Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Tag: inspiration

Morning Devos: Seeing God’s Floor in Exodus 24

One day, at the mountain, God tells Moses to bring the ruling class of Israel up for dinner.

And they saw the God of Israel: and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in its clearness. And upon the nobles of the children of Israel he laid not his hand: also they saw God, and did eat and drink. Exodus 24:10-11

Imagine one of the nobles, coming home after supping with God.

“What was He like?”

“His floor was…so blue. Clear as the sky.”

“But what was He like?”

“He didn’t lay a hand on me.

“…”

Big revelations and encounters cannot be easily put into words. We resort to phrases like, You had to be there, when the story doesn’t hit our hearers the way it hits us. This is probably why most worldviews, besides your own, look trite or foolish or just plain wrong.

Reality created itself by accident? That’s just stupid!

A deity with an elephant head? How silly!

God kills himself to stop himself from killing us? Give me a break!

A dinner party with Yahweh and a shiny blue floor? What a fairy-tale!

Every meaningful experience has something in it that is ineffable. When we meet something real, sometimes the only thing we can put into words is the floor.

And, man oh man, it was clear as the sky.

Idea Wisps

smoky wispsThey come to me all the time. I bet they come to you, too. Washing dishes, on the bike, cooking. A few magical wisps of a scene appear. A few exceptionally clever lines. An original plot that just begs to be allowed to grow.

I hold it in my head as hard as I dare while finishing the dishes—I’ll crush it if I crumple it too hard. And it seems intact when it’s done. Until I try to type it out.

I can’t seem to lead into it. It’s just a wisp or a few lines or a general plot. It has no context. No place to attach itself. Like a single atom, which cannot exist unless bonded with something else.

So I shake my head and smile as the wisp floats away. I don’t begrudge its uselessness. It was fun to think about. Fun to chew over. And I’ve also noticed that when the wisps are breezed away on the wind, they leave a scent that never seems to go away.

To Temia and Frances

My niece and my grandmother both died very recently.  The youngest and oldest members of the Cook family.

When a baby dies, the pain is harsh and visceral and immediate.  There is an unnatural flavour to it.  We are not wired to easily accept death in the generation below us.

When a grandmother dies, the loss is more spread out.  The end of an era.  It’s like having the house you’ve lived in all your life torn down over your head.

Things touch me in strange ways.  The way the funeral home is now a familiar place.  The way my niece’s death struck me when I noticed the shoes her body wore in the tiny coffin.  The way my grandmother’s voice floated to me while the congregation sang old hymns I grew up with.  The shifting, uncertain way I approached the pulpit to give my words at both funerals.  The scent of flowers, beautiful and arranged with love, giving a sense of life and renewal, even though they also were cut and would not live long.  The carrying of my grandmother’s coffin up and down the same stairs we used to carry her up and down when she went to church, laughing with her as we went and joked about how heavy her wheelchair was.

Memories of my grandmother.  How she gave us all Swiss Army Knives one Christmas, and we went home bleeding and grinning.  How her little white house on Spruceside Crescent as a sort of second home—a safe and warm place full of people and food and a kind of freedom that only grandparents can give.  The message she whispered as I laid her coffin down atop that deep, deep grave: “I lived well.  I loved freely.  I laughed loudly.  I made my home an open place, devoted to the making of peace and pies.  I trusted my grandchildren enough to give them knives for Christmas and I didn’t freak out when they cut themselves on them.  Remember my whole life, not just the last years since my stroke.  It’s not the last words or acts that matter.  It’s the whole thing.

The spark of light buried deep in the shock of my niece’s death.  The vibrant life that shone in her for six months, no less full for the quickness in which they were spent.  The focused and determined play my daughter had with her during the short time I was blessed to visit with her.  The serious depth that struck my son when he heard of it, took her photo off the fridge and cried as he held it—overcome with emotion at the age of seven.  The message that she whispered to me as I stood in the funeral home and stared at her shoes: “I lived well.  I never learned to waste life on things that gave me no joy.  I never learned to give up on my dreams.  I never learned cynicism or how to be judgmental.  I spent my short and beautiful life clinging to the people who loved me and letting them cling back to me.  I left the world undefeated by it—something very few people can say.

I have a deep and uncompromising contempt for death.  It is legitimate and true, I suppose, to view death as a doorway to the next grand adventure.  But that does not overcome the deep, visceral view that lives in each of us—death is a tragic and evil thing.  Death is the first and universal enemy of mankind.  And even if I look at death as a portal to another, better world, it is still my enemy.  It is still something that I will not enter willingly.  I will still rage, rage against the dying of the light.  And I will lose.  Death will take me, though not quietly.

But my grandmother Frances and my niece Temia remind me that the best way to spit in the face of death is not to fight it when it comes near, but to live while I’m alive.  Like they did.

I miss you, Grandma.  My memories of you bleed together, making my stories a sort of collage that only I can fully understand.  You were a pillar and a foundation.  My life is missing something without you in it.

I miss you, Temia.  The light in your eyes and the authentic smile on your lips.  The way you look either curious or excited in nearly every photo I look at.  You are an inspiration and I long to have some of that light and curiosity and excitement.

You both touched me in a deep place.  I’m sad you’re gone.  Thank you both for being awesome.

Fear and Breaks

I was thinking about taking a break from my book.

This is my third novel. The first one was practice. The second one was supposed to be a stand-alone fantasy. Then it got away from me. It crept toward 200k words and, as I was ending it, I realized it wasn’t ending. My book had turned itself into a series without my permission.

That scared me. I didn’t think I was ready to write a series. To go from practice to epic fantasy series in one book … terrifying. And the fear weighed on me. Hard. I felt like I needed to take a break. Needed to take some time out for, I dunno, training or something. I felt like I needed to stop writing the book and maybe do some blogging or write some poems. Or maybe throw together that cute sci-fi novella I have been thinking about. Or, since NaNoWriMo is nearly here, write up a crappy novel just so I could say I did it.

I was about to do it. I had basically decided on my way to work last night. I was going to walk away. Part of me silently wondered if I’d ever return.

Then I started asking myself what I still needed to do with this novel I’m working on. It’s already pretty big. More than 100k so far. What still needs doing?

I drew up a list.

There were four items on the list.

That couldn’t be right, I thought. It’s huge. It’s insurmountable. It’s terrifying. How could there only be four things left to do? Why do I feel so overwhelmed?

Maybe, just maybe, because fear is a dirty liar.

Maybe because fear whispers insidious words into the secret places of my mind. And those secret places spread the news: You cannot do this! And that news flows through my consciousness, taking away confidence. And they travel through my body, sucking out energy. And the words grasp at my heart, making me question my identity, my abilities.

Fear.

I’m not going to take a break. I’ve taken them before and I know what kind of damage they cause. Just like you never really hate your job until you return from vacation.

I’m a writer. It doesn’t matter that I’ve only written two books. It doesn’t matter that I’ve never made a cent from my words. I’m a writer because I write. I’m a writer because I choose to be one. And I have no need for breaks.

You know why they call them breaks?

They break things.

Writing Foreplay

No, not writing about foreplay.  That’ll be a different sort of post altogether.

You ever have a feeling of drudgery when you sit down to do your thing?  You love writing.  You always have.  But these days when you try to actually get down to work, you feel overwhelmed and utterly intimidated.  You can’t remember how you managed to write two and a half novels.  You feel like you don’t know where your story is going, despite your detailed outlines and plans.  You stare at the computer screen and feel such a revulsion toward your task that you are afraid you were never supposed to be a writer.

You’re not in the mood.

You have a headache.

You’re tired.  You have to wake up early the next morning.

You’ve forgotten how fun writing can be.  You need some foreplay.

Open a fresh document.  Write these words:

Writing can be such a drudgery.

And then write some more.  Tell the page what you think of it.  Tell the page how pissed off you are about your lack of inspiration.  Rail and complain.  Beg and plead.  Pour out all the negative feelings in your soul onto that page.  Don’t stop.  Don’t think.  Let it go.  Just let it go.

Until you stop.

Then open your novel again.  Go to the scene you have to write.  You’ll feel better.  You’ll be in the mood.  You’ve had your foreplay.  Time to take it home.

An Open Letter to my Muse

     Dear Muse,

     We need to talk.

     I want to start by saying that I’m really grateful. Honestly, I am. You’ve given me some amazing things. Two novels, dozens of stories, and so many ideas that I’ll never be able to use them all. It’s great, really.

     And those moments when you come right beside me and we really churn out the goodness? Nothing is better than that. Remember the time we sat in that coffee shop in the dead of winter? There was that chapter that we just couldn’t deal with, then suddenly, boom! There it was! Five thousand words in, like, an hour! Good times, eh?

     So, I’m totally thankful. You know I am.

     But we still need to talk.

     There’s no doubt that the work is best when you’re there doing it with me. You are the talent. You are the flash. Without you, it’s all dull and flat. No doubt at all. But, here’s the thing. I show up everyday. Every single day. I’m here while I’m working and I’m here on my days off. I’m here when I feel like it and I’m here when I don’t. I’m here whether I have the time or not. Because I treat this thing seriously.

     I really wish you’d show up more often. Because I feel like I’m doing my part.

     Now, I’m not trying to blame you or anything. I don’t know much about what a muse does when she’s not helping mortals create. Maybe you’re busy. Maybe you’ve got a family or something. Maybe there’s some muse day job that you need to deal with. I get that. But I have a family and a day job too, y’know?

     You know I love you and your work. I just wonder if maybe we could work out a schedule so that we could get together at the same time. That way we can avoid those awkward moments when you show up just as I’m drifting off to sleep or driving in the car.

     And if that’s not possible, I totally understand. If the way it is is the way it’s gotta be, I can accept that. I’m willing to work around your schedule. Just wanted to throw that out there.

     Anyway, I’m still your biggest fan. Thanks for the great run around you gave me this morning.

     Sincerely,
     Matt

No Plan B

     I call my dad Dave. Or The Dave when I think he’s cool. Which is often. He’s the cat’s meow.

     He runs his own software development company. He’s been doing it for almost as long as I’ve been alive. From a distance he looks like your average, button-pressing manager-dude (I obviously have no idea what managers do). So when I was in my mid-teens and he asked me what I wanted to do with my life, I was scared.

     I wanted to act, deep down. And I was pretty sure I was good at it. It was the only thing I wanted out of life at that time. But how do you tell your father that? Especially when your father has been working at the same office since you were born? I was thoroughly expecting one of those sit-com lectures about thinking of your future and not wasting youth on silly things like dreams and acting.

     So I hedged my bet. I told him about an interest in the arts and acting, but I quickly assured him I intended to get a business degree or something to fall back on if that dream evaporated.

     He got serious. He looked me in the eye, which was freaky because we were driving down the QEW.

     “Don’t have a backup plan,” The Dave said. “No plan B.”

     He explained that if my dream was acting, I ought to, nay, need to sacrifice everything else. If it’s acting, then throw all your chips into acting. Acting or bust.

     I was pretty shocked.

     I shouldn’t have been.

     If I had paid attention as a kid, I’d have seen that The Dave is no normal businessman. When he was young and newly married, he quit his profitable factory job to go out on his own and start a photography business with his buddy. Everyone was scared, but his dad told him to go for it. His dream changed as the years went on and it evolved into the software company it is today. But the point is, he chased the dream and cut his safety net. He had no plan B. And he won. He’s one of the only people I know who loves going to work in the morning.

     My dreams have changed since that talk. But I never forgot what he said. And I think it’s still true. If my dream is writing (and it is), I’ll spare no effort or expense to bring it to life. I’ll sacrifice time and responsibilities on its altar. I’ll refuse to hedge my bets. Because hedging your bet is insulting to the dream. It’s like signing a prenuptial agreement. It feels safe, but it’s ugly and false betrays the sacred vow you’re taking.

     Find the dream. Marry it, forsaking all others.

When Your Story Isn’t True

    I was stuck.

    Ever been stuck?

    On a creative project?

    It’s not writer’s block. It’s something different. Something elusive and singularly frustrating. A large, pulsating tumor of Resistance.

    This particular Resistance was centered around a certain section of the story. It pricked at me because I knew exactly what needed to happen. I tried every strategy I had heard of to break it.

    I tried outlining it to death. Useful, but the Resistance stayed.

    I tried leaving it and rewriting other parts of the book. Productive, but the Resistance stayed.

    I tried reading lots of fantasy books to jump-start my inspiration. Fun, but the Resistance stayed.

    I figured it out last night.

    I was bored. Restless. Distracted.

    That meant my story wasn’t quite true.

    You see;

Every good story is true. Even if it never happened.

So if the story is not good, it’s not true. And there are two possibilities when you find that your story is not true.

    (a) You have added false things to your story. Is there something false about your plot, characters or world? Falseness stands out in a story like the sound of nails on a board. Find the false and cut it out.

    (b) There is some important truth missing.

    It was (b). There was something missing. Once I realized it I immediately knew what it was. Scenes. Characters. An entire sub-plot. It’s a lot of stuff. Maybe ten thousand words of stuff. Or more.

    Now, if this was any other job I’d be upset about it. I’d be tempted not to add it, because of all the work it’s going to be. It could be a full two weeks of writing. And that’s if all my writing sessions are good ones.

    But I wasn’t upset.

    I wasn’t discouraged.

    I was elated.

    It doesn’t matter how much work a good story needs. I’m not too upset that George R.R. Martin took 5 years to write A Dance With Dragons. It was a good story. A true story. It was worth 5 years.

    And my story will be worth however long it takes to write.

    Will yours?

Thoughts on a Cup of Tea

     Stop.

     Just for a minute there.

     It’s not that you’re doing it wrong. I don’t really think there is a wrong way to do it. But maybe there is another way. A way that will be better for you.

     First, don’t pour the water while it’s boiling. Let it cool down a bit first. Just a minute. It’ll still be hot. And the taste will come out better.

     While you’re waiting, think about something lovely in the room you’re in. Smile at it.

     Now pour.

     Watch it for a bit. See the colour seep from the bag and stain the water. What did you use? Black? Green? Herbal? Try green. It’s good for you and, if you make it the way I do, it’s not even a little bitter and tastes like something divine.

     How long are you going to let it steep? Try steeping for three minutes or less. It won’t be as strong, but it won’t be bitter, either. That’s the best kind. It’s not strong, but it’s not afraid of being weak, either.

     Are you just going to drink it? Just like that?

     Try sitting on the floor. Cross your legs. Put your cup in front of you. Is your room quiet? Can it be made quiet? Can it be made still? Just for a minute. Take your cup in two hands. I know you can lift it with one, but two is better. If you only use one, you’ll be tempted to multitask. And multitasking does not lead to peace.

     Bring the cup to your mouth, but don’t drink yet. Don’t smell it, either. Rather, breathe it. Slowly. Breathe it again. Can you taste it already? Can you feel it’s warmth in your chest? Nice, isn’t it? Close your eyes and breathe it for a minute.

     Put it to your lips, and take a sip.

     Smile.

     That’s how to have a cup of tea.