A Poet of the Margins

BreakingBadFelinaThe whole first half of this year I was so sure I wanted to write a “mundane,” realistic fantasy story about the boring lives of ordinary people.

 

But when I went out to dinner with Spencer last night, he said, “You, Boze, don’t have to write something realistic.”

 

And then today I was writing poetry as part of Teryn’s “Thirty Days of Poems.” And I started reading the lyrics to some of my favorite songs. And I realized there’s a thread running through a lot of them, and it may be the same thread that’s got me reading Flannery O’Connor and that made me fall so much in love with Breaking Bad.

 

Maybe the reason I loved that show so much wasn’t because it was gritty and realistic (a lot of critics said it wasn’t), but because it was all about people living on the margins. And maybe that appeals to me after all I’ve been through, as I begin to see more clearly the outline of the crucified God.

 

I wrote on Twitter, “I’m realizing that a lot of my favorite songs are about people on the margins, dreaming, fighting, desperate, struggling to get by.” And then quoted Walt Whitman: O you shunned persons, I do not shun you. I will be your poet.” And said, “Like Whitman, I want to be a poet of the forgotten and unsung.”

 

And I think that’s the kind of story I need to be writing, because that’s the kind of person I’m becoming. A person who sees life’s ragged edges. Who listens to the hurting, gets to know them, hears their stories. Who loves those who are trapped in desperate places.

 

Up until now, as Spencer pointed out, my story hasn’t really had a center. I think this is the center. These are the kinds of people I’m called to write about.

 

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Story Structure in Harry Potter

Harry_Potter_wandI read this great series of articles on the Write like Rowling website.

 

It’s based on the concepts presented in Larry Brooks’ book, Story Engineering.

 

In the section on story structure, Brooks says that in order to be successful, a story needs to have each of these five pivots:

 

  1. The first plot point, when the hero receives her marching orders and sets out on her journey

 

  1. The first pinch point, when the hero is given a reminder of the nature and power of the antagonistic forces arrayed against her

 

  1. The mid-point, when a crucial piece of information is discovered

 

  1. The second pinch point, which again reminds the hero of the antagonistic forces

 

  1. and the second plot point, the final injection of new information into the story that gives the book a kind of forward momentum as it speeds towards the end.

 

Brooks even tells us at what percentage of the way through the book each of these pivots needs to make its appearance.

 

The first plot point occurs 25 percent of the way through the story;

 

the first pinch point occurs 3/8ths of the way through the story;

 

the midpoint occurs at the midpoint;

 

the second pinch point occurs 5/8ths of the way through the story;

 

and the second plot point occurs 75 percent of the way through the story.

 

Interestingly, in Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone, Rowling lands four of these five pivots on the exact page they need to be on according to Brooks’ model of story structure (he excludes the prologue as not being part of the main plot). C. S. Plocher on the Write like Rowling website gives us a rundown:

 

Harry boards the Hogwarts Express on page 90 of the 259-page plot;

 

He gets his first glimpse of Snape (and, even more crucially, Quirrell’s turban) on page 126;

 

He realizes who has the Philosopher’s Stone at the end of chapter 9, exactly halfway through the book;

 

He catches Snape with a bloody leg 5/8ths of the way through the book.

 

The only exception is the final plot point (Harry realizing that Dumbledore has departed for London and the stone is going to be stolen), which is 25 pages later than it would normally be because Rowling is setting up a seven-volume fantasy series and has a lot of world-building to do. (Moreover, I would argue that the true second pinch point in the first novel is the scene with the unicorn in the Forbidden Forest).

 

So if I made it my goal to write a 300-page book:

 

the first plot point would occur on or around page 60;

 

the first pinch point would occur on page 113;

 

the mid-point would occur on page 150;

 

the second pinch point would occur on page 188;

 

and the final plot point would occur on page 225 (or perhaps a bit later in a story of this scope).

 

I have this crazy dream to write a novel according to a strict formula. In the past I always thought I could free-wheel it; but I’m realizing, I really love formulaic writing. It’s so structured. I love following the rules. I love learning the science and craft of storytelling.

 

What I’m Into (March 2014)

wk-nebraska1122-1It’s been a good month. An emotional month. I quit my job today to pursue my career as a writer. I’m probably going to spend the next month finishing my first book. I’ve been studying for the driver’s exam, because I somehow made it to 27 without knowing how to drive. I met Bishop N. T. Wright. I made some great relationships on Twitter and really challenged myself to use social media for all it’s worth.

 

I haven’t been watching a lot of movies because it’s Lent, but I did sneak in a few. These were some of my favorites:

 

Nebraska (2013)

A sad black-and-white movie about an old man with a drinking problem and his world-weary son, who are taking a trip to Nebraska to claim the million dollars the man thinks he’s won. Lovely and powerful and haunting.

 

Breathless (1959)

          The first film in the French New Wave movement, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless was a breath of fresh air. The cinematography, encompassing the picturesque sweep of Paris streets and the idleness of a pair of lovers casually chatting, is breath-taking.

 

True Detective (2014)

          The entire first season, from start to finish. A great fix for anyone who’s still suffering from the end of Breaking Bad. The writing and directing is electrifying, and at times genius. Woody Harrelson is effective as a blustery Louisiana detective, while Matthew McConaughey creates a character for the ages.

 

NOAH (2014)

          No, it wasn’t made by evil alien space lizards with the intention of destroying “traditional Christianity.” Ignore all the bizarre controversy surrounding this movie and go see it for yourself. It’s worth it. Trust me.

 

*         *         *

 

It’s been a much better month in terms of books, because I HAVE A KINDLE NOW AND I CAN READ ALL THE TIME!

 

This month I read, or began reading:

 

Story Engineering: Character Development, Story Concept, Scene Construction by Larry Brooks

– The Mahabharata (a modern adaptation in two volumes) by Ramesh Menon

The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters,by Christopher Vogler (haha, can you tell that I’m writing a book?)

Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination, by Peter Ackroyd

Jesus & the Victory of God, by N. T. Wright

Girl At the End of the World, by Elizabeth Esther

 

Excluding Elizabeth’s book, which I’ve already written about at length, my favorite of these was the Mahabharata. It’s an ancient story of family and war and sex and betrayal, gods and goddesses and demons and monsters, that reads like a great Shakespearean tragedy. I’ll have more to say about this. I want to write a post about my eleven favorite stories ever, and this is definitely one of them.

 

*           *           *

 

Music that I’ve been falling in love with? The Silver Seas, Elbow, The Handsome Family, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Alessi’s Ark, Club 8, Elizabeth & the Catapult

 

Songs? Here’s a sampling:

 

“Alaska” (The Silver Seas)

“Far from Any Road” (The Handsome Family—True Detective theme song!)

“The Bottomless Hole” (The Handsome Family)

“Julian, Darling” (Elizabeth & the Catapult)

“Karaoke Star” (The Silver Seas)

“The Water” (Johnny Flynn ft. Laura Marling)

“New York Morning” (Elbow)

“John Lennon” (Felix)

“Song of Joy” (Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds)

What about you? What have you fallen in love with this month?

Girl At the End of the World: A Review

Girl-at-the-End-of-the-World2-624x469“The most detrimental aspect of my childhood was our preoccupation with End of the World theology.”
— Elizabeth Esther

*        *         *

 

Elizabeth Esther’s new memoir, Girl At the End of the World (Convergent, 2014) is an important book. But it’s also a hard book.

Hard for anyone still recovering from the trauma of being trapped in a fundamentalist cult.

For anyone who has lost loved ones to a twisted ideology masquerading as the one true religion.

For anyone who has ever tried to convince her fellow believers that yes, Christians can be sadistic and abusive and scary and cultish, only to be met with confusion and anger.

* * *

Near the beginning, Elizabeth likens her youth in a Christian end-times cult known as The Assembly to the experience of growing up in a mob family. “Except instead of killing people if they stopped cooperating, we just excommunicated them from our training homes. Religious fervor was all I knew, so my holy mob family felt normal.”

A mob family. I’d never thought about it, but that really is what it feels like.

Just as a thought experiment, I sometimes like to imagine how a cult member would react when shown a movie about a group of people doing the exact same horrible things that are being done in his group. Nine times out of ten I think the comparison would fly over his head, because the movie is about the evil World while the cult is about loving Jesus.

Yet it’s hard to imagine anyone in Goodfellas being as cruel to their family as Elizabeth’s family is to her in the course of this book.

Yes, fundamentalism really does erase people. And when it finds a perceptive, artistic, and free-spirited young woman with a passion for truth, beauty, and justice, a woman like Elizabeth Esther, it erases them harder. It can’t allow them to be themselves, because who they are is dangerous.

It’s true, no one was murdered in Elizabeth’s community, but in a way it doesn’t even matter. When you’re in a cult, everything you are is invalidated.

Your body. The women in her community are strictly policed to ensure that not a hint of curves is ever seen through their clothing. “Better to wear a shapeless sack,” she writes, “than risk clothing that suggests any shape whatsoever.”

Your gender and sexuality. In The Assembly, women have no say in how their own lives are directed. A woman belongs to her dad until she gets married, at which point she belongs to her husband.

Your faith. All forms of Christianity other than the kind practiced by The Assembly are viewed as illegitimate. Elizabeth’s dad sneers at the idea of “good Christians” in other denominations, calling them Pharisees. Anyone who begins to explore other traditions of faith is expelled from the community.

Your talents and passions. Elizabeth’s dad is unable to attend her swim meets because he’s too preoccupied with “issues of Eternal Significance.”

Your dreams for your life. For me the saddest moment in the whole book is when her parents force her to give up her dream job on the high school newspaper staff, effectively destroying her chances of going to a private college. Why? Because she’s not spending enough time doing chores around the house. You see, writing and getting an education and being fulfilled as a human aren’t nearly as important as “doing the Lord’s will.”

This is what it looks like when people are erased.

Yet the group continues to congratulate itself on its holiness. No one listens to secular music. No one drinks alcohol.

As the story winds on, as the catalogue of horrors and abuses grows ever longer, I begin to wonder what any of this has to do with being a Christian.

Take away the superficial religious trappings, and this becomes the story of a sick, twisted system where people were controlled and their personalities quenched of all light, all passion.

I begin to suspect that this is all it ever was: a predatory structure for the enslavement of other human beings. That’s its purpose, the thing it was designed to do.

And people submitted to it without question because they thought it was Jesus.

* * *

In an interview with my friend Teryn at the back of the book, Elizabeth elaborates on her eventual decision to become Catholic. Teryn asks her, “Do you see the Catholic Church as less abusive than Protestantism? . . . Do you feel safer now that you’re Catholic?”

Elizabeth says, “I’m glad I wasn’t the one who said that, because I attract enough controversy as it is! But yes, that is a great insight and I absolutely agree. In fact, this was a huge reason why I joined the Catholic Church. I felt absolutely safe there.”

And no wonder. For the first time in her life, she’s in a spiritual environment where the voice of God isn’t being mediated by some renowned pastor; where she can read the Bible on her own without the interpreting voices of authoritarian fundamentalism; where she can seek the wisdom and solace of Mother Mary without fear of rebuke.

This book affected me on a profound level. I read it in a single day, and for days afterwards I felt sick.

You see, I was in a group similar to Elizabeth’s, a group that was going to pray in the End Times and battle the forces of darkness. My best friend was allegedly murdered by the leader of our cult, a man we all trusted and revered as a spiritual leader. For five years he had been the primary authority interpreting the Scriptures for us. We were sincerely convinced that when we opened the Bible, we were seeing the “plain meaning of Scripture.” He had so colored our perceptions that we read his ideas back into the Bible and thought they were the words of God.

And so when Elizabeth says, “I’m going to the Catholic Church because I don’t know where else to find a way to God that feels safe,” I get that. More than anything else, I think that’s the reason I became Catholic.

Because the Church is a place where the voices of writers and artists and intellectuals and, yes, women, are welcomed and not stifled.

Because Jesus offers himself to us in the Eucharist and I can’t think of a more beautiful demonstration of love than to give us his physical presence.

Because for the first time in my life I’m in a place where mystery and mysticism and beauty and questions are encouraged and accepted. Where I am accepted, for who I am.

Because the beautiful crucified God, the God on a cross, the weak, suffering Messiah, gazes down at me from the crucifix at the front of the church, and I know that the mechanisms of power and control that enslaved me for years are brought to nothing in the presence of the God who became powerless.

And I’m so grateful to Elizabeth for putting words to that, for taking us on her journey out of the darkness of toxic religion and into the light of a faith that is warm and welcoming and stable and biblical and traditional and safe.

This is a brave book. Not an easy book to finish, but it’s worth it, because the hope at the end is brighter than the blackness of darkness that scarred her youth.

It’s a necessary book.

For anyone suffering under the shackles of dangerous Christianity.

For anyone who has a friend who’s enslaved and doesn’t know what to do about it.

For anyone who’s ever fled from a cult into the safe, warm arms of Catholicism.

A harrowing, disturbing, tremendously sad, yet ultimately redemptive book, illuminating, timely, and prophetic. The kind of book the Church needs to read, now more than ever. A true godsend.

 

I Read the Bible as an English Major (and That’s Okay)

4426269085_8b16eeda09Read this great article last week by Morgan Guyton on why English majors make lousy fundamentalists.

Growing up I know we were encouraged to take everything we read in the Scriptures at face value. But it’s been fascinating, as I’ve gotten older, to look at the Bible from a more literary perspective. Continue reading

10 Great Books on Spiritual Abuse & Mind Control

5129ufB6BEL._AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-49,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_The summer after I left the dangerous group, I read a ton of books on the dynamics of spiritual manipulation within Christian cults. Books are a great way of finding one’s way back to reality. Through them I was able to get a better sense of the nightmare in which I had been living for the last three to four years of my life. And when tragedy struck at the end of that year, I wasn’t wholly unprepared to deal with it.

Tonight I wanted to share some of my favorite resources on spiritually abusive groups. Some of these are fictional and some are not. Stories are invaluable to a right understanding of cults because it’s so hard to grasp conceptually how these groups function unless you can see it laid out. Continue reading

The Secret of Good Fantasy is to Write Honestly

ainePhoto Credit: Aine McVey

One of my goals for this year is to journal every day, which means I’ll probably be doing a lot more free-writing.

            I spent most of my Christmas break rewriting the first chapter of my book, just because I wanted to have a truly stunning first chapter. I finished it yesterday and sent it to three different people, seeking their opinions. It may need some revisions, but for the most part I actually really like it.

Some strange things happened as I was writing it. A few paragraphs into the chapter I realized that the only way forward was to talk about the fantasy stories I was dreaming up at around the time the novel begins. (Because the two main characters in these fantasies were fictional versions of me and *Rebecca, the fantasizing provides a commentary on the very real situations I’m describing).

Previously I had always been afraid to bring my imagination into the story because I felt it would alienate readers. (And also, I think, because *Timothy and Rebecca tried to tell me that my fantasies were evil and anti-social. Only in the last year have I begun rejecting the shame they spoke over me and embracing my calling as a storyteller).

What I found, though, was that being open about how much I used to fantasize actually made the story more realistic and grounded. Because the narrator is constantly explaining how he expects things to play out, watching them unfold in a much less dramatic way than he was anticipating creates a sense of realism. For example, there’s one moment in the first chapter where Rebecca has just finished giving a long speech about how reality is not a book, and I want so much to shake her hand and thank her for saying that, but I don’t. Instead, she goes into her room and shuts the door.

In earlier drafts of the novel, I would have been tempted to try and turn that into a big scene. But somehow, because it’s NOT a big scene (no matter how much I, the narrator, want it to be), it has more of an impact.

What surprised me even more is that, as the chapter was winding down, I found myself becoming obsessed with the most boring, minute, mundane aspects of the story. Reading back over it, my favorite moments are the dozens of small and apparently insignificant details, like the way Rebecca walks through the Cove with her hands in her back pockets, or how I say, “Hey,” and she doesn’t immediately respond, or how when we finish praying together I’m suddenly depressed because I’m afraid she’s going to admire me when all I wanted to do was to help her.

And yet the two BIG paragraphs that at first I was most excited about, the most poetic and “important” paragraphs in the chapter, fill me with an unsuppressed nausea. They don’t feel “real” to me in the way the smaller passages do.

And perhaps it’s just emblematic of a bigger change going on in my life. Because I grew up on Peter Jackson’s brilliant, amazing Lord of the Rings films, because those were my reality, I thought life would be full of grand gestures and vivid, emotional flourishes. I tried to shape reality to fit my preconceptions.

But over the last few months I’ve started to realize that reality is what it is, that there IS a real battle between good and evil but it takes place at the level of our mundane interactions. People have to eat and shower and do laundry and comb their hair and get their oil changed, pack their lunch in the morning and go to work each day. And for the most part we stand around looking bored and clueless, and there’s a lot of dead air in our conversations, and we accidentally talk over each other, and sometimes we don’t say what we mean to say and have to repeat ourselves, and we all spend twelve hours a day on Facebook and Twitter, and sometimes terrible things happen to people who didn’t deserve it, and that’s how life is, even if it’s not how it should be. But somehow God is gracious and we get to be heroes anyway.

And maybe in real life, being a hero is better than how it is in the movies, better and worse, because instead of battling sorcerers and Balrogs you have to fight REAL monsters, and that takes even more courage. I think I could stand up to a dragon; but after what I’ve been through in the last four or five years, no mythical creature will ever be quite as scary again. I’ve seen the face of true evil, and I think that smile will haunt my nightmares for a long time to come.

And I’m not giving up my love for fantasy, but as I get older the stories that continue to enchant me are the true ones: either those, like the novels of Tolkien, that radiate elemental truths about the nature of reality, or those like Harry Potter that take into account how people actually talk and think and feel and behave, so that I feel like I’m reading a real story about real people. Lousy case-of-the-week dramas, cheap end-times thrillers, and overblown Hollywood epics no longer interest me because they seem to be operating on an exaggerated and romantic notion of how the world should be rather than how the world is, and when I’m watching a movie the last thing I want to feel is concern for the writers, wondering whether they’ve ever had a real experience, whether they know anything about what life is like.

In the first chapter of my book I describe how Rebecca implored me to come out of my books and really experience reality instead of just reading about it. She taught me so much about how to live life, how to feel feelings, how to interact with real people. And to the extent that I didn’t figure out how to do that while she was living, I had to learn it in the aftermath of her death when every remaining illusion I had was shattered and I had to face the bitterness of mortality. She seemed to be fading into a fantasy more and more during our last years together, but because of her encouragement and example I was able to find my way back to reality. And I think I’ve “inherited” some of the pragmatism and realism she was always trying to pour into me (without a lot of success). That’s how I intend to live my life now. And when I finally sit down and write my fantasy novels, they’ll be weird and creative and surprising, of course, because I don’t think I can help being weird, but I want them to be true more than anything else, alive with the complexity and brokenness of ordinary life. And I think now they will be.