Distorted relationships

distortions.png 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.

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A plea to church leaders from the invisible woman in the church pew

Let me be completely honest: I’m angry right now. It’s a dangerous thing to be angry while blogging, and I’ll probably wait an hour or two after writing before hitting the publish button, but I think this is something that needs to be said.

Ever since I first posted about feeling invisible in church, I’ve received emails and comments on that post and the subsequent ones on the same topic. So many people are hurting. They feel alone in church. They feel that no one cares, that they have no friendships, that they might be physically sitting on the church pews but no one sees them. This is sad.

What is sadder to me is that, in many of these stories, the people have tried to fit in at a particular church:

  • Bible studies.
  • Small groups.
  • Ministry involvement.

If these things weren’t available, often they tried to start them. Tried . . . and failed, for reasons too many to count. (Lack of leader support, not spiritually gifted in that area, etc.) Too many people have told me, “I thought I was the only one who felt like this!” And then they thank me for sharing because it’s helped to know that someone cares, even if it’s a total stranger in cyberspace.

Yet at many of the churches I’ve attended and visited, the majority claimed to be a caring body of believers. They urge people to join small groups or Bible studies or get involved in various ministries. These are the best ways to make you feel like you belong, I’ve been told.

But my blog readers have done all these things, and they haven’t worked. They’re still alone. Still hurting. Still invisible in the church pew. All these wonderful, promising things that are supposed to help us follow Christ together and share life and blah-blah-blah: they’re failing.

I’m sure there are people for who these groups and methods work. They’ve found close friends and feel totally accepted and loved at church. Terrific. But others are falling through the cracks.

People are asking me to pray, and I am. I’m heartbroken for them.

But at this point, I’m also frustrated. The one group of people I haven’t heard from on this topic are church leaders. (There have been a few. Thank you.)

I can’t imagine that they are entirely ignorant of this problem. (I think some leaders acknowledge that this happens at other churches, but convince themselves that their church is not like that. Maybe that’s true. Maybe not.)

Nor can I imagine that pastors, elders, and deacons don’t give a damn that people feel rejected and alone. I’m sure many or most do. (For example, when I told my psychiatrist that I’d had a negative experience visiting his church–I was totally ignored both times I attended–he nodded and said, “People come to the church through small groups, so they don’t feel the need to reach out to people in the pews. The leaders know this is a problem, but we don’t know what to do about it.”)

Nor can I imagine that the leaders want congregation members and visitors to suffer silently. (There would be exceptions; egotistical masochists end up in every profession, unfortunately. But surely most pastors desire to have a pastor’s heart: compassionate and merciful, shepherding people like Christ, the Good Shepherd, does. Imperfectly, to be sure, but longing to help and guide.)

So what’s the problem?

Why can’t leaders acknowledge that sometimes methods fail?

That includes

  • The join-a-small-group method:

(This seems to elicit more enthusiasm in my area than it deserves. Many involve the church putting the groups together, so you might end up with a group of people you don’t like or trust or even know, and somehow you’re supposed to “do life together” with weekly meetings that are heavy on food and fellowship and light on anything more substantial than coffee cake and sweet tea. It’s an introvert’s–and nutritionist’s–nightmare. Maybe the small group idea works better when you’re already friends and get to pick each other. But then how do outsiders join?)

  • The participate-in-a-Bible-study method: 

(A lecture-based group isn’t conducive to building friendships. And the discussion-based ones aren’t either, as it’s too easy for one or two people to dominate or derail the discussion, many people are too intimidated by public speaking or feel too ignorant to talk, and a lot of Bible studies are filled with fluffy material that doesn’t satisfy mature believers or educate and equip young ones.)

  • The get-involved-in-a-ministry method:

(Theoretically, this should work. Working alongside other people is a terrific way of getting to know others. But I’ve heard from people who said that they signed up to help in a particular area but were never contacted by the leaders. A variation on this situation is where there’s a small clique that owns that ministry and they don’t want to share the work, power, or glory. It’s “theirs.” Another variation: the same clique allows you to do the gruntwork but your ideas and concerns aren’t heard, and you’re never really accepted by the people who are involved. Your gifts are never fully utilized. You walk away frustrated.)

All three methods are things that I’ve been told by church leaders (and read in various places) are great ways to feel like I belong in church. I’ve tried all three. None of them are bad. All work for certain people in certain circumstances. (Praise God and give him glory!) But none work for everyone. And for some people, they don’t work at all, and those are the people writing to me. Pastors and leaders, why is this?

Please hear me: I’m not blaming the pastors. Often, they’re doing the best they can: preaching until they’re hoarse about loving others around us, trying to set a good example in their own lives, truly trying to reach the lonely among the members. But the congregation members are hardhearted. In that situation, I’m not sure there’s anything they can do besides pray.

I realize that the pastor’s role is difficult. I understand that. I understand they’re torn in 500 different directions, personal and professional, and feel overwhelmed and alone and frustrated. I understand the burnout rate is high, the depression rate is incredibly bad, and there’s often no one they can confide in within their church. I understand that there’s a thousand different aspects to that job that I’ll never understand because I’ve never done it. I get that. I don’t want to add a burden to their heavy load.

But I’d like to hear from church leaders about why some Christians might try so hard, do all the build-friendships-at-church methods, and still end up alone on Sunday morning. What is going wrong? How can we, as the body of Christ, move beyond mere methods to something more substantial? How can we stop having people fall through the cracks? What would you advise my lonely readers to do? 


(P.S.: I did wait a while to cool down and edit this. If you feel condemned by my words, I ask your forgiveness and please let me know so I can edit.) 

Thoughts on American Girls: Social Media & the Secret Lives of Teenagers

contentThis will be short because I haven’t had a chance to consider this as deeply as I’d prefer. But my husband and I are reading American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, by Nancy Jo Sales. Sales traveled the country, talking to teen girls (and boys) about the social media use. The topic that came up, over and over, could be summed up in two words: sex and porn.

I was already aware of much of what Sales discusses but my husband? He hadn’t realized what types of apps are out there, nor what types of sites teens frequent. Slut pages? Oh my. This ain’t your mama’s Facebook feed, y’all.

In the first chapter, Sales quotes a professor of comparative literature from Princeton, April Alliston:

“Historically, a spike in interest in pornography is also associated with advancement in women’s rights,” Alliston says. “What happened at the time of the invention of the printing press was very similar to what’s happening now with the Internet.”

The printing press made porn readily available. About this time, women were getting more rights, and literacy rates among women increased. From what I understand, people (that’d be men) were anxious about women gaining knowledge through reading: what might happen? Porn, typically images of female prostitutes, was shared between men as both a way of excluding women (who weren’t looking at the images) and putting them back in their “proper place” (existing only to please and serve men).

Alliston again:

I see the spread of porn in part as a backlash to women’s increased independence,” Alliston asserts. “I believe that porn has gone mainstream now because women have been gaining power . . . Rather than being about sexual liberation, I see in porn a form of control over sex and sexuality.”

–quote from Nancy Jo Sales, American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, published in 2016, p. 38 (emphasis mine)

Interesting.

I know there are many issues surrounding pornography: censorship, free speech, addiction, gender dynamics, sexuality, violence, trafficking. It’d be hard to untangle this knotted up mess even if we knew where one thread started and the others ended. I’m sure that most (if not all) of my regular blog readers would agree that porn consumption is bad for teens, whose minds are both more vulnerable to addiction and less likely to break free from addictive behavior. (The Teenage Brain, by neuroscientist Frances E. Jensen and science writer Amy Ellis Nutt, is a fascinating read on this point.)

  • For girls, it hurts their body image, their sense of self-worth and self-respect, and puts tremendous pressure on them to look and act like the women in porn do.
  • For boys, it hurts their ability to connect intimately (rather than simply sexually) with another human. More than one commentator has recommended that if young men want to get married and have a family, they need to quit porn first. (Easier said than done, I know.) Sex in an intimate, loving marriage isn’t like sex in a porn movie; it’s better

But now that these sites are out there, available, and now that kids know how to access them, how do we adults stop the damage from continuing?

And if reasonable, like-minded adults can’t decide how to stop what’s been started, how are our children to do that? Certainly not alone.

I know God is in control. I also know that he gave me a brain and the ability to learn and apply what I learn. The better educated on the issue that I am, the better I can help my daughters navigate this difficult territory.

I’m sure I’ll learn more about what dangers lurk within my teen daughter’s phone as I continue reading Sales’ thorough and sometimes difficult-to-stomach book. Next week, I’m going to a lunch & learn seminar (given through my kids’ Christian school) on the “eight most dangerous apps on your kids phones.” If I find out anything interesting, I’ll be sure to share.

Any thoughts?

Invisible in Church? Here’s my story

file-1This past Sunday, I had someone email me because my post “Me, the Invisible Woman in the Church Pew” struck a chord with her and she wanted to know the end of the story. What did I do? What have I done? The post was written several years ago–2013, to be precise–so naturally, she was curious.

Is there an end to this story?

Short answer: Not really.

Long answer: It’s complicated.

Here’s where I was in December 2013: My family was attending a megachurch (5000+ members), and my husband and I were visiting various adult Sunday school classes to find the right place to fit. After three different classes, including one where we stayed for 2-3 months of faithful weekly attendance, we still felt invisible. No one knew us. That week, my mom ran into an acquaintance from her church. This younger woman and her family now attended this megachurch; she recommended her class. My husband and I did like the class and felt more connected. (Yay!) Unfortunately, some doctrinal issues arose and we didn’t feel that we could continue attending a church where these things were taught. (Sigh.)

At the same time, we had transferred our elementary aged daughters to a new school and were moving to a different area of the county. It was a good point to try the churches in this new area. My mom ran into a woman from one church we’d visited in the past, but had felt was too far from our then-current home, and that woman said the church would love to have us, as we were now close to the building the church had bought. (Yes, my mother talks to many people.)

I visited other churches but ultimately, we did end up back at that church.

Now, this church has many things in its favor. Good children’s and youth ministries. Solid, excellent preaching. Godly leaders who are trying to learn from the mistakes that other churches have made. A willingness to address tough issues. A desire to reach out to the community. A desire to help people assimilate and connect within the church. These are all things that we appreciate, and that work in its favor.

Me “fitting in” is not one of them. After months, I still felt invisible. I didn’t “fit” with the women. Or the men, either, for that matter. (They were mostly electrical/mechanical/aerospace engineers, who have many lovely and valuable characteristics–I’m married to a rocket scientist–but tolerance for minority opinions isn’t one of them. They also tend to marry nurses or teachers, though I haven’t figured out why. Me? I’m neither of those. And I’m definitely not a tech person.)

The other problem was that the ways the church presented for “fitting in” were all things that have been disasters or near-disasters for me in the past.

  • Ladies’ Bible studies: I’ve never had a positive experience with one.
  • Small groups: I’ve had mixed results.
  • Ministry opportunities: I had no interest in nursery duty (I got sick from the little sweeties’ germs); children’s ministries (ditto); youth ministry (my teen told me that she absolutely, positively, please-mom-don’t-you’re-embarrassing-me!! did NOT want me there); hospitality (not my gift); or greeting (ditto). Not only did I not have interest in these things, I had no energy for them, either.

My husband and I agreed that he and the girls should continue going there and I should explore other churches in the area. Which I did. Once.

Different megachurch. Same issues.

At that point, I decided that there were three options:

  1. Quit church. 
  2. Visit more churches. 
  3. Stay at our current church. 

file-3Let’s take option #1. Many Christians have “quit church.” They’re frustrated, they’re hurt, they’re angered by theology or people or both, so they quit attending church, or perhaps make only sporadic appearances at church.

While I understand why individuals might choose this option and sympathize, this isn’t for me. (I wrote a post in 2012 about why I haven’t quit church, and it still applies now.) It goes against my theological bent and my personality. Say what you like about me, but I’m too darned stubborn to give up on something that matters to me. (This same stubborn streak–you can call it “grit” or perseverance–got me through college and has kept me writing, even when I’d rather give up.)

I also think that this sets a poor example for my daughters. What does it tell them about persevering through difficult circumstances or learning to accept and love others even when they aren’t like me?

file-2On to option #2: visit other churches. That takes energy. Unfortunately, that is one thing I don’t have. I’ve never been a high-energy person; even my “manic” episodes are low(er)-key compared with other people’s. This has worsened over the past year.

(We’re fairly certain that I have chronic fatigue syndrome, which has to be the most unfortunately-named disease around. “Fatigue” is nothing like what I’m feeling now. It doesn’t describe the joint pain, muscle aches, mental fog, the exhaustion that any exertion exacerbates and no amount of rest alleviates. Oh, and by the way, a lot of people dismiss it as “all in my head” or “laziness.” Mm-hm. Yeah. So please don’t tell me that you’re tired, too.)

I looked online at other churches. It was mostly more of the same. Nothing piqued my interest enough to offset the energy it would take to get me there.

file-4Option #3: Stay at the same church.

This is the one I chose.  The Sunday I visited megachurch #2, my husband and one of the elders, a friend of his, talked about my situation. The elder mentioned that his wife didn’t feel like she fit in, either. As a result of this conversation, we’ve been to their house for dinner and had a great time. They’re coming to our house for dinner tonight, which I hope will also be fun.

It makes a tremendous difference to have 2 people who I know and who know me. Attending church feels easier, and I don’t feel quite as invisible as before.

Remember that this church has many things working in its favor. It’s a relatively healthy church and I had seen them make positive steps toward inclusion of women in leadership. I respect the leaders and teachers. There are a few doctrinal issues where I differ from them, but they’re tolerable for me.

Many of those who have commented or emailed me about that original post are not in healthy churches. They’re in toxic ones. So my choice may not be an option for everyone.

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But if you’re feeling invisible at church, don’t lose hope. In Genesis, Hagar names God “El Roi”: the God who sees. No one is invisible to him. He cares. There are probably other people sitting in your sanctuary, sharing your pews, singing the same songs, who feel like you do. The hard part is finding them. It’s hard, yes, but not hopeless.

Persevere, my friend. Keep going.


A long post, yes, but if you simply can’t get enough of my writing on this subject, here’s some related posts: 

Being busy, rescue dogs, and hearing from God

 

b156b88d0b2e4bb0aac33bc1a7e8629aAll I was doing was sitting at Bruegger’s, reading a blog post. And choosing my top twenty short story contest selections. And eating lunch. That’s all I was doing.

Then I heard the woman in the booth next to me. As she talked on her cell phone, her voice was obviously upset. With my mind deep in my choosing and eating and reading (not to mention the clatter-chatter of employees and customers), I couldn’t hear all her words. What I did hear sounded ominous: death, casket. But the tone was clear. This woman was distraught.

That’s when the blog post I was reading slapped me upside the head. Not literally. Not even literarily. Laura Martin is a gracious writer. But she was writing about the epidemic of busyness that plagues our lives.  Everyone claims to be busy, some legitimately so, but some have become too busy doing unproductive-but-oh-so-important “stuff.”

Call it life clutter. It’s all the things we feel we must do to have a fulfilled life that really, from an eternal perspective, are time-sucking, energy-draining vampires. You know this vampire’s sunk its teeth in your neck if you have to pencil in a night with friends . . . six months from now. It may take the form of noble tasks (volunteer work) or inane time wasters (fill in the blank). But if you don’t have some room for other people, particularly when they are in need, then it’s time to rethink how many commitments you’ve taken.

By the time I finished my first comment on her post, I felt that kick in my heart. Go talk to this woman. I thought of all the reasons I shouldn’t, which amounted to she’ll think I’m creepy and don’t I have to finish painting that piece of furniture in the garage? Cue the eyeroll.

She finished the phone call. I finished my work. Do it, do it, don’t think about it too much—

I walked over and started talking to her.

She owns two rescue dogs, both large, exuberant animals who have become too much for her to handle on her own. “They’re man-dogs,” she said. “You know, the type that guys have in their truck when they go hunting and fishing.” They can knock her over, and as a middle-aged woman, she’s afraid that she’ll break a bone one of these days.

She’s cared for them, loved them, and tried to find new homes for both. She couldn’t bear to keep them at the humane society, where the conditions are so overcrowded that the previously no-kill shelter has started to euthanize healthy dogs. They’ve had their photos on the news, when the shelter pleaded for people to adopt some of these animals. She’s tried every animal rescue group in our area.

No one wanted these two big dogs.

Finally, she decided that the most humane thing would be to have them put down. Or thought she decided. As an animal lover, her heart was broken. She needed comfort and help deciding what was the right thing to do. The vet had said that he would do it, but he didn’t want to. It was her decision, and he needed to know by a certain time that afternoon if it was to happen that day.

I’m not an animal lover. I am allergic to dogs, as is my husband, and our yard isn’t large enough for these beloved animals. I don’t know anyone who wants a dog. So this was not a problem that I could solve.

But I could listen.

I listened. I did my best to show comfort. And even though she said she wasn’t religious or spiritual, when I asked if I could pray for her, she let me.

When we parted, forty-five minutes later, she still hadn’t decided what to do. I’m going to call her and see what she’s decided.

 

The obvious takeaway lesson should be this: God used this to remind me to take time for others! That’s the obvious one, and a reminder that I needed.

But the less obvious takeaway wasn’t a lesson at all. It was God’s reassurance that I’m still hearing him. I’m going through one of those moments in life when prayer feels like talking to a wall, the Bible feels like the most familiar thing I’ve ever read, and church feels like a time waster. (When you walk out of the sanctuary and think, I could’ve had a V8, then there’s a problem.) I don’t go to Sunday school anymore and I dread the worship service. It’s all the same old issues that I’ve blogged about, plus some.

It has the effect of making me think I’m never going to hear from God again. A lie, but  . . .

Go talk to her. That kick in my heart was so obviously God’s voice (to mix the metaphor) that I walked away feeling renewed.

At one point in our conversation, the woman looked at me. “I wonder if God or the universe or whoever sent you here to stop me from putting the dogs down?”

I don’t know.  But I know that God sent her to stop me from believing a lie. I’m still hearing from him.

Now I have to make time to listen. 

 

 

 

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.

d649534bfc2341d2a847a9f7a91ac1c5
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.           

Don’t run on air

In Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, homicide investigator Landsman has just informed a rabbi’s wife that her son has been murdered. The rabbi is powerful and corrupt man and has driven his son away, into a lifestyle of poverty and heroin abuse. Now the rabbi’s wife asks Landsman if he is married. Landsman is divorced. Then she says:

My marriage is a complete success,” she says without a trace of boastfulness or pride.

Landsman is skeptical. The wife asks if he remembers the old cartoon where a wolf chases another animal off a cliff.

51f8a92b22724c5cb64f303d22761b87“Then you know,” she says, “how that wolf can run in the middle of the air. He knows how to fly, but only so long as he still thinks he’s touching the ground. As soon as he looks down, and sees where he is, and understands what’s going on, then he falls and smashes into the ground. (. . . ) That’s how it is in a successful marriage,” says the rabbi’s wife. “I have spent the last fifty years running in the middle of the air. Not looking down.”

–Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, pages 209-210

A delusion. But a powerful delusion and one that many people share. How many of us claim to have success because we refuse to look down?

The success can be in relationships, in business, in other endeavors. We’re a success only in our own minds.

Ignore the cracks in the foundation, the shaky ground, the lack of solid matter underfoot. It’s easier to pretend, like the rabbi’s wife pretends. It’s easier in the short run to ignore the problems than to look down and face a calamitous fall. 

A church friend was relating why her job situation is stressful. In their small company, only she and another man are full-time employees in the regional branch. The company has grown too rapidly and it is apparent that their current systems and organization cannot handle the growth, both present and future.

At least, it’s apparent to her. The manager is doing a marvelous job of running in the air and not looking down. He won’t stop travelling long enough to reorganize and restructure, and she doesn’t have the authority or the knowledge of the entire system to do it herself. So she’s frustrated, knowing that this cannot work, that collapse is almost inevitable.

I’ve written four novels. In writing novels two and four, I had glaring problems from the start. The less said about Novel #2 the better; I learned a lot about writing prose in the year I spent running in the air, but once I looked down and admitted the truth–this will not work–the book fell apart.

In my current work in progress, there was a particular character who didn’t belong in the story. I knew it or had an inkling of the truth all throughout the writing of the first draft; I continually had to make excuses for the protagonist’s father to be absent during the story’s events, and his off-the-page presence detracted from the tension between the protagonist and antagonist. After all, dear Daddy could always swoop in at the end and save the day, take the power away from big bad grandpa, and the girl protagonist would have done nothing to change her own situation, a deus ex machina. The character had to go.

But I did a terrific job of refusing to acknowledge the problems with having the father as a character. Then one day, I looked down and saw the problems.

It could’ve killed the manuscript, but it didn’t. Why? Because once I acknowledged that there was a problem, I began working (thinking, ruminating, talking to myself) on a solution. (Oddly enough, I found it through an off-hand comment of my pastor’s during a sermon illustration.) Unlike the rabbi’s wife, I looked down.

So there’s the challenge: be willing to look at reality and be willing to do what it takes to work on problems that are within your control. Does anyone have any experiences they’d like to share? I’d love to hear them!