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.