Category Archives: A writer’s motivation

Why Simple Is Best

The 14th c. theologian William of Ockham is known for his statement, “the simplest solution is almost always the best.”

[woman looking at tree]

This is the familiar thought I’ve come to after writing a bit this morning. If I want to finally finish, I’ve got to apply it. And I’ve long been convinced that the pursuit of writing has profound lessons to teach about living, if we’d only stay and wait for the eyes of our hearts to focus.

The simplest solution in editing is usually the best. Much of my difficulty seems to come in over-complicating the subjects and dialogue. So simplifying the characters’ motives and speeches is good to think of as my main task working back through the drafted chapters. I don’t remember writing many of them, which was well over a dozen years ago now.The very first ones began arriving around 2003 and 04, not that it matters.

It also doesn’t matter if it’s this hard to write or not for others, or if complex drama is what some people prefer. My own motives and inner voices get simplified as I commit to what I’m writing. And I’m not writing it for others, or an ideal reader, or even “for an audience of one.” I’m writing it, after all, for myself. Maybe that’s selfish, and maybe I’m forgetting it’s impossible to forget God and others, but don’t they get served if I share what’s important to me? If my motive is not my own happiness or isolation or superiority, but fulfillment in some yet unrealized way, isn’t that the synthesis of God’s will for my life and my own? Simplifying means not over-complicating by looking too closely at it.

Over-complicating is what caused this work to take so long to come out in the first place. And I finally just want to accept that this call to use writing to understand my deepest self and longings is not something I initiated, it is simply received or not. I want to be done doubting and questioning that. Not to look too closely, at it but to “pay attention to my life” because of it, as Buechner says. That seems to be the position of stability from which to produce good work.

[kid in glasses]

The product is not the point; far from it. But only in letting go of over-complicating the process, and thinking too much about motive and why I’m really writing, can I unstop the words that actually could simplify my life. If I’d just let it go. Too long I’ve used the role and position of editing to distract and create scaffolding instead of getting into the mud and making the stuff to build with. That was necessary for my story too, so I don’t want to think of that with regret. And I’ve had to learn not to use these things for my own gain, to pad my ego or prove my worth. It’s taken time, simply time spent writing, processing, and yes, even producing a bit of very precious words. All of that was part of the process for me.

But if every life is a story, each one requires simplifying if we want it to speak of anything. It’s a basic lesson I somehow missed, but it was editing—the occupation of my life—that has finally convinced me of this. In slowing down, simplifying, and writing what God brings to mind each time, it feels like he’s teaching me to deeply value this work. And who am I to say who that’s for most–me or others?

It’s time to write, but now it will only involve the next thing in front of me, and nothing besides. And I think this is how I’ll make it.

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

― E.L. Doctorow, Writers At Work: The Paris Review Interviews



Seek Out the other path

This is the way I begin.

There’s no clear path, just a tangle of thoughts left over from the last time I didn’t do this.

Maybe this time I’ll finally remember that regular expression keeps the way forward from becoming overgrown.

One year ago we moved here, to northeast Grand Rapids, and though we’ve explored many places, we’ve never once been down to East Lake behind our house. The way is too unclear and there’s a lot to navigate through before we got there.

But that’s only one of the ways to go. There’s a clear access path just down the street we could take between the houses, and even a neighbor’s boat free to use, leaning against a tree. To others, I’m sure it seems odd we wouldn’t take such a nearby adventure.

And thinking about it now, there is very little keeping us from doing it before the afternoon sun slides south for the winter. Time passes and soon we might not even remember the little thrill of hearing we could do that anytime we want. Really? It’s not even ours…

How many of us forget there are others ways we could go? How many have lost the thread to that inner call to adventure?

The day’s duties will always dominate. The tangle of overgrown paths will easily overwhelm me. But I’m never too busy or tired or mature to seek out the other path and rekindle the spark of discovery.

All I have to do is begin again.

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