Category Archives: One Thousand Gifts

Distraction

Distraction –

The day has just started and I haave 24 new emails.

I don’t have time to fix that typo…

The Wikipedia entry for distraction is here.  It's basically "divided attention."

File:Veddah_girl"

Here are 2 pics from that page. 

I fought to read today’s entry in Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest. (I at least know this much, that if I don’t establish the “rule” of connecting with God first thing, my freedom from anxiety in this fight will be forfeit all day.)

I do have to engage the battle. But I don’t have to do it alone.

In Quiet, Susan Cain uses the example of Seth Klarman, one of the great investors of our time, who said he’s "a big fan of fear and, in investing, it’s clearly better to be scared than sorry." Klarman is a world-class worrier, according to the NYT, and he owns a racehorse called “Read the Footnotes.” During the stock market crash, he stuck to his guns and bought when everyone else was panicking. His style is an example of the value of waiting quietly when the world seems to be telling you to rush ahead.

There's another great book called One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp about learning to stop and write the simple gifts right in front of you. This little book has been my antidote to distraction for 4 years now, like C.S. Lewis, convincing me to slow down and go deeper, but also showing me how to take tangible, practical, daily steps toward the better stuff of life, in the midst of anxiety and chaos.  

Fear and anxiety can make us feel ill-equipped by nature, by God. But according to Cain in Quiet, not rushing ahead in the face of strong potential rewards, i.e. maintaining a strong respect for risk and uncertainty, is a powerful, maybe the most powerful predictor of success.

I should check those emails…oh, 2 text messages now…

We need not see distractions as all bad. In fact, in our morning pages today, Sheri and I decided to try an experiment to hold one thing we wanted insight on today. Mine was "distraction."

My hunch is this experiment might help me avoid getting bent out of shape by life’s (and wife’s) interruptions. 

File:Office_Worker_with_Two_Monitors

Some folks do so many things at once that they have to use two screens.

I don't know when it started or why I forget this so often, but I frequently try to hold too much.

Is it any wonder I get frustrated when a practical matter like kids' violin practice or dinner is more pressing?

And though I’m deeply in love with my wife, when I’m hot on the trail of some flash of lacking insight I think God's offering me, I could even turn down a kiss from the love of my life.

I’m happily married, thank God. But yes, this has actually happened.

Obviously not a happy marriage thanks to me.

It’s only with help from some much more level heads–my wife's, parents', friends', even kids'–that I’ve managed to organize my manic mind into some still-very-loose structure (I'd bust out of anything more restrictive).

Work is calling…people waiting…I really should go do something…

Shhh…it's okay. Even so, it isn’t as though my “Noodlings” file isn’t full to overflowing with the brain batter that flings every which way when I’m hot on the trail of a flash of lacking insight (let’s just go ahead and shorten this cumbersome phrase to “HotToFoLI” to save time–which also conjures “hot to trot,” “hot to fly,” as in, my desire to escape this mortal coil and join the spirit in the sky, and “hot to follow” white rabbits of curiosity…also it rhymes with Hot Tamales which are the bomb even if they're no match for Atomic Fireballs. And yes, all of this is applicable.)

But most of all, HotToFoLI is folly. Of the highest order.

It will ruin me. In fact, it has threatened to many times.

There’s nothing wrong with excitement and passion. But when it isn’t kept in check, it can do unspeakable damage. If this needles you in any way, you probably have some apologies to make like I do (and don’t get distracted from the point, but remember to actually follow through with that conviction when we’re done here–it could be very rewarding).

Not only can our excitement overwhelm some of the great wonders of the universe—people we love, and especially sensitive people we’re probably married to, parent, and call friends—we can so dominate them that we drive them away. You know of what I speak.

Trust me, you don’t want distraction to ruin your life. Learn my lesson and learn to submit. As Chambers says, “Obedience is the natural life of a child.” Stop trying to be an "adult." Accept your limitations.

You are not a superhero and you can't catch all the opportunities raining from the sky.

Listen: you don't have to catch it all. You can not catch them all.

So calm down, Junior Executive. Calm down, Missionary Jane. Relax, Hot-to-Trot Author.

Don’t let the endless shadow missions distract you from your true work—this primary job you were given to be right where you are today, swaddled by your Dad…your flailing appendages tight in his straightjacket of love…

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What a Frog Knows

This morning, I headed down to the pond and caught a frog.

I'd never have seen her if she hadn't leaped from the wooden bridge. But when she landed amongst the rocks and ferns, I trapped her with the girls' butterfly net. She was big and made no sound, so I assumed her female, an orangey-brown wood frog with a white underbelly. I couldn't wait to tell the girls, so I wedged the stick with the net between the boards of the bridge so she couldn't escape and I hurried back up to the house. 

ImgresThe girls were just waking up and I told them I had a surprise for them. We ate quickly and headed down.

When we got there the net was empty. My captive had escaped. 

It had jumped like mad when I first caught her. I assumed once the initial fear passed, she'd calm down–aren't frogs content staying even in slowly warming water? Well, a net isn't water. And seeing water just below, she must have finally seen it and discovered where freedom was.

"Ah, I'm sorry, girls" I said. "That's disappointing."  

"It's okay," Ellie said. She's wanted to catch a big frog for months. Always my gracious Elianna. 

"Maybe it got through the boards," Charlotte said, showing me how the stick could fit between them. 

"I think you're right," I sighed. "We'll just have to wait and try again."

The past few days I taught at the Oregon Christian Writers conference coaching novelists in revision. I wanted to inspire them to write over the long term, so I tried to share how stilling and seeking the water is all we need to get free. But I always question whether I should have spent more time on practical tips and trends.

It's true: desperation usually makes a bad cologne and writers conferences can stink. But turned in the right direction by staff and speakers–masterfully done by Jim Rubart and Cec Murphey this year–the aroma's greatly improved.

I've met so many writers and as a rule, we tend to strain against the stories holding us captive. I talk a lot about how revision is letting our stories still us so we can reach the end and experience the transformation.

I imagine that frog catching a glint of morning light on the water below, and finally understanding she could simply squeeze through the boards to head down. 

Desperate for freedom, the water's call turned her in the right direction.

Life offers continual opportunities for revision.

"I kneel down to toss in the laundry. I set the dial to extra dirty. I stay on my knees and watch the water run into the washer, watch it splash against the circular glass of the washing machine’s front door, hear its gurgling fall. Down it flows. Down, always down, water runs, always looking for yet lower and lower places to flow. I watch water run and spiritual water must flow like this…always seeking always the lowest places—and the washtub begins to rock. I must go lower. I tell myself this, watching water run. That whenever I am parched and dry, I must go lower with the water, and I must kneel low in thanks.

 The river of joy flows down to the lowest places.”

-Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts

 

I've forgotten this insight many times. But today a frog has helped.

Writing well requires the revision to turn our desperation in the right direction and go lower. We all forget, so we need reminders to still and seek the water. 

We searched the pond but couldn't find her and we turned to pursue our daily business–me to my computer and the girls to enjoying the lazy last weeks of summer. But even up at the house, I'm down at the pond today, turning this lesson of the frog over in my mind, the freedom she figured out. When desperation for freedom turns to straining, stop. Seek the water and simply go down. 

To all my new writer friends, you whose books need this too, think of the frog and her freedom won in stilling. I pray you find your way down to the water…

This Dangerous Platform

Writers who are honest feel fear about self-promotion.

The initial excitement and hope fades into something else, and those fears can blossom into putrid black blooms. (Did you know there's a guy leading seminars on how to make videos go viral who intentionally falls off a stage and posts the videos on YouTube as examples? The quest for fame does make people do some pretty stupid things.)

I get one of two questions from authors when they're about to be published. The first is, "What should I do to get the message out?" And the second: "What if I become a phony?" (they don't always use that term. But I know what they mean.) Phonies are people who fake it. They don't feel real, so they have to pretend they know what being real is. And they desperately have to prove it to you. But even if you have fame shoved on you, problems with being a phony only come when you begin to worry about it. Fame requires authenticity and people know the real deal when they see it.

"But won't I have to change?" they ask. Well, yes, but you always have to change, even if you don't become well-known. Remember Holden Caufield's big fear? After the success of The Catcher In the Rye, part of the reason Salinger disappeared was because Holden was a part of him, and when fame came, it became his prison. Can we blame him?

How do you write without being affected by all that noise? You have to ignore it. People will not like it and they won't always like what you write. But fame or no fame, everything changes you and it's your job to take it all as it comes and continue responding positively and inspiring the same. Everything is an opportunity to invest a little more.

Many people say “God, if you make me famous, I’ll use it for your glory” but if you really meant that would you want to be famous? I’ve told several authors I’d only take their book forward if they promised not to become a phony when the accolades came. Most have no trouble saying it, expecting few accolades. People who stand on truth are far from the danger of falling off their platform, big or little. I haven’t seen many dramatic changes in authors who went on to become famous in their genre or area of expertise because I tend to work with well-grounded people. No matter what you might get at some conferences and reading the trades, publishing books isn't much like American Idol.

I once read a great email from Dave Eggers whose postmodern memoir Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius went on to become a #1 bestseller for several months, and somewhat launched the "young po-mo memoir" publishing phenom (along with Augusten Burroughs, Haven Kimmel, Lauren Winner, Don Miller, several others). Eggers denounced the perception that fame had made him a phony, contesting he didn't much care if people thought he'd sold out. Because look what he was able to do with it, much more good than he'd ever been able to before. I think that's something. How does a kid with his story end up with that truth–that giving to others for a higher purpose is the real focus and worrying about selling out is so juvenile and self-conscious?

I've always been a myopic kid, so concerned about "selling out." But once I saw how adolescent it really was, I decided to be done with it. The right question is, "Am I selling out right now to the idea of changing things for the better?" Because that's entirely up to you. I’ve had a half dose of fame since growing up in a fishbowl as a pastor's kid, possibly to inoculate me and convince me it's a necessary evil and certainly not something to strive for.

You may think you'd like fame, but believe me, sane people don't like it. You think it'd be so nice being known, being of interest. But fame is never really being "known." What people know, they want it from you, and many act as though they have a right to claim it. They don't, but when you're famous, you don't get to decide that. I grew up the oldest son of the senior pastor at a growing church. I was known in that little circle in our small town, so even becoming a book editor took me time to embrace. I still don't enjoy the attention I sometimes face. People come with all kinds of expectations that feel very similar to being told I had to perform perfectly to set a good example, and that this was God's plan for me, to do good things so others would. Then God would be happy. I never knew if what I was doing was enough or good enough, and most the time, I fought the desire to secretly rebel just to get the voices out and deny their access.

In my limited experience, the more people you encounter, the harder it becomes to hear God.

The struggle is good and worthwhile, but my portion of fame has taught me that the challenge is only an opportunity when I'm striving very hard against it to hold onto resting in God. Will you become a phony? Or are you sold out to changing things for the better?

People who become phony are people who don’t know themselves. They want to present an image and fit in because they lack assurance about who they really are. Most of us know this on some level, but plenty of folks–self-proclaimed Christians–self-promote like crazy, as though becoming famous may finally convince them they're lovable and finally overwhelm their fragile egos with sufficient evidence that they're good enough and smart enough for people to like, doggone it. And some become crazy, attention-grabbing loud mouths.

Listen: when there’s no misunderstanding about where our identity is secured, that doesn't happen. On the other hand, if there’s a in you wanting to be liked, affirmed, comforted by a surrogate daddy, you will smell desperate. And it's a bad cologne. Writers conferences usually reek with it, people desperate to be published. It’s hard to miss. But the real phonies are those with an entourage. They have handlers and no real ability to write. The book is their next chance to be a star and pop the panacea to keep the affirmation fixes coming, the endless fixes that haven’t quite fixed them. Regular folk don't have to worry much about becoming a vampire like them.

My best advice for those worried about self-promotion is to get with your maker right now. Do some soul work and ask the omniscient Creator to point out any place where there’s still a desperation in you to be loved, affirmed, comforted or known. He'll show you and your eyes will be opened. Do the work he gives you. And forget everything else and just keep doing it. Give that to him and let him fill that void in you. You will find your peace and no substitute can look attractive when you have that.

And from there, you won’t have to shun the limelight, though you may want to. If you can use it as one more of his gifts for reconnecting with others, you may end up feeling his smile on you. Imagine his pride in you for investing wisely. Be realistic and don't expect it to be easy, invasive fans waiting to confront you about your sins, mobs of hungry faces looking for a morsel of your flesh, enemies who'd like a chance to stone you. Most people won't care. It normally takes a long time in publishing to gain people's attention. But some will care too much. And they'll hurt you with their hurts.

Remember your real goal is hearing those words: “Well done. Well done my wonderful son, my wonderful daughter of grace.”

Faith is a gift. It is not an ability to gain. It is not a commitment to muster. God supplies it to those who ask for it. So ask. And use your platform the same way you use all his gifts, to highlight the wonders you’ve been shown. To point others to the source. To turn their eager faces to the one who provided your eyes to see it. The ones who help you craft it. The supporters who readers need to know have helped and invested so they could receive it. The endless gifts given to make more and more opportunities to share his love.

As a good friend of mine likes to say, all is grace. And I've discovered it’s really true. All is grace. So what part of ALL do we not yet understand?