On Sensationalism

I’ve had the privilege of working with junior and senior high kids at the annual Lighthouse Young Writers Summer Camp. The cool thing about teaching at summer camp is you get to teach, encourage kids with their writing, and never have to grade a thing. It’s really the way teaching should be. But I’ll save that rant for another time.

Between the creative writing class I teach at school and the classes I’ve taught at Lighthouse, I’ve noticed that young writers are sensationalists. Parents get killed. Alcoholism tortures every family. Shooting sprees are common endings and solutions to a character’s problems. On occasion, I find myself wishing for a therapist’s number on speed dial by the time I finish reading these stories.

Why is it that so many writers resort to blood bath?

Because young (and/or inexperienced) writers are afraid. I know because I’m guilty. When I go back and look my undergrad writing projects, I wrote to shock. I wrote to offend. I wrote violence because I didn’t know any other way to make my writing interesting. I was afraid of being boring.

(Gasp!)

Now I know that simple is best. Great tension and conflict can come out of a simple, common, mundane desire of a character. But young writers don’t have the confidence (or developed storytelling skills) to trust their idea. So they cop out and sensationalize.

As a teacher, how do you teach students to be sensational rather than sensationalists?

Truth be told, that is truly the million dollar question. I equate the blood bath story ending to the dream ending. The worst possible story conclusion is the “I woke up and it was all a dream.” What a joke. I think Mark Twain would say that writers who conclude their stories this way are rescuing their characters through miracle. However morbid, killing your character (or sending your character to murder or even suicide) is rescuing through a miracle of sorts. The character doesn’t have to live with consequences, and the writer doesn’t have to flex his/her writing muscle to figure out how to really resolve the conflict.

I have my students write two possible outcomes to their story: their central character either gets what he wants or he doesn’t. Write it both ways… and none of this “he wants to die!” crap either. Secondly, I have students figure out surprises along the way. The character may get what she wants, but it might not be all it’s cracked up to be.

One of the greatest reasons for reading that I’ve ever come across is that we read to experience life in ways we will never achieve in our actual lives. So if we are writing stories that have easy outs, then we don’t offer any challenges or hope to our readers.

I’m not advocating happy endings by any means, but what if the characters we write about have to actually deal with consequences? What if we as writers have to just sit there with our pencil in our ears and think about ways to write an engaging resolution?

Our students will complain about writing being too hard. And then we all get to enjoy the fruits of our labor.

Ember: Found Poems

I’m proud to announce that my latest collection of poems, Ember: Found Poems, is now available for order.  (Free shipping from Amazon!)

For those not familiar with the idea of found poetry, the idea is to select words from another poem, story, article, song (the list is endless really) to create your own original work. Here is an example from a workshop I took earlier this summer. I had a pretty good response from that found poem, so I decided to embark on a bigger project.

Photo by Rob Long / Nickie Altamorano (2013)

Jason Stocker
Photo by Rob Long / Nickie Altamorano (2013)

My dear friend Jason Stocker recently released his second CD, The Color of Hope, produced by Ben Wysocki of The Fray. The CD covers Stocker’s journey of losing his father at a young age, the subsequent grief, the testing and maturation of his faith, and of course falling in love. I first met Stocker in August of 2000. He was the new youth worship intern at the church where I was on (unpaid) staff as director of youth discipleship. We took a staff retreat to the mountains in early August, and of course, the two tallest guys on staff were assigned roommates.  What was unique about getting to know Stocker was that he had lost his dad about 15 months prior to that retreat. I would lose my own father two months after that retreat. I remember asking Stocker if he’d be willing to work through this whole losing-your-dad thing with me. He didn’t know me, but he promised to be there for whatever needed, to ask whatever I needed to ask.

So many of the stories on The Color of Hope parallel my own journey of losing my

Available on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon

dad, wrestling with my faith and with God, trying to figure out marriage without the help of a father, and more. Jason Stocker is one of three men who have stood beside and encouraged me through the grieving process. It goes as no surprise then that listening to this CD takes me on quite a journey. So I decided to write poems that explained my own journey, but because our stories are so closely interwoven, I decided to use Stocker’s lyrics as the basis for my poems. Thus, the found poems. (Yes, Stocker has given me permission to use his lyrics. This is all legit, folks.)

To compose each poem, I spent time listening to each track of the CD on repeat. I took the lyrics from all the songs and put them in one document. I then chose words (in the order that they appeared) that recorded my own experience, and it turns out that the poem matches the tone of that song. I then moved on to the second track, set it on repeat, and found a new poem. The result is a juxtaposition of two similar journeys, unique in their own ways. The book is in two parts. The first part shows Stocker’s lyrics in gray, and my chosen words in black. This way you can see the subtext of the two works. The second section is just the poems, as it’s easier to read that way. Here is an example of how it’s laid out in the book. This poem is called “Roses, Inside Out”, which accompanies the track “When I Close My Eyes“:

Rosesinsideout

Click to enlarge

And then here is the text of the poem by itself (with line endings and punctuation):

ROSES, INSIDE OUT

Perfect heartache:
ocean days
an empty place
tomorrow shadows,
vanishes the way
my age did.
Believe me,
I’ve tried to fit
answers in the excess cold
leaving fate too heavy
to hold on to. Emptiness
isn’t a dream to love.

Losing hope,
you disappear
with broken words.
I see roses
inside out,
frail, and old.

I bow,
my burden
snowing
into doubt.

In a way, this project is a collaboration. I am extremely thankful for Stocker’s friendship and his willingness to let me use his work as an inspiration to my own. I hope I’ve done it justice.

The Art of the Very Short Poem: Riddle poems

This week I took a class at the Lighthouse about writing very short poems. I am a fan of twitter poems, so my hope was to learn a few things. I did. It was a great class. We talked briefly about riddle poems, poems that describe an object or present it in metaphor. My riddle poem isn’t that hard to figure out, but I like the way it sounds. Leave your guess in a comment. Here it is:

This morning it was a mess,
but with a blur of innovation
it whirred into a helicopter.
For now. And tomorrow–
a tractor, a transformer, a skyscraper,
a whim from the fast fingers
of a child.

The Art of the Very Short Poem

I recently took a class on very short poetry at the Lighthouse Lit Fest. One of the prompts Lynn Wagner had us do was to highlight words from longer poems to create our own very short poem. Fun exercise. I’m not normally a fan of found poetry, but this one turned out okay. I chose to use Emily Dickinson’s 788. Dickinson’s words are in gray, and I’ve highlighted my choices. I’ll post a few more later this week. Enjoy!

Publication – is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man –
Poverty – be justifying
For so foul a thing
Possibly – but We – would rather
From Our Garret go
White – unto the White Creator –
Than invest – Our Snow –
Thought belong to Him who gave it –
Then – to Him Who bear
It’s Corporeal illustration – sell
The Royal Air –
In the Parcel – Be the Merchant
Of the Heavenly Grace
But reduce no Human Spirit
To Disgrace of Price –

Leaf by Niggle

I’m one of the best procrastinators this world has ever seen. As a child, I was supposed to clean my room every few weeks–pick up, vacuum  and dust. It should have taken 30 minutes max (I didn’t live like a total pig). Yet I would spend my entire Saturday finding ways to put off my cleaning. There were cool toys to play with (instead of putting away). I hadn’t read that book in a while. The vacuum cleaner held an orb of destruction that needed to be diffused by my GI Joe action figures. The guinea pig litter was too stinky. Thus, I turned a short project into an eight-hour dilemma. I missed out on many Saturdays of playing with friends, running around outside, and the general rewarding goodness of completing a task in a timely manner.

Portrait of Niggle

Mr. Niggle

So it is I found a kindred spirit in Niggle, the protagonist in J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle”. (On a completely unrelated side note, I dig his beard.)

Niggle is a painter, and not a very accomplished/talented painter at that. His passion is leaves–he studies leaves, draws them, and paints them. Niggle wants to paint a tree, but feels he hasn’t yet mastered the leaf. He also struggles with completing his work in a timely fashion. He tries to paint but finds excuses not to–he doesn’t know enough, he isn’t good enough, people are interrupting, his neighbor needs help, etc.

One day, Niggle sees a picture of a tree with a forest and a mountain in the background. I can’t tell if the picture is real or in his imagination, but the painting becomes his magnum opus. Unfortunately, his handicapped neighbor’s wife grows ill, and Niggle abandons his work to offer minimal help.

Another side note with a little more applicability than the last: Niggle is defined as “a trifling complaint, dispute, or criticism” (Websters).

Niggle eventually dies, or “goes on his journey” as the story puts it. He spends some time in a hospital/holding cell where he learns to manage his time, is granted grace and freedom by a “doctor”, and is finally released into his new life, which, ironically, is the landscape he had been trying to paint.

Timothy Keller asserts that this story is about work, the value of work, the importance of completing work, etc. I agree, but that idea isn’t what captivated me when reading the story.

I was moved by the artist’s image/perception/understanding of the unknown. As I read it, Niggle, in his own human way, perceived a glimpse of heaven and was trying to the best of his ability to capture it. In life, his vision was broken, hung in a back corner of a museum, and then forgotten about forever. To the outside world, Niggle was a nobody, but he still had a vision, an artistic drive, and the overwhelming fear to ship his product (as Seth Godin puts it).

I fear that I’m like Niggle, a mediocre writer at best in the eyes of the world. If I were to die tomorrow, I doubt that my writing legacy would live for very long. Very few may ever be moved by my work.

But it’s still my work,my poetry, my art. And the people I’ve met in the ongoing process of becoming an expert have given life to my writing that I never thought imaginable. Niggle didn’t have a community of artists (or even friends) to challenge, encourage, and even validate him as an artist. I need to stop getting hung up on whether or not I’m skilled enough, well-read enough, or whatever not-good-enough worries that haunt many artists. Instead, I need to write, which isn’t complete until you read it. And maybe someday, we’ll find ourselves in a more perfect form of your poem or mine.

What fears keep you from writing? Or from sharing your work with the public?

What are your visions of eternity?

The Furious Longing of God: A Review

I’m new to Brennan Manning. Shortly after college, my roommate was seriously impacted by The Ragamuffin Gospel. My wife owns a copy, and it rests in dust with the other basement-banished books. I will need to retrieve it soon, however, as Manning proves to be encouraging and convicting in his latest book, The Furious Longing of God.

Manning makes three major points in his book:

  1. God longs for us furiously, as made evident by Song of Solomon 7:10: “I am my beloved’s,
    and his desire is for me.” (ESV) If God loves us so passionately, why don’t we share that love with others?
  2. Our actions reflect Christ, so if we fail to love those around us then we fail to make Christ visible to the world.
  3. We must love. If we don’t, we cannot be healed and neither can those who continue to hurt.

I am most struck by Manning’s charge to quit worrying about our own personal agendas, about keeping track of who is living what lifestyle. We see the Christian outcry over civil unions and gay marriage. We fret over creationism being banned from the public school classroom. We criticize youth based solely on appearance. And Manning says to cut it out. Our greater American culture tells us that there is no place for God in the public sphere. And we complain, and cry, and demand legislation.

Manning has already called the Waaaaaaambulance to take us away. If the Christian community spent time building relationships and responding to people with compassion and grace instead of demanding that everyone live according to Biblical values, what would the public image of Christianity be then?

I’m critical because I have failed miserably at responding to my surroundings with grace, humility, and  compassion. I’m guilty of relying on the guilt of legalism instead of grace in managing my classroom. I avoided the gay waiters I worked with at Red Robin. I dream of the tongue lashings I can give people after they’ve wronged me. I talk about taking care of the poor, but have failed to follow through.

And none of these behaviors draw anybody closer to the cross of Christ. So how do we change? How do we shift from legalistic judgmentalism to the furious longing of love?

Manning suggests a simple prayer: “Abba, I belong to you.” I’ve added another line: “May my next action be one love.”

The Teacher Poet: A (very) Short Tanka Series

The gurus at Tweetspeak Poetry have issued the challenge of writing a resume as a poem. So here’s my resume, in case anybody is hiring:

The Teacher Poet by Joel E. Jacobson

(1)
high school student
interprets literary classics
incorrectly–
said English teachers
I loved to hate

(2)
knowing little
about myself or careers,
the college plan
changed and changed and changed,
rough drafts to discover purpose

(3)
desert wanderer
working as a corporate trainer–
a teaching mirage?
Shouldn’t drinking be a symbol
for knowledge and a full life?

(4)
English teacher
responsible for classics
he read in his youth;
these graduates’ embrace
years later, understanding