Tomorrow morning i go back to classes after a much-needed (and still too full) spring break. That means i am halfway through the semester. i am also perhaps halfway through a typesetting project which i hoped would be finished by now (every solution brings with it a new challenge; the final result will be magnificent, but i did not know books could require so much math). My girl and i are halfway through our first full school year together. i split my time between worrying about this year and worrying about high school. “Let Your steadfast love, O L-rd, be upon us, even as we hope in You.”
A little bit of catch-up before the downward slope of this school year begins:
That North Wind Manor fundraiser i announced in my last post, way back in December, was a far greater success than i imagined. i thought i would be happy to make as many as twenty little clothbound journals, but in the end it was more than twice that. Thirty-six were for donors; the remainder went to the Rabbit Room board as gifts for their annual retreat. My author texted me later to say he’d picked the Batman one. i knew he would. 🙂 (It occurs to me that when i say “my author,” i should clarify that i mean the one i work for, not the one i publish, and the fact that this needs clarification is still a little unreal.)
In my own schooling right now, i am studying Greek, which is finally coming together, and supposedly working on my own (English) fiction-writing. One of those two is getting more attention than the other, but if i’m to pass this semester’s mentoring i need to get writing. i committed to eight whole hours—that’s not even a lot, and that such a small goal is proving difficult is disheartening—and to revising my work with the help of others. The goal is trust. i am dragging my feet.
In Julie’s schooling, we’ve been reading some great novels and working on all the language arts stuff—Greek and Latin roots, English grammar, and basic composition. Our current book is Treasure Island. Neither of us have read it before, and i’m enjoying it.
Meanwhile, there’s so much that’s been happening with Weem Adrift that it’s daunting to begin talking about it. This January i filed for sole proprietorship and trademark, and that typesetting project is a steep learning curve on the way to my next release. i’m not yet ready to announce the title, but i’m both grateful and overwhelmed by all the opportunities this process gives me to learn—not only small business paperwork and typesetting, but so many aspects of production i skipped with the last two books. This is also an aspect of my trust plan this semester—trusting that i’ve got this, that i have the capacity to grow into this excellent work and to do excellence, that G-d is pleased with me and keeping a hold on me as i do things i’ve never done before, that i cannot fail with so many encouragers alongside me. At the end of this long process a new book will be alive in the world. Every time i do this it gets deeper and realer. Every time i’m more grateful for the grace i’ve been given.
i’m not quite ready for this week to end. Next week will, again, be too full. But i’m getting there.
Let Your steadfast love, O L-rd, be upon us, even as we hope in You.
It has not quite sunk in yet that Hutchmoot binding is done. The last books were finished on Sunday and embellished with their own tiny Js on Monday. The last two days have been spent building cardboard boxes from scratch so that the books fit perfectly and don’t shift around while we take them to Gnashville. That process took about four times longer than i expected. i made very careful calculations, but no plan survives contact with the players. A great volume of large cardboard pieces have collected on the floor. The cat enjoys sitting on them. She also enjoys appearing unexpectedly on the counter and licking plates, but that is not relevant except that it happened this afternoon while i was making boxes.
Sometime or other i will tell you more about language arts. i’m enjoying it and am really proud of me and Julie both. 🙂
In my last post i made an attempt to explain how i read 76 books last year (75, really, if you don’t count repeats), and i doubt i knew what i was talking about to any great extend. i say this partly because another factor arose in my upper head a day or two after writing it, and it is this: Jennifer Trafton included READ, READ, READ in her list of 2017 goals, and it is always best to do whatever Jennifer Trafton is doing if at all possible. She is a magical fairy creature. Also, and perhaps most importantly, i made the decision at the beginning of fall semester to not check Facebook before lunch, and to not check at all on school days (once a week), but to instead open a book immediately upon waking. This lasted only about halfway through the semester (i did manage to keep up the Facebook part of it), because by a certain point i was more likely to fall back asleep in my book if i tried reading before getting out of bed. But it did help for awhile.
tl;dr: Obey Jennifer Trafton. Read every morning in place of Facebook.
Anyway, to the reviews. i said i would give a 1-2 sentence gloaning for each of the books i read last year, so we commence. But rather than proceed in a linear fashion, i shall divide the list into categories and go from there.
James Dickey (also poetry)
Picture book assignments from Ken
i’m going to start with Textbooks.
Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship, by Lesslie Newbigin. i read this one for Hermeneutics, right after reading Henry and the Chalk Dragon, and it was all i could do to not color in it.
A Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology, by Kelly M. Kapic. This is a truly little book—about 7″ tall and 1/2″ thick—and i totally, completely recommend it. It was another Hermeneutics text, but it was equal parts textbook and devotional. And if you are not quite up to thinking of yourself as a theologian, read it anyway. Click the cover image for a fuller review on Goodreads.
A Grammer of Akkadian, by John Huehnergard. This was our text for two semesters of Akkadian, the language of the Assyro-Babylonians. i can’t compare it to other Akkadian textbooks, but i do appreciate that Huehnergard (i still can’t spell his name without checking) included a variety of exercises, including writing/composition. The Gilgamesh and Hymn to Ishtar tablets in the back were a great challenge—the whole reason i took Akkadian was to read (and write) ancient fiction. i did manage a few haikus and some very disturbing adaptation of the Ishtar Hymn. But i will never love Akkadian. Hebrew forever. i do wish the key (which was SUPER helpful) had included actual parsing or anything at all on those supplementary tablets.
Four Portraits, One Jesus: A Survey of Jesus and the Gospels, by Mark L. Strauss. i would respect this book more as a seminary textbook if it had not been printed in full color on glossy pages. i wouldn’t have thought highly of that approach even as an (admittedly arrogant) undergrad. But it was well-organized. The introduction, summary, and study question sections for each chapter were very thorough. i wish it’d had an index of maps, though. They were always impossible to find. This was the main text for the Gospels portion of Gospels & Acts (NT survey, part 1).
Synopsis of the Four Gospels, by Kurt Aland. This was the other Gospels textbook. All four Gospels, in columns, with parallel passages (and even near-parallels) lined up. It boggles my mind that anyone could put together something like this.
Called to Be Church: The Book of Acts for a New Day, by Anthony B. Robinson and Robert W. Wall. This was our main text for the Acts portion of Gospels & Acts, and i appreciated it. It was co-written by a pastor and theologian so as to exegete and apply the text for pastors, and rather than cover the entire book they focused on key chapters, watershed moments in Acts. The approach served very well. i ended up putting it in the church library after the semester was over.
With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God, by Skye Jethani. This book was assigned reading for the introduction to our school’s mentoring program, and it was also recommended by our pastor. The main premise is fine—that instead of the various postures we often take toward G-d (life over, under, from, and for G-d), we would do better to approach Him from a posture of Life With G-d. But it was so repetitive. i didn’t need a fresh definition of all four deficient postures in every chapter. This also contributed to the book coming across as more negative than necessary, despite half the book being devoted to the with posture. But as i said, the premise is good, and if the with posture did not already feel most natural to me it might have been a more formative read.
Best book in this bunch: A Little Book for New Theologians. Read it.
Which category should i do next? Maybe picture books?
i say “thank goodness” because i’ve come to realize that i need to be reading, and the busier i am the more i need it. i hit on this sort of accidentally, although it should’ve been obvious from day one. But at the beginning of my worst ever semester, something inside me said “you need fiction to make it through this.” i was right, and had no idea how right i was.Evensuspecting that and making provision for it didn’t prevent me from learning it the hard way. i am a fictional character and i need fiction the way i need oxygen.
Ironically, perhaps, i learned this in part from the author who gave me my fictional name. i have always been fictional, but being named by a fiction-author and given a place in his world grounded me to one particular fictional identity in which all my fictionality can rest and from which i can reach out into the world (both primary and secondary). That author is, of course, Andrew Peterson. Andrew is far busier and more productive than me. i have no clue when he sleeps, or if he’s slept this year. But through him i’ve heard (mostly second-hand) the phrase focal practices. (Caveat: i suspect this concept was from a Hutchmoot session i missed, and i don’t know whether i’m even doing this right, but the phrase was a catalyst for me as i began to think this stuff out.) What i’ve observed from watching Andrew over the last couple of years is that his focal practices are a good indicator of his health and restedness. He needs to be outside. i suspect going outside would benefit me also, but i’m not quite there yet (i know this is stupid). i asked myself, if there is a practice i need to maintain, one which is a canary for my health the way Andrew’s beekeeping and outdoor-wandering are for him, what would that be? And the immediate answer was fiction. (Andrew is also a reader. Again, i don’t know when he sleeps.)
That one bad semester, the one where i knew i’d need fiction to survive? That was the semester that Andrew bought me Calvin & Hobbes. i was overwhelmed before classes even started and wasn’t sure how i’d manage a full novel, but i knew i needed something, and so Andrew generously and unexpectedly sent me the entire boxed set. i read a little every night before bed. By the end of that semester i was counting how many strips were left and how many days, rationing it so i didn’t finish before finals; i was sure i wouldn’t make it if i did. And i did make it, but just barely. i’m convinced that Andrew saved my life. Fiction is oxygen.
The last few years i’ve been tracking my reading on Goodreads (see the widget on the right), and the uptick this year is astounding. i read 28 books in 2015 and 23 in 2016, but this year i am thunderstruck to say that i’ve read 76 books. i attribute this to mixing in a lot of poetry and picture books and a few textbooks my professors were kind enough to assign cover-to-cover, but even so, that number includes a good dozen which were 400+ pages (one was over 600, two over 700, and one just a few pages shy of a thousand). So the picture books and legit tomes balanced each other out pretty well.
HOW, of course, is the obvious question. i am still working this out, and the how will probably change semester to semester, but here’s what worked this year.
This works according to the same principle as Calvin & Hobbes. A long book not only is long but feels long, and sometimes when you’re busy you just have enough time for a little infusion. (This is also why Andrew intentionally made the chapters so short in his Wingfeather Saga.) What’s easier—reading for 45 minutes or reading three 15-minute books or chapters? It’s almost a trick question, but it isn’t. If all you’ve got is 15 minutes, you’ll never read that third of a chapter. Find something short. And if you’ve got a few more minutes, read a bit more.
This often works the same way as picture books, and because poetry is so rich i find i don’t want nearly as much of it in one sitting anyway. i can read one or two poems before bed or in between things, and feel nourished. One downside, however, is that in a collection of poems there might be a lot of one-page poems broken up by the odd ten- or twenty-page poem, and when i hit one of those i’m not always ready for it and then the book sits there for a week. (Dickey has definitely done this to me more than once.) But i am really learning to appreciate this art form. Even when i don’t fully grasp what the poet is doing, it’s helpful.
This isn’t so much a how do you read this much? as a how do you find these things?, but if you have a wise and kind person who will let you climb up on their shoulders and train your eyes to know good literature, hallelujah. i was a little nervous the first time i asked Pete for a Patronus assignment, but i’m so grateful i did and grateful he keeps saying yes. And a lot (although not all) of the picture books on this list were recommended by my friend Ken, a stop-motion animator who’s well-versed in this field. i’d never have found all those on my own. i find that i can accomplish nearly anything if i have an assignment (or a deadline), so getting these assignments is motivating. (Plus: Patronus.)
i do think it is crucial that a book-assigner be someone chosen and trusted. A lot of people would like to add to my TBR list. i can’t read all of it and i don’t necessarily want to. But i’ll read anything Pete or Ken give me because i know what they give me is good for me. (And if you do have academic assignments, count them. Even if they aren’t fiction or poetry or anything particularly soul-strengthening, acknowledge that time and work. It feels good to look back on it later and see in full color what you managed to do.)
Over the summer, since i had a lot more flexibility, i decided i’d spend one entire day every week at a coffee shop, reading. That meant as early as i could manage in the morning (although often that wasn’t really until 10 or 11), and as late as i could stay in the afternoon (right up until dinner). i found that when the semester started up again in August i couldn’t bear to lose that incredibly healing practice, and while i couldn’t continue a once-a-week fiction day during the semester it did propel me toward more reading while in school than i would probably have done otherwise. Lay the groundwork while you can and then you have a habit to lean on.
This wisdom is offered for free, as it has not been peer-reviewed. Ha. (And if you got to the end of this post, you can probably count it toward your reading goal.)
Here’s the full list of what i read this year. i’m hoping to come back and annotate this list in a few posts to come—just a line or two about where i found each book and what i thought of it.
This spring semester i had the hilarious and deeply satisfying experience of writing heresy—Budge-Nuzzard fanfic in biblical Hebrew—for seminary credit. It was an immensely engaging and creative endeavor, and i took no end of pleasure in offhandedly mentioning “my heresy” in my advanced Hebrew exegesis class and citing Thaddeus Glapp in the biography of my capstone paper. It’s crazy to think that i was permitted to get away with this nonsense. Classical Hebrew spec-fic? Inventing words in a dead language? Graduate-level Budge-Nuzzard scholarship? Weench midrash? Gosh. i am the luckiest nerd alive.
Those of you who’ve somehow stumbled through a wormhole and into this website may already have fallen victim to The Yaunsi Heresy. If you haven’t, you’re about to. The attachment that follows contains the complete text of that heresy—with commentary, on both my work and the Budge-Nuzzard. (It isn’t all heresy. The first half of the paper teases an entire semester’s study on Hebrew narrative style and literary devices.)
Enough piffle and blather! With very great thanks to Deirdre Brouer, Hélène Dallaire, Thaddeus Glapp, and A.S. Peterson, i present to you:
The Yaunsi Heresy is a new work of fiction in classical Hebrew based on A.S. Peterson’s lobidious tale of the Budge-Nuzzard. It will be published in serial. Click “Yaunsi Heresy” above to read from the beginning—or to hear the story read to you. 🙂
Hebrew narrative is full of gaps. It’s part of the literary art. Did Uriah know about David and Bathsheba? With whom did Jacob wrestle? How exactly was Abishai part of Joab’s plot to kill Abner? These gaps excite our imaginations and draw us into the text by means of curiosity and suspense, but they also leave us with niggling interpretive questions. The medieval expositors who engaged in midrash sought (“midrash” comes from the word “to seek”) to fill in those gaps by making connections, seizing on clues as small as stray consonants, drawing in folklore and mysticism, explaining background, imagining.
Here’s an example. In 1 Samuel 28, Saul (who had previously cast all the mediums out of Israel) has been rejected as king and has given up seeking G-d, and now wants advice from the man of G-d who anointed him. This is Samuel, but Samuel is dead, and the only way to consult him is to consult a medium. When he finds a medium and convinces her that no harm will come to her if she conjures a ghost in direct defiance of the king’s (i.e. his own) order, she consents. But as soon as the spirit rises out of the earth, she panics—“You are Saul!” Well, what on earth about the spirit gave her the identity of the flesh-and-bone man standing in her tent? The midrash on this passage explains it thusly: A spirit conjured from the dead will rise feet first, head down, except in the presence of the king. Then, out of respect, the spirit rises head first, feet down. Samuel must have done so, and the sight of him rising, upright, told her everything: This was Saul, the king.
Is that actually how she knew? We can’t be certain, although a possible misspelling in the Masoretic Text, corrected in the Septuagint, might support this theory. Either way, when faced with the question of why the woman, seeing Samuel, suddenly recognized Saul, the midrash expositors devised an explanation which harmonized with the received text, slipping cleverly into the gap the narrator left behind.1
Now, what i am doing with the Yaunsi Heresy i have often called fanfiction. Up till last week all i was doing, aside from switching main and secondary characters, was retelling the story, sometimes as directly as translation would allow. But there is a gap, a rather large gap, in the Budge-Nuzzard. It is a cunning gap, a subversive gap, one that invites wrestling, and i seek now to fill it. For the last year i have been drawing together threads from the Budge-Nuzzard itself—no folklore, no mysticism, but only from my source material—to put forth an interpretation which i believe to be consistent with the story’s own evidence. What has been fanfiction or even simple retelling is now becoming midrash.2
2 The name of a Hebrew book is taken from the first major word of the book’s text. For example, the first word in Leviticus is Vayikra—“He called.” Rabbah—“great”—is the term given to the expansion of the text via midrash. The midrash on Leviticus is therefore Vayikra Rabbah, and my midrash on the Budge-Nuzzard is properly named Nolad Rabbah, as the first word of that story in Hebrew is Nolad (“It was born”).
i am a pantser. My modus operandi, writing-wise, is just to dive right in and find out how things work. i have always done this with my English writing. The joy of discovery is too great to bother with outlines; if i already know what is going to happen, what is the point? And i started my Hebrew fiction-writing career this way, too, almost as soon as i started learning Hebrew. What else is language for but storytelling? And when the very fibers of my being all vibrate with glee at words like “robiderant” and “lobidious,” when a story causes my mind to be constantly running away to make connections both internal and external, when i am confronted at every turn with the delight of ordinary cereal or hunger or travel reimagined into something alien and (literally) breathtaking, well, what else am i supposed to do? Write, of course, and the sooner the better. There’s no time to wait.
This week, i started my Hebrew narrative independent study. i’ve read two chapters in a great classic work—The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter—and am starting to realize what an audacious thing it was to write fiction in a language i hadn’t yet internalized. Ancient Near Eastern fiction has its own literary conventions! Nothing could be more obvious once they’re pointed out, but i had given no thought to this when i was starting my story.
Type-scenes, for example: Mini-stories that occur over and over again, in a certain sort of way, which leads the reader to expect how things will play out. We do this on a larger scale, repeating whole stories with wide variation (orphan-with-destiny, for example). Biblical type-scenes are smaller-scale, like the elements of the hero’s journey. But where the hero’s journey type-scenes are just templates (inciting-event, threshold-guardian, return-with-the-elixir), biblical type-scenes are very specific (meeting-one’s-future-betrothed-by-a-well, annunciation-of-the-hero’s-birth-to-his-barren-mother, epiphany-in-a-field), and every detail matters. The brilliance, of course, is in the many ways one can vary the convention to highlight or suggest or surprise or subvert. And now my mind runs away again, and i must run to catch it. What are the type-scenes in the Budge-Nuzzard? What about in its literary progenitor, Lovecraft? Can i use these type-scenes in my own story? Can i make them Hebraic? Can i identify any Hebrew type-scenes in the Budge-Nuzzard? Are there any ancient type-scenes which will serve my story, and can i make them nuzzardous?
And dialogue! Hebrew narrative, it turns out, is dominated by dialogue. The characters discover and reveal themselves through what they say, how they say it, what they avoid saying, how they spin and how they lie. This isn’t particular to Hebrew narrative, either; read any good literary novel in English and you’ll find the same thing: Subtext. Hebrew authors don’t tell you what people are thinking; they let their characters absolve or hang themselves without interference, and they employ quite a bit of subtlety and ambiguity in the process. This is a thing i want to work on in general, in Hebrew and English. One particular thing i neglected to consider in Hebrew is how to introduce my characters through dialogue. The first words out of their mouths should tell the reader something about them. What impressions do my readers have of Yaunsi, or of Smithers/Cheresh? What sort of men are they? Are these impressions what i intended? Do my introductions lead me, and my readers, further into the story, or will i have to work against these impressions, or even contradict them, as i develop my characters? What about expressing emotions and attitudes and bearing? What about speech patterns? Can i draw distinctions, deepen sympathy or reservations, heighten tension, by contrasting the way my characters speak to one another and to themselves? These are all things Hebrew authors do. Again, we expect this in English, but it does look different in Hebrew, and i had given it no thought before this week.
A week in, and i am already thinking of whether i should start over from scratch—a thought both exciting, because of what i am learning that i could apply, and frustrating, because i want to get on with the story and explore what happens next. And i haven’t even started the second week’s reading yet.
One of my goals for this semester is to develop a more authentically Hebraic writing voice. And one of the things i hear consistently around the Rabbit Room is that revision is not a threat to be feared but a friend to embrace.
i wonder what Yaunsi and i will be like when we’re finished. We might both need a little revision.
Yesterday i took up my work as Assistant WONAS (Hebrew tutor). So far i have had six students. Group tutoring is a whole new experience. It’s not much like individual tutoring; it feels a lot like teaching. i love having my own classroom. i brought handouts and wrote my name on the board and zoomed around on a rolling chair, answering questions all over. i’m learning how to phrase my answers as clues and leading questions so that the students can recall and synthesize what they’ve learned, rather than just rely on me. It’s a fun challenge. 🙂
Today’s schedule was very full. i arrove early to get some of my own translation done, then grabbed lunch and ate while tutoring, then went straight to my independent study meeting, and then had a half-hour to finish my translation before Hebrew class. (i finished just as class was beginning!) The independent study is going to be so fun. And the passage we translated for Hebrew this week was also fun—full of syntax and phrasings that jumped out in a way i have not seen in my English text. i took great pleasure, for the first time in awhile, just playing with the language as i translated.
During my independent study meeting, my professor and i were talking about which OT narratives i’m planning to read this semester. Since i want to focus on classical rather than post-exilic Hebrew narratives, she wanted to know why i decided to spend a week on Nehemiah. “i love him!” i said, and proceeded to lecture her for a good fifteen minutes. Then she said to me, wide-eyed, “You need to be teaching.”
i am starting to not dismiss these comments. (Or, as i might say along with the narrator of Genesis, i am keeping the matter. In my lower head, perhaps, or lower heart, as we would say in Hebrew, except that we wouldn’t. Well, i would.)
My heretical Budge-Nuzzard midrash has not yet settled into a proper weekly rhythm, but that changes next week. Tomorrow i have a book to read—Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative. i will be taking note of the various literary conventions he discusses, with an eye to applying them to the Budge-Nuzzard and my own writing, and hopefully that will make an interesting post. It’s been awhile since i’ve written a textual criticism essay. This one will be narrative criticism, not textual, but i fully expect it to cause my eyes to widen and the sounds of deep contemplation to waft from my upper head. If you should like to hear the conclusions drawn from my wafting contemplations, check back later.
Classes start up again on Monday, after a six-week break. Six weeks should be long enough, right? And there are factors, changes, which i know will make this semester different from last—and yet.
Ever since midterms of my first semester—a year and a half ago; how is this possible?—i have staved off stress-and-homework-induced panic attacks by writing words on my hands. They’re the words that called me down the stairs, the words which told me that it would be worth it. Three times over break i have looked down while washing my hands to see these words on my wrist when i have not written them there. The third occasion happened today. Do my eyes play tricks on me, seeing the phantom where they have so frequently seen the reality? Or am i being prepared for another death?
“It hurts to die, but each time i’m raised again and i’m something new, something i don’t recognize, something i never expected.”
Last semester i stopped believing in resurrection. i didn’t want resurrection; i didn’t want even to survive. i just wanted sleep. i lived in a chemical suspension of exhaustion and adrenaline for two months. It took days to climb out of that grave.
i don’t know what this semester holds, but i hope to regain hope. And maybe, just maybe, one death at a time, i’ll learn to trust the coming resurrection.