Sing



Twice a day, at least, and sometimes several times a day, I drove past the empty mobile home on the highway-side of our long, private road, and tried not to look. The sight of that long strip of yellow crime scene tape, tucked haphazardly within the branches of a never-pruned bush, would tip me off that I was nearing the scene. I’d catch the flicker of a loosened edge of tape, dancing in obedience to a passing breeze, and I’d look to the other side of the road, and try hard not to think of all the sadness that had played itself out on that parcel of acreage.

Three deaths had occurred there; three deaths in about that many years. The first had been a drug overdose. The second was an accidental homicide, which happened when an estranged ex-husband showed up with a gun, threatened his ex-wife, and shot her new boyfriend. The boyfriend lived. The ex-husband died when his 14-year old son, trying to defend his mother, picked up a two-by-four and hit him over the back of the head.

My husband brought groceries to the family and spent a half-hour trying to comfort a group of people who showed no interest in comfort. “I’m glad he’s dead,” one said, and the rest agreed. Though I can’t imagine the boy escaping regret for the whole of his life, he showed no remorse on that afternoon when Dave sat ready to point the way to forgiveness.

We tried to reach out again, not long after, when Dave spotted the owner of the property, J.D., out near the mailbox. J.D. lived in a travel trailer off to the side of the mobile home, which he had rented to the other family. We’d just returned from the grocery store and had a box of donuts in a bag between us. Dave handed the donuts to J.D., chatted with him a bit, and then suggested that they get together for coffee.

“I might like to do that, Pastor,” J.D. said. Dave left our number and told the quiet man to call anytime.

But coffee never happened. A week turns into a month pretty quickly, and months slip by before you catch what’s happening. Once in awhile, one of us would mention J.D. and the coffee idea would resurface. But before it could come to life, J.D. was gone. One night, after several drinks with his live-in girlfriend, J.D. fell asleep … and she shot him.

Three deaths; three long yellow strips of crime scene tape. I was sick of the sight. But one afternoon, before I realized what I was doing, I stopped my car directly in front of that unpruned bush. Reaching into the branches, I pulled out a section of that tape and tore it away, then brought it home and tacked it to the bulletin board above my writing desk.

We don’t know the number of our days. We only know that we have this hour, this minute, this second. I don’t want to forget the frailty of breath. I want no regrets.

Next to that strip of yellow tape I’ve posted a favorite quote. Most of us go to our graves with our music still inside us.

Today, I want to sing.

My Point … and I Do Have One


I thought it might be funny, when I was about five, to lock myself in the bathroom while having my bath and not answer my mother’s insistent knocking and yelling. Who knows why we do these things?

That was, I believe, my first practical joke. Rough, yes — and not terribly well thought out. But we have to start somewhere. I remember lying in that tepid water holding my hand over my mouth so my mother couldn’t hear my giggling over her panicked pounding. She stopped after a moment or two, and I heard the back door open and slam. What I couldn’t see from the bathroom–and only learned later when my mother recounted the drama for my father–was that she then vaulted herself over the side of the porch railing, grabbed the axe from the woodpile, gave a hearty whack or six at the bush growing against the window, and jammed a ladder under the windowsill.

The window was unlocked, fortunately. After she climbed in and we exchanged polite hellos, she sat her shaky self down on the toilet lid and told me about the little boy who cried wolf. I thought it was a terrific story and asked her to tell me another.

“You’re missing the point, Shannon. That story is about you. If you keep doing this — if you keep telling fibs — people won’t believe you later when you really need help.”

That was my introduction to “the point.” I thought my mother was extremely clever to just plop herself down on the toilet lid (after pounding, vaulting, whacking and climbing, no less) and create that winsome combination of story and point. I admired her ability to tie a seemingly unrelated tale to my mischief. I wanted to do that, too. I wanted to conjure points from thin air.

That desire still lives in me. As a writer, I’m always on a quest to marry the perfect story to the perfect point. Nothing satisfies me more than walking a reader right up to the door of Aha! and watching them walk through. Life is packed with metaphors — random, disconnected ideas that remain detached and unrelated until someone snatches the two and ties them neatly into “the point.”

“A life attuned to metaphor is a life full of wonder.”

 

If you write, and I know that many of you do, I hope you make good use of metaphor and simile. But even if you don’t write, you live. And a life attuned to metaphor is a life full of wonder. Take a second listen next time something sparks your interest. Why does it? What does it make you think of? How does that relate to your life? Where have you seen that before?

Just for today, be on the lookout. Points, morals, and lessons are everywhere. Find one in your normal happenings and you’ll be hooked. You’ll be so delighted you’ll look for another. Tomorrow you’ll look for three.

It’s the richest, most interesting way to live. And that’s my point.

SPU Writers’ Recharge


A post from a few years back …

There’s so much to tell, I can’t get it all in one post.

First, I spent two wild, whirlish days scampering all over Seattle Pacific University, talking with writers and reconnecting with old friends. The annual Writers’ Recharge is an “efficient” conference, which means there’s not a lot of strolling or time-killing. What you’d normally pack into three days, or four, has been shaken, stamped, condensed and squeezed into a tidy, 32-hour nugget.

I’m exhausted.

But I’m also invigorated, for I’ve been in rooms packed with creative minds and God-focused hearts. This year, because a counterpart at one of the publishing houses I freelance for couldn’t make it, I took his place on “that” side of the table. With a stack of guidelines and business cards, I waited for groups of six to enter my small conference room and pitch their book ideas. They came in with big eyes and rapid heartbeats and high hopes. I knew exactly what each person was feeling, for I’d been on “that other” side of the table myself. Wanting to sweep the uneasiness from the room and get down to the sharing of bright ideas, I tried to convey the we-ness I felt. “I’m a writer, just like you,” I told them.

It gave me great delight to watch passion strengthen their voices and strip their fear. As the spotlight circled the room and each person felt its warmth, trepidation turned to persuasion. Collectively, we witnessed the distillation of months — or maybe years — of thinking, planning, meditating and creating into a single drop of urgency: “This is what I’ve written. This is why it needs an audience.”

I don’t know what my counterpart from Colorado Springs will do when the manuscripts start trickling in. I’d been given the go-ahead to say yes to whichever ideas I liked–and I liked a lot. Though at times I felt like a child who had stumbled upon the keys to my father’s candy shop, and stood now, waving my friends in with frantic urgency, I wasn’t indiscriminate. Some ideas weren’t ready. A few needed a tighter focus. One was so unique I knew it wouldn’t find a place on a bookstore shelf, so I encouraged self-publishing. But I did say yes to many. Some, I can’t wait to read.

It’s a brave thing to package your heart on paper and lay it at the feet of a stranger. You step back, catch your breath, and pray no stomping will occur. But if you don’t try, you never get to hear another say, “This has God written all over it.”

Aside from those four hours of editor meetings, I also taught three workshops. As much as I enjoyed the first process, my real delight is teaching. We talked about fear, and writing with excellence, and blogging. We shared ideas. We cried a little. And over all, we reminded one another that what we do, we do for the One who loves us. We write because He’s worth writing about, and because our world needs to hear His heartbeat.

I’m encouraged by what I experienced this weekend. I saw a vast sea of pen-holders ready to take dictation; a group ready to lay their talents on the altar and let God have His way.

It’s what I want too.

The invitation


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Ken, my friend of more than 30 years, is an artist. I’ve been aware of his abilities since high school; I used to watch him hunker over a sheet of newsprint and produce uncanny likenesses of himself, or me, or any number of unknowing subjects in the halls and classrooms of Cascade High. I didn’t know how he did it, but I suspected it wasn’t at all hard for him. I assumed he’d reached out a tiny finger as a three-week old and been met with a touch from God, just like the reclining naked man in Michaelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. My suspicion seemed confirmed after high school when he mastered “pointillism,” which, loosely translated means, “the creation of dot art by one with crazy-fast wrists.” My own wrists ached as I watched him slap those miniscule dots on the page. The images that emerged seemed to arise from nothing–and they were beautiful.

I didn’t attempt anything close to art until Dave’s Christmas gift in 1995. I was 34 years old by then. The reason I never tried before that is because I never received “The Invitation.” You know the one. It’s the gold-embossed invitation hoarded and doled out sparingly by art teachers; the one printed on ivory parchment with the deckle-edge, and a single line of scripted letters: “Congratulations . . . you’re one of us.” Ken had received one; I was sure of it. And when an errand sent me to the far end of “that hall,” the one which housed the high school art classroom, I’d slow my steps and grab a wide-eyeful of the honored few on the other side of that door. These finger-of-God touched few were Artists. You either had it, or you didn’t. And I didn’t, so I kept obediently to my side of the door.
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Imagine how startled I was, all those years later, when no one barred my entrance to the art classroom in the back of my local craft store. I wasn’t asked to produce credentials or references or a portfolio. And no one mentioned The Invitation — not even once. So I stuck a canvas on my easel, pulled the crinkly wrapper off one of my brand new brushes, squirted a big glob of cobalt blue on my palette … and started painting.

James Scott Bell wrote an article once entitled, “Putting the Big Lie to Sleep.” In it, he tells a similar story. After reading that article this week, and then recalling my own initiation into the art world, I wondered how many of you believed that same lie. I wonder if you’re tiptoeing down a hall somewhere, slowing as you pass that open door and fearful you’ll be called out for staring. Are you convinced you can’t write — or create anything artistic at all — simply because no one has yet told you you could? If that’s the case, let me be the first. Let me put that big lie to sleep, once and for all.

Artists are not born. A few, I’m convinced, do stick their little fingers out of the crib to meet the finger of God. I’ll always believe that, if only for the fact that I know a boy who, at eight, drew pictures that looked purposefully Picasso. He hadn’t had time in his young life to develop that ability, so it had to be a gift. But what does that mean for the rest of us would-be artists? It means we need to put pen to paper or brush to canvas. We need to enter the classroom, find our seat, and start the journey.

You can learn to write. I promise. You’ll need to develop your craft. You’ll need to read books about writing and attend conferences and allow other people to lay eyes on your work. You’ll have to toughen up and accept rejection. You’ll have to toughen up even more and listen to the inner editor when you hear, “Change. Slash. Rework.” But if you do all that, and you keep on doing all that, eventually you’ll look down one day and find that good writing has emerged from beneath your pen.

If you have even a spark of desire toward writing, and you’re just waiting to hear the words, let me be the one to tell you: You’re one of us.

The right word


quotation-marks“For your born writer, nothing is so healing as the realization that he has come upon the right word.”
—Catherine Drinker Bowen

This reminds me of Mark Twain’s observation:

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

~ Mark Twain, The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain

Added to the list of quotes under the category “on angst.”

Why would anyone want to write?


quotation-marks“Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. … It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.” —Enid Bagnold

I remember years ago listening as my friend, Jon Walker, described sitting at his mother’s bedside when she died. Almost apologetically, he spoke of living twice through the experience: once as a son, and once as a writer.

That’s what we do, you know. We can only afford to let half of our selves feel an experience, because we know that the other half must record it. Our job, as Enid Bagnold said, is to “let nothing go down the drain.”

Added to the list of quotes under the category “on observation.”