What summer writing looks like

Guest post this week on Writers Who Care!

It’s late summer and all is quiet on the seminary front. United Lutheran Seminary is now a reality, not a plan, but for me that just meant that no courses were offered this summer. So, a break.

But quiet on the work and seminary front means things go noisy and active on the home front!  Summer is all about my kids and about remembering how to be a person; though I do also work through the summer, I try to pretend like I don’t.

And of course, since I’m me, writing is happening. Over on Writers Who Care you can find out what my kids and I are writing this summer– and what we’re not!

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Writing is hard

Writing is hard. That’s it; that’s the main secret I have learned in my 20 years as a writing teacher and writing researcher.

Wait, you knew that already? Of course you did. Anyone who has ever written has felt writing’s difficulty. Sometimes it’s starting at the blank page or screen, not knowing how to begin. Other times it’s sitting stuck in the middle of a sentence or a paragraph, reaching for a word that doesn’t come. Or it’s writing oneself halfway into an argument that suddenly, somewhere in the middle, breaks down. Or it’s sharing writing with a reader and finding, painfully, that you have not made yourself clear, or—more often—hesitating fearfully before sharing with a reader, or before writing at all, for fear of criticism.

Writing is filled with hard moments. Even the most skilled writers find it difficult. But the best and most prolific writers have something that many others don’t: the hard moments don’t stop them. They know that if they can face the hard moments, the moments will pass—and the bad feelings of those moments, the shame and fear and worry— will pass too. They also have a repertoire of strategies for getting through those hard moments productively: routines for settling down and getting to work, strategies for drafting and revising, and skills for eliciting helpful feedback from others and for processing the feedback they receive.

In school, however, we often pretend writing is easy, or that it should be. “OK, write for ten minutes,” we say, and we expect people simply to begin. Or we hand out prompts, and days or weeks later, we collect pieces of writing. These practices hide the difficulty of writing in ways that writers take personally. When writers struggle, they end up feeling they are doing so alone. They look around, see other students seemingly doing fine, and then they take their own difficulty as a sign that they’re doing it wrong, or worse, that they simply aren’t good writers.

Better to open up the difficulty of writing, to name its hard moments and explicitly teach how to get through those moments.

For example, when asking students to quickwrite, I do so too. As I begin, I speak aloud my feelings and what I am doing about those feelings. “Starting can be hard; I always worry my ideas will be stupid. But usually if I can just begin with something, even something stupid, I’ll get through it and it comes out OK,” I explain. And then I write with the class, in my own notebook or on the overhead screen, thinking aloud as I do it: “I’m not sure where to start,” I’ll say, “so first I’m just listing a couple of

words that come to mind… oh, ok, I like this one. Now I’m just going to write down what comes to my mind.”

Or when sending students off to write at home, I preview some of the hard moments that might come. “Here’s what I do when I find I’m procrastinating.” “Here’s what I do when I’m stuck on the first sentence.” “Here’s what I do when I find I keep switching over to Facebook when I should be writing.” “Here’s what I do when my sentences seem aimless.”

(And the main thing I do, in all of those hard moments: Take a deep breath. Write a little anyway. Cut myself some slack.)

Once we acknowledge that writing is hard, we can do something about it. We can tell ourselves helpful things, encourage ourselves to go on trying. If writing is hard for you at moments, you’re doing it right, not wrong.

“Yes, are you finding this difficult?” I ask. “ Oh good! You’re doing it right. It’s not hard because you’re stupid, or not a good writer, or in the wrong class—it’s hard because it’s hard.” Just this reassurance is often enough to get writers going. Bodies relax, shoulders descend, and jaws unclench. A few quick smiles silently say Yes, that is what I was thinking.

Our society tends to deny negative emotions, and I’m no different. As I circulate through my classroom during writing time, I sometimes catch myself turning away from a student who is struggling, as if to give him/her some privacy. I don’t want to embarrass a writer by calling attention to the problem, and so I walk by, thinking I’ll return in a moment after he’s had a chance to get started or after I see she at least has a few words down.

But on a good day, I can do better. Different hard moments call for different responses, but I am convinced that encountering another human being in a hard moment demands at least some response, even if it’s simply to stand beside the one who is struggling.

Sometimes I offer a strategy: like when the words simply do not come, and I feel stuck at a blank page, I roll my chair away form the desk, face another direction, and tell it to the wall. Literally. I talk to the wall. Or when the critical voices in my head get too loud, and I can’t write without hearing them judging every line, I sometimes start a new document and begin as if it’s a letter. Dear (name), I begin, writing to someone who will love anything I do, warts and all. Later I can change it back to the real audience. These strategies may not be groundbreaking, but to students they often feel as if they are: the teacher is recognizing and responding to the feelings of writing. Simply acknowledging that there are feelings, and that they are normal, is often enough.

On making time to pray like I make time to write (when there isn’t any)

It’s in the courses I teach, in the workshops I lead, in my advising of grad students, in the writing groups I facilitate or those in which I just get to participate: set aside time for writing.

“But I can’t get started.” Well, have you started? As in, opened a document and typed some words– any words into it?

“But my ideas aren’t ready.” Writing helps ready them.

“But I worry how readers will react to my writing.” Well, they’ll never react at all until you write something at all.

“But I don’t have enough time.” It’s true. You don’t.

We don’t have enough time to do every single thing we want to do, should do, mean to do. We don’t. Usually in life I try to focus on abundance. Most things we think are scarce really aren’t– there’s enough success to go around. There’s enough love to go around. There’s even usually enough money to go around, if we can work on what we mean by “enough.” But truly, there’s not enough time. Not for everything.

When I turned 35, I cried and cried. Not because I felt particularly old– at 35 I was happier than I’d ever been before, and it’s gotten better from there– but because I really was too old, objectively, for certain things. I heard that 35 was the max age to enter astronaut training. This made me sob (though I’ve since read here that it isn’t true). That door was closed! Also, I was not going to become Olympic material in any sport. Yes, I know, there are (and were) Olympians over 35, or over my age now of 43, but let’s face it: nobody starts a sport at 35 or 43 and gets Olympic good at it. And I haven’t even been getting to the gym! Time passes, and it’s one resource that does run out. So, the notion of “making time” for writing or anything else only gets you so far. We’re in these bodies, and limited in space in time.

Which is why I tell writers: make an appointment. Write down when you’ll be writing. Write it in your calendar like an appointment, and label it “writing appointment.” And then take the appointment as seriously as you take one with the dentist– you show up! They’ll charge you if you don’t!

“But I have to…[prep my courses, do grading, clean my house, catch up on email]” Ok. Do those sometime that isn’t on top of this appointment. Take yourself and your own time and goals as seriously as you take your dentist’s.pexels-photo-273166

I love how Melissa Febos puts the question in this essay: Do you want to be known for your writing, or for your swift email responses? Do the things that are important to you, including answering email if that is. But keep appointments with yourself for what’s also important to you but less urgent.

All of this is to say that I ought to know how to make time for things that I deem important. I have been making time– ok, more accurately, dedicating some of the limited time I have– for writing for these eleven years, having babies and doing laundry and all the rest while writing. I’m good at this!

Which is why I struggle so much with prayer time.

I’m forever setting new plans as to when I will pray, how much, or in what manner. Sometimes it’s about better quality or different quality, but it’s always also about simply putting in the time. I do put it in, with some regularity, but things creep in to block it. And of course I pray other times, when the mood hits or over meals or in moments through the day. But I won’t lie to myself: consistent, intentional time in some quantity really does matter. As my own pastor has reminded me many times, if I want to know a person better, or love them more, I spend more time with them. The knowing and loving grows from that shared time. So, if I want to know God better, or love God better, why would I expect that to happen without spending time with God?

I’ve used some tools along the way that have increased my prayer time, making it more like an appointment. One I love is the Common Prayer app. For a while I thought I would follow the Muslim prayer times, which would combine set-time prayer with the variability of following the season/sun as they do (I never got around to that one- yet). My Muslim students use apps for this. This Examen app is good too.

But it’s not about an app, is it? It’s about me doing it.

This Lent my intentional practice has been adding prayer time. My scheme was to pray upon arrival in my office, the only quiet place I go with a door that shuts. (Seriously. I have two kids. There is NO OTHER PLACE.) I set down my bags, lay my computer on my desk, but before I open it, I set my phone alarm for 20 minutes. I close my eyes and spend that time in quiet prayer.  (Yes, sometimes I peek at the phone to see how much time is left. I am a work in progress.)

Then I eat two pieces of chocolate. I do this because I read in The Power of Habit  that rewards– immediate, sensory rewards– work well to initiate new habits even when the reason for setting the habit (knowing God, better health, etc.) is intrinsic and well known. Basically, I’m trying to train myself like a dog.

(At least that’s why I eat one piece of chocolate. Also, I like the idea of me and Jesus, hanging out in my office, eating chocolate at 9 in the morning. And, since he’s not hungry, at least in the bodily sense, I eat his piece too.)

It’s working, sort of. But sometimes not. Sometimes I run into someone in the hall on the way in, then walk in my office already working in my head on whatever we spoke about. Sometimes I run late with my kids in the morning, arrive at the office later in the day, and the next meeting is starting.

Sometimes I just don’t do it. I skip the appointment. So here I am saying, can I take God’s time (and my own one life God gave me) as seriously as I take a dentist’s appointment?

Melissa Febos asks, “Do you want to be known for your writing, or for your swift email responses?” I’m asking myself, “Do I want to be known (to God) for my love and my time– or for all the crap I got done in the office?”

Shine your light

Matthew 5:14–16

14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

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What does it mean to be a light?  How good do I have to be? How shiny?

In elementary school and even through my teen years, I was the kid of kid who liked to do everything right.  I liked right answers, neat arrangements, perfect performances, first prizes.  Needless to say, I was a pretty unhappy kid most of the time. The irony is that the more flawless we try to be, the more self-conscious we become and the more mistakes we make. Nobody can thrive when they’re consumed with frantically trying not to fail. I sure couldn’t.

Then there was the other side of the problem: when I did do right, when I did win first prize, or get 100 on a test, or do something well that others had struggled with, I worried about being liked.  “I hate you,” another kid would say as the teacher handed me my perfect spelling test. “Come on, you make us look bad,” a coworker remarked.” “She’s so arrogant,” a colleague said when she thought I couldn’t hear. These hurtful words made me try NOT to excel. Slowly but surely, I began to hold back, covering who I was and what I could do. It seemed like the price to be paid to avoid rejection.

And then there’s Jesus: “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works….” This passage always irritated me.  First, there’s the part about “good works.” How many times had I been told that it was all about grace, not works?  Now here Jesus himself is telling me to do good works after all?  That didn’t sound like Jesus to me.

Hearing this passage, I felt (as I once heard a pastor in Texas put it) “danged if I do, danged if I don’t.” If I tried to do my best, I would fail, and therefore fail to make “good works” for those others to see.  And if I didn’t fail, I would surely end up lonely, and who would see the good works then?

After years of torturing myself with this line of thinking, I’m grateful to God for helping me finally to read these words in another way.  I have come to believe that it’s not a perfect performance, not really the works in “good works,” that Jesus asks of us here. It’s the light.  If we are the light of the world, it’s because God ignited the light. And in each of us, God has ignited a different, unique and burning light. God asks that we not hide that—not behind false modesty, not behind embarrassment, not behind a need to look perfect, not behind fear of failure. Being the light of the world is not about us being perfect. It’s about us being…us.  It’s us being who we are, the best of how we were made, revealing and using God’s gifts in the fullest way possible, even when we risk failure. Perhaps especially when we risk failure, because it’s in moments of failure that we find the best opportunities to show grace (God’s grace!) to others and to ourselves.

So I try not to ask myself, “how well did I do?” or, worse, “do they like me?” I try instead to ask, “Did I shine my light?” and trust that the light God ignites is a bright one indeed.

Saved from What?

Driving on the highways of Texas and New Mexico, the neon crosses and stark billboards would loom in the distance for miles before you could read them: “Jesus Saves.”

Or in the street, at a park, or at a public event, a stranger with a handful of tracts might ask, “Are you saved?”

For most of my life, and especially in my years away from the church, my internal reply has been “saved from WHAT?”  From burning in hell, which is what the people asking seemed to be asking about?  I was pretty sure I didn’t believe in hell, or at least in a hell that was a place, with fire, and maybe a devil in a red suit.  Those seemed like bogeyman stories to me. They seemed like things TV preachers warned about, or (on the more cultured end of the spectrum) things Dante wrote about. I’ve never been scared of hell. Concerns about the afterlife are not why I’m a Christian.

So as an adult, even as I have grown to love Jesus and know him more and more, the idea that he was saving me has always seemed a bit abstract.  I have problems, yes, but am I in danger that he must rescue me?  I sin, no doubt, but somehow I’ve never been afraid of ending up in hell; I believed it when Jesus said that he loved me and redeemed me.  

But in truth, there are many, daily times I need saving, times I long for rescue from something. I long for rescue from my own bad moods. From my pessimism. From my incessant judgment of myself and, consequently, of others. From racing thoughts. From persistent, needling worry. From that “stuck” feeling I get– stuck in a situation, or with a person, or with a problem. Stuck with my same old self doing the same old patterns. Times when it seems nothing I do will make a difference. Overwhelmed, I long for rescue.

That’s how Jesus saves me. He swoops in to be with me when I’m really not fit to be with. He lifts me out of my own head. He lets me glimpse here and there how God sees things, restoring some perspective. He accompanies me through the bad moments until I’m unstuck.

I have no doubt that Jesus also saves me in the afterlife. Through Jesus we will have eternal life. But we also have life NOW through Jesus as he saves us NOW from the hells we make for ourselves. It is as Psalm 23 says: “He restores my soul.” And it is also as that same Psalm says: he restores it “all the days of my life”, not just after it has ended.

 

 

Photo credit:

By David Shankbone (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Fairest, Beautiful

The first hymn I ever loved was “Fairest Lord Jesus,” in our hymnal as “Beautiful Savior” (ELW 838).

Having not been raised in the church, then coming home from summer camp wanting to find out everything I could about God, I listened to the Christian radio station in Houston. Mixed in there with a lot of very bad theology and political discourse was a lot of great 1980s “Contemporary Christian” music—some of it terrific, some truly awful—covering the whole range of 80s sounds from synthesizers, to fake rock and roll, to the truly grandiose. One day, cutting through all that noise like a laser, I heard this simple hymn. It was performed a capella, without instruments, starting with a single voice and then layering on part after part in a way that made my ears tingle. It was like musical glitter, sparkling and lovely.

I knew about Jesus the baby, Jesus the mighty, Jesus the mysterious, Jesus the dead-then-alive. To that point, my attraction to Jesus had been to the idea of Jesus.  It was about his teachings, his importance, the necessity of Jesus.

keplers_supernovaBut THIS was a different Jesus. Jesus the beautiful. Jesus in the meadows and woodlands; Jesus in a shining sky.  Beautiful Jesus. The Fairest.  The song, and the Jesus in the song, cut right through my brain, through all that thinking and reasoning I had been doing, and got into my musical heart. Thinking about Jesus was good, but through this song I started to feel Jesus.

Beautiful Savior, delight us with your starlight and moonlight. Shine on the meadows and woodlands, and on us.  Drizzle your beauty all over us like musical glitter. Let your love enter our brains, our ears and our hearts. Amen.

Photo by NASA/ESA/JHU/R.Sankrit & W.Blair [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

On showing up: Advice to preacher-writers

News flash: preaching involves writing.

I study writing, and I have studied the writing that preachers do, and I am here to tell you: writing is a huge part of preaching. And writing is really, really difficult.

The most difficult thing about writing isn’t always anything in the writing, it’s actually just doing the writing at all. Forcing yourself to do it.  If you don’t believe me, go visit any dissertating doctoral student’s apartment and witness the piles of clean laundry, the baking, and the art projects.  Anything other than writing. Or, for a certain group of pastors, visit on Friday morning and see a house that’s been cleaned, an office that’s been organized, a well-weeded garden— and an open laptop somewhere with Facebook open instead of a sermon.

Most books about preaching focus more on the content of sermons than on how they’re made. Three-point, law-and-gospel, topical– ok, but how to get from the empty page to one of those? What writing processes? What practices— not just reading practices, but writing practices– lead you there?

Which is why someone might pick up a book like 8 Hours or Less: Writing Better Sermons Faster by Ryan Huguley (Moody, coming out in May 2017). It’s a prescription about workflow: do this on Monday, do this on Tuesday. If you like direction, you’ll understand why this book could be attractive.

Here’s what Huguley misses, though: the reason why writing is so hard is that it requires honesty and attention in the moment of invention. And that is a moment requiring so much bravery that many of us would rather do anything (even weed a garden!) rather than face it.

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Anyone who has ever written has felt writing’s difficulty. Sometimes it’s starting at the blank page or screen, not knowing how to begin. Other times it’s sitting stuck in the middle of a sentence or a paragraph, reaching for a word that doesn’t come. Or it’s writing oneself halfway into an argument that suddenly, somewhere in the middle, breaks down. Or it’s sharing writing with a reader and finding, painfully, that you have not made yourself clear, or—more often—hesitating fearfully before sharing with a reader, or before writing at all, for fear of criticism.

In preaching, it’s hearing in the Gospel story the story of some situation with some parishioner, but not feeling you can speak to that too directly. It’s feeling the week’s text resonate with some aspect of your own life, but feeling (or, in some cases, knowing) that the congregation isn’t ready for that story right now, or that you’re not ready to tell it. Or it’s being tired, so tired, and discouraged, and not feeling the joy in preparing to preach that you used to feel. And it’s feeling guilty about that. None of that is conducive to writing fluently, or well.

Huguley’s book touches none of that. It just gives orders, assigning writing tasks to its reader on a schedule. An eight-hour schedule. Scheduling is really important, but for this advice to be helpful it has to speak to why the reader hasn’t taken the advice already.

So, here are some alternative resources, resources that point to the real difficulty in writing for preaching: this powerful list of Resources on Preaching for Women from the Junia Project, which includes more attention to craft than I’m used to seeing. No easy answers there.

And there’s the set of ideas that comes from seeing yourself as a writer, and then attending to doing the things writers do.  Is there one right way? No. These astoundingly interesting portraits of writers’ processes at Brainpickings show how there is not.

But they do show one thing that all writers know and must do. And it is the one thing that all the pastors in my study of writing for preaching must do, too– at least, if they want a day off before Sunday rolls back around, as it inevitably does.

It’s showing up.

Just showing up for the writing. Like you show up for a dentist appointment even though you don’t really “feel in the mood” to have metal pokers jabbing into your teeth. Like you show up to pick up your kids even though you were in the middle of something when it was time to go. You have to show up.  We can talk all day long about what to do once you’ve started writing, but the real truth is that most of us are saying we have writing problems when our real problem is that we didn’t even show up.  Didn’t sit at the desk, didn’t open the document, didn’t start typing.

recite-1otdi31Preachers, can you show up for writing sermons the way you hope parishioners will show up to hear them? You hope they’ll show up on time. You hope they’ll show up even when they’re not really in the mood. You hope they’ll show up even if they’re tired, and even if their laundry’s not done. You hope they’ll show up with open hearts, with ears that hear and minds that consider. You hope they’ll show up like this because you know that there’s something just for them in the Gospel, no matter how bad your sermon turns out.

Can you show up for your preaching in the same way?  Come on time, be awake, ignore the laundry, forget whether you’re in the mood. Just show up and start writing. There is something in the Gospel for you.  If you show up.