On Writing

For as long as I can remember, I have loved writing. But I have always resisted the idea that writing might be a part of my identity and calling in life. I’m not sure why. Recently that has been changing.

I realize now that my childhood home was filled with books in a way that was unusual. My parents were often to be seen reading. My older brother Alex quickly became a devoted reader, blasting through stacks of novels. All of this rubbed off on me, and things which I took to be unremarkable I now see as a foreshadowing of things to come.

I remember having two truly excellent English teachers who both left a mark on me. The first was Mr. Wiggins, who taught me in both grade 5 and grade 6. He was an extremely tall man with large glasses. For some reason I don’t remember what his voice sounded like. He was funny. He would write long sentences across the blackboard and then when he got to the end of the space he would continue writing on the walls of the classroom. To a schoolchild, even a hint of playful rebellion in an authority figure like a teacher is delightful. He got ten and eleven-year-olds to learn words like extemporaneous and calamity and vociferous. I ate it all up, the lessons and the assignments.

Once, when we were told to bring something to read quietly in class, I brought one of our treasured Calvin & Hobbes books along with a dictionary for looking up words I didn’t know. Mr. Wiggins was impressed. I still think Calvin & Hobbes is pretty brilliant and a great way to expand one’s vocabulary:

“Pathetic Peripatetics!”
I probably had to look up “transcendental.”

The other excellent English teacher that left a mark on me was a Mr. Bellamy in high school. He also was a popular teacher. He taught us to write. I don’t remember how he did it, but the end result of it was that I very badly wanted to write the most excellent pieces of creative writing in order to impress him. I worked at it diligently over that year and submitted papers I was proud of. As someone who mostly breezed through school, that level of effort was a new experience. He read those papers carefully and handed them back with copious comments and sometimes a personal conversation too. I couldn’t pinpoint exactly how, but I know for a fact that I’m a better writer today for having had Mr. Bellamy as a teacher.

Some years later, and after my spiritual rebirth at the age of 19, I wrote a short reflection on writing. I recently found it tucked away in an old file in my computer backups. I had forgotten I had ever written it, so it felt like I was reading someone else’s words:

What is writing? It is notation. But there is writing and then there is writing. And the latter sparks revolutions, both quiet and cataclysmic. Writing is communication bordering on impartation. It is a medium so broad that the loftiest ideas imaginable have room aplenty to cross the great divide between these independent entities we call minds.

I wonder, I wonder; am I a writer? Oh I can notate just fine, but can I impart? Can I, with the finesse and restraint of an artist, craft and swirl, lift and push, yes and with finality make a collection of words that imparts the ineffable? Can I sow seeds of the good without the soil’s knowledge, at least until after the fact? Can I teach the eye to see, and yes even to love, the beautiful even as it lusts for the profane? Can I in some small way affect that impenetrable centre of being, the heart, with what I can only pray will be a taste, an appetite, yes a hunger, for that essence which is sourced entirely in the threefold Spirit of the I AM?

Can I be a writer? Probably not. But can I write? Well I hope so. 

I think I wrote that in my early 20’s, about 15 years ago. What I like about that reflection above is that it expresses something I still feel deeply, namely that words have this mysterious but undeniable power to nudge us towards virtue or vice, towards God or away from Him.

Despite writing occasionally on this blog and receiving some affirmation here and there, it has only been in this last year that these lingering questions have been answered for me as doors have opened up for writing and editing in a more public way. One of those open doors has been over at TGC Canada, where I’ve been able to write a serious book review, a piece of cultural criticism, and a piece of spiritual reflection. In each case I’ve been blown away by the positive responses.

In addition, I’ve been given opportunities to do some editing by an extremely accomplished author and editor, Dr. Michael A. G. Haykin. Here is the first look at the fruit of that partnership:

Dr. Haykin is very generous with his time and advice, giving me a chance to work in the world of publishing like this. In addition to this volume on John Gill which will be published this year, we are working on two other projects.

This all has seemed too good to be true. It’s almost like I’m a writer!

Well, I guess I am. I’m just going to have to get used to the idea.

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As I was waiting for the Rogan piece to be published, I was rather nervous. I had worked on it for months. I had really pushed myself to weave together a narrative that was compelling, intellectually stimulating, and edifying. And as such it felt like more of a risk, and like more of my self was wrapped up in it. When it finally came out, the response was a bit overwhelming for an almost-complete novice to the online writing world. Tim Challies linked to it, and then the main TGC USA site featured it in their Around the Web links for a day. Collin Hansen tweeted it out. I got asked to do a radio interview for a Christian station in Pittsburgh.

And all this happened on the week of the 10th anniversary of my mother’s death, in early March. I tried to write about that at the time, but nothing seemed to come together. It was a strange mix, the marking of a sad milestone along with success in the sphere where my mother had the most influence on me. She was a writer and an editor too. And although I don’t remember sitting down with her to get tips on writing and editing, I know I picked up a lot of things along the way.

I noticed how hard she would work at finding just the right word, as evidenced by the scribbled and scratched-out notes covering her text. I saw how she stressed out over the regular column she had to write for the magazine she edited, yet somehow always found something to submit by the deadline.

Looking back now I guess it makes sense I would end up so involved with words. But all along the way I see how people in my life—my parents, teachers, and others—earned themselves an unpayable debt of gratitude by investing in me and giving me opportunities. Ultimately my writing and editing, like every other aspect of a Christian’s life and calling, is a stewardship of what has been given by God, and faithfulness is the call.

I have tried to write well even when only one person would ever read my words. I have tried to think and write well even when the number of readers of this blog was less than ten. In a sense, the numbers truly don’t matter, and until they don’t matter, the writing itself is tainted. That is something else I learned from Bill Watterson: to do a thing for the love of it and no other reason. (I got this from his only public speech). It is analogous to Eric Liddell’s feeling that God was pleased when he ran, for He had made him to run. My own motives are always mixed, but this is the north star I try to orient them by.

The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
    indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.

Psalm 16:6

On the Writing of Novels

I joked about writing a novel a few days ago, but the truth is that I feel as far from writing a novel as ever before.

Seriously, just thinking about it makes me feel like this:

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It’s similar to a one-legged man who has always dreamed of climbing mount Everest. He arrives at base camp and gets a taste for the effects of high altitude and the difficulty of, well, climbing the world’s highest peak with half as many legs as is typically needed. In other words, he gains an appreciation for the immensity of the task, and the romantic glow which accompanied the thought in his mind is replaced by a stagnant dread.

Recently I discovered that my brother is into writing electronic music, and being musically inclined myself, I asked him to show me how he does it. I figured I could take a look at the interface and whip up something decent sounding in a few minutes. Well, not so much. He uses an online interactive in-browser set of tools that is as expansive as it is complicated and intricate, from mixing boards to effects pedals to wave synthesizers and loops, each with dozens of settings and adjustments. I didn’t even know how or where you could even start putting notes down, never mind putting together something with any more complexity than The Itsy Bitsy Spider in C major.

Even if I could manage to produce a sound that I liked, and wrote a little hook, to think of building upon that layers and layers of individually tailored sounds and beats and loops, each requiring a mastery of minutiae, is just overwhelming. The effort required to focus all your faculties on tiny details all while holding in your mind a vision of the entire piece so that each created section fits cohesively within the whole is simply staggering. And writing a novel is just like that. In that sense, even the most basic and formulaic novel is an impressive achievement, never mind creating believable characters that draw you in emotionally, scenes that play out in the readers’ minds with 1080p clarity, story arcs that are suspenseful and thrilling, and a depth of humanity and honesty that moves the work from mere entertainment to literature.

Maybe, I hope, I’ll get there someday. But for now I’m sticking with bite-sized pieces that my mind can wrap itself around. I’ll leave the grand weaving to others who feel so inclined, and heartily cheer when they do it. It is no small task. My humble goal this month is to submit a short story I’ve written to the CBC Canada Writes Creative Non-Fiction Competition. All the previous winners seem to be legit published authors with actual credentials so my expectations are low, but that’s not a reason not to try!

So here’s to you, novelists: well done, well done indeed.

*slow clapping*

Announcing My New Upcoming Debut Novel Pioneering An Entirely New Sub-Sub-Genre

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Do you love horse-drawn carriages and the sweet smell of manure wafting across the endless prairies? Do you long for the thrill of international espionage and counter-terrorism? Well thanks to me you won’t have to spend one single more candle-lit evening sitting at home and wondering how you’ll ever be able to reconcile these two passions…

Well that’s it, I’ve decided to throw my lot in with all those countless aspiring authors. The problem is: how to get noticed? How can one stand out of the crowd? Or conversely, how can one find a niche so nichey that one becomes a big fish in a very, very small pond? Well, as I was driving to Wal-Mart today to buy more Hot Wheels cars for mysel– I mean my son — I had the idea of a lifetime. Well actually I shouldn’t be quite so modest; it was the idea of a generation, an era, an eon. What if I could take a niche and niche it a little further? And then what if that new niche was actually a hybrid super-genre with massive public appeal? Well shoot if I haven’t gone and done it.

segwaycommandosIn fact it wasn’t terribly complicated – I simply combined the one genre that all Christians who are female and between the ages of 12 and 82 can’t resist: Amish Romance, with one of the hottest selling genres of all time. No, not vampires – someone beat me to the punch – I’m talking about the very first Amish Romance Geopolitical Terrorist Plot Thriller.

The title will be:

A Bomb in Her Bonnet

Synopsis: The incredible based-on-a-true-story story of a young Amish woman who rebels, heads to a massive city of twelve thousand people, and falls in love with a rebellious occasional drinker of alcoholic beverages who turns out to be a CIA spy who actually turns out to be a Middle-Eastern terrorist mastermind who forces this poor damsel to become the world’s first Amish Suicide Bomber by threatening her fourteen younger siblings with iPhones and Netflix accounts and similar forms of torture. She pretends to go along with the plot but secretly informs the police by way of carrier pigeon that she is indeed carrying a bomb in her bonnet. With the help of an extremely handsome, pious, and conservative police officer, she thwarts the threat and returns home on horseback and he proposes to her in the rain and they marry and have lots of children.

Scheduled for release in late March 2014, with sequels every six months afterwards, you may want to pre-order these puppies because they will sell faster than Twilight at a Justin Bieber concert.