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Writing For Your Life Today

Surrendering to Time

 

Perhaps the kindest—and most helpful—review I ever received came from Mary Rose O’Reilly, author of The Barn at the End of the World: “I can imagine that [Elizabeth] has spent many hours staring out the window until she arrives at a lived-synthesis of what the great religions and irreligions have to tell us about the nature of the sacred.” I don’t know about the synthesis, but I can attest to staring out the window. And hours writing and then deleting what I’d written. And hours journaling for no eyes other than my own. And years revising.

“Art is long,” writes Henry James. “If we work for ourselves of course we must hurry. If we work for her we must often pause.” Immersed in our culture of instant gratification, I’m as easily seduced as the next blogger by the possibility that my words might rattle around in a reader’s brain within an hour of their composing. But I also know the profound, evolutionary movement of a longer project, where readership is hypothetical, a decade isn’t an unreasonable timeframe, and the exploratory possibilities are endless. Henry James makes this sound noble—we’re serving Art!—but for most of us, uncertainty about the artistic nature of our work packs those years and all those pauses with angst. Better to be done with it, receive a flash of social media feedback, and feel our efforts validated.

Significant creation asks us to surrender to time—to release our needs for completion and affirmation and inhabit a process that rarely unfolds the way we’d like. As uncomfortable as this makes me, I’m also certain that little else is as worthwhile. Given the escalating speed of our culture, any work that forces us to pause, gaze out the window, and trust the secret recesses of our subconscious to arrive at lived syntheses is increasingly valuable. Art is long, as is growing asparagus, learning to bake a soufflé, establishing a meditation practice, raising a child, participating in democracy, and most activities that comprise a well-lived life. When writers despair of ever finishing their books, I sympathize—it’s hard not to be done!—and I rejoice in projects so worthy and rich that they demand whole chapters of our lives. 44 

 

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

 

 

Viewpoint and tense

What do I work with when I’m in this left-brain stage? Well, as a storyteller, I sketch out a plot as best I can. I’ve usually free-written about characters, giving myself at least a page or two of information about every person in the story. Now I take that information about every person in the story. Now I take that information, set the characters side by side and begin to analyze how these characters, with their unique backgrounds and personalities, will interact with one another. To look at all this I need to be logical.  I need to ask myself how a woman in her thirties whose career is in the navy will respond to, say a fifty-something Vietnam vet-or a fifty-something draft dodger. What would the conversation be like between a sixty-year-old Iowa farmer and a forty-year-old psychotherapist? I’m taking the raw information about characters and putting it in some kind of order that tells me what these various relationships might look like.

I’m also trying to figure out what viewpoint and tense will give the story its best voice. This is mainly by trial and error, but it’s quite analytical. It’s also creative-all of it is creative, but it’s not the same as that initial creative flow. This work involves a more directed and thoughtful sort of creativity.

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

 

 

I was forced to listen

I sit on my favorite rock, looking over the brook, to take time away from busyness, time to be. I’ve long since stopped feeling guilty about taking being time; it’s something we all need for our spiritual health, and often we don’t take enough of it.

 

This spring I was given two posters which I find helpful in reminding me to take being time. (Both givers must have known I needed the message.) A few weeks before the wedding I ran impetuously out to the dark garage to turn on the outside light and rammed into a cardboard cat carrier – mere cardboard, mind you! – and broke the third metatarsal bone in my foot. I have frequently taken mammoth, crashing tumbles without breaking a bone. What a way to do it now! Humiliating, to say the least and my children rub it in by emphasizing the cardboard.

 

“Can you stay off your feet for six weeks?” the doctor asked.

 

“No, I’m off day after tomorrow for a ten-day lecture tour all over Ohio. Then we have the wedding, and then I get my grandchildren for a week…”

 

So off I went, leg in a cast, via wheelchair and crutches and elegant pre-boarding on planes. The first poster was given me on my second stop, the Convent of the Transfiguration near Cincinnati, where I was conducting a retreat. The poster tells me: Listen to the silence. Stay open to the voice of the Spirit.

 

The second poster came a month later, when I was out of the cast, but still on crutches, sent me by Luci Shaw, who is largely responsible for my struggling to write this book. It shows a covered bridge in the autumn, very much like the covered bridge we drive through en route to Crosswicks, and it echoes my need: Slow me down, Lord.

 

Good messages. When I am constantly running there is not time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening. I will never understand the silent dying of the green pie-apple tree if I do not slow down and listen to what the Spirit is telling me, telling me of the death of trees, the death of planets, of people, and what all these deaths mean in the light of love of the Creator, who brought them all into being, who brought me into being, and you. 

 

This questioning of the meaning of being, and dying and being, is behind the telling of stories around tribal fires at night; behind the drawing of animals on the walls of caves; the singing of melodies of love in spring, and of the death of green in autumn. It is part of the deepest longing of the human psyche, a recurrent ache in the hearts of all of God’s creatures. 

 

So when the two messages, Listen to the silence. Stay open to the voice of the Spirit, and Slow me down, Lord, came, I was forced to listen, and even to smile as I heard myself saying emphatically to Luci, “No, I most certainly do not want to write about being a Christian artist,” for I realized that the very vehemence of my reaction meant that perhaps I should, in fact, stop, and listen. The Holy Spirit does not hesitate to use any method at hand to make a point to us reluctant creatures. 

 

from “Walking on Water” by Madeleine L’Engle

 

 

Christian art?

Christian art? Art is art; painting is painting; music is music; a story is a story. If it’s bad art, it’s bad religion, no matter how pious the subject. If it’s good art…. And there the questions start coming, questions which it would be simpler to evade. 

 

In college I read some aesthetics: Plato, Aristotle; a great chronological jump to Lamb, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Pater, Ruskin. Plato spoke of the necessity for divine madness in the poet. It is a frightening thing to open oneself to this strange and dark side of the divine; it means letting go of our sane self-control, that control which gives us the illusion of safety. But safety is only an illusion, and letting it go is part of listening to the silence, and to the Spirit.

 

Plato also wrote – and I lettered this in firm italic letters and posted it on my dorm-room door – All learning which is acquired under compulsion has no hold upon the mind.

 

I’m not sure he was right there. During my school and college years I learned a good bit under at least moderate compulsion. I’d never have taken math or science had they been optional 9but I enjoyed the poster on my dormitory door!)

 

What I remember from Ruskin is the phrase the cursed animosity of inanimate objects, which I mutter under my breath when I get in a tangle of wire coat hangers. I also wonder if there is any such thing as an inanimate object.

 

From Coleridge comes the phrase the willing suspension of disbelief, that ability to believe which is born firmly in all children, and which too often withers as we are taught that the world of faerie and imagination is not true.

 

Aristotle reinforces Coleridge when he writes, That which is impossible and probable is better than that which is possible and improbable.

 

Not long after I was out of college I read Leo Tolstoy’s What Is Art? I approached it with reverence and hope. Surely this great writer would provide me with the definitive definition, would show me all the answers. He didn’t, and I was naive to expect him to. Generally what is more important than getting watertight answers is learning to ask the right questions.

 

What do they have in common, all these people I read in college and thereafter? All men, and all dead. Their distance from us in chronology seems to give them overwhelming authority. But they were not dead when they wrote, and they were as human as the rest of us. They caught colds in damp weather and had occasional pimples in adolescence. I like to think that they enjoyed making love, spending an evening with friends, tramping through the woods with the dogs. The fact that they were men simply speaks for their day when women may have been powers behind the throne, but they were kept behind it.

 

Whatever possessed these writers to sit down and write their views on the creative process? Maybe they were prodded, as I have been, and Maybe at least a few of them hesitated at the presumption of it. 

 

From “Walking on Water” by Madeleine L’Engle

Existential Dizziness

Some are questioning whether the churches they grew up in have anything to offer them as they make their ways in a culture of many cultures with many views of truth, some of which make a great deal of sense to them. For those who counted on God to protect them from so many choices, it is as if the heavenly Father let go of their hand in a crowd one day and vanished into a sea of divine possibilities. I cannot protect the students in my classes from this any better than I can protect myself. Existential dizziness is one of the side effects of higher education, and it affects teachers too.

 

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

 

“Hey check this out”

There’s another cost that creators tend to miss too: How much does it cost for people to find your work? To read the reviews or read an article about it? How much time does it cost to download, wait for it to arrive, or set up? These costs – transaction and discovery costs – exist even when your work is free! Think of the free concerts you haven’t attended, the samples you didn’t bother to walk over and try, the products you didn’t buy even though they were 100 percent risk-free, love it or get your money back, no money down. When you think about it this way, it’s really amazing that people buy or try anything at all!

 

When we say “Hey check this out,” we’re really asking for a lot from people. Especially when we are first-time creators. Why take the risk? Hugh Howey, author of the wildly popular Wool series and one of the first big successes in the self-publishing era, has said that it’s essential for debut authors to give away at least some of their material, even if only temporarily. “They’ve gotta do something to get an audience,” he’s said. “Free and cheap helps.” So does making the entire process as easy and seemless as possible. Th more you reduce the cost of consumption, the more people will be  likely to try your product. Which means price, distribution, and other variables are not only essential business decisions, they are essential marketing decisions.

 

– Ryan Holiday, “The Perennial Seller”

 

It takes years to write a book

To comfort friends discouraged by their writing pace, you could afford them this:

 

It takes years to write a book – between two and ten years. Less is so rare as to be statistically insignificant. One American writer has written a dozen major books over six decades. He wrote one of those books, a perfect novel, in three months. He speaks of it, still, with awe, almost whispering. Who wants to offend the spirit that hands out such books?

 

Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks; he claimed he knocked it off in his spare time from a twelve-hour-a-day job performing manual labor. There are other examples from other continents and centuries, just as albinos, assassins, saints, big people, and little people show up from time to time in large populations. Out of a human population on earth of four and a half billion, perhaps twenty people can write a serious book in a year. Some people lift cars, too. Some people enter week-long sled-dog races, go over Niagara Falls in barrels, fly planes through the Arc de Triomphe. Some people feel no pain in childbirth. Some people eat cars. There is no call to take human extremes as norms.  

 

from “The Writing Life” by Annie Dillard

 

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

 

 

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