Priorities

Well, I’m sorry about not having a post up yesterday. I’m sorry to say that insomnia got the better of me on Thursday night and I spent most of Friday a little loopy. Then we had some guests with us yesterday (Alayna’s baby shower is tomorrow… the baby is almost here, which is both exciting and terrifying), and so I generally have had a lot of distractions lately. I don’t say any of this as an excuse (honestly I don’t think I need one), but simply to explain why there was no post yesterday and to introduce my point here: it’s easy to lose focus of where our priorities should be.

I’ve done this many times in my life. Honestly, when I first started this blog my priorities were very out of whack. In the beginning I wanted this blog to be very successful (and given how many followers we have I think there has been some success involved), and because of that I was extremely focused towards attaining that goal. For the first year I wrote all of the posts for the blog myself, a post a day for a year is a lot for anyone to write (and if you’ve ever tried you know what I mean). After that I started bringing some other writers on board, but I was draconian about timely posting. I almost lost a friend over whether or not she published her posts on time.

I had certain standards, and standards, or so I told myself, are a good thing. I had been told that consistency is very important for bringing in reader, and I stuck to that and focused on consistently providing material of an accessible, but also high quality. I wanted to make sure that everyone who wrote for me had the same focus. This is where my priorities were off-target. At the time, especially in the particular situation I’m thinking of, I should have considered my friend’s feelings and what this particular person was dealing with at the time. I didn’t. All I focused on was that posts weren’t going up when they ‘needed’ to, and that was simply unacceptable.

At that time this blog was one of the few good things going on in my life. Academically I had hit what seemed to be a dead end. I applied to a number of programs, only to be rejected by all of them, and I had struggled to find a teaching job, only to then struggle to make enough money at the teaching job I did find to pay basic bills. Romantically, I had one short and painful relationship after another, and was shot down by most of the women I asked out in between them. Financially I had a mountain of debt that I didn’t see any realistic way of paying off. Spiritually I was in the driest point of my relationship with God since I converted, and while that didn’t last for more than six months, they were an extremely difficult six months.

When I started this blog, I thought it would be my ticket out of all of that (God had different plans), and I approached it as one might approach a life-changing career goal. However, since that time I have seem some (limited) success in my teaching job, I have started and finished a second master’s degree, gotten married, been accepted into two Ph.D. programs (still deciding which one), and Alayna and I are expecting our first child.

I say all of this to say that priorities are important. When I first started this blog I put an inordinately high priority on it, and was willing to sacrifice friendships for it. However, I think that in the past few years God has done a good job of refocusing my priorities. We’ve missed more that we did early on, and there is less focus on originality, quality, images, and timing. Things about the blog that used to be hard and fast rules have become only suggestions.

Other pursuits (school and family mostly) have taken precedence for me, and most importantly, I’ve learned to have a softer touch when others miss things, and learned to let some of them go myself. Four years ago I never would have allowed myself to miss a post. In thinking about all of this, I keep coming back to priorities. I treated this blog as though it was something that it can never be: a meaning for life.

Have you done the same with anything? I have said here before, and I still believe, that writing is good for us. It is important, healthy, and ultimately beneficial both for ourselves and for others. Some of you will probably make a career out of writing fiction, others probably won’t even though you want to, and some of you haven’t even considered it as a possibility. However, do you ever give your writing (however important it is) an inappropriate place in your life? It’s something worth thinking about.

Sex and the Family by Alayna

Hey, this is Alayna. Tobias has exhausted pretty much all of his brain energy on studying for his upcoming entrance exams so as a result you all are stuck with me for today. The truth is I actually volunteered to write for today when he mentioned he didn’t have any mental energy left for a blog post. That was of course without taking into account pregnancy brain (for which I am a textbook example), so this might not be an improvement at all. He said he was in the middle of a series on theology in fiction and asked me to consider that from the perspective of books or TV I have watched recently. I’m going to detour a little from that (while still technically complying) and focus on the differences between God’s perspective on sexuality and what is seen in media and even in real life.

America in general is obsessed with sex. Whether it’s in illicit gratification (including pornography, non-marital sex, or graphic nonconsensual sexual acts displayed on TV), what one might call ‘normal marital sex’, as well as an obsession with avoiding, condemning, or in all other ways pretending that sex does not exist. Unfortunately, for how much attention the topic is given, God’s commands are nearly completely forgotten, or worse, mocked by the majority of Americans. This is seen by people who say that sex stops after marriage (a fairly popular idea on Rules of Engagement), who joke about pornography or one night stands, and even the seemingly harmless connotation of anything sexual being ‘dirty’. Just yesterday, while Tobias was booking a hotel room for us (after mentioning it was for him and his wife), the first question the other person asked was ‘how many beds?’ I get it’s part of his job and I don’t hold him responsible for what our society has become but is that really what God meant when He said that the marriage bed was to be ‘honored’? Was it something to be considered sinful or inappropriate and only to be mentioned when absolutely necessary and even then in the broadest and vaguest of terms? Or something to be used and thrown away at a whim? The same culture that idolizes sex and sexuality also encourages people to use that same sexuality by pimping out their bodies as a way to somehow advance their own agendas (and is then shocked when such actions do not lead to lasting happiness). Dare I even mention the woman in England who married her dog back in 2014 (and is apparently only one of a long list on google of people who have married their pets)?

Is it possible that in our efforts to expand sex education in the schools to the extent that we force detailed anatomical lessons or subjects like birth control and abortion on young children, that we’ve completely lost sight of what human sexuality is supposed to be? If neither removing all the stops when it comes to sex, nor treating it as taboo are appropriate, how can we best express our God-given sexuality? In a world that is all set to add more names to the list of failed sex education recipients, how can we best view our sexuality and pass that on to our children?

I think that many of the problems in our culture stem from the way we’ve handled sex and the family. The family is the core unit of any functioning society, and while it may look somewhat different in different societies (i.e. polygamous societies for instance) it still retains all of its functional parts. However, in American society we have accepted a view of sex that renounces any need of a real family structure, and then we have glorified that view of sex and the broken families that come with it. In fact, research has shown time and again that children who grow up in a stable family with a loving, active male parent and a loving, active female parent are prone to more successful, happier, and more satisfying lives. Literally, they consistently report more life satisfaction overall. Simply having two active parents of different genders greatly enhances a child’s quality of life over the course of his/her entire life, even after those parents die. Yet, we continue to fill the airwaves with television and radio shows that actively attack this idea. We print novels that promote a family destroying view of sexuality. Ultimately, we almost seem bent on our own destruction as a people and as a nation.

While I realize that a lot more goes into this than simply fiction writers, I also believe that there is a lot that fiction writers (both television/movie writers and authors of the printed word) can do to influence the societal view of sex. I would love to see more television families and views of sexuality like those found on Everyone Loves Raymond or Family Ties. Tobias would probably add some examples like the early seasons of Seventh Heaven or the FBI agent and his wife from White Collar. These aren’t boring shows or even boring characters, but they are shows and characters that give us a better example of what our lives could look like than most of what we see in the media today.

On Gender Relations Post 9: What to Look For (Tobias)

On Thursday I mentioned that sometimes Alayna is a saint for putting up with me, and this is absolutely and entirely true. As anyone who’s been reading for long has probably discerned, I can have a… difficult personality. Honestly, before Alayna came along I’d pretty much given up on the idea of finding someone and was on the path towards distinctly confirming my bachelorhood. I am stubborn, arrogant, uncouth, and generally disinterested in the opinions of others on my behavior or beliefs. Beyond that, I can be a perfectionist, have particular interests, and am not shy about telling people when they are boring, foolish, or just plain wrong. Actually… I’m generally not shy in telling people what I think about them at all. I may have been described as ‘overly honestly’ and ‘wanting in tact.’ It’s something that I’m working on. That’s just the beginning, and I’m guessing that you’re already picking up the fact that I can be a chore at times. So, needless to say that I am somewhat amazed that a woman of Alayna’s caliber would actually deign to pursue further acquaintance with me (not the least because I actually talk like this on a not infrequent basis). So, today I just want to tell you a little bit about Alayna that you might not have picked up yet from our posts.

Back when I was actively looking for someone to spend my life with, I developed a list of seven things that I wanted in a potential spouse: 1) A woman who is devoted to God. 2) A woman who is intelligent. 3) A woman who is compassionate and cares about people. 4) A woman who makes family a priority. 5) A woman who is strong. 6) A woman who is willing to follow me. 7) A woman who is personally and physically beautiful. Alayna fits all of these, and often in ways that I couldn’t have imagined when I made that list.

So, first of all Alayna is a devoted Christian woman who lives out her faith (often better than I do). I tend toward the contemplative side of Christianity. I want to know and understand God, the spiritual world, and how they relate to the Christian life. I am a theologian, a philosopher, and an academic at heart. Alayna is not. Often theological conversation and contemplation are fairly boring to her, but she is able to follow my conversations (more on this later), and she actively chooses to join me in them, even though they aren’t always her interest. Alayna is a doer at heart. She wants to take care of people, to advocate for victims, to take part in the world and live out her beliefs by actually helping me… I often forget to consider actually helping people. In this area she is not only a woman who is devoted to God, but she is a woman who lives out that devotion in areas and ways where I am at my weakest. Drop me into the middle of an argument about the objectivity of truth and the existence of God and I am at home. Drop me into a situation where someone needs to be rescued, healed, protected, or provided for and I struggle. In many ways, Alayna is the opposite. She not only highlights for me my weaknesses and the areas where I most need to improve (which I think is a good thing), but she also helps to fill in those areas.

Second, Alayna is a very intelligent woman. She is, actually, in many ways exactly what I needed and wanted (even if it sometimes drives me crazy). Where I am intelligent and very theoretically inclined, Alayna is intelligent and very practically inclined. Where I am bookish, she is prone to action. Alayna can absolutely follow along and contribute even in academically difficult conversations. She may sometimes need unfamiliar terminology explained, but once the tools are in place she has no trouble understanding and critiquing the underlying concepts. On top of that, she brings an orientation of thought that is not natural for me. This is true both because she is a woman and because she is much more concerned with practical applications than with theoretical structures. Where I want to systematize, organize, and understand, Alayna wants to put into practice, and this is something that is incredibly good for me and that I thoroughly appreciate.

Third, Alayna, loves to take care of people. It’s literally what she does for a living (and she makes significantly more money than I do without seeing that as in any way relating to my worth… …education does not pay well at the moment). Not only this, but she cares about people over caring about her job. Not so long ago Alayna was asked to leave a job because she did the right thing. I honestly cannot explain how proud of her I was when this happened. She put the interests of the person in her care above the request of a superior. I might add that the way she handled this situation is also a part of why she has the job she does now (which is actually a better job in, as far as I can tell, every way). Often, Alayna cares more than I think I really comprehend, and this is something that I find not only very attractive, but also very respectable. Even if we weren’t engaged I would be honored to have the chance to know her. She is, ultimately, a woman of high moral caliber.

Fourth, Alayna is thoroughly devoted to her friends and family. She is, without doubt, the most loyal person that I have ever met. Again, this is not only something that I value, but something that complements me well and pulls me back to center. I tend to be more generally universal, and often prone to universalizing love. Lest I be misunderstood in what I am about to say, I do not mean to say that Alayna only cares about her family and close friends. Obviously, from what I just said above, this is not true. However, she has a very strong sense of priorities and whenever I am prone to ‘love the neighbor’ to abstraction and attempt to say that Christians should love everyone equally and in the same way (which is neither theologically true nor practically possible) she pulls me back to center. She points out that God comes first, family comes second, friends third, community fourth, and strangers come after that in order of association; as opposed to God first, everyone else second on an equal footing. This means that I can and should prioritize the people nearest to me who I can and should love best rather than trying to fix poverty in Africa (which I know relatively little about and can have at best small impact upon) to the exclusion of my family.

Fifth, Alayna is an incredibly strong woman. She is as stubborn and willful as I am. This means that when we come to loggerheads it can go on for quite some time. However, it also means that I cannot simply run her over (which I have a bad habit of doing to people accidentally), and it means that I have to actually consider her perspective, which is often beneficial for me. Further, this means that I can trust her to handle things well. Already, I’ve seen Alayna handle some incredibly difficult situations. I’ve seen her struggle, I’ve seen her fight, and I’ve seen her break. We all break sometimes, but I tend to describe people as either hard or malleable. There are people who are easy to break and easy to fix, people who change easily. These people are often very easy to steer back to the right course when they get off it, but they are also very easy to steer off of it, and sometimes they can’t handle much. Then there are people that are hard. They don’t change direction easily. They struggle, fight, and trying to steer them onto a different course is generally like trying to fight a hurricane. It can be very hard or even impossible to get these people back onto the right course if they go astray. However, once on the right course its very difficult to get them off of it. Alayna is definitely the latter, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Sixth, I know, and have seen several times now, that as strong as Alayna is, when it comes down to brass tacks she’ll follow me. She can see when I’ve come to the end of my rope, and inevitably when I am she stops fighting. I’m not going to say that this always has or always will be good for her. I am far from perfect, and my leadership isn’t always well-considered. However, ultimately I know that Alayna trusts me, and that’s what it comes down to. The more stringently she fights about something, the more important I know it is. Sometimes she’s right and sometimes she’s wrong, and the same is true for me. However, her willingness to submit consistently amazes me and sometimes confounds me. I am impressed by the strength she shows and her willingness to fight for what she thinks is best, and I am humbled by the way that she trusts me and is willing to follow my decisions even when she doesn’t agree with them. Further, I’m blessed by her willingness to be gracious when I am wrong and should have heeded her wisdom.

Seventh, I know you’ve never seen a picture of her, but Alayna is a very beautiful woman. She has a beautiful, engaging personality, and beyond that she has a very… let’s say culturally suitable physique. Honestly, I’m not going to try to describe her because I never do her justice, but if you follow this link she’s somewhere between the supermodel type (1980s) and the post-modern type (2000s). This is actually probably going to embarrass her, but my point is this: I thought I’d be alone… or at best wind up with a cutish woman. Alayna is a beautiful woman.

So, I’ve no doubt that you have a list of your own. This is the best advice that I can give you: keep it simple, keep it short, and keep it focused on qualities of character rather than on specifics. I know too many people whose lists include things like ‘big muscles’, ‘likes How I Met Your Mother (or insert similar interest)’, ‘has a porsche’, ‘thinks dead baby jokes are funny’, ‘blonde’, or ‘[blank] breast size’. These are stupid ways to pick someone to spend the rest of your life with. Over the next thirty years your interests will change, your appearance will change (probably drastically), you sense of humor will change, your social status will change, your possessions with change, etc, etc, etc. Pick someone with similar beliefs, similar goals, similar priorities, and a high quality of character. Further, pick someone who compliments you, who fills in your weaknesses, or who accentuates your strengths. Ultimately, pick someone who makes you a better person, and who you make a better person – and don’t settle for only one of the two.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! So, here’s the deal: it’s late, I don’t feel like writing a long post (though it is my day to post) and I’m guessing you all don’t want to read a really long post (it is thanksgiving after all). So, go and celebrate with your families! I’m going to be celebrating with my girlfriend’s family (really excited about that, actually)… and my girlfriend, obviously (I kind of think that goes without saying). However, I do have a little exercise for you. I want you to sit down and list 20 things that you are thankful for/happy about this year, 10 things that you are thankful for/happy about this month, and five things that you are thankful for/happy about today. Then, I want you to write them all down on separate slips of paper and put them in a hat, bag, funerary urn… you know, whatever’s handy. Draw out five slips and write a short story that includes those five things. It should have some interesting results! I’m looking forward to seeing some of them.

Short Scene: Three Troubled Brothers

At long last, I’ve done a bit of fiction writing again! This scene is the beginning of a story idea that’s been in my head for a while. I want to say it’s a bit like a modern-day The Brothers Karamazov, except that I unfortunately have never read the whole book (yet). But like the excerpts and summaries I’ve read from TBK, this story focuses on three brothers with three different outlooks on life and faith. Maybe one day I’ll flesh this out into a full story or novel, but this is what we’ve got for now. Also, this is a fairly rough/rushed draft, so constructive criticism is welcome. Enjoy!

Scott shoved another bite of pancake into his mouth and chewed, wasting little time on savoring its sweetness as he went.

“You gonna be ready to go soon?” asked his father, glancing at the clock.

“In like ten minutes,” said Scott. “I just need to finish eating and then brush my teeth.”

“I’m almost ready!” Scott’s mother called, from the other room but quickly advancing in his direction. “Just need to find where I set my glasses down.” She stopped at the kitchen table. “How are the pancakes?”

“Good,” said Scott. “They’re always good.”Pancakes

“We have another thing of syrup, if you want it. I think we just ran out of the other one.”

“No, thanks. I’m good. I got some already.”

“You sure? I don’t mind getting it for you.”

“No, it’s fine.”

“Oh, I’ve got to check on the other boys,” his mother said to no one in particular. She moved from the kitchen and knocked on an adjacent door.

“Hmm?” came a voice from inside. Scott kept chewing his pancakes, and tapped his fork sporadically as he listened.

“You almost ready for church, James?”

The voice was flat and unenthusiastic. “Yeah. I’ve been ready for a while.”

“Oh, but I haven’t seen you much. You’ve just been in your room the whole time.”

“I’ve been reading my Bible.”

“Kay.” A pause. “You want a quick breakfast before church?”

“Sure. I’ll come out in a minute.”

Scott heard the door close, followed by quick footsteps. “I’m a little worried about James,” his mother said in a harsh whisper as she grabbed the full container of syrup and set it on the table next to Scott. Scott scowled slightly.

“Why?” Scott asked.

“He spends all his time reading his Bible. I mean, I know it’s a good thing, but he’s not doing fun things that boys his age do. He doesn’t really play sports or video games or anything. And he doesn’t talk to us as much, either.”

“I don’t know,” said Scott. “I mean, it’s good that he’s reading his Bible.” As Scott said this, he was acutely aware that it was a good thing to read the Bible, because somewhere in the back of his mind he felt the sinking weight of knowing that he wasn’t doing it enough. He hadn’t read his own Bible in three days. Or was it four? Or more?

“I guess,” whispered his mother. “But he’s only fourteen, and he’s so serious! I’m just worried that he’s not having any fun.”

A brief patter of rapid footsteps was heard, and then the basement door swung open. “Oh, there’s Howard,” said the mother.

Howard sauntered to the table, grabbed a couple pieces of bacon, and began to ingest them quickly. He did not sit down.

“Morning, Howard,” said his mother. Howard nodded, his mouth full.

“You almost ready for church?” their mother asked. James quietly stepped out of his room and made his way toward the kitchen table. His father paced through the adjacent living room, adjusting his tie and gathering his things.

“I’m not going,” Howard uttered nonchalantly.

His mother scowled. “Not going?”

“Nope.”

“What do you mean you’re not going?”

Howard looked up at her. “I’m not going. We talked about this.”

Scott still sat at the table, finishing his pancakes and listening in uncomfortably. James was seated at the table too and had begun wolfing down a quick Pop Tart.

“I know we talked,” said their mother with a sigh. “I guess I was hoping you’d come to your senses by now.”

“I did,” said Howard. “I decided I’m not going to your stupid church anymore.”

“Howard.” His father stepped closer. “Respect your mother.”

“What? It’s true!”

“Howard.”

“You’re just mad because I’m not a Christian anymore.”

“I’m not mad,” said his father. “I never said I was mad.”

“We’re not mad,” said the mother, her voice rising. “We just don’t understand why you say you’re not a Christian anymore.”

“Because there’s no evidence for Christianity,” said Howard. “It doesn’t make logical sense.”

“That’s not true,” Scott spoke up.

“Truth is subjective,” Howard answered.

“No it’s not,” said Scott. “That doesn’t make sense. Facts are facts, whether people believe them or not. And there’s plenty of factual evidence for Christianity.”

“No there’s not. Faith is blind.”

James sighed quietly.

Scott spoke up again. “You’re wrong. It’s the truth. Just look at all the fulfilled prophecies, the historical evidence, the news today and everything—”

“Scott,” their father interrupted. “That’s enough fighting. Both of you.”

“I just don’t get it,” the mother interjected, her words pointed toward Howard. “Do you really think walking away from God is going to help you?”

“I didn’t do it to be helped,” said Howard. “I’m just following the evidence.”

“But, if you would just let God help you, I really don’t think you’d be so depressed all the time.”

“Mom, that’s not how it works.”

“Yeah,” Scott agreed. “Depression is psychological. I mean, I’m sure spiritual factors can coincide with it—”

“Scott,” said the father.

“What? I was agreeing with him this time. It’s a known scientific fact. Depression is psychological.”

“It’s just that we had to pay the hospital bills,” their mother continued loudly. “And drive out there to check on you every day, and everything. I don’t think you understand that this isn’t easy for the rest of us, either. And I don’t think you’d have all these problems if you would just come back to God again!”

“Whatever,” Howard said, grabbing the rest of his breakfast and marching away from the table back toward the basement. “I’m out of here.”

“Howard,” said his father.

“I’m not going to church with you!” Howard shouted.Church

“Fine. You don’t have to,” his father said calmly. “But don’t go too far. I want to talk to you when I get home.”

“Am I grounded?” Howard asked sarcastically.

“No. I just want to talk.”

“Whatever. I’m gonna do what I want. Soon I’ll be out of here for good anyway.”

His mother sighed. “I wish you wouldn’t say that.”

“I’m nineteen!” Howard protested. “I’ve gonna move out sooner or later, once I can get the money!”

Scott took a deep breath. He was almost twenty-three, and also eager to move out, but so far his Bachelor’s Degree had been little help in finding him a stable job.

“Good luck with that,” said the mother. “You haven’t even been able to hold down a job.”

She was talking to Howard. Scott knew that she was talking to Howard. But he still drew another deep breath.

Howard rushed down the stairs without saying anything else.

The sound of Scott chewing his last bite of pancake was not enough to drown out the silence.

James spoke up. “I guess we should pray for him,” he offered feebly.

“We should get ready for church,” said his mother. “I just need to go find my glasses.” Her voice wavered and she walked off.

“I’ll go get my Bible,” said James, retreating back into his room.

Wordlessly, Scott got up to put his plate in the sink.

He felt his father’s hand on his shoulder.

“Scott, I do want to thank you for your steadfastness,” said his father. “Whatever is going on with Howard has been…trying. But I do appreciate you staying true to what we’ve taught you and not going down that path.”

Scott froze for a minute, unsure of what to say.

He wanted to say, “Steadfastness? That’s not me. I haven’t been steadfast. I’m too selfish. I’m too prideful. I know God is there, but I’ve got to admit He feels distant sometimes. Sometimes the logical arguments seem more real to me than God as an actual person. And I can only blame my own sin and selfishness for that. I haven’t lost my faith, but I’ve lost my youthful idealism. I don’t have the same hope and joy and enthusiasm that I did when I was James’s age. Yes, I still believe in God, but I don’t have much hope in this world or in people anymore. Half the time I don’t even believe in myself. At least, not like everyone else does. Not like you do, Dad.”

Instead he said, “Uh, sure. Of course. You’re welcome.”

Story Challenge of the Week

If you don't know, this painting is Family Dinner by Normon Rockwell.
If you don’t know, this painting is Family Dinner by Normon Rockwell.

Once again, I find myself at a loss for words. There are a lot of things that I could say, but I just can’t seem to think of them right now. Anyway, it’s time for another story challenge, and that’s always a good, fun thing. So, you know the rules are simple: I give you a theme and you write a story based on that theme.

Your theme: Family Dinner

That’s right, you get to write a story about a family dinner! Enjoy yourself.

Family in Fiction and Fairy Tale

Here we have Abbie’s second to last post. Unfortunately she has decided not to stay with us here at the Art of Writing. However, she is an excellent writer and might contribute random posts at sometime in the future.

A child’s world is proportionately small, occupied by a few significant entities; it can be argued that, for a number of years, the most significant of those presences is the family. Thus, it is fitting that a prominent feature of many well-known faerie tales is the interplay of familial roles. Family dynamics can provide motivation for and produce powerful reactions from characters in a narrative. Moreover, family (in any of its myriad forms) is a universal institution which, when explored within fiction, summons readers’ empathy. A considerable fraction of any given audience will feel some slant of kinship to a character who competes with his siblings for his parents’ approval, or one who loses a parent and is alienated by the introduction of a stepparent. Although the circumstances of real life are typically much less extreme than the familial conditions of faerie tales, to an adult reader, the faerie tale account may hearken back to the hyperbolic way he viewed his situation when he was young.

One of the most prevalent faerie tale family occurrences is the death of a parent. Snow White, Cinderella, and Hansel and Gretel are all established as motherless near the beginnings of their stories. This creates the dynamic of a household out of balance, rendered unstable by the absence of one of its founding members. Though faerie tales in their original tellings are fairly sparse in their descriptions of characters and character interactions, the element of the unsteady home can easily be expanded upon in a contemporary narrative to have a complex and profound influence on the development of characters and their relationships. A father, suddenly left alone to raise his children while still coping with the loss of his wife, might become obsessively protective of those children. A teenage daughter, having lost her mother, might leave home to escape the unwelcome pressure of maternal responsibility for her younger siblings. Such a significant change in the home environment as the death of a parent is certain to bring forth any of a host of permutations in the remaining family members.

All of the aforementioned stories add an additional twist: the remarriage of the widowed father to a woman who does not look kindly on the children of her predecessor. In some cases, the stepmother has children of her own and perceives the presence of the others as a threat to her progeny; in others, her motives for mistreating her stepchildren are left unclear. The subject of child abuse, if approached in fiction, should be approached with maximum sensitivity and consideration – certainly with more nuance than it is addressed with in faerie tales. A less extreme incarnation of the stepparent-as-antagonist device would be an instance in which a child groundlessly interprets his new parent as an adversary. (This is a common usage, but not necessarily a trite one, if handled with care.) No home is without certain lines of tension, and a newcomer to the family is likely to blunder into at least a few of them soon after his or her arrival. Even if there is no actual ill-will involved, there is certain to be a touch of disquiet as the household adjusts to the establishment of a new member.

A third aspect of family dynamics is the broad spectrum of relationships which can exist between siblings – from reliance to rivalry. In the case of Hansel and Gretel, the former describes their interactions; they have been abandoned by adult protective figures and are thus forced to develop dependence on each other. The two young protagonists of “Brother and Sister” find themselves under circumstances nearly identical to Hansel and Gretel’s, and adapt in kind. In both of the respective faerie tales, the children’s situations were life-and-death; their bond of mutual support could as easily exist between siblings who defend each other from bullies at school or who encourage each other through bouts of illness. Though these are examples of ostensibly-positive relationships, sibling rivalry is just as dominant in the faerie tale canon. Cinderella’s stepsisters view her very much as competition for their worldly success, while a common trope in a number of lesser-known stories pits several siblings against each other in seeking their fortune. (In such stories, the youngest sibling is usually the one who succeeds – against all expectations.) Competition between siblings is an immensely adaptable motif which can apply to young children fighting for the choicest piece of cake or to adult siblings struggling to win the approval (and deathbed beneficence) of an elderly parent.

The commonality of the family unit and its internal interactions offers writers a great range of possibilities for eliciting change from their characters and empathy from their readers. Though faerie tales are today assumed to be the domain of children, the theme of family dynamics – one of the cornerstones of the faerie tale genre – is relevant to all audiences and ought to be valued as one of the most powerful devices in the writer’s arsenal.

Christmas with the Family

Alright, it’s my day to post! However, honestly I spent the entire day driving, and I managed to miss a couple of exits, which turned a four hour drive into a six hour drive, so you can imagine that I’m pretty tired. I was hoping to put up something substantial today, but I’m just not up to that right now. However, I do have some great photos from my Christmas with my family… warnings, many of them feature my nephew, who is ridiculously cute. If you can’t handle cute babies, then I suggest that you close you’re browser now.

Oops,too late.
Oops,too late.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My nephew and his mom in their Christmas crowns.
My nephew and his mom in their Christmas crowns.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is called a cracker... it's an English thing apparently.
This is called a cracker… it’s an English thing apparently.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The family, or at least some of them.
The family, or at least some of them.

 

 

 

J-ing with Style

My focus today is on that dreaded “J” word. The one that is often mocked and ridiculed. Sometimes it goes by the even more sissified word that begins with… a “D.” That’s right, today’s topic is on journaling.

As kids we are often encouraged to journal, or write in a diary, by our parents in teachers. As adults, we are often encouraged to journal by our shrinks. But, what makes us hesitate to write out our lives and our thoughts in a book? Why do we make fun of those who do? I’ll admit, for the longest time I was one of those who publicly scorned journals, and yet secretly attempted to keep one. But, I was HORRIBLE at it. I never had the discipline to write in one daily. And then I would feel guilty and stop. And then I would feel guilty about stopping and begin again. Vicious circle repeat.

Nowadays, almost everyone is a journaler whether they know it or not. It’s called blogging. Whether you blog about your life, your political aspirations and opinions, or your favorite recipes, you are journaling. And that’s what has allowed me to come out and proudly proclaim to you today, I JOURNAL. I even have a physical journal. I first really started journaling while I lived in Russia. Then, when I arrived back in the States, I kept at it. But, it’s different for me now than it used to be for two simple reasons.

1) A journal doesn’t have to be a “Dear Diary” experience. From the beginning of my recent journal adventure I cast away with they typical cliche of writing down only what you did. My journal is small enough that I can carry it with me anywhere. As a result, it has become my “miscellaneous, catch-all drawer” if you will. Any random thought that pops into my head that I want to remember to dwell on later goes in. Any story idea, art idea, etc. If I have four lines of something that resembles a poem, it goes in. This means my journal is more closely a reflection of me than any “Today, I went to the store” entry could be. Especially, when you consider the random sketches and half sentences that have been collected in there.

2) When I do write about my day, I throw out the cliche. Think of it this way. If you were a historian, or even a random reader, who found your diary 50 years from now, would you rather read “Today I went to the store.” Or “Today I found out that the Fred Meyer store is what occurs when Wal Mart and JC Penny have a love child that exploded.” The same basic information is conveyed, but the latter has a little extra spice.

Essentially, it’s as if you were making a story out of your life. And, if you want people to read it, you have to make the brand “YOU,” not “Generic.” It can also serve as good practice for writing stories, and you can switch perspectives for even more practice. Write about your life in first person. Then do another entry from third person.

“All great writers begin with a good leather binding and a respectable title.” James Barrie in Finding Neverland

As an example, I will give you a peek into my journal.
A good friend of mine and I were discussing Thanksgiving last night. One of the statements he made resonated with me. Basically, he was iffy about the whole holiday, as it was just another excuse for people to gorge themselves under the pretense of “family togetherness.”

And it made me think of my family. My whole extended Robinson clan of a family. Every Thanksgiving and/or Christmas, my mom’s side gets together and – celebrates. That means two grandparents, one great-aunt (who acts like a 50 year old), eight parents, eleven grandchildren, and an assortment of friends and significant others all gather into one three bedroom house to “enjoy” each other’s company.

Now, looking at it and the amount of food consumed by this clan of twenty-two plus people, it may be easy to group us into the category of superficial Thanksgiving-ers. But I don’t think that would be true. Now, I’ve never really celebrated Thanksgiving with any other family (well, I did celebrate it with my aunt-in-laws family once), so I don’t know how others celebrate holidays, but this is a little how ours goes.

One by one, the families trickle in. My memaw is already in the kitchen, her foster bedroom during these holiday days, and the house is filled with the aroma of freshly-baked, homemade rolls. A batch of fresh dough is sitting on the counter, because she knows that my aunts and uncles can’t pass by without taking a pinch.

The women congregate in the front living room and in the kitchen while the guys crowd around the tv in the den. Football is on. The Cowboys. And, even though most of the family has drifted away from their Cowboy-obsessed phase, it’s still football. Their boos, catcalls, and cheers can be heard down the block. Well, at least my brother’s voice can.

The grandkids have split themselves up, roaming about the house, sneaking into the kitchen for pre-feast bites, talking with aunts, cheering or booing the cowboys, facebook stalking their friends, inviting old friends over. We do it all.

“Dinner. Everyone gather round. Cassandra, go round up the guys.” My Memaw’s proclamation is like a magnet, attracting the family to her (or at least to the food in her hands). We gather round, hold hands, and then . . . “Ohhhhhhhhh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light…” Yes, we break into song. Yes, my family is very patriotic, but the tradition of singing the “Star Spangled Banner” before our great meal actually has nothing to do with that. It started several years ago as a joke. I’m sure it happened because the boys were watching football, and the national anthem got stuck in their head. Still, whatever the reason, before we pray, we sing the anthem (usually loud and out-of tune).

We then bless the meal, fill our plates, and recreate Darwin’s theory of Survival of the Fittest: The quickest get a seat, the losers get the floor (or a really uncomfortable, small, black chair). We go around and state our thanks as is “traditional” Thanksgiving behavior, but after that we talk. And we talk. And we talk some more.
Then, after the food has begun trickling its way down our digestive courses, the music begins. With four pianists and a whole horde of singers in the family (and a grandmother who doesn’t take no for an answer), the singing can last for a while. A long while. Days even.

Now, my family isn’t perfect by any means, and we do have our arguments, our petty differences, our annoyances, but we’ve been given a great gift. We have two parents/grandparents that have made it their life mission to make sure that they keep the family together. And because we all love them, and we deep down we really love each other, we get together. We catch up. We celebrate the love that has filled this house for over twenty years of family togetherness.

Story Challenge of the Week

Remember not to take the people you love for granted!

Welcome to June! We are now officially in the summer! Hope you all take some time to go out and enjoy the warm weather.  Remember to smell the roses, tell the important people in your life that you love them, and don’t take things for granted.  It’s easy to do sometimes.  So, if you need the rules, here you go:  You must write a story of at least a hundred words, and not more than five hundred (if you want to post it as a comment – if it’s just for yourself, then it can be as long as you want).  The story must be about the theme given in this post.  So,  if the theme I give you is Life, don’t write a story about the lord of the underworld.  If the theme is War, don’t write a story about a farmer planting his crops.  Themes are very broad, so it really shouldn’t be hard to stay within a given theme, but I teach, so I know that some people have trouble with this.

Your theme: Family

Write a story about important people.  They could actually be important people in your life, or they could be characters of importance.