Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: writing

Lessons about writing from Claude Monet

This is the time of year when many businesses give out free calendars, with illustrations in varying shades of kitsch. As a counterbalance, I like to buy at least one calendar each year with pictures I will enjoy looking at as the months go by. This year it is a calendar with photographs of paintings by Claude Monet.
Monet is regarded as the founder of the French impressionist school of painting. He was definitely the most prolific of the group. Impressionism was a label invented by scornful critics and it stuck, no matter how much the artists themselves disliked it.

Impressionism is not abstract art, it is representational art with an emphasis on light, colour and movement, with all unnecessary details left out. Impressionist paintings are not posed indoor scenes. They were almost all painted outdoors and depict objects and people as the eye would see them. Close up, one sees only a jumble of short brush strokes and vague shapes in these paintings, from a distance, the scene is vivid and clearly identifiable.

It struck me that the techniques of impressionism apply to writing as well.

Lesson One: Leave out all unnecessary details. If a grandmother is puttering in her flower bed to calm her anxiety as she waits for her granddaughter to arrive for a visit, it isn’t necessary to describe the leafs and petals of the petunias. We are not writing a botany textbook. Show the grandmother pulling every little weed she can find, checking her watch, going into the house to see that everything is still just right, coming back to the flower bed, examining each leaf for signs of insect damage or disease, checking her watch again.

Lesson Two: Show the effects of the light. When granddaughter arrives, don’t tell us details of genealogy and history, show the love and concern these two have for each other by their hugs, tears and questions.

It takes a long time to learn the lesson that good writing is just as much about knowing what to leave out as it is about what to put in.

Inspiration from cryptograms

To exercise my body, I walk or bounce on my rebounder (mini trampoline). To exercise my mind, I solve cryptograms. Some of the quotations thus decrypted seemed worth sharing.

Sit down and write down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.
-Colette

Men become susceptible to ideas, not by discussion and argument, but by seeing them personified and by loving the person who so embodies them.
-Lewis Mumford

You do the right thing even if it makes you feel bad. The purpose of life is not to be happy but to be worthy of happiness.
-Tracy Kidder

Real excellence and humility are not incompatible one with the other, on the contrary they are twin sisters.
-Jean-Baptiste Lacordaire

The blog formerly known as Antiquarian Anabaptist

After six years and 1,127 posts it is perhaps time to refurbish this site, and Canada Day, July 1, seems a good time to do it.

The first thing I have done is drop the Antiquarian Anabaptist title. It seemed like a good idea six years ago but has begun to sound kitschy to my ears. Besides, didn’t it seem bizarre to enter the flatlanderfaith.com URL and have it open up a blog with a different title? Now the URL and the blog title are the same, and I have added a header photo to illustrate what this flatland province looks like.

I have also changed the background colour and the typefaces also. I might change them again in the coming days as I tweak the appearance of the blog. The “Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective” slogan will remain. That defines the purpose of this blog.

Maybe I can improve the quality of my writing, too. When I read something I wrote 25 or 30 years ago my first reaction is: “Wow! That is good. Did I really write that?”

Then another little voice in my head says: “Of course it sounds good to you, your style of writing follows the familiar path of your style of thinking. But what makes you think that anybody else would want to read it?”

It’s not that I think everything I have ever written should go in the garbage can. Sometimes I have written things, on this blog and elsewhere, that readers connected with. My resolution is to learn how to do that consistently.

I would love to hear from you. Please take a little time to tell me what you like or don’t like about the things I write. If you don’t want your comment to appear publicly, use the email address under Contact Me above.

Epilogue

That is the end of the story I set out to write, but not the end of the journey. We spent 15 years in Ontario, 5 in Québec and have been back in Saskatchewan for 20 years. We are living in the Swanson congregation, where I saw no hope of finding work 40 years ogo. Times have changed, there are many small businesses run by members of the congregation and other employment opportunities in the area. I work part time as a bookkeper now.

Michelle experienced a new birth at the age of 12 and was baptized December 6, 1984. In her late teens and into her twenties she worked several years in nursing homes, then as a teacher in the schools of congregations of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. She was an eastern girl, having spent most of her growing up years and her early working life in Eastern Canada.

She was teaching at Dumas, Arkansas when we moved back to Saskatchewan. We fully expected that her permanent home would be far away from us, but a young man at Swanson took note of her and proposed a year after we moved. We are very grateful to Ken Klassen, not only for bringing our daughter back to Saskatchewan, but for his kind and gentle ways as her husband and as father to their four children.

Tami Klassen, our oldest granddaughter was baptized earlier this year. The decisions we made many years ago are bearing fruit unto the third generation.

My mother visited us every year while we lived in the east, usually spending several weeks or a month at a time. She turned 90 in January of 1998 and we knew it was time to come back home to Saskatchewan. She lived with us for a few years and then spent her last years in a nursing home in Rosthern. She passed away December 31, 2006, just 18 days short of her 99th birthday.

Chris has had two bouts with cancer and is healthy and cancer free at this time. We will celebrate our 48th wedding anniversary this summer. Over the last few years we have both been working at developing writing skills to be able to share what God ha done for us and what He has taught us.

To know God without knowing our own wretchedness only makes for pride. Knowing our own wretchedness without knowing God makes only for despair. Knowing Jesus Christ provides the balance, because he shows us both God and our own wretchedness. – Blaise Pascal

Writing and witnessing

There are two kinds of writers. First is the novice who has a burning desire to tell a story or to announce some truth. Feeling insecure in his ability, he adopts a formal tone, uses the most impressive words he can find, adds adjectives – lots of bold, beautiful, glorious, exuberant adjectives. He leaves nothing out, not even the most minute peripheral detail; yet forgets important information because everybody knows it anyway. His family and friends say the writing is wonderful; he ought to publish it. Other people don’t say much. They just stop reading after the second paragraph.

The second kind is the one who thinks of the reader from start to finish of her writing. She considers what a reader might not be aware of and weaves that into the writing. She prunes out irrelevant information, tries to eliminate all adjectives, and never uses a big word when a small one will do. There’s a good chance a publisher might be interested in this writing.

Most of us start out like the novice, but eventually learn the painful truth that no one is interested in our pomposities. In fact, they are really not all that interested in us. Little by little, we learn to fade into the background and put the story, the article, the Sunday School lesson, into the foreground. We ask ourselves: How can I tell this in a way that others will want to read it?

The same approach applies when we want to share our faith. If we spend a lot of time expounding on our qualifications to share the Christian message people are turned off. They quit listening.

Sometimes a person feels compelled to describe his abject humility. It’s the same thing. He is boasting of his qualification as a man of God to let us know that we should listen to his message. All such boasting is vain.

If our family has been Christian for several generations, we are tempted to credit our salvation to the example and teaching of our parents and grandparents. That is confusing our genealogy with our spiritual heritage, and it gives others the impression that if they do not fit into that kind of genealogy they won’t fit in Christian circles.

God has no grandchildren. How often have we heard that? Has it sunk into our heart?

If we are Christians today, it means that at some point the Holy Spirit has pointed out to us that we were lost. We were sinners, having no hope in anything of this world. The righteousness of our parents could not save us. There was no saving virtue in our genealogy. We were alone before the absolute righteousness and holiness of Almighty God with nothing of this earth to cling to. At that point we pled for mercy and forgiveness and through the blood of Jesus Christ mercy and forgiveness were granted. We became children of God and could say like David: “For thou, O God, hast heard my vows: thou hast given me the heritage of those that fear thy name” (Psalm 61:5).

There is no boasting here, it is God who is glorified, not ourselves. This tells others that there is a way by which they too can become partakers of this heritage.

Just as in effective writing, in order to be effective witnesses of the saving grace of God, we have to put ourselves in the background and the message in the forefront. God is the message, not us.

Chapter 1 – Why couldn’t I be the healthy one?

My cousin Dennis has often been a friend in time of need, knowing just when to show up. He came over the morning after my father’s funeral and we sat around a table with my mother, reliving bygone days with the help of her old photographs. There were photos of my father breaking land, of my father when he attended auto mechanics school in Tennessee, of my mother in her younger years, of me as a baby, of my cousins.

Then we came to a photo from when I was in Grade 2, all the students and the teacher grouped in front of our one-room school. There were two little boys in the front row, one bright-eyed, smiling and healthy-looking, the other wearing a heavy sweater and making a feeble attempt at a smile. Impulsively, I pointed at the healthy looking boy and said “That was me!” Dennis glanced up, his brow furrowed, and said, “No, that was David Harlton.” Then pointing to the sickly-looking boy he said, “This is you over here.”

He said no more about my mistake, just carried on talking about school days. I carried on too, hoping the pain inside me was not visible to others. I knew he was right, but why couldn’t I believe for just one moment that I was the healthy one? I guess a true friend helps keep you real.

I had frequent bouts of colds and flu as a child and was well-acquainted with Buckley’s White Rub and other home remedies. I am a genuine phlegmatic; it’s not often that I don’t have some nasal congestion and a frog in my throat. This affects my inner ear, causing vertigo and a poor sense of balance. When I was four my parents took me to the fair and put me on a merry-go-round, expecting I would be thrilled at the ride. My head began to whirl, my stomach to churn and I cried to be rescued.

I had frequent outbreaks of hives as a child. Eventually we figured out that they always happened when I had oatmeal porridge for breakfast two days in a row. Later in life I realized that the cold and flu symptoms were usually allergic reactions to dust, pollens and other stuff in the air. These reactions often led into sinus infections and recovery times were a matter of several weeks.

My mother told me that I was raised with cow’s milk formula because my father thought that was more modern and sanitary than breast feeding. I had an allergic reaction at the beginning that caused my face to puff up until my eyes all but disappeared. The cure was to give me only water for awhile, then gradually reintroduce the milk. Perhaps that is where my allergies began. Or it may have happened at birth. Doctors today have linked birth by cesarean section to allergy problems in the child. The doctor had opted for cesarean when I was born because of my mother’s hip dysplasia. In the end it doesn’t matter, it won’t make me healthier to find someone to blame for my poor health.

When I was in my twenties I discovered antihistamines and they have helped me cope with life. A little pill once or twice a day, a corticosteroid puff in each nostril once a day, a saline nasal spray plus a decongestant when needed, keep me going – most of the time. But I can’t always escape those times when allergy symptoms leave me feeling wiped out. Those episodes can hit any time of the year but spring and fall seem the worst.

I have learned by experience that some occupations are best avoided. I’m just not the robust type who thrives on outdoor activities. It isn’t that I’m always sick, but when I do get sick it takes several weeks to recover to where I can breathe freely and my body doesn’t ache.

But maybe that’s alright. My frequent sicknesses kept me indoors more than most other children and facilitated my love for reading, and writing. Perhaps God has allowed these circumstances to steer me in the direction He wanted me to go. In any case, here I am, with all the things I have experienced, observed and learned in life, and I want to use them all to His honour.

[All comments and critiques are welcome. Please help me improve this writing.]

Preface

Half a century ago a drunken young man announced to a couple of friends that one day he would be a Mennonite and wear a beard. His friends dismissed this as babbling inspired by the booze he had consumed. The young man himself was bewildered. The few Mennonites he had met, from his mother’s side of the family, had not inspired any longing to be like them. He had never seen a Mennonite who wore a beard, didn’t know if he wanted to be a Christian, or even if there was such a thing as a real Christian.

Over the next twelve years he quit drinking, quit smoking cigars, became a Christian, got married and started a family, in that order. Then he and his wife joined a Mennonite church, one that is of the persuasion that if hair grows on a man’s face it doesn’t make sense to try to remove all trace of that hair each morning.

That drunken declaration was prophetic, springing from a longing within that took the young man years to understand. It is now apparent that the longing came from God, and that over the years He continued to prompt and nudge that young man in ways that would allow that longing to become a living faith.

This book is the story of all that led up to that unexpected statement and all that happened after to make it become reality, despite the bumbling confusion of the young man, who was me. I am an old man now, and look back in wonder at that journey.

I hope that my story will encourage others to trust that there is light for the pathway and unexpected moments of joy in the journey, even when one is stubborn and doubtful of the way.

[With this post I am beginning a memoir of my spiritual journey, which I hope to publish before I get too old for stuff like this. The working title, for now at least, is One Day I Will be a Mennonite and Wear a Beard. I encourage readers to offer critiques and comments. Tell me what works and what doesn’t. Does my writing style put you to sleep? Do I offer too much information, or not enough? Your thoughts are welcome.]

Cloud based writing

One morning almost 60 years ago I entered a classroom to write my Grade 11 Composition final exam. I breezed through the first few pages, confident that I understood English grammar. The last page stopped me cold. It called for an essay on one of the topics in a long list. None of those topics stirred the slightest interest in my mind.

I glanced out the window. It was a glorious June day with puffy cumulus clouds drifting across the sky. I would rather have been outside, but I was stuck in that desk until I wrote the essay, or ran out of time.

Watching the clouds had a calmchild-830988_640ing effect. I saw a sheep being chased by a dragon. As I watched, the shapes slowly shifted and suddenly it was a Spanish galleon sailing through the skies. Cloud followed cloud and each one took on a recognizable shape then slowly morphed into something different.

Somebody coughed and with a jolt my mind came back into the room. The clock was ticking and the page in front of me was still blank. The list of topics was as uninspiring as ever.

Then inspiration struck: why not write about the things I had been seeing in the sky? I picked one of the topics that more or less fit and filled the page with my imagination. I handed my paper in and went outside into the sunshine.

I received full marks for that essay, 95% on the whole exam. Years later, I read in Writers’ Digest that a writer is doing the most real work when he is staring out the window. When he takes a pen in his hand or sits down at the keyboard that is just clerical work. I felt vindicated.

I still plot my stories and articles the way I did that long ago day in June. Only now the shapes I see are in my mind, not out the window. Clouds, people, ideas, arguments, incidents imagined or real, go drifting across my mind, often changing shape and becoming something totally different from the original idea. Some drift away, never to return. Some will drift through my mind for days, weeks, months, even years, before I put anything down on paper.

Sometimes I will think of a title and write it down. I might even write a list of words under the title, or a sentence or two. I have no idea how or where those words will appear in what I plan to write, but I think they will fit somewhere. Usually they do, but sometimes the whole shape of the story changes before I get it written.

I believe those idea clouds drifting through my mind are inspirations from the Holy Spirit. At least the ones that keep coming back. The changing shapes are the Spirit refining my perception so that I can understand how to put those ideas on paper so others can see what I am seeing.

Writers tend to classify themselves as either outliners or pantsers. An outliner has the whole plot down on paper before she starts – complete with descriptions of the characters, the main incidents and the conclusion. Pantsers start with an idea and proceed “by the seat of their pants” without a predetermined idea of where this is going to lead or what will happen along the way. Which category do I fall into? I don’t really know. I prefer to think of myself as a cloud-based plotter.

If you are a writer . . .

If you are a writer . . .man-29749_640.png

– you love words, you study words, their origins and all the nuances of their meanings. You don’t aim to dazzle readers with the knowledge you acquire, you want to be able to select the best words to make your readers see what you are seeing.

– you know that words are inadequate for what needs to be said. So you spend time searching for the words that come closest to saying what you want to say and avoid words and expressions that make no contribution to what you are trying to describe..

– you know that the reader can only see what you show him. A reader in Saskatchewan doesn’t know what a trillium looks like, or that many people in Ontario say youse when speaking to more than one person. A reader in Ontario doesn’t know what a slough is or what a chokecherry tastes like.

– you know that inspiration is not enough. Writing is the craft that brings the inspiration to life for your readers, by using just the right words and removing all the useless words that distract readers from perceiving what it was that inspired you.

– everything you see, and hear, and dream, becomes grist for your mill. You notice the little wildflower that is invisible to others, you hear the song of a toad at dusk, you see and hear the way people do and say things. These all become part of your storehouse and sooner or later they appear somewhere in your writing.

– you are a writer all the time. You have a full time job, you are a student, a busy mother, a caregiver to an aged relative. In all you do you find insights, nuggets of truth, startling images, moments of tenderness, moments of hilarity, and you tuck the memories away to be brought out when you sit down with a pen or at a keyboard.

– you are delighted to hear a reader repeat something you wrote that gave him new light on a subject, even if he can’t remember who wrote it.

Juggling jobs

I am getting old, I call myself semi-retired, but it seems that I have more demands on my time than ever before, and I’m not at all sure that I’m managing my time wisely.

I am a bookkeeper: A large part of my income is pension, but I still have five bookkeeping clients that I need to work for on a regular basis.

I am a member of the French editing committee of our church. This doesn’t take up a lot of time, but it is enjoyable and useful work. And I do get some payment for the time spent.

I am a writer: Besides this blog, and another one in French, I have other writing projects that are really important to me, but it is hard to find time for them.

I am a father and grandfather: At this stage that may mostly mean being a cheerleader. That means being there, paying attention. I don’t think I’m doing a very good job of it.

I am a husband: My wife is going through chemo-therapy treatments for Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia. I go with her to almost all her appointments. The treatments have worked, there are no more symptoms, but she still needs two more rounds of chem to keep it away as long as possible. Meanwhile, she needs a lot of rest and her resistance is low. One side benefit of the chemo is that it has pretty much eliminated her arthritis pain. I’m sure that is only temporary.

Monday was our 46th anniversary. To celebrate, I took her to our nearest town where one of the vets and her husband were doing a barbecue to raise money for their non-profit pet rescue organization. So we both had a hot dog, a can of pop and a cookie. I thought it was a good deal, Chris didn’t have to cook or do dishes and the money went to a good cause.

Yesterday we went out for a more formal meal at the Cave Restaurant in Saskatoon.

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