Tag Archives: Writers

When There’s Too Much Anxiety in Your Way to Move Forward

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It turns out I have this unconsidered theory that what’s most important is to be comfortable.

And it’s especially true with huge challenges like writing.

One more cup of coffee, I think. Then maybe I’ll be in the zone….

There’s no coffee mug big enough for me. Or coffee hot enough, tasty enough, fresh enough. And soon, the way the perfect light hits the perfect spot on the floor has stolen 5 full minutes of my writing time. It’s not “wasted” time; actually it’s helped me recharge and get my thoughts in order. But it hasn’t gotten words on the page. And there’s a difference between taking a moment to appreciate the light, and stalling out.

Just keep showing up, I think, against all opposition. I was even geared up about it, or so I thought, seeking the answer to something, a recent idea I wanted to capture. So I came early before the day’s work because I know this is the way I work: the day must start here. So just get it down before anything else.

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But I’ve hit a wall and it’s a slog. I’m trying hard to remember the question I had, and it’s not there.

Just press on. You know writing isn’t always easy or comfortable. But when I get in this head space, there’s no denying it: my writing time for the day is slipping away.

There’s too much to do to waste this time, too many tasks and none of them can be rescheduled. The recent sweeping changes have created several places of real need and that’s led to some anxiety and overwhelm. We knew the move to Michigan would be fairly difficult, but the house has needed a lot of help and leaving our friends and family behind in Portland has been harder than we even expected. Bottom line, it’s become uncomfortable.

God knows I need challenges to push me out of my comfortable or nothing changes. I like to think I welcome change and even handle it well. But the truth is I fear it, and in most situations it’s something I resist—

What’s that? You want to introduce something new into my carefully circumscribed life here? Uh, no thank you. I’m good. Move along, please—

When I’m uncomfortable, I just want it to stop as soon as possible. Pain or struggle is evil and needs to be alleviated. It’s not useful for my good. How many times have I heard this truth espoused, and yet still I fight desperately to resist it?

I fight the truth, and I make myself uncomfortable in the process. I make myself uncomfortable in order to stay comfortable.

Which is insane.

We’ve all got to choose to respond to life’s inevitable challenges. Doing nothing is not a choice because doing nothing is still a choice. Believe it or not, accept it or not, life will change on you. Your only choice is how to respond. And when I respond by letting go of what I thought I needed, I’ll find a deeper comfort.

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I have to stand up and walk toward the window, face the light to get a hold of it, the thought comes in such a burst. But letting go of what I previously needed for comfort may be somehow the only way I’ll regain the sense that I’m safe and sound, that things are in control.

Because it will no longer depend on my own efforts to hold on to what I think I need.

In this life, nothing is what it seems. The greatest teacher was right: you have to give up your comfort in order to save it.

I haven’t fully figured this out yet, but I want to believe this. And maybe that’s enough for now. I can feel the release of it coursing through my body, holding me up, and convincing me it’ll be okay despite what it seems.

Accept the responsibility, choose to let go here and now, and you preserve your deeper freedom. You may not get to writing down words today, but there’s tomorrow and if God allows it, the next day.

There’s good, even when things look bad. The truth is always there just waiting to be acknowledged and accepted.

And surrendered to.

Am I required to do or to share anything else? Or is just living this simple truth today enough?

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And maybe next time I’ll remember this sooner, accept it more readily. When discomfort comes, can I surrender to it to keep my deeper comfort?

Only one way to find out, I guess.

“If only we try to live sincerely, it will go well with us, even though we are certain to experience real sorrow, and great disappointments, and will also probably commit great faults and do wrong things. But it certainly is true that it is better to be high-spirited—even though one makes more mistakes—than to be narrow-minded and all too prudent. It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength; and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much; and what is done in love, is well done.” – Vincent Van Gogh, (from Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh (Plume, 1995)

For the deeper, greater, and higher purpose,

 

Mick

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

Want to Write a Best-Seller? Mine Your Empathy

The greatest of divides…is between those who regard the visible world as being of primary importance…and those who do not.

Dallas Willard

 

There are so many challenges to writing a story that works, let alone that can capture readers’ hearts and imaginations to get talked about and shared. And so few people who talk about writing never will for one simple reason: permission.
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First, you need full permission to share your story exactly as it happened. Even if it’s fiction, you’ve got to be able to go to the heart of what made this story grab you–the reality and heartache of it, the real pain and struggle it speaks about.

That’s job one. And in a way, knowing you have it because it’s the truth, and claiming that freedom to say it all is all that matters. Make that the heart of your motivation, because with it, you can overcome any other opposition—all the skill, ability, competition, understanding, logic, research, organization and all the logistical problems of writing a book are secondary.

Though as you know, there are so many things that need attention after that.

If you also need to ask permission from others, do it. If it means reconciling, forgiving, feeling your grief or anger and then releasing it and writing that part into the story, then that’s what you need to do. Don’t waste time setting things right.

FullSizeRender_1But whether you’re writing a true story or fiction, your first task after claiming and establishing your full permission to share is to think of the external story and the internal as distinct, but related stories. This is so basic, but it’s so neglected in the writing instruction and literature I’ve seen. There are always those two parallel stories and they need alternating attention, often within a paragraph or two. Otherwise readers get lost and forget what’s happening.

Readers can’t see the story as you can—and most writers can’t see that fact until it’s pointed out (= job security for me). Your job as writer is to show them. And you’ll develop this skill best by learning to get inside your reader’s head.

But how in the world do you do that?…

Simple. Give up what you know about the story, discard your knowledge and power as creator, and become ignorant, pitiful, and lost. Because that’s always how your reader feels when they start your story. When you think about it, it’s a wonder anyone reads books at all. Who wants to feel all that? And I’d argue it’s exactly for those feelings that people stop reading. So your job is to prevent that at all costs.

FullSizeRenderWhen you become like your reader, you will know exactly what it feels like to know nothing about your story, and you’ll know exactly what’s needed to resolve those problems.

Empathy—that’s why it’s the key element necessary for becoming a great author. Humility allows you to enter the reader’s experience and make that your strategic priority over teaching or telling them something. You feel their need and you know you need to engage their hearts, reach into their darkness, and reveal the exciting surprise of your story.

Why haven’t you read this in writing books or heard it talked about in courses? Why don’t published authors speak of it more? They obviously know developing this empathy is essential. It’s more than feeling sorry for the reader—it’s getting inside them and feeling and seeing what they do. It’s knowing and feeling what they feel inside, and acting on it in your own external world. See how that works? When you allow your external to be impacted by another’s internal, you’re entering the space of the author’s essential empathy.

FullSizeRender_3That’s your sixth sense that’s developing, and that’s what tells you when to cut, when something needs revealing, deepening. Can the reader feel it or see it yet? If so, congratulations! You’re done. Stop. If not, keep defining and refining to the point. And always remember the internal and external stories must be shown to happen concurrently and influence each other in many ways.

Your main character is the representative of the reader’s experience, which means he or she must respond to external action either similarly or exactly like the reader would. Sometimes, it’s best for the main character to respond better than the reader would, to demonstrate the best self the reader aspires to be—to inspire positive change through wish-fulfillment (“I wish I could be so confident/decisive, etc.”). This will seem obvious to the authors who’ve been writing a while, but many haven’t yet thought about this vital skill enough and they’re forgetting the one key they need to unlock the reader’s understanding and delight in their stories.

I’ve talked about this essential empathy a lot because it’s so important. But it’s important because there’s an internal story that the external is both creating and threatening. Don’t miss that. It’s everything. Too many writers think they can just write “what happened” and expect that to hold readers’ interest. And they’ve missed that there’s an internal world writers must strive to make come to life, to make real.

We have to first feel what readers want conveyed. What emotion is natural to the action, and how will it come across? Consider the sensory experience—the sights, sounds, smells, the words that will bring the right emotion and context.

Think about deepening engagement by evoking feeling with your words. And remember, you create the drama from what you write and what you don’t. Often, the magic comes in the editing where you think about all you don’t need and how much stronger the experience becomes when you eliminate what’s not working or pulling its weight (= more job security for me).

Powerful writing comes with powerful editing. When you edit, think of the internal story, showing the experience of that—the main characters’ thoughts and feelings—and eliminate the words that aren’t necessary to that. It will absolutely increase the sense of drama.

There are many specifics I’d love to share here, but we’ll continue discussing over the coming weeks. For now, think about your favorite books and whether part of the reason was feeling strangely cared for or helped along by the author’s essential empathy for you…

Have you felt that? If you have, share this post with someone and let’s discuss….

For the Higher Purpose,

Mick

Attention Is a Limited Resource

I rarely remember it, but I’d be a better writer if I did:

What we think about matters. Because attention is a limited resource.

Sometimes I remember to be reserved about what I pay attention to and I discover more time to write. But I hardly ever remember to consider what I pay attention for.

Or put another way, Why I’m paying attention to what I’ve chosen.

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I met my youngest brother for lunch this past week because it’d been a while and my mom pushed so we went for sushi. He just turned 33 which means I’m now 41. He said it was his treat. It was a little hole in the wall near his office. We talked about relationships and theology as we always do.

On the way back we discussed the effort required to do things we find difficult amidst life’s busyness and demands. He has two kids under 2 so I knew he was serious in that way only the sleep-deprived can know, and maybe that’s why inspiration struck just then as I pulled away from the corner.

With singular clarity, I could see how motivation is truly all that matters. We agreed that doing things just because we should leads to apathy and failure, and hard things like reading the Bible, working out or writing a book just to do it become a chore. But if you knew you’d be going out to use it for others, you’d be motivated. You’d read to share, work out to help others, write to inspire. And that would change everything. The simple idea of doing it for others could create powerful motivation.

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The difference could be simply a matter of doing something not for yourself but to share it.

We talked more and I said how taking consistent baby steps has been the only way I improve, but that it’s difficult once passion wears off. My question was how to stay motivated through the day in, day out.

Knowing you need to share it with others is good, but I already sensed it wasn’t enough. There had to be something more.

I came home and asked Ellie what motivates her to draw.

“Seeing it done, and getting the ideas out,” she said.

“Do you also think about sharing it, having others enjoy it?”

She said yes, and when I asked why she likes drawing so much, she said it’s because it’s fun and expressive and challenging.

“And you like the challenge?” I asked.

“Yeah. Because it makes me get better.”

Improving, getting better is definitely an important motivator. But what if we get discouraged and don’t see progress? The common lie may creep in–that we don’t have the time to push to produce at the next level.

Sure, it’s painfully true that everyone makes time for what they decide to, and choosing more than the default Internet-trolling-forever is a simple matter. Knowing that once your attention is paid out, it’s gone is a good truth to remember in our new world of noisy feeds and information whiplash.

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But even if you don’t feel affected by it or you have a high capacity for maintaining focus, everyone has a limited bandwidth of attention. And as a culture we’re quickly approaching critical overload. Try to think of a number for how many songs, movies, shows, articles, news items, websites, blog posts, books, video games, interviews, radio broadcasts, podcasts, youtube videos, seminars, studies, journals, conferences, festivals, conventions, retreats, parties announcements, and gatherings you’ve engaged with in the last week.

Add the overwhelming dose of random friend and family information and ubiquitous advertising, and how much attention do you think you have left for what’s supposedly important to you?

Feeling guilty yet?

Of course, what we think about matters. We can get distracted and end up paying our attention out to all the wrong things. Pretty soon we’re caught by our fears and limits, our old self. And no matter how we manage all of this, there’s only so much free attention to spend. How do we learn to preserve our attention for what matters?

The question matters, and you aren’t alone. Every week I work to help writers simply write. And what do you think they all say they need most?

Luckily, there’s something we can do about it. And all it takes is a decision. You are the only one who can give yourself this gift. And no one can take this away from you: you get to make this choice. So just decide:

“Today, I’m preserving my attention for who I really want to have it.”

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Imagine if that simple change in your daily routine increased your happiness, motivation and productivity and one day you could trace the changes in your life back to this decision.

Imagine if the difference was just deciding to preserve your attention for what truly matters.

Here’s the real point: self-improvement is ultimately worthless. Even doing things to help others can lead to burn-out. So what is worth paying your attention for?

Results? The process?

Who should you do what you do for?

Now all the good Sunday school kids raise your hands because you know the right answer.

Every believer knows the goal is not producing results at any cost, but moving when he moves and staying beneath his cross.

As we sang in church, “Content to let the world go by, to know no gain or loss. My sinful self my only shame, my glory all the cross.”

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It wasn’t just the right answer in Sunday school, was it? We get too moved by all sorts of things. What if we waited and decide not to move in our sinful selves? In our shame and self? What if we chose a deeper motivation–a higher purpose–to pay our attention for and give all our desire to him?

What you pay attention to is what will define you. But who you pay your attention for determines who you will become.

This is the moment (I speak to myself here): you can choose. To look at your work through his eyes. To do it for him and see the world as he did.

Isn’t this how we shift the paradigm? Shift the focus?

Isn’t this how we’re enabled to see his love for us and others?

Choose in faith and there’s your motivation: to see how he gave what was reserved especially for you despite what you deserved. To simply allow you to do what he asked and remember him?

“As often as you do this.”

Choose to respond. Who do you say he is? Choose to love him back through your commitment to this work. Do you not yet fully believe? Is that what’s still in the way? You know he’s asked us to serve him to others,  and all we need is the desire, the want to. That’s enough. But you don’t know how to want to if you don’t?

Choose anyway. You don’t have to force it, just know the only alternative means you’ll have to carry all things alone—as if anyone ever could. We can only love him with the love he gives us. All we need to do is receive it.

If you knew this was the only way to inexhaustible motivation, wouldn’t you choose it?

What will you decide? What will you become?

Who will you pay your attention for?

Why editing isn’t just the how but the what  

Whenever I work with new authors, they’re eager and excited. And almost always they want to focus on how they did—whether the structure they used works and how well it “flows.”

But what I find almost 100% of the time is that first, they need help hearing what they said. And without exception, it’s surprising to them to realize what I’m hearing.

We think editing is a matter of mechanics. What we find is, it’s mostly about relevance and authenticity.

More than structure, we need to hear how we sound beyond our own heads.

Picture a singer too focused on all the other instruments to hear what his voice is contributing. Picture a painter thinking only of a person’s shape without perspective and the play of shadow and light on skin.

Language is magic. We don’t control it without patient work. And even then…

Are you open to hearing what you haven’t yet heard?

How else would we expect to learn to affect others with what’s in our minds and hearts that hasn’t yet been said?