Using Our Right to Write

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Photo credit Dorothy Greco. Also a writer.

Yesterday, Rebecca commented on my Facebook page that my post inspired her to write. “It’s cathartic!” she said. I was standing in line at Target when I read that, and I did a little fist pump & whispered, “Yes!”

Getting other people to write their stories is one of my dreams. I’m constantly quoting memoirist Carlos Eire, whom I watched graciously take down a snotty writer he was on a panel with. She claimed that only VERY SPECIAL PEOPLE should be allowed to publish memoirs, that the rest of us were ridiculous to believe anyone could possibly care. When she was done, Carlos said (with the nicest smile) “I disagree. As a historian, I wish everyone would write their stories. That’s how we know what life was really like…”

I think he’s right.

When we write down our stories, especially in those horrible first drafts that are barely coherent, we’re taking a step toward other people, letting them know they’re not alone. None of us are the first person to wrestle with any question. Life is just not that unique. But if you’re the only one in your world trying to figure out the dilemma of your current season, it can feel so isolating and lonely. This is where Amazon, your local bookstore & your local library come in HANDY.

When we were first considering adoption, I was helped more by books and blog posts from regular people than I was by actress Nia Vardalo’s Instant Mom (although her book was poignant and funny and helpful too – particularly her description of how she slept in her new daughter’s bedroom for months, moving her cot an inch at a time out towards the hallway as her daughter learned what it means to be safe).  Celebrity lives are interesting because they’re different than ours. But when I’m making a big decision or in the trenches trying to figure out what to do, I find stories of regular lives more helpful.

Two writer friends are encouraging me these days (one is responsible for my resuming these posts about adoption).  Let me introduce them, because they’re just like you.

I met Josh Heidkamp when Steve & I spoke at a leadership retreat at his church. His brother Jeff, the lead pastor there, is a friend of ours, and after the retreat Josh (and their whole Minneapolis crew) were too.

Last year, Josh learned that he has brain cancer. Amidst all the terror, he sensed God prompting him to write about this experience. He started a blog. Now he posts 2-3 times a week, depending on what is going on.

Straightforward is the best word I have to describe his writing style, and that’s a huge compliment. He doesn’t try to make things artful or faux-profound. He writes what is happening, how he thinks and feels about it, and how it’s challenging him to live. That just IS profound, no adornment necessary. Sometimes at the end of his posts he tosses in a challenge for the rest of us, which always catches me off guard. I’m like, “Arggggh Josh! You got me again!” And then I go try what he suggests and watch as it improves my day.

Early in his process, when he started to get some momentum in writing regularly, he put out a call for book recommendations about how to write. I offered up a suggestion or two, but then I caught myself and blurted, “Don’t read books about writing right now…just write!” It was one of those moments where what I was telling him broke through as something I needed to hear, and I decided that if Josh could write a blog most days, so could I.

And here we are. Thank you, Josh.

If you want a lesson in straightforward writing (and you should) check out his blog. And pray for him, because God is doing something really cool in the midst of all the crap that prompted it.

The other writer you should check out is Lindsey Gendke. I “met” Lindsey when I had the chance to consult on an early draft of her memoir. She has great writing instincts and an incredible story; when her book was published and I read the final version, I was blown away.  Then a couple of weeks ago I read this blog post she wrote that reframed how I think about telling my own story, and I think it will help you too.

She was speaking at a women’s retreat for her denomination, encouraging them to tell their stories…but also giving them a framework for when and how to share based on where you are in working through hard things.

I’ve posted before how I processed this differently with each of my two books. But Lindsey put words to why I got stuck last year in the narration of our Road to Adoption journey – it was getting too close to the present day, and stuff the four of us needed to share in smaller settings before we were ready to go public. Her observations helped me start a conversation with my kids where we went through your questions and got their input, which showed me that now we’re okay to share more.

Her whole post is worth a read, but I’ll quote a checklist I’ve gone back to when I’m not sure if the time is right to share something. Lindsey says…

“Before you bust out a blog or a Facebook rant, first check your audience and purpose for sharing your story today. Ask yourself, and God, these questions to help you figure out when and where to share:

  • Is this primarily about me, or is it about God working in me?
  • Do I need more healing before I make this public?
  • Could I benefit from sharing this with a small group?
  • Am I at a point where my story would benefit others? Whom?
  • Will my story be good news to someone? Lots of people?
  • Finally, can I share my story publicly without needing approval from everyone?”

Good, right?

Let me add: it’s 100% okay to WRITE before you have all of these boxes checked. Raw writing gives you the best stuff to edit later. And as Rebecca said, it’s cathartic. But if you’re writing about something from the middle of it, this is a good checklist to run through before you hit “publish” on a major platform.

All this to say, please write your story. Start today. If there’s anything I can do to encourage you, let me know. I have a page for writers you can check out, and I’ll do whatever I can to cheer you on and provide more resources. There are so many ways to build and share our stories right now. Let’s do it.

Adoption Shopping

Yesterday I was going through old Amazon orders and came across a whole section I recognized as my “The Cherubs are coming!” shopping frenzy – items we bought hoping they would make the kids feel loved and welcomed, help us get to know each other, and meet practical needs (like how we had one twin bed and two incoming kids). It reminded me of the intensity of those early, mind-bending days, and how many directions we were looking to for help. Here’s a list of some of the items that delivered. Some of them might come in handy in your non-adoption life (or what I like to think of as your PRE adoption life!), too.

 First, The Thumb Ball.  This humble little ball started our conversation the first time we met The Cherubs. We came to their foster home in the afternoon after school. Their social worker, Janna, was waiting with them and introduced us. We all sat on couches in the living room, looking at each other but trying not to be weird about it. We knew conversation would be awkward (where do you even START?) so I brought this little ball I found online. The concept is simple: you toss it to someone, and wherever their thumb lands when they catch it, that’s the question they answer. “What’s a food  you don’t like?”  Janna didn’t like cinnamon, which gave us something to marvel at together. “What’s a good vacation place?” gave the kids a chance to tell us they’d been to Disney. Perhaps the best part of this, though, was that it was so tactile. When the game was over, #1 Cherub held onto the ball, squeezing it, tossing it in the air. It gave him something to do with all the nervous energy. I think we could have all used one.

On a similar note, Table Topics.  These cards were on our dining room table for months, rescuing  us from dinnertime misery night after night. Here’s why: Dinnertime was AWFUL that first season together. The kids didn’t like our food, we didn’t like their attitudes (and we were stressed about their health) We fought Every. Single. Night. But we had mandatory Table Topics conversations to approximate some semblance of the “value of family dinners” we were grasping for in those ten minute meals that felt like they lasted three hours. And you know what? It worked!  Sometimes you need a question about whether or not you’d travel to Mars if given the chance to get the party started!

A Note for writers: I once spent an entire summer using a box of these for daily writing prompts. Highly recommend.

Chocolate Hair, Vanilla Care.  This book FREAKED ME OUT. I was prepared to learn a new world of hair care for my mixed-race daughter, but the author’s personal approach to her child’s hair is a bit extreme. For example, the book suggests that if we went to the beach, afterwards I should use AN AIR COMPRESSOR on my child’s head to remove sand from between the braids. I was like, “The same one that runs the nail gun???”  I cannot tell you how stupid I felt, asking one of my black friends, “Um…do I need an air compressor?”  Thankfully, her answer was No. That said, if you’re looking for a guide for how to care for natural hair, this is great. It has so much helpful information that helped me understand different types of hair, products, etc. and it also has detailed how-tos for different braids and styles. I’ll leave decisions re: the use of power tools up to you.

Patriot Bear.  I think Pillow Pets are brilliant, and wish they were the norm for adult pillows, too. Kids of all ages like soft things. When a child moves in with you, he or she might come with a favorite snuggle toy. But I think it helps with the transition to add something new from you that has meaning and solidifies their life at your house. (If you live outside of New England and aren’t a Pats fan, they have these bears for all the teams.) I covet this bear every night at tuck in time – he’s very cozy.

Black Nativity.  I love this adaptation of the Langston Hughes play. It’s gritty and complicated, and yet shot through with scenes that show God’s presence even in the midst of seemingly hopeless situations. It’s by far my favorite Christmas movie. We first got it from the library, and I was ordering a copy to own before the credits were done at the end.

Black or White.  We watched this one early in our new family relationship and it was HARD. But it was also good. The scene with Kevin Costner’s court testimony where he breaks down what really happened? I tear up just thinking about it. This movie does such a good job of showing how complicated these cases are. Not just because of race, but because of people. This brought up a lot of stuff for all of us (Steve and I had been through something similar with Princess Peach) but I’m so glad we saw it. It’s tempting to try to keep everything happy and easy when you’re just getting to know each other. But the Cherub’s foster mom gave us good advice: Bring it up, she said. It’s gonna come up anyway. She was right.

On a lighter note…a friend recommended this South Shore bedroom set as a frugal solution to our two kids/one bed dilemma. We ordered the bed, headboard shelf & nightstand for #2 Cherub, the price was incredibly reasonable, and they’ve been fantastic. Note: leave some time for assembly pre-Cherub arrival.

And finally, three of my favorites, because they’re so personal:

Out of My Mind. I bought this book before we even met the kids, because #2 Cherub listed it as her favorite book in the adoption flyer her social worker prepared to help recruit for them. This book is so good. I couldn’t wait to meet #2 and talk about it. It gave me hope that she & I might bond through books & writing, and indeed, we have. Our love of books and stories is one of the best things we share, and I’m so grateful to her social worker for including this gem in that flyer.

Kyrie Irving Fathead Graphic. We knew that #1 loved basketball. But we were unprepared for his favorite player being from Cleveland :) Kyrie stands tall over #1’s bed, ready to make a move on the basket. (But yes, we also got him a Celtics Fathead to make it a real game. And we might have put the guy in the green shirt on the wall closest to the net…)

cys-sign  reenas-sign

I found these signs at Marshall’s and got one for each Cherub’s bedroom. I want them to see this every single night, and wake up to it every morning. It’s the truth. You can find something similar here, here, and here. As I look at them now, I kind of want one in every room.

 

 

The Blankest Page

A few years ago, as I cast about for a writing project that was less, well…ridiculously intense & personal than spilling my soul in a memoir, I started a series of essays about the Fruit of the Spirit – the benefits package the Bible promises to anyone who opts in to Jesus’ offer of a better life. We’re told that somehow, miraculously/mysteriously, Jesus’ people have access to unprecedented levels of nine specific things: Peace, Love, Joy, Patience, Kindness, Generosity, Gentleness, Faithfulness, and Self-Control. 

I’ve always loved this list because it’s so precise. I mean, I know whether or not I’m feeling Joy. And when I respond to a frustrating situation in a way that’s Gentle instead of furious, it’s just astonishing; there’s no way NOT to notice.  I appreciate how Jesus doesn’t try to dazzle us with vague promises. Instead, we’re given a litmus test we can use anytime to see if we’re wringing all the pluses from our Holy Spirit benefits package.

Reading through these essays yesterday was fun. It reminded me of interesting thoughts I’d had about Love, and how great it is to feel Peace when on earthly terms I should be freaking out. I cruised through these pages, wondering why I’d never finished this project when I was clearly in such a groove.

Then I flipped the page and dead-ended at this:

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I laughed so hard, water came out of my nose. Nothing to say on that subject. Not one word.

Patience has never been my thing. I don’t even WANT it. Patience means waiting, and I don’t like that, so where do I go to turn in this weird & annoying fruit and sign up for double Joy instead?

I never recovered from the Patience page. The essays stop there, almost suggesting (obnoxiously, I think) that God insisted that I process SOME thoughts on this subject before He’ll let me move forward. (Honestly, if this were a Harry Potter movie, I’d still be sitting there in some Hidden Tunnel of Doom, stomping my foot and refusing to wait for the secret key to descend from the ceiling, completely ignoring the reality that even as I refused to wait, there I was… waiting).

Maybe patience sometimes takes the form of forgetting all about that thing you’re waiting for. Obliviousness is a grace, I believe. And while I might not use this example as a particularly enticing Fruit of the Spirit (“You’ll lose sight of your work projects for YEARS at a time!!!”) I can admit a certain gratitude that I haven’t spent the past however many months trudging around the world trying to muster up a bunch of bullsh*t concepts about Patience in order to fill a page and move on. I appreciate that Jesus doesn’t traffic in bullsh*t concepts.

Ironically (only not), I’m far more patient than I used to be. Here’s what patience looks like for me now:

-Taking a part time job in the flooring department at Home Depot last winter when I could not read one more adoption book (seriously, I’d read them all) while we waited for our adoption home study to be approved.  Patience = Getting out of the house.

-Stopping writing mid-paragraph when THIS DOG rouses from her 5 hour nap and makes it clear that she needs to go out immediately. Patience = Knowing that bathroom needs always come first.

-Dinner: Every. Single. Night. Patience = Keeping a schedule that helps your kids learn to trust you.

It makes for a mighty strange essay. And maybe God knows I have EVEN LESS to say about Kindness, and is protecting me from myself at this point. But I’m grateful to realize that, just as promised, this Patience thing just grew inside of me when I wasn’t even paying attention. It’s cool to have fruit you didn’t cultivate.

On Being Gangster

“I believe that enjoying your work with all your heart is the only truly subversive position left to take as a creative person these days. It’s such a gangster move, because hardly anybody ever dares to speak of creative enjoyment aloud, for fear of not being taken seriously as an artist. So be the weirdo who dares to enjoy.” -Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

It seems like life this week is all about me being busted. Yesterday it was The Cherubs & my lack of grammar knowledge. This morning it’s the 101 ways I’ve forgotten to be (in the words of Elizabeth Gilbert) gangster.

It’s not so much a fear of not being taken seriously as an artist that gets me, because I’ve never  felt like an artist to begin with. I’m too…straightforward, perhaps. I file my taxes and show up places on time, and I have (in the words of Hermione Granger) the emotional range of a teaspoon. So the title “artist” has never fit.

But two other fears police my gangsterness, wrecking my ability to enjoy work: Fear of not being taken seriously as an author, and fear of not making life with Jesus look as…well, gangster as it is. Those run deep. They’ve grown an extravagant root system down into my psyche, keeping me numb & paralyzed.

The author fear insists that I have to at least pretend to be slaving away at some work in progress at all times. Even if it’s not going well. Even if I hate every word I write, even if my paragraphs don’t make sense. (Not in an overly self-critical way, but in an honest, “Wow, this is absolute nonsense” way that we artists like to pretend isn’t possible but totally is.)  This fear insists that if I don’t finish my long-suffering novel, or my stagnant book on praying for a husband, EVERYONE WILL HATE ME, AND I WILL HAVE FAILED AT LIFE. (Really, it says this. As if anyone will even care, let alone work up the energy to be pissed off about it.) And because I believe this fear time and time again, about once every other week I dutifully open those pitiful documents, toss in a few more words, then I give up and close my laptop, feeling like even more of a failure.

It’s awesome.

The fear of not being a good Public Christian is more insidious, because it has me coming and going. It suggests that I must produce multitudinous amounts of prose on living the excellent,  abundant (sometimes excruciating, but let’s not dwell too long on that whole “death before new life” thing) Jesus-ey existence, while distancing myself from the entirety of American Christian Culture and the multitudinous amounts of prose it produces that make people want to gag. The Bible says to “be in them not of them,” and too often for me this means striving to be among Christians (I mean, they’re my people) but really not at all like them. Nope. Way cooler, more laid back, not one little bit judgmental or frustrating, not wearing homemade dresses. (At least this last part is easy.)

All of this inner turmoil has been my normal for so long now, I can’t remember ever not feeling this way.

Then this weekend, Elizabeth Gilbert skipped through my world with her new book. I picked it up because I like her writing (I mean, she held my attention through a 600 page novel about a  COLLECTING MOSS. If that’s not talent, I don’t know what is). Most writing/creativity books say the same things – work every day, don’t judge your early drafts, persevere. I didn’t expect much new substance, just a pleasant delivery.

I was surprised.

First, let me say that her spiritual perspective is flat-out BANANAGRAMS. She believes that ideas are sentient beings waiting to be embodied, and that they fly around between us, searching for a home. (In my faith we call those things demons, but whatever.) I skimmed those pages.

What blew me out of the water was her her insistence that writing is fun. It’s this awesome thing we GET to do, and so we should do it all the time, with great delight. There should be GLEE. She insists that it’s totally worth it to sacrifice our serious reputations to regain some joy in putting words on the page and creating new worlds. We should write all sorts of silly things: novels and songs and blog posts and essays – whatever floats our boat. Find some other way to pay the bills, she says. I felt like a 10,000 lb. weight was lifted off my shoulders, and I was invited back into the life I lived before I became a Professional Christian Author (and stopped writing books because of the ridiculousness of trying to wrestle myself into such an ill-fitting garment.)

Throughout BIG MAGIC, I kept thinking, Here is a woman who spent YEARS with an imaginary character whose primary passion was collecting moss, just because it was fun. What must it feel like to feel that excited about a project everyone else thinks is insane? (Because I’ll admit, when the advance press about that novel came out, I was sure she’d gone well and truly round the bend.)

But the truth is, I know what that’s like. It’s how I wrote my first book.  And now, all these years later, Elizabeth Gilbert has challenged me to find that gangster place again.

The struggle to write about how I still have faith

Sometimes people ask me how I still have my faith after all that we’ve been through. I never know what to say. The truth is, I’ve been trying to figure that out for the better part of two years now.  Memoir #3 is hopelessly bogged down in this quagmire, my narrative arc looking like a half-built boat: it has a bow and a stern, but no center – the center being the place where God swooped in built new life atop the ruins of my blown-out world.  I’m missing the “Beauty from Ashes” chapters, because for the life of me, I can’t figure out what happened. 

There are few things more frustrating than reading a memoir that draws you into pages and pages of loss & sadness, stops cold with a single blank page to suggest a break in the narrative, then plunges you right into “Oh look! It’s all better now!”

I’m determined to fill that blank middle page.

Yesterday I sat down at my computer to figure it out. I decided to use numbers instead of paragraphs, because that would FORCE my story to cooperate, right? I mean, numbers DEMAND order, and I was DONE with chaos.

Here’s what I came up with: (cut & pasted directly from yesterday’s Word doc)

How I kept my faith:

  1. I didn’t. I gave it up entirely. (Which I guess means I was honest with God for the first time in awhile.)
  2. I stopped praying. I no longer believed it worked, and if it didn’t work, why do it? It felt weird to whizz by stranded motorists on the highway without asking God to bless and help them, but whatever. I called 911 instead.
  3. I stopped reading my Bible. It was filled with passages that clearly weren’t true, because I’d seen them be not true in real time. I was tired of twisting my mind into ridiculous excuses for God.
  4. I stopped going to church. My mind was screaming, “No. God is not good all the time. He’s not that simple, and life is not that easily explained.” There was no church where this was an okay thing to say, so I stopped going to church.
  5. I stopped feeling. Feelings were not helpful to me in this season, so I ignored them.
  6. I shut up. I refused to “process” this with people who kept trying to fix me, and only admitted what was happening to my husband and the one trusted friend who had never tried to fix me before.  Steve pulled out his copy of The Power of a Praying Husband and gave me extra long hugsmy friend said, “I’m fine with that. I totally understand why you’d be done with God after everything that’s happened,” then prayed for me behind my back. This might be the most important survival decision I’ve ever made.

A couple of years later, I heard my friend Jordan give a talk about how, during one terrible season of his life, he practiced living like he was dead. I thought, “Oh, I know exactly how that feels.”

***

That’s as far as I got yesterday. I was cracking up with giggles as I wrote it. It’s so not what you ever read about in inspirational books, at least not in the chapters about God restoring things! These are usually the pre-redemption chapters, the ones where you can tell that your main character is about to come face-to-face with the horror of her sinful ways. But nope. That’s not what happened.  All of this purging, as I chucked all of the stuff I’d been taught I HAD to do as a follower of Jesus, is, I think, what gave God room to do whatever it is He did to help me believe again.

I used to say that all we need for Jesus to transform us is to be willing, to invite him in. Now I think, Nope. Even that’s not necessary. 

I don’t get God. At all. That’s as it should be, I guess. I live in the tension of what was lost and what’s been found, and I have NO IDEA how to write the middle section of this story, because who wants to read 6 chapters about all the things I was not doing? But for the story to have any sort of integrity, structural or otherwise, I have to figure this out. So today I’ll pull out that Word doc and wrestle on.

If you’re in a space where all hope is lost, and you don’t give a damn about God or the rules or what well-intentioned people tell you about how you MUST do this or that, I give you permission: Walk away. Who knows? In a few months or a few years, you might have a story that has no discernible middle, but yet hints of a happier ever after than seems possible right now.

That’s the story I want to tell – the happier ending, the one where nothing makes sense but life is somehow better. But as a writer, I have to earn that ending. I have to figure out the middle.

The Remaking

It’s been an interesting week for me artistically.

I’m listening to three songs from Nichole Nordeman’s long-awaited new project, The UnmakingThe basic theme is that sometimes God tears down all the things we build and leaves us standing there, wondering what to do next. Then He rebuilds in ways we never could have imagined. As she says in a promo video, “This was a song I wrote in great hopefulness, after a season of great hopelessness.”

I’m reading Jenny Simmon’s new memoir, The Road to Becoming, about how she lived this exact experience: how her years of touring with the band Addison Road literally blew up when an RV with everything they owned caught fire and burned to the ground. (There’s more to it than that, of course, but that was the straw that took out the camel).  She admits that a year of things breaking lead to her becoming the worst possible version of herself, after which a friend said, “This is the best night of your life, because Jenny, you are about to see God be God.”

I’m thinking about Ryanhood’s CD, After Night Came Sun, and how pretty much every song on that album speaks of this same agony – dashed dreams, disappointment, wondering what on earth to do next and how to keep believing in God.  And how Princess Peach loved one song on that album, the one where they shout out in the middle of the chorus, “I’m falling apart!”

Amidst all this, as I’m remembering the seemingly endless ways my own life ended between 2009-2014, all I can think is, “Holy sh*t! Did ALL the Jesus-ey artists have our lives RUINED during those 5 years? You mean it wasn’t just me?!?”

It’s incredibly comforting not to feel so alone.

Steve and I are on the other side of this season now, THANK YOU JESUS.  (I say that not in a pious, “I always knew he’d come through!” way, but rather with the grateful fatigue of someone who thought she was taking a gentle 2 mile hike but ended up wandering across some stupid mountain range until way past dark, and is sort of astounded to have finally made it back to the parking lot.) We have a new home, new jobs, new cherubs, new hope in what God can do when all that’s left is ashes and rubble and empty wine bottles and tears.

As I listen to Nichole sing, and read Jenny’s words, and remember sitting up late one night talking to the Ryanhood guys in our kitchen when they were in town on tour with their new album Start Somewhere, I’m encouraged about the second part of the story. How part of the REMAKING that follows extreme carnage is ART: Stories told through paragraphs and lyrics and pictures. Puzzles with all the pieces fit together, revealing and reminding us of how God works: that if new hope has not arrived, it’s not the end. This can be hard to believe, and even harder to live. The Remaking happens despite us, not because of us. I guess it’s like yesterday’s post on forgiveness: we can block it, but we can’t make it happen on our timeline. All we can do is stand there and wait. I don’t understand it, but I’ve lived it. And so I spend my days writing about what that looks and feels like so that maybe, like Nichole & Jenny, Ryan & Cameron, my story might be another little flashlight helping others who are struggling to believe in the possibility of our impossible faith.

The last book of the Bible, Revelation, tells us something about overcoming, how it happens “by the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony.” Jesus acts, we tell the story.

That I can do.

What Motivates You: Calling or Ego?

ego2-drhannanI found this gem of an article in the March 2014 issue of Inc. Magazine.  I wish it were an entire book – there’s much to consider here. But narrowing it down to three basic distinctions isn’t a bad place to start. I’m taking some of this verbatim from columnist Shelley Prevost – these are her ideas, not mine. I’m just putting them in question form because I think they’re handy, especially for artistic types as we consider new projects.

If you’re trying to decipher what’s driving you – ego or calling – consider these three questions:

1. Are you burnt out? 

Ego leads to burnout, calling leads to fulfillment. When you feel deep satisfaction when you’re in the muddle with a project that may or may not lead to anything, and long to keep going…that’s a sign of calling.

2. Is your main focus the finish line?

Ego focuses on the result, whereas calling focuses on the process. Prevost points out that when we feel like all our work is pointless unless or until we get the result we were shooting for–publish the book, finish the race, thwart the evil villian once and for all (oops, that’s my superhero side slipping out!) — we’re at the mercy of our egos.  “A calling, however, can handle the stress of ambiguity.” (Isn’t that a nice way to put it?)

3. Are you thinking about the impact this project will have on you, or on others? 

This is a tricky one, because most writers write for other people…and the way we imagine it will feel to have them read our book. See how circular that can be? But I think the question comes to this: am I writing to have written another book, or can I see in my mind’s eye an individual reader who will be entertained/inspired because I wrote another book?

Interesting questions, right?

My thoughts: Having an ego gets a bad rap (especially in faith circles). The temptation is to pretend that we’re above all this, that our motives pure and altruistic. What crap. NOBODY has more ego that someone who writes or speaks or sings or performs for a living. It takes ego to carry the audacious idea that not only do we have something to say…but other people should stop what they’re doing and listen.

Ego isn’t bad. It’s just that those little seeds of narcissism need careful tending, lest they grow all up through our creative Unknownprocess and ruin everything. The ego says, “I have something to say!” whereas calling helps you slow down enough to figure out what that something is, and how to say it well.

I’ve written from both of these places. Obviously, the stuff I wrote when I was fulfilled, enjoying the process, and thinking of readers is far better than what I’ve come up with in the throes of “I have to get another book written or I’m a failure!” angst. The first-catagory pages are the ones I come back to again and again, adding and editing, tinkering and moving things around, waiting to see what new thoughts and shapes emerge. I’m grateful for this reminder that this isn’t just a waste of time when I SHOULD REALLY BE WRITING!

This IS writing.

Bonus: Digging around, I found this longer article by Prevost expanding on this topic. Enjoy :)

Fear/Failure

I’m finding spiritual and professional guidance in unexpected places these days.

On Saturday, I was reading the latest issue of Fast Company magazine (one of my favorites, despite my status asUnknown  rather un-tech-savvy — great writing about what makes people tick bridges a whole lot of gaps for me). It includes a feature on Ed Catmull, President of Animation for both Pixar and Disney,  who has a new book out about building Pixar called Creativity, Inc.  What caught my eye was a sidebar with his unique take on failure. Catmull credits Pixar’s creative success in large part to the way they have “uncoupled fear from failure.”  In other words, by creating a system to deal with failure – to expect and learn from it as a recognized part of the creative process – his people no longer live in terror of going down the wrong path and screwing up a project.

He acknowledges that he’s not the first person to see that failure can be an opportunity for growth. But his perspective takes it one step further:

“Most people interpret this assertion as ‘Mistakes are a necessary evil.’ Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new…. [We] deal with failure by addressing it head on, searching for mechanisms to turn pain into progress…. The cost of failure is an investment in the future.”

This inspires me. It sheds new light on the pages and pages (and pages…) piled up all over my hard drive, all the thoughtfully-conceived writing projects that thus far have not had legs to stand on their own. And at a “let’s get back to basics” level, I needed to be reminded that major projects (a book, a movie, a friendship, a career) take years to build, not days, and those days are some up/some down.

Pregnancy is probably the most-used metaphor for book writing. It’s an awkward one for me, obviously, but sometimes it’s apt. Cahull’s book reminds me that just because a woman has had a couple of children already, it doesn’t mean her next baby will be born in five months instead of nine. There’s no high-speed lane for frequent travelers. It takes a long time every time, and each “project,” so to speak, evolves differently, even as you track it around the same milestones.  So it is with books.

Of course, we don’t get the guarantee that books will be finished and appear out in the world at around nine months. (How great would that be?) But I’m grateful for the reminder that the road is long.

This article reminded me that there are ALWAYS potholes and felled trees, and tempting forks in the road that will require me to backtrack over miles of well-loved paragraphs,pretending I was never there at all so I can set off again on the other path. Not just in writing, but in life. But there’s no need to fear. We’re all negotiating this complex terrain. I love Cahull’s reminder that these roadblocks and detours don’t make me (or you) silly to have tried, or lazy, or inept at my job. They just mean I showed up for work that day.

 

This Mystery

I’m rereading a Madeleine L’Engle book this morning, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art.

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Her writing is filled with wisdom and flights of fantasy, and her cadence feels old-fashioned and slows me down.  Every third or forth page I find myself tearing up, which makes no sense because today is a gorgeous, sunny day and I’m in a great mood. And yet here I am, soggy over these pages (some of which are so warped that it’s obvious they’ve either made me cry before or been dropped in the bathtub) wondering what God is doing inside me.

In the middle of the book is the faded receipt from when I bought it: March 19, 2003, at the Barnes & Noble  in Downtown Crossing.  I used to go there at lunchtime when I was temping at a venture capital firm, living under an assumed name, struggling to pay my rent and figure out my life. I’d been a Christian just long enough to feel like God had forgotten about me, so I spent my free time stalking the “professional Christians” in the religion section of the bookstore, looking for reassurance that this Jesus guy wasn’t just another figment of my spiritually-inclined imagination.

I read Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye, sitting on one of those little round stools you can use to reach the higher shelves, and struggled to imagine a man who would love me (and God) enough to wait for sex until after marriage.

I looked at books speculating about what might happen in the End Times when Jesus returns and thought, How about we just focus on getting through today? and slipped them back on the shelves.

And I bought Walking on Water, having never read any of L’Engle’s books before, Unknownbased solely on the introduction written by Nichole Nordeman, the singer who was keeping my new faith afloat with the haunting, hopeful songs on her CD, This Mystery.  One lyric in particular swirled in my mind in those days:

If I abandon all that seeks to make my faith informed and chic, could You, would You, show Yourself to me?

This morning, almost eleven years later, I’m in a different place. Jesus has proven himself more than a figment of my imagination. And yet I still feel the tension, the desire to cram what I’ve seen and what I know into a form that is “informed and chic”;  to write about Jesus in a way that is smart and witty and wholly understandable. If L’Engle had been a snarkier sort of woman, I can imagine her looking at me with a raised eyebrow, asking, “So, how’s that working for you?”

This morning, God is reminding me of what it means to respond to Him.  That I write (and live) into a mysterious place I don’t see ahead of time or fully understand. That all the talk about building a platform and cultivating followers is all just noise, because He selects the people who happen upon my book at a bookstore or library (or yard sale) and decide to pick it up. And that what they see there is His story, played out across a portion of one life.

It’s making me feel small and insignificant. Which is, historically, where my best writing comes from.

If you’re struggling to write (and live) your portion of God’s story, I recommend Walking on Water. Read it with This Mystery playing in the background. Ask Jesus to help you believe, so that you don’t miss any miracles.

And then, instead of Leaning In, lean back into the good news of being so very small, and yet safe in the presence of magnificence–With work to do, a story to tell, and an imagination that is only a glimpse of what is possible.

Living with Abandon

UnknownLast night, I read a blog post by author Sarah Dessen about how after eleven months of work, she is abandoning her latest book project.  No matter what she tries, she says, it just won’t come together.

“Rather than forging onward out of panic and fear, throwing more ideas at this giant, gaping maw of mess, I’ve just….stopped. It feels weird and makes me very anxious. But I have to have faith that it will get me where I need to be, wherever that is.”

I was so stunned and relieved as I read this, I started to cry. All I could think was, It’s not just me.

For almost two years now, I have been writing a book on praying for a husband. Well, writing is the wrong word. That’s what I did with my other books. This time, it’s been more like wrestling with words: groping, guessing, backspacing and deleting, and putting things together that clearly don’t belong. It’s been awful. The project is completely backwards. It has a title (The Courage To Ask), a gorgeous cover, and a solid introduction I wrote two years ago excerpted in the back of the new edition of my memoir. But there is no book.

Instead, it is hundreds of starts and stops splayed out across the home screen of my laptop like someone took the pages and threw them into a high wind. These pages include endless disconnected thoughts, with writing that fluctuates wildly from inspired to mediocre to that doesn’t even make sense…sometimes within the same sentence.  I have made so many promises to myself and others about this book. My intern Charlotte has been on standby for essays to review since October. Worse, the cover designer Cameron rushed to finalize the design so we could have this book out LAST FEBRUARY.  No matter what I do, I can’t seem to get a handle on this project. I see small glimmers of encouragement, and my heart is in this like nothing else I’ve worked on. I firmly believe that a husband is a wonderful, important, entirely appropriate and good thing to pray for.  But I can’t write the book.

It’s a complete soup sandwich, as my friend Catherine would say.

Reading Sarah Dessen’s post convinced me of something I probably knew already: I need to walk away. So many other projects have been back burnered as I’ve tried to wrestle this disaster into some sort of order.  And yet “some sort of order” is not what I want for this project at all. As Dessen points out, we’ve all seen books from authors we admire where you sense that something was off in the process – narratives that aren’t as well thought out as earlier work, or don’t bring the same level of entertainment/inspiration/escape as you’d hoped for when you picked up the book.  For a book about asking God to bring great husbands to women who long to be happily married – which is in the top five things I pray for in life, ever –   I want to create a life raft for readers who feel like they’re drowning in the despair of lost hope.  Not a soup sandwich, something that sort of works but isn’t at all what you’d hoped for.

Maybe someday. But not today.

Until then, if you’re one of the people who emailed me to volunteer to be an early reader, or to ask to be notified the second this book comes out – thank you. Please know this: Just because I can’t write a book about praying for a husband doesn’t mean that God can’t answer those prayers. Even if you barely dare speak them.  Part of why I’ve been so flummoxed in this process is I’m so aware of how much bigger God is than I can comprehend, and how much I don’t understand His ways or plans. He seems to ignore prayers we plead late into the night…and then bless us with things beyond what we would have though to ask for in the morning.  My prayer is that your experience of God blessing you with deep, fulfilling romantic happiness is just like that.  Beyond all I can ask for or imagine. Just because I can’t write it doesn’t mean God can’t do it. I think that’s helpful to know.