Category Archives: Monday Motivations

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

Resiliency, Big Life Changes Like Moving and Shopping for Pants

Greetings from Grand Rapids!

I’ve just arrived at work, which means I didn’t get to writing this on Sunday, as used to be the goal. It also means this post will probably be slapdash and not as useful as it could be. (But that’s what editing is for!)

We were busy all day Sunday shopping for all the things. Winter is coming, yeah? Happily, we found what we needed, though it wasn’t easy.

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Do your worst, winter!

Shopping. Ugh. It’s such a luxury. And yet I still tend to prefer a trip to the dentist to trying on pants. Why? Maybe I’m just against having to search amongst so many other glassy-eyed men for the least horrible style, in the least unwearable color, and in my smaller-than-average size. I’d search online but Sheri is unreasonably against me looking like I search online for my pants.

Well, and who doesn’t like that squeaky-teeth-clean feeling from the dentist?

So I’ve got some pants now. And a new shirt and a sweater (not the full-body style above, sadly). I also got some office plants, hoping the investment of some small effort will lead to bigger rewards.

And as I take a deep breath this morning to reflect on all that’s changed since last year (even last month!), the major feeling is one of relief–I’m not too overwhelmed yet. Great gratitude stars go to my wife and daughters for following me here to the northeast, just in time for the winter tundra fun. I’m not just grateful for the commitment it shows to me and my career. It’s also their personal support of the greater enjoyment and engagement in doing challenging things, the adventures we’re always talking about having in life, the kind that I very much long for.

And that ambition, the one for exciting new things to experience and learn and get to enjoy together, is really a desire to progress in life, where life = lots of change. A big move like this can be the birthplace of some amazing contributions to our fellow man and woman.

But I want to parse ambition because ambition for winning a gazillion smackers, on the other hand, can easily take the place of making amazing contributions to your fellow man, and of enjoying and being actively engaged in your life. That’s not the kind of ambition you or I want to have.

Back in August, when I took this new job at Zondervan, the change was fast. Life can turn on a dime. The plan and players can all change, and what might have been (for years and years) may never be again. There’s some loss and real grief to process there, and very little time in which to do it. There are deep heart words to share, challenges to meet, and new opportunities to grow and employ our gifts in myriad ways, seemingly around every corner.

Here, it’s clear, our great need is for resiliency. The ability to withstand change.

The house needs attention, boxes need unpacking, and neighbors need introductions. How true it is that “life will not stop for us to catch up.” If the real work we should be doing is “preparing for the future” it’ll have to wait until we’ve gotten the time change and this eating-and-sleeping-with-some-regularity situation figured out.

Again, resiliency. The ability to resist the undertow. This skill must be acquired.

What keeps you going when the changes beat you down in life? What makes you get up when you experience setbacks and hard things? Brene Brown and several current self-help productivity gurus have familiarized this idea of resiliency, but I see it the ability to respond appropriately when big life changes come. It’s not about ignoring the hard, or denying your emotions. No, it’s responding well to change. Which means many adjustments. Which means preparation should be a primary activity for all of us.

Because you may not be moving across the country soon, but you can be sure there are big changes coming. And even changes for the better bring all kinds of hard stuff too. Keeping your wits about you in order to adjust and prepare and buy your full-body sweaters for winter is why resiliency is so much of the key to everything.

We have so many preparations to make–school, work, travel, money, life goals, and people to meet. It’s overwhelming, of course. And it’ll involve learning to keep our heads together better in the midst of it all, not getting distracted from the small by all the seemingly big. And I have to admit I’m daunted. How am I going to do this?

Maybe another metaphor here: both my girls (one 7th and one 10th grade) are learning new math this year. And we all are. The work of adding up all the preparations we’re learning to complete can be brain-busting. But if we can 1) stick to our process and 2) go bird by bird, it could also be fun to find new capabilities and capacities, be equipped with some new knowledge. Because the thing is none of us knows what we don’t know–we don’t even know that we don’t know it. There’s a bigger plan than all our ambitions can account for, and even good ambition requires a continual recommitment to gratitude for the chance to experience the new and be chosen for such an amazing mission.

No matter what happens, there’s always something you’re being prepared for. There’s so much more to come. And that’s motivating.

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Or maybe it’s just what I need to hear right now as I stare down a mountain to climb. The fuzzy outline of my bigger mission here in Michigan is still emerging. But while it does, it’s good to be reminded to enjoy and keep resiliencing….

It’s a verb. Of course it is. I’m an editor so you can trust me.

In the meantime, you can imagine me sporting some new pants and a new sweater while I search the internet for articles on how to keep office succulents alive.

For the much higher purposes to come,

Mick

Starting Over, Starting Again

Hello from Grand Rapids! We’ve officially moved to Michigan. I accepted an offer for a new job at Zondervan, as Senior Acquisitions Editor responsible for new and several existing nonfiction projects. I’m excited, a bit nervous, and completed surprised by the whole thing. It wasn’t in the 10-year plan at all, and yet when I listened to the job description and considered what I’d actually be doing–working to help authors create great books, mainly–it felt like me from the get go.

Of course, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to two people in particular–Ann, for her loyalty and confidence in me, and for proving to me that being real, vulnerable, and true to oneself is a viable path in this industry, and Sandy, an incredibly kind editor who helped me gain a hearing. Several other influential friends spoke up for me as well, and I’m so grateful.

By freelancing for eight years, I got to know even better the challenge of structuring books that can compete for attention and gain interest. It’s such hard work for authors to learn what it takes. But in this role, it will be much more about finding the chance to meaningfully connect with the rare few who can maintain their sense of themselves and speak with honesty, even under pressure and from a high level of visibility. To do that and still recognize their position in the crowded market, without ego but with true awareness, and probably having worked with an agent or coach who’s helped them identify and refine that particular brand and message, it’s quite a gift. And it comes with a great responsibility to carry well.

The main thing is, this first week has felt charged with potential, like a defining moment, a chance to see if the change that’s been so long in coming to the Christian market is actually, finally here. Of course, to say it like that sounds a bit ridiculous; change is always happening. But specifically, I believe the cult of personality that’s been unfortunately influencing the big retail industry for years has also recently been shifting toward a new thirst for authenticity. And I believe this is what makes the moment feel so weighty with potential. Not because of me, or any one person or factor in particular. But because the spirit of God is moving. And when Aslan’s on the move, you can be sure change is coming, in so many places and so many unseen ways.

And I guess I fee it’s worth investing in that simple hope. A hope that sincere people with a humble commitment to being spirit-led can be a force of change even now.

We’re just getting settled into our new house, the girls into school, and me into my new office. It’ll all bring its share of struggle no doubt as well. I’ll try to share about that as I’m able here. I’ve been neglecting giving the update, overwhelmed by it, and no sure quite how to say it, so when this finally came, it seemed time. Apologies for being out of touch–the move and adjustment were a whole lot to manage.

But I’m feeling excited to get to work and to share now and then about this new adventure. And we do appreciate all the support and prayers.

More soon…

For the higher purpose,

Mick

My Writing Process – Step 2: “Let the Theme Rise Organically”

Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

– Mary Oliver, “Sometimes”

God, save me from the productivity that would sacrifice everything you’re doing in me to chase an image of “supposed to.”

So naturally, after step 1 comes step 2. “Step 1: Set Out to Return” posits that submitting to what God is calling you to, where he’s sending, is job 1 for the writer. I see this as a journey that starts and finishes with knowing it will involve, nay, require, a return to the  beginning. Because writing is like life and art is all about recovery of ourselves. (If that seems super deep, that’s because it is.)

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Step 1 was fun to write, so I’m continuing with step 2 this week.

The second step in my writing process, which I’ve never put into words before but has gotten me thinking, follows the theme of submission and adds to it discipline. There’s the obvious discipline of showing up to write 6 days a week for as long as I have that day, but in my daily writing process, after considering the true starting place and establishing the goal to return to it eventually, there’s a specific action I have to take. And it still isn’t writing.

Sidenote: we’d prevent so much wasted time by simply not writing too soon. Many writers don’t know or don’t care about this, and maybe they simply can’t help themselves, but even if you only learn it as you write, if you want people to read your stuff, and I do, and if you want an editor to edit it (and yes, you do), then I believe the theme has to rise naturally from the story, from the character’s true plight. And that means slowing down and thinking before you dive in. *Note on the sidenote: this is also true for anything resembling memoir or personal narrative.

Which means step 2 is that you have to discover your theme, so you don’t write trying to illustrate it. If you set out thinking you already know what big truth you’re going to reveal with your story, you’ll fail. Sure, there are pro writers who can do it, but like figuring out your true identity (“Identity is received, not achieved,” as my friend Chase taught me), the theme must be discovered. The journey must be allowed to define the story and the telling of it. Otherwise the theme will be artificial, added as an afterthought.

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Theme–what your story’s about–starts as unintended but soon becomes intended. And when that happens is all about how well a writer has learned to humble themselves, silence their need to teach, and pay attention to what the story is revealing. And in the beginning, often, this takes a trustworthy outside editor or close-reader. If you have one, you know they’re gold.

As I said, it may be possible for seasoned writers to “hide the strings” with good editing, but often, a tip-off of amateur writing is that the theme wasn’t discovered so much as intended from the beginning. And often, it seems it wasn’t executed well because there was no learning process captured, no fire in that journey.

Now, go back to that prayer at the top, because this could also become a “supposed to.” But a story is supposed to teach the writer its lesson(s) first. Imagine going through something as life-altering as becoming a parent for the first time and not learning anything from it. Yet people do it all the time. We think we have to be strong leaders, use our stories to teach. But stories aren’t widgets to plug holes in people. And when you think of them this way, you’re limiting its potential for something you can start selling before the necessary ink has been spilled.

Too many of us simply don’t yet have the presence of mind to pay attention to what a story is really saying. And it’s a travesty, but it’s for some fairly obvious reasons. Maybe that’s why it’s taken me so long to establish this.

Goodness, life is distracting. And we want to think we know what we want, but we don’t. And others want different things, and compounding complexity causes destruction. How tragic when someone simply continues pushing for their initial goal even after they realize it means others will suffer. The Bible says such poor folks are cursed (Heavy, I know, but I think of “quenching the spirit” and “woe to them” and “causing others to stumble.”) And again, happens all the time. Maybe we all do it to some degree if we justify such “winning discipline” to remain dedicated to our vision.

Is remaining undistracted and “productive” really the key to success?

Anyone could be a hardnose and prevent what could ultimately free us and countless others. What if instead we’re supposed to let go and let ourselves see beneath what we thought we knew? (Hear the deeper theme of submission here again.)

Writers want to write books that matter, which means revealing what others miss. But what if they can’t until they realize what they’ve missed? For me, step 2 involves, nay, requires, embracing the struggle for a greater discipline: accepting that no one gets to say they intended where they ended up when they set out. I think useful, timeless, inspired books aren’t intended or earned so much as discovered through sacrifice.

So the question is,

Will you commit to listening to your life?

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Commit to struggling, flailing, uncertainty, mystery, and some very unromantic trials? I believe from all I’ve read, all I’ve written, this is the only way to ultimately offer the truth. Because the primary truth any story conveys is always about struggle–and it should be.

I get it. I want things to be easier too. We all do. It’s just that you can’t see the reason the story needed telling just like you can’t see the real reason the journey needed taking until you take it. And unless you listen to your own plight, your own deep desire and greatest struggle, you’ll never know what simple thematic statement is beneath it. And that’s how your story will ultimately speak about everyone’s plight.

Don’t we all somehow know this already? It’s one of the greatest confirmations, that “Oh-wow-me-too” response. We can’t intend that; it’s a gift. If you let go of personal intentions (for your life, for your work) you’re freed to finally see and reveal universal, biblical truth.

I believe there’s no other way. (“Narrow road,” “die to self,” “walk humbly,” etc.)

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It could be that we’re made writers far more than we intend to be. But you were given a story to share and you can trust that. And when you do, you won’t have to prove it anymore. You can let it say what it wants to. You can intend to have your intentions changed and set out to find your theme, even when you think you’re supposed to know it already. It’s worth letting go of supposed to’s.

The distractions are strong, but these 2 steps–setting out to return, and listening for theme–are nearly all I needed to write. There’s just one more step I use consistently before writing and it’s a practical one about filling up before pouring out.

And I’ll share that next week.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

 

 

Why Do We Do This? Thoughts on Writing and Letting Your Life Speak

There’s a cage I’ve known.

No, not this cage.

For longer than I care to remember now (the archive in the sidebar shows 2004), I’ve questioned why I write. Why I feel like I should. It wasn’t enough just to say what Parker Palmer says in Let Your Life Speak. 

As young people, we are surrounded by expectations that may have little to do with who we really are, expectations held by people who are not trying to disern our selfhood but to fit us into slots. – p.12

I knew this, but I had to also question my reasoning. What was I saying about my desperate desire to speak–was I saying I didn’t appreciate my easy Christian suburban upbringing? Was I ungrateful for my safe life with dedicated parents, parents everyone else esteemed and loved?

In families, schools, workplaces, and religious communities, we are trained away from true self toward images of acceptability; under social pressures like racism and sexism our original shape is deformed beyond recognition; and we ourselves, driven by fear, too often betray true self to gain the approval of others.

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What racism have I known? What sexism? What true oppression? I’ve laughed along with the humor of regretting such an idyllic childhood couldn’t lead to great art. And I’ve believed my very desire to create such art was selfish at the core.

I’ve written. A lot. About this very thing. I’ve been self-focused and ashamed of that. I’ve found comfort in countless stories and recognized a certain underground misfit culture, and been emboldened by the beattitudes–if I feel this, maybe I’m among those he’s saying are blessed.

And yet, don’t I flatter and feign? Thinking about thinking is never helpful, but maybe there comes a time to realize as Anne Lamott says, “you own everything that happened to you.”

We are disabused of original giftedness in the first half of our lives. Then–if we are awake, aware, and able to admit our loss–we spend the second half trying to recover and reclaim the gift we once possessed.

I’ve written to keep a record, spotty and inaccurate as it might be. And the many journals I’ve filled and the thickly self-conscious prayers I’ve written, it’s all been a way to hold back and not say what needs saying. Substitute vulnerability, surrogate struggle.

“Look how honest. Feel affirmed by this. Yes, I’ve felt it too.” 

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I became an editor and helped publish many books promoting healing and hope. But I never faced my truth. I never let my life speak.

‘Faking it’ in the service of high values is no virute and has nothing to do with vocation. It is an ignorant, sometimes arrogant, attempt to override one’s nature, and it will always fail.

You never have true character until it’s forged by regret and tested in the face of opposition.

Can I still change? Palmer shares Buechner’s definition of vocation, “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” And I know that’s right–starting at my deep gladness, born of the struggle I was given as a gift to convince me, to shape me, to form this maddening ambition to face the darkness come what may and be real, once and for all.

And the velveteen rabbit’s friend taught me how to do that long ago. You have to get beat up in the service of love. And this doesn’t mean denying the particular shape of the imago dei within us, but asserting it as the only way to show a divided world how to be whole again.

…people who plant the seeds of movements make a critical decision: they decide to live ‘divided no more.’ They decide no longer to act on the outside in a way that contradicts some truth about themselves that they hold deeply on the inside. -p. 32

When we’re done being diminished by all the ‘shoulds’ we’ve accepted, we can know the true result of sin isn’t just the bad we do, but also the bad we’ve been done. And both need acknowledging and specific healing to be finished once and for all. But they can’t be done in you until you accept they both already have been finished by the one who lived fully alive and gave all he had to remove its power.

Believing I was a victim has kept me safe in the cage, but I’m done accepting the reducing of that sin–the sin I’ve done and done to me. I believe something entirely different now. I’m walking out.

This is the message I’ve been given, by Parker Palmer and many others who’ve been Spirit-led, after 14 years and much writing and pondering: neither the sin we’ve done nor the sin that’s been done diminishes anything about us. And now that I know, maybe I can stand up and say to that cage “Open,” and I’ll be free.

 

Sometimes it takes a long time to play like yourself.

– Charlie Parker

 

For the higher purpose,

Mick