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Can Writing Be Taught?

No it can’t. Yes it can. In a way, you might say so.

Here’s what I mean:

1. No it can’t. Writing is an instincts-based process. No one can give you those instincts – I can’t implant them in you. It’s not helpful for me to say, “It just doesn’t sound right.” That’s too frustrating. Writing is a time when you shut-down the left side of the brain, and trust your subconscious: and no one can teach you that deep. So no, it can’t.

2. Yes, it can. I’ve heard creative writing professors admit that the best thing they do for their students is fund them to spend time writing. One even wondered aloud: “I sometimes wonder if they’d be just as good after two years of writing without us.” If you want to develop those instincts, you need to read…a LOT. and you need to write…a LOT. It takes 10,000 hours to master a task, and it takes me about (at a very good pace) 3 hours to write 5 pages. If I approximate to spend 2/3 of my time editing 1/3 of my writing, that means I will need to produce at the very minimum 5,000 edited pages of work before I can say I’ve mastered my craft.  So yes, these instincts can be honed – by you. After 5,000 pages.

3. In a way. There are some ways that bad writing can be untaught. If you sit down with someone who knows what they’re doing, they can give you shortcuts to those 5,000 pages by implanting some rules in you that eventually become instincts. They can’t give you the instincts, but they can help you along the way by saying, “What you’re doing here isn’t quality, next time, do this.” This won’t make you a good writer – it will make you a “not bad” writer. And that’s something.

So no, yes, and – sort of. If you want to write well, the most important thing is the “Yes” – but that category is up to you.


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Breakfast Blend 07.24.14

Weird Al on Word Crimes. YOUTUBE: This is pretty awesome, if you haven’t seen it.

Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling – COPYBLOGGER: “These rules were originally tweeted by Emma Coats, Pixar’s story artist. Number nine on the list—when you’re stuck, make a list of what wouldn’t happen next—is a great one and can apply to writers in all genres.”

B&H to Publish Lost Spurgeon Sermons from Youth - LIFEWAY: “All told, more than 3,500 Spurgeon sermons were eventually published, but none date from his early ministry, said Spurgeon scholar Christian George. That will change next year.”

Should Pastors Preach from an ipad? PRINCE ON PRACHING: In the video below, Drs. Prince and Moore discuss the use of technology during preaching and whether pastors should preach from an iPad. They also discuss using Twitter and whether or not people listening to the sermon should use a Bible or an app on their phones/tablets

39 Blogging Tips from the Pros - SOCIAL MEDIA EXAMINER: “Keeping up with the latest social media changes is not always easy, and your blogging tactics may need to be refreshed. We asked 39 blogging pros to share the best blogging tips and tactics worth doing today. Here’s what they have to say.”


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A Poem for Writers

Let me share it with you through heterodoxy (those who’ve read the KJV version will better appreciate it):

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels,

and have not clarity,

I am become as sounding brass,

or a tinkling cymbal.

And though I have the gift of prophecy,

and understand all mysteries,

and all knowledge;

and though I have all faith,

so that I could remove mountains,

and have not clarity,

I am nothing.

Clarity is kind;

Clarity vaunteth not itself

is not puffed up,

Doth not behave itself unseemly;

seeketh not her own;

Rejoiceth not in iniquity;

But rejoiceth in truth.

Clarity never faileth.

And now abideth

Concision, Concreteness, and Clarity,

These three;

But the greatest of these is clarity.


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Breakfast Blend 07.22.14

Free Download: The Chronicles of Narnia Audiobooks - OPEN CULTURE: “Now, with the apparent blessing of the C.S. Lewis estate, the seven volume series is available in a free audio format. There are 101 audio recordings in total, each averaging 30 minutes and read by Chrissi Hart.

20 Latin Phrases You Should Know – MENTAL FLOSS: “English has adopted a number of much less familiar Latin phrases and expressions that go criminally underused—20 examples of which are listed here. So next time you spot a misbehaving child, or you want to seize the night rather than the day, you’ll have the perfect phrase at hand.”

Make Art. Make Money. Lessons from Jim HensonElizabeth Hyde Stevens is an award-winning fiction author, and she teaches fiction at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. She also created the Muppets, Mickey and Money research course at Boston University, and today we’re talking about her book, “Make Art Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson on fueling your creative career.”

The Anatomy of a Great Message – TOM BASSON: “Came across this helpful infographic, and while it focuses on creating “sermons”, I believe the principles apply to any presentation you might be giving, at work or at church, or anywhere really… Hope it helps.”

Are Your Publishing Fears Valid? CreativINDIE: “I got an email today from a wife help­ing her hus­band pub­lish and wor­ried about the book’s poten­tial suc­cess. Putting your book out there is scary. Spend­ing a lot of money and not earn­ing it back is a very valid fear. There are ways around it, but it’s mostly a gamble.”

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5 Steps to Reading Fiction When You Have ADD

I don’t know if I have cultural ADD or real ADD – but I know I’m horrible at paying attention to almost anything for more than 15 minutes. I can be watching explosions on a big HD screen, and thinking about lunch. If I don’t take careful notes, I tune out of sermons and lectures. Reading my Bible for an hour at times means “floating in my head for an hour with 15 minutes of Bible reading.”

So, how does a guy like me read fiction?

To be honest, it’s a discipline. And it requires a strict routine. Here’s how I do it:

1. Determine to read for pleasure. I have a difficult time not reading for information, or reading a book for its conclusion. I think C.S. Lewis would whip me solid if I were in his Oxford Literature course. Because the point of reading fiction isn’t to get to the end – it’s to enjoy the process. It’s to exercise the muscles of your imagination, transporting you into a different world. For most beginning readers of fiction, these muscles are weak – so the process isn’t very enjoyable. The best way to strengthen them is to sit down, determined to use your imagination. Not to gather great illustrations, or even (yet) to “understand” the book. Just let yourself in the wardrobe, and you’ll find yourself coming away transformed. Trust the book to work its magic.

2. Set a time. When am I going to read fiction, in particular? This is a crucial question for me. If I don’t set a time, I don’t do it, period. Some weeks it’s just before bed, sometimes it’s half-hour in the morning, and others it’s not until a rainy Saturday afternoon (or, in my case, a bright and sunny Saturday afternoon…).

3. Read one book at a time. ADD works on a macro-scale too, you know. Not only am I easily distracted sentence by sentence, but I’m also distracted book by book. But imagine stopping in the middle of Ecclesiastes, or the book of Judges – you wouldn’t really experience those books, without the ending. The key to avoiding this mistake, for me, is having a hard copy. Kindle books are fine - they’re cheap and scannable. But when I have 100 digital books in front of me, I find it impossible to finish any of them.

4. Get away.  If you can, once a week go somewhere magical. I love to read at Barnes and Noble – it smells like books, and it tastes like coffee. There are always interesting character strewn about. I don’t have the distraction of my two boys – trying to read amid chaos is like trying to sculpt in a hurricane.  Reading deserves a special place in your life, metaphorically and physically.

5. Try “Immersive Reading”. This is the biggest secret of all – it’s what I wish I’d done from the beginning. And with so much free access, it’s a possibility for all of us. What is it? Immersive reading is when you plug in headphones to the audio version of a text, and read along. It’s that simple. But it’s a complete game changer in how you experience a book. I’ve never lost concentration when immersive reading – it helps me to come under the spell of a book in a new way. Sound expensive? It’s not. Most local libraries these days offer digital audio downloads from Download Destination  which you can plug into your i-whatever. I-Tunes offers a plethora of free audiobooks from librivox and iTunes U (If you can get the professional narrator form the library, however, get that). If you have a difficult time enjoying literature, START HERE. And start with something you like. You might just be addicted by the end of Summer.


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6 Evangelistic Motivators

I’ve been reading this week through Tim Keller’s “Center Church” – there’s so much good in it, I’ve just chosen a small sample. This section is borrowed from D.A. Carson and condensed, on the different ways the gospel is presented to people. Keller’s point is that, although the gospel never changes, the presentation of the gospel always changes based on the needs/desires/fears and understanding of any given audience:

  1. “Sometimes the appeal is to come to God out of fear of judgment and death. Hebrews 2:14-18 speaks about Christ delivering us from the bondage of fear and death. In Hebrews 10:31, we are told it is a terrible thing to fall under the judgment of the living God.
  2. Sometimes the appeal is to come to God out of a desire for release from the burdens of guilt and shame. Galatians 3:10-12 tells us we are under the curse of the law. Guilt is not only objective; it can also be a subjective inner burden on our consiences (Ps. 51). If we feel we have failed others or even our own standards, we can feel a general sense of shame and low self-worth. The bible offers relief from these weights.
  3. Sometimes the appeal is to come to God out of appreciation for the “attractiveness of truth”. Carson writes: “The truth can appeal wonderful…(they can) see its beauty and its compelling nature.” In 1 Corinthians 1:18, Paul states that the gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God. Yet, immediately after this statement, Paul argues that the wisdom of the cross is the consummate wisdom. Paul is reasoning here, appealing to the mind. He is showing people the inconsistencies in their thinking (e.g. “your culture’s wisdom is not wisdom by its own definition”). He holds up the truth for people to see its beauty and value, like a person holding up a diamond and calling for people to admire it.
  4. Sometimes the appeal is to come to God to satisfy existential longings. To the woman at the well Jesus promises “living water” (John 4). This was obviously more than just eternal life – he was referring to an inner joy and satisfaction to be experienced now, something the woman had been seeking in men.
  5. Sometimes the appeal is to come to God for help with a problem. There are many forms of what Carson calls “a despairing sense of need.” He points to the woman with the hemorrhage (Matt 9:20-21), the two men with blindness (Matt 9:27), and many others who go to Jesus first for help with practical, immediate needs. Their heart language is, “I’m stuck; I’m out of solutions for my problems. I need help for this!” The Bible shows that Jesus does not hesitate to give that help, but he also helps them see their sin and their need for rescue from eternal judgment as well (see Mark 2:1-12; Luke 17:1-19)
  6. Lastly, the appeal is to come to God simply out of a desire to be loved. The person of Christ as depicted in the Gospels is a compellingly attractive person. His humility, tenderness, wisdom, and especially his love and grace draw people like a magnet. Dick Lucas, longtime pastor at St. Helen’s Bishopgate in London, has said that in the Bible God does not give us a watertight argument. There is an instinctive desire in all human beings to be loved. A clear depiction of Christ’s love can attract people to want a relationship with him.”                                                                                       -Center Church, pg. 114-115


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Breakfast Blend 07.16.14

Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing: BRAINPICKINGS – “On July 16, 2001, Elmore Leonard (October 11, 1925–August 20, 2013) made his timeless contribution to the meta-literary canon in a short piece for The New York Times, outlining his ten rules of writing. The essay, which inspired the Guardian series that gave us similar lists of writing rules by Zadie Smith, Margaret Atwood, and Neil Gaiman, was eventually adapted into Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing (public library) — a slim, beautifully typeset book, with illustrations by Joe Ciardiello accompanying Leonard’s timeless rules.”

Kindle Unlimited: GIGAOM: “Amazon is testing an ebook and audiobook subscription service called “Kindle Unlimited” that would cost $9.99 a month. According to pages that were pulled down, it will offer access to over 600,000 titles.”

7 Things I’ve Learned – WRITERS DIGEST “This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Michele Jakubowski, author of SIDNEY & SYDNEY) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent — by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.”Top

 Top 10 P.G. Wodehouse Novels – TONY REINKE “British humorist P.G. Wodehouse penned close to 100 books in his prolific career. That’s great for him, but it also means I find myself up against the dashed difficult problem of determining where to begin. So to help me navigate the options I contacted the man who introduced me to Wodehouse a number of years back, Douglas Wilson.


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The Deeply Flawed Genius of Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards is probably the greatest thinker, and certainly the greatest theologian, to set foot on American soil. In the last decade, thanks to men like Tim Keller, Martin Lloyd Jones, and John Piper, there’s been a Jonathan Edwards Renaissance of sorts. I’m thankful for that renaissance, really. His Religious Affections is a work of genius and a bible-inflamed vision of the world. His sermons penetrate the heart with clear thinking and poignant illustration. His glorying in God’s sovereignty and supremacy over all things has infused new life, I believe, into early 21st century evangelicals. It’s a glorious thing.

But amidst the Edwardsian hullabaloo, I worry some have adopted an uncritical – even naïve – view of the man and his work. I have yet to hear, within the Calvinist tradition, a critique of Jonathan Edward’s theological vision. Edwards was not perfect. Genius and Biblicist though he was, Edwards’ vision was also deeply flawed.

The “Freedom” of the Will

When Edwards was a student at Princeton University, he had his glorious, captivating vision of God’s sovereignty: “I have often since had not only a conviction, but a delightful conviction. The doctrine has very often appeared exceeding pleasant, bright, and sweet. Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God. But my first conviction was not so.” These sweet words from his “Personal Narrative” have rung out time and again from the lips of Dr. John Piper, and a whole host of others espousing Edwards’ vision of God’s grandeur in sovereignty above all.

However, near that same time, Edwards experienced another cataclysmic shift in his thinking, due to another brilliant, rising thinker: John Locke. Locke was a Kingpin of rationalist thinking in the 17th century, and set the course for such philosophical giants as Kant, Hume and Rousseau. However, Locke’s main contribution was in the understanding of the self – each of us, at birth, are a blank slate (tabula rasa). Our consequent decisions arise not from a free act of the will – which would, according to Locke, be tantamount to senselessness – but all of the experiences, relationships and ideas implanted to us from our environment.

When Edwards read Locke, he was smitten. He speaks of it in his own writing, time and again, as a beautiful work of genius, to which he attributes much of his later thinking. However, Edwards built upon Locke a theological vision where he saw Locke falling short. The God of scripture, according to Edwards, was the first cause among causes, and, therefore, the ultimate determiner of every action in human history.

Edwards’ Surprising Defense

When I first read “The Freedom of the Will”, I was surprised. I’d expected a theological treatise, examining the common scriptures in defense of God’s sovereign action in electing sinners to salvation. What I read instead was a philosophical treatise – Edwards, borrowing heavily from Locke, makes what seemed to me at the time to be an airtight case for psychological determinism.

The Freedom of the Will, he asserted, was an illusion: complete freedom to choose was meaningless psychobabble – if there was such a freedom, it would render us neutral agents, seeing all things in 50/50, unable without any predetermining factors to make any decision whatsoever. If we are indeed inclined to one decision over another, says Edwards, is this not the true determining factor of our will? And so does it not follow that every action is predetermined, well before the moment of choice?

Edwards, then, saw human nature as something akin to a flag blowing in the wind – the will was utterly set by the winds that blew before it. The will indeed existed, but the disposition of the will could not itself be chosen. We were chosen by God’s winds, blowing our inclinations to and fro.

The Flaw

For many in Edwards’ day, this argument sealed the deal on Theological Determinsm. Those who contended with Edwards at the time were torn asunder by his logic (and the letters can now be found in the back of many appendices of “Freedom of the Will”, such as the Yale edition). And many today have embraced, and even endorsed, Jonathan Edwards’ case for the Freedom of the Will.

However, a deep reading of Edwards reveals inconsistencies at best. At worst, it succumbs to the Arminian accusation of attributing moral monstrosity to God’s nature.

For example, when Edwards approaches the doctrine of Original Sin, he can no longer embrace the classic Augustinian understanding of the will as “posse non peccare et posse peccare” – that is, “able to sin and able not to sin”. Even Edwards’ most adamant espousers (such as John Gerstner) admit that he flounders at this fountainhead. He has built his theological vision in homage to Locke, and recast Theological Determinism in terms of Psychological Determinsm. Therefore, he’s no longer able to say, “Adam and Eve could have chosen otherwise.” Instead, he must say: “God positively determined the decision of Adam and Eve.”

While he does attempt to retract his argument by asserting that God was merely “passive” in this moment, and simply removed the intellectual light necessary to make the decision – not the moral light – one can almost hear him drowning in his own philosophy. Jonathan Edwards, in deviating from the mysterious understanding of the nature of the will, stepped headlong into the trap of rendering God a moral monster: He, ultimately, was responsible for the fall: Adam and Eve were psychologically determined by God to sin. They could not choose otherwise.

Jonathan Edwards: Saint and Sinner

All of this to say: yes, read Jonathan Edwards. His theological vision was brilliant, and biblical. But it was also deeply flawed. Edwards was a product of his time, and his theories on psychological determinism flow from the overly optimistic rationalism that surrounded him. This led him far beyond the boundaries of scripture itself, and up into realms King David might have called, “Things too lofty for me.”

So yes, read him. Drink in his religious affections. Hear his sermons. Sit at his feet. But recognize that Edwards was both saint and sinner – Simul lustus et Peccator – like you and me. Don’t demonize him, please. Simply pick out the bones, and mind not the passersby who hail him theological chief.


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Breakfast Blend 07.15.14

Preaching Christ from All of Scripture Qualified: GRACE AND TRUTH COMMUNITY CHURCH: “But as every good virtue in this fallen world has its Achilles’ heel, so this good and excellent principle has been taken too far by some. The very text we use, most often, to defend the preaching of Christ from all the Scriptures – does not, in fact, teach that every passage is necessarily about Him or His work.”

5 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block: JON ACUFF: “Have you ever had writer’s block? It’s the feeling of being out of words. The blank page is no longer a canvas to be danced upon with vocabulary and joy. It’s now a terrifying desert, devoid of adjectives and ideas, completely white and empty without an oasis in sight. How do you beat moments like that? Here are 5 things I’ve learned to do in my 16 years as a professional writer…”

Read More and Better with 30+Apps, Tips/Tricks: ZAPIER: “You probably read more than you realize. Whether it’s research for work, an article emailed to you by a friend, a news story you find on Facebook or a novel you open up before bed—we read all the time, and rarely think about doing it better. Let’s take a look at some ways to read more, read faster and remember what you’ve read….”

Should Pastors Stop Saying ‘The Bible Says’? CHRISTIANITY TODAY: “CT asked experts if pastors should stop using phrases like “The Bible says” in their sermons. Answers to the question are arranged below on a spectrum from “yes” at the top to “no” at the bottom…”

A Theory on Shakespeare: COMMDIGINEWS: “Since William Shakespeare’s death nearly 400 years ago, there has been a raging debate about the true authorship of the plays and sonnets that bear his name.”

Neil Gaiman on Writing – best quote of the interview: “Tolkien didn’t read Tolkienesque fantasies; he read books on Finnish philology”


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Flannery O’Connor’s Nine Writing Tips

I’ve been learning quite a bit about American writing style as of late from the master, Flannery O’Connor. If you want to learn to write modern, poignant and convicting prose, look to her – here are just a few of the frank lessons she teaches:

1. Develop Writing Habits. “I’m a full-time believer in writing habits…You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away…Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place.”

2. Begin with the end in mind. “Try arranging [your novel] backwards and see what you see. I thought this stunt up from my art classes, where we always turn the picture upside down, on its two sides, to see what lines need to be added. A lot of excess stuff will drop off this way.”

3. Don’t be consumed with style. “That is interesting about your reading some Shakespeare to limber up your language before you start; though I think that anything that makes you overly conscious of the language is bad for the story usually.”

4. Live in the real world. “It might be dangerous for you to have too much time to write. I mean if you took off a year and had nothing else to do but write and weren’t used to doing it all the time then you might get discouraged.”

5. Let Reality Speak for Itself. “I know that the writer does call up the general and maybe the essential through the particular, but this general and essential is still deeply embedded in mystery. It is not answerable to any of our formulas. It doesn’t rest finally in a statable kind of solution. It ought to throw you back on the living God. Our Catholic mentality is great on paraphrase, logic, formula, instant and correct answers. We judge before we experience and never trust our faith to be subjected to reality, because it is not strong enough.”

6. Take time to learn. “Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”

7. Prepare for difficult work. “Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.”

8. Be Observant. “The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.”

9. Understand the weight of redemption. “There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his sense tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.”


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