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Object Lesson One: Just a Box of Junk

It looked like nothing more than a box of junk, the kind of thing a kid might keep under the bed, filled with odds and ends, bits of paper and plastic, string and beads.

Instead, the owner transformed this simple junk into magical objects filled with wisdom and fun. The owner was a young church leader in charge of the jovenes (teenagers and unmarrieds) and his particular skill set was using everyday objects, a little sleight of hand, and a dash of science to teach simple object lessons about faith in Jesus. I sat spell bound, even though I’d seen better “magic” acts. What made this spectacular was the enthusiasm and the wisdom with which this young man performed the simple tricks and the humble way he used them to draw interest into his message – faith in Christ.

Watching him demonstrate his routine for the youth group, I realized how often I dismiss people or ideas as “valueless” or “timewasters” or “unimportant” just because they don’t fit my preconceived ideas. I wonder how many of my students I have overlooked because they didn’t fit in, didn’t “sit up straight and pay attention,” insisted on doing it their own way, or just because they “looked” like they couldn’t do the assignment? How many adults have I ignored simply because I didn’t have time for their “nonsense”, “whining”, or “babbling?” How many times have I felt the sting when someone felt the same about me, dismissing my ideas, my interests, my skills as “pointless”?

There is a lesson in this humble box of junk for all of us. Life means variety. Life thrives on difference and individuality. Trying to force everyone into a single mode, a single mindset is anti-life. “Isn’t that exactly what religion does? Force everyone into a single mindset?” some will argue. And they are right. Religion, philosophy, government – all these do try to force people into a single mindset because people are easier to control that way. However, faith in Christ is not religion. People have taken various aspects of it and turned it into a religion, not faith in Christ. “Oh, you’re just splitting hairs,” some will accuse.

No, I’m  not. Religion follows a set of specific rules which burden its followers. But faith in Christ follows two principles: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul. And love your enemies/neighbors as Christ has loved you.

And that, my friends, leaves us wide open to all the billions of ways to express that kind of love because we are all individuals. Love isn’t a burden. True love sets us free to be enthusiastic, creative, joyful, different.

Convoluted mind of a writer

I have a Pinterest account, not a Facebook account. While that might not seem like a terribly important confession, my tendency is to use the Pinterest account as a sort of digital notebook. It’s much tidier than trying to find bits and scraps of ideas amid the flotsam of crumpled notepads and torn napkins, since I’m an inveterate jotter. I scribble down all sorts of random information wherever I can find a clean space.

So imagine my delight in finding Pinterest: a veritable wealth of ideas for the aspiring writer and nifty little categories to keep all that information organized. I think my favorites are the writing prompts. The ideas come from other writers to encourage one another to actually write or as exercises to spark the creative juices. I screen shot and use various prompts that pop up on Pinterest for my AVID classes as quick writes. I’m a firm believer in using imagination to build better writers, so prefer the flamboyance of “A talking wolf is the least of your problems,” he said to the humdrum write about a life experience or choose whether bubble gum should come in balls or sticks. Wait, that last has possibilities….

Still, there are those off the wall prompts that magically appear on my screen and tickle my skewed sense of humor. Prompts I find amusing and delightful, but will never use in a story or novel simple because it’s not my style, such as:

“That has got to be the lamest pick-up line in existence.”

“Don’t worry. That’s just Plan A.”

“So what’s Plan B?”

“To take you hostage.”

Or

Nope, I can’t go to Hell.

Satan still has a restraining order against me.

Or

“No, sir. I am not underestimating the kidnappers. YOU are underestimating my grandmother.”

Or

“I need to talk to a human,” he demanded.

Or

“And why do we have to bring a twelve-year-old to a crime scene?”

The boy smiled faintly and replied, “Detective, I am here for your protection.”

Such fun little prompts that stir my soul, yet will never find life on the printed page. So why do I collect them? For the same reason I collected bits of broken pottery or green rocks at the beach—they fascinate me; cases of what ifs, never weres, might have beens which satisfy some primal, deep seated urge to let my imagination run wild and fill up my creative tank. The bits and piece simmer and stew in the back of my brain and somewhere along the way metamorphose into brave new worlds of my own creation. They become the building blocks of my universe as essential and powerful as DNA.

And if not, they function as wonderful money wrenches to mess with my students’ minds.

When Imaginary Becomes Reality

“Mrs. Parsons, are you a Jedi?”

I chuckled and said, “No, this is the real me. I just dress in costume as a teacher the rest of the year.”

Headshakes, puzzled looks, a few hesitant giggles, then class moves on.

Actually, I an X-wing pilot, but since I had to leave my blaster at home, it’s kinda hard to identify me. Or swap the blaster for a bow and quiver and I make a pretty convincing elf.

What makes it difficult to identify my costumes is they are so ordinary. A few tweaks are all that’s needed to distinguish the costume from reality. And I do it on purpose. Although I love costumes and dressing up, I’m too much of an introvert to be comfortable in complete costume in public.

Maybe it harks back to elementary school days and the paranoia that my costume wouldn’t meet approval with my peers. After all, nobody dressed up like sci fi characters in those days in rural, small town America.

Whatever the reason, I tend to downplay my “costumes,” so most days only I know which character I’m playing that day.

Which brings me to cosplay and the trend of more and more adults to spend boatloads of money on costumes that last longer than the 30-minute walk around the neighborhood to collect treats. It’s like giving adults a free pass to relive their childhood days playing dress up.

Some folks are pretty ingenious when it comes to parading around as their favorite anime or cosplay character. Then there are those larping folks who stay in character no matter where they are. Awesome!

I’ve seen a few adults (the no nonsense kind (and no fun kind!) who raise eyebrows at cosplay and make disparaging remarks like “when are you going to grow up?” Too bad they miss out on the real benefit of cosplay: to make us comfortable with who we really are and brave enough to let that person out in public.

Cosplay is wonderful, and one day I’m going to get up enough nerve to go all out on a costume and actually find like-minded adults to hang out with. As a wise X-wing pilot once said, “You can’t look dignified when you’re having fun.” You just have to choose your moments.

Pendulum

Writers (and publishers) are a fickle lot. We change according to fad, fashion, and the vagaries of a public with bullying tendencies. Pick up a book from classical literature and compare it with the tripe passing as “bestsellers” today and you’ll see what I mean.

That’s not to say that all bestsellers are tripe, nor are all classics timeless. Culture changes and with it what is trending. The one thing that often puzzles me, however, is the rabid arrogance of a segment of authors and publishers who limit the scope of writing.

Take the much maligned “said,” for instance. The controversy over whether or not to use “said” runs the gamut from those who insist on nothing else to those who avoid the word like the plague.

said is deadOne of the reasons I choose to write in English (beside the fact that it’s my native language—I could as easily write in Spanish), is the variety and beauty of the language. English nouns have multiple synonyms: House, cottage, residence, dwelling, abode, domicile, shack, apartment, cabin, hut, quarters, lodging, etc.

Adjectives are equally delightful: Brilliant: shining, blazing, dazzling, impressive, vivid, luminous, radiant, coruscating, etc.

But where English really shines are its verbs.

Take the simple, understated, and misunderstood verb “to say” or in its past tense form “said.”

Like much of English’s overused and overworked words, said has the tendency to fade into the background, become white noise, the placeholder when writers can’t think of a specific word.

English verbs, like other parts of English, have nuance. The texture and taste of a verb changes with the word, coloring emotions, enriching sensations, adding complexity with one word instead of wasting the reader’s time trying to “show” the same things with 50 different words.

I’m not undermining the need for writers to “show” instead of “tell,” but using vivid verbs instead of said is not “telling.” It is masterful use of a complex and rich language. At what point does the writer use “shouted” instead of “cajoled?” What’s the difference between “scream” and “yell?” There is a subtle difference in the same manner that there are differences between azure and cobalt. A talented writer knows the difference, while an amateur uses them interchangeably for “blue.”

Instead of limiting writers out of fear of “telling,” we ought to be teaching writer to become masters in the art of subtlety.

 

 

 

 

Classical Literature in a Nutshell

Recently, I read a post about a back-to-school classical literature reading list, and I was not surprised to find it filled with depressing, dark books. Over the years, I have discovered that what constitutes “classical” by the English profession seems to have changed over the years; although, I do recall wondering in high school why so much of the American literature we read in school fell into the same dark and depressing category.

So what does constitute “classical” literature beyond a recommendation by prestigious collegiate pundits? According to the dictionary, classical literature is “of ancient Greece and Rome. The term is also used for the literature of any language in a period notable for the excellence and enduring quality of its writers’ works.”

Excellence and enduring quality. Maybe that’s the problem. Our definition of “excellence” has deteriorated until we can no longer distinguish between what is high quality and what merely appeals to the masses. What we read is who we are, what we become. If we only read what is dark and depressing and lacking in anything uplifting, then that is what we as a people, as a nation, as individuals become. Books with happy, uplifting endings are not necessarily “low-brow,” while being dark doesn’t automatically mark a book as “cerebral.

If I were to re-tool America’s classical reading list, I would included these books:

David Copperfield — Charles Dickens

The Scarlet Piimpernel — Baroness Orczy

The Bronze Bow — Elizabeth George Speare

Trumpeter of Krakaw— Eric P. Kelly

The Taming of the Shrew — William Shakespeare

The Lord of the Rings — J. R. R. Tolkien

Around the World in 80 Days — Jules Verne

Lorna Doone — R. D. Blackmoore

Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe

The Phantom Tollbooth –Norton Juster

Captain Courageous — Rudyard Kipling

The Screwtape Letters — C. S. Lewis

Paradise Lost — John Milton

The Prisoner of Zenda — Anthony Hope

Treasure Island — Robert Louis Stevenson

Watership Down — Richard Adams

The Wind in the Willows– Kenneth Grahame

Little Women — Louisa May Alcott

Little Men — Louisa May Alcott

Jo’s Boys — Luisa May Alcott

Anne of Green Gables — L.M. Montgomery

The Secret Garden — Francis Hodgson Burnett

A Little Princess — Francis Hodgson Burnett

White Fang — Jack London

The Princess and Curdie — George MacDonald

The Lion’s Paw — Robb White

In addition, I think every person would benefit from reading a good selection of science fiction, such as Robert Heinlein’s Starman Jones and Andre Norton’s The Beast Master.

Such books are not only timeless, but good for the soul.

 

The City Hunter

A couple of years back, my daughter introduced me to Korean telenovelas. Between work and writing, I didn’t have a lot of time to invest; but since school is out for the summer, I’ve come across several surprisingly great series, including The City Hunter.

It’s fairly easy to write a series where the misunderstood hero battles the corrupt officials and kills them one by one. It’s much harder to write such a character who is noble and uses the law and nonlethal means to take out the officials at great personal cost. The City Hunter repeatedly throws the hero in tense situations where his ethics are at stake against someone’s life. And the writers are creative enough to some up with truly exceptional solutions that violate neither the story line, nor the hero’s character.

One of the major differences between Korean series and American soap operas (which I despise in all forms and varieties), are the length of the series. Each series is short, running 22-24 episodes and none of the series leaves the viewer hanging at series end wondering what happened. (Lost being one of the most notorious of the more recent nighttime soaps). A second difference is the length of each episode. Viewers get a full one-hour of action packed adventure, and each episode leaves the viewer wanting more.

Other outstanding differences between Korean television and American television focus on dialogue (yes, it probably loses something in the translation, but the gist is still there), character development, and some of the best plot/counterplot writing I’ve seen in either television or books recently. While the American trend is to “dumb down” plot, as if the viewer isn’t intelligent enough to keep up with all the twists and turns, Korean drama is rife with political intrigue, plots and subplots; and just when the hero thinks he’s got a handle on events and beginning to gain ground against the enemy, wham! Another breathless plot twist keeps you guessing right up until the edge-of-your-seat resolution.

There’s another feature of Korean dramas I find a vast improvement over American television: the elegance of romance. While American viewers watch actors and actresses eat each other’s face in some sort of animalistic expression of “romance,” Korean television generates passion with a single look, or touch of the hand, or a solitary, chaste kiss. More elegant, more passion, and you can actually watch it with your kids present. Actually, in a way, it’s more expressive of real love and romance than the trivialized American “one-night stands” or the “I just met you, let’s go to bed.”

And oh yeah, the best part: happy endings. No matter how tense, no matter how hopeless the situation, the hero wins and gets the girl.

In the final analysis, you can keep your Grammy and Emmy award winning series and movies. I’ll take Korean telenovelas every time.

 

 

 

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