Building Devil’s Tower

 

adobestock90018001Some days you eat the bear. Some days, the bear eats you.

I’d love to know the originator of that one, wouldn’t you? I’m hoping there’s some great story at the root of it. Like back in some cave, Og is squatting around a fire and his buddy Oog comes shuffling back through the entryway, bloody and battered, one eye half shut, a snapped-off spear clutched in his hand. He’s in rough shape. And Og stands and walks over to him and gently, oh so gently, pats him on the shoulder and says, “It’s okay, buddy. Some days you eat the mammoth. Some days the mammoth eats you.”

Or something like that.

But I digress.

It’s a principle that’s worth remembering on the days when it seems like, regardless of the endeavor you’ve thrown yourself into, you can feel the bear getting closer and closer, maybe even see the whites of his eyes. This isn’t going to be one of those victory days. Not even close.

It’s a lot like Devil’s Tower, in a way.

Devil’s Tower? From Close Encounters of the Third Kind? 1977 Spielberg movie about Ordinary Guy Roy Neary’s persistent, obsessive drive to see beyond the ordinary and make contact with the originators of those weird, alien lights which circled his pickup one foggy night and made him believe in something beyond the world he knows.

Here’s a picture, for visual reference:

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The Calling

Neary’s world is rocked after he sees the lights, and he embarks on a quest to locate the source of the lights. Things get weird. He starts making sculptures out of mashed potatoes. All because he starts to see this weird shape in his head, with no idea what it is. He sketches it, refining and re-drawing, believing against reason that there’s a purpose to this Calling.

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The Pursuit

About halfway through the movie, Neary – who’s been inexplicably drawn to this weird rock formation – takes it one step further and throws himself headlong into sculpting it out of mud and sticks and wire in his living room. Yup, it gets weirder.

It looks a little like this:

The Doubt

His family thinks he’s cracking up, and even Neary can’t believe that there’s any purpose to this odd obsession. He’s as maddened by his own behavior in pursuit of his Calling as he is by the fact that he can’t chase it down. It’s not until, moments after he finishes this sculpture, he sees a news report about Devils Tower, a massive rock formation in Wyoming, that he knows:

It wasn’t all for nothing. There was a purpose to his passion. There was a reason for his calling.

I think that any sort of creative endeavor can easily fall into the Devil’s Tower Trap – thinking that all I’m doing is futile and pointless, as pointless as Roy Neary making living room rock sculptures and scaring his family.

I’ve been there. Maybe you have, too.

It goes something like this:

You’re caught by a Calling, a vision of something you’re supposed to do, or make. It captures your imagination, and in that moment, you see clearly the Thing You’re Supposed to Do. The clarity is necessary. It will fuel you. And at the time you first encounter it, it seems as real as the chair you’re sitting in or the grass under your feet. It exists in your imagination. Which is to say, it exists.

You vet the vision, testing it against the commitments you’ve made, the community you live in. And it all checks out. This was real. It was legitimate. You’re freed to chase down the vision you saw.

So you go for it. You start the business, write the story, make the move. You will yourself to take the first step, then the next, and the next, until you look back and can’t even see home behind you.

But it doesn’t last. The soil gets hard, the furrows don’t appear. And progress slows. Or, if progress doesn’t slow, you can bet that the voices in your head, the ones Steven Pressman calls the Resistance, grow louder and louder. And the thing they keep saying is, “What the heck do you think you’re playing at here? Do you actually think you’re making something anybody else is going to want to see? Give it up before your folly goes any further!”

And that’s where Devil’s Tower comes in.

It’s so easy, in those moments of Shouting Resistance, to lose sight of Devil’s Tower, to forget the calling that wooed you at the beginning, to believe and persevere in the belief so that it carries you straight on through the rough times until that moment when you actually behold Devil’s Tower, in all its majesty, and you know.

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The Reality

It wasn’t a lie. And I’m here to confirm that for you. Making things matters. So if – when – there’s doubt in the middle of the process, doubt that looms as large as a dining table sculpture working to convince you the effort was in vain, hear it. But don’t internalize it.

That dining room sculpture is an imposter. But the real thing is out there.

So if you find yourself in the middle of a real mess of a creative process, hold tight to the Calling which whispered to you back when you began. If it’s really true, then you can’t forget. Devil’s Tower is out there. It’s real, and if you keep on plugging away at your work, you’ll get there one day.

Hang on. Devil’s Tower is real. And it’s worth it.

The Words We Need to Speak

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“How are you feeling?”

Depending on the chapter in my life, my response to that question has been excitement, anxiety, or downright queasiness. It’s rarely easy to talk about “that emotion thing,” even for those who are the most comfortable in their own skin. The distance between our own hearts and those of others can seem an acre of more, making it terrifying to open our mouths and communicate what’s going on inside us. As Michael Card puts it,

The space between ourselves sometimes
Is more than the distance between the stars.

And so, too often my response is to seal up like an oyster, pretending the things I’m sure I’m feeling aren’t really there. It’s safe in here. It’s quiet.

Except for the voices in my heart. They’re not so quiet, unfortunately.

Read More at Story Warren

A Mr. Holland Moment

Timing is a funny thing. When I set the mid-April date for the launch of the Kickstarter campaign for my middle grade adventure novel The Misadventured Summer of Tumbleweed Thompson, I was mostly considering a few important calendar events. Halfway between Christmas and summer break, the campaign’s end allowed enough time to work through the production process and deliver books in early fall. And, thanks to the support of 417 wonderful people, that’s going to happen! Wahoo!

But, in one of those weird coincidences, something else happened as the campaign reached its tail-end. We reached full funding on Mother’s Day, which this year, also happened to come at the end of Teacher Appreciation Week.

Still with me? Okay.

So, here’s why all this matters: among the flowers, handmade necklaces, cards, and other emblems of gratitude my wife received from the families of her Kindergarten students, she got a completely unexpected note from a high-schooler. “You probably don’t know me, but …” it began, then went on to tell her how much she enjoys watching the way my wife interacts with her students, loving on them, teaching them, day in and day out.

My wife was blindsided. Not that she doesn’t know she’s touching lives. But to hear about it in so unexpected a way was so meaningful, she was speechless. “I had no idea,” she said.

And we really don’t, do we? We have no idea how the lives we live are affecting others, or how our individual choices add up to something larger. Perhaps it’s a version of the poignant line from the play Our Town: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?”

Sadly, if I’m any indication, we don’t. Not as much as I should, anyway.

The Kickstarter campaign brought with it a lot of unexpected realizations, about myself, about the world, about stories and people. Many of them I won’t really process until time has passed, and I’ve gotten perspective on the whole experience. But one that I’ve been pondering recently has to do with this idea.

Impact. Influence. The fact that “no man is an island, entire of itself; every man/is a piece of the continent,  a part of the main,” as John Donne wrote.

It’s so tempting to equate routine with mundane, and equate mundane with a lack of value. When I say it like that, it sounds ridiculous, but that’s how we think sometimes, isn’t it?

From the very start of the campaign a month ago, people – friends, college roommates, former students, and a whole bunch of “strangers” – reached out to join arms with me around this project. Not only did they back the campaign, they spread the word, they shared their enthusiasm, and some of them even told me they were checking the campaign homepage regularly. Every time I’d see them, they would give me a big smile and a thumbs-up.

So many amazing folks stood beside me, took my hand, and said, “We want this to happen. We’re grateful for you in our lives, we’re grateful for your risk. And we want your writing to take flight into the world.”

Wow.

*90’s movie alert

Maybe you’ve seen the 1995 movie Mr. Holland’s Opus. I’m feeling a lot like Mr. Holland right now. Okay, yes his first name is Glenn. I get that. But also, he’s also a guy who comes face to face in the movie’s climactic scene with hundreds of reminders that his life has impact.

A college mentor of mine used to call this process “the touching of life to life.” We’re here for the touching of life to life. And that can happen anywhere. The checkout line. The day care. The soccer field. The hospital room. Wherever our life, our vocation, or passions, or just our day-to-day travels take us. We touch lives. Will I be aware, present enough in the moment, to “realize life” while I live it?

Maybe I’m a little slow, and it took me this campaign to see it, but I’m grateful for this little Mr. Holland moment. Now that the campaign is over, I’m thrilled to be dedicating myself to working with our team to make the best book possible. I’m also thrilled to be able to sit down this summer and dream up more stories from Rattlesnake Junction. You all deserve it. And I can’t wait to share them with you.

Indiana Jones and the Baptized Imagination

A fifth grade birthday party: I was a few months past ten years old, crammed into a school cafeteria with a dozen other pre-adolescent boys, toting sleeping bags and snacks, ready for anything. Everything about that night likely would have drifted into the ash heap of memory, but for one major reason: Indiana Jones.

Someone popped in the videotape, the fluorescent lights flicked off, and I was transported deep into the South American jungle. There he was, Dr. Henry Jones, Jr., fedora and five o’clock shadow, plucking the golden idol from its place atop the stone pillar in the bowels of the earth and running for his life from the giant boulder. Then came the natives, the Nazis, the bullwhip, the one-liners, and the face-melting. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I left that party changed. The world was wilder and bigger than I had known.

Read More at Foundling House

Kickstarter Day One in the Books!

Click the image to be taken to the campaign page!

 

I PROMISE I will not be journaling every day of this Kickstarter campaign. Well, at least not publicly. However, as we reach the 24-hour mark of the campaign, I thought I’d share some beautiful words from my friend S.D. Smith that in the way that only he can, express what the past season in my life has been. It’s a wonderful metaphor for the sort of “daring greatly” which I wrote about a bit last week in the lead up to the campaign. I’m thoroughly grateful for all the support and love Tumbleweed has been shown. For now, though, here are some words from Sam. Here’s the link to the full post.

Give us a chance, and we will give you our hearts. We will expose our hearts to be shot at. It is a brave thing to stick your neck out in a world full of flashing swords. Few are brave enough to stick out their soft, supple necks, but everyone has a sword. Everyone loves to use their swords. Swords are easy to use. It’s easy to go around chop, chop, chopping.

 

He’s exactly right, you know. And if there’s one truth that this experience has taught me so far is that exposing your heart to the world, as Sam puts it, is  dangerous and stupid and necessary in making anything that matters.

But it’s also so, so beautiful.

So, thanks for Day One. And here’s to a lot more to get where we’re going on this crazy journey together.