Tag Archives: motivation

Writer Pitfalls: When You’re Too Ambishish to Fishish

The hardest part about writing a novel is to fishish. 

– Ernest Hemmingway

I began this novel when our oldest daughter was 1. I’m still not done. In a month, she’s headed to high-school. 

When she was done eating, she’d wave her hands and say, “Fishished!” She wasn’t, of course, but that didn’t matter. She had important things to do. And only a monster could say no to that face.

I wish I could tell God I’m fishished with the book today. I’ve got way too much on my plate and I can’t see how I’ll ever get to it.

Sometimes, maybe many times, I have this automatic response: I don’t want to get all burdened with it again today.

And then of course, immediately comes the guilt.

If I don’t show up to write, if I avoid it and let other more immediately gratifying things take its place, aren’t I abandoning my readers? What else would you call that? Sometimes, most times, I don’t realize that’s what I’m doing. I simply don’t want to get pulled into the vortex of unsolvable problems again, this twisted, complex puzzle of thinking through all my characters’ struggles and concerns, and how to form them into a cohesive, engaging story.

So much about writing is so hard. The truth about the characters and their best way forward is hidden beneath so much good but common stuff. Choosing what to share is hard—what even is the criteria?—and also how to keep it all straight and keep from getting frustrated with the paltry progress. We’re all on our own in figuring this out and deciding what’s most important (and most interesting) to share. It’s a chore just to keep looking, keep showing up day after day.

Margaret Atwood said, “a word after a word after a word is power.” And Neil Gaiman said, “This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy and that hard.” I like best what Steinbeck said, “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day. It helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.” He wrote that to himself in his own writing journal for The Grapes of Wrath, which went on to win a Pulitzer, of course.

I learned this lesson at the kitchen table in junior high when I had 8 classes and homework in each one. My mom moved the stack of books off to where I couldn’t see them, and suddenly I wasn’t thinking about all I hadn’t done yet.

That was how I finished.

We’ll never know what we could have found if we’d only kept going. New revelations always come. We know this but we get overwhelmed. The solutions will come, and they’ll come in the familiar but also from the wholly new as well. A completely different bush will flower in the wilderness. But we won’t see it until we’ve worked to get right up next to it.

We’ve got to just focus on what we can do in a day or we’ll never find the way out. The scope of the vision and the work yet to do is always too overwhelming.

And Hemmingway could have been a bit more encouraging. Rick Riordian seems to have realized this when he said, “the best part about writing a book is finishing it.” That, I can believe. I just don’t know how I’ll finish yet.

But maybe that’s okay. Maybe I don’t need to contain everything—where would I put it anyway? What’s truer than all the books that say “you’re already enough” is, what we already have is enough to get what else we need. We’ve got to know the truth, have faith, that all we need is stamina, the great, irreplaceable persistence—and what we don’t have yet, we will get it when we need it. Or we don’t need it.

Maybe the problem is related to perfectionism. Perfection is a mirage I’ll keep falling for until I accept I’m going to end up with a book that’s an oversimplification and doesn’t live up to all my hopes and dreams. It will be less than that and different than I expected, but that will be good enough regardless of what I or anyone else wanted. I’ve got to release expectations and appease myself with achieving merely a caricature of reality.

A book is always less than real life, and that’s a big part of its appeal and value: its very limitations. Refinement means reduction.

 Can I accept that and give up trying to fit every idea in just because I like it?

Maybe every writer has to work to the point of failing to manage all they’ve dreamed in order to know which elements / storyline / theme is the one absolute necessity. Maybe at the very end of our abilities is the balance between what’s new and what’s conventional. Accepting limitation is part of the journey, like the end of a favorite story of mine, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Let go the bright dream of perfection. Happiness and your very survival will demand it. You can’t have everything. Some won’t get pinned down this time or maybe ever. It’ll get away from you; that’s okay. Let it go. Decide to be okay never gaining what you hoped and maybe you’ll finally learn to receive something better.

And who knows? It could be that’s the only way a writer ever knows they’re fishished.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

Why Writing Well Is All About Intensity

“…I began to find life unsatisfactory as an explanation of itself and was forced to adopt the method of the artist of not explaining but putting the blocks together in some other way that seems more significant to him. Which is a fancy way of saying I started writing.”

 

I taught fiction at Mt. Hermon last week. The most important point I shared about making a story work was that a reader needs to feel the character’s plight throughout.

I love that word, plight. It’s such a perfect descriptor of what makes people read. You might think people want to feel good, be entertained, or are attracted to what’s beautiful or exciting. And that’s true. But nothing holds attention like a character we identify with whose plight is understandable and relatable.

It’s not a difficult concept to get. Most of us sense it’s true intuitively. And the plight can change, shift, or even reverse! Very exciting. But you’ve got to make your reader understand what the struggle is about and how intense it is, no matter what kind of story.

And most important about the plight, it’s got to be intense.

Now this idea of intensity is deceptive because you often can’t increase the plight by describing it directly, just like you can’t tell us what’s happening in the story and have to show us instead. To convey strong intensity, you need a few tricks, some tools and, of course, some all-important practice to develop some skill with them. There are several important ones, but the biggest of all is a little trick I call “following the tears.”

Follow the tears. I’ve said this for years, but it never gets any easier. This is what your readers care about most because it’s what you care about most. The things that make you the most emotional are the richest material for your work. And even if your craft is still fairly crap, your content can capture people if it’s intense and conveys a character’s plight we can feel powerfully.

Like the quote above indicates, writing is a way to fashion life into something more interesting than the usual bland, expected pattern. To make it more interesting and dramatic. What’s more dramatic than someone’s plight? I may not want what your character wants, but if she wants it badly enough, I’ll bet your story can make me want to know if she gets it.

If this isn’t rule number one of your writing, it should be.

Now, no one wants manufactured intensity, so you’ve got to develop some sophistication and maturity with this tool because the skill is in not making the plight melodramatic or over-the-top. It’s got to be deeper than surface desire, expressed as a yearning that may even make your character confused or misunderstood. They might have to come to terms with the true source of their deeper desire over the course of the book, like Belle in Beauty and the Beast who starts out wanting “adventure in the great wide somewhere,” and ends up realizing her deeper desire was to know the sacrificial love she’d read about wasn’t just a fairy tale. There’s a learning process in every character you want to capture by showing the growth of their own understanding of their deeper desire.

The quote above is from a short story by Tennessee Williams, written in 1951 called “The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin.” In it, he shares the idea that childhood is full of “the intensities that one cannot live with, that he has to outgrow if he wants to survive.” It’s a plight unrecognized by the main character except in hindsight. And it’s very effective. “But who can help grieving for them?” he asks. “If the blood vessels could hold them, how much better to keep those early loves with us? But if we did, the veins would break and the passion explode into darkness long before the necessary time for it.”

I think learning to write a book is a lot like growing up. When you start, you know nothing and have to figure it all out. And that’s the hardest it will ever be. Eventually you learn some things through practice and it gets a little easier. But it’s still very hard, and you want to quit because you feel confused and you have no help with figuring out how to manage all you’re learning and whether you’re paying attention to what you should. And who can help you know if you’re also losing some things in your innocence you’ll never recover, even as you progress? More than likely, you are. But there’s nothing you can do.

Yet if you continue, you’ll learn more, a little at a time, and you’ll know how to develop ideas and hold multiple concepts and bring them across in dialogue and through symbols. And eventually you figure out tricks for making it all easier and simpler to begin with. It only takes time and practice with the tools. But you first have to find all the tools yourself. And this is like being a child when you’re without any skills, vulnerable to all kinds of things beyond your control. You don’t even have awareness of the skills you’ll need. But through hard experience, you learn, and it gets better, easier.

The successful writers have learned to control their words and attention, and get the most out of their time. And you too can move forward in achievable increments toward where you want to be. If you’re a “live-in-the-moment” kind of person, your method will be learning discipline. If you’re a Type-A, your big need will be relaxing into your better self. Both require balance and it looks a bit different for everyone.

But it’s worth the effort. For it’s in becoming your best self, your true, honest, vulnerable, brave, and imperfect-yet-incredible self, that what you write will finally become more significant.

The intensity of your own plight is waiting there to be felt in following what makes you cry. And if you dig for that until you understand it better, that’s where relatable stories come from.

You can trust that. It’s as simple (and as hard) as that.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

A Word for Writers on Healthy Integration (or More Accurately, the First Word of Likely Many More).

“It’s always the vulnerable heart that breaks broken hearts free.”

 

I read a new book recently and it changed me. It helped me realize something I hadn’t before.

dsc_0037Books often do that, of course, but not in a quite so fundamentally altering way. You know how when new information comes, there’s always that period of instability before you can even recognize what’s happened? And then comes an undetermined time of processing it before you can assimilate and actually use that new fact or element of knowledge from your newly expanded and solidified position?

Yeah, that happened recently. And I realized I don’t think about that enough. I’m guessing you probably don’t either, or at least not consciously, with intention to do something about it. I assume you already know we all face the requirement to assimilate new info, whether or not we always do it. After all, that’s sort of the whole point of this walking-around-upright-and-aspiring-to-social-respectability-for-doing-something-useful-with-these-opposable-thumbs gift of consciousness, isn’t it?

dsc_0066So, because integration is a hidden process, it’s underappreciated. But I think it’s one of the more important processes to explore for how vitally essential it is to our lives, our minds, our hearts, our strength and our souls.

Because my postulate is that to love God well in all those areas absolutely requires good integration (vs. bad or simply lacking).

So one of the takeaways of this book is that integration is really all about consistency. That is, you can’t be well integrated in life and able to use your newly gained knowledge, abilities and wisdom without consistently doing the work to integrate new knowledge, abilities and wisdom.

Right? I know–it’s neuron-stretching. But when you realize this, you see why with all this new information continually coming at you, and faster today than ever before, the sheer effort to synthesize it with your existing life is overwhelming. We resent, resist and actively fight against the onslaught every day. But how many of us realize this invisible duty to take it in and deal with the anxiety that causes? And isn’t it even fewer people who actually think of ways to pursue better integration of their expanding understanding, and then follow through on what that new awareness dictates?

dsc_0027Is this important? Do you agree? For years I’ve believed that what we need most are strong examples of people doing this and making the effort, so we can see the positive change and the new intentions and how they play out in someone’s life. If we could watch a “good integrator” working to apply his or her learning in their life and see what the results are, wouldn’t that be of priceless value in our info-choked lives?

I wonder what could be more needed–of course, such a personal story would be one of the hardest things to write, to say nothing of ensuring the picture was vulnerable and honest enough to appeal in today’s culture. Clearly, an exemplary integrator would have to struggle to be authentic and laid bare. She’d need to care little about the judgment that would follow when her experiment in allowing change by an invisible hand to grow her awareness was misunderstood, maligned and even denounced.

But that’d be the cost, and it’s ultimately why I’ve grown to love inspirational memoir. Because it’s instructive in the ways I need it to be most–to see it, feel it and experience it for myself. Who can’t identify with this deep need to live more “wholistically?” You don’t have to be a writer to know this training is among our primary needs for survival now, since we’ve become largely safe and comfortable in our modern world. The great danger we face as humans isn’t physical or even ultimately intellectual–it’s spiritual. It has always been thus; we just haven’t been so capable of focusing so much attention on it before. dsc_0018

Which is why we’ll rip apart at the seams if we don’t get clear on how to do this mental work real quick.

Anyone coming to this work of demonstrating healthy integration, i.e. spiritual growth, will pay a price. Family and friends will oppose your efforts, see them as variously selfish, self-immolating, demanding, unreasonable, or even unhinged. There’s no easy response to why you’d choose to pursue this. Many won’t see it as growing our ability to identify with Christ’s wounds, yet isn’t it ultimately just that? To see more of the real world and experience the only real way to break our prejudices and privileges, and finally feel what another feels?

The connections there aren’t immediately obvious, but that’s why I’m compelled to commend this book to you. What I aspire to with Higher Purpose Writers is exemplified in Ann Voskamp’s new memoir, The Broken Way. Her example has shown me we need more Christ-followers willing to follow, to leave comfort and seek to know what we tend to miss as disintegrated, disembodied members of the body. So many members of the body are being dismembered and must be reminded, that is, re-membered. So many are being distracted and so many haven’t been given “the easy setting” like us. And what we need is more people willing to show the struggle to suffer in solidarity with them, without judging or arguing with their politics, or believing falsehoods to sidestep our mandate from God.

Simply, we are to love our neighbors and enemies as ourselves. And we need to integrate this knowledge to get involved in saving lives.

This book is the reason I began feeling disintegrated and stopped posting several weeks ago. dsc_0034As with One Thousand Gifts, The Broken Way forced me to recognize it and do something about it. After writing about writing for over 20 years, one of my main takeaways is clear: writing can create an eddy to remove you from where the river of creative flow is taking you. Without attention to integrating your spiritual knowledge, it can prevent you from facing your deeper fears and producing more good work of a higher purpose.

The Broken Way revealed to me I hadn’t yet integrated my knowledge about God with my own living of life. And that’s the opposite of being truly helpful to anyone in the real world. Maybe it’s not uncommon and we all experience such disintegration every day. We all know it’s incredibly hard to do the work of waiting and gathering and then considering all the factors of an issue, let alone to integrate the new awareness that arises slowly without being distracted and derailed. We grow too complacent, disinterested and convinced it’s unproductive navel-gazing. Maybe we also grow too afraid of inspiring others to conjure white padded rooms for us as we slip into self-important delusional behavior. But we can’t allow our fears to win. We can’t give in to our doubts that acquiring a fairly complete picture of our true work in this world, and integrating it, is possible.

dsc_0051Our hearts and everyone we’ll ever meet must follow this process of being transformed by the renewing of our minds. And it feels to me today on the cusp of another election (God help us) and the dawning of a dark and dangerous day for the west, it’s time to own my disintegration and get living again.

So for the next few weeks (possibly months), amidst myriad other tasks, factors and worthy and unworthy colluding distractions, I plan to follow what promises to be an epic interior journey, one I’ve never really embarked on before.

It may be only my fellow God-haunted nerds and misfits who see it and feel this excitement, but oh, my fellow Inspired aspirants, it will be epic…

More certainly to come. Will you join me?

For the higher purpose,

Mick

P.S. Please do check out my friend Ann’s book. It’s sure to sell well anyway, but as my favorite of 2016, at the very least it’s helped to make the year far less disappointing on balance.

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

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