Category Archives: Your Writers Group community

Confronting Harper Lee’s Monster

It came across our Facebook feeds yesterday:

Harper Lee is releasing a new book!

Harper-Lee

It had already been announced and discussed and when I told my wife, she said what we all thought, “Isn’t she dead?”

Almost immediately there were suspicions about it all over the feeds. News and opinions went back and forth without much substance to go on. Was she being coerced or manipulated? Who had actually talked to her about it?

But behind the speculation, some of us sensed a monster lurking, a question we can’t quite answer: are we doing what’s right here?

This wasn’t just about what a beloved author really wanted. It was about what the Internet and media (social and otherwise) is doing to our world. Knowingly or not, Nelle Harper Lee has started a conversation again over the central issue her debut speaks to most presciently: the hopelessness in today’s world of doing what’s right.

Whether it’s the conversation about our country’s Internet and media addiction that none of us want to have, or the one about reparations and systemic injustice, there are winners and losers in this country. And we all have to face how deeply unfair so much of what we call “fair” is just not.

The story of a famously private author finally deciding to release another book is some of the best news fodder we Chatty Cathys could hope for. Think of the traffic being generated! But whatever else it’s about, the story is also a warning, a reckoning, that we could be killing a mockingbird here. If someone is lying or manipulating this living national treasure, they’ll most certainly be published, er, punished.  Ahem.

For all our hopes of another novel, shouldn’t we be asking, Should we just leave her alone?movie

Then there’s the fact that this couldn’t be more fitting to the point of her novel: no question Bob Ewell and his kind of prejudice are evil and wrong, and so is the jury for believing him. But we all know there’s another monster on the loose that we’re not talking about, a deep evil, possibly the greatest of all–a bully with an insatiable hunger for more.

More news. More information. More of the juicy story. More amazing books. And even if you weren’t as excited as I was to hear about this new book, we’re all in danger of becoming sick-drunk with this thirst for more.

Maybe she realizes there are still many innocents who need protecting and maybe her novel can help. Or maybe she still sees herself as Boo Radley as she has said.

Are we taking advantage of her? Remember, even Atticus was ready to force Boo and his own son to face public “justice” for the murder of Bob Ewell, spinning it as positively as he could.

It took the hardened lawman, Heck Tate, to talk sense into him and show him his misplaced faith in people to do what’s right.

This news story and To Kill a Mockingbird have everything to do with how we view right and wrong and our responsibility to seek true justice. Make no mistake, the point here is just like in the novel–doing the right thing may be hopeless, but it’s still worth doing all you can. We must consider the consequences of our snap judgments, and remember that in our modern rush to consume information, we can so easily become ravenous “More Monsters.”

I believe deep down, we all know we’re a mix of great good and deep evil. And because of that evil, Boo Radley wouldn’t really be left alone. Not in the real world.

Wouldn’t we all kill a mockingbird if we had a chance to own her song? As good as he wanted to be, not even Atticus, for all his good intentions, could see that without help.

2Q==To be sure, Go Set a Watchman is a very promising title. Should it happen to be about coming to terms with our tendency to go after those who need our protection, it could inspire discussion again about the importance of limiting ourselves to preserve something good and pure in the world. Maybe it will be about respect and facing our prejudices and dealing with the misguided bullies in our hearts.

We can only hope. And maybe if Nelle’s new-old vision from a grown-up Scout Finch does ignite that vital conversation again, she’ll forgive us for needing the reminder?

The Fearsome Power of Fear

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.

Everyone fears being the one left out.
Everyone fears being the one left out.

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.

And climb again tomorrow with your new wings.

rolling-wave

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

What If All We Need Is 5 Minutes?

This is an experiment for a class I’m teaching Feb 1: The inaugural 30-Day YWG Story Course at Facebook. Since I’m teaching it, I figured I’d try a taste of my own medicine…

Just 5 minutes together, uninterrupted, in succession.

It seems like a luxury. A luxury I shouldn’t crave and yearn for like homemade lemonade in the desert.

I have the lemons…

This kid gets it.
This kid gets it.

Lemon 1: Work. It’s all-consuming. Just to keep up with the bare minimum takes all I’ve got most days. And that’s not a complaint because I love what I do and if it wasn’t hard, I know I’d get bored. But it’s a lemon.

Lemon 2: Writing. The demand to give myself entirely to it, to escape into the ether with the fantasy I didn’t choose but was chosen by, it speaks and sometimes shouts, to the point where keeping my mind on the task of editing becomes herculean.

Lemon 3: Writer’s group. I manage and moderate a writer’s group site and struggle to keep up with the work load. It, like all the other lemons, is fun and among the most rewarding things I’ve ever been a part of. But, it’s demanding.

How many lemons does it take? Can someone tell me? Anyone...?
How many lemons does it take? Can someone tell me? Anyone…?

I’m not even going to list the other lemons. Because honestly, as it is, there’s a lot more than 3.

We all have a lot more lemons than we really want.

I was talking with a friend recently about this challenge of accepting everything that comes at us, much of it tough and pock-marked and sour-smelling. Naturally, being the spiritual paragons that we are, we gripe and resist and want to crow off the deck about how unfair and how we deserve and why can’t life send flowers?

Typical marmot.
Typical marmot.

And really the problem is time. Time to do it all. Time to spend 5 minutes uninterrupted, in succession on just one thing.

So to combat the continual theft of my time and sanity, I propose every day to write for at least 5 minutes on a topic that pleases me. Yesterday, it was “When All You Have Is 5 Minutes” and how that’s how life is, so you take it and find out it’s enough, because like with most things it turns you don’t really know anything.

I suspect I’m not the only one who doesn’t always use the 5 minutes he has to write because he thinks 5 minutes is a lemon…

The point is: who cares? So it’s a lemon. It’s not what we’d choose. But everyone gets lemons and life is about using the lemons you have. It’s about starting on the lemonade and serving as many people as you possibly can.

And that requires getting on the path and staying there for 5 blessed, uninterrupted minutes in succession.

And then doing it again tomorrow. Even when you don’t want to.

So have some lemonade. I whipped it up in 5 minutes from what I had available. Hope you like it. Can’t wait to taste yours.

What lemons are you currently scowling at?

How to Edit Out FEAR–for Good

It’s still early.

That’s true. A true sentence.

scary bridge
Don’t look down.

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?

fear quote
Roosevelt said that. I think.

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-green spheball?

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.

cowardly lion
Mmmm….rrruff!

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 Gifts is 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.

Yoda wisdom
The form may change. But wisdom always remains the same.

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…