Writing – Works In Progress

WIP.  You’ll find this commonly used on writer’s forums and other online gathering places.  It means “Works in Progress”.  For many of us (I never say “all” because the universe of writing practice is very diverse), ideas don’t come in single file, patiently waiting to be created.  The ideas crowd in, demanding attention right this instant.  Too often if I don’t pay enough attention, they will storm off in a huff.  There are more than a few instances of me remembering that I had a really great idea for a story, but had no idea what it was.  So you have to pay attention.

This also means that you end up working on more than one idea at a time. Don’t know if that comes as a surprise to anyone outside the writing world. The path from idea to finished product is filled with side tracks through other lands and stories.

A quick scan through some online groups reveals that many/most of us seem to have more than one project going on.

So, what’s on my plate right now? Technically, I have three novels underway. None of them are getting the attention they deserve. Their titles, at the moment, are:

  • Today is Odd (originally “Catching Fire and Flying Through the Air”. Still undecided on this.) – a story based on my time as a substitute teacher. Think “Up the Down Staircase”.
  • Two Guys, One Dies – a murder mystery in parallel. Draws on my careers in both radio and youth ministry.  Two tracks to the story, in each one a different guy dies and the other one investigates.  This idea developed because I had two great ideas and couldn’t decide between them.  So I didn’t.  This is extremely complicated storytelling.
  • The Hidden Race – a thriller (I think) that centers on a secret society that is quietly directing much of the world. Think Dan Brown.

Those are the “big” projects. There are usually a short story or two in some stage of development. Plus all these blog posts. (I write regularly on two blogs, The View From The Phlipside and this one.) I need to average about three posts a week to stay on track, sometimes four. Plus three radio programs a week, that are then turned into a weekly podcast.

Finding the balance between the more immediate projects (blogs and radio) and the long term is tough. I want to create quality work for all of them, my emotional investment is much deeper on the long-term projects. So, I just keep working away.

Are you writing?  How many WIP do you have going?  Tell me in the comments!

Peace

JD

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A Life In Faith and the Posture of Prayer

(My faith is an important part of my life.  I do not set up my life or my beliefs as anything other than my understanding of the Divine.  If they shine some tiny light on your journey then I will be happy for us both. YMMV)

(Before the notes come flocking in, I am well aware that kneeling is problematic for some folks.  They simply can’t do it.  Most of us can.  I ask only that, if you are able, you consider if you should.)

Sit. Stand. Kneel.

It is a dance during worship.  Assuming the posture that moves the worshipper toward the appropriate mindset for that moment in the service.  In the Episcopal church, we traditionally add a little juggling to make the dance more intricate.  Controlling a Book of Common Prayer (BCP), a hymnal and the bulletin is a skill that takes years to perfect.   It’s probably a good thing that we have begun to move away from that complication in our worship life.

I was not always conscious of that dance.  I simply went along with whatever was being done by the rest of the congregation.  When I began to think about my life in faith, and especially about prayer, the value of those positions began to crystallize for me.

Sitting is the base position for worship.  We sit while we hear the sermon and the lessons. It is a position of waiting and a position for hearing teaching.

Standing is a position for proclaiming our faith, and hearing the Gospel.   It’s also an old-school way of showing respect. We also stand when we sing.  Because that’s just good sense.

Kneeling is a position of humbleness and submission.

When I moved to Richmond, the one thing that surprised me the most about the worship in the Episcopal churches I visited was that almost no one kneels.  That varies a bit based on the congregation, but the amount of kneeling is very much lower than what I have been accustomed to over my life.

There are a variety of places where we are given the option to stand or kneel.  The default here seems to be always standing.  It strikes me as a loss to the worship.  Eliminating a whole category of the dance of worship feels wrong to me.

The one place that it really strikes me is at the Confession.  I was a bit surprised when I looked at the BCP and realized that there is no instruction (the technical term would be a “rubric”) concerning what position we should adopt for confessing.  It does note that after the confession the Bishop or Priest stands to offer the Absolution, so it seems to assume that at least they are in a position other than standing.

In the 1928 BCP and in the Rite 1 service the invitation to confession says, “Let us humbly confess…”  It strikes me that if we are “humbly confessing” the things we have done that fall short of the expectations of the Divine, then we ought to be on our knees.

It was awkward when I was on a congregational staff to be the only person in the congregation who went to their knees.  It was not a visual that I thought useful, especially as the “new guy” on the ministry team.  When my place of worship changed, I struggled for a while since almost no one knelt either.  It really shouldn’t matter whether I’m alone in this piety or not, I suppose, but it was nice to see a couple other folks who choose to kneel at that part of the service.

In the end, this is mostly a matter of tradition.  Just as Article XXVI of the Articles of Religion (an historic document from the beginning of our American version of the Anglican tradition) states that the unworthiness of the minister does not nullify the effect of the Eucharist, my bet is that the position of the worshipper doesn’t negate God’s ability to hear our prayers.  The rest of it falls under the category of “personal piety”.

At the same time, the dance of worship can offer a physical reminder and representation of what we are trying to do.  A reminder to humble ourselves strikes me as a valuable piece of a life in faith.  Spending a little time on our knees isn’t a bad practice for the whole church, I think.

Peace

J

 

Writing – Write Them Down!

I came across an interesting challenge a couple months ago.

It said every writer should try working in six different writing forms.  The idea was that we should challenge ourselves.

To stretch creatively by stepping outside of our usual forms.

If memory serves it showed up in a forum that focused mostly on long-form writing, which would explain the choices.  They are:

  • Poetry
  • Six Word Story
  • Flash Fiction (50-1k words)
  • Short Story
  • News Article
  • Opinion Piece

I’m always up for a creative challenge, so let’s give it a try.

The fourth one doesn’t qualify for me since I’m a dedicated short story writer.  So we’ll take last month’s writing piece as our contribution for that.  So let’s start with poetry.  I’ll try the others over the next four months.

I’ve mentioned before that poetry is something I fiddle with sometimes.  It feels like painting with words to me.  I’m not sure I’m any good at it, but I enjoy it.  I hope you do too.

Write Them Down

Write them down,
Write them down!

Get these people out of my head,
Clear their stories from my mind.
If I don’t get them written,
They jostle my brain,
Pushing at one another, and
elbowing mundane thoughts aside.
Looking for a crack to force their way
To the center of my attention.
They clamor at me,
Demanding to be freed.
Behind them I perceive
the crowd that is to come.
New faces with new stories
As yet still undefined.
But soon they will raise the cry,
A call to be realized.
Pounding at the door of creativity,
So I must clear some space.

Write them down!
Write them down!

Short Stories – The $30,000 Bequest and Other Stories

This post is part of a year-long series about short stories.  Read about my “Year of the Short Story” HERE.

The $30,000 Bequest and Other Stories by Mark Twain (1872) – A collection of 30 short stories from one of the greatest American authors.  Twain is in many ways the most American of our native born writers.  His subjects, point of view and sense of humor are rooted in the still young nation he observed.  In these stories he explores a wide range of topics.  His storytelling style remains crisp even 150 years later.  Following the Civil War the nation is beginning to feel its oats.  Industry and business are beginning to boom at the international level.  The American begins to travel more, and be seen.

Keep Calm and Focus on the Short Stories

And Twain has fun with one and all.

My favorites here are:

  • “The $30,000 Bequest” – A married couple that there is a possibility of a great deal of money coming to them.  Just the promise is enough to put them off the rails.
  • “Italian Without A Master” and “Italian With Grammar” – Twain exercises his well developed sense of whimsey.  This is the bold American taking on the language of Italy as only a bold American might.
  • “General Washington’s Negro Body Servant” – The death of an old black man, reputed to have worked for the first President, gives Twain the opportunity to wield some subtle jabs at the growing American mythology surround our nation’s founders.
  • “An Entertaining Article” –  Twain takes the opportunity to publicly examine a less than flattering review.  An English critic took great exception to the American author’s “An Innocent Abroad”.  Many authors wish they had the wit, the writing skill and the outright gumption to do what Twain does here.
  • “A Humane Word From Satan” – “The editors of Harper’s Weekly have reason to believe this letter is from Mark Twain”.  That introductory note that went with the original publication of the short story tell you everything you need to know about the story.  Twain is preparing to puncture a few more pompous balloons.

I enjoyed almost every story here.  The places my attention stumbled were stories that went after specific public figures.  Twain assumes a base level of familiarity in his readers that I don’t have a century and a half later.  I enjoyed the writing, even if the details of the story eluded me.

Twain is the first great American writer from an America that begins to resemble ours.  He wasn’t born on the East Coast and his writing takes us into the everyday life in the nation.   Here’s a great collection to add to your list.

Writing – Afterwords

 

If you read my short fiction collection “Shorts” (and I would love for you to do that!), you will discover that I have a small idiosyncrisy.  I like including afterwords for each of the stories.  I have been told by some folks that this is a terrible thing to do.  The feeling is that a story should stand on its own, and once the author finishes the story,  nothing else should need to be said.

I don’t care.

I have read plenty of “classic” collections that are just the stories and enjoyed them immensely.  But some of my favorite collections include addenda from the author about the story.  What inspired it, stories about how they wrote it, or what happened after they wrote it.  So when the time came to publish my own collection there was no question what I was going to do.

There would be afterwords.

There is a decision there.  For AFTERwords rather than FOREwords for each story.  When you come into a story, I want you to enjoy it as it is.  Find the meaning that it offers up for you.  Sometimes that’s different from my intent.  Which is super!  After you’ve enjoyed it, then I’d like to start a little conversation about it.  Here’s where the story came from (in the case of the story “The Sniper Dream” it’s a little creepy), why I wrote it, what it means to me.  Maybe that makes you go back and look again, maybe it matches perfectly with your impression, or maybe it leads you to say “You were trying for WHAT?  Missed the mark on that one!”.  I’m OK with all of those answers.

My hope is that it adds a little something to the experience.  That you’ll feel like you understand me and my writing a little better, maybe feel like you know me a little better.  I don’t know if that’s the goal for any other writer on the planet.  It’s my goal.

The only goal I can concern myself with as a writer.

So I hope you grab a copy of the book, I hope you enjoy the stories, and I hope the Afterwords add a little something as well.

Peace

JD

A Life In Faith, The Journey

(My faith is an important part of my life.  I do not set up my life or my beliefs as anything other than my understanding of the Divine.  If they shine some tiny light on your journey then I will be happy for us both. YMMV)

Earlier this year, I had the chance to help build a labyrinth at my new home congregation.  Labyrinths have long history among spiritual folk.  They are well known features at places like the Cathedral at Chartres in France.  The one I helped create (in a very small way) is nothing quite so grand.  But it is beautiful, and I’m looking forward to my first chance to walk it.

If you’re not familiar with walking labyrinths, there is one thing you need to know about them.  They are different from a maze.  A maze is designed to be complicated and confusing.  The labyrinth that is used in the Christian tradition (I try to speak only for my own tribe in these posts), is simple in its complexity.  Yes, the path winds back and forth, but there is only a single way in and a single way out.  Follow the path and you will get to where you want to go.

One of the historic functions of these paths is to offer a chance to do a pilgrimage for folks without the time or financial means to travel to the holy places.  This is why you will sometimes here the center referred to as “Jerusalem”.

The first time I walked a labyrinth was at a training event.  A Presbyterian church in Buffalo had a seminar for people who were looking into using one as part of their personal faith practice or within their ministry.  I was decidedly the latter.  It was a tool that sounded interesting.  That was all my motivation as I walked through the door.

In this case, it was a canvas labyrinth.  Painted on an enormous piece of heavy canvas, it was portable.  We went through our background training session on the history and practice, then were invited to walk the labyrinth ourselves.  It was a large group, so we set off at intervals of several minutes.  The goal was that we would not catch the person in front of us.

A fine idea.  Unless the person behind, me, walked quickly, while the person in front, a very nice older lady if memory serves, chose to walk slowly.  There is no passing lane on a labyrinth.

So I was stuck.

And fuming.

Until the thought ocurred – maybe this was the point.

It’s not about racing to the goal.  The object of the exercise is in the exercise itself.  I slowed, focused on what I was hearing, feeling, smelling.  The experience of walking the labyrinth became my purpose.  When I reached the center, I was at a level of calmness that is sadly unusual in my life.  The center was large enough for four or five to stand comfortably for a moment before beginning the walk back out.

It was a profound moment for me.

Because it solidified a concept about the Life in Faith.  It is a JOURNEY.

I hear lots of folk who spend all their time talking about the goal, the reward, the end.  Over the years I have come to believe that without the journey, the end will mean nothing.  If it’s only about getting to the end, then we should be looking for shortcuts.  Let’s get there and it will all be well.

But like anything that isn’t earned, it won’t mean much.

I believe that I will only understand what is waiting after I finish my journey.  I believe that we are pointed to the journey by the fact that our faith is based on “the way”.  As I noted last month, for me it is about trying (and often failing) to live in the moment.  Not in the future, but now.  Ministry is done here and now.  Love is shared, here and now.  Now is the journey, one that will take every second of every minute of every hour of every day of my life.

Faith is a journey.  May our paths cross or parallel along the way.

Peace

J

Writing – The Gathering

Mary Alice Johnson stopped in mid-transit between the kitchen and the living room. Crouching at the end of the hallway was her five-year-old son, Stewie. He was sitting back on his heels, knees up under his chin with his arms wrapped around his legs. It was an unusual position to find the boy. What caught her attention was that he wasn’t looking down the hall. He sat just past the edge of the wall, his shoulder at the corner, but he was staring across the opening. A locked in stare at … nothing. The dining room straight ahead, the hall to his right, the door to the kitchen to his left. Both the hall and dining room were dark, the light of the kitchen just dim from this angle. She could see the nervous tension in the boy’s body. She stood there for a moment, but he took no apparent notice of her. That was odd as well. His constant greetings, a day filled with “Hi Mommy!” every time they crossed paths was background noise to her now. All the more obvious by its absence.

“Honey, are you okay?”

Stewie’s gaze never wandered. A quick nod of head and a grim set to his mouth was his only response. He remained unnaturally still. This was the boy who wore her out on a daily basis with a supply of energy that seemed endless. Now he just sat and stared. Mary Alice watched him for a moment more. He didn’t seem distressed, just…focused.

“Okay, then.”

Her tone showed her doubt on that point. Mary Alice continued into the living room but didn’t take her usual chair. Shifting to another (less comfortable) one put her son in her eye line. Sometimes it was best just to let a child alone to do their thing. All the experts seemed to agree. At least the ones she liked. She tried to read but the boy’s stillness nagged at her.
An hour later, Stewie had shifted twice, seeming to ease the pressure on his legs but remained in place. When Peter Johnson walked through the door, she waved him urgently over.

“Hey, beautiful. What’s…” She shushed him and motioned for him to come closer.

“Stewie has been sitting there”, she motioned to their son, “for an hour now. He hasn’t moved. I asked him if he was OK and he said he was, but he hasn’t moved. I’m starting to worry.”

As she spoke, Peter considered the boy. A normal day ended with Stewie rushing him as soon as he walked through the door, tales of the boy’s adventures pouring out. He noted the look of tension there as well. Almost as if the boy were waiting for something.

“Was he OK the rest of the day?”

His wife nodded.

“Just a regular day, till I found him there an hour ago.”

He walked over and knelt next to the boy.

“Hey, Stewie-Be-Doo. What’s up? You got Mom worried.”

The childhood nickname, now much despised, got him a sideways look of reproach. That’s good, Peter thought, he’s not off in never-never land.

“I’m watching. For Grampy.”

Grampy was Peter’s father Robert. A year ago his health had started to fail. After much negotiation with both his father and his wife, Peter had moved the old man into the spare bedroom. It made the house a little cramped, but Robert worked to be useful to the limits of his ability. Mary Alice came to appreciated having some help with her son in the following months. While the older man couldn’t run an play, he served as a perfect audience for the youngster. Always willing to “Watch this!”, and with the patience to endure endless stories, “Grampy” gave her free time in her schedule almost every day now. Grandfather and grandson had formed a bond that touched Peter. He and his father had spent years banging heads and the boy had strengthened their relationship, too. It had been a wonderful change for them all.

“You know Grampy is always glad to see you. You don’t have to wait here. Go check if he’s awake and go see him.”

Stewie shook his head emphatically.

“I’m not lookin’ to see Grampy. He don’t feel good. So he’s sleepin’. He told me to keep my eyes open. To watch.”

Peter Johnson frowned, looking towards the door at the end of the hall. The boy tired the old man most days. It wasn’t unusual for Peter to find him taking a nap just before dinner. This watching game was new, however. His father liked to tease the boy, but it was always in fun. This felt mean and that was worrisome in a completely different way. Peter kept an eye out for any further changes in his father’s health, especially mentally. Since the move, and the interaction with the boy, Robert had seemed to improve mentally. During a discussion with the older man’s doctor, Peter had been told that these changes can happen suddenly. He turned his attention to the boy again.

“Watching for what, big guy?”

The boy’s eyes flicked to the side to look at him for a second or two. Then back.

“Gremlins.”

Peter was back to his own childhood in an instant. Gremlins. He was roughly Stewie’s age when the old man had told him that story. When Peter walked past the end of the hallway, or through any dimly lit place, he thought he saw things. Just in the corner of his eye were faces. They grinned and made faces at him from corners and doorways. If he looked toward them, they disappeared. Finally, he asked his father about the little faces he could see out of the corner of his eye. He expected to be told it was nothing, but to his surprise, his father took him seriously.

“You can only see them in the corner of your eye, right. If you turn to look they’re gone.”

He remembered, nodding solemnly. Exactly. Robert Johnson told his son they were gremlins, small spirits that lived where people did. They were mostly harmless, just playing tricks like moving things around so you couldn’t find them when you need them. A gremlin would try to distract you so you might stumble or forget what you were doing. It became a family joke when things went wrong. “Damn gremlins!” He still caught himself saying it sometimes. He nodded to his son.

“Little guys, in the corners of your eyes, right?”

Stewie’s eyes grew larger and he nodded vigorously. “Grampy told me about ‘em. He says I need to watch.”

Peter smiled. Thank God, nothing worse than that. “Yeah, he taught me about them, too. I was just about your age.” He ruffled his son’s hair. “But they’re just silly little troublemakers. You don’t need to stand guard.”

Stewie’s face grew determined. He shook his head firmly as he settled back into position. “Grampy says they’re starting to gather. I have to watch for that.”

When gremlins gather. He hadn’t thought about that part of the story in years. One day when Peter was a few years older, his father had sat him down. There was a serious look on his face.

There was something he hadn’t told Peter about gremlins. He was too little then, but it was time for him to know. How many gremlins had Peter ever seen at once? The boy thought for a moment. Three. The most he had ever seen was three. His father nodded. That was good. He needed to notice; if he ever saw them start to gather in larger numbers, Peter should tell his father. Peter nodded solemnly again. What did it mean when they gather? Robert crouched in front of the boy, putting a hand on each shoulder. That moment, which he hadn’t thought about in years, was suddenly vivid again. His father looked him straight in the eyes.

“When gremlins gather, someone is about to die.”

A chill ran down Peter’s spine. “Tell me what happened today, Stewie.” The boy turned and looked at him.

“I walked by and saw about six of them. So I ran down to tell Grampy.”

Peter could see his son was upset.

“That’s when Grampy told me to watch.”

Peter stood up, staring down the hall.

The dark and empty hall that led to his father’s room.

“Tell me what you see now, Stewie.”

Please say nothing, please say nothing, the thought repeated in his mind as he stepped into the hallway.

“There are lots of them, Daddy. Dozens and dozens…”

Peter Johnson took a step into the hallway.

“Not that way, Daddy.”

He looked down at Stewie who was looking back at him now, tears streaming down his face. The boy’s arm was pointing toward the kitchen. Peter was confused for a second, then turned toward the living room. Mary Alice was gone. She must have moved while he was talking to the boy.

There was a crash in the kitchen.

Peter Johnson turned and ran.