Jesus was busy.

Last week, I told you about Forest, an app that helps with productivity. I’ve been using it again this week, and it’s helping me a lot. I have quite the little forest going. Actually, it’s more of a meadow; I’m currently planting grass tufts instead of trees.

This week, I want to tell you about something infinitely more important than productivity: a quiet heart. I would like to quote at length from a book I am rereading, A Praying Life by Paul E. Miller. Here is what Miller says about the integrated nature of the praying life:

Many assume that the spiritual person is unruffled by life, unfazed by pressure. This idea that the spiritual person floats above life comes from the ancient world and, in particular, the Greek mind–although we see it strongly in the Eastern mind as well.

But even a cursory glance at Jesus’ life reveals a busy life. All the gospel writers notice Jesus’ busyness, although Mark in particular highlights it. At one point Jesus’ family tries to stage an intervention because he is so busy. “Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him,, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind'” (Mark 3:20-21). Given the sacredness in the ancient world of eating together, Jesus’ life seems out of balance. But he loves people and has the power to help, so he has one interruption after another. If Jesus lived today, his cell phone would be ringing constantly.

The quest for a contemplative life can actually be self-absorbed, focused on my quiet and me. If we love people and have the power to help, then we are going to be busy. Learning to pray doesn’t offer us a less busy life: it offers us a less busy heart. In the midst of outer busyness we can develop an inner quiet. Because we are less hectic on the inside, we have a great capacity to love…and thus to be busy, which in turn drives us even more into a life of prayer. By spending time with our Father in prayer, we integrate our lives with his, with what he is doing in us. Our lives become more coherent. They feel calmer, more ordered, even in the midst of confusion and pressure.

Paul E. Miller, A Praying Life (NavPress, 2009)

I feel both a longing and a conviction when I read this. I deeply crave this life of inner quiet. But I recognize in myself the misguided pursuit of external calm. I can use all the focus apps I want do yoga in the middle of the afternoon but still feel frazzled and worried and bitter toward people who (as I see it) demand my attention. Quietness of soul is not about tools or resources, though those can help. Miller concludes his book with a section on prayer tools, and he acknowledges the importance of having a literally quiet place to pray (though he never says that’s the only appropriate environment for prayer). Quietness of soul, though, comes from acknowledging my need for the Lord from the outset—not waiting until my day is falling apart around me, but even when I wake up feeling pretty smart and together (which sometimes happens).

I’ll conclude with a quote from Emily P. Freeman that nicely sums up what Miller wrote and what I am contemplating these days. (This quote is from the show notes of an episode of her podcast, The Next Right Thing: https://emilypfreeman.com/podcast/the-next-right-thing/59/)

Just like any ordinary practice can be a spiritual discipline if it brings us into the presence of God, so can any ordinary place be a sanctuary if we will to see it so.

Cultivating quietness in our lives is less about our stage of life and more about our state of mind. You can be busy and soulful at the same time. The key is in paying attention.

what historical fiction readers really want

Last week’s post on the challenges of writing historical fiction garnered more copious feedback than my posts typically do, including a book recommendation from my uncle; some thoughts on the benefits and challenges of research from my former student Kandy Crosby-Hastings, a historical fiction writer herself (read her savvy observations in the comments to last week’s post), and some comments from my dad, which I’ll return to shortly. I also received a nuanced response and respectful critique from another former student and my occasional Twitter interlocutor (occasional because I’m really bad at Twitter), @Andy__Ford, and it is his epic series of ten tweets that I would like to spend most of my post engaging with today. And that’s because I realized, after reading his comments, that my previous post presented an unfairly generalized portrayal of historical fiction readers. Today, I’d like to complicate that portrayal a bit.

My post last week was directed toward historical fiction writers, not readers. I was also trying to be amusing, which sometimes gets me into trouble. I was also trying to keep my post relatively short. So I fell back on the bogeyman story that I tell the students in my creative writing research class: If you don’t do your research, those cranky historical fiction fans will find all your mistakes and eat you alive in a public forum!!! Although it supports the basic premise of my course—research is important—this story is based on a caricature, and like all caricatures, it is rather unkind. Here is Andy’s response: “I don’t think those Goodreads trolls actually exist, and if they do, they’re probably in the minority….As a reader I am happy to suspend my disbelief so I can enjoy a story, and I think most readers are like that.” In other words, historical fiction fans aren’t waiting to pounce on writers for committing an anachronism; they just want to enjoy a well-told story like readers of any genre do. My conversation with my dad reinforced this point: he sent me a really bad review that he gave a book classified as historical fiction. But he criticized the book for bad writing, not for historical inaccuracy, and so he applied the same standards that he would to any book. As Andy said in another of his tweets, “I don’t think the details matter as much as the feeling”–the feeling, that is, of what it must have been like to live in the world where the story is set.

While writing this post, I remembered something. Last week, I claimed that I had never written historical fiction except for a Civil War story I handwrote in elementary school. But just now, I remembered the short story called “Dinner Party, 1885” that I wrote at the end of the summer between the two years of my master’s program. I had spent the summer maxing out my check-out limit at my university’s interlibrary loan department, reading everything I could get my hands on from and about the Victorian period, including a number of 19th-century health and hygiene manuals, which related directly to the topic of the thesis I was about to start writing. By the end of the summer, I felt like I was a Victorian, and so that short story flowed out of me in a way that no piece of writing has since then (certainly not these blog posts!). I was proud of that story, and it ended up being published in my university’s literary magazine. (P.S. A long shot–If anyone still has that issue of Lamp, could you scan a copy for me? I don’t have the story anymore.) But here’s the key: I don’t think I spent much if any time looking up details like what the exact cut of my protagonist’s waistcoat would likely have been. I wrote the story from the feeling I got from reading all those books, from immersing myself in the period. Yes, if I were to expand that story into a book and/or try to market it to a wider audience, I would probably do some fact-checking. But that would be an afterthought, not the heart of the story. And so we return to the point I made at the end of my last post: no amount of accuracy can make up for a bad story with stilted characters.

I hope I’ve done some greater justice to historical fiction writers and readers this time around. Keep the comments coming!

 

the challenges of historical fiction

I had fun last week interviewing Jordan! Thanks for the questions you submitted and the great feedback you gave me afterwards. If you send more questions, I’d be happy to do a part two (and Jordan will do it whether he’s happy about it or not), so if there’s anything else you want to know about Jordan, please let me know in the comments below or via your favorite method of getting in touch with me.

This week’s topic was suggested by reader Robert Stiles, a prolific writer and a YouTuber at Channel Legendarium, where he explores a variety of historical, literary, and mythological topics. Robert, who’s been doing some research for a new historical fiction work, suggested that I write about the challenges historical fiction writers face. He said, “Stanley Kubrick noted that you have to inform your audience about the period enough to get the story, while still telling a story first and foremost.” (By the way, Robert, if you know the source of that statement, could you let me know? I didn’t come across it in my highly detailed [not] research, which consisted of googling “Stanley Kubrick historical fiction.”)

Although my enjoyment of historical fiction goes all the way back to my early elementary school years, when I had the American Girls catalog memorized, I have never attempted writing in this genre myself. (Exception: A short story called “The Considerate General” that I hand-wrote around third grade, at the peak of my childhood Civil War obsession.) In fact, you probably couldn’t pay me to touch it. There’s no way I’m opening myself up to the criticism of fans who really know their medieval weapons or Regency fashions and who won’t hesitate to call out a mistake on Goodreads. Astute readers of historical fiction can catch anachronisms much more subtle than the standard example I give my students–a cell phone in a Shakespeare play. Here’s the thing: I don’t have the discipline to do the research it would take to write a quality work of historical fiction. But I do teach a class on research for creative writing, and I’ve found (well, I knew this before developing the class, but the class has confirmed it) that historical fiction is probably the most research-heavy fictional genre, with only sci-fi giving it a run for its money.

Brief digression: This is not to say that other genres don’t require research. The whole point of my class is that creative writing never just comes out of the writer’s head. For Sam’s Town, a contemporary novel about an improbable event that nobody, to date, can fact-check (the zombie apocalypse), I still had to do research on everything from broken legs to the Ohio Turnpike. I also wanted my novel to fit into one specific strain of zombie apocalypse lore, so I had to research the rules of that body of lore.

So one of the risks of writing historical fiction is that you won’t do enough research and your readers will expose you as a screwup. (I’m only slightly exaggerating.) But the equal and opposite risk is that you’ll get so bogged down in your research and your world-building (what would you call this in historical fiction? world-recreating? world-evoking?) that you’ll forget you’re actually writing a story. I see this often with my students in the class I mentioned, especially those who choose to write historical and science fiction (or both–I currently have a student who’s researching for a project that involves both time travel and the Black Death). Their proposals are full of excitement about the research they’re going to do, but when I ask them what’s going to happen in the story, they’re at a loss. Or they end up turning in a thinly-veiled research paper, in which all the dialogue consists of characters reporting the author’s findings. I hope this doesn’t come across as mean-spirited toward my students; they have only four weeks to pull off the daunting task I’m asking them to do. And many of them do it quite well. But that risk is always there.

If you’ve written historical fiction, what were some of the challenges you faced? Next week, I might look at this topic from a reader’s perspective, so if you’re a reader of historical fiction, let me know some of your favorite books and authors, as well as some of your pet peeves.

Sam’s Town–the paperback

cover

Hi everyone, I’m back with some exciting news: I just submitted the paperback of Sam’s Town to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing for review. If it passes quality inspection (and I see no reason why it won’t, with this fantastic cover by Mike Nair!), it will be available for purchase within about two days. I will post another announcement when I receive confirmation, but in case I forget or am busy (a likely scenario, these days), I wanted to go ahead and give you the news. Mark your calendars for the end of this week! Just search the book title and my name on Amazon.com.

writing for joy

My grandfather, John Vernon Stockslager (we called him Pappy), passed away last week. My uncle preached his funeral sermon on Monday, and he mentioned something I had almost forgotten about: Almost 20 years ago, when Pappy first got a computer, he created a series of comic strips about two birds named Tweets and Blu. Technically speaking, they’re simple and even a bit rough–he used the Draw program in Windows to create them–but they’re funny and big-hearted and short, just like Pappy. Also at the funeral, one of my cousins read aloud a poem that Pappy had written not long ago. (We had also read one of his poems at my grandmother’s funeral nine years ago.) At some point during the service, I was struck by the sudden realization that although it had always seemed normal to me that my grandfather, a retired electrician and farmer, drew cartoons and wrote poems for fun, it’s actually not that common for adults to do these things. Kids do these things, and then when they grow up and decide they’re not good enough to get paid to do them, they get embarrassed and stop. Pappy never stopped.

I see this same impulse to write for the pure joy of it in Pappy’s children and grandchildren, particularly in my own immediate family. The examples range from the short-lived family newspaper my sister headed up when we were kids–The Fine Five–to my brother’s songwriting to my dad’s extensive reviews he posts on Goodreads for every book he reads. I see it in my own blogging and fiction writing. None of us are getting paid to do these things. Maybe we could, if we worked harder at marketing ourselves or knew the right people. But while I can’t speak for anyone else in my family, I can say that I’m content with writing for a small audience of family, friends, and Facebook connections–and for the delight it brings me. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m content with this, like when I see colleagues’ blogs and YouTube channels going viral or when I watch other people in my Facebook writers’ group (which I feel like a poser even belonging to) finding great success in self-publication through a combination of persistent marketing and real writing skill. I admire those people, and what I’m about to say is not, by any means, meant to fault them. But for me, I think it’s a useful discipline to be able to see the value in sharing my writing with the people who matter most to me, even if it reaches no further than that. That’s what Pappy did. I remember there was some talk of looking for a wider distribution channel for Tweets and Blu, but his family was always his favorite audience, whether for his comic strips, his poems, or his music, which I haven’t even mentioned in this post. (And he did get to play and sing in front of a wide range of audiences throughout his life.)

I’m not trying to make the worn-out, false argument that getting paid for doing something makes you love it less. But I do think there’s something to be said for writing–or drawing, or singing and playing–for nothing but joy. I’m thankful that Pappy taught me that.

Where do zombies come from?; or, I suck at worldbuilding.

In a Facebook creative writing group that I belong to, some of us are participating in a worldbuilding challenge. While the other participants are posting these wonderful comments about their historically and culturally rich worlds, I’m struggling to come up with something more profound than, “My characters like to eat Italian food.”

As you may know, I am writing a zombie apocalypse story that I envision as a source text for a movie. (You can read part of it here.) Though I would not go so far as to say that the zombie aspect of the story is little more than a set piece–it is thematically important for several reasons–I imagine that people who complain about The Walking Dead not having enough zombies and being a glorified soap opera would really have a lot to complain about in my storyMy story is about mental health, friendship, American small towns, Italian food…and zombies, roughly in that order of importance. So when people ask me questions like “How did the zombie apocalypse start?” and “Where are your characters getting water?,” my response is usually, “Hmm, I haven’t really thought about it.” (My characters have had coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and lots of Coke, but water completely slipped my mind. You can see where my priorities lie.)

In my defense, part of the reason I haven’t thought much about the origin of the zombie apocalypse is that my characters don’t know how it started, they won’t find out during the course of this story, and they don’t really care. This is partly because they’re too focused on their own problems (survival, relationships, where they’re going to get Coke) to ponder such existential questions, but it’s also partly because they (at least my two main characters) are big fans of zombie movies and TV. Let me back up for a minute: In most zombie stories, the assumption is that zombie lore doesn’t exist, so the characters are kind of scratching their heads, like “Huh, I wonder what’s happening?” So I decided to do something different. My characters may be useless when it comes to wielding weapons, but they’ve seen all of George Romero’s movies and every episode of The Walking Dead (I haven’t referred to the comics, but I assume they’ve read those too), so they at least have a vocabulary for what’s happening, and they know important things like the fact that you have to shoot or stab a zombie in the head in order to kill it. (I mean, kill it again.)

So, to return to my main point: The characters in those iconic stories usually don’t know why the zombie apocalypse is happening (or how to stop it), so my characters have become resigned to the same uncertainty. In Romero’s films, people speculate about why the dead are walking the earth, but they never figure it out. (The tagline of Dawn of the Dead provides the closest approach to an explanation: “There’s no more room in hell.”) In The Walking Dead, some of the characters visit the Centers for Disease Control and learn a theory from the one remaining employee (who could be crazy for all we know), but the only really useful knowledge they take from that encounter is that “we’re all infected”–i.e. everyone who dies turns, so try not to die.

This is my justification for why I haven’t given much thought to the logic of zombies in my story, but part of me suspects that the real reason is that I’m just not very good at worldbuilding. The commonplace is that writers are usually good at either creating elaborate worlds or creating relatable characters. Yet most of the people in my Facebook group seem to be experts at both. This gives me hope: Maybe I can learn, through challenges like this, to create elaborate worlds for my relatable characters to inhabit.

blog rebranding update and story excerpt

This summer–probably in July–I will finally be making the official, no-turning-back shift to the Hufflepuff Leadership blog. (Consider these past few months a soft opening.) In order to do that, I need your opinion. The colleague who will be helping me with the design is asking what I want the site to look like. Well, I know I want it to incorporate black and yellow and a badger; beyond that, I’m not sure. So here’s my question: Are there any blogs whose layout you admire? The topic is beside the point; I’m asking about things like fonts, use of white space, text organization, etc. Please let me know your favorites by commenting below.

And now, I’m going to take advantage of this time when my blog still doesn’t have a clearly-advertised focus and use today’s post to add to my work in progress, a road trip buddy sad comedy set in the zombie apocalypse. Every once in a while, I like to share a bit of this story with you (see an earlier excerpt here). Not into zombies? That’s okay; there aren’t any in this part of the story. Are you into Italian restaurants and/or mother and son reunions? Good, then you should keep reading.

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The restaurant looked (small and dim) and smelled (like a friendly ghost of garlic bread) just as Sam remembered it, except that the chairs and tables had been pushed back against the booths, leaving space for air mattresses and sleeping bags. Sam’s mother leaned over one of the chairs, bandaging a young man’s forearm. She was facing away from the door. Unlike her husband and son, Anna Larson was willowy. Her hair, which she wore in a braid like her immigrant great-grandmother must have worn hers, was nearly white, but the flannel shirt and faded jeans she wore gave her a youthful look that was surely unintentional. “Hey, Mrs. Larson,” said the man in the chair, gesturing toward the door with his free hand.

Anna turned around and saw her son, who was wiping his eyes with the heel of his hand. “Sam.” She strode toward him and hugged him. “We didn’t think we’d ever see you again,” she said, her voice muffled because her mouth was pressed against his ear.

“That’s what Dad said,” Sam said on a shaky exhale, pulling back to get a good look at his mother’s face. “And you’re…?”

“I’m fine,” she replied. “I’m getting to be a nurse again. It’s been–well, since you were born.” She turned around. “I think this is one of your old friends? He shot himself in the arm during target practice. We’re all learning here.”

The young man stood up. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, a few years older than Sam. He had the arms of someone who spent a lot of time in the gym and the abs of someone who spent a lot of time around garlic bread. “I just grazed the top of my arm. Could have been a lot worse, as klutzy as I am.”

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Well, there, I introduced my new character, which was my goal. If you’re interested in learning more, let me know!

safer and friendlier schools

At the end of my last post, I mentioned that my fan-fictional Hufflepuff prefect, Patrick Weasley, wants to go into the Ministry of Magic and work toward making school a safer and friendlier place for students. I didn’t get to clarify what I meant by “safer and friendlier,” so I want to take a moment to do that now. I fear that when some people read that phrase, their immediate reaction may be to grumble about how we make things so easy for kids these days and how we should be teaching them to grow up instead of coddling them. I’m glad these hypothetical curmudgeons brought this up because teaching kids to grow up and to thrive–i.e. teaching them resilience–is exactly what I’m concerned about too. 🙂

Before we can even have a conversation about resilience, we first need to understand that it’s necessary and acknowledge that childhood is hard. I wrote a post about this last fall, so I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that childhood is hard for everyone–you’re figuring out who you are and who everybody else is and how the world works–but it’s especially difficult for children who experience major forms of trauma. I just watched an excellent webinar by Dr. Allison Jackson and sponsored by Emote, and I’ve been given permission to share it, which I’ll do as soon as the recording is available. It’s the first in a series on identifying and addressing trauma for educators and anyone who works with children; for me, it’s relevant to both my children’s literature teaching and my volunteer work as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for abused and neglected children. Normally the word “webinar” doesn’t suggest engaging viewing, but I had tears in my eyes at one point during this one, and they weren’t tears of boredom.

When I talk about making schools safer and friendlier for kids, I’m not talking about making everything cheerful; I’m not talking about making everything easy–those things are impossible. I’m talking about letting kids know that they’re acceptable, even if they don’t have designer clothes and fancy lunches, even if they are a different size/shape/skin color from everyone else in the class. And then I’m talking about teaching them that they have the responsibility and the power to be kind to others. I will say more about this in future posts–or maybe Patrick will!