“Here and Now” exercises

I bought a wonderful book a month ago called “The Writer’s Portable Mentor” by Priscilla Long. I’m only about 1/5 of the way through it, and it’s already worth it’s weight in gold. I highly recommend purchasing a copy, if you can find it.

I thought I would share the result of one of the exercises from the book, written this morning in the Milwaukee airport.

Here’s the gist of the exercise: “Go to a place. Write for fifteen minutes at a steady pace without stopping. Describe what’s in front of you. Don’t write about anything except what you see, hear, touch, taste, or smell.

I didn’t follow the rules exactly, but I was pleased with what came of it.



Gate D34

The squints of bleary-eyed travelers preparing for an early flight to Kansas City. An occasional flight steward emits a shock of laughter that jars the waiting passengers, whose coffee has only just begun its slow way through their bloodstream on its way to wakefulness. A prerecorded voice tries to overwhelm the scattered conversation with its message of warning: “Homeland Security advises a level orange threat level”; but if any of the half-awake attendants know, or even care, about what this polite sounding doomsayer portends, they hide it well behind their glazed expressions.

Images flash in no apparent order from the glow of a mostly unobserved television screen. To an objective observant it would seem that some silent consensus had been reached by all parties present who spend the early hour staring at one another, and at solitary passersby, while fervently avoiding eye contact. It’s almost as if their gaze were magnets charged by some post-awakening ritual with the current set to social repulsion that would not be cast-off until it had followed its full cycle.

For some, that cycle involved a quick, bitingly cold shower that shocked the senses into submission. For others, this post-awakening ritual involved first one then two, and up to four or five cups of strong black coffee, a shot of cream thrown in as an afterthought to taste, as though sleep could be driven off like some mangy old dog.

A woman with cropped black hair rustles a newspaper noisily, each fold followed by a lever-like movement of hand-to- coffee, coffee-to-mouth, followed again by a rustling of the paper, then a quick furtive bite into her blueberry muffin. She appears not to be reading the paper so much as sorting it for a future self who might find House & Home interesting while Sports is tossed quickly to the bottom. Occasionally she scratches the same spot on the right side of her head, almost quizzically, as her fingers search out a cure for itch.

To pass the time several men, and a couple of the women, pull out smart phones, fingers pulling, pushing, sliding, communicating hope, return, and a silent yearning to loved ones on the other end of those metal cans without strings.


Out the Port Window

We flew nearly parallel with another steel bird whose passing had left a plume of smoke that came and went in ghostlike wisps until finally disappearing altogether, leaving only a bed of billowy clouds beneath us, a blank slate of blue above us, and an opaque white wall of cloud far off in the distance.


I shared this with you as an encouragement to write, and also as a recommendation to check out the book. For honing your craft, I think it’s the best book I’ve found.

Published in: on November 15, 2010 at 12:19 am  Comments (1)  
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A Careful Look at Freedom

Freedom Part 1: A Spoiler-Free Review

Some fiction writers use fantastical elements to get us behind the curtain of reality. Once there, they use the extraordinary to speak about the ordinary.

C.S. Lewis takes us through an ordinary painting to get us into the extraordinary world of Narnia, where he then takes us on a voyage to God. Lewis Carroll takes us through an ordinary rabbit hole to get us into the extraordinary world of Wonderland, where a little girl has hopped down in order to learn how to grow up.

Of course, some authors only have great imaginations and clever plot devices; once we leave the world of the ordinary, we are disappointed when they lack the gift of insight to bring us back.

There is an unspoken agreement between the reader of fiction and the writer of fiction: take me out of the ordinary, using whatever extraordinary means you can best connive, so long as you bring me back changed. Use the extraordinary to point out an insight I otherwise would have missed without the benefit of your imaginative spotlight.

Then there are other writers—writers like Leo Tolstoy, F. Scott Fitzgerald—who have the more difficult task of keeping us in the bounds of the ordinary while still needing something extraordinary to spotlight the insight we otherwise would have missed. If they refuse, for whatever reason, to alter the physics of reality, then the extraordinary must be one of two things: the extraordinariness of their insight, or the extraordinariness of their prose. For some writers, writers like Jonathan Franzen, it is both.

Before we go any further, I must point out that I am withholding my O seal of approval on this book.

My opinion of it rests somewhere between B.R. Myers’ harsh review in the Atlantic, and the stirling accolades of Lev Grossman’s review in Time Magazine, “Jonathan Franzen: Great American Novelist.

(the reading of Grossman’s review emitted an annoyed and humorous chuckle when I read his line, “A lot of literary fiction strikes a bargain with the reader…” reminding me again that there is nothing new under the sun, as I wrote a similar line for my own review)

It may not get a Rivene R, but Franzen’s work is, nevertheless, a damned fine novel.

**stop now if you don’t want any spoilers, as I have to discuss the structure of the book to discuss how my review will look moving forward**

Franzen engages the reader with his Eeyore-like prose, his vivid insights into American history and culture, and the interesting manner in which he explores the inner workings of a family.

Unfortunately, it also has at its heart this family—the Berglunds. Somewhere around 2/3 the way through the novel, I realized that I had no connection with any of the characters, who had lost my sympathies. Franzen spent so much time pursuing his thesis (more on this later) that he had lost me in caring about his characters. What began with such promise developed into something that I can only explain by pointing to another story that elicited a similar response, Requiem for a Dream.

Nevertheless, for almost 400 pages Franzen engaged me with the idea of his book, which begs the question, why did he write it?

It seemed to me,” Franzen says, “that if we were going to be elevating freedom to the defining principle of what we’re about as a culture and a nation, we ought to take a careful look at what freedom in practice brings.

The story oscillates between the POV of four of its characters: Patty, Richard, Joey, and Walter. Franzen uses each of these characters to highlight the different ways that Americans pursue their ideals of freedom, and the results therefrom.

It seemed fitting, therefore, to tackle each of these different pursuits in this review. To do so, we will explore–in four parts–what Franzen’s characters have to say about our own pursuits. The fifth and final part of the review will be a study on what the Bible has to say about freedom and its pursuit.

I invite you to join Rivene’s Journey next week, as we take a careful look at freedom by exploring the life of Patty Berglund.

Just Write It Down

In honor of my 100th post, I wrote the following essay as a clarion call for ordinary people to enter into the writing life, whether that be journaling, storytelling, scriptwriting, songwriting, poetry, short story, novel, novella, hymn, an email you’ve been putting off, or even that yellow sticky that will make someone else’s day.


There is something sacred about that first drop of ink on a blank page. It is a step of faith; an act of creation; a defiance against non-being.

It is boldness to put one’s life and ideas into words.

It is courage to swallow up the margins with presence.

Each word becomes an Ebenezer crying out “I was here! I have a voice!”

The ink becomes a trumpet blasting through the corridor of time; the words are sometimes heard and carried on in another melody, or another pitch, until time itself crescendos with a mighty peel from those who let their words become their voices: brave voices, bold voices, being read and whispered and shouted from the world’s rooftops.

Even the smallest voices carry. The ink bleeds into the hearts of children and grandchildren, mothers and fathers, brothers and daughters who place their eager ears against the earth, hoping to dig up the faintest syllables of those words you are writing now.

Write them your story. Write them your ideas.

If your fingers tremble at the first, if your hand holds the pen against the page haltingly, uncertainly, then breathe. Remember there is only one other who reads what you put down. There is only one other who reads the words etched in love and hate upon the fabric of your heart, and He is not surprised. Though your words be good, bad, or ugly, He already knows what your peevish hands would scribe.

Write for no one. Write for everyone. Write for one. It is all the same so much as you write it true. So much as what is waiting, like a caged-up fox at the gate of your wrist, is let out for a few wild moments to race across the empty plains of the page.

Maybe its tail was on fire and it has torched the life you knew. Then cage it again–those wild thoughts–and thank the Almighty for the ash it left to seed a new world.

You may not like the ash. You may not appreciate the wild fox that was your thoughts careening across the page. Maybe you want nothing more than to trap them, cage them, and lock them away in a dark cellar in your soul. Maybe you want to burn the page and hold it responsible for the words it has mirrored from your heart.

But the page is just a mirror. It will only tell what you tell it. And if you don’t like what you read, it is because it has shown you the contents of a room you were hiding.

It takes faith to believe that what is fallen can be made well. Maybe the thoughts on your page are bad. Maybe they are the worst words written in the history of the world (I doubt it). Do you believe that the Father who brought the Son up from the grave can give life to your dead words? Do you really believe that your children’s children will only care about your victories, in the midst of their defeat?

We write what is true as an act of love. First for ourselves, then for the world. If my thoughts are wild, I will love them, until one day even the fox may lie down with the lamb.

If ever you’ve had a thought, a story, or an idea, just write it down. It is a wonderful adventure to watch an emptying heart fill the margins of a blank page. And I invite you to this adventure.

Published in: on August 20, 2010 at 3:55 pm  Comments (1)  

The Writer’s Burden

The Writer’s Burden

The burden of a writer is to bring an idea into the world knowing that it will often be unaccredited to him. Like a parent who rears a child in the hope that it will do good in the world, the writer must release an idea, knowing that children rarely praise their parents.

And if a writer is gifted, and works hard enough at it, to produce an entire world from his imagination, he does so with the fearful knowledge that a well-meaning Executive-Producer-Director-Agent-Axis may entice him with a bag of gold to turn what was meant for print into visual fodder. In the hands of a gracious Axis, his work may survive in some shriveled, half-starved form; more often than not, it will find its end with a bullet in the back of the head before being kicked into a mass graveyard.

Few recognize the difference between screenplays and novels, and when enough zeros are thrown behind a $ sign, these lines become imperceptible, even to the writer himself.

And if anyone balks at this truth, remember that it is only under extreme variation that water goes from ice to steam.

“Why would anyone read a book instead of watching big people move on a screen? Because a book can be literature. It is a subtle thing-a poor thing, but our own.” –Annie Dillard

Published in: on August 3, 2010 at 4:51 am  Leave a Comment  
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Enough About Ender

Part 2 of a two-part review of Ender’s Shadow, by Orson Scott Card (467 pages).

I’ve settled into a book review format that I like: the first review will be spoiler-free, followed by a more detailed analysis. If you missed the spoiler-free version of Ender’s Shadow, catch yourself up here. If you don’t want any spoilers, stop!


As I stated in the first part of this review, Bean makes this story. It was a brilliant move by Mr. Card to pull a minor character from Ender’s Game and give him room to grow. It’s also ironic that he picked the smallest and youngest character, because Bean has a depth and “meat” to him that makes Ender’s Shadow both enjoyable and insightful.

Of course, the story isn’t entirely about Bean, especially not with a title like Ender’s Shadow. Fans of the Ender’s universe will recognize some of the cast, though there are some important newcomers:

Poke –> the first to heed Bean’s counsel, at personal expense to herself. She also sacrificed her life to keep Bean safe from the vendetta of a gang boss. She had no idea the impact her sacrifice would have on Bean; like a Gordian knot, he grapples with the meaning of her death throughout the narrative. She is also responsible for his name: “you aren’t worth a bean”

Achilles –> the first to reveal Bean’s weakness; though Bean foresaw Achilles’ nature, he underestimated Achilles’ abilities and ruthlessness. Despite his best efforts, Bean could not prevent Poke’s death at Achilles’ hands

Sister Carlotta –> his teacher, his benefactor, and also his advocate before the military instructors of the Battle School; she relentlessly pursued Bean, both to satisfy her own curiosity, and to give him a new identity

And of course there is Ender. Though Bean is Ender’s superior in intellect and acumen, Bean arrived at Battle School late and so he is constantly compared to, and rated beneath, Ender Wiggin (infuriating news for a boy used to being the smartest and the best).

There are three shadows that Bean lives beneath; three overarching ideas that influence him as a character, and that reveal the thematic threads of this novel.

Someday they’ll see me as I see myself.

His MO is survival. As an orphan thrown into the poverty-ridden streets of Rotterdam, Bean learned at a young age that the world is a cruel, harsh place, and only the fastest, the fittest, those most able to manipulate the world around them survive.

If you want to play a game of thematic Where’s Waldo, pay attention to the MANY references that Mr. Card has to keys and unlocking doors. Bean’s primary motivation is to turn every situation, every encounter, and every opportunity to his advantage. He does this by observing people closely, not for their benefit, but for his.

But there is one door he cannot open—love: “But Wiggin’s willingness to give up hours every day to training kids who could do nothing for him–the more Bean thought about it, the less sense it made.” Bean longs for the approval of others, especially Ender, but he does so only for his own gain.

“I want to be the kind of boy you are, but I don’t want to go through what you’ve done to get there.”

Bean is not looking for shortcuts here. He compares himself to Ender and realizes that Ender has had to make sacrifices for others in order to become the boy that everyone loves. This is something Bean cannot accept for himself.

He has spent every moment of his short life in survival mode. Every calculation, every decision, every choice is for his own advantage.

Even Bean’s friendship with Nikolai, his first friend, began when Nikolai pointed out something that Bean had never thought of (pg 160). Nikolai was, in effect, useful for the insight Bean gleaned from him.

Later, Nikolai had another kind of information that could have been used to incriminate Bean, but he held back. This give and hold of information was the door to friendship for the Spock-like Bean, and it takes Bean a long time to even consider the “faulty” foundation of love underneath.

It isn’t until pg 252 that Bean finally realizes he is Nikolai’s friend. He does so in an internal dialogue that also displays his first act of true empathy. It takes half the book for him to break off the first noticeable chunk from the icy glacier of his survival instinct. Mr. Card uses the ironic phrase, “What a sensitive friend I am,” to display the global warming in Bean’s icy logic.

Love is illogical to Bean. His perceptive mind cannot fathom why Nikolai would cede his advantage, or why Ender would help those who cannot help him back. Love is staring him in the face, everywhere he looks, but in his formula of survival, love is a mathematical formula that equates to weakness.

“Why did Poke die for me?”

Bean lives because another died.

Poke took a risk when she listened to Bean’s advice. Bean had suggested that Poke, as leader of her street gang, stop giving away food to street bullies and instead hire one to fend off the others. She did what Bean said and chose Achilles, the smallest of the street bullies, but also the smartest. When Bean realized that Achilles was a smart cripple, he told Poke to kill him instantly. Bean realized that Achilles was too small to be useful against the larger bullies, and too smart to control.

Poke refused. She picked Achilles, and her choice paid off, but Achilles never forgot what Bean had done, or that Poke had led her gang against him. Achilles betrayed Poke with a kiss, cut her throat, and left her body in the river, all while Bean watched from the shadows of a nearby rooftop. Afraid by what he had seen, Bean fled.

Poke had met with Achilles, alone and against Bean’s advice, because she was trying to get Achilles to relent from killing Bean. Poke gave up her life to save Bean from Achilles’ vendetta.

Bean never forgot this. The question, “why did Poke die for me?” haunts Mr. Card’s story. Poke’s sacrifice is the antithesis of the survivalist creed that Bean lives by.

Mr. Card makes frequent and overt biblical references in Ender’s Shadow, and I would argue that there is one that he alludes to with Poke’s death:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:6-8

Poke dared to die for a boy she thought was good. But this does not compute for Bean, just as Christ’s sacrifice should not compute for any of us.

At the heart of this novel is a question that tugs at the heart of every person who has ever seriously considered the crucifixion of Jesus Christ: Why would Christ die for me?

The spiritual orphans of our world (and I would argue that we are all like Bean here), left to themselves and their own abilities may survive, especially if they are blessed with Bean’s intellectual acumen. But for them to love, to feel true empathy for others, a Poke must die; and there must be an Ender to emulate.

Bean learned true love through the sacrifice of Poke, and watching how Ender loved others. For the Christian, our Poke and our Ender are one and the same. Just as Bean lived beneath the shadows of Poke and Ender, we live beneath the grace of Christ:

To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps.” 1 Peter 2:21

The hope that I see in a character like Bean, and what I think Mr. Card fundamentally believes, is that there is hope for change, though it does not come from ourselves. All of us live beneath the shadows of others’ grace.

It is enough to do so well.

Published in: on July 24, 2010 at 9:47 pm  Leave a Comment  
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