Who is setting your intentions?

3929606859_6a19b3a121_oIt is 9:21am and I have yet to check my email.  This is new.  Please don’t worry, though.  I’ll get to my email.  I ALWAYS get to my email.  But I needed to make a change.

Last week I scheduled a call with my writing coach, Christine Hemp (who I realize also serves as my spiritual director) because I was feeling creatively dry.  My mind was frantic, overwhelmed by work responsibilities that just kept coming, one email at a time.  I couldn’t keep up.  When I did get a chance to sit down at my desk for an hour or so of uninterupted writing time the words wouldn’t come because my mind was preoccupied by the stress of my to-do list.

During our phone conversation, Christine asked me to recall my intentions for the year.   This is a list she has me create of personal, professional or spiritual goals that I intend to prioritize.  I was surprised to realize that I couldn’t remember any of my intentions. Wow. I needed to make a change.

Sometimes all it takes is the smallest change, a minor life tweak, to improve your quality of life.  As I considered how my intentions had gotten away from me, I realized that my habit of sleeping with my Smartphone beside my bed (I used it as my alarm clock) was not serving me well.  The first thing I did when my alarm went off in the morning was reach over to grab my phone and check my email.  Then, I’d check my email every few minutes throughout the course of my day up to the moment before I set my alarm at night and went to bed.  No wonder my mind was feeling so frantic with all that digital stimuli.  No wonder I had forgotten my intentions because my emails were dictating my intentions for me.  Every email required a response.  Every email I opened was an invitation for someone else’s needs to direct the course of my day, my actions, and my intentions.

So I quit sleeping with my Smartphone.  I started using my alarm clock instead.  (I even bought a new alarm clock that wakes me up to the sound of the ocean crashing against the shore.  Nice, huh? )  I promised myself that I wouldn’t check my email until after I had gotten my kids off to school, created my list of to-do’s for the day (which included a set time to check and respond to emails) and sat for my morning meditation practice.   So far, this has made a world of difference.  I feel like my day is my own again.  I feel more present to my children in the morning.  I feel nurtured by my meditation practice to respond better to the needs of others.  I have regained the spaciousness my spirit requires for my creativity to bloom.  I am being productive again.

What are your intentions?  What changes, or minor life tweaks, do you need to make? How can you nurture yourself today so you can better respond to the needs of others?

[Feature Image:  Guilherme Tavares]

Three Lessons from a Productive Summer

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Lesson #1: Pay attention to baby sparrows.

A newborn sparrow surprised me last spring, unballing himself at the end of my driveway as I was heading out for a run. I had mistaken him for a leftover clump of dead grass. His feet, each with three long, hooked toes were bigger than his whole body. He stood and cocked his thimble-sized head—a shock of feathers on top like a scruffy cowlick—to get a good look at me looking at him.

This summer, during a creative nonfiction writing class, that newborn sparrow worked himself into a piece I wrote about my son as an infant. As I wrote, I was thankful I had paused at the end of my driveway long enough so I could write about the sparrow in detail. Afterwards, I promised to pay more attention to the “baby sparrows” of life, the intricate, intimate life moments that lead us to the best creative fodder.

Lesson #2: Ugliness reveals ugliness.

Another article of mine was published in The Christian Century this past June. In this article I revealed a lot about my preaching anxiety. At the end I even quipped about needing the occasional Xanax to get me through my preaching nerves. I got lots of positive feedback for the article. A number of people specifically noted, with appreciation for my honesty, the line about taking Xanax. Not everyone was so kind, though. One woman apparently felt like I needed a little lecture about addictive prescription drugs. Publishing her comment on the Christian Century’s website, she concluded that if I needed Xanax just to get through a sermon, then clearly I had a problem.

I won’t lie. Her comment stung—it stung so much it made me wonder if I wanted to write so honestly again. Then, Christine, my awesome friend and writing coach, helped me see this woman’s comment for what it really was; an ugly response that made her look ugly, not me. Ugliness reveals ugliness. Thanks for this timely lesson, Christine.

Lesson #3: Encourage others, as you have been encouraged.

Blogging can be discouraging. Sometimes you feel like you are putting your words out there for all the world to read and nobody notices; nobody clicks your link, leaves any comments or gives you any blog love. No matter how many times you check your site’s stats (and yes, some of us check obsessively) that beautiful blue bar graph of “hits” never rises as high as you would like.

I blog for a variety of reasons. I blog as a spiritual practice, as a way to develop my thoughts and my writing, and as a reminder to myself that I have something to say. So it’s not just about the number of hits or likes, I receive. (I don’t think I would have kept at it this long, if that were the case.) But it sure does feel great to get a little encouragement. A few people, in particular, have encouraged me through my blogging, by offering me more opportunities to write. For these people, I am extremely grateful.

So when I found myself at a conference this summer where a number of clergy were starting new blogs, suddenly I was in the happy position of being able to encourage others. I have been having so much fun since this conference, following my new blog friends, leaving comments, and sharing many of the opportunities that were shared with me. Most of these new blogs are written by clergy who are privileged with (what I call) “life encounter” stories— stories like “Bitch Wings” by my new blogging friend Melissa Earley, a pastor in the United Methodist Church. (Seriously, read that post of Melissa’s. You won’t regret it. Then follow her blog. She’s got something to say.)

Some might say that I need to have more of a competitive spirit about all this—that there are millions of blogs out there and I need to market myself and promote myself. But honestly, that feels self-centered and smarmy. I’d much rather encourage others, as I have been encouraged and share the blog love.

[Feature Image: Angelo Di Blasio]

Where is the heat in your writing?

16706452451_eddf5b4825_bI picked up the Rose Metal Press’ Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction at the AWP conference this past March.  This morning I began reading it as I contemplated this blog and the writing I hope to do.  Bloggers would be well-served to study this “flash” genre of writing, since all of it is pertinent to the short essays we post here on our computer screens.  Dinty W. Moore, the editor of this field guide of flash writing, opens the book with a thoughtful metaphor and some great words of advice.

In his attempt to define the flash nonfiction genre of writing, Moore writes this:

Imagine there is a fire burning deep in the forest.  In an essay of conventional length, the reader begins at the forest’s edge, and is taken on a hike, perhaps a meandering stroll, into those woods, in search of that fire.  The further in the reader goes, with each page that turns, the more the reader begins to sense smoke in the air, or maybe heat, or just an awareness that something ahead is smoldering.

In the very brief essay, however, the reader is not a hiker but a smoke jumper, one of those brave firefighters who jump out of planes and land 30 yards from where the forest fire is burning.  The writer starts the reader right at that spot, at the edge of the fire, or as close as one can get without touching the actual flame.  There is no time to walk in.

The brief essay, in other words, needs to be hot from the first sentence, and the heat must remain the entire time.  My fire metaphor, it is important to note, does not refer to incendiary subject matter.  The heat might come from language, from image, from voice or point-of-view, from revelation or suspense, but there must always be a burning urgency of some sort, translated through each sentence, starting with the first. (pgs. XXII-XXIII)

Moore’s words immediately made me recall what my writing coach, Christine Hemp, is always asking me about my writing.  “Where is the heat, Teri?  Find the heat and write from there.”  Sometimes it takes me quite a while to find it.  I have to write a lot and pay close attention before I can zero in on this place of friction.  I have to ask myself constantly,  Where is my hook?  Where is my writing most urgent and honest?  When do I feel my heart burning and my pulse quickening when I write?  Albeit a difficult and oftentimes trying process, finding this place of heat means that my writing will be its best.

In fact, this tip may be the most important advice for good writing.  In an interview with the Paris Review, Marilynne Robinson was once asked, “What is the most important thing you try to teach your students?” To which, she replied:

I try to make writers actually see what they have written, where the strength is.  If they can see it, they can exploit it, enhance it, and build a fiction that is subtle and new.  I don’t try to teach technique, because frankly most technical problems go away when a writer realizes where the life of a story lies…What [writers] have to do first is interact in a serious way with what they’re putting on a page.  When people are fully engaged with what they’re writing, a striking change occurs, a discipline of language and imagination.

So, fellow writers, bloggers, and preachers: Where is your heat?

 

[feature image: Soreen D]

 

The Woodcarver

wisers-whisky-wood-carver-600-95347My friend and writing coach, Christine Hemp, introduced me to the poem, The Woodcarver.  It has led me to amazing riches.  I keep it taped above my desktop computer in my office as a reminder to “Guard my spirit, [and] not expend it on trifles that [are] not to the point.”  This poem has served as such an inspiration, that I wanted to share it with you.  May we all create our beautiful bell stand.

The Woodcarver

Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand

Of precious wood.  When it was finished,

All who saw it were astounded.  They said it must be

The work of spirits.

The Prince of Lu said to the master carver:

“What is your secret?”

 

King replied: “I am only a workman:

I have no secret.  There is only this:

When I began to think about the work you commanded

I guarded my spirit, did not expend it

On trifles, that were not to the point.

I fasted in order to set

My heart at rest.

After three days fasting,

I had forgotten gain and success.

After five days

I had forgotten praise or criticism.

After seven days

I had forgotten my body

With all its limbs.

 

“By this time all thought of your Highness

And of the court had faded away.

All that might distract me from the work

Had vanished.

I was collected in the single thought

Of the bell stand.

 

“Then I went to the forest

To see the trees in their own natural state.

When the right tree appeared before my eyes,

The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.

All I had to do was to put forth my hand

and begin.

 

“If I had not met this particular tree

There would have been

No bell stand at all.

 

“What happened?

My own collected thought

Encountered the hidden potential in the wood;

From this live encounter came the work

Which you ascribe to the spirits.”

 

–Chuang Tzu

from The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton

Progress Report: A Year of Writing Lessons Learned

einstein-imagination-book-10hj8ivLast summer I made my writing a priority. I started this blog, hired a writing coach, and guarded a few hours each morning to practice my craft. It has paid off immensely. Not only did I get an article published in The Christian Century, but I have grown and learned more than I ever thought possible. Most significantly, I have come to recognize writing as the passion I need to pursue—it’s the one thing in my life I can’t NOT do. Acknowledging this call to write has been transformative.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about writing over this past, dedicated, year:

  • Join a writing group, attend a workshop, hire a writing coach—do something to receive honest feedback and constructive criticism. It’s the ONLY way you’ll learn and grow as a writer. I recommend my writing coach, Christine Hemp, whom I affectionately call The Beast, Madame Bossypants, or my personal Grammar SNOOT. Working with Christine has been phenomenal. She is a poet, teacher, coach and spiritual director all rolled into one. I’m also quite fond of the fact that she’s a faithful Episcopalian. In other words, she gets me. Check out her website here.
  • If you’re having trouble getting started, begin with a story you care about—in my case, (as a preacher) something with a theological problem within it.
  • Also…if you’re having trouble getting started, focus on something really specific—a moment, a scene, an experience—and branch out from there.
  • I have a tendency to stop short—to think I am finished before I really am. Give your writing space to breathe. Don’t quit too soon. Don’t go for the quick, easy ending—push yourself further, to discover what you’re really writing about.
  • Use specific, concrete, language—avoid clichés and tired, abstract, “churchy” language—paint a picture for the reader.
  • Write as if no one—absolutely no one (especially the person you are writing about)— is looking over your shoulder. You can always edit later. First, you must discover your truth.
  • Transitions matter. Pay attention to them. Guide your reader from one paragraph to the next. Offer clarity—it’s the polite thing to do.
  • Lay (transitive verb: receives and object) Lie (intransitive verb: never receives an object.) I lay the book on the table. I lie in the sun all the time. Remember this!! It will curl the teeth of your Grammar SNOOT if you get it wrong.
  • “We can go months, even years, without ever being crucially spoken to.” Stephen Dunn. Write words that are crucial. Write words that matter. Venture into the wilderness of humanity.
  • “End with an image and don’t explain.”  Stanley Kunitz