Category Archives: Writing

The Best Way Writers Let Go & Get to Work

“…life does not move in the same way as a group of clouds;
From your work, you will be able one day to gather yourself.”

– Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936), trans. Robert Bly

And what is our work?

The great Spanish writer and poet Unamuno said “sowing yourself.”

“Throw yourself like seed as you walk, and into your own field,” he says, “don’t turn your face for that would be to turn it to death.” In other words, pay attention, “and do not let the past weigh down your motion.”

***

The rain finally arrived last night. It had threatened all yesterday but skirted around us until it finally fell. Like it thought about it and finally decided there was nothing for it and let go.

I’ve always liked that phrase, “nothing for it.” With some things, there’s simply no remedy.

Sometimes, you just have to accept and let go.

The storm will soon pass and be nothing like the southeast the last couple weeks. But all gratitude to God, it’ll help with the fires.

And like the rain, our work is to let go and get on with sowing ourselves into others’ lives.

Forget the past. Don’t let yourself get distracted. Rather than pointing fingers, or trying to figure out who’s deserving, or how best to rebalance others’ perspectives, we have to simply get to work. There’s no one inferior or superior. Everyone is in need.

The superior way is letting go of your perspective and taking someone else’s.

That’s what writers are: apprentices forever trying to master that skill. Get out of your own limited, inferior point of view and into another’s. That’s the essence of good storytelling. Even before Jesus told stories to teach lessons, stories’ lessons taught him. Stories are how humans make meaning of life. Imagine yourself in another situation and body and your perspective is changed.

Spiritual mastery is a heart humbled by a broadened perspective.

The inferior life is the unenlightened heart. It isn’t joyful because it isn’t at its true work of letting go and sowing into others. It believes lies about its own superiority, typically based in external circumstances.

Imagine if compulsory blood tests revealed the truth of all lineage through DNA’s undeniable story. When truth was known, there’d be no basis for the lie of supremacy.

***

As fall arrives, we begin making changes. We break out the warmer sheets and fans and air conditioners are replaced with space heaters. Nature forces us all to change. We have little choice; the weather chooses for us. No one escapes it, the inevitable. Our only choice is to prepare. The superior choice isn’t resisting but preparing well.

Truth is unchanging. All we can do is respond to it well, allow it, even welcome it. For writers, allowing life, receiving and not getting bent out of shape by life is part of the work of sowing. Forced to change, respond, prepare, if we’ll accept and focus on preparing well, we’ll see we’re also given more life to capture. And our chance to write will come if we can choose to be patient, let go, and let it rain.

One day, you will be able to gather yourself.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

A Word on Writing Progress: Loving and Leaving the Fear Box

So there’s an image I’ve wanted to explore for a while.

(It’s not this one, though I like it…)

 

I call the image “the fear box.” (Not that picture. The mental image I have. Clear on that?)

It’s made of a type of protective, soft material, but very strong. We’re all raised in this sort of cage, and it’s a God-designed, natural, humble place where we recognize our limitations. We all like the feeling of comfort that the thick, restrictive walls give us. The boundaries of the box are so certain and sure and we instinctively know the fear box is good and needed.

For newborns, there’s nowhere safer than the fear box.

As we grow a bit, the boundaries begin to feel like restrictions. Our limitations aren’t as limiting anymore, though we know we still need the box…just maybe not so much or so tight as before. If we’re given help modifying and expanding the box, we’re able to grow and not get in too much trouble.

The many people who promote the benefits of the fear box—its safety, its certainty, its traditional trustworthiness—say you can know that you know the box is for your good.

And it is. You know it. You’ve lived in it your whole life.

But if those box-benefit extollers might also say that people who’ve left their boxes are called “outsiders,” and in a voice that conveys their true feelings, tell you how wrong the outsiders are and how much they need to be made right, you’ll feel a sliver of hesitation. But you’ll agree, of course. The lost need to be found. They need to know the wonderful safety and security you’ve known.

But there’s a love growing in you, a light that can’t be contained. And that sliver of doubt will let some of that light out. And eventually, whether the next day or after several years of fighting with yourself, you know you must leave the fear box.

And what will be more important than any other reassurance as you muster your courage to finally leave, is not how much you need safety and security and traditions, but how love is what’s in you saying no to the fear box. And if you can let that love out now and learn not to restrict it or temper it, it will guide you to your new home.

If love is there, nowhere is unsafe.

***

Another week has passed and very little writing on the novel was completed. The usual work and distractions kept me busy, but again, I could have made time, reserved some for it.

A major hang-up, maybe a main hang-up for me has been imagining the response by well-meaning, lovely church people, people I respect.

Some might say I should respect them less, get irreverent about everything that isn’t God. I don’t disagree. I’ve worked through many barriers and claimed the courage and empowerment to go where I need to and speak what needs words.

But I need to say Christianity isn’t perfect perfectly, winsomely, with the fragrance of Jesus. And this has kept me locked in fear.

Christians hold many things precious—churches, pastors, leaders, teachers and teachings, worship, the Bible, The Church, Jesus, God, Holy Spirit, doctrine, creeds, Christianity itself, and even Christian culture. All the resistance I know I’ll face, constantly reminded by a lifetime of experience, has kept me endlessly revising instead of printing.

It’s fear, obviously. And what works best on fear is not frustration, condemnation, shame, or any of my usual responses. But only love.

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.”

***

Comfort comes swiftly to the loved.

It rushes in to prove yet again no pain or fear can break trust.

That trust is life itself.

The bigger, stronger, higher love will always help,

wipe the tears, and receive the feelings as precious,

wordless truth from the heart, the love box,

from which flow the springs of life.

Fear and pain don’t change reality, only love does.

Love is what’s true,

the ever-present reality to take all cares and keep them.

Love secures, always, always holds safe.

Come what may.

“Oh, love, never let me go…”

***

Must we be willing to break with the old to allow for the new?

Does progress require a sort of irreverence for tradition?

Life is built on an inherited box of foundations and advances. Respect them all. But also risk disrespect and “rebellion” to build what’s needed now.

Every author before you has felt this fear. Whatever this book will add to life, you’ve got to trust that love goes with you. It strengthens and empowers whoever is willing to receive it.

We can face everything that may come.

We can venture out.

Safe is where love is.

 

Praying you’ll know you’re held safe as you seek the higher purpose,

Mick

 

Writer Pitfalls: When You’re Too Ambishish to Fishish

The hardest part about writing a novel is to fishish. 

– Ernest Hemmingway

I began this novel when our oldest daughter was 1. I’m still not done. In a month, she’s headed to high-school. 

When she was done eating, she’d wave her hands and say, “Fishished!” She wasn’t, of course, but that didn’t matter. She had important things to do. And only a monster could say no to that face.

I wish I could tell God I’m fishished with the book today. I’ve got way too much on my plate and I can’t see how I’ll ever get to it.

Sometimes, maybe many times, I have this automatic response: I don’t want to get all burdened with it again today.

And then of course, immediately comes the guilt.

If I don’t show up to write, if I avoid it and let other more immediately gratifying things take its place, aren’t I abandoning my readers? What else would you call that? Sometimes, most times, I don’t realize that’s what I’m doing. I simply don’t want to get pulled into the vortex of unsolvable problems again, this twisted, complex puzzle of thinking through all my characters’ struggles and concerns, and how to form them into a cohesive, engaging story.

So much about writing is so hard. The truth about the characters and their best way forward is hidden beneath so much good but common stuff. Choosing what to share is hard—what even is the criteria?—and also how to keep it all straight and keep from getting frustrated with the paltry progress. We’re all on our own in figuring this out and deciding what’s most important (and most interesting) to share. It’s a chore just to keep looking, keep showing up day after day.

Margaret Atwood said, “a word after a word after a word is power.” And Neil Gaiman said, “This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy and that hard.” I like best what Steinbeck said, “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day. It helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.” He wrote that to himself in his own writing journal for The Grapes of Wrath, which went on to win a Pulitzer, of course.

I learned this lesson at the kitchen table in junior high when I had 8 classes and homework in each one. My mom moved the stack of books off to where I couldn’t see them, and suddenly I wasn’t thinking about all I hadn’t done yet.

That was how I finished.

We’ll never know what we could have found if we’d only kept going. New revelations always come. We know this but we get overwhelmed. The solutions will come, and they’ll come in the familiar but also from the wholly new as well. A completely different bush will flower in the wilderness. But we won’t see it until we’ve worked to get right up next to it.

We’ve got to just focus on what we can do in a day or we’ll never find the way out. The scope of the vision and the work yet to do is always too overwhelming.

And Hemmingway could have been a bit more encouraging. Rick Riordian seems to have realized this when he said, “the best part about writing a book is finishing it.” That, I can believe. I just don’t know how I’ll finish yet.

But maybe that’s okay. Maybe I don’t need to contain everything—where would I put it anyway? What’s truer than all the books that say “you’re already enough” is, what we already have is enough to get what else we need. We’ve got to know the truth, have faith, that all we need is stamina, the great, irreplaceable persistence—and what we don’t have yet, we will get it when we need it. Or we don’t need it.

Maybe the problem is related to perfectionism. Perfection is a mirage I’ll keep falling for until I accept I’m going to end up with a book that’s an oversimplification and doesn’t live up to all my hopes and dreams. It will be less than that and different than I expected, but that will be good enough regardless of what I or anyone else wanted. I’ve got to release expectations and appease myself with achieving merely a caricature of reality.

A book is always less than real life, and that’s a big part of its appeal and value: its very limitations. Refinement means reduction.

 Can I accept that and give up trying to fit every idea in just because I like it?

Maybe every writer has to work to the point of failing to manage all they’ve dreamed in order to know which elements / storyline / theme is the one absolute necessity. Maybe at the very end of our abilities is the balance between what’s new and what’s conventional. Accepting limitation is part of the journey, like the end of a favorite story of mine, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Let go the bright dream of perfection. Happiness and your very survival will demand it. You can’t have everything. Some won’t get pinned down this time or maybe ever. It’ll get away from you; that’s okay. Let it go. Decide to be okay never gaining what you hoped and maybe you’ll finally learn to receive something better.

And who knows? It could be that’s the only way a writer ever knows they’re fishished.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

I Got Your Writing Formula Right Here, Pal.

 

Fine. I admit it. I get frustrated by all the charlatans willing to take advantage of writers searching for a formula for writing well. There’s no law against it, of course, and I suppose there’s an argument that it’s dishonorable not to take stupid people’s money.

But come on, people. Even if someone could simply hand you a map to the land of “Successful Published Writer,” you really think it would last?

I want to say, “I got your writing formula right here, bud.” (And then when they looked, I’d throw some sand in their face while I ran away because I hate confrontations.)

But truth be told, I’ve searched for a formula too. I didn’t believe any such formula could actually exist–not one that didn’t make the bad-book problem worse, anyway. But I wanted one, and somehow I continued to believe it might exist.

Maybe all writers, if they’re honest, would say they’re looking for that perfect book recipe. A pinch of this, handful of that, bake at 450 and presto! Perfect reviews, major awards, and people begging to give you money to tour your office. 

Maybe you don’t think there’s a “paint-by-numbers” formula, or a blueprint for writing a novel in 30 days, because obviously a unique voice and style takes years to develop (and you know years is the only way, despite what you want to make-believe). But still, haven’t you long wondered, could such a recipe exist?

Thousands of enterprising writers and “industry professionals” would like to tell you it does, and they have it! But think about the impulse such “instruction” seeks to capitalize on: “If I could just find the map, the key, the shortcut to success…” 

That’s not why so many people want to publish books, is it? The easy road to success and acclaim?

Maybe it is. Recently, over 200 comments on a blog post by agent Rachelle Gardner provided a telling (if depressing) overview. We all want to stand out, prove ourselves, be seen, fulfill a call, or make people pay attention to something. We don’t all want to be seen maybe, but we pursue writing anyway (ahem), and some just know they were given a gift and they’re to share it.

It’s tempting to believe there may be a secret we just haven’t found yet. But writing well is about making the right decisions and every decision a writer makes is dictated by one simple rule: know what to share when. Figure that out–what to spell out, what not to, and when to explain or reveal, and when not to–do that and you can be assured readers will enjoy every new book you write.

That’s the formula, the essential knowledge to possess for success. There’s a longer version, of course, but basically, your trouble isn’t so much what to write as it is how.

And you’ve got to find your formula by deciding you’re going to write until you figure this out–for you and for this book. And you’ve got to decide to believe the whole point is to enjoy learning your way through it as you show up every day.

I’m sorry if you got conned into thinking it was easier. But oh well. Just keep asking the Inspirer to lead you so you can lead your readers to follow you on this treasure hunt.

Yes, the foundational principle is “show, don’t tell.” You know readers like to be shown as much as possible. But sometimes it’s better to tell something to move things along, or because it’d be impossible (or at least very difficult and/or distracting) for readers to figure that out. But which things? What criteria should you use to determine this?

Depending on your book and your purpose–you know, entertainment or enlightenment, for instance–you’ll eventually figure out what particular detail(s) and insights you can help readers imagine, intuit, or otherwise perceive for themselves using the best sparse, subtle, and/or perceptive detail(s) you’ve chosen out of all the others you could have said but didn’t.

You just keep asking yourself, Can readers sense or experience this without what I’ve written? 

And if they can, you don’t need it. Cut cut cut.

You want to believe there’s an easier way. I know. There’s no other way. You’re actually glad because it means you get to go on a treasure hunt. You’re actually glad because this post just gave you permission to look for your formula in your own work and never stop until you’ve found it.

The next thing you do is bookmark this as a reminder or write out that part just above for yourself and put it in a prominent place so you can mix it into your batter until dissolved.

Seriously, you will look back on this and remember it was when you decided to train yourself to start looking for how much your favorite authors leave out, how much they’re not spelling out for you but just trusting you to get it. And you’ll learn just what to convey with just the right detail and all the condensed insight you’ve only alluded to beneath, without overloading the reader with ingredients.

And remember, just because you saw it on the spice rack and can totally imagine that flavor in there doesn’t mean you should add it. Less is more. They want to taste what you put in there–too much and they can’t.

Don’t worry, just keep going. You’ll know more come the 2nd, 3rd, 4th draft. Just remember your job is not to spell everything out but to think through all you might get away with not saying and still convey the feeling and the meaning. And the book will be both entertaining and educational because that’s what you get when you refine and reduce to the essence.

You can do this. Remember, restraint is wisdom. Self-control is your success. Reduced, refined work will always be publishable, saleable, and delightful.

And if you find your formula, keep it and don’t share it with anyone, even another struggling writer. They have to find their own. That’s how it works. Don’t stop showing up. You’ve got this because you know who’s got you.

It’s all for the higher purpose,
Mick

All Writers Be Crazy: Some Thoughts on Why

To write is to struggle. You know this, or at least, you sense it, though to write you have to ignore it often.

The struggle is endemic, so common it’s hardly worth mentioning. And yet, people who don’t write have no idea, no frame or context for this. And so we often wonder why it’s so hard and if it’s only us, and we don’t admit our deep unrest.

Madeline L’Engle famously said, “If you want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you.” It’s good advice–you need to be in conversation, in relationship, with your work and your process, and that does need to become a personal, private, and protected connection for you. I think this is easy to understand for Christians who already know the source of inspiration, and the struggle to remain connected with Him.

Like talking about an invisible savior who lives and interacts with us in our hearts and minds, it can sound mmm, a bit “cra-cray.” Writing is an invisible friend of the seemingly crazy and capricious variety, like Bing-Bong in Inside Out.

 

Maybe this is a reason so many people love Bing-Bong (and Jesus): we all know deep down our lives depend on friends we have to use our imagination to see and get to know. 

Of course, no one wants to make too big a deal about this. After all, there’s the very real, corporeal world we have to contend with as adults, and everyone has to grow up and let their imaginary friend die at some point. Right?

Well, writer, Christian writer, what can I tell you? You’re special. 

People aren’t going to respect the fact that you keep a little notebook to write down all the crazy you hear between the lines of conversation at the grocery store. Normal people–let’s call them “muggles,” even though most are harmless and not like the Dursleys…

They don’t care so much about yours; they just have other jobs and callings. And it’s a very good thing too, since we have to live and get our plumbing fixed and find exterminators and things.

In my experience, writers all seem to get this difference fairly intuitively, maybe because this relationship with invisible people started a long time ago for them. We all met a character in a book at some point who was so real, it couldn’t just be the creation of a writer. But it was. And writers beget writers this way all the time.

Until we realize that it isn’t writing that makes us cranky and crazy, or even the muggles, but our own internalized perfectionism and that voice of fear we all hear, we’re prone to the debasing dismissals we tend to get from “the real world:” What have you published? Aren’t you finished yet? Why would you write that? 

Again, they don’t know what they’re doing and don’t mean anything by it (you’re not actually doing anything useful, after all). But they can inadvertently stoke the flames of those hellish fears we all have. But while we’re still breathing, we have to learn to sidestep and dismiss these distracting, irrelevant, unhelpful “real-life” concerns.

Self-doubt is poison to your system.  It’s universal and all authors, even famous, multi-published writers feel it. But the successfully productive ones also deal with it and have learned how to sidestep and disarm it. You don’t get to complete your mission until you learn how to do this.

Step one is to value your process and understand it’s a vulnerable relationship, just like every other meaningful relationship in your life. This is a primary relationship you have to show up to cultivate every day, no matter what other considerations or responsibilities you have.

Step two is to feel what you feel, but deal honestly with it and don’t let it derail you. Express it to a fellow writer or group of writers and don’t try to go it alone. Writing friends are essential.  Know it’s normal, and you aren’t strange for having an invisible, intangible, ephemeral “friend” who helps you and inspires your life.

And step three is to keep showing up every day. Just do what you can manage right now and let it be enough. A great book can start with 5 minutes a day and grow from there. But only a writer who knew it took dedicated time, and learning to say “no” to many other worthy pursuits is able to make the practice of a process their priority. 

Pomodoros can make you more productive. And strategy and planning can keep you producing, because this is all about doing it and not just talking or thinking about it. But in the end, knowing you’re not alone in your imaginary world can calm the voices of fear and that’s what can convince you it’s worth the time and sacrifices to commit.

In fact, everyone has an imagination, so everyone knows what it’s like to hear these voices. Writers are just those who’ve made it their business to face them and choose the right ones to listen to.

And that’s a specific understanding and skill you can enjoy for a lifetime. :)