Saturday, February 17, 2018

Black Panther is the Hero We Need (Minimal Spoilers)

I saw Black Panther yesterday and I can't get it out of my head. It's so good!

I'm learning the art of language and story, which I love by the way, but it means that I see the structure of stories more readily than I used to. Most movies I come across I can appreciate or even enjoy, but the whole time I'm picking it apart, vivisecting it to see how it works. That means I rarely love a movie anymore (or a book or a TV show). I think it's a danger of my craft that the better I get at understanding and telling stories the harder it will be for me to get lost in them (and I'm okay with that). But it also means that when something does come along and grab me, pushing aside all the scaffolding of my analytical cynicism, it is a joy to be savored.

Black Panther was that kind of rare joy for me. Here's what I wrote in my journal about it (and it might be the first movie to show up in my journaling, ever):
That movie was amazing, fun sure, but important and powerful. To see a black man celebrated as a kind and just warrior-king unflinchingly juxtaposed with the global and historical oppression and exploitation of Africa and her children by rapacious "colonizers" was sobering yet hopeful. They did not hold back on the evils the hero had to face, and he showed himself, and all people--especially black people--more than up to the challenge of facing down evil and winning. I openly wept at the end when the black boy looked up at T'Challa with admiration and respect. That was me seeing Superman as a kid and spending weeks jumping off the third step of my front porch into the lawn and pretending to fly, like I was him.
This movie isn't for me. It's not about me. And that's what makes it so beautiful to me. That's why I wept. I found that place in me that rang like a bell when Christopher Reeve saved the day. It was the place of hope. And Black Panther gave me a different experience of that same place in me. I felt that bell of hope ringing all around me, in young black boys and girls, men and women.

Black Panther poses a difficult question, as great art often does, and asks people of African descent all around the world: What would you do if your past didn't bear the scars of colonialism and slavery? What would you do if you were suddenly superior to those who presume they are superior to you? What would you do if the power structures of the world were turned upside down?

And the answer that King T'Challa comes up with is, as I said, kind and just. He fights evil, make no mistake about that, but not some moustache-twirling, criminally insane, megalomaniacal cartoon who is evil for the sake of being evil. No, he fights the evil of returning hate for hate. He fights the evil of unjust retribution. He fights the evil of his father's choices bearing fruit in his generation. And he does so with compassion, understanding, and always the offer of mercy.

For me Black Panther went beyond the bones of Blake Snyder and predictable, if entertaining stories that are visually pleasing (I'm looking at you J.J.). It went beyond the muscle and sinew of Robert McKee and the appreciation of the form of a story. It even went beyond Joseph Campbell and resonant archetypes recalling past stories. Black Panther is a modern myth in its own right. A beautifully constructed and formed story, fleshed out with fantastically written and acted characters, covered in the garb of the myths that resonate in all cultures, and given voice through the varied expressions of African culture and its diaspora.

I'm so glad that Black Panther wasn't made for me! 

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

You Shouldn't Buy My Book (and I don't like Stranger Things)

There are two things I'm not supposed to say today: 1) I don't like Stranger Things, and 2) You shouldn't buy my book The Exiled Monk


The Netflix show Stranger Things is incredibly popular right now. My social media feeds are filling up with praise and delight for the show. But I don't really like it. I'm not supposed to say that, though. It's unpopular to have an unpopular opinion. I'm supposed to like what other people in my friend-group like. And if I don't then I'm clearly wrong. Too many people like it for it to be bad so I must be wrong for not liking it. Right?

Or so the logic goes. For some reason (about which I have some theories) we've decided that there should be one objective preference that everyone must abide by. I know it helps us to create groups of like-minded people. I know it helps us to know, in general, if we'll like other things that the people in our group like. I know that it feels good to enjoy the same things as other people. But it also feels terrible to be on the outside looking in when the conditions for inclusion are whether or not you prefer a certain show or movie or book (also I've never read Harry Potter).

And that's why you shouldn't buy my book. Or rather it's the very reason I don't want you to buy my book. I don't want you to buy The Exiled Monk because you know me. I don't want you to read it because you think it'll make me happy. I especially don't want you to review it positively because of that. What I want for you is what I want for me: the freedom to choose what we prefer and to like what we like.

On paper I should like Stranger Things. I fit all of the demographic markers for someone who should love the show. I grew up in the 1980s as a geeky kid who was way more into books and video games than sports and girls. I'm still into a lot of geeky stuff (I subscribe to YouTube channels about astrophysics and forging fantasy weapons). I like a lot of the same things that overlap with Stranger Things, but I don't like the show. It's okay. It's not bad. I just don't like it. And that's okay!

Both the creation of art and the enjoyment of it are intensely personal experiences. To try to normalize them across a group or to use the enjoyment of a particular piece of art as an identity marker is to miss the uniqueness of each piece of art and every person's appreciation of it.

I really want you to love The Exiled Monk as much as I do. It's precious to me. But it's also a piece of art. It might not resonate with you. That's okay. I won't be offended.

I would be offended if you pretended to like it. If you told me it was good but really thought it was boring. Please don't do that. You don't have to like it to like me, or even to like my writing. I'll write something different next (because I can't seem to help myself). You can come back to see if that works for you. The Exiled Monk is nothing like Like Mind which are both nothing like the project I'm working on right now (hint: Tinker Bell meets Fight Club). 

But if you do like it (*squee*)... Well, that would make me exceedingly happy (*jumping-up-and-down*). I wrote this story because I love it, but I published it because I think that it might be something you could love too. If you do, please let me know. Let others know by leaving a review. They might love it too. Or they might not, and that's okay.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Atop a Mountain

As I met the story that was born in Ireland, and as I imagined the world that story inhabited, I found myself going again and again to the thin places where the barrier between the world of the known and the world of the unknown cannot quite keep the two separate. The thinnest place I found--that I have ever found--was atop a mountain rising from the sea. 

After having climbed the steps of Skellig Michael.
I had decided to go to Skellig Michael during our time touring Ireland after we were done farming (a tourist visa is only 90 days long so we only stayed through the summer). We rented a car and drove through the southwest of Ireland, stopping in the town of Portmagee where we could see both of the Skelligs in the distance (Lesser Skellig is an uninhabitable rock and protected bird sanctuary). We boarded a boat and took the seven mile trip to Skellig Michael. There we climbed over 600 stone steps, laid without mortar, to the top of the rocky islet where a few monks had built a monastery fourteen centuries ago.  

At its height the monastery probably had no more than a dozen people living there. They dwelled in dry-stone huts that were built up in concentric rings. They gardened and fished to support themselves, but with the rest of their time they studied, prayed, and copied down the texts that caused Thomas Cahill to suggest that the Irish monks saved Western Civilization

The graveyard at Skellig Michael. 
For me this was a coming home of sorts. If they would have let me I would have stayed there on the island, but the tour allots only about two-and-a-half hours for the entire experience. In many ways this was where my heart and my head began to reunite. This was the evidence of people who had done what I was trying to do. They chose to camp out in the thin places, to befriend them, and to make a way for others to experience them. 

From the top of a mountain or an island you can see far. It is possible to pick a point in the distance and set yourself towards it. But while the mountain can give you the vision to see where you want to go, it cannot show you how to get there. I had experienced the thin places and I knew, from the top of that mountain, that I wanted to share that with others, and even now I'm still not entirely sure how to get there. But for me The Exiled Monk is a part of that journey. 

I didn't know, standing there amidst the gravestones, that I would write The Exiled Monk or that I would try to make a living writing fiction (I was going next to interview to be a preacher on a different island, Maui). I didn't know that working to start a new church with friends would lead to heartbreak as cancer took my friend and scarred my community. I didn't know that instead of starting churches I would walk with them through the process of closing. I didn't know that grieving for my lost friend, my lost community, and my lost career would lead me to a place of knowing myself. 

I often recall standing atop Skellig Michael, smelling the sweet and acrid scent of sea air and sea birds, hearing the distant crashing of waves and the immediate rush of wind, and looking out over the steel-blue water. I was overjoyed to see that island again in the most unlikely place, at the end of Star Wars: The Force Awakens where Luke had been hiding and awaiting Rey. I wanted to be Luke Skywalker growing up and in that moment I wanted to be him again, standing alone on a windswept rock, being in a thin place, wrestling with the certainty that I've been taught and the doubts I live with daily. 

I love The Exiled Monk and I'm terrified. I'm so scared that what I love will be hated, despised, or worse still ignored. I'm afraid that my journey of grief and joy, excitement and pain, certainty and doubt, won't matter. I fear sharing with you how important this book is to me. But not as much as I fear what it would do to me if I didn't. 

The Exiled Monk is a story about coming of age, it's about magic and romance, danger and desperate plans, about leaving behind the old to enter into a new and larger world. It's about all of those things to be sure. But it's also about what I saw from that thin place on top of Skellig Michael, the far off vision where I set my sights. It is a place of courage and wholeness, where thought and emotion are commingled, where vulnerability is strength, and where hope is the only way to face fear. I have to honor the story by living it out. I'm scared to share this with you because it is my heart, but I must and for exactly the same reason. 

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Thin Places

Writing The Exiled Monk took years, not because it was a difficult task to put down words on paper, but because it required me to go to the thin places, where the spirit-realm touches and even intrudes into our own. The Celtic Christians identified these places as holy, that is they were set apart for that purpose. I had to find my own thin places to understand what I was writing about as Peek found the listening places described in the book. 

During our time in Ireland where I began writing professionally and had my first images of the story that would become The Exiled Monk run through my mind, I learned how to meditate. 

Our host in Ireland, in addition to having a farm with horses, chickens, and a donkey, also taught meditation classes. She invited us to join the classes where she led students through both guided and free meditation times. I hadn't spent much time meditating before. A few church retreats had some meditation exercises, and I experimented on my own some, but I hadn't ever spent so much time in focused meditation. Learning how to sit with my thoughts was important, vital even, but I also learned how to listen beyond myself. 

Quick aside, I grew up in a Christian tradition that is highly focused on logic. I heard, on multiple occasions, that I shouldn't trust my feelings because they may have been caused by a spicy burrito as readily as by spiritual forces. Emotions were seen as fallible, weak, and suspect. The idea that God might try to speak to any of us through the Spirit (apart from the bible) was seen as heresy. My head-heart disconnection was due, in no small part, to the fruit of this philosophy. But in Ireland I began learning the strength of emotions, the voice of the Spirit, and the power of the thin places. 

I share this because it's a part of my story and that means it's a part of The Exiled Monk, but please don't take this to mean that the book is an attempt at proselytizing or converting anyone to my way of thinking about faith. It's quite the opposite of that, in fact. 

During my time in Ireland I met a woman whom I helped with some chores. As we were talking about how I came to Ireland I shared about my education and faith. It's often awkward when I share that I'm a pastor, and it was more so in Ireland where many people have strong feelings about the Catholic Church and the abuses that it covered up for many years. I wanted to explain briefly how I was different than a Catholic priest so I said, "I teach people to read the bible for themselves and come to their own conclusions." She laughed and laughed and laughed at that. When she saw our host again she told it like it was a joke: "Hey, read the bible and figure it out for yourself! Look at me, I'm a pastor!"

Her joking was good-natured, but it shows how odd it can be when a religious leader doesn't demand other people agree. A part of what I learned through meditating and visiting the thin places in Ireland was that faith--real belief--can't be taught it has to be experienced. In writing about religion in The Exiled Monk I wanted to make sure it wasn't a Chronicles of Narnia type allegory for Christianity. I spent time inventing a religion that draws on elements of Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and natural spiritual religions because I don't want to try to tell you what to believe through a story. Instead I want to tell a story about someone who is trying to figure out what they believe and why. 

We each have to come to our own conclusions about the thin places. Some of us might find wholly rational and physical explanations, others might engage in mysticism, others still might learn religious practice, and, if you're like me, you'll walk a path that's all of the above and more as you see the strengths and weaknesses in all of those approaches to life. In many ways The Exiled Monk is a story about what it's like when everyone else thinks they know the right path for you, and the work it takes to learn what path to walk for yourself. 

More on the path I walked and how I'm grateful for where I'm from in a later post. 

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The First Thought (of Many)

My novel, The Exiled Monk, was born on a farm in Ireland in the summer of 2010, but it still had a long way to go, and so did I.

The entrance to Wickle Cottage, Innishannon, Co Cork, Ireland.
My wife and I would work on the farm during the day and I would write articles in the evening to make a little money for us to go places on the weekends and to save up for a tour at the end of our summer. Most of the time things worked well, but occasionally I would need to go into town to get some more focused writing done. So I would leave Wickle Cottage and walk down the hedge-lined lane to get into the small village of Innishannon. There I could get a cup of coffee and some wifi at the Found Out Cafe, along with some distraction-free writing time.

We knew we weren't going to be able to do everything we wanted to do while we were in Ireland, so we started to prioritize and, very quickly, the UNESCO World Heritage Site on Skellig Michael, rose to the top of the list. It's a 6th century monastery on a remote island in the Atlantic where the Celtic monks would copy and preserve not only biblical texts but also the great artistic and philosophical works that would connect Renaissance Europe to the Classical ages of Greece and Rome.

The main street of Innishannon village on a fair summer's day. 
I got to thinking about what it must have been like to brave the ocean and the unknown to go to that remote island. While walking between the hedges my mind wandered to the fate of a boy who paddled himself out, away from everything he'd ever known, in the hopes that what he would find on the island would be worth the risk. I got lost in a story in my mind. It was like daydreaming, but not about something I might do or had done. I was immersed in my imagination of that boy's experience, his fear, his determination, his exhaustion, and his unyielding hope.

While the story was born out of my growing need to reconnect my head and my heart after studying in seminary, The Exiled Monk really began to take shape as a narrative when I met that boy and began to wonder why he was paddling to an island on the horizon. What was he fleeing? What was he drawn towards? Why?

Those questions would beget questions of their own as I struggled to understand the gargantuan task of writing a novel. I sought to place that boy and those questions in a context that I'm familiar with and have loved since I was a boy: fantasy fiction.

In my very first iteration this nameless boy was sent by the monks on the island to meditate in a cave. In his meditation he found a magic that turned the cave from dark stone to translucent quartz and awoke from his meditative trance to see the sun shining through the rock around him. That scene barely survived (in a drastically altered form) to make it into the book, but for me it was the first thought that this boy and this journey might be a story that I could write, a world I could reveal, a novel lurking within me waiting to come out.

What has remained, both in The Exiled Monk and in my life, is the connection with that boy who would leave behind the familiar, the normal, the safe, and go out into the unknown until finding that point (in actuality the many, many points) where it feels too difficult, too far, too much, too overwhelming, but going back isn't an option. In the novel Peek repeatedly faces moments where there's no way home, there's no way to make things like they were, there's no way to undo what has been done, so the only way out is through. The only way to go is forward. That feeling has characterized so much of my life over the past seven years, especially my writing life.

I have wanted to give up more times than I could count. But each time I have felt too committed to turn around, too invested to give up, and so I persevered. I don't know how many times I thought I was too stubborn for my own good or wondered quietly if I would fail so miserably that it would have been better to have never started to begin with. When I started writing it was euphoric, I was embarking on a new adventure. But as I struggled to wrap up the narrative, as I struggled to incorporate feedback, as I struggled to rewrite the story completely, as I struggled to understand the magic and religion in the world, as I struggled to fund the Kickstarter (and as the first one failed), as I struggled to fulfill the Kickstarter, as I struggled to learn the writing industry, as I struggled to build an audience, as I struggled to not feel like a fraud, failure, fake for not doing everything without struggle, I would look back over my shoulder to see how far I'd already come before turning again into the struggle and giving myself to it.

It started with the thought of a boy paddling out to an island as I walked into the village wondering if I could write enough to pay for the trip to that island (spoiler: I did and I'll tell you about it next).

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Birth of a Story

I started writing professionally while living in Ireland seven years ago. My wife and I were WWOOFing and needed some sort of income. I found a place to write how-to articles online that would pay me for it. So after spending the day working on the farm I would spend the evening writing articles about whatever I could explain quickly enough to make it worth the pay. It was good work, especially in its flexibility, but it also created a growing need in me to do more with my words. How-to articles are an okay way to make some money, but they don't do much to scratch the creative itch.

I had tried NaNoWriMo the year before (let us never speak of that manuscript again), but there was something missing in my writing. I didn't know what it was (in many ways I'm still learning). But on the nineteenth day of June I began to discern what it was. I had lost the way from my head to my heart. I wasn't reading for pleasure. My thoughts weren't connected to my passions. Something was broken, I realized, and needed to be mended.

Reading for pleasure after a day of farming in Ireland, kept company by Nala the dog.
It was there,  looking out over the fields and farms in the fading light of a long summer day, that I first realized that while studying theology in seminary had been a great experience, I hadn't maintained a connection to my feelings as I engaged with my thoughts (and the thoughts of others). One of the simple indicators was that I hadn't been reading for pleasure. Books, that used to be my joy and refuge, had become toil. I started to fix that while sitting in a field in Ireland.

In many ways that's where the story that became The Exiled Monk was born. I still had far to go before it would become the story it is today, because I had far to go to become the writer I am today. Stories are, to be sure, a plot with characters. They are sentences and paragraphs and chapters arranged together in a particular way. They are all of that, but they are also more. Stories are the resonance of experience and empathy shared in such a way that they connect people together. I had to relearn this truth by relearning my own story as both a series of events with characters, and also a connection to myself--a reconnection of my head and my heart--shared in a way that connects with others.

For me faith had become an intellectual exercise. I had studied and exegeted and researched and understood the history and logic of my faith, but I had lost the feeling of my faith. But it was in that losing, that disorientation, that I began to understand my own story. The faith I grew up with had been a steadfast support for me. When I didn't have a place to belong in school I always knew I belonged at church. When the expression of emotion felt dangerous, I could always emote through religious practices. But when those were all analyzed, systematized, and circumscribed by intellect I lost the way to belonging, support, and vulnerability. It would take me years to begin to find the way through, the way to reconnect my head and my heart, and this story helped me to navigate that wilderness.

I'll share more about the creation of The Exiled Monk in the coming days.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

What Took So Long? My Lack.

I thought I would have this book done years ago. I thought I was mostly done when I launched my Kickstarter (I had over 50k words already written). I thought it would be easier than it was.

The short answer to why this book took so long is that it took me that long to grapple with my lack.

We are all stuck between our lack and our desire. We wrestle with them, being drawn forward by desire and restrained by lack. The message that I heard was to just follow my desires, to never give up, to keep going and I could achieve everything I ever wanted. That's true, except for my lack. Rather I should say lacks, because there is much that I lack.

The first two attempts at a Kickstarter failed. But I kept going, following my desires. The third attempt funded. So I started working on the story, editing and submitting it for critique. Through that process I found out how much I lacked in being able to give and receive critique. With many thanks to my critique partners for their patience, we learned together what worked and what didn't. We learned how to deconstruct each other's stories so we could see the bones in our own. We fought. A lot. We wrestled together with our lack of critiquing ability and learned how to do it better.

I threw out 60% of my story due to critique. It wasn't the story I wanted to tell and it was better and easier to cut a huge amount and write more. But I didn't know that at first. I lacked the vision to see my story through the eyes of a reader, through the eyes of someone who doesn't already have the whole world in their imagination. But I learned, thanks again to my critique partners and to the many resources available for teaching the structure of story (my twin podcast buddies Writing Excuses and Grammar Girl have been invaluable in helping me to wrestle with my lack). So I ended up cutting 30k words and writing 70k more to make a better story, to make up for what the original lacked.

But one of the greatest lacks that I continue to wrestle with is the lack of control. While the story is in my head or on my computer, it's in my control. But when I take it to critique group or send it to beta readers or send it out to Kickstarter backers I lose control. It's not my story anymore. The story that I imagined will never be imagined by anyone else. The characters will look different, the land will feel different, the fear will connect with different fears for each reader. I can't make anyone else read the story that I wrote and loved. I can't control that. And this is a lack that I need to learn to live with.

The Exiled Monk isn't mine anymore. Wrestling with that took a lot out of me. I love this story and I want everyone else to love it too. But I can't make anyone do anything. And that's okay.