The Greatness and Genius of America

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I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers, and it was not there; in the fertile fields and boundless prairies, and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits, aflame with righteousness, did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.

Alexis de Tocqueville, 1805 – 1859

On Letting Go

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I suppose I write about revising as often as I do because I spend so much of my time doing it.

I write about revising also because I’m convinced that the difference between the amateur writer and the professional one is rarely a difference in native talent.  I have over my years of teaching encountered any number of highly talented writers, some with gifts I can’t touch, and some of those highly talented folks are still unpublished.

Of course, being published may not have been their goal, and if it’s not and they write for the pure joy of the process without ever longing for an audience, they have my full support.

But most people who write want readers, and they want to do more than hand their work around, they want to hold a finished book.  If you are one of those, then the skill you need to cultivate is revision.

And the first step in learning to revise is learning to let go.

I don’t mean writing and writing and writing and then throwing it all out.  That’s too easy.  (Or too hard, depending on how you look at it.)

I mean taking something you love from the tips of your toes and being willing to ask yourself, how might I see this differently? And then letting go of the way it landed on the page the first time. Or even the second or third or fourth time.

The secret, I’ve found, is to throw away any trace of “I got it wrong and dog-gone-it, now I have to fix it!” and begin instead with “I love this! Now how can I make it better?”

But to make it better, you have to start with giving up your commitment to the way it is. And that can be scary.

I’m not talking about killing your darlings, that too-often repeated advice. Sometimes your darlings stand up and call too much attention to themselves and therefore need to be buried, and sometimes they are darling because they are beautifully written and a perfect fit in your piece.

I’m talking about seeking feedback from folks you trust—or folks who have the capacity to publish your work if you get it right—and letting that feedback give you a new vision.  (That’s what re-vision is, after all. A new vision.)

Sometimes for me that new vision requires hearing a suggestion more than once.  I’m revising a novel now about a boy who has an imaginary dog. Before we sent it to the editor, my agent said to me, “I wonder if we find out too soon that the dog is imaginary.”  All I could think of was how much I loved the moment of revelation exactly as it stood at the end of the first chapter AND the amount of work such a change would make.

I said, “I don’t agree. Let’s send it.”

He did as I asked, and do you want to guess what the editor said? Among other things, “I wonder if we find out too soon that the dog is imaginary.”

By the second time I heard the comment, I suddenly had a new vision of my story’s possibilities. So I said, “You’re right.  Of course!” And I let go of my love of that end-of-the-first-chapter revelation and went to work.

(I also ate a little humble pie in appreciation of my agent.)

But that’s only one of many examples of letting go.

To make this struggling story work, I’ve had to let go of my main character’s core motivation, turn it inside out. I’ve thrown out a bedrock scene and found something stronger to put in its place. And once I really let go, I was able to see that the most important things that happen in my story can work better if they happen in a different order.

Wow! That’s exciting!

And it’s enormously satisfying that I’ll end up with a story that works for other readers.

If I hadn’t been willing to let go, though, I would have ended up with a failed novel.

We Touch This Strength

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We touch this strength, our power, who we are in the world, when we are most fully in touch with one another and with the world. There is no doubt in my mind that, in so doing, we are participants in ongoing incarnation, bringing god to life in the world. For god is nothing other than the eternally creative source of our relational power, our common strength, a god whose movement is to empower, bringing us into our own together, a god whose name in history is love.

 

Carter Heyward

A Small Word

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It’s a small word, only three letters.  But it’s one of those words that can cause a lot of commotion.

I hesitated to use it, especially on the very opening spread of my picture book, but though I thought long and hard, I couldn’t find another that suited my purposes better.  Or at all.

Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug,” and that’s how I felt about this choice.

Still, I said to my agent, Rubin, before he hand carried my new manuscript to the one editor I wanted to receive it, “Tell Liz if she wants me to change that one word, I will.”

Liz accepted my manuscript while snacking on the not-really-a-bribe scones Rubin brought that day, and she said, “The word can stay.”

The small word we were talking about is God.

The Stuff of Stars

Here is the way it is used in the opening of The Stuff of Stars:

 

In the dark,

in the dark,

in the deep, deep dark

a speck floated,

invisible as thought,

weighty as God.

 

Now let me explain.  I am not a theist.  I haven’t been a theist since I was a very young woman, despite the fact that I had married a man who was preparing for seminary and a career as a priest in the Episcopal Church.  (Which is another long, in fact 28-year-long, story.)

And everyone knows the word God creates all kinds of problems in a children’s book.  Those who are theists are apt to want the God that is named to be only their own.  Those who are not don’t want God named at all.  And public schools and even private schools not related to churches back away from the word as they would a land mine capable of blasting them out of existence.

Still . . . I wanted to use the word God!  No other would do.

Why?

Because I couldn’t think of another in our lexicon that carries more . . . well, weight.

These days I belong to a Unitarian Universalist church, a church that is non-creedal.  A member of a UU church can believe in God passionately or be a convinced atheist.  UU’s subscribe to basic principles that are as far-reaching, in fact, I would say more far-reaching, than any creed, but, at least in my congregation, one of the most reliable ways to stir up dissent is to say “God” from the pulpit too many times in a row.

So I knew precisely what I was doing when I chose to use that word in my picture book.  I knew how much power the word has, both the power to communicate a deep truth and the power to offend.  I recognized, too, that I was writing about a topic, the Big Bang, that some see as anti-God, convinced that science’s explanation for the way our world came into being can’t coexist with the idea of God.

I certainly didn’t choose the word as appeasement to those who believe that God and science cannot be reconciled.  Such a conviction is so far from my own reality that the thought was never in my mind as I wrote.

What I was in my mind, what is in my mind every time I open The Stuff of Stars to see my words and Ekua’s astounding illustrations, is the awe, the reverence, the humble joy in which I stand before this universe . . . and before every miraculous child this universe brings to us.

What better way can there be to express that, all of that, than one small, three-letter word?  God.

Whoever we are, whatever we believe or don’t believe, it is a word with weight.

In the End

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In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, we will understand only what we are taught.

 

Baba Dioun