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Writing For Your Life Today

Have a Checklist

It can be helpful to have a checklist, particularly once you’re in the middle, most engaged stage of work. The middle is often a muddle, and if you have some simple list of things to do or check, that can help you keep moving. For instance, if you’re stuck in the middle stage of a short story, go back to one of your basic guides for short story writing. Go through the aspects of the craft-viewpoint, character, description and so forth. Use the guide to help you step back from the work and run a basic check on it. For me, working on a novel’s timeline can help me get unstuck. I spend an afternoon with a large sketchpad, outlining what happens when. That nearly always opens up the process for me in a fresh way.

 

– from “The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life” by Vinita Hampton Wright Loyola Press

 

 

A character who has a passionate desire

In Art in the Zen of Writing, Ray Bradbury says that all you really need for a story is a character who has a passionate desire. The character and the desire will generate the plot. So one of the first things I do is figure out what each character’s driving desire is, and I’ll freewrite on that. 

– from “The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life” by Vinita Hampton Wright Loyola Press

 

 

A Christian artist

Why is it that I, who have spent my life writing, struggling to be a better artist, and struggling also to be a better Christian, should feel rebellious when I am called a Christian artist? Why should I feel reluctant to think or write about Christian creativity?

 

It’s more than just that I feel the presumption of someone like me – wife, grandmother, storyteller – attempting such a task. I wouldn’t even consider it had I not already struggled with it in talks which Mel Lorentzen, Bea Batson, and others in the English department at Wheaton College have pulled out of me. It was some of these faltering lectures which caused Luci and Harold Shaw to ask me to expand my thoughts into a book. And then came Ayia Napa.

 

Probably it was Ayia Napa that clinched it. When Dr. Marion van Horne asked me to come to Ayia Napa, in Cyprus for two weeks, how could I resist? I love to travel. My brief trip several years ago to Greece and the Greek islands made me love the incredible blue and gold air of this land where Apollo drove his chariot across the sky, where John brought the mother of Jesus, where Pythagorus walked on the beach, and where Paul preached a message of love even more brilliant than the sun.

 

Who could resist a trip to Cyprus? To teach at a conference on literature and literacy for delegates from twenty-two underdeveloped and developing countries all over the word, delegates whose only common denominator was Christianity – every denomination and brand and variety of Christianity. And what was I being asked to lecture about? The Christian artist. 

 

from “Walking on Water” by Madeleine L’Engle

 

 

I miss a lot

The fact that we need so much help understanding what we are looking at is a lesson in itself. How often do we assume that we know what we are seeing when we see other people practicing their faith? Once, after I published a short essay on the way quantum entanglement (which Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”) illumined the concept of divine union, I received a curt letter from a theoretical physicist. “It is not enough for you to think you know what physicists mean when they say something,” he wrote. “You need to know what they think they mean when they say it.”

 

I have never forgotten this cogent reprimand, which has served me in a great variety of situations. When I think I see a Buddhist worshipping a statue of the Buddha, I yield to the Buddhist when he tells me that he is not worshipping the Buddha but honoring the Buddha’s example. When I think I see a Muslim woman constrained by her headscarf, I listen when she tells me how hard she fought to wear it against her family’s wishes. As natural as it may be to try to translate everything into my own religious language, I miss a lot when I persist in reducing everything to my own frame of reference. 

 

– from “Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others” by Barbara Brown Taylor – HarperOne

 

 

Figure Eights

I picture the creative process traveling the figure eight curves of an infinity sign. We begin in the world, where a travel adventure or newspaper headline or grave illness or moral conundrum sets the mind’s gears grinding. Quickly the work moves inward to the incubating privacy of a journal or notebook. We remember; we research; we imagine. We gather thoughts. Eventually words amass on the page. Sometimes they seem golden, sometimes lackluster. Always they’re fragile, raw, and embarrassingly self-centered—rightly so, since mucking around is necessary before anything truthful or timeless can appear. Our private writing is therapeutic and transformative.

Slowly, gradually, we massage the words, granting them sequence and shape. We develop characters and ideas until they acquire some spark. We dig under and around and within our scenes, struggling to present them in the clearest, most honest light. But words are not simply a means of self-expression; they communicate, they bridge one soul to another, one culture to another, one era to another. Eventually we emerge from our protected space to consider an audience. When we want the heart of our story to connect to the heart of a reader, or if we want our story to have artistic merit, we open the transformative process to others through our literary choices. A first draft is always skin-deep, whereas revision digs in. Hearts reside in the hidden fathoms of the body. True beauty is both within and without, in striking balance.

Finally our work travels that figure-eight path out into the light. Revision transforms an interior monologue into a spirited dialogue. Our language grows considered and considerate. Rather than imagining some monolithic audience as I write, I try to picture myself and my work moving toward full participation in community. Community holds us accountable. The possibility of a reading community invites us into artistic practice, because what makes writing artful is a hospitable, compassionate, challenging connection with others. This isn’t about pandering to a market; it’s about forming genuine relationships. This is why Nathaniel Hawthorne called writing an “intercourse with the world.” Conversing through print requires skill and hard work—well-constructed scenes and characters, developed themes, clear organization, intentional pacing, a strong voice, correct grammar, clean mechanics. With maturation, the work can interact independently with others; it can land back at community, where all spiritual journeys arrive.

 

from “Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice” by @Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew @Skinner House

Good Habits: Whatever Happens

 

 

And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

—Romans 5:3–5

 

Divine love designed us with the capacity to develop character out of whatever happens to us. The teachings of parents and church have played a role in the kind of people we have become. But let’s not discount all the “stuff that shouldn’t have happened”—the trials and problems we have suffered and worked through year after year.

 

Holy Spirit, I remember going through [blank]. Help me linger with that memory. Open my eyes and heart to whatever growth or wisdom developed in me during that time.

 

from “small simple ways: an Ignatian daybook for healthy spiritual living” by Vinita Hampton Wright, Loyola Press

Freedom

Putting a book together is interesting and exhilarating. It is sufficiently difficult and complex that it engages all your intelligence. It is life at its most free. Your freedom as a writer is not freedom of expression in the sense of wild blurting; you may not let rip. It is life at its most free, if you are fortunate enough to be able to try it, because you select your materials, invent your task, and pace yourself. In the democracies, you may even write and publish anything you please about any governments or institutions, even if what you write is demonstrably false.

The obverse of this freedom, of course, is that your work is so meaningless, so fully for yourself alone, and so worthless, that no one except you cares whether you do it well, or ever. You are free to make several thousand close judgement calls a day. Your freedom is a by-product of your days’ triviality. A shoe salesman – who is doing others’ tasks, who must answer to two or three bosses, who must do his job their way, and must put himself in their hands, at their place, during their hours – is nevertheless working usefully. Further, if the shoe salesman fails to appear one morning, someone will notice and miss him. Your manuscript, on which you lavish such care, has no needs or wishes; it knows you not. Nor does anyone need your manuscript; everyone needs shoes more. There are many manuscripts already – worthy ones, most edifying and moving ones, intelligent and powerful ones. If you believed Paradise Lost to be excellent, would you buy it? Why not shoot yourself, actually, rather than finish one more excellent manuscript on which to gag the world?

 

from “The Writing Life” by Annie Dillard

BUSINESS HAS AN ENEMY

 

 

Business has a fierce, insidious enemy that, if not identified and combated, will contort our company into an unrecognizable mess. The enemy I’m talking about is noise.

 

Noise has killed more ideas, products, and services than taxes, recessions, lawsuits, climbing interest rates, and even inferior product design. I’m not talking about the noise inside our business; I’m talking about the noise we create as a business. What we often call marketing is really just clutter and confusion sprayed all over our websites, e-mails, and commercials. And it’s costing us millions.

 

Years ago, a StoryBrand client who attended one of our workshops pushed back. “I don’t think this will work for me,” he said. “My business is too diverse to reduce down to a simple message.” I asked him to explain.

 

“I have an industrial painting company with three different revenue streams. In one division we powder-coat auto parts. In another we apply sealant to concrete, and in another we have a sterilized painting process used specifically in hospitals.”

 

His business is diverse, but nothing so complex that it couldn’t be simplified so more people would hire him. I asked if I could put his website on the giant television screen so the entire workshop could see it. His website was thoughtful, but it didn’t make a great deal of sense from an outside perspective (which is how every customer views your business).

 

The man had fired a fine-arts painter to create a painting of his building (was he selling a building?), and at first glance it looked like the website for an Italian restaurant. The first question I had when I went to the website was, “Do you serve free breadsticks?” There were a thousand links ranging from contact information to FAQs to a timeline of the company’s history. There were even links to the nonprofits the business supported. It was as though he was answering a hundred questions his customers had never asked.

 

I asked the class to raise their hands if they thought his business would grow if we wiped the website clean and simply featured an image of a guy in a white lab coat painting something next to text that read, “We Paint All Kinds of S#*%,” accompanied by a button in the middle of the page that said, “Get a Quote.”

 

The entire class raised their hands.

 

Of course his business would grow. Why? Because he’d finally stopped forcing clients to burn calories thinking about his life and business and offered the one thing that would solve his customers’ problem: a painter.

 

What we think we are saying to our customer and what our customers actually hear are two different things. And customers make buying decisions not based on what we say but on what they hear.

 

from “Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen” by Donald Miller

Practice

Good writers practice and study and practice some more. They may not call it practice-they may simply keep writing, day after day-but in fact they are practicing every time they write. Good writers figure out what they need to do to develop their raw gifts into sentences and paragraphs that will move readers.

 

– from “The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life” by Vinita Hampton Wright Loyola Press

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