Category Archives: How I got here

Why All It Takes Is 5 Minutes

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.

Burn, little guy. Burn.
Burn, little guy. Burn.

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.

Jaw-dropping, I tell you!
Jaw-dropping, I tell you!

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….

For the Higher Purpose,

Mick

Wednesday Morning Pages

“I will sit still and let the marvels and the adventures settle on me like flies. There are plenty of them, I assure you. The world will never starve for want of wonders, but only for want of wonder.” –G.K. Chesterton

(on my small, slow faith…)

Sometimes I feel like a wisp of wind next to the overwhelming breeze of others’ faith.

"Woah, the winds of inspiration are peeling my leaves off!"
“Woah, the winds of inspiration are peeling my leaves off!”

The day started out well. I had a good idea to let go of all expectation and my usual comparisons, and spend my morning just receiving what might come just by being still and open rather than my usual too-aggressive planning and attacking of “the list.”

It seemed purposeful not to be quite so purposeful that way.

I turned on Freedom and settled into writing for an hour on this and that (and yes, even on the novel). But then the morning began passing. And I did write, but mostly spent the time rereading and catching up to where I was in my last writing because it’d been a while since I’d written that and I couldn’t quite find the line of it, let alone the cadence. And there was none really, so I was getting frustrated and trying to revise paragraph after paragraph and soon there were a bunch of jumbled thoughts over 8 pages and not much new written and the hour was up.

It was time to go to work.

I got up for more coffee, trying to put it behind me. There’s always tomorrow. It’s not about progress. Just enjoy the process and keep going slow. You’ll remember it more quickly tomorrow. 

But as I tried to move on, it just wasn’t working.

My brain was obsessing. I kept thinking back to the words I couldn’t quite get to. Why couldn’t I capture them? Somehow I’d lost the entire point in the brambles. I knew what I wanted to say, or I thought I did, but it wouldn’t come. And what did I do? What I always end up doing.

pushed. I tried to work harder at it.

I don’t have to tell you how well that worked.

The truth is, I’m embarrassed, ashamed to admit I can’t practice what I preach. I know it’s just human nature. We want to be effective. And we think we can if we just try. Maybe too often we’ve gotten lucky and it’s worked, or we think our efforts have led to progress that really just got us further down the road in a direction we didn’t need to go. I think that’s happened so often with me, I could easily get really depressed thinking too much about it.

8 pages of drivel. And nowhere further along. Can I let go and just stop focusing on progress, whatever concept I might have of that? Believe in the process of sitting, receiving and listening? Read something and not compulsively try to improve it?

This curious obsession with being useful, being a talented writer, it’s trying to make what I do the measure of who I am. It’s that simple, Mick. You’re not what you do. You’re who he made you. Quit trying to change that. He likes you. Just sit there and receive what he has for you today. Spend tomorrow’s hour just doing that, k?

Oh, help me, God! For thou alone

Canst my distracted soul relieve.

Forsake it not: it is thine own,

Though weak, yet longing to believe.

Anne Bronte

 

Pursuing Conflict

This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: Must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple, “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and lightest hour must be a sign of this urge and testimony to it.”

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

The moment has stayed encased in glass since I was probably 15 or 16.

I don’t even remember what caused the argument. I’ve kept the memory in the dark, cocooned since the day I saw the blind fury in my brother’s eyes. His full mighty pain slashed out and what I saw behind his mask of rage hurt more than anything. Confusion. Neither of us knew anything of dealing with explosive feelings—even of the common kind—fear, inferiority and shame.

Where had it come from? And why think of it now?

cave mouth

I sit here in this time warp thinking back to the family room fight I can barely remember, but I recall how terrified I was and how hot tears sprang from my eyes. Growing up, we’d had plenty of fights, but this was different, lethal. I wept for him, for his future family, what I feared would be much more suffering. I cried for the role I’d played in his history with my criticism and cruelty.

The memory has since brought me to tears again and though apologies were made and life goes on, revealing family dynamics doesn’t conceal scars.

Such history is always new. So what else is here? What use might it serve?

This is the work, this choosing to see beauty in pain, and its specific elements. Why should pain so often be required? Something originated there and we experienced it firsthand in flashing adrenaline, that familiar gasping, a constricting around the throat.

He hit me and though unexpected, I know I deserved it. I’ll feel it at times at the piano in passages that don’t seem to hold any particular charge. Any conflict can uncover it, even indirect. I’ll feel that surge of fear and my heart coils to flee. So many confrontations, pain’s wild claws bared, and that animal awareness mashes out peace, displacing the soft wax of calmer moments.

I feel it now, twisting its shape again of these unspoken words.

Nearly 25 years ago now, my too-hot scrutiny finally pushed the simmering too far, and cumulatively, I can profess to know this now, that I didn’t know then and couldn’t articulate, how fear snaps the senses awake, icy pellets of rain in the face, the metallic sting of electricity.

Doesn’t all beauty birth in pain? Why else would it carry its own flavor and smell?

“God’s job is not to make sick people healthy…. God’s job is to make sick people brave.” – Harold Kushner

reflecting poolIn effort, in difficult circumstance, isn’t struggle with opposition necessary for the rare fortunate result called beauty?

And beauty doesn’t arise in all conflict, but in the fight for goodness amongst great evil. In the valiance of truth contrasted with the dark lie. In the slender stalk rising from the impossibly polluted, irrepressible through iron and concrete, through tangle of challenges, the soft red bud somehow slowly emerging through inhospitable soil.

Beauty is the life that should never have survived.

He struck and whatever went before or came after, I sucked in a breath, suddenly aware that it was just life, its challenges and terrors too impossible to be believed, in all its complexity, and how could any beauty be possible. In later years, I’d experience a panic that seemed it could nearly constrict my throat for good. And I feel the weight of this herenow perfectly balanced in the mysterious symmetry of influences between past and present.

What should I do with it and where should it go now? Should I lift my hand from the jar and let the transformation free? Would it glisten in the warming day? Could it attract attention and be appreciated for what it is, the fusion of ideal conditions, such singular form?

If only we knew the pain that went into every micron, every filament of creation… Wouldn’t our bodies burst with the beauty?

The question is ringing in my heart: how much can you bear?

The pained faces of the starving African children in Saturday morning commercials. The hard anger of so many lives without hope.Maybe the only question is what to do with it. To not grow deadened to it, yes. But what more?

I hear my older daughter reading in the other room, the younger listening. So innocent, unaware. The energy buzzing in my spine won’t forget. I can’t move on to busy work. I must use the essential lesson.

Beneath every lesser impulse, at the bottom, I want us to live. And I want to live this and feel this and share this: don’t be surprised, my soul, by opposition while fighting for birth through this long tunnel of life.

light tunnel

Why shouldn’t we find trouble? Searing pain? Dragons? Fire? Fearsome reflective pools revealing the myriad deaths in all our selfish desires before reaching the goal? Why wouldn’t we have to walk on the fragile skulls of the billion explorers who died in the myriad grimy alcoves?

Why wouldn’t there be thousands opposing us reaching that light?

And why should there be any light at all?

Can I ignore the bald impossibility of such ideal conditions? Can I withhold a single word of unbridled praise for this chance? Protected, suspended in just the right balance for this very experience of what he knew would best teach me the essential truth, could this be anything but another step toward the brilliant treasured world beyond?

When you’ve seen beauty arising from your pain you know it: there’s no answer but that we must be sustained every step by something so powerful, so common, so holy. Such ridiculous beauty flourishing abundant everywhere should not exist.

I cried then and I cry again now. Men learn so young how to bottle their light. But in the pressure, they learn to appreciate stark contrasts. The concentration that squeezes out all else. The darker the tunnel, the brighter the light becomes. This is the struggle I want to live.

As David prayed, “Unite my heart to fear thy name.”

Isn’t this the hope that spurs me continually on, to still seek when all other lights have flickered out?

Everywhere remain depths unplumbed. Who needs the hope our experiences have brought?

We must walk on through the dark, the pain, the inconsolable beauty. We must fight to share our discoveries. And we must venture to the places others would rather not venture, against the pain of even the strongest opposition.

Mick

Do You Feel Your Readers’ *Real* Felt Need?

This morning I was back in the orange shag carpet of my childhood home in Long Beach, California. The light green walls and dark wood panneling capturing that perfect inexpensive elegance…

I recalled the impressionable boy of newly-evangelical parents, the sensitive first-born son of a family "saved" in the California Jesus movement. Campus Crusade, Maranatha music, door-to-door witnessing, and 2 men representing two major streams of influence.

Two representatives of the path he could go

"Mr. Rogers" of PBS' Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, and Dr. James Dobson, author of "Dare to Discipline." 

Images

Both men asked themselves, what do people really need from me? And both delivered their answer.

Having taught writers to consider their influences at conferences and retreats for several years, it finally dawned on me there was a connection to the 2 questions I've heard most often:

"Is this any good?" and

"What can I do to get published?"

I believe both questions are really one:

"Am I good enough?"


Images-1It's a fair question. And I want to move fast and furious to the meat of this because certainly, publishing has long been built on the idea that experience and dedication is how you become worthy of the writer's title. But many, if not most who write will spend years learning to pitch, propose, shape and polish just to publish their story of hope and spiritual guidance to a few hundred and is that really worth all the effort?

Why should publishers and agents require such a high standard? 

After 10 years in the industry, I was so burned out, I was despairing over the disparity between requiring people prove their worthiness and knowing that very requirement was exactly the same as the vice grip of religion, duty, and legalism that bound so many sad, beautiful souls to the lie of performance.

I soon went into full-scale inner debate:

You can't escape this. You must provide an answer. Which way will you send them?

The immature idealist in me wanted to fling the doors wide, burn the ships and create an enclave of revolutionary artists. The other part of me knew that would seal my fate as Editor of Really Bad Books.

But the question I kept circling back to was, What do people really need from me?

It was this side of 35 that I finally discovered my answer. A book arrived out of the seeming blue to help me slow down and look back to focus on what I really believed. The book was eventually titled One Thousand Gifts and it told a story that was too painfully familiar to be just coincidence. 

In time, God revealed that in every situation, people need only one thing from me. It's the answer to that fundamental question: "Am I good enough?" Because strangely, somehow this well-known answer remains a secret. But it's a secret I see now Mr. Rogers knew, and Dr. Dobson as well. At the root, both knew we need to get past the surface to deal with the foundation, to sidestep the mind and get into the heart.

As Jonathan Merritt touched on in an excellent post called "Restoration in the Land of Make-Believe," people need to know their feelings are "mentionable and manageable." Mr. Rogers did this for me. 

But there's something more than that.

I've posted this video of Mr. Rogers before. This is a courtroom moment more real than any Hollywood movie. This is what I believe all writers need to know when trying to get their message across, whether in a pitch, a book, or a radio interview… 

Images-2

I watch this and consider his deliberately slow way of speaking. I think of the care he uses in his words, the meaning honored by his delivery, how he seems guided by something, or someone higher than himself.

He speaks as a man who knows the answer to What people really need.

….

Is it true that we can never really know what people need, so why try? Should we just give up trying to "please" people and get busy with whatever we want to get out of our writing? 

After all, we're the ones putting in all the work. 

Or is writing less about "pleasing" people and saying what we might want, and more about writing what everyone needs? Isn't the real point of being a writer always about just one thing?

God reveals special needs by inspiration directly to our minds, right in the moment sometimes. And those can be great, instructive directions. But more often, the daily foundation of writing what people need from you will come from knowing this one thing. And when you consider the short time you have to grab attention any more, maybe this is something that can help you.

What if we could really get it into our bones what Mr. Rogers said here, what he came to know so well about his true job, the higher purpose of his work that wasn't really work at all? I believe that's the one thing everyone needs: to feel known, really known in all their struggle and anger, and accepted there for who they really are.

If more writers believed this and came together to support each other in that belief, maybe we'd know better what we were called for, and be able to give what all those before us gave, what our brave Savior gave, what those who leave a legacy have always given….

Yes. That one thing. And nothing less. 

I never met either man, though my life was heavily influenced by those 2 men who guided me in expressing myself with honesty and restraint. And both were heavily influenced by their friend, Jesus, and so I've been deeply influenced by him as well.

To say I'm grateful doesn't quite cover it. But I still try. Every day.

As a friend of mine says, remembering is the way to be re-membered. All the pieces do make a whole again. And only the One who set the model to follow can use your simple, borrowed words for what you really long for.

Because this is what I've come to know: when I'm writing to give my fullest self to what readers really need, I know I'm good enough because of my friend who is always enough.

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