Choosing the Hard Way

Today my son turns five.

Explorer

I took this photo at Woldumar Nature Center last year when he and I were “hiking” through the woods. I stood back, proud to see that he ignored the stairs and chose instead the natural path. Instead of the easy way, he chose the harder way. If this picture had been taken in the fall, it would put me in mind of “The Road Not Taken” by Frost.

Then in the car a week or so ago, the boy and I were listening to Hard Way Home by Brandi Carlile. When the song was done he asked, “Why doesn’t she take the easy way home?”

“Sometimes,” I answered, “you have to take the hard way. And anyway, sometimes it’s more interesting than the easy way.”

This seemed to suffice. We arrived home and he went off to play and I’m sure he has given it no more thought at all.

But in the next five, ten, fifteen years of my boy’s life, he will have many opportunities to choose either the easy way or the hard way. If the easy way is the path of least resistance, an unchallenging, popular path that leads him to a sense of entitlement-because-I-breathe and success at the expense of his faith or his self-respect, I hope he chooses the hard way, the little-bit-strange way, the peculiar way of hard work, personal responsibility, earned trust, generosity of spirit, and faithful devotion to God, family, and friends. I hope he has the strength to eschew the cultural stairs, endure the stares he gets for being different, and press on toward a meaningful life amid a culture that is all too often focusing all of its energy on meaningless things.

And I hope that, as we guide and love him, his father and I will have that strength as well.

Happy birthday, Calvin. Let’s take the hard way together.

Latest Short Story Now Available (and a peek at summer cover art)

Today is the day! You can now buy Clean, my short story for May, for Kindle and Kindle apps. Just click here.

I’ve got covers mocked up for the next five months of short stories and I’m looking forward to writing stories inspired by the titles and images.

As always, things may change, but for now, here’s a peek at what summer will bring…

SummerStories

“I don’t want to read the book. I’ll watch the movie.”

How many of you out there have heard this song from Switchfoot’s first album in 1997?

It was a favorite GenX anti-anthem of mine in college. I joined the members of Switchfoot in lamenting our generation’s general laziness and lack of ambition. But then this week I found myself in this very situation.

In 2003, Donald Miller’s memoir Blue Like Jazz came out and seemed to almost singlehandedly resurrect the memoir genre for the Christian subculture. Devotees sprang up everywhere I looked, so I figured I ought to read it for myself. However, despite enjoying memoir (I’ve read several over the past few years that contained some of the most lovely writing and emotion I’ve ever encountered in written form) I just couldn’t get into it. It seemed…I dunno…just a bit too whiny.

Whatever it was, I couldn’t relate, and so I couldn’t get past the first chapter. I’ve read nice quotes pulled out of that book and I’m sure Donald Miller is a great writer, but his story of growing up without a father, questioning God’s existence and God’s love, hiding his faith from others during college–it just didn’t resonate because my life experience has been different.

And that’s fine. Lots of people bought Miller’s book. Lots of people love it. He doesn’t need me to be a success.

BlueLikeJazzSomewhere along the way, Blue Like Jazz became a movie. A movie I had no interest in seeing, but that my husband, a compulsive consumer of Christian movies (both sincerely and ironically), kept badgering me about. Okay, badgering is too strong a word, but it kept coming up. And on an evening when there was nothing either of us wanted more than to finally sit down and vegetate, I said I’d watch it.

Blue Like Jazz the movie was pretty good. The acting was beyond the moon when it comes to Christian films. The book had been plucked for the most compelling storytelling bits. And it was made by the incomparable songwriter-turned-director Steve Taylor who wrote, among other things, most of the Newsboys songs I love.

The reason I bring this up is not to critique the book or the movie, but to talk about narrative. Narrative in a memoir and narrative in a movie are different. Unless we’re talking about some art house film at Cannes, movies generally have a stronger narrative and more forward motion than a memoir. A memoir feels recollected (because it is) while a movie, even if it begins with a voiceover from the narrator, and even if we then hear that voice now and then later on in the film, is experienced as though it is just now happening because we viewers get to see the action as it happens on the screen.

The medium isn’t necessarily the message, but it sends a message. It creates expectations in people that, when left unmet or when trampled upon, create dissatisfaction.

Occasionally you read an article that should really be given a book-length treatment. Occasionally you read a book that really only has enough substance for an article. Occasionally you read a short story that you wish was a novel. Occasionally you read a novel that would have been far better as a short story. Occasionally a memoir is better as a movie.

Is the form in which you are writing truly the best form for what you want to get across? Are you writing a novel because that somehow feels more legitimate than a short story? Are you trying to stretch a theme out to be a book when it would actually have more impact as a series of blog posts? What expectations do readers have of your chosen genre? Are you meeting and exceeding those expectations?

Breathe Writers Conference Schedule and Speakers Announced

The line-up for the Breathe Christian Writers Conference workshops is taking shape. Click here to see the incredibly awesome array of topics and speakers. This year I’m afraid I’ll have too many things I want to attend!

This year’s conference is to be held October 18th and 19th at Redeemer Covenant Church in Caledonia, Michigan. Check out the website for lots more details and plan to join us!

Coming Soon (i.e., as soon as I can get the cover art done)

Here’s a quick sneak peek at May’s short story, which is awaiting a photo shoot and design work for the cover…

The bell above the door jangled and Lindsey swiped the tears away and turned to look at the newcomer. The woman pulled a collapsible cart behind her and walked with a red-tipped white cane toward the machines. Lindsey watched her deftly maneuver the narrow aisle between the washers and dryers. She came to a stop not far away and Lindsey suddenly realized she was not a woman at all.

The legs visible between the black heels and the knee-length skirt were most certainly a man’s. Lindsey could see this even through the dark nylons. And the torso and shoulders and chest, they also belonged to a man. And if there were any doubt left in her mind those doubts were gone once Lindsey took a good look at the woman’s face. Though crowned with a feminine bob and flanked by dangling earrings, the shadow of stubble across a muscular jaw was most certainly a man’s.

“Excuse me,” the woman said to her in the voice of a man. “Is this machine taken?” A manicured fingernail tapped metallically on the hood of the washer.

“N-no,” Lindsey managed in a hoarse whisper.

“Great.” And with a gleaming smile, the man opened it up and began transferring things from the cart into its cavernous mouth.

Lindsey watched closely and saw that everything, down to undergarments, was women’s clothing. She pulled out her phone to text her friend Trish.

There’s a blind drag queen here. Seriously.

Trish’s response came quickly.

No there isn’t. No way.

Lindsey typed furiously.

Swear.

She waited for a response.

Pic or I don’t believe you.

Lindsey switched her phone over to camera mode and tilted it up surreptitiously, trying to get the newcomer in the frame. Then she realized it didn’t matter how obvious she was if her subject couldn’t see anyway. She held the phone out in front of her to get the drag queen and his cane in the frame, but hesitated before clicking the shutter.

She turned her phone off and dropped her hands to her sides, imagining what the coming months had in store for her.

You Can’t Have Fireflies without Mosquitoes

When my husband and I experienced our first summer in Lansing we were entranced by the steady green sparkle of fireflies illuminating our neighborhood. In the twilight of July evenings, every yard was graced with twinkling lights like tiny meteorites burning up in the earth’s atmosphere.

As a child I watched movies where people caught fireflies in jars and wished for the opportunity to do the same. When evening came my lawn was simply a blank and ever-darkening mat of common grass. Catching fireflies seemed a right of passage I had been denied. I had always assumed they didn’t live in Michigan.

Fast-forward to this very week when Michigan is overrun with a bumper crop of mosquitoes courtesy of the very rainy spring and a sudden uptick in temperature. The air is thick with moisture and the relentless buzz of bloodsucking, six-legged vampires. Our almost-five-year-old son was mobbed the other day and suffered about eight bites on just one foot and ankle. He scratched. The ankle swelled. And he ended up looking like he’d sprained it it was so swollen, red, and purple.

Zach and I realized that we would all need bug spray for any excursion beyond the walls of our house until this first wave of mosquitoes dies off. It occurred to us that, despite growing up in what is essentially reclaimed swampland in the Bay City area, as children we never put bug spray on to go play outside. We got occasional bites, but we weren’t mobbed.

When we were growing up, our community sprayed for mosquitoes to keep the population down. On heady summer nights I would be out playing in the yard and from far off I’d hear the steady beep, beep, beep of the mosquito truck. Mom would hear it too and call me in. Then we’d tear around the house shutting all the windows to keep the poison out.

It was Zach who made the connection. No mosquitoes meant no fireflies. The poison spewing from the truck wasn’t genetically engineered to kill only mosquitoes. Anything that was out at twilight and not hidden away in some protected spot would suffer death. The good was destroyed along with the bad.

No mosquitoes, no fireflies.

We work hard to eliminate adversity in our lives, don’t we? I know I do. I want to get along with everyone if I can. I want my work to hum along without bumps along the way. I want my writing career to progress at a steady pace without big setbacks. I want my son to grow up without feeling the sting of rejection from friends or the public humiliation of messing up a play in baseball. I want my husband to feel constantly fulfilled and consistently loved by everyone.

But this can’t happen, can it? Life isn’t all fireflies. And if you eliminate the mosquitoes, the good times don’t feel nearly as good because there’s nothing negative to which it compares. It’s like taking an antidepressant that not only keeps you from falling into despair but at the same time keeps you from fully experiencing joy. Everything becomes a flat line. A flat line means you’re dead.

So we cover our bodies in DEET, hoping to avoid West Nile even as we are likely increasing our cancer risk. We do what we can to keep the mosquito bites at bay. And we look forward to seeing the fireflies in July.

Editing Out the Cowbirds

nestLast week my husband, Zach, and I were over at our friends’ house. While our sons tore around the house and our husbands scrutinized slabs of meat on the grill, my friend Kristin told me with a little glint of excitement in her eye that they had a bird’s nest in their juniper near the front door. She knew that I, the consummate animal-lover, would want to see it, so we went down the porch steps to the blessedly quiet outdoors.

Being allergic to juniper, I allowed Kristin to part the boughs and I peered into a small nest that held five eggs: four tiny blue eggs with speckles on one end and one creamy egg with speckles all over.

“You need to get rid of that white egg,” I said.

Kristin looked at me, her face a swirling mixture of puzzlement, suspicion, and intrigue. “Why?”

“It’s a cowbird egg. It’s a parasitic bird. The cowbird chick will be larger than the others and will push them out of the nest or eat all the food and the other babies will starve.”

Now Kristin looked positively flummoxed. “What?!”

“Yes, they lay all their eggs in the nests of other birds. You need to get rid of it.”

After I assured her that the mother bird would not reject the nest if it smelled like human (besides vultures, birds actually have a very poor sense of smell) it was decided that Kristin would fish the offending egg from the nest so that I wouldn’t break out in a hideous and persistent rash, but I would be the one to heartlessly dispose of the egg. I tossed it into the backyard where it could become a tasty treat for a blue jay, crow, or garter snake.

As a child, such an act would have seemed to me to be very harsh, cruel, morally reprehensible. To even squish a bug was a sin to me. But I am an adult and my sensibilities have been hardened by the knowledge that we have plenty of cowbirds in Michigan and if that nest contained the brood of a rarer bird, like a warbler of some sort, the threatened species was the one that warranted my protection.

Not surprisingly, there’s a lesson to be learned here (beyond the avian one).

In our interaction over the nest, Kristin was the writer, I was the editor, the nest was the piece of writing, and the eggs were content.

When we act as writers, we love the piece and everything in it. Then we share it with someone else, looking for critique. When we act as editors, we see a problem the writer does not. We helpfully point it out (hopefully with tact). We explain why it’s bad for the rest of the piece to leave it in there. And then it’s the writer’s job to trust the editor and actually pluck the offending egg out for the greater good. Sometimes the writer needs an extra push here and there, sometimes she needs reassurance that it’s the best course of action, and sometimes she needs the editor to be the bad guy. (“Yeah, I loved that part too, but my editor said it had to go.”)

When you’re writing for eventual publication or public consumption, you can’t go it alone. When we write, we need others to look at our work and identify the cowbird eggs, the parasitic parts that need to be removed so that the good eggs will survive and mature.

Who is editing your work? If you’re thinking of self-publishing, this is an essential component. Yes, self-pubbing is relatively easy and very cheap, and maybe you have an awesome platform to help you market your book and sell lots of copies. But don’t make the mistake of going it alone. Every writer needs an editor. And there are a lot of freelance editors out there.

If you have trouble finding one, let me know. I kill cowbirds for a very reasonable price.

 

Yes, That Really Is Your Voice

Not so very long ago there were these things called tape recorders. Many of you who are older than thirty probably remember these devices. And I’d wager that most of you remember listening to your recorded voice at one time or another and thinking, “That’s what I sound like?”

I’m not sure this is a pleasant experience for anyone. It’s definitely worse if you hear yourself singing–those church or school performances you thought you’d nailed but then CRINGE, oh, that was most certainly not the right note right there. Or there.

In our own heads we sound one way, but the world at large experiences us in a different way. And if you’re going by numbers, the world has you beat about 7,000,000,000 to 1.

The same is true with our writing, I believe. To me, certain sentences may sound lyrical and fraught with meaning, while to another they may sound clunky and trite. The opposite is also true. At times we write things that sound common to us and yet they may strike another in such a profound way that they print them up and tack them to their wall or put them on their refrigerator as a reminder.

Here’s what I think you should do with this little observation:

If you’re going about blithely assuming everyone reads your writing the way you do, the way you intended, take some time to examine it from another’s perspective. Are there ways you could make your meaning more clear? Are there ways you are closing off access inadvertently? Are you talking down to people? Are you assuming your reader is more knowledgeable about your subject than they actually are? How can you try to make others hear your voice as you do?

Conversely, if you can’t even bear to share your work with others for fear that they will see you for the hack you are, can you step out in courage and faith and let a few friends read your work? Isn’t it possible that you don’t sound as bad as you think?

I have a number of kind “no thank yous” filed away that tell me that not everyone reads my writing the way I intend it to be read. I can let that bother me, let it beat me down until I give up. Or I can learn from them. I can work to fix the fixable things so that my writing is read by another they same way it came out of my head in the first place.

Remember, perception is reality…except when it isn’t.

What Are “Acceptable” Sins for the Protagonists of Christian Novels?

During the past decade I have read hundreds of Christian novels. I wouldn’t generally seek Christian novels out above “secular” novels (I’m more of a classics girl myself), but I read far more of them than anything else in my life because it’s part of my job. Over the years, I’ve read some with really fantastic writing, some with really intriguing plots, some that got me a little choked up, some that made me laugh out loud. There’s a lot of great writing that comes out of Christian publishers. And on top of that, much of it is truly edifying–meaning you come away from the experience not just having been entertained but having been educated and encouraged.

Now, in order to write a good, believable, engaging story a writer needs to have characters with flaws, problems, issues, whatever you want to call them, that he or she struggles with and, as is generally the case in Christian fiction, overcomes. You have to have conflict, and Christian novels have plenty.

From what I can tell, of the three main conflicts (man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. himself), anymore you normally only run into man vs. man and man vs. himself, often in the same work. Most of the time, for whatever reason, the man vs. nature conflict is left by the wayside or plays a minor role.

For Christian fiction, man vs. man is pretty easy to formulate. Christians believe in good and evil and generally have a fairly black and white view of what is sinful and what is not (and before anyone accuses me of painting with too broad a brush, remember that I count myself among this group). More and more today we have Christian novels that are willing to touch on and examine those gray areas that are difficult to parse out, but when it comes to man vs. man, there is a bad guy who really is a bad guy far more often than a bad guy who is just a victim of his circumstances or misunderstood (the convenient way to reject traditional morality that so popular in storytelling today).

When it comes to man vs. himself (or woman vs. herself) things get trickier. I see a lot of man vs. his sinful past or man vs. his mistrust of women because he’s been burned before. I see a lot of woman vs. her fear of what society will think of her or woman vs. her fear of abandonment or woman vs. her fear of not living her dreams or woman vs. her fear of becoming a spinster. (Are you sensing a pattern here for female protagonists?) What I see less often is man vs. his sinful nature or woman vs. her sinful nature. It’s out there, and some of the bestselling Christian novelists are those who tackle those difficult subjects, but it’s not the norm.

I can’t help but think, though…isn’t that the main conflict of all of our lives? If we all struggle against our flesh, why don’t we see it more plainly and more often in Christian fiction? Why are certain sins so much easier to read about than the sins we are tempted to commit or have committed (or are currently committing)? Why is it so much more common in a Christian novel to read about serial killers and stalkers and grisly crime scenes (which, let’s face it, most of us don’t struggle with on a daily basis) than, say, adultery? Which sins are okay for a Christian author to explore and expose in his or her writing?

Now, I will say that many Christian novels explore sexual sin, but most that I have read (and I certainly haven’t read everything out there) do it from a distance. Either the protagonist struggles with lusting after someone they’re not married to (and so the solution is to get them together by the end of the book so they can explore their desires for one another within the bounds of Christian marriage) or the only sexual sins in the book are those that belong to the antagonist–a pushy suitor who receives his punishment by the last chapter or a rapist who is finally caught or killed. We sometimes read about protagonists who were sexually abused in the past and finally find peace for themselves and forgiveness for the ones who abused them. But that’s not their sin they are struggling with–just their misunderstandings and misinterpretations about their worth and their own culpability.

I’m not saying that these are not things worth exploring in Christian fiction. They are. What I am saying is that we should be willing to examine every kind of sin and show the way to redemption and wholeness. Being human and having hearts that are desperately wicked, we all need to come to terms with the fact that we are all capable of sexual sin, from the more obvious ones like adultery to the subtly sinister ones like emotional affairs or lusting after someone in your heart. Yes, some people will have been forced by circumstance into sinful behavior (like the victims of sex trafficking). But sometimes, people are faced with a choice–and they choose sin.

I have read a novel–a well-written and well-researched novel by an author I respect–where the principle character was the Samaritan woman who meets Jesus at the well. (Unfamiliar with the story? Find it in John 4.) Now, the Bible tells us that this woman had five husbands and the man she was living with was not her husband. And in the fictionalized account I read, I was curious to see how the author would deal with this. I was amazed–flabbergasted, really–when I got to the end of the book and not one of those relationships was the result of the woman choosing to live in sin. She was only and entirely a victim of her circumstances.

Really? Why? Why couldn’t the author allow that woman to make some bad choices?

How many Christian novels have you read in which the protagonist is struggling with sexual sin in her own life? You might find a few that deal with men and pornography, but what about women? What about a female main character who is involved in an affair?

If statistics tell us that those who call themselves Christians live no differently from those who claim no religious affiliation (spend a day combing the Barna Group website if you don’t believe me), then can’t we assume that a majority of Christian marriages are touched by infidelity? (Some statistics show that as high as 60% of marriages will be affected by infidelity.) If we publish fiction that helps readers find release and forgiveness for the shame that comes with being a victim of sexual abuse (which, we can all agree, a victim should not be made to feel), can we not also publish fiction that exposes the slippery slope toward adultery and shows the way to forgiveness and restoration? If we never show that situation, do readers of Christian fiction get the subliminal message that if they mess up they shouldn’t talk about it? Shouldn’t seek forgiveness?

Recently I gave my friends on Facebook, many of whom are voracious readers of Christian fiction this challenge:

Okay, readers of Christian fiction: give me your best example of Christian novels in which the PROTAGONIST is currently struggling with sexual sin beyond temptation (i.e., he/she is having an affair, sex before marriage, etc.). The protagonist does not have to be a Christian, but the novel should be geared toward the Christian reader.

I did get back a good number of responses. Some we had to throw out because they were biblical fiction or retellings of biblical fiction (and thus the characters were so far away in time and space that we can’t as easily appropriate their struggles as our own–they are “other people”). Some we had to throw out because the protagonist was a prostitute (also “other people”). Some we had to throw out because it turns out the protagonist was the victim of rape or sexual abuse (see above for why this doesn’t count). Some we had to throw out because the protagonist was not currently struggling through the sin (it was the backstory rather than the action), though she may have been struggling with the consequences of that sin. Some I question because the protagonists are Amish (also sort of “other people”).

In the end, I’m not sure if I have specific titles to share because I haven’t read them and can’t say for certain if they truly fit the bill, but Francine Rivers was mentioned the most. And I do recall some YA fiction from Melody Carlson that fits. (I guess it’s okay to warn teen girls of the consequences of sexual sin, but we just assume most adults have got it all together?) Karen Kingsbury, Patti Hill, Lisa T. Bergren, and Susan May Warren made the list. It seems there might be some others out there.

But when you compare a handful of books from a handful of authors to the entire body of Christian fiction at large and you’re left with relatively little. And so I’m left with some questions.

Is there a market for Christian fiction that allows that even the “good guys” fall into sin and–and this is the most important piece of this–that there is still forgiveness for those people?

Is this an under-served market with room for growth?

Do we relegate all stories that deal frankly with this issue to the general market, which rarely points the way to true redemption and freedom in favor of a false promise of freedom (i.e., do whatever makes you happy and doesn’t hurt others)?

Or are people just not willing to sympathize with a protagonist who fails in this way? Can we not put ourselves in her shoes because we’re “above” that type of sin? (Actually, I think this gets really close to the issue.)

I’d love for others to weigh in on this. If you read Christian fiction, do you know of stories that fit the bill here? Would you be turned off by such a story? Why? If you write Christian fiction, what is your experience with exploring this subject in your writing? Is what I’m saying on target or have I missed the boat? If you work for a Christian publisher or are a buyer for a bookstore, what are your thoughts on this?

I’m not making a pronouncement here. I’m attempting to start a conversation…