Why aren’t you writing more?

I have a writer I do some work for. We had a Skype call a few weeks ago to get to know each other, and she didn’t waste anytime. She started, “I have just one question. Why aren’t you writing more?”

That, of course, is totally loaded.

I’ve been actively avoiding writing for the better part of the week.

Although, to be fair, I think I’ve been actively avoiding writing for the better part of ten years.

A year ago, I did a big scary thing and I packed up all my clothes and a handful of books and a couple of photos of my family and my best friends and I moved halfway across the country into my friend’s guest room for a job I thought was the job.

 I found an apartment, and met a guy, and have been, for a year, building a life in Grand Rapids. I do not, however, have that job anymore.

The job that I thought would be the job was far too short-lived. And I can’t pretend even now to understand exactly why that job didn’t work out, why that ministry dismissed me, why God called me here for a reason that we all thought so clear that would turn out not to be the reason at all.

My guess, though, is that the job was a means by which to: one, get my attention and two, move me to the place that I am needed.

I confessed to my Bible study a few weeks ago that I understand the story of Jonah differently now. You know the one with the dude who gets told to go preach in a city he didn’t want to go to, so he ran away and found himself in the belly of a great big fish? I told my Bible study that I have known that I was called to writing, that I recognized even in elementary school that words came easily to me when my friends really struggled, and that struggle never made sense to me. I told them that writing makes me dredge for the truest things that I think and realest things that I feel, and sharing that with the world is scary in ways I can’t find words for.

And I confessed that I have tried to do everything but write for ten years. Social media management, therapy, youth ministry – while very good and (mostly) noble professions, I think for me they have always been me trying to be anywhere but the place I was called.

If I am Jonah, then writing is in my Nineveh.

And I think maybe that getting fired and the months that have followed have been my in-the-belly-of-the-big-fish-what-are-you-doing-to-do-with-your-life wake up call.

The writer who I do some work for told me to read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, the women who sold millions of copies of a different book on her quest to find herself by eating gobs of pizza and meditating in the Far East. The writer I do some work for said, “I’ll be honest, I didn’t love everything about this book, but I think you need to read the first section on fear. And then I think you need to get on with writing.”

I read it this morning, although I don’t think the section is really about fear, it’s about bravery. I can see why this writer I do some work for made me suggested I read it:

Around the age of fifteen, I somehow figured out that my fear had no variety to it, no depth, no substance, no texture. I noticed that my fear never changed, never delighted, never offered a surprise twist of unexpected ending. My fear was a song with one note – only one word, actually – and that word was, ‘STOP!’….

For the entirety of my young and skittish life, I had fixated upon my fear as if it were the most interesting thing about me, when actually it was the most mundane…My fear wasn’t some kind of artisanal object; it was just a mass-produced item, available on the shelves of any generic box store.

And that’s the thing I wanted to build my entire identity around?

The most boring instinct I possessed?

The panic reflex of my dumbest inner tadpole?

No.

So, that’s the thing, isn’t it? I could keep running, but that now feels much harder than actually doing the thing to which I have been called. (And hey, it only took me ten years to get there.)

Batman_quit procrastinating

 

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Fear not; Ugh, fine

“I read your last post.”

I always get a little nervous when conversations in real life start with these words, because I’m never quite sure where they’re going to go. There was a time when these words were a catalyst to conversations that often dragged me and my faith journey through the mud. People who knew me, who had for many years trusted me as a youth leader and a Bible teacher, were speaking hatefully and spewing venom. Retrospectively, I know that those conversations happened with people in the middle of their own wounding, their own questions, with their own thoughts about church and God and friendships unraveling at the edges. But, of course, that’s easy to see looking back. At the time, it made writing hard and blogging scary, and I think I’m still unpacking pieces of that and digging deep, more often than not, to hit publish.

Every time I sit down to write, it is an act of courage. And I’m learning to be brave.

And with that, I’m learning that most people aren’t jerks. Most people are looking to vent their own questions, or frustrations, or hopes. They want to share their own stories about how they see God moving in their world, in church or otherwise. They want to tell me the things that their friends have said to them that have mattered, and that have helped them stay buoyant when they felt like they were drowning.

These days when people say to me “I read your last post,” they are looking for the conversation. They aren’t actually all that interested in dragging me through the mud. They just want to talk to someone about church and God and dating and friendship and whatever thoughts are rolling around in their head about all of it. Most people, I think, are desperate to simply feel less alone.

Writing lets that happen, and I think that’s my favorite thing about being a writer.

Every time that I show up and have a little courage and say something real, I have the opportunity to connect with someone who is struggling through, or excited about, or pushing up against the same things that are making me just a little bit crazy. And so now, what I’m finding is that when someone says, “I read your latest post,” I take a breath and prepare myself for some real talk, and whether that’s good or bad is kind of irrelevant. The point, I think, is that it’s real.

Last week, I met my friend Katie for lunch on the day after my last post went live. She started with those words – “I read your latest post” – and I took a big breath and I waited to hear what followed.

“You didn’t go where I thought you were going to. You started saying how you missed your person and I wasn’t expecting you to say that you were taking a break from dating. “

I laughed a bit and I told my friend that I wasn’t expecting it either, but that I had been praying a lot about this area of my life and that it felt like the right next thing to do. I told her that there are a lot of fears in dating for me, and that it felt like those fears had dictated more of my love life than they should have. I told her that I picked guys who were safe, in the sense that I knew they probably weren’t good long-term matches, and I told her that in the end I dated because it was fun to be taken out for a meal or a baseball game or a movie, but that I wasn’t dating hoping that someone would stick around and be a husband.

“I guess I didn’t know that,” my friend Katie said. “I didn’t know you weren’t looking for your person.”

I confessed that I didn’t know that either, not until recently, not until I started thinking seriously about wanting to be married and not until I started looking at my fears. And I said that the pause in dating was just some space for me to figure out what I want and to grow up in some ways that I need to in order to get that.

My friend Katie said she understood, then we talked a few minutes more about dating, but mostly we talked about the ways that God is growing us up.

In my world, that can be summed up in two words – “Fear not.” And probably – “It sucks.”

I’m not sure yet all the ways that God is going to drill this lesson into my life, but right now, in the last week, I know that it’s happening in my writing life and it’s happening in my dating life. And I know that what I’m supposed to do is trudge forward anyway, in obedience, believing that what the Bible tells me about God is true:

“The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” (Deuteronomy 31:8)

And:

“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10)

And:

“David also said to Solomon his son, ‘Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the LORD God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you until all the work for the service of the temple of the LORD is finished.’” (1 Chronicles 28:20)

So, here’s two more words – Ugh. Fine.

As much as I don’t want to do this particular work, as much as I’m going to balk and fight and flail, I do want to be someone who trusts God from the depths of who I am. Because I learned back when people were being nasty and dragging me through the mud that I really believe that God is good and is in the business of wanting good for His people. And if I really believe that, then why shouldn’t I also believe that He’s going to make good out of the fear?

“Fear not.”

Ugh. Fine.

Large Coffee To-Go

I write in coffee shops for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that I can’t seem to get any work done at home. Inevitably, my dog will find me and drop his ball in my lap and want to play. He’s kind of like a toddler, except it’s legally okay for me to leave him alone in the house. So, I go to coffee shops.

I like writing in coffee shops for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that I have become a regular at a couple of places in my hometown. Being a regular is like being famous, except instead of people taking your picture, they serve you coffee. Which I think is maybe better.

I like being a regular for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that it gives me a chance to get to know the other regulars. We don’t always know each other by name, but we often know each other by drink, and that feels like an essential thing to know about each other in this coffee shop life. Maybe because it’s a detail, a tiny personal thing that says something about who we are. For example, I can’t offer any scientific or statistical analysis to back this up, but my experience says that people who like icy frappe-type drinks really are more chill in real life than those of us who tend toward lattes.

I suppose, then, I shouldn’t be surprised when random conversations pop up that allows us to drop into deeper levels of familiarity with one another.

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''Life is too short not to enjoy great coffee'' photo (c) 2009, Ginny - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Large Coffee To-Go has a kind face and some kind of military ball cap on. It looks like one of the ones my dad wears now that he’s retired. I can’t tell what unit Large Coffee To-Go served in because the lettering is too small, but there’s no mistaking that this guy was Army and proud of it. His mustache twitches a bit when he talks and his smile is kind of crooked when he asks, “You were sitting in that seat studying six months ago. Is studying all you ever do?”

I tell him no, but kind of yes because I’m writing a book. His face doesn’t change, he holds his smile, and he asks me what it’s about. I tell him that it’s about church life because I’m finding that’s the easiest thing to say, so that I don’t bore people with too many details too fast. Large Coffee To-Go never loses his smile and says, “Good for you! I think everybody’s got a book in them, but few people have the courage to write it. What’s your name?”

I tell him, and he says that he’s going to keep an eye out for my book. He says that he’s been a reader his whole life, that he started reading when he was three, and he gives me some absurd number of books that he’s read in his sixty-some years. And then he says he thinks the world needs more really good books.

“Let me ask you this,” I say to Large Coffee To-Go. “In your estimation, given all those books you’ve read, what makes a really great book?”

He leans on the back of the chair across of me and tells me, “You have to tell the truth. Even if it’s fiction, you have to ground it in some simple truth. And it has to be written simply. You can’t be long-winded. People can tell when you’re bullshitting.”

I tell him that I agree, and I thank him for answering my question. He says, “No, thank you. There aren’t enough readers and writers your age, and literate people rule the world.” He rises from the chair he was leaning on and walks toward the exit again. His hand on the door handle, he turns and winks at me, “Keep writing.”

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Choosing a creative vocation isn’t easy. People don’t get it when you’re willing to give up a regular schedule and benefits and a 401k to sit in a coffee shop and write all the time. When people ask you what you do, they don’t always know how to respond when you tell them that you take photos or sculpt or paint or play guitar. And that’s okay, because I don’t think it means that they don’t respect the art of it all.

I think most people think like Large Coffee To-Go, actually. I think that most people respect the hell out of the art of it all, and I think most people are excited to talk to people who are spending their lives pouring out creatively. I think most people wish for the courage to publish a book, or show their paintings in a gallery, or sing on a stage and I think that talking to us about our creative vocations reminds them that are people out there who do. And I think most people genuinely want to know what it’s like to take a risk and live life with such exposed vulnerability.

If you are someone who writes or paints or sculpts or plays an instrument – keep doing it. Do it if it’s your vocation or not. Write if you can spend hours at a coffee shop or if you have to steal an hour from somewhere else if your day. Paint if you have a studio or if you have to spread out next to your kids at the kitchen table. Make music in your garage or at church or alone in your living room. Just do it. Do it for the art of it all. Do it because you have a truth to tell.

Do it for you, and do it for me, and do it for Large Coffee To-Go.

Right in front of me

After I wrote the turdface post, my friend Marilyn sent me an email filled with a lot of grace and a lot of wisdom and a lot of gentle challenging. Marilyn is one of those people that I haven’t known that long, but I feel like I have. I think it’s because our friendship found ground in hard places, and has been for both of us a constant source of grace and wisdom and gentle challenging.

My friend Marilyn said that when she finds herself in those moments when writing is hard and she’s sitting down with all her psychiatric issues, she thinks it’s probably because she’s not writing what’s right in front of her.

Yeah, that’ll preach.

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The reality is that I haven’t just been in a bad place, I have been in an anxious place. And more days than not the anxieties have been winning. I know what a panic attack feels like now, and I know how super scary it is when you’re driving your familiar hometown roads thinking of nothing in particular and then your chest feels tight and your breath doesn’t catch and you have to pull off into a Wawa parking lot and wait for the crazy to pass.

That, my friends, is my big ugly truth.

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Shauna Niequist says that it’s not hard to figure out what you want your life to be about, and that the hard part is figuring out what you have to give up in order to have that life. I hear Shauna, but I’m not sure I entirely agree with her right now.

I think sometimes it is hard figuring out what you want your life to be about. I think sometimes it’s really hard to sort through all the things that other people tell you are important, and I think sometimes it’s hard to figure out what are your own wants and what are someone else’s.

The hard part for me right now is admitting to myself and saying out loud to everyone else that what I want now in my thirties isn’t even a little bit what I wanted in my twenties, and the harder part is being okay with it.

Because when I was in high school and college, I wanted to go to grad school, and I wanted to work as a therapist, and I wanted a BMW, a small one, so I had some status but not too much because that would be prideful. So, I went to college and I studied psychology, even though I think God was wooing me with Lit classes and a writing minor. I went to grad school and studied counseling because I was good at it and it came easily and everyone I encountered in the field told me I was good at it and to do anything else would be a waste of my skills, all while working in youth ministry and teaching teenagers that following God probably meant leaving the easy road.

At thirty years old, post-grad school and post-youth ministry, I’m leaving the easy road.

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If I wanted to be a therapist, I would be a therapist. I don’t want to be a therapist anymore.  And it’s hard to tell you that because I’m afraid of what you will think. Maybe you’ll think I wasted money and time on my degrees, and I’m not sure I can convince you otherwise. But, studying psychology and counseling for as long as I did made me a better person, and I don’t think I’ve wasted time or money on that. I think God really used that, actually. And I think I helped an undergrad or two along the way, and I can definitely live with that.

But, I don’t think working as a therapist full-time is going to get me those things that I want my life to be about.

Hang with me, I’ll explain.

I want my life to be about more than work that impresses people. I know that having credentials and letters after my name is cool, and I really like signing papers with letters after my name. But, I get a fat head about my skills and talents, and I stop being humble and gracious when I sign my name with my letters. And I don’t think God’s very impressed by my letters. I think He’s impressed when I get into a moment with someone and listen well and respond with presence instead of a advice, but…I don’t think He’s impressed by my letters.

I think maybe there’s a different way for me to get into a moment with people and listen well and respond with presence.  Anne Lamott says the gift of writing is that it makes you pay attention. She says that writers are people who are here, who are present and accounted for, and who are taking notes. That’s what I want my life to be about – paying attention and taking notes.

I want to pay attention to people and places and experiences, and I want to pay attention to what God is telling us all about who He. I want to make notes about these things, and I want to share them. Because I think Jesus is the best person ever, and I think He’s gotten a pretty bad rap lately, and I think maybe I can be someone who tells a different story.

I think maybe if I give up being a therapist and start being a writer, then I’m going to tell a story with my life about taking a risk with Jesus, which isn’t really a risk at all. Because I think if I do this, then my faith will be really real. I think that God won’t be the guy that I taught the teenagers to follow, but I’ll actually be following Him.

I think that if I start chasing after the things I really want my life to be about, then God will probably surprise me and it will be awesome. And I think that maybe I just might have a shot at the abundant life He offers, instead of buying into the lie that anything less than will be at all satisfying.

And, guys, the thing is that this is what my anxiety has always been about. For me, anxiety is not about the fear in taking a risk. For me, anxiety is about dragging my feet about taking it.

This is what is and what has been right in front me all along.

Moving the tire

'Jack Katz Memorial Stron Man Competition' photo (c) 2010, stu_spivack - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

I’m almost ashamed to admit that I’ve found myself in a bad place the last couple of weeks.  Writing has been hard, and forcing myself to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard has been a battle of self-discipline. Writers say this, of course, that you just have to show up and do the work if you really want to be a writer, but I’m getting it on a soul level that I couldn’t when I was just dabbling at it, pretending to be a writer while I did other things like counseling and youth ministry. It was easier when I could distract myself with other people’s problems.

I don’t have the same distractions anymore, and now I have to sit and write and do the work that God’s been preparing me to do since I was a little kid. My dad, actually, is the one who reminds me of that all the time. Whether he does it on purpose or not, I don’t know, but he talks to me about these articles he’s reading about other people who are writers, which he wouldn’t be reading if I weren’t writing, and somehow he manages to tell me every time that I’m a writer and I couldn’t do anything else if I wanted to.

It’s true, of course, I’m a writer because writing is how I put the pieces together. It’s how I make sense of God and the world and myself. But, I think that’s part of why I’m in the bad place. Sometimes it’s hard work to live with yourself every day, and even harder work to look fear in the face and hit “publish” anyway.

And this bad places doesn’t mean I’m dark or sad, and I’m not even thinking that everyone else in the world is a turdface. But, I am a little bit sick of myself and a little bit tired of my own neuroses, and I am wondering how everyone else is the world doesn’t think I’m a turdface.

I think Anne Lammot is right and when you sit down to write all your psychiatric issues sit down next to you, and they have some feelings. And I am having some feelings.

One of my girls texted me last week to get coffee, and it always throws me off a bit when they’re not afraid to tell me the truth about who I am, but no sooner had she sat down than she said, “I’m not saying this to make you feel guilty, but I know you haven’t been yourself and it’s all over your face, and I know you’re having some feelings, and I just want you to know that they’re valid. Whatever your feelings are, they are valid. Now please work through them because I miss you.”

If I ever want to know what they truth looks like said in love, I have coffee with my girls.

Last week after Bible study I told my friend Nickie about the bad place, about what my girl had told me, about being sick of myself and how I was afraid that everyone around me was sick of me too. She said that she can’t speak for everybody else but that she’s not sick of me. And then she suggested that maybe I didn’t have to work so hard to be together all the time, because she got a lot from being with me in my not-together moments, and that my raw, in-with-Jesus moments were the ones that made her think the most.

Then she said, “It’s like you’re in one of those Strong Man competitions in those moments. Like, you’re moving a tire and all you’re energy is spent on digging in and putting one foot in front of the other. And when you’re energy is on other places, you can’t move the tire. So, maybe you need to just be in with Jesus. Dig in and write about it.”

If I ever want to know what the truth looks like said in analogies, I have coffee with Nickie.

I suspect that she’s right, too. I suspect that writing a book, or writing anything for that matter, is like moving a tire. It takes energy and focus, and sometimes you’re just gritting your teeth to put one foot in front of the other. And sometimes it all feels pretty pointless.

But, I have to wonder about what happens when the tire moves, even just a little bit. I have to wonder about the work that can get done when we just dig in with Him. And I have to wonder about what happens when I sit down with my psychiatric issues, and feel my feelings, and put fingers to keyboard. I suspect it’s the way that I find my way out of the bad places.

Because I’m a writer, and I couldn’t do anything else if I wanted to.

Dumb ordinary life

'Writing Class 1' photo (c) 2008, Karen Chichester - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
This is pretty much what I look like on the daily.

I’ve been home from Michigan for a week. A solid week of totally normal – Bible study, coffee dates, writing, church. A dumb ordinary life, Anne Lamott would say.

A week ago I was driving home across four states, half-listening to Coffee House radio as I reflected on my time away from my dumb ordinary life. Michigan doesn’t come to mind for most people as a place to get away from it all, but it is exactly that for me. It is a place where my soul finds rest. And that was perhaps truer this time than it has ever been.

I’m not hard pressed to find reasons to get back to Grand Rapids, a city I fell in love with when I was seventeen and living away from home for the first time. I was educated there in all kinds of ways, in the classrooms and in the dorm rooms, and for better or for worse, Grand Rapids grew me up. I came into my own in that city, and driving those familiar streets always feels like coming home.

This year, the Festival of Faith and Writing brought me home.

I’m not sure how to explain the conference itself, but basically a bunch of really talented writers that you wish you could be like all get up and talk about why they write, and how they write, and how we all can write better, and then you feel totally inferior and you never want to write another word ever again because you will never be as clever as Anne Lamott, or as well-crafted as Bret Lott, or as gracious as Rachel Held Evans. And then a day later you realize that they were all right, that you can’t not write, and you’ll sit down at your lap top and you’ll write. Because writing is a compulsion, and the only way you know to make sense of the world.

…or, you know, it was something like that.

I texted my friend Nickie after it was over and I told her that the Festival was like being in church, in the way that being with people who love God is Church, except that we also nerded out over books and grammar. It was great, I told her, because it filled a part of my heart that I didn’t know needed filling.

I have wonderful people in my life and they make God’s love tangible to me on a daily basis. But, they don’t usually get excited about parallel construction or irritated by split infinitives, and they really struggle to care about gerunds. And they want to understand and they listen when I talk about it, but they can’t understand what it’s like to write every day – no more than I can understand what it’s like to parent, or engineer, or teach.

And I’m realizing that maybe sitting in the not-knowing, in the trying-to-understand is a part of what makes the dumb ordinary life so beautiful. Being with people who easily understand your world is respite, I know, like John leaning back into the bosom of Jesus. But, life isn’t lived there. Eventually you have to sit up from the table, walk downstairs, and be in the world again. Because life is lived in the streets, among people who don’t organically get you, in moments where you connect in spite of the differences.

This means that for me life is processed in writing, but life is lived in coffee dates and Bible study and church, one dumb ordinary moment at a time.

And it really is a thing of beauty.

Finding courage: When the only way forward is open

I’ve been challenged over the last couple of weeks to be more honest in my writing, to share more of the hard pieces, not just the “God lessons” that are coming from these stories that comprise my life. Although the God lessons are good and necessary and keep me moving forward, do I have the courage to tell a story that I don’t know the lesson of yet?

What about a story that doesn’t show me at my finest?

I’ve been long impressed with Addie Zierman’s When We Were on Fire. And while so much of what she writes resonates with me, because she confronts the things about growing up in the evangelical church that rub raw in the adult world, I’m most impressed by the honesty with which she asks her questions and tells her story.  She shares the pieces that don’t show her at her finest.  Six months later, I’m still asking myself if I have the courage to do the same.

I’m not so sure that I do, at least not yet. But, after a not stellar weekend in which I had one of my not finest moments, I’m realizing a couple of things.

First, that even asking if I have the courage to tell those hard stories is the first step in finding the courage to tell them.

Second, that what my friend Beth said a couple of weeks ago when I was recounting a moment from another hard weekend is true – “The only way forward is open.”

Beth, over the course of a twenty year friendship, has earned the right to call me on my stuff.  We sat again at our favorite coffee shop, laptops open but no words being typed because the conversation was more important. She told me that in the aftermath of this recent breakup that she was afraid for me.  She was afraid that I would let this be something that I used to justify building back up the walls that I had worked so hard to take down. She was afraid that I would become angry and isolated and depressed, as I had after every breakup before.  And she grabbed my hand, and looked me in the eye, and she said, “For you, the only way forward is open.”

I’m realizing that this is a life lesson, a God lesson actually. (Sometimes figuring that out comes simply as I write. Funny that.)  C.S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves,

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

I keep thinking about this, about how right Lewis is – “To love is to be vulnerable.” It sounds a whole lot like my friend telling me – “The only way forward is open.”

This is how I want to move forward, from this not stellar weekend and from my stupid decision and in my life in general.  I don’t want to be ashamed to tell my stories, the ones replete with God lessons and the ones that are just ridiculously human.  I don’t want to live so worried about what people are thinking about me, about what they’re holding against me every time I have a drink or get a tattoo or pierce my nose.  I want to lean into the people who hold me accountable without casting judgments.  I want to figure out what forgiveness is really about, as others offer it to me and I offer to others and I offer it to myself.  And I want to remember on my not finest days that tomorrow is another day to try again.

Because the only way forward is open. And probably a little bit more honest.