A Little Light Reading

8 07 2017

“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

(Groucho Marx)

 

Happy Saturday friends!

 

Suggested Resources:

Groucho and Me (Groucho Marx)

“A Night at the Opera” (The Marx Brothers)

 

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After A Long Hiatus….

6 12 2015

After A Long HiatusI’ve taken quite a long sabbatical from writing regularly on this blog.  One post in the past sixteen months has been it.  I now intend to return to at least semi-regular, if not regular, contributions to this page.

Much has happened in the past year and a half.  Our eldest daughter married a fine man from the Plains.  Both are now happily ensconced in the Deep South, surrounded by salt water and palm trees.  My wife, Kath, and I visited them a month ago.  A great trip.  They are well.

Our youngest daughter, happily married for the past two years, has moved with her husband, another son of the Plains, thousands of miles away to new tasks.  They, too, are surrounded by palm trees and salt water.

Our vacations will be superb!

Here in northern New York, we recently sold our one hundred and one year-old Victorian farm house and have a smaller apartment close to work.  We are content.  Our home of fourteen years served us well but, with our two daughters married, it was more house than we needed.  So we sold to a fine young family with adorable children.

Candidly, sheer busyness accounts for my writing hiatus, a good bit of it anyways.  But more than that, I’ve learned some things over the past year and a half.  My reading has increased in breadth and depth.  I’ve had the good fortune to be mentored skillfully and have been forced to reevaluate many of my cherished prior commitments about life, human accomplishment and foible, God, reality, and lots of other things.

I hope to share the fine authors and thinkers who’ve helped me grow.  They’ve not been easy on me.  And won’t be easy on you either.  But then again, as a mentor recently admonished me, “Do not be seduced by low-hanging fruit.”  What has value must be extricated at cost and time.

Or, as Sara Groves sings on her newest record Floodplain, “Love is a diamond hidden in mountains, covered in danger and dirt.”

Let’s do this.  Thanks for reading!

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Reading and Its Importance For Writers

27 09 2013

CA: Premiere Of Paramounts' Remake Of "The Manchurian Candidate" - Arrivals

“You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” (Stephen King)

When I first read this quote, I thought it a little harsh, candidly.  But as I’ve chewed on it over the past year or so, I think it is a statement of reality.

I’m a voracious reader.  If you’ve visited The Upside regularly, you know that.  So I am not intimidated by Stephen King’s perspective on the importance of reading as preparation for effective writing.  Why?

I am a musician.  I play guitar and piano.  In fact, I’ve been playing guitar since 1976.  I acquired my chops by learning the songs and imitating the styles of my heroes—Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Phil Keaggy, etc.  Imitation, in writing as in music and an array of other disciplines, is the way we learn and then cultivate our own voice, our own style.  What we see modeled, we emulate.

So, is King’s observation fair?

I think it is.  His excellent and hilarious book—from which the above quote is taken—On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, details his own development as a writer and the importance reading played in his own life, inspiring him to write.  It is an insightful and easy read.  Just the other night, I laughed myself to tears as I worked through about eighty pages.  Stephen King is one of the most unpretentious writers one will ever meet.

Confession:  Though I’ve read most of his book on writing, I’ve not yet read one of his novels.  But I’m sure I will.

But why is reading important for an aspiring writer?  Simply this.  For one, you are exposed to information and perspective which you’d otherwise have not considered.  But more to the point, reading is apprenticeship.  An apprentice learns his or her craft, whatever it is, by sitting at the feet or standing beside a master or mistress of the same.  We learn by what is modeled to us.  To avoid reading is to diminish perspective and stunt growth in skill.

It is interesting to me that John Wesley once told the Methodist ministers under his leadership either to read or leave the ministry.  Was he being harsh?  Uppity?  Not at all.  He just knew that failure to read was to leave oneself vulnerable to the prison of a very narrow perspective: One’s own.  Same with King.

Illiteracy is certainly a problem in our land.  And, to be fair and charitable, reading does not come with ease or delight to all.  But you must keep at it.  We have at our disposal these days all sorts of vehicles that deliver us information—books, blogs, websites, audio and video files.  Whatever you do, if you are a communicator with an audience, you must learn and process information, perspective, and style.  There are no shortcuts.

So…if you’re not reading and learning and growing, begin now.  You’ll be pleased with the results in your writing and in your life.

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What Are You Reading These Days?

15 09 2013

A Year of WritingI’ve often asked my friends in conversation as well as my readers on social media this question:  “What are you reading lately?”  I’m always fascinated by the responses.  I’m an avid reader in many different subject areas.  So here are a few that I’ve read or been reading this past three or four months.

A Year of Writing Dangerously (Barbara Abercrombie) – I first laid eyes on this gem a few months ago on a short vacation out of state.  Set up in the format of a daily dose for every day of the year, this fantastic little book gives daily fuel and inspiration for those of us who like to write.  Included in each day’s post is a quote by a renowned author.  I just bought it this afternoon.

The Kill ArtistThe Kill Artist (Daniel Silva) – This breakout novel first introduced the world of thriller fiction to the engaging character, Gabriel Allon, veteran Israeli intelligence officer and world-class art restorer.  Silva has given us fascinating protagonist in Allon, a psychologically conflicted veteran of various wars on international terrorism.  Read everything by Silva.  You won’t be disappointed.  By the way, Silva is President Clinton’s favorite fiction author.

Spirit of the DisciplinesThe Spirit of the Disciplines (Dallas Willard) – Recently deceased author Dallas Willard, philosophy professor at USC, shows us that our lives are lived in the body and that success in any pursuit–in this case, Christian discipleship–is predicated on the bodily (active) habits and practices we form and adhere to.  Fantastic read for those looking to improve their Christian commitment but equally profitable for those looking to master the gifts and talents they’ve been given.

The Creative HabitThe Creative Habit (Twyla Tharp) – Twyla Tharp is a veteran dance choreographer for, among other institutions, the American Ballet Theatre.  Set in the hustle and bustle of the New York City theatre culture, she shows that discipline and routines, far from stifling the creative impulse and creative persons, actually enhance creativity.  An excellent choice.

Zen In The Art of WritingZen In the Art of Writing (Ray Bradbury) – Famed novelist, Ray Bradbury, of Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles fame shows that writing is about passion and child-like wonder.  Find something you love and hate and write about it, counsels Bradbury.  This little book of short essays will enhance your approach to writing and life.  I have a fellow writing colleague who reads Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes every October to remind himself why he’s writing in the first place.

Okay, friends.  What are you reading currently?  Tell us!

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The Human Need For Solitude

5 09 2013

solitude1There was a time, many years ago, when I had the secret desire to become a monk.  I have always loved nature, walking—usually at night, with undistracting silhouettes and moon shadows the only things capturing my eyes—and finding quiet places to still my soul and brain.  It seemed monks had a corner on this, so to speak.  Perhaps you can identify.  It points to something necessary for the development and nurture of us as human beings.

Solitude.

Ours is a time of frenetic energy and busyness.  Things to do and not enough time, so the fiction goes, to get them done.  As a result, we are often harried and all out of sorts.  One of the first casualties of such a lifestyle, unless assiduously guarded against, is quiet.  Stillness.  Reflection.  Prayer.

People like Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, have made significant contributions to literature and life simply because they made room for the kind of thought and prayer that come as a result of intentional reclusion.

Most of us are not called to a monastic vocation.  What we can do is take control of our lives and make times of aloneness and stillness, even silence, a daily part of our lives.  Someone has said, “Hurry isn’t of the Devil; hurry is the Devil.”  Kind of humorous but it illustrates that endless activity and company, without recourse to the kind of soul repair that comes from pulling away from society and technology, will wreak havoc on the inner person.  There are some people in our world almost pathologically afraid of being alone, away from noise, just themselves and their thoughts, their hearts and consciences.   It is a weakness, but it can be mastered.

Here are some things that have helped me as I’ve made solitude a part of my life:

  • Place. Woods are excellent for this as well as mountains or water.  Forests fill me with wonder and being near water calms me.  The lapping of waves on a shore and the rhythm of a lake, a river or an ocean has a hypnotic effect that is hard to beat.
  • Reading.  I usually like to take something to read to help me focus my thoughts and give fodder for my mind and spirit.  A Bible, sacred literature or poetry are excellent companions.
  • Music.  If I choose technology, it is usually music of a more meditative nature.  Instrumentals of all sorts, especially film scores, are excellent choices.  It has a profound way of setting the mood for reflection.
  • Writing.  It is often helpful to have a journal, a composition book or just a legal pad to jot down insights that emerge during your time apart.

I encourage you to make time for reflection, away from the hustle and bustle.  You will find yourself more centered and see an increase in the fruitfulness of your efforts in the marketplace as you return.

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Sanity. Ah, the Joys!

1 09 2013

Sanity EinsteinAlbert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Well.

The year is two-thirds over.  Autumn starts in three weeks.  Many of us laid out goals at the top of this year.  How are you doing in the attainment of yours?

One of the most important things one can do is take an honest inventory of one’s life and determine what works and what doesn’t.  What sorts of things are you doing, what kind of company are you keeping, what kinds of attitudes do you wear like clothes that may be bringing you closer to your goals in life?  Or are steering you farther away from hitting your potential as a human being, created in God’s image with a purpose?

Doing this takes courage because it usually means making adjustments, sometimes radical changes to keep the ship from the shoals.

It’s quite easy to let habit turn into routine.  Fair enough.  But often, routine can create a rut or even lead us into the ditch.  We get so accustomed to the bland, gray sameness of each day.  Our lives mirror the storyline of the motion picture Groundhog Day.  It is like a broken record and we are as stuck as the stylus.  Our potentials and abilities largely stymied.

Time for a change.  Change of job.  Change of location.  Change of peer groups.  Anything to break out of the black hole of stagnation.  It will take an effort to overcome the seductive and paralyzing narcotic of your comfort zone and its inertia.

Here are some tough and practical questions you must wrestle with if you desire sanity and growth:

  • With whom do you spend your discretionary time?  Companions can either make or mar a life.  We cannot stress strongly enough the importance of choosing friends carefully.  The best friends you have are those who have the effect of bringing you to a higher level by their presence.  Cultivate these.  And you must limit your involvements with pessimists, dream-killers and critics.  Their influence is hurting you.  It just is.
  • Are you using your gifts and abilities to their full potential?  This may be the time for a career change.  Some of us are bound by the “golden handcuffs” of a large salary and benefits package.  You really need to ask yourself if the pay and benefits outweigh that uneasy sense of not doing what you are best prepared to do.  Is earning a lot of money worth the feeling that you may be falling short of your ultimate design and purpose?  Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, when courting PepsiCo chairman John Sculley in 1983 asked the famous question “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want to change the world?”
  • Are you a lifelong learner?  My wife gave me a Kindle Fire® reader a few Christmases ago.  Along with a sizeable library that I recently downsized, I am using it to my advantage in this important area.  There are so many free books out there!  Are you seeking to learn something new every single day, to advance and to grow?  Or will you settle for mediocrity, falling short of the great call upon your life.

Here’s to growth, to change, to doing things differently going forward.  To sanity.  Ah, the joys!

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Factors In Success

17 08 2013

outliers_gladwellLast year I read a remarkable book, Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell.  I am stunned by the results of Gladwell’s investigation into the hidden causes of success.  It is one of the most fascinating and upsetting books I’ve read in a long time.  Upsetting in a good sense, that is.  It upsets commonly cherished ideas about how people attain success in life.

In his book The Road Less Traveled and Beyond, M. Scott Peck argues that one of the characteristics and problems of our age is what he calls simplism.  Simplistic thinking fails to take into account that life is complex.  There are many variables that make up the people we live with and the challenges of our time.  The rub is that the variables are not always apparent.  It takes probing, time, patience and labor, for thinking is work.  Really.

The strength of Gladwell’s work is the way he demonstrates that, for example, 1) Bill Gates was not just a computer genius who came on the scene in the 1970’s and through sheer brilliance became the richest living American, 2) Asians aren’t necessarily “better” at math than Westerners but are more patient and their numbers nomenclature more user-friendly, and 3) that some recent airline disasters have more to do with overarching cultural distinctions vis-à-vis authority and power distance rather than simple “pilot error.”

I’m not writing today’s post as a spoiler for Gladwell’s book.  You owe it to yourself to get your hands on it and read carefully.  When I finished the book, I was struck with the reality that I am far too quick to pass judgment on the issues of the day, on why some fail and some succeed, even on theological issues—the area that I’ve given the most attention to since the early 1980’s.  Rarely are all the facts and evidence on the surface.

We are all composites of the influences and environments in which we were raised and in which we now spend our lives.  We are not simply our genetic makeup, products of our DNA.  More often than not, there are hidden factors that figure into the success of some, the failure of others.  Timing often figures in as much as raw ability.  We can thank Malcolm Gladwell and those like him (Scott Peck, Geoff Colvin, etc.) for digging deeper and giving us the full picture.

Here are a few brainteasers with which to bait yourself:

  • What cultural and economic tides are coming in right now that I can make the most of?  In other words, can I discern the signs  and trends of the times?  My friend Christopher Hopper has written extensively on the emerging wave of self-publishing.  You can read about that here.  It most certainly will be a force in the literary world in the days to come.  But it needed a level playing field, courtesy of the World Wide Web, to function and in which to be established.
  • What current politically hot issue engages me the most and do I have solid, consistent thinking and evidence to support my position?  Democrats routinely chide pro-life evangelicals for being oxymoronic—at once militantly anti-abortion and also vehemently pro-war (or pro-death penalty).  Are the criticisms valid?
  • Am I patient enough to thoroughly research problems and find meaningful solutions? Peck again.  You must be patient and resist the urge for simplistic, easy answers.  Thinking is work.  Are you up to it?

Digest Gladwell’s book.  It is a very important contribution!

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