When You’re Stuck…in Writing, in Life…Try This

IMG_2562
Presenting a writing workshop in Des Moines, IO in September

In the past two months I got stuck twice: in my writing/speaking life and in my personal life. This is nothing new, and neither is my finding that writing problems resolve more easily than personal problems. But what is new is how I’m dealing with the stuck-ness: first, notecards. I’ve found that when I’m overwhelmed—with ideas, with emotions—simply transferring those thoughts to some notecards helps me organize in writing, and helps me cope in life.

In September, notecards helped me complete my presentations for the women’s conference I spoke at, and this month, notecards are helping me articulate some personal problems I can’t seem to straighten out on my own, or even in prayer right now. While I’ve decided to seek Christian counseling for these personal problems (read more in my next post), writing my overwhelming thoughts on notecards has facilitated a small emotional release when I don’t have a listening ear at my disposal.

If you’re stuck either on the writing front, or overwhelmed in your personal life, maybe you can try what I’ve tried.

IMG_2559
The two sessions of my writing workshop were well attended. I coached about 80 women on writing their stories for God’s glory, and I hope they are well on their way to sharing those stories with others!

On the Writing Front

In the months leading up to the Iowa Missouri Women’s Retreat, I struggled to write my presentations: a sermon and a writing workshop. Every time I opened my laptop to work on them, I typed more and more words as my ideas spiraled wildly…without ever reaching conclusion. There was so much I wanted to say…but I would only have so much time at the conference. I had to be selective and concise in my talking points.

(Last year at a different women’s retreat I had four talks to develop my ideas…and it was considerably easier to prepare for that conference because I had so much talking time.)

Finally, after trying to write out my sermon both verbatim and in bullet point form too many times without success, I got out some notecards and started jotting down my points shorthand—one thought per card. Over several days, as more ideas came to me, I jotted them down, too, and slipped them into the deck where they seemed to fit.

This simple process of writing on notecards, as opposed to writing on paper or typing on a laptop, freed me up to introduce any and all ideas that came to me in my writing process, because I knew it would be easy to discard the extraneous ones later. (Though some of my ideas were total rabbit trails, jotting them down somewhere was valuable because it kept me fluid in my writing process, kept me moving, when I just wanted to stop.)

As the cards accumulated, I began to find the shape of my talk, and I also figured out what didn’t fit. In the end, I returned to my laptop and typed out my speech, a mix of bullet points and fully developed paragraphs (I’m still finding my way as a speaker), but now it came easier because I had an outline: my notecards.

When it came time to present, I knew my delivery wasn’t perfect, but I felt that my presentation was valuable to my audience, because my writing/preparation process had allowed me to zero in on my best, most pertinent ideas, and discard those of lesser importance.

IMG_2551
I spoke to about 150 women for a Sabbath morning session about how, when, and where to share our stories, especially when life feels “dark.” I am trying to take my own advice and start back at square one with one trusted person, a counselor, until life makes more sense again. But since part of my ministry is sharing my personal struggles and victories with an audience, I’ll probably share bits of that journey on this blog, too:)

After I presented my sermon and writing workshop, women came up to me to thank me for my talk/writing tips, some saying my message/material was exactly what they needed to hear. Still other women said they had read my book and it was great and would I sign it? It was a heady experience being treated as such a religious authority …especially because I know what they don’t: since the events of the book ended (really, since I’ve become a mom), I’ve been a mess of pent-up ideas and emotions, so much so that I have decided I need some professional help to sort them all out.

On the Personal Front

Until my first counseling session, I’m using notecards, and other small releases, to help me cope. For those moments when I can’t find quiet, space, time, energy, or listening ears to process, I can find fifteen seconds and a pen. I can write one phrase, or one sentence, and tuck it into a discussion box that I plan to take to the counselor. I can put that negative thought or problem away from me, from brain to pen to paper, until I have true time and place to process. And then, I can quickly pray:

God, here is the mess the best I can describe it in these few seconds. I desperately don’t know how to fix it, but eventually I know I need to deal with it. Please hold this for me—keep me safe from it, keep my kids safe from it—until I have the proper time and space and listening ears to process it.

 I do believe God honors these prayers—and these pleas for help—found on this writer-mom’s humble notecards.

In my next post I will further explain my reasons for seeking counseling, and perhaps give an update of how the first session went. Until then, please send me a message or a comment if you’ve had a good (or bad) experience with counseling or, on a lighter note, notecards (or some other writing strategy).

Advertisements

The Work in Progress Blog Tour—Take a Peek!

Here’s something a little fun and different. Fellow blogger and author Luanne Castle nominated me to participate in the Work in Progress Blog Tour, so today I have an excuse to give you a preview of my memoir.

The rules of the blog tour are:

  1. Link back to the nominating writer
  2. Post the first few lines of the first three chapters of the work in progress (I included my prologue, as well)
  3. Nominate a few other writers to do the same

Luanne began her blog, writersite.org, a few months before I began blogging in January 2013, and we have been following each other’s blogs for about that long. Not only does she blog, but she has a PhD and an MFA and has taught writing for fifteen years. Most recently, she published her first book, Doll God, which is a book of poetry. Luanne has been a delightful blogging colleague, and I look forward to one day reading her current work in progress, a memoir called Scrap.

My Work in Progress: All Things New: My Journey to Rebirth, Recovery, and a Relevant Faith

As for my own memoir, or work in progress, I have been resting from it since last August, when I queried a publisher who immediately asked to see the entire manuscript. In January, that publisher emailed to tell me they were still evaluating the work, and that “no news is good news in this case.” So I am hopefully awaiting more news!

Synopsis

From a young age, I decided that for faith to make sense, it had to make a difference in my life—a good difference. But when my childhood home gave way to an affair and other family secrets, our Christian beliefs had little to offer me. I fled to college desperate to shed my sad, secretive self. Unfortunately, at college my sadness only intensified; my thoughts turned suicidal. A college dropout, failed suicide attempt, and forty days in a mental hospital were my devastating launch pads into adulthood. They were also the beginnings of a decade-long search for a relevant God. Beginning with a blind date in Texas with a “nice Adventist boy,” a new family, and a secondary teaching job, and culminating with a life-changing prayer ministry, I finally found a Savior who suffered in every way I did, and then I shared him with other women who desperately needed a relevant faith, too.

Prologue

I can never tell, I thought from the back pew of a Texas church. What would they think of me if they knew what I was really like? A few months ago, I was the mysterious Minnesota girl who had showed up on Buc’s arm one Sabbath. Next, I became “Buc’s wife” and “Pastor Gendke’s daughter-in-law.” Buc and I had married in the quiet of my in-laws’ living room, with his father, the retired pastor of my new church, officiating. But we had not invited anyone. I had no wedding shower. There were no formal introductions.

Chapter 1

Playing the Game

1991

Bass notes, synthesizers, and Amy Grant’s alto voice drifted through the sheet that covered my doorway. I winced, pulled my blankets over my head, and rolled over. It was starting again. This was how every Saturday morning started. Just like light after complete blackness hurts the eyes, the drums from the cassette tape hurt my ears, drove me deeper beneath the four-deep pile of covers that substituted for central heating. Dad’s Sabbath music.

I smelled coffee, turkey bacon, and waffles. Dad’s cooking.

Suddenly I remembered: Mom was gone.

 Chapter 2

Home Life

1994

Mom’s bare feet made a sucking sound as she peeled them, one after the other, off the blood-red linoleum, muffin pan in hand. That morning she wore her gray cargo pants and Dad’s blue flannel coat as she served breakfast. We thought the paint would be dry this morning, but it hadn’t dried over night.

Chapter 3

Bombshell

1998

I had big dreams the year my life crumbled. Days before I turned fourteen, my family moved into a newer, nicer house just outside of town. I thought life could only get better from here.

I Nominate…

C.C. Yager–a fellow blogger and author who recently published a novel, Perceval’s Secret, the first installment in a developing series. Cinda has been a great online writing “colleague,” faithfully following and commenting on my blog and posting quality articles on the craft, process, and business of writing.

Trish Ryan–a favorite memoirist whom I hired as my book consultant and who helped me through two drafts of my project. I first discovered Trish and her memoir, He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not, in my local library. Hers was one of the first quality Christian memoirs I had read, and her book and her feedback proved invaluable to me as I revised my manuscript.

Addie Zierman–another memoirist who has challenged Christians to overcome the many cliches we cling to. An MFA graduate and fellow Minnesotan, Addie has just finished her first draft of her  second memoir, which follows up her debut When We Were on FireI read her memoir to get another example of a Christian memoir, and I have continued to read her blog for her beautiful prose, bare honesty, and unique perspective.

Good luck to these writers, and all of you, who have a work in progress! 

A Writer in Retreat

My Pen by Lusi
My Pen by Lusi

I go through periods of retreat, often linked to times when I am deep in my writing. In another post, I blogged about how a writer’s retreat can be both a place (a noun) and an action (a verb). The verb sense especially resonates with me.

Right now I am in an active work state with my manuscript: the fingers are active at typing when baby naps, and the mind is active at work most other times during the day. I notice I have let other things slide, such as housework, friends, and Facebook. But right now, those things don’t seem top priority.

Having a baby hit home this truth anew: I can’t have it all, all at the same time. When I notice I need to take care of something— for instance, when I have an idea I just have to write down, or like now, when I feel God telling me I need to work on my book proposal—the rest of life slides into the background. After awhile, the fact that I’m neglecting relationships will bother me, and those will again slide to the front. So my priorities shift all the time.

Life is less stressful when I admit that I can’t do everything all at once, and accept that all areas of life (except, hopefully, close family and God) must go through periods of neglect.

Another factor making it easier to put writing first (during naptimes, of course; Sam is still first most of the rest of the time) is that my husband and I haven’t seen each other much lately. For various reasons—he works late, he has meetings at church, I have meetings at church, I’m trying to exercise in the evenings to lose the baby weight—we keep missing each other. The one relationship I long for at the moment (besides my relationship with God) is with my hubby. But I can’t do anything about our lack of time together, so it’s best for me to keep busy with my own work. I’m waiting on this holiday weekend, when he will have Monday and Tuesday off, to reconnect with him. I’ve even asked him to read some of my manuscript, and he said he would! A little slice of heaven, to have the most important person in my life take interest in my passion. So maybe there are moments when we can have it all. Maybe. We’ll see how Sam’s naptimes go this weekend!

The Writing’s Going Well

The last two weeks have hosted a flurry of creative work…during naptimes and on the days my sister-in-law watches Sam (thanks so much, Joanna!). I’m hesitant to publish my high hopes, lest I’m getting too confident…but, of course, here I go.

In the last two weeks, I’ve basically rewritten the last third of my book, or created 80 new pages. This is my first big change since I rewrote the first third of my book last fall. So, now I have a different book from what I had last August. Same story, different book.

I’m not all that sad to have hacked up the first draft. That draft was very repetitious and wallowing. I see it as having cleared the pipes for what really needed to come out. Plus, I’ve saved all that cut material in a word document, and I envision it fueling numerous short articles. This new third, which still needs some organization and editing, focuses much more on Jesus and my healing. It explains the prayer process that changed my life, and shows those changes through new scenes of me reaching out to and praying with other women.

Now that I have the scenes in place that I want in the final draft (meaning I have a reliable outline), I will proceed with writing a book proposal and polishing the first three chapters. I’m not going to set a hard date for sending out the proposal, but I’m hoping for within a month. (I will only be sending to one publisher for now—a press within my faith community which God has laid upon my heart.) While the proposal is being reviewed (or sitting in a slush pile), I will polish up the rest of the book, and possibly get one more edit from my excellent book consultant, Trish Ryan.

I have prayed long over this memoir, and I feel God has delayed its progress so that I could make the recent changes. Now, I believe my book goes beyond telling a sad story women can identify with to showing how Jesus can bring beauty from ashes.

Writing Towards Honesty

2013-06-03 23.52.41

At first I thought I was writing a book about recovery from depression, the love story that brought my husband and me together, and finding a relationship with the Lord. Now that I am revising for my book consultant, Christian memoirist Trish Ryan, I feel the topics expanding. She wanted me to set a greater context for why I ever got to the point of suicide and bulimia and all the other struggles I write about in the first place. She wanted to know more about my faith in God as a child and my family. In short, she asked me to venture into places I realized I didn’t want to go (which is why I originally did not go there).

Now that I’ve been trying to write scenes from childhood for the last several weeks (and they are coming out messy and muddled and badly), I’m finding that my story might be bigger than I thought, and it all has to do with being honest about how the church has failed me.

The more I write, the greater anger I uncover at a church culture that would not let me speak up and share what kind of help I needed. This theme also shows up when it comes to my relationships with friends and relatives—people you’d think it should be okay to share with! The revisions I am working on now are slowly bringing me to new conclusions about why I became suicidal in the first place. Maybe I will never totally understand why or how it happened, and maybe it’s not a problem that is specific to me or my family or my church. But through the messy, ugly, painful writing coming out in the last few weeks, I know it has something to do with speaking up, and the fact that I felt I couldn’t for so many years.

Sometimes it’s discouraging to think that after a year of working on this memoir, I’m only just keying in to the real point of it all—and maybe I’ll decide next month that I need to backtrack yet again. But maybe it all goes back to this blog and why I started writing it: I needed to share with people.

I’m working on a series of blog posts about my ugly, messy rebirth experience, and these posts, more than anything I’ve yet written on Writing to my Roots, have given me pause: Do I want to publish them? Do I want to share how I feel my church failed me, how it failed my parents, and how that resulted in a family’s demise and a girl’s death wish?

I feel a need for Christians to be honest about their struggles; it’s just hard to be one of the leaders in this “genre” of witnessing. I told Trish I felt like there were very few memoirs on the market like the one I’m trying write: that is, Christians seem to write really simplified accounts of how they found Christ (and what a difference he made to the before and after of their lives), which leave me hungry for the real details. Show me a life story I can relate to! Conversely, the writers who are willing to divulge the messy details of their lives are, for the most part, those who haven’t really emerged from the mess—so the story is real and raw and often literarily well executed, but not uplifting. I want my story to be all of the above.

Trish agreed with my assessment of the market, saying that when we writers undertake a project like she’s done and like I’m trying to do, we put ourselves out there as screwed up Christians, saying, “Okay, I’ll go first.” Not easy, but necessary if we hope to change the climate of things.

So if I publish some things that put my church or my religion in a bad light, it’s not that I’m denouncing my faith. It’s that I want us to take an honest look at where we’ve gone wrong, so we can fix it! Jesus came to heal the brokenhearted and set the captives free, and I just want to help the church see how we can help fulfill his mission. Sometimes, that means being brutally honest with where we’ve failed.

If you feel the same way, please pray for this writing project as it moves forward—that it would tell a story the world (and maybe just the Christian world) needs to hear, and that God would give me the wisdom and discernment to tell it.

 

Why I “Took Out” My Ex-Boyfriends

scissors
Photo Credit: “Cutting” by Lusi

This title’s a little misleading. I’m not talking about violence here, or the raging emotions of a woman scorned; rather, I mean making cuts to my memoir. You see, last week I inadvertently axed my ex-boyfriends from my manuscript when I deleted a chapter by mistake. Oops. While I was initially ticked, turns out this was one of the best things that could’ve happened.

You see, I was falling into that writer’s trap of wanting to put every “interesting” detail about my life into my story—but not every “interesting” detail belongs there.

At first it’s a hard reality to swallow. You’ve heard that analogy that likens cutting one’s writing to severing a limb. It’s true. But I’ve got good news: the more time and distance you put between yourself and your writing, the easier it gets. After awhile it becomes easier to see what really stinks and what doesn’t, or what actually fits and what are merely rabbit trails.

Accidentally cutting out my boyfriends, whom I’d slapped into a “junk” chapter that wasn’t quite fitting anywhere, freed me up to clarify the real players in my story: that’d be myself (obviously), my hubby, my family, and my immediate in-laws (I’m not sure they know this yet!). The story I’m telling is far advanced beyond the twenty-year-old version I imagined, when I was still hurting from love gone wrong with those unsuspecting exes. It picks up with my wedding day and the violent emotions that ceremony stirred up, and follows me through my twenties to unravel just what was so traumatizing about entering marriage.

The story’s not about my past dating failures; it’s about finding peace within myself, with, God, and with family. The only relevance the exes have to this story is that they became unfortunate pitfalls on my way to searching for the right kind of love, which I eventually found in my hubby, then in God, and finally, with other loved ones around me. Now I realize, thankfully, that a couple paragraphs is more than sufficient to treat those unfortunate detours in this journey.

However, that doesn’t mean I’m not saving those memories for a future story, or maybe even a piece of fiction! As I explained these manuscript developments to my hubby last night, along with how a memoirist sometimes must rearrange or compress events for narrative efficacy, we had fun laughing over what a composite of my past lovers would look like. Ready for this? I think I can protect identities here by squeezing them all into one. Macho, yet effeminate, hunter under house arrest for drug possession and Dad of three who likes to collage…who ultimately turns out to be gay. See? Interesting. But way too distracting for the story I’m trying to tell!

If you’re working on your memoirs, remember: focus, focus, focus! Keep the main story the main story, and don’t let yourself get distracted by every “interesting” detail. And now I’m back to work, excited to see what today’s writing session reveals!

 

 

How to Make Your Dream a Reality

Rule number 1: You have to DO something.

surfing
Photo credit: felipedan

It sounds really obvious, but so is most of the advice in any self-help book you can read. I complained for a lot of years that my dream of publishing a book was not coming true, but, um, it was no wonder. For a lot of years, I wasn’t doing anything about it. So then, one day, I sat down and started to write. And promptly ran into a problem.

 

Rule number 2: Push through roadblocks, however slowly

road sign
Photo credit: Jazza

It could be a lack of time, a mental block, or a naysayer. For me, my roadblock was not the oft-cited “writer’s block”; rather, every time I tried to sit down and write that book I had in my head, I’d be reduced to tears for the memories the work brought. And then there was the naysayer. Someone told me my book idea wasn’t respectful of my family…and I should reconsider what publishing it would do to them.

No matter which roadblocks you’re facing, there is always a way to keep going. For aspiring writers (or aspiring whatevers) with little time, the best advice I know of is to set a realistic goal for yourself, whether a daily or weekly goal, and stick to it. Maybe you’ve only got fifteen minutes a day. Maybe you’ve only got one hour a week. Whatever you have, build that time into your schedule, and then guard it with your dream.

When I started having those toxic emotional reactions to my work, which literally could incapacitate me from living the rest of my life, well, I shut down for awhile. But in hindsight, I realize that I eventually found other ways to keep moving in the direction of my dream. I came at it from another angle. Although I wasn’t yet ready to write that book in my head, I started reading up on the publishing industry, and I started reading about honing my craft. As I did this, I put the naysayer out of mind, and hoped for a better day to write and publish my book. And this leads to rule number 3.

 

Rule number 3: Learn from the masters

apprentice
Photo credit: krayker

So, how did you first develop that precious little dream of yours? I’d just bet it was from watching someone else who was doing that very thing, and saying to yourself, “I want to do that someday, too!”

So here’s the deal: the same place you go for inspiration—be it a bookshelf, a rodeo, or a runway—is the same place you should go to apprentice for your craft. Once I identified memoir as my medium, I became a student of the genre. Not only did I read books about how to write memoir, but I read memoirs. These days I have become a sponge for these things, keeping them by my nightstand, on the coffee table, and in my CD player in the car (audio books). Where I once read only for entertainment, now I read for craft and technique, story development and organization. I read with a critical eye, judging a book’s execution and effectiveness, asking myself, is this a technique I could use? Is it one I’d want to use? Whether a memoir is well done or not, I learn from it.

 

Rule number 4: Work through personal problems to clear room for your dreams

thinking
Photo credit: brainloc

Okay, this is probably the hardest rule to follow, and I can’t tell you how to do it; I can only point you to a blog post describing what worked for me. But if you do have some kind of mental or emotional block impeding your work, there must be something you’ll eventually have to deal with before getting on with your dream. If you have to “take time off” from your project to get your life or emotions in order, by all means, do it! This is not wasted time, because when you come back to your project free from the impediment, you will find that you have a vigor for your dream that you never had before.

 

Rule number 5: Set a deadline with measurable goals

list
Photo credit: mimwickett

This rule will vary from person to person, and obviously your timelines and deadlines can change. But the thing here is to write down steps, measurable goals, that will move you closer to your dream, bit by bit. If you can give yourself a deadline and stick to it, you will be much helped, as most people operate best with a deadline.

For myself, after I started doing something and I learned how to keep plugging away at it in some form, even when it was hard; after I had started bathing my mind in masterful examples, and after I had worked through my poisonous personal problems…I came up with a schedule for completing my dream that I’m hoping will carry me through to completion. For now, I am trying every day to “move in the direction of my dreams,” even if it means only fifteen minutes of work. I hope you will do the same, and good luck!