Thursday, December 13, 2012

My high-flying muse

I had a student ask today why some lines, like Shakespeare's "something wicked this way comes", stick around and almost nothing else does.

"Good question," I replied. "I have no idea. But when I do have an idea, I'm going to write a book and fill it up with nothing but lines that stick."

She laughed, but I was totally serious--at least the over-reaching, irrational writer part of me was serious. And that's the part that comes out of me all too often.

You see, I have a sickness. I want every line I write to become an idiom in some distant tomorrow or far-flung culture. I want every phrase unique, every syntax choice surprising (but more effective for it!), every cliche unsexed (thanks, Lady Macbeth for that one). 

It's a chronic sickness I suffer. 

But there's hope for me, because I've noticed that writers I would call good don't try to hit everything a mile. They understand that there is a time--and it's most of the time, including right now--for the prosaic. Meaning is carried most effectively through clear writing, and the clearest writing is often the simplest and most mundane. Active voice is simple. Subject-verb- complement is simple. Short words tend to be simple words. 

O, but these are goads I kick against.

I want to write Augustan sentences--compound/complex sentences in passive and active voices. I want syntax that spins the head. That spins the head syntax I want! To heck with your short words. I want prefix and suffix, compounds, and much hyphenation. I want syllables!

Were it not an impertinence, I would demand the subjunctive mood!

Your pardon. The sickness grips me even now.

And yet, I have some clarity, for I can call to mind those extended times of health, when the high-flying muse is subdued. It's then I find that the gems in the plainest settings shine brightest, that there's something better in one or two good phrases punctuating a long, plain paragraph than in overwrought attempts to fill it up with more.  


Can you tell we're starting the Romantics unit this week? When that muse is subdued again, I'll re-write this post. 


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Sophocles is onto something

In Sophocles' play Antigone, the conscience of each character is fixed with the same message: submit to the gods, it says. The drama begins with this assumption,and then builds through two dynamics: 

1) All the characters are called to respond to the same moral dilemma; and...

2) Each character has a different ability to hear the message of the conscience. One hears it just fine. One is too fearful to hear it. And one is too prideful. 

Antigone, the central character (though not the tragic figure--that's reserved for one of the more confused) hears it clearly and acts as a sounding board for everyone else. As pressures are applied to the conscience-challenged characters, each is forced to come to terms with the disconnect between actions and what he or she knows is right. Both see the truth too late, but with drastically different consequences.

Sophocles was onto something. Like his characters in Antigone, we too have consciences with a fixed message: obey God, they say. And we too have other things obscuring the message. 

But where the play's characters are able to respond freely to their circumstances--one repeatedly ignores pleas to reason; the other, out of guilt, embraces the message of her conscience--we are not so free. Our ability to heed this particular message is dead, and only a work from God will animate it. 

"For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." ~Ephesians 2:8,9

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Writer's Habitat

British Lit is a survey course, so we jump from one period to the next. Usually the periods are divided at points of reaction to a previous movement. For example, the Romantics of the early 19th C. were writing in reaction against the rational strictures of the neoclassical folks before them. The Victorians were reacting against the Romantics, and the 20th C. began with writers throwing out the Victorians.

And so on...

But the interesting thing about what writers do right now is that they can never get the bird's-eye view that makes sense of their own work. It is only (with the exception of the few early Romantics who were consciously changing the literature of their time) by the perspective of distance and the establishment of the next big thing, that the current thing--the period I work in now--takes on identity. It is only when we're done with it that we can see what in the heck we were doing.

The writer in any age must be ok with groping along in the shadows. It is our habitat.

Friday, September 21, 2012

All Backwards at Work

I'm at work, and I feel all backwards. I'm teaching subjects and verbs.

At home we use a classical curriculum with our kids, which means, in part, that we cover the big historical periods in cycles: we spend a year on each: ancients, medieval, through the 1800s, and 1900 to today. Every four years, we start the cycle over so that if we do home educate our kids all the way through, they'll have seen each historical era three times.

But it's not just a repetition of content. It's a recursive return to the subject matter, meaning that they'll not only recognize it but bring to it an entirely different mind and set of skills. Imagine a spiral on an upward trajectory. Anything that is learned well is learned repeatedly. We take it in as beginners, attempt to apply it, fail, come back to the learning with a new perspective, then start all over.

But each time (if teaching and learning are happening), the application of the new knowledge is more effective. It's being handled by a different, older mind, resulting in higher achievement. Again, we go as far as we can with it, fail, and return to the learning to start again. This should be happening in the microcosm of a single lesson or unit and in the macro of a 12-year education. 

And while my public school colleagues are well-trained in the former, the public school bureaucratic machine has made the latter all but impossible. Worse than that--they've built a system so entrenched in old and humanistic dogma that they're working directly against it. We've lost the long view on education, and that is what I perceive as one of public education's greatest failures and biggest obstacles to meaningful reform.   

I spend much of my classroom time and energy teaching basic grammar--parts, that is. Parts of speech, parts of sentences, parts of paragraphs, and parts of essays. In pre-John Dewey days, these would have been handled in what was then called the "grammar" school, grades k-4. Those who chose to go on in their education would have been trained according to the dialectic method--question-and-answer driving curiosity and the innate desire to argue that inhabits every middle/junior high student. The high school years would then be for expression: the building of rhetorical skills, taking the parts and the pieces and the arguments and synthesizing them in increasingly sophisticated writing. This was the classical method: grammar, dialectic, rhetoric. 

But public (and most private) schools have flipped things around. Now students engage in expression during those first years when their minds are best suited for remembering parts. The middle years are more of the same, but here, as they're becoming more curious about the workings of the world and more adept at broader meaning, and as subjects are becoming more specialized, the parts gets introduced (like seeing a ball, bat, and glove for the first time just as you're being thrown into your first game. You'd learn how to play, eventually, but dang! that's a backwards way to do it). Then in high school, just when their brains are finally ready to write and create and persuade and build sophisticated arguments, just when they're ready to conquer the world, they're asked to memorize things. Things like formulas and dates and (cue the gag reflex) parts of speech.

Yes, some of that is necessary. Memorizing things will always be a necessary part of any educational setting, but at the high school level it should be the smallest part. It should characterize only the earliest years of formal schooling, not years 14-18. That's just backwards. And any high schooler could tell you that if he wasn't so busy memorizing vocab.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Counterfeit Assurances

It was the middle of fourth hour, around noon, when God interrupted me during silent reading with my students. Not with words, but with an impulse to pray. And not to pray for praying's sake, but to pray very specifically: for my 5-year old, Lewis, that God would protect him, that God would protect him while he rode his bike. I had four kids then and would usually pray for all if I prayed for one, but not this time. I would pray only for Lewis. So I prayed silently for a few minutes then taught my class.

When I got home later that day, my mom, who was watching the kids, met me as I got out of my car. She had a burdened look and said, "I have to tell you about something that happened today." Lewis, she explained, had bolted off the sidewalk into our busy street. He'd been on his bike. Cars coming from both directions had had to slam on their brakes to stop. It had scared my mom so badly that she felt she had to confess it now and still looked sick about it some four hours later. I asked her what time this had happened. They'd been on their way back for lunch. "Around noon," she said.

Evidences of God's provision abound in my life, not because I'm super spiritual (not even sure what that means) but because I'm weak and dim-witted and need my eyes knocked open. Most of the time the effect is good--I see God's hand and am edified. On my better days I tell people about it and God is glorified. 

But a dangerous effect of God moving dramatically in my life is that I come to depend on it. I don't mean depend on as in I count on it happening often (seeking experiences for their own sake would be bad), nor do I mean that I'm depending on God himself (that would be a very good thing). Rather, I find myself depending on the visible providence itself, pointing to it as a proof of God's favor. Not in so many words, of course--I would never say, "Remember when God did that wild thing for me way back when? I must be right with him!"--but in an attitude and an unconscious posture.  And I sometimes feel the counterfeit assurance that's rooted in such thoughts.

It's a dangerous way to think.

Saul may have bought this lie too. In 1 Samuel 10 we read that Samuel anointed Saul as God's chosen, that Saul was filled with God's spirit and made into a different person. The Bible says that God "changed Saul's heart." That's conversion language. Early in Saul's rule over Israel this seems to have been confirmed as God came to his aid mightily and helped him deliver his people from their enemies. 

Then came the spiraling down. Saul sets up a monument to himself, disobeys God and lets Agag live. He lets his soldiers take items devoted for destruction and tries to lie his way out of the sin. For these, the Lord rejects him as king. But things get worse: he tries to skewer David three times, swears to kill him, kills the priests of Nob, and threatens his own son with death. Yet after all that, we read this remarkable passage: "So Saul went to Naioth at Ramah. But the Spirit of God came even on him, and he walked along prophesying until he came to Naioth."  

This catches when I read it, and my first thought is to wonder why God would fill a man with his spirit if not to save him? I wonder if God's Saul Project just failed. But I don't wonder these things for long. I know that God fails at nothing, and that no one is to blame but Saul. 

And then I ask myself a better question: If I had been in Saul's shoes, what would I have made of it? The answer to that one is simple: I know what I would have done in his shoes because I've been there. I would have taken it as a sign of God's favor and gone on boldly in the same direction. I would have taken it as approval of the life I was living. After all, that's pretty heady stuff, being anointed by Samuel, being made into a new man. I probably would have thought I was locked in. 

God's purposes are his own, and how he chooses to manifest himself to his creation must never comprise the basis of our faith. I must point to no miracle in my life to say, "That's how I know I'm justified!" I can--and must!--point to Christ and his work. I can point to words like these: There is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved or to these: he who believes has eternal life and will not be condemned. That he moves close to us and in a visible way--rescuing our kids from danger, say--should be encouragement for the Christian, but it should no more assure us of true faith, than Saul's prophesying should have assured Saul.

Don't hear me wrong--I am deeply thankful for God's intervening mercies. Answers to prayer should be made much of. Whether they're sudden and visible, or slow and behind-the-scenes, they're all "miraculous." But when I point to them it must never be to show how good I am, but to show how good God is.


Monday, November 7, 2011

The Future of Publishing? I'm Hopin'

I'm probably the last on our block to realize this (and I live on a block of hicks), but the paper-and-ink publishing industry is dying.

No no, you say, people love books. They love the feel of books. They like paper and bookmarks and dog-ears. They like to cuddle with them in front of the fire. They share their intimate thoughts with them in highlights and exclamation points and notes in the margin. Heck, they even like that musty, old-book smell.

I know. I'm the same way. I love books.

But they're dying anyway. It's inevitable.

Look at what's happened already in the last year or two. E-reader users didn't like to scroll. They wanted to turn the page, so the e-reader makers listened. Now they flip and you don't even have to lick your fingers. And no one liked the look of the e-readers. It wasn't like real pages. It wasn't book-like. But have you seen a good one lately? They look great, clearer than paper, and you don't need light.

And people are voting with their dollars. Amazon recently announced that ebooks, for the first time ever, have out-sold hardcover books. Paperbacks, no doubt, are next. The market share of ebooks in the overall publishing sector has gone from 1% in 2008 to 3% in 2009 to 10% in 2010. I won't plot that on a chart right here, but if you can picture a graph going up like a skate ramp, you're on the right track.

But maybe the most telling piece of data is this one: people aren't going back. Talk to a Nook, Kobo, Sony, Kindle, or iPad reader--they're utterly, unapologetically sold-out to e-reading. And they're just blazing the trail for you and me. Oh yes, we'll be there too some day. The only way I can read an actual book in the morning is if I wear two pair of glasses at the same time. Seriously. And I look just as stupid as you're picturing me. An e-reader would fix that problem (it will fix it when I finally break down and get one--I was also the last on my block to get a cell phone, but I got one).

Anyway, all of this to say that as a bumbling author, I'm encouraged. Because as the book-printing part of this industry dies, so does the front-office part. The gatekeepers in this new game won't be the old guard. It won't be some intern with an English degree fishing manuscripts from a slush pile. It will be readers who'll decide whether something is or isn't worth reading. It will be the free market at work.

Of course, in another way the author's work will be harder. In the old paradigm, agents and publishers (if you could get them to take a risk on you) took most of the burden of book promotion. But today's author is on his own. For example, he'll have to plug his new e-books (click here for The Cornshuck Memoirs, here for Boy Soldier,  here for A Sword for The King, and here for The Left Foot Says, "GLORY!") all by himself, at every opportunity, and in creative and winsome ways.

But I'll probably be the last on the block to learn those tricks too. Oh well. If it's anything like e-readers and cell phones, I'll eventually see the light.