Category Archives: Writing

How I FOcus On Process Over Progress: On Outsmarting Self-Sabotage

“Here’s the thing: whatever your schedule, stuff is going to happen. People will make demands on your time, your equipment is going to fail, and your family and friends need you. The world is not going to roll over and make it easy for you to get your writing done. In fact, many people might try (either consciously or unconsciously) to sabotage your efforts. You may sabotage your efforts. That’s the way it is for everyone–you’re not alone.” – Write that Book Already!, Sam Barry and Kathi Kamen Goldmark

W hat keeps you motivated to write when you don’t particularly want to? Do you push through the resistance and pick up some quick inspiration in a book like The War of Art or Bird by Bird? Or do you distract yourself and go clean the garage or make some soup? Do you have a strategy that works for you? I’m asking because I’d really like to know. Maybe your method would inspire me to change mine.

Being the deliberate, results-oriented person I am, I normally try to push through it, with mixed results. Sometimes I find it seemingly impossible to pick up where I left off, and there are as many reasons for that as the potential ways the new day’s words could take me. It could be a million reasons at once compounding and converging on the blinking cursor, and no one strategy could ever solve the puzzle.

It’s Monday on the final full week of March. There’s new snow on the ground overnight, and a statewide lockdown expected soon. The news is dire and distraction from writing feels like it’s at an all-time high. But if I stay in my process and turn off the news, the stillness an silence are preserved and the stories will emerge again.

We all have a decision to make about what we let have our attention. None of us are helpless to control the influences and knowledge coming to us each day. “There is a time for everything under the sun,” the wisest man who ever lived wrote. Wisdom is knowing the proper time for everything we choose to give space in our finite attention.

It’s not a new thought, but we forget so easily these days. That’s why I have to keep being so deliberate about my day and reengage each time the distractions win. This presence of mind is a spiritual practice and allowing it to be stolen is a failure to trust the simpler, quieter knowledge of who I truly am: a called writer who has a job to do before other thing are allowed in.

“But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own…”

– Mary Oliver, The Journey

Writing at Christmas

Distraction is the name of the game at Christmas, with so much to do and see, people to connect with, and the inevitable trouble that crops up every time you try to shove so much into such a little space.
 
Yet the word that keeps coming to me this first year in Michigan is deliberate (link here). I’ve written about this word before–and how I finally liberated it from its negative connotations–and it’s stayed with me for months now. It’s shaped my responses to the many impulses and longings I feel throughout each day and week. It takes the place of another word in my former lexicon, a word I avoid because of its associations with too-earnest Evangelicalism: intentional. But this word fits just as well. Life requires being deliberate, even though your best-laid plans will often get destroyed (it happens to everybody–don’t deliberate on it).
 
So many things we need to be deliberate about like setting schedules and budgets and plans, as if we had some control. Usually, despite appearances, we do have some control, and more than we think. I have to remind myself just like intentionally changing my lexicon to better motivate myself, I can reframe and redefine the supposed “distractions” that pull me away from the protected still space needed for writing.



And here, I want to choose a new word for “distraction”: inspiration. What’s a distraction but a chance for God to work in an unexpected way? Not that I’m looking for distractions (except when I’m procrastinating!), but as with all of life, the input/output principle applies here (link here).

I love the clarity of this simple mental model.

There is potential for great good in allowing unexpected input, and being forced to engage with what isn’t planned can bring inspiration if you can remain open and undistracted by the supposed “distraction.” Input (inspiration) comes from any seemingly random source (and frequently does). And of course, being diligent not to get derailed from your larger purpose is a constant effort. But we don’t help ourselves by being inflexible or too restrictive about what influences we allow in.

Especially during this season of advent, waiting, and rest from work, we need to stay open to wonder and the unexpected.
 
Because here’s the marvelous point: output. Once you have a good amount of input, you must exercise restraint to retreat (I also don’t like the word discipline, though it fits here). I’ve got to set a time each morning to get away and write, even if it gets derailed and I have to come back at bedtime. Asserting this practice keeps me bound to the input I get from my selective reading in the morning, and helps me charge up by being silent, gathering my thoughts, and writing, even if only for 15 minutes. I might just capture bullet points to come back to some days, if it’s all I can get. But I reserve this time daily to keep in practice of gathering the manna, and tithing my first harvest of words each morning, or I know I will lose it.
 


Now, I haven’t, and won’t soon practice this flawlessly. But it’s a goal. And this is my grown-up Christmas wish for you this season too, and all through the New Year. With a moderate amount of effort, may you find the input and time to make some output this holiday season. And may it be a still point for reflection and renewal for you.

If you commit to trying this, can you let me know? I’m looking forward to knowing I’m not alone in the hope of what we’ll produce….
 
For the higher purpose. Merry Christmas, my friend.

Mick

Why Simple Is Best

The 14th c. theologian William of Ockham is known for his statement, “the simplest solution is almost always the best.”

[woman looking at tree]

This is the familiar thought I’ve come to after writing a bit this morning. If I want to finally finish, I’ve got to apply it. And I’ve long been convinced that the pursuit of writing has profound lessons to teach about living, if we’d only stay and wait for the eyes of our hearts to focus.

The simplest solution in editing is usually the best. Much of my difficulty seems to come in over-complicating the subjects and dialogue. So simplifying the characters’ motives and speeches is good to think of as my main task working back through the drafted chapters. I don’t remember writing many of them, which was well over a dozen years ago now.The very first ones began arriving around 2003 and 04, not that it matters.

It also doesn’t matter if it’s this hard to write or not for others, or if complex drama is what some people prefer. My own motives and inner voices get simplified as I commit to what I’m writing. And I’m not writing it for others, or an ideal reader, or even “for an audience of one.” I’m writing it, after all, for myself. Maybe that’s selfish, and maybe I’m forgetting it’s impossible to forget God and others, but don’t they get served if I share what’s important to me? If my motive is not my own happiness or isolation or superiority, but fulfillment in some yet unrealized way, isn’t that the synthesis of God’s will for my life and my own? Simplifying means not over-complicating by looking too closely at it.

Over-complicating is what caused this work to take so long to come out in the first place. And I finally just want to accept that this call to use writing to understand my deepest self and longings is not something I initiated, it is simply received or not. I want to be done doubting and questioning that. Not to look too closely, at it but to “pay attention to my life” because of it, as Buechner says. That seems to be the position of stability from which to produce good work.

[kid in glasses]

The product is not the point; far from it. But only in letting go of over-complicating the process, and thinking too much about motive and why I’m really writing, can I unstop the words that actually could simplify my life. If I’d just let it go. Too long I’ve used the role and position of editing to distract and create scaffolding instead of getting into the mud and making the stuff to build with. That was necessary for my story too, so I don’t want to think of that with regret. And I’ve had to learn not to use these things for my own gain, to pad my ego or prove my worth. It’s taken time, simply time spent writing, processing, and yes, even producing a bit of very precious words. All of that was part of the process for me.

But if every life is a story, each one requires simplifying if we want it to speak of anything. It’s a basic lesson I somehow missed, but it was editing—the occupation of my life—that has finally convinced me of this. In slowing down, simplifying, and writing what God brings to mind each time, it feels like he’s teaching me to deeply value this work. And who am I to say who that’s for most–me or others?

It’s time to write, but now it will only involve the next thing in front of me, and nothing besides. And I think this is how I’ll make it.

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

― E.L. Doctorow, Writers At Work: The Paris Review Interviews



Seek Out the other path

This is the way I begin.

There’s no clear path, just a tangle of thoughts left over from the last time I didn’t do this.

Maybe this time I’ll finally remember that regular expression keeps the way forward from becoming overgrown.

One year ago we moved here, to northeast Grand Rapids, and though we’ve explored many places, we’ve never once been down to East Lake behind our house. The way is too unclear and there’s a lot to navigate through before we got there.

But that’s only one of the ways to go. There’s a clear access path just down the street we could take between the houses, and even a neighbor’s boat free to use, leaning against a tree. To others, I’m sure it seems odd we wouldn’t take such a nearby adventure.

And thinking about it now, there is very little keeping us from doing it before the afternoon sun slides south for the winter. Time passes and soon we might not even remember the little thrill of hearing we could do that anytime we want. Really? It’s not even ours…

How many of us forget there are others ways we could go? How many have lost the thread to that inner call to adventure?

The day’s duties will always dominate. The tangle of overgrown paths will easily overwhelm me. But I’m never too busy or tired or mature to seek out the other path and rekindle the spark of discovery.

All I have to do is begin again.

When There’s Too Much Anxiety in Your Way to Move Forward

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It turns out I have this unconsidered theory that what’s most important is to be comfortable.

And it’s especially true with huge challenges like writing.

One more cup of coffee, I think. Then maybe I’ll be in the zone….

There’s no coffee mug big enough for me. Or coffee hot enough, tasty enough, fresh enough. And soon, the way the perfect light hits the perfect spot on the floor has stolen 5 full minutes of my writing time. It’s not “wasted” time; actually it’s helped me recharge and get my thoughts in order. But it hasn’t gotten words on the page. And there’s a difference between taking a moment to appreciate the light, and stalling out.

Just keep showing up, I think, against all opposition. I was even geared up about it, or so I thought, seeking the answer to something, a recent idea I wanted to capture. So I came early before the day’s work because I know this is the way I work: the day must start here. So just get it down before anything else.

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But I’ve hit a wall and it’s a slog. I’m trying hard to remember the question I had, and it’s not there.

Just press on. You know writing isn’t always easy or comfortable. But when I get in this head space, there’s no denying it: my writing time for the day is slipping away.

There’s too much to do to waste this time, too many tasks and none of them can be rescheduled. The recent sweeping changes have created several places of real need and that’s led to some anxiety and overwhelm. We knew the move to Michigan would be fairly difficult, but the house has needed a lot of help and leaving our friends and family behind in Portland has been harder than we even expected. Bottom line, it’s become uncomfortable.

God knows I need challenges to push me out of my comfortable or nothing changes. I like to think I welcome change and even handle it well. But the truth is I fear it, and in most situations it’s something I resist—

What’s that? You want to introduce something new into my carefully circumscribed life here? Uh, no thank you. I’m good. Move along, please—

When I’m uncomfortable, I just want it to stop as soon as possible. Pain or struggle is evil and needs to be alleviated. It’s not useful for my good. How many times have I heard this truth espoused, and yet still I fight desperately to resist it?

I fight the truth, and I make myself uncomfortable in the process. I make myself uncomfortable in order to stay comfortable.

Which is insane.

We’ve all got to choose to respond to life’s inevitable challenges. Doing nothing is not a choice because doing nothing is still a choice. Believe it or not, accept it or not, life will change on you. Your only choice is how to respond. And when I respond by letting go of what I thought I needed, I’ll find a deeper comfort.

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I have to stand up and walk toward the window, face the light to get a hold of it, the thought comes in such a burst. But letting go of what I previously needed for comfort may be somehow the only way I’ll regain the sense that I’m safe and sound, that things are in control.

Because it will no longer depend on my own efforts to hold on to what I think I need.

In this life, nothing is what it seems. The greatest teacher was right: you have to give up your comfort in order to save it.

I haven’t fully figured this out yet, but I want to believe this. And maybe that’s enough for now. I can feel the release of it coursing through my body, holding me up, and convincing me it’ll be okay despite what it seems.

Accept the responsibility, choose to let go here and now, and you preserve your deeper freedom. You may not get to writing down words today, but there’s tomorrow and if God allows it, the next day.

There’s good, even when things look bad. The truth is always there just waiting to be acknowledged and accepted.

And surrendered to.

Am I required to do or to share anything else? Or is just living this simple truth today enough?

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And maybe next time I’ll remember this sooner, accept it more readily. When discomfort comes, can I surrender to it to keep my deeper comfort?

Only one way to find out, I guess.

“If only we try to live sincerely, it will go well with us, even though we are certain to experience real sorrow, and great disappointments, and will also probably commit great faults and do wrong things. But it certainly is true that it is better to be high-spirited—even though one makes more mistakes—than to be narrow-minded and all too prudent. It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength; and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much; and what is done in love, is well done.” – Vincent Van Gogh, (from Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh (Plume, 1995)

For the deeper, greater, and higher purpose,

 

Mick