Category Archives: Personality

The Head vs. Heart Debate

The head learns new things, but the heart forever practices new experiences.

– Henry Ward Beecher

 

An author friend of mine told me last week that when her kids were in their early teens, they were in horrible competition with each other and they argued all the time. She said she had to figure out how to make them work it out. So she made them roommates for six months.

And it worked.

Suddenly, inspiration struck me—this is just like being a writer.

My own struggle to write is like an internal competition between my head and my heart. Both think they have the best solution, but both need to get beyond the fighting to see the value of their own disabilities. What I’ve needed is to figure out how to embrace both sides of my personality as loved and needed.

If head and heart are naturally at odds with each other, it stands to reason that learning to write well would absolutely require figuring out how to become a patient parent to both sides of your demanding self.

In that moment of inspiration, I imagined my brain as an older brother named Wisdom, who’s constantly telling his little sister Grace, the heart, what to do. He’s smarter, maybe wiser too, and he keeps Grace safe. She’s impulsive and needs Wisdom’s help, but he often needs to back off and give her some space. Grace may not know exactly where she’s going but Wisdom’s going to have to learn to let her lead at times so she can learn how to get them where they’re really going.

My problem has been that Wisdom doesn’t know where the story needs to go, but Grace doesn’t want to listen. Sometimes Wisdom imagines leaving her behind and writing the book himself, and sometimes Grace fantasizes about overpowering him and making him eat dirt. Both their frustrations are valid, but without both of them, they won’t get anywhere.

Grace is ignorant. And the first problem is the squabbling. Those who’ve made their war past-tense somehow figured this out—and felt it out—the way to becoming a patient parent.

And in that flash of inspiration I knew if I want to finish this novel, I need both Wisdom and Grace to sign a treaty. Both of them will have to send their best selves up to the head office and get down to the heart of the matter.

I thought of Pixar’s genius film, Inside Out, those emotional characters at the controls. They needed to learn to be rational. And I’ve got to be reasonable and empathetic, logical and loving.

Basically, Grace and Wisdom will have to marry.

(Wisdom is suggesting I abandon the brother/sister metaphor at this point. Grace is feeling a little uncomfortable too.)

I need them to fight together as they go up against the dragons. They need each other. Their love must go beyond reason, beyond feelings. They’ve got to battle it out and find a connection that goes beyond romantic affection or mutual appreciation. They’ve got to find an unbreakable fusion.

Maybe that’s what amazes us about a well-put-together person or a well-put-together book. They represent a fully embodied humanity—they fit together, their head and heart complement each other. They’re balanced.

They’ve worked through the self-doubt and self-consciousness to become self-aware, and finally, self-possessed. Their internal role-wrangling has been ironed out, and their head and heart play nice.

Maybe at some point, they realized they had a passion and particular gifts, but the heart needed some coaxing by big brother brain to put her faith into action. Maybe she also needed some discipline to stay on the tracks and not get distracted.

But now they can co-lead. And both can feel in charge. And both can believe God is with them and they’ve got this. 

(Thanks to my fabulous memoirist friend, Lyneta Smith, for the inspiration.)

For the higher purpose,

Mick

Letter to an Anonymous Author

“I am a writer. Therefore, I am not sane.”

― Edgar Allan Poe

Dear X,

I appreciated your note, my friend. And I’m grateful for it.

I’ve seen your struggle and I know how hard you’re working to progress and capture everything well, and also accept help. I knew your journey would be a special challenge, and while your issues and the resistance you’ve encountered is unique to you, I find (and I’d think your agent would agree) that resistance is also the most common thing about working on books.

Writers be farking crazy.

I know because I am one, first and foremost. To create a cohesive, authentic story out of your own life experience you have to dig into old emotions and memories and that’s like poking a sleeping dragon. Either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid.

Your memories and inner struggles are unique to you, but every writer who dares this work finds that monster in the mirror and has to face it. You’re not alone in that–far from it. I see it over and over again, and it’s part of what drives me to study counseling and psychotherapy.

But my primary motive in all of this is understanding my own issues and my own resistance to progress, to change, and to accepting help for my struggles. I want to learn how to be better, and like you, I’m drawn by something bigger and higher than myself pulling me out and convincing me I’m okay and I can let go of my fear and protectiveness. As I read, my heart says, Yes, that’s true for me too, and I listen to that voice and he shows me where we need to go–to help you, yes, but mostly to help myself.

Early on, I know you didn’t want to accept any changes from me. The less I did, the happier you were. So I stuck to cleaning up the “verbal diarrhea” and made sure the digressions didn’t feel too distracting. I told myself that was enough and your freedom was more important than being succinct and focused.

After rereading it now, I stand by that. It’s conversational, inviting, and down-to-earth, just as you are and I don’t want to change that anymore. You were right to push back against my “literary sensibilities,” and I’m glad you did. I think readers will appreciate your honesty, sincerity, and personable style–just like they do in your other writing.

I’ll let sharper minds than mine decide whether we can trim any further–while there’s always more tightening that can be done, every book has an irreducible flow as well. As I said, I don’t think I’m objective enough to know whether we’re hitting that in every spot, but I can hear you speaking the lines in my head and that convinces me we’ve captured your essential style. I’m not worried at all about the length–never have been. It’s long and I want to let others know we’re aware of that and we don’t think it’s a problem. It’s a work of beauty just the way it is.

I’m sorry for the times I haven’t understood your vision and for pushing you at times beyond what was reasonable. You and your book are a work of exquisite art balanced between extreme contrasts, and like all beautiful works of art, you and your book are symbolic of the creator from which you spring, one-of-a-kind as anything. I appreciate you and your book as such wonders.

Thanks for sticking with it and being true to yourself–you teach me tons, and I’m so thankful to get to work with you.

(Don’t think this means I’m going easy on you if we get another shot at this. The struggle is inevitable and inextricable. And fears be danged, that’s for good, not bad.)

Looking forward to the rest of the journey.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

Why Writing Well Is All About Intensity

“…I began to find life unsatisfactory as an explanation of itself and was forced to adopt the method of the artist of not explaining but putting the blocks together in some other way that seems more significant to him. Which is a fancy way of saying I started writing.”

 

I taught fiction at Mt. Hermon last week. The most important point I shared about making a story work was that a reader needs to feel the character’s plight throughout.

I love that word, plight. It’s such a perfect descriptor of what makes people read. You might think people want to feel good, be entertained, or are attracted to what’s beautiful or exciting. And that’s true. But nothing holds attention like a character we identify with whose plight is understandable and relatable.

It’s not a difficult concept to get. Most of us sense it’s true intuitively. And the plight can change, shift, or even reverse! Very exciting. But you’ve got to make your reader understand what the struggle is about and how intense it is, no matter what kind of story.

And most important about the plight, it’s got to be intense.

Now this idea of intensity is deceptive because you often can’t increase the plight by describing it directly, just like you can’t tell us what’s happening in the story and have to show us instead. To convey strong intensity, you need a few tricks, some tools and, of course, some all-important practice to develop some skill with them. There are several important ones, but the biggest of all is a little trick I call “following the tears.”

Follow the tears. I’ve said this for years, but it never gets any easier. This is what your readers care about most because it’s what you care about most. The things that make you the most emotional are the richest material for your work. And even if your craft is still fairly crap, your content can capture people if it’s intense and conveys a character’s plight we can feel powerfully.

Like the quote above indicates, writing is a way to fashion life into something more interesting than the usual bland, expected pattern. To make it more interesting and dramatic. What’s more dramatic than someone’s plight? I may not want what your character wants, but if she wants it badly enough, I’ll bet your story can make me want to know if she gets it.

If this isn’t rule number one of your writing, it should be.

Now, no one wants manufactured intensity, so you’ve got to develop some sophistication and maturity with this tool because the skill is in not making the plight melodramatic or over-the-top. It’s got to be deeper than surface desire, expressed as a yearning that may even make your character confused or misunderstood. They might have to come to terms with the true source of their deeper desire over the course of the book, like Belle in Beauty and the Beast who starts out wanting “adventure in the great wide somewhere,” and ends up realizing her deeper desire was to know the sacrificial love she’d read about wasn’t just a fairy tale. There’s a learning process in every character you want to capture by showing the growth of their own understanding of their deeper desire.

The quote above is from a short story by Tennessee Williams, written in 1951 called “The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin.” In it, he shares the idea that childhood is full of “the intensities that one cannot live with, that he has to outgrow if he wants to survive.” It’s a plight unrecognized by the main character except in hindsight. And it’s very effective. “But who can help grieving for them?” he asks. “If the blood vessels could hold them, how much better to keep those early loves with us? But if we did, the veins would break and the passion explode into darkness long before the necessary time for it.”

I think learning to write a book is a lot like growing up. When you start, you know nothing and have to figure it all out. And that’s the hardest it will ever be. Eventually you learn some things through practice and it gets a little easier. But it’s still very hard, and you want to quit because you feel confused and you have no help with figuring out how to manage all you’re learning and whether you’re paying attention to what you should. And who can help you know if you’re also losing some things in your innocence you’ll never recover, even as you progress? More than likely, you are. But there’s nothing you can do.

Yet if you continue, you’ll learn more, a little at a time, and you’ll know how to develop ideas and hold multiple concepts and bring them across in dialogue and through symbols. And eventually you figure out tricks for making it all easier and simpler to begin with. It only takes time and practice with the tools. But you first have to find all the tools yourself. And this is like being a child when you’re without any skills, vulnerable to all kinds of things beyond your control. You don’t even have awareness of the skills you’ll need. But through hard experience, you learn, and it gets better, easier.

The successful writers have learned to control their words and attention, and get the most out of their time. And you too can move forward in achievable increments toward where you want to be. If you’re a “live-in-the-moment” kind of person, your method will be learning discipline. If you’re a Type-A, your big need will be relaxing into your better self. Both require balance and it looks a bit different for everyone.

But it’s worth the effort. For it’s in becoming your best self, your true, honest, vulnerable, brave, and imperfect-yet-incredible self, that what you write will finally become more significant.

The intensity of your own plight is waiting there to be felt in following what makes you cry. And if you dig for that until you understand it better, that’s where relatable stories come from.

You can trust that. It’s as simple (and as hard) as that.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

Are You Elmer’s, Epoxy or Paste?

Another 5-minute Friday exercise from Lisa-Jo: get it here

Go.

Not all glues are created equal. The beauty of Elmer’s glue is that it creates a strong, semi-flexible bond.

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I rarely use it anymore and I hardly remember what I used it for all those years it sat in my desk next to the pencils and erasers and crayons.

But what comes to mind now is that love is like the glue that binds everyone and everything, the invisible binder that connects all things. And some people like epoxy while others like paste.

From a Christian-based business website, I read: “‘Love’ is a very important addition to our philosophy. Having a positive attitude and sharing that attitude with others…”

Now I’m of the “melancholy” persuasion on the personality scale and I initially have a hard time accepting this definition of the bonding agent “love.” It’s far more than having and sharing a positive attitude. In fact, because this superficial definition seems so prevalent, I’ve lived a long time trying to let go of my idea of stronger love and whether I should change myself to appreciate paste like those who can connect to almost anyone through positivity, i.e. a “sanguine” personality.

Why is it so difficult to give up my idea of epoxy for those who are excited about paste? Why does their desire for many bonds seem so less desirable than stronger connection with few?

Does everything have to be deep?

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Here’s where I think it comes down: do I think the little things in life matter?

Some people might think I’m naturally deep, but I’m not. I just enjoy seeking meaning and making soulful connections. And I haven’t enjoyed making many connections primarily because it’s difficult.

Can I connect over the little things in life? Can I enjoy life with people and accept and be influenced by them? I don’t need a deeper bond with everyone, do I? I’ll still have it with many people, but the question is, could I enjoy more people if I was okay connecting on a superficial level?

Could this make my “glue” more flexible? Even something as simple as sharing the same air with someone could be profound. It’s miraculous to share that and enjoy life with others around me. Everything else is icing, isn’t it?

Exchanging my epoxy with something more flexible, a more “positive” mindset, could make me happier and more loving, able to bond over what really matters in life: relationships.

Is your glue flexible enough?

Stop.