Tag Archives: creative writing

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

Nope, Writing Is Still NOT About Creativity

“We are about contribution. That’s what our job is. It’s not about impressing people. It’s not about getting the next job. It’s about contributing something.”

 

What’s different about a book is far less important than what’s the same.

Conventional wisdom holds that all true artists abhor convention and delivering what’s expected. They’re just too creative for that.

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Unfortunately, that notion is dead wrong. No one is interested in such “pure creativity.” Readers aren’t interested in books that are completely out of the box—what would be the point? No, we all want what’s conventional and unoriginal. Yes we do. Most of any paragraph, scene, or chapter should be expected. Anticipated. 

Conventional.

Put another way, most of a story must follow the reader’s expectation.

When I was an acquisitions editor, I learned this was one of the important hidden keys to book proposals that sold. If the writer delivered what readers of that type of book expect, we’d be much more likely to be able to sell that book. That means a writer has to know the best books in their genre and how they met expectations.

DSC_0019Of course, there are uniquenesses to every successful book, and true, they break conventions and delight readers with creative surprises. But the total amount of those differences is less than 5 percent. The actual number may be higher, or even less, but most of the enjoyable parts of any successful book–fiction or nonfiction–are not new. Think about it.

In fact, if you want to know what made a particular book so successful, consider how that tiny amount of new, unpredictable material was actually a liability until it proved just enough to add to or improve on what was already available.

Higher purpose writers need to know good stories are built by following the conventions of good storytelling–a person we can identify with, a quest and settings we’ve experienced countless times, and plot developments that arise naturally from what the protagonist wants, and how they’re obstructed from it. You must see how your favorite author built their story with the existing material of their genre, the very same materials everyone uses, the traditional building blocks in the right sequence and with the proper attention—characterizations, plot points, descriptions, dialogue, strong verbs—then you too can use the elements to succeed–

Any artist brings particularities of expression. But more importantly, they satisfy expectations.

What’s too often missed is that a professional writer often allows readers to very nearly predict every single word because they’ve mastered the conventions so completely. Subtle nuances, and unique stylistic things notwithstanding, the surprises are secondary to everything first being perfectly placed.

And the proof is that a book can completely conform to your expectations to a remarkable degree, and somehow still convince you that writer is worthy of your attention.

In fact, the similarities between a new book and its established category may be what convinces you most.

DSC_0023What’s great about this is that it’s in the simple, expected ordinary elements of a story that we can give rise to the greater possibilities in any story. It’s just some colors blended from the primary three. Just eight basic notes in the scale. Just one alphabet, 3 acts, the same journey toward freedom. But when your readers are all desperate to get home again, they don’t want to be confounded at every turn. They want, first and foremost, to be comforted by what’s reassuring, and this is what makes an artist great: he has our best in mind.

Or as Pascal the restauranteur says in the film, Big Night, “Give people what they want, then later you can give them what you want.”

Any writer can write something completely new. New ideas are literally a dime a dozen. Only a writer with a higher purpose cares what readers want and delivers it. What’s different about a book is far less important than what’s the same.

With every professional artist’s work we talk about what’s special but only because it was built on the conventional foundation of perfection—that is, mastery—of every single element in that discipline.

All art is this way. Practiced conventionality is the work. It’s always been true and it will remain true forever: “creative” work is far more predictable than creative.

Or maybe the truth is that’s what creativity is. Learn what’s expected and how to deliver it. You won’t write other writers’ stories. But there are only a handful of archetypes and storylines. You’re offering an interpretation, much more than you even realize.

What you write matters. What you emphasize about the human condition and experience is a vitally important, needed perspective. But being different is inevitable. And when you get back to the work today, aim to be disciplined by the conventional and tradition.

Because that’s where you’ll prove you’re a writer: in the discipline that leads to freedom.

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“The writer is only free when he can tell the reader to go jump in the lake. You want, of course, to get what you have to show across to him, but whether he likes it or not is no concern of the writer.”

Flannery O’Connor

Can that also be true? Maybe we just all have to try and find out.

For the tried and true higher purpose,

Mick

What Writers Need to Know about Talent and Self-Discipline

The most important thing you can do is a lot of work….

– Ira Glass

 

 

 

They need to slow down.

Sitting with the other parents in the little orange plastic chairs at Charlotte’s cello lesson, I have to force myself to be quiet. The teacher is trying hard to get the other kids (the boys) to go slow and it’s obviously the hardest part of class, the push-back against his instruction, the reasons, explanations and excuses, the playing while he’s talking and continual interruptions.

Can’t they be quiet?

In fact, I don’t think so. At least not for a while. To slow the kids down and get them to pay attention and listen takes at least 10 minutes encouragement before they can relax and take in what he’s saying. But it’s work, and it’s easy to see it’s challenging for him.

It reminds me of how often I’m working hard to get writers to do the exact same thing: to take the time it takes to think their thoughts all the way through and not cut off the process.

Our tech age pushes us faster and faster, teaches us to expect fast. This is bad news for us.

Because we all naturally want to go fast. We want to see quick and easy results. But learning is always first about unlearning that impulse. And to unlearn the other bad habits we’ve accumulated, we’ve first got to slow down to notice many specific deficiencies. How slow can you go is an essential question for anyone learning music (or any art), but it’s a question very few of us truly want to consider because we want to believe we are faster, i.e. smarter than others.

We convince ourselves we already get it because we’re such “quick learners.” Who is telling everyone this same lie?

No one learns quickly. No one can appreciate everything they need to consider about a complex craft, let alone achieve artistic mastery, without a significant investment of time. And every single accomplished person has taken a lot of time to become so. Destroy your shortcuts. 

Because what we’re really talking about here is process over product and enjoying the journey. And that requires self-control, a deeply misunderstood fruit of the Spirit. Yet it’s the topic of this month’s Christianity Today cover article on “ego depletion,” The Science of Sinning Less:

“Because Christianity requires self-control, it logically follows that it also builds it, and thus we can expect active Christians to have relatively high levels of self-control.”

The article goes on to give four general strategies based in the latest science for Christians to develop greater self-control and willpower.  (I highly recommend the article, by sociologist Bradley Wright.)

An uncontrolled person is an impatient person. And patience is only available to those who’ve learned to wait. In other words, those who’ve slowed down.

My wife Sheri teaches piano lessons to kids. Guess what every single one of them needs to learn over and over each week?

Fast doesn’t matter. Fast kills growth. No plant grows fast. Nothing worth living for and having as your own comes fast. You must slow down and think about how much you really want this, how much you’re wiling to commit to it. Slowness is the painful work required to develop patience. And patience is required for a peaceful life.

I work with grownups to form and write their books. Guess what each one wants to do every week? Yes, move on, move forward, make “progress.”

And here’s what all of us need to realize about progress and speeding up: we’re being conned. Life is not about how fast you can live it. And no one cares how fast you can go if you can’t first do it well.

The great violin instructor Dorothy Delay, famously claimed talent is a mood. The truth of that is only acknowledged the more you practice and refine.

A young artist just wants to get all the notes right. A mature artist wants to use the art to express the right ideas and emotions, the mood, and to do it with that essential level of controlled intensity (the key quality of writing well). 

I believe to get every artist to realize what’s needed and then to pursue it, God has to be the great patient teacher, using our frustration and impatience to draw out our passion, and to help us learn to express what the art demands in the way we were specifically designed to do it.

As artists, we sense that to achieve what we want, what the world demands, we need discipline and self-control. And if willpower is more like a muscle than a battery, our goal must be to develop strength and stamina by increasing our capacity and tolerance. It’s easier to let the muscle atrophy by letting it do what it (thinks it) wants: to rest. But to grow, it has to be stretched and strengthened.

Writing is a long-game goal. Every real author I’ve ever known has thought they were the exception to the rule and could go fast and take a few shortcuts–because they were smart and had already gone through so much schooling or written more than most people, or whatever.

But the process is the process. And every song you learn to play well takes the time it takes to learn the fingering, and when to put in the pauses, and how to change the expression and dynamics just right. And every single time, you have to unlearn something you thought you already knew, slow down, and get it right for THIS song.

And every book you write is just like learning to play a new song. Every creative work you ever decide is worth your investment will be just like that. If you want people to take time with your work, then you have to be willing to be the first who took the time with it to understand it well.

Every successful book requires at least four drafts to refine. Everyone’s process is a little different, but slower equals clearer, and from first draft to last, slowing down with each pass is essential, I promise you.

As the kids play together, the song becomes the way they are pulled along to enter the moment. And for a brief half-minute, they’ve slowed-down to find the timing of the harmony, to stay together. It is work, but you can hear how they’ve managed to internalize that slow rhythm, and the effect is beautiful. The learning that’s happening is obvious.

Long bows, and slow resonant notes. They’re getting it.

And I think the parents in the audience are getting it too.

For the higher purpose, 

Mick

Writing into the Light

Like most who pursue this creative life, while writing I’m more dependent on the daily requirements of my existence than I like to admit.

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And like most, I’m terrified of losing my routine. The little habits I’ve grown addicted to, of waking and showering and reading, preparing and preserving the ideas and energy for the page, they’ve grown to encompass more of the real world I’m forced to face every day. And it worries me, but the less life demands, the less I have to fight to escape into the lucid dream of my story world.

In the realer world, the one beyond the physical, no mere intellect serves. A writer can visit this world and translate its whisperings as “fiction,” yet the language there is a weirdly enveloping experience. At times, I’ve known only heaven could provide such inspiration so dissimilar to my waking reality, even though it’s like nothing I’ve read in a Bible or heard in church. I can’t claim to know the place even partially—it’s a world I’ve only imagined and barely described with words.

But it exists as surely as I do. And no sanctuary in my experience has been holier.

As I write, I go to this place and my hope is to convey my visits. When I’m not writing, it always waits for me to wake up to it, hoping I’ll remember as I go about my daily business. At times the longing for it grows so strong, I go to write and wake up there, as though I’d never left. Yet eventually, bleary-eyed and squinting, I’m again forced to emerge from the vacuum chamber of a story, to re-acclimate to this dimmer, more tangible place. Sometimes I resist returning, but I always give in, to remain available to my wife, family and the many other things I love.

But as Erasmus said, the desire to write grows with writing.

164819_494124054563_777394563_5801658_7068250_nIf that world didn’t exist, I wouldn’t want to write, for this realer dream is a treasure room of such glorious beauty, and writing of it is how I bring some shining thing back to share, even a tiny spark to inspire others before it disappears and we all have to go about our busy lives once again.

Isn’t it our truest job to allow this attraction to be our strongest longing–at least for a few fleeting moments? Like any obsession, the more invested I am in seeking it, the more I want it.

I know I can’t simply stay in that wonderful place forever. For one thing, I’m always alone there. And it’s fearsome at times and I know I have to come back and share my struggle so other will know it’s normal to be afraid at times and weary, torn between this dingy earth and the mysterious one inside—however alive it makes us feel.

Maybe that conflict is part of the beauty itself: that inescapable pull between life here and life there is the basis of the inspiration born of that stark contrast and endless battle to see and feel it. Maybe this strain we feel between our worlds is what made us creators in the first place, the seekers of wonders known so far only to the original Creator. And either we fight to face the challenge to see all we can and render it faithfully—or we work to forget there’s anything there.

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I’ve spent years of study and practice and no one told me about this place. Most haven’t believed in it, or I assumed they didn’t. Others act like it should be an easy matter to find out whatever this world beyond is. But nothing about this struggle to believe is ever easy. To conquer the fear of wasting your time, or of escaping familiar life, that commitment must be new every day. It’s only when I’m seeking the clues of that greater world that the importance of my calling becomes clear, the true gravity of my simple, tiny life.

Because what actually is this place? Isn’t it merely these continually growing and waning flashes of insight, these expansive and microscopic moments birthed by writing into the blank space, and filling it with all my paltry-but-full-of-hope words, tinged by light but tarnished by my clumsy hands? I trade my body and mind for a spirit always more awake than I, and I keep on until all that remains outside melts away and my life grows quiet around me and my inner senses grow stronger. And then I know I’m there and here, at once.

And always, just beyond that bend ahead, my Maker beckons preparing me for when the moment is finally right. I’ll press forward, always sensing the fragility, only a thin string of words left to share until there’s no longer anything stopping me from escaping for that last time…

And then I’ll only be there,

Forever.

For the Higher Purpose,

Mick

My #1 Tool for Ultimate Productivity, Part 2

“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”
—George Orwell

Do all writers struggle with low productivity?
I believe they do. At least until they get free of having to perform for validation and acceptance.

DSC_0007What? You don’t do that? Well, let’s just see….

As I said last time, first we have to get free of the pressure to produce. Then, we have to get free of the pressure to perform. And if we could all let go of the idea that our worth was by some great talent or our perfect skill, we might finally realize it’s by consistency within inadequacy that we become the writers we really want to be.

And need to be. Because that freedom is also what every reader longs for.

But how do we actually get free of performance anxiety to become productive?

Last time, I shared my #1 tool for eliminating low productivity: instead of focusing on being productive, focus instead on showing up, and merely read what you wrote last. That’s being consistent.

DSC_0002This week, unfortunately, we’re not so lucky. Removing the pressure to perform isn’t so easy. We don’t like inadequacy. We write to feel validated and affirmed (I know, not you, but everyone else), you’ll feel pressure to produce only “good” work—and that causes you to try to control your output. It won’t be honest or true enough, and you’ll be producing junk.

I know. I’ve been there.

Ask any writer if they’ve lived this. Over and over, I’ve tried to remove the pressure by showing up and reading the previous days’ pages, then slowly getting back into it once I felt freer. But when I saw how my own feelings were intricately wound up in the main character’s, I feared writing a book that revealed my true feelings, even through fiction. And I choked.

I was almost 40 when I realized I was writing to have my wounds seen and the damage to my heart known and accepted. It never crossed my mind before; it was just “fiction.”

DSC_0009But it was never just fiction. It was fictionalized autobiography. And as the book grew and became more honest and I had less places to hide from my fear of family and strangers who’d read it and judge me, as I knew they would, I knew writing it would leave me exposed. I’d have to admit I’d felt silenced, dominated and unimportant. And many people experience that and worse, so I was also afraid my story would seem small in comparison. I may never be normal, but I had so much to be grateful for. Others may never know what it really feels like to be free as I had…

And yet. Had I ever been able to write in full honesty or get over my resentment and anger? In the end, it’s always been just too much, and the fear of what might happen if I spoke up held me back. Finally facing that and feeling it was the only way to recover a semi-normal working process. To share it all and escape and begin a deeper level of healing, I had to let it go.

Of course, therapy and loving community is essential too, however you find it. Even though I knew letting go controlling what people saw was the secret to productivity, I still couldn’t show up thinking I was going to write what will heal me. I couldn’t even show up thinking I was going to write, necessarily. I still had to let go of producing something so a non-pressured process could take its place.

And I’m ever in need of prayer and friendship, so the need for validation gets dealt with, diminished bit by bit.
Through showing up and just reading my previous words, I recall my truth, the fears I’ve carried and the wound I’ve caused by diminishing them. And facing that mess, I slowly move through the next stage of healing what led me to writing in the first place.

DSC_0005We can’t aim for it, but it’s only from this redeemed ground we recover anything that may help someone else. And perfectionism dies a thousand tiny deaths…

Sadly, I don’t know if years or books or experience or time ever fully resolve this. And I still want a silver bullet, some beautiful solution, but so far I haven’t found one. I say that with all the empathy I’ve been able to recover so far…

I don’t think there is one.

But there is a beautiful broken way to productive writing, a “secret” to consistent work. We show up, we look at the blocks we’ve set up, why we set them up, who was involved, what it produced, and when…and we can know this: we’ll get free.

Just by willingness to be inadequate, and to let the story deliver what we need.

And maybe instead of perfect examples, we’ll become true writers.

Sadly imperfect. But honest.

Hopelessly unimpressive. But free.

Roald Dahl quote

For the higher purpose,

Mick