Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Power of Story: a sermon of sorts

From time to time I’ve had the privilege and responsibility of being a stand-in for a pastor. This Sunday (April 7, 2013) was one of those times. Pastor Bob of the Algona-Pacific Church of God was in another town, baptizing his granddaughter. As a member of the advisory board of that church, I was asked to speak to the congregation. Bob’s wife, Anita, is our main Sunday school teacher and part of the music team, plus Bob usually plays his guitar for singing, so we were really short-handed. Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to do it all.
We had a wonderful young man whom I think of as a pastor-in-training to chair the service, one of the church grandmas took the Sunday school class, the “hospitality hostess” who makes sure there’s coffee and cookies was there, and the talented couple who make up the rest of the music team were doing that part. So all I had to do was speak—which for me is enough of a challenge. I chose a subject that’s been on my mind a lot lately: stories, and how they shape our lives.
I began with a “true” story from my own life—at least as true as I could make it, since it happened seventy years ago. It’s one of my earliest memories, more of a memory of a memory after all this time. When I finally wrote it down about ten years ago, I called it “A Can of Nails.”
I was only two-and-a-half years old. Mama, heavy with my sister-to-be, may have shooed me outside to play.  Or perhaps I was supposed to be napping or playing indoors, and sneaked out on my own. My memory-movie begins with my walking out the front door of the house-- barely a cottage at that time, with one bedroom, a tiny living room, and a narrow hallway of a kitchen.  I shielded my eyes from the glaring sun, and carefully stepped down from the concrete porch-- a long step for me, but I made it without falling.
The fascinating sound of hammering drew me around the house to where Daddy and Grandpa were building the new room on the concrete slab they had poured a week or so ago.  Of course, I wanted to help.
Daddy had seen me coming. Before I could get too close to the enticing but dangerous construction area, he came to meet me with a coffee can partially filled with nails. “Here,” he said.  “I have a big job for you.  I want you to take care of this can of nails for me.  You can set them down, if the can gets too heavy, but be sure you don't spill them.  Now you can watch us, if you want to, but stay over here, under the pepper tree.”
How important I felt. I was really helping.  I stood for a while, watching them work, then sat down in the dirt to look at the nails.  I didn't know then that nails weren't supposed to be bent and rusty. It was many years before I realized that they must have been pulled from salvaged lumber-- building materials, like everything else, were in short supply during World War II.
After sitting for a while, I stood and picked up the heavy can again. I couldn't see over it very well, so I don't know what I tripped on, but the can and I went down and nails flew everywhere. I lay in the dust, crying as though I would never stop.
Daddy rushed over and checked me for injuries. "You're all right," he said. "You're not hurt."
"No," I choked out between sobs, “but I spilled the nails.”   I had failed in my first big job, and I was sure he would never trust me again.
Daddy turned away a moment, his shoulders shaking.  When he turned back, his face was solemn.  "That's all right,” he said.  “You can pick them up again. Be sure you get every one, and be more careful next time."
Like sun breaking through clouds, my sorrow gave way to joy.  I was forgiven, and he still trusted me. Determined to never again let him down, I carefully picked up every nail, then sat under the pepper tree to guard them while I watched Daddy and Grandpa work.  
What follows is the text of my talk, more or less as delivered.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of stories to inform and shape our lives. In fact, I’ve done a couple of presentations on the subject, to secular audiences, but I think it has relevance for church-goers as well. Now, most of you know that I’m a writer. I’ve done a bit of poetry and what’s loosely classified as “Christian inspirational” writing, but mostly I write fiction, and fantasy at that. It’s all made up and shared with others primarily for their entertainment. Just-for-fun fiction is one narrow definition of one type of story.
Stories take many forms. They may be written or spoken, acted out as plays or movies, or make up the lyrics of songs. They may be short anecdotes or novels or somewhere in between.
Stories can entertain, letting us visit another place or time, or a place and time that never existed. They can help us find the humor in the bleakest situations. They let us explore new ideas from a safe distance; if you don’t like where the story’s going, you can always close the book—or throw it across the room, if that’s your preference. Stories can teach us facts, values, coping skills and problem solving. They can be used for religious or moral instruction, or just to pass on culture in general. They can be cautionary, like so many of our “fairy tales,” showing us how not to behave or what happens if we break the rules. They can help us understand ourselves, by holding us up to a mirror, or showing us characters we don’t want to emulate. Stories can encourage, inspire, and even offer healing on many levels.
Stories aren’t only written down, or composed by people we recognize as authors, songwriters and playwrights. You and I, all of us, and humans in general, have been inventing and sharing stories since shortly after we learned to talk. That’s what people do. That’s how we tell our history, teach our culture including our religion, share our daily experiences, persuade others to see things our way. It’s the way we teach ourselves how to be human. We tend to put everything in story form, and often throw in a moral or meaning in the process.
Just listen to the next seven-year-old who wants to tell you about his trip to the zoo or what he dreamed last night. He’s going to shape that into some sort of standard narrative form, because he knows that if he doesn’t, his audience is going to walk away or tune him out. Notice how he arranges his material, adding emphasis to some items, glossing over others, maybe holding back some of it until the right dramatic moment. He throws in vivid descriptions and carefully builds up the tension to make sure you keep paying attention. That kid is no Stephen King, but he’s already invented the page-turner novel. He just needs a little encouragement and more practice.
We all do that. We all shape our experiences into stories, whether we intend to share them with someone else, or if we’re only going over what happened in our own minds, shaping it to make sense, to have meaning. Because that’s another characteristic that seems to be hard-wired into humans. We’re pattern seekers. We want everything to have some deeper meaning, to be more than “just a bunch of stuff that happened.” We see shapes in the clouds and faces on trees or potato chips. We look at the night sky and see more than points of light. We have to connect the dots, to envision objects, animals, heroic beings; and then we make stories to explain it all.
One of the characters in the book I’m currently writing made the observation that it “doesn’t matter if [the stories are] real like a rock or tree is real. It’s about how they make you think.” We can convey meaning with parables or metaphors which, while not literally true, can convey truth. Jesus taught that way, so did many teachers and leaders through the ages. There are, I hope, a lot of truths embodied in my “made-up” stories, that can nudge my reader’s thoughts a bit. Comments like “holding a grudge is like hugging a cactus” which is nearly a story all by itself.
But while literal truth isn’t necessarily essential to a good story, we do need to think about how that story is presented. We expect journalists to separate opinion pieces from news. We try not to confuse historical fiction with history. If a story claims to be factual or “true” in some absolute sense, but is actually a fabrication designed to make you believe a certain way, maybe a harmful way, then that story may step over the line and become propaganda or a lie, perhaps a malicious lie. Exodus 22:16 tells us:
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. (Exodus 20:16 KJV)
That shoots down a lot of stories, doesn’t it? And even if the story doesn’t claim to be literally “true” but, like many jokes, depends on an embedded falsehood, such as a punch line that requires that “everybody knows” that “all people of this particular disliked group behave in this unacceptable way” it’s still a case of false witness.
If you have email or participate in social networking sites such as Facebook, I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of stories that are designed to make you feel and act in certain ways, without too much concern for thinking or the facts. They may be “chicken little” type warnings about imaginary or highly exaggerated dangers, stories about politicians or other high-profile individuals designed to make you love or hate that person, rants against (or for) various groups of people aiming for similar results, or even pranks and scams that appear to serve no purpose other than mischief. You’re urged to share or forward right now, just a click of the mouse, don’t stop to think about it. They get passed along not because they’re some sort of universal truth, or even beneficial to anyone, but because they come close enough to our own hopes or fears or biases that they sound “true” and therefore must be shared with the world. It’s the electronic version of gossip, and we need to be on our guard about sharing those sorts of stories, lest we become part of the problem. Those stories aren’t limited to computers, of course. We can still pass them along by telephone or direct conversation—it just takes a little longer.
But of course no one here would ever pass on a lie or share gossip—would we? And far beyond repeating what “everyone says” we certainly wouldn’t originate such stories. We all know to stop and ask ourselves, not only “Is it true?” but “Is it kind?” or “What good purpose will be served by my sharing this?” Do we really need to persuade everyone we know that our way of thinking is the only acceptable one?
Jesus told us, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” And he went on to say,  Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” Matthew 7:1-5 NIV
Besides the stories we hear or read, that we may or may not decide to share, there are the stories we put together ourselves. Some of them are for internal use only, going over events in our minds and trying to make sense of them. That’s good, up to a point, depending on the meanings you attach to the stories.
If you’re giving yourself an atta-boy for doing the right thing, that’s good: it encourages you to do more of the same. If you’re telling yourself, “That didn’t work out too well; I need to do it differently next time, and maybe I need to tell someone I’m sorry,” that’s good, too. You’ve learned from a mistake, and want to make amends.
On the other hand, if you’re mentally beating yourself up, calling yourself stupid or worse, claiming that you “always” get things wrong, that’s not so good. Nor is justifying your mistakes by blaming them on others. If your internal stories are leading to anger or hopelessness, you may need to seek a second opinion—preferably from a wise counselor who won’t let you get away with pointing fingers of blame at yourself or others rather than resolving the issue. Those internal stories are how we become the person we want to be—or the person we don’t want to be. They’re important. We need to tell ourselves stories that help us grow.
As Paul said,   Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Philippians 4:8 NIV
You can choose the stories you want to internalize. You’ll find plenty of good ones in the Bible, of course, but you’ll find others as well, if you look for them. There are inspiring stories everywhere: in history and biographies as well as in prayer books like the ones Anita writes, and even in works of fiction. I like to think that some of my stories are both entertaining and instructional, that they offer some good role models for kids and encourage them to solve problems by thinking first and acting second.
And what about the stories we tell others directly—not about a third party but about themselves? The stories that influence their internal stories? Our words have the power to heal or harm, to build up or tear down, to strengthen or to crush. They may not be lengthy stories, but even a brief remark can have far-reaching consequences.
I was an extremely shy child. When I finally worked up the courage to show my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Byrd, my poetry, she told me that I was a poet. There was more to it, I’m sure, some prediction of future success, something about I had important things to say, but that’s the part of that story that I specifically remember. That’s the part that encouraged me to keep writing, to take baby steps toward presenting my work in public, to keep going when I started receiving rejection slips.
On the other hand, a well-meaning older cousin decided I was too old for pigtails and needed a new hairdo. Without bothering to ask my mother, and over my own protests, she took me to a beauty parlor where she and the hairdresser discussed my strengths and flaws, with emphasis on the flaws. It’s such a shame,” she said, “that your mother didn’t tape back those prominent ears when you were a baby. You’ll just have to be careful to stick to styles that cover them.” So for the next forty years or so I was very self-conscious about my ugly ears. Then my daughter, bless her, told me, “But mama, you have elf ears.” As if it were a wonderful, magical thing. She changed the story for me.
One of my favorite stories is a parable, or teaching story, that Jesus told . It begins, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.” Luke 10:30 NIV
We all know the rest of that one, don’t we. In fact, if I mention the word “Samaritan,” you’re probably going to automatically think “Good Samaritan.” But keep in mind that to the Jews who first heard this story, the Samaritans were slimy, filthy, blaspheming untouchables.  So what happened? Jesus changed the story. He can change your story, too.
Stories tell us who we are. They inform and shape our lives. But we shape the stories, too. If you don’t like the way your life is going, change the stories. Drop the negative ones, internalize the positive ones. Find yourself a new story and share that one with everyone. Let it be a story about love and redemption, a story about healing and forgiving, a story about seeking the best in everyone you meet. Let it be a story about overcoming challenges. Know that God loves you and wants the best for you. Give others the stories they need to hear, and they’ll mirror them back to you. You can be both the author and editor of your own story, as well as the ones you share. You can change the world, or at least your corner of it, by changing the stories.
The power of story; the power of words.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Review of Manage Your Self-Published Project

author: Hank Quense
ISBN: 978-0985779139
Published by Strange Worlds Publishing

            Hank Quense leads a double life. As a fiction writer, he authors some pretty funny stuff, mostly satirical short stories and books in the fantasy and science fiction genres. I really love his mash-ups of themes from Shakespeare, or Wagnerian opera, as played out by elves, dwarfs, and other denizens of mythical Gunderland or perhaps set in an alternate Earth.  But he also writes books and leads workshops for other writers, guiding them through the basics of assembling a story or book.
            Lately, Hank’s been doing a lot of self-publishing, and has started sharing his hard-earned expertise with others. Manage Your Self-Published Project is an organizational tool, full of “mind-maps” and flow charts as well as lists, the better to connect with whatever format works best for the reader. It still looks like a scary to-do list to me, which is probably why I haven’t yet attempted the daunting task of self-publishing. But it’s a well-organized scary to-do list, with all the bases covered, so you’re less likely to get near the end of the process and suddenly discover you’ve left out some important step that should have been done months ago.  
            If you’re thinking about self-publishing, and want a thoroughly researched checklist to keep you on track, I highly recommend Hank’s book. He’s been there, and has figured out what works.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Power of Story

Friday night (February 15) I had the privilege of speaking to the Lewis County Writers Guild (at The Matrix Coffeehouse in Chehalis, WA) about a subject that's been on my mind a lot lately. Stories are entertaining and a nice way to pass the time, but they're so much more. Since I'm more a writer than a public speaker, I put some of my thoughts in essay form, so I'd have a "cheat sheet" handy in case of mental meltdown. I only glanced at it a couple of times, so my talk was a bit different from the essay, but I think I covered the main points. I followed it by reading four chapters of The Mirror Door, book three in my Hall of Doors chapter book series, and then we had a Q&A session. I should also mention that they served me a delicious dinner before my talk, so much good food that I had to bring part of it home and ate it for breakfast this morning. Nummy! For those who couldn't be there for one reason or another, here's the essay:

The Power of Story and the writing of The Mountains of the Moon
            Stories come in a myriad of forms, both written and spoken: short stories, novels, plays,  the comic strip in today’s paper, your uncle recalling the events of 60 years ago, your seven-year-old telling you about his dream. Man is a story-telling animal. It’s how we communicate, how we connect with others.
            Stories can entertain, letting us visit another place or time, or a place and time that never existed. They can help us find the humor in the bleakest situations. They let us explore new ideas from a safe distance; if you don’t like where the story’s going, you can always close the book—or throw it across the room, if that’s your preference. Stories can teach us facts, values, coping skills and problem solving. They can be used for religious or moral instruction, or just to pass on culture in general. They can be cautionary, like so many of our “fairy tales,” showing us how not to behave or what happens if we break the rules. They can help us understand ourselves, by holding us up to a mirror, or showing us characters we don’t want to emulate. Stories can encourage, inspire, and even offer healing on many levels.
            All of us are story-tellers, tale-spinners, almost from the time we discover language. Most of us learn early how to self-edit, to present our stories in such a way that our intended audience will listen. Listen to that seven-year-old telling his dream adventure, which may be greatly embroidered from the original experience. He’s learned from experience that if he just rambles on and on, his audience will soon drift away. So he throws in vivid descriptions and tries to arrange his material to build up tension, to keep you wondering what happens next. Bingo. The kid has already invented the page-turner novel.            
            The child’s only motive may be to hold an audience, to experience the sense of empowerment and self-worth that accompanies someone being willing to listen to him.  But stories are more than sharing experiences or making a connection with a chosen audience.  They’re the way we pass on our culture, our values, our view of how the world works. They may be designed for a specific purpose, such as Aesop’s Fables with their built-in morals. Much of our religious instruction is done through stories; pastors delight in “sermon illustrations.” Folk tales and fairy tales often carry lessons or illustrate how the world works—at least in the story-teller’s viewpoint. Whether or not the stories are literally true, they embody “truth” in the form of shared wisdom.
            Even if the author’s intent is primarily to entertain, without thought of an instructive purpose, his story is going to going to partake of his thoughts, his values, his world view. And that’s not even considering the part the reader or listener brings to the story. Story-telling is interactive. Humans look for patterns and meanings in everything. We look at the stars and see mythical monsters and heroes. We find pictures in the clouds, or shapes and faces in vegetables, rocks, you name it. A story becomes a collaborative effort between the story-teller and the reader or listener.  I’ve put up stories for critique on the Critters internet writing workshop, and received as many as 40 responses, all different. It’s as if there were 40 different stories, and in a sense, that’s true, because each reader injected his or her own views into the story I thought I was telling.
            We shape our non-fiction accounts into story form, one thing leading to another, perhaps suggesting meaning in events that otherwise could be viewed as “just a bunch of stuff that happened” to quote Homer Simpson. We hunger for meaning, and we’ll find it, whether the author meant to put it there or not. Just look at all the shared quotations on Facebook or in those viral emails. Someone read those words and said “Aha! This has a deeper, more profound meaning.  It expresses how I feel. It must be a Universal Truth. I’ll share it with the world.”       Writing fiction, and particularly speculative fiction or fantasy, may free the author from dealing with troublesome facts, but these stories, like their non-fiction counterparts, can also embody “truth” in the larger sense. If my story resonates with the reader, if she can connect with the character or situation and see the correlation with her own life, perhaps find a solution to a problem or at least another way of looking at it, then my story is “true” for that reader. Whatever the author’s intent, a story can inform, inspire, encourage a change of behavior, comfort or heal.
            Mostly I write stories just for fun, or because I want to experiment with an idea or characters and see what happens. I often find that the characters I’ve created tend to take over the story, heading off in directions I hadn’t anticipated. It’s like a role-playing game or a group of children playing “let’s pretend” with each of them offering script prompts as they go. If my readers choose to assign a deeper meaning to that, that’s their choice.
            I’ve written my share of instructive or illustrative stories, for Sunday School use or the sort of inspirational books you find in Christian bookstores, but I’ve mostly kept that separate from my fantasy or science fiction “just for fun” writing. The first story in what became the “Hall of Doors” series was a little different, in that I wrote it for a specific purpose.
            I followed a pattern for some years, of bringing my Portland granddaughter a new story on her birthday. She had just turned seven when I asked what sort of story she wanted for next year.  I expected her to mention fairies or unicorns or something of that sort. Instead she said “Write about a little girl like me, whose parents split up and her cat died.”  That hit me like a punch in the stomach.  I realized that was the situation she was dealing with at the moment, and she was looking to me for answers, for some way to make sense of it all. That was a tall order, and I thought about it for months. What did she need to hear from me? What could I tell her that would help?
            I eventually came to the conclusion that when children lose someone, whether from death or abandonment, they naturally fear more losses. They’re afraid of being deserted, of having no one to take care of them. They also, being pretty self-centered at that stage, feel guilty, thinking the loss is somehow their fault. So I needed to work into the story that she wasn’t going to be left alone, that there were lots of people who would continue to love her and take care of her, and that none of the situation was her fault.   I couldn’t do too much about the absent parent—I love my stepson, but, like his father, he has a bit of a Peter Pan complex and can’t be counted on to take responsibility. As for the cat, since I had the freedom of a made-up story, I applied the magical question, “What if...” What if the cat in my story didn’t die, but went off to some magical place to have adventures?
            The granddaughter usually spent a week at my house during the summer, but that year she had a scheduling conflict and couldn’t make it. I had already arranged for time off from work, so I had no excuse for further delay in writing her story. I did it as a mini-book and emailed her a chapter a day. I had no idea what was going to happen each day until I wrote it. It began with a little girl hunting for her missing cat, who had a habit of disappearing when the moon was full. My characters took it from there. When the mother repeated her mother’s possibly joking comment, that the cat must have “climbed up a moonbeam to go walking on the mountains of the moon,”  I knew the cat had to actually climb a moonbeam—or at least a magic pathway masquerading as a moonbeam.  Of course the little girl had to follow the cat; how else would she know about the other world? And so it became a simplified “hero’s journey” in which the hero travels to the other world to gain wisdom, which has been the pattern for the subsequent books in the series.
            The granddaughter, who is now a college student, says the story helped. Stories can inform, comfort, and heal—and still be fun to read. The power of story.