From the Basement

June 30, 2010

The Glory of God

I will meditate on the glorious splendor of Your majesty,

And on Your wondrous works ….

All your works shall praise You, O Lord,

And Your saints shall bless you.

They shall speak of the glory of Your kingdom,

And talk of Your power.

Psalm 145:5, 10-11

*

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty,

The whole earth is full of his glory.

Isaiah 6:3

Glory is… beauty and splendor. Worthy of praise, honor, and thanksgiving. The beatific happiness of heaven. A height of prosperity or achievement. – or so says Webster’s dictionary.

This post isn’t a cogent essay, or even an attempt at such. It is merely bits and pieces here and there – scriptures, songs, quotes – that point to the awesome glory of our God.

We worship a Glorious God. In Desiring God, John Piper says, “The chief end of God is to glorify God and enjoy himself forever,” and that it is because of this that we find such complete satisfaction and pleasure in Him (33). The basic building blocks of this idea are:

The happiness of God in God is the foundation of our happiness in God.

If God did not joyfully uphold and display his glory, the ground of our joy would be gone.

God’s pursuit of praise from us and our pursuit of pleasure in him are in perfect harmony.

For God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. (Piper 50)

This is why acknowledging and praising his glory is important.

His creation reflects His glory. Nature. Newborn babies. Marriages. The person of Jesus Christ. Notwithstanding Christ, who is glory, everything else is a reflection of his glorious, wonderful, powerful nature – a testament of his love for us, that he shows us and lets us share in his glory. We are made complete in the praise of his glory and the satisfaction that follows. And that pleases him.

One of my favorite worship songs right now is “Everything Glorious” from David Crowder Band. The first time I heard (well, that I remember hearing it) was when I was driving back from Montana a few weeks ago. It was a Sunday morning, and my friends and I had our own church service in the car. We wound across the sprawling sort-of-mountains, over the hills. The clouds were so big and fluffy and close that you felt like if you stuck your hand out the window, you could touch them. As we drove down a hill that had clouds scattered across the landscape looking like cotton candy, this song was playing. The photos (taken in Utah) are courtesy of my friend A.S.

The day is brighter here with You

The night is lighter than its hue

Would lead me to believe

Which leads me to believe

(chorus)

You make everything glorious

You make everything glorious

You make everything glorious

And I am Yours

What does that make me?

My eyes are small but they have seen

the beauty of enormous things

Which leads me to believe

there’s light enough to see that

(chorus)

You make everything glorious

You make everything glorious

You make everything glorious

And I am Yours

From glory to glory

You are glorious You are glorious

From glory to glory

You are glorious. You are glorious

Which leads me to believe

why I can believe

You make everything glorious

You make everything glorious

You make everything glorious

And I am Yours

You make everything glorious

You make everything glorious

You make everything glorious

And I am Yours

He delights to show me his glory.

He delights when I delight in his glory.

I delight when acknowledging his glory brings me into a deeper understanding of his awesome, all-encompassing, knock-out, drop-dead gorgeous love.

Praise gives perspective.

How awesome it is that he lets us choose to revel in his glory.

It’s like splashing in the lake as a child. You’re only a few inches deep but it’s so good.

How much deeper can we go?

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June 29, 2010

Gilmore Girls & Coffee

Filed under: Uncategorized — jeannablue @ 3:23 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

In my family, people tend to pair off and have certain shows or movies that are special to a particular relationship. My dad and I had The West Wing, and then we had 24. My sister and I bonded over Charmed. And after I left for college, my mom and sister fell in love with Gilmore Girls. Consequently, we own every season. I’ve never really watched the show, partly because it feels like theirs, but I was bored today so I watched the pilot. I forget how enjoyable the show is – the dialogue sparkles and goes at the speed of light. But by the end of the episode, I realized there was another reason to watch the show – a far more important reason.

For those of you who don’t know me personally, well, let’s just say that I am a coffee lover. I drink it anytime. All the time. I have a half a pot in the morning and a half a pot before bed, and if I’m feeling really inspired, I have one in the middle of the afternoon, even in the summer. All this to say, Lorelei Gilmore is an inspiration.

Note that Lorelei has raised her daughter on coffee. Like Rory, I never stood a chance. If your mother was giving you coffee-flavored ice cream when you were 2 and buying you lattes and mochas when you were 10… well, you’d be writing this blog.

June 28, 2010

On Love & Experience

Tonight, I want to talk about love and experience within the context of romantic, Christ-centered relationships. This isn’t an overly comprehensive essay – just some of my thoughts on the matter.

I’ve been in a relationship for over a year and a half now, and it’s serious. We’re also in a period of long distance, and I know that I’m more prone to doubts and fears when I’m away from him. Something I’ve struggled with over the last few months is owning the fact that in times like these, I am barraged with lies. Self-doubts fester in me, infectious, and they creep into old wounds and plop themselves down and act like they are exclusively My Issues and not lies that I can rebuke.

One such lie is the lie that I don’t have enough life experience, that maybe I’m being over zealous. It is, after all, the first rock-solid, healthy, long-term relationship I’ve had (note the emphasis on healthy). So – why not wait a little while? Break up for a little while? See where life takes both of us? Who knows, maybe we’ll find other people.

Notwithstanding the fact that this thinking makes me sick to my stomach (the first sign that it’s not an expression of me), there are other reasons that it’s a lie and clearly not of God.

I’m going to step out on a limb here. My hypothesis is that experience is (or can be) the antithesis of trust. For the purposes of this post, I’ll venture to say that experience in relationships does not necessarily teach us how to love or, indeed, the very nature of love.

When we speak of being experienced, it seems – most often – to refer to sexual experience. That’s not the focus of this post, but I do want to briefly address it. I think that the following excerpt says it best. Josh Harris, author of the controversial I Kissed Dating Goodbye (I still don’t know how I feel about that book), was interviewed a few years ago on secular radio, where he was grilled on his virginity and lack of experience. But his response to this particular question left his interviewer speechless.

Taylor: So what’s going to happen when, let’s say you get married and you get to the honeymoon suite and she’s lousy in bed?

Josh: Well, I won’t have anything to compare it to.

A Christian man or woman’s sexual experience or lack thereof is a different post – but I did want to throw that in there to emphasize the point that experience does not necessarily correlate with: better sex, better relationship, better intimacy.

If anything, experience erodes our ability and/or willingness to let God into the picture. Personally, this happens with writing all the time. I’m only recently learning to pray about my writing; I’ve been doing it for so long that it feels like second nature. I’ve read dozens of writing books, written hundreds of thousands of words in my lifetime… and am only beginning to learn to include God in my process. “But I know what I’m doing,” I say. “But I know what I want to write about,” I say. “But I know my process! I know what I need,” I say. He pretty much just laughs and shows me how to do it better. Everything I thought I knew about writing is being tossed out the window. Okay, maybe not everything. I still abide by the As Few Adverbs As Possible rule.

Experience (oftentimes) begets pride. In parenting. Loving. Careers. Even ministry. “The way we worship has been working for years. Why fix what ain’t broke?” And that’s only one example.

When we have experience in relationships, we can convince ourselves that we know how to love when in fact it is Christ in us who teaches us how to love. It’s about remaining tender to his heart and to his leading. It’s about learning how to live out 1st Corinthians 13. It’s about choice.

This is such a radical concept in my life right now. God has been teaching me so much about choice over the last year – choice in worship. Choice in quiet time. Choice in writing. Choice in loving.

The qualities of love – which are, at their core, the qualities of God, who is love – are not based on “a fancy or a feeling,” to quote Jane Austen. They are not organized like “If you’ve loved one person, go to step A. If you’ve been in several relationships, skip to step C!” Rather, we are called to love others simply as Christ loved us. These are the qualities we are called to cultivate in our relationships:

  • Patience
  • Kindness
  • Does not envy
  • Does not boast
  • Is not proud
  • Is not rude
  • Is not self-seeking
  • Is not easily angered
  • Keeps no record of wrongs
  • Does not delight in evil
  • Rejoices in the truth
  • Always protects
  • Always trusts
  • Always hopes
  • Always perseveres
  • Never fails

There is not a qualifier on these qualities, e.g. “be patient IF you feel like loving them.” No – I am called to practice these characteristics on the days when my mother is driving me up the wall. When my sister ignores me and stays in her room. When I don’t feel like loving my boyfriend. When the excitement isn’t bouncing off the walls.

These are characteristics that grow as we grow in our relationship with Christ and, yes, as we practice them over time. I’m not denying the value of experience – just suggesting that we not take it as the ultimate litmus test.

Ultimately, your ability to love is not based on the amount of relationship experience you have; it is a direct correlation of your relationship with Christ – how you understand and receive his love, and how you apply it to your relationships. Similarly, the depth of your commitment is not measured by the number of partners you have (that is to say, the number of people you’ve ruled out) but rather by your mutual commitment to Christ and to the qualities of love that you are cultivating in your relationship.

Relationships are like gardens; they need to be tended, watered, weeded, and sometimes just enjoyed, basked in. We garden because we love to look upon beautiful things, or because we love to reap the fruits of our labor and enjoy fresh produce on the table. I don’t want to take the food metaphor too far, but it is similar with relationships: we are designed to desire love, to want to bask in it. To quote the film Moulin Rouge, “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”

And, I would note, your experience with gardening is most often grown when you tend the same garden year in, year out, learning the nature of the soil, how much water to use, the way the light and shade fall at different types of day, the animals to ward against, the flowers that look best together. It is not much use if you begin a garden only to abandon it half-way through; you learn how to begin a garden, but you don’t learn how to tend it, nurture it, preserve it, keep it.

We’ve all had different experiences in life and in love. I have friends who have fluttered around like butterflies from flower to flower, enjoying the process and maintaining their integrity. I’ve had girlfriends who married the only man they seriously dated, and their marriages are things of beauty. And I have friends who have been in serious, long-term relationships only to have the relationship end after several years; I have marveled at how they still found joy and truth in the process.

A friend recently came to me seeking advice for maintaining a long distance relationship. The only advice I could give was, keep seeking after the Lord. If you are seeking after the Lord and your partner is seeking after Him, truly and honestly, with all your being, in prayer or reading or however you connect – if you both are seeking, then you both are finding, and you both are growing. A cord of three strands is not easily broken.

Quick memo: not all Christian relationships end in marriage (thank goodness), and I’m a firm believer in not putting that pressure on people … so that’s another post that’s currently brewing.

In the end, our God is too great to be boxed into patterns. One size does not fit all. This morning in church, Pastor Mike joked that there’s a reason we’re not given a formula for salvation, or else the church would find all sorts of ways to constrict people. The same applies to love. There’s not a formula for relationships given in the Bible – we’re simply told that love is the highest commandment, to first love God and then to love each other. We are given the qualities of love. But we are not told how to apply them, or an ideal number of relationships pre-marriage. Thank you Lord for that freedom! For the mercy! For the fluidity, the flexibility, the awesome adaptability and creativity that Jesus uses to bring people together, friends and spouses, parents and children, co-workers, colleagues, peers.

We truly serve an awesome God who loves us and who seeks to give us good gifts. My prayer is that I can trust him enough to accept this awesome gift of relationship that he’s given me. To trust him, to trust my boyfriend, to trust myself.

1st Corinthians 13:13: And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

June 27, 2010

Favorite Quotes that can apply (however loosely) to Writing

Hi all. Sorry I’ve been absent the last few days; I’ve been hard at work on the novel. Almost up to 10K. Some days are easier than others. I’ve also been busting ass applying for jobs – 9 in the last 2 days. I’m developing a distaste for the weekend, as there are no job updates.

But this post isn’t about job applications. It’s about writing and, specifically, some of my favorite quotes that apply to the writing process; I have several of these on my desktop background. Some aren’t explicitly about writing but are still germane to the topic. Curiously, some of the advice may also apply to the job application process. Good advice is often able to transcend the borders of genre, the compartments into which we divide our lives. Some things just cut through to the core.

So, without further ado, I present to you my favorite quotes that can apply (however loosely) to that glorious process we call Writing.

1. The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will. – Vince Lombardi

2. Fear is a sign – usually a sign that I’m doing something write. – Erica Jong

3. If you are going through hell, keep going. – Winston Churchill

4. Creativity comes from trust. Trust your instincts. And never hope more than you work. – Rita Mae Brown

5. We work in our darkness a great deal with little real knowledge of what we are doing. – John Steinbeck

6. The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense. –  Tom Clancy

7. Why worry about the ending anyway? Why be such a control freak? Sooner or later every story comes out somewhere. – Stephen King

8. If everything seems under control, then you’re just not going fast enough. – Mario Andretti

9. If you do not tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people. – Virginia Woolf

10. Done is good. Better is the enemy of done. – my friend Hilary

June 23, 2010

Breakthrough

Filed under: Fiction,Writing — jeannablue @ 8:25 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Today, I was ready to set aside the novel-in-progress for a different idea. Just set it aside. I wanted to work on the other project – the more exciting, controversial project. At least, talking about the unruly women of history seems more striking than a quiet novel set in a small town on the Great River Road.

But my protagonist was having none of that. Today, she decided to come out and play. Finally.

Part of the reason I was ready to set the novel aside was because I was having such a tough time getting a picture of her. Almost all of my first writings are dialogue, and pretty much dialogue only. I’ve always had a good ear for speech and rhythms and such; of all the parts of a story, dialogue comes easiest. Description, now, that’s harder. And instinctually knowing what my characters feel – well, that’s just something that comes with time.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time – or at least, I’ve tried to spend time – with my protagonist, and I just wasn’t getting a read on her. Some things came; the post Trust Your Characters came on the heels of a good session.

Maybe it was the threat of moving to a different project – who knows? But today, I got a sense for her as I never have before. She started to do things and feel things, not just say things (for me, there is a difference, at least when I’m still getting to know a character). She decided to go kayaking with the guy I know she’ll fall in love with, and I only know that because he invited her to go kayaking before I could even catch up.

I love when characters do that.

So I am a very happy girl right now.

June 21, 2010

The Power of Twilight, part two

“It’s why we engage with literature, so we can see other people’s craziness.”

– one of my favorite professors, the indomitable LKH

~*~

My last post was about Twilight. If you haven’t read it, I suggest doing so, since this one picks up where it left off. Specifically, this post is the explication of the following line:

It is my opinion that all this “bad vs. good writing” debate is covering up our real issues with Twilight, which will be in another post.

… This is that other post.

I previously talked ad nauseum about how compelling stories sell and how critics should not be surprised when a book with “bad” writing (whatever that means) sells, because compelling premise trumps Norton-worthy writing almost every time.

Addendum: for those of you who may not know what a Norton Anthology is, it is this Leviathon of a book containing all the “must-reads” of British and American literature from the past, oh, 1200 years. It is assembled by the folks who are slowly becoming one with their desks up in the ivory towers, a.k.a. academics, and is basically T.S. Eliot’s dream come true (it’s supposed to sort the wheat from the chaff, whatever that means). This book is required for any sort of survey lit class, and did I mention the best part? It is thousands of pages long. Or, as the afore-quoted professor put it, “Our friend – the hernia – waiting to happen.”

So, back to Twilight, which will probably never be included in the Norton (just sayin’). I suggested that part of its popularity is due to its premise, one that has proved to be inordinately compelling for the millennial generation. Fifteen years ago, average teenage girl meets sparkly vampire would not have sold. Why? Because there were YA vampire novels released in the 1990s that did not merit much ado about anything. The Vampire Diaries is a series that has profited tremendously in the Twilight afterglow; the series was initially published in the 90s but didn’t really pick up until after Twilight. And now TVD has its own television show.

I think it’s fair to say that Twilight was the right book at the right time. It has a powerful hold on youth culture and has inspired dozens of spin-offs, but nothing can top the original. It’s become popular that it’s almost as popular to bash Twilight as it is to love it.

One of the most popular anti-Twilight points is about the “bad writing” and how it’s ruining young people’s understanding of literature. Twilight being popular heralds the depravity of popular taste, etc. etc. etc. Whatever.

And now we’re caught up to where I left off – all this talk on how Twilight is bad writing, yada yada yada, so awful how could people like it … all this is just a cover for what critics think is really wrong.

When I picture Twilight, I think of it as an IV that has a direct line into the body that is our culture. Yep, in a hospital. And yep, I get the possible pun with blood. The books are saying something that desperately wants to be voiced. It’s like medicine. But is it the medicine we want?

Whether Twilight is compelling is not in question. What is in question is whether it should be compelling – and, more frighteningly, what it means to have such a story be so obviously representative of the state of our youth (at least the female half).

Let’s describe that story. A girl with low self-esteem finds her purpose entirely in a guy, a maladjusted 100+ year-old vamp who for some reasons spends his days repeating high school (like Groundhog Day, only voluntarily). Edward is a masochist, and Bella has low self-esteem and suffers from depression. We learn in the first chapter that she has abandonment issues. The starting point of their relationship is that they sit next to each other in biology, and Edward pays virtually no attention to her, yet she becomes unnaturally, inordinately attached to him. And sure enough, within a few hundred pages, she’s willing to give up her soul for him (that is, she wants to be a vampire, too). She doesn’t care about her soul; she cares about having him.

And let’s talk about Edward. This guy has issues. He’s emotionally stunted (who wouldn’t be, repeating high school?) and he plays with fire by developing a relationship with Bella. Think about it: he tells her she shouldn’t be near him, he tells her he’s dangerous, but obviously his desire for her outweighs his concern for her safety, because notwithstanding his suicidal sting in New Moon, he does not stay away from her. He has some self-control, but he’s thirsty for her blood. The word lush is used in the fourth book to describe this. And let’s not skip over the point that he hates himself, and that she is his purpose and reason (which is why he’s suicidal in New Moon when he thinks that she’s dead – Romeo & Juliet allusion!).

So, in sum, Bella is attracted to an hot, filthy rich vampire who loves her but really, really wants to kill her. They are both depressed, they don’t like themselves, and their identities get wrapped up in the relationship. And this has the makings of true love … how, exactly?

To say it’s an unhealthy relationship is an understatement. To say it is disturbing is certainly fair.

(I may insert more thoughts in here at some point, but the coffee buzz is wearing off and I want to wrap up.)

When it comes down to it, I think we’re scared of Twilight. Not of the Team Edward vs. Team Jacob mania – teenage hormones are nothing new. Rather, we’re scared of what it means if Edward/Bella, rather than Darcy/Elizabeth, is the idealized relationship for a teenage girl. We’re scared of what it means if our sisters and daughters are identifying with a character who retreats so deeply into her own depths she doesn’t have the strength to bring herself out. With a girl who would give up her soul for an immortal lover.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published 113 years ago (1897). In that book, vampires heralded the end of individuality, and as such, they were to be fought. They were dark creatures, villains, the natural of humans. Now, they are romantic heroes.

Edward is afraid of his own darkness. Bella, the reader proxy, is not. What does this say about our culture, especially youth culture? Bella does not fear human death, nor does she fear the consequences that come with immortality (immortality is rarely a good thing in literature – think what it meant in Harry Potter or, going back a few centuries, Marlowe’s Faustus). Vampires, once a threat, are now simply misunderstood. And, interestingly enough, it is not the sparkliness of vampires or even the immortality that attracts Bella, but rather the fact that she wants to be a vamp because (wait for it) … her boyfriend is a vamp. She is eager to be absorbed into his world, a world in which she only fits because she has him. Her identity becomes meshed with his. (There are so many gender issues in these books; check out bitchmagazine.com for some rockin’ articles.)

To close, I think that part of Twilight’s power stems from fear. Fear of its significance in the lives of our youth. Fear of what that means. Fear for our culture. And fear because none of us saw it coming.

I’ll probably be back to expound, edit, etc. In the meantime, I welcome comments, respectful arguments, links, etc. What’s your take on the Twilight phenomenon? The Girl Downstairs wants to know.

June 20, 2010

The Power of Twilight, part one

I’m going to come out and say it: I’ve read Twilight. More specifically, I read the first three books in a dizzy, coffee-induced fury two years ago. I have since labeled that frenzy “hours of my life I’ll never get back,” but in truth, I’m very, very glad that I’ve read 3/4 of the series that is defining a generation.

Like it or not, it is defining our generation’s teenage years. 12 years ago, I was on the younger end of the generation that grew up with the original Britney and Backstreet Boys, that cut its teeth on Harry Potter. Now, I’m on the older end of the spectrum – at the ripe old age of 22, I go gaga for Lady GaGa rather than Edward Cullen, but Twilight is a phenomenon reaching beyond the borders of age and into the consciouses of cultural commentators, professors, publishing professionals, and concerned parents. (Yes, they should be concerned.)

I have a feeling that this is the first of many posts on this subject, but I want to address a few things up front. Namely, the discussion of good vs. bad literature, and why I think the series is important regardless of the answer.

So, do I think Twilight is good literature?

To me, this is an irrelevent question that gets bandied about almost exclusively by those who are leaping out of their chair with the exciting revelation that Twilight is badly written. Thus, it is bad literature, and thus, you shouldn’t read it!

That logic doesn’t work for several reasons. First, we lack a definition of “good” versus “bad” literature. Do we mean the quality of writing? One major complaint is that Twilight is badly written. For the sake of argument, let’s take that claim. So – what makes it badly written? Notwithstanding S. Meyer’s affinity for adverbs, critics may point to overwrought emotions, constipated prose, and the poorly constructed story arc. Valid arguments that I actually agree with, by the way.

However, I doubt that anti-Twilight sentiment would be so vehement if those were the soul reasons for disapproval. While I’d like to believe that there are in fact enough former English majors out there to stir up a grammar revolution, chances are good that they’re not leading the brigade. Moreover, as one who has read Twilight, I can assert that Meyer’s writing actually improves with each book. It gets better, I promise! (The writing, not necessarily the story.) But in spite of this fact, critics still claim that Meyer’s bad writing is ruining teenagers’ understanding of literature. (And The Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High didn’t? Please.)

As a side note, I’d like to point out that some of the evidence for “bad writing” – e.g. the overwrought emotions – are common traps of the genre – that is to say, other YA and Romance books. Similarly, cardboard characters are a common trap for thriller writers, one that John Grisham falls into all the time (Dan Brown, too). This doesn’t make it okay to fall into a trap; I’m just observing that Meyer takes a heckuva lot more flack than Grisham and Brown, partly because of the genre she’s writing in. That aside, Grisham, Brown, and Meyer get the last laugh – they’ve had some of the highest grossing book sales of the past decade, and none of them seem that bothered about not winning a Pulitzer.

Bad writing is in the eye of the beholder, and “bad writing” (whatever it is) does not mean that a book won’t sell or – more importantly – that a story isn’t compelling. People very much enjoy heaping criticisms of “bad writing” on authors, and yet they almost always fail to offer a definition of good writing. It’s quite annoying. Why are people so ticked off that bad writers are on the bestseller list? Why aren’t they buying books by good authors? And why aren’t the books with good writing selling?

This is, I think, the crux of the matter. Oftentimes, there is a gap between good writing and good stories. I’ll make yet another distinction: there is often a gap between these things for the pickiest of readers. Most of the time, bestsellers come from decent writers who have incredible self-discipline and an inordinately compelling idea (think J.K. Rowling). Notwithstanding Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie, most bestsellers are nowhere near a Pulitzer. They do not foreground language; they emphasize tension and story, simply because most readers (yours truly included) put a compelling premise above quality of writing. If offered a scintillating page of description or a scintillating good vs. evil scene, um, I’ll take the scene (sorry, Ian McEwan).

This preference (compelling scene vs. inclusion in a Norton Anthology) is part of why Grisham, Brown, Rowling, and – yes – Meyer are on the bestseller list. And this is why literary writers are more often found in The Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, and Shenandoah, which – while outstanding – are not widely read publications outside of academia. (The New Yorker is the grand exception.)

I recognize that I am making enormous generalizations here, and I do not mean to set up the binary literary/bestseller. They’re not mutually exclusive. Plenty of outstanding “literary” writers enjoy popular readership (the aforementioned Morrison and Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri – love her). There are literary writers who produce beautifully constructed, emotionally compelling stories which are sadly overlooked. And, of course, there are plenty of decent writers whose work does not sell “decently.”

But – I don’t think my main point can be overstated. That is, as long as the writing isn’t painfully bad, people flock to compelling stories. Good is subjective, but few can deny that certain premises – a boy who discovers he’s a wizard, a young lawyer who gets taken in by the Mob – are compelling, even if it’s not your preferred cup of tea. This explains a lot about Twilight‘s popularity. Many critics of the series just don’t seem to understand the concept. When you start bitching about Twilight, everyone’s standards shoot through the roof.

(It is my opinion that all this “bad vs. good writing” debate is covering up our real issues with Twilight, which will be in another post.)

Of course, Twilight is also interesting for other reasons. Because it pushes the boundaries of what we consider “good” storytelling (is it the writing? the structure? the message?). Because it’s chalk full of controversy – allegations of unhealthy relationships, obsessive-compulsive behavior, blood play, teenage sexuality (it’s been called “abstinence porn”). It’s also a story we’ve seen before – Romeo & Juliet, Tristan & Isolde, and especially Wuthering Heights (which Bella is actually reading in chapter two of the first book). Yet it is a bona fide phenomenon – it hit on something that our culture is hungry for, perhaps starving for.

What most interests me about Twilight is not the quality of writing. It is simply this: what is it about this book that so resonates with youth today, and what does that say about our culture? At many points throughout the series, Bella seems almost a proxy for the reader. She is insecure, lonely. She has low self-esteem. Her parents are divorced. She considers herself average, or even below average. So why is she so popular with readers? And why is an emotionally stunted 100+ year old vampire a romantic hero? Lack of choice is a theme that permeates the series (it is almost the anti-Harry Potter in that respect), and it has hit on something deep within our cultural subconscious. Even those who do not identify with or enjoy the series find themselves enveloped in the conversations and debates surrounding Twilight and its similar cultural counterparts, such as the hit television series True Blood (initially based on Charlaine Harris’ pre-Twilight Sookie Stackhouse series).

Why is Twilight such a powerful force in our culture?

That is what I want to think about.

And on the note of literature, good literature – the stuff that I learned in my English courses at college – is often what defines a generation. I’m not saying that Twilight will be anthologized and taught as part of university curriculum, etc. etc. But it’s clearly of cultural importance, and that makes it worth studying.

And last but not least, to the critics who routinely lambast “popular fiction” as not worthy of study, I would add that Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, and Jane Austen wrote the “popular” fiction of their day. Dickens and Dumas were serialized in the newspapers. They had something to say that resonated with people in their time, and even after. And there’s no way they could have predicted that. /tangent

While another post on this subject brews, feel free to respond (I’d love to get your take on the series or anything I’ve said). I will also leave you with two marvelously entertaining links, both of which are rather critical of Twilight. (Please send me links to positive stuff; it’s hard to come by on the internet.)

The first is to a series of posts in which the LJ blogger Cleolinda gives a snarky chapter-by-chapter summary of Breaking Dawn, the last installment in the series: http://cleolinda.livejournal.com/630150.html

The second is a wonderful video blog entitled “Alex Reads Twilight.” It’s a 20something British guy giving short, >5 minute summaries of the chapters as he reads Twilight. He says such wonderful things as “Who the fuck is Lauren?” and “Stephenie Meyer plus science equals wrong.” He also has a remarkable eye for spotting S. Meyer’s dangling subplots. Hope you enjoy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2L253VLwH3w&feature=player_embedded

June 18, 2010

Trust Your Characters

It’s a slow process, learning about characters. Sort of like making a new friend – it’s gradual. You can’t force it. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that you can’t force the characters. Force the characters and you risk killing the story. Ah hell, you kill the story.

It’s the same way with deciding which music will keep me going through the story. I write in silence but I listen to music to feed my muse, to put me in the mood, in that place that takes me there. Tonight, there were three songs that came to me for this story’s soundtrack: Beth (originally by Kiss, but I listen to the Glee version), Summer in the City (Regina Spektor), and Red Dirt Girl (Emmylou Harris). Summer in the City is for the piano; when I heard that song (God bless the random option on iTunes), I realized that my main character plays piano. Red Dirt Girl is for her mother. And Beth, I have no idea. Maybe the dad, who isn’t really in the story. Or maybe I just really like the texture of the song.

I cleaned my desk today. Clutter prevents creativeness. So I cleaned my desk, mostly. And I unwrapped a “note block” and started ripping off the small white notes (like Post-Its only without the sticky), and writing things I knew about my protagonist, and taping them onto my wall. I have 12 notes for her. Some are character traits, like that she’s impatient and restless. One is her favorite color (usually not something I think about, so that was weird, but it’s ice blue, in case you’re wondering). Some things come randomly, like the knowledge that she plays piano and her dad is the one who taught her. I know that she orders a Caesar salad with every meal and that she retreats into herself when asked about things she doesn’t want to talk about.

I also know that I have no idea what’s driving the internal conflict. Well, I know that it’s a conflict with her mother. Something happened three years prior to the story (that it was three years ago just got dropped into my lap), and I don’t know what. It’s big. But I don’t know. And I try to stop myself from filling in the gap: was it an abortion or a huge fight or manipulation or knowledge of her father or …? It does no good to fill it in. It’ll fill itself in.

When it comes to writing characters, I’m a firm believer that they should let themselves be discovered. I used to be the 20-step writer – you know, fill in 20 character traits, describe their physicality, decide on a personality, go from there. Now I’m more inclined to the Stephen King method (which actually applies to uncovering story, but I apply it to characters): they are bones that we as writers dig up. They’re already there. We just have to sense them, find them, excavate them carefully, removing one bit of dirt at a time until we get a clearer picture. It takes time, energy, devotion. The story is there. The characters are there. And if you trust yourself to find them, if you trust yourself enough to keep moving the pen, eventually the story and characters will start moving so fast you’ll struggle to keep up. Eventually, the story writes itself and the characters do their own thing.

That’s the point I’m excited to get to. I’m not there yet. I’m only three thousand words in right now. It’ll take a while longer before a picture starts to emerge. But it’s already changed from what I thought it was, and that’s a good thing.

Trust the process. And, to offer one of my favorite quotes on writing, never hope more than you work.

P.S. The reason for the hiatus was an excursion out west to attend the wedding of a dear friend. And then I was tired and took a break from blog writing. And now I’m back, working on a novel, still applying for jobs, and hopefully continuing to blog through the whole process.

June 9, 2010

On Personal Statements & Failure

Personal statements are currently competing with mushrooms for the coveted status of My Least Favorite Thing.

I’ve prayed some and whined much, which is not the solution to writing a personal statement. I’ve spent a decent amount of time planning and brainstorming, but mostly I’ve been anxious and freaked out.

This has me running scared for two reasons: one, the more days I spend whining about the personal statement, the less days my application is complete and the fewer jobs I’ll be considered for. Second, the anxiety has me worried that maybe I’m not supposed to be a teacher if I can’t even write a personal statement.

I know the second fear is bogus. It’s the same fear that freaked me out during grad school applications (which I probably shouldn’t think about seeing as how that didn’t work out). It’s the fear that comes when you’re trying to tackle a difficult problem. It’s not rational; it just is. It’s the fear that has to be surrendered and given over because otherwise it’ll cripple you.

This fear is not indicative of potential success (or failure). It’s a fear that aims to keep you in your comfort zone, that says not to take the risk, that says you’re not qualified. It’s the fear of not being good enough.

Fear has no say in the final outcome, unless you’re so afraid that you do nothing and then of course you’re bound to not get whatever it is you wanted. I’ve come to the realization over this last year that I could have the perfect application and still not get hired/accepted if it wasn’t The Right Thing. I say this because I had a lot of really good applications, applications that employers, professors, and family members alike believed would guarantee me something. But none of them got me anything, save the learning that comes from failure.

In her commencement speech at Harvard, J.K. Rowling said that failure meant a stripping away of the inessentials. I like that. And at some point in the Mighty Ducks trilogy, the coach says he’d rather have lost, because you learn more from losing than you do from winning. Failure forces you to go back to square one and reevaluate.

As an uncle said during my graduation weekend, my lack of success means that I’ve been learning a lot about what God doesn’t want me to do (at least right now).

So back to this personal statement. All I can do is write in good faith, the faith that comes with knowing that somehow or another, this is just one more step in the crazy post-graduation employment frenzy. And it’s a step towards something. Whether it’s toward a job or more time with Mom and Dad, no one can say. But I won’t find out what that next step is until I finish this application. Which means finishing the personal statement. Which, when you think about it, really isn’t that scary after all.

It’s just a bit of parchment.

June 6, 2010

Job Update (a.k.a. I hate “selling myself”)

Good news on the job front: I’m now working with a search/headhunting firm. Excellent! I completed the application for their firm, complete with two essays, and now that I’ve been accepted as a candidate, I need to write a personal statement and answer questions to help the people working with me figure out where I’d best be placed.

The process is going very well, but I’ve got some writing anxiety. Most of it is focused on the personal statement but, in classic procrastination form, I’ve decided to channel the rest of it onto the last of the “get to know you” questions –

Please tell us something that you feel is unique about yourself.

I hate this kind of question.

First off, the word “unique,” to me, means one of a kind. Totally original. Unusual. But in employment speak, they’re basically (probably?) asking, what are your best qualities, what do you do well that most other people don’t.

I’m a quick learner, but plenty of people are. I have great communication skills – but that’s not rare, either. I’m positive and enthusiastic – again, so are other people. My boyfriend suggested stating how I integrate my love of lit into many aspects of my life, but I don’t know how “professional” to go. The obvious answer, of course, is I’m a triple major – let me tell you about how I integrate my disciplines … only that doesn’t work, either (besides, integrate is a transitive verb and it doesn’t work in that sentence).

I would really, really like to answer that question with the following:

  1. I have freaking awesome curly hair. Honest to goodness, it does not look like a lot of other curly heads, and I love it.
  2. I can burp on command … better than my boyfriend.

…  so: back to square one.

My mom is an HR goddess, which comes in handy when I’m preparing to interview. I cannot think of another mom who can bring up half a dozen books on interviewing from her business bookshelf and start grilling you and evaluating your answers (and that’s just the warm-up). And so, via my mother, I know that half the reason this question is asked is because employers want to see how you answer it. That is to say, what I think is unique about me says something. Why did I choose that particular quality?

Oh, I could always say that I own every Holiday/Celebration Barbie ornament ever released by Hallmark!

What’s frustrating is that I know I’m getting hung up on this question because I’m freaking terrified of the personal statement. I do not like personal statements.

So that’s my job update. I just have to get over this aversion to selling myself, because if I can’t sell myself, I won’t get hired.

As my dad would say in all his military wisdom, “Nothin’ to it but to do it.” I just have to suck it up, bite the bullet, and remember that employment outweighs the awkwardness of the interview process.

So … here goes nothin’. Again.

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