Calling yourself a writer in 2017 means a lot more to the public and the literary world than that you write.
That title now means you’ve chosen to be caught in a spider web of connectedness. It means you slogged through a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing so that you aren’t lacking that credit in your bio. It means you attend workshops and lectures to “network”—in other words, politely exploiting human relationships for your own advancement. It means you schmooze. It means you write five-star Amazon reviews for books you didn’t like, all in the hope that their authors will reciprocate. It means you have a website and blog (guilty). It means you waste hours having transitory cotton-candy exchanges with lit-lovers on social media, especially the Trump-infected Nazi farm that is Twitter.
I once heard author Rick Robinson tell an audience about a trip he took to the capital of American corporate publishing, New York City. At a dinner one night, another guest heard Robinson was an author and began drilling him: How many Twitter followers do you have? How many Facebook friends? Robinson then learned the guest was a vice president at a certain major publishing house.
That VP never asked Robinson what he wrote. He just wanted to know how big of a promotional apparatus Robinson had.
I know what the literary gurus will say, and have already said—that the days when a writer could hole up in her bedroom and win immortality for her genius belong to Emily Dickinson. But consider writers like Anjali Enjeti. She admits to readers of The Atlantic that while the connected-writer model has helped her become a journalist, it has failed to do what she hoped it would: find a publisher for her books. All the $250 conferences she has gone to? Didn’t do it. The $5,000 she has spent on book doctors editing her work? Nope. The $26,000 she spent on an MFA?
Writers are human. To write good work, they need the kind of deep, spirit-to-spirit relationships that the social-circus can never give them. They also need as much time to write as they can get. Hashtag #amwriting. Even though you’re not.
One brilliant heretic not yielding to this trend is Kentucky author C.E. Morgan. Morgan has published two literary novels, All The Living and The Sport of Kings, and won lucrative awards. Yet I admire Morgan for more than her fiction—it’s for her ethos as a writer. She doesn’t tour the circus like many successful (and unsuccessful) writers do.
She has no website. And thus no blog. She has no MFA. She also has no social media presence. She is a writer in the 21st century and, I believe, remains fully human.
The frenetic slavery of self-promotion may not serve a writer’s humanity, but genuine community will. What does that look like? It looks like folks meeting at a library for a writers group; going to an actual friend’s reading at a bookstore; seeking a critique from a trusted colleague. Put differently, it means finding ways to care about others, to grow as a writer. It means being authentic.
There’s actually something practical behind this—true friends will sell your work better than anybody else! I have seen this happen in the career of a friend who published her poetry collection with a small press. She set up a Facebook page where she posted every few weeks. She arranged some readings. Two years later, her book is still selling copies (it surprises even her publisher).
The difference in her case was that her promotion focused on authentic relationships. No billboards, no aggressive “networking.” The circle of friends she has cultivated over the years, just by being herself, has put that collection into more hands than the circus ever could. That’s a sliver of what being real can do for a writer.
I am happy to tell you that Valparaiso Fiction Review at Valparaiso University has accepted my story, "Madonna," for its Winter 2017 issue. The story will appear online and I will post a link when it is available.
I was once asked a question about my writing that I didn’t expect. “It seems like all of your stories are historical. Why do you write about the past so much?”
To me the past has always seemed an attractive setting where conflict abounds, where modern certainties had not yet materialized and people were often isolated from the means to confront disease, or violence, or injustice.
But that question provoked another. Why do the lives people were living a hundred years ago make me passionate about their stories? Why do the lives people are living today seem so sterile, so removed from human drama, so far from what I want to write?
Earlier this year I quit Twitter. You have to stay off Twitter for a month for your suspended account to delete, but it took no commitment from me. I had a reason to leave—it starts with a T and ends with a rump—and I also felt no connection to the medium anymore. Why kill your days dumping tiny thoughts into the abyss when a story, something real and living, could be written?
The amoeba-like multiplication of ways to divert ourselves from concentrated thinking has made modern people (at least, those in the West, where technology use is heavy and mainstream) less intellectually deep and less interesting to write about.
Rather than growing our capacity to remember, we just “Google it,” knowing that we can always re-Google a bit of information once it fades from our brains. Instead of withdrawing inward to nourish our creative selves, we bathe in others’ words and images until not a single original thought or phrase remains inside us. To me it would seem a perversity if I wrote a novel populated with characters skimming their fingers over iPhones, posting on Facebook, or retweeting a meme. And Instagram! The insanity parade barrels onward.
The Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Marilynne Robinson once told Newsweek that she likes to set her stories in the 1950s because there was less “cultural noise” during that era. “People were less accessible to each other,” she said, “which meant more of a kind of privacy, more time to think.”
But thinking we are not. It’s hurting our work as much as our minds.
Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, decries the “state of frenetic shallowness” that hardwires over-connected people for distraction and harms their creativity. Without cultivating mental solitude and privacy, we will sacrifice our time on things of transient value rather than projects that fulfill us, and maybe even better the world.
Newport recommends tailoring our lives so that technology does not rob us of our deepest qualities as human beings. Here is my own list of recommendations:
1. Don’t be a phone drone. Set a time each day when you turn off your phone. Mine is 6pm. The only exceptions are emergencies or when I expect important calls. On the weekends, if possible, I keep my phone off except to check it once a day for messages.
2. Join one social media platform—but only one. Limit yourself to checking it twice a week, if that. I am on Facebook, but mainly because I use it at my job. If I ever retire or become independently wealthy (come on, Powerball!), then I will jettison FB without regret.
3. Check your personal email once a day or less.
4. Don’t watch TV for more time than you are reading a book.
For a beautiful take on slowing down for the sake of one’s creativity, read Silas House’s essay “The Art of Being Still” in The New York Times: https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/01/the-art-of-being-still/
God, though unseen, has given us a multitude of ways to know him and seek him. In nature and in the cycle of night and day, we recognize his creative power. In the Bible we find the history of his interactions with man. In each other, we discern an image of his power and freedom. And in Jesus, we meet the love, mercy, and justice of his character.
Yet opportunities to ignore God are as close as the nearest phone or TV remote. Distractions, whether entertainment or work, allow us to change the frequency of our minds and distance ourselves from God’s presence in our daily lives. It is not God who becomes faraway; it is our awareness of him and his offer of communion that recedes.
Why do we let ourselves ignore God? Because of convenience. Avoiding God helps us avoid pain, stillness, and humility. What’s steering us from him might include:
Sin. Or consciousness of having wronged others or offended God’s love causes pain and spiritual discomfort when we focus on God and examine our consciences. “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man,” Peter says on his knees when Jesus miraculously gives him an abundant catch of fish (Matthew 5:8 NAB). Avoidance, however, does not alleviate our suffering. Like an untreated wound masked by a bandage, our guilt will persist in troubling us until we unbury it and confess it to the one who died for it—and whose mercy can change us to be better.
Busyness. Our schedules of work, sleep, leisure, and family time incline us away from making God a consistent priority. Of all our obstacles, this one is the most common and the most understandable—how could I deny that the demands of career and parenthood eclipse our time to be still with God? It is often true, though, that we have more time when we are willing to discover it and mine it. In quieter moments, on our breaks at work, while we stand in line, and even when we are with others we love, we can tilt our thoughts toward God, thanking him for the people he has given us and reflecting on whether our actions during the day conform to that gratitude.
Pride. If we are in a good mood, enjoying an accomplishment, or feeling as if all our actions have merit, then we might yield to a sense that we don’t need time with God as much today. So we plan to pray later, and then we don’t. We set the Bible on a shelf for when life feels less controllable. Yet Proverbs tells us that “in an instant” life can leave us “crushed beyond cure” (6:15). Jesus assures us in the parable of the two foundations (Matthew 7:24-27) that wisdom means listening to him, preparing for when the illusion of our own power rudely disappears.
The poet behind Psalm 139, my favorite in the book, writes exultantly of God’s presence: “Where can I go from your spirit? From your presence, where can I flee? If I ascend to the heavens, you are there; if I lie down in Sheol, there you are. If I take the wings of dawn, and dwell beyond the sea, Even there your hand guides me, your right hand holds me fast” (v. 7-10).
We can’t escape God. We can, however, leave him out of our schedule. But that decision won’t assuage our guilt, grant us peace, or grow our confidence in him. He is always there, and always welcoming, and always what we really need.
This blog began with the intention of weaving together posts about the writing life with thoughts on faith and morals. Eventually I turned entirely to meditations on Christianity, and I do not regret that turn at all; it has permitted me to distill my experiences with God and some of my own mistakes into work that I hope is worthy reading for others. I believe, however, that after spending a few years writing fiction in relative quiet, I am ready to include an occasional writing post once again.
With that, I want to talk about yesteryear.
“The past is never dead,” Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun. “It’s not even past.”
Over the last five years, much of my writing has tended toward the past in the American South. An Appalachian preacher from the Depression era. A suburban pyromaniac raised in a defunct coal mining town. A vengeful con artist fathered by the scion of a wealthy judge’s family. In each of these stories, I found that setting events in the past lends more than atmosphere and a chance to explore bygone societies. History can give you the concrete devices you need to construct a good storyline—one that could only emerge from the era in which you are writing.
Consider these ways to involve historical setting in your plot:
1) Technology. In one scene of my short story “The Judge’s Son,” a character overhears a pivotal conversation between relatives by eavesdropping on a party line phone. Maybe your main character lost her father when his buggy overturned in a flood. Perhaps your protagonist’s experience as a wireless operator on commercial liners makes him the only person in his town who can understand Morse code messages from a telegraph.
Also, think how the absence of technology might present a dilemma to your characters. A car crash on a remote highway could prove far deadlier in the 1950s than today (No cell phones—not even the big walkie-talkie kind).
2) Culture. Human nature doesn’t change, but the collective beliefs with which we surround ourselves do. In the Middle Ages in Europe, the Catholic Church was the center of daily activity—not just for religion, but commerce, politics, and marriage. In 1896, the US Supreme Court upheld racially segregated streetcar policies in Plessy v. Ferguson, even for citizens who appeared white but were known to have some African ancestry. How might the essential sociological facts of your setting shape your characters’ choices? How might they cause new conflicts to arise, new consequences?
In Ernest J. Gaines’s novel A Lesson Before Dying, schoolmaster Grant Wiggins is tasked with teaching pride to a young, condemned black man before his execution—an undertaking far more poignant in the Jim Crow South.
When I set a novel in 1959 near the peak of the school prayer debate, I focused on my narrator’s fear of knocking over his community’s golden calves of patriotism and religion while trying to stop the release of a terrible secret about himself.
3) Laws and Events. Irene Hunt’s 1970 novel No Promises in the Wind, set in 1932, makes use of the Prohibition era in an important scene where her character, a runaway, hitches a ride with a boastful bootlegger and makes a mistake that costs him his savings. Alan Paton’s 1948 novel Cry, The Beloved Country (you may very well cry if you read it) revolves around the murder of an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa. A simple Google search, trip to the library, or examination of a contemporary newspaper can show you what was happening, what was occupying the world’s mind, during the time your story occurs.
If you try to make the past more than a backdrop—indeed, let it define your characters and provide coherence to your narrative—you will thread the past through the events themselves and create a more strongly felt, more complex fictional world.
During one of my favorite classes in college, the professor asked us our attitudes toward death. (The course was Appalachian literature, and most of the characters in the books we read were living brief, brutal, passionate lives).
A classmate announced to us that she was terrified of death. Most of the others agreed they avoided letting death enter their minds.
“But there’s no reason to fear death,” I said, giving my unsolicited opinion. “It’s like breathing and eating. Everybody’s going to die.”
Silence. Disquieted looks. “Thanks for reminding us,” the professor said with an unsettled laugh.
You might think a reaction like that would convince somebody his view of death is eccentric, even cold. But it didn’t have that effect for me. I still don’t cry at funerals. I still don’t feel an urge to reform my morals when reading the obituaries (though I have resolved to leave my eventual obit writer more material than my favorite sports teams and things to eat).
For the Christian, death is the planting of a seed. Jesus told his disciples, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (John 12:24 NAB). The ultimate seed to which he referred was his own earthly body, which was buried in his tomb and blossomed at his resurrection into a new and exalted form. That transformation prefigures and makes possible the same for us when we die hoping confidently in him. It is as if Jesus stepped into death ahead of us, and his return as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20) proves we can be a part of that harvest: that “we will all be changed, in an instant” (15:51) into the people God has always willed us to be.
With that assurance, St. Paul asks, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (15:55; cf. Hosea 13:14).
Elsewhere, Paul speaks of life and death as comprising the same adventure. “For to me life is Christ, and death is gain,” he tells the Philippians (1:21). In other words, “If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me” among God’s people, while death means, simply, going to be with Jesus (1:22-23) in the house where he promised us a room (John 14:2-3).
For me this view on death is not sentimental or abstract, but an honest way to look at the human person. I have seen an elderly relative less than an hour after she died in a nursing home, without benefit of the preparations and polish that funeral homes apply. At first I worried the experience would make me fear death for myself and those I loved, but the opposite was true. I saw that more had happened than her body ceasing to work—that something essential about her had released its grasp. Probably many of you reading this have also noticed at loved ones’ funerals that deceased people no longer look like “themselves.” That experience impressed on me the view that death separates material body from immaterial soul, the life which animates us from conception to our last moment.
So you see, it is harder to fear death when “what you sow is not brought to life unless it dies” (1 Cor. 15:36). “That which is mortal must clothe itself with immortality” (15:53).
I will never tell you that the suffering someone might face before death is negligible. Neither do I believe that this life is some kind of dirty sheet we should be eager to dispose of. I only believe that life and death together form God’s plan to draw us closer to himself. That’s why we grieve differently—with expectation, not like “the rest, who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). If that’s eccentric, at least it is no less true for it.
A controversy has exploded near Cincinnati, Ohio, just across the river from where I live. Local authorities recently arrested Maribel Trujillo Diaz, an undocumented Mexican mother of four, and deported her this past week. She first came to the United States fifteen years ago, fleeing threats from a drug cartel. She has nothing to take with her to Mexico and nobody waiting there for her.
I might rattle my conservative friends here, but I’m tired of our national immigration debate. The nationalist/Alt-Right/Trump view of immigrants is perversely anti-life and a grave sin against God’s blueprint for a good society.
The oldest scriptures in the Bible reveal God’s gratuitous love for immigrants. Only recently freed from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites were instructed by God to “love the alien as yourself” (Leviticus 19:34 NAB) and to leave some of their crops for resident immigrants to eat (19:10). God commanded that “aliens” (foreigners) receive equal treatment under the law as if they were natives (Exodus 12:49). God also admonished his chosen people to remember that they were once destitute immigrants in a foreign land (Deuteronomy 10:19), which he gave them as a gift they neither earned nor built (6:10-12). Abraham himself, the father of the Hebrews, dwelt in Egypt as an immigrant because of famine (Genesis 12:10).
The sheriff for Butler County, Ohio, Richard Jones, has said that fidelity to the law outweighs humanitarian concerns in Diaz’s case. I can think of one response to him; it was first preached two thousand years ago, and it’s called the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Answering a legal scholar, Jesus told the story of a man robbed, beaten, and left alongside the road to Jericho. Two religious officials, a priest and a Levite, pass the man on their way to the temple in Jerusalem, but don’t help him. Only a Samaritan man ministers to the victim and rents him a room where he can recover.
Some commentators like to say that the parable is about one man following the law and two others breaking it. But that’s not true. Both the clerics and the Samaritan are obeying the law—the clerics narrowly, the Samaritan wholly. The priest and Levite refuse to help the victim for fear of touching his wounds, which would spoil their purity for their duties at the temple (see Leviticus 15 as an example of teachings on the body and ritual cleanness). The Samaritan, however, acts with respect to the law’s superior priority, the preservation of human life (Genesis 9:5-6).
That’s why Sheriff Jones is wrong. Fidelity to the law for its own sake, to the point of destroying human life, violates the purpose of having laws. That purpose, justice, means the right treatment of all people in accord with their dignity. God has established justice as a standard which supersedes all manmade laws. Wherever and in whatever degree the law does not conform to justice, the law must change. Undocumented immigrants who have crossed our southern border should get a chance to redress their mistake through fines and probation, pay any taxes they owe, and live as equal citizens in a society that honors their contribution.
I have to admit my distaste when I hear so-called Christians calling for deportations of nonviolent, noncriminal people that could easily result in their ostracism, starvation, or murder in a dangerous country. If that TobyMac song playing on your radio and that Jesus fish on the back of your SUV don’t penetrate your heart in how you relate to other people, then what is the use of the Gospel? “What good is it…if someone says he has faith, but does not have works?” (James 2:14). But there will be justice for the oppressed, even if it has to wait for the new world which will arise from this one. And I suspect that many of our holy-rolling, demagogic politicians are in for a surprise when they reach the checkpoint at heaven’s border wall and find out that the king is a brown man who doesn’t speak English. A man named Jesús.
I'm pleased to announce that Jabberwock Review, the literary journal at Mississippi State University, has accepted my story "The Bloodhound" for publication in it summer issue. The story was also a finalist for the Nancy D. Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. "The Bloodhound" is about a priest who reluctantly becomes the chaplain of a small Catholic college in Appalachia, where an encounter with an abrasive beggar forces him to confront his conscience and reckon with the new job he's unwillingly assumed.
Every Christian seems to have a struggle accepting some particular aspect of the faith. It might be the biblical outlook on specific moral controversies, such as abortion or sexuality. It could be a general theme taught by the Church, like the idea that there is an absolute truth to which everyone must answer. For me, the greatest private struggle with the Christian faith is one of Jesus’s practical teachings, often known as “turning the other cheek” (cf. Mt. 5:39 NAB). I can be a grudge-nurse, an instinctive revenge-taker, an accountant of misdeeds and injuries. In the midst of pain over someone’s wrong against me, whether slight or great, I tend to feel that my healing should begin with redirecting hurt toward the other person.
A multitude of influences lead us to respond to one evil with another, and sometimes greater, evil. Our own sin-wounded human nature, our own pride and egotism, is frequently enough. The world itself acclaims those who retaliate against wrongdoers and oppressors—the government that executes a criminal, the politician who returns the spite of a hated rival. Perhaps most powerful is our urge to forgo mercy and chase destruction, to satisfy our own individual and collective sense of justice.
Jesus asked a lot when he gave the command to “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (5:44). It’s not something we consider natural. Deep within us is a fear that the choice not to pursue revenge demeans us, reveals our weakness, and even reveals a lack of dignity. But Jesus never asked us to do something that violated our personhood. The refusal to respond in evil is not the surrender of a weak soul; it is a life-giving resolution that demands discipline and confidence in God’s power over all circumstances.
When Jesus spoke the Beatitudes during the Sermon on the Mount, he promised ultimate vindication for “the meek”; for “they who hunger and thirst for righteousness”; for “the merciful” and “the peacemakers” (5:5-7, 9). Each of these callings describe followers whose final confidence rests in God—not other men, not an institution, and not themselves—to correct all wrongs. In telling the parable of the unforgiving servant, Jesus instructed Peter, and through him all current and future believers, to recognize that we will never forgive anyone as much as God has already forgiven us (Mt. 18:21-35). A relationship with him should make our lives a celebration of the mercy shown to us, and it should provide for mutual leniency and peace in our relations with other people (Luke 2:14)
“Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Romans 12:19). If we appoint ourselves the judge in God’s place, we’ll get the mean, quick gratification we want, and the heartache and lingering animosity we never planned. But if we refuse “to be conquered by evil,” we will “conquer evil with good” (12:21) and reflect the new life he has won for us. That’s hard to do, but it’s the strongest and truest way to live, and the only way to freedom (John 8:32).
The Resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the crux of the Christian faith. “If Christ is not risen,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “your faith is futile” (1 Cor. 15:17 NKJV). The centrality of the Resurrection is matched by the difficulty of believing in it as a historical event—because it is, literally, unbelievable. But the Resurrection only means something if it really happened.
Even for Christians living two thousand years after the end of Jesus’s earthly life, there are ways to know the reality of the Resurrection and embrace its transformative truth.
1) The lives of the first Christians. Skepticism wasn’t invented during the Enlightenment. The Gospels tell us that when a group of women reported the Resurrection to the apostles, their accounts were seen as “idle tales” (Luke 24:11). Matthew records that some of Jesus’s followers did not believe he had risen even when they saw him themselves (Matthew 28:17). The early Christians’ initial doubts are important because of the ways their eventual belief in the Resurrection led them to suffer defending its truth. The disciples were killed (Acts 12:5) and jailed (v. 2) for their ministry, and gave up relationships with their families and friends (Luke 18:29) in the unconverted Jewish community. No greater example arises in the New Testament than Paul, who disavowed his reputation as a persecutor of Christians and accepted the status of hypocrite to establish the church throughout the Roman Empire. Our inheritance of faith from the apostles should move us intensely to recognize the truth that changed these doubters into zealots for the Gospel.
2) The influence of God seen in those around us. The Resurrection demonstrates itself presently through the people we know who have chosen life because of their faith. I remember a young father in Sunday school who admitted that his early twenties had been mired in addiction; he credited his belief in the Resurrection’s defeat of darkness with rescuing him from his impulses. The last book in the Bible may have been written centuries ago, but Jesus dwells with us in the present, always the same (Hebrews 13:8) and making the power of his Resurrection present in us. “[J]ust as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
3) Our experience of God’s creation. Life contains instances of beauty that can scarcely be believed. How much paint has been devoted to sunsets on canvases, and yet none of them can compare to the ones that end each day? Beauty is more than a sensation, it is a tug in our spirits telling us that impossible things happen, that life outlasts death; the normal order of nature can yield to a deeper truth about the universe. God reveals himself to us through his creation (Romans 1:20), and the Resurrection is sewn into that created reality. Just as day follows night, and spring follows winter, the rising of Jesus from the tomb follows his death on the cross, when “the light of the world” (John 8:12) was dimmed in anticipation of his victorious return.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus rebukes those who disbelieved in his return because of “hardness of heart” (16:14). His chastisement of his skeptical followers uncovers a truth about our own doubts—that they often arise less from scientific considerations and more from fear of the changes and sacrifices demanded of us if the Resurrection is true. But if it’s true, and we’re not admitting it because it’s inconvenient, we’re only denying ourselves the way to life (John 14:6). And if fear is the real obstacle to our faith, why let it stop us anymore?
Anthony Otten has published stories in The Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Wind. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. Still: The Journal has published an excerpt from his novel. He lives in Kentucky.
The Struggle to Stay Real as Writers and Humans
When People Stopped Being Interesting to Write About
How to Avoid God, Unsuccessfully
3 Ways to Use History in Your Fiction
Who's Afraid of Death?
Jesus and The "Illegals"
The Hardest Command
Grasping the Resurrection
The King of Outsiders
When Your Idol Falls
Our Not-Guilty Verdict
Nobody Dies for a Lie
Would You Be The Doorman?
What is a Blessing?
Real Obedience is Love
Jesus was Inevitable
The Death of Envy
What God Really Wants
Submission and Query Resources for Writers
Hearing His Voice
The World Overcome
Honestly, God: Praying Our True Feelings
When God Gives Us What We Want
Jesus's Emancipation Proclamation