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“If thou art sorrowful” – A homily on trials and tribulations

This is a homily I wrote for Sacrament Meeting this Sunday. It’s the first talk I ever wrote out beforehand (I usually just rely on a constellation of talking points and loose outlines the other times) and got a lot of great responses from it so I thought I’d share it with y’all.

The main reason Peanuts is still one of my absolute favorite comic strips is because of its common theological musings (always in humorous fashion). All credits to Charles Shultz.

The main reason Peanuts is still one of my absolute favorite comic strips is because of its common theological musings (always in humorous fashion). All credits to Charles Schulz.

Today’s scripture theme comes from Doctrine and Covenants 136:31, “My people must be tried in all things.” Section 136 is my third favorite section, next to 121 and 93, mostly because 136 is a very practical guide to every day life. It is also one of the few sections not given to us through Joseph Smith but through Brigham Young, on January 14, 1847, according to the section heading, at “the Winter Quarters of the Camp of Israel, Omaha Nation, West Bank of Missouri River, near Council Bluffs, Iowa.” At this point in Church history, their beloved prophet Joseph Smith had been brutally assassinated along with his brother Hyrum, the Assistant President of the Church, by a bloodthirsty gang of thugs just two and a half years before this revelation was given. The previous year, persecution had become so intense that the Saints decided the most rational response was to evacuate an entire city and abandon a temple they had sacrificed so much for, a temple that was fully operational for less than three months. At the time of the revelation, a large body of the Church was camped out at Winter Quarters, where their diet consisted mainly of corn bread, salt bacon, a little milk, and occasional meat, usually from any game they could hunt nearby. There were little to no fruits and vegetables. Scurvy, known as “blackleg” during the time (which gets my vote for most terrifying disease name in the 1800s) was rampant, along with tuberculosis and malaria, all horrifying diseases. Hundreds died that winter (see Wikipedia, “Winter Quarters”). Trials and tribulations no doubt were forefront on the Saints’ minds, and it’s understandable to me if at that point some were thinking after hearing the revelation, “Tried in all the things? You’ve got to be kidding me. What did I sign up for?”

Thankfully, we live in very different times and circumstances, yet of all the problems, controversies, and public media battles and scandals, I would venture to guess that the most difficult question the modern-day Latter-day Saint must grapple with is, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” The doubt that many experience when grappling with this question stems not from disbelief, as some of the orthodoxy suspect, but from an intense belief in the goodness of God and a selfless love and compassion for all people, a love born from their faith in the promises of the gospel. You will never meet a mean-spirited, uncaring person ask this question, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?”, unless that person believes himself to be a “good” person who was wronged.

Part of the anxiety we experience with this question comes from this cognitive dissonance, but much of it also comes from the fact we live in a society devoted to and obsessed with comfort. The existence and even any mention of death, disability, suffering, weakness, and helplessness makes us nervous and want to quickly change the subject or shush the speaker on the grounds that such topics are impolite to talk about — unless, of course, you’re trying to sell a new product. Our government, our economy, and our civic ideologies are based upon rugged individualism, maximized personal freedom to do as we choose, and the conceit that everything good that happens in life is a direct result of our own actions and only our actions with the opposite belief that everything bad that happens in others’ lives is a result of their own personal decisions. But the existence of pain, suffering, setbacks, trials, death, disease, and disability destroy our carefully constructed and clever contrivances. In the end, despite our diet plans, medical advances, scientific breakthroughs, and accumulated GDP, the death rate for humans remains stubbornly at 100%, and large portions of our economy are devoted to either trying to escape this sobering fact, or to forget about it through distractions and temporary indulgences.

Perhaps what makes this question so enduring in its difficulty is because many of the more philosophical answers ring as false or trite in our ears when we are in the midst of suffering and pain, especially when it’s ours. Unsurprisingly, trials and tribulations is one of the most popular topics in the scriptures because trials and tribulations refuse to become simply an abstract idea, no matter how hard our current society tries. While suffering and pain is often distributed disproportionately in our world, every human will experience some form of pain, whether physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, social, or otherwise. This truth — that everyone must feel pain — and, more importantly, the implications of this truth and what we do with this truth forms the foundational bedrock of almost every religion, faith, and philosophy, our religious faith included.

Our Church’s early history is well acquainted with suffering. Joseph Smith’s life could be described as a continuous stream of devastating personal tragedies punctuated with the occasional spiritual triumph. Our people have experienced historical persecution, have lost lives, property, and sacred places because of this persecution. The Book of Mormon, the keystone of our religion, deals with people “whose lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days” (Jacob 7:26). The first prophet-author Nephi, in the very first chapter, says he writes this record to “show unto [us] the tender mercies of the Lord [that] are over all those whom he hath chosen” (1 Nephi 1:20) and the final prophet-author Moroni urges the reader to “remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down unto the time that ye shall receive these things” (Moroni 10:3), yet the contents in between these two statements seem anything but merciful. Nephi witnesses his extended family torn apart by jealousy and fear, becoming the basis of two warring nations. Moroni experiences the ultimate conclusion of this family rivalry as he sees his entire people slaughtered and he is left to eke out an existence wandering alone. Ancient scripture gives us plenty of instances where good people suffer and question out loud, culminating in God Himself being born into the world and experiencing first hand rejection and persecution and even torture and execution as the ancient Roman equivalent of a modern-day terrorist despite preaching a message of radical peace and love, an irony crowned by the ultimate irony that it was the leaders of the religion based upon Him who helped to betray Him.

It is easy for many of us born in amazing, unprecedented prosperity, comfort, and opportunity to forget that while we worship the God of Peace and the God of Love, we also worship the Abandoned God, the Forgotten God, the Rejected God, the Humiliated God, a God who experienced all of this and submitted Himself willingly to these experiences with explicit purpose to love us more fully. We believe in a God who weeps because of the hatred amongst His children. We believe in a God who cries out, “What more could I have done for my vineyard?” We believe in a God who, when He appears in our own personal lives, does not come to us as a powerful person or a wealthy person but as a prisoner, as the poor, as the fatherless and the widow. We admire prophets who’ve begged the Lord to show himself, to stop hiding, to unstay his hand and listen to the cries of his people. Even “patient” Job declares (and if you actually read the Book of Job, you realize that he is anything but patient), “I will not refrain my mouth; I will speak to the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul…My soul chooseth strangling, and death rather than life. I loathe it; I would not live always: let me alone; for my days are vanity” (Job 7:11, 15-16).

All credits to Charles Schulz.

All credits to Charles Schulz.

The most poignant, memorable, and beloved passages of scripture, both ancient and modern, are passages in which the author questions, challenges, or downright begs God for relief, for comfort, for explanations. In these passages are often revealed the frailty of humanity and its reliance on God, but also revealed is God’s unlovable hand in both mercy and justice as well as power. Even for Jesus, one of his last words in His mortal ministry was the opening line of a psalm, a hymn and prayer, “O Lord, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, see also Psalms 22:1). Even silent acts, such as the woman who reaches out in hopes of brushing her fingertips against just the edges of divinity or the woman who, without words, bathes the Savior’s feet in her tears — these images and other similar stories etch the deepest grooves in our memories and our souls.

But what does this all have to do with the question, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” At the end of the Book of Job, contrary to popular belief, one of Job’s friends actually does get the better of him. We usually hear the narrative with Job as the silent, eternally graceful and patient sufferer while his friends rail against him and accuse him of sin and tell him to curse God and die (only his wife says that). It is true that Eliphaz relies on simplistic, overly moralistic, “Gospel of Prosperity” heuristics to accuse Job of sin because bad things only happen to bad people. Bildad indulges in his Deistic Nihilism and the worthlessness of man. And Zophar spouts tone-deaf, Hallmark-esque, even nonsensical cliches that don’t even relate to Job’s situation at all! For those who have experienced suffering and received well-meaning advice from people, you may recognize some of these archetypes.

This remains my most absolute favorite Peanuts comic strip to date. All credits to Charles Schultz.

This remains my most absolute favorite Peanuts comic strip to date and prompted me to actually closely read the Book of Job, which is now my favorite Old Testament book. All credits to Charles Schulz and Charlie Brown’s baseball playing theological seminary.

But Elihu, youngest of the bunch, finally tells Job, “Look, bro. You’ve spent this entire time justifying your own righteousness in the face of adversity, but you have spent little to no time sincerely justifying the goodness of God.” Elihu ignores the question that Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Job discuss ad nauseum for over 30 chapters: Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? Instead, he says to Job, “You asked earlier in this conversation, ‘What’s the point of righteousness if you still have bad things happen to you?’ The answer is because righteousness blesses others (see Job 35:1-8, Job 22:2-3). God cannot be unjust, He cannot pervert justice, and He cannot be a respecter of persons. And if you have faith in this God, you stay righteous to the end not because it blesses you but because it blesses others. God will make up for the rest.”

To bring it all back, Doctrine and Covenants 136:31 tells us that “My people must be tried in all things, that they may be prepared to receive the glory that I have for them, even the glory of Zion; and he that will not bear chastisement is not worthy of my kingdom.” But only three verses before, the Lord tells us, “If thou art merry, praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing, and with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving.” But “If thou art sorrowful, call on the Lord thy God with supplication that your soul may be joyful” (D&C 136:28-29), mirroring that beautiful one in The Book of Mormon, “men are that they might have joy.” Even in the midst of suffering, or perhaps even because of it, we must seek out joy in the kindness of others and exercise kindness ourselves and therein see the righteousness of God.

Brothers and sisters, my faith in God is not knowledge or some secret truth I hold. Rather it is a faith born out of hope and desperation. In the face of seemingly infinite sorrow, pain, and suffering, I cling to the promises of the gospel because no other philosophy, economy, ideology, or theology has worked for me — and I’ve tried to find one that does. I have no other choice. Like the Apostle Peter, if the Lord asked me if I, too, shall go like the others, I have no brilliant logical defense or proof or even experienced some majestic, divine manifestation. All I can reply with is, “To whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life” (John 6:68) — I hope. Because I have no other options.

It is my hope that in face of adversity, whether our own or others, we ignore our instinct to justify our own righteousness but instead justify and demonstrate the righteousness of God. This is not easy. In fact, it is immensely difficult. But it is exactly what we signed up for according to our baptismal covenant, which, if it means anything to us, “commands us to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:9). It is my hope that in face of pain and suffering, we can pull together as a ward family and as the family of humanity to find joy in kindness from others and showing kindness to those around us.

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The ethics of writing

While talking about the ethics of representation with a professor of mine, he asked me, “Look, let’s say you get drunk and then decide to drive home. You know you’re not supposed to do it, but you do, and on the way, you fall asleep behind the wheel and crash into a tree.

“You’ll get out of the tree, say, ‘Oh my God, thank goodness it’s just a tree,’ and feel relieved. You’ll have to pay a fine, maybe get a DUI, and you’ll have to pay for repairs, but in ten years, it will probably be a funny story you tell in ten years.

“But let’s say instead of hitting a tree, you hit a person. Suddenly, you feel a whole lot worse and you won’t be telling it as a funny story.

“So the question is, what are you basing your reaction on? The ethics of the action or the ethics of the consequence? Because in both cases, you did the same thing — you got drunk and lost control of your body while driving. But the consequences are very different and out of your control.”

This made me pause. In our culture, we like to think we judge people on the ethics of the action, regardless of consequences. You should not avoid stealing because you might get caught, but because the action of stealing itself is unethical. However, in the two cases of hypothetical drunk driving, our reactions are drastically different (either as the actor or the viewer) because of the consequences, despite the initial action being identical.

Anthropology is obsessed with ethics, mostly because what we do (learning about and then representing people) can have widespread and powerful effects. Anthropology has helped bring awareness to the plight of those who are brutally oppressed by powerful structures and figures, but also used to justify those same powerful structures and figures (such as European colonialism or racism). Therefore, we take our ethics very seriously. We try to do as little harm and as much good as possible.

But, as my professor noted, the consequences of our actions are usually completely out of our control. I may take painstaking action to act as ethically as possible while performing fieldwork and writing an ethnography, which someone may then use for less-than-ethical, even maliciously diabolical purposes. What can I do? Was the decision I made to write that ethnography unethical because of the consequences? Or am I absolved of fault because my own action was motivated and carried out with ethical precision (if that’s even possible)?

Of course, ethics is much messier than this, which is why I seem to be grappling with a constant headache these days. Since I’ve especially decided to start pushing myself, challenging my traditional, pre-conceived notions of what a “proper” ethnography is supposed to look like, my advisors and mentors just shrug and say, “We can’t tell you how to do anything anymore. You’ll have to figure it out yourself.” But, by the way, what you do or not do can have widespread, powerful effects for good or for evil on the people you study, or maybe even some other group you didn’t even think about. No pressure. Don’t inadvertently start a genocide. It’ll make our school look bad and funding might be harder to come by in the future.

In the end, you do what you can, and you try the best you can. Nobody imagined, especially J.D. Salinger himself, that Mark David Chapman would use The Catcher in the Rye as his “statement” after killing John Lennon. And surely, we won’t hold J.D. Salinger culpable or complicit in the tragedy. But at the same time, how do you grapple with it? If Roland Barthes is right, every time you write something, a little part of your commits suicide. No wonder so many writers decide to eventually finish the job their writing started. Ethics, writing, and representation is a dirty, messy business. 

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Slaying Shakespeare’s Holofernes with a series of tubes (and cat pictures)

“Don’t be humiliated by dinosaurs into thinking yourself inferior because you can’t spell broccoli or moccasins. Just let the words fly from your lips and your pen. Give them rhythm and depth and height and silliness. Give them filth and form and noble stupidity. Words are free and all words, light and frothy, firm and sculpted as they may be, bear the history of their passage from lip to lip over thousands of years. How they feel to us now tells us whole stories of our ancestors.”
– Stephen Fry

 

During our morning commute, my wife and I discussed – what else? – internet memes, because we are those kinds of people, I guess. I mentioned how a friend on Facebook wrote a status asking anybody else if they have also felt the feeling of reinvigorating enthusiasm in an art they had long become complacent in. I left a reply with a picture of Pikachu patting a Caterpie on the back with the caption, “I know that feel bro,” because I am that kind of person, I guess.

I proceeded to tell my wife how “I know that feel bro” is one of my new all-time favorite Internet memes, how it seemed to perfectly encompass that feeling of deep resonance with someone else’s obstacles, plights, or victories. I struggled to capture the words in describing this to my wife, when she patted me on the knee and told me straight-faced, “I know that feel, bro.”

This is why I love my wife.

But on to more meme-ish matters, what about “I know that feel bro” captures my heart so? A lot of people have complained that the Internet has broken English, and no better place to see this than the battlefield known as Internet memes, wherein lies a hundred thousand million broken letters, words, phrases, and sentences, where weapons of mass grammatical destruction are deployed on a regular basis. Or, that is how the pedants wish to portray the state of the English language on the vast plane we call the Interwebs. But I would beg to differ.

What is it about terribly written English and the Internet? One cannot blame simple ignorance – while the leakage of Internet memes into places like Facebook have certainly diluted the demographics, for a while now, the vast majority of people who created memes were 20-30 years old and educated, if not a bit cynical as a whole and underachieving. The use of broken English may have originated in the first of the memes – cat photos with captions – because the idea of a cat (and, subsequently, dogs, frogs, penguins, and honey badgers) mastering the English language is only slightly more absurd than their daily adventures and mishaps. But there is something joyful, even pleasurable, in manipulating the English language, in breaking it and bending it and reshaping it to fit your own whims. This activity is what poets have enjoyed for centuries.

In a way, the Internet has become a collective Shakespeare, not that epics of masterful insight into the human condition are regularly produced from the keyboards of a million bloggers (though the Internet has certainly produced some epic things, see also: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, The Guild, the Woot.com product descriptions, et al). Rather, the Internet collectively imitates arguably Shakespeare’s most lasting legacy on the English language – the popularization of completely made-up words. Some words he just mashed together, some he stole and bastardized from other languages, and others he just made up completely. That’s the kind of English maverick he was. He didn’t care about the current rules; he broke the rules constantly and made you like it.[1]

But back to the Internet – over the course of a decade, it’s spawned a cavalcade of new words. Email, for example, or log on, blog, and (shudder) webinar. But the meme community has also spawned some very sticky catchphrases that have, (perhaps) against all odds, conquered the general American English landscape. Perhaps most noticeable is the word “fail,” once a verb, now nouned into existence (often found with the superlative “epic” attached to it). This new usage of the word “fail” has become the new “-gate” for many journalists (think goodness). Even people who have only a perfunctory access to the Internet are familiar with the term. And now, as memes continue its expanding pervasiveness, an entire generation of high school students now say things out loud like “I can has x?” or “y all the z!” or “like a sir” or “why you no x!” Even popular phrases such as “true story”, “I lied!” or “oh God why” have taken on new meaning thanks to the Internet memes of the world.

Yes, some people will look at this as some wholesale genocide against the English language, but I would counter that the pure joy and appeal of using such phrases is its subversive nature against the English language. People began employing terrible English because they well understood the rules of language. It’s why turns of phrase like “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” or “The play’s the thing, to catch the conscience of the king” or “Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try” tickle the fancies of English lovers everywhere. These sentences bend and break the general syntax structure; they play with grammar and vocabulary and connotations of words. They defy general expectations of what English is supposed to look and sound like. And that’s why poorly written English memes have become so popular as well.

Sure, over time, the memes will lose their punch and soon people will use them as everyday language, even when they don’t understand where the phrase derived its meaning, or why it was so popular in the first place. Many of Shakespeare’s manipulations and innovations within the English language are also duly employed by many everyday English speakers everywhere without a second thought to their originator. Many strange phrases in English are like that, such as “turn of phrase” or “bee’s knees” or “between a rock and a hard place,” employed by many, its history and implications understood only by a few. That’s the way English evolves.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Internet memes is the accidental nature of it all. I doubt that the very first person to utilize the nounified version of the word “fail” did it deliberately, savoring in the delicious, poetic deviance of it all. In fact, this very popular usage most likely was born out of ignorance or, ha, an English fail. But the English speaking community in turn appropriated it for their own as a flagship of Internet speak, if you will, a dialect that created a sense of identity and belonging that mutated into a widely popular new usage of a very old word. The War on English that the Internet is waging (which many assert is happening) is not necessarily a wave of barbarians beating on the Hadrian’s Wall of the English-speaking Rome (this metaphor just got weird). Rather, it is the age-old war between dialects, a verbal rebellion against the authorities-that-be who seek to control and preserve language for their own purposes while rarely understanding why.

But sweeping, romantic linguistic ideology aside, if anything, the vast popularity of the Internet meme (and its ability to invade the English langauge offline) has proved the old adage that a million monkeys typing on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the works of William Shakespeare. While, perhaps, we have not seen the exact wording of Shakespeare produced by the incessant pounding of a billion bloggers at their keyboards, we have seen the spirit of Shakespeare and his adventurous, subversive use of the English language emerge from the ruthless environment of billions of memes competing against each other until the very best (or, at the very least, the most infectious) rise to the top and proliferate into our language. It is, you could say, an almost beautiful accidental poetry.

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[1] In fact, that’s how you could term all of Shakespeare’s career – a giant love affair with the English language. In his first play, Love’s Labours Lost, he fires the warning shots with the character Holofernes, a side act for the main story, involving a bunch of over-educated pedants dicussing the English language and how horrible everyone is and how awesome they are. Holofernes, the most pretentious of them all, talking about someone else’s English speaking:

He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer
than the staple of his argument. I abhor such
fanatical phantasimes, such insociable and
point-devise companions; such rackers of
orthography, as to speak dout, fine, when he should
say doubt; det, when he should pronounce debt,–d,
e, b, t, not d, e, t: he clepeth a calf, cauf;
half, hauf; neighbour vocatur nebor; neigh
abbreviated ne. This is abhominable,–which he
would call abbominable: it insinuateth me of
insanie: anne intelligis, domine? to make frantic, lunatic.

The true irony (which Shakespeare may or may not have intended) is that Holofernes’ practice of pronouncing the ‘b’ in ‘debt’ and so forth have fallen mostly out of favor, even though he would swear up and down until he was blue in the face that we are mangling the English language. Such is the way language goes.

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tl;dr

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subject only in outline, but that every word tell.”

– William Strunk Jr., author of The Elements of Style

As a child, I always thought I’d end up writing the next long, epic fantasy that had several volumes of hundreds of pages each. Instead, I’m moving more into business and technical writing, focusing on brevity and simplicity. I remember the first time in my life when I realized that I would probably never finish that epic novel, mostly because I was in love with the idea of being a novel writer, not necessarily in novel writing. It was both crushing and liberating — crushing in that one more childhood dream (no matter how naive or flippant) had found its way to the waste bin, but liberating because as I grew older, I started to hate most epic fantasy novels. Many times, it all boiled down to too long; didn’t read. Such superfluous writing! I didn’t have time. This isn’t to say that I hate all long stories; Avatar: The Last Airbender’s three seasons held me enraptured the whole way (I watched the entire third season in a 24 hour period). However, in the fantasy genre, unnecessarily wordy writing (possibly inspired by our venerable Tolkien?) has become the norm, rather than the shunned.

Along with this shift in interest, I’ve become fascinated with short writing formats. Concise writing is poetic writing, in a very literal sense. The poet, when composing verses, must encapsulate complex emotions and ideas into as little words as possible; each one must have maximum impact. Nowadays, most peoples’ encounter with contemporary poetry is the free verse, which can often lead to indulgence in grotesquely long-winded, terribly boring poetry. I’ve always been more partial to the restrictive formats of poetry. When you create boundaries, a lot of inspiration can flourish within them. It’s good to break out once and a while, but it’s also good to put up artificial restrictions and see what kind of inspiration blooms, often out of necessity. My friend, Quinton, is a singer-songwriter, and we disagree on many aspects of poetry, but one thing we can agree on is that restrictions (for him, restrictions in the very construct of his music) can often produce the most amazing results.

Every author should experiment in restrictive formats the require creative writing to make do with those boundaries. Three formats especially capture my interest:

1. Haiku

The most well-known haiku format in the states is the 5/7/5 format, or five syllables on the first line, seven on the second, and five on the third. Many haikus I’ve encountered can be witty, pithy, and incredibly emotional.  The very strict format forces the poet to select with care each word they decide on.

One father’s day, I wrote a set of seven haikus about my dad. I could have written a long-winded post about him instead (I could fill volumes about my father, who is an incredibly interesting man), but the format of the haiku forced me to capture how I felt about him. For example, one night, my father announced to the family that he would try to yell less at us children because he saw how I (the oldest) was yelling at my younger siblings. Ashamed to have passed down that habit, he resolved to do better and told our family to keep himself accountable. I wrote this haiku accordingly:

“I stopped yelling when
I saw you yell at siblings.”
I still remember.

You may disagree, but I think the haiku has more impact.

2. Six word memoirs

There’s this trend that floated around for a while called the six word memoir. Rumor has it that it was inspired by a story about Hemmingway, known for his short writing style. An editor challenged him to write a story in six words. Hemmingway replied with this story:

For sale: baby’s shoes. Never used.

Bam.

In memory of this story, some people started writing their memoirs in six words. Mine is Born Mormon, intellectually Jewish, emotionally Zen. Others I waffled on were Subject to change in five years and Total geek; got married; still geeky. Not only is this a good writing exercise, but it’s a great life exercise, too. What would your six word memoir be? How do you distill your life’s experience (or for the younger, trajectory) in six words? What’s most important to you?

That’s what writing is about. How do you distill such complex ideas into a communicable format?

3. Twitter

Twitter, a writing tool? Twitter is single-handedly destroying internet literacy, amirite? Bear with me here, people.

Twitter is an excellent writing format. 140 characters on its own is some kind of poetry, and people can write some incredibly hilarious and incredibly poignant things on it. Again, Twitter (which, for a while, was called micro-blogging — maybe they still do?) forces the writer to distill their thought into 140 characters. Sometimes it spills over into a second or even third tweet, but those should be rare and considered rude if done too often. And because of that, one day I found myself in a coffee shop, soaking wet because of rain and trapped until the weather improved. I began to compose stories inspired by watching those around me and began sending up tweets.

He stared at the rain, spinning the phone in his hand. He didn’t know what he was waiting for; no one was coming.

He watched her read while sipping coffee, then left. I would have talked to you, she thought as she watched him go.

She made the coffee gracefully, twirling behind the counter with an easy smile and a sense of pride. Nobody noticed.

“I love you,” he said at the end of his phone call. “Oh, sorry. Habit. I didn’t mean it.” He sighed, then hung up.

She wondered if the cold, saggy jeans clinging to her accentuated her calves. It was the only part of her he liked.

He walks through the rain confidently without a jacket, convinced that wearing the cowboy hat makes him impervious.

With that beard and hair, he looked just like Marx. he dares not tell anyone that he once was a banker and loved it.

Two coffees, one person. “This was her favorite flavor,” his face says.

“Escape your landlocked life!” the kayak advert screams. “Maybe then she won’t think you’re boring and come back.”

She wears her headphones and stares at the screen as if to say, I am not friends with the freaks sitting around me.

“Well,” he pleaded, “Usually when it’s not raining the view is beautiful, really!” She looked away, unimpressed.

Wearing a sharp white blouse and pencil skirt, we think she is a lawyer. She is secretly writing a romance novel.

He swears at the rain. “No wizards tonight,” he growls. We all stare, wondering what he means. he doesn’t care.

I ended up happily spending an hour and a half doing this until the rain let up.

There’s something interesting about trying to cram a story into 140 characters. Like Hemmingway’s six words, you need to really understand what you’re trying to say, and say it well. Say it succinctly. Say it with purpose. I remember helping a friend with a paper; he had difficulty changing passive voice into active voice. When we were finished, he mentioned how much more direct his writing voice was now. Too often we’re taught to write as if we have no real confidence in our opinion or message. We vacillate and oscillate and all kinds of other Latin verbs. So practice writing in short formats. It will force you to really think about what you want to say, and how to say it clearly.

Maybe I should have tried to distill this all into a tweet.

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Sleep Paralysis

"The Nightmare" by Henry Fuseli

"The Nightmare" by Henry Fuseli

I’m currently writing a piece on sleep paralysis after some inspiration from a really vivid episode. Here is an excerpt from the rough draft describing it. It’s a pretty wild experience:

The last episode began when I noticed a disturbing shadow sneak into my bedroom just out of the corner of my eye. Undeterred, I ignore it, wondering if it will roar and cackle at me ominously like the last few times. I cannot move. My hands and face tingle uncomfortably, just on the threshold of pain. I decide to try and experiment. I force my arms to reach over to the pair of glasses next to me. I place them on my face. The room remains unfocused and blurry. I twirl them in my hands and snap them in half. I can feel the tension right before the break and feel the satisfying release. I twist the plastic in my hands, snapping the halves in half once more. Hallucination, I conclude. There’s no way I could have broken my glasses so easily. I tell my arms to throw the pieces behind me. I hear the sound of them hitting the floor next to my right ear.

Wait, did I actually break them? I panic. I squeeze my eyes shut and nonsense words like propilphany flash in the darkness, made out of bright, thin electric currents. I’m starting to feel the rising disoriented hysteria that always accompanies an episode. Maybe propilphany is the magic word that will snap me out of this, I think. I try to yell it out loud, but, of course, I cannot talk. I notice that the room is growing very dark; was it always this dark in my room? And then, the buzzing begins, again next to my right ear, as if a fly decided to do the samba by my face. This will drive me insane; I can already feel the nerves in my back tense up into a painful bundle. I enter a full-blown panic attack; I can’t breathe.

After a brief moment of sheer horror, graciously, the episode slowly releases its grip. My vision clears. My body wakes up and I can breathe again. My hands rest on my stomach, balled up in fists, still tingling furiously. My glasses remain unbroken next to my head. The buzzing disappears. The shadow is gone. It’s over.

For the longest time, I felt that for some reason, Satan was out to get me. Imagine my surprise when I discover that I actually suffer from a medical condition with a clinical name and diagnosis! Still, despite this new knowledge, my life with sleep paralysis, from childhood to adulthood, has colored and affected me in some very dramatic ways. If you or anyone you know has any experience with sleep paralysis, please contact me at tylee85[at]gmail[dot]com. I’d love to hear your (or your friend’s) stories.

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Nanowrimo lessons, cont.

Okay, so one more lesson I learned from Nanowrimo.

I have a terrible, crippling case of perfectionism which prevents me from trying to do anything because I want to make sure that I do it right the first time which means I don’t try because how can you guarantee that you will do something right the first time.

Which is why Nanowrimo felt good to complete because it’s material witness that anything you do, even if it’s a fanfic, will always result in a horrible rough draft.

I’m actually really attached to the general plot line of the fanfic, as well as the characters, and I want to do this right. But Nanowrimo forces you to keep writing, even if it isn’t right. There were times I had to audibly yell at myself to keep moving on when my mind recognized a huge continuity error. It was difficult, but I would write a note in the margin and then keep going.

In the end, I had a giant, rambling draft, but that’s okay because that’s what drafts are!

In a way, finishing Nanowrimo helped a lot in helping with the perfection because, heavens, I tried hard and even though this fanfic is nowhere near publishable right now, at least I’ve got a good draft and I’ve noticed holes in plots and insufficiencies in character growth that can be addressed. The story has progressed, and frankly, I’m proud, even if the first draft right now is a steaming pile of crap. Because, honestly, that’s what first drafts are supposed to be anyway.

I can say that it’s just that much easier to start any project now, even if I’m going to make mistakes, because mistakes won’t cripple me just yet. I’ve currently got a goal to complete the draft in its totality by the end of the year, then finish editing everything by June, and have everything ready to start publishing (from start to finish without any breaks) in July. It may be the first major art project I’ve ever taken on and even come close to completing.

Thanks, Nanowrimo. I should donate.

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New Format

Okay guys, so, new format (yet again), but this one has actual practical reasons rather than me getting tired of the aesthetic quality of the blog.

First off, completing Nanowrimo has fired up a new passion in me to actually get some of my projects done, stuff I have literally been working on for years (in some cases, a decade?!). Because of this, I understand that my blog will probably not get as much attention and treatment as it has in the past (evidenced by the steep decline of activity during Nanowrimo) but I didn’t want to let this blog die in any way, so I’m changing the format a little to prevent that from happening.

Any big, long, wordy, “important” stuff I write about will end up on another blog that I am working on setting up right now. And you will hear about that big, long, wordy, “important” stuff here (and hopefully it will end up more polished and edited and drafted than if I had just posted it in its pre-mature, word vomit state that I usually do). In the meantime, I’ve delegated this blog to a kind of funny limbo, where anything I want to tweet about but is over 140 characters will end up here, such as stories I want to tell that won’t fit on Twitter but I don’t necessarily want to work on for an entire month.

Hopefully this will work out. I hope you guys will keep coming back. This new blog format encourages me to write short, quick posts and I’ve made a goal to update this blog at least five times a week, so for all you loyal readers out there, I hope you’ll enjoy the small shift I’ve made and hopefully I’ll have more quality things to offer in the future than my big, long, wordy rants badly in need of an editor, which had unfortunately become rather common as of late.

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