Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Religion of Writing: Part Four -- "My Pastor Said"

I'm going to tell you a secret. It's one of those things that people will say with their mouths but they don't really believe. That's why it's such a secret, because it's... it's like a secret of the heart. Your brain somewhere knows the truth, but the rest of you doesn't want to believe it. Are you ready for it? No, I mean, are you really ready for it? Okay, if you say so.

Your pastor... Your pastor is a human. He is human. Just a dude. [And, yes, I know there are female church leaders out there, but the vast majority are dudes, so just go with it, okay. I also know that not all of you, probably most of you, don't actually have pastors, but maybe you once did? Either way, just go along. It will make sense soon.] Typically, he's not even that smart of a dude; he's just someone that went to more church school than you. [Knowing more about something does not make one "smarter," just more knowledgeable, but that's a topic for another time.] There is nothing about his position that gives him any kind of supreme knowledge or authority. All you have to do is look around at all of the different denominations, even among the same branch of churches (like, for example, the Baptists (last time I checked there were something like 30 different Baptist denominations)), to know that none of these guys have the corner on "right." Not even the Pope (just look at the changes one Pope will make in the Catholic Church, in reaction to the changes the previous Pope made, to know that).

So, then, one of the things that has always bothered me (and when I saw always, I mean since I was a teenager involved in youth group) is when someone will say as a justification for a belief or an action, "My pastor said..." Guess what. I don't care what your pastor said, because there is every likelihood that your pastor has never actually even read the Bible. I mean, read the Bible as in sitting down with it and starting at one end and finishing at the other end. [Trust me; I've known plenty of those kinds of pastors. In fact, most of the pastors I've known fall into that category.]

Let me tell you a story (I'll keep it short). It may not seem to relate, but it totally does. Because, as you might suspect, this isn't all about pastors.

My AP Biology II teacher was a big believer in never taking anything at face value, especially because someone told it to you. His position was that, even if the person was sincere, he might just be wrong. So you never should take on faith what anyone told to you even if it was someone that you trusted. Even if it was him. Always verify. Always. This was the one thing he told us over and over again in class. Everyone seemed to be just nodding politely while they scribbled down the notes he gave.

I suppose he'd had enough, because, one day, his notes were nonsense. I'm not even kidding. I wish, now, that I'd actually written down the stuff he said. I don't remember what we were studying at the time (although I'm leaning toward kidney function), but the stuff he was going on about was crazy. It had nothing to do with the topic. I stared at him for a few minutes before putting my pen down. I didn't know what was going on. Only one other student also knew that something was up, and we stared at each other for a few minutes while Mr. A went on giving his bizarro notes.

The next day, we had a quiz covering the topic of those notes. The other student, the one who had shared the look with me, and I were the only two to pass the quiz, because we were the only ones who weren't completely relying on Mr. A's notes for our information. Everyone else in the class answered the questions based on the incorrect notes he'd given the previous day, and everyone else failed the quiz.

That was an important lesson for me. Not that I hadn't already figured it out, but it really made the point in a manner that I haven't been able to forget 25 years later. Because someone said so is never good enough. Not even if it's your pastor. Or your teacher, even your most trusted teacher. Or, even, a best-selling author telling you the way to go about writing. [Because, honestly, the only reason an author is writing a book like that is to make money.]

As you cruise through blogs, you can find the way to do all sorts of things: write, lose weight, get rid of clutter. Really, anything you want to find out how to do, there is someone willing to tell you the way to do it. But, unless it's something technical, like changing a flat tire or hooking up a VCR (as if anyone even has those anymore) or knitting a scarf, there is no the way to do it. There is only your way to do it, like loading the dishwasher. And you can't figure out what your way is if you're busy listening to someone else's way.

So, just like you should verify information when people tell you things, you should verify how to do things that people tell you to do, especially if it's something only you can know. Which means that I don't care how much money Mr. King has made or how many #1 books he's had, the way he writes is not the way I write, so him trying to tell me how to be a writer is like him walking into my house and rearranging the dishwasher as I'm trying to do the dishes. And not just him but all of those posts out there that will tell you the way to do "it," whatever "it" is.

Which is not to say that you should just discard everything. There are always good bits to pick out, but it's like when "people" start talking about how dinosaurs were killed by a giant asteroid. There is no proof, and most paleontologists don't actually believe it's true. It was never put forth as an actual hypothesis that had any scientific backing. It was just something someone said, almost in jest--"Well, maybe a giant meteor killed them all"--that the press picked up on, and we've never let it go. Actual theories of extinction have more to do with... climate change. Imagine that. But I digress...

The point is that you should always do the work. Especially if it's something that directly affects you. Don't buy into anything just because someone "said so." I'll give you one more quick example:

Many years ago, during a sermon, the pastor of the church I was attending preached about an email he'd received. An email that said that NASA had "proved" that there was a day missing from the universe thus providing proof for the story in the Bible that God had mad the sun stand still so that the Israelites could defeat their enemies before the sun set. That NASA had "proved" this is a complete hoax. But the pastor preached about it... because he believed it. He wasn't trying to mislead anyone or lie to them; he was just wrong.

And people who try to tell you how to write are also just wrong. Not because they are wrong, but they are wrong for you. And there's no other way to verify that information than to work out for yourself what is the best way for you. And, yes, that requires work. Sometimes a lot of it. And the only real rule about writing is doing it. Beyond that, it's all up to you.


  1. I agree with everything you said. Also it seems to be something people learn by living if they observe and think.

  2. As in, there's more than one way to skin a cat?
    It's like editing. Most people say you have to wait before editing the first draft and you shouldn't start with line edits - fix the big problems first. Well, I don't. By the time I reach the end of a first draft, I've forgotten how it began anyway. And I will fix the little things in the first draft because it will drive me nuts not to fix them. I need the manuscript to flow in order to see the big problems, and with those small mistakes in place, it doesn't.
    Your pastor is human. Amen! He's human and makes mistakes. Go to the source for the Truth.
    Oh, and my wife's dinosaur explanation is that they missed the ark.

  3. Well said. I always try to pick out information that I like and tailor it to fit my lifestyle, especially when I read "how to" blogs on diet and exercise. There can't just be one correct way for every single person.

  4. I love the AP bio story!

    For me, too, one of the greatest moments in my high school education was when my Russian history teacher demonstrated to us that one shouldn't believe everything that's in the textbook.

  5. Perfectly said, and this is why you won't find us doling out any serious 'wisdom' on how to write. Because we can tell you how WE write, but we can't tell you how YOU should write.

    I especially roll my eyes when I see books like HOW TO WRITE A BESTSELLER. This, of course, is the direct title (I believe) of a book by an agent who has no idea what he's actually talking about. But on top of that, the thought that you can tell just anyone how to write a bestselling book is ludicrous*.

    *I've been swayed too much by pop culture. I kept typing that as Ludacris. :(

  6. Since I stopped paying attention to pastors when I was about 15 years old, I get that whole thing. The whole religion thing baffles me. How some intelligent and thoughtful people can accept some of the doctrines and beliefs of particular cults (aka religions) is beyond me but it doesn't really matter what I think. I know that, without some sort of verification, I accept very little of what people have to offer. That doesn't mean I don't read their thoughts. But I don't assume they really do know everything about which they speak.
    Lately, I have focused a good amount of my reading on Freud and Jung. I find their theories fascinating but I can't quite get myself to buy them. It feels unprovable to me.

  7. Unfortunately you're right about most pastors. My husband has a Ph.D. in theology and taught Seminary at the graduate level years ago. At that level there is discourse and debate. However, by the time these guys get to the pulpit, they cave to the pressure of numbers.

    I read tutorials to learn technique on painting, but I refuse to bow to the pressure of "style" My brushwork is good and I know it and a particular individuals "taste" carries absolutely no weight with me.

  8. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. You need to decide for yourself if someone else's words fall in with your belief system.

  9. David: Most people, in my observation, fail to observe and avoid thinking.

    Alex: Well, I edit as I go, because I don't want to have to go back and edit after the fact.
    I'd say the dinosaurs missed the ark!

    JKIR,F!: Not unless everyone was a clone. That would be... horrible.

    TAS: Oh, my Bio teacher believed that, too. No single book should be taken as the last word on anything. Verify!

    ABftS: I have to say that Rowling's recent "experiment" goes to show that there is no single way to write a bestseller. If that was true, her book published under her pseudonym would have been a #1 book without anyone finding out it was her.

    Graciewilde: I have to say, Freud is one of the most off the mark people ever. He made generalizations about humanity based on his study of sick people. He had a flawed system, no matter how smart he was.

    Anne: I ignore most of the current instruction about painting, because I don't tend to like the popular style of miniature painting. I want my minis to look like they just came off the field of battle not off of the assembly line.
    However, I do wish I knew how to airbrush, but I'm not thinking I'm going to start experimenting with that at this point in my life.

    Sheena: The problem is that most people don't actually have a belief system of their own. They have something they halfway adopted from a parent or pastor or teacher. That makes their opinions worthless since they don't really know what they believe.

  10. You're taking on some real sacred cows here: women in the ministry, the Catholic Church, climate change, STEPHEN KING: are you ready for the kind of heat all those various entrenched forces can bring at you?

    Anyway: you're right about writing. There are things that will work better especially for people who are beginning, but ultimately writing is an art, not a science, and needs to be learned through practice.

    I think it's kind of like batting, in baseball. I always learned to hold my elbows just so, and my feet just so, etc etc, and that's how I teach people to bat. (I'm a terrible athlete but a pretty good teacher). People resist that and say "But [MAJOR LEAGUE BALLPLAYER] bats this way," and I say that when they get the basics they can then monkey with it, but the basics will help you be a COMPETENT hitter.

    So the basics of writing might make you competent, and then you can monkey with it.

    Put another way, it's why Ezra Pound (maybe? Now I'm not sure) wrote all those sonnets before going on to write free verse.

  11. Well, the only true way to learn to write is to write. That's what I believe. I do enjoy reading certain craft books, though, to see what others with experience have to say. A lot of what Donald Maass and James Scott Bell write about resonates with me, so I guess they're my writing pastors. :)

  12. Briane: You know, I keep half way expecting to be struck down by the forked lightning bolt of Stephen King. The other half of that will probably be aimed it you; I've seen what you've said about him.

    And, yeah... Learn all you can about the basics, the rules, and the techniques. You don't get to be Picasso by tossing paint on a canvas.

    I think you're correct about Pound.

    L.G.: I'm not saying there's not things you can't learn from other people and their experiences. I'm just saying you have to be careful of anyone that says here's THE way to write. Or most anything else, actually.

  13. I 100% agree with everything you wrote here. I first learned this as a youngster when I was close to a story which was reported in the local paper. What was written had no relation whatever to what actually happened. They have tested people's versions of the same event and everything is likely to be different because people see things differently or interpret what they see through a different frame of reference.

    So yes, prove it for yourself and although you should read/listen to advice, do it the way you feel it should be done not the way someone else does it.

  14. Wow, you were a pretty savvy teenager. I suppose it was a good lesson. Listen, consider, but don't believe everything you hear, especially for something like writing where things can be subjective.

  15. Jo: It's interesting to me just how reluctant people are to apply their own mental pressure to things. And, thinking about it now, it totally goes against everything Willie Wonka says at the end of the movie about how he needed a kid that would be willing to do everything exactly the way he does it. A kid is the absolute worst for that. Get an adult that has already lost the ability to think for himself. Just throw a rock, you'll hit one.

    Jeanne: I was a teenager that spent a lot of time reading and was always way ahead of the curve in my classes. It's not hard to be savvy when you read a lot.
    Well, unless you're reading romances.

  16. I love what your teacher did. Absolutely brilliant and valuable lesson and I'll bet everyone in his class remembers it still.

    As for tips and advice on writing, I take most of it with a grain of salt. I take what I want and leave the rest.

  17. What a great story! Thanks for sharing!

  18. Elsie: I'd like to say that people would remember it, but my experience with people is that, probably, 80% of them don't remember it.

    Kelley: Thanks for commenting!

  19. This reminds me of what Philip Larkin once said: "I can’t understand these chaps who go round American universities explaining how they write poems: it’s like going round explaining how you sleep with your wife."

    It's true. You can't tell someone to go about doing something creative by making it systematic. You'll just take away the fun from it.

  20. Flippy: Fun? There's supposed to be fun?

  21. I loved this post. I am not a religious person myself -- but I grew up in catholic school -- so I know the heavy-handed homilies and demands that are made on people with very little logic/reasoning behind it.

    Pastors are people. People make mistakes. It's our job to question what we hear, not to be disagreeable, but to be well-informed humans. That way, we can have thoughtful discussions that invoke thought, not hatred or ignorance. I try to be tolerant of people's religious beliefs... but not blind faith. We owe it to ourselves to really examine thoughts and ideas, especially when it can cause discrimination against a section of the population (i.e. some branches of Christianity that do not accept homosexuals).

    Great one, Andrew! Good read.

  22. Jean: Do you mean the "some branches" that include almost all of them?
    I don't think the Bible is a good example of extolling blind faith despite what most Christians would say. Jesus showed Thomas the scars, let him touch them, to prove he was who he said he was.

  23. I do mean almost all of them. However, in Chicago, I have a large of gay friends who are active in their church -- ranging from church-specific activities to things like plays. Whether it's a "don't ask, don't tell" these specific parishes accept who they are. So, in that sense, I do not believe it's the entire Christian faith. These people feel loved and are able to practice their faith and participate, so that is good in my book.

    My main issue with the Bible is the Old Testament. As a woman, and as a person who does seek logic, I can't believe most of it. I don't think people should be stripped of their faith by any means, but not just because they say "But it's in the Bible!" For me, there has to be more reasoning than that.

    I hope I did not offend you or your faith, but that's my opinion on the matter.

  24. Jean: Me? I'm totally not offended. That would be like me being offended that you didn't like McDonald's cheeseburgers. Not that I like McDonald's cheeseburgers. I don't hate them or anything, meaning I'd eat them if there was nothing else, but I haven't been to McDonald's in... I think I've been once in the last three years.

    It's good that there are some churches that are open, but it's still the rare exception. And, see, my issue with that is that Jesus never sent anyone away, but, somehow, most of Christianity believe ostracism is good.

  25. Loved this. Just for the record, I have read the Bible the whole way through, and studied it extensively, and teach it, and one of the main things I start a semester with is, "I'm a student like you. I'll give you my opinion of my interpretation if you ask for it, but the point is to think for yourself and come to your own conclusions based on what you've studied."
    I hate it when people blindly follow, "But so-and-so said..." For example, please don't get me started on the Christians who won't read Harry Potter...because someone said it had witchcraft in it. Um, did YOU read it? Then shut the bleep up. Please don't review/condemn a book you haven't read.
    As to "how to do it" I'm totally with you on all your points. I did enjoy Stephen King's "On Writing" and learned a LOT, though that's not how I write. My way of writing is a lot more thinking than writing, just for the record.
    Tina @ Life is Good

  26. Tina: The part I love about that is how Christians don't actually have a clue about what "witchcraft" is in the Bible.

    Having spent years and years teaching youth, I have learned that it almost doesn't matter how much you say "you need to read it yourself" or "don't trust me to know everything" or "verify the information," they're just not going to do it.