Category Archives: Writing

My Writing Process, Step 3: Read 3 Pieces Before You Start

Dear you,

With tons of help and borrowed insight, you’ve been recovering. That’s so good and hopeful. Don’t forget to celebrate! It’s involved relearning compassion for the small things, and it’s been life-changing, as well as a long time coming. Specifically, you now know you started life like so many men, crying. And like too many men, you could die denying it.

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Don’t.

These lessons naturally have required much thinking about your writing process. Which has also led to some deeper questions and considerations. But you’ve fought the nagging urge to rethink everything and undo the progress, and you haven’t tossed the management of the many details of life, which is the whole trick of getting through this better and healthier. Structure is the schedule that creates routines that work well, better, best.

But don’t forget these three simple steps in your process, especially step three.

Step one – to always go back to the start—motive. And regardless of any second thought, set out to return, submitting to what you do know: that you don’t really know where you’re going. Because you can’t.

Like everything, remembering will become easier with practice. But it’s doubtful you’ll ever outgrow the need to be reminded.

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Step two The theme you think you’re capturing isn’t what you’ll end up with. The theme will arise naturally, unhurried. Wait for it and write on.

Both of these steps are about letting go, and so is this one,

Step three – Start your writing day with three pieces of high-quality reading.

There’s no getting around this: if you’re trying to be original, you’ve got to give that up. Choose reading that’ll disabuse you of that too-common notion.

Practically speaking, this is crucial and also the easiest step. Because when you make your choices and you decide to take daily drinks from three life-giving wells, you also giving up being original in your work for the day. You read a bit and you get all kinds of new, useful food on the table to be savored.

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Here’s the thing: you’ll only become what you consume. And you can’t generate your own food. You can only share what’s borrowed because you’re not that smart. You only have what you’ve been given and all you do is make yourself able to receive it.

And in the words of John Wesley, “Oh, begin!”

(The whole quote is, “What has exceedingly hurt you in time past, nay, and I fear, to this day, is lack of reading….And perhaps, by neglecting it, you have lost the taste for it. Hence your talent in preaching does not increase…Reading only can supply this, with meditation and daily prayer. You wrong yourself greatly by omitting this….Oh begin! Fix some part of every day for private exercise. You may acquire the taste which you have not; what is tedious at first will afterward be pleasant. Whether you like it or not, read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days, and a pretty, superficial preacher. Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer.”)

You’ve heard this now so you’re responsible. You’ve also heard that you’re only as successful as your three best mentors, your three best friends? Well, this also applies to books. Each book is a friend to teach you, like each of these steps, with humility at the center. You come to the page empty, and then you need to be filled. You don’t write the story. It writes itself. You translate it.

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That’s no small task, but it’s a more manageable one than you started out with. Your process will always first be to let go of and unlearn all you think you have or bring. You have nothing. And when you’re empty of self, you’re ready to begin to refill with better food.

Of course, you won’t always want to! Especially when you’re feeling no good or you’re desperate to say something artful or profound. Fine. Put it in your journal. But before you get to work, get free of that. Trying to teach readers when you have so much to learn yourself (!) is like passing out free lemonade when your house is on fire.

And now I make a rule: never tell readers what they can surmise, but always tell them what they can’t. Obviously, this one takes some practice. For example, is it obvious? And if so, did you need to say that?

Writing is tricky, and if you’re doing it to serve readers, good. But set that aside. When you start, don’t try to say something smart. Go to the library. Get acquainted with the people who tried and failed and read them. When you find them, go easy on them, but now you can see what you’re to do.

Now you’re ready to begin.

You want your book to help. Good. If you didn’t, I’d think you forgot the whole point. But to get the church to move toward the oppressed and lost, and away from the corrosive effects of Christian consumer culture and churchianity, you’ve got to give up trying to convince them what you’ve got, and all that well-meaning ambitiousness. Stop selling and start buying the books that came before you. That’s where you’ll find one thing you simply must share.

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This can sound like wasting time. It’s not. Inspiration isn’t yours; you don’t claim it. The sooner you get that, the better.

No one has written your book yet or ever could. But if you think any of this is new, you’re not ready. Reestablish the right motive. Restore your faith. And recover the old lines.

God is not about the new. He’s about recovery work.

You were left to cry, and you know now this is at the core of it all–separation and restoration. It’s too late to go home again, but the search is home. The longing is you. Let that be and don’t fight.

But don’t forget it.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

 

 

 

For Writers, Is Living Love a Process?

“Success has little to teach us during the second half of life. It continues to feel good, but now it is often more an obstacle to maturity than a positive stimulus toward it.”
― Ronald Rolheiser, Sacred Fire: A Vision for a Deeper Human and Christian Maturity

The day’s list of projects is looking mighty long. I know enough by now to simply do the hardest, most pressing thing first, and stick to the process until I get through it all. Last week was a great reminder that “Bird by Bird is always the way.

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Looking at the calendar reminds me I’ll turn 45 on my next birthday. It’s not so old, but seems it’ll be harder to deny I’m middle-aged and “should be” more mature by now. Or whatever other “shoulds” I should be thinking about at my age.

And that list seems pretty stinking long too.

Apart from all of that–the work and the worries about shoulds–what would I choose to be doing to find the most meaning and significance? I know I’m being coerced by the clock and the calendar, but it’s a valid question, and a good one for a Monday morning.

What’s the best use of the day?

Certainly, I can assume a whole list of things it isn’t. Paying any more attention to that blowhard. Worrying about money or bills. Getting just one more modern convenience. 

FullSizeRenderI’m like most modern people. We’re all way too distractable. That’s different from being purpose-driven and interruptible, like Jesus always was. We’re too often thinking about ourselves. We don’t serve the sick and needy, the most innocent and vulnerable. We serve the powerful, the promising, the ones we deem worthy and projecting the right image of success. We elevate those we think can elevate us with their power, prestige, privilege, or position. We avoid those who might drag us down and look instead for promising partners who can help raise our status and standards.

If I could have my way, I’d have no other thought but to serve God and love Him fully through the care and keeping of the weakest and gentlest people I could find. Or so I think. I would be about His business, at least that’s what I tell myself.

But I don’t get involved. There are plenty of opportunities to serve those around me and I don’t. Haven’t I been faking my way through this spiritual writing life up to now? Aren’t I really all about myself, my own wants and needs, my own little comforts? 

IMG_0758Ronald Rolheiser, in his wonderful book Sacred Fire, says, “One of our deepest struggles in life is dealing with the unconscious anxiety inside of us that pressures us to try to give ourselves significance and immortality. There is always the inchoate gnawing: do something to guarantee that something of your life will last. It is this propensity that tempts us to try to find meaning and significance through success and accumulation. But in the end it does not work, irrespective of how great our successes have been.”

Meaning and significance are at the base of my motivation for everything. I want to matter. Jesus says to lose my life and I look for assurances it’ll be saved. Are they right–have I stopped believing because I don’t believe the Bible?

This process of pushing for the ever-deeper question is the impulse that compels me in the search for meaning. I know that I know the Bible is a guide to understanding, the bedrock of belief, but I don’t believe the inspiration is over and done. There’s life to be lived, experience to confirm the Word, and the writing life with the Spirit is a continual proving of faith in living and questioning and seeking, whether in sensing directly, or trying to make sense of his directing. To live the writing and write the life are the word and the deed, inseparable and constantly shifting.

FullSizeRender_1If you know these things, you will be happy if you do them.

And that is why we have to be about process. Progress is inevitable when your goal is the process, and living is always about processing what is lived. Step by step, moment by moment, now and now, the product is being shaped and guided each day until meaning and significance become byproducts of an active, proven faith. Get living in love and writing that lives will be the result.

What more proof do I need? Bishop Michael Curry was so right in that sermon. (I mean, can you get any better proof anywhere on the Web these days? Seriously.)

Writers must focus on process because there is no more powerful way to love everyone God needs us to love. Process is what ensures what’s happening when is what needs to be happening–writing or life, it’s all about the love. And focusing on process, the in and the out, like breathing, is how all the lists will finally be completed, all the work finally finished, and all the words lived out and written out.

And that is how the most powerful meaning will be achieved.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

(I’ll be breaking down some of the steps in my process over the next few weekly posts, so I’d love it if you did some writing and living about your own process as we go along, see what we might find… meantime, here’s a podcast I did with the Pastor Writer about learning to love process recently) 

The Secret Simple Key to Overcoming Overwhelm

  1. No one can tell me when I’m getting overwhelmed.

  2. Pretty much anyone can tell when I’m getting overwhelmed.

These two facts are in my mind the moment I open my eyes Tuesday morning. They have taken me more time to acknowledge than I would like to admit. And yet if there’s one thing I know, it’s that the things we would most like to deny are the things we most need to acknowledge next. Denying overwhelm has caused me to mess up more than I ever would have without the denial. I know for a fact it’s kept me pointlessly working long beyond what I would have otherwise. IMG_8560

I do know I’m the one who has to spur myself on to get to work and keep at it when I want to quit. No one else can do it. I won’t let them, or it simply won’t work. The simple secret to finishing no one had to tell me is the same for you–and I know because when it comes to our work, we’re all the same this way:

Our work is ours. 

How did any major accomplishment get finished? I know from Anne Lamott it had to simply be done “bird by bird,” but just like waking up this morning and knowing I had to get to work on the 18 things waiting for me after a long weekend, it doesn’t get done on someone else’s motivation. It’s my job to find my motivation.

A swift kick to “just do it” can work for a while, but eventually leads to burnout. I know from experience mustering it to muscle it only messes it up and mangles me. More often than not, the impulse to “just do it” denies what I’m feeling in the overwhelm and the real reason for the overwhelmed feeling. The old mind over matter trick is no trick at all, and trying to ignore it to simply cross things off the list is foolish and disintegrating. What I really need is to simply not look at the list.

What I really need is to acknowledge the feeling and consider what it’s trying to tell me. What I need is to slow down and pay attention, to integrate the fear and the excitement, the anxiety and the anticipation of finishing and celebrating. If I can do that and hold both of those and know that my greater good is here, in the stalling to get out of bed and as I get up slowly to begin the process of getting ready for the day. Process over product is the secret. I don’t have to overthink it, but if I can be present to the fatigue and disconnected sensations of all that remains unresolved from the week and the weekend, and the night before, I can forego the swift kick and the burnout that would follow, and experience the fuller experience, rather than relegating so much of it to unconsciousness, and rendering it unavailable and unrealized.

The truth no one has had to tell us, the simple secret to finishing anything difficult we might consider our true work, is that all of it is ours and meant for us to experience and grow from. We can’t numb ourselves to feeling difficult emotions without also numbing the ones we enjoy, nor can we effectively evaluate what should or should not be disorienting, disintegrating, or distancing us from our fuller selves. We don’t know why certain things affect us, and as much as we’d like to believe otherwise, we don’t control whether or not they will.

However, each of us does control what we will do about the things that affect us. And acknowledging what the emotions are in the midst of the overwhelm never feels good or particularly convenient, but whatever other ideas we had about our true work, this is it. Whatever we may have thought our work was for today, this being conscious and aware of our full feelings about it is our true work. 

And whatever we might call that–messy, frustrating, 100% inconvenient and completely unwelcome–when we don’t list that work first, we merely add one more impossibility to the list.

Can you trust there’s a reason you’re here and being asked to handle this? Regardless of whether you should be facing all that’s on that list, can you acknowledge there’s a higher purpose in it? Something beyond the drudgery and gripey feeling it gives you? Something you might even now be able to relabel a gift?

We don’t need anyone to tell us this is what we’re here for, whatever else we may have to face today. We don’t need proof there’s a very good reason for the place we find ourselves in–the proof is that we’re here. And if we are, it means God is God and he has his reasons. The question is, what would he have us do, learn, feel, say, know, share?

I get up, shower, dress, go down to find the kid who needs to get to school, drive her and drive back, get to my office and get out my list. It’s only Tuesday but it’s already overwhelming, and it’s already clear I’m going to have to adjust some things. But what can get done will get done, and I’ll trust the rest will find its fulfillment another way. One step at a time, one item at a time, all of this is manageable and meant for more than getting through it.

No muscling. No mangling. Just mercy, and more gifts to be received and given back in their proper way and time. And in the slow, deliberate facing of my feelings, and accepting them, and processing them, I’ll find my way to finish all I was given to do.

The list looks much more manageable from that perspective.

“To be a teacher of a process such as this takes qualities too few of us have, but which most of us can develop. We have to be quiet, to listen, to respond.” – Donald M. Murray, “Teach Writing as a Process, Not Product”

 

What Do Your Prepositions Say About You?

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” – Kris Kristofferson

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It starts out as a search for yourself, a part-time occupation giving the journey definition and greater meaning. At least it did for me.

It took a few years to determine that primary pursuit, but once I did, it seemed writing was what would lead me to myself, who I really was. How I got that idea and how I’d get there, I wasn’t too worried about either. I’d figure it all out on the page.

“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”

I don’t know if any teenager growing up in 1980s America was truly able to think about being identified with Christ or his body, whatever that really means, however much he heard the words. A lifetime of Christian teaching couldn’t identify that as the holy grail, let alone a path to it. The desire has to come from within.

And it’d be many years before those sparks became flame, before they’d find dry tinder to burn. Life experiences, limited as they were, would bring the bite and tang of betrayal, regret, and fear. I’m I’m pretty sure you could ask any kid raised in a safe bubble: a man who’s never been separated from anything can’t truly love anything. 

my writing spotIn a real way, I had to get out of the bubble and get over myself to find what in my heart I already knew was true. 

But what I’d misunderstood, what I couldn’t yet know: nothing about writing is clarifying. If anything, writing brings more complication to what’s already too complex. There’s a real disadvantage in making your life fodder for reflection. You can never know what it might have been had you not stood aside to look at your life as you were living it.

And maybe other writers, those not bent on self-discovery, don’t find this, but the work can cripple as much as heal you, I think. If you’re not in the right place. So for me, the writing life is a continual wrestling match with the prepositions–and in some strange, almost invisible way, identifying them is how I come to better identify myself. Or at least see better what I’m identifying with….

…in, with, for, as, after, by, on.

If you’re a writer who wants to know yourself better, look at your prepositions. Pre – before. Position – location relative to something else.

Where am I? Where was I before I started this journey? What am I really after here?

“In Christ you have been brought to fullness.”

lilacsI believe it’s for freedom I’ve been called. I believe it doesn’t matter what lies ahead or behind but what lies within this commitment to a greater cause, a higher purpose, than myself. My own attaining of freedom may have sparked this, but the flame is for a fuller restoration. And the preparation my life’s losses have brought are specific stories that have revealed to me a more universal prize.

Look at the prepositions: Do you believe a writer’s ultimate commitment is to losing all for the glory of the call? Do you believe it’s for God’s pleasure and higher will? For unity and freedom and for the story to be told before time runs out?

“Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you.”

The clarity will come as you dig deeper. For now, hold on and press in.

“You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

Identify with Him. Believe in Him. Be unified as you go.

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

For the higher purpose,

Mick

 

Why You Must Face Your Shame

“I’m telling you, once and for all, that unless you return to square one and start over like children, you’re not even going to get a look at the kingdom, let alone get in. Whoever becomes simple and elemental again, like this child, will rank high in God’s kingdom.” – Matthew 18:3-4 MSG

How long it’s taken me to understand this. How I’ve resisted the knowledge that to get what I really want, I’ve got to face my shame of being no one.

And it’s such a common story: I just wanted to be strong, independent, a self-made man. How shameful is that? Somehow despite all I knew about following Jesus, I still resisted this very humility that’d bring what I was really looking for.

Being healed, whole, and fully alive meant trying many things before I could give up trying.

Just how much of the whole struggle does this part of it make up? I don’t know. But based on how hard it is to hear, let alone do something about, I’m betting it’s more than many of us want to admit.

Knowing what you really want tells you how to proceed. If you know what you’re after, you know your deepest passion. Passion is what gets the work done, but few people are deeply aware of what their passion really is.

Because it’s really difficult to know! We want many things, we serve many masters. Our desires are all over the place. But that’s the core why of our passion, and uncovering the source of that drive, the why, is what makes the most compelling stories.

The archetypal hero is always really in search of her why. It’s a story you can never exhaust because we all somehow know the real reason is always deeper, and no amount of struggle will reveal it until we’re ready to give up trying.

And most will never stop trying because they’re too hurt, too bent on justice, too proud to admit their own faults, and too ashamed to admit their impotence. No one wants to see there’s a deep pathos at the core of life.

There was once a man who came to Jesus asking for his help to change his life. He didn’t know what Jesus would do, but he knew he needed help, and he knew Jesus could do something. He didn’t much care how or even what he did exactly. The strength of the desire overwhelmed every other concern.

When he found Jesus and made his request, he got the surprise of his life. Jesus wanted to know what the man was willing to do. Somehow Jesus knew the very thing that ashamed him the most, and it became the test of his worthiness to receive help. Faced with Jesus’ embarrassing request, the man thought and decided if Jesus was willing to help him, it was worth any loss of dignity and the man agreed. He did it. And Jesus healed him.

But as the man was walking home, he began to wonder what had really happened. Somehow he knew despite Jesus’ obvious power and ability to heal, he’d wanted the man to realize something more than that. In turning his request around, Jesus had asked for trust, and when the man agreed, he’d shown him how to be healed. And it wasn’t after he’d done what Jesus asked, but in the process of doing it he received the miracle.

This revelation was the true healing, the man realized, and as he walked, he began laughing. There was a cosmic joke at the core of life. The master had shown him something that could heal everything in his life, if he could only receive it. Maybe it was always a question of whether he could face the shame of what he feared the most–loss of pride. Only then would he be worthy to receive the thing he needed. That was the key, the test, the secret: the doing it anyway.

Facing your shame may not feel like the way to all you dream. It doesn’t excite me to think of where I might be abased or disrespected today. It certainly doesn’t seem like the reason I wrote a book. But in as much as I came looking for hope of something, and realized even faintly the source of that hope was only in one man, I’d be facing a test at some point to accept my deeper reason and his higher purpose.

The vision for any book of passion is in the shame the writer was willing to face for the true Author. And the doing of it, whatever it required, that was the truest test determining the outcome.

“It is essential to practice the walk of the feet in the light of the vision.” – Oswald Chambers

For the higher purpose,

Mick