Category Archives: On High Quality

Why Writing Alone Is Impossible

Writing is a solitary occupation, and one of its hazzards is loneliness. But an advantage of loneliness is privacy, autonomy and freedom.  – Joyce Carol Oates

We all believe this fallacy that writing is a solitary sport.

Of course we write alone. At least, that’s what we tend to think. It’s not a team activity. It’s one writer, sometimes two, but even then, they’re not actually writing together.

The words are your only company and they’re strung together alone.

But every writer knows they’re not truly alone. 

There are people to your right and left, before and behind you. Where you’ve come from, where you’re headed, people who’ve helped and advised you, and those who form the oppositional voices in your head.

They’re all there, waiting and watching as you work to bring everything you have to bear on the draft, saying it all and saying it well.

And then there are your advisors, readers, teachers, coaches, family, editors, agents, publishers, and friends who form your team. Some, obviously, are more helpful than others. Some you’ve internalized, and some give you opinions even when you didn’t ask for them. We all struggle to decide how many and which ones we should give access to. Is their advice or support important or even necessary? And beyond how it makes you feel, how do you know who should be allowed in? What factors or characteristics should qualify them?

Or should we let no one in? Is limiting outside influences best? Or do we cripple our potentially broader appeal when we don’t share?  These are important questions and we can’t afford not to consider them carefully.

In Writing Alone and with Others, writing coach Pat Schnider says, “Writing can be a lonely endeavor, much of the work must be done in solitude. However, too much solitude–or too much conversation with people who do not write, and too little with those who do–can lead to depression and despair. Having a place to listen thoughtfully to new work by others and having the option of receiving response to your own writing can be invigorating, encouraging, and tremendously helpful.” (p 177)

I’ve found that during the first draft, as difficult as it is to write straight through without stopping or looking for outside affirmation, it’s important to limit influences at that early stage. Other than that hopefully short time relatively (maybe 10-20% of the actual work), your select, surrounding influences are very important as you research, rewrite and edit.

Writing may be a solitary sport, in a way. But your influences and internalized voices are always there. And the rest of the process of completing a book (80-90%) is unmistakably about teamwork. 

What’s more, as a writing coach, I get all up in writers’ business. I think it may be that for some writers, other books are their best friends and advisors for the research and revision. Other times, a “translator” helps, someone to guide and discuss the process with.

There’s an essay I love and often refer writers to, written by T. S. Eliot, called “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” In it, he describes how each writer stands upon the shoulders of those who came before her and must draw upon that tradition while emptying of self to attain the highest universality of experience and thought:

“No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.” (ref. 4)

Figuring out your place in this literary heritage is admittedly for those who seek to contribute significant art. However, every writer has comparable writers. And it may be wise to seek out a respected reader or family member to serve as your “coach” or first editor in this. Ideally, everyone you’re taking advice from would be familiar with your goals and at least some of your literary influences. However, those books themselves are usually the most important sources of feedback on your work, far more than the interpreters of those books, however trustworthy your friends may be.

When it comes to editors, you can’t afford to think about saving money. Almost every writer I know starts out trying to save money. It’s important to be able to pay, of course. And yet, most of us can make sacrifices for what’s really important. And there’s nothing more important than ensuring your editor understands your type of work, your vision, your literary influences, and the vagaries of style to improve your work and make it appeal widely.

For every book that succeeds, there’s an editor who has become an author’s best friend.

This isn’t American Idol–writing isn’t singing. Yes, you’re channeling universal thoughts and emotions, but it’s not only you being heard up there. And even singers have coaches, teachers, and trainers. Neither is writing painting. The brushstrokes aren’t going to all be yours. That’s for your good. You can’t complete your work without a number of dedicated people contributing their colors, content and context.

We all know plenty of books underperform. That’s a failure of community. A competent content editor and/or coach could have helped. Reputable writing coaches would prevent the thousands of books that go unnoticed from getting published without careful scrutiny and vision-casting, not to mention the lack of consideration of the market’s readiness for that message. Qualified readers, other writers, and developmental editors worth their salt can and do prevent many writers from falling on their faces.

The point is, every Higher Purpose Writer needs to be clear on this: Writing is the solitary part. The rest of the journey is teamwork.

Construct your team to succeed.

The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.  – T. S. Eliot

For the higher purpose,

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What Excellence Requires: further thoughts on integrating new knowledge

Hi there. How are you? Thanks for showing up.

I feel like I need to start this week’s quick message with some basic encouragement. You made it. You got through. You’re going forward.

It’s hard to believe all that happened last week. I barely had time to catch my breath. And now a new week begins.

But I learned so much last week, it’s frightening. To think of who I was even a week ago and how I’ve changed today is humbling and holy.

I didn’t write all I expected to write, but I wrote a ton. And through keeping me focused on last week’s big thought on healthy integration, and the hope of greater excellence to follow in my work, God revealed himself in my writing process, once again.

This week, I’m pondering that big result of skillful integration we all hope for: excellence. What is it and how important is it?–I want to look at that some more.

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So after realizing that my news feed betrayed me, the shock, depression, and initial horror, morphing into a reserved hopefulness, converged on me to convince me that though I thought I knew what I was doing, I do not. This election has consumed so much of us. Our candidates and their positions were completely skewed by almost every source, whatever it was–media or friend. We all seem to have swallowed a poisonous cocktail–either red or blue–and now we can’t understand or even talk with those who drank the opposite one.

I feel sick learning how intentionally our media is skewed to be more sensational and competitive, and how social media then amplifies that unbalanced extremism into viral surges using us to infect the entire body politic, until it’s convulsing with internal pain.

And yet every writer I know is actively working to integrate what they’re learning to use it to inform their work and their place in this complex world. There’s also been a surge of revelation this week seeing how our sweet poisons made us sick, and how now we must learn to consume healthier, purer, unbiased sources. But like with everything, the better is hard to find.

And the best, maybe it doesn’t even exist yet.

And going that way, giving yourself to only the best, it’s an uncompromising, lonely and difficult way.

But to progress and move beyond our competition, we have to leave behind our former limited selves.

dsc_0042As I wrote last week, integration is how we come to use and demonstrate growth from new things we learn. And we’ve all learned a lot this week that’s naturally and inevitably going to change us, as writers and as people. Likely as Christians as well. As children we used to integrate new ideas into useable knowledge all the time–we’d learn new info and abilities and then draw on them every day. But as adults, this process became less frequent, smaller in scope, and we became less changeable. We became set in our ways.

I’m praying we can remember how to change, learn and integrate new information and broader truths.

Our happiness, our future success, our very survival may depend on it.

Last week I argued this skill of healthy integration was a core writer thing. Through reading and questioning ideas and beliefs, writers must be our “cultural conscience” keep this process alive in adulthood. It’s an obligation of creative work to promote the good, the better, even the best that hasn’t even been born yet.

Which is why I’m convinced we must remain more malleable than your average bear. As a group, we have to be world-class integrators.

But how? What does all this mean for you and me pounding away on keyboards in obscurity? I’d like to suggest that this superpower of writers has far reaching implications for our culture in helping others understand the big problems in the world, and their role in working on solutions.

Writers help people make sense and use of their world. Our goal is nothing less than excellence–the best ideas, the best words, sound logic and beautiful, weighty, undeniably vital art.

And we achieve it through judging rightly, through humility and empathy, and by doing the hard work.

I believe this is how we move forward today, knowing all we now know, yet to learn all we still need, but pursuing excellence in all things, to the glory of he who created all things, and writing as part of our whole-bodied and embodied spiritual act of worship.

When all our skills and knowledge are working together in proper alignment, I believe excellence should follow.

And as we go forward this week with each other, let’s keep pushing for the integration of new knowledge, receptive and seeking the truth and justice for all God’s people.

It’s a lot to take in and process, but we know who is ultimately in control.

Writing to Heal the Hole-Hearted

“The Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself.” – e.e. cummings

So many authors wonder how they’ll finally become ready for the “big time.”

I get it. I’ve wanted to know that for a long time too–to know my writing was good enough to be chosen. That would be such a rush of confidence and confirmation of my gifts.

And while I’ve always wanted to believe, a vast majority of the time, I haven’t believed it.

In fact, I never did until I started to want to understand others more than I wanted to be understood….

Tahoe pine

The main reason for this was all the pain and fear that was in the way. And like Holden Caufield, I needed more awareness of the larger world and the conversation I would be contributing to.

But I hadn’t yet grasped that larger context.

Unfortunately, today no one has to know about the existing heritage to contribute their ideas. We don’t even have to know what that involves. But it’s still true that to contribute something lasting to the growing cadre of human thought and experience, you must understand the larger conversation.

Because as T.S. Eliot proved: Every new book stands on the shoulders of the heritage that went before it.

I’ve known this, even wanted to utilize it. But for a long time, I didn’t push myself to become educated. I didn’t believe I could contribute in that way.

Maybe some of you know what I’m talking about. For one reason or another, you feel sabotaged by the hole in your heart.

And it isn’t our fault. As I’ve learned, the “hole-hearted” don’t hear (as the whole-hearted do) the inherent worth of their thoughts and feelings. They don’t yet believe they can have influence in their area. Instead, they still hear other things–maybe dismissal, defensiveness, disgust or disrespect that’s crowding that out. Their personal heritage taught them some useless tools, and so even as they try to live, to create, or to write, they struggle not to alternately disregard and overstate their gifts and their voices.

It’s a profound thought that’s taken me years to come to, but I believe the difference between the hole-hearted and whole-hearted is wanting to understand more than you want to be understood.

And how many sad people, and sad books, can be explained by this all-too-common limitation?

Of course, once you experience freedom–maybe in a book, like I did–it changes you. You start to believe. You may still live/create/write to be acknowledged and find more healing, but the work begins revising you. Slowly, a new heritage becomes established and you begin to get glimpses of your power.

I know this first hand. A new heritage has been calling me out of hole-heartedness, preparing me for my time to face the world and make my true contribution.

Many excellent books have added to my knowledge and helped me identify hidden shame and inadequacy. And beyond fear of embarrassment, I’ve found even the least confident writers can escape their safe cave. With practice and study, they can find what they need to pass on to their readers.

It’s been taking shape all this time, this new heritage. Maybe it’s never finished, but I’m convinced I can’t simply write to be heard, known or successful. I need to be an advocate for people just like me. And that doesn’t come through marketing tricks or good networking. It only comes through real care for readers.

I’ve learned so much from How We Love, Changes That Heal, Boundaries, and Get Out of Your Own Way. These are books based on the authors’ life work. I love Brené Brown’s work. And I love Maria Popova’s BrainPickings.org (from which I pilfered this week’s excellent quotes). All this gives me hope that though we struggle to heal and trust our voices, we can get beyond our sabotage.

Through vulnerability (in life and on the page) we learn to believe in ourselves and add our voices to speak for many. I say it all the time: everyone has a story. And it’s true. But you’ve got to seek it and refine it, and you’ve got to believe investing in yourself in that is ultimately about something bigger than just you.

So how do you find the strength to believe that when it gets hard?

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My simple answer? God. I believe God is how you find it. I’ve found it’s true: He is all wisdom and all love and all power. And connecting with him, his presence inside, this is how I realize I have all I will ever need to accomplish far more than I can dream or imagine. Let religious folks say that’s humanism, but the faith to believe you have all you need, it’s a gift, and I believe all you have to do is sincerely, humbly and vulnerably ask for it.

Do you believe that? And do you want to do it?

I keep asking myself these questions: Are you open to what your book has to teach you? Can you stay and dedicate to it in the conviction that you’re the only one who can share what you know in your way? And will you follow the markers along the path of your own new heritage to trade it for whatever deficiencies you faced?

If you’ll do that, I believe you’ll find many more people who are desperate for it. We can change the conversation for so many because we’ve been training for this, and through God’s patient grace, he’s gifted us to contribute our lines, if we’ll only decide to persist when the fear comes.

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That’s the battle every great story goes through—and that’s always what they’re really about–believing!

I believe that’s ultimately also how they finally get written down–

By believing.

This belief lives in the soul of humanity, put there by God, and you are already a part of it.

Believe that now, and just make today’s investment of words today, and tomorrow’s tomorrow….

You can do this. Because you were made for this, to fill the hole in your heart and to find the confidence to be the healer you were made to be.

Not because you are better than anyone else, but because you were destined to be.

 

“Whether you succeed or not, that is irrelevant — there is no such thing. Making your unknown known, that is the important thing.” – Georgia O’Keeffe, in a letter to Sherwood Anderson (emphasis mine)

Writing Is a Process, Not a Product

I absolutely love the classic wisdom from Donald M. Murray, Teach Writing as a Process Not Product.

Speaking to English teachers and writing instructors, he says too often we become frustrated because we focus on the product, which is subpar. We want literature and what we’re holding is obviously not it. So we use our training and attempt to point out the errors with the product.

But….

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Danish painter Peter Ilsted, Interior with a Young Girl Writing, 1905

“The product doesn’t improve, and so blaming the student—who else?—we pass him along to the next teacher, who is trained, too often, the same way we were. Year after year the student shudders under a barrage of criticism, much of it brilliant, some of it stupid, and all of it irrelevant. No matter how careful our criticisms, they do not help the student since when we teach composition we are not teaching a product, we are teaching a process.”

Many people remember that shudder in English class…. How many beleaguered souls might find it hugely freeing to see their writing work as a process rather than a product?

And what is the process?

Murray: “It is the process of discovery through language. It is the process of exploration of what we know and what we feel about what we know through language. It is the process of using language to learn about our world, to evaluate what we learn about our world, to communicate what we learn about our world.”

Imagine the freedom if instead of striving to be finished writing, we sought to learn how to communicate well through writing. Not to complete the collection of all the right words just yet, but to continue the search for the one best word.

To get into that frame of mind, we first have to let go of that tyrannical concept of the “Product-as-End-Goal.”

“This is not a question of correct or incorrect, of etiquette or custom. This is a matter of far higher importance. The writer, as he writes, is making ethical decisions. He doesn’t test his words by a rule book, but by life. He uses language to reveal the truth to himself so that he can tell it to others. It is an exciting, eventful, evolving process.”

We can make this important shift easier by dividing the process into three stages: prewriting, writing, and rewriting. And how much time each stage requires depends on personality, work habits, maturity in the craft, and how hard it is to say what we’re trying to say….

…but how long it takes is not an issue once you break the habit of focusing on product over process.

Pasteurized process "cheez" product.
Mmm. Processed cheese product.

I think this is why it’s so difficult for consumer-blind Westerners: everything but everything is a product. We like measurable things. Tangible things. We like results.

How much? How many? How long? How difficult? How quick? 

Try to think of one thing in your life where you’re interested in the process and not the result. Go ahead, I’ll wait….

 

Nope.
Coffee? Nope.

 

Try again.
Commuting? That’s all about the anticipated result.

 

Hmm. Okay, sure. There may be a gender difference on this one...
Sex? Well, okay. There may be a slight gender difference involved in this one…

 

We even make recreational things like reading and watching movies about what it produces, i.e. “results-oriented” instead of merely enjoying the process. If something can’t be measured and quantified, we don’t even want to deal with it.

And the habit is so ingrained at this point, many don’t even notice they’re doing it. To say this is a problem for writers is a gross understatement.

Gamely, Murray tries to quantify the time involved for prewriting, writing, and rewriting processes. Prewriting–researching, daydreaming, note-making and outlining–may take about 75-85% of a writer’s time.

Writing, merely producing the first draft, “the fastest part of the process and the most frightening” (because you soon find out how much you don’t know and have to face how rough, searching and unfinished your work is), this takes about 1% of your total time!

How many writers just starting out realize this? And how many could save themselves a ton of grief if they did? (Well, now you know, so ease up, my friend. Writers are ALWAYS prewriting!)

Rewriting, reconsidering your subject, form, audience, vision, intent, viability, and all the prewriting elements too (research, notes, outline), takes the remaining 14-24% of your time. Murray says in rewriting, everything is rethought and redesigned until finally a line-by-line edit, in which “the demanding, satisfying process of making each word right” is faced.

So the whole writing process–from prewriting to writing to rewriting–is involved before there’s any clue what the end product will be.

Why, then, do we focus on product?

And this is not to mention that rewriting can take many times the hours required for writing the first draft!

I hope some of you will say “Duh! Of course!” But have you retrained your brain to relax and accept that you’re in a process? This is the number one problem I run into as a book coach. Even many published writers don’t understand that several rewritten drafts are required before a book is ready for a line-by-line edit. We need the best raw material on the page first.

Otherwise, I’m getting paid to polish turds.

Each draft may progress in a particular area–characters and supporting characters, plot and subplots, theme and metaphor, and setting, dialogue and tone. But slow, careful drafting is what eliminates the distractions and inconsistencies.

It’s also where you learn what you’re really writing. (And no, there’s no shortcut to that discovery, but I’m absolutely convinced it’s the difference between bestsellerdom and obscurity.)

Bottom line, writers who would be professionals must realize the writing craft requires shifting focus from the end goal to the “in medias res”–the “in-the-middle-of” getting there.

How many of the world’s most beloved works went through complete rewrites and multiple drafts? The vast majority? All of them? Does it matter how many once the final draft is done?

More importantly: how much fear, tension and stress could be alleviated if you focused on the process of writing rather than the product?

[Part 2, “How to Be a Great Edit” and avoid editing the heart out of your work is here…]

Writing for All the Wrong Reasons

Do most writers start writing because they want to teach readers something? I think I did.

Then when I realized writing is So Very Hard, I shifted to hoping I might merely bring some people hope.

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But I started to realize no one without hope really reads books. So eventually, I think maybe I was only writing for myself, as a natural response to the world around me. Not to teach, or even bring hope, but to live receptive to the work.

Had I finally grown up enough to write for the right reasons?

It’s not that I’d become selfish–I think I started out that way and became less so I continued. But I think one can write for himself and still be aiming to inspire, educate and bring hope. It’s the wanting to do all that that seems to have made it, well, sort of agenda-driven.

Many books have an agenda, no doubt and sometimes I suppose that’s fine. But I get so tired of it. And it takes time to get real and drop the act, the false beliefs that tell us life can be simplified and boiled down into its basic parts. Anyone can write something and ship it out without taking the time it needs to be refined into the subtle, balanced flavors it needs to represent real life and stand up to the questions and valid arguments against its acceptance.

(Of course, those who need to hear that most are too busy publishing junk to listen…but never mind.)

DSC_0013Flannery O’Connor said that to expect too much from our writing is sentimentality, and such softness eventually leads to bitterness. I tend to think she was right. Optimism about teaching readers something or about people’s warm embrace of our refined work will not lead to warm cheeriness. Nevertheless, despite the garbage some readers and writers prefer to gulp down whole, O’Connor’s realism helped her accept that it’s hard, and with one eye squinted she said she was able to take it as a blessing.

That sounds a bit Ecclesiastical to me: “Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun.” (Eccl. 2:11)

Embracing that we can’t do a darn thing about much of reality may seem like pessimism on the surface. But it’s true and the truth doesn’t change according to our ability to stomach it (O’Connor again). What’s more, people won’t start reading the books they should simply by believing they should or by some Pollyanna positivity.

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Only if we look at our work honestly and give it the time it needs to mature can we embrace reality, and have an influence in changing it.

So toward that end, I offer some inspiring thoughts for you to take into your work week and mull over. These are from my own grappling with reality, clutching onto many things, and eventually letting them go again…

When I reveal what a reader needs to figure out himself, it ruins the mystery and cheapens my story.

Of course editing is subjective. But until I     consider  the many ways to say one thing, I don’t know the best way to say just what I mean.

Every writer has the right, the privilege, the duty not to explain everything. It is a writer’s core value that identifies which things are which.

This dedication to the refined truth, the veiled beauty, the carefully obscured mysteries to be discovered, it’s what keeps me writing. I wonder if maybe it’s what keeps us all writing, after all. And removing all that stands in its way, and committing all we have and are to remaining attuned to the Inspirer, isn’t this the great, all-important reason to write after all?

If I can only dedicate to the “lifestyle of invitation” in all of my life, to receive like the trees and the plants that turn their leaves up to prepare for the sun, waiting in that posture regardless of rain, clouds or storms…

If only I can be ready for the searching, for the waiting, to capture all the blessing that’s given… Isn’t that balance worth a lifetime of service? Wouldn’t that be the passion matured that I want in all things I love, open and prepared to speak the beauty, the truth, the justice to life, and to right the wrongs with the words….

“The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.” ― Flannery O’Connor