After I returned from the Northwestern Christian Writers conference in Minnesota, I was inspired and fired up to get back to my book and keep revising. That often happens after a writers conference. I’d taken a bit of a break when summer hit, but the great conversations and knowledgable speakers had me raring to go again. If you’re wondering about attending a conference near you, trust me, it works….
The class I taught at the conference is shared below, a distilled collection of key questions for all writers I called “Manuscript CPR.“ It’s culled from my experience teaching writers how to do macro and micro edits, and it’s basically how to resuscitate a dying manuscript. :) It also just happens to contain the secret to great writing (great editing, duh!), and I believe it’ll help any writer. It did me.
I hope you’ll feel inspired to make significant progress on your meaningful and needed work this week, and all month long. But more than that, I hope you’ll learn to enjoy the process so you can continue writing for years to come.
What does it take to find true inner freedom from fear?
I’ve read a lot of authors, a lot of books, heard countless stories, biographies, memoirs, novels. Countless sermons, Bible stories, tv shows, movies. Roughly estimating from the time I was a kid watching Sesame Street to now 39 years later, I’ve probably heard, watched, read and lived well-near a million stories.
And in all of them, the thing that makes them all work? It isn’t heroism or empathy or humility or perseverance. It isn’t even love. It’s all of these things, but none of them on their own.
In a word, I think you’ve got to have one more thing: fear.
What gives victory it’s power is fear, or more accurately, the conquering of it. I once thought pain was the all-important ingredient to raise the stakes. But pain seems like the child of fear, the physical manifestation of it. The father of pain is Fear and he lives in secret, I think, convincing us all that we are alone and empty and hopeless. And the thing about fear is that it doesn’t just make stories meaningful, it’s the presence of it and the depth and strength of it that makes freedom from it so incredibly meaningful in the end. The greater the fear, the greater the escape, the more worthwhile the effort seems in the end.
Fear is fearsome and powerful and there’s no getting around it. Everyone knows real, heart-pounding fear. And writers will feel it clenching around the throat as they struggle to form words out of nothing but memory. The thin shards of experience. The fear that we won’t remember it right or say it right. Fear that we’ll be found out as a fraud, a phony, a faker. And if we’re humble and God-fearing, we can add the fear that someone will be led astray, misunderstand and be lost because of our insufficient words.
Fear alone can’t make life meaningful. Living with fear is common and suffering its pains may eventually be what it takes to find joy in freedom–but there must be a catalyst to break fear’s grip. Without it, how would we ever know freedom?
Defeating the bully, the contagious virus of fear requires feeling it and facing it. First, accepting what it’s like living on the outside while everyone else looks happy and secure inside.
A friend of mine on YWG (where we talk about this stuff constantly), Tina, just posted a thought from a Ben Harper song, “living within our fear limits us to be only what our fear allows.”
It’s true. Fear’s been my jailer for years as well. I’ve feared being shunned, cast out by my conservative Christian community. Even now, I can hear people making the case for remaining in fear…
Another member, Elizabeth, said fear had been a taskmaster. In The War of Art, Pressfield personifies it as “Resistance.” Brene Brown teaches permission to be vulnerable with fellow broken humans, a secret to breaking fear’s strangling grip. And Julia Cameron has helped countless people realize “art is a spiritual transaction” through “The Artist’s Way,” on “Recovering Your Creative Self.”
My own journey out of fear has involved editing books that called me out of hiding as I read them slowly, and worked through them with the authors.
Today I see God gifting writers with words as tools of his creative work to say, “Come out. Your story matters. You don’t have to live blocked anymore. Live fully alive.”
There’s this unfolding going on with us all. And if only we’d face the fact that we’re all in this together and going around and around on this big ball with the same fears that must be shed before we can be free, maybe we’d realize the opportunity before us all and be a bit more honored and excited for all God’s promised to bring when we come to him open handed.
Rilke: “But you take pleasure in the faces
Of those who know they thirst.
You cherish those
Who grip you for survival…”
You, too, can write your response. You can make fear your launching pad today. You can take whatever you were given and fashion that into the bright wings to carry you soaring out over the glassy sea. And if it’s not your time to sail high and far, if it’s your destiny to plunge down yet again, then flap and just reach and feel the wind rushing, smell the air warming and the sharp chill of the water. And rock on the unfailing waves that will embrace you in foamy arms to shore.
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.
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.
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….
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?
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-greenspheball?
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.
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 Giftsis 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.
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…
I wonder sometimes if I’m paying any attention to what I say or not.
A friend texts me and I don’t notice for a while. “You writing today?”I scrunch my nose. I have the most shocking ability to deny reality.I coach authors for a living. I do this because I like it. Also, I don’t really like doing anything else that makes money. Including writing. I’d much rather help others do it.
Like a dance coach with bad feet or a singing coach with a scratchy voice, I prefer to work on my impression of the phantom behind the throne.
I pride myself in this, but the truth is, I’m a big-chicken-fraidy-cat-shy-violet. This unfortunate disability I live with, I can’t deny it’s proof I can’t practice what I preach.And what I preach most is the purpose of suffering.When he notices I’m not texting him back, my stupid friend texts again. “Why not?”
He’s my stupid friend because that’s what you call the person who knows your issue and uses it against you.
Would you want to answer? The reason was obvious anyway, and it had as much to do with being too busy to answer his stupid question because the many others I was helping expected their pages, as it did with my own disinclination to work at something I really didn’t understand and couldn’t control.
So that’s basically what my response said. Which didn’t appease him.
“Yeah,” he says. How do you always know what’s coming with some people? “I don’t really think that’s it.”
You see why he’s my stupid friend. Not because he’s stupid but because I’m stupid to call him my friend.
“Look, writing novels doesn’t make any money,” I say, hoping to head him off with my empirical logic. He knows this is my living.
“You’re not seriously using that…”
I won’t pout. I hate pouting. “I…no.”
My own arguments coming back to haunt me. I’d said nearly the same thing to him in my family room when he’d gotten stuck and asked for help on his book, the same weekend the friend moniker began being applied. The “stupid” came later.
The next day at church, our pastor talks about how Jesus breaks in and won’t rest until he’s found us, calling everywhere, over and over until we come home. As if we’re brainless sheep wandering around until he shows up. As if there’s nothing we can do but wait for him to find us.
It surprises me a little when I feel like crying at the true story about the mother who does just that, finding her son in a shelter after calling every one in the region for months, asking for him, hoping somehow in the faintest hope that eventually he’d be there when she called. And finally, he was.
True stories. They’re my bread and butter–the ones that grab you by the throat and don’t let you get away because you know you’re reading what really happened. My favorite kind are the ones written as fiction with all the suspense and drama of something made up, but you know it’s true because you can’t quite believe it. But you still have to because these things really do happen. And life is stranger than fiction because it’ has to be real to be believed.
“I’m afraid of what X will think.” It comes out like that (though I don’t text “X”) and it’s the truth because of how it feels coming out. Sharp and bitter like the first sip of the morning’s coffee. “I’m really afraid to write because it’s about how I responded negatively to their influence.”
“That’s really profound. Have you told them that before?”
“No. I’ve tried. Felt them out on some of it a couple times, but…” It’s not certain they’ll disagree. And it’s fiction, after all. But my message, the agenda behind it, it condemns and even directly opposes a lot of what they stood for, at least at one time.
And it won’t be easy. It could mean some suffering.
“Well, do you want X to understand?”
“Of course,” I say. “But…” My thoughts go straight to the issue. “Man, I need to pray about this.”
Pray, I think. There’s your answer.
“Thank you,” I text back, only somewhat reluctantly. “You’re a great stupid friend.”
It doesn’t come easily. Praying for success is out. There’s got to be the possibility that failure could be God’s will in order to learn what he might want to teach. He seemed unloving for a while when that was the prayer. It wasn’t about his will but mine. Maybe failure or success wouldn’t have mattered so much if what I wanted was his will done.
And that’s also why it can’t be prayer for a safer assignment. Because this is where it all comes down: the fear of evil casts us into the opposite of love. In this case, I know praying for safety would be praying against God’s will. I think of how Jesus instructed praying “deliver us from evil,” but it was only in the context of the temptations we face. And one of those temptations is the overwhelmingly seductive voice that says safety should matter if God is really loving.
And of course safety matters to him. But what if something matters more?
My desires are usually directly opposed to God’s. To some Christians the idea of safety is so accepted, faith itself is called into question.
Everyone hates having their plans disrupted by suffering. Why would we think God wouldn’t want to help us with that?
What if instead of running from it this time, avoiding it, not doing what I know God’s asked me to, what if I stopped and listened, at least in this one area of writing, and actually pursued this particular suffering just like I ask my writers to do? Could that bravery teach me something about what God could do with the rest of my life?
The story will pause there. I’m still working on accepting this assignment, so can I ask for your prayer? And instead of praying for safety, pray God will help me stop valuing it over what he wants to teach? Yes, even if it means a bit of suffering…