Gary Guinn

Literature of the Ozarks

Month: March 2016

From the Forge: Geography 101

From the Forge is a Writers’ Column that will be appearing every other week in the newsletter of The Village Writing School and will also appear on this blog. The posts will be short, around 300 words, and will focus on a single element of creative writing, offering suggestions and examples.

Forge:  n.,

  1. A furnace where metals are heated or wrought.
  2. A workshop where pig iron is transformed into wrought iron.
  3. To form by heating in a forge and beating or hammering into shape.
  4. To give form or shape to, especially by means of careful effort.

Blacksmiths work metals in a forge. Writers work words in the forge of the mind. In the mind, words are “heated” and “wrought.” We beat them and hammer them into shape. They begin as pig iron, stubborn, resistant to our desires, but with toil they slowly yield. They become the wrought iron of literature.

Number 1: Geography 101

In her book Making A Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers, Carolyn See says that “by being ‘universal’ we run the risk of boring our readers to death.”

But, wait. I thought good literature was universal, that good literature connects us to what William Faulkner called “the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice”? Far be it from me to argue with Faulkner.

But how does a story do what Faulkner requires. Where do writers find the “universal truths”? The answer, of course, is that the “old verities and truths of the heart” are mined from the geography of everyday life. A story is about people who want things, do things, suffer, and succeed or fail. The “old verities” are found in “verisimilitude.” They have to look like life. The quiet room after the door closes. The lipstick smudge on the empty glass. The smell of rotting flesh, or a flower.

See’s advice? “Scratch out a sketch of the town the story happens in, the living room where people sit and talk, the view from the windows, the traffic outside. . . . The more deeply you take charge of [the geography], the more easily you keep the reader enchanted.” I think See means that you, the writer, must inhabit the geography of your story. Close your eyes and breathe deeply, hear the baby cry next door, see the light go out in the second story room. [Short example]

The paradox of great stories, See says, is that “In order to be timeless, [they have] to be rooted in time.” We understand the universal only through concrete reality.

So keep it real.




I Don’t Believe in God: God Believes in Me

Nobody really believes in God—Christians or members of any other faith community. Christians who say, “I believe in God,” actually mean, “I believe in a particular construct of God that was formed by a particular sub-culture’s reading of a book called The Bible.” That is all that can honestly be said about belief in God. The significant limitations inherent in being human prevent us from understanding, much less believing in, qualities like eternity, infinity, the divine—for that matter, the human.

Christians, or members of any other religious community, will not, of course, stop saying, “I believe in God.” There aren’t many good alternatives to “God,” and they tend to range from the impossible-to-say to the impossible-to-understand. You know, something along the lines of “that than which a greater cannot be thought.” That’s endearing. Thanks, Anselm. The very fact that it is called the ontological argument pretty much kills it for me. Then there is Matthew Arnold’s “stream of tendency, not ourselves, which makes for righteousness.” I guess I prefer that to Anselm. At least Arnold makes God the good guy/girl/thing/tendency.

Anyway, you get the idea. “I believe in God” may not be true, strictly speaking, but it’s easy to say, and heck, it would work well under pressure—for example, as a last testimony before the pagans chop your head off. Can you imagine trying to say, “I believe in that than which a greater cannot be thought” as the ax is falling?

So then, why say, “I don’t believe in God; God believes in me”? We all know the well-worn story of the alcoholic or drug addict trapped in a cycle of self-destructive behavior, whose life is transformed because someone else “believed in her/him.” It’s a beautiful story that touches people because it reveals something essential about human nature—that the faith and love of an other might change what seems unchangeable in us. The other believes in “me” and stays with “me” in the brokenness. Sometimes that is transformative.

The most addictive and self-destructive behavior in my life has been believing in God. Growing up in the Bible Belt, in a small Fundamentalist church, in a loving, believing family, there was never a time when I didn’t “believe in God”—by which I mean, of course, that “particular construct of God that was formed by a particular sub-culture’s reading of a book called The Bible.” It is almost impossible in that sub-culture to step outside the paradigm—comfortable and secure, beliefs constantly reinforced by reading a book that has been for all practical purposes deified, and interpreting personal experiences through that (particular) reading. That particular reading of the book and understanding of God was who I was—my identity, my worth—not just now, but for eternity. The investment in getting it right was staggering. Then when I was sure I “had it right,” it was almost impossible to consider, and certainly impossible to accept, any proposition outside that construct. I could not, without unbearable stress on my identity, my worth, and on my eternal relationship to God, risk such immense stakes.

I was, in effect, a Biblaholic. No, a Particular-reading-of-the-book-aholic. I was addicted to the particular way I had come to read the book. And I judged God and other people by that standard. And like an alcoholic or drug addict, under the influence I was able to justify saying and believing some pretty awful things about God and other people. But something inside kept pushing back, insisting there had to be another way. And then a door opened. Perhaps someone was knocking. I think someone was. Somehow I walked through. On the other side was peace. On the other side was all of creation, including me, and it was good. A different paradigm. The addiction and self-destructive behavior began to fade. No need to “get it right” so that I could judge God and other people. A relief.

Now, like all recovering addicts, I guard my heart closely to make sure I don’t relapse. And I remember that, if there is God, the path to God is God’s belief in us. And so—John 3:16 (Gary’s Revised Edition): For God so believed in humanity, that God became human, that everyone who was believed in would have life.

Branagh Ruined My Wallander

Here’s the scene: A detective—about forty, rugged good looks, speaks the Queen’s English as if he were once a broadcaster on BBC radio, dark clothing, fashionable hair, divorced, one daughter with whom he struggles to communicate, aging belligerent father from whom he feels estranged—returns from the scene of a grisly murder. He becomes immobilized by depression, nearly catatonic, weeping, whining, never sleeps, lives with a hangover, brilliant at solving crimes, but unbearable as a person. As I see it, this is an accurate description of British actor Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation of the fictional Swedish detective Kurt Wallander.

Long before I stumbled onto the Branagh BBC series Wallander, I had very mixed feelings about Kenneth Branagh—good in Shakespeare, awful in Frankenstein, and so forth. But as a real lover of Scandinavian crime fiction, I was up for giving the Wallander series a shot. After three or four episodes, I had had enough. Great Swedish settings (cold, dark, wet, but beautiful), interesting stories, good supporting cast, but I could not stomach Branagh’s overblown Existential angst in his interpretation of the title character.

The novels from which the Wallander series was created were written by the late Swedish novelist Henning Mankell, who died in 2015. About a year after I abandoned the BBC series, I ran across an inexpensive used copy of one of Mankell’s Wallander novels and decided to read it. I was not surprised to find really good writing, which is common with the Scandinavian writers, but was delighted to find a title character who was likeable—middle-aged, average looking, a little out of shape, no black clothes, plain hair, divorced, struggling with his relationships with his daughter and aging father. Pensive, a little brooding at times, but a far, far cry from Branagh’s morose, nearly suicidal cop.

Not long after reading the novel, I found a Swedish production of the Wallander series on Netflix and thought, why not? It was a jewel of a series–in Swedish with subtitles. The Swedish lead actor, Kristor Henriksson, an average looking guy, was a perfect balance between pensive and active, brooding and outgoing. No more weeping and whining, just quiet and thoughtful. Still brilliant at solving murders, but also an interesting person. I’d say that Henriksson saved my Wallander.

I may not in future watch a Kenneth Branagh production of anything. I will continue to read Henning Mankell’s Wallander novels. If you like crime fiction, you need to introduce yourself to Scandinavian crime fiction. Henning Mankell would be a good place to start. The Wallander novels are good reading, and as a bonus you get the Swedish production of the TV series, which captures the best elements of the fiction.

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