Tag Archives: writing

Why Simple Is Best

The 14th c. theologian William of Ockham is known for his statement, “the simplest solution is almost always the best.”

[woman looking at tree]

This is the familiar thought I’ve come to after writing a bit this morning. If I want to finally finish, I’ve got to apply it. And I’ve long been convinced that the pursuit of writing has profound lessons to teach about living, if we’d only stay and wait for the eyes of our hearts to focus.

The simplest solution in editing is usually the best. Much of my difficulty seems to come in over-complicating the subjects and dialogue. So simplifying the characters’ motives and speeches is good to think of as my main task working back through the drafted chapters. I don’t remember writing many of them, which was well over a dozen years ago now.The very first ones began arriving around 2003 and 04, not that it matters.

It also doesn’t matter if it’s this hard to write or not for others, or if complex drama is what some people prefer. My own motives and inner voices get simplified as I commit to what I’m writing. And I’m not writing it for others, or an ideal reader, or even “for an audience of one.” I’m writing it, after all, for myself. Maybe that’s selfish, and maybe I’m forgetting it’s impossible to forget God and others, but don’t they get served if I share what’s important to me? If my motive is not my own happiness or isolation or superiority, but fulfillment in some yet unrealized way, isn’t that the synthesis of God’s will for my life and my own? Simplifying means not over-complicating by looking too closely at it.

Over-complicating is what caused this work to take so long to come out in the first place. And I finally just want to accept that this call to use writing to understand my deepest self and longings is not something I initiated, it is simply received or not. I want to be done doubting and questioning that. Not to look too closely, at it but to “pay attention to my life” because of it, as Buechner says. That seems to be the position of stability from which to produce good work.

[kid in glasses]

The product is not the point; far from it. But only in letting go of over-complicating the process, and thinking too much about motive and why I’m really writing, can I unstop the words that actually could simplify my life. If I’d just let it go. Too long I’ve used the role and position of editing to distract and create scaffolding instead of getting into the mud and making the stuff to build with. That was necessary for my story too, so I don’t want to think of that with regret. And I’ve had to learn not to use these things for my own gain, to pad my ego or prove my worth. It’s taken time, simply time spent writing, processing, and yes, even producing a bit of very precious words. All of that was part of the process for me.

But if every life is a story, each one requires simplifying if we want it to speak of anything. It’s a basic lesson I somehow missed, but it was editing—the occupation of my life—that has finally convinced me of this. In slowing down, simplifying, and writing what God brings to mind each time, it feels like he’s teaching me to deeply value this work. And who am I to say who that’s for most–me or others?

It’s time to write, but now it will only involve the next thing in front of me, and nothing besides. And I think this is how I’ll make it.

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

― E.L. Doctorow, Writers At Work: The Paris Review Interviews



Seek Out the other path

This is the way I begin.

There’s no clear path, just a tangle of thoughts left over from the last time I didn’t do this.

Maybe this time I’ll finally remember that regular expression keeps the way forward from becoming overgrown.

One year ago we moved here, to northeast Grand Rapids, and though we’ve explored many places, we’ve never once been down to East Lake behind our house. The way is too unclear and there’s a lot to navigate through before we got there.

But that’s only one of the ways to go. There’s a clear access path just down the street we could take between the houses, and even a neighbor’s boat free to use, leaning against a tree. To others, I’m sure it seems odd we wouldn’t take such a nearby adventure.

And thinking about it now, there is very little keeping us from doing it before the afternoon sun slides south for the winter. Time passes and soon we might not even remember the little thrill of hearing we could do that anytime we want. Really? It’s not even ours…

How many of us forget there are others ways we could go? How many have lost the thread to that inner call to adventure?

The day’s duties will always dominate. The tangle of overgrown paths will easily overwhelm me. But I’m never too busy or tired or mature to seek out the other path and rekindle the spark of discovery.

All I have to do is begin again.

How to Know When You Need an Editor

“Please turn to page 127,” she said.

The word “I” had been circled every time it appeared on the page.

“How many circles are there?” she asked.

I counted fourteen. The page nearly jumped and jostled with circled I’s. But I was not sure what to make of this. Every time I’d written “I,” I meant “I.” Was it wrong to mean “I” so much? Or did the problem have to do with the word itself? Ought I find a synonym–is there a synonym?–for “I?” But no, I suspected the problem ran deeper.

Bonnie Friedman, Writing Past Dark

 

Deliberate is a good word.

As adjective, it means purposeful, the opposite of careless: careful.

As verb, it means to engage in careful consideration.

Deliberate, de-liberate, is to remove carelessness. It’s a good word for clarifying why editors are so feared and often untrusted. Their work is frustrating. Writers need them, sure, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t dread their constraining, de-liberating work.

After all, the editor’s job is to constrain the writer, to bind her wandering words to her intended meaning. You recognize the implication here? The blinding light of inescapable judgment? Like a reckoning?

To the extent you’ve found liberation in writing, an editor de-liberates, evaluates, measures, balances, and masters it. Like a dog.

Famous editor Sol Stein talks about writers getting out of the way of their work, the way Fitzgerald said his editor Max Perkins helped him do. All the throat-clearing distraction and unprofessional insertion and interpretations an author tends to give, the explaining and artful hiding they do, it’s not needed, so editors are helpful, if annoying, sort of house elves.

But honestly, professional editing is not required for any author anymore. Only those entering the traditional industry of royalty-paying publishers. It’s only necessary for reaching a broader audience than the author can reach on their own, if that’s what they want. This painful sacrificing of your way–the unconsidered way–for the better way, it requires an uncomfortable humility, a submitting.

And if you’re gonna do it, that’s not optional.

When I was a self-conscious writer just starting out as an evil editor, I used to try and make a case for editing, try to argue for the professional painful poking and proding of editing. But after so many years, I’ve given up. I’m tired of convincing. I finally decided professionally edited books speak for themselves.

But how can you know when you need an editor? Is there a best time to seek editing?

I think, yes. At least, when you’re a beginner, an editor can help right away–although I wouldn’t recommend hiring an expensive one until you’ve got some experience writing and being critiqued by strong readers. Learn from their books, classes, videos, posts, and articles. Find one or a few you like in your genre and enjoy that learning stage. You can gain so much online these days it’s not even funny.

When you first seek out an editor, you’ll need help with structure, theme, and deeper issues than style and craft. Most editors are better writers than you, but it’s because they know how to set up a story, create context, and identify the underlying promise with tangible examples and sensory detail. Their word choices, clarity, efficiency, and sentences are all secondary to satisfying storytelling.

For example, many writers begin by frontloading their story with backstory. We need to care about our primary character first, so polishing the flashback scene doesn’t help. It needs to be moved to later in the book. In nonfiction, the big problem or context for the promise you’re offering readers hasn’t been sufficiently developed. Developmental editing (substantive editing, or content editing) ensures the book feels weighty and important at the outset.

That’s the kind of thing you’ll get once you’ve written the book, so it’s best to simply write and not worry about wasting time and effort. It’s often more easily solvable once you’ve completed the journey.

But if anxiety about having to edit later is derailing you from writing, or if you’ve gotten some strong pushback from readers about fundamental elements–character, plot, setting, theme–an evaluation or consult with an editor may be a good idea.

Coaching is for writers who need deep encouragement to face their dragons and go into that cave they fear. It’s one thing to know it holds the treasure and you just have to do it, but it can be quite another to keep showing up day after day and struggling to explain why you’re doing this to yourself. But specific editing comments during writing are minor and mainly for reassurance.

The best time to hire an editor in my opinion is after you’ve completed two full drafts and had 2 or 3 trusted readers offer detailed feedback. Building that community is essential and prepares you for professional feedback. Then when major revision or minor recreating is recommended, you’ll have some idea of why and how to do it.

Everyone is different, so you need to consider your personal situation and experience level. If you’re a freshman, senior level classes are going to be hard to apply–and vice versa. What you read and how much you pick up from it are very important factors. If you’re in the writing process, enjoy that and if/when you get stuck, consider a consult if no trusted friends can advise.

While editing is about far more than fixing errors, identifying issues that require some revision is not as painful, horrendous, mortifying, life-altering as most authors tend to think. Take heart, warrior. You’re not the first and you won’t be the last to survive a rewrite.

You’ll be assessed, you’ll be shaped, and you’ll grow. All good things come in good time. Don’t short-circuit the supercharging work your inspirer’s intended to challenge, spur, and revise you. 

I looked at my manuscript in my suitcase, thought about all those beautiful, hilarious, poignant people I had been working with for almost three years, and all of a sudden I was in a rage. I called my editor at home. He was not planning on going to work that day. He was a little depressed, too. “I am coming over,” I said, and there was a silence, and then he said, very tentatively, “Okay,” like he wanted to ask, “And will you be bringing your knives?” 

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

 

It’s all, always been, for a 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

The Bigness of Accepting the Smaller

“Bar the lowly, and no one worthwhile will enter.”
Bonnie Friedman

I’m trying to find only the best and brightest thoughts. The big ones that can help make my dreams come true, or lead me to success, or whatever I’m selfishly idolizing at the moment, these are the thoughts I want, and only these.

Even lust for God, as the drive to be in control of our pain, our ignorance, our lives, this is selfish. We can’t help it and he knows this, of course. He made us. He knows we’re weak. There’s nothing for selfishness but the only cure: love. So until you’ve found it, there’s no point trying to curb your need for it. Religion is the same as any other fool’s errand. We’re trying to solve a problem that can only be removed by love.

Love is no respecter of size or class or form. It’s for all and it transcends any division or distinction between things. It gets small so the specific can be appreciated and absorbed into the large. It becomes less so the individual can be joined to the greatest and have that greatness itself. Unity is its purpose, not self, not in-divide-uation.

And this is a big thought that began small. It proves its own point.

Yet some say Jesus was for division and he came “to bring a sword.” They try to claim he went around dividing people up into his and the world’s, that he was always about individuation and breaking up families and stuff. He cared for the particular and specific over the general and communal. He went after the one and left the 99. So obviously, see, love does care about individuals.

Truth is never contained in one iteration. We know this in our hearts as truth, just as he said. The truth is buried in our hearts and we know it’s bigger than our approximations, bigger than any word we could give it. Truth is The Word. Endless and endlessly incarnating in form after form. Jesus, the Word, is its ultimate form, somehow the God-human is Truth’s completion.

And Truth is concerned for individuals, but this concern leads to unity for all. It is love that makes us willing to separate to reclaim an individual to bring it into unity. Division is not the goal. Division is the current reality.

If we could see into everything, every word, every person, every event that forms our experience and understanding, we would know as God knows. And in some way this is both the purpose of all we’re living for, and our greatest and most debilitating downfall. Wanting this deeper knowledge was the birthplace of all evil in God’s created reality, and it is the way to appreciating all his grace has wrought in our lives. We can’t stop striving for it, even as we gain an ever healthier respect (hopefully) for its danger. Solomon’s wisdom failed him. Knowing the Truth is a terrible, and terrifying gift.

But inasmuch as you can choose the higher purpose of seeking full Truth, and allow it into your life, that’s worth inviting in (rather than trying to make it, or force it to happen, or possess it just so you can share it and become loved and adored, or whatever form your selfish, sinful shadow-mission might take. That one’s mine).

Don’t disparage the diminutive. Don’t disregard the daily. It might look ordinary, but look beyond that. It might seem unworthy of interest, but God is hiding just beyond this form you can see with your eyes.

“Senses are impaired if they don’t sense the Spirit….”
Ann Voskamp

For the higher purpose,
M