Don’t Let Them Squash Your Creativity

With all the roles that many of us have to fill throughout the day—friend, employee, spouse, parent, consumer, and so on—the creative self can be one of the most fragile. Even though for many of us the creative self is deeply embedded and even essential to our sanity, it is also easily crushed.

Many forces stand ready to squash the creative self. You no doubt have been struck by these enemies. Even the most successful people are prone to these creativity crushers. To name just one example, there are the naysayers. These are the people who tell you, either directly or in some other dismissive way, that you just can’t do it. You’re not good enough. Or you’re not as good as you used to be. Who do you think you are? Nobody asked for your creativity.

Growing up, I always felt vaguely embarrassed about wanting to be a writer. I feared that if I said too much about it, I was simply opening myself up to mockery. It felt so pretentious to want to write a novel. Who was I?

So I hid it. I wrote my first novel almost secretly. When I would go off to write, I would be vague with family and friends about what I was doing, telling them simply that I had work to do. In college, I was so paranoid about my roommates reading over my shoulder that I developed a secret coded language in which I could write when others were around, which I then had to decode later.

Today I am still tempted to let my creativity be squashed, not so much by naysayers, but by other enemies such as procrastination, the pressures of life, fear of rejection, weariness.

Yet the words, the ideas, keep bubbling up. When the ideas come, I think, I have to write this. Why is no one else saying this? I find myself writing as fast as I can, letting the momentum carry me. In those great moments, the creativity blasts right through the doubts, tiredness, discouragement, and second-guessing. I write. I create.

This semester I am working with an outstanding group of writers in a course I am teaching in the new M.A. in English program at Azusa Pacific University. The theme of our course, which I write on the board every week, is, What is possible for me as a writer?

Part of our work involves breaking down obstacles that discourage creativity. I will mention only two of them here, which stall many writers:

1. Nobody cares whether you create or not. The world is not asking for your work. Nobody is out there saying, “The world is a diminished place because you are sitting there not doing your writing.” If you don’t write, they won’t know or care. The world will go right on.

2. The market is already glutted. Mountains of work are already being rejected every day. So who needs you in there adding to that pile and struggling to compete?

Harsh, I know. I’m reluctant to even mention those things, but for many writers, it’s not as if these dark thoughts don’t already plague us fairly regularly.

So why keep writing?

Let’s look at that first obstacle. The world may not be asking for your work and may not think they need it, but the world in fact may be a diminished place without your writing. Think of your favorite author. Would your life be diminished if that writer had not written the books you love? Of course. For example, I love the novels of Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner. Some of the most meaningful hours of my life have been spent with their words flowing through my head. The world would be a much shallower place if they had let obstacles to writing stand in their way, and for both of them, there were many obstacles.

You may or may not have the wide impact of those two writers, but picture one reader who reads your words at just the right moment, who is challenged, inspired, or entertained by exactly what you have to say. You have made the world richer for that reader, and perhaps many others, even people who haven’t been born yet. Write for those readers. It’s worth it.

As for the second obstacle, the glutted market, it’s true. Amazon boasts around 8 million books, more than the world needs for a lifetime. Online and print magazines, newspapers, website, blogs and other sources have an almost infinite number of articles, videos, lists, and other material available. There is no shortage.

And yet, as a reader, don’t you still find yourself searching for something new, something that fills a particular need that sometimes you can’t even articulate? Be the writer who writes that for someone else.

As a writer, I have known the joy of connecting with readers. Not as many as I would like to have connected with, of course. But I have known the fulfillment of connecting with that individual reader who gets what I’m doing, who loves it, who needs it. That’s what keeps me writing. I’m not willing to let anything crush it.

Why the Cell Phone May Save the Novel

I like to watch people’s reading habits when I’m at airports and on airplanes. During several recent flights, which included some lengthy layovers and delays, I noticed that not very many people were reading novels, at least not ones in the form of books made of paper. I didn’t see all that many people reading on tablets, e-readers, or laptop computers either. What I saw, more than anything else, were people reading on cell phones.

The people reading their cell phones were not necessarily reading novels, of course. I personally would not want to read a novel on a cell phone, nor would I want to watch a movie on one. The screen is too small and uncomfortable. But not everyone sees it that way. Readership studies show that many people do like to read books on cell phones, and the numbers are increasing.

How Americans Read

According to a Pew Research study of Americans’ reading habits, last year 32 percent of e-book readers 18 and older read books on their cell phones. That is a higher percentage than people who read e-books on a computer (29 percent). The highest percentage of readers still read e-books on e-readers (57 percent) and tablets (55 percent), and many people use multiple platforms.

As a novelist and professor of literature, I am very interested in the future of the novel and have written elsewhere (including in this article in APU Life magazine) about my concerns that its popularity may wane in this era in which readers are used to being entertained by shorter chunks of information such as Tweets, Facebook posts, blogs, and YouTube videos. Will readers who have grown used to skipping from post to post still have the desire, focus and stamina to work their way through a 350-page novel that contains nothing but words? Have we grown too distracted?

I still worry about that, but this trend of reading books on cell phones, more than any other trend, gives me hope for the novel. Why does the cell phone make so much difference? One reason is that, unlike the e-reader or even the tablet, most people almost always have their phone with them. If they get caught up in a novel, they might find themselves dipping into it at times when they otherwise would not be reading anything—in a doctor’s waiting room, in a line at the store, in an airport terminal. Potential readers who might never think to bother with a novel in other circumstances—such as going to a bookstore to buy one or messing with an e-reader—might be more likely to read one if they could easily access it from their phone.

How the Cell Phone Increases Reading Around the World

Another reason I think the cell phone-reading trend is good news for the novel is that this practice is even more prevalent in other countries, especially developing countries in places such as Africa, than in the United States. A study by the United Nations organization, UNESCO, showed that 62 percent of people in developing countries now read more because they are able to do so on cell phones. In many countries covered in the study, such as Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Nigeria and others, physical books are prohibitively expensive, while open-access books cost as little as 2 or 3 cents each.

The UNESCO study showed that about a third of readers in these countries use their phones for reading books, and about 80 percent of the population has access to cell phones. What kinds of books are they reading? The study showed that the most popular genre was romance novels.

In addition to the countries covered by the UNESCO study, other nations also have a large number of people reading books on cell phones. One report indicates that more than 25 million people in China read books only on their cell phones.

I believe this trend in reading habits worldwide will not only help the popularity of the novel, but will also lead to changes in the novel itself. The novel of the future may look significantly different from novels written in earlier eras. I plan to comment on that issue in a future blog post.

OJ Simpson? Never Heard of Him, Or Johnny Carson Either

When I started seeing the headlines and news segments marking the 20th anniversary of the OJ Simpson murder trial, my first thought was that the whole tawdry saga still felt too recent to be wrapped in nostalgia. My next thought was that, as a college professor, I have seen a big shift over those twenty years in how students perceive the OJ Simpson case.

In the first few years immediately following our culture’s fascination with the Bronco chase, bloody gloves, Johnnie Cochran, Marcia Clark, Judge Ito, and all the rest of it, I could refer to the Simpson case any time I needed an example of an event that captured the attention of an entire culture, an event that you couldn’t get away from even if you wanted to, and that everyone seemed to have an opinion on.

I teach literature, and in one course we read some literary works that sprang from another “trial of the century” about a hundred years earlier. That was when Lizzie Borden either did or did not take an axe and murder her parents in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Borden, like Simpson, was acquitted, even though many people thought her guilty. The Lizzie Borden case still has a big following (the home where the murder happened is now a hotel that caters to fans), and many movies, short stories, articles, and other works have been devoted to it. Why?

It’s just like the OJ Simpson case, I used to say. Why did everybody want to watch it? Why was the trial carried on so many TV stations? Why was it the talk of the nation? Students could immediately see the connection.

Recently, however, teaching the same literature course at the same university, I tried to use the Simpson case as an example, and all I got were blank stares. OJ Simpson? Some students had a vague idea who he was, but not one knew anything about the case.

The 20th Century as Ancient History

The Simpson case is only one of many twentieth century references I have had to drop. A 20-year anniversary of anything means that it happened Continue reading

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!

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.

Creating a Perfect Opening for a Novel—Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep”

In the California literature Honors course that I am teaching at Azusa Pacific University this semester, we are studying Raymond Chandler’s novel, The Big Sleep, a classic of hardboiled detective fiction that features private investigator Philip Marlowe solving mysteries in a noir-ish and unforgettable Los Angeles setting.

After the students read the book, one of the first ways we studied it was simply to read out loud and analyze the first few pages. Chandler wastes no time. His opening establishes the novel’s tone and atmosphere, captures the personality of the narrator Marlowe, and propels the plot into motion. It isn’t easy to do all those things at once. If you don’t believe me, try it.

Take a look at The Big Sleep’s first two paragraphs:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. he didn’t seem to be really trying.

What information do we learn from these two paragraphs? A private detective has dressed up in a nice suit in order to call on a wealthy client who lives in a mansion.

Those are the facts, but Chandler’s words tell us much more. Why describe the outfit in such detail, even down to the socks? If you pick up a hint of sarcasm in that little bit of over-description, it is confirmed in the next sentence: “I was neat, clean shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.” That declaration conveys more than the surface meaning of the words. As one of my students put it, “Someone who is usually sober doesn’t need to point out that he is sober.” The same is true for being clean and shaved. Marlowe may be revealing a few weaknesses in that sentence, but also a few strengths: he’s frank, down-to-earth, and he has a self-deprecating sense of humor. I like him already.

Almost every sentence in these two paragraphs has something to commend it. For example, take at “I was calling on four million dollars.” A lesser writer might have settled for something like, “I was calling on a wealthy client.” Chandler’s sentence is better than that in both tone and content. We now know how wealthy General Sternwood is (his four million is in late 1930s dollars), and more importantly, the tone indicates Marlowe is not over-awed by money.

His sarcasm toward ostentatious displays of wealth is extended in the second paragraph, when he describes the Sternwood mansion. He doesn’t need any direct comment about how gaudy he thinks the place is. The fact that the entrance doors “would have let in a troop of Indian elephants” tells the reader plenty about Marlowe’s attitude toward the house. His commentary on the stained-glass artwork tells us as much about the unpretentious detective as it does about the questionable artistic taste of the Sternwoods.

The opening paragraphs of The Big Sleep let us know we are starting a journey with a narrator who knows what he’s doing, both as a detective and as a storyteller. We like him from the start, and we can’t wait to see what he’ll do next. He doesn’t disappoint.

Forty-Seven Different Endings? Some Lessons from Hemingway about Revision

For the past several weeks my students and I have been immersed in the novels of Ernest Hemingway. I have had the pleasure of teaching a course on him and William Faulkner this semester. In most literature courses, we study only the final, published drafts of novels and other works of literature. That gives us the chance to enjoy the final masterpieces, but it doesn’t reveal much about the torment the author went through to make the book as good as it is. How many revisions did it go through? How many false starts were there? How much bad writing did the author produce before he found discovered the right way to tell the story?

A new edition of Hemingway’s masterpiece, A Farewell to Arms, was published earlier this year that sheds light on his careful, sometimes agonizing writing process. Depending on how you count them, Hemingway produced up to 47 different endings. The exact number is tricky to determine because some drafts use bits and pieces of other drafts and therefore are not completely distinct from one another. The editors have grouped the 47 drafts under nine categories, such as “The Nada Ending,” “The Religious Ending,” “The Live-Baby Ending,” and so on.

Examining these very different endings reveals much about the creative process of writing a novel. Here are a few points his methods illustrate:

• Even very good writers are capable of very bad writing.

Hemingway may be a brilliant, Nobel Prize-winning, best-selling author, but some of these drafts are just bad. One of the “Nada” endings, for example, says, “That is all there is to the story. Catherine died and you will die and I will die and that is all I can promise you.” The first of three “Funeral Ending” drafts says, “When people die you have to bury them but Continue reading

Living by the Rhythms of the Academic Calendar

Some people divide time by seasons, some people by weeks and months, but I live according to semesters. Instead of saying that something happened “last year,” I am more likely to say that it happened “two semesters ago.” If I do use the term “last year,” I probably mean last school year, not last calendar year.

One of the things I enjoy most about teaching is the rhythm of the academic calendar. I don’t hear this talked about much, but I have lived my life to that rhythm. I started school when I was five years old. After I graduated from high school, I went right into college, and then I went directly to graduate school, and then I started my full-time teaching career that continues to this day. So for the last 46 years, I have been on the academic calendar either as a student or a professor (and sometimes both at the same time).

The Rhythm of Individual Courses

Not only does the school year have a particular rhythm, but each individual course has its own reassuring pattern as well. The course I have taught most consistently over the years is an upper-division course called American Literature Since 1865. I have taught it for all of my 22 years at Azusa Pacific University, and I taught it several times at Olivet Nazarene University before that. We study about 50 authors in that course. Some of the individual authors and works change from semester to semester, but the bulk of the readings remain the same. I now associate particular authors with certain times of year. I start the course with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, so I always associate that book with Continue reading

Am I Technology’s Slave Whether I Like It (And I Do!) Or Not?

Let me start with Facebook as an example of a technology that people now consider optional. I know plenty of people who still don’t use it. Some never have, and a few eccentrics I know had Facebook accounts but gave them up. Will they always have that choice, or will Facebook, like various other technologies, someday become essentially a requirement for functioning in the world?

After attending and presenting a paper at a three-day conference this week at Baylor University called “Technology and Human Flourishing,” I’ve been pondering the ways in which technology runs my life. Even though the conference included many amazing examples of new things technology can do, the speakers expressed at least as much anxiety about technology as celebration of it. I want to devote a few posts to technology’s influence, both good and bad.

The first area I want to consider is how much Choice I have—or don’t have—about which technologies control me. I like to think I’m a careful consumer of technology and that I choose which gadgets and services will dominate my time, energy and attention. I like to think I am not a slave to it, but is freedom from slavery to technology realistic anymore?

When Technology Was Still Optional

In one sense, I have chosen each technological device and service I use, and I could get rid of them any time I like. Unlike people of a younger generation, I still remember living in a world before such advances as email, voice mail, cell phones, texting, the Internet, Facebook, ipods, VCR’s and similar inventions. I remember when computers were not considered a necessary tool in either the workplace or the home.

I also remember making the conscious choice to bring some of these technologies into my life. My standard response to new technology has been to resist it at first, insisting that I don’t need it and never will, and then Continue reading