The words will just have to show up ready, preformed. Packaged.
That’s how it is in life. It doesn’t always send you what would thrill you.
I’ve had it happen enough times now though–you don’t always realize what’s going to make you happiest. And it isn’t only writing that’s like that.
Charlotte wrote her first book report on Chocolate Fever, a great book for a first book report, and on the little form that asked the questions to help her prepare her paper, the last question asked what she learned from the book.
“Well,” she said, cocking her little 8-year-old head reflectively, “I didn’t want to read it at first.”
“Why not,” I asked, shocked to hear this title wouldn’t intrigue her. Had she seen the cover with the melting chocolatey popsicle on it?
“I don’t know. I just thought it would be about something else. But it wasn’t.”
“Hmm,” I mused, sensing a teachable moment, “You had a preconceived notion. So is that what you learned?”
“Yeah,” she said, picking up her pencil. “You shouldn’t judge a book by the cover or the title.”
That’s my girl. And I didn’t even prompt that in the slightest.
This is the problem: we don’t know what we want but we really, really think we do. It wouldn’t be so bad not to have a clear idea of our desires except for the part where we believe we have it totally nailed down. And we have this from birth. We think we’re the ones who decide what’s going to make us happy.
What really kills me about this in myself is that now that I’m reaching the cusp of “real adulthood”–40–I’m only now becoming able to see just how often I’m dead wrong about what I want and how often I always have been. And that’s not to mention what I need. That’s a whole different overstuffed bag of stupid proof.
It isn’t only me, right? This is a serious problem that deserves some further reflection. But as I said, 5 minutes is it for now. So chime in if you know what I’m talking about.
It’s a crazy dark day, the kind we get in Portland in the winter where you have to keep the lights on in the house all day because of the thick gray haze blanketing the world.
It can get into your skin.
So on this rainy day, I’m pondering about musings. And about how most things in life come down to who you are. What you do with the things life hands you.
Have you noticed?
Take this very post. This way of expressing it. It’s all learned, or more accurately, cobbled together—the language, the choppy sentence structure, the straightforward, hopeful-yet-artfully-detached tone that hopes you’ll read but not presume I care too much. It’s all been stitched into the patchwork I call my writing voice. And I’m just trying to use all I have.
Sure you’ve noticed: it’s those who seem to be using all they have in life that inspire us to be more, to do more. I’m no different. I’ve been impressed by those responding at full tilt to the impulses we recognize and feel but don’t always express so freely and fluently.
This is why a lot of us get into writing. Which is great and perfectly reasonable and good. I think the Inspirer takes what he can get.
But it isn’t long after getting “the call” a writer begins to realize what they’re in for.
And things start to get dark.
Waking Up Dead
Maybe the realization hits them the first night they stay up too late, the blackness outside turning a bluer tinge as they clack away on the keys, inspiration burning off all sense of time and space between them and the inner flash of light.
They’re a bit nervous at first, but too excited to notice. That is until the kids get up and have to eat and be driven to school before the forty-seven-thousandth trip to the office where the day will really get underway. And the sharpness of the revelation will dissipate in a sour cup of weak coffee, and nodding off in the meeting, and the bothersome business of shuffling around with the other mortals assigned their related cases of self-imposed misery, equally ignorant that they’re the cause of their own lethargy and atrophy.
Scared? The word doesn’t begin to describe it.
How, they think. How am I going to get out of this hole I’m in? They look around at the papers and small office items and think about it—the big leap they know is coming. I should be more grateful to have a job, they think. But last night happened. And now it’s only too obvious they’re no longer their own.
Some voice has woken them up and the memory of it won’t let them go back to sleep.
So what do they do? What should a fresh-faced writer do when they realize they can’t deny the truth any longer? How will they find the strength and courage to commit to the work that will slurp up their margin time, not to mention their family time and sleep time as well?
How do writers remain faithful to the vision they were given?
The Persistent Question
I’ve thought long and hard about this question. As a kid in high-school, I thought the best thing to do was find a mentor, someone who could help me learn to speak the words I felt so strongly, so overpoweringly. My own call came sometime in my sophomore year, though it would be many years before I took it seriously enough to write anything real. In college, I thought books and knowledge would teach me the secret to writing longevity. I figured the books were themselves how other writers had stayed the course, the force of their singular brilliance compelling existence out of finite inevitability.
When I became an editor for WaterBrook of Random House, I hoped an intense publishing job would force diamonds out as I navigated acquisitions and profit and loss statements, and slush piles and pitches to the execs in the big boardroom.
And each step helped. But none brought what I needed most.
It wasn’t until breaking down again for the forty-seven-thousandth time that I realized what I was missing. What I’d always been missing. It wasn’t an unusual feeling, this ache of emptiness inside. I’d always attributed it to what Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” I figured it was an inevitable burden, something given by God for me to carry. My writer’s cross.
But this time, crying out to God, I felt the slightest shift. I felt it change. It was something I knew as head knowledge but had never felt, like so much of my life in church I’d experienced through frosted glass windows, unaffected, unmoved. Something pierced my heart and I heard: This is what it feels like to be a writer alone.
And in my typical fashion, I resisted it. I protested. No, this isn’t that bad. People are suffering way worse than this feeling. What about those on the street or those trapped in sex slavery or the abandoned orphans who grow up never knowing a parents’ love? They’re far worse off.
And as usual God didn’t argue with me. But the feeling remained.
It felt like a kind of death. A knowledge of being cut off and nothing you can do about it. It’s a familiar feeling—we’re all ultimately alone and no one stops living for our death. It all goes on without us. But writers struggle to go places others don’t or haven’t yet, places others shun.
And this is why I believe the thing we writers need most is people. People who, like us, go to places others don’t. The places we’re compelled to go even when we don’t know why.
Carriers of Our Cross
We need the people who won’t ask questions. People who will simply nod, knowing it won’t be easy. But not people to try and talk us out of going.
People for whom such a thing would never enter their minds.
People who know we have to go. People who will carry us when we can’t get there ourselves.
There are some people who know something important lies that way, something not unnecessary, something difficult to define but no less real and terrifying. People who know no one can go for us. And we can’t go another way because the road is this way.
And we need these people because the normal, sane people, the people who value things like security and stability and maintaining a respectful distance from the unanswerable questions of life, they know we’ve got it all wrong. And they like telling us we should believe that more. It’s in their eyes if not their words.
They’d have us revoke our allegiances and accept the forced servitude and live safe behind the glass. They’d have us recant and abandon the cause, and give up the fight because isn’t it nicer just to live and accept the easier way? But we were born to write.
We can argue all day if their way is the way of Jesus, the meek way of receiving the moderate blessings of a simple, quiet life. But if somebody says you can’t do something what are they saying but to squash God’s dream for you?
Maybe it’s them who don’t get it. Maybe for us, the way of Jesus is the way of the cross.
And without the community of like-minded explorers to pick us up when we stumble, to wipe our brows and understand our cause if not our destination, we would not make it.
The friends who’ll give up time, money, prestige and sleep so we can seek this strange, exciting adventure, these are the people who protect the dream and make new books live. And we owe them far more than we can ever repay.
Life, jobs, others will tell us to turn from this way. They say it’s not worth it.
But we will not turn. We are writers. We go the way others will not. And we will meet our fate together.
“If I dismiss the ordinary — waiting for the special, the extreme, the extraordinary to happen — I may just miss my life.…To allow ourselves to spend afternoons watching dancers rehearse, or sit on a stone wall and watch the sunset, or spend the whole weekend rereading Chekhov stories—to know that we are doing what we’re supposed to be doing — is the deepest form of permission in our creative lives.” Dani Shapiro
I love this quote. But struggling with this permission has been a theme of my writing life. As an Evangelical, I hear God telling me to leave my comforts and go out to save the lost, to help the widows and orphans and those in prison, and to go two miles with those who ask me to go one. I know I’m to “go and preach the gospel and make disciples.”
As a writer, a peacemaker and a thinker, I fear I should be doing these things more. Too often I opt for my safe cave.
I realize the point of Christian service isn’t helping others so much as leaving oneself behind to enter what’s assumed to be the life of Christ. Similarly, the deeper point of prayer changes us, not things. Because only when we’re changed can the world be truly improved.
But what does “leaving oneself” look like? Raised in the church, I always thought dying to self had to look like doing things you don’t want to do. Whatever you selfishly want because you’re evil and can’t be trusted, you need to forget that and do what God wants, which means all that hard stuff like soup kitchens and prison visitation. And sure, that’s part of it. But if that’s all it means, I’m just not sure where joy is going to come in. Maybe afterwards. But certainly not before or even during the forced labor.
And I fear too many Christians would force themselves, others, their kids, and everyone to adopt their cause of soulless giving just to prove their point.
British author and psychologist Adam Phillips has noted, “When we are inspired, rather like when we are in love, we can feel both unintelligible to ourselves and most truly ourselves.” Is this the reason creatives seem selfish? Yearning for this unreal fantasy world where we disconnect from the world, read Emily Dickinson, watch instead of participate, and obsessively ponder our navels?
Is writing proof we love ourselves too much?
I don’t know. Probably at times, yes. Yet without such moments of transcendence pursuing the Muse we would not have the Bible or any history beyond the feeble things we can recall to ourselves.
Go and write the full fantastic reality you experience today. And do it as though the eternal fate of the lost depends on it.
“Take care, you will face many tribulations in the world for my sake.” – Jesus
“Apparently uncertain seasons are usually the most powerful God-moments we experience. They often put God on display more than other seasons, demonstrating that God exists and rewards those who seek him (Hebrews 11:6).” – Jon Bloom, Desiring God Ministries
Those who know me know I’m all about fearless writing.
If you know me well, you know I only achieve that through great discipline.
The trouble is, I’m like many people who live a largely undisciplined life. I have an adopted unthinking acceptance of comfortable American living. I also tend toward an overly critical spirit. I get too often focused on being overly critical of others, which shows I’m also blind because half a second’s consideration would reveal I’m the one in need of my attention.
Like most people, I get distracted by all the things I see out there. And the truth is, without facing real struggle I don’t take risks; I get too comfortable and end up staying safe. Fearless writing is impossible from that position. I really don’t like admitting this, but I fear my sins of omission are doing more damage than those afflicted with the world’s evils.
A particular kind of anxiety is a gift when pursued in trying to grow and live well. This kind is guided by 3 principles.
These three are the primary gifts and we don’t naturally possess them. Even when we’re gifted with them, they remain in short supply and are soon burned up. This is why I’m collecting a list of “Love Words” to define the sort of passionate, curious, confident love I’m always in need of:
(The last one is special, and I see it as a paradoxical yearning for someone’s best. It contains a dissatisfaction, a desire for who you love to live freer and fuller. And it most distinguishes real love from its opposite.)
When I struggle to accept my questions, when I want to fix instead of suffer uncertainty (which is often), this list helps me determine how we accomplish anything kingdom-valuable. The accomplishing is God’s, but he waits for my volition. And the meager talents we’ve been allotted are sufficient when transformed by the mystery of God’s indwelling.
When I wander again, this list will help me return to wonder: Ah, that’s right. This is how I live!
Of course, we’re too critical to accept it’s this easy. At face value, that list looks thin, not very spiritual. We fear, so we require some heftier words, some holier-sounding words. Loving is messy and there’s nothing we can do about it, but we don’t like that. We know all too well how weak and unprepared we really are and we believe that means we need some words from the other list.
This other list has a different name and it’s been a problem for centuries. See if you can recognize it. No one likes it, but its influence is profoundly destructive and inescapable. These words are literally everywhere…
These are the results of a deeper anxiety that comes when I don’t accept the first kind.
Sometimes I’m all about this list. I even promote it often when I’m unaware it’s guiding me.
In living, writing or creating of any kind, trying to control the process is avoiding the “good anxiety” and leads to a different kind of anxiety.
“Kierkegaard referred to anxiety as our best teacher because of its ability to keep us in a struggle that strives for a solution, rather than opting to forfeit the struggle and slide into a possible depression. It would be nice if our lives and our Christian faith did not involve any struggle. But to believe that—and to perpetuate the belief to others that somehow the struggle with anxiety is un-Christian—is a mistake.” – via Relevant Magazine
Absolutely fascinating and life-changing research is being done on how our beliefs about facing difficult tasks helps us manage and actually benefit from the inherent stress of them. Psychologist Kelly McGonigal says,
“Stress can be our friend. Caring and connecting with others creates resilience to stress in your body. When you do this, you’re saying you can trust yourself you can handle life’s challenges and you don’t have to face them alone. Chasing meaning is better than trying to avoid discomfort.” – via TED
I’m not good at this. But I’m thinking of it more and more as my primary job.
And with practice, I’m betting it’ll become easier.
What might happen if you practiced this…?
How easy it is for me to live with you, Lord! How easy for me to believe in you, When my spirit is lost, perplexed and cast down, When the sharpest can see no further than the night, And know not what on the morrow they must do You give me a sure certainty That you exist, that you are watching over me And will not permit the ways of righteousness to be closed to me. Here on the summit of earthly glory I look back astonished On the road which through depths of despair has led me here. To this point from which I can also reflect to men your radiance And all that I can still reflect – you shall grant to me. And what I shall fail you shall grant to others. – Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn
Many people believe we are living in one of the most stressful times in history. The stress isn’t about being eaten by dinosaurs or how we’ll escape the marauding Vikings. People are now eaten by schedules and crushing poverty.
A friend of mine said recently the modern family is living life at an abusive pace.
And writing takes such a long time.
I woke early, found my shoes, started the coffee and headed out for the morning run. The house and neighborhood was quiet and I did some extra stretching because of the two days I’d missed.
I listened to Berry’s Port William stories again and thought how long it takes to get as good as he is, the observations and control he has developed, to be able to capture what he does:
“Afterward they watched him from the windows, for his fury had left an influence. The house was filled with a quiet that seemed to remember with sorrow the quiet that had been in it before Thad had come.”
Such a patient listening. How does one achieve this?
I return and eat the last small handful of blueberries right off the bush. I go inside, pour coffee, and walk out to the deck with my other books, sharpened for an answer.
Not yet sharp enough to realize I’ve just passed one.
“Whatever the circumstances may be, that Holy Innocent Eternal Child must be in contact with His Father….I have to see that the Son of God is manifested in my mortal flesh” (My Utmost, Aug. 8, 9)
I leave the book open and peruse the plants growing on the deck from the pots we’ve lined up, the deck that needs cleaning and sealing before the rain returns. The Son of God, born in my mortal flesh, has been my new reality for almost 3 years now. It was there before, but not in any true way, any decided and humble way. And now, now that I feel his love and choose to respond to it by rising to it and being with him, is he getting the chance to manifest himself in me? Or am I still perpetually moving too quickly on to the next thing?
There are beans and tomatoes, zinnias and pumpkins, and none of them are hurrying.
If there is no room in my life for this essential listening, how can I expect to ever write the things that can hardly be felt, let alone spoken?
And then the obvious hidden spark drops into my head: He is in those plants over there I’m moving so quickly by. Some would argue that’s pantheism. But God save us if we can’t see that he must hold all things together, every atom and fiber of this creation bears his miraculous fusing. And the difference between seeing him and seeing a plant is everything.
He’s in those berries as he’s in me. And my eyes are not so much choosing to see as they are choosing not to continue in blindness.
Let me not forget or become too lazy to know when I am seeing you, or too fearful to know what my own spirit tells me of you.
God, calm me. Still my life and let me listen. Show me your life in me and lead me to the ever stiller communion with you.