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Thoughts on Christianity

Shortly after I stated this blog I made a New Year’s resolution to “be less conservative in my writing.” I have struggled with this a great deal over the past week, writing and rewriting the piece that follows. In past years, I would have watered down my thoughts until they were nothing more than weak tea; however, the words and actions of the So-Called Ruler Of The United States (SCROTUS) and his minions have pushed me to follow through on my resolution. For that, I thank them.

When I was a child in the 50’s, I learned that there were two types of Christians, Catholic and Protestant.Them and us. As I grew older, I gradually learned that one’s faith was not so simple and that there were many variations. On the Catholic side, you have Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Evangelical Catholic, while on the Protestant side, you have Adventists, Anglicans, Anabaptists, Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, and a bevy of Pentecostals and Evangelicals. Many of these groups have off-shoots of their own. Each one of these many and varied religions claims, in some degree or another, to be the true Christian faith.

Some sixty years later, I find myself returned to the belief that there are two types of Christians, those who strive to live by the teachings of Christ, and those who follow the words of men. For the sake of clarification and following the common usage of Xmas to mean Christmas, I will call the latter group Xians.

Both Christians and Xians can be found in every Catholic and Protestant denomination. Christians are by and large quiet and unassuming individuals who practice their faith without fanfare. They live by the words of Christ(and by that I mean the words printed in red in most Bibles). They believe that actions speak louder than words. They do not condemn others. Most importantly, they believe in the unconditional love of all mankind.

Xians, on the other hand, are loud and in-your-face. They go out of their way to publicly proclaim their beliefs. They select only verses from the Bible that fit their concepts and for the most part ignore the word printed in red. They speak loudly and publicly of their faith, but seldom actually put their faith into action. They condemn all those who do not believe as they do. Most importantly they believe in their own unconditional superiority..

I know this because sadly several of my family members are Xians. They are essentially good people who have been led astray by church leaders who value power and money above all else. As a result, these Xians were encouraged to vote for a narcissistic megalomaniac who promised them a return to a perfect white Xian society, a society that never existed in fact. Many see him as the second coming not realizing that he is the anti-Christ.

I find myself wonder if we will survive as a country. When a similar situation happened in Germany, the country had to be reduced to ashes. It took several generations to rebuild and then only with our help. Are we destined to follow the same fate?

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The Circle

I have spent the past few days happily enclosed in my circle of friends. Friday evening, Herself and I enjoyed dinner and a play with our six closest friends. We enjoyed a superb meal accompanied by an excellent wine. The show was the opening of “Noises Off” at the Oregon Cabaret, and among the cast were three more good friends. It was raucous good fun.

Saturday evening, the same crew met for a music party at 8:00. Other friends soon joined us and at one point during the evening, there 25 people playing guitars, mandolins, whistles, fiddles, bodhrans and even a couple of harps, all in an average sized living room. We sang old favorites, some written by friends in the circle. There were songs from the last century, songs of Ireland, and songs from the old west. We sang blues. We sang happy war songs and sad love songs. We sang and laughed and told stories until nearly 2:00 am, and in doing so, our hearts were lifted and our souls refreshed.

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It is important for artist to consort with other artist, especially during these troubled times when our freedom to create is on the line. If you are a writer, my advice to you is seek out the artists of your community. Not just other writers, but painters, musicians, actors, dancers, and poets. Make them a part of your circle. Inspire and support them and they will inspire and support you.

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Watercolor Class – part 2

Attended my second watercolor class last night. I am starting to get a grasp on the basic techniques, which is encouraging. The instructor’s standard lesson includes one primary project and a 15-minute “quickie” sketch and paint. It makes for a productive and enjoyable evening.

I am sure some readers and thinking, “That’s all well and good, but what does it have to do with writing?” Simple, I am attempting to change the way I observe the world. To a visual artist, negative space can be as important as the object itself.It is the same in writing. For example, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, most people focus on Mark Antony, Brutus, and of course Julius Caesar; however, if you pay attention to the two seemingly lessor characters of Casca and Cassius, you will see that they are instrumental in convincing Brutus that Caesar must die. They are the “negative space” in Will’s masterful work.

There is another reason for the class. It is for me an escape. Painting takes my entire concentration so for two glorious hours a week, I can forget about the orange cheeto and the turmoil he continues to cause. That in itself is well worth the price of admission.

A Gift or a Curse

I am exhausted. Up at 05:45, shower, cook breakfast – one scrambled egg and one slice of bacon with coffee – put lunch together and out the door at 07:00 for the two-mile walk to work. I at my desk at 07:30. By the time I leave at 16:30 I’ve put in another two miles on camp. Arrive home at 17:00 and set about making dinner. – 4 oz of beef with a few potatoes – deal with a few chores. By now it’s 19:30 and time to get some writing in.

I really don’t want to sit and write. I would prefer to crash on the couch and doze while some mindless television program drones on and on. I want to turn my mind off and forget about the illegitimate fascist totalitarian regime currently in control of the nation. I want to do nothing… but I can’t. I’m a writer. I need to work on my current project. If I take today day off, then it will be ok to take the next, and the next, and.. well you get the picture.

Sometimes I wonder if being a writer is a gift or a curse.

Pulling the Ending out of my Arse

Clearing the detritus of the party from one corner, I place a bottle of 12-year-old McCallan double barrel and two small snifters on the kitchen table. My old friend, Peter, joined me and after taking a sip the single malt, opened a copy of my book I had given him for Christmas. He had not only read it, but to my great delight, had scribbled notes in the margins. It had been more than twenty years since anyone outside my household had so thoroughly reviewed my writing, and I was looking forward to hearing his thoughts.

Peter’s review was insightful. He pointed out a number of things that I hand not even considered, such as my choice of automobiles did not always fit the time-period, or the fact that a business card had been found on an otherwise naked body. (Talk about a thorough search!) He was kind enough to point out several scenes that he considered to be especially well written.

He concluded by point out one especially egregious error, one that I was painfully aware of. “Patrick,” he said. “I liked your story, and for the most part you did a good job, but you shouldn’t have just pulled the ending out of your arse.” I can always rely in Peter to give me the unvarnished truth. He liked the ending, but correctly pointed out that I had neglected to give the reader any hints — no foreshadowing, no little tidbits they could look back upon and say, “Oh yea”.

A friendly, well-read critic who is willing to give you a frank review of your work is to be treasured. Be sure to thank them by improving your writing and, oh yes, when you offer them a wee drop of the craythur, make sure it’s top shelf.

Watercolor Class

This past Wednesday I started a community class in watercolor. I’ve always wanted to take an art class but was unable to work it in while I was in college. The local art stores offer classes, but nearly always during the day when I am at work. This was my third attempt to get into the evening class and I was overjoyed to finally make it.

Shortly after the class started I found out why it had been so difficult to get in. Turns out the same people keep taking this beginners class over and over. The only other gentleman in the class had been attending for some ten years. Excuse me? Ten years in a beginner’s class? To say the least, that caught my attention.

The instructor looks to be about my age. She speaks in a rapid staccato manner, but seemed quite knowledgeable and despite the speed at which she speaks, is easy to understand and follow. She covered the basic introductions and such quickly and within 15 minutes we were working on the first of the evening’s two projects: a simple landscape with a barn in the background and a muddy dirt road wending a classic S curve through a field.

When we were finished, she collected the painting from each of her 15 students and placed them in the front of the class for her critique. I was surprised to find that my work was very similar in quality to most of the others and it’s not because I’m that good. True, most of the works were better than mine but not all that much better.

After class, I found myself thinking, how can a person take the same class over and over for five or ten years and not so a marked improvement? They may take the class for social interaction or some other reason. In any case, it got me thinking about my writing. As I said in my first blog, my primary goal for the year is to stretch myself creatively. Am I doing that or am I returning to the old, comfortable patterns of the past. Time will tell.

Listen and Learn

I’ve said it several times before, if you want to be a writer you must do two things religiously: write and read. Today I’m going to add one more item the must do list. You must also listen.

Let me explain. I walk to and from my “day job” nearly every weekday. I take the car only when it is raining (this being Oregon, what we call “rain” would be considered a biblical deluge most anywhere else) and when winter ice makes the trip near impossible. It’s 3.7 miles there and back. Sometimes I listen to music during my walk. Other times I contemplate a scene or chapter during the 25 minutes it takes to get from my front door to my desk where I work as an analyst for a large national corporation.

Lately I have been listening to books-on-tape, or to be more precise, books-on-kindle. This last week I have been listening to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep as read by Ray Porter. Before I go any further I must include a little caveat. I’ve known Ray Porter since 1990, when he came to Southern Oregon for his first season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. You must remember Herself and I have been associated with OSFA on and off since the late 60’s and have had the pleasure to have seen many excellent performers. Ray stands out as one of the best. He is an extraordinarily talented actor, musician, and narrator.

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Ray’s reading of The Big Sleep is masterful to say the least. He gives each character their own distinct voice, gender notwithstanding, while allowing Chandler’s writing style and literary voice to shine through. His Vivian Sternwood Rutledge has the feminine, smoky timbre of Lauren Bacall.

So what has this got to do with writing? If you’re at all like me, you hear the voices of each character in your mind as you write. I have found that listening to a skillful reading of a classic like The Big Sleep helps me more clearly delineate my character’s voices. Characters become more three-dimensional and defined.

I highly recommend you find several well done reading of prominent works within your chosen genre and let the words flow over you. I guarantee it will improve your writing.

Characters – Part 2

Do your characters sometimes seem to have a mind of their own? Mine often do. Last night I was working on a short scene where my protagonist, Jo DuBois, enters a restaurant to get a bite and consider her current problem. As she walked in, she met new character, Benny Chung, an erstwhile promoter and errand girl for the Tongs. I have no idea where Benny came from. She just appeared out of nowhere, barged into the narrative, changed the entire notion of the scene, and added a twist to the story I hadn’t previously considered.

Of course I know Benny came from somewhere in my imagination, a fragment of a memory of something I have read or seen. Still I found it interesting how she quickly grew and developed into a three-dimensional character within the course of a few paragraphs. I found myself describing her appearance in detail and the way her face subtly revealed her thoughts to my sleuth. She took charge of the scene turning it from a simple plot exposition to a motivating plot twist. I am sure Benny is destined to become a regular player in the series.

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Write What You Know

Write what you know. Possibly the most hackneyed bit of advice given to beginning writers.Agatha Christie knew nothing about being a refugee Belgian police officer. Hobbits never even existed until Tolkien created them, and I personally have no idea what it’s like to be a female PI in San Francisco.

The phrase should be Write what you’re willing to know, or better yet, Write what you want to know. All stories, no matter how fanciful, begin with a kernel of pre-existing knowledge. Christie served as an apothecaries’ assistant which provided her with a knowledge of poisons. Tolkien was scholar steeped in the knowledge of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic myths which became the basis for Middle Earth.

 

What background do I have you ask? What kernel of pre-existing knowledge do I bring to the table when I write. Simple, sixty-five years of watching people. I’ve been watching strangers ever since I can remember. I’m always trying to determine the objectives and motivations.

It’s all my mother’s fault. I distinctly remember a trip to Portland in the mid-sixties. We were staying in the old Hoyt Hotel in the railroad district. Dad was at a meeting, so my two younger brothers and I sat at the windows of our fourth-floor room and watched people come and go on the street below. To help us pass the time, Mom encouraged us to make up stories about the people we saw. The Hoyt has long since been pulled down. All the remains is a fenced in gravel covered lot. But the memories remain, seeds in my mind that when the time is right, sprout and grow into the stories I write today.

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Picture of the hotel in Portland, Oregon, circa 1970. This view is looking southwest from 6th & Hoyt. A portion of the 511 Federal Building (which still stands) is visible behind the hotel.

Distractions

Distractions, the bane of every writer. It seems there is always something trying to sidetrack my writing. I have a day job and my share of the usual household chores that need to be done. I’m also the primary cook in the family. Add the family obligations of being a husband, a son, a father, and a grandfather, and you can see why I treasure my writing time.

Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have become important marketing tools for the writer, but they are also major sources of distraction. Finally, Herself and I also have a fair number of close friends. It seems as if someone is always having a party, an opening night, a concert, or some other event that we want to attend.

A writer must in some way or another actively participate in the world. The actions and interactions of human being is the very soul of what we do. And the desire to be left alone to write is equally as strong. How to strike a balance is one of the primary concerns each writer must face.

Disconnecting from television and social media can be difficult, but it is doable. Herself and I watch very little TV, especially after the election of the Orange one. Same with social media. I can only deal with a small amount before reaching my limit.

Social and family interactions are another thing entirely. I will always make time for my grandson even at the expense of my writing time. Luckily my family are all artist of one sort or another and understand the need of uninterrupted creative time. We are also lucky in that a large portion of our close friends are actors, musicians, writers, or artists who also understand.

I think becoming an author at 65 is probably easier than doing so at a much earlier age. I would not have been able to manage distractions in my 20’s and 30’s. It seems that age does occasionally have it’s advantages.