Category Archives: Morning Pages

The Last Morning in September

This morning the last one in September, I woke early to finish an edit and got sucked into simply reading.

As I read, I listened to the quiet house waking and the sounds of the day starting. At first there was nothing, then a twittering songbird, whistling briefly until silence again. Then a distant crow, and eventually, the kids’ on the street screeching outside while they grab the last moments before the school bus arrives.

IMG_5817In the hue cast by the closing pages of this novel, it’s become a morning that proves the day can be full of magic moments—if we pay attention and don’t ruin them. So many things can ruin them. Sometimes the days become worried by nothing we’ve done, simply the day’s own trouble. But mostly, it’s our own willfulness, our unwillingness to slow down and recognize what we’re really seeing, what’s really happening, what this chance before us really means.

And a day like this can bring me back to all the things our hearts and souls truly long for—the bright sounds and rich colors and bits of memories that pierce through it all. So many hidden little reminders of why we love this place we get to live in, and how full and happy it can be in the earth’s slow turning.

I needed this book because I need these reminders. I didn’t know it, but I do now. Life will pass and time will be gone and I could have known love in these moments that are ours to inhabit. Or I could still. Even in the moments that at first seem inhospitable, there’s the endless possibility of God’s great, boundless joy.

And we can feel it rising in the waking daylight like the best dare, like an invitation to unwrap the biggest gift of all….

[p.s. I’ll share the book soon….]

For the higher purpose,

Mick

Writing for All the Wrong Reasons

Do most writers start writing because they want to teach readers something? I think I did.

Then when I realized writing is So Very Hard, I shifted to hoping I might merely bring some people hope.

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But I started to realize no one without hope really reads books. So eventually, I think maybe I was only writing for myself, as a natural response to the world around me. Not to teach, or even bring hope, but to live receptive to the work.

Had I finally grown up enough to write for the right reasons?

It’s not that I’d become selfish–I think I started out that way and became less so I continued. But I think one can write for himself and still be aiming to inspire, educate and bring hope. It’s the wanting to do all that that seems to have made it, well, sort of agenda-driven.

Many books have an agenda, no doubt and sometimes I suppose that’s fine. But I get so tired of it. And it takes time to get real and drop the act, the false beliefs that tell us life can be simplified and boiled down into its basic parts. Anyone can write something and ship it out without taking the time it needs to be refined into the subtle, balanced flavors it needs to represent real life and stand up to the questions and valid arguments against its acceptance.

(Of course, those who need to hear that most are too busy publishing junk to listen…but never mind.)

DSC_0013Flannery O’Connor said that to expect too much from our writing is sentimentality, and such softness eventually leads to bitterness. I tend to think she was right. Optimism about teaching readers something or about people’s warm embrace of our refined work will not lead to warm cheeriness. Nevertheless, despite the garbage some readers and writers prefer to gulp down whole, O’Connor’s realism helped her accept that it’s hard, and with one eye squinted she said she was able to take it as a blessing.

That sounds a bit Ecclesiastical to me: “Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun.” (Eccl. 2:11)

Embracing that we can’t do a darn thing about much of reality may seem like pessimism on the surface. But it’s true and the truth doesn’t change according to our ability to stomach it (O’Connor again). What’s more, people won’t start reading the books they should simply by believing they should or by some Pollyanna positivity.

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Only if we look at our work honestly and give it the time it needs to mature can we embrace reality, and have an influence in changing it.

So toward that end, I offer some inspiring thoughts for you to take into your work week and mull over. These are from my own grappling with reality, clutching onto many things, and eventually letting them go again…

When I reveal what a reader needs to figure out himself, it ruins the mystery and cheapens my story.

Of course editing is subjective. But until I     consider  the many ways to say one thing, I don’t know the best way to say just what I mean.

Every writer has the right, the privilege, the duty not to explain everything. It is a writer’s core value that identifies which things are which.

This dedication to the refined truth, the veiled beauty, the carefully obscured mysteries to be discovered, it’s what keeps me writing. I wonder if maybe it’s what keeps us all writing, after all. And removing all that stands in its way, and committing all we have and are to remaining attuned to the Inspirer, isn’t this the great, all-important reason to write after all?

If I can only dedicate to the “lifestyle of invitation” in all of my life, to receive like the trees and the plants that turn their leaves up to prepare for the sun, waiting in that posture regardless of rain, clouds or storms…

If only I can be ready for the searching, for the waiting, to capture all the blessing that’s given… Isn’t that balance worth a lifetime of service? Wouldn’t that be the passion matured that I want in all things I love, open and prepared to speak the beauty, the truth, the justice to life, and to right the wrongs with the words….

“The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.” ― Flannery O’Connor

For His Mastering Love

“Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents, which in prosperous circumstances would have lain dormant.”

– Horace

Christmas already feels long since past. With its noise and bluster, I’m never entirely sad to see it go.

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The family, the house, the food and drink, the schedules and music can finally all return to normal. School routines will begin again. The boxes will be repacked and the tree will stand bare in the backyard until the Scouts come or until I chop it up for firewood.

I’ll choose a word. Last year, permission was my word to concentrate on, to contain and define my focus. I wish there was a word for the happy-sad of leaving the old behind and moving on. I suppose it’s the idea of “Auld Lang Syne.” It means “old (times) long since.”

“In the days of auld lang syne” is basically like “Once upon a time…”

While Sheri lights candles and unwinds the ribbon from the tree, I write, wanting to help but also wanting to receive her love well. I’ve never been good at it, too concerned with being thought well of, being useful, i.e. loving.

Only that’s not the same thing, is it?

How well do I let myself be loved? I suppose I’m like most men, too independent and proud.

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Well we’ve just returned from some good time at my grandma Tillie’s house in Tahoe where my parents live too now. They’ve always been generous to a fault and I’ve been among the greatest recipients, but now they’re helping Grandma and as she ages and her pain increases, her gratitude is wearing thin. I can’t blame her. I curdle under the least amount of strain. But if pain can steal away our gratitude and humility, who are we really?

Why do we think we deserve a pain-free life? Few people really receive anything well, love or pain. But I want to learn.

Charlotte comes in and asks for help bringing the Legos up from downstairs. Because I’m writing about this, I agree willingly. But if I wasn’t?

How can I be more humble and selfless in the New Year? How can I learn to receive better? And what’s a word to capture that?

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After over three years here, the neighbors still don’t know our names. We’re holed up because everywhere the needs seem too great and if we reached out, we’d be smothered. We’re so sure of it. It’s what happens.

But now I’ve seen how unspoken rules can make even the sweetest grandmas difficult to love. And our pain makes us withdraw from life.

Everyone is hurting; everyone feels entitled now and then to complain and act out. To take offense. We get angry and it becomes difficult to receive love. We become difficult to love.

How can I not become blinded by my hurts? To not imagine independence as virtue, but to accept I need help and not refuse it? Taking pride in not needing love is a trap, an empty victory.

My ankle is still healing after my fall Halloween night. It has taken time to accept how slowly I heal. Pain, like pride is universal. Love can also make me cringe. But any relationship requires receiving whatever is given, love or pain. And if we reject love or pain in whatever form it’s offered, we take offense instead and grow bitter.

The choice is ours: which will we take?

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If we don’t allow ourselves to be loved, we reject God. But isn’t it also true if we don’t accept pain, we don’t accept Him? Whatever he gives, it’s from a heart of love.

Why do we feel we deserve to have things our way? Where does this entitlement seep in? Our sacred cows, the notions we were taught about life and relationships, these ignorant assumptions that we’re special—whether it’s because we’re advanced, in charge, in pain, oppressed, wealthy, enlightened, talented, religious, unique, cultured, tenured, black, white, in, out—entitlement says “I deserve better.”

Life isn’t about entitlement. Love doesn’t claim titles like possessions it’s owed. It releases any claim of ownership.

Relinquishing our claim to anything but the Maker’s claim on us, this seems like the cure.

I see all the ornaments and decorations going back in the boxes and I realize we will feel dispossessed until we release that we can’t possess any property but what God gives. There should be a word for voluntarily relinquishing what’s not ours. Who will invent the word for the conscious rejection of any entitlement that takes up space in a heart? I want to use this word for my new year: the one that means giving up all lesser claims that compete for my loyalty and deny God room in my heart.

I know power corrupts and money is at the root of all kinds of evil. But maybe as Tozer said, any claim I take is a claim on my life and therefore limits it. Feeling owed becomes a type of ownership and will only diminish, distract and dilute the Master’s ownership.

Maybe the word for 2015 is mastery. I want to learn to be mastered. Can I claim nothing, possess nothing aside from the ownership of my Creator, Redeemer, Deliverer, Almighty God and Best Friend? Crazy to some, maybe But to finally believe love is all, maybe receiving anything less would be the crazy thing.

Then, when others compliment or criticize, I could say, “It’s not me. It’s the Master.”

Who can do what He does? To put away all else that competes for attention and step confidently into the blank days before us? Boldness comes in his love and maybe only by it can we disown all else. The very idea that we could go without every lesser possession but his love, we can only understand that, only give and receive love because he loves us. This guiding light deserves our full hearts, our commemoration the day we finally possess it.

What will you allow God to do in you, despite you, with you and through you this year? Will you allow him to master you? Your experience of life and all it’s joy and pain, it all rests on how well you will humble yourself to receive nothing else.

For there was, once upon a time, a Master who loved…

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,

Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes—

Some have got broken—and carrying them up to the attic.

The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,

And the children got ready for school. There are enough

Leftovers to do, warmed up, for the rest of the week—

Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,

Stayed up so late, attempted—quite unsuccessfully—

To love all of our relatives, and in general,

Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again

As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed

To do more than entertain it as an agreeable

Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,

Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,

The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.

~ W.H. AUDEN, The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden, 1945

For the higher purpose,

Mick

Writer’s Shortcut: The One Question that Ensures Success

In writing your story, you’ll come across so many distractions online, from self-publishing blogs to highly-rated writing courses, and 2-for-1 “essential” ebooks for writing with passion. But forget all that. All you need is what’s already inside you: that true passion you feel for your story. Passion is simply your greatest essential for starting a fire in someone else.

One of Sheri’s and my favorite stand-up comedians, Brian Regan has a bit where he jokes about an airline company that lost his luggage. When he went to the lost baggage counter, the employee says, “Don’t worry,” and reaches beneath the desk to pull out a little plastic case that reads “Essentials Kit.”

“Oh,” he says sarcastically. “So these are the essentials! I overpacked.”

Many writers I meet seem to have this similar dazed and confused look when they arrive at our appointment. I know they’re thinking, Did I bring everything I needed? 

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Just once I’d like to say, “So, did you bring your qualifications for speaking with me today?” Of course I would never do it!

You have to be careful teasing writers. We’re fragile as it is. Most of us just want to know if we’re doing it right.

And usually, we overpack.

What I really want is to hand them the Essentials Kit. Then they wouldn’t need to bother with all the how-tos and writing instruction and conferences and blogs. Whittling this writing thing down to the bare bones, the bottom-line basics, has been my quest ever since I struck out on my own. And now, one of the very few items in my kit is this question, the one I start an interview with:

“What’s your passion?”

Who doesn’t love talking about their passion? And reading about people’s passions can be just as fun. Take a subject you couldn’t care less about and if someone shares their passion for it, it can be endlessly fascinating.

Why?

Strangely, we’re attracted to what others are willing to suffer for.

I’m really asking, What are you willing to suffer for?

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Something in us knows that whatever we do, whether we pursue love or money or the 7th sword of Grindol or whatever, it’s going to require some suffering. Even if it’s only getting to sit at home and watch sports all day, we know this dream of ours is going to take some doing to make that happen.

As a counseling couple I love says, in life you choose your pain. It’s suffering either way.

So if we know this, how do we employ it?

Passion. It comes from the Latin verb patī meaning “to suffer.”

I can talk a good game, but for me, suffering is right up there with sales meetings. I know it teaches me, and God uses it and can redeem it. But only a fool wouldn’t take an easier way if it was offered. Right?

What makes someone choose the harder way? That’s the question.

And every reader is looking for one thing: Was it worth it? Did you get out of it what I want and need?

Writing and rewriting is signing up to suffer. People lose more than their luggage. They lose their shirts, their health, their sanity. Who wouldn’t want a shortcut?

If you want to succeed, you’ve got to find the one secret: you’ve got to be so passionate about what you’re sharing that you know it’s going to change readers’ lives.

I’ve been privileged to work with a few of these rare authors, and I’m always amazed at how light they travel. They’ve figured out the secret. Their “Essentials Kit” is tiny because they’ve reduced and refined to this one thing.

What it’s really all about.

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“What’s the one thing? Your finger?”

If you’re writing, learn this and you can save yourself much headache trying to pack in all the tools and tips and writing courses: continually reconnect with your passion at the core of your story. Remember all the love and excitement and drama you naturally feel for it, and the words that come out of you will convince me.

I’ll tell you what I’d say if I was sitting across from you, what I’m often reminding myself: Don’t worry, release all fear. This is your God-given gift for strong feeling. Use it. This suffering you endure is for your noblest cause. Turn up the passion.

That’s your freedom. You have complete permission now and forever to fan those flames, and never look back.

For when you do, you’ll be proving why our stories are worth suffering for.

Why All It Takes Is 5 Minutes

It may come as a shock, but I’m easily distractible.

It’s not something I’m proud of. Especially knowing how much my work depends on writers showing up and keeping up despite the battering hurricane of demands and requests that fly in through every open window.

It can grow dark quickly underneath the pile of debris atop the little flame of a writer’s voice.

To be seen and heard is always a fight.

Yet maybe being seen and heard doesn’t have to be the goal. Maybe sharing what’s been given you that day in the 5 minutes you have to share it, the flame will shine a little more, and the light will reach out into the dark it’s intended to reach.

Burn, little guy. Burn.
Burn, little guy. Burn.

I know from painful experience how selfish and pointless it can seem to spend much time in a private place that brings you and only you such joy. Especially if so many people depend on you. The responsibility and duty of “real life” can sap the love and light right from you and leave you dark and cold.

But if God’s love for us burns white hot, wouldn’t he want us to forget all else but the true “real life?”

That’s the premise of the novel I’ve been writing over 10 years about a young man who sells his soul for a chance to change his past. It’s been growing in me and growing with me for ages, waiting as I figured out what to do with it and how to write it. It’s grown and shaped me unlike any book ever has, and it’s still not done. But I’m going ahead and opening up about my process now because I can’t wait to share some of the jaw-dropping lessons it’s taught me as I’ve strived to show up between school, raising 2 kids and full-time editing books for publishers.

Jaw-dropping, I tell you!
Jaw-dropping, I tell you!

Some days it’s felt so pointless. But 5 minutes a day adds up. I wouldn’t have thought it possible to write a book this way. And maybe it isn’t–no one said it was good–but for years now, I’ve gotten up and for 5 minutes (which sometimes turned to 10 and 15), I’ve forgotten everything else and reveled in my dream world. It’s changed me, and it’s continuing to as I pull the disparate pieces together and learn to slowly fight back against the crush of too-great demands and urgent life, giving it the best I have, which often isn’t enough, but it doesn’t matter.

God is in it.

Unlike anything else, my book has shown God’s love to me. And I know it’s true because it’s been simple even when it could have and should have been mind-numbingly complex. In the end, I’ve believed the premise, that he wants me to forget everything else but that knowledge of his love. And in 5 minutes a day, I’ve found writing a book can teach you plenty about that.

Every day, I’m hopeful for what it’ll reveal next. If you know what I mean, give me a witness….

For the Higher Purpose,

Mick