J. Grace Pennington

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Golden Dirt

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Sunday before last, my family had a two-and-a-half hour drive home from a small get-together. We were heading west at sunset, hardly an enviable position for the driver, but beautiful for passengers like myself who like to waste time gazing idly out the car windows.

The sun was on out left at first, and a glance at the windshield showed me thick streaks of dust around the edges of the glass. Dirty, drab, and grungy. That was all.

Then we rounded a bend in the road, and the sun was in front of us, and suddenly, the dirt turned into streaks of gold.

People sometimes question why I feel the need to include dark and sometimes terrible elements in my writing. “The world is bad enough as it is,” they say. “You have the chance to create a more perfect world, a better reality. Why don’t you?” My short answer is that God’s reality contains darkness, so isn’t it disrespectful to presume we could do better?

But there is more purpose to it than that cold logic. Because every single one of my readers has their own dirt. Maybe only in their corners, maybe plastering them until it weighs them down with the gravity of imperfection. If a story bursts upon them glittering with untarnished gold, all they can do is escape into that shining world for a little while before falling back to reality after “The End.”

What if, instead, the story comes to them as blemished as they are, or worse? What if it starts there, introducing itself on common ground, before winding through the road of a mirror reality, then finally comes upon the sun? Then the gold flashes upon them, and they blink, realizing “Oh. So the beauty was there all along, just waiting to be lifted up out of the darkness.”

This brings hope. This says, “Keep going, it looks bad now, but there is something out there that can take your dirt and turn it into something beautiful with a single breath.” And the close the book maybe, just maybe, believing things can change.

“I consider that our present sufferings our not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” ~ Romans 8:18

Ten Reasons Why Never is a Must-Read

This brilliantly well-organized and sincerely flattering review went up a few days ago, and I just had to share it here. I’m so grateful to those who take the time to read my books and let me and others honestly know what they think — feedback is priceless! A warm thank-you to the bookworm lass!

Ten Reasons why “Never” is a Must-Read:

One: The Plot. It’s like an intricate tapestry of fine threads all woven together in warm hues of gold, deep brown, tawny red, and glowing bronze.

Two: The brotherly love between Ross and Travis. It was so nice and enjoyable to read about two brothers who have such a warm respect and affection for each other. You certainly don’t get that very often in literature anymore — I especially liked Ross’s kind protectiveness of his younger sibling.

Three: It’s a clean book. There’s nothing dirty or obscene that will make one squirm. Or end up burning the book, and then burning the ashes, and then sealing what’s left in a jar, and burying it ten feet under.

Four: It’s a mystery novel. Because who isn’t intrigued by Mysteries? Especially tangledy, twisty, suspenseful, catch-you-completely-by-surprise-and-leave-you-reeling-at-the-end sort of Mysteries.

Five: Travis, as a character, is more 3-dimensional than a pyramid (lovely simile, I know). His story arc is enthralling, and one of the many reasons why “Never” is now on the list of My Most Favourite Books — also, how refreshing is it to read a novel where the lead male character has such a gentlemanly, respectful attitude toward women?

Six: The villain is one of those well-crafted Bad Guys that one loves to hate. He’s such a horrible, deceptively soft-spoken, impeccably dressed, cruel scoundrel. I guarantee that you’ll want to reach into the pages and wring his elegant neck at least once. You may also find yourself desperately wishing that he’d catch some deadly disease… fall down a deep mine shaft… choke…. something!

Seven: The vibrant writing. Grace’s descriptions in this book are so rich; I never had a doubt of what something looked like or felt like. Reading them made everything seem so real and alive in my head…there were several times when Travis was in the mines when I had to pause and look around me just to breathe in the clear air and be profoundly thankful I was above ground and safe. (Oh, and water; I drank lots of water whilst reading this. Those of you who have already read it will understand exactly why.)

Eight: You’ll probably require several hankies. I don’t know about you, but if a book has such sheer epic-ness (yes, I just coined a word) or poignant emotion as to move me to tears then I’m definitely going to give it five stars — maybe six or seven. There is a scene when a Certain Character dies that made tears run down my face–not to mention a few other scenes with Travis that I cried over–and I read the last chapter whilst curled up in my chair, wiping my eyes and sniffling from how bittersweet and lovely the ending was.

Nine: Dan. He’s wonderful, Dan is, and quickly became one of my favourite characters in “Never”. But you’ll have to read the book to find out why.

Ten: The strong, thought-provoking theme that “Never” is titled for. It truly makes the book worth reading.

In short, this novel is unforgettable. It’s not just a mystery story; underneath it is so much more. It is the sort of book that urges you to plumb the depths of your soul… to think deeper… to be better. As a Christian “Never” challenged me in my walk with Christ and I know I am a different person for having read it.

*heartily recommended for ages 15+

(Even if you don’t read westerns, give it a shot. I did — despite not having a taste for western novels — and I regret nothing.)

See more Never reviews on Amazon.

Behind the Mask

I wrote this poem two years ago, but for some reason I’ve been feeling nudged to share it the past couple weeks. It’s very unusual, but I like it, and I hope you will, too.

Behind the Mask

the high school reunion’s perfect
too perfect
full of color and light and songs
that make you want to dance
and laughing people
women in bright dresses of varying lengths
with perfectly manicured nails
men with hair slicked back
and immaculately creased pants

you’re just like any of them.
hair gel still sticking to the back of your neck
freshly ironed slacks still warm on your legs
you see an old friend
you haven’t seen her in years
bright red lipstick and dark mascara catch you off guard
last time you saw her
she was in shorts and a Beatles t-shirt
huddled against a tree
with tears making little trails down her naturally pink cheeks
her forehead splotchy red from crying

she sees you at the same time
bright blue eyes sweeping you over
seeming to remember that same occasion
when you were in your faded blue jeans
and scuffed-up tennis shoes
kicking your toes in the fresh mud
not knowing what to say
then kneeling down
feeling your knees slip in the mud
and putting your arms around her

she flashes a lipstick smile,
then swishes over to you in her purple flowered dress
asks how you are, and offers her hand
she smells like some kind of exotic flower
just like every other woman in the room
you shake her hand
wishing to give her a hug
but knowing it simply isn’t how things are done
everyone else in the room sees another man
another woman
just like everyone else
smiling
shaking hands
reuniting

you both talk
but neither of you hears a word
you’re still just looking into each others’ eyes
hers as blue as ever under all that mascara
yours feeling flat and dull, but searching for something in hers
you don’t find it
her soul is shut off from you
just like everyone else’s in the room

you remember how once
those masks weren’t there
you want to see behind all that now
past all that makeup
and know how she is
not what she’s doing with her life
not how her job is going or where she lives
but that’s all she’ll say
and you can’t really blame her
because when her eyes speak for just a moment
begging you to let her know you still care
you can’t seem to take off your mask, either

you wonder
would she still show you the tears
would she let you see
she’s not okay, that she doesn’t think
she can handle this life anymore?
show you the scars that trace down her arms
you glance at her arms now
but her purple dress has long sleeves
you wonder if it’s on purpose

but then you also wonder
would you get down on your knees in those slacks?
would you let them slide around in the mud
ignore what anyone tried to say about your relationship
and put your arms around her
one human being to another
knowing that she’s beautiful
more beautiful in shorts and a t-shirt
with pimples on her face
than she is now, unblemished
in the purple dress that shows everything
except her arms
and her heart

now she’s turning to leave
you know
you can’t let this moment pass without caring
for all you know, there are still scars on those arms
and worse scars on the hidden heart
you reach out, and take her hand
clasp it tightly in your own, strong one
not caring who sees or what they think
she turns back, caught off guard now
and looks into your eyes again

now you don’t see blue
and mascara
this time you see a slowly fading shield at first
and then
you can see it
the confusion and hurt and fear are there
just as they were on that day years ago
nothing has changed
she’s still that little girl
scared in shorts and a t-shirt
and like you did years ago
you pull her close into your arms
and hold her tight
the way everyone should have
but never did

you don’t want to let go
but the emcee begins to announce the party is over
and you have to
you loosen your hold and she pulls back
and then you see
tears making trails through her makeup
you hand her your handkerchief
and whisper for her to keep it
she thanks you
and runs away
dabbing at her eyes to save the mascara
high heels clicking against the hard, cold floor

you watch her walk away, your hands in your pockets
wishing that you were in the mud
in blue jeans again
inwardly cursing the masks you wear
and the world that makes beautiful girls
feel they have to wear them
then you reach up
run a hand through your hair so that it’s no longer quite so stiff
and leave the school
more yourself than you were
when you entered

It Happens Every Year

At least, every year in my experience of life thus far. What is “it”? “It” is a month which happens to be called “August.” And that particular month-name happens to be the name of the most popular character from my Firmament series. The first August after Radialloy came out, I did several August-themed posts, including an interview and contest, special artwork, and an excerpt, and last year I did posted a little chat with the character. So of course I couldn’t let August 2014 go by without at least a mention of the mild-mannered navigator.

I’ve also been meaning to do the Beautiful People blog event ever since it started back up in June. I love Beautiful People, and I was ecstatic to see it going again, but my brain is a colander these days, and the most inconvenient things tend to slip through the holes!

So, I will take this opportunity to slaughter two feathered creatures with a single mineral and let y’all get to know August Howitz a little better through this month’s Beautiful People questions.

1) What does August regret the most in his life?

He sometimes wishes he’d stood up to his father more often. Erasmus Howitz was very controlling and demanding, and had August followed his own instincts, he would probably have gone at a slower, more careful pace and would have sought a less stressful job. However, his job did allow him to meet Andi, and now that his father is gone, his memories of him are softened.

2) What is his happiest memory? Most sorrowful memory?

His happiest memory is the day he heard he had a baby sister when he was five years old. He sat in his father’s recliner and got to hold her for a few minutes the day she was born. His saddest memory is just a few months later, when he awoke to find his father shaking him, demanding to know where his mother and the baby were. Of course August had no idea, and it scared him.

3) What majorly gets on his nerves?

He’s not a very irritable person, but if there’s one thing that gets him frustrated, it would be being pushed to do something he isn’t comfortable with, or seeing others pushed around similarly.

4) Does he act differently when he’s around people as opposed to being alone? If so, how?

Not much. He’s pretty much always his quiet, mild self, though he is definitely more relaxed when he’s alone. He also talks to himself quietly when he’s by himself. He doesn’t realize he’s doing it.

5) What are his beliefs and superstitions? (Examples: his religion or lack of one, conspiracy theories, throwing salt, fear of black cats.)

He is a recent Christian, and thus is still acclimating to those beliefs. He still carries with him a vague sense of superstition and general pessimism, but he is working on correcting that. He has a lot of fear, and tends to be wary of hoping too much.

6) What are his catchphrases, or things he says frequently?

“I’m not sure…”

7) Would he be more prone to facing fears or running from them?

It depends on the fear. Most he would face, even though he is very fearful. But some, such as fear of loss, criticism, or confrontation, he would much rather run far, far away from.

8) Does he have a good self image?

Not in the least. He thinks of himself as weak, cowardly, selfish, and altogether unworthy. He doesn’t dwell on it, but the feeling drives him to work and try much harder than he truly needs to.

9) Does he turn to people when he’s upset, or does he isolate himself?

He definitely isolates himself. He doesn’t like to be vulnerable, but more than that he doesn’t want to bother others. He’d rather shut himself up in his room and spend time thinking through the issue than vent about it to even his most trusted friend.

10) If he were standing next to you would it make you laugh or cry?

Certainly not laugh. But I don’t know that it would make me cry, either. But I would probably sense his awkward feeling of unworthiness, even if he said nothing, and that would make me sad.

The Moral of the Story is…

There’s a lot of discussion and disagreement among writers about whether a story should have an intentional theme or message, or whether every story even needs to have one. Some say that a story can be more honest and well-crafted without a single, intentional theme, and others say that a unified message makes a story stronger and gives it meaning.

I am personally in the latter camp. I believe that as Christians, we should be writing with purpose, to glorify God, and that our writing, like everything else, needs to clearly point to Him in some way. Not that it has to be explicit. But I believe it’s much stronger when it’s intentional.

That said, I realize that tacking on a blatantly stated moral a la Aesop is usually not the best way to get through to the reader. Disneyesque epiphanies and stories that are forced to fit a theme artificially can be frustrating and very ineffective, not to mention just bad writing.

So how can one be clear while still being natural? Is it possible to communicate what you mean without being explicit? Of course it is. It’s not easy, but I’ve seen it done masterfully. And in my studies of such examples, I’ve noticed a common attribute — the story and the message are so intertwined that you can hardly tell where one begins and the other ends.

The best example, I think, is Jesus. (Isn’t He always?) The tales He told were allegorical, a form often scorned by writers as being “too obvious.” But what I see when I look at His parables are beautifully concise examples of story and message being one. It doesn’t look like He had a nice story and glued a message on top, nor does He seem to have forced the stories to tell His messages. The stories are the messages. The two cannot be separated. It’s not possible.

Charles Dickens is another good example. In most of his novels, he wanted to raise awareness of certain aspects of the impoverished classes of his time. That’s why his books exist. They are unified, with every arc and plot point being a part of something he feels very strongly about.

This is how I try to craft my stories. I try not to think in terms of message-first or plot-first. I try to keep the two so interdependent on each other that they are a single entity; the story. I have yet to master it, but I will continue to study the masters, to practice my craft, and to write passionately about things that deeply matter.

How do you deal with message and theme in your writing?