image by sarah mccoy photo

Friday, March 20, 2020

Within Four Walls

I have drawn a black line through April. Days to have been spent in D.C. at meetings, days to have been spent sight-seeing in the Pacific, regular days of worship and classes and workouts, all stretch before me now as blanks. You probably have some black lines and some blanks to reckon with, too. We’ll all be getting to know our own walls a little better in the next few weeks. If being agoraphobic qualifies me to speak on confinement, I have a few encouragements for communing without community.

Enchantment requires time and attention. In anxious days, the soul struggles to settle into story. But if we can shut out the news feeds, we may find an unprecedented opportunity to dust off dormant imaginations. What have you never had time to learn, study, enjoy, reread, marvel at? The tyranny of the urgent is broken. Suddenly the gift of time, in the ugliest of garbs, has been handed to many. We people of the Book often lack the hours to be people of books. Perhaps the days of lockdown offer us precious time to reenchant ourselves with beauty and story and truth.

Story feeds restless minds. The children are restless. We have a captive audience, like it or not. Draw their minds into action while they’re stuck in the house with stories of adventure and sacrifice and heroism, read aloud. Do all the voices if you can. If this isn’t a family habit and you fear a lukewarm reception, start small, but pack a punch. Make some cocoa, light a fire or some candles, and read “The Cremation of Sam McGee” in low, spooky tones. Short and swashbuckling, Call It Courage is good by a window, better in the yard, best in a treehouse.

Story allays our fears and cushions our grief. Story can shrink us down to size. Even a dwindling coffee supply or rationed toilet paper can feel daunting, and uncertainty can overwhelm. Story enters into fear and pain and gives words to sorrow. Heroes, those who really lived, and those imagination brought to life, make us brave. They stand on their own precipices and remind us that we are not alone on ours.      

The greatest story reassures us of victory. All the good stories echo back the first story. Imbibe them all, but more than ever, read the original, the story of God and his people. It ends well. Pray the Psalms alone in your room as David prayed them in the cave of Adullam. Around your own dinner table, sing the hymns that express your current suffering in the hopeful words of the church triumphant.  

Ponder anew, what the Almighty can do.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Story Begets Story

Here are some unrelated facts.

I cure writer’s block by picking up a good book. One of the books currently on my nightstand is about narration. I have two different daughters using two different writing curricula and one mostly just drawing dinosaurs. I am reading a whole stack of books aloud to my kids, and they are reading through a much larger stack of books on their own, and all of them are writing their own secret, magical novels, for fun.

Here’s what I think based on these disparate experiences. If I were going to start over, with a new batch of offspring, I would have several theories.

All times are story time!
1. If you read to them, they will read eventually. I wouldn’t invest a lot of time in a reading curriculum at all, at least until the child showed that they were ready to read. They do this. You’ll be eating breakfast cereal and they will say, “H….hhhh…hhh… does this say honey?” Or you’ll be reading a book to them and they’ll suddenly stop you and ask, “Which word says ‘Mercy Watson?’” And you’ll point it out. And you’ll know they are ready to start learning to read. But if you read to them in your bed in the morning, and on the couch and on a picnic blanket at the park and in the car and in the dentist’s waiting room and in their bed at night, the moment will come.

2. If you keep reading to them, they will become writers. When your child can read Frog and Toad, it’s not time to stop reading aloud. It’s just time to read Charlotte’s Web. And when they can read The Hobbit by themselves, it’s not time to stop reading aloud. It’s just time to read The Count of Monte Cristo. And when they’re over Shel Silverstein (this may never happen, actually) it’s time for Tennyson and Coleridge. You will know from their vocabulary and syntax in normal conversation that the rhythms and imagery of all these brilliant minds have been seeping into them the whole time.

3. A writing curriculum can’t make a writer. Writing curricula CAN help refine the tools they learn from hearing great books read aloud. Whenever I have had good writing teachers, I find that they give names to things I was already doing, or to things I already loved about my favorite authors. The curricula can help you learn why certain things are compelling, and why other things don’t work. But style can’t be learned this way. It can only be articulated. Style is learned by listening and copying and narrating and just loving the best examples of literary style. Bask in beauty and beauty will be the overflow of your heart.

Each of my girls’ writing classes produce stilted, formulaic papers. This is by design, to study form. But an academic approach can’t teach imagery or subtlety or natural pacing. Good art massages the brain into new shapes, and from these shapes spring unique style. Kids who marinate in literature will already use fluently the tools their teachers diagram in class. Through the curriculum, they learn how to recognize them, and how to name them.

The real teachers of style must be Arnold Lobel and E.B. White and Laura Ingalls Wilder and Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen and E. Nesbitt and C.S. Lewis and the Brontes. The formation of a literary soul is a mystery. But it is a mystery we can probe comfortably, from beneath a blanket, on a couch, over a good story.