“Secret Identity”

Here’s another new poem that I finalized just recently and debuted at an open mic night this week. I’m calling it “Secret Identity.”

Question for discussion: do you prefer poems with a definite rhyme or rhythm (like this one will be), or ones written in free verse (like the last one I posted)? I feel like free verse is more “in vogue” these days, and so for a while most of what I wrote was free verse. But personally, I find that when I write for spoken word or specifically for performance (as I have been doing lately), I like to go back to consistent rhyme and rhythm if I can. Having a rhythm and a pattern or beat helps me to keep my pace when the audible sounds are the focus more than the written word.

Anyway, here’s “Secret Identity.” I hope you enjoy it.

——

Shirt & tie
Image taken from user jopperbok on Flickr Creative Commons.

My shirt and tie may cover me.

These glasses hide my eyes.

But still this outer man you see

is merely a disguise.

By day I speak on words and books.

Your minds I try to fill.

I may give disapproving looks

or tell you to sit still.

But underneath there’s so much more

than what you could dream of:

a soldier fighting holy war,

a heart that’s full of love

and far-too-idealistic hopes

in my heroic quest

to talk of more than tomes and tropes

but make your life feel blessed.

Behind the desk, behind the beard,

behind the endless puns

lies something more than first appeared:

deep care for broken ones.

I see you there, alone and lost

like sheep, a shepherd needing.

You don’t know I’d pay any cost

to simply stop the bleeding.

You’ll never know how much I care

or how I long to hold you

or how I wish I could be there

though outwardly I scold you.

Oh, how I longed to draw you near

like a hen unto her chicks,

to chase off every hurt and fear—

to shield, to heal, to fix.

Of burdens I would bear the brunt—

but alas, I am unable,

for I stand up here at the front

while you sit at your table.

For after all, I’m only one

flawed, finite, mortal creature,

and when it all is said and done,

I’m just a high school teacher.

But I’ll always be here on your side.

I’ll always be your fan.

I couldn’t save you if I tried,

but I’ll do what I can.

Clark changing
Image taken from user Porta-john on Flickr Creative Commons. Originally published by DC Comics.

The Wanderer’s Lament

I haven’t written much fiction lately, but I’ve been working on some poetry. And as our own Mr. Mastgrave reminded me this week, a poem can often be a form of telling a story. In my case, I certainly believe that that’s true. Some people are gifted enough that they can write beautiful poems about almost anything, but I can really only bring myself to write one when I have the right inspiration, usually when it has been influenced by something from my life—-a story, if you will.

Later in the week, I may write a post analyzing poems and storytelling a little more thoroughly. For now, I’d just like to share with you some of the latest ones I’ve written. The following is a work in progress born of an emotion inside me, but I didn’t really put it down in words until yesterday–so I reserve the right to edit and change it later on as I revisit it. (But I am planning to unveil it to the public at an open mic night tonight, so hopefully it’s ready enough for that at least!)

I have named this poem “The Wanderer’s Lament.”

———-

Home is not the mattress I sleep on

in a brick building far too uptight

to be anything more than a temporary dwelling.

Home is no longer the four walls

where I talked and laughed with two best friends

right up until everything changed.

Home is not even where my parents live, or my brothers,

or the simpler, more idealistic version of myself

I can still glimpse within my mind,

reading a book or doing homework

in that familiar house ten years ago.

Home is not a past that can never be repeated–

but neither is it the ever-fleeting present

or some hopeful future still in flux.

Home is not a grand adventure

6788260659_52e0a97b0d_n
Image taken from user Ciscolo on Flickr Creative Commons.

where I crossed the river to chase my dreams

and learn how to grow up a little more

and just maybe begin laying down some roots.

Home is not the winding halls

of the university I still love,

or the classroom where I spend so many hours

to earn a living and hopefully make a difference.

Home isn’t found under a steeple, in a pew,

or even a friendly living room full of smiling faces

with a Bible in my lap.

Home is not my friends,

the ones who have stood by me for years,

or the ones who so graciously welcomed me

into a strange new land.

Home is not any loving community that I’ve found,

or any that I’m likely to find in a week,

or a month,

or a year.

If one day I find love

and build up a family in a house,

if I hold a wife close to me

or cherish the sweet laugh of a child,

even then the home I long for

will still be far from me.

 

If I Find in Myself a Desire
Image taken from QuotesVil.com. Quote from C.S. Lewis.

Home will finally quench my deep desire

which nothing in this world can satisfy,

because, most probably,

I was made for another.

I don’t know what home will look like,

but I’ll see it when I go.

 

 

Expecting the Unexpected

So, Selanya has a beast of a schedule at the moment, and I’m sorry to say that you all will have to put up with another week of posts from me. Alayna and I finally made a decision about Ph.D. programs yesterday. It’s something that we put a lot of thought and prayer into, and the program we decided on is one that we’ve been thinking about for quite a while. We had plans about how to handle the program itself, paying for life, moving, etc… Those plans have been entirely upended. At the moment, it looks like we’ll be moving in early-mid August regardless of whether Alayna has found a job where we are moving to (my job travels, but it would be a struggle to support the family as a whole on my income). Most of the things that we thought we would be able to make work won’t work, and we’ve been put back to square one.

Amazingly, I actually have not just one, but two points to make about writing from this situation. First, in your own plotting, writing, and publishing, expect the unexpected. What you expect to happen probably won’t, and things you never could have imagined probably will happen. You might send the manuscript that you’re so proud of to a reviewer, only to get it back ripped to shreds. Alternatively, you might hand a manuscript that you’re not happy with to a friend, and a week or two later get an email from a publisher who wants it (not likely, but possible). Heck, there’ve been a few people who made better than a living wage off of the profit from one self-published novel selling on Kindle for $0.99 (again, it’s not likely, but it’s possible). The point is that you never know what is going to happen. The thing is, the saying ‘expect the unexpected’ doesn’t really make sense. How can I expect something that I can’t imagine? How can I plan when I have do idea what to plan for?

I think the answer is fairly simply: learn to be flexible. If you’re serious about writing then you’re going to get hit, probably repeatedly (emotionally speaking at least, though you might be assaulted by an angry fan… again, it’s happened). You’ll need to learn to roll with the punches. If you feel like you need to be in control of every step of the publishing process then it won’t go well for you (though you should absolutely be in control of your writing process).

The second point is this: you’re characters can’t be in control of their world any more than you’re in control of your world. Even the best laid plans will be upset by a stripped screw or a random bystander. You can use this when you’re plotting out your story. We tend to feel like stories should flow, and in many ways this is true. However, the world is a random place, and your story should reflect this randomness. It can’t be entirely random or you will lose your audience, and the randomness of the world needs to be shown in ways that 1) fit the story, and 2) advance the story. However, your story should still reflect the randomness of the world. If you’ve ever seen the Ocean’s movies, this is something that they do very well. The story flows clearly, and it is engaging and entertaining. However, the number of ‘well… I didn’t expect that’ moments in these movies are an integral part of their humor. They give the viewer a sense of meaningful randomness. These moments of randomness aren’t random simply for the sake of being random (which is a mistake that many young authors make), but instead are random in a way that effectively advances the story and entertains the audience. This is how you want to use these moments in life.

Random Ramblings of a Confused Scholar

So, Selayna has had a beast of a schedule over the past month. When I talked to her on Monday she was confident that she would get her posts done this week. Then Monday was so busy that she promptly forgot to write Tuesday’s post, and Tuesday was so busy that she promptly forgot to write anything. I can understand this conundrum.

So, unfortunately you’re stuck with me for today. I’ll apologize in advance for the random nature of this post. At the moment I’m listening to a panel discussion from a few months ago out of Summit Church that includes Dr. Bruce Ashford, Ph.D. Candidate Chris Pappaladoro, Walter Strickland, and J. D. Greer on the intersection of faith and politics. The discussion has ranged from whether there are any political or economic systems that are simply incompatible with Christian thought to John Rawl’s original position to questions of human anthropology. Earlier today I started reading Lenore Skenazy’s Free Range Kids, last Wednesday night I led a small group discussion on Ephesians 4:17-19 (Paul’s definition of the ‘gentile’ or unbeliever) and this coming Wednesday I’m going to be leading a small group discussion on Ephesians 4:20-24 (Paul’s exhortation to a new life), I’ve been keeping up with a fairly academic discussion of Confucianism in a facebook group that I’m a part of, thinking about a paper on natural law and Christian political engagement that I’m editing, reading Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium, and waiting (and hoping) to hear back from both Georgetown and Southeastern with acceptances.

So, all of this is what is bouncing around my mind (along with ways to make my wife’s night special) as I’m writing this post. This is the conclusion that I’ve come to at the moment: life is hard. Not hard as in bad, but hard as in complicated, difficult, confusing, and often overwhelming. Our best days are often quite different from our worst days, both in how we treat people, what we manage to get done, and the quality of what we do. There are a hundred million questions that need to be asked, and we generally think to ask about 2,000 of them, and we manage to answer perhaps 50 of those relatively well. I’m a fairly intelligent guy. I’m hoping to be accepted to three different Ph.D. programs (I’ve been accepted to one), and to have some choices there. I earned high marks in a difficult masters program, and I earned very high scores on the writing and language sections of the GRE and average scores on the Math section of the GRE. I’m widely read in a variety of different fields and have a very large vocabulary in one language and smaller vocabularies in several other languages. I say all of this to point out that when I say that life is hard I’m talking from the position of a generally intelligent, well-rounded, and capable individual. With all of my study and qualifications, God consistently brings me back to Ecclesiastes 1:14-18 (and chapter 7).

I don’t have what it takes to answer the questions that life brings, or to handle the sheer number of questions that need to be answered. There are so many possible positions and so many good arguments for a lot of them. I often come to a point of feeling confident about what I think and believe about some important issue (such as whether a democratic republic is a workable and beneficial political system) only to read something that bring new questions into view that draw my beliefs back into the ring. That being said, if I have one piece of advice for any and everyone else out there, I believe that it is profoundly important to recognize and realize the things that are truly important and the things that can be open questions. Augustine argued that God is due our first love (focus or priority) and Thomas Aquinas argued that God is the only truly meaningful and satisfying end (or goal) of life. Much of the advice I see for people in their late teens and twenties today is to focus on their education and career goals, to get their resumes straight, and set the stage for their financial and vocational lives. I am convinced that this is a profound mistake. The best thing that young people can focus on is the depth, focus, intensity, and importance of their spiritual lives. An individual’s relationship with God should be the driving force of everything else in their lives, and it is the only thing that lasts beyond this life. Further, the spiritual life of the individual is the groundwork for their emotional, financial, vocational, and familial lives. A strong spiritual life can and inevitably does seep through into these other areas. Further, a strong spiritual life will result in a strong moral life. In fact, if you know a person who claims or seems to be spiritually deep and mature, but shows a morally corrupt character (I don’t mean that they are less than perfect, but that they show a deep-seeded moral corruption that results in immoral actions that they attempt to justify and refuse to recognize as wrong) then the character of this individual should throw the depth of their spiritual life into question.

The fact is that none of us have all of the answers that we need for life. In fact, none of us even knows all of the right questions to ask. However, if we have the most important and most influential things in place, then we have a strong foundation to rely on for the rest. More than this, when we recognize that we are not this foundation, but that God is this foundation then we have the beginning of a wisdom that is not simply futile.

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

personhood1How do we determine when a person is, well… a person? This question has been around in one form or another for a long time, but it has developed a new level of urgency over the past few decades as it has become a key question in the debate over the moral legitimacy of abortion (and thus whether abortion should be legal). Life, defined scientifically, unquestionably begins at conception. This is true for all creatures that reproduce through sexual relations of any form. Thus, human life (again, defined scientifically) also begins as conception when a new living organism exists and begins to grow through cellular division.

However, many have raised the question as to when human personhood (or human life where life is non-scientifically defined) begins at the same time as human life. This has a strong relation to questions about human death as well. For instance, a brain-dead body can be kept alive for a time (sometimes an extended period of time) through advances in medical technology. However, does this mean that the person is still actually alive? A simple biological definition of life doesn’t really seem to account for what we normally mean by human life, and certainly if we define life so simply then we seem to have a moral responsibility to go to every possible length to keep a body a live even when the brain is clearly dead (or even mostly removed).

This has led many scholars to present and defend a wide variety of arguments about when human personhood begins. The most common placements are at conception, either because personhood and biological life are seen as synonymous or because the natural potential of future personhood is seen as equivalent to actual personhood (i.e. it is wrong to abort an embryo because it will one day be a fully functioning person, but it is not morally required to keep an ancephalic baby [i.e. a baby born without or with only minimal brain matter] alive through mechanical intervention because there is no possibility that it will every be a person); at the first sign of brain activity (as brain activity is seen to indicate internal life and personality); at birth (as the baby is no-longer dependent upon its mother and is clearly a living, conscious, independent organism); or at the achievement of certain designated criteria (i.e. speech, cognizance, social usefulness, etc). There are arguments for and against each of these positions. For instance, some have pointed out that the argument from human potential is flawed because we don’t treat an acorn like an oak tree, or a dog embryo like a beloved pet. Others have pointed out that the argument from designated criteria is flawed because it is easily possible to define personhood in such a way that most living humans today are not human persons. The argument for personhood at birth has been attacked by pointing out that the baby is actually still dependent upon its mother in a great many ways, and by pointing out the the baby has significant aspects of humanness (i.e. human appearance, brain waves, heart beat, physical behavior, communication, etc) long before it is actually born.

Further, some Christian scholars have rejected all of the above arguments as naturalistic and argued that the only significant criteria for human personhood is ensoulment (i.e. when a body becomes a living soul). Three major views have been presented along these lines: pre-existentism argues that human beings exist as souls long before they are born (some argue from eternity past) and that God implants these already existing souls into bodies at some point in the gestation process (normally some point between the first appearance of brain-waves and the birth of the child); creationism argues that every soul is specially and individually created by God and implanted in the body at some point during gestation (historically between 40 days after conception and 30 days after birth, but most modern creationists will argue that souls are created and implanted immediately at the moment of conception); Traducianism argues that the soul is ultimately created by God, but immediately formed through the blending of the souls of the parents just as the body is ultimately created by God, but immediately formed through the blending of the DNA of the parents, and that these are distinct but conjoined spiritual and physical processes such that the soul is not physical in nature, but that it necessarily begins its formation at the moment of conception just as the body necessarily begins its formation at the moment of conception. Each of these concepts of ensoulment has been attacked and defended on both biblical and theological grounds. It has been pointed out the creationism has little biblical support and that it presents problems for a clear understanding of how sin is transmitted from parent to child unless one resorts to a Manichean division of flesh as evil and sinful but spirit as good and pure. Pre-existentism has been attacked as having little biblical support and that it raises questions about the actual connection between soul and body such that murder seems to be wrong simply because of divine fiat and not because any part of the image of God is harmed (as scripture seems to indicate). Traducianism has been attacked as having little biblical support (let’s be honest, the bible doesn’t say a whole lot about ensoulment in the first place, so this criticism is universal) and as being prone to a physicalist reduction that denies the spiritual nature of man.

So, here is your challenge for today. Given everything presented above, what do you think a human person is? When does personhood begin and how can we tell?

As always, write a story of 1000 words or more that presents your response to the question.

A New Novel, and that one big break we’ve all been waiting for

If you’re passionate about writing fiction and you’ve been writing for any amount of time, then maybe you’ve dreamed of getting a novel published, or becoming a bestselling author someday. I know I have, and it’s something I still aspire to (you know, in all of that free time I have in between teaching and figuring out adulthood). While I have self-published and gotten gradual bits of publicity here and there, I’m still a long way from “that one big break” that many of us hope for.

Nonetheless, I’m here today to offer hope to all of you aspiring writers, and to tell you that actual, legitimate publication is a completely achievable goal. And what’s more, I can tell you from personal experience of a longtime aspiring writer who has recently achieved that goal–or at least begun to. No, it’s not me. It’s my dad.

Brace yourself. NaNoWriMo is coming.
Brace yourself. NaNoWriMo is coming.

In addition to typical Dad activities like telling lame jokes and offering wise insights, my dad, Mark R. Harris, has been an English professor for years and has been a writer on the side. He’s published the occasional poem and has worked on other projects now and again too. I think, after so much time spent reading and teaching great American novels, he’s always kind of wanted to write one himself. And now he has. After I got him involved in National Novel Writing Month a few years ago (hey, I’ll take a little bit of credit where I can), he completed and has been revising a manuscript, and now has a book deal with an actual publisher. His original novel, entitled Fire in the Bones, is now officially in the process of being published.

So what does this mean for you? I’ll tell you, but first I’m going to give a bit of a plug for my dad. After all, as an aspiring writer, you want to stay on top of what other up-and-coming writers are doing, and get tips and ideas from them, right? Dad is in the process of trying to build an audience before the book comes out, and it would be great to have you on board. He has a Facebook page entitled Mark R. Harris and a blog called Inkglish. My dad has been a major source of a lot of good things in my life, including my interests in literature, Christianity, superheroes, and bad puns. If you’ve enjoyed any of my writings on this blog, or are willing to give an up-and-coming author a chance, I’d ask you to go and give Dad’s pages a like and follow. You’re not committing to buying the book, but you’d get updates about when it’s coming out, and maybe pick up a few other cool things along the way.

What else does this mean for you? It means that you are interesting enough to write a novel. Yes, you, in your ordinary, average, and yet beautifully complex life. I haven’t read Dad’s full manuscript yet, but my understanding is that it’s semi-autobiographical, about a guy growing up around the ’70s and searching for some meaningful fulfillment in life. And if an ordinary guy like my dad can turn a series of life episodes into a novel good enough for publication, then I’m betting that you’ve got a story or two somewhere inside you too. Keep searching and writing, and it’ll find its way out sooner or later.

Lastly, this means that there’s hope. If you’ve been trying to get into the writing world for a while without results, don’t give up. Sometimes it takes years of trial and error, or a lot of small steps leading up to big ones, or maybe just the right amount of perseverance and motivation, to make a dream into a reality. Sometimes you may not taste the fruits of your labor for years–but hey, better late than never, right? Don’t get discouraged just because you don’t see immediate results. Keep working and keep doing your best. I can’t promise that every one of you will become big-name bestselling authors–heck, I can’t even promise that for myself. But it will definitely never happen if you don’t keep trying.

Actual picture of my dad, Mark R. Harris, soon-to-be-published author
Actual picture of my dad, Mark R. Harris, soon-to-be-published author

So, in short, keep doing what you’re doing. Keep on writing and looking for opportunities, because you never know what might come up. And also, please go like my dad’s page. I’ll leave you with a published poem of his, hoping that you’ll like what you see:

Morning, Sickling

by Mark R. Harris

A black dawn this morning,
but feeling pastoral,
I ventured out
in spite.

The air was gone,
at first–
then became solid,
creeping beads across
my tight forehead.

I tried an apostrophe:
“O wind, rend the heat–“
that didn’t work.

The lifeless air
matched my thoughts,
forging on like a lost soldier.

I flailed,
wielding the sickle blindly,
trying to lay the sharp
bitter grass low.

Thick roots seemed to ooze,
bent, buckled
before my masterful strokes.

But I heaved and sighed,
sweat flowing freely,
coating my hands, neck,
hardening ribs,

and the strokes came slower,
stiffer,
duller…stopped, I cleared my vision
with a swipe of shaking forearm.

No light yet.

O wind, get over here already.

Tom’s Not Here

Well, Tom would normally be posting today, but he’s traveling right now, and unfortunately the person who was supposed to be covering his spot had to bow out as well. Have you ever had one of those days when you just wanted to beat the living shit out of someone? I have. Actually, I used to have a lot of them (like… every day… I used to be a very angry person). Or one of those days when you just wanted to hide under the covers until the whole world went away? I’ve had a lot of those as well (amazingly enough, very angry people are often very frightened people as well). Let me tell you how to deal with them. It’s simple… …not easy, but simple (I’ve often found that those two don’t go together as often as you’d think).

  1. Acknowledge how you feel. Give it a name. The more you try to deny your anger, fear, envy, hate, etc the more control you give it. As long as it is something that you hide, cover up, or try to ignore the less you actually do to control it and the more it does to control you. At this point it can help to think of the feeling as a blackmailer trying to hold you hostage. You can pay up, repeatedly, or you can just come clean and take away the blackmailer’s power.
  2. Accept that this is who you are. Again, the more you deny it, the less you can actually do that will help it. You are an angry person, a cowardly person, a jealous person, a hateful person, etc. It’s a part of your character, and until you acknowledge that as well, your just going to keep being that angry, cowardly, jealous, hateful person because you can’t admit to yourself that something is wrong.
  3. Recognize that who you are is not who you should be. There’s a difference between being authentic and being good. I can be a very authentic douchebag and still be a douchebag. My authenticity doesn’t change that at all, though some people might think it will for a short time. So, while authenticity is important, you also need to recognize the need for change. I am not who I should be, nor am I who I want to be, and until I’m willing to recognize both who I am, and who I should/want to be, and see the difference between the two, I’m still stuck.
  4. Face your emotions and think about how you should feel in those situations. If you’re dealing with fear, think about a time that you’ve felt confident in a difficult situation, and then imagine that confidence bleeding over into the situation that you are afraid of. Something that also helps here is taking steps to alleviate actual reasons to feel a certain way. If you’re afraid of being mugged, start taking self-defense clashes. This isn’t going to simply solve the problem, but it will help you deal with the legitimate fear, and to recognize the difference between legitimate fear and illegitimate fear.
  5. Meditate on the way that you should feel. Take the time to not only reflect and identify how you should feel, but to repeatedly build in yourself a mental habit of feeling that way in the situations that would normally trigger your anger, fear, envy, etc. This is not a one time step. This is something to do on a regular basis, perhaps even a daily basis, and to spend time on (i.e. give this 20 or 30 minutes a day, not 2 or 3).
  6. Expose yourself to small, controlled aspects of the events that would normally trigger the emotions that you want to deal with. For instance, have someone you trust start a personal debate with you, or put you in a situation that would normally cause you to panic. Go slowly, separate your mind from the situation, try to look at yourself in the third person, and identify when the feeling begins. In that moment, practice the extension that you’ve been training at. Stop yourself, focus on a time when you did feel the way you should be feeling, and let that feeling bleed over into the current situation. Again, this is something that takes time and effort. It is not a one time or one day event.

This isn’t easy, but it can help overtime. Of course, other things can help as well. Consistent spiritual practices, a relationship with God, and close friends who are willing to point out areas in which you need to work are all huge benefits when dealing with these kinds of overwhelming emotions. That being said, don’t give up! There is hope.

Why Study Fiction?

Hello, friends of the writing world! Today has been a very exciting day for me. That’s because today was my first official day as a teacher. Not a teaching assistant or a student teacher as I’ve been for the past two and a half years, but an actual teacher, a goal I’ve had to some extent or another for nearly ten years.

I haven’t blogged about it much yet because I’ve been pretty busy for the last few weeks (and because I don’t currently have internet at home), but I’ll say a little bit about how I got to this point. After finishing my Master’s degree in May, I spent most of the summer looking for jobs teaching secondary English and driving to interviews all around. In mid/late July, I got offered a job teaching 9th and 11th grade English at Grace Christian Academy, a small private school in southern Maryland. Of course, mid/late July is a time frame dangerously close to the beginning of the school year, so I’ve spent the last month or so frantically looking for a place to live and trying desperately to prepare. I moved from Lynchburg to Maryland only about a week and a half ago (hence me not having internet set up in my new place yet), started teacher orientation about a week ago, and had my official first day of school today (Wednesday)! It’s been a crazy whirlwind of a ride, but I’m loving it so far.Welcome to English Class

Unfortunately, since I’ve been so frantic with relocating and then lesson planning and a million other things, I haven’t had a whole lot of big creative writing opportunities lately. However, the whole process of preparing to teach literature has been a good reminder to me of why writing is so important. And as a teacher, I’m going to need to find creative ways to convey that importance to my students as well (especially the ones who don’t really like to read or write so far).

Originally, I was asked by my new boss to teach a creative writing elective along with my English classes. Sadly, that class didn’t make it this time around due to low interest and low enrollment (although I did have at least a few students today who said they liked writing, so there’s always hope for next year). Still, I’m probably going to give each class a writing prompt as a warm-up each day. Some days the prompts will be more literature-related and will be used as starting points for class discussions, but I may be able to do some creative prompts at times too (so if you have any good suggestions for creative writing prompts for high school students, please feel free to let me know!).

For the next class, though, I plan to ask my students something along these lines, and hopefully have a good discussion based on their responses:

  • Why is it important to study grammar and writing?
  • Why is it important to study literature?
  • What makes literature good?

I know, I know. These are tough, big questions. I hope they’ll be helpful for establishing a rationale for some of the things we read and do in the class, but I don’t expect 9th and 11th graders to have the perfect, ultimate answers to these questions. Heck, I took a whole graduate class specifically devoted to the question of “what makes literature good?” and I still don’t fully know the answer in every situation. Probably no individual scholar ever will in this lifetime.

But when I was decorating my classroom this past weekend, I tried to find some good literary quotes (amidst lots of memes and cartoons) to stick on bulletin boards. And I came across a couple quotes–from a couple of my favorite authors–that I had probably heard before but that struck me especially this time around. Here are two of the ones I hung up:

  • “That is part of the beauty of literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald

    Image taken from Wikipedia. Public domain.
    F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Literature adds to reality. It does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.” -C.S. Lewis

    C.S. Lewis
    C.S. Lewis

Thankfully, even in my new location, I have a couple of friends nearby who I knew from college–and who were also English majors. Last Friday night, I went to a twenty-somethings fellowship group in the area with one such English-y friend. He warned me that there was typically some good-natured joshing between himself, an English major, and the other group members, who all studied and worked in the maths and sciences. Sure enough, the group leader shook his head in mock-disgust upon learning that I had gotten not one, but two English degrees, and he even said at one point (again, with no intended malice) that he didn’t know why anyone would get a liberal arts degree.

And yet, most of the group members there could also be considered “nerds” just like myself and the friend I went with. They talked long and deeply about their favorite movies and games, and we played a board game that night which required us to roleplay as a specific character while killing zombies. In reference to one movie, I even heard one person there use the phrase “the book was better.” I didn’t say this at the time, but I wanted to ask, “So you’re telling me that you like all these movies and games, and yet you can’t see the value in studying creative works of the human imagination?”

In short, literature matters. Writing matters. If you read, study, or create writing or literature, then that matters. Among other things, fiction adds beauty and creativity to our lives and lets us connect with each other on a profound and poignant level. So if you’re a reader or a creative writer, then keep reading and writing, no matter what you might feel or what others may say. It may be more important than you know.

On Getting Married, Thomas Aquinas, and the Fine Art of Procrastination

eu4_2So, a friend of mine gave me a free copy of the game Europa Universalis. It came out of nowhere, he literally just messaged me on facebook to ask if I wanted a copy. I’d never played the game before, but it is both fun and addictive. It does teach some amount of history, geography, large scale economics, management and strategy, and all of these things are good. Honestly, I think that in manageable increments the game could be a great teaching tool (which is something I’m always on the look out for–if anyone wants to teach their kids about bioethics, policy-level politics, Japanese history, Chinese history, or large scale geography, strategy, and management in a way that is entertaining and enjoyable then I have suggestions for you). Unfortunately, the game is seriously addictive and I’ve managed to get sucked into it to the point of coming close to neglecting my other responsibilities. I haven’t yet–everything that I need to get done is getting done. I’m spending time with God, bills are getting paid, research is getting read, Alayna is being taken care of, etc. However, I have noticed that I’m spending exorbitant amounts of time with the game (…and I might add that I’m not sleeping as much as I should…).

hulkWhat I am facing at the moment is what Aristotle called akrasia and Aquinas called cupiscence. Both suggest a certain weakness of the will (actually that’s literally what akrasia means–the cupisciple desire is the desire for good things, but when those things are desired more than they should be [such as a glutton overeating] then cupiscence becomes a very bad thing). In Aquinas’ terminology I am giving something that it inherently good (i.e. rest, relaxation, and moderate education) a greater hold than it should have. Why does this matter? Well, speaking in Thomistic terms the solution to an overwhelming desire for more of a good thing than one should have is the irascible desire (or the desire to do difficult things–in this case, playing less of the game). So, there are virtues that Aquinas assigns to both the cupisciple and the irascible powers (or faculties/abilities), and these are temperance and fortitude (or courage).

aquinasSo, the answer to my problem is to practice 1) temperance in my desire for downtime, relaxation, and gameplaying, and 2) fortitude when my desire threatens to overwhelm my good sense. Now, prudence (a moral/intellectual virtue that Aquinas assigns to the practical reason [as opposed to the speculative reason]) tells me that I am, in fact, playing this game more than I should be, and that I need to cut back on it, and perhaps even cut it out complete if I’m going to be successful in playing less. It also tells me that I’m going to need to plan other things to do when I want to play the game–such as exercise or do research. So, what does any of this have to do with writing?

Well, 1) this is (to a point) me showing off some of what I’ve learned in the last couple of months. 2) This is also me trying to actually apply what I’ve learned so that Aquinas’ theories are not merely theoretical to me, but practical as well. 3) I actually do think that Aquinas’ conception of man’s nature can be very helpful for writers. Aquinas sets out five powers (vegitative–or the ability to grow and reproduce; locomotive–or the ability to move; sensible–or the ability to be aware of surroundings and form desires; appetitive–or the ability to make choices; intellectual–or the ability to reason from a given premise to a proper conclusion). Each of these power has multiple sub-powers, but the ones that matter most are the sensible (which is broken into the cupisciple power that desires and the irascible power that resists) and the intellectual (which is broken into the speculative reason that deals with theoretical knowledge and the practical reason that deals with applied knowledge). He also identifies virtues and vices common to each power. For instance, temperance and concupiscence are the primary virtue and vice of the cupisciple power. Fortitude and cowardice are the primary virtue and vice of the irascible power. Prudence and imprudence are the primary moral virtue and vice of the practical reason while art and unskillfulness are the primary non-moral virtue and vice of the practical reason. He also assigns science and ignorance, wisdom and foolishness, and understanding and lack of understanding as the primary virtues and vices of the speculative reason (science and ignorance having to do with knowledge of mundane secondary things such as biology, geology, or positive law; wisdom and foolishness having to do with divine secondary things such as soteriology, ecclesiology, hamartiology, etc; and understanding having to do with first principles–or those things that are known by intuition and that cannot be proven [such as the rule that two contradictory claims cannot be true–for instance I cannot be both caucasian and not caucasian, though I could be both caucasian and asian]).

virtue chartAquinas’ detailed understanding of the inner structure of the human being as a divinely created and inspired rational animal gives us a lot to work with when it comes to character development. For instance, understanding your characters in this way might make it very clear why John struggles to keep putting his work in the appropriate place in his life (perhaps he has an overly strong cupisciple attachment to it or an overly weak irascible nature). Perhaps Genevieve has a well-developed scientific virtue, but a very under developed sense of prudence and understanding which leads her to be a rather amoral sceptic when it comes to living everyday life. Ultimately, starting from a descent understanding of Aquinas’ view of the structure of man’s nature can definitely lead to some interesting character conclusions, but I leave that to you.

“Make ‘Em Laugh!”: Basic Tips for Funny Creative Nonfiction

For my past couple of posts, I talked a little bit about creative nonfiction. I gave a brief example and then tried to give a working definition and explain how creative nonfiction relates to writing fiction. My basic definition of the genre is this: stories that are true (more or less) but which, just like fictional stories, are told with creativity, with artistic style and authorial voice and good narrative techniques.

Today I’d like to talk about one of my favorite kinds of creative nonfiction: the funny kind. Because who doesn’t like to laugh at a good, funny story? If you have any interest at all in writing humorous stories—short fiction, satire, stage or screen plays, or even a comic relief character within a more serious plot—then it may help you to get some good practice by looking into funny creative nonfiction. And even though we don’t always use the exact term “creative nonfiction,” I think this genre has already pervaded our culture more than we realize. Allow me to explain.

Some of us already watch funny creative non-fiction without even knowing it. What’s one type of entertainment that revolves

Chris Hardwick performing stand-up comedy
Celebrity Chris Hardwick performing stand-up comedy

entirely around people telling funny stories in creative ways? Stand-up comedy, of course. Depending on the particular comedian and their typical subject matter, stand-up comedy is little more than telling true stories or talking about real topics, but with a certain method of delivery and timing that will make people laugh. Recently, I’ve been doing some freelance writing for a little extra cash, and several of the jobs I’ve taken have been descriptions of various stand-up comedians based on their clips on Vimeo. I have to find different wordings to describe what they’re doing, and I’ve noticed that a lot of times I just say that the comedian “tells the story of” something or “describes his experiences with” a particular event . They’re basically just telling true life stories in funny ways. That’s all it is.

If you need some funny inspiration from stand-up comedy, then there are probably a lot of names I could recommend, and you may very well have a few favorites of your own too. But, based on some of the jobs I’ve taken recently, I’d suggest you look up some of the following: Daren Streblow, David Dean, Jeff Allen, Bob Stromberg, and Taylor Mason.

Also, in my last post, I mentioned David Sedaris as one of the big names in contemporary creative non-fiction. If you get a chance, you should look up a video of him reading some of his works to an audience, because his essays are (often) funny, and so reading them live becomes a lot like a stand-up comedy routine. When I took my class on creative non-fiction, our professor showed us a clip of Sedaris reciting one called “Six to Eight Black Men.” My prof also remarked on how great it is that someone in the field of creative writing can gain fame and a living just by reading his works to an audience. You should check it out.

Do you know where else a lot of us read and do funny creative nonfiction? Social media. Think about it. Let’s say you had aSocial Media Explained funny or awkward moment in your day and you want to share it with your friends. But, instead of just reporting what happened verbatim, you decide to give it a little sarcastic or witty twist. That counts as creative nonfiction, even if it’s just a few sentences for a quick status update . You’re telling a story, or a snippet of your life, in a creative and funny way.

I’ll give you a few examples of my own from my recent Facebook usage:

  • “Last night I had a dream that I still had papers to grade. This whole Master’s degree thing is gonna take a little while to recover from.”
  • “Don’t you hate it when your alarm goes off in the morning and you just know you forgot to do something really important? For example, my alarm just went off this morning, and I realized that I forgot to go to sleep last night.”
  • “Friends, I need some professional advice. If I responded to an online pet-sitting ad, and the owner described her house as a bachelorette pad with lots of books and sci-fi stuff, then at what point is it acceptable to ask her to marry me?”

Of course, the sort of creative non-fiction that’s done on social media also translates easily into blog-writing, which I touched on in my last post. A lot of bloggers (myself included) like to try to spin unique, awkward life situations into funny,  relatable written stories. The main difference is that, if I just have one quick moment to share, then it usually turns into a Facebook status, but if I have a fuller story then I can make it into a blog post.

However, this sort of writing can still present a problem. As the writing professor I used to work for has sometimes said, “You’re not always as funny as you think you are.” For example, I’ve written blog posts about bad things happening to me, or disappointments in the area of romance, and I’ve thought to myself, “This is funny, because I’m looking back on it and laughing now.” As they say, tragedy plus time equals comedy. But I’ve had some readers interpret those posts as still being sad, serious, or sympathetic rather than funny. In order to be funny, I need to not just describe events objectively as they happened, but make sure I emphasize the sarcastic/facetious tone, focus on portraying myself as a comical character, etc. It may take practice, but it can be done, especially with helpful inspiration from some of the other funny sources I’ve listed above.

If you’re interested in writing funny, lighthearted, or tongue-in-cheek fiction of any sort, then try out some funny creative non-fiction first. Chances are, if you have a Facebook or Twitter, that you’ve already done some without realizing it. But find some funny, awkward, or noteworthy moments in your life, and figure out how to tell those stories in the best and funniest way you can.