When Writing Stops Being Fun

photo (43)“Where in your life are you experiencing the easy yoke of Jesus?” I paused for a beat or two as my eyes scanned our living room, looking for signs the question had stirred them. Soon, one friend, then another, spoke about where he or she was finding divine flow these days, from mission trips to motherhood. They knew it was flow because it didn’t require an instruction manual and it didn’t require much effort. When it was my turn to speak, I answered confidently that I was finding it “in my writing.” That was Thursday. By Friday, I was groaning to Rush – a jumbo-sized Blow Pop in my mouth – that “I shuddnt hap jinx it.”

Since turning in my manuscript revision for my first full-length book last month, I’ve been resting. I sleep in until the alarm clock goes off. I don’t check e-mail on weekends. I take naps during episodes of the West Wing and don’t bother to rewatch them before moving on to the next one. I even managed to take my publisher’s advice to “consider the electronic copy of your manuscript dead to you.” Until now, when people asked about my book - off in some faraway copy editor’s hands – I replied, almost zen-like, “I feel a certain peace about it.” Writing for fun seemed possible again.

Then, not six weeks after I’d gone on my vacation from toil, I got the copy edits in the mail. The package was resting up against our door when I went outside to sniff the air last Monday. I held it my hands. Nervous. Excited. Reverent. Closing the door behind me, I came back inside and put it on the coffee table where it stayed all week. “I’m not ready for you, yet,” I told it on Wednesday. “I’m having so much fun. Can you wait until Friday?” A worm’s-length worth of dread was beginning to twist knots in my stomach.

In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield personifies this kind of creative attack as Resistance. It shouldn’t surprise us that it often comes directly after bold statements of purpose, passion, or joy. In fact, it shouldn’t surprise us that upon meeting Resistance the task we once named an “easy yoke” becomes anything but fun. Fun, after all, is why the amateur creates, Pressfield writes. Resistance sees no threat from the amateur. The pro, however, writes because she can’t not. Words are as elemental to her as water. It is how she keeps herself alive and how she has any strength left to help others do the same. Her’s is a life and death calling.

When writing stops being fun, we have the chance to go pro.
Pros write to understand before ever writing to be understood 
Pros hunt down their fear until it no longer hunts them
Pros create space to create and protect it from attack
Pros endure a bad day because they know they have a lifetime
Pros know their worth, and know it’s not tied to their work

Most days I pinch myself that I get paid to do what I love – and with so talented a team. But I’ve also been tempted to believe that this would all be more fun if it were just me in my pajamas with no one’s edits, no one’s deadlines, no one’s tracked changes. There are parts of the publishing process that have brought sheer delight - like getting to choose from three, slick cover options or getting to fill out an author Q&A  like I was some guest on a talk show. There are also parts that require a jumbo-sized Blow Pop.

When Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me,” he gave us some clues as to what that might look like, namely, to do our work with gratitude and humility and in partnership. To be yoked with Jesus, as a novice ox would be yoked with a more experienced one, doesn’t mean we are excused from all work. Our bodies keep moving forward in faith by showing up, opening packages, and sitting down again to do the work that we can’t not do. But by taking the “easy part” of action not outcome, Jesus promises rest for our stressed-out souls.

Even when the work stops being fun, we have the chance of going yoked with a pro.

Faithful Rebel: Perky Patty on How God Talks to Everyone (Even You)

5674274591_c031de13c8_m“Do you remember Phil Coutler?” my mom asks me from the passenger seat. She’s visiting. We’re driving.

“Phil Coulter? I haven’t thought about that name in years. I used to love waking up to his cheesy, elevator music on long car rides. It meant Charlie and I had fallen asleep, and you were alone at the wheel.”

“But do you remember how I asked you to imagine God in those songs?” She was always asking us to imagine God, to talk to God, to listen for God. One time we drove around town looking for my brother’s stolen bike, stopping at every intersection to ask God, “Straight, Right, or Left?” No moment was too small to beg God’s voice.

She goes on, “It was amazing what you and Charlie saw. You were, like, elementary school age, and here you’d be listening to Phil’s music and say, ‘Oh, I see God in a boat’ or ‘Now God’s pushing me in a swing.’” Now her hands are in front of her chest, palms facing outward like she’s pushing holy air, “It was so totally awesome.”

God’s so totally awesome, according to my mom - better known to me and all who meet her as Perky Patty. Here is a woman God has been wooing her whole life. She began shopping for churches on her own in the sixth grade. She heard God’s command to find her drowning son while an unbeliever in her thirties. She converted to Catholicism, home schooled us in catechism classes, and later became a charismatic. Now that she’s retiring age, she thinks God might want her to be an overseas missionary, but she has a vision of a house with a wrap-around porch in small town America that she just can’t shake. While she was visiting, I sat down (side by side – apologies for the echo) with my original model of a faithful rebel to talk “God stories,” gut feelings, and how perhaps the greatest miracle of all is that God wants to communicate with each and every one of us.

Take twenty minutes to listen to Perky Patty and consider the ways God is speaking to you, Whitney Houston songs included.

Oh, and in case you were wondering? We found my brother’s bike. Fifteen minutes from home. Spray-painted black. Sitting outside a store front.

God’s voice falls clear on expectant ears.

Do you want to hold my baby?

photoIt’s happening. In the last year, what were once just thoughts and talk and made-up timelines have now become real: Five friends. Five newborns. One unavoidable question, “Do you want to hold my baby?” and one awkward answer, “I will if you want me to.”

I’ve written plenty about Rush’s and my decision to not try for biological children. It’s a choice that most people in our circle have come to accept, even if it seemed a hypothetical one when we were in our twenties and surrounded by friends who had similar ideas about how they’d never sell-out to the suburbs or never eat bargain chicken. Never is a precarious promise. But now that our ideas about where we’d live and who we’d love and how we’d make a life were beginning to shake out, there was a new choice I hadn’t anticipated. How did I want to relate to other people’s children?

It’s a shame other people’s children have to start out as babies and not something more furry and sure-footed. Even my mother who makes a living as a baby nurse once said that tiny humans didn’t do much for her. They seemed to do a whole lot for my friends who were birthing them. “It’s like no love I’ve ever known,” one cooed. Another, “I just can’t stop staring.” Even though I didn’t really want to hold anyone’s baby, preferring instead to hear about the high-drama details of her labor or the mid-level hum of their marriage, I typically agreed when asked if only because everyone else was doing it.

“What am I supposed to say?” I asked one of my favorite pair of new parents. “Is it rude to say no? I mean, I’ll do it if someone needs to run to the bathroom or something but I don’t have to do it. I don’t really care one way or the other.”

Juli sat across from me on her teal vinyl couch, the baby monitor in her sight line,  a margarita in her hand.  “Erin, I think you can be honest. I only ask people because I assume they want to. You should see some of them when I offer. They lean right into it.”

Corey put his hand on her thigh and squeezed. “Juli has a knack for reading people. But she’d never be offended if someone said no. Your friends should understand.”

I thought about their comments driving home that night, the taste of lime and salt still lingering on my tongue. My friends should understand that babies aren’t my thing. My friends should understand me. But perhaps I should understand them, too. If I wanted to love my friends well, perhaps I should learn to love what they loved.

I considered for a moment my dog, Amelia. And how I loved people who loved Amelia. A friend who came to stay for a night and admitted, “I’m just not a dog person,” became, all of a sudden, a friend who I worried wasn’t “my kind of person.” A friend who slept over and requested that Amelia share her bed? Now that was a friend who had my heart.

After all, isn’t this how we learn to love God, too, by loving the things God loves? And Scripture is uneiquivocal about God’s love for the innocent, the newborns, the children among us.

Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger. (Psalm 8:2)

Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it. (Luke 18:17)

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. (1 Corinthians 1:27)

The greater risk then is not doing something that doesn’t move me. The greater risk is living underwhelmed by that which moves God.

In the last year, as five friends have given birth to five newborns, I have held five babies, and not just hypothetical “babies”once dreamed of but babies named Arden, Novella, Hank, Hazel, and Grady. I suppose I could say no the next time one of their parents asks, “Do you want to hold my baby?” I could say no because I might get drool on my shoulder or nails across my chest. But I could also say yes. Instead of mumbling, “I will if you want me to,” I could say, “I would love to hold your baby.”

I could even mean it.

Settling for a Marriage of “Good Enough”

WeddingEight years ago today, Rush and I were wed in a ceremony we described as “good enough.” It proved a blessed refrain for the marriage that followed.

My laissez-faire attitude may have been due to the fact I didn’t know any better when we got engaged. When Rush proposed to me at the top of Stone Mountain, I was less than a month into my senior year of college. The ring toddled clumsily on my finger – I had used fashion jewelry at Claire’s to guess my size – and I toddled clumsily into the wedding-planning process. Rush and I bought an Emily Post etiquette book with the thought that “at least we’ll know what rules we’re breaking.”

We set a date for six weeks after my graduation and began to swiftly check-off the to-do list. First, there was the photographer, a Mr. Rogers-looking man who we thought modern because he did “photojournalism.” Good enough, we said. At least he’d go unnoticed. Then, there was the florist who asked what flowers we wanted and the only ones we could name were daisies and lilacs. Good enough, we said. At least they were cheap. When I went to pick out my dress in Cincinatti’s famed bridal district, the saleswomen worried I wouldn’t have time for alterations.  Nevermind then, I said, and I found a mermaid dress at the mall.  Good enough. At least there was still time to sew in cups.

Sometimes when we’re reminiscing about our ceremony, Rush and I laugh at the details we tended so casually. The photographer ended up being less like a skilled paparrazo and more like a family portrait artist from Sears. The singular flowers at the end of each pew sagged without the weight of other varietals to prop them up. Rush wore a brown suit too big for him and I wore underwear that showed through satin.

Still, we don’t regret a thing. How could we when “good enough” was such a good way for us to begin life together? I remember a conversation I had with a campus minister when we were first dating about how Rush just wasn’t the man I pictured for me. He wasn’t literary. Or well-traveled. I was sure she’d counsel me to break thing off. Instead, she said, “What if you don’t have to worry about all those things? What if your job is just to enjoy him?” If enjoying him was a good enough goal for dating, surely it was a good enough goal for wedding-planning and, later, marriage-making.

Settling for good enough doesn’t mean being lazy about the things that matter. Rush and I put more thought into the liturgy of our ceremony than we did the scratchy groomsmen ties. When it comes to my professional life, the standard of good enough has sometimes be an excuse to shrink from ambition. But for the most part, good enough has been a refrain that stops the endless lust for more and better: better friendships, more intimacy, better wine. Instead, I ask myself, “What if your job is just to enjoy this life?”

I love that even God stopped the endless work of creation-planning and called it good, very good. And if good is good enough for God, it’s good enough for us.

How to grieve like a two-year-old

ITT Cover AJB“No fixing, saving, advising, or correcting.” This is one of the most important guidelines for group work in the Courage & Renewal retreats I help facilitate. It’s also one of the hardest. At the start of every retreat, we hand out a sheet of ten guidelines – what we call “touchstones” – that provide the structure of belonging for this temporary community. We carefully read each aloud and when we get to the one about “no fixing,” some people in the room let out an audible exhale, while others stiffen in their chairs. How then can we help one another? their furrowed eyes wonder. For a time, we tell participants, our task is not to be helpful – or useful or even edifying, as Christians are wont to do. Our task, as theologian Nell Morton put it, is rather “to hear each other into speech.”

That attentiveness alone gives others the permission they need to speak the unspeakable is perhaps nowhere more true than in the seascape of grief. My new friend Jonalyn Fincher and co-author Aubrie Hills have written a book to help grievers and their companions alike navigate the foggy waters of despair. Invitation to Tears: A Guide to Grieving Well acts like a quiet compass to its reader, telling stories about the authors’ own experiences of loss, using Scripture in fresh ways that say “look” rather than “do,” and ending each section with a list of gentle questions and practices to explore. (I especially loved the art-house movie suggestions.) Below is one of my favorite excerpts from the book on the difference between curing comfort and caring comfort:

We cannot begin to grieve if we are our own first critics. How much compassion do we have for ourselves when suffering? What about our friends? We cannot freely share our pain if every suffering statement finds a response in someone’s curing, fixing attempts at comfort. We each must re-learn how to speak about and respond to loss.

When Jonalyn’s son was two, he would re-tell any personal injury, drumming up an audience to live through the tragedy he just endured. “Do you remember?” he would begin. “I bumped my head. Bam! Right here. Look, right here. Bang!” He replayed it for his parents, step by painful step.

If Jonalyn said, “But how do you feel now? Any better?” he would briefly nod only to explain it again. Prompting him to feel better was evidence to him that he wasn’t fully understood. Any listener would then be subjected to another re-enactment. When a new person came to visit, he would claim this new audience to tell his story again. Two year olds are like their parents: they do not want curing comfort, they want caring comfort. They want attentive listeners who care to hear the details of their suffering.

If we are in pain, we want someone skilled at our side. We don’t want the distancing work of sympathy (“Oh, you poor thing!”) or the rushing work of impatience (“Are you still grieving?”). We want the empathy of silence. All sufferers, from the biblical Job to our suffering Messiah, want comfort in the form of listening and tears, prayers and attentiveness.

To tell the stories of our lives we must become skilled in telling our pain. Even if our circle of friends treat our pain as alien, suffering proves we are human, that we belong to this blue planet. We recommend hunting for worthy audiences, for all good stories need an audience that can weep and laugh and let their eyes grow round in shock. We need to develop the ears of a focused audience and the re-telling enthusiasm of a two year old.

When people are discerning the most unnerving experiences of life, as they often are in the safe space of a retreat or the unyielding waves of grief, we are tempted to think that our “resource-sharing skills” would be more helpful than our “attention-sharing skills.” We are tempted to forget that God is the only one skilled in the lasting fix we need.

But that God alone does the saving does not mean we do nothing, say nothing, when navigating grief. For those of us who fancy ourselves good listeners, the harder lesson might be to become good story-tellers. After reading the above excerpt, I’m reminded how unskilled I am at asking for the attention I need, instead withholding my hopelessness from friends rather than sharing it over and over again with the relentless faith of a two-year-old.

I may even hear myself into healing.

What skills do you want/need/use to “grieve well”? What skills have others shared in order to “hear you into speech”? Jonalyn has graciously offered to interact with comments in the section below.

Telling the Truth About Your Father

“Well, Erin, I don’t suppose you want my feedback.”

I had been expecting his call. Every time the phone rang, I was sure it would be him or Perk or Charlie wanting to give me their reaction to my finished manuscript. I had already warned Perk before I e-mailed her the .pdf, “Best to make an appointment with your therapist now.”

I know. I’m touchy these days. These things happen when you finish a book and are sure you’ve said something, somewhere in it that will break someone’s heart in all the wrong ways. This week, it’s the dandruff. I’ve been waking up at four o’clock in the morning thinking about the dandruff. Did I really think it necessary to tell the whole world he had dandruff?

I pull my legs up to my chest in bed, the phone already hot against my chin. “No, Dad. No feedback. It’s still too soon.”

Does this feeling of creative exposure ever relent? In her book Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, memoirist Dani Shapiro shares, “When writers who are just starting out ask me when it gets easier, my answer is never. It never gets easier. I don’t want to scare them, so I rarely say more than that, but the truth is that, if anything, it gets harder.” No matter how much I write or how much I’ve written or how much my mother tells me she loves my writing, I still get mini-hot flashes every time I’ve published something true – and not just common sense true – but my truth kind of true. What’s easier is choosing not to tell my truth. What’s easier is saying, “Okay. Nevermind,” when people tell you they’d prefer you not tell the truth about them at all.

“I’ll just say this then,” Dad continues. My family might be a lot of things but we are not shy. We do not dance around what needs to be said although we are prone to drama, sometimes delusion. His voice sounds calm this time as he shoots me straight. “I haven’t read the whole thing yet but the parts I read about me, well, I liked what I read.”

I’m told this is not the point of writing, that is, for people to like it. I’m told that if you make likeability the point of writing you will be miserable and terse and afraid to check your e-mail after breakfast. The point of writing, the artists say, is to be faithful to the way you see the world even when other people say “you’re wrong” or “you’re warped.” But I am a Christian, too, which means I also want to be faithful to the way the world can be. I want to tell the truth about realities yet seen. I want to write about  people who may be flawed but who are good, imago dei, in their bones.

You see, telling the truth about people doesn’t mean telling everything. Sometimes, we leave the juiciest parts of a story out – the parts that might have made a good script for some after school special –  because we know that just because something happened does not mean it is true. Truth is fuller than a series of events or a list of facts. Truth lives in real, live bodies. Sometimes, it lingers in dead ones, too.

photo-1Yesterday I sat down with Jeanette Stokes, founder of the Resource Center for Women in Ministry in the South and author of a new book called Flying Over Home that chronicles her search to learn more about the charming, flighty, mostly absent doctor that was her father.  Although he’s long gone now, Jeanette tells me, “Writing was a way to make him present for awhile.” What started in 1976 as a series of letters she wrote “at” him after his death turned into a multi-year writing project that reads both like a journalistic history and haunting love story. Leaning back in her chair, Jeanette reflects on how writing about her father changed her perspective: “I like him better now.”

I think Jeanette’s on to something. I like my father better now, too, having written about him in a way that feels true and honest and charitable. Over the course of the book, I learned things I never would have known – like how he once thought to become a priest or that he remembers telling me the divorce wasn’t my fault. After reading the manuscript, he says he understands more about me, too.

That’s the thing about telling the truth. Ours may not be the whole truth, but if we can risk courage and bear humility in the telling, it promises to set us free. 

*To hear Jeanette read from her new book, head over to the Durham Public Library tonight, Monday, June 16th at 7:00 p.m..

Faithful Rebel: Author Felicity Dale on How to Stop Waiting for Permission

SwanJacketfinal“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure,” writes Marianne Williamson, and I know in my bones she’s right. If you’ve noticed it’s been quiet on this blog lately, it’s because for the last three months I’ve been finishing up my manuscript revision  for a new book coming out with Crescendo next year (more on that soon). And in very un-Erin-like fashion, last night I dreamt it was a huge success. Like award-worthy success. The words “shoe-in” were used. I’d never considered such a thing in my waking hours. You write a book and you think you like it and you get some sleep, and this seems the best possible outcome.

Women have a habit of underselling our power. In this month’s “Lessons from a Faithful Rebel” video, I interview author and house church leader Felicity Dale on her anthology The Black Swan Effect: A Response to Gender Hierarchy in the Church. The book includes essays from Dale herself – in one she describes the church as hemiplegic, that is, the female half of the body is experiencing paralyses - as well as contributions from other women and men who support the inclusion of women in leadership in more than just word but deed. (For instance, when’s the last time you sought out a woman to be your mentor?)

While we don’t agree on everything, Felicity helps me see that we don’t need to wait for a man’s permission to use our gifts in the church. More importantly, we don’t need to wait for God’s permission; a faithful reading of Scripture makes it clear it’s already ours in spades. There’s only one skill you need, Felicity says, “Listening to God and then doing what he says.”

Take twenty minutes to listen to Felicity and then consider who in your life needs a reminder that they are powerful beyond measure.

Feeling inspired? Who was the first woman in your life that taught you your own strength?