Purpose and Audience, an interview

For quite a few years, I’ve been teaching students how to write, coaching writers through the writing process, and providing editing support to writers at all phases of maturity and ability.

No matter what project we are working on or where we are in the process, I find myself returning to two critical questions:

  1. What is your purpose?
  2. Who is your audience?

These questions matter. They direct all of our writing.

What message is our message? Who are we conveying that message to?

Sometimes, beginning writers say to me, “I have to write a five-page paper about [insert topic here],” and I reply, “What do you want to convey? Are you trying to inform? persuade? entertain?” They often don’t know, so we spend time in that realm for a bit. Next, I ask, “Who is your audience? Do they have background knowledge of your topic or are they strangers to it? Are they adults? children? How does knowledge of your audience shape what you plan to say?”

These questions are clarifying. They help the writer start to shape her message, to choose vocabulary, to select anecdotes. When she has a group of people in the seats of her mental auditorium and she can picture their backgrounds and level of expertise, when she understands the reason she is writing and the message she hopes to convey, she can begin to frame her message.

I have been having conversations like this for a very long time, so this morning, when I was preparing to draft this week’s blog and I had, as I often have, a crisis of identity, I asked myself the same questions.

It went something like this.

What am I even going to write about this week? Why do I think anyone will want to read it? Do I have anything valid to say?

I was sounding like one of my students. So, I replied to myself:

“Ok, ok, come back off the ledge…breathe…think…what is your purpose? why are you still writing this blog after five years? What compels you? What are you hoping to accomplish? Who is reading your writing? What do they hope to hear? How will you convey that message? What is your message?”

Wow. Thanks for asking. I think I need to spend some time on this. I often write about healing — physical, emotional, and spiritual. I write about writing. I write about recovering from a life of soldiering. I write about finding rest. I write about creating space. I write about my faith. I write about my failures.

“That’s a good start. Who do you picture as your audience?”

That is more difficult. I have 170 followers, and a typical post gets about 40 views. I imagine most of my readers resonate with something I have to say about faith, autoimmune disease, or living intentionally. I guess that a chunk of my readers are friends and family. And the most important, and surely most critical, member of my audience is myself.

“And how does that inform your writing?”

Whatever my topic is has to originate with something I am processing on my own — a current autoimmune flare, a family transition, something I am learning in my spiritual life. I think what I try to do in my blog is to narrate the inner workings of my mind — first to help myself process, but also to allow others to see that process because I am, and always will be, a teacher. I did this in the classroom — I worked through every assignment my students did, walked them through my process, explaining it as I went. And I just can’t stop my think aloud protocol.

“See how clarifying this conversation can be? Do you ever wonder if you might expand your audience?”

From time to time, I wonder if I should take one more step in my writing. Should I be intentional about promoting my blog? Should I put some of my blog posts together in a book and publish it? Should I start from scratch and write my story of soldiering, crashing, and finding life in the next chapter? Who would read it? Who would even publish it? Who am I kidding? I need to just stay in my lane.

“This is your lane, dear. Writing has always been your lane. It’s as natural to you as breathing. When your fingers aren’t clicking on keys or scrawling out notes on a page, you begin to wither. You must — you must — keep writing. You said it yourself, primarily it is for you, but because you are also a teacher, it’s natural to explore the opportunity of allowing others to watch your process. They may just observe for a while and then quietly walk away. But you might inspire someone to try something new — homeopathy, yoga, openly grieving, or dramatically changing the way that they live out their days. Who’s to know?”

But I’m scared! I don’t know where I would even start. It’ll be so much work! And what if it’s all for nothing.

“The writing itself is the gift. You already know that. The power is in the process.”

It’s true. And that’s what I’ve always wanted my students — my friends, my family — to know more than anything. Often we don’t [I don’t] know our purpose or our audience before we step into the process and start putting words on the page. And it is in putting the words on the page that we discover our purpose, our audience, ourselves.

“Exactly.”

Yes, I know that not everyone is compelled to spend an hour or more every day putting words on the page. I know that that not every single person would feel comfortable sharing their thoughts with an audience that might just include family and friends but also might include someone sitting at a laptop in her kitchen in India.

But I am compelled. And I am, oddly, comfortable.

So I continue. Because this is my purpose, and you, apparently, are my audience.

Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.

Proverbs 19:21

On and Off the Couch

Five years ago, when I moved into the little house by the river, I was exhausted and physically ill. For the first time probably since my childhood, I gave myself permission to plop on the couch and be unproductive. I didn’t come to this on my own — my medical team had advised it, and my husband had supported it. I needed some time to let my body recover from years of hard work. I needed to exit crisis mode and hit ‘reset’.

This is no news to you if you’ve read my blog — in fact, one of the reasons I began to write was that I was, for the first time in over thirty years, not going to be working or caring for children. I had no idea what I would do with myself if I didn’t come up with a daily task. And, writing proved, as you might have guessed, one of the means for healing. The pouring out of thoughts onto a page allows them to be seen and felt. In the seeing and feeling, the healing begins.

So, the first layer of healing began with time on the couch and a commitment to writing. I spent a lot of time on the couch (and in bed, and in a chair, and on the floor). I drank countless cups of tea and have now written over 400 blog posts in addition to the countless pages that I have written in spiral notebooks and journals in the past few years.

That decision to spend some time on the couch and to commit time to writing every day laid the foundation for a much more thorough mental and spiritual healing that would follow the initial physical healing. I didn’t know it at the time, but the first six months in the little house by the river, was a dress rehearsal for the next several years.

In addition to the physical fatigue and illness that I brought with me to Ann Arbor, our whole family also carried with us some deep wounds from years of dysfunction. Some of that dysfunction was not too atypical — a family doing too much, trying too hard, and overlooking critical moments and emotions in the frenzy of day-to-day living. However, some larger issues were less than typical– eating disorder, depression, alcoholism, and sexual assault. And even writing the words, I realize that though these were devastating, they are not as atypical as I would like to believe.

And I think that’s part of the reason I keep writing about them. Sure, it is hard to admit that our family — the one for which I had high hopes for perfection — suffered in ways that we had never expected, but just as surely, pain happens to everyone. Every one of us suffer.

And so, when, a couple years into life in this house by the river, we looked our pain full in the face and crawled back onto the couch and cried and cried and cried. I didn’t stop writing. I didn’t retreat into my room, as I had in the past, to “close the door and draw the blinds”. I didn’t want to air each of our private pains publicly, but I also didn’t want to hide the fact that we were indeed hurting. I am not sure it was a conscious choice at the time — after all, I was lying wounded on the side of the road bandaged and bleeding; how much clarity can you have in that situation? However, I believe I instinctively knew that my recovery was dependent on my writing — writing that was honest and transparent.

I didn’t write the details — I guess each of us can fill in our own. We can all find ourselves on the couch, immobilized, hurting, and in need of a re-set.

And I am here to tell you that resets happen. People get off couches. They start walking. They begin to smile. They feel hope again.

It doesn’t come quickly. Some people find themselves plunked in a great big sectional sofa for a couple of years or more. In fact, they’ve been there so long that the sofa itself takes on an appearance of grief, anguish, and decay, and they hardly notice. They sink into dilapidation, and it feels like home. So they stay there, watching Netflix night after night after night.

But slowly, gradually, light starts peeking in from behind the blinds, and they start to notice that the couch is visibly tired of performing this service.

It’s served its term.

So they stand up. They start taking walks, dreaming dreams, and envisioning a world where every day isn’t laden with grief. They start picturing places that exist away from the couch — places inhabited by people and experiences and opportunities. Venturing out seems a little daunting at first, so they proceed with caution — a coffee date here, a shopping trip there.

Soon they realize they are meeting in groups outside of their home, not only to gather support to sustain them in their long hours on the couch, but also to share support, love, and friendship. They discover they have energy for a walk before dinner, shopping in the afternoon, and rearranging the furniture.

But that sectional takes up so much space — what with the grief lying all over it, spilling over the edges.

It’s got to go.

It’s all part of the reset. Room must be made for the new — new experiences, new dreams, new life.

So out it goes.

And just like that, a weight is lifted. A corner is turned. A brightness is felt.

Imagine the possibilities of life away from the couch. A life of dinners at the table, of walking in the park, of meeting up with friends. Of laughter, of joy.

I am here to tell you that resets happen.

I am here to tell you that I am off the couch.

Now –if you’re slunk down in the cushions, chest sprinkled with potato chip crumbs, staring at a television playing mindless shows with laugh tracks, I have not one ounce of judgment for you. I only offer this: when you have cried countless tears and lain awake long nights, when you have thought that you will never feel joy again, hold on.

It may be a while, but the light will peek in from behind the blinds, and you, too, will find yourself rising from the couch. You’ll start walking. You’ll find yourself smiling. You will again begin to feel hope.

I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.

Jeremiah 31:13

Of writing and making meaning, Re-visit

On Monday, October 28, 2019, I wrote about writing –how considering purpose and audience impact what we write. Today, I’m re-visiting a post from July 2019 where I closely examined the power of the writing process. Many truths about writing can be applied to life in general.

Every week I feel a hum of anxiety around Wednesday or Thursday….”what am I going to write about this week?” Usually by Friday an idea is forming — an image, a topic, or the sharing of an experience. On Saturday I put words on the page. Sunday is for revising, slashing, and rewriting in order to form a cohesive draft before I fine-tune on Monday morning and finally click “publish”.

Last weekend, I dug out a months-old draft and decided to carry it to completion. I wrote most of the day Saturday — drafting and deleting, writing and revising. By Sunday morning, I had a completed draft. I felt I was about ready to post, so I clicked on the “preview” button at the top of my draft. A dialog box popped up:

I paused, and thinking my most recent changes were the only portion that was unsaved, I took a quick snapshot of the last three paragraphs, and then ‘proceeded’.

To my shock and horror, I lost much more than the last few paragraphs. I lost most of my draft. Because we’d been without power at our home, I had changed locations twice over the weekend, connecting to different internet sources, and had apparently failed to save all of my changes during several hours of drafting the previous day. I fumbled and clicked around the WordPress platform trying to find what I’d lost, but it was all gone.

This Sunday morning, I started with nothing. I had no topic or image on Friday, no drafting on Saturday, not one word on the page at 8:15am. So, rather than staring at a blank screen waiting for inspiration, I just started typing, because that’s what I tell my students, “Don’t just sit there — write something!”

I’m writing from the coffee house at our church while my husband stands one floor above me in the sanctuary, delivering a message about storytelling and how we attach meaning to the events in our lives. He puts a graphic on the screen something like this:

Experience —> Story —–> Feel/Act

He, the therapist (and educator and pastor) explains that all humans have experiences, they tell stories about those experiences, and the stories they choose to tell direct the feelings and actions that grow from those experiences. The stories we tell about our experiences are where we find meaning.

And I realize that I just told you a story about my experience with my writing last weekend. And I’m starting to tell you a story about my experience with writing this weekend. I’m trying to find some meaning here.

A few times in the past several months, I have come to the keys frustrated — about events that to me seem unjust, inhumane, misdirected, and born of ill motive. On those days, my fingers can barely keep up with the words as they throw themselves onto the page. When I finish, I walk away. Later, when I’ve cooled a little, I come back to soften, to add complexity, to explore my feelings, and to find the meaning buried in my messy spill of words.

Other times, when I’m more contemplative, my writing feels like a letter to a friend, a telling of the truths of my life, longing for a listener who will resonate, someone who will say, “Mhmm, I get that.” My fingers move slowly, words coming from my heart and my guts rather than a fiery emotional response. Often through tears I work to translate emotion into print, to share my story, to create meaning out of pain, joy, sadness, or celebration.

Sometimes I battle thoughts of insecurity, “Why do you think anyone would want to read anything that you write?” Or, fear that I will offend, “Yikes, do you really want to say that? What will your family think? your friends? the people at church?” Or that I will share something too dear and personal for those that I love the most, “Is this story really mine to tell?”

In those moments, I come back to my motive. Why do I write? I write because whenever I put words on the page something shifts for me. As the words form themselves into sentences and paragraphs, meaning takes shape. The shift is subtle. I can’t always tell that it’s happening, but it always does.

Even in my re-telling of last weekend’s lost draft, I see the variety of stories I had the opportunity to tell, I could’ve said, “Sorry, guys, I had an excellent draft, but I lost it. I’ll try again next week.” And certainly the world would’ve kept turning. Or, I could’ve told the story of what an idiot I am — how could I make such a careless mistake? WordPress even warned me!

Instead, in the moment, I chose a different way: I gathered myself, and began step by step to rebuild what I’d lost, telling myself over and over, “You can do this. You are not finished. The thoughts that were true in the first draft will find their way onto the second draft. Do not give up.”

I had an experience, I told myself the story of persistence, and I was able, through my frustration, to rewrite the post. All 1400 words of it.

And in coming to the keys this week, having no topic in mind at all, and telling the story of that experience, I have discovered that writing about my process of writing is really writing about more than just that. As I sit in the coffee shop below the sanctuary where my husband is preaching about Jesus’ storytelling and His way of making meaning, I’m being prepared for when I will join him for the second service to take in the meaning he’s been making.

He’s been pouring over scripture, writing his own thoughts, creating the slides that appear on the screen behind him, and practicing his delivery. He’s been staying late at the office, getting up early in the morning, and reviewing his notes as he lies next to me before falling asleep each night.

He, all week, has been putting words onto a page, watching them form into sentences and paragraphs, and, he’s been writing stories. Through that process, has been making meaning.

I can’t speak for him and how his process works, but I can tell you how it happens for me. Never do I know, when I first sit down, what I will ultimately say in my writing. I come to the page and write about what I have experienced. I share my stories and am often surprised by what I learn as I draft, re-read, revise, and edit. I pay attention to what I keep and what I toss — what resonates and what is dross.

And usually, I discover that the pieces of life that I’ve put on the page have somehow transformed into meaning. It’s as though the experiences have been crafted, or at least allowed, by a Creator who delights in story. The one who wrote us into His own story — imagine it! — allows us the time and space to experience our own stories. He invites us to see the intersections, the co-existence, the interconnectedness — to find meaning.

A lost draft becomes an opportunity to build resiliency. An empty page offers a time to reflect. An hour in a coffee shop becomes a necessary pause — a chance to write and see the making of meaning.

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”

Matthew 7:7

Language Learning

On Saturday, I worked with two students online. The first is a high school junior who I’ve worked with since she was in eighth grade. The second is an eighth grader who I met when he was in sixth grade. Both students are bi-lingual. Both students are high-achieving. Both students are expected by their parents to work hard.

“Gina” and I worked on SAT prep. She had taken a practice test and wanted to review the items she had missed. We analyzed her mistakes and discovered that almost all were related to vocabulary. Over the years, Gina and I have talked about the strength she has in knowing two languages. She can communicate with people in both Chinese and English. In fact, while she takes AP English Language and tutors Chinese students online to help them improve their English skills, she also studies AP Chinese! She has traveled to Taiwan many times with family and can spend weeks speaking nothing but Chinese. Then, she can come back to Michigan, slide back into her public school classroom, and navigate the language needed in all of her rigorous classes. This is a huge strength! However, since she holds in one hand all kinds of Chinese vocabulary and in the other hand all kinds of English vocabulary, neither hand has room for quite as many words as they could hold if they were cupped together holding words from just one language.

cupped hands

For example, although she holds the word ‘vague’, she may not also have obscure, dubious, ambiguous, and nebulous. Her hand simply doesn’t have the room. ‘Vague’ can usually do the job, except on the SAT, which may require Gina to know that obscure, vague, and ambiguous are all synonyms, and explicit is their antonym. The distinctions are challenging. So, we often spend our time working on vocabulary and helping Gina build images for new words so that she can put them on index cards and practice them when she’s not studying Chinese or psychology or one of the many other classes she is taking. She also has an English vocabulary app on her phone and plays freerice.com. She’s always trying to find ways to fit more words into her hands.

And then there’s “Kyle”. Kyle is fascinating to me. Although he is fluent in both Korean and English, although he speaks only Korean at home, although he is only in eighth grade, this kid has so. many. words. He did even when he was in sixth grade. I popped into our online room and asked him, “So what’s up? Your mom says you need some help with writing.”

“Well, my teacher says that I write too much. She says I need to be more concise.”

I’m chuckling to myself right now because in eighth grade, my teachers way back in the 70s didn’t expect me to write paragraphs and essays. I certainly hadn’t been given any feedback on my writing because I hadn’t produced any, but if I had, I am quite sure my teachers would have said I needed to be more concise.

“So what kind of writing are we talking about here — in class writing? or more formal writing?”

“Both.” Kyle is a striking young man — crisp haircut, sharp glasses, angular features. And he’s almost always deadpan. He cracks me up.

“Ok, so give me a typical in-class prompt.”

“Is The Giver a dystopian or a utopian novel?”

Again, I’m laughing inside. I don’t think I knew what ‘dystopian’ was until I taught Brave New World, but I digress.

So, together we built a very structured response to that prompt — topic sentence, three supporting points, and two pieces of evidence for each point. When we were finished, I looked at his face, read it, and said, “Pretty boring, huh?” He cracked a slight smile. “Well, tell me how you might’ve answered that question.” He admitted that he would’ve rambled and that his points would’ve been all over the place. “Ok! And that is what your teacher is asking you to work on! So, although it might be boring, I want you to practice this format for a while. Once you have the format, you can begin to experiment a little.”

He then shared a current assignment he is working on — a story told in two voices from two points of view. He chose to write about a hunter and a deer — one page for each character to tell the story of one day in the woods where they have an encounter. It’s vivid, and the language is clean.

“Kyle! This is beautiful. Your words are making me picture this snow-covered woods — I can even hear the hunter’s boots crunching in the snow! I can see him lift his bow, reach for an arrow, and take aim. This is fabulous!”

“She says we need to have sensory language, two adjective clauses, two adverb clauses, and ….” He’s reading from a list, discounting my praise.

We walked through his essay, which truly was well-written, particularly for a rough draft, and especially for an eighth grade bi-lingual student. We found his sensory language. I showed him how to combine his sentences by way of adjective and adverb clauses, and I pointed out how he had included the stylistic elements that his teacher was looking for. And then I said what I often tell writers who have too many words.

“I want to challenge you to make this even more concise. Right now this essay has 1000 words. I want you to cut that count by 10%. You have written a great essay, but play my game with me. See if you can cut 10% of the words, and then notice what impact that has on your story.

“Also, for your in-class writing, I want you to practice that format for a while. Learn the discipline, then you can experiment more.”

“So in other words, follow the rules and forget my voice,” he said pointedly.

“Well, no! Your voice is fantastic and natural. I don’t want you to lose your voice. And you won’t. As a matter of fact, when you practice this discipline, I think you will find more room for your voice.”

And he gave me that deadpan look again.

“Try it,” I smiled.

Gina is trying to expand her vocabulary, Kyle is trying to rein his in. Both are going to take work — practice, discipline, and courage. It takes real guts to admit that you don’t know everything — that you could learn something.

But when we do — when we admit that we have more to learn, when we listen to the voice of our mentors, and when we utilize that expert advice — we are transformed.

When I met Gina in the summer of 2015, she was timid. She gave me one word answers and was struggling to do schoolwork because each sentence was labored. Yesterday, when I asked what she’s been doing, she said, “During first semester we worked mostly on rhetorical analysis, but since Christmas we have started writing — what do you call them — oh, yeah, arguments.” She, an adolescent, has been leaning into her language process for three and a half years, and she is seeing the pay-off.

When I first met Kyle, he reminded me of my young self. He had a quick answer to almost everything. When he didn’t know the answer, he had several strategies for faking his way through. Now, at the ripe old age of 13, he is beginning to acknowledge that he has room to grow. He articulated the areas that had been identified by his teacher, and he at least considered the strategies that I offered him.

What a delight I have to witness their transformational journeys. And no, the metaphor isn’t lost on me. I, too, have admitted that I don’t know everything, that I have much, much more to learn. It’s taken practice, dedication, and courage, but I’m already beginning to see glimpses of transformation.

And yes, I did try to cut 10% of my words.

let the wise listen and add to their learning,
    and let the discerning get guidance—

Proverbs 1:5

The Prize is in the Process

One of the things I like about the instruction I am doing right now is that we don’t give grades. We don’t design instruction to meet a finish line; instead, we celebrate every step of the process — every attempt, every mistake, every win. All day long, I cheer on my students (and my staff) for showing up, for trying hard things, for taking chances, and for participating in the process.

It’s scary to participate in a process that you have no guarantee of finishing or winning. Would you register for a 5K if you didn’t think you could at least finish? What if every time you have attempted a 5K you have collapsed before the first turn? Who of us would sign up for something that has — for us — repeatedly ended in failure?

That’s what my students do every day. Students typically come to Lindamood-Bell when other attempts at reading or comprehension or school in general have ended in failure or severe difficulty, and we ask them to work on the thing that is most difficult for them — five days a week, often two or more hours every day. Even showing up is difficult for most of our students, yet they do show up. So we celebrate even that. We greet them enthusiastically, and we clap and hooray when they try something — especially something that has seemed difficult. The instruction is more focused on the process than the product, and, unfailingly, each of us — the students and the teachers — are changed.

These kids have taught me that the prize is often in the process.

My friend, Marv Fox, says in his soon-to-be-released book, Become, that all things are necessary steps toward achieving our goal. He sees every challenge, every setback, as an opportunity to build muscle that will propel him forward. If he bombs at a public speaking engagement, he learns from that experience — he evaluates the steps he took in preparation and delivery and determines what he can tweak before the next opportunity he has to speak. He doesn’t stop speaking because he bombed; he sees the ‘bomb’ as an opportunity to learn and grow — to be changed by the process.

Marv is not alone in this belief, of course. Yesterday, I participated in a conference on prayer. One of the presenters, Connie Denninger, co-founder of Visual Faith Ministries, reminded participants that everything that happens in our lives is part of our spiritual formation. She said, “I wish I wouldn’t have had to go through some of the things that I have, but they have brought me to the place that I am.” Part of her story is that, as a pastor’s wife, she had never been comfortable praying. When Connie’s mother died at a relatively early age and Connie felt that she had lost her best prayer warrior, she was devastated. Who would pray for her now? In answer to her question, God put Connie on a journey toward a life of prayer that she now chronicles through her blog. In fact, this ministry, formed with friend, Pat Maier, now involves others in Visual Faith communities across the country. Connie and Pat have invited others to join them as they celebrate their process.

For the past several months, I have been reading and writing my way through a book called The Artist’s Way. Each chapter invites the reader to engage in a rhythm of writing every morning (the morning pages), and exploring activities that invite creativity (artist dates). I really did not want to read this book (in fact I wrote about it here), but committing to this process has been transformative. Each morning, as I show up, I find reason to celebrate. I am amazed at what I find myself writing on the pages and how my attitude shifts from the first line to the last. My morning pages have no goal. I have not determined that I will write for 30 days or 60 days or a year and then quit. I have just decided to enter the process of writing every morning and to watch and see what happens. The process alone has been the prize.

Several months ago, my husband was asked to help lead the prayer conference that I participated in yesterday. He is invited to all kinds of events, and I don’t always join him. I have to be judicious about what I say yes to; I always have to be mindful of how much gas I have in the tank. So, when he told me he was going to be part of the prayer conference, I didn’t initially intend to go. He was leaving on a Friday afternoon and would be gone until Saturday night. After a long work week — all that cheering and clapping and such — I knew I wouldn’t have gas in the tank to travel to Lansing and participate all day long on Saturday. I knew that for my weekend re-fuel, I would have to be on the couch.

However, a week or so ago, I discovered that the conference would be live- streamed! So, I sat in my pajamas, with my dog by my side, and joined the discussion of five individuals who have committed to the process of prayer. They shared what they’ve learned by choosing to make prayer — conversation with our Father — part of their everyday lives. They haven’t determined to try prayer for 30 days or 60 days or until their prayer gets answered. They have chosen to daily enter the process and see what happens.

None of the presenters said that they have discovered the key to prayer or that they have arrived at some destination in their prayer life. Rather, they celebrated the fact that they get to join in what God is doing because of the gift of prayer. They each acknowledged that they often have to overcome obstacles to continue in this commitment, but they all affirmed that the activity of prayer itself — the process — is transformative.

I won’t be able to share in one blog post everything I learned yesterday by sitting on my couch and joining others in listening, thinking, writing, and praying, but I will tell you that my choice to show up and invite the change that comes with entering a process was rewarded. I learned. I shifted. I grew.

Yes, commitment to the process takes time, but as I’ve learned from watching my students and from being a student, the process has power to create change. So I’ll continue to show up and to participate in yoga, in writing, in prayer, in life. I’ll sign up, even if I keep falling down, because the running, the falling down, and the getting back up are building muscle, preparing me for what’s next, and propelling me forward.

 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,  fixing our eyes on Jesus,

Hebrews 12:1-2

Process-ing

I had been trying to get back into the swing of writing consistently, plopping down 300 words a day in front of all of you, following Anne Lamott’s suggestion to just get them on the page. Every day I was stumbling along obediently, in true teacher fashion, modeling what I hoped my students would do — dump out the story; clean it up later.

I wasn’t liking any of what I was writing, but I believed that if I kept at it, I would eventually get some gold.

About that time, the group of ladies that I meet with for breakfast suggested that we begin reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.  I wasn’t with them when they made the decision, but I got a text with the title that the others had chosen. We’ve read many books together already: Ann Voskamp’s The Broken Way, Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark, and Brene’ Brown’s Braving the Wilderness among them. We often make our selection based on a hunch one of us has that a book going to be good. Without fail, each of the books has served almost as a guide to the narratives of our individual lives — just the thing we needed to hear at a particular time.

For example, when we read The Broken Way, one of us was walking her mother through her last days, another was hearing for the first time the brutal details of a horrible event in a family member’s history, and another was learning that her husband’s cancer had returned.  We were collectively broken, and Ann Voskamp helped us not run from it, but sit in it.

We read Braving the Wilderness against the backdrop of a highly divided nation and discussed how we could be open to conversations with people who don’t agree with us and how we must be brave enough to do this crucial work.

We’ve come to expect that when one of us suggests a book, we should all just jump on board because each of the books we’ve read have guided our conversations and shaped our hearts. Over and over, in the space of a morning-dark living room, we have together been changed.

So why, when I got the text about The Artist’s Way did I turn up my nose?  Well, besides being stubborn by nature, I hadn’t heard the reason for this choice.  And, to be honest, the word ‘artist’ in the title came with a whole bunch of associations that I didn’t feel connected to. Finally, my work schedule had been such that I figured, “Yeah, maybe my season with this group is done. This one probably isn’t for me.”

And so I didn’t buy the book.  I just kept tossing out three hundred words a day like magical seeds that might one day sprout into something.

Then a few weeks later, one Sunday morning at church, one of my breakfast club friends said, “Aren’t you loving this book?  I can’t believe how much I love all the writing!”

Wait. What?

“The writing?” I said.  “I’ve gotta admit, I haven’t bought the book yet, what kind of writing are you talking about?”

“Oh, my gosh, you’ll love it! You have to commit to writing three pages every morning. I keep getting up in the middle of the night, and I can’t believe all the things I’m putting on the page.”

As she’s talking, I’m opening the Amazon app on my phone, searching for the title, and clicking “purchase”.

“Really? I didn’t know it involved writing. I guess I thought it was going to be about art.”

“No!  It’s about the artist inside of all of us. Oh, Kristin, you’ve got to read this book. I’m telling you, you’re going to love it.”

“Well, I just purchased it. So, I’ll start this week.”

And then the book arrived.  I opened to the introduction, because I’m one of those people who reads introductions, and I just didn’t like the tone of the author. She sounded very know-it-ally, and I just couldn’t. So I set the book on the table next to where I usually write and walked away.

For a week I didn’t write anything. Granted, we were busy at work and I didn’t have a lot of steam left when I got home, and getting up extra early in the morning seemed out of the question.

Until I found myself writing this around 2am:

Technically it’s morning. It’s the middle of the night. Up with pain and brain again. I grumbled about this book today — didn’t want to get it in the first place — dumb title.  Irrelevant. Then the self-important tone of the intro made me want my money back. But I’m not even through the first chapter and I know that Julie Cameron is right. If I write — actually write — three pages every morning, I will create an opening.  

And I started getting up every day at 5:45 — yes, 5:45 — to use a pen and a notebook to write at least three pages. And, like my friend, I’ve been amazed at what has shown up on the page. I’m not censoring, because I’m not writing for an audience. Instead, I am letting whatever is in me come out. Some days I’m writing about things long past. Other days I’m scratching out my current to-do list. I’m writing anger and anxiety and regret and sadness and hope and prayer.  I’m filling my second spiral notebook with no intention of accomplishing anything other than creating an opening.

I met with the breakfast club girls this week. Four of the five of us are writing these pages each morning (or sometimes in the middle of the night).  The one who isn’t said, “So, you’re writing?”  And the rest of us practically pushed each other out of the way to share how profound the experience has been. Then, I sheepishly admitted, “I’m only on chapter two of the actual reading.”  Surely by now, I thought, two months later, everyone else would be almost finished with the book.

“Me, too!” one said.

“I’m only on chapter four,” said another.

And it dawned on me — getting through the book is not the point. This book is not about finishing, it’s about being open to the process. And that is the message of relevance this time around. Just like every other book we’ve read, this one is speaking into our individual narratives. One of us is learning how to be a widow. Another is walking into retirement in a new home in a new community. One is about to become a grandmother for the first time. Another is navigating the comings and goings of young adult children. Me? I’m discovering after thinking that my professional career was over, that I might just have another round in me.

We’re all in phases that aren’t really about arriving or finishing; they are more about being, practicing, living, and breathing through the process.

So, it’s 6:32 am, and I’m spending this morning’s time to reflect, because, writing three pages every morning isn’t so magical that I can’t take a break to put my fingers on keys. I’ve created enough space to see that I can allow myself space.  And that is some kind of gold.

Psalm 5:3

In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.

Routine, revisit

I come back to this piece I wrote almost exactly a year ago, on August 8, 2018, because once again, I’ve gotten out of my routine, and I’m trying to get back away from the grumpiness and back to the rhythms that sustain my physical, emotional, and spiritual health.

I’m such a creature of habit.  Once I find a groove, I like to stay there. I like to wake at the same time, eat the same foods, listen to the same podcasts, drive the same roads, and watch the same shows. 

Lately, I’ve been getting up at 6am, doing a little yoga, showering, fixing some kind of breakfast egg scramble, listening to my daily Bible reading followed by a favorite podcast, and driving to work. At lunchtime, I take a walk and finish my podcast. Then, on the drive home, I listen to music, make a phone call, or simply drive in silence. Once home, I typically spend some time in the kitchen  — cooking or prepping food for the week’s lunches. My husband joins me for dinner, then we might take a walk or watch some TV.  We read, then we sleep. 

Now, of course, weekends are a little different, and sometimes I have an appointment or some other detour, but typically, the routine is pretty consistent.  

However, the last week has been a bit out of the ordinary. We had a couple of our kids over for visits. We accepted an offer on our Missouri home. We voted in the primary election. I attended a day-long training. We took a day trip to see my parents, and a few more out-of-the-ordinaries popped up. Most of these were welcome interruptions; nevertheless, my routine has been tampered with, and although I managed well for the first few days, the cumulative effect is grouchiness and irritability. 

I’m sitting on the couch in my pajamas right now, tapping at keys, though I am thoroughly exhausted, because I really need to process and shake off this funk before I ooze grumpiness on any more innocent bystanders. I “put myself to bed” around eight tonight because I was just that tired, but I’m still awake after 10 because the grumble just won’t be put down.  

I crave my rhythms that much!  I really need each moment of every shower, each breath of every yoga pose, each bite of every breakfast, and each step of every noontime walk. I can’t skimp — not for more than a couple days in a row.  

I’ve become high-maintenance; I admit it. I’d feel guilty if these rhythms didn’t contribute to my overall health, but they do! 

Life in this chapter has taught me that if I want to be kind and attentive to the people in my path, if I want to do my job well, if I want to reduce my pain and increase my stamina, I must oxygenate myself first every day. And, for me, oxygen is obtained in the purposeful rhythm of routines. 

One of the routines that sustains me is writing. It seems that my preferred rhythm is to write anywhere from 700 to 1400 words at a time. I think it takes me that long to dump out what’s building up, find out where it’s headed, then write myself back off the page. Perhaps that is what I am doing now. 

It took me the first several paragraphs (the blue text) to dump out my frustration. Only when I had fully expressed those initial emotions could I move on. The next few paragraphs (the green text) allowed me to analyze those feelings. And now (in gray) I’m working my way off the page.

I think I use this same model every time I write — I come to the page with some logjam of ideas and words that is just begging to be put down. I write and write until I see that I’ve shifted from expression to contemplation — figuring out why the logjam existed in the first place. I then keep on writing until I can find a way to end, because by the time I’ve gotten to this place, I feel better, I think I might be able to sleep, and I’ve remembered why this part of my routine is one of the most important of all. 

I need all of my routines — the sleeping, the eating, the exercising, and the relaxing — but perhaps the routine that holds all those other routines together, the one that allows me to understand all the others, is the writing.

Now let me go get some sleep.

In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord make me dwell in safety.”

Psalm 4:8

 

Target Practice

One thing I’ve learned about setting goals in life is that sometimes you hit them and sometimes you miss.

I’ve been trying, as Anne Lamott prescribes, to “put down 300 words a day.” It’s really not hard to do.  In fact, if I can put myself in one spot for 10-15 minutes, I can typically make it happen. I might not say anything profound, but that’s not the goal right now.  The goal is to merely put down 300 words a day until something happens.

Still, like any other goal, if I want to hit it, I’ve at least got to take aim.

I tried on Friday — I used my thumbs to write what I thought was about 300 words while walking on my lunch hour — I felt that I rambled on and on, but when I got a  chance to log-on to my laptop, I discovered that I hadn’t even reached the 200-word mark!

I’ve got to admit — it was a half-hearted attempt.  If I’d been serious, I would’ve taken my pro stance, lined up my sights, and zeroed in on my target.  Instead, I was walking, bent over my phone, and probably trying to show off a little.

Over the weekend, I stepped out of the box altogether, put down all my weapons, and took in my surroundings.

I had conversations and collaborated on decisions. I completed the mundane (groceries and laundry) and the monumental (joining my husband in selling a house). I laughed until my guts hurt as my son told a story and wept soft tears of lingering grief as I strolled down memory lane. I sprawled on the floor to watch a movie and sat at a table to watch my daughter talk to my mother. All weekend, I drank in the fullness of life.

And now, at four o’clock in the morning, I find myself pointing once again at my target.

Hit or miss? We’ll see.

Philippians 3:12

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on…

 

 

First Steps

It’s  really not hard to reach 300 words if I just start clicking keys.  I used to tell my high school students this.  I would put a prompt on the screen in my classroom and tell them they had ten minutes to fill a page.

Most of my students could easily fill a page (or two or three) in ten minutes, others routinely struggled to put down two lines.  Was it because they didn’t have anything to say?  Not likely — teenagers have lots on their minds. Was it because they had difficulty forming sentences? Probably not, because I had no requirements for spelling, grammar, punctuation, or syntax during free writes.  More often than not, if a student didn’t fill a page in the allotted time, it was because she had difficulty putting the first few words on the page.

It’s not too different from running.  If you want to run a 5k, you have got to first pull on your shoes and get out the door.  Nothing happens until you move your feet and take step after step after step.  The first few steps might take a sheer act of the will, but once the muscles start moving, they actually find comfort in the repetition, the movement, the rhythm.  That comfort somehow morphs into a sense of determination when the first mile is covered, “I think I can actually do this!” The arms pump to encourage the legs along; the mind travels down the halls of memory, sorting and filing images that lay strewn on the floor.  Suddenly, as though no time has passed, the finish line appears.

All is euphoric — applause and bagels and brand new t-shirts.

Until the next morning when you’re lying in bed thinking, “Ugh, do I really want to do that again today?” Then, with a sheer act of the will, you drag yourself from beneath the covers, tie on your shoes, and shove yourself back out the door.

 

James 1:4

Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

 

300 A Day

A friend texted me last week.

“Do you ever read Anne Lamott?”

“Of course.  She wrote one of my favorite books on writing, Bird by Bird.”

“She’s coming to Ann Arbor in October. Wanna go see her?”

“Yes!?!”

Then, I pulled Anne off the shelf and began to read.

I’ve been struggling to write for months.

I’m working more.

I don’t have the time.

And there’s too much to say.

So, I keep pushing it aside and saying, “I’ll be back.”

I mean, really, how do I put all this down on the page?

But I know that’s always where the sense starts.

For me.

Meaning appears through the words that show up when my fingers hit the keys.

It doesn’t happen on command, but unexpectedly, after days and days of discipline, word by word by word, I begin to see what I think, what I feel, what matters to me.

Anne Lamott reminded me that some days I’m not going to know what to put down.  I’m going to stare at blankness for a while.  And when I finally manage to write something , it’s going to look empty and useless.

“But don’t stop,” she says,  “Commit to getting three hundred words on the page every day.” This one is number two hundred eight.

I’ve been doing yoga for a few years.  The first time I tried, I could barely reach my toes when bending from the waist.  I couldn’t hold a down dog for more than a few seconds.  I just finished twenty minutes of practice — moving easily through a series of poses.

It didn’t happen quickly, but one day, about two years in, I noticed that I was strong.

So, I keep doing yoga, and I keep writing down word by word by word.

 

No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.

Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

Hebrews 12:11