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Entries in Writing (24)


How has social media changed the way we think about writing?

"Writing is refined thinking."

That is one of my favourite quotations from Stephen King's On Writing. Now, you may have issues with Mr. King's genre or even his political convictions (His Twitter feed, despite its occasional raunchiness, makes me laugh out loud), but no one can deny he has been a successful writer. The one thing I like about King is the attention to detail. No character is left unfinished.

I just finished working on my major paper for Pentateuch. I wrote about the covenant and Genesis 15. It was a lot of research. It was supposed to be a maximum of 15 pages, but I could have written more. What I found difficult was sifting through the material and chosing what to focus on. Sometimes, it meant looking for ways to make a 500 word paragraph into a 250 word paragraph. It meant "refining" my thinking. It meant looking for better word choice. It meant deciding what was necessary and what was not.

Initially, before I made my formal outline (I'm old school like that; I work froma handwritten outline), my notes looked a lot like bullet points. They looked like a Tweet thread: related but not refined.

The act of writing necessitates creating movement. As I have read and re-read the Pentateuch this semester, I have seen the genius of the writer's movement of the text. That is how we communicate with a purpose. We may begin generally and move into a closer focus; we may develop along a theme; we may begin with the specific and back out again to the general. As I wrote my paper, I had to start with the bigger picture and then move into the details. Good communication involves building on principles. Good writing means clauses, sentences, paragraphs, and sections.

Tweet threads look linear, but more often than not, they don't read like they are. If someone puts the effort into creating a string of tweets (I've seen threads thare are 20+ tweets long) why not give them the time and attention you would an article? And if you do, and then put them into a thread, why? Is it because people are afraid that the easily distracted masses won't perform the arduous task of clicking to the link?

A two or three Tweet thread can be helpful, but are we really discussing complex, earth-shattering, life-altering principles like we're standing on Seaker's Corner? What I find most perplexing about the matter is that writers are doing this. Surely, a writer wants to create something better than a string of comments that become mired down with other comments mixed in so that no one knows where it began. Or maybe I'm wrong. Or out of fashion. Or both.

And the larger question how has social media changed how we define good writing?


If you're looking for Maud, don't look at Anne

I was re-visiting the journals of L.M. Montgomery. If it's Maud you're interested in, you really need to read her journals. And yes, she went by "Maud," not "Lucy."

The year 1934 was not a good one. Maud was struggling. Her husband, Ewan, was suffering with another bout of mental illness. There were issues with her sons, and she was going through a period of financial instability. The church her husband Ewan pastored was faithful to give him his salary, but the longer he was ill, the more it seemed unlikely to continue.

In autumn of that year, her journals repeat the refrain: "Ewan had a bad night". It appears over and over again. He often had to depend on barbituates to fall asleep, but he frequently woke up, anyway, anxity-ridden, and ranting. He often took a combintion of things to help him sleep. And so did Maud. She was clearly dealing with her own anxiety at the time.

On September 14, 1934, Maud says:

Again a bad night. Ewan took veronal but could not sleep. At two o'clock he was in such a state I gave him another dose and he slept the rest of the night. Dr. Paul does not approve of veronal but what is one to do? The tablets Paul gives have no effect at all most of times and if Ewan goes for two nights without sleep the result is terrible. I had to take a tablet myself to get any sleep at all.

On September 22, 1934:

A bad night. Ewan could not sleep and insisted on taking a double dose of veronal. I was in agony lest he never waken and I sat on the rug outside our bedroom door most of the night. As I sat there in the dark worried and anguished, a warm fluffy body came creeping into my lap and a soft little head reached up and rubbed my cheek. Then the dear cat curled himself lup in a ball and kep me company all through my dreary vigil.

To outsiders Maud did not let on the reality of her situation. She had been raised to put a good face forward, and she downplayed the seriousness of her husband's illness. She found it very difficult to write, a serious matter, because they needed the money. At this point, she was working on the second instalment of the Pat of Silverbush series.

October 20, 1934:

I could not write last night . . . Ewan slept naturally Thursday night, but I slept poorly -- too tired and nervous. Ewan was pretty well all day. I wrote some of Pat II, but found it hard. This is one of my worries just now. If I become unable to write what will we do? It haunts me in the dark hours of the night.

For Maud, there would be no slipping off to a nearby coffee shop to write. The fact that she produced anything continually amazes me. Often, Ewan would go into Toronto for a Turkish bath, and that would afford her time for writing. Clearly, she was able to write, because there are three volumes in the Pat of Silverbush series. But it must have been a struggle; as if being a female author in Canada at the time wasn't struggle enough.

The closest thing to marital discord in Anne Shirley's life comes at the end of Anne of Ingleside. At this point, she is the mother of six children and the wife of a busy doctor. She feels that the spark has gone out of her marriage:

And now . . .  Gilbert had grown tired of her. Men had always been like that . . . always would be. She had thought Gibert an exception but now she knew the truth. And how was she going to adjust her life to it?

Fortunately, happy endings prevail, and her suspicions are proven wrong. The book ends with them going to Europe on a second honeymoon.There is no such reprieve for Maud. By the end of 1934, Ewan has basically been forced to retire because of conflict in his church.

I often read articles that encourage us to see Anne in Maud, but I think it a generally misguided notion. Yes, Maud was a precocious child, and yes, she was raised by older people. But she also knew a great deal of pain and rejection, and much of her pain followed her success as a writer. One of her greatest sorrows was the deterioration of the relationship with her two sons. Maybe Anne was who Maud wished she could be.

Dealling with mental illness today is bad enough, but back then, it must have been insurmountable. There were no reliable medical approaches. It is believed now that Ewan Macdonald was ultimately being poisoned because of the number and combinations of things he took to fight his demons. All this woman wanted was some relief. Sadly, she really didn't get it until her own death. And yet, she created happy, creative stories. Anne is a lovely, memorable character, and I love her and always will. But Maud, in her complexity, is the more interesting of the two.


Having a book published is not the be all and end all

This morning I read a really great article called "No, You Probably Don't Have a Book in You." For someone who blogs, this was a great thing to read. The author seems to imply fiction, but it applies for theological writing. Those who write about theology (like bloggers) have a point they want to make.

I write every day. I have been writing every day since I was a kid. I purposely took an Arts degree because I knew it would involve writing. One of the reasons I went to seminary was to write and have it evaluated by people who are smarter and better writers than I. But I do not have a book in me. Although some of the young moms I have taught the Bible to over the years have asked me when I'm going to write a book, I suspect I don't have one in me. At least, it's not uppermost in my mind anymore. I don't know enough to write a book. And I'm not going to take the spiritual struggles of myself or my family and expose them to the world for the sake of trying to have a book published.

Some people write short things that are great reading. That doesn't necessarily translate into a good book. A good book is not a compilation of blog posts. I believe there is an art to writing a good, short article just as I think there are writers who can write great short stories, but not a complete novel. Some writers can produce prose and poetry, but some can't do both. Writing is an art, and it is an individual thing. It is okay to write without having grand designs to produce a book.

Recently, I read the biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and I was impressed with the excellent research of the author, Caroline Fraser. In the course of the book, it was apparent that Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, communicated often through letters. Both also wrote regularly in personal journals. It is not common for there to be such volumes of written records by women. That kind of material is valuable. Written records, even if they aren't books, tell a story, too. That is incentive for the writer in you to keep on doing it. Your family may thank you some day.

I don't often save the papers I have written for school. They're all on my Mac, anyway, so I don't need the paper copy. I do have three which I have saved, one from my undergraduate days, and two since starting seminary. I keep them because I worked hard on them, and was pleased with how they turned out. The most recent one was a paper about abortion I wrote for my Moral Theology class. The prof made a suggestion about how I could have improved on it. Being given helpful critique from someone I respect means a great deal. I probably will never write a book, but I have those papers, and they mean something to me.

I write because I can't not write. And if no one but the prof reads it, I am okay with that. I have so much to learn. There is nothing wrong with wanting to write a book, but I write because it's what I do. For the foreseeable future, I better have some good papers in me, because there are more on the horizon. In the process of preparing them, I trust God will teach me many things, both theological and personal.


Experience is not theology

I have been reading the book Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilderby Caroline Fraser. It is a fascinating read. I see many similarities between her and L.M. Montgomery, who also struggled with financial hardship, although not to the extent that Wilder did. Both women wrote fiction based on their own lives which left readers assuming that the work was strictly autobiographical. And of course it was not.

Wilder's books, though based on her own childhood, were works of fiction:

Wilder was not a historian. Instead, her novels would be created from a complex tangle of subjective sources: family lore and letters, old hymnals and songbooks, treasured artifacts of her youth, and her own recollections. Her depictions of the West were drawn less from newspapers and encyclopedias than from her inner life. It was a work of pure folks art.

Wilder's daughter, Rose, a writer herself, had different ideas. She had no qualms about not only presenting fiction as fact, but taking her mother's true experiences and embellishing them to make a good story for herself. The relationship between the two is very complicated, and at times, rather ugly.

How much of a writer's experience is part of what they write? Even when it comes to works of theology, how much of our own experience runs through our writing? How much of it determines how we approach the subject and the very words we choose? What role do our presuppositions play in how we process and analyze the material we do research? 

I am a firm believer in authorial intent. But at the same time, I am aware that there can be a tension between the writer and work even the author may not fully recognize. How accurate are our memories? How biased are our experiences? Research is really important, and Caroline Fraser's excellent research has revealed that Wilder was often incorrect about her memories. This is why we need to remember that it is fiction. 

And when it comes to writing theology, research is even more crucial, because research -- especially research from an opposing view -- will challenge us to look beyond our personal experience and presuppositions. We may most certainly inject personal experience in our writing, but we also remember that our experience, while revealing our theology, is not theology itself.


Women, tell your stories

My brother did one of those DNA tests to learn more about his genetic background. His results are kept in a database, and those who have done the test can contact one another if there is a possibility that they are related. Someone contacted my brother saying that she is related to him. Over the past few weeks, my brother and I have become acquainted with a woman who was adopted and is doing research into her biological father's family. Her biological father was my maternal grandmother's brother. She is a cousin to my mother and to us. And as we have been introduced to this woman, and joined her research group on Facebook, we are learning more about our background. It has been really great seeing the extent of our family's roots.

My great-grandmother, Agnes has always been someone I've been curious about. My mother always talked very fondly about her as did my great-aunt. My grandmother rarely said a thing about her, and I found that curious. The woman had 11 children, and many of them had secrets that were not revealed (at least to my mother's generation) until well after they were dead. My grandmother was a very bitter, unhappy woman. I've wondered what brought this woman to that place considering her own mother seemed to have been so beloved. That she was well-loved was confirmed to me by a man who is her great-nephew. His words to me were that she was "a saint."

We have also learned more about the Indigenous roots of my mother's family. I thought it was only Agnes who was Indigenous but there are connections on her husband's side of the family. It is much more than what I ever knew growing up. I suspect it was hidden because of shame, especially on my grandmother's part. And that shame was embraced to some extent by my mother, who doesn't seem nearly as interested in all this as my brother and his kids or me and my mine.

There is a group on Facebook for those of us interested in hearing about the various branches of the family, and through that group, I have connected with a woman who remembers Agnes; her grandmother was Agnes's sister, Mary. She is willing to talke to me either in person or on the phone (we live only about 3 hours away from one another) about Agnes whom she remembers very well. And they say Facebook doesn't have a good use!

If you are at all interested in the history of women, start with your own family. Famous women are interesting, but within our own families, there are likely a myriad of connections and stories that are just as fascinating. Those stories are what tell us what life was like for them. Birthdates, census records, grave markers, and employment records do not tell the story of ordinary life. And for the most part, there is nothing left behind by the women because they simply did not have the time to record stories, even assuming they were literate enough to write. Those of us who like to write need to get busy. And the ones who have the stories but don't want to write, they can always dictate those stories to someone who does. Published history is full of stories about everyone else but ordinary women, especially if they were a minority or were marginalized somehow. Those ordinary stories are worth hearing.

And as for women my age and younger: write what you remember about your family. Keep records of what your life is like now. Ordinary life is important. It is after all, the majority of life. And you never know who may be interested in those stories.