Distorted relationships

Credit: kalebnimz, idpinthat.com

Recently–as in, weeks or months ago–I ran into an old acquaintance. We’d known each other for years, from various churches and schools, but we’d never truly been friends. She was part of the popular kids during our teen years. I wasn’t. She wasn’t a “mean girl” or a bully. Only popular. And I wasn’t.

(And I was a bit of a snob regarding people I perceived as popular; I didn’t like them, had no use for them, suspicious that they must have compromised their standards to attain their popular status. How else could people climb the social ladder of success?)

So we floated around in different social circles, never connecting except when it was forced on us.

Over the years, I’d perceived that even though we were adults, she was still treating me that same way. We talked only when necessary (almost never) and I perceived a certain superficiality on her part. I loathe fake friendliness. Pretense. Artificiality. Bleh. So it was better that we didn’t talk, I told myself, because I would rather be around genuine people. Not fakes. (Notice the pride in my attitude!)

Circumstances changed. Some changes were small, others life-altering. When we ran into each other, I was startled that she was friendly to me. And I mean genuinely friendly. I assumed the changes in our lives might have contributed to this.

I was right about that, but only that.

I learned that she’d been living with pain for years. It had taken all her energy to keep this hidden from others.  Now that her life had changed, so had the pain. She could drop the pretense that life was fine and the oh-we’re-doing-wonderful-how-about-you? the churchy, socially-acceptable answer to the horrible phrase, “Hi, how are you?” (There ought to be a law against this question being used as a social greeting.) She was free to be honest.

I was flabbergasted. Not at the secret per se–I’d had a weird feeling about one aspect of her life for years–but at how badly I’d mangled my interpretation of our relationship. That artificiality? That perception that she was treating me like we were back in high school?

I was wrong. It wasn’t about me at all.

It was about a woman trying to protect herself from pain.

Never mind what this particular pain was. You can fill in the blank with whatever you think it might be; it could be physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, any sort of thing at all. And this particular situation could be applied to multiple people whom I’ve known for years; after living in the same area for twenty-eight years, I know a lot of people. So there’s no use trying to guess who it is (if you know me in real life) or what it is (if you know me online). That’s irrelevant.

What is relevant is how I made a situation revolve around me and my interpretations of events and people, and how I was wrong. 

It reminded me of the novel Rebecca. After the big revelation that the narrator’s husband not only killed his first wife but never loved her at all, the young narrator begins to look at all the things she’s misinterpreted since she got married. Her sister-in-law’s attitude. The estate manager’s manner toward her. Her husband, and a multitude of things surrounding his late wife Rebecca, who’d pretended to be perfection and was foul and rotten beneath the surface.

She hasn’t known any of this. Instead, she’d built up a picture in her mind of the wonderful life her husband Max and Rebecca had: love and devotion and passion. It had been none of those things. She hadn’t known because she felt inferior to the first wife and was too shy to ask questions.

It seemed incredible to me now that I had never understood. I wondered how many people there were in the world who suffered, and continued to suffer, because they could not break out from their own web of shyness and reserve, and in their blindness and folly built up a great distorted wall in front of them that hid the truth. —Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier, chapter 20

Like the unnamed narrator of Rebecca, I had done exactly that. I’d let my  self-perceived inferiority build up a wall between myself and the world. It was built, stone by stone, from insecurity, from past embarrassments, from present slights, from future fears. High school experiences had been perceived through the grey cloud of depression then. Now, those experiences were even more distorted by the extremes of bipolar disorder, the fickleness of memory, and arrogance. (What can be more arrogant than self-abasement? It emphasizes self, exalting it by giving it undue credit.)

The situation wasn’t about me. But it did reveal how distorted and self-centered my thoughts were. Now I look around and I wonder how many other times I’ve misjudged people’s attitudes and actions. All those things that I’ve seen as hostility or superficiality or some other negative attitude toward me could really be exactly what it seems: hostility or superficiality of spirit. It also could be hiding personal pain. I might never know.

But I can stop focusing on me and pray for a discerning mind and an open heart–and be willing to see that truth revealed, no matter how ugly it is.

Willing to die?

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Recently, I had the dubious pleasure of re-reading The Man Who was Thursday, by G. K. Chesterton. I call it a “dubious pleasure” because, while the story is staggering and profound, it is bewildering. I’m not even certain where the sense of profundity derives from, only that it’s there, somewhere, beneath layers of anarchists and undercover policemen, dreams and symbols, balloon rides and accusations and costumes. Driving the entire story is a man named Sunday who is accountable to no one but himself. Is he God? What the heck is Chesterton getting at?

I read this book years ago. I scratched my head and recommended it to people who asked for book recommendations. (They usually didn’t ask a second time.)

I re-read it again, struggling for comprehension. It’s still elusive.

But one scene stopped me. I read it, re-read it, and slowly nodded.

Gabriel Syme is a detective has been engaged as a “philosophical policeman” to thwart a group of anarchists. He’ll end up going undercover and being elected as “Thursday” to the Central Council of Anarchists, a group of seven–all named for days of the week–headed by the mysterious Sunday. As it turns out, every other man/day of the week is also an undercover police detective posing as an anarchist and all of them have been hired by an extremely large man in a darkened room. None of them see that man’s face until the end. It is Sunday.

(Y’all, it’s fiction. Suspend your disbelief.)

In a flashback, Chesterton tells of Syme’s recruitment by another police officer and then his “interview” with a man in Scotland Yard. He enters a dark room. Another man, who has his back to him, asks if he is the new recruit.

“Are you the new recruit?” said the invisible chief, who seemed to have heard all about it. “All right. You are engaged.”

Syme, quite swept off his feet, made a feeble fight against this irrevocable phrase.

“I really have no experience,” he began.

“No one has any experience,” said the other, “of the Battle of Armageddon.”

“But I am really unfit–”

“You are willing, that is enough,” said the unknown.

“Well, really,” said Syme, “I don’t know any profession of which mere willingness is the final test.” 

“I do,” said the other– “martyrs. I am condemning you to death. Good-day.” 

–G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who was Thursday, chapter 4

Those final two lines of dialogue stopped me. Martyrs require no other qualification than a willingness to die for what they believe. I’ve heard stories of martyrs (usually early Christians) all my life and never considered that they did not have to be perfect or especially saintly or knowledgeable or hard workers or whatever; they only had to be willing to die.

Then I wondered: Would I be willing to die for what I believe? 

Then I wondered more: What does a “willingness to die” look like?

It could mean actual death, of course. Beheading. Stake-burning. Crucifixion.

But could it also mean a willingness to set aside

  • my own agendas?
  • my obsession with my opinions?
  • my own inclination to talk too much and listen too little?

Could it also mean

  • loving my enemies?
  • forgiving the unforgivable?
  • curtailing my spiritual freedom if it causes others to stumble?

Those aren’t things that I can do on my own. I definitely wouldn’t do them if left to my own desires. I’d sit around taking selfies and making certain every item on my to-do list is checked off and sharing my opinions on everything, including things on which I know nothing, and interrupting others every time they speak. Yuck.

But I know that my fitness for any God-ordained task doesn’t derive from my own innate abilities but from God himself. So I also have to conclude that any willingness to die for God–whether that’s physical or not–comes from him. And any ability to live for God–whatever form it takes, whatever task he gives–also comes from him.

So I’m neither unwilling nor unfit for whatever work God calls me to do.

In the eyes of other people, I may look like a very unlikely candidate for that job, and I may believe that myself at times. 

In the eyes of God, unlikely-looking is no deterrent. Those same people end up doing unimaginable things. He equips. He grows. He does the impossible. He gives me himself so I can be used by him for his work.

Who should I listen to: other people or God?

Chesterton’s novel may leave me with other unanswered questions, but even I know the answer to that one.

If God’s called me to a task, He’s already given me everything I need to do it. He’s given me himself. And that is enough.

 

 

 

Passion, Perseverance and Grit

file-5Currently, I’m midway through two books. One’s fiction (The Lay of the Land, by Richard Ford) and the other is nonfiction (Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance, by Angela Duckworth). I first encountered Duckworth’s research in one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, so when I saw the cover of Grit at the library, I snatched it up.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of grit, then here’s the gist.

Passion + Perseverance = Grit

As she explains to a young entrepreneur early in the book, it’s not just doing what you love (passion). It’s doing what you love and staying in love with it. It’s consistency over time. That’s not easy. (Ask any couple who have been married five or six decades.)

I suppose that most people, if asked, would like to be gritty. But . . . those distractions. Setbacks. All that hard work. I’m just not good at that, they lament. “That” could be math homework or writing or a particular sport or an aspect of their job. And because I’m not good at it now, I’ll never be good at it.

On the flip side, there are people who are wondrously talented. No challenges get in their way through childhood or adolescence; people gush over their talent. But then something comes along and–wham! Failure. And they give up. They don’t know how to continue.

Duckworth, drawing on the work of Carol Dweck, says that this is a “fixed mindset.” Both sets of people think that their innate ability/inability to do (whatever it is) is fixed. It can’t grow. They’ll always be as bad or good at that task as they are now.

Recently, my daughter, who is on the varsity tennis team at school, told us a story at dinner. We were discussing two of the boys on the guys’ team. Let’s call them X and Y. Both are the same age, both were new to tennis last year, and as you’d expect, they were ranked low on the team. Only the top 6 players get to play official matches. X, who was slightly better, was ranked #6. Y was #7.

My daughter said that X never worked hard at tennis: he didn’t like running, ditched practice at least once (this year) because it was “crap”, and barely made it on time to his match for sectionals. In contrast Y worked hard. He took lessons outside of practice; he got better. (His balls still go over the fence, yeah, but not as much as before!) But X has a fixed mindset.

“He takes for granted that he will always be seeded higher than Y.”

-my 13-year-old daughter’s complaint

My daughter and another tennis friend urged Y to challenge X to a match in hopes that Y could be moved up a seed. Alas, the match was cut short. But my daughter maintains that Y could’ve beaten X. As Y took lessons all summer, I imagine that he will.

People become better at things through deliberate practice.  That’s not just any old practice: hitting the ball over and over without improvement, for example. It involves intense, often painful, practice that works on a particular component that is just a bit beyond their ability (call it a stretch goal), gets feedback, and seeks to improve with each repetition. Recognizing and applying this are key to having a “growth mindset.”

So perseverance is a huge part of this grit equation. But so is passion.

We don’t necessarily recognize our passion when we first encounter it. There’s spark: hey, that looks interesting. Then comes practice. And more practice. After a while, we seek to do this thing not just for ourselves but because we see how it benefits others. And then, finally, we find hope that these efforts can make us stronger. That when we fail, we can get back up. (We often need help with getting back up.) That out of those failures–the missed shots, the rejection letters, the setbacks–can come success.

There’s so much more in this book: about helping others develop grit, for example, and developing it within ourselves.

As for myself, I’ve decided to apply the principles of Grit to my own writing. I’ve often told myself that I’m a lousy blogger: too inconsistent in posting, too interested in writing fiction to bother with non, too focused on maintaining momentum in novel drafts to hit pause and type up anything of substance. Besides: my depression! my fatigue! my mania! I’m not a great blogger.

Fine. I’m not a great blogger yet. But I can improve. There is a definite skills set in successful blogging, just as there is in fiction writing, non-fiction writing, poetry. I have to learn, and that means deliberate practice: a clearly defined stretch goal (look at what skills I lack); full concentration & effort (no peeking at Pinterest!); getting informative feedback (listening to the advice of more successful writers); repetition with reflection and refinement (do it again, only better).

How about you? Have you read Grit? What things have you persevered at and improved in your own life? What skills would you like to develop? 

And, hey, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, what blogging skills can I improve? I love–okay, need more than love–feedback. 

When evil appears to win

ab351a672de44766956840771490c1f5Don’t you hate it when evil wins?

Recently, I read a novel where the antagonists win in the end. Actually, scratch that. “Read” isn’t accurate. “Began to read but felt uneasy as certain themes developed, skipped to the end, read the conclusion, and thought, ‘What the–?’, then skimmed through the rest of the book to find that if I had actually read the book, the way the author intended me to read it, page-by-page, then I would have come to the unsettling conclusion that the antagonists win.” Now that’s accurate.

The antagonists–the very people the protagonists are fighting, the evil ones, the ones you are supposed to suspect and dislike–those people win.

And the protagonists–the leading couple, the parents of two children, the ones you were supposed to be cheering for–they not only lost, but they succumb to the evil forces themselves.

I wasn’t the only reader unsettled by the conclusion. Multiple reviewers on Goodreads mentioned the ending as problematic. Some felt that it was appropriate for this particular novel. Others believed the author wrote him/herself into a corner and saw no other ending. Still others wrote that they would never read another book by that author again.

Mind you, this wasn’t just an unhappy ending. My first novel has a bittersweet ending: the couple reconciles but their child still dies after a suicide attempt. Happy ending? No. But I tried to give this couple hope through both their faith in God and their love for their daughter’s newborn child. I think that’s a far cry from the bad-guys-defeat-good-guys ending.

I’ve read variations on the “evil wins” ending over the years, and I believe I understand why authors use it. They’re trying to reflect reality, and the reality is that human nature is evil. (So far, I agree.) Sometimes it appear that the ending of a life-story ends with evil (whatever form that takes) overcoming the good.

Again, I agree that sometimes in life, that’s how stories appear to end. Sometimes reconciliation doesn’t happen. Sometimes terrorists blow up a building and kill hundreds of people. Sometimes the justice system doesn’t work correctly and the murderer, the molester, the corrupt and unjust and predatory people in this world go unchallenged, undeterred, unpunished. And more people are hurt.

But appearances are deceptive. 

Here’s the reality: this world isn’t all there is. There is a world beyond this one. What appears to be the end in our world–death–is only a beginning there.

In The Last Battle, Aslan tells the children that in the Shadowlands, this world, they are dead. Now they will live in Aslan’s kingdom forever.

Lewis writes,

“And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

Does evil win on earth? Sometimes, yes. 

Does evil win in God’s kingdom? No. Emphatically, no. Those evils of this world–the injustices, the depravities, the sufferings–will be fully and justly dealt with there, regardless of whether they were here. God wins. Every. Single. Time.

We must continue to fight for justice here. That is right and good. Knowing that God will be triumphant doesn’t excuse us ignoring injustice in this world. But we can do so with the encouragement that we are not fighting in vain.

With God, there is always hope. The most realistic novels I’ve read, while they may have bittersweet or sad endings, also include some element of hope. It may be only a flicker of a candle on a starless night. But it is there.

A novel that ends without hope and with evil winning? Now, that’s unrealistic.

 

 

Downton Abbey, Jane Eyre, and the mad wife, a post by Jeannie Prinsen

My brain isn’t working in its typical brilliant way–the brilliant bit was a joke, ya’ll, in case you didn’t realize–and the doctors have concluded, after much pricking and poking and blood guzzling, that my vitamin D levels are extremely low. Apparently, at a certain level, depression, fatigue, cognitive problems, and interesting things like that can happen. And they are happening, right now, as I type, in my brain. I forget words. I cry. I feel wiped out, sometimes to the point where it’s hard to take care of the things I must take care of.

I only wish I could pop open my skull and take a look inside and see what shenanigans those chemicals are up to. They seem quite naughty. But I’ll have to be content with getting lots of rest and taking vitamin D3 supplements. It’s slowly getting better, but I doubt I’ll be a bundle of energy bouncing off the walls any time soon.

All of that to say, I’ve been struggling to write. But I thought I’d share a post that I enjoyed. Jeannie Prinsen wrote a moving essay on Downton Abbey and one particular character whose fate was a bit unsettling.

Spoiler alert! I don’t want anyone getting in a tizzy because the post ruined their entire life–or at least their favorite show–because it gave away a plot twist. Consider yourself warned.  Onto Jeannie’s post. 

Downton Abbey ended last weekend after its sixth and final season. Like millions of other fans of the show, I loved it, and I’m going to miss it. Yes, I still have my DVD’s, but it’s not the same.

The grande finale episode was very touching and satisfying. Still, I’m left with this feeling that the Crawleys and their staff are going on with their life without us, and we’re missing it!

In most cases I enjoy thinking about the characters moving on in life. Read the rest at Little House on the Circle.

How a non-writing-related non-fiction book helped me pitch a novel

The writer’s conference was terrific. The month leading up to it was, alas, not. Let me explain.

I was pitching an agent for the first time, so I wanted to spend most of February concentrating on developing my pitch and practicing it. I had cleared my writing schedule and tried to whittle down my personal obligations to the bare minimum. Then life happened. And the “bare minimum of distractions” became a multi-headed beast of stressors.

  • There was a lice epidemic at my daughters’ school. (Neither girl got it, but it was stressful dealing with the possibility.)
  • One child got in trouble at school—which has never happened before—and we had to do the tough parenting job of disciplining her (cancelling her upcoming birthday party) and dealing with why she’d made such a foolish choice.
  • I spent hours on the phone with the health insurance company, dealing with an issue from the last calendar year.

(That was the first week of February.)

  • My car battery died in the carpool line.
  • One child had an out-of-town field trip.
  • Her tennis uniform arrived two days before the first match, and the skirt turned out to be too large, which required last-minute alterations by my mother.
  • Our younger daughter had a slumber party at the house of a friend who had not been as lucky in the lice-epidemic as we were; by this time, she was back at school—her mom freaked out, just like I would’ve, and apparently washed the entire house—but I was still stressed at the possibility of . . . well, you know.

And there was cello practice. And tennis matches and practice.

And I was exhausted. Not the normal exhaustion from the above stresses, but the type that signals that something is wrong in my body. My iron levels were fine. My thyroid was fine. My allergies weren’t misbehaving. The doctors still aren’t certain what is wrong. And I was having insomnia.

It was the week of the conference before I wrote my pitch. A writer friend told me to practice on anyone who would stand still. “It’s better to sound silly now than when you’re with the agent,” he told me. So I practiced in the mirror, on the selfie-video function on my cell phone in the carpool line, and on my husband.

The day of the conference, I almost wimped out. I had to drive 1 ½ hours to Birmingham, and I’d had horrible insomnia the night before. Everything seemed to have conspired to distract me. What was the point of trying?

I went anyway.

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Wonderful book! Ya’ll, you really need to read this.

I’d been reading L.L. Martin’s book Positively Powerless, in which she seeks to show that “the power of positive thinking” isn’t true and to reconnect the Christian to our true source of power: Christ. It’s a terrific book, though it was sobering to realize how easily I fall into the trap of thinking that I am the source of my own power.

After that month, I wasn’t feeling positive, empowered, or even physically strong. Certainly not enough to talk to a literary agent about my novel. I was weak. I needed Jesus.

On the drive to Birmingham, I listened to Nichole Nordeman’s music. There was one song on her Woven & Spun cd that particularly struck me that morning. She sings about various points in her life and how Jesus was always there for her, from when she fell off her bike or won the softball game or had her heart broken or got married or had two kids screaming at two a.m. (Oh, did that resonate!) And all along, Jesus was there.

My pitch was at 10:40. By the time 10:20 came, I slipped from the main conference room and took refuge in a bathroom stall. I was sweaty, chilled, and terrified. There, between the stall door and the toilet, I leaned against the wall and had a little chat with God.

Normally, it would’ve been easy to cheer this:

Rah-rah-go-Laura-go, you can do this, girl!

Only I know that I can do the most unprofessional things possible; I’ve done them before. That wasn’t going to work, and after reading Martin’s book, I knew why: I needed to rely on the truth.

My little talk with God went something like this.

I need you. And I know you’re there. You were there for me during every depression, when I was anorexic and bulimic and manic and desperate, and you’re going to be there whether this ten minute meeting goes well or badly, whether I am coherent or babble or cry.

A verse came to mind.

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“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

It wasn’t a positive power affirmation. It was a reminder that I was weak—only the weak need strength—and that the source of strength is Christ. And as Nordeman’s song reminded me, He is always there.

The meeting went well. The agent liked my novel premise and my next novel’s premise, too. She asked for a full manuscript of one and a synopsis of the second. In addition, two other agents read my first page and asked for partials. That was far, far more than I’d expected (although my writer friend says he wasn’t surprised.)

None of that is a guarantee that I’ll get an agent or get published. All three may say no. But I walked away with an even better guarantee: Christ will always be there for me. His strength is what I need, whether or not my novel is published. And that’s better than a book contract any day.

P.S.: I will blog about another aspect of the conference later, one that will be of particular interest to novelists. 

Feeling like an Impostor

A few weeks ago, my editor at Ruminate asked if I’d be interested in reading submissions for their annual non-fiction contest.

Anyway, I agreed. Reading fiction submissions has been beneficial, so I looked forward to learning more about non-fiction writing. What I didn’t anticipate was this:

Feeling like an impostor.

Who was I to say what’s good non-fiction? What if a piece is simply not to my taste? What if I cut a strong essay that some other, more knowledgeable judge would put on their top ten list? What if I’m not a good enough judge? I know fiction so much better.

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Sometimes I think I came from the this factory!

I knew exactly where this sense of inadequacy was rooted. Years ago, someone (let’s call her Gretchen) used to pal around with me. When people heard that I was a writer and Gretchen was there, she would say,

“Laura’s a good fiction writer.”

That sounds complimentary.

But there was this slight emphasis on the word fiction, a delicate inflection of tone, one that conveyed a different message. Yes, Laura may be a good fiction writer but she’s not good at non-fiction. In her unstated but clear opinion, non-fiction was harder to write; writing a novel was all very well and good, but writing a scholarly book was harder and more important.

(Incidentally, both types of writing are difficult to do well. One is not inherently harder or easier than the other, though they require different skills. What’s easy is writing badly.)

I resented that. I wanted to grab the attention away from her—pluck the megaphone from her hands—and yell,

“I’m a damned good writer. Period. Scratch that, exclamation point. I can write anything I jolly well please!”

(Except poetry. It’s a beast of a different species. Anyone who can tame that wild creature has my admiration.)

Gretchen probably didn’t even realize there was an inflection in her voice. I also don’t think she ever read much of my non-fiction: not my blog, and certainly not my narrative essays, nor my master’s thesis or other academic works.

(One paper was published in an online undergraduate journal. The journal is defunct, but I believe my paper survives as a resource on a site that sells academic papers “for research purposes.” Yes, for $29.99, you too can download my paper on feminine identity in Sophocles’ Antigone and turn it in to your professor. I hope she gives me an A and flunks you. Just sayin’.)

My professors liked my work. And if writing a 100-page thesis (roughly 25,000 words, or one-third of my current novel) on annihilation in Moby-Dick couldn’t be considered difficult, then I’m not certain our definitions of “difficult” are the same, and maybe you haven’t read Melville’s masterpiece, either. Whales are scary.

In regard to her statement, I think I’ve gotten over the resentment—mostly—but the insecurity has remained. The fact that I had to prove my non-fiction credentials to you, my loyal readers, by citing a paper I wrote 16 years ago shows that I’m still dealing with it.

So when I began reading non-fiction submissions, I doubted myself. I read all of the assigned submissions, took notes on each one, intending to sort them into Yesses and Nos later. It was tough. But yesterday, as I was compiling my final top ten picks, I realized something.

Most of the essays were narrative. They told a story.

What makes a piece of narrative writing compelling is the same for both fiction and non-fiction. Polished writing. Original ideas. Emotional depth. Strong voice. A hook, a conflict, a turning point, a resolution (in tone, if not in the conflict).

The same problems in a weak short story were present in the weak essays. Misspellings. Odd punctuation. Confusion. Clichés. A sense that the piece wasn’t quite finished at the end; the last line didn’t have a finality to its tone.

Realizing this gave me a boost of confidence. I’m still more comfortable in the realm of fiction, but I’m not feeling quite so much like an impostor.