Wilderlands

The blog has been dormant for a few weeks, and for that I apologize.

I’ve been working on plotting the first part of the novel I’m working on ahead of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I’ve been challenged by a good friend and talented writer to see who can get to 50,000 words faster during the event. I’ve never participated before; she’s successfully completed the challenge eight years running.

So, I’ve been diligently working my outline and characters in the hopes that this will allow for smooth writing with a minimum of writer’s block. I haven’t written anything that will be in the novel yet (that would be unfair), but I am trying to detail scenes with specificity and to get faults in the plot out of the way from the outset.

This, I hope, explains the lack of posting on the blog. A few things have come up that I’d like to write about, but everything is likely on hold until the end of November. Once I’m done with the competition, I’ll go on to plotting the rest of the novel and return to writing blog posts more regularly.

I’m (very) tentatively calling the novel Wilderlands

Mindmaps for Writing

As I’m plotting the first of my currently-planned novels, I thought I’d share some of my experiences that might be helpful to other writers.

Before long, I’ll post about my own experiences specific to apps and tools I’ve found supremely helpful so far. That said, I found all of these apps and programs by searching the web, so in the interim you can, too. As a shortcut to the things I’m getting the most mileage out of: Scrivener (PC), Index Cards 4 (IOS/Ipad), Mindly (IOS 4/Ipad).

In this post, I’m going to focus on the process used by the latter app–mindmaps. If you’re not familiar, mindmaps are a way of visually organizing thoughts into webs of association. I imagine that, on one occasion or another, many of us have done something like this intuitively without thinking about it. I’m sure that there’s not just one way to do this, but the common fashion seems to be the construction of planetary orbits–a central idea around which sub-ideas float, each potentially with their own sub-ideas ad infinitum.

For me, a tool is only as good as the time it saves me, and this is why (I think) the popularity of mindmaps has soared in recent years. On paper, a mindmap will likely take more time to configure than it eliminates, as you draw, erase and redraw ideas and associations. To gain some advantage, one could use index cards to create easily-reconfigurable mind maps on a table or corkboard, but even this adds unnecessary time and effort to the process that is obviated by the use of software that handles those background tasks efficiently and intuitively.

For me, mindmaps are a consummate brainstorming tool. As such, I use them with a specific approach to brainstorming that I have found greatly helpful in avoiding mental blocks and “analysis paralysis.” I learned this process from the Great Course by Gerard Puccio, “The Creative Thinker’s Toolkit.”

As Dr. Puccio teaches, there are several stages to brainstorming (and I hope I remember them correctly). The first is to identify the problem–for a mindmap, this becomes the center of the mindmap’s universe, the first thing entered around which all else will orbit. Stages two and three are to be repeated as much as necessary. In stage two, without judgment, criticism or analysis, you simply write down all the ideas you can think of related to the problem. It is only when you reach stage three that you turn the critical eye toward your ideas, thinking about which might work and which might not.

For a mindmap, I think it’s a good idea to be fluid about how you go about applying stages two and three. One strategy is to deal with one tier of the mindmap at a time. Alternatively, you may progress to using stages two and three on subtiers before returning to higher-level orbits.

An example will be better than explanation. Right now, my favorite use of mindmaps is for resolving plot problems–not meta-problems in the structure of the plot, mind you, but the sorts of problems that are: “oh, that’s an interesting obstacle, how do my characters resolve it?”

The obstacle goes in the center of the map. Now we go to our first round of brainstorming. Here, I list all of the large-scale ideas about possible resolutions. For instance, this morning, I’ve run into an issue in my plot where the characters have run out of money and need a way to get more. I filled the first orbit with all the possible things I could think of that might make the characters money. Here, I’m not asking questions of each methodology and I’m not trying to eliminate anything–the goal is to create as expansive a list of options as is possible.

Once this is done, I have choices about how to proceed. I could go to stage three and start to eliminate the more-outlandish or less-useful ideas I came up with in the brainstorming. Typically, though, I prefer to go to an additional set of brainstorming first, taking each idea created in orbit around the problem in turn and brainstorming ideas, plot consequences, and connections that will orbit around each of the ideas I created in the first round of brainstorming. Once this is done, then I go to the first round of analysis, eliminating those first-tier ideas for which I either couldn’t come up with much further or for which the additional ideas I did generate simply don’t work for reasons of plot, logic, characters, etc.

Protip: teachers of writing and authors themselves often use the following mantra when constructing plot: “What’s the worst thing that could happen to this character? That’s what I’ll make happen.” You can get a lot of mileage out of that, too, I’m sure.

I’ve found this system immensely useful for eliminating or preventing writer’s block. As a bonus, more often than not, this process adds twists, subplots, additional set-up scenes and more that enhances both the plot itself and its flow.

Many of the mindmapping apps are available for a free trial–it took me exploring a few different ones before I stuck with Mindly, which seems to be the most intuitive and least obstrusive of the ones I experimented with. It has free trial for use on Ipad and is worth checking out. Regardless of the platform, though, I highly suggest you experiment with mindmaps as brainstorming tools for writing–not just for plot, but for creating characters and setting, generating writing prompts, mapping the flow of scenes and more.

Brief Outline of My Theology

Since this blog is, in part, about my theological ideas, I figured it’s only fair to provide some background into my approach and the broad-strokes theory of my approach to Christian theology. I have been working on a book laying out the core tenants of this approach (an early chapter draft of which was posted on the blog), but I don’t expect to be returning to moving forward on the book until after finishing at least the first draft of one of the two novels I’m currently working on.

Let us begin with the brief statement that I take as true the statements of the Apostles’ Creed—to keep this a “brief” outline, I’m going to need to take a few shortcuts.

We begin with an existential approach. I mean a few things by this. First, I start with human perception and experience to develop philosophy and theology—there simply is no other good place to start. Second, I acknowledge the difference between essence and existence—what things are and what they seem are not always the same. We may sometimes approximate the objective truth—which I maintain does exist as the true creation and will of God—but our own failings in understanding and perception mean that we must be constantly be guarded about our confidence in our own understanding. Hence, I adopt a position of epistemological skepticism regarding human knowledge with the caveats that I believe that direct revelation from God is possible to reveal objective truth to individuals (but because of the existential divide between individuals objective truth must be experienced directly and cannot be argued or explained to others with true efficacy) and that I believe that limited human understanding is sufficient to approach absolute truth, though we may never understand the absolute in its glorious infinitude of complexity. Human understanding is at best asymptotic—we may veer ever closer to the Truth, but it yet remains out of our full grasp.

As a minor aside, this approach acknowledges the value of human logic and rationality for building arguments to draw our understanding closer to absolute Truth while admitting the limitation of logic to fully do so—we are to be critical thinkers and to weigh evidence (thus relying on science were appropriate) while acknowledging that not all Truth is to be derived from logic—some may only be derived from ineffably experience.

The existence of God and God’s will underlying creation means that I must break with non-religious existentialist philosophers. I do not believe that the result of the existentialist approach is meaninglessness in the universe. Rather, the divide between objective truth and meaning as established by God and our own limited existential understandings creates a slippage that is best referred to, I think, as ambiguity. I’ve written several posts about ambiguity and the results of such a state on the blog, but they’re probably worth summarizing here.

Ambiguity creates a space of freedom for mankind. To paraphrase Joss Whedon: “If nothing we do in the universe matters, the only thing that matters in the universe is what we do.” In other words, ambiguity allows us to create meaning—God has called us to be agents of co-creation through this existential quandary. With God’s absolute meaning not readily available to us, we are forced to participate in creation in defining what has meaning and what meaning should be assigned to all aspects of existence. There is, I think, of necessity some amount of suffering that must be attached to such a state of being, though I acknowledge that this assertion fails to provide anything approaching a complete theodicy (though human inability to fully resolve the problem of evil seems to reinforce my arguments about epistemological skepticism and our ability only to approach the approximation of Truth). Thus, the existential approach to Christian theology (at least as I argue it) sees a great goodness in ambiguity, despite the existential angst it may sometimes cause us. Ambiguity allows for freedom of will, relationship and participation in Creation—an active role for humanity. In particular, I follow Paul Tillich’s ideas about humans as creators of meaning—primarily as storytellers. There is neither room nor will at present to address other aspects of his own existential theology.

Humans create meaning through relationship—Thing A is more like Thing B than Thing C. Only by comparison can we create meanings; unlike God we do not create ex nihilo but only from the building blocks with which we have been provided. We determine what is hard by opposing it to what is soft, what is pleasant to what is unpleasant, what is good to what is evil. Again, it is important to understand the careful distinction here between God and man. God may know good without evil, because God creates and understands the absolute. We do not. This is not relativism, where meaning itself is flexible. Our meaning may be measured against the absolute meaning of God, though not by us.

It is no coincidence that we create meaning by relationship—our purpose is relational. We are told that our God is love and love, of course, is about relationship. I believe there is good reason to believe that we were created for relationship—with God and each other.

If one accepts that we created meaning through vast webs of cognitive relationships, categories and comparisons, then we find a ready definition of both sin and holiness through the comparison of the meanings we create for ourselves with the meanings God intends in the creation and maintenance of the absolute. Sin is a state of being—one caused by ascribing to improper meanings (and thus improper relationships to the detriment of both sides). “Greed is good,” a definitional meaning clearly rejected by God in the person of Jesus Christ provides a ready example. One who accepts that meaning will be pushed out of positive, righteous relationships—with money and material things, with others, with justice, with self, with God.

On the other hand, we are told in the Sermon on the Mount to make ourselves “perfect as [our] Father in Heaven is perfect.” We define this as holiness; it is the natural consequence of adopting meanings and relationships between things more and more in line with the absolute meanings established by God. Often, we call this process of re-evaluation and re-definition of meaning “sanctification.”

Therein lies the power of Christianity—by the will of the Father, through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ and with the help of the Holy Spirit, we are able to desire to redefine our world as God would have us do. The start of this journey is, I believe, the heart being “strangely warmed” as Wesley would recall or, in another sense, being “born again.”

Why all of this? Because God desires relationship with us, but relationship itself only has meaning when freely entered into. Thus, God created humans to have free will, that we may create meaning and relationship for ourselves, but also gave us grace, that we might learn to choose what is good and to reject what is not. God wants us to be both free and good, for that is where relationship with God lies. I invite you to ponder the complexity of that combination—it is no surprise that faith is full of mystery, theology full of frustration.

In a previous blog post, I’ve stated that I call this theology “New Mysticism.” This is a matter of the acknowledgment of the non-logical (perhaps I should say “extra-logical”); that any knowledge we have of absolute Truth comes from God’s revelation. The most powerful form of this revelation is the Word of God—as Barth would define the term—the person of Jesus Christ. This must be separated from our understanding of the Bible as the “Word of God.” The Bible contains divine revelation for us, undoubtedly, but the true power of the Bible is its propensity for drawing us into a personal experience of the person of Jesus, not simply its usefulness as a tool to scour with our logic for glimpses of the absolute. In other words, the person of Jesus Christ is the divine manifestation of absolute meaning and Truth, our “north star” as it were. Jesus is not simply the teacher of the Truth (although he is that); Jesus is Truth itself. This understanding supersedes logic because Truth is the very nature of the universe itself, to which logic is subservient.

This approach allows us to appreciate other religions—these are full of people who are actively seeking after divine Truth and meaning, and perhaps finding some modicum of it here and there—while maintaining the assertion that Christianity is “the more excellent way,” because the center of Christianity—the Triune God—is Truth itself knowable only through direct experience of relationship with the Truth.

Please understand that such short space does a poor job of laying out the theology I have been (and still am) developing according to my own understanding and experience. It absolutely fails here to explore the many ramifications and consequences of such a theology. I have at best only touched upon some the expected points of a systematic theology—Christology, pneumatology, etc.

Nevertheless, I hope that this brief outline piques your interest—these ideas pervade all of my theological posts on the blog and you will be able to explore it more fully by reading through my various posts. One day, soon if God is willing, I will present it in greater length in book format, stepping through these points and more chapter by chapter.

In the meantime, I look forward to your comments, criticisms and questions as I continue to develop this theology into something truly systematic and—as much as any theology can be (which is to say “not really”)—complete.