Short stories to order

For a while, I have been wanting to write more frequently and more diversely. Lots of short stories – one a month, one every two weeks – and with a variety of characters, settings, voices, and in a variety of genres.

Guys, this is really hard.

First of all, I’m just not great at holding myself to a short-story writing schedule. I have a hard enough time being consistent with the novel I’m working on.

Second, every short story I’ve worked on has, Leaf-by-Niggle style, become part of the larger universe I’m building. Not bad, at all, but not the goal.

As I was reflecting on how to fix this problem, I remembered that when I was in creative writing classes in college, I somehow managed to write a bunch of different stories. I just had assignments and deadlines.

So.

Premering the Short Story Order Form

Fill out the form, selecting various options for genre, voice, and character, and give me a prompt. Then, I’ll write the story (to the best of my abilities: remember, this is for PRACTICE) and send it to you, in an e-book/pdf form, all nicely laid out and designed. I’ll also be posting the stories to erinturnerwrites and to tumblr (link coming), unless you specifically request I don’t.

It will be fun!

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Top 10 Books of 2017 . . .

. . . and some reflections on my reading habits.

Last year I read 107 books, not counting half-read bits of things and academic articles. Some Many of those (28) were re-reads, and, despite my over-declared goal to read all the classics, they’re roughly represented (29 by my count, so less than a third, and they’re mostly re-reads). Still, not awful.

My goal this year is to read 75 books, and I’d like to continue attempting to raise the percentage of new classics I read. As I will (hopefully) be starting a Ph.D. program this fall, I’m not making firm commitments to anything reading-related, because I have no idea what kind of time I’m going to have. I suspect there will be a sharp uptick of re-reads and YA in October or so.

Anyway, you aren’t here for a reflection on my reading habits. Sorry! Here’s the top 10 books I read this year, in the order I read them.

Criteria: Newly read in 2017. Would 500% read again. Have sparked reflection. Will never be sent to the used bookstore. Are precious treasures.

  1. The Girl Who Drank the Moon Kelly Barnhill | After I read this, the book won the Newberry Gold Award. It is richly deserved. Almost a year later, I still think about it sometimes. A tightly woven, beautifully written fantasy about hope and sorrow. Simple enough for kids, rich enough for adults.
  2. Norse Mythology Neil Gaiman | Yes, it’s the one-thousandth retelling of the norse myths. But it’s done so wonderfully I don’t care. I actually listened to this one, a method I highly recommend. Narrated by Gaiman himself, all the delightfulness of the tales come through. They are wonderfully retold, retaining all their weirdness, with a narrative voice that contains a wink and a nod at times, while remaining serious.
  3. No Country for Old Men Cormac McCarthy | I think this is my favorite McCarthy novel I’ve read so far. (No, I just remembered The Road. Never mind). Set in contemporary Texas and Mexico, with a geography so accurate you can follow the story on a map (which I might have done), this is a tale of a young man who gets caught up with some seriously evil people, and the sheriff who tries to help him. It’s harshly beautiful and strangely hopeful somehow.
  4. The Bear and the Nightingale  Katherine Arden | This is historical fiction and a Russian fairy-tale retelling that are so skillfully mixed together you just start assuming the fairy-tale parts are true. Vivid and evocative.
  5. Mariner Malcolm Guite | A nonfiction work for a change. This literary biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge focuses on Coleridge’s little-discussed spiritual journey. It’s a thorough and well-written book, honest about, but honoring of, the famous poet.
  6. The Fayborn Trilogy J. Aleksander Wootton | Yes, this is a trilogy, but it’s all one story so I’m putting it here. I really loved this clever and elegant story. See my reviews for Her Unwelcome Inheritance, The Eighth Square, and A First or Final Mischief for more.
  7. Eliza and Her Monsters Francesca Zappia | This YA romance is about Eliza, the teenage creator of a wildly popular web comic. But in real life she struggles with anxiety. It might have been the timing, but I really appreciated Zappia’s honest portrayal of someone with mental illness, and the story was charming, to boot.
  8. All The Crooked Saints Maggie Stiefvater | A wonderful, spare book, told in Stiefvater’s characteristically beautiful prose, about families, and darkness, and miracles. It’s quite different from her other works, and possibly my favorite.
  9. The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic Emily Croy Barker | Another fantasy, this one with a rich world and vivid characters. I appreciated that although Barker’s novel featured several conventional elements – woman trapped in fantasy world, dark and Byronic and magic potential love interest – she avoided the conventional results of those elements. Nora remains true to herself and her convictions throughout the novel. And the love story stays far, far away from Twilight-land.
  10. The Ladies of Grace Adieu Susannah Clarke | A collection of short stories by the author of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, set in that world. Mostly focused on female practitioners of magic, these stories vary in style and tone, but all feature that unbelievably rich world-building that characterizes Jonathan Strange. Indeed, these stories serve to flesh out Clarke’s alternate England even more. Also, she first attracted notice – by Neil Gaiman and others – with her short fiction, and here it’s easy to see why.

 

 

Recalibrating Your Compass: Image, Story, Song II

Version 2
Andrew Peterson’s plenary talk. St. Mary’s, Cambridge, UK

At Oxbridge this summer, Andrew Peterson gave a talk on calling that was beautiful and inspirational and very helpful to me in unraveling the tangled clump of string that was the things I had been wrestling with.

This past week I drove to Houston and back (itself the subject of another post) and, having received the audio of all the Oxbridge talks a few weeks ago, listened to it again.

The talk didn’t land in the same way this time, which was fine because I didn’t need it in the same way. Mostly, I nodded my head as the almost-fall landscape of middle-of-nowhere-East Texas whizzed by at 80 mph and I understood why I’d been so impacted the first time.

This post isn’t actually about that talk, not really, though I do recommend stalking the CSLewis.org website until/if it’s released.

For a while now, I’ve been thinking about an aspect of life and faith that image, story, and song can influence or even shape, but I hadn’t had the key to resolve it all into something communicable. In the talk, in a list of a number of things one can do to pursue one’s calling, came this: “Re-calibrate your compass.”

Yes, I thought. That’s it. This is what I wanted to say:

Thanks to Oxbridge and internet wormholes, I’ve discovered some new music recently. My current album* is Ghost of a King by the Gray Havens. As I’ve listened to it over and over and over I realized that most of the songs on it deal either with (a) the Fall and our search for God or (b) God’s redemptive plan (or both). What I love about these songs is the way they make these topics, ones I’ve thought about and heard discussed in a million ways since I was too little to remember, fresh to me.

As an example (because I’m not going to quote the whole album to you. Go buy it.):

Out upon the sand
Said the devil take my hand
At your bended knee
You will hold everything you see
But the king said no
I have come to be the spotless lamb undone
And I will fall
But not to you

~ “At Last, the King”

“I will fall / But not to you” — these lines completely refreshed my perspective of Jesus and his awareness of his mission in this moment in the wilderness, and from then on throughout his whole ministry.

“I have come to be the spotless lamb undone / And I will fall / But not to you”

They produced a burst of awe, and of joy. Yes, I thought. Now this is more real to me.

Whatever it is we do in life, it can become difficult to remember the power of our core beliefs. Our compass gets out of whack and starts spinning in all directions and we pay too much attention to the news and too much attention to the comment trolls and forget to notice the sunrise and forget why the things we say we care about matter. Why they’re great and glorious and awesome and important.

Art recalibrates our compass. We need to be deliberate to consume (and make) art that rehearses the things we already know, but need to see again. We need the redemptive story of the Bible distilled into song to remember again it’s an epic (thank you, Bright Came the Word) (Go buy that, too). We need somebody to re-frame the way it feels* to know the world is broken and you are broken and that there is a way to fix that, that there is a One to fix that (“This My Soul” Ghost of a King).

Obviously, Scripture and sermons and theology do these things, too, at least when we’re talking about Christianity. My first Bible was an illustrated storybook that I couldn’t read to myself because I couldn’t yet read. I know those stories the way I know some music albums – I can’t hear them anymore, because I know them so well. Often it’s art’s re-presentation, its view from a different window, that helps make the familiar Bible stories  or truths new again.

This post has been mostly about songs, and I think song and visual art have a strong role to play in this re-calibration because they can follow us. I listen to these songs in the car, at home, at work. I can listen to one song over and over and it still only takes 30 minutes to listen to it 8 times. I can hang Starry Night on my wall and look at it every day.

Books and films can achieve this, too, though they are less portable. Reading Maggie Stiefvater’s new book All the Crooked Saints re-calibrated my writer’s compass. Because although this post has also mostly been about faith, we have lots of compasses, and all of them can be pulled into uselessness if we’re not careful. They can be pulled into uselessness if we are careful.

So thank you, to all the artists out there making music and stories and poems and pictures that are compass-recalibrating. Keep going. Don’t stop. We need you.

* Here’s how I (usually) listen to music: I find an album that I like and listen to it almost exclusively for a month or six weeks or three months, and then I realize that the whole album has just played and I didn’t consciously hear any of it, but could have sung the lyrics to any song at any point in time, and then I either go back to listening to classical music or find another album.

*Look, I know that Christianity isn’t about feeling only, but we need feeling along with our faith and our knowledge or we loose the heart of it all. (see: James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, or You Are what You Love)

 

Image, Story, and Song: Part I

An image and two lessons, with some recommended works at the end

tumblr_mbz924mU1u1qb8ba0o1_400.jpgI read George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin last week, and came across this passage. Irene, the princess of the title, is with her grandmother (who is also rather like her fairy godmother), after saving a friend and being accused of lying to him. She is tired, dirty, and upset. So her grandmother picks her up:

“Irene wondered what she was going to do with her, but asked no questions—only starting a little when she found that she was going to lay her in the large silver bath; for as she looked into it, again she saw no bottom, but the stars shining miles away as it seemed in a great blue gulf. Her hands closed involuntarily on the beautiful arms that held her, and that was all. The lady pressed her once more to her bosom, saying— “Do not be afraid, my child.” “No, grandmother,” answered the princess, with a little gasp; and the next instant she sank in the clear cool water.

“When she opened her eyes, she saw nothing but a strange lovely blue over and beneath and all about her. The lady and the beautiful room had vanished from her sight, and she seemed utterly alone. But instead of being afraid, she felt more than happy—perfectly blissful. And from somewhere came the voice of the lady, singing a strange sweet song, of which she could distinguish every word; but of the sense she had only a feeling—no understanding.” *

——

Earlier this week, I had an MRI for the first time (no worries, everything fine, it was a screening for a genetic thing). I knew that I was either going to be totally fine (spoiler, I was), or panic, and also knew that the first few minutes would be the ones where I hovered on the precipice between the two. None of that is important, or even my point, but I wanted to set the scene.

I have learned to manage my anxiety relatively well, but this time I was surprised by how my mind managed it: any time I started to tip over the edge between “relaxed” and “get me out,” this image arose. I could close my eyes and imagine that I had been plunged into a bath with ‘Nothing but a strange lovely blue over and beneath and all about” me, imagine the “stars shining miles away.” And then I crossed the hump and spent the rest of the time bored and daydreaming.

Lying there in the machine, I started to think again about the power of enlivened story and song. I’ve read all the essays, by Tolkien and Lewis and Chesterton, and not only believe them but am trying to live their theories out in my own writing and research. But still, I was amazed that just two paragraphs made a difference for me in the way a few hours could progress.

This lesson was driven home for me even further during the next few days as I worked through a surprise attack of depression (or depression-like symptoms, if you want to be accurate, as it can’t be labeled as such unless occurring for two successive weeks and I’m better already, thank God). Almost unintentionally, I stumbled into a course of story and song that helped to lift me out of the mire enough to recall and take again to heart the truth I need always and always to remember: “As the rain and the snow fall / Down from the sky / and they don’t return but they water the art and they bring forth life/ . . . / so shall the word of the Lord be with a sound like thunder / and it will not return, it will not return void.”*

They are words and stories and melodies that are life-giving, encouraging, art that lantern-like lights up the darkening edges of my overwhelming emotions; they’re the dirt I can mix with the living water to make concrete and find a place to stand again. They remind me who I am, and of what I’m doing, and of where I’m going. They tell me I’m not alone.

In case this could help someone else, and to give credit to the little collection of artists who did (and do) help me stay grounded and above water, here is my current course of remedy:

It started with articles on rabbitroom.com, especially this one by Helena Sorensen on Eden, and a couple of their podcasts, especially episodes 35 and 36. Sometimes just reading (or hearing) lovely words  is enough to remind me that I’m not thinking or feeling in a vacuum of space, alone in my experiences.

 

That led to buying Sorensen’s book Seeker for my Kindle, and grabbing Shiloh (currently free) while I was at it. I’ve been reading Seeker slowly; it’s a book that wants to be savored and pondered.

Andrew Peterson’s album The Burning Edge of Dawn makes me cry pretty much every time I listen to it. “The Rain Keeps Falling,” “Be Kind to Yourself,” and “Sower’s Song” have been especially helpful. I also bought the first book of his Wingfeather Saga, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, and Amazon even helped me out by delivering it a day early, a nice little surprise on my doorstep.

J. Alexander Wootton’s Her Unwelcome Inheritance. I bought the Kindle book and, halfway through, already know I’ll be buying the paper copy someday when I have money (ha).

Reviews on all the books will come when I’ve finished them.

These could be supplemented with any number of others that have and still do help me, and have challenged and inspired me, including, of course, the works of Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton, and MacDonald. Perhaps in a later post (or posts!) I’ll discuss some of these other works.

And finally, losing myself in my own created world has helped. Sometimes it doesn’t; sometimes the words are leaden and the characters flop like ragdolls and then I have to put it away and focus on reading and listening. This time, though, it’s been helpful.

_____

Quotes:

  • MacDonald, George. The Complete Works of George MacDonald (Illustrated Edition): The Princess and the Goblin, Phantastes, At the Back of the North Wind, Lilith, England’s … Princess, The Golden Key and many more (Kindle Locations 1797-1798). Musaicum Books. Kindle Edition.
  • “The Sower’s Song,” On the Burning Edge of Dawn, by Andrew Peterson and Ben Shive, 2015.

Image: http://www.vintagenovels.com/2015/06/the-princess-and-goblin-and-princess.html

The Gift of Silence

America is very loud.

Or, at least, this is the impression I received when I returned from England. And I don’t mean city noises (London has plenty of those), or rain-noises. It’s the TVs flickering in the corners of the restaurant. It’s the volume of the background music in coffee shops. It’s the existence of background music at all. The little things to which people become adjusted, until the noise hovers, unnoticed, in the background.

I liked the silence.

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Now, there’s little that can be done on a personal level in regards to the things I just mentioned (unless you own a restaurant; I recommend removing the TVs). But there are other ways one can nurture the silence, and I’m finding that these practices are not only soothing, but nourishing in a way that the things they are replacing cannot be.

The most tangible alteration is a dramatic reduction in the amount of time I spend watching either TV shows or YouTube videos. While my viewing was by no means excessive, it was not uncommon for me to watch 10 or 15 hours over a week. Let me pause and say I have nothing against watching TV, and I’m not planning to cancel my Netflix subscription (or delete InstaTweetaBook) any time soon. In fact, I doubt my time on the InstaTweetaBook of social media has reduced much.

But I don’t miss it. I’m finding a deep joy in choosing to leave the screens off and spend that time reading instead. I’ve read eight books in the last three weeks, and I’m not even trying that hard.

Being in England, with the forced reduction of my media habits, both in regards to the amount of time I had to practice them, and their availability, gave me the ability to re-tutor myself in the pleasures of having space and appreciating silence.

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Or observing NY mice

As a result, I’m recovering some habits that I had developed as a child which disappeared mysteriously around the same time smartphones sprang into existence. Reading in “snatches” in lines and while waiting.Or, even better, watching people or the sky instead of that YouTube video. Reading with a meal. Deeper concentration, better focus on challenging works. My Year with the Classics challenge has never been more successful.

Oddly, by reducing the amount of time I spend with a screen, I’m feeling more connected with the world around me. More observant of the kites soaring above my rooftop, more delighted by the odd faces and human interactions that I witness in the restaurants or coffee shops.

This, in turn, is aiding my writing in several ways, not least by giving me the mental space to think more deeply. Watching humans interact make my characters more vivid. And the diet of words I’ve been consuming has enlarged (or perhaps re-awakened) my own word-skills, such as they are.

Finally, I’m discovering that some long-desired habits are falling into place naturally now that I have cleared the space and invited the silence. More consistent Scripture reading. Journal writing. The ability to focus longer on difficult tasks (like that French translation I ought to be doing…). My life feels more ordered.

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This blog has as its raison d’être quotation Thoreau’s declaration in Walden that he “went
to the woods in order to live more deliberately.” I’ve no plans to build a cabin in the woods (and certainly not in Massachusetts; I like my heater, thanks), but this is a small step in the way of recovering a life lived deliberately.

Thoughts after Charlottesville

When the events in Charlottesville occurred, I was in New York City, and as a result the whole situation has a distant, dreamlike (nightmarish) quality for me. It didn’t, and still doesn’t, seem quite real. I got my news through Facebook and Twitter, slowly, in tiny pieces, while my mind was focused on other things, like why the downtown train I just got on is going uptown.

Before I keep going, let me just stop and say: The things that happened were terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad things. As so many have eloquently pointed out, racism and white supremacy are not Christian, and not acceptable.

Just in case anyone wondered where I stood.

These days, when anything major occurs in the world, it seems like there are three options for response: immediately post your thoughts on social media, wait and try to be more reflective, or say nothing

For a while I’ve taken option 3. I just felt like my saying “oh, how horrible” didn’t really mean anything anymore, and a longer reflection would only say poorly what twenty other people had said well. I mean, how many articles and posts about Charlottesville does your newsfeed feature right now?

But today I noticed a friend’s story about her work friend who, as an immigrant and minority, had begun to worry that people were being nice to her face, and cruel behind her back. We need to be open about where we stand, my friend said, so that people don’t have to have such horrible fears.

So here I am, trying to spin my thoughts into something worth reading.

Growing up in the South, in Georgia, reminders of the Civil War were everywhere. (and hang on with me, here. I’m only setting my next paragraphs up). If a town near me existed in the 1860s, the North had marched through it, and probably burned it down. We went to Stone Mountain for the laser shows. There were three or four battlefield parks within a few hours’ drive. It’s hard to not know your Civil War history.

While I absolutely knew – and still believe, of course – that slavery was wrong, and racism is stupid, I never quite understood why people made a big deal about Confederate memorials. History happened. Some of those men were good men in impossible situations. Let’s not erase history or try to paint everyone who fought for the South with the same brush. BUT —

Recently, after Charlottesville, I keep thinking about the visit we made to a church cemetery in Landsberg am Lech, a town in southern Germany. Every grave in the cemetery was marked with an identical wooden cross on which was nailed a brass plaque with a number on it. The cemetery had been there for a long time; the crosses were new. A couple of Nazi leaders were buried in that cemetery, and the church had to make anonymous every single grave because neo-Nazis were visiting.

This made a deep impression on me. For a long time, the Germans kind of put their heads down and tried to pretend that WWII didn’t happen. Don’t talk about it, ignore the evidence. They, over the last twenty or thirty years, have come to recognize that discussing what happened is important, and have, in my opinion, found a good balance of acknowledging what happened, while still condemning it. But still they have this threat of some of the sites essentially becoming places of worship for people with disturbing views.

While I still don’t think effacing events from history is the right solution (I hope nobody thinks that), if memorializing Confederate soldiers leads to riots and lives lost, then we should stop.

Physical objects of memorialization have a kind of intrinsic power, which we don’t always think about. It would serve us well to begin to think more deeply about the kinds of things we are memorializing, and how they might be interpreted. I don’t look at the carving on Stone Mountain and hope the “South Will Rise Again,” but some people do, apparently. As people have pointed out, statues are not worth people’s lives. And taking down statues is not effacing history, it’s simply recognizing that people we once honored shouldn’t be honored anymore. Even the rational decision to take down that statue of Stonewall Jackson (or whoever) could become an opportunity for a conversation about the still-abiding tensions in America, one that allows us to say that above all, the people living today are more valuable than a chunk of carved stone.

I hope that this tragic event will spur us on to think more deeply about what and whom we honor and how and why we honor them. I hope people will take some time to understand the good things and the tragic things that molded our country. I hope we won’t have to go so far as anonymizing whole cemeteries. And I especially hope we won’t only react in knee-jerk outrage and then move on with our lives, unchanged.

Nourishment: Reflections from Oxbridge (2)

Today I lay on the floor and listened to one side of Berlioz’s Requiem. I’ve had my record player since January, and have acquired a small collection of records, but I rarely use it. On reflection, I’ve decided that the reason I haven’t is because listening to an album, or half an album, on a record player feels more intentional than throwing up a playlist from Apple Music to have on in the background while you’re doing whatever.

***

When I visited the National Gallery in London last Saturday, my friend and I both wanted to be sure to see the Impressionists, and especially Van Gogh. The National Gallery has six or so of his paintings, including one of the sunflower paintings; they all hang on one wall in one gallery.

A crowd of people before that wall meant that you had to push your way to any kind of view of the paintings. As my friend and I did so, we realized that a lot of the people (most of the people) in the crowd were taking quick snapshots of each painting, moving down the row like an assembly line, and then moving away.

Now, some of those people might have felt like sitting with the painting while there was a crowd waiting to see it would be annoying to the others. But this is Van Gogh. The image of the thing is never the thing itself. Look at the detail:

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Detail of Orchard in Blossom (Plum Trees) at the Scottish National Gallery

That’s hard to notice from a brief look, or a far-away picture.

And look, I have pictures of paintings on my phone, too (obviously). I also didn’t give every painting I walked past the long gaze it deserved. But to not gaze at any of them . . .

***

Since Oxbridge, I’ve been thinking a lot about Beauty and about art. I was surrounded by so much of both things (indeed, they are often the same thing) while I was there, and had daily opportunities to sit and enjoy a poem, hear a song inhabit an ancient space, or soak in what my friend and I started to half-jokingly call “the flora of England.”

I used to do things like this often. Listen to music intentionally. Sit by a stream and watch it flow. Read intensely. I don’t anymore.

There are likely several reasons for this, not least of which is the black hole of the interwebz, and also, too, I think, the ease at which we can access songs (via streaming) or paintings or poems (via the internet). They feel less precious as a result.

But more than that, I think I, personally, have fallen into the trap of seeing Beauty and art as extra. As so many people point out, many of the things which fall into these categories are not essential to our daily lives. (They’re wrong, by the way).

I went to Oxbridge feeling wrung out and dredged up. After four years of teaching and three of graduate school (in a total of five years) I didn’t have much left in me. As the experiences and teachings and daily practice of walking down beside the long wall and gazing on ancient Magdalen College in Oxford started to water my soul and spirit again, I began asking myself how I could possibly manage to keep myself filled – not as full as at Oxbridge; it’s a high place – but filled so that my intellectual and creative endeavors prosper, instead of falter.

The answer, of course, is to lay on the floor and listen to Berlioz (or Hayden or Mendelssohn or Fleetwood Mac). To spend a Sunday afternoon at the art museum. To read that one poem fifteen times in a row. To walk to the creek and watch it play over the stones.

That is, creative people must experience Beauty if they wish to create it. Art is food and drink to artists.

(and to all people, but that’s another argument)

For myself, I need to regain the practice of considering these essential encounters with Beauty as important as eating lunch or exercising regularly. And like those other practices, nourishing oneself with art doesn’t mean snapping a picture and moving on, but allowing it time to change you, even if it’s only a little bit (of time or change).

Ultimately, I suspect that though those moments may seem passive, they will be the soil from which the most productive fruit springs.