Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Truth in Fiction: Are You Reading Well?

A friend of mine came up to me recently and asked, “So, what are you reading these days?”
That is a good question to ask anyone in today’s culture where so many people simply prefer to watch television than open a book.  The average American above 15 years old spends 2.7 hours a day watching TV – which accounts for about half of a person’s daily leisure time – according to the latest American Time Use Survey Summary released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
The amount of time spent reading varied greatly by age group, but young adults ages 15-19 averaged 6 minutes per weekend day. Ouch.
However, the point I want to make is not that people should read more – clearly an understatement in today’s society.
The question I want to probe today is this: What are we learning from what we read? In other words, are we reading well? For those of us who are writers, I add another question: Are we writing well?
The answer to those two questions may be more closely connected than you may think.
I like what Neil Postman says in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death. While making the argument that the written word always carries meaning, he makes this statement: “A written sentence calls upon its author to say something, upon its reader to know the import of what is said.”
I see a two-fold responsibility in Postman’s statement. First, the author is responsible for saying something, and second, the reader is responsible for understanding the message conveyed.
Of course, every writer has something to say. As Postman says, “It is very hard to say nothing when employing a written English sentence.” So yes, every writer has an object – and a bias – in writing.
With that in mind, the reader should approach books with critical questions. What message is the writer conveying? Is the writer consistent in conveying that message? Is that message developed effectively and convincingly? In other words, the reader should be actively reading.
Perhaps you are wondering, “Ok, so I get how a nonfiction writer conveys truth, but what about a fiction writer? Don’t fiction authors just write make-believe stories?”
I would argue that the “make-believe” holds a unique power of its own. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.”
The power of fiction is that it uses the vehicle of our imaginations and actively involves us in the drama. We suffer through the protagonist’s mistakes, exult when the hero vanquishes the villain, or feel wronged when justice is not served.
Here’s another way to look at what we can learn from “make believe”: Fiction can depict human nature so well that in reading it, we discover something about ourselves in the process.
So I argue that truth is waiting to be found in fiction. Do you have to be a Christian writer to communicate truth? I’d like to leave you with that question to think about for next time.
Of course, there are bad fiction novels – bad either because they are written poorly or because they don’t say anything worthwhile.
Good or bad, we learn from what we read. So I ask you again: Are you reading well?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Missing the Cheese? It’s Time to Move On

Have you ever felt as if you’re watching your life go by – and you’re an observer and not a participant? Maybe that’s because your cheese has moved and you haven’t.
Cheese? Yes, cheese. That’s the analogy Spencer Johnson, M.D. uses for success and happiness in his bestselling book Who Moved My Cheese?
The setting is Chicago where some friends have gathered after their high school reunion. Looking back, life hasn’t treated them quite as they expected it would. One of the friends, in talking about how his life has changed, mentions a story that made a big difference in his perspective. At the request of his friends, he tells the story of two mice, Sniff and Scurry, and two Littlepeople named Hem and Haw.
Stop right there. I know you are seriously thinking about never finishing this blog post – after all, two mice and two Littlepeople? Really? I know, it sounds strange, but keep reading.  It might help to understand that the short book, less than 100 pages, reads like a parable. The characters are imaginary, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll discover there’s a little bit of each of them in all of us.
At the beginning of the story, the characters are in a maze looking for cheese. You've probably heard the expression, “the maze of life.” That’s the reality of their situation: the maze is dark and is an easy place to get lost. But eventually, they find a huge store of cheese that from all appearances, will last forever.
It doesn’t, and the rest of the story explores how the four characters deal with the disappearance. Keep in mind that cheese is what makes you happy.
Some of the characters take the situation at face value and realize that since the situation has changed, they need to change too. Others don’t want to deal with the problem and rationalize the situation. Surely the cheese will return, because after all, aren’t they entitled to the cheese?
Some are fearful of moving on, because leaving their current situation means moving away from where they are comfortable. It could mean failure: What if they don’t find new cheese?
Johnson does an excellent job illustrating how people respond differently to change and the mindset change that must occur to overcome fear.  By the story’s end, he summarizes through one of his character’s experiences what he calls “The Handwriting on the Wall” – how to make the most of change.
We all want to be successful in life. If your cheese has disappeared or is starting to get old, do something about it, because, “things change and are never the same,” as Haw discovers. “That’s life! Life moves on. And so should we.”
For more information about this book, visit www.WhoMovedMyCheese.com

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Writer’s Pep Talk: Building Strength from Failure

No one likes to fail. For a child, failing a test or a grade can be devastating. As adults, failing to be accepted into a college program or getting a desired job can be a hard blow. For writers, receiving a rejection letter to a book proposal or query can feel like the end of the world.
And yet, failure isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Oftentimes, it makes us stronger.  
Think about failure in terms of exercising. If you’ve had a personal trainer, gone to a gym or perhaps read books about working out, one expression you might have come across is this: pushing yourself beyond muscle failure.
Now what does that mean? Basically, when you’ve pushed your body to what feels like the limit and yet you push yourself even more, that’s when you build muscle.
Physically, going beyond the end of your strength means that next time, you’ll have strength to go even further. That’s endurance.
Applying that same principle to writing isn’t much of a stretch. Someone isn’t going to like your style. Someone is going to turn you down. Someone is going to criticize you.
So what. Press on.
There are dozens of stories about now-famous authors who were turned down. Check out the Schuler Books Weblog’s article called “30 famous authors whose works were rejected (repeatedly, and sometimes rudely) by publishers.”
One of those famous authors was ee cummings whose book of poetry The Enormous Room was rejected by 15 publishers before he self-published it. (Go self-publishing!) The ironic ending is that he dedicated the book to those same 15 publishers.
So yes, failure hurts, but we can choose to learn from it and be better for it.
Remember the words of Winston Churchill: “Success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
As C.S. Lewis said, “Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.”