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Posted on February 14th, 2013

During my senior year of college, our literary journal staff decided to sell singing telegrams for Valentine's Day...only instead of singing, we recited sonnets and delivered a rose.  We had a list of approved sonnets that people could choose from—Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the sort. People could pick whether they wanted a man or a woman to perform the sonnet, whether they wanted the recipient to know who had sent it, and the class period when it should be performed. We took care of the rest.

Picture this. You arrive to your Russian History class early and notice an upperclassman standing at the front of the room talking with the professor. Thinking nothing of it, you take out your laptop and get ready for another class of note-taking. Then, you hear someone call your name—loudly. Looking up, you see the upperclassman—who happens to be both tall and attractive—standing in front of you with a rose. The room, previously full of chatter, is thick with silent curiosity. What is happening?! you wonder. 

As everyone else in the class watches, your surprising messenger declares (dramatic arm motions and all):

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints — I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! — and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
(Elizabeth Barrett Browning)

At the end, he bows and hands you a note and a rose. The note reads, "From your secret admirer. Happy Valentine's Day."

We enacted this many times over in the space of one week. It was an incredibly amusing venture.

Valentine's Day inspires more written declarations of love than any other day. Yet most of us do not have E. B. Browning's ability to express our passions with such beauty and expertise. Even she, I'm sure, would have said her words failed to express the fullness of her feelings for her beloved Robert. 

With that in mind, on this blog dedicated to teaching how to write well, today I am going to contradict all I've said before. Today, as your write your valentine, go ahead and be as sentimental and sappy as you want. I know I will. Our words may not fully say what our hearts feel, but we must say something, imperfect though it may be.

Here's to love!

Posted on February 1st, 2013

No one enjoys criticism.

I've discovered that, as a copy editor, some people view me as a critic waiting to pounce. In fact, recently someone wrote to me, "It's so intimidating corresponding with a copy running into your proctologist at a dinner party."

If you happen to be one of those people who worries I will correct your grammar—publicly or otherwise—without being asked, let me assure you. I won't. 

I get no satisfaction from using the truth to humiliate others.

Recently, I had a too-close encounter with a critic. I am a firm believer in the value of honest feedback and constructive criticism, but this critic was of another sort. I don't think he intended or noticed the damage he caused, but when I left his presence, I found myself questioning myself and my ability with words. I thought about giving up or running away (figuratively, of course). I wondered whether all my dreams and aspirations were, in fact, a silly joke.

It took me longer than I care to admit to get some perspective, to remember the praise of many other well-informed voices throughout my life and career—and to remember the calling from my all-knowing Father. How, I wondered, had one small voice so effectively filled me with doubt? And why had his words had that (albeit unintentional) effect?

Here is my conclusion. My critic placed a higher value on the truth (or his perception of it) than he did on my heart. Most likely, he believed he was doing me a favor by telling me like it is, even if it hurt me. I suspect he also felt compelled to criticize because of his love for his high standards. 

Truth is really important. I believe in (and adhere to) high standards of excellence in writing. I believe in growing personally and in calling others to grow as well. That's what my work is all about. However, when we love excellence, snobbery is just next door. It becomes easy to look down on those who do not measure up to our ideals. Suddenly, in our love for the truth, we have turned people into objects, and we have labeled them "defective" or "inferior."

This is how the literary world and other artistic communities operate. Where the critics gather, there's blood on the walls. I desire a different way. This experience has reminded me that my love for truth must never exceed my love for people. The Bible tells us to speak the truth in love (see Eph. 4:15). It is a middle road, a tightrope act.

I am thankful, now, for this critic in my life. I have gleaned some insight on my writing. I have gained even more understanding of the importance of prioritizing people. Now, more than ever, I live and work with a resolve to tell the truth while stewarding people's hearts.  

Posted on October 18th, 2012

"His whole future seemed suddenly to be unrolled before him; and passing down its endless emptiness he saw the dwindling figure of a man to whom nothing was ever to happen."
—Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

Newland Archer spends most of his adult life loving a woman he cannot marry—Ellen Olenska. When they first meet, she is separated from her husband (but not divorced), and he is engaged to be married to Ellen's cousin, May. Through many complicated circumstances involving societal expectations and family allegiance (which you'll have to read the book to discover), the two remain apart despite their mutual love. At the novel's end, after twenty-six years of unconsummated passion and the death of Newland's wife, Newland is surprised with an opportunity to see Ellen once again while on a trip to Paris with his son. His son has arranged a meeting, knowing only that Ellen is his mother's cousin. Yet when they arrive at her apartment, Newland sends his son up to meet her alone while he sits outside, looking at her balcony. He considers going up to meet her, but decides to walk back to his hotel instead. 

Why, after all those years, would Newland walk away from an opportunity to reunite with the woman he had always loved but could never be with—until now? 

And why do we sometimes run away from our dreams?

For Newland, Ellen had become an ideal, a standard of perfection and an object of passion that he admired from afar. When given the chance to experience his ideal, he runs because, over the years, he had begun to love his ideal more than he loved Ellen. He feared the disillusionment that any ideal faces in the day-to-day mess of life; he feared marrying her might reveal that life with her was not all he had dreamed. And he loved his perfect idea of loving Ellen more than he actually loved her. In the end, he walks away with his fantasy rather than risking the possibilities of real life.

Too many of us live like this. When given an opportunity to pursue something we really want, so many of us fight the inward impulse to run (and some of us actually do it), looking for excuses to stick with what's comfortable and what we know we can do well. Running away from dreams is surprisingly simple when failure is our enemy. But we cannot listen to fear—unless of course we want to become like Newland, "to whom nothing was ever to happen."

Recently, my five-year-old daughter helped me, as I weeded, by bagging the weeds for me. 

"Mom," she said, "this is hard work. But we can't give up. We need to keep going because we want to be like God, and He never gives up. It's just like that song..." And she starts singing, "Your love never fails, never gives up, never runs out on me..."

"You are absolutely right, Abby," I said, marveling at the way in which she had become my teacher.

Posted on August 7th, 2012

One of my current favorite poems by Billy Collins begins with the lines:

This is the beginning.
Almost anything can happen.

Take a minute and read the whole poem here. You won't be disappointed. It's all about the process of artistic creation and--really--of life. Beginning, middle, and end.

We are all somewhere in the midst of this process. I am 30 now, and the feelings of "this is the beginning" in my life are starting to be replaced with:

This is the middle.
Things have had time to get complicated,
messy, really. Nothing is simple anymore.

I don't need to give you a list of all the items in my life that prove this truth. You have your own list; I imagine you know what it's like. However, in this middleness, I am reminded of another truth. Every day is a beginning. Sure, it's in the midst of my middle, but it's still a beginning. And almost anything can happen.

One of my favorite things about life with Jesus is this reality of the beginning. Solomon wrote, "...His compassions never fail. They are new every morning..." (Lam. 3:22-23). Likewise, David wrote, "...Weeping may last for the night, but a shout of joy comes in the morning" (Ps. 30:5). One of my favorite psalms, also from David, concludes with the words, "I would have dispaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living" (Ps. 27:13).

Newness is an ever-present reality. Hope still breathes. Dreams still stand up and walk. As Jesus said, "...With God all things are possible" (Matt. 19:26). In other words, even now, in "the thick of things," almost anything can happen.

Posted on June 16th, 2012

This Monday--June 18--marks six years of marriage for Mark and me. Together, we are writing the story of our lives, full of both bliss and pain, excitement and grief. Together we have introduced three completely original children to this earth, and together we get to teach them how to change the world. In these six years I have discovered that marriage is both the most incredible and the most arduous of journeys. The sweat, the ache, the tears, the thrill of joy--I am thankful for it all and for the one who shares it all with me!

Marriage is like a good novel, full of adventure and suspense, full of wrong turns and resolutions, full of comic relief and big, ugly messes. It has made me both laugh and cry, and from it I have learned some incredibly important life lessons. This poem, by John Ciardi, expresses so well what I feel:

Most Like an Arch This Marriage
By John Ciardi
Most like an arch—an entrance which upholds  
and shores the stone-crush up the air like lace.  
Mass made idea, and idea held in place.  
A lock in time. Inside half-heaven unfolds.

Most like an arch—two weaknesses that lean  
into a strength. Two fallings become firm.  
Two joined abeyances become a term  
naming the fact that teaches fact to mean.

Not quite that? Not much less. World as it is,  
what’s strong and separate falters. All I do  
at piling stone on stone apart from you  
is roofless around nothing. Till we kiss

I am no more than upright and unset.  
It is by falling in and in we make
the all-bearing point, for one another’s sake,  
in faultless failing, raised by our own weight.

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