Tag Archives: fear

All Writers Be Crazy: Some Thoughts on Why

To write is to struggle. You know this, or at least, you sense it, though to write you have to ignore it often.

The struggle is endemic, so common it’s hardly worth mentioning. And yet, people who don’t write have no idea, no frame or context for this. And so we often wonder why it’s so hard and if it’s only us, and we don’t admit our deep unrest.

Madeline L’Engle famously said, “If you want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you.” It’s good advice–you need to be in conversation, in relationship, with your work and your process, and that does need to become a personal, private, and protected connection for you. I think this is easy to understand for Christians who already know the source of inspiration, and the struggle to remain connected with Him.

Like talking about an invisible savior who lives and interacts with us in our hearts and minds, it can sound mmm, a bit “cra-cray.” Writing is an invisible friend of the seemingly crazy and capricious variety, like Bing-Bong in Inside Out.

 

Maybe this is a reason so many people love Bing-Bong (and Jesus): we all know deep down our lives depend on friends we have to use our imagination to see and get to know. 

Of course, no one wants to make too big a deal about this. After all, there’s the very real, corporeal world we have to contend with as adults, and everyone has to grow up and let their imaginary friend die at some point. Right?

Well, writer, Christian writer, what can I tell you? You’re special. 

People aren’t going to respect the fact that you keep a little notebook to write down all the crazy you hear between the lines of conversation at the grocery store. Normal people–let’s call them “muggles,” even though most are harmless and not like the Dursleys…

They don’t care so much about yours; they just have other jobs and callings. And it’s a very good thing too, since we have to live and get our plumbing fixed and find exterminators and things.

In my experience, writers all seem to get this difference fairly intuitively, maybe because this relationship with invisible people started a long time ago for them. We all met a character in a book at some point who was so real, it couldn’t just be the creation of a writer. But it was. And writers beget writers this way all the time.

Until we realize that it isn’t writing that makes us cranky and crazy, or even the muggles, but our own internalized perfectionism and that voice of fear we all hear, we’re prone to the debasing dismissals we tend to get from “the real world:” What have you published? Aren’t you finished yet? Why would you write that? 

Again, they don’t know what they’re doing and don’t mean anything by it (you’re not actually doing anything useful, after all). But they can inadvertently stoke the flames of those hellish fears we all have. But while we’re still breathing, we have to learn to sidestep and dismiss these distracting, irrelevant, unhelpful “real-life” concerns.

Self-doubt is poison to your system.  It’s universal and all authors, even famous, multi-published writers feel it. But the successfully productive ones also deal with it and have learned how to sidestep and disarm it. You don’t get to complete your mission until you learn how to do this.

Step one is to value your process and understand it’s a vulnerable relationship, just like every other meaningful relationship in your life. This is a primary relationship you have to show up to cultivate every day, no matter what other considerations or responsibilities you have.

Step two is to feel what you feel, but deal honestly with it and don’t let it derail you. Express it to a fellow writer or group of writers and don’t try to go it alone. Writing friends are essential.  Know it’s normal, and you aren’t strange for having an invisible, intangible, ephemeral “friend” who helps you and inspires your life.

And step three is to keep showing up every day. Just do what you can manage right now and let it be enough. A great book can start with 5 minutes a day and grow from there. But only a writer who knew it took dedicated time, and learning to say “no” to many other worthy pursuits is able to make the practice of a process their priority. 

Pomodoros can make you more productive. And strategy and planning can keep you producing, because this is all about doing it and not just talking or thinking about it. But in the end, knowing you’re not alone in your imaginary world can calm the voices of fear and that’s what can convince you it’s worth the time and sacrifices to commit.

In fact, everyone has an imagination, so everyone knows what it’s like to hear these voices. Writers are just those who’ve made it their business to face them and choose the right ones to listen to.

And that’s a specific understanding and skill you can enjoy for a lifetime. :)

Letter to an Anonymous Author

“I am a writer. Therefore, I am not sane.”

― Edgar Allan Poe

Dear X,

I appreciated your note, my friend. And I’m grateful for it.

I’ve seen your struggle and I know how hard you’re working to progress and capture everything well, and also accept help. I knew your journey would be a special challenge, and while your issues and the resistance you’ve encountered is unique to you, I find (and I’d think your agent would agree) that resistance is also the most common thing about working on books.

Writers be farking crazy.

I know because I am one, first and foremost. To create a cohesive, authentic story out of your own life experience you have to dig into old emotions and memories and that’s like poking a sleeping dragon. Either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid.

Your memories and inner struggles are unique to you, but every writer who dares this work finds that monster in the mirror and has to face it. You’re not alone in that–far from it. I see it over and over again, and it’s part of what drives me to study counseling and psychotherapy.

But my primary motive in all of this is understanding my own issues and my own resistance to progress, to change, and to accepting help for my struggles. I want to learn how to be better, and like you, I’m drawn by something bigger and higher than myself pulling me out and convincing me I’m okay and I can let go of my fear and protectiveness. As I read, my heart says, Yes, that’s true for me too, and I listen to that voice and he shows me where we need to go–to help you, yes, but mostly to help myself.

Early on, I know you didn’t want to accept any changes from me. The less I did, the happier you were. So I stuck to cleaning up the “verbal diarrhea” and made sure the digressions didn’t feel too distracting. I told myself that was enough and your freedom was more important than being succinct and focused.

After rereading it now, I stand by that. It’s conversational, inviting, and down-to-earth, just as you are and I don’t want to change that anymore. You were right to push back against my “literary sensibilities,” and I’m glad you did. I think readers will appreciate your honesty, sincerity, and personable style–just like they do in your other writing.

I’ll let sharper minds than mine decide whether we can trim any further–while there’s always more tightening that can be done, every book has an irreducible flow as well. As I said, I don’t think I’m objective enough to know whether we’re hitting that in every spot, but I can hear you speaking the lines in my head and that convinces me we’ve captured your essential style. I’m not worried at all about the length–never have been. It’s long and I want to let others know we’re aware of that and we don’t think it’s a problem. It’s a work of beauty just the way it is.

I’m sorry for the times I haven’t understood your vision and for pushing you at times beyond what was reasonable. You and your book are a work of exquisite art balanced between extreme contrasts, and like all beautiful works of art, you and your book are symbolic of the creator from which you spring, one-of-a-kind as anything. I appreciate you and your book as such wonders.

Thanks for sticking with it and being true to yourself–you teach me tons, and I’m so thankful to get to work with you.

(Don’t think this means I’m going easy on you if we get another shot at this. The struggle is inevitable and inextricable. And fears be danged, that’s for good, not bad.)

Looking forward to the rest of the journey.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

Why You Can Never Fail

I need a story about failure,” I said to Sheri and the girls as we sat down to a Saturday night dinner of take-out pizza.

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“Surely you can help me think of something,” I added, laughing. “Should be plenty of material.” 

But whether they knew something they didn’t want to share, or couldn’t think of anything, no one had an answer. Apparently, I’d also failed to show my appropriate glee in being a miserable failure.

“I once got an F in Old Testament in college,” Sheri offered. “Or maybe it was a D. It felt like an F.”

“Oh yeah,” I said. “Old Testament was crazy hard.” 

“I once got a B in science,” Ellie added. “Mrs. Sutton’s class in fifth grade. I totally deserved it, but I was devastated.”

“Really?” I hadn’t realized. “Did you mention it and I just forgot?”

“I don’t know.” Her hand paused on her pizza. “I only ever got A’s, until that.”

We’ve lived together every day of her life, but how little I really know about her. Is this my failure to ask about her days? Or maybe to truly listen? It could be she just failed to tell me about it. But even so, maybe she believed I’d fail to offer comfort. “It’s fine,” I could hear myself saying. “A ‘B’ is still pretty good….” 

Whatever the case, I had my answer. My parenting is often so incredibly inadequate. And the fact that my daughters and wife wouldn’t say so directly may only be more proof. 

164819_494124054563_777394563_5801658_7068250_nAnd I’m not just being ungracious to myself here. If I were to open the floodgates and start sharing all the ways I fail constantly–to be who I truly am, the more selfless and giving me–wouldn’t I truly connect more?

Isn’t that what relating really means—to relate your truest stories of your inadequate self that could help someone else relate?

It looks like a giant opportunity stretching out before me, a big, bold solution to several fundamental struggles I have. I always want to accomplish a lot and have big impact, but no matter how much I get done, I end up feeling like a failure, a “dad by default,” a distracted, disorganized, disappointment of a dud. It might take me a few lifetimes to replace this bad habit with a good one, to wake every day and remember that whether I can do everything I feel called to that day or not, sharing my authentic self is the real goal. 

I’ve needed to remember this, to look beyond what I do or don’t accomplish, to the awareness of how I’m doing at noticing, being, and sharing me. 

Because here’s what I know: the big things we want to do aren’t the point. Family and friends are the real point of life. And we can’t help wanting to do more and be more than we are. But to do that, we need to start getting some better mileage out of our failures.

IMG_0616Isn’t this the vulnerability Brene Brown and others have talked so much about? We all want to do such big things and have such great impact, but why aren’t we more honest about our shortcomings? Why don’t we shed our inhibitions and share what we’re bad at, where we struggle, and even our discomfort over appearing inept?

Of course, because of judgment. We’ve been wounded and we took those voices in and let them chastise us relentlessly. And that shaming formed us, formed our self-image to a large extent.

On top of that, as Christians we hear “die to self,” and “the heart is wicked above all else,” and “put aside selfish desires.” And we can struggle for years trying to believe all the Bible memorization and church attendance and prayers and journaling should help.

And why can’t we “Just. Get. Over. It. Already?!”

Everyone else is more resilient than we are, more determined to press on, more spiritual. We’re just failures. And we’re right to be ashamed.

We take all of this in and dwell on it to no end. It’s right and good to care what others think and we never realize this entire foundation is made of sand. 

We could let it all crumble and rebuild on rock. This inner torment could be discarded and we’d be free.

We’ve hidden our feelings and true personalities from this bully God, the one who’s so disappointed in us he can hardly bear to hold on and offer us this supposed “free grace and forgiveness.”

He’s only doing it because he has to. 

We all believe this in our deepest hearts. How could we ever accept that we’re failures? Our deepest fear broadcast and spread far and wide? Come to full life on the big screen for everyone to see?

Are you kidding me?

No one needs to know the pain and suffering we’ve endured. We’re so tired of feeling like failures all the time….

IMG_0763To let that all go and embrace our inadequacy we’d have to accept our deepest fear: our shame. Sharing our stories of failure could be our greatest opportunity to connect, but to do that we’d have to accept and come to believe it’s important to be vulnerable.

And that can seem downright impossible.

I was Ellie’s age when I realized my worst accusers were inside of me. I didn’t want others to see I was afraid of failing, so I held back and tried to stay hidden. Insecurity became my foundation.

But failure isn’t what we think it is. Failure doesn’t kill you. And sharing your failure with others makes them feel better. And that makes you feel better. In fact, when you fail and share it, it can be success. Failure connects us because we’re all inadequate. And we all feel shame about it. But real connection is what we really want deep down, so we have to stop protecting ourselves and yes, “die to self.”

Give up our shields and trade them for true resilience.

We forget that if we couldn’t be embarrassed, couldn’t be shamed, couldn’t be knocked off our high horse because we’re already vulnerable down on the ground,  we wouldn’t need to self-protect.

Upholding appearances is what prevents us from feeling good and successful in our lives, not failing to accomplish the big things we have planned. But our hyper-driven, happiness-worshiping culture keeps us distracted with supposed “free,” guiltless, nutrition-less, connection-substitutes to consume today—we’re “amusing ourselves to death” in binge-watching and window-shopping. The theaters have been full and the churches empty for a long time now.

All our apps and video games and prepackaged foods full of wish-fulfillment fantasies won’t free us. The endless parade of addictive modern fripperies will only make us more inadequate.

We’ve forgotten what healthy connectedness requires. We aren’t the center of the universe. And we need to struggle if we’re to learn anything at all.

I looked at my girls eating happily and said, “Embracing failure can ironically become a new place to succeed.” I tried to explain, but I knew I’d probably fail to convey the full idea.

But it didn’t matter anymore. I could try again. Failure was all I needed to get what I really wanted.

Want to stop being afraid of feeling like a failure? Want to escape the demands of your over-scheduled, under-nourished life? Want freedom? 

Accept your inadequacy and remember who is sovereign. Your failure is not the end of the story–it’s the beginning.

And every experience of failure is a connection story waiting to be shared.

No we don’t have to be achievers or successful or hold these perfect images together. We just have to give up that substitute happiness and our addiction to the numbing, feel-good drug, face the truth, and see that we’re all vulnerable. And we’re all failures. And that’s a very good thing.

We all want to connect and escape shame. And we all have failure stories. Sharing them is how we will succeed.

Do you know someone who could use this freedom? Will you share it with them? And in the process, you’ll remind yourself: this is how we succeed, by sharing our honest stories and connecting. 

And when you do, you may find that you can never fail because every failure is another way to succeed.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

The 2nd Most Powerful Story Tool: Express Pain

 The writing life requires courage…It requires the willingness to be alone with oneself. To be gentle with oneself.

– Dani Shapiro

 

What we don’t know can and does hurt us.

The old saying was never true. We hurt when we’re ignorant, and so does everyone else. In fact, I wonder if ignorance is the main reason we experience so much pain in this life. Not knowing can be excruciating.

truckeeWhat writers don’t know torments them so they go out and find answers. Having worked with and known hundreds by now, I’ve found that curiosity is one of their defining characteristics. They’re even curious about things most people never think about–what instinct means, how stock markets work, what the average temperature in Spain has to do with their tradition of siestas. Who cares? Writers do.

And my theory about this is that they’re precocious children who never quite grew up and are also compensating for at least a somewhat miserable childhood. Pain forces us into self-distraction and we’re shaped by our fears at least as much as our loves.

However, they do mostly realize the struggle this causes them and those they love. Who doesn’t realize this writing life is hard work? Mostly, those not doing it.

wisteriaWho doesn’t realize the contributions writers make to the world? Mainly, only those not paying for that contribution.

Yet who is currently writing the novel, the screenplay, the enhanced reality game that will remind us of our shared humanity? Who is working on the blockbuster that will capture our imaginations and inspire us to remember the sick and needy? Who is writing the story that will bring us back to the dream we had as children of saving the world before we grew too afraid of scarcity and other’s opinions?

At this very moment, a writer is working those stories out. 

Writers are the ones best enabled to inspire the world because they’ve done the hard work of thinking. And above all, in their curiosity and ambition, they need to both push themselves to seek out the pain in their experience, and go easy on themselves to ensure they can (and want to) continue. Every writer requires a delicate balance of determination and grace. Those who don’t write regularly will discount, discredit and dismiss it (an unfortunate side effect of not thinking very hard or very regularly), but working with words to balance truth and strong interest, entertainment and education, a certain skillfulness is required.

And the work keeps writers humble. There’s no calculating the galaxies of experience we’ll never know, but even what we do know is only one person’s experience. Writers have no need to spout opinions as facts or present one-sided arguments as truth. They’ve had to discard biases that blind the less-devoted, and make out the hazy picture of the uncomfortable truth that offends everyone equally in its unexpected, brilliant burn. The writer is basically a risk-taker who wouldn’t quit.

IMG_6066And what will it take to reach the finish line? Maybe primarily, the willingness to risk much, to risk everything if necessary. That necessity to risk is why writing takes courage above all else. Risking pain to seek the deeper truths about yourself and life, and risking sharing what you know. Risking paying close attention when you experience pain or fear, knowing it means you’ve been chosen to understand, express and explain this particular view of it best, and to give the universal aspects specific dimension.

Finishing any work of writing will take risking running toward suffering, and living with the small, seemingly insignificant frustrations, and bearing them patiently so you know how others feel, how difficult it is to feel useful, worthy or even up for the task. It takes risking facing deep feelings of insufficiency, uncertainty, and unacknowledged anxieties and doubt.

You’ll eventually wonder if you’re getting too old and maybe you missed your chance. And even after all that, you may have to risk sharing the childhood wounds you endured, the anger and guilt. And sure, there are amazing discoveries and truly life-enriching parts. But when you risk giving dimension to your emotions and conveying the context to understand its terrifying bigness or its embarrassing smallness, you risk being known and found out for your messy life, your silliness, your ignorance.

People will know you and be able to use that information. You’ll be found out.

IMG_6067But you’ll also be free of it. You’ll have confessed it and released it into the world, and it will be apart from you rather than a part that once controlled you through fear. That’s the thing about pain. While it’s hidden, pain controls us. When it’s brought to light, pain is seen as what it is–common, ordinary, and powerless.

Pain can’t always be changed. It can’t be avoided. But it can be helped. It can be resolved by being exposed. It can stop animating and controlling you. And it can stop being so mean and overwhelming.

When we risk sharing our pain, we find we’re never alone. 

Why do we get distracted so easily from realizing this is what writing is all about? Whatever else it is, writing at its core is the way out of the universal fears specific to these vulnerable, frail lives. Writing is how to get at the truth about life that makes us all a part of something larger than ourselves. It’s the experience of remembering and maybe finally knowing beyond our limited experience that we’re okay and so is everyone else. It’s connecting and reminding and extinguishing the massive power pain always has over us–until we face it, name it, and disarm it.

Seek out your pain unafraid today. Write it and speak it in words that nail it down, give it form. And see if it doesn’t free you and inspire you to keep writing to free others.

There’s a higher purpose in all of this, you know?

  • Mick

The Gift of Fear and Remembering

I suppose it would take something like a kids basketball game to shock me into remembering that fear is also a gift.

IMG_6493Most of you probably guessed I’m not exactly a sports super-fan. But basketball is just about the worst. For proof, if that’s needed, consider the amazing imagination it required to invent a game of throwing a ball into a bucket.

The entire game feels like a crudely-conceived relic of the Bad Old Days. Some bored wingnut decided to torture his students, and the students, who didn’t have the good sense to tell whoever-it-was that it was kind of a stupid game, said something helpful like, “Shucks, we should give players a big court to prance aroun’ on like showboatin’ divas!”

And that’s how basketball was born.

To the rational, none of this needs explaining. The ridiculousness of the game is obvious. But until someone makes libraries more attractive to the kinesthetic types, we’re probably stuck with it.

So why bring this up? Because on Saturday, I took my 10-year-old daughter, Charlotte, to her first team sport experience—a basketball game. Of course it’s crystal clear now how dumb this was—how did I not see it coming?—that two half-hour practices could prepare her for this. But I have this wonderful ability to rationalize brainless ideas and tell myself, No, this really isn’t that crazy.

But even halfway there, the larger part of me suspected this could get mentioned in a future therapy session.

IMG_6500We got there fine, found the colossal gym and headed to the table where they read (shouted) the team room assignments. We hurried fast around the pounding games in progress to the back hallway, found the room with a big table, and the other parents and girls and coaches all arrived in their snazzy outfits.

Charlotte turned from the table to find me and gave a shy wave while the buzz-headed coach briefly explained the court rules, the process of warm-ups, the colored wristband system of pairing up defensive and offensive players (yeah, totally caught all of that), and what something called a “screen” was.

My own heart began to dribble around my chest.

After a hasty prayer for a good game or something, everyone shouted and we all filed out to follow the coaches through the world’s most overcrowded hallway. I was never in ‘Nam, but the noise and bodies pummeling me made me feel for Charlotte’s little hand and grip it like a lifeline. From their excitement level, you’d think they relished the chance to lose their hearing while being trampled to death. I held her for dear life and happened to glance down just in time to see the tears burst from her eyes.

Not that I blamed her. I was barely holding it together myself through the assault. But I knew if we stopped now we’d die a gruesome death, so I pulled her behind me, dodging and ducking the endless stream of congenial yuppies and shouting offspring.

Someday, I thought to myself, Someday, I must learn what makes people enjoy this.

This isn't even half as crowded as that hallway was.
This isn’t even half as crowded as that hallway was.

I tried to console her as we jockeyed to the court. “It’s okay, honey! It’s just warm up. You can do it!”

Her voice was barely audible. “I don’t…(hic)…want to play.” Her cheeks were already blotchy.

“You don’t have to play if you don’t want to.” I wanted to scoop her up and get the heck out of there, but pushing yourself and bravery and not quitting was all hammering me at once. “It’s okay!” I smiled and tried to play it off, acting the concerned parent for all the wondering looks and blank stares as we headed to the seats.

“I can’t…(hic)…stop,” she said.

I knelt by her chair and put my arm around her, wishing I could shield her from the noise and tell her who she really was, an amazing, sensitive girl with incredible self-awareness and as brave as any kid I’d ever known. I knew how overwhelmed she was because I was too—I could feel all the parents and coaches watching, and I just kept smiling. I told her I was sorry, that I smile when I’m uncomfortable.

“That’s…(hic)…okay,” she said.

The sweet female assistant coach came over “I get nervous too,” she said. “You want to come warm up?”

Charlotte shook her head and clutched me.

Nope, sorry, she’s never even seen a basketball game before.

2004726_origAll my fear of sports came back to me in that moment. I’d avoided all this, happy to stuff it and say I survived. Luckily, I’d been fast enough and reasonably coordinated, but not to participate would have been social suicide, so I sucked it up. Now, to be here, expected to perform and to realize There’s just no way she can do this, I could feel that fear like a hot branding iron to the brain.

Such memories wake you up, tell you who you really are.

Vulnerable. Small. Alone.

For me it was on stage at a piano recital. I forgot my memorized piece and stopped twice. The thunderous silence of the giant church, all the eyes scanning me, the people thinking, wondering, waiting.

Feeling them all knowing how unprepared and terrified I was, that was the worst part I remember.

But my little girl going through it, that felt worse.

And yet it was afterwards, after we sat it out and watched the game and she calmed down and we finally left (never to return), I realized this intense fear wasn’t only a liability, it was also an essential gift.

It had brought an intense self-awareness and shown me who I’m not. I’m not a performer. And not because of the fear. The fear is a result. The cause is how I was made, personality-deep.

However it comes to us, the capacity to step outside ourselves, to disconnect and reflect on ourselves and gain perspective, it reveals us to ourselves. And maybe most importantly, it eliminates the false images.

Intuitively, we know it’s an important experience and maybe until something painful like this forces us to, we don’t realize we have this ability at all. But maybe with practice, it can become a tool we can use.

And I know it’d be so easy to forget about those clarifying memories in the common busyness. Just this past week I got distracted and forgot. I got cranky and started seeking my own way. I needed beauty and mystery in a fierce way and I hadn’t played music or pursued my novel for many days on end.

What brought me back was seeing my kid cry, whimpering terrified on the basketball court. I remembered that feeling, the irrational fear of playing piano on stage, and I realized I got twisted up this week because I’ve let fear distract me from who I really am. How do I expect to move forward in who I want to be unless I pay attention and practice habitual awareness?

As kids, we don’t need this discipline, but now we have fewer opportunities for reflection, and we’ve got to get in the habit. We stay in our mental cages more often than we’d like to admit.

This weekend, I was reminded and taken outside myself to see again. And the me I’m trying to be, the one who’s aware of his gifts and talents, I remember that’s who I wanted to be. And that’s who I get to be now, to help Charlotte be herself as well.

Maybe she not going to be a baller. But she’ll be who she wants if we can take the time to look for it.

If you’ve gotten distracted, go back and remember who you wanted to be. Use your gift of insight again. And imagine who you might be next year if you could just begin to remember to do this in the moment more and more…

Start an imagination habit and remember what gift your strongest fear taught you, as a writer and as a human being.

And let that fuel your pursuit of the higher purpose.

Mick