Category Archives: How I got here

On the Writer’s Community and Something Better than Balance

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” – John Muir

I drive Ellie to school and decide to silence the radio. Fund-drive season on the classical station and the news on NPR aren’t as valuable as 8 minutes of silence.

Monday comes full of details to sort and I go with my mug to look at the trees a moment and listen to the birds. The current batch of writers I’m editing and coaching are so patient. By Thursday there will be meetings and mentoring, critique sessions, and individual appointments. I head back in remembering the exercises for class, handouts, preparations to finish. Another few emails have arrived with more writers’ pages to review.

The work won’t stop piling up. The words just keep coming.

The coffee mug is empty again. Why do I go? Why do I do this to myself?

In just a few days, I head to Mount Hermon for the eighth time, although I can’t remember exactly how many times I’ve been now. I’ve had some incredible meetings, which usually makes up for the mind-and-body-numbing intensity of the week.

A time or two ago, Mona asked me to give a keynote to open the conference, based on one of these blog posts called “Writing for One Master” about committing to the Inspirer. It was good, but it wasn’t entertaining. I wish I’d told more stories and included some humor.

I forget about the audience. For an editor who’s always trying to get people to remember the audience, that’s pretty strange. Considering how much of my time is taken up with my selfish pursuits, it’s not that strange. As a quieter reader, most of my life has been about me, lost in the spiral of experience and trying to keep to myself and not miss out on anything.

There’s so much to do before I go, but the big idea needs capturing before I get too distracted. Spring has begun and the days are lengthening, so we’re getting out to enjoy it more. Over the weekend, Sheri and I talked about being older and that now we’re 44, we finally don’t want to be any older or any younger, which is freeing. We’re not old or young, rich or poor, dumb or smart. We’re pretty white, but we’re not totally ignorant about what that means, and we’re still Christians, but not exactly like we were. We’re trying to balance and it’s showing, so it’s easy to think we’re making progress. But being aware of self, we could forget the audience.

“Audience of One” is such a cliché, but it’s more. I try to post about Mister Rogers more than guns and abortion, but our beliefs are best expressed by loving actions and social media isn’t active. There’s input and output but it’s artificial and our lungs need the outside air. To be helpful but recognize our helplessness, saints who still sin, we have to live in response to the One Mastering Inspirer and not just pursue big ideas.

The audience, God and others, is waiting for a compelling story of someone who clearly sees there’s more to living than selfish pursuits. Expressing the good input you’ve received into positive, life-expanding relating, that’s the true work. And remembering that comes best not in reading or writing, but in doing.

I need the reminder.

I’m no one. I’m not a published author. I’m not famous or special, but I’ve stuck with this for many years and I love the people I’ve met. There are ekklesias, gatherings, in so many places every year around the country and this is just one I’m part of, by a large measure of grace. I can sound so Christian saying that, but it’s the truth. This church is a big reason I go.

I get thrown off balance by too much to read and think about. Reconnecting with the messiness of a writing community is a chance to break out of all I have to do to enjoy the work and words again.

As usual, it’ll be Palm Sunday over the time I’m there. We’ll gather and sing and listen to inspired words shared from many sources with one origin. And I’ll be reminded if I’m not too distracted how much I need that air to clean my lungs again and reattach my selfish senses to their best audience, which is not me.

“I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith…” Gal 2:20

P.S. I posted a talk I gave at another conference here: The 6 Spiritual Lies Derailing Your Writing Process

For the higher purpose,

Mick

How to Finally Get Free of Fear and Just Write

Writers can treat their mental illnesses 
every day.
- KURT VONNEGUT

How do you hold onto your inspiration in the midst of all you face, and learn to be an inspiration every day to others?

It’s what we all want down deep, maybe more than anything else. But nothing else seems more difficult.

Everyone wants to live from their deepest purpose. But life seems to continually get in the way.

As I was writing, a bird banged into one of my big windows. Ignore it, keep going. It’s just a bird, not a person. What could I do anyway? Such a small thing in the grand scheme.

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 

I go back to writing. All of us carry grief. We suffer greatly. Tragedy strikes again and again and we think, Ignore it and keep going. It doesn’t change anything. What can I do anyway?

We continually try to make the biggest hurts into small things.

Life barrels forward, full of big problems, big issues. We want to do what’s right, and it seems more important to stay focused, undistracted from the goal. In the face of pain and struggle, pressing on is a sign of strength, a com-fort (literally, “with strength”). It helps others carry on. Keeping on is how we make our lives matter most.

But even as I write those words, I sense the problem. How can anyone be an effective channel of inspiration if he won’t slow down and pause for what seems small? It may not be a distraction at all.

The world is too big, the problems too widespread. And my words are paltry, but at least I’m doing something….

I go out to search for the bird.

I look around the garden, thinking about the post I’m writing and trying not to get distracted or lose the thread. I’m trying to write against the pull to help a little bird.

But there’s something else here to find. Something I’ve been afraid of.

I finally find it under a bush. Just a little thing, broken and still. Life is completely a confusing tangle. And my fragile plans are largely defenseless in the onslaught.

White feathers and thin legs, upside-down in the dirt. I go back in to get a bag. I’ve always been a bit of a mess. Of course, I know, and that hasn’t kept me from writing, or from agreeing to teach others how to do it.

Maybe more often than protecting my fragile schedule from the “small” distractions and pricks of pain, I’m protecting my fragile heart.

I scoop it up and take it inside. It hardly weighs a thing. Its loudest, biggest moment, it’s greatest impact on anyone may have been at impact with my bedroom office window.

I’ve collected journals my whole life, filled over 30 now with scribblings, from 1984 to the present. As life has pressed in, and words have come out. The need to respond, to get things out, to catch it all and try to understand it, express it, just not out loud–this has been my major occupation. I help others write about things they haven’t resolved yet, long-past and recent, searching for clarity. And meanwhile, I’ve always struggled not to think it’s just a self-focused preoccupation.

It is and it isn’t. Both are true. And there’s a tension here, a higher purpose, and a pretty low one.

I set the bird on the counter and snap a few photos. So perfectly made. Look at the precision. Such a greater creation than my pile of journals, but the same question: How much has all of this mattered? Where’s the meaning in it? 

Everything remains unresolved. And this seems exactly what my writing is all about: how to hold things together while everything is tangled up and time is unraveling.

I’ve written searching for answers to life, to my emotional issues, to resolve competing ideas and get free of barriers. I never expected it to produce good stories or reveal meaning.

Maybe just a little meaning.

DId I miss a step somewhere? I’ve kept the pile on my desk to remind me to come back and decide what’s to be done with all this.

Everything I’d collected, all the words I tried to use to make time stand still. They never let me catch up, or finally understand my life. But it’s guided me to broken places that needed healing. Like this bird, it’s jolted me out of distraction and reconnected me to the more important thing.

I never understood how someone could live without writing–how could they manage all this themselves? All this feeling?

Did this bird have to die for me to discover greater life?

I’ve failed over and over to write what’s real. I’ve lived constantly overwhelmed by the intensity of feeling, and every moment could be the pinnacle of everything if we could just see it clearly, and capture it before the clarity fades again like a wavering mirage.

Summer is fading into fall outside the window.

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st…

I can’t do this myself. I know this. Who but God can help me sort this out and take the next step?

The old journals, full of the fleeting thoughts of my unbecoming becoming, they’ve been prayers. Slowing and pausing to reflect is the work. And I’ve shirked the work often. And I live with the emptiness of that. Ignore your life and you miss the most important thing. Shirk the work and you forfeit the only way the puzzle pieces can ever complete the whole picture.

Someday you’ll be able to step back from it and see it all in its proper light. If you aren’t afraid to feel where you still fear, and seek it out with the power of God’s truth and love.

Fear (awe) of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

This is the crucial point. The whole thing is one giant journey of discovery. And finding the next bit of treasure, the next reward of the next step, only comes from open-handed living.

I can’t let the rush to move on make me miss it.  If I don’t seek God in my writing time, I reject my life as unimportant, disconnected–just some events, some concepts, some people. So much loss. So much silencing of the voice of God in my life.

I don’t want to miss my next step. Paying attention is hard, and diminishing the diminutive has been my habit. I’ll never know real life if I don’t accept my responsibility to stay on the hunt. Much as I want to believe I’m untethered to this, unaffected by it and all the messy relationships everything has with everything else, much as I fear this will only make me crazier, I know this is only fear’s shadow passing.

There’s a bigger world yet to come….!

I wrap up the bird and take it back to the garden, return it for the girls or Sheri to find.

And I say a prayer for God to be with me, here in my fear. The temptation to pass it all by is so strong. I know now that ignoring it is ultimately only seeking death. Face your fears. And the reward of the effort is greater understanding.

Above all, gain understanding…If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.

I go back inside and thank God for the bird, for saving me yet again. I pray for help to take this next step and I write out the words, trusting they won’t complicate it but simplify, and somehow reveal a beautiful design not my own.

I pray to keep on, seeking to find all the words he’s placed for me.

And I can do this. I can write and I can care because I’ve been cared for.

Far more than birds.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

My #1 Tool for Productive Writers, Part 1

“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open up a vein.”

– Walter Wellesley Smith

For a long time, I believed the hype about being a more productive writer. I thought the usual advice about setting goals, getting on a schedule and visualizing was right on. But I think for some of us it’s not enough. There are deeper issues that keep us from achieving our high-minded goals.

It may only seem worth the effort if you’ve tried many of the tools and tips and been unable to keep it up. Initially I found those tools and tips helpful but because they couldn’t deal with the root of my problem, I felt inadequate, embarrassed. Maybe I was just lazy. I wanted to write. So why didn’t I do it?

Turns out my struggles were soul deep, and no matter how simple the steps appeared, nothing else worked for me before this.

The tools and tips about apps or methods can become useful after you sort out the deeper challenges. But for me, there was a psychological tool I needed that freed me to pursue the practical advice about how to be productive.

It was permission.

walk

Basically, I needed permission to stop focusing on productivity. If you want to be productive, often you have to stop focusing on it, and start seeing where you’re sabotaging yourself.

Despite my best efforts to write, I’d always end up rebelling. I’d eventually resent the work and go on a word-spending spree, numbing out on surrogate thrills in all kinds of ways.

And here’s where a different writing coach might recommend getting a separate computer for writing or using Pomodoros or setting goals and rewards. They just never worked for me. I’d try and fail, then, wracked with guilt, lament my hopeless situation yet again and wish by Thor’s hammer there was some lasting method for finding infinite flow and recapturing optimum productivity in life.

Whatever.

But now, after well over 10 years of on-and-off-again writing this novel, I may finally have my answer. It’s a deceptively simple method that effectively removes what I produce as the end goal of the work.

And that’s it. If you’re a strong-willed over-achiever like me, it may solve your problem of low productivity forever and remove the guilt to stop focusing on productivity.

deer

That’s right. Instead, focus on the process, i.e. just getting the cup of whatever, sitting down, opening the document and reading some of it. 

If this isn’t you, I know this might sound crazy, but the only way to get a stubborn donkey to move is to stop pushing it. Showing up and opening the document and staring at it for a while, sure it takes some effort, but it doesn’t require trying a bunch of things that only complicate your process.

And, best of all, you have complete permission not to write a word.

If you struggle with productivity, make it your new intention to shift your thinking to not writing new words but simply reading the old ones. It’s nothing fancy; it’s just reassigning your effort to restrict what you’re paying attention to.

Outsmart your inner rebel.

lightBelieve me, before I did this, I’d always find a way to get out of writing. And what changed for me was that I realized I was continually hampered in my writing because I was my own worst enemy. While I wanted to produce good work and be diligent, something else inside, something deeper, wanted easy comfort and relief from long-held pain. And I knew I could find it (at least quick fixes) in myriad other places.

And until I stopped and realized that pain was legitimate and deserved to be heard and comforted, I only kept trying to muscle my way to a specific word count, using will-power to try and stay “on task” even as I knew it would be short-lived and probably not produce any meaningful writing. And becoming distracted all the time.

Next time I want to talk about a practical trick I’ve used to reward myself for sitting down to read (not to write) every day. Because it’s been quite a rewarding journey these past few weeks already…

I’m not completely out of the woods yet—I could still stumble and fall down. But I’m confident that my focus on this simple process frees me to face ever more dragons guarding my cave, whether or not I eventually win out over all of them. Just showing up, I have less chance of forgetting that this is how writing life-changing books is done, whatever it may look like to anyone else, day in, day out.

One healed piece at a time.

“I have experienced healing through other writers’ poetry, but there’s no way I can sit down to write in the hope a poem will have healing potential. If I do, I’ll write a bad poem.”

– Marilyn Hacker

Mick

How Telling Your Story Frees You

“The deeper you look into other souls—and writing is primarily an exercise in doing just that—the clearer people’s inherent dignity becomes.” – Andrew Solomon

I‘m 41 and I edit books and I absolutely love what I get to do every day.

DSC_0045But when I was about 9 or 10, I thought of being a writer. I figured if the pro football player or firefighter thing didn’t work out, I might enjoy making up crazy stories and getting to make people believe them and get away with it. I’d read a few of the usual books–Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, and a ton of those “Illustrated Classics.” And something about the idea of writing down adventures for money–it just appealed.

As a shy pastor’s kid, I got to do plenty of people watching. And I kept journals. In college, I gravitated toward psychology and memoirs, but had no idea I’d eventually land in inspirational memoir.

But after years in Christian publishing and working on all kinds of books, I now work primarily with new and established authors struggling to share their most personal stories.

DSC_0039I’ve worked on dozens, maybe 50 or so by now, but only recently did I realize why I enjoy this genre so much.

It was in working with a writer recently when I was compelled to share why I felt she needed to share her story, beyond the excellent points she’d made about overcoming a personal barrier.

First, I thought, placing the points in the context of a story gives them more immediate significance. We better relate when we can see why someone needed this and get some context about how life was before, and then later once it’s changed you. A story also removes the author from having to be the teacher. Suddenly, you’re just sharing your experience and people can take it or leave it.

And that’s when I realized: that’s why I love this inspirational, “teaching” memoir genre (if it is a genre, maybe “style”). It’s for what it means: a good story hands people freedom. It engages them to find the lessons and empowers them to relate them to their own experience. Then they can see for themselves, as Buechner said, that someone else’s story is really their story. Which is anyone’s story.

I mean, what’s not to love about that?

DSC_0059 To someone wondering if he should give this genre a try, I’d ask: would readers recognize the keys or insights you want to share better if you presented them not as extracts from your experience, but in the midst of your actually discovering them? Would a little story help prove their value and help readers draw the same conclusions you made by making them relatable? Does sharing your vulnerable, honest story scare you to death? That may be reason enough.

Stories help to ground and nail down the specific aspects of a journey that led to growth and healing for the main character. In inspirational memoir, it fills in and book-ends the nuggets of truth of your discovery. It’s like one of those before-and-after makeover pictures. It makes the learning that tangible, that lifelike. People need a model. And if you’ve already lived it, you are able to share it. You were prepared to share it.

And how can you say you’ve lived to tell the story unless you work to share the story–in all its confessional, narrative power?

Ah, but I understand. Yes, it takes fortitude. And patience. And skill. Which means time and money…it’s not an investment to take lightly. And the whole family will have to sacrifice. But if you’ve lived something people could benefit from, why not start and let God take care of the details?

CSC_0006Andrew Solomon, a National Book Award winner, quotes Rilke, “Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms, or books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Solomon says, “The insight is tremendous, but he has it backwards. Belief in answers can get you through your early days, while the belief in questions, which is so much less tangible, takes a long time to arrive at. To know more is simply a matter of industry; to accept what you will never know is trickier.

“The belief that questions are precious whether or not they have answers is the hallmark of a mature writer….”

I wasn’t sure my author was quite ready for that, but those who take this journey to write their story–they all learn to see it from outside themselves, in the eyes of their readers. They listen for the reader’s questions:

“How did she find that?”
“What did it look like to make that discovery?”
“What was it that brought that thought up for her?”

And it’s through that, through the process of sharing vulnerable stories, that we discover our story is everyone’s story as well.

It may sound hokey and idealistic in the corporate publishing world. But when you see it happen, you’ll know it’s no coincidence.

Don’t hide your story under a bushel. Let it shine!

Believing with you.

The Most Important Story

We just got back from celebrating my dad’s birthday over spring break with my parents and my grandma in California. They always feed and entertain us like royalty. And for some unknowable reason, they love me for who I am.

Which is pretty surprising considering who I am.

IMG_5274

Few people can claim parents like mine, the kind who accept them for their true selves, imperfect in so many ways. Yet I’ve been taught this truth about life that makes it so rewarding, that being imperfect is a gift because it means you get to be human and learn and grow and fail and keep being brave and diligent and persistent. If only we all had parents who know that life is about being open to learning, not being complete and done. Somewhere along the way they learned that and now I get to live it too: the secret is just being engaged in the process.

As a parent myself now, I think of the gift to my girls’ self-esteem to see me accepting who they are and allowing them to fail and encouraging them to push on. I consider how open and honest I’m being about everything I’ve learned and haven’t learned yet. I want to be fallible and trusting in a higher authority because I think that’s the definition of a hero.

At least, that’s what my dad taught me.

IMG_5302

In so many ways, he made things a learning opportunity. He helped me and my brother make things using his tools, tools every boy should know how to use. And when my brother and I were fighting, he secretly got us to make each other trophies as presents one Christmas. As a ski-instructor, he made sure we knew how to carve up a mountain like champions. And he made us breakfast every Saturday and took us to the hobby store and the bike park and then helped build the models we picked out and design the bike jumps on the front sidewalk. He took us fishing and when I showed no interest, he bribed me with candy bars. He taught me how to carry a gun, to read the Bible and study it, and how to pray for others even when you could use a little help yourself.

One of my favorite memories was driving in his VW Bug. I’d push the battery tester light on the dash (which only VW Bugs have) and in his car it was the “turbo button.” Off we’d go lurching down the road to my huge delight. When we went swimming, he was the dad to let us climb on his shoulders to launch us off.

600416_10200384013116639_153210801_n

But maybe the most telling picture I could give of my dad is that he loved to wrestle even though he never won, and it always seemed we’d only just barely overpowered him.

He was a pastor all my growing up years and my mom stayed home and we never went hungry. He performed our ceremony and the ceremonies of both my brothers when they’d found the love of their lives.

He taught me to believe in myself and to be myself even when I didn’t much want to. He’s always accepted just who I am and was always proud of me and prayerful for who I was becoming. It’s almost too much to go on, but you can’t leave off that he’s giving to a fault and supportive of all my ideas, and I know I’ve found my place in this world because he believed in me.

The books will get written and finished. It’s only a matter of time. I want to be there for my family and let reality dictate the time I have. I can’t always make time in the midst of life, and that’s okay. Daylight is limited and sometimes there’s no time to do what we’d like.

IMG_5261

Discipline can absolutely help, I know, and I can always write at least a bit. But I won’t sacrifice what time I have to be fully available to my family. And if I can still make progress on all my work and believe there’s a book waiting me at the end of it, I’m okay with that because it will have been time well-spent.

I don’t have to write every day to collect the right words and pictures and experiences for the future. Because my dad taught me that even when you’re not doing what you’d choose, if you’re getting to spend time with the ones you love, then you’re writing the most important story you could ever capture.