Teaching through Story

A. W. Tozer was a renowned pastor, teacher, and writer. He wrote about God with clarity and conviction. Remembering to do what many heady authors are prone to forget, he often used the power of story and illustration to drive home his point.

When you’re trying to write something that will reach people, you need to go behind their minds—you must reach their imaginations.

From Tozer’s The Counselor:

Because He is loving and kind and friendly, the Holy Spirit may be grieved. We grieve Him by ignoring Him, by resisting Him, by doubting Him, by sinning against Him, by refusing to obey Him, by turning our backs on HIm. He can be grieved because He is loving, and there must be love present before there can be grief.

Suppose you had a seventeen-year-old son who began to go bad. He rejected your counsel and wanted to take things into his own hands. Suppose that he joined up with a young stranger from another part of the city and they got into trouble.

You were called down to the police station. Your boy—and another boy whom you had never seen—sat there in handcuffs.

You know how you would feel about it. You would be sorry for the other boy—but you don’t love him because you don’t know him. With your own son, your grief would penetrate to your heart like a sword. Only love can grieve. If those two boys were sent off to prison, you might pity the boy you didn’t know, but you would grieve over the boy you knew and loved. A mother can grieve because she loves. If you don’t love, you can’t grieve.

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.

Six Years Old on a Plane

One Christmas when I was small, my family flew to Florida to spend the holiday with my grandparents. Our family of seven rarely flew places when I was younger, since corralling five children through an airport is both costly and (I imagine) exhausting.

The travel day, already an adventure, became more exciting when we ate ice cream for lunch, and climaxed when I was given the privilege of sitting by the family patriarch—the Dad—on the airplane.

Where some would take this opportunity to put a screen in front of my face, he spent the whole flight paying attention to me. We played games, he taught me how to make silly putty balls and cubes, and together we drew and colored.

Every choice that you make influences someone else.

Years later, if he had chosen to do his own thing and let me do mine, I probably wouldn’t remember the flight. But when he chose to invest time in his young daughter, he unintentionally gave me a gift that’s even more valuable than knowing how to make a square with silly putty.

He gave me a memory.

Next time you’re choosing between plane flight activities (or a score of other daily time-spending choices) remember: It takes more energy to invest in people—your children, your family, your friends. You have to care more, listen more, give more.

But in the long run, you’ll have more—memories, shared experiences, relational equity—and you’ll be glad you chose to pay attention.

10 Typical Meeting Behaviors

Meetings are one of those interesting topics that almost everyone has an opinion about—

some people really love them (large groups help me brainstorm),
some people really despise them (you expect me to be articulate on the spot in a room full of people?),
but not many people view them with complete ambivalence.

Just as there are many strong opinion about meetings, there is more than one distinct meeting personality.

The bulldog: comes to the meeting with a preconceived notion of what’s right, and either A) makes everyone else agree with them or B) doesn’t listen to anyone else’s opinion and leaves the meeting with the same perspective, or C) won’t even give anyone else a chance to talk.

The last word: steps into the room, comments on knowing something, then answers every general question and says, “Mm-hmm” constantly just so everyone knows they know things.

The thinker: doesn’t say much, but when asked, has a surprisingly articulate opinion about the discussion.

The questioner: probes into the heart of the matter, sometimes asking uncomfortable questions that help people see things from new angles and think of elements they hadn’t considered.

The talker: doesn’t necessarily have anything to say, and they’re not usually ill-willed, but they talk anyways because they like to talk, and because they want to feel heard, and because they don’t like the sound of silence, and because it’s lonely sitting at a quiet desk all day, and because they thought of all kinds of important thoughts that they wanted to share, and because . . . Oh. Sorry.

The moderator (read: mediator): brings a calming spirit, which is often tasked with either gently quieting the Talker and encouraging the Thinker, or trying to salvage everyone else’s thoughts when the Bulldog shows up.

The single comment: sort of pays enough attention to insert comments here and there that may or may not loosely relate.

The quiet one: usually sits in a corner, doesn’t make much noise, might be listening or might be thinking about dinner and picking kid up from soccer practice after work.

The sleepy: didn’t seem to get enough rest last night, and is fervently hoping no one notices.

There are probably several more categories, but in the interest of a not-quite-comprehensive list, I’ll just add one more:

The distracted writer: who’s not actually paying any attention to the subject of the meeting, but instead psycho-analyzing everyone for a blog post . . .

20 Years of Perfect Grammar

This week, one of my highly esteemed coworkers celebrated her 20th anniversary on the job. She’s been at it for *almost* as long as I’ve been alive, and she’s still going strong.

Not everyone has a positive key word that describes them—most of us are checking in somewhere around “present,” “trying not to fall asleep,” “mediocre,” or “making it up as I go along.”

But her word, without a shadow of a doubt, is excellence.

Two years ago, as I was the new editor on a team of A-list players, I remember feeling nervous every time one of my pieces was slated to land on her desk. Proofreaders get paid to make sure mistakes don’t get printed, and she’s no exception. She spends all day every day combing through different types of marketing materials, finding and correcting errors. Because she’s laid eyes on the entire spectrum of quality, from A+ to don’t-even-bother-coming-back-to-class-you’ve-already-failed, she knows what’s good when she sees it.

Acting as the senior editor for a monthly devotional, she understands the work that goes into making something truly excellent—and month after month, she continues to do it.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.
— Aristotle

Still practically wet behind the ears, I made my fair share of mistakes. But the first time I got a compliment from her on my work, I grew an inch in stature and a foot in confidence. I knew that if she was willing to recognize something I’d done as good, I had to be doing alright.

She’s 20 years in and still striving hard for excellence. Let’s all start working on what we want to be known for in 20 years.

Of course, 20 years deserves lots of celebrating!

Of course, 20 years deserves lots of celebrating!

Short 07: A Plug for Breakfast

In honor of

A) 12 hours of writing other things,

B) Breakfast,

C) Breakfast,

and

D) Breakfast,

here is a plug for the values of breakfast. Eating a well-balanced (delicious) breakfast kickstarts your metabolism, cheers you up, and helps you not faint from hunger (three wonderful things). My relationship with breakfast teeters on the brink between enjoyment and fixation (or maybe I’m already obsessed and just unwilling to admit it).

Breakfast

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.

Fuschia and the Turkey Mark: a Vignette

You probably know this, but there’s a lot to see on Chicago streets during lunch hour.

Across the street from me, a mail-woman deftly pushing a mail cart stepped rapidly up the street. A lady in front of her jumped out of a taxi and crossed the sidewalk quickly, to a shop door. She wore a bubblegum pink coat, rattlesnake patterned pants, and a light brown purse slung over her shoulder. Her curly red hair reached her elbows and flew behind her as she pushed on the door. When it didn’t open, she bounced back onto the sidewalk. The mail-lady pointed to the intercom.

I don’t know what she was so eager to enter the store for, but if she were in one of my stories . . .


Fuchsia Jones always wore turtlenecks, and no one knew why. Well, no one besides her immediate family, who’d grown up used to the sight of the large brown birthmark on Fuchsia’s chest, shaped remarkably like a turkey. She hadn’t been ashamed of it until high school, when she left her small private school and began attending a large public school—and there, she was made fun of right and left, called names like fowl-face and tubby-turkey. In the middle her freshman year of high school, she begged her mother to take her to the store and buy her turtlenecks. After that day, she never wore anything besides turtlenecks.

College came and went, and Fuchsia remained unmarried, a victim of her own behavior. When any young man tried to get to know her, she laughed giddily and avoided eye contact.

After graduation she served at a Buffalo Wild Wings in Chicago, always wearing her shirt buttoned all the way up to her neck. Her coworkers laughed at her for being up tight, and Fuchsia became more withdrawn. Hidden on Clybourn, nestled in between a tanning salon and a custom frame store, stood a skincare specialty store.

One Friday before her shift, Fuchsia went to the shop and confidentially showed the salesperson her birthmark.

The woman assured her she’d seen worse, and recommended a bottle of salve that she promised would remove the brown in less than 60 days, if she faithfully applied it every night before bed.

Fuchsia paid the huge sum, took the bottle, and for the next 6 weeks rubbed her chest with the pale blue lotion every night. On Sunday morning of the seventh week, Fuchsia woke up, looked at herself in the mirror, and screamed.

The woman had been right, it did remove the brown. The turkey was periwinkle blue.


George Washington's Key to Leadership

Leadership isn’t just being in charge of people—it’s the ability to motivate men and women to persevere in the face of dreadful opposition, insurmountable odds, and flagging spirits.

George Washington is held up as one of the main reasons for America’s independence, though he had many flaws and made more than one costly mistake. In 1776 David McCullough outlines the trait that brought Washington, thus the Continental Army, success:

He was not a brilliant strategist or tactician, not a gift orator, not an intellectual. At several crucial moments he had shown marked indecisiveness. He had made serious mistakes in judgment. But experience had been his great teacher from boyhood, and in this his greatest test, he learned steadily from experience. Above all, Washington never forgot what was at stake and he never gave up.

Again and again, in letters to Congress and to his officers, and in his general orders, he had called for perseverance—for “perseverance and spirit,” for “patience and perseverance,” for “unremitting courage and perseverance.” Soon after the victories of Trenton and Princeton, he had written: “A people unused to restraint must be led, they will not be drove.”

Yet Washington only took the responsibility of leading his country in the battle against America because he believed in the vision: that all men are created equal, and that the oppressive tyranny that the United Colonies were being subjected to was unjust. He had nothing to offer his soldiers but the vision of freedom, and when all else failed, this is indeed how he was able to motivate them to persevere.

On December 30, 1776, when the contracts of many of the soldiers in his army were expiring, winter had begun full-force, and all seemed lost, Washington made the appeal to his troops to continue fighting and not abandon the cause of freedom.

One of the soldiers would remember his regiment being called into formation and His Excellency, astride a big horse, addressing them “in the most affectionate manner.” The great majority of the men were New Englanders who had served longer than any and who had no illusions about what was being asked of them. Those willing to stay were asked to step forward. Drums rolled, but no one moved. Minutes passed. Then Washington “wheeled his horse about” and spoke again.

“My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected, but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty, and to your country, which you can probably never do under any other circumstance.”

Again the drums sounded and this time the men began stepping forward. “God Almighty, wrote Nathanael Greene, “inclined their hearts to listen to the proposal and they engaged anew.”

Being a good leader isn’t only about upholding the cause—it’s also about casting the vision to persevere when all seems lost.

5 Secrets to a Successful Celebration

Curtis (he’s very wonderful) and I spent the last three days living the party life. Crazy, I know.

We attended a wedding, a birthday party, a baby shower, and a bridal shower in four different cities. After spending 72 hours celebrating people at four occasions held by radically different hosts, I discovered that there are a few key themes in holding a celebration for someone.

1. It’s not about the money.
People often equate the quality of a celebration with the amount of money that’s poured into it. But at the end of the day, if you’re having a party (unless you associate with millionaires on the regular), not one will care if you have dippin’ dots instead of caviar. People are more interested in the mood.

2. Care about your guests.
If people are more interested in the mood, and you want them to enjoy it, make it easy to enjoy. Create a cheerful atmosphere, be kind and attentive to your guests, and remind them that you’re grateful for their presence (and presents, if it’s that kind of thing). And give them something to do, so they don’t have to stand around awkwardly trying to make friends with your coworker who you also invited or your grandma who’s a little deaf.

3. Have a plan—and to be flexible.
Give your guests something to do: icebreakers when they come in, a few more intentional games, snacks or drinks to hold on to, and intentional conversation starters. But, if one activity eats up more time than it’s supposed to, or the food you’re getting catered arrives 45 minutes late, don’t throw a fit. No one else cares as much as you do.

4. Food isn’t the main priority.
Guests don’t come to the wedding for the food, they come to see you get married. Food catastrophes are common, but five years down the road, no one will remember if there weren’t enough hot dogs at your birthday party (but they may remember if they all get food poisoning from the hot dogs, so try not to serve old hot dogs). If something goes wrong with the food, take a quick trip to the store—or just apologize to your guests and tell them they’ll have to stop at McDonalds on the way home.

5. A little thoughtfulness goes a long way.
You’ll have more of an influence in someone’s life if you sit and listen to them for eight minutes than if you spend eight minutes trying to make sure everyone knows how much time you spent making the decorations perfect. Pay attention to people, listen to them, and show them you care about them—that’s what will make a celebration they never forget.