tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Bird By Bird is a book about life as much as it is about writing

One of the nicest things I did in 2005 was read a book by Anne Lamott called “Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.” This is a book about writing but I would encourage anyone to read it because it is filled with wisdom applicable to everyone, regardless of their vocation.

Lamott offers a lot of very good advice for writing, such as “good dialogue encompasses both what is said and what is not said,” and “plot grows out of character… Characters should not serve as pawns for some plot you’ve dreamed up,” and “Novels ought to have hope…there’s no point in writing hopeless novels. We all know we’re going to die; what’s important is the kind of men and women we are in the face of this.”

Her advice gives us writers a lot to think about. She emphasizes the importance of the process of writing. She notes that so many people like the idea of getting published and don’t think much of actually writing. Most people like the idea of having written more than the idea of writing. But the fact is, a person doesn’t have a lot of control over whether they get published, only over whether they write. Lamott notes that getting published brings only a small measure of satisfaction that wears off relatively quickly, while writing brings a great sense of satisfaction that cannot be taken away from you.

But even more enjoyable than Lamott’s advice about writing are her observations that apply to life in general. Consider these little gems:

“My deepest belief is that to live as if we’re dying can set us free. Dying people teach you to pay attention and to forgive and not to sweat the small things.”

“To be a great writer [and I would say, a great person], you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care… A writer always tries to be a part of the solution, to understand a little about life and to pass this on.”

“If you don’t believe what you are saying, there is no point in saying it.”

“To be engrossed by something outside ourselves is a powerful antidote for the rational mind, the mind that so frequently has its head up its own ass –- seeing things in such a narrow and darkly narcissistic way that it presents a colo-rectal theology, offering hope to no one.”

Lamott quotes Annie Dillard, another great writing instructor with something to say about life: “Day by day you have to give the work before you all the best stuff you have, not saving up for later projects. If you give freely, there will always be more.” That’s a philosophy that requires a certain amount of faith. Lamott takes the idea further and says: “You are going to have to give and give and give, or there’s no reason for you to be writing…There is no cosmic importance to your getting something published but there is in learning to be a giver.”

Real love is something you give without expecting anything back, and that is why writing is a good metaphor for love. Writing does require you to give and give, and it is rare that you get much back for it. People who write for years don’t do it because they get something for it, but because they are happy to give something to it. That’s a lot like love.

In paperback, Lamott’s book is 227 pages; it’s an easy read, partly because she writes with a sense of humor that I haven’t found in a lot of other serious books. I consider Bird By Bird to be a real treasure and I will keep a copy close to me and re-read it every now and then for affirmation about my love for writing and my love for life.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Merry Christmas

Now that December 25th has passed, I finally have a little time to think about Christmas. The Incarnation is such a great blessing, God made man, in the flesh. It brings a sort of sanctity to materialism –- not in the sense of what we see at the shopping malls in the weeks leading up to Christmas, but in the sense of our earthly life, the here and now, that those people and things around us are important…really, really important.

We got a DVD player in our house recently and I discovered that movies for home viewing often include “additional material” –- things like deleted scenes and an interview with the director. Wouldn’t it be cool if it worked this way for writers? If I should ever publish another book, I will be certain to include in the back all the material that I initially decided to cut out.

But wouldn’t it be even cooler if it worked this way in life? I would love to be able to delete some scenes from my life, or include extra scenes, or add an interview to explain what I was trying to do. If we were making a DVD about the Bengtson family in 2005, it might include these scenes:

* The entire Bengtson clan, all 29 of us, meeting in the Wisconsin Dells for a family reunion in July
* A Kjos family reunion, featuring barbecue in our back yard
* Paula, our 10-year-old fifth-grader, playing in her first piano recital
* John, our 9-year-old third-grader, playing in two guitar recitals
* Catherine, our 6-year-old first-grader, learning to ride a bike without training wheels
* Michael, our 3-year-old, entering pre-school
* Susan, the gracious matriarch, helping too many people to count
* And Tom, learning for a week at Georgetown University on a fellowship for business reporters.

Deleted scenes: I would edit out frustrations at work related to our facilities; Hurricane Katrina which permanently damaged New Orleans, one of my favorite cities; and the Gopher football season, featuring a team that at times showed so much promise but ultimately lost too many games to earn even an end-of-season ranking. (Good luck at the Music City Bowl, Dec. 30!)

Bonus interview: I would explain how much I love my wife and kids, how much I value friendship and family, how grateful I am to my colleagues at work, and how much hope I have for all of us living in the early 21st Century despite debilitating distractions and damning temptations.

Christmas Day was a great blessing at our home, and if anyone had filmed it, they would have seen a gift exchange that delighted the children and adults alike, sledding in the afternoon, and our first-ever fancy family dinner in the dining room. Christmas Mass the evening before grounded us in the meaning of the day, which we celebrate only because God gave us something to celebrate.

We wish you a blessed season during the remaining 12 Days of Christmas, and a bountiful new year.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Growing Up (a short story)

On the second day of January, two weeks before Paula was to turn seven years old, I told her there was no Santa Claus.

“Is there a Santa Claus?” she asked me as she lay in bed during our normal bedtime routine.

“Oh, yes,” I said.

“But is Santa Claus real?” she persisted.

“Saint Nicholas was a real person and Santa Claus is another name for Saint Nicholas. Santa means saint and Claus is short for Nicholas,” I explained.

A few minutes of silence passed. Then she asked again: “Is Santa Claus real?”

“Santa Claus is the spirit of Christmas and that is very real,” I said. “But as you know Christmas isn’t really about Santa Claus, it’s about the birth of Jesus.”

Paula sat up and began to cry. I hate it when she does that. Her crying will wake Catherine, asleep in a crib in a room only a few feet away. It will disrupt John, in another room where Susan is trying to get him to go to sleep.

“Paula,” I asked. “Why are you crying?”

“Because you won’t tell me the truth about Santa Claus,” she said.

“I’m telling you the truth,” I protested. “Santa Claus is the spirit of Christmas.”

She continued to cry. I couldn’t tell her there’s no Santa Claus. It would be like taking away a little of her childhood. I love the innocence of my little girl. How could I bear to see any of that disappear?

When I was a kid, I never asked my parents if Santa Claus was real. Oh, I knew there was no Santa; I didn’t need my parents to confirm it, although maybe I didn’t know as early as first grade. When I did figure it out, I did what anyone in my family would have done -– I didn’t talk about it.

That blasted Natasha! She’s the first-grade schoolmate who told all the kids in Paula’s class that Santa’s a fake. Paula came home and told us all about it the day it happened. In damage control mode, we told Paula some kids don’t believe, but we knew Santa was real. Susan called Natasha’s mom to inform her of her daughter’s destructive truthfulness.

“Paula, please stop crying,” I pleaded.

“No, not until you tell me the truth,” she said.

“Okay, Paula, you are right. There is no Santa Claus.”

Long, silent pause. I can’t believe I just said it. (Paula blackmailed it out of me.) Paula can’t believe what she just heard.

“Really?” she responded timidly, a smile creeping across her face. She stopped crying and lay back down in bed.

“We put those presents under the tree,” I said.

“And you put the candy in the stockings?” Paula clarified.


“And you eat the cookies and drink the milk we leave out for Santa Claus?”

“I do.”

“I thought I saw cookie crumbs on your lip on Christmas!” she said. “Hey, did you give yourself a present last Christmas and say it was from Santa?”


There was a long silence. Paula continued to wear a smile.

“Daddy,” she said.

“Yes, Paula.”

“Is the Easter Bunny real?” she asked.

“No, the East Bunny’s not real,” I conceded, the truth unraveling out of my control.

“How about Saint Nicholas?” she asked.

“There was a real Saint Nicholas,” I said.

“Yes, but one who puts the candy in my shoes?” she persisted.

“We do that, mom and me,” I said.

There was another long, silent pause. The interrogation apparently was over.

“Now Paula, you listen to me,” I said, grabbing her chin to turn her face toward mine. “You are not to tell anyone what I just told you. You cannot tell John. You cannot tell Catherine. You cannot tell anyone at school.”

“How about my teacher?” she wanted to know.

“No, don’t talk to her about this,” I said.

“Dad, are you going to tell mom about this?” Paula asked.

“Yes. But Paula, it is very important that you keep this to yourself,” I said. “You can’t spoil it for the kids who believe.”

“I won’t tell anyone, Daddy,” Paula assured.

She didn’t say anything else. Within a few minutes she fell asleep. She looked a lot older to me than she had 15 minutes ago. I told my wife and she sighed.

“She’s growing up,” Susan observed.