Going to heaven with the Eucharist

Austin Kleon, creativity guru, has this advice for literary types:  “Don’t try to write a book while taking care of a newborn baby.”  That, of course, is exactly what I have been doing, and the blog has suffered accordingly.

Happily, sometimes a friend steps in to do my work for me.  Peter Kwasniewski took some e-mails I wrote to him years ago and reshaped them into the first half of an article on the Eucharist; he sent a draft to me and I made some edits, drafted a new introduction, and ta-da!  A new publication.

My own advice for literary types:  Always include at least one over-achiever in your circle of advisors.

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Phase 1: done. New: Phase 2.

Last Saturday, in a burst of I-can-smell-the-water energy, I finished my first book-length work of fiction.  After a festive dinner, the family gathered in the living room for one last read-aloud, and the thing was done.  Phase 1 of the sabbatical plan is complete.

Now we turn to Phase 2, which has two parts.  Perhaps most urgently, I have to do some editing work for The Aquinas Institute, LombardSentenceswhich has an NEH grant to bring out a translation of Book IV of Aquinas’s Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard.  They’ve been waiting on me to move on the project for a very long time, and I hope nobody dies of shock when I do.

But definitely closer to my heart is the projected book on the senses of Scripture.  It’s a funny project, because (a) I have no research library, and (b) I couldn’t read if I did.  Since I was very young I have had tremendous difficulty reading even moderately small print, and for a year or so now I have had difficulty reading normal size print.  I read by putting things on a Kindle or having them transformed into audio.  But I have lost my gigantic Kindle DX, so even that modicum of scholarly activity has been trimmed.

Fortunately I have a reservoir of past research to lean on.  Just recently I learned that my article on “Participation and the Meaning of Scripture,” which I wrote about a decade ago, will be published in a volume of essays from Brepols.  Upside:  It’s great to put that name on my CV.   OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADownside:  Nobody can afford books from Brepols, so this is pretty much a very ornate tomb in which to inter my old research.  I can reuse the ideas in my book and no one will even notice.

A lecture I gave some three years ago is about to be published in the journal Nova & Vetera.  No downsides there:  it’s a vibrant publication that has the attention of exactly the people I would like to reach.  Way back when I wrote the piece I told my wife that it was the best thing I had ever written, and N&Vthat if I died now then I would have done something worthwhile with my career.  Going over the proofs a few days ago, I thought the same thing.  I’ll definitely be recycling those ideas.

The first step in Phase 2b is going through my old stuff and taking notes.  I need to map out more clearly the connections between the somewhat imposing complex of ideas in my idea-bucket.  I know in a fuzzy way what I want this book to do, but I do not yet have the master framework in view.  Meanwhile, this blog will probably be livelier as I explore my way to the starting line.

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Novella ho!

Today the silly story I am writing for the kids passed 30,000 words, which seems to be a commonly accepted minimum for dubbing your fiction a “novella”.  For reference, Google indicates that Charlotte’s Web is a bit over 32,000 words, while The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe weighs in at 36,000 or so.  According to this site, I’m on a course to hit the optimal length for the age range I have in mind.

Without putting a full day or even a half day into it, I can hit 1,000 words per day reliably. Daily Rituals When I throw a full day at it that number goes up to about 3,000 words max.  When I need to get a new chapter out and just can’t think of what to do, I take a page from Woody Allen’s playbook as reported in Mason Curry’s Daily Rituals.  In Allen’s own words,

If I go up and take a shower it’s a big help.  So I sometimes take extra showers.  I’ll be down here and at an impasse and what will help me is to go upstairs and take a shower.  It breaks up everything and relaxes me.

He’s right:  the shower always busts up my writer’s block.  But this is my favorite quotable quote from Curry’s collection, this time from novelist Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22:

I gave up once and started watching television with my wife.  Television drove me back to Catch-22.  I couldn’t imagine what Americans did at night when they weren’t writing novels.


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Walking through the door

While I work on my rather silly novel about a monster robot who takes over Middleton, my daughter has been writing a somewhat more serious fantasy novel about cultural conflict between peoples.  She began back in November as part of the NaNoWriMo project.  Over the course of the month she wrote words enough and half again to meet NaNoWriMo requirements, but her story was not finished.

In fact, she’s at 95,000 words now and still not finished.  For a while she was reluctant to let anyone see her work in its draft state, but a few days ago she made some edits and decided to let me read what she has.  So I started yesterday.

Let me share with you a passage I read just before bed last night:

The mountains that Kathleen could see in the distance had become more pronounced.  They towered where before they had just loomed in the distance.  They were losing the blue tint the distance gave them, and now she could clearly see the white on the tops, green patches, brown patches, and she thought she could even make out the largest of the canyons.  Then suddenly one day, as though they had crept up on them in the night, the mountains were there.  They soared overhead, tall and multilayered.

Could you guess from this paragraph that the author is fourteen years old?  I know I did not have so powerful a voice at that age–heck, I would be happy to have written such vivid scenic description at thirty-eight years old.  It gives me goosebumps.

A while ago, I casually mentioned the NaNoWriMo project to Bernadette and then dropped the subject.  It’s hard to encourage your children to pursue their gifts without being pushy:  you have to open doors, stand back, and let them decide whether to walk through.  But Bernadette chose to walk through that door, and I hope her creative writing will be a joy to her for years to come.

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Tilling the Soil for Spring

While I work on writing a novel, I am also gearing up for a project more people would recognize as coming out of my academic background. Over the years I have had various thoughts about the nature of Scripture, about its multiple senses, and about its role in Christian life, and now and then someone tells me, “Hey, that’s really helpful!” When these people are theologians and biblical scholars themselves, it tells me that my ideas are either old enough or new enough to be worth writing out. So my project is simply to lay out the various dots that have occurred to me and see if I can connect them.

Right now I am reading Living and Active: Scripture in the Economy of Salvation, by Telford Work, a Pentecostal theologian who is himself living and active at Westmont College.  (Work also authored the Brazos Theological Commentary on Deuteronomy.)  Years ago, my then-colleague Gregory Vall told me that Work had “really nailed it,” so I bought the book and planned to read it. But because the print is slightly small, and because my ability to read even slightly small print has vanished with time, it never happened. But as I revved up for this work I discovered that the book is available for Kindle! So I’m a bit more than half way through. Continue reading “Tilling the Soil for Spring”

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It’s all a plot

When I was in graduate school at Marquette University, I had the opportunity to see their amazing Tolkien collection.  Among the displays of Tolkien’s handwritten LOR drafts, I saw an interesting chart Tolkien had made for himself.  At a point where Frodo and Sam are in Mordor, Aragorn and company are fighting somewhere else, and Merry and Pippin are with the Ents, Tolkien had drawn parallel vertical columns on a page with one column dedicated to summarizing each line of action.  Items that lined up with each other across the columns were happening at the same time–he had written dates in the margins to get the chronology exact.  This arrangement let him see, for example, what Pippin was doing in the forest when Aragorn was fighting a battle at the city.

I have never seen this technique described in a book about writing, but it sure makes sense to me.  So when I reached a point in my own story where I couldn’t keep the interweaving plot lines straight in my mind, I had a white-board session with a vertical column for each major character:

I know the good guys have to win, but I don't know how....
I know the good guys have to win, but I don’t know how….

I don’t know how the story ends yet, but I’m really hoping it ends faster than the Lord of the Rings.

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Good eisegesis

Yesterday, I described a “magic” that happens with writing.  Along the way, I mentioned the particular magic that seems to happen when you practice eisegesis, that is, “reading into” the text instead of just “receiving from” the text, or exegesis.

It’s a phenomenon related to what I have called the Reality Enhancement Factor.  We are built to see a dim and sketchy scene and flesh it out mentally until everything seems clear and bright.  Even though this can lead us astray if we lack self-awareness, it can also draw our attention to important facts:  what was first a guess, a creative filling of the gap, makes us pay closer attention to evidence that is actually there and verifies the guess.

The act of making up a story kicks the REF into high gear.  Consequently, the story writer who starts from a biblical text is not turning on a faculty of creation ex nihilo, but what turns out to be a faculty built for seeing things.  Eisegesis can yield exegesis.

Done in the right spirit, eisegesis can yield striking insights because it is an exercise of creativity within limits.  It begins with the text as a given set of dots and tries to connect them to make a picture; it begins with the text as a series of pictures and tries to supply the story line.  In one way or another, creativity goes places it would never have gone without the specific limits imposed by this particular text, and the eisegete actually learns from his reading.  Anyone who has done creative work knows what I mean.

As a result, the text itself ends up expressing itself through the eisegete’s work.  Good reading into the text does not dominate in the end but serves it.

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The Year of Writing

For me, the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God is a wonderful way to start the year 2015, because this is to be the year of writing.  Most of my hopes for the coming twelve months seem less matter for resolutions than matter for prayer:  health, sanity, equilibrium, organization—that last one in particular just needs a miracle.  But this much is resolved for 2015:  I will write and write and write.

I will write theological stuff, of course.  A particular book has been gestating for too long, and I need to birth the thing before it gets so big it breaks something.  I do not have so much a thesis in mind as a vision:  lots of dots connect in my mind, and I need to get the whole web down on paper.  Have you ever wondered how the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ connects to the idea of the Great Books?  Have you ever sat up trying to see how the fact of the Trinity relates to the experience of reading Scripture?  Well, stay tuned.

But maybe even more that than, I need to write fiction.  My colleagues are puzzled by the urge, but I’ll repeat the key word:  need.

Something magical happens when you write a story:  connections appear that you could never have seen any other way.  Are you puzzled by a story in the Bible?  Try your hand at writing a novella about it and you’ll see it open before your wondering eyes.  Stuck on planning a party?  Write a short story about what happened at the party and you’ll suddenly see how to lay everything out.  Or at least, that’s what happens for me and for lots of other people.

This is the drive, I suspect, behind the Jewish tradition of Midrash.  As long as you sit in front of the text and “respect” it, that is, leave it alone and try to hear its voice without in any way affecting it, the text holds its dearest secrets close.  But when you see the text as a bunch of dots on a paper just waiting for you to draw all the lines, suddenly the thing rushes out to embrace you and explain itself to you.

I find that the magic lingers long after I have stopped writing.  If I have written fiction recently, everything in life is more creative and energetic.  I see more connections everywhere, my theology comes alive, my kids enjoy me more—and heck, sometimes I’m even more organized!

By now, I suppose you are wondering what all this has to do with the Solemnity of Mary of the Mother of God.  Well, Mary should be the writer’s patroness:  she published just one Word and has been getting continual press ever since.  Mary the mother of God, pray for us.

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A Song for the Holy Family

A few years back, when Peter Kwasniewski composed the music for David’s Town and asked me to write lyrics, he also wrote music for another Christmas season hymn.  It sounded to me, for what mystical reasons I cannot say, like a song about the Holy Family.  And to my surprise, I could not find a song for the Holy Family anywhere in my music books:  some songs were about Mary, some about Joseph, some about Mary and Jesus, and some about Mary and Joseph, but none were about the Holy Family as such.

So I set out to remedy that lack in the English-speaking world’s repertoire, or at least in my own musical collection.  I wrote one verse of the projected hymn that year.  The following year I added a second verse.  Finally, this year I wrote the third and final verse of our new hymn for today’s feast, “For the Holy Family”.  Click here to see words and music, and below you’ll find a recording by the aspiring-to-be-holy family here in Lander.

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If you happen to be in Scotland….

flyer 21 12 14

This is the flyer for a concert coming up in Scotland which will include some compositions by my friend Peter Kwasniewsi.  For one of those compositions, “David’s Town,” Peter wrote the music and then asked me to write the lyrics.  My work is going to be sung in Scotland!  For those who won’t be in Scotland that day, here is a recording by Matthew Curtis:

By the way, the liturgical seasons of Advent and Christmas emphasize three comings of Christ:  his coming in the flesh long ago, his invisible coming in grace here and now when we celebrate the feast, and his future coming in glory.  The three verses of “David’s Town” correspond to these three comings.

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