A Reading Life (prt 14): Own your Writing


two books on wood plankBy Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.

I got more copies of my book A Whispering Call to sell around town.  I haven’t been in possession of the final draft in a while, so, upon receipt, I started to read it.

There is something about reading your work months after you wrote it that makes you pause–there is a great deal of self-doubt, and you wonder whether the final copy is any good.

I read the first page of the introduction, and I was stuck.  The transition from the first two paragraphs to the third was awkward.  I read it again, and I tried to get into where my head was months ago:  What was I thinking when I segued from one paragraph to the other?

A long time ago, someone told me it was hard for her to follow my sermons.  I lost her, she said, when I was transitioning from one subject to the next.  She said that my transitions left people behind or confused.   Although I dealt with that issue over time (it was a valid critique), it seems that some of my writing still carries that burden.

But I am also a big believer that a new paragraph begins a new topic.  That’s what I learned in grade school, at least.  Its not my fault that our digital, short-form world breaks everything into paragraphs after only a few sentences just because readers lose interest if a paragraph is too long.  (I learned this the hard way as a syndicated columnist–paragraphs are only two or three sentences long not because of the topic, but because of how it appears on the page; the internet is no different.)

I decided that my writing was just fine, and it hit me: I have to own my writing.  I have to take responsibility for my idiosyncrasies and trust in the work.

Ernest Hemingway inspired me in this.  I am currently reading A Farewell to Arms, and its been a while since I’ve read Hemingway.  His writing is unique–its short, brisk, and choppy.  At times he is repetitive.  He doesn’t fill in all the gaps, and his dialogue communicates basic information.

On the back of the book’s dustcover, it boasts that Hemingway “did more to change the style of English prose than any other writer in the twentieth century.”  He was, of course, a Pultizer winner for The Old Man and the Sea.

I wonder if Hemingway doubted his writing.  I wonder if he thought, “I hope people don’t think I write like a fifth-grader.”  But fans of his work will quickly note that, as concise as he may be, he communicates an entire vista within just a short economy of words.  He is amazing, and I like to think that he was unapologetic for his unique writing style.  He owned his writing.

My reflections on writing conjured the works of other off-beat authors.  Annie Dillard comes to mind–she is downright difficult to read, but oh! how she makes for majestic reading!

The first time I picked up Frank McCourt, with his long run-on sentences and lack of quotation marks, it was almost the last time I picked it up–not because it wasn’t good, but because I couldn’t put it down!

Preachers also tend to have their own style–the good ones, at least.  The late Fred Craddock is probably the most famous idiosyncratic preacher.  When he preached you forget that he is preaching, and by the time he finished (and he finishes whenever he wants), you think you’ve had a conversation with a best friend.

Brett Younger, pastor of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn (and one of my old professors), is also unique.  He weaves together comedy and tragedy and sacred text in ways that few can emulate.

Then there is Joel Osteen.  I don’t care what you think of his theology, but the man is an amazing storyteller.  Whenever I listen to him on XM radio, I feel better, like all is well with the world.

So take ownership of your writing.  No one is going to express what you need to say for you, and your silence may disenfranchise the world.  It may need another point of light in the darkness, so shine brightly for others to see.  Don’t mimic voices of others, come up with your own.  Take responsibility for your writing.  As long as you follow the basics in grammar, you should be fine–and empowered to keep on keeping on.

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A Reading Life (prt 13): Being a Steward of Stories

 

By Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.

You may recall the post in which I said I read voraciously in high school, primarily those books in the school library that intrigued me the most.  Because I read so much of what I wanted, I failed to read books assigned to me by teachers. I went for years without touching those classics that most students read: Hawthorne, Lee, Hemingway, or Twain; but it was not a total loss.

My favorite teachers were eleventh- and twelfth-grade English teachers.

My eleventh grade teacher, whose name escapes me at the moment, taught American literature. He introduced us to Joseph Campbell’s hero myth and drew out all of his lessons on that premise. We watched movies from Star Wars Episode 5 (the best of all Star Wars movies) to The Crucible and The Witness. We read Native American literature and the poems of Dickinson. He introduced us to the plays of Arthur Miller. Death of a Salesman was memorable.

My British lit teacher, Ms. Brunnel, introduced us to Beowulf and Shakespeare in a way I’ve never read them before. We also read The Canterbury Tales, which played into my religious imagination and expanded my idea of the church as a pilgrim community made up of storytellers and stewards of stories.  She also snuck in Greek mythology, which fascinated me to no end–especially her feminist take on Medea.

What these teachers did differently than the rest was assume that we weren’t going to read outside of class. They made time in class so that we can read the books together. This was brilliant because (1) they assumed correctly–I never read assigned texts at home; and (2) reading together taught me the power of being part of a reading and interpreting community.

Little did I know how this practice of corporate reading would shape my understanding of the Bible and of church.  Church is, after all, a reading and interpreting community, and many books in scripture are meant to be acted out, if not in the reading of it, then in the living of it.  We need to remember that ancient Greek practices of playwright and of rhetoric shaped and informed the writing of the New Testament, which is written in Greek.

Reading literature also payed the bills.  When I graduated seminary, I landed a high-school history teaching position at a local Christian academy. I taught history, so it was an easy fit.  By the third year, however, the school needed a literature teacher and asked me if I was interested. I said yes and put Joseph Campbell, community interpretation, and storytelling to work once again. It was a fun and joyful year; and teaching grammar made me a better, more precise writer.

It was the year I caught up on my reading. I picked up books such as The Old Man and the Sea; The Great Gatsby, and Night. I studied the technical and aesthetic aspects of poetry.  I fell in love all over again with the concise art of short stories.  I read To Kill a Mockingbird, which inspired courage in ministry as it related to race reconciliation; and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by the amazingly moving Maya Angelou.  Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt expressed an immigrant’s point of view of poverty, not to mention McCourt’s unique run-on sentence writing style.

I realize now that both my teachers and my teaching of literature ignited a fondness for reading the Bible and of reading in general.  I believe that people who thrive are those who have mentors who shape their worldview and then, in turn, mentor others.

This is what it means to steward stories– to be a caretaker of those narratives that frame and shape our lives, and to encourage others to articulate the deepest notions of what it means to be human, individually and together.

A reading life is a life in community. It is one in which we learn how to read and interpret the words that build worlds. It is a life that leans upon and into others who have taken great pains to be stewards of stories themselves, for in this, the words we have are those in earthen treasures ready to be explored anew.

A Reading Life (Pt. 4): “…And the Gunslinger Followed”

By Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.

I love scary stories. My first scary story, which my mother read to me nearly every night, was The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree. I remember hiding under the blanket while Mom read about the Berenstain cubs running through the woods, between rocks, in caves, and up trees, only to return home again. I remember wondering what lurked in the trees beyond my window; I wondered what haunted the underside of my bed!

As I grew, this feeling stuck. I enjoyed books that gave a fright and movies that went bump in the night. I remember where I was when I first watched House (my uncle’s house) and Aliens (my aunt’s house)–the scariest movies I watched as a child. We stayed up late around Halloween to watch old Vincent Price flicks. We reserved Saturday afternoons for creature features– Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, Godzilla, and The Blob were popular.

By the time I hit middle school, I stumbled upon Stephen King. I purchased Pet Cemetery when I was in eighth grade in preparation for a road trip from Florida to New York. I’m not quite sure why my mother allowed me to purchase a Stephen King novel. My guess is that my parents were happy that I was reading since that wasn’t one of the things I enjoyed in school. I read the book, and I was profoundly freaked out.

My love for spooky tales continued into high school. I did not read anything that my classes required, not for lack of reading, but because I was too busy reading the things I enjoyed. The high school library contained a number of Stephen King, Michael Crighton, and Robin Cook books.

A flashpoint came in the tenth grade. A friend recommended The Gunslinger, by Stephen King. I can still recite the opening sentence: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

I binge-read The Gunslinger and its two sequels over several weeks. I didn’t get much sleep, and my grades probably suffered. But those books–the first four in particular–were the best I had read at the time.

I followed The Gunslinger with Dolores Claiborne and Misery (bless Kathy Bates!) and several anthologies, though I never tackled the bigger King tomes such as It. Nor have I finished the Gunslinger series beyond the fourth book because I’m convinced that the sober King of the modern era is not nearly as good a writer as the King of the 1980s. I finally read The Stand about ten years ago; and I’m convinced that “The Mist” and “Word Processor of the Gods” are still the best short stories I’ve read.

Michael Crighton was next on my list of favorite authors, and I’m sure I read almost every title available in the school library. I laid on my couch for entire weekends reading Disclosure, Congo, Eaters of the Dead, and Sphere. When Jurassic Park came out in the theater, racking up millions of dollars, I read the book–and, boy, it did not disappoint! (I read it again in 2017 along with Dragon Teeth, and it was just as good; Dragon Teeth, not so much).

All of this brings fond memories, and I’m sure that some readers of this blog will agree that the 1980s was a great decade for books and movies of us horror fans. I don’t know why I like that stuff so much–my Christian faith never wavered from reading them–but my imagination and those scary times of listening to Mom’s rendition of The Berenstain Bears stuck with me. And, for all that fun, I never caught a singer slasher movie–to this day, haven’t watched Friday the 13th, Halloween, or Nightmare on Elm Street. Not my type of sub-genre.

When I had children of my own, I starting telling ghost stories. We came up with a resident ghost who lived in our backyard, whose full name was, “Flip Flop Flappy Jack, Give-the-dog-a-bone.” Flip-Flop (for short) was a pirate (and his dog) who haunted our property and ate children who stayed outside past midnight.

We told other ghost stories around campfires with neighbors and friends, and I am proud to say that I had at least one little girl, a 12-year old, who refused to sleep with her light off for six-months after that hearing one such story. You’re welcome.

My “niece”, my best friend’s daughter, still gets scared when she remembers the story I told of the boy who dug up a toe in his back yard, only to have its owner come looking for it that night (borrowed from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, by Alvin Schwartz).

My children are older now, but the allure of spooky stories linger in the LaGuardia household. We love sitting down to good, creepy movies. The Goosebumps TV series (from years ago) is streaming on Netflix and has been a great show. We just watched the live-action Scooby Doo movies for the first time this past summer–that dude who plays Shaggy is great!
We watch The Twilight Zone every now and then (also on Netflix). I recommend to bibliophiles the episode, “Time Enough at Last,” staring Burgess Meredith (pictured above), who survives a nuclear blast by taking cover in the bowels of his local library. I am looking forward to watching The Haunting and The House on Haunted Hill– both Netflix originals–some time soon.

Horror books (what my family likes to call “Mystery Stories”) still play a very small part in my recreational reading. Recently, I discovered Mabel Seeley at our local used bookstore. Her book The Listening House is a classic, published in 1938. Its a pot-boiler about a young writer who stumbled on a mysterious series of murders.

I have another of the “Madame of Mystery” (as Seeley was known) books, The Crying Sisters, on my “to read” pile. I thank a certain Mr. George L., who acquired them in 1941, (or his family!) for donating them to the Friends of the Library bookstore. It brings me back to my King days–late nights huddled under blankets, reading deep into the night, waiting for a bony hand to reach out of the blackness to give me the fright for which I’m still hunting–and I am grateful.