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Filtering by Tag: Ross Gale

The Photographs of William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days

Ross Gale

7 william-finnegan William Finnegan’s surfing memoir Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life features multiple, small, black and white photographs between chapters. The author as a young boy in his parent’s backyard in Hawaii. Surfing Waikiki as a teenager. Surfing a famous Fijian break as a man. A girlfriend. Surf friends. They’re interesting photographs for their sparsity, darkness, and lack of clarity. Like the photograph of the Fijian island, a dark outcrop of trees in the middle of dark water, the photographs hardly tantalize. They aren’t meant to. The only reason I bring them up is because modern surfing and stories about modern surfing are mainly image based. Surf magazines are all about the pictures. The big airs, the size of the waves, the colors, the impossible places men and women put themselves in the ocean. The articles are equivalent to those in Playboy: they go unread. Finnegan places himself among the few surf writers whose surf literature is so colorful and abiding that images aren’t needed. The black and white souvenirs are appropriate.

“Surfing is a secret garden, not easily entered. My memory of learning a spot, of coming to know and understand a wave, is usually inseparable from the friend with whom I tried to climb its walls,” he writes.

Pictures play a large part in the author’s surf communities. More than once, slideshow events are held among friends where they laugh and banter and show off past feats. One such slideshow features the end of Finnegan’s scarier surf outing, where he and a friend barely make it back to shore alive. The last picture in the slideshow is of the two men sitting on the edge of the seawall moments after arriving safely to shore. Finnegan uses the photographs he mentions as reminders for himself, little moments he forgets, or ways to transition between his descriptions of his surf friends. These aren’t the photographs between the chapters. They’re stories of photographs that leave a lasting impression.

His friend says about the slideshow photograph, “I was going to put my arm around your shoulder, but, you know.” The truth is we don’t know. Only Finnegan and his friend do.

“Nearly all of what happens in the water is ineffable—language is no help.”

It isn’t that surfing is so insular and inaccessible that we can’t know. It’s that fear and the possibility of dying is so omnipresent in Barbarian Days it’s difficult to really, truly know. He takes us as close as possible to an exciting and beautiful life of surf travel. But that’s only possible because of the story’s characters.  It’s what’s left unsaid between Finnegan and his friend that haunts Barbarian Days. We can’t replicate that in a glossy magazine spread. It’s what we can only experience in story, sitting near death’s edge with a friend, staring into mystery.

You Can’t Fake a Picture Like That

Ross Gale

A Portrait of James Lord by Giacometti. In A Giacometti Portrait, James Lord portrays Giacometti’s struggle as his art. It’s a daily wrestling that requires a commitment to begin again. Giacometti’s constant exasperation at his own work colors the story, but adds the interesting layer of uncertainty and attainment that ebbs and flows by the hour, and sometimes the minute, as he paints a portrait of Lord. When Lord suggests Giacometti fill in the background, Giacometti replies by saying, “You can’t fake a picture like that. Everything must come of itself and in its own time. Otherwise, it becomes superficial.”

I sometimes act like Lord, saying to myself, just fill-in the story. And while it’s easy to fill-in, it doesn’t create a compelling narrative. In order to make sure something does come of itself and in its own time, as Giacometti says it should, then one must continually work. This work might often be “fill-in,” but allows for something more to be made, something that can begin to become itself. This also takes time. Time to develop, time to form, time to reveal, and time to transform.

I've found there's a process to finding a things own thing. For me, it's a struggle. Nothing is clear. I have to work through the haze, through the mental frustration, fatigue, my own doubts and fears, and gently excavate the brittle bones and structures of a story.

In other words, everything must be earned. Which is why work with potential can turn out as superficial. The pace is rushed. Scenes and characters are posted like flannel pieces instead of developed over time. Instead of formidable and conflicted characters I write silhouettes producing cheesy dialogue everyone has heard before.

We need time to let our fill-in become something more and that requires a daily wrestling and a commitment to begin again and again. Show up. Take the time. Don’t fake it.

​Giacometti’s Vision

Ross Gale

7 giacometti In James Lord’s A Giacometti Portrait, Alberto Giacometti often refers to Cézanne out of reverence for his work and competence. At one point, Giacometti says, “Cézanne discovered that it’s impossible to study nature. You can’t do it. But one must try all the same, try—like Cézanne—to translate one’s sensation.”

I find the word sensation to be so precise in what I try to create with words. Sometimes I try to copy nature exactly as I have experienced it, and sometimes I try to create a new sensation. But even Giacometti knew that “a semblance, an illusion is, in any case obviously all that can be attained...But an illusion is not enough.” It’s not enough because one is compelled to go further and to perfect one’s vision.

Giacometti never stopped perfecting. When Lord thought that he was done with the portrait of him, Giacometti would continue it further, seeing something that could refine his vision. Some might call this madness. (Madness perhaps exactly what is needed to create something never seen before, to display the inspiration and originality.) What Giacometti strove for “was of course impossible, because what is essentially abstract can never be made concrete without altering its essence.” Which is why the story I write in my head is never completely the story that I write down on paper. It’s always different and off. I can move closer to it the way Giacometti moved closer through his continuous rebuilding, and the closer I nudge and edit and strengthen, the closer the work becomes “both ridiculous and sublime.” But that is never easy. It can be both discouraging and freeing.

It’s inspiring to read the way Lord describes Giacometti floundering and how he continues to work toward the small hope he believes is present in his work. Which is why the best writing advice is to always keep writing. Keep working. Even when it seems the work is getting worse and worse and impossible to do. It’s a daily wrestle that requires a commitment to begin again.

Speaking Mt. Sinai

Ross Gale

7 Mt. Sinai I overlooked a small detail in the Elijah story. It’s right after God’s fire comes down from Heaven in glorious proof that He is God. Right after Jezebel threatens Elijah’s life and he runs away exhausted, ready to be done with all this prophet business. It’s a small and obvious detail I overlooked and it changes the story for me. After an angel feeds him and lets him rest, Elijah travels to a mountain called Horeb. I should get it when it’s described as the mountain of God, but I didn’t realize we’ve been to this mountain before in the Bible story. I thought he went to some random mountain. I didn’t realize Elijah purposely travels to this mountain also called Mt. Sinai—where God's presence has been before—without food or water for 40 days. He went looking for God. I always thought he was just running away, going where the angel directed him. But his journey is more purposeful. He's seeking out God's presence. Maybe hoping God will sweep him up to Heaven on arrival. But going toward God nonetheless.

It's the little details that can drive a story. It's the nuance. While sweeping narrative arcs and plot turns are attractive and desired, it's the details that matter, especially little ones—like the name of a mountain.

This is true of our everyday language. One word can reshape our narrative and drive us to new and unexpected places: personally and collectively. Words like justice, joy, hope, peace, and forgiveness.

We can go toward those themes but we have to name them, we have to say them out loud. They can't be generalized, clichéd trivialities. They can't always be implied. They must exist on our tongues and lips. They need to beat in our hearts and roll out of our mouths. We have to fill the words with our literal breath.

At a recent worship service I listened to a grandmother and her seven-year-old granddaughter sing the lyrics:

And on that day when my strength is failing The end draws near and my time has come Still my soul will sing Your praise unending Ten thousand years and then forevermore

The stark difference between the voices caught my ear. The fervent, raspy older voice compared to the gawky sweetness of the child singing about death and eternity, things beyond her understanding, but not beyond her imagination.

The small details of the lyrics took us somewhere far away. A place of mystery filled with words and words pronouncing mystery. Let's name that mountain in our stories, poems, our everyday language, our songs, and in our lives. We might not understand the magnitude of it all or know what will happen when we arrive, but those small details can connect generations and direct our hearts toward Mt. Sinai.

The Character Arc of Nightcrawler

Ross Gale

K72A3451d.tif “A novel happens to any one of us when we give ourselves over to it.” So says the novelist Alice McDermott. But what happens when the novel, or in this case, the story, gives itself over to the character? The result is a movie like Nightcrawler. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy and set in present day L.A., the dialogue of Nightcrawler, all of it, every sentence, is a negotiation. Lou (played by a gaunt Jake Gyllenhaal) negotiates the entire movie. He negotiates payments, job positions, relationships, and scenes. 

Gilroy describes what he was doing with Lou’s character as opposing tradition. "There’s no character arc! When I started to write the character I realized, ‘this guy isn’t going to change.’ Every film you’re commissioned to write is all about an arc; usually the arc is that the world creates a change in the character, usually for the better. To not have an arc, the messages and ideas in the film became more prominent.”

Gilroy begins with an evil character and ends with an evil character. But you can’t describe Lou as a flat character because his change—his arc—is industrial rather than moral. He begins at the bottom and builds his own successful business. Lou is an American success story. He negotiates and manipulates himself to the top. More specifically, Nightcrawler is a critique of L.A. culture. A magical place we imagine has long forgone any moral direction for the spotlight. Lou secures his place in the spotlight as the story’s antihero.

While we may not approve of Lou’s actions, we’re captivated by his end goal and how he chooses to eliminate the competition, negotiate deals, and curate his trophy case. In one of the most intense scenes, Lou creates a violent meeting between gang member and police officers. He manipulates the situation for the perfect ingredients and then turns on his camera to film the carnage.

Nightcrawler reveals an exaggerated and virtually realistic capitalist-driven world where everyone plays to win. Where words are only used to negotiate and death and violence become the daily dose of entertainment. Gilroy may not see a character arc to Lou, but Lou changes. He becomes more of a reflection of ourselves and where we could all be headed. That's a fascinating story in itself and a reminder of cultural forces defining the narrative arc of our lives. If Lou's narrative path can oppose tradition, is it possible we have that same power?

What Good Stories Compel Us Toward

Ross Gale

Decorative Scales of Justice in the Courtroom It’s true that America’s favorite podcast is over—of course I mean Serial and its twelve episodes exploring the nature of truth and reasonable doubt—but the story is still happening. It’s actually just begun, thanks to Sarah Koenig’s investigative reporting and scrupulous storytelling. The case for Adnan Syed’s innocence is … well, pending. If nothing else the State of Maryland’s case against Mr. Syed was shown as fragile at best and ludicrous at worst. DNA evidence was never tested, other witness testimony ignored, and, while never explicitly mentioned, the whole justice system stinks of corruption. (Why is it the only people who adamantly stand by the case are all white men involved in the prosecution? We’re looking at you, Kevin Urick.)

This is what Serial has done. One friend of mine posted on Facebook after episode ten asking if anyone would meet him at a coffee ship to talk about the episode. I even begged my friends and family to catch up so we could swap theories and tell each other, honestly, what we thought about Adnan’s innocence. One Reddit user even uncovered a possible lead for Adnan’s case, another possible suspect not on anyone’s radar. This is in addition to the other serial rapist and murderer whom the Innocence Project is testing the DNA evidence against.

Twelve episodes have done this, galvanized listeners and lawyers alike. Just by laying out the story, presenting facts, poking holes in weak arguments, getting up close and personal with a convicted murderer, wading through murky waters of truth and lies and opposing narratives and timelines, and judging human character.

It’s rare when a story is so compelling that friends need someone, anyone, to discuss it with them in person, over coffee. Yet here we are, fascinated and flummoxed, crying out for what good stories compel us toward: justice.

Flames upon Their Head

Ross Gale


When J.R.R. Tolkien writes, "Sub-creator, the refracted light through whom is splintered from a single White to many hues" and refers to a future time when "poets shall have flames upon their head," I wonder why this time can't be now. I've always believed this time to be now.

The connotation of splintered light (men, women, and artists) can be interpreted as hierarchical: the art of humanity subservient to God’s holy creation. Because we are made in God's image we can create, but our creations are "lesser." Our art and stories and poems are "lesser." Compared to God, we are just children playing out and about.

This interpretation can be dangerous. Maybe I’m a stickler for words, but this can infect how you think about yourself as an artist. Tolkien was arguing against materialists, evolution, and modernity, even more than he was contending against the myth-hater C.S. Lewis, who once called myths lies.

I want something more than just play. I need something more than just lesser light. Stories and poetry and music and art are all something more. Rather than lesser lights they are illuminating truths. They are "the elves that wrought on cunning forges in the mind, and light and dark on secret looms entwined."

As a writer, I believe in what Madeleine L'Engle says, "God is constantly creating, in us, through us, with us, and to co-create with God is our human calling.” A Creator is only a Co-Creator when he or she asks. The request must be made.

Struggling with the question of purpose allows us to examine our own role as artists and writers. I feel an immense sense of gratitude to those who commit themselves to this craft of love, who search, and grapple, and struggle. The time is now for the poets with flames upon their heads. It is you. Beginning with the first word, note, brush stroke. Even just starting with a prayer.

The Labor of Transcending Love

Ross Gale

25305644 When I sat down recently to start a short story, I wondered what kind of stuff I was bringing to the creation. Maybe I was over-analyzing my thought process, but I already had these images, ideas, and tones and had yet to create even a single character. If our stories are to have life-giving meaning and value, what do we start with? My hunch borders on love: love for our readers, love for our characters, love for language.

I started reading this idea into the novels and movies I enjoy the most. I see this love in Marilynne Robinson’s characters in her fictional Gilead. So much so she’s written three novels about them. It’s not a love that gives everyone a happy ending or a success story. It’s an authorial love for complexity and conflict, for tragedy and new ways of seeing the world.

In John William’s novel Stoner, it’s about a love of language. This is an inclusive love, which is why the divine can be so powerful and evident in Ian McEwan’s Atonement or J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year, where atheist novelists give us language for forgiveness and praise. I feel this love, overwhelmingly, in Terrence Malick’s films. More so in character’s whispered meditations and the captivating images.

Love can also be a missing piece, even in stories about love. The plot of Interstellar hinges on love transcending the laws of physics as we know them, allowing Cooper to exist outside of three-dimension space-time and manipulate the past through gravity. All because the connection he has with his daughter (whom he abandons to save mankind) allows him to communicate with her from the future. If Christ's love can transcend time and be our lone saving grace forever, then why do I harp on such a small plot piece in an epic movie, a love that transcends? It's because love in Interstellar is cheap, just one of those givens. Cooper abandons his family to save earth, but he still really wants to return to them because he loves them. I don’t buy it. It's not earned. We have to accept it, regardless of how it appears for the sake of the plot.

David Brooks would disagree with me: “‘Interstellar’ will leave many people with a radical openness to strange truth just below and above the realm of the everyday. That makes it something of a cultural event.”

But I want something more. For a movie that says a lot about science and mankind, it doesn't say enough about humanity. It’s not based in a love for characters as it is in love for ideas about relativity and a post-earth mankind. It has all the furniture and tools, but that doesn’t make a home. We can have stories full of stuff, but we also need them rich in truth, not just strange truth, but truth that speaks to us from the past into the future. There’s a certain kind of work that crafts characters and narrative that’s more than epic. It’s a sublime labor based in love. We need to point to that kind of work; keep striving for that kind of love to truly transcend time.

Re-reading the Same Story

Ross Gale

paintings-within-paintings-by-neil-simone-2 A recently divorced friend told me how he and his ex-wife have different stories about how they met. His version is that he approached her at a party. Her version is that she introduced herself in a class. They fought about what actually happened not because they wanted to be right, but because of what the versions meant. Their unique stories portrayed each other in different lights and reflected what they believed about themselves and the other. A different story gave them a different interpretation about their past and that interpretation had influence on their future.

What if we used multiple interpretations of the same story to our advantage? Judaic literature and religion provide a long history of a hermeneutic approach. What if we applied the same hermeneutic approach to our own past? The Midrash, for example, is full of multiple interpretations of texts, each one providing a new perspective and light into the deepness of the text. The stories begin to have more power than they did before; as if a black and white television show suddenly displayed itself in full high-definition, three-dimension color. The psychologist Mordechai Rotenburg terms this a re-composition. It’s a re-reading of one’s past and history that allows a new future to form.

If I can re-read my past, then I can start to write a different future. Christ’s resurrection was a complete re-write of the world’s history. A re-interpretation of what God was perceived to be doing in the world. But where do I start? At the beginning? Somewhere in the middle like a deus ex machina? I have a personal stake in this concept. With my own recently divorced past, I have a story that tells me I’m a good-for-nothing failure. I’m tired of this interpretation and its powerlessness. I need a re-write, but — like sitting down at one’s desk to edit a long manuscript — the task feels overwhelming. The real work isn’t correcting the grammar or the misspellings; it’s finding the new story within the old, the one that gives new life. I need an expert editor to sift through the ashes and bring to life the small burning ember.

(Painting by Neil Simone)

The Battle in Public and Heavenly Places

Ross Gale

History-Mythology-Oil-Painting-0034 Matthew Fox tells the story in his book Creativity, about a group of fundamentalists who became the majority on a New Hampshire county school board. Their first decree was to not allow the use of the word "imagination" in the classroom. When Mr. Fox inquired what they were afraid of they said, "Satan. Satan lives in the imagination."

I assume much of this spiritual sentiment comes from poor interpretation of verses like Ephesians 6:12, "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places."

Ephesians 6:12 aside, what a strange ethereal battle to fight within a school: invisible forces and the thoughts of others. It’s difficult enough fighting battles against enemies we can see, how much more against ones we cannot. Who is to gauge whether we’re winning or not? When is the battle over?

Ephesians 6:12 places this ongoing battle in the heavenly places, epouraniois. A curious word Paul creates out of his imagination just for the purpose of this letter. It’s a place above the sky, a place where Christ sits, but also a place with enemies. Satan is in epouraniois.

The late painter Thomas Kinkade called himself the Painter of Light and preferred to portray the world without the fall, without evil or the possibility of Satan. In speaking of a mural he painted for the Billy Graham Library, he said painting it was "a moment of divine inspiration" and that the painting offers viewers "a glimpse of a heavenly realm."

Should we be creating canvasses full of light without a hint of darkness? Can violence and evil have a purpose in our art, in our imaginations?

As Gregory Wolfe comments about Kinkade's art: “If faith teaches us anything, it should be that our nostalgia is for an ideal we can only find after accepting, and passing through, the brokenness of a fallen world. Any other approach, in art or in life, is a form of denial."

If evil is here to stay, in our high places, in our low places, in our heavenly places, and if imagination is to play a vital role in schools and in our lives, then our fight isn’t against the power of these places — whether heavenly or imaginative — our fight is for unqualified truth. In that truth we begin to see the invisible. Only then do we know what we’re up against.

The Purpose of Evil?

Ross Gale

64df6320-dc76-11e3-a0fc-3d5529a6ae18_Fargo-Love-Story Colin Hanks tweeted that they re-wrote the script for the ending of Fargo, the TV show, multiple times before they gave up re-writing and just went with what they had. They weren’t satisfied, but there wasn’t anything they could do to fix their dissatisfaction. It’s the same dissatisfaction I feel when the closing credits roll. Molly, Gus, and his daughter sitting cozy on the couch. Molly will be police chief soon. Gus earned an award for bravery. Life in Bemidji continues. The bad guy, Lorne Malvo, is shot and killed by Gus — he gets what’s coming — but evil, that persistent thing, is never finally dealt with. Fargo doesn’t know what to do with evil. 

Flannery O'Connor said of her own work, "I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace.” O'Connor is specifically speaking about her story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” where an escaped convict senselessly murders a family: mother, father, children, baby, grandma. Fargo lacks any of the grace O’Connor refers to. In Fargo, death is for the unfortunate, not for those on the verge of eternity. This is why the ending is so unsatisfying: the absence of grace. The only thing at stake is “normal” of life in Bemidji.

The moral of Fargo is about vigilance. Don’t become one of the unlucky ones. But the story of violence should propel us beyond vigilance to a confrontation with the eternal. Not for the sake of normalcy, but for the sake of souls.

The Life of the Local Instagram Celebrity

Ross Gale

paris-hilton4 I followed this blonde woman on Instagram. Her life seemed like an unending vacation: bikini pictures with beautiful friends on white sand beaches, cocktail parties on high rises with cityscapes in the background, jungle hikes to secret waterfalls. I thought she was a local celebrity of sorts, popular and adventurous. I thought maybe I’d meet her someday. Actually, I did.

At work I was called in to the Emergency Room to help a patient without any insurance. I found her lying on a bed, high on drugs. I asked her the necessary questions for the paperwork. “I’m broke,”she said. I couldn’t believe it was her. In her social media profile she was so put together, so perfect. I didn’t imagine this scene in her life would make it onto Instagram.

How do we navigate the complexities and nuances of ourselves? How do we share our lives full of mistakes and sins? It’s not only that we like to broadcast the best story of our selves. It’s that we’re unable to reconcile how to tell the actual story of our life with cultural expectations. So we don’t tell those stories. The truth, we think, is too much. We create unrealities, fictions, because telling stories, the full story, the real story, the ugly story, is too damn hard.

In the Gospel of Mark, when an unclean woman tries to sneak in through the crowd and get healed, Jesus turns around and calls her out. “Who touched me?”The woman, now healed through the power of Jesus, could have snuck off into the crowd, could have hemmed and hawed, said it was an accident. She could have continued her new, healed life without the crowd knowing who she really was or what she had done, what kind of uncleanliness had defined her for so long. But she doesn’t hide her story, her shame, her struggle, her embarrassment. And Jesus, as he’s wont to do, redeems her.

There are tools at our disposal that allow us to tell the real story. Specifically Scripture informing the Christian imagination, and the miraculous work of Christ giving new hope and new life. It’s not Instagram filters or Snapchat stories, but a language and an opportunity to spread the joy of redemption. There is hope in our truth, the truth we can bring to Jesus. That’s a story worth sharing.

Storytelling and Slenderman

Ross Gale

3456614-0146223347-Slend Two 12-year-old girls recently lured a classmate into the woods and stabbed her with a knife 19 times. They left her to die, but she survived. Those who attempted to take her life said they wanted to prove Slenderman exists. They planned to escape to his mansion in the woods.

Slenderman is a character of mythical Internet proportions — a tall figure in a business suit with tentacle-like arms. He preys on children. Created in 2009 in a horror genre Internet forum, Slenderman is a striking example of a fun project taking on a crowd-sourced life of its own in the imaginations of millions. It’s a testament to the power of stories and the possibilities of the imagination to create new, perhaps even unthinkable, realities. It’s shocking, though, how a story can compel children to find meaning in acts of violence and some have called for the censorship of stories like Slenderman. But the answer is not censorship. Instead we need to write better stories.

Creating them is no light task and we cannot do it by pushing dogma and happy endings while ignoring evil. We can’t create better stories by isolating ourselves from reality and by painting perfect pictures of a perfect world. We can, however, offer meaning in spite of the violence and evil we encounter. We need stories that address evil truthfully and directly, stories that equip us to address evil truthfully in our everyday lives.

The young girl who survived 19 stab wounds will have a more powerful story to tell than her classmates. Because she lives, her story will transcend a horrid act of evil. That’s the story we look for — the story the world needs.

Fargo and the Force of Evil

Ross Gale

7 article-0-1D236F0900000578-75_634x462 I tend to think of evil in three categories. The first is the snake-in-the-garden tempter. The second is an immovable force of destruction like a tornado or a hurricane. The third is a bad guy with a gun, the classic antagonist. What happens when you roll all three into one character? (Drum roll, please!) You have Lorne Malvo from the new TV show Fargo. And where you find Malvo, you’ll find the bolito.

In Cormac McCarthy’s script for The Counselor, a drug-dealing businessman describes how Mexican cartels use the bolito to kill its victims. The bolito is a loop of wire that slips around the neck. A small motor is turned on and the wire pulls tight and tighter until the victim bleeds out or is decapitated. In many of McCarthy’s stories, evil is like a powerful, motor-driven force with no off-switch. A blood bath always ensues. That same evil is the driving force in Fargo where Malvo brings a bolito to the small Minnesota town of Bemidji.

Lorne Malvo is a humorous character who fits Fargo’s Coen-esque dark-humor. But in Bernidji we find that no matter how random Malvo’s killing, no matter how silly and misinformed the good, the story still pits evil against good. And this evil is always aided by both our inability to recognize it and/or our lack of courage to hunt it out.

Fighting evil is always an active pursuit of the truth, no matter how crazy, confusing or bloody. As in much of McCarthy’s canon, the force of evil seems irresistible, enveloping the unaware and the weak. It may give great temporary power to destroy, but it will always kill them.

And Fargo demonstrates how it tears apart the fabric of the community. Duluth officer Gus Grimly asks himself, “Am I supposed to put myself in danger or just let it go?” That’s the question the town must ask itself. Is it the question we should ask ourselves?