Writing is a process in which we discover what lives in us. The writing itself reveals what is alive. -Henri Nouwen, “Theological Ideas in Education” I was born impetuous and energetic by nature. I’ve spent a good part of my life hitching myself onto ideas born in the moment, dashing them off, and catching the next ride. There was a time when I was the answer man, and it didn’t take much to let me blast you with my expert 17-year-old opinion. Thankfully, life and a little maturity happened and taught me to shut up and listen a bit more, to read and think a little longer before speaking. And yet, as I started to get serious about writing in my late teens and early twenties, the impatient fire continued to burn in other ways. I was under the impression, in those early days, that all good and genuine creative writing had to come in the moment, and that to later change or edit this inspiration from on high would somehow destroy the purity of the work.
It all began in the summer of 2008 when I hit a terrible slump with my writing. I would sit at my computer for hours at a time typing insipid sentences and immediately erasing them. I felt like I had lost my identity as a writer. Worse than that---I felt like I had never been a writer in the first place. Who was I kidding? Who did I think I was? And who on earth would ever want to read the kind of books I wanted to write anyway? It went on and on, for weeks. I remember one sweltering afternoon in particular, demoralized by the heat outside and the wordlessness within, wherein I threw myself on the sofa in a full pout of despair. “I must’ve missed it,” I half-prayed. “For some reason I thought I was a writer. But I’m not. I don’t have Story running through my veins. Or if I ever did, I’ve lost it.” I had an appointment that day, so I heaved myself up off of the couch and went downstairs in a black cloud of melancholy. It felt like a death, and my heart was cold with the sorrow of it as I stood before the mirror brushing my hair. Not a writer after all, the words scorched my weary mind. And then, something magical happened. Even as I stared into those despondent eyes before me, a running commentary wakened in my head. It was a voice describing how I was feeling, the awful deadness of my discouragement, the misery of my misunderstanding---in vivid words and in third person. I threw down my brush and took the stairs two at a time, flinging open my laptop before I’d even pulled out my desk chair.
The drunkest man I ever saw was a mailman. I had gone down to the Echeconnee Creek with my fishing pole and was startled at the sight of him slumped against a bridge piling. There was always trash under the bridge at the Echeconnee---beer cans and fast food wrappers thrown from passing cars, old tires and broken palettes, the remains of campfires. I mistook the mailman at first for a pile of something left on the bank by the latest flood. I might have passed right by him if he hadn’t moaned and raised his head when I was five steps away. He fixed me with heavy-lidded yellow-brown eyes. Black hair hung in limp, greasy hanks on either side of a face as rutted and hollowed out as a strip mine. He was still in his post office uniform; but it wasn’t the crisp, pressed uniform of an on-duty letter carrier. He had obviously been wearing it for many days. It was dingy and wrinkled and covered in sand. The blue cap with the eagle logo lay cockeyed on the ground beside him. The man was small and wiry. His small uniform hung loose on his frame, as if he had lost weight since it was first issued. The mailman’s head swayed on unsteady shoulders, and he blinked slowly as he mumbled and slurred something in my direction.
There are musicians who change the face and structure of a genre forever. In the 1940s through the 1960s, artists like Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, Reno & Smiley, the Country Gentlemen, and the Osborne Brothers took the country music of their day, old-time fiddle tunes, blues, and swing and fused them all together. They created a new genre. Yes, bluegrass is the original American fusion. This spirit that respects tradition and combines it with innovation is the real spirit of bluegrass. I have recordings of Bill Monroe in the 1940s on the Grand Ole Opry. Earl Scruggs had just joined Bill’s band, and Earl’s banjo playing was so radically new and supercharged that people at the Ryman were cheering and screaming every time he played a solo as if it were the Titans winning the Superbowl. The following generations of musicians would all point to Earl Scruggs as the king. Bluegrass lead guitar was fairly limited during those times. It was mostly given a rhythmic role in the early bluegrass bands, with the exception of a few players, like the Stanley Brothers’s guitarists---George Shuffler, Larry Sparks, and several others like Don Reno---the banjo player for Reno and Smiley, who would pick up a guitar and play lead now and then. In the 1960s times were changing. We had the great Doc Watson on the scene in the east, who could actually play complex fiddle tunes note-for-note on the guitar, and Clarence White in the west introducing a more improvisational and syncopated approach to bluegrass lead guitar. In the 1970s Tony Rice came along . . .
As writers of fiction (or as creators in general, regardless of the medium¹) we sometimes invest our hours in maginations and discussions most ephemeral and transient: What are the ideal weights of storm clouds? What becomes of distant cheese? Will this or that amount of caffeine kill me? How might I bind the Pleiades? Etc. etc. etc. We become at times so lost and disembodied in our work, that time ceases to exist (we enter a state called Other Time²) and we are eventually shocked at resurfacing into Ordinary Time to find that we yet remain embodied beings dwelling in a physical space, wherein practical concerns such as sustenance and visits to the necessary room are indeed more of an obligation than we had accounted for in our other less corporeal forms and modes of being. That, however, is not what this essay is about.
Tonights's Local Show is one you do not want to miss. The musical line-up includes Andrew Peterson, Jeremy Casella, and, making his Local Show debut, the legendary Phil Keaggy. But wait, there's more . . . To celebrate the upcoming release of his newest book, Everlasting Is the Past, Walter Wangerin, Jr., will be with us. He'll read from his new memoir, hopefully tell us a story or two, and will stick around after the show to sign books, which will be made available for the first time exclusively at this event (public release isn't until later this summer). Tickets for this show are selling quickly. $10 in advance. $15 at the door. $5 at the door for Rabbit Room Members.
[Adapted from a session at Hutchmoot 2013, "The Art of Caring"] If I’m not mistaken, it was Martin Luther who recovered the sense of "vocation" for general Christian use. Broadening the idea beyond merely a religious calling to the church, he anchored the essence of a believer’s assignment squarely in the ordinary details of exquisitely unique lives. “What would you do if Christ himself with all the angels were visibly to descend, and command you in your home to sweep your house and wash the pans and kettles?” he demanded, with characteristic no-nonsense. “How happy you would feel, and would not know how to act for joy—not for the work’s sake, but that you knew that thereby you were serving him, who is greater than heaven and earth.” Like the stuff of fairytale, a vocation makes use of the workaday components of our lives, transforming them with a touch of heavenly "deep magic" into practical intersections with eternity. Every single one of us is carrying around a priceless dowry of affinities, talents, and inclinations: we can’t make the magic, any more than a pumpkin can turn itself into a gilded coach, but we do have to show up with our notebooks or guitars or mixing bowls or running shoes. A vocation is simply the point at which garden-variety faithfulness bears the grace of God to the world.
Despite years of hearing good things about them and enjoying Don and Lori Chaffer's excellent performances at Hutchmoot, I have to admit that Waterdeep has perpetually been on my "I should listen to them someday" list. It's been twenty years since their debut, and all I've heard is their 2009 record In the Middle of It. I know. I'm sad about it too. If you also suffer from this problem, I'm happy to let you know their new double album Waterdeep is streaming for free on Soundcloud for the next couple weeks, and it's a great way to get to know them. The first 11 tracks (Disc 1) feature songs from Lori, while the remaining 12 (Disc 2) highlight Don. Enjoy! And if you're already a big Waterdeep fan, please tell me which album I should listen to next.
[Editor's note: Jonathan Rogers not only writes great books, tells humorous anecdotes, and wears bowties and seersucker suits, he also teaches literature at New College Franklin, teaches online writing classes (which you can join here), and now he's even teaching the entire internet how to improve its writing in his new series of youtube videos. Enjoy!]
Some readers of The Green Ember, my first fantasy adventure novel for kids, found the ending to be a cliff-hanger. Some kids even shouted at their parents in frustration, “That is a horrible ending!” and “There has to be another book!” Hey, I’ll take any kind of enthusiastic, emotional response. It means they cared. So, I’ve gotten a few emails along those lines. It hasn’t been the majority. Most don’t even mention it, but there’s a few who are fired up about my “cliff-hanger.”
I didn’t mean to make a cliff-hanger. Sure, like all such books, there’s a big part of the story that remains unresolved, remains “out there” for future adventures. What I meant to do was give a mostly-satisfying resolution to the main promises I made in the “contract” with the reader implicitly agreed to at the beginning of the story.
I wanted to have significant resolution to two problems. The, “What’s wrong with the world?” problem, and the, “What’s wrong with our main characters?” problem. I hoped that when the end of this story came, the reader would feel like a big dent in the World problem happened, and that the characters would have grown to the point that the reader felt satisfied. (Of course they are both mingled.) Is Picket the same sort of rabbit when the story begins as when it ends? What about Heather? I hope not.
I have always suspected that the simple act of eating together holds a deeper significance than we generally recognize. A few months ago a newspaper article outlining the impact of regular family mealtimes on young people caught my attention. The research confirmed a long list of benefits including stronger communication skills, improved mood, decreased risk of obesity and an increased sense of belonging and cultural identity. The results did not surprise me. If there is one image that could define my childhood it would be the kitchen table with its flickering candle and unhurried conversation. At a time when my own identity seemed constantly under threat, it was there that I knew myself best. In fact, above the food itself, I think it is that sense of security and belonging which still draws me back to my parents’ table more than two decades later.
[Nick Flora is well known around here, and he's recently launched a new Kickstarter campaign. We asked him to drop by the Rabbit Room and tell us about it and here's what he had to say. Click here to support Nick on Kickstarter.] One thing they don't tell you when you sign up to be an indie musician (at the "Indie Musician Sign Up" booth) is that your dreams get to come true in the smallest of ways. Like twice a year or so you get to play "PBS pledge drive host" to all your fans, friends, and family! Remember those pledge drives? When you're just trying to watch Ken Burns' 156-part documentary on turtle doves and every 20 minutes some guy with a ill-fitting suit and a skinny Bob Barker microphone chimes in to tell you about tote bags or VHS copies of Anne Of Green Gables you can get for pledging 15 bucks a year? Okay, if you were born after 1990, then this probably doesn't ring any bells for you. But that's what it has come down to for indie musicians thru the amazing technology of crowd sourcing platforms like Kickstarter, PledgeMusic, Indie GoGo, GoFundMe, HelpMeGetMyScarfBusinessOutOfMyStepDadsGuestRoom.org, etc.
You can't imagine how this music (below) takes me back. It takes me back to a dusty township and dirty children, smiling wide, excited to come to church. It takes me back to Africa, to the beautiful Zulus I shared life with as a boy. My father, who planted a Zulu church along with a Zulu pastor, used to joke that you could tap the next five Zulu men you met and if you put them together you'd have the Mills Brothers. This is no insult to the Mills Brothers, a group we love. Instead, it's an only-barely hyperbolic expression of how incredibly gifted Zulu people are as singers. Almost all Zulus can sing, but perhaps no group is more famous than Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Ladysmith Black Mambazo is legendary in South Africa, hailing not too far from where I lived. But they are also well-known internationally, most famously for backing up Paul Simon on his classic album Graceland. (Here they are singing "Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes" live.) You might also actually recognize them from a Lifesavers commercial. They are wonderful. They remind me of a powerfully formative period of my life.
This one's personal. I could explain it but you could also just read the lyrics or listen to the song. Our desires are built for more than this world can offer. How do we live when we realize we may never get the things we want this side of Heaven? What if we actually get it and it doesn’t satisfy us? "Whatever It Takes" from Andrew Osenga's Flesh EP [audio:Whatever.mp3] (click through for lyrics)