Category Archives: On Writing

A Day After the Love Fest–On Writing

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The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing. Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination and by feelings of panic, self-loathing and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.

-Robert DeNiro, at the 2015 Oscars

I posted that quote to Facebook one year ago today. It’s a fitting counterbalance to all of yesterday’s well-wishes from so many of you. I am humbled to have been honored by the Presbyterian Writers Guild this year, and look forward to celebrating at this summer’s General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Next stop, Portland!

Many years ago when I was just getting started, a fellow writer asked me, “What are your aspirations for your writing?” I said, “To write and be read.” That’s still the sum of it. At that point I had a blog and had written a few poems and articles, but that was it. Even now, I look at the list of past honorees for this award and feel a generous dose of impostor syndrome, thinking about the stacks of books they have put into the world, books I have read over the course of my life and that have made me who I am. When Brené Brown talks about the vulnerability hangover, I get it.

Then again, my tech-support husband recently archived a now-defunct blog of mine and it capped out at 1,400 pages–and that didn’t include the thousands of comments, as readers, fellow bloggers, and random passersby dug into all kinds of topics about the sacred and the secular, the humorous and the heartbreaking, and all of the above at once. To write and be read, indeed.

Maybe I’ll mine that material for future projects. But perhaps not. Some writing is meant to be like a sand painting that disappears when the tide comes in. Most sermons are that way. As Annie Dillard famously said:

Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. …Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you.

But you know what’s the most special thing about all of this? It’s not the award itself, grateful though I am. It’s the fact that a person took the time to nominate me. Many preachers talk about writing sermons with particular people in mind. Many writers do the same, even if that person is themselves. It helps to picture someone specific who receives what you have to offer: someone who may need your words, or who simply bears witness when you say it for yourself. Someone who will nod, or challenge, or wince, or say “Thank you, I thought I was the only one.”

So thank you, BPL. The gift of your kindness overwhelms me. And if I may make a modest proposal to the selection committee: contact the other writers who were nominated and tell them a reader took the time to put into words what their writing meant to them. It will make their day, I guarantee it.

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Photo: Writer’s Block by Neil Sanche, used under a creative commons license.

What’s Saving My Life as a Writer: Email. Yes, Really.

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A long time ago in an Internet that seems far far away, a bunch of us clergywomen types began blogging and following one another’s blogs. We would leave long comments for one another, then check back and see the conversation continue. We listed one another on our blogrolls. We formed a network. And of course, we connected with non-clergy readers, and non-religious ones for that matter.

Today, blogging is very different. Certainly more people read this blog today than did back then. And my writing shows up in a lot more places. But while my words are finding a larger audience, it’s only a small percentage of people who actually follow the blog week to week. Blog comments are much less frequent than they used to be. And generally, the comments I do get are less personal. (Thank you to all my commenters, regardless of content! Except trolls. Find another bridge please.)

As I continue to transition from pastor/author/speaker to author/speaker/freelance writer, I’ve realized–I need to reacquaint myself with my readers. What do you wonder about and marvel at? What keeps you up at night? Where does your struggle intersect with mine?

I love the work of Dan Blank, whose company WeGrowMedia helps authors bring book projects to fruition and find readers for them. Dan is a big fan of the email list as a tool for authors to communicate. I resisted this for a long time. I already have a blog to feed, and social networks that I enjoy and participate in. Not to mention, you know, books to write.

And we’ve all heard the steady drumbeat against email. We get too much. It’s crushing our souls. I subscribe from email lists regularly and feel nothing but relief. But there are a handful of email newsletters I keep, because I treasure them.

Plus, as Dan points out, an email list is the one way of reaching readers that the author “owns.” Facebook can tweak its algorithms anytime. Twitter can feel like a bunch of noise, and the format is constraining. But an email is a letter from me to a reader who’s specifically asked to hear what I have to say. (Humbling.)

After hearing Dan talk and write about this topic for a long time, I finally realized I’d been thinking about the email all wrong. I was seeing it as a tool for book sales. And when I asked people to join, I was very apologetic about it: I won’t bug you very often, and you can unsubscribe any time. And then I’d send an email every six months and it felt awkward, because nobody likes being marketed AT, and I didn’t like marketing TO!

Instead I want to use it as the beginning of a conversation.

So last month I revived my email list. It’s a letter from me to my readers. In it I share what I’m working on, what’s inspiring me, what’s confounding me, and I ask: what about you?

And people are responding. I can’t quite believe it, but they are.

Last week I wrote an email to the newsletter about some foundation repairs we’re making on our house. It was a vulnerable message because that process is bringing out all kinds of spiritual struggles. After it went out, I got a handful of unsubscribes, as I always do. But I got three times as many personal responses, from people who shared their own places of pain and “shifting foundations.”

It was page after page of holy ground, right there in Gmail.

More and more, I’m hearing from aspiring writers asking me for advice on building a platform. I feel very humbled and vulnerable when they ask because I still consider myself an aspiring writer. I know so little. But I’ve realized that very few of us know anything. What I do know is this: writing—at least the writing I do—is about coming together around shared questions and mysteries. And these interactions with readers are teaching me which questions resonate with people, which ones merit further exploration in blogs and books and emails. Responses from readers are helping me as a writer. But more important—much more important—they help me realize that I’m not alone in my questions.

So to those of you who receive The Blue Room emails, thank you. If you’d like to join them, I unapologetically invite you to click here.

~

photo credit: Connect via photopin (license)

Off to My Happy Place

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Everyone should have a happy place—a mental location that you can visit in your mind when you need a little peace and well-being. (And ideally, visit for real every now and then.) For a long time, my happy place has been this:

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The Peter Pan ride at Magic Kingdom.

A few years ago I acquired a second one: the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, sponsor of wonderful writing workshops, purveyor of gracious Benedictine hospitality.

See you in a week or so. In the meantime, a friend of mine sent me this poem for inspiration. A gift:

“Do You Have Any Advice For Those of Us Just Starting Out?”
Ron Koertge

Give up sitting dutifully at your desk. Leave
your house or apartment. Go out into the world.

It’s all right to carry a notebook but a cheap
one is best, with pages the color of weak tea
and on the front a kitten or a space ship.

…Read the rest at the Library of Congress.

Write well. Love well. Live well.

Wednesday Link Love: Birthday Horn-Tooting Edition

In a just world, this would be my birthday cake today. YOU HEAR ME UNIVERSE?

In a just world, this would be my birthday cake today. YOU HEAR ME UNIVERSE?

I’m back from a wonderful time of vacation with the family in Massanutten. We found a sweet little farm house to rent that had comfy rooms and no wifi. Perfect. We lazed about and did the indoor water park. By the way, there are two kinds of people in the world: people who shoot complete strangers with water cannons, and non-a**h***s.

We also enrolled the kids in a morning of ski school, which (after seeing James zip down the mountain) I’d call frighteningly effective.

It was great to be on the slopes and off the grid. But apparently I was quite busy on the Intertubes while I was away. Today’s bonus edition of Link Love is MAMD-specific. It’s my birthday, so you will indulge me:

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Things Not Seen is a radio show devoted to “Conversations about Faith and Culture.” Last month I had a lovely conversation with David Dault about Sabbath, which you can listen to here.

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This coming year I’ll be an occasional contributor to The Hardest Question, which is a weekly resource on the Revised Common Lectionary. I’ve got the texts for this Sunday, and wrote about the Gospel and the Old Testament texts.

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Landon Whitsitt compiled many sermons and responses to the Newtown tragedy into an e-book, called A Good Word. I’m in there along with a huge number of others. What an undertaking!

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And finally, my book is listed on Ministry Matters as a “must read” for 2013.

Happy New Year…

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Image: CakeWrecks, where else?

Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land

My friend Ruth Everhart has written a book.

Actually, let me be more accurate: she’s written hundreds of thousands of lovely, honest and true words over her years as a pastor and writer. But this week, we celebrate a particular achievement, the publication of Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land. Ruth’s work is part travel writing, part memoir and part spiritual reflection.

Her book confronts the questions that confront us as we engage in pilgrimage—whether through travel or during our everyday journeys as people of faith–and the unexpected places we land in those journeys. Given recent current events, the book could not be more timely. That said, it is not a political book. It is a personal book, but in that wonderful way that the particular becomes universal.

Ruth is one of my Writing Revs—in fact, she and I are the only two charter members still in the group. (You can read about our group here.) My copy of Chasing is on its way to me, but I’ve had to joy of reading and digesting the book many times over the months and years. It’s gotten better and better through Ruth’s hard work and fine craftswomanship (I just made that word up). But what has been there from the beginning is a dogged willingness to ask hard questions of her faith and this land we dare to call Holy—steeped as it is in tradition, religion, conflict and grace.

Author Clyde Edgerton puts it well in his endorsement of Chasing the Divine:

I can think of only two reasons to buy this book:
1. You are not going to the Holy Land.
2. You are going to the Holy Land.
In these pages Ruth Everhart writes eloquently about her trip into the dust and beauty of Christianity’s cradle — about her wrestling with her beliefs, her faith, and her past. If all pilgrims were as curious, insightful, introspective, firm, and openhearted as Ruth Everhart, our old world would roll more happily and safely through the universe. In her story you’ll find bloodshed, humor, and — most importantly — love.

BUY IT!

Ruth and I will be at First Presbyterian Church, Arlington, VA this Sunday evening, December 2, at 7 p.m. to read and sign books. Stop by for some nourishment through food and words.