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Where are Stories Born?

In 2011 I was in the midst of delivering on a five book contract with Charisma Media. During the year, I worked on three books at once. The first book was already in Charisma’s hands and I went through the months long process of editing with a professional editor, designing a cover, and approving the final book. The second book was the one I would turn in at the end of the year in its final format. I was editing and writing the final manuscript. The third book was the next book in the series and I was outlining, researching, and writing the rough draft.

So, why in the midst of this would I decide to write two short stories a week? Simple. I had to keep my creative juices flowing and to do so, I availed myself of a wonderful website no longer around called “Storypraxis”. My editor, Andy Meisenheimer was involved in the website and the premise was that every couple of days or so, a story prompt featuring a word or a phrase was released. You then had about 36 hours to free write a short, short story based on the prompt. No editing. Just free write and get it down on the screen. Then, you uploaded the story and if it was “good” enough, it would be featured the next month in the site’s digital magazine.

I recently ran across all of my short stories from that brief time. From the stories I wrote over a year’s time, I chose 63 stories to share with my readers. I have put them together in a short book entitled “Praxis Makes Imperfect?: Prompting Your Story” available at this link.

If you are interested in writing, I challenge you to take a look at the writing prompts. They are listed in the front of the book. Sit down and just let your imagination flow and see what comes out of the inspiration from the word. Then, if you are at all interested, check out the story I wrote from that prompt. Some of the stories are ridiculous. Some are almost sublime. I used this process to explore characters, ideas, what if questions, and possible novel ideas. Some of the short stories ended up in my novels. Others are waiting in the wings impatiently, the characters tapping their toes with arms or tentacles or appendages crossed waiting for me to unleash them into the world of my stories. Patience beings. I will get to you!

So, enjoy this little book. See what stories the prompts inspire in you and write, write, write! Bleed all over the page! Let your imagination soar! And, then judge for yourself I managed to soar. Or to crash and burn!

Now, back to that hunchback wandering in the catacombs looking for that certain book of arcane secrets . . .

Guardians of Imagination!

la-et-ct-projector-guardians-of-the-galaxy-get-001I sat in a dark theater embraced by the cool dankness waiting for what was promised as a miracle. I had suffered through the drought of science fiction films from 1968’s 2001 and Planet of the Apes until the late seventies and this movie promised to end that drought. I doubted it. No one had any idea of how to make good science fiction movies anymore. Spielberg had approached that possibility with Jaws, but it wasn’t really a scifi movie. Would this obscure George Lucas deliver?

I sat slack jawed, weepy eyed and stunned through my first viewing of Star Wars. In 1977 the scrolling introduction mentioned something about a “new hope” but I had no idea this would be the fourth installment in what would become six films. I just knew that everything had changed and nothing would ever be the same again. Over the next 12 months, I returned to my local cinema (this was in the days before VHS so movies would stay in the theater for months) and watched Star Wars over 33 times. Sometimes, I would show up in the middle and watch to the end. Sometimes I would watch until the trash compacter scene. It was pure scifi addiction.

In the years that followed, the movie studios tried to reproduce Lucas’ achievement and failed. Star Wars knock offs proliferated but they never got it right. What made this movie work so well?

First, Lucas just dropped us smack into the middle of a galaxy far, far away. He did not explain the alien lifeforms, the planets, or even the politics. He allowed me, the moviegoer, to join him in the work of figuring out the backstory and setting. He trusted me to figure out the story without having to feed it to me. This was classic “show, don’t tell”.

Second, he created characters who were real and stand alone and defied stereotypes (Leia was the first female action movie figure instead of a typical damsel in distress) and at the same time had enough of the scifi tropes in their personalities that there was a sense of familiarity. Take the cliche and adopt and adapt it.

Third, he used classic storytelling elements — a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Fourth, he created moments of hilarious humor followed by deeply moving emotional moments. The scene where Luke gazes over the dead, burning bodies of his foster parents and then looks away in disgust is still simple yet emotionally gut wrenching.

Fifth, he gave us the Laurel and Hardy comedy pair in the droids. One of them was over the top silly and the other silent and subversively serious. R2D2, would save the day always with his hidden talents.

As I have watched the stories unfold regarding this new movie, “Guardians of the Galaxy” I began to sense the same kind of potential. Here was a movie based on a very obscure Marvel comic book line. There would be no familiar characters from the rest of the Marvel Universe. And, there would be no anchor of familiarity with the galactic civilization in which this story was based. But, I knew, in my heart and in my soul and in my mind this movie could be another “Star Wars”. I could only hope and I think I was right.

I took my daughter, Casey and our friend, Lisa to the first showing last night. There were no scrolling narratives at the beginning but the opening 5 minutes were some of the most gut wrenching introductions to a movie I have seen since J. J. Abrams killed off James T. Kirk’s father in “Star Trek”. Wow, I was stunned at the depth of this scene and I knew, I just knew that this movie would play off of that opening scene and if it pulled that off, it had to be great.

I laughed. I laughed some more until it hurt! I clapped with joy. And, I wept more than once. All of those classic elements from the original Star Wars were there but in their own, unique and singular fashion. The musical score from the 70s and 80s was perfect. I found myself singing along as Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord mimics Karaoke with a handheld critter. Don’t ask. It was brilliant! And, the comic team of a certain genetically enhanced raccoon and his friend,  a walking plant took the relationship with C3PO and R2D2 to a new level. In fact, everything about this movie was familiar. But everything about this movie was totally foreign and different. They pulled off one of the most daring and risky moves in recent history.

I predict Guardians will make the most money of any of the recent Disney/Marvel movies. I predict that moviegoers, like me will go and see it over and over and over to enjoy every nuanced line, every missed moment because our eyes were watering with joy, laughter, or sorrow. I predict Guardians will usher in another round of wannabes, but they will be pale reflections.

I was concerned about the future of space opera scifi when Disney announced new episodes of Star Wars. But, the team from Marvel that worked with the team from Disney has created such an epic, classic movie with Guardians I am now in eager anticipation. I can’t wait until I can sit down in front of a dark screen and listen for that familiar fanfare and see that scrolling intro to J. J. Abrams’ next Star Wars installment. The fact that Marvel/Disney has reached out to young, enterprising directors who think outside the box for the next few Star Wars movies as well as these wonderful Marvel movies gives me hope that imagination is new again; that nostalgia has been resurrected and given a new hope, a new skin for future generations.

I cannot give Guardians of the Galaxy enough positive stars. It was fantastic, fun, moving, exhilarating, alien, bizarre but the most satisfying movie experience I have had in many years. Go see it and bring lots of tissue. You’ll be laughing so hard you’ll cry and then you’ll be crying so hard you’ll laugh!

Final Thoughts

butterfuly

Kia ora (Hello)

A famous walk at midnight took place in Oxford, England. J. R. R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings trilogy was trying to convince his atheist friend that God exists. This may surprise some of you. Recently, someone commented they had not watched the “Lord of the Ring” or “Hobbit” movies because they were “demonic”. Tolkien, however, was a devout Christian and he wrote his stories to create a mythology that honored the ideals of the Christian worldview. But, Tolkien was careful to make certain his fictional creations, stories and ideas did not overtly speak to the existence of God but worked through imagery and imagination. But, his devotion to Christ and the basic tenets of Christianity resonated throughout the Lord of the Rings in spite of his refusal to make such ideas blatant. Tolkien decided to use this idea of imagination as a key to converting his friend and colleague, C. S. Lewis, to Christianity.That night as they walked through the garden, Lewis rebuffed all of Tolkien’s arguments for God’s existence. Finally, Tolkien told Lewis what he lacked was imagination, the capacity to see beyond the natural into a realm that is truly supernatural — that is above and beyond the five senses. Lewis was intrigued by this comment and soon became not only a devout Christian, but the leading defender of the truth of the Christian faith in the mid twentieth century.

The rest is history and in contrast to Tolkien’s more subtle inclusion of Christian ideals in his works, Lewis was more obvious as can be seen in the Christ figure of Aslan in his Narnia books.

I recall sitting in the theater in 2001 and being absolutely stunned and blown away by the movie, The Fellowship of the Ring. The story resonated with themes of self sacrifice, the existence of evil, the importance of companionship, unconditional love, and the battle for good. But, more than that, the movie was stunning in its visuals and its settings. I have touched on New Zealand’s beauty in previous posts as the setting for all of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien movies. The natural beauty is there to behold — raw and undeniable. But, there is also here among its people a love for goodness and hard work and the land and, yes, God.

In the Fellowship of the Ring, Bilbo Baggins has this to say about Hobbits: “Hobbits must seem of little importance. In fact, it has been remarked by some that Hobbits’ only real passion is for food. And, this is a rather unfair observation. But where our hearts truly lie is in peace and quiet and good tilled earth.” As seen in the book and the movies, Hobbits are the most amazing and surprising folk filled with unexpected bravery and self sacrifice and committed to working very hard and finishing well. Tolkien never visited New Zealand, but it is the most powerful compliment in the world that this nation was chosen to be the setting for these remarkable movies. For, the people I have come to know and love here share all of these admirable traits: a love of food; a desire for true peace and contentment; a durable work ethic and nary a complaint when confronted with a long, arduous walk or a difficult journey. The land here sings with joy for being tilled and milled and cared for. Every twist and turn along the highway reveals farms and cows and sheep and carefully tended land. In the garden, God gave Adam a simple job: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” Here in this beautiful land, the men and women of New Zealand are doing just that — caring for God’s creation. And, a love for God overflows from my new friends and family here.

I will be leaving this fair land in a day and I will carry with me fond memories of incredible sights but also of warm hearts and new friendships. I find it so odd that I can feel an instant bond with a fellow believe in Christ. This phenomenon defies imagination. In fact most of New Zealand’s beauty defies imagination.

Ah, there is that word again. Imagination. Here are two definitions of the word imagination:

“the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses AND the ability of the mind to be creative or resourceful.”

New ideas formed from images or concepts NOT PRESENT TO THE SENSES (that is superseding the senses or, frankly, supernatural). I can assure you that my senses have been overwhelmed by breathtaking sights that defy human imagination. I cannot, could not, and would not ever be able to imagine what I have seen and heard. The towering mountains. The endless blue depths of the sounds and fjords. The haunting song of the bellbird. And so much more I still have yet to process. But, there is one thing I know. If imagination is truly “the ability of the mind to be creative and resourceful” and the human mind is woefully inadequate to conceive of the beauty I have seen then there must be a Mind behind it all; an Intellect of staggering proportion; a Designer with the heart of an artist who painted these hills in greens and browns and blues and dashes of red and yellow; a Mind whose creativity is echoed weakly in our own creative impulses. If C. S. Lewis had walked the hills and gardens of New Zealand with Tolkien, perhaps he would have been more easily persuaded. I cannot imagine a world like this where there is no God!

What have I learned here? We are God’s greatest creation and there is no beauty of the land to match the beauty of a human heart! The friends we have made here will resonate on into eternity and I hope to one day return to this wondrous land. So, just to pique your imagination, a simple slideshow of some of my favorite photos.

Hei konei ra (expressing good wishes on parting).

 

Imagination Changes the Brain

A fascinating video that shows how imagining a task can produce the same changes in the brain that actually performing the task can. I’m not sure if this does correlate with video gaming, but it is intriguing.

 

All That Is NOT SO must Go!

ray2In 2008 I had the once in a lifetime opportunity to meet my all time favorite writer, Ray Bradbury. If you have not read stories by this giant of science fiction and fantasy literature, then you have missed out on a life changing experience. Ray Bradbury passed away in 2012 and his loss was a tiny tremor in the tumult of this past year. For you see, as forward thinking and progressive as Mr. Bradbury was, he hesitated to embrace many forms of modern technology. He refused to fly. He would only travel by train or boat. He would not allow any of his works to be translated into electronic form. You will not find any of his stories as ebooks! Why? Go read Fahrenheit 451 and you might catch a glimmer of the reason. Stories, to Bradbury, belonged inside people! Story is Life!

As we enter 2013, I am depressed at the negative tone of many of my favorite blogs. Who can blame us? If you are a Christian, then 2012 was a year of blow after blow to the Christian lifestyle. And, I don’t need to spend time listing those developments here. Others have done it well. But, there is one concept I want to explore as we enter a new year.

In this past year, scientists have mounted a campaign against God. Not surprising. This happens with regularity. But, this past year the attack was imbedded in such books as “A Universe From Nothing” by Lawrence Krauss or Richard Dawkins’ atheist children’s book “The Magic of Reality”. And, that venerable icon of science for children, Bill Nye, the Science Guy attacked creationism in public and on internet based video. The year ended with the American Atheists’ huge billboard on Times Square asking people to “Dump the Myth”.

Back in the 1950‘s, Ray Bradbury wrote a series of short stories that resonate with today’s headlines. Now, remember, he was an advocate of science. He helped develop ideas for many of Walt Disney’s animated shorts about space travel. He was involved in the design of “Future World” at EPCOT. But, he had cautionary words for us about the danger of the supremacy of science as a philosophy. As a philosophy, this is known as scientism or materialism or naturalism. Nature is all that is. If we cannot sense it with our scientific machines, then it cannot exist. NOTHING in the supernatural realm can be even considered as possible.

martian chroniclesIn “The Martian Chronicles”, Bradbury created a character who had escaped to Mars and built a house of “Usher” to resurrect the creations of imagination. It seemed that on Earth such imaginative works had been outlawed. Look at this passage from “Usher II” in the Martian Chronicles:

They passed a law. Oh, it started very small. In 1999 it was a grain of sand. They began by controlling books, cartoons, and then detective books and, of course, films, one way or another, one group or another, political bias, religious prejudice, union pressures; there was always a minority afraid of something, and a great majority afraid of the dark, afraid of the future, afraid of the past, afraid of the present, afraid of themselves and shadows of themselves.

Every man, they said, must face reality. Must face the Here and Now! Everything that was not so must go. All the beautiful literary lies and flights of fancy must be shot in mid-air! So they lined them up against a library wall one Sunday morning thirty years ago, they lined them up in 2006; they lined them up, . . . and shot them down, and burned the paper castles and fairy frogs and old kings and the people who lived happily every after . . . and Once Upon a Time became No More!

 

In another story from that book, “The Million Year Picnic”, a family has escaped the self destruction of Earth and has made it to Mars to rebuild a new life. Here is what a father told his children about Earth:

Life on Earth never settled down to doing anything very good. Science ran too far ahead of us too quickly, and the people got lost in a mechanical wilderness, like children making over pretty things, gadgets, helicopters, rockets, emphasizing the wrong items, emphasizing machines instead of how to run the machines.Wars got bigger and bigger and finally killed Earth.

 

But, the most powerful story, and more than likely a precursor to “Fahrenheit 451” was “The Exiles” from “The Illustrated Man”. In this story, the authors of science fiction, horror and fantasy have found exile on Mars from a world in which their works have been burned and now, a rocket from Earth approaches. In this scene, Edgar Allen Poe is waiting for the rocket men to land so he can defeat them.illustrated_man

 

They won’t be prepared for us, at least. They haven’t the imagination. Those clean young rocket men with their antiseptic bloomers and fish-bowl helmets, with their new religion. About their necks, on gold chains, scalpels. Upon their heads, a diadem of microscopes. In their holy fingers, steaming incense urns which in reality are only germicidal ovens for steaming out superstition. The names of Poe; Bierce, Hawthorne, Blackwood — blasphemy to their clean lips.”

How did this happen and how did Poe come to reside on Mars?

On Earth, a century ago, in the year 2020 they outlawed our books. Oh, what a horrible thing — to destroy our literary creations that way! It summoned us out of — what? Death? The Beyond? . . . the only saving thing we could do was wait out the century here on Mars, hoping Earth might overweight itself with these scientists and their doubtings; but now they’re coming to clean us out . . . “

And, lest you think that Bradbury was not aware of the war on Christmas look at this scene of a wasted, near dead Santa Claus:

They took him, a skeleton thought, and clothed him in centuries of pink flesh and snow beard and red velvet suit and black boot, made him reindeers, tinsel, holly. And, after centuries of manufacturing him they drowned him in a vat of Lysol, you might say.

What must it be like on Earth? . . . Without Christmas? . . . nothing but snow and wind and the lonely, factual people.

Ah, the power of Story. I will address this in upcoming posts. For now, we must stop and revel in the sheer power of Story to transform humanity. Bradbury did it with these short tales. Bradbury cautioned us that if we allow our imagination to die, then we will die as a people. And, imagination is built upon the foundation of the possibility of the supernatural. Eliminate the supernatural, and you MUST eliminate imagination; burn it out of the brain; cauterize it from the human thought patterns; outlaw it from public and private expression.

Don’t miss this. Bradbury talked of it and he was on the side of science. Science is a tool! It is NOT a way of life. And, if we allow Science to become a way of life, we will see the death of imagination; the death of superstition; the death of the supernatural; the death of Story; the death of God! There is no other path.

Adolf Hitler built his world upon the foundation of naturalism. And, he tried to purge the world of superstition in the ovens of Auschwitz. We cannot forget this. We must remember that to kill Story is to kill what makes us humans. And, one Man used Story to change the world. These stories were called parables.

Parables-of-Jesus-image

So, this coming Sunday, January 5th, I will be signing copies of my three books at our local LifeWay in Shreveport, Louisiana from noon to 2 PM. Of course, I would like for you to come. I will be giving away tee shirts. But, here is my request. Go to a book store. Any book store this coming Saturday. Go and find a book that fuels your imagination. There are wonderful books for all ages and for men and women in the realm of Christian fiction at a LifeWay and if you come to my LifeWay, I can point you to many good Stories.

Go out this Saturday and let’s show the world that as followers of Christ, we recognize the importance the power of Story. This Saturday, wherever you are, go into a book store and buy a book and when you check out, look the person behind the counter in the eye and say, “Story Is Life”!

 

Don’t You Want To Thank Someone?

There was an empty chair at the table this Thanksgiving.

My father passed away a few weeks ago at the age of 98. Even though he had been living in the nursing home for the past three years, I always brought him home for the holidays. Every Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Fourth of July, my father would sit at the head of our table. And, always, he would lead us in prayer and sing us a song or two.

My father’s singing idols were Tennessee Ernie Ford and George Beverly Shea. Although his voice was weaker and weaker as he aged, when he switched to his singing mode, from somewhere deep within this clear, deep, resonant voice would boom out a song in perfect pitch.

And so, this year, more than any other, I am thankful for my father. His absence has made me realize how much I came to depend on hearing that voice raised in song. “Don’t you want to thank someone?” is a more than just a question. It is a song written and sung by Andrew Peterson. The last song on his newest release, “Light for the lost boy”, this song brought tears to my eyes just a few weeks before my father’s death.

I used to be a little boy

As golden as a sunrise

Breaking over Illinois

When the corn was tall

 

Yeah, but every little boy grows up

And he’s haunted by the heart that died

Longing for the world that was

Before the Fall

 

Oh, but then forgiveness comes

A grace that I cannot resist

And I just want to thank someone

I just want to thank someone for this

 

Those are just a few words from this incredible song. I did not grow up in Illinois, but the corn grew tall in my father’s garden here in Louisiana and one dark day atop the tall tree I realized the world was broken and no longer the glowing, innocent thing I had lived in for my first ten years. It was atop that tree, above the vampires that lurked in the dark shadows and the werewolves with glowing yellow eyes that waited for me in the blackberry bushes and the myriad monsters of my imagination that my fear of the worlds I had only until then imagined became the beasts of approaching adulthood. Just as real. Just as dangerous. Just as deadly.

I write about vampires and werewolves and creatures in the dark because we live in a broken, fallen world. We try desperately to understand it and to dissect it and to equate it and to reduce it to laws and axioms that fit neatly into a science textbook. Equations we can control. With them we hope to tame the beasts but to no avail. Rather, it takes imagination.

During a midnight walk, J. R. R. Tolkien told C. S. Lewis that his atheism was no more than a lack of imagination. Here are some other words from this incredible song:

Now I can see the world is charged

It’s glimmering with promises

Written in a script of stars

Dripping from prophets’ lips

 

But still, my thirst is never slaked

I am hounded by a restlessness

Eaten by this endless ache

But still I will give thanks for this

 

‘Cause I can see it in the seas of wheat

I can feel it when the horses run

It’s howling in the snowy peaks

It’s blazing in the midnight sun

 

Just behind a veil of wind

A million angels waiting in the wings

A swirling storm of cherubim

Making ready for the Reckoning

 

Oh, how long, how long?

Oh, sing on, sing on

 

And when the world is new again

And the children of the King

Are ancient in their youth again

Maybe it’s a better thing

A better thing

 

To be more than merely innocent

But to be broken then redeemed by love

Maybe this old world is bent

But it’s waking up

And I’m waking up

 

‘Cause I can hear the voice of one

He’s crying in the wilderness

“Make ready for the Kingdom Come”

Don’t you want to thank someone for this?

 

I am so thankful for the power of my imagination to open up the doorways of my heart and mind to the REALITY of God! I am so thankful my silent companion standing in the gap between my soul and the monsters of my brokenness is real and loving and forgiving and the author and finisher of this universe. I am so thankful for the times of failure and faithlessness and doubt so that I could search those shadows again and find Him waiting there right where I left Him. I am so thankful my father showed me the love of God! I am thankful for each and every reader that has trusted me to fill a book with words that are more than echoes of futility. Rather, they are words that lead slowly but inexorably to the Word, the Logos, the One who became flesh. And, for that, I am thankful.

Look around you in the aftermath of this hectic and busy season of empty thanks and muted praise and awkward family gatherings and frantic hours of shopping. Stop and look into the shadows. There may be beasts among us, and I am sure there are. But, there is a quiet, abiding companion following, following and watching over us. My father sang of this companion in his powerful voice. He sang of a Father that is greater than any earthly father could ever be. A Father who sits at our table; who sings the story of our lives into being; who longs to love us and redeem us and hold us in his arms. Think on this with an imagination that is a poor reflection of the image of God and you will find in your heart and in your soul the need to thank Someone!

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