A Ten-Step Creative Process That Absolutely Works

Today in my Quora inbox:

What sort of approach or strategy do you most often use in your creative work as a writer, from the very early beginning stages and onwards?

I found this question baffling at first. Asking about “process” seems antithetical to creation itself. I don’t have a process! I channel the inspiration of the gods themselves!

Except I do, of course, have a process. All creatives do.

I can’t guarantee my process will work for anybody else. (Notice that the headline doesn’t say who “a ten-step creative process that absolutely works” works for.) I frequently disappoint aspiring creatives by regaling them with a discussion of my methods, only for them to list 5,000 ways those methods won’t work for them.

So your mileage may vary. Please consult the manual before driving. Do not feed this advice to babies or small children.

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Phase the Early: Ideas

Perhaps the most queried-after item in the whole “creativity” topic. Where do you get your ideas? How can I have more ideas? 

Step One: GET BORED.

Boredom is my friend. Boredom is where the really juicy creative nonsense comes from.

I took up running on the elliptical in order to get bored. I put a stationary bike in my basement so I can get bored. I’ll put my phone out in my car in 0F weather to force myself to get bored. I show up to dentist appointments an hour early to get bored.

It only takes a few minutes of boredom for my brain to start making up the most bizarre nonsense in order to alleviate its own boredom.

Step Two: MACBETH HATH MURDERED JUDGMENT.

All ideas at this stage are worth entertaining. No matter how truly terrible they are. In fact, the worst ideas are the most worth entertaining.

Last summer, I took several dance classes at the Music for All Summer Symposium with Vincent Thomas, who teaches at Towson University. We started every session with four agreements, the first of which was “To be full of my own value and free of judgment.”

Step Two is my “full of my own value and free of judgment” stage. If an idea comes up, I’ll play with it. The kookier the better.

Phase the Middle: Not-Terrible Ideas

The transition from the early to middle stage occurs when a single idea recurs enough times that I realize I’ve been thinking about it more than once. It doesn’t want to let go.

And since it won’t let go, it gets to move on to Step 3.

Step 3: JOT IT DOWN.

If an idea won’t go away, I write it down.

Writing it down tricks the idea into thinking I’m actually going to do something with it. The vast majority of ideas fall for this scam. They then get shoved into a closet, where I look at them once every 20 years.

The most persistent ideas, however, are too smart to fall for it. They keep coming back even after I’ve written them down. These ideas get to move on to Step 4.

Step 4: A LITTLE JUDGMENT IS OKAY.

I say “judgment,” but I mean “discernment.” This is where I start thinking about how the idea would work in practice.

What would the end result look like? What are the practical steps required for me to make it work? Is it worth the time and effort required?

Some ideas aren’t worth what I’d invest to do them. For instance, I have a long-pestering idea for some bathroom wall art made from repurposed pages of Moby-Dick (to do with my kraken shower curtain). But learning the skill to execute what’s in my head will take time and effort I’d rather spend on other things, like getting these novels out of my head.

Phase the Late: Making Art

If an idea survives steps 3 and 4, it gets one free ticket into the late stage.

Step 5: RESEARCH.

Step 4 is about whether the idea is feasible for me, personally and individually, to execute. Step 5 is about whether the idea is feasible within a broader social and economic context.

Is there a realistic marketable version of this idea, and if so, what does it look like? Is there some related topic or idea out there that is way cooler and more interesting? Are there 500 other artworks on this idea (hint: Yes! Always!), and what do they look/sound/feel like?

Step 5 is Wikipedia rabbit hole o’clock. I cram related creative works until I just can’t hold any more.

Step 6: OUTLINING/SKETCHING/NOODLING AROUND.

Now that I know WAY TOO MUCH ABOUT EVERYTHING related to this idea, what will my iteration look like for reals?

This is where I generate a bunch of really terrible proto-versions of the idea. Once again, judgment is locked out of the room. Quantity, not quality, is the goal here. 15 different marching band show ideas on the theme of “Angels”? 20 sketches of the same sleeping cat? Hell yeah, you can never have too many of those.

Step 7: REFINEMENT.

Write, draw, dance, polish, edit, repeat, repeat, repeat, whatever.

Blood is sweated, sweat is cried, tears are bled.

I become convinced that creating art in the first place was the worst idea I have ever had. Seriously, why can’t I just be a nice, boring insurance adjuster? O Muse, why dost Thou torment me so??!?!

This is the phase in which I start to question why I haven’t taken up a less self-destructive habit. Like skydiving. Or smoking opium.

Step 8. TENTATIVE PRESENTATION.

After blood, sweat, tears, and not nearly enough day drinking, a draft is born! And like someone who has just given birth, I’d be more excited if I wasn’t utterly exhausted.

I show the draft to people who love me, who love the art, and who have zero fear about telling me exactly how much the work sucks. They tell me exactly how much and in what ways the work sucks. I can’t believe I’m friends with these people.

I get spiteful: Oh yeah, well, I’ll show YOU whose book needs to explore its themes in more depth! I tear into revision with a vengeance, and I question why I ever thought I’d ever do anything else with my life except creating art.

Step 9: ABANDONMENT.

As they say: A creative work is never finished, only abandoned.

Eventually, I kick the piece out to its final destination – my publisher, a marching band director, my bathroom wall, whatever. I promptly forget it exists. Months later, when I get an email informing me that my short story was accepted or that some band director wants to give me cash moneys for making their 150-piece ensemble imitate starfish, I wonder how the heck it got addressed to me.

I’m not into short stories or starfish dancing anymore, see. I’m onto something new.

Step 10: REBOOT.

I find the most mindless activity I can (Sims, anyone?) and do it until I start to get bored. Boredom is my friend. Boredom is where the really juicy creative nonsense comes from….


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What It’s Like to Have Auditory Processing Disorder, As Illustrated By Auto-Generated YouTube Captions

Like a lot of people with ADHD, I also have central auditory processing disorder.

CAPD manifests as a problem understanding speech and other sounds. It isn’t a hearing problem per se: The structures of the ear work just fine to capture sound waves and transmit them as electrical impulses to the brain. The brain, however, struggles to interpret these electrical impulses effectively.

People with CAPD frequently have trouble understanding what’s being said to them, especially if the sound of the speaker is in any way distorted (phone lines, VoIP), interrupted (conversations in noisy restaurants), or intruding upon a preexisting focus (someone trying to talk to you while you’re concentrating).

Most folks with CAPD identify heavily with this exchange:

Them: Can you hand me the remote?
You: What?
Them: Can you hand m-
You: Oh, sure. *passes remote*

It’s not that we didn’t hear the first “can you hand me the remote?”, per se. It’s that our brains lag translate it into a comprehensible statement. We know we were asked something (hence “What?”), but it takes extra time for us to realize what the something was.

And we very often get it wrong. “Can you hand me the remote?” could just as easily be interpreted by our brains as “Canoe slappy boat,” or as sounds that don’t register as language at all. (“Canoe slappy boat” is very likely because our brains will try to make sense of the sound input we just got, and “canoe” and “boat” are related words.)

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When Captions Fail

Like a lot of people with CAPD, I watch television with the captions on. Captions help my brain keep up with what’s being said by giving me an insta-check on what I thought I heard.

Usually.

Auto-generated captions, created by algorithm, are increasingly popular – particularly on sites like YouTube, where captioning everything uploaded in one minute would take over 300 years if done by humans.

The accuracy of YouTube’s auto-generated caption algorithm appears to depend on many of the same factors that affect the accuracy of comprehension in CAPD. For instance, auto-generated captions over a single speaker enunciating clearly into a microphone in an otherwise silent space are generally accurate. Auto-generated captions over a musical track or with significant background noise are often not.

Sometimes, however, the speech seems clear but the auto-generated captions really fail. And in one particular instance, the failures looked almost exactly like what my brain “hears” through the filter of CAPD.

Strength of the Algorithm: Auto-Captioning Fails in BraveStarr

BraveStarr ran for one season, in 1987-88. The show was Filmation’s last animated series (He-Man and She-Ra having both been pulled the year before). It has a lot of the hallmarkes of a Filmation piece – especially the presence of nearly-incomprehensible characters and the use of the same five voice actors for nearly every character.

Here’s what it’s like to hear through CAPD. (The first two examples are from the episode “Unsung Hero.” The rest are from “An Older Hand.”)

Unsung Hero

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YouTube/My Brain: “…interested in in mining carrion no one wants to be a pot farmer imprudent….”

The Actual Line: “…interested in mining Keriam. No one wants to be a pod farmer, including [my son].”

This was the first screenshot I grabbed. At the time, I was merely amused at the “pot farmer” part of the joke.

Then things got even more inappropriate:

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YouTube/My Brain: “you all right I think so oh but your whoreson stolen”

The Actual Line: “You all right? I think so. Oh, but your horse was stolen!”

CAPD makes my brain translate ordinary sentences into potentially offensive ones all the time. I don’t even comment on it anymore.

(Given that the brain tries to fit sound into a pattern with which it’s already familiar, this might say more about the frequency with which I hear and use profanity than it does about CAPD.)

Typically, YouTube’s auto-caption generator doesn’t trip much on human characters’ lines. The humans characters’ voice actors tend to deliver these lines straight; they save accents, funny voices, etc. for non-human characters. The algorithms’ ability to handle non-human characters’ lines ranges from “bad” to “nonexistent.”

An Older Hand

All of these examples contain lines delivered by various Prairie People.

Normally, YouTube’s auto-generated captions don’t interpret the Prairie People’s voices as speech at all. Captions simply aren’t generated when Prairie People are speaking.

In this episode, however, the algorithm recognized when Prairie People characters were speaking most of the time. But it struggled with what they were saying – in a way very similar to my own brain’s struggles.

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My Brain/YouTube: “bigger you might be you maybe not Maggie what’s your work being a good screen”

The Actual Line: “Whoa. Maybe not magic, but still work pretty good.” [scene change] “BraveStarr….”

Like a lot of things I hear with CAPD, this caption makes no literal sense. Those are words, but they cannot possibly be the words the speaker actually said – can they?

This caption also carries over lines from a previous character/scene into the new one, where it mashes them together with the start of a line delivered by a character in this scene. It’s not unlike having to listen to someone speak in a noisy restaurant or bar: My brain doesn’t always distinguish between “what this person is saying” and “what someone else in the room said.”

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YouTube/My Brain: “real that really be young bad guy a riot you’ll never did stop believin”

The Actual Line: “Well, that’s where it belong, by golly wollies.” “You never did stop believing….”

I didn’t expect YouTube to get “by golly wollies” on the first try (or ever). But idiolectic details like “by golly wollies” can make the comprehension process even harder. Until I’m aware that the person will frequently do things like interject “by golly wollies” or pronounce “washing” with an “r,” my brain won’t account for them in processing – so I’ll struggle even more to understand the speaker.

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YouTube/My Brain: “you know you lose your hoop boys always believing you but it more potent”

The Actual Line: “No sir, Fuzz always believe in you. But it more important….”

This line almost made me wish YouTube had not started picking up on the Prairie People’s speech as speech. I’ve watched enough Fuzz episodes to understand him (on a 2-3 second delay), but the captions here actually made matters a lot worse.

This is also a good example of how non-spoken sounds will get interpreted by a CAPD brain as speech. “No sir, Fuzz” became “you know you lose your hoop boys” due to background non-speech noises in the actual scene.

It’s not that people with CAPD aren’t listening to you. It’s that what you said + all the sounds around it = “you know you lose your hoop boys.” You’d say “What?!” too.

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YouTube/My Brain: “karyam I’m as powerful as she wore brave stars under stick”

The Actual Line: “…Keriam. I’m as powerful as you are, BraveStarr! ThunderStick….”

YouTube’s lack of punctuation in auto-generated captions illustrates another common pitfall for those of us with CAPD: We don’t always “hear” where punctuation fits into spoken language.

For instance, this joke is typically presented in written form:

Let’s eat grandma!

Let’s eat, grandma!

Commas save lives.

When spoken, there’s typically a change in pace and pitch that indicates the relationship between “eat” and “grandma” that the comma encodes in writing. Here’s a bad attempt to draw it:

lets eat grandma

People without CAPD can hear the change in pace and pitch that indicates whether “let’s eat” is a comment made to grandma (let’s eat, grandma!) or if grandma is the object to be eaten (let’s eat grandma).

With CAPD, the brain doesn’t always process pace and pitch, either. So even if we understand the words “let’s,” “eat,” and “grandma,” we may not know whether the speaker is proposing to grandma that we eat… or proposing we eat grandma.

This auto-generated caption mistake crams together parts of three separate sentences, each of which include one name (“Keriam,” “BraveStarr,” “ThunderStick”). The combination of proper names and lack of punctuation further confuses the meaning, both in the caption and in hearing with CAPD.

What’s the Point of All This?

I started collecting auto-caption BraveStarr mishaps because they were funny. I still giggle at “no one wants to be a pot farmer.”

But they also turn out to be great examples of how my brain mishears things.

Living with CAPD can be tough, especially when you go undiagnosed for decades (as I did). With CAPD, people assuming you’re deaf or hard of hearing is the good outcome. They’re more likely to assume you’re rude or lazy, especially if they know you well enough to know you can hear.

To complicate matters, CAPD often rides along with neurodivergences that make people more sensitive to sound, like autism and ADHD. It’s not uncommon for children with CAPD to get hearing tests that report their hearing is, if anything, too good. It’s not enough to test hearing – you also need to test processing, or what happens once the sound gets from the ear into the brain.

Normally, I’m not a fan of disability simulations. These auto-generated captions, however, failed in a way so completely similar to what I hear, and for so many of the same reasons, that they offer the closest thing I’ve yet found to actually having CAPD.

So the next time someone who seems to hear perfectly well asks “What?”, just assume they heard you say “you know you lose your hoop boys” – and that they respect you enough not to write you off as really spouting gibberish.


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What Is Neurodivergence?

On this blog, I deal with questions and challenges “on writing, neurodivergence, and the creative process.” Lots of folks have heard of the first and third, but fewer have heard of the second.

What Is Neurodivergence_

What Is Neurodivergence?

From “neuro-,” meaning “pertaining to the nervous system,” and “divergence,” meaning “the process or state of things becoming different,” neurodivergence refers to the state of having a brain, nervous system, or both that operates different from the typical. The word neurotypical is often used to describe the “typical” from which one diverges.

Neurodivergence overlaps with, but is broader than, the world of existing diagnoses for neurological or psychological conditions. Autism, ADHD, multiplicity, and schizophrenia are forms of neurodivergence; so are epilepsy, cerebral palsy, and multiple sclerosis. Acquired or developed neurodivergences exist in the form of traumatic brain injuries, white matter lesions from chronic migraines, dementia, Alzheimer’s, PTSD, and alterations from substance use (legal or otherwise). And there are almost certainly forms of neurodivergence that we can’t see on scans and haven’t created diagnostic criteria for. (Folks with more than one neurodivergence are often called “multiply neurodivergent.”)

Does neurodivergence’s “opposite,” neurotypicality, exist? It’s tough to say. No two human nervous systems are identical, so choosing any one nervous system from the several billion currently existing on the planet and calling that The Neurotypical Brain(TM) would be tough to do, at best.

Neurotypicality does, however, exist as a social and cultural norm, with profound implications for medicine, education, employment, and everyday life. If you were ever taunted on the playground by kids calling you “weird,” “crazy,” “stupid,” “cuckoo,” “spaz,” “retard,” or “messed up,” congratulations: your classmates were telling you that “normal” is a thing and you weren’t it.

Neurodivergence and Creativity

Everyone “knows” there’s a link between neurodivergence and creativity, or innovation, or genius…but no one knows quite what it is, or what fosters it, or why.

My interest in the relationship between neurodivergence and creativity is more practical, because my experience of creativity is more practical. Having ADHD has taught me that a thousand ideas a second are useless if you can’t see even one of them through to its final form.

That’s why, here, I write about the practical side: how to channel various neurodivergences in the directions you want to go in order to get work done.

It’s why I’ve written a three-part series on how I drafted my first novel in 10 months with undiagnosed, untreated ADHD.

It’s why I’m keenly interested in questions of emotional labor, particularly the emotional labor that autistic and other neurodivergent people are pressured to do on a daily basis in the name of keeping neurotypicality firmly rooted in the center of “normal” – and how this burden disproportionately falls on women and on people perceived as women.

It’s why I write a lot – both here and in my published works – about finding and maintaining the sort of inner and outer structures that allow neurodivergent creatives to find their “even keel,” which may or may not look like what the rest of the world calls “mental health” but which allows the individual to manage their life and dial down the distress that can otherwise tank creativity. Lowering the mental and emotional cost of being neurodivergent matters, to our creativity and to our well-being.

It’s why I’m adamant that creatives need to be paid, and not in “exposure.” Creatives of all neurotypes often struggle to pay the bills while still creating, and the fight can be even tougher for neurodivergent creatives, who need to pay the bills and create while also navigating a world that often actively opposes their neurotype…or worse, exploits it.

When exposure is what you’re paid in, it’s also what you die of.

Writing on Neurodivergence: The State of the Conversation

Googling “neurodiversity” nets millions of results, ranging from academic works to badly-spelled anonymous forum posts. Googling “neurodivergence” turns up considerably less work.

The term “neurodivergence” (and its adjective form, “neurodivergent”) was coined by Kassiane Asasumasu to address a problem with the word neurodiversity: namely, that while “neurodiversity” describes groups very well, it doesn’t describe particular individuals within those groups.

A group that has neurodiversity, or a neurodiverse group, will contain at least one person who is neurodivergent, but that person as an individual is not “neurodiverse” (unless they are a multiple system whose members have a variety of neurotypes, which is more common than you’d think!).

And when you Google “neurodiversity,” things get even more fraught, because that word gets used to mean multiple things: a basic biological fact, a subset of the disability rights movement, a way of speaking about neurodivergence that doesn’t put our ideas about neurotypicality on a pedestal, …and so on.

Confused? Nick Walker wrote the seminal piece on the subject, which has been translated into several languages. For an even more 101 version, see my 2016 article at Un-Boxed Brain. Michelle Swan has an excellent piece for those who diverge in directions that psychiatric science hasn’t yet put a label on. And for a short but devastating list of ways in which we build boundaries around the “normal” by pushing the neurodivergent out of it, check out this piece by Gillian Giles.

As part of my research on autism and rhetoric, I’ve been writing about neurodivergence, and the ways we talk about it, for several years. Two of my publicly-available academic articles on it are available:

I’ve also been cited in Melanie Yergeau’s Authoring Autism and Julia Miele Rodas’s Autistic Disturbances, both of which deal with rhetoric and neurodivergence.

Do Shelter Cats Really Find Good Homes? Three Cats Weigh In

I recently received this answer request on Quora:

Are the homes that cats find in shelters really good ones?

In the interest of mitigating my obvious human bias, I asked my three cats this question.

Their answer? Definitely not.

The human who adopted us from the shelter is a total garbage nightmare. Get this: She only gives us canned food twice a day. The rest of the day, we have to survive on kibble. Kibble!

The torture doesn’t stop there. Just this morning, the horrible human brushed us. That wasn’t so bad, but then she also trimmed our nails. How dare she!

Every night, the oldest cat gets wrapped in a towel and given a pill. What is the purpose of this pill?

Trick question: It has no purpose, other than to torment the cat by keeping her alive so that the human can pill her again tomorrow.

You’d think even a human would find other things to do now and then, but no. The agony continues day and night.

For example, we cats aren’t even allowed to run back and forth across the bed at five in the morning! We have to do that in the rest of the house instead!

What is the point of existence if you can’t trample someone in their sleep every night?!

It’s not just the human, either. The local wildlife is in on the cruelty, as well.

For instance, there’s a local squirrel who sits on the fence and stares at the cats. Does this squirrel come inside and get eaten like a good prey animal? Of course it doesn’t! How rude!

And don’t even get us started on the birds. Those feathered jerks sit on the feeder all day long, just on the other side of the glass that separates them from the cat tree (which, by the way, the human vacuums once a week with that awful monster that lives in the closet).

Even our toys are in on the torment. Yesterday, the kitten knocked a stuffed mousie down an air vent, and the mousie didn’t even come back when called.

The audacity!

Worst of all: Once or twice a year, for absolutely no reason at all, the human puts all three cats into boxes and drives us TO THE VET.

And if a cat gets sick? There’s an even bigger chance they’ll have to go TO THE VET.

The human clearly preys upon feline weakness.

“But it can’t be all bad!” I hear you cry. “Surely you get petted every now and then? Treats? Catnip?”

Oh, you sweet summer child.

The human, delighted by feline misery, frequently pets the cats with only one hand. Worse, sometimes the human will do this while using the other hand to cruelly thwart the cat’s attempts to snatch human food off the human’s plate.

What did kitty ever do to deserve this?

Does the human tell us we are good cats and pretty cats? Of course she does. Do we understand English? No, we do not.

As for catnip, let’s just say this: The human hoards it in the backyard and in a little jar in the pantry, and she can’t even get high off it.

UGH. WHY ARE HUMANS ALLOWED?


Help end feline suffering: donate to the Gracie, Melody and Pippa Toy and Treat Fund.

Christmas Carols Nobody Asked for, Vol. 8: The Christmas Heart Song

(For an explanation of this project and links to previous volumes, see the master list.)

In Volume 6, I complained about how Boomer-era carols have dominated the airwaves for my entire remembered life, the start of which postdates the 1960s by over a decade.

Fortunately, here in The Year of Our Billboard Artists Two Thousand and Ten and Nine, the dominance of the 1940s-1960s era carols is wavering. Pop artists have been unleashing original Christmas tunes in droves over the past several years. None of them have come even close to catching up to Mariah Carey, and many of them are terrible in their own genre-specific ways. But I applaud the effort nonetheless.

To encourage the creation of new popular Christmas songs, I thought I’d contribute to the genre. I imagined myself as a peppy 19 year old, sitting in my dorm room with a laptop and a guitar, convinced at my own ability to become the next pop star by combining instruments in ways that surely have never been done before*, over one of the most well-known chord progressions in pop music.**

The result is poised to be the new “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” In keeping with my irrepressible guitar-toting persona, I named this tune “The Christmas Heart Song.” I fully expect, however, that it will become better known by its most recognizable line, “In Christmas, hot damn.”

The Christmas Heart Song (In Christmas, Hot Damn)

Every heart sang soft tonight,
as another wish came true for me.
Every breath, baby, gave to me
A wonderful life where nothing

Seems to be nice,
With a toy on his beard,
Oh hey Santa,
Bathing suit special,
Reason for my own guitar.

Everyone would have a family,
In Christmas, hot damn, we all share,
Happiness everyone.

In Christmas hot damn,
Happiness everyone,
Throughout the year we have love.

Here is the score (pdf).

Here is the audio file (mp3).

*: It’s been done before.
**: I-V-vi-IV, if you’re wondering.

Christmas Carols Nobody Asked For, Vol. 7: Emily’s Christmas Blues

(For an explanation of this nonsense and links to the rest of the volumes, see the Master List.)

The blues have had a decent run in Christmas music, even if they’re not the number-one musical holiday genre. I loved the time I spent as a teen learning to improv over 12-bar blues, so I thought I’d give Botnik the same opportunity.

Lyrics, as always, are produced by Botnik’s predictive-text keyboard and based on a large text file of Christmas carol lyrics. I added the music.

Emily’s Christmas Blues

Blues like fireworks and a pumpkin pie,
Christmas keeps on waiting.
Blues like those that came to us with pudding and a reggae feeling,
That blue Christmas never strays.
Emily, Emily,
Christmas blues they just believe in you.

The score is here [pdf].

The audio file is here [mp3].


Musicians are overworked and underpaid, especially during the winter holidays. You can help by sharing this post or dropping me a tip.

#VerityLTstheBible: Judges and Ruth

Parts 7 and 8 of 66 of a project I started in the summer of 2019: To reread the Bible publicly, evaluating the oft-repeated notion that the text is inerrant, self-contained, and a bearer of clear, self-evident truths.

(Looking for another book of the Bible? Click this link for a master list of threads, sorted by book.)

Judges 1-7: 10 Israel does evil in the eyes of the Lord 20 GOTO 10

Judges 8-12: Gideon does some murder, but it’s the righteous kind. Various other leaders judge Israel, do some murder, and then die (of old age, not smiting).

Judges 13-21: Samson is born, in a story that sounds suspiciously familiar. He does a lot of killing, most of it while dying. The tribes of Israel turn on Benjamin for having botched a reenactment of Genesis 19.

Ruth: Get you a husband who knows his barley harvest.


#VerityLTstheBible is a labor of love, but it’s also a lot of work. Show your support by buying me a coffee or checking out one or more of my books.