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Dictums of Dr. Drake

August 11, 2010 6 comments

Robert Young Drake Jr.

I stumbled into Dr. Drake’s class kinda like the way I stumbled into college. While my friends were applying for grants and scholarships, I was busy dreaming of some great venture, some great project, some great something…or some great something else.

Then suddenly I was there. Sitting at freshman orientation for the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. I didn’t worry too much about what to study. As my dad would tell me, “What’s important is that you finish what you start. Study anything you want just finish the degree.”

My dad had just returned from the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. At one point, he shared a helicopter ride with Scott Hamilton’s dad. Dr. Hamilton, a college professor, told my dad that “if a young man is not sure what to study in school, he should learn how to communicate. If you can write and speak well, you can do about anything.”

My dad passed on that advice. That sounded good enough for me, so I ended up studying Creative Writing and Speech Communication at UT. Almost thirty years later I can thank Dr. Hamilton for helping launch me on the adventure of learning to speak.

Now where was I? Oh yes, stumbling into Dr. Drake’s Advanced Creative Writing class wearing one black shoe and one red shoe. For some reason, two different colored shoes made perfect sense in the 80s. As I sank down into my seat, I noticed that the man standing at the front of the class was wearing a linen suit. He looked and sounded like he stepped right out of nineteenth century Southern aristocracy.

Robert Young Drake Jr. stood before us as a living testimony of another time, another world. An old Southern sophistication that was and is vanishing under concrete Interstates, concrete shopping malls and concrete lives. Listening to him talk was like sitting on a big porch during the late afternoon, sipping on lemonade and swapping stories.

His slow drawl, devilish wit, and penchant for telling stories captivated us half-dazed students who stumbled toward degrees and possible oblivion. On the first day of class, he handed out no syllabi, no reading lists, and he gave no expectations for what was ahead.

Someone raised his hand. “What’s your policy on cutting class?”

“I don’t have a policy. Don’t cut class.”

Another hand. Another question. “How do you figure our grades?”

“Do what I say and you’ll come through with flying colors.”

One day he asked if anyone in the class had ever read Charles Dickens. I nodded yes.

“What did you read Mr. Floyd?”

“Well, I started ‘Tale of Two Cities,’ but I didn’t finish it.”

“What? You didn’t finish. Oh Mr. Floyd that is a grievous sin. You must go home and pray without ceasing.”

Another day he read a story aloud, and asked us what was the main theme of the story. Someone shouted out, “Compassion.”

“Oh my. I simply hate that word. The word compassion is so over used. I think people say it when they don’t really know what a story is about.”

This was the first class I had ever attended where the professor diced our answers to pieces and never hesitated to humiliate. Of course, he said everything with that slow drawl and that slight grin.

One student made the unfortunate mistake of cutting class. Next class he reappeared.

“Well, Mr. Jones I see you’ve decided to stay at the University after all. I assumed that when you failed to come to class you had left for some pressing reason. But here you are in our midst once again.”

Looking around to all the rest us he continued, “It amazes me that people will pay good money for a University education and then fail to attend the classes. That makes no sense whatsoever.” After about five minutes of a public tongue lashing, he finally released Mr. Jones from shaming and started the class.

Some people would drop Dr. Drake’s class but no one was bold enough to cut his class.

For the next three months us stumbling students sat up wide awake with holy fear: never sure if we might be subject to a public trial on the spur of the moment. At the same time, most of us loved this class and this professor. He spoke and taught and challenged us in ways we’d never been challenged.

He mocked our simplistic assumptions and forced us to think and speak and write better. Sometimes he’d say, “People ask me if I ever see talented writers in these classes. I reply that it’s not a matter of talent. It’s a matter of work, of discipline. A good writer writes and writes and writes.”

Then he might add, “Show me a great writer and I’ll show you a great reader. If you want to write, you must learn to read.”

“The most important thing a parent can teach their child is how to read. I don’t care if the child reads comic books or Mad magazine. If the love of reading captures their soul, they’ll read and read and read. And the reading will teach them to speak.”

Religion showed in one person’s story and Dr. Drake began discussing his own faith. “Of course, I believe in purgatory. I experience it every Sunday morning sitting on a hard wooden pew during the church service. After of lifetime of such suffering, God must surely allow me into heaven.”

Another day, he decided to introduce grammar into our conversation. “There are no rules.”

“Write what’s in your heart. Discover your voice. Grammar is your servant not your master. It may help you say what you need to say more clearly, but never let it confine you from saying what you must say.”

He taught me that writing is not about fame, not about fortune. Most writers are poor. Writing is about finding and speaking my voice. It is the discipline of listening and speaking and learning to articulate. He taught me to read.

On the last day of class, he gave each of us a blessing. As he turned toward me he said, “Mr. Floyd, my hope and prayer for you is that one day by God’s grace you’ll actually finish a Charles Dickens novel.” The class burst out laughing. I laughed.

And in a strange twist of irony. One day I did read Dickens and fell in love with his words, his characters, his world. And I am always haunted by the cry for justice that echoes all through Dickens.

Dr. Drake died almost ten years ago. And sadly, I never expressed my deep appreciation for his influence on my life. It took years for me to even realize the deep and resounding impact of this thoughtful provocateur. Yet, I still find myself quoting him and listening to him and responding to him.

I continue to write. I continue to read. I continue to learn.

Dr. Drake freed me from the oppressive weight of wanting to be recognized. He freed me to a life of learning how to speak…how give voice to one moment in time..how to discover that articulate word. As Czeslaw Milosz once wrote,

“To find my home in one sentence, concise, as if hammered in metal. Not to enchant anybody. Not to earn a lasting name in posterity. An unnamed need for order, for rhythm, for form, which three words are opposed to chaos and nothingness.”

Dr. Drake spent his life teaching students to pound that one sentence into this fleeting world of glory. And for that I am forever grateful.

Living in the World of the Wide Web

June 4, 2010 5 comments

Photo by dhammza (via Creative Commons)

My brother Jeremy paused momentarily from twittering, facebooking, ipadding, and conference calling to send me a link via Google chat to Nicholas Carr’s article, “The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains.” In a manner most apropos, Carr published the piece in Wired. After reading his article, I wonder if we might should called it ReWired instead.

As you probably guessed from reading the title of his article, Carr writes about how the web is changing the way we think (and I don’t just mean our opinions). His key idea is that the brain moves between “working memory” and “long term memory.” Web surfing operates in working memory but do to the overwhelming influx of data disruption, our brain keeps reorienting between competing streams of data. Thus we experience “cognitive overload” (think of the dread spinning wheel on your computer).

This cognitive overload means that we transfer less information to long term memory and gradually lose or weaken our ability to process ideas deeply. Or to put it in the words of Patricia Greenfield, we weaken our capacity for “deep processing” that underpins “mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.”

The impact stretches into our non-surfing time because our brains actually begin processing differently. Drawing from Michael Merzenich’s pioneering work in the field of neuroplasticity, Carr suggests that “our online habits continue to reverberate in the workings of our brain cells even when we’re not at a computer. We’re exercising the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading and thinking deeply.”

This brings to mind Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” and Michael LeGault’s reply, “Think! Why Crucial Decisions Can’t Be Made in the Blink of An Eye.” There is a real tension between the instant message multi-tasking, hyper-frenzied world and the analytic, thoughtful processing that takes time.

As I read Carr’s excellent article, I wondered how people negotiated changing mental processing during dramatic shifts in history. The pre-Socratic world negotiated a dramatic shift from story to abstract reasoning. The Reformation world negotiated a dramatic shift from a memory-based oral culture to a book-based written culture. If the brain is plastic, then these shifts surely had disruptive impacts as well. I would suggest that good and bad probably came out of each shift.

Some things were discarded that may need to be rediscovered. Yet at the same time, other things were introduced that served to catalyze many positive developments.

In many ways (exceeding even the Internet), we are in the midst of an epochal shift that will most likely continue throughout our lifetimes. When it comes to the Web, how might we learn to negotiate the threat of cognitive overload and then possibility of losing our capacity for analytic thought. Can we cultivate both deep diving as well and surface snorkeling?

As I read Carr’s article, I thought about Wallas’ four stages of creativity thinking: Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, Verification. Preparation is the process of gathering information. In some sense, it does carry this idea of overwhelming data. And the data is not necessarily all interrelated. Information may seem to have no connection at all. And yet, in a process that some have called “bisociation” the mind forces disparate ideas together. The result may be unexpected, surprising, and even enlightening.

This stage of creativity seems to correspond closely to Carr’s description of web use. And in that sense, the web is an excellent place for “surface snorkeling” massive amount of data. This can lead to surprising, new and often dramatic new ideas and shifts that might be associated with the “Illumination” or “Eureka!” stage of creative thinking.

But per Carr’s piece, the web may actually contend with the “Incubation” stage. This is the opposite of collection. In the mystic sense, it is the time of purgation, of luminous darkness. It is the great waiting. It is the pregnant pause. In a world of constant data overload, how might we craft “pregnant pauses” in our lives?

We may take a page from Chang Tzu and learn the mystery of the useless tree. There is a time (and a desperate need) to stop, turn off the computer, turn off the ipod, turn off the television and simply breathe. The restorative power of cultivating times of silence and deep breathing can nourish our brains and our bodies.

We might also read long articles…out loud. Or pause over a poem. Living in a culture that seems to despise poetry, we could the value of waiting over words, reading and rereading words until they come into focus.

We might write a long article or write a poem. The process of write can help us to slow down and organize our thoughts. We might try thinking again. Of course, we are always thinking. But cultivating times of intentional thought. My professors used to suggest two hours of thought for every one hour of reading. When I’ve followed their advice, I read much less but oddly enough, I learned much more.

Like an egg resting beneath the hen, the incubation period seems like wasted time. But then the shell breaks open revealing a tiny chick. Many of the great ideas that changed the course of the world, broke into this world suddenly and surprisingly.

We might also intentionally look backwards to the Pre-Socratic world or the pre-Reformation world and try to see through their eyes, hear through their ears, and feel through their hands. We cannot fully do this, but we can at least try. For instance, I think all of us might benefit from spending time learning about and practicing ancient mnemonics. Our deep memory capacity seems greatly diminished compared to our classical and medieval counterparts.

By looking backwards (at these earlier cultures) and looking forwards (into the possibilities of our connected web world), we might begin learning how to act. We might get ideas on how to negotiate this challenge and blessing of a web of information that circles and encircles and continues encircling our world.

Then we might realize (more often) the final stage of creativity: verification. This is the realization of the idea. The movement from abstraction to action. It is the idea embodied. In Christian theology, this is the Word made Flesh. We might not simply be able to reference all the cool sites and techniques on gardening. We might actually plant a real garden.

2009 Retreat Schedule

January 22, 2009 1 comment

Below are a list of retreats I am planning for 2009. If you are interested, please email me (doug (at) springoflight.org). I am making immediate plans for the first retreat on the last weekend of February (27-29). On this weekend, we’ll discuss vision, hope and the power to change the world with the message of the gospel.

In some ways, this retreat will inform every other retreat I do this year. I believe it is timely and important. Much of my writing and meditation over the last year has related to what I hope to explore during this retreat.

Also note, we have a one day seminar on business coming up on March 21. This should be a provocative conversation about the kingdom of God and the market.

Here are the list of retreats and plans. If you plan to come to the February retreat or would like more information, please email. (doug (at) springoflight.org)

2009 Retreats Schedule

Hope in the Midst of the Hopeless (weekend retreat) – February 27-28, 2009
Reforming Business (seminar) – March 21
Relationships and the Commandments – April/May
Holy Creativity – Summer 2009
St. Patrick and the Evangelism of the World – Fall 2009

Hope in the Midst of the Hopeless
February 27-28, 2009
How do you still hope when it feels like your whole world is coming to an end? Worse yet, what happens when everyone else’s world seems to be coming to an end? As I’ve reflected on the fear of personal and cultural suffering, I’ve seen a Biblical response in the beginning and ending the world.

Drawing from Scripture and Church History, we’ll look at how we respond when it feels like the world is coming to an end. Better yet, we’ll consider how the prophets, Jesus, and the New Testament writers can translate faith, hope and love into words of vision that inspire themselves and those around them walk in the joy and power of the kingdom.

Now more than ever, Christians must know how to speak a vision of hope to the world around us. If we look at the Augustine writing while Rome was burning, Luther writing while his life was being threatened, or the early American settlers writing and speaking while facing an uncertain future, we will see how Christians in every age have learned how to speak the word of faith that changed the world around them.

From proclaiming peace and joy to our own souls to speaking the word of faith to the world, this weekend will help each person draw from Biblical wisdom to face the threats around us with an unyielding hope, an undying faith and an unfaltering love.

Brad Getz and Rick Doughty will join me in this conversation. I invite you to join us as well for a weekend of fellowship, reflection and visioning for the future.

Reforming the World Seminars
March 21
This year I plan several one day seminars focused on reforming our world. The first seminar will focus on our role in “Reforming Business.” This is not a theoretical seminar but a practical seminar born from the struggle of Christians in business. While I’ve invited a few folks to share their stories and lead the way, I invite all Christians in business from entrepreneurs to managers to employees, each of us face the challenge of translating our faith into environments and situations that may not be conducive to faith. Drawing from personal stories and the wisdom of the commandments, we will look at the hard questions and challenges of living out the kingdom of God in the mist of the business world.

Relationships and the Commandments
April/May
For many years I’ve resisted a “marriage retreat.” One reason is that many churches and ministries already focus on this area of need, so I’ve concentrated my ministry efforts in other places. But I believe the Lord showed me a way of discussing relationships through the wisdom of the 10 commandments that I think will offer a fresh perspective on marriage, parenthood, friendship, employer-employee relationships and more.

Instead of isolating marriage as the focal point, I would suggest the Bible offers a vision of family relationships that introduces a way of understanding all human relationships. Kelly, my wife of 20 years, and I will lead this retreat together through discussion and exercises.

Holy Creativity
Summer 2009
Come discover the delightful, wondrous creative gifts God placed in each person. Paul often exhorts his brothers and sisters to offer their gifts on behalf of one another. But if you look at his lists in Romans, Corinthians and other letters, you see a wide range of gifts and callings.

Instead of trying to classify and group human gifting into a neat Aristotelian chart, I invite you to join us for a weekend of discovering the riches and surprising and unexpected ways each of us are gifted to bless those around us. If you think you know all about your gifts, you’ll be surprised by what you discover this weekend.

Old friends and former professors, Darlene and Michael Graves will join me this weekend for an eclectic, playful and worship-filled weekend of creativity.

St. Patrick and the Evangelism of the World
Fall 2009
Every year America celebrates his birthday and a few people actually realize the amazing story behind this man. The story of St. Patrick is the story of a man who loved his enemies into the kingdom of God. He loved them so much, we think of him as Irish. But he wasn’t. Come hear more about the story of Patrick, the Biblical and Historical use of power evangelism, and the wonder of a nation that was converted without one martyr.

Articulation, Vision and Mutual Experiences

January 13, 2009 2 comments

When a preacher speaks, a teacher teaches, an artist creates, or a write writes, they express or articulate in some form their vision. While the created work (spoken, written or otherwise) may articulate a new perspective, the power of resonation is hidden within the mutuality of the given articulation. Okay, now that sounds a but to abstract. Let me explain in terms of a speech or sermon. For the given word to move the audience to action, pathos (emotional connection), logos (logical connection) and ethos (crediblity connection) must all make authentic connections with the audience.

But what is the connection begin made? The vision articulated connects or resonates with a vision that is already in the listener. So in some sense a great writer or speaker or creator gives form and shape to something their audience knows or senses as well but has been unable to fully articulate. So when the audience hears a song that touches them deeply, the song may be touching a feeling or sense they already had before hearing the song. The song merely connects with that feeling or yearning that was already there, and in so doing gives the listener a sense of ownership. The song becomes their song. By identifying with the song, the listener may respond at a deep level.

So writing, preaching, speaking, painting, and all forms of creating is not simply expressing an exclusive vision, it is also about articulating a mutual vision between creator and audience. It is a conversation of similar visions.

Categories: vision Tags: , , ,

Challenge of Translating Vision

January 10, 2009 2 comments

One of the challenges of vision is translating time into space. Vision is in the future. But in order for it to be fully realized, it needs to be translated into outward space. This is a challenge because the act of translation changes the vision. As I type these words, my thoughts are changed by the words I choose. Suddenly, I realize that my post has taken a slightly (or largely) different direction than I had originally intended. Nothing really ever turns out exactly according to plan. The outer world where the vision is translated, resists our attempts at change.

This resistance requires energy. Sometimes we have the energy to complete translation (expression of vision) but sometimes we quit in the midst of the processes. Or we change directions. Or we adapt. We may like the finally outcome better or we may be disappointed. But the translated vision never looks exactly like the image that I am stretching toward.

Open Source Comics? Jeep and Marvel want you!

March 5, 2007 Leave a comment

comics.jpgIn another experiment with online interactivity, Jeep and Marvel comics are creating a user generated comic book. While its not really open source, it still offers a sense of community participation by inviting users to submit story panels that may be translated into a developing comic book. Joe B informs me this is a variation of an idea by comics theorist Scott McCloud.

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