Tag Archives: the writing process

My Writing Process – Step 2: “Let the Theme Rise Organically”

Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

– Mary Oliver, “Sometimes”

God, save me from the productivity that would sacrifice everything you’re doing in me to chase an image of “supposed to.”

So naturally, after step 1 comes step 2. “Step 1: Set Out to Return” posits that submitting to what God is calling you to, where he’s sending, is job 1 for the writer. I see this as a journey that starts and finishes with knowing it will involve, nay, require, a return to the  beginning. Because writing is like life and art is all about recovery of ourselves. (If that seems super deep, that’s because it is.)


Step 1 was fun to write, so I’m continuing with step 2 this week.

The second step in my writing process, which I’ve never put into words before but has gotten me thinking, follows the theme of submission and adds to it discipline. There’s the obvious discipline of showing up to write 6 days a week for as long as I have that day, but in my daily writing process, after considering the true starting place and establishing the goal to return to it eventually, there’s a specific action I have to take. And it still isn’t writing.

Sidenote: we’d prevent so much wasted time by simply not writing too soon. Many writers don’t know or don’t care about this, and maybe they simply can’t help themselves, but even if you only learn it as you write, if you want people to read your stuff, and I do, and if you want an editor to edit it (and yes, you do), then I believe the theme has to rise naturally from the story, from the character’s true plight. And that means slowing down and thinking before you dive in. *Note on the sidenote: this is also true for anything resembling memoir or personal narrative.

Which means step 2 is that you have to discover your theme, so you don’t write trying to illustrate it. If you set out thinking you already know what big truth you’re going to reveal with your story, you’ll fail. Sure, there are pro writers who can do it, but like figuring out your true identity (“Identity is received, not achieved,” as my friend Chase taught me), the theme must be discovered. The journey must be allowed to define the story and the telling of it. Otherwise the theme will be artificial, added as an afterthought.


Theme–what your story’s about–starts as unintended but soon becomes intended. And when that happens is all about how well a writer has learned to humble themselves, silence their need to teach, and pay attention to what the story is revealing. And in the beginning, often, this takes a trustworthy outside editor or close-reader. If you have one, you know they’re gold.

As I said, it may be possible for seasoned writers to “hide the strings” with good editing, but often, a tip-off of amateur writing is that the theme wasn’t discovered so much as intended from the beginning. And often, it seems it wasn’t executed well because there was no learning process captured, no fire in that journey.

Now, go back to that prayer at the top, because this could also become a “supposed to.” But a story is supposed to teach the writer its lesson(s) first. Imagine going through something as life-altering as becoming a parent for the first time and not learning anything from it. Yet people do it all the time. We think we have to be strong leaders, use our stories to teach. But stories aren’t widgets to plug holes in people. And when you think of them this way, you’re limiting its potential for something you can start selling before the necessary ink has been spilled.

Too many of us simply don’t yet have the presence of mind to pay attention to what a story is really saying. And it’s a travesty, but it’s for some fairly obvious reasons. Maybe that’s why it’s taken me so long to establish this.

Goodness, life is distracting. And we want to think we know what we want, but we don’t. And others want different things, and compounding complexity causes destruction. How tragic when someone simply continues pushing for their initial goal even after they realize it means others will suffer. The Bible says such poor folks are cursed (Heavy, I know, but I think of “quenching the spirit” and “woe to them” and “causing others to stumble.”) And again, happens all the time. Maybe we all do it to some degree if we justify such “winning discipline” to remain dedicated to our vision.

Is remaining undistracted and “productive” really the key to success?

Anyone could be a hardnose and prevent what could ultimately free us and countless others. What if instead we’re supposed to let go and let ourselves see beneath what we thought we knew? (Hear the deeper theme of submission here again.)

Writers want to write books that matter, which means revealing what others miss. But what if they can’t until they realize what they’ve missed? For me, step 2 involves, nay, requires, embracing the struggle for a greater discipline: accepting that no one gets to say they intended where they ended up when they set out. I think useful, timeless, inspired books aren’t intended or earned so much as discovered through sacrifice.

So the question is,

Will you commit to listening to your life?

IMG_0728 (1)

Commit to struggling, flailing, uncertainty, mystery, and some very unromantic trials? I believe from all I’ve read, all I’ve written, this is the only way to ultimately offer the truth. Because the primary truth any story conveys is always about struggle–and it should be.

I get it. I want things to be easier too. We all do. It’s just that you can’t see the reason the story needed telling just like you can’t see the real reason the journey needed taking until you take it. And unless you listen to your own plight, your own deep desire and greatest struggle, you’ll never know what simple thematic statement is beneath it. And that’s how your story will ultimately speak about everyone’s plight.

Don’t we all somehow know this already? It’s one of the greatest confirmations, that “Oh-wow-me-too” response. We can’t intend that; it’s a gift. If you let go of personal intentions (for your life, for your work) you’re freed to finally see and reveal universal, biblical truth.

I believe there’s no other way. (“Narrow road,” “die to self,” “walk humbly,” etc.)


It could be that we’re made writers far more than we intend to be. But you were given a story to share and you can trust that. And when you do, you won’t have to prove it anymore. You can let it say what it wants to. You can intend to have your intentions changed and set out to find your theme, even when you think you’re supposed to know it already. It’s worth letting go of supposed to’s.

The distractions are strong, but these 2 steps–setting out to return, and listening for theme–are nearly all I needed to write. There’s just one more step I use consistently before writing and it’s a practical one about filling up before pouring out.

And I’ll share that next week.

For the higher purpose,




When You’re Afraid, Focus on the Process

Regardless of how little is left of the day, there’s still time 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…

IMG_6579But no denying it, the fear is here. And it’s strong. It’s strangling so many great words, the words yet to be spoken. How can I not fight to destroy this barrier?

I’ve been meaning to write this post for weeks, finally face this niggling thought I’ve heard for longer than I can remember:

Can we really edit out fear for good?

fear quote

1. Just write one true sentence.

Ernie Hemingway had one unbeatable word of advice for himself. I’ve repeated it 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.

IMG_6581If writing the truth is the only way to be truly free, what choice do we have but to stop procrastinating and just write that one true sentence? And yet, it’s not so much about making it happen as it is allowing whatever it is to rise to the surface.

To write the one thing I’ve been waiting so long to speak, I can imagine how good that would feel, and to forget all the many excellent reasons I shouldn’t,  and finally deny all the distractions and do what I must do today, it has to start with a simple willingness.

To stop overthinking it. And to just start with what I know.


2. Just do input/output every day.

Here’s a fact: no one is born a writer. What they experienced made them become one. Writing is born of living and reading–good INPUT makes good OUTPUT. So becoming the writer you want to be is not much more than becoming a good scavenger. When you’ve processed enough life and words, you’ll know what to write and how.

It’s by living and reading we learn to distill life into useful words.

Fiction. Daily news. Poems. Memoirs. Read it all, then write and let it be what it is. Our job is only to use what we’re given every day.

It’s the manna principle. Use up the manna every day. And then tomorrow, you’ll find more manna. You have to let go of any other expectation.

IMG_6568When 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.


3.  Just 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 arrange or clean or google something. Such as “misplaced attention.”

But I’m getting used to this. It’s just my tricky brain acting up. It’s perfectly normal. At least for writers. So the first step I have to take is…

To stop. Sit still and listen. It’s about mindfulness, but to me that just means cultivating awareness of the deeper reality behind reality. One Thousand Gifts is my guide for this. When I read it, I slow down and remember life can be about finding inspiration in the ordinary, in the hidden love God freely gives through all these things I experience. And then I remember it’s about Jesus and his endless forms he takes in my daily life.

Eventually, after I’m still and silent for a while, I’ll start to get antsy. So to allow the mental space to continue to stretch out, I’ll often have to stop even thinking about where to go next. Pomodoros are a great method for scheduling focused work and breaks. But I also carry a notebook and give myself permission to pause and capture lightning.

IMG_6560When I don’t do all this, I’m often trading the writing for lesser things. There’s always something else I could do. That’s just life. So I either work to control my time and hold my attention, or it will control me.

In the end, this stopping-before-going thing is based on the knowledge that good words don’t come from a desire to express something so much as from a desire to listen. That’s a good thought for me to pause on. Writing can be prayer. And just like prayer, it’s not as much about being sure to ask for the food I need as allowing myself to be fed.  It’s simply acknowledging a relationship is there and it needs my attention.

In this way, I’m trying to make writing into the way I find the thread of whatever thought seems most important to the Inspirer right now, and then following it down the hole, into the doorway, and through the secret garden.

My hope? When writing becomes no more than God-directed thought, then when I write I’ll be praying without ceasing.

So every day, this is what I need: scheduled time to practice finding the words, time to write them down and to shape them, and even before that, the time to live and to read.

That’s it. Three things to focus on. Writing just one true sentence. Thinking about the input and output. And first stopping, and then going.

If there’s more to it than this, I haven’t found it yet. This is just the process for me; and I need this affirmation regularly that this is how I overcome the fear.

And regardless of how long it’s taken me to get here, I can believe once again there’s still time to create that next work I’ve been sensing it’s time to release.

What helps you face your fears as a writer? Do you find release in your process?

For the higher purpose,


Let the Work Do Its Work

My computer hums on my lap. Next to me, my phone buzzes, and Twyla Tharp’s book on “the creative habit” sits with my glass of wine on the side table.


Behind me is the big window with the tree in full leaf. Beneath the window is the bookshelf stuffed to overflowing with all the books I’m unable to stop pretending I’ll eventually get to read, the best of the best that have stayed with me for reasons mysterious and intentional.

Though life is busy and full of wonderful thinking, I worry what I have to share this week isn’t very interesting.

“To the creator there is no poverty and no poor or unimportant place,” as Rilke said. And what writing well really takes is the ability to ignore the doubts and press on in describing the objects that surround us, for they hold our dreams and our truest selves.

DSC_0005To write well, we must struggle, and not least of all because we believe we have to know what we’re doing. And we think that to know what to do, we have to ensure we have all the right conditions perfectly lined up, when really all we need is to look at the space before us and see in it what’s really true. If we can merely do that well, then we apply the right effort and we succeed. Writing well could become inevitable if only we’d stop trying so hard to write well.

Ah, but knowing what’s really true requires really seeing, and this is what we need above all else.

Once we commit—and I don’t pass this off lightly—then we must look hard enough into the story of our lives that’s contained in these objects around us and consider these the relevant props in our current situation.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
Illustration from The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

A computer. A phone. A book on creativity. A glass of wine. A table. A window. A bookshelf full of books.

What do these tell you? Can I describe them so it’s clear, so that you can assess what you need to understand about my life from these clues?

Collectively, they may signify a life lived in dedication to the freedom books offer.

On Saturday, I posted a status update on Facebook about how it can feel working on a book I believe could help many people heal. It’s always the author’s healing journey first, yet most of us who write have trouble because we’re broken and blocked by pain and resentment. We can seem fine day to day, but as soon as things get challenging, we cramp up and clamp down. The books on writing don’t often say we have to be healed first to write well and true about ourselves. And so that’s what I’ve chosen to say, believing our words must first be for us but once they’ve healed us, they must be fully matured and become universal, not so dedicated to our own welfare.

DSC_0009This is why my room matters today. And what’s here with me matters—because learning to write well is what I’m doing here while my family pursues other things downstairs. I’m here to face the truth of myself and my dreams and many weaknesses, in hopes it will heal me further and I might grow to see my life more broadly, more universally, that it might be more useful and inspiring. A simple story of a man typing out words to show the things he keeps for this work he pursues, as Annie Dillard says, trying to make all the necessary efforts to become a sail to catch the solar wind.

If we do it right, that is, if we do it daily, this work changes us. And that changes everything. The way I live, and the way I think of myself and all my relationships has grown by my picking up these props for the words I pursue.

They show that I’ve dedicated myself to achieving this big dream of being free. And yet I’m confident that if I can continue, the objects and even the words themselves won’t be so important in the end. For the true benefit will be something else entirely….

“The secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price…But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought…I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam. It is possible, in deep space, to sail on solar wind. Light, be it particle or wave, has force: you rig a giant sail and go. The secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff.” – Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek