The Bigness of Accepting the Smaller

“Bar the lowly, and no one worthwhile will enter.”
Bonnie Friedman

I’m trying to find only the best and brightest thoughts. The big ones that can help make my dreams come true, or lead me to success, or whatever I’m selfishly idolizing at the moment, these are the thoughts I want, and only these.

Even lust for God, as the drive to be in control of our pain, our ignorance, our lives, this is selfish. We can’t help it and he knows this, of course. He made us. He knows we’re weak. There’s nothing for selfishness but the only cure: love. So until you’ve found it, there’s no point trying to curb your need for it. Religion is the same as any other fool’s errand. We’re trying to solve a problem that can only be removed by love.

Love is no respecter of size or class or form. It’s for all and it transcends any division or distinction between things. It gets small so the specific can be appreciated and absorbed into the large. It becomes less so the individual can be joined to the greatest and have that greatness itself. Unity is its purpose, not self, not in-divide-uation.

And this is a big thought that began small. It proves its own point.

Yet some say Jesus was for division and he came “to bring a sword.” They try to claim he went around dividing people up into his and the world’s, that he was always about individuation and breaking up families and stuff. He cared for the particular and specific over the general and communal. He went after the one and left the 99. So obviously, see, love does care about individuals.

Truth is never contained in one iteration. We know this in our hearts as truth, just as he said. The truth is buried in our hearts and we know it’s bigger than our approximations, bigger than any word we could give it. Truth is The Word. Endless and endlessly incarnating in form after form. Jesus, the Word, is its ultimate form, somehow the God-human is Truth’s completion.

And Truth is concerned for individuals, but this concern leads to unity for all. It is love that makes us willing to separate to reclaim an individual to bring it into unity. Division is not the goal. Division is the current reality.

If we could see into everything, every word, every person, every event that forms our experience and understanding, we would know as God knows. And in some way this is both the purpose of all we’re living for, and our greatest and most debilitating downfall. Wanting this deeper knowledge was the birthplace of all evil in God’s created reality, and it is the way to appreciating all his grace has wrought in our lives. We can’t stop striving for it, even as we gain an ever healthier respect (hopefully) for its danger. Solomon’s wisdom failed him. Knowing the Truth is a terrible, and terrifying gift.

But inasmuch as you can choose the higher purpose of seeking full Truth, and allow it into your life, that’s worth inviting in (rather than trying to make it, or force it to happen, or possess it just so you can share it and become loved and adored, or whatever form your selfish, sinful shadow-mission might take. That one’s mine).

Don’t disparage the diminutive. Don’t disregard the daily. It might look ordinary, but look beyond that. It might seem unworthy of interest, but God is hiding just beyond this form you can see with your eyes.

“Senses are impaired if they don’t sense the Spirit….”
Ann Voskamp

For the higher purpose,
M

How Professional Writers Get Unstuck

“If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.”

Hilary Mantel

 

Before we go any further, let’s get rid of that pesky assumption buried in the title you’re afraid to fully claim as a “professional writer.”

“Professional writer” does NOT mean a writer who gets paid to write. A professional may get paid, or they may still be struggling to turn their work into a money-making endeavor. “Professional” simply means writing is your profession; it means you’ve professed that this is your primary pursuit. Do that, and you’re a professional.

So now, as a professional, you should know that the main trick, your primary skill in this profession is getting unstuck. The main thing that separates the professionals from the amateurs is this one difference. A professional, as pretty much every writing guru on my shelf has said (Lamott, King, McKee, Pressfield, Maass, Shapiro, Gardner, L’Engle, Koontz, et al), treats writing as their job.

Sometimes you’ll like it, sometimes you won’t. Sometimes you’ll love it, sometimes you won’t.

The way to become professional is to treat writing like the job you show up for, every day, with at least one day of rest. This trains you to take it as it comes. To “play it where it lies.” If that thought’s stuck in the weeds, well, you take your machete and your wedge and just try to get it back on playable ground.

The other thing about being professional no one ever told me is that when you get stuck–and that’s a when, not an if, especially if you’re writing every day–you’ll need to back off and assess the situation. If you’re prepared with this acrostic, you’ll have a much easier time:

Unplug. Notice. Slow down. Taste and see. Use your senses. Check fear. Kick judgment out. = Unstuck

U – Unplug from the internet, social media, entertainment, even the music. Seek quiet and don’t turn the devices back on until you’ve written.

N – Notice your world around you and pay attention to what’s influencing your heart and mind. There are always multiple factors involved in any moment of time, whether you’re perfectly balanced and thinking clearly, or unbalanced and need a coffee refill first.

S – Slowing down should be first, but I find it impossible to do before unplugging and noticing what I need to take stock of in my situation. The Christian life is all about getting beyond the circumstances influencing you to trade your salvation for a pot of stew, a pot of gold, a pot of raving acclaim. Slowing down needs to be every inspirational writer’s primary setting.

T – We’re all familiar with the scripture verse “taste and see that the Lord is good,” but when you notice what’s affecting you, do you also notice the beautiful leaves, the sound of the rain, the softness of the light? Or are you too unaware of all you have to be grateful for? A writer is someone who’s awake first. That’s how you wake others.

U – Use your senses, all six. If your coffee is strong as mine is, it’ll help. What is that color dripping from the leaves reflecting the soft light? How is the breeze warm and cool at once? But most importantly, the sixth sense, the inner sight: how does it move you to sense God in all he’s still creating for you to name, Image-bearer?

C – No one wants to leave the safe road, but caves don’t exist except in out-of-the-way places. And the cave you most fear to enter is the one that holds the treasure you seek. Did you think being a professional would mean anything less? If it was always easy and well-lit, everyone would be riding this roller coaster. Most get off.

K – “Kick” implies a little violence and it’s intentional here. Judgment will keep you safe and small your whole life if you let it. We Christ-followers have become masters at it: “Don’t do this, don’t do that, and definitely don’t even think about that.” You want to write? Quit with the rules. You’re gonna have to risk offending even yourself. Remember, forgiveness is a blank check you write yourself first. Don’t apologize; you’re a rebel with a cause here. You have infinite permission in the sacrifice you’ve received and agreed to promote with your life.

When you do all of that–Unplug. Notice. Slow down. Taste and see. Use your senses. Check fear. Kick judgment out–you’ll become a professional writer who knows how to get unstuck when, not if, it happens again.

The joy of this process is in the wisdom that it’s never any different. It’s always a choice to remember what you know and go forward into the places others fear to tread. Monsters be there, yes, but so do incredible riches. The riches of what this dusty old checkers game is really about.

Get in there and get your hands dirty, my friend. I promise you won’t regret it.

Happy Monday.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

How a Writer Gets Free of the Struggle

“You are going to feel like hell if you never write the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves in your heart–your stories, visions, memories, songs: your truth, your version of things, in your voice. That is really all you have to offer us, and it’s why you were born.”

Anne Lamott

 

What terrifies you?

It can seem a simple question. But have you tried to answer it?

Disaster, death, so many ways it all could be ruined and the people I love could be hurt or taken from me. Big spiders, embarrassing myself, talking to strangers, these are all lesser fears, but they seem related.

What’s beneath them? When I stop to feel it, I think it’s a terror of missing out on the best in life, whatever that is.  I fear never experiencing the greatest things life has to offer. They could be stolen by circumstances, so simply because I didn’t have the awareness to go after them, or the plain courage.

My biggest, deepest fear seems to center around navigating risk.

Everyone has deep fears, even the most confident people. Find someone who doesn’t trust easily and I’ll show you someone who fears people. We always have good reason. Hard experience has taught us well.

What most of us know beyond conscious knowledge is that until there’s an invitation and opportunity to face the deepest fear, we’ll remain fear-controlled. Everyone in the world. We need encouragement and opportunities. Otherwise, our inner children wait, silent, waiting to be asked, noticed, inspired by love.

If you want to know what’s wrong with most people, think of them as children ignored. It happened, and now they do it to themselves. A child ignored eventually shuts down. Adults forget and flee themselves.

So what we all need most is permission to stop and remember, to listen to the child and let it speak, to be encouraged out. And what I can tell you from my own experience is that what that requires most is trust.

Trust is the absence of fear. Trust is:

confidencebelieffaithcertaintyassuranceconviction.

You will finally speak when you trust it will be received. To know it’s okay, we let go and breathe easy. That freedom is essential to all you’ll become, all you’ll live, all you want to offer readers. So what you must do before anything else is receive permission to speak your unfiltered, vulnerable, risky truth.

Unjudged and unrestrained.

Remember, much experience has also taught you that when you do, you’ll feel again what’s most important to you. You’ve known it before. It’s just that when you did know that, you also found what scared you most. So to go back, you have to take the risk.

Behind this deepest fear is the storehouse of everything you will write that matters most.

This is what life is all about, what writing is about: surrendering your fight, to receive mercy for your own self. 

Endless mercy, endless grace. That’s permission. It’s okay if you don’t believe you have that or can’t receive it yet. All you need right now is that hope that this is true. The willingness to believe is as good as believing. You can trust this.

How it happened for me was that when I took my faint hope and went ahead and risked asking myself why I feared missing out on what really matters in life, it sounded silly, like not much of a risk.

Who even cares? You’re wasting time. Quit navel-gazing and think about others for a change.

The voice tried to keep me silent. Those voices take many forms–a teacher, a parent, a friend, a sibling, a grandparent, a spouse. We give them authority and take them inside and let them rule us. We feed them and protect them as they tell us what we think we need to hear. They’re the voices of reason, of maturity, of logic, of truth.

Except they aren’t.

The voices aren’t wrong; they’re trying to keep us safe. We’ve had good reason to be afraid. The scars on our hearts prove it. My scars always embarrassed me, proved weakness, unmanliness, impotence. Looking at them revealed how sensitive I was, how “feminized.” The scars were deep, but the denial they even existed went deeper.

And this was my fight.

Only the mercy of God through Sheri, my girls, my family, friends, has released me. Beneath the fear and fight lived the scary adventure I’d longed for.

My fear of failure, of losing those I love, they’re universal fears. Strongest of all, the one more like terror, is of missing out on the life that truly matters, truly contributes, truly rewards.

There is no way to do enough, be enough, the voice says, proving itself with endless evidence, memories of the many times we’ve failed, missed out, been disappointing. So many examples, too many to count.  They’d overwhelm and drag us under, so we turn away and ignore them.

And instead of fully living from the heart of the child, we live not to think of them.

Yoda wisdom
The form may change. But wisdom always remains the same.

What truly matters? What’s a life’s true contribution? What’s most rewarding? We all know the answer in our hearts: Connection. Relationship. Love. Compassion. Kindness. We know this. It changes everything. And we want to live this. But can we surrender the fear of missing out on whatever it is we think we need?

Where else would we find more meaningful connections than in this life we’re living? Who else could offer more than those we’re with? The question is either a foregone conclusion, or the ignorance of a fool.

The fool will control us until the wiser one takes its place. The fool will wonder what all this has to do with writing. The fool will be pulled by the nose toward every unconsidered new thought. The fool will try to ban the insignificant and end up straining out all meaning and substance.

Who but a fool thinks he can judge where or who is most significant? Who but a fool can say “this life is ruined” or “this life is not?” Everywhere and everyone and everything is creation–it is worthwhile, you fool! Be all there and you may just experience exactly what you’ve always wanted. Ignore it and wish for something else, something better or safer for you and you’ll only let fear continue keeping you from the incredible life you could be living right now.

Surrender.

“Give up, and the answer appears. Give up, and you are released. Give up, give up–let the bells toll it throughout your land. Struggle, and clarity of mind disperses. Surrender, and somehow it’s yours.”

– Bonnie Friedman, Writing Past Dark

For the higher purpose,

Mick

Nope, Writing Is Still NOT About Creativity

“We are about contribution. That’s what our job is. It’s not about impressing people. It’s not about getting the next job. It’s about contributing something.”

 

What’s different about a book is far less important than what’s the same.

Conventional wisdom holds that all true artists abhor convention and delivering what’s expected. They’re just too creative for that.

fern

Unfortunately, that notion is dead wrong. No one is interested in such “pure creativity.” Readers aren’t interested in books that are completely out of the box—what would be the point? No, we all want what’s conventional and unoriginal. Yes we do. Most of any paragraph, scene, or chapter should be expected. Anticipated. 

Conventional.

Put another way, most of a story must follow the reader’s expectation.

When I was an acquisitions editor, I learned this was one of the important hidden keys to book proposals that sold. If the writer delivered what readers of that type of book expect, we’d be much more likely to be able to sell that book. That means a writer has to know the best books in their genre and how they met expectations.

DSC_0019Of course, there are uniquenesses to every successful book, and true, they break conventions and delight readers with creative surprises. But the total amount of those differences is less than 5 percent. The actual number may be higher, or even less, but most of the enjoyable parts of any successful book–fiction or nonfiction–are not new. Think about it.

In fact, if you want to know what made a particular book so successful, consider how that tiny amount of new, unpredictable material was actually a liability until it proved just enough to add to or improve on what was already available.

Higher purpose writers need to know good stories are built by following the conventions of good storytelling–a person we can identify with, a quest and settings we’ve experienced countless times, and plot developments that arise naturally from what the protagonist wants, and how they’re obstructed from it. You must see how your favorite author built their story with the existing material of their genre, the very same materials everyone uses, the traditional building blocks in the right sequence and with the proper attention—characterizations, plot points, descriptions, dialogue, strong verbs—then you too can use the elements to succeed–

Any artist brings particularities of expression. But more importantly, they satisfy expectations.

What’s too often missed is that a professional writer often allows readers to very nearly predict every single word because they’ve mastered the conventions so completely. Subtle nuances, and unique stylistic things notwithstanding, the surprises are secondary to everything first being perfectly placed.

And the proof is that a book can completely conform to your expectations to a remarkable degree, and somehow still convince you that writer is worthy of your attention.

In fact, the similarities between a new book and its established category may be what convinces you most.

DSC_0023What’s great about this is that it’s in the simple, expected ordinary elements of a story that we can give rise to the greater possibilities in any story. It’s just some colors blended from the primary three. Just eight basic notes in the scale. Just one alphabet, 3 acts, the same journey toward freedom. But when your readers are all desperate to get home again, they don’t want to be confounded at every turn. They want, first and foremost, to be comforted by what’s reassuring, and this is what makes an artist great: he has our best in mind.

Or as Pascal the restauranteur says in the film, Big Night, “Give people what they want, then later you can give them what you want.”

Any writer can write something completely new. New ideas are literally a dime a dozen. Only a writer with a higher purpose cares what readers want and delivers it. What’s different about a book is far less important than what’s the same.

With every professional artist’s work we talk about what’s special but only because it was built on the conventional foundation of perfection—that is, mastery—of every single element in that discipline.

All art is this way. Practiced conventionality is the work. It’s always been true and it will remain true forever: “creative” work is far more predictable than creative.

Or maybe the truth is that’s what creativity is. Learn what’s expected and how to deliver it. You won’t write other writers’ stories. But there are only a handful of archetypes and storylines. You’re offering an interpretation, much more than you even realize.

What you write matters. What you emphasize about the human condition and experience is a vitally important, needed perspective. But being different is inevitable. And when you get back to the work today, aim to be disciplined by the conventional and tradition.

Because that’s where you’ll prove you’re a writer: in the discipline that leads to freedom.

DSC_0026

“The writer is only free when he can tell the reader to go jump in the lake. You want, of course, to get what you have to show across to him, but whether he likes it or not is no concern of the writer.”

Flannery O’Connor

Can that also be true? Maybe we just all have to try and find out.

For the tried and true higher purpose,

Mick

How Embracing Pain Can Prevent Jerkitude

I’m special. I know you’re wondering how I know. But I’ve always known, crazy as that sounds.

In fact, I suspect most people who haven’t experienced big, deep pain probably agree with this. And anyone who has experienced a massive life event that brought them deep pain, they’ll probably confirm it:

Not suffering pain makes you special. Since life inevitably brings giant hardships, having so far somehow escaped proves I’m special. All the myriad pains life could have brought, and maybe should have brought, I’ve managed to sidestep. That obviously makes me fortunate, right?

Or maybe it makes me pitiably common.

Having never experienced great pain, I often think I shouldn’t have to. I think I can avoid it through planning, cunning, skill, and plain inborn specialness–in other words, luck. And at least until something painful enough happens, I’m likely to go on believing in my good fortune and being special.

And like most who’ve been spared, I believe a bunch of crazy things about why. One of my favorite, almost sacred beliefs is that my life should continue this way and progress without much struggle, effort, or especially pain. The longer I go without it, the scarier it becomes, and it embarrasses me to admit this, but I don’t necessarily believe it because I think it’s true, but because I don’t want to admit that it’s false.

Oh, but I know pain is coming whether I accept it or not….

After my freshman year of high-school, I went for a run one summer’s day. Remembering what the football coaches called “hell week” was coming up, I thought I’d try to get in shape. I hoped taking a few weeks to work up to the physical demands would help me avoid some of the hellishness I’d endured last season.

Somewhere around the third week of training, I rounded the corner where I usually turned up the juice to sprint for home, and there was nothing in the tank. I’d increased the distance little by little, but today my noodly legs burned and I was drowning.

If I slowed, I’d never make my goal. I could try again tomorrow, but I only had so many days left, and I’d missed several already. I hadn’t pushed like I should have. I’d never get this chance back, but as my momentum began slowing, I hit the mental wall.

The combo of physical exhaustion and the psychological exertion amplified it into something I’d never felt. That stab of new awareness remains with me to this day, awakening and clearing off everything but the flash of inspiration:

Embracing this level of pain is what everything most worth having in life will require. This is what commitment means.

I have no idea why it broke through my foggy stupor in that moment, or why it was so indelible. And unfortunately, it was a mere blip in my well-ingrained system of pain-avoidance and denial. It’d be several years before I realized rejecting this wisdom was the source of every jerk. But I’ve never regretted experiencing it when life has brought a new, exquisite anguish my way.

I’ve read countless stories of people fighting back after accidents, a fire, a child’s death. Such disasters convince me it’s no big loss I can’t run anymore. My feet can’t take running, but I still push myself to face the discipline it takes to grow. I know every great advance of civilization has required great pain. Why should my life be any different?

But part of me still believes wholeheartedly it should be, because I’m special. And if only everyone could be spared like I have, well, life would be one big 1980s party all the time, just like it’s supposed to be.

Obviously, this dangerous, unexamined belief can’t continue. It has already caused me untold problems. If I took but a moment to notice the fatigue of fighting not to see it, I’d realize this.

Am I truly unaware of how damaging it is? Is there a better definition of a jerk than one who believes he’s escaped pain because of his specialness?

If I could only see all the extra pain this false “specialness” causes–to myself and others. If I could see all the missed, prevented growth because of this evil belief. …

“It is only in the heat of pain and suffering, both mental and physical, that real human character is forged. One does not develop courage without facing danger, patience without trials, wisdom without heart-and brain-racking puzzles, endurance without suffering, or temperance and honesty without temptations. These are the very things we treasure most about people. Ask yourself if you would be willing to be devoid of all these virtues. If your answer is no, then don’t scorn the means of obtaining them.” – Dallas Willard,  The Allure of Gentleness

Do I habitually scorn pain? I may like to sound borderline masochist, but I shun just about every type of suffering, which ultimately only causes more. Is this one reason I seek out safe, imagined pain in stories and entertainment–because choosing purposeful pain is what I need most?

Maybe, in this culture of shallow pursuits and unrelenting selfishness, some people need stories to remind them of the need to choose purposeful pain? Should it be any wonder so many apathetic, depressed, and medicated people suffer for the lack of meaningful pain, the kind that brings growth and must be chosen?

“All we need to do is make an honest and thorough effort to discover what is right and wrong, good and bad, and, when we are convinced on these points, then simply go out and face life for what it is worth.” (Allure of Gentleness)

Why would I think I can escape this difficult fact of life? Should I try to write, live, or do anything without realizing my greatest task is first to understand what every hero must accept about this life and this impulse to flee all pain?

The plain fact is, the pain isn’t the problem so often as running from it is.

There is pain we can choose to face, and there is pain that is chosen for us. Neither comes by random luck. And no pain is improved by not facing it and accepting it as an opportunity to grow. I can’t continue living until I learn this. I have to get this simple, seemingly-impossible lesson between my ears before anything else.

I believe in God, the Almighty Creator of all heaven and earth. I believe he is pure, sacrificial, unconditional Love. Therefore, what challenges me most is always for my good. What causes me to struggle most is always what I need most.

It’s not about seeking out pain, or even welcoming it. But neither can I continue to hate it if I truly want to understand its higher purpose. Like exercise, it’s never completely pleasant, but the day will come where the incredible struggle will seem to fall away, and what’s left will be the exhilarating feeling and the knowledge that pain is not the fearsome enemy I feared.

Facing this is how we grow. That’s certain. How else would we recognize its true value? What else but pain is so important to us, so convincing, so unavoidably, regrettably, intractably interwoven with our existence? What else but God gives life such meaning, weight, and purpose?

Is there a greater, more motivating force in our lives than pain?

And is there any more important decision than to learn to face it well?

For the higher purpose,

Mick

Inspiring Books