On Sensationalism

I’ve had the privilege of working with junior and senior high kids at the annual Lighthouse Young Writers Summer Camp. The cool thing about teaching at summer camp is you get to teach, encourage kids with their writing, and never have to grade a thing. It’s really the way teaching should be. But I’ll save that rant for another time.

Between the creative writing class I teach at school and the classes I’ve taught at Lighthouse, I’ve noticed that young writers are sensationalists. Parents get killed. Alcoholism tortures every family. Shooting sprees are common endings and solutions to a character’s problems. On occasion, I find myself wishing for a therapist’s number on speed dial by the time I finish reading these stories.

Why is it that so many writers resort to blood bath?

Because young (and/or inexperienced) writers are afraid. I know because I’m guilty. When I go back and look my undergrad writing projects, I wrote to shock. I wrote to offend. I wrote violence because I didn’t know any other way to make my writing interesting. I was afraid of being boring.


Now I know that simple is best. Great tension and conflict can come out of a simple, common, mundane desire of a character. But young writers don’t have the confidence (or developed storytelling skills) to trust their idea. So they cop out and sensationalize.

As a teacher, how do you teach students to be sensational rather than sensationalists?

Truth be told, that is truly the million dollar question. I equate the blood bath story ending to the dream ending. The worst possible story conclusion is the “I woke up and it was all a dream.” What a joke. I think Mark Twain would say that writers who conclude their stories this way are rescuing their characters through miracle. However morbid, killing your character (or sending your character to murder or even suicide) is rescuing through a miracle of sorts. The character doesn’t have to live with consequences, and the writer doesn’t have to flex his/her writing muscle to figure out how to really resolve the conflict.

I have my students write two possible outcomes to their story: their central character either gets what he wants or he doesn’t. Write it both ways… and none of this “he wants to die!” crap either. Secondly, I have students figure out surprises along the way. The character may get what she wants, but it might not be all it’s cracked up to be.

One of the greatest reasons for reading that I’ve ever come across is that we read to experience life in ways we will never achieve in our actual lives. So if we are writing stories that have easy outs, then we don’t offer any challenges or hope to our readers.

I’m not advocating happy endings by any means, but what if the characters we write about have to actually deal with consequences? What if we as writers have to just sit there with our pencil in our ears and think about ways to write an engaging resolution?

Our students will complain about writing being too hard. And then we all get to enjoy the fruits of our labor.


Clear Gospel, Ambivalent Art Part 1

Jackson Pollock's Mural #631

Last summer, I was asked to join a team that would be responsible for creating a monthly night of worship, called First Wednesday. Our goal is to provide a moment for people to refocus their faith and respond in some way. We attempt to accomplish this goal through music, storytelling, scripture, and…art! My role is twofold: (1)to take the ideas of the group and write a script for the storyteller and (2)to help lead a team of artists that creates original work based on the theme of the night. The art is on display for people to observe as they show up and leave, and then it’s moved to be on display for a month. Incorporating art into the worship experience is a new idea at our church, and I’ve already learned quite a bit about artists, non-artists, and folks who have no idea what to do, say, or think when coming face to face with art.

One of our church’s goals is to share the clear gospel message at every event. And by gospel, I mean the message that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, resurrected from the dead to give us his gift of grace and salvation, and all we have to do to receive that gift is to believe that Jesus, the son of God, died and rose again. There are many philosophies, theologies, and opinions out there that vary from this stance, so we are intent on being crystal clear regarding the words, teachings, and grace of Christ.

However, if we approach art in this same black and white fashion, either as viewers/readers or as creators, we end up with trite, superficial, closed-off works that fail to move/inspire/provoke/challenge.

Why is that?

Because everyone who has approached the cross and walked away from the cross has their own story. If I wrote a poem about my father’s death being the catalyst for developing my own faith, and the poem concluded that in order for you to experience God or to develop your faith, your father would have to die too. That’s ridiculous. For some people, the death of a parent equals liberty and release. For others, relief.

The best art provokes its viewers/readers to walk into the intersection of self, expression, and introspection, to get run-over (or at least honked at!), and to fly away a changed person. All without ever leaving the street.


Renga Party!

Calling all poets and writers! Let’s have a renga party. Right now. For those who don’t know what a renga is, click here for a quick tutorial. Here’s a quick rundown (summary) so we can get this started:

  • Renga is linked verse, composed by a group
  • Each verse must stand alone and somehow relate to the verse that comes before it
  • Verses alternate in length between 3 lines and 2 lines
  • First verse is a haiku (and all subsequent verses are written in a similar style)
  • The opening verse mentions the season of composition (it’s winter here in Colorado, USA)
  • Over the course of the renga, every season should be mentioned (not necessarily in order)
  • Each verse should link to the verse in front of it, then shift to another image/idea

That’s enough for the first go around. Let’s go for 20 verses by using the comment stream.  Don’t worry if you don’t feel like an accomplished poet. Join in the fun. Let’s see what happens! See the comment section to read the first verse. Then, first come first serve!

Blindsided: Writing Prompt from TSP

Every Day Poems posted this photograph as a prompt on their facebook page.

by Joel E. Jacobson

It’s when I’m already running late
that I hit every light red,
that I get stuck behind
the only guy in the state
whose 10-under-the-speed-limit-
bumper-sticker message to me
is that I need to celebrate world peas,
Darwin fish eats Jesus fish,
I should wish for coexistence–

by the way
that irony
is not funny
to me

My one, true desire
is for you to get a flat tire,
pull over, and suffer
for your rush-hour sins
of being a hindrance.

Full of haste, I jerk the wheel
to fly around the hippy imbecile
when I hear the honk and squeal
and swerve back into my place in line.

My heart pounds like my mind did
moments before being blindsided
by the slap of flapping wings
in the face of judgement.

The New Tongues?

For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.

I Corinthians 14:2-3 (NIV)

The “gift of tongues” is often a controversial topic in church circles. There are some churches that welcome the “gift” while others firmly teach that the “gift” no longer has a place in the modern corporate worship experience. I’ve never had the urge to blurt something in a language I’ve never learned, but have been around people who are quite thrilled to utter mumbo jumbo. I’m okay calling it mumbo jumbo, because the people I’ve heard have said that to speak in tongues, you just make up noises to praise God. A few of these people have actually told me that people are only truly saved if they speak in tongues. Forgive me for sounding skeptical, but there is so much screwed up theology that is suggested in these assertions that I refuse to give them any credit. Isn’t my salvation between me and God anyways? I’m pretty sure Jesus never said, “Believe in me and you will know a language that no other human can understand. Speak that language, and you will be saved.” The great irony here is that Jesus taught to believe in him and speak the language of love. People may not understand why they are being loved, or how to receive that love, but the language itself is clear.

I don’t want to rant to the point of losing my intent on writing about tongues in the first place. The thought struck me several weeks ago that there is a correlation between the intent of tongues and literature, especially poetry.

All poetics and schools aside, poetry is one of the core expressions of humanity. It was the first literature, the first drama. How many young writers turn to poetry when they are simply trying to find meaning in their experiences? I wonder if poetry is a (the?) lingual connection between man’s spirit and God’s.

If you read the full chapter of I Corinthians 14, you’ll notice that the use of tongues in corporate worship is only permissible when the words are interpreted. Otherwise, the words don’t mean anything for the greater congregation. Paul asserts that worshipers prophecy, or tell about their experiences and what God is doing in their lives, rather then speak in tongues and be selfish about the experience.

Could literature, or poetry for that matter, be the new tongues?

Looking at this chapter (I Corinthians 14) through a poetic lens, one could say that language is between man and God, but experience holds meaning between humans. Have you ever written a poem that held great power to you, only to have a reader say, “Huh?” With poetry, we have the intersection of “tongues” and “prophecy”, or of personal language and experience.

How often do we hold on to those inaccessible poems (outside of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland), those poems/stories that hold no meaning for the reader? I certainly don’t.

And how often do we have an opinion about a poem, and then, through the course of conversation (interpretation), our views are either solidified or broadened? I don’t think literature demands critics, but the understanding and overall joy can be maximized with insight outside my own.


the jibberish
of intersecting
my mind’s eye
and ear and tongue
sifts like fine dirt
through a sluice box

The Dandelion Poet

I know I haven’t posted in a long time, and it pains me. For those who are wondering though, I am still writing, and I’m pleased to be a guest blogger again at TweetSpeak Poetry. Check it out.

New Poem: On the Shore of the Jordan River

I am pleased to make two announcements regarding my poetry:

Salamander Cove is featuring three of my poems this month. Other notable poets that have been featured at Salamander Cover are Joseph Hutchison, Bill Knott, Rae Armentrout, and former US Poet Laureate Kay Ryan. I’m honored to be in such company! (Bill Knott has the majority of poems in this selection, and they are really worth reading. Fantastic work!)

I am honored to have another poem published by Catapult Magazine. Click to read “On the Shore of the Jordan River“.