Keep Going by Austin Kleon 📚

An immensely helpful entry in Kleon’s growing practical philosophy for the working artist

“Keep Going” by Austin Kleon

My wife got used to the small creative experiments and exercises that I take up pretty early in our marriage. From fiddling with a Rubik’s cube to occasional collaging, and now to a steady flow of ideas for how to get our little ones engaged in making art, she entertains them all. And she’s even stopped asking me where they come from. Because she knows they almost always originate from the books and blog of Austin Kleon.

I’ve been a fan of Kleon’s since his first book, Steal Like an Artist was published in 2012. It came out at an interesting time for me. It was a time when I’d started writing again after several years off, and I was grappling with what that meant for my future. And it gave me a whole new view into what being a writer could—and perhaps should—be. That book profoundly shaped my creative process and the way I thought about making art. His next book was influential as well, but not to the same degree (though that’s a really high bar, to be honest). Needless to say, I’m thankful he wrote another.

Keep Going did not disappoint. I sat down yesterday and read it in two sittings. And I will start it again soon.

Kleon’s message is simple and right there in the title. For artists, the most important thing is to keep working. And after last year, that’s exactly what I needed to hear. But it’s more than just a simple piece of advice. Kleon advises his fellow artists to keep going that simple, practical, and inspirational. In the book he gives the reader 10 ways that an artist can persevere, day after day. These bits of guidance range from “Every Day is Groundhog Day” to “When in Doubt, Tidy Up.” But this book is not just full of practical advice. Kleon does something all too rare in the world of creativity, productivity, or (dare I say) self-help books, he manages to point the reader from the practicals to the bigger, philosophical issues at play. He does not start with some big, grand theory. Instead he starts with the practical, the everyday, and then leads the reader to bigger insights.

It was with this book that I realized Kleon is gradually building a fully fleshed out philosophical approach to creativity in the 21st century. Steal Like an Artist explains how artists and their voices are shaped and made. Show Your Work wrestles with the difficulties of getting art into the world, but also why the struggle is worth it. And in this installment, Kleon urges artists to persevere and he equips them with a mindset and the tools to do so. With this series of books, Kleon offers artists a very specific vision for creativity. And it’s a very good one. I for one hope he does not stop at only three books.

I am probably not an objective reviewer when it comes to this author, but I don’t really care. This book was immensely helpful and if you need a little push to keep making things, you should definitely pick it up.


The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser 📚

A joyful read that’s full of insight for new poets—and readers of poetry

Ted Kooser was Poet Laureate of The United States from 2004-2006. He is a professor of English at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, although for years he worked as an executive in the insurance industry (because even the best poets must have day jobs). He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winner and has published many collections of poetry. And with The Poetry Home Repair Manual he wrote one of the most approachable, practical, and joyful books on writing poetry that I’ve yet run across.

A friend of mine recommended this book to me a while back when I started writing poetry, and I was intrigued by the title right away. Who writes a book for beginning poets and styles the name as a home repair manual? Well, only a few pages in, I got it. The book is a repair manual. In it, Kooser will not teach you the basics of verse, rhyme, or rhythm. He does not lecture about forms. Of course, this is all ground that he covers, and he covers it well. But it’s not academic or theoretical. Instead he approaches poetry as he would a broken lawnmower or dishwasher. He helps the reader see what’s wrong, and then instructs you how to fix it by demonstrating how the thing is supposed to work. This unusual title is actually perfect for this book.

The book is a casual read, but more than that it’s a joyful read. Kooser is not only a good teacher, he is a great curator. He uses wonderful poems (more from other poets than his own, by my estimation) to illustrate his points. And some of the gems I discovered in this slim little book made this book worth it on their own. One great example is this poem by Frank Steele:

If you are interested in writing poetry—or just understanding it—this is a great place to start. As I am writing this review it’s hard for me to think of anything I didn’t like. The chapters are a good length, the whole book is not too long—which has encouraged me to re-read it—and the tone is perfect. If I was pressed to find something that another reader may not like, I would mention that Kooser’s advice lends itself well to his own particular style and voice. If you want to write poetry that is not about everyday life, earthy, and utterly human, maybe (maybe?) you wouldn’t find it useful. But honestly, I’d only make that observation if pressed. The truth is this book is a great place for a poet to start. It will help you find your voice, understand who you are, and write poems that are yours. And really, what more can you want from a book with the subtitle, “Practical Advice for Beginning Poets”?

I highly recommend this book. Honestly, if you are serious about your writing in any form or genre, I’d suggest that you pick it up. This book can help any writer connect with their readers and write with more power and feeling. And that’s a great thing for writers of all stripes.


Why Do Writers Long to Publish?

The power of subcreation in image-bearing artists

I can still remember how felt the first time something I wrote was published.

I was a freshman at Oklahoma State University, and I was in my second semester of journalism school. There was a pro-choice group who had lawfully erected a large political display on campus, and it had been vandalized one night. This was the first story I was assigned. I remember going to the organization’s meeting and being “that reporter from the O’Colly.” I remember being proud of giving fair coverage to an organization I did not agree with, and defending their freedom of speech.

But most of all, I remember exactly what it felt like to pick up the copy of the newspaper with my story in it.

I remember opening up the paper and finding the story. I remember reading my words in print. I remember getting up early in the morning to be there when the paper was delivered to my fraternity house. I remember the compliments from my friends, and my teacher mentioning it in class. It felt like such an accomplishment. As cheesy as it might sound, it was magical.

Why is that? Why is seeing your words—your name!—in print such a powerful experience for a writer?

Writing is an act of creation. While it can be easy to lose sight of sometimes, something magical happens when a writer sees their finished work on the page, or screen. When an article, a book, or even a blog post like this becomes reality, the writer has brought something new into the world. This is a powerful moment that never gets old for the writer.

This should not be surprising, because this is an aspect of our role as the imago Dei—the image of God. Genesis 1:26-27 tells us,

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

One of God’s purposes in creating humans was to represent him—to image him—in the world. He created us to share and demonstrate many aspects of his character, even though we do so imperfectly. One of the ways that we are like God is our capacity to create. Our ability to take many raw, disparate ingredients and combine and recombine them in interesting ways to make something new is a part of being made in the image of God. When we create, there is a shadow—or maybe better put, a spark—of the divine in that act. When we create, we are representing God.

But our acts of creation are not the same as God’s either, for He is God, and we are not. God creates out of nothing—ex nihilo—where we do not. Everything that we create uses God’s original creation as raw materials. Our creative acts are actually act of subordinate creation, acts which imitate Him and build upon His creation.

J.R.R. Tolkien coined the term “subcreation” in reference to the fictional worlds an author builds1. But his term is much more powerful than that application alone. All creative work done by human hands and minds is subcreation, because all of our materials—words, ideas, experiences, relationships, etc.—came from the sovereign God and Creator of the universe. There is nothing that we can dream up that did not exist in the mind of God first.

When we write, when we create, we are echoing God’s own creative acts. When our ideas come to life, and readers from around the world can pick them up, read them, and engage with our ideas, we are imaging God’s creative power to the world. And when we write with these truths in mind, when we create in the ways God intends, we glorify Him not only in our final work, but in our acts of creation.

God designed us to represent His creativity to the world. So, any time we write, build, or create something, that sub creative act is powerful. It’s magical. And it glorifies the true Creator, thereby fulfilling our purpose as artists and humans.

  1. Tolkien, John Ronald Ruel. “On Fairy-Stories.” 1939. 


Throwing Away Your First Draft Is a Great Idea

On the occasion of throwing out the first 14,000 words of a manuscript

Last month I shared the 8,000 of 14,000 words of a new project with my writing group. It was the first two chapters of a novel, just the beginning of the story really. With these two chapters I’d taken a risk. I tried something interesting and—at least to my mind—unique. I was excited about it, and I had high hopes for it. I really wanted it to work. But of course, it didn’t.

Aside from the usual first draft issues, the writing was pretty good and everyone was interested in both the story and the world. But it didn’t work because no writer is good enough to ignore (not break artfully like the greats, but ignore) the structure of good stories. Which is exactly what I had done in my “experiment.” But that’s another post for another day. What matters for today is that I chucked it in the bin.

Almost all 14,000 of those words will never see the light of day. They will just sit there in my boneyard folder until bit rot or a crashing hard drive claims them. Any writer knows the feeling. It can be gut-wrenching.

That’s a lot of work to throw away. And don’t kid yourself, when it leaves your manuscript, you’re throwing it away. You might think, “Oh, there’s good stuff in there. I might find a use for it one day.” And you might. It’s completely possible. But for most of those words, this is the end of the line.

But the experienced writer knows the truth: Not one bit of progress was lost in that moment. Nope, not a single word was wasted. I had to write the first 14,000 words. Because it’s the only way to get to 14,001.

That is the way to measure progress. A writer who really understands their craft knows that there are hundreds of thousands of more words behind the 150,000 words in a novel. There are hundreds of words behind the scant 16 lines of a poem. For every word a reader reads on the printed page, likely a hundred or more were written.

So no, it didn’t feel good to toss out three full chapters of a book. And yes, I might be able to find some use for a few scraps. But every single one of those words that I tossed out had to be written. In a real way they are just as much a part of the book as the ones readers will actually read.

Never be afraid to throw away a draft that doesn’t work. It’s just one step closer to something that does.


Revisiting Hogwarts

It’s unfortunate that the writers of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child didn’t heed the very lesson they tried to teach their protagonists.

You can never go home again.

I kept thinking about this idea as I read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. When I read the script last weekend, I wanted to go back to Hogwarts again. It turns out that’s hard to do, even for the creator.

For a work that is to my mind clearly not the “eighth Harry Potter Book,” this might be a harsh way to judge it. So let’s consider this post a reaction, rather than a review. I’ll have more to say later, but these are my first thoughts, unaffected by the opinions of other Potter fans.

My first thought is that honestly, this is a work doesn’t need to exist. Don’t get me wrong, I had fun reading it. It was nice to see old friends grown up and in new situations. But it was also like a strange high school reunion. It’s a disorienting experience to be reunited with people who you’ve known since your childhood and who you walked the most formative experiences of your life with. Everyone is the same, but different—and not always for the better.

At first reading, this story seemed to do the one thing I hoped it would not. It changes the way I see the canonical series ending. And I don’t think the change honors the original series.

To be honest, I’m, disappointed in the play, even though there are plenty of great moments. Ms. Rowling did not write the script, but she does receive the lead credit on the story team. It’s unfortunate that she used her literary Time Turner to go back and revisit something so magnificent. Though I wish it was not true, this addition did not improve what was already perfected. If only the writer’s of this play would have heeded the lesson their protagonists learn about revising history.


‘Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully’ by John Piper 📚

Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully: The Power of Poetic Effort in the Work of George Herbert, George Whitfield, and C.S. Lewis by John Piper is a short, powerful and inspiring shot to the heart for any lover of words and Jesus. It’s one of the most fulfilling books I’ve read in a while, and one that left me wanting more.

Piper sews a common thread through the works of three great Christian Englishmen, namely that proclaiming the gospel of Christ beautifully helps us see him more beautifully. It’s a powerful assertion that he backs up clearly, and one that invites the reader to join these three giants.

George Herbert was a 16th century country pastor and poet, seen by scholars as an immensely pivotal figure in the history of English poetry. His works, published posthumously and published continually since, are entirely focused on his faith and devotion to Christ.

George Whitefield was an 18th century English preacher and key figure in the Great Awakening in both Britain and the American colonies. He preached an enormous number of sermons, an impossible number actually. Piper estimates that for many weeks of his life, actually preached for sixty hours a week. As Piper points out, for most of his career, Whitefield spoke more than he slept.

The most well known of these three men to readers today is of course, C.S. Lewis. Lewis was the foremost spokesman for British Christianity in the mid-20th century. He was an awe-inspiring public intellectual, taking three First Class Honors at Oxford, the top expert of Medieval English literature in the world, and a best-selling novelist.

Piper starts the book with an extended discussion of eloquence, particularly what kinds of eloquence either honor Christ or elevate the speaker and dishonor the cross. In turn, he then takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of each these three mens’ autobiographies, theologies, and professional lives, then settles into a different aspect of their work, each on this common thread of proclaiming the beauties of Christ.

This book is a must read in my mind for any Christian who is a writer, speaker, pastor, poet or avid reader. Even if you do not see yourself in any of these categories, I would commend this book to you. The illustrations draw from each of these men’s work will stretch your understanding of beauty in words, and your imagination of the glories of Christ. It’s an inspiring read that prompted me to pick up the pen and expend more poetic effort myself.


How to be a writer

We use the word 'writer' as a noun, as a job description, but really we use it as an honorific title. Those of us who love the written word struggle with how to bestow this title. We look at that word, 'writer', and see so many things. We see books on shelves, we see interviews in The Paris Review, we see a mythic figure, from whose mind springs whole new worlds. For many of us, we see a writer as one who has written, and one whose work was read and approved of by those who matter.

But, there are big differences amongst those who we could call writers. From the New York Times best-selling author, to the humble self-publisher who no one reads, we naturally see authors on a spectrum and only deem those above a certain point to be "writers." And the ones who are the worst about this, who judge success—or lack thereof—most harshly, and hold back the title most stingily are the people who aspire to the title themselves. I don't think we should look at the word that way.

I'm not suggesting that the title 'writer' is something that anyone should be able to lay claim to. Far from it. I think it should be a slippery handhold at the top of a long climb. I think it should be hard to lay your hands on, and hard to hold on to. I think it should be earned.

But if I do not think the title should be bestowed on only the well-reviewed, the best-selling, or the academic darlings, then on what basis would I commission by fellow artists with that precious word? By looking back to the meaning of the word.

A writer is one who writes. We shouldn't use it as a noun, but as a verb—as a description of action.

That should be the ground on which we claim our title, because writing is a practice. A writer must write every day. It is a muscle that withers easily, it is a skill that fades. And if you aspire to be a 'writer', then on that ground you should judge yourself. Are you writing each day? Or most days? Are your projects moving forward? Do your word counts continue to increase? If yes, then count yourself amongst the ink-stained wretches who seek to make their living with just their words and wits.

This post is motivation for me, even in writing it. Because I'm not a writer unless I'm writing. And lately, I haven't been writing. The circumstances don't matter, in these things they hardly ever do. My pen needs to meet paper more. My fingers need to touch the keys each morning. Because that is how you really become a writer.


Don’t write like a CEO, write like Hemingway

My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.</p>

― Ernest Hemingway

One of my primary responsibilities in my job as an IT strategist is documenting how our team sees the technology landscape, and how our organization should respond. By its very nature this task requires taking complicated subjects and making them understandable. Even further, our papers serve as advice and guidance to decision makers who do not necessarily understand the technical nuances of every topic, yet they must be equipped to make the right decisions. As you can imagine, this can be a tricky feat to pull off.

I act as an editor for much of the work our team produces, and I read broadly in the subjects we cover. As a result I have learned a lot about writing in the corporate/technical environment. And, the fact is, most of the writing in my industry is not very good.

It's not that the ideas aren't good, or that the authors are not smart people. That's almost never the case. These are smart people who are not trained in writing effectively and clearly for their context and goals. And it's not about being a "technical" writer, either. I reject the idea that technical writing is a wholly separate discipline.[ref]A good writer can write about technology, they just have to understand it well first. That's usually the problem.[/ref] And, it's not just in the technical fields, corporate writing on the whole is pretty terrible stuff.

Why is it so bad? Because it is too complicated.

In all writing, simplicity is a virtue. I love the work of Ernest Hemingway for this very reason, his work is steeped in simplicity. He is straight forward and honest in a way that was revolutionary for his time. In a world dominated by words spread at the speed of light, we need to rediscover that way of writing.

In that spirit, I offer three suggestions to improve your writing on the job:

Don't write in 'corporate-speak', write honestly

The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.
― Ernest Hemingway

We've all read enough corporate-speak to know it when we see it. We tend to dismiss it as harmless. In its most innocent incarnation we hear it and use it as shorthand, a simple way to convey complex ideas. Of course it gets ridiculously out of hand easily: "The organization should leverage its synergies to facilitate bleeding edge advances in solutions that align with our corporate values." Ugh, gross.

On the more nefarious end of the spectrum, we can also recognize it as a politically correct nod to the difficulties of being honest with large groups of people. In fact, corporate-speak today aligns more with George Orwell's observation about political speech: "Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

Instead, write with honesty. Illustrate a simple point with simple words. As Hemingway would advise, fire up your shit detector.

Don't be passive, write in an active voice

This is the number one issue I find, and in my opinion it's also the worst thing an author can do to a reader. Think about the typical corporate-speak that is applied to problems. How often do we read something like, "We experienced issues on the website due to unplanned maintenance." I'm sorry, what? 'We experienced issues', is so distant sounding, which is of course the point. We didn't break the site, the site 'experienced issues'. It's usually just a not-too-subtle way of saying, "don't blame me, man!"

Instead, even when talking about things such as server issues, use an active voice. It's more interesting, and it is usually far more honest. Simply put, active voice is when your subject performs the verb: 'The boy hit the ball.' Passive voice is when the subject receives the action of the verb: 'The ball was hit by the boy.' So why don't we write in active voice? Why don't we write, "The website is unavailable," instead of "we experienced issues on the website"? In my experience, it's usually for two reasons. First, passive voice distances the subject from the verb, which often shifts accountability. Second, many people think passive voice sound more high-minded (on that, see the next point).

While Hemingway never wrote about server issues, but he did have a knack for connecting to the reader with active, direct language. He was able to convey full experience in just a few lines. While few can live up to his accomplishments, we should think of the clarity and directness of his language when writing, even at work:

As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.
― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Don't try to sound fancy, write with clarity and simplicity

Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.
― Ernest Hemingway

Using big words when simpler words will do does not make you look smart. Sorry, it's just true. No reads the word 'use' and thinks, "Wow, what a dummy. He didn't write 'utilize'." The extent of a writers vocabulary is not related the quality of his work, nor to the value of his work to the reader.

This is not to say that unusual words are out of bounds, I love strange and unusual words. When used well and sparingly, interesting words can grab the attention of the reader and spark interest. There is no denying the power of just the right word, in just the right place. But in corporate writing the use of complicated words instead of simpler, better, and more understandable words is far, far too common. I think these selected examples show the value in simplicity:

  • Advantageous — helpful
  • Consolidate — combine
  • Endeavor — try
  • Facilitate — ease, help
  • Leverage — use
  • Optimize — perfect
  • Competencies — skills
  • Regarding — about
  • Subsequently — after or later

Even if writing is not the majority of your work, if you use a computer for any significant part of your day, then you really are a writer. These rules apply across the board. From emails, to business plans, from whitepapers to project specs, the written word is foundation of business in the modern age. And the better writer you are, the better you will be at your job.


Better tools won’t make you a better writer

The newest and fanciest writing tools will not help you to become a more effective, efficient and creative writer. A new piece of software or new notebook alone can't make your writing better.

Let's be honest, good tools are great. Tools help writers out. They can help us out a lot, in fact. But good tools won't make you a good writer. They can make you more efficient or faster, and they may even make your words look better on the screen or page. But they won't make the work better. Only two things will do that: work and time. Together.

There are well-meaning and smarter writers than me who advise other writers not to worry about their tools and simply write. They are correct. Of all the opinions and advice I will offer on this site, my echo on this point is the most important: sit down and write.

I am susceptible to the lie that tools will help my writing. A simple list of past purchases will show how effective the software sirens are at luring me off course. Or the sirens of fancy pens. Or those who peddle fancy notebooks. And on, and on, and on...

What I have learned in my various excursions into the writers' marketplace? Every software or supplies purchase I've made, and will make, is based on one of two impulses: a physical requirement to complete a project, or a hope that it would make the project better. Sadly, there have been far more of the latter.

In the era of web magazines, social media and self-publishing, I believe every writer can benefit from using the right toolset for the job. In fact, this is not even linked to our era. We can certainly see how the switch to papyrus from stone as a medium made life much easier for the scribes of the day. But then, as now, not one scribe's work became better due to an obsession over the details of fine papyrus and the search for the perfect reed pen.

Don't ignore your tools, they are important. Go ahead and try new things out. Sharpen the tools you already have.

But then, sit down and write. Do the work, it's the only way to get better.


Writers: Beware of the ephemeral web

The internet has been a boon for writers, particularly in terms of exposure. But, there are many downsides—just ask print journalists. In my mind, one of the biggest questions we face as writers is a new framing of an old question: How can we preserve our work?

Over the last few weeks I kicked off a GTD reboot[ref]Getting Things Done is a great productivity system created by David Allen that's not really a system. It's more a way of thinking that drives your own system. I love it and it's the only thing that works for me, but my lack of discipline in pretty much all things means that I have to reboot my system a couple of times a year. Despite this, I HIGHLY recommend it.[/ref]. I usually do this a few times a year, but this one was especially needed as both work and personal projects were out of control. I wanted to tweak my system, so I went digging around on the web.

After a while I ended up on 43folders.com, the now mothballed productivity site from the inestimable Merlin Mann, checking out his classics. A lot of the really good content on the site is old, downright ancient in web terms, and dates back to 2004-2008. Half the links I seemed to click seemed to go 404 on me. Then, one more link led me to a site where I saw this:

I didn't know Ms. Harpold or her work, but this notice stopped me in my tracks. She apparently died in 2006, and now her website, her work, is gone. It may have been her wishes, it may not have been, but for my purposes that was not the question. After 30 minutes of following dead links and googling for long-gone articles, the ephemerality of the internet became very, very real.

In some sense, all of our writing that stays in bits and bytes and never makes it to paper is living in a future black hole. Sure, books go out of print, and many, many of the world's writings have been lost, but there is something undeniable about the pure physicality of a book. The internet may haunt some people forever, but it seems that for many writers it doesn't hang around long enough.

So, fellow wordsmiths, here is my advice. Don't forgo the physical. Write on paper, make offline backups of your blog, try to publish on paper. Save your work. Because the internet won't do it for you.


At the intersection of plot and the gospel

This blog post is an adaptation of a training talk I gave last week for The Austin Stone Story Team.

As our mission statement for the Austin Stone Story Team says, we “use creative storytelling to glorify the name and purpose of Jesus Christ, encourage the saints, and compel all people to gospel action.” We do this by telling the stories of how the gospel changes lives, but I also believe there is a deeper meaning to the idea of “gospel stories”. Ideally, our stories should not just describe how the gospel changes lives, they should reflect the gospel storyline.

Before we get there though, we should explore the artist’s place in God’s grand redemption narrative. I think it’s extremely important for us to understand how writers and editors fit into the church, and the lives of our fellow believers.

If I talk about literature enough, maybe 5 minutes or so-- I will get around to referencing J.R.R Tolkien. In his essay On Faerie Stories (which I highly recommend if you like fantasy fiction, but even more highly recommend if you think you don’t) Tolkien, a devout Catholic, used the word ‘sub-creator’ to describe the artist who creates another world in their work.

In his book Echoes of Eden, Jerram Barrs takes this idea of Tolkien’s and expands it to cover all artists. He explains, “We never create ex nihilo (out of nothing) like God, for we are always working with some aspect of what he has already made.”

The realization that our acts of creation are subordinate to God’s first creation should lead us to a place of humility, found in the recognition that all we can ever do with our art is hold up a mirror to the world that God created, and show people how we see it.

C.S. Lewis lights the way for us in thinking about the act of sub-creation when he says that, “an author should never conceive of himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom that did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom.”

God shows us what sub-creation looks like, and how much he values it in the life of his people, in Exodus 31:1-6, through an artist named Bezalel (bezʹuh-leel):

“The Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft. And behold, I have appointed with him Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. And I have given to all able men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you.’”

These were part of God’s instructions to Moses to build the tabernacle. The tabernacle was the Israelites’ traveling temple while they wandered in the desert. It housed the presence of the Lord, and served as the location where the priests could offer their sacrifices. It also pointed to a time when Jesus would be present with us here on earth, and make the final sacrifice for his adopted ones. By equipping Bezalel and the other artists and craftsmen with intelligence, ability, knowledge, craftsmanship and the very Spirit of God, the Lord clearly set him apart for this service. Bezalel was not creating from scratch, God gave him the materials, inspiration, and mission. His creation was subordinate to God’s creation.

Of course, we won’t have our names recorded in the Bible for what we do, but God equips artists with gifts and talents, like he did with Bezalel, to serve him, and build up the church today.

If we properly understand the subordinate nature of being an artist we can approach our work humbly. If we truly see ourselves as sub-creators, then we know that God first conceived of the very mediums we work in. The nature and mechanisms of art were created by God, and given to us as gifts. He is not only the creator of story, but he is also the master storyteller. Which, finally, brings us to the intersection of gospel storytelling and plot.

I don’t know if you all remember this diagram from your middle school English class or not, but this is the standard plot structure that we all know and love, even if you don’t consciously think about it.

[caption id="attachment_61" align="aligncenter" width="1020"]The traditional, three-act plot structure The traditional, three-act plot structure[/caption]

 I have great respect for screenwriters. If you read a book like Story by Robert McKee, or Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder, you will quickly realize that they have storytelling down to a science. If you look at most movies, except for maybe Terrence Malik films and other art house fare, you will find this structure.

Screenwriters refer to this as the three-act structure. Act One is the setup, where we are introduced to the characters and setting. Act Two is the confrontation, where conflict is established in what is called “the inciting incident” and obstacles are set up. The stakes are raised as the action rises and tension builds, leading up to the climax. The action of the climax launches us into the final Act, where we find resolution.

The gospel itself has a three-act structure.

[caption id="attachment_60" align="aligncenter" width="1008"]The storyline of the gospel matches up to a traditional plot structure. The gospel storyline[/caption]

In Act One, God creates Adam and Eve, setting them up in Paradise, giving them dominion over the earth. Act Two begins when Adam and Eve sin. They rebel against God’s only command, setting up the conflict between a holy God and mankind’s sin. For generations, Israel persists in a cycle of sin and repentance, demonstrating that man cannot defeat sin within his own power.

Then, Jesus shows up on the scene. He brings the sin of Israel into sharp contrast with his own perfect, holy life. Each conversation and confrontation with the leaders of the day raises the stakes until they have had enough. In one weekend, we have the climax of redemptive history. On Friday the Innocent One is found guilty. On Saturday he is in the grave. But on Sunday, history changes. God redeems his people in the most dramatic way.

From that point on, the victory has been won. Sin is already defeated. But, we live in a world where the final redemption of all creation has not yet come. Theologians call this reality “the already, but not yet.” Finally, we have the New Creation, promised to us in the Word. God will resolve the story with all glory and honor resting on him.

This overarching storyline is called the Biblical meta-narrative. It is the full story of God’s plan to redeem the world from sin, and display his glory in the person of Jesus. It is the storyline of the gospel.

I believe the three-act structure is present in the gospel storyline not because it is a structure we all relate to. Instead, I believe that we all understand and relate to the three-act structure because that is how God gave us the gospel.

Let me put that another way. The gospel is the original plot structure, and we tell stories in this way because they resonate with humans who were created to receive the gospel story.

I think there are profound questions for writers and editors to wrestle with in these truths. But today, our focus is on how we tell the stories in a way that reflects the gospel.

Every believer has a gospel storyline in our lives. We all have a creation, fall, redemption, and we will someday have a new creation in our stories.

But we also have them in our smaller stories and events. In an adoption story, isn’t the loss of a parent for an orphan a type of Fall? In a story of healing, isn’t a believer living in the ‘already but not yet’? After all, their body will still die someday, and their new body is coming one day.  Finally, the Incarnation is the heart and soul of a 100 people story. The goer is emulating exactly what Christ did for humanity.

Here is my proposal: for a story to truly reflect the gospel we cannot pick and choose what parts we show. We cannot just show creation and conflict, because we leave out redemption. We cannot just show redemption either, because a picture of redemption without a background of sin makes no sense. We only need redemption because of our sin.

When we seek to tell stories of redemption and gospel change, I suggest that at a minimum, we must show conflict and redemption. If we can show more of the story, great. But if we cannot, the gospel story must have at least two things: our sin, and God’s grace.

 


The magic of Story

I'm stuck in the tense space between authorial intent and reader response. And that’s okay.

<Well, there go any non-lit geeks. If you're still here, hang with me, I promise I am going somewhere.>

'Reader response' and 'authorial intent' are two different schools of thought in literary theory. Unlike most things that have to do with literary theory, they are almost self-explanatory. 

Adherents to the authorial intent theory hold that the real meaning of a text is in what the author intended to say, the meaning he intended to communicate. Reader response types believe that meaning is in the mind of the reader, their 'response' if you will. These two schools of thought are often thought of as polar opposites, as two different approaches that contradict each other. In some ways this is correct. 

The disciples of each will adamantly speak of “true meaning” in a real sense. Proponents of authorial intent will say that the author creates a singular meaning as he crafts a text. They argue this is the one, true meaning. Someone who believes in reader response will say that true meaning can only be found in a single reader’s response to a written work, and that this meaning is valid for that person, and is not duplicated in another’s response. Currently, reader response holds sway in most university English departments, but the traditionalists have no intentions of going away any time soon. The argument goes on and on, and frankly I don’t have a dog in the fight.

I don’t pick a side for one reason, because when it comes to human literature I think they are both true. I do not think they are opposing ideas. I think this is a metaphysical paradox which shows us something important, yet not fully understandable about the nature of God’s truth. In short, I think something very special lies between authorial intent and reader response.

Magic.

Yes, magic. 

In this no man’s land of literary criticism I think we see the real magic of stories, and storytelling.

No one who has ever read a novel that deeply moved them can deny that something special goes on in our heart when we are moved by a character, their struggles, and their victories or tragedies. In a great book that we connect with, like Les Miserables for me, there is something deep, profound, and dare I say, personal. The Jean Valjean and Monsignor Bienvenu of my Les Mis are just that, mine.

But at the same time, Victor Hugo had a compelling vision when he wrote that book. He had a specific intent, and specific point of view and story that drove him to tell this story. He was concrete in his words and work, and his intentions are not only valid tools to understand the story, they are the keys to understanding it. As an artist this is also clear to me. My work, and it’s meaning, is profoundly mine.

So how can these two experiences, that artists and patrons alike confirm, stand shoulder-to-shoulder? Again, I say to you: it must be magic. The magical alchemy of story.

We can have conversations about God, objective truth and subjective reality all night long, and it will not take away our basic experiences. There is something magical in the way we consume stories. Somewhere between the intent of the author’s mind and our response in receiving their story, there lies something special, mystical and metaphysical. It truly is magic.

As a storyteller I want to contribute to this magic. As a reader I want to revel in it. As a believer I see God in it. And when that story is one of a redemptive gospel, I want to live it.

Stories are magic. We just have to see them that way.


Tolkien on the love of an artist for their art

This is an older post from my tumblr. I am reposting it because it fits well with stuff I am currently working on.  On my tumblr I post links to things I'm reading and gathering, as well as things things too long for twitter, but not suited for the blog. You can subscribe to it in your RSS reader here.

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Then Manwë spoke and said: ‘Hearest thou, Fëanor son of Finwë, the words of Yavanna? Wilt thou grant what she would ask?’

There was long silence, but Fëanor answered no word. Then Tulkas cried: ‘Speak, O Noldo, yea or nay! But who shall deny Yavanna? And did not the light of the Silmarils come from her work in the beginning?’

But Aulë the Maker said: ‘Be not hasty! We ask a greater thing than thou knowest. Let him have peace yet awhile.’

But Fëanor spoke then, and cried bitterly: ‘For the less even as for the greater there is some deed that he may accomplish but once only; and in that deed his heart shall rest. It may be that I can unlock my jewels, but never again shall I make their like; and if I must break them, I shall break my heart, and I shall be slain; first of all the Eldar in Aman.’ 

The passage above is one of the most moving to me from The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien.  As someone who has been wired to be a “maker”, I get what Aule and Feanor are feeling. They both understand the love a maker has for his creation.

How we see the art of others

When Tulkas cannot see how anyone could not crack open the Silmarils that Feanor had crafted he was seeing the utility of the jewels. He saw them as backup of the light within them, not as unique pieces of craftsmanship on their own. The idea that the Silmarils may have some value to Feanor beyond the sum of the parts seems to be foreign to him.

But Aule is different. Being a Maker himself he understands the draw of the work of the artist. He understands what it is like to look upon something that did not exist before you made it. This compels him to show Feanor grace. Sure, they need an answer and it is probably the best idea to take the light from the Silmarils to bring the Trees back. But he did not push Feanor. He counseled the other Valar to give him time, because he knows how brutal this decision is. This reminds me strongly of the biblical image of a loving Father looking down on us.

How we are taken in by our own art

But now we turn to Feanor. He loved his art, but in the end he loved it more than he loved the Valar and his fellow elves. He took the Silmarils and ran, and eventually they end up in the hands of Morgoth. Then, the Valar and the Elves have neither.

This is what greed brings us. As sinful, fallen humans we will always be disposed to love our creations too much. To claim ownership, to set them on a shelf to never be used nor shared. This is wrong and harmful. In contrast to the gracious view we see in Aule, here we see the selfish love of man for his own creations. Think the golden calf from Exodus. 

Tolkien gets it

As a committed Catholic and artist Tolkien is perfectly positioned to understand this and pass it along to us. There is great beauty and truth in the Silmarillion, even if reading it can be a bit of a slog at times. 

If you are an artist, I suggest picking this book up and taking another (or your first) spin through it. I think you appreciate the artistry and the point of view.


Gospel storytelling requires conflict

Conflict is the engine of good storytelling. As Christians, we should also understand that conflict is at the heart of the gospel. The proclamation of Christ’s victory over sin and death is good news precisely because mankind is locked in mortal conflict with sin. Without our sinful nature we would have no need for the mercy and grace Jesus’s victory secured. As the church, we need to remember this conflict honestly in order to rightly celebrate our deliverance.

Gospel storytelling is the work of kingdom artists sharing stories of human sin and the redemption, healing, and response of God’s people through the gospel of Jesus Christ.  When kingdom artists seek to show how the gospel changes the lives of believers, conflict must be front and center.

What is conflict, really?

Dramatic conflict can be defined as the thing (or person) that prevents a character from getting what he or she wants. For example, in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo seeks to destroy the ring of power but Sauron’s quest to find it stands in his way.

 As fallen creatures saved by grace, conflict is the Christian’s constant companion. Everyday we fight sin through the power of the Holy Spirit. We strive to be more like Christ, but sin stands in our path. Even the way Paul describes this tension is Romans 6 is replete with the language of conflicting powers:

“We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.” Romans 6:9-12

“Let not sin therefore reign” is a revolutionary battle cry against our sinful natures. Paul calls us to fight sin, to overthrow it’s reign over our hearts, because Christ has won the victory already. This is epic language. It’s language of kingdoms and heroes, life and death. Paul frames redemption and victory in the language of conflict to remind us that in this life, our battle is not over yet.

Why must gospel stories show conflict?

The meta-narrative of the Bible has four main plot points: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Without an understanding that the fundamental conflict of this story is the rebellion of man and the subsequent pervasiveness of sin, the rest of the plot does not make sense. In God’s grand historical-redemptive plan the conflict between man’s sin and God’s glory is the driving force.

For this very reason, when storytellers frame a narrative of gospel change we must give the story’s conflict its due. For the fallen human mind to understand the beauty and truth of redemption we must show the ugliness of rebellion. Only when the darkness is understood will the need for the gospel be clear. Perfect people do not need a savior, and stories with no conflict do not require redemption.

Conflict and grace

Gospel storytellers should not shy way from sin, conflict or suffering. To tell the stories of our churches with integrity and fidelity to the gospel, artists must be honest about the sin and rebellion in our subjects and their stories. We must present the truth of the story in a compelling way. But we must do so with grace and love.

For artists who seek to tell stories of gospel change we must always be mindful that the story is never more important than the characters. We must never treat believers who want to share their story as nothing more than raw materials. We cannot exploit them by digging deep mine shafts into their hearts, extracting our few precious gems, and then withdrawing to leave a hollow shell. We must treat our fellow believers with love and care. We need to be more than just writers, filmmakers and photographers, we need to be true brothers and sisters in Christ.

Conflict, in its proper place

Finally, we must always keep one thing in mind: darkness is defined only by an absence of light. The light of the gospel is primary. 

We must never glorify or idolize the conflict and sin in a story of gospel change. We should never place sin and rebellion in the spotlight of center stage, anymore than we should ignore it. Conflict in gospel stories has one very specific task, to illustrate our need for Jesus. We must always ask ourselves if the conflict in our stories point to our need to a Savior. If it does not serve this goal, then we have missed something important.

Visit the Storyframes Collective website and checkout our films, photography, and the written and spoken stories. There are many talented artists contributing to the Collective, and I think you will find real encouragement in the stories.