The People Who Write Books

The crazy people write books, that’s who. Trying to write a book after spending two years as a writer of 800 to 1000 word blog posts is like running a marathon after training to be a sprinter.

I’ve been attempting to wake up and write at 5 am. Giving up our usual method of grinding beans and waiting for French press coffee, I pulled out the 12-cup automatic drip coffee maker. The smell of coffee yanks me out of bed, down the stairs and into my chair.

But as a mom to three young children, the time is too short. Just as I begin to swim away from the shore, out of the shallow end into the deeps, and finally start writing something real, it is 6:30 am. The children whine for breakfast, the baby needs to be nursed, it’s time to go out on a short run, or the laundry needs to be transferred from the washing machine to the dryer. I struggle to break out of the writing trance to get back to life as usual.

But on my run today, I thought about the small work that gets us to the end. Every morning that I wake up and pound out my 500 words, is like a notch in the wall, a foothold taking me higher up to the summit. Some weeks I feel depressed. Self-doubt and loathing threaten my resolve. My inner accusers challenge me, critiquing my every word, every sentence, every groggy minute spent away from my family, friends, or hobbies. Why are you wasting your time? they say.

But then God inevitably gives me a sign. Like the sun bursting through the spruce tree branches into the window over my kitchen sink in the morning, he creates a constellation out of the ordinary.

This autumn, Colorado experienced an uncharacteristic three weeks of dreary cloud cover and rain, which eats away at my soul more than other people since I suffer from seasonal affective disorder. It didn’t help that my three children, five and under, seemed bewitched.

So one night last week, I escaped the house at dusk, abandoning my husband to stories about talking animals, tooth-brushing, toileting, singing and prayers. I wandered the streets of our suburb, which was probably very attractive in 1979, gazing into windows and wondering how I got here.

I considered quitting writing.

I passed a yard with a small, green wooden box constructed on top of a pole–one of many little free libraries that have sprung up across the nation that invite the free exchange of magazines, literature, and trashy novels. Rifling through, I found a book. A strange, slim stranger among ordinary friends, it was a book so niche that I wondered if my husband had slipped in it in the box. It was exactly the book I needed for the next notch in the wall I am climbing towards writing this book proposal. I took it as a sign that I am on the right road.

Lately, my three year old daughter has been flapping her arms, running round and round the kitchen island, singing, “I fly through the sky and land on the ground!” over and over and over again. It is the mantra of a writer. Sometimes I feel like I’m flying through the sky, with words and images elevating me almost effortlessly, but most times I just feel like I’m walking with my feet firmly on the ground. I crunch dying leaves, get hit in the face by stray branches, act as referee for my children at the park and wipe oatmeal up off the floor that my daughter has dumped out.

“Look! Look at those geese!” my five year old son said earlier this week, pointing into the grey sky. Turning like he does to mansplain to my three year old daughter, he said, “They spell out words in the sky, like our last name, ‘Verner.'” I imagined all the things the geese would write if they could spell out messages for those of us on the ground to read.

I keep trying to quit, but God keeps sending new North Stars to guide me along my way. I am caught in the river current and swimming back is impossible. Earlier this week, Annie Dillard pushed me along, with these words:

“Why do you never find anything written about that idosynratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands?

Because it is up to you.

There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. It is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin.

You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.” —The Writing Life (p. 68)

So I’m showing up. I’m writing what only I can write. I’m giving voice to my own astonishment every morning at 5 am–even if it means I only end up with one decent paragraph. I’m walking with my feet on the ground, but trusting God to lift me up every once in a while and set my ordinary words to flight. Perhaps my words will speak to someone on the ground.

How Writers Find Their Brave

Madeleine L’Engle should be the patron saint of Christian women writers. Any time I start doubting myself, I pull out Walking on Water and feel like I can stop hyperventilating and breathe again. This morning in Walking on Water I read:

“I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius or something very small, comes to the artists and says, ‘Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.’ And the artist either says, ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord,’ and willingly becomes the bearer of the work, or refuses; but the obedient response is not necessarily a conscious one, and not everyone has the humble, courageous obedience of Mary.” (p. 18)

“When the artist is truly the servant of the work, the work is better than the artist.” (p. 24)

“When the work takes over, then the artist is enabled to get out of the way, not to interfere. When the work takes over, then the artist listens.” (p. 24)

Serve the Work. Get out of the way. Listen.

Yes.

Annie Dillard says something similar in The Writing Life:

“At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it.” (p. 75)

Most days I sit down and write paragraphs of pure junk. It flows so easily. Then I pick back through the rubble like a hurricane victim trying to salvage valuables from the storm. A friend of mine just shared an article with me about how we must first allow the madman to write. That’s what I’m doing these days. Lots of “shitty first drafts” written by my inner madman. (Thank you, Anne Lamott, for empowering us to write what comes first.)

I have a friend who wants to start writing. “How did you get the courage to start?” she asked.

I wrote because not writing was no longer an option. It was more painful not to write than to write. Like plugging a water faucet with your finger, the words were just too pent up. They demanded a release. In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke says that we should only write if we must.

But I am still learning how to get out of the way and serve the work. It takes a certain faith to believe in the word magic. Elizabeth Gilbert has built her entire career on it, writing Big Magic and producing a podcast called Magic Lessons. It feels like voodoo. But Christian poet Luci Shaw instead names the Holy Spirit as her muse in Breath for the Bones.

Sometimes it helps to over-spiritualize things.

When I meet other writers, they ask me if I want to write a book. “Maybe eventually,” I’ve always said. I still feel like I’m in love with the love of writing, like I’m not ready to commit to this as a profession. It is an affair without the commitment and I don’t want to sacrifice the butterflies for the long-term, daily work of love that includes the non-sexy tasks of emptying the dishwasher and hanging the wet clothes on the line. But the time has come.

The Book is asking me to write it.

I was excited at first. But lately I’ve taken cues from my children and become a fantastic whiner. Just what my husband needs.

I made the mistake of going into Barnes and Noble. Thousands of beautiful books full of billions of words assaulted me. I couldn’t leave quickly enough. They seemed to all be harassing me, screaming, “We don’t need any more of these!”

But hanging on my husband’s neck in the kitchen after the kids had finally quieted down that night, I told him about the abuse I had suffered. I echoed the books’ words: “Why? Why does the world need another book?”

“Think about it like this,” he said. “The world doesn’t need another child, either. There are billions. And yet each one is precious—unique—and a necessary and beautiful contribution to the world. And people just keep birthing them.”

This from a man who consumes over 80 books a year and reads for a living. He has narrated a few horrible books in his lifetime. Surely he would save me from myself if I was way off track.

But he believes I can do it. I don’t think I would have even started writing without him as a coach, editor and cheerleader. God knew I wouldn’t venture out without at least one person in the world telling me I could do this.

So I released my inner madman this morning. He’s running all over the page. I’m listening. I lift my hands in terrified obedience–surrender, even.

Yes. I will serve the work.

Here we go.

 

If you are a writer, how do you find your brave?

 

*Contains Amazon affiliate links

What do Annie Dillard, Madeleine L'Engle, Luci Shaw and Rilke have in common?

Day 18: What I Want for My Children {31 Days of #WOKE}

 

I want my children to be the stranger sometimes, too.

I want their ears flooded with the music of other tongues.

I want them to be speechless as they smash into unfamiliar sights, smells, tastes and sounds.

I want them to experience being the minority.

I want their friendships saturated with color.

I want them to sit in a foreign living room drinking milk tea and wonder if they’re doing it right.

I want them to always err on the side of generosity.

I want them to know their country is not the center or the best, but one equal square in the world’s quilt.

I want them to make room at the table.

I want them to speak up for the voiceless, the invisible and the excluded.

I want them to absorb the pain of others.

I want them to splash in the thrill of creating like the Creator.

I want them to feel funny, smart, beautiful, creative and respected without needing to be.

I want them to be brave, bold, confident and strong.

I want them to surrender to the discipline of discomfort, allowing it to uproot pride and demolish their assumptions.

I want them to die to themselves.

I want them to love the sacred song of stillness.

I want them to understand how history impacts them and their neighbor.

I want them to speak light into another person’s darkness.

I want them to be undone by the suffering of others, but empowered by their own suffering.

I want them to serve quietly, but persistently.

I want them to know the Jesus who died for the ungodly, served the undeserving and shattered fear, hopelessness, anxiety through defeating death.

I want them to be free—unhindered, unshackled and unfettered.

I want them to be understood, known and satisfied.

I want them to love extravagantly, for they are extravagantly loved.

 

New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).

A 31 Day Series Exploring Whiteness and Racial Perspectives

During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.

I want my children to be the stranger sometimes, too. I want their ears flooded with the music of other tongues. I want them to be speechless as they smash into unfamiliar sights, smells, tastes and sounds. I want them to experience being the minority.

 

 

Madeleine L’Engle Made Me Do It {for SheLoves}

I shared this last week on SheLoves for the theme “legacy.” When I thought of a woman who has had a huge impact on my life, Madeleine L’Engle immediately came to mind…

 
My husband and I fell in love dodging sparks over a shared affection for travel, coffee and Madeleine L’Engle. I had just finished rereading L’Engle’s treatise on faith and art, Walking on Water, for the umpteenth time, feeling the usual pull to be a writer without the guts to follow the call. My future husband, it turned out, owned every non-fiction book she had written, but had a special affinity for this one because of his own call to be an actor.

Over the years, L’Engle’s words have not only entertained, but also empowered me. For the closet creative with a secret compulsion to write, act, paint, draw, sing, plant or plan a Pinterest party, her words are just the pixie dust you need to fly.

I’ve had a fondness for Madeleine L’Engle since the first time my mom thrust A Wrinkle in Time into my hands in elementary school, making me promise to read it before devouring another Babysitter’s Club book. Years later, after graduating and taking a job teaching seventh grade, A Wrinkle in Time was my first choice of a novel for my students to read for our literature circles.

But it wasn’t until last year that L’Engle’s words changed the trajectory of my life.

Five years after my husband and I fell in love, I reread Walking on Water not in the midst of my single life full of wide-open paths, but sitting on a spit-up stained couch by dim lamplight nursing my second baby. As I read, my secret compulsion unexpectedly grew into courage.

Like a prophecy that awaits its time, the words finally claimed me.

“Feed the lake,” she wrote.

I had so many excuses why I shouldn’t begin writing publically. (The baby on my lap, for one). But there were others…

Continue reading at SheLoves.