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Star Wars, Christmas, and Mythology

Unless you’ve been stuck down in a Sarlacc pit, you probably know that the latest Stars Wars film just opened. The excitement has been enormous because Star Wars has been a cultural phenomenon for so long, enchanting the imaginations of kids and adults alike.

One of the most fascinating things about the Star Wars saga has always been its mythic quality. In fact, George Lucas has long admitted that he built much of its structure on Joseph Campbell’s monomyth structure, also know as “The Hero’s Journey”. Campbell’s argument is that this storytelling structure resonates deeply within all human societies and cultures as a common touchstone that helps us make sense of life.

Coming from a Christian perspective, writers like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien approached this idea from a different angle, arguing that there are common threads of mythology in all cultures and ages because all men are created by God, and have echoes of the True Myth within their hearts. This True Myth comes into history and is made real by the Incarnation of Jesus.

Waiting For The Light: An Advent Poem

Would you wait
several thousand years
for someone to make good
on their promise,

especially if you knew
they had the power
to fulfill it in a moment?

Perhaps, yes,
if you were sitting in the dark,
and your only hope
was the long, slow deliverance
of sunrise. 

The Christmas Longing

Last December, my wife and I watched Home Alone for the first time in years. Call me lame, but I have some very fond memories of turning on the TV after Thanksgiving dinner every year and watching Kevin McCallister defend his home from the Wet Bandits. And maybe I’m riding on pure nostalgia here, but after all this time it’s still pretty darn funny.

On a more serious note, I noticed that Home Alone bears a resemblance to at least two other classic Christmas stories that we revisit at this time of year: Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. That is, in each story the protagonist experiences a supernatural or apparently supernatural absence. Kevin McCallister, in a fit of petulance, wishes to never see his family again, and wakes up the next morning to find the house empty, having overslept everyone’s mad rush to the airport. George Bailey, at the lowest point of his life, wishes he’d never been born, and Clarence the angel proceeds to show him a vision of exactly what the lives of those around him would look like if that were so. And of course, Scrooge is given supernatural visions into both the happy past he has forgotten, and the future world in which no one mourns his death.

C. S. Lewis Doodle

Animated doodle videos to accompany audio lectures have become increasingly popular in the past few years, so much so that even C.S. Lewis is getting in on the action, posthumously. I discovered this YouTube channel CS Lewis Doodle through my friend Glynn Young’s Saturday Good Reads. Check out one of the videos below:

Writing From Your Roots

[This is a post adapted from a session co-presented by Chris Yokel and Jonathan Rogers at Hutchmoot 2015. The post comes from Chris’s portion of the talk]

Scott Russell Sanders says in the preface of his book, Writing From The Center:

How can one live a meaningful life in a world that seems broken and scattered? That question has haunted me for as long as I can remember. Insofar as I have found an answer, it has to do with understanding my place in marriage, family, and community—my place on earth, and ultimately in Creation. To be centered, as I understand it, means to have a home territory, to be attached in a web of relationships with other people, to value common experience, and to recognize that one’s life rises constantly from inward depths.

I want to build upon this idea, mainly by sharing a bit from my own journey toward being centered, my own wrestling with where I come from and how that has shaped and is shaping me as a person and creator. And finally I hope to share some perspective and lessons on what it means to write (or create) from your roots.

These days, our culture appears more and more defined by a sense of rootlessness. More than ever, people are packing up and moving away from the places they’ve grown up in, and staying away. They are also moving from place to place within their own lifetimes, like American nomads. Some people, like New York Times reporter Michael Powell, would observe that this sense of wanderlust has always been part of the American character and spirit. Still, it can be observed that American character notwithstanding, we are much more mobile than our ancestors were.

Why Ghost Stories?

Why do ghost stories exist? Well, one might simply answer that they exist because people have had real encounters with the supernatural. But these are only encounters, and a personal experience can be kept to one’s self. Why do ghost stories exist? Why the need to communicate such strange tales to others?

Let’s step back from the question for a second and take another perspective on the ghost story. Perhaps ghost stories are, as Freud argued, merely dreams from the childhood of our race come back to us, rebelling against our materialism. Or perhaps they are metaphors for the internal battle of man vs. man, of the thoughts of the “establishment” vs. the “marginalized” who do not quite fit the system or threaten to destabilize it. Even in this case, ghost stories, as stories, are meant to deal with something out in the open, to externalize an experience that is internal.

The Spiritual Quest of Jack Skellington

In 1982, while he was working as an animator for Disney, Tim Burton wrote a creepy little poem called “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” because of course that’s something that Tim Burton would do. About ten years later, he began production on an animated film based on the storyline of this poem. In 1993, the stop motion masterpiece The Nightmare Before Christmas was released to the world. It tells the story of immortal skeleton king Jack Skellington and his failed quest to run Christmas for himself. Having just discovered it several years ago and quickly turning it into an October movie tradition, I’ve begun to ponder whether there is more to this spooky story than just jack-o-lanterns and monsters.

Shop Talk: Tools of the Trade

I recently came across an article by Michele Filgate on Literary Hub entitled “Writers and Their Favorite Tools.” Filgate indulges in a bit of shop talk on tools of the trade, but also explores some of the nostalgia and memory behind why we use the tools we do. That, and this recent video my wife shared awhile back, got me thinking: if car enthusiasts can talk horsepower, and hunters can swap stories of guns and bows and calls, why can’t we as writers and artists and singers talk about our favorite tools? So, whatever your artistic bent is, what are some of your favorite tools of the trade, and why? I’ll start:

When it comes to writing poetry or prose, I usually get ideas when I’m out walking, so I like to carry a pocket Moleskine. I also have a larger, paperback size Moleskine for when I want to do some longer form drafting without feeling cramped. I also recently purchased some Shinola Detroit small ruled page notebooks that I’m looking forward to trying.

For writing with, I’ve long used the smooth Pilot G-2 05 gel pen. It just flows nice and lasts forever. Recently I discovered the Moleskine Roller Pen .05 mm Fine Point, which is really nice, although tends to smear because I’m a lefty. I did briefly try a Bobino pen that hides in the cover of my notebook, but I don’t like it very much because it feels too insubstantial and the writing is dry and scratchy.

Death and Desire in the Shadows

I’ve always considered Jon Foreman to be a prophet of sorts to the postmodern world. Ever since Switchfoot, his main musical venture, broke into the mainstream with “Meant to Live,” his songs have challenged us to consider the meaning of our existence here on earth, and our often futile chase after fleeting pleasures. Along with these themes, his songwriting has harbored an increasing focus on death, and seeking out true life in light of impending mortality. The lyrics of “Where I Belong” come to mind, from one of Switchfoot’s more recent albums, Vice Verses:

But I’m not sentimental
This skin and bones is a rental
And no one makes it out alive

Until I die I’ll sing these songs
On the shores of Babylon
Still looking for a home
In a world where I belong

These themes of death and desire come to full fruition in Foreman’s latest solo EP Shadows, which is part of a four EP project called The Wonderlands, a set of twenty-four songs moving through Sunlight, Shadows, Darkness, and Dawn.

The Works of J. R. R. Tolkien

My 12 week online class, Tolkien I: The Silmarillion and The Hobbit, starts on August 31, followed by Tolkien II: The Lord of the Rings in the spring of 2016. Find out more and register here. In the meantime, here’s a little about my own personal journey into Tolkien:

My love affair with the mythology of J.R.R. Tolkien has been relatively short but passionate. As a child, I had a peripheral knowledge of some book called The Lord of the Rings by someone named Tolkien that was considered to be relatively important. But I never read it, or The Hobbit for that matter. In fact, I did not crack the covers of these books until about fourteen years ago. I heard that a movie of The Fellowship of the Ring was being made and would come out in December of 2001. Given my faint knowledge of Tolkien and his greatness, I kept up on its development, and when it came out, I went to see it.

Hook. Line. Sinker.

The Slow Growth of Ideas, Part 2

Read the first part of this series here.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to attend my first writing conference. Having never been to one before, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but I ended up gleaning a lot of great advice from the experienced writers, editors, and publishers who were gathered there.

One moment that particularly stuck out to me was during a panel discussion, when one of the writers dropped a comment that has been on my mind ever since. He referred to the work of writing as being a creative “long obedience in the same direction” (which is a quote from Nietzsche but has also been popularized by author Eugene Peterson).

Aging Into Art

It’s likely you’ve never heard the name Katsushika Hokusai, but his work informs our thinking when it comes to what we perceive as Japanese art. For example, you’ve probably seen some form of his most famous painting (above), known simply as “The Great Wave,” which is part of a larger series called 36 Views of Mount Fuji. Hokusai lived from 1760-1849, and started training as an artist around the age of 12, but only produced his most important work, including “The Great Wave,” after 60.

I had a chance to view a special exhibition of his work this past week at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Amidst the many prints was a quote from the artist himself, which caught my attention:

From the age of six I had a penchant for copying the form of things, and from about 50, my pictures were frequently published; but until the age of 70, nothing that I drew was worthy of notice. At 73 years, I was somewhat able to fathom the growth of plants and trees, and the structure of birds, animals, insects, and fish. Thus when I reach 80 years, I hope to have made increasing progress, and at 90 to see further into the underlying principles of things, so that at 100 years I will have achieved a divine state in my art, and at 110, every dot and every stroke will be as though alive.

Hokusai’s thoughts present a startling contrast to our culture obsessed with youth and quick success, and they hint at the long, disciplined process of mastery. What do you think of Hokusai’s words as they apply to the life of the artist, or to life in general?

The Slow Growth of Ideas

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.

The Legacy of Terry Pratchett

Several weeks ago, I heard the news that Sir Terry Pratchett, British fantasy author extraordinaire, had finally succumbed to the terrible disease of Alzheimer’s. At the time I happened to be in the middle of reading one of his Discworld novels, Unseen Academicals. The sad news led me to recall my first encounter with his stories, and the impact they’ve had on my life.

I first came across Pratchett’s fiction while I was in grad school doing research on my master’s thesis. I was studying postmodern fairytales, particularly those of A. S. Byatt, and while doing so I read an essay in which she discussed his novel Witches Abroad, which cleverly turns the fairy tale structure on its head. So in the name of “research” I got my hands on a copy and dove in. From this encounter I realized a few things. First, Terry Pratchett is the most hilarious author that I’ve ever had the privilege of reading, and I’d argue probably one of the funniest writers ever. The man’s wit knew no bounds, and he was liberal with it. I’d often find myself chuckling over small asides like this one from Guards! Guards!: “The Supreme Grand Master opened his eyes. He was lying on his back. Brother Diddykins was preparing to give him the kiss of life. The mere thought was enough to jerk anyone from the borders of consciousness.”

Poetry and Pressing Into Lent

Back about 10 years ago, three things converged in my life that would prove momentous to my personal growth: I started getting serious about writing poetry, I was discovering the literary legacy of Lewis and Tolkien, and I was also beginning to uncover the riches of the church calender. As it happened, Easter was approaching, and I was eager to practice Lent. I had always been soberly and mysteriously drawn to Passion Week in all its agony, ecstasy, and wonder, and I wanted to honor the story in my own way. Having steeped myself in the ambitious poetry of T. S. Eliot and the epic recreations of Tolkien, I thought to rewrite the Passion as a heroic “lay,” in an exercise of personal devotion. So week by week, I poured over the Gospel accounts, and let my imagination cast the story in the mode of a bard. Sixteen poems later, I had completed the last part of what would eventually become The Lay of the Lord trilogy: Birth, Life, and Death & Triumph. I had attempted to present the spirit of “True Myth” which J. R. R. Tolkien talks about in “Fairy Stories,” without getting too archaic for modern sensibilities.

Engaging in such a project enabled me to see the story of Jesus with fresh eyes, to recapture a sense of the drama and the characters involved: the impending doom of Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem, the intellectual parry and thrust of His sparrings with the Pharisees, the darkness of Gethsemane, the gloom of Golgotha. Doing so allowed me to slip past the watchful dragons of my own settled thoughts about these all too familiar tales.