Category Archives: Monday Motivations

How a Writer Gets Free of the Struggle

“You are going to feel like hell if you never write the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves in your heart–your stories, visions, memories, songs: your truth, your version of things, in your voice. That is really all you have to offer us, and it’s why you were born.”

Anne Lamott

 

What terrifies you?

It can seem a simple question. But have you tried to answer it?

Disaster, death, so many ways it all could be ruined and the people I love could be hurt or taken from me. Big spiders, embarrassing myself, talking to strangers, these are all lesser fears, but they seem related.

What’s beneath them? When I stop to feel it, I think it’s a terror of missing out on the best in life, whatever that is.  I fear never experiencing the greatest things life has to offer. They could be stolen by circumstances, so simply because I didn’t have the awareness to go after them, or the plain courage.

My biggest, deepest fear seems to center around navigating risk.

Everyone has deep fears, even the most confident people. Find someone who doesn’t trust easily and I’ll show you someone who fears people. We always have good reason. Hard experience has taught us well.

What most of us know beyond conscious knowledge is that until there’s an invitation and opportunity to face the deepest fear, we’ll remain fear-controlled. Everyone in the world. We need encouragement and opportunities. Otherwise, our inner children wait, silent, waiting to be asked, noticed, inspired by love.

If you want to know what’s wrong with most people, think of them as children ignored. It happened, and now they do it to themselves. A child ignored eventually shuts down. Adults forget and flee themselves.

So what we all need most is permission to stop and remember, to listen to the child and let it speak, to be encouraged out. And what I can tell you from my own experience is that what that requires most is trust.

Trust is the absence of fear. Trust is:

confidencebelieffaithcertaintyassuranceconviction.

You will finally speak when you trust it will be received. To know it’s okay, we let go and breathe easy. That freedom is essential to all you’ll become, all you’ll live, all you want to offer readers. So what you must do before anything else is receive permission to speak your unfiltered, vulnerable, risky truth.

Unjudged and unrestrained.

Remember, much experience has also taught you that when you do, you’ll feel again what’s most important to you. You’ve known it before. It’s just that when you did know that, you also found what scared you most. So to go back, you have to take the risk.

Behind this deepest fear is the storehouse of everything you will write that matters most.

This is what life is all about, what writing is about: surrendering your fight, to receive mercy for your own self. 

Endless mercy, endless grace. That’s permission. It’s okay if you don’t believe you have that or can’t receive it yet. All you need right now is that hope that this is true. The willingness to believe is as good as believing. You can trust this.

How it happened for me was that when I took my faint hope and went ahead and risked asking myself why I feared missing out on what really matters in life, it sounded silly, like not much of a risk.

Who even cares? You’re wasting time. Quit navel-gazing and think about others for a change.

The voice tried to keep me silent. Those voices take many forms–a teacher, a parent, a friend, a sibling, a grandparent, a spouse. We give them authority and take them inside and let them rule us. We feed them and protect them as they tell us what we think we need to hear. They’re the voices of reason, of maturity, of logic, of truth.

Except they aren’t.

The voices aren’t wrong; they’re trying to keep us safe. We’ve had good reason to be afraid. The scars on our hearts prove it. My scars always embarrassed me, proved weakness, unmanliness, impotence. Looking at them revealed how sensitive I was, how “feminized.” The scars were deep, but the denial they even existed went deeper.

And this was my fight.

Only the mercy of God through Sheri, my girls, my family, friends, has released me. Beneath the fear and fight lived the scary adventure I’d longed for.

My fear of failure, of losing those I love, they’re universal fears. Strongest of all, the one more like terror, is of missing out on the life that truly matters, truly contributes, truly rewards.

There is no way to do enough, be enough, the voice says, proving itself with endless evidence, memories of the many times we’ve failed, missed out, been disappointing. So many examples, too many to count.  They’d overwhelm and drag us under, so we turn away and ignore them.

And instead of fully living from the heart of the child, we live not to think of them.

Yoda wisdom
The form may change. But wisdom always remains the same.

What truly matters? What’s a life’s true contribution? What’s most rewarding? We all know the answer in our hearts: Connection. Relationship. Love. Compassion. Kindness. We know this. It changes everything. And we want to live this. But can we surrender the fear of missing out on whatever it is we think we need?

Where else would we find more meaningful connections than in this life we’re living? Who else could offer more than those we’re with? The question is either a foregone conclusion, or the ignorance of a fool.

The fool will control us until the wiser one takes its place. The fool will wonder what all this has to do with writing. The fool will be pulled by the nose toward every unconsidered new thought. The fool will try to ban the insignificant and end up straining out all meaning and substance.

Who but a fool thinks he can judge where or who is most significant? Who but a fool can say “this life is ruined” or “this life is not?” Everywhere and everyone and everything is creation–it is worthwhile, you fool! Be all there and you may just experience exactly what you’ve always wanted. Ignore it and wish for something else, something better or safer for you and you’ll only let fear continue keeping you from the incredible life you could be living right now.

Surrender.

“Give up, and the answer appears. Give up, and you are released. Give up, give up–let the bells toll it throughout your land. Struggle, and clarity of mind disperses. Surrender, and somehow it’s yours.”

– Bonnie Friedman, Writing Past Dark

For the higher purpose,

Mick

Nope, Writing Is Still NOT About Creativity

“We are about contribution. That’s what our job is. It’s not about impressing people. It’s not about getting the next job. It’s about contributing something.”

 

What’s different about a book is far less important than what’s the same.

Conventional wisdom holds that all true artists abhor convention and delivering what’s expected. They’re just too creative for that.

fern

Unfortunately, that notion is dead wrong. No one is interested in such “pure creativity.” Readers aren’t interested in books that are completely out of the box—what would be the point? No, we all want what’s conventional and unoriginal. Yes we do. Most of any paragraph, scene, or chapter should be expected. Anticipated. 

Conventional.

Put another way, most of a story must follow the reader’s expectation.

When I was an acquisitions editor, I learned this was one of the important hidden keys to book proposals that sold. If the writer delivered what readers of that type of book expect, we’d be much more likely to be able to sell that book. That means a writer has to know the best books in their genre and how they met expectations.

DSC_0019Of course, there are uniquenesses to every successful book, and true, they break conventions and delight readers with creative surprises. But the total amount of those differences is less than 5 percent. The actual number may be higher, or even less, but most of the enjoyable parts of any successful book–fiction or nonfiction–are not new. Think about it.

In fact, if you want to know what made a particular book so successful, consider how that tiny amount of new, unpredictable material was actually a liability until it proved just enough to add to or improve on what was already available.

Higher purpose writers need to know good stories are built by following the conventions of good storytelling–a person we can identify with, a quest and settings we’ve experienced countless times, and plot developments that arise naturally from what the protagonist wants, and how they’re obstructed from it. You must see how your favorite author built their story with the existing material of their genre, the very same materials everyone uses, the traditional building blocks in the right sequence and with the proper attention—characterizations, plot points, descriptions, dialogue, strong verbs—then you too can use the elements to succeed–

Any artist brings particularities of expression. But more importantly, they satisfy expectations.

What’s too often missed is that a professional writer often allows readers to very nearly predict every single word because they’ve mastered the conventions so completely. Subtle nuances, and unique stylistic things notwithstanding, the surprises are secondary to everything first being perfectly placed.

And the proof is that a book can completely conform to your expectations to a remarkable degree, and somehow still convince you that writer is worthy of your attention.

In fact, the similarities between a new book and its established category may be what convinces you most.

DSC_0023What’s great about this is that it’s in the simple, expected ordinary elements of a story that we can give rise to the greater possibilities in any story. It’s just some colors blended from the primary three. Just eight basic notes in the scale. Just one alphabet, 3 acts, the same journey toward freedom. But when your readers are all desperate to get home again, they don’t want to be confounded at every turn. They want, first and foremost, to be comforted by what’s reassuring, and this is what makes an artist great: he has our best in mind.

Or as Pascal the restauranteur says in the film, Big Night, “Give people what they want, then later you can give them what you want.”

Any writer can write something completely new. New ideas are literally a dime a dozen. Only a writer with a higher purpose cares what readers want and delivers it. What’s different about a book is far less important than what’s the same.

With every professional artist’s work we talk about what’s special but only because it was built on the conventional foundation of perfection—that is, mastery—of every single element in that discipline.

All art is this way. Practiced conventionality is the work. It’s always been true and it will remain true forever: “creative” work is far more predictable than creative.

Or maybe the truth is that’s what creativity is. Learn what’s expected and how to deliver it. You won’t write other writers’ stories. But there are only a handful of archetypes and storylines. You’re offering an interpretation, much more than you even realize.

What you write matters. What you emphasize about the human condition and experience is a vitally important, needed perspective. But being different is inevitable. And when you get back to the work today, aim to be disciplined by the conventional and tradition.

Because that’s where you’ll prove you’re a writer: in the discipline that leads to freedom.

DSC_0026

“The writer is only free when he can tell the reader to go jump in the lake. You want, of course, to get what you have to show across to him, but whether he likes it or not is no concern of the writer.”

Flannery O’Connor

Can that also be true? Maybe we just all have to try and find out.

For the tried and true higher purpose,

Mick

How Embracing Pain Can Prevent Jerkitude

I’m special. I know you’re wondering how I know. But I’ve always known, crazy as that sounds.

In fact, I suspect most people who haven’t experienced big, deep pain probably agree with this. And anyone who has experienced a massive life event that brought them deep pain, they’ll probably confirm it:

Not suffering pain makes you special. Since life inevitably brings giant hardships, having so far somehow escaped proves I’m special. All the myriad pains life could have brought, and maybe should have brought, I’ve managed to sidestep. That obviously makes me fortunate, right?

Or maybe it makes me pitiably common.

Having never experienced great pain, I often think I shouldn’t have to. I think I can avoid it through planning, cunning, skill, and plain inborn specialness–in other words, luck. And at least until something painful enough happens, I’m likely to go on believing in my good fortune and being special.

And like most who’ve been spared, I believe a bunch of crazy things about why. One of my favorite, almost sacred beliefs is that my life should continue this way and progress without much struggle, effort, or especially pain. The longer I go without it, the scarier it becomes, and it embarrasses me to admit this, but I don’t necessarily believe it because I think it’s true, but because I don’t want to admit that it’s false.

Oh, but I know pain is coming whether I accept it or not….

After my freshman year of high-school, I went for a run one summer’s day. Remembering what the football coaches called “hell week” was coming up, I thought I’d try to get in shape. I hoped taking a few weeks to work up to the physical demands would help me avoid some of the hellishness I’d endured last season.

Somewhere around the third week of training, I rounded the corner where I usually turned up the juice to sprint for home, and there was nothing in the tank. I’d increased the distance little by little, but today my noodly legs burned and I was drowning.

If I slowed, I’d never make my goal. I could try again tomorrow, but I only had so many days left, and I’d missed several already. I hadn’t pushed like I should have. I’d never get this chance back, but as my momentum began slowing, I hit the mental wall.

The combo of physical exhaustion and the psychological exertion amplified it into something I’d never felt. That stab of new awareness remains with me to this day, awakening and clearing off everything but the flash of inspiration:

Embracing this level of pain is what everything most worth having in life will require. This is what commitment means.

I have no idea why it broke through my foggy stupor in that moment, or why it was so indelible. And unfortunately, it was a mere blip in my well-ingrained system of pain-avoidance and denial. It’d be several years before I realized rejecting this wisdom was the source of every jerk. But I’ve never regretted experiencing it when life has brought a new, exquisite anguish my way.

I’ve read countless stories of people fighting back after accidents, a fire, a child’s death. Such disasters convince me it’s no big loss I can’t run anymore. My feet can’t take running, but I still push myself to face the discipline it takes to grow. I know every great advance of civilization has required great pain. Why should my life be any different?

But part of me still believes wholeheartedly it should be, because I’m special. And if only everyone could be spared like I have, well, life would be one big 1980s party all the time, just like it’s supposed to be.

Obviously, this dangerous, unexamined belief can’t continue. It has already caused me untold problems. If I took but a moment to notice the fatigue of fighting not to see it, I’d realize this.

Am I truly unaware of how damaging it is? Is there a better definition of a jerk than one who believes he’s escaped pain because of his specialness?

If I could only see all the extra pain this false “specialness” causes–to myself and others. If I could see all the missed, prevented growth because of this evil belief. …

“It is only in the heat of pain and suffering, both mental and physical, that real human character is forged. One does not develop courage without facing danger, patience without trials, wisdom without heart-and brain-racking puzzles, endurance without suffering, or temperance and honesty without temptations. These are the very things we treasure most about people. Ask yourself if you would be willing to be devoid of all these virtues. If your answer is no, then don’t scorn the means of obtaining them.” – Dallas Willard,  The Allure of Gentleness

Do I habitually scorn pain? I may like to sound borderline masochist, but I shun just about every type of suffering, which ultimately only causes more. Is this one reason I seek out safe, imagined pain in stories and entertainment–because choosing purposeful pain is what I need most?

Maybe, in this culture of shallow pursuits and unrelenting selfishness, some people need stories to remind them of the need to choose purposeful pain? Should it be any wonder so many apathetic, depressed, and medicated people suffer for the lack of meaningful pain, the kind that brings growth and must be chosen?

“All we need to do is make an honest and thorough effort to discover what is right and wrong, good and bad, and, when we are convinced on these points, then simply go out and face life for what it is worth.” (Allure of Gentleness)

Why would I think I can escape this difficult fact of life? Should I try to write, live, or do anything without realizing my greatest task is first to understand what every hero must accept about this life and this impulse to flee all pain?

The plain fact is, the pain isn’t the problem so often as running from it is.

There is pain we can choose to face, and there is pain that is chosen for us. Neither comes by random luck. And no pain is improved by not facing it and accepting it as an opportunity to grow. I can’t continue living until I learn this. I have to get this simple, seemingly-impossible lesson between my ears before anything else.

I believe in God, the Almighty Creator of all heaven and earth. I believe he is pure, sacrificial, unconditional Love. Therefore, what challenges me most is always for my good. What causes me to struggle most is always what I need most.

It’s not about seeking out pain, or even welcoming it. But neither can I continue to hate it if I truly want to understand its higher purpose. Like exercise, it’s never completely pleasant, but the day will come where the incredible struggle will seem to fall away, and what’s left will be the exhilarating feeling and the knowledge that pain is not the fearsome enemy I feared.

Facing this is how we grow. That’s certain. How else would we recognize its true value? What else but pain is so important to us, so convincing, so unavoidably, regrettably, intractably interwoven with our existence? What else but God gives life such meaning, weight, and purpose?

Is there a greater, more motivating force in our lives than pain?

And is there any more important decision than to learn to face it well?

For the higher purpose,

Mick

Why Writers Never Have to Worry about Failure

They always say write what you know.

And what I know best is not my few successes, but my endless failures.

Oh, I’m a failer. I fail! Over and over. Stick around long enough and you’ll get to see it!

Or just wait a few seconds.

And I’ve been doing this editing thing for the better part of 20 years, managing book edits, and failing at it big time. All the time.

I miss things every day. I miss deadlines. I forget to call. I don’t follow up. I miss the point and end up frustrating people. Or worse, convincing them to try something that doesn’t work, overwhelm them, or even shut them down.

And worst of all, I miss the point. Again and again. For instance…

I’m not qualified. Honestly, I’ve never felt qualified for this. I just love books and especially writers, learning from them, and listening, asking them questions, and walking with them.

It’s what I love. I don’t love eliminating mistakes, correcting oversights, and condensing. I do it as best I can, but I fail at it.

And today I wonder if I accepted that failure more, if the work could become more, and maybe the books themselves too.

Maybe not—maybe writers don’t want such realness and honesty. Maybe they only want to see I’m extremely skilled and competent. It’s just extremely humbling how often I’m anything but. And when I inevitably mess up, I think there may be a higher purpose in that…maybe even a useful one.

Wendell Berry says it may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work. Practically speaking, if editing is my real work maybe it’s a good sign I don’t actually know how to do it.

But I think maybe my real work is being a good failer and demonstrating that very humbling reality as best I can.

Some part of me loves this idea–could be the lazy me. Or it’s the idea of rejecting that perfectionistic standard people have about professional editors. (Do I need to mention I was a pastor’s kid?)

Excellence is an important goal. But only grace can comfort us.

Can we really love people well without showing grace?

Ask your average writer what book they first loved. I’ve mentioned mine before: Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. I loved the passion of Meg Murray. She was a misfit, but that made her special, and her keen observation set her apart. I couldn’t have expressed it when I first read it as an 11-year-old, but it gave me hope knowing that the very thing that made her feel like a fool, like a failure, like a misunderstood misfit, was what made her the chosen hero.

She just had to let it out. Let it show.

We like to think of our heroes, even Jesus, as strong and capable and standing victorious on the mountaintop with the wind blowing in their hair. Why do we think that’s what a hero is when all the stories we’ve ever loved show that’s not a hero at all?

In their failure, they made us feel known, seen, heard, understood, comforted. Loved.

Everyone wants to be chosen. Isn’t it in our weakness, in our wounds and our struggles, that we most need to feel that?

I even fail at this. Which means I can probably trust this is what every writer needs, what every person needs: someone to listen and ask them the simple questions that draw them out and make them feel comfortable and accepted. And I do this every day, and it brings me something too, the very thing I’m looking for. It begins manifesting in my own life, this comfort and acceptance. This assurance of grace.

I don’t know why I got so lucky, and a lot of people think they have the greatest job in the world. And maybe they do. Maybe if they get to do this and embrace their failure for a higher purpose too, I can believe it.

Oh, and I still fail to do it, or even want to daily. I just know every day brings the choice: will you fill your own needs today or fill others? And who among us doesn’t realize which is the best choice?

Yeah, still that horrible fear of not having our specialness seen, loved, chosen, it makes us all choose the selfish way sometimes.

But don’t we also find hope knowing that the failure that makes us feel unworthy is actually irrelevant?

Is this another way to show what sacrificial love means?

We’re afraid and incompetent and selfish and lost–and still worthy of deep, real love!

We can fail to write well. We can fail to write for others. And yet success is what every finished book eventually reveals, even as they’re written and edited by total failures.

Maybe what we need most is also what everyone needs most: grace.

Maybe it’s even okay we forget this over and over. Maybe we’re always going to fail to remember it and maybe that’s why we have to read it and reread it and fail at writing it so many times before we can truly live this way consistently.

I don’t know. Maybe we all just need people willing to risk failing us, willing to risk us failing them.

The struggling, disillusioned, the weary and weak, we all need to see that failure doesn’t matter. Grace is irrespective of failure. I want to start showing that more so my writers can write freer, and maybe (hopefully) start living freer, to show others how to be freer too.

It could be only in finding failure no longer matters that we find our greatest success.

And if so, maybe we don’t even have to worry about failing to remember that.

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