Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Christmas Memory

The traditional nativity was enacted, with the narrator reading the beloved and familiar verses from Luke. The Angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds, who journeyed to the manger to find Joseph and Mary, cradling the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes. “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:13-14). The pantomime ended with the cast and congregation singing “Silent Night.”

It was the conclusion of the usual ward Christmas party, with one departure from tradition: instead of Primary children, the nativity story was portrayed by the fifteen and sixteen year olds. I don’t know how their Sunday School teachers persuaded them to don old white temple dresses and pose as angels, or to wear striped bathrobes as shepherds, but they did, and that night they played their parts with reverence, and a sense of awe came over all who watched.

For me, it was especially touching to see my sixteen year old son as an angel, the light shining on his straight blond hair as he stood next to his best friend, nearly a foot taller, with jeans and sneakers showing under the old white dress, and his five-o’clock shadow making an appearance too. But in that moment they were angels; they believed; and we believed.

These special young people have gone on to missions, college, graduate school, marriage, families, and mortgages. They are faithful and stalwart ward members living in many parts of the country, and they still hold that spark of reverence in their hearts that we all felt at that memorable night. And for that and many other reasons, their interpretation of the Nativity will always be one of my favorite Christmas memories.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Years and years ago, against the judgment of people who said to never write for free, I accepted an online column. I love to write, but my life was packed full of homeschooling, children, church, and family and I wasn’t doing enough of it. Even though my professional career was on hold, I wanted to keep up with my work, and I figured out that I needed deadlines to make it happen. So I started writing this column.

I soon learned that the mere act of having to produce 1000 words a week that other people would read improved my skills. When I wrote more often, I improved faster. I didn’t see the process happening, of course, but recently I was cleaning out some boxes (I’ve lived here a year and a half and though maybe I should finish unpacking) and came across some old manuscripts. I looked them over and cringed. I wrote like that—and sent it to publishers? I wondered how I ever got published!

I got a stack of writing books for Christmas, which we had early this year, and I’m learning a lot from them. But in many ways, I learn just as much by sitting in front of a computer and putting words on paper…well, a screen, these days. I’m old enough that it used to be actual paper I put my words on. As I test out ways to structure, to phrase, to get my point across, as I experiment with styles and ideas, I learn more about the writer I want to be. The free places I write give me a safe place to test out skills I’m not ready to send to publishers.

These days, it’s easier. Anyone can have a blog or a website, and I put a great deal of writing on my blogs and sites. I feel safer testing there, since I can go back and make changes at any time. I can change the cringe-inspiring writing every week, if I want to. The internet is a great place for practice pieces and can give you the courage to send your words out to paying resources.

As C. S. Bezas mentioned, Elder Ballard wants us to blog, which means that blogging can now serve two purposes. It can help us develop our writing skills and ideas, while helping out the church.

Why not try it?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Courage to Write's dear Terrie Bittner mentioned in her blog below about the courage it takes to write. I agree. Her post has come during an important time of the world's history. Much is in commotion. Voices clamor for attention. Some of those voices insist on honesty in their verbose declarations. But others couldn't care less for the things of integrity. They seem only interested in elevating their voice above the others.

It is during this cacophony of sound that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a request to its general membership ... and it may be one that interests you as a writer.

Here is an excerpt of that request, coming from Elder M. Russell Ballard:

“We cannot stand on the sidelines while others, including our critics, attempt to define what the Church teaches,” he said.

“While some conversations have audiences in the thousands or even millions, most are much, much smaller. But all conversations have an impact on those who participate in them. Perceptions of the Church are established one conversation at a time.”

The rest of the information can be found at this link. The important piece of knowledge from this whole statement is that the Lord needs YOU as a writer. He needs your words, He needs your knowledge, He needs your love for Him to shine brighter than ever before.

The Church now requests that the general membership use blogs and other forms of new media to share the joy the gospel brings. Of course, as Elder Ballard stated, "There is no need to become defensive or belligerent" in those communications. As always, we are to be examples of believers and followers of Christ. Our decorum influences others at all times.

So if there were ever a time to shun discouragement or despair regarding your own writing, it is now. The Church needs your voice as a voice of reason during a time of great turmoil and cacophony of sound. You, yes, you are a writer and you are being called forth to share your thoughts, your words, and your testimonies with the world!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men

Last night my husband asked me what I’d like for Christmas.

“Well, I’d like peace on earth, good will toward men,” I began . . .

When visiting Dayton Ohio recently, we attended an event at Wright State University’s basketball arena. We circled the facility, looking for our section, when a sign caught my attention. Actually, I stopped right in my tracks. The sign read “Bombers Club.” I wondered where “Terrorist Club” might be. I later learned that Bombers Club is an elite group of sponsors who have their own suite. They were around long before 9-11, and I don't suppose changing their name is an option.

It made me think of the changes in my own life since 9-11. We bought our home 15 years ago from a couple who retired and moved to be closer to their son. Years later, on the morning of September 11, 2001, the woman and her daughter boarded a plane in Boston, bound to LA. Instead of arriving in LA, it plowed into the first of the two Twin Towers that were the terrorists’ targets. I believe our home mourned. I knew where the daughter’s bedroom had been (from the color of the carpet) and stood at the sink, wondering how many meals the mother had prepared from that very spot, and how many times she must have glanced out the window to see what her children were doing.

I think of the scripture, D & C: 9:30: “I tell you these things because of your prayers; wherefore, treasure up wisdom in your bosoms, lest the wickedness of men reveal these things unto you by their wickedness, in a manner which shall speak in your ears with a voice louder than that which shall shake the earth; but if ye are prepared ye shall not fear”, and still I wonder how we could have prepared for such a catastrophic event to happen in our country. I believe, though, that the scripture has personal application. If we think of the worst that could happen to us in our own lives, preparation takes on a different meaning.

Preparation could mean having your will, power of attorney, living will, and other pertinent documents up to date, so family members will know of your wishes. That could save many agonizing moments and decisions, and also spare them many legal questions, if all is in order. Discussing these subjects with our children may not be easy, but it’s important. Deciding on guardianship of young children requires soul-searching and prayer, and the hope that the guardians will never be needed.

Simply knowing the basics will give our children a feeling of security.

Boarding a plane, which some people still refuse to do after that agonizing day, is more stressful. Every time we arrive at an airport, we are subject to modifications in the security screening procedure, even to the point of the new three-ounce rules. You can’t even take a large tube of toothpaste which has been rolled up, with an ounce of two of paste left. No, the tube must be three ounces or less when it was full. A piece of foil-wrapped gum can set off metal detectors. We are forced to take off sweaters, jackets, shoes, watches, and belts, and to empty our pockets of any objects which might contain metal. Laptops must be taken out of their cases and scanned separately. No doubt the next time I travel, there will be a new rule in place. I have not flown when the alert level has not been “raised to orange.” It’s less stressful to simply plan ahead for these regulations, arrive at the airport earlier and follow the rules, created to catch the bad guys, which inconvenience the good guys.

I believe that if we listen to our prophet and follow his counsel, we shall not fear. Our 72- hour kits and emergency plans should be in place. We should do our best to get out of debt. We should do a better job of taking care of each other.

Then my Christmas wish takes on a different meaning, and reminds me of the many aspects of life in which I can prepare, and the importance of establishing peace in our own lives and families. And then, having done what we can to prepare for whatever may happen to us and our loved ones, we can take comfort and strength from the counsel of this hymn, one of my favorites:

How gentle God’s commands!
How kind his precepts are!
Come, cast your burden on the Lord
And trust his constant care.

Beneath his watchful eye,
His Saints securely dwell!
That hand which bears all nature up
Shall guard his children well.

Why should this anxious load
Press down your weary mind!
Haste to your Heavenly Father’s throne
And sweet refreshment find.

Hs goodness stands approved,
Unchanged from day to day;
I’ll drop my burden at his feet
And bear a song away.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Start Again

I am restored!
For some technical reason I cannot post to this blog from my computer so I have to use the PC laptop belonging to my husband. If I leave things lying around on his desk heaven only knows what will happen to them since everybody in this family also uses this computer. It becomes the homework place, the chat with teenage friends place, the business place, and of course my blogspot place.
After my last post, the paper that has my login information was misplaced. I was sure it had been tossed out for fertilizer at the local dump. I tried everything I thought I might have used as my password and nothing worked. Finally I requested for it to be restored. The problem was that the response required cutting and pasting a convoluted gobbledy goop call number from an e-mail sent to my e-mail address which is on "my" computer. Try as I might typing in the address on my husband's computer resulted in nothing.
Then one day I was sorting through miscellaneous papers my grandchildren had used to "play school" with and there it missing page with the proper information to login into this
And suddenly I was restored....and relieved.
I apologize for being gone for so long. The important thing is that I am back.
This situation has caused me to reflect on a much bigger picture... that of the Lost Sheep.
How often in a person's life there is some small thing that prevents him or her from being totally able to be in the place he or she is supposed to be.
Just as I am sure some of you were silently criticizing my absence, in general we tend to look at what we think we are seeing in somebody's life and think we know what is going on.
And just as I was earnestly seeking a solution to my problem I'm sure many of those Lost Sheep are also trying to find solutions to their problems as well.
Probably somebody with greater expertise in computer technology would have figured out my dilemma much quicker than I did. And probably many of us with greater testimonies and gospel knowledge could figure out the way for the Lost Sheep much quicker and more effectively than they do. There is, however, something that is much more permanent in the learning curve if we all figure out our own problems. And just as my paper showed up in a very unexpected location, so do the answers to our dilemmas in life often show up in very unexpected ways or places.
At this Christmas time and throughout the year I believe our focus should be more on the love we should or do have for all of God's children than worrying about whether or not we think they've been restored or where we think they are on the pathway leading to Salvation.
This experience has humbled me showing me how quickly I went from being in the loop of the group to being a Lost Sheep. My new goal is to be more patient and Christlike.

Be Not Afraid

by Terrie Lynn Bittner

I received The Rock That is Higher: Story as Truth for Christmas, which we had early this year. It is by Madeleine L’engle, the author of Wrinkle in Time. The book is about writing, but even more about religion. L’engle, who died recently, was a devout Episcopalian and this book was written shortly after she was in a terrible car accident that should have taken her life, and led to some intense thoughts about truth and scripture, as well as writing.

She spoke at Wheaton College, a place she loved and had agreed to donate her papers to. However, she was attacked by a group of Christians who objected to Wrinkle in Time. She could tell they didn’t want answers—they only asked the questions to make others hear their point of view, and in fact, interrupted her answers so she was unable to respond to them. They wanted only one perspective to be known. She was shaken by the experience and spent a great deal of time thinking about it. In the book, she writes:

“How do I glorify God in this matter? I think the only way I know is to continue to write what is given me, to write to the best of my ability. I wrote A Wrinkle in Time as a hymn of praise to God, so I must let it stand as it is and not be fearful when it is misunderstood.”

People don’t often think of writing as a career that takes courage. We sit at a desk all day. Other than carpal tunnel and the risk of being buried under the weight of our rejection letters, how dangerous can the job be? However, if we write things that matter to us, if we write about truth (as opposed to facts) and about great principles, we do indeed put ourselves at risk of attack.

When my first book came out, one reviewer was offended by the old-fashionedness of the book, of the idea of moms staying home, of a wife who combed her hair before her husband came home, that sort of thing that is no longer in style. (Who knew combing your hair was controversial?) But my portrayal of the typical homeschooling parent as female was actually factual, as well as truthful. I once accidentally encountered a furious debate (with no one defending me, so it was more of an agreement than a debate) online about me, because I suggested the various factions of homeschoolers stop attacking each other. They all agreed I was single-handedly destroying homeschooling, and furthermore…I was a Mormon. Who gave Mormons the right to represent homeschooling?

I felt intimidated for a bit. I thought I was preaching to the choir, as they say, so who expected my book to generate such intense anger? But I realized if I’m going to write about things that matter to me, I’m going to make people mad over the years. I heard that Mormons shouldn’t be allowed to represent homeschooling as often as Romney hears a Mormon shouldn’t be allowed to be president. Whether I’m writing that Sunbeams don’t need candy during class or that Noah might have been around for the Tower of Babel, I’ll generate controversy. And when I write about more intense things—the gospel, for instance—the emails can become downright scary.

But if my writing is a hymn to God, I must let it stand and not be fearful, as L’engle suggested. When I started my first writing career and was unable to sell anything, I prayed to know why. I was told my writing was fluffy and fun, which is okay, but it wasn’t my calling. My calling was to teach, and so my writing must teach truth.

Truth makes us free, but it also makes us targets. So, if you’re telling the truth in your writing (as opposed to facts), put on your armor and don’t be afraid.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Reading to Write

by Patricia

I made up my mind a few months ago to get serious about reading. Why?

Because if you want to write, you have to read.

It's not that I wasn't reading anything at all. I read the scriptures. I read the newspaper. (I also write for a newspaper, but that's another story.) I read my emails. I'm a regular blog reader. I read my work-in-progress (and usually get depressed by my lack of progress).

The problem? I wasn't reading in the genre I write.

I wasn't reading children's books.

Lin Oliver, the executive director of SCBWI, gave the keynote address at our regional conference in September. She shared several ways writers and illustrators could improve their work, and reading more children's books was high on her list of things to do.

I am much better at creating excuses than I am fine works of literature. Sadly, I had convinced myself I didn't have time to read because I had a book to revise, and my time was so limited that I needed to spend it producing work, rather than reading the work of others. The problem is, I want to read in the same way I want to write -- all at once, from start to finish.

I've just about convinced myself that desire is not practical as far as writing is concerned. Though I still wish for blocks of uninterrupted time, I regularly tell myself one page is better than nothing and at least brings me closer to the end. But when it comes to reading, I'd still prefer to pick up a book and not put it down until I've reached the last page.

After the conference, I decided to develop the reading habit, even if it was just a few pages a day. I was already reading the morning paper while using my exercise bike. I set a goal to use the last few minutes of my workout to read a book -- even if I only finished one chapter.

I'm pleased to say that since September, I've read six books -- and I understand why it's so important now to read in the genre I'm writing, especially since I spend my days stringing words journalism-style. I need to remember the pleasure of escaping to another world, as I have while reading Anna of Byzantium. I need to revel in the beauty and simplicity of a scene formed in free verse, as in Out of the Dust. I need to be reminded of the tough decisions children have to make as they form and sever friendships, like in the story True Friends. And I need to be reminded that in children's books anything is possible, as in Whittington.

Best of all, the more I read, the more I want to write, and the happier I am knowing I have chosen to spend my free time writing for children -- the best, most imaginative, and most inquisitive audience of all.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Use Your Writing Skills as Christmas Gifts

As writers, we have some built in Christmas presents we can give for little or no cost. If you’re not good at crafts, try some do-it-yourself writing instead.

I know a writer who enrolls the older children in her family circle in a story of the month club. Each month she sends them an installment of a story about the character she’s created. The gift lasts all year long and lets her play with a story suited especially to her audience.
What about term paper help? Naturally, we won’t write their term papers, but a nearby niece or nephew might appreciate some guaranteed help through the coming school year. Editing, advising, and proofreading are all much needed student gifts.

If you have a budding novelist on your list, give a favorite writing book, perhaps from your own collection, and include a gift certificate for help with this year’s writing projects. Perhaps a monthly meeting over lunch at your house will encourage your future writer, whether an adult or a child, to reach the next level. In addition, it demonstrates your faith in his ability to get published.

Is there a homeschooling family on the list? Why not create a personalized writing unit study for them to use this school year? Include an offer to read their writing. It’s more motivating to write when someone besides Mom is doing the reading.

Most writers are good at research. If someone in your family needs research done—not for a term paper, of course, but perhaps for a personal project, offer your services as an expert researcher for five hours.

Use your imagination. Writing involves a lot of different skills, many of which add up to a very nice Christmas gift for non-writers, future writers, and readers.