Category Archives: A writer’s motivation

What to Do When You Suspect It’s Not Enough

“Doubtless some ancient Greek has observed that behind the big mask and the speaking-trumpet, there must always be our poor little eyes peeping as usual and our timorous lips more or less under anxious control.”
- George Eliot, Middlemarch, 1871

So you’re finally ready to get honest? You’re finally ready to admit that your writing is no good?

Congratulations. Welcome to the club! It’s time you knew the secret everyone else who writes already knows: it’s no good because you’re not good enough to write it.

And you’re not good enough for one, inescapable reason (and it isn’t a lack of trying). You’ve suspected it all along. It’s crept up on you time and time again as you waited for the words you knew wouldn’t be right:

You’re not enough.

You know. Everybody knows. It’s not really a secret at all. But here’s the thing–it’s not that big a deal. Trust me, plenty of people aren’t enough. It’s no reason to give up.

It should give you serious pause though. If more people realized this, there’d be far less junk published every year.

The best thing you can do now is take a moment to do yourself (and everyone else) a favor, and figure out what you’re going to do about it.

The vital question, of course, is what now?

1: Start with what IS working. Despite its shortcomings, your book is honest, insightful, revealing, and even inspiring. It achieved much of what you set out to do. It’s simply not what you should have set out to do. And that’s a tough pill to swallow–you’ll have to develop some discernment to sort out what exactly is good about it–but you’ve got time. And you’ve got the patience and skill to figure this out.

2. Go back to the vision. Reevaluate the origination of this book. What was the inception? What were you really after? If you’re like most of us, this is not natural or automatic. You don’t easily decide to change what or how you wrote simply because you need to. It’s hard to discover what you were really after (Teaching a lesson to prove a point? Affirmation or acclaim? Serving God better so he’d bless you?) 

Hey, welcome to the writer’s process!

Everyone who sets out to write a book finds it’s harder than they thought. Hopefully, you realize you’ve got to edit it, but also, you’ve got to let it be what it wants to be, not what you want it to be. Sadly, I don’t think that is ever easy. But less sadly, this is something your book will teach you if you can slow down and listen.

This is what my book taught me: I was after all those parenthetical things above. So going back to the vision to reevaluate was the only way to improve. The first draft wasn’t a waste–I needed to write it to get it out and see it clearly. But I also needed to accept refining (or redefining) the vision as simply the next step in the process.

Reevaluating the vision is what you do when your goal is the truth.

We’re not alone. And we’re not getting off with a “one-time-and-done” edit. This reevaluating will be consistent, ongoing, and require lots of commitment (motivation!) to see what’s really going on.

I know that’s what writing is, but that’s also what life is. We’re really trying to see things as they truly are.

Yeah, that’s a big, deep concept. And yeah, it was always that big. We just don’t like to see it too clearly–it’s scary.

So let this feel overwhelming for a while. It’s okay. Take it slow. And thank God now you can recommit to this deeper goal and finally stop seeing refinement as a barrier to success.

It isn’t. It never has been. Because the truth is exactly what you always wanted.

3. Recommit to the higher purpose. When I started this little blog experiment in 2004, I was working for a national ministry publisher and didn’t have a clue I’d still be editing 13 years later. I had one goal: keep my core motivation of honoring God. From my first post, the Monday Motivations and the “Higher Purpose” tagline was about establishing and evaluating what we’re really after in writing.

I believed this was what made successful writers.

Letting go of all selfish purposes, and deciding to love the journey. This was the one thing I knew I wanted.

Finding your higher purpose is always the real work because we’re fickle, distractable, chronically forgetful people. We are the Israelites. We forget God is working, we forget we’re following and not leading, and we forget the real point isn’t what we’re after but what he’s doing.

We’re always beholden to the work. And God is in it, if we’ll stop to notice and listen. So the real work is always slowing down to pay attention to what we’re really doing and saying, and why. Writing ultimately means leading readers to know what’s most important. But always first, we’ve got to find that ourselves.

If we’re going to be good guides and bring fresh air to many, we have to relax and be healed of our need to perform.

I was talking with another author who suffered unimaginable damage in her life. It’s taken years to acknowledge it was wrong and overcome it. It absolutely floored me that she’d done what I always have, diminishing the pain. “EVERYONE else’s pain was always worse,” she said.

What holds writers back isn’t the pain itself; it’s the struggle to believe it warrants attention.

That’s the unbelievable, secret truth, the debilitating LIE that a writing coach can’t fix. How can I express this strongly enough to convince you: this belief is the great evil in your way. People spend their lives afraid to allow what they suffered to matter, unable to allow the only thing that could break the bonds of that fear: accepting the truth.

We’ve been told over and over again, “No one cares. You don’t matter. Whatever you think happened, it was nothing compared to real struggle. You know nothing of what that’s like.”

Everyone thinks this. It’s designed to keep you safe. Day after day, month after month, how long has it held you silent?

You’re not going to make mountains out of molehills. It was bad enough. You won’t be throwing a pity party. You’re just going to acknowledge it happened and it hurt. You’ll never know real freedom until you call it what it was, and face this fake news playing in your head 24/7.

People care. It does matter. It was real. And it was wrong.

So many people need the freedom of that. And all it takes is your honest, vulnerable courage.

Face it. For justice, for peace, for righteousness and healing.

You were chosen to speak this. No more lies. It’s time to realize what you carry, Light-bringer. Share what you’ve been given, and see it transform out of the ashes of your past. It matters, and no one can change that. Nothing can overcome this–no more dodging.

“Don’t you know that a midnight hour comes when everyone has to take off his mask? Do you think life always lets itself be trifled with? Do you think you can sneak off a little before midnight to escape this?”
- Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, 1843

For the higher purpose!

M

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

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

Why Writers Never Have to Worry about Failure

They always say write what you know.

And what I know best is not my few successes, but my endless failures.

Oh, I’m a failer. I fail! Over and over. Stick around long enough and you’ll get to see it!

Or just wait a few seconds.

And I’ve been doing this editing thing for the better part of 20 years, managing book edits, and failing at it big time. All the time.

I miss things every day. I miss deadlines. I forget to call. I don’t follow up. I miss the point and end up frustrating people. Or worse, convincing them to try something that doesn’t work, overwhelm them, or even shut them down.

And worst of all, I miss the point. Again and again. For instance…

I’m not qualified. Honestly, I’ve never felt qualified for this. I just love books and especially writers, learning from them, and listening, asking them questions, and walking with them.

It’s what I love. I don’t love eliminating mistakes, correcting oversights, and condensing. I do it as best I can, but I fail at it.

And today I wonder if I accepted that failure more, if the work could become more, and maybe the books themselves too.

Maybe not—maybe writers don’t want such realness and honesty. Maybe they only want to see I’m extremely skilled and competent. It’s just extremely humbling how often I’m anything but. And when I inevitably mess up, I think there may be a higher purpose in that…maybe even a useful one.

Wendell Berry says it may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work. Practically speaking, if editing is my real work maybe it’s a good sign I don’t actually know how to do it.

But I think maybe my real work is being a good failer and demonstrating that very humbling reality as best I can.

Some part of me loves this idea–could be the lazy me. Or it’s the idea of rejecting that perfectionistic standard people have about professional editors. (Do I need to mention I was a pastor’s kid?)

Excellence is an important goal. But only grace can comfort us.

Can we really love people well without showing grace?

Ask your average writer what book they first loved. I’ve mentioned mine before: Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. I loved the passion of Meg Murray. She was a misfit, but that made her special, and her keen observation set her apart. I couldn’t have expressed it when I first read it as an 11-year-old, but it gave me hope knowing that the very thing that made her feel like a fool, like a failure, like a misunderstood misfit, was what made her the chosen hero.

She just had to let it out. Let it show.

We like to think of our heroes, even Jesus, as strong and capable and standing victorious on the mountaintop with the wind blowing in their hair. Why do we think that’s what a hero is when all the stories we’ve ever loved show that’s not a hero at all?

In their failure, they made us feel known, seen, heard, understood, comforted. Loved.

Everyone wants to be chosen. Isn’t it in our weakness, in our wounds and our struggles, that we most need to feel that?

I even fail at this. Which means I can probably trust this is what every writer needs, what every person needs: someone to listen and ask them the simple questions that draw them out and make them feel comfortable and accepted. And I do this every day, and it brings me something too, the very thing I’m looking for. It begins manifesting in my own life, this comfort and acceptance. This assurance of grace.

I don’t know why I got so lucky, and a lot of people think they have the greatest job in the world. And maybe they do. Maybe if they get to do this and embrace their failure for a higher purpose too, I can believe it.

Oh, and I still fail to do it, or even want to daily. I just know every day brings the choice: will you fill your own needs today or fill others? And who among us doesn’t realize which is the best choice?

Yeah, still that horrible fear of not having our specialness seen, loved, chosen, it makes us all choose the selfish way sometimes.

But don’t we also find hope knowing that the failure that makes us feel unworthy is actually irrelevant?

Is this another way to show what sacrificial love means?

We’re afraid and incompetent and selfish and lost–and still worthy of deep, real love!

We can fail to write well. We can fail to write for others. And yet success is what every finished book eventually reveals, even as they’re written and edited by total failures.

Maybe what we need most is also what everyone needs most: grace.

Maybe it’s even okay we forget this over and over. Maybe we’re always going to fail to remember it and maybe that’s why we have to read it and reread it and fail at writing it so many times before we can truly live this way consistently.

I don’t know. Maybe we all just need people willing to risk failing us, willing to risk us failing them.

The struggling, disillusioned, the weary and weak, we all need to see that failure doesn’t matter. Grace is irrespective of failure. I want to start showing that more so my writers can write freer, and maybe (hopefully) start living freer, to show others how to be freer too.

It could be only in finding failure no longer matters that we find our greatest success.

And if so, maybe we don’t even have to worry about failing to remember that.

For the higher purpose,
Mick