Open Letter to Art Students

Dear Art Students,

The art world is a strange and fickle place–something you know far better than I do.  My exposure to your world began in a trash can–a barrel-size, paint-splattered trash can I emptied every night as part of my janitorial job.  Imagine my surprise when instead of paint cans, orange peels, and pencil shavings, I found beautiful prints, pencil sketches, and paintings.  My co-workers loved them too.  Eventually, all beautiful trash was pinned up in our custodial closet.  It gave us such pleasure to find the things you threw away and admire them.

For a little while, our closet was so filled with canvas it was probably a fire hazard. But we didn’t care.  We loved the pictures we found.  And when there were too many, we returned most of them to the trash.  I still have a handful, though–prints and sketches rescued from the trash bin over two years ago.  I wish I knew who painted, sketched, designed these pieces of art that I got out of a trash can.  I don’t know why you threw them away–if the colors were not just right.  If you got discouraged.  If you were bored.  Only two are signed.  The rest are anonymously beautiful.

I feel guilty sometimes, like I stole your art.  Like an identity thief who instead of stealing electronic signatures and e-mail accounts took your discarded works of imagination.  I’m sorry if I’ve upset you.  Because overall, I am glad I kept these remnants of the trashbin–they were worth saving.  Yes, dear Art Students, you will grow and you will mature in your art.  But your art now has worth and gives people joy.  So, please don’t throw it away.  Learn from it, pass it on, and move on.  But don’t throw it away.

The art world may change its mind on what is chic, what is good form, what is stylish or challenging or relevant.  But please remember, the critics won’t get your work out of the trash.  But a curious custodian might.  She might find joy in the figure of narwhal in the sea, amusement in a policeman in the dark, and inspiration in the calm serenity of two trees side by side.

So don’t stop.  Please don’t.  This world is full of people who are important and prestigious and rich.  The world is also filled with confusion and suffering and pain.  We need art.  And we need you.  Keep on.  And don’t throw any more away.



The Deep, Deep Well of Words

If your schooling was anything like mine, every other week brought a new vocabulary list to memorize.  I enjoyed these, for the most part.  The spelling part of the exercises were not so fun for me, but the vocabulary was enjoyable to learn.  My friends, however, did not agree.  Studying the classics broadens a reader’s vocabulary to include older words and older styles.  But there are so many words–beautiful words–that are still fresh and new and are never used.

Last week, I readThe Maytrees by Annie Dillard which used an amazing expanse of vocabulary.  I have never read someone with the depth of vocabulary that she uses in her works.  The story, though not my favorite, was charming and refreshing in its own way.  But the vocabulary was the real beauty of the book.  Dillard used words so fresh and bracing that you could actually feel the wind by the Maytrees’ shack and see the mudpits and feel the sea-salt in the air.  Beyond descriptive words, Dillard delved deeper into the realm of words to discuss the many nuances of her characters.  I nearly consulted a dictionary once or twice but chose not to.  (But I didn’t want to leave the book to look up the words.)  

A writer’s strength may be found in different arenas.  Some are amazing at building structures.  Some craft deep, nuanced characters.  But all writers can benefit expanding our vocabularies.  We really do constrict the beauty of language by narrowing our vocabulary.  So, let’s delve deep into the well of words and enrich our writing with what we find.

Take care,

Novel-Writing–I love thee. I love thee not…

For over a year, I have been writing a young adult novel. I originally planned to write a chapter a month, sending it off in regular installments to my cousin, for whom it was intended. But then, as stories often do, it grew, becoming bigger and clumsier than I ever imagined. By the fall 2013, I had about 25,000 words (which for some of you is a paltry sum, but you are reading the words of a girl who struggles with 200 words a day). I assumed by the length that I was almost done. Oh–how wrong I was.

It is very humbling to put together all the scraps of writing you have done across multiple notebooks, desktops, and corkboards and realize that the book you’ve written makes no sense. The characters don’t develop. Your villain is cheesy and has no motive. The worst for me is my poor bland protagonist. When I first sat down in January 2013 and scribbled off a list of character traits, I loved this character–a funky, quiet high-school senior with a penchant for art fairs and comic books. He was quirky, intelligent, and likable. The character in my book is–boring.

This is possibly the worst case of writer’s block blues I have ever had.

Having writer’s block is detrimental to satisfying writing sessions, but it makes other parts of your life so interesting. For example, you will suddenly decide to read a great epic you have always wanted to read. After all, reading is essential to becoming a better writer. Or perhaps you will be inspired to take up a new hobby–baking is practical. How about tennis–canoeing–bird-watching. Or you will become very concerned about your health. How much vitamin D do writers really get anyways? Or, like me, you may suddenly realize that now is the perfect chance to write about your wretched novel instead of re-writing the wretched novel.

Writer’s block magnifies the love-hate relationship of a writer and her craft like nothing else. But in the end, writing is a work of love. You do it because you want to. No one is twisting your arm. You write because to ignore the mess and shove it out the window would cause more agony than to painstakingly re-work the entire story in your brain, fill up more notebooks, and revise–again.  It can be very discouraging to look at the mountain of work you’ve done, the struggles you’ve passed through, and not to see any substantial improvement or any approval of your work. Ray Bradbury, one of the finest American writers ever, once said the following:

“You will have to write and put away or burn a lot of material before you are comfortable in this medium. You might as well start now and get the necessary work done. For I believe that eventually quantity will make for quality. How so? Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come. All arts, big and small, are the elimination of waste motion in favor of the concise declaration. The artist learns what to leave out. His greatest art will often be what he does not say, what he leaves out, his ability to state simply with clear emotion, the way he wants to go. The artist must work so hard, so long, that a brain develops and lives, all of itself, in his fingers.”*

That statement says more than I can about why to keep writing–through writer’s block, through temporary obsessions with baking and tennis, through momentary hatred of one’s own work. Keep writing. You’ll get there.

Signing off,

*Bradbury, Ray. “21 Ray Bradbury Quotes.” Writer’s Digest. electronic.

Reading with a Vengeance

For the last several months, I have been reading with more vehemence than I have in years. I devoured 3 books in the past week alone. I have been reading with a passion and a purpose. And I must confess, I am growing a little excited because I think it is finally working.

After writing novella-length work for ten years, I found myself in the most irritating writing ruts. One that pains me is my overuse of simple sentences. I could (and sometimes do) blame this on my job which requires me to record information in a very factual way. On the job, I write for clarity’s sake, focusing on the facts. This has indeed carried over into my creative writing, making for less than creative texts. With many writing friends literally scattered around the globe with lives and projects of their own, I turned to more immediate sources of aid. Short of enrolling in seminars I couldn’t afford, the best option to improve my writing seemed to be a steady diet of voracious reading. Since then, I’ve found I’m reading faster and forming my own thoughts more clearly. While this post certainly won’t win awards for originality or style, I did manage to sit down and type it out in less than an hour’s time without giving up because I couldn’t formulate my own thoughts, like most blog posts I’ve attempted. This, for me, is encouraging. May my fellow writers too be encouraged to continue writing, reading, and recording thoughts, feelings, and stories.

Signing off,

The Sherlockian – A Review

Wandering the library stacks, I pulled The Sherlockian at random and read the inside dust jacket. Intrigued and amused by the summary, I promptly included it on my book list. That was over a year ago. And another trip wandering through the stacks brought me back to the book. It was destiny.

The Sherlockian by Graham Moore tells two stories: that of two unlikely detectives who search for the lost volume of Arthur Conan Doyle’s diary and that of what occurs within the pages of the missing diary. Harold, a life-long devotee of Sherlock Holmes, is finally inducted into the exclusive society, Baker Street Irregulars just days before one of the prominent members is murdered at a Sherlockian convention. Enter the conveniently-present female journalist and let the case begin. However, there’s a twist to Graham Moore’s technique—he alternates between the two plotlines every chapter. So Chapter 1 is about Arthur Conan Doyle and Chapter 2 is about Harold, Sarah, and deerstalker caps. I am not usually a fan of this method because the author normally leaves far too much time between chronological plotline and flashbacks, leaving the reader disoriented and scrambling to decipher what happened the last time he was reading about 1899. Moore, by keeping the two plotlines moving forward chronologically at the same time, pulls it off brilliantly. Moore combines humor, intrigue, pathos, and drama to create a truly compelling mystery. The humor misled me, at first, that this would be a charming, well-crafted mystery—one that you would read by a warm fire. Yes, it is charming and well-crafted. But it is also more. It uses the conventional mystery genre to discuss the artist’s relationship with his art, the effects of grief, the existence of pain, and the consequences to one’s actions. If you want a book that will make you feel good at the end, then pass by The Sherlockian because you will not likely “feel good” at the end. If you want a book to engage you and possibly challenge your assumptions, whether you agree with its conclusions or not, The Sherlockian is a good choice—especially if you like crime novels, mysteries, or anything remotely related to Sherlock Holmes.

Disclaimer: There are flaws in this book and there are things with which I seriously disagree. If you want my opinion beyond a basic review of the book, ask me—I’ll give my praise and my points of contention. But I had not the time nor space to do so here. While this book contained far less foul language that I tend to expect from contemporary literature, let us say that it has its share of both Victorian and contemporary obscenities and innuendoes. The crimes are gruesome and disturbing. However, the gruesome crimes in The Sherlockian was not described in as gruesome details as it could have been. And I appreciated Moore’s restraint.

There were a few unexpected side effects to reading this book. First, I actually took the time to write a review of it—something I rarely ever do, even to books I consider among the best in literature. Second, I had no idea that Bram Stoker would be my favorite character in the book and that I would be including Dracula by Bram Stoker on my book list. Third, I grew so engrossed in my reading I was startled three times by people approaching that I had not heard at all. So beware for all you who work with heavy machinery—do not read this book on the job.

It is not amazing to me that people enjoy Sherlock Holmes stories. But it will never cease to amaze me how much artistic materials other writers, actors, and directors have gleaned from the books and expanded on them. Arthur Conan Doyle was the only one who could write the original Holmes. But that is what is so good about storytelling. You can take characters, stories, ideas from someone else and re-tell them, embellish them, and change things around to create an entirely new story. This is precisely what Graham Moore has done. With enough history to make it almost credible, enough humor to make it entertaining, and enough intrigue to keep you on the edge of your seat, Moore has told the story of Arthur Conan Doyle’s search for a murderer and Harold White’s search for a journal—both men in their own way looking for the solution to a final problem. So if you’re looking for a new twist on an old story, check out The Sherlockian this summer.

What about you? What is on your reading list this summer?

Just Call Me Jack…

What would you do for a box of split peas? Jack, of the notorious beanstalk tradition, traded away a cow for magic beans. So if a stranger showed up at your door with 25 pounds of yellow peas, what would you give in return?

It had been a long day at work. When I arrived home to an unexpectedly empty house, I was approached by a rather hesitant teenage girl in a soccer jersey. Now, this teenage girl and her friends in the cul-de-sac were not exactly intimidating. But if you grew up where I grew up, you would underestimate no one. So I remained in my car with the door locked and asked loudly, “Can I help you?”

The girl waved nervously and said, “Um, we’re playing a game from my school and it’s called Bigger and Better and we’re trading for stuff. Is there anything you would like to trade?” I suppressed the urge to say, “everything in my yard sale stack.” The girl continued, “We have a door, a sink, and a box of split peas so far.” I decided to act as friendly as my neighbors had and got out of my car. “Let me go inside and check,” I said. Food is food regardless of whether I’ve ever eaten split peas or not. As I went into the house, I heard her say, “It can be a piece of junk, just something you want to get rid of.”

But what to trade? Our yard sale stack was a motley assortment indeed. After rummaging through my sister’s tennis racket, a stack of paper hats, and a purse, I spotted a pair of broken roller blades. A pair of broken roller blades for a bag of peas? It just might work. I grabbed the purse as my back-up deal and headed to the door.

Two teenagers awaited me outside as I held up my trade. “I have a pair of broken roller blades.”

“That’s perfect,” one said. “Here is 25 pounds of yellow peas–all for you.”

Twenty-five pounds? That was more than I expected and they were yellow peas, not split peas. Ah well, it made no difference to me. I took the decidely-lighter-than-25-pounds-box from her arm. I had a new treasure. I was going to fix all the yellow pea recipes I could find, put some bags in my church pantry, and throw the rest out for our neighborhood rabbits. But as I examined the bag, I noticed something small and brown moving around inside.

The best-laid plans go oft awry when your bag of yellow peas has a family of grain bugs. So out the door the yellow peas went–all 7 pounds of them. I felt all too much like Jack from the Beanstalk story. But, who knows? Maybe they are magic peas and I’ll be rewarded with a goose laying golden eggs for my act of quasi-neighborliness. I’ll let you know once I get back from climbing the giant peastalk that grew up in my yard.


What Are You Gonna’ Do With Your Life?

I hate that question–perhaps because I rarely have a coherent answer, which is normally prefaced by “In Specs’ perfect world, she would_______.” What goes in that blank? Well, for now, it’s still a blank for me and for many post-college individuals. Events have made me wonder recently whether I and my fellow-college-grads-without-a-plan have been looking for the wrong thing.

If you said the name “Elizabeth Goudge” to a group of college English students, chances are that none of them would know the name. Sadly, her biggest claim to fame in recent years is that J. K. Rowling said that The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge was her favorite book as a child. While this has sparked some interest in Goudge’s work, she remains largely unknown to most readers. In her novel, The Dean’s Watch, I read one of the most interesting descriptions of a life-calling. The book details the interweaving of several lives in an 1800’s English village. Mary Montague is an elderly spinster at the start of the book to whom everyone turns for advice, but few know her own story.

Growing up with physical ailments and no special talents, Mary thrived on her dreams of the adventurous things she would do when she grew up. During adolescence, her dreams were shattered when she began to realize that she would not have the chance to live those dreams. Here, Goudge shows us the start of Mary’s journey.

“There was no end to the entrancing careers that she mapped out for herself, and in all of them her starved longing for love was satisfied up to the hilt.

The phantasy world, she discovered, had tentacles like an octopus and cannot be escaped without mortal combat, and when at last her strong will had won the battle it seemed as though she were living in a vacuum, so little had the real world to offer the shy, frustrated, unattractive girl who was the Mary she must live with until she died…What should she do?

She never knew what put it into her head that she, unloved, should love. Could mere loving be a life’s work? Could it be a career…like nursing the sick or going on the stage? Could it be adventure? Christians…had to love, as a wife had to obey her husband and an actress had to speak her lines when the curtain rose. But what was love? Was there anything of anybody that she herself truly loved? …[With sudden honesty, Mary realized] she loved [her] cat and Blanche’s Bower. It came to her in a flash that is must be wonderful to hold God and be held by Him, as she held the cat in her arms…and in turn was held within the safety and quietness of the bower. Until now she had only read her Bible as a pious exercise, but now she read it as an engineer reads a blueprint and a traveler a map, unemotionally because she was not emotional, but with a profound concentration because her life depended on it. She saw that all her powers, even those which had seemed to mitigate against love, such as her shrewdness which had always been quick to see the faults of others, her ambition and self-will, could by a change of direction be bound over in service to the one over-mastering purpose. She saw that she must turn from herself, and began to see something of the discipline that that entailed.

It was then the central figure of the Gospels, a historical figure whom she deeply revered and sought to imitate, began at rare intervals to flash out at her like live lightning from their pages, frightening her, turning the grave blueprint into a dazzle of reflected fire. Gradually she learned to see that her fear was not of the lightning itself but what it showed her of the nature of love, for it dazzled behind the stark horror of Calvary.

At some point along the way, she did not know where because the change came so slowly and gradually, she realized that He had got her and got everything. His love held and illumined every human being for whom she was concerned, and whom she served with profound compassion which was their need and right, behind the Cathedral, the city, every flower and leaf and creature, giving it reality and beauty. She could not take her eyes from the incredibly glory of His love. As far as it was possible for a human being in this world she had turned from herself. (Goudge, The Dean’s Watch)

At some point in our lives, we have all been Mary, frustrated with the loss of our expectations and left with an uncertainty of how to proceed. We focus on what are we going to do and think mainly of career options. Should I be a this or a that? Perhaps, what we should focus on is how we live. Because the truth is, often our worry is not based on “Can I pay my bills?” (Although there are many people who face this as their primary concern, but that’s a post for another day) Often we are concerned more with why are we here, what is our purpose, and what is worth pursuing. All three of those questions underlie our anxiety about “what am I gonna’ do when I grow up?”

The more I live, the more I am convinced that a career is not why we are on this earth, and therefore my anxiety about a career is greatly lessened. I am here to know and love God. And by knowing Him, and learning what love is from His example, I, like Mary, am to pass that love on to others. And I cannot know what love is and I cannot love others if I do not know God because He is the source of love. He is the living example of love–He who gave Himself that I might live and not die. What is love? It is patient, kind, humble, long-suffering, and wants the best for others. “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation of our sins.” (I John 4:10).

That’s what I want to do with my life. Love.

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