Madeline L’Engle’s Walking on Water was the first book I ever read that explored the role of the Christian in the arts. For me, it was a game changer. Not only did it rearrange my thinking about what I felt called to, it affirmed and distilled many of my beliefs (and opinions) about the way Christians should approach their work—not just art, but any work.
After Walking on Water I discovered more and more books about the creative life—a much richer subject than all those how-to-write books I was reading. The former is a healthy and helpful exploration of a corner of God’s kingdom (the process of subcreation), about the great mystery of the creative act and its implications for a Christian—the why of art. The other sort of books, the How to Write a Novel in Five Easy Steps sort, may be helpful to a point, but spending too much time there is getting the cart before the horse. Why books are all about the horse; How books are about the cart. You can fill your brain with practical advice, but that’s akin to loading a horseless cart with cargo. You’ll just sit there. (Good grief, I’ve gone this far, so I might as well exhaust the metaphor.) Reading L’Engle’s book was like strapping a galloping Clydesdale to my little wagon. Along the way, many of those parcels of advice rattled loose, or I cast them off once I realized their lack of usefulness, but the horse? It’s still moving.
I’m writing from the bench at the bend in the trail. When we moved to the Warren these woods were a claustrophobic tangle of thorn, privet, and bush honeysuckle (don’t be fooled by the name–bush honeysuckle is a bane). Jamie and the kids and I crouched our way under the brushy eaves, lopping branches here and there, looking for good trees, marveling at huge slabs of limestone and granite peeking out of the soil, wondering how all those old beer bottles ended up under the humus so far from the house. Eventually we cut a series of trails, the path guided by the shape of the land and the fattest trees we could find–mostly cedar and hackberry, but along the way we happily discovered a couple of young sugar maples, a beast of a shumard oak, as well as the Goliath of our woods–a massive tree that neither of the two experts I’ve brought out here could identify. “It looks like a white walnut,” one of them said, “but if it is, that’s the biggest one in Tennessee.”
The day is finally here. After years of work by a lot of different people (I’m looking at you, Pete, Kris, Christie, Carrie, Jessica, Joe, and all you Kickstarters), we’re about to set The Warden and the Wolf King loose. Some of you have already read it. (Thank you!) Others of you may be sick of us promoting it. (Sorry!) But with this many people and this much work involved, it would be silly to not try and give these books the best possible shot at making it into the hands of the masses. I have long believed that Story (with a capital “s”) is the language God wired our hearts to speak, and my hope is that this story is one that will speak to your heart, no matter what you may believe.
So, if you’re a fan of the Wingfeather Saga and you’re willing to help, here’s what you can do:
1) Come to Parnassus Books, 3900 Hillsboro Pike, Nashville, TN 37215 at 6:30 tonight for the release party! We’ll have a book signing, a costume party, snacks (bibes!), and Skye and I will be singing a Wingfeather song.
3) If you blog, please write a review about book four–or about the series as a whole.
4) If you’re J. J. Abrams, please consider making a film.
Friends, Skreeans, and Hollowsfolk!
The official release of The Warden and the Wolf King is in three weeks, and we’re throwing a costume party. On July 22nd at 6:30 PM, at Parnassus Books (one of the best bookstores in Nashville), we’re ushering into the world the conclusion of the Wingfeather Saga, and we’re pulling out all the stops. We’re loosing the thwaps. We’re—we’re—herding the toothies! In true Hollish style we’re having a rowdy time, and I’d love for you to come.
Why would you want to come to such an event, you wonder?
1) Because you’ll be able to try honeymuffins and sugarberry buns (and maybe some maggotloaf?).
2) You’ll be able to sip Hollish bibes of many fruity flavors.
3) You may want to to quote Oskar N. Reteep’s favorite books to one another.
4) There will be a COSTUME CONTEST—the winners of which will receive mind-blowing prizes. (One prize for each age group.)
5) My daughter Skye (the inspiration for Leeli Wingfeather) will be on hand to sing “My Love Has Gone Across the Sea” (from The Monster in the Hollows) with me like the Song Maiden that she is.
6) I’ll read from the new book and answer as many questions as I can.
7) Aedan and Asher Peterson will be there to autograph copies of Pembrick’s Creaturepedia, to which they both contributed vast amounts of talent.
I hope you can come celebrate with us. Beware the toothy cows.
WHAT: Wingfeather Saga Book Release Party
WHEN: July 22nd at 6:30 PM.
WHERE: Parnassus Books, 3900 Hillsboro Pike, Nashville, TN 37215 (615) 953-2243
WHY: (See above list.)
Hello, Rabbit Roomers. We’re narrowing down the list of songs to include on the “best-of” record releasing later this fall (as opposed to a “greatest hits” record, which would be very short, indeed), and I’d love to know which songs you think should be included. This is tricky because I’m torn between making sure the album is listenable (i.e., it can’t be all slow songs) and trying to choose songs that might have the deepest impact for new listeners. If you could take a few minutes and let me know a couple of your favorites from each my albums (not including Behold the Lamb), I’d appreciate it. If you aren’t familiar with the record, just skip the question. Thanks!
Click here to take the quick poll. You can leave comments here, but the poll is the easiest way for me to keep track. Gracias.
This is a moving example of what Tolkien called “sub-creation”—in essence, using your gift to speak light into the darkness. This, by the way, is hand-drawn animation. Thank you, Glen Keane, for making something beautiful. (And thank you, Brannon McAllister, for the link.)
And if you want to dig a little deeper into just how much work, thought, and attention went into the short film, watch this and be inspired.
The year was 1992. George H. W. Bush was the president. Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Metallica, Def Leppard, and Bon Jovi were some of the biggest bands in the world. Wayne’s World was cracking teenagers up and Home Improvement was making their parents chortle. I had just graduated from high school in the little town of Lake Butler, Florida, had cut off my mullet a few months before, and was steeped in hair metal and southern rock–not to mention all the bands mentioned above. I had recently discovered Marc Cohn’s songwriting, and it would be another year or so before I happened upon Rich Mullins, but at the time my guilty pleasures were still bands like Slaughter and Steelheart and Stryper. Then one night while watching The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, I saw this:
“Wait–is that a mandolin?” I thought. “And is he barefoot? And is he not trying to sing as high as possible? And none of those dudes have long hair. What could it mean?” Mixed in with all those thoughts was the dim awareness that “Walk On the Ocean” was a good, good song. It was evocative and utterly unique in my experience. Not only that, it told a kind of story (“somebody told me that this is the place where everything’s better and everything’s safe” “half an hour later we packed up our things”). But the band was called Toad the Wet Sprocket! I would have assumed this music would be super-weird and/or eclectic, a la They Might Be Giants, but this–this was different. The internet wasn’t around yet so I had no way of learning that the guys had jokingly named the band in high school after a Monty Python sketch. (The name stuck and the Brits let them keep it.)
The Rabbit Room has surprised me once again.
One of the questions I’ve gotten quite a bit about writing (and one I’ve also asked many times) is whether or not it’s a good idea to have an outline for the story. Every writer is different, but my answer is that yes, it’s good to sit down early on and map out—in the vaguest terms—the outline of the story. However, that outline is only a tool to get you started. Once the real writing starts, the story will suggest itself to you, and if you’re determined to adhere to the outline at all costs, it just might cost you the story. The story, you’ll discover sooner than later, wants to be something, and there’s a good chance that that something is better than your outline. In the words of that one .38 Special song “Hold On Loosely,” uh, “Hold on loosely, and don’t let go. If you cling too tightly, you’re gonna lose control.”
The best thing about this philosophy of songwriting and/or storytelling is that you, the writer, get the blessing of surprise along the way, of serendipity and excitement. I honestly had no idea how The Warden and the Wolf King would end until I got about twenty pages from the last chapter. It’s scary, but it’s way more interesting. Writing can be a way to discover not just what will happen to your characters, but what’s going on in your own heart, soul, and mind.
Well, the Rabbit Room—this mystifying corner of the internet, which encompasses Hutchmoot and Rabbit Room Press and used books and concerts and music and theater and conversations about Jesus—has been an act of discovery, too. We had no idea what a sweet fellowship of friends it would nurture, or that we would publish The Molehill, or spawn Dude Breakfast (our weekly Waffle House hang). We held on loosely, we didn’t let go, and voila, Pete and I are here scratching our heads in delight at what God has done.
It occurred to me this morning that it might be helpful to think through one really annoying aspect of creative work, which is that every single time you sit down to make something, even if you’ve done this for years and know the routine, it feels like you’re starting from scratch. It feels like you have absolutely nothing to offer, nothing new to say, and whatever you’ve managed to get right in the past was just a fluke, and you’re not writing a song so much as reinventing the wheel. Or building the Space Shuttle out of matchsticks. While this is true in some ways, in others it isn’t true at all. Here’s what I mean.
It’s true because the creative act is and will always be a mystery to which we are only allowed the access of clarity for fleeting moments if at all. For ninety nine percent of the time the process is frustrating and difficult and tiresome. This is to be expected. Good things take work, and in the end God isn’t interested in the thing you’re making half as much as the person he’s making out of you. Work, pain, frustration, joy, patience: these are the tools God uses (along with many other things) to shape our souls. In this sense, then, the song is writing you. Every now and then, though, the veil is lifted and the subcreator gets to see the beautiful mechanism (wheels within wheels) at work behind the curtain, and the process of songwriting makes sudden and perfect sense. “So this is how you write a song,” you think. Then, just as suddenly, the veil falls back into place, the glow is gone, and the world seems drab by comparison. Has this ever happened to you? It’s tantalizing—just enough to make you want to pick up your guitar again in defiance of your fears.
But there’s another truth at work: you’re not starting from scratch.
Today is the official release of the new edition of Jonathan Rogers’s The Wilderking Trilogy. I wanted to write a few words to commemorate not just one of the best writers around, but a good friend.
Come with me, if you will, to Belmont University in the year 2005. Belmont hosted a C. S. Lewis conference called Past Watchful Dragons, which I attended for a number of reasons, none of which yielded anything nearly as impacting as my chance introduction to the Good Doctor Rogers. I had just released my fifth album, The Far Country, and because of the Lewis/Tolkien influence on those songs, I thought the conference might be a good opportunity to sneak my CDs into the gift bags of the attendees. (That album was released independently, so any crazy marketing ideas were carried out by yours truly.)
Towards the end of the conference Douglas Gresham (Lewis’s stepson) was signing autographs and I decided to wait in line and give him a copy of the record. After that extremely awkward interaction I saw another dude standing around. He leaned against the wall in a way that made me think he was much more smarter than I be. As I recall, he had under one arm a box of leftover Wilderking books which his publisher had also included in the gift bags; I was carrying a box of leftover CDs, expecting at any moment to be ejected from the premises. I remembered seeing The Bark of the Bog Owl on a display at the local Walmart, so when I saw his name tag I introduced myself and told him so. He was doubtful that the books had ever had such prestigious placement. What I didn’t tell Jonathan was that when I first saw his books I was a little jealous that he had beaten me to the punch. At the time I had been working on The Wingfeather Saga for a few years and had yet to find a publisher. Here was another Christian writing fantasy aimed at children—so I decided to finagle my way into his inner circle and thwart him. (It hasn’t worked. He just keeps writing awesome books.)
The Rabbit Room, both as a community and as a website, has been in a state of evolution since its inception.
It started as a glorified blog, the content of which was provided by a ragtag group of acquaintances and friends who had very little idea what they were getting into. We also sold used books by our favorite writers, books usually culled by Eric Peters and I from the shelves of bookstores around the country. Then the website evolved into a ragtag group of actual friends—no longer just acquaintances—whose enjoyment of music and books and writing spilled over into the website. We began to realize that the website was perhaps more than just a glorified blog, read by more than just our moms.
From John Baillie’s A Diary of Private Prayer, day one, morning. I removed the “thees” and “thous” as a matter of preference, and adjusted a few words to recast this as a prayer for the whole year. If you’re not familiar with Baillie’s book, I recommend it. I also heartily recommend a listen to Ben Shive’s song “New Year” and Eric Peters’s Birds of Relocation for more helpful meditations on the great mercy of starting fresh. Happy New Year, Rabbit Room friends.
Eternal Father of my soul, let my first thought be of you, let my first impulse be to worship you, let my first speech be your name, let my first action be to kneel before you in prayer.
For your perfect wisdom and perfect goodness;
For the love wherewith you love mankind;
For the love wherewith you love me;
For the great and mysterious opportunity of my life;
For the indwelling of your Spirit in my heart;
For the sevenfold gifts of your Spirit;
I praise and worship you.
Yet let me not, when this prayer is said, think my worship ended and spend this year in forgetfulness of you. Rather from these moments of quietness let light go forth, and joy, and power, that will remain with me through all the days of the year,
Keeping me chaste in thought;
Keeping me temperate and truthful in speech;
Keeping me faithful and diligent in my work;
Keeping me humble in my estimation of myself;
Keeping me honorable and generous in my dealings with others;
Keeping me loyal to every hallowed memory of the past;
Keeping me mindful of my eternal destiny as a child of yours.
O God, who have been the refuge of my fathers through many generations, be my refuge this year in every time and circumstance of need. Be my guide through all that is dark and doubtful. Be my guard against all that threatens my spirit’s welfare. Be my strength in time of testing. Gladden my heart with your peace, through Jesus Christ my Lord.
Almost ten years ago I put my three kids to bed, told Jamie for the millionth time about my desire to write a novel, and with her blessing dug out my sketch pad to draw the first map of Aerwiar. I turned off the television (this is key) and sat in the recliner with my high school art supplies, eager to tell a story. As with any adventure, had I known how much work and time it would have taken, I might not have had the guts to start. I drew the coastline of Skree on the left, then for some reason on the right I drew another coastline and named the continent Dang. The expanse between was named the Dark Sea of Darkness. I grinned like the geek I was, sharpened my pencil, and began the work of filling in the details. Eventually, Glipwood sprang out of the map, and the Wingfeather children sprang out of Glipwood. But who were they? And why did their story need to be told?
If you’ve been hanging around the Rabbit Room for any length of time, you’ve read about two of our favorite things: Hutchmoot and Laity Lodge. If you don’t know what Hutchmoot is, I encourage you to click this link. If you don’t know what Laity Lodge is, click this one. If you’re not all that into clicking links and want the quick summary, here it is:
Hutchmoot is a yearly gathering in Nashville for people who like good stories, good music, good food, and community. Laity Lodge is a beautiful retreat center in the Hill Country of Texas where many in our community have experienced life-changing rest. Well, thanks to our friends at Laity Lodge, and in response to quite a few emails from those of you who are frustrated that Hutchmoot (capped at 135 registrants) sells out too quickly, we’ve cooked up the mashup of the century, and we’re calling it the Hutchmoot Retreat. It’s happening at Laity Lodge, February 20-23, 2014.
(Photos by Mark Bell)
On the north coast of Ireland there’s a town called Castlerock, where I left a bit of my heart. I’ve thought about it every day since our return to Nashville. In fact, if ever go missing from the States for a few years and you need to find me, it should be the first place you look. You may see me happily repairing an old boat on the beach, just like Andy Dufresne. The town rests on the white shores of the North Atlantic between crags and green fields. It’s flanked by the mouth of the River Bann on the right and an old castle ruin called Downhill Estate on the left. After a few days there my geek bells rang when I discovered that dear old C.S. Lewis came there regularly as a boy on holiday.
Since Northern Ireland is proud (and rightly so) of its connection to C.S.L. many places there claim to be the inspiration for Narnia, but none have as strong a claim as quiet little Castlerock, where a train pulls into the station every two hours then disappears into a deep tunnel at the edge of town; or where you can still see the window where as little boys he and Warnie likely watched the train steam past; or where you can still walk the path to Downhill and encounter castle ruins, or a tangle of forest called the Black Glen. “This is Narnia,” said my new friend Mark proudly as he talked about his family’s front yard: a field of waving wheat with Downhill castle off in the distance. In fact, here’s a great picture among many that Mark took just a short walk from his house.