Tag Archives: reading

Unlikely Treasure

As a child, I had little stashes of treasure. Translucent plastic beads, water-snail and mussel shells found in the Harpeth River, glass marbles, a ring with a little blue-glass jewel my brother gave me, a goat skull found on my godmother’s farm, a teardrop-shaped prism that filled rooms with tiny shards of rainbow, dried reindeer lichen, cheap pot-metal ornaments painted gold and set with faceted rainbow-glass, a lop-eared rabbit-puppet named Hazel (cookie points to anyone who gets the reference), an army (I’m not kidding, if they were alive and feeling militant, they could overwhelm you) of plastic horses.

Green Glass Marbles by George Hodan http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=25338&picture=green-glass-marbles

Green Glass Marbles by George Hodan
www.publicdomainpictures.net

All things that are nearly, or completely, worthless in a monetary sense. But I think most people will easily understand that they are anything but worthless to me, even today.

Along with these objects, I kept, and still keep, deeper and even more precious hoards. Memories, words, emotions, pictures of places, sounds, smells, anything and everything that has struck a certain note in me. It is a very specific note. I can feel it vibrate, and it is always the same, though the things that cause it are so utterly disparate that even I cannot see the connection. I only feel that there is a connection.

I hunt for something, constantly. The very fact that, having these treasure-troves already, I am still hunting, tells me that these things, while they touch what I am looking for, are not the thing itself. Smoke on the wind, pine sap, limestone boulders… almost, almost! But the moment passes as soon as I know it has come. I’ve tracked my quarry and won a glimpse, but it has disappeared, again, amidst the trees and all I have left are tracks.

I worry, sometimes, that these hoards are of the world, and perhaps, in a sense, they are. They, themselves, that is. But the chord they strike, that is of such power and purity that I cannot imagine it having its source anywhere but in God. Perhaps I, and all my fellow creatures, are in danger of mistaking the source of the want, for misunderstanding what we are hunting. I could spend my whole life believing that I am seeking the things that reflect the light, and find once I have them, the light is gone. But at the same time, if it were not for the reflections these things give me, what would I know of the light?

Maybe I am wrong. But it seems that if so, at least I am not alone in my error.

I’ve been listening to an audiobook copy of The Problem of Pain, by C. S. Lewis. Something he says near the end, in Chapter 10, made me think of my strange dragon-hoard.

I’m not sure, yet, how this is going to work, but I feel the need to explore the passage and my reaction to it. I think it will take at least one more post. It may take several. We shall see.  In the mean time, here is the passage itself. I’ve whittled it down a little for brevity’s sake, but I recommend picking up a copy of the book and reading the whole chapter (or, for that matter, the whole book, it is very interesting).

Warning, Lewis speaks about Pantheism, below. From what I know of him from his writing, I think his words are not intended to insult, but simply reflect his view. After all, he introduces this chapter as nothing more than his personal speculation. Still, it is possible to take it as an attack on pantheistic religions. I am not a pantheist, I believe that Lewis’s words are probably correct, but I mean no insult to anyone in posting this. If your beliefs differ from mine, feel free to express them (politely, please) in the comments below.

You may think that there is another reason for our silence about heaven, namely that we do not, really, desire it. But that may be an illusion. What I am now going to say is an opinion of my own…

There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven, but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else.

You may have noticed that the books you really love are bound together by a secret thread. You know very well what is the common quality that makes you love them, though you cannot put it into words. But most of your friends do not see it at all, and often wonder why, liking this, you should also like that. Again, you’ve stood before some landscape which seems to embody what you have been looking for all your life, and then turned to the friend at your side who appears to be seeing what you saw, but at the first words a gulf yawns between you and you realize that this landscape means something totally different to him…

Are not all life-long friendships born at the moment when, at last, you meet another human being who has some inkling, but faint and uncertain even in the best, of that something which you were born desiring and which… year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for…?

You have never had it. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it… echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest, if there ever came an echo that did not die away, but swelled into the sound itself, you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt, you would say “here, at last, is the thing I was made for.” We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want… While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all.

This signature on each soul may be a product of heredity and environment, but that only means that heredity and environment are among the instruments whereby God creates a soul. I am considering not how, but why He makes each soul unique. If He had no use for all these differences, I do not see why He should have created more souls than one. Be sure that the ins and outs of your individuality are no mystery to Him, and one day they will no longer be a mystery to you.

The mold in which a key is made would be a strange thing if you had never seen a key, and the key, itself, a strange thing if you had never seen a lock. Your soul has a curious shape because it is… a key to unlock one of the doors in the House with many mansions. For it is not “Humanity” in the abstract that is to be saved, but you… God will look to every soul like its first love because He is its first love. Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you, and you alone, because you were made for it…

It is from this point of view that we can understand Hell in its aspect of privation. All your life an unattainable ecstasy has hovered just beyond the grasp of your consciousness. The day is coming when you will wake to find, beyond all hope, that you have attained it, or else that it was within your reach, and you have lost it forever. This may seem a perilously private and subjective notion of the “Pearl of Great Price,” but it is not. The thing I am speaking of is not an experience. You have experienced only the want of it. The thing, itself, has never actually been embodied in any thought, or image, or emotion. Always it has summoned you out of yourself, and if you will not go out of yourself to follow it, if you sit down to brood on the desire and attempt to cherish it, the desire itself will evade you.

The door into life generally opens behind us, and the only wisdom for one haunted with the scent of unseen roses, is work. The Secret Fire goes out when you use the bellows. Bank it down with what seems unlikely fuel of dogma and ethics, turn your back on it and attend to your duties, and then it will blaze…

Such is my opinion, and it may be erroneous. Perhaps this secret desire, also, is part of the old man, and must be crucified before the end, but this opinion has a curious trick of evading denial. The desire, much more the satisfaction, has always refused to be fully present in any experience. Whatever you try to identify with it turns out to be, not it, but something else, so that hardly any degree of crucifixion or transformation could go beyond what the desire, itself, leads us to anticipate. Again, if this opinion is not true, something better is. But “something better,” not “this” or “that” experience, but something beyond it, is almost the definition of the thing I am trying to describe.

The thing you long for summons you away from the self. Even the desire for the thing lives only if you abandon it. This is the ultimate law. The seed dies to live, the bread must be cast upon the waters, he that loses his soul will save it. But the life of the seed, the finding of the bread, the recovery of the soul are as real as the preliminary sacrifice. Hence it is truly said of heaven: “in heaven there is no ownership.” If any, there, took it upon him to call anything his own, he would, straight-way, be thrust out into Hell and become an evil spirit. But it is also said: “to him that overcometh, I will give a white stone, and in the stone, a new name written, which no man knoweth save he that recieveth it.”

What can be more a man’s own than this new name which, even in eternity, remains a secret between God and him? And what shall we take this secrecy to mean? Surely that each of the redeemed shall forever know and praise some one aspect of the Divine beauty better than any other creature can.

Why else were individuals created, but that God, loving all infinitely, should love each differently? And this difference, so far from impairing, floods with meaning the love of all blessed creatures for one another: the communion of the saints.

If all experienced God in the same way, and returned Him an identical worship, the song of the Church Triumphant would have no symphony. It would be like an orchestra in which all the instruments played the same note… Heaven is a “city” and a “body” because the blessed remain eternally different, a “society” because each has something to tell all the others: fresh and ever-fresh news of the “My God” whom each finds in Him whom all praise as “Our God.” For, doubtless, the continually successful, yet never complete, attempt by each soul to communicate its unique vision to all others, and that by means whereof earthly art and philosophy are but clumsy imitations, is also among the ends for which the individual was created.

For union exists only between distincts, and perhaps from this point of view, we catch a momentary glimpse of the meaning of all things. Pantheism is is a creed not so so much false, as hopelessly behind the times. Once, before creation, it would have been true to say that everything was God. But God created, He caused things to be other than Himself that, being distinct, they might learn to love Him and achieve union instead of sameness. Thus He, also, cast his bread upon the waters. Even within the creation, we might say that inanimate matter, which has no will, is one with God in a sense in which men are not. But it is not God’s purpose that we should go back into that old identity… but that we should go on to the maximum distinctness, there to be reunited with Him in a higher fashion.

C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

Note: this is a transcription from audio. I cannot vouch for the punctuation, spelling, or even the exact wording, but I have done the best I can under the circumstances.


Double Mind

Sometimes I wonder if the only difference between an author’s mind and someone with multiple personalities is awareness.

Of course, this won’t apply to all authors. There seem to be as many ways of writing as there are people who write, but I know at least a few others who have the same sort of relationship to characters as I do.

Yeah, I said “relationship,” and that really is the best description I can find, for my characters seem to occupy a niche in my mind, something that separates them from me and allows me to mentally engage with them.

For instance, I can enjoy a piece of music, and I am the one who is enjoying it. But sometimes I will sense a reaction to the music that I associate, not with myself, but with one of my characters. They stir, sometimes they even “claim” something, and forever after I will associate that thing with that character.

One example is that I cannot read or watch any form of vampire-related story without the running commentary of one of my particularly reactive characters. He finds Anne Rice humorous, he snarkily calls the Twilight brood “My-Little-Vampires” …which is, I think, rather unfair to the My-Little-Ponies of this world, he says True Blood makes him want to beat his head against a wall for the next fifty years, and he’s rather intrigued by Bram Stoker’s Dracula, though he rolls his eyes at certain excessively Victorian passages. On the whole, he insists that vampires are monsters and is not a fan of humanizing them. Considering what vampires are like in his universe, and the fact that he, himself, is one, I can definitely see his point of view.

And yet, it isn’t really my point of view. I agree with him about some things, and disagree about others. That wouldn’t be so disconcerting if it were objective. If I were able to step back and think “this character would react to this thing in this way.” That would be character-building in the way most non-writers I know think it works (and that may be how it works for some lucky people).  But no. It’s a feeling, a sense that comes unbidden. I don’t think about it, I feel it, and the only thing that separates it from my own feeling is a conviction that it belongs to one of my characters.

No, please! Don’t call the men in white coats. I only do what the voices tell me to do on paper. Er, you know what I mean. I hope.

I think this process makes me a better writer. It certainly makes my life interesting.

Today, one of my character’s “discovered” a poem I’ve known since childhood. I like the poem. It means things to me, has a certain texture and light. But now I see it also through another set of eyes, and evermore I will associate it with her, and her feelings, as well.

She has a different relationship to roads than I do. She is always looking for the road home, a road into the past. Sadly, for her, all roads only lead into the future, and she knows it. But knowing something is impossible does not take the longing for it away.

In other words, to her, this poem carries with it a deeper poignancy, a kind of sadness I, as myself, would never quite find in it. Isn’t that one reason people read? To share experiences that they, as themselves, will never have? Perhaps, too, some of us write in order to walk, for a little while, in another’s boots and see the world through other eyes.

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The Road Not Taken
By Robert Frost

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Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
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Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
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And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
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I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
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I’m always interested to hear how other writers relate (or don’t relate) to this kind of interaction. So, please! Comment! And if anyone has questions, I’ll do my best to answer them.
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Apart from being generally talkative, sometimes my characters seem a bit authorcidal. More thoughts on influence and inspiration can be found here.
If you’re interested in fiction tidbits, or more thoughts on writing theory, prod the tabs up top. “Fiction” under “Words and Faces” is my stuff. “Writing” and “Writing Theory” have my musings about the craft itself.
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I know I’ve said, before, that I plan on adding new mask-pics to this blog. I promise that I still plan on doing so soon!
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Songs that Come to Us out of Strange Places

There is a lot contained in this post, I will only touch on one small aspect, so you should go read it for yourself. Thank you, stephencwinter, for letting me re-blog it!

Reading people have relationships with books over the course of their lives. All people have relationships with stories.

Sometimes, when a child, you like books that, as you grow, you will outgrow (though they may still carry a lovely sheen of nostalgia). Then there are the books, those wonderful books, that grow with you. There are books one has to grow into, and sometimes books that are written “for children” find you later in life and have great impact.

That is, if you let them. Some folks feel, or believe, that “childish” books are unfit for adults, and some dismiss entire genres of story-telling and art because they consider them “juvenile.” They are welcome to their opinions, of course, but I cannot agree.

There is something to be said for growing into books you would not have been able to appreciate as a child, but one shouldn’t, I think, have to grow out of any good book, no matter the genre or the “age bracket” for which it was written. By all means, read and love Tolstoy, but there is no reason to turn your back on A. A. Milne.

Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings

It is through the intervention of the Ents of Fangorn that victory is won at Helm’s Deep but this frightens the Riders of Rohan more perhaps than did the enemies they faced in the battle. For a kind of disenchantment has been at work among them for a very long time. You may remember that when Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli first encountered Eomer and his war band upon the plains of Rohan they met with mistrust and some fear. When Eomer heard that the friends had met Galadriel in Lothlorien he reacted with both wonder but also fearful hostility.

“Then there is a Lady in the Golden Wood, as old tales tell!” he said. “Few escape her nets, they say. These are strange days! But if you have her favour, then you also are net-weavers and sorcerers, maybe.”

Théoden’s reaction to his first encounter with Ents is less hostile, perhaps…

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A George MacDonald Quote

“Contempt is murder committed by the intellect, as hatred is murder committed by the heart.”

David Elginbrod, by George MacDonald


That gun is loaded

Riza Hawkeye, from Fullmetal Alchemist by Arakawa Hiromu.

Nothing like a sniper to teach one gun safety. Riza Hawkeye, from Fullmetal Alchemist by Arakawa Hiromu.

Would you feel comfortable with someone waving around a gun they do not know is loaded? How do you feel about someone who is not a marksman doing trick shooting?

No, this is not a post about Gun Control or Firearm Safety, it is a post about writing.

No one in their right mind will deny the fact that stories humans tell have patterns. Some of these patterns, over time, become so common that they earn the title of “trope” or “cliché.”  You know some of them by sight, having seen them again and again. New ones appear every so often, Sometimes old ones go out of fashion, and sometimes they return and, for a little while, seem new again. Sometimes “new” tropes and clichés are actually old ones in disguise.

Let me pause a moment to define how I am using these terms:

Trope: a common or overused theme or device

Cliché: something that is so commonly used in books, stories, etc., that it is no longer effective

A trope can be a cliché, but not every trope has to be. “Cliché” is what happens when that loaded trope misfires and a character, scene, or entire story dies to the reader’s interest because of it. I know you know the feeling.

That moment, in a movie, where that thing that always happens, happens and you groan inside. For that moment in the story, if not for the whole of it, the writers have lost you. You are back in reality and rolling your eyes at the choices made in creating the film.

The story lies bleeding. Maybe it’s just a fleshwound. Maybe it is fatal. Either way, it could have been avoided.

So the question becomes: How can we, as writers, practice acceptable trope-safety?

Step 1: Awareness

We are all inundated with tropes. Whether they would arise from our minds independently, or whether we are simply fed them from early childhood, they are in us. Chances are the first thoughts coming out of your head when you sit down to write, are tropes. In order to avoid any unpleasantness later on, you need to learn to recognize them, see them for what they are.

Step 2: Acceptance

I am of the opinion that tropes are neither good nor bad. I know people who struggle to avoid them altogether. The truth is, that is a trope in itself and often creates meaningless mush. Tropes exist, and continue to exist, because they serve purposes, and often serve them well. Fearing them is counter-productive. You will never be able to write anything meaningful by avoiding them completely. If you don’t believe me, spend some time wandering around tvtropes.org*. There is a trope for everything.

*Warning. This website will eat your time like a huge time-eating sarlacc.

Step 3: Education

So we cannot avoid tropes. What, then, should we do with them to prevent accidental story mutilation?

Before a firearm can be either safely used, or safely discarded (whatever your preference) the person who has it must know what it is and think about what they want to do with it. The key is education and thought. Learn to recognize tropes, decide not to fear them, and then be deliberate in how you use them. The difference between effective use of a trope and a trope-turned-cliché can be very slight.

This sounds vague, I know, but I cannot tell anyone how to use tropes because there are so many and I have no idea how any writer, other than myself, wants to use them. I think there are a few strategies, though.

a. Turn the trope a little. Don’t change it entirely, but tweak it (and make sure you know if the tweaked trope is also trope). Think of this like a feint. Your audience gets something just different enough from what they expected to cause them to look at it more closely.

b. Flip it. This one is pretty common, so be careful. It is usually referred to as an inverted trope. Princess saves knight can work quite well, but inverted tropes are tropes, too, and can become cliché or, worse, feel forced.

c. Play it straight. Be very intentional. Know what you are doing, and have a good reason why. It is a little safer to do with with less-common tropes, but sometimes it’s fun to go with the “well-worn.” Just try to avoid doing this by accident because purposeless tropes easily become boring or even annoying.

d. Subvert it. If there is a trope you really don’t like, consider using it to make a point against itself. This is the ultimate bait-and-switch of storytelling. I don’t particularly like this strategy, though it is sometimes very effective. Just be careful not to make war on straw.

e. Leave it. If the story will work just as well if you abandon the trope, or move to a less-expected one, then maybe you should do that. While tropes can be fundamental to plot or character, often times they are just trappings. Trappings can matter a lot, but not all are of equal worth.

f. Beware the implications of your tropes. This isn’t so much a strategy as very good advice. If you write about a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, make sure you don’t miss the problematic undercurrents. Whether you play them straight or subvert them, being unaware of them can undermine whatever story you are trying to tell.

Ultimately, this post is me working through these questions for myself. I value input, and if this post has helped make you more aware of tropes, or helped you see new ways of dealing with them, then I am glad. Many times have I seen a perfectly good story or character fall prey to careless trope-use. If I can see it less in my own work, and less in the work of others, I will be very happy.

Do your part to reduce story mortality!

Practice Trope Safety:

Awareness, Acceptance, and Education.

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I would like to dedicate this to BeKindRewrite. I promised her, long ago, that I would write this post.  She has written many good articles on this kind of thing, too. For starters, check this out: How to Be Original

Riza Hawkeye from the anime Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, adapted from the Fullmetal Alchemist manga by She's awesome with handguns, too. Riza Hawkeye from the anime Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, adapted from the Fullmetal Alchemist manga by Arakawa Hiromu.

She’s awesome with handguns, too. Riza Hawkeye from the anime “Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood”, adapted from the Fullmetal Alchemist manga by Arakawa Hiromu.


Happy are Those Who Struggle

A thoughtful and beautiful post on spiritual struggle couched in an examination of The Lord of the Rings. Stephencwinter’s blog has many great posts like this. You should go check them out!

Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings

If Sauron were leader of the Fellowship, setting out from Rivendell in possession of the Ring, what would he do? Gandalf knows that it is a question that Sauron has asked himself. Sauron knows that the Fellowship left Rivendell and that they possessed the Ring. He knows something of each member of the Fellowship and that there are hobbits among them. And Gandalf knows that he fears that the Fellowship will go to Minas Tirith and there one of them will wield the Ring, assail Mordor with war, cast him down and take his place. Boromir counselled  that they should go to Minas Tirith but not that one of them should wield the Ring. He hid this desire even from himself.  And Gandalf and Galadriel were tempted to wield the Ring as well. Remember the occasions when Frodo offered the Ring to them, first to Gandalf at Bag End in…

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Language and Perception

One moment last night can be described in similes; otherwise it won’t go into language at all. Imagine a man in total darkness. He thinks he is in a cellar, or dungeon. Then there comes a sound. He thinks it might be a sound from far off-waves or wind-blown trees or cattle half a mile away. And if so, it proves he’s not in a cellar, but free, in the open air. Or it may be a much smaller sound, close at hand-a chuckle of laughter. And if so, there is a friend just beside him in the dark. Either way, a good, good sound. I’m not mad enough to take such an experience as evidence of anything. It is simply the leaping into imaginative activity of an idea which I would always have theoretically admitted- the idea that I, or any mortal at any time, may be utterly mistaken as to the situation he is really in.
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Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them- never become even conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?
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-C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
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This could pass without comment, and for the most part, I will allow it to do so. I read this passage, this morning, for the first time. I am sure subsequent readings will reveal other facets, but for now, two things strike me.
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One moment last night can be described in similes; otherwise it won’t go into language at all.
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Someone whose writing I greatly value and respect feels the same restrictiveness of language that I do.
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Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them- never become even conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?
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Yes. Just… yes. If I could remind myself of this constantly, I would, and if I could teach others one fundamental rule for interacting with each other and the world, it would be this.

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