Category Archives: essays

A Case for Fiction [Guest Post]

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As promised, I now introduce you to a good writer-friend, Bryn Clark. Bryn is known for his witty remarks and excellent memes (if you want to see those, head on over to his blog, allmyroads.com). I hope you enjoy his thoughts on the purpose of fiction.

 

A couple years ago, I finished my college degree. Normally, I hesitate to share more information. Because when I tell people I majored in English their reaction consists of one of three things: a) either they instantly think of the last book they read and then decide that if since I haven’t read it I am somewhat of a cretin and my education must not be valid (“where’d you go to school again?”), b) they tell me it is imperative that I read said book, it will change my life and c) they ask how long I’ve been working at Starbucks.

Now, rest assured, this is not another rant about “how I’m under appreciated” and “why English majors should get paid more” although I am and we should. But rather, I want to make the terrifically under-spoken point that you should all read more fiction than you do and you should certainly read more than the novel you’re currently recommending.

Now, there are scientifically proven social benefits for picking up a good novel (such as not sounding like an idiot when your boss references Melville or preventing you from telling an English major that they need to read Twilight) but those aren’t my focus today. Instead, I want to point out why you should read fiction, not just for fun, nor relaxation, social awareness or because the cute girl on the other side off the coffee shop happens to love Steinbeck. Rather, you should read fiction because your soul depends on it.

And I’m serious. Stop laughing.

To understand why fiction is important, we must first explore the concept of story. This is a notion that has been lost in our society. While no one today seems to think that “stories” have been abandoned, they have been, at the very least, abused. I say this because in an age of Twitter, Sparknotes and 30-second attention spans, our culture is suffering from intense story depravation. This is a vague notion to try and attach a statistic too, but in a recent poll, it was found that 42 percent of college graduates didn’t read another book after graduation. Furthermore, 80 percent of US families did not buy a book in the last year and of those who did take the great plunge and purchase one…57 percent of new or recently purchased books were not read to completion. Compare this to the number of people who access Twitter or update their Facebook status on a daily (or even hourly) basis, and you’ll see discontinuity. Its not because we don’t have time.

And to say that losing story would be a bad thing is an understatement. Whether you want to start with the epics of ancient Greece, which it is estimated were first written down in the 8th century BC (although they were an oral tradition for centuries before that), or cave drawings from the Aurignacian period in Spain dating back 40,000 years ago, we can all agree that story is nothing new. The art of storytelling has been cherished, taught and valued since the dawn of time.

And this isn’t a coincidence

Because the concept of story is universal; it’s in our DNA. A story isn’t just: “hey, let me tell you a what happened to me” or “this is how I felt after watching the Olympics”; they are not limited to the explorations of self that post-modernity preaches and are most commonly presented today. Rather, stories are a chance to venture outside of our egocentric realms and into something that is beyond us. They are, to paraphrase Cornelius Plantinga, a thousands pairs of glasses with which to see the world. Through stories I can begin to experience the Universal rather than what is subjectively important to me. In any language of the world, in any culture, tradition, time period- you name it- the idea of story is one that registers with people on one level or another. And although the forms of story change, though the tongues and traditions in which they are passed down can alter and vary across cultural lines, there are certain aspects to a story that always exist.

“Evidence!” you say. “We demand evidence!”

Okay, for instance every story must have a protagonist, antagonist and conflict. In other words, in every story there is someone or something that seeks someone or something and is prevented by someone or something from attaining the someone or something to which the aforementioned someone or something was striving.

Sorry, was that not helpful?

Okay, let me try this. If I encountered you on the street and said “I have a story for you!” then proceeded to inform you “I just bought a coffee” you’d look at me like I was Captain Ahab in the middle of your high school prom.

Because although I did tell you something, it sure wasn’t a story. Now if I had said: “Today I went to get some coffee and when I pulled into the parking lot I nearly ran into the light pole before getting out and tripping over my shoelaces on my way inside where I proceeded to make a fool out of myself by ordering a ‘small’ coffee at Starbucks (and ‘oh hey another English major!’)” then there are all the aspects of a story: the protagonist (me), the conflict (wanting to get coffee) and the antagonist (my perpetual ineptitude).  Thus, I told you a story. Although the cultural aspects of the story wouldn’t be the same if I were relaying this in, say, India, the elements of the story would still be present.

“But,” you say, “That isn’t fiction. In that example you’re discussing something that actually happened to you, and therefore we’re not talking about fiction. I understand that story is important, but why are fictional stories important?”

Here’s how: on the first day of my sophomore British literature class, my professor stood up in the room and opened with the following proposition: “fact needs fiction to survive.” I needed no further justification or explanation. The sun will rise each morning, politicians will never get along and fact needs fiction to survive.  Of these, I am convinced.

Because fiction is the color between the lines in a painting; it’s the harmony accompanying the melody of reality. It’s the third dimension of a scenic landscape, the focusing of a camera lens on a child’s smiling face. Fiction is the oxygen in the atmosphere of intellect, the chemistry between the bride of this world and beloved in the next and the salt in an ocean of life.

Without fiction, fact wouldn’t just be degraded, downplayed or lessened; rather, it would lose its very substance. Because within every work of fiction we find universal aspects of story. But rather than these aspects of story having been grasped or acquired from a previously existing notion (as is the case with non-fiction), they are being presented through the creation of one’s imagination. Thus, the imagination of an individual is creating artwork with subjective and aesthetic qualities, which at the same time feature universal elements. Not universal in it’s meaning, application or significance, but universal in it’s substance. Fiction is a created thing that appeals to a universality, which must be traced back to a Universal Source, which, for the sake of the argument, let’s call “God”.

What I’m saying is that fiction is a soul’s adventure among the mind of God, a role that fact alone cannot fulfill. Every fictional work into which we step is like us taking the hand of another and walking into the wardrobe of their creation en route to a journey with God we couldn’t have experienced otherwise. If you didn’t catch that reference then you really, really ought to take this post to heart.

“But”, say you, “what about fictional books that make a case against God? What about books of depraved morality, objectionable material? How can you say that God is present in those?” It’s simple. Because even within these books the elements of story (and thus universality) have been conjured up by a creative spirit and thus point to God. Furthermore, there’s no piece of fiction in existence that doesn’t deal with conflict. Try and present a piece of fiction in a writer’s workshop that doesn’t feature conflict and the answer will be akin to my boss at Starbucks when I called a “tall” “small”: “What da hell are you thinking?” Trust me, I’ve tried both. It doesn’t fly.

So every story has conflict. If conflict exists, then there must exist a right and a wrong. Within such, we can accept that there must be good and bad. If this universal “good” or “bad” exists, then a Being that determines and governs that universality must exist.  This is not to say that all fictional works bring glory to God, or that they necessarily ought to be read. Some fictional pieces are the equivalent of taking someone’s hand and being led to play Frogger on the crowded interstate of their utterly confused and misguided reality (seriously, have you ever sat in on an undergraduate writing workshop? It makes Alice In Wonderland read like Anglican liturgy). But even within these train-wrecked works, the elements of story intrinsically point to the existence of a Universal.

Take for instance (and I really can’t believe I’m doing this), Twilight…that one book you keep insisting that I must, must read. Now there are countless reasons why Twilight sucks, and I simply haven’t the energy to address that now. With its gross quantities of sucktitude in[CH1]  mind, however, there is all the more reason for me to use it as an example. Because within Twilight, there is a conflict between good and evil (although both sides are vampires, go figure). There’s another conflict over the love Bella has (depending on the millisecond) for Jacob and Edward. I’m sure there’s more, but after a while I gave up looking and started drinking. Despite the blurry lines, there is still undeniable conflict and thus a struggle between good and evil throughout the saga. Each clash between the two forces appeals to the reader’s sense of the Universal and thus has them gripped and rooting for some force to win. Amidst shouts of “Team Jacob!”, “No! Edward glitters!” and tight fisted grips of millions of pubescent girls (at heart) around the world, you have a readership that is drawn into a work of fiction and exposed to the Universal. Thus, Twilight, in all its depravity, is still the product of a creative mind that (albeit, in limited capacity) points to a universal truth and likewise a universal God.

If you take nothing away from this other than the fact that I completed an English degree with a good dose of snobbery and a chip on my shoulder then please take this: fiction is the act of another taking our hand and leading us into a previously non-existent realm. It’s the journey of our souls towards a land we would never have explored otherwise. Our souls need this adventure. We need these dances with the almighty, guided dives into the depths of universal truth that, though never understood, must always be explored.

Each piece of fiction, in its own way, is such a venture, and for that alone is worth the effort of a quick read. If you need recommendations: don’t hesitate to ask your neighborhood friendly English major (aka Barista). Whatever the case, do your soul a favor and start reading fiction today.

Also, I should get paid more. Oh, and, yea…here’s your Cappuccino.

 

 

Bryn Clark studied English Writing at Wheaton College outside Chicago. He actually does not work at Starbucks (they wouldn’t hire him) but is currently pursuing a Masters of Divinity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is continually fascinated with the link between theology and literature as well as anything by Marilynne Robinson or Bill Watterson. Follow his blog at allmyroads.com.

What Do You Want Your Story to Be?

I was addicted to stories. I devoured them, one after the other, bending and folding paperbacks with abandon, dog-earring corners, underlining words that were beautiful, words that were true. Young heroines like Emily of New Moon and Betsy from the Betsy-Tacy books taught me how to be spunky and creative. It wasn’t long before I was weaving plots for hours on a 1995 Gateway computer in my bedroom.

I remember wanting other kinds of stories, too. Sitting at the dinner table long after all the food was eaten, we’d beg my father to tell us stories about his childhood. (My mother’d always shake her head when we asked her, saying she didn’t have any stories. I still find this hard to believe.) Dad’s stories often involved fish, foolish things my dad had tried because he was “curious.” The time when he was three and took the goldfish out of the tank “to look at it” is a classic; I can still picture the poor thing gasping on the living room carpet, the victim of an over-active mind and not quite enough supervision.

My mother’s friend from college told us good stories, too. I remember most the one of her throwing cherry tomatoes over the railing and hitting guests. Oh, and the one with blood-engorged ticks (who could erase that memory?!). And the one when the dog ate rising bread dough and its stomach rose with it, waddling proof that dogs do not know what’s best for them.

I grew up on stories.

The voices brought people alive, my great-great-grandfather and his stern Maine-ness. My grandpa whom I’d known but only awhile, breathed again when we talked about his stories of growing up on a fox farm. As I listened and began to craft stories of my own, I realized that one day, I too would have stories to tell my children.

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What do you want your story to be?

[He asks from the pulpit, and I think, I’ve been thinking about this all along.]

When you write your story, think about how it affects others.

When you write your story, make it one you want to tell.

This is the one sentence that rang through the sanctuary, hanging in the air, making the skin on my arms prickle with its truth.

Even though I’ve discovered the repercussions of writing a life before living it, here I was reminded that sometimes we need to shape the life we’re given. Yes, things happen beyond our control, and yes, sometimes we ache from those uncontrollables. But more often than not, we have choice.

I get to choose what story I’m living, and I get to make it one I want to tell.

~     ~     ~

I will tell about early Christmas mornings, all four of us huddling in one bedroom because we wanted to share it that one day. The lights from the tree bouncing off the mirror in the hallway. About waiting for the cousins to come and longing for the day to never end. They will ask where our traditions come from, and I’ll smile and tell them the story.

I will tell about riding horses in the sun and feeling powerful.

I will tell about discovering Laura Ingalls for the first time, about raising chickens and gardening, the plethora of projects done in the name of sustainable living.

I will tell about late-night summer man-hunts when hormones ran rampant and we didn’t know what to do with them so we ran, too.

I will tell about choosing a college and not being sure but doing it anyway. I will tell about loneliness and fear, about trying hard and singing hard and learning. They will ask about friends and making friends, about trying to love. I’ll tell about walks around the pond where so much got twisted around and sorted out.

I will tell about graduating and reeling in my own mind. About disappointments and mis-steps that, while not destroying definitely left me feeling useless. About dark months in winter when I was learning to trust and hating every minute of it.

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And my most recent stories? They’ll include the discovery of joy. The summer we all lived at home again and spent our evenings on the back porch. Riding with the top down in my car, fearing the day when I’ll have to say goodbye to this lovely little bug that’s taken me so many places. Finding a church that allows me to be the silly, too-immature-for-small-group girl I sometimes am. Growing in friendships that have challenged me, shaped me, and made me think deeper than I ever could have thought on my own.

My story isn’t done, but I finally feel like I am choosing it.

Diner Talk

My mom used to tell me stories of her diner-waitressing days. She started working at 15, a young, “apple-cheeked” smiler who (of course) began her first shift by spilling all over a policeman. She worked there all through high school and even into college. She talks about the man who came in every day, three meals a day, ever since his wife died.

“He used to make his tattoo dance for us,” she says, and I picture a wrinkly old arm tattoo shaking and jiving on the diner counter.

I thought, growing up, that I would work at a diner, too. I guess I thought I’d do most things my mother had done, and in the same order. But the little diner in my town would have none of it. [“Do you have experience waitressing?” “No, but I’m a fast learner.” “Sorry, no thanks.” And I was out on the streets.]

A second chance came, however, after college graduation. [I know! You’re not supposed to work at diners when you have a college degree! Well, guess what? Life doesn’t always end up the way you expect it to.]

I walked in on a rainy day in October looking for a part-time job to supplement my wonderful job at the tea shop. It was spur-of-the-moment, prompted by my love of this particular diner’s grilled cheese on homemade bread.

I sat down with Nick, the owner, and he asked me about three questions:

“Do you have experience waitressing?”

“No, but I’m a fast learner.”

“Are you good with people?”

“Yes!”

“Can you start Monday?”

“Definitely.”

You know what landed me that job, the one that no college-grad is supposed to want, but the one that I couldn’t wait to start?

I smiled.

No joke.

Nick leaned back in his chair and said, “I really like that smile.”

And I laughed awkwardly because what do you say to something like that?

“No, seriously,” he said. “I just fired a girl yesterday because she walked around like a dead person. None of the customers liked her. It was terrible. Keep that up and you’ll be great.”

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What is it about smiles that gets people?

I am totally victim to a good smile. After height (over six feet? thank you very much!), smiles are the first thing I notice about men. But women, too, really. Think right now about the people you know – which ones do you picture smiling? They’re probably the same ones you enjoy spending time with.

Babies mimic faces, but they’re not the only ones: look at a person smiling, and you’ll find it hard not to smile, too. It’s contagious. And beautiful. And who doesn’t want to be with someone who’s joyful?

Did I smile every day I was at the diner?

Yeah, but I didn’t always feel like it.

That’s another thing, though – the act of smiling produces the feeling of happiness.

And as I start this month of September, my second year teaching, I remind myself of this. Happiness and joy can be contagious things, and smiling is a way to spread them. I’ve been growing out of my melancholy stage, and the light at the end of it is beautiful.

Try it on. It looks good.

Snapshots of a Friendship

One time we made a cake just like Laura Ingalls’s wedding cake. We beat the eggs against a wooden cutting board with forks, “to be authentic.” It wasn’t very good.

We used to have pinecone fights in the neighborhood, run around gathering the wet, sharp cones and then hurl them mercilessly at the other team. We loved it, but the neighbor kids told their parents and we were outcast. We thought at least we were better than our dad and his friends, who used to throw hard little acorns at each other.

Once, in the woods, we all crawled through frozen underbrush to the little stream that had frozen over. It was the coldest it had ever been. We slid on our bellies along the ice, the tall snow-bent weeds hanging over us to make a canopy. We’re like seals, I said.

Man-hunt. The game of summer nights and over-excited pre-teens. We raced around town with flashlights, screaming, scared and exhilarated. She had a crush on the neighbor boy, so that made night-time chasing even more fun.

We used to talk about when we grew up, getting married. She said I’d definitely be in her wedding. I said she’d definitely be in mine. She said she wanted to be seventeen. I said, Oh my gosh, no.

She invited me to Starbucks in September, offered to pay. I should’ve known.

Will you be my Maid of Honor?

I sipped my caramel macchiato.

Yes, I will be your Maid of Honor.

Every December, we had a Christmas Feast. We filled stockings for each other, wrapped up inexpensive gifts, baked a little chicken (with Mom’s patient help). Every year we would string popcorn and cranberries, watch “White Christmas,” and drink hot chocolate with homemade whipped cream.

This December, we will go dress shopping. I will sit quietly as she tries on dress after dress. I will watch her and think about throwing pinecones at each other, concocting terrible plays about wilderness adventures, walking to get ice cream on summer afternoons.

Her mother and sisters and I will laugh and chat while she’s in the dressing room. We will marvel at the passing of time, the beauty of her smile, her excitement.

It feels like the blink of an eye since we were little girls. Thank goodness she waited til twenty-three.

[Essay on Beginnings]

I had the best nap of my life. Everyone had told me, “Whatever you do, don’t let yourself sleep. Push through. It’s worth it.” But after showering the grime of three airplanes and a VW van off my body, I suddenly found myself lying on the thin mattress in my hostel bedroom, the Salzburg sun streaming over me. I smiled in my cloud of wet hair and fell into the deepest sleep I’ve ever had. I didn’t toss and turn like usual; my insides were weighted down to the bed like an anchor, and when I woke up, I knew where I was but I still did not believe it. My first day out of the country and I’d slept three hours gloriously away.

I remember other things about my first day in Austria: the walk I took – alone, American, enchanted, and floating – along the street lined with trees and open fields speckled with feathery white flowers. I thought they were edelweiss, only to find out later they were weeds no one cared about. For one afternoon I lived in an edelweiss dream, and if I’d had a wicker basket on my arm I would have been swinging it. I bought a loaf of rosemary bread and a small carton of blueberries to satisfy my overdue appetite. I felt like a dimwit when I couldn’t figure out how to open the sliding glass door of the supermarket (turns out I couldn’t open it because it was a wall). And the late arrival of my roommate and good friend, her toes dirty from travel, but her eyes alight with Munchen stories.

~     ~     ~

I’ve always been fascinated by beginnings, by first things. Maybe that’s why I have a whole computer and numerous notebooks filled with witty story-starts, left to dangle in time, either through my quick boredom or my fear of lying. Because that is what I feel like sometimes – I must only write what I see, not what I make up – and all I ever see are beginnings of things. My friends who are artists and writers do not understand this, and really, I don’t either. Isn’t everything we create something we “make up”? And yet the best writing I’ve done is of the things I have seen clearly, the rooms that create themselves with plush red couches and pottery mugs filled with coffee. Whenever I try to make my own rooms – my own characters – they seem false and flat. Even when I see a character clearly, when I see her desires, her hair, her intense way of speaking, I do not always see much more than that, and it is always harder for me to finish stories than start them. This worries me sometimes, if I start thinking too much. Then I calm my over-excited self by telling her, You’re only young, you know. You haven’t really had many endings, so how could you see them?

The truth is, though, that I’ve had plenty of endings. That day in Salzburg was over in a flash, leaving itself in my mind in yellows and golds and freshness that few other days have given me. Over thirteen years have passed since the death of my grandfather; those long months of his illness are blurry and sharp at the same time. I’ve seen relationships change that I never thought would end, and I’ve struggled to grant forgiveness even when I haven’t been asked for it. I’ve experienced the end of four long years of studenthood – complete with rushed papers, devoured books, and attempts at lofty poetry. This move away from academia is without a doubt the largest change (and harshest ending) of my life. I am stepping out on the path to adulthood, and I’m not sure I like it. I bucked at the idea of moving home, and now that I am here, I close my eyes against the reality that I need to leave soon. I no longer have a classroom to sit in, a professor to meet with, or a project to put off until the night before. I have glossed over all the hardnesses that have littered the last four years, and I’ve shaped my college experience into a beautiful, winding, light- filled laughing thing that siren-calls to me, Do not let this go. You were never so happy, and you will never be so happy again. This is probably the first time I am dwelling on an ending instead of a beginning; it’s a lot easier to feel unchanged when you are looking back than looking forward. But there is little difference between “unchange” and “stagnation,” and I must constantly fight to keep myself out of that place.

I know that endings have a kind of beauty, and I know that the ending of childhood has a melancholy beauty all its own: the close of dependence, the close of naivete, and the lifting of the burden we all feel to be different from who we are. While I can attest to the value of endings, I still think I’ll always prefer the mystery and newness of a beginning. Not only does the beginning hold unknown (and therefore, full-of-potential) events, but you don’t know who you will become in the upcoming story, either. I love beginnings because of the horizonless hope they provide. You do not see the endlessly long plane ride back from Vienna to Boston. You do not see the overwhelmingly sad break-up that leaves you wishing you’d never embarked on the risk in the first place. You do not see that what you’d been studying for years to perfect is, after all, far more difficult than you’d thought. What you see is the world laid out before you, stretching stretching and beckoning you to jump in.