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Writing For Your Life Today

Attentiveness and awareness

Paying attention is mostly what happens in good prayer and in good art. Noticing what’s right in front of you; being mindful of this moment and place rather than allowing thoughts to wander off to the past or future; regularly taking the time and energy to look, listen, touch, taste, and smell. All of this is necessary for good writing, and it’s also necessary for effective spiritual engagement. In fact, one of the benefits of bringing art and spiritual practice together is discovering how the physical senses and practical skills can enhance prayer – and also how a sense of the Eternal and Loving can open up deeper places in the art. 

from “The Art of Spiritual Writing” by Vinita Hampton Wright

The formula

The formula from the (Tim) Ferriss case study and my research is the recipe we’ll follow for the rest of the book. If we aren’t born into Cumulative Advantage, we can go around the system and make it work for us another way when we:

  • Identify an initial advantage
  • Discover a seam of timely opportunity
  • Create significant awareness for your project through a “sonic boom” of promotion
  • Gain access to a higher orbit by reaching out and reaching up to powerful allies
  • Build the momentum through constancy of purpose and executing on a plan

From “Cumulative Advantage: How to Build Momentum for Your Ideas, Business, and Life Against All Odds” by Mark Schaefer

How to Make A Great First Impression

When people meet your brand, it’s as though they are meeting a person. They’re wondering if the two of you will get along, whether you can help them live a better life, whether they want to associate their identity with your brand, and ultimately whether they can trust you.

Harvard Business professor Amy Cuddy has spent more than fifteen years studying how business leaders can make a positive first impression. Cuddy distilled her research into two questions people subconsciously ask when meeting someone new: “Can I trust this person?” and “Can I respect this person?” In her book Presence, Cuddy explains human beings value trust so highly, it’s only after trust is established that a person begins to consider getting to know us further.

When we express empathy, we help our customers answer Cuddy’s first question,
“Can I trust this person?”

Demonstrating competence helps our customers answer the second question, “Can I respect this person?”

The same two characteristics that help us make a great first impression with people at a cocktail party also work to help our brand make a great first impression with potential customers.

Once we express empathy and demonstrate authority, we can position our brand as the guide our customer has been looking for. This will make a significant difference in the way they remember us, understand us, and ultimately, engage with our products and services. 

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

The Long, Poetic Opening

The rule: start with something short and punchy. So what’s any self-respecting author going to do to surprise readers? Break the rules, of course.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

With ill-advised attraction to the comma and dangerous indifference to the period, Dickens is one of the few who could get away with this. Yes, short is usually better than long. Thus a word of caution to some of us; Professional Writer on Closed Course. Do Not Attempt.

The poetic nature of his prose makes this work. The paired contrasts set the theme for the tale of two contrasting cities and extremist viewpoints we are about to hear.

Something else subterranean gives his opening power. Dickens is echoing one of the most famous passages in literature. 

There is a time for everything,

and a season for every activity under the heavens:

a time to be born and a time to die,

a time to plant and a time to uproot,

a time to kill and a time to heal,

a time to tear down and a time to build,

a time to weep and a time to laugh,

a time to mourn and a time to dance,

a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,

a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,

a time to search and a time to give up,

a time to keep and a time to throw away,

a time to tear and a time to mend,

a time to be silent and a time to speak,

a time to love and a time to hate,

a time for war and a time for peace. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

By recalling this passage for readers, even without their full awareness, he evokes the profound emotions of uncertainty we have about life – about its meaning, about why there is happiness and headache, about the temptations of cynicism and the call of hope.

We may struggle to successfully generate an echo like this, but it can be worth the effort. The advantage of evoking a famous line is that doing so draws upon all the resources of emotion and meaning that have accumulated with that passage over the years. It gives weight, depth, and substance to an opening. By building on a substantial existing foundation, our structure can go higher. We don’t want to merely quote it but to give it our own twist or turn, fitting it to our task, as Dickens does.

John’s Gospel does likewise. It opens with, “In the beginning was the Word,” gaining immense traction by recalling the opening of Genesis, “In the beginning God.” Here, John says, in Jesus is something as profound as the creation of the cosmos. And should we also think, perhaps, the Creator himself?

from “Write Better: A Lifelong Editor on Craft, Art, and Spirituality” by Andrew T. Le Peau, Intervarsity Press

Cultivating serendipity

While the creative walk can produce new serendipitous combinations of existing ideas in our heads, we can also cultivate serendipity in the way that we absorb new ideas from the outside world. Reading remains an unsurpassed vehicle for the transmission of interesting new ideas and perspectives. But those of us who aren’t scholars or involved in the publishing business are only able to block out time to read around the edges of our work schedule: listening to an audio book during the morning commute, or taking in a chapter after the kids are down. The problem with assimilating new ideas at the fringes of your daily routine is that the potential combinations are limited by the reach of your memory. If it takes you two weeks to finish a book, by the time you get to the next book, you’ve forgotten much of what was so interesting or provocative about the original one. You can immerse yourself in a single author’s perspective, but then it’s harder to create serendipitous collisions between the ideas of multiple authors. One way around this limitation is to carve out dedicated periods where you read a large and varied collection of books and essays in a condensed amount of time. Bill Gates (and his successor at Microsoft, Ray Ozzie) are famous for taking annual reading vacations. During the year they deliberately cultivate a stack of reading material – much of it unrelated to their day-to-day focus at Microsoft – and then they take off for a week or two and do a deep dive into the words they’ve stockpiled. By compressing their intake into a matter of days, they give new ideas additional opportunities to network among themselves, for the simple reason that it’s easier to remember something that you read yesterday than it is to remember something you read six months ago. 

From “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” by Steven Johnson – Riverhead Books

Two disciplines make for a whole life.

  • If you want to write about spirituality, then prepare always to practice double disciplines. One discipline is the craft of writing; the other discipline is the intentional practice of spirituality. You are embarking upon two simultaneous formations, one of art and the other of spirit. Both formations are crucially necessary. And each can be practiced without the other, but both must be present when the other, but both must be present when the subject of your art is spirituality. You can be a writer of great skill who does not deal directly with spiritual themes, and that’s fine. You can be a spiritually well-formed and thriving person who does not write about the life you experience, and that’s fine. However, if you write about the life of the spirit, then tend your own spirit well and develop your skill as a writer. 

Spiritual formation and creative formation have a lot in common. I deal with this topic at length in The Soul Tells a Story, but here is a concise version that’s a good start.

Both formation – of the spirit and of the art – involve some version of the following:

  • attentiveness and awareness
  • honest self-reflection
  • consistent work
  • help from others
  • ample practices of engagement

from “The Art of Spiritual Writing” by Vinita Hampton Wright

Social Implications

By now, you might be thinking that the Matthew Effect could be connected to the convulsions of civil unrest occurring throughout the world. Perhaps you suspect this idea has very broad social implications. 

It does.

Advantage that comes from societal position is a root cause of much of the economic and civil disparity in the world today. In America, some societal advantage can be generated just from being born into the combination of white, male, straight, and able-bodies, to name just a few unearned traits.

The Matthew Effect can either propel ideas forward or breed injustice, resentment, and an invisible caste system that holds worthy people back from success.

From “Cumulative Advantage: How to Build Momentum for Your Ideas, Business, and Life Against All Odds” by Mark W. Schaefer

The Understated Opening

Sometimes when emotions are hot and debates are combative, trying to yell even louder won’t work. Doing the opposite can make people listen. Sometimes, if you whisper, people will strain to hear what you are saying. 

While confined here in the Birmingham City Jail, I came across your recent statement calling our present activities “unwise and untimely.”

Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

As the civil rights movement was heating up in the early 1960s, Dr. King responded to eight fellow clergymen who wrote to urge an end to demonstrations and to instead use peaceful, orderly means to achieve a “better Birmingham.” The rest of Dr. King’s reasoned, orderly letter is in tune with his beginning. He sets forth a case for the protestors’ actions that has become a classic of American public literature on par with Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience from a hundred years before. 
from “Write Better: A Lifelong Editor on Craft, Art, and Spirituality” by Andrew T. Le Peau, Intervarsity Press

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