Genius: It’s More Complicated than That

I loved watching Genius, the new film about the relationship between novelist Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) and his legendary editor Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth). At the same time, I wasn’t completely satisfied with it.

I admit that this lack of satisfaction may not be entirely the fault of the movie itself. I am a Thomas Wolfe fan and scholar and have loved his work for almost 30 years, so it’s possible that nothing less than about a 9-hour movie would have been enough to satisfy me.

Perhaps my overall reaction to the film can best be summed up by a comment I kept making to my wife as she and I sat in a coffee shop right after the movie and discussed our responses. She has not read Wolfe or A. Scott Berg’s book on which this movie is based, so as she mentioned scenes that stood out to her and asked if that’s what really happened, I kept saying, “Well, yes, but it was more complicated than that.”

Any film on this subject would have to oversimplify some things, of course. Perkins became one of the greatest editors of 20th century American literature, as he helped establish not only Wolfe’s career but also that of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and others. He was a complex figure, as Berg’s book, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, brilliantly shows. Wolfe was equally complex, and the relationship between him and his editor, both when it was working well and when it was crumbling, is hard to capture in any movie of a couple of hours. Throw in other elements such as Wolfe’s tempestuous affair with his lover Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), and Perkins’ relationships with his wife and daughters, and you have enough material for a min-series rather than a movie.

Still, even though as I watched it I kept thinking, “Wait, slow down, there’s more to show about that incident,” I still enjoyed the movie overall and strongly recommend it. Here are a few moments that stand out:

• The opening 10 minutes alone made are worth the price of the whole movie for me. An editor plops the huge manuscript of Wolfe’s O Lost (which would eventually become Look Homeward, Angel) onto Perkins’ desk and asks him to read it. Perkins promises to give it a quick look, but in the following minutes, as we hear voice-over passages from the book, Perkins is mesmerized by the novel over the next few days as he rides the train, ignores the greetings of his family at home, or sits at his desk and combs through page after page. The beauty of the writing itself is what Perkins was masterful at recognizing, and this scene captures it.

• Colin Firth gives the best performance in the film. He embodies Perkins’ reserved but in-control personality that served him so well as an editor and that comes through so forcefully in Berg’s book. Perkins was able to modulate his responses to the needs of the very different personalities of his authors. He did not participate in the foibles of those men, but he didn’t turn away from them because of those flaws either. He was the true father-figure, strong and steady.

• Even though some of the factual details of how Wolfe and Perkins worked together on Of Time and the River are altered, the film brings to life the creative collaboration of these two men as they spend hours arguing and editing and wrestling the manuscript into shape.

• Even some of the small moments make the film memorable—stacks of Look Homeward, Angel appearing in the bookstore window at the novel’s release, Perkins reading the book to his daughter when she misses Tom, the moving reading of Wolfe’s final letter to Perkins (even though some details of its composition and delivery are altered).

For many of us who love Wolfe’s writing, our hope has been that this film would bring Wolfe the renewed attention we think his work deserves. We hope readers will want to go out and read one of his novels. I believe this movie may have that effect. As the film ended, I heard a woman behind us tell her friend she hadn’t read any of Wolfe’s novels, but she sounded as if she wanted to. I hope she does. I was ready to go home and read one of them again myself.

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.

4 Important Elements of Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” that Readers are Overlooking

After 55 years of waiting for a follow-up novel to Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, readers finally have the new book in their hands, and many are shocked by certain elements of it. The most unpleasant surprise in Go Set a Watchman for many readers is that the beloved Atticus Finch, one of the great American literary heroes of integrity and justice, is an aging racist in the new book.

I spent the entire day reading Go Set a Watchman, but rather than do a typical review, I want to focus on four issues I think are being ignored in the early reviews and discussions of this novel.

1. I believe it is a mistake to see Atticus Finch as simply older and more racist than he was in Mockingbird. Instead, I think he is essentially a different character in Watchman than the reconceived Atticus in Mockingbird. In other words, there are two Atticuses, created by the author to fit the needs of the particular book.  

Why is Atticus Finch so different in Watchman than he is in Mockingbird? The publication history of the two novels is crucial in answering that question. Lee submitted Watchman to her editor in the 1950’s. The editor, enjoying the childhood flashbacks the most, urged Lee to write a novel set 20 years earlier, focusing on those elements of the story. In doing so, I believe Lee created an alternate version of Atticus Finch. He is a different character in Mockingbird than in Watchman, though carved from the same materials.

Mockingbird and Watchman are not really sequels or prequels to one another. They are separate treatments of the same core material. Even the outcome of the trial that is central to Mockingbird is different when it is referred to in Watchman. Lee never expected to publish both books. She did not need to keep the characters completely consistent between the two books. She had the freedom to adjust the characters to meet the needs of the particular book. One implication of this for readers is that if they don’t like the Atticus in Watchman, that doesn’t need to “ruin” the Atticus in Mockingbird for them. They can choose whichever conception of the character they like best.

The Scout character in Watchman, who is more commonly called Jean Louise, also strikes me as significantly different from the Scout character in Mockingbird. It’s not simply that she is twenty years older in Watchman, it’s that I don’t think she is simply a grown-up version of the Mockingbird Scout. She is a reconceived character. She is not radically different in the two books, but different in ways that novelists often change the personalities and other traits of their characters in later drafts of the stories.

2. If Harper Lee had written Go Set a Watchman now instead of in the 1950’s, I think there would be an even greater outcry against it from readers.

If we didn’t know that Lee wrote Watchman before she wrote Mockingbird, then I think the changes in the character of Atticus Finch would be even harder for readers to accept. If Watchman had been written in the 21st century, I think readers would have protested it as a cynical modern treatment of a beloved 20th-century American hero. Why, they would have complained, did Lee turn the justice-loving man of integrity of Mockingbird into the racist cranky-old-man of Watchman?

As it stands, I find it fascinating that Lee saw that the character could be written as both of those men. The relationship between Scout and Atticus is more complicated in Watchman than it is in Mockingbird, but what is fiction for if not to shed light on such intricacies of human motivations and relationships? We have had 55 years of Atticus as an unblemished saint. Now we also have him as a fascinating and contradictory man of his times.

3. Go Set a Watchman is not only about race. Its brilliance extends to other areas that are not getting enough attention.

Much of what I have read in reviews and on social media about Watchman has focused on the racial issues the book raises, but when I read the novel, many other elements of it also stood out to me. Like Mockingbird, this novel richly captures small-town Southern life in the middle of the twentieth century. It brings to life the feel of what it is like for Jean Louise to return from living in New York City and be thrust into the family life, church life, and social life of the place she grew up in. Lee is a masterful storyteller who uses humor and passion in creating vivid, memorable scenes.

One of my favorite chapters appears about two-thirds of the way into the novel, when Jean Louise’s Aunt Alexandra hosts “The Coffee,” a reunion of Jean Louise’s former classmates and other women of the town, almost none of whom Jean Louise wants to see. The social satire of this gathering targets the way the women dress, the way they chatter on about their husbands and children, the way they reveal their prejudices, and other details of Southern life. It is beautifully handled and worth reading the novel for. It shows that Lee was a masterful novelist of manners, among her many other gifts as a writer.

4. The release of Watchman reveals that Lee owes her editor a big thanks for compelling her to set aside this book and write Mockingbird instead. Watchman is a good book, but by itself, it would not have become a classic.

Most readers’ first encounter with To Kill a Mockingbird is in a high school literature class, where it has been a standard text for decades. The book has all the features that create a beloved classic—a compelling young narrator who shows courage, grit, and humor in confronting challenges young readers can relate to, a plot that offers conflicts that are universal in scope, a memorable setting, an engaging writing style, and other elements.

Watchman is also an entertaining and well-written novel, but it is much more targeted toward adults. I believe that if it had been released first instead of Mockingbird, it would have enjoyed some success and then gradually faded into the literary background. Lee’s editor’s instincts were correct in pushing the author to bring to the forefront Scout’s earlier story. This shows the crucial and often overlooked role editors play in the creation of literature.

The Need for Factual Fiction

Editor’s Note: Last week I wrote a blog post that touched on the relationship between fact and fiction in Sony’s controversial film, The Interview and in another film from 75 years ago, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. This week I am honored to present this guest post by Alton Gansky, an accomplished author of more than 40 books and the director of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. Gansky also examines the relationship between fact and fiction, this time in the classic movie, Inherit the Wind. I think you will enjoy his perspective. 

By Alton Gansky

In January of 2015, Baker Books will release my latest nonfiction work, 30 Events That Shaped the Church. It comes on the heels of the 2014 release, 60 People Who Shaped the Church. Some are surprised to learn that I write book-length nonfiction. True most of my books are novels but I also enjoy and see great value in producing nonfiction books as well.

While preparing 30 Events I went through a long list of possible topics. In the end, one chapter caught my attention and so infiltrated my mind that I’m still researching it long after I turned the manuscript in. As I worked through the centuries I came upon a week long event that most of us have heard of but few of us know much about: The Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925. When I research I try to keep my mind free of bias, which is a difficult thing to do. Still, I thought I knew a fair amount about the “Trial of the Century.” I didn’t.

Part of my preparation was to watch an old movie (1960), based on an older stage play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, Inherit the Wind. I remember it being one of the best movies ever made, made all the more memorable by actors like Spencer Tracy and Fredric March, as well as Gene Kelly (no dancing in this movie), and Dick York (later of Bewitched fame) who portrayed John T. Scopes (Bertram T. Cates in the movie). This time, I watched the movie with a critical eye and was surprised how far they had strayed from the truth.

To be fair, Lawrence and Lee, as well as director Stanley Kramer, went out to their way to alert viewers that they were watching a movie, not a documentary. The movie begins with these words:

Inherit the Wind is not history. The events which took place in Dayton, Tennessee, during the scorching July of 1925 are clearly the genesis of this play. It has, however, an exodus entirely its own. [. . .] So Inherit the Wind does not pretend to be journalism. It is theatre.”

I appreciate the honesty of the writers. Still—and this is the problem with some types of fiction—many took the events as historical fact. To this day, people who have seen the movie think:

William Jennings Bryan was a glutton. (He was a diabetic on a very strict diet at the time of the trial.)

Clarence Darrow crushed Bryan’s beliefs as the latter sat in the witness stand. (Darrow ridicule people of faith but it had no impact on Bryan.)

That Bryan was a buffoon. (He ran for president three times, was a great orator, served as Secretary of State, and was a gifted writer).

That the townspeople of Dayton wanted to hang Scopes from a tree. (Nothing of the sort happened.)

And that Bryan died in the courtroom, the victim of Darrow’s grueling examination and ridicule of biblical stores. (Bryan died five days later from complications of diabetes. He remained active in the days following the trial.)

When I was in college, my psychology professor told the class that the human mind has trouble distinguishing between reality and fiction. It is the reason we jump in scary movies or tear up reading a sad scene.

All of this to say, that we as author’s of fiction need to take care how we represent figures and events in history. Lawrence and Lee went so far as to change the name of the characters (although they also went out of their way to make the actors look like William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow). Despite their efforts, fifty-four years after the movie (longer for the play the preceded it) people still think the movie is trustworthy history.

This realization puts a burden of responsibility on the shoulders of novelists. While the novelist’s goal is to entertain, we in the Christian market also want to edify and to do so we need to be as accurate as we can be when portraying real people.

William Jennings Bryan’s reputation and work was sullied by the play and later the movie, despite the authors’ and director’s efforts to make clear their story was only loosely drawn from the real 1925 court case. Nonetheless, many have taken the fiction and see it as fact.

We novelist take some needed liberties in our creation, but when it involves real people from the past (or worse, vaguely disguised characterizations of living people), then we run the risk of doing harm.

 

Alton Gansky has written over 40 books of fiction and nonfiction. His latest work 30 Events That Shaped the ChurchLearning from scandal, intrigue, war, and revival releases mid January 2015. He is also the director of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. www.altongansky.com – See more at: http://altongansky.typepad.com/writersconferences/2014/12/the-need-for-factual-fiction.html#sthash.dBW1l0nG.dpuf

 

 

Sony’s The Interview, Citizen Kane, and the Power of Story

The controversy over Sony’s film The Interview and the hacking attack the company endured in response to it illustrates a principle I teach every day as a literature professor—the Power of Story. It shows how a fictional narrative that on the surface does no harm to anyone can still be perceived as such a threat that people will go to extreme lengths to stop it. The incident also reminds me of another instance when powerful people tried to squelch a movie they saw as a threat—Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane in 1941.

First, a few thoughts about Sony. Consider what triggered the devastating attack that cost the company tens of millions of dollars and brought turmoil to the lives of studio executives, actors, theater owners, and many others.

Was it a dangerous new weapons systems pointed at North Korea?

Was it a new round of economic sanctions that caused suffering for that nation or its leaders?

No. It was a story. Not even a true story, but a silly, unremarkable comedy that without the attacks that accompanied it probably would have been quickly forgotten.

 Why Not Simply Ignore the Film?

Some have asked why a dictator or anyone else would care about such a frivolous piece of entertainment like The Interview. Why not just ignore it?

Maybe those who hacked Sony fear the movie because they know, as I teach in my college literature courses every semester, that stories—whether novels, films, plays or other genres—are far more than “entertainment.” They often shape our perceptions and shape us even more than “reality” does. Stories may inspire, thrill, challenge, and teach, but they also may threaten.

Think of the most powerful films or novels you have seen and read. Aren’t those stories as moving and life-changing as any “real” incident you have experienced or heard about? Think of how stories have shaped your perceptions of places you’ll never visit, historical periods that otherwise would only be hazy in your mind, and aspects of human experience into which you otherwise would never have delved. For example, when I think of what I know about the World War II era and where that knowledge and perceptions came from, I have to acknowledge that far more of it came from fictional stories about the era than from my direct reading of history.

Stories move us and shape our view of reality. So it makes sense that a dictator would believe that the world’s perception of him might be shaped by this film, even if it’s an over-the-top comedy.

Citizen Kane as an Example of a Film that Defined a Real Person

Controversy over another film more than half a century ago shows just how powerful a movie can be in shaping the public’s perception of a real person. In 1941 RKO released Orson Welles’ movie, Citizen Kane, which some scholars have labeled the greatest film ever. The movie is loosely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, whose vast publishing empire made him one of the most powerful cultural figures in America in the first half of the twentieth century.

The movie gives an unflattering (but in my view, not entirely unflattering) portrait of Hearst and his mistress. Knowing the power of story, since that is how he made his living, Hearst and his allies fought the release of the film by pressuring distributors not to make it available to theaters, by ignoring it in the pages of their newspapers, and by other threatening tactics.

As with the hacking campaign against The Interview, the campaign against Citizen Kane was only partially successful in suppressing it. The controversy itself made people want to see the movie, and it did reach the public in a limited way. It got good reviews, but then it essentially disappeared from public view in 1942 and did not emerge again into the public consciousness again until the mid-1950s, when RKO sold it to television.

Is Kane Hearst? Is Hearst Kane?

That’s when something interesting happened. As the film gained popularity and exposure, the memory of the actual life of Hearst himself, who died in 1951, faded from public perception. David Nasaw, who published an excellent biography of Hearst in 2000 and showed what a fascinating and complex man he was, calls Citizen Kane a “cartoon-like caricature” of a man who was actually very different from Hearst.

However, over time, Nasaw writes, “the lines between the fictional and the real have become so blurred that today, almost sixty years after the film was made and a half-century since Hearst’s death, it is difficult to disentangle the intermingled portraits of Charles Foster Kane and William Randolph Hearst.”

In other words, the good story won out over reality. Even though people may be told that Hearst and Kane are different, and even though talented biographers like Nasaw might try to set the record straight, when you mention Hearst to most people, they’ll think of Citizen Kane.

The hacking attack against Sony is reprehensible, but the North Korean dictator may be correct about one thing: the fictional story may be how most people remember him.

Will Novels, Movies and Video Games All Blend Into One?

Is the day soon coming, or has it already arrived, when consumers won’t see much difference between reading a novel, watching a movie, and playing a video game?

Over the past year, I have seen lots of evidence that the boundaries that used to separate these and other categories are breaking down.

For example, until recently, if you planned to read a celebrity’s autobiography, that meant you went out and bought a book, which you would read page-by-page as the author reflected on his or her life.

Now, however, that is the old-fashioned way to do it. Today I saw an article about the actor Neil Patrick Harris’s autobiography, which takes a much different approach. It is an interactive autobiography, which shares similarities to a video game. The description of the “book” on Amazon.com asks, “Sick of deeply personal accounts written in the first person? Seeking an exciting, interactive read that puts the “u” back in “aUtobiography”?” The reader of Harris’s book doesn’t simply read about the actor’s life, but lives it: “You will be born to New Mexico. You will get your big break at an acting camp….Even better, at each critical juncture of your life you will choose how to proceed. You will decide whether to try out for Doogie Howser, M.D. You will decide whether to spend years struggling with your sexuality. You will decide what kind of caviar you want to eat on board Elton John’s yacht.”

All these choices have consequences for the reader: “Choose correctly and you’ll find fame, fortune, and true love. Choose incorrectly and you’ll find misery, heartbreak, and a hideous death by piranhas.” As if that were not enough, the book also contains recipes, a song, and magic tricks!

The Hobbit: Book, Movie, or Video Game?

Another example of category-blending that stands out to me is the most recent Hobbit movie, Desolation of Smaug. The category-blending I’m referring to is not the fact that I first experienced The Hobbit as a book, and now it is a series of films. Books and films are still separate categories. I am talking about the blending of categories within the film itself.

As I watched the movie, there were times when I couldn’t help but think I was actually experiencing a video game, especially in battle scenes that felt entirely different from anything I remember from the book. In one part, for example, dwarves rush down a raging river in barrels as orcs (many orcs) attack them and as elves attack the orcs. I half expected the elves to get 100 points per orc or dwarves to get bonus points for making it past certain barriers. It was an exciting scene, but it didn’t feel like a movie in those parts.

Many actions movies have that video game feel now, as bad guys (or creatures, or robots, or other villains) get wiped out in large numbers in battle sequences that seem to go on for a very long time. Think of the Transformers movies or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes or many others. Many scenes could be transferred almost directly into a video game.

As Movies Become Games, Games Become…Movies? Books?

Of course, as films become more like video games, many video games, with their more elaborate plots, complex characters, and lush and realistic visuals, now feel more like films. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say they have begun to resemble television series, like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, with storylines that extend over longer periods and characters that can become as familiar as the real people in our lives.

That depth of character and plot sophistication found in recent TV series such as Mad Men and Downton Abbey remind many viewers and readers of yet another category of storytelling, the novel.

“Reality” now merely another story category

Now, even the category known as “reality” is breaking down. I don’t mean reality television, which is its own category-blending genre, but I am talking about real life itself. It used to be that video games copied reality. You played a game to feel what it was like to fight in a battle, or race a car around a track, or ski down a slope. Now experiences are being created to reverse that, in other words to bring the thrill of video games into real life.

The New York Times reported this summer on an experience called Escape Rooms, in which people are trapped together in a room and are given clues and puzzles and codes to solve in order to escape. It’s a video-game-like experience, but without the video. You’re in a real room with real people, and you’re really trapped (although you’re eventually set free even if you don’t solve the clues).

Not everybody likes these trends. When some people go to a movie, for instance, they don’t want a video game stuck in the middle of it. They want their categories pure. On the other hand, there has never been time when people had more ways to enjoy storytelling in every imaginable form. My prediction is that as time goes on, the categories will break down even further, and more and more viewers/readers/players will come to expect the inventive techniques.

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…