Fifty-Six Stories

THIS EVENT STARTS ON MONDAY, 21st MARCH, 2011

Kent Nelson took only two English courses as an undergraduate at Yale University, where he was majoring in political science, but one of these was crucial to his eventual decision to make a career out of writing. In a class called “Daily Themes,” the students had to write 300-word stories every day for eight weeks, and it was this process, he noted in a 1992 interview, that taught him some crucial things about writing: “It gradually dawned on me that to write fiction you had to know everything. You had to listen to the way people talked, you had to observe how they acted, you had to study the environment. That was a powerful revelation to me. Twenty-four hours, a day you’re paying attention to everything you can pay attention to with the intention of learning from it. You have to train yourself.” – Literature and the Environment, a Reader on Nature and Culture by Lorraine Anderson, Scott Slovic, and John P. O’Grady

I have challenged myself to this, and now I am resolved to do it.  Some of these little stories I write may be horrible, some might be good.  The point is not whether they are good, but whether this process is teaching me anything.  Of course I hope I shall be able to do it well, but the main thing is discipline, that’s what it is.  It’s training myself to be steady, to take everything I notice and turn it into a story.  Beatrix Potter, Kenneth Grahame, Arthur Ransome, and countless others took in the food of their natural surroundings, the places they loved, and turned them into stories.

Another thing is important.  I must not write about things I know nothing of, or things I am not interested in.  I must not write merely to meet my challenge.  I must force myself to imagine, train myself to notice, discipline myself to love what should be loved.  That is what is at the root of this whole practice.

Fifty-Six Stories, one 300-word story every day for eight weeks.

Of course all writers should do this.  But I would also encourage non-writers to do this too.  Take time out of your day.  An hour, maybe, in the morning or in the evening, it doesn’t matter.  Think quietly for a few moments, and then take up your pen.  Make your plot minuscule, but your moral broad.

It does matter whether you are young or old, single or married, a student or a working person; this can apply to anyone.  It is three hundred words.  Some of you might have trouble.  Some of you might not.  The words might be stuck in your brain, or they might flow easily from your mind through your fingers, like a clear stroke of paint.  It doesn’t matter who you are or what your capabilities are.  You can train yourself.

I have a friend who challenged me to write 1,000 words a day for my novel.  When I complained to her she said: “Well, let’s do a detox.  What are you having trouble with?”  She made me dig down to the root of the issue, which was that I didn’t feel like writing, and the inspiration was dead.  But she told me to go on, and I did.

You must pursue it.  If you lie on your couch all day with a pen waiting for it to come, you will probably never get anything written.  Life must be studied in order for writing to be pursued, and both these things require thinking.

Remember that Kent Nelson did not begin as a writer, but he became one through practice and determination.

Click on the following link to read my eight weeks of stories.  Fifty-Six Stories

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Tea With Lewis and Chesterton… and Alice

I can just picture it.  Lewis and Chesterton are having tea, talking about the impossibility of the reality the world is talking about, and the probability of greater morals existing in other worlds.  They both turn, Chesterton has a marmelade roll Lewis has brought with him halfway to his mouth.  Lewis’s teacup is suspended three inches above the saucer.  Both of them smile at the little blonde-haired girl next to them.  “What do you think, Alice? Do you think everything in Wonderland is impossible?”  And Alice probably said no, she didn’t.

And Chesterton would smile approvingly and continue complimenting Lewis on the “excellent marmelade,” and Lewis would nod and smile and begin observing how the world would be much better off if all little children were like Alice.

Reality.  The word used to hit me in the face.  I used to think of something covering up or tinting my passion for beauty.  When I thought of the stars, or flowers, or mountains, or love I got excited… My imagination felt alive.  I felt alive.  But then the word came—reality—and I felt guilty for thinking of those things.  It seemed as though reality was something that covered up the stars… something that made love seem “idealistic”… unreal…  Impossible—something people only dreamed of.  To me, reality seemed like finishing highschool at seventeen or eighteen. Going to college for 4+ years. Pursuing a career.  Maybe getting married between 27 and 35.  Maybe have a kid.  Maybe two.

Then I had a realization.  I suppose that means I came to terms with reality.  Reality is now my friend.  Facts and reality coincide… to an extent.  I see the flowers.  I can touch them, feel them, smell them.  There are flowers—that, in fact, is reality.  Reality isn’t something blurring the stars… it is the stars.  As for love, it’s the most realistic thing I can think of.  I was quite wrong in thinking there is no beauty in reality.  You could say that reality is beautiful, or that Beauty is reality, for there is a God.  Or it might be better to say that God is.  That is reality, because that is a fact. I was reading C.S. Lewis’s book Mere Christianity and I was struck by something he said towards the beginning.  Before now, I had never really thought about the existence of God being a fact. I thought that because not everyone believes in God, it couldn’t be a fact.  If I had thought seriously about this, I would have slapped myself very hard for that philosophy.  If I didn’t believe in God—why, my life would be the unrealistic one.

“If the universe was really without meaning, we should have never found that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe, and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should have never known it was dark. Darkwould be a word without meaning.” Further back he says: “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got the idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be a part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it?” [Mere Christianity, book 2 chapter 1.]

It is so interesting to read how Lewis himself sees and describes how, when he was an Atheist, in the very act of proving that there is no God, he was proving that there is a God.  (I love reading Lewis—Mere Christianity is brilliant, and he’s really a fantastic writer.  When I read his fiction, I feel like I’m sitting right next to him, and he’s telling the story.  When I read his apologetics, I feel as though I am standing right there, arguing in a friendly way with him.)

Is reality, in fact, something cold and hard that you land on when you’re head is in the clouds?  Is the logician right when he says Wonderland is irrational and senseless?  It’s not just wonderland.  When I use this word, I am referring to any fantasie. (As opposed to fantasy—spelled with a y.)

Fantasie means more than Twilight or Harry Potter. (Sorry to any fans out there.)  It refers the beauty of mind and soul… the world in our subconscious, all things beautiful and imagined.  Things are only impossible when they cannot be imagined.  All possibility is contained within imagination.

If a child actually wondered if the moon were made of cheese, is it really impossible?  Perhaps the logician would say: “Yes, it is; cheese is made from curds.  It goes through a certain process, and it is impossible that there could be enough cows even in the world to make enough cheese to fill a moon.”  But the child has already had the idea.  The idea has become a possibility.  There is a certain amount of logic that must be combined in the imagination.  For instance, as soon as the possibility has been birthed with the idea, one must find out if the possibility is real.  For all we know, God might have made the moon out of cheese.  And he still could.  And once you admit that, you denounce the word “impossible.”

I have never seen a blue talking and smoking caterpillar.  I have never seen the Jabberwocky.  But because I have never seen them I can’t say that they don’t exist.  It simply hasn’t been proved to me that they don’t.

If there is a law that pick-pockets shall go to prison, it implies that there is an imaginable mental connection between the idea of prison and the idea of picking pockets. And we know what the idea is. We can say why we take liberty from a man who takes liberties. But we cannot say why an egg can turn into a chicken any more than we can say why a bear could turn into a fairy prince.  As ideas, the egg and the chicken are further off from each other than the bear and the prince; for no egg in itself suggests a chicken, whereas some princes do suggest bears.  Granted, then, that certain transformations do happen, it is essential that we should regard them in the philosophic manner of fairy tales, not in the unphilosophic manner of science and the “Laws of Nature.” When we are asked why eggs turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn, we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer if Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o’clock. We must answer that it is magic. It is not a “law,” for we do not understand its general formula.  It is not a necessity, for though we can count on it happening practically, we have no right to say that it must always happen… We risk the remote possibility of a miracle as we do that of a poisoned pancake or a world-destroying comet.  We leave it out of account, not because it is a miracle, and therefore an impossibility, but because it is a miracle, and therefore an exception. All the terms used in the science books, “law,” “necessity,” “order,” “tendency,” and so on, are really untinellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, “charm,” “spell,” “enchantment.” They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched.  The sun shines because it is bewitched. – G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter IV

I had to try very hard not to type out the whole book just now. I think he has a point.  In his book Orthodoxy, Chesterton cleverly combines logic and fantasie in a wonderful way.  He makes fantasie a reality, and reality a fantasie.  Is there anything blasphemous about saying a tree grows because it is magic?  No, there is not.  Because a tree does not grow by any law or power of our own.  It grows by a supernatural power, something altogether outside of our understanding.

So why should the world of dreams and imagination and idealism be praised?

There is a flow to history and culture. This flow is rooted and has its wellspring in the thoughts of people. People are unique in the inner life of the mind —what they are in their thought world determines how they act.  This is true of their value systems and it is true of their creativity. It is true of their corporate actions, such as political decisions, and it is true of their personal lives. The results of their thought world flow through their fingers or from their tongues into the external world. This is true of Michelangelo’s chisel, and it is true of a dictator’s sword. – Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? Chapter I.

Because it determines how we live.  It is not only the imaginative person who has a thought world.  Even the mathematician (I am very unjust towards mathematicians) has a thought world.  Even in his logical mind there are thoughts that determine his actions.  I’m sure even he has had dreams at night about yellow rabbits eating chinese takeouts. (Sorry – bit tired here.) But at any rate, think of what the world would be like if everybody was a logician.  We would all be the same.  Where’s the fun in that?  What if everybody was an idealist? Everybody would be the same – still no fun.  And note – idealist here does not mean Sir-Thomas-More-Utopia-Idealism.  Or Avatar, for that matter.

Napoleon Bonaparte had dreams.  Most people would have called him idealistic, but he almost succeeded in becoming the emperor of the world. He almost made his dream a reality.  The world was thrown into chaos because of one man.  His dreams, his thoughts, his idealism helped shape the world.

Fairy tales might be the most realistic thing on earth. Why? Because a true fairy tale always has a knight-in-shining-armor, always a damsel in distress, always a dragon or evil witch or king of some sort.  Why is this realistic?  Because Christ is the knight-in-shining armor, the Church is the damsel in distress, and the dragon is the devil.  The consequence of the dragon is the judgement that’s inevitable unless a savior comes to save her from the thing she cannot save herself from.  That is why fairy tales are realistic. And if they are, reality is no longer a stone wall you walk into when you think you’re walking on clouds.

Makes me think of love.  Is love idealistic? Yes, because it ought to be.  Idealistic because true love is perfect.  The love on this earth that is exchanged between people is warped and shadowed by sin.  Yet, in marriage vows you will hear the phrase: “Love her as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”  Perhaps our view on love is a bit irrational.  Love itself is not a fraud; it is the idea that depraved humans came up with and accompany love with that is a fraud.   If you read Ezekiel 16 you will see that love is not about obsessing over someone, or even saying: “I love you.”  It’s a sacrifice.  It’s a sacrifice of life, on the part of a perfect person, for a person who’s wronged again and again.  Love is a covenant.  And a covenant is more holy and sacred and beautiful than any kiss in the moonlight.

Lots of rabbit trails here.  Where were we?

If J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were such great thinkers, then why did they write fantasie?  If G.K. Chesterton was such a great writer and thinker, why did he uphold fairy tales?  Because fantasie reflects the world we live in today.  There might not be a Jabberwocky, but there is a president Obama. (Okay, sorry.)  You might not find someone by the name of Sauron here but you will find someone very, very similar.  That great Being who created middle-earth and spun melodies out of the stars, Iluvatar, might not be found by that name here, but you will find Him, certainly, if you search for him.

Idealism is not something to be scorned.  It is something to be admired.  The pursuit of perfection exists, though perhaps that pursuit ends in heaven, when we are fully sanctified.  Reality is beautiful, and idealism is beautiful.  But you cannot have one without the other in order for them to be beautiful. Idealism, as we understand it, becomes foppish and empty.  Realism, the logician’s world, without idealism, because hard and empty.  There must be a perfect blend.

To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits. – Orthodoxy, chapter II.

Belief must come without explanation.  If Christianity could be understood, there would be no reason to believe.  The whole point of belief is that you must put your faith in something you are absolutely certain of, but that is not fully explained.  Because Christianity isn’t.  There is a degree of mystery, a depth of understanding that is beyond our human comprehension.  If I understood that, they would have to add a fourth person to the Trinity.

That is why it is a hundred times easier for a child—who still maintains the child-like imagination and simple faith— to believe that God created the earth out of nothing than for the scientist.  Yet how beautiful it is when the scientist, logician, and mathematician all lay aside their stuff about laws and impossibilities and believe with the same child-like faith this truth.

So why do I like Alice in Wonderland? Book and movie? Because the idea of something different – of oversized mushrooms and flowers with faces, of smoking caterpillars and mad March hares and a mad hatter – appeals to me.

Even in the physical appearance of the story, the colors and shapes provide such an artistic picture that’s different from things you see in this earth.  It astonishes me, yet it’s not surprising.  I love it, and who can say it’s impossible? I saw it – just the other night.  And I’ve read about it numerous times.  I can’t really get in my car and go there, but I can draw up mental images.  In my thought world I have already made friends with the March Hare (who is one of my favorite characters.) And our relationship is one of the quirkiest, oddest things you’ve ever seen.

I also maintain that dead people are the most interesting ones to talk to.  I would also say that while people alive on this earth are walking around and doing things, dead people understand everything and have a greater level of brilliance because they are dead.  I am jealous of them, because they have seen, as soon as they are dead, the whole value of living.  They know where they are right, and where they are wrong.

I wonder – would Chesterton, now that he is dead, still hold to everything he said in Orthodoxy?  Would Lewis wish The Chronicles of Narnia unpublished?  Would J.R.R. Tolkien still think about Lord of the Rings as though that world actually existed in some form?  Well, I would hope that they would, because I think that they’re absolutely right.

Anne of Green Gables: Imagination versus Sense

Hello :)

I was quietly reading a book when I realized I hadn’t written my thoughts about the first Anne of Green Gables books. Well! I’m determined to fulfill this adventure I’ve taken myself on, and I’ll try to do so thoroughly.

I really think that L.M. Montgomery reveled and thrived on the sentimentalities of Tennyson and other poets and authors from that time period.  And perhaps I’m imagining all this up, but I think she ran into a difficulty: that style of writing was a bit antiquated.  It wasn’t how the authors of her day wrote… if she wrote a book that contained all the sentiments she thought up in her head—a story that had love, betrayal, loss, heartbreak etc—portrayed in the romantic and dramatic way she imagined, she may have been laughed into fame.

But I also think L.M. Montgomery was a very sensible person.  I think she was bright, imaginative, witty, dreamy, bursting to the brim with ideas but she had tons of sense.  Otherwise, how could she have created such a sensible, practical person as Marilla?

She still loved her romantic ideas.  It would have been the most heart-wrenching, tragic scene to let them go.  So here’s what she did.  She created a figure who was like herself in every way (omitting most of the sense at first) full of dreamy ideas, and floating on the wings of the romance of everything beautiful.  She created a character with a dreadful imagination… someone who could say the most beautiful sentimental phrases, and yet get away with it.  How? Because of Marilla.  She is the character that makes this book possible, and even beloved.  Anne is seen as somewhat nonsensical because of the sensible Marilla.  And yet, because of Marilla, we cannot totally laugh at Anne.  Because we see the sense in Anne, too; though Marilla constantly laughs at Anne’s drama (i.e. “Please go away, Marilla! I’m in the Depths of Despair”), and scolds her sentimentality, an appeal is made to her heart by Anne’s warm, vibrant imagination, and Marilla’s “rusty smile” comes into use again.

I was almost astounded by the contrast I found in Anne and Marilla.  I found Anne perfectly delightful, but if L.M. Montgomery had been absolutely serious about her, if she had brought the point across that this is indeed how human nature should be, I would have laughed my way through the book and declared it positively silly.

Here we have two extremes… Anne, and Marilla.  We see the sense and nonsense in each one.  They balance each other out.  Through Anne, Marilla’s stony heart feels something.  Through Marilla, Anne’s wild imagination and nonsense has some sense pounded into it.  By the end of the book, both Marilla and Anne have turned out wonderfully.

How did this influence me?  I don’t think it’s quite sunk in yet.  But I’ve realized the importance of these two things: imagination, and sense.  The ability to dream, and the ability to dream realistically.  That word “realistically” seems to cancel out “dream.”  But I am an optimist and a realist, and I believe that dreams are a part of reality.  Our dreams, our thought world is what shapes who we are, and how we act.  How we act affects the world, what affects the world affects history, affects reality.

Gilbert Blythe is a ready topic for me.  His relationship (or non relationship) with Anne is one of the most delightful things to read about.  It says quite clearly that “Anne ignored his existence, and Gilbert was not used to being ignored.”  Maybe it was this spirited red-headed girl who finally showed him that there were other things in the world for her besides boys.  Her cold-hearted disdain for him after he called her “carrots” is something to laugh at, and sigh over. To tell you the truth, I would not be able to resist him for that long.  I’ve always loved Gilbert.   He plays pranks on all the girls, teases them, imagines they all love him in spite of it, yet he shows diligence and determination in studying and working hard.  It’s something wonderful!

My favorite line in all these pages of Anne of Green Gables is this:

[It’s right after Anne finally forgives him, and apologizes for past wrongs, and agrees to be friends with him.]

“We are going to be the best of friends,” said Gilbert, jubilantly. “We were born to be good friends, Anne. You’ve thwarted destiny long enough. I know we can help each other in many ways. You are going to keep up your studies, aren’t you?  So’m I. Come, I’m going to walk home with you.”

EEEEEP! I love this!  I practically died when I read it, I was bursting and brimming with joy and laughter.

I was also struck by how many times Anne exclaimed: “O! What a glorious morning! Doesn’t it just make you glad to be alive on mornings like this?”  Too, too often to we get up and rampage our mornings.  How lovely it would be to stop and soak in the beauty of God’s mercy in another day!

I honestly cannot wait till Hayley writes her thoughts! she hasn’t yet, but I will keep you posted! — Head in the Clouds