For my 1,000th blog entry (I’ve been blogging since 2002) . . . some (hopefully life-giving) thoughts on writing, the creative process. A long post! I hope this inspires you to keep doing what you are doing. “A life given to art is never a life wasted.” –Macklemore
Writing isn’t what it is cracked up to be. It’s even better. That is, writing, whether it’s for your own personal pleasure, the ear of an audience, or book form, is hard work. There are no secrets. That’s the only secret. Writing well . . . that requires even more hard work. I’ve now written 3 books (Heaven on Earth and The Feast are published, Tearing Down the Walls soon to be published).
I’m not writing as an expert, a best-selling author, or even as a guru. I’m a minister in a local community of faith who loves to write. I love to write because I love to read. I am convinced, the older I get, the two can’t be separated. And yes, if you are wondering, I’m listening to classical music and drinking coffee as I write this.
Since writing my first book, The Feast, I’ve had many conversations with friends and acquaintances about writing. Almost to a person, people respond, “Ohhh, I really want to write a book.” There are variations of this expression but the gist is the same: almost everyone has thought about what it might be like to write a book.
Some practical wisdom.
1. Let me just say that while it’s a great, formative process, writing won’t change your life. The same personal issues you had before you publish your magnum opus will be there when the dust settles from the “citizen of the year” parade your hometown threw you after your book made the New York Times Best-Seller list.
2. Writing is hard work. It’s much more like building a house (though I’ve never done meaningful labor in this area) than having a moment of divine inspiration. In fact, the inspiration usually comes while you are working hard on something else.
3. Your goal should not be to “publish.” Your goal should be to write a great, relevant, insightful, moving book. Saying “I’m published” is about status, power, and prestige (even though, ironically, it won’t bring you a great deal of money unless your name is Lucado). We need more art (music, preaching, writing, song-writing that moves people; art that wakes people from their slumber). We need more art that is fitting to splendor of the creator of the universe.
4. Writing is an act of faith and discovery. It is a discipline that can shape your impressions and experiences of God as much as praying, serving the poor, or caring for the broken. You will encounter God and God’s creation in ways you can’t predict.
5. Writing is always merely an extension of your life. Stephen King, after enduring a hellish few years, moved his infamous writing desk from the center of his office to a corner to physically remind himself that his life life was more important than his writing life.
6. Writing is a communal experience. I have several friends who read what I’m writing. Friends who rarely, if ever, respond with “Josh, this chapter changed my life” but instead write things like “you can do better” or “this isn’t clear” or “this is not your best work.”
7. Writing is confession. Writing is about telling the truth as you see the truth. The writers who speak to me most clearly (e.g. Barbara Brown Taylor, Ian Cron, Buechner) do not write as authoritative experts (though they might actually be such). Rather, they write from a posture of humility; a “this-is-what-it-looks-like-from-my-perspective” voice. More as a guide than a talking head on cable news.
If you have never written but have always wanted to, go for it. What do you have to lose? If you love to write but feel stuck, life has a way of pulling you out of the ditch. Take a deep breath and go for a walk. If you are in the zone, writing chapters effortlessly, we can’t wait to see what God is going to do with your inspired words.
On The Creative Process
Whether it’s writing a book, crafting a story, preparing to teach a college class on spirituality, or piecing together a sermon . . . I pretty much go through the same routine (I am a creature of habit) each time I try and create something (usually a collection of words and sentences for print or an audience). I think this simple process works in all disciplines (writing, photography, painting, design, etc.).
1. REFLECTION. I used to do this last but now I do this first. In the first movement of the creative process, I listen to what God is doing in my life, how different humans around me have provided a glimpse of the divine. I am learning to trust the instincts, voices, and stories inside. This part usually requires a lot of yellow legal pad. I write quotes, stories, Scripture references . . . it just needs to get out.
2. STUDY. After I’ve purged myself of all of my memories and ideas, I get my hands on as many resources (books, DVD’s, articles, journal entries, and blogs) as possible. I literally immerse myself in what dead and living friends have written on the particular project I happen to be working on. For instance, I recently preached about preaching at the Nashville ZOE Conference. I took that prep time as an opportunity to read some of the classic sermons from Lischer’s The Company of Preachers.
3. MEDITATE. It’s critical that following self-reflection and disciplined study, I need to create space for all of this material to solidify. Usually, I go for a long walk, cut the grass, watch baseball, take a nap (though Lucas makes that almost impossible), or I put my running shoes on and take off. Some of the most important connections we make in life happen at a deep level. That is, some of the moments of revelation come when we are not thinking about anything profound in particular. We’re taught to call this the sub conscience. After we’ve reflected and studied, the mind, soul, and heart need time to get into a cadence of coherence.
4. CREATE. The hardest part for sure. The part many procrastinate until the last possible hour. This is the moment where the skin is placed on top of the skeleton, walls are placed over the frame. Up to this point, all I have are a bunch of stories, insights and sound-bytes. First, I put at the top of the page: “This teaching/sermon/essay/chapter is about ___________.” This will be my compass. Second,I always write an outline with transition sentences (the hardest thing to do in writing). After a break, I put the outline next to my computer and I type, one letter at a time the words I think I’ve been given. If you want to read my thoughts on how this connects with oral communication, check this out.
Sometimes the words come with little effort. Most times, I have to fight through cell phone calls, e-mail notifications, SportsCenter cravings, the voice inside all of us that says, “But you are forgetting to ____.”
This is what I do, day after day, week after week. And I absolutely love it.
Donald Miller weighs in . . .
Donald Miller is back. I don’t know where he went. What he was doing. But he’s back. Back as in Blue-Like-Jazz-Back. In A Million Miles in a Thousand Years Miller takes the reader through the journey of writing a script based upon his life (with some of the key stories from Blue Like Jazz). The writing process causes him to reflect upon the way in which a “great life shares the same characteristics as a great novel.”
“I like the part of the Bible that talks about God speaking the world into existence, as though everything we see and feel were sentences from his mouth, all the wet world of his spit. I feel written. My skin feels written, and my desires feel written. My sexuality was a word spoken by God, that I would be male, and I would have brown hair and brown eyes and come from a womb. It feels literary, doesn’t it, as if we are characters in books . . . You call it God or a conscience, or you can dismiss it as that intuitive knowing we all have as human beings, as living storytellers; but there is a knowing I feel guides me toward better stories, toward being a better character. I believe there is a writer outside ourselves, plotting a better story for us, interacting with us, even, and whispering a better story into our consciousness,” (86).
On the “inciting incident” (or “ruptures in the narrative” as I’ve been taught in literary circles)–”. . . Fear isn’t only a guide to keep us safe; it’s also a manipulative emotion that can trick us into living a boring life . . . James Scott Bell says an inciting incident is a doorway through which the protagonist cannot return. I didn’t know I was doing it at the time, but I had certainly walked through a doorway. I was an overweight, out-of-shape guy who wanted to get into shape and date a specific girl. I’d walked through a doorway that would force me both to get into shape and to interact with her. I suppose I didn’t have to get into shape, but if I didn’t, the story would be a tragedy. And nobody wants to live a tragedy,” (110).
Stephen King, the legend, weighs in on the craft and science of writing.
Here are some highlights from Stephen King’s On Writing. I highly recommend this book. In addition, if you are interestedin the craft of writing, you might like this book, this book, and this book.
p.50 …an original story I called “The Invasion of the Star-Creatures.” I kept hearing Miss Hisler asking why I wanted to waste my talent, why I wanted to waste my time, why I wanted to write junk.
p.57 [The editor said] when you write a story, you’re telling yourself a story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are NOT the story.
p.67 I did as she suggested, entering the College of Education at UMO and emerging four years later with a teacher’s certificate…sort of like a golden retriever emerging from a pond with a dead duck in its jaws.
p.77 Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel *&%$ from a sitting position.
p.101 It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.
p.106 Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.
p.118 Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful.
p.122 You should avoid the passive tense. You can find the same advice in The Elements of Style. The timid fellow writes “The meeting will be held at seven o’clock.” Purge this quisling thought! Put that meeting in charge. Write “The meeting’s at seven.” There, by God! don’t you feel better?
p.124 The adverb is not your friend.
p.128 Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation. Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sorts of writing as “good” and other sorts as “bad,” is fearful behavior.
p.145 If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.
p.150 Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness.
p.153 For me, not working is the real work. When I’m writing, it’s all the playground, and the worst three hours I ever spent there were still pretty damned good.
p.154 The combination of a healthy body and a stable relationship with a self-reliant woman who takes zero *&^% from me or anyone else has made the continuity of my working life possible. And I believe the converse is also true: that my writing and the pleasure I take in it has contributed to the stability of my health and my home life.
p.164 I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way.
p.176 It’s also important to remember that it’s not about the setting, anyway–it’s about the story, and it’s always about the story.
p.208 Once your basic story is on paper, you need to think about what it means and enrich your following drafts with your conclusions. To do less is to rob your work (and eventually your readers) of the vision that makes each tale you write uniquely your own.
p.212 Take your manuscript out of the drawer. If it looks like an alien relic bought at a junk-shop or yard sale where you can hardly remember stopping, you’re ready. Read as if it’s someone else’s work. “It’s always easier to murder someoneelse’s darlings than it is to kill your own.”
p.215 Every writer has an ideal reader. “What will this person think when he/she will read this part?” For me that person is Tabitha.