“One friend with whom you have a lot in common is better than three with whom you struggle to find things to talk about.”
~ Mindy Kaling, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?
“It is one of the tragedies of life that one cannot have all the wisdom one is ever to possess in the beginning.”
~ Zora Neale Hurston, Written by Herself
“There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you.”
~ Zora Neale Hurston, Written by Herself
“I began to reflect upon life rather seriously for a girl of twelve or thirteen. What was I here for? What could I make of myself? Must I submit to be carried along with the current, and do just what everybody else did? No: I knew I should not do that, for there was a certain Myself who was always starting up with her own original plan or aspiration before me, and who was quite indifferent as to what people generally thought.”
~ Lucy Larcom, Written by Herself
“It was the ancient superstition that unhappiness resides in the country without, not within, and that one may cure a broken heart by a simple change of address.
~ Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow, Written by Herself
“To fall in love is very easy, even to remain in it is not difficult; our human loneliness is cause enough. But it is a hard quest worth making to find a comrade through whose presence one becomes steadily the person one desires to be.”
~ Anna Louise Strong, Written by Herself
“Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom had pronounced necessary for their sex.”
~ Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
I remember reading The Diary of Anne Frank in school. I remember reading Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place and fictional stories set during the Holocaust like Number the Stars. I remember reading those things with the not-quite-fully-realized idea that the Holocaust was a real thing that happened to real people.
I distinctly remember Number the Stars and the Jewish girl staying with the non-Jewish family and, when the Nazis come, the family pulling out a photo album where they had photos of their older daughter as a child with dark hair like the Jewish girl’s.
I remember reading The Diary of Anne Frank and being fascinated by the secret annex. I remember reading The Hiding Place and being stung when the Ten Booms were betrayed to the Nazis.
I haven’t read any of these books in more than ten years, but I remember them better than many of the books I’ve read since. They’re stories that simultaneously horrify and inspire. They leave readers both bewildered at the horrors carried out by humanity and empowered to stand in the way of such horrors should they ever come around again.
We’re living in a perplexing and, yes, bewildering time.
To only scratch the surface:
The city of Aleppo, Syria, has been the key battleground of the Syrian civil war for four years. President Assad’s Syrian regime is backed by Russia, which has routinely bombarded the city with no concern for civilian safety. November 19, it was reported that all hospitals had been destroyed. The civil war, which has been further complicated by Western involvement and ISIS, spawned the current refugee crisis, with hundreds of thousands of Syrians fleeing for their lives. It’s impossible to know how many civilians have been killed in Aleppo alone, but in April a special UN envoy estimated 400,000 Syrians have been killed during the civil war. That’s men, women, and children, not just rebel fighters.
To be clear: killing civilians is a war crime. It’s not war as usual (as if that should even be a thing).
In the meantime, the United States had a bizarre presidential election with results that, while they may not have been entirely surprising, have left many fearful. This was no normal Donkey-versus-Elephant election cycle. The republican candidate, now president-elect, neither holds conservative values (in terms of government, morals, or ethics), nor does he consistently stand on anything except his own ego. He harnessed the anger and frustration of a demographic that feels unheard and, even after winning, continues spewing baseless vitriol at anyone who dares challenge or disagree with him on his favorite of all social media platforms: Twitter. (Not to mention the regular untruths published by his team, like that he won the election by the greatest number of electoral votes ever. In case you were wondering: that’s not what happened.)
I won’t bother touching his despicable treatment of women, his sexual assault allegations, or his crooked business practices. Google exists for a reason.
Then, there’s all the racial tension, which has existed under the surface for decades but is now out in the open — both a good thing and a bad thing. Good because you can’t clean an infection if you don’t acknowledge it first. Bad because a certain president-elect has emboldened racist thought, speech, and action.
In college, I became a person who reads the news — or at least keeps up with it by following journalists and news organizations on Twitter.
This past year, I’ve found myself avoiding not just the news, but even longform stories about current events. Longform stories which I love reading, which I aspire to write, which I shared regularly on this blog on an almost biweekly basis not too long ago.
When the Syrian refugee crisis came to more mainstream attention last year, I felt personally connected to the issue because I had already read so much in-depth reporting on the people in those situations. Over the past year, as things escalated internationally and domestically (particularly with the election), I started feeling overwhelmed so I made an unconscious effort to be less informed. In other words, I started avoiding the news.
I don’t think that was right. It’s one thing to put down a book of history, like The Diary of Anne Frank or The Hiding Place, or a fictional story like Number the Stars, and move on with your life. It’s entirely different to decide to close yourself off to what real people are enduring in this world right now.
No, I can’t carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. No, I can’t solve the Syrian conflict or give a home to every refugee. No, I can’t keep the racists of America from abusing fellow image-bearers. No, I can’t make the president-elect a less despicable human being.
But I’m in this world right now. I was created for such a time as this. The reason may remain a mystery until my time here ends, but I know for a fact that I’m not on earth to cover my eyes when the wretchedness of this world spills over.
To him who knows to do good and does it not, to him it is sin. (James 4:17)
This is a verse I don’t think I’ll ever get past. It’s one that preaches to me about cleaning the recyclables and putting them in the bin instead of the trash. It’s one that gets me pushing the wandering grocery carts into the parking lot corral. It’s one that challenges me to stop avoiding certain people at church and work and in the gym.
Recently, this verse has been prodding me to stop closing the browser windows that are open to real things. Navigate away from the YouTube CrossFit tutorials. Don’t scroll past that article. Don’t just add it to your list. Stop. Click. Read.
In His first coming, Jesus announced His kingdom on earth:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18-19)
Christian theologians refer to the period we’re now in as the already-not-yet of God’s kingdom on earth. The Gospel is here, actively transforming lives, but justice and righteousness are not yet flowing as a mighty stream (Amos 5:24).
Before Jesus went to the cross, He prayed for His disciples:
I pray not that you should take them out of the world, but that you should keep them from the evil. (John 17:15)
Evil in this verse could be defined a number of ways. The “be careful little eyes what you see” interpretation might call it evil to seek out information about the world’s atrocities. There’s no argument that the atrocities themselves — governments slaying their own citizens, for example — are evil, but it is good to know what is happening in the world. Especially when it’s ugly. In fact, if anyone should know what’s going on in the world, it should be people whose hope is found elsewhere.
We’re not on earth to hold our breath waiting for life to get better. I wasn’t saved to live a comfortable life in a razor-free bubble of my own design. “With great power comes great responsibility,” and if I truly have God on my side, I have great power.
It’s a burden, knowing what’s happening on the other side of the world, feeling powerless to do anything about it.
A hundred years ago, our knowledge was limited by technology. One newspaper, maybe two. Radio programs. Television hadn’t been invented yet, much less computers. Now we’re carrying the world’s collective knowledge in our back pockets.
We could turn it off. I’m a staunch supporter of social media fasts. I grew up in a household without Internet that had regular no-screen weeks (usually as disciplinary measures). But if we’re turning it off to avoid discomfort, if we’re stepping back so we can get on with life as usual while people are being slaughtered in their hometown for no reason, while reporters are receiving death threats for asking challenging questions, while parents have no viable options for keeping their children safe from their own government, then our “fast” is just another exercise in selfishness.
To him who knows to do good and does it not, to him it is sin.
If I just hear about the ugliness in the world and shrug my shoulders, I am sinning. If I’m turning away from the news because it will awaken me to a responsibility — to pray, to give, to act — that I wouldn’t otherwise be aware of, then I am sinning.
To turn away from the ugliness of this world is to shirk my responsibility — not just as a citizen of this country and this earth, but also as a citizen of heaven. To hide my face from the brokenness that surrounds me is to fail to take up my cross and follow Christ, who left His heavenly home to be broken for me. And if I hide my face from the horrors of a land far away, what will I do when similar things come to the place I live?
I spent the majority of this week and last wrangling a story. The first 1,600-word draft — written to follow an outline I thought was solid and completed at approximately 6:30 p.m. last Friday (that’s 1.5 hours late to the weekend) — read like a list of events. No emotion, no thought progression. Just, this happened, then this happened, then this happened, then this, and then they got a cool letter. The end.
I’m not sure if the three-day weekend (Happy belated Memorial Day!) helped or hindered the revision process. I returned to the office on Tuesday, looked over Friday’s draft, heard Peter Parker’s editor in my head:
And decided to trash it. Back to the drawing boards.
(Almost literally, actually, since my first outline evolved out of a color-coded mess of whiteboard notes.)
Here’s what I (re)learned through this particularly frustrating revision process:
1. If you begin in the wrong place, nothing about the draft will seem right.
When I sat down to write from my new outline, I realized my planned beginning was still wrong (cue fists slamming on the desk) and I couldn’t write anything else until I got that right.
One of my most-used pieces of writing advice (courtesy of Sarah Dessen) is:
When you’re stuck on a story, go back to the last place things were going well and take a different course.
I apply this to nonfiction on a regular basis and, when I can identify the stuck spot and devise an alternate route, it works like a charm. With this piece, devising an alternate route took more effort than usual, but once I figured it out, the wheels on the bus went round and round and the story got moving.
2. Be willing to go back to square one.
I was annoyed that I’d written nearly 2,000 words of what I thought was unusable draft, and I was immensely frustrated that I had to outline all over again.
Once I have an outline, I’m usually convinced I have the story figured out. In this case, I was wrong and I was convinced I’d have to trash the entire draft.
But when I re-outlined and started writing, I found that I was wrong again: a lot of what I’d already written was usable — it just needed more narrative around it, more actual storytelling instead of just rehashing events.
Embrace the process. Go back to square one.
3. Get up close with your notes.
If you don’t know which page to flip to for that one quote or anecdote, you haven’t studied your notes enough.
I have this tendency — when a story involves talking to a lot of people at different times about the same thing — to think I know the material inside-out after I transcribe the interviews and read through, highlight, color-code my notes once. This tendency, I’m learning, is actually laziness I have to fight for the quality and integrity of my work.
I need to be as familiar with those notes as I am with my Bible.
When a quote comes to mind that could fit in this section about people’s perceptions of prison inmates, I need to know exactly where in my notes I can find it. If no quotes are coming to mind, I have a lot more studying to do.
4. Take the time to narrow your notes down, so you have a more concise reference that is tightly focused around the same things your story is focused on.
When you’re working with pages and pages of notes, it’s easy to get so overwhelmed by the information, you lose sight of the story.
When I sat down on Tuesday, I opened my notes — on paper and the same document on my computer — and, as I read through them, I copied and pasted what related to my story into a new document. This cut my active notes in half.
Doing this for investigative journalism will be more complicated, of course, but the principle holds regardless of what type of story you’re writing:
Cut your notes down to what is related to the story.
Remove anything you know you won’t use. If you’re so overwhelmed that you have no idea what you will or will not use, keep studying your notes and question whether or not you’ve done enough research.
5. Be patient, but keep pushing.
It’s okay to show signs of exasperation.
- Slamming your hands on your desk
- Muttering, You have got to be kidding me!
- Crumbling every sheet of paper you’ve written on in pursuit of this story. Okay. Maybe don’t do that.
But whatever you do — unless you happen to be a verbal processor, which is rare for writers — don’t vent to people.
Venting turns into talking as if you hate the work. You don’t hate the work. You’re just frustrated that it’s not going smoothly. Channel your frustration into the work, and eventually things will move the way they should, even if the movement is slow and clumsy.
6. Kill your darlings. Or at least be willing to.
If you’re a writer, you’ve heard this advice countless times. Like most cliches, it’s been repeated over and over because it’s right.
When a draft is under revision, everything’s on the chopping block. In order to stay, it has to prove it belongs. If a beautiful line, scene, description, word, gets in the way of the story, the only choice is to cut it.
If it’s any comfort, remember this: being willing to cut something — laying that beautiful line on the chopping block — doesn’t mean it will actually be cut in the end. When my new draft started flowing, I was thrilled to discover that a scene I thought I’d lose actually got to stay (points if you can correctly identify it).
7. Keep pushing.
I repeat myself, because the push is a necessary part of the struggle. Without it, you’re not struggling, you’re accepting defeat.
If writing is your job (like it is for me — one post-college life win!), accepting defeat makes you a bad employee. If writing’s not your job, it just makes you a bad writer. Which if you’re actually a writer, you are not okay with. So push on.
8. When you finish the piece to satisfaction (which you will), celebrate the way writers do.
Read. Subscribe to another magazine. Buy a load of books off Amazon. Search for your next story.
And if you need some weekend reading, check out the piece that in some backhanded way inspired this blog post:
This spring, six exercise science students and their professor traveled to New Castle Correctional Facility to gather data for a research project. They left with more than numbers.
Comment if you find the scene I was afraid I’d lose — or if you have writing lessons of your own to share.
Getting more sleep wasn’t one of my New Year’s resolutions, so here I am, starting this blog post at 10 p.m., the night before I have to go back to work.
December 31, 2016, after my nieces, brother, sister-in-law, and brother’s mother-in-law left me alone on the couch where I spent the last few nights of the year, I opened my journal and thought through 2016. I made a list of what I remembered in terms of significant moments, achievements, or events. I did my best to focus on the positives, what I did well, rather than where I embarrassed myself or didn’t do as much as I could.
A key lesson I learned in 2016 was to be kinder to myself.
I set the bar really high because I need to be challenged, but when I can’t jump high enough to reach it, my first instinct is to berate myself for not doing better. Guess what: berating doesn’t breed success, just bruises and less confidence.
I was encouraged by steps I made in my writing in 2016. In February, I did Figment’s daily writing challenge and, afterward, starting poking at a couple stories those prompts had started. I got back into journaling and saw distinct ways it improved my life and demeanor. I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time since 2008 — and successfully reached 50,000 words over thirty days.
Outside of writing, I traveled. To Boston. To Portland, Maine. To Turkey Run State Park in Indiana, where I hiked with friends and finally went camping. I was a surrogate aunt to my friends’ foster kids. I bought a mountain bike and bike rack and used them. I went rock climbing for the first time since high school. I finally started doing CrossFit. I successfully read the entire Bible over the course of the year. And, just this past week, I welcomed my new niece into the world.
So what’s on my plate for 2017?
Just a few things:
- Go to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for this writing conference and stay a whole week to see the Tetons, etc.
- Successfully complete Creative Nonfiction’s Science Writing course.
- Diligently work on unnamed book-length work of fiction so I can spend November 2017 reading and self-critiquing.
- Read 30 books (minimum), including: Jane Eyre, The Book Thief, Blind Descent, Ashley’s War, Proust and the Squid, Moby Dick, The Other Slavery, Blood in the Water, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, The Underground Railroad, The Huntress: The Adventures, Escapades and Triumphs of Alicia Patterson, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I’m aiming for variety: classics, bestsellers (fiction and nonfiction), offbeat books on seemingly random topics.
- Get personal training certified with ACSM.
- Do some freelance writing and editing.
- Get a pull up by March, five by May, ten by August.
- Do topical Bible studies on justice, light and darkness, living water, and the heart.
- Do in-depth Bible studies of Joshua, Ruth, Nehemiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Hosea, Nahum, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 & 2 Timothy, Hebrews, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John.
- Play more classical compositions on piano. Progress in the more difficult keys.
- Go real camping (in a tent not surrounded by RVs and campers).
Why do I set so many goals for a year if I easily slip into berating myself for my failures?
Because without goals, I go about life aimlessly.
I’m someone needs to regularly stop and consider her life. If I don’t — especially in this period of my adult life — I spend every day going through the motions and then when I do look back, I see a lot of wasted time. I don’t want to live haphazardly or accidentally. I want to live on purpose. Making goals and regularly checking in to see how I’m doing is key to keeping myself on track.
I’ve now written these goals in three different places and I’ve charted out what I’m aiming to tackle over the month of January. Which I’m already two days into. Which means now is probably the perfect time to sign off and try to get a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow’s going to be a busy day.
The biggest thing I’ve learned in the two-plus years since I graduated college is how little I know about, really, anything. And this isn’t meant to be self-deprecating. The world is just so big and old and complicated that what little bits I know are pinpricks of light on a canvas the size of the universe.
Take, for example, the realization that came to me during today’s workout:
All of the despicable things we heard Donald Trump say in that recording from 2005 — that is exactly the sort of talk and treatment that enslaved African-American women endured in silence from their owners. For centuries.
I knew about slave owners raping their female slaves, but I’d never thought of it in those terms before. And it took more than a week since hearing those comments to draw the connection between 21st century misogyny and historic brutality toward women legally rendered less than human. Suddenly, what those women endured is more real to me, more terrifying, more bewildering.
I tend to go through phases. I’ll create for a while, write a lot (relatively), squeeze out my soaked sponge on some small corner of the world. Then, I’ll withdraw — sometimes, out of fear that I’ll break something; sometimes, because I’ve run out of things to say. In all cases, because (whether I know it or not) I need to listen. I have so much more to learn than I have to teach.
Lately, I’ve been in sponge mode, trying to soak up as much as possible. Over the past month, I’ve subscribed to a minimum of two podcasts each week, signed up for so many TinyLetters and email newsletters that MailChimp makes me wait five minutes before subscribing again.
I’m immersing myself in information, some of it wrapped up in stories, narratives that flow beautifully from beginning to end, but just as much of it rendered loosely, unpolished. Most of the podcasts I’m listening to are conversations, ones I wish I could be part of. Much of what I’m reading is short, but thought-provoking. Much of it is opening doors into corridors I’ve hardly known were there.
Podcasts I’m listening to:
The Limit Does Not Exist: Dedicated to the intersections and overlaps of so-called right and left brain subjects and disciplines, this Forbes podcast places hosts Christina Wallace and Cate Scott Campbell in conversations with individuals whose lives and professions don’t fit in a tidy little box. Wallace and Campbell’s voices are sometimes too conscious of the microphone (that is, overly intoned), but it’s worth muscling through that audible discomfort to hear their conversations with people who can’t be limited to one adjective.
The Moth Podcast: Drawing stories from its live storytelling event series, The Moth Podcast is all true stories told by the people who lived them. They’re funny and shocking, heart wrenching and, at times (as all good stories are), uncomfortable. Not necessarily G-rated, but neither is life.
Kill Fee: Targeted toward writers who are trying to make it in the magazine world, especially as freelancers, Kill Fee is a new podcast by Jason Fagone, a freelance writer based in the Philadelphia area. Fagone interviews writers and editors with the goal of mining advice for those of us who have no idea how people actually write freelance for a living — and he doesn’t shy away from questions regarding dollars and cents.
Timothy Keller podcast: Listening to sermons as I make dinner is now a thing that I do (thanks, Mom). Timothy Keller is my favorite prominent pastor and the only one I listen to semi-regularly. He’s dedicated to orthodox Christianity, but not in a fundamentalist “I’m-right-you’re-wrong” way. His teaching brings fresh light to familiar Scripture passages, and he effectively employs cultural works (like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) to expound the text, while weaving in the full biblical story of redemption. (His books are pretty good, too.)
What I’m reading:
Crime Syndicate, a TinyLetter by Michelle Dean and Reyhan Harmanci: Crime Syndicate is a weekly newsletter that shares bizarre true crime stories that simultaneously make you wonder what the heck is this world I live in? and how do people get like that? and what would I be like if I were in their shoes? On the surface, the newsletter is just weird stories, but there’s more thought to it than that. You’ll learn things on a superficial, factual level, but if you allow a little reflection, you’ll also be pushed to acknowledge these criminals’ humanity. A TinyLetter is an email newsletter, so unless you subscribe to Crime Syndicate yourself, the only way you’ll be able to read it is if someone (like me) forwards it to you.
Adventuress, a TinyLetter by Rachel Syme: This one hasn’t really started, yet. Syme sent out the first one this week — a beautiful essay reflecting on our tendency to mythologize places and people and relationships, rather than facing the textured reality that they’re more complicated than that — but this isn’t what Syme plans the letter to be. The plan is for each edition to “romp through the life of a woman who is now dead.” My recommendation comes based on Syme’s writing in the first installment. Great sentences, unexpected but precise word choice. I’m excited to read more.
What I’ve read (outside of the longform/Good Reads vein):
Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr.: How I’ve never read this until now, I have no idea. It should be required reading for anyone participating in the national conversation around race. I might start reading it on a yearly or semi-monthly basis. Martin Luther King Jr. . . . man, we’ve simplified him so much that the general understanding of him is nothing more than a stick figure drawing when propped up next to the real man. This letter is simultaneously a philosophical treatise, cultural commentary, core-shaking challenge, and work of art.
The Sentimentality Trap by Benjamin Myers: Along the same lines of oversimplifying things to make them easier to embrace, this essay incisively criticizes the flowery, easy artwork the Christian community too often applauds. “Forgetting the direction toward honesty, many Christians seem to believe that what Scripture means by ‘pure’ and by ‘lovely’ is merely the pleasant and the naive, the Hallmark Channel, not the reality of a world in need of redemption.”
Annotation Tuesday: Brooke Jarvis and “The Deepest Dig”: I recommended “The Deepest Dig” in a Good Reads post over a year ago, so this was fun. It’s an interview with Brooke Jarvis, who wrote The California Sunday Magazine piece, and it walks through the whole story, asking Jarvis about different aspects of the reporting and writing process. (And, even better, it’s part of an ongoing Nieman Storyboard series, with an interview like this published each week.)
What are you learning?
This past spring, I ordered a copy of Everyone Leaves Behind a Name after hearing about the book and its author, Michael Brick, on Gangrey: The Podcast. I frequently listen to podcasts like Gangrey, which interviews working narrative journalists, but this episode was different because instead of interviewing the headlining writer, all 51 minutes were a conversation about Brick between three other journalists.
Brick died of colon cancer in February. The Gangrey episode was done in his memory. Everyone Leaves Behind a Name is a collection of his work from places like The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, and Harper’s. Proceeds from selling the book benefit Brick’s family.
A collection of true stories
Anthology became my favorite word when I learned it in grade school. The idea of a bunch of stories mashed together into one book so you could easily carry a bunch of quick reads got me excited the way some kids get about candy. Anthologies are now some of my favorite things.
Everyone Leaves Behind a Name stands apart from many anthologies because . . .
– it’s a collection of true stories
– many of which were written for daily newspapers and
– could have been super dry, boring news writing, but
– actually breathe life into their subjects and
– make the mundane and everyday somehow profound.
Brick’s heart aspiration was to write music and his sentences often feel more like lyrics than prose. I had to read slowly to make sure I actually comprehended his work, because the words would pick me up and go and I’d finish a piece dazzled but unaware what the story was actually about (the irony: wordlover comprehension problems).
The pieces vary in length, setting, and subject matter, but all of them reach past the surface-level events and personalities into bigger questions about life and what it means to be human on this crazy spinning ball. The writing is dense with meaning, so a coherent brain is necessary for full comprehension. If your brain is like that right before bed, go ahead and curl up with it. I quickly learned I needed to read it during daylight with as little distractions as possible. Otherwise, my attempts to read were just disrespectful Brick’s work.
Brick’s writing is distinct from anything else I’ve ever read. A lot of narrative nonfiction goes in and out of narration for short bits of reflection, but Brick’s wove reflection into everything. His keen observation, not only of sensory action but of profound contradictions and character complexity, was present in every paragraph and sentence. It made me wonder if I’m as observant as I think I am. Would I pick up on those things or would I be too busy with my head down taking notes?
If you’re a writer trying to find your way in the written world, Everyone Leaves Behind a Name should be added to your reading list. Here is a man who stepped into reporting completely green, learned the trade, and put his own beautiful spin on writing for a beat. As an anthology, the book doesn’t require a commitment. You can pick it up for a few minutes, put it down for a few weeks or months, come back to it and not have to catch yourself up. It’s not an easy read — like I said, dense with meaning — but it’s rich and interesting.
(My favorite piece is “The Big Race”, one of the longer works which starts on page 123.)
Over vacation, I read my kid siblings the beginning of my chapter book for kids.
My 9-year-old sis said to tell her when I was done so she could order it from the library. I told her I’d have her read it before it was published.
A day later, I explained the concept of publishing to my 7-year-old brother.
In the meantime, my 11-year-old sister read me the first chapter of her superhero book and (unquestionably) out-wrote me all week — she was finishing chapter five when I left. I only added a 69-word paragraph to my story.
It was cool. Not just their interest, but seeing my baby sister embrace the writing process. She had two notebooks: one for her book, the other for doodles with a single page where she wrote down “the plot” (her words). It felt familiar — seeing her curled silently over her spiral bound notebook, pencil in hand, scribbling away the blank rows. It was almost like I was watching my younger self at work. And now, I’m home and that’s what I want to do. Put words together. Map out stories and then quit sitting on them, actually write, from beginning to middle to end.
Add this thriller to the top of your list.
Rachel. Megan. Anna. They’re three women whose lives are woven together in known and unknown ways. Rachel is the divorcee of Tom. Anna is the homewrecker now married to Tom. Megan lives down the street from Rachel’s former and Anna’s current home. The train line cuts behind both houses, and it’s from the train that Rachel watches the life she wished was hers.
Until one day, Rachel sees Megan’s face in the paper. She’s missing.
Paula Hawkins’ debut novel landed #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list for good reason. With simple language that firmly grounds you in the modern British setting and carries the story without unnecessary confusion, The Girl on the Train is a story that’s too frighteningly believable — and well worth your time.
Hawkins’ words don’t paint lush portraits or jump to poetic heights. They’re too busy drawing you close to the characters, especially Rachel whose perspective begins and ends the book. As you read, you immerse into the complexity that is a human being whose past she both regrets and can’t leave behind.
You won’t want to trust Rachel’s narration — she doesn’t even trust herself — but you will hold your breath and hope for her. You’ll grimace and groan when she messes up again. You’ll yell at her not to go back. You’ll care about her in spite of yourself, in spite of her.
The Girl on the Train is about assumptions. Assumptions and speculations that people make about others, especially when they see them from a distance, literally or figuratively. It’s about how our assumptions, and the hopes behind them, blind us to reality (at best) and put us in dangerous positions (at worst). Maybe we can trust ourselves, maybe we can trust others, but we can’t trust our assumptions or speculations.
The Girl on the Train is driven by the internal monologue of the three characters. Each chapter is from another woman’s perspective, with Megan’s set several months behind (made clear by a dateline at the beginning of the chapter).
The changing perspectives didn’t jar my experience, but it took me forever to keep the men straight: is Scott the one Rachel was married to? Or was that Tom? I have a ridiculously hard time remembering character names and I blame my ongoing confusion on them both having one-syllable names with an “O” in the middle. (It’s a decent excuse.)
That’s my main complaint, though. In the future, I’d hope Hawkins would work toward more depth and complexity in her male characters and more emotional strength in her female characters, but the characters in The Girl on the Train only bothered me at the level they were supposed to. I hated who I was supposed to hate, and I liked who I was supposed to like.
The book isn’t super quotable, but I copied down these lines near the beginning. They’re both from Rachel’s perspective:
“I have never understood how people can blithely disregard the damage they do by following their hearts. Who was it [that] said that following your heart is a good thing? It is pure egotism, a selfishness to conquer all.” p. 31
“I will never begrudge him happiness — I only wish it could be with me.” p. 43
Who’s this book appropriate for?
I’d set it at 17+. It’s written for adults and has some sexual content that, while not being explicit or gratuitous, I wouldn’t want my 15-year-old self (or my 15-year-old sister, for that matter) reading. I’d recommend it to both men and women, because the story itself could spark a lot of introspection in both parties, but it might be too emotionally driven for the stereotypical man to be interested.
Grappling with privilege and the mess made by people who look like me.
JULY 7, 2016. EVENING.
I’m not sure what to make of today. The country is again drawing lines in the sand because two more black men were gunned down this week for no reason. Fathers. Involved in their kids’ lives. Not drug dealers or thugs or rapists. Men. Who loved and cared for their loved ones, complied to the cops’ requests, and lost their lives anyway.
It was the fourth of July on Monday. We, as a nation, celebrated our freedom. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness — rights that no one is to take away from us, unless we infringe on one of someone else’s — we celebrated living in a country that honors all three for all of its people.
But does it really? Because for my African-American brothers and sisters, for my non-white immigrant or first-, second-, third-generation American siblings, for my Native American brothers and sisters, that promise has fallen — repeatedly, often, and too recently — short of reality.
I log into Facebook and, while my white friends whine about work or count down to the weekend of “adventure” or post selfies with their “fur babies”, my black and brown friends share things like:
A TEDtalk of an African-American poet reflecting on how he was raised in a world where authority would hold him to an especially lofty standard:
A father sharing a poem-in-progress with his young son:
— v a n e s s a (@dzyadzorm) July 7, 2016
A friend of mine who has a one-year-old posted this:
My breath caught in my chest when I saw that post. I don’t want this horror story to last another twelve years. Or ten. Or five. Or one. I want it to end now.
I am white. Which means I have privilege. It also means I don’t know what it’s like to be black, brown, or any other color. I don’t know what it’s like to be in someone else’s skin, and the only way to get an idea is to go out of my way and ask. Even without knowing, though, there’s no denying that my experience of America — especially with gun-bearing police officers who look like me — is drastically different from the African-American male.
Not all cops are racist. Not all cops are ruled by fear. Not all cops are white. But that’s not the point. The point is:
There is a disparity between what we say America is and what she lives out on a daily basis. And it is not the downtrodden’s job to lift themselves out of the ashes. It’s the responsibility of the privileged to give them a hand, foot, and leg up — to even lift them on our shoulders if we’re able. Not for token diversity, not to fulfill some “white savior” fantasies, but out of a genuine, heartfelt love and, thus, sense of duty for our neighbors.
Sunday, I had to sing “America the Beautiful” in church, because my church is one of those that still does that. It felt weird, because over the past several years, this nation has only grown uglier in my eyes. I know I’m blessed to have been born here and I’m proud of a lot of our heritage, but I don’t think the United States of America is the greatest nation on earth. And in no way do I see its past as something to bring back.
Four days later, at our Thursday evening service, I had to sing the song again — this time, after a full day of trying to grapple with what it means that these boys lost their father and this woman and child had their man shredded by bullets right in front of them.
How can I sing of America’s beauty when this is what’s happening across our country?
It wasn’t until the last two lines of the first verse that I realized I could make it a prayer:
America, America, God shed His grace on thee/And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.
July 18, 2016. NOON.
I opened my email this morning to find The Skimm and learned about police lives lost in Dallas to “snipers” looking down on a peaceful #BlackLivesMatter protest.
Last night, journaling about the men killed by policemen, I struggled with what this country purports to offer its citizens and what it actually delivers. Today, I just don’t know what to say anymore.
None of this is right. Police brutality, racial profiling, assassinations of honorable officers. This is all wrong and I feel powerless. What am I supposed to do? Can I impact the world at all?
I sense a responsibility to not give up hope, to grasp it tightly and multiply it, build up my neighbors, pour out to others.
This week has been heavy and I can’t carry it — but look how many people have been upset by these events. For all the trolls and willfully, rabidly ignorant, there are at least two whose hearts ache over this mess. That’s twice as many.
This week has been filled with wrongs, overrun with evil, driven by hatred and fear and other vile spewings of the human heart. But it’s not without hope. Because there’s me and there’s you and there are countless others united in the conviction that this cannot be our future as a nation.
As we rise and move forward, let’s do so with purpose. Let’s reach out to those different from us, whether ethnically, politically, religiously, or otherwise. Let’s seek to understand our shared humanity. And let’s bathe every effort in prayer.
Do not put your trust in princes,
Nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help.
His spirit departs, he returns to his earth;
In that very day his plans perish.
Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help,
Whose hope is in the Lord God,
Who made heaven and earth,
The sea, and all that is in them;
Who keeps truth forever,
Who executes justice for the oppressed,
Who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord gives freedom to the prisoners.
The Lord opens the eyes of the blind;
The Lord raises those who are bowed down;
The Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
He relieves the fatherless and widow;
But the way of the wicked He turned upside down.
I’m still processing all of this. My emotions have been a wreck. God help us.
A book recommendation, straight from the non-air conditioned apartment where I carry my fan around like a security blanket:
To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing by Simon Garfield
“They expose a grand truth, and often the same truth we may feel when we read Shakespeare and Austen: no matter how original we consider ourselves to be, it is evident that our emotions, motives and desires have echoes in the past. We’re not so special; someone else has almost certainly been there first.”
Simon Garfield, To the Letter (p. 200)
To the Letter is a history of letter writing that travels all the way back to the Roman empire — first by telling the story of a batch of letters written on flimsy wooden slices that were uncovered in the mud during an excavation in Vindolanda (the former location of a Roman fort in Britain) in the 1970s.
The book traces the history of letters and postal systems, but not in the tone of a stuffy history professor. Garfield’s words engage you, draw pictures of the characters involved, and provide humorous asides in footnotes as well as the regular text. Each chapter tackles a certain aspect, era, or phenomenon of the letter writing world. You follow him to auctions and university collections, where he pores over forgotten and prized documents, illegible handwriting, and considers the contexts in which these letters were written.
In between the chapters, a special treat: letters from a British soldier to his sweetheart during World War II. By reading along, you get to see his love for her form and grow as he’s away, when he’s anticipating return, and then after their reunion. I definitely let out a few “aww”s when I read these pages (though not all the letters are G-rated).
Throughout the book, Garfield quotes notable letters alongside others that are just interesting, demonstrating a particular benefit of still having these letters around: You can tap the wisdom of centuries ago, learn from people whose lives were different but not really simpler than our own. Some favorite quotations from To the Letter:
“You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate . . . All your bustle is useless. . . . You must lay aside the burdens of the mind; until you do this, no place will satisfy you.” Seneca the Younger (p. 56)
“You must try now to have the high opinion of yourself which the world will come to share if you do.” Pliny the Elder, writing to Caninius Rufus (p. 59)
“in a letter to the youngest Paston brother in 1477, a cousin advises him not to be discouraged by his prolonged pursuit of a wife, ‘for . . . it is but a simple oak that is cut down at the first stroke‘.” (p. 122)
“To be sincere in all my words and actions was the first precept of my early youth, I have ever since held it sacred.” From a letter writing guide (p. 161)
Lord Chesterfield (p. 168, 169):
“Very few people are good economists of their Fortune, and still fewer of their Time; and yet, of the two, the latter is the most precious.”
“Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.”
In addition to learning about the various letter writing manuals that have existed since people started writing letters, how the postal system evolved (in Europe, anyway; there’s little mention of the American system — not a word about the Pony Express), and how letter writing has served historians, you’ll also learn that Jane Austen’s letters were dull while other writers’ letters were better than any of their published work and that, unsurprisingly, some letters are better left unfound.
Every page of To the Letter is packed with details that draw you in as a reader. The book is nonfiction (of course) and not an arcing narrative in the traditional sense, but there’s a flow of thought that Garfield builds and develops by showing us as many facets of “the post” as possible.
At the beginning, Garfield introduces us to Felix Pryor, a former manuscript specialist who moved into collecting letters into anthologies:
“He regrets that is it principally the letters of the famous that survive, and that among history’ greatest casualties are the letters of ordinary people, who survive on paper only in legal documents.” (p. 197)
At the end, Garfield illuminates the challenges archivists are facing with shrinking physical documents and disappearing digital ones.
Then, he entreats the reader to write some letters. Which I am all for.
One more quote:
“Love letters catch us at a time in our lives where our marrow is jelly; but we toughen up, our souls harden, and we reread them years later with a mixture of disbelief and cringing horror, and — worst of all — level judgment.” (p. 336)
5 more reasons to read To the Letter:
- It’s written extremely well.
- It’s chock-full of interesting things you don’t know.
- It has pictures.
- It digs into every century since, basically, the dawn of civilization. (There wasn’t civilization before letters? Hmm…)
- It exposes humanity on a deeply personal level, confirming that people then weren’t that different from people now.
(You can currently buy the hardback for one cent on Amazon — not my copy. I’m keeping mine.)
Uncovering lies, leaving untrustworthy excuses, and chasing God’s calling.
I was on the mat, 40 pushups behind me and gearing up for the next part of my workout, when I saw an athlete bite it on the treadmill.
He, along with three other incoming freshmen, was trying out for the men’s soccer team. The assistant coach had walked them through the treadmill settings. Time to see how fast they could go and for how long. Probably two miles, maybe 2.5.
He was running hard. That’s what you do when you’re trying to make a college team. And when you’re determined, you will push and push and push. He did well, and then his legs couldn’t keep up anymore. Next thing, he’d fallen and his limbs were flailing, trying to pull himself back up as the belt kept moving.
“You’re done,” the assistant coach said, grabbing him and setting him on the motionless floor. The athlete, out of breath and still shocked, nodded and stepped back.
He ran hard. He didn’t know yet if he’d make the team.
It’s easy to get lazy with your life.
Whether our life circumstances are simple or complicated, we can always find excuses or pseudo-spiritual platitudes to use in answering the question of why we’re living the way we’re living. Easy to spot are the countless variations of God wants me to be happy and it’ll all work out in the end (the first is untrue, the second an enormous oversimplification). Trickier are the ones that dance around fear or pride or selfishness and paint them as logical, acceptable, and rightfully normal.
Instead of calling fear, fear, and declaring the truth that it is not, nor ever will be, from God (2 Tim. 1:7), we pretend it’s not at the root of our constant hesitation and insecurity.
I’m not comfortable with going there [to that place I’ve never been, so I’m afraid of it].
I’m just not outgoing [because I’m afraid I’ll have nothing to say and people will think I’m dumb/boring/a waste of life].
Or in the case of pride, we relabel arrogance and self-infatuation as self-confidence and self-branding.
They don’t have to follow me if they don’t want. [But if they don’t, they’re missing out.]
Then there’s selfishness, which comes in so many shapes and forms — and arguably, is the root of both fear and pride.
We allow fear to rule us because, in our selfishness, we don’t want to ever be caught failing. Why risk failure when you can live up to someone else’s standards of success right where you are, never mind the fact that you are capable of improving, of pushing harder? We allow pride to take over, because when we elevate ourselves above others, we fulfill our selfish wishes to be number one at all costs.
One of my pet peeves on Pinterest are the quotes that roll around about cutting people out of your life who don’t, basically, feed your narcissism. I understand the need to create distance from people who purposefully tear you down, but the reality is that the people who are the hardest to be friends with — because their glaring insecurity makes them unpleasant and exhausting to spend time around — they actually need friendship the most. And if you embrace challenging friendships, they can grow you in ways you didn’t know you needed to grow.
To cut people out of your life because you just can’t handle them or don’t click or have nothing in common is not only self-serving — it’s wrong. Especially if you claim to be a Christian, because loving the “unlovable” is what the Creator did in sending His Son for the creations that screwed themselves up.
I’m almost halfway through reading the Bible in a year, and I just started Jeremiah, which is one of my favorite prophetical books.
Jeremiah is all about God calling His people to repent and turn back to Him with their whole hearts — not with empty words, but with the core of who they are.
“O Jerusalem,” He says in chapter 4, verse 14,
“wash your heart from wickedness, that you may be saved. How long shall your vain thoughts lodge within you?”
That question struck me.
I know that I harbor thoughts that grieve the Spirit. Fearful thoughts, prideful thoughts, selfish thoughts, impure thoughts, mocking thoughts, judgmental thoughts. My mind is always whirling with ideas and images and what I just read, and there’s always something in me that isn’t fully aligned with His purpose for His daughter.
And it’s not just my thoughts. It’s also my actions — or many times, my inactions.
“To him who knows to do good and does it not, to him it is sin,” reads James 4:17, and while this verse has convicted me into taking the extra step to do small bits of good — corralling those stray grocery carts in the parking lot so they won’t hit someone’s car, holding the door open extra long to help the straggler in — there are still so many times when I shy away from doing good because it’s outside of my comfort zone or I’m just not outgoing. Never mind that I’ve been outside of my comfort zone for an entire six months and I can be outgoing if I have to (thank you, six years of working food service).
I make those excuses and I live by them, allowing false ideas of myself and my capabilities to build walls around the person Jesus died to set free.
What would the church look like if we stopped letting lies define our boundaries? How would our lives look different if we didn’t measure them with the same stick — of money, fame, comfort — that the world does?
I’m not saying we should be irresponsible, but I can honestly say that my own strong sense of responsibility in terms of my career and life trajectory often feels like chains around my neck. And not the kind you buy at a jewelry store.
What does it look like to “lay aside every weight” in an age that idolizes, in some settings, workaholism and, in other settings, pleasure? What does it look like to embrace God’s calling on our lives and “run with patience the race that is set before us“?
My current journal has a Jane Austen quote on the front:
“Know your own happiness.”
Quick interpretations outside of the quote’s context would consider this a very selfish statement to put on the cover of a book for one’s thoughts. My idea of it goes deeper:
I’m a young woman finding my way in a world that is broken but full of possibilities. I can’t measure my life by the lives of my peers or my older brothers or other people I admire. God’s call on my life is singular. His calling for me is not the same as His calling for Jeremiah or Paul or Mother Teresa or Tim Keller. His calling for me is not the same as His calling for my parents or any one of my siblings. His calling for me is not the same as His calling for each of His other writers. His calling for me is just that — His calling for me.
And that’s scary, because that means there are a lot of unknowns. There’s the freedom I have right now in singleness, which I can easily see lasting for years to come. There’s the freedom in being college-educated and debt-free and young and healthy and childless.
But see how fear paints freedom?
With fear as my contacts, I see freedom as unknown, something to tremble at and worry about. With restored vision, freedom isn’t scary. It’s exciting. It’s not something to worry about, it’s something to start marking up notebooks with all the good things that could happen by embracing freedom.
With true freedom, the only direction you won’t run is toward destruction. Which isn’t to say, I’m free so now I’m flawless, but we only take the path toward destruction when fear, pride, or selfishness is ruling our hearts. When those things are cast out, the roads we run don’t even have potholes.
Running is our calling.
What that looks like for me, what that looks like for you — it may be different, when we talk specifics, but overall it will involve love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (here’s what it won’t involve).
Those are results — the fruit — of a life spent running hard after God’s call.
I want to be that athlete on the treadmill, giving it all I’ve got until I can’t give anymore and the next thing I know, He’s telling me, “Well done.”