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Archive for May, 2011

(Part 2 of my series on Madeleine L’Engle’s reflections on faith and art in Walking on Water)

"Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art" by Madeleine L'Engle

The more I read this book, the better I understand my role as a writer and, more importantly, my role as a faithful writer–one who believes in God and Jesus Christ. I find myself re-thinking some of my goals as a writer and that is always a good thing. This life is full of change and we must never become so set in our ways that we are not open to change. Change in ourselves. Change in our work. When it comes to change in our lives, the key question we must ask ourselves is this:

Does this change bring order or chaos?

I’ve been thinking this way because of another quote from L’Engle’s book:

“…all art is cosmos, cosmos found within chaos. At least all Christian art (by which I mean all true art, and I’ll go deeper into this later) is cosmos in chaos. There’s some modern art, in all disciplines, which is not; some artists look at the world around them and see chaos, and instead of discovering cosmos, they reproduce chaos, on canvas, in music, in words. As far as I can see, the reproduction of chaos is neither art, nor is it Christian.” (pp. 8-9)

If God is, indeed, the master artist–and I believe He is–then we should look to Him for an example of how he creates. He takes chaos–unorganized matter–and organizes it into worlds. He is all about order. I don’t know that He needs to write down a plan or an outline first, but I am certain that, at the very least, He draws it up in his mind. Scripture tells us that all things were created spiritually before they were physically created.

As writers, then, we may choose to outline our story first on paper or the computer or in our head…or we may choose to dive into the chaos with one or two single organizing elements (this is usually my method) and then, as the words flow, we begin a collaboration with the Giver of all gifts and, somehow, (in a way most mysterious to me, but then…my ways are not God’s ways) an order begins to form on the page or the screen. And that order gives way to further order, sometimes branching out in surprising directions. Why does it surprise? Because I am not in sole control. My collaborator is the one in control and He can see far ahead and I may find myself inserting an element to the story here and there which only makes sense as I near the tale’s end. Of course, it made sense to Him all along because all things are present with Him.

As I wrote my first novel, I very much felt this way. I felt as if I was being led and the writing truly flowed. With my second novel, it began the same way and then I began to second guess myself (or was I second guessing my writing partner?) and, as a result, the writing stalled. It was only later, when I gave in to the mysterious process again that the words flowed once more. By the end, the words and direction of the book had surprised me yet again…several times.

You might think I would have learned my lesson, but no. I began my third novel and too soon I shared that beginning with fellow writers, seeking their judgment, afraid I was going in the wrong direction. Naturally, my muse fled. And why not? I had not trusted Him. I understand now that my only collaborator in the first draft process can, and should, be the Giver of all gifts. A writer’s group is terrific for second and third drafts, but never the first.

It is only by working with Him in the beginning that I can create true art.

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ReunionReunion by Fred Uhlman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reunion is beautifully written, with some passages reading almost like poetry. That may seem strange for a novella focused on the events of World War II and its impact on two particular friends. In some ways, it reminded me of A Separate Peace. It was particularly nice, for a change, to get a feel for the German countryside and way of life in the years before Hitler’s rise.

Still, I wish the author had chosen to lengthen the story, for the last third of the novella seemed to be a too-quick summary and it brought me up short. After dawdling in the description of pre-war Germany and particularly the lengthy build-up to the friendship between the sixteen-year-old Jewish boy, Hans, and the similarly aged Konradin, a Protestant son of a prominent Swabian family, I wasn’t prepared for the quick shifts that followed.

In any case, for a story that gets at the heart of the tragedy of World War II without making the reader wallow in its evils, Reunion is well worth the short time required to read it.

View all my reviews

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I’ve begun to read Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, and I thought I would begin a series of personal reflections here on ideas she raises. This quote jumped out at me in her first chapter, entitled “Cosmos From Chaos:”

When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening. I will never understand the silent dying of the green pie-apple tree if I do not slow down and listen to what the Spirit is telling me, telling me of the death of trees, the death of planets, of people, and what all these deaths mean in the light of love of the Creator, who brought them all into being, who brought me into being, and you.

This questioning of the meaning of being, and dying and being, is behind the telling of stories around tribal fires at night; behind the drawing of animals on the walls of caves; the singing of melodies of love in spring, and of the death of green in autumn. It is part of the deepest longing of the human psyche, a recurrent ache in the hearts of all of God’s creatures.

This questioning of the meaning of our existence is at the very heart of who we are as human beings. Perhaps the pheasant outside my window (yes, we do have a pheasant who strolls, every now and then, across our back slope and up onto our lawn) even ponders the meaning of his life. I can’t speak for animals, but I do know humankind.

We have a compulsion for meaning, for understanding, for the truth of things. While we may not be able to control all the elements of our world, and we’re often at the mercy of nature, we can conceive a truth and capture or convey it in drawings, music, dance, or words (whether spoken or written). And because we can, we do. It is instinctual, perhaps even an inherent trait from the Creator who made us.

He conceived a world in His mind before He ever set about the work of organizing it. And He conceived the story of our salvation before He even set it into effect by placing Adam and Eve in the garden.He is the Author of our faith. His, the greatest story ever told.

Thus, we have story, and thus, we are always drawn to story. We need to tell our own stories, and we need to read or view or listen to the stories of others. Why? To discover and re-discover the truth of our existence, our being. To understand how bound we are in love, one to another…and all to our Creator.

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I’m still thinking about a presentation by Dave Wolverton at the recent LDStorymakers Conference. The title of the presentation was “Using Resonance to Attract Readers.” Dave thinks a lot about why people read what they read, and his approach on this topic was very practical as he tried to get us, as writers, to think of how we might gain more fans by crafting our work to hark back to other popular or well-known pieces of writing.

Resonance is defined as “the quality in a sound of being deep, full, and reverberating.” Figuratively, it means “the ability to evoke or suggest images, memories, and emotions.” The term originated from the Latin resonantia (echo) and resonare (resound).

Reverberation isn’t much different: “a re-echoed sound; being reverberated or reflected. In physics, it is defined as “the persistence of a sound after its source has stopped, caused by multiple reflection of the sound within a closed space. The term originated from the Latin reverberat (struck again).

The concept applies throughout the arts. Consider music, where most first hear of resonance. Any symphony has certain themes (melodies) which repeat during the course of the piece, with or without variations. So the music has resonance built in. I imagine the same occurs in art (although, not being an artist, I can’t be certain). It definitely occurs in dance and theatre.

We can do the same thing, as writers, with our written work, whether it be poetry, plays, essays, short stories, or novels. Repetition, or resonance, adds power to a piece if not overdone.

And it doesn’t have to exist only within the piece. Ideally, what we have created will resonate and reverberate long after. As stories similar to ours are read in the months and years to come, ours may be remembered along with all the sweet and powerful memories originally evoked. It works the other way, too (and that’s mostly what Dave was talking about). If we’re smart, we’ll write something that will remind our readers of powerful or popular books already out there.

On a more spiritual level, I’ve come to realize that this is simply another manifestation of the “two or more witnesses” principle in judging truth. “It is also written in your law, that the testimony of two men is true.” (John 8:17) “…In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word by established.” (2 Corinthians 13:1) Art is an attempt to discover and communicate truth and it comes closest to its purpose when a piece of work is resonant–“deep, full, and reverberating”–like this performance of the Christmas Carol, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” sung by the Azusa Pacific Men’s Chorale in an impromptu performance in the Mormon Tabernacle, renowned the world over for its acoustics. (The carol was based on the Latin poem Corde Natus by the Roman poet Aurelius Prudentius and its musical arrangement has been added upon and embellished over the centuries, thus making it living proof of resonance in the arts.)

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I am not an artist. I think I had potential as a child, but I pursued language instead. (By language, I mean writing.) I have tremendous admiration for those who can do both, for both are forms of storytelling. I love this video in which David Wiesner explains his creative process. Wiesner is a three-time Caldecott medalist and he was named Illustrator of the Year at last night’s Children’s Choice Book Awards. This video shows how art can lead to story and words:

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