Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008=Set Up, 2009=Rising Action

2008 is gasping, wheezing as he stumbles toward his rest. The earth has been turned, his grave awaits. That is to say, the year's up. Pencil's down, class. So, to continue with the test image, did we pass or fail? I think 2008 will go down as a year in which I really acheived something. That's right, in 2008 I blogged more than I have in any previous year. This makes post 62, whereas my previous high was 59. High fives all around.

Seriously, 2008 has been a fairly productive year for me. In 2008 I decided to pursue an MFA in creative writing. In 2008 Mary Ann and I conceived child #4. I had a decent academic year in 2008. On the other hand, I haven't done tons of writing this past year. That's a big problem, but I'll remedy that as early as possible in 2009, though. On the positive side of the writing ledger, I had positive responses to almost everyone I let read "Keep Thinking, Keep Moving".

Writing will play an increasingly large role in 2009. I've got to prepare for MFA applications, so I have to have a good writing sample, and I also want to get involved with some local writers in St. Louis to get some more good feedback. And heck, I'd like to get published a time or two as well. We'll see how that goes.

The MFA application process is the thing that looms largest on my horizon right now, though. I need to get the aforementioned writing sample shaped up, take the GRE, scare up some references, save up the cash for application fees, etc., etc . . .

Fortunately, I have a pretty good list of schools picked out. They are, in no particular order:

1. UT-Austin
2. Syracuse
3. Purdue
4. Indiana
5. Notre Dame
6. Alabama
7. UNC-Greensboro
8. Ohio State
9. Florida
10. Penn State
11. Wisconsin
12. Minnesota
13. Illinois
14. Iowa

I still have some research to do on some of those schools, and others of them I know I am unlikely to accept because they're the best. But I'm going to take a shot. As the list changes over the course of 2009, and as I get my applications sent off, I'll keep everyone posted.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Calling Brent Bourgeois . . .

Bourgeois Tagg. Obscure '80s band. Remember them? They had a couple of top 40 hits and then vanished, like a lot of pop groups. The thing is, they had this one song that has been stuck in my head for more than 20 years. It was called "I Don't Mind at All" and it had this melancholy, string quartet feel to it. Now, in this age of iTunes you'd think I'd be able to find a digital copy and download it quick as you please, but such is not the case.

Perhaps if Bourgeois Tagg had continued their rise, their entire catalogue would be available. Sadly, they did not. The 'Bourgeois' part of the duo developed a nasty drug habit, and things began to fall apart. The happy part of the story is that Brent Bourgeois kicked the habit when he became a Christian. Bourgeois Tagg finally broke up in the aftermath because Brent's lyrics were increasingly Christian (at least that's my understanding), so they faded into the '80s history.

So here's my plea to Mr. Brent Bourgeois: I want to download "I Don't Mind at All." Legally. Help me remember that I was just as melancholy before I was 10 as I am now. Put it on iTunes!

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Contest is Dead, Long Live the Contest

So the big news of the week is that the Missouri Writers Guild Flash Fiction Contest has officially ended.  The winners have been announced, and I am not among them.  No cash prize, no honorable mention.  I'm definitely disappointed, but I'm not heartsick about it.  I was more disappointed, I think, before I remembered that I sent the unedited version of the story to the contest.  There were a lot of typographical errors, plus some slightly confusing language at the end of the story.  I guess that's why I was initially only hoping for an 'honorable mention' in the contest.

The aggravating thing about it, though, is that the story wasn't the best it could have been.  I'll never know how the story would have done if I had polished it more, tightened it up a bit.  That's the price I pay for waiting until the night of the deadline to do the bulk of the writing, though.  My fault.

On the other hand, I'm happy that the thing's over.  I can move on a bit more now.  I have other stories I can work on, and the contest had left me hamstrung.  Since it was my first real contest, I was too concerned with waiting on the results to move on.  That's a good lesson for me, I think.  I've got to keep plugging away and not worry about contests, or whether some magazine will accept my stuff for publication.  I think I felt this way because it was my first real contest.  Losing will be beneficial, though, because it will help me approach the rest of my writing with a greater eye toward detail.

The blow is also softened by the fact that I know I wrote a good story, so there's none of that "My writing is just crap and that's why I lost" attitude.  I've had good feedback on the story from all quarters, both from people who have a vested interest in me and those who don't know me from Adam.

I guess my next 'contest' needs to be developing a portfolio of good work that I can send to MFA programs.  I've got less than a year to develop 20-30 pages of butt-kickin' lit.  It's kind of scary.  20-30 pages doesn't seem like it should be that daunting, but it is because I haven't done it before.  I don't have 20-30 pages worth of completed material.  I can't let that bother me, though.

I must, as the French say, "Keep on truckin'."

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Under the Gun

Test tomorrow.  Big assignments due.

Yeah.  My time of the semester.

Woof woof.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


The plural of 'enema' is 'enemata.'

Happy Thanksgiving!!

Sometimes Life is Like . . .

. . . spilling a glass of ice water and then cleaning it up and then trying to use the glass again but finding out that the ice you put back in the cup has hair and sand on it.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Desperately Seeking Laughter

I like to think I don't watch much TV, but that's not true.  I watch plenty of TV.  I watch cartoons with my boys.  I watch CBS Sunday Morning every week.  I eagerly anticipate Antiques Road Show every week.  I also like The History Detectives, and I watch football.

Here's the thing:  I like to laugh.  Not surprising, I guess; a lot of people like to laugh.  I ask you, though, what is there to laugh at on television?  None of the aforementioned programs are comedies.  I've watched episodes of How I Met Your Mother.  I've seen Chuck.  I'm half watching SNL right now.  They don't get it done.  I'm not saying these shows are unfunny, but I don't crack up when I watch them.  I chuckle regularly, but I never get that good, cathartic belly laugh I'm looking for.  I've resorted to perusing YouTube for Mystery Science Theater 3000 clips.

That's why I would like to, publicly and in writing, thank Tina Fey.  Thank you Tina Fey, for 30 Rock.  Yes, I'm aware that the show has been around for a few years now, but until recently I had never seen an episode.  I try to avoid being trendy, you see, and if a show gets popular I usually avoid it.  This had been the case with 30 Rock until my wife recently started watching it.  Since she was watching (and enjoying) the third season, she wanted to see the earlier seasons.  We have Blockbuster Online, so we got the first disc.  We made short work of it, and traded it in at Blockbuster for Season 1 Disc 2.  That was earlier tonight, and we've watched over half of the episodes on that disc.

So thank you Tina Fey.  30 Rock  is the only show on TV right now that keeps me laughing.  The concept is good, the writing is absurdly hilarious, and the cast is spectacular.  I haven't been pleasantly surprised about a TV show in a long time, but 30 Rock has done it.  They consistently hit the mark.  Keep up the good work, folks.  Thanks for lightening my heart.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Dental Adventures in Theological Perspective

NOTE:  At the behest of the masses, I post again.  I'm not sure why youse guys are putting so much pressure on me lately since I've had much longer posting gaps before, but I'm caving.  You only have yourselves to blame.


As some of you may already know, our oldest son Max has been shedding teeth like a shark.  By the time one tooth comes out another one or two start getting wiggly.  He lost another one last night, but . . . well, let's just say the tooth fairy got one a little earlier than she expected.

I was sitting at the computer sorting through our Blockbuster Online queue when I heard a big thud.  No big deal.  I've heard thuds before.  Only after this thud Max started crying.  Nearly any cry merits parental attention, but this one was different.  There was a decidedly hysterical sound to this cry, and not in the humorous sense.  This wasn't a bonk on the head or a banged shin.  This was real pain.

I shot up from my chair and hurried to Max processing an amazing number of potential problems in the seven feet from the computer desk to the ottoman where my son lay.  Broken arm/hand/finger(s)?  His arm was positioned awkwardly, but it didn't look broken.  And as I said before, the cry was too powerful for a simple head bonk.  I didn't see a pool of blood, no evidence of puncture wounds . . . what was it?  Then I picked Max up and looked him in the face.

"Oh gosh, buddy!!"

Yes, my exclamation at the sight of my son's bloodied mouth was really that G-rated, but 'unprofane' as it was, it was also that unhelpful.  My boy needed calm, and I was not providing it.  He stood there crying, and I could see the blood in his mouth.  Finally my eyes fixed on the gap where his incisor used to be.  It was a baby tooth, thankfully, and it was already getting loose before Max's face-first collision with the armchair, but it was far from being ready to come out.  I got him to the bathroom, Mary Ann brought a wet wash cloth, and we got him settled in.

Max was still freaking out a bit at this point, which was understandable.  Mary Ann continued to try and stem the bleeding, so I went out to get a cup of saltwater.  I can still remember that when I lost one of my teeth when I was a kid my Dad sent me out to the front porch with a cup of saltwater in hand.  The instructions were to swish, spit, and repeat.  So I did what my Dad did.

I went into the bathroom and handed Max the cup of water.  The biggest struggle at that point was keeping him from 1)freaking out over how bloody his spit was in the sink, and 2)freaking himself out even more by looking at himself in the mirror.

Soon the cup of saltwater was gone, we were out of the bathroom and in front of the TV.  By the time Aang vanquished Fire Lord Ozai the psychological trauma was, for the most part, over. Max's psychological trauma, that is.  Mine is still going.  Every time I look at him and see his purpled gums and that raw toothless gap, I'm reminded that I can't always protect my boys.

Max's tooth will grow back, and we'll probably laugh about this story one day.  Heck, if he's anything like me Max will milk this story for every laugh, wince, and gasp it's worth.  But I'll always remember the heartsick feeling that, even though it happened in a small way this time, life can change irreversibly in a heartbeat.  

I must confess I feel foolish, having such a strong reaction to such a small event, but I guess that's because I've lead a pretty easy life to this point.  God has been merciful to me and mine.   Still, even small traumas can help gain a little perspective.

I can't go through my life expecting every detail to work out, even where my kids are concerned.  We were never promised that.  God never said, "be faithful to me and you'll raise a quiver full of healthy kids, live comfortably, and die surrounded by loving grandchildren."  We get trials like everyone else.  In fact, as Christians we have a target on our backs from Satan as well as human enemies of the Gospel.  They hated Jesus, and they'll hate us.

So instead of falling into the 'comfort' mindset that is so common for Americans, I want to use last night's drama as a wake up call.  Ladies and gents, we are not guaranteed comfort, but we are truly in God's hands.  And uncomfortable as that may seem, it's the best place you'll ever be.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

A Fraction of a Pinch of a Part of a Hint of a Taste of . . . Writer's Block

I'm having a tough time with my writing right now.  I haven't written much since the middle of October.  When I wrote "Keep Thinking, Keep Moving" I did it in one night.  It turned out alright, too.  I was fairly happy with it and, as I wrote in a previous post, I have gotten a decent response to it.  The problem with writing something that quickly is that I start expecting to continue in that fashion.  Unfortunately, that doesn't happen.  My experience with "Keep Thinking, Keep Moving" was highly atypical in that way.

I think that one reason I'm having trouble with my other stories is that I don't know my characters well enough.  I can't write them as naturally as I would like.  Their dialogue and reactions to certain situations aren't obvious to me like Stooke's were in "Keep Thinking, Keep Moving."  

I was wondering why I knew Stooke so well and am having trouble with other characters.  Eventually I realized that 1) Stooke is based on a real person and the story is based on a real incident, therefore 2) I've really been working on that story for about seven years.  It was ready.  That could be problematic.  If a 1000 word story takes seven years I'm not going to be very productive.  There is hope, however.  Stooke's character, while based on a real person, is not identical to that person.  He changed while I was writing the story.  I've also written other stories in one large chunk; stories that didn't involve characters I knew before.  So that's encouraging.

Another factor that has worked against me lately is the Flash Fiction contest.  I'm still waiting on the results, and I've allowed myself to become sort of paralyzed in the mean time.  I just need to forget about he contest until the results are released and focus on writing.  I think, now that we're nine days into November, I'm ready to do so.  Hopefully I'll be able to come on here and report on new stories very soon.


Happy now, Sam and Aaron?  :-)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Contest Drags ON

It's thumb-twiddlin' time!

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I'm still waiting.  The Missouri Writer's Guild Hottest Flash Fiction Contest is due to be decided in the next couple of days.  The deadline for the judges to decide is the end of October, we're just about there.  Frankly, I'm having trouble being patient.  I checked the website again this morning and there are still no winners posted.  Including today, there are three days left in October.  My fear is that the 31st will come and go with no announcement, and then I'll probably go nuts.  Once October passes there is no longer a deadline to wait for.  There is just (seemingly) interminable waiting.

Still, the news on the writing front is not all frustrating.  I got two more reviews on the Zoetrope website for "Keep Thinking, Keep Moving."  Both were positive, and my rating for "efficiency of language" has been brought up to the 'very good' level.  If I can get one more review in I will be eligible for "top rated stories" in october.  I wonder if I'll have to get that fifth review before October ends, or will it not matter because I posted it in October?

Either way, it's encouragement to keep writing.

Not My Second to Last Sermon

I posted when I preached the second to last sermon of my seminary career, so I guess I should post after preaching my last.  Yesterday I spoke on the topic of 'the ache.'  The goal of the message was to affirm that intuition that there is something wrong with the world we live in.  The world is broken, and though many people have recognized this I wanted to use that intuition to point them toward Christ.

It was an 'apologetic' sermon.  I tried to avoid using Christian lingo in it, and I think I did alright on that front.  It was a fun sermon to write because I was able to work in literary and pop culture references and was not overly bound by the structure of the sermon.  I may post a revised version of the sermon on here sometime, but we'll have to see.

Right now, I just want to celebrate that this part of seminary is coming to a close.  I've fulfilled my preaching requirement, and I'm one step closer to graduation and an MFA program.  Now all I have to do finish seminary, take the GRE, and write a story or three that's good enough for a high quality MFA program to let me in.  

No problem, right....?

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Fraction of a Pinch of a Part of a Hint of a Taste of Writerly Success

No word on the contest yet, but I've still had quite an eventful weekend.  As previously stated, I wrote a piece of flash fiction five days ago, which I called "Keep Thinking, Keep Moving."  I was happy with it, so I started showing it around.  I felt a bit nervous, but if you're going to write you've got to put yourself out there, so I went for it.  Or at least I eased into it.

First I showed the story to Mary Ann.  She liked the story a lot and had a recommendation or two for its improvement.  She also pointed out a few editorial errors.  Her remarks were encouraging, so I decided to show the story to some more people.  Since he had said he would like to read it I sent it to S.D. Smith next.  He reacted quite positively as well, with some recommendations for improvement.  Some of his suggestions were the same as Mary Ann's so I changed those.  

My next step was to send the story to two more tough critics:  My mom and my friend Randy Maynard.  My Mom does her best to look at my writing objectively.  I get the impression it's difficult, but she strives for it.  She was also impressed with the story.  Downright effusive, even!  She thinks I should win the contest.  Thanks Mom!

This was the first time I'd sent a story to Randy.  If you know Randy, you know the man is a connoisseur of the short story.  If I remember correctly he owns a copy of every volume of Best American Short Stories.  If he doesn't have them all he's close.  Anyway, Randy knows stories.  I was nervous once again, but I was thrilled when I got his e-mail response.  He paid me one of the best writing compliments I've ever gotten:  He's ready to read more of my stuff.  That means a lot to me.  Thanks, Randy!

I realized, though, that I couldn't just send my stories around to friends and family.  I only have so many, you see, and I'll need more people to buy my books than that.  I'm fully expecting to make a fortune writing, you see.  That being the case, I needed an unbiased audience.  This gave me the chance to actually use my account at the Zoetrope Virtual Studios.  I've had my account for a long time, but I hadn't posted anything until last week.  I put Keep Thinking, Keep Moving up and waited.  No one has to review your story there, after all.  It could come and go with no activity.  Then your just outta luck.

I think about a day and a half passed after I posted the story before the first review came up.  I was thrilled, but at Zoetrope, even though they let you post your first story immediately, you have to post reviews for five other stories before you can read what another reviewer says about your story.  Consequently, I spent a chunk of time reviewing this weekend.  It was flash fiction, though, so the stories weren't long.

I finished my five reviews and then read the review of my story.  Now, there are two parts to a Zoetrope review:  written and numerical.  The reviewer rated "Keep Thinking, Keep Moving" as 'Very Good,' which means she gave it either a 7 or 8 out of 10.  In her written review my reviewer said that the story was touching to her because of the issues about aging it dealt with.  She had some sound recommendations, which I will consider for the second draft of the story.

Late last night I checked again, and another review had appeared!  This reviewer had also rated me very good.  In fact, the average of my two reviews gives me all 'very goods' except for one category, 'efficiency of language.'  I think that's probably the most common knock on my stories so far.  Too much detail.  This reviewer, a physicist, suggested that I could reduce the size of my story by 'about 20%' and it would pack a better punch.  Both reviewers thought I should get to the action sooner.

Still, the response was overwhelmingly positive!  I feel a bit like a director celebrating the  goodreviews of his play to come out the morning after opening night.  Then again, I wonder if my happiness a bit out of proportion--like the director in The Goodbye Girl who exults because his mother half-heartedly said she liked his play.

Hopefully I can repeat these results on a larger scale with my next story.  The truth is, though, I've got to forget about the events of this weekend.  I'll revise the story, to be sure, but when I move on to the next one I can't worry about 'reviews.'  I've just got to keep on telling stories the way I want.  The results belong to God.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

"Keep Thinking, Keep Moving": The Morning After

Last night I said I would reread my flash fiction story "Keep Thinking, Keep Moving," and post some thoughts about it.  I did reread the story, and for the most part I actually liked it.  I thought it started well and ended well.  There are some phrases that I would change now, but that ship has sailed as far as the contest goes.  

Problem is, though, I made some dumb editing mistakes.  There were a couple of places where I left out a definite article where one was needed, and another where I left in a superfluous 'and.'  I think each error stemmed from a time when I altered a sentence.  The thing is, I still think the story is good, but the editing mistakes probably make me a dead duck.  I'm still going to cross my fingers and hope for the best though.

The Writer Sticks His Neck Out

I done did it.  I entered me a contest.  The Missouri Writer's Guild Hottest Flash Fiction Contest (TMWGHFFC) ended at midnight this morning, and I just got in under the gun.  I think.  I mean, I'm pretty sure, but I haven't gotten an e-mail confirmation or anything.  Honestly, I'll be surprised if I win anything because I wrote the story over the last two days, but who knows?  Maybe I'll win.  I'm hoping for at least an 'honorable mention.'  They'll post the winners in a few days, I think, so I'll keep you posted.

The story is called "Keep Thinking, Keep Moving" by the way.  It's about a college professor who just retired and his prospects for life in the future.  All under 1000 words!  I'm ready to call it a masterpiece, but it's past midnight and I need sleepy.  So 'masterpiece' is probably excessive.

One thing I'm interested to hear is how people perceive work I did in a 'flash.'  As I stated in a post this summer, I think the some of the criticisms I received for my work at the Trinity Arts Conference were due to overwriting.  I kept going back and adding more detail.  It bogged my story down.  That certainly didn't happen with "Keep Thinking, Keep Moving."  There wasn't time.  I think I might try to read it tomorrow morning and post my opinion of it once I have a little distance from it.  

Monday, October 13, 2008

Regret: Haiku for The Barefooted

Things my feet have felt:
The honeybee sting, dog scat
And a ruptured slug

Thursday, October 09, 2008

I Said, "Hey--What's Goin' On?"

I know I haven't posted much for the last few days, but I have a few kicking around in my head.  I'll get to them as soon as I can, but midterms are at the gates.  I suppose the singular 'midterm' would be more appropriate since I only have one, but I have a lot of studying to do for that class. 

Since I've read The Final Solution now, I would like to subject it to a little review.  That's project one.  I've also read several of Breece Pancake's stories and would like to write on them one at a time.  A third project I've considered since the recent Nobel Prize flap is a comparison between the Nobel Prize Committee and the BCS.  Both tend to be elitist and perhaps unnecessarily exclusive, after all.  That would take a lot of research, though, and I doubt I'll have the time to do anything meaningful with that.

For now, I'll occupy my time with study and with continued work on my fiction.  It would be really nice to actually finish something.  Even if whatever I send out doesn't get published or win a contest, I think just putting it in the mail would lead to some sort of satisfaction.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Second to Last Sermon

Today was a monumental day . . . sort of.  I preached a sermon today in my Advanced Homiletics class, and I realized it's the second to last sermon I will preach in my seminary career.  It feels good.  I also felt good while I was preaching, which is unusual for me.  I got a number of compliments on the sermon and on my delivery.  One guy in the class actually said I was a 'natural.'  He wasn't marveling at my abilities or anything, but it was a much appreciated compliment.  The whole thing seemed odd at first, but I realized that I was comfortable preaching today because I'm not going to be a preacher.  The pressure is off, as they say.

But should that make a difference?  If my nerve problems were a result of a desire to perform, to be better than the other guys who were preaching, then it's certainly a good thing.  The scary idea is that maybe I'm not taking the task seriously.  Whether I'm going to be a pastor or not, the Word of God is still the Word of God.  It's still worth a serious treatment.

My usual posture is to assume the worst about myself.  I would naturally assume I'm not taking the Word seriously enough.  Against all odds, however, I am confident that my lack of nerves came from a lack of pretense.  I didn't want to cast the illusion that I'm going to be the next great preacher (not that anyone thought that).

I'm going to preach once more this semester, and I hope that I can have a similar experience.  But even if I don't, the Holy Spirit is powerful, and He determines the effect of the Word preached.  That, I think, is the key to preaching.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Agony of Defeat

Those of you who follow Marshall sports will know that this weekend's high hopes were dashed.  Marshall played a miserable game, WVU got some offense going, and that was that.  27-3, WVU.

That is all.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Big Game Day

I am a football fan.  I haven't watched as many games since I've been in St. Louis since we don't have cable, but I've picked up the pace this year.  One reason I haven't watched as much football is that I'm more of a college fan and they don't show quite as many college games as the did back in West Virginia.  This year, though, I've had to find a way to get it done.  I need football, dangit!

I especially need football this weekend because my beloved Marshall is playing WVU.  "The Friend of Coal Bowl" it's called, and it has been dominated by WVU.  Of course, WVU has had some excellent teams in the last few years, but this year has been down for them.  I don't know if it's the departure of Rich Rodriguez or something else entirely, but WVU has gone 1-2 thus far.  Marshall, on the other hand is 3-1.  Maybe WVU has played tougher teams, but they haven't been impressive in their losses.  This means that maybe, just maybe, this weekend might be Marshall's first ever victory against WVU!  It will be a tough game, but it can be done.

"But," you say, "surely they aren't showing Marshall vs. WVU on network TV in St. Louis!  After all, Josh, you don't have cable!"

You're right on both counts.  However, God created ESPN360 for just such an occasion.  At 2:30 Central I will be watching the state of West Virginia's two 1-A programs go toe to toe.  And if things play out just right, the green and white will come out on top.

Bring on the Herd!!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

What's Your Palin Name?

I just saw this at Sam Smith's blog.  Follow this link to find out what your name would be if you were Sarah Palin's child.  This is what my name would be:

Recoil Zoo Palin


Monday, September 22, 2008

Birthday Haul!!

I'm tellin' ya, folks.  For all my whinging about my 30th birthday, it turned out to be pretty cool.  As I wrote previously, I was pulled up from the doldrums by my wife and sons, but my birthday weekend continued on a good note afterward.  Saturday morning my parents showed up and we had a nice little celebration.  The boys all had presents and I got $100 tucked into a two pack of Red Bull.  Very nice.  Not only that, but my in-laws sent me $30, as did Mary Ann's aunt Barbara.  So what does a guy like me get with $160?  Books, my friends.  All books.  I shall now list what I got in my haul.

The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake- Some of you are probably familiar with this tragic story.  Pancake was a West Virginia native.  He grew up in Milton, in fact, which was very close to where I grew up.  I've been to Milton on numerous occasions.  He was widely acclaimed and looked to be on the road to literary stardom, but in 1979 he apparently committed suicide.  Some believe the gunshot wound was accidental, but it was officially ruled a suicide.  After his death, Kurt Vonnegut wrote this in a letter to John Casey:  "I give you my word of honor that he is merely the best writer, the most sincere writer I've ever read. What I suspect is that it hurt too much, was no fun at all to be that good. You and I will never know."  I'm looking forward to digging into his stories.

Town Smokes:  Stories by Pinckney Benedict-Benedict is another West Virginia-born author.  I've read a couple of his stories in All-Story and Image and I came away quite impressed.  I'm looking forward to Town Smokes a lot.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra-I picked this up because 1) you can get the classics cheap at Borders and 2) it's on the list of novels in The Well-Educated Mind.  Most people consider it the first novel ever written.

The Final Solution:  A Story of Detection by Michael Chabon-I have become an bona fide Chabon fan.  I've read Wonder Boys, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and The Yiddish Policeman's Union, and all three were quite good.  I'm trying to work through the rest of his stuff now.

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut-I'm a big Kurt Vonnegut fan, but I hadn't gotten to this book yet.  It's considered one of his best, so it's probably about time.

Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold-I bought this one on the recommendation of a friend, so it better be good.  I'm looking at you, Rob Taylor.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain-I read this book years ago, but I just didn't like it.  I'm not sure why, but I think I've matured as a reader since then.  It's time for me to give Huck another shot.

How Fiction Works by James Wood-The New Yorker critic has written about his understanding of the nature of fiction.  I've enjoyed reading his work in the past, so when I heard this book was coming out I knew I was going to buy it.  So I did.

That's all I've gotten so far.  I still have a about $45 left, so I'll probably end up getting the Reader's Hebrew Bible off of Amazon.  I should have some left over still, but I'm not sure what I'll get.  I'll keep you posted.  In the mean time, look at my book pile in awe.

Friday, September 19, 2008

At 30

Last night, on the eve of my 30th birthday, I watched a dozen people try to squeeze through holes in moveable walls.  It's a game show.  They call it Hole in the Wall.  It's based on a Japanese game show called Brain Wall.  I'd seen clips of Brain Wall before--on Conan O'Brien I think--and I was hopeful.  It was silly, and there's just something inherently hilarious about Japanese game shows.  Unfortunately, as Brain Wall traversed the Pacific it was captured by FOX executives and injected with the irradiated blood of Jerry Springer.  Of the twelve contestants I saw, three were extraordinarily effeminate waiters, three were "little people," and three were female bodybuilders.  The bodybuilders were voiced by Harvey Fierstein.  All wore tight, metallic silver jumpsuits.

Then at midnight I turned 30.  I must say I started my birthday in a bit of a 'mood.'  I thought about the hour I spent watching body-builders wriggle through yellow styrofoam, and it felt like a microcosm of my life.  Seriously.  I had hurled an hour into oblivion.  It was dead.  I sacrificed it in the name of distraction.  I sacrifice a lot in the name of distraction.

When I awoke this morning, I didn't feel any better.  All I could think about is what I haven't done.  I haven't been able to provide a stable living for my family.  I'm unpublished.  I don't even have a complete short story I can be proud of.  I end sentences with prepositions.  So I moped.  I moped while I drank coffee.  I moped through my oatmeal.  I moped as I went to class.  Class was good, but I got my mope back on the way home. 

I entered the apartment building and then . . . MAGIC.  Mary Ann had gotten the boys to make birthday cards for me.  Leo had made some scribbles on one side of the card and signed the other.  Mary Ann had traced Finn's hand on one card, and the last card, Max's card, had a picture of me driving a giant 'drill tank.'  Max had drawn it himself.  He had also written me a happy birthday message.  Mope melted away as I was reminded of my family's love for me.

Ladies and gentlemen, when I come through the door of my apartment my three boys run to meet me.  They run and shout, "DADDY!"  Even Finn, who just turned one.  My wife worked hard to make my birthday good today.  I am thrilled to have the family I have.

I may not be a published author, and I may not have as much money as I think we need, but I won't surrender to self-pity.  I'm know I'll keep distracting myself.  There may be, heaven forbid,  another 300 lb., silver jump-suited waiter in my future.  But the love that lives in this apartment will remind me that I have am not a failure.  At 30, I am a man blessed by God.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Ending the Bender

Mary Ann and I have been bingeing on Heroes for the last few weeks.  As fans of the show realize, the third season of Heroes begins this Monday, so we needed to play catch-up.  Let me explain:  I'm a contrary sort of guy.  If a TV show gets popular I do my best to avoid it.  There's something satisfying in the look of bewilderment on a Lost fan's face when I tell them I don't watch the show.  The same goes for 24, though I'm not sure that one has as big a following as it once did.  Up until a couple of weeks ago Heroes fell into the same category.  Fortunately for Milo Ventimiglia, I recently regained an interest in comic books, which lead to a softening of the heart when it comes to shows involving super heroes.  We were picking up some $.99 movies at Blockbuster, so I grabbed season one, disc one.  We got hooked.

Two weeks have passed, and it's all over.  We have seen seasons one and two, often watching two or three episodes in a night.  Most of the time we would start at 10:00 PM and continue until about 1 AM.  This hasn't been great for our ability to think clearly during working hours which, I'm certain, has contributed to my anemic post-count in September.  I can't seem to write anything good these days.

This will seem a bit over the top, but I feel a bit like I've gone on a bender and am just now sobering up.  My head is clearing up, and soon I'll be able to write . . . for my classes.  That's frustrating.  I haven't kept up with my reading very well this semester.   It's been hard because I am heading in a different direction now.  It's not that I don't want to learn the stuff being taught--it's the Bible after all--but I need to be writing so I can have something good ready for an MFA program.  And I need to prepare for the GRE.  But hey, at least I remember what I need to do now.  That's the first step in recovery.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Brief Exchange

Max:  "Why was Jesus as bright as the sun?"

Me:  "Because he had the glory of God all around him."

Max:  "Eyebrows are made of hair."

The End.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Vintage Furniture and Oddities: The Sketches

I got the go ahead from 'Rex' so I'm going to post the sketches he's worked up for Vintage Furniture and Oddities.  It's good stuff, too.  He captures something about the characters so that, even when they diverge from my mental picture of the character, they work perfectly.

As you can see, the above picture features both Dale Stain and Esther Mayo.  Dale will play a large role in the story, but he is not one of the main characters.  He works with Esther, Lucy, Sam the Rook and others in order to prevent the villain, Big Box, from achieving his goals.

The second picture is Esther Mayo, the character through whom the action is perceived, at least in the regular prose version.  Esther is a bit aimless, but she basically wants to do right by people.  She gets dragged into the conflict of the story through now machinations of her own.

This handsome gentleman is Malcolm Gamble.  Gamble has yet to appear in portions of the story I've written, but he will play a big role.  He is an appraiser of fine furniture, but that means a bit more in the Vintage Furniture and Oddities than it does in our world. 

The last picture 'Rex' has sent me is of my favorite character in the whole story.  

Sam the Rook is a pretty cool character and 'Rex' captured him well in the drawing.  He's leaving the Vintage Furniture and Oddities store, looking alert and ready to throw himself into any challenge that comes his way.  That's Sam.

So you can see why I get excited when 'Rex' sends his sketches.  They're a pleasure to look at.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Me and Rex: Graphic Novel Ahoy!

As you may have seen in the comments of my "Are Comic Books Subversive 'By Nature?'" post, Rex Queems (the Phony) and I are working on a graphic novel together.  This 'Queems' fella is actually one of my brothers.  I'll leave his actual name a mysterious SECRET.  Anyway, this brother of mine took a liking to my short Vintage Furniture and Oddities pieces and wanted to work up a graphic novel for it.  I liked the idea, so we've been talking long distance (St. Louis to Athens, OH) about it.  The concepts have shifted a bit since the early stages, especially since I only had half of an idea as to where I was taking the story.

Lately 'Rex' has been sending me some pictures of the characters I wrote into the story, and one who hasn't shown up yet.  I don't want to post the pictures just yet because I want to have a better idea of what direction we're going to take the story.  Plus I haven't asked 'Rex' if it was alright with him.  Let me assure you, his art is infinitely better than mine.  His characters have a cartoonish quality, but also a depth that keeps them from looking a cheap Saturday morning cartoon.  It's exciting to see the pictures because I can get a richer concept of what the characters are like.  Good stuff.

Alright, Rex?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Get the Fountain Flowing

I'm tellin' ya, it's been a frustrating few weeks.  As you can see, I posted nothing on this blog between August 8 and August 22.  What you might not know is that I wrote just about nothing during that time frame.  No blog posts.  No short stories.  No comic book plotting.  I haven't even written a grocery list, but that's usually Mary Ann's domain anyway.

My life was full of work (15-20 hours/week), class (10-12.5 hours/week), church work (a couple o' three hours/week), and family (all the rest of the hours/week).  Add to this the fact that Mary Ann uses the laptop for her job and that reduced the hours even further.  The thing is, I want to be a writer.  I'm planning on pursuing an MFA after seminary.  I'm going to go out on a limb and say that means I need to have some decent stuff written before I apply.  I would do all these things all day and then after the kids went to bed I could barely stay awake, much less sit in front of a laptop and write.  Classes ended last week, but then I had gotten so far out of the writing 'groove' that for the first few days all I could do was stare at the screen, give up, and play Text Twirl on Facebook.  Not good.

I am pleased to report, however, that as of last night I'm back on the right track.  I took a baby step with some writing on The Familiar Game (nee The Brown Sisters) and today I continued on that story as well as doing some more detailed plotting for the first issue of My Zombie Wife Wants Me Dead.  Not only that, but I had yet another concept for a comic.  Right now I'm calling it The Seven Functions of Robot M, but that title could change.  It's fun because I never thought I'd write a book, comic or otherwise, which involved robots.  And this book has a LOT of robots.  I'll tell you more about that later.

So the fountain is flowing once again at the Duncan house.  The Fall semester starts next Thursday, so hopefully I can get some solid hours in before the time comes for me to focus more on academics.  Time is ticking away, and I've got a lot of writing to do!

Are Comic Books Subversive "By Nature?"

I've been on a comic book kick lately.  No, I haven't been snapping them up left and right.  In fact, the last one I bought for myself was Cerebus 300 in 2004, and that was for nostalgia's sake.  I have no idea what the last one I purchased before that was.  A Madman maybe?  I must've bought it before I got married in 2000, so it's been a while.  No, the kick I've been on has to do with following the conversation around comic books.  I've really been enjoying going to websites like iFanboy, Newsarama, and Comic Book Resources just to see what's new and what's been going on with some of my old faves.  Frankly, I like knowing what's going on without having to buy a bunch of comics.

Lately the most interesting talk has been surrounding writer Robert Kirkman's manifesto encouraging creators to work on books they own and not for Marvel and DC.  It's generated a lot of conversation, and yesterday Ron Richards--one of the iFanboy guys--weighed in.  Ron seems to be a laid back guy.  I like listening to the iFanboy podcast in part because of Ron's personality, so I hate to risk offending him by nit-picking about his post ('cause, y'know, he probably reads my blog all the time).  But, nit-pick I must. 

In his post Ron rejects Robert Kirkman's idea that Marvel and DC should focus on attracting younger readers in part because "comics are a subversive medium by nature and we should continue to embrace that."  That's quite a statement to make.  Comics certainly can be subversive, as in the works of Robert Crumb, but are they subversive by nature?  Let's not forget that Archie is a comic book.  So was Little Lulu.  And Casper and Richie Rich and Donald Duck.  Not only that, but if comics are subversive by nature, then the Franklin Richards comics Ron has been enjoying are by nature not comic books because as far as I can tell they are not subversive, unless we stretch the definition of 'subversive' to the breaking point.

I think that what Ron could have said is something like, "Comics have always had a subversive element, and we should continue to embrace that."  That's a less extravagant claim, and one I agree with.  There usually are things in a culture that need subverting and in ours comic books are well suited for that role.  This less extravagant claim does not provide strong support for Ron's conclusion, though.  Marvel and DC could provide kid-oriented content and still be producing comic books that are by nature comic books.

There's a lesson in all this, boys and girls:  be careful what you say on the internet or some goof who's scraping the bottom of the barrel for blog posts will overanalyze any and every phrase you turn.  Thank you and good night.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Zombie Wife Characters

Turn your computer upside down to see three of the chief characters in My Zombie Wife Wants Me Dead.  I have no idea why this picture ALWAYS loads upside down, because it's not upside down on my computer and none of my other pictures load that way (see below).

Anyway, the upside down man is Burt Flipp, the main character.  He runs a video game review website for a living and is a bit aimless otherwise.  He's good hearted, though, and he tries hard 
to make up for his natural carelessness.  He truly loves Becky and wants to keep her happy.

Becky Flipp is the aforementioned Zombie Wife.  She doesn't start as a zombie, but she ends up that way pretty quickly.  She is a medical assistant to Dr. Andy Perch (see below) when the series begins, but once she comes back as a zombie she has a little trouble at work.  She's the more driven and perfectionistic of the pair, and her perfectionism leads her to continually put off her revenge against Burt (who she blames for her death).  Until then, she sticks around to make sure he doesn't make a mess of the home that she strove so hard to maintain while she was alive.  Like many wives, she alternates between loving her husband deeply and wanting to kill him.

The little monster guy is named Mossy, and I'll leave him a bit of mystery at this point.

This character will show up in issue two or so.  This is the Mighty Fyodor, Gentleman Zombie Hunter.  He starts out as an adversary but eventually makes himself comfortable in the Flipp household.

These are some of the background characters from Zombie Wife.  Shelly is Burt's mom.  I'm not sure how much of a role she'll have past the first issue.  Dr. Andy Perch is Becky's boss before she dies.  Once she comes back, who knows?

So that's it for the characters, except for a couple of incidentals I haven't done sheets on yet.  Comments?

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Odd Crap from Blogger

I wanted to put my drawings from My Zombie Wife Wants Me Dead here on my blog, but whenever I try to add my picture it turns upside down.  I even tried to flip it upside down on my own.  No luck.  So you'll have to wait to see it.  Tra la.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Totally New Project!!

One truth about me:  I'm not happy unless I have too many stories churning in my head.  I've got The Brown Sisters (my "serious fiction"), and I have Vintage Furniture and Oddities (my project with my brother), but I needed something else just to do for fun.  I kept wondering and wondering, and it came to me in a flash.  The title to my next great project.  I already have a basic story line, character designs, and material for a few issues (it's probably going to be a webcomic).  I also designed a logo for said project:

Oh yes.  In case you can't read that it says My Zombie Wife Wants Me Dead!  That, my friends, is the sort of title that grabs the attention.  I'm pretty excited about this.  The comic will be black and white, of course, because I'm not doing a whole issue in colored pencil.  I only hope I can do a decent job drawing.  I feel pretty good about my character designs, and I'm using a cleaner style of art than my sketches, but I don't know if I'll be able to convey the sort of action I want in the story.  I'll have fun trying, though!

I'll try to post some of my character designs soon.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Who Watches the Watchmen . . . Act?

The first trailer for The Watchmen is out.  It looks excellent.  Dr. Manhattan is stunning.  Max and Leo have been cracking me up because, since they saw the trailer, they have been playing Watchmen.

"I'm Dr. Manhattan," Leo says.

"I'm Rorschach," Max replies.

Then they run around and battle and fight the bad guys.  It makes me laugh because their perceptions of what Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach are like are, shall we say, a bit off.  I just don't have the heart to tell Max that Rorschach is a mentally unstable far right conspiracy theorist and not a noble hero.  I also don't want to tell Leo that if he wants to be Dr. Manhattan he needs to be naked.  Because, y'know, he'd probably be fine with that.  They'll find all this out anyway when I take them to see the movie next March.

Just kidding.  If you've read Watchmen you'll probably remember that it's less than kid-friendly.  I do plan on seeing myself, though.  The trailer was one of the best parts about going to see PART of The Dark Knight this past weekend.

That's right.  PART of The Dark Knight.  The story goes like this:  A few of us guys who live on campus here at the Seminary got together to go see The Dark Knight Sunday night.  We all rode together and had a good time chatting.  I was a little disappointed that only a couple of us were old comic book junkies so I couldn't talk comics with them, but we had a good time anyway.

We arrived at the theater later than we had wanted so we couldn't all sit together, but I sat with one of the guys and another found a seat directly behind us.  We had been there for about an hour and a half, I think, when it happened.  At one moment Harvey Dent's large, dimpled chin was occupying the screen, the next, darkness.  The emergency lights came on, and a theater employee told us that the power went out and when it came back on the movie would pick up where it left off.  Unfortunately, it was not to be.  They never got the power back on.  10:30 rolled around and they bounced us from the theater.  We got vouchers for a free movie, of course, but here it is Friday and I've still never seen the end of The Dark Knight.  Hopefully I won't have to wait until it comes out on DVD.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Sketches: Faces, etc.

This batch of drawings represent what I typically draw.  I draw faces, often profiles, and I draw monsters.  There are other more complex drawings as well, but no other comics.  The 'elder' picture is actually much larger than the other pictures, and I think the whole thing would look better if I could figure out how to put a border on these pics, but this will do for now.

Buck-Toothed Monster


 Elegant Woman

Tae Kwon Do Joe
I was trying to use different arm and hand positions here.

So that's all for this round of my sketches.  I have plenty more, so check back often.  If you want to see scribbly, mediocre drawing, that is.

Sketches: All the Good Dragons

I promised I would post some of my drawings, so here's the first.  It's a cartoon I drew yesterday when I should have been studying.  The scanner blurred the upper left corner, but that doesn't affect the cartoon much.  Enjoy.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Graphic Novel Fever

My brother has done something incredibly unfair to me.  My life is hard.  A few weeks ago he casually mentioned that he thought doing a graphic novel of Vintage Furniture and Oddities would be cool.  Since then I had a discussion with Chris Gensheer about our mutual love of comic books.  Those two things combined have sparked an virulent strain of Graphic Novel Fever.  I've been cruising the internet to find out the news about some of my old faves (Madman, for instance).

Since my brother has expressed interest in drawing the above graphic novel, and since he is a better artist than me, I am happily giving him that opportunity. The problem is, I want to get the ball rolling.  And he's entering a doctoral program.  Writing big papers.  Drinking martinis with the President of Ohio University.  One of those sentences might not be true.  Anyway, he doesn't have the time to do a lot of drawing right now.  That means I got the fevah with no hope of a cure unless I can come up with another cool-as-heck idea.  Ugh.

I guess I'll just have to stick to writing "The Brown Sisters" and VFO.  Hopefully that will be enough to scratch the creative itch.

By the way, I will be posting some of my drawings on this blog as soon as I can figure out how to work the scanner.

Monday, July 07, 2008

The Critique Arrives

It's nice when something you've been waiting for finally happens.  Ever since June 17--a long time ago, I know--I have been waiting for Ann McCutchan's final critique of the bit of The Brown Sisters (working title) I read at the Trinity Arts Conference.  For those who don't know, Ann is a professor in the MA in Creative Writing program at the University of North Texas.  She led the workshop in which I read the piece, but there wasn't enough time for a good, thorough critique of the whole chapter.

This morning, however, I get up, make my coffee, and sit at the computer, and what do I find?  Ah!  The critique!  I'm a bit surprised I didn't click on Ann's e-mail with trepidation, but I was just plain excited.  She did not disappoint me.  Well, I was a bit disappointed that she didn't use the phrase "the next Hemingway" with reference to me, but I'll get over that.  What she did was deliver the sort of specific critique I have been longing for.

For instance, I really wanted to know my strengths and weaknesses.  While this is difficult to judge from one piece, she wrote that I have a "fine imagination" and that I should trust my ability to "'nail' a character first time out."  She referenced a specific character and said that the sort of description I applied to her was a strength of mine.

My chief weakness, she thought, was providing too much small detail.  She said I should pare things down, and recommended an exercise to help me with that.  She said I should try to take what I wrote in four paragraphs and, without cutting the scene itself down, rewrite the material in two paragraphs using only my strongest descriptors.  This is just what I needed!  I am looking forward to following her advice.

I definitely agree with her that the story drags a bit because of the detail.  I was just talking to Mary Ann about that yesterday as we were traveling back from a family reunion in Indiana.  She said she has enjoyed reading "Vintage Furniture and Oddities" (parts one and two) much more than The Brown Sisters, and I think she's onto something there.  I've been heavy handed, and I think Ann's recommendations may be just what I need.

On top of all that, she recommended a book to help me.  It's called Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, and it sounds like it will be quite helpful.  Thanks, Ann!

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Meeting With Dr. Calhoun

I met with one of my professors today.  Dr. David Calhoun is the freshly retired professor of Church History at Covenant Seminary, but he is continuing to teach.  Last semester I took the elective "Christianity and Imagination" to him, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  In fact, the class proved pivotal, helping me to decide what I want to do in the future.

I'm also taking Reformation and Modern Church History to Dr. Calhoun this summer, and I met with him after class today.  We'd been planning on that since the end of last semester, but this was the first chance we had to get together.  It was a good meeting.  His comments on my story were encouraging and his advice for me was helpful.  Beyond that, it was just nice to have a conversation with him.  He is one of the kindest men you could meet, and he understands what a writer needs to do in order to do good work.  I must say, I was a bit embarrassed by showing him some of the story's content.  It's not pornographic, nor does it have a Tarantino-like level of language and violence, but there is some cursing and a reference to a sexual situation.  Dr. Calhoun is a Flannery O'Connor fan, though, so he understands what it takes to craft a powerful story.  You have to deal with the warts of reality in a realistic way.

All in all, a good meeting.  He has encouraged me on my way toward pursuing an MFA, and he even said he saw that I had some talent.  Hopefully I can continue to develop said talent and write something that is worthwhile for both Christians and non-Christian.  He also advised me to continue to go to conferences and make contacts with people in the field.  It's nice when you get advised to do exactly what you wanted to do anyway . . .

Sunday, June 29, 2008

A 'Creative' Future

As my faithful readers know, I have been fretting over the future here for a long time.  I have bounced between being a pastor and pursuing a PhD, probably in Moral Theology.  Well, I think I've come to a decision.  Mary Ann and I have been discussing this for the last few days, and I think I'm going to pursue an MFA in creative writing.  You'll notice that this is neither the pastoral track nor the PhD track.  There are PhD options in creative writing, but most programs just offer the terminal MFA.

How did I come to this decision, you ask?  By weighing the options, of course!  I looked at PhD work and realized that I could not really get excited about Moral Theology.  I had also come to the conclusion that the pastorate was not the place for me a long time ago.  Then I took a long look at my writing abilities, and I came to the conclusion that I'm a better "creative writer" than I am a theologian.  So the "subjective experience" criterion was definitely in the MFA's favor.

Then I thought about how I feel alive when I'm writing fiction.  I feel like I'm doing something worthwhile.  Like I'm where I'm supposed to be.  It's a spectacular feeling, and one I'm not used to.  I realized then that God designed me to write.  That's how I'm built.  And if I can put in a commercial for Covenant Seminary here, this place has really helped me come to grips with how God made me, and how he can use the arts for his glory.  Coming here for the MDiv was worth it, even if I won't be using the degree in the expected way.

To continue the process I had a conversation with Mary Ann a few days back.  I was still clinging to the idea that I might use the PhD as my primary goal, but keep the MFA as a side option.  During that conversation she helped me realize that practically speaking the PhD was not all that much better than the MFA.  Both the PhD and the MFA will open up teaching jobs, the PhD in theology and religious studies, and the MFA in creative writing.  Neither field has huge demand, but MFA programs are popping up all over.  There is more growth there, I think.  Also, if I get the MFA jobs in the book industry open up a bit for me.  I could get an editing job more easily than before.  Theology doesn't offer a similar non-professorial option.  I know there are think-tanks, but there are certainly more publishers than there are think-tanks.  So there's that.

I also think I stand a better chance of getting into an MFA program with funding than I do a similarly funded PhD program.  As I said before, I'm a better writer than a theologian.  The question is, of course, which program?  I've started trying to figure that out, but that's a post for another day.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Vintage Furniture and Oddities, Part 2

Ages and ages ago I posted the first installment of a little thing I called Vintage Furniture and Oddities.  I intended to post more, but I never did.  Then, earlier today my brother called me.  He is a dang fine artist, and since he liked the little story he wanted to see if we could maybe put into a graphic novel, just for fun.  That was cool with me, and naturally it made me want to write a bit  more.  This installment isn't as dynamic as the first.  It shows how Esther and Lucy met, and also drops the hint of oncoming conflict.


The bell over the door chimed as she entered the store behind Sam.  Dust particles floated in the sunbeams that stole through store windows; windows which were mostly obscured by dark, heavy furniture.  Esther rubbed her nose and sniffed away the itch brought on by those tiny particles.  Lucy was nowhere to be seen.  It was just her, Sam the Rook, and some old squatty man with thick glasses.  He ignored Esther and Sam, instead thumbing briskly through what looked like an old library card catalog.  Esther was surprised his stumpy fingers could move so quickly.  It seemed almost unnatural.  She squeezed Oliver's flag in her hand inside her pocket and wondered why she was there.

    "Why should I have ever listened to Lucy?" she thought.  "I knew she was a weirdo from the first time I met her.  But here I am."

   Her thoughts drifted back to Pak-Mart and the job that would probably not be there for her when she returned.  Her shift should have started twenty-minutes ago.  Esther thought of Lucy's grandmother and then of Lucy and, in search of some clue as to what was going on, she rehearsed their first meeting in her head.


            “So Gemma was your grandmother?” Esther began.

            “Yeah,” Lucy replied.  “I knew her health had been slipping for a while—”

            “But still.”


            Esther remembered leaning on the conveyer belt in front of Lucy’s register and staring into her face, trying to gauge her emotion.  Instead she noticed Lucy’s exotic features; some mix of asian and African and plain ol’ white.  There was a tiny jewel in her nose and a definite sadness around her eyes, but mainly Lucy just looked burdened.

            “Um . . . She was a great greeter.  Your grandma.”

            Esther winced over her absurdly bad eulogy.

            “Thanks.” Lucy smirked.  “She talked about you a lot.”

            “Did she?”

            “Oh yeah.  ‘Esther’s a good kid,” she said, putting on a quavering voice.  “‘Needs some direction, though.’”

            “Sounds about right.  She talked about you, too.”


            Esther remembered how Lucy’s eyes brightened.  She was embarrassed because Gemma had really not mentioned Lucy much at all.  It was just over the last couple of weeks that Gemma worked at Pak-Mart that she started talking about Lucy.  Nonsense mainly.  Lucy’s face remained expectant though, and Esther, failing to find a lie sputtered the truth.

            “It was a sort of a . . . joke, I guess,” she said, stroking her bone straight hair.  “She would tap her temple and say, ‘That Lucy, she’ll take over the family business.’  I guess she was kind of . . . going.”

            They were both silent.

            “I shouldn’t have mentioned it.” 

            “No, thank you.”

            There seemed to be genuine gratitude in Lucy’s face, which was a shock to Esther.  Emboldened by the reaction, Esther told her the other thing Gemma used to say.

            “There was one more thing, if you want to know it.”


            “She told me, ‘Mr. Chalmers had his estate sale.’”

            If the gratitude had been a shock to Esther, it was nothing compared to the waves of emotion that crossed Lucy’s face.  Shock, panic, then terror hardening into determination.  Lucy reached across the conveyer and grabbed Esther by her blue smocked shoulder.  Her fingers dug in slightly.

            “She said ‘Chalmers?’” 

            “Yes, Chalmers,” Esther replied, swatting Lucy’s hand from her shoulder.  “I reckon you missed the big sale, though.  That was a few of weeks ago.  Sorry you missed your china, or whatever you buy at estate sales.”

            Lucy covered her face with her hands.

            “How did I not hear about Chalmers?”  she said.  “Dale.  I’m going to kill Dale Stain.” 

            “Yeah, sorry ‘bout your luck,” Esther said. She had been disturbed by Lucy’s behavior.

    "That's when I should have walked away," she thought.

      Instead she said, “I’ll tell you what though.  I’ll just give you what she gave me.”

            A few aisles away, a cash register chimed a sale.

            “She gave you something?” Lucy asked.  Her voice shook.  She was struggling to maintain control.

            “Yeah, a handkerchief with a bug stitched on it.  But seriously, it’s yours.”

            In a split second Lucy had switched on her ‘calm.’  She waved her hand.

            “No, she gave it to you.  It’s yours.  Just,” here the panic stirred the surface of her face again, “take care of it.  For Grandma.”


            A customer entered the line behind Esther.

            “I’m going to go,” she said.

            “Yeah.  Okay.”

             “Do you have any padparadscha?” the man asked.

            Lucy flicked off the light illuminating the bright number ‘12’ over her head.

            “I’m sorry sir, this lane just closed.”


   "Yep.  Totally weird."

  The sound of a door scraping a warped floor pulled Esther's attention up the stairs.  The upper landing was an exposed walkway, but it was just as crowded with antiques and knick knacks as the downstairs so Esther couldn't see what was going on.  Sam rose to his feet as Lucy rounded the corner and began to descend the stairs.

  "Got the girl and the flag.  Saw a truck."


   Sam nodded.  Lucy hurried to Esther and hugged her.

  "Glad you're safe, girl."

  Esther extricated herself and eyed her friend.

 "Any reason why I shouldn't be?"

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Trinity Art Conference: Ruminating on Art and Change

I have now looked at my notes from the Trinity Arts Conference.  As I suspected, they're bad.  In fact, after the second lecture they become non-existent.  I did alright in the first lecture, which is nice because that was given by Greg Wolfe.  Greg is a brilliant guy so he had a lot to say.  The topic of the conference was 'Change.'  One thing that Greg said is that people tend to hate change in art because they want to shoot the messenger.  Society changes, artists respond by expressing that in word, music, paint, etc.  This 'new art' is decried, called non-art, and sometimes anti-Christian (depending on the context).  In reality, the artist is often just holding up a mirror to society.  Understand, I'm saying what Greg said only as I understand it now from my notes.  Don't hold him responsible if I misrepresent his ideas.

The main point of Greg's lecture, I think, was contained in a quote from Walter Brueggemann, which I think I copied down correctly:

"Truthful statements must be continually stated to remain truthful."

This might sound scandalous to ears suspiciously seeking postmodern ideas, but I believe it is true.  To use a silly example:  Many years ago if you called a girl 'cute' she might have sucker-punched you.  Why?  Because 'cute' used to mean 'bow-legged.'  In order for 'that girl is cute' to be true in its original sense, we must restate the proposition:  'that girl is bow-legged.''

On a deeper level we can look at the word 'Gospel.'  One of the speakers at the conference made reference to this.  It was either Greg or one of the guys who did a devotion.  Anyway, the word 'euangellion,' which is Greek for 'gospel,' literally meant 'good news,' but in its context it was good news of a particular type.  One could tell 'the gospel of Caesar,' which would extol his good works and the wonderful things that resulted from his reign.  This affected the way 1st Century people would have understood the phrase 'the Gospel of Jesus Christ.'  It did not mean 'Jesus died for our sins and rose again' to them.  That would be part of it, but not nearly all.  That is how most people understand the word 'Gospel.'  It's either the formula I mentioned or a reference to a genre of music.  In order to help people understand what 'gospel' originally meant, we must restate it.

Greg used an Ezra Pound quote to translate this need for restatement into the realm of art.  Pound said, "the artist's motto is 'make it new'."  The IT, said Greg, is something unchanging.  Great art is still working with the fundamental data of this world.  That statement resonates with me.  I see it in both Rembrandt and Picasso.  Sometimes they might come from vantage points I reject, but even if the images in a painting do not match the world I see in my eyes, I can understand the lens through which it is interpreted and thank God for the truth and beauty contained in the changing form.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Trinity Art Conference: The Aftermath

I've been back from Dallas for a couple of days now, and I'm still trying to sort out what I learned from the conference.  There are some practical things I learned about writing, as well as some specific things about the piece I took with me, but I'm still trying to figure out what I really learned.  What lessons about Christianity and the arts will stick with me?  I suppose I'll have to go over the notes I took for that.  Unfortunately, I take lousy notes.

Anyway, my notes may be lousy, but the conference itself was not.  I enjoyed pretty much everything, from the speakers, to the people, to the workshops, to the art show, to the music, etc.  The speakers were all engaging, covering the theme of change and the arts.  Again, I'll consult my notes and post on that later, but in the mean time you can check out the text of Andy Whitman's lecture at his blog (Razing the Bar) in this post.

Who is Andy Whitman, you ask?  Why, Andy is a music aficionado who writes for Paste Magazine, Christianity Today, and  He loves music of nearly every sort, and he gave us a view of change from the critic's perspective, though he hates the term critic.  Andy was one of my favorite people at the conference, not because he spoke so well, but because I had a heckuva time just watching him enjoy the music at the show.  As the band played, Andy sat in his seat wearing a smile and moving to the music.  There was a look of true delight on his face, and he actually whooped a time or two.

What band was it that filled Andy Whitman with rapturous delight, you ask?  Why, Gretel, of course!  Gretel is a three-person band, made up of singer/songwriter/guitar player Reva Williams, bass player Phil DePertuis, and jill of all trades Melissa Myers.  And let me say, Andy was right to be delighted.  I was completely BLOWN AWAY by Gretel this past weekend.  Reva writes great lyrics, and her voice is powerful.  She is angsty and intense, while Melissa's back-up vocals are more gentle . . . angelic, if I may use the term.  Phil's voice is good as well, and he sings the third part in a few songs.  They are musically creative as well, and I will definitely make the effort to see them the next time they're in St. Louis.

The other three speakers were Greg Wolfe, Ann McCutchan, and Bruce Herman.  Winners all.  Hopefully I can write a bit about their lectures later.  I was really excited to get to work with Greg in the writers' workshop, but that didn't happen.  I wasn't able to shoehorn myself in during one of the sessions he attended.  I also tried to strike up a conversation with him, but that proved problematic as well.  No, he wasn't rude, it was just one of those situations where I couldn't come up with anything to say.  All I could do was ask him questions about literature, which exposed my ignorance on the subject.  He was perfectly friendly, but I couldn't get a good conversation going.  Alas, alack, a lump.

The upside to getting in on that last workshop was that we had a smaller group, so Ann McCutchan could spend more time focusing on individuals.  It wasn't a great deal of time, but it was better than it had been in the other workshops.  Ann was a lot of fun and she had plenty of helpful advice.  She writes creative non-fic, but she was perfectly capable of looking over my fiction.  I got the feeling she's read a novel or two.  The people from my workshop decided to give more detailed responses to all the work we brought, and Ann sent out an e-mail today saying that she was going to give a more detailed response as well.  That was exciting to me because for some reason I didn't think she was going to be involved in that.  She's a pro, after all, and a professor.  I figured she would be too busy, but I should have known that she wouldn't just blow us off after the conference.  She was too kind for that sort of thing.

Bruce Herman was the speaker I spent the least time with, though I did get to sit with him and a few others at the end of dinner one day.  I liked him a lot as a person, and I love his paintings.  I can't describe them properly, so just go to his website and check them out.  He's phenomenally talented, and he works hard at his craft.  Again, I can't really remember his lecture, so I'll have to check my terrible notes.

So the conference was well worth the money we paid for it.  Depending on our circumstances next year, I would love to go back.  The speakers will be different (except for maybe Greg Wolfe, as he's been there every year but one), but I know a lot of the same attendees will be, and they were also a part of what made the conference so great.  Friendly, creative people who love the Lord intensely.  How's that for a change?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Dallas Bound!!

Maybe we're fools, but the Duncan family, having just gotten home from West Virginia on Sunday, will be setting out for Dallas, TX on Thursday.  We are a band of strong-willed adventurers, a collection of travelers thirsty for a new challenge . . .

But not really.  We're closer to being homebodies than anything else, to be honest.  But hey, when a fella gets the chance to go to the Trinity Arts Conference  he does what he needs to do to get there.  

Yes, the famed Trinity Arts Conference takes place this very weekend!  I am getting pumped at the chance to get down there and have some people take a look at my work.  It's not like I'm going to come back with a book deal or anything.  I would have to have a novel that's closer to the finish line for that.  Plus, a publisher would have to read it, and that's about as likely as a publisher reading this post.  Anyway, I'm looking to get some good feedback from my fellow-writers at the conference.  Criticism is a good thing, and I haven't gotten enough of that in the past.

I'm taking the same piece of work to the conference that I read in my Christianity and Imagination class (The Brown Sisters).  It got positive comments there, and I really think I've improved it since then.  I've had some other folks take a look at it and gotten positive comments as well, but most of them have been family.  They're certainly willing to be critical, but I think the family connection will always color their views.  If I get good comments at the conference that will be big for me.  I am praying that this weekend will clear up a little bit of my future.  If writing is not to be in my future, hopefully I'll know that this weekend.

Pray for us as we make this trip, and pray for me that I will not be too wounded if my story is demolished or simply passed over without much comment!  If I get the chance I'll try to blog from the conference.