Tag Archives: writing craft

How Embracing Pain Can Prevent Jerkitude

I’m special. I know you’re wondering how I know. But I’ve always known, crazy as that sounds.

In fact, I suspect most people who haven’t experienced big, deep pain probably agree with this. And anyone who has experienced a massive life event that brought them deep pain, they’ll probably confirm it:

Not suffering pain makes you special. Since life inevitably brings giant hardships, having so far somehow escaped proves I’m special. All the myriad pains life could have brought, and maybe should have brought, I’ve managed to sidestep. That obviously makes me fortunate, right?

Or maybe it makes me pitiably common.

Having never experienced great pain, I often think I shouldn’t have to. I think I can avoid it through planning, cunning, skill, and plain inborn specialness–in other words, luck. And at least until something painful enough happens, I’m likely to go on believing in my good fortune and being special.

And like most who’ve been spared, I believe a bunch of crazy things about why. One of my favorite, almost sacred beliefs is that my life should continue this way and progress without much struggle, effort, or especially pain. The longer I go without it, the scarier it becomes, and it embarrasses me to admit this, but I don’t necessarily believe it because I think it’s true, but because I don’t want to admit that it’s false.

Oh, but I know pain is coming whether I accept it or not….

After my freshman year of high-school, I went for a run one summer’s day. Remembering what the football coaches called “hell week” was coming up, I thought I’d try to get in shape. I hoped taking a few weeks to work up to the physical demands would help me avoid some of the hellishness I’d endured last season.

Somewhere around the third week of training, I rounded the corner where I usually turned up the juice to sprint for home, and there was nothing in the tank. I’d increased the distance little by little, but today my noodly legs burned and I was drowning.

If I slowed, I’d never make my goal. I could try again tomorrow, but I only had so many days left, and I’d missed several already. I hadn’t pushed like I should have. I’d never get this chance back, but as my momentum began slowing, I hit the mental wall.

The combo of physical exhaustion and the psychological exertion amplified it into something I’d never felt. That stab of new awareness remains with me to this day, awakening and clearing off everything but the flash of inspiration:

Embracing this level of pain is what everything most worth having in life will require. This is what commitment means.

I have no idea why it broke through my foggy stupor in that moment, or why it was so indelible. And unfortunately, it was a mere blip in my well-ingrained system of pain-avoidance and denial. It’d be several years before I realized rejecting this wisdom was the source of every jerk. But I’ve never regretted experiencing it when life has brought a new, exquisite anguish my way.

I’ve read countless stories of people fighting back after accidents, a fire, a child’s death. Such disasters convince me it’s no big loss I can’t run anymore. My feet can’t take running, but I still push myself to face the discipline it takes to grow. I know every great advance of civilization has required great pain. Why should my life be any different?

But part of me still believes wholeheartedly it should be, because I’m special. And if only everyone could be spared like I have, well, life would be one big 1980s party all the time, just like it’s supposed to be.

Obviously, this dangerous, unexamined belief can’t continue. It has already caused me untold problems. If I took but a moment to notice the fatigue of fighting not to see it, I’d realize this.

Am I truly unaware of how damaging it is? Is there a better definition of a jerk than one who believes he’s escaped pain because of his specialness?

If I could only see all the extra pain this false “specialness” causes–to myself and others. If I could see all the missed, prevented growth because of this evil belief. …

“It is only in the heat of pain and suffering, both mental and physical, that real human character is forged. One does not develop courage without facing danger, patience without trials, wisdom without heart-and brain-racking puzzles, endurance without suffering, or temperance and honesty without temptations. These are the very things we treasure most about people. Ask yourself if you would be willing to be devoid of all these virtues. If your answer is no, then don’t scorn the means of obtaining them.” – Dallas Willard,  The Allure of Gentleness

Do I habitually scorn pain? I may like to sound borderline masochist, but I shun just about every type of suffering, which ultimately only causes more. Is this one reason I seek out safe, imagined pain in stories and entertainment–because choosing purposeful pain is what I need most?

Maybe, in this culture of shallow pursuits and unrelenting selfishness, some people need stories to remind them of the need to choose purposeful pain? Should it be any wonder so many apathetic, depressed, and medicated people suffer for the lack of meaningful pain, the kind that brings growth and must be chosen?

“All we need to do is make an honest and thorough effort to discover what is right and wrong, good and bad, and, when we are convinced on these points, then simply go out and face life for what it is worth.” (Allure of Gentleness)

Why would I think I can escape this difficult fact of life? Should I try to write, live, or do anything without realizing my greatest task is first to understand what every hero must accept about this life and this impulse to flee all pain?

The plain fact is, the pain isn’t the problem so often as running from it is.

There is pain we can choose to face, and there is pain that is chosen for us. Neither comes by random luck. And no pain is improved by not facing it and accepting it as an opportunity to grow. I can’t continue living until I learn this. I have to get this simple, seemingly-impossible lesson between my ears before anything else.

I believe in God, the Almighty Creator of all heaven and earth. I believe he is pure, sacrificial, unconditional Love. Therefore, what challenges me most is always for my good. What causes me to struggle most is always what I need most.

It’s not about seeking out pain, or even welcoming it. But neither can I continue to hate it if I truly want to understand its higher purpose. Like exercise, it’s never completely pleasant, but the day will come where the incredible struggle will seem to fall away, and what’s left will be the exhilarating feeling and the knowledge that pain is not the fearsome enemy I feared.

Facing this is how we grow. That’s certain. How else would we recognize its true value? What else but pain is so important to us, so convincing, so unavoidably, regrettably, intractably interwoven with our existence? What else but God gives life such meaning, weight, and purpose?

Is there a greater, more motivating force in our lives than pain?

And is there any more important decision than to learn to face it well?

For the higher purpose,

Mick

How to Be Sure You Can Write the Highest Quality Books

“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.” – T. E. Lawrence

The summer heat already bears down now, scorching all inspiration and melting my brain.

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We closed up the house, draw the blinds and cover the skylights, digging down to keep as much of the cool air in as we can. And I’ve stayed in front of the air conditioner, even though I live in Oregon and every Oregonian knows it’s cool and rainy so houses don’t need air conditioning here.

Yeah. This perspiration would like to challenge that notion.

The sun makes the garden grow. But it also shrivels the plants unless you water them daily. There’s a difference between warm and hot. And it gets me thinking how there’s a whole world of difference in these small distinctions between things.

It’s in such seemingly minor differences that life takes on its wonderful variety and meaning. Our balance between what’s delightful and what’s suffocating is much more slight than we tend to realize. And yet we all know having our balance thrown off often reminds us how small distinctions can make a huge difference.

In the old days of this blog, about 10 years ago now, I tried to define the idea of “quality.” I was a younger man, recently 30, and I took it upon myself to try to describe this difficult distinction between types of books that were high quality and low quality. I eventually had to concede much of the difference was in the eye of the beholder. And after flogging it a while more, I let the subject drop.

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Yet I hadn’t understood the primary distinction between high and low quality–far from a snooty or pretentious ideal, books that are refined have a cultured, time-worn truth and beauty. They may be old or new, but the words themselves are distinctive by the refinement they’ve undergone. Very simple books can be elegant. Even rustic, earthy things can be achingly beautiful and unique.

Doesn’t appreciating distinction involve respecting the refining time and the patience to weather the process?

That’s what “quality” means. Appreciating distinction. A high quality book is set apart and special in specific ways if you look for them and take time to appreciate them. When it’s earned through dedication, sacrifice and training, distinction is the quality such books have. And to those who appreciate it, that difference matters. It’s significant. It’s worth recognizing and remarking about.

How did I get here from talking about the heat? Ah, the difference between warm and hot. When you know there’s a difference, you can’t unlearn it. We can’t go back to not noticing. And what’s fascinating to me about this is that this appreciation is a possession that can’t be taken away. Knowing a distinction between things is a special kind of possession that sets you apart. It makes you special. If no one else could feel the difference between a few degrees, when it got too hot, the person who could tell would be very special.

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It’s the same with books. When you can start to tell the little differences between high and low quality, you’re the owner of a unique, specific blessing. Your awareness may make your delicate balance more fragile and precarious, but you’re also now able to employ that unique insight to improve others. And with greater wisdom, you’ll weather the challenges it brings more easily too.

I guess as the sun is going down now and I’m thinking about days of running through sprinklers and enjoying summer with my girls before they’re grown, I believe this distinctiveness is what my writing craft needs. And it’s obvious God is in the business of blessing those who weather their time well. He invests in those who invest.

So I’d like to do so wisely, carefully, persistently, keeping my eyes open and my senses sharp for the new distinctions that will grow my ability to appreciate this amazing life….

And here’s an exciting question: What previously minor distinctions are waiting for us to discover them and broaden our awareness and writing craft this week? 

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” – Calvin Coolidge

Mick

Why Writing Means Abiding

Of course, I’d heard the word for years.

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Discipline.

But as a lifelong rebel, I’ve always associated it with restriction and not getting what I wanted.

I gave my mom the hardest time trying to train me. It’s a good thing I turned out so awesome so I can prove how hard she worked.

Discipline is like editing. Mom was my first editor.

I was making—ahem—garbage every day and she cleaned me up.

The reason for discipline is simple. There’s no other way to create what’s good.

There’s no big difference between behaving well and writing every day. The reason we have to write every day is because it’s the only way to start producing what’s good, to be disciplined by the work. And without writing every day, we forget what it feels like to really live in the work.

I know this truth in my bones. I want to do it. But I often don’t.

It’s hard. I forget how important it is for what I really want. And I’m awfully lazy.

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Try this: hold your hands over your eyes for one minute, then open them. What happens? They need to adjust before you can use them again, right? They get used to the darkness.

Writing is like that. When you haven’t used your eyes in a while it takes time to remember how to see.

It takes time to remember how to write when you don’t do it at least a little every day.

There’s always this gap between what we want to say and what we know how to say. And practicing every day is absolutely the only way to close that gap. It was true with walking and with learning to speak and play a sport or learn piano. It was true with everything hard Mom had to teach us to do.

You miss two days of writing and it’s like missing 2 days of exercise. You have to climb that much harder to get back into it.

We know this.

Yes, take Sundays off. But never skip a weekday or Saturday.

That’s what we need first. Not conferences. Not gurus or books. Not editors or a computer or even a good idea yet. Find your answers. Then write what you found.

You are what you eat. If you stop eating or all you eat is utilitarian casserole, then what you’re missing out on is taste.

Sure you can live that way, maybe for longer than you think. But you’re in real danger of forgetting what flavor is.

Bite into life. And write it.

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Consider the devotion of a woman and her chicken…

“I am the true vine, and My Father is the keeper of the vineyard. My Father examines every branch in Me and cuts away those who do not bear fruit. He leaves those bearing fruit and carefully prunes them so that they will bear more fruit; already you are clean because you have heard My voice. Abide in Me, and I will abide in you. A branch cannot bear fruit if it is disconnected from the vine…”

–John 15

There’s a key word in this famous chapter between the “love” and the “fruit.” It’s an unusual word. You’re given love, you want to bear fruit. And nine times each, Jesus uses the words and connects them with the word, the one word he uses 11 times:

Abide.

Some translate it “remain,” Peterson called it “making yourself at home.” But the word entails action, and it’s really about the activity required of all of us: discipline.

Discipline. It isn’t restriction; it is freedom. It is how we get what we really want.

We stay.

That’s the work. 

And as we stay, disciplining ourselves to abide, to remain, he prunes us. He edits those he loves. It’s so simple. Why do we make it hard?

We get tired. We forget. We have to get back into it.

Don’t let discipline scare you. It’s for you.

You can trust me. My mom taught me this.

Gay Talese on the Questions that Guide Us

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Every time I go to a journalism class, invited by some guy at NYU or Columbia, after the class is over, and I’m about to leave to go to dinner somewhere, somebody comes up to me. “Mr. Talese, can I have your address? I’d like to write to you.” I say, “Listen, I’m here now to talk to you, but I’m going back home and maybe I’m going to leave town because I have something I want to write.” Because you know what’s going to happen? They’re going to send me a novel, a short story, an article. And they’re going to want me to place it for them. “How do I publish this? Do you know how I can get an agent?” And what’s going to happen then is I’m going to possibly disappoint them enormously. Or two things might happen: I’m going to read what they wrote and it’s going to be terrible. Or maybe it’s going to be good. Then I have to find an agent or try to place it with an editor. And they turn it down. Then I have to go back to this NYU student who thought I was Ernest Hemingway and say, “Look, I can’t do that anymore because I can’t guarantee I’ll get it published.” C–, I can’t get my own stuff published some of the time! “Ali in Havana” got turned down by 11 or 12 editors. The last thing Sinatra wants to do is to be the godfather to this girl at USC.  – Gay Talese on how he captured Sinatra’s heartbreaking response to an old friend

I don’t share these links often, but there’s so much to glean here. This is an annotated interview with one of the greatest living journalists Gay Talese on a piece he wrote about Frank Sinatra, currently trending on Twitter.

Do you see the golden opportunity here? To learn the all-important questions that guide a master in his craft: why and how and what to pay attention to…

Writers who take the time to listen will learn a lot….