Writing Close to the Earth: A summary of findings

i got my instructor’s feedback on my last essay yesterday, and with that, this summer’s online writing class is complete. It was a great, challenging, growing experience. i’ve never taken a writing class before (or any online class), and i learned a ton. Here are a few highlights:

  • Dangling modifiers are a thing. Don’t use them.
  • No, seriously.
  • Parallelism is also a thing, and i think i love it. Now to figure out how it works.
  • i use more adjectives than i realized.
  • Concrete description is harder than it appears.
  • Some descriptive details contribute to the point i’m trying to make. Some details don’t. It’s a trick to figure out which is which, but it makes a big difference and will get easier with practice.
  • There are good ways and bad ways to be concise and economic in my writing. “Show, don’t tell” applies here as it does everywhere.
  • Intentionality in writing, as in anything, is huge. If i have an idea of what i want to say, and then make my sentences serve that goal, my writing will improve tremendously and have a greater impact on my readers.
  • Criticism is okay, and probably better-intended than my broken brain tends to imagine. And it’s okay to admit that it’s hard.
  • i have great friends.
  • i can edit my own writing.
  • i need to pay better attention to the world outside my head.
  • i have good writerly skills and instincts, and i can totally improve my craft; my issues are “very fixable.”
  • Literary fiction is not beyond my reach (even if it takes effort, practice, and intentional reading habits.)

My instructor said he’s working on putting together a “grammar for writers” class. It’ll cover dangling modifiers and parallelism both, and lots of other great things that probably exist despite my ignorance of them, and i can’t wait to discover it all and put it to work.

The Cistern

(The following is an essay i wrote for Jonathan Rogers’ online writing class. The assignment was to describe a place that shaped me or explains something about me.)

I grew up the daughter of a wandering missionary-hopeful. My parents met at Bible college, and my childhood was shaped by Bible stories and the knowledge that God is real, that His Kingdom is truer than any physical place we could ever see. Because we moved so much, and because we were homeschooled, that reality was much more consistent for me than any town or house.

In our homeschool, my mother used Vacation Bible School curricula alongside math worksheets and penmanship exercises. We learned Bible stories with a homemade flannelgraph. Figures for stories that didn’t occur in the curricula she made with drawings and spray flocking. I suppose most kids didn’t learn the story of Jeremiah in the cistern in Sunday school, but we did at home, sitting on the greenish, worn carpeting of our rented house’s living room, light pouring in the big windows. I was a child with an active imagination who loved stories and lived primarily in her head, and those Biblical figures became real to me. They were my friends, the inhabitants of my inner landscape, just like Princess Irene and Curdie Peterson and the Pevensies and Francis the Badger. I could see their faces in my mind. Jeremiah was straight-backed and bearded, noble and sad, brave in the face of his loneliness.

One evening my parents went out, I suppose to visit our adopted Grandma Strand, the older woman who lived alone next door. My three younger siblings went with them, but my parents decided that at eight years old, I was old enough to stay home by myself. For the first time in my entire life, I was completely alone.

The big house with big windows felt too big, and I was too small. It wasn’t long before being alone unsettled me thoroughly. I knew God was always with me, that Jesus, my playmate, would never leave me. And thinking of that reminded me of Jeremiah. He had also been alone, but he had been able to be brave because he knew he had not been abandoned.

So I went into our bedroom, with the big window facing the street, and held my breath while easing open the closet door. I slipped in and pulled the door shut behind me, and sat on the floor amidst clothes and toys. The closet was small and dark, just like Jeremiah’s cistern. Sunday dresses hung down and brushed my face. I closed my eyes and imagined that I was Jeremiah. And the walls of the closet were like safe arms that held us both until friendly faces appeared at the door.

Busy, crazy, alive

Almost three weeks into my online writing class. Met with my academic advisor on Wednesday. Story Camp starts on Monday. Hosting four write-ins a week this month. My first short story is a whopping 86 words long so far.

i am probably crazy, but what fun is there in sanity?

Thank-you stories

i just had a crazypants, terrifying, exhilarating thought: You know those short stories i plan to write, inspired by the classes i take?

What if i give them to my professors at the end of each semester?

“Thank you, and here is one thing that your class inspired in me while i processed the material and discussions.”

Mangling Scripture

Today’s Writing Close to the Earth homework included a challenge to take a short, familiar, concrete Biblical passage and abstractify it, then guess each other’s passages. (This was based on one of the readings for this week, where George Orwell criticized modern writing by doing this very thing.)

Here’s mine:

“Economic insecurity being a matter of foregone conclusion in the present political climate, one would do well to consider an alternate method of investment which relies less on liquifiable assets and more on intangibles.”

Any guesses? i’m eager to see what the other students come up with. :-)

Two new endeavors, both slightly terrifying

i haven’t done a great deal of writing lately—maybe i haven’t done any since that essay; i can’t remember for sure. But i have been reading, and reading, and reading. The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess and CurdieThe Warden and the Wolf King (and Pembrick’s Creaturepedia!), A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Smoke on the Mountain, Peace Like a River, The Oracle of Philadelphia (and The Timely Arrival of Barnanabas Bead again, and the Budge-Nuzzard again), My Bright Abyss (although i am not sure i will finish it), King Lesserlight’s Crown, The Best of H.P. LovecraftGilead, Roverandom. And still somehow i have time for Facebook and other forms of time-wasting; clearly, i need more books. (Thankfully, there’s the Rabbit Room for that.)

That last one, Roverandom, i just read this week in preparation for one of the titular terrifying new things i’m attempting this summer: Story Camp.

i run our church’s library, and this year i am finally making good on my years-old desire to organize a summer reading program. Somehow—because i am crazy like this—i decided that this would also be a great summer to have weekly read-alouds in the library (The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic), host a Skype chat with an author (Jennifer Trafton of Mount Majestic fame), and spend all July encouraging library patrons to write their own stories. This will take the form of Camp Nano-style write-ins for teens and adults, but for kids, i’m running a week-long program i’m calling Story Camp, where the kids and i will play storytelling games, read J.R.R. Tolkien’s children’s story Roverandom together, use Roverandom as a jumping-off place for discussions on how to wrangle story elements like character, plot, description, setting, and theme, and then spend time daily writing our own books. i am really excited about this! And also fairly terrified, as i have never done such a thing as a) teach writing, b) teach elementary-schoolers, or c) run a week-long library program of any sort. But the planning is going well, and i will have a helper at least three of the five days, and i think it’s going to be awesome.

The other thing i’m doing this summer, also writing-related, starts on Monday. i’m taking an online writing class taught by Jonathan Rogers, acclaimed thinker of thoughts and author of the middle-grade Wilderking Trilogy, which combines meaning, action, and the best use of setting and written accents i’ve seen in awhile. He says the class, which is titled “Writing Close to the Earth,” could alternately be titled “Writing More Like Flannery O’Connor,” whom he has written a book about, and i am ashamed to say that i have never read any of her stories (although i have heard enough about them that i can pretend i have a grasp of her style). That class will require weekly writing—essays, and sentence exercises, which i am really excited about. i have already done the first week’s reading—i say that i have started early because this summer’s busyness requires me to work ahead while i can in anticipation of weeks when i’ll have less time for homework, but really i’m just a big nerd and i can’t wait to discuss the reading with other students and have JR tell me why my sentences are bad.

Last night, though, i had a hard time falling asleep because it occurs to me that if i am running write-ins this July, it really would behoove me to actually be writing some narrative fiction while encouraging others to do so. And not only am i going to have a lot of homework to do, plus Story Camp (which occurs during my class as well as during July’s write-ins)—i have no idea what to write about.

Sometimes i do wonder if i have already had all of my good ideas.

But aside from that pervasive nonsense fear (and the more realistic what-have-i-gotten-myself-into trepidation)—i am really excited about this summer.

Campus Visit

i just got back from a wonderful and energizing campus visit at Denver Seminary. Along with a tour and a chat with an admissions counselor, i was able to attend part of a class and have lunch with a professor, and those two items on this morning’s agenda have left me more eager than ever to start school this fall.


The class i was able to attend was the first semester of Biblical Hebrew. It went a mile a minute and was conducted in a mixture of English and Hebrew, and i think i was grinning ear to ear the entire time. Yes, languages are going to be a new challenge for me, and i was a bit apprehensive about the three and a half years of language study i’ll have to do, but—the class was fun. Despite the disorientation and quick pace, the class was relaxed and the professor, and by extension the students, were having a good time. For the first time, i thought, i can do this. i even learned a few things while in the class—i was able to puzzle out two of the Hebrew names across the room from us, and learned a little something about—what else?—the grammar of Hebrew storytelling. (Start with perfect tense; continue in narrative preterite.)

The admissions ninjas (seriously, that’s what they call themselves) over at DenSem paired me up with the best OT professor they could have picked. Dr. M. Daniel Carrol R. is one of three full-time Old Testament professors, and over lunch we discovered a lot of common ground. He was raised Catholic and now attends an evangelical Anglican congregation (i have at times called myself “half Catholic” and often wonder how long it’ll take me to end up in a liturgical church of some sort). He studied English in college, and has a deep love of literature and Dickens in particular (i am a bibliophage and librarian who plans to pursue an English or literature degree after this OT degree, and i love A Tale of Two Cities). Dr. Carroll teaches OT classes from a narrative rather than historical background focus (being a writer and a narrative-lover who wants to study the OT in order to undergird my fiction-writing, this makes my heart leap!). He’s active in immigration reform (i am very concerned about the issue of human trafficking and plan to focus on immigration next year in the library, as those two issues go hand-in-hand), and, being from Guatemala, is very focused on 2/3 world culture and social ethics (one of my favourite classes during my undergrad involved reading William T. Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist, about the disappearings in Chile; this was formative in developing my understanding that we Western Christians should not consider our perspective normative in Scripture interpretation).

One of the things i wanted to talk about during this visit was whether OT or Theology would be a more appropriate major for me, and while i was leaning toward OT, i was not 100% certain of that decision. i am now. Meeting Dr. Carroll was certainly the highlight of this trip. Jonathan has read his most recent book (Christians at the Border), and based on what he has told me i was already very eager to meet him, but i was surprised at how much we have in common. The other OT professors (one who focuses on Hebrew language studies and Messianic Judaism, and one who is primarily interested in Ancient Near East subjects) both will be wonderful, but i think i’ve found “my professor.” When i told him how i love the OT and the way G-d reveals Himself there, he said he hoped to see more students with that perspective. And when we met up with my admissions counselor after lunch, Dr. Carroll said he’d found a kindred spirit regarding the literary mindset. So i think we are simpatico. :-)

Other things i was able to discuss with my admissions counselor included how i’d go about doing a double major (in case i want to add a lot of theology on top of my OT degree) and how i might be able to swap out some of the basic doctrinal surveys or other classes with more specific theology courses. (i’ve taken a lot of theology, and i do have a ton of Bible courses under my belt, so testing out or just plain swapping courses might give me a bit more wiggle room to take more electives. And i do love electives.) Unfortunately, i misread the course sequence for the OT major and didn’t realize that Anthropology and Soteriology, the elective i’m most interested in, is a theology class rather than an OT class, so it won’t qualify for my one elective slot. But i think i can work it in anyway—i really want to take that one. Dr. Carroll also mentioned that a hamartiology (theology of sin) class might be doable, and that sounds like something that would be very helpful given the questions i have about how to answer the problem of sin in a pre-Christian setting. Actually—having my elective slot open again means i might be able to take both semesters of Akkadian, and get to do a study of Gilgamesh. That would be awesome—but i probably ought to look the course catalog over again and see how Hebrew takes before deciding anything. Although i’d love to study Gilgamesh in the original Akkadian. (Wow, i’m a nerd.)

Now what remains is to follow up with one outstanding reference, and fill out my application for major (i’d been putting that off until after talking with someone in more depth).

i love this. i can’t wait.

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