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Filtering by Tag: Michael Dechane

The Grip of Entertainment

Michael Dechane

23 jester I went to a casino for the first time several weeks ago. I am as numb to stimuli as the next person, but in that place, I felt an extreme sensory overload. Bright, flashing, loud, smoky, and crowded, every sense assaulted. Curiosity and excitement melted into confusion—I had no idea how to do nearly anything in that place—and then into a sadness that reminded me very much of how I eventually came to feel about strip clubs, about 15 years ago. I lost what little money I committed beforehand to losing in about half an hour, mostly over a half-dozen hands or so of blackjack. I wandered outside into the cold, clearer air and began earnestly trying to justify to myself the urge to get a little more cash out of a little machine that sponges dollars from far away bank accounts so I could play a little more. That’s all I’m doing here, I told myself: just playing. The signs everywhere confirmed this: we are all here just for entertainment’s sake, just for fun, you see. Later that night, riding home with my old friends I spoke up out of a prolonged silence: “That was a great place to make some terrible decisions,” I said.

I didn’t really get angry until the next day, in the morning as I had my coffee and journaled and tried to sort out the previous night’s expedition. All the signage about entertainment is what got me, gets me still. I saw faces of people likely having a great time. I saw others that I’m sure were hiding ruin and addiction and wreckage I can’t even bear to imagine much about. “Entertainment” comes to us by way of the late Middle English, before that, the French, and on back to some glued up Latin. “Among” and “to hold.” I don’t know how to put those things together, but the last bit arrests, holds me: we are entertained when we are held by something. When our eyes, mostly, are held by something, and they, in their turn, hold onto something else: let’s say our attention, let’s say our hearts. Let’s say awe diluted to silent gorging; let’s say wonder diminished to wandering curiosity; let’s say praise transmuted into bastardized worship: we cheer and call for more and more, already on our knees and we know not who our Daddy is, as we are entertained, just here for some fun, held, among others, in whatever audience.

I think “entertainment” and I think first of a king slouched on his throne, bored in his court, who calls for his jester. I don’t care about the jester or his act right now, it’s the king I see: him who does not see, who will not look out on what he has been given to rule. He would see only problems to be dealt with, if he did, or faceless subjects with nothing to offer him but troubles and a dirty throne room floor. He cannot delight in what is his, so bring me someone, bring me something that will at least amuse me, if delight is so out of the question, he roars, and enter the jester in his suit and bells. He is a foolish king, I see, and false to his calling, his kingdom, even to his bored and all too human self.

And then I imagine what I cannot see: how unlike him the King is. The one who sees and is not bored. The one who cares most deeply for what he has made, and what he rules, and what he was given. The King that will not be held by any one or thing against his will and yet sits enthroned and arrested by his children he delights in, calling them before his throne, name by name.


What are you playing at?

Michael Dechane

23 curled_leaf In my mid-twenties, in a time of profound personal crisis, I began trying to draw things. I wanted, as always, to write, but I could not write at that point—I could barely talk. It was the first time since early childhood I'd even made an attempt to draw anything: I knew by then I had no aptitude or natural skills as that kind of artist. What a surprising delight to find that I was better than I expected, even with just a tiny bit of instruction, some space to work, and a few hours of attentive play. I began to learn some of what I assume most beginning art students do: how to look; how to see the whole of a thing and its parts sandwiched between back and foregrounds; how the surface and texture of a thing suggests or conceals what is underneath and inside; how to estimate proportion, the size of a thing relative to another; how to direct the trajectory of the next stroke; how light on things makes shade; how a simple thing on a table can become beautiful—a wonder; how to take these things in, and then to render. It was fun—it was true play.

It is harder for me to say how this and other experiments with art (watercolors, carving, cooking, music, photography, filmmaking) have helped my work as a writer, but I'm convinced they have. The rudimentary skills I just described with my foray into drawing overlap or translate pretty directly into a good skill-set for writing, sure. More than anything related to the craft of writing, though, it is the play that has helped me, I think. Experiencing, maybe rediscovering, the joy of dabbling, of failing without cost, of being lost for a while in the act of making: it's playing when I can't (or won't) do the work of writing that has helped me most, though I can't (or won't) say how, exactly. It's too soft or sacred a thing to say directly.

Last summer, my wife bought me a thing I'd been wanting but didn't want to spend the money on. It's called an Olloclip, and it is a tiny set of interchangeable lenses that fit over the camera built into my iPhone. The set she got me has a fisheye lens, a wide-angle lens, and what I most wanted: a macro lens. The macro lens lets me take extreme close-up photos and video. It basically straps a 10X microscope to the HD camera in your pocket. I have spent hours inching my way across the living room shooting subjects I never saw as subjects before. The carpet. Rocks in the fish tank. My pant leg. You may have no idea how thrilling dirt and dust is, until you get real close to it. I would say Extreme Close-Up Vision is a pretty lame superpower for a superhero to have, except that all of my favorite authors seem to have it. May I get real close to you, right now, and ask in a 10X whisper: what are you playing at?

(Photo by Michael Dechane)

Internal Editor

Michael Dechane


Editing, in itself, is not the problem. Editing is usually necessary if we want to end up with something satisfactory [But] The habit of compulsive, premature editing doesnt just make writing hard. It also makes writing dead. — Peter Elbow, Writing Without Teachers

Last Fall, my wife and I began reading The Artist’s Way together and doing some of the work Cameron prescribes for recovering or nurturing the stunted artist she claims is in each of us. Early in the book, she lays out the importance of free writing exercises and brings up the idea of an internal editor that will invariably try and squash these attempts to just write. The exercises were fun, and the time with my wife was delightful, but I was uncomfortable with really believing that there was some kind of creativity-killing hobgoblin lurking in the shadows of my inner life. A year later, I wonder why: there really is something – someone – there, that fits that bill. Just trying to write a post about it/them is enough to prove Cameron’s idea plausible, if not true. And I remember Spacey’s character in The Usual Suspects, riffing on Baudelaire: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

So I’m trying to understand who this editor is. And what to do with them: try to ignore them or bypass them or shut them up? Or talk to them, get to know them, understand what they want, and find some way to live (and write) with them? There is a false kind of freedom in saying or writing, without filtering, whatever I want that isn’t good or godly, and that’s not what I’m seeking. Instead, I’m searching for the true freedom to speak from my true self without fear. I want this in conversations, in relationships, and in my writing, too. And it’s in prayer that I think I’m beginning to get a clue.

The free writing exercises inspired by The Artists Way quickly became a kind of morning prayer journal for me: a happy deviation from what Cameron was actually encouraging. Spending 20 minutes early each morning just trying to tell God what I was thinking and feeling, and trying to listen for Him in response, was a wonderful thing for someone like me who has never had a regular ‘quiet time’ or devotional life. I’m convinced that no time trying to pray is wasted or a bad thing. But I look at those entries now and see how far from free they really are. I pose and filter in every conversation, and none so much as those sacred ones with my Maker. Maybe this says more about my spiritual life and sense of assurance before God than my abilities as a writer, but I think there’s a connection. I have a dim, immature understanding of reverence. The difference between saying, or writing, what I think someone wants to hear, and saying whatever is true may also be as far as the East from the West. Am I willing to believe that? And write, speak, pray, out of that belief?

Today, at least, I am. I will not shame you, little voice inside me, or suffer you to shame my true self. I will not crush you, or be crushed. I will not pretend you are not there, not some part of me. It’s a beautiful, bright autumn morning, and we’re going to let the fig leaves fall where they may.

(Drawing by Escher)

Where Do You Write?

Michael Dechane


It's best that I be as clear about this as I can -- I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course). Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer's job is to use the tools in her or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it's enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth.  - Stephen King, On Writing

The metaphor of writers as archeologists King describes it is my favorite part of his book On Writing. The process of discovery and of clearing away everything that isn't connected to the other pieces rings true to my experience as I work at finding words. It helps me focus. It helps me remember to be attentive, gentle, and decisive at my desk. It is a standing invitation to return to the joy-and-labor of finding and bringing home stanzas, paragraphs. I wonder, though, about where one goes to find fossil-stories: about the nature and topography of this ‘undiscovered pre-existing world.’

As I continue to press on in pursuing the craft of writing, I am discovering that where I go internally is more important than where I decide to break open my laptop, or how many cups of coffee might put me in the sweet zone for the day’s writing work. I don’t have a great way to articulate this yet – maybe that’s why I’m still hung up (or hanging!) on King’s metaphor of digging bones.

At this point, maybe it is as much as I can say that I feel I need to go deeper, or underneath, some strictly rational, manageable ‘place’ to get to a ‘place’ with ideas and words that feel most true, most surprising, most like my real voice. Maybe what I’m looking for is a personal metaphor to capture — and driving directions for how to get back to — that mysterious, wonderful, terrifying place where I find the good words. A metaphor for that place, and for my role in it. Am I alone in this search? Or have you quested after this, maybe found a metaphor that helps you?

The Bible, the Detective Novel

Michael Dechane

23 big_sleep Raymond Chandler co-created the beginning of a new sub-genre of writing: the hard boiled American detective novel. At one point he wrote some rules for writers working in his wake: you can read his Ten Commandments For Writing a Detective Novel here. I will circle back to Chandler’s Commandments in a moment, but I want to say I wish someone would write some thoughtful rules for reading a detective novel. I know that does sound spurious, or just silly, especially when detective fiction is so often a guilty pleasure for serious readers or literature students of all stripes. I wish it though, because I’m more and more curious about both sides of this wonderful, terrifying, transcendent mystery we are caught up in: how to write and how to read.

Nothing fuels this curiosity more than my attempts to read the Bible. It’s interesting how the difficulty of entering into our sacred text brings out some different attempts to find footing, or a way to enter into it, or … something. One category of attempts is to superimpose our ideas about what we know of other kinds of writing, what we call genres (all of which were born after the Bible was written) over the text or into the filters in our minds. Watch. The Bible, we sometimes say, is a Big Love Story. And we take what we know about romance novels or films and try and get at the text through that lens. Or, the Bible is a History Book: the story of God and his people and the world, and that becomes a primary lens. And then there is (perhaps) the saddest lens of all: the Bible is a Textbook. We flatten the whole thing into small, “learnable”bits of instructive information on how to make our lives work well (better? okay? something?).

I think these attempts to consider the Bible through a lens we think we can understand are inevitable, potentially helpful, and invariably flawed. There is a small army of questions marching around in my head at this point that I’m putting aside in order to call this one question to the fore: why don’t we attempt to read the Bible as a detective novel? If you want to object to my question, or chime in with some answer, please avail yourself of the comments section on this post, where you’ll find me waiting. For now, I shoulder aside the inevitability of finite creatures trying to make sense of the Infinite and the invariability of our flawed attempts to do it, and consider the potential benefits.

For one, if we tried reading the Bible as a detective novel, we might actually finish it.

For another, we would be more apt to be caught up in, and maybe even enjoy, the scalding plot line and the “characters”and the unraveling-even-as-it-deepens-mystery that run through the whole of it.

For another, it simultaneously opens both a door for our recalcitrant humility and our wonderful, God-given powers of deduction and reason: we might be forced to own the fact that we don’t know exactly what is going to happen in the story, or why, and we would be encouraged to pay a bit more attention to the details (not to mention the unwritten subtexts).

But even with such tantalizing benefits at these, I submit to you that we stubbornly refuse to even attempt to engage with the Bible as The Mystery of God and His Disappearing Son.


When you’re done answering (or ignoring) that question, circle back to Chandler with me. Though he was certainly under no compulsion to do so, I believe that God has written a book that beautifully, wonderfully adheres to each of Chandler’s Commandments, including the First: “It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the denouement.”Also, especially, the Sixth: “It must baffle the reasonably intelligent reader.”Are you ready to consider enjoying the Thriller that begat all thrillers? There was this dame, a real looker, see, but decked out with troubles like a lit-up Christmas tree when she first walked into my office

The Holy Going, Writing as Exploration

Michael Dechane

snow walk-alexis-chartrand-3rdseasons Annie Dillard’s essay “Expedition to the Pole” takes two threads— observations from a real or imagined Mass at her local church and details she culled from historical records of failed expeditions to the North and South Poles—and begins winding them together in alternating blocks of prose. Her deft juxtaposition creates a third thread, at first invisible, to make a remarkable weaving which turns its nose up at the flattening simplification of allegory and rises above the common mystery of metaphor and seems to strain for the hallowed ground of the parabolic.

God knows one of the last things we need in the world is another reductive division of humanity, one more faulty ‘us vs. them’ delineation to add to the heaping bag we are carrying around. Just for a minute, though, and just for fun, let’s say there are two kinds of writers: those that adhere to the ‘write what you know’ creed and those that are in the ‘write what you want to know about’ camp. There are fine and enjoyable writers on either side of that fence, but my favorites are those skilled (and brave) enough to take both imperatives in hand and set off blazing a different track in the wilderness.

Early in the essay Dillard references the Pole of Relative Inaccessibility. Wikipedia tells us it is “a location that is the most challenging to reach owing to its remoteness from geographical features that could provide access. Often it refers to the most distant point from the coastline. The term describes a geographic construct, not an actual physical phenomenon. Subject to varying definitions, it is of interest mostly to explorers.” Her essay becomes, right in front of us, a writer’s travel diary of her expedition toward that Pole. With what she has known and lived in one hand, and what she believes is out there and wants to know in the other, she goes, and asks us to join her, not just as readers, but as fellow explorers.

At one point she makes the aside: “There is no such thing as a solitary polar explorer, fine as the conception is.” So, shall we let her lead us, or would you like to cut drifts in the snow for the rest of us awhile?

Telling the Depraved: Cormac McCarthy's Hard Stare at Evil

Michael Dechane

23 sunset_limited I don't think anyone paints evil like Cormac McCarthy. Part of what I mean is that I don't know of another author who has looked that deeply and clearly into what evil is, and what it does, and how it works itself out in our time. I think he's telling the way-down truth about what greed looks like, and what it does, when I watch The Counselor. I think he is speaking most honestly and most earnestly about lust when I read Child of God. I think he sees the darkness of life untethered from what is true, good, and beautiful more clearly than anyone when I try and take in The Road, or am afflicted with what I remember of Blood Meridian. That would all be horrifying and weighty enough, but I read The Sunset Limited, and I saw it played out (thanks, HBO) about as well as it could be since Michael Clarke Duncan couldn't be cast as Black. And it is dramatically more horrifying to realize that McCarthy, to a degree, gets it: he understands and can write the hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ more compellingly than most pastors I listen to.

The list of things I am not, or not much of, is unbelievably long. I don't make bones: I'm no theologian. Or literary critic. But I do know a lot about work. And I know this about prophets: their work, their job, is to speak for God, to us. And I believe McCarthy is prophetic. See? I can't even say it straight, I have to edge up to it. I believe Cormac McCarthy is, perhaps unwittingly or unwillingly, but in actuality, acting and writing at the insistence of the God of the Bible, my beloved Papa, our worshiped and rejected Abba. We could try and talk (here, below in the comments thread) about epistemology, or eschatology, or a proper understanding of false prophets, or my literary pedigree, or my story and how I've come to believe I know Jesus when I hear Him. But what I really want to talk about is the mystery of how and when, and through whom, God chooses to speak.

A Modern Voice Can Survive

Michael Dechane

pleasantville2-1 I collect books about hunting and fishing from the 50s, 60s and early 70s. In them I see the images and hear the voices that taught my father to hunt and fish, to be outside in pursuit of something, and I hear strains of how he taught me: this is a personal obsession much more than an academic one. Still, I love titles like Why Fish Bite and Why They Don’t (1961), and Game Cookery (1967). I love the examples of some of the first mass printing of color photography, and captions that read “A quiet afternoon on the lake is the best way to enjoy the Great Outdoors.” I love the authoritative voices of the authors detailing the best way to build a duck blind, or how to tie an Improved Clinch Knot.

These books were produced as Modernity was making its last stand in the American Academy, in the years leading up to, and just through, the succession of Postmodern intellectuals and the seismic cultural shifts that have followed. Those shifts are visible now in the ways we talk about conservation of natural resources, sportsman and environmental ethics, and generally, what going into the wild to catch and kill and eat means.

The books I collect are just another lens for me to look at these things when I can’t stomach another Cormac McCarthy novel or blog post about evangelism in our Postmodern world today. We haven’t improved the Improved Clinch Knot, but we think we’ve bettered the way we teach and talk about everything. Isn’t it good, we say, that we aren’t pretending things are so simple, so black and white as the photos in my books? Knowing what is true, teaching what is true, isn’t simple because it means a doing and experiencing to know Truth. Eventually that will mean some kind of bloody engagement with what has been made, the world we have to live in.

Yesterday I found a two-page spread describing, with small grainy photos, how to fillet a fish with seven strokes of a sharp 10 inch knife. Where are you going to look? How are you going to learn?

And the Truth to Speak

Michael Dechane


I was surprised to find a sheriff's deputy on the doorstep when I answered his knocking. I was even more surprised at the language on the subpoena. Under the header it read: "To all and singular the sheriffs of the State of Florida - Greetings" for an opening salutation. It sounded like a good way to start an Epistle, but a strange way to address me about a summons to traffic court.

Things got stranger still in the body of the letter:

"You are commanded to appear before the Honorable ____________, of this court, at the location listed below on this [date] at [time] to testify, and the truth to speak, in a certain matter pending before said court and to wit."

I was jarred at the force of the language.

Lest I doubt his seriousness, the Honorable __________ closed the letter with: "Witness my hand and the seal of the said court this 7th day of March, 2014."

The syntax and the formality in this form letter, (hand-delivered by a man deputized and representing the man whose hand I was supposed to witness behind the printed stamp signature) felt biblical and Shakespearean at the same time.  It was just a shadow, I felt, but one with enough weight to register somewhere in me: Justice is more than an abstraction. I will appear. I will testify. It will be the truth. So says the judge. There are, I believe, images, elements of the natural world and unexpected pockets of language that make parts of a hidden world plain and believable. Which is so much the better, since the hidden is true.

Even in The People's Court or an episode of Judge Judy, we can't escape a feeling or a sense of something real, and something important underneath the campy melodrama. It happens at weddings and funerals, too, even the most non-religious ones.

When I registered my car recently, the clerk, after 15 minutes of asking rapid fire questions and staring at her monitor while she typed, stopped, swiveled her gaze to meet mine, and said more slowly: "Do you solemnly swear, under punishment of perjury, that all the information you've given me today is correct?" Do I swear? Do I do anything solemnly? Is the truth really that important?

I felt the weight of testifying in traffic court and, somehow, that was weightier because it reminded me of an irrevocable, greater summons to every man. One where the truth will indeed be told, and witnessing the hand of the one who commands will shake us, each and every one.

I was surprised, in part, because I don't expect letters anymore. And for all my love of it, I guess I don't expect much from language, from just a word, anymore. Not all this, anyway. What is that? And isn't there something – someone -- at your door and mine, even now, knocking?

Until We See Their Faces

Michael Dechane

23 the-shawshank-redemption


When Howard died, we staggered. Any death would have felt huge to the small college where I worked then, but Howard was a very popular, well-known-and-loved senior, the star goalie of our remarkable men’s soccer team, and a warm friend with tremendous character and humility. He was fine, we were all fine, when the Fall semester ended and Howard went home to Jamaica for Christmas break. But then he was tired for no reason, tests were run, a rare and strange blood disease was diagnosed, and by the time classes were starting up again, he was too ill to travel. And then we heard what none of us could stomach or quite believe: he was gone. That was four years ago last month. I miss him, and still cry when I think of him. I want very much to see his face again, have another hug, hear his voice and laugh.

In a culture where most of us have nearly instant and constant access to virtually everyone we know (or have known, thank you Facebook), some of the ordinary and universal experiences of missing people are now gone. For years I have been convinced our ability to hope or long well is atrophying with every video chat or text message. But now I wonder if humans have ever hoped or longed well. Is this because our fallen incompleteness makes us feel deficient no matter the degree of longing and hope? For some it’s “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” but for others it’s “out of sight, out of mind.”

So the question remains: Does Facebook, Twitter and texting make us better or worse at hoping and longing? I don’t know, but it does seem I’m less likely today to find a friend with the time and desire to sit and talk about these things.