Hold That Ideal Loosely

“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste.”
– Ira Glass

What makes it so difficult to know what we’ve said is knowing so well what we meant to say.

Missing the mark. It’s a definition of sin.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the “gifts of imperfection” and embracing failure. Is this what’s meant, or do we need to understand something better here?

I thought I’d get the new chandelier hung and wired so easily this weekend. It wouldn’t be that challenging to switch out the old light fixture for the new. Or so I thought.

It turns out there’s a difference between the plastic coating on positive and negative electrical wires. We never know what we don’t know, but it can cause problems, and an extra trip to the hardware store for a new wall switch.

Missing the mark can be intentional, but more often it’s simply unrecognized. Most of us know well what perfection would look like, but few of us, if any, are able to manage it.

This can cause all sorts of internal challenges and blown fuses.

Ira Glass said our difficulty as writers comes from having great taste and not being able to achieve that special quality we want our work to have. We know it’s missing something, but we don’t know yet what it is. When I turned the power back on, there must have been a pop at the wall because when I came back, there was no light.

How do we get clear on what we’re missing unless we let go of what we hoped for to recognize something is missing?

Is this a gift of imperfection, this awareness of what we lack?

With a new wall switch installed and the wires reversed, the new chandelier worked and I’d learned more about wiring than I had before. But it took far longer, a couple Youtube videos on using a voltage meter, and Sheri reading the instructions to me aloud to determine what had gone wrong. And in the end, even my inability to read carefully was a humorous gift.

Isn’t this why we say writing is a process? We have to learn to enjoy the learning and forget the product. Perfection is a fine goal, but the gifts of missing the mark that teach us so well what we truly need from the work.

If we’ll slow down, let another see our failure, and take the time to see what it means we must do, we can grow and acquire the hidden gifts God placed in the process for us to discover.

If only we can learn to hold more loosely that simple, perfect ideal.

Hold that ideal loosely. And press on today.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

If You’ll Accept the Struggle

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

– Rumi

Writing is hard–for so many reasons. Is it worth the effort?

I get so many manuscripts from new writers asking me if it’s worth the effort to invest in. I used to try to convince them, but I don’t anymore. Instead, I turn the question around, the way I feel God has done in my life whenever I’ve asked him that question (and I’ve asked it a lot):

Can you accept the struggle?

We’ve all committed ourselves to things that haven’t ended up worth the effort. But it may be that just asking the question proves it could be worth the effort to commit and fight for–if only we’ll accept the struggle.

Maybe it’s always true–sometimes the results won’t be what you’d hoped, but the struggle will always produce positive benefits if you commit to embrace the struggle itself wholeheartedly.

And that’s a bit different than embracing the hope of a positive result, or some specific outcome. And it’s going to be difficult to do. Because a good embrace always involves being grateful.

Being grateful is open-handed, receptive, nonresistant. And only from that place can our art respond to what’s truly relevant about a subject, a theme, a story.

Why does it take such effort? Dang, I wish I knew! But my guess is exertion is just what life requires; effort is where life happens.

And I had it confirmed again recently: it’s struggle that creates the best fruit.

Did you know good grapes come from stressed vines? I learned this from a winemaker. Stressed vines give good fruit, and if the vines have too much water and not enough heat, they won’t produce fruit. They don’t have to struggle to hold on to their water, which makes them not work on creating fruit. Why? Because life requires exertion, I guess.

When he said it, I thought of how baby chicks have to struggle to peck out of their egg or they’ll be prone to “failure-to-thrive” syndrome. How many natural examples of this required exertion are there? Thousands? Millions?

It was just more support for the theory I’ve been slowly coming to: if you want to move forward in your writing, you’ve got to challenge yourself to be grateful for the struggle itself. Maybe that means we’ve got to think more intentionally about the purpose of struggle, and the benefits it brings to our life. And maybe that will convince us instead of trying to defeat it, resist it, run from it, or ignore it, we need to seek out deeper appreciation for it as an essential tool–and a gift.

Instead of defaulting to complaining and looking at the pain of struggle, maybe we can look further. We know pain lies to our brains and says fighting isn’t worth suffering. But there’s so much that is worth suffering for. More than avoiding pain, there’s experiencing joy.

You can’t avoid pain anyway. Life will bring it no matter what. You can’t choose not to experience it–might as well make it good for something and choose to be grateful for the struggle.

And the benefit for making that effort will be good fruit.

Maybe anything less is a waste of time.

I think my earlier mistake was thinking this effort had to be so serious and heavy. It felt hard and not widely appreciated, so I’d push and try to force myself to invite pain through willpower. But in fact, not letting the struggle steal your sense of fun seems much of the point.

Maybe joyless effort was inevitable for me, part of my journey. But I’ve found when you do find gratitude for the hard things you’re up against, you’ll be in the right frame of mind to preserve joy. You’ll see that opposition and resistance isn’t hateful—it doesn’t care. And you taking personal offense as though you’re too special to have to experience this pain, that’s you caring way too much. So you can help yourself out and stop wasting your energy. 

Let yourself off the hook for misunderstanding and taking offense. It’s the most natural thing in the world to resist and get angry. But you can break that habit with a little effort. Yes, you can.

Ask me how I know.

And you’ll be released from having to fight so hard. You can understand that your natural response is unhelpful and unneeded. Don’t curse your nature—just let it go. It can have its uses, just not here.

Struggle, pain, and suffering are inevitable. Don’t be afraid. And don’t waste them.  

“The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference.”
Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

For the higher purpose,

Mick

The Head vs. Heart Debate

The head learns new things, but the heart forever practices new experiences.

– Henry Ward Beecher

 

An author friend of mine told me last week that when her kids were in their early teens, they were in horrible competition with each other and they argued all the time. She said she had to figure out how to make them work it out. So she made them roommates for six months.

And it worked.

Suddenly, inspiration struck me—this is just like being a writer.

My own struggle to write is like an internal competition between my head and my heart. Both think they have the best solution, but both need to get beyond the fighting to see the value of their own disabilities. What I’ve needed is to figure out how to embrace both sides of my personality as loved and needed.

If head and heart are naturally at odds with each other, it stands to reason that learning to write well would absolutely require figuring out how to become a patient parent to both sides of your demanding self.

In that moment of inspiration, I imagined my brain as an older brother named Wisdom, who’s constantly telling his little sister Grace, the heart, what to do. He’s smarter, maybe wiser too, and he keeps Grace safe. She’s impulsive and needs Wisdom’s help, but he often needs to back off and give her some space. Grace may not know exactly where she’s going but Wisdom’s going to have to learn to let her lead at times so she can learn how to get them where they’re really going.

My problem has been that Wisdom doesn’t know where the story needs to go, but Grace doesn’t want to listen. Sometimes Wisdom imagines leaving her behind and writing the book himself, and sometimes Grace fantasizes about overpowering him and making him eat dirt. Both their frustrations are valid, but without both of them, they won’t get anywhere.

Grace is ignorant. And the first problem is the squabbling. Those who’ve made their war past-tense somehow figured this out—and felt it out—the way to becoming a patient parent.

And in that flash of inspiration I knew if I want to finish this novel, I need both Wisdom and Grace to sign a treaty. Both of them will have to send their best selves up to the head office and get down to the heart of the matter.

I thought of Pixar’s genius film, Inside Out, those emotional characters at the controls. They needed to learn to be rational. And I’ve got to be reasonable and empathetic, logical and loving.

Basically, Grace and Wisdom will have to marry.

(Wisdom is suggesting I abandon the brother/sister metaphor at this point. Grace is feeling a little uncomfortable too.)

I need them to fight together as they go up against the dragons. They need each other. Their love must go beyond reason, beyond feelings. They’ve got to battle it out and find a connection that goes beyond romantic affection or mutual appreciation. They’ve got to find an unbreakable fusion.

Maybe that’s what amazes us about a well-put-together person or a well-put-together book. They represent a fully embodied humanity—they fit together, their head and heart complement each other. They’re balanced.

They’ve worked through the self-doubt and self-consciousness to become self-aware, and finally, self-possessed. Their internal role-wrangling has been ironed out, and their head and heart play nice.

Maybe at some point, they realized they had a passion and particular gifts, but the heart needed some coaxing by big brother brain to put her faith into action. Maybe she also needed some discipline to stay on the tracks and not get distracted.

But now they can co-lead. And both can feel in charge. And both can believe God is with them and they’ve got this. 

(Thanks to my fabulous memoirist friend, Lyneta Smith, for the inspiration.)

For the higher purpose,

Mick

Letter to an Anonymous Author

“I am a writer. Therefore, I am not sane.”

― Edgar Allan Poe

Dear X,

I appreciated your note, my friend. And I’m grateful for it.

I’ve seen your struggle and I know how hard you’re working to progress and capture everything well, and also accept help. I knew your journey would be a special challenge, and while your issues and the resistance you’ve encountered is unique to you, I find (and I’d think your agent would agree) that resistance is also the most common thing about working on books.

Writers be farking crazy.

I know because I am one, first and foremost. To create a cohesive, authentic story out of your own life experience you have to dig into old emotions and memories and that’s like poking a sleeping dragon. Either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid.

Your memories and inner struggles are unique to you, but every writer who dares this work finds that monster in the mirror and has to face it. You’re not alone in that–far from it. I see it over and over again, and it’s part of what drives me to study counseling and psychotherapy.

But my primary motive in all of this is understanding my own issues and my own resistance to progress, to change, and to accepting help for my struggles. I want to learn how to be better, and like you, I’m drawn by something bigger and higher than myself pulling me out and convincing me I’m okay and I can let go of my fear and protectiveness. As I read, my heart says, Yes, that’s true for me too, and I listen to that voice and he shows me where we need to go–to help you, yes, but mostly to help myself.

Early on, I know you didn’t want to accept any changes from me. The less I did, the happier you were. So I stuck to cleaning up the “verbal diarrhea” and made sure the digressions didn’t feel too distracting. I told myself that was enough and your freedom was more important than being succinct and focused.

After rereading it now, I stand by that. It’s conversational, inviting, and down-to-earth, just as you are and I don’t want to change that anymore. You were right to push back against my “literary sensibilities,” and I’m glad you did. I think readers will appreciate your honesty, sincerity, and personable style–just like they do in your other writing.

I’ll let sharper minds than mine decide whether we can trim any further–while there’s always more tightening that can be done, every book has an irreducible flow as well. As I said, I don’t think I’m objective enough to know whether we’re hitting that in every spot, but I can hear you speaking the lines in my head and that convinces me we’ve captured your essential style. I’m not worried at all about the length–never have been. It’s long and I want to let others know we’re aware of that and we don’t think it’s a problem. It’s a work of beauty just the way it is.

I’m sorry for the times I haven’t understood your vision and for pushing you at times beyond what was reasonable. You and your book are a work of exquisite art balanced between extreme contrasts, and like all beautiful works of art, you and your book are symbolic of the creator from which you spring, one-of-a-kind as anything. I appreciate you and your book as such wonders.

Thanks for sticking with it and being true to yourself–you teach me tons, and I’m so thankful to get to work with you.

(Don’t think this means I’m going easy on you if we get another shot at this. The struggle is inevitable and inextricable. And fears be danged, that’s for good, not bad.)

Looking forward to the rest of the journey.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

Who Owns This Story Anyway? 

Let us build for the years we shall not see.
– Sir Henry John Newbold

I saw it in her eyes first, what I expected to see.

That flash.

“No, Dad. That’s wrong.”


Of course, I can’t blame her. I’d told the story “right” as many times as any story I’ve ever told. And I probably should have written this story down at some point, since it’s such a crowd-pleaser, the way they beg for the telling. Our own little version of Arabian Nights.

But this night, I’m telling it wrong.

“That’s not how it goes,” Charlotte insists, because of course, she has heard this one plenty of times. And this is definitely not the way it went last time. For some reason, I changed it up, and maybe this is why I don’t want to write it down. It’s more fun to think I can change it if I get a streak of creative inspiration. But this will not fly.

“The princess isn’t supposed to remember her name until after the goblins capture her,” Ellie says, trying to be helpful.

“Who’s telling this story?” I ask. I mean to make a signficant change to the familiar tale tonight, one that’s far better than the old familiar draft.

But they don’t want my brilliant revisions. They want the story they know. Apparently, they own this story or something.

I satisfy them and stick to the familiar version with the princess learning her name deep in the goblin mine when she meets her sister and she remembers who she is. Then the king comes and saves them and they ride away to happily ever after.

But at the end, after I tuck them in, I realize it’s not over. There’s more to this story, and they’ve helped me realize it tonight. Something from the sermon on Sunday connects with the story, or the act of telling it, and I need to capture the thought before I forget.

In a way, we’re all like Charlotte, certain we know how this story is supposed to go. Our security and happiness is wrapped up in it going the way we expect it to go, and in our minds, if it does, we will be safe and secure. We think we know what’s best because we’ve got some insight about what will be satisfying.

But we don’t realize that we don’t control the story. And if we were willing to trust the Storyteller, we would realize we don’t actually want to. Unfortunately, all we know is that the story was supposed to go differently, so we want it to go how we expected. So we try to convince the Storyteller we have the better idea, and we don’t realize what greater things we could learn to appreciate.

It seems the more I write, the more I learn to trust the Storyteller. There is much to intentionally control about writing and increase my capacity to hold many ideas and skills. But unless I want it to be the same old familiar story, I’ve got to believe there’s more than what I can bring to this, and I have to trust the Storyteller whose ideas and skills far outstrip mine.

Emily Freeman, in her book, A Million Little Ways, tells of her children planting apple seeds and getting impatient for the seeds to sprout.

“Aren’t we all seven years old, wanting our apple trees to give shade and fruit and wanting it yesterday? We kneel at the altar of our desire to see change now, to move things along, to push open doors. We have uncovered the art we were born to make and want to release the art we were made to live. We ignore the voice of fear and insecurity and are ready to move into our small world alive and awake.

“Yet there seems to be only silence. We don’t want to wait. And so because we can’t see results, we decide it isn’t working….

“Be faithful to plant. Release the growing to God. open up clenched fists and let the seeds drop into the ground, let them burrow down deep and do their secret work in the dark.

“Sacred shaping happens in the waiting.”

I simply have to believe that his greater story is what I truly want, and learn to be patient and listen.

I pray, kiss them, and head downstairs. I force myself to go slow, taking time at the landing to appreciate the feel of the carpet beneath my feet, the solid railing, the fading light coaxing a glow out of the freshly-painted wall.

I’ve got something new to add to the story. For too long, I’ve acted as though the story was my own, and far too often that’s been why it felt small and unsatisfying. Was it ever mine?

It could be such a fantastic story if I’d just let it change, open my hand and accept the freedom of not owning it, not being the one responsible for making it interesting or exciting or even work. The great news is that I’m not in control. It’s not mine to write. I was given a chance to see it and tell it, but I’m only an instrument, a seed-planter.

He’s telling the story. He makes it grow. My work is continually putting the story, my life, back in his hands.

Even if the story ends up nothing like the one I expected, do I still believe the king will save me? Is it too hard to believe because things look dark? Maybe that’s what makes the story such a good one. Who’s the real hero here?

Can I learn to trust and wait? Here is where I poured my hope and where I’ll wait for it to grow. A writer is like a farmer and our lives are like our stories that we’re given to share, but they aren’t ours. They’re being written. We see only the part that’s been revealed so far, but there’s so much more and it’s the king’s to complete. He is the only Storyteller who can give it life.

Trust him to do it.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” 

For the higher purpose,

Mick

Editor