I only write on evenings and weekends. My real job (the one that pays the bills) is teaching middle school choir and theatre. I know, I know. “Theatre director” is not what most people think of when they hear “real job.”
But in my case it’s true. I work at a wonderful, private, K-8 school. Last week was our big show--Annie. Truthfully, I’ve never really liked the play (at least after my crush on the girl from the 198whatever movie passed). But I decided to do it for several reasons, none of which I will bore you with.
The performance was last weekend, and notwithstanding the weakness of the script, it was quite good (I'm being objective, here). Beyond that, I had one of the most enjoyable experiences of my 23 year career. That was largely because of the amazing kids. We’re a K-8 school, so the 8th graders assume the status of seniors. They are the functional leaders of the school and I have learned that there is not much I can do to counter the tone that they set in the play.
Happily, this year’s crew of 8th graders was a large group of incredibly sweet kids. There’s really not another term for it. They were just very sweet kids. Another teacher compared them to a whole class of Golden retriever pups—big, excited, affectionate, enthusiastic, energetic, and a bit sloppy. They have made my year wonderful and I very fond of them. That's them above (and yes, I secured their parents' permission to post this photo).
The fact is, I love them dearly. I think about them, worry about them, pray for them, and hope the best for them. I have encouraged, disciplined, motivated, pushed, and prodded them now since they entered middle school three years ago. They have occupied a substantial amount of my time for those three years and they now occupy a proportionate place in my heart. I can’t express the depth of my affection for these kids.
I realize as I write this that I might sound silly or sentimental. But it’s true. I love these kids. But not because they’re perfect.
To the contrary.
This photo is far more reflective of reality. They goof off frequently and have a hard time focusing more often than not. They often talk instead of listening, and burst out in laughter at inappropriate times. They are immature in many ways. They smell bad sometimes. They forget things I’ve told them a hundred times. They misplace critical props, lose costume pieces, and occasionally forget important cues. Their actions have often made my life more complicated and sometimes very frustrating.
In other words—they are 13 and 14 and they act like it. They may look like small adults, but while they might look like adults physically, they are as far away from emotional maturity as Spring Break is from Christmas vacation (in middle school time, that is dog years).
So why do I love them so much? Well, I think I love them because they are 13 and 14.
I love their quirks and foibles. I love watching them struggling to master all the crazy things they have to deal with--socially, emotionally, academically, theatrically--in their very topsy-turvy adolescent worlds. When they do get something right, it's incredibly exciting. When they don't, I'm rooting for them anyway.
Their quirks usually make me laugh--a warm, sympathetic, I-remember-what-it's like-laugh. When I do get irritated, their sincere contrition, high-fives or hugs, and sad puppy-dog faces melt my heart. Ultimately, I expect them to be quirky 13 year olds. Anything else is just icing on the cake.
My affection for them is also supported by the fact that they get the big things right. They are kind to each other and are respectful of me. They follow the big rules I’ve established (memorizing their lines, coming to rehearsal, etc.).
I’ve been thinking about this. Are 8th graders to adults as mortals are to our Father in Heaven?
Perhaps we look a little bit like Him, but we, too, are light years away from his level of progression and maturity. Does He love us in spite—possibly even because of—our quirks and foibles? Does He smile the same way I do when one of them does something that seems incredibly stupid to an adult, but seems perfectly appropriate to them?
Do my sincere apologies after thoughtless, but not malicious, choices melt His heart and warm His soul? Does He, at some level love me because--not in spite of--my flawed humanity? If I basically get the big stuff right does that enable His abiding love for me to work together with my basically good intentions?
I don’t know for sure, but deep down I have a feeling. And it gives me a lot of hope.
The old show business rule is not to work with animals or children. There are good reasons for that, but when it works, the audience is carried away to cuteness-inspired heights of delight. We just finished our big spring musical. It was Annie this year. More on that later. I love this picture. Cute kid, cute dog--who just intuitively put his paw on her shoulder, by the way. In this case, the kids and the dog worked incredibly well.
Long-time readers of this blog (my mom, for example) will recognize that I have new photos on the main page. My brothers, who run a world-famous, very funny blog you should go check out, gave me excellent advice when I was getting this website going. Essentially they pointed out that the pictures I had were not ideal and that I needed to get professional photos taken. Not having cool 80s tennis pictures of myself like they do, I thought that was excellent advice. My friend, Matt Dudley, happens to be a professional photographer and he took some pictures for me. If you live in the Nashville area, I highly recommend him. Check him out here.
He does good work, as the photos on his site demonstrate. He also managed to make me look not nearly as un-photogenic as I usually look in pictures.
First of all, thanks to all of you who have dropped by and sent me your thoughts and good wishes lately. I know the comments feature isn't working too well. We're getting this site running slowly but surely, hopefully that (and live feed!!!) will be up soon. Thanks for your patience.
Today is a pretty exciting day for me. All my life, at least for as much as I can remember, I have wanted to be an author. I remember as a kid, spending my summer vacations setting up a little office where I could spend the summer writing. To me, that seemed like the perfect way to spend the vacation.
So, it was pretty gratifying--ok, it was actually thrilling beyond anything I can explain--when I got the word that my book was going to be published. I burst out into alternating bouts of laughter and tears. That was an amazing day.
Today, though is almost as good as it is. I sold my first books!!!!!! To non-family members! Some wonderful people decided to pre-order their copies of "The Road Show" today and I couldn't be more thrilled.
Perhaps there will be a day in the future when selling a book isn't about the coolest thing in the world...but if that day ever does come, it's a long, long way off!
In honor of President’s Day, I wanted to talk about a remarkable book my brother Ryan (check his blog out here) gave me for Christmas. Seven Miracles That Saved America: Why They Matter and Why We Should Have Hope (Shadow Mountain) by Chris Stewart and Ted Stewart is a really remarkable book.
It is highly readable (I read it in about 12 hours or lesson Christmas Day), cogently argued, and contagiously optimistic. Admittedly, I read it like ate my Christmas Dinner—quickly and with relish, as opposed to slowly and critically. However, I highly recommend this book.
The authors are uniquely qualified for their subject. Chris Stewart is a best-selling author. His brother, Ted, is a U.S. Federal Judge and this proves a potent combination. The book will have a familiar feel to LDS readers and the argument is certainly informed by LDS teaching and belief about America’s role as a Promised Land. However, there is nothing uniquely LDS about the arguments or ideas in this book, and religious people of many faiths will, I think, find much they can agree with.
The Stewarts’ central thesis is that there have been any number of times in America’s past where the nation’s survival swung on the tiniest hinges: occasions on which only a last-minute miracle saved the Republic. The bulk of the book details these miracles, and then the final chapter suggests that as bleak as things may seem now, they have been bleaker in the past. God has intervened a number of times when the United States needed it and the Stewarts argue that surely He will do so again: “At critical times in our nation’s history, God provided miracles to save us. And there are miracles yet to come. Why? Because America still represents something important to him” (pg. 14).
This book will not convince skeptics about God’s hand in the founding and preservation of this nation. However, if you are inclined to believe that God was involved, then this book is a bracing tonic against pessimism and defeatism.
The Stewarts intertwine historical narrative with historical fictional, recreating or highlighting key moments through a series of anecdotes. Using this method, they acquaint the reader with the miracles the made America possible to begin with: Columbus’s Discovery of the New World, the survival of the Jamestown Colonists, the last minute escape of Washington’s troops from Brooklyn, and the establishment of the U.S. Constitution. They then look at miracles that preserved the nation: the Battle of Gettysburg, the Battle of Midway, and the survival of Ronald Reagan (who won the Cold War).
For me, the fictional or imagined anecdotes were the most uneven part of the book. Some of them worked extremely well. The account of the East German prisoner, for example, was heartrending and chilling. It points to Chris Stewart’s skill as a novelist, because in less deft hands, this could have been either too graphic or not upsetting enough. This and other anecdotes left me wanting to read more.
Others anecdotes seemed not to have quite the same power and I felt at times that they had been written more because that was the chosen format for the book than that they happened to fit well with the subject. However, this is a very minor complaint.
I have to admit that one of the joys of reading this book is that it unabashedly defines and celebrates the idea of American exceptionalism. It does not waste a lot of time bowing to modish, militant multiculturalism, nor does it waste time apologizing for real and imagined offenses. This is contrary to the normal tone of historical narrative today and it makes the book unique, I think.
The Stewarts note America is imperfect, but this theme is not repeated and replayed and amplified at every opportunity. “No man is perfect,” they note towards the end, “And neither is any nation. Yet, despite our weaknesses, we are still, as Abraham Lincoln said, the best nation every given to man. Despite our faults, this nation is still the last, best hope of earth.” (pg. 294)
Some will, no doubt, find that to be simplistic and naïve, even offensive. I found it deeply refreshing.
To let this get in the way of reading and enjoying this book would be a mistake. No matter what side of the ideological aisle you are on, there is plenty to worry about these days.
However, this book will give you much to be hopeful about. The Stewarts are not blind to the challenges we face but they argue powerfully, I think, that “[God] still cares about this country. He loves this nation. He needs this nation. He is relying on this nation to be the light of freedom to the world” (pg. 289).
And, to those who object that God might have once blessed America in the past, before the nation grew wicked, the Stewarts have a rejoinder: the story of Abraham in Genesis 18:23. This is the account of Abraham securing a promise from God that He would not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if there were but ten righteous people. The Stewarts conclude with this thought: “If that is true, maybe we need not worry so much about our country and our people and whether our society has become too wicked, for surely there are a few wicked among us. Instead, maybe we need to concentrate on our own lives, our own goodness, our own families. Are we one of the fifty? One of the ten? Are we, those of us who still believe, living our lives in such a way that we could convince God to save our nation if only for the few?” (pg. 294).
I highly recommend this book. Read it and let it challenge you, either to see the country through a new light, or to do what you can to make the light shine a bit brighter.
Back in our graduate student days at BYU, Meredith and I lived in a deligthful quad made of cinderblock buildings that faced onto a central playground. It was heaven for our young children who could be out our door and onto the slide or merry-go-round in seconds.
It was also heavenly for us because we were able to associate with other LDS grad students who were trying to balance the demands of graduate school with the demands of raising a family.
Jonathon and Wendy Penny lived kitty-corner from us and we spent a lot of time socializing as couples and having a good time. In fact, Jon and Wendy were over at our apartment on New Year's Eve when we heard a gurgling sound and dirty, mucky water exploded out of our garbage disposal and flooded all over the floor.
At any rate, Jon was working on his Master's in English, and I always loved being around him. He combined an irreverent sense of humor with a deep and honest devotion to the gospel that was irresistable. He was also and (presumably still is) brilliant. Jon became a treasured friend and a sort of spiritual brother.
After we both graduated and left BYU, Jon earned his PhD from the University of Ottawa in Twentieth Century British Literature and became Dr. Jonathon Penny. He has taught at BYU, UVU, U Ottawa, and U Lethbridge, and currently teaches at United Arab Emirates University, where he cleans up after the department, runs a campus-wide debate society, and works on his tan. You can find more about Jon by checking out his blog here.
On principal, Jon never reads Mormon literature. However, he agreed to read my novel. Our agreement was that if he hated it, he would just not say anything. So, I was deeply honored and, to be honest, giddily excited, when he read it and sent the following very perceptive review.
Thanks, Jon. For helping us clean up the kitchen, for the long soul-feeding conversations on the playground, and for the thoughtful review.
"Braden Bell’s The Road Show is the story of an aggregate of broken souls in a ward on the frontiers of the American church. Some struggle with sin and self-loathing, some with depression and despair, others with the loneliness of isolation. These damaged souls are brought into relief against the waves and eddies of a community that doesn’t see them, and which they do not see. They are brought together, a motley bunch, in an earnest and innovative road show production, and enact their own redemption in a spiritual outpouring that changes them and the people around them. The uniqueness of the novel is its conceit that theatre—and by extension the arts—are effective spaces for revelation, worship, and the work of ministry. It is, in short, a story of congregation at its best—of the healing and help that we experience when we learn to see each other, and thus ourselves, through God’s eyes.
Its weaknesses are few and forgivable. It is an LDS novel, and is thus somewhat predictable in its narrative arc. It must be comic, in the Greek sense: we expect that things will turn out, and they do. But the denouement is open-ended, fragile, movingly steeped in a sobbing, miraculous energy that we know pours, ebbs, trickles, and pours again in turns. It is an LDS novel, and while the characters are differentiated in voice, the language, even the language of sin and doubt, is clean-cut, confined to a Sunday School vocabulary, safe for consumption. In a less authentic effort, this would feel evasive or weak, but Bell, a bishop as well as an actor, director, and teacher of theatre with a PhD from NYU, deliberately refuses to sully the narrative with the mere trappings or symptoms of darkness. The darkness he explores is that of the soul in pain and despair, clinging to the remnants of faith and hope, and finding them strengthened in prayer and community. It is a darkness diffused by light and joy.
The author is stage-savvy, and it shows. This is a Spartan novel, light on details, but each scene is easily seen in the mind’s eye, close up, drawn in on the faces and the turmoils of the characters.
And the novel is moving—funny, honest, clearsighted, hopeful—but mostly moving, written about keening hearts with a bishop’s keen sympathy and an artist’s keen eye. The show itself is startling for its artistry, and the novel, with a few exceptional passages that overreach, is written for the visual imagination, Spartan, focused, untroubled by the garrulous style of most freshman authors. The story isn’t over-populated: the ward and stake are implicit, a kind of organic milieu of personalities we sense and recognize through throwaway observations: types familiar and fond. Minor characters are given space as more than foils: they actuate much of the progress the principals make, and they also show us how both damage and restoration ripple out—that selves, families, and communities alike suffer, and alike need healing.
A cynical reader will find that healing a little too pat, a little contrived. I would have hoped that, even though Bell allows for the fragility of the spirit, he might have left one or two wounded souls wandering in the dark. This, too, is a forgivable problem, and perhaps an inevitable one: such compressions of action, such intensities of movement are staples of storytelling, and it is always easier to write about pain and darkness than it is to write convincingly about healing and light. The redemption we seek can feel a little fantastic at times, the light wan and diffuse—but this is because we are accustomed to telestial shadows. The cycles of sin and depression, the keening, can be tiresome, but that, too, is naturalistic: these are old crises we’re encountering at high tide: the rolling is metronomic, familiar, and normal. That the monotony of what keeps us from God’s love can be broken is precisely the point. When God breaks through, our clarity of vision feels dreamy, surreal. But it is the realest thing there is. And it is precisely the joy of redemption that preoccupies Bell and his readers in the end: yes, that joy may be fragile, perhaps fleeting, but it is also momentous, awesome, and total as long as it lasts. And it promises to come again."
I wrote in another post about the nerve-wracking process of searching for endorsers--asking people who are most likely to be critical to evaluate and endorse your book.
Well, I mustered up the nerve to approach another person who's opinion means a great deal to me and whom I respect personally and professionally.
I was blessed to have a number of gifted and influential teachers during college and all of them left significant imprints on me. One of these was as an English professor: Sirpa Grierson Ph.D. You can see professional information about her by clicking on her name. I met her when I took a course she taught on adolescent literature. Perhaps most of us remember a class we took where we learned the material presented but so much more. This was one of those classes for me.
Sister Grierson was an exceptional teacher. She knew her subject deeply and had the additional, and not very common, facility of making that subject come alive. Every class period was exciting and I remember having a wonderful intellectual and spiritual feast that semester. That was the other remarkable quality Sister Grierson has: she is a devoted disciple of Jesus Christ and without ever being preachy, that came though in every interaction with her. In addition to being a teacher and scholar, she and her husband have raised a wonderful family and have built a spirit-filled home--which we all felt when she hosted us at her house.
I loved her class so much that I persuaded her to sponsor me in a guided readings course and that was a real joy. I watched and learned so much from her over the next year or two. She was a wonderful mentor and example to me. And, she was always incredibly encouraging of my writing.
So, I was honored and deeply touched when she agreed to read my manuscript and provided the following endorsement.
Thank you, Sirpa!
"In The Road Show, Bell gracefully captures the lives of five members of the Church, each with their own struggles of faith and worthiness, to skillfully weave them into a montage centered upon the Savior. Bell is an observer of human nature and has a deft hand for nuance, voice, and characterization. Scott Horn, the protagonist, is a theater student, caught in a painful struggle with pornography. Feelings of unworthiness envelop Scott as he reluctantly accepts a calling to direct a road show for his ward. While his academic career is on the line, he is drawn back to life as he develops a powerful script, complete with original music lyrics, a message of joy and hope that heals the cast members as they attend rehearsals. An extraordinary book about the redemptive power of Christ in the lives of ordinary people. I couldn?t put it down."
--Sirpa Grierson, Associate Professor of English, Brigham Young University
I am quite excited today because I got my first endorsement! You know those little quotes on books, like, "Best book ever! Changed my life!"? Well, it is an author's responsibility to procure those from authoritative people.
This means that you have to send your manuscript to other authors, literature professors, and critics: in other words, the people who are most likely to be, well, critical! It is a little scary to tell you the truth. In fact, it is is terrifying.
I sent a copy of the manuscript to Marilyn Brown. Marilyn is a highly-regarded and prolific novelist and the winner of the Utah State Fine Arts Novel Award, the Brigham Young University Mayhew prize, the Randall Book Award, and the first novel award given by the Association for Mormon Letters. Most recently, Marilyn and her husband, Bill, established the Marilyn Brown Unpublished Novel Award at UVU
Can you see why I was a tad nervous?
However, Marilyn happens to be one of the only novelists I know. I worked with her and her husband Bill about ten years ago when they owned the Villa Theatre in Springville. So, I thought it was worth giving her a try.
Marilyn gave me some very good feedback and a lot of encouragement. And, she sent the following endorsement:
"Through clever dialogue and scenes that ring with truth, Braden Bell grapples with the way a community of imperfect people may experience the atonement of Christ through the give and take of working together. He deals not only with healing through participation, but wrestles with some of our most pressing modern problems such as depression or addiction to pornography. The book deserves reading and rereading." Marilyn Brown
Perhaps some day I will be established enough that getting an endorsement like that isn't exciting. But if that day does come, it will be a long way off! For now, I am thrilled!
So, my first website was free. I really liked the template they provided, and I also liked how easy it was to manage, lay-out, etc. The downside was that a technical glitch that prevented anyone from seeing anything other than blank pages. This was a serious drawback that eventually outweighed the aesthetically pleasing template and user friendliness.
So, I purchased a domain name and my brilliant friend Brian Kiley did some website design work for me. Now, I have a new website--and a new blog! I hope you'll come back from time to time as we count down to June--and the release of my book!
Oh, by the way, go check Brian's site out here
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