Tag Archives: the writing life

For Writers, Is Living Love a Process?

“Success has little to teach us during the second half of life. It continues to feel good, but now it is often more an obstacle to maturity than a positive stimulus toward it.”
― Ronald Rolheiser, Sacred Fire: A Vision for a Deeper Human and Christian Maturity

The day’s list of projects is looking mighty long. I know enough by now to simply do the hardest, most pressing thing first, and stick to the process until I get through it all. Last week was a great reminder that “Bird by Bird is always the way.

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Looking at the calendar reminds me I’ll turn 45 on my next birthday. It’s not so old, but seems it’ll be harder to deny I’m middle-aged and “should be” more mature by now. Or whatever other “shoulds” I should be thinking about at my age.

And that list seems pretty stinking long too.

Apart from all of that–the work and the worries about shoulds–what would I choose to be doing to find the most meaning and significance? I know I’m being coerced by the clock and the calendar, but it’s a valid question, and a good one for a Monday morning.

What’s the best use of the day?

Certainly, I can assume a whole list of things it isn’t. Paying any more attention to that blowhard. Worrying about money or bills. Getting just one more modern convenience. 

FullSizeRenderI’m like most modern people. We’re all way too distractable. That’s different from being purpose-driven and interruptible, like Jesus always was. We’re too often thinking about ourselves. We don’t serve the sick and needy, the most innocent and vulnerable. We serve the powerful, the promising, the ones we deem worthy and projecting the right image of success. We elevate those we think can elevate us with their power, prestige, privilege, or position. We avoid those who might drag us down and look instead for promising partners who can help raise our status and standards.

If I could have my way, I’d have no other thought but to serve God and love Him fully through the care and keeping of the weakest and gentlest people I could find. Or so I think. I would be about His business, at least that’s what I tell myself.

But I don’t get involved. There are plenty of opportunities to serve those around me and I don’t. Haven’t I been faking my way through this spiritual writing life up to now? Aren’t I really all about myself, my own wants and needs, my own little comforts? 

IMG_0758Ronald Rolheiser, in his wonderful book Sacred Fire, says, “One of our deepest struggles in life is dealing with the unconscious anxiety inside of us that pressures us to try to give ourselves significance and immortality. There is always the inchoate gnawing: do something to guarantee that something of your life will last. It is this propensity that tempts us to try to find meaning and significance through success and accumulation. But in the end it does not work, irrespective of how great our successes have been.”

Meaning and significance are at the base of my motivation for everything. I want to matter. Jesus says to lose my life and I look for assurances it’ll be saved. Are they right–have I stopped believing because I don’t believe the Bible?

This process of pushing for the ever-deeper question is the impulse that compels me in the search for meaning. I know that I know the Bible is a guide to understanding, the bedrock of belief, but I don’t believe the inspiration is over and done. There’s life to be lived, experience to confirm the Word, and the writing life with the Spirit is a continual proving of faith in living and questioning and seeking, whether in sensing directly, or trying to make sense of his directing. To live the writing and write the life are the word and the deed, inseparable and constantly shifting.

FullSizeRender_1If you know these things, you will be happy if you do them.

And that is why we have to be about process. Progress is inevitable when your goal is the process, and living is always about processing what is lived. Step by step, moment by moment, now and now, the product is being shaped and guided each day until meaning and significance become byproducts of an active, proven faith. Get living in love and writing that lives will be the result.

What more proof do I need? Bishop Michael Curry was so right in that sermon. (I mean, can you get any better proof anywhere on the Web these days? Seriously.)

Writers must focus on process because there is no more powerful way to love everyone God needs us to love. Process is what ensures what’s happening when is what needs to be happening–writing or life, it’s all about the love. And focusing on process, the in and the out, like breathing, is how all the lists will finally be completed, all the work finally finished, and all the words lived out and written out.

And that is how the most powerful meaning will be achieved.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

(I’ll be breaking down some of the steps in my process over the next few weekly posts, so I’d love it if you did some writing and living about your own process as we go along, see what we might find… meantime, here’s a podcast I did with the Pastor Writer about learning to love process recently) 

When You’re Ready to Start Doing the Work

W  henever I head to the piano to capture what I hear, I have to be so careful. Any little misstep could easily crush it. Even if I play it almost perfectly, one wrong note in the melody or harmony can make it slip away.

lilacsA similar thing happens in the word work. The best times are when it comes more as something to preserve than to create. It isn’t easy to pin just the right words down, though thankfully it doesn’t seem quite as fragile. But I do have to pay attention not to write too quickly–or too slowly.

Yet most the time, the main difficulty is finding inspiration. The world seems full of yelling people doing important things. And it can increasingly seem there’s nothing for me to write about in the hubbub.

Conditioned, trained to respect action–to be productive and practice, I want desperately to act. I’m ambitious and I want to say something new, something good, something important.

Yet, as I read earlier, “…the one great need [is] not…the question whether we are of any use, but to face Him.” – Oswald Chambers

Isn’t this the one thing I need to do, to face the One who continually calls me here? And isn’t this the place I continually meet him? Can’t I relax knowing I’ll never lose or miss out if I forget striving for the right inspiration or to be productive and simply wait on God?

wisteriaI know this simpler answer is the right answer to my story. The main struggle every hero faces in the end isn’t primarily the villain, but himself. The external antagonist only prepares you to face the real internal battle.

I love that saying from Teddy Roosevelt: “If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month.”

I can lose my writing focus so easily. Though I know I received the call and there’s nothing I must do but this job, it’s still a challenge. I often feel crushed by the pressure–to stand out, to write well, to say just the right thing just the right way. What matters is between me and Him, not expressing something profound or launching into the public space. My job is settling back and waiting, preparing, and stilling myself to be content with whatever the call means and accept this as the practice.

I do remember that the only people who shout about the sun rising tomorrow are those who don’t quite believe it themselves yet.

It’s a loud, self-important world of constant need and demands. In the ever-increasing rush, we don’t need more words. We need more people who will be quiet and faithful.

We need writers who will lead us back.

“Whenever a story is well told, the gospel is served.” –Eugene Peterson

front walkWe need writers who will help us escape the noisy voices crowding around, especially those who seem to love using their outside voices when in God’s house. We need listeners, those desperate to be reminded of God’s inside voice.

Can I just settle back in my chair, ready myself now? Not to create, but to preserve? To pre-serve the world around me, isn’t this the necessary preparation? In finding the right words to write, I know this practice comes first and foremost. If our entire culture seems to have lost its ability to sit still, then it’s all the more important that we take this time first to preserve that forgotten place, so we can invite others to do it too.

Maybe this is why it starts as a call. Because it will always first require listening.

And maybe this is the only way to living the work.

“Art consists of limitation….art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere.” –Gilbert K. Chesterton

Is it time we drew the line?

For the higher purpose of your deliberately quiet, daily practice,

Mick

What’s Really Left to Say?

“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.”
– Graham Greene

It’s Saturday and I’m still working. I’m tired, worn out.

Tea, I think.

Lord knows, I’ve had plenty of coffee. And still the words on the screen are blurring.

Seems I’m never not working these days. Even now, I’m on my computer.

I head into the kitchen to put the kettle on.

I know too well the strain of a too-crowded mind. Maybe I ought to take that long walk.

The kettle snaps and cracks under the heat.

I’m lucky to have this job that allows me mid-morning tea. Gallup polls show one-fifth of American families struggled to afford food in 2013. As of January of this year, almost 50 million Americans live in poverty, by some counts the largest number ever….

Living out our belief in the messages of these books I work on, it’s a wonder we make it. The bills may have to go on credit cards again this month.

The reasons for this are numerous, of course. The trade off for my investment of time and attention on books is a difficult commodity to charge for. But it’s our income, our livelihood. And hence, the source of my untold stress.

Heat pours from the burner and I hold my cold hands over it. Thank you, God, for this inexpensive natural resource and the incredible investment it represents. I think such things to remember how fortunate I am. I need to remember.

The kettle whistles and I turn off the heat, find a hot pad, pull the stopper. Steam rises and the mug warms quickly in my hands. How many times have I performed this ritual since beginning the book?

Truthfully, this book has always been too much for me. I’ve felt this burning passion to write this story for well over a decade. But I knew I didn’t know how to write it. And it seemed no one could help me.

I find Charlotte in the living room and carry my weight silently and sit.

What really is there left to say?

I sit with my tea and look out the window. The best books are all written. Each of them a work of singular perfection, of perfect culmination. The best stories, the best subjects. So much more than my little contribution.

I can’t possibly add something useful. It’s all been said already. What’s the point of writing at all?

When all the stories you could tell have been told more eloquently and completely, what’s left to be said? Regardless of the details, there are few truly worthy in the end.

How can anyone think their words merit mass interest, faced with the glut of worthier lives?

I watch my Charlotte read by the window and pick up the book next to me, the one by an author who knows this struggle to find meaning in the word work. Bird by Bird. 

“You simply keep putting down one damn word after the other, as you hear them, as they come to you. You can either set brick as a laborer or as an artist. You can make the work a chore, or you can have a good time. You can do it the way you used to clear the dinner dishes when you were thirteen, or you can do it as a Japanese person would perform a tea ceremony, with a level of concentration and care in which you can lose yourself, and so in which you can find yourself.” 

Charlotte looks up from her book and suggests we go outside later to play in the sunny side yard. I smile and slap my knee. “What a perfectly fabulous idea!”

She smiles and goes back to reading, happy and oblivious.

And the thought comes: has she just provided my answer?

Maybe in the end, there’s only one thing left to do: to forget it all. 

Forget about all those other books, other people’s lives. Forget the result of someone else’s work and tireless effort. They too faced this fear and kept going. And now their work stands as a testament to the boundless human spirit just as mine will be. As untamable as the will behind all creation.

In the end, what else is there to be said?

To write, to be free, is to be alive. Maybe I need not work so hard to remember this, but only to forget everything I know, like a child with a book and not a care in the world. Would we call her stubborn? Would they say she’s “bad” for expressing her interests so single-mindedly?

Of course not. We’d know there’s play to be done. This play. This adventure will be had.

I watch her and think, Can I forget all my reasons, my excuses, and leave it all behind once again?

Don’t I know this by now: that I am the only one who can get me to forget?

“I love you, Dad.” She peers over her big book at me.

“You do?” I tease. “I love you too, kiddo.”

What is writing, in the end, but this very letting go of every other thought but the one that sits loosely in the open hand, the one that trusts that the words to speak will be there when we need them, whether anyone ever reads them or not?

What you’re writing, if it matters to you, it is good. And you will say that to yourself when you’re done: “That was good.”

Good. 

And it will be.

Wouldn’t I love the book more and give it my all if I wrote for this higher purpose? If regardless of all that’s been said, when I’m through, I simply wrote for the sheer unbridled pleasure of it? Then there might be this record of a journey to freedom to enjoy. And maybe, hopefully even the suggestion of freedom in a true companion, a lifter of our heads.

Maybe only when I do reach that land, that far distant shore, then, and only then, will I be able to say that I—myself—have said all there is to say.

The tea done now, I squeeze out the bag. Having given it all, it’s set aside. Nothing held back.

I blow and sip. And it’s perfect–strong and full, just how I like it.

“To participate requires self-discipline and trust and courage, because this business of becoming conscious, of being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself, as my friend Dale puts is, How alive am I willing to be?” – Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

What might live if you can just forget all that limits you today? Will you go for it and write free?

For the Higher Purpose,

Mick

Stay In the Process

I received a reply email from an author.

“Looks like I have my work cut out for me,” she wrote.

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She’d been a client for several months and I’d sent my final edit laying out several things she’d need to do before and after sending it to the publisher.

Yes, you do have your work cut out, I wanted to say. Because I’ve invested some considerable time to cut it out for you.

Of course I didn’t say it. I like to pretend. I’m too self-controlled. Actually I’m too shy and insecure. But I felt it. And I felt entitled to say it because I’d given a lot. And the book was far better for it.

Was she even grateful?

Should I say something? 

Then I remembered how it’s always easy to look around at the problems in the world and see the things we’d like to change. But we can only do that if we’ve first allowed God to change us. And the fear and anger in our own hearts can keep us from ever realizing the thing that most needs to change–

Ourselves.

I have to keep saying it until I start believing it: there is only one way to change the world for the better with my truth. And it isn’t by seeking gratitude from clients.

The insight needed to see our truth and our stories requires deliberate self-discovery.  Without that, they won’t change anyone. They won’t have the key to how a story heals: demonstration.

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What I’m really after is not pointing out what others’ should do, but to see what I must do to finally overcome my barriers to telling my story, which means accepting my own fears and insecurities.

I wanted her gratitude because I love playing the hero.

It seems I need yet another revision.

“Who cannot give good counsel? ‘Tis cheap and costs them nothing.” – Robert Burton

Truth is, no one will care how much you know until they know how much you care. I seek to be served because my needs are what matter most when they’re all I can see.

Like everyone, I tend to feel so trapped and alone.

“One of the greatest barriers to connection is the cultural importance we place on ‘going it alone.’ Somehow we’ve come to equate success with not needing anyone. Many of us are willing to extend a helping hand, but we’re very reluctant to reach out for help when we need it ourselves. It’s as if we’ve divided the world into ‘those who offer help’ and ‘those who need help.’ The truth is that we are both.” (Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection)

We don’t need more writers giving us answers to change the world. We need writers seeking our questions to change themselves.

And when they do, many others will be changed as well.

I say I want to help others. But what I really seem to want is their gratitude. Could reaching out for community help change the way I approach my work, my writing, my life?

The trick to all of this writing life is staying in the process. But that requires accepting help.

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I did write back to my author friend. I told her that wonderfully, yes, she DID have her work cut out now! And, I said, you’re welcome. (winky smile)

I said she might need help and encouragement along the way, to stay in her process and not run away when it got uncomfortable or exhausting. Because that’s what writing means.

And I thought how accepting a calling maybe always requires help. Maybe that’s part of the refining, to realize we’ve got to seek help and use our discernment to find it. Our source of strength is always that connection to the Inspirer, but don’t we also have to give up our stubborn independence and learn to ask and receive from the friends God’s provided?

I’ve needed to stop trying to go it alone.

The last thing I told her was that I’ll be praying for her continued stamina in the journey. And then I said I’d be here–I could always use the companionship myself.

If you’re on an interior journey, you need friends to help you stay in the process.

And always welcome your fellow travelers as friends. And simply stay in the process.

Keep seeking, my friends. You inspire me and so many more as you do…

M

Editor to Author: Letter to a Memoir Writer

Dearest Author,

I've been thinking about worth lately.

What's your story worth?

At a recent writers conference I taught a workshop on how I saw publishing changing. Modern publishing, the only time in history when we've had separate "markets" for books, has begun to fracture and redistribute. I've shared several times about how The Shack has shifted things. It isn't just a book, of course, it's a bridge. And those bridges are inevitable because it isn't only spiritual people or Christians who recognize God as creator.  

Blue Like Jazz came well before it and created connections between the Christian and secular markets. Lauren Winner's memoir Girl Meets God made some connection points before that, similar to how Eat, Pray, Love did more recently, from the other side of the spiritual divide. Several spiritual/worldly, secular/sacred books have become best-sellers as bridges in the long history of such books since the beginning of print, and some people have traced this line back to the best-selling book of all time: The Bible.

The Secret. The Purpose-Driven Life. The Alchemist. The Celestine Prophesy. The Late Great Planet Earth. Pilgrim's Progress. Books you've never heard of have sold over 30 million copies: Steps to Christ by Ellen White, In His Steps by Charles Sheldon, late-19th century Congregational minister and advocate of the ever-intriguing idea of "Christian socialism." Even Nikolai Tesla wrote about his life a true spiritual man and world-renouned scientist in My Inventions. The Canterbury Tales, The Odyssey, and The Divine Comedy by Dante, written in 1304, has "sold" more than anyone knows and we have no idea how it or any of these books have changed readers and the history of spiritual thought, becoming seeds for the trees of countless theologies.

But of course, we know this is what books are–seeds. And this is what they do: define life and defy death.

"So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee."

So this story that's a part of you, that is you, that defines your work and all of your effort and sacrifices to share it completely (or as completely as possible) for others to use–what's it really worth?

Don't answer. You can't. Simply try to see the fullness of the question clearly. Continue on…

Do you know where your worth is really found?

Yes, in God's ownership of the life and love he's created you to embody (1 John 4:7-12). His ownership, creating, protecting, guiding and infusing of his great, unchanging spirit into us. He dies that we might live (parents always understand this principle). And we die that others might live through our sacrifices. This is the daily work of writing.

Do you know what that is really worth?

Intimately known and held, seen and heard and helped in every way, this knowledge is invaluable, isn't it? We can talk of worth and value, and shift our understanding of that from copies sold to readers influenced, but it's the knowledge a reader will have by the end of your story that makes what you're doing truly valuable. And this understanding of how God fills us and dies for us is the greatest wisdom, the most valuable in the world. And if you are practicing that, that makes what you're doing invaluable.

I want to give you, as a witness of your discovery of that unchanging love, my invaluable opinion on it, my affirmation that you've been seen and heard and that what you've written down is completely worthy. And with your assurance that it's been well established and others will see it and respond, you can continue, knowing it's incredible and invaluable. 

So do you see what your story is really worth?

Because there's no true price tag you can put on it. There's no proper estimating the value of my work, my seeing it, or others' receiving it either. It's in-valuable. We have to simply trust together that whatever comes of it is just a small piece of its fullest value as a seed for God to use, and not at all connected to the worth of what you've written, or what I've done to help. I know you've sacrificed and given for your story, and I've been brought into the processing of it, but regardless of how it will be published and the realities of our modern marketplace, you must know:

What's your story really worth?

I remain your solid co-laborer in the process of delivering these invaluable words. Never assign its worth to money, public perception, publication, or anything else. Your heart is here, and that's established and it's something you have written definitively, and just as we have agreed together at the outset here, others will when they read it.

We don't know how it will all play out. But I'm on your side and not looking for specific outcomes big or small. Don't think in terms of what's "fair," but decide you will pay with your life what's necessary to give to this project. What you give is directly proportional to what that seed will be able to produce in readers. And in terms of return and profit, I believe Cohelo is right: the universe will conspire in our favor.

So what's your story really worth?

 

Your Loving Editor,

Mick