25 June 2014

3 Things Writers Fear (And Why We Do it Anyway)

Like any form of self-expression, creative writing is a risk.  That's because, like any other art form, creative writing necessarily involves the willful self-exposure to share original ideas -- the proverbial placing of the ball into someone else's court in order for them to pass judgment.  I don't care who you are: that's a scary concept.  Creative writing in any form is an exercise in anxiety, elation, and defeat.  For the writer attempting to gain the attention of an agent or a publisher, that process is rinse, lather, repeat; rinse, lather, repeat.  For the writer who maintains a blog, he is subject to the internet's worst critics.  For the poet who does frequent readings, there is nothing more harsh than the silence of a room that doesn't know how to react to your material.  Regardless of the form, sharing your written work is arduous and painful, and rarely does it reap more than another opportunity to revise your already revised final draft.

I've seen a number of articles devoted to "writers' fears" floating around recently, all of them more or less accurate in pinpointing struggles that authors of any genre or media might face, but I think all of these symptoms stem from three major fears that invariably manifest in the heart and mind of a writer.  Maybe this is a silly conversation, or maybe it will encourage those of you with aspirations of writing to keep going.

Either way, here we go.

Writers fear writer's block.  Contrary to popular opinion, writer's block (or "graphospasm" -- thanks, Snapple facts) is more than simply a hand cramp or an inability to put words on paper, though it is certainly not less than either of those things.  In reality, it is a mental impairment -- an inability to connect ideas or imagine a story's progression.  Perhaps it begins with nuts-and-bolts details (i.e. "I know where the story is going, but I'm struggling to connect point A to point B"), but it spreads to more comprehensive elements, like character development and significant plot details (i.e. "I have no idea how to make this person change" or "I don't know what I want to happen next, but my thematic idea needs something huge").  Boiled down to its heart, writer's block is the fear of regressing, of having to start over.  It's the systemic absence of progress, and it's incredibly disheartening.  Furthermore, there is no foolproof cure for this condition: it is something that comes and goes as it wills, and even forcing one's self to just write in order to get past the hump is not a guarantee of recovery.

For most authors, writer's block is the specter of the "one that got away" -- their great masterpiece, left unfinished all these years, because they simply couldn't finish it.  Maybe they've had semi-successful careers, churning out a chain of pulp novels or maybe even some quality pieces of literature, but they've never been able to finish that one manuscript that they've dragged like a ball and chain behind them -- unable to let it go, and unable to finish it.  No one who aspires to write wants that type of nagging regret.  It's a fearful concept, enough to make some writers quit while they're ahead.

As stated, there is no fool-proof remedy for writer's block.  It manifests at the most inopportune times and can vanish when you least expect it.  However, here are some things I've found helpful (though not everyone's mind works the same way mine does).

First, maintain a healthy reading diet -- especially material that pertains in some way to your subject matter.  See how other writers have resolved a similar character's flaws, or how another author described what it is you're struggling to depict.  That type of cross-pollination is essential to writing.  It's not stealing to borrow method.  Figure out how the accomplished writers achieved their final product, incorporate some of their ideas into your own grand scheme, and see if that gets your train of thought moving again.  You can't write if you're not reading.

Second, outlining, diagramming, and writing about my current novel, short-story, or article has proven immensely helpful.  When I was younger, I only outlined if it was required for a writing assignment, but I've since come to see the value in sketching plot, characters, and themes outside of the text in order to develop reference material for the manuscript itself.  If I'm struggling to come up with my next plot point, then I'll work on a character sketch instead, further defining who the individual is and learning how he or she would react to given stimuli, and what types of provocation will be essential to his or her character development.  That can be as simple as jotting down notes as to what color his/her hair is, details about the house he/she grew up in, how many cousins he/she has on his/her mother's side.  It can be as complex as fears, goals, failures, and character flaws.  Sometimes, the next essential plot point develops out of my deepening understanding of my own character.

Maybe that sounds like a waste of time, but I maintain that it is always important for the author to know more about his/her characters than the audience.  That's how rich characters with full backstories are developed.  Tolkien didn't create Middle Earth without also writing volumes and volumes of history and mythology.  Furthermore, possessing an intimate and well-rounded knowledge of your characters not only makes writing them easier, but it also can save you time while you're putting pen to paper because the details have already been fleshed out in your diagram.  This method is useful not only to push through writer's block, but is also a means of staying productive even while you're not writing.

Maybe I've just got a cold?
Third, don't throw anything away.  In a moment of frustration, it's easy to tear out the page you were working on or hit ⌘-A + delete.  Don't do that.  You simply never know when an old draft might come in handy, either as supplemental material, another angle to consider, or even an emergency backup in case something should happen to your saved file (or notebook).  Throwing things away might feel cathartic, but it limits the potential to make anything useful out of the hours spent on that particular draft.  I've made it a habit, when eliminating large chunks of text from a draft, to paste them in an "excerpts" document file, just so that I can access it again later -- either during revision or during another period of writer's block, so that I can reflect on where I've been and what I tried last time.  You never know when that will spark a new idea.  At the very least, it's encouraging to see how far you've come.

Finally, at the most basic level, sometimes you do just need to put words on paper.  Even if they don't make sense, even if they jump scenes or contradict earlier chapters, forcing through to the next plot point is sometimes all it takes to get the story rolling again.  Find a place where you can be free of distractions.  Put on music if that's helpful.  Devote an hour to just typing (or scribbling), or set a word goal, and then make the leap.  Don't stop or re-read what you've written until you've reached your time limit or word goal.  If it's one particular scene you are wrestling through, jot down some notes on what you're trying to accomplish through that section and then move to the next.  Details can come later, and sometimes it's easier to develop supporting scenes retrospectively, in light of later events.  It's not cheating to write in a non-linear fashion.

Sometimes, this type of nose-to-the-grindstone approach is a good way to figure out what is essential to your draft and what can be eliminated: by only writing in such a way that the most basic ideas are transferred from mind to paper, you can often narrow down your ultimate trajectory.  Most ideas are a good percentage fat and can be trimmed significantly during editing in order to solidify the final product.  So if a power-writing session results in a few corners being cut, don't be afraid to eliminate scenes or characters that could be deemed redundant.

...but make sure you save them in a separate file, just in case!

Writers fear rejection.  Just like the rest of you (we're people too).  The truth is, writers fear rejection for the same reason any artist does: the rejection of craft is the rejection of the artist.  Someone who doesn't dabble in the arts might not understand that concept ("All I said was, 'It needs work,' and he fell to pieces!"), but for the writer, rejection negates hours of work and creativity, rendering them fruitless.  Especially from a publisher or an agent, rejection can feel like a direct challenge to the author's personal writing style, imagination, and sense of aesthetic.  It forces a negative comparison: "not good enough to be published" literally means "not as good as what is already published," and frankly, what is already published is often not worthy of being on the opposite side of the comparison.

Of course, all that is not to say that rejection can't be a form of positive criticism, of course.  Far too many manuscripts that should see another revision magically make it the shelves at Barnes & Noble.  That's the danger in self-publishing, especially with the contemporary ease of e-publishing: there is no need to perfect your work, because there won't be an editor who will reject your grammatical mess of a manuscript unless you hire one yourself.  Feedback -- especially from a publisher or an agent -- is one of the most useful things a writer can receive, because it's a powerful sharpening tool.  It's the opportunity to go back to the drawing board and fix what didn't work before -- what one wouldn't have realized needed fixing without someone else to point it out.

That being said, "I don't like it" is incredibly unhelpful "feedback."  Conversely, "I LOVE IT" isn't much more than a stroke to the ego.  Neither of these responses address particulars.  The former might as well be a statement of indifference.  Neither tells me what I'm doing wrong or right so that I can make the necessary edits.  Disliking it or adoring it only means something to the author if there are particular reasons.  Maybe the characters were boring and predictable, or maybe they were richly developed and made the reader feel empathetic toward their challenges.  Maybe the plot's pace was excellent, or maybe there was too much description for it to even take place.  Furthermore, sometimes, you're not supposed to like a piece of writing.  Sometimes a writer intends to provoke a negative emotional response to make a point.  Some of the most powerful literature has some of the most grotesque elements that make us shudder, but ultimately make such powerful statements about humanity.  Therefore, we need to be told why our work is good or bad, and why it makes you accept or reject it.

In sum, writers fear rejection but also need constructive criticism.  We need to be told precisely what needs to be fixed, because after staring at the paper or the screen for hundreds of hours, sometimes even the worst of drafts can take on the illusion of a masterpiece.  We become biased toward our own work, whether or not we admit it, and sometimes need someone to direct our attention to fatal flaws that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Writers fear sharing their first drafts.  You could also say writers hate discussing their current work -- particularly, the novel-in-progress.  To some degree, the unfinished draft feels infinitely fragile to its creator.  Sharing it before it has fully developed could result in its destruction.  Furthermore, the unfinished product could misrepresent the grand vision.  If we let someone in on the story before it's complete, it could be missing integral elements of the finished state that could influence the reader's opinion.  We fear the work-in-progress becoming not worth the effort to finish.

Tara always wants to look over my shoulder when I'm writing.  And while I'm always eager for her to read what I'm working on, there's also the overpowering urge to slam my laptop shut -- lest she see the red underlines or read something that might later be changed.  "Wait until I'm done," is my constant plea -- a request she more or less reluctantly heeds.

Of course, I'm an odd combination -- equal parts editor and writer.  That means that, for as many pages I move forward, I move backward by twice as much.  I want the perfect words and the perfect draft, a tendency that is as much a hindrance to progress as it is a boon.  Typically, writers don't care about cleaning up their manuscripts and are content to leave grammatical cleanup to their editors -- as was Oscar Wilde, who famously attached the following note to a manuscript sent to his publisher: "I'll leave you to tidy up the woulds and shoulds, wills and shalls, thats and whiches."  In other words, the importance of correct grammar is typically of less importance to writers than the declaration of their original thought.  And frankly, when someone has been writing for some time, they generally possess a solid enough grasp of the language that their typical errors are merely typographical.

In sum, don't ask a writer about a work-in-progress -- that is, unless he or she is that weird sort of writer who wants to converse about his or her novel while writing it (frankly, I do not understand that mindset).  For most of us, it's best to wait until the draft is ready to be read to ask about it.  At that point, we're [*cough*narcissistically*cough*] thrilled to discuss it.

So why do we do it?

If all of this is true, why subject ones' self to self-generated torture?  Why get on the bull if it's only an 8-second ride before the fall?

The simple answer?  We enjoy it.  It's as challenging as it is rewarding.  Writing is what I would consider my greatest strength, so it's what I enjoy doing the most.  There are few things so satisfying to me as working on a manuscript or an article.  Conversely, there are few things nearly as frustrating as struggling through writer's block or rejection.  The writing experience is as cathartic as it is invigorating.  It shouldn't be easy: it's a labor and a struggle, but it's also a passion.

The more complex answer is that we do it because there's a story to tell.  The imagination or some set of circumstances prompted the idea, and now it must be written.  There's simply a need.  Maybe it has dragons, and maybe it doesn't.  Regardless, it's a story.  It's the very nuts and bolts of humanity.

At heart, I believe we're all storytellers, whether we write them on paper or sing them into a microphone or punch them into a time card.  The story of grace is written on all our hearts, and so our very beings are comprised of conflict, character development, and resolution.

All our stories are worth telling.

That's why we do it.


02 June 2014

Twelve practical things to do while suffering

This is an ongoing topic that warrants frequent posts on the subject, and anytime I come across a really solid discussion on the matter, it's worth sharing those ideas.  For that reason, I've plagiarized and adapted this list from Ed Welch's blog.  His quotes are in italics, and I take no credit for these ideas.

Ed, If you should happen to read this, thanks... and please don't sue.


Twelve Practical Things to Do While Suffering

Don’t be surprised when bad things happen (and don't be surprised when they get worse) (1 Pet 4.12)

"We won't be spared the sufferings that the world experiences; we will participate in them -- both for the world’s benefit and our own."

Remember not only that Jesus suffered, but that He also promised those who truly follow Him would experience the same.  That falls under the job description of picking up a cross to follow Him.  This isn't found in the Bible's fine print, but boldly in Christ's testimony to His disciples.

He also didn't instruct us to pray for relief as our first priority.  Instead, through the pen of James, He encouraged endurance and patience that would lead to the perfecting of our faith (1.3).  Endurance and long-suffering aren't character traits that develop through quickly relieved pain: they emerge only as we carry on, relying more completely upon His strength as our personal weakness only increases, revealing more and more how much we need Him.

Suffering is a benefit to us because it conditions our hearts to depend upon Him.  It's a benefit to the world because it enables us to be empathetic and nurtures within us a compassion for those who are perishing -- so that we might reach them with the good news.

Live by faith in order to see the unseen (Heb 2.2)

"Our eyes will tell us that God is far away and silent, but the truth is that he is close—invisible—but close."

Faith, as defined by Hebrews 11, is the substance of things hoped for and unseen.  It is forsaking the need for tangible evidence and trusting without doubt -- with complete certainty.  It's a faith that is confirmed in the person of Christ.  God's nearness is a good and permanent reality (Psa 73.28).  Through the vehicle of faith, He enables us to trust completely in His omnipresence.  Though our eyes might not see Him working, we know that He is.

Learn to distinguish between the pains of persecution, discipline, and human experience (Rom 8.22)

We can lump suffering into one category, but there is a huge difference between suffering for Jesus, suffering because we've done something wrong, and suffering simply because we are human.  The deaths of loved ones, the pain of illness, the aches of old age -- these are all the result of creation groaning for the Lord's return.  They are the degenerative effects of sin upon our world.  Some types of physical pain are the result of sinful choices, certainly: the grief of committing murder and the discomfort of incarceration are direct results of sin, as is the experience of an STD gained from a life of wanton sexuality.  There are real, physical, and emotional consequences for some sins.  However, not all pain arises directly from our mistakes.  Like Jesus told His disciples, a man isn't born blind simply because he or his parents sinned, but so that God's glory can be manifested (John 9.3).  Affliction has everything to do with the fallen nature in our world and the intention of God to glorify Himself through its redemption.

We would be wise to distinguish what suffering persecution feels like as well.  Suffering for Christ does not include denying yourself a lunch at Applebee's so that you can put a little more into the offering plate on Sunday.  However, it might include ruining a promotion for yourself because you were willing to make an ethical decision despite company policy, and then to be vocal about the Biblical reason for doing so.  It might include being willing to speak out against a brother or sister's sinful behavior even if it means losing them as a friend.  American Christians especially are guilty of labeling a personal act of "sacrifice" an experience of suffering for Jesus, but we can't assume that our self-imposed façade of suffering is the result of following Christ.  It is only when our righteousness sparks a negative reaction from our sinful world that our experience falls under the umbrella of persecution.

The point is this.  We will suffer throughout our sojourn on this earth -- for numerous reasons, and there is an appropriate response to each (Jas 5.13).  Furthermore, we will suffer because Christ endured all things and we are following in His footsteps.

Remember that suffering will reveal what is really in your heart (Jas 1.2; Matt 12.34)

"Where do you turn when tested?  Do you turn toward Jesus or turn inward?"

Do we become frustrated when things don't go the way we expected, or do we cast all of our cares upon Him because it is His compassion that revives our souls (1 Pet 5.7)?  The nature of how we respond will reveal the condition of our hearts.  And if we respond with pride or bitterness, then the suffering we are experiencing might ultimately prove to be a vehicle of the Lord's design for change and spiritual growth.

Remember that God is God, I am not (Job 38-42)

"Humility and submission before the King can quiet some of your questions."

God answers Job from out of the whirlwind
As James wrote, wisdom is given to the man who asks in faith (1.5).  If we want to know why God is leading us through the fire or the waves, then we must first be humble enough to acknowledge that He knows best and we do not.

In the example of Job, God's response to the man of righteousness' questions was to elaborate only on the infinite wonders of His work and His character.  He didn't provide answers.  He provided a dissertation on who He is.

He is God, we are not.

To question Him in arrogance is to deny any possibility of genuine understanding.  If we choose instead to remember who He is -- in addition to His unfailing promises to us -- sometimes the questions we want so badly to be answered can become comparatively insignificant.

Confess sin (Heb 12.1, 2)

"Confession always helps you to see the cross of Jesus more clearly.  It is the quickest way to see the persistent and lavish love of God."

Confession and humility go hand-in-hand.  Together, they are the joint acknowledgement of our imperfection and our dependence upon the blood of Christ to make us new.  Suffering is an opportunity to reflect upon our sinfulness -- not necessarily that we have done something to deserve our current predicament, but that we deserve far worse than we have received.  John's first epistle affirms that we have sinned in all ways -- in action, in attitude, and in our very nature -- and yet God promises restoration to the one who humbles himself to the point of confession (1 John 1.9).  Suffering is an opportunity to make right areas of our lives we might not otherwise have considered.

Study the example of the Suffering Servant (Isa 53)

"He has entered into your suffering, and you can enter into his."

Jesus' experience as a human was one of intimate acquaintance with pain, grief, and despair.  He knew the rejection of men as well as the holy wrath of His Father -- wrath He incurred at no fault of His own, but for taking the sins of the world upon His own back.  He knew isolation and hardship, and was tempted as all men are (Heb 4.15).  He endured the cross.  He went to the grave.

Furthermore, He promised the disciples that suffering would pursue them all of their days.  Since the world had hated Him, it would inevitably hate them if they followed in His steps.  When we find ourselves in the midst of suffering, it is a prime opportunity to study the example of Christ -- to appreciate anew the richness of His mercy and the costliness of his sacrifice.  It is through suffering that we can more fully identify with Him.

Develop a consistent prayer life

"Speak honestly and often to the Lord."

Prayer is more often than not a last resort.  It often sits unused at the bottom of the toolbox.  Suffering can help us to make it a priority.  It can also deepen our communication with God.  Instead of the flighty, shallow, and unrealized requests we offer before bedtime and meals, we can pray more earnestly about our condition -- both physical and spiritual.  We can learn to worship him in the desert so that we can continue to praise Him with gratitude when we reach the mountaintop.  Use the time of suffering to grow your dependence upon God through prayer.

Expect to get to know God better while in this wilderness (Phil 3.10-11)

The wilderness is a place designed for transformation.  Sometimes it is necessary to be relieved of the baggage we carry in order to see God more clearly.  By that, I mean sometimes God allows us to lose the things that are most important to us -- jobs, possessions, relationships -- in order to divert our attention from these secondary pursuits to the one of primary importance (Psa 39.11).

God works through weakness.  He reveals Himself to those who recognize their need.  In the wilderness, we grow less dependent upon ourselves and more dependent upon Him.  If we remained in a place of comfort, we would not have the opportunity to learn the type of lessons God teaches when we are at the place of desperate need.

Learn from those who have shared this experience...

"Be moved with compassion as you hear other stories of suffering."

Empathy is developed through suffering.  Mutual pain is emotionally moving because another's circumstances are so similar to our own history.  We pray more earnestly for people who are going through the same thing we once did.  We want to help someone who is struggling to find the path that took us years to find on our own.  Therefore, when we are in that place of weakness, we should understand that we can lean into the wisdom of others who have been where we currently are.  Christians should help each other through the wilderness, because that is true fellowship.

...so that means seek help and be honest

We often want help but are too embarrassed to ask.  Maybe we think people won't understand, or maybe we don't want people to think that we're weak.  Sometimes, we make a halfhearted attempt to open up, but only give a partial truth about what we are truly experiencing.  Other times we just seek out the comforting words we want to hear by complaining to a sympathetic or commiserating friend -- as opposed to getting the advice we need to hear.

If we are wandering into a valley of sin, we should be quick to find accountability and godly counsel in order to find our way out of the snare.  If we are swimming through a sea of emotional pain or spiritual oppression, there is inherent strength in the unity of the Body -- a strength that we cannot access on our own.  The Body of Christ exists to glorify God by helping each other on the road of righteousness.  The edification and accountability Christian fellowship provides are necessary to spiritual living.

If you were suffering from a physical ailment, you would go to a doctor.  Why not seek the same type of help when you are suffering spiritually?

Look ahead (Ps. 84)

"We are on a pilgrimage that ends at the temple of God."

Suffering should provide incentive to develop an eternal perspective.  Like nothing else, it should cause us to exclaim, "Take the world and give me Jesus!"  It is worshipful to yearn for the day when we shall be with Christ, seeing Him face-to-face and savoring the peaceful repose His Kingdom provides.  We certainly aren't home yet, but we can long to be.  Suffering is an opportunity to increase our desire to be with Christ and learn to take joy in anticipation of eternity spent worshipping Him.