Tag Archives: humility

John Ruskin’s Philosophy on Art

With all the talk these days about the “gift of imperfection,” it could be easy to take the idea for granted.

But everyone pursuing art, or even just a satisfying life, must embrace the huge importance of accepting imperfection:

“No good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art.” – J. Ruskin

John Ruskin was the top art critic of his time. This guy knew his stuff. In Victorian Era England, he commanded respect as a prominent thinker and defender of the pre-Raphaelite artists. He was no slouch. He wasn’t arguing for laziness or accepting low-quality work or a “good enough” life. He simply understood and believed in the essential beauty of imperfection:

“Imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we know of life. It is the sign of life… Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect…there are certain irregularities and deficiencies which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty. No human face is exactly the same in its lines on each side, no leaf perfect in its lobes, no branch in its symmetry… To banish imperfection is to destroy expression…to paralyze vitality.”

Ruskin’s beliefs about art bled into some of the clearest statements ever made on the nature of human ambition and all our worldly pursuits. He saw behind the veil, so to speak, to the very fiber of what draws us to beauty in the first place:

“All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be Effort, and the law of human judgment, Mercy.” 

Ponder that. I’m not going to try to guide your attention or understanding of it right now. But as this acceptance of divinely-appointed imperfections relates to the idea I shared last week on accepting help (link here), I pray you’ll pursue your art this week as a chance to embrace your inadequacies, as John recommends.

This is an essential need, i.e. humility. So see it as the gift it is to help guide your attention as you go.

And may the grace it promotes direct you along your way.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

Face Your Shame

I’m still up on the high of teaching at the Story Vision Fiction Retreat in Seattle. So I’m still thinking about the last session I shared earlier today…
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Has what you’ve faced made you realize the value of your story?

When we’ve been through difficult, painful things that laid us out, we can find God has helped us through.

We can see that the way up was in lying down.

Yet we tend to want to avoid these things. We believe we can improve ourselves by doing many things, being diligent, hard-working, etc.

But is that the best way to self-improvement? Maybe we need to get it through our heads there’s a better way.

It may be that the better way to moving up in the world is to move down, to be less concerned with ourselves, less obsessed with our own interests, to remember that when we need God and he does what he does, that’s how we’re enabled to learn more.

Only letting go of our short-sighted goals and accepting help in our need will get us to stop hoping for and expecting joy without pain and life without death.

God turns our desires on their heads and says that for being better selves, we have to get humbled, sometimes broken, and often ashamed.

The trouble is, we have no capacity for embracing that as ordinary human beings.

When I fell from perfection and became mortal, I didn’t want to feel shame for my incompetence and pride. Not even for a second. I couldn’t admit my need for God for a long time after, and I thought I had to do many things in my own strength to prove I was worthy of him, as if my strength even came from me to begin with.

But when life finally intruded on my perfect little world and I finally knew suffering, I realized that if I wanted God to draw near to me, I had to repent and call my heart to account for its arrogance.

And what I found was, God will rescue us if we’ll just turn to him and ask him to.

When I came in humility, broken and contrite, and asked him to redeem my selfish desires to remove the cursed need for validation and seeing myself lifted up? He didn’t even hesitate. I was in.

No worthiness required.

Why couldn’t I simply trust that he would lift me up once I was willing to stop trying to lift myself up?

I had to learn to let myself be helped.

And the demon of opposition is shame. We can’t be afraid of this or we’ll fail. We can’t cling to safety or opt for the circumscribed path. We have to call it out and by name.

When we change one letter in shame, we learn how to defeat it: we share.

Shame wants nothing more than to make us protect ourselves instead of share.

To fear people’s judgment and their rejection for our inadequacy. And this crippling fear could have kept me locked up and silenced forever.

But God knows that before we can set out on our quest and experience the freedom of defeating our great villain and escaping the death it breathes out, we must call it out, confront it and destroy it with the only weapon we have against it.

The worthiness we receive from God’s love.

Shame is always a fear we’re unworthy of connection. And it will always get in the way of our creativity.

To be wholehearted, there is real shame work to be done. If we’ve tied our worthiness to what we produce, to the product? We miss the beauty of the process.

And self-empathy is the antidote to shame.

“Our capacity to be wholehearted is never greater than our willingness to be brokenhearted.” ­–Brené Brown

For the higher purpose,

Mick

How to Be a Great Edit

 

I know it’ll come as a shock to some of you, but as much as the writing process is about staying in the work until you’ve said everything you need to say, the editing process is all about staying in the posture of listening.

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Once again, I’m stealing advice from Donald M. Murray’s excellent essay on the practice and teaching of writing, Teach Writing as a Process Not Product.

“How do you motivate your student…? First by shutting up.”

This is the part many writing teachers get wrong. They endlessly go on about the importance of editing and refining and how to do it and why it’s so vital (insert ironic laughter here). And, guilty. Even editors forget communication is a two-way street. And because we’re selfish human children who forget the world isn’t all about us and our needs, we could all use the reminder that no good book (or conversation) happens with just one person speaking.

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So obviously, getting the readers’ interests and questions into your work doesn’t happen automatically. You’ve got to be willing to quit pushing the river and listen for them. And that’s where a well-trained editor can help.

Then, once you’ve heard the readers’ concerns from a more objective voice, it’s time to get to work.

“You don’t learn a process by talking about it, but by doing it.”

I think for too long I saw my job as editor as pointing out the assignments and telling writers where to focus and what to do and how to say it, and according to Murray, “thereby cheat[ing] your student of the opportunity to learn the process of discovery we call writing.”

I’ve had to accept this is my own ego, my selfishness, just like it’s the writer’s ego and selfishness that cheats readers out of discovering the story instead of stepping back and being willing to learn to replace your instinctual habit to talk with quietness.

To trade speaking for listening, to consider your response, and become not the initiator or the motivator, but the reader, the recipient, this is how to be a great edit for your editor. The waiting can be agonizing, but an editor can’t help you learn the process if you won’t practice patience.

And I had to do it, so now you get to. :)

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“[R]espect the student, not for his product…but for the search for truth in which he is engaged.”

The editor listens for your voice, the truth you’re after, even if both are mere potentials yet.

But this is the work, and you can do much of it before you seek an outside editor. Focus not on what is but what it could be. Look deeper and let it change and grow if it can. Look for the potential for more inspired suggestions, more implied connections. This is what your editor will do, take what you’ve got and consider what with more time and insight, could be great.

You can get ahead of the game and make your editor really happy by spending time first considering the reader’s questions and expectations before turning it in.

The same way an editor does this for a writer, the writer can do this for a reader. It’s like good customer service: serve your editor by making your reader the center of your attention.

Ask, Will they feel served? Is everything clear and as precise as it can be to prevent trip-ups and confusion?

Do that and you can rest assured you’re going to be a GREAT edit.

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“Seeing into” is the vital work of the editing process, to recognize what the reader feels and needs next.

So practically, what does this look like? Of course, you won’t simply answer every question, thereby ruining the mystery and romance of the read. But you do want to make readers aware that you are aware of their questions by giving them a character to identify with who’s also confused, usually the hero.

If you practiced this perfectly, you could get away with a lot of mystery, create great tension and have a very engaging story. But with practice you’ll see where in the story you told too much, too many things readers should figure out on their own. And you’ll also see where you told too little, not explaining what’s needed to understand the basic plot or theme.

Again, if you did this before your editor had to, you’d have much better material to fine tune with him or her. Of course, I know it’s hard and laborious and you have wine to drink, but read through your work out loud (wait, one sec—where’s caps lock?) OUT LOUD! That way you will hear the problems your brain is skipping over. If you want to know if something sounds okay or your dialogue sounds authentic, have someone else read it to you in monotone—this removes the way you’re hearing it in your head and you’ll know if it translates.

I know–ugh! Hard work!

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But you can do it. You need to do it.

In nonfiction, when you share an illustration, remove things like “as this illustration makes clear…” It’s unneeded. You might as well say, “As this phrase makes clear, I didn’t edit.”

And overall, use fewer words to increase interest. This applies to fiction in dialogue and descriptions, and to nonfiction in explanations of things that the reader can and should be allowed to assume or connect themselves. Presume some reader familiarity and reduce your pandering, didacticism, extraneous, long-winded spelling-everything-out as much as possible. Spotting these things becomes easier with practice, but the key is always to focus on interest and how you can increase it.

Ask yourself, Does this [phrase, sentence, paragraph, chapter, illustration, character, story, example, sidebar, backstory, footnote, piece of dialogue] add to the reader’s interest or steal it by removing the tension, mystery or excitement of discovery?

With patient practice and attention to listening over sharing, you can be a great edit and reap the rich rewards of a careful, considered editing process.

And that should make everybody happy.

The Only Master

Because I’m prone to the happy hobbit life, I’m often forced to remember that life doesn’t serve books. Books serve life. And as supporting documents for the journey, they make useful and often life-giving guides.

But they make horrible masters.

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Some writers don’t appreciate this distinction and they end up serving their books in many ways. Though their book only has the power over them that they give it, they allow it to become their master.

And they sacrifice much of their lives in their service.

There are also those who believe there is no life in experience. Set-apart from “the world,” they claim the Bible, prayer and a careful, circumscribed existence is the only proper “life.” And from within a bubble of their own making, they believe those outside are lost and dead.

Yet they’ve also given up life to serve a false master.

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The higher purpose for writing is to experience God, both in the writing and in the reading. Yet isn’t God only experienced in real life, in the very act of living?  

Can we experience God while writing?

What if those who serve books and those who serve their safety are missing the very thing that makes the experience of God possible?What if their mistake is forgetting that experiencing God can only happen when we make him alone master and forsake all else?

I’ve been told I must do this or that or the other thing to be a “good” Christian. My commitment has been judged by others’ false ideas as unbiblical, unworthy and wrong.

But if I want to return to finding God in my experience, I can’t let that stop me. As a writer and a Christian, I want to experience him wherever I look, in books and in others’ ideas, regardless of judgment. He is present when I invite him and he’s already there where I need to go next, ready to hand me the faith I need to follow.

Don’t I believe that? 

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My pride wants to defend myself. But in humility, he is my life and strength, the only life needed. Receiving him without reservation, he comes again as he has before and shows his power in new ways. And in each new place, I know him and love him as master and more.

If I’ll just remember and trust, it can be like that again, and even better. Because I’ll be even more awake and aware.

The central task to forget serving anything else is to stop and listen. There I’m reminded that the only requirement is to let go of fear and all conceptions that stand in the way of embracing essential, foundational humility. What do I have that doesn’t come from him? So can’t I decide to wait on him for whatever I need?

I’m speaking to myself, but I’m also speaking to you. Do you really believe he is all?

Are you ready to experience him in your real life today again?

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And will you give him your full self to be all in you today? If you will try, then your daily experience and your waking reality will be infused with him and you will know him in a real and tangible way you never could through books or bubbles.

For when you belong to him entirely, there is no part of life that is not active, awakened, alive. For all of it is in him and by him and for him, through him and about him and because of him.

For nothing in this whole world or in all of life here and everywhere cannot be infused and saturated with him.

 

IMG_5323“His humility was simply the surrender of Himself to God, to allow Him to do in Him what He pleased, whatever men around might say of Him, or do to Him.” – Andrew Murray, Humility

“To such a man God is not a conclusion drawn from evidence nor is He the sum of what the Bible teaches about Him. He knows God in the last irreducible meaning of the word know. It may almost be said that God happened to him.” – A. W. Tozer, Man: The Dwelling Place of God

 

How Honest Is Too Honest?

Being real isn’t easy. It isn’t commonly practiced. It isn’t valued.

Yet some folks have the idea that it’s becoming too common and we need to be careful about being transparent. They don’t agree we should promote more honesty and openness.wreath

Make no mistake, there is a battlefield over vulnerability.

“…but once you are real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.” – Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

So what are the real folks supposed to do? Hide themselves? Restrict how honest they are for the sake of those who don’t understand?

This is a real question. Especially with the new online frontier where everything seems to be free for all and no one seems to hold back in their critiques. It isn’t safe to be your true self anymore.

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Jonathan Merritt at Religion News Source says, “Vulnerability has almost become a Christian virtue, and they often desire to create ‘viral’ content to get noticed and increase their platform.

Certainly, people do this, even Christians. But is it following Christ? The commission was not, “Come, follow me, and I will get you noticed and make you well-respected.”

Not that that stops many Christians from believing it.

Some will be authentic within reason. They’ll only get personal up to a point, yet talk about Jesus very openly.

Others will set a looser boundary on personal honesty, but never even mention Jesus’ name. They’ll be blasted for not taking a stronger stand for Christ. But others will love them for being “so real.”

There are many points between these 2 extremes, but Christians seem to identify more with one or the other. So who is right? How honest should we be?

Sure some make a platform of their faith. And the Christian market loves it. Yet others merely strive to live by the principles Jesus did—humility, honesty and putting others first. Is one better than the other? Both are callings. Aren’t both equally valid? We all must decide our path and let others decide theirs.

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One blogger recently shared about her experience telling a police officer about her grandfather molesting her when she was young. She says, “I called my sister, Aimee, and put her on speakerphone. We were all crying. Aimee, I said, He’s writing it down. He wrote it down. We said, This happened to us, and he listened. He WROTE IT DOWN. I cannot begin to tell you how powerful that was.

When we express our truth and someone listens to it and affirms it, we are liberated. How honest is too honest? Maybe the question is, How much truth are you willing to live?

Will the haters kill you? Do you fear the scorn of the critics more than God? Sure, there are bad people out there who want to steal and hurt and take the love, joy and peace you’ve found. Will you let them by silencing you?

It’s always easier to walk away. When something’s difficult, it will always be easier to get up and go see what there is to eat in the kitchen. While waiting for inspiration or courage, we need grace for ourselves and our ordinary fears.

But eventually, it’s clear what we have to do, isn’t it? The process of honesty is the most important part. To practice patience and to wait for all that won’t come easily, this is the work. Especially when it causes pain. It will always be easier to bury it. Everyone knows this. It’s easier not to feel it but that’s what the world does. They numb it and stuff it down.

Well, maybe being a Christ-follower means being different. Maybe we had no choice to get wounded, but we have a choice now how to respond. And maybe we have no choice but to live through what he allows, but by his grace we have a choice now and this is it.

And I, for one, will respond.

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So what if some people use their stories to try to get famous? Can we do what’s not easy and use our vulnerable truth to help others?

Practicing discernment is critical. But shouldn’t we always aim for complete honesty in what we share? Not that we disregard restraint and decorum. We must wait and take enough time to heal before publishing, or we’ll face more trouble.

Unresolved pain makes us think and do many bad things. Such unexpressed and unhealed pain created this dangerous world we live in. And our pain-shattered world will flame you in their unresolved pain. The words may hurt.

But will it make you live afraid to bare your true, honest soul?

Who will listen before they speak? Who will preserve dignity and yet risk vulnerability to share their intimate selves? Who will work through the initial blindness strong emotion always causes, to get free of the impulse to spew unconsidered exposure? Common emotion, anger and anxiety, leads to oversharing, but when the truth is finally expressed, it will be seen for what it is: immortal, eternal, indestructible.

There are but a handful of critics. But there are entire nations who need your raw, unfiltered honesty.

Why shouldn’t we accept that that naked truth must be fought for to be expressed?

It’s true: the most personal stories are the most universal. As writers we must realize, our silence means someone else may not fully live.

And what if that someone is first yourself?

Here’s the truth: writing for any reason other than to share who you really are is worthless. And who you are is a worthless mess except for love. I’m only able to see because of the love I’ve been shown. Life’s pains have prepared us to bear the burden of sharing our truth.

So share it. None of us is deserving of love, so embrace the rebukes and disrespect with humility. You have everything you need; you are completely provided for. Oh, you’re not deserving. But you’re worthy. Because He has said so.

Believe it. And choose to do the harder thing.

Derision or accolades change nothing. I am who God says I am: loved.

And that’s all the honest truth I need.

Mick