Oaks of Righteousness

ShipOfFools_web_10042015they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD,
that he may be glorified. (Isa. 61:3)

Oaks of Righteousness

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The ordination committee requested that I volunteer outside of my own congregation as a pastoral intern. Having never been an intern, I emailed the General Presbyter who put me in touch with half a dozen pastors serving urban congregations. Among these pastors, only Pastor Chris responded and he quickly arranged a visit to First Presbyterian Church of Annandale.

Because my younger sister, Diane, and her husband lived in Americana Drive for a number of years, Annandale was familiar; unfamiliar were the Hispanic day-workers hanging out on Little River Turnpike in front of the McDonalds. The pavement on Little River Turnpike seemed worn and the bedding plants around the houses seemed overgrown. I remembered a youthful and neatly trimmed Annandale populated by crew-cut veterans and maintained by ever-vigilant Eagle Scouts. Like an old scout, Annandale had aged.

In the late 1970s when my sister and her husband purchased a garden condominium on Americana Drive, Annandale was an affordable, up-and-coming, suburban town inside the Beltway, close to Washington DC, with good schools. In the early 1980 they were joined by my other sister, Karen, and her husband who purchased a brand-new townhouse on Campanionship Drive. By the 1990s Diane and her husband had resettled in Philadelphia; Karen resettled in Florida. By 2007, the year before I entered seminary, Diane died following complications during a second round of breast cancer. When I visited Annandale in May of 2009, my Annandale memories were no longer fresh and, on the way over to the church, Americana Drive eluded me.

Driving up Newcastle Drive, the grounds of the brick church greeted me with enormous oaks, marked out and steady. Unsteady trees, like white pine or popular, can grow 30-40 feet in a few years, but steadiness requires the patience of an oak. A straight, tall oak, hearkening to a time before missionaries brought the hope of salvation to fearsome and heathen Frisians, adorns the Hiemstra coat of arms. Disarming pin oak is my father’s favorite, but formative white oak—faithfully rooted, humbly set—guarded the spire of First Presbyterian Church of Annandale.

At the end of the long, winding driveway, First Presbyterian Church of Annandale offers many doors to enter the building and, for those in need, the shelter of a roof on rainy days. Sunshine, not rain, was my fortune on that first visit and I instinctively ducked under the roof to the door across the hall from the sanctuary. The sanctuary beckoned me with a large white Celtic cross on fire with an avian image of the Holy Spirit that hung behind a modern pulpit. Modern red and yellow stained glass hung overhead and to the left, but wooden organ to the right of the cross captured my attention first. Baptized in the shadow of a pipe organ, confirmed by a Handel chorus, and offered communion by melodies still craddled in my mother’s arms, memories of organ music comforted me. Annandale was familiar before a word was spoken and I knew I was not far from home.

Pastor Chris found me before I found him. He granted me a tour of the many classrooms, the day-care center, the kitchen, the library, and the staff offices. With the facility came a church’s proud history—the building was dedicated in 1960 and expanded in 1963; by 1970, the church had 575 children in Sunday school; two years later membership peaked at 883 active members; and in 1974 the organ was added.[1] More recent history, however, peaked my interest—the church had evolving partnerships with First Korean Presbyterian Church of Virginia (since 1965) and a Pakistani mission congregation, found in few other congregations. And neither partnering congregation was a mere tenant; multilingual worship services took place on special occasions during the year.

I was hooked. For the next year, I served as a pastoral intern at First Presbyterian Church of Annandale.

[1] http://www.fpcannandale.org/history.html.

Continue Reading

Williams Helps Technical Writers Revise

Joseph Williams Style

Williams Helps Technical Writers Revise

Joseph M. Williams. 2003. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. New York: Longman.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In our shrinking world, misunderstandings are common. Misunderstanding can arise from being unlearned, uncultured, or untimely; it can arise due to presumptions about gender, race, or class; it can arise because of lack of sleep, lack of tact, or lack of a sufficient coffee. But there is no excuse for being misunderstood because of a poorly chosen word![1] After all, the world is full of so many good stylebooks to choose from. (Or, is it—from which to choose?)[2]

Introduction

Joseph William’s book, Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, stands out for his interest in complex sentences and he generally aims at answering three questions:

  1. What is it in a sentence that makes readers judge writing as they do?
  2. How can we diagnose our own prose to anticipate their judgments?
  3. How can we revise a sentence so that readers will think better of it? (ix)

Good Writing is Understood

Notice William’s focus on the reader. Iimplicitly, he says that the mark of good writing is that it can be understood.[3] He then goes on to focus not on writing, but on revision where it is helpful to understand three distinctions:

  1. Among a few grammatical terms, like subject, verb, noun, active, passive, clause, preposition, and coordination…
  2. Between topic and stress…
  3. Among five unfamiliar terms: nominalization, metadiscourse, resumptive modifier, summative modifier, and free modifier (x).

Admittedly, I got point one, but points two and three escaped me until I had read his book. William’s advises us to read this book slowly (x) and understand his interest in managing the content of complex sentences.

Complex Sentences Pose Special Problem

Complex sentences are particular problem in technical writing where the logical flow, balance, and structure can be daunting. This daunting nature arises because a complex sentence consists of an independent clause (a simple sentence) and one or more subordinate clauses (224), and highly technical subjects require a lot of complex sentences. How do the roles of the different parts of the sentence relate to one another and how do multiple complex sentences hang together in mirroring the complexity of technical subjects without adding additional linguistic complexity? A paragraph composed of such complex sentences is common in technical writing. The rules for managing this complexity are not necessarily obvious or often discussed by most stylebook authors.

Williams starts by discussing clear, simple sentence construction and gradually adding additional complexity.

What does the reader expect, Williams asks?

The answer is that in a fairy tale, the subject is a character and the action is a verb (34-39). The opposite of this clear structure is excessive use of nominalizations—verbs and adjectives masquerading as nouns (38)—which often move writing away from clear and active sentences. As you add complexity to the simple sentence, maintain clarity by keeping subject and verb (and object) close together. Following this prescription, Williams argues that your sentences will be more concrete, concise, coherent, and clearer (46-47).

Metadiscourse

As Williams dives deeper into complexity, he defines a term that he refers to as metadiscourse, which refers to at least four things:

  1. The writer’s thinking and direction.
  2. The writer’s degree of certainty.
  3. Directions to the reader.
  4. Logical connections in the writing itself (66).

Other authors might call this the author’s voice or narrator.

Cohesion and Coherence

While metadiscourse offers structure to a passage, the sentences themselves hang together (or not) depending on their own organization. Williams distinguishes two ways this can happen:  cohesion and coherence. Cohesion refers to “how each sentence ends and the next one begins” (78) while coherence refers to how well “all the sentences in a passage cumulatively begin” (79). Williams sees cohesion advanced by beginning a sentence with familiar points and words and ending with new or lengthy material (81). Coherence has more to do with “a sense of the whole” (83). Other authors may employ different words for these same two concepts.

Williams’ concept of cohesion naturally leads into a discussion of a complex sentence topic and stress. Topic has to do with the subject of the sentence, usually the front of the sentence. Articulate stress (or emphasis) at the end of a sentence (99). The topic is familiar and links to the previous sentence while the stress is often new material. Being sensitive to these concepts not only enhances cohesion, but it also helps the author organize sentences around key points.

Sentence Priorities

Williams’ advice starts to bear fruit at this point. Less important material should never be placed at the beginning or the end of a sentence where it would receive greater scrutiny. This insight allows Williams to then offer a wide range of strategies for shifting more important material into parts of the sentence where appropriate emphasis (front or back) can be obtained. For example, a passive verb allows you to flip the subject and object which may be helpful in maintaining continuity with the previous or following sentence. Likewise, a “there” construction can used to shift an idea to the end of the sentence where it would receive more stress (100-102). This is highly actionable advice in editing a confusing paragraph.

Assessment

Joseph Williams’ Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace targets experienced, technical nonfiction students and writers looking for a good stylebook. He writes in an accessible style and offers many examples of complex paragraphs written more concisely.

Footnotes

[1] Or maybe not! Sometimes I think that when Jean- Paul Sartre wrote his play, No Exit, he must have had in mind a writer caught in perpetuity between two editors, one a retired English teacher and the other a fastidious journalist, unable to agree on the rules for writing clear English prose. Jean-Paul Sartre. No Exit and Three Other Plays. (New York: Alfred A Knopf; Vintage Books, 1955).

[2] The old rule—“do not end a sentence with a preposition”—is now considered overly formal (21).

[3] http://news.uchicago.edu/article/2008/02/28/joseph-m-williams-professor-emeritus-english-and-linguistics-1933-2008

 

Also see:

Brooks Structures Story, Part 1 

Warren Writes to Grow Characters 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2vfisNa

 

Continue Reading

25. Prayers of a Life in Tension by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Prayers_of_a_Life_in_Tension_webMerciful Father, Beloved Son, Ever-present Spirit,
We praise you, Lord, for your mercy, grace, patience, love, and faithfulness, for healing us of our afflictions, forgiving our sin, and your presence in our life, for in you is faith, hope, and love that we find nowhere else. We confess that you and you alone are God, yet we have made idols of machines, institutions, and our own pet theories. We have not followed the example of your son, Jesus Christ,
and have set our own desires above our families, friends, and even your church. Forgive our sin; overlook our transgressions; and heal us of our iniquity—that we might be whole again and restored to your presence. We give thanks for the many blessings that you have freely given us: our families, our health, our work, and even life itself. We ask you now to bless us that we might bless others. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Continue Reading

Hitch Hiking

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD,
plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and
a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to
me, and I will hear you.” (Jer 29:11-12 ESV)

Hitch Hiking

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

During spring break in March, 1973, I visited my parents driving a Volvo owned by a wealthy graduate student from Bloomington, Indiana to in Lanham, Maryland. As this student was not returning to Bloomington, I accepted an invitation from several friends and decided to return to school by way of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. So I got up early, wrote on a sign—BOSTON—with a magic marker, I threw my clothes and a sleeping bag into my backpack, and I walked past Riverdale shopping center to stand on the north-bound ramp to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

As I reached the ramp, it was already seven in the morning. By quarter to eight, I secured a ride from one of many drivers creeping past me going up the hill to the Parkway. As I learned, the Parkway runs parallel with Interstate 95 and they both lead to Baltimore where they eventually come together and Interstate 95 continues all the way to Boston, a car trip optimistically to be driven in about ten hours.

…o-p-t-i-m-i-s-t-i-c-l-y…

During that long day, I remember thumbing my way through the 95 business district in Philadelphia, but the trip from Phily to NYC took all afternoon. Later that night, a couple graciously picked me up and drove me to the other side of New York City. After standing around for a couple hours in the dark, after midnight I left the interstate, walked over to an apartment building, and slept the night in a heated stairwell. People walking up the stairs would occasionally wake me, but no one gave me a hard time and I ate breakfast in a nearby restaurant early in the morning.

Later that morning I made good progress until I reached Bridgeport, Connecticut. There, I quickly found a ride, but driver drove me across town, stopped in a lonely place, and parked the car. For the next several hours, this older man sipped coffee, cried, and talked about a strained relationship with his son. The strains became obvious because when I spoke about my relationship with my own father, he became irritated and defensive. My anxiety about our conversation grew, not only because I was anxious to reach Cambridge, but because it soon became obvious that the man was drinking coffee to cover up his alcoholism. Eventually, the man tired of our conversation and dropped me off on the other side of Bridgeport. From there, I traveled to Cambridge and found my way to Harvard University.

At Harvard University, I stayed at Adams House, where my best friend lived in a coop with three other guys. During the several days at Adams House, I visited the Fox Club, attended two classes, and took part in a youth program at my friend’s church. In one class, we heard a history lecture which featured parliamentary events during colonial times that took place in the building where we were sitting. In the second class, we heard a guest presentation by the producers of Sesame Street, a popular educational television program for young kids. At the church, we participated in a youth program where I was uncomfortably the only one in the room struggling with disbelief. All things considered, Harvard impressed me as a serious school and the prospect of returning to Indiana University where I actually studied bothered me greatly.

Also bothering was the weather. As I prepared to leave Cambridge, the hot spring days turned to bitter cold and the cold weather left the yellow wind-breaker I had worn in my trip up from Maryland totally insufficient. To keep warm (and to the amusement of passers by), I found myself dancing in the cold alongside of the road.

The road trip west from Cambridge was uneventful until I got picked up in Connecticut by a couple of long-hair, hippy bartenders in a Volkswagen bus on their way to Pittsburgh. Getting a ride to Pittsburgh was a dream come true after so many short rides and so much energetic dancing. Even better, they knew a woman in Pittsburgh who could put us all up for the night.

When we arrived in Pittsburgh late that afternoon, it seemed odd that my bartending hosts were in no hurry to call their friend; in fact, they did not know her telephone number. Instead, they found a bar and started knocking down shot glasses of hard liquor. Worse, when we piled back into the bus, they drove up an exit ramp and we found ourselves dodging cars driving down the wrong side of the highway. It was after midnight when they finally stopped to ask for directions and another drunk—a lawyer and former Maryland University basketball player—invited us to his house for the night. After the lawyer fixed us breakfast at around 2 a.m., I was given a room with a bed and I went to sleep.

At about 7:30 a.m. that morning, I woke with a child pulling on my foot. “Daddy, daddy,” she said: “some strange men are sleeping on the couch.” I rolled over and responded: “I am so sorry. Your father is in the other room.” Then, I got the bartenders up and said: ”We need to go. This guy is going to wake up; not remember anything; and call the cops.” So we left. The bartenders drove me to the west side of Pittsburgh and let me out.

The roads west of Pittsburgh were neither direct nor busy. I spent most of the day getting short rides out of Pennsylvania and by evening had only reached Cambridge, Ohio. However, the ride that dropped me off in Cambridge left me at a truck stop and advised me to hitch rides with truckers whose trips were typically longer—it was good advice.

At the truck stop, one trucker made sure that I found a ride going west. After some welcome dinner that evening, I found myself bound for Indianapolis with a trucker. The trucker’s cab had only a driver’s seat so I slept uncomfortably on a pile of junk that night. But, in the morning I woke up and ate breakfast with the trucker in Indianapolis.

In Indianapolis, I met a black student from school who was also hitch hiking and we teamed up to travel together south on route 37 to Bloomington. We quickly found a ride with a local man who began telling us stories as we traveled. However, the story he told us we passed through Martinsville, Indiana gave us pause. It seems that a few years earlier —1968—a 21-year old black woman named Carol Jenkins who sold encyclopedias door-to-door had been found dead on the street in Martinville and that the crime had never been solved. The rumor was that she had murdered by the Klu Klux Klan as a warning to other blacks to stay out of Martinsville.[1] That may be so. . .it was at least a conversation killer. . .we never so happy to return to school.

Needless to say, that was my last experiment with hitch hiking.

[1] http://www.wthr.com/story/23447014/2013/09/16/martinsville-still-trying-to-clean-image-45-years-after-murder.

Continue Reading

Robinson Sees Mentoring as Intentional Discipleship

Natasha_Robinson_review_03272016Natasha Sistrunk Robinson. 2016. Mentor for Life: Finding Purpose Through Intentional Discipleship. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Discipling believers remains the critical mission of the church. The Greek word for church (ἐκκλησία) literally means: the called out ones.[1] We stand in the breach, praying for the generations that we touch (our call), but we also model what a godly lifestyle looks like (the out part). We succeed when our young people see a reason to believe (our call) and our old people do not confuse Christianity with other things (the out part). We fail when the Gospel stagnates in our own lives (our call) and remains un-contextualized for our changing world (the out part). The church cannot be a holy huddle; its mission is defined in terms of both internal and external components. We are blessed to bless others (Gen 12:3).

In her book Mentor for Life, Natasha Robinson briefly defines “mentoring as intentional discipleship” (19).  The long definition is:

“Mentoring is a trusted partnership where people share wisdom that fosters spiritual growth and leads to transformation as mentors and mentee’s grow in their love of Christ, knowledge of self, and love of others.”(31/137)

In her purpose statement, she writes:

“I want you to catch this vision…What would happened if all believers understood and embraced their identity in Christ, and truly lived as transformed people under the power of the Holy Spirit? What would happen if we all mentored for life? (18)

This book focuses on application. Robinson proposes that readers: evaluate their spiritual condition, consider their commitment, and prioritize discipling (21).  Part 1 of the book focuses on the question: why mentor? While part 2 cites six aspects of commitment to mentoring as: being present, cultivating disciples, understanding God’s kingdom mission, welcoming diverse relationships, mentoring as sacrificial love, and committing to safe and trusting mentoring relationships (19-20).

Robinson’s application plays out immediately in each chapter in the form of study questions and suggested tweets. Chapter 1, for example, ends with 5 questions and a suggested tweet: “Mentoring is about intentionally investing in the priorities of God’s kingdom and in the lives of others, #Mentor4Life @asistasjourney” (39). Searching for #Mentor4Life in Twitter, one finds an active discussion and an encouraging report that Mentor for Life has made the top 100 list on Amazon.com—a huge milestone for any author.

In part 1, Robinson makes a highly personal case for mentoring. For example, she mentions that she lost her mother at age 20 as a sophomore at the U.S. Naval Academy (27). Later, she writes:

“After endless Sunday mornings in church, countless prayers, and multiple baptisms (I was both sprinkled and immersed), I still could not answer that awful question, ‘If I died today, would I go to heaven? …no one in my first eighteen years of life had ever offered to intentially disciple me.” (41)

Much later she shares about her experiences as a track and field athlete (131-136). My suspicion is that Robinson—as a winning athlete and Naval cadet and an obvious leader among her peers—was indeed mentored—just not intentionally and not in the church. My suspicion is that her mom, Sallie, was her most important mentor (193-195).

In my own walk, I was un-intentially mentored by my pastor who found himself unexpectedly substituting as youth director. This new role ultimately meant about two years of pizza and discussions with my best friend and I on Wednesday afternoons. My pastor’s mentoring helped me to survive some tough years in college and to continue hearing God’s voice above the high-volume chatter of our broken culture.

In part 2, Robinson makes an important point about discipling:

“…making disciples is not a spiritual gift. It is not something unique that only certain people are called to do. All Christians are called to this important kingdom work.” (219)

The character of a mentor requires generosity, grace, and love (221). Spiritual gifting is about passion and performance (223).

Natasha Robinson founded a nonprofit corporation, Leadership LINKS, Inc. and blogs at: A Sista’s Journey.[2] She graduated from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in Charlotte NC with a master’s degree in Christian leadership. Before that, she attended the U.S. Naval Academy majoring in English.[3] She is also a member of the RedBud Writers’ Guild[4] and the International Justice Mission.[5] I know Natasha as a colleague in GCTS’s Pierce Fellowship[6] which focuses on spiritual formation and discipling issues.

Natasha Robinson’s book, Mentor for Life, is a book that the church needs to take seriously. Women will relate to her experience in women’s ministry; men will connect to her athletic and military stories and metaphors; small groups may enjoy it as study. Robinson’s writing is lively and accessible.

[1]“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24 ESV).

[2] http://ASistasJourney.com.

[3] http://www.NatashaSRobinson.com.

[4] http://www.RedBudWritersguild.com.

[5] https://www.ijm.org.

[6] http://www.gordonconwell.edu/resources/Pierce-Fellowship.cfm.

 

 

Continue Reading

24. Prayers of a Life in Tension by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Prayers_of_a_Life_in_Tension_webMerciful God,
I praise you for the gift of your law and your provision of grace through Jesus Christ that we might approach you in prayer through the Holy Spirit and know who you are through the revelation of scripture and the life of Jesus Christ. You are the God of mercy and grace, who is slow to anger, abounding in love, and faithful. There is none like you; may I ever model myself on your immutable character remembering your law, ever-mindful of your grace, and with the support of your church. May I be quick to share your mercy, grace, and love with those around me in thought, word, and deed through the power of your Holy Spirit, and in Jesus’s name, Amen.

Continue Reading

Dank Sunrise (1972)

ShipOfFools_web_10042015

Dank Sunrise (1972)[1]

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Cold rain plummets through a dense veil of vibrating pines to shatter against lichen covered stone, lost on a forgotten mountain ridge abandoned by time to grow into dust. Soil braced rock remains silent listening to the moaning of each pine spiced bead contributing its loneliness to a stream of tears. An unforgiving wind shuffles a dull mist among the evergreens as it hastens to a distant shower. Splinter white limbs lie shivering, raped by an early winter ice storm in this dark season.

Propped up beneath an apex of lifeless stone with his back adjacent to a leafless white oak, an unstirring youth sits staring into the bleak environment. An inanimate individual, he is prodded by the dank sunrise to awaken. Untouched by the selfish wind, his eyes are open solely to the wetting of the pounding rain: yet they speak of a unique pilgrimage, a venture into the soul.

In the fluid sunlight of a late May morn Tamen clears the soft brown hair from his eyes as he wanders into the low thick blueberry and shaggy laurel of a woodland pasture. A pair of head-bobbing turtle dove take wing disturbed by the passing of the inquiring stranger near their hidden perch in the underbrush. Tamen is attracted to a small hillside clearing by a myriad of bright-colored insects producing the resonance of a crafted lute. Wading among the flowering blue-green grasses with a warm breeze bathing his tanned face, he uncovers a path well scored with radiant-textured dandies and winding rasberries leading up the life-lit meadow into the pines.

Over fallen timber, across dry rock ledges, and through clear scented mountain runs, the peaceful path leads Tamen through remnants of quieter timess when wise men hoed the fields together and hunted with each other the woodlands in preparation for the clouded seasons. Below whistling caverns and whispering white pine, he passes experiencing the unselfish melodies of nature’s conscience which has been unheard by generations of self-isolated men. Up the moutain’s slope to the ridge, the beauteous trail terminates in the reflections of the mineral water of a crystal pool.

The cool serenity of the pool invites the sojourner to relax securely at the water’s skirt. Peering down with the expressive innocence of an infant at play, Tamen is attentive to the life-painted images dancing on the wavering liquid. In its reflections he sees an unfamiliar child skipping alone in the March sunlight on a field of fresh-green rye grass. First in silent amazement, then with tears in his eyes, Tamen watches the shining adolescent grow in life into a man of his own image. Tamen, awakened in this natural solitude, is quiet with himself.

a window opens       clouds thicken
light implodes          motion freezes
ice melts                a crow sings

[1] This vignette won second place in a 1972 Parkdale Senior High School (http://www1.pgcps.org/parkdale) literary contest.

Continue Reading

Silverman Interprets Memories with a Pen

Silverman_review_03312016Sue William Silverman. 2009. Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Some people date western civilization back to a memoir in the 4th century when a young man struggled with and overcame sexual sin. After converting to Christianity, he played an important role in the monastic movement which encouraged candidates for ministry to practice celibacy. That young man was Saint Augustine and he entitled his memoir simply: Confessions.

Sue William Silverman draws on confessions of her own in her book which begins with a strong topic sentence:

“In Fearless Confession, I invite you to accompany me as I look back at what I learned on my path towards becoming a writer, hoping to assist you with your own journey.” (xiii)

Still, her title—Fearless Confessions—hints that Silverman is not your typical academic author. In fact, she has published three memoirs—

  1. The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew,
  2. Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, and
  3. Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You.[1]

—each of which offer a slice of her life experience, not a complete picture (28), suggesting an important principle in writing memoir—theme.  She writes:

“A theme is an abstract concept that represents the underlying meaning, idea, or message of you memoir, whether it’s a full-length book or essay…Revealing a theme is more effective than announcing it.” (24-25)

For your typical biography of a famous person, the hidden theme is typically a how an ordinary person became great—one reason that biographies of ordinary people often lack luster (no hidden theme interesting to the reader).  However, even someone living a fairly mundane life shares much in common with potential readers, given that a suitable theme can be identified—in Silverman’s case, that theme is childhood abuse and its consequences.

Having theme, plot develops. Silverman observes: “Plot is as important in memoir as it is in fiction. In fiction, plot is invented; in nonfiction, it is discovered.” (35) Plot develops around a theme suggesting which details to include and which to leave out. Silverman divides plot into horizontal plot (external events or action) and vertical plot (emotions, thoughts, and insights) (36-37).

She develops this dichotomy between action and emotions further in her discussion of voice dividing voice into the voice of innocence and the voice of experience. Silverman writes of the voice of innocence: “This voice relates the facts of the story, the surface subject or action.” (51). The voice of experience then is where: “we add a more mature voice or persona that, in effect, explains and deepens the Voice of Innocence with metaphor, spirituality, irony, reflection.” (52) She then launches into a discussion of how our voice in everyday life, is not our literary or metaphorically-enhanced voice (55).

Silverman’s description of metaphor as something to discover is priceless. What is the meaning we attribute to special objects (like a gifted, maroon scarf; 72)? How do we discover the metaphors in our own life? In my own writing, my grandparent’s farm served as a metaphor for the security that I lacked as my family moved around during my father’s graduate school years.

Silverman describes herself a writer, speaker, and faculty member at the Vermont College of Fine Arts[2] and writes in 9 chapters preceded by a preface and followed by 4 lengthy appendices. The chapter titles are:

  1. The Longest Paragraph.
  2. Savory Words: The First Bite of Your Story.
  3. Writing on Key: A Few Notes about Theme.
  4. Plotting Your Life.
  5. Between Innocence and Experience: Finding Your Voices.
  6. Mock Moons and Metaphor: Crafting Memoir into Art.
  7. Writing in Style.
  8. Marketing Your Memoir. and
  9. Confessional and (Finally) Proud of It.

The chapters end with writing exercises and the appendices provide memoir samples.

If you are writer contemplating your own autobiographical book, Sue William Silverman’s Fearless Confessions is a helpful place to start. As memoir is a theme in my own writing this year, Silverman’s insights opened up and charted direction where I previously was floundering. Thank you.

 

[1] http://www.SueWilliamSilverman.com.

[2] http://vcfa.edu.

Continue Reading

23. Prayers of a Life in Tension by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Prayers_of_a_Life_in_Tension_webGod of All Compassion and Mercy,
Forgive me, Lord, for the sins of my youth where I fell short of the plans you had for me. When in your great compassion you were kind to me and patient,teaching me your law and demonstrating your grace. Forgive me, Lord, for the transgressions of my youth when I disobeyed your law when in your mercy you looked the other way and disregarded my attitude, teaching me forbearance and gentle persuasion.
Forgive me, Lord, for the iniquity of my youth when I failed to help those around me. When in your everlasting love you sent your son to die to me, atoning for my sin, my transgressions, and my iniquity so that I might grow to be a man mindful of compassion, mercy, and love that were modeled for me all the days of my life through the power of your Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Continue Reading

The Daily Work Roster

ShipOfFools_web_10042015

The Daily Work Roster

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Before a young person can go off and conquer the world, they must be potty trained, learn to walk and talk, and be able to take care of themselves. One of the rites of passage along the way is summer camp. The camp to end all camps, if you are a Boy Scout, is Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico.

Philmont is not just any camp. Philmont Scout Ranch consists of 214 square miles of almost pristine wilderness—mountains and ranchland and woods—in the northern New Mexico donated over the period from 1938 to 1942 to the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) by oil tycoon Waite Phillips. In the confines of the ranch are authentic gold mines, outlaw hideouts, Apache and Ute Indian heritage sites, a B-24 crash site, dinosaur excavation sites, and hunting lodges previously employed by America’s rich and famous. Wildlife include scorpions, tarantulas, freshwater fish, eagles, rattlesnakes, deer, elk, coyote, antelope, mountain lion, buffalo, beaver, wild turkey, and bear.[1] You get the idea—Philmont is a super camp.

As I was to learn, Philmont tests the Scout Motto, “Be Prepared,” as well as any camp. Gathering firewood by myself one evening, I was reminded why walking alone in the woods was a really bad idea—only about a hundred yards from our campsite I found a deer carcass freshly torn into bloody pieces.  During our eleven days at Philmont in July 1968, we had many other challenges.  We saddled Harlan’s burros, rode horses, shot skeet, forded the Cimarron River, repelled down Cimarroncito’s rock ledges, contended with midnight bear raids, and walked 500 feet into the Cyphers gold mine (and turned the lights out). We sought to be real men and do manly stuff, and Philmont obliged.

But many times Philmont’s greatest challenges were problems that we brought with us. I should know. As duly elected crew leader, I was responsible for coordinating daily schedules. Tents needed to put up and taken down; firewood needed to be gathered; water acquired and often purified; and meals cooked. We had an experienced group of scouts and these activities went like clockwork during our shakedown backpacking trip near Catoctin Mountain in Maryland. Five days into Philmont and the clockwork started breaking down—volunteers started malingering and open rebellion soon followed. Too late, the crew leader had to draw up a work roster on scarce paper and my leadership credibility crumbled.

Things got worse.

Several years earlier at Ocean City, Maryland I injured my back riding waves with an inner tube mattress on the beach. On a good wave, my mattress got too far in front of a large wave and I plunged head first over the wave. I landed on my face and the wave threw my legs over my back. I was paralyzed for several minutes unable to get up and nearly drowned before slowly crawling out of the water on my stomach. No one saw me; no one came running. This back injury has haunted me ever since.

At Philmont, after several days of backpacking my back gave out and it was all that I could do just to walk. My pain was so intense that the adults debated helicoptering me out. I became a liability for the team and the guys resented having to slow down for me. Worse, we hiked each day with a deadline—afternoon rain was avoidable only once tents were pitched; if we were late in making camp, freezing rain soaked us and our gear. Even though several of the scouts were family friends, the stress of the long days, the rigorous backpacking, and the skimpy trail meals at Philmont brought out the worst in people—for the remainder of the trip I was harshly ridiculed at every turn.

At Philmont, my dreams of western adventure and my concepts of self-sufficiency morphed into a struggle to survive. Nothing about my background and nothing I could do made up for a weakened back and the mundane challenges of eleven days on the trail. My dependence on the team and their respect for me hung on conditions outside my control.

Still, life went on and several highlights of the trip were yet to come.

One such highlight came when we returned to camp headquarters and discovered the Tooth Of Time Traders commissary. There on sale at the commissary we found the belts, belt buckles, jackets, and patches that proved that allowed us to brag about our Philmont experiences when we returned home.

In the commissary, for example, I bought a coveted copy of Robert Baden-Powell’s book, Scouting for Boys (1908), which began the scouting movement in Great Britain. In the military, Powell distinguished himself as a general during the Second Boer War in South Africa (1899).[2] When his military days were over, he noticed that young men were growing up undisciplined and unprepared for the vigor of adult life. Powell saw this problem limiting Britain’s military preparedness and he envisioned the Boy Scouts as a solution. Later, I gifted this book to my Scoutmaster (and early mentor) when he retired after many years of scouting service.

Another highlight was our visit on the bus trip home to the Koshare Indian Museum in La Junta, Colorado. The museum featured many Indian handicrafts and, as we were told, the Koshare Indians were, in fact, Boy Scout troop 232 which focuses on studying Indian dances and customs.[3] The troop danced for us in traditional Indian attire and explained to us that Koshare means clown or “delight-maker” in the Hopi Indian language.  And delighted we were.

[1] http://www.scouting.org/Philmont.aspx.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Baden-Powell,_1st_Baron_Baden-Powell.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koshare_Indian_Museum_and_Dancers.

Continue Reading