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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A Sequence for Advent

A few years ago, we bought a wooden advent calendar with little doors concealing magnetic figures that can be arranged on a nativity scene:

Advent Calendar

Last year during Advent I set myself a poetic challenge:  I would hide a slip of paper behind the door with each figure, and on that paper would be a rhyming couplet that said something about the figure; all the couplets together would form a coherent poem to be recited on Christmas Eve when the last door had been opened.  I had to think ahead about the best order for the figures, taking into account that the biggest ones could not fit behind the littlest doors.  But once the order was set, I wrote the couplets day by day, scrambling each evening to prepare the morning’s rhyme.  Some mornings I made excuses to delay the morning Advent Calendar ritual and buy extra time to write!

Once the first stanza was done, my friend Peter Kwasniewski composed a Gregorian chant setting for it, in the one-note-one-syllabus style of a liturgical “sequence” like the Victimae paschali.  The “Advent sequence” was a success, and the melody haunting:  you can read and decide for yourself here.  If you are not familiar with Gregorian chant notation, you can listen to my rendition of it here:

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Beyond the Solar Ray

In his helpful little book Show Your Work!, Austin Kleon urges his readers to “open up their cabinet of curiosities”–or in other words, Don’t horde old work.  Take those old gems out and give them away so they’ll stop making you feel complacent.  In this spirit, and under the “Don’t horde” tag, I’d like to post a few things I wrote years ago, hoping everyone will enjoy them.

First up is a poem I wrote when my wife Jacinta and I were engaged.  We were in college, we were insanely busy, and it seemed like we never talked; we just waved at each other across campus as we each hurried to the next class.  Wanting to write about love, I naturally turned to that wellspring of sentiment, Euclid’s Elements of Geometry:

Beyond the Solar Ray

A_________________B
C_______________________D

Once upon a time, before the Great Liberation,
When the tyranny of Euclid bound the geometric nations,
When lines from numbers stood aloof, and points did have no part,
When “algebraic” was not a proof, and mathematics had no heart,

Then was a romance born which all others does outshine,
A tragedy of quantity, when line did love a line.
She was a fair maid, fairly made, with end points most petite;
In mind she was a middling girl, in disposition sweet.

How clear in form and figure! How in beauty like an elf!
How evenly she lay with all the points upon herself!
Her lover loved her, how he did! Loved her, loved her well.
But sad beyond all telling, the lines were parallel.

On and on indefinitely the lovers both extended,
Pausing now and then for breath, when one of them got winded.
Across the distance set by fate one would the other see:
“My dear,” she cries and he replies, “My love, my love, AB.”

Their thoughts and words were passionate, for lines were not discrete;
Speaking thus they onward flew, but never did they meet.
Now reason has her limits; there is a boundary to her reign.
Definition fails, and demonstration pales, outside a certain plane.

There is a place apart, beyond the solar ray,
Where parallel straight lines can meet, in an unofficial way.
Across the actual infinite with burning hearts they leapt,
Way out beyond the pale, where never line had stepped.

Joy be to all you lovers who lead lives parallel:
As these two lines o’ercame, so you can do as well.
Calm to all you lovers, in pain, so sorely tried,
In time AB, CD were husband and the bride.
No matter how impossible it seem to see the way,
There parallel straight lives can meet, out there,
Apart, beyond the pale of reason, beyond the solar ray.

 

 

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The Gifts of the Spirit

Sorting through old boxes of junk, I found this hand-written poem titled “The Gifts of the Spirit,” from my early graduate school days:

The Angelic Doctor self-described
was a “bat in the sunlight”;
Oh, to feel the warmth of the sun!

I am a bat in a blizzard,
fighting every gust of wind
– but who knows where the wind blows,
whence it comes, and whither it goes?
Perhaps to somewhere good.

God send right wind!

That was scrawled quickly during the last week of the semester, as I slapped together the dismal last in a series of required essays.  Five teachers waited until only four weeks were left in the semester to assign their ten-page papers; knowing that it took me one week to write a good ten-page essay, I saw right away that I would turn in four good papers and one stinker.  The above poem was written as I churned out the stinker.  It was a hard time in other ways as well.

The funny thing is, all these years later I still resonate with the message of that poem.  Life still sends things to all-at-once, I still don’t know where it all goes or where it comes from.  God send right wind!

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Casey in the Classroom

matthew served the point up which no one had seen before but once served once served it was not his but ours and we batted it back to the net for tim to slam down while we cheered and watched so ran the plan but tim slipped and tessa leapt to keep the point in the air while we all took positions then the teacher through our midst came to hammer home the point over the net with his hand like a giant and his face like a thunder cloud and in the wake of his resounding whack we stood with mouths like mackeral to see the point on the ground still on our side of the net and not over the net at all.

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