Tag Archives: creativity

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

 

 

What Do Your Prepositions Say About You?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…in, with, for, as, after, by, on.

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

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

“In Christ you have been brought to fullness.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the higher purpose,

Mick

 

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

Creativity and the Holy Pursuit of Delight

As I came to map out the work week with Sheri this morning, I made space to sit at the dining room table that looks out on the forest, reclaiming an edge from her paper collage experiment.

My desktop image. I call it “voyagers.”

I make efforts to be gentle and remind her not to apologize.

It’s not the laptops and cellphones we should be making space for, after all, but the more uncommon beauty that takes time to be arranged.

It’s not uncommon to find Charlotte hard at work on a project here, or artwork from one of Ellie’s ad hoc drawing games.

They’re beautiful rough drafts, unfinished, forever in process.

And so are their artworks. :)

Often, there’s music notation or photos cut from magazines or several books stacked up for school projects with pages sticking out of them. An unexpected visitor could wonder if we live on a diet of multicolored paper. And we’re obviously over-indulgers.

In fact, you’ll find paper in every room of the house (not even including the rolled kind or the kind that comes in tissue boxes). Multiple books, notebooks, manuscripts, drawings, and plans are stashed, stacked and strewn in their respective locations, waiting to be reingested.

Like cud. :)

And for some reason this morning I stopped to wonder why. We each have our digital devices, but why this deep vice of consuming paper? We hang it on walls, give it as gifts, organize our lives around it. And no one ever talks about reduction, only increase.

If the trees could see in the windows, they might turn on us and start throwing their fruit and pinecones.

An observant person might see all this paper as evidence of an obsession with creativity. Their shared passion is for the words, music and pictures we’re preserving, an insatiable appetite born of a deep curiosity.

I believe it’s a sacred inner fire: the holy pursuit of delight.

How do they determine what makes it onto a page? Some ideas need to be chewed a while, to reshape things in your mind and heart. Some things you keep coming back to over and over, teaching you how to listen and growing your ability to hear them. Some are waiting for their right moment to show you how to more fully engage with life.

Some of the smallest pieces can hold the biggest thoughts you’ve ever had. And I don’t have to watch their faces to know there’s delight in every mark. Whether tentative or confident, every sweep of captured motion hints at a hidden world.

If you came to visit today and we had this discussion over coffee in the morning, or tea in the afternoon (or whiskey in the evening, I suppose, if you stayed that long), I’d submit that this pursuit of delight is our messy, introverted way to honor and delight our creative God.

As we make space for all of this, all we sense him speaking through, we feel a sort of shared delight if you will, equipping us to understand and take in more of our purpose in this journey.

We’re not unique in this, though we each have unique perspectives and gifts. And there’s beauty in all of it, though much of the time experiments fail and don’t live up to expectations. But the more we can realize what we’re really doing, and acknowledge that–“I am pursuing my holy delight”–the better we can pay attention when the voices of doubt and derision come.

What you acknowledge is what gets captured.

And you can write that down and stick it somewhere in your own messy house to come upon later. I share it in the hope that it will reshape you as it has me into someone more confident and less concerned with the appearance of mess.

For it’s a holy pursuit, this creative life. And we take time to be arranged and to realize the delight we’re a part of every day when we determine to capture even one more glimmer.

For it’s your own hearts we’re ultimately reclaiming, for the higher purpose,

Mick