All Posts in “Writing & Publishing”

Bobbing a Bit

Deanna Hershiser

It’s a question of responsibility.

My employers recently held a training day for our nonprofit group’s volunteers and staff, during which we reviewed the right attitudes to strive for with clients. One of our manual’s pages reminded me there’s a difference between feeling responsible to someone and thinking I’m responsible for someone.

The first is possible and desirable, the second, not so much. Obviously, another adult has charge of her own decisions. I can choose to be there to listen, to empathize, to suggest options. But I must release the other person’s outcome to be what they make it, or, if you will, what God makes it in their reality.

I’ve been considering this responsibility concept in other areas. One that strikes me is my writing. Here’s a good question, I hope: How can I best be responsible to my gift as opposed to laboring under the delusion I’m solely responsible for my gift?

Writing, as we know, treats the humans involved in fickle ways. There can be wonderful, short-lived moments of recognition. I love a sentence from an essay by Poe Ballantine. He describes receiving notice that something he wrote was selected for Best American Short Stories. He hadn’t been sure his writing was going anywhere special. “But,” he says, “I figured that much of what happens in the literary world is a lottery, and I had been plugging away for a while, so maybe it was time for my head to bob to the surface of the sea of drowning writers, if only for a few minutes.” **

Ballantine’s quip makes me smile and sigh. On the one hand, I’m glad I’m not the only one “drowning” a lot of the time. A little voice in my head will often lament that if I’d only do more of this or that, my work would become…something. Recognized by more people. Helpful in more “real” places. Better than I’ve imagined it could be. So it’s good to hear that even if the voice is wrong and I’m doing everything I can, I don’t have control over the realities of 21st century writing.

On the other side of my brain, I’ve pondered Ballantine and nibbled my nails over whether or not to quit. Just quit. Shouldn’t I be responsible for my work with words and discern when it’s not going anywhere? Soon I may find I have plugged away at this stuff till life is next to over.

But there’s always been this ancestor on my dad’s side. His journals were found, long after he died. In the 1800s he pioneered with his family across the midwest. With pen he scratched beauty onto rough pages, sharing wonder at rock formations and the hue of prairie sky. He enjoyed his gift of writing and didn’t worry what ultimately happened with it. Unless he lay awake by dying campfires, chewing his nails in his bedroll. If so he didn’t say.

My point is I continue to be given a view of my lack of control over outcomes. And yet I decide again I will keep writing, taking steps each day on the journey. Being responsible to it. I may not get to choose which generation of readers ultimately finds and enjoys my words. I’m not in bad company. And the reality taking shape may contain a surprise or two more for this little head bobbing in the sea.

** (Ballantine’s full essay, Blessed Meadows For Minor Poets, is part of his collection, 501 Minutes to Christ.)

Deanna Hershiser’s essays have appeared in Runner’s World, BackHome Magazine, Relief, and other places. She lives with her husband in Oregon and blogs at

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Beauty, Any Beauty

Poetry Editor Brad Fruhauff, pictured with flower

Brad Fruhauff

Poetry Editor Brad Fruhauff read two things about beauty today and couldn’t help but put them together.

Mark Jarman in “Tea Fire”* tells of driving toward a forest fire one evening, “seduced / like night moths,” to witness its terrible beauty. He and his unnamed, unnumbered companion(s) are in awe of the way the smoke turns silver as it passes over the moon and the way the “red body” of the fire seems to desire to follow the waves of “ashy cumulus” into the sky. Then, however, they come upon homes threatened by the fire and turn back “embarrased–”

Not moths at all
but dazzled lovers
of beauty, any beauty.

The poem works because Jarman convinces us as readers of the beauty of the fire just as the “we” of the poem saw it, but then we share, too, in the abashment of realizing that this beauty comes at the cost of people’s homes. It is immaterial whether the homes are the extravagant vacation cottages of the wealthy which, when we hear of them, we often want to think were extraneous and expendable anyways; for Jarman, they are still homes – “doomed homes,” in fact. The valence of the poem is that the dazzling beauty of the fire momentarily dislocated the speaker from the heaviness of this world of responsibility and care.

“Not moths at all” could be read as “not drawn to the fire by a morbid fascination with death – our own or others,” for it is the threat of destruction by fire that embarrasses the travelers. But “dazzled lovers” does seem to suggest that their difference from moths is not in their volition but in the object. They are drawn by beauty rather than destruction, but they are drawn just the same. As “lovers,” they exist in a timeless, even exclusive state – the state of early passion familiar from our adolescence that, we must admit, while pleasant is not without blame. Yet the poem affirms that what they pursued was, indeed beauty – any beauty, beauty wherever it can be found when it is so rare a thing.

I’ve been thinking about beauty ever since I started studying the sublime. Beauty is often figured as the pacific, angelic counterpart to the dark, excessive sublime – roughly the attributes of Blake’s Heaven and Hell, respectively. Suffice to say that Hell and the sublime are quite chic these days, while beauty is trite at best (think Snow White) and dangerous at worst (something like her wicked step-mother). Classical beauty, after all, entailed an ability of the viewer to perceive it adequately, which we nowadays recognize as the road to violence.

Enter David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Eerdmans, 2003). There are a number of bold and counterintuitive aspects to this title, but suffice to say Hart does not find beauty violent or trite. Instead, he attributes to beauty a “gratuity” and a “prodigality” that gives of itself – sometimes in startling and disturbing ways: “a village ravaged by pestilence may lie in the shadow of a magnificent mountain ridge . . . ; Cambodian killing fields were often lushly flowered.” Beauty is saved from the violence of abstraction precisely by its particularity, its inherence in just such a arrangement of things. Christian beauty, he argues, inheres in the unavoidable and often offensive narratives of the gospels; most centrally, of course, in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

In “Tea Fire” Jarman registers our modern ambivalence about beauty – something we’re drawn to but also embarrassed about. It’s a tension also present in “The Heronry.” Seeking the solace of a forest preserve, he reflects on his own processes as he sits quietly observing a pond and its many birds. Among his many reflections are these final ones, which I hope I’m okay in quoting at length:

I almost think I could write about it forever,
Adding word to word like coral in a reef,
An excess of language like the genetic code, an extravagance like all the stars,
Too much ever to be needed except
By the need for there always to be more,
That need which, when the end comes, looks past it
For woods and hills and ocean,
For fields and streets and houses and horizon,
Repelled by blankness, expecting beyond sleep
The dream country and its population.

Here he finds himself caught between beauty, language, and desire. Is his experience a projection of his own need “for there always to be something more”? (And if so, what?) Or does it inhere, as Hart would argue, somehow in the world itself, if not in any precise way? Or is it a function of language, words that spring up in the mind as a coral reef?

Jarman’s poems may lack the confidence that faith ostensibly offers, but they are nonetheless compelling meditations on beauty because they are full of the desire that faith, in many ways, is – desire for there to be more than what is given and at the same time desire for the given to be “given,” as a gift, as what is not labored for or dubiously “earned.” Sometimes the challenge for the (American) Christian is to clear away the screen of faith to see – really see – the manifestations of glory that so many have pointed us toward without knowing their name.

* Jarman’s poems can be found in the Autumn 2010 edition of The Hudson Review.

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What Can I Do With Writing?

Stephen and HenryStephen Swanson grows tired of the continual questioning of the power of communication, especially from students.  “Why would I need to write essays,” has become a standard of expressing frustration, and even veteran writers feel that way sometimes.  So, he offers this micro-blog…

Why Writing Matters (Vol. 1):

It Pushes Me to Care

(“Vol. 1” in no way implies that additional volumes will certainly come in the future, although they might.)

This week, I read this (, and it renewed my faith that writing can accomplish the task of informing and motivating in ways that stem from fundamental desires to congregate rather than divide.

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Palabras, Parabolas, and the Perception of Flaws

Michael Dean Clark

This is the fourth and final installment in a series on “being” a writer. You can find the first three here, here, and here.

I suck at math. Just thought I’d start with that. I was alright until people started adding letters to numbers and then the unknowns won. Kicked my butt is more like it. My geometry teacher rounded up my 69.45 percent to a 70 so she wouldn’t have to oversee my repeating the class. Lucky her, she got me two years later in my second trip through Algebra II (a trip that ended in a gift B-). Tutors didn’t help. Calculators were useless.

The one thing that made sense to me was parabolas. I loved drawing parabolas. Still do. There’s just something spiritual about an infinite curve that meets at the base of its own horseshoe and while simultaneously angling up and away from itself forever. It was, for some reason, a more attainable idea than any Pythagoras ever came up with.

I’ve often wondered why I have this love affair with a diagram, as I’m sure you’re wondering why I feel the need to share my sickness with you. And yes, I do remember this is a column about writing. So let me attempt to make a little sense. When I was in college, I saw a 3-D rendering of a parabola in space. It was a simple computer image, basically turned to provide the depth lacking in the 2-D versions of my high school textbooks. I wanted to hug it. Now, I know why. That’s how stories should be.

In grad school we talk a lot about our “aesthetic.” When I talk to normal people, I call it “what matters to me when I tell a story.” Now I’ll tell both groups this – good stories operate in that three dimensional parabolic space.

First, I want my stories to operate along a vertical plane in which my characters do what I do – wrestle with a God who can be difficult to pin down or even feel at times. This does not mean all of my characters are Christian or even spiritual.But they are all confronted with divinity and respond in the variety of ways people do everyday. Without that vertical component, I see no point in telling stories.

But, just as the lines of a parabola move away from each other, so do many of the horizontal relationships of my characters. Life is hard. Love is harder. And people fall away from each other. Inherent in all of this are pain and hope and trauma and grace. But what I’m most concerned with is the continued presence of that point of connection, the joining of lives that would otherwise continue on, one moving gradually east while the other goes west. And that bond only really happens in the scope of a vertical and horizontal space.

And then there’s the third dimension – what I’ll call depth. For the first few years I flirted with the parabola, she was just a flat, u-shaped thing. But that slight shift of the picture opened up a possibility of growth and change that I want my characters to possess. Our culture trains us to judge people visually and immediately. We size up and reject or accept as soon as we can take in their hair, features, and clothes. Sometimes we make that choice sooner. But sometimes, if we wait, we experience something else about that person. And the experience opens us up to the possibility that our perceptions are flawed; that we are flawed. As a writer, I am possessed by the desire to communicate that our flaws are neither permanent, nor outside the healing influence of change.

So being a writer is about the depth of our flaws, the space between ourselves and the people around us, and the heights to which we are willing to climb or depths we will fall to find what is outside of ourselves. In other words, I’m still drawing parabolas, just without the numbers that might mistakenly make people think my fiction assumes certainty in and of itself.


Michael Dean Clark is an author of fiction and nonfiction and now an Assistant Professor of Writing at Point Loma Nazarene University. He is also mere inches from earning a Ph.D. in Creative Writing at the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin. His work is set primarily in his hometown of San Diego and has been known to include pimps in diapers, heroin-addicted pastors who suffer from OCD, and possibly the chupacabra.

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Photo Haiku Wednesday 4.21.10

Photo courtesy of Elaina Avalos.


1. Write a haiku inspired by the photo and post it in the comments.

For extra chances to win:

2. Follow @reliefjournal on Twitter

3. Follow @Quo Vadis on Twitter

4. Twitter @reliefjournal with your haiku and #PHW (Photo Haiku Wednesday)

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The good people over at Quo Vadis have generously donated some prizes!!

The weekly winner will receive a Quo Vadis Habana Journal and a bottle of J. Herbin ink!!

Every week Relief will choose a random winner! So play along and tell your friends. See the information below for extra chances to win.

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Winner will be announced via Twitter Thursday afternoons.

We can only ship to U.S. addresses right now.

You may only win once every three months, but you may play along every week for Twitter Super Bonus Points.

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Would you like to have your photo featured on Photo Haiku Wednesday?

Email your photos to Michelle:

You’ll get a photo credit link here on the main blog and you’ll also be entered in the drawing for the Quo Vadis Habana journal and bottle of J. Herbin ink the week your photo appears on the blog!

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