Category Archives: Fear

A Word on Writing Progress: Loving and Leaving the Fear Box

So there’s an image I’ve wanted to explore for a while.

(It’s not this one, though I like it…)

 

I call the image “the fear box.” (Not that picture. The mental image I have. Clear on that?)

It’s made of a type of protective, soft material, but very strong. We’re all raised in this sort of cage, and it’s a God-designed, natural, humble place where we recognize our limitations. We all like the feeling of comfort that the thick, restrictive walls give us. The boundaries of the box are so certain and sure and we instinctively know the fear box is good and needed.

For newborns, there’s nowhere safer than the fear box.

As we grow a bit, the boundaries begin to feel like restrictions. Our limitations aren’t as limiting anymore, though we know we still need the box…just maybe not so much or so tight as before. If we’re given help modifying and expanding the box, we’re able to grow and not get in too much trouble.

The many people who promote the benefits of the fear box—its safety, its certainty, its traditional trustworthiness—say you can know that you know the box is for your good.

And it is. You know it. You’ve lived in it your whole life.

But if those box-benefit extollers might also say that people who’ve left their boxes are called “outsiders,” and in a voice that conveys their true feelings, tell you how wrong the outsiders are and how much they need to be made right, you’ll feel a sliver of hesitation. But you’ll agree, of course. The lost need to be found. They need to know the wonderful safety and security you’ve known.

But there’s a love growing in you, a light that can’t be contained. And that sliver of doubt will let some of that light out. And eventually, whether the next day or after several years of fighting with yourself, you know you must leave the fear box.

And what will be more important than any other reassurance as you muster your courage to finally leave, is not how much you need safety and security and traditions, but how love is what’s in you saying no to the fear box. And if you can let that love out now and learn not to restrict it or temper it, it will guide you to your new home.

If love is there, nowhere is unsafe.

***

Another week has passed and very little writing on the novel was completed. The usual work and distractions kept me busy, but again, I could have made time, reserved some for it.

A major hang-up, maybe a main hang-up for me has been imagining the response by well-meaning, lovely church people, people I respect.

Some might say I should respect them less, get irreverent about everything that isn’t God. I don’t disagree. I’ve worked through many barriers and claimed the courage and empowerment to go where I need to and speak what needs words.

But I need to say Christianity isn’t perfect perfectly, winsomely, with the fragrance of Jesus. And this has kept me locked in fear.

Christians hold many things precious—churches, pastors, leaders, teachers and teachings, worship, the Bible, The Church, Jesus, God, Holy Spirit, doctrine, creeds, Christianity itself, and even Christian culture. All the resistance I know I’ll face, constantly reminded by a lifetime of experience, has kept me endlessly revising instead of printing.

It’s fear, obviously. And what works best on fear is not frustration, condemnation, shame, or any of my usual responses. But only love.

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.”

***

Comfort comes swiftly to the loved.

It rushes in to prove yet again no pain or fear can break trust.

That trust is life itself.

The bigger, stronger, higher love will always help,

wipe the tears, and receive the feelings as precious,

wordless truth from the heart, the love box,

from which flow the springs of life.

Fear and pain don’t change reality, only love does.

Love is what’s true,

the ever-present reality to take all cares and keep them.

Love secures, always, always holds safe.

Come what may.

“Oh, love, never let me go…”

***

Must we be willing to break with the old to allow for the new?

Does progress require a sort of irreverence for tradition?

Life is built on an inherited box of foundations and advances. Respect them all. But also risk disrespect and “rebellion” to build what’s needed now.

Every author before you has felt this fear. Whatever this book will add to life, you’ve got to trust that love goes with you. It strengthens and empowers whoever is willing to receive it.

We can face everything that may come.

We can venture out.

Safe is where love is.

 

Praying you’ll know you’re held safe as you seek the higher purpose,

Mick

 

How to Write Free & Relax About It

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

Frederick Buechner, Now and Then

 

Sending my socially awkward kid off to high-school brings up everything unresolved in me from that time in my own life that I have trouble concentrating for hoping she can stay relaxed and find the fun where she can because it will be over so fast and being cool won’t matter anymore.

***

People often talk about writer’s block or writer’s anxiety. Writing is full of anxiety. Writing well is even more so because there’s the expectation of producing something good and worthwhile.

Expectations are a setup. And as every writer knows, with a setup, you have to have a payoff.

The payoff of any expectation is either fulfillment or disappointment. And most often, when the inner critic stands ready to judge what comes out, disappointment is the result.

The conscious mind is very limiting.

This is why to write at all, let alone well, you first have got to get out of your own way.

If you aren’t willing to fail, you aren’t going to get any creative work done.

You’ve got to get past perfection and let yourself pursue play and risk you might likely fail at and have to try again.

You’ve got to be persistent, stubborn, and believe you are here not to produce something beautiful but to learn to let go of your expectations so you can see the beauty in everything.

You must want something better than success. You must want to grow and remain open to what’s next.

That way you never close off, never stop seeking to expand the relaxing comfort your heart truly wants, and the freedom you feel amongst your closest, safest friends. You will find safety and connection with them if you invite it and embrace it and don’t close off.

The world is too loud and dominating and the fight is too difficult not to keep seeking that relationship with God in all his many forms.

And to do this, we’ve got to be able to let go, but also to hold on to our specific grounding in the present moment.

That will release you from the anxiety so you can finally write what you’re able to hear that no one else can.

Remember, nothing is wasted….

***

After reminding myself of all this, I send off an email of dad-advice to Ellie, encouraging her to know how amazing she is and to always keep her smiley disposition. I let the anxiety push my better self to speak what I know. And the old fears don’t seem to hold the same power they used to anymore.

And no matter what, I think she’ll be okay.

 

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

– e.e. cummings

If You’ll Accept the Struggle

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

– Rumi

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

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

Can you accept the struggle?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe anything less is a waste of time.

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

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

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

Ask me how I know.

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

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

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

For the higher purpose,

Mick

Letter to an Anonymous Author

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

― Edgar Allan Poe

Dear X,

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

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

Writers be farking crazy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking forward to the rest of the journey.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

Why Writing Well Is All About Intensity

“…I began to find life unsatisfactory as an explanation of itself and was forced to adopt the method of the artist of not explaining but putting the blocks together in some other way that seems more significant to him. Which is a fancy way of saying I started writing.”

 

I taught fiction at Mt. Hermon last week. The most important point I shared about making a story work was that a reader needs to feel the character’s plight throughout.

I love that word, plight. It’s such a perfect descriptor of what makes people read. You might think people want to feel good, be entertained, or are attracted to what’s beautiful or exciting. And that’s true. But nothing holds attention like a character we identify with whose plight is understandable and relatable.

It’s not a difficult concept to get. Most of us sense it’s true intuitively. And the plight can change, shift, or even reverse! Very exciting. But you’ve got to make your reader understand what the struggle is about and how intense it is, no matter what kind of story.

And most important about the plight, it’s got to be intense.

Now this idea of intensity is deceptive because you often can’t increase the plight by describing it directly, just like you can’t tell us what’s happening in the story and have to show us instead. To convey strong intensity, you need a few tricks, some tools and, of course, some all-important practice to develop some skill with them. There are several important ones, but the biggest of all is a little trick I call “following the tears.”

Follow the tears. I’ve said this for years, but it never gets any easier. This is what your readers care about most because it’s what you care about most. The things that make you the most emotional are the richest material for your work. And even if your craft is still fairly crap, your content can capture people if it’s intense and conveys a character’s plight we can feel powerfully.

Like the quote above indicates, writing is a way to fashion life into something more interesting than the usual bland, expected pattern. To make it more interesting and dramatic. What’s more dramatic than someone’s plight? I may not want what your character wants, but if she wants it badly enough, I’ll bet your story can make me want to know if she gets it.

If this isn’t rule number one of your writing, it should be.

Now, no one wants manufactured intensity, so you’ve got to develop some sophistication and maturity with this tool because the skill is in not making the plight melodramatic or over-the-top. It’s got to be deeper than surface desire, expressed as a yearning that may even make your character confused or misunderstood. They might have to come to terms with the true source of their deeper desire over the course of the book, like Belle in Beauty and the Beast who starts out wanting “adventure in the great wide somewhere,” and ends up realizing her deeper desire was to know the sacrificial love she’d read about wasn’t just a fairy tale. There’s a learning process in every character you want to capture by showing the growth of their own understanding of their deeper desire.

The quote above is from a short story by Tennessee Williams, written in 1951 called “The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin.” In it, he shares the idea that childhood is full of “the intensities that one cannot live with, that he has to outgrow if he wants to survive.” It’s a plight unrecognized by the main character except in hindsight. And it’s very effective. “But who can help grieving for them?” he asks. “If the blood vessels could hold them, how much better to keep those early loves with us? But if we did, the veins would break and the passion explode into darkness long before the necessary time for it.”

I think learning to write a book is a lot like growing up. When you start, you know nothing and have to figure it all out. And that’s the hardest it will ever be. Eventually you learn some things through practice and it gets a little easier. But it’s still very hard, and you want to quit because you feel confused and you have no help with figuring out how to manage all you’re learning and whether you’re paying attention to what you should. And who can help you know if you’re also losing some things in your innocence you’ll never recover, even as you progress? More than likely, you are. But there’s nothing you can do.

Yet if you continue, you’ll learn more, a little at a time, and you’ll know how to develop ideas and hold multiple concepts and bring them across in dialogue and through symbols. And eventually you figure out tricks for making it all easier and simpler to begin with. It only takes time and practice with the tools. But you first have to find all the tools yourself. And this is like being a child when you’re without any skills, vulnerable to all kinds of things beyond your control. You don’t even have awareness of the skills you’ll need. But through hard experience, you learn, and it gets better, easier.

The successful writers have learned to control their words and attention, and get the most out of their time. And you too can move forward in achievable increments toward where you want to be. If you’re a “live-in-the-moment” kind of person, your method will be learning discipline. If you’re a Type-A, your big need will be relaxing into your better self. Both require balance and it looks a bit different for everyone.

But it’s worth the effort. For it’s in becoming your best self, your true, honest, vulnerable, brave, and imperfect-yet-incredible self, that what you write will finally become more significant.

The intensity of your own plight is waiting there to be felt in following what makes you cry. And if you dig for that until you understand it better, that’s where relatable stories come from.

You can trust that. It’s as simple (and as hard) as that.

For the higher purpose,

Mick