Category Archives: A writer’s motivation

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) 

The Secret Simple Key to Overcoming Overwhelm

  1. No one can tell me when I’m getting overwhelmed.

  2. Pretty much anyone can tell when I’m getting overwhelmed.

These two facts are in my mind the moment I open my eyes Tuesday morning. They have taken me more time to acknowledge than I would like to admit. And yet if there’s one thing I know, it’s that the things we would most like to deny are the things we most need to acknowledge next. Denying overwhelm has caused me to mess up more than I ever would have without the denial. I know for a fact it’s kept me pointlessly working long beyond what I would have otherwise. IMG_8560

I do know I’m the one who has to spur myself on to get to work and keep at it when I want to quit. No one else can do it. I won’t let them, or it simply won’t work. The simple secret to finishing no one had to tell me is the same for you–and I know because when it comes to our work, we’re all the same this way:

Our work is ours. 

How did any major accomplishment get finished? I know from Anne Lamott it had to simply be done “bird by bird,” but just like waking up this morning and knowing I had to get to work on the 18 things waiting for me after a long weekend, it doesn’t get done on someone else’s motivation. It’s my job to find my motivation.

A swift kick to “just do it” can work for a while, but eventually leads to burnout. I know from experience mustering it to muscle it only messes it up and mangles me. More often than not, the impulse to “just do it” denies what I’m feeling in the overwhelm and the real reason for the overwhelmed feeling. The old mind over matter trick is no trick at all, and trying to ignore it to simply cross things off the list is foolish and disintegrating. What I really need is to simply not look at the list.

What I really need is to acknowledge the feeling and consider what it’s trying to tell me. What I need is to slow down and pay attention, to integrate the fear and the excitement, the anxiety and the anticipation of finishing and celebrating. If I can do that and hold both of those and know that my greater good is here, in the stalling to get out of bed and as I get up slowly to begin the process of getting ready for the day. Process over product is the secret. I don’t have to overthink it, but if I can be present to the fatigue and disconnected sensations of all that remains unresolved from the week and the weekend, and the night before, I can forego the swift kick and the burnout that would follow, and experience the fuller experience, rather than relegating so much of it to unconsciousness, and rendering it unavailable and unrealized.

The truth no one has had to tell us, the simple secret to finishing anything difficult we might consider our true work, is that all of it is ours and meant for us to experience and grow from. We can’t numb ourselves to feeling difficult emotions without also numbing the ones we enjoy, nor can we effectively evaluate what should or should not be disorienting, disintegrating, or distancing us from our fuller selves. We don’t know why certain things affect us, and as much as we’d like to believe otherwise, we don’t control whether or not they will.

However, each of us does control what we will do about the things that affect us. And acknowledging what the emotions are in the midst of the overwhelm never feels good or particularly convenient, but whatever other ideas we had about our true work, this is it. Whatever we may have thought our work was for today, this being conscious and aware of our full feelings about it is our true work. 

And whatever we might call that–messy, frustrating, 100% inconvenient and completely unwelcome–when we don’t list that work first, we merely add one more impossibility to the list.

Can you trust there’s a reason you’re here and being asked to handle this? Regardless of whether you should be facing all that’s on that list, can you acknowledge there’s a higher purpose in it? Something beyond the drudgery and gripey feeling it gives you? Something you might even now be able to relabel a gift?

We don’t need anyone to tell us this is what we’re here for, whatever else we may have to face today. We don’t need proof there’s a very good reason for the place we find ourselves in–the proof is that we’re here. And if we are, it means God is God and he has his reasons. The question is, what would he have us do, learn, feel, say, know, share?

I get up, shower, dress, go down to find the kid who needs to get to school, drive her and drive back, get to my office and get out my list. It’s only Tuesday but it’s already overwhelming, and it’s already clear I’m going to have to adjust some things. But what can get done will get done, and I’ll trust the rest will find its fulfillment another way. One step at a time, one item at a time, all of this is manageable and meant for more than getting through it.

No muscling. No mangling. Just mercy, and more gifts to be received and given back in their proper way and time. And in the slow, deliberate facing of my feelings, and accepting them, and processing them, I’ll find my way to finish all I was given to do.

The list looks much more manageable from that perspective.

“To be a teacher of a process such as this takes qualities too few of us have, but which most of us can develop. We have to be quiet, to listen, to respond.” – Donald M. Murray, “Teach Writing as a Process, Not Product”

 

Why Are You Worried?

“Sorrow looks back, Worry looks around, Faith looks up” 
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

People are killed every day.

I have this thought before I’m even awake. A dream, again, inescapable. Unavoidable. I get up and get ready, trying to stop thinking about the reality, not feel it crowding in as I look at my teeth and brush them in the mirror.

The deepest injustice is suffered by hundreds of thousands every day. Death. I drive my oldest daughter to school and have this thought again as the news from Gaza makes it to me. I can’t hear this word without thinking of death. Bleeding wounds seeping through bandages. Protestors have been shot over in the middle east. I think of the high-schoolers protesting guns and hope I’m doing right to not mention the political issues to my daughters just yet.

Is privilege just the ability to ignore what you please?

Yet sanity and self-preservation demand ignoring it. Our hearts and our minds weren’t meant to hold the world’s pain. Jesus walked Gaza but had no cell phone or social media bringing wave after wave of desperate injustice. Inescapable. Unavoidable.

I remember the woman who handled the emailed prayer requests at a big ministry. She was a saint, a prayer warrior. She killed herself and the ministry held a quiet service and sent condolences to her family. And a new employee took her place.

I think of the thousands of people who filter content for social media networks, the reports of their inescapable torment, their nearly inescapable mental health issues. Is this where we’re all headed eventually?

Another hot day and I’m thinking of polar ice caps. A celebratory dinner and I’m considering carcinogenic toxins. Maybe I read too many headlines.

“Do not fear. Do not fret. Trust me.”

HOW? How am I supposed to do that when I’m bombarded even before I can get to work on a Monday? It’s effort just to press on and not feel guilty for working to keep the horror at bay, at least to a dull roar until lunch when I’ll check my phone and respond to emails. And there’s plenty more to deal with–local community, family, neighbors, projects and writers, and personal struggles to choose appropriate responses and time on.

No one could possibly manage it all. And this danged-if-you-do, danged-if-you-don’t situation is unmanageable. Infuriating.

“Count your blessings.”

Despite the dreams and the no-air-conditioning-in-record-heat situation, I did sleep. There’s more light in these longer days and the beauty of spring has sprung. The house and our health aren’t perfect, but they’re amazingly good despite the advancing years thanks to regular upkeep and maintenance. And we enjoyed our moms and celebrated together on Sunday, and the girls are happy and enjoying their lives and music and reading.

Real life is happening and time is short and we’re no better off than when we know both those things. Remember the moment you felt Charlotte’s delight at beating you at the card game? You wanted to remember it forever? 

Yeah. Life is happening and death is part of it. And here were are to enjoy it and make the most of each moment before it’s gone and slipped into another one and another, until there are no more.

That’s every day and everyone and your awareness of it is contagious. Don’t be afraid. Don’t fret. Trust me. 

Can it be this simple? Can I write and do my editing work knowing this is what you’ve called me to until you bring other specific calls? Keep me praying, keep me seeing it all, in the midst of the passing moments. Stay with me and show me how it all is leading me to trust and connect however I can. With words or without. With getting involved or simply praying.

I know the only thing that’s truly up to me is the trusting. Thank you for the continual reminders. Keep me searching for them.

And keep me sharing them and connecting others to see you in their myriad reminders too.

“I trust in you, Lord…. My times are in your hands.” – Psalm 31:14,15

Write on, my friend. There’s always a higher purpose,

M

What Do Your Prepositions Say About You?

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” – Kris Kristofferson

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It starts out as a search for yourself, a part-time occupation giving the journey definition and greater meaning. At least it did for me.

It took a few years to determine that primary pursuit, but once I did, it seemed writing was what would lead me to myself, who I really was. How I got that idea and how I’d get there, I wasn’t too worried about either. I’d figure it all out on the page.

“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”

I don’t know if any teenager growing up in 1980s America was truly able to think about being identified with Christ or his body, whatever that really means, however much he heard the words. A lifetime of Christian teaching couldn’t identify that as the holy grail, let alone a path to it. The desire has to come from within.

And it’d be many years before those sparks became flame, before they’d find dry tinder to burn. Life experiences, limited as they were, would bring the bite and tang of betrayal, regret, and fear. I’m I’m pretty sure you could ask any kid raised in a safe bubble: a man who’s never been separated from anything can’t truly love anything. 

my writing spotIn a real way, I had to get out of the bubble and get over myself to find what in my heart I already knew was true. 

But what I’d misunderstood, what I couldn’t yet know: nothing about writing is clarifying. If anything, writing brings more complication to what’s already too complex. There’s a real disadvantage in making your life fodder for reflection. You can never know what it might have been had you not stood aside to look at your life as you were living it.

And maybe other writers, those not bent on self-discovery, don’t find this, but the work can cripple as much as heal you, I think. If you’re not in the right place. So for me, the writing life is a continual wrestling match with the prepositions–and in some strange, almost invisible way, identifying them is how I come to better identify myself. Or at least see better what I’m identifying with….

…in, with, for, as, after, by, on.

If you’re a writer who wants to know yourself better, look at your prepositions. Pre – before. Position – location relative to something else.

Where am I? Where was I before I started this journey? What am I really after here?

“In Christ you have been brought to fullness.”

lilacsI believe it’s for freedom I’ve been called. I believe it doesn’t matter what lies ahead or behind but what lies within this commitment to a greater cause, a higher purpose, than myself. My own attaining of freedom may have sparked this, but the flame is for a fuller restoration. And the preparation my life’s losses have brought are specific stories that have revealed to me a more universal prize.

Look at the prepositions: Do you believe a writer’s ultimate commitment is to losing all for the glory of the call? Do you believe it’s for God’s pleasure and higher will? For unity and freedom and for the story to be told before time runs out?

“Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you.”

The clarity will come as you dig deeper. For now, hold on and press in.

“You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

Identify with Him. Believe in Him. Be unified as you go.

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

For the higher purpose,

Mick