Culture change through collaborative storytelling

I was dismayed by the results of the presidential election. I wasn’t upset just because I dislike President Trump and pretty much everything that he stands for, nor was I only baffled because the majority of people polled said Trump wasn’t qualified to be president and yet at least 16% of those people voted for him anyways. I’m not disappointed just because my side lost and the other side won. I recognize that the other side felt that way the last two elections, and we have some core differences of opinion, and I’m OK with that.

I’m mostly dismayed because this election feels like a repudiation of my beliefs and values. I am a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, cis male, middle-class landowner living in Missouri. I’m practically the poster-child for the Republican party. And at the same time, my wife and I both have master’s degrees, and we believe that education should be higher quality and more freely accessible, and that healthcare should be universal and provide both for physical and mental health, and that people in disadvantaged situations (such as the disabled, those suffering from domestic violence, or abuse, or neglect) should have social services to which they can turn for aid, and that we should, as a society, work to improve the lives of individuals because that will in turn improve the state of our society, and that we should all be treated equally regardless of sex, gender, race, or identity. And it feels like the majority (of the electoral college, anyways) said, “Nope, we don’t want that. We disagree with that. We want the opposite.”

So what can I do? I believe in democracy. I think our system, as flawed as it is, is still the best form of government that humanity has devised thus far. I believe that, following an election, we as a citizenry should coalesce behind the new president and give them a shot. We should hold them accountable and speak our minds and write our representatives, but there’s no going back. Not for four years, at least.

But if I think that the direction we’re going politically is a bad one, what can I do to change that? The standard advice is to be active at the local and state level. If we change local politics, we’ll change national politics. Except my local and state elections all sided with a man I find morally reprehensible and who advocates policies that I perceive as anti-American. I don’t feel like I have any power to change local politics because, again, the majority of people appear to have repudiated what I stand for. Nearly every down-ballot election in Missouri and Greene County went to the GOP, frequently by a landslide. If the majority has said that they disagree with me, what can I do about that given my support for our system of government?

I was walking yesterday and thinking about how I manage culture change at businesses, and my preferred method is through collaborative storytelling. I believe that we become like the stories we tell ourselves, both individually and culturally. If we tell ourselves we are weak and incapable, we will become those things. If we tell ourselves that we are strong and righteous, we will live our lives that way (for better or worse, for we may not actually be right, but instead tyrannical).

We have been told a story of fear. There were a lot of factors at play in this election, but a common thread over the last year of campaigning has been fear, abandonment, and oppression. People are afraid of losing their jobs and their rights. They’re afraid of terrorists. They’re afraid of change. They’re afraid that the political system has abandoned them and their beliefs. They’re afraid that a party will be elected who opposes their views. And a majority of people got out and voted for the person they think will best address those fears.

I can understand that. I totally get it. And I’m not going to speculate on whether those fears are right or wrong. I think some of them were justified. But I also know that God does not want us to fear. God does not call us to live our lives that way.

So what can I do to fix things? How can I change our society? I am very limited in what I can accomplish. I am not a political scientist or politician. I’m not particularly charismatic. I don’t have billions of dollars. But what I can do is be positive and encouraging. I can tell stories that highlight the good things happening in our society.

I haven’t figured out what this looks like yet; I’m still processing. But I may start writing poetry again, because I don’t think people really want to read my long-winded blog posts, and I’m not fond of the idea of writing in to the newspaper regularly (for myself personally; other people do well at that). I don’t know much about journalism, but I think I need to learn a few things about it. How can I tell stories with which people will connect? How can I encourage people given my limitations?

If we change the story that we tell about ourselves and our nation, and we make it a story not of fear but of hope, and a story that highlights people who are different from us and yet so very similar, and stories about people’s families and hopes and dreams and loves and losses and fears and their journey to overcome those fears… well, maybe that’s something I can do. I don’t know, but if you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you always got. Voting isn’t moving our country the direction I want to see it go. Neither is posting on Facebook and trying to have conversations with people about the things our politicians do. Maybe telling stories about the good things happening around us will help. Maybe it won’t, but I think it’s a place to start and a thing to try.

Writing for Work

A large part of my job is related to writing and communication. It’s one of the things I was hired for, and it plays to my strengths, both of which are Good Things. I’ve noticed recently that it seems to be changing my writing style, though. Both at home and at work, my sentences have become shorter and more stuttered, and my transitions in particular are lacking. I’ve had trouble describing things eloquently, to the extent that even my work communications seem lesser to me than they once were.

One of our student workers complimented me on my writing yesterday, but since I’d already been thinking about how little I liked my day’s work, it didn’t make me feel a lot better. By the end of the day, I had spend about 7.5 hours solid writing guides and documentation that had to be done before a number of things go live on Monday. It wasn’t so much that I had put them off as I had been so busy I hadn’t had time until yesterday. Also, two or three of the guides I wrote were only assigned to me two days ago.

The point is, it’s not that I’m not writing. I’m writing a lot these days, but a lot of it is at work, and that seems to be stunting my writing elsewhere. It’s like exercise: if you only exercise one muscle group all the time, the rest will suffer. I need to be exercising other writing muscles more frequently.

It comes to my mind as I look at that last sentence what the answer is, or might be: I need to return to writing poetry. I’m currently re-reading Kushiel’s Dart, one of my favourite books, and the author is clearly a lover of poetry. Most of the great fiction writers were, and the ability to briefly but beautifully describe something is a goal to which I aspire. I haven’t written much poetry since I met April and found myself becoming happier, but it would certainly exercise muscles long left dormant.

Can you recommend particular poems you love? Not books or authors, but individual poems you find remarkable enough to remember the title and tell others about?

The Writer’s Circle

Last Friday, April and I attended a reading at Borders here in Springfield. She had been invited to read a couple of poems out of the Moon City Review, a publication by Missouri State University in which she was featured last year, so we went and joined the sizable crowd as the MSU Concert Chorale sang some renaissance period songs and the readers were queued up. After the singing was complete, the first poet began his reading.

I had a class with this young man several years ago, and as he read about a road trip, I recognized some of the names and assumed they were our fellow class mates with whom he had become friends. We were all in the same poetry classes, two semesters in a row, and if I had continued down that road we may very well have become friends. A culture and a clique was formed there, but I was diverted and went elsewhere.

With a touch of a melancholy I thought about What Might Have Been. Until recently, I was a double major in Religious Studies and Creative Writing, but I dropped the latter down to a minor to graduate sooner. I don’t know that I even have a 3.0 GPA in RS–last I checked, it was a high 2, but it has been a while so it might have risen. I have a 4.0 in CW, though, and while the English department is well known for grade inflation, I feel like I have earned that grade. I honestly have enjoyed almost all of my English classes, and Creative Writing is probably where I should have spent my time.

In light of my recent academic travails, though, I thought through that path to its logical conclusion. Would I have been happy if I had pursued that degree more fully, focused on that instead of getting a job, and been in the same place academically as this young man (preparing to finish my masters degree)?

As I shared with April later, a large part of what I sought there was the community, and I am relatively confident I would have found it lacking. Not that they aren’t nice people–I like every one of the advanced Creative Writing/English students I’ve met–but there’s that pesky religion thing. It is difficult to connect deeply with a group of atheists/agnostics, and it seems that the upper echelons of academia are often inundated with such.

As Jennie observed about the graduate program in art at Wichita State, where she studied for two semesters, Christianity and work inspired by Christ wasn’t exactly welcome. She was often at odds with her peers and professors, and I would have found the same at Missouri State. It wouldn’t have led to negative relationships, just shallow ones, and that is unacceptable to me.

Perhaps I am mistaken in this perception, but it seems that the majority of the people with whom I communicate solely via the Internet are likewise non-religious, and I suspect when they view my site they consider me completely looney. I’m currently becoming even more overt about my beliefs, and I fear people’s judgment to some extent. If I were in an advanced writing program, and wrote and communicated vulnerably and honestly, I wonder what the reaction would be.

Would I have been happy pursuing that education more fully? Yes, probably, because it would have kept me writing and helped me become a better writer. As I listened to the final short story being read, a wonderful piece with descriptive language I doubt I will ever be able to match, I recognized that there were heights I would likely never reach. There was a path somewhere back there I choose to not take, and there is no going back in this life.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t cut cross country now and begin struggling for my own sake. What I need more than anything is practice. And if the degree program is inaccessible to me now (as it most assuredly is for a variety of reasons), that will not prevent me from writing. If a community of writers is part of my future goals and desires, a piece of paper will not prevent me from beginning to form one.

It will not be the same as it might have been, but what will be will be. We won’t have a future if we don’t make it, if we sit around watching TV and pining for what might have been. Instead, we must cut down the trees, stoke the fires, and begin building the future we so desire.

Where Does My Help Come From?

I suppose I know what the hymn means, but it didn’t feel right to me. Maybe I misinterpreted the song, but I feel like my heart was in the right place.

I don’t know what the writer meant
who wrote,

I lift up my eyes to the hills
Where does my help come from
My help comes from the Lord
Maker of Heaven and earth

but I know, oh God, my help
doesn’t come from mountains,
from idols or altars.
It’s not sent in gratitude or trade.
Sacrifice matters less when I can’t atone
for what I’ve done.

My help comes from you
who dwells on no mountain,
whose house sits on no hill.
Maker of heaven and earth, you rest
on the seventh day, not to sate
your weariness, but ours.
You recline not on a couch
or bed, but on the very stars.

We can’t conceive, oh God,
we can’t capture you with our minds,
our imaginations.
But I know you’re not there
on that mountain.
I know because you’re here
with me.

Poor Design Stymies Communication

This post is part of an ongoing series of collaborative conversations. See that initial post for a table of contents of all articles in the series.

Students in Creative Writing must become intimately familiar with the workshop process in writing and revising their work. We put something together under a rather intensely short deadline, get it to the teacher who photocopies it for the class, and then our peers read, dissect, and tear apart our work so they can tell us what’s wrong and help us improve.

In my experience, this has been a fairly benign process because most people are afraid to be too critical or in-depth with their comments. If you know me at all, you know that I’m a pretty blunt, straight-forward person, so though I tempered my tone and always made sure to comment on a positive aspect of the piece in question, I didn’t see anything to be gained by coddling someone. If they aren’t told what needs to be fixed, they’ll never improve.

I write this by way of introduction because there was one remark I seemed forced to make on probably half of the poems I have workshopped over the years. Poetry is a particularly ambiguous medium, one where the writer must learn all of the rules and how to conform oneself to them so that the writer can in turn break all of those rules. Strangely enough, if you start off breaking them, your poetry will suck. But if you learn what you’re doing first, you can deviate wisely and write something beautiful. Many of my peers never bothered to read much poetry or learn, though.

The primary goal of poetry, like any writing, art, or design, is to communicate something. An idea, a phrase, something and/or anything… a poem does not exist in a vaccuum. But if it isn’t structured, worded, designed, and written correctly, it will communicate nothing. And what’s worse, if the author doesn’t fully understand what they are trying to communicate, then the piece is worthless. What’s the point of creating a communicative piece when you don’t know what you are trying to communicate?

Just the same, even if you know what you are trying to communicate, if it is not designed correctly your message will be lessened. You might have the greatest idea in the world, but without the proper medium, formatting, and structure, it will either be ignored or lessened. Your impact will be less because the design did not fit the piece.

This is something with which I have been struggling in regards to the design of my web site. There are a great many things I want to do with SilverPen Publishing, but the stock theme I have been using is rather inflexible and it is difficult to cram my ideas into its borders. Looking at the year ahead, I have a number of goals I want to accomplish and several involve publishing different pieces through my website, but its current design would hamper that. I knew that if I went ahead and threw my content into and behind this design, there was a decent chance that the message would be lost.

And yet, I cannot design something wonderful myself. I have enough artistic intelligence to recognize the inherent weakness of my site, but not the skill or vision to create something evocative, communicative, and fitting for the accomplishment of my goals.

Settling is rarely, if ever, an option to me. With poetry, I can do a decent job communicating my heart and message, but I am not the greatest poet and so sometimes (read often) am completely incapable of conveying my meaning. I am perhaps better at communicating through verbal communication, where I can blend diction, volume, speed and pausing, and word choice to design a complex message to reach people’s hearts. Likewise, I am decent at non-poetical writing, and between these three, I know enough to know how to learn and improve if I am not currently able to communicate the message I desire. I can get where I need to go to reach my goals.

But with a website, I cannot. My next article in this series will focus on the recognition that we can’t all do everything, and what we should do when we realize we are incapable of designing what is needed.

Design Speaks Directly to the Soul

This post is part of an ongoing series of collaborative conversations. See that initial post for a table of contents of all articles in the series.

As Ryan observed, design is more than making something look pretty. It is the first line of assault against your senses, charging in to make room for a deeper truth–for the greater message being communicated through the whole of a piece. Design is the underlying foundation of everything, and much like our own skeletons, it is likewise hidden and sometimes forgotten.

There are two things I understand decently well amongst all the things in the world, and so it is those two upon which I will focus in the context of this series. The first is architecture, with which I will begin because (of the two) I understand it least. The second is writing in general and poetry in specific.

Architectural design is not something with which many Americans (by which I am referring to the residents of the United States of America) are preoccupied. We might admire a fine building and snap a picture while on tour, but it isn’t something we study, stare at, and marvel. Yet architecture is one of the great fascinations of my life, and when I am in a distant city, I spend the vast majority of my time wandering the streets, eyes fixed to the walls, roofs, and doors of all the buildings I can see. I have spent hours lying on the lawn of Westminster Abbey so that I could look upon its vast facade and out across the square at its neighbours. Days beside the river Thames marveling at the wall that skirts the river, or wandering the streets and hills of San Francisco, or the wide sidewalks of Chicago. I derived a great deal of enjoyment from comparing German Switzerland to German Germany and the similarities and differences in how the walls meet the roofs, the materials used, and the arrangement of their towns. Architecture fascinates me in a way similar to the hypnotic stare of a dragon preparing to pounce on a meal.

The USA is very utilitarian in its construction, but once upon a time architecture was not just a pragmatic means of getting a building upright. Rather, it was an art designed to communicate something to the passerby. A non-Christian friend admitted to me once that she began to cry as she entered a cathedral in Europe simply due to its beauty. This is a design done right. This assails our senses, demanding entry to our heart because of its power and majesty.

And it is not unique to architecture. Though you may not admire buildings as I do, I imagine that you can sympathize with and understand what I have written above, because it is a very obvious example of the purpose, power, and presence of design. Less obvious is the placement and depth of a thumb scoop on a MacBook, the resistance and length of a switch on a coffee pot, or the arrangement of words in a poem.

I can communicate an idea to you with a straight-forward statement of fact in a simple, well organized sentence, and in so doing you will understand the words and potentially their implications. Yet such a statement will not touch your heart, nor will it influence your soul, for that is the purview of poetry. There are many who malign the ambiguity and obtuseness of poetry, wishing instead that the writers would be more direct with their intentions, but that directness is not of the greatest design.

There are times when communicating with your head is sufficient, such as at work or when figuring out where to go for lunch. But there are other times when that will not do, when I will need to build a bridge from my heart to yours if you are ever to truly understand what I mean. A simple sentence will not suffice. And it is in these instances that the power of design is made manifest in writing.

A good design not only joins our hearts and souls, but it satisfies something deep within our selves. No, the switch on a coffee pot is not a cathedral or a poem, but you will know it is right. You will flip that switch to turn the coffee pot on and think, “Ah, there we have it. This is good.” A good design is more than just functional, it is beautiful. It was created with love and an attention to detail that surpasses a mere statement and that goes beyond simple pragmatism.

Good design, like our skeletons, holds us up and drives us forward. It is a powerful charge we can only refuse by closing our eyes and ignoring the world.

The Teachings of Ignorance

For my Buddhism class, we had the option of either writing a 15 page research paper or doing a creative project; I suspect this was largely to encourage people to do a creative piece instead. I opted to work on an epic poem, but unfortunately did not have the idea for it until late in the semester, at which time I scrapped all my previous work and began writing The Teachings of Ignorance. As such, what I have completed in time for the due date is only a first, rough draft, because this story deserves a lot more work and expansion than I had time for.

You can read the poem below, but if you’re really interested in seeing the final product, be sure to either subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this page, or subscribe to the site in general. You can also, down at the bottom of the page, check a box and put in your email address to receive updates that way. I will continue work on this as quickly as I’m able, but don’t expect it to be complete until February 2009, and potentially as late as July 2009 if next semester goes as poorly (read: is as busy) as I expect.

The Teachings of Ignorance

Marahasvu declares the jewels:
the Buddha, the dharma, the sangha,
the Guru, capstone of strength and wisdom-
without him the structure falls,
built ignorantly and without thought.

Think on this:

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