Friday, October 07, 2005

Death to Sin

(This is my conversion story for the Faith in Fiction short story contest. Let me know what you think.)

Facing our mortality wasn’t something I wanted to do, but Deon was getting impatient. “Man, let’s get in there,” he said. “Visiting hours is almost over.”

I just sat in the driver’s seat, unable to move. I was filled with mixed emotions, unsure if I wanted to pay my last respects to Stevie Warren, a former high school teammate. He was a year younger than Deon and me, but he was the starting point guard.

He wasn’t really a friend, and I wouldn’t say that I necessarily liked him. Basketball was the only thing we had in common. And despite our differences, going to the funeral home was the right thing to do.

“There goes Bridget Covey,” Deon said with a gasp. We’ve been out of high school for five years and he still can’t say Bridget’s name without gasping. She was the most beautiful girl in school. The problem was that after junior high she knew it and didn’t bother to talk to the guys her own age. She only dated upper classmen, then college boys. She was too good for us.

“All right,” I said, stepping out of the car. “Let’s go.” I straightened my suit jacket and checked my zipper.

“Oh, I see how it is,” Deon said, laughing but covering up his mouth with his fist. “Bridget Covey shows up and you’re ready to go in.”

I couldn’t help but smile. “No. She won’t even remember us.”

“Are you kidding? We were basketball stars. Every girl knew who we were.”

“Not Bridget.” I lowered my voice as we neared the entrance. “And we weren’t stars. We never even had a winning season.”

Deon opened the door and waited for me. “But when you’ve got even a little game, that makes you a play-er.” That was a reason why Deon had gotten along with Stevie better than I did. They were both partiers and girl crazy.

When we reached the sign-in book we both dropped the banter and took on a more somber appearance. Perhaps the banter was just a way of dealing with our own immortality, of seeing a peer dead before his time. We were too young to think about death; we still had our entire lives ahead of us. But in one bad turn, we were facing the reality of our mortality.

We stepped into the chapel. The casket sat at the end of a long isle. A few people were gathered around the casket. Others sat in the chairs and talked quietly. Every once in a while a wail filled the room, but no one looked or stared at the person wailing. Everyone was respectful.

“You guys okay?” asked Brother Davis, a youth pastor at the Methodist Church and an assistant coach when we played. He shook each of our hands and smiled. “I’m sure the family will be glad to see you guys.”

As we walked down the isle, I tried to remember his family, but I couldn’t. They didn’t sit with the other parents and Stevie always bummed a ride home after practice, at least until he got his license.

We stood silently in line, each of us with our own thoughts. I tried to think of something good about Stevie and our years together on the team, but I couldn’t. We were completely different people. He drank a lot and partied. He went out with girls for only one reason and kept them around as long as they were amicable. I didn’t drink, only went to parties thrown by my Christian friends and did a lot with my church youth group. He sometimes dated a girl from my youth group, but he never came to church with her. That would have broken the cool image that he tried so hard to maintain.

The group around the casket broke up and Bridget Long turned and walked out. She wiped a tear in the corner of her eye. “Hi, Jay. Deon,” she whispered as she passed.

“Hey, Bridget,” Deon replied.

I was able to throw up my hand, but that was it. I was too stunned. In four years of high school I’d never heard Bridget say my name or even look my way. I watched her walk out of the room before realizing I was doing so. I just shook my head. Sometimes it’s nice to be wrong about someone.

We stepped up to the casket and I shook hands with Stevie’s mother. There was no father, at least not one at the casket. “He was such a good boy,” she wept. She wrapped an arm around me and one around Deon. “He was so full of life.”

I looked down at his body. The make-up on his face was dark, to try and keep the dark tone of his tanning-bed body. He wore a gray suit and tie. Obviously there were no signs of the bullet hole in his chest, but I still thought about it, picturing him on the sidewalk, a slug shattering his chest and piercing his heart. They said he fell back into his girlfriend’s arms and she watched him die. They said it was a drug deal gone bad. There was no mention of that in the papers, but there were plenty of whispers. The young adults knew the truth, even if the adults were in denial.

His mother sighed. “At least he’s in a better place.”

Better place? Stevie split hell wide open.

Then it hit me. It was a Saturday morning practice, late in the season. We came out to shoot around before practice and noticed a tall black guy putting on a dunking exhibition. We were told to sit in a semi-circle along the top of the key. I don’t remember the guy’s name, but he was from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at Ball State University. For ten minutes he put on a dunking display. Then he stopped and asked if he could talk about something. Of course, he had our full attention. He went on to talk about God and our life on earth. He compared life to a football game and how we are fumbled into the world. We are automatically picked up and head the wrong direction, toward Satan’s goal. If we don’t get turned around, at the end of life Satan has won. But if we turn our lives around and go toward God’s goal, we will spend eternity in Heaven. Then he talked about Nicodemus asking about being born again and Jesus explaining a spiritual rebirth. He offered that spiritual rebirth to us. I remember his speech well because I used it myself when I later spoke at a youth rally. He had us bow our heads and repeat after him. I sat quietly because I was already saved, but there were a few voices praying after him. And the one voice that I recognized above all others was Stevie’s. I was amazed. Of all the people on the team, I thought he was the one who would make fun of the whole presentation and make sarcastic remarks to those of us who were Christians. But there he was, bowing his head and praying the sinner’s prayer.

Deon left us and went to talk to some of the family. I stayed there with Mrs. Warren, my arm around her shoulders, my eyes staring at the person I knew.

“He sure loved playing ball with you boys,” she whispered.

After that day at practice, I guess I expected Stevie to completely change, but he didn’t. He continued to cuss and womanize and party, but he did start going to church with Brother Davis. He became an active part of their youth group on Sundays, even if he was drunk the night before. I wish I could say we became friends, but we didn’t. We were still worlds apart. But standing there at his casket, his mother’s arm around me, I wondered how far apart we really were. Yes, I had my own sins and vices, which maybe weren’t as outwardly destructive as Stevie’s sins, but they were there just the same.

And I remembered the words repeated so often in church, “Whosoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” I heard Stevie call upon the name of the Lord. I heard him asking for forgiveness of his sins, for Jesus to come into his heart and life. Was Stevie now in a better place? Who am I to decide? I’ll find out soon enough.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

In Remembrance September 11, 2001

When I learned of the attacks on New York I sat down and began to write in my journal everything that was happening. I knew it would one day be an important piece to my children. The next day I also made my students write on it. I urged them to keep that writing forever.

It was a moment that no one will ever forget, but I didn't want to forget the little things about that day. I've turned my journal into a creative non-fiction piece. I don't think it's anymore special than the story you have to tell and especially the stories from those who witnessed the catastrophes first hand. But it is my story and what I went through on that fateful day. I have not filtered the words through four years of knowledge. I have stayed true to what I felt and experienced that day. Perhaps this will inspire you to post what you wrote in your journal that day or to recollect what happened for your future generations. Let me know if you post your piece so that we may share these memories together.

It was a bright and sunny day. The first inklings of the cool fall air had blown in and for the first time in five weeks, we were somewhat comfortable at school. September 11th was an important day for us at Northeastern High School in eastern Indiana. It was the first day of the state ISTEP testing. And my students, the sophomores, were taking the test to qualify for graduation. Without a certain score, they would not be allowed to graduate from high school. Of course, they would get a few more chances over the next two years. And then if they didn’t pass, they would only be given a diploma of participation, a piece of paper that meant nothing for the twelve years they had spent in school.

J-, one of my underachieving I-don’t-care-about-anything students from the previous year, came up to me before school started and asked me if I heard the news. He said a plane crashed into the World Trade Center. He thought it was funny and I told him that it was very serious and the people on the plane probably died. He laughed and said, “It was probably a bunch of stupid tourists.” I shook my head, not so much at him but at the understanding of why the other students found him annoying.

Later that morning another teacher relieved me so that I could take a break. It was somewhere around 9:30 central time. I went to the lounge to call my wife because I needed to call a grocery store chain about a trip we won to the Greek Islands. Two interns were in the lounge doing homework and I asked them how they were doing.

“Not too good,” Mr. Griffin, the history intern, said.

“We’re listening to the news,” Mrs. Thomas, the math intern, said. I smiled because I figured she meant they had to listen to the computer technician’s radio blaring in the next room. The technician usually had Rush Limbaugh blaring from his small office.

As I dialed the phone, they filled me in. They said two planes had crashed into both buildings of the World Trade Center and another plane crashed into the Pentagon. About that time Brooke answered the phone and was relieved that I called. She had been watching the news all morning. She began to fill me in even more. Since I was talking to three different people and relaying messages back and forth, I can’t remember who said what. The facts that we knew at the time were that three planes had been hijacked. Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center and one crashed into the Pentagon. A fourth plane was unaccounted for.

As Brooke spoke, the World Trade Center building collapsed and the estimation was something like 150,000 were dead all together. All of the airports were shut down and people working in tall buildings in other large cities were evacuated. The White House and other government buildings had also been evacuated.

While I was away from my room, the school counselor came by and told the other teacher not to let the students know what was going on, so it wouldn’t affect their testing. When I was coming back from break I was stopped by the French teacher. He was given the message by the counselor, but he didn’t know what she was talking about. I filled him in on what I knew and it was apparent to him that we were going to war.

I returned to the room and sat quietly, feeling the tears building up and working their way through my body. I asked myself what all of this meant and where we were heading. When the students finished testing that morning, I filled them in on what had happened. They seemed a little cut off from what happened and didn’t seem to understand why I was so upset. I chalked it up to them being young and thinking the world centers around them. I knew it would sink in later, when they saw the news. At least, I hoped it would sink in.

After lunch we were able to watch CNN on the school TVs. We watched replays of the first tower on fire and the second plane crashing into the second tower. We watched the federal agents searching for the fourth plane that crashed into a Pennsylvania forest. We saw the Pentagon with only four standing sides. And the same two questions raced through our minds: how could this have happened and who did it?

Those two questions permeated the discussions for the rest of the afternoon. Most people believed Bin Laden was behind it, but we still held to the fact that someone else could have done it. One girl in my advanced class said that her father used to be in the military and he got some kind of newsletter or paper just last week that said the Chinese had turned their missiles toward us and we turned 250,000 toward them. She believed that China and Russia were behind it.

After school activities were cancelled and the principal encouraged all of the students to go home, be with their families and reflect upon what happened. I called Brooke to let her know I was coming home early and she was glad. She said there was a scare with the gas prices and people were saying it was going up to three or four dollars. She also said we needed milk. I told her to go ahead and get gas as long as it wasn’t that high and to get the milk.

When I got home she said she got the last gallon of milk and didn’t get gas because the lines at the pump went all the way around the block. We watched the news and Dad called. He said he just came from the gas station and they said prices were going to $4 a gallon at midnight. Since I drove 60 miles a day, I figured I’d better fill up my car and Brooke’s van at the same time. As I was going to get gas, I heard over the radio that explosions were being reported in Afghanistan. Afghanistan had been harboring Bin Laden. The newscasters speculated that we had begun to bomb them.

We waited in a long line at the gas station. One worker had to come out and direct traffic. We paid $1.91 per gallon. By the time we got to Mom and Dad’s after getting gas, the TV was showing Kabul and saying that some military camp in Northern Afghanistan was claiming responsibility.

A lot of things happened that it’s hard for me to say when or in what order these things happened. Major League Baseball cancelled all games. Amusement parks shut down; busses and trains shut down. Thursday night’s college football games were postponed or cancelled. The entire country seemed to be at a stand still.

Once home my father-in-law George called Brooke from Columbus. He had been sent home from a meeting. He told her that we should just cancel our trip to Greece. Brooke’s mom, Jean, called later that night and also told her that we shouldn’t go.

We watched the TV for the rest of the night. We watched the senators and congressmen sing on the steps of the capital. We watched with anticipation President Bush’s speech to the country. He only spoke for about five minutes. I’m not sure it was some great eloquent speech that consoled the free world, but what he did say in the middle of trying to comfort us was that we would make no distinction between the terrorist and the countries that protect them.

Around 10:00 PM we got tired of watching the same things over and over, so we turned to a BBC broadcast to get the British take. The newscaster seemed a little cynical about the U.S. We also watched the CBC to get the Canadian view. They seemed really upset, as if it had happened to them. They showed schools watching the news and children crying, a stark opposite to the reaction of the students in my class.

At the end of the day, as I reflected upon all of the information I received, these were my thoughts. The terrorists got exactly what they wanted. They wanted to disrupt the U.S. economy and that’s what happened. All public transportation stopped. The stock market closed. All sporting events were cancelled. Amusement parks and attractions were closed. Federal buildings and tall skyscrapers were evacuated. Our stocks in foreign markets took a hit. As Americans we were outraged and demanded retribution. And we called on God to comfort those who had lost loved ones in the attacks.

May those prayers never cease.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Little Pieces of Advice to New Writers 1

Although I'm not world-renowned, I've been around the block a while in the writing world. I've learned little things along the way that may help others as they begin their foray into writing and hunting for publishers. I'll try to post more of these as I think of them or as certain questions arise as I surf around the Internet.

Most magazines are good about getting back to you, but I have had my share of no replies, or I'll get a subscription form in the mail and nothing else. Then I'm not sure if I'm just on their mailing list now, or if that was supposed to be a rejection. Also, things change quickly for publishers and I would suggest checking websites before sending something out just in case something has changed. The Writer's Market guide will say one thing, but you'll find that the guidelines on the website say something different.

And just because a Christian publication accepts short stories, don't assume they accept fiction short stories. To me, short story means fiction, but it must also mean a true story that is short. Beats me, but I've run into that.

The best advice I can probably give is pick a publication you're familiar with or read a lot of issues of one and write a story with that specific magazine in mind. The artist in me cringes at that, but I've done it three times and all three were accepted on the first try.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Grisham - The Importance of Reading

My favorite author is John Grisham. I had the opportunity to read “People in the News: John Grisham” by Robyn M. Weaver. At one point Grisham says, “Throughout my school years, I read constantly and became familiar with what books were getting published. As a result, I came to believe that my story idea could also be published” (22).

Anyone who wants to be a writer has to read and read a lot. In college we had to read a lot of old stuff, so my stories either came out sounding old or didn’t compare to the greats I was reading. Then a couple of years ago when I began working on “The Sixth Commandment” I realized that I could write something just as good as what’s out there. And my goal for sometime has been to write about preachers the way Grisham writes about lawyers. (Although that plan is starting to shift.)

At the Blue Ridge Conference a couple of years ago one of the authors made the comment that the preacher as a lead character was over-done. I haven’t read a book about any. At the same conference an agent said that I had to have a strong female protagonist as well because the market is made up of women. Even if it’s a man’s book, which it was, men won’t buy it for themselves. A woman will buy it for him. So the book has to appeal to women as well. Suddenly, I was reading every Nicholas Spark book, which I enjoyed. I picked Spark because he was a male romance writer.

Now I think I have a grasp on the whole romance thing. I guess only time will tell, as I get ready to send the book out.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Non-Fiction in Fiction Part 3

A couple of paragraphs later, Miller continues: “For the true writer, though, however close the events may be to his life, there is some distance, some remove, that allows for the shaping of the work. The shaping, after all, is what it’s all about. Every reader can sense the difference between a writer who embodies meaning through events he describes and the writer who seems simply mired in those events. It is that struggle for meaning that lets the writer escape the tyranny of what really happened and begin to dream his fictional dream.”

This sums up what I have been talking about. When I was working on a short story in college that was based on a real event, I was having a hard time. The professor kept telling me that the story was in this or that. I would say, “But that’s not how it happened.” And he said, “But that’s where the story is.” And he was so right. The facts of what happened the night I tore my ACL is good enough for an essay, but not very appealing as a short story. The real story was in my two girlfriends showing up at the hospital. Consequently, I have that story lined up as part of a young adult novel, but it could be good as a short story.

End Note:
Miller, Sue. “Virtual Reality: The Perils of Seeking a Novelist’s Facts in Her Fiction.” Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Non-fiction in Fiction Part 2

Sue Miller goes on to say, “Surely the writer’s job is to make relevant the world she wishes to write about. How? By writing well and carefully and powerfully. By using humor, as Cheever did; or violence, as O’Conner did; or rue, as Chekhov did, to make the territory of her imagination compelling and somehow universal. And that hold true whether the territory of the imagination is close to the literal truth of her life or far from it.”

Even in college, I was being taught to write what I know. I don’t know if the professors meant to come across a certain way, but they told me that I had nothing interesting to write about because I hadn’t lived this godless life, full of passion, lust and adventure. I wanted to say, “What about imagination? What about the hours I spent making up stories with my Star Wars figures? What about all of the times my bike was a horse, or a space ship, or a motorcycle? My imagination is my life and I can experience anything I choose. I don’t have to fly in outer space to imagine what it was like for Luke. I doubt that George Lucas has been into space. And his purpose in writing Star Wars wasn’t to give the details of life in space. He was telling a story and making it believable for the readers/viewers. As long as the reader buys in to what you’re saying, it doesn’t matter if you’ve been to that place or experienced that thing. What ultimately matters is the story and what the reader takes away from that story.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Non-fiction in Fiction Part 1

Sue Miller in “Virtual Reality: The Perils of Seeking a Novelist’s Facts in Her Fiction” says:

The fact is, you can make a good story of anything, anything at
all. What’s hard – what’s interesting about a story is not so
much the thing that’s in it, but what’s made of that thing. And
then, of course, the making itself. But there is no necessary life
to have lived or scene to have witnessed. No experiential sine
qua non.

We live in a time of non-fictional writing. People too often want to know where a story came from, what event in our lives, or from what person in our lives. When I was at a writer’s conference a couple of years ago, the first agent I met with asked me, “Why are you the person to write this book?” I wanted to yell out, “Because it’s my story and my imagination!” Instead I told her how the story was based on the events that happened to my father. However, my father will have a real hard time seeing himself in the character of Michael Jameson. Michael isn’t my dad. Michael is from somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind, as is Judd Simmons, the main villain of the story. The main event is based on something that really happened, but it’s all fiction. It’s from my imagination, which I believe is where true art is found.

We’ll continue this discussion tomorrow.