Tag Archives: commitment

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

How Embracing Pain Can Prevent Jerkitude

I’m special. I know you’re wondering how I know. But I’ve always known, crazy as that sounds.

In fact, I suspect most people who haven’t experienced big, deep pain probably agree with this. And anyone who has experienced a massive life event that brought them deep pain, they’ll probably confirm it:

Not suffering pain makes you special. Since life inevitably brings giant hardships, having so far somehow escaped proves I’m special. All the myriad pains life could have brought, and maybe should have brought, I’ve managed to sidestep. That obviously makes me fortunate, right?

Or maybe it makes me pitiably common.

Having never experienced great pain, I often think I shouldn’t have to. I think I can avoid it through planning, cunning, skill, and plain inborn specialness–in other words, luck. And at least until something painful enough happens, I’m likely to go on believing in my good fortune and being special.

And like most who’ve been spared, I believe a bunch of crazy things about why. One of my favorite, almost sacred beliefs is that my life should continue this way and progress without much struggle, effort, or especially pain. The longer I go without it, the scarier it becomes, and it embarrasses me to admit this, but I don’t necessarily believe it because I think it’s true, but because I don’t want to admit that it’s false.

Oh, but I know pain is coming whether I accept it or not….

After my freshman year of high-school, I went for a run one summer’s day. Remembering what the football coaches called “hell week” was coming up, I thought I’d try to get in shape. I hoped taking a few weeks to work up to the physical demands would help me avoid some of the hellishness I’d endured last season.

Somewhere around the third week of training, I rounded the corner where I usually turned up the juice to sprint for home, and there was nothing in the tank. I’d increased the distance little by little, but today my noodly legs burned and I was drowning.

If I slowed, I’d never make my goal. I could try again tomorrow, but I only had so many days left, and I’d missed several already. I hadn’t pushed like I should have. I’d never get this chance back, but as my momentum began slowing, I hit the mental wall.

The combo of physical exhaustion and the psychological exertion amplified it into something I’d never felt. That stab of new awareness remains with me to this day, awakening and clearing off everything but the flash of inspiration:

Embracing this level of pain is what everything most worth having in life will require. This is what commitment means.

I have no idea why it broke through my foggy stupor in that moment, or why it was so indelible. And unfortunately, it was a mere blip in my well-ingrained system of pain-avoidance and denial. It’d be several years before I realized rejecting this wisdom was the source of every jerk. But I’ve never regretted experiencing it when life has brought a new, exquisite anguish my way.

I’ve read countless stories of people fighting back after accidents, a fire, a child’s death. Such disasters convince me it’s no big loss I can’t run anymore. My feet can’t take running, but I still push myself to face the discipline it takes to grow. I know every great advance of civilization has required great pain. Why should my life be any different?

But part of me still believes wholeheartedly it should be, because I’m special. And if only everyone could be spared like I have, well, life would be one big 1980s party all the time, just like it’s supposed to be.

Obviously, this dangerous, unexamined belief can’t continue. It has already caused me untold problems. If I took but a moment to notice the fatigue of fighting not to see it, I’d realize this.

Am I truly unaware of how damaging it is? Is there a better definition of a jerk than one who believes he’s escaped pain because of his specialness?

If I could only see all the extra pain this false “specialness” causes–to myself and others. If I could see all the missed, prevented growth because of this evil belief. …

“It is only in the heat of pain and suffering, both mental and physical, that real human character is forged. One does not develop courage without facing danger, patience without trials, wisdom without heart-and brain-racking puzzles, endurance without suffering, or temperance and honesty without temptations. These are the very things we treasure most about people. Ask yourself if you would be willing to be devoid of all these virtues. If your answer is no, then don’t scorn the means of obtaining them.” – Dallas Willard,  The Allure of Gentleness

Do I habitually scorn pain? I may like to sound borderline masochist, but I shun just about every type of suffering, which ultimately only causes more. Is this one reason I seek out safe, imagined pain in stories and entertainment–because choosing purposeful pain is what I need most?

Maybe, in this culture of shallow pursuits and unrelenting selfishness, some people need stories to remind them of the need to choose purposeful pain? Should it be any wonder so many apathetic, depressed, and medicated people suffer for the lack of meaningful pain, the kind that brings growth and must be chosen?

“All we need to do is make an honest and thorough effort to discover what is right and wrong, good and bad, and, when we are convinced on these points, then simply go out and face life for what it is worth.” (Allure of Gentleness)

Why would I think I can escape this difficult fact of life? Should I try to write, live, or do anything without realizing my greatest task is first to understand what every hero must accept about this life and this impulse to flee all pain?

The plain fact is, the pain isn’t the problem so often as running from it is.

There is pain we can choose to face, and there is pain that is chosen for us. Neither comes by random luck. And no pain is improved by not facing it and accepting it as an opportunity to grow. I can’t continue living until I learn this. I have to get this simple, seemingly-impossible lesson between my ears before anything else.

I believe in God, the Almighty Creator of all heaven and earth. I believe he is pure, sacrificial, unconditional Love. Therefore, what challenges me most is always for my good. What causes me to struggle most is always what I need most.

It’s not about seeking out pain, or even welcoming it. But neither can I continue to hate it if I truly want to understand its higher purpose. Like exercise, it’s never completely pleasant, but the day will come where the incredible struggle will seem to fall away, and what’s left will be the exhilarating feeling and the knowledge that pain is not the fearsome enemy I feared.

Facing this is how we grow. That’s certain. How else would we recognize its true value? What else but pain is so important to us, so convincing, so unavoidably, regrettably, intractably interwoven with our existence? What else but God gives life such meaning, weight, and purpose?

Is there a greater, more motivating force in our lives than pain?

And is there any more important decision than to learn to face it well?

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

Committing to Real Progress

“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” 

– Philippians 3:12

I like to think of myself as one who does not accept second best.

But I do it all the time.

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Not from others but from myself. And not physically, but in commitment, in discipline to this vision I’ve carried for so long.

I often give up, I do.

I prefer the comfort of “good enough.”

Sheri and I drive to the mall in peace, insulated from the need and struggle all around us. We’re taking the opportunity of a free weekend night to hit a couple sales and see if there’s anything we like among all the things we don’t need.

It can be so easy to believe nothing is forcing me to push forward.

The girls are happy at home, reading and practicing music. Things are good here. Why risk messing that up with sticking my neck out for idyllic principles no one would understand?

The fears can whisper so comfortingly and convincingly, they sound like my own voice.

CafeJadeBut they’re not mine. They belong to the world shrouded in darkness.

We park and walk past all the retail stores overflowing with new items, the mall already advertising Christmas with garlands and canned music and a giant tree of lights. The other shoppers of all types and ages prove it’s safe to assume no one else here needs any of this either.

There are too many people here. Too many people accepting the convenient comforts and forgetting that progress and true satisfaction only comes from the opposite. From the inconvenient and the uncomfortable.

In this world of ease, doing the harder thing has become the right thing.

Why do I know this so firmly? I don’t own the insight; like all I know, it came to me. I didn’t even ask for it, but it was given to me, like everything I possess. I’m a steward of this and all I possess, and I prove myself a poor one time and again.

I’ve seen true need and it’s in many of these people’s eyes. I want to help them, speak to them. I want to use well all I’ve been given.

I know the gifts that came to me from parents, family, teachers and friends are to be shared and that requires commitment most of all. I know this. So why don’t I commit? What am I afraid of?

And it comes to me as I stand before the giant Christmas tree that the answer to this question is the secret to progressing in my vision and calling.

music-center-christmas-treeThe answer is simple: because it requires sacrifice.

I know all things truly worth having involve sacrifice. To be disciplined, we have to sacrifice. How many of us know it? How many of us will actually do it?

Those who can commit to practicing what they preach are the ones who will succeed at changing lives.

The alternative is wasted chances, stagnation, common imitation and apathy. Am I not pretending I don’t make this choice every day?

But hang on. For many years, like a typical Type-A, I’d hear this advice and think, “I have to try HARDER!”

We don’t need to try harder. We need to get smarter. Remember where the call came from. Remember who you serve.

Love. Love is our motivation. We forget to call on the source of our true strength in our weakness.

If I was braver, I’d stand in front of this bright tree and tell them all, “You are loved and you are called! But you’re loved and called as broken and fallible human beings. Don’t try to fill that need with things, with prestige. Your need isn’t for stylish things or favor, but for love and the purpose only love can bring. Then when you work or play, it’s truly productive, and sacrificing all of this doesn’t matter.”

That’s it. I need that reminder too. Without our Inspirer, we can’t help anyone. We’d only be giving them another distraction. We need patience to forget about immediate results, and let completion and perfection remain far off. But we can joy in the progress, even if it isn’t visible right away. We can commit to the longer journey, the promised fullness underway that’s only beginning.

And we can speak what we know as creatives, reminding ourselves and others that success is inevitable with enough time and commitment.

Maybe this is my first gift of Christmas this year. To commit to the best and discipline ourselves to sacrifice for what really matters—this is how we’ll help others with the resources and wisdom we’ve come to possess, our true possessions to offer through art that reveals its wonder and beauty.

I know I’m being crazy. It’s not like I think shopping is evil or everyone here is bad. And it’s not that I really want to speak to the strangers at the mall; I’m just being theatrical. But part of me really does want to.

But I’m starting with you. And maybe you’ll speak to your people, and together we can beat back some of that noise we too often mistake for ordinary comforts, this easy normal life here in the west.

The one that whispers to forget your dream, your calling. The one that undermines and snickers. The one that’s from a dead-end, defeated, dying world.

And you and I and all the rest of the people just walking around, we need to be reminded sometimes that we all belong to the light.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

Writing for All the Wrong Reasons

Do most writers start writing because they want to teach readers something? I think I did.

Then when I realized writing is So Very Hard, I shifted to hoping I might merely bring some people hope.

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But I started to realize no one without hope really reads books. So eventually, I think maybe I was only writing for myself, as a natural response to the world around me. Not to teach, or even bring hope, but to live receptive to the work.

Had I finally grown up enough to write for the right reasons?

It’s not that I’d become selfish–I think I started out that way and became less so I continued. But I think one can write for himself and still be aiming to inspire, educate and bring hope. It’s the wanting to do all that that seems to have made it, well, sort of agenda-driven.

Many books have an agenda, no doubt and sometimes I suppose that’s fine. But I get so tired of it. And it takes time to get real and drop the act, the false beliefs that tell us life can be simplified and boiled down into its basic parts. Anyone can write something and ship it out without taking the time it needs to be refined into the subtle, balanced flavors it needs to represent real life and stand up to the questions and valid arguments against its acceptance.

(Of course, those who need to hear that most are too busy publishing junk to listen…but never mind.)

DSC_0013Flannery O’Connor said that to expect too much from our writing is sentimentality, and such softness eventually leads to bitterness. I tend to think she was right. Optimism about teaching readers something or about people’s warm embrace of our refined work will not lead to warm cheeriness. Nevertheless, despite the garbage some readers and writers prefer to gulp down whole, O’Connor’s realism helped her accept that it’s hard, and with one eye squinted she said she was able to take it as a blessing.

That sounds a bit Ecclesiastical to me: “Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun.” (Eccl. 2:11)

Embracing that we can’t do a darn thing about much of reality may seem like pessimism on the surface. But it’s true and the truth doesn’t change according to our ability to stomach it (O’Connor again). What’s more, people won’t start reading the books they should simply by believing they should or by some Pollyanna positivity.

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Only if we look at our work honestly and give it the time it needs to mature can we embrace reality, and have an influence in changing it.

So toward that end, I offer some inspiring thoughts for you to take into your work week and mull over. These are from my own grappling with reality, clutching onto many things, and eventually letting them go again…

When I reveal what a reader needs to figure out himself, it ruins the mystery and cheapens my story.

Of course editing is subjective. But until I     consider  the many ways to say one thing, I don’t know the best way to say just what I mean.

Every writer has the right, the privilege, the duty not to explain everything. It is a writer’s core value that identifies which things are which.

This dedication to the refined truth, the veiled beauty, the carefully obscured mysteries to be discovered, it’s what keeps me writing. I wonder if maybe it’s what keeps us all writing, after all. And removing all that stands in its way, and committing all we have and are to remaining attuned to the Inspirer, isn’t this the great, all-important reason to write after all?

If I can only dedicate to the “lifestyle of invitation” in all of my life, to receive like the trees and the plants that turn their leaves up to prepare for the sun, waiting in that posture regardless of rain, clouds or storms…

If only I can be ready for the searching, for the waiting, to capture all the blessing that’s given… Isn’t that balance worth a lifetime of service? Wouldn’t that be the passion matured that I want in all things I love, open and prepared to speak the beauty, the truth, the justice to life, and to right the wrongs with the words….

“The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.” ― Flannery O’Connor