A Failed Blog Post

I spent a long time (long time = several nights in a row) fighting with three or four paragraphs about writing. Having an idea that you can’t fully communicate is, as every two-year-old knows, grippingly frustrating. It’s annoying. It’s tiring. And it seems to get more complicated, the longer you try to simplify it. Or maybe that’s just me.

Since simpler is often better, I’ll lose the clunky phrases like, “Beyond the dictates of pragmatism and pedantry,” and cut to the main point:

Good writing isn’t just about grammar—it’s about rhythm.

Maybe if I can figure out how to say everything I want to say, I’ll write a P.2. Until then, you can fill in the blanks in your own mind.

How Cookies Relate to Writing*

Every author writes for a different reason.

Some of them want to be rich and famous. Others want to entertain. Many have powerful stories, both made up and real. A few have a message to help their reader. Millions write as a form of self-revelation—they want other people to know about them. Victims write for catharsis, heroes write for fame, zealots write to further their cause . . . Every person with an experience (so everyone in the world) uses writing a little differently.

Categorizing forms of writing could leave us with a multi-paged chart with lots of color coding and asterisks. In the interest of your time and mine, I’ll posit that there are two main reasons that people write.

To help myself: A lot of people write because they’re meeting their own internal need to be heard (maybe this is all of us, to a certain extent). Writing is a form of processing that helps brings thoughts full-circle and engages different parts of the brain. When you’re struggling through something, putting it on paper not only provides an audience—one that always listens and never talks back—but it also lets you see the whole picture. Many books exist that were written purely to help the author process through their own pain, thoughts, and experiences.

To help others: If you knew that the road behind your house took a sharp blind turn and led straight off a cliff, wouldn’t you consider at least putting up a sign? Writing to help others fits into this category. It’s like sharing a secret recipe or a beauty tip. The gain to yourself is minimal, but you’re giving a gift that could change another person’s life. You believe that good news merits spreading, so you spread it.

Often, this kind of writing comes from a deep well of

experience (you’ve made the cookies yourself, lots of times),
observation (you’ve watched other people mess up cookies and you know they could use a better recipe),
and maturity (you’re willing to let someone else at the party bring the very best cookies).

There’s massive end gain in both types of writing—one is personal, one is communal, and both are highly valuable. Take a brief pause today and try doing a little of each one. It’s like doing pushups: hard at first, lots of long-term rewards.

* besides that you should always write with cookies in hand.

The Two Types of Writing

Everyone wants to read for two reasons: either they’re interested in the topic—cars, sports, or real estate—or they feel like the writer understands them and can offer them insight on their feelings (loneliness, marriage, or pain).

Writing for the first group of people is comparatively easy. You become an expert on something. You pour time and energy into studying and developing your knowledge on a subject, so you can constantly mine the wealth of information to teach valuable information. It’s a lot of mental exercise and it takes great determination, but it doesn’t require much heart.

It’s much harder to reach people through their feelings and relational experiences. To write about pain really, really well, you must live through pain. To understand how it feels to be lonely, you must have no friends.

Connecting on an emotional level requires experiencing emotions and learning how to communicate them. You have to engage your heart.

It’s hard. It’s draining. It’s scary to be vulnerable. The emotional labor of empathy is enduring and processing your own pain, then feeling it again for someone else. And that is not easy.

Sharing joy is wonderful—but sharing struggles is what brings people together and helps them grow.

If we can share struggles and together bring them to the One who experienced all pain for us, hard stuff still might not be any easier. Life might not get better overnight. But there is One who sees, Who has given His life for us—and He’s given us each other, to learn from and experience with.

And that is worthwhile.

How to Write an Inflammatory Post

They—who they, you ask? The writer people who know stuff—always say that it’s best to write as if you’re writing to a person you know. Your writing takes on a more personal tone, and you can delve into topics with some expertise.

Naturally, this can be a tricky style. There is plenty of fodder for discussion: Dear Roommate Who Keeps Stealing My Nail Polish or Three Tips for Dealing with Coworkers Who Smoke on Lunch Break, for instance. But maybe you don’t want your coworkers to be angry that you’ve had enough of their aroma. Perhaps your shaky relationship with your roommate started because she sleeps with a big knife by her bed and sometimes she sleepwalks with it (at which point you have bigger problems than the nail polish anyways).

But if you’re burning with a story that you must write, there are five ways to do so discreetly.

Change up the story based on the personality trait. A friend ignores her problems and avoids them by becoming busier and busier till she’s numb to the good and the bad. She could become your bachelor next-door neighbor who never confronts his fears of dying alone by keeping a to-do list longer than his arm, which means he never allows you to set him up on a blind date. The scenarios are different, but the basic principle remains the same: burying your problems in a full schedule doesn’t actually solve anything.

Always be gracious. If you’re telling a story about your know-it-all coworker, use terms like, “well-integrated information” and “clever synthesis of knowledge.” Be sincere rather than sarcastic. Tell the story in a way that honors your coworker, and doesn’t speak ill of them. Writing is cathartic and gracious writing helps develop a gracious perspective.

Ask the person if you can write about them. There’s no better way to diffuse a possibly explosive situation than by getting permission. Don’t ask, “I’d like to write about how you made a fool of yourself in that meeting, can I?” Remember the gracious principle—“How you handled that situation brought up some interesting talking points. May I refer to it in my writing?” If they say yes, cool. Be kind. If they say no, refer to the following.

Write about it for yourself and save it for later. Chances are that in 25 years, you won’t be working and interacting with the exact same people as you are now. An inflammatory article now is an interesting, amusing, and instructive piece when you won’t lose your job because of it (still, 25 years out, remember that gracious thing).

Go anonymous and move to an island in the pacific. And if your words are burning in your heart like a ticking time bomb, take up a pseudonym and house shop off the coast of California.

Why That Project is Taking So Long

Have a big project you haven’t finished? Garrison Keillor has crafted a perfect, absolutely watertight excuse for why it’s not done yet (disclaimer, this rings especially true for us writer-types).

Roman and Leon are brothers growing old together on their farm in Minnesota.

Roman worked, Leon said, as if he could by sheer effort pull the corn up out of the ground and make it grow. Leon said that he worked, too. On a book, though he wasn’t ready to show it to anyone, which would distill the wisdom of the ages into a single volume. This book, when finished, would change people’s minds about him, but he was in no hurry to finish it, knowing that work that lasts comes slow.

Cooking, Poetry, and Losing Friends?

I wanted to write about cooking as poetry, structured on a quote from Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, but my copy of the book (and therefore the exact quote) was nowhere to be found. In an apartment that’s circa 500 square feet, that’s a feat.

This derailed my cooking thoughts and prompted me to write about how losing a book is like losing a friend. Then I remembered Dandelion Wine is missing because I loaned it to someone: (verb) what you do when you never want to see your book again.

Now I’m stuck in the middle.

Is this a commentary on cooking as poetry, incomplete without one of my main sources?

Or is it a false disjointed narrative on losing books as losing friends—because my scenario is losing books to friends?

Perhaps I could do a bit of each, but one is like lasagna without the ricotta cheese (a sad, sad entreé) and the other evades any good analogy because it’s talking about A when B is what happened but A’s a good story but it’s not quite the truth (if you can figure out the perfect eight word picture for that, please let me know).

If you’re thoroughly confused about the whole thing, I am too. Maybe it’s just time for pie (poetry and friendship in one).

The Professor's House Back Cover Copy

Based on the back cover copy of The Professor’s House, by Willa Cather, I expected a story about a man who was sad his family moved. The back cover reads,

Professor Godfrey St. Peter is a man in his fifties, who has devoted his life to his work, his wife, his garden, and his daughters, and achieved success with all of them. But when St. Peter is called on to move to a new, more comfortable house, something in him rebels. And although at first that rebellion consists of nothing more than mild resistance to his family’s wishes, it imperceptibly comes to encompass the entire order of his life. Combining profound introspection with a delightful grasp of the social and domestic rituals of a Midwestern university town, The Professor’s House is a brilliant study in emotional dislocation and renewal.

After reading the book, this isn’t the back cover copy I would have written (granted, perhaps it was written by a psychologist who’s made a study of the fictional man). From a narrative perspective, although St. Peter is troubled by his family’s move, it’s not the focal point of his concern. I’d write that back cover copy . . .

Teaching at a university and writing books for the last thirty years has worn out Professor Godfrey St. Peter—but so has being married to an intense woman, raising two daughters who hate each other, and watching his future son-in-law die. St. Peter’s uneasiness increases as his wife dictates their move to a larger, more comfortable home, and his daughter and her husband grow wealthy off her deceased fiancé’s discovery. Travel this wearying emotional journey with a lonely man who’s unwilling to leave the house that’s become closer to him than his family. You’ll learn a deeper understanding for the heart of a father, the complexities of friendship, and the soul of a man who gradually loses his will to live.

Good Artists Borrow

Yesterday I stared at my screen for a long time with nothing to say. Maybe the long nap wiped all functional vocabulary, grammar, and syntax out of my brain. Or I couldn’t hold my arms up to type after spending hours and hours packing and carrying boxes (Curtis and I will be starting our own moving company soon NOT). Or it could have been apple crisp induced sluggishness.

But most likely it was because even though I love it, writing is still work. After moping, I lamented to Curtis (he’s very wonderful) that, “I have nothing at all to write,”

Raising an eyebrow, he said, “Then read.”

He unwittingly touched on one of the greatest—and simplest—creative principles.

Good artists borrow, great artists steal.

No, don’t visit the Louvre and try to leave with the Mona Lisa.

Yes, study the work of skilled people who you admire.

It’s the same in every trade. Architects look at other people’s buildings. Chefs taste food everywhere they go. Teachers take classes from other teachers. There’s always something to learn from someone who excels at what you love.

And there’s great inspiration in seeing your passion done well. Seeing something beautiful (vague for your sake, but writing in my case) ignites an itch to create something beautiful. Framed negatively, it’s jealousy. Positively, extrinsic motivation.

I took Curtis’s advice and started reading Willa Cather—a true lover of sentences (and they tell me that’s really all that writers are). Now I have things to write again.

Here, you’ll see I’ve stolen the design of the earth to doodle on . . .

Here, you’ll see I’ve stolen the design of the earth to doodle on . . .

Five Ways Writing is Like Gardening

Today Curtis (he’s very wonderful) took me to the Chicago Botanic Gardens, which reaffirmed that if I ever quit writing I’ll be a career gardener. That’s a horticulturalist, and yes, I would switch partially because it sounds much more pretentious.

Is it too far of a stretch if I apply lessons from gardening to writing? Probably.

Will I anyways? Yes.

Well-weeded, pruned gardens are more visually appealing. In 385 acres of garden, I didn’t see a single weed. It was breathtaking. I’m sure there’s an army of weeders. Good, clean writing takes a lot of work, but it’s worth it. Excessive words muddy the main point.

There’s not just one good writing style. We walked through more than two dozen different styles of gardens—Japanese, evening, prairie, native, vegetable, rose, sensory—and every one is gorgeous because it’s unique. You don’t have to write like Anne Lamott or Victor Hugo to be a good writer. Your voice, your style, your you-ness makes you special.

Composition is key. Plants are organized by height, color, texture, sometimes even smell, for aesthetic appeal. Arrange your words carefully in sentences, your sentences in paragraphs, and your paragraphs in pages. Organize your writing. Your reader doesn’t want to order your scattered thoughts (realistically will stop reading instead).

There’s a place for everything. Cabbage and corn stalks may not be as visually exquisite as dahlias and heliotropes, but there’s a place for both in gardening. And writing. There are heavyweight words and fluffy terms—use both for good rhythmic balance.

People enjoy quality. Hundreds of people were enjoying the gardens today. If you practice-practice-practice and always work to get better, people will enjoy reading you (and your mom and grandma always will, regardless of whether or not you improve—yes, telling my own story here).

On the blog tomorrow: Lessons I Learned about Writing at the Trash Dump.

Kidding, kidding.

 
Apparently this is an Inspiration Passion Flower. I would have called it a Purple Squiggly Guy.

Apparently this is an Inspiration Passion Flower. I would have called it a Purple Squiggly Guy.

 

Writing: Almost like Talking to a Friend

Often when I sit down to write I have nothing to say. Yet I have few friends who I’d voluntarily engage in conversation then sit in silence with, from lack of stuff to talk about.

That’s because if it was a friend, I’d know them and we’d already have common ground to cover: work, family, friends, the GIGANTIC groundhog living in their backyard, etc.

Conversely, a lot of what you do as a writer is like a one-way conversation. Chances are you’ll never get to speak personally to many of the strangers who read a lot of your work (I don’t even talk daily to you kind, considerate folks who skim my blog to see if I mention you by name).

But if you disassociate your writing from your audience because “Why would I write to people who I’ll never meet,” everything you write becomes boring and robotic, much like a computer manual. It’s not appealing because it’s not personal or personable. People want to read things they can relate to.

For instance, embarrassing things.

  • Today I sat through a whole meeting with a big black mark on my face that I only saw after. I think it might have been dirt. No, I don’t know where it came from. Yes, I’m too old to have dirt on my face.

  • Earlier this week I walked half-way across the street in front of a line of traffic, realized my mistake, and turned around.

  • I trip at awkward times, sometimes laugh with food in my teeth, and frequently turn BEET red and splotchy. People have been telling me I’m loud since I was . . . well, I can’t remember when they haven’t. I’m about as subtle as a peacock.

But there’s danger in trying to be the kind of personal I would be with a friend. You’re tapping your fingers waiting for me to finish talking about myself. I’m not really all that interesting, and why should you care what dumb thing I did when what happened to you yesterday at the drinking fountain was oh-so-mortifying.

Good writing then becomes the balance of using your life experiences for your reader’s benefit. You’ve got (at least) two goals, to help your reader:

a) grow without experiencing the pain/pleasure/confusion you’ve had and they haven’t
or
b) cope with a circumstance
they can’t escape

For example . . .

Our family dog died unexpectedly the day before my 13th birthday. We were on a business trip with my dad, and I didn’t get to say goodbye. The call came from our kind, dog-sitting neighbors. You know when the pit of your stomach becomes solid rock, and you want to turn your face toward a wall to hide your tears so no one thinks you’re a butter-hearted baby who can’t handle the facts? Me too. It feels awkward and uncomfortable.

But it’s okay to be that butter-hearted baby, sometimes. Some things are too sudden to prepare for, too complex to understand, and too hard to express with anything other than tears.

It’s okay to acknowledge that. It’s okay to cry, fume a little, not understand.

Years later (I’m long past 13, you see), I still think of our dog. She was a golden retriever, only nominally obedient, and staunchly defensive about her food bowl (our chocolate lab learned that the hard way—again and again. his learning curve was a pretty straight line). And while her dying certainly is not the hardest thing that’s happened in life around these parts (for Jesus knew what He meant, In this world you will have trouble . . .), it’s what I think of when something hard or sad or bad happens.

I still have fond memories of her. While I wish she hadn’t died the way she did, I no longer cringe at the memory of her death—I think of the happiness of her life.

And I remember one more thing: trouble isn’t where Jesus stopped.

In this world you will have trouble . . . But I will give you peace.

Sometimes, you just have to wait for the peace. Sometimes, it takes a long time. It’s okay to be sad in the waiting.