As unlikely as it seems now, I largely missed out on the Harry Potter phenomenon when it began blowing up in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Continue reading
One thing you learn in writing stories is that certain objects have a mysterious and almost magnetic power that defies words. Castles, swords, rings, goblets, buried treasure—the appearance of any one of these in a story is like a radiant stone that vibrates with its own intensity. Perhaps that’s why I became Catholic, because as a storyteller I was naturally drawn to a religion that invests material things with sacramental power: holy water; crosses; bells, books, and candles.
Bell towers have fascinated me ever since I saw the movie Vertigo when I was nine or ten years old. Recently voted the greatest film of all time in the once-a-decade Sight & Sound poll, Vertigo tells the story of a retired detective (James Stewart) hired to trail a young woman (Kim Novak) who may be possessed by the ghost of a long-dead ancestor. He pursues her to an old Spanish mission, the Mission San Juan Batista, where, at the very top of the bell tower, tragedy strikes. And then strikes again.
The understated use of Hispanic and southwestern folklore in this movie slowly worked its way into my brain, taking root in dark corners. During my first couple of months at Southwestern University, ten years ago this summer, I was enchanted by the beige limestone, the rounded-arch doorways, the old chapel at the heart of campus with a door leading up to the tower, a door that was only unlocked on the rarest of occasions. I remember being struck with a sense of the history of the place.
It was there that I had the idea to write a series of children’s books, books that would draw on the cultures and legends of the Celts (my ancestors) and the Southwest (my adopted home). This summer in going back and rereading some of the folklore and mythology of England I’ve been struck by how many stories center around the ringing of bells. In the days before telephones and wireless, sometimes the cathedral bell was the only means of communication between one town and another, or between the church and those in peril on the ocean’s dark waters.
One such story from County Surrey tells of a man, Neville Audley, who was captured fighting on the wrong side during the long-ago War of the Roses. Arrested and sentenced to die when the curfew bell tolled on the next night at Chertsey Abbey, he realized that the only hope of being spared was to obtain a pardon from the king.
Neville conferred with his girlfriend, Blanche Heriot, and their mutual friend Herrick. Herrick agreed to ride towards London to seek pardon. But on the next day, with only five minutes left before the bell tolled, Herrick was seen flying towards the town from half a mile away—still too far away to save Audley’s life.
The minutes passed. The townsfolk awaited the tolling of the bell. But the bell did not ring.
Just as Herrick arrived in town, the sexton, accompanied by soldiers, went up into the tower to investigate. There they found Blanche Heriot, dashed against the bell and frame but still clinging to the clapper with a tenacity born of desperation. Luckily she had hung there just long enough to save her beloved, who was spared from death by the king’s timely pardon. The two were married shortly afterwards.
Another story with a less happy ending is told of the tenor bell of Burgh le Marsh church. The people of Burgh le Marsh once made a living off the debris of doomed ships, lighting the beacon on Marsh Hill to lure poor sailors to their deaths. Once the sailors were all drowned and the weather had calmed, the townsfolk would scramble ashore to loot the broken vessels.
As the story goes, in 1629 the Mary Rose was sailing from Leith, Scotland along the Lincolnshire coast on its way to Flanders. A storm began to gather. The wind howled and the rains beat against the ship, while the people of Burgh watched from the shore with growing excitement.
But not everyone was pleased by the buffeting of the storm-tossed ship. The elderly sexton Guymer, when he learned what was being planned, begged them not to light the beacon. No one listened.
A crowd made its way towards Marsh Hill and the beacon was lit. Captain Frohock, seeing what he mistook for a lighthouse, called out to his men that they were safe. The crew turned the ship in the direction of the light.
Back on shore, desperate to avoid the collision that was imminent, Guymer ran towards the church. Ascending to the top of the bell tower, he grabbed the rope and rang the bell with all the strength he could muster. Captain Frohock, realizing how close he was to shore and certain death, ordered the Mary Rose back to sea, away from the treacherous sands.
Enraged by the tolling of the bell, the townspeople stormed into the church. Breaking down the belfry door, they found Guymer, still clinging to the rope, his dead body swaying to and fro. His heart had burst open from exhaustion.
When Captain Frohock returned to the village a year later and learned what had happened, he bought an acre of land known as “Bell String Acre.” He ordered that rent from the land be used to buy a silken rope for the bell. It’s said that he married the sexton’s daughter.
Tales of vagabonds and outlaw men with a burning lust for gold
But of all those men with all their sins the worst there’s ever been
Was a man in white who showed up one night in the town of Abilene.
For Fernando McGraw of Statler Hall, it was the best day of his life
He’d waited six years and now through tears he made Marie his wife
Two hundred guests merrily processed behind the bride and groom
With hurrying feet through the rain-filled street to Winchester’s Saloon. Continue reading
the second I’ve attended since
you got married.
You would have loved the venue:
a small stone chapel
almost like a cottage
in the woods
with a high Gothic ceiling
and a stained-glass portrait
of the via dolorosa
hanging just over the altar.
And the ceremony
may have been more high church
than what we were used to
growing up in Texas
but the bride processed in
to some Elvish-sounding music
and after the exchange of vows
we all had communion
and the newlyweds came in together
bearing the grail and bread.
The whole first year after
when I heard about a friend’s engagement
my immediate reaction
was to try and stop it.
It was silly of me, I know:
not every walk down the aisle
has a cross at its end.
And over time
I got better, or
learned how to fake it.
when the priest said,
“Speak now, or forever hold your peace”
it was hard not to think of that moment
in your wedding
and the silence where
no one spoke.
And when the bride and groom
pledged their fidelity to one another
in sickness and in health
to have and to hold
from this day forward
I thought of you and him
the vows he made to you that day
flanked by the groomsmen
with whom he had already
a few years from now
I’ll have my own ceremony.
And with laughter and communion
my friends will escort me
into a new realm of life.
But even amid the celebration
there will be a quiet ache
dull but persistent
because of the empty space
where you should have been
and the marriage you never had.
She wouldn’t call herself a genius
but I know she is
A novelist, an actress
She’s on billboards and Broadway
The writer, star, director
of a one-woman play
She’s pale as the sun
as quiet as the moon
and she doesn’t
understand the world
she wonders what the moral of the story is
she takes her coffee black
she stays out past midnight
sipping Chardonnay and reading
N. T. Wright
but lately she’s been feeling nervous and listless
She’s sick of putting up with boys
and their pathetic grandeur
and wishes she could meet a guy
who understands her
She’s pale as the sun
as quiet as the moon
and she doesn’t
understand the world
(and sometimes late at night
we take that desert road
out where the stars are street lights
and when we hit the end of that trail
where the dust shines like fog
and the grass hums around us with a million voices
I pull out my flamenco guitar
and she dances).
Last year I wrote a post listing the dynamics of dangerous religion. I’ve spent the last year slowly adding to the list as I tweet and write my books and talk to people about the things that really scare them about the churches they’ve come out of. Eventually the list grew so long that I had to divide it into sections, and I’ll probably keep expanding it as time goes on. Please share your own experiences in the comments, and together we can continue to expose all the wrong things in the hope of bringing freedom and justice. Continue reading
Today I’m thrilled to be hosting a discussion with friend and fellow writer Teryn O’Brien. In addition to blogging, Teryn is a social media consultant who works in online marketing at various imprints of Penguin Random House, LLC, and also does social media, online marketing, and writing / editing consultations for a fee. She’s pursuing publication of a fantasy trilogy.
Last year Teryn’s blog, Identity Renewed, placed number 36 out of over 400 blogs nominated in an online survey at Patheos. In November her post “15 Things I Wish I’d Known About Grief” went viral and was read by over a million people. However, Teryn has written prolifically on a wide variety of topics, including relationships, fantasy, feminism, self-acceptance, spiritual abuse, and her own Celtic heritage.
On Friday I sat down with Teryn to discuss her views on blogging, social media, and finding the courage to do the things you feel most passionately about. The following is a partial transcript of our insightful and inspiring conversation.
Tell me a little about the history of your blog. How did you get started?
I personally started blogging at Identity Renewed almost three years ago this month. I started it right after college to work through some of my pain and brokenness. I was only posting twice a month, basically once every other week. I had a list of topics to write about, and then I was going to end it after a year. Honestly, I think it was just a time of experimentation and trying to find my voice. It really wasn’t until getting into the second year that I started blogging really regularly, posting three times a week. The main thing about blogging is consistency, because if you’re not blogging consistently, no one is going to come back to your blog. I kind of just played with a whole bunch of different schedules and ideas.
Then one of my best friends died in October 2012. She was in an abusive relationship inside a cult, and I realized that I had been fighting abusive tendencies in my own life, too. Suddenly, all the brokenness, pain, and struggles toward healing I’d been through began to make sense. So it was probably only after she died that I truly found my voice. And people started listening more. So I started getting a little more traffic and meeting more bloggers. The very first year I blogged, I think I got about 1,000 views. The second year, about 3,000-4,000 views. My goal in 2013 was to get 25,000 views.
The thing you have to realize is this: Blogging is a community, so no one is going to come to your site unless you go to their sites. Especially when you’re just starting out. If you’re not a famous blogger or pastor or speaker or whatever, no one is going to listen to your voice. So just starting out blogging, that’s one of the most important things you can do: Put yourself out there, meet other bloggers, comment on other sites, show a genuine interest in what others have to say. I’ve made some great friends through the blogging world, and we’ve never met in real life (yet!).
So then, in November 2013, I wrote this post about grief, and it got a million views. The thing about going viral is—you can’t control it. There are certain rules you can kind of try, and there’s research about what makes a post go viral, but honestly, at the end of the day, you can’t predict that. It was one of the posts I had spent the least amount of time on. I usually spend hours poring over my posts, and I’m like, “This one will surely go viral!”—but nope! The foundation is just blogging, finding your voice, and not being afraid to be passionate. It’s just finding that unique you, or those topics you feel like you can write completely and utterly passionately about.
Honestly, most bloggers blog for years before they make it big. It’s very rare for someone to have success overnight. Social media takes time, because you’re building trust with an audience. Social media isn’t about selling things; it’s about connecting with people. As soon as you start thinking too much about numbers, you’ve lost what social media truly is about.
So how successful do you consider yourself on your own social media platforms? And how do you define success?
You know, it means different things for different people. When you’re just starting out blogging, it’s really easy to look at people who are really, really popular and get discouraged. So it’s important to set your own goals. The goals should be goals that you personally define as successful and not necessarily what other people define as successful. Because people are really obsessed with large numbers. It’s a sickness in our society—even I do it! But the thing about it is, you can’t really control large numbers (unless you pay for it or already have a huge platform to begin with). You can’t make thousands and thousands follow you right away. It builds over time. A lot of it is about the work you put in.
For example: Last year, I decided I wanted to have 800 Twitter followers by the end of the year! So I started following people and engaging more, and I got at least 800. I just set another goal last week, “I want to get over a thousand Twitter followers!” So I just followed more than 200 people in two days’ time. So it’s just little goals like that, and hopefully over time those goals will add up. Honestly, probably none of us are going to be the next Rachel Held Evans, and it’s kind of hard to reconcile yourself to that fact. But making measurable goals that you know you can achieve, setting new and higher goals next time, is the way to go.
When you look at the Christian market, the people who are doing the reading and blogging and tweeting, what are they looking for?
Well, it honestly depends on the type of Christian you’re trying to reach. Because there are different tribes within Christianity. And there are lots of messy people in between. But I really see—especially in younger Christians—a real desire for genuineness and authenticity and vulnerability. Just honesty about the Christian faith. So not necessarily just saying, “This is the right answer!” but a truly honest exploration of faith.
Of course, again, that depends on the tribe. The more conservative groups, they want more answers. They like to have things tied up in nice theological boxes. The more liberal, kind of progressive religious people, they want more of a dialogue. They don’t want people to tell them, “This is exactly how God is!” They want more vulnerable, real stories about people who have been in hard places, and who don’t sugarcoat things, but who can give hope in the midst of that.
But again, there’s a lot who are falling into the middle right now. And they just want hope. Hope that in some way, we can love each other even when we disagree. That Jesus is bigger than political and theological debates.
Are there topics you’ve forbidden yourself from blogging about because you were afraid it might offend your target audience? Have you lost followers because of things you’ve written or posted?
That’s a really interesting question, because I have been wrestling with that lately. The downside to success is that your people, your fans, your followers tend to have certain expectations for you. When you have more of an audience, you are called out more, or you feel their wrath more.
So yes, ever since I launched my new website, I’ve been losing subscribers. I think the reason is because a lot of followers thought they were subscribing to a grief blog. Once my blog post on grief went viral, everyone thought all I should talk about was grief. So after it went viral, I felt all this pressure to blog about grief all the time, since this is where I found success. Success can be stifling.
But this year, I’ve been in a place where I just haven’t had words to talk about grief. The grief has been much too deep, too angry, too volatile. I’ve written one post about grief, and it got quite a few shares, but ultimately, I’m not just a grief blogger! Recently, I came to the realization that I might lose all subscribers I had gained during my viral post success. I think I’m in a weird spot right now. I’m always really struggling about what to write about and share. When it starts becoming about success and numbers, you start to lose who you really are. I just have to write what’s on my heart, and it’s been a struggle lately.
If you could consult with your younger self, just starting out in social media, what advice would you give to her and why?
I think I would’ve just told myself: “Don’t be afraid. You will not have any regrets two, three years down the road.” When I first started down this road, I was terrified. I would spend hours agonizing over a post, because it was the first time I was being honest publicly. There were many times I almost quit blogging. I mean, I almost quit blogging a few weeks ago. It’s always a struggle.
But that’s the main thing I’d say to my younger self: “Don’t be afraid, and it’s going to be worth it. Pouring your heart out is going to be worth it. Not even that you’re necessarily going to be popular, but you are going to find your voice. God is preparing you for things in the future.”
If I hadn’t already had things set up when my friend died in October 2012, I wouldn’t have had that small voice to express all the things I felt and learned in the months following her death. Then again, if I hadn’t had everything else set up in November 2013, that post wouldn’t have gone viral. So I don’t regret anything. It’s hard sometimes, because social media is draining, but I don’t regret it. So that’s what I’ll continue to tell myself: “Keep doing it! Trust that God is going to use your voice. Just jump in.”