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Writing For Your Life Today

A Matter of the Will 


A few years ago I had lunch with a friend in Chattanooga. His name is Chris Slaten, and he’s an excellent songwriter, performing under the name Son of Laughter. I’m envious of his beard. I asked him how his songwriting was going, and since he’s a schoolteacher I wondered where and when he wrote. Did he have an office? He smiled between bites of tortilla chips and tapped his temple. “I do it up here,” he said.

This may come as a surprise to you, that a song could be written in that miraculous space between a human’s ears. It surprises me, even though I’ve done it before. Chris said that the other day he had a doctor’s appointment and he sat in the waiting room with a copy of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. He opened the book for a moment, then shut it and decided instead to work on a song. He stared at a fake plant in the corner for twenty minutes and bent his will to the task. He said he was sure that he looked strange, staring all that time without really moving. But he made progress. He got home, grabbed his guitar, and tested out what he had “written,” then helped his wife with dinner until the next time he had twenty minutes to think—which was, he said, the next morning’s commute to the school.

If you wait until the conditions are perfect, you’ll never write a thing.

It’s always a matter of the will. The songs won’t create themselves, and neither will the books, the recipes, the blue-prints, or the gardens. One of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets, Richard Wilbur, is called “The Writer.” Look it up. Seriously. Right now, go find a computer, Google it, and read it twice. Then head over to a bookstore and buy his collected poems. Keep the book on your nightstand and read one of them each night before you sleep. Writing is always a matter of life or death, he says, and finding the right arrangements of words is like being a bird trapped in a house, trying to find its way through the open window.

When I was in college I wrote most of my songs during class. I often sat next to my friend C.J., who was not only my college roommate, but was the guy who taught me to play the guitar ten years earlier at church camp. The first song I ever learned on the guitar was “Patience,” by Guns ‘n Roses, which starts in the key of C with a whistle solo, and I must say that there are much worse first songs a guy could have learned. C.J., who was hard at work learning to write songs even in high school, also happens to be the guy who introduced me to the music of Rich Mullins. I have happy memories of the music we made at C.J’s house during his senior year of high school. We’d pull out the guitars and Belinda, his mom, would belt out “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’” by Journey. Man, did she have some pipes. The whole family did. Those “na-na-na’s” at the end of the song provided me one of my first opportunities to sing harmony. I was the skinny kid in the background, trying to keep up, trying to learn to sing in tune.

When I look back at those days I’m overwhelmed by their kindness. The Fluhartys encouraged me to sing, to play, to write, even though I was sloppy and flat and overeager. When C.J. graduated high school and went to Bible College, I followed suit, partly because I had nothing better to do.

So there we sat next to each other in Old Testament survey classes, covertly passing lyrics back and forth. I watched the way he wrote his songs, the way he ordered the words on the page, arranging the stanzas so he could keep track of the meter of each line, the way he anguished over the syncopation of the syllables. I had still not managed to finish a song of my own—nothing worth sharing, anyway—but I felt a burning desire to contribute to our little college band’s body of work.

I was a freshman, and fresh out of a pretty intense relationship with a girl. Then along came Jamie. She was beautiful and funny and full of life. She was a junior, and it was impossible to ignore her. We fell in love in a matter of weeks, and I knew without a doubt that if we kept dating we’d be married before you could sing the chorus of “Patience.”

That was what scared me.

I had just started college, I had dreams of playing music with a band, and was utterly unprepared to marry anybody, even if she was beautiful and wonderful and encouraging beyond measure. There were days when I wished I could retreat to a simpler place where there were no big decisions to be made. These are the lyrics I worked on for those early weeks of college.

I take a walk down a dusty road and I

Sink my feet in memories of colder days gone by I don’t want to go, but it’s all downhill

And it seems so easy, I think I will

Go down

Could you tell that I’d been crying When you talked to me today?

I’d been running from the words inside I never meant to say

So come on with me and I’ll walk you around Through the backstreets of this old ghost town 

Come along and you will see

There’s a place where we can be Far away from you and me Way down

I’ll spare you the rest. To be honest, reading it now I don’t really know what it means. Something about memories, something melodramatic about wanting to escape all the questions so we could just hang out like the lovebirds we were. Apparently there was some kind of tearful discussion about our future, but I don’t remember it now.

I don’t mean to diminish what must have felt at the time like a big deal, but the obscurity of the lyric makes it difficult for me to take it seriously. There are two more verses equally vague and earnest, but at the time I couldn’t find the chorus. One afternoon in apartment 418 my nineteen-year-old self mustered the courage to play my unfinished song for C.J. and ask him what he thought. Where should the chorus go? What should it be about? Was this all terrible?

No, he said, it wasn’t a bad start. He liked it in all its “Toad the Wet Sprocket-ripoff” glory. He looked over the lyrics, pointed at the part about the ghost town that ended with “way down” and said, “That’s your chorus. It already has one.” Then he took a bite out of his apple and walked over to the courtyard picnic table with his guitar to work on a song of his own.

Sometimes you’ve done all the planting you need to do, and it’s time to start weeding the garden.

from “Adorning the Dark” by Andrew Peterson

Too complicated

“There’s a reason most marketing collateral doesn’t work,” Mike said, putting his feet up on the coffee table. “Their marketing is too complicated. The brain doesn’t know how to process the information. The more simple and predictable the communication, the easier it is for the brain to digest. Story helps because it is a sense-making mechanism, Essentially, story formulas put everything in order so the brain doesn’t have to work to understand what’s going on.”


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

You are the only one who can practice your skills

You are not in control of the process by which your art is made. But you are the only one who can practice your skills so that you have the flexibility to track with the process. This is your job-to master your craft. For me it’s learning how to make sentences work, how to shape scenes, how to flesh out characters. That’s my work. That’s what I practice. This skill is my contribution to the creative work. 

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

What we are writing is the book we wish we had read

When we write with the professed hope of helping others, I suspect that many of us are really writing for our former selves. The intention to help others is generous; it keeps us motivated and sanctions the huge time investment that writing requires. But what we are writing is the book we wish we had read during our own trying, formative experience. Writing for one’s self seems selfish, so we obscure our real motivation with the altruistic desire to help others. In fact, writing for one’s self is noble. Each of us is worthy of that generosity. When we return to a difficult period with care and attention that writing requires, healing happens. Writing connects personal suffering to human suffering, teaching us that we are not alone.


Writing for ourselves, or for our former selves, is more than just a therapeutic exercise. It’s essential for writing well. Writing is far too strenuous-too solitary, too sedentary, too emotionally demanding-to sustain if the writer does not somehow benefit from the process. Unfortunately, the benefit rarely comes in the form of money or recognition. We don’t live in a culture that values the contemplative remembering or the imaginative labor of making art. And even when our work is publicly received and financially compensated, this recognition rarely satisfies the more profound needs that drive us to write. Love of the grueling work itself, or of the insights that come with it, is necessary to sustain us.


From “Writing the Sacred Journey: The Art and Practice of Spiritual Memoir” by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew Skinner House

The Long Lovely Journey

During my first years of serious writing, I labored under the conceit that I was writing a book. The thought was bracing; it motivated me to climb out of bed at 5:30 a.m. for half an hour of solitude before facing a classroom of seventh graders. Not until I entered my third and fourth years on the project, having given up public school teaching, did I find that my memoir was not a travel adventure about biking through Wales but rather a disconcerting reconciliation between my bisexuality and Christian upbringing; only after I revised the book multiple times did I begin to understand what was really happening: The book was writing me. The primary creation wasn’t a memoir but the self—a self humbled by my truth and yet less afraid to claim it, a self no longer blindly controlled by my past but rather an agent in comprehending and framing it, a self in conversation with community and culture and history. My commitment to the memoir pulled me out of the closet and into public discourse.

I’m hardly alone in this experience. “Painting myself for others,” Michel de Montaigne writes about his personal essays, “I have painted my inward self with colors clearer than my original ones. I have no more made my book than my book has made me.” When writers write to find out what we think, we’re changed. Bob Anderson describes it this way in his memoir, Out of Denial:

A hand holding a pencil is drawing on a piece of paper another hand holding a pencil. The two pencil points converge, forming an endless loop in one of those curious Escher puzzles: where does the action begin and end, what is reality and what is dream or intention, who is the drawer and who is the drawn? . . . I am writing, and I am written; I tell my story, and my story tells me. It’s an endless loop, this act of living and re-membering.


Within self-discovery is self-creation, the authoring of one’s being. This feedback loop is especially obvious in creative nonfiction, where the subject matter is personal experience. But all genres have the potential for this intimate connection between text and self, and the best writing emerges when the stakes are high—when the author writes what’s most pressing and heartfelt—because the potential for discovery is then correspondingly high. 


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


How Long Does it Take to Find a Publisher?

– by Christopher Ferebee

When discussing the timeframe for securing a publisher, the process can vary greatly from project to project, but below is a basic timeline. My assumption is that you have a complete proposal that your agent is ready to submit. Our agency has occasionally received a new proposal ready to shop right from the beginning, but more often than not, we spend weeks, if not months, with our clients just on the proposal. As we’ve described before, this is your chance to put your best foot forward and we take it seriously. But once you have a proposal complete, what’s the process and how long does it take?

We work with our clients to establish a list of publishers to submit the finished proposal to. For a typical author without a pre-existing publishing relationship, this process takes a day or two. We always want our authors to be fully aware of who we are presenting their proposal to and why, and so we take the time to share this list, but this obviously isn’t a time-consuming process.

Once the proposal has been on submission, we typically request publishers to provide a substantive response to us within 4-6 weeks. This will vary based on time of year and typical vacation periods within the industry, but your potential publisher needs this time to accomplish the following:

  • The editor will review the proposal herself, and may have questions or need additional information from the agent or the author;
  • The editor will prepare their own internal document, which is then shared with colleagues, assuming the editor wants to present the proposal to a larger team for acquisition;
  • The editor will first present the proposal to an editorial committee, typically consisting of other editors and the publisher, which meeting typically occurs 1-4 times per month;
  • If the proposal makes it past the editorial committee, the proposal will then be presented in a meeting to the publishing committee, which will include marketing and sales representatives, and typically takes place once or twice per month;
  • If your proposal makes it past both committees and is approved for acquisition, then your editor needs to obtain sales projections from the sales team, prepare a pro forma of anticipated sales, foreign rights and other licenses (basically all potential income), and obtain approval for a specific offer (the amount of the offer will often dictate additional rounds of approvals);
  • At this point, the editor will submit a formal offer to your agent.

This entire process usually takes 4-6 weeks, and can occasionally take longer for one or two of the publishers your agent has submitted to, depending on when their meetings take place.

Once your agent has obtained all initial offers for your proposal, there may be additional rounds of discussion or negotiation with regard to the initial offers, sometimes with multiple publishers at once, sometimes with one specific publisher. But again, because of the approvals process internally, this can often take another 1-2 weeks.

When you and your agent have decided to formally accept an offer, you then have to negotiate the publishing agreement. The amount of time it takes for the publisher to provide an initial draft of the publishing agreement can vary widely. Some publishers can provide this within 1 week, and others take 4-6 weeks, but this too will often depend on internal schedules and other work at the time. It then can take anywhere from another 2-4 weeks to accomplish the negotiation on your publishing agreement and route the agreement for signatures.

All told, this can feel like an interminable amount of time. But you should expect this process to take roughly 3-5 months from the first date of submission to actual execution of a publishing agreement with your new publisher, taking into account all of the above. There are always exceptions, but unfortunately those exceptions lie on both sides of the time table.

Rational and Efficient Advertising

A rational, efficient advertising campaign involves two key things: knowing how much a customer is worth to you (or a customer’s LTV – lifetime value) and knowing how much it will cost to acquire that customer via the advertising you intend to use (or CPA – cost per acquisition). When ego is stripped from the equation – “I like seeing that billboard of myself on the way to the office each morning” – all that remains is whether the math works. Does this Facebook ad drive sales in a revenue-positive fashion? Are we sure that this TV commercial is driving sales, and at what cost? How many ads can we run until we start to see diminishing returns?


– Ryan Holiday – “Perennial Seller”

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