Peaceful Easy Feeling?

All that great writing time that I was planning to spend on various projects this weekend? Well…it was a holiday weekend, so I have an excuse, right?

This year’s Memorial Day was not nearly as eventful as last year’s, and mostly consisted of furniture shopping and good conversation. I’ve always thought it interesting how the same occasions find us in such different places in life from one year to the next.

In any case, I was sitting in a green room backstage on Sunday having a conversation with a professor friend about Bonhoeffer. I’m always up for a good Bonhoeffer discussion, as he stands out as one of the two most influential theologians in my life. To date, the definitive biography on Bonhoeffer is Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography by his close friend, Eberhard Bethge. My friend and I talked for a while about Bonhoeffer’s pacifism and how it he laid it down to be a part of the resistance plot to assassinate Hitler during World War II…an action for which he was ultimately imprisoned and martyred. We talked a bit about the concept of a “just war,” something that has been on my mind here and there lately in light of recent world events.

Memorial Day is a holiday in the United States set aside to memorialize those who have died during service in the armed forces. Last year, I was more focused on memorials and history. This year, I fell a bit into the apathy that makes this holiday merely the beginning of summer.  Of course, that apathy becomes easy to fall into, given the media saturation of worldwide violence that pervades the news outlets. There comes a point of de-sensitization.

Yesterday’s conversation was perhaps the most real observance of Memorial Day that I had this year. I think that’s because I’m tired of perpetual warfare. I’m not naive enough to think that it will end any time soon, because humanity seems to just have too much fun hurting itself. I just recognize that the extent of my memorializing this year was a brief pause to wish that the war would stop, that we could breathe, that we could try just a bit harder to find peaceful solutions to our problems.

And, as Bonhoeffer ultimately concluded, I end in a recognition that there will be those on the international stage that will make that impossible in some cases. And, for that tragic reason, there will be more people to remember when Memorial Day arrives next year, wherever we all may be then.

I won’t be any more fond of that unfortunate truth then than I am now. War, regardless of how just it may or may not be, is a horrific state of affairs.

More…or Less…

I am so over that guilty feeling.

I remember when I first used to get it. The guilty feeling, that is. It began when I was considering applying to an MFA program in creative writing. The school to which I was going to apply (I’m intentionally omitting a link to protect the innocent) melded spirituality with the craft of writing, which was initially much to my liking. I think, in retrospect, that they could be a bit heavy on the religious side, too, because I remember the phraseology that the program used. They indicated a dedication to developing “writing as a spiritual discipline.”

For those of you not familiar with the concept of spiritual disciplines, they are religious practices in the Christian faith meant to heighten the experience and connection involved in specific practices of that faith. They are not without merit. Foster’s writing on the topic is the core of the spiritual discipline concept (at least as it relates to Christianity), and he has much to say that is worthwhile.

Initially, the idea of cultivating a spiritual discipline of writing was very appealing to me. The concept brought images of dedication and higher calling with which I resonated. I determined to develop a religious practice of writing. I delved in.

The problem is, though, that I’ve never done well with consistent religious practices. I’ve always taken liturgy best in small doses, and there are few religious rituals with which I am able to engage in any meaningful way (although the few with which I can are extremely meaningful to me).

So,  perhaps this was a recipe for disaster. Because, until that time, I wrote (at least from a creative writing perspective) when I had a project that I was driven to write. I never missed a deadline, and I was not captive of the illusion that I should write only when my “muse” struck. I was disciplined about completing what I was writing…I was just inconsistently disciplined (I remember writing dialogue for a scene in a play once on a laptop in the car while waiting in line for a car wash). A bit scattered, perhaps, but passionately so, and it worked.

The issue is that, when applying religion to a spiritual practice, the inevitable occurred: inhumanly high standards, and increasing feelings of guilt with each failure. I took the advice of many writing blogs that a writer should write every day, in a disciplined manner, for the sake of writing. Every day.

So, judge me if you like, fellow writers, but I have never had a week that I’ve pulled that off.

Moreover, I drove my wife crazy, because I was constantly complaining that I either hadn’t written in two days, or hadn’t written enough, or…well,  you get the idea.

Then, a few weeks ago, I read a blog post by an author who recently published his first children’s novel. The post was unbelievably encouraging to me because he discussed his insanely hectic schedule at his day job (and we all have those…the schedule and the job), and that he only made time to write his novel on weekends, blocking out several  hours at a time for two days a week instead of one or two hours nightly.

This, to my initial disbelief, was successful for him!

And my feelings of guilt, dear reader, flew away to never plague me again.

With their departure came the realization that not writing every day doesn’t make me less disciplined a writer, or less dedicated a writer, or place me under less of a spiritual or “higher” calling to write. It means that I favor quality over quantity, and blocking off an hour or two (if I was lucky) every night was not only robbing me of quality, but was depriving me of the life that a writer needs to live in order to have material from which to write.

In short, writing, like religion, is about substance instead of frequency, and sometimes, less is more.

I’m going to work on one or more of my writing projects this weekend, probably for a large block of time. And I may not touch them again until next weekend, after which they will have had an opportunity to coalesce in my brain. That will make for a better final product, anyway.

Not to mention a much happier life in between.

Photo Attribution: smoorenburg 

Mid-Life Myopia

Like a great many of my epiphanies, it came to me while watching Dr. Who. Something that the Doctor has done frequently, and especially is seasons 5 and 6, is to cause normal people whose paths he crosses to question if there is something bigger that they should be doing with their lives…something more consequential.

I guess this resonates with me because, even though I recognize it as a bit of a trap, I’m easily caught in thoughts of “shouldn’t I be doing something more than this?” That is, am I so caught up in the minutiae of the day-to-day as I try to get through my schedule and accomplish my to-do lists, that I miss a larger point…something else that should be grabbing my attention?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have no illusion that I’m somehow destined to be some sort of profound, prophetic voice that cries out for a change that will prove life-altering for my culture. I’m not nearly that narcissistic. I don’t even hold any pretense that I’ll write a great American novel…perhaps not even a great one. I do think, though, that I have something to contribute. Perhaps I only think that because a professor in my undergrad gave me that encouragement, but I think that its true in any case. And, given that, I find it difficult to recognize that I’m contributing in any way that’s worth noticing. I feel like I’m missing the forest for the proverbial trees.

Of course, if its the grand scheme of my life that I’m concerning myself with, and I’m concerned that I’m spending too much time in the day-to-day, then I must also realize that the grand scheme is made up of the day-to-day. That is, I don’t want to miss the forest for the trees, but I have to understand that without the trees, there would be no forest. I can’t stop paying attention to daily life altogether.

It occurs to me that, even those who did alter the way in which we think and believe, didn’t achieve their status as cultural (re)formers while they were alive in most cases. Many a great author has been considered great only posthumously, and even more great artists. When you begin to think in realms such as politics, the odds of your contributions being fully recognized during your career or lifetime are even more remote.

Still, its just as dangerous to fall into the opposite trap…to be unable to see yourself as anything other than just a cog in the machine. The trouble with being completely absorbed in the daily logistics of life is that we can miss the fact that there is a reality beyond what we can empirically verify. To miss that is to miss the “why” for the “what.”

I’m not delving into destiny here. I’m not going to the “how,” because that’s an entirely different conversation. I will say, though, that those who contribute, at whatever level, to the greater scientific, artistic, political, or human good, do so through the context of their daily lives. The forest is better for their individual trees, and we are more than just the sum of our parts. I’m just working to not get so lost in the mundane that I forget to recognize that there might just be some of the spectacular here, as well.

Today is almost finished, friends. Here’s to what you have to contribute…by way of tomorrow.

Photo Attribution: fredcamino 

Playing Catch-Up

Ahh…technology. What would we do without it? And, perhaps more to the point, what are we going to do with it?

Little technological malfunctions set me on edge at times. Take last night for example. For the second time in a few months, I experienced a password glitch with my Barnes & Noble account, and I couldn’t sync a book I had just purchased with the Nook’s iPad app. Three minutes of trying later, and by the time I called customer service, I had all but announced my return to paper books out of frustration.

I’m better now, though. Thanks for wondering.

Along more academic lines, there has been a lot of interesting thought  in the past few decades about the metaphysical or theological implications of technology…what we as mankind are attempting to achieve through our progress. One doesn’t have to look far for the perpetual stream of thought-provoking insight on how our technology is changing us even as we create it. What and how we invent, and the things for which we ultimately use our inventions, say a great deal about us as a people.

I remember, for example, checking a book out of the library when I was in elementary school about the city of tomorrow. The book was large, with lots of pictures. I remember that it portrayed cars that traveled on mono-rail type circuits through a futuristic city…cars that you didn’t actually have to drive, but rather simply told an address and let them take you there. Everyone used them in this book, and I remember thinking that this would be a tremendously cool experience. Of course, the concept of intelligent cars was a natural desire to take hold of the America psyche, because we love our automobiles. I remember, when I was young, my father joking about how he wanted a Knight Rider type of vehicle that would leave its parking place and come to the front of the grocery store to meet us. I remember that I sort of wanted that, too, because, again…how cool would that be?

Interestingly, now that the technology exists and is being actively tested, it turns out that there are some interesting legal ramifications involved, beyond the social questions of whether or not we trust our programmers to be able to prevent our cars from getting us into accidents.

Beyond the theological implications of technological development, there is a world of legal quagmire here. Our progress, in short, is decades ahead of our legal system.  Inventors, as it were, travel at warp speed, while law-makers remain in sub-space. Nowhere can this be seen more readily that in the privacy debates that dominate our headlines on a regular basis, to say nothing of how the copyright system struggles to keep up with the unprecedented availability of music, film, and literature available at a moment’s notice.

I’m fascinated at the age in which we live. The technological advances that have occurred since my grandparents’ generation is unprecedented, and now, in my generation, the legal system is scrambling to keep up, largely at the behest of those who stand to make the most money in the new age (as usual). The number of things that could change on a moment’s notice to be no longer free, or to be completely illegal, alternately mystifies and scares me. What is constant is that I’m always amused at how the legal system perpetually moves at a proverbial snail’s pace to attempt regulation of the information sharing that has changed the face of mankind.

I think that, by the time they’ve caught up with our current position, that we’ll be decades further ahead. Which leads me to wonder: what does this sort of information and artistic availability look like with a wholly incapable system of regulation in place? I think we will continue to see the answer to that question play out in the years to come.

Photo Attribution: visual velocity pc

All The News That’s Fit to Print

I think it was around a year ago that my friend Katherine introduced me to the Story of the Week blog, and it went immediately into my RSS reader. The blog is a project of the Library of America, and offers a free, downloadable piece of fiction, poetry, dispatch, etc. each week. Take what you want to read, leave what you don’t…I periodically find myself dropping their weekly offering onto my e-reader for future perusal.

Twice I’ve read true crime pieces from this site, including this weekend. This most recent piece was a re-print of the journalistic account of a grisly murder in Iowa in 1900, and is collected in True Crime: An American Anthology.  At 17 pages, its a fast read, and was an intriguing way to end my weekend.

Reading this collection of newspaper articles by the same journalist, I was struck by the writing style. I’m amazed at how the quality of writing in articles from 1900 is so much better than articles written today. The pacing, the use of language, the vocabulary…all of superior quality. I realize, though, that newspapers, which are only one generation from extinction today, were the primary means of communicating events at that time, and people sat down to read these true stories that were occurring around them. Just as today’s video-based or radio journalism  continues to hold an entertainment component, so those stories were told in a such a way as to present the facts in a manner that kept the reader engaged. This was not the inverted pyramid of print journalism as we know it. This was storytelling.

While these accounts seemed a bit sensationalist is their own right (perhaps its impossible to do journalism without a touch of this), I found myself thinking that I just don’t read this quality of storytelling in journalistic endeavors any more. Even weightier news sources, such as the New York Times or the BBC, condense their offerings to make them more quickly read and more easily digestible. This is a product of an online culture, I realize, in which we seem constantly pressed for time as we scan information in increasing quantities, all the while hyperlinking across the Internet to this or that reference in the middle of an article.

There are still sources of good storytelling in our news media today. I typically find them in magazines more than mainstream news…publications such as the New Yorker or the Atlantic present commentary on current events with a more literary feel, analyzing aspects of modern happenings of which the reader was likely unaware. Of course, these publications are just that: commentary.  You don’t pick up the New Yorker every week for breaking news.

Now, I don’t think media outlets can find a way to package breaking news headlines in poetic language if they are to present them at the speed of our information age…at least I never found a way to do so in my journalism days. But, I think that more care with the language could be afforded. While commentary lends itself more easily to storytelling, I don’t think we have to divorce our news articles from the art altogether. There’s just something more substantive to the events of which we’re reading when this is done…they seem more real.

Perhaps another issue at play here is the fact that the distinction between commentary and news is now blurred in a confusing manner. I spent most of journalism days writing op-ed pieces. When I did so, they were separated from the news sections, because they were commentary, not news. The reader understood the difference by the column’s placement in the paper.

Today, American media outlets refuse to present just the news. They wrap the headlines in impromptu commentary and run their commentary as news. The result is not op-ed, but propaganda for the political leanings of a particular media outlet. No longer is the viewer or reader trusted to make up his or her own mind after being presented with “just the facts.”

Unfortunately, the public’s ability to do so will then atrophy, like a muscle that hasn’t been used in too long. Most viewers or readers don’t want to spend the energy to think critically about current events, even though they are perfectly capable. They want someone to tell them what to think.

And that is worlds away from hearing someone’s thoughts or reasoned perspective on an issue. Because that is real commentary, the stuff of good op-ed columns: a different perspective on the events at hand, presented as a perspective, and offered as thoughts to be considered.

I’m fascinated to watch as the line between journalism and commentary blurs, and takes the care of the language down with it, digressing into a psychologically-crafted collection of buzz words and persuasion intended to foster groupthink among the viewers, and resulting in inflammatory rhetoric that only does harm, and not good.

We really need a return of good, balanced storytelling. And I don’t just mean in fiction. Because we really are smart, folks. We really are capable of thinking for ourselves and making up our own minds about the issues at hand.

We really don’t need someone to cross the line and start thinking for us.

I promise.

Photo Attribution: salimfadhley