Disillusion and revision

DSCN2723I spend the last five days in the redwoods, in Mount Hermon, at the Christian Writers Conference, learning what it means to be a Christian who writes.

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I went through a similar process as I was finishing my PhD, trying to reconcile academia and my faith, and I see many parallels. But I have returned home (to the ‘real world’, I guess) and have been suddenly struck with what I can only describe as depression. Not clinical, don’t worry. But I’m overwhelmed by a serious sense of bleh, and I have been trying to think of why.

The realist in me knew that I would not leave the conference with either an agent or a book deal, but if I am honest, that was my fantasy. So, when the conference ended and I was sans agent and book deal, as I had predicted, I was of course disappointed. One critique I had with an agent was especially hard to hear, though I have been through such critiques and I would like to think that I know good writing advice when I hear it. Still, it stung.

DSCN2704 And that is not to say that I did not have positive feedback. One publisher and one agent asked me to send in more. This is a great first step. Even the agent who ripped my manuscript apart said he would be happy to look at my work again after I’ve revised. The door has not shut completely, even though the sound of the initial slam is still echoing in my ears.

The time at Mount Hermon forced me to revise more than just my writing. In one session, our teacher asked, “If you knew that God was going to use your writing to touch the lives of people, but it was not going to be in the form of a shiny new book, would you still write?” What he was asking, really, is, to whom does my writing belong? Is it God’s or is it mine? If it belongs to me and I am writing for selfish reasons, then I can pretty much write whatever I want, cater to the general market and run with popular trends, even if the content is not edifying or honoring to God.

But if my ability to write, and the stories themselves, are gifts from God, then they belong to Him and I have a responsibility to use them for His namesake. And I have to trust Him with it, to open up opportunities when and where and for what He chooses.

DSCN2727 So, I have revised my writing in more ways that one. I have to come before Him again and surrender myself, and my writing, to His uses and his timing.

On this Good Friday, I am especially reminded of the great gift of life I have been given through the sacrifice of my Lord. I am reminded that I do not belong to myself. I have been bought with a price.

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Why aren’t you writing?

One of my friends posted a meme on Facebook that had Idris Elba (that alone got my attention!) with the words: Why aren’t you writing? blazed in bold across the top.

Huh. I thought back to my past few days, few weeks, few months, and I realized: I had not written anything! And here was Mr. Elba asking me why not?

Then I logged on to my course website and looked at the back log of student assignments I had yet to grade and there it was. I wasn’t writing because all of my intellectual and creative energy was being siphoned off to my students. Whenever I thought about writing something new (as if my brain were even awake enough to generate new ideas) or to pick up a project that had sat dormant for far too long, I would glance at my desk and see: papers to grade, online curriculum to create, lecture slides to prepare, novels to read and re-read in anticipation of the next class discussion. And then all of that enthusiasm to write drained down to my toes.

Many of my former classmates have FBed, blogged and otherwise bemoaned the difficulty of studying/teaching/working while trying to have a healthy and productive writing life. In fact, several of my former colleagues have suspended their graduate studies because of this. It’s a little late for that for me. I’m on the other side, trying to earn enough to pay off my (inordinately massive and incomprehensibly stifling) student loan debt without selling off pieces of my soul–in a figurative sense. (NOTE: I’m grateful to say in the literal sense my soul is no longer my own. Ask me if you’d like to know how that happened). All of this is not to say that I don’t enjoy my job. I do. I can honestly say that teaching university students has afforded me some of the most soul-stirring, joy-filled moments of my life. I love talking about literature. I love mentoring young people and seeing their creativity blossom.

But I hate grading papers!

After Mr. Elba’s meme-message shook me awake, I had to ask myself the startling, sad question: If I am not writing, then can I call myself a writer?

Because I want to be one. Every birthday-candle-blowing, penny-in-the-fountain-tossing, shooting-star-finding wish that I’ve made for the last 20 years, not to mention the last 12 years of schooling, has been with the intent of being a writer. I want people to be moved by my stories.

But how can they be if I’m not actually writing them?

*sigh* Mr. Elba, your meme has cut me to the quick.

 

Closing Doors

I had time between semesters here in the US, so I decided to go back to Macedonia and visit. At the time I had told myself it was to retrieve some things I had left behind, and see some friends. As I was preparing to go, a friend emailed me and wrote, “I hope you find closure.” Closure. I had not even realized that that was what I was searching for, but the moment I landed (groggy, after 24 hours of sleepless travel) I realized that was really the purpose of my return.

My time in Macedonia last year was…weird. No, actually, it was rather traumatic, and I am only now starting to heal from much of what happened, though again, I hadn’t even realized just how much the events there had really affected me. So, to return after 6 months not even clearly understanding my feelings about my time there, I guess I was in a kind of denial, or at least, obliviousness. But when I landed and got settled, I felt different. Then I realized what it was. Peace. I felt peace being back in Macedonia, something that was rather elusive during my first stay.

I was not an employee anymore, just a visitor. None of the insane politics of the university had any hold on me. I had no stress. My sole objective was to spend time with friends, to fellowship and share and laugh and love. Even if I had seen particular administrators at the university (which I didn’t because, apparently, they had not shown up for over 5 months, much like last year), there was nothing that they could do or say that would affect me. In fact, I had rehearsed in my mind what I would say if I saw them, and though I cannot say for certain since it did not happen, I am convinced that I would have been able to shake their hands and wish them well, with full sincerity. Of course I pray for justice to be done, and for reformation at the university, but that entire situation is in God’s hands, as are the administrators. They need Christ, dearly. I pray that their hearts would be softened.

It has become rather clear to me that I will not be returning to Macedonia to work. The university in the capital has dragged its feet, which in a culture of indirect communication, means no way. I am ready for something new.

As I said goodbye to one of my friends, he said, “Gosh, I don’t know if I’ll see you again. Well, I’ll at least see you in heaven.” Though from an earthly standpoint this is rather sad, not seeing friends who have become so dear to my heart, eternity is a loooooong time and will more than make up for whatever separation we have now.

On the way home, I watched the movie Now You See Me. Think The Italian Job style heist movie but with illusionists and stage magic. Early on in the film, the four magicians stand outside an apartment, having been summoned there by a mysterious source. Three of them have been standing there for some time when the fourth one comes up to try the door. “It’s locked,” the other three say. The fourth pulls out his picks and says, “There is no such thing as a locked door.” While my door to Macedonia is closed at present, I don’t believe it is locked. I may not live or work there again, but that does not sever my ties there.

My Lord walked through walls a couple times. He didn’t even need to pick the locks.

 

I’ll be home for Christmas

and New Years and Easter and spring break and the 4th of July…

Today I had to finish filling out an evaluation form for the church that commissioned me and continues to support me. They wanted to know what I thought my greatest disappointment and my greatest joy has been this year. It’s a curious thing when the answer to both is the same. I’m disappointed to be in the US this year, and I am so thankful to be in the US this year. Weird.

This time of year always invokes introspection and reflection. There is something provocative when things come to an end. Endings provoke: dread, anticipation, excitement, grief, relief, hope.  

I’m not sure what the end of this year will herald for me. I’ll turn 35 in January, so, I’ll grow older. I’ll begin teaching two new classes at a local Christian university, so, I’ll be busy and hopefully at least a little intellectually stimulated. I’ll be searching for an overseas placement for next year, so, I’ll be nervous and hopeful. I’ll have a ton of face time with my niece and nephew (1 and 4, respectively), so, I’ll be overjoyed and terrified and exhausted.

Right now I’m just tired. And a little sick. That too, is something that usually happens to me at the end of the year. My body will push through to the end of the semester, but the second I submit those grades, my body gives out and I end up achy and sniffly and embodying at least a few of the Seven Dwarves (Dopey, Grumpy, Sneezy and Sleepy, primarily). Certainly in need of Doc.

And the verdict is

In last week’s post I wrote that I had a deadline of December 5th to hear from Macedonia about a spring contract for January. Well, the 5th has come and gone, and it looks like I will be staying put in the U.S. for the time being.

To be honest, I am not disappointed. I have been incredibly blessed by the community here: being close to family and making new friends, receiving an adjunct teaching job that I am excited about for the spring, being a part of a welcoming church. I am grateful for the time to rest and recover from a difficult last year overseas. Perhaps this was God’s plan all along, and I am a bit slow on the up-take. Nonetheless, I appreciate everyone’s interest in my next steps, and I will definitely keep you posted.

Right now I am wrapping up the online course I’ve been teaching, doing a final edit of a fantasy novel I have been working on sporadically for the last 5 or so years (and hoping to shop it around to some agents and editors soon), and preparing for an English literature course I’ll be teaching in the spring–lots and lots of reading. God is good.

Will she or won’t she

I can’t really complain that I’ve been busy. I have been teaching an online composition course at a Christian university, which has been incredibly fun and is allowing me to widen my teaching experience. I have also had the opportunity to teach in a Bible study at my church and get to know many of the young women there in order to develop a small group. Plus, you  know, there is face-to-face baby time with my nephew and niece–and that day with all of the turkey. I haven’t spent a Thanksgiving with my family in eight years.

I have been settling down to life back in the states, and with a little time and a lot of submission to God’s leading, I have gotten used to the idea of spending the year here.

Until a week ago.

I had pretty much settled it in my mind that I was not returning to Macedonia this spring semester (starting in January), but an email from my contact there soon made this a very real possibility again. The details are these: apparently a ‘law’ had to be passed at the university for them to even consider hiring a foreign professor (huh?), and that law will be voted on soon. Once that occurs, the university itself will then develop a contract (assuming they even want to hire me) and send it for my consideration.

The sticking point is that I have verbally committed to teaching in CA in the spring. Books have been ordered, syllabi have been written and students are registering. Now, in a pinch, I could withdraw from the courses, but the closer to January it gets, the more unconscionable it becomes to back out on the university. While I have not signed a contract yet, it would be unprofessional to leave it without an instructor at such a late date.

I have to draw a line and stand upon it.

So, what I have decided is that if I have not received a (pretty darn awesome) contract from Macedonia by December 5th, then I will remain in CA. While the deadline is cut-and-dry, I find that my heart is not. I am certain of my calling to serve cross-culturally, and I want to resume that role, wherever that may be. But a part of me really, really (really) wants to stay put for the rest of the academic year.

Is that bad? Am I putting my own desires ahead of God’s? I just don’t know. I guess I’ll find out in less than a week.

Giving thanks

A few weeks ago I finished Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts; it is a memoir/devotional/meditation on being thankful (she uses the Greek eucharisteo) for not only the big, mind-blowing gifts of God that are extraordinary, but also the minute and mundane, wonderfully everyday gifts that God gives, including the painful ones. The original premise was that a friend of hers challenged her to write a list of one thousand things for which she is grateful. As Voskamp writes her list, she discusses the thought- and life-transformation that comes when one concentrates on thanksgiving. The language of the text is poetic, rich, and requires slow savoring and multiple readings to catch the stunning eloquence of depth of her essay-musings. (Geeky Grammarian side note: she has the tendency to use definite articles in lieu of possessive pronouns–ie ‘the hand’ instead of ‘my hand’–which defamiliarizes and even alienates her subjects so that you have to look at them, really look at them, in order to comprehend. I think that is part of her point).

Voskamp’s is a timely text, and I thank my friend for recommending it–actually ordering it and having it shipped to my house!–so that I could/ would read it.

Because I have not been thankful. I have been disappointed and frustrated and angry and sullen and pouting and doubting and critical and judging and all-around not-grateful for my situation.

So, in a strikingly less poetic, but nonetheless heartfelt list, here is my list of 10 everyday things (I’m starting small) for which I am grateful (in no particular order):

1. My dad’s old pick-up to drive around town

2. My furry alarm clock (AKA my cat, Sachi)

3. Dinners with mom–even if it’s just a roast chicken from Walmart (after 16 years of living away from home)

4. Benjamin asking for jelly beans every time I see him (sorry, buddy, I always forget)

5. Being home for Eden’s first birthday

6. Learning to make new friends

7. Skype and email and FB–for staying in touch with old friends

8. A part-time teaching job at a Christian university

9. Autumn in California

10. God’s endless patience with me