A Friend Named Robert

Robert Benson.2

In the winter of 2004, I found myself in unexpected conversations with a publisher about the possibilities of my first book. In unfamiliar territory and attempting to wrap my brain around the strange world of publishing (and particularly, the far stranger world of publishing houses that cater to the religious market), I asked the acquisitions editor if I could talk to one of their authors to get a feel for how their press operated. The editor suggested I chat with Robert Benson, and there were few names she could have given that I would have welcomed more. A year earlier, Miska read Between the Dreaming and the Coming True and Living Prayer, an encounter which moved Robert onto that special section of our bookshelf reserved for our beloved writers, writers who had something of substance to say but who offered this substance with tender care for sentences and stories. We like the writers who do not beat the mystery off the page.

Robert and I chatted on the phone, arranging a meet up at the Frothy Monkey in Nashville, one of his haunts. I stood outside in the March cold, and a large black Mercedes slowed to the curb. As we’ve later rehearsed our meeting, Robert promises me he has never owned a Benz, but that is precisely how I remember it. Perhaps in my subconscious it’s just that Robert seems like the sort of man who deserves to own a Benz, if anyone does. Robert wore black pants, black long sleeve shirt, black shoes, a greying pony tail poking out from under his Yankees cap. He looked like the literary version of Robert De Niro. We ordered coffee, and Robert welcomed me into the writing world. He gave me advice providing a wise corrective for an upstart suffering from the temptation to strive too hard to manage his reputation (a reputation I didn’t even have). “Don’t take yourself too seriously,” Robert said. “simply be thankful when someone will pay you to put words on a page.”

In the years since the Frothy Monkey and the Benz that doesn’t exist, Robert and I have stayed in touch, though not as often as I’d like. A quick email. An off-the-cuff phone call about something one of us has written or just a hello. A couple visits. I now consider Robert a friend, and I trust he would say the same of me. In an email between myself and another good friend, Robert referred to me as “Our man in Virginia.” I like that. Funny what strikes you, huh?

There are a small cadre of writers I deeply respect, for their years tending to the work and settling comfortably into their well-weathered voice. It’s a real achievement in this world to labor, over a lifetime – refusing the fast way (if there really is such a thing), paying honor to the craft, staying quiet when silence is required, keeping clear of the dog-n-pony show as much as possible (and it’s never entirely possible), being a good human, helping others be good humans. It’s also a thing of beauty to encounter a writer who is a storyteller in the old sense. “Story” is all the rage these days, but I’m not sure if many of us know what we’re talking about. True storytellers do not let their too-many words get in the way. True storytellers believe the human experience powerful enough and painful enough and joyful enough to stand on its own, so their pen simply opens up the possibilities for us to hear it and see it fresh. I think most of us are too self-conscious for this kind of simplicity. Maybe we just need more years. Maybe we need more hunger. Robert is a true storyteller.

This is why I wanted to dote on Robert a little. I want you to know how much I admire him, how much I cherish him as one of our good writers. Robert has just released his newest book (or as Robert says, “no one unleashes one of my book upon the market, so much as they come and tell me it is time to give it up…”), and this is one Robert has teased me with for a long time now. Dancing on the Head of a Pen: The Practice of a Writing Life reflects on the intersection of spirit and art. If you are a writer, you’ll find every shade of joy in these pages. If you love reading good words, you’ll cherish this book at your bedside table. If you think about beauty or useful work or being human, Robert will be a friend to you.

Robert has been a generous friend to me. He has encouraged me in my writing when the terrain looked bleak. He’s been an advocate for me. Everybody needs a few friends in their life like Robert Benson, and I’m thankful.

Once Robert told me: “When in doubt, make sentences.” I’ve found this both helpful and hopeful. You can replace “sentences” with whatever your good work happens to be, and it shakes out just as well.

Magic of Oz

the-wizard-of-oz-dvd-cover-63

 

Happy birthday, Lyman Frank Baum. You were one crazy coot.

Can you imagine a world with no Oz, no Scarecrow or Tinman or Cowardly Lion, no Toto, no Dorothy clicking her red shoes? While the witch still freaks out my boys and Miska has never really jumped on the Baum bandwagon, even they wanted to see James Franco in the updated backstory. Even they honor the fact that Baum gave us something profoundly unique.

I heard a radio story last year narrating how Wizard of Oz had been reworked (plagiarized might be a better term) in Russia a couple decades after Oz made its splash in the U.S. Baum’s creation captured the Russian imagination so powerfully that ‘Emerald City’ became an iconic cultural moniker. Shopping centers, childcare centers and even night clubs popped up all over the country with the name ‘Emerald City’ plastered in bold, green letters. When a Russian cultural historian was asked about this ironic phenomenon (remember the stereotype of hardened enemies in the Cold War rebuffing all things Capitalist and American) was possible, he answered: “We were desperate for magic.”

We are all desperate for the magic. Baum made us a little magic. Why don’t you go out and live well and live bold and give us a little more.

Margaret Feinberg

When I pause to trace the narrative of how I was able to bumble my way through the publishing labyrinth and into the writing vocation, the generosity of a handful of people (three to be precise) lead the story. Margaret Feinberg is one of those three.

margaretIf I recall, we first met on a writing project, a series of books I was editing for a new publishing house. The publisher passed along chapter contributions I was to consider, and Margaret’s words rose to the top of the pile. I was intrigued because she had a richness, an intimacy, to her voice that I’d seen precious little of among Christian authors. I immediately liked Margaret for two other unrelated reasons: (1) at the time, she was a ski instructor in Crested Butte (thus, living one of my second lives), and (2) if existing vocabulary didn’t fit her work’s needs, she’d simply craft her own words. For our project, Margaret concocted Inbetween, which she described as the “place between here and there. A piece of ground in the middle of take-off and landing…[where] paths are lined with sealed envelopes and foggy dreams.” Good, right? I’m pretty sure that a couple years later I plagiarized, using Inbetween without appropriate credit. Margaret, this is my public apology.

Over the next few years, Margaret had my back. She encouraged my writing. We commiserated over the lay of the publishing land. I remember several calls where we walked one another through potentially treacherous publishing negotiations. I doubt that two of my books would have ever seen the light of day if Margaret hadn’t been on my side. Margaret introduced me to Leif, her very cool husband – and they even allowed me to crash their house in Juneau, where I enjoyed the Alaska experience and watched their dog Hershey (it was on that trip that Margaret introduced me to Madeleine Peyroux, and I will be forever grateful).

Of course, in the decade since we met, Margaret has gone on to smashing success. Beyond selling over 600,000 copies of her various books and publishing efforts, Christianity Today named Margaret one of the 50 women shaping culture and church – and she’s received multiple other accolades and descriptors. You can read all about them on her bio.

Amid all this, though, what matters most to me is that Margaret is the same sincere and love-drenched Margaret I met ten years ago. Every once in a while, Margaret and Leif remind me that they pray for me, and I believe them. Margaret writes what she has come to believe – and she writes those things that she hopes to believe even more. Margaret writes as a woman who has seen something true, something she must tell us.

Margaret’s new book Wonderstruck has this quality. In it, she narrates the ways God found her anew, the ways God took her by surprise. Margaret began her traverse with these lines:

I have a hunch that I’m not the only one who has misplaced the marvel of a life lived with God. Faith invites us into an enchanting journey—one marked by mysteries of divine beauty, holy courage, irrepressible hope, unending love. But in my life, any sense of the splendor of God had faded. I knew I needed God to reveal himself once again to awaken me from my sleep, to disturb me from my slumber. And so I prayed for wonder.

I like the idea of wonder, very much. I also like how, in Wonderstruck, Margaret recommends the practice of three-word prayers. I can manage that.

Thank you, Margaret, for living generously. I hope many, many others receive the generosity you freely give.

Writing Notes

The past couple weeks, I’ve had a fresh burst of writing energy toward a new book project (coy look interjected here). I haven’t felt this writing vigor for a while, and I receive the gift with open arms.

But today, once again, I’ve come up blank. Zilch. Nada.

Amid the vast blankness, I’ve been handed time to think again about this maddening art I love. My cursor over on my other page sits there, blinking at me, taunting me – so I defiantly move over here to write down what I want to remember – and, if you are a writer, what I hope you’ll remember.

//surrender the quest for brilliance//

Most writers I know have flashing visions of receiving that gold-embossed envelope (okay, I have no idea if it is actually gold-embossed but that’s the way I conjure the moment) acknowledging, with accompanying accolades, that we have won the National Book Award. However, most of my fantasies are slightly less ambitious (but only slightly). I’d like to receive a phone call from my editor, breathless, over this masterful prose of mine she has just read, singularly unlike the work from any of her other vagabond writers. I’d like for The New Yorker to get in line behind The Atlantic, wrangling to publish this writer (me) who, “writes with unparalleled grit and beauty – a new literary light.” (And, yes, they are free to use my quote)

Dreams are fine things; I’m a fan. However, something gets twisted when we aim to write words that are monumental. Most of life is plain, simple, and most writers are plain, simple people. Our job is to give away what we have. Most days, that’s going to be a little trace of life, a whiff of love. A story here. A question there. Maybe we will stumble upon something that opens up new terrain, or maybe we will just stumble. Whichever, our writing must be true. If we aim for brilliance, chances are we will only create dull fabrications –  because most of our days (and most of our words) are not brilliant but ordinary.

We can hope for brilliance – that’s a good hope, I think. But we do best to shoot for truthfulness and the hard work of simple, elegant craft – and then hold it out to the world with an open hand.

//read…but not like that//

Every writing advice I’ve ever seen says that writers should first be readers. True enough. However, we are tempted to read with a critical eye, comparing someone else’s skill to ours. This is all the truer when we face the deep abyss of our own lackluster writing, sitting there with nothing but the reminder of someone else’s “genius.”

Here’s the deal: every book you read, every article or blog post is not an indictment against you (but this blog post is, definitely). Seriously, we can’t read others through the eyes of what their work says about us. We have to move through our jealousy over others’ successes. Who can say why they succeed and we don’t. Or why they turn a sharp phrase or have such an amazing quick wit or are so freakin’ remarkable. Maybe they’re just a better writer. Maybe the timing was right for them. Maybe the Green Publishing Goblins just have it out for you, and you will always and forever be screwed (well, probably not that).

None of that matters. Really. Though the Amazon rankings suggest different, we are actually on the same team. We are all artisans of beauty, truth and goodness. And, God knows, our world needs all the beauty it can get. Thank the cosmic muse for every good word that finds it way free. And pray that here and there, along the way, you set a few free as well. I bet you will.

//yeah, that//

Cliche alert: Writing is hard work. Annoying, I know. Book club legend has it that Cormac Mcarthy wrote The Road in a single sitting. I doubt it, though that would explain the whole no punctuation thing – the man was in a hurry. (And if it is true, and McCarthy did write The Road all at once, first draft, forget my previous paragraphs – Cormac is a grade-A literary punk and I hope he rots in the very, very bad place for…ever.)

I feel like there’s much more to say here, but “hard work” pretty much sums it up. And my editors have always told me “less, not more.”

The Challenge of Easter {5}

Retaining and Forgiving Sins
{justin scott}
On this fifth Monday of Easter, our guide for the fifth chapter of The Challenge of Easter is Justin Scott. 

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N.T. Wright spends the final chapter of The Challenge of Easter on two topics: the implications of the Easter story in our day-to-day lives and the epistemology of love. As a young Christian with a science degree and an overgrown quarter-life identity crisis, both topics are of profound importance to me. But in the interest of time I’ve chosen to focus on the former.

My journey into what it means to live the gospel in one’s vocation began years ago with a nagging feeling that as a Christian, I am just not radical enough. I believe in a God who condemns my non-believing friends. I believe in his son, who said I should pluck out my eye if it causes me to sin. I believe in saints who died on crosses hung upside down for preaching about this God and his son. I have found myself awake at night trying to reconcile these things with my average, urban, American lifestyle. Why is it that most Christians seem called to pretty comfortable lives?

Many Christian teachers in my life have tackled this problem. The concoction of reformed Protestantism I grew up with went to great lengths to blur the lines between the sacred and the secular, to explain that all truth is God’s truth, to convince me that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever—which means doing my job and loving my neighbors as best I can to his glory. With this background I come to Wright’s challenges: to bring to the world the shape of the gospel, to set up sign posts which say there is a new way to be human, to find new ways to tell the story of redemption.

And lo and behold in the third paragraph of chapter five, Wright speaks directly to me about how these things might be done:

“If you work in information technology, [I do!] is your discipline slanted toward the will to power or the will to love? Does it exhibit the signs of technology for technology’s sake, of information as a means for the oppression of those who do not have access to it by those who do? Is it developing in the service of true relationships, true stewardship and even true worship, or it is it feeding and encouraging society in which everybody creates their own private, narcissistic, enclosed world?”

I will ignore what sounds like a swipe at the internet in that last sentence and say that I wish I felt that there are good answers to these questions for me, because it would mean a profession much more inspiring than the one I’m in. It’s hard not to feel that at some level Wright doesn’t get it. I design circuits for a living. These circuits and their purposes are not slanted toward power or love. Their technology does not oppress or free others. They do not encourage a closed or open society. It’s just not that glamorous.

I wish it was. I want desperately to be a part of something bigger—something that really does erect a proverbial billboard for forgiveness and redemption. I’ve written pages upon pages on my personal blog about this, which may be just the work of a guy in his roaring twenties trying to make sense of his idealism. The truth I keep coming back to is that for many of us, our professions do not lend easily to creating symbols of redemption. What then are we to do? How then should we live?

In all my years of asking many, many forms of this question, I’ve come to only one real conclusion (which many days I still find a lacking appeasement for my restless ambition): obedience. It’s summed up well in a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, shared with me by this conversation’s first writer, Nathan Elmore:

“We have literally no time to sit down and ask ourselves whether so-and-so is our neighbor or not. We must get into action and obey—we must behave like a neighbor to him. But perhaps this shocks you. Perhaps you still think you ought to think out beforehand and know what you ought to do. To that there is only one answer. You can only know and think about it by actually doing it. You can only learn what obedience is by obeying. It is no use asking questions; for it is only through obedience that you come to learn the truth.”

If God calls me into some vocation which reflects the undercurrent of his redemption, it is he who must call me. It isn’t my job to determine the course; it’s my job to follow. My job to spend time with him, listening for his guidance. My job to serve those he brings into my life. My job to repent. My job to love and to serve. My job to make each decision he brings with an eye towards forgiveness and generosity. My job to obey.

Such ideas are not lost on Wright. In my favorite line of the chapter, he states: “The Christian vocation is to be in prayer, in the Spirit, at the place where the world is in pain, and as we embrace that vocation, we discover it to be the way of following Christ, shaped according to his messianic vocation to the cross, with arms out-stretched, holding on simultaneously to the pain of the world and to the love of God.”

Amen.

Justin is an engineer who plays the piano. He lives with his lovely wife Erin in Washington, DC, and struggles to make sense of it all at guessworktheory.com.

The Challenge of Easter {4}

The Light of the World

{miska collier}

On this fourth Monday of Easter, our guide for the fourth chapter of The Challenge of Easter is Miska Collier. You can read the series introduction or read more about our writers. And you can catch up on the first chapter discussion here; second here and the third here.

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Theology of Gender is a six week class I’ve led a number of times over the past eight years. I adore this topic, mostly because the redemption of my own femininity is a huge theme in my story. During our six weeks together, we look at Genesis 1-3 and discuss the creation of gender, the true design of the masculine and feminine, the Fall and the way the curses are still playing out in our hearts and lives. We close by talking about the journey of redemption and what it means to reclaim what has been lost.

I love sitting in Genesis 1 and 2 and talking about how God created this world—light and dark, stars, water, living plants and living creatures, the masculine and the feminine—and how all is as it should be. All of creation is living out its true design in a lovely harmony. There is beauty, wholeness, perfect intimacy. Adam and Eve were naked body and soul and were unashamed. No shame! Can you even imagine?

However, moving from Genesis 2 into Genesis 3 (the fall and the curse) is agonizing. A heaviness settles on us as we encounter the deep sorrow of loss, the fracturing of God’s great dream and of our very souls, and the separation (from God, each other, our world and even ourselves) that we wrestle with this very day, this very hour.

Chesterton wrote that “according to Christianity, we were indeed the survivors of a wreck, the crew of a golden ship that had gone down before the beginning of the world.” Genesis 3 details that shipwreck, and we are silenced with the heart-breaking and poignant picture of God walking through the wreckage, uttering his cry of lament: “Adam, where are you?”

But we are not left with desolation. There is another picture we have now, thanks to the “unique, climactic, decisive” act of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

It’s the picture of a different garden on “the first day of the week” (conjuring up images of “in the beginning”), and a woman named Mary who thinks she is talking to the gardener. . .which, in fact, she is. It is the resurrected Jesus, and something new, something cataclysmic, is taking place.

Wright says, “Just as in Genesis, so now in the new Genesis, the new creation, God breathes into human nostrils his own breath, and we become living stewards, looking after the garden, shaping God’s world as his obedient image-bearers.”

So our first garden–and the experience there—has been and is being redeemed.

And our new vocation, as Wright notes, is to bear the image of God in this world, which means participating in the “redemptive reshaping” of His creation.

And just how to we do this, you might wonder. Well, who can really say? It’s messy and mysterious and is, to borrow a phrase from another of my favorite theologians, a long obedience in the same direction. But the essence of bearing God’s image–and the high call of Christianity–is love, and Jesus is our teacher.

In the words of Thomas Merton: “To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. . .Love is my name.”

Miska is married to the best man she knows (which just happens to be the owner of this blog) and is the mom of two crazy and winsome boys. She also serves as a spiritual director at All Souls C’ville. She’s a sucker for a good story, loves motherhood even though sometimes it makes her want to gouge her eyes out, and can consume vast quantities of Diet Coke and chocolate in a single bound. Miska blogs on a very irregular basis at forthesweetloveofgod.

Marilynne Robinson

Tonight, I enjoyed an evening listening to Marilynne Robinson speak on The Human Spirit and the Good Society. Robinson won the Pulitzer for Gilead, a read that finds the unique tension of being both peaceful and energetic. I enjoyed Gilead immensely. In addition to her several works of fiction, she is also an essayist and a potent theological voice.

Here are a few of the lines I jotted down this evening:

We have an impulse to conform reality to theory.

We are both terrible and wonderful.

There is no strictly secular language which can translate religious awe.

We are not reproducing a traditional America but rather arming ourselves with an imagination of hostility toward our neighbors.

If you create a symphony, you have done a great thing, but if you are able to sit through a symphony and be moved by it, you have also done a great thing.

If you’d like to read more about Robinson as a writer, Powells has a nice interview, and if you would like to further explore her theological bent, Christianity Today did a recent piece on Marilynne as a “narrative Calvinist” and the Religion and Ethics News Weekly recently interviewed her.