. At eighteen, I worked from the belief that writing an argument or a research paper or a novel required only inspiration and self-expression. This is also probably why the research paper task always seemed so daunting to me. None of my teachers ever told me that I should probably plan what to write about. As early as the fifth grade, I was told about revision and that I should write an outline. But outlining is an organizing strategy and, suspiciously, does not always allow for other kinds of planning.

What I Know Now

Today, even in those rare instances when I get inspiration, I still know enough to allow myself time to generate more thoughts before I start. The planning can vary—brainstorming, free-writing, or conversation will work—depending on what I am writing. There’s much room for variation. Probably the only exception to this rule is when I write a journal entry.

But this is what I wish I’d been taught from the very start. So I have organized Pretexts for Writing to begin with planning, with what writing and speech teachers since Aristotle have called “invention.” This opening, I hope, will encourage thinking about different aspects of planning.

Thomas Edison is supposed to have said that his work involved about 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration. I may be off on his numbers just a little, but his point is clear. Inspiration is over-rated. But just getting to work and making some plans, I can usually encourage and generate some inspiration.

 

Pretending to Be Moses: Why Writing Biblical Fiction is Hard

Who am I to take on the voice of Moses, or Joseph, or Joshua, or other people whose stories are told in the Bible?

That question was foremost in my mind when I was asked to write six chapters for an innovative small group curriculum series that brings to life significant figures from the Bible by telling their stories through a combination of historical fiction, biblical commentary, study questions, and audio and video segments.

The series, which is called Named, is divided into four six-week studies: The Patriarchs, The Unnamed, The Disciples and The Women. I was assigned to write chapters for Moses, Joseph, Joshua, Andrew, the Gadarene Demoniac, and the Man Born Blind.

Although I have written four novels, I had never written biblical fiction and had never given much thought to some challenges of that genre:

• The Bible gives stories of these people in a compact, efficient way that leaves out many details. Even with a major figure like Moses, only a few highlights of his life are given, with entire decades left out. For the more obscure biblical figures, such as the Man Born Blind, even fewer details are given, including his name.  As a Christian I believe these people in the Bible are not just stories someone made up, but they were real people. How could I bring these people to life but also be true to Scripture? I had to add details of plot, dialogue, motivation, setting and so on. I faced the challenge of making the stories engaging but also keeping them true not only to the history of the period but also to the spiritual message of the story.

• I had a limit of about 1,500 words for each story. For major figures like Joshua or Moses, that meant I could present only one scene out of many presented in the Bible. How could I choose the one that best captured essence of who each person was?

My approach was to carefully research the various figures through their biblical accounts, commentaries, and books about the historical periods. After that, the stories emerged pretty much the way my novels emerge: I began to see the scenes play out in my head, like little movie clips. As I read about these men, they came to life for me. As I wrote, and even as I went about my daily life, the movies in my head became more and more vivid, until I was able to live the story and “hear” the voice of the person telling it.

I wrote far beyond the word limit for every person, and then I had to relentlessly cut until I got at least close to the proper word count. It was a true privilege to be allowed to delve into the lives of these men and tell their stories. Small groups are now using this material as a way to study Scripture. More information about this series is available at www.iamnamed.com.

Here is an excerpt from one of my stories, “The Man Born Blind”:

The Man Born Blind

I had heard rumors about Jesus, none of them good. I heard the authorities almost stoned him for blasphemy, but he slipped away. He was dangerous. He was espousing all kinds of radical ideas. Some even claimed he was of the devil.

Even before I met him, I was skeptical of those malicious stories. I was more inclined toward the rumors that people had the courage only to whisper, like maybe he was a prophet, maybe even the Messiah. He did miracles, healing people and freeing people from demons. As a blind man, I was attentive to anything that even hinted at healing. Nothing I had ever tried had worked, but I still fantasized what it must be like to see.

Most of the Pharisees and other Jewish authorities didn’t like Jesus, and all but the bravest people were afraid to cross those powerful men and give Jesus a chance. I didn’t like the Pharisees, and they certainly had no use for me, a man blind from birth, which to them meant only one thing: I was steeped in sin. So be it. I stayed away from them, and I stayed away from Jesus. If any of them wanted to give me a few coins, I would be grateful. Otherwise, they were not my problem.

Then came the day when I could no longer avoid Jesus or the Pharisees. As I sat begging in my usual filthy spot by a wall along a busy road close to the temple, Jesus walked right up to me. I don’t know why he stopped and focused on me. Most people ignored me. And Jesus certainly had plenty of other things vying for his attention. I heard a big crowd pushing in all around him. I expected the whole big group to pass me by pretty quickly. I hoped only for a coin or two from some of them.

Instead, Jesus stopped, and so did everybody else. I didn’t welcome the attention. When any powerful person paid attention to me, it usually meant trouble. They usually yelled at me to get out of the way or move along to a different spot.

Jesus didn’t say anything at first, but then one of his disciples, who was probably also confused about why they had suddenly stopped to stare at a blind man, asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

That seemed like rather a rude question, considering that I was sitting right there, but it was nothing compared to other things people sometimes said. They often talked about me as if I weren’t there, as if being blind meant I must be deaf, or at least not very bright.

I expected Jesus to agree with their idea about sin causing my blindness. I’ve been hearing that all my life. Instead, he gave an answer that I loved. He said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

Ha! I wanted to shout. Finally, somebody not blaming me for being blind. I was ready to stand up and cheer him right then! Everybody was talking over everybody else in response to what he said, so nobody bothered to ask me what I thought. And honestly, in my own mind I couldn’t get past “neither this man nor his parents sinned.” I had no idea what he meant by my blindness happening so that the work of God could be displayed or the part about his being the light of the world.

Before I could think through any of that, he leaned down right in front of me. He spat in the dirt right there by the road and made little globs of mud out of it. Then he reached up and spread it over my eyes. Did he really mean to heal me? Did he have the power?

I hoped that his next words would be, “Now open your eyes and see,” but instead he told me…

The rest of this story is contained in the book, The Unnamed, one of four books in the Named series, available at www.iamnamed.com.

Poetry and Conversation with Katie Manning

Most poets are thrilled when one of their books of poems is published, but Katie Manning, an outstanding poet who also teaches in the English Department at Azusa Pacific University, gets to experience that joy three times this year, as three of her chapbooks are being published by three different publishers. This success did not come easily. She has been sending out manuscripts for more than five years, so it is a happy coincidence that all three books are now coming out within months of each other. To celebrate these publications and to introduce readers to Katie Manning’s poetry, I am happy to interview her for the Life of the Mind and Soul.

1. Congratulations, Katie, on your poetry chapbooks that are being published this year. I have read some of your poems and have appreciated not only their depth, but also their warmth. I would like to start with The Gospel of the Bleeding Woman, published by Point Loma Press, through Wipf and Stock Publishers. This book follows the unnamed bleeding woman from three of the gospel accounts in the Bible. You give her a name and let her tell her own story. Why did you choose this particular story for your book?

Thank you for taking the time to read my poems, and thank you for your very kind words. I have been curious about the bleeding woman since I was a little girl. What was her name? Why was she bleeding? What was her life like when she was ritually unclean for 12 years? What was her life like after she was healed? Her story is so brief. It is really just a quick aside; in all three accounts, Jesus is on his way to heal a synagogue leader’s daughter. The bleeding woman interrupts Jesus. She reaches out and touches him when she shouldn’t, and she’s rewarded for having faith. The more I thought about her, the more I became fascinated by the idea that reaching out in a final act of desperation can be a demonstration of faith.

2. How challenging was it to enter into a woman’s story when so few details about her are given in the Bible? Did that lack of detail give you more freedom to shape the story the way you wanted to, or did it make your job as a poet more difficult?

Although it was initially difficult to imagine a life for this woman, I think the lack of detail ultimately gave me more creative freedom. I read commentaries of all sorts to give me a better grounding in the possibilities of her life, but then I set those things aside and wrote freely. Many commentaries talk about the bleeding woman as though she was elderly, but I enjoyed imagining her as a young woman who had begun bleeding in early adolescence and never stopped. This choice was partially because of the way Jesus calls her “daughter,” which has always sounded to me like she is younger and somewhat identified with the girl whom Jesus is traveling to see, and partially because I was writing this in my mid-twenties and felt closely connected to her. I also felt free to get very, very strange after her healing and let her travel outside of her original time and place.

3. Could you give us a sample poem from this book and tell us a little about it?

The final poem in this collection is one of my very favorites. (Is it okay to pick a favorite poem? Is that like picking a favorite child?) The bleeding woman, who I’ve named Nura (“light”), ends up eating lunch with Jesus at a café in present day New York City. While I was completing this chapbook, I read Quarantine, a disturbing and beautiful book of poetry by Brian Henry, and I echo a couple of his lines in the title and text of my poem.

Where Death Is Not an Is
          after Brian Henry

I met Jesus the next day
at the Life Café. “Call me
J now,” he said. “People
lock me up when I say

I am God.” He pulled
back his sleeves to show
the marks on his arms
from recent shots. I asked

what I could do. “Just lie
low,” he said between
bites of falafel. ”Dead
is the way the world wants

us. People hate to feel
alive.” We ate in silence
for a while. Then I asked,
“What happens to us?”

He wiped his young hands
and stood to leave. “We are
finished,” and kissed my cheek.
I put my hand on his arm

and told him the scars would be
beautiful when they healed.

 

4. Where can readers find this book?

The Gospel of the Bleeding Woman is now available on Amazon and through Wipf and Stock.

5. You also have two other books coming out this year. Tea with Ezra is published by Boneset Books and I Awake in My Womb is forthcoming from Yellow Flag Press. How can readers order these books?

I Awake in My Womb is available for pre-order from Yellow Flag Press. The first edition is due out in August, and the second edition will follow immediately.

Tea with Ezra was published in a limited edition by a brand new micro-press, and it was done with a hand-sewn binding. The book itself is a lovely piece of handmade art. It sold out in pre-order, but Boneset Books is planning to do a second edition in the future.

6. I love your poems about motherhood. Could you give us a sample from Awake in My Womb?

I’m glad you enjoy them! These poems are based directly on vivid dreams that I had
immediately before, during, and after pregnancy. They are some mix of funny, terrifying, and revealing; they give readers a surreal glimpse into the fear and wonder of impending motherhood. The following poem’s first line became the collection title.
The Outside In
I awake in my womb.
I’m cradling you
so gently, so
as not to break
your see-through skin.
You are half
head, half
body. Your eyes are sealed
shut, but through the cloudy dark
your heart blinks
visibly. I wonder
if it loves me yet.
I hold you close to my face
with both hands
(though you’re smaller than one)
and watch.
We breathe fluid together.
I press
my ear to your chest.
Your heart gallops away.

7. I am intrigued by the title of your book, Tea with Ezra. What does that title refer to? Could you share a poem from that book?

This chapbook contains poems that respond to familiar texts: fairy tales, biblical narratives, poems, songs, novels, etc. The title of the collection is taken from the final poem. Ezra Pound has a poem called “The Tea Shop,” in which he observes that a waitress is not as pretty as she used to be, and he repeats twice that “she also will turn middle-aged.” I felt immediately angry the first time I read this poem because of Pound’s objectification of the waitress. I like to express my anger through humor, so I wrote a parody of his poem. In my poem, I have tea with Ezra Pound, and I am critical of his appearance and his work. When he tells me that I’ll also turn middle-aged, I take my revenge.

Tea with Ezra

                  after Pound’s “The Tea Shop”

He told me that only he and Whitman
had gained immortality,
and he took a bite of his lemon pound cake.
I reminded him that he’d already been dead
thirty years. I tried not to stare through
his decaying jaw at the jostled pastry.
He looked me up and down and said,
“Yes, you also will turn middle-aged.”
I simply shut his book
and drank his tea when I’d finished mine.

 

8. Thank you for giving us a look at your poetry. If readers would like to find out more about you and your poetry, do you have a website or Facebook page they can follow?

I do have a website and an author page on Facebook.

Thanks for your interest in my poetry!

Fiction or Non-Fiction: Which Is More Rewarding to Write?

I have written four novels and four non-fiction books. People have often asked me which

In order to sustain my writing momentum when working on a novel, I have to work on it every day.

type of book I prefer to write. I recently read an article in the New York Times in which novelist and non-fiction writer Sally Koslow answered that question about her own writing. She wrote, “While I’m writing, whatever genre I’m committed to becomes my favorite.”

For me, it’s just the opposite. Whenever I’m working on a novel, I am certain that it was never this hard doing a non-fiction book. When I’m working on non-fiction, I long for the luxury of getting lost in the fictional world.

Ultimately, which one do I prefer?

Here are some differences to consider:

1. One of the joys of writing fiction is that I get absorbed in the world of the novel during the months or years that I am working on it, even during the hours when I’m away from the work and doing other things. The events of the book keep swirling through my brain throughout the day, and no matter what I’m doing—walking across campus, eating dinner, watching TV, I am likely to have a scene start playing in my head or bits of dialogue come to mind that demand to be written down. Non-fiction books don’t take over my brain in quite the same way. Even though the non-fiction book is often on my mind, it remains at a bit more of a distance when I’m not working on it.

When I am writing a non-fiction book, everything I see and hear, from articles and Facebook posts to conversations with friends, seems to connect to the book's big idea.

2. One of the pleasures of working on a non-fiction book is that while I’m writing it, everything I see, read and hear seems to connect itself to the book’s big idea. If you have ever bought a car and then suddenly noticed lots of those same types of cars everywhere you go, then you know the kind of thing I’m talking about. Once I get going on a book, I suddenly see aspects of my idea everywhere—in news articles, Facebook posts, conversations with friends, pastors’ sermons, TV shows, songs on the radio, and lots of other places. I love collecting all these ideas and trying to make sense of it all.

3. It’s harder for me to sustain my writing momentum when I’m writing a novel. The world of it is more fragile. When I’m writing a novel, I have to work on it every day in order to sustain the forward motion of it. That is not so true with non-fiction. I can be away from my non-fiction book for a few days and easily pick up where I left off. It will eventually grow cold if I set aside for too long, but short pauses in working on it are not as disruptive as they can be for a novel.

4. Some people assume writing fiction is easier because the novelist can simply “make it all up” and write whatever he or she wants. Novelists know it doesn’t work that way. The world of the novel must be internally consistent, and I have to make endless choices about points of view, when to reveal things, what to leave out, what to dramatize, what to summarize, where to begin, where to end, and so on. Writing a novel is not simply “telling a story” as many people think of it. It is a carefully constructed puzzle, often structurally more complex than a work of non-fiction.

So which one do I prefer? I am tempted to take the easy way out and say that I can’t choose because I love them both. But if pressed, I would have to say that ultimately, I would rather write a novel.

Of course, I am arriving at that conclusion at a time when I am under contract for a new non-fiction book and am hard at work on it every day…

What Sherlock Holmes Taught Me About Jesus

Who is Jesus?

That is the question we discussed recently in a class I teach at my church. If he were conducting his earthly ministry among us today, what identity would he adopt? Would he be a liberal Democrat? A conservative Republican? Would he like the music I like? Who would his favorite authors be? What movies would he watch? Would the TV shows that annoy me annoy him too?

Our group was studying the book of Colossians. It is a letter Paul wrote to a church he had not established personally. He was thrilled that they were followers of Christ, but they had some misconceptions about Jesus’ identity that he wanted to correct.

What he says about Jesus contains no big surprises for us today, but in those early days of Christianity, many false ideas about Jesus were floating around. Paul wanted to be sure they were following the real Jesus. I want to follow the real Jesus too.

Who is the Real Sherlock Holmes?

Which brings me to Sherlock Holmes.

I enjoy reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories about this great detective, so a few years ago I bought an acclaimed edition of much of the Sherlock Holmes canon that had just been published, a two-volume boxed set that boasts 56 short stories, more than 700 illustrations and more than 1,000 annotations.

The editor of those volumes, Leslie Klinger, includes an essay called “The World of Sherlock Holmes,” in which he documents the popularity of this fictional character and the intensity with which his fans follow him. Sherlock Holmes is one of the top three most well-known fictional characters in the world (along with Mickey Mouse and Santa Claus). The character has spawned more than 2,000 imitative stories from writers and filmmakers across the world.

Thousands of articles and books have been written about Sherlock Holmes across the years, and Klinger writes that the topics of analysis seem endless. There are classic issues, such as Watson’s wounds and marriages, Holmes’s Great Hiatus, and so on, and writers have also ventured into more unexpected areas.

As Klinger explains, people often want to impose their own interests onto Sherlock Holmes. He explains, “Such a formula follows the logic, ‘I am interested in the study of X. I am interested in the study of Sherlock Holmes. Therefore, Sherlock Holmes must have been interested in X.”

What kind of speculation has that approach led to? Klinger writes, “Scholarly works have demonstrated that Holmes was a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a druid, an agnostic, a Catholic, a Stoic, a deist, an atheist; that Holmes studied medicine, law, music, graphology, phrenology, early computer science, astronomy, numerology, and endless other subjects; that Holmes travelled to Russia, China, India, Tibet, the South Seas, America, Canada, Japan; that Holmes was an American (a thesis asserted by no less than Franklin Delano Roosevelt), a Canadian, a Frenchman.”

Making Jesus in Our Own Image?

That makes me wonder, is that what Christians too often do with Jesus? Are too many of us following a Jesus made in our own image—a Jesus on whom we imprint our own interests and prejudices and quirks—rather than following the real Jesus of Scripture?

Have we made him what we want him to be, which is often a person like us, only a little better? If so, how can we abandon that false Jesus and follow the true one? I don’t know an easy answer. I think we always have to be alert to the possibility of our own misconceptions. Immersing ourselves in Scripture and in prayer, challenging our own assumptions, and testing out our ideas about him with other believers may help us stay close to the real Jesus.

Why I Took My Students to a Murder Site

The most recent field trip in my Honors California Literature course was to a nearby

My students at the scene of the crime--Banyan Street in Alta Loma California.

murder site made famous in an essay called “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” by Joan Didion. On October 7, 1964, Lucille and Gordon Miller were driving home from the Mayfair market after midnight on a sparsely traveled road called Banyan Street in Alta Loma. Gordon Miller was asleep and heavily medicated when the Volkswagen stopped and caught on fire. He burned to death, and his wife was charged and later convicted of first-degree murder.

Didion, an acclaimed essayist and novelist, is the author of such bestselling books as The Year of Magical Thinking and Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Her essay about the murder in Alta Loma is written in a detailed, seemingly journalistic style. Didion establishes credibility by throwing in sometimes obscure details that show she has done her research—the name of the TV show Miller was watching before he was killed, the temperature on the day of the murder, the exact amount of mortgage debt the Millers owed, etc.

It’s easy to get drawn into the essay and think that Didion is simply reporting the facts, but a careful analysis of her essay—and a visit to the scene of the crime—show that she is doing much more than reporting. Like a novelist, Didion is creating an atmosphere in which to set the dastardly crime. The place happens to be only a 20-minute drive from our campus, so my students and I went there to take a look for ourselves and to see how Didion’s description compares to our own impressions.

Here is how Didion describes Banyan Street:

“Like so much of this country, Banyan suggests something curious and unnatural. The lemon groves are sunken, down a three- or four-foot retaining wall, so that one looks directly into their dense foliage, too lush, unsettlingly glossy, the greenery of nightmare; the fallen eucalyptus bark is too dusty, a place for snakes to breed. The stones look not like natural stones but like the rubble of some unmentioned upheaval. There are smudge pots, and a closed cistern. To one side of Banyan there is the flat valley, and to the other the San Bernardino Mountains, a dark mass looming too high, too fast, nine, ten, eleven thousand feet, right there above the lemon groves.”

Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? In the context of the essay, fits well with the rest of the atmosphere Didion is creating, but when my students look at this scene, they see something very different. Some of the difference can be accounted for by the passage of time. The street is now part of an upper-middle class neighborhood with attractive houses and carefully landscaped lawns. But there are still some lemon trees, and their leaves don’t strike students as “unsettlingly glossy, the greenery of nightmare.” They’re beautiful trees, and so are the eucalyptus trees, whose fallen bark does not seem “too dusty” to us. The mountains in the distance are majestic, and their beauty is probably one of the reasons people built their homes here. They don’t appear to us as a “dark mass looming too high, too fast.”

Didion is such a good writer that students often overlook her biased perspective the first time they read the essay. Once they are alerted to how she skews the details of the physical scene, they also reconsider some of the stereotypes she puts forth about the entire region. She writes, “This is the California where it is possible to live and die without ever eating an artichoke, without ever meeting a Catholic or a Jew. This is the California where it is easy to Dial-a-Devotion, but hard to buy a book.”

“Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” is a brilliantly written essay in many ways. Didion brings to life the lives of Lucille Miller and others involved in the case as she probes their backgrounds and motivations. For my class, visiting the scene helps bring the story to life in a different way, as we consider how a writer does not simply report reality, but constructs it in ways that build the story she wants to tell.