Writing Tip: Be Less Introspective

You write, presumably, because you have seen something in the world around you, and you want to show it to someone else. Why, then, do you spend so much of your writing time thinking about yourself? You’re there at your desk, trying to work out the next sentence, and before you know it, you’re thinking about yourself instead: your failures, your ego, your word-count goal. You speculate on how you’re going to feel when you make your goal. You get a jump-start on the self-loathing you’ll feel if you fall short. You wonder what people are going to think when they read what you’ve written. You wonder if anybody will even read it. You question whether anything you’ve ever written was actually good. You buck yourself up, remembering that, yes, you’ve written plenty of good pieces–brilliant pieces, in fact. Which makes you suspect that you’ve already used up all your brilliance. You think about your friend whose blog gets twice as many comments as yours, in spite of the fact that he can’t write his way out of a paper bag. Then you ponder Edgar Allen Poe, who died penniless and alone in a Baltimore gutter. It occurs to you that you’ll never write as well as Edgar Allen Poe. In short, it takes about 45 seconds to decide that you’re the piece of crap that the universe revolves around.

Just in the writing of this little post, I have experienced this self-absorption in many forms. I was going to knock it out and post it last Wednesday. Wednesday came, then Friday, and I still hadn’t sat down to write it. When Monday rolled around, I had officially missed my stated goal of posting once a week, and my teaching semester had started, so now I had something resembling an excuse, but also the nagging feeling that I was letting down the 140 people who had signed up for the Writers’ Consortium…and being a bad example too. But since my post was overdue, I would need to make it extra-brilliant–more brilliant than I felt I was up for…

Saint Augustine (among others) spoke of sin as incurvatus in se–a curving in on the self. This truth is nowhere more evident than in the neuroses and dysfunctions that so often accompany the act of writing. Self-absorption, self-consciousness, self-promotion, self-loathing, self-justification, self-doubt, self-aggrandizement–incurvatus in se.

Writing demands a certain amount of introspection. But introspection doesn’t have to become self-absorption. In my own writing life, I have found that writing can be a means toward blessed self-forgetfulness. As I get absorbed in a subject I’m writing about, find that I am freed from self-absorption–and I am able to do good work. When I stop asking “What will my reader think of me?” I start asking, “What will my reader think about this person or event or idea I’m writing about?” And good things start to happen. I don’t live in that place all the time. I don’t even live there most of the time. But I don’t get much good writing done when I’m not in that place.

In A Preface to Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis evoked the idea of incurvatus in se as he explained why Satan rebelled against God and lost his place in heaven: “in the midst of a world of light and love, of song and feast and dance, [Satan] could think of nothing more interesting than his own prestige.” I write because I live in a world that is full of wonders and I count it a privilege to point out a few of those wonders to a few of the people I share this world with. I write because I live in a world that’s a whole lot more interesting than my own prestige. And yet I am forever stalling out because instead of looking outward at this astonishing world, I look inward. Instead of wondering at the world, I wonder what the world is going to think of me.

So here’s my challenge to you, my writerly friend: be less introspective. Look outward at the world and at your reader, and leave yourself out of it. See what you see, and then write it down.  

 

 

Writers’ Consortium: The Goal Roundup

I’ve been looking over the goals articulated by the the 100+ writers who have joined the Further Up and Further In Writers’ Consortium. They’re pretty interesting. More than thirty of you hope to finish novels this year. About a dozen of you plan to write memoirs or family histories. A dozen of you are looking to write poems. A whole lot of you have committed to regular blogging (the Lord bless you and keep you…a blog is a hard master).

It was exhilarating to see what many of you hope to bring into the world: fiction for mentally handicapped high schoolers, a concept album based on GK Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, a book about gluttony. Some of you are writing to chronicle or memorialize or work through pain–the pain of cancer, the pain of a hard season of ministry, the pain of watching a mother disappear into Alzheimer’s.

Many of you stated your goals in terms of process rather than end product. You have committed to write every day, or once a week, or one Saturday every month. I admire you commitment to the work and your trust in the process, which can hardly help but yield good things.

I do get the sense that some of you view your process-driven goals as somehow humbler or less ambitious than the product-oriented goals–novels and memoirs and sonnet cycles. This is not true. Those writers with sexier goals will have to commit to the process too: they too will have to say, “I will write X hours on Y days of the week, starting at Z o’clock in the following location.” Those of you who have committed to big, product-oriented goals, take a cue from your process-oriented peers. I will soon be asking you to describe the very mundane routine that you are willing to commit to.

Having said that, I do have a couple of questions for those of you who have defined your goals in terms of process rather than product. First, if you backslide some day or week or month–and you almost certainly will–what can you put in place to ensure that you get your butt back in the chair the next day rather than giving up on your goal (which, technically, you have already failed to accomplish)? If your “Read through the Bible in a Year” plan has ever crashed and burned somewhere around Leviticus 2, you know what I’m talking about. Have a plan that balances no-excuses rigor with a willingness to extend to yourself the same kind of generosity and mercy that you would extend to anybody else you love.

Here’s my second question for those of you whose stated goals are entirely process-driven: are you sure you can get up and write every day (or every week or every month) without having a clear sense of the end product you’re writing toward? I only ask because I know I can’t. I can keep a very rigorous schedule if I’m finishing a chapter or an essay. But if I’m not pushing toward a clearly defined goal, I find the snooze button very tempting. I know there is real value in sitting down every day and keeping the pen moving to the rhythm of whatever is on your mind. Good things come out of that discipline. I’ve just never been able to do it with any consistency. 

So to recap, if you are able to commit to the process without an end product in mind–if you are able, as T.S. Eliot suggests, to “take no thought of the harvest,/ but only of proper sowing,” then good on you. Proceed with my blessing. But you also might find it helpful to commit to an end product. 

In writing, as in may facets of life, it’s important that you do do whatever works best for you–whatever keeps the pen moving across the page. But you should also be open to the possibility that you don’t know what works best for you. 

Next up: I reflect on your reactions to one another’s goals and ponder how we prevent the Further Up and Further In Writers’ Consortium from becoming a shame factory.

The Next Light Pole

I’ve taken up running in recent years, and it’s done me quite a lot of good. Besides feeling better physically, I have benefitted from knowing that I, an old dog, am still capable of learning new tricks. I’m not a natural runner; cultivating the discipline to do it has taught me lessons that have applied elsewhere in life, including my writing life. Here’s the most important thing I’ve learned from running: when I find myself miles from home and exhausted already, I’ve learned not to ask, “Can I run all the way home?” The truth is, I usually don’t know whether I can run all the way home. I have learned instead to ask, “Can I run to the next light pole?” The answer to that question is almost always “Yes.” And once I’ve made it to the light pole, I start thinking about the next light pole.

Of the few books I’ve read about how to write, my favorite by far is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. That book has done much to shape my day-to-day approach to writing. Lamott compares writing a book to driving at night. Your headlights don’t illuminate any farther than the next turning. But you keep going anyway, knowing that by the time you make that turn, your headlights will light the way to the next turn. And eventually you get where you set out to go.

Writing a book is a daunting task. Writing, like night-driving or distance running, requires a certain amount of faith. You set out for a destination without knowing exactly how you’re going to get there. For me, at least, it helps to remember that I don’t write books. I write sentences. A book is what you have after the fact. On any given day, I’m only writing pages. I’m only running to the next light pole.

Further Up and Further In: A Writers’ Consortium for 2015

Do you have a big writing goal for 2015? Do you want to write a novel? A memoir? A sonnet cycle? An opera? Do you find it difficult to know where to start or how to keep going? Further Up and Further In is a community of writers who have taken the (rather large) step of stating, “My writing goal for 2015 is ____________.” Throughout the year, we will offer each other encouragement, accountability, advice, and–hopefully–a growing conviction that the long journey of the writer is worth the effort. 

What should you expect from this consortium?

Good question. To some extent, we’ll be defining the process as we go along, depending on what members of the group need. At least once a week I will post a consortium-related article here at jonathan-rogers.com. That article may be about the writing process or about crafting better sentences; it may answer a question that has come up in the consortium that week; it may be a writing prompt. These articles will be part of my regular blog and will be available to anybody who visits the site. Some of the consortium discussion, however, will take place in a private Facebook group inhabited only by those who have joined the consortium. For instance, you will state your writing goals, your schedule, etc., in that private group, not on the public blog. Though I am the host of the gathering, much of the value of the consortium will derive from the members’ interaction with one another. Perhaps the most important function of this consortium is to provide a place for writers to say, “Here is my intention,” and to be taken seriously by people who have stated a similar intention.

What should you NOT expect from this consortium?

In Further Up and Further In, we will not be discussing publishing issues such as finding an agent, writing pitch letters, marketing, etc. There are many excellent Internet resources on these topics; I’m sure you can find them. This consortium is all about the writing process and writerly craft. Also, while critique is a vitally important part of becoming a better writer, we won’t be critiquing one another’s work in this consortium. I ask that everyone refrain from posting excerpts from works-in-progress on the blog or in the Facebook group. I imagine that some of you will choose to share your work with one another. Please do so via direct communication–private messaging, email, etc.

How to join Further Up and Further In

To join our writers’ consortium, fill out this short form. It simply asks for your name, your email address, and a few details about your 2015 writing goal. I will add you to the private Facebook group, and the next time you begin to doubt that you are a “real writer,” you can remind yourself that you are a full member of a writer’s consortium.

Seeing What You See

Originality may be the most overrated of the writerly virtues. Much more important is the skill of seeing what’s in front of you and rendering it faithfully. The world is a varied place; every person in it is a miracle; every setting is unusual; every event, every encounter is a thing that has never happened in the long history of the world. On top of all that variety is the fact that every observer’s vision is unique. If you will allow yourself to see what you see, and then write what you have seen, you can be sure that originality will take care of itself.

That’s not an easy thing to do. Few people write what they have seen. More often, they write what they think they ought to have seen, or they shoehorn experiences and people into familiar categories. It’s a hard habit to break; categorizing and sorting the firehose-blast of experiences and ideas that come our way is a necessary survival skill. But writing is different. Writing is a chance to release experience from man-made categories and say, “Look at this—this thing that exists in the real world.” Writing comes alive when you do that. Oddly enough, faithful imitation is the front door to originality.

I gave a version of this speech to a creative writing class last week. Before I was even finished, one of my students raised her hand. “That’s fine,” she said, “but I went to a high school where everybody actually did fit the stereotypes. There were the jocks, the nerdy kids, the farm boys, the Goth kids . . .” I told her I found it hard to believe that her schoolmates, taken one at a time, fit those stereotypes any better than she did herself. But she was insistent. “The whole town,” she said, “it was like any other stereotypical farm town in Montana.”

I challenged her on that one too. “Tell us about your town,” I said. “Help us understand what’s so stereotypical about it.”

“Think about any farm town,” she said. “Everybody drives around in muddy farm trucks.” We nodded. That did sound maybe a little bit stereotypical. “And at Christmas, everybody goes to the grocery store to drink apple cider and sing Christmas carols.”

“You do what at Christmas?” somebody asked.

“We go to the grocery store to drink apple cider and sing Christmas carols. Like any other small town.” She was astonished to learn that nobody in the room (except for a classmate who happened to be from a town fifteen miles away from her) had ever heard of such a thing. It soon came out that those stereotypical classmates of hers often rode horses to school, and that her stereotypical principal took care of the horses during the school day.

All that to say, there is no such thing as a stereotypical high school or small town or farmer or principal. No stereotype or category can stand against the concrete reality of specific details. This young woman thought she lived in a stereotypical town when in fact she lived in a town where the locals gather at the grocery store to sing Christmas carols, where the high school principal doubles as an hostler.

Writing what you see means, among other things, paying attention to the detail that you couldn’t have known about if you hadn’t been there. I’ve got some ideas about what life in small-town Montana is like, but I wouldn’t have guessed the grocery store hymn sing or the high school horse corrals.

In one of my online writing classes, a Floridian wrote about the morning she woke up to see snow in her yard—the only time she had seen snow in her life. It wasn’t a bad piece of writing. All the sentences were good, each paragraph hung together, there were some good similes and metaphors to liven things up. But something was missing, and it took me a minute to put my finger on it. The problem was this: her story read exactly like it would have read if you or I had written a story about a little girl in Florida who sees snow for the first time. Everything you would expect was there, from her looking out the window and not believing her eyes, to the annoying little brother hitting her in the back of the head with a snowball, then smirking and ducking behind a tree. But I find it impossible to believe that nothing happened on that day that I couldn’t have predicted. I can’t even predict what’s going to happen in Florida on a regular day—but a snow day?

A week or two later, the same writer wrote a piece about watching a lizard shed its skin. She simply told what she saw, and the result was mesmerizing: “Twisting his head as far right as it would go, he grabbed a piece of his skin and pulled it away. It tore with a sound like tissue paper. His jaw moved up and down as he chewed and swallowed. Then he turned his head left, pulled off another section of skin, and swallowed it.” A couple of paragraphs later, the lizard startles and dashes away: “He leaped off the ledge of the porch and into the garden below. A few pieces of skin flew off as he did, but the rest of it stayed on his back as he disappeared into the grass.”

That writing is fresh, vivid, sensory. It invites me to experience something I’ve never experienced before. It had never occurred to me that a lizard pulling off his old skin would make a sound like tissue paper. The flakes of skin flying off as the lizard jumps from the porch—who would have guessed that? And yet it makes perfect sense: of course that’s what would happen. But you would only know it if you had been there.

That description of the lizard strikes me as highly original. But that originality doesn’t derive from a flight of fancy, or an exercise of imagination. It came from a writer paying attention to the world around her and telling us what she saw.

The Return of the Wilderking

There is a moment in Chapter 4 of The Bark of the Bog Owl that makes me cringe a little bit. Aidan and Dobro have gotten mixed up with a panther, which “bared its fangs and wailed a deep rumbling moan that became a piercing scream.” It’s not a bad description, but it’s not what I wrote. The panther wasn’t supposed to wail. Panthers waul. It’s the perfect verb for what panthers do. But a well-meaning editor at B&H Publishing Group changed waul to wail (just as my computer’s auto-correct did just now), and I didn’t notice until after the book was published. So since 2004 that poor panther has been going against his own nature, wailing instead of wauling for nine years.
I have good news for the panther. The rights to the Wilderking Trilogy reverted to me last year after a period in which the books were effectively (though not technically) out of print. The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking are coming back with a new publisher: Rabbit Room Press. And I have been able to fix some of the little things that have been bothering me about the published versions. The new and improved paperback versions of the three books will be officially release on April 1. And in the Rabbit Room edition the panther wauls (though–spoiler alert–he still doesn’t survive Chapter 4).

I am thankful for B&H’s support of the Wilderking in years past; I long ago recovered from the shock of having a B&H salesman suggest that I make Dobro Turtlebane a girl (girls read far more than boys, he reasoned, and they needed a character to relate to). Still, bringing Aidan and Dobro and them to the Rabbit Room Press feels like a kind of homecoming.

You don’t have to wait until April, however. Preorder now at the Rabbit Room store, and you’ll get your books in early March. Just as importantly, preorders will make it possible for us print more books in the initial print run, reducing printing costs significantly. Click here for the Rabbit Room store. Order all three Wilderking books to save 10%.

Feechie of the Week–Peanut Trull

I’ve been seeing a lot of stories recently about hunters taking huge alligators, especially in Alabama and Georgia, but this one, sent in by Christie Mulkey of Texas, seemed especially noteworthy. Peanut Trull of Leslie, Georgia (that’s just around the corner from Jimmy Carter’s hometown of Plains) captured a 12-foot alligator and, along with a hunting guide, tied the thing to a boat trailer, alive. Said the guide, “We tied him down what we thought was good enough. It wasn’t good enough. He would go to kicking and break everything that we tied him to. Break the tape. Pull the ropes loose. It took us two and a half hours to get him tied down.”
It is also worth noting that Peanut’s girlfriend was along for the hunt, which is one of the most romantic things I’ve ever heard. She also got an alligator tag in the DNR lottery, so the two feechie lovebirds will be going on another outing later this month. Below is the news report, which shows Peanut and the guide and the alligator (still alive, I think) but, alas, does not show Peanut’s girlfriend.

(If you prefer to read the story, here is the link. ).

Sunday School Shooting

lamb

lamb

Last week my friend John was teaching Psalm 23 in preschool Sunday school–or trying to, anyway. A couple of the boys in the class had made guns out of Legos and were shooting the place up.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” John read.

Pow! Pow! Pyoing!

“He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside the still waters…”

Bang! Rat-a-tat-a-tat-a! Pow!

It wasn’t going so well. Things had reached the point where I would have snatched the Lego guns out of the boys’ grubby fists and made them sit on their hands while I gave them an earful of the peace of God. But John, as it turns out, is a wiser sort of Sunday school teacher. He looked at the gunmen and said, “I’ll tell you what. We’re going to be sheep. You’re going to be the shepherds. I want you to use those guns to protect us from any wolves or lions that might be a danger to us.”

The boys couldn’t believe their good fortune. John and the other students got down on all fours and foraged around the Sunday school room while the two boys with the Lego guns secured the perimeter, blazing away at wolves and lions and sheep rustlers. That done, the boys led the sheep to green pastures and still waters.

The Scandal of Grace

ice cream

ice cream

A while back I gave the keynote address at the induction ceremony of the Houston County (GA) Educators’ Hall of Fame. Here’s part of that speech…
I once had an ice cream cone with the school bully—a fifth-grader named Jay. I don’t remember how this came to pass exactly—maybe he and I just happened to be at the ice cream shop at the same time. But I remember that he and I and another boy ate our ice cream cones outside, in the grimy hindparts of a shopping center, among the dumpsters and discarded pallets. And I remember Jay swiping the last crumbs of the cone off his hands, then balling up his hard little fist and punching me right below my left eye. I remember the hot shame that burned on my face as I pelted home as fast as my bike would take me.

When my parents asked about the hurt place below my eye, I made something up rather than tell them what really happened. I think I wanted to protect them–didn’t want them to know what a mean world they had brought me into.

But I had a very special teacher that fourth-grade year—Mrs. Romero, a beautiful Cuban woman, so kind and generous-hearted that every kid in the class believed himself to be her favorite. In my case, of course, it was true. She was exactly the sort of person you could give your troubles to.

I didn’t give my troubles to my teacher, however, and she didn’t give me comfort. She gave me something much more important—something I didn’t even want.

Field Day at Miller Elementary fell a week or two after my ice cream outing with Jay. When the fifth-grade sprinters lined up to run the hundred-yard dash, my stomach churned at the sight of Jay taking his place. My loathing was magnified by the knowledge that Jay would probably win. The whistle blew, the boys bolted from the starting line, and my heart sank as Jay pulled into the lead like some sort of flying rooster.

Above the shouts and squeals of children came a delicious Cuban trill: “Rrrrun, Jay, rrrrun!” Jay heard Mrs. Romero’s encouragement. The intent look on his face spread into a grin, and he ran faster, beating his nearest competitor by many yards.

I glared at Mrs. Romero in hurt astonishment. Did she even know what kind of delinquent she was encouraging? If she had any idea what Jay had done to me, her favorite student, she wouldn’t have been so friendly. It was undignified—it was scandalous—for a grown woman to be yelling like that for a little criminal.

But, of course, she knew and understood much more about Jay than I did. She understood that he was still a boy, that his course didn’t have to be set just yet. And she understood how badly a fatherless boy needs for somebody—anybody—to delight in him.

The root of the word ‘educate,’ as I’m sure you know, means literally to lead forth or to draw out. Mrs. Romero drew something out of Jay that day. I had never seen what could happen to his face when he believed that somebody felt he was worth something. I had seen smirks and sneers and the occasional wicked grin on Jay’s face. But I had never seen happiness.

Mrs. Romero drew something out of me too, though she didn’t know it. Quite by accident—just by doing her job incredibly well—she brought an ugly self-righteousness out into the open where I could get a good look at it. She was an agent of grace that day—for me no less than Jay. She showed me that there is a wideness in God’s mercy that is wider than the sea.

I don’t think of Jay very often, but when I do, I try to remember not the beady-eyed sinner behind the ice cream shop, but the Field Day runner taking a boyish joy in the delight of a woman who loved him in spite of all.

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