Mutineers by David Gray

David-GrayMost people know David Gray best for pop-folk romantic radio hits such as “Babylon” and “This Year’s Love” that found their way onto romantic comedy and television drama soundtracks in the early 2000s. Faithful listeners can attest that there is more to this prolific English singer-songwriter than lonesome love ballads. Throughout his 21-year career, Gray’s lyrics have occasionally pondered questions of belief and doubt (even though he does not identify himself as a religious follower).

Gray’s latest album, Mutineers, will appeal to those especially interested in subtle spiritual exploration. “If it’s love lifts us up from the dark, is it God by another name?” he asks in one track. Another song—inspired by the work of a Belgian poet—includes the lyrics “I’m climbing hand over hand / Toward that pinprick of light / Toward the seed that God sowed.”

Stylistically, the album is not a huge departure from his past few efforts. But Gray’s love of electronica is a little more pronounced here, which adds an appropriately joyful energy to a collection featuring themes of rebirth and renewal.
(Banner review)

Writers Blog Tour 2014

photo-2A couple of weeks ago, my friend Nancy Nordenson kindly invited me to participate in a “blog tour” for writers. Basically I answer four questions about writing (see below) on my blog. In this post I ‘tag’ two more writers who then answer the same questions and ‘tag’ two more writers. And on the tour goes, building community and giving interested blog readers a glimpse of other people’s writing process along the way.

I first met Nancy in the New Mexico mountainside, where we were both studying Creative Writing through Seattle Pacific’s MFA program. She is a thoughtful and eloquent essayist, and her latest book, Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure, is due to be released in 2015.  You can read her blog tour answers over at her blog, where you can also treat yourself to more of her work. I am honoured she asked me to participate. Thanks, Nancy!

The blog tour questions are:

What am I working on?
How does my work differ from others in its genre?
Why do I write what I do?
How does my writing process work?

Here goes…

What am I working on?

Although I have a couple of small reviews and essays on the go, my fiction is my main focus right now. Specifically, I am revising a series of stories (some interconnected) that I have had “in the drawer” for a while. I’m grateful for the non-fiction opportunities that have come my way in the past few years, and for my 9-5 writing for a relief and development agency. I know these opportunities sharpen and refine my writing skills (and also teach me the art of writing under a deadline!). But there are only so many hours in a day, as they say, and I’ve been neglecting my fiction for far too long. So it is exciting to set aside time to make it a priority again.

(Oh yes, and related to this fiction revision/revitalization quest: I’ve also been using writing exercises to help me reclaim the joy of writing regularly. I want to get back in practice of filling pages, even when I’m between projects. Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook: A Guide to Writing Imaginative Fiction has been great for this so far. It is an eclectic, visually stunning collection of craft advice even–and it is not just for sci-fi or fantasy writers, either. I highly recommend it.)

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Ah, an interesting question for a writer to answer, as it seems readers might have an easier time talking about what separates writers from each other.

Well, first I want to say that it seems pretty paralyzing for a writer to be too preoccupied with being ‘different’. That is, think that they have to offer the world writing that is completely unlike anything else that has ever been written—in style, tone, or plot. I have come to believe that the first concern for any story should be that it is well-crafted. Everyone carries influences into their work, just as everyone carries unique experiences and personal histories.

Does that sound like a bit of a cop out? It’s not meant to be. I just believe that if a story is truly well told then it is always new and fresh, and a strong voice will always set the story apart. And trust me, I still have days where I am stuck in the everything-has-already-been-said-better-than-I-could-ever-say-it mentality. But for the most part I have learned to break free and focus on writing what I feel called to write (and on these days it helps to read Henri Nouwen’s great, peace-giving quote about why we have to “trust that our stories deserve to be told.”)

I admit, too, that part of my difficulty with this question comes from my struggle to sort out where my current stories fit, genre-wise. See, like many short story writers, I began writing stories after falling in love with the masters of realism—Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, and so on. I loved—and I still love—stories centered on ordinary people, with subtle builds of tension, and small revelatory moments that offer insight into characters. My early stories stuck closely to this model. Over the years, though, I’ve also encountered stories with elements of magical realism and odd, often comedic (even if tragicomic) plots. And now I’m finding it more natural to write in the space where the realistic and the fantastic collide, especially when it comes to exploring matters of faith and questions of justice—what people do or do not believe in. I’m writing a little …weirder and louder these days. It is definitely not fantasy, and it’s not an attempt to be flashy. Let’s just say I’m noticing places in my old work that I can bend in fresh ways—ways that feel truer to the spirit of my voice than strict realism. I’m also staying open to this approach in my new work. So, we’ll see where this takes me!

Why do I write what I do?

In the previous question I talked about fiction as a way of exploring matters of faith and questions of justice. But I don’t want to make it sound like I write it just to push my own beliefs or set answers into the world. I write what I do because it is an honest   way for me to wrestle with the world and the many mysteries, pains, and subtle miracles of being human. When I can sit with these tensions and capture what is true about them by creating something from them, it is deeply satisfying. And, quite simply, I write what I do because I enjoy it—and I hope that this joy is generative to those who encounter my work. It can be lonely and intimidating work—especially when you throw in all the considerations related to publication. But it can’t be about that—not at its core. It has to be about joy.

How does my writing process work?

My process is changing all of the time.

I keep a journal, for, example but that’s mostly for character details, sensory observations, and images. I never get my whole drafts out by hand, but when I’m computer-screen-bleary, there’s nothing like scribbling down images, phrases, and ideas on paper.

While I am not an outliner, I sometimes I find it helpful to sketch out where a story could be headed—especially if I’m stuck on setting up a scene when really I just want to get the scene down on paper before it flees my brain.

As I mentioned, revisions can take me a while, and I end up putting a draft “in the drawer” for a while so I can return to it later and work it into a final version.

I could go on. Instead, though, I’ll end with a bit from a guest post piece I wrote a couple of years ago about how I begin a story, and how I learned to embrace the wandering nature of my process in general. So here are a few snippets that explain why writing often feels to me like meandering—like “roaming around without my shoes” :

Often I start with an image—but not always. There is no always in this process, for me.

Sometimes I start with snatches of dialogue of fragments of setting. Like many writers I know, I have entire documents and notebook sections that don’t contain a single complete sentence—odd testimonies to my nomadic process.

I might begin by mimicking lines (often first lines) I love—sentences that are mysterious and simple in all the right places. My own creations are shoddy in comparison, of course. But, I am writing. And I am writing sentences, and I am starting something, here.

Forget that someday-reader, I tell myself—I am writing, now. I am meandering, but not—as the common definition of the word suggests—moving about from place to place without aim. My aim is to make, and making I am.

The only truly aimless days are the days I dismiss these raw pages. I deny their place in the process, too afraid to see them as the beginning of what could one day be called…literature.

(You can read the rest of the piece here, over at Ross Gale’s excellent blog)

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Among some of my lovely writer friends in Santa Fe, NM. Meg and I are the ladies in shades.

Who are you tagging to continue the Blog Tour adventure?

Okay, so it’s not a real blog tour question, but it’s a good one! I’m excited to tag the following two friends to carry on this tour:

Meg Sefton. Meg is another dear friend I made in grad school. We have spent many wonderful hours together drinking wine, talking fiction, and pondering the power of a story well told. Her writing is evocative and bold–and I am particularly in awe of her gift for flash fiction (not an easy form).

Nicholas Siegel. I met Nicholas while writing a piece for antler, an online writing community he is involved in. He is a fiction writer and a kindred spirit in terms of his love for exploring the intersection of art and faith (and his adoration for The Office US). You can find out more about Nicholas and read his blog tour answers here.

Thanks for reading, good readers.

Mary Gauthier sings of trouble and love

Since 1997, Americana singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier has been making forlorn, lovely, and fiercely personal music that mines her difficult life experiences. These include her struggles as a young orphan and her battles with drug and alcohol abuse.

Gauthier’s latest, Trouble and Love, continues this soul-baring tradition with a focus on the devastating end of a romantic relationship. It is a breakup record but a spiritual journey, too—one that authentically grapples with conscience and strains for new hope.

Lyrically, “Oh Soul” is perhaps the most like a prayer of confession; Gauthier sings about selling her soul away and pleads, “Redemption, redemption, have mercy on me.” On another track, she reminds listeners that we all live “somewhere between Cain and Abel.” Her low, solemn vocals and tempos often drag on before picking up with striking clarity and force.

Yet again, Gauthier proves that hardships can be transformed into beautiful art when we dare to truthfully offer up our troubles and weaknesses as we work for healing.
(Review originally published in The Banner)

 

Dog Songs by Mary Oliver

jpoliver-articleLargeProlific poet Mary Oliver has always displayed an unabashed love for animals and a special talent for pondering affection, beauty, and grief through the world’s smallest creatures. Her recently published poetry collection, Dog Songshonors the canine companions that have brightened her life and work.maryoliverdogsongs

Oliver praises dogs for their loyalty, playfulness, and “steadfastness”; she laughs at them and mourns for them. She even imagines what they might say to her in human language. “Love and company are the adornments/that change everything,” one of her dogs ‘says’—a simple line that carries much wisdom. Ultimately, this collection is about affection beyond words—and without conditions. You do not have to be a pet owner to appreciate Dog Songs as a unique and moving portrait of how our relationship with animals can remind us, as Oliver says, “how rich it is to love the world.” (Review originally published in The Banner)

Egypt’s revolution through the eyes of those on the front lines

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(Originally published in the Christian Courier) — The Egyptian documentary The Square begins in the dark. “This is normal,” says a young man named Ahmed as he lights a candle to brighten up a Cairo room. “The lights are out all over the world. The lights are out all over Egypt,” he explains. “Everything is like this, it’s not just the electricity. The electricity is the least of our problems.”

Viewers who have been following news reports and stories of the Egyptian revolution of the past three years already know this is true; Egypt’s people are well acquainted with the problems of oppression, corruption and violence. For 30 years, they lived under Hosni Mubarak’s brutal dictatorship. They know what it means to be powerless – and, because of the events that followed the Arab Spring of 2011, they also know the exhilaration of power reclaimed.

The Square allows us to enter the country’s toilsome journey of fear, hardship and hope by focusing on a handful of protesters on the front lines undertaking the beautiful and dangerous work of building democracy from the ground up.

Christian viewers expecting a documentary highlighting the plight of modern Egyptian believers will quickly see that this is not the film’s focus. The “revolutionaries” have varying religious and political beliefs and class backgrounds. Their differing motivations and histories speak to the complexity of this conflict. They are united, nonetheless, in their desire to bring down the regime and their commitment to giving a voice to the voiceless.

Director Jehane Noujaim uses original firsthand footage to explore what draws these men and women together as their country falls apart. This approach feels deeply personal, and makes the film more than just a portrait of national identity but a call to recognize shared humanity as well.

The Square’s graceful handling of the revolution’s quickly shifting timeline is commendable in itself. The film begins just before Mubarak is ousted then chronicles the chaos that followed – the corrupt rushed election of Morsi, his eventual removal, and the horrific military crackdowns on civilians.

Fresh-faced Ahmed could be considered the film’s “main character.” He is a passionate, good natured and idealistic young man swept up in the promise of renewal at the heart of the revolution. Most people will have an easy time identifying with him and or imagining him as their brother, son or friend. His friend Khalid, a highly educated actor who uses his status as a public figure to add media exposure to the protest movement, is also easy to admire.

Madgy, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, is at first an unlikely source of empathy for the typical Christian viewer. However, he shows himself to be a man of sincere faith and commitment to the non-violent principles of democracy – the very principles that have him proud to stand alongside his revolutionary friends and people of many faiths in the Square. He is painted by the actions of his party, especially when others accuse the Brotherhood of hijacking the revolution by selling out to the whims of the military. “We are all confused sometimes, and we question our beliefs,” he says  – and surely most Christians have felt such conflicted allegiance, too.

Ultimately, though, this is not a movie about the triumph of any one political movement or revolutionary push. It is about people – Christians, Muslims, men, women, everyone who believes, as a protest slogan goes, that “All men are entitled to “bread, dignity, freedom and happiness.”

But more than that, this harshly poetic film is about what was found in the dark – in Tahrir Square: loyalty and unity that transgressed long-held political and religious lines. “We found ourselves loving each other without even realizing it. There was no such thing as Muslim or Christian. We were all one hand,” says Ahmed. Although this love is constantly tested, it persists. You can hear it, for example, in the phone conversation between Madgy and Ahmed near the end of the film, even though they have bitterly argued about a secular state versus a Muslim state. “You know me. I’m not here to die or kill. You know my intentions,” Madgy says to his friend, warning him not to come to the Square because he could be harmed. These men recognize they both have a deep desire to do what’s best for Egypt.

As of early 2014, Egypt faces a difficult future – even in the wake of a newly drafted constitution that appears to take religious freedom and other democratic principles into account. Outgoing housing minister Ibrahim Mahlab has been appointed as Egypt’s new prime minister, and strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been elected as President.

The Square reveals, however, that Egypt’s hope is about more than who officially stands in power. As the film ends, Ahmed observes that Egyptians “are not looking for a leader as much as we’re looking for a conscience. Because everyone who went to Tahrir is a leader.”

This long view of victory recognizes that true, lasting democratic change is larger than political structures. It is, instead, a movement toward goodness and justice that takes place in the hearts of the people willing to give their all for a cause greater than themselves.

Brilliant Falls by John Terpstra

One poem in John Terpstra’s latest collection, Brilliant Falls, is the story of a “holy raving protester” who climbed a tree to oppose the building of a highway. The poem begins with the often-quoted first verses of Revelation 21. However, the whole collection demonstrates Terpstra’s brilliant ability to see the “new heaven and the new earth” in both the beautiful and the troubling moments of the here and now.

These are poems of wonder, bewilderment, bereavement, and amusement. Several are first-person encounters with death and difficult life changes. Terpstra’s imagery feels personal and communal, local and eternal. Seniors’ home residents move across a linoleum floor “as though they are walking on water”; closets and dresser drawers of childhood are “as private as prayer.” This is a collection for anyone seeking to celebrate the sacred edges of everyday life, written by a master poet. (Review originally published in The Banner)

Nouwen wisdom

Henri_NouwenDrawing some serious writerly strength from my daily Henri Nouwen meditation today (subscribe here):

Making Our Lives Available to Others

“One of the arguments we often use for not writing is this: ‘I have nothing original to say. Whatever I might say, someone else has already said it, and better than I will ever be able to.’ This, however, is not a good argument for not writing. Each human person is unique and original, and nobody has lived what we have lived. Furthermore, what we have lived, we have lived not just for ourselves but for others as well. Writing can be a very creative and invigorating way to make our lives available to ourselves and to others.

We have to trust that our stories deserve to be told. We may discover that the better we tell our stories the better we will want to live them.”