Good Habits

6526240277_91faae6158_oWhen I am too busy or too tired at night to read, I rely on podcasts to take in content that will keep me thinking and creating. Last night, I was so exhausted after a week of opening activities at my college that I was tempted to go to bed along with my kids at 8:00pm. But that post-bedtime hour and a half felt too precious to only be used for sleep. I had to do something. So I stretched out on my bed, turned out the lights and listened to a podcast called Beautiful Writers on my cellphone. Gretchen Rubin, the best selling author of Better than Before, a book about changing habits, was being interviewed.

Answering a question about how to meet writing deadlines, Rubin explained that there are two types of people when it comes to getting work done—marathoners and sprinters. A marathoner likes to start well in advance of the deadline and have plenty of time to work steadily, taking the project a little bit at a time. This slow and steady process is what ignites their creativity. They need time to ruminate. Sprinters, by contrast, are people who prefer to work up against a deadline. They like the adrenaline of the final push and feel like that’s when they do their best work. If they start too early they can burn out or lose interest. Rubin added that even though sprinters and procrastinators can look alike, they are very different. Sprinters actually prefer to work up against a deadline. Whereas, if you ask procrastinators later if that is what they wish they had done, they oftentimes bitterly regret it and think to themselves that they could have done a much better job had they allowed for more time.

I discussed this podcast with my husband this morning. I am definitely a marathoner. I like to get up each morning and put in a half an hour to an hour on my writing. Then, I need to set it aside and ruminate until the next morning. This is the way I chip away at a project. It makes me very anxious when I don’t have the time I need to create. My husband is more of a sprinter. He ruminates a lot on his morning walks, then sits down and writes a whole sermon or a whole academic essay in one or two sittings. This blows me away. I could never work that fast. But knowing yourself, how you produce your best work, and how your creativity is sparked, makes getting things done and accomplishing your goals a lot easier.

Here are a few more of my favorite podcasts that I listen to while driving, washing dishes, folding laundry, and other mindless chores:

The Author’s Voice: New Fiction from The New Yorker.  I love listening to these stories, then reading them later (if I have time) in The New Yorker.  It’s a great study in writing to listen and then read.

Preachers on Preaching by The Christian Century.  An excellent resource for preachers.

Common Knowledge by the Interfaith Youth Core.  Lifts up positive stories of interfaith cooperation and action.  You can learn a lot about different religions by listening to this podcast.

Beyond your Blog–this is a great podcast about moving beyond blogging into the publishing world.  Unfortunately, new podcasts are not being added any more.  But the feed is still full of great interviews with editors.

The Accidental Creative–I learned about this podcast from a comic.  Todd Henry gives tips on how to stay prolific, brilliant and healthy in life and in work.  Some good stuff here and the podcasts are short–great for a 15 minute commute.

 

[Feature Image: Terry Freedman]

Perspective

2558321055_9b324ab0a4_oI recently stole away for a quick writing retreat with my friend, Melissa Earley. We sat across from each other at her dining room table typing away on our matching MacBook Pros. It was great accountability because I knew Melissa could see me every time I distracted myself by checking my email on my smartphone. About thirty minutes into our first hour of writing, the following dialogue occurred:

Teri, loudly, face in hands: “Ugh. Writing is so hard!”

Melissa, immediate, straight-shooter: “No it’s not. Don’t you remember. You posted that article to Facebook a while back that said writing is not hard.”

Teri, defiant: “What? No I did not. I don’t remember that.”

Melissa-who-knows-better: “Here. I’ll find it and read it to you. It was really good.”

“Writing is not hard work. Let me tell you what hard work is: bending over in a field of low-bush, wild blueberries, your back arced so you can slide a forty-tooth rake like fingers under the bushes and pull back, settling the berries and tiny green leaves into the rake, then dumping them into a five-gallon bucket at your side, only to lug the bucket three hundred yards to the sorting machine where you lift it onto a wooden trailer and the man stamps a star-shaped hole in the card you keep in your back pocket, the card already soaked through with sweat and eight more hours to go, the sun like hot coals on the back of your neck, your shirt already tossed on the ground beside the gallon of water you froze the night before, the only thing that will keep you going through the wasp-riddled, poison-ivy laced field.”

Teri, chagrined: “Damn. You’re right. I did post that.”

Melissa, gloating, keeps reading:

“Writing is not hard work.  I’m talking about writing, not Facebooking, workshopping, copyediting, tweeting, submitting or, my least favorite activity, writing cover letters, but writing, that essential listening, that patience with words, hearing the voices come, seeing a scene come to life in front of your eyes, sitting at a computer until the computer falls away like the page of a good book falls away, until the screen becomes clear like the surface of a pond after rain so that someone looking into the water can see the rotting logs and Budweiser cans on the bottom and the fish swimming around.  The act of creation has nothing to do with hard work.  Writing is, to me, a beautiful, liberating process that feels unlike any work I have ever done in my life.”

Teri, humbled: “Yeah. This isn’t really hard. It’s not like I’m out picking blueberries in a field all day. Certainly puts things in perspective.”

Melissa, smug, returns to her typing.

Teri, distracted, checks her email.

 

**Read the full article “Writing is not Hard Work” by Mike Minchin.

[Feature Image: Brendan DeBrincat]

 

 

In the Valley of the Creative Process

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I am in the middle of writing my sermon for our upcoming Baccalaureate service. I have a great beginning, a muddled mess for a middle and no conclusion. Yet the day is fast approaching when I must deliver this creative work. So I am feeling anxious.

Last week I listened to a podcast on “Overcoming Creative Roadblocks” that hit home. During this podcast, Todd Henry talked about the creative process as having a U shape. Any sort of work you have to do, or project you want to complete is like a hike down into a valley. You start out on one side and looking across you can see the other side clearly. You can see your objective. Over there across the valley the sun is shining and the birds are chirping. It sure is going to be great when you get there. So you set off with all the momentum inspiration brings in the beginning.

ImageThen you get to the bottom of the valley and here your objective is obscured. Things get confusing. You can’t see as well. Maybe the trees are thicker here, the path becomes treacherous and you’re approaching the uphill climb. You start to hear scary animal noises and you wonder if you’re going to make it out of this valley alive. You start to question yourself, your sense of direction, your intuition. Should I have even started this journey to begin with? Things don’t look good right now.

According to Henry, we often tell ourselves that the most difficult part of a creative project is getting started—all I have to do is get started and then the rest will just come, we think. Or we tell ourselves that the hardest part is finishing the project, getting to that place of completion. But, Henry asserts, the truth is that the hardest part of any worthwhile endeavor is when you are right in the middle. Because here, in the middle, is where fear and self-doubt arise. You start telling yourself things like: I can’t do this. This is impossible. I suck at preaching. Things that are, in reality, only minor obstacles appear to us here, in the valley, as huge and disastrous. My outline isn’t working. I’m doomed! My printer is jammed. God has cursed me!

So what we need here is motivation to keep going, to keep pushing ourselves forward. We need narratives in our head that aren’t based in fear or self-doubt. We need a way to positively confront the hurdles we meet when we get to this place.

It is here, in this valley of the creative process, where I find myself relying most on my faith. In fact, if I did not have faith when I got to this valley, then I think I would probably quit. Instead, I have come to trust that if I give the Spirit enough space and time, if I work hard and open myself to where the Spirit is leading me, then eventually God will guide me up and out of this valley.

A friend introduced me to a poem called “The Woodcarver” written by Chuang Tzu and translated by Thomas Merton. It has become one of my favorites. I keep a few lines of it taped over my desk so I can see it whenever I find myself discouraged or in need of inspiration. The poem tells the story of a master woodcarver who was asked by a Prince to carve a bell stand. The bell stand he produced was beautiful, so beautiful that everyone who saw it said it must have been made by spirits. When the Prince asked the Woodcarver to tell him how he produced something so beautiful, this is what he said:

I am 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.

At this point in my sermon writing process there are lots of dangerous distractions, intimidating thoughts, self-defeating messages swirling around. The Woodcarver reminds me to guard my spirit, to stay true to the task of preaching God’s Word, to open myself to the Spirit’s guidance through prayer and meditation, so I can climb out of this valley with a worthwhile, meaningful message for our graduating class. It will be two more weeks until this Baccalaureate pilgrimage comes to its conclusion. May God guide you in all the creative work to which you have been called, as I pray the Spirit guides me in mine.

 

[Feature Image:  Jeff Turner]