Category Archives: A writer’s motivation

When There’s Too Much Anxiety in Your Way to Move Forward

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It turns out I have this unconsidered theory that what’s most important is to be comfortable.

And it’s especially true with huge challenges like writing.

One more cup of coffee, I think. Then maybe I’ll be in the zone….

There’s no coffee mug big enough for me. Or coffee hot enough, tasty enough, fresh enough. And soon, the way the perfect light hits the perfect spot on the floor has stolen 5 full minutes of my writing time. It’s not “wasted” time; actually it’s helped me recharge and get my thoughts in order. But it hasn’t gotten words on the page. And there’s a difference between taking a moment to appreciate the light, and stalling out.

Just keep showing up, I think, against all opposition. I was even geared up about it, or so I thought, seeking the answer to something, a recent idea I wanted to capture. So I came early before the day’s work because I know this is the way I work: the day must start here. So just get it down before anything else.

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But I’ve hit a wall and it’s a slog. I’m trying hard to remember the question I had, and it’s not there.

Just press on. You know writing isn’t always easy or comfortable. But when I get in this head space, there’s no denying it: my writing time for the day is slipping away.

There’s too much to do to waste this time, too many tasks and none of them can be rescheduled. The recent sweeping changes have created several places of real need and that’s led to some anxiety and overwhelm. We knew the move to Michigan would be fairly difficult, but the house has needed a lot of help and leaving our friends and family behind in Portland has been harder than we even expected. Bottom line, it’s become uncomfortable.

God knows I need challenges to push me out of my comfortable or nothing changes. I like to think I welcome change and even handle it well. But the truth is I fear it, and in most situations it’s something I resist—

What’s that? You want to introduce something new into my carefully circumscribed life here? Uh, no thank you. I’m good. Move along, please—

When I’m uncomfortable, I just want it to stop as soon as possible. Pain or struggle is evil and needs to be alleviated. It’s not useful for my good. How many times have I heard this truth espoused, and yet still I fight desperately to resist it?

I fight the truth, and I make myself uncomfortable in the process. I make myself uncomfortable in order to stay comfortable.

Which is insane.

We’ve all got to choose to respond to life’s inevitable challenges. Doing nothing is not a choice because doing nothing is still a choice. Believe it or not, accept it or not, life will change on you. Your only choice is how to respond. And when I respond by letting go of what I thought I needed, I’ll find a deeper comfort.

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I have to stand up and walk toward the window, face the light to get a hold of it, the thought comes in such a burst. But letting go of what I previously needed for comfort may be somehow the only way I’ll regain the sense that I’m safe and sound, that things are in control.

Because it will no longer depend on my own efforts to hold on to what I think I need.

In this life, nothing is what it seems. The greatest teacher was right: you have to give up your comfort in order to save it.

I haven’t fully figured this out yet, but I want to believe this. And maybe that’s enough for now. I can feel the release of it coursing through my body, holding me up, and convincing me it’ll be okay despite what it seems.

Accept the responsibility, choose to let go here and now, and you preserve your deeper freedom. You may not get to writing down words today, but there’s tomorrow and if God allows it, the next day.

There’s good, even when things look bad. The truth is always there just waiting to be acknowledged and accepted.

And surrendered to.

Am I required to do or to share anything else? Or is just living this simple truth today enough?

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And maybe next time I’ll remember this sooner, accept it more readily. When discomfort comes, can I surrender to it to keep my deeper comfort?

Only one way to find out, I guess.

“If only we try to live sincerely, it will go well with us, even though we are certain to experience real sorrow, and great disappointments, and will also probably commit great faults and do wrong things. But it certainly is true that it is better to be high-spirited—even though one makes more mistakes—than to be narrow-minded and all too prudent. It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength; and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much; and what is done in love, is well done.” – Vincent Van Gogh, (from Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh (Plume, 1995)

For the deeper, greater, and higher purpose,

 

Mick

My Writing Process, Step 3: Read 3 Pieces Before You Start

Dear you,

With tons of help and borrowed insight, you’ve been recovering. That’s so good and hopeful. Don’t forget to celebrate! It’s involved relearning compassion for the small things, and it’s been life-changing, as well as a long time coming. Specifically, you now know you started life like so many men, crying. And like too many men, you could die denying it.

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Don’t.

These lessons naturally have required much thinking about your writing process. Which has also led to some deeper questions and considerations. But you’ve fought the nagging urge to rethink everything and undo the progress, and you haven’t tossed the management of the many details of life, which is the whole trick of getting through this better and healthier. Structure is the schedule that creates routines that work well, better, best.

But don’t forget these three simple steps in your process, especially step three.

Step one – to always go back to the start—motive. And regardless of any second thought, set out to return, submitting to what you do know: that you don’t really know where you’re going. Because you can’t.

Like everything, remembering will become easier with practice. But it’s doubtful you’ll ever outgrow the need to be reminded.

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Step two The theme you think you’re capturing isn’t what you’ll end up with. The theme will arise naturally, unhurried. Wait for it and write on.

Both of these steps are about letting go, and so is this one,

Step three – Start your writing day with three pieces of high-quality reading.

There’s no getting around this: if you’re trying to be original, you’ve got to give that up. Choose reading that’ll disabuse you of that too-common notion.

Practically speaking, this is crucial and also the easiest step. Because when you make your choices and you decide to take daily drinks from three life-giving wells, you also giving up being original in your work for the day. You read a bit and you get all kinds of new, useful food on the table to be savored.

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Here’s the thing: you’ll only become what you consume. And you can’t generate your own food. You can only share what’s borrowed because you’re not that smart. You only have what you’ve been given and all you do is make yourself able to receive it.

And in the words of John Wesley, “Oh, begin!”

(The whole quote is, “What has exceedingly hurt you in time past, nay, and I fear, to this day, is lack of reading….And perhaps, by neglecting it, you have lost the taste for it. Hence your talent in preaching does not increase…Reading only can supply this, with meditation and daily prayer. You wrong yourself greatly by omitting this….Oh begin! Fix some part of every day for private exercise. You may acquire the taste which you have not; what is tedious at first will afterward be pleasant. Whether you like it or not, read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days, and a pretty, superficial preacher. Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer.”)

You’ve heard this now so you’re responsible. You’ve also heard that you’re only as successful as your three best mentors, your three best friends? Well, this also applies to books. Each book is a friend to teach you, like each of these steps, with humility at the center. You come to the page empty, and then you need to be filled. You don’t write the story. It writes itself. You translate it.

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That’s no small task, but it’s a more manageable one than you started out with. Your process will always first be to let go of and unlearn all you think you have or bring. You have nothing. And when you’re empty of self, you’re ready to begin to refill with better food.

Of course, you won’t always want to! Especially when you’re feeling no good or you’re desperate to say something artful or profound. Fine. Put it in your journal. But before you get to work, get free of that. Trying to teach readers when you have so much to learn yourself (!) is like passing out free lemonade when your house is on fire.

And now I make a rule: never tell readers what they can surmise, but always tell them what they can’t. Obviously, this one takes some practice. For example, is it obvious? And if so, did you need to say that?

Writing is tricky, and if you’re doing it to serve readers, good. But set that aside. When you start, don’t try to say something smart. Go to the library. Get acquainted with the people who tried and failed and read them. When you find them, go easy on them, but now you can see what you’re to do.

Now you’re ready to begin.

You want your book to help. Good. If you didn’t, I’d think you forgot the whole point. But to get the church to move toward the oppressed and lost, and away from the corrosive effects of Christian consumer culture and churchianity, you’ve got to give up trying to convince them what you’ve got, and all that well-meaning ambitiousness. Stop selling and start buying the books that came before you. That’s where you’ll find one thing you simply must share.

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This can sound like wasting time. It’s not. Inspiration isn’t yours; you don’t claim it. The sooner you get that, the better.

No one has written your book yet or ever could. But if you think any of this is new, you’re not ready. Reestablish the right motive. Restore your faith. And recover the old lines.

God is not about the new. He’s about recovery work.

You were left to cry, and you know now this is at the core of it all–separation and restoration. It’s too late to go home again, but the search is home. The longing is you. Let that be and don’t fight.

But don’t forget it.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

 

 

 

Why Do We Do This? Thoughts on Writing and Letting Your Life Speak

There’s a cage I’ve known.

No, not this cage.

For longer than I care to remember now (the archive in the sidebar shows 2004), I’ve questioned why I write. Why I feel like I should. It wasn’t enough just to say what Parker Palmer says in Let Your Life Speak. 

As young people, we are surrounded by expectations that may have little to do with who we really are, expectations held by people who are not trying to disern our selfhood but to fit us into slots. – p.12

I knew this, but I had to also question my reasoning. What was I saying about my desperate desire to speak–was I saying I didn’t appreciate my easy Christian suburban upbringing? Was I ungrateful for my safe life with dedicated parents, parents everyone else esteemed and loved?

In families, schools, workplaces, and religious communities, we are trained away from true self toward images of acceptability; under social pressures like racism and sexism our original shape is deformed beyond recognition; and we ourselves, driven by fear, too often betray true self to gain the approval of others.

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What racism have I known? What sexism? What true oppression? I’ve laughed along with the humor of regretting such an idyllic childhood couldn’t lead to great art. And I’ve believed my very desire to create such art was selfish at the core.

I’ve written. A lot. About this very thing. I’ve been self-focused and ashamed of that. I’ve found comfort in countless stories and recognized a certain underground misfit culture, and been emboldened by the beattitudes–if I feel this, maybe I’m among those he’s saying are blessed.

And yet, don’t I flatter and feign? Thinking about thinking is never helpful, but maybe there comes a time to realize as Anne Lamott says, “you own everything that happened to you.”

We are disabused of original giftedness in the first half of our lives. Then–if we are awake, aware, and able to admit our loss–we spend the second half trying to recover and reclaim the gift we once possessed.

I’ve written to keep a record, spotty and inaccurate as it might be. And the many journals I’ve filled and the thickly self-conscious prayers I’ve written, it’s all been a way to hold back and not say what needs saying. Substitute vulnerability, surrogate struggle.

“Look how honest. Feel affirmed by this. Yes, I’ve felt it too.” 

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I became an editor and helped publish many books promoting healing and hope. But I never faced my truth. I never let my life speak.

‘Faking it’ in the service of high values is no virute and has nothing to do with vocation. It is an ignorant, sometimes arrogant, attempt to override one’s nature, and it will always fail.

You never have true character until it’s forged by regret and tested in the face of opposition.

Can I still change? Palmer shares Buechner’s definition of vocation, “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” And I know that’s right–starting at my deep gladness, born of the struggle I was given as a gift to convince me, to shape me, to form this maddening ambition to face the darkness come what may and be real, once and for all.

And the velveteen rabbit’s friend taught me how to do that long ago. You have to get beat up in the service of love. And this doesn’t mean denying the particular shape of the imago dei within us, but asserting it as the only way to show a divided world how to be whole again.

…people who plant the seeds of movements make a critical decision: they decide to live ‘divided no more.’ They decide no longer to act on the outside in a way that contradicts some truth about themselves that they hold deeply on the inside. -p. 32

When we’re done being diminished by all the ‘shoulds’ we’ve accepted, we can know the true result of sin isn’t just the bad we do, but also the bad we’ve been done. And both need acknowledging and specific healing to be finished once and for all. But they can’t be done in you until you accept they both already have been finished by the one who lived fully alive and gave all he had to remove its power.

Believing I was a victim has kept me safe in the cage, but I’m done accepting the reducing of that sin–the sin I’ve done and done to me. I believe something entirely different now. I’m walking out.

This is the message I’ve been given, by Parker Palmer and many others who’ve been Spirit-led, after 14 years and much writing and pondering: neither the sin we’ve done nor the sin that’s been done diminishes anything about us. And now that I know, maybe I can stand up and say to that cage “Open,” and I’ll be free.

 

Sometimes it takes a long time to play like yourself.

– Charlie Parker

 

For the higher purpose,

Mick

On Process – My Writing Life – Step 1: Set Out to Return

“We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return; prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only, as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk.”

― Henry David Thoreau, Walking

The beginning is in the end. And the end is returning.

The idea of turning again back to the place you started from, it has a particular irreplaceable merit.

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Sheri, Ellie, Charlotte, and I set out on a walk, like every walk, from the home we’ll never stop cleaning up and repairing. We leave it behind for just a while to seek adventure and see the world that beckons beyond the front door. The familiar falls away, and our feet step down into a new place we don’t know. Our neighbors and strangers have come out following the morning downpour to wrestle their yards into their original designs, and apparently, none include knee-high weeds or crabgrass.

We walk to the Catholic graveyard because it’s a place of contrasts, beautiful and spooky, and full of very old and very recent residents. Sometimes we read the headstones, and other times we appreciate the flowers. Today, we’re just trying to get back because there’s too much to do back at home before our guests arrive.

“We need to get back,” Sheri says, and much as I want to stay, I know she’s right. “There’s much to do.”

I want to protest, to stay out and play in the glistening day. But I say, “Okay, let’s go,” because I know submitting quickly is the best way to promote happy wives, and also to continuing the play all the way home and beyond.

And oh, the older I get, the more I know that keeping the play going is pretty much the whole magic trick.

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Or maybe it’s better to say, staying in the play. That abiding is a mindset, of course, an intention of continuous practice, with just enough awareness to the conceptual world in the midst of the actual steps and tangible responsibilities. That balance is a metaphor for any meaningful relationship–it’s my marriage, my family, my writing, our house.

What you want is never what you think it is until you return to the start. Yes, of course that’s hard to understand, but why shouldn’t it be? You have to always give up something real, submit to it, and return to that initial design, to preserve what you really want.

You can’t see what you really want. And of course that makes it hard to submit.

I don’t want the fun walk in the graveyard to end. But that’s not what I really want. It’s deeper: I want the adventure to never end. And I want to do what I see as my job, my constant task as a husband and a dad and a writer–to keep the adventure going. Yet I can’t do that if I see this momentary returning as a subtraction, a quenching of adventure. I can only affirm and submit to my partner and the more important friendship we share.

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You’d think this wouldn’t be such a big deal, wouldn’t you? It’s always a bigger deal than we think.

Because it’s always about more than the surface issue. If I can remember that I don’t want to resist love but to submit to it and continue the adventure, I can respond well here. And I can connect up this inspiration to writing: we must venture out, add to our lives escape and exercise and fun and so many other needed things. But we must also return and realize that has its place, and it isn’t subtraction if we’re fully submitted to it.

Returning, too, can be adventure.

We get to the end of the road and turn around, and I see the sunlight fading through the trees, slanting off the wet limbs and reflecting the multicolored sky. The girls aren’t as resistant and have already found how beautiful the light is now ahead of us as we retrace our steps to crest the low hill and turn back. And suddenly, I’m reminded of a T.S. Eliot quote I’ve always loved, which feels in some way its been waiting until now to speak:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

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It’s from his “Four Quartets,” written after his conversion to Christianity and understanding of salvation. He continues:

“Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.”

I’ve said it so often to writers I’ve coached, hoping it’d make its way from my consciousness to my lived experience, that our job is simply to follow in submission to the call of inspiration. And at the end, when we read back over, the venture will prove out what the initial design intended, and what we had forgotten to intend. We can’t see it on that first go around. And that’s as it should be.

I want to stake my life on what I’ve returned to on this walk, the surprise of it, and to have it live forever in my heart. The true adventure.

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Returning always means submission, not merely to a spouse or always specific to a person, but to an idea. Sub (under, from below, up) + mitto (to send). From sub+mitto comes “upsend,” which creates our other key definition of submit: to propose or promote a plan. Submitting also means promoting. And in spiritual terms, it means placing oneself under a sending mission.

To go out and let go. And to return to the beginning. What we intend is not what we mean to intend. We must be brought back to ourselves after we’ve submitted and gone out. Being sent is a gift that inspires and intends a return. It’s added, included in the fabric of the eternal tapestry. And we circle back and know our line has been included because we heard and went and trusted

in submission.

Someone said if things aren’t good yet, then you can know this isn’t the end. Stop. Turn around. Start back.

I take her hand and we walk home together behind the girls, the light breeze from their steps lifting their hair in expectation, and the blinding light turning it to waves of willing fire.

“If it be true that God is a circle whose centre is everywhere, the saint goes to the centre, the poet and the artist to the ring where everything comes round again.”

– William Butler Yeats

For the higher purpose,

mick

For Writers, Is Living Love a Process?

“Success has little to teach us during the second half of life. It continues to feel good, but now it is often more an obstacle to maturity than a positive stimulus toward it.”
― Ronald Rolheiser, Sacred Fire: A Vision for a Deeper Human and Christian Maturity

The day’s list of projects is looking mighty long. I know enough by now to simply do the hardest, most pressing thing first, and stick to the process until I get through it all. Last week was a great reminder that “Bird by Bird is always the way.

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Looking at the calendar reminds me I’ll turn 45 on my next birthday. It’s not so old, but seems it’ll be harder to deny I’m middle-aged and “should be” more mature by now. Or whatever other “shoulds” I should be thinking about at my age.

And that list seems pretty stinking long too.

Apart from all of that–the work and the worries about shoulds–what would I choose to be doing to find the most meaning and significance? I know I’m being coerced by the clock and the calendar, but it’s a valid question, and a good one for a Monday morning.

What’s the best use of the day?

Certainly, I can assume a whole list of things it isn’t. Paying any more attention to that blowhard. Worrying about money or bills. Getting just one more modern convenience. 

FullSizeRenderI’m like most modern people. We’re all way too distractable. That’s different from being purpose-driven and interruptible, like Jesus always was. We’re too often thinking about ourselves. We don’t serve the sick and needy, the most innocent and vulnerable. We serve the powerful, the promising, the ones we deem worthy and projecting the right image of success. We elevate those we think can elevate us with their power, prestige, privilege, or position. We avoid those who might drag us down and look instead for promising partners who can help raise our status and standards.

If I could have my way, I’d have no other thought but to serve God and love Him fully through the care and keeping of the weakest and gentlest people I could find. Or so I think. I would be about His business, at least that’s what I tell myself.

But I don’t get involved. There are plenty of opportunities to serve those around me and I don’t. Haven’t I been faking my way through this spiritual writing life up to now? Aren’t I really all about myself, my own wants and needs, my own little comforts? 

IMG_0758Ronald Rolheiser, in his wonderful book Sacred Fire, says, “One of our deepest struggles in life is dealing with the unconscious anxiety inside of us that pressures us to try to give ourselves significance and immortality. There is always the inchoate gnawing: do something to guarantee that something of your life will last. It is this propensity that tempts us to try to find meaning and significance through success and accumulation. But in the end it does not work, irrespective of how great our successes have been.”

Meaning and significance are at the base of my motivation for everything. I want to matter. Jesus says to lose my life and I look for assurances it’ll be saved. Are they right–have I stopped believing because I don’t believe the Bible?

This process of pushing for the ever-deeper question is the impulse that compels me in the search for meaning. I know that I know the Bible is a guide to understanding, the bedrock of belief, but I don’t believe the inspiration is over and done. There’s life to be lived, experience to confirm the Word, and the writing life with the Spirit is a continual proving of faith in living and questioning and seeking, whether in sensing directly, or trying to make sense of his directing. To live the writing and write the life are the word and the deed, inseparable and constantly shifting.

FullSizeRender_1If you know these things, you will be happy if you do them.

And that is why we have to be about process. Progress is inevitable when your goal is the process, and living is always about processing what is lived. Step by step, moment by moment, now and now, the product is being shaped and guided each day until meaning and significance become byproducts of an active, proven faith. Get living in love and writing that lives will be the result.

What more proof do I need? Bishop Michael Curry was so right in that sermon. (I mean, can you get any better proof anywhere on the Web these days? Seriously.)

Writers must focus on process because there is no more powerful way to love everyone God needs us to love. Process is what ensures what’s happening when is what needs to be happening–writing or life, it’s all about the love. And focusing on process, the in and the out, like breathing, is how all the lists will finally be completed, all the work finally finished, and all the words lived out and written out.

And that is how the most powerful meaning will be achieved.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

(I’ll be breaking down some of the steps in my process over the next few weekly posts, so I’d love it if you did some writing and living about your own process as we go along, see what we might find… meantime, here’s a podcast I did with the Pastor Writer about learning to love process recently)