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Stretching and Being Stretched

I recently read two very different Star Trek AOS fan fics. In the first fic, the author did some really amazing things with Spock’s childhood and how his father’s disapproval and his peers’ bullying formed him into someone with serious issues in how he viewed himself. He started to believe them–to see himself as less than vulcan and less than human and, ultimately, less than a person. So the author used that starting place to stretch Spock and to force him to grow in some really neat ways. It also gives a really interesting potential window into the movie’s background and sets up Spock to change the people around him. He becomes a force for change. I love stories with good character development!

In the second fic, Jim negotiates some awesome thing with another species, and they reward him. They decide that the thing Jim needs most is a happy childhood, so they give him this potion and he reverts back to the last time he was truly happy (when he was living with his grandparents at age 3 or 4). This is not an unusual plot for Star Trek AOS. What was unusual about it was that the author made it so that he didn’t retain any of his adult memories and in the end, the crew was unable to bring adult Jim back. They decide it’s their job to give him a happy childhood–especially McCoy and Spock–so they go through the process of raising him. It was an unfinished fic, so I don’t know exactly where the author was taking it, but what really struck me was the author’s note about how he/she had had a happy childhood and was appalled at Jim’s childhood so he/she was going to give him a happy childhood.

The author KILLED Jim Kirk! I mean, the essence of who he is in AOS is defined by the experiences he’s had. Yes, if you wipe his memories, he’s still alive, but so much of what he’s passionate about is a direct result of his screwed up childhood. For instance, would he be so against “no-win scenarios” if he hadn’t had his father die in one (and/or gone through Tarsus, depending on your AOS character philosophy)? A huge part of what makes him a good captain is all those crappy experiences that shaped his life.

John Eldridge talks about how Satan’s flaming arrows are lies that we get told over and over in our lives. A recurrent theme in my life is the idea that I wreck the lives of everyone who gets close to me. Crazily enough, I’ve been told that by a few different people. And for a long time it was just part of my identity. I used to see myself as so broken that it was like I was made of broken glass and whenever someone got close to me, they’d get sliced open.

However, that analogy only works if everyone else around you is made of flesh instead of broken glass. The reality is that we’re all like rocks in a tumbler, getting our rough edges smoothed off by each other–or like iron sharpening iron. We’re both stretching others and being stretched. So yes, I know I’ve hurt people in my life–who hasn’t?–but that doesn’t mean I should stop getting close to other people or see myself as having more destructive ability than any other human being. We all hurt the people in our lives. It’s part of being broken humans. But all those rough edges we’ve got are less like knives waiting to slice each other open and more like tools that God can use to shape the world and the people around us.

After all, if we let them, it’s the difficult things in our lives that shape us and give us a destiny.

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A Culture of Mediocrity

I just went through a major disillusionment. It wasn’t a fun experience. I mean, I was happy in my delusions. Lately, I’ve been reading some of the comments on fan fics, which is something I don’t usually do. It’s not pretty. I sorta feel like I’m watching one of those train wreck situations where somebody hears somebody else sing and tells them they have such a great voice that they should quit their day job and become a singer, despite the fact that they couldn’t carry a tune if they had a wide-mouth twenty-gallon bucket. I mean, I know that with fan fiction it’s definitely a case of “reader beware”–sometimes you get some really great authors and sometimes you get people that can’t write their way out of a paper bag–but I guess I thought that the average person could recognize which was which. I read a truly dreadful fic this week. The plot was okay. It could have been really good. But the writing was seriously lackluster, and because I’ve been editing lately, some of the major writing flaws stood out to me–and I do mean flaws as in agreed upon mistakes that would preclude the story from getting published vs. just personal preferences.

Guess what! In the comments people a) talked about how amazing the story was (including the writing), but b) actually singled out the very flaws I had found and held them up as being good writing. It was so sad–both for author and for me. Like finding out that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.

Now, why exactly am I ranting about this? First of all because I just needed to rant. Loving stories and literature the way I do, it hurts to see mediocrity held up as above average. Just as we’re seeing the dumbing down of school children and language itself, I feel like, between self-publishing and the internet, I’m watching good writing slowly slide its way into obscurity. This is not to say that there aren’t good authors who are self-published or that there aren’t good fan fics–because there are. It’s just frustrating to have to wade through so much poorly written literature.

Second of all, I’ve been thinking about this whole idea of celebrating mediocrity. Fan fiction communities seem to tend that direction (unless they just happen to have a bunch of really awesome writers–then they pull the standards up). In my experience, a lot of fan fiction readers read fan fiction exclusively, so they’re not exposed to good writing. Thus you end up with a situation where everyone’s grading on a curve, and the best student in the class is getting C’s.

So part of that standard of mediocrity comes from a poor sample size. But my husband and I were talking last night and he brought up a good point–part of it comes from not wanting to engage in the conflict of telling someone their writing needs serious help and part of it comes from authors reviewing other authors and all wanting to hear nice things about their own work–there’s a sort of quid pro quo that goes on.

Unfortunately, I think we have a lot of the same things going on in the church. Check out this verse that came up in my Bible study this week: 2 Thess 3: 14-15 “If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.” (NIV)

I got to attend a church event this month for the first time in a long time. It’s a monthly ladies’ fellowship/Bible talk night, and the women’s ministry team has decided to use it to talk about friendship. The leader went through a run down of what we as women look for in friendships and it was full of things like love and patience and kindness, but sadly there was no mention of someone to give you a good kick in the pants when you need it. That doesn’t mean it won’t come up, but it wasn’t mentioned. I don’t know about you, but I crave people who tell me when I’m being dumb because I’d rather have a friend tell me I’m being dumb than continue being dumb for who knows how much longer.

Paul specifically tells us not to let junk slide, but we all do. Really, when was the last time you ever had anyone come up to you and say “I love you, but you need help”–preferably before things got dire. When was the last time you let someone know you well enough to know when you needed help?  Note: he’s talking to believers here, so we’re not even talking about critiquing people who are not believers–just take that off the table.

I also love the balance that Paul talks about–we don’t let stuff slide, but we don’t regard the person who needs help as the enemy; we warn him as a brother. I think part of our unwillingness to address issues in the Church comes from a misconception that if we call someone out, we are treating them as the enemy and we become the bad guy. I know I definitely don’t want to comment on poor fan fics and tell them they really need to work on their writing after everyone else has given glowing comments. I feel like the bad guy. But really, if you care about someone, you don’t want to see them continue to make mistakes that could cost them in the long run.

And just like in fan fiction, our community of believers can become ingrown. For example, my husband and I don’t even listen to contemporary Christian music anymore because we believe it celebrates mediocrity. When you look at great music and literature and art in the classics, so much of it was done by Christians because they believed excellence was part of God’s character. I’m not saying that there are no great CCM artists–I’m saying they’re the exception rather than the rule. We’ve created a whole genre of music full of mediocre music and mediocre lyrics. Christian fiction is often the same way as well.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to contribute to a culture of mediocrity. I want to be, as Paul says, a Child of the Day (1 Thess 5:5)–a shining star (Phil 2:12)–that both showcases God’s excellence in everything He does and encourages others to work for that same excellence. I firmly believe that Christians should strive for excellence in all we do because that reflects who God is–not that we don’t make mistakes, or that we don’t go through the learning process, or do things that we suck at simply because we love them (e.g., me drawing stick figures with my kids because I cannot draw to save my life), or on the other end of the spectrum that we fall into the trap of perfectionism, but that we really work for and celebrate excellence. Christians used to be the foremost scientists and artists and musicians and writers and doctors, etc., etc. The whole Protestant work ethic revolved around the idea that God has put each of us where we’re at–whether you work in a  fast food restaurant or you’re a stay at home mom or the president of a large corporation–and so faithfulness in our jobs is eternally significant.

No matter what you’re doing today, you can strive for excellence.

Literature

Bookshelf Tour: An Ever-Fixed Mark by Sabrina

Growing up, we moved regularly, so, when I was a child, books were my dear friends. Every year (usually around New Year’s), I would re-organize my bookshelf–make sure that all the books were alphabetical by author’s last name and grouped into series. We recently rearranged our book area. We had four bookshelves that were double-stacked in places, so we bought another one and sorted through out books to weed out any duplicates/unwanted. Sadly, we still need to buy a sixth bookshelf to finish our project. Re-organizing the books though was like going to a reunion of old friends. Some of those books I have read regularly since I was in elementary school. My husband was quite entertained listening to me wax eloquent over my various books.

I also (finally!) moved all my fan fiction bookmarks from my old phone to my new phone. I’d never read fan fiction prior to a year and a half ago, but I’ve found quite a few gems in that time. I had about 150 bookmarks I had to copy.

Anyway! It was so fun to go back through my books that I thought I’d take you on a tour of my bookshelf so I get to talk about them some more. 🙂

Today I’d like to talk about a story on my virtual bookshelf: An Ever-Fixed Mark by Sabrina. It’s a Pride & Prejudice fan fiction posted on Dwiggie.com. I like to start my year with Pride & Prejudice and even though I haven’t read the original yet, I did read this version again.

This short story takes Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 as its theme, particularly this well-known section:

Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
It is an ever fixed mark
Which looks on tempests and is never shaken.

Fan fiction takes a well-known story/characters and basically changes something and then writes out the results of those changes–sort of like throwing a rock in a pond and then taking a picture of the resultant ripples. The “rock” Sabrina chose to throw is that after Darcy’s disastrous proposal and subsequent letter to Elizabeth, Anne de Bourgh asks to speak with Darcy and gives him some solid advice about how he should propose to Elizabeth. It prompts him to think back over why exactly Elizabeth had rejected him and he realizes that it was his own fault. He repents of his pride (gotta love that about Darcy!). I will say that I think Sabrina speeds up his character shifts beyond what’s realistic, but at the same time, she keeps with the logical trajectory of his repentance and there have been times in my own life when something just hits me and I’m able to see things differently–so it’s at least plausible, even if the real battle is whether those character changes play out long-term. When Darcy finds Elizabeth distraught over his letter, he comforts her. They end up having a conversation about the nature of love, and it’s just beautiful.

Sabrina also addresses something that has gradually driven me nuts about P&P: Bingley’s lukewarm behavior. Now maybe you don’t think Bingley was lukewarm. Maybe you think the poor guy should get a pass because of his temperament or the situation he was in or whatever. I personally think Jane should have made things a little harder on him when he came back. He’d proven that he wasn’t his own man–he let other people run his life. I love that Pamela Aiden addresses this character flaw in her Fitzwilliam Darcy trilogy.

Yes, I do realize that it wouldn’t be realistic or politic for the timeframe if Jane had made Bingley work for her. Women were dependent on a good marriage to secure their livelihood–we clearly see this evidenced in Charlotte’s marriage to Mr. Collins (ugh!). But then, Austen contrasts Charlotte’s more practical approach with Elizabeth’s unwillingness to settle for a marriage of convenience. Jane and Bingley are kind of the middle ground. Jane is in love with Bingley, and Bingley is in love with Jane (supposedly). But their love isn’t tested the same way that Elizabeth and Darcy’s is. Maybe it really does come down to different personality types.

I had an interesting conversation about literature and personality type the other day. I gravitate towards strong female characters because that’s my personality type. But a friend of mine is turned off by those types because they grate on her personality type. It really emphasizes how genius Jane Austen was to be able to portray multiple personality types realistically and winsomely. I find myself writing the same personality type for my main characters (my own) because it’s easy for me to do so realistically. But Austen has a broad base of personality types.

Anyway! If you’re an Austen lover, An Ever-Fixed Mark is a treat to read and, as I said, deals with some really great themes about the nature of love. You can also check out Dwiggie.com for more great fan fics. It’s a fun genre to get into!

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The Importance of Drowning

I’m in love with stories that have lots and lots of angst lately. I don’t do well with any sort of violence, but I want my characters to suffer deep emotional stress. There’s something so therapeutic about writing/reading stories where the characters are stretched far beyond their capacity to function and then things still work out ok in the end. Basically, I want my characters to at some point be so overwhelmed that they aren’t quite sure how they are still breathing–but I need to know that there’s hope for that level of stress to still get resolved in the end. I love that quote from Sleepless in Seattle where Tom Hanks says: “Well, I’m gonna get out of bed every morning… breathe in and out all day long. Then, after a while I won’t have to remind myself to get out of bed every morning and breathe in and out…” I can’t tell you how many times it’s run through my head in the past year.

Anyway! Yesterday I was complaining to the Lord that I’m so tired of feeling in over my head. I’m tired of fighting to breathe. And I got this picture in my brain: drowning. Now, stay with me here. So, drowning involves (at least some of the time) being in over your head, right? Now, keep that in mind and I’ll  come back to it.

Because of my love of angst, I’ve felt the need to bleed on paper lately, so I’m tormenting some of my favorite characters (Lois & Clark) by writing a nice angst-ridden fanfic. I love the period right around when Lois almost marries Lex Luthor (“Barbarians at the Planet” & “House of Luthor”). Both her and Clark are pushed to the limit, and it sets in motion the beginnings of changes in both of them that are explored in later episodes. However, I’ve always been a bit dissatisfied because I felt like the writers of those episodes could have worked a lot more change in the characters. All that angst creates a great opportunity for people to re-evaluate their lives and their characters and then to change. Granted TV writers aren’t trying to wrap things up quickly so maybe they had good reason for dragging the whole thing out.

When I was thinking about drowning and how all the angst in my fanfic provides great opportunities for change, the picture expanded to include birth. I don’t know how much you know about birth, but I had issues with getting both my daughters well-positioned (highly recommend http://www.spinningbabies.com for that sort of thing!). Labor with a malpositioned baby is no fun for the baby or the mother. With my first daughter, she was malpositioned and then we went into the hospital and we were young and ignorant so when they said I needed to have my water broken for the safety of our child, we went along with it. Unfortunately, when they broke my water, my daughter was then wedged in. In the wrong position. On top of the umbilical cord. It was a quick way to an unnecessary C-section. See, the reality is that the amniotic sac and fluid are how the baby repositions itself to be in the best position for birth.

And here’s where drowning comes in. Being in over your head means that you are in plenty of water to be able to move around. Yes, it sucks. Yes, it feels wretched. Lord knows, I know it feels wretched. And yes, it means that you are 100% dependent on God to provide you with air. But my greatest fear is that I will get to the end of my life and I will have been stagnant–whether that means I’ve refused to change because I’m afraid of change or whether I simply become complacent or content with things I shouldn’t be content. Drowning means I have the opportunity to become someone else. I can make the 180 required in true repentance. Drowning actually gives me more space to maneuver. So from now on I’m going to work to re-phrase my thinking. Instead of asking myself how I’m supposed to keep breathing through all this or telling God how much I feel like I’m drowning, I’m going to remind myself that I’m being birthed. Instead of fighting against all that movement, I’m going to remind myself to be open to getting well-positioned.

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More Adjustments

Well, so the benefit of doing blogging this way is that I have no idea what I’m going to talk about before I actually start talking about it. Hope you enjoy a more conversational style 😉

In case you haven’t noticed, there are a few things I’m kinda obsessed with. I have been called nerdy a few times in my life. I love Star Trek (TNG is my fav; not much of a fan of TOS, but I do love the new movies–yes, I know that makes me a heretic). I’ve read more than half of the Lois & Clark fan fiction archive. We watch Speed Racer (the movie) whenever we spend too much time with family and need reminded that faithfulness is key to changing the world, rather than running after any certain careers. I read David Eddings’ Belgariad/the Malloreon whenever I need to remind myself that following God is the short-cut to getting wherever is best for me, even when it feels like getting lost. And I can’t tell you how many days it feels like getting lost. I read Penelope Wilcox’s The Hawk and the Dove when I feel like my brokenness is a hinderance to God’s ability to use me–that maybe by virtue of my absolutely destroyed physical health and sometimes precarious emotional health, I’m unusable, the days when I start feeling sorry for my kids because they have such a sick mom, that kind of thing. I’ve read/watched more versions of Cinderella than I can remember–excited for Disney’s new version! Since it came out, I’ve been reading Rowlings’ Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows every year around Easter. And this year I celebrate reading Pride & Prejudice at least once a year for twenty years (woohoo!!). I do so love that book. We named our daughter after Jane Austen and Jane Bennet. Someone recently asked me how many books I read more than once and I didn’t really have an answer for that. As I’ve mentioned, books are part of my soul adjustment. I don’t think I could breathe without stories to remind me of what’s true–not that I’m saying that the Bible isn’t more important because obviously it is.

So since it’s New Year’s and time for Pride & Prejudice, I’ve started reading Pride & Prejudice fan fiction (in addition to reading Pamela Aidan’s fabulous Fitzwilliam Darcy Trilogy). I’ve been reading a lot of fan fiction the past 7 months–basically since I got sick in July. It’s amazing how being too sick to function opens up lots of reading time. Anyway! I have read so many terribly written stories that there have been days when I literally have wished I could take my brain out of my skull and wash it. It terrifies me when I realize some of these people actually thought their writing was edited enough to post on the internet for all to read–mostly because I’m scared that my writing is really that bad, but no one has the heart to tell me 😉 (ps–that wasn’t fishing for compliments, just sharing) Today, however, I read a version of P&P that I fell in love with called A Rush of Blackbirds. I could probably happily talk about character development for hours, so I’ll try to keep this short. Basically, the thing I loved about this version is that the author pushed Lizzie until she broke. It could be where I’m at in my life, but I am in love with stories that have lots and lots of angst. There’s something so satisfying about reading/writing a story where people are pushed far beyond their coping capacity and then somehow by the end, things work out ok.

In case you’re not familiar with the concept of fan faction, the author takes well-known characters/stories and basically changes something and then writes about how that change affects the rest of the story or sometimes they write the further adventures of the character. In this version of P&P, the author had Darcy get injured just before Bingley and co. were going to leave Netherfield, which meant that they all ended up staying. Darcy gets over his pride quite a bit earlier in the story. Elizabeth recognizes her own attraction to Darcy quite a bit earlier. I’ve never really spent a lot of time thinking about Elizabeth’s home situation, which is odd given how much my own family has played into my issues and how much Darcy throws her family in her face. This author talked about how traumatic it must have been for Elizabeth to have her father be so checked out, and yet how torn she was because she was his favorite. How hard it was for her to have her mother constantly put her down… for her mother to tell her she’d ruined the family by refusing Mr. Collins. How much she missed Jane, especially when she had some angst in her life and no one to turn to. And how even strong personalities reach a breaking point and need love to heal. It was beautiful.