Tag Archives: amwriting

On the Writer’s Community and Something Better than Balance

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” – John Muir

I drive Ellie to school and decide to silence the radio. Fund-drive season on the classical station and the news on NPR aren’t as valuable as 8 minutes of silence.

Monday comes full of details to sort and I go with my mug to look at the trees a moment and listen to the birds. The current batch of writers I’m editing and coaching are so patient. By Thursday there will be meetings and mentoring, critique sessions, and individual appointments. I head back in remembering the exercises for class, handouts, preparations to finish. Another few emails have arrived with more writers’ pages to review.

The work won’t stop piling up. The words just keep coming.

The coffee mug is empty again. Why do I go? Why do I do this to myself?

In just a few days, I head to Mount Hermon for the eighth time, although I can’t remember exactly how many times I’ve been now. I’ve had some incredible meetings, which usually makes up for the mind-and-body-numbing intensity of the week.

A time or two ago, Mona asked me to give a keynote to open the conference, based on one of these blog posts called “Writing for One Master” about committing to the Inspirer. It was good, but it wasn’t entertaining. I wish I’d told more stories and included some humor.

I forget about the audience. For an editor who’s always trying to get people to remember the audience, that’s pretty strange. Considering how much of my time is taken up with my selfish pursuits, it’s not that strange. As a quieter reader, most of my life has been about me, lost in the spiral of experience and trying to keep to myself and not miss out on anything.

There’s so much to do before I go, but the big idea needs capturing before I get too distracted. Spring has begun and the days are lengthening, so we’re getting out to enjoy it more. Over the weekend, Sheri and I talked about being older and that now we’re 44, we finally don’t want to be any older or any younger, which is freeing. We’re not old or young, rich or poor, dumb or smart. We’re pretty white, but we’re not totally ignorant about what that means, and we’re still Christians, but not exactly like we were. We’re trying to balance and it’s showing, so it’s easy to think we’re making progress. But being aware of self, we could forget the audience.

“Audience of One” is such a cliché, but it’s more. I try to post about Mister Rogers more than guns and abortion, but our beliefs are best expressed by loving actions and social media isn’t active. There’s input and output but it’s artificial and our lungs need the outside air. To be helpful but recognize our helplessness, saints who still sin, we have to live in response to the One Mastering Inspirer and not just pursue big ideas.

The audience, God and others, is waiting for a compelling story of someone who clearly sees there’s more to living than selfish pursuits. Expressing the good input you’ve received into positive, life-expanding relating, that’s the true work. And remembering that comes best not in reading or writing, but in doing.

I need the reminder.

I’m no one. I’m not a published author. I’m not famous or special, but I’ve stuck with this for many years and I love the people I’ve met. There are ekklesias, gatherings, in so many places every year around the country and this is just one I’m part of, by a large measure of grace. I can sound so Christian saying that, but it’s the truth. This church is a big reason I go.

I get thrown off balance by too much to read and think about. Reconnecting with the messiness of a writing community is a chance to break out of all I have to do to enjoy the work and words again.

As usual, it’ll be Palm Sunday over the time I’m there. We’ll gather and sing and listen to inspired words shared from many sources with one origin. And I’ll be reminded if I’m not too distracted how much I need that air to clean my lungs again and reattach my selfish senses to their best audience, which is not me.

“I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith…” Gal 2:20

P.S. I posted a talk I gave at another conference here: The 6 Spiritual Lies Derailing Your Writing Process

For the higher purpose,

Mick

Why It’s So Important to Choose Your Music Before Writing

I’m looking for the right music to set the mood…

…because of course every artist is in training to concentrate more fully on the experience of the movement of their art. Writers train to hear the rhythm in the words. Musicians strain to hear the music in the notes….

So the question is what am I going to notice? What to hear, what to ignore, and how to choose.

But first, how much do I actually choose? Or am I better off accepting that no matter what efforts I make or daily practices I carefully implement, I am mostly at the mercy of unseen factors?

Certainly, my limits are always greater than I realize. Yet how much influence over the things I think about–and thereby become–do I truly have?

Is this what I should be thinking about? I believe how I answer determines what I ultimately believe. And what I believe determines my reality, and influences many others.

So while we can debate how or how much attention we can apply, still our decision of what exactly we believe about all this ultimately changes reality–for everyone, even if they’re unaware. And regardless of my impact on others, this choice matters for my life, maybe more than much else.

The obvious first observation here is that my attention to anything ebbs and flows, like waves, like a song. I’ll only be aware of the music some of the time. And I’ll only be aware of my awareness very infrequently. Oh, but the incredibly beautiful distractions!

Yet within the short time I have, there are specific ways I must focus my attention. This greatest gift of choice God gives everyone in equal measure, despite all the significant limitations we do have, it’s ours to claim or to lose. And if our very ability to choose focus is from God, shouldn’t what we choose to focus on be God?

We know there’s far more to life than an experience of the natural world. Shouldn’t we choose to go beyond our natural experience with the supernatural creator? Wouldn’t that be the most logical, rational choice for his gift of freedom?

There is a deeper music. He is here. Now. Stop and notice. Be with him.

That’s the singular, quiet voice at the core of this call. Oh, nothing in all this world is distraction. Do you hear the singing? And if this is what writing is, then it will be productive. If this is what living is, it will be productive. If this is what any activity, progress, or flourishing is, then we can let go of all we think we have to do today, and simply be with him in every moment.

That will be the measure of our progress. That will become the method for our practice of living aware, and loving awake.

Let it be so. And whatever you write, do, think, speak, feel, hope, want, sing, or believe, may it be from this one resolute, determined choice.

Amen. And amen.

For the higher purpose,

m

Don’t Sit Down in the Woods

“Every writer who’s finished has taken the axe into the woods and carved out their path where there seemed to be none before. They broke through their blocked way swinging word after word after word.”

It’s 2018. Are you ready? If you’ve set yourself a goal to finish that book, above all, you’re going to need stamina. You’re going to meet several new characters, and all will have challenges for you.

But don’t stop. Not until you’ve finished the first draft.

You’ll doubt your map, of course. But you learn what you’re writing by writing. You learn how to write by writing. Clear writing is rewriting, but that’s not your concern yet. Everyone who sets out questions the wisdom of plowing ahead when you know so little of what’s coming. But don’t stop. And never back up to revise or allow yourself to be tempted into “just fixing the setup,” etc. Fix it later. Right now, there’s only forward.

You figure out what you have to say by writing. If you’re writing to an outline, as you should be, you’ll think of something you need to add to or cut from what you’ve already written. Fine. Jot a note to adjust the next draft, and proceed as though it’s done. Because it will get done. But only if you keep moving forward now.

If only you knew what a great hope can wash over you seeing the things you’ve dreamed begin to pop out and come into reality.

And if halfway through, you suddenly discover this book is really about Z, and not X or Y, congratulations! You’ve struck gold. But don’t stop. Write as though it’s been about Z all along. Because it will be. If you don’t stop.

And do not give in to the temptation to share your first draft with anyone, even sweet old Grannie. If you get feedback too early, it will trick you into second-guessing and you’ll get lost, which greatly improves your chances of becoming one of the millions who never finish their book(s).

Take this to heart: if you get feedback this early, you’ll only wonder why you didn’t see what they saw and maybe that means you don’t know what you’re doing and you’ll start to believe you can’t do it. Take it from a guy who knows a bit about letting an editor see it too soon: if you stop before you finish the first draft, for any reason, your fatigue will catch up to you and you’ll wonder why you should keep on.

The excuses a tired mind can give for stopping are myriad. You’ll suddenly remember all the times you’ve stalled out before and all the unfulfilled hopes strewn along the path behind you will prove your faint hope was futile, you really don’t know what you’re doing at all, and it’s not going to work this time either.

You hear the lie, don’t you?

But you’re here now and you can kill it.

Just keep on. Keep the words as they are for now, as they’ve come to you, and appreciate all the hard work and truth-sleuthing it took to write it. And then keep on.

Every day you push forward is another to celebrate finishing a chapter. Even a small clutch of words can be a huge step forward, not just in getting the book done and finally out, but in becoming and owning all you’ve captured.

There will be time for another draft when you’re done. And once you reach the end, it will be much clearer what needs to happen next.

FTHP,

mick

 

Your One Power Trick for Great Storytelling

The trick is not easy. But it’s easily understood.

How do you know what to reveal when?

Writers who know that, and can do it consistently, are unstoppable.

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And one of the earliest ways we do this is simply getting into the scene.

Feel the emotions and desires of your characters and the weight of the situation. And watch when certain connections and meaningful things begin popping out.

Maybe the best way to notice and feel what’s most important in your story is to ensure there’s some good intensity in the scene. Write scenes that involve “high stakes”–i.e. lots riding on what’s happening for the characters. If there’s not enough at stake, you won’t feel it and you won’t know what really matters.

And neither will your readers.

If what to reveal when is our best goal, then really feeling the do-or-die stakes you’ve built (and augmented and rebuilt and fortified!) into your story is job one.

Job two, as Sol Stein taught me, is getting out of your own way.

Everyone’s got heroes. Mine are all bookish types. Here’s another: Steve Pinker. His new book, The Sense of Style, currently soaring up the bestseller list, defines “the curse of knowledge:”

“…a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.”

This, the Harvard professor of psychology says, is the source of bad writing, “the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose.”

Taken as such, it’s easy to see why I’m always saying writers need to pay more attention to their reader.

Readers don’t know half as much as you think they do. So slow down.

You may have already entered the scene and understood the action that will happen. Good for you. But you don’t know the first thing of what should be revealed and concealed because you don’t know what your reader knows.

With very little exception, this will solve a lot of your initial problems. But there’s also a trick to knowing what to withhold from readers. For the most part, you don’t decide what’s important to readers in your scene. So the trick is not merely getting cozier with what readers don’t know, but focusing on both revealing and concealing.

What to say when means this, specifically: revealing the necessary emotions, thoughts and actions that define character and plot, and concealing the secret emotions, desires and actions that create the mystery and drama.

Remember who knows which is which? That’s right: the one who gets in readers’ skin best. Pinker says this is why much advice on writing sounds like moral advice, as if being a good writer will make you a better person. Though there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary, certainly working out what your readers think and feel is at least as essential as getting into your characters’ shoes.

Bottom line: if every story is at the heart a mystery and a romance, that drama is fueled by how artfully and slowly you reveal the secrets being kept.

And knowing what is secret to readers, and what’s secret between the characters will guide how you know what to say when.

Writer’s Shortcut: The One Question that Ensures Success

In writing your story, you’ll come across so many distractions online, from self-publishing blogs to highly-rated writing courses, and 2-for-1 “essential” ebooks for writing with passion. But forget all that. All you need is what’s already inside you: that true passion you feel for your story. Passion is simply your greatest essential for starting a fire in someone else.

One of Sheri’s and my favorite stand-up comedians, Brian Regan has a bit where he jokes about an airline company that lost his luggage. When he went to the lost baggage counter, the employee says, “Don’t worry,” and reaches beneath the desk to pull out a little plastic case that reads “Essentials Kit.”

“Oh,” he says sarcastically. “So these are the essentials! I overpacked.”

Many writers I meet seem to have this similar dazed and confused look when they arrive at our appointment. I know they’re thinking, Did I bring everything I needed? 

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Just once I’d like to say, “So, did you bring your qualifications for speaking with me today?” Of course I would never do it!

You have to be careful teasing writers. We’re fragile as it is. Most of us just want to know if we’re doing it right.

And usually, we overpack.

What I really want is to hand them the Essentials Kit. Then they wouldn’t need to bother with all the how-tos and writing instruction and conferences and blogs. Whittling this writing thing down to the bare bones, the bottom-line basics, has been my quest ever since I struck out on my own. And now, one of the very few items in my kit is this question, the one I start an interview with:

“What’s your passion?”

Who doesn’t love talking about their passion? And reading about people’s passions can be just as fun. Take a subject you couldn’t care less about and if someone shares their passion for it, it can be endlessly fascinating.

Why?

Strangely, we’re attracted to what others are willing to suffer for.

I’m really asking, What are you willing to suffer for?

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Something in us knows that whatever we do, whether we pursue love or money or the 7th sword of Grindol or whatever, it’s going to require some suffering. Even if it’s only getting to sit at home and watch sports all day, we know this dream of ours is going to take some doing to make that happen.

As a counseling couple I love says, in life you choose your pain. It’s suffering either way.

So if we know this, how do we employ it?

Passion. It comes from the Latin verb patī meaning “to suffer.”

I can talk a good game, but for me, suffering is right up there with sales meetings. I know it teaches me, and God uses it and can redeem it. But only a fool wouldn’t take an easier way if it was offered. Right?

What makes someone choose the harder way? That’s the question.

And every reader is looking for one thing: Was it worth it? Did you get out of it what I want and need?

Writing and rewriting is signing up to suffer. People lose more than their luggage. They lose their shirts, their health, their sanity. Who wouldn’t want a shortcut?

If you want to succeed, you’ve got to find the one secret: you’ve got to be so passionate about what you’re sharing that you know it’s going to change readers’ lives.

I’ve been privileged to work with a few of these rare authors, and I’m always amazed at how light they travel. They’ve figured out the secret. Their “Essentials Kit” is tiny because they’ve reduced and refined to this one thing.

What it’s really all about.

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“What’s the one thing? Your finger?”

If you’re writing, learn this and you can save yourself much headache trying to pack in all the tools and tips and writing courses: continually reconnect with your passion at the core of your story. Remember all the love and excitement and drama you naturally feel for it, and the words that come out of you will convince me.

I’ll tell you what I’d say if I was sitting across from you, what I’m often reminding myself: Don’t worry, release all fear. This is your God-given gift for strong feeling. Use it. This suffering you endure is for your noblest cause. Turn up the passion.

That’s your freedom. You have complete permission now and forever to fan those flames, and never look back.

For when you do, you’ll be proving why our stories are worth suffering for.