Inspired

As a teacher of writing and a writer myself, I’ve long been in the habit of examining others’ writing for what it has to say about the creative process. Nonfiction, my primary genre, lends itself most naturally to such scrutiny, since the solipsistic Scarecrow--Daniel Schwenwriters who tend to write in this genre love to write about what they’re up to. The writing of memoirists and essayists thus provides valuable glimpses into the process. In nonfiction workshop, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is my go-to handbook.

As I blogged last month, I’ve been listening to the Bible on my iPhone while I run. Since I run in five to ten mile chunks, I’ve heard whole books at a time and am making my way quickly, if haphazardly, through the text, following not the order of the Bible’s original organizers but spurious impulse (or, as I like to think, the Holy Spirit). Listening to scripture aloud, I’ve become newly appreciative of the almost constant reverberations between biblical accounts. The echoes of one story in another, of one biblical author’s phrasing in the voices of others, of the words of Hosea and Isaiah in the mouths of John and Paul and Jesus. The Bible is a masterpiece of intertextuality, a tapestry of voices in sentences that mesh and thicken from one chapter to the next.

I don’t know whether it’s because of the biblical writers I’ve happened to choose thus far or because of my new way of “reading” the Bible—that is, hearing the words aloud rather than reading them from a page—or just my old habit of paying special attention when writers mention writing, but I’ve noticed that the biblical writers talk a lot about writing. As such, the Bible offers considerable insight for me and fellow writers about our line of work.

Forgive my foray down a path we Christians like to avoid in considering the Bible—namely, the exact nature of divine inspiration that led to its composition in the first place—but one biblical writer after the next, from Moses to Isaiah to Jeremiah to John, describes the initial inspirational moment pretty much exactly as I’ve experienced it myself. An urgent voice—sometimes identified as God’s, sometimes an angel’s, sometimes unspecified—commands, “Write this down!” For these ancient writers, writing was not a choice—not a career goal or the desire to influence or educate others or even a matter of passion—so much as a dutiful response to that voice. An idea rises like a vision in the mind and the voice says, simply, “Write.”

“A writer,” I tell those who say they want to be writers, “is someone who writes.”

The most common writerly methods in scripture, which several biblical writers go out of their way to explicate, are the same ones I recommend to my students: in the words of Luke, “after investigating everything carefully from the start, to write an orderly account” so that readers “may know the truth” (Luke 1:3-4 NRSV). Careful investigation and organization are what convince.

Regardless of genre—whether they are writing poetry, chronicles, stories, or philosophical treatises—the biblical writers take pains, as Paul assures the recipients of one of his letters, to “write you nothing other than what you can read and also understand” (2 Corinthians 1:13). Nothing show-offy, though the words of scripture are often as artistic as they are true. No erudition for erudition’s sake.

And though their accounts and rhetorical goals are diverse, the biblical writers share, it seems to me, one essential writerly skill: they tell what they actually see and hear and smell and taste and feel. Unlike my students, who would rather explain their thoughts, the biblical writers are, to a person, concrete. Here’s Jeremiah (whose repetitive ranting could be boring, were it not so vivid) showing, not merely telling, how ridiculous it is to worship idols:

Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field,
and they cannot speak;
they have to be carried,
for they cannot walk.
Do not be afraid of them,
for they cannot do evil,
nor is it in them to do good.

(Jeremiah 10.5 NRSV)

Wow. Like scarecrows in a cucumber field. I wish I had written that!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy students typically define creative writing as writing that doesn’t have to follow any rules. Grammar rules, especially, are irrelevant. When I talk about sentence-level problems in their writing, they roll their eyes. In poetry workshop, many abandon the sentence altogether, writing instead in fragments. Creativity, in their view, constitutes the opposite of order.

The biblical writers, by contrast, seem to model their creativity on that of God himself. The creation, as described in Genesis, is a work of separation and sorting, of repeating and omitting, of drafting and considering before declaring anything “good.” Again and again, the biblical writers are selective in what they opt to tell. They keep only the best episodes of a given narrative—key conflicts, the rising action—and leaving the rest mysteriously, sometimes frustratingly, elliptical, in this way to engaging the reader’s own imagination and mental processing. There’s never a pat moral to the story. As hard as we Bible-readers try, we can never read the Bible as a straightforward primer or even a narrative account of holy living, cleansed of all confusing or upsetting or unholy details. Rather, it portrays real life—convincing in its familiarity—and real characters, the holiest of whom, as we ourselves, struggle and fail and fail again.

For writing instruction, I’m learning, the Bible is unsurpassable. Even better than Hemingway.

And God Said . . .

maypoproadside flowersLast month, inspired by a woman at a conference whose phone told her where we could get a hotdog, I decided to replace my dinosaur of a cellphone.

My daughters were delighted. They soon had me instagramming photos of their dogs, whom they rarely get to see, being off at college and internships much of the year. Before long, I was posting all the time: my garden’s amazing abundance this summer, pies about to go in the oven, snakes and spotted fawns and wildflowers I see on my runs.

Then, a visiting former student and I entered into a psalm-memorizing pact, and she downloaded a Bible app onto my phone that she said would help me, and soon I was listening to scripture as I ran, the voice of God booming forth from the net pouch I wear on my stomach—I hate earphones—to the astonishment of cattle, dogs, horses, and the occasional human passersby.

Almost immediately, I ditched the psalms for the gospels and soon settled on John—now esoteric, now fatherly—as my favorite voice. On one long run, I listened to everything we have of John’s writing. His three odd little letters I’d never paid much attention to before (one addressed to a woman, who knew?!) His gospel, with its baffling beginning:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (Genesis 1.1-3 ESV)

And Revelation, for me always an unsettling narrative, in which heaven seems such a strange and off-putting place.

Listening to John’s whole opus read aloud in one go was transformative for me. His wise, kind voice pulled everything together in a new way: the creation, the fall, Jesus’ life on Earth, the struggles and successes and sheer realness of the early church—so recognizably the church of today—and the resolution of everything in the end.

After my run, I stood sweating in my driveway and listened to the beginning of Genesis and had new thoughts about it all. The creation was a work of words:

“And God said . . . And God said . . . And God said . . . And God said . . . And God said . . . And God said . . . Then God said . . .” (Genesis 1.3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 26 ESV).

God spoke everything into being. And speaking being a communal act, involving a speaker and a listener, God would have been speaking to someone. So, not only the Spirit hovering over the waters but the Son—or, as John calls him, “the Word”—was present. And, if John is right that the world was created through Jesus, a narrative of the conversation preceding the creation might have had Jesus speaking with his Father, making suggestions, perhaps coming up with the whole idea.

volunteer arugulaI imagined it so:

“Hey, Dad, let’s make a world swarming with swarms of creatures—live creatures like us. And in it, a beautiful garden full of people just like us that we can love, and they can love us back, just as you love me and I love you.”

And the Father, besotted with love for his Son and surely impressed by his good ideas, spoke, the very words from his mouth giving flesh and movement and life to the words of the Son.

running shadowI didn’t let myself think about what happened afterwards—when, as John tells it, Jesus “came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1.12 ESV). It was too horrifying. Instead, I stood there in the driveway, teary-eyed about that unwritten conversation into we’ve been invited, not only as people made in God’s image but, the more so, as Word-mongers—God-lovers in the business of inviting still others into the same conversation.

What a responsibility.

What a delight!

Reflection on the Writing of Books

After a conversation with a Catholic friend the other day, I got to thinking about the nature of revelation. My friend and I believe the same exact good news—that God orchestrated his son’s human birth and death and coming back to life so that we humans could live forever—but we come to it so differently: my friend through tradition mainly, beliefs passed down and solidified over the centuries since Jesus’ time, and I mainly on the basis of what Jesus’ friends and their followers wrote down long after he left them.

If my friend and I were to argue the superiority of our respective views—which we do not, being content to share the essence of our faith, if not the minutiae of how we came to embrace it in the first place—we would soon reach an argumentative impasse. My friend’s sources are certainly older, since the passing down was already happening when Jesus still walked among us and words still dropped from his tongue and people around him were still being amazed by the miracles he performed in their midst. I would argue that, while my sources are centuries younger, they were surely more authoritative for having been written down rather than left to a millennia-long game of telephone, in which the message changes, often comically, every time it’s passed from mouth to ear. He would surely counter that mindless adherence to an ancient book produces its own, often comical, misunderstandings about God, and I would have to agree. And so it would go. If, that is, we lowered ourselves and risked our friendship to argue in this way. But, as I say, we don’t.

It struck me in thinking about this non-argument, though, how crucial a role words and books do play in my faith—even though, as the apostle Paul rightly asserts, “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Romans 1:20 NIV). Even small children, incapable of reading, can know God—as I did when I was little—just as non-literate believers have throughout the centuries.

Faith, in other words, does not have to depend on written words. And yet, for many of us—for me—it does. Or, perhaps not faith itself but faith growth.

And although my friend might argue that my dependence on specific words and passages of scripture surely limits my capacity to believe, I am confident that, in the main, the Bible enlarges my faith, challenging me to see and hear and inhabit the world differently than is my wont and to recognize God in it more readily. So, too, do other books. Something about words, written down, demands reflection.

A melamed (teacher) and his students in 19th century Podolia

So, it seems to me, we writers of books have a significant role to play in the furthering and nurturing of faith. And, though God is bigger than anything we or the biblical writers of old can convey, bigger indeed than the Bible itself, we have a rare responsibility. We govern unseen cities already, through our words, and tutor the very children of God.

What a Good Book!

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A real page turner by carterse

As a writer, I find the Bible such an inspiring book. Truly it is The Book, which is, incidentally, the actual meaning of the word Bible. Not just the Good Book, as many call it, but the Best Book: an anthology of diverse writings by diverse authors, each unique, yet all identical in their devotion to the Book’s Author and Subject.

Okay. I’m done capitalizing.

All this to say I consider the Good Book a model for all good books.

First off, it’s always interesting. Because, as I preach to the would-be writers who are my students, it’s always concrete.

Manna, for example, is not just some vague nourishment left to our imagination. Rather, it looked like “thin flakes like frost on the ground” (Exodus 16:15), “like resin” (Numbers 11:7), and “tasted like wafers made with honey” (Exodus 16:31) and “like coriander seed” and “like something made with olive oil” (Numbers 11:7-8). I get hungry whenever I read these passages.

Gathered the next day—in disobedience to God’s instruction—these delicious-sounding coriander honey wafers got “full of maggots and began to smell” (Exodus 16:20).

Ew! It’s no wonder that, prone as the Israelites were (as we all are) to disobedience, they disdained the gift of manna, yearning instead for the “fish…cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic” they had eaten “in Egypt at no cost” (Numbers 11:5). They preferred, that is, the foods they’d enjoyed back when they were slaves and likely had to content themselves with refuse leftover from such culinary delights enjoyed by their masters, as slaves have had to do throughout history. Old fish. Yellow overripe cucumbers. Melons and onions and other vegetables long past their prime. Given such details, the story of those Israelites’ appetites and hungers is so convincing and real, so relevant millennia later.

Unlike many lesser books, the Bible constrains itself neither to one genre— its generous pages embrace poetry, fiction, and nonfiction—nor even to one approach to any genre. Take my own field of nonfiction, for example, which appears throughout both Testaments as histories, arguments, reflections, topical essays, genealogies, lists. The Bible blends these nonfiction subgenres and others, weaving them in and out of prose into poetry, in and out of actuality into invention. In addition to the Bible’s many strictly factual chronicles of otherwise forgotten times, it offers gripping retellings of the same events from new, startlingly intimate perspectives, a narrative strategy (called fictionalization) that effectively topples even the most fact-addicted readers’ unwillingness to suspend disbelief. The only people I know who question the Bible’s trustworthiness are those who’ve never actually read it. Read it, cover to cover, and you’re a goner.

And the Bible never sanitizes. In its pages, women have their periods, men spill their semen on the dirt, matters openly discussed only rarely, even in the least particular public venues, all but never among Christians. A woman sneaks up on Jesus hoping to steal his power to cure her embarrassing bloody flux, and Jesus talks about it before the whole town.

When my daughter Charlotte got her first “real Bible”—the ICB, written at a third grade reading-level but with chapters and verses so she could follow along in church—she was so engrossed she read far past the passages the preacher cited, which I confess I’m prone to do as well, and soon turned to the beginning to read it as one would any other book. By mid-service, she was so shocked by what she found there—the story of Noah, sprawled drunk and naked in front of his sons—that she thrust it across the pew at me and, forgetting her church voice, announced to me and the whole congregation, “I can’t believe they put that in a children’s Bible!”

I know of no book that sucks in a reader—and such a vast assortment of readers, young, old, devout, dismissive—so immediately, so completely, so irrevocably. I never read long in it without thinking, I wish I’d written that!

How Input Affects Output

I felt it sneak around the edges of my concentrated efforts. My lashes blinked faster. My lids now fought when I struggled to lift them off my eyes. A light sheet of brain-fog settled over my mind.

Afternoon fatigue had arrived. And it threatened to keep me from writing the scene on the screen before me. How would I finish without falling asleep?

Too often, I fight a common battle when I finally get a few snippets of time to write. But instead of grabbing a caffeine loaded, sugared up, fattened calf kind of snack, I’ve found a few quick solutions that allow me to treat my body with the respect it needs to function at optimal efficiency.

1) Eat nutritious vegetables or fruit. In particular, I’ve found the following have fabulous energy boosting properties for my body chemistry. Literally within seconds, I can feel a renewed focus and am able to write well. My faves include, red, orange, or yellow peppers, V-8 juice, grapefruit, oranges, watermelon, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, cucumbers in vinegar, cantaloupe, and celery.

Fruits & Veggies Energize Writers

Fresh Veggies and Fruit Energize

2) Get out in the sun. A few minutes of vitamin D rich sunlight is just the ticket to get my blood pumping and my thoughts racing.

Vitamin D Wakes Writers Up

Sunlight – Natural Inspiration

3) Drink water. When writing, we often don’t want to interrupt our thoughts, so dehydration is a big problem for many writers. Most people assume they need caffeine when exhaustion strikes — in reality, dehydration is often the culprit behind your fatigue. Science shows that water wakes us up.

Hydration Hydrates our Brain Cells

Water Wakes Writers Up

4) Take a nap. Though I fight it, sometimes a ten minute nap works miracles. A few moments of shut-eye gets me going again. (I find I need to set the alarm on my phone, so I can actually nod off. Otherwise, my fear of over-sleeping keeps me from getting the rejuvenating rest I need).

Naps Help Writers

Nap Time for Writers

5) Go for a walk. I plan this powerful method of staying alert into my writing schedule. It’s part of the formula I follow to get words on the page. Having an intended break gives me something to look forward to and pushes me past the humps. A good walk gets my blood flowing, my muscles heated, my cells active, and my thoughts fired up.

Walking Wakes Writers Up

Walking Stirs Creativity

6) Take prayer and Bible reading breaks. A few minutes spent with the Master Author infuses me with energy and inspiration. Nothing like purpose to light me into action.

Prayer and the Bible Inspires Writing

Pure Inspiration

Before fatigue wraps itself around me like a constricting serpent around its prey, I need a plan to fight back. I find the list above gives me exactly the input I need to affect my output in positive ways.

Here are some other great tips to help you battle afternoon fatigue.

What ways do you battle exhaustion when it threatens to hinder your writing?