Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Under the Influence

I’ve been hearing a lot of people talk about their influences and what got them into writing. What strikes me is how ubiquitous Harry Potter is with most up and coming writers.

This scares me.

Don’t get me wrong, anything that gets someone to start writing is awesome and I’m glad that it’s reading that’s getting people to write. No, what scares me is how unoriginal this answer is becoming and how it might affect all of this coming literature.

First, let me state, I don’t really think Harry Potter is bad reading. I was enthralled with it for the first four books, but I moved on between the fourth and fifth book. But, just because it’s not bad reading doesn’t mean it’s great reading. But, that’s not the point. What I’m worried about is how many people are going to be writing books that read like J.K. Rowling.

I don’t read a lot of fantasy in general; I tend to be a sci-fi fan more often than not. Part of the problem (and this is the general sense, not the definite rule) is that I have a hard time finding fantasy that is different. I’ve heard writers talk about how J.R. Tolkien ruined fantasy for the rest of us because he did it so well with Lord of the Rings that we all want to write something just as great. Only we can’t so we write a lot of crap that reads like Elvin fan fiction. Look at Eragon for more proof.

It might be because I’m going to a Christian college, but it seems like a lot of people only like three things; C.S. Lewis, J.R. Tolkien, and J.K. Rowling. The last one is rather new, which means for the past forty years or so, it was only the first two influencing writers.

Why? Why are Christian writers so afraid to read anything else? If we add in the Twilight series, the situation only seems worse. I hear writers say they want their books to be different and too affect people the way these books affect them, but it won’t happen this way. Think about it; if you read Harry Potter and it changed you and made you want to write, and you write something just like Harry and his adventures, your reader will not have the same reaction as you. Why? Because everyone and their dead relative has read Harry Potter. Do you know why these books with lions, witches, and wardrobes changed you so? It’s because they were different than everything else.

I’m not arguing for writers to write without being influenced. Doing so is impossible and not worth doing. Why would you want to write unless something struck you before? No, what I’m arguing is for the broader reading of these up and coming authors. You want to write fantasy because you read Lewis? Good, now go read Neverwhere or The Name of the Wind, something that you didn’t pick up because your youth group leader really dug it as a kid. Science fiction? Have you ever read Starship Troopers or The Foundation series?

I don’t want to sound bitter, after all, where’s my up and coming novella? But, I get tired of sitting in writing classes and hearing how much Rowling influenced peoples writing. You and everyone else, buddy. Now, go do something different or prepare to get lost in the slush pile of YA book series that litter the shelves of middle school libraries.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Seminary

In the question of nature vs. nurture, we try to decide whether how we are raised is more important than where we are raised. Is our outcome as people determined on others, or by our situations? When I think back on my life, I’m not sure there’s a difference. People define our situations and our situations are made by people. A prime example of this is the time I spent working at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

I was fifteen when I started working there, still in school and angry at the world for whatever reasons I could come up with. It had been a year since my mom kicked my stepdad out of the house and I was starting to show signs of teenage rebellion (I thank the Lord I never have to try that again…). My youth pastor, and friend, said he would be able to get me a summer position working as a janitor. For a kid making no money, anything sounded good. I took the job and began working the summer of 2001.

Cleaning toilets and carpet cleaning became my existence, and I learned all kinds of ways to move furniture without using my back. The job, as it stood, was not a pretty one. I have strong memories of being inside a dumpster with a wet-vac, slurping up tomato juice as it splashed my face. Or bringing a sleeper sofa down four floors only to bring it back up only to bring it back down. Very few assignments would leave me with a skip in my step.

No matter how bad the work was, though, it taught me lessons I wouldn’t have learned otherwise. I never really knew the value of hard work or following instructions. I never learned how to save or spend money until then. The work was hard, dull, and, at times, humiliating, but it was work and kept me out of trouble during troubling years.

A job is not just work, however. A job is people. The benefit of working at a seminary is that the people there are mature Christians; older and wiser and willing to talk and listen, even to a moody teenager who thought he already had all the answers to life, the universe, and everything. When you are sent on a job (or as I affectionately called them, missions) you are with your co-workers for long periods of time and you get to know them more than you normally would. I didn’t fit in at high school, I never did. I couldn’t relate to the students, didn’t want to. But my co-workers, that was another story. The conversations were much more intriguing to me, more adult. I could discuss things that were important to me; trouble with the idea of God, family, college. They were at least ten or so years older than me but they didn’t care. The talked anyway, treating me like someone beyond my age.

I still remember the day one of them invited me to the movies. I had said no at first, scared to spend time with people because, as far as I knew, you couldn’t trust others. Five minutes down the road, though, I turned around and took them up on the offer. This was the turning point. After this, they were no longer my co-workers, but my friends. It was strange to have friends that much older than me, who I felt I could trust. Over time, I started staying over nights, in order to save on trips. They would put me up in their rooms and let me join in at get-togethers and events. I had been invited to birthday parties, youth groups, and weddings.

In a way, the seminary became a second home to me. In some ways, it was my first home. I worked there, ate there, and even slept there on occasions. The people were faces I saw every day, and who were good friends. I felt like I belonged there, that I mattered. I worked forty-plus hours a week and was one of the most recognizable employees. I felt that, even with the age gap, I fit in.

Then something happened. I began to miss my carpool without calling in. I began taking more days off. I began slacking. I don’t know why this happened. I don’t know what came over me. Was I becoming discontent with the work? Probably, the work was never a love for me. But it didn’t seem enough to make me want to leave, to leave my friends and the place. All I know is that I started becoming someone who couldn’t keep a job.

And with one phone call, it all ended. I hadn’t been home to answer it, but my mom had and relayed it back to me. I remember the sudden realization, that all my current choices had a consequence. I was fired, with good reason and no defense. The job that helped define me and make into someone I didn’t mind being was gone because I had decided to be lazy and selfish. No more hanging out with guys after work, no more going to lunch with them. I was no longer the kid that worked the graduate school; I was just a bum without a job.

It was hard coming to terms with that truth. Reality hit hard and my emotions were all over the place, sadness guiding them. I had something great and I let it go.

The last lesson I had learned was one of the most important. I haven’t been fired from a job since and I show up to work every day I’m scheduled. I don’t allow myself the error of not going in. I see the responsibility I have with a job clearer than I ever did at the seminary.

This is what I wonder about. Am I the type of person I am now because of the job, or the people? How would I have turned out without having worked there? Without the power to view alternate realities, I’m without an answer. I can only guess that I would have found ways to get in trouble and stay as I was, never finding ways to grow. Yes, I was a janitor, but I was also a teenager looking for guidance and friends. That’s what the seminary gave me and it has been more important than any paycheck.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Drop Out

Dropping out of high school was one the easiest things I ever did. There are decisions in life that you dwell over, that you sit and think all day long about until your racked brain still refuses to come to a conclusion. Not the case with me. In fact, I remember being in third grade and having someone tell me you can drop out of school at sixteen. “I’m going to do that!” I had said, full of excitement and hope. I wouldn’t have to live the nightmare of school forever and I would be free to pursue my own dreams; dreams of sleeping in late and playing video games all day. That was the life I wanted.

I humored my loved ones for a few months my first year of high school, testing the waters and seeing what this new world had to offer. I was, in all cases, disappointed. I first knew there was trouble when I found out all my friends from my previous school had gone to other places, leaving me almost alone to this terrible world. With the exception of one very good and smart professor of history, my teachers were, in the best of words, imbeciles. It was hard to learn from someone I didn’t respect and to learn with others who I respected even less. The other students were fools; shallow and too into their selves to be worth my time (I, of course, was obviously into myself). Not that I was much worth of a student, I barely passed my classes and I was a geek to the point that geeks wouldn’t hang out with me. High school was a time of being alone and being ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

Trouble loomed when I began skipping school; for a day or a week at a time. For a while, I could get away with it. I would go to the library, the one place no one would come looking for me, and read until school was over. After a time, my family started to fight back, driving me to school instead of the bus. I would get out of the car, walk into the building, watch my mother drive away, and leave school soon after. There was no stopping me. In a battle like this, the victor was going to be the one who cared the most, who had the passion for victory. I wanted to be out of school more than they wanted me in.

I said at the beginning that dropping out had been the easiest thing I ever did. All the things I did to do accomplish this; skipping, lying, hiding, they were all easy to do. Walking in to the building at sixteen, signing the papers, and declaring my leave from high school was simple and rather anti-climatic after years of dreaming. The hard part was lying in my room, listening to my mother cry. I remember her talking to my grandmother, her words fighting through the sobs. I tried to ignore it, to shut myself out of the moment and focus on my victory. But, even under my pillow, I could still hear her. Her fears of my future, the pain I had caused her. It bothered me then and it bothers me now to remember. I had won, but the victory was not as enjoyable as I thought.

Winning meant I had my reward. I stayed at home while others went to work or school. My days consisted of video games and movies, of staying up and sleeping in late. I beat all my games, read all my comics, and watched all my shows. I saw my friends less and less, and my family grew to accept me waking up at dinner and going to bed around lunch.

My victory cost me purpose and meaning. My life was now just a day to day routine of superfluous entertainment and microwavable dinners. When I moved out, got my own apartment and had a steady job making pizza, my life still lacked anything worth working for. I would wake up and wonder what I was doing. I was working to work, eating to eat, and living just because it was something I was supposed to do. Dropping out of school had been what I wanted, but it forced me into a corner of life with few chances and very small opportunities.

God, however, loves to work with few chances. After my life had really hit rock bottom, God introduced me to a Christian college that would accept me, even with my G.E.D. Looking at few choices, I applied, hoping for direction of any sort. Arriving at school, I feared I would repeat my old habits, skipping class and running away from my problems.

College, as everyone had promised, was a different beast than high school. All the issues I had had before were gone; the teachers loved what they taught, the students wanted to learn, and I found I could relate to them as friends. It was a strange thing to see happen to me, to watch me fall in love with school.

It’s been eight years since I dropped out of highs school and it’s now my fourth year of college with one to go. Irony and grace abound in the situation. I’ll have spent as much time in college as I did out of school. God’s humor is rather funny when you stop and get the joke. But, his grace is more than deserved. I know the chances I had, the statistics that said I would be flipping burgers and cleaning toilets all my life. I have been in those worlds, working as a janitor and a fast food employee. These should have been my life after my decision, but God took my biggest failure and worked it into something else. My life should be defined by its failure, but it’s now a great testimony to God’s work. The tears my mother had can still be seen in my mind, but I hope they have been long been wiped away by the present course. I am ashamed to say I took the lazy way out of school and I’m embarrassed when I have to explain why I’m older than the other students at my college. But, I am never ashamed to share how I made it off the path I had set and was brought to a better, more hopeful road laid out for me by a wise God.