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Reading With My Mom

I’ve been working from home for 21 weeks. This prolonged period of isolation has given me time to reflect on happier times in life: adventures and excitement in college, friendships forged in high school, and time spent reading with my mom as a child.

Those were the good days — Mom reading to me and my brother as we snuggled up in my parents’ king-size bed, piled high with pillows and blankets.

Though we were capable of reading titles like Gertrude Chandler Warner’s The Boxcar Children and Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew, we preferred to have Mom read them to us. We’d go to the local used bookstore weekly to find new titles and were excited to find the numbers missing from our collection.

The Challenge of Interpreting Culture

Some stories — even if written during a different time — are applicable to every generation of teens because they help with interpreting culture.  

First published in 1967, The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton, has inspired readers for more than 50 years. Hinton, just fifteen years old when she began writing the book, was inspired by her high school experience. 

“Looking back, I realize how important it was to me to have another life at that time. To be someone else,” Hinton wrote in the introduction to the novel’s platinum edition. “To deal with problems I had to face, and write my way to some sort of understanding and coping. … I desperately wanted something to read that dealt realistically with teenage life.”

As one of the first novels to be labeled a young adult novel, The Outsiders received (and continues to receive) backlash because of its reference to gang violence, underage drinking and smoking, strong language/slang, and portrayal of dysfunctional families. However, this novel proves to be a paradox, as it is simultaneously banned from school libraries and used in English classrooms across the country.

First edition of The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

The Outsiders focuses on main character Ponyboy (Pony) Curtis, a fourteen-year-old orphan growing up as a “greaser” — named for their greasy hair — in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Throughout the book, Pony struggles to find his place in a world divided by class. As greasers, Pony, his brothers, and his friends struggle to make ends meet and often find themselves at war with Socs — wealthier teens from the other side of town.

Keep in mind that Hinton wrote this book in an effort to “write (her) way to some sort of understanding and coping” with what was happening in her own life. Published when she was just seventeen, The Outsiders is not an adult’s interpretation of teen life in the ‘60s — it is one teen’s attempt to make sense of the world around her.

I first read Hinton’s book when I was a teenager, around fifteen or sixteen. Up to that point, I’d mostly read Christian fiction, books assigned to me in school, and dystopian fiction (a popular genre in the early 2010s). The Outsiders impacted me in a different way than anything I’d ever read before because it was honest; Hinton didn’t shy away from difficult topics like domestic abuse and classism. 

Hinton’s rawness and ability to face difficult topics head-on inspired much of my writing as a teen; writing about my world helped me cope, just as writing The Outsiders helped Hinton. 

I’ve been thinking about this book for the past decade, wondering why it impacted me the way it did, and I think it boils down to culture. 

“While it is not strictly true to say that fundamentalist (Christians) ‘condemned culture,’ full stop, perhaps it is fair to say that their attitude toward culture — their basic posture — was one of suspicion and condemnation toward any human activity not explicitly justified on biblical grounds and engaged in by fully converted Christians,” Andy Crouch wrote in his book Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling.

This statement, along with an entire chapter examining fundamentalist Christianity’s posture toward culture, made me realize something: many fundamentalist Christians are quick to condemn anything not mentioned as holy in scripture — myself included.

Culture, for many Christians, is viewed as something that you can remove yourself from. Derived from a passage from John 17, the belief that Christians should be in the world, but not of the world is often interpreted as meaning Christians should not engage with culture. Later in John 17, Jesus prays, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.”

Executive Editor of desiringGod.org David Mathis suggests that this phrase should be interpreted as Christians being sent into the world with a mission rather than “being mainly on a mission to disassociate from this world.”

We cannot hide from culture — it is all around us, whether we choose to actively participate in certain activities or not. Hinton didn’t participate in gang fights or underage drinking and smoking as a teen; she was dismayed by her observations of culture. Writing The Outsiders was her way of making sense of the world around her. 

It is worth noting that while The Outsiders does include the unsavory parts of teen culture in 1960s Oklahoma, it also includes positive elements of redemption, friendship, and sacrifice. It interprets, not condones, culture.  

So what does this mean for us as Christian writers of children’s and young adult literature? It means that we should write truthfully about what is happening in the world. As Christians, we are on a mission to share the good news of Jesus Christ with those who have not heard it. The gospel helps us make sense of the world, but it does not take us away from the world — not until eternity. It gives us something to hope for and values to live by. 

Every generation of teens will face different cultural trends that they need to make sense of. Right now, we’re seeing protests against police brutality, calls for racial equality and LGBTQ rights, a receding economy, and fear from the global COVID-19 pandemic, all during a tumultuous election year. How can you help your children, teenagers, or readers interpret current events?

As a writer, you have the challenge of interpreting culture through the lens of the gospel for your readers. Don’t shy away from the messy parts of life — teens experience a lot of things that they need help interpreting. Reading your work may be what they need to understand and cope with their worlds. 

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below.

The Power of Repetition

I hadn’t been to church since February, and I was starting to feel disconnected from God. During my first week back in a sanctuary, God spoke to me through a literary device — repetition. 

My church stopped hosting in-person services at the beginning of March because of COVID-19, and I’d missed a few weeks before then because of a bronchitis diagnosis.

Last week, I was visiting my parents in Upstate, South Carolina, and had the opportunity to attend church with them. The crowd was sparse, and each family unit was spaced 6 feet apart, but it was communal worship — something I hadn’t experienced in more than 12 weeks. 

I’d seen my parents cry in the church from time to time, but I’d never really had a strong emotional response during a service.

The band began playing a song by Elevation Worship called “The Blessing,” which is straight from scripture. It shares a blessing from Numbers 6:24–26:

The Lord bless you 

and keep you; 

the Lord make his face shine on you 

and be gracious to you; 

the Lord turn his face toward you 

and give you peace.

I didn’t feel blessed that weekend, despite my safe travels to South Carolina from Central Virginia. I didn’t feel blessed because I was (and still am) working from home with no idea of when I’d be back in the office. I didn’t feel blessed because my husband, a police officer, was working the night shift during a weekend filled with violent protests.

But when the song climaxed, one of the worship leaders began repeating the words “He is for you” over and over again — and something happened. 

Repetition is a powerful literary device that can be used in poetry and prose.

As a writer, I know that repetition is a powerful way to make a point. As a person who has attended counseling for anxiety, I know that repeatedly speaking truth to yourself is a powerful way to change your thought process. 

It felt like God was speaking to me through that song, trying to get a point across, to reshape my thinking. He was telling me that He is for me, that His blessings aren’t always extravagant. More often than not, they will be quiet reminders of His presence. How fitting it is that God, the author of all things, spoke to me, a writer, through a literary device.

The song continued:

May His presence go before you

And behind you, and beside you

All around you, and within you

He is with you, He is with you

In the morning, in the evening

In your coming, and your going

In your weeping, and rejoicing

He is for you, He is for you

The repetition continued, with the singer repeating the word “you” throughout the bridge, reminding me that I am a recipient of God’s blessings. My impression of blessings has always been that they are an extravagant act from God. Yet in scripture, we learn that blessings are small acts of love from God — from the gift of a child to the provision of food and safety. 

This song challenged me to look at God’s blessings in a new way. God blessed me that weekend by giving me the opportunity to worship with other Christians, and he blessed me by protecting me from harm during my travels from Central Virginia to South Carolina.

God’s blessings aren’t always extravagant. They are often displayed through friendships, safety, and provision.

He protected my husband who served on the frontline of a riot on May 31 and brought him home safe to me the next morning. And he blessed me with the companionship of my sweet sister-in-law the night I had to send my husband back to work, despite continuing protests in our city. 

God spoke to me through a literary device, which is a powerful writing tool. While this instance of repetition was used in poetry (a song), repetition can be a particularly useful tool for writing children’s literature. 

Take this passage from Dr. Seuss’ One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish  for example:

One fish, Two fish, Red fish, Blue fish,

Black fish, Blue fish, Old fish, New fish.

This one has a little car.

This one has a little star. 

Say! What a lot of fish there are.

 

Yes, some are red, and some are blue.

Some are old and some are new.

Some are sad, and some are glad,

And are very, very bad.

 

Dr. Seuss is well known for his whimsical, rhythmic writing. He uses a combination of rhyming and repetition in his work to create memorable writing that delights children of all ages. 

Repetition is also used in literature, such as Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two of Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” Dickens adds stress and emphasis to the positives and negatives, bringing attention to the polarity present in his time. 

God used the repetition in “The Blessing” to touch my heart and draw me back to him. I believe he can use your writing to touch others, and repetition is just one way you can emphasize your message of hope through Jesus Christ.

Emily is a member of the Write2Ignite planning team and works full time as a promotional writer for Liberty University Marketing. Learn more about Emily here.

Get Organized! Helpful Tools for Writers

organizationOne of the most difficult parts of any writing project is keeping your ideas, writings, and sources organized. Here a few tips and resources to help you organize your next project.

Outlines

Forget about the Roman-numeral-heavy outlines from grade school and think in lists, paragraphs, images, or phrases — whatever helps you organize your thoughts. 

Outlines are best used for organizing information chronologically, which is great for larger projects like books. However, your outline isn’t limited to words. If you have photos that inspire certain scenes in your story, feel free to paste those into your outline as well. 

Personally, I like using a basic outline written in complete sentences that defines my story from start to finish. However, outlines can be customized to fit your writing style.

Timelines

Similar to an outline, a timeline lays out your story chronologically, giving you a big-picture view of what’s happening in your plot. If you’re a visual person, creating a physical timeline with a roll of craft paper on an empty wall in your home works well. 

When I was 16, I created a giant timeline of a manuscript I wrote so that I could see when everything was happening in the story. I wrote basic plot points on the timeline directly and used sticky notes for smaller events so that I could rearrange them. This helped me understand where the plot was lacking and helped me fill in some holes. (This story is still under construction.)

Planning Softwarewriting organization

There are a ton of free resources available online that can help you plot your story and organize your thoughts and ideas. While there are some paid programs designed specifically for writers, I’ve found that basic project management programs can be easily adapted to fit the needs of a writer. Here are three of my favorites.

Google Drive

Perhaps the simplest and easiest to use, Google Drive is an online storage facility for all of your big ideas. I love creating project folders for my stories because I can have a folder for each piece of the planning process, whether it be inspirational photos, drafts, or brainstorm documents. 

Trello

Trello is an interesting project management platform that allows you to create boards, lists, and cards. I’ve found this site to be particularly helpful when I’m in the early stages of planning a project because you can break your project out into sections via the boards and then assign specific plot points to cards, which can be infinitely rearranged. It’s basically like using index cards, except you can’t spill coffee on them.

Bear

If you prefer something that is really simple and easy to organize, I suggest using Bear. This desktop and mobile app offers both word processing and easy organization. Just use hashtags to categorize your documents. When you need to find something, you can search hashtags to find the document you need. This loose form of organization works great if you are still in the early stages of plotting and aren’t sure exactly how you want to structure your work.

How do you currently organize your writing? I’ve used all of these methods in the past, but right now, Trello and Bear are my two favorites. Once I get through the conceptual stage on my current project, I’ll probably start using a traditional outline.

Happy writing!

Find out more about Emily here.

Difficult Times — Tips For Working Through the Tough Parts of Life

Sometimes life isn’t kind, and it’s hard to focus on your job or your personal projects. Here are some tips to help you work through difficult times.

Just a few weeks ago, my husband and I were involved in a hit-and-run accident with an 18-wheeler. It brushed the side of my Honda Civic and sent us spinning across the highway and flipped us onto the grassy shoulder.

Thankfully, we sustained only minor injuries, but our vehicle was declared an “obvious total loss” by our insurance company.

I’m looking forward to freeing up the space in my brain that has been occupied by this accident. It puts pressure on everything else I have to think about: my personal life, full-time job, freelance projects, and graduate work. I don’t have enough mental energy to give the needed attention to each of these things because the accident keeps overshadowing and crowding them out.

But even when this accident blows over, I know something else will be thrown my way. It seems like life is always trying to trip me up, trip you up, trip us all up. However, I’m learning to change my perspectives, and the first thing I’m choosing to do is replace the worries with gratitude

Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep)

Difficult times can be combated by counting your blessings instead of sheep.I’ve been struggling with anxiety since the accident, and my husband’s night-shift job has exacerbated the situation. It’s difficult for me to sleep, let alone focus on work right now.

I was telling my parents about my struggle, and my dad suggested focusing on the miracle of safety and fostering gratitude toward God for protecting me and my husband during the accident.

So that’s what I’ve been trying to do — foster gratitude for the miracle of safety. 

When people ask me about the accident, I praise God for protection. There is something shocking about being the recipient of a miracle, and it isn’t a great feeling. It feels like an out-of-body experience. I shouldn’t be walking or writing or speaking or laughing.

Yet I’m here because of God’s protection, writing with just a slight ache in my back. It isn’t that I’m not thankful or feel undeserving. I just feel shocked and slightly awed. 

The conversation with my parents made me think of the song “Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep)” by Irving Berlin.

When I’m worried, and I can’t sleep
I count my blessings instead of sheep
And I fall asleep counting my blessings

I think those lyrics are going to be my motto for this year. I’m going to count my blessings before I go to sleep instead of recounting my worries from the day, and I hope each day will get a little easier as a result. 

Practically, counting your blessings looks like keeping a gratitude journal or speaking prayers of gratitude. Personally, I found that keeping a journal was a good way for me to keep the blessings of each day at the front of my mind. Writing things down really solidifies the good in my mind and gives me a way to go back and recount blessings from the Lord.

Adjust Your Expectations

Difficult times do not mean you have to stop working. Start by adjusting your expectations for yourself.Over the past six weeks, I’ve found that the best way to focus on work is to lower my expectations for myself. Usually, I’m a very quick and efficient worker. I write and edit quickly. I always make sure to make edits and keep projects moving as fast as possible because I know deadlines always close in quickly. 

So I’ve been showing myself some grace and adjusting my expectations. I’ve been intentionally communicating with my supervisor and letting her know I might need help with some things or may not have things done by the end of the day. And guess what? It’s okay. 

Sometimes, the expectations I have for myself aren’t the expectations others have for me. If I need to slow down, it isn’t going to inconvenience anyone terribly or change their opinion of my work. I’m still producing quality work, but I’m taking my time and allowing myself to think and feel and draw my attention back to the task at hand if my mind wanders. 

It’s been difficult getting back to work after the accident and the holidays, but I’m slowly hitting my stride.

I’m not sure what life has for you at the moment but know there is a season for everything. While many of us want to experience uninhibited creativity, that isn’t always an option. It’s okay to be run down. It’s okay to experience both the good and bad parts of life.

I hope you’re able to adjust your expectations and find reasons to express gratitude to God through difficult times. What are you thankful for today?

Learn more about Emily here.

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