“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.

Enjoy!

**

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.

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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.

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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Out from the Shadows

This is the first of a 2-part review of Orson Scott Card’s novel, Ender’s Shadow (part 1 is spoiler-free).

In 1985, four years after my birth, Orson Scott Card delivered his magnum opus, Ender’s Game, to critical and popular acclaim. Wildly popular among sci-fi fans, it also earned him a Hugo & Nebula award from the critics. All of this from the book that was only supposed to create background story for Ender’s role as the Speaker in Speaker for the Dead (a book that, arguably, a far smaller audience has ever heard of).

Until a few months ago, I was content to agree with a friend of mine that Ender’s Game was the perfect book: too perfect to spoil with a potentially inferior sequel. And so it was in ignorant bliss that I overlooked Children of the Mind, Xenocide, and Speaker for the Dead. Continuing along this vein, I would have ruefully passed over the literary genius of Mr. Card’s parallax story, Ender’s Shadow.

Ender’s Shadow is unlike anything I’ve ever read. Or even heard of for that matter. It is about as presumptuous a story as can be imagined, and in the hands of a lesser author it would have flopped miserably.

In Shadow, Mr. Card takes one of the minor characters from Game, Bean, and fixes the POV through Bean’s young, gifted eyes, whereupon Mr. Card then follows the EXACT same sequence of events from Game. He has the balls to tell his critically and popularly acclaimed story.. AGAIN! Talk about a guy who can’t get out from the shadow of his own success, right?

Wrong.

When I first read what Mr. Card was attempting to do, I was flabbergasted: how do you return to a story that fans love without ruining it? WHY would you return to a story like that with even the slightest chance of ruining it?

For a brief time I flirted seriously with the idea of opening up the Ender’s Game universe to other writers, and went so far as to invite a writer whose work I greatly admire, Neal Shusterman, to consider working with me to create novels about Ender Wiggin’s companions in Battle School. As we talked, it became clear that the most obvious character to begin with would be Bean, the child-soldier whom Ender treated as he had been treated by his adult teachers.

And then something else happened. The more we talked, the more jealous I became that Neal might be the one to write such a book, and not me. It finally dawned on me that, far from being finished with writing about “kids in space,” as I cynically described the project, I actually had more to say, having actually learned something in the intervening dozen years since Ender’s Game first appeared in 1985. And so, while still hoping that Neal and I can work together on something, I deftly swiped the project back.” – Orson Scott Card on writing Ender’s Shadow

After writing a series of books (Xenocide, Speaker for the Dead, Children of the Mind) that were still contained within Ender’s universe–though removed from the events of Game by 3,000 years–Mr. Card placed himself, like Bean under the shadow of mighty Andrew Wiggin, under the influence of the book that launched his career, to boldly see if there was anything left to be said.

In the 2nd part of this review, Enough about Ender, I shall happily report that Bean stands highly (though not very tall), and is an ace of a character up Mr. Card’s literary sleeve.

Published in: on July 15, 2010 at 3:54 am  Comments (1)  
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The Magicians: Expelliarmus Escapism

 

**Spoiler Alert**

Like my Horns review this essay is for 2 groups of people: those who have already read The Magicians, and those who have no intention of reading the book.

**

Expelliarmus, as Harry Potter fans may recall, is an incantation whereby a magician disarms an opponent. The opponent I hope to disarm through this essay is Fiction as Escapism. Like David trying to topple Goliath, I feel woefully ill-equipped to this task, as many many people buy into the lie that fiction in general, and fantasy in particular, can offer nothing more than a temporary flight from the cruel world we see to a light-filled Narnia/Middle Earth/Fillory we hope for.

This subject is, by the way, very personal to me.  There was a period of several years when I watched close family members submerge themselves in an endless wave of media. Tuesdays at their house involved a trip to the local Blockbuster, followed by several hours of watching through every new movie that came out that week. The in-between time was consumed by reality television, old movies, re-runs of old sitcoms, as well as several current sitcoms that just had to be watched.  It felt very much like watching Mildred, the wife of Montag in Fahrenheit 451, whose over-consumption of television created a chasm between her and her husband (and the world), and eventually led to her failed suicide attempt.

Dialogue did not exist in my family members home. Creativity did not exist. Their memories of the real world were being slowly burned away, as was their humanity. And like Martin Chatwin in The Magicians who fled into the fictional woods of Fillory, what was left was nothing more than a monster. In their desire to flee the cruel real world, they became egotistical, selfish, grumbling echoes of their former selves.

And so we meet Quentin Coldwater.

The protagonist and main character of The Magicians, Quentin is a ridiculously intelligent student who graduates at the top of his class in Brooklyn. We meet him en route to an interview for admission to Princeton; he is also hopelessly depressed and infatuated with a dream of entering the world of his favorite childhood books, Fillory and Further (a fictional series of books that Grossman “wrote” for use in The Magicians).

Quentin’s entire life has been a series of disappointments, despite his outstanding academic achievements, as he discovers that obtaining what he thinks he wants does not bring him the satisfaction he hoped for: “He had performed all the necessary rituals, spoken the words, lit the candles, made the sacrifices. But happiness, like a disobedient spirit, refused to come.

Through a series of magical encounters Quentin discovers that magic is real, and he is offered admission to Brakebills, a magician’s school in upstate New York not unlike Hogwarts.

At first everything is magical: he meets interesting people; he discovers a latent talent that he never knew he had; he even meets the woman of his dreams. But Quentin soon discovers that magic is not as enchanting as the Fillory books made it seem. Magic is hard grueling labor. It involves taxing mental concentration, a daily rigorous grind of finger exercises, and memorizing painstakingly long lists of spells, circumstances, and exceptions. And despite the initial excitement, Quentin learns that there is no transfiguration spell for the heart. He is still the same depressed, unhappy man that came to Brakebills.

The heart of this story is Alice, the woman that Quentin falls for. Unlike the other magicians, who are jaded by the world and then respond with hedonism, Alice maintains an adept’s heart, even when the man she loves betrays her. She understands Quentin as no one else does, and yet loves him. She is also the source of some of the book’s greatest insights.

Alice speaking on what a life with magic would really be like:

I know you think it’s going to be all quests and dragons and fighting evil and whatever, like in Fillory. I know that’s what you think. But it’s not. You don’t see it yet. There’s nothing out there.” She is referring to her family, describing what it’s like to be the child of magician parents, and how they’ve pittered their lives away on selfish, foolish, destructive hobbies. They have tremendous reality-bending powers, but their use of this power only results in more isolation, a greater widening of the relational gap between parents who do not love each other and cannot adequately love their daughter.

It is interesting to me that this magician family has the power to alter reality with their words, and yet they isolate themselves in silence from one another. They live in an enchanted Roman palace that grows ever more elaborate even as it widens the gap between them.  They become incapable of speaking into one another’s lives, and thereby unable to shape each other’s world.

This relational gap between people is one of the key themes of the book. Grossman does not explicity state why this gap exists, though he alludes to the price of being the smartest, the best, the top tier, as the reason for this isolation. And there is certainly something to that. But the true source of the gap is sin. Alice’s parents hated one another, and this resulted in isolation and devastation. Quentin cheated on Alice, which led to Alice cheating on him, and a wedge was driven between them. And at the heart of Quentin’s unhappiness is a tightly wound ball of bitterness that isolates him from everyone.

It is this bitterness–against his parents, against himself, against his experiences–that fuels his desire to escape into the fictional world of Fillory. At his core, he believes that this will save him.

And he gets what he wants. He goes to Fillory…and is miserable. And in danger. And more isolated than ever. It is Alice, faithful Alice, who calls him out on his real problem:

Do you want to be the only asshole who went to Fillory and was miserable there? Even in Fillory? Because that’s who you are right now.

And Alice gives him the advice that only someone who truly loves him could give:

Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life. Stop waiting. This is it: there’s nothing else. It’s here, and you’d better enjoy it or you’re going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever.

Escapism is the lie that a change of location will bring a change to happiness. Grossman wrote this book partly in reaction to Lewis’ Narnia books, and the belief that many Christians have that Narnia (aka “Aslan’s country” aka “heaven”) is real. Quentin discovers that Fillory is real, just like many Narnia readers discover that Lewis wrote about something he, too, believed was real.

I have met many Christians whose hope in the Rapture is little better than Quentin’s hope in Fillory: their attitude is terrible, their lives are a disaster, but they maintain the hope that an escape to heaven will bring the happiness they long for.

The sad reality is that heaven is real, just like Quentin discovered that Fillory was real, just like Lewis understood that Aslan’s country was real. But it is not Aslan’s country that brings happiness. It is Aslan himself. What Quentin needs, what I need, what all of us are longing for in escapist fiction, is an escape from ourselves. And like Eustace discovered in the The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,  we are all dragons who need our hardened skins torn off.  

You have to let me undress you,” Aslan told [us].

Eustace could not remove his dragon skin just as Quentin could not remove his bitterness. Quentin goes from Brooklyn to Brakebills to Fillory, longing to escape, never realizing his prison was his own heart.

It is Christ, Aslan, God Himself, who alone holds the key to our prison. And though it tear us to pieces, though it wound us, though it humiliate us to ask for help, we must ask him to tear off our hardened skins. We must ask him to disarm our own hopes of escape. We need him to speak magical words that only He can utter:

“Child, your sins are forgiven.”