Have you thought much about that cry? A meditation

Then last night, I was somewhere near Virginia
Rebuking Satan with ironic faithfulness.
Then Satan turned to me:
“Have you thought much about that cry?
‘Eloi, Eloi –‘
Have you thought much about that cry?
‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’”

(from “Dorothy,” by mewithoutYou)

Words fill and illuminate concepts like candles in a cave; but how to light up a cave infinitely large? Pile the words on, stoke the fire brighter; when will they tag the back wall of eternity and come sprinting back giggling about what they saw?

He had no beginning; no point at which he became an “I am.” Always and always and always back, “I am, I am, I am.” Before the universe itself was set off like a firecracker or sang out measure by measure (whichever it was), he was there. He was there when there was no there, or when the only there to speak of existed as a twinkle in his eye. He was there, he was then, he was everythere and everythen and any/every/omni/ubi-everything, because He Was.

And They were there with him. They were him, they were with him, personalities without borders. The Spirit: soft-spoken, warm, always gushing over some detail of their screenplay. “This cardinal!” “Look at this alphabet!”

And the Father.

His Father. For eternity back, the Father had been his light, his canopy, his foundation. He’d been forever; and forever he’d been the proud Son of his proud Father. They cooked up Time and the Universe and all things cozy enough to fill with words like a Soapbox Derby car in the garage. Whose idea – the Everglades, the tickle reflex, quantum entanglement – was whose? Didn’t matter; they loved it all.

The Father had been there when they were all the there there was. The Father had been there for thirty-odd years of living as a human being: there to delight over the smell of roast lamb. There to cry on, when he first had a body that cut its feet on rocks, brain chemistry that could plummet without warning into the blues, a sin nature that pressed him to break their family ties. The Father was there in the Garden, when he cried so hard his capillaries broke and asked – for the first time in all time and before – if they might rewrite the script.

Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?

They punched iron through his wrists and ankles into the tree. Hammered the thorns good and tight into his scalp. They hoisted him up so he hung suspended on his own shrieking nerve cords, turned gravity into a giant kneeling on his lungs …

… And the Father was gone.

But not gone. Something worse than gone. Gone were the smile, the warmth, the bright cables of joy. Instead …

Hollow, howling desolation.

The lightless silence of a trapped caver.

And the weight. The searing, world-pulverizing weight of their own wrath against the sin that had poisoned their world. Every desecration of their masterpieces. Every decision to scorn their rightful rule and establish bitter kingdoms of one. The pride, greed, and lust that shredded the tapestry of human nature. An anger sober as justice itself, with the pressure and power of the plasma at the core of suns. A red darkness that – for the first time in a history beyond time – eclipsed the face.

In that silence, he became a Son with no Father.

No Father.

There was only the wrathful absence, the furious void, the fullness of silent Nothingness. Hours passed for the body; but what was that to a mind that remembered the arcs of every electron tethered to every atom? A soul of limitless capacity filled with an anger of limitless holiness. The body would find relief before long; the self felt it to the edges of eternal wakefulness, with the clarity of unforgetting omniscience.

There was no Father. Only a Wrath, a Silence. A crushing Justice unalloyed by mercy or love.

Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?

Forsaken. God torn asunder from God. A mystery to give centuries’ worth of theologians indigestion. A gash the opposite color of logic. A scar – a new scar – on the hands and feet and ribcage of Eternity Spoken.

Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:4-5

Image: “The Crucifixion,” by Leon Bonnat

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Good Friday monologues – the man with a legion of demons

For last year’s Good Friday service, College Park had a series of monologues imagining that minor characters from the Gospels were witnessing Jesus’ crucifixion. Each of them had an encounter with Jesus that changed their life; each encounter is connected to an aspect of Jesus’ suffering and death. They’re more or less answering the question, “Why are you here?” I was able to write three of those monologues, and I’d like to share them here!

The third is the man who was possessed by a legion of demons.

I had been possessed by demons – a host, a legion of them. They would swarm over me and then let me wake up surrounded by destruction, usually bleeding. My people drove me out of the city when they couldn’t restrain me anymore. I don’t really blame them; I’d have done the same thing to someone else, I think. But I lived among the tombs in the countryside: naked, hurting, alone with my demons.

When Jesus stepped ashore from the boat, we all felt that something different was happening. He’d come looking for us. I felt it, and the demons felt it too, and they had nowhere to run.

I don’t remember exactly what happened; they were speaking, not me. But I remember, with a clarity I almost never had in those days, that I saw his face. It was like a lighthouse in a storm. The part of me that was still me fixed on that, and I saw him looking at me – at the part of me that was still me. Jesus spoke, and all of a sudden the storm was … gone. The demons were gone! His disciples gave me clothes, and Jesus talked with me until all the village came to see us.

He didn’t let me follow him after that – he sent me into my village and to the whole Decapolis to tell everyone what he’d done for me. To show them what he’d done. But even though I wasn’t with him in person, the memory of his face stayed with me. I had a feeling, a certainty in my soul that he was with me still.

When I heard he was in Jerusalem for the Passover, I looked everywhere to find him, but I was told he’d been arrested. When I arrived here, at this hill, a large crowd had already gathered, and I pushed through to see.

But when I made it to the front of the crowd, almost everyone around him were screaming hate and mockery. I saw one of his disciples and his mother, but other than that … no one who’d been with him. No one helped or comforted him. He was alone.

I even heard him ask, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Those were the most desolate words I’d ever heard. Jesus called God his Father; but right then, even God had abandoned him. He’s up there dying, and he’s dying alone.

[pause]

I’m here because this man approached me when everyone else had abandoned me, and I want to understand why he’s dying so utterly and completely alone.

Good Friday monologues – the boy with loaves and fish

For last year’s Good Friday service, College Park had a series of monologues imagining that minor characters from the Gospels were witnessing Jesus’ crucifixion. Each of them had an encounter with Jesus that changed their life; each encounter is connected to an aspect of Jesus’ suffering and death. They’re more or less answering the question, “Why are you here?” I was able to write three of those monologues, and I’d like to share them here!

The second is of the boy who handed over his loaves and fish for Jesus to feed the multitude.

When I met him, I looked at his hands. My parents said he healed people by touching them. That he had power in his hands. When we went to hear him speak, that’s what I wanted to see – his hands. We took all the food we had to sell: just a few barley loaves and two fish, but we needed the money.

I offered it to Andrew when he came looking for food. But he didn’t just buy it from me; he took me right to Jesus! They wanted to buy what we had. Our loaves and fish. Jesus asked me to give him what I had, and I put it all in his hands.

He didn’t really look like a miracle-worker; just a normal person. I don’t know what I expected. But he took the bread in his hands and prayed over it, and then … He kept breaking it.

He broke off more and more bread from our loaves. He tore pieces off and gave them to his disciples, and they never ran out! Long after all the food should have been gone, Jesus filled basket after basket with bread and fish. Just our bread and our fish! He took the little food we had in his hands, and it was enough to feed thousands of people.

[pause]

We went to Jerusalem for the Passover, and Jesus came there too. We didn’t make it in time to see him come in on the donkey, but I heard about it. I wish I’d been there! It sounded amazing. Jerusalem still buzzed with news of what Jesus was saying and doing.

But this morning, the news was different. People said Jesus had been arrested. He was on trial, even going before Pilate. I wanted to see what happened to him, so we followed the crowds down to where he was supposed to be.

We got there just in time to see him walking up the hill with his cross. I wouldn’t have recognized him: he was so beaten and bloody. He couldn’t even carry the cross; they had to get someone to help him. He seemed so … so broken. We followed the crowd to the hill. And then…

[pauses]

I can’t …

[pauses again]

They nailed him to the cross. They stretched out his hands and they nailed them down to the wood. When they raised the cross so it was standing, that was all I could look at. His hands had made our bread feed thousands of people. They’d healed blindness and leprosy. And those people took them and nailed them to the cross.

I’m here because Jesus took five loaves of bread in his hands and fed thousands of people. He had power in his hands, and I don’t understand why they were broken on the cross.

Good Friday monologues – the Centurion

For last year’s Good Friday service, College Park had a series of monologues imagining that minor characters from the Gospels were witnessing Jesus’ crucifixion. Each of them had an encounter with Jesus that changed their life; each encounter is connected to an aspect of Jesus’ suffering and death. They’re more or less answering the question, “Why are you here?” I was able to write three of those monologues, and I’d like to share them here!

The first one is of the centurion whose servant was healed by Jesus across a huge distance – story in Luke 7.

He had authority. The first news I heard of him seemed impossible: he cast out demons, healed the sick with a touch or even just a word. He said, “Be clean,” and leprosy vanished. “Rise,” and a paralytic stands up and walks. I knew the Scriptures from the synagogue; no one had had power like that since Elisha.

And his teaching was even more unbelievable. He claimed to be lord of the Sabbath; the Sabbath, directly commanded by God through Moses! And he forgave sins?! No one but God can forgive sins! In anyone else, I’d have thought they were insane. But the stories of healings kept coming, from people I trusted, and his teaching … there was something different about his teaching.

I didn’t know exactly what was going on, but the more I thought about it, that word – authority – kept repeating itself in my head. Jesus had authority, more authority than any other human. I began believing it, and when he brought my servant back from the edge of death from across Capernaum, I knew it.

Jesus deserved reverence. I was in Jerusalem for the Passover when he came, and what we did – laying out palm-branches – was right. He deserved the welcome.

But then …

[Pause. Centurion is overcome by strong emotion, and recollects himself]

Then they arrested him. They beat him. They dressed him in purple and shoved that crown of thorns on his head. They made him into the parody of a king and mocked him, bowing down to him and pretending to give him reverence. He deserved a crown; he deserved their reverence. And they gave him scorn and spite. The one man who deserves a crown of gold; the crowns of all the kings on earth, wore that mockery of a crown instead!

I don’t understand it. He had the power to make that not happen. He had authority over disease and even death; surely he had the authority to do … something. Why didn’t he? How could he have let that happen?

[pause]

Jesus had an authority I don’t fully understand. I saw it, and others saw it too. He should have been put on a throne, but they nailed him to the Cross instead. He deserved reverence, but he submitted to mockery and the most shameful death my people can bring. I’m here because I want to understand why.

Three story patterns that underlay almost all fiction

When it comes to story development, I’m a moron.

I’m not saying anything about how well I might handle other elements of writing. But I can say with confidence that I’m spectacularly deficient when it comes to developing a character or an idea into a mildly interesting story arc. I can map out characters’ desires like the eaglest-eyed psychiatrist; I can develop inherent conflicts between the races or characters; but when it comes to putting all of that under a story arc that someone might want to read, fuggedaboudit. And none of the tips or formulas I’ve stumbled across helped me make sense of it.

That’s why the bolt of inspiration that struck me recently is such a big deal. I can honestly say that, within an hour of having the idea, I was approaching my novel’s storyline with a confidence and clarity that I’ve never had before.

It all comes down to the Old Testament, if you’ll believe it. Three major stories in the Bible establish patterns that resonate through every crafted story I can think of so far.

Pattern 1: The Invaded Garden

Pattern 1 is found in the first few chapters of Genesis. Humankind is placed in a Garden, a paradise of life and fruitfulness and closeness to God. But when the serpent “enters” the Garden (enters the story) and asks them to violate its laws, Adam and Eve must determine how to act. As we know, they listen to the serpent and are exiled as consequence.

So here’s the pattern:

1.a. – The Garden

Either right at the beginning or soon after it, the story’s protagonist is in a Garden – a world of harmony and beauty. This may be a magical school, Wendell Berry’s Port William, or a happy marriage. Perfect health. It doesn’t have to be a perfect world, but it’s a world worth keeping that its inhabitants would hate to lose.

If your character doesn’t start in his or her Garden,

1.b. – The Snake

Your story’s conflict is going to come from the Snake in the Garden – some force of evil or suffering that threatens the Garden. It might be an external enemy, like Voldemort. It might be a character’s own greed or lust; maybe it’s an illness. But the Snake enters, spoils the beauty of the Garden, and threatens to do more.

Your story will then revolve around a few potential options: If the Snake is a temptation, will your lead character give into the temptation (and throw away the Garden), or will he or she fight it? If the lead character isn’t tempted by the Snake, how will he or she overcome it and deal with whatever damage it’s already done? They might lose the Garden for good; they might lose it temporarily and have to get back; or they may have to deal with a transformed Garden after the Snake’s done its work.

In summary, here is an Invaded Garden storyline:

My hero either begins the story or soon finds him- or herself in a Garden – a reality he or she finds beautiful. But when a Snake invades and threatens that Garden, the hero…

Pattern 2: Escaping Captivity

Pattern 2 is found in the Old Testament Exodus. The Israelites have been slaves in Egypt for generations and are groaning under that oppression. God raises up Moses to lead them, under God’s power and direction, out from Egypt. The nation of Israel must decide all along the way if it will really do what it takes to leave captivity and then, having done so, whether they will press on to the Promised Land or return to their captors.

Here’s the pattern:

2.a. – Captivity

In these stories, rather than starting with a relatively idyllic situation, we open in an unpleasant or dystopian one (think The Giver or The Matrix). Our main character is suffering, and has been suffering for some time – slavery, a terrible family situation, a horrible job. Even Gatsby’s self-imposed distance from Daisy could be a form of Captivity. We want to see how terrible this world is and root for the character to break out of it.

2.b. – Escape

The story, then, begins when the character either 1) wakes up to the possibility of Escape or 2) decides to try to Escape, whatever that means. The tension is going to come along several points: why is Escape so difficult? What internal or external factors are holding your character back from Escaping? And where will they Escape to – what complicates the journey to the Promised Land, if there even is a Promised Land?

My hero begins the story in Captivity – social, familial, physical. I want my hero to Escape, and one day he or she finds out that Escape is possible and maybe within his or her grasp. Once he or she takes it upon him- or herself to Escape or die trying…

Pattern 3: Returning from Exile

Pattern 3 covers the narrative sweep of the Old Testament after Exile begins (in one sense, it also follows the first narrative of Genesis). Because of Israel’s persistent, ongoing sin, they’re given over to other nations, who conquer their territory and resettle many of their people. They must learn how to live in this new reality and, hopefully, how they might arrange for the end of their Exile.

Here’s the pattern:

3.a. – Exile

This is different from Pattern 2 because your main character will know what he or she has lost from the outset. Whether it’s the character’s fault or not, he or she has been torn from a good life and thrown into a painful new reality. The Satanic Verses begins in this way, when the main characters are transformed into nonhuman beings (so does The Metamorphosis, in fact). If we’re to sympathize with the character, we need to see the goodness of what they’ve lost and the unpleasantness of their current situation.

3.b. – Return

The burning question of an Exile story is, “How can I get back what I’ve lost?” Whatever this means for your particular story, that’s going to be your character’s focus – not just trying to escape, but trying to Go Back (or rebuild or whatever it entails). The drama will come as they face all the obstacles, internal and/or external, to getting back what they’ve lost, and possibly as they have to deal with the new reality of a Return that isn’t exactly the same as what went before.

Near the very beginning of my story, my hero is torn into Exile as something good is taken away from him or her. I want him or her to get that thing back, and once he or she commits to doing so…

I’m serious when I say this really helped me, and I’m serious when I say how much help I need developing story. I hope this might help other plot-deficient writers get off to a good writing start!

I want to be an artist: Four paths to an artistic career

Let me introduce this in a slightly roundabout way:

I recently read a fascinating article in The Atlantic by William Deresiewicz – lengthy, but very much worth reading for anyone considering a career in “the arts.”

His main contention is that the arts, like most other careers, are becoming more and more directly exposed to the market: that would-be artists are having to rely more and more on their own charisma/audience/entrepreneurship to sell their work, rather than being shielded by middlemen like patrons, publishing houses, etc. Increasingly, the “artist of the future” seems to become more like a venture capitalist than, say, a poet-prophet.

I agree with the substance of his article; but I want to take one of his points and explore the question of this blog’s title.

Deresiewicz identifies four “notions” or conceptions of what an artist is, each of which has something to say about who pays an artist and why. He grounds each conception in history, arguing that each image was publicly prominent at a different time in recent Western society.

I want to contend that, while his fourth conception is indeed rising and the others seem less prominent than they once were, each of these four categories can still guide a would-be artist into a viable artistic career. We can think of each of these as paths that might have a career at the end. If you’re thinking about pursuing the arts, consider each of them: the path you choose will help you know where you seek funding, why someone would want to pay you, and what your best steps forward are.

Here we go!

Path 1: The Artist as Artisan

Deresiewicz’s first notion of “What is an artist?” is that an artist is an Artisan: a craftsman developing his or her skills to create a product for another. For centuries, as he notes, artists were treated as artisans: employed by those with means to produce portraits, religious works, etc. to the best of their ability.

What is art to the Artisan?

In the Artisanal view, art is the product of an informed, trained, skilled craftsman. The emphasis is on mastery of one’s craft, combining tradition and training to make a product that does what it’s supposed to do.

Who funds the Artisan and why?

In short, a patron or employer funds the Artisan in exchange for a commissioned product. They like what the Artisan does: they think he or she is talented and can meet the employer’s hopes or expectations for a portrait, a photo session, etc.

Pursuing the Artisanal path as a writer:

At least with writing, the Artisanal path still exists; and this is probably the safest bet financially for a would-be writer. If you’re thinking of going down this line for writing, what you want to do is get a job where you can hone your ability to think and organize words. Journalism. Marketing. I’m in ministry, and I have a lot of opportunities to do this. Craft and craft, and develop your craft.

Developing one genre of writing will help you develop others, and becoming proficient in your field will help you move toward publishing down the line.

Artisanal careers/steps:

  • Journalism
  • Marketing
  • Editorial/Publishing
  • Writing workshops on craft

Path 2: The Artist as Sage

Deresiewicz’s second notion is of the artist as Sage: a solitary genius or mystic bestowing spiritual blessing on others. In reaction to the Artisan’s dependence on patrons, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the growth of the “iconic artist” image: a lonely genius connected to the Universe and uniquely suited to dispensing cosmic blessing by virtue of his or her gifts.

In tamer (saner?) terms, the Sagely artist is tapped for his or her genius/insight and praised (and paid) accordingly.

What is art to the Sage?

In the Sagely view, art is the product of an inspired individual with a unique quality of soul. It comes from whatever he or she views as the source of inspiration, and comes at the beck and call of said inspiration – typically, Sages pursue art that is lofty and original above all (think James Joyce).

Who funds the Sage and why?

In short, Sages tend to 1) be independently wealthy or 2) make connection with some kind of art mogul who recognizes his or her talent and brings it to the world. The emphasis is on really impressing some really influential person.

Pursuing the Sagely path as a writer:

If you can’t tell, I have a little – shall we say – disdain for the Sagely approach to an art career (probably because I have an inner Sage, and he’s a punk). Being born into wealth helps one start down this path; so can schmoozing the right people, or pursuing influence among the rich and powerful.

In all seriousness, your best bet is to put yourself around either other artists or around people who might be able to fund your work. And if you’re going to focus so hard on craft/idea development, you’ll want a job with minimal time and mental-energy requirements: think Einstein at the patent office!

Sagely careers/steps for writers:

  • Editorial work in highbrow magazines
  • MFA programs, especially prestigious ones
  • Work that puts you in contact with literary “patrons”
  • Writing workshops, especially prestigious or literary ones

Path 3: The Artist as Professional

Third, we have the notion of the artist as Professional: an institutional worker providing a valuable commodity or service to society. Deresiewicz places this within the absorption of the arts into universities, which ramped up around World War Two. On this path, the artist provides a service to society in general with 1) his or her own art, and 2) his or her ability to train others toward meaningful artistic contributions to society.

What is art to the Professional?

To the Professional, art is a product that provides some concrete benefit to society, either through its ideas or through its beauty. Meaningful art requires talent, education, and the insight into society that institutions tend to provide.

Who funds the Professional and why?

The Professional artist is funded by social institutions connected with that art from: universities and the various established publishing houses related to each form. Writers might find a teaching position in a creative writing program that lets them work; they might also, if they get established, become secure enough in the [relative] promises of a literary agent or a publisher.

Pursuing the Professional path as a writer:

The main way to pursue this path is to seek institutional credentials (an MFA or a promising publishing career). Proving yourself through a good MFA program and working your way into a university that will platform and fund your work as part of your other duties is the most secure route down this path.

Professional careers/steps for writers:

  • Professor
  • Editor in publishing house

Path 4: The Artist as Entrepreneur

And finally, we have the artist as Entrepreneur: a creative salesperson persuading people to buy into his or her vision or brand. Deresiewicz sees this model becoming the most potentially viable, and that’s probably true: “what’s your platform?” is one of the first questions would-be artists have to answer. The Entrepreneur is part creative and part salesperson: they convince people that their products and/or their brand are worth investment, directly interacting with the market.

What is art to the Entrepreneur?

To the Entrepreneur, art is a product that captures the attention of potential investors and makes them want it in their life for some reason – beauty, fun, or whatever.

Who funds the Entrepreneur and why?

The Entrepreneur is funded either directly by his or her investors (by direct sales, Kickstarter, etc.), or by generating enough buzz to be bought into by advertisers or, finally, a publisher. People generally connect with Entrepreneurial artists because 1) they find their products compelling, 2) they enjoy the semipersonal contact of an Entrepreneur’s website, and/or 3) the Entrepreneur is working with some interest or sphere they share (think mommy blogs).

Pursuing the Entrepreneurial path as a writer:

Other paths may have more hoops for you to jump through (like an MFA program or teaching Freshman Comp), but this path probably requires you to do the most creative-tangential work. You’ll want to keep up a blog or website faithfully; you’ll network with other writers and people interested in writing; and unless your blog is about writing itself, you’ll want to cultivate an interest-group in whatever field you have. This may be the most spare-time-consuming path.

Entrepreneurial careers/steps for writers:

  • Blogger
  • Publishing/Networking workshops
  • Career that lets you blog or doesn’t take too much time

The Writer’s Balanced Reading Diet

Some kinds of books just come naturally to us. For example, I don’t have to remind myself to read speculative/adventure fiction: it comes instinctively. N.D. Wilson, G.K. Chesterton, Neil Gaiman – I simply will read them, given I have time to read anything at all.

My dietary equivalents are red meat and cheese: they simply will find their way into my hand and then my stomach.

But man was not meant to live on beef alone; if I am to age gracefully and well, I need a balanced diet.

And if I am to develop gracefully and well as a writer (and possibly as a human being), I need a balanced reading diet too. All the more so as I am still a “developing” writer (even though I’ve used the term, “aspiring writer” sounds tiresome) rather than a published-and-paid one.

We will most likely write the kinds of things we most love to read; and that’s okay. But I really do think that our writing – not just our prose styling, but even our content and our emotional impact – will be strengthened by reading more than the genre in which we want to be published. (In case I’ve inadvertently stolen this idea, it may have come from Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, John Gardner, or Doug Wilson).

To that end, here’s my idea of a balanced reading diet and what each “reading group” has for nourishment:

  1. Theology/philosophy

All writers should be reading theological or at least philosophical works. Every human being is a philosopher/theologian; every creative work, every expression of beauty, has something to say about theological and philosophical questions:

    1. Why are we here? A character’s goal shows what they, at least, think about the purpose of life.
    2. What is the essential nature of human beings? Our heroes and villains display our views of what humans can/ought/should be.
    3. What is true and good? We order our lives around what is real vs. what isn’t, what is worth pursuing vs. what isn’t. Our characters are no different, whether they’re written by Shakespeare or Samuel Beckett or James Patterson.
    4. Is there a God/justice/ultimate truth? Our stories show our belief about the moral pattern/order of the world.

Because of this, our writing will be the richer if we actively deepen our understanding of God and the nature of the world. Our stories don’t have to be allegories or one-dimensional illustrations of our pet philosophical views; but a strong backbone of meaning will enrich our writing and connect to readers on a deeper level. Plus, reading well in these fields will help us ensure any philosophical or theological perspectives we reach will be more coherent and well-thought-out than, say, Objectivism.

  1. History/biography

The next thing we should have in our reading diet is actual stories from the actual world. This has several advantages. First, real people and events are often more startling and more interesting than made-up ones (honestly, who could have invented Nikola Tesla before we had Tesla himself as a pattern?).

Second, exposing ourselves to actual people, cultures, and events will make our writing resonate more as truth and less like bad Tolkien – who, incidentally, conceived The Lord of the Rings while reading things other than fantasy.

History and biography will help us write stories/essays/articles that savor of reality, because our imagination is being steeped in reality.

  1. Educational reading

This is kind of a large umbrella for reading that teaches us facts/concepts/skills. Books on the craft of writing. Chemistry textbooks. Malcolm Gladwell.

Educational reading will bring us insights and perspectives we didn’t have before. From a fiction-writer’s perspective, it can lend credibility when we write about those things; these facts might also spark ideas for stories (I know Yoon Ha-Lee’s work owes a lot to her studies in physics, and is richer for it).

From a stylistic perspective, a good educational book can also teach us about writing with clarity and simplicity.

  1. Poetry

When it’s done well, poetry displays language at its richest. Great poets communicate images and ideas in succinct, vivid language that surprises and enlightens us. It captures ideas in novel and memorable ways.

Done badly, “poetic” language sets the teeth on edge. But when it’s done well, it has so much to teach the writer.

  1. Fiction that challenges you

This applies especially to fiction writers, but we should always be reading fiction that stretches us. I’m not talking about terrible fiction; no need to waste our time. And I’m not talking either about the kind of work that only a grad student could love (I’m still not persuaded that Ulysses is worth reading).

But not all great fiction is easily accessible fiction.

We ought to be reading fiction that stretches our vocabulary, that asks us to invest attention and time. That introduces us to cultures more alien than Tatooine (Dostoevsky, Keri Hulme); that leads us to explore language and the human condition rather than the tombs of King Tut.

This may not lead us to write this kind of work; but it will enrich our imaginations and our understanding of the world, which can only be good.

  1. Fiction that grips you

And finally, let us not forget fiction that grips you. I put this one last because it’s my habitual-read, but I think it’s healthy to keep reading fiction that sucks us in and sails us along by car chase, interstellar yacht, or hippogriff.

Is there terrible commercial fiction? Absolutely. Hacks are most likely to be forgiven in this field.

But breathless fiction has its own craft to learn and its own potential for greatness.

Happy reading!