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Pillaging Pedantic Pontification

February 18, 2014

If you’ve ever watched American Idol, you know the kind of train wrecks you can witness in the auditions. Everyone walks into the judges’ room believing they can sing. Many are told they can’t, and react to that news with varying degrees of shock and indignation, protesting about how their family and friends have always told them what great singers they are. Some are average singers but not good enough for the competition, and that news must be even harder to take. The producers of the show know viewers laugh at people with delusions of grandeur, while those who have some talent but just aren’t quite good enough tug at our heartstrings. Why?

Because we’ve all been there. We all have something we feel we’re really good at, and once a few people reinforce that feeling, your ego starts to swell. Then you begin to feel that you’re more talented, smarter, better than anyone else (at least anyone else you know) at what you do, and this gives you a right to criticize others. “Oh, your guacamole is good, but did you use any cilantro? I always mash it in with the avocados”… You may not even realize you’re doing it, and if people don’t call you on it, you’ll have no reason to change your behavior.

But one day, the reality check hits and you realize that you’re not as good as you thought. You may have been valedictorian of your high school, but then you go to a college where everyone was valedictorian. You discover that growing from good to great requires effort. It happened to me. For years I was told how smart I was and how well I wrote, especially essays. It got me to a point where my essays became lectures, talking at my readers, not to them, and sometimes even talking down to them. On the spectrum between engaging, thoughtful writer and pompous ass, I skidded dangerously close to the latter.

blogging posterIt took my own personal version of the Idol judges to say: you’re good, but you’re not doing your best, because you think you can get by on your talent alone. No one will be interested in what you have to say when you think you’re interesting by default. If you imply that your mind is a Ferrari and your readers are Fords, no one will want to drive alongside you. In the end, it doesn’t matter how fast you can go if no one likes the scenery along the way. With the Idol contestants, all the raw singing talent in the world won’t help if you don’t know how to entertain an audience. It’s no different as a writer.

It’s a struggle to check the ego and turn on the empathy. But that’s what I’m trying to do; stop writing about me, me, me and find ways to make you, the reader, not only interested in what I write, but wanting to read it. It’s very general advice to anyone who wants to be a successful blogger, or ever be a published writer (not that I know anything about that!): write, stop, read it out loud, and ask yourself: why would someone want to read this? I had to do that with this post. In its first draft, it went on and on about the 13th anniversary of registering my domain name and my limited success of living up to that name. I’ve written the same post, in slightly different versions, a dozen times over the years. Not only was it not new, it didn’t say anything to relate to readers.

If you sing a song, write a poem, cook them dinner, etc., most people will be nice and tell you it was good. It’s in our social training and usually it’s the right thing to do. But if you’re trying to improve at something, you need to be open to constructive criticism. More importantly, you need someone you trust who will give it to you. I’m blessed to have a friend who does. Sometimes all you need to strengthen talent is a little taste of humility.

While You Were Sleeping

February 4, 2014

These very pants. Pictured on me, of course.

Saturday night my dinner decided to recycle itself onto my bedroom carpet. I spent the next 48 hours in a semi-coma, hallucinating something about a football game, beer, horses, and puppies eating Doritos in a Kia. When I started to come to Monday night, I stepped outside in my Coke pajamas and someone yelled at me that I’m not a real American. By Tuesday afternoon I finally got to the doctor, who told me to not eat junk food. I turned on the TV and heard that 120 million Americans are under a winter storm warning Tuesday night, which is 8.5 million more than watched that football game. Then I realized that if I can do that math in my head, I must be coming back to my senses. Once back to my senses, I knew that I had not delivered a promised post on Sunday to my 4.5 dedicated readers. Working on it, folks. For now, I’m going to celebrate keeping down two bowls of chicken soup today and not using the word “So” once in this post.

Lazy Writer

January 30, 2014

Once upon a time, I was a better writer. I was a better writer because I wasn’t a lazy writer. I wasn’t a lazy writer because I was surrounded by good writers, and people, whose authority and talent I respected, challenged me to be better.

The previous paragraph is a semi-intentional example of lazy writing. There’s nothing gramatically wrong with it. The paragraph builds as each sentence explains the last. It’s sound expository composition, with a clear thesis and support. Opinions may vary as to whether beginning with “once upon a time” in anything that’s not a fairy tale is a clever hook or a trite attempt to be cute.

BUT… That first paragraph shows inherent signs of laziness. Most notably, repetitive phrasing: “I was” or “I wasn’t” five times in three sentences. Repetition isn’t always bad; it can be intentionally used for effect. More often than not, though, repetition shows lack of effort to makes one’s writing interesting. Also, forms of the verb “to be,” like “was,” weaken writing when overused. Active verbs strengthen writing, and passive voice, like “I was surrounded” should be avoided. I could go on, but sometimes using too many words is just as lazy as using too few.

So why did I become a lazy writer? More importantly, how does one kick the lazy habit and regain his writing chops?

It helps to have friends who are fellow writers show you how lazy you’re being, because they know you can do much better. I definitely have that much going for me.

Next time I’ll illustrate more of my laziness and how to fix it. I would write more about it now, but, I started this on Monday, and… I’m lazy. (One parting hint: Three commas and an ellipsis in a 16-word sentence is probably not for the best).

Matters of Faith #2

January 26, 2014

The following post is the second in a series I plan to share each Sunday for the next several weeks.

This week, for the first time, I went to church on a Saturday night. Becca’s family attends this church, but not this particular service; therefore I was going solo, which exceeds my comfort zone. I’ve now been to three of the four services that this church offers, all except the traditional, 11 a.m. Sunday service.

I’ve been to the 8:30 Sunday, which is rather traditional, and the one they attend, in-between the others on Sunday morning, which is a contemporary service. It’s what some call, perhaps derisively, “rock’n’roll church”; instead of a choir, there’s a band; instead of traditional hymns, they perform CCM songs with the words on video screens. There’s still a sermon, but it’s the condensed version. The Saturday night service shares the contemporary and casual vibe with a few of the traditional trappings and a somewhat calmer, more contemplative atmosphere. Each of these three services have aspects I like, but none feel like the perfect fit.

I don’t know yet if I want to make this my church. It’s close, and it feels fairly inviting; small enough that you could have a sense of community, but large enough to have multiple services and several study groups, outreach opportunities, etc. It’s an affiliated church, though (UMC) and I’ve really wanted to go somewhere non-denominational, as I feel denominational thinking has long been a plague upon American churches.

The other church I tried, since deciding to go back, is Presbyterian, but in name only, it seems. The pastor there works hard to integrate examples of similar concepts in other major religions and from philosophers. This church actively welcomed LGBT members, which is a huge plus to me. They also did things such as going out of the way not to use gendered language– even refusing to say “the Lord” because of its patriarchal connotations (they substitute “The Holy One”) and interpreting all scripture, it appeared, as metaphorical.

In the case of the Nativity, for example, he said there were no angels or singularly super-bright star in the sky, because otherwise everyone would have been there falling on their knees, and it wouldn’t be a “silent” night. He was saying that for the shepherds, hearing the angels sing was really an internal feeling, a calming of the spirit within they could feel because of their simple faith, and so on. But some of his statements seemed to be questioning the sanity of believing in the virgin birth. When I perceive extremes like that, I start to feel a bit uncomfortable.

Church is a great place to stand and sing and sit and listen, surrounded by like-minded people. But all churches I come across say their true purpose is to welcome the hurting and the lost. Can that be accomplished in a worship service? Sermons are essentially lectures, which are generally not the most effective teaching method. In the Gospels, in most cases, when Jesus was teaching, people asked him questions: the disciples, to clarify; local listeners, to believe; Pharisees, to bait. I know we can find such back-and-forth in a Bible study class, but why not in a worship service? If we all have a personal relationship with God, aren’t we all co-pastors?

I have a lot of questions, as I am sure most of us do. I want to discuss the scriptural support for various beliefs, but I also want to analyze beyond just quoting chapter and verse. Many of them are the God-paradox questions, i.e. if God is x, how can y be? I’m sure you can anticipate most of those questions, but I want to save them for next week. I also want to discourse with people who are willing to be open-minded about other religions and belief systems. I don’t necessarily believe that “all religions are true”– I can’t see how you could reconcile some of the divergences– but I do believe that there is truth and wisdom to be found in them all. I also believe that science is humans’ means of discovering the wonder of God’s design. To deny science is to deny the power God has endowed us with to inquire and discover, and there is no valid reason for science and religion to be incompatible. Again, that will be the subject of a future post. Have a blessed day, my friends.

Blogging Before Blogging

January 25, 2014

ImageI was unpacking a box of books and discovered this newspaper. Upon closer inspection, I discovered that it was dated from this week, 16 years ago. I think it’s the first time I was ever truly published. I had just recently signed on to be a sportswriter for the Signal, the Georgia State University campus newspaper. I primarily covered the women’s basketball team, but somehow got handed a column, which in my 22-year-old wisdom I entitled The Hotspot.” Just like that, I was emboldened with a newfound, if quite misguided, sense of self-importance: I get to write what I want! And people are going to read it! Good thing I got over that

Matters of Faith

January 19, 2014

The following post is the first in a series I plan to share each Sunday for the next several weeks.

This Sunday, I went back to church. I hadn’t been since Christmas Eve, but before that I’d gone several Sundays in a row; and before that, I’d never gone regularly in my adult life. We went inconsistently in my childhood, sometimes becoming regular for several months, alternating with absences lasting years. Neither of my parents were what you would call devout. In fact, I was never really clear what their beliefs really were; I know they were Christians ostensibly, and I’m confident both believed in God in some way. I just wish I could have come to understand what that way really was, respectively, for each of them. My dad passed away a decade ago. My mom, now 80, suffers from dementia. So I’m never going to know, in this lifetime anyway.

Image

Dedication page of said Bible.

When I was 10, my mom heard that our church was holding confirmation classes. I completed them and was confirmed and baptized. I’m glad it happened to me when I old enough to be aware and make the decision for myself. I felt something that moment that I believe was (is) the Holy Spirit. Everything was set for me to get integrated into youth group and become a committed young adult Christian. But something happened; the church was changing, in ways I didn’t really understand at the time. All I knew was that my parents didn’t want to go there anymore, and didn’t bother finding an alternative destination for our Sunday mornings. 

I held onto the Bible I was given upon confirmation, and around age 18, I decided to read it cover-to-cover. Much like this writing, I usually saved this reading for late at night and would often fall asleep before I could finish a book. I’m not sure how long it finally took me– something short of a year. I’m also not sure what I got out of that self-appointed project. I can say I succeeded in reading the entire Bible; many pages while I was half-conscious at best, and dozens of passages, even whole books, that I lacked proper context to interpret. 

For a long time, I had a compulsion to pray every single night. I had to, literally, get on my knees, and it had to be in private. There were times I had to do it in a bathroom just to meet these conditions. I always asked for forgiveness if in any way I was praying wrongly. During bad years when I drank nearly every night, I made a point of praying before the first sip. The habit persisted well into my married years, and then, one night, I just decided to stop. I guess I reached a point where I knew I didn’t have to prove anything to God. Perhaps more importantly, I didn’t feel like God had to prove anything to me.

In this series, I hope to relate my own spiritual journey, and explore matters of faith, religion, science, scripture, God, good versus evil…. I know I could fill a hundred Sundays with all my thoughts on these matters, but just as importantly, I hope you will comment upon your own thoughts and beliefs.

Dust in the Digital Wind

January 16, 2014

The middle day of January draws to its close. It would be disgustingly ordinary to try to start any habit on January 1. I’m going to be different– because I’m an individual! I’m an American! I’m a man! I’m 40!– Not yet, but close enough to feel its daunting shadow darken my path.

It’s been a week since the debacle of writing for 30 minutes straight without pause– or coherence. That post did register the milestone of being the 100th post on this site, which is all it should be remembered for. But I quickly increased that sum from 100 to 225 by importing the posts from Squirrelly Writer and my “jasonwrites” blog at Xanga.

In the process, I discovered the fate of Xanga. It was the home of my first blog, begun just over thirteen years ago. Through the interactions I had with other bloggers there, I made many friends, a select few I met “offline,” and one of whom I married (no longer, if you’re new here). It was great fun in its heyday, and had tremendous potential. But it never had the human resources behind it to solve the myriad issues that plagued it. It tried to be a blogging platform, it tried to be a social network, and it got eclipsed on both fronts by the sites we are all so familiar with now. It all but dwindled to nonexistence, and now has been reintroduced as a WordPress clone.

Somehow I feel compelled to write and share this little obituary. The name “Xanga” may be meaningless to anyone of you reading it, but I wouldn’t be here writing and blogging now without it. It set me on my blogging journey, and profoundly changed my life. It gave me a venue to find sympathetic fellow human beings with whom I could share the tumult of my life. Now I will continue to seek that venue and continue that journey right here.

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