Be Interesting, Be Interested

Stop worrying about how many people follow you online and start worrying about the quality of people who follow you. Don’t waste your time reading articles about how to get more followers. Don’t waste time following people online just because you think it’ll get you somewhere. Don’t talk to people you don’t want to talk to, and don’t talk about stuff you don’t want to talk about.

If you want followers, be someone worth following. Donald Barthelme supposedly said to one of is students, ‘Have you tried making yourself a more interesting person?’ This seems like a really mean thing to say, unless you think of the word interesting the way writer Lawrence Weschler does: For him, to be ‘interest-ing’ is to be curious and attentive, and to practice ‘the continual projection of interest.’ To put it more simply: If you want to be interesting, you have to be interested (pp. 129, 131).

-Austin Kleon, Show Your Work, pp. 129, 131

I also happen to be reading Barry Hannah’s book, Boomerang, right now. The foreword actually mentions that it was Hannah who made this comment to one of his students. Interestingly, Hannah grew up in the town I now live in, and I happened to have been in contact with Barthelme’s brother just this week. Small world.

If you want to be interesting, be interested. And not just in people like you. Be interested in people, and stuff, that you aren’t naturally interested in.

Sermon: The Triumph of Sympathy

You can listen by clicking HERE. To download the mp3, hover over the media menu under the player and click ‘download.’

My latest Ecclesiastes sermon is up. I am now working through Ecclesiastes 4, in a mini-section I am calling Life Under the Bleachers (which is a nod to Barry Hannah). In this sermon we deal with Ecclesiastes 4:1-3.

Solomon looks at the world and sees a bunch of people hunched over bearing burdens on their backs with no one to pity them or come alongside to help carry the burden. In the gospel, rather than giving us pat answers, Christ gives us the best thing he can give us – true empathy and sympathy. He lives life under the sun for us.

Learn how the sympathy of Christ can empower you to change.

Honesty that Dismantles Your Own Sense of Self

Do you remember the first class?


Vividly. The assignment was to write our worst secret, the thing we would never live down, the thing that, as Gordon put it, “dismantles your own sense of yourself.” And everybody knew instantly what that thing, for them, was. We found out immediately that the stakes were very high, that we were expected to say something no one else had said, and to divulge much harder truths than we had ever told or ever thought to tell. No half-measures. He thought any of us could do it if we wanted it badly enough. And that, when I was starting out, was a great thing to hear from someone who would know.

-Amy Hempel, from The Art of Fiction No. 176, The Paris Review (Read it online HERE)

This is Amy Hempel describing her first class with her teacher, and a famous author and editor, Gordon Lish.

As I’ve devoted much of the last year to reading (so-called) minimalist authors, Amy Hempel has not only risen near the top of that list, but near the top of my list in general. The fact that she now teaches at an SEC school doesn’t hurt either.

Her short stories are worth the purchase price for the first lines alone. The first line of Tom-Rock through the Eels is one of my favorite sentences: “Are you here for all the things that I don’t have?” The Harvest beings with, “The year I began to say vahz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me.” The story she’s referencing in the interview above,  In the Cemetery where Al Jolson is Buried, has an equally good first line: “Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting.” I recommend her collected stories as highly as I recommend anything.

I want that to be the line in my comments section instead of ‘Your Thoughts:’ Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting.

The disciples of Gordon Lish, and his literary descendants, use the trauma of their lives to fuel their stories. They do not necessarily tell you about their own lives explicitly, but they will hide their lives within stories. Tom Spanbauer refers to this as “dangerous writing.”

Let me get back to the quote from her Paris Review interview (there are a ton of great interviews at that site by the way). Imagine walking into a classroom/workshop with a teacher you greatly respect. Now imagine that that teacher required that you divulge your deepest darkest secret. You can read about Amy Hempel’s in In the Cemetery where Al Jolson is Buried.

Here’s the deal as a Christian. What we do is this: we try not to tell lies. As long as we’re not fibbing we convince ourselves that we’re honest. But honesty may well involve much more than how we speak. It has to involve how we deal with ourselves.

Personally, I am so prone to bury all of my hurts, fears, and anxieties and pretend that they don’t exist. If they start creeping up I tell them to go away.

One of my good friends is going on this journey through minimalist literature with me. We each read things. We share what we read. We share how the things we read help. And so we help each other. He preached a sermon recently on 2 Cor. 1:3-5: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.

He actually referenced the above Amy Hempel quote in the sermon as evidence of the fact that some writers solicit more honesty of students than the church does of its disciples. The point of the sermon was that if we’re not honest about our hurts, then God cannot bring comfort. And it is through the comfort that God brings, which we often miss, that we are actually able to minister to others. You can listen to the sermon HERE.

In their own ways, the ‘minimalists’ use their hurts in their writing both for catharsis and to help others.

Here’s the thing for Christians, or at least for me: Are writers at writing workshops more honest than Christians? I tend to bury my pain and anxiety. I stick my fingers in my ears and say la la la really loud and hope that they’ll go away.

We are scared of digging up things that will ‘dismantle our sense of self,’ that will expose us, make us vulnerable. We think that ‘thou shalt not lie’ simply means that we don’t tell fibs. We never consider that we ought to be honest with ourselves.

We bury old hurts, they become scars, if you scratch them they start to bleed. We don’t want that. We want them to stay buried. Who would risk the danger of dismantling our sense of self?

The thing is, since we’re so content to bury it all as if it never happened, we never leave opportunity for God to truly heal the wound. Like a man with a gash that needs stitches, and he bandages it and refuses to see the doctor. We won’t dismantle our sense of self, and so we never really figure out who we can be. We never open up the possibility of the God of all comfort ministering to us so that we can minister to others.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Give Credit

If you share the work of others, it’s your duty to make sure that the creators of that work get proper credit. Crediting work in our copy-and-paste age of reblogs and retweets can seem like a futile effort, but it’s worth it, and it’s the right thing to do. You should always share the work of others as if it were your own, treating it with respect and care…

…If you fail to properly attribute work that you share, you not only rob the person who made it, you rob all the people you’ve shared it with. Without attribution, they have no way to dig deeper into the work or find more of it…

Another form of attribution that we often neglect is where we found the work that we’re sharing. It’s always good practice to give a shout-out to the people who’ve helped you stumble onto good work and also leave a bread-crumb trail that people you’re sharing with can follow back to the sources of your inspiration (pp. 84-85).

-Austin Kleon, Show Your Work, pp. 84-85

This picks up on my post from yesterday. By giving attribution for an idea, you are allowing other people to go search out the source. It allows people to search what Kleon calls ‘family trees’ instead of just one person. If I quote somebody, you can search out that person and find out about them; if you like them you can find out who influenced them and keep digging deeper.

Remember that we are not called to spread our own fame and apply that to everything.

Home Row

Random short story:

I type 85 words a minute. I had to give a presentation at work. Those things can get into your head without you realizing it. The computer I had to type on was being projected onto the wall for everybody to see. People are always impressed by my typing speed. These people are ignorant of this however.

So I put my head down to look at my paper and my fingers start sending sparks from the keyboard. Watch me fly. Three sentences in I look up and see a bunch of red squiggly lines on the wall and realize that my fingers had been off home row. All my typing was a bunch of gibberish.

Nobody told me. They wanted to see how long I’d keep going before I figured it out myself. It got a good laugh.

Why don’t we tell people when they get off home row? Why do we assume they’ll figure it out themselves?

Share Your Influences, Spread Fame

Your influences are all worth sharing because they clue people in to who you are and what you do – sometimes even more than your own work.

-Austin Kleon, Show Your Work, p. 77

I appreciate people who share their influences. I can’t tell you how much I’ve been helped by a couple of people who simply took the time to make a recommended reading list. That’s why I put one on this blog. I once threw a book across the room because it kept quoting people but didn’t give references for the quotes. By giving credit to the people that influence you, you allow others not only to see what has shaped you, but to dig deeper and maybe be shaped themselves.

There’s a C.S. Lewis quote that I would give a reference for if I knew where it came from (I got it from John Piper). Lewis is talking about the author of the Canterbury Tales. He says, “Poets are, for Chaucer, not people who receive fame, but people who give it.”

We should want to bring fame to those who have helped us. Don’t take other people’s ideas and simply make them your own. That makes those ideas die with you. Tell people where you got the ideas so that they can visit the source and be helped when you’re not around.

When you’re at a party, tell people about what your reading. Tell them about the people who are helping you. This way you’re not talking about yourself, but you’re letting them get to know you nonetheless. Share it on social media. Kleon says, “Don’t show yourself, show your work.” Instead of posting a selfie, recommend a book. Brag about a book or an author instead of bragging about yourself. More on this to come…

More on this to come…