Make Up Your Mind: The newsletter for readers, thinkers, and listeners
"As a Christian, I am responsible for the furniture of my mind and imagination.”
~ Frank Gaebelein, “Christian Responsibility in the Arts"
Why start a new newsletter? What is the goal of a Homeschool MFA? The short and selfish answer is that I am planning my own education and need public accountability for those plans. A monthly email feels like enough pressure.
The longer answer is still unfolding as I find new reasons, weekly, for wanting to handle words better. My first goal in planning my own Homeschool MFA is to furnish my mind with what will be pleasing to Christ, taking in as much of the mystery and beauty of His world as He allows. I don’t need a college degree to do this. A Master of Fine Arts degree (MFA) would be wonderful, but my real work and responsibility is in stewarding the information that is already at my fingertips—the books, articles, podcasts, etc., we all have access to. So the Homeschool MFA is a filter for what I’m reading, watching, listening to, and writing.
What makes up the content of my Homeschool MFA? Here's what I've been reading, listening to, and watching.
Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose
On books as teachers - “Who could have asked for better teachers: generous, uncritical, blessed with wisdom and genius, as endlessly forgiving as only the dead can be?”
“…the better the book I’m reading, the smarter I feel, or, at least, the more I am able to imagine that I might, someday, become smarter."
I first came across this book when my daughter took an AP English class online during her senior year. I remember she read me snippets of it, knowing I would appreciate it, and is there any better advertisement than an endorsement from your child? It’s been several years but I finally bought my own copy and I’m glad I did.
Prose (what a great name!) takes you from the word to the sentence to the paragraph and then through all the parts of a good story as she appeals for a close reading of books as a tutor for writing. She uses concrete examples from well-known authors and humorous anecdotes from her own classroom experiences to encourage attention to detail—in life and, subsequently, in writing. And a warning: there’s a list of “Books to Be Read Immediately” at the end, as if our booklists weren’t long enough already.
My takeaway: Good reading offers lessons for good writing—pay attention. This is a book I’ll re-read.
A comparison: I don’t have the heart to write a bad review of someone’s book. A book takes so much thought and time and commitment; it would be like criticizing someone’s child. But I’m going to compare Prose’s book to Gabriella Pereira’s DIY MFA and say that I got a lot more out of Prose’s book. Maybe because I read it first? But for the type of writing and reading I do, the first book was much more helpful and applicable.
1984, by George Orwell
“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
“Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull.”
“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”
This book made me a little paranoid and even more certain of my determination to hold on to words. One of Big Brother’s foremost tools for controlling the population was to control what was said, what was written, and what was thought, right down to the creation of a new, “more efficient” dictionary that removed “needless” words and pared the language down to its most utilitarian form. Chilling.
My takeaway: How do you conquer a people? Take away their language. Madeleine L’Engle said in A Circle of Quiet, "The more our vocabulary is controlled, the less we will be able to think for ourselves. We do think in words, and the fewer words we know, the more restricted our thoughts. As our vocabulary expands, so does our power to think.” This sums up my passion to think, read, write, and speak well. Through Jesus, the Word-become-flesh, we were created with language and a desire to communicate, and it’s a responsibility that’s easy to take for granted.
Letter to an Aspiring Intellectual, by Paul J. Griffith
"The most essential skill is surprisingly hard to come by. That skill is attention. Intellectuals always think about something, and that means they need to know how to attend to what they’re thinking about. Attention can be thought of as a long, slow, surprised gaze at whatever it is.”
I don’t desire to become an intellectual in the way the recipient of this letter does, but there is so much in here that is useful for an attentive life, a life lived on a spinning sphere in a universe full of wonders to be delighted in, but missed so often. A "long, slow, surprised gaze” is hard to come by in our swipe and skim world.
, by Laura Vanderkam
I was thinking the other day how much the saying “I don’t have time,” is really not true. I have time. You have time. We all have time; we just make different choices with it. For awhile now I’ve been working on changing my mindset from looking at my agenda for the day and thinking about all the things I don’t want to do, to instead, either finding joy in the things I have to do or finding a way to do them that makes them more pleasant: a good cup of coffee and a candle with the bills, an audiobook with the cleaning, a break every 30 minutes with the school prep. My favorite thing is to double up an unpleasant task with a more pleasant one: the audiobook and cleaning, or making the yard work also count for my exercise for the day (which one of those is the unpleasant task?).
My takeaway: After reading this short article, I’m even more inspired to tighten up my time, my attitude about time, and spend them both more wisely.
Students Learn From People They Love, by David Brooks
"It reminded us that children learn from people they love, and that love in this context means willing the good of another, and offering active care for the whole person."
This is a super long article (in internet terms) but I’ve implemented many of his suggestions for making my smartphone more work-y and less distract-y. It took me two or three sittings to get through, but he also claims I’ll live longer because of it. It is at least making me happier while I am living.
Educated, by Tara Westover
“My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”
There's a reason this is on so many Best of 2018 lists. Tara's story of growing up in an extremely dysfunctional, isolated, abusive home is riveting, and I had to continually remind myself that this was a true story while I was listening to it. The memoir is about the author’s fight to gain a knowledge of the world that was hers and no one else’s, and it takes you through the crumbling of all the established beliefs she’d been fed by her mentally ill father and complicit mother. Spoiler alert: she ends up at Cambridge University. Her path there is amazing and inspiring.
1/There is a line between private family life—the freedom to raise your children according to your convictions and beliefs—and public intervention—the responsibility of a community to look out for the weakest among them and protect children from their own parents. It’s a fine line. The two biggest factors missing from the Westover’s family life were a healthy fear of God and an accountability to the community, and I too often underestimate the privilege, blessing, and responsibility of those things in my own life. I’m thankful for the homeschool circles I’ve been blessed with, for friends that mentor my kids and get in my business, a church that shepherds at an intimate level, and kids who think for themselves.
2/Tara’s resilience and her ability to educate herself is amazing and inspiring.
Overcoming our greatest affliction, Andy Crouch at Q Ideas podcast
This link is to a YouTube, but if you listen to podcasts you can subscribe to Q Ideas and get the same talk without the video. Crouch is a great speaker and author and this talk, about our culture’s dismissal of personhood, is worth your 18 minutes.
Peaceful Piano on Spotify
This is our current study music and my writing soundtrack.
Mary Poppins Returns.
You gotta see it. I’m not a big movie buff so this is not an expert-recommendation, but I’m still thinking about this movie weeks later (the song lyrics, mainly) and I thoroughly enjoyed watching it. It was worth the seven bucks. And if you want to read an even better recommendation, Jennifer Trafton wrote a beautiful piece on the movie for The Rabbit Room. She actually compares it to Bruce Springsteen’s work, and it’s brilliant.
"For we do need children to remind us, not to look backward in nostalgia, but to look forward to a freedom that childhood merely prefigures. Art—imagination—has the power to temporarily let us romp on the other side of the prison door, and audiences of Mary Poppins Returns were given the gift of two hours to rest in pure, childlike delight, to experience a tiny glimpse of what will someday become our own happy denouement:
A beloved, long-missed face, a dance in the sky together, and then, a return—to a familiar home suddenly made new. “I remember! It’s all true! Every impossible thing we imagined . . .”
I’m looking to the clouds. I’m waiting, holding my breath.
Maranatha. Come back soon.”
How am I organizing my study and what am I doing? Here is a link to my Evernote Homeschool MFA file. It’s ever-changing and growing and I don’t know if the link will update the changes as I go or if I’ll need to send a new link with each newsletter, but for now this is where my lists reside. Books, podcasts, courses, memory work, goals, etc., and clickable links to online resources.
Currently, I’m keeping three books in rotation. Generally it’s one Kindle book for reading at night; one audiobook for walks, making dinner and the rare solo car ride; and one “real” book for mornings. Kindle and audiobooks are mostly for fiction, but I make generous use of the highlight feature and will outline a non-fiction Kindle book in my commonplace journal if necessary.
In addition to reading, my plans include memory work. I have been working on the same poem for months because I don’t have anyone keeping me accountable to finish it, but I'm close. And this week I memorized a short Mary Oliver poem in one day after learning that she had passed.
An MFA in creative writing would include lots of essay writing and peer reviews. My writing ebbs and flows, but the best thing I’ve ever done to grow as a writer is to pitch articles to online publications that have a dedicated editorial staff, and to utilize the editing skills of a couple of word-friends. Feedback is invaluable. When I’m working on something, it goes through three phases: 1) Brilliant idea! 2) Dumbest thing ever. 3) I don’t ever want to read these words again. Getting someone else’s eyes on my work (and believing what they say about it—for better or worse) is helping me make transitions in my writing and keep a logical order of things—two areas of struggle for me. So part of my MFA plans is to submit articles to online publications regularly.
"Nothing in human experience can be omitted or slighted if we decide to take God seriously and respond to him believingly."
~ Eugene Peterson
Being purposeful about your self-education can feel like one more thing on a long list that will never be completed. Why set yourself up for failure or burn-out? The key for me has been to adjust my expectations and the actual content of my learning plans to my "already-life"—the responsibilities I already have. What do I already need to learn, to master, to study and understand better? Those things become part of my Homeschool MFA.
The beautiful reality is that I find connections. Just like Trafton’s article linked above, where she is an unlikely viewer of a Springsteen documentary and finds a connection in it to Mary Poppins; inevitably, something I have to read or study makes a connection with something I’m already thinking, reading about, or interested in. Nothing is actually wasted. My crummy attitude isn’t really necessary.
Speaking of making connections and wasting nothing—I’ve been reviewing some of my favorite “get things done and be efficient and organize your life” books as we turn into a new year, and I found something from The Accidental Creative, by Todd Henry, that I had forgotten. He talks about having a Stimulus Queue, like a filter for the information you are interested in or that is necessary for your “already life". He keeps a list of the information he’s lacking, things he’s curious about, and what would be good for him (mental vegetables), and organizes his study plan around that. When he focuses his reading, listening, and viewing habits this way, he finds connections to his creative work all around him.
All of this fits with what I’m trying to do with my Homeschool MFA. I want to live life like a student, but without the crazy schedule. Your interests may be different than mine, and what I’m reading, listening to, and watching may not at all appeal to you. But I hope this newsletter encourages you to look at your work, your "already-life", differently, to make up your mind with some part of the mystery God has hidden for you to discover and enjoy.
And if it has, will you be so kind as to let me know? This newsletter project is one of those things that I’m sure will change over time. Much as I’d like to release something into the world that is perfect and set and will always be consistent, that’s not the way things work for me. Your feedback will be so helpful as I make up my mind. Do you have questions? Suggestions? Reply to this email and let me know.