About patty kirk

Patty Kirk is the author of The Easy Burden of Pleasing God (IVP 2013), two spiritual memoirs, a food memoir, and a collection of essays entitled The Gospel of Christmas. Raised in California and Connecticut, she lives on a farm in Oklahoma and teaches writing just across the Arkansas state-line at John Brown University, where she is Writer in Residence and Associate Professor of English. She and her husband, Kris, have two college-aged daughters, Charlotte and Lulu. In addition to writing and teaching writing, Patty's passions are cooking, gardening, watching birds, and running on the back roads.

Telling the Nasty Stuff

Browning 9mm PistolA friend who has been serving as a reviewer of new books for a major Christian magazine recently told me that she was thinking of giving up reviewing because the books get worse every year: sappier and less realistic and just plain boring. Her comment got me thinking about my Christian students’ struggles as writers and what struggling alongside them has taught me.

The stuff of most creative writing is story—the account of something that happened. That’s because, without something happening, there’s little to tell. Nonfiction works of all sorts and even the most lyrical of poems proceed via story, if only implied. Fiction, of course, is all about story.

Even the simplest of sentences tells a story: the subject has to do something. Often a lot of somethings, as there’s rarely only one verb—one instance of something happening, that is—in a given sentence. And in the more interesting sentences, subjects don’t just do something but interact with others—direct and indirect objects, subjects of dependent clauses and infinitive phrases—doing their own things.

The most successful stories, by their nature, involve rich, round characters. To create such characters, I tell my students, they must “tell the good about the bad and the bad about the good.” In novel workshop, though, my students invariably start out with flat characters whose believability is further hampered by their being in some way outside of society: outcasts incapable of interacting.

“No,” I tell them. “You have to make your characters interact, talk to one another, be in conflict. If you don’t, then nothing’ll happen. And if nothing happens, you won’t have a story.”

Still they resist, hold back, thinking that by leaving out crucial details—characters’ names or some conversation in which a key event occurs—they’re creating suspense that will make their readers want to read on and find out.

“But we won’t want to read on,” I tell them. “Suspense is created through building, not omitting. Yes, there are things you should omit. Chekhov said leave out anything that doesn’t drive story, that if there’s a gun on the mantelpiece at the beginning of your story, it has to be fired. But that’s just it. In the story of that gun being fired, the gun needs to have been on the mantelpiece—or under the sofa, loaded, where the toddlers are playing—in the first place.” All the stuff of the drama needs to be there, on the page, for the story to succeed.

With these tenets of storytelling in mind, I would like to consider the central story of much contemporary writing about faith: I once was lost, but now I’m found. It’s a story believers feel called to tell and need to tell—the very stuff of evangelism—but they often want to leave the first part out.

The story of the lostness, the sin-life that necessitated the salvation, is Every-Believer’s gun on the mantelpiece, but it poses some problems for the teller. Stories of sin often take us to material that might offend our believing audience, for one. Worse, to tell one’s sin-story convincingly—that is, concretely—is to become the sinner to one’s audience, particularly if the sin-story one tells is of sin engaged in after one became a Christian. Of course, none of us stops being a sinner after being saved, but we don’t want anyone to know about that.

This is perhaps why, though I’ve attended all sorts of churches in which the prayers of the faithful are publically identified and offered up, I have never once encountered among the litany of prayers for the sick and grieving, for job losses, for the birth of a child or the selling of a house any of the prayers I typically find myself praying. Prayers about my failures as a wife and a mother and as a friend and a colleague and a neighbor. Prayers of a desire to be led out of some specific temptation. Prayers expressing an explicit resistance to letting God’s will be done.

There are practical reasons for keeping one’s present and past sins secret, but there’s more to it than that, I think. As believers, we want to pretend that sin stops, that there’s a “before” to our Christian story that’s understood and doesn’t need to be explained—and shouldn’t be, if it involves any unsavory details or questionable language or doubt-riddled claims—and an “after” that is dazzlingly sin-free, more pure and clean than any on earth could bleach it.

The problem is, without telling the before—well and concretely—we can’t really convince anyone of the after. Or interest them in it.

Which leaves me with some questions for my fellow Christian writers out there to consider. What can and should Christian creative writers do about the nasty aspects of their faith stories? Avoid them? Tell them? Tell them vaguely? And what are the repercussions of each choice?

Reading as a Writer

Dickens_Great_Expectations_in_Half_Leather_Binding I just returned from a trip to England during which I read, for probably the fourth or fifth time since my childhood, a book I have always loved: Dickens’ Great Expectations.

Part of my goal for this read was to physically experience the book’s setting. To trace Pip’s steps through the dirty London streets and walk along the Thames where he rows his boat to check on Magwitch. To shop in Covent Garden where Herbert Pocket goes to get the best fruit to welcome his new roommate. To visit the Temple courts where Jagger lives and works. To see with my own eyes Newgate prison—which doesn’t exist anymore, I’m sorry to say, although there is a sign marking where it once stood.

My bigger goal, though, was to read a book I had long loved in a completely new way: as a writer reads. Reading as a writer is a kind of dissection, really—not just of the work, to figure out how it works, but of my own psyche as a reader. What is it that has always enthralled me about this book? I ask myself. Why have I returned to it again and again in the course of a lifetime? I examine the story, the details, the transitions, the very sentences of Dickens’ masterpiece, looking for applicable clues about how to make my own writing successful.

There’s no better writing teacher to be found, no better course of instruction or writing program, than a book you loved as a child and continue to love in adulthood. For me, that’s Great Expectations and Robinson Crusoe, The Good Earth, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, and the dark fairytales of Helena Nyblom. And works of nonfiction like Helen Keller’s autobiography and Jade Snow Wong’s account of growing up the fifth daughter of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, and a hagiography I wore out as a child called Little Pictorial Lives of Saints. There are more, each one a teacher with the rare pedagogical skill of educating not by presenting something new but by confirming and demonstrating old truths.

Reading as a writer, I learned from Dickens that even the most honorable characters are most engaging and memorable in their failures and absurdity. I knew this. We all know this. It’s why Peter and Thomas are my favorites of Jesus’ followers. And it’s why Esau is so impossible to hate. (I don’t know how God manages it!) Through their faults, they become more believable, more real. Jesus himself, though without fault, becomes 100% human in moments when he seems least likeable, such as when he balks at healing the demon-possessed daughter of a Canaanite woman who argues that “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (Matthew 15.27 NRSV).

Great_Expectations_(1917)_1Each character in Great Expectations is a surprise. Miss Havisham experiences remorse. Estella confesses genuine emotions to Pip. Jaggers ends up being as much a father to fatherless Pip as he is a heartless professional. Pip moves from fear and repulsion toward Magwitch to concern and compassion. Through such surprises, Dickens helps me find the life-giving contradictions and winsome growth opportunities in my own characters.

Dickens also taught me how to keep my reader focused through blunt meta references to “the last chapter” that I would never have recommended to my own students. He was writing serially, after all, so his readers would have needed more help remembering what had gone on in the previous issue than the contemporary reader of the assembled chapters would need. Still, it’s a helpful technique. And referencing one’s previous remarks and chapters is certainly freeing.

Students in my writing courses often complain about my “reading as a writer” assignments. I’m always wanting them to apply what they learn from their favorite writers—or from one of my favorites—to their own writing, and I’m never pleased with their flowery, laudatory assessments of their favorite books’ writerly techniques.

“You’re reading like a literary critic!” I rant. “You’re reading like a teenager in love. I want you to read like a writer!”

It is the hardest way to read, I think, but surely, once you’ve read a book the first time through, the most useful. Once my students get how to do it, they thank me.

“Don’t thank me,” I tell them. “Thank the author!”

In case you’re wondering, reading as a writer won’t wreck the book for you. To the contrary: Discovering what made you love a book gives you a new appreciation for it—so much so that, if you’re anything like me, you’re eager to read the book again soon.

Today’s Chapter

I was on the phone with my sister today, trying to encourage her past the terror-induced paralysis that had overcome her ever since she quit her job in order to have time to get her house ready to sell and then to sell it and move with her husband from Colorado, where she lives, out to Arkansas to be near me. She was supposed to have put her house on the market back in May, when she quit working, but she had so much to do—cleaning the carpet upstairs, painting the porch, replacing some windows, regrouting the tile in the bathrooms, getting rid of stuff, selling the cabin up in the mountains, fixing the solar panel on its roof so that it was sellable, and on and on and on—that she just couldn’t seem to get started on any one task.

House_Collapsing“I can’t do this,” she kept wailing.

“What can’t you do?” I asked. “What do you mean by ‘this’?”

“This whole thing. The move. It’s just too much for me.”

In a sudden life coach epiphany, I saw what her problem was. She was stymied by the enormity of “this”—the future, the worry about whether they were making the right decision to move, the overwhelming impossibility and complexity of the move, with all its imminent troubles and certain catastrophes.

“You’re worrying about the wrong ‘this,’” I told her. “What you need to concentrate on is today’s ‘this’: cleaning the upstairs carpet. You can do that.”

Her situation reminded me of my novel, how I kept getting a particular species of writer’s block in which I was seized with a paralyzing certainty that I wasn’t going to be able to figure out how to make the plot come together in the end and thus couldn’t seem to move forward. In my mind, the novel became a huge problem, overwhelmingly complex and unwritable, that I worried about constantly. Then I started scheduling a rigidly regular time, every morning from five to seven, to work on it.

“Just sit down at the computer and take up where you left off,” I told myself. That was three months ago, and I haven’t stopped writing since. It was like magic, as if my sense of the novel as a whole just fell away and I started seeing just the chapter I was in.
“That’s what you need,” I told her. “Make yourself a list of everything you need to do, include the smallest task, everything. Then figure out a time each day that you can devote to accomplishing one of the tasks on your list. Don’t try to do any more than just that one task. If it’s like my novel, you’ll progress through more than one task at a time.”

Chapter-1“That reminds me of that thing Jesus said about how we shouldn’t worry about tomorrow, that each day has its own trouble and we should just concern ourselves with that.”

She is wise, my sister.

“That’s exactly it,” I said. “Concentrate on today’s trouble, today’s chapter, and the rest will work itself out.”

We hung up encouraged, I think. Both of us.

What My Students and I Learned This Semester in Creative Nonfiction Workshop

Big Thing #1: Neatening the messy truth never works. Nürnberg Prozess, Büro für Druckschriften-HerstellungStory: A sweet-hearted student wrote a moving essay about her difficulty with “being held” following her father’s death. She began her essay with an amusingly awkward forced hug—an assignment from her Family Sexuality class to practice “hugging until relaxed”—and concluded with her “surrender” into her friend’s arms at the hug’s end. Everyone loved the essay except for its conclusion.

In a conference with the student after workshop, I explained what I thought was the problem: the resolution just wasn’t as concrete and thus convincing as the wrenchingly funny opening scene. “Did this surrender really happen?” I asked. “It sounds like you’re lying.”

I didn’t really mean to accuse her of lying, only to convince her of that disparity in concreteness. Turns out, though, she had lied—not intentionally, of course, or even with intent to deceive but just to simplify the messiness of her struggle into a more satisfyingly redemptive conclusion. There’d been no surrender in that hug. After we both recovered from her surprising lie—as much to her as to me—she revised the piece to reveal what really happened, transforming a good essay into a publishable one.

Application: Tell the truth, don’t prettify it.

Big Thing #2: Contrary to the usual creative writing mandate to “Show, don’t tell,” most good writing requires both.

Story: Two students who particularly explored this truth were a chemistry major and a woman from a missionary family in Kenya. Both wrote from a knowledge-base completely foreign to us, thus running into a classic writerly problem which the missionary-kid characterized as “balancing explanation with story.” Explain too much, and you end up with a boring commentary on what happened; explain too little, and readers get lost. As the chemistry major said, “The audience cannot read your mind.”

Throughout the course, the students tugged at the delicate membrane between showing and telling, testing the delights and dangers of being too baffling or too, as I call it, “explainy.” By semester’s end, both consistently wowed us with their work, delighting us especially with a close-up of cosy Nairobi teatimes and a wacky book review/lab manual hybrid on the chemistry of poisons.

Application: To take us somewhere we’ve never been—which is, after all, every creative nonfiction writer’s job—you need to show AND tell, judiciously.

Big Thing #3: Scheduled, specific assignments not only motivate idea-less students but—counter-intuitively—often result in their most creative work.

Story: Several students struggled with motivation and, as one put it, “finding something to write about” for the course’s ten pieces. The first six assignments were pretty narrowly defined and came one right after the next; pretty much everyone found those fun, easy to write, and creatively empowering. Open assignments with longer deadlines were more challenging.

Application: If you’re stuck, give yourself an assignment. And a due date.

Embarrassed_Father_-_Vintage_family_PhotoBig Thing #4: Learning to write better teaches humility.

Story: Several students identified “taking criticism” as a struggle in the course of the semester. Here’s a reflection from one student’s revision account: “I was pretty judgmental of the big guy, so I tamed that part down. It felt mean when I looked at it again. I don’t think I lost anything at all, the scene wasn’t really about him anyway.” The student’s introspection and writerly focus say it all.

Application: Find yourself some honest readers, then pay attention to them. It’ll help your writing and your soul.

Malassezia_lipophilis_3_loresLittle Thing #1 (Big Thing #5): Clichés are like fungus: ubiquitous but strangely more embarrassing and disgusting than most other writerly ills.

Story: Student after student confessed to clichés. They hardly needed to, since I routinely point them out in class. Even their revisions had clichés—as do my own, unless I’m super vigilant. In class, I put quotation marks around their clichés in Google to convince them. The phrase “inextricably linked,” for example, gets “About 715,000 results (0.15 seconds).”

In a way, clichés are wonderful: someone’s once-creative, collectively approved wording. That said, clichés remain the bane of good writing—Oh no! That’s “About 3,160 results (0.51 seconds.)”

Application: Look again. And again. They’re there.

Loved, Chosen, and Writing (for the Forseeable Future) at 5 a.m.—A Lesson from Anne Lamott

Anne-Lamott-2013-San-Francisco--Wikimedia Commons--ZboralskiI just returned from Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing, featuring such diverse writers as Luci Shaw, Richard Foster, Rachel Held Evans, and Anne Lamott and offering sessions on everything from how to write a book proposal to self-publishing, writing about trauma to writing novels, writing children’s books to writing faithfully about sex. Some sessions were practical, others funny, some heady, some worshipful. All inspired and challenged me. Several offered strategies I’ve taken to heart and will pass on to my students.

The best advice, from Anne Lamott, was the simplest and hardly new or profound. She must have said it twenty times during a characteristically hilarious and solipsistic one-hour interview—which surged pell-mell in and out of her various addictions, the gift of desperation, her cellulite-pocked thighs, people she appreciates (those who give her even more cream for her coffee, for example) and those she avoids (e.g., those who claim you can’t have fear and faith simultaneously), her love of desserts and coffee with massive amounts of cream (Did I mention that already?), the interminably lost and sought jetliner on CNN in her hotel room, and the good news that we’re “loved and chosen” (a refrain I’m already aware of reiterated apropos to nothing that I could tell but nevertheless causing tears to start from my eyes each time)—and it was the same advice I’ve encountered whenever I’ve heard her talk or reread her wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird. Still, like that loved and chosen refrain, it seized me anew each time she said it. It was this: All it takes to write is to sit down and do it.

She put forth several ancillary recommendations. That you can’t wait for your toddlers to start school or your teens to leave home. That you don’t need an office, just a door that closes. That you have to say no, nicely, to the dogs, cats, and kids at that door, who are attracted like heat-seeking missiles to your lap (or thighs or cellulite, I can’t remember). That all one needs—not only in writing but in everything (“Anything I know about anything,” she observed, “applies to everything else.”) is structure and discipline. That, for the past four years, she’s turned off her cellphone and written every day, at the same exact time (9 a.m.), no matter what.

“Give me an hour!” she kept demanding—as if she were our mom and we her teenage wastrels—and pointing out all the junk we waste our time on each day. Though I’ve written and revised and published five books, I still need this reminder, this goad to get after it.

“You’ve got an hour! Give me that hour!” she yelled, as though we would be writing just for her.

And truly, inspired as I was by that simple call to quit dallying, I really feel as though I’m writing, right now, for Anne alone.

Farmland_and_Airbus_Beluga_near_Cop_House_Farm_-_geograph_org_uk_-_446678I planned out that hour—or maybe two, since, as she said, you’ll really only get forty usable minutes out of an hour, only an hour and twenty minutes out of two—all the way back to Oklahoma. In the seats at my gate, on the tarmac waiting in vain to take off, back in those airport seats after deplaning because of weather in Chicago (Who knew you couldn’t take off on a runway perpendicular to the wind direction?), through the murky clouds over Illinois and Missouri and Arkansas, in the car snailing the empty roads at midnight with my cautious husband.

“I’m gonna write as soon as I get up,” I told him. “Before I run. Before I do any grading or reading. Get me up at five, when you get up, but don’t talk to me. Just give me my coffee and let me write.”

Don’t worry: I’m a morning person. And with our dogs living outdoors and daughters away at college, I can write in my non-office—the living room—without even the closeable door Lamott requires. If my gaze strays from my computer screen, I’ll see the sun turn the horizon pink. Every single day. At this rate, I’ll get my novel drafted before summer’s end and revised and sent off sometime before moving on, loved and chosen, to a heaven of no distractions from what I should be doing.

All Blogged Out: A Rant (Fair Warning)

Scream--Annemarie BusschersThe other day a fellow writer from way in my past—semi-famous, author of many highly regarded books—friended me.

It was so exciting. To be remembered by someone I had admired long ago but hardly knew, someone whose books I have on my shelf.

As soon as I accepted her friendship I was invited to like her author page. Then read her blog. Which explained everything.

I don’t want to be a partypooper here about the self-promotion mandate. Really I don’t. I know that publishers these days demand that writers have author pages and blogs and followers and all that. I try to be, in fact, dutiful, in my way. But it must be said. Something about all this facebooking and author-paging and blogging just stinks.

It reminds me of how, at my university, some colleagues and I used to convene every year to plan women’s events. Multiple times, meeting upon meeting, to schedule and scheme and come up with funding and talk about decorations and cookies and such. Then, when the day came for whatever it was to happen—the reading group, the tea, the birdwatching we had so arduously planned—there we’d be again, the five of us, the only attendees.

How does one find time to write books when there’s forever a blog post due? Not to mention reading all the other writers’ blogs that I say I’m following—and that, if I were  truly friend-worthy, I would be commenting upon. Confession: the only blogs I willingly visit are the ones I land on after a Google Images search for a very specific recipe, one that looks like a dish I remember from my childhood, or some stew of lentils I’ve been fantasizing about, or some bizarrely complicated goodie I said I’d cook up for one of my ever ravenous daughters.

All this to say—am I the only one who feels this way?—that blogging, which appears to be de rigueur in the world of publishing these days, slurps up my writing time like an old dishrag, and sometimes I fear that the only ones who read what I write are fellow writers (more generous ones than I am) obliged, as I am, to squeeze it out when I should be working on my current writing project and between all the other things I do to actually support myself. (That sentence doesn’t work, I fear…) Those who follow me—I’m sure of this—do so for the same reason I follow that writer acquaintance of mine: because I was asked. I’m not going to buy any more books of hers than I’ve already bought. Having heard an interesting writer interviewed on Fresh Air, I’ve never gone to his author page or read her blog. If I’m interested enough, I ask for the book in Barnes & Noble. And when they don’t have it—they never do!—I order it for cheaper anyway on Amazon.

Here’s how it goes with buying books and me. In the ideal world that used to be, I heard about a book or picked it up from a bookstore table or shelf, I read a few pages, I bought it and brought it home, eventually it made its way to my bedside table and into the stack to wait its turn, and then, one happy day, I turned over and reached for it and started to read. In that perfect world, it is a perfect book, and I can’t stop reading till it’s finished. Then I tell my sister, off in Colorado, about the book on the phone. And in a few more days I lend my copy—though it has a swollen edge from my having accidentally let part of it sag into the bathwater—to one of my colleagues. Then I assign it in one of my classes. No blogs or author-pages or anything like that. Just hear about it, buy it, read it, lend it.

I’m not feeling very encouraging today, I’m afraid. Maybe this post will generate some useful discussion among us writer-blogger-authorpagers, though.

(Feel MUCH invited to chime in if you’re not a writer. It would cheer me immensely.)

What Stories Teach Us

Woman readingI just finished reading two novels that I ended up loving but started out hating. Or, not exactly hating. Just struggling to keep on reading.

Both were assigned reading. One was a friend’s favorite novel: David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. After repeatedly recommending it, she finally sent me a copy all the way from Germany. I couldn’t not read it. But it was a challenge. It’s about training dogs, I kept thinking through the first hundred pages. I like dogs, (we have four of our own), but how could this book have been such a bestseller? Right around then, though, the dogs and characters coalesced into a gripping mystery, and I read all night long.

The same happened with Randy Boyagoda’s Beggar’s Feast. A colleague organizing a conference featuring the novel’s author asked if I’d participate in a panel discussion of its “Christian elements.” The assignment made me leery. If there’s anything I can’t tolerate in fiction, it’s a sermon, which I assumed the presence of discernible “Christian elements” would comprise. When I sit down—or, more often, lie down—to read a novel, I want to be entertained. If there’s a message, I like to discover it myself, as with Jesus’ parables. “If you want to preach,” I tell my fiction workshop students, “write devotionals, not novels.”

My colleague’s new to our department, though, and I didn’t want to alienate her. Plus, running a conference is hard work; I wanted to offer support. Accordingly, I said I’d read the novel and, if I liked it, join the panel.

So, I started Beggar’s Feast, the syntactically gnarled tale of a boy mistreated and abandoned by his benighted family who subsequently fights, smarms, and schemes his way through the docks of Ceylon to become wealthy and powerful. A Ceylonese Horatio Alger, minus (thank God!) the moralism: Boyagoda’s protagonist, the self-named Sam Kandy, is no tractable boot-black. He despises everyone, even his own children, and murders two wives in the course of the story. Indeed, he’s such a baddie I’m struggling to discover Christian elements in his exploits.

tree diagramWhat made me dislike the book initially was that it was so hard to read. Those gnarled sentences— barrages of images so jumbled and knotted they defied sorting into logical wholes, even by someone who makes her living sorting sense from mangled prose. It was so linguistically maddening to follow this boy’s experiences—worse than Benji’s in The Sound and the Fury—that I decided my difficulty must be Boyagoda’s fault. That, though the novel was roundly acclaimed, he was incapable of writing a sound sentence.

Even as I thought this, though, I knew it wasn’t true. For one thing, despite my struggle to pin down what Boyagoda’s sentences were saying, their images and rhythms and little imbedded amusements carried me forward in a narrative that grew increasingly gripping. And, as the story developed and Sam sorted himself out, the prose did too. Soon I wasn’t laboring but just lying back, enjoying what happened next.

It eventually occurred to me (I’m slow, I know) that the sentences’ incoherence mimicked Sam’s, that a person so broken early on would likely perceive and express life brokenly, especially at first. What’s maturity, after all, beyond the accrual of coherence? As I progressed through the novel, I increasingly sensed and trusted, beneath the verbal chaos, Boyagoda’s guiding hand, shaping Sam alongside my experience of his story.

I hate devotional writing that’s just one long metaphor, but I guess that’s what this is. These two reading experiences reminded me of life—of how often I wade through a slew of confusing and often vexing mundane events unrelated to (or, worse, antithetical to) what’s really important only to realize, much later, that it was all relevant, every bit of it, all its elements, positive and negative, part of some bigger vision.

We are, each of us, part of a better story than we’re sometimes aware of, a story that unfurls only slowly, only slowly displays its meanings. Life may seem pointless or muddled or just plain wrong at times, but beneath and behind and above and within it all is its capable Writer, pulling us toward him.