Tag Archives: motivation

Why Do We Do This? Thoughts on Writing and Letting Your Life Speak

There’s a cage I’ve known.

No, not this cage.

For longer than I care to remember now (the archive in the sidebar shows 2004), I’ve questioned why I write. Why I feel like I should. It wasn’t enough just to say what Parker Palmer says in Let Your Life Speak. 

As young people, we are surrounded by expectations that may have little to do with who we really are, expectations held by people who are not trying to disern our selfhood but to fit us into slots. – p.12

I knew this, but I had to also question my reasoning. What was I saying about my desperate desire to speak–was I saying I didn’t appreciate my easy Christian suburban upbringing? Was I ungrateful for my safe life with dedicated parents, parents everyone else esteemed and loved?

In families, schools, workplaces, and religious communities, we are trained away from true self toward images of acceptability; under social pressures like racism and sexism our original shape is deformed beyond recognition; and we ourselves, driven by fear, too often betray true self to gain the approval of others.

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What racism have I known? What sexism? What true oppression? I’ve laughed along with the humor of regretting such an idyllic childhood couldn’t lead to great art. And I’ve believed my very desire to create such art was selfish at the core.

I’ve written. A lot. About this very thing. I’ve been self-focused and ashamed of that. I’ve found comfort in countless stories and recognized a certain underground misfit culture, and been emboldened by the beattitudes–if I feel this, maybe I’m among those he’s saying are blessed.

And yet, don’t I flatter and feign? Thinking about thinking is never helpful, but maybe there comes a time to realize as Anne Lamott says, “you own everything that happened to you.”

We are disabused of original giftedness in the first half of our lives. Then–if we are awake, aware, and able to admit our loss–we spend the second half trying to recover and reclaim the gift we once possessed.

I’ve written to keep a record, spotty and inaccurate as it might be. And the many journals I’ve filled and the thickly self-conscious prayers I’ve written, it’s all been a way to hold back and not say what needs saying. Substitute vulnerability, surrogate struggle.

“Look how honest. Feel affirmed by this. Yes, I’ve felt it too.” 

Wayfarer

I became an editor and helped publish many books promoting healing and hope. But I never faced my truth. I never let my life speak.

‘Faking it’ in the service of high values is no virute and has nothing to do with vocation. It is an ignorant, sometimes arrogant, attempt to override one’s nature, and it will always fail.

You never have true character until it’s forged by regret and tested in the face of opposition.

Can I still change? Palmer shares Buechner’s definition of vocation, “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” And I know that’s right–starting at my deep gladness, born of the struggle I was given as a gift to convince me, to shape me, to form this maddening ambition to face the darkness come what may and be real, once and for all.

And the velveteen rabbit’s friend taught me how to do that long ago. You have to get beat up in the service of love. And this doesn’t mean denying the particular shape of the imago dei within us, but asserting it as the only way to show a divided world how to be whole again.

…people who plant the seeds of movements make a critical decision: they decide to live ‘divided no more.’ They decide no longer to act on the outside in a way that contradicts some truth about themselves that they hold deeply on the inside. -p. 32

When we’re done being diminished by all the ‘shoulds’ we’ve accepted, we can know the true result of sin isn’t just the bad we do, but also the bad we’ve been done. And both need acknowledging and specific healing to be finished once and for all. But they can’t be done in you until you accept they both already have been finished by the one who lived fully alive and gave all he had to remove its power.

Believing I was a victim has kept me safe in the cage, but I’m done accepting the reducing of that sin–the sin I’ve done and done to me. I believe something entirely different now. I’m walking out.

This is the message I’ve been given, by Parker Palmer and many others who’ve been Spirit-led, after 14 years and much writing and pondering: neither the sin we’ve done nor the sin that’s been done diminishes anything about us. And now that I know, maybe I can stand up and say to that cage “Open,” and I’ll be free.

 

Sometimes it takes a long time to play like yourself.

– Charlie Parker

 

For the higher purpose,

Mick

A Tip for Finishing

Having worked with many writers over the years, I’ve noticed that no matter what most motives us to write–personal, professional, spiritual, or emotional reasons–all writers have difficulty getting free of concerns about how their work will be received.

Some of this is justified and positive, of course. It keeps us from publishing work that isn’t up to our high standards. But standards differ, obviously, even amongst reputable publishers, so this isn’t merely about fixing errors and ensuring the sentences all flow.

The bigger concern that can be debilitating if you don’t learn to manage it, is will this prove I’m inferior and unworthy? This is self-doubt and it’s a universal for every writer, at least those who aren’t in denial. We know we’re inferior to many, many people, even writers already writing in our category, or at least we should know that. People who don’t know that end up embarrassing themselves. 

This is why I posted a question at the Higher Purpose Writers Facebook page: if no one would ever know you’d written this, would you still write it?

Sometimes the only way a writer can get their story out is to write it as fiction or to withhold their name. For more confident writers, the only way to give the story the care it deserves is to consider whether you’d still write this if no one would ever know it was yours.

The higher purpose is a matter of becoming as clear a channel for the story as possible. In other words, getting out of the way of the work. Of course, it needs your voice and your particular view and style. But you have to remove yourself first to know if writing it is necessary.

I know this will be controversial. Inevitably, some writers feel judged and resist taking writing this seriously. They feel this as pressure, as a “rule” to control their free enjoyment of writing. And if that’s you, by all means disregard this advice. But it may also be you’re in the more confident camp and need to consider refining more than the result of your work and start with the initial motivation.

Writing well is not merely about using the right words, the right sentences, considering the proper length, and so on. It’s not just about overcoming the many obstacles–physical, emotional, educational, situation, social. It’s not even about what your parents, siblings, spouse, kids, or friends did or didn’t do. All of them have failed to support your potential in specific, unforgivable ways.

But the real point here is you must not skip over any of these considerations. As you keep showing up to practice, you’ll come to the truth that you’re responsible for the outcome, and so you deserve the most grief for any failure or success. That statement will definitely be controversial. But this is why removing yourself from any shame or acclaim that may follow writing this is so necessary.

Beneath all the lesser purposes and considerations for writing is the real higher purpose. Don’t stop writing just because you don’t know what that is yet. The point is to tell your story regardless of the result or reception. It happened and it mattered, and so it exists and deserves the honor of your speaking it. Don’t let the blankness win.

Whatever you have to do to remove yourself from the picture, to get out of its way, resolve to speak the story, however poorly. You know if I’m saying this for you right now. So you’ll know it’s what you have to do. It’s for love, for freedom…

For the higher purpose,

Mick

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

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