Tag Archives: art and fear

Outsmarting Distraction

“The evolving text was never, for Murray, purely a creation of the writer—it was an active participant in the process itself. He would speak of ‘listening to the text,’ or ‘the informing line’; he would describe the thrill of writing outrunning intention and entering new territory….if the writer was alert to cues and possibilities, and not tied to an outline or a plan. ‘Be patient, listen quietly, the writing will come. The voice of the writing will tell you what to do.’ ”

– Introduction to The Essential Don Murray: Lessons from America’s Greatest Writing Teacher


To hear this voice, as Murray said, we must believe in it.

And it’s incredibly difficult when we’re constantly pulled away.

CSC_0024It can seem impossible these days, but if we’re to hear the voice, we have to fight for it.

But we won’t stop being so easily distracted and pay attention.

I believe it’s self-evident most people are chronically over-involved. In church and with friends and family. People have legitimate needs and we have ability to fill them.

We like people dependent on us so we don’t have to face ourselves.

But there are also entertainments and hugely involving activities. In the now-classic Amusing Ourselves to DeathNeil Postman wrote prophetically about the problem now rampant in so many creative people’s lives. We all tend to think we’re above the law–special, unusual, the exception to the universal rule that no one can produce consistently good work when being continually distracted.

With all the crazy modern influences our culture throws at us, we’ve got to realize we’re not an exception to how humans function. And it’s astounding to me how many people think they are! We think we can circumvent natural laws and never have to say no.

DSC_0006We never even consider that God’s law is higher than our limited perspective.

Why do we think our best intentions will escape the consequences of over-involvement?

Why do we trade our best for so little?

It isn’t rare–everyone seems to have a touch of this disease. But most ambitious writers I run into these days seem to be in advanced stages of disarray. They think they can do whatever they want, say yes to everything and never sleep, cut corners and cheat the system. Maybe they believe that’s what it takes to be successful.

And aren’t we all tempted to agree? Maybe we just need to learn to manage. Or maybe that’s our exceptionalism talking.

We’re too dang busy. And we’re distracting ourselves from noticing.

IMG_5944It doesn’t take a psychotherapist to realize we’re running from the truth about many things–situations, people, deeper emotions, issues, pain. We forget that people who run from pain are still being controlled by it. The proof is when their fragile sense of control slips, they become angry or depressed.

We get over-involved and call it normal in order not to face our pain and hide from fear. Pain always forces us to deal with it, one way or another.

And as we all know, with all the convenient distractions available these days, dealing with it head on is far easier said than done.

Yet is there anything more important than to get free of this?

Everyone has to face it or continue to struggle. The pain of life leaves us no choice. And our culture preys on this universal weakness. It’s a war for our attention and we give ours to whatever comes by. Anything flashy or convenient, and we don’t even notice we’re doing it.

Oh, hello beautiful, manipulative advertisement designed to sell me some IMG_5998expendable junk! You want some of my attention? Well, sure! It’s only my most precious possession…

You do this. I know because I do this. And what I’m saying now–in as sincere a way as I can muster–is you’ve got to pay attention!

The Opposition is winning.

So what’s your method to preserve your attention for your greater intention?

We each need a personal strategy, or we’ll end up dead before we get free. We’ve got to begin to fight.

We need a practice to get behind until it becomes effortless, even if initially it takes a lot of effort. Remember, everything worthwhile (like good writing) takes practice.

Everything worth doing is worth doing well. All it takes is patient persistence.

IMG_5988Pain, fear and the Opposition will conspire to keep you silent forever. You’ll only grow more self-centered and incapable of changing anyone, convinced you’re entitled to overindulging your numbing comfort of choice, and trading your dreams for panaceas. That is, if you don’t stop, pay attention, and commit yourself to a better way.

People make their own prisons. It happens. We’ve met them, known them.

Research shows many will choose addiction. They’ll coast through life and sample many things and never achieve what dreams God placed in them. We know about the “quiet lives of desperation” because we could so easily choose them too.

We all have to cut back and slow down even though we don’t want to.

IMG_5949And why? Because the world requires our attention. Practicing discernment and making time for what deserves our attention is the only way to escape the undue demands we face.

The tyrannical dictator of Urgencia tries to demand our allegiance. But we serve the Life-Giver, and our lives require us to learn to live for him and not be afraid.

Our collective destiny is just down the road in Futureland. But first we have to reclaim it from the stickle-backed demon Overwhelm.

In its grip, even heroes lose their minds, can’t think, can’t feel. We’re in the battle for our lives. It would kill our desire to contribute.

Do you truly realize the unlimited value of your Ruler’s gifts to you? You have been given all the power.

Simply decide you won’t allow it to be undermined. Don’t allow your contribution and output to be stolen by inattention.

Reclaim your freedom and breathe in the fresh air of your rekindled dream.

Too much busyness breaks anyone’s resolve.

Don’t go down without a fight.

And if we seem ascetic to some people and family members who don’t understand what we’re doing for the sake of the work, so be it. If we want to make room for the inspired words to become everything to us, it’s a small price to pay.

For until the Inspired Words do become our everything, no one else will see their eternal value either.

“I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.
I want to free what waits within me
so that what no one has dared to wish for
may for once spring clear
without my contriving.
“If this is arrogant, God, forgive me,
but this is what I need to say.
May what I do flow from me like a river,
no forcing and no holding back,
the way it is with children.
“Then in these swelling and ebbing currents,
these deepening tides moving out, returning,
I will sing you as no one ever has,
streaming through widening channels
into the open sea.”
 – Maria Rainier Rilke
For the higher purpose,

Doubts and Distresses be Damned

The difficulty of consistency in writing is greatly exacerbated by authors fearing that the situations and characters in their heads aren’t quite unique enough or imaginative enough. And this angst can effectively kill an author’s enjoyment of the daily work.

The mountain of their vision seems too high to climb.

Yet let them close their eyes to the hill and simply take in the next step–the single situation before them to be captured–and I would be willing to say there is no longer a problem.

No situation an author faces is any more difficult than this. And no scene is trite in itself, just as no author or story is uninteresting; there are only dull, unimaginative, and uncommitted authors.

No dilemma an author can write could possibly leave readers unmoved if it is fully and imaginatively presented.

And if an author has delighted readers once, she can do it again, doubts and distresses be damned. 

– adapted from Becoming a Writer by Dorthea Brande.


How to Progress In Your Process

“Are we there yet?”

Remember how fun it is to travel with small kids? The longer the trip, the more this favorite question gets repeated, like a bad commercial.

I think that could be how God feels when we keep unfocusing on the real goal of art and start obsessing about the finish line.


Two quick examples. Several weeks ago, I got frustrated at a situation at church when a kid had a meltdown and the parent left me to handle it alone. It blinded me for several hours and eventually I felt ashamed of how I handled it.

On the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, at my cousin’s wedding this weekend, I wanted to forget myself and simply enjoy others. I wanted to encourage the bride and groom and tell them how inspired and happy their love made me, how it lit them from within. The beauty was overwhelming and I felt lost in it, forgetting myself and so relaxed and happy.

Writers are a strange bunch, but we do share some things in common with human beings. One of them is that at our very core, we want others to see what we’re seeing. And writing is sort of a way to ask, “Are you seeing this?”

In both situations, I just wanted to get where I was going. “Look how amazing/terrifying/ridiculous/pitiful/horrible/whatever this is!” Not a bad thing, but I forgot my process.


At church, I thought sharing what I saw would help some people, help a relationship and maybe a kid’s development. At the wedding, I thought sharing my viewpoint could help fuel love and help spread it to others. I thought about Maya Angelou’s famous quote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” 

Good goal. Yet whether or not I got to share what I saw, I needed to remember what all artists will eventually learn, that life is an exercise in doing all you can to improve things in the midst of never quite getting to the finish line.

Downshift and consider this: the true artists’ questions are always the same: How did I do today? What progress can I celebrate? And what did I learn about my process?

Forget whether I shared what I saw or whether I created something that changed someone’s life forever. Cultivating awareness of my process to produce and express words, art, beauty, meaning, it can feel like a fruitful exercise, even dangerous. It feels like looking too closely at the how can unbalance the machinery.

But it’s also a necessity, an unavoidable business to encourage my development. Gaining insight and evaluating the machinery isn’t the same as messing with the works (which also is sometimes necessary). Getting a better look in there won’t automatically jinx the final product.

In fact, if I’d let go of my barricading attempts to control and predict the final product, I might see that greater awareness of my process is the best result–and the only real way forward.

Making art is not a choice for an artist, just like life is not a choice for the alive. Art, like life, is a process.


Which means, of course, it isn’t about a goal, a finish line. It’s about the middle. In the middle, it’s safe to say you can completely forget about the goal and focus on the rewards that are inherent in the journey.

(Are you hearing a favorite theme repeated in here?)

Of course, I easily forget this like everyone does, and I need reminders and encouragement to refocus and enjoy the process. But if I know it’s not about a personal victory at the finish line far out there on the horizon somewhere, maybe I won’t need quite so many reminders.

Also, while community is often essential to continuing on the journey, we can’t allow ourselves to get too focused on feedback. Like Bayles and Orland write in Art and Fear, others can’t tell whether you’re making progress or if you’re doing what you should merely by looking at a finished product. They frequently don’t know or care what went into your work because they only see the tip of the iceberg. Our focus on process must respect that we’re in a relationship with our process. And our true work is protecting, preserving and promoting that over all else.


In the beginning and in the middle of the journey, we must be more focused on process over product. We must make room to let go of our obsession with the end goal to see the little details at our feet. Finished pieces will not define our work. The goal is not producing anything; the goal is awakening, being more aware with every day and becoming more alive. Living with this focus more of the time will produce a continually improving string of works.

With greater awareness of the mechanics of your process, seeing what others too easily miss will become easier. It will be your advantage over the more common crafters. Practicing this presence of mind will increase your insight into what others miss, revealing undetected inaccuracies, omissions, faults in logic, form and structure that a less-focused artist miss by relying on what he thinks he already knows about creating.

To gain a relationship with your process is to gain your true reward.

Pay attention to it. And count it as the true goal to be celebrated. Because that will never be more vital, nor will anything you ever produce be more rewarding.

Practicing this will grow in habitual awareness, and inevitably to ever greater progress.

Acknowledge the oppositions of distraction and frustration, and make progress anyway. Everyone struggles. Everyone faces derailments specific to them. But those who face them and learn how to not quit succeed.

“The lessons you are meant to learn are in your work. To see them you need only to see your work clearly—without judgment, without need of fear, without wishes or hopes. Without emotional expectations. Ask your work what it needs—not what you need. Then set aside your fears and listen, the way a good parent listens to a child.” – David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art and Fear

Be always on the way and you’re already there.

Never arrive.

For the Higher Purpose,


A special thanks to my amazing friend Tina Howard for the gift of Art and Fear by David Bayles & Ted Orland