Resiliency, Big Life Changes Like Moving and Shopping for Pants

Greetings from Grand Rapids!

I’ve just arrived at work, which means I didn’t get to writing this on Sunday, as used to be the goal. It also means this post will probably be slapdash and not as useful as it could be. (But that’s what editing is for!)

We were busy all day Sunday shopping for all the things. Winter is coming, yeah? Happily, we found what we needed, though it wasn’t easy.

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Do your worst, winter!

Shopping. Ugh. It’s such a luxury. And yet I still tend to prefer a trip to the dentist to trying on pants. Why? Maybe I’m just against having to search amongst so many other glassy-eyed men for the least horrible style, in the least unwearable color, and in my smaller-than-average size. I’d search online but Sheri is unreasonably against me looking like I search online for my pants.

Well, and who doesn’t like that squeaky-teeth-clean feeling from the dentist?

So I’ve got some pants now. And a new shirt and a sweater (not the full-body style above, sadly). I also got some office plants, hoping the investment of some small effort will lead to bigger rewards.

And as I take a deep breath this morning to reflect on all that’s changed since last year (even last month!), the major feeling is one of relief–I’m not too overwhelmed yet. Great gratitude stars go to my wife and daughters for following me here to the northeast, just in time for the winter tundra fun. I’m not just grateful for the commitment it shows to me and my career. It’s also their personal support of the greater enjoyment and engagement in doing challenging things, the adventures we’re always talking about having in life, the kind that I very much long for.

And that ambition, the one for exciting new things to experience and learn and get to enjoy together, is really a desire to progress in life, where life = lots of change. A big move like this can be the birthplace of some amazing contributions to our fellow man and woman.

But I want to parse ambition because ambition for winning a gazillion smackers, on the other hand, can easily take the place of making amazing contributions to your fellow man, and of enjoying and being actively engaged in your life. That’s not the kind of ambition you or I want to have.

Back in August, when I took this new job at Zondervan, the change was fast. Life can turn on a dime. The plan and players can all change, and what might have been (for years and years) may never be again. There’s some loss and real grief to process there, and very little time in which to do it. There are deep heart words to share, challenges to meet, and new opportunities to grow and employ our gifts in myriad ways, seemingly around every corner.

Here, it’s clear, our great need is for resiliency. The ability to withstand change.

The house needs attention, boxes need unpacking, and neighbors need introductions. How true it is that “life will not stop for us to catch up.” If the real work we should be doing is “preparing for the future” it’ll have to wait until we’ve gotten the time change and this eating-and-sleeping-with-some-regularity situation figured out.

Again, resiliency. The ability to resist the undertow. This skill must be acquired.

What keeps you going when the changes beat you down in life? What makes you get up when you experience setbacks and hard things? Brene Brown and several current self-help productivity gurus have familiarized this idea of resiliency, but I see it the ability to respond appropriately when big life changes come. It’s not about ignoring the hard, or denying your emotions. No, it’s responding well to change. Which means many adjustments. Which means preparation should be a primary activity for all of us.

Because you may not be moving across the country soon, but you can be sure there are big changes coming. And even changes for the better bring all kinds of hard stuff too. Keeping your wits about you in order to adjust and prepare and buy your full-body sweaters for winter is why resiliency is so much of the key to everything.

We have so many preparations to make–school, work, travel, money, life goals, and people to meet. It’s overwhelming, of course. And it’ll involve learning to keep our heads together better in the midst of it all, not getting distracted from the small by all the seemingly big. And I have to admit I’m daunted. How am I going to do this?

Maybe another metaphor here: both my girls (one 7th and one 10th grade) are learning new math this year. And we all are. The work of adding up all the preparations we’re learning to complete can be brain-busting. But if we can 1) stick to our process and 2) go bird by bird, it could also be fun to find new capabilities and capacities, be equipped with some new knowledge. Because the thing is none of us knows what we don’t know–we don’t even know that we don’t know it. There’s a bigger plan than all our ambitions can account for, and even good ambition requires a continual recommitment to gratitude for the chance to experience the new and be chosen for such an amazing mission.

No matter what happens, there’s always something you’re being prepared for. There’s so much more to come. And that’s motivating.

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Or maybe it’s just what I need to hear right now as I stare down a mountain to climb. The fuzzy outline of my bigger mission here in Michigan is still emerging. But while it does, it’s good to be reminded to enjoy and keep resiliencing….

It’s a verb. Of course it is. I’m an editor so you can trust me.

In the meantime, you can imagine me sporting some new pants and a new sweater while I search the internet for articles on how to keep office succulents alive.

For the much higher purposes to come,

Mick

Starting Over, Starting Again

Hello from Grand Rapids! We’ve officially moved to Michigan. I accepted an offer for a new job at Zondervan, as Senior Acquisitions Editor responsible for new and several existing nonfiction projects. I’m excited, a bit nervous, and completed surprised by the whole thing. It wasn’t in the 10-year plan at all, and yet when I listened to the job description and considered what I’d actually be doing–working to help authors create great books, mainly–it felt like me from the get go.

Of course, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to two people in particular–Ann, for her loyalty and confidence in me, and for proving to me that being real, vulnerable, and true to oneself is a viable path in this industry, and Sandy, an incredibly kind editor who helped me gain a hearing. Several other influential friends spoke up for me as well, and I’m so grateful.

By freelancing for eight years, I got to know even better the challenge of structuring books that can compete for attention and gain interest. It’s such hard work for authors to learn what it takes. But in this role, it will be much more about finding the chance to meaningfully connect with the rare few who can maintain their sense of themselves and speak with honesty, even under pressure and from a high level of visibility. To do that and still recognize their position in the crowded market, without ego but with true awareness, and probably having worked with an agent or coach who’s helped them identify and refine that particular brand and message, it’s quite a gift. And it comes with a great responsibility to carry well.

The main thing is, this first week has felt charged with potential, like a defining moment, a chance to see if the change that’s been so long in coming to the Christian market is actually, finally here. Of course, to say it like that sounds a bit ridiculous; change is always happening. But specifically, I believe the cult of personality that’s been unfortunately influencing the big retail industry for years has also recently been shifting toward a new thirst for authenticity. And I believe this is what makes the moment feel so weighty with potential. Not because of me, or any one person or factor in particular. But because the spirit of God is moving. And when Aslan’s on the move, you can be sure change is coming, in so many places and so many unseen ways.

And I guess I fee it’s worth investing in that simple hope. A hope that sincere people with a humble commitment to being spirit-led can be a force of change even now.

We’re just getting settled into our new house, the girls into school, and me into my new office. It’ll all bring its share of struggle no doubt as well. I’ll try to share about that as I’m able here. I’ve been neglecting giving the update, overwhelmed by it, and no sure quite how to say it, so when this finally came, it seemed time. Apologies for being out of touch–the move and adjustment were a whole lot to manage.

But I’m feeling excited to get to work and to share now and then about this new adventure. And we do appreciate all the support and prayers.

More soon…

For the higher purpose,

Mick

Free Editing Help and the Secret to Great Writing

After I returned from the Northwestern Christian Writers conference in Minnesota, I was inspired and fired up to get back to my book and keep revising. That often happens after a writers conference. I’d taken a bit of a break when summer hit, but the great conversations and knowledgable speakers had me raring to go again. If you’re wondering about attending a conference near you, trust me, it works….

The class I taught at the conference is shared below, a distilled collection of key questions for all writers I called Manuscript CPR. It’s culled from my experience teaching writers how to do macro and micro edits, and it’s basically how to resuscitate a dying manuscript. :) It also just happens to contain the secret to great writing (great editing, duh!), and I believe it’ll help any writer. It did me.

I hope you’ll feel inspired to make significant progress on your meaningful and needed work this week, and all month long. But more than that, I hope you’ll learn to enjoy the process so you can continue writing for years to come.

Keep aiming for the higher purpose,

Mick

Manuscript CPR+

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

 

 

 

My Writing Process – Step 2: “Let the Theme Rise Organically”

Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

– Mary Oliver, “Sometimes”

God, save me from the productivity that would sacrifice everything you’re doing in me to chase an image of “supposed to.”

So naturally, after step 1 comes step 2. “Step 1: Set Out to Return” posits that submitting to what God is calling you to, where he’s sending, is job 1 for the writer. I see this as a journey that starts and finishes with knowing it will involve, nay, require, a return to the  beginning. Because writing is like life and art is all about recovery of ourselves. (If that seems super deep, that’s because it is.)

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Step 1 was fun to write, so I’m continuing with step 2 this week.

The second step in my writing process, which I’ve never put into words before but has gotten me thinking, follows the theme of submission and adds to it discipline. There’s the obvious discipline of showing up to write 6 days a week for as long as I have that day, but in my daily writing process, after considering the true starting place and establishing the goal to return to it eventually, there’s a specific action I have to take. And it still isn’t writing.

Sidenote: we’d prevent so much wasted time by simply not writing too soon. Many writers don’t know or don’t care about this, and maybe they simply can’t help themselves, but even if you only learn it as you write, if you want people to read your stuff, and I do, and if you want an editor to edit it (and yes, you do), then I believe the theme has to rise naturally from the story, from the character’s true plight. And that means slowing down and thinking before you dive in. *Note on the sidenote: this is also true for anything resembling memoir or personal narrative.

Which means step 2 is that you have to discover your theme, so you don’t write trying to illustrate it. If you set out thinking you already know what big truth you’re going to reveal with your story, you’ll fail. Sure, there are pro writers who can do it, but like figuring out your true identity (“Identity is received, not achieved,” as my friend Chase taught me), the theme must be discovered. The journey must be allowed to define the story and the telling of it. Otherwise the theme will be artificial, added as an afterthought.

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Theme–what your story’s about–starts as unintended but soon becomes intended. And when that happens is all about how well a writer has learned to humble themselves, silence their need to teach, and pay attention to what the story is revealing. And in the beginning, often, this takes a trustworthy outside editor or close-reader. If you have one, you know they’re gold.

As I said, it may be possible for seasoned writers to “hide the strings” with good editing, but often, a tip-off of amateur writing is that the theme wasn’t discovered so much as intended from the beginning. And often, it seems it wasn’t executed well because there was no learning process captured, no fire in that journey.

Now, go back to that prayer at the top, because this could also become a “supposed to.” But a story is supposed to teach the writer its lesson(s) first. Imagine going through something as life-altering as becoming a parent for the first time and not learning anything from it. Yet people do it all the time. We think we have to be strong leaders, use our stories to teach. But stories aren’t widgets to plug holes in people. And when you think of them this way, you’re limiting its potential for something you can start selling before the necessary ink has been spilled.

Too many of us simply don’t yet have the presence of mind to pay attention to what a story is really saying. And it’s a travesty, but it’s for some fairly obvious reasons. Maybe that’s why it’s taken me so long to establish this.

Goodness, life is distracting. And we want to think we know what we want, but we don’t. And others want different things, and compounding complexity causes destruction. How tragic when someone simply continues pushing for their initial goal even after they realize it means others will suffer. The Bible says such poor folks are cursed (Heavy, I know, but I think of “quenching the spirit” and “woe to them” and “causing others to stumble.”) And again, happens all the time. Maybe we all do it to some degree if we justify such “winning discipline” to remain dedicated to our vision.

Is remaining undistracted and “productive” really the key to success?

Anyone could be a hardnose and prevent what could ultimately free us and countless others. What if instead we’re supposed to let go and let ourselves see beneath what we thought we knew? (Hear the deeper theme of submission here again.)

Writers want to write books that matter, which means revealing what others miss. But what if they can’t until they realize what they’ve missed? For me, step 2 involves, nay, requires, embracing the struggle for a greater discipline: accepting that no one gets to say they intended where they ended up when they set out. I think useful, timeless, inspired books aren’t intended or earned so much as discovered through sacrifice.

So the question is,

Will you commit to listening to your life?

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Commit to struggling, flailing, uncertainty, mystery, and some very unromantic trials? I believe from all I’ve read, all I’ve written, this is the only way to ultimately offer the truth. Because the primary truth any story conveys is always about struggle–and it should be.

I get it. I want things to be easier too. We all do. It’s just that you can’t see the reason the story needed telling just like you can’t see the real reason the journey needed taking until you take it. And unless you listen to your own plight, your own deep desire and greatest struggle, you’ll never know what simple thematic statement is beneath it. And that’s how your story will ultimately speak about everyone’s plight.

Don’t we all somehow know this already? It’s one of the greatest confirmations, that “Oh-wow-me-too” response. We can’t intend that; it’s a gift. If you let go of personal intentions (for your life, for your work) you’re freed to finally see and reveal universal, biblical truth.

I believe there’s no other way. (“Narrow road,” “die to self,” “walk humbly,” etc.)

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It could be that we’re made writers far more than we intend to be. But you were given a story to share and you can trust that. And when you do, you won’t have to prove it anymore. You can let it say what it wants to. You can intend to have your intentions changed and set out to find your theme, even when you think you’re supposed to know it already. It’s worth letting go of supposed to’s.

The distractions are strong, but these 2 steps–setting out to return, and listening for theme–are nearly all I needed to write. There’s just one more step I use consistently before writing and it’s a practical one about filling up before pouring out.

And I’ll share that next week.

For the higher purpose,

Mick