Longfellow’s Christmas Peace

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“A Christmas Furlough” by Thomas Nast, from the January 3, 1863 edition of Harper’s

‘Tis the season of “Peace on earth, good will to men.” And yet, the guns still blast through war-torn lands engulfed in genocide; they blast through concert halls, schoolyards, and churchyards, dousing sanctuaries with blood, while the newest “Cold War” percolates threats of mass destruction. “Peace on earth, good will to men,” is the song that heralds the birth of the Christ, but it also ushers in the flight to Egypt, the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, and ultimately, the crucifixion. Whatever the peace of Christmas is, it is not an end to earthly violence.

Like you, I wish it were.

Christmas peace is deeper than a lack of violence—though I have not yet learned to call what is deeper, “better.” This is the challenge Christmas presents to me—to all of us—because the peace of Christmas “surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). The peace of Christmas is simply the presence of faith.

 

“Christmas Bells”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
(1807-1882)
Written on Christmas Day, 1863,
after his son had been severely wounded in the Civil War

I HEARD the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

You can read the full story behind the poem here.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

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The Totally Feminine Genius Generations Book Club

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Virtue Works Media founder Cathy Gilmore has created a fantastic book club designed to bring generations of women and girls together over warm drinks and great stories. The Totally Feminine Genius Generations Books Club is completely free: no sign up, no credit cards, and you can do it on your own schedule. What Cathy provides is a list of fantastic books for different age groups and a working list of questions centered around virtue to aid in the discussion. And of course, my latest novel,  Cinder Allia is at the top of the list! Check it out!

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Black Friday Sale on Cinder Allia!

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For the first time ever, my fairy tale novel, Cinder Allia, is going on sale! Now through  November 27 only, you can purchase the eBook for just 99 cents on all major eBook outlets (regular $3.99), and the paperback on Amazon for only $11.65 (regular $13.99).

Hurry, because after Nov. 27, the eBook will be temporarily removed from the market to migrate to a new distributor!

cinder allia

Cinder Allia has spent eight years living under her stepmother’s brutal thumb, wrongly punished for having caused her mother’s death. She lives for the day when the prince will grant her justice; but her fairy godmother shatters her hope with the news that the prince has died in battle. Allia escapes in search of her own happy ending, but her journey draws her into the turbulent waters of war and politics in a kingdom where the prince’s death has left chaos and division.
Cinder Allia turns a traditional fairy tale upside down and weaves it into an epic filled with espionage, treason, magic, and romance. What happens when the damsel in distress must save not only herself, but her kingdom? What price is she willing to pay for justice? And can a woman who has lost her prince ever find true love?
Surrounded by a cast that includes gallant knights, turncoat revolutionaries, a crippled prince who lives in hiding, a priest who is also a spy, and the man whose love Allia longs for most—her father—Cinder Allia is an unforgettable story about hope, courage, and the healing power of pain.

“Karen Ullo’s literary talent is captivating and thought-provoking, using symbolism and mystery to explore what keeps human beings in touch with the divine.” – Kaye Park Hinckley, author of A Hunger in the Heart and Birds of a Feather

“Ullo manages to take the mold and brick of legend and build a more than substantial work of art…. The story is completely familiar, yet completely new.” – Jonas Perez, author of Finibus

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Against Productivity

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It’s November, and in writing circles, that means it’s NaNoWriMo (the rather awkward acronym for National Novel Writing Month.) As you probably already know, NaNoWriMo is an annual challenge to write an entire novel in 30 days—or at least, to get 50,000 words on paper, even if that might not be quite The End. Every year, people ask me, “Are you doing NaNoWriMo?”, and every year I answer, “No. I’m a tortoise, not a hare.” Then I try my best to cheer on all the speed-writers, because if writing a lousy novel in 30 days is your path to eventually distilling out a worthwhile manuscript, then go for it! I certainly know people for whom this process has proven fruitful, and I’m a firm believer in doing whatever works.

But there’s a fundamental problem with the idea that a writer’s progress can be measured by a word count, which is, of course, that a word count by itself imposes nothing in the way of quality control. “I wrote 20,000 words this week!” sounds like a great accomplishment, and if it represents a flurry of true inspiration or the end of a period of literary sloth, then it is. But those carefully enumerated words, by mere fact of their existence, do not always represent progress—nor do they always indicate that a writer has really overcome his or her tendency toward laziness. Sloth is an insidious sin that comes in many forms, of which the tendency to sit back and do nothing is only the most obvious. Sloth can also manifest itself as a laziness of artistry, and in this, the ideal of “productivity” plays right into the devil’s crafty hand.

There is no set amount of time that a writer must spend to craft a worthy novel. Newly-minted Nobel laureate Kasuo Ishiguro wrote Remains of the Day in four weeks—pretty much like doing NaNoWriMo. Stephen King has said that his first drafts, even of his longest novels, never take more than three months. On the other hand, Donna Tartt spent a decade writing The Goldfinch. Markus Zusak spent three years on The Book Thief. All of these are living writers working within the modern publishing industry. Clearly, in the race between hares and tortoises, the answer is that both can win.

Speed is not a writer’s enemy. But sloppiness is, and while good writing can happen quickly, sloppiness is more often the result of rushing than of careful slowness. Very few of us are Ishiguro.

The modern world has a tendency to want to quantify every aspect of existence. We trust numbers; we have been brainwashed to believe that numbers never lie. Two plus two is always four. Four is always more than two. Mathematical proof is final. Progress must move toward the right on the number line, not the left. In the case of something as ephemeral as a story—a genuinely un-quantifiable entity—we nevertheless seek comfort in whatever numbers we can attach to it. Word count. Copies issued. Copies sold. Dollars earned. See, we tell ourselves, progress is still numbers. Progress is visible. Progress moves forward.

And yet, for the writer, real progress often moves backwards. It is far better to cut the unnecessary scene, no matter how finely-wrought, than to foist it upon the reader. If problems in chapter one prevent you from writing chapter twelve, then it is far better to fix chapter one than to pound resolutely forward, knowing that you are building on a cracked foundation. Above all people, the fiction writer—whose calling is to probe the mysterious depths of humankind—ought to know that numbers can lie, that loss can be counted as gain, that paradox is our natural human state. And yet, we often allow the culture of consumerism to bully even novelists into believing that “productivity” must be our standard. Set up the assembly line. Push the words through. Next novel, please, or you’re fired.

Of course, novelists who are working under contract deadlines really must conform to these standards. However, I suspect that very few of the almost 400,000 people who participated in NaNoWriMo in 2016 had a contract to satisfy. Imagine if, instead of setting themselves a goal to write 50,000 words in a month, each and every one of those 400,000 people set the goal to write one masterpiece in a lifetime—one work of art that each individual would be proud to leave behind as a legacy to the world. Then imagine a whole community dedicated to supporting them the way NaNoWriMo tries to support its participants. What might our writing culture be like then?

What if, instead of asking each other, How many words did you write this week?, writers asked each other questions like, What did your characters teach you this week? What did you learn about your own artistic process? What did you write that required courage, whether because of its content or because you stepped out into new waters of style, genre, vocabulary? What difficult choice did you make concerning either content or craft? What beauty did you create? What love did you show? What empathy did you practice? These are the true hallmarks of progress for the fiction writer: that he or she exhibits dedication to the art and craft of storytelling, and that he or she nurtures a love for fiction’s subject, which is always humankind. Without this progress, a writer’s word count is meaningless—as will be the story those words contain.

Productivity is an idol that can lead to sloppiness and blind us to our real goals, not only as writers but in virtually any area of life. However, I cannot close without acknowledging that it has an equal, opposite idol: perfectionism. For many of us, there is a powerful temptation never to be satisfied—to do the opposite of rushing through sloppy work, and continue revising endlessly long after the work is done. It would be a noble thing if every writer set out to create one masterpiece in a lifetime, but rarely will the current project become that masterpiece. Humility is the only remedy for both of these extremes: humility to submit ourselves to become instruments of God’s creation; humility to look only at what is best for the work, not what is best for its creator’s pride; humility to acknowledge the limits of our own skill, to push them, but also to know when they are reached, and we have produced the best work we are capable of making. Then, and only then, should tortoises and hares alike be ready to cross the finish line and write, “The End.”

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Happy Second Birthday to Jennifer the Damned!

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On Halloween, 2015, I shivered with excitement and sat in the rain all day at my first-ever book event, The Louisiana Book Festival, proudly displaying the fruits of six years of loving labor: hot off the press, my first published novel, Jennifer the Damned. Since then, my weird little vampire adaptation of Crime and Punishment (yes, really) has meandered through the world, finding fans among both vampire lovers and people who never thought they could enjoy a horror novel, and bringing me some truly heartwarming stories from readers who found in its pages exactly the kind of story they needed to help them cope with life’s darkness.

Here’s to all of you, lovely readers, and to the books we love that help to shape our hearts, minds, and souls–as Jennifer has forever shaped mine.

Happy Halloween!

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

The Spiritual Purpose of Horror Stories, Part 2

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The second half of my October essay about The Spiritual Purpose of Horror Stories is now up over at Wiseblood Books. If you missed the first part, you can catch it here.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

The Spiritual Purpose of Horror Stories, Part 1

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I have a new essay up over at Wiseblood Books, The Spiritual Purpose of Horror Stories, Part 1. If you’ve ever wondered why stories like Dracula and Frankenstein took such deep root in our cultural imagination, go check it out.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.