Quote of the Weekend

For everything, in time, gets lost: the lives of peoples now remote, the tantalizing yet ultimately vanished and largely unknowable lives of virtually all of the Greeks and Romans and Ottomans and Malays and Goths and Bengals and Sudanese who ever lived, the peoples of Ur and Kush, the lives of the Hittites and Philistines that will never be known, the lives of people more recent than that, the African slaves and the slave traders, the Boers and the Belgians, those how were slaughtered and those who died in bed, the Polish counts and the Jewish shopkeepers, the blond hair and eyebrows and small white teeth that someone once loved or desired of this or that boy or girl or man or woman who was one of the five million (or six or seven) Ukrainians staved to death by Stalin, and indeed the intangible things beyond the hair and teeth and brows, the smiles and frustrations and laughter and terror and loves and hunger of every one of those millions of Ukrainians, just as the hair of a Jewish girl or boy or man or woman that someone once loved, and the teeth and the brows , the smiles and frustrations and laughter and terror of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust are now lost, or will soon be lost, because no number of books, however great, could ever document them all, even if they were to be written, which they won’t and can’t be; all that will be lost, too, their pretty legs and their deafness and the vigorous way they strode off a train with a pile of schoolbooks once, the secret family rituals and the recipes for cakes and stews and golaki, the goodness and wickedness, the saviors and the betrayers, their saving and betraying: most everything will be lost, eventually, as surely as most of what made up the lives of the Egyptians and Incas and Hittites has been lost. But for a little while some of that can be rescued, if only, faced with the vastness of all that there is and all that there ever was, somebody makes the decision to look back, to have one last look, to search for a while in the debris of the past and to see not only what was lost but what there is still to be found.

– The Lost, A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn

(Out of every tongue, tribe, and nation, God has called His people, and so these people are not, in the ultimate way, truly lost. Some of them will be in heaven, praising Christ for all eternity.)


Quote of the Weekend

“So we cannot go there with them. All I think I can say, now, with any degree of certainty, is that in one of those rooms, on a particular moment of a particular day in September 1942, although the moment and the day will never be known, the lives of my uncle Shmiel and his family, of Samuel Jager, my grandfather’s brother, the heir to and rebuilder of the business that t the cautious matrimonial intermingling of those generations of Jagers and Kornbluhs had been designed to enhance, a man who wrote a certain number of letters between January and December 1939, a woman who was very warm, very friendly, a forty-seven-year-old father of four girls, a natty dresser and a bit of a big shot, too, in the small town where his family has lived, it seems, forever, a young girl who was still very much a baby, to whom a seventy-eight-year-old man living in Sydney, Australia, will recall that he once said Hallo, Bronia! over a fence, a man, a woman, a child who have been forced by this point, to live with the knowledge that their third daughter, her older sister, a sixteen-year-old girl whom the father had named to perpetuate the memory of his darling sister who had died, it would one day be intoned, a week before her weeding, was shot to death at the edge of an open pit; an uncle, aunt, and cousin who at that moment, the moment at which he and then they hear, perhaps, the strange hiss begin, have a niece and a cousin whom they have never met but whom he has mentioned, politely, in a few of those letters (I say goodbye to you and kiss you, and also dear Gerty and the dear child, from me and also from my darling wife and children to you and all the siblings too), a niece who lives in  the Bronx, New York, a pretty blond eleven-year-old with braces who, in the first week of September 1942, has just entered the sixth grad (just as her future husband, then thirteen, so much of whose family would be lost to narrative, was just entering the eighth grade, where he played with a boy whom everyone called Billy Ehrenreich, which was not his real name but after all he lived upstairs with the Ehrenreichs, a refugee from Germany who would sometimes say to my father that had fours sisters from whom he’d been separated and whom, he said, he’d “lost”, a word that my father, just a boy then, couldn’t quite understand)–in that room, they had eventually to breathe the poisoned air, and after a period of minutes the lives of Shmiel Jager, Ester Schneclicht Jager, and Bronia Jager, lives that will, many years hence, amount to a collection of a few photographs and a few sentences about them, She called him the krol, the king, she was very warm, very friendly, she was just a baby, playing with her toys, these lives, and many others things that were true about them but which now can also never e known, came to an end. ”

-A paragraph from The Lost, A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn

(I thought this paragraph captured the sense of lives just cut off by the Holocaust. I also found it interesting that this whole paragraph is only two sentences. I’ve read few writers with as many long sentences and Daniel Mendelsohn.)


Quote of the Weekend

My desire to have that narrative was no different from my grandfather’s desire to believe the stories about the Jewish neighbor or the Polish maid. Both were motivated by a need for a story that, however ugly, would give their deaths some meaning–that would make their deaths be about something. Jack Greene told me something else that night: that like Shmiel, his own parents had been hoping to get their family to safety, hoping to get visas; but that by 1939 the waiting list for papers was six years long. (And by then, he said, everyone was already dead.) Because I am a sentimental person, I would like to think–we will, of course, never know–that my grandfather and his siblings did everything they could for Shmiel and his family. What we do know is that by 1939, nothing they could have done would have saved them.

– The Lost: A search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn

(This book is the story of a great nephews search for his great uncle, aunt, and cousins who did not survive the Holocaust.)



Writing Lesson: Suffering

I’m a storyteller. You put me in a group of people and I’ll tell stories to avoid awkward silences. You leave me alone and I’ll write, read, watch, or make up my own stories. About the only time I can get the story part of my brain to shut off is if I’m listening to music, and even that is no guarantee.

My husband is analytical. He’s the researcher, the studier, the teacher in the family. He taught himself how to program computers and now he’s teaching himself to be a preacher. He loves to analyze everything. We’ve had lively discussions about Star Trek, Chuck, Rambo, Godzilla, the Apprentice, Metallica, Downton Abbey, and of course theology.


Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes

Both of us are Metal Gear Solid fans. That’s a video game, fyi. As far as I’m aware, this story started in the 90’s with Solid Snake as the main character. He appeared in five games. His father, Big Boss, was the villain in several of those games. Big Boss is the main character in 2 games, a demo, and the up and coming Phantom Pain. The story is complex, riveting, unique, and moving. As you play, you start to put the pieces together of how Big Boss became the bad guy you face as Solid Snake. You realize he wasn’t always evil. In fact, he was an honorable and good man for many years until one too many betrayals by the US government and people he trusted drove him to the dark antagonist we encounter as Solid Snake.

Being the fan boy and girl we are, we have spent hours playing this game and hours discussing the plot, characters, and unraveling the complex threads of the story. I stand in awe at Hideo Kojima’s ability to move me from anti-Big Boss to feeling very sympathetic towards him and what he becomes. As his story unfolds and you see everything he goes through, all the men he loses, and the betrayals he faces, you begin to understand how and why a man could become such an antagonists.

Discussing our favorite video game, my husband said this: To tell a good story you need great characters, and to have great characters you need great suffering, and to have great suffering you need context.

Big Boss context is war. From WWII, to Vietnam, to the Cold War, including children soldiers, his context is the battlefield. He suffers betrayal by his government which leads him to kill his mentor. He’s betrayed by everyone he counts a friend. He loses soldiers in useless battles. He has been trained to be a weapon and then is shunned because he is that weapon. This betrayal is his suffering. This context and this suffering creates a great character. Big Boss has three sons. The least of his three sons goes through similar sufferings at the hand of his government, but he is able to overcome them in the end. This creates a juxtaposition between Solid Snake and his father Big Boss. This allows you, the viewer, to see a mirror image of one man going bad and one man going deeper and stronger.

200_sTheir story reminds me of Lore and Data in Star Trek:NG. Two brothers created in the exact image of their father, one is evil and one is good. Big Boss and his sons are that way. Solid Snake is forced to destroy both his brothers who take on the evil of their father.

As a storyteller, I found my husband’s analysis of what makes a good story to ring true. A good story has to have good characters. But what makes a good character? Suffering. It is what they go through and how they react that we are interested in. We want to see them suffer because that’s something we can all relate to. From a child who loses a parent, is bullied, bullies, to soldiers, mothers, and growing old, we have all suffered. That suffering and how we react to it is what makes us who we are. Whether good or evil, it’s suffering that paves the path we are walking.

That suffering needs a believable place to happen. That’s our context. It’s not so much about being in space, or on the battlefield, or traveling through time, as it is creating the suffering which makes sense. A princess forced to live a life of ease is not suffering, but a princess trapped in a betrothal to a man she’s never met is suffering. A boy adopted into a wealthy home after living on the streets isn’t suffering. But that same boy now in a new home who discovers his friends aren’t all they seem, and then finds himself in a battle for his soul is suffering. Context enriches the suffering of your characters. It gives you a structure to guide suffering the rest of us can get.

Marcus Luttrell, the Lone Survivor

Marcus Luttrell, the Lone Survivor

Think about the stories that stick with you. Think about the characters that stick with you. Harry Potter sticks with us because every year of his life the suffering ratchets up a notch. The Hunger Games don’t just deal with suffering at the hands of oppressive governments, but the psychological suffering of Katniss as she becomes a darker and darker character. To this day, I’m haunted by Henry in The Time Traveler’s Wife. He suffered his whole life and even suffered in his death. In real life, we think about the Holocaust. Those stories of great suffering continue to reverberate through history. Think about the haunted look on a soldiers face in Vietnam when his country couldn’t back him. Look in the eyes of Marcus Luttrell knowing he was the only one of his buddies to survive. Suffering is what connects us.

Do you use suffering to help us bond with your characters? Are you afraid to put your characters through the fire? Remember the Bible teaches that we are refined in a fire to clear away the dross. God uses suffering to make us more like Christ. Suffering burns away pride, self-reliance, and hardness leaving soft gold shimmering behind. In antagonists, suffering brings bitterness, blame, self-protection, and self-love creating a monster.

Suffering is one of the best ways to create believable characters, both your protagonist and antagonists. I’m pretty good at making my heroes suffer, but I think I need to start working on my villains a bit more.


Just an FYI:

Metal Gear Solid is rated M for mature.

Harry Potter is PG – PG13.

Hunger Games is PG 13.

Time Traveler’s Wife is rated R.

Star Trek: NG is PG.

Chuck is PG-13.

Rambo is R.

Godzilla is PG-13.

The Apprentice is PG-13.

Metallica is PG-13.

Downton Abbey is PG-13.