Tag Archives: Essays

End Goals: Dealing with Grief, Pain, and Other Uglies

Years ago, another writer composed a poem about the four seasons, and how grief is the other season. It will last as long or as short as is needed, and then it must end so the mourner can live. She had experienced great grief in her life, but the ones she expected to come alongside and help her through that time were anxious that she stop mourning, stop making them uncomfortable.

Around the same time, I battled depression, and the main advice from Christians was “pray,” and from others was “be happy” or “stop wallowing.” In essence, just get over it. People weren’t really interested in listening. That was inconvenient, boring, and uncomfortable. I just needed to paste on that smile so no one would feel guilty for not caring.

The depression lifted after I dug in to Scripture and stopped trying to escape the wilderness, but learned to walk beside God, trusting Him to know the way out.

After my parents’ marriage broke apart, the refrain became “forgive”. I was angry, hurt, shocked. Forgiveness was a bridge too soon. Besides, other people were pouring their own complaints and hurts and angers into my ears, and were too absorbed in their own pain to hear mine.

When forgiveness came, it was after much prayer, many filled pages in my journal, and after much honesty with myself and God.

So, what’s the point of this whiny list of troubles?

A traveler in Dallas needs to go to Paris — that’s his end goal — but there are many miles and an ocean in between where he is now and where he eventually must be. He might agree that, yes, he needs to take a particular route from Lisbon to Paris, but that part of the map is irrelevant at the moment. He’s not in Lisbon yet.

And there are other stops he must make first: from Dallas to Denver, from Denver to Memphis, from Memphis to Chicago, from Chicago to New York, and so on. Once he arrives in Lisbon, then he can make the final journey to Paris.

It’s that way with life. People may think we need to hurry up and arrive somewhere — arrive at forgiveness, arrive at physical fitness, arrive at a buoyant outlook — but those are end goals, destinations that often come only after long journeys.

Although God may provide instant answers, as He sometimes does, most often the noblest things come after hard work. In the journey is where we learn, where we hear His instruction, where we face truths and look in mirrors and come to new understandings.

Oh, what we would miss if God allowed us to nod our heads or wiggle our noses and “genii” our way out of our troubles.

People may dismiss our problems as not worthy of their time and attention, but don’t let pride or bitterness make us react in kind whenever we encounter someone else who, like us, needs more than a peppy motto or a “just pray about it” pat answer or a neat package of memorized Bible verses.

Just as the Word and the Spirit will heal, so too will love and listening, and honest words spoken in kindness.


Comments from an online discussion after this article was originally written and posted elsewhere (April 15, 2015):

Grief is a strange thing. and people handle it differently. Some need to share and some of us need to hide it. Who can say which way is right–I think it depends on the person. It is often impossible to share someone else’s burden when you are full of your own. (Nancy P.)

I don’t always speak what I feel or think — either it’s not the right time or the right listener, or maybe I don’t know yet what I’m thinking or feeling, so speaking about it may be of little use.

That’s why I keep journals. I can work things out on the page, and often God reveals the truth as I write. That’s one reason I write out my prayers, too: I sometimes, when I go back and read them after weeks or even years, I see and understand the words in a new light. Journaling is long-term effective therapy for grief, depression, mood disorders, and more.

Something I (wrote) in my prayer journal today:

There is a difference between showing someone compassion, and allowing that person to feed off of you like an emotional, mental, or spiritual vampire.

There are people in genuine need who simply want you to hear them, to stand beside them, to give them wise words but not to preach at them or scold or be superior. On the other hand, there are people who take advantage of kindness and the desire to help, and they drain you dry. They suck away your joy, your energy, your very substance, and they refuse to stand on their own feet, to seek God for themselves, to find joy where they may.

From such, turn away (2 Timothy 3:5, slightly out of context). There is a time to kill, and a time to heal (Ecclesiastes 3:3). In this case, “kill” means pulling out the weeds that can choke the vine of your life. (Elizabeth E.)


Recommended reading:
The Bait of Satan by John Bevere (1994)
Unoffendable by Brant Hansen (2015)

“More Like Guidelines”

“Phony Rules of Writing” is a brief,  useful article about commands we should disregard. I have told many a writer to jettison these very rules and to do what the story / sentence/ paragraph requires rather than mimicking what their junior high English teacher taught from the textbook.

One shudders to recall those stilted, bloated, “perfect” essays with the introductory sentence, three-to-five main points, and the closing restatement of the paragraphs above it. And that restatement better not be boring! Nosirree. It had to be creative, original, dazzling, all while repeating what the reader already read.

Ay-yi-yi.

When novelists try to apply that same structure to fiction, oy vey.

As the article states,

Whether we’re experienced writers or just beginners, we all follow certain rules. Not all rules of writing, however, are equally valid or useful.

Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes.


For the origin of this post’s title, click here to watch a clip from Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

That Junior High Feeling

Below is a quote from Jenny Simmons, musician and writer, in her blog post The Christian Industrial Complex and Why I Am Doing a Kickstarter Campaignabout the obstacles facing us un-famous creative folk:

Regarding my book, The Road to Becoming, I’ve met with a handful of literary agents and Christian publishing houses. One executive told me I sent in the best book proposal he has seen in a long time. Another said my writing style was laugh-out-loud, contagiously authentic. One agent said “there is room for this story at the table” another said the book is “spiritually profound” and and another said “this book will be a close spiritual companion to many.”  But at the end of the day each publishing house or literary agent has ultimately said-

We love this book but you’re not popular enough right now for us to take a risk on you. 

One Christian publishing house even went as far as telling my manager that I don’t have enough “heat.”  When asked for a clarification the executive said, “Look, if she is a mega-church pastor, we will give her a deal. If you come back tomorrow and tell us she got picked up by a major women’s conference and has a major platform, we will give her a deal.”

It kind of feels like junior high all over again.
Popular. Platform. Heat.

I’ve known  that junior high feeling. Man times. But I’m breaking free.
For anyone who has ever encountered the same attitudes, or who’s just now trying to break into the writing biz, I recommend reading the entire article.

Letters

(c2013, EE)
(c2013, EE)

In my closet is a box of handwritten epistles inside envelopes. Yellowing envelopes from my late grandmother. Decorated envelopes from an artistic friend. Varicolored envelopes that contain holiday cards. Bulging envelopes holding old stories exchanged between friends. Sometimes I open the box and read the letters, and hear once more my grandmother’s voice.

There was a time I could neither read nor write enough letters. I waited impatiently for them. I scribbled them when something unexpected happened, or when my friends wouldn’t write fast enough.

Along came instant messaging, internet chat rooms, e-mail, and communication flew between us. I reveled in the instant exchange of news and ideas.

But the charm faded. I couldn’t get away from people. There were questions demanding immediate answers. Friends or colleagues  planning events or meetings, often last-minute. My digital inbox expanded. An accusing mouse pointer or blinking cursor prodded me to drop everything and communicate. Now.

That pushiness is one reason I’ve never owned a cell phone. When I owned a landline, there were days I’d let the answering machine catch calls. A wielder of words, I had nothing to say.

As years passed, as career shifted, I’ve relaxed communications. A message may sit in the e-mail box for a few days before I compose a response. Although most messages I receive are the digital equivalent of casual scrawls, even from my colleagues in the professional realm, I tend to write as if each message is a letter. There are paragraphs, proper sentence structure, no text-speak. There is still courtesy.

A few days ago, engaged in spring cleaning, I found odds-and-ends of stationery. The paper is excellent, and the feel of its thick texture against my fingertips renders me nostalgic. Some of it is printed with designs at the bottom or along one edge, leftovers from my adolescence or from someone’s humorous birthday gift a decade or more ago. Some paper is still attached to a gum-adhesive strip at the top, keeping the leaves together, and much is loose-leaf, stacks of pale parchment waiting careful calligraphy.

How impatient will friends and acquaintances be if their e-mail receives reply by post?

Or will they look on the envelopes in puzzlement?

I wonder.

For Independent (Self-Published) Authors

A fellow writer and blogger, Sandy Appleyard, asked this on LinkedIn, regarding independent (self-published) authors: “Has the bar been lowered?”

One person commented that the bar is easy “to reach if you’re the one holding it.” Indeed.

Appleyard expanded further on her blog:

This past summer, however, I started reviewing strictly indie authors, simply to help them out and to gain more perspective in the indie world.  In a nutshell, as an indie author myself, I have found book reviewing to be a very positive experience, and it has helped my writing career a lot.

What’s disappointing is the amount of less-than-great independently published books that I’ve stumbled upon recently.

Here is a short list of the issues I’ve seen:

-Grammatical/spelling

-lack dialogue

-too much back story

-not enough action

-un-relatable characters and/or story line

When I read these less-than-great stories, I feel like rather than reviewing them, I need to provide a beta read and an edit.  Are indie authors neglecting to take these vital steps?

Susan McBeth, founder of Adventures By The Book, responded with a concern about professionalism:

As an author events coordinator, I am frequently asked to host events for authors with self-published books. I am amazed when I read the books, how poorly edited many of them are (strictly speaking from the ones I’ve reviewed, not to judge all). I recently read a book that I would have considered for an event because the writing was very good, and the story was compelling an innovative, but I just couldn’t get past the fact that it didn’t appear to have been edited, and as a professional who prides my business with quality events, I want to ensure the product I am featuring is professional.

She’s right to be concerned. Not only is the author’s reputation at stake, but so is hers.

By the way, for writers living in or near Southern California, McBeth has begun The Author Academy, workshops to train authors in marketing. (I live a few states away. sigh)

My two cents’ worth:

I’m a freelance editor as well as an associate editor for a publisher, but I was a freelancer first, and have always set a high bar for my clients. Whether or not they choose to rise to meet it is entirely their choice. I do my best for them, and then they submit their work wherever they will.

As an editor for a publisher, though, the circumstances are different: A contract has been signed, and now I must help the author polish his work for public display. Still, I encounter authors who don’t seem to realize that, yes, there’s still work to be done. A contract doesn’t mean a pat on the head, all is well, the work is perfect, and all the editor has to do is fix a few commas and grammatical errors. No, there are often major story overhauls and dialogue fixes, et cetera.

Even then, authors dig in their heels, revert corrected sentences to their original incorrect state (dangling/misplaced modifiers are a huge problem), refuse to insert a necessary scene or do the proper research into an industry about which they know nothing, and so on. It can be right warlike, trying to edit the book of an entrenched, recalcitrant author who deems his work perfect and my work meddling.

On the other hand, there is real joy in editing a writer who has already done much of the work, and submits a manuscript with clean copy, good story pacing and flow, dialogue that contributes to the story rather than stagnates on the page, and has considered every word’s right to be there. That means the author is a self-editor, and knows how to be strict with his work, and is therefore able to take the advice of another editor.

And, yes, I’ve encountered many self-published books similar in state to the ones described in your blog, Sandy. I wish authors could take a few steps back, release their “babies” into someone else’s arms, and open their minds to honest feedback — before publication. Perhaps they don’t realize that those nagging misspellings or a saggy middle or the anti-climatic climax really are big problems. Readers won’t just overlook them, nor will they be likely to forget. The next time they encounter a book by an author who disappointed them, they’ll pass.

Independent authors, don’t be afraid of feedback. Welcome it.

Honest critiques by beta readers are worth more than money, and you don’t have to pay for them. Beta readers have an objective point of view that you, as the author, do not. They’ll help you find plot holes, flat dialogue, forgotten plot threads, weak scenes, and much more. Not only will they find problems, they’ll provide solutions.

Hire a freelance (independent) editor. Seriously. Save up the money, no matter how long it takes, and hire an editor skilled in editing your type of book (novel, memoir, reference, et cetera). Ask for references or editing samples, establish a good rapport, and let the editor have at your manuscript. Nothing beats a well-edited novel.

If one or more of your beta readers is also skilled at grammar, spelling, punctuation, and such, they’ll likely find and point out many nitpicky errors as they read. This is helpful, especially if it’ll be a while before you can afford to hire that editor.

Writing can be a lonely business. If you have no close support system — a writers group, for instance — several can be found online via an Internet search. I belong to a couple, but don’t use them as much as I thought I might. Actually, I’m on the hunt for a group in my town or in a nearby community, and have considered posting signs, seeing if any hidden writers will join me in starting a new group. Just as honest beta readers are priceless, so is a solid group of writers who can critique and encourage one another toward excellence.

Questions or comments? I’m happy to help where I may.

Blessed Betrayal?

On a social media site this week, a fellow writer started a new discussion thread:

What is the most valuable piece of advice you’ve received? Mine is a quote from from Peter deVries: “I only write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired every morning at 9 o’clock.”

The answer that sprang to mind wasn’t a famous quote or advice from a famous author, but something said about fifteen years ago by a writer who encouraged many others toward publication while she herself remained obscure: “So what?” and “Who cares?”

The best advice I’ve received wasn’t intended as advice, but as an offhand, snarky question: “So what?”

So what if Character X did thus and so? Why should the reader care?

That question revolutionized my storytelling.

I’m still learning all the time, and my drafts can be sloppy, meandering affairs, but when it comes time to edit the mess and turn it into something worth reading, “So what?” is a constant guide. It helps me determine what stays and what goes. It helps me revise dialogue from bland to tense, or turn an otherwise dull “just going from point A to point B” passage into a suspenseful journey.

In the end, because I’ve already asked the question of every scene, conversation, event, and plot thread, my hope is that no reader picks up my work, shrugs, and says, “So what?”

I don’t know where she is, the writer who tossed the casual question, or even if she still walks the earth, but she came along at the right moment in my life, when I struggled to return to writing after many years of literary muteness. For a few years after our chance meeting, she welcomed me into her inner circle, and many of us learned so much and were so encouraged that we took her word as gospel.

Then something happened — I don’t really know what — that changed everything. Maybe someone misunderstood something said or written. Maybe there was a power struggle, like children vying for a parent’s attention or approval. Maybe the teacher saw the students leaping past her, succeeding where she had not. Maybe we started questioning some of the advice and thinking more independently.

Whatever the reason, the kinship broke, and some of us were cast outside the circle.

We were angry, hurt, confused, but fledgelings might feel the same. The warm nest is no longer home. They must fly alone.

So we did. Alone together. And we succeeded. We won contests. We published our work.

That tight little group of survivors has broken once again. One married and moved away. One divorced and is selling her house. I moved to another state to help family. Another remains right where she always was, but is surpassing us all with her publishing achievements.

Still, some of the best advice we ever received was from the one who embraced us then betrayed us, and that, too, became a blessing.

So what?

The question ever remains: Had we stayed in the embrace, would we ever have left to become the writers we are now?

Giddy

geranium     c EE, 2010
geranium                  c EE, 2010

Bizarre, but I have been laughing out loud for no reason other than sheer freedom and joy.

Sounds cheesy, maybe a little old fashioned, but joy is the word.

A person can write wherever he chooses. I am not bound to a place.

A person can write no matter who loves him. I am not bound to a person.

A person need not write to find creative expression. I am not bound to a pen.

In my quest for freedom — not for license, but for true freedom — I have discovered that I have been my own jailer. I chose my chains and wrapped them around myself.

I sought comfort and safety, and erected bars around myself to keep out anything that interfered with those two gods. I wanted never to be hurt again, and so avoided rejection and conflict by telling myself lies.

If the truth were going to set me free, I had first to acknowledge that it is true, and then allow it to do its work.

But truth-telling — and truth-allowing — requires humility, patience, love, and even a sense of humor. If I have nothing to prove, no chip on my shoulder, no axe to grind, the truth has elbow room: it can roll up its sleeves and do its job.

Amazing how much room joy has, too, once I decided what I really and truly want; once I knew what matters most.

One certainty: there’s no use wasting time beating against what I cannot change. My efforts, thoughts, hopes, and creativity are better spent in doing those things that are within my scope to change and to accomplish.

In Hamlet, Polonius said to Laertes, “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man,” to which I add this saying by martyred missionary Jim Elliott: “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

I know who I am. I have nothing to prove. I am free. The world lies yonder, waiting for me.