Tag Archives: simplicity

Healing In the Simplicity of Your Story

“Writing is prayer.”

– Franz Kafka

In today’s world with ever-more distracting, inane and attention-grabbing information, it can be particularly challenging for new storytellers to overcome the fear that their story is too simple and uninteresting.

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We’re the worst judges of our own stories. Despite that and the fact that sharing your story honestly and with vulnerability is all that’s needed to reach and teach readers, many new writers think they need to include more, share moral lessons and help readers learn something specific through reading their story.

And it may be true when writing a blog post or a nonfiction article, but with narrative, it just needs to be as truthful as possible.

I thought my story was too boring when I started writing my autobiographical novel. But now having worked with so many writers for over 15 years, I realize people read books not to be shocked or overwhelmed by information, but mostly to escape.

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Trouble was, until I worked out my pain, fear and resentment, I was too blocked to see what my real task as a writer was. I had to accept that I wasn’t there to teach anyone anything. My job was simply to reveal my heart.

But for many years, I wasn’t ready to share my honest truth. I didn’t want to accept my real emotions, the dark embarrassing truth about myself and how I really felt about my life. I figured I could bluff my way through it, just tell the basic story and make up the rest. I figured no one wanted the full truth anyway.

But I was just telling myself that. I’d always told myself that. I told myself a lot of things. Things were fine. I was fine. But things were only fine when life was going well, and as soon as life got challenging, I’d clamp down and stop seeing, stop feeling, stop talking. Stop writing.

We have to realize that as the writer, we have to know the path of healing first to share what readers really need. We can’t accurately assess the situation while we’re denying the truth about our emotions. Because what’s most damning, until we let go of our control, we’ll make decisions about life and writing that only (and often exclusively) benefit ourselves.

Every new author says they didn’t realize how much counseling was involved in writing a book. But once they know, they find out it’s only when you’ve gone through it yourself that you can tell the full truth and not so interested in your own welfare.

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This is why learning to write your story means facing the truth of yourself and your weaknesses, allowing healing bit by bit, and sharing the vulnerable truth of all of that, until the universality of your journey is irreducible.

As Annie Dillard said, “the secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind… [to] hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff.” We can’t cause inspiration or make readers learn, we can only take the wisdom into ourselves and try to let it out as clearly and simply as possible.

Writing involves not so much teaching or learning to write well as it does opening your heart to wisdom and letting go of all that stands in its way.

The goal of higher purpose writing is not to change readers but to be changed yourself. For only then will readers be changed.

It isn’t what writing your story will do for others; it’s what writing your story will do for you. And that perspective won’t merely change your writing, it can change everything: the way you live, the way you think of yourself and all your relationships. If you’re called to write your story, is there any goal more worth your investment?

You can find healing in the simplicity of that: you have a story and you can write it because it’s meant the world to you.

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Maybe it’s okay we don’t start out writing to unmask ourselves. Maybe no one automatically wants to do that. But maybe once we realize the higher purpose, at some point it’s no longer an option. To write anything with the profound truth and simplicity we know it must have, maybe the dedication required is nothing less than to fully embrace our very human lives.

I know this is true now because it’s what was revealed to me in the process of trying to write. And I’m not finished with the novel yet, but I share it with you as something I found within my story, not as a lesson to teach, but as the simple truth which has given the work real life and meaning.

And I pray you can find it as well.

“My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours…”

– Frederick Buechner

Why All It Takes Is 5 Minutes

It may come as a shock, but I’m easily distractible.

It’s not something I’m proud of. Especially knowing how much my work depends on writers showing up and keeping up despite the battering hurricane of demands and requests that fly in through every open window.

It can grow dark quickly underneath the pile of debris atop the little flame of a writer’s voice.

To be seen and heard is always a fight.

Yet maybe being seen and heard doesn’t have to be the goal. Maybe sharing what’s been given you that day in the 5 minutes you have to share it, the flame will shine a little more, and the light will reach out into the dark it’s intended to reach.

Burn, little guy. Burn.
Burn, little guy. Burn.

I know from painful experience how selfish and pointless it can seem to spend much time in a private place that brings you and only you such joy. Especially if so many people depend on you. The responsibility and duty of “real life” can sap the love and light right from you and leave you dark and cold.

But if God’s love for us burns white hot, wouldn’t he want us to forget all else but the true “real life?”

That’s the premise of the novel I’ve been writing over 10 years about a young man who sells his soul for a chance to change his past. It’s been growing in me and growing with me for ages, waiting as I figured out what to do with it and how to write it. It’s grown and shaped me unlike any book ever has, and it’s still not done. But I’m going ahead and opening up about my process now because I can’t wait to share some of the jaw-dropping lessons it’s taught me as I’ve strived to show up between school, raising 2 kids and full-time editing books for publishers.

Jaw-dropping, I tell you!
Jaw-dropping, I tell you!

Some days it’s felt so pointless. But 5 minutes a day adds up. I wouldn’t have thought it possible to write a book this way. And maybe it isn’t–no one said it was good–but for years now, I’ve gotten up and for 5 minutes (which sometimes turned to 10 and 15), I’ve forgotten everything else and reveled in my dream world. It’s changed me, and it’s continuing to as I pull the disparate pieces together and learn to slowly fight back against the crush of too-great demands and urgent life, giving it the best I have, which often isn’t enough, but it doesn’t matter.

God is in it.

Unlike anything else, my book has shown God’s love to me. And I know it’s true because it’s been simple even when it could have and should have been mind-numbingly complex. In the end, I’ve believed the premise, that he wants me to forget everything else but that knowledge of his love. And in 5 minutes a day, I’ve found writing a book can teach you plenty about that.

Every day, I’m hopeful for what it’ll reveal next. If you know what I mean, give me a witness….

For the Higher Purpose,

Mick

How to Edit Out FEAR–for Good

It’s still early.

That’s true. A true sentence.

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Don’t look down.

Regardless of how little there is left of the day, it’s still early. There’s time yet to write the daily clutch of words.

Despite the fact that my brain is doing its usual whirring with all the things to get done, the manuscripts needing edits, consult calls to make, talks and articles to write, courses to plan, a boulder to shoulder up the hill…

I know the fear is out there. And it’s strong. It’s still strangling so many great works, the words of writers yet to be written. How can I not fight to destroy this most fundamental of barriers?

This post is my Great Rebellion.

I’ve been meaning to write it for weeks, this culmination of thought I’ve listened to and spoken to myself for longer than I can remember…

I believe, despite everything else that’s pressing, there’s nothing else I’m supposed to do but this.

So with that reassurance, I’m ready to face the question:

How do we edit out fear for good?

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Roosevelt said that. I think.

1. Just write one true sentence.

Fr. Ernie had one unbeatable word of advice for himself I’ve begun repeating often:

Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.

If writing is the only way for you to be truly happy, what choice do I have but to stop procrastinating and write that one true sentence?

To write the one thing I’ve been waiting so long to speak, how good would that feel? To forget all the many excellent reasons I shouldn’t? To finally deny ALL the distractions and do what I was put here to do today, as I draw this breath into my statistically impossible existence from this terrifyingly perfect blue-green spheball?

I’ve got to stop overthinking it. Just start with what I know.

2. Do Input/Output Every Day

There’s a depressing truth I’ve learned: no one, I repeat, NO ONE is born a writer but reading has made them that way. Just starting out or years into it, writing well takes reading–to find good INPUT, to make good OUTPUT. So I’m resigned that the writer I want to be is not much more than a good scavenger. When I’ve processed enough garbage, I’ll know what makes good material, and what doesn’t.

And by reading, I’ll learn to respond by doing it every day.

Fiction. News. Poems. Memoirs. Then I write and let it be what it is. My job is only to use what I have to its fullest today.

And then tomorrow, I’ll find more manna. I have to let go of any other expectation.

When I get afraid, I’m usually thinking my writing won’t be good enough. But writing isn’t about getting fancy. It’s about writing.

And you can quote me on that.

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Mmmm….rrruff!

3.  Stop, Then Go

I’ve been writing long enough to know it often feels stupid. It starts to seem selfish. I’ll start hearing voices. My limbs will develop phantom pains and I’ll need to, absolutely need to google “misplaced attention.”

I’m getting used to it. This is my tricky brain acting up. It’s perfectly normal. At least for writers it is. So first I have to…

Stop. Sit still and listen. Yes, I’m talking about “mindfulness,” but it’s really just cultivating awareness of the deeper reality behind reality. One Thousand Gifts is a perfect guide for this. When I slow down, I find humble gratitude and the inspiration and permission in the love God freely gives through Jesus and his endless reminders in my daily life.

And when I’m still and silent for a while, I get antsy. After I stop, it’s time to go. Pomodoros are a must to schedule focused work and breaks. But out and about, I carry a notebook and give myself permission to be the weirdo who pauses to capture fireflies.

Life is a series of trades and I’m trading everything else I could do for writing. That’s who I am. So I write to control my time and attention, or it will control me.

This stopping and going thing is based on my hunch that writing doesn’t come from a desire to express so much as from a desire to listen. To me, higher writing is prayer. It’s not asking for something so much as feeding and being fed by a relationship. It’s finding a thread of a thought that seems important to The Inspirer, and following it down the hole, across the bridge, and through the meadow.

When writing becomes no more than God-directed thought, then when I write I am praying without ceasing.

So every day I need to schedule time to practice writing the words down, time to shape them, and before that, time to read. And life happens in between that.

Stop, then go.

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The form may change. But wisdom always remains the same.

One true sentence. Input/output. Stop, then go.

These are the distilled lessons I’ve set for myself. Certainly there’s more to them than this. But these 3 keep me on the path, stepping forward, and away from the guardrails.

Remembering is how I overcome the fear. And reminding each other is our simple focus at Your Writers Group. It’s a thrilling surprise that with their continual encouragement and support, I’m facing my fears a little easier every day.

Regardless of how long it’s taken me to get here, I believe it’s still early.

[Getting excited to expand on these basics for storywriters in the 30-day YWG Story Course coming up in 2 weeks! Check the event page for details.]

What helps you face your fears as a writer? Would love to hear your secret…

Tuesday Morning Pages

“I must write on the novel again. 

It’s got to be finished. All it needs is my attention.”

Wendell and Tanya
Wendell and Tanya

And that was as far as I got last night before falling asleep. And in listening to That Distant Land on my run this morning, Wendell Berry’s collection of Port William short stories about the colorful folks in a small Kentucky community around the turn of the century puts me in mind of that simple fact again. The simple romance of Tol Proudfoot and Miss Minnie Quinch is so perfectly described and articulated, and his use of the poems recited by her students at the pie auction–so perfectly fitting in context and content–the situation seems more real than reality. With such a precise appreciation for human nature and country life, his insight makes you wish it really happened.

I should give a copy to Cec.

And it puts me in mind of the key: When you see it, your job is to respond. Appreciating Berry, I have only to share what I saw. Writing, creating art–any work, really–is a simple matter of responding. We think our task is to improve upon what we’ve seen or experienced, to augment reality in some way, as if we could. Being response-able, and holding that state while we resound in admiration is what allows us to absorb the inspiration and insights, and then translate and transmit them through our own filters.

Why am I constantly forgetting this?

I do know why. We get clouded up and the clarity of our response in words and fashioned images gets thwarted. Too often we think we have to be different or better or less encumbered than we are and we miss our opportunities.

“Not skilled enough.” “Not smart enough.” “Not enough time.”

Poverty of soul kills the work, not any lack in us. When I agree with the opposition, I give him my life and allegiance. And then I have the stupidity to pray for more blessing of these things without having used the abundance already in my possession.

And now that I’ve seen this, my only job is to speak what I know. And in the doing, I’ll find more ability, more skill, and more time. I know this because it’s what happens. All I need is to trust that there’s a process underway and when I show up, I progress. In the listening and slowing and awakening, the responding is inevitable. And in merely being open to life, my work is enabled.

Today, I will simply show up to receive and then share what I see. That’s enough work for one day.

Distraction

Distraction –

The day has just started and I haave 24 new emails.

I don’t have time to fix that typo…

The Wikipedia entry for distraction is here.  It's basically "divided attention."

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Here are 2 pics from that page. 

I fought to read today’s entry in Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest. (I at least know this much, that if I don’t establish the “rule” of connecting with God first thing, my freedom from anxiety in this fight will be forfeit all day.)

I do have to engage the battle. But I don’t have to do it alone.

In Quiet, Susan Cain uses the example of Seth Klarman, one of the great investors of our time, who said he’s "a big fan of fear and, in investing, it’s clearly better to be scared than sorry." Klarman is a world-class worrier, according to the NYT, and he owns a racehorse called “Read the Footnotes.” During the stock market crash, he stuck to his guns and bought when everyone else was panicking. His style is an example of the value of waiting quietly when the world seems to be telling you to rush ahead.

There's another great book called One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp about learning to stop and write the simple gifts right in front of you. This little book has been my antidote to distraction for 4 years now, like C.S. Lewis, convincing me to slow down and go deeper, but also showing me how to take tangible, practical, daily steps toward the better stuff of life, in the midst of anxiety and chaos.  

Fear and anxiety can make us feel ill-equipped by nature, by God. But according to Cain in Quiet, not rushing ahead in the face of strong potential rewards, i.e. maintaining a strong respect for risk and uncertainty, is a powerful, maybe the most powerful predictor of success.

I should check those emails…oh, 2 text messages now…

We need not see distractions as all bad. In fact, in our morning pages today, Sheri and I decided to try an experiment to hold one thing we wanted insight on today. Mine was "distraction."

My hunch is this experiment might help me avoid getting bent out of shape by life’s (and wife’s) interruptions. 

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Some folks do so many things at once that they have to use two screens.

I don't know when it started or why I forget this so often, but I frequently try to hold too much.

Is it any wonder I get frustrated when a practical matter like kids' violin practice or dinner is more pressing?

And though I’m deeply in love with my wife, when I’m hot on the trail of some flash of lacking insight I think God's offering me, I could even turn down a kiss from the love of my life.

I’m happily married, thank God. But yes, this has actually happened.

Obviously not a happy marriage thanks to me.

It’s only with help from some much more level heads–my wife's, parents', friends', even kids'–that I’ve managed to organize my manic mind into some still-very-loose structure (I'd bust out of anything more restrictive).

Work is calling…people waiting…I really should go do something…

Shhh…it's okay. Even so, it isn’t as though my “Noodlings” file isn’t full to overflowing with the brain batter that flings every which way when I’m hot on the trail of a flash of lacking insight (let’s just go ahead and shorten this cumbersome phrase to “HotToFoLI” to save time–which also conjures “hot to trot,” “hot to fly,” as in, my desire to escape this mortal coil and join the spirit in the sky, and “hot to follow” white rabbits of curiosity…also it rhymes with Hot Tamales which are the bomb even if they're no match for Atomic Fireballs. And yes, all of this is applicable.)

But most of all, HotToFoLI is folly. Of the highest order.

It will ruin me. In fact, it has threatened to many times.

There’s nothing wrong with excitement and passion. But when it isn’t kept in check, it can do unspeakable damage. If this needles you in any way, you probably have some apologies to make like I do (and don’t get distracted from the point, but remember to actually follow through with that conviction when we’re done here–it could be very rewarding).

Not only can our excitement overwhelm some of the great wonders of the universe—people we love, and especially sensitive people we’re probably married to, parent, and call friends—we can so dominate them that we drive them away. You know of what I speak.

Trust me, you don’t want distraction to ruin your life. Learn my lesson and learn to submit. As Chambers says, “Obedience is the natural life of a child.” Stop trying to be an "adult." Accept your limitations.

You are not a superhero and you can't catch all the opportunities raining from the sky.

Listen: you don't have to catch it all. You can not catch them all.

So calm down, Junior Executive. Calm down, Missionary Jane. Relax, Hot-to-Trot Author.

Don’t let the endless shadow missions distract you from your true work—this primary job you were given to be right where you are today, swaddled by your Dad…your flailing appendages tight in his straightjacket of love…

m