Category Archives: Keys to Success

Writing at Christmas

Distraction is the name of the game at Christmas, with so much to do and see, people to connect with, and the inevitable trouble that crops up every time you try to shove so much into such a little space.
 
Yet the word that keeps coming to me this first year in Michigan is deliberate (link here). I’ve written about this word before–and how I finally liberated it from its negative connotations–and it’s stayed with me for months now. It’s shaped my responses to the many impulses and longings I feel throughout each day and week. It takes the place of another word in my former lexicon, a word I avoid because of its associations with too-earnest Evangelicalism: intentional. But this word fits just as well. Life requires being deliberate, even though your best-laid plans will often get destroyed (it happens to everybody–don’t deliberate on it).
 
So many things we need to be deliberate about like setting schedules and budgets and plans, as if we had some control. Usually, despite appearances, we do have some control, and more than we think. I have to remind myself just like intentionally changing my lexicon to better motivate myself, I can reframe and redefine the supposed “distractions” that pull me away from the protected still space needed for writing.



And here, I want to choose a new word for “distraction”: inspiration. What’s a distraction but a chance for God to work in an unexpected way? Not that I’m looking for distractions (except when I’m procrastinating!), but as with all of life, the input/output principle applies here (link here).

I love the clarity of this simple mental model.

There is potential for great good in allowing unexpected input, and being forced to engage with what isn’t planned can bring inspiration if you can remain open and undistracted by the supposed “distraction.” Input (inspiration) comes from any seemingly random source (and frequently does). And of course, being diligent not to get derailed from your larger purpose is a constant effort. But we don’t help ourselves by being inflexible or too restrictive about what influences we allow in.

Especially during this season of advent, waiting, and rest from work, we need to stay open to wonder and the unexpected.
 
Because here’s the marvelous point: output. Once you have a good amount of input, you must exercise restraint to retreat (I also don’t like the word discipline, though it fits here). I’ve got to set a time each morning to get away and write, even if it gets derailed and I have to come back at bedtime. Asserting this practice keeps me bound to the input I get from my selective reading in the morning, and helps me charge up by being silent, gathering my thoughts, and writing, even if only for 15 minutes. I might just capture bullet points to come back to some days, if it’s all I can get. But I reserve this time daily to keep in practice of gathering the manna, and tithing my first harvest of words each morning, or I know I will lose it.
 


Now, I haven’t, and won’t soon practice this flawlessly. But it’s a goal. And this is my grown-up Christmas wish for you this season too, and all through the New Year. With a moderate amount of effort, may you find the input and time to make some output this holiday season. And may it be a still point for reflection and renewal for you.

If you commit to trying this, can you let me know? I’m looking forward to knowing I’m not alone in the hope of what we’ll produce….
 
For the higher purpose. Merry Christmas, my friend.

Mick

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



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

 

 

 

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”