Story-shaped lives

If you've checked out my About Me page, you will know that I am a pastor in addition to being a wanna-be author of fiction.

About a month ago, one of the blogs I read recommended this book, Grace Without God by Katherine Ozment

Wonderful book. Thought-provoking. Written by a woman who describes herself as a None, a person who does not belong to any particular faith community although she was raised in the Christian tradition.

A person can be spiritual without belonging to a religious community. But (remember, I'm a pastor and therefore biased) how does spirituality develop, mature, and become action if not through the relationships nurtured within a faith community--whether it be church, synagogue, mosque, or temple. How can the stories or tenets of our faith be fully understood if our interpretation is not challenged or confirmed.

Faith can be shallow if we only have yes people around us. Faith can be destructive if a narrow parameter of what is God is fenced around us. 

I have not finished reading this book yet but my attention was particularly engaged through her chapter titled, Moral Authority.  

My muddied thoughts or take-away from that chapter:  

If we believe stories from ancient texts no longer have meaning for us today, what will pull at or draw a commitment from individuals or groups to be concerned for the other, to give of their time or money, to seek justice and love kindness. If we do not care to become steeped within a common story or narrative, are at danger of becoming narcissistic people? 

We are a story people, whether the stories are autobiographical or historical or fictional. Stories shape us and form us, whether written as poetry or prose. What stories do you reread? Those stories, and their underlying themes and subtexts, shape you. 

As a teen, I listened to John Denver songs over and over, and over and over and I'm sure my parents wished they had never introduced me to him!  But through his songs (and our family camping and canoeing trips), I developed a deep abiding affection for earth. I try to live a life that is sustainable, green, simple, minimalist, a lifestyle which focuses my money and my time on relationships with people rather than necessitating overtime hours in order to pay or care for things that I've purchased. 

Growing up, I heard many Bible stories and, especially the stories about Jesus, many were repeated. After being social worker for several years, I went to seminary and studied those same Bible stories. For 20 years I have preached from the Bible. Those stories tell us so much about the people of that time--what was important to them, how they perceived God, how their faith shaped their tribe, and how their understanding of God changed through the generations. 

At any rate, I encourage you to check out this book if you're at all interested in spirituality and how religion affects the broader fabric of our nation. 

Focus. Goal. Plan.

I'm new to my house and for the past couple of summers I've taken pictures of my gardens so I can see the changes and feel like I've accomplished something. 

Year 1: The orange tiger lilies after they had bloomed--late summer. A bit weedy. And the harebells were falling into the grass. 

Year 1: The orange tiger lilies after they had bloomed--late summer. A bit weedy. And the harebells were falling into the grass. 

Year 2:  Ahhh! Weed free. And tidy! You can tell it's May. I left the lilies and harebells and added bee balm. 

Year 3:  Red bee balm and purple harebells in July. The harebells are restrained with a wire tomato cage to keep them from getting wild and tipping into the lawn. 

Year 3:  Red bee balm and purple harebells in July. The harebells are restrained with a wire tomato cage to keep them from getting wild and tipping into the lawn. 

I found it so interesting to see the different looking wall behind the flowers. I have not painted it. But it faces the east and I took the bottom picture in the morning.

Did I have a grand plan for this little garden? Outside of tidying it up and figuring out what colors I wanted, I did not have a particular grand plan. But now I see that bumble bees love to crawl inside the harebells and ruby-throated hummingbirds sip at the bee balm.

Having been out of flower gardening for awhile, I had forgotten about these beautiful side effects (and in the case of the bees, the potential hazard!) 

Is this garden done evolving? For the near future, yes. I've other areas of the yard and other gardens to put my primary focus on now and I have added inspiration and impetus! 

An analogy to being storytellers? In writing, our voice, the character point-of-view and the setting color the story. With a specific end in mind, there are small steps, small plans to support the plot movement towards that ending. And being absorbed in the story we wish to tell is just as thrilling as working with a flower garden.

Happy 4th

The yellow flowering bush is a coreopsis. Perhaps a moonbeam coreopsis? This is a planting from mom's garden. It's a drought-tolerant perennial that the butterflies and bees love. And I just read that goldfinches like the seeds in fall. 

And the tall plants with big leaves and clustered purple flowers are milkweeds. Monarch butterflies need milkweeds to lay their eggs and, as caterpillars, they eat the leaves. I am happy to see this plant and will make sure their seeds "drift" to other garden areas! 

Book Review

Last week I finished reading This House is Mine by Dörte Hansen, a debut writer. The book is translated from German by Anne Stokes.  The German title is Altes Land.

The story's primary timeline follows an East Prussian refugee, Vera von Kamcke, whose mother flees with her at the end of World War II. Vera is 5-years-old when her mother leaves behind their manor house in the Mazuria Lake region to find refuge in a little farm village in the Hamburg area of Germany.

The modern timeline centers on Vera's niece, Anne, who is also a refugee of sorts, from a trendy neighborhood in Hamburg. She is newly divorced and seeking refuge with her son.

We also meet Vera's neighbors in the farm village and become acquainted with Anne's deprivations and her struggles against her parents' and her own expectations. Vera and Anne become family for one another by a common experience of displacement.

The past and present timelines alternate but the points of view didn't always stay with Vera or Anne. And within a timeline strand, the story was not always chronological. I sometimes had difficulty with that but I am interested in East Prussian history (because of my novel setting and my family genealogy) and so I stayed with the book until the end.

I enjoyed the story and have gone back to reread parts of it. 

Vera's timeline intrigued me the most--her beliefs about the house she lived in, her mother's reaction to being a refugee, and Vera's manner of behaving in response to her circumstances. I appreciated the author's manner of disclosing the backstory of the specific events that happened to the mother and Vera as they fled before Stalin's army. The backstory was drizzled in just enough that I was hooked and wanted to read on to find out more.

The book also speaks to large themes: the effect of war on our ability to process (or not) our emotions, how we adapt (or not) to being marginalized, and the coping mechanisms we develop in order to survive.  And ultimately it is a book about being family in the midst of loss. 

Writing Pomodoro Style

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo using a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato. 

I first read about authors using this time management method to spur writing on the Writers Write blog and more recently on Elizabeth Spann Craig's blog. 

Do I use it to write? Loosely. I don't use a ticking timer. But since the beginning of this year I do have a schedule for writing that I try to stick with. 

On the days when I'm not at the office, I write. 

When I was still creating my story and spilling it all out on paper, I did not use a timer method to measure how I did. I used word count to track how much I produced. But now that I'm adding layers and revising a story in draft form, I use the Pomodoro bursts. 

I'm a morning person. I like to sip my tea in the quiet and read through writer blogs as I wake up. But come 7 am? I write on my story or on this blog. I'll stay on task for roughly 45-minutes at a time and then take anywhere from a 5 to a 15-minute break.  I don't use a kitchen timer. I don't use an app. The small clock on my laptop helps me track my time. I'll keep at this until 1 pm.  

Having worked on my story for several years, I need to feel a sense of accomplishment. Novels are anywhere from 70,000 to 100,000 words. That's a lot of words, a lot of writing, and I want to know that I'm producing a story, that there is a forward movement with my story. So I like to measure myself. And yes, I track my measurements on excel spreadsheets! 

How about you? Do you have some writerly tricks of the trade to help you feel that you have moved forward with your story or your article during your day?

   

Selling Your Books

I had a blast! The Minnesota Conference United Church of Christ (UCC) had their weekend Annual Meeting. (Yup, that name--meeting--needs to change. It does not begin to encompass all that we do. For we also sang, danced, prayed, honored, celebrated, and listened to inspiring national keynote speakers and a local turnaround church preacher.)

For the purpose of this blog--hello author!--I will only talk about one small specific part. I sold six of my books, Disturbing Complacency: Preparing for Christmas.

One of the events of the weekend are the exhibits on Friday and Saturday. Table displays created by seminaries, SERRVUCC books, banners, and buttons, Turkish scarves, church camp items, etc. allow people to browse, talk with a representative, maybe pick up a brochure or sign up on an email list, and grab a bite of candy. 

Change and Conflict in Your Congregation (Even if You Hate Both) by Rev. Dr. Anita L. Bradshaw, Carnal Knowledge of God: Embodied Love and the Movement for Justice by Rev. Dr. Rebecca M.M. Voelkel, and Disturbing Complacency: Preparing for Christmas by Rev. Lisa Bodenheim.

Change and Conflict in Your Congregation (Even if You Hate Both) by Rev. Dr. Anita L. Bradshaw, Carnal Knowledge of God: Embodied Love and the Movement for Justice by Rev. Dr. Rebecca M.M. Voelkel, and Disturbing Complacency: Preparing for Christmas by Rev. Lisa Bodenheim.

This year for the first time, we had a local authors (and musician) table. What an excellent idea. Four of us of us were present but only two of us available to sit on this table with books from six authors and one musician.

Of course I didn't think of this idea. Pfft! I'm an introvert. Sit at a table with people milling around and try to talk about and ask for money for my book? But Rebecca, whose book just came out this year, is very much an extrovert and comfortable reaching out to other people in diverse milieus. 

It's that piece that made the table such a success for both of us and the other authors/musician. I have been a small church pastor, local and fairly centralized in this area (except for the two years I lived in Scotland). Rebecca is a theologian, pastor, and movement-builder. She has worked within the UCC national settin, leads workshops, and is Director of the Center of Sustainable Justice.  We knew different people. We hang out with different people. We attract different people. Lots of people stopped to visit with us.

And the best part of it was, when there wasn't anybody browsing at our table, we had each other or someone at the next table to talk with. There's a stimulating energy in the air when conversation happens and that draws people. 

New Book

Donna Everhart, author of The Education of Dixie Dupree, has another book coming out this fall, The Road to Bittersweet. And to whet our appetite, the first chapter is printed in Buzz Books 2017 Fall/Winter. Check it out!

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My book? Yesterday Janice Hardy's Fiction University blog had an extremely helpful hint for writers. It addresses a problems which I've struggled with.

I have a completed first draft, finally, of my novel. But my story still has a couple of plot holes even after running it, chapter by chapter, through crit partners.

Janice wrote about the difference between drafting and editing. And that has been part of my issue in filling those holes. I've been in edit/revise mode as I work on my draft. And then when I come upon the spot where the hole is, I forget to shift out of edit/revise into draft as I need to create new material.  

So yesterday, I worked on my manuscript. I tend to write skeletal so I added layers--internal thoughts, seeing the scene from the characters point of view--to a couple of chapters in the middle of my story, the Mirror Moment. And then I had a blank chapter. I knew what needed to go in there but I've been in editing and revising mode and I needed to create fresh material for that hole.  So I dove in! That new chapter needs work (lots of talking heads) but now I have something to work with and shape. 

Excitement!

I am so excited!!  I entered a flash fiction contest and was named as one of the finalists!

 

For sooooo long I have been entering Janet Reid's flash fiction contests and not receiving any type of mention. Nothing I wrote seemed to stand out above the crowd.  Not since 2015! 

Last week, Janet sorted through her 100th Flash Fiction entrees (that word is deliberate as Janet is also Query Shark and she knows how to chomp!) and named her top seven, gave her reasons why she had chosen the entry and then named a winner. I am jealous of the prize the winner received: a map book, Vargic's Miscellany of Curious Maps.

But, did I mention I'm so happy? 

For this contest, we had to use these words in our 100 word story:  gaze, scapegrace, forti, scram, fin. You can take a look at the winning entries here. There was a total of 84 entries which you can find towards the bottom of the page here. 

My story? Here you go:

Breakfast

He asks about her date. Happily, she chatters. I place the milk pitcher. By him.

“Scapegallows,” he insults. Of course. “He wouldn’t know a fortissimo from a finocchio.” He eats his cornflakes.

Our daughter gazes, blankly.

Angered, I touch her shoulder, “Fatherly humor.”

He rolls his eyes.

Stiff-backed, I sit, “Finish your breakfast, dear. How was the band?”

She shrugs.

Her cannolo remains untouched. Damn him. Patient, I sip my Italian Roast. He stands—slender and handsome as ever—and scrams. I accept his tainted kiss, airbrush-style this morning. He leaves. Scapegoat.

And now? Anticipation! “How was your date?”

If you're as sharp-eyed as some of the Reiders, you'll notice that in my editing and revising, I left out a required word. Rats! But, many of the commenters were gracious, telling me to be gentle with myself (my writerly insecurity came out) and things happen!

I was just so happy to be named a finalist, to hear Janet's take on something I had written. 

 

Wrestling

Does the writing life feel like a wrestling match?  Trying and trying to get those words on paper in a way that tells the beautiful/gory/heartbreaking story that lives within your imagination, in the very fiber of your being? 

My title was inspired by last week's column at Writer Unboxed with Porter Anderson.  He wrote about the war for attention. http://writerunboxed.com/2017/05/19/an-arms-race-of-monetized-distraction/

But, whereas, Porter Anderson writes about macro-attention time-stealers, I'm more about micro-timestealers. Getting caught up in facebook. Pfaffing over the worksheets I create for my story. Hopping over to my blog stats too many times. I can just imagine how rodent-wheeling I'll be once I start querying. I'll be hitting the refresh button on my email site every stinking second!  

And it's so easy to not let my focus go astray. Just open the word document to my current spot I'm working on and I fall in love with my story all over again and dig into it. Bringing out its shine the best way I know how at this moment in time. 

But, getting back to the Writer Unboxed column. He quoted one of the presenters there who spoke about the commodification and the commercialization of monetized attention. 

I don't know about you but that phrase is spooky. 

Is that all we're about anymore? Money? And with money as the bottom line (and yes, writers need to earn money too) along comes its brother and sister: commodification and commercialization.  

Those last two words feel so cold because all relationships have been taken out of them. And that's my objection: when money becomes the bottom line for how to conduct ourselves. Especially if we subscribe to the paradigm of scarcity.

If I believe in scarcity, there's only so much to go around and I'm going to hoard what's mine for me and my people.  If there's enough left for you after I get my fill, fine and dandy. If not, well tough cookies. The problem is--if we're not awake to the effect of money and it's power over us, we become slaves of money, greedy, avaricious. An antithesis to human relationships. 

I could go off on so many tangents with this article from Writer Unboxed. I found it thought provoking and I'm caught up in the realities of the war for attention, just to get my story written, let alone hoping it will someday grab readers' attention and hold them, in a nanosecond twitter world. 

 

 

Diversity conversations

Last week, Writer Unboxed printed a column about diversity. It was well-written and brought up the provocative Lionel Shriver keynote speech that provoked reactions and responses of outrage.

Columnist for the day, Keith Cronin, explores his own meanderings down the road of political correctness and cultural misappropriation.  

His article and the comments which followed were thoughtful, courteous, nuanced. If you're interested in this topic of conversation (which I am, obviously), I invite you to head over to Writer Unboxed to read the May 9th column and comments.