Inspirational Quotes from Great Authors on How and Why We Write

Memorable quotations from The World Split Open: Great Authors on How and Why We Write

I read this book over a year ago, but it is one of those books I pull off the shelf from time to time to reread passages I’ve highlighted. The Introduction presents the book’s purpose:

Serious writing and serious reading are fundamental to life… the passionate engagement of the human soul with the written word. Open these pages and witness professionals at work. This is how we think clearly. This is how we describe vividly. This is how we moralize deeply. This is how we figure out our politics. This is how we perform all those mental activities that never lose relevance or value, no matter the platform, be it papyrus or a plasma screen.

For your artistic inspiration and pleasure:

“I wrote because I have to. I write because I cannot imagine my life without the ability to write, or to imagine, or to dream. I write because I love the solitude of writing, because I love the near-mystical sense of creating characters who sometimes speak to me. I write because I love the possibility of touching another human being with my work, and because I spend a large amount of time in the spaces between the imaginary and the concrete. My writing comes from hope, from melancholy, from rage, and from curiosity. Writing is this wondrous, inexplicable gift that I have been blessed with, but it is also a craft, a steely determination to sit down for hours and write…” – Chimamanda Adichie

“Literary critics start, usually, with the text. They then address questions to this text, which they attempt to answer, ‘What does it mean?’ being both the most basic and the most difficult. Novelists, on the other hand, start with the blank page, to which they similarly address questions. But the questions are different, Instead of asking, ‘What does it mean?’ they ask, ‘Is this the right word, right sentence, the right paragraph?’ The critic asks, ‘What’s happening?’ The novelist, ‘What happens next?” The critic asks, ‘What kind of story is this?’ The novelist, ‘What kind of story should this be?’ The critic asks, ‘Is this believable?’ The novelist, ‘How can I get them to believe this?” – Margaret Atwood

“My point is simply that this activity of writing involves at its center the desire on the part of the writer to become intimate with strangers, to speak from one’s secret, most vulnerable, truth-telling self directly to a stranger’s same self.” – Russell Banks

“Narrative seems to be within everyone’s grasp, perhaps because it was the very first means people ever had to understand who they were and what was happening to them… even as we live in an age that is scientifically oriented, even as we hold to the values of empiricism, demanding of our propositions that they be tested and of our legal cases that they rest on demonstrable evidence, our modern minds are still structured for storytelling, Facts may change, evolve, they do so all the time, but stories find their way to the unchanging core of things…” – E.L. Doctorow

“…Had I set out with some agenda, I’d have to slight some characters, present them as either all of one thing or all of another, good or bad, as it were. I could not have shown some characters in all their complexity. An agenda–propaganda–rarely allows for that. People are all things on all days.” – Edward P. Jones

“…the world is full of stories, and when a story is there, it’s there; you just reach up and pick it. Then you have to be able to let it tell itself. First you have to be able to wait. To wait in silence. Wait in silence and listen. List for the tune, the vision, the story. Not grabbing, not pushing, just waiting, listening, being ready for it when it comes. This is an act of trust. Trust in yourself, trust in the world. The artist says, ‘The world will give me what I need and I will be able to use it rightly.’ Readiness–not grabbiness, not greed–readiness: willingness to hear, to listen carefully, to see clearly and accurately–to let the words be right. Not almost right. Right. To know how to make something out of the vision; that’s what practice is for. Because being ready doesn’t mean just sitting around, even if it looks like that’s what writers mostly do; artists practice their art continually, and writing happens to involve a lot of sitting. Scales and finger exercises, pencil sketches, endless unfinished and rejected stories. The artist who practices knows the difference between practice and performance, and the essential connection between them. The gift of those seemingly wasted hours and years is patience and readiness; a good ear, a keen eye, and a skilled hand, a rich vocabulary and grammar. The gift of practice to the artist is mastery… With those tools, those instruments, with that hard-earned mastery, that craftiness, you do your best to let the ‘idea’–the tune, the vision, the story–come through clear and undistorted. Clear of ineptitude, awkwardness, amateurishness; undistorted by convention, fashion, opinion. This is a very radical job, dealing with the ideas you get if you are an artist and take your job seriously, this shaping a vision into the medium of words.” – Ursula K. Le Guin

“Fiction results from imagination working on experience. We shape experience in our minds so that it makes sense. We force the world to be coherent, to tell us a story… we do it constantly, in order to survive. People who can’t make the world into a story, go mad.” – Ursula K. Le Guin

“Where do you get your ideas? From books, of course, from other people’s books. If I didn’t read, how could I write? We all stand on each other’s shoulders; we all use each other’s ideas and skills and plots and secrets. Literature is a communal enterprise… Understand me: I don’t mean plagiarism; I’m not talking about imitation, or copying, or theft. The stuff from other people’s books gets into us just as our own experience does, is composted and transmuted and transformed by the imagination, just as actual experiences are, and comes forth entirely changed.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“…Perhaps the awkwardness of the language refers to the fact that the experience of beauty is itself complex. We all know we can be conditioned to see beauty where our culture or our generation tells us to see it… And we know beauty can be fraudulent, compromised. Whenever power or privilege wishes to flaunt itself, it recruits beauty into its service, or something that can at least pass as beauty and will achieve the same effect. So it is entirely appropriate to regard beauty with a critical eye. But the point should be to discover an essential beauty, not to abandon the intuition altogether.” Marilynne Robinson

“In fiction, I think we should have no agenda except to try to be truthful… how to write a story though ignorant or baffled. It takes something that is of real importance to you, something you have brooded about. You try to see it as clearly as you can and to fix it in a transferable equivalent. All you want in the finished print is the clear statement of the lens, which is yourself, on the subject that has been absorbing your attention. Sure, it’s autobiography. Sure, it’s fiction. Either way, if you have done it faithfully, it ought to be true.” – Wallace Stegner

“Storytelling is not a luxury to humanity; it’s almost as necessary as bread. We cannot imagine ourselves without it, because the self is a story.” – Robert Stone

“In terms of Western tradition, it should be true that truth is beauty. Even if you take God out of it, the grimaced principles of existence have their symmetry. All the same, there can be a hundred different explanation for things, every one of them beautiful, and none of them true. But isn’t art always true? Aren’t truth and beauty very nearly the same? Surely every aesthetic response entails recognition. What standard do we hold up to art other than things themselves? And what do we require from art, if not a reflection of things–of our lives in all their variety.” – Robert Stone

“The Bible is unique among religious books due to the relationship it defines between God and mankind, and in the view it takes of human life. The narratives about people in the books of the Bible are thought to mean something; they are thought to be significant. This implies that the corporeal world in which people live is not an illustration to be overcome, or a shadowland reflecting the void, but an instrument of God’s will… All of our philosophies of history descend from the assumptions bequeathed by our scriptures, in that they profess to detect informing principles at the heart of human events: Life matters. Lives matter.” – Robert Stone

“The truth is that a sense of self is really a lifetime of development; it’s not quick or easy, but is it possible. And when we start to read literature, look at great art, listen to incredible music, we start to understand life as a quest and ourselves as serious players. You see, art takes us seriously. The time you spend with it is the time it spends with you, one-to-one, no interruptions. And out of that conversation comes a new sense of who you are. As the conversation develops, so do you. And so the old question “Who am I?” begins to shape itself into an answer.” – Jeanette Winterson

“… art offers a different rate of exchange. The artist does not turn time into money; the artist–whether writer, painter, musician–turns time into energy, time into intensity, time into vision. And the exchange that art offers is an exchange in kind–of energy for energy, intensity for intensity, vision for vision. Can we make the return? Do we want to? When people complain that art is hard work, they really mean that our increasingly passive entertainments do not equip us for the demands that art makes. Art is not a passive activity. We have to get involved. Imagination always means involvement, and as soon as your mind is open to a different level of seeing, thinking, hearing, or understanding, you start asking questions. Money culture hates questions… Art wants you to concentrate; money wants you to dissipate…” When I sit down to read a book without interruption or to listen to a piece of music at home or at the concert hall, without interruption… the first thing I’m doing is turning my gaze inward. The outside world, with all its demands and distractions, has to wait–not something it likes doing. As I turn my attention away from the world, I draw my energy away from the world. I’m not passive, but I’m in a state of alert rest, where the artwork can reach me with its own energies…it’s about being charged at a different voltage.” – Jeannette Winterson

“Art slips through, and us with it… to talk as we’ve always wanted to, about matters of the spirit and the heart, to imagine a world not dominated by numbers, to find in colors and poetry and sand an equivalence to our deepest feelings, a language for what we are. What are we? Human beings, made of flesh, with something strange called the soul that just won’t let us forget about the invisible worlds we deny. Art is the soul’s ally and calls us out, past what we know and take for granted, into what we dream. This is the balance we need, the balance the material world can’t give us.” – Jeannette Winterson

“…art shows us how to end the war, the war between heart and head, the war between reason and emotion. An achieved work of art combines an extraordinary hardiness of form with an exquisite emotional sense. Its toughness lets it contain emotion without suppressing or damaging it. Feeling breathes through form.” Jeannette Winterson

“The artist as radar can help me–the artist who combines an exceptional sensibility with an exceptional control. This equipment–unfunded, unregarded, and kept tuned to untapped frequencies–will bring home signals otherwise lost to me. While NASA tracks the heavens, who will track my heart?” Jeannette Winterson

Review: Timothy Keller’s Walking with God in Pain and Suffering

By the time summer arrived this year, the shock over the premature passing of one of my best friends had gradually subsided, though not the grief. It had taken a couple of months after her death in early April for my appetite to return, my willingness to dabble in adventure to revive, and my crying to find its way back to hearty laughter.

I am trying to understand the place I am in right now. The first tragedy that strikes in your life, you learn quickly that life does not stop for you because you are sad. You have to study or go to work, you have to tend to the children, the dishes still need to be done. If you are fortunate enough to have good friends or a genuinely sacrificial and compassionate church community–moments of recovery are possible as blessed individuals fly by your side and love you as best as they can (I count myself among the fortunate ones).

Where am I five months after the fact?

Not long ago, I was going about my usual routine–assisting my youngest in washing his hands–and momentarily froze at the sight of the vanishing drops of our citrus coconut foaming hand wash. Unexpectedly, I erupted into tears. How could my friend be gone from this world but the Christmas gift of hand soap she gave me last winter still be in my bathroom? And just like that, my disposition had changed that week.

In moments of stolen solitude, I pondered over my emotional and psychological state. Shortly after my friend’s passing, I was in the middle of preparing my tribute for her funeral, so I began rummaging through the letters in our youth to each other. In fact, stored in the furnace room of my parents’ house for the past two decades was a box of letters from friends who had written to me during this bygone period. Arbitrarily skimming one letter after the other, I breathlessly grappled with the fact that, as of this year, three of the friends captured in that box are no longer here. Though two of them had passed away many years ago, memories of them still overtake me now and then.

Perhaps the mourning of the death of a dear friend is like a bruise. The felt loss remains ever present in all its tender blues and purples–but can be concealed by the garment of daily duty and dizzying distraction. All that needs to take place is for the lifting of the garment and some pressure to be applied for the reminder: Oh right, it still hurts.

And that is why my faithful reading of Tim Keller’s book Walking with God in Pain and Suffering at the start of this summer was the nightly companion I needed. This summer of rest has been delightful, days of sun and relaxation; but when my beloveds were all asleep, a sadness sometimes fell upon me in that quiet darkness and I found solace in turning to Keller’s book, in which I really was present-continuous-tense WALKING with God in my not-fully-scrutable pain.

Keller’s book reminded me that I can be faithful yet still wrestle with my trust in God as I questioned the suffering. He reminded me of the beautiful freedom I have before God to be me: weak, with partial understanding, and a wobbly step. Furthermore, he urged the sufferer to not hide out in the sheer activity of life but to intentionally reflect on the hardship until Kingdom truths gradually come into view. And finally, I was enlightened when he pointed out that my weeping can be wrapped up inside my joy, that the two can co-exist, to the glory of God.

The following counsel and insight are a taste of the spiritual nourishment Keller offers to the sufferer:

Note: I also appreciated the many chapters that conclude with personal testimonies of Christ-followers who have endured all kinds of suffering, displaying examples of Christians who have witnessed and applied the principles described, which puts Keller’s insights into an even more relatable context. (Keller’s Epilogue provides a general outline and summary of the book).

“Why would God be so affirming of Job? Job cursed the day he was born, challenged God’s wisdom, cried out and complained bitterly, expressed deep thoughts. It didn’t seem that Job was a paragon of steady faith throughout. Why would God vindicate him like that? …God is gracious and forgiving… Through it all, Job never stopped praying. Yes, he complained, but he complained to God. He doubted, but he doubted to God. He screamed and yelled, but he did it in God’s presence. No matter how much in agony he was, he continued to address God. He kept seeking him. And in the end, God said Job triumphed. How wonderful that our God sees the grief and anger and questioning, and is still willing to say ‘you triumphed’–not because it was all fine, not because Job’s heart and motives were always right, but because Job’s doggedness in seeking the face and presence of God meant that the suffering did not drive him away from God but toward him” (Keller’s commentary on Job 42:7-9).

“Today, when you read books or websites on overcoming anxiety and handling fear, they usually talk about removing thoughts. They say…Control your thoughts, expel the negative ones. But here we see the peace of God is not the absence of negative thoughts, it is the presence of God himself. ‘The God of peace will be with you’ (Phil. 4:9).

   Christian peace does not start with the ousting of negative thinking. If you do that, you may simply be refusing to face how bad things are. That is one way to calm yourself–by refusing to admit the facts… Christian peace doesn’t start that way. It is not that you stop facing the facts, but you get a living power that comes into your life and enables you to face those realities, something that lifts you up over and through them… It is a sense that no matter what happens, everything will be all right, even though it may not be at all right at the moment. In my experience, people usually break through to this kind of peace only in tragic situations, often in the valley of the shadow of death” (Keller’s commentary on Philppians 4:4-12).

“If you are a Christian today and you have little or no peace, it may be because you are not thinking. Peace comes from a disciplined thinking out of the implications of what you believe…There is nothing more thrilling than climbing up to some high point on a mountain and then turning around and viewing from there all the terrain you have just traversed. Suddenly, you see the relationships–you see the creek you crossed, the foothills, the town from which you have journeyed. Your high vantage point gives you perspective, clarity, and a sense of beauty… Think big and high. Realize who God is, what he has done, who you are in Christ, where history is going. Put your troubles in perspective by remembering Christ’s troubles on your behalf, and all his promises to you, and what he is accomplishing” (Keller’s commentary on Philippians 4:8-9).

“Our bad things will turn out for good, our good things cannot be taken away, and the best is yet to come.”

“A believer can live right and still remain in darkness. Darkness may symbolize either outside difficult circumstances or an inner spiritual state of pain… times of darkness–while they continue–can reveal God’s grace in new depths… God understands… God is patient and gracious with us–he is present with us in all our mixed motives. Salvation is by grace… It is perhaps when we are still in unrelenting darkness that we have the greatest opportunity to defeat the forces of evil. In the darkness we have a choice that is not really there in better times. We can choose to serve God just because he is God” (Keller’s commentary on Psalm 88:1-6, 10-18; end of Job).

“And when the darkness lifts or lessens, we will find that our dependence on other things besides God for our happiness has shrunk, and that we have new strength and contentment in God himself.”

“We must not define rejoicing as something that precludes feelings of grief, or doubt, weakness, and pain. Rejoicing in suffering happens within sorrow… The grief and sorrow drive you more into God. It is just as when it gets colder outside, the temperature kicks the furnace higher through the thermostat… Yes, feel the grief. There is a tendency for us to say, ‘I am afraid of the grief, I am afraid of the sorrow. I don’t want to feel that way. I want to rejoice in the Lord.’ But look at Jesus. He was perfect, right? And yet he goes around crying all the time. He is always weeping, a man of sorrows… Because when you are not all absorbed in yourself, you can feel the sadness of the world… what you actually have is that the joy of the Lord happens inside the sorrow. It doesn’t come after the sorrow. It doesn’t come after the uncontrollable weeping. The weeping drives you into the joy, it enhances the joy, and then the joy enables you to actually feel your grief without its sinking you” (Keller’s commentary on 1 Peter 1:6-7).

As Keller notes early on–it is one thing to believe God’s truths and another to wholeheartedly trust them. Suffering is often the realm in which the latter is tried and tested. Grounded in the biblical and theological, Keller’s book on suffering marries truth with tender sensitivity toward the reader as sufferer.

Unplugged: The Freedom of Leisure Reading

As a homeschooling mother of three, time for leisure reading is scant—though more possible ever since I (for the time being…) managed to wean myself from social media and Netflix. Come nighttime when the kids are finally asleep and the chores at last tended to, I find my energy and alertness almost depleted and I am able to read no more than 10 or so pages at a time. Nonetheless, my ambition is to go long—and over the course of months, with a book in tow wherever I go, I have been able to plow through a somewhat satisfying number of books.

I wish I had more frequent and larger windows of solitude to read and write—and I hope that one day, when those days come more plentifully—Lord willing—I will relish those moments as much as I do now (for we all know that the more we have of something, the less likely we are to cherish it). Perhaps the busy mother knows better than most the preciousness of true free time.

And now that my youngest is four and I increasingly find myself with ‘freer’ hands, I have taken advantage of this newfound freedom at libraries: week after week, I mosey over to the used book sale shelves in hopes of discovering a book, one that just happens to be sitting there all lonesome and neglected, but whose title, book cover, or prose-at-a-snapshot tickles my curiosity.

Sure, some weeks turn up dry—yet that sporadic stumbling upon something potentially beautiful renders every trip worthwhile. I can’t be certain the book will live up to its enchanting shell; but for $1 or $2, the book is certainly worth a try (for every Timmy’s, Starbucks, or bubble tea I forgo, I have earned myself the reward of buying more books).

The discovery of the unsought for book (the unconsidered subject matter…) or a book of interest if only I had known it existed—has made a hunter out of me. Only recently has Amazon seen less of my business (there is something freeing about chancing upon a book without the aid of algorithms, “You may also like…”).

And as a Christian, I strive to read both religious and secular literature simultaneously. There is so much good writing to learn from, and even reflections of a worldly nature can evoke a spiritual pining that only serves to remind me of that verse in Ecclesiastes 3:11, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart…” or those words from C.S. Lewis:

“A man’s physical hunger does not prove that that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will. A man may love a woman and not win her; but it would be very odd if the phenomenon called ‘falling in love’ occurred in a sexless world. Here, then, is the desire, still wandering and uncertain of its object and still largely unable to see that object in the direction where it really lies.” (from Screwtape Proposes A Toast, “The Weight of Glory”)

Here, then, are snippets of my reading encounters so far this year (due to the already long list, I am excluding my Christian reading):

From Joyce Carol Oates’ memoir, A Widow’s Journey, a work exploring such themes as death, loss, mourning, meaning, endurance, and identity:

“Ray [Oates’ deceased husband] is an editor of living things. He doesn’t create them or cause them to live but he tends them, cares for them and allows them to thrive—to blossom, to yield fruit. Like editing, gardening requires infinite patience; it requires an essential selflessness and optimism” (11).

“John Updike once said that he’d created ‘Updike’ out of the sticks and mud of his Pennsylvania boyhood—so too, I’d created ‘Joyce Carol Oates’ out of the sticks, mud, fields and waterways of my upstate New York girlhood. Both of us—that is, our actual selves—John, Joyce—seem to have been amazed, over all, by the accomplishments of our namesakes.. A shelf of books looks formidable when glimpsed all at once—as if the achievement were all at once, instead of wrought—laboriously, obsessively—through years of effort” (254).

“A way to escape—elude—the sinkhole of the soul—is to immerse myself in work, For work is, if not invariably sanity, a counter-insanity… I am not able to write fiction any longer, except haltingly. Like a drunken woman staggering, colliding with walls, stunned…I am too exhausted, I have so little concentration… No more could I plan a new novel than I could trek across the Sahara or Antarctica… I will take out of a drawer a novel I’d finished before Ray died. To save myself, as a drowning person might seize a rope, a lifeline, to haul herself up—to haul herself up, up—I will rewrite this novel entirely… In this novel I will mourn my lost husband, as I’d believed I had mourned my lost father… In this way, I will try to defeat the basilisk jeering at me—I will ‘endure’” (356).
From Ray Robertson’s Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live:

In his chapter, “Work”:

“I had nonetheless learned a valuable literary lesson: there is no such thing as ‘writer’s block’ (an entirely imaginary disease afflicting both nothing-to-say professionals and not-knowing-how-to-say-it amateurs). Clearly, if you have something to say, say it; if not, don’t. Having nothing to write about doesn’t mean that you’re blocked—it means that you shouldn’t be writing” (34).

In his chapter, “Art”:

“And the best thing anyone can say about any work of art, whether it’s a novel, a painting, or a three minute rock song, is that it’s dangerous…dangerous in the way that Kafka defined all good art: as the careful application of an ice pick to the frozen sea within us. Genuine art speaks to no one else but you” (65).

In his chapter, “The Material World”:

“Even the heartiest humanistic optimist can’t help but occasionally wonder if the undeniable pleasures of the material world aren’t somehow compromised by their equally undeniable ephemerality” (79).

In his chapter, “Solitude”:

“Technology’s most recent bequest has provided humans with the means to almost entirely obliterate enforced solitude. In the past, even those afraid or uncertain of the sometimes intimidating intensity of stillness and quiet were at least occasionally compelled to ride the bus alone or to sit quietly on the toilet with nothing or no one else for company but their own taciturn souls…Perpetually drunk with distraction, we’re not becoming less knowledgeable—never have so many people had such easy access to so much information—just less human. And a head full of facts has never been a prerequisite for being wise. Busyness is the antithesis of creativity: the former is energetic but empty, the latter typically protracted but enduring” (126).


From Nicholas Delbanco’s Lastingness: The Art of Old Age:

(Note: I would pair this reading with J.I. Packer’s Finishing Our Course with Joy)

“For the elderly practitioner, perseverance is just as much as for the apprentice, a necessary component of the production of art…the willingness to stay interested, to pay the kind of alert attention to the world around you that the wide-eyed young routinely pay. I can remember when each morning seemed a burnished, shining thing, when every afternoon and night brought with it the possibility of something or someone not known before. Today there’s very little new beneath the fictive sun. When I was a beginning writer everything was mill-grist, every conversation worth transcribing or embroidering, each encounter consequential and all emotion fresh. It happens, still, but rarely—that inner imperative: the voice that urges one to pay attention, to learn. More often there’s exhaustion, a weary inability to persuade oneself that words matter or that an experience merits the recording; with so much verbiage everywhere, and so much of it fouled or wasted, why add your own daily extrusion to the language dump? …But all of this gets harder and harder to manage with conviction” (28).

“‘None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm’—so wrote Henry David Thoreau…The word itself derives from Greek en theos, and signals the arrival of the penetrating God… Rheumatic and more than half blind, in mourning for such friends as Stéphane Mallarmé and Alfred Sisley as well as a number of family members, Monet nonetheless continued to paint—by his own attestation from seven to eleven each morning and then again all afternoon—producing a kind of pantheist chapel and shrine to the visible world” (120).

Quoting Giuseppe Lampedusa: “When one reaches the decline of life it is imperative to try and gather together as many as possible of the sensations which have passed through our particular organism. Few can succeed in thus creating a masterpiece (Rousseau, Stendhal, Proust) but all should find it possible to preserve in some such way things which without this slight effort would be lost for ever. To keep a diary, or write down one’s own memories at a certain age, should be a duty ‘State-imposed’; material thus accumulated would have inestimable value after three or four generations; many of the psychological and historical problems that assail humanity would be resolved. There are no memories, even those written by insignificant people, which do not include social and graphic details of first-rate importance” (183).

“A common denominator of the final years would seem to be just such a constancy of purpose, a temperamental (often ill-tempered) stick-to-itiveness that denies decline. The admiring comments ‘But he seems so young’ or ‘She’s so energetic’ contain at least an overtone of the condescending reverse: ‘Why don’t they act their age?’ There’s a complicated back-and-forth of patience and impatience, the forward-facing and the conservative impulse; we desire both repetition and to start out anew” (204).

“Yet if ‘time is the great teacher,’ a senior artist ought to have earned wisdom to impart. She or he may grow more venturesome, less trammeled by propriety—even literally incontinent—once there seems less to lose. It’s not the young artist who seems iconoclastic or speaks truth to power; those who approach the end of life often do the same. Here too there’s a kind of defiance, a variation on the theme of ‘Death, where is thy sting?’ Leonardo da Vinci died at sixty-seven, but his self-portrait in ‘old age’ looks utterly unsparingly at wrinkles and white hair. What I’ve been trying to suggest is how these strategies wrest gain from loss, spin gold from straw, making something enduring of what feels fleet. And this is the reward accorded those who spend their life in art: For a brief period, and possibly far longer, they are not the fools of time” (205).


From Salman Khan’s (creator of Khan Academy) The One World Schoolhouse:

“People learn at different rates. Some people seem to catch on to things in quick bursts of intuition; others grunt and grind their way toward comprehension. Quicker isn’t necessarily smarter and slower definitely isn’t dumber. Further, catching on quickly isn’t the same as understanding thoroughly. So the pace of learning is a question of style, not relative intelligence” (20).

“This is one of the paradoxes and potential dangers of standardized tests: They measure mastery of a particular curriculum, but not necessarily of the underlying topics and concepts of which the curriculum should be based. The curriculum, in turn, becomes shaped by the expectations of what will be tested. So there’s a kind of circular logic, an endless loop going on. Teach what will be tested; test what most likely had been taught. Topics and ideas and levels of understanding that go beyond the probable parameters of the test tend to be ignored; they aren’t worth the classroom time” (166).

“The crucial task of education is to teach kids how to learn. To lead them to want to learn. To nurture curiosity, to encourage wonder, and to instill confidence so that later on they’ll have the tools for finding answers to the many questions we don’t yet know how to ask. In these regards, conventional education, with its emphasis on rote memorization, artificially sequestered concepts, and one-size-fits-all curricula geared too narrowly toward testing is clearly failing us” (180).

“We can go much farther, and get there far more efficiently, with self-paced study, mentoring, and hands-on experience. We can reach more ambitious goals if we are given the latitude to set those goals for ourselves” (189).

“One can appreciate and internalize neither logarithms nor Thoreau if they are force-fed at an artificial pace… When Newton or Gauss explored mathematics that unlocked mysteries of their universe, their intent was to empower—and maybe inspire—humanity. The goals of Twain, Dickens, or Austen were similar: to deeply entertain while opening our eyes and minds. Neither the great mathematicians’ nor the great writer’s goal was to create tools of torture for high school or college students—but that is how many students have grown to view their work” (240).

“…if you give students the opportunity to learn deeply and to see the magic of the universe around them, almost everyone will be motivated” (253).


In the world of narrative (be it fiction or nonfiction), one sits back appreciating an author’s ability to capture with poetic precision the spectrum of human emotion and experience:


From Tobias Wolff’s memoir This Boy’s Life:

“All my images of myself as I wished to be were images of myself armed. Because I did not know who I was, any image of myself, no matter how grotesque, had power over me. This much I understand now. But the man can give no help to the boy, not in this matter o nor in those that follow. The boy moves always out of reach” (27).

“Dwight’s [Wolff’s abusive stepfather] bill of particulars contained some truth. But it went on and on. It never ended, and before long it lost its power to hurt me. I experienced it as more bad weather to get through, not biting, just close and dim and heavy” (100).

“I rocked [my mother] and murmured to her. I was practiced at this and happy doing it, not because she was unhappy but because she needed me, and to be needed made me feel capable. Soothing her soothed me” (55).

“[Dwight] meant to impugn my father for being rich and living far away and having nothing to do with me, but all these qualities, even the last, perhaps especially the last, made my father fascinating. He had the advantage always enjoyed by the inconstant parent, of not being there to be found imperfect… This way of thinking worked pretty well until my first child was born… When I finally got my hands on [my child]…I felt a shadow, a coldness at the edges. It made me uneasy, so I ignored it. I didn’t understand what it was until it came upon me again that night, so sharply I wanted to cry out. It was about my father, ten years dead by then. It was grief and rage, mostly rage, and for days I shook with it when I wasn’t shaking with joy for my son, and for the new life I had been given” (122).


From Amanda Lindhout & Sara Corbett’s A House in the Sky, a memoir chronicling the harrowing experience of Amanda who is held as a hostage in Somalia for over 400 days: 

“When I was a girl, I trusted what I knew about the world. It wasn’t ugly or dangerous. It was strange and absorbing and so pretty that you’d want to frame it” (opening lines).

“Something happens when you are alone most of the time, when there are no distractions. Your mind grows more powerful—muscular, even. It takes over and starts to carry you” (220).

“As the weeks passed, I wished for things that were large and abstract—freedom, comfort, safety. Beyond that, my most specific longings involved food—plates of medium-rare steak, bags of candy, a cold beer in a frosted mug. I could pass two hours imagining one meal in granular detail, the ecstasy of making an omelet, for example, the chopping of a crisp green pepper, the sssss of butter melting in a pan,, the lemony yellow of eggs beaten in a bowl. More than anything, I craved a hug, the chance to fall into the arms of someone, anyone, who are about me” (222).

“I tried to climb away from the shock of what my life had become… I ate pancakes drizzled in syrup and took baths and watched sunlight pour through trees. This wasn’t longing, and it wasn’t insanity. It was relief. It got me through… Day by day, though, I collected up old sweetnesses and fed on them. I remembered the happier moments in my life, unfolding them with languorous slowness, time being the one currency I had to spend” (291).


From Ian McEwan’s The Children Act, a story about a high court judge who presides over contentious family cases and who must face the impact of her decisions which almost consume her:

“Perhaps it was perverse to discover in this sudden interruption a promise of freedom. On the other side of the city a teenager confronted death for his own or his parents’ beliefs. It was not her business or mission to save him, but to decide what was reasonable and lawful. She would have liked to see this boy for herself, remove herself from a domestic morass, as well as from the courtroom, for an hour or two, take a journey, immerse herself in the intricacies, fashion a judgment formed by her own observations. The parents’ beliefs might be an affirmation of their son’s, or a death sentence he dared not challenge. These days, finding out for yourself was highly unconventional. Back in the 1980s a judge could still have made the teenager a ward of court and see him in chambers or hospital or at home. Back then, a noble ideal had somehow survived into the modern era, dented and rusty like a suit of armor. Judges had stood in for the monarch and had been for centuries the guardians of the nation’s children. Nowadays, social workers from Cafcass did the job and reported back. The old system, slow and inefficient, preserved the human touch. Now, fewer delays, more boxes to tick, more to be taken on trust. The lives of children were held in computer memory, accurately, but rather less kindly” (37).


From Raymond Carver’s final book of poetry before passing away from cancer, A New Path to the Waterfall:

“The Attic”

Her brain is an attic where things

were stored over the years.

From time to time her face appears

in the little windows near the top of the house.

The sad face of someone who has been locked up and forgotten about.


In tasting these samples, I hope that you may be inclined to go off on your own little reading adventure, delighting in the discoveries you may find. As I tell my children, patience is an essential quality when reading–the will to see a book through, even sometimes to endure a book’s duller or more disagreeable moments so that we don’t miss the highs, which carry the prospect of broadening and deepening our perspectives on this world, even inspiring us to fashion for ourselves loftier, more artistically-ambitious goals.

Recommended: Running Scared: Fear, Worry, and the God of Rest by Edward T. Welch

Last year fall, after finishing Edward T. Welch’s Running Scared: Fear, Worry, and the God of Rest, I have found myself repeatedly returning to my highlights of passages in the book. The title had caught my eye as I was scrolling through Kindle deals, and I had casually thought to myself that it would be a book I should read considering the anxiety-ridden person I tend to be. Turned out, I needed to hear Welch’s words more than I realized.

What I appreciate most about this book is that I felt as though the author was speaking to me personally— sensitively and empathetically addressing the basis for my fears and worries. Often when I am reading a book, an inner voice (at times a skeptical one, I admit) comments on the ideas proposed—but Welch anticipates those moments and speaks right into them (not surprising, I guess, considering his background in psychology and biblical counseling).

The result was an emotional, edifying, and liberating read—so much so that 10 months after reading the book, I had it on my task list for the summer to recommend here.

Quotes from Running Scared:

“The code by which fear and anxiety live is primal: multiply. As we possess more things, care about more people, accumulate more bad experiences, and watch…the evening news, it is as if we absorb fear.”

“To deeply understand fear we must also look at ourselves and the way we interpret our situations. Those scary objects can reveal what we cherish. They point out our insatiable quest for control, our sense of aloneness.”

“Fear and anxiety say this: “You want something, and you might not get it.”

“There is a close connection between what we fear and what we think we need…Whatever you need is a mere stone’s throw from what you fear.”

“If fear were just about a dangerous world, there would be little I could do. But if it is about me, maybe there is a way through it.”

“An experienced worrier can go for days leapfrogging from past to future and back again, never landing in the present.”

“To put it bluntly, worriers don’t listen very well. It takes something more powerful than logic and statistical probabilities to assuage our fear and anxieties.”

“If I imagine the worst, I will be more prepared for it. Worry is looking for control. It is still irrational because worry will not prepare us for anything, but at least it has its reasons. Going one step further to track this message back to its origins, there is an entire worldview implicit in some worry. It cries out about an ultimate aloneness. There is no one who can really help. No one can rescue. No one is really looking out for you.”

“The plan, of course, is genius. Dump a year’s supply of manna into cold storage and, guaranteed, you will forget God until the supply disappears (Deut. 8: 10—14). Such prosperity would be a curse. God’s strategy is to give us enough for today and then, when tomorrow comes, to give us enough for that day too. Do you see how this is exactly what we need? Fears and worries live in the future, trying to assure a good outcome in a potentially hard situation. The last thing they want to do is trust anyone, God included. To thwart this tendency toward independence, God only gives us what we need when we need it. The emerging idea is that he wants us to trust him in the future rather than our self-protective plans.”

“How can we spiritually grow to the point where we see there are things more valuable than food, shelter, reputation, even life itself?”

“In the wilderness story, God tells us up front that he is the God of suspense. In the course of that story, he assures us that there will be times when we feel surrounded, facing insurmountable odds with no apparent way out. That, in fact, is part of his good plan for us. He also tells us that he will bring us to the end of our own cleverness because that is when we are most apt to acknowledge his strong hand alone.”

“When we don’t know the true God, we assume that he is like ourselves, which is a terrifying thought.”

“Most fears link to our doubts about God’s generosity and attention to detail… Dangers abound, and life is comprised of hourly risks, but the real issue behind worry is that of spiritual allegiances.”

“Remember that God’s stories in Scripture are progressive—they keep getting better. It is as if we are given small doses of reality when we are very young and can’t grasp God’s sophisticated love and care. When we are older and have witnessed more of God’s ways, we are prepared to hear it all.”

“You will be given all the grace you need when you need it… knowing that there is grace for tomorrow has made the most noticeable difference on my own anxieties and fears. The hurdle that was always in front of me was that I couldn’t imagine that grace, which is another way of saying that I limited God to the size of my own imagination.”

“When fearful, first recount who God is. Remember that he has promised to be found by those who seek him. Review stories of his beauty and perfection until you find yourself confident in him. Then pray.”

“Fearful people don’t tend to be activists. They would prefer not to stand out or come under the scrutiny of others. But life in the kingdom changes our natural bents.”

“Great peace have they who love your law, and nothing can make them stumble” (Ps. 119: 165). The goal is not the alleviation of anxiety so much as it is the pursuit of God’s purposes. If God’s ways mean an increase in fear and anxiety, so be it, but, of course, the opposite is true. As we apply the gospel of peace, we will know peace.”

“We must stand in protest against the kingdom of earth, which says that there is nothing more than today, so it’s best to eat, drink, and be merry. We must do hope. To begin, we confess that our fears and worries reveal us. We have bought the lie that tragedy is the last word. Though that might seem like a simple misunderstanding to be treated with a slight cognitive correction, the reality is that such a belief is highly personal. It says that God is neither good nor in control. We are essentially saying that God’s promises aren’t true; that he is a liar. Can you see how repentance is usually the beginning of change? The reason why simple information doesn’t dislodge fear is that our problem is rarely lack of knowledge. It is usually misplaced allegiances.”

“What you see is that the world is organized into two kingdoms, and the boundary between those two kingdoms…cuts right through each of our hearts. Our preference is to straddle that line, but our patient God keeps persuading us to be wholeheartedly devoted to his kingdom. There is no other way to distance ourselves from fear and anxiety.”

 (In God’s sovereign and providential care of me, I wound up reading Welch’s book six months before a best friend of mine passed away, and I was catapulted back to a state of anxiety and worry again. But that shall be another entry… I am currently finishing Timothy Keller’s Walking with God in Pain and Suffering and will be blogging about that read as well. Together, Welch and Keller’s books have been instrumental and vital companions for me during this rather difficult year.)


A Mother’s Delayed Confession

My husband recently began—spontaneously and unprompted—repairing a wall in our bedroom. He had done the research (he’s a tech geek, not a DIY guy), ventured repeatedly to Home Depot, and spent consecutive evenings fixing a small but noticeable hole in our wall. Ten years ago, this freshly-painted wall had been marred—by me. After he put in the finishing touches, the wall looked good as new—like nothing had ever happened.

“…though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; 
though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” Isaiah 1:18

The wall had whispered a past moment of weakness—and with it now perfectly patched up, it could easily remain in the past. But its disappearance resonated with me, a moving picture of redemption hidden in the mundane. And presently, I feel moved to make the moment unhidden.

At some point, after 14 years of marriage, romance can become disguised in things like dry wall, spackle, and paint. I nearly missed it. The husband had been preoccupied with the repair project all week. We spent little time together. But there he was devoting hours restoring a damage that I had wreaked on our then newly purchased house without a grumble or tease about the incident.

The children had never noticed (it had been roughly patched up the first time around), its unsightliness subtle against the backdrop of an espresso bookshelf, a writing desk, and a window that overlooked a ravine. But Dad’s bustling labouring drew their attention to the disfigurement.

“What happened?” they asked the amateur handyman. His terse response drove them to me for an explanation.

“Dad said you did that,” they remarked. Amusement and intrigue were written all over their faces. They were as astonished as their father had been the first time he laid eyes on it.

I nodded matter-of-factly. “It happened after you were born,” I began to recount, looking at my firstborn. “It got easier with the next babies, but it was hard taking care of you for the first time. It hurts afterward to have a baby come out of you…I wasn’t sleeping, you cried a lot, and breastfeeding was painful…Mommy was having a hard time. I was frustrated and I let it out on that wall… In my defense, I didn’t realize drywall is so flimsy. [I turn to my daughter] Please still give me grandchildren…”


10 Years Ago (as I recall it…)

My husband edged through the doorway, his attention arrested by a distressing sound coming from upstairs.

He caught glimpse of the fresh hole in the wall, the size of a fist, on the far side of the bedroom.

Alarm washed over his face.

He glanced at us, on the bed, me and the baby. He was asleep in my arms—a momentary reprieve, a daily sought prize of my new reality.

Are you okay? What’s wrong? He likely would have said.

How had I answered his question?

I must have uttered few words. To do so was admitting weakness, defeat, selfishness.

Confined to a house. Circumstances no longer under my control. Emotions awry due to sleep deprivation. Exasperation with a baby who wailed when not in my arms. Blocked ducts. Yes, the husband helping—assembling a rocking chair and crib, picking up takeout, running errands back and forth—and yet—I coveted his freedom.

I grew resentful.


The damaged wall continued to make him nervous. Never had he witnessed this behaviour from me. What was running through his mind? Heart-breaking tales of mothers and their newborns. Perhaps those stories were not as far away as he imagined.

Should I be worried about the baby? I think he said.

Of course not, I said, in disbelief that he doubted my sense of duty.

Do I need to hire help? I remember him saying—his pragmatism kicking in, an immediate offer of a solution to whatever I was grappling with.

Just as quickly I rejected it. No, I don’t need help, I insisted, feeling insulted. I cradled our newborn even closer. Of course I can do this… The wall merely a momentary lapse, an irrational outburst, a cry for sympathy…

I shall now return to persevering in this new existence called Motherhood. 

How many people had known about our bedroom wall at the time? Only my husband. Embarrassment and shame clinched my lips. For the faint-hearted like me, only the passing of time unlocks the will of self-disclosure. Fragility, volatility, desperation remain otherwise buried.

My prayers, too, were weak. I was not a cancer victim: I had blocked ducts. Who was I to complain? Who was I to ask for relief?

“You have kept count of my tossings; 
put my tears in your bottle. 

Are they not in your book?” Psalm 56:8

 “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. 
For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, 

but the Spirit himself intercedes for us 

with groanings too deep for words.” Romans 8:26

“Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, 
that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Hebrews 4:16

Unbeknownst to many first-time pregnant mothers invited to my home—to pray, to be encouraged to ask questions or to voice anxieties, to listen to my early motherhood struggles (though I never once mentioned the wall), to receive unsolicited advice— is that the impulse stems from a past but not forgotten place of helplessness.

Pain, redeemed.

Wall, restored.


Related Topic: The Value of Sleep Training, A Look at Dr. Weissbluth’s Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child

The Prayer of a Weary Mother Who Aspires to Write

As I sit here on this Sabbath day

Trying mightily to write

Lord, humble me till I can say

Some telltale story of the Light.


Much faith does this endeavour take

Each word and picture in my mind so raw;

But a blind and blazing trust for Your Sake

Might turn to glory what, at first, is a gentle gnaw.


The journey shall be long

And tumble and thrash I will;

O Lord—turn this cacophony to a golden song:

Teach me to be still.


My days are written in your Book

Numbering the stories I can tell

Let me not wander and squander all that’s good

Mercy on this feeble pen to journey well.


For the beauty of your Presence

Is much too wondrous to conceal

Any hint of hurry or hesitance

Would steer souls from the Real.


So though these moments are so few

What I can—may I do:

What becomes of it, I dutifully resign

To whatsoever you may choose.


By Priscilla Wong

April 29, 2018


Books I’ve Read (or Started) in 2017

“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Philippians 4:8

“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” Proverbs 4:23


I must admit that I’m not great at keeping track of the books I read. (Whenever I purchase a book, however, I do make a point of putting the date of when the book was read on the inside cover before returning it to my shelf.) Thanks to Kindle as well as library and audio book accounts, it’s much easier to look back on the books I’ve read in a given year. I must also note that my reading list has increased since taking a hiatus from Facebook. It also helps that I can snag books for about the price of a coffee by scouting Tim Challies’ blog (see his daily list of Kindle deals).

Books I’ve Completed So Far…

Looking at my list, I seem to be drawn to Christian autobiographies (Tippetts, Rhodes, Weber, and Ramsey). Often before retiring for bed, I love submerging in a personal narrative that shows theological truths in the intricate life of a fellow believer–especially when the life is presented honestly and in beautiful prose. I suffer from restless sleep quite regularly and find myself turning to one of these at four in the morning to lull me back to sleep. 

Kara Tippetts’ And It was Beautiful: Celebrating Life in the Midst of the Long Good-bye

Sammy Rhodes’ This is Awkward: How Life’s Uncomfortable Moments Open the Door to Intimacy and Connection

J.I. Packer’s Finishing Our Course with Joy

Timothy Keller’s Romans 1-7 For You

Carolyn Weber’s Surprised by Oxford: A Memoir

Russ Ramsey’s StruckOne Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death 

John Sutherland’s A Little History of Literature

J. Stephen Lang’s The Christian History Devotional 

Audio Books I’ve Listened to So Far

Audio books are great to squeeze in while I’m doing household chores like dicing vegetables for dinner or folding three baskets full of laundry. During these child-rearing years–I reason–how many books could I wind up listening to if I do this on a weekly or monthly basis? What kind of education could I give myself in the comforts of my own kitchen or bedroom as I tend to the needs of my family? 

Matt Chandler and Michael Snetzer’s Recovering Redemption: A Gospel-Saturated Perspective on How to Change

Sol Stein’s On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies

Michael Reeves’s The English Reformation & The Puritans (lectures on ”Tyndale and the Early Reformers,” “Henry VIII,” “Edward VI and Mary I,” and “Elizabeth and the Rise of the Puritans”)

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Honest Thief

Derek W. H. Thomas’s The Pilgrim’s Progress: A Guided Tour from Ligonier Ministries

C.S. Lewis’s The Art of Writing and the Gifts of Writers (not yet completed)

Francis A. Schaeffer’s The God Who Is There (not yet completed)

Anton Chekhov’s In a Strange Land and Other Stories (first two stories)

Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories (first two stories)

Online Video

Dr. Michael J. Kruger’s Romans Bible Study series (Season 1, Weeks 1-18)


Not Yet Finished

Susan M. Tiberghien’s One Year to a Writing Life: Twelve Lessons to Deepen Every Writer’s Art and Craft

Timothy Keller’s Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God

Leland Ryken, Philip Ryken & Todd Wilson’s Pastors in the Classics: Timeless Lessons on Life and Ministry from World Literature

Pat Ennis and Lisa Tatlock’s Practicing Hospitality: The Joy of Serving Others 

N.D. Wilson’s Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God’s Spoken Word

Francis A. Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture

John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

Sir Marcus Loane’s Masters of the English Reformation (the chapters on Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley)

J.C. Ryle’s Five English Reformers (the chapters on Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley)


Noteworthy Books Read Aloud to Kids

Simonetta Carr’s Christian Biographies for Young Readers: Augustine of HippoJohn KnoxJohn CalvinMartin Luther

Pilgrim’s Progress in Today’s English retold by James H. Thomas (read Part I aloud to my children)

C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; The Horse and His Boy (library CD); The Magician’s Nephew (library CD)

Bruce Coville’s retelling of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and JulietMacbethHamletTwelfth NightA Midsummer Night’s DreamThe Tempest


I plan to read all of these books to my children for the 2017/2018 school year.

Robinson Crusoe
Gulliver’s Travels
Hunchback of Notre-Dame
* The kids are enjoying these. My fourth-grader could actually read these himself, but I wanted my second-grader to be able to enjoy them simultaneously as they coincide with our history study of Early Modern Times.  The end of the books also have reflection questions for the children to answer.
Oliver Jeffers’ A Child of Books (kids were delighted to spot the titles of classics we’ve read in the illustrations!)
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