Thursday, October 19, 2017

Vintage CC: Five Tips for Being a Writer

For reasons I can't divulge just yet, this post from September 2015 has been on my mind lately. In the anticipation of publishing my first book, I tried to nail down what worked for me during the process of finishing the manuscript, and this was what I'd come up with. If you are aspiring to be published yourself or are looking for a shot in the arm while trying to complete a project, I hope this is helpful.

It took me a long time to realize and accept that I'm a writer. I thought that I needed to contribute an article for a notable magazine or website or sign a book contract in order to do that, but that is simply not the case. I'm pleased that some of those things have happened in recent years, but for a very long time I operated under some false assumptions that you can only consider yourself a writer if you achieve some measure of success.

Simply put, writers write. If you write something, you're a writer. And some writers want to write things that reach a wider audience, whether through a personal blog, periodical, or book. That takes a little more effort and discipline. It's not impossible, but it does call for intentionality. So a writer who wants to set some higher goals will need to buckle down in order to pursue them.

I'm far from an authority on what works, as I'm still discovering that myself. But here are five things that I've found helpful to do in order to improve my writing while striving for larger platforms.

1. Sit down and write. It seems like such a no-brainer, doesn't it? And yet for a very long time I thought and talked and talked and thought about being a writer; going after those magazines and books and whatever else. But there was one problem: I didn't actually sit at my computer to draft inquiries and proposals, let alone an actual manuscript of any kind. Thinking and talking about it was the easy part.

Now, sure, it may be that when you do make it a point to sit down and open the laptop, you'll still end up staring at a blinking cursor on a blank page. But hey, that's still progress! You've taken a step! Hooray! At this point, it may be beneficial to just start typing and see what happens. This will help get you into Writing Mode, and develop a habitual ease with moving beyond talk and getting to work. When it comes down to it, the only way you're going to write something is if you actually write something. Again, this seems so simple, but it can take quite a bit of self-starting.

2. Carve out the time. Closely related to sitting down to write is to make time to do so. I can't recall just how often I've said to myself, "I'd love to write, but I have so many other things to do." I have a wife, two kids, a career, I try to maintain a workout routine, and I have several other obligations. It's natural to look at all that and think that there will never be any time to write anything.

To be honest, this will take creativity and, no surprise, intentionality. Carving out the time to write will mean sacrificing something else. It may involve setting the alarm earlier or staying up later than the rest of your household. It may involve hiding in another room of the house away from the family for a while. It may involve giving less attention to another hobby or interest. If you want to sit down and write, you have to make the time to do it.

3. Outline, outline, outline. Okay. You're sitting at your desk after canceling your Saturday tee time or after everyone else has gone to bed. And that blinking cursor is still taunting you, daring you to make it do something. You've accepted its challenge, and you've got some ideas forming. But how do you flesh those out into an 800-1000 word essay or a 4000-5000 word book chapter, let alone many essays or chapters?

My solution has been to outline what I'm going to do, and how I'm going to do it. First, list off the main ideas that you want to include and see how they fit together. What makes sense to come first, then second, and so on? Then return to each main point and figure out what information or illustrations might be helpful in developing them. Again, this will help you discern how the main points fit together. You can see whether the story you tell at the end of Point One helps segue into the start of Point Two, whether you'd be better off moving Point Three to the top, and so on.

4. Take breaks. An otherwise busy person may treasure the time he or she has set aside to write, and may feel an obligation to produce something during those sessions. But there also come times when, if you've been at it long enough in one sitting, your brain might start to feel a bit crunchy and the quality of your work is going to suffer. While I'd argue that you have to give yourself a significant stretch to get the muse rolling during a writing session, there also comes a point where you might want to step away instead of willing yourself forward.

Sometimes, this may just be a few minutes. Stand up and stretch, go get a cup of coffee, walk around the house for a bit, and then get back to it. Other times, you may just find that you've hit a good stopping point and it's better to recharge than to force yourself to continue. No matter our work, being able to rest is what helps us return and keep working at a productive level. This includes the work of writing.

5. Treat yourself. I've found that having something to look forward to is helpful to my own writing process. Whether I'm working with a deadline or just want to be able to get something done, I like having a carrot dangling at the finish line. At times this has been giving myself permission to order a new book or album, at others it's been ice cream. You know what your favorite (legal, healthy) indulgences are, so make a deal with yourself that once you finish a writing project, you can enjoy it. Even name the specific thing that you'll go after, e.g., "Once I turn in this essay I'm going to download the new Dead Weather album," or "I won't head out to see this movie until I finish this chapter draft." This is different for everyone, but giving yourself positive reinforcement; knowing what awaits you when you hit your latest goal, can help you stay motivated and focused on the task at hand.

There are plenty more writing tips out there, and I haven't really covered any new ground. But these are at the top of my own list. I'm also not an expert. I just figured out what works best for me. So take what's helpful for you and add your own. Have at it, fellow writers.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Pastoral Prayer for Those Seeking Peace

based on Philippians 4:1-9

Faithful God, we can't often understand what peace looks or feels like, but we know when we don't have it. In the hurriedness and uncertainty of our lives, we are unsure if we would even recognize inner comfort when it finally comes. We might be too distracted to notice it, or too worried that we will lose it, or too skeptical to receive it. The lasting peace that you promise surpasses our understanding; we long for it, yet don't know where or how to seek it for ourselves.

And so we bring our frazzled and frantic selves to you, happy to leave them at the altar yet quick to snatch them up again to continue the pace we're accustomed to. Perhaps if we at least offer our deepest struggles, it will at least open our hearts enough for your Spirit to speak gentleness to our weary and wary souls. We hear so often that you are with us, but we need to calm our racing pulses enough to get in sync with the rhythm of grace you are playing into our lives.

God of Peace, be with us. Guide, strengthen, soothe, make well all our bruised and cracked places. Show us again the way of love, for our sake and for that of others. Amen.

Image via Pixelbay

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Book Review: Blessed Are the Misfits by Brant Hansen

If American church culture makes perfect sense to you and you fit in seamlessly, don't read this. Seriously, return it immediately, before you spill something on this book and can't get a full refund. Because this book is for the rest of us. In fact, it's full of nonstop good news for the rest of us: the misfits, oddballs, introverts, and analytical types who throw ourselves at God's mercy, saying, "Yes, I believe...but help me in my unbelief." - Brant Hansen, Blessed Are the Misfits

I've been a fan of Brant Hansen's writing for quite a long time. I can still remember my first encounter with his words over a decade ago: a blog post declaring that he and his family were giving up church attendance in favor of a different sort of gathering with other people of faith. At that time, he kept a blog called Letters From Kamp Krusty, where he sometimes poked fun at the strangeness of church culture, at other times tackled more serious issues such as acceptance and doubt, and at other times engaged in outright silliness such as singing (sometimes literally) the praises of toast.

What I always noticed and appreciated even in those earliest days was Brant's repeated observations that many Christian circles don't often know what to do with those who don't quite fit the mold. It's easy to welcome and accept and engage with the ones who seem well put together, those who carry themselves confidently or who are articulate about faith issues. It's more difficult to do so with the shy or awkward, those struggling with disorders or disabilities, the ones who dare to express doubts or questions.

In that sense, Blessed Are the Misfits: Great News for Believers who are Introverts, Spiritual Strugglers, or Just Feel Like They're Missing Something is a culmination of what Brant has been writing about for years. The warning he includes at the very beginning (partially quoted above) names that he wants to speak to all those who have often or always found trouble trying to relate to fellow believers in traditional contexts or ways.

Much like the title, many of this book's chapters follow the model of the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew, declaring various groups of misfits "blessed." He addresses groups such as those who can't easily access their emotions, those who struggle with prayer, those who struggle with "imposter syndrome," skeptics, and those on the autism spectrum, among many others. Every chapter provides a combination of personal anecdote, scriptural insights, and assurances that one shouldn't feel so alone; that in fact there are many others wrestling with similar issues, and that God loves them all regardless.

Brant is quite open with his own struggles throughout his book. As a self-identified introvert, skeptic, and "Aspie" (person diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome), he weaves his own story into many chapters. This is not a memoir per se, but one of the reasons he wants to include and reassure many of the groups that he does is because he falls into them himself. He knows the issues well, and his form of self-confession and exploration allows the reader dealing with similar things to enter into what he shares more easily.

I found Blessed Are the Misfits a wonderful exploration of why so many don't feel like they fit into traditional church culture or ways of expressing faith. He helps show that such things don't mean they aren't or can't be loved by God. In fact, he says, we often see that Jesus tends to spend more time with the outcasts, the square pegs in the culture's round hole, who have been deemed unfit, unclean, and unworthy. As he has been doing for years, Brant wants to show that what was good news for Jesus' original audience is still good news for many who need it today.

Blessed Are the Misfits releases on November 28, 2017.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

Monday, October 09, 2017

What are Prayer Beads?

Previously: What is the Examen?, What is Lectio Divina?, What is Fasting?, What is the Labyrinth?, What is the Liturgical Calendar?

When most people think of prayer beads, the most common image that comes to mind with those familiar with the general concept might be the Catholic rosary. To be sure, this is the most popular rendering of this prayer aide, but far from the only rendering or possibility. But before we get to that, we should examine the use of prayer beads in general.

When we talk about prayer beads, we mean a series of beads strung together in a particular and intentional way, with smaller beads alternating with larger ones to make a pattern. In many arrangements of beads, there may be one smaller line of beads diverging from the circle while remaining connected and featuring a crucifix or empty cross at the end. This usually serves as the beginning and end point of one's time of prayer.

This practice involves running one's fingers slowly around the pattern, stopping at each bead to say the prayer associated with it. Any particular bead may serve as an invitation to say popular memorized prayers such as the Lord's Prayer, Hail Mary, or Jesus Prayer, or offer one's own petitions for people or situations for which one is concerned. The type of arrangement one uses and the Christian tradition one is most familiar with will influence the specific prayers the beads represent.

Since I think my reading audience is more non-Catholic in nature and because bead patterns other than the rosary might be less familiar, I'm choosing to give a Protestant pattern of prayer beads as an example.

These arrangements have a large cross with 33 beads total. Next to the cross is a large bead called the "invitatory bead" which, as the name implies, serves as our invitation to this time of prayer. Aside from this invitatory bead, there are four other large beads that in the overall pattern serve as the points of the cross; for this reason they are called "cruciform beads." In between the cruciform beads are sets of seven smaller beads, called "week beads."

Here's an image via Pinterest to help illustrate:

The possibilities for how you move around this arrangement are infinite. As an easy example, you may use the invitatory bead as a simple address to God such as "O God" or "Heavenly Father" or "Gracious Creator" or "Divine Mother" or whatever your preferred title for God is while praying. Each cruciform bead could serve as a time to say The Lord's Prayer or Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."). Each set of smaller beads could represent statements about God or Jesus from scripture, people you want to remember in prayer, or verses from the Psalms.

Different seasons of the church year might present opportunities for beads to take on other representations. During Lent a set of week beads could serve as a time to speak or remember Jesus' seven statements from the cross. During Eastertide, the four cruciform beads could be moments to prayerfully proclaim, "Christ is risen!" Advent could inspire use of beads to be traditional proclamations from Isaiah associated with Jesus, or during Christmas the cruciform beads could be a time to sing a verse of "Silent Night." While prayer beads provide a structure for prayer, they also invite creativity.

Here's one of many patterns of prayer that could be used with Protestant prayer beads.

Cross: In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, amen.

Invitatory Bead: O God, guide me during this time of prayer.

1st Cruciform Bead: The Jesus prayer

1st Set of Week Beads: Remember 7 ways God has been with you this past week.

2nd Cruciform Bead: The Jesus prayer

2nd Set of Week Beads: Offer up 7 concerns you have for yourself or others.

3rd Cruciform Bead: The Jesus prayer

3rd Set of Week Beads: Remember 7 people going through a hard time.

4th Cruciform Bead: The Jesus prayer

4th Set of Week Beads: Think of 7 ways you may need guidance or help this coming week.

Invitatory Bead: O Spirit, thank you for your presence.

Cross: In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, amen.

Work consulted: A Bead and a Prayer by Kristen E. Vincent