Tag Archives: motivation

The Writer’s Cross: Why Writers Need Community

It’s a crazy dark day, the kind we get in Portland in the winter where you have to keep the lights on in the house all day because of the thick gray haze blanketing the world.

It can get into your skin.

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So on this rainy day, I’m pondering about musings. And about how most things in life come down to who you are. What you do with the things life hands you.

Have you noticed?

Take this very post. This way of expressing it. It’s all learned, or more accurately, cobbled together—the language, the choppy sentence structure, the straightforward, hopeful-yet-artfully-detached tone that hopes you’ll read but not presume I care too much. It’s all been stitched into the patchwork I call my writing voice. And I’m just trying to use all I have.

Sure you’ve noticed: it’s those who seem to be using all they have in life that inspire us to be more, to do more. I’m no different. I’ve been impressed by those responding at full tilt to the impulses we recognize and feel but don’t always express so freely and fluently.

This is why a lot of us get into writing. Which is great and perfectly reasonable and good. I think the Inspirer takes what he can get.

But it isn’t long after getting “the call” a writer begins to realize what they’re in for.

And things start to get dark.

Waking Up Dead

Maybe the realization hits them the first night they stay up too late, the blackness outside turning a bluer tinge as they clack away on the keys, inspiration burning off all sense of time and space between them and the inner flash of light.

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They’re a bit nervous at first, but too excited to notice. That is until the kids get up and have to eat and be driven to school before the forty-seven-thousandth trip to the office where the day will really get underway. And the sharpness of the revelation will dissipate in a sour cup of weak coffee, and nodding off in the meeting, and the bothersome business of shuffling around with the other mortals assigned their related cases of self-imposed misery, equally ignorant that they’re the cause of their own lethargy and atrophy.

Scared? The word doesn’t begin to describe it.

How, they think. How am I going to get out of this hole I’m in? They look around at the papers and small office items and think about it—the big leap they know is coming. I should be more grateful to have a job, they think. But last night happened. And now it’s only too obvious they’re no longer their own.

Some voice has woken them up and the memory of it won’t let them go back to sleep.

So what do they do? What should a fresh-faced writer do when they realize they can’t deny the truth any longer? How will they find the strength and courage to commit to the work that will slurp up their margin time, not to mention their family time and sleep time as well?

How do writers remain faithful to the vision they were given?

The Persistent Question

I’ve thought long and hard about this question. As a kid in high-school, I thought the best thing to do was find a mentor, someone who could help me learn to speak the words I felt so strongly, so overpoweringly. My own call came sometime in my sophomore year, though it would be many years before I took it seriously enough to write anything real. In college, I thought books and knowledge would teach me the secret to writing longevity. I figured the books were themselves how other writers had stayed the course, the force of their singular brilliance compelling existence out of finite inevitability.

Like Gallagher.

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When I became an editor for WaterBrook of Random House, I hoped an intense publishing job would force diamonds out as I navigated acquisitions and profit and loss statements, and slush piles and pitches to the execs in the big boardroom.

And each step helped. But none brought what I needed most.

It wasn’t until breaking down again for the forty-seven-thousandth time that I realized what I was missing. What I’d always been missing. It wasn’t an unusual feeling, this ache of emptiness inside. I’d always attributed it to what Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” I figured it was an inevitable burden, something given by God for me to carry. My writer’s cross.

But this time, crying out to God, I felt the slightest shift. I felt it change. It was something I knew as head knowledge but had never felt, like so much of my life in church I’d experienced through frosted glass windows, unaffected, unmoved. Something pierced my heart and I heard: This is what it feels like to be a writer alone.

And in my typical fashion, I resisted it. I protested. No, this isn’t that bad. People are suffering way worse than this feeling. What about those on the street or those trapped in sex slavery or the abandoned orphans who grow up never knowing a parents’ love? They’re far worse off.

And as usual God didn’t argue with me. But the feeling remained.

It felt like a kind of death. A knowledge of being cut off and nothing you can do about it. It’s a familiar feeling—we’re all ultimately alone and no one stops living for our death. It all goes on without us. But writers struggle to go places others don’t or haven’t yet, places others shun.

And this is why I believe the thing we writers need most is people. People who, like us, go to places others don’t. The places we’re compelled to go even when we don’t know why.

 

Carriers of Our Cross

We need the people who won’t ask questions. People who will simply nod, knowing it won’t be easy. But not people to try and talk us out of going.

People for whom such a thing would never enter their minds.

People who know we have to go. People who will carry us when we can’t get there ourselves.

Samwise knew.

There are some people who know something important lies that way, something not unnecessary, something difficult to define but no less real and terrifying. People who know no one can go for us. And we can’t go another way because the road is this way.

And we need these people because the normal, sane people, the people who value things like security and stability and maintaining a respectful distance from the unanswerable questions of life, they know we’ve got it all wrong. And they like telling us we should believe that more. It’s in their eyes if not their words.

They’d have us revoke our allegiances and accept the forced servitude and live safe behind the glass. They’d have us recant and abandon the cause, and give up the fight because isn’t it nicer just to live and accept the easier way? But we were born to write. 

We can argue all day if their way is the way of Jesus, the meek way of receiving the moderate blessings of a simple, quiet life. But if somebody says you can’t do something what are they saying but to squash God’s dream for you?

Maybe it’s them who don’t get it. Maybe for us, the way of Jesus is the way of the cross.

And without the community of like-minded explorers to pick us up when we stumble, to wipe our brows and understand our cause if not our destination, we would not make it.

The friends who’ll give up time, money, prestige and sleep so we can seek this strange, exciting adventure, these are the people who protect the dream and make new books live. And we owe them far more than we can ever repay.

Life, jobs, others will tell us to turn from this way. They say it’s not worth it.

But we will not turn. We are writers. We go the way others will not. And we will meet our fate together.

Have you thanked your community today?

 

Wednesday Morning Pages

“I will sit still and let the marvels and the adventures settle on me like flies. There are plenty of them, I assure you. The world will never starve for want of wonders, but only for want of wonder.” –G.K. Chesterton

(on my small, slow faith…)

Sometimes I feel like a wisp of wind next to the overwhelming breeze of others’ faith.

"Woah, the winds of inspiration are peeling my leaves off!"
“Woah, the winds of inspiration are peeling my leaves off!”

The day started out well. I had a good idea to let go of all expectation and my usual comparisons, and spend my morning just receiving what might come just by being still and open rather than my usual too-aggressive planning and attacking of “the list.”

It seemed purposeful not to be quite so purposeful that way.

I turned on Freedom and settled into writing for an hour on this and that (and yes, even on the novel). But then the morning began passing. And I did write, but mostly spent the time rereading and catching up to where I was in my last writing because it’d been a while since I’d written that and I couldn’t quite find the line of it, let alone the cadence. And there was none really, so I was getting frustrated and trying to revise paragraph after paragraph and soon there were a bunch of jumbled thoughts over 8 pages and not much new written and the hour was up.

It was time to go to work.

I got up for more coffee, trying to put it behind me. There’s always tomorrow. It’s not about progress. Just enjoy the process and keep going slow. You’ll remember it more quickly tomorrow. 

But as I tried to move on, it just wasn’t working.

My brain was obsessing. I kept thinking back to the words I couldn’t quite get to. Why couldn’t I capture them? Somehow I’d lost the entire point in the brambles. I knew what I wanted to say, or I thought I did, but it wouldn’t come. And what did I do? What I always end up doing.

pushed. I tried to work harder at it.

I don’t have to tell you how well that worked.

The truth is, I’m embarrassed, ashamed to admit I can’t practice what I preach. I know it’s just human nature. We want to be effective. And we think we can if we just try. Maybe too often we’ve gotten lucky and it’s worked, or we think our efforts have led to progress that really just got us further down the road in a direction we didn’t need to go. I think that’s happened so often with me, I could easily get really depressed thinking too much about it.

8 pages of drivel. And nowhere further along. Can I let go and just stop focusing on progress, whatever concept I might have of that? Believe in the process of sitting, receiving and listening? Read something and not compulsively try to improve it?

This curious obsession with being useful, being a talented writer, it’s trying to make what I do the measure of who I am. It’s that simple, Mick. You’re not what you do. You’re who he made you. Quit trying to change that. He likes you. Just sit there and receive what he has for you today. Spend tomorrow’s hour just doing that, k?

Oh, help me, God! For thou alone

Canst my distracted soul relieve.

Forsake it not: it is thine own,

Though weak, yet longing to believe.

Anne Bronte

 

Pursuing Adversity

“We could never learn to be brave and patient if there were only joy in the world.”

–Helen Keller

This isn’t something I planned to write about.

Tahoe pine
In fact, when it comes to avoiding struggle, I’d like to maintain my silence and let the subject pass right by. There are probably plenty of other things equally valuable I could choose. Which should prove how little I have to offer on this topic.

My wife will tell you I tend to talk big about facing challenges–so much so, she suspects I’m a masochist. But there’s a big difference between talking big about a widely-recognized principle of great writing, and living it. I’m a failure at joyfully embracing anything involving struggle. And I’m an expert at pretty much the opposite.

I do it without even thinking. Out of habit and probably simply by nature, when I have to do something hard or even mildly unpleasant to me (which is often even something pleasant to most people), I rarely consider criteria beyond whether it will be uncomfortable and how long it will last. And do I stop to think whether this impulse to avoid what’s difficult and challenging is really good for me?

How much longer does this piece have to be?

I’m not sure when it happened, but I tend to make my goal in life to escape it unscathed.

There’s in-born sin in me, and it’s rooted right here. The self-preservation instinct, a vestige of survival in my protective caveman brain senses a threat and begins either avoiding or eradicating.

Housework. Traffic. Hot car drives. The only good struggle is the one behind me.

Yet somehow I still manage to esteem the very successful people who have this curious disease of seeing challenges as opportunities. Yes, the poor sacks, I think. Oh, I click my tongue for you. If only I were more like you.

And thank goodness I’m not.

In fairness to myself, not wanting to die is an important default setting I have, especially when faced with a high ledge, sharp kitchen utensils, or the occasional distant tornado. I’m glad for the wisdom that convinces me to take the stairs rather than get in the empty elevator with the creepy drooling guy with a switchblade. Yet left unchecked, I suspect this protective caveman brain keeps me from some important discoveries.

Betty Smith, author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn wrote, “Who wants to die? Everything struggles to live. Look at that tree growing up there out of that grating. It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It’s growing out of sour earth. And it’s strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong.”

Tahoe conifer

Over our vacation we went to visit my parents and grandma at Lake Tahoe. There’s a tree that grows in the mountains of California that can endure centuries of severe conditions. Bristlecone pines have found ways to adapt to the adversity that actually extended its lifespan.

Having backpacked the wilderness many times with my family here, I might have learned this earlier had I been interested in something other than my discomfort. But my distaste for camping, the dirt, the food, lack of solitude, and now all of that far past and me living far away, it’s breaking in.

I’ve learned that another tree nearer home called the Modoc Cypress actually needs forest fires to reproduce. The cones remain closed for years and only open once the tree is killed in a wildfire. The seeds can then colonize the exposed soil and rise like a mythical Phoenix from the ashes. It’s currently listed as a vulnerable species because of fire suppression.

Modoc cypress conesSo suppressing forest fires is killing the trees.

I’ve actually collected such stories for years. Chickens who don’t fight their way out of their shells die earlier and are less resilient. Trees without winds don’t grow as strong. Kierkegaard: “With the help of the thorn in my foot, I spring higher than anyone with sound feet.” Yet failure-to-thrive has still run rampant through my system. I’m unambitious and dare-I-admit disobedient for avoiding discomfort.

I’ve got to stop considering adversity as horrible and disastrous. I’ve got to stop considering it altogether.

Sure, all adversity could be evidence of an adversary. But so what? He’s God’s devil.

Does it disrespect the devil to decide I don’t have to hand my new birthright over to him?

With the recent evidence of my mortality (okay, the gray in my temples), I’m wondering if maybe this little tendency shouldn’t be the next thing to go.

Flying insects undergo a death as pupa before receiving new life. Can I learn to face struggle and difficulty as necessary for my development? For the price of receiving my wings?

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
― Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

It Starts Today

Today. The word carries such power. 

Today! It's what you make it. What will you do with it? How will you use it?

Does it compel you to suit up, face your fears, believe the evidence that it will pass so soon, and seize it while you can?

Do you hear the voices calling out from the picture on the wall?



 

It starts today. Do you believe it? Do you trust the vision you've been given enough to show up? Will you act on it? 

You've been chosen for this, here and now, to do this and make it live. To influence your readers and make them live. To influence their lives that others can live. You can't possibly know how much depends on today.

Do you know how unbelievably rare you are? Do you want to? Do you want to stop simply knowing it and do something about it? Do you want to feel it and live it? That's an inspiration to others, to see you living as one of God's true rarities. Will it be a stretch to say you never knew the person you saw in the mirror every morning before today? 

How would you like to respond?



  

What would it take to draw out the real you, the one who loves like no one else, who sees the opportunities and runs toward them? To take your vision and combine it with your compassion and release it, make it influence your sphere, make those around you deal with it? To do that, to live that, it is the greatest power in this messed up world. And you have it.

Maybe you've been waiting, waiting like everyone else, being too-easily convinced that it's not the right time, not appropriate, not really needed.

Which today are you waiting for?

Every great story is about a person just like you and then one day, for no better reason than you have today, everything comes together. The decision to act is made. The experience and growth and maturing and preparing, and all the conditions come together and it's time to produce. 

That, my friend, is today.

If you will think ahead to a day down the road when it's all been done and you've become polished like a well-worn walking stick by this experience, you can imagine what you'll feel. Having committed to showing up to the writing every day, to the preparations, the sacrifice, and being progressively changed by the work of a thousand todays, with this insight having shaped the journey of your character, one day soon it will be time to share. And on that today eyes are opened, lives changed, sparks brought back to life, and no one will be able to deny what you decided back there, so many days ago.



   

That's today.

That flavor in your work, unlike anything they've ever tasted, some of them didn't know what tasting was until you showed them. You awoke their mouths, gave them a taste for something and created a desire they will never forget as long as they live. That's their life they're remembering, being brought back to, maybe forgotten so long it was almost dead. But from the flavor, they'll remember and their heads will raise.

"Today. It's right here. I can use it, taste it, live it."

That's what you'll have done.

And then, a today a little further off, you'll see a smile waiting for you just ahead. And you'll go toward it, knowing you are the reason for it.

Can you imagine it? I hope you can. Use what's around you, whatever you have, and don't put it off with excuses. You have to realize what an incredible opportunity you have before you. Don't give in to pressure to make you forget! Can you even imagine what this knowledge is really worth? And what will it be worth if you forget, give into doubts and let another today slip by?

Today, the next day, and the next, they're all connected. It's true. Believe it. Choose it. Trust it. And begin your training as you run for the next today and the next….

So many people are hoping and praying for someone exactly like you, to show them what you know. But you can only be the one if you decide today.

 

Continue the thoughts at Dick Staub's blog today. Something in the air…