The Bible quickly scissors away a person’s self-admiration, a sense of having “made it,” a comfort with one’s comfortable position on planet Earth. For example:
When we die, what goes with us?
We leave behind our money, however much we line our coffins with it. Just ask the rich man in Luke 12:16-21, who used his bounty only to build new barns to house it, and was not “rich toward God.” So regardless of our earthly inheritance, we all die poor.
Our death is our own, and no one goes with us. So we all die alone.
Our clothed bodies remain behind to decay. “Is not…the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25 NKJV). We will die and leave our clothes behind. So we all die naked.
In addition, Scripture tells us that God “knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust” and that Adam was formed from the “dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7). These verses are a gentle, poetic reminder that all people, from Fortune 500 CEOs to the most wrung-out heroin addict in a soup kitchen, are made of dirt.
And there’s the sermon for today. We’re all made of dirt, and we’ll die poor, alone, and naked. “Make a joyful shout to the Lord, all you lands!” (Psalm 100:1)
In Greek mythology, a Titan named Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind, allowing civilization to blossom. We can do the same for our writing, filching a little of the heat from somebody else to help our own work flourish. The good news is that, unlike Prometheus, we probably won’t end up chained to a rock with an eagle eating our liver every day for eternity.
Occasionally I’m writing a scene that begins to feel like a cheap sock-puppet show (no disrespect to PBS or any puppet-friendly network). The characters may argue or banter, but because they do nothing but speak, the narrative thins out and becomes less palpable. It takes on the one-dimensionality of a fast sketch, rather than the flesh-and-blood tangibility I had been going for. The people become talking heads, or, if they’re alone, they walk through a gray landscape where little of their world assumes a form.
Other times, I may read a book whose world is too tangible. Some authors catalogue every detail in a scene—the woodwork of an office doorway, the names of volumes on a lawyer’s shelf, the thirteen toys in a store window. The relentless listing overwhelms me and jumbles my sense of a scene, as if the characters were lost in a hoarder’s house. I’m guilty of this in my own writing sometimes, too.
The solution is a reasonable balance of description to create the impression of a scene. Here is the strategy that has helped me:
Anthony Otten has published stories in Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Wind, Still: The Journal, and others. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. He lives in Kentucky.
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