Author Archives: MaryAnn McKibben Dana

Beyond the Catastrophe

I just got back from Chicago, where I finished a second week of improv class at the Second City Training Center. Improv has been described as summer camp for grownups—and it is—but for lots of us it’s a much deeper experience. Improv requires acute listening, so you can respond to your scene partner’s suggestions, rather than barreling in with your own pre-made ideas. It’s hard work, and an adventure, just like life is hard work and an adventure… with some summer camp thrown in, because we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously!

I love the fact that improvisers, even the ones who teach and perform at the highest levels of the field, always talk about what they do as “play.” They don’t say “I perform every Monday night,” or “she and I are in an improv group together.” They say, “I play on Mondays,” and “she and I have played together for five years.” What a great lesson for those of us who can get so mired in our to-do lists that we forget to find the joy. As I stare down this final push toward getting the manuscript done, I’m committed to bringing a spirit of play into the writing I’m doing. 

I just finished the book How to Be the Greatest Improviser on Earth by Will Hines. (Improvisers like hyperbole, eh? We call it “heightening.”) Lots of good gems in the book, but I was struck by this section in which Hines was talking about a friend who’s wired to find the good in every situation. Here’s how Hines describes it:

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Now, we have to be careful how we deploy this kind of thinking. Brené Brown actually calls this “silver lining” someone—dismissing someone’s pain because we can come up with some positive spin on what’s occurred. It’s really up to each of us to make meaning out of the circumstances of our own lives, and that means not hopscotching over the tough stuff too quickly.

In this case, however, Will Hines appreciated his friend helping him find his way out of the dead end of rejection and into something that could bring life down the road. But even more than that, he was inspired by his friend’s ability to be oriented toward the good as a default—in other words, to assume there was a Yes, and then to look for it.

Some of us are naturally oriented toward pessimism. I kinda am. When something goes awry, I’m really good at catastrophizing. The plan isn’t just off the rails, it’s the Worst Thing That Could Have Happened. This takes a special kind of skill, I’ll admit—in fact, I’m pretty sure one of my Facebook friends posted an article recently that says pessimists are more creative than optimists. (I may be making that up, but don’t tell me otherwise, it’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)

Still, catastrophizing doesn’t make for good improv, whether we’re talking about stage improv or life improv. Catastrophizing keeps us fearful, suspicious and stuck. Instead, I’m challenging myself to experience my life with an orientation toward the positive—like Phil Jackson, to say to myself, “This is good, because…”

And then to find that “holy because,” ripe for the picking. 

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Be the Game Board

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Happy August!

And boy, is August here with a vengeance in Northern Virginia. When I stepped outside to run early this morning, the humidity was 97%. Sixteen miles later, I felt every bit of it.

Many of you know I’m training for my second marathon, the Marine Corps Marathon, here in DC in October. This is my grudge match—I had to defer last year’s entry due to injury. I’m excited for this hometown race, known for being well-run with lots of cheering crowds. The only downside is the timing—race in October means long runs in July, August and September. I keep telling myself that these hot, humid, hilly miles are building mental toughness, but in all honesty, every time I step outside into air that feels like it’s already been breathed, I want to cry. (Come on, my people are from Northern Europe. I’m built for permafrost.)

I was running recently on one of those hot and humid days when I passed a man in his 70s. We exchanged a quick greeting and as he shuffled by he said, “Beautiful morning.” At first I was dumbfounded: Beautiful? I can literally wring out my shirt right now. But then I decided to get outside myself and really take a look around. And it was beautiful. The sun was still low in the sky and casting lengthy shadows. The birds were singing. The green on the trees was rich and deep.

This weekend I was in North Carolina for a family reunion, and again I went for a morning run—later than I’d hoped, so the sun was beating down on me from the first step. Again it was humid and gross, and I found myself longing for crisp November, or even frigid February. But this time I remembered my running buddy from the week before, and I let myself really look at the deserted country road, the soft blue sky, and the meadow fuzzy with mature grass:

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I realized how often I get trapped inside my own experience—how easy it is to be stuck there without considering other perspectives. To put it in religious language, this is perhaps a foundational human sin or shortcoming—to see our own narrative as the only valid one. Much of our consumer culture is designed to feed this individualistic focus—marketing, social media, even news sites serve up targeted messages designed just for us: our preferences, our prejudices, and our longings. This sunny, soupy day was bearing down on me with its oppressive heat, so how could it also be beautiful? Yet it was. (Not to mention the gratitude that comes from being able to put one foot in front of the other, breathe clean air into lungs, and move slowly but relentlessly forward.)

Recently when I wrote to you, I shared a story from the wonderful book The Art of Possibility. Permit me to share one more tidbit from that book. The authors, Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, talk about shifting our perspective such that we see ourselves not as a pawn in a game, nor as the strategist of the game, pulling all the strings, but as the game board itself, “the framework for the game of life around you”:

The purpose of naming yourself as the board, or as the context in which life occurs to you, is to give yourself the power to transform your experience of any unwanted condition into one in which you care to live. We said your *experience*, not the condition itself. But of course once you do transform your experience and see things differently, other changes occur.

When you identify yourself as a single chess piece—and by analogy, as an individual in a particular role—you can only react to, complain about, or resist the moves that interrupted your plans. But if you name yourself as the board itself, you can turn all your attention to what you want to see happen, with none paid to what you need to win or fight or fix. …One by one, you bring everything you have been resisting into the fold. You, as the board, make room for all the moves, for the capture of the knight *and* the sacrifice of your bishop… for your miserable childhood *and* the circumstances of your parents’ lives… Why? Because that is what is there. It is the way things are.

On a superficial level, seeing yourself as the game board can seem narcissistic. But as I’ve considered this analogy, I find it provides an expansive space for me to receive life in all its complexity, not denying the unpleasant things, but also not letting them be the sum total of the experience.

Of course, things happen to us in life that are much more grave than a scheduled run on a humid day. This shift in perspective is very difficult work—lifetime work. But on a humid day in, with sweat rolling down my back, I got a startling and lovely glimpse that it was possible.

Peace, Joy and Yes,

MaryAnn

Have You Had Some Failure Today?

I wrote this on my way home from a lovely week in Michigan, where I offered a series of lectures on Improvising with God at the Bay View Association, a Chautauqua institution with roots in the Methodist Church. I presented each morning, then the kids and I enjoyed afternoons of swimming, canoeing, sightseeing, and lots of ice cream.

And sunsets:

Whenever I speak to groups about approaching life as an improvisation, I try to make one thing clear: this work isn’t easy for me. I am notorious among friends and family for being uber-organized—for putting together a plan and implementing it within an inch of its life. So I’m learning and writing about this topic, not because it’s a natural fit for me, but because it’s not. I’ve joked that the book should probably be called “Improv for Control Freaks.”  I do this work because the universe doesn’t bend to our best-laid plans, and in those situations, improv can be a life-giving alternative to stomping our feet and buckling down harder. I’ve grown to love improv, and it’s helping me release my death-grip on the reins of my life and enjoy the ride. (Slowly. Sloooooowly.)

Case in point: improv helps us get comfortable with failure.  Many of us give lip service to the importance of making mistakes, of striving and falling short and learning from those experiences. For years I had a bookmark that said, “Show me a person who never makes a mistake and I’ll show you a person who never makes anything.” It’s a sentiment I wanted to believe. But I really didn’t. Failure was to be avoided. It was uncomfortable. It was unpleasant.

But failure is also essential in learning to improvise well. Perfectionism kills good improv onstage because it causes us to overthink, self-censor, and judge our efforts. And perfectionism can be a soul-killer in life because we remain captive to fear, convention and safety.

A friend recently sent me this video, an interview with Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, a highly successful women’s lingerie company. In the video the CEO describes a family ritual as a child in which each person would be asked to share a story of failure. At their dinner table, failures were named and celebrated. How amazing! And these lessons helped shape her values as an entrepreneur.

Click here for the video–about 90 seconds long. 

Since seeing this video, we’ve done this ritual a couple of times as a family. It’s been powerful (and strangely fun) to name our failures and acknowledge them as a vital part of a creative, meaningful life. It’s also important for kids to hear that adults stumble too. My kids have even volunteered stories of failure recently.

I hope it doesn’t take them 44 years to realize that making mistakes and “living messy” can be its own reward–and can also open up a new world of growth.

Peace, Joy and Yes,

MaryAnn

P.S. I love little libraries! I ran past this one several times while in Michigan. They bring me joy.

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The Virtue of Screwing Up

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I just returned from a week of improv class at Second City, made possible by a pastoral study grant from the Louisville Institute. It was an immensely helpful experience for my upcoming book, Improvising with God, but more than that, it was life-shaping. I should have expected that–after all, improv for me is about more than creating a scene on stage; it’s about living creatively and faithfully when life doesn’t go according to plan. Still, I returned home with a sudden sense that I’ll look back on this week as a profound turning point on many levels.

On the plane ride home, I read the book The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life, a recommendation from some fellow grantees of the Louisville Institute. Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, the authors, aren’t writing about improv, except that they are. It’s an excellent book, and I’m not sure the Reston Regional Library will be getting it back…

The Zanders talk a lot in their book about mistakes. We are conditioned to avoid mistakes, but they are the beating heart of improv, especially in the beginning. Messing up means you’re trying and striving beyond your ability. Unbound by your own sense of convention and safety, you risk screwing up, and in those screwups you learn what works well in a scene and what doesn’t. (And as we discovered in class, mistakes can be delightful to watch onstage, provided you don’t cringe and apologize and bathe yourself in shame. Own it and love yourself for taking a chance, and the audience will love it too.)

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Here’s a section of the Zanders’ book I found astounding and poignant in terms of how we understand mistakes. Benjamin Zander is a conductor and draws from that background throughout the book:

The level of playing of the average orchestral player is much higher than it used to be in Mahler’s day. So when Mahler wrote difficult passages for particular instruments… he was almost certainly conveying, musically, the sense of vulnerability and risk he saw as an integral part of life… We will not convey the sense of the music if we are in perfect technical control.

…Stravinsky, a composer whom we tend to think of as rather objective and “cool,” once turned down a bassoon player because he was too good to render the perilous opening to The Rite of Spring. This heart-stopping moment, conveying the first crack in the cold grip of the Russian winter, can only be truly represented if the player has to strain every fiber of his technical resources to accomplish it. A bassoon player for whom it was easy would miss the expressive point.

…This attitude is difficult to maintain in our competitive culture where so much attention is given to mistakes and criticism that the voice of the soul is literally interrupted. The risk the music invites us to take becomes a joyous adventure only when we stretch beyond our known capacities, while gladly affirming that we may fail. And if we make a mistakes, we can mentally raise our arms and say,‘How fascinating!’ and reroute our attention to the higher purpose at hand.

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FullSizeRenderWhen is the last time you stretched beyond your known capacities? I’d love to hear about it–or if it’s been a while, what’s getting in your way?

As for me, I’m taking a workshop this weekend on musical improv, in which we’ll learn how to improvise scenes through music. It will be three hours of exhilarating failure and I can’t wait.

Peace, joy and Yes,
MaryAnn

P.S. The photos are from the Second City Training Center, which features inspirational quotes throughout the building, as well as photos of Second City alumni, like Stephen Colbert, one of my heroes.

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The Word in a Digital World: Reflections to the Presbyterian Writers Guild

Many have requested this post, and here it is.

Last week at the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s General Assembly, I had the honor of addressing the Presbyterian Writers Guild at their biennial luncheon as recipient of their David Steele Distinguished Writer Award. (I still can’t quite get over that.)

Here’s a pic from that lovely day–I’m here with Robert and my friend Catherine Cuellar:

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Here is what I said. You can also access the video on Facebook. (It’s public, so you shouldn’t need a Facebook account in order to view it.)

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Thank you so much for the chance to be with you all today and for this lovely, humbling honor. It’s always good to be with other writers, isn’t it? We’re an odd bunch. A couple of years ago Robert De Niro was presenting one of the screenplay awards at the Academy Awards and said this: “The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing. Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination, consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing, and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.”

Today is a very good day.

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…It was two days before Christmas, some 13 years ago. I was an associate pastor at a medium sized church, and with Christmas Eve services planned and everything in place, I found myself with an afternoon with nothing to do. It’s well known among friends and family that I am an absolute fanatic for Christmas music. I like the cheesy stuff, the melancholy stuff, the traditional Bing Crosby stuff, and yes, the religious stuff. So on a whim that afternoon, I set up a blog on a very primitive blogging platform and wrote a silly piece listing all of my favorite Christmas music, categorizing it and providing commentary on various songs. Incidentally, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is THE best Christmas song and the case is closed on that.

It was my first blog post. 

Now, writing was always a part of my life. As a young person I wrote bad poetry and rudimentary song lyrics and even completed about 4 pages of a novel when I was maybe 10 years old. I think it was about dogs living in the pound and I’m sure it borrowed heavily from Lady and the Tramp. This lack of originality bothered me at the time, because nobody ever told me that when you’re first starting to write you spend a lot of time emulating, copying, trying on the ideas of others and making them your own.

Ira Glass has talked about this, by the way–this gap between our sense of what’s good and our ability to create something good, especially when you’re starting out. “For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.” 

Anyway, I became an English major in college, I worked on the school newspaper and for a magazine, and my first job out of school was as a technical writer and a writer of training materials for companies. Later as a preacher I wrote countless sermons for my local congregation, Montreat Youth Conferences and other gatherings.

But until I wrote that taxonomy of Christmas music, I had always written for specific and pre-determined audiences. Until I wrote that blog post, I had never flung my work into the world and wondered who might stumble across it. And I remember the first time someone that I didn’t know commented on something I’d written. It felt like inching through a bunch of coats and stumbling into Narnia, a larger world, a lovely one, but also a harrowing one at times. Blogging is one of the reasons I am a writer today. 

But that didn’t come until much later. For a long time, my blog was for my own personal amusement and that of my mother, my siblings, and a few friends. I wrote my second blog post a month later, reflecting on the one-year anniversary of my father’s death. I wrote it after an APCE conference I attended in which Susan Andrews, presiding at the communion table, mis-read a bit of liturgy that said “Love is stronger than death.” And what she said was, “Love is stranger than death.” And in that blog post I reflected on the fact that someone had written some words on paper, sturdy words, reliable ones, and yet somehow the Holy Spirit intervened and said “I am going to transform that cliche into something much more enthralling.”

And how often that happens from the pulpit. And it happens with writing too. The listener or reader hears things you never really intended; the words inhabit them in a way you never could have predicted. I say to people all the time, and I mean quite sincerely, that I write the books and essays and sermons and articles that I want to read and say the things that I need to hear. I am my first audience, so it startles me to find other people are listening in. People will quote me back to me, and I always feel a little exposed, like someone’s walked into the bathroom while I’m singing to myself in the shower.

I’ll never forget the time I wrote and preached a kind of “leap of faith” sermon and a parishioner said, “Thanks to your sermon I’ve finally decided to follow my heart and move to Florida like I’ve been dreaming about. I’m going to sell my house,” and so forth and I’m thinking “No, don’t do this! Don’t upend your life because of some words that came out of my mouth! I’m just saying stuff up here!”

And yet the preachers and writers in the room know that the words can have that power. 

Recently my husband Robert, who is also my in-house tech support, was doing some housekeeping of our various technological miscellany and he asked about these blogs I’ve been writing for the last 13 years. I’m currently on my third generation blog, and he said, “You know, we really ought to put these posts into some kind of bound volume.” There are services that will do that for you. And so Robert started working his way through the process until he finally came to me and said, “I don’t think this is going to work.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because the first six years alone will come out to be 800 pages.”

Eight hundred pages… of blogs.

And that’s not even counting the comments on those blog posts. And I know many of you are thinking, “The comments?!? Why would you want to keep the comments?” And I agree, online comments are the best evidence we have for the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity. But it didn’t used to be this way. There was a time when blog comments were like online salons. Comment forums were the places where a community of people riffed on scripture and culture and theology. The place where half-baked ideas continued to cook until the toothpick inserted into the center finally came out clean. The place where I confronted critics and trolls. I’ve been fortunate to have relatively few of the latter; the former hopefully made me better.

I bring all this up about blogging because I stand here as the recipient of this very kind award, very aware that the other people who have stood in this spot have stood on a sturdy platform of the many books they have written. And I feel a bit wobbly up here, because so many of my words have not been bound on a page but are zipping among the electrons. Yes, I have contributed chapters and essays and poems in various anthologies, and two years ago when the General Assembly voted to change the Book of Order to allow same-sex marriage, I was invited to contribute an essay to TIME about that event. And yes, I have a book under my belt and am working on a second.

But what I also have are thousands of words that have in some sense washed away, like a Navajo sand painting, created for a particular place and time and then gone, its purpose complete, its destiny fulfilled. 

And so my selection, which humbles me more than I could ever express, is also a sign of the times. It’s likely that in the future, the recipients of this award will do way more of their writing online and in short form than in bound volumes, perhaps using media that haven’t even been invented yet. Because that’s how we all write now. We keep hearing about how ours is becoming more and more of a visual culture. But the fact is, we are awash in words—more words and more ways to write and deliver words to one another than ever before in human history.

Meanwhile, we find ourselves in a time when words can seem so cheap. The laws of supply and demand have not been kind to words—there are so many that their value seems to have plummeted. We’ve got a glut in the market, you see, and so they dissolve into the ether, scroll off the bottom of the page, here today and gone tomorrow, drowned in the noise of 24/7 news and entertainment.

But that’s part of the joy and challenge of being a writer right now. I think a lot of writers long to write or publish a book because they want to create something that will last. We want to leave an artifact behind, something that proves we were here. (I did have an author friend who sniffed, “I don’t think about that stuff when I write,” but I suspect she was lying.) We have an eye toward longevity and legacy. But the instant availability of communication brings our lofty goals back into the present moment and what really matters: to focus on communicating meaning right now, right here, with the people God has placed in our lives. “The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” in other words, not when the book comes out.

The other challenge of the digital age is to figure out the best platform to say what you want to say. We have so many options now: Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Blog, Book, Essay, Article, Text Message, Email. Marshall McLuhan could hardly know when he wrote, “the medium is the message,” exactly how on point he would be. And the medium we choose is vital.

…When the members of Grace Episcopal Church arrived one Sunday morning for worship a few years back, they found a startling question spray-painted on the side of their building in two-foot-high letters. The question was, “Will I still go to heaven if I kill myself?”

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After some reflection, Father Thomas Broad and the church arrived at this answer: “God loves you with no exceptions.”

Now if Father Tom had written that into a sermon, it would have been a good response. If he’d put it in a newsletter article, or used it as the title for a Sunday School series, it would have been fine. Adequate.

But instead they spray-painted it on the side of their building, next to the original question.

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And that made it a beautiful response.

Beautiful because it spoke in the same raw painful vernacular of the question itself. Beautiful because it ensured that the questioner would actually see the answer. And beautiful, because that image traveled way beyond the humble borders of Randolph, New York to computer screens and smartphones around the world—to people who needed to hear that gospel: God loves you with no exceptions.

If you’re a writer who hopes to publish, you’ve had it drilled into your head that you’re supposed to build a platform. Publishers want to know that you have access to an audience online who will read and review and champion your work. This can lead to a cynicism about the work we do online. We grudgingly set up a Facebook author page, and we hunt around for best practices to help our work “go viral.”

But even if you’re not seeking to be published, any of us who writes or who cares about words, can easily despair at how superficial and mean the marketplace of ideas seems to be.

But here’s the thing about all those words.
We have a choice.

We get to decide whether to give in to despair at the cheapening word, or lament the death of the book, or to crack the code so we can get noticed and go viral. Or we can see every word we write as opportunity, to use these media for connection, for the sharing of words that are fine and careful and witty, to connect authentically with other human beings.

We get to decide whether to lose hope that our words still matter, or decide to make the most of the words we do put into the world.

Whether Twitter is a noisy place for superficiality and snark in cheap 140-character bursts, or a place to carefully craft our own modern-day haiku.

Whether Facebook is a den of banality, or an opportunity for a modern-day Paul the Apostle to write letters to the church, and to the world. And then to engage the responses to those letters.

And all of that writing that we do online is… well, it isn’t gone. It’s still on hard drives and up in the cloud, wherever that is. And I often mine from old blog posts of mine and other online sources when I’m working on a project… because I believe no creative endeavor is ever wasted. But I also know that writing isn’t ever truly gone because it somehow gets into the spiritual cells of the people who read it and take it to heart. It feels grandiose to say that writing, like all art, changes people. Yet I can say it in all humility because it’s not something that I do, or that any of us does, regardless of the kind of writing we pursue.

It is the alchemy of the Spirit, working through us—working through all our hours of hunting for just the right word, or finally giving up and hoping the imperfect word will do. It’s the Spirit working through the vulnerability of climbing into a pulpit every Sunday after relentless Sunday, or pressing “Send” on the book proposal, or submitting an Op-Ed to the local newspaper, or composing an email, or writing a post on Facebook in the wake of Orlando that tries to be prophetic and pastoral and winsome.

I’m still a big fan of books. I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to write them and see them through to publication. As Presbyterians, we are people who love books and I don’t see that changing. But more than that, we’re people of the Word. And words. And we know that words that challenge, and heal, and delight, and transform, are the words that matter, whether they flow into a book or a blog or a message on Snapchat.

Jesus understood this. We think of Jesus as a great teacher and orator, and he was. But Jesus was also, apparently, a writer. Well, he wrote at least once. We have a record of it in John 8. But he didn’t write on papyrus. He didn’t compile his thoughts in a scroll.

Jesus wrote using the only material he had available at that moment—the dirt on the ground. When the Jewish authorities bring him a woman whom they had deemed guilty of adultery, it’s a test to see what he’ll do.

And what he does is he bends down and starts writing. And this is important: he’s not doodling, he’s not drawing a diagram, he’s writing. But what is he writing? We will never know. Those words are gone to the elements and to history. Perhaps they were words that Jesus himself needed to read, something that would help give him the strength and courage for this encounter. Or perhaps he’s writing a message for the Pharisees. Or for the woman.

Maybe what he was writing was “God loves you with no exceptions.”

And so should we. In book and on blog, in text and Twitter, in poetry and prose, in fiction and non-fiction. When you come down to it, it is a message for this and every age.