Category Archives: Monday Motivations

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

On Process – My Writing Life – Step 1: Set Out to Return

“We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return; prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only, as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk.”

― Henry David Thoreau, Walking

The beginning is in the end. And the end is returning.

The idea of turning again back to the place you started from, it has a particular irreplaceable merit.

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Sheri, Ellie, Charlotte, and I set out on a walk, like every walk, from the home we’ll never stop cleaning up and repairing. We leave it behind for just a while to seek adventure and see the world that beckons beyond the front door. The familiar falls away, and our feet step down into a new place we don’t know. Our neighbors and strangers have come out following the morning downpour to wrestle their yards into their original designs, and apparently, none include knee-high weeds or crabgrass.

We walk to the Catholic graveyard because it’s a place of contrasts, beautiful and spooky, and full of very old and very recent residents. Sometimes we read the headstones, and other times we appreciate the flowers. Today, we’re just trying to get back because there’s too much to do back at home before our guests arrive.

“We need to get back,” Sheri says, and much as I want to stay, I know she’s right. “There’s much to do.”

I want to protest, to stay out and play in the glistening day. But I say, “Okay, let’s go,” because I know submitting quickly is the best way to promote happy wives, and also to continuing the play all the way home and beyond.

And oh, the older I get, the more I know that keeping the play going is pretty much the whole magic trick.

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Or maybe it’s better to say, staying in the play. That abiding is a mindset, of course, an intention of continuous practice, with just enough awareness to the conceptual world in the midst of the actual steps and tangible responsibilities. That balance is a metaphor for any meaningful relationship–it’s my marriage, my family, my writing, our house.

What you want is never what you think it is until you return to the start. Yes, of course that’s hard to understand, but why shouldn’t it be? You have to always give up something real, submit to it, and return to that initial design, to preserve what you really want.

You can’t see what you really want. And of course that makes it hard to submit.

I don’t want the fun walk in the graveyard to end. But that’s not what I really want. It’s deeper: I want the adventure to never end. And I want to do what I see as my job, my constant task as a husband and a dad and a writer–to keep the adventure going. Yet I can’t do that if I see this momentary returning as a subtraction, a quenching of adventure. I can only affirm and submit to my partner and the more important friendship we share.

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You’d think this wouldn’t be such a big deal, wouldn’t you? It’s always a bigger deal than we think.

Because it’s always about more than the surface issue. If I can remember that I don’t want to resist love but to submit to it and continue the adventure, I can respond well here. And I can connect up this inspiration to writing: we must venture out, add to our lives escape and exercise and fun and so many other needed things. But we must also return and realize that has its place, and it isn’t subtraction if we’re fully submitted to it.

Returning, too, can be adventure.

We get to the end of the road and turn around, and I see the sunlight fading through the trees, slanting off the wet limbs and reflecting the multicolored sky. The girls aren’t as resistant and have already found how beautiful the light is now ahead of us as we retrace our steps to crest the low hill and turn back. And suddenly, I’m reminded of a T.S. Eliot quote I’ve always loved, which feels in some way its been waiting until now to speak:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

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It’s from his “Four Quartets,” written after his conversion to Christianity and understanding of salvation. He continues:

“Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.”

I’ve said it so often to writers I’ve coached, hoping it’d make its way from my consciousness to my lived experience, that our job is simply to follow in submission to the call of inspiration. And at the end, when we read back over, the venture will prove out what the initial design intended, and what we had forgotten to intend. We can’t see it on that first go around. And that’s as it should be.

I want to stake my life on what I’ve returned to on this walk, the surprise of it, and to have it live forever in my heart. The true adventure.

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Returning always means submission, not merely to a spouse or always specific to a person, but to an idea. Sub (under, from below, up) + mitto (to send). From sub+mitto comes “upsend,” which creates our other key definition of submit: to propose or promote a plan. Submitting also means promoting. And in spiritual terms, it means placing oneself under a sending mission.

To go out and let go. And to return to the beginning. What we intend is not what we mean to intend. We must be brought back to ourselves after we’ve submitted and gone out. Being sent is a gift that inspires and intends a return. It’s added, included in the fabric of the eternal tapestry. And we circle back and know our line has been included because we heard and went and trusted

in submission.

Someone said if things aren’t good yet, then you can know this isn’t the end. Stop. Turn around. Start back.

I take her hand and we walk home together behind the girls, the light breeze from their steps lifting their hair in expectation, and the blinding light turning it to waves of willing fire.

“If it be true that God is a circle whose centre is everywhere, the saint goes to the centre, the poet and the artist to the ring where everything comes round again.”

– William Butler Yeats

For the higher purpose,

mick