All Posts in “Writing & Publishing”

Memoirs: Self-Obsessed or Sacramental?

Stephanie Smith

American novelist Henry Adams once wrote, “Everyone must bear his own universe, and most persons are moderately interested in learning how their neighbors have managed to carry theirs.”

This line, written in 1918, would be an understatement for modern readers who are consuming the published memoir as fast as it can be printed. The memoir, as a published form of self-narrative, has successfully climbed the literary ladder, claiming equal standing with the traditional novel and receiving recognition by literary scholars as a genre revolution. Within the past thirty years, the memoir has asserted itself as a rising trend in the writing world.

Yet public responses are mixed: skeptics claim that the memoir indulges in syrupy solipsism, the theory that the self is the only reality, while enthusiasts praise it for the value of self-discovery through story. With an emerging cultural impulse to chronicle the self and such conflicting estimations of this trend, the church must join the conversation. The church must recognize the rise of the self-narrative as a signpost for the human longing for transcendence and affirm storytelling as a sacrament in the high art of illuminating divine grace.

The memoir is a personal narrative that provides the author with a verbal processing of the self’s “becoming.” This kind of literature has charmed millions of readers with this human interest appeal in bestsellers such as The Color of Water by James McBride, The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. The voice of memoir offers its readers an occasion for personal identification so that a reader can find him or herself within the story of another and perhaps borrow the wisdom, healing or insight from similar life threads.

Henry Adams’ idea of the private universe of men is being born into memoir, as the individual universe of motherhood experience, healing from the trauma of abuse, or growing up in a racially mixed family is translated into print. The private universe of the writer, then, opens up a new world to the reader in which a common human spirit is realized, introducing the memoir as a catalyst for community.

The Church’s Response: Stories as Sacrament

The church is no stranger to self-narrative, understood in Christian circles as spiritual testimony, and Augustine’s Confessions is just one example. Beginning with the gospels and later patterned in martyology, hagiography, confession and conversion testimony, the story paradigm is rooted in ancient church tradition. The church has an evangelistic responsibility to engage the rising confessional characteristic of culture for kingdom purposes rather than dismissing it as a narcissistic endeavor. The church need not be suspicious of the collective cultural cry for self-understanding, having its own so satisfied in the Person of Christ. Instead, the church must bridle the technique of self-narrative for Christian testimony, and affirm the art of life story as a powerful witness for grace.

The pattern for spiritual testimony finds its structure in the grand drama of redemption, as the unfolding story of a believer’s sanctification is only understood in the identification with the rhythms of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. The storyteller must then recognize the tension between the cosmic Story of redemption and the echoing story of personal redemption. By telling personal story within the framework of God’s Story, we can engage the cultural trend of self-narrative while adding the new, redemptive element of pointing beyond the self to the Savior.

The cultural rise in the self-narrative affords the church a powerful opportunity to channel the very same confessional trait into spiritual testimony. The church can enter the social scene of life-writing by affirming it in theology as sacrament and encouraging it in practice as testimony. The church is already a credible voice in the self-narrative genre not only because of its tradition of testimony, but also in its sacramental ability to transcend the very story it tells by praising the grace of the Divine Author, something no secular memoir can claim. The art of testimony, then, trades a religion of solipsism, characterized by self-devotion, for a religion of sacrament, marked by the surpassing of the self to point to the Savior.

Stephanie S. Smith graduated from Moody Bible Institute with a degree in Communications and Women’s Ministry, which she now puts to work freelancing as a book publicist and writer through her business, (In)dialogue Communications, at www.stephaniessmith.com. After living in Chicago for four years, traveling to Amsterdam for a spell, and then moving back home to Baltimore to plan a wedding, she now lives with her husband in Upstate New York where they make novice attempts at home renovation in their 1930s bungalow. She is a member of the Young Professionals of the Southern Tier and blogs for Moody Publishers at www.insidepages.net.

re:Place

Michael Dean Clark

This is the fourth in a series of thoughts on how place shapes and is shaped by the stories we tell. The first three can be found here, here, and here.

Recently, the writers I’m working with in a creative nonfiction class were required to take a mundane action and make in original. I went the low-tech route for doling out said actions, printing up phrases like “shaking hands,” “crossing an empty street,” and “changing a shirt” on small pieces of paper that would later be pulled from a stack on my desk.

That’s right; I’m too lazy to bring in a hat for them to draw from. Sue me.

 Their responses were fun. One student drew “sending a text message” and included an account of a girl so preoccupied with her phone that she fell into an open manhole. Another student pondered the existential pain of the limp fish handshake and the relative certainty hand-touching will turn out awkwardly. Another went the passive aggressive route and wrote an entire response without ever addressing the action on her slip of paper. To be honest, I still don’t know what she was supposed to be writing about.

The point of the exercise, of course, was not sparkling exposition. Rather, its goal was to push writers toward that particular alchemy of good nonfiction – taking a familiar subject and presenting it in a way that challenges the ways readers have internalized it. The big academicky term I use is denaturalization (though as close to the border as I work, that often leads to discussions of immigration).

I think this process is extremely necessary if a writer hopes their work will arrest readers who are more and more inundated with information that does little to nothing in terms of being artful. The best chance literature has of maintaining a place of prominence in general culture is to do what it always has and lift halos from the mire of the macadam (to paraphrase – loosely – a dead French poet).  

One element that begs to be made foreign is place. People like to read about exotic settings, but the stories that matter most to us happen in the most familiar locales. They happen on our cul-de-sac, at our supermarket, on the freeway we take to work, in the cubicle three rows over.

These places are not exotic. People don’t plan vacations to sit at the local Denny’s restaurant they eat at once a week. But to a writer this is a great opportunity.

Take what should be experiential wallpaper and give it the Charlotte Perkins Gilman treatment. Skew the image of a bus bench in a way that forces readers to focus on the people sitting there; the people those same readers fail to see as they pass by each day, locked up in their “Lexus cages” with the radio on to drown out the life being lived around them.

I remember reading Ishmael Beah’s book A Long Way Gone about child soldiers in Sierra Leone a short while after spending a couple months in the country adopting my daughter. What struck me most about the experience was not the story (although it is amazingly powerful in its simplicity).

What caught me was how his descriptions of Freetown recast my own mental images of several places I’d been while we were there. Images drenched in sunlight and success are now clouded in shadow and sadness because of what so many children like my daughter suffered. But those shadows also heighten my ability to appreciate the daughter I sometimes forget is adopted.

And that is anything but mundane.

Michael Dean Clark is the fiction editor at Relief, as well as an author of fiction and nonfiction and an Assistant Professor of Writing at Point Loma Nazarene University. He lives in San Diego with his wife and three children.

The Ideal Writing Spot

Stephanie Smith

Stephanie Smith

It seems that most famous writers create a certain habitat for their genius, a custom-made space where their creativity can flow forth uninhibited. Virginia Woolf had A Room of One’s Own, J. K. Rowling has her European café, and Kurt Vonnegut has his hardwood floor where he worked out of his lap. So what are the basic requirements for a writing spot?

A desk, of course, is essential (except, apparently, if you’re Vonnegut). Preferably, a mahogany, stylishly-distressed desk that just looks like classics have been written all over it. A desk in the tradition of Tolkien’s and C. S. Lewis’, which you can actually see on display (including the wardrobe that inspired Narnia) at the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College. Extra points if your desk has a secret compartment.

Next, coffee. Every writer needs an energy boost now and then. And if you’re self-employed, your caffeine addiction might even count as a tax deduction (don’t quote me on that…)! But don’t try to outdo French novelist Balzac, who was known to drink 50-300 cups of coffee per day.

Your writing space should also host somewhat of a cozy mess. Creative minds aren’t known for their organizational skills, you know.

Surround yourself with inspirational literary quotes. These will remind you not only how much you love, live, and breath writing, but how fun it is! Motivational catchphrases such as, “My stories run up and bite me on the leg” –Ray Bradbury, and, “Writing is…like a long bout of some painful illness.” -George Orwell, should get you off to a good start!

You should also have something to fidget with as you wrestle your brilliant ideas down onto paper. Stress balls, those cool moldable erasers, etc. Now is the perfect time to develop a bad habit such as cracking your knuckles or chewing your hair. All for the sake of art, of course.

A muse: whether it’s a picture of your sweetheart, your cat, or your Edgar Allan Poe bobble-head, you should have something to attribute your strokes of genius to. And someone to take your frustration out on when writer’s block hits.

What’s your writing environment? Where do you hammer out your thoughts, poems, and stories?

Stephanie S. Smith graduated from Moody Bible Institute with a degree in Communications and Women’s Ministry, which she now puts to work freelancing as a book publicist and writer through her business, (In)dialogue Communications, at www.stephaniessmith.com. After living in Chicago for four years, traveling to Amsterdam for a spell, and then moving back home to Baltimore to plan a wedding, she now lives with her husband in Upstate New York where they make novice attempts at home renovation in their 1930s bungalow. She is a member of the Young Professionals of the Southern Tier and blogs for Moody Publishers at www.insidepages.net.

Do Anger and Creating Mix?

Kimberly Culbertson

Are You Reading Along?

Have you clicked over to Don Miller’s Blog lately? You know I have, because this isn’t the first link I’ve posted on the Relief site. He’s been blogging a series on “The Way of A Creator,” and I think Relief readers everywhere should be reading along.

Anger + Creation = ?

Today, his post states that “A Creator Resists the Urge to Create out of Anger.” You’ll want to read the whole post, but here’s a quick quote:

The public only has a consciousness so big, and when you create something good, and it gets into the public consciousness, there’s less room for whatever it is that made you angry. So go and create something good, and displace whatever it is that is pissing you off.

This post has me thinking about Relief’s beginnings. Part of our story is that the vision for this journal was born out of frustration. I’ll be honest–sometimes “Christian” literature makes me angry. For years we’ve endeavored to create something that displaces the sometimes-overly-sanitized work that well, pisses us off… okay, I’m not sure I’m following Don’s advice in this sentence.

Thoughts? How do you, as a creator, wrestle your anger? Do you agree with Don’s advice?

The New Cover

One of my favorite parts of putting together an issue of Relief is working with the photographers and graphic artists who help the outside of our journal look as good as the work we publish inside. You see, I’m well aware that, while we all know that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, we’re all prone to do it anyway. Fortunately, Relief has developed great relationships with gifted visual artists who contribute to covers that are as original as our vision for a Christian literature that is both true-to-life and beautiful, gritty and wonderful.

The cover of our current issue is a composite of two images. The central image (the tree and sunrise in the doorway) is cropped from a landscape taken by J. Brisbin, a former Relief author and photographer whose work we featured on our last cover. Like his last, this image demonstrates the high dynamic range (HDR) technique, which is a favorite form of Brisbin’s. As he explains it:

HDR is simply a way to capture an image that pretends it has more dynamic range than it actually has. The eye can see about 15000:1 contrast ratio, while photography can usually only capture 300:1 to 500:1. Highs get overexposed, lows get lost in shadow. HDR algorithms seek to compress multiple exposures of an image that expose various parts of that 15000:1 contrast ratio in “slices” by altering the exposure, then combining those images (3-12) using special software. What makes HDR cool, in my opinion, isn’t this technical side of it, but the artistic result of the tone mapping software. Different algorithms produce different results and a vast range of effects can be produced by manipulating the knobs and switches in the tone mapping software. It can be time-consuming and takes a lot of trial-and-error but with the right composition, the effects can be stunning.

The second — and much less technical — image of the dark foreground, was taken by my wife, my youngest son, Josiah, and myself during a hike at a nearby abandoned and run-down house. (Actually, I took the picture from inside while they stayed safely outside and prayed the roof would not collapse on my head).  With some clever arranging by Harriet Brewster, who also designed the cover for our last issue, the result is an image we’re calling “Lazarus, Come Forth” for its juxtaposition of  desolation with hope and beauty, and to hint at this issue’s themes of isolation and communion.

And now that you’ve seen the cover, click on over to our store and pre-order a copy of your very own!