First off, thank you to everyone who expressed interest and then was patient and understanding when I didn’t show up on Friday with my post as planned. Life did some unexpected things and I spent most of the weekend on the road. But I’m back now, and here’s the promised post!

If you want to participate, link up at the bottom of the post with your own 5 (or more! I couldn’t stop and did 10) unnamed thanks to people who have made 2013 a better, more whole, more healing year. I’m going to be specifically talking about people from the Christian blogging community in mine, but I think that it doesn’t have to be that narrow. I just thought, for mine, that since it’s so easy to be quick to write each other off over a disagreement online, we sometimes neglect to appreciate positive things about each other in the ‘sphere. And I want to push back against that.

  1. Thank you for your caution in how you discuss hard issues. You get a lot of flack for your reticence, but I see what you’re doing, translating between realms and watching your tone for the sake of everyone, not for the sake of saving yourself online drama. I see the selflessness in this approach and know the hours and painstaking work of revising and adjusting it must take. You’re doing it well and I deeply admire your work and what you’ve been able to achieve.
  2. Thank you for your brash honesty, for being comfortable with not knowing what you believe all the time but comfortable with sharing the learning process with us all. The sincerity and curiosity you display is, I think, symptomatic of you becoming of a whole person as you embrace vulnerability and truth in your journey. I admire this about you a lot.
  3. Thank you for how much you love. I know you’re struggling with feeling out of place and not sure if you’re hitting all the right notes socially in this weird and wonderful online world, but the thing I love most about you is how sincere you are about your affections and care for others, for your family, for the things that make you excited. You’ve walked through hell and you’re not jaded. That’s amazing.
  4. Thank you for playing big sister to the outcasts of the church who congregate in comments sections and aren’t sure if they have a voice or not. Your perpetual hope in the value of a soul burdened with purpose is inspiring. Lives have been seriously changed for good because of your vision.
  5. Thank you for your incisive, non-stop analytical skills. Your intellectual integrity is something we all need to learn from, and I know you’ve moved on to other things, but while you were here, your research and thorough analysis was a tempering voice amid all of our questions and FEELINGS and I so loved that.
  6. Thank you for your love of beauty. Your intimate reflections on God and life and community and ordinary things have been, at points, a really wonderful oasis of meditation and reflection for me and for many others.
  7. Thank you for your maturity. Your voice has shifted, your tone has changed, and we’ve all collided into your blog with our vim and vigor and been sat down at your place and made to be quiet and think bigger than the insides of our own heads for a few minutes. We need you in these parts. Thanks for what you do.
  8. Thank you for your depth of compassion. Your knowledge is tempered by pain and that lends you the ability to hear the wounded in ways that many of us easily skip over in our race to make a point. Please don’t stop writing.
  9. Thank you for your sass and anger. I love how you are 100% wherever you are, I love how you are consistent online and in person, and I love how you are embracing vulnerability and growth with gusto and humor.
  10. Thank you for your absence. I don’t mean that I’m glad you’re gone–I’m not, and our community is often the poorer for it. But what I mean is that I am glad you have prioritized balance and personal health and perspective over the fear of missing out or the fear of not saying something that someone NEEDS to hear now. It takes actual real humility to shut up and sit out and just live, and I have learned a lot from your example of this. And not in a cheesy churchy way. For real.


I wish I had a picture of that last sunset on that last night.

It was one of those cloudless Valley haze sunsets, where the sky filtered evenly from yellow to blue to twilight dark behind the mountains. There was a small parking lot with a few guests, halfway to LA from Reno, unloading their SUVs and trickling in. A tall streetlight lit up the corner of the lot and interrupted my sky.

Everyone had gone inside. I was stalling to breathe, to take a picture in my mind like Laura Ingalls Wilder would have done. I looked west, thinking that this would be the last time I’d see the sun setting toward the ocean. And I turned and looked at the mountains and the stars piercing through the skyline above them and turned over and over the thought of an abstract future in the yet-unknown Virginia.

I’d said my goodbyes to my best friends the day before. We’d had our homeschool group friends over that day to load the truck. We piled into the rusty blue van, blankets and books tumbling around our seats, arguing about who sat where. We waited in the car at a friend’s house while my dad went in to pick up my sister from her last birthday party tradition with her childhood playmate. She had cake on her face and smelled like chlorine, and in the heat of August, we wished we did, too.

Then we drove — not far — to the hotel for our first night on the way to Virginia, and our last night in California.

I tried to collect in my mind my favorite California sensations. The smell of orange blossoms in April (I have now forgotten what they smell like, to my dismay). The smell of dairy farm country in the morning air. The sounds of the blue jay and the mourning dove and the walnut tree harvesters. The sights of Mineral King and Three Rivers. Sledding in Sequoia National Park and rumbling up the mountain with chains on the car’s wheels. The silky feel of Valley dust. The cool shade of orange groves and the soft, rotting soil below the trees. The taste of Christmas tamales, the taste of salt rub BBQ, and Sunday lunches at In-N-Out Burger. Sunday morning worship in the park under a tent. Shooting off rockets in a field behind a school. Rollerblading on sidewalks in the sun. Neighborhood chatter and gathering to set off fireworks in the street, to marvel at the rarity of a snowfall at 5am. The feel of chalk on my hands at the gym, the stretch and poise and soft thuds of ballet routines on wooden floors in a sunlit room with a record player. Walking the St. John’s river parkway and playing on sandbars with my siblings. Artichokes, fat and fresh, steamed and dipped in butter. Climbing skinny trees barefoot and smelling eucalyptus on the wind.

I clutched my bag with the journal inside for storing up everything I wanted to write about the trip, and walked into the hotel.

But I wouldn’t write about those things, for fear of losing them.


With the divorce and moving out on my own [finally!], I’m trying to rebuild my savings and start teaching again. I love teaching, but put it aside during college to pursue English and editing. Now that I’m not constantly trying to fight for mental clarity through family drama or marital tension, I can do things again! So, here’s my first idea: a story writing class for photographers.

story_writing_workshop_image

[who]

Professional photographers are artists first, marketers second. Your first priority is to be invisible on the sidelines of an event, documenting light and intimate exchanges, not networking or schmoozing. But with rockstar photographers like Jasmine Star raising the bar for platform quality, online presence, and blogging, every photographer has to be an amateur web designer and dabble in PR to present yourself–not just your work –in a palatable, glossy, online package to entice new customers.

[why]

When writing and blog post presentation are such a small part of what you do, but such a huge part of your online identity, how can you make your words work for you without slaving over every blog post? How much do you need to write? What’s the best way to proofread? What will resonate with your audience best? How can you write the same wedding story over and over and make it fresh and unique every time?

[what]

I will walk you through the basics of story writing, combining techniques from poetry, memoir, and journalism to give you the tools you need to write compelling stories in your own voice without wasting energy or over-writing. Your photos should be your centerpiece. The two-day Story Writing Workshop will equip you to blog with confidence so you can focus on connecting with your audience rather than agonizing over presentation.

***

two-day class: August 24 & 25, 9am – 12pm Saturday, 2pm – 4:30pm Sunday
cost: $200/person [referral discount available.]
where: Gaithersburg, MD
contact me: wineandmarble@gmail.com

bonus!

the first two people to register will get free copies of On Writing Well by William Zinsser,
one of my favorite books.


A couple weeks back, it was 7:45 am and I was grumpy. My good friend Mark was arguing with me in the car on our way to the metro. We’ve been carpooling every day since Christmas, and he’s a morning person. And he likes to argue. Mark is one of my favorite people, but I’m not a morning person, not these days. Fortunately for both of us, he got smart and made me coffee on this particular morning. So I was enough of a person to keep up with his thoughts and wasn’t just smiling and nodding this time.

The subject at hand was how I tell stories on my blog. He was bothered, because he knew there’s a post I wrote where I told a story about a guy who told me that God told him that I was The One. What he knows is that it’s not just one story, but two or three similar stories, cobbled together to eliminate identifying details and avoid highlighting just one person. I did this because I wanted to use the story, the particular line “God told me you were the one,” without being unkind to the person(s) who used that line. But it’s my story — it happened to me. So I know I have the right to tell it, but I want to be judicious.

His objection is that cobbling the stories together isn’t true and so he was telling me that I shouldn’t have told the story at all if I wasn’t going to be faithful to tell exactly how it happened.

We ended up agreeing to disagree, but I keep thinking back to this conversation. I still think what I did was fine, but there have been some instances lately where bloggers have appropriated the stories and experiences of others they know in order to make a point later on in the post.

There’s a formula for this, and it goes like so:

  1. Great Quote For Hook
  2. Full Anecdote In Longer Story Form With Tweetable Soundbites
  3. Transition About How Blogger Reflects On Story/Event/Moment
  4. Bible Verses And Some Explication
  5. Full Point of Post, Driven Home
  6. Catchy Close-Out Lines, Usually Tweetable

It works well for blogging, and though I will probably continue to wryly jab at it in private, I use it sometimes myself. It makes sense — the story and the soundbites are palatable, quick, and engaging. It’s the same method used by the devotionals our mothers kept in the powder rooms of our childhood homes. It’s not quite storytelling and it’s not quite theology and it meets the layman’s need for a quick wisdom story snack in a pinch.

But it’s bad theology and bad art, most of the time. It’s the writer’s Thomas Kinkade — not technically talented, not true to life or true to truth. It makes you feel good and think on nice things for a few minutes, and then you leave it, largely unchanged.

No, no, you say. Your favorite bloggers have changed you! They are good writers!

Yes, they can be. I’ve been hugely influenced, challenged, healed, moved by deep and heart-full blog posts, had my understanding of theology shaken and made strong by fantastic theological posts, and have witten my fair share of attempts at thoughtful stuff here.

But the best bloggers either let story have full reign and use the power of the narrative to make a point without telling you what it is at the end, just to make sure you get it. This is why Deeper Story has been such a huge thing for the Christian blogging community. They tell stories for the sake of the story, because it moved them, changed them as Christians. But they let their readers do the legwork of connecting the dots, respecting their intelligence and prizing the power of a good story told well.

And this is why bloggers like Rachel Held EvansDianna Anderson, Libby Anne, and Peter Enns have been so successful, too. They write layman’s theology, philosophy, ethics, etc. on their blogs, and they respect their readers and the craft of writing. I see this when they don’t rely on cheap story hooks or anecdotes to grab their readers’ attention, when they don’t make every line purple prose or tweetable, when they treat their readers like smart, thinking adults who want to practice their faith (or lack thereof) with intellectual integrity.

But then you get post’s like Preston’s this morning on Deeper Story, which lectured instead of telling a story. And posts like mine, with the cobbled-together details of three events in one to make a point. And posts like Emily’s on Prodigal, which hurt so many people with her flippant aside about her grandmother’s suicide.

And there’s something there worth saying, worth telling. It burns in our bones until we write it. Preston’s post was good and timely for a host of reasons. People responded overwhelmingly and positively to mine. Emily’s written a follow-up post about her grandmother’s suicide, telling more, trying to tell it better.

But we need to know when to tell a story and when to write an essay. Blogging is too quick, too easy, sometimes. Slowing down, picking the right genre and the right platform for a piece can make the difference between choosing the good or the best.

***

I’d like to respond a bit specifically to Preston’s discussion of how we tell stories and how we preach here, on our little corners of the internet. As I said, it’s a good post. But all these thoughts about stories and how we tell them got stirred up by it, and I have some problems with what he said (as well as with his choice of platform).

I agree with him in essence. When you’re telling stories for a didactic point, your theology matters, because otherwise you’re prostituting story to make a theological argument, and the story is a manipulative tool to open the heart of the reader to the follow-up message.

Christians are particularly prone to this type of narrative, the story-moral-go-therefore. We like to have a good story because we’re human. But because we’re Christian and Everything Matters Because Of The Gospel, we crave that tidy conclusion or moral. We want the platitude, the answer, the systematic theology. We are just like the two housewives in Flannery O’Connor’s story “Good Country People.” We have a platitude for every situation in life and we want to tell you about it. No life event, no personal story, no heartache is exempt.

But it doesn’t work like that. You can’t have good art with a platitude at the end, you can’t tell a story and have the story be good if you’re trying to tie it down to a moral-shaped chair. It will wriggle and writhe and resist, and you’ll start chopping off limbs to make it fit just so, and soon you have the bleeding stump of a story, lying still and interesting and ugly, all nicely fitting on your platitude-shaped chair. This is what happened with Emily’s post and her comment about her grandmother. It sort of fit the point she was making, so she trimmed it down to size for effect, and voila! You have a hook. But it’s bad art and bad art usually means bad theology. Respect the form of the story, the craft of argumentation and rhetoric, and you’ll have good art. Don’t bastardize it for your platitude.

Good theology can be captured in a story, but the story has to be dominant and the metaphor cannot be stretched to unnatural places that bend the story out of shape and out of sorts.

***

I have one other problem with Preston’s post: not everyone can go to St. Andrews college and sit under N.T. Wright and devote their lives to theology. Not everyone has time or resources for exegesis, learning Greek well, or examining the pre-Nicean fathers. I have friends who do these things and I am so excited for them because it’s needed and good and sacred. And, quite frankly, I wish I was able to do all these things, too. And maybe I feel a bit helpless because my life situation doesn’t allow me to be in that season or that place, studying theology and Church history the way they deserve to be studied. And I feel like a bit of an academic beggar, craving a bit more information, a bit more depth, the crumbs from the table of our best seminaries. (Not to mention the myriad of posts I could write about how this makes me feel as a post-QF woman who grew up being told women couldn’t be pastors or argue theology well if their male headship said it wasn’t so.)

I am happy for Preston. Deeper Story and readers like me benefit from his immersion in the world of academic theology. It’s really cool for him and good for us. I hope he doesn’t stop blogging.

But he’s also the beneficiary of educational privilege. And, quite frankly, it’s not fair to expect that everyone study theology as well or as thoroughly as he is able to. Writers of your average Christian-issues-intellectually-thoughtful blog aren’t scholars. We have day jobs and commutes, children and husbands, life drama, depression, PTSD, church commitments, etc. We are the Body. We have different parts to play.

So, yes. We need to be careful to pick our genre correctly, to use integrity in our storytelling, and to take care with our theology. We need to learn our limits and not try to tell stories that aren’t ours or write essays we’re not qualified to write.

Yet, yet. It’s okay to be messy and make mistakes and accidentally write a heretical post and have to take it back later when we realize we’re wrong (one of my favorite things about the bloggers I read is that they’re not afraid to write apology posts and say they were wrong). Let’s try to be realistic about our expectations.

[But when you all start writing books and have proper editors and academic resources, all bets are off, my friends.]



We’ve hit day 6! Which story is your favorite so far?

This one got pushed back to the end of the week because the author classically dissatisfied with it initially. But I think it’s found it’s sweet spot and you’ll be sure to enjoy his retelling of this myth.

Connor Park is a barista by trade, a baker after dark, and a writer by sheer vocational stubbornness. A recent graduate of Grace College, where he helped found and publish a brilliant but short-lived lit mag, Scribblous, Connor continues crafting poetry and fiction as he discovers just how much adventure is out there. He blogs on faith and creativity at keep-the-muse.com, tweets @keepthemuse, and, yes, gives a f*ck about an Oxford comma.

Women’s Work




While I was classmates with Ashley in college and enjoyed her feminist sass in class discussions, we never got to know each other very well. I always looked forward to her submissions to the school’s literary magazine I worked on — her pieces were well-written and punchy. I knew she kept writing after graduation, so I was excited when she submitted a couple stories for this week. This one stood out, and I think you’ll enjoy it just as much as I did. -H

Nothing to Lose (by Ashley Carpenter)