Josh Philpot

Theology, the Church, and Music

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A Few Awesome Quotes from “On Writing” by Stephen King

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Some time ago I came across Stephen King’s book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, which is often recommended reading for would-be writers. I finally picked it up a few weeks ago and enjoyed every page. I’ve never read a Stephen King novel, although I’m familiar with a number of movie adaptations of his novels like The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redeption, which are some of the best films I’ve ever seen. Just great storytelling and acting throughout.

Below are some of my favorite quotes from On Writing. There is some PG language in the book, so I’ve blanked out those below:

“Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up” (37).

Quoting an editor from one of King’s first writing jobs (as a local sports writer): “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story… When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story… Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right—as right as you can, anyway—it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it” (57).

“Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough” (74).

On lessons learned from his first big success (the novel, Carrie), King came to the realization “that stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel [explicit] from a sitting position” (77–78).

“You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair—the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick [explicit] and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page” (106).

“Put your vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it. (You’ll be doing that as you read, of course … but that comes later.) One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed. Make yourself a solemn promise right now that you’ll never use ‘emolument’ when you mean ‘tip’ and you’ll never say John stopped long enough to perform an act of excretion when you mean John stopped long enough to take a [explicit]. If you believe ‘take a [explicit]’ would be considered offensive or inappropriate by your audience, feel free to say John stopped long enough to move his bowels (or perhaps John stopped long enough to push). I’m not trying to get you to talk dirty, only plain and direct. Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful. If you hesitate and cogitate, you will come up with another word—of course you will, there’s always another word—but it probably won’t be as good as your first one, or as close to what you really mean” (117–18).

Must you write complete sentences each time, every time? Perish the thought” (120).

“The adverb is not your friend… I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops” (124, 125).

“I am convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing… Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation. Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sorts of writing as ‘good’ and other sorts as ‘bad,’ is a fearful behavior. Good writing is also about making good choices when it comes to picking the tools you plan to work with” (127, 128).

“I would argue that the paragraph, not the sentence, is the basic unit of writing—the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words” (134).

The two theses of On Writing: “The first is that good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style) and then filling the third level of your toolbox with the right instruments. The second is that while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one” (142).

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut” (145).

“You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you” (146).

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that” (147).

"Talent renders the whole idea of rehearsal meaningless; when you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening (or reading, or watching), every outing is a bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy. Perhaps even ecstatic. That goes for reading and writing as well as for playing a music instrument, hitting a baseball, or running the four-forty. The sort of strenuous reading and writing program I advocate—four to six hours a day, every day—will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy doing these things and have an aptitude for them; in fact, you may be following such a program already. If you feel you need permission to do all the reading and writing your little heart desires, however, consider it hereby granted by yours truly.

The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order. Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor" (150).

“When I’m asked for ‘the secret of my success’ (an absurd idea, that, but impossible to get away from), I sometimes say there are two: I stayed physically healthy (at least until a van knocked me down by the side of the road in the summer of 1999), and I stayed married” (154).

“Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It’s not just a question of how-to, you see; it’s also a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can learn only by doing” (173).

“Murder your darlings” (197).

“I most often see changes to add the grace-notes and ornamental touches after my basic storytelling job is done. Once in awhile it comes earlier; not long after I began The Green Mile and realized my main character was an innocent man likely to be executed for the crime of another, I decided to give him the initials J.C., after the most famous innocent man of all time. I first saw this done in Light in August (still my favorite Faulkner novel), where the sacrificial lamb is named Joe Christmas. Thus death-row inmate John Bowes [as King originally conceived him] became John Coffey. I wasn’t sure, right up to the end of the book, if my J.C. would live or die. I wanted him to live because I liked and pitied him, but I figured those initials couldn’t hurt, one way or the other” (197, in a footnote at the bottom of this page, King writes, “A few critics accused me of being symbolically simplistic in the matter of John Coffey’s initials. And I’m like, ‘What is this, rocket science?’ I mean, come on, guys.”)

“2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck” (222).

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy” (269).

Written by Josh Philpot

January 21, 2014 at 8:20 pm

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Diabetes and Google

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I’m a diabetic (Type 1), which means that I’m insulin dependent. I didn’t find this out until I was 24 (three weeks after my wedding day), and in these last 8 years I’ve learned how to manage diabetes in a way that keeps me healthy. Knowing how much insulin my body needs is based on the amount of glucose in my blood stream. Therefore, having a top notch glucose monitor is a key part of my life, and of any diabetic. Today I learned that Google has developed a new contact lens that has an embedded glucose sensor, a wireless transmitter, and a tiny antenna, all tucked high enough on the lens to not interfere with the wearer’s vision.

Lens

Whenever I hear about new technology for diabetics, I perk up, although with a fair amount of skepticism (and, regrettably, cynicism—after all, these products are made and distributed by big pharmaceutical companies). I think my skepticism about this technology is justified. Google has already too much access to user information, and has been known to aggregate tons of personal data from their users for marketing purposes.

Although I appreciate Google’s creative initiative, given the fact that 1 in 19 on the planet are diabetics (nearly 400 million with Type 2 diabetes alone), perhaps a better approach would be a cost-effective product that allows diabetics to quickly monitor their blood glucose levels and store the data in an organized and helpful way. Contact lenses with computer chips is just an expensive luxury, something James Bond would have in his eyes, not John Doe.

This leads a big issue in our day that Google illustrates so well: Google thinks of people not as people but avatars. People are not humans for Google, but cyborgs who only operate in the space of internet data and who need their products in order to survive. When Google asks, “What is one of the world’s great health needs, and what can we do to solve it?”, their answers lies in a new elegant technological fix, like a contact lens that stores data. The same problem is reflected in Google Glasses, too, which essentially removes all social interaction of normal human beings in favor of digital interactions: people becoming machines. “Wearable tech,” they say. Cyberdyne, I say.

Here’s a short video explanation: http://www.youtube.com/embed/z7QzaV6zraI

Written by Josh Philpot

January 18, 2014 at 3:50 am

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Stephen King on Dressing Up Vocabulary

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From Stephen King’s excellent book, On Writing:

One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. […] Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful. If you hesitate and cogitate, you will come up with another word – of course you will, there’s always another word – but it probably won’t be as good as your first one, or as close to what you really mean.

The book is only $10.38 on Kindle.

Written by Josh Philpot

January 3, 2014 at 3:09 am

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‘A Speck at Sea’

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Riveting story by Paul Tough for the New York Times Magazine:

Looking back, John Aldridge knew it was a stupid move. When you’re alone on the deck of a lobster boat in the middle of the night, 40 miles off the tip of Long Island, you don’t take chances. But he had work to do: He needed to start pumping water into the Anna Mary’s holding tanks to chill, so that when he and his partner, Anthony Sosinski, reached their first string of traps a few miles farther south, the water would be cold enough to keep the lobsters alive for the return trip. In order to get to the tanks, he had to open a metal hatch on the deck. And the hatch was covered by two 35-gallon Coleman coolers, giant plastic insulated ice chests that he and Sosinski filled before leaving the dock in Montauk harbor seven hours earlier. The coolers, full, weighed about 200 pounds, and the only way for Aldridge to move them alone was to snag a box hook onto the plastic handle of the bottom one, brace his legs, lean back and pull with all his might.

And then the handle snapped.

Read the rest here.

Written by Josh Philpot

January 3, 2014 at 2:44 am

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How One Woman Escaped the Mormon Temple

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Christianity Today has a fascinating story from a former Mormon and BYU professor who converted to Christianity after her son pleaded with her to read the New Testament:

In John’s gospel, I read, “These are the very scriptures that testify of me yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” Salvation did not require the Mormon Church, only Jesus. I began to see clearly that Mormonism taught a different gospel than what the Bible taught.

When I read what Jesus said in John 6:44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them,” I knew I was being drawn—sucked, pulled, conveyed, transported. In physics, an event horizon is a boundary beyond which the gravitational pull is so powerful that there is no escape. This was my event horizon. As I read the Bible, my appetite for God grew exponentially. I felt myself drawn to him at an ever-increasing speed.

Then, on a chilly October evening in 2006, Michael and I settled in with Katie in our basement to watch the movie Luther. My heart pounded as I learned of the reformer’s struggle against the Catholic Church. I seemed to be facing a similar struggle: Did I believe the Mormon system of obedience to laws and ordinances would secure my forgiveness? Or did I believe what the Bible taught, that Jesus alone was the Way, the Truth, and the Life?

Read the rest here.

Written by Josh Philpot

December 26, 2013 at 7:40 pm

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J.I. Packer on Christmas

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Here is J.I. Packer, in Knowing God, chapter 5

But in fact the real difficulty, the supreme mystery with which the gospel confronts us, does not lie here at all [he was discussing the atonement, resurrection, and Gospel miracles]. It lies not in the Good Friday message of atonement, nor in the Easter message of the resurrection, but in the Christmas message of Incarnation. The really staggering Christmas claim is that Jesus of Nazareth was God made man–that second person of the Godhead became the “second man” (1 Cor 15:47), determining human destiny, the second representative head of the race, and that he took humanity without loss of deity, so that Jesus of Nazareth was a truly and fully divine as he was human.

Here are two mysteries for the price of one–the plurality of persons within the unity of God, and the union of Godhead and manhood in the person of Jesus. It is here, in the thing that happened at the first Christmas, that the profoundest and most unfathomable depths of the Christian revelation lie. “The Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14); God became man; the divine Son became a Jew; the Almighty appeared on earth as a helpless human baby, unable to do more than lie and stare and wriggle and make noises, needing to be fed and changed and taught to talk like any other child. And there was no illusion or deception in this: the babyhood of the Son of God was a reality. The more you think about it, the more staggering it gets. Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as is this truth of the Incarnation (Knowing God, IVP, 1973, p53).

Written by Josh Philpot

December 24, 2013 at 3:44 pm

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Nifty Guitar Tuner

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Guitarists will love this: TronicalTune is a tuner that attaches to the the end of your guitar and automatically tunes the strings:

Tune

Tune1

I personally enjoy tuning my guitars, and since this tuner runs around $299 per unit and involves removing the tuning pegs on my current guitar (a feature I actually like), I’m happy to pass on this. That said, for those who do a lot of gigging and who play in a lot of differing tunings, the TronicalTune is a nifty option.

Written by Josh Philpot

December 24, 2013 at 4:34 am

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A Christmas Story with a Dragon

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From Tony Reinke:

I discuss this passage in my book Lit! to show the spiritual value of dragons (see pages 85–86). But here’s the gist of Revelation 12:1–6 in the words of D. A. Carson in his outstanding book Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus (Crossway, 2010):

The scene is grotesque. The dragon stands in front of the woman. She is lying there in labor. Her feet are in the stirrups, writhing as she pushes to give birth, and this disgusting dragon is waiting to grab the baby as it comes out of the birth canal and then eat it (12:4). The scene is meant to be grotesque: it reflects the implacable rage of Satan against the arriving Messiah.

Do we not know how this works out in historical terms? The first bloodbath in the time of Jesus takes place in the little village of Bethlehem — in the slaughter of the innocents as Herod tries to squash this baby’s perceived threat to his throne.

Jesus is saved by Joseph, who is warned by God in a dream and flees to Egypt. Herod, in a rage, “gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under” (Matt. 2:16). Satan later manifests his rage against Jesus in the temptation, and he manifests his rage against the church in every temptation. Satan’s rage manifests itself when some people try to push Jesus over a cliff, and others take up stones to stone him. Satan is after Jesus and wants to destroy him by any means possible.

Behind all these attempts to destroy Jesus is the red dragon, and behind the red dragon is God himself, bringing to pass his purposes even in the death of his Son to bring about our redemption.

But the text does not go on to talk about Jesus’ triumph here, not because this book has no interest in him but because the triumph of Jesus has already been spectacularly introduced in Revelation 4–5. The great vision of Revelation 4–5 controls the entire book. There we learn that Christ, this male child, is the only one who is fit to open the scroll in God’s right hand to bring about all of God’s purposes for judgment and blessing. He is the Lion and the Lamb, the reigning king and the bloody sacrifice, the heir to David’s throne yet the one who appears from God’s throne. Because of his struggle, men and women from every tongue and tribe and people and nation are redeemed. Countless millions gather around him who sits on the throne and the Lamb and sing a new song of adoring, grateful, praise.

But here in Revelation 12 we move from Jesus’ birth to his ascension; we run through his entire life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension in two lines: he “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter” and “was snatched up to God and to his throne” (v. 5). The male child, Jesus, is born and snatched to heaven. In other words, this passage focuses not on Christ’s triumph — that is presupposed — but on what happens to the woman and her children, the ones left behind. And that is us: the messianic community, the people of God, the blood-bought church of Jesus Christ. This side of the cross they are described as “those who obey God’s commands and hold the testimony of Jesus” (v. 17). The woman (the messianic community) is the focus of the passage.

Written by Josh Philpot

December 23, 2013 at 9:13 pm

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The Weakness of Evil is that it Cannot Conquer Weakness

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The weakness of evil is that it cannot conquer weakness. No matter how much power evil has, it is always defeated by the free, loving renunciation of power. It can be defeated in Middle-earth as it was on Calvary. . . . Evil is limited in power; it cannot use weakness. It is limited to pride; it cannot use humility. It is limited to inflicting suffering and death; it cannot use suffering and death. It is limited to selfishness; it cannot use selflessness. But good can.

– Peter Kreeft (The Philosophy of Tolkien, 184-85)

Written by Josh Philpot

December 2, 2013 at 2:56 pm

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McDonald’s Theory

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I’m in the middle of writing my dissertation (literally—I’m right in the middle). It’s tough to manage, to be sure. But like a lot of my doctoral writing, I’m finding that the hardest part is getting started. I feel like everything must be perfect beforehand. My desk has to be perfectly clean and organized. My writing app has to be the most perfect one. My Zotero window has to be expertly placed. My Accordance window has to be perfect with the appropriate amount of tabs and all the texts in the right order. Obsessive compulsive, no?

When it comes down to actually writing, I sometimes get the feeling that every sentence needs to be perfect too, as if I cannot even begin writing a new chapter of the dissertation unless the perfect sequence of words spills out on the page. This is ridiculous, really.

This week I came across two authors that have written about this problem. I have no frame of reference for Anne Lamott’s work, but in a book about writing she makes a key point—that we should get over our intimidation of the blank page and give ourselves permission to write crappy first drafts:

“For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really sh—y first drafts. The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. […] Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper.”

Writing a crappy first draft gives you something that you wouldn’t have had otherwise if you waited for all of the “perfect” set of circumstances, and that’s momentum. That’s what you need when you’re starting with nothing—like a blank page. Stephen King wrote that fear is at the root of most bad writing, or non-writing in this case. And he’s right. If I can get something down on paper—even if it’s horrible—then I have momentum to continue. And I shouldn’t fear it. After all, no one will see my first draft, and I’m much more capable of turning that horrible first draft into something presentable during the rewriting/editing process. Momentum is the key.

Author/entrepreneur Seth Godin makes this same point. He says,

“the only path to amazing runs directly through not-yet-amazing. But not-yet-amazing is a great place to start, because that’s where you are. For now. There’s a big difference between not settling and not starting.”

Blogger Jon Bell (@ienjoy) calls this the “McDonald’s Theory.” He writes,

“I use a trick with co-workers when we’re trying to decide where to eat for lunch and no one has any ideas. I recommend McDonald’s. An interesting thing happens. Everyone unanimously agrees that we can’t possibly go to McDonald’s, and better lunch suggestions emerge. Magic! It’s as if we’ve broken the ice with the worst possible idea, and now that the discussion has started, people suddenly get very creative. I call it the McDonald’s Theory: people are inspired to come up with good ideas to ward off bad ones.”

So there it is. Half of our problem as writers, pastors, theologians, etc. is that we’re afraid of failing, and then we apply it to our writing. We’re all afraid of failing at some point or another. But the path to successful writing (or a dissertation in my case) might go through McDonald’s. The bad needs to happen before the good. Having something on paper gives you something to work with and to allow your ideas to flow.

Jim Hamilton gave me some advice during my first PhD seminar that has been helpful these days. He used to say, “just write the first sentence.” When he said that, I instantly knew what he meant. Writers spend so much time just fiddling with words and desks and research and notes that they end up procrastinating their main task: writing. When Jim said, “just write something,” he means to just get something on the page and start moving with it. The blank page sucks. Half of the writing experience is rewriting anyway, so get the move on.

Written by Josh Philpot

June 2, 2013 at 3:30 am

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