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Just Look at Me

I recently discovered Victor Shklovsky’s essay Art as Technique.  It had that wonderful effect that reads sometimes do of bringing my many rogue thoughts into an elegant ordered relation.

It goes like this: artists want their audiences to break out of the habit-hustle, to slow, so they can show them something.  Therefore, artists use all sorts of speaking strange to hold and focus the reader’s attention.  Yes, yes, my mind is full of notes on the purpose of art.  And I have piles of design devices on hand.  But with one simple stroke Shklovsky then tied all these together under one grand technique he calls defamiliarization.  How very lovely.

How so?  When I have before me the aim of trying to awaken my reader, I see my means is to recreate for them what the experience of what wonder is like.  It is clumsy.  It is foreign.  It’s like seeing something for the first time. It is mooreeffoc.  And so, write it that way.

My parents tell me when I was a little girl I hadn’t yet acquired the word for peas, so I called them bean-balls.  But in calling them bean-balls they became so much more then peas.  That’s a very helpful way for me to think about the way I write.

“I would start thinking of the small animal dignity that children and puppies and shy little horses struggle so hard to maintain; the wonder and surprise of the world of a kitten by itself for the first time … and stories would come.”

– Margaret Wise Brown, American Picturebooks: From Noah’s Ark to the Beast Within, pg. 258

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According to the Grace You’ve Been Given

“…a dominant form tends to attract to itself writers whose talents would have fitted them much better for work of some other kind.”

– C.S. Lewis, Allegory of Love, pg. 232

Fashion has a lure.  It whispers to you acceptance — “come and serve the popular taste, and you will find the approval you crave”.  But it is a trap!  It pulls you away, like a swirling black hole, from the work that you are fitted for, made for.  The work that no one else was to make but you.

The better way:  Work within the limits of the grace you’ve been given.  I mean work it!  Tap that spring!  Play and push.  Squeeze to the last drop your dose of imagination, your realm of experience, your ration of talent.  And say “bah!” to worldly success;  let the chips fall where they may — God gives the growth as He sees fit.

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Inexperience

Why do I always feel disoriented when I begin?  From the start, I am hit with a head-on wave of confusion.  Amnesia overwhelms me.  I loose all memory of where I’ve been.  I don’t know what next step to take.  I panic.  My puny soul squeaks “Help! Help!  I am lost!”  Surely something is wrong.  Surely it’s not supposed to be this way.

But maybe it is, at least in part.  Maybe I am supposed to sense my utter inferiority.  So that I can reach out in dependence.  And take hold of Help that is significantly stronger than I.  What a thought – that the design of the task is that this would be my experience.

My task is designed to provide, to teach the realization that I am weak and God is strong and that his strength is made perfect in weakness … God in his mercy gives us something to do for which we know we are too small, too inexperienced, we lack.”

— Elisabeth Elliot, Faith and the Consciousness of Weakness. Gateway to Joy.

So, when I find welling up in me my sense of inadequacy, put on trust in God.

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Reentry

A work in progress quickly becomes feral … You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it.  If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room.

-Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, pg. 52

I’ve been away from my writing for two weeks.  No, three weeks.  Has it been four?  Maybe two and a half.

I tried to get back at it yesterday and found myself in a tense state of panic.  Every good thought I ever had seemed as-good-as-snatched away.  Spiders have taken up residence among the toppled chairs and dusty table of my inner work room.  Weeds have completely overtaken the garden.

I’ve read writers’ warnings of this kind of neglect; the horrors that ensue even after one day’s absence.  But my case — two weeks!  No, three (I mean four).  Is there any hope?  Is it all a loss?  I suppose one cannot know unless he tries.

So, I spent part of yesterday banging my head against the wall thinking maybe something would start to rattle.  When that didn’t work, I closed my eyes and danced oh so freely to music thinking maybe I could feel it back.  When that didn’t work I went childlike, belly to the floor, doodling on paper, hoping some line would come forward to meet me.  No success.  So I closed up shop, headed home to a late dinner, and read Dillard’s The Writing Life until bed.

And then, in the wee hours of this morning, a thought made a slight twitch in the corner of my mind.  I was on the hunt yesterday, wrongly, for some new, fresh trail.  But what this poor lost girl needs is not some whole new beginning, but to retrace her steps.  To see if I can’t find the path I was already on, where I was already working.  To catch a whiff of it, and proceed from there.

“O Blessed Notes!!”  I remembered all of my 3×5 cards squirreled away, holding clues.  There, there will be a good place start.  I popped out of bed in a dreamy delight and perked a chipper cup of coffee, eager to reacquaint myself with the ol’ scribbles.

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With a Psalm

Sing praises to God, sing praises!

For God is the King of all the earth;

sing praises with a psalm!

-Psalm 47:7

The aroma of picture books inside of me are like poems; they have a psalmic, hymn-like, quality about them.  Ultimately I see them as love songs to my Savior – addressed first and foremost to Him, and secondarily inviting those who read my song to join me in my contemplation and delight.  Almost like a missal.

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Psalm 45:1

“My heart overflows with a pleasing theme;

I address my verses to the king;

my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.”

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Good Job Anyway

“If you’ve worked in good faith for a couple of hours, but cannot hear the story, good job anyway for showing up.  Go have some lunch.”  – Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird pg. 115

I opened up to my keyboard for another day of writing  this morning.  I strained my ear, pressed in with my eyes, stayed with it, and stayed with it … and nothing would come.  An hour or so in I switched to my sketchbook thinking perhaps moving my pencil around on the page would open some things up.  But there was more dryness.

I had prayed for help before I entered in to my work and got to it without a loiter.  And I prayed as I went, but still nothing.  I asked like I do everyday for a story, a place to enter in, a character (something!!)  and still nothing has come but wanderings in faerie.  At the end of it I cried like a toddler.

What if nothing ever comes of this?  What if I’ve just been brought out here to die?! 

Oh, wait.  That sounds like Israel in the wilderness.  That sounds like unbelief.  That’s not good.  No, I must keep trusting that God will take care.  He may let me get hungry, but I need to behave like a well-weened little girl.  He won’t let me starve.  He knows how to take care of me.

And so what if nothing ever comes of it?  So what if all is dry until the day I die?  What if I never tell a story?  Was having written a story ever the point?  I turned to Habakkuk:  “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.”  If I never am given the ability to make squat I will always have the Lord, and that’s all I need really.  He makes me glad with His presence.

I can show up.  That’s all I can do.  That’s the best I can bring–trying to be faithful.  Produce belongs to the Lord.

I wiped away the tears on the back of my hand and got up to make some lunch.

 

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On the Way to the Library

There is a gate in town to the right of the Presbyterian Church.  Actually, part of it.  An archway passes under the bell tower, into an alleyway, and on through to a community parking lot and beyond.  For a moment, under the tower, you are held in the shadows of a little hut before reemerging into the day.  The Lion’s Gate is in there on your right, always open.  The air teems with imagination in that space.  Teems.

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Making Matter

“… I never know where the next word is coming from …” – Flannery O’Connor, Habit of Being pg. 343

How do I enter in when I don’t know where I am trying to go?

Jump.  Just jump and start making some stuff; a pile of material, a bunch of garbage.  Later from the heap I can pick out scraps of value and rework them.  But first job:  make matter.  No judgements.  No stopping to edit.  No looking back.  Just keep moving.

My strategy thus far has been to put my hands on the keyboard, close my eyes, and say a bunch of silly nonsense words until images start presenting themselves to me.  Then I write in the quickest lamest jot what I am seeing and hearing.  For a couple hours I stream it out, kind of like bleeding or vomiting.

This has worked remarkably well.  I am not hit with a mass of vision all once, but one image leads to another, leads to another, leads to another, and two thousand words later I find I have actually made some progress my imagination.

 

 

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Empty

Of course, as soon as I sit down to write my mind is accosted with the suffocating knowledge that I am completely incompetent.  I don’t have what it takes.  I don’t.  I don’t!  Abort!!Abort!!

And then this fresh air blows in:

I remember I am just a womb, an empty vessel, and that apart from the Lord I can do nothing.  No plant ever came from soil without a seed.  I don’t have what it takes, alone, but with a seed some pretty beautiful things can happen.  And who is my seed?  God is the source of anything good I’ve ever done and anything good I’ve ever made.  He’s the one with all the ideas.  Why do I always forget that?  I am a God-dependent creature through and through.

I take a deep breath, let the pressure to be brilliant roll off, and pray, “God, you be the brilliant one.  I’ll take notes.”  Then I start to work.

“…sit in front of the computer and say, ‘Lord, unless you do it, it won’t get done, so you jolly well better do it.’ …” – Sally Lloyd-Jones