6 Books that Move Me

I (Liz) am often asked for book recommendations when people hear that I’m a writer. “What are you reading lately?” they’ll ask, or perhaps, “What’s your favorite book?”

I read a lot (though not as much as our friend Anthony Ashley), and on a brief perusal of my bookshelf, I’m going to share with you six books I love, books that have moved me and stuck with me though time has got between us.

{Oh, and I should warn you that many of these books deal with characters struggling to make sense of death — I noticed that cheery theme when I was putting this post together. They are simply stories that matter, and so of course they deal with death (though they also deal with happier themes).}

I present to you…
(in order of when I read them)…

1. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2007)

Robinson’s novel, Gilead, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005, and if you sit down to live with it for a few months, you’ll find out why. Many people struggle through it on the first read because its pace is leisurely, conversational, and downright slow. Essentially, you’re invited to enter Reverend John Ames’ last days in the rural town of Gilead, Iowa, as he writes an extended letter (i.e. the story of his life, which makes up the novel) to his seven-year-old son.

This stroll through the Reverend’s life is poetic and simple, marked by stunning everyday scenes, like this one:

“I saw a bubble float past my window, fat and wobbly and ripening toward that dragonfly blue they turn just before they burst. So I looked down at the yard and there you were, you and your mother, blowing bubbles at the cat, such a barrage of them that the poor beast was beside herself at the glut of opportunity. She was actually leaping into the air, our insouciant Soapy! …Your mother is wearing her blue dress and you are wearing your red shirt and you were kneeling on the ground together with Soapy between and that effulgence of bubbles rising, and so much laughter. Ah, this life, this world.” (p.9)

I found myself so caught up and in love with the characters in this novel — the Reverend Ames, his son, his wife whom he loves dearly, his best friend Reverend Boughton and Reverend Boughton’s family, who causes Reverend Ames some trouble in his last days.

Not only that, but the Reverend is constantly talking about God. He wonders about forgiveness and heaven and grace, and struggles through extending grace to a man who has deeply wounded him and his friends. Ultimately, love wins, in every way that it should. I often found myself in tears. The words of this novel seeped into my skin and the characters informed my soul.

2. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2008)

“Nine months and five days ago, at approximately nine o’clock on the evening of December 30, 2003, my husband, John Gregory Dunne, appeared to (or did) experience, at the table where he and I had just sat down to dinner in the living room of our apartment in New York, a sudden massive coronary event that caused his death” — so begins Joan Didion’s life without her husband John (pp.6-7).

Joan Didion is a journalist, and it shows; even in this heart-breaking true account of her husband’s death and the year that followed his death, she repeats the facts over and over to herself, as if taking stock of what she knows will help explain the one thing she does not know: how she will live without him. You feel the waves of her grief wash over you like a tide as Didion comes back to same instances, trying to make sense of them in a new way, grasping for understanding and begging the facts to return John to her. This memoir rends the heart, painting a stark picture of death and grief without Christ.

And yet Didion writes strikingly honest prose, facing the facts with courage — after all, how many people write of the days and year following any loved one’s death? At the memoir’s end, Didion writes, “I think about swimming with John into the cave at Portuguese Bend, about the swell of the clear water, the way it changed, the swiftness and power it gained as it narrowed through the rocks at the base of the point. The tide had to be just right. We had to be int he water at the very moment the tide was right. We could only have done this a half-dozen times at most during the two years we lived there, but it is what I remember. Each time we did it, I was afraid of missing the swell, hanging back, timing it wrong. John never was. You had to feel the swell change. You had to go with the change. He told me that. No eye is on the sparrow, but he did tell me that.” You are left with a sense of deep loss and deep courage, knowing that to lose someone and choose to live is the greatest act of courage of all.

3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters & Papers from Prison (2008)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who lived and wrote during World War II. He and the confessing Christian church in Nazi Germany strongly opposed Hitler, and Bonhoeffer even went so far as to join a group plotting to assassinate Hitler (as you may have guessed, their plot failed, and Bonhoeffer ended up spending the end of the war in a Nazi prison and was killed just before V-E Day). He was a man of great courage and sound theology, as many of you know.

However, when a professor of mine assigned this collection, his essays and letters written to friends and family while he spent his last days in a Nazi prison cell, I found I couldn’t put it down. Bonhoeffer had intimate relationships with his family and friends that mirrored the type of Christian community that anyone would dream of. Not only that, but his theology leaked onto every page of the collection; you saw his theology lived out in his relationships and the everyday words he shared with them. It reminded me of the apostle Paul in some sense, and I found myself intrigued by the thoughts that go through someone’s head when they have decided to die for the name of Christ, or at least to love Christ in the midst of persecution. This book inspired me to follow in the steps of the apostles and martyrs that have come before me, loving Christ with their all: this is our great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12).

4. William Paul Young’s The Shack (2009)

The Shack is an allegory for our time: it describes a father’s struggle to make sense the horrific kidnapping and murder of his youngest daughter, Missy, through the lens of Christ. The tale begins with Mack (the father) receiving a note in his mailbox from God, beckoning Mack to meet God at the “shack” out in the middle of the woods where his daughter Missy was probably raped and then brutally murdered. Of course, Mack thinks this is crazy until he finds himself trekking out to this shack, trudging through thick snow, and then sinking down into the floor of the shack to fall asleep. Then, you as the reader assume that Mack has a vision of the Trinity, who helps him face Missy’s death and who heals him. He leaves the shack a changed man. End of story.

God the Father is portrayed as a large, boisterous, and joyous black woman because Mack’s own father was an abusive alcoholic. The Holy Spirit is portrayed as a shimmering woman, never quite stable in your line of sight, and Jesus is portrayed as the brawniest, friendliest Jewish man you’d ever meet. (There’s been some controversy over these Trinitarian portrayals, but I believe the people who are concerned about this have forgotten the importance of the imagination and of theological metaphor.)

During the reading of the book, I started to imagine the members of the Trinity with me in this way– holding my hand in the car, lying on the floor with me during the deep breathing exercise at yoga, walking along a path in the woods with me, ever-present, behind and before me. I have to tell you, I have never felt so close to understanding all the members of the Trinity as I have through this metaphor — somehow telling me that God is like the different forms of water or the parts of an egg is just not relational enough for me.

Not only that, but I believe this story has a powerful message to share about suffering. Why does God allow suffering? How could a good God allow THAT to happen? Why ever? Why at all? I don’t know any of us who have not asked these heart questions of our good Father, doubting His Sovereign care of us.

I should note that the writing, the editing, the dialogue, and the characters themselves are not good… Sad to say. However, I believe that you and I can read this book as a heartfelt plea to know God, not a Pulitzer-prize winning novel. (Swallow your literary pride on this one, friends)

5. Marilynne Robinson’s Home (2011)

http://www.aholyexperience.com/ companion book to Gilead, Marilynne Robinson continues the tale in small town Iowa, but from another angle. This time, we hear Reverend Boughton’s family’s voice, focusing in particular on the Reverend, his prodigal son, Jack, and his daughter Glory.

I wept through this novel. Robinson’s writing is spare in comparison with her writing in Gilead, which almost falls into prose poetry at points, but the point is clear: grace and forgiveness are extended freely to those who will accept them.

You watch the Reverend Boughton and Glory struggle with the sudden return of Jack to his childhood home after a long, silent absence. Jack himself comes home only to remember the years of alienation he has felt from his family because of his immoral choices, which has shamed the family more than once. You watch the family dig up old quarrels and old misunderstandings about each other and their lives, and you watch it simultaneously hurt and heal them. And as the truth about Jack’s past comes out over the course of the novel, a past that was previously hidden from all of Jack’s family, you watch a sweeping grace envelop them as the honest truth sets them free.

(I’m going to resist being more specific simply because the secrets that come out about Jack are what drive the plot forward and keep you reading!)

I’m going to leave you with the Reverend’s beautiful prayer over the first meal he eats with his returned runaway son:

“Holy Father, I have rehearsed this prayer in my mind a thousand times, this prayer of gratitude and rejoicing, as I waited for an evening like this one. But when I think what it is that brings us to our Father, it might be grief or sickness–trouble of some sort. Weariness. And then there we are, and it’s a good thing at such times to know we have a Father, whose joy it is to welcome us home. It really is” (p.41).

6. Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts (2011)

Again, Ann Voskamp’s memoir begins with tragedy: readers are taken to the day her two-year-old sister died, run over in the driveway, her mother weeping over her small form, blood on her apron. I put the book down at that point — I didn’t want to read a sad story. But I’m glad I picked it up again, because One Thousand Gifts has become my favorite book of 2011.

So why begin with such tragedy? Because it shaped Ann’s heart, making it small and bitter, closed to the love and gifts of God. Yet through the course of the memoir, you watch her heart open as she learns that gratitude, “eucharisteo,” for the daily and ordinary gifts of God is the way to a life of freedom in Christ: freedom from anxiety, freedom into joy, freedom to serve and love like Jesus. Recognizing God and His gifts brings freedom.

I read this book as a daily devotional, soaking up Ann’s poetic words and ordinary moments like I would a sermon. Her daily life as a farmer’s wife and mother of six inspired me. Her decision to write 1,000 thank-you’s to God, in the form of a list, became a mantra for me: I’m feeling unhappy? Give thanks. I’m feeling rejected and powerless? Give thanks. I’m feeling unknown and unloved? Give thanks. I’m feeling joyful and successful? Give thanks! Why? Because of God. Because of who He is and what He gave us through His Son Jesus!

As Ann captures so well, “One lone stem of wheat bows its head before me. Behind it, the perfect backdrop of pure moon full, pregnant with the grandeur.

“I reach out my hand, run my finger up its silk slender shank. This is how. I learn how to say thank you from a laid-low head of wheat. From the wind rustling glory through the dried blades of grass raised, from the leaves in the silver maple hushed awed still. I pay tribute to God by paying attention. I raise one hand high. And another hand high. I bow the head down. I lay the body down.

“‘The life of true holiness is rooted in the soil of awed adoration. It down not grow elsewhere,’ writes J.I. Packer. I am bowed like wheat, raised like grass blades, grounded and rooted to now, and from Him and through Him and to Him are all things and all is His and everything that has breath praises Him and I whisper it again, again, again, remembering, remembering, remembering.

“…All beauty is only a reflection.”

And for that, I give thanks!

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Our A to Z Artistic Inspiration

At the start of every new year comes a fresh start, and as practicing artists, we need to take advantage of it!

Resolve to muster your courage and try something new. Or submit your work to a contest or magazine. Or just keep trudging along in writing that manuscript. (Are these examples hitting close to home for anyone else or just me?) And if you have no resolve to keep creating, read this excellent article by Kendall Ruth, published on The Curator entitled “Listening Past Writer’s Block” (don’t worry, it does apply to other mediums as well)

To push you along, here’s part 2 to our earlier inspiration post. From A to Z, here are some of our favorite ways to stay inspired in our art and some of the things and people who inspire us most.

A to Z Inspiration

 Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland

This is THE BEST book we know of that will help stuck and fearful artists move forward. The only thing it lacks is the gospel, but its depth astounds us. Five stars and two thumbs up!

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Bake Something New

The idea is to try a new recipe, which will hopefully be a flaming success (so to speak), which will give you confidence (and snacks) to try something new artistically. Try baking bread from the cookbook Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day (one of Liz’s favorite cookbooks!).

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Critiques

When was the last time another artist (particularly one in your medium) critiqued your work? Critique is essential for the growing artist. If you want to create your best work, you need to seek out other artists who can give you honest feedback about your art.
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DesignSponge

Get inspired to make your house a work of art by checking out DesignSponge‘s daily design and DIY posts.
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Eavesdrop

F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote The Great Gatsby, was famous for eavesdropping. He’d sit behind couples on a train and write down their conversation verbatim to study what makes good dialogue (and it’s possible their words would end up in the mouths of his characters). You never know what you might overhear that would give you an idea for a new direction on a project.

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Host a Film Night

Popcorn, friends, and a thoughtful movie are all you need to have a great discussion at the end of the night. Consider seeing “Tree of Life” (at Redbox), “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (in select theaters), or an old classic like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat” or Charlie Chaplin in “The Great Dictator.

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Get out and About

Everyone needs a change of scenery. Take a sketchbook to the park or your computer to a coffee shop. Or just go for a walk in your neighborhood — the fresh air and exercise will do your right brain cells good.

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Go to a House Concert (or play one!)

This recent trend of house concerts is a lot of fun. Musicians get an intimate stage and the chance to connect with fans more personally. Plus the publicity they get is authentic and relationally-based — the best kind of marketing. Local to Colorado Springs, Fuel Friends music blog hosts house concerts with musicians like David Bazan (of Pedro the Lion) and Joe Pug.

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Invest in your Art

How you spend your money tells you what you value. Is your art worth spending money on, in your mind? That should tell you how important you feel your art is. Treat yourself this January, and stop by Dick Blick or Hobby Lobby and pick up a new set of pens and brushes or just go ahead and buy that letterpress set with your Christmas money. Maybe buying a new desk is in order, or a new chair, one you want to sit in. Investing in good supplies makes you want to make art with them and helps you (and others in your life) place value in your art-making.

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Keep Junk out of your Workspace

Unless you’re a found-object artist, you have no excuse for keeping junk in your art-making space. Do NOT pile bills, books, dishes or anything else on the desk you use for writing or painting. If you designate a clutter-free space for you to work on your art, and you’re more likely to sit down and get to work

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Kill Perfectionism!!

Can you tell we struggle with this? Perfectionism kills artists. It keeps you from being able to keep producing lots of work because you are afraid you won’t produce your BEST work. So pull out your ninja sword, and let this monster die a quick death… daily.

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Listen and Subscribe to Podcasts

We love podcasts because they fill otherwise empty, brainless time (for example, when Jeremy’s searching for the perfect iStock image or when Liz is chopping vegetables or folding laundry). Our favorites include The Moth (live storytelling), the Acts 29 Network (a Christian church planting network), Car Talk (hilarious car advice on NPR), and the New Yorker’s Fiction readings (authors reading short stories).

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Collaborate Across Mediums

Seriously, this is so encouraging for us. When we get stuck, it helps to have someone else speaking into your work, owning your work as half theirs. Our parables book came out of us collaborating in writing and sculpture, and we’re now approaching editors about publishing it. You never know where a collaboration will take you!

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The Library’s New Releases Section

Our library (and probably yours too) has a section for all new books they’ve acquired, which are often books hot off the presses. We have made a habit of stopping by and browsing titles and covers to look for books that pique our interest – and we’re never disappointed. We always come away with arm loads.

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Open a Book

Reading is so inspirational, whether you’re reading a book to learn new art-making techniques or to study master artists or just to immerse yourself in a good story. Get a library card, or buy great (read: cheap) used books on Abe Books (Liz’s fave online bookstore).

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Pinterest

Pinterest is an online bookmarking community (a pin board) of interesting ideas, arranged by photographs. They have every category you can think of, from artwork to recipes to DIY ideas to book recommendations, and I (Liz) could spend hours browsing.

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Be Quiet

It is essential for artists to have quiet so they can remove themselves from the hectic hum of postmodernity and reflect from a broader vantage point. Turn off all your electronic devices for a day so you can get some thinking time.

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Establish an Art-making Routine

We hate to tell you this, but art won’t happen on its own. You need to spend regular time in your studio or at your desk pounding out art. Establishing a routine is the best way to make sure this happens. Jeremy has “art night” on Thursdays, and he used to make himself a pot of coffee each Thursday to prepare himself for the work ahead of him. Liz aims to write at least 500 words every day during the work week, and sometimes she’ll begin by reading another book or article to get her mind going.

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Steal Shamelessly

Picasso once said (supposedly), “Bad artists copy; good artists steal.” We’re not advocating copyright violations. Rather, the point is to study others’ art so that you can master their techniques and incorporate them into your own work and your unique style.

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Make a Spot of Tea (or Coffee)

Who’s to say it’s a bad thing to use caffeine to jumpstart creativity? Give it a go, chaps.

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Use Noisetrade!

Founded by Derek Webb and a few other Nashville-based musicians, Noisetrade is our favorite free LEGAL music downloading website. The musicians post their music themselves, and in exchange for downloading their music for free (or for a tip), you give them your email address and/or post their CD on Facebook — free marketing for the musicians and free music for you. Doesn’t get any better!

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Visit an Art Museum or Gallery

Seeing visual art in person can help spark new ideas. We often bring a camera and take photos of our favorite pieces. We also write down the artists’ names and look them up online later. Jeremy has folders and folders filled with photographs of visual art that inspires him, and when he’s experiencing a creative dry spell, he turns to these photographs for that extra burst of inspiration. And if you need extra incentive, both the Fine Arts Center in Colorado Springs and the Denver Art Museum have free days (and all the local galleries we know of have absolutely free admission)!

Worship (& Enter the Worship Circle)

For me (Liz), singing is freeing. It helps me relax, and I find that when I spend time worshipping God through song, ideas abound! My favorite group for this BY FAR is Enter the Worship Circle‘s folksy community worship. They also have a Chair and Microphone series where individual band members record intimate worship – just them and God. There’s nothing else like it!

Re-eXamine Old Notebooks

The assumption here is that you’re already carrying around a notebook or sketchbook with you everywhere you go, so you can catch new ideas as they come to you (you can’t put eavesdropping into practice quite as well without a notebook handy!). The second step is to go through old notebooks when your creativity has run dry. Often a brilliant idea you thought of on the bus ride home won’t be helpful until months (or years) later.

Take a Lesson from the YMCA

I (Liz) love the YMCA. I love my membership, which makes me get out and about AND exercise semi-regularly. I love how community-minded the Y is, which is not such a bad idea for us artists to consider. Let’s ask ourselves, how can we serve our local communities with our art? I love that I can take yoga classes, a separate hobby from my writing, and that I can meet a truly diverse set of people doing it, which means I have a chance to interact with non-artists and not get stuck in an art bubble, so to speak. Connect the dots and take a lesson from the Y!

Zoo Photography Adventure

Okay, we admit it, we were reaching for a Z here, but the point remains: photography adventures are tons of fun! Maybe decide to take photographs of found letters and make a collage to spell a word when you get home. Or maybe just go on a hike and take a photo of everything that takes your breath away. You’ll get outside, and you’ll be training your eye at the same time. (They also make for great dates, guys)

So get out there and make some great art, friends!

Book Review: The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

I (Liz) recently started a book club. I have never been in a book club before, but it reminds me happily of literature classes (without the test at the end!). Luckily for you, I have decided to review the books we read on here, so you get to join the club vicariously! Hooray!

**Note: THIS REVIEW IS A SPOILER because the ending is the best part, and I can’t help but write about it. (Just skip the end of the plot summary)**

This month, we read Graham Greene’s 1951 novel, The End of the Affair.

RATING ***
3 out of 5 ain’t bad

PLOT SUMMARY
The plot goes something like this: narrator Maurice Bendrix runs into his ex-lover’s husband Henry two years after his affair with Sarah, Henry’s wife, has ended. Henry tells Bendrix that he believes his wife is having an affair and that he’d considered hiring a private detective to investigate, but that he’s decided against it. Bendrix then visits the same private detective because he is jealous that Sarah has a new lover. The private detective gathers evidence that seems to convict Sarah and delivers Sarah’s diary to Bendrix. However, when Bendrix reads the diary, he discovers that Sarah still loves him. However, she feels she cannot be with him because of a vow she made. Once just before their affair had ended, they were in Bendrix’s apartment when a bomb exploded outside and killing him (this is in the middle of World War II). Sarah, in her panic, prayed that if God would save Bendrix’s life, she would never see him again. A minute later, Bendrix awakens to Sarah’s horror. Sarah is in agony over it, but it seems to have awakened in her a love for God. In any case, Bendrix, upon finishing his very interesting before-bed reading, tries to convince Sarah to run away with him. Sarah eventually concedes, and they make plans to run away together. Curiously, eight days pass without a word from Sarah. On the eighth day, Henry calls with the alarming news that Sarah has died of a severe chill. Yes, she dies of a bad cold. Henry then asks Bendrix to move in with him to help him make the funeral arrangements, and Bendrix moves in permanently. Then, all sorts of evidence comes out that Sarah is really Catholic: her mother tells Bendrix that Sarah was baptized Catholic when she was two, a priest tells him that she visited him and expressed her desire to become Catholic, and a little boy and man are healed of illness through what looks like a miracle done by the deceased Sarah. The book ends with Bendrix raging at God because God took Sarah from Bendrix and because God may exist.

COMMENTARY
Greene wrote himself in this novel. He had multiple affairs throughout his life, sometimes simultaneously, as was the case when he wrote The End of the Affair. Mysteriously, he dedicates this book to an unidentified “C.” I’ll leave you to make your own guesses about that.

And while the autobiographical notes are interesting, most fascinating is the play between love and hate of God. Throughout the novel, I felt I was watching the “Hound of Heaven” at work as He pursues Sarah, Bendrix, Henry, and really every other character in the novel.

Sarah struggles desperately with a God she did not believe existed until she witnesses a miracle: the seeming resurrection of Bendrix. Suddenly her life changes. Her prayer had been answered, and she cannot not explain it away. She begins meeting with Smythe, an anti-God anarchist street evangelist (if you know what I mean) in order to become indoctrinated into his anti-religion, but in fact, his teachings have the opposite effect. Smythe’s hatred toward God seems to prove God’s existence to Sarah, and she finds herself inexplicably drawn toward the Catholic church. She fills her diary with prayers. And at the book’s end, she confesses to Bendrix that she desires to become Catholic.

Yet near the book’s end, we learn that Sarah’s mother had her baptized in the Catholic church on a whim at the age of two. And though Sarah had disbelieved God all her conscious life, Graham Greene seems to make a case for the mystical and inescapable fact that baptism has made her God’s. She has been sealed.

I find this particularly meaningful. At a church service I once attended, a woman was called up to share her faith story. She told the congregation that she had been baptized at an early age by her mother into the Catholic Church. Yet from the moment she could rebel, she did. She lived a wild life, scorning God and her mother’s religion. Her mom prayed for her feverishly, and God continued to call her back to Him. And finally she broke. She couldn’t live the way she had been living and she stopped running and fell into the arms of love. She told us she wanted to reaffirm her faith vows and her life to Jesus through baptism, and I watched my priest sprinkle water on her head. Her mother sat in the front row snapping pictures. She and her mother and the whole congregation dabbed wet eyes, and I sat in the back just weeping along with them!

And though many things about this novel drove me crazy (Sarah’s unspecified illness, the narrator’s whiny voice, the slow first half…), this picture of a reckless God in pursuit of His sons and daughters made it a worthwhile read.

Art is a Gift: Thoughts from Madeleine L’Engle

 

One woman that we consistently admire in her pursuit of art and faith is Madeleine L’Engle, author of the Wrinkle in Time series. During her life, she wrote a number of books related to art and Christianity, most notably Walking on Water (which comes highly recommended to you) and one I (Liz) am reading currently, Madeleine L’Engle: Herself, which is a compilation of her written and spoken words teaching others about writing.

Naturally, faith enters into these writings of hers, and lately, I have made a habit of reading one or two of her thoughts at a time before I sit down to begin writing. The book is written almost in a devotional style, with each page a new thought from Madeleine, and I thought I’d share a few of my favorite readings with you.

ART IS A GIFT OF THE SPIRIT, etc.

“We’re never sure that what we write is true and honest. We try to make it true and honest. How much I succeed is really beyond my control. It happens if I am given the Spirit to write the work.

“It is through the gifts of the Spirit that art comes, that love comes. But because we’re human, we’re never entirely sure. We know we haven’t served the work as well as we would want to. But if I had to serve the work to my satisfaction, I would still be on my first novel. And that would be pride.

“The important thing is to recognize that our gift, no matter what the size, is indeed something given us, for which we can take no credit, but which we may humbly serve, and in serving, learn more wholeness, be offered wondrous newness.

“If the work comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am, serve me,’ then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist’s talent is not what it is about. Jean Rhys said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, ‘Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.’

“I have never served a work as it ought to be served; my little trickle adds hardly a drop of water to the lake, and yet it doesn’t matter; there is no trickle to small. Over the years I have come to recognize that the work often knows more than I do. And with each book I start, I have hopes that I may be helped to serve it a little more fully.

“Picasso says that an artist paints not to ask a question, but because he has found something, and he wants to share — he cannot help it — what he has found. ”

Let us be those servant artists who depend whole-heartedly on the Spirit for our work to get done! Because, boy, we need help. 🙂

Graphic Novels: Why They Matter and Why You Should Stop Ignoring Them

Perhaps you've noticed the rise of the graphic novel (a comic book that tells a complete story) in popularity in the past few years. Perhaps you have wondered (like my wife, who is a lover of Literature with a capital L), what's the big deal with graphic novels? 

I (Jeremy) can say from personal experience that some of the most moving stories I have ever encountered are graphic novels. But more than that, the graphic novel is one of the most important and relevant forms of contemporary art.

“So comic books are art?”

Yes. But in case my opinion doesn’t hold much weight with you, I’m not the only one who feels that graphic novels are a form of both visual art and literature. In the last decade, graphic novels have become widely accepted as an artistic medium. Cartoonist’s works are being shown in galleries, highlighted in the New Yorker, and made into Hollywood blockbusters. Even some librarians are advocating for the literary merit of graphic novels.

Here are the two reasons I think they are so important:

1) Audience matters.

In a culture where “self-expression” is the museum artist’s one and only purpose statement, comic book artists are forced to create with an audience in mind and so that their graphic novel can sell to just about anyone and everyone (welcome to the current publishing market!). Mass appeal and accessibility is important. A cartoonist has to think about how YOU think, what YOU will care about, and how YOU will relate to his or her book. They have to think about someone other than themselves.

This contrasts starkly to contemporary painting, where a work can be completely unintelligible to the average Joe and still sell for 500K to the one collector who appreciates it. It doesn’t matter that the majority of the world looks at a painting and says “my two-year-old could do that” because the art world’s elite call a painting valuable.

But does anybody care about the painting “your two-year-old could do”? Does it move you to tears? On numerous occasions, I have been deeply moved by a graphic novel. What’s the difference? I think the element of story plays a key role in a graphic novel’s emotive power.

2) Story matters.

Many people have asked how Pixar has maintained it’s decade-long domination of the box-office. Pixar’s answer is that “everything is about the story.” Every detail, color, and character, and every part of the art serves the story. People are hungry for stories with depth, emotional resonance, and characters they can relate to.

Graphic novels, like any novel, tells a complete story. To be successful, they must have a protagonist with whom you can relate, and art that is accessible and expressive. The illustrations have to be well crafted, otherwise they will fail to convey the story with impact. The best graphic novels tell as much through the art as the words, and some of the best might not have any words at all (though they always tell a story, words or no words).

And finally, Jeremy’s recommended reading list:

So now that I’ve whet your appetite for the graphic novel, you’re wondering, where do I begin? Below is a list of some of my favorite graphic novels. Out of the stacks that I’ve read, these are the stories, characters, and art that has stuck with me.

I’ve split the list up into categories based on accessibility and ease of reading, as well as by more mature content and themes. I hope this helps you on your journey to fall in love with the graphic novel!

Graphic Novels For Everyone:
FLINK – Doug TenNapel

A fun, short and moving story about fathers, sons and sasquatches; this book is a great introduction if you’re new to graphic novels.

BONE – Jeff Smith

Lord of the Rings meets Peanuts; this is an epic story that is alternately hilarious and thrilling.

Graphic Novels For Older Teens and Adults:

THE SURROGATES – Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele

A gripping sci-fi adventure and insightful commentary on culture, community and religion.

THE ESSEX COUNTY TRILOGY – Jeff LeMire

An even-paced, loosely drawn, contemplative story that takes you deep into the heart of a family.

BLANKETS – Craig Thompson

Thicker than most regular novels, beautifully drawn, and poignantly told, this is a coming-of-age and loss-of-faith story. This book is truly literary, look for symbolism

JIMMY CORRIGAN – Chris Ware

Melancholy and painfully self-aware, this masterwork is told in a tight, clean, almost info-graphic style. This is a sweeping (autobiographical?) story of one man’s struggle with his father’s legacy.

A CONTRACT WITH GOD – Will Eisner

If John Steinbeck could have drawn he might have created these portraits of humanity in New York City: stories of racial tensions, ruined fortunes, family ties and little joys. Eisner was a pioneer in the genre of graphic novels. Today, the industry awards are in his name.

(NOTE: Graphic novels, like any book, may deal with adult topics and may often contain objectionable material. If you’re under 16, check with your folks before reading these books. Feel free to email me if you have further questions about a book I’m recommending.)

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On Beauty: “Sunset” Parable

I (Liz) just wrote a piece about watching a sunset that may help us to meditate on the beauty of our lives. This piece is also a part of a larger project that Jeremy and I are working on: we’re writing (and illustrating) a book of parables! But more on that later perhaps.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts after reading this piece.

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I have been driving on the highway for some time before I notice the yellow glow behind the mountains. Once I see it, I cannot take my eyes from it. I steal glances from behind the wheel, and when the off-ramp turned my car East, I strain to see the colors in the rear-view mirror.

The clouds are streaked with yellows and purples when I pull into the driveway. I open the car door and hurry inside, where I find Jeremy at work in his studio.

“Babe,” I say, “You have to come with me. I want to show you something.” He wipes his hands on his pants and I grab his hands in mine.

“Quick!” I say. Jeremy lets go of my hands to slip on some sandals, and as soon as one of his hands is free, I hold it and take off, bringing us out the back door and into the yard, leaving the back door ajar.

“Look at the sky,” I say. “Do you see it just beyond the trees?”

“Ooo,” says Jeremy.

“Come on,” I say, “Let’s try to get a better view.”

We walk beyond our garden into the alley behind our house and out onto the nearest street corner. Now we can see that the sky has changed again, throwing pink, purple, and yellow clouds across the expanse before us.

We stop short, staring at the beauty that lies before us. Jeremy stands behind me, holding me with both arms. “Wow,” he finally says, slow and quiet. We stay still for several minutes watching the light change, as color fills up our eyes to overflowing.

Then Jeremy says, “I’ll be right back,” and he goes inside the house. He comes back two minutes later with folding chairs. We sit down to watch the finale.

Meanwhile, cars pass on the street. Several drivers wonder at us, staring and pointing, while others drive past without even noticing us.

“Strange that they don’t turn to see what we’re looking at,” I say to Jeremy.

The sky has now turned to an orange, the same color as the light from the street lamps that have begun to illuminate the neighborhood. Highlights of purples and pinks begin to fade behind the bulge of the Rocky Mountains.

I put my arm around Jeremy and his metal chair, and rest my head on his shoulder in the quiet.

“We don’t normally have sunsets like this, do we?” I say.

“Well, I don’t know. Usually we’re inside the house at this time of night,” says Jeremy.

I wonder how many sunsets we’ve missed over the past nine months living on our block. But just as I begin chiding myself, Jeremy begins to hum, and then to sing. It’s one of my favorites, and I find myself smiling, forgetting my thoughts. I listen and then join in at the chorus: “Let’s sing, let’s sing, for joy, for joy. Let’s sing, let’s sing, for joy, for joy…” The song ends, and we sit still.

Finally Jeremy says, “You ready to go back inside?” I look around and see that the sky has just  turned an ash grey. Night is on the horizon.

I sigh and say, “Let’s go,” and we carry our chairs in our arms and sing our way home.

The Grasshopper King

Hey folks!

I (Jeremy) have a little something different for you today — it’s a free download of my senior illustration project (2007)!

Using a hybrid of my “found object” art and digital illustration, I retold Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper. I hope you find it interesting and enjoyable.

Click on this link to download a PDF of the story: The_Grasshopper_King_lores2.

Discipline in Art and Life

Self-Discipline

Friends, we all struggle to be disciplined in our lives. It doesn’t matter if we are trying to make art or eat healthy, we all find ourselves fighting against disparate parts of ourselves: the one part that desires to live the discipline and the one part that is afraid of the discipline.

Today, I (Liz) stumbled upon an insightful article related to this same theme by writer Carey Wallace. Appropriately, the article is entitled “On Discipline.” Enjoy! (for the article in its context on Cardus’ Comment Magazine site, see: http://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/2778/)

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On Discipline
May 13, 2011 – Carey Wallace

Discipline is not a mystery.

Its elements are so simple they can seem mocking. Put down the extra slice of bread. Run one more mile. Pick up the pen, or brush, or violin.

It’s no more complicated in the creative spheres. But it’s every bit as elusive there as it is in the world at large. “I want to make work,” people often confess to me when they discover I’m a working writer. “I just never seem to get to it.”

The practical solution to their problem barely amounts to a paragraph. Choose a time to make work and hold that time inviolate, I tell them. If you lack inspiration, wait. Don’t do anything else. The work will come.

It’s advice that stems from years of personal experience. When I was eighteen and entering college, I reasoned that the two most important things in my life were faith and writing. I didn’t want my new life to crowd either of them out. So I resolved, each day, to pray for an hour and write for two hours. I joked at the time to the few people who knew about this arrangement that I probably had my priorities reversed. But that simple commitment marked the beginning of lifelong habits of prayer and creation. I’ve never taken a job that wouldn’t allow me to continue them, even when that meant working as a maid or a waitress instead of something that seemed more in keeping with the degree I finally earned. And I kept this up for over a decade before I began to make anything approximating a living from my writing.

It’s also advice, I’ve discovered, that almost everyone finds impossible to follow. And although the elements of discipline in the creative spheres are no more complex than anywhere else, our failures in discipline as artists strike us deeper. Most people can understand lack of discipline in exercise or diet—we’ve all reached for the remote instead of going for a walk, all taken an extra slice, even after we were full. But why would an artist, whose whole identity hangs on their creation, fail to paint? Why would a writer, whose deepest joy comes from their work, fail to write?

The art world is full of talk: gossip, politics, and a smattering of actual ideas. But the question of artistic discipline, the central problem of a working artist’s life, is almost taboo, perhaps because the answers are at once so obvious and so daunting. Tellingly, the artists who do have strong habits—the writer you can never see on weekends, because she’s always tapping away at a new manuscript, the painter who disappears into her studio every other evening, despite working full-time hours—are the ones who are also carving out names for themselves in their respective fields.

At first, I was fooled by the simplicity of discipline. Good artistic habits were easy to explain. There were no laws against them. They didn’t require money, or physical prowess. How hard could they be to pass on to others? In partnership with the International Arts Movement I began to pilot a program called the Working Artists Initiative, designed to help emerging artists in all genres form strong creative habits. The heart of the program: a commitment to create work at least five to ten hours a week, even while working a full-time job.

I thought of this as a simple commitment, something that could be fit into the context of any life, with enough discipline. I was shocked to discover how much it actually demanded. The problem is this: creation requires firing on all cylinders. If people carved out time on a Saturday morning, but were out till three on Friday night, the time was compromised. If they hadn’t been eating well, the time was compromised. If they were distracted by other pressing worries, the time was compromised. Part of an artist’s task is to shut out these distractions and listen only for the voice of their work, and no artist can survive without that species of discipline. But many of the problems the artists in the program faced were genuine, too visceral to be ignored. In fact, introducing discipline in one area seemed to exacerbate problems in the others. “When I push on one area,” one artist said, “the rest of my life seems to go crazy.”

There is no such thing, we discovered, as disciplining one corner of a life. There are only disciplined or undisciplined lives.

Let me be clear. Too many artists already raise artificial barriers to creation: they can’t write, or think, or paint, they claim, unless they’re seated at a pristine desk, with southern light, perfect silence, and a dozen sharpened pencils all pointed west. These are not aids to creation, or marks of real discipline: they are a group of excuses not to create if the conditions are not met. I am not saying, “Don’t bother to create unless your whole life is in perfect order.” I am saying, “Creation will require your whole life.”

For years, I had seen my early commitment to prayer and writing as separate concerns. Now I wondered if my spiritual disciplines and my creative disciplines had been more deeply bound than I knew. The actions of discipline are simple, but the barriers to discipline are spiritual, rooted in anxiety, despair, and fear. And approaching them as if they’re simple matters of practicality will only result in the failure that most artists already know so well.

All spiritual problems are creative problems, and all creative problems are spiritual problems. Doubt, depression, lust, rage, greed: because the artist herself is the mechanism of creation, none of these things can be separated from an artist’s work when they’re present in the artist. And an artist’s failure to work is rarely mechanical—fingers that fail to curl around a pen or a brush—but spiritual: a fear that has rendered them artistically blind or deaf. The solution to them all is to draw closer to God, the source of all order, rest, and freedom, and of every image, sound, and word.

I no longer draw a distinction between my spiritual and creative disciplines. I don’t claim this as a fresh practice, but confess it as a novice only now beginning to grasp a fundamental truth that I’ve long practiced without knowing its name. In some ways, this insight changes nothing. Both spiritual and creative disciplines still require strength and courage, and a high tolerance for loneliness, boredom and pain. But in one fundamental way, removing the distinction between creative and spiritual disciplines changes everything. I no longer flatter myself that I work alone, or that my strength is my own. I lean instead on God, who has been there all along. And that releases me from the very real fear that I will someday come to the end of myself: either my own limited ideas, or my own limited strength. Instead I have a bottomless well to draw on and an endless universe to spin through, renewing itself so fast that my limited mind can only ever capture it in glimpses and fragments.

This is what undergirds my discipline in my best moments: the dazzling beauty and variety of the things God wants to speak into this world, the honour of being able to repeat some of them in my own voice, and the shortness of my life relative to the size of the task. It requires discipline to stay tuned to these truths in the crush and noise of each day, but when the division between creative and spiritual disciplines is removed, the reward becomes not just another page written, or another lonely hour stared down, but a meeting with God himself, who restores us even as He leads us on.

So I’d invite you to read again the simple rules of artistic discipline. Notice how much they resemble a call to prayer. And how differently the commands ring when you have something to draw on besides your own wavering strength: Choose a time to make work and hold that time inviolate. If you lack inspiration, wait. Don’t do anything else.

The work will come.

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Image borrowed from Zazzle.com.

The Live-Storytelling Movement

“And so I found myself standing in my mother’s rose bushes at 2 in the morning, buck naked and holding a piece of dog poo wrapped in a paper towel, just as my mother and her toy boy were pulling into the driveway…”

Ian, the current storyteller, could hardly finish his sentence as laughter erupted from his thirty-person audience. The theme was animals, and Ian was recounting the fiasco of the late-night kitchen run (in which he slipped on some dog poo, among other things).

He is part of a new trend which we are observing around the country. In a society where the image and the written word has led the way in the arts for years (partially due to a tool you are taking advantage as we speak: the infamous internet!), we have noticed a movement of people who record and pass down personal histories orally. The Moth and NPR’s Storycorps are among those leading the charge, filling up venues with people eager to pay to hear and tell their stories to audiences of hundreds. Hundreds of personal narratives have been recorded in order to create archives of life at this time in history.

And now Colorado Springs has joined in this movement with its own live storytelling initiative called “The Story Project.” Storytelling events are scheduled to occur once a month at the Smokebush Foundation’s building downtown, and selected storytellers are given the opportunity to share a true personal story before a crowd of eager listeners.

Those selected as storytellers beforehand have around 10 minutes to tell a story, and those whose names are drawn for the “story slam” are given around 5 minutes, and they compete against 3 or more people to be judged the “winner” of the slam that night.

However, here’s what makes these stories so interesting: storytellers cannot use notes to tell their stories. The stories must be told from memory and must be live in every sense of the word, giving stories a raw edge and a feeling of real honesty and intimacy. It is as if these storytellers are passing down family lore to their curious grandchildren, eager to know the family secrets.

But why does live-storytelling matter?

Well, for one, it is significant that there are Westerners intent on re-developing something of an oral culture, although, this isn’t the first movement in this direction. The “books on tape” phenomenon probably provoked this live storytelling to some extent.

But what truly strikes me about all of this is the feeling of community that these events recall. In highly oral cultures (particularly in illiterate cultures), stories are passed down orally by necessity and as a means of cultivating and preserving the community and culture. Older members of these societies are revered for their wisdom and memories of the past. These cultures are typically more “group” oriented, and rather than emphasizing the individual, they focus on what is best for the group as a whole. Therefore, their cultural stories passed from generation to generation acts as a means of binding the group (tribe, clan, etc.) together.

However, in highly literate cultures (most Western cultures fall into this classification), group stories are valued less and actually are less common. There are very few events which become part of a shared, cultural memory. Reading and writing are, for the most part, solitary acts, and so the community does not play a large role in determining the stories that are passed down. Similarly, each individual’s experience of life can be unique and individual. There is no shared story.

What is so important, then, about this movement toward live, unrehearsed storytelling is the desire it illuminates for some shared story in our lives. Audiences enjoy hearing stories that remind them that their lives are not as separate from other human beings as they once supposed.

Furthermore, the experience of hearing someone’s story told as if they’d asked you to coffee and were recounting to you their day seems to create a feeling of knowing and being known in both listeners and storytellers. A community is formed, and even if their stories are not identical, they at least know the stories that were told at the event and their memories at least have something in common.

So whatever happened to Ian?

I know you’re still curious about what happened to the naked man in the rose bushes, so I’ll give you my abbreviated version of his tale:

“I hid beneath the bushes, waiting for my mother and her beau to finish canoodling in the parked car, until my mother’s beau walked her to the door, kissed her goodnight, and drove away. At which point, I hopped back over the brick wall to my section of the house, and returned to bed, only to be asked by my wife. ‘What were you doing? It took you quite a while to drink a glass of water.’ To which I replied, ‘Oh, well, nothing really.'”

And with that, Ian won the story slam. He’ll get an opportunity to tell a longer story at the next gathering for Colorado Springs’ “Story Project.”

Come to the next live storytelling event in the Springs!

Come hear Ian and a few others tell more stories on June 3 at the Smokebrush Foundation’s new under-the-bridge location (the Trestle Building, 219 West Colorado Ave., Suite 210) between 6 and 8PM — and come ready to tell a true story of your own! The next storytelling  theme is “together,” which incidentally matches the opening of a painting exhibit at Smokebrush by Sarah Milteer of the same name. Join the community of storytellers and hearers. We hope to see you there.