And whaddaya know — I managed to have some memorable adventures in writing, speaking, and teaching in spite of everything.
So I’m taking a moment to remind myself that it wasn’t a wasted year, and that even though 90% of my energy went to coping with difficulties, I invested some of that last 10% in some good things. And I want to say thanks to those whose kindness and generosity saw me through. …
This has been the most challenging, exhausting, and — frankly — dispiriting year of my life as a writer.
First, I lost my friend Lee, who served faithfully and whole-heartedly as my literary agent through the publication of five books in a four-year period. I miss his help as I navigate a complicated writing life, but even more than that… I miss his friendship.
Secondly, well, I’ll put it this way — in spite of my successes in writing, publishing, speaking, and teaching, I have not yet been invited to do those things for a living wage. And the other things I must do to pay the bills have recently become twice as demanding on my time and energy, twice as stressful. This, I’m doing less and less of the things I’m best at doing, less and less of the things I love. For the first time since I learned to write stories as a child, I’m under too much pressure to write fiction. A new novel waits on my computer half-written, untouched for almost a year. And, much as I hated to do it, I had no choice but to resign from the film-review work I was doing for Image, Christianity Today, and other publications. That was as much fun as performing surgery on myself and removing vital organs. What is more, I had to turn down two out of three invitations to speak, write, or teach on the weekends.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m thankful that I have a way to cover the costs of food and rent. But I hope and pray that someday I’ll be able to do make a living by teaching, speaking, writing about art and culture, and writing fiction.
Things don’t look likely to improve anytime soon. But I’m eager for change. So I’m “going into training,” so to speak. I’m returning to school. In 2014-15, I intend to earn my MFA (master of fine arts degree in creative writing).
Several friends have asked, “Why would you go back to school now? Most writers go to school, and then they publish novels and film reviews. Aren’t you doing this backwards?”
The answer is simple. I believe I’m meant to use my modest abilities as a writer, a teacher, and a speaker. The increase in invitations to do so is exciting, because I’ve grown to love all three endeavors. They give me the fulfillment that Eric Liddell spoke of when he described his love for running.
But as much as I love these things, I need support and encouragement and resources in order to do them. If my circumstances prevent me from “running,” I need to change my circumstances. I’m hoping that the growth I’ll experience in pursuit of an MFA, and the credentials that the experience will give me, will better prepare me to change those circumstances. I will be better equipped to answer the call.
I am grateful for employment at the school that blessed me with a great undergraduate education, and for the teachers who were so passionate about preparing me to be a writer and a teacher. I hope I find my way into a situation that allows me to bring to fruition what that community inspired me to pursue.
And I’m also grateful that I could, on occasion in 2013, accomplish some modest pieces of writing during my evenings, weekends, and coffee breaks. I hope that the fruit of that labor made a difference for some of you. As I look back, I am blessed by memories, by the new friendships, and by the encouragement so many of you have given me during a season of struggle and loss.
Here are some of the highlights from those adventures…
Essays and Special Features
My favorite thing that I wrote this year is an essay called “To Play Without Ceasing.”
It’s a confession, a testimony, and a meditation on the power of play.
I wrote it for a collection of essays on the subject of ambition. But then the wonderfully imaginative community at The Rabbit Room blog, and the team that puts on Nashville’s Hutchmoot arts retreat, chose to publish it in The Molehill, Vol. 2 — a collection of fiction, poetry, visual art, and nofiction that is available for a very low price. What an honor!
That collection also features fiction by one of my heroes: Walter Wangerin, Jr., author of The Book of the Dun Cow. It also includes fiction by Jonathan Rogers, Lanier Ivester, and Sarah Clarkson; non-fiction by Eric Peters, Russ Ramsey, G. K. Chesterton, Andrew Peterson, Jennifer Trafton, and Thomas McKenzie; artwork by Jonny Jimison, Eric Peters, and Zach Franzen; and poetry by Andrew Peterson, Jonny Jimison, and Rebecca Reynolds.
Many thanks to Pete Peterson and Andrew Peterson, two brothers of extraordinary talent and vision and resourcefulness.
In March, Matt Zoller Seitz, who is now the editor of Roger Ebert.com, invited me to discuss the films of Joel and Ethan Coen with him, and he published our conversation at indieWire. We focused on questions about theology, good, and evil in films like Raising Arizona, Fargo, No Country for Old Men. The result: “O Coen Brothers, Where Art God?”
I’m grateful for Matt’s invitation. It was a thrill and an honor to take this up with him.
I wrote about my two favorite films of 2013 in a Christianity Today feature called “Nothing Better Than The Real Thing: Museum Hours and This Is Martin Bonner.“
Way back at the beginning of the year, I wrote about Quentin Tarantino for Christianity Today: “Blaze of Gory: Django Unchained and the Quest for Revenge.”
Many thanks to Alissa Wilkinson and Andy Crouch at Christianity Today for the invitations to do so. I wish I could have contributed more. Maybe someday.
For Response, I wrote: “Heroes Vs. Saints: The Power of Storytelling in a Combative World” and a follow-up called “Babette and Beyond: Saints on the Big Screen.” I also wrote about “Five Films That the Oscars Overlooked in 2013.” I’m grateful to the editor of Response, Hannah Notess, for granting me those opportunities.
After a few years of writing about cinema for Good Letters, the blog hosted by Image, I said a sad goodbye with a couple of closing posts. I reflected on Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun in “The Boy Who Believed in Airplanes.” I’m grateful to Gregory Wolfe for giving me room for nearly 100 articles there in the past few years. If I can find a way, I’ll come back to that post someday.
Here at Looking Closer, I also wrote a reflection on the first film in Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy: “Revisiting Jesse and Celine’s Holy Moments ‘Before Sunrise.‘”
The lectures I gave at Hutchmoot 2013, at Church of the Redeemer in Nashville, Tennessee, are available as part of a download of all of the talks delivered at that conference. Again, thanks to the Peterson brothers for their generosity and support, even though my day-job limitations prevented me from being there for both the opening and closing ceremonies.
By the invitation of Covenant College on Lookout Mountain, Georgia, I had the privilege of teaching a creative writing class, with the help of my wife, Anne, who brought her expertise on poetry to the task. I also visited a film studies course and gave two presentations to them.
Those classes are not available, but my Covenant College chapel presentation, “Christian Storytelling and a Failure of the Imagination,” is online here. I’m not used to showing up in top ten lists… but look at this! My presentation made Covenant’s list of Top 10 Chapel Messages.
I am so grateful to the administration and faculty at Covenant College, especially Dr. Bill Tate and Leda Goodman, for recognizing the work that Anne and I do.
“Through a Screen Darkly,” a 90-minute presentation I gave at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, based on my book of the same title, was not recorded. But I had a marvelous time, and the audience kept me around for a long and challenging Q&A session afterward. Many thanks to Mary McCampbell and the people at Lee University for acknowledging my work in film criticism and giving me an opportunity to share.
I accepted two more invitations to appear on The Kindlings Muse, a live panel-discussion podcast created by Dick Staub. I joined Dr. Jeff Keuss, Dr. Christine Chaney, and show host Jennie Spohr for conversation called “The New Masculinity and the Changing Face of Action Flicks.” Much earlier in the year, the same panel of experts gathered to discuss “The Oscars: The Theologies of the 2013 Best Pictures Nominations.” Both were lively discussions with thought-provoking questions from the audience. You can download both podcasts from the links above.
Thanks to Dick Staub and Jennie Spohr for their ongoing encouragment and support.
Thanks again to Gregory Wolfe and the Image team who run The Glen Workshop for giving me the most exhilarating teaching experience of my life so far — a full week of workshop sessions called “The Explorer’s Track,” in which we read stories and poems, listened to songs, watched movies, toured the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, and learned how close attention to great art can enhance the rest of our lives. This was my third time teaching a Glen Workshop seminar, and it was unforgettably inspiring.
For Response, I had the privilege and pleasure of interviewing the World’s End gang: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and director Edgar Wright
Oh, and thanks to Matt Conner, who turned the tables and interviewed me for The Rabbit Room.
Thanks also to Doug Bursch, host of KGNW radio’s “Live from Seattle” show, for having me as a guest on his program on December 20, where we talked about moviegoing discernment. And extra thanks for inviting me back to the show on January 3, to discuss a few of my favorite films of 2013, as well as the controversy surrounding the film The Wolf of Wall Street.
My film-reviewing year began with what became one of the most controversial reviews of my film-criticism adventures so far. It’s also one of the longest blog-entries I’ve ever written about movie. I defended Michael Haneke’s Amour.
Here are the film reviews I stayed up all night writing this year:
This Is Martin Bonner
Like Someone in Love
The World’s End
To the Wonder
12 Years a Slave
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Spectacular Now
The Way, Way Back
Star Trek Into Darkness
Iron Man 3
For Response, I did a roundup of short reviews for Much Ado About Nothing, Mud, Before Midnight, Monster’s University, and Stories We Tell.
And finally… the highest highlight of my year as a writer came as a complete surprise. But to find out about that, you’ll have to read the aforementioned Over the Rhine music review… or just open the liner notes of their new album… to find out what happened when I sent off a hastily composed email in hopes of encouraging the musicians.
For all of the losses and lessons learned this year, I’m confident that 2013 has made me stronger. It has taught me who my real friends are, and whom I can trust for encouragement and support. I have no doubt that I am being led through these times by an imagination much grander and wiser than my own. I may have some good reasons to be uncomfortable with my circumstances, but I have no reason to be afraid. Let’s see what happens in 2014.