Book Review: Writing from the Inside Out

The more I learn to embrace my calling as a writer, and the more I read about the craft of writing, it becomes more evident to me that we are a narcissistic and introspective group. We fit into that artist category of being free-spirited, difficult to nail down, temperamental, and a little haunted by our own talent.

But in a good way.

And that’s just it: Dennis Palumbo, in his book, ‘Writing from the Inside Out,’ encourages me to EMBRACE my quirkiness as a writer – the ‘dark and twisty’ Jen, to borrow a phrase from Gray’s Anatomy. For it is the darkness and twistiness that provides the raw material, the grist for the mill.

I have alluded to this many times in my own writing, including this post about my boring happiness:

Life seems uninteresting these days from a blogging perspective, though it is FANTASTIC from the survival aspect. I’ve said this before, but it’s easier for me to write about things I’m complaining about or struggling with. Depression? Martial strife? This is the stuff great stories are born from – the setup, upset, reset. When was the last time you saw a movie about a really happy guy that led a really happy life and nothing tragic or embarrassing ever happened to him?

I think I’ve always embraced the dark and twisty Jen and recognized that it provided valuable raw material and ambiance to work with. But at the same time I think I still viewed it as a personal defect, something to overcome so I could get on to the REAL business of writing – as if writing about the dark and twisty Jen was just practice.

Palumbo’s book opened me up to embrace the many things I thought were supposed to be labeled as distractions, but were, on the contrary, quite therapeutic for me. Things such as the phenomenon he writes about in his chapter titled, ‘In Praise of Goofing Off,’ which is about the valuable downtime a writer spends daydreaming, or reading, or reorganizing a closet. It is this time we spend allowing our thoughts to ‘percolate’ or ‘simmer,’ as he puts it, that is just as necessary as the actual act of writing. “You’re allowing that part of the brain that creates to work unconsciously,” he writes, “filtering and sorting, selecting and discarding.”

It is the mystery of inspiration and the writing process.

The over-arching theme of the book is this: love what you do, because the rewards of writing won’t always come in typical or tangible success, so our reward must be IN the writing. This is not a step-by-step how-to of writing the great novel or screenplay. Rather, it is a therapeutic salve that encourages the writer to be himself, to write from his own experiences, and to find joy in the everyday mundane.

The Level Ground

It’s interesting to me how many areas of my life are intersecting during this season – one of the side effects of so much introspection, I suppose. I’ve been reading a book that Kristin recommended, Writing from the Inside Out, by Dennis Palumbo. As a former Hollywood screenwriter and current psychotherapist, Palumbo has a unique insight into the writer’s life, and I have found this book very useful on many fronts.

He talks a lot of going the distance with writing, of not being in it for the rewards, but rather, for the craft itself. In a section he titled, “Inspiration,” Palumbo paraphrased author George Leonard from his book, ‘Mastery’ –

Leonard contends that the peaks of achievement, whether in the arts, sports, or any area of endeavor, come from a love of the day-to-day practice of the thing. Because the truth is, in any consistent endeavor, you spend most of the time not on the peaks but on the level ground, where you rarely see any noticeable improvement. If you just live for, or get pleasure from, the peaks, you never grow. Love the craft, the practice of your art, and the peaks will come.

There are many monotonous aspects to being a stay at home mom. Many days my time consists of coloring, cartoons, time-outs, and poop – things that don’t exercise the brain, but definitely exhaust it. Sometimes – even though there are more bright moments to being a mom that I can count – it’s difficult to stay motivated under piles of laundry.

Three weeks ago I wrote about a new routine I was trying out, and so far it’s been going well. I think it’s the perfect ratio of tasks to white space, because I’ve had busy days where I’ve had to shuffle things around but I’ve still managed to get it all done by the end of the week. Busy days and projects are my biggest distractions to the mundane tasks because I’d rather re-organize a closet than wash that same damn pair of pants again.

When I read the above passage in Palumbo’s book, it resonated strongly with me concerning the day to day chores of my life as well as with my writing life. It is true that life is lived on the level ground. Sometimes we despair, and sometimes we soar, but we always come back to level. At least we hope.

Having my work defined has freed me to live more in the moment, to have fun, and to adjust for spontaneity (yes, Bryan, I can hear you laughing from the basement – you can say you told me so). It has even allowed me to find a little bit of joy and sense of accomplishment in the mundane. Having a vacuumed rug, a clean bedroom, and a pleasant smelling bathroom is very rewarding.

And it means that when Ruthie, who has turned into a chatterbox overnight, relays stories and memories of her trip to the children’s museum on a bus with Bryan (because she sees a bus driving in the lane next to us), I am amused and in awe of her memory and vocabulary and ability to communicate her thoughts and make connections. I don’t turn up the radio and ask her for quiet time, but I engage. Because I’m learning to embrace the level ground, I am discovering peaks in places I once dreaded.

And even now as I’m writing this essay, I recognize the significance of this passage in my Recovery – especially when it says that the level ground is ‘where you rarely see any noticeable improvement.’ It’s like spending every day with your children, not realizing how much they are growing because you have no perspective. Then one day their pants are too short, or you stumble across an old picture, and you suddenly see them differently, and you realize they are bigger.

Recovery is a lot like that. Just when I think I haven’t changed a bit and I will always live in a funk of bitterness and anger, I read an old post or some notes in my recovery journal or a friend reminds me of how things used to be, and I suddenly have perspective. I see that I have changed.

The level ground is where it’s at, people. I’m convinced of it. The sturdier the ground you’re standing on, the stronger the rush when life peaks.

Book Review: The Complete Organic Pregnancy

Absolutely AGES ago, Harper Collins Publishing sent me a book to review on my site, and while I LOVED the book, I never seemed to find the time to tell YOU why I loved the book so much.

The book is The Complete Organic Pregnancy, and no, I am not pregnant.

It’s a fantastic reference book, as it contains lists. Do you like lists? I love lists. I love turning to a page that gives me a list of chemicals to avoid in my make-up, or what the numbers mean on the bottom of plastic containers, or the top twelve most contaminated non-organic fruits and vegetables.

(for instance, did you know that if you can’t afford to buy organic, that kiwis are better than strawberries? Broccoli is better than spinach? And bananas are better than apples?)

What I like most about the book is that the authors are realistic about the impracticality of me rummaging through my home, purging all existing personal supplies, food, insulation, drywall, and furniture. They present the information without causing me to panic.

Except for the section on detoxing the home. It was a little overwhelming to learn about all the things in my home that poison my children – the air, the water, the paint, oh my! But I also learned that Ikea is a very environmentally-friendly company, and many of my things come from Ikea, so my panic was short lived.

Plus, I can’t afford to tear down my house and build a new one. So I kind of HAVE to get a grip.

But overall, pregnant or not, I recommend the book. It affected the next bottle of shampoo I bought (Trader Joe’s), and where I buy my produce from (local). The information was very compelling without being alarmist.

I say, go for it.

What Jack Shephard and God have taught me about anger.

“Ineffective as it is to shout, scream, and curse, it is a means of reclaiming the illusion of power in the face of feeling impotent.” (The Cry of the Soul).

When it comes to non-fiction, I’m a chronic multi-reader. I juggle between several different books, and I often take long breaks from a book before picking it back up again. I think it’s because I’m a slow reader, and I take a lot of time to process the information. I can’t move through a book too quickly or I won’t retain what I’ve learned.

I’m back to reading The Cry of the Soul again. I love this book for it’s clarity in defining the difference between righteous anger and unrighteous anger. I’ve always known the verse in Ephesians that says, “In your anger do not sin,” but I could not wrap my head around such a concept. I could be angry without sinning? It just didn’t seem possible to me.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I’ve been feeling as if God is pulling off the scab of a wound. In my recovery I have made it to Step 6: We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. While great changes have occurred in my life through recovery, I have also sensed my own passivity in the process. In many way I have been going through the motions – though faithfully and sincerely.

However, this week I have felt God awakening me to the utter desolation of my anger, the crushing blows it lands upon my children, and the deterioration of my soul from the guilt. Yet in this exposure to my darkness I have not felt condemned, but rather rescued. For what kind of recovery can I continue to participate in if I remain in denial of the effects of my sin? How can I truly be ready to put this behind me if I am not completely sickened by my behavior? Passive recovery allows for too much ambivalence – if I’m not so bad, then what harm could one more ‘episode’ cause?

Even after so many years on this journey with my God, I am still amazed by how he walks with me in a way that makes me feel as if we’re going steady and there is no one else in the world who can turn his eye from me. His patience with me has been everlasting. He has not forced or persuaded, begged or pleaded. He has simply been quietly loving me as I walk through the pain of my own self discovery.

And now God has taken the opportunity of Step 6 to reveal exactly which character defects he would like to remove. He has torn back the scab that covered the ugliness of my anger. It is now a gaping wound I cannot ignore. He has opened my eyes to my sin and lovingly asked, Are you ready?

Last night as I watched the season 3 premier of LOST, I was personally moved by the inner struggle of Jack as he found himself trapped in a room with a glass wall. The quickened breathing, the raised voice, the pursed lips, the wide eyes, the defiance against all reason – all tell tale signs of a man trying to maintain the illusion of control, even in the midst of captivity.

Watching those scenes helped me understand what Bryan sees when I am maniacal, because in the moment I do not understand that my behavior is irrational. In the moment all I know is that I must, at all cost, win to survive.

But now, I find that I am ready to submit. I am ready to put my back against the wall. I am ready for God to clean the wound.

Book Pile

I gave up reading The DaVinci Code. I tried to finish it before we saw the movie on opening night, but it didn’t happen and now it’s just not captivating to me. I got as far as the scene in the crotchety British guy’s mansion where he says it’s really Mary Magdalene sitting next to Jesus and not John.

Yawn.

Some people have said that, all inaccuracies aside, The DaVinci code is at least a gripping, fast paced, page turner. Not so much, in my opinion. I just couldn’t muster up the interest to finish it.

So I’ve moved on to one of my book club selections, About Grace, by Anthony Doerr. In fact, I’M HOSTING this book club on June 19th, so if you live in the area and want to drop by… please do! If the weather holds up we’ll sit out by the fire pit and roast marshmallows!

Send me an email if you need directions or more info.

Getting Linky

drunkardsprayer

Tonight Bryan and I had tickets to see Over the Rhine at Neumo’s on Capital Hill. This band is probably responsible for our marriage, because as soon as Bryan heard that I even KNEW about them, he was in love.

They opened with Latter Days, which makes me cry whenever I hear it, so of course I had that big lump in my throat to keep swallowing down. Then, because they REALLY wanted to make me fall apart, they followed it up with I Want You to Be My Love (which I have written about before on this blog).

We had a great time, and had the added benefit of getting home early because this time around they actually opened the evening.

I spent some time updating my sidebar to reflect what I’m currently reading. I thought I would sneak in The DaVinci Code before I get to the next reading for my book club since the movie is or about to be released. I’m also curious about all the hype in the church world and the flack I hear Tom Hanks is getting for being a part of the movie project. Nothing burns me more than Christians objecting to art they know nothing about because they haven’t even seen/read/heard it. So I’m reading it before I offer any opinions, if I even have any.

And as usual I have a non-fiction I’m working through as well. The Cry of the Soul has been a great book for clarifying some of the things that trigger my anger. I’m not very far into it because the first 70 pages have already given me way too much to chew on. I’m a little overwhelmed. But good things are coming of it, and I can already see changes in the way I interact with Ruthie because of it. More later.

Kite Festival

Zugs and Rygels at the McBee

This morning we woke to a beautiful blue sky and warmer temperatures than yesterday. The population in Cannon Beach swelled with the coming of Saturday, and all the little ice cream shops and saltwater taffy shops were finally open.

Friends drove down for the day, as it was the annual kite festival in Cannon Beach – the reason we came here in the first place. The wind was so strong today that one of the lines on Bryan’s stunt kite broke, and sand was plastered to my son’s face via fresh sunscreen. It was just too windy to do anything, and the kids were miserable, so we moved the party to the grassy yard outside our motel door. We shared good conversation and dinner, then they were off into the night for the long drive back to Seattle.

I finished my book yesterday – after just a week! Amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t watch t.v. I will reserve any specific comments for our book club, but I will say that I appreciated how the author described the aimless wandering, the overwhelming nature of everyday things, and the depressive state of mind as she struggled through the grief of losing her brother. She was able to beautifully put words to nothings, to voids, to the numbness of experiencing loss. I think the next time someone asks me what it’s like to lose someone (not that anyone ever HAS asked me that) I will hand them a copy of this book.

Finally, a Teen Book Series for the Rest of Us


When I was a teenager I smoked, I shoplifted, I double pierced my ear with a needle and an ice cube, and I kissed boys in the bushes at church camp.

These are the kinds of characters and antics I find in the Diary of a Teenage Girl series by Melody Carlson. This is not simply the Christian version of the Sweet Valley High series with its drama and quest for popularity, but these are honest stories of real people who wrestle with everyday things like car privileges, school bullies, body image, and boys.

These are girls who struggle to interpret how life as a believer fits into the mine field that is high school. How do you respond when your friends drink alcohol at the fall Harvest Dance? When you find yourself caught in the middle of two friends who like the same boy? When you say things that hurt other people?

These gals question, they fail, but they seek God for answers, and they figure out what to do.

Take Chloe, for instance. Chloe is morose and alternative. She dresses darkly and sports body piercings. She is artistic, writes lyrics and music, and hopes to one day start a band. At school she is a loner, and is bullied by other girls because she is different.

Chloe wrestles with her relationship with her parents, whom she sees as distant and disconnected from her, and she wrestles with what she believes spiritually. One friend is a Christian; another studies Wicca. Chloe thoughtfully weighs the options.

I am particularly impressed that Carlson even addresses gospel and culture issues within the teenage world. For instance, Chloe feels constant pressure from her parents and certain friends to change the way she dresses once she becomes a Christian, yet she feels convicted to remain true to who she is. One friend criticizes her song lyrics for not being enough about God because they don’t say “one single word about God” in them.

“God is too in them!” Chloe insists. “God is all over them, inside and out, and between the lines and – well – everywhere!”

Because these stories are written in diary form they move quickly and contain lots of drama. But Carlson does not disrespect the teenage girl:
she gives each character thoughtfulness, and conviction, and the ability to reason through challenging circumstances.

This is what impacted me the most about Carlson’s books, seeing these teenage girls think critically about the issues that everyday life puts before them. Another Diary character, Kim, studies Buddhism before accepting Christ, and grasps the basic tenants enough to know it doesn’t seem to make sense. Chloe is confronted by a pastor who imposes legalistic doctrine on her, and she is able to wade through scripture and prayer and determine the pastor is following man’s law, not God’s. I was not this way as a young girl, but followed the coolest thing and believed what others believed.

For this reason, the Diary of a Teenage Girl books are well worth reading for both teens and adults. Teens will find compelling stories about girls just like them, and will not be frustrated by a watered down plot line because Carlson does not shy away from controversial issues. Adults will appreciate the insight into the teenage world and find tools for teaching the girls in their lives how to navigate through life as a Christian.

Just yesterday my mom picked up the first Caitlin book, opened it to the middle, and began reading. Two hours later she chuckled at how she was unable to put the book down. She described what had her captivated: “This girl’s father was unfaithful to her mother, and now he wants to move back home again to make amends.” My mom was impressed that Carlson holds no punches – these are the everyday realities of most teenagers today.

Learn more about these books at the Diary website. I already have a list of girls who are getting these for Christmas.

Book Review for ‘Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman’s Soul,’ by John and Stasi Eldredge

I liked this book by John and Stasi Eldredge, let me just state that from the beginning. So if you hated this book please don’t read any further, and PLEASE don’t send me any emails about how John Eldredge is the antichrist. If you were pleased with the book, or remain undecided, or if you haven’t even read it yet, then please, be my guest. Read on.

I begin with that disclaimer because so many reviewers of Eldredge’s latest book are appalled – ABHORRED, I tell ya – that Eldredge would dare to use quotes from movies, music, and secular authors to illustrate his various ideas. So offended are they, that they have ACTUALLY COUNTED the number of secular references Eldredge makes (which, by the way, they can’t even agree on. Some have it at 32 references, some have it at 35).

If you also feel this threatened by “secular” illustrations, then by all means, buy yourself some white gloves, blinders, and a set of headphones so as to not contaminate your sanctified soul with all the heathen cooties that are out there.

That being said, here we go….

According to the Eldredges, a woman’s heart longs to be romanced, to unveil beauty, and to be part of the Great Adventure. But instead we wind up buried under laundry, tired, living a dull life amidst the gossip and pressures within today’s churches.

“We’re all living in the shadow of that infamous icon, ‘The Proverbs 31 Woman,’ whose life is so busy I wonder, when does she have time for friendships, for taking walks, or reading good books? Her light never goes out at night? When does she have sex?” (page 6).

Through the early chapters we are reminded of God’s formation of Woman, of her beauty, of her personality, and how it gives us insight into God’s character. Through his creation of Woman we learn that God is relational, he is compassionate, he is fiercely devoted, he is our sustainer, and he desires beauty.

They go a little overboard with their emphasis on the importance of Woman in the order of creation (okay, we get it, Eve was the crown of his creation, the zenith, it was not good for Adam to be alone, I GET IT ALREADY). It bordered a little on self-indulging importance. A mere mention would do, with a few verses to back it up, and maybe a small halo on Eve’s head, but not much more than that is necessary.

They talk of beauty, and how beauty matters to God. And yes, the world cheapens beauty by making it unattainable, but the church equally minimizes beauty, making it all about “character” (page 36). Beauty is seen and felt. Both are important to God. A woman who embraces her beauty and femininity says to the world, “All shall be well.”

“And this is what it’s like to be with a woman at rest, a woman comfortable in her feminine beauty. She is enjoyable to be with. She is lovely. In her presence your heart stops holding its breath. You relax and believe once again that all will be well. And this is also why a woman who is striving is so disturbing, for a woman who is not at rest in her heart says to the world, ‘All is not well. Things are not going to turn out all right’ (page 38).”

They talk of the wounded woman, and how she views God and her own femininity. It will be easy to see yourself in these descriptions. I saw myself. I said, Hey, there you are, written in ink! I saw so much of myself that I began to feel a bit justified, a little indignant toward my husband as they described a woman’s wants and needs.

That is, until they pulled the rug out from under my feet.

Oh sure, use the old look-to-Christ-as-the-captivator-of-your-heart mentality. I’d rather blame my own personal Adam for all my problems, thank you very much.

But seriously, women are urged to “turn off the message of our wounds,” to seek Christ for healing, and to forgive our transgressors. We cannot wait for a man to unleash the beauty within us, “God longs to bring this into your life himself” (page 113). How often have I heard or read this message and rolled my eyes: don’t you think I KNOW I’m supposed to ‘let go and let God’? Yet somehow they manage to break through the cheeseball barrier.

Single? Don’t own your own personal Adam? Not to worry, you are not left out. The book discusses the relationships of women – all kinds. Friendship is important. We must “listen between the lines” (page 181). How do I relate to my sister experiencing depression? To a friend who lost her mother to cancer? To the woman in the parking lot whose car sprung a radiator leak? Do I feel lonely in the midst of a community of people? How are we, as Woman, revealing the character of God to the people he puts in front of us?

“All women are not mothers, but all women are called to mother. To mother is to nurture, to train, to educate, to rear. As daughters of Eve, all women are uniquely gifted to help others in their lives become more of who they truly are….In doing this, women partner with Christ in the vital mission of bringing forth life” (page 177).

Overall I would recommend this book – and NOT just because it quotes Rebecca Wells and Strictly Ballroom. Its themes are universal. It points us to Christ as the ultimate healer. If you can get past some of the holy-roller I-cried-out-to-God-and-he-smote-my-affliction Pentecostalism, then you can find something meaningful in this book for you.