The Two Sides of Characters

Normal people never really make an impression. If you’re walking down the street and see a dozen perfectly average folks, dressed well and walking in a straight line, you’re not likely to remember any of them.

But when you see a scruffy looking fellow digging around in the trash can on the street corner, you probably go home and tell someone. Or when you see a lady hunched over and rocking back and forth outside the drug store, perhaps you even stop to make sure she’s alright.

We’re trained to believe that the only activity worth mentioning in a story is exterior (hair color, arm gesture, “Then he crossed the street.”)—something we’re able to see, identify, and describe.

But that’s a misconception—and the thrill—about telling stories. There isn’t just one type of activity. There are TWO.

Outside. Yes, there are all the weird quirks and habits that people have that we can see. Like how your aunt always puts mustard on her scrambled eggs, or how your next door neighbor puts a leash on his cat and takes it walking. These are the tangible parts of a story that help us see what’s going on. They pique our interest, fascinate us, and make us stare a little bit. After all, when someone’s doing something weirdddd, it’s a little bit hard to look away.

Inside. This is the unacknowledged part of every narrative, but it’s actually the more important of the two. Maybe only two in ten people are doing something odd on the outside—but ten out of ten people are experiencing a specific emotion in their hearts or minds. Outside, the lady at the grocery store is completely normal. But inside, she’s worried about raising her children alone, wondering why her ex-husband really left her, and hoping that the repairs on her car won’t cost too much. And it’s the inside story that makes readers be able to relate to the characters. And it’s the inside story that keeps people coming back to a character again and again. Because even if he’s simply unremarkable on the outside, I just feel like he’s so . . . real.

Should you create weird characters? People who save seats for their invisible friends at the opera and collect worms from the dirt in Central Park? Absolutely. But more importantly, remember to make them interesting from the inside out. Fill them with human ideas, concerns, and struggles. Make them someone you’d want to be friends with, and your readers will want to be friends with them too.

Teaching through Story

A. W. Tozer was a renowned pastor, teacher, and writer. He wrote about God with clarity and conviction. Remembering to do what many heady authors are prone to forget, he often used the power of story and illustration to drive home his point.

When you’re trying to write something that will reach people, you need to go behind their minds—you must reach their . . .

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On Rest and Responsibility

Yesterday, for the first time in a month, I sat down to write, because I break all my own rules in the summer. I stay up late on "school nights" (yes, work nights, but everyone needs idiosyncrasies of phraseology, don't they?), eat ALL THE ICE CREAM IN SIGHT ALL THE TIME, and sometimes don't write for weeks on end. Maybe it's the writing for work to pay the bills thing that makes it easier to slack off, or maybe it was finishing the first draft (rough as dried lava, I promise) of my second novel in the beginning of June and now I'm rebelling from organized craftsmanship.

Either way, you're fortunate that after I spent an hour re-writing the same four paragraphs yesterday, my computer crashed and I lost all four of those ill-fated paragraphs. They were going to be cynical, choppy, and pessimistic—three things I try to avoid.

Instead, these cheery ruminations . . .

I paid for my college. Phrased positively, I learned independence, money skillzzz, and how to work hard for what that matters to me. Described bluntly, sometimes I didn't buy shampoo for a few weeks at a time, a third of the clothes I wore I'd found on the ground, and I had to say no to doing things because I couldn't pay for them. It's a lifestyle of poignant pride.

When a study abroad trip with my favorite professor loomed on the summer horizon, I immediately wrote it off. It was expensive, the cost of a whole semester in seven weeks—and counting the money I'd lose out on earning, another third of a semester's bill. I chose to leave the glamorous international travel to those who had received large inheritances from distant relatives (this has never happened to me—if you have one of these relatives looking for someone to sponsor, please contact me).

Staunchly self-sacrifical and determined to squirrel away my hard-earned cash for a more responsible cause, I stubbornly ignored my professor's advertisements all semester. I was unswayable. Wouldn't dream of dreaming.

In the beginning of April one of my brothers attended class with me then took me out for coffee. We looked into the street. People hurried by (people only ever hurry in Chicago—nobody takes their time. waste of life, if you ask me.) as we sat peacefully, sipping lattes and munching on macarons that cost several bucks a piece (granted, they were delicious. worth four bucks, though? is any cookie, really?). Then my brother asked if I would go on the trip to England, and I gave my practiced answer. He wasn't impressed and told me I should go.

I talked to a few more people, threw caution (and thousands of dollars) to the wind, and signed up. The caveat: I would only go for three weeks out of the seven. I made the bargain with my penny-pinching, cents-scrounging, ripped-jeans, dirty-haired self. I could pay for three weeks, come back and earn money the rest of the summer, and end up not quite flat broke.

Landed in England. Spent the night in a hostel. Turned my dad's hair gray (sorry dad).

After a week of being in England with the group, I couldn't imagine leaving in 14 days. I wanted to stay for the rest of the summer—to eat bananas foster and eton mess most days, see places I'd only ever read of, rest from the past two years of constant work—and stay with the friends I'd made. But I didn't know if I should. It seemed like a good idea, but then so does pepperoni pizza at 11:50 p.m., and it rarely is. So I called my mom.

She listened to my desires, rationalizations, worries, and said,

Consummate responsibility deadens the soul—and having a dead soul is irresponsible.

That ended the discussion. I spent the rest of the summer in England and have never regretted it. I got the money somehow—it just ended up working out (thank you, kind parents, thank you, kind God). Today, I am me because of that trip. And the simple phrase from my mom became one of the guidelines for my life.

Often, I get caught up in responsibilities. Have to work. Have to clean the house. Have to cook so we don't DIE OF STARVATION OR SCURVY. Have to buy this present or go to that event or wash those clothes. I'm convinced the list actually never ends.

So how can my mom be right? How can it POSSIBLY bet better to occasionally shirk responsibilities just to do lazy things I love—really love—that feed the soul?

Because at the end of the day, what will I remember about my summer? Cleaning? Cooking? Washing another sinkful of dishes? Buying groceries? Folding laundry?

Nah. I'll remember the long bike rides in the hot sun—the lazy evenings at the beach with Curtis (he's very wonderful), two dozen barbecue wings, and IBC root beer—the spontaneous trips to faraway places to see people we love—the long walks in the evening sunlight that makes no enemies and keeps every promise—these are the moments of my summer that are different, that are free from responsibility and worry, and that keep my soul alive.

And you? What makes your soul thrive? And do you do it?

The classic "Hey Dad, everything went fine till I got here" picture—Birmingham, England

The classic "Hey Dad, everything went fine till I got here" picture—Birmingham, England


The Smells of Christmas

Christmas is hard to fully capture, for a lot of reasons: we weren't there the first time around, it's rich with significance that's been commercialized by hallmark and tree farms, and there's too much wonder to quickly describe. It's hard to slow it down and capture one thing at a time, but today I'm only thinking about one tiny part of Christmas.

What it smells like.

Inside, there's snappy pine musk, rich spices, cookies in every flavor and scent, the holiday honey glazed ham, cinnamon rolls, maple sausage . . . Christmas inside basically smells like food.

Outside, sniffing quickly can make you gasp. There's still the smell of pine, and a faint scent of fresh snow, sugared nuts, holiday drinks from the closest cafe, and the occasional smoky drift of a winter bonfire.

All the smells we associate with Christmas are pleasant—mostly spices, food, and warmth—but the very first Christmas probably didn't smell like sweet spice and holiday ham. Mary and Joseph were sleeping in a stable because all the inns were full. They were with the animals. The animals. And the stable boys were probably distracted by the hubbub and neglecting their cleaning duties, so it smelled like, well, manure.

And after Mary delivered a baby, she probably didn't take a sponge bath. Apparently having a baby is pretty messy, and a lot of work. So, it smelled like sweat, and all the rest that comes with one tiny human coming out of another full grown human.

In a city full of people walking around all day, there were all kinds of crazy particles kicked up in the air. It smelled like dust.

There was also smoke, likely the remnants of whatever all the neighboring inns had for dinner, hay and straw, and animal breath.

Jesus was born in a stable and laid in a manger. Nativity scenes are neat and clean, Mary isn't sweating, and there's no manure. In real life it wasn't a sanitary or romantic place to sleep, much less deliver a baby. It doesn't seem fitting for the King of kings—but then, this King isn't like anything we were expecting.

For unto us a child is born, and unto us a son is given . . . And by His stripes, we are healed.

A Thousand Story Ideas

Part of being a writer is looking at the people around you. Orson Scott Card, author of more than 50 books, said,

Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.

Watching for stories all the time takes practice—but if you do it consistently, soon you won't be able to turn it off. Then, like me, you'll trip over sidewalks and your toes and turn your ankles all the time, as you think about the person you just passed, or the couple arguing in the drink aisle. I make it sound painful and hazardous, but it's worth it.

When you look for the stories in life, you'll suddenly have more than enough stories for your writing.

A Three Year Anniversary

Three years ago today, I met Curtis (he's very wonderful).

He came up to me in the student dining room and sat down and asked me if I remembered him. Apparently we'd known each other in high school. I had no recollection. He showed me pictures, himself as a young boy with a baby face and braces, holding a tiny bluegill up next to his face. I still didn't remember.

He sat down next to me and talked to me for an hour and a half. I spun a red delicious apple around on the table the whole time we talked, and he leaned forward and grinned and took a genuine interest in everything I had to say. He charmed me through and through. A week later, he picked me up from the airport in the middle of the night. He had a backpack full of different flavors of sparkling water and gatorade, and a big green poster board that said, "It's Me, Curtis." We rode back on the el together and he told me about his family, and his dog, and the forest green Buick century that used to be his grandpa's.

We nonchalantly agreed to study in the library together, although we didn't get much homework done. We went on a long walk through Lincoln Park, and climbed a tree, and got bread and cheese and chocolate milk and sat by the river. The next day I helped him (by which I mean he kindly let me think I was helping him) tear down sound equipment that he'd set up for work.

A month later, after a long cold walk late at night, we sat on a bench under the big mushroom at Rainforest Cafe, looking at the McDonalds across the street. He told me he liked me.

And the rest is history.


Once, When I Was Little . . .

I could write a lot of posts about a lot of work-related subjects—interpersonal dynamics, professional relationships, keeping deadlines, the constantly losing battle to keep my desk organized, the list runs on and on. But it wouldn't be good for me, because overthinking things never ends well. And you'd think I was a broken record with bad memory. Jobs are real, grown-up life, but there's a lot more to life than work (like donuts and sleeping in and swimming in the lake in September and loving Jesus).

Instead, to spare us both the awkward pain an excess of work stories would cause, I'm following a prompt that I thought of today, although I'm sure someone smarter than me already came up with it. When I settled on it, I promised myself I'd write the first story that came to mind.

Once, when I was little . . .

I grew up in a yellow, rectangular house. It perched on a hill on a five acre lot, and we had everything: a pool, woods, a tree fort, a zip line, a rope swing, a tether-ball pole, a garage roof to play on, a sledding hill in the winter, a baseball field in the summer, and plenty of room for a roaming imagination. Lest I overly glamorize it, picking up sticks (what we seemed to end up doing most Saturdays) was an endless, sappy project, and shoveling the driveway in the winter could take several hours, even with four people (granted, the youngest one often ended up playing instead of shoveling).

About a quarter mile down the dirt road from our house was The Park. When I was tiny little, I think it hosted a wooden play set—but it rotted, so they tore it down, and put up swings instead. Four swings, with thick silver chains, hard black rubber seats, and sturdy green support beams that were just the right size to shimmy up.

Our community used to have a picnic at The Park every summer—there was a clown making balloon art with any color balloon you wanted, lots of people, and lots of food. We'd always go down for a while and eat, and my parents probably talked to people, and my siblings and I probably stuffed our pockets with the free candy on the picnic tables. Okay, we definitely did. We were children of true culture.

One year, when I was still small enough for my dad's deep brown cowboy boots to come past my knees, we went to the picnic in installments. I was in the on-foot group, others were on bikes. After eating our fill and participating in some neighborhoodly activities (getting a blue balloon something, chatting with strangers, and taking candy), my sister, brother, and I headed home. They'd been part of the on-bikes group.

Too small and chubby to have any chance of success in the impromptu race one of us started (competition is a fact of life in big families), I was running up the hill behind them (I like to think of it as striving valiantly). But as they kept getting farther ahead and my chubby legs got more tired, I stopped running. When a black SUV pulled up and stopped next to me, the bikers were too far away and focused on victory to intervene. Through an open window or door, the nice people offered me a ride home. I didn't know them, but I did know I'd have great bragging rights if I beat the older ones home. I nodded my blonde head, clutched my balloon close, and climbed in.

The ride home took less than two minutes, and I don't remember any of it. I probably chatted happily. What I do remember is gloating at the end of the driveway after they dropped me off, and waiting for the older ones to get home so I could proudly boast my victory. To my shock, the pride only lasted about as long as the car ride—right until my parents found out. I had my bath, then put on my flannel Winnie-the-Pooh nightgown (white, with a cotton candy pink ruffle around the bottom), then got the first (that I remember), and perhaps most severe lecture of my childhood. Any parent can imagine how it went—anyone else just needs to know that accepting rides from strangers is definitely a no-go.

Until then, I didn't know. After that, I knew. I definitely knew.

And after the scolding had ended, and they'd wiped my tears away and my mom hugged and kissed me, my dad held me as I cried off the sting of the reprimand. Even when I finished crying, he stood and held me and gently swayed back and forth. 

For a very long time.


And that's how the story goes in my mind, and that's how it ends.

Excitement Lives in the Young

Every week we go to youth group. We play games, have lesson and small group times, and try to help two or three dozen high-schoolers understand that they're not alone, they're not as awkward as they feel (and even if they are it's totally okay—spinach gets stuck in everybody's teeth sometimes), and not knowing what you're going to be doing in two years isn't the end of the world. 

They're fun, they're kind, they're smart. They play sports, they do drama, they read books, one of them even volunteers at a museum in her spare time. They're learning what growing up is in a safe environment, one where they are reminded of what matters, their parents keep them safe, and they don't have to pay their own electricity bills.

They're excited about life, because it's full of possibilities. 

They're excited because they're young enough to sleep well and forget the hard things.

They're excited because they haven't had a job they didn't like, a boss who was unkind, or a college roommate who doesn't understand what being courteous is.

And they should be. Writing excitement into young people is crucial (unless you're styling the moody artist type—that's a whole different set of attitudes), because it's so relevant to the young, and so refreshing for everyone else.

Learn to capture their excitement, because excitement is half of what makes life... Well, exciting.

How I Beat Writers Block

Classic writers block takes two forms: 

  1. Getting up to a certain point then not being able to continue. You've written long and hard, and suddenly, at the end of the sentence, you can't think of what comes next. It doesn't matter how hard you try, the villain won't pick up the gun and the heroine stays home in her pajamas. After hours of staring at the screen, you decide maybe you'd make a good chef (writing is for pale bookworms and nervous journalists with big glasses, after all), so you buy a cookbook from Amazon and start googling french cooking terms. 
  2. Nothing to say. You've sat down to write, and you've written forty-five first sentences—and you don't like any of them. None of them catch on, each one more flaccid than the last, and every time you come up with something maybe even a little good, the burst of inspiration dies out like a shooting star landing in the ocean. Dead. Completely. Sunken to the dark seaweed-y depths to live with bottom dwellers and pale fish with large eyes. You get it.

I don't know of any diehard methods to beat writers block, but I can tell you what I do: Write. About writers block. I write about how I despise it, how it makes me feel worthless and miserable, how it robs me of all inspiration and love for writing that usually comes so naturally. I write about how frustrating it is to want to say something and not be able to, like the boy who wants to ask the pretty girl to dance but he just... can't... get... the... words... out... there... Pretty soon, I've written a paragraph. If I'm feeling particularly spiteful (which is rare—I may have ditzy spells, but I'm not vindictive by nature), I'll have a page. Suddenly (while my brain was learning french and my fingers were flying with wrathful vengeance against something so small and obnoxious), the heroine has put on her super-suit, the villain is holding up a bank, and the shooting star is resurrected in blazing glory.

It may not work for everyone—but it's better than staring at the screen in doleful misery. 

Maybe it will work for you.

Build It

Building requires work and planning.

Building a building takes an architect, and blueprints, and construction teams, and hundreds of other things that I don't know about, because I wear glasses and use a computer keyboard, instead of a hardhat and a shovel.

Making a cake takes a recipe (or some plan, at least), ingredients, an oven, and some previous knowledge about baking (don't put the egg shells in, mix it enough or not too much).

Building a relationship takes time, and energy, and sacrifice. Friends don't become friends overnight, and once they get there it's still work. 

Making a story means creating characters, formulating plot, setting the stage. It doesn't happen without a fair amount of thinking and planning.

Sports teams don't become champions overnight, an ice rink doesn't freeze in one minute, Rome wasn't built in a day.

Putting the work into building something is worth it. It is an accomplishment, and achievement, an exercise of will. Sometimes there is a reward for completion, but often, finishing is its own reward. It is the ability to step back and say, "I made this," and to recognize that perceived value aside, it is good because you made it.

Build with the value of the finished product in mind. It's worth it.