The Truth in Fiction

It is said that in order to write well, you should write what you know. Well, after spending a large part of the last decade creating stories with some regularity, this is what I know (The Truth in Fiction, if you will):

  • Writing is hard. When I first started out, I didn’t realize that throwing words down would require more than a computer (or pen and paper) and a general knowledge of language and grammar. I didn’t know that it takes grit to continually stare down a blinking cursor on a blank page. It takes stamina to keep going on days when good words are scarce and more on days when even not-so-good words are hard to come by. It takes courage to face the personal demons and hang-ups and unhealthy patterns that emerge from so much time spent in your own head. It takes self-discipline to get your butt in the chair and continue pursuing a passion for which you are often solely responsible for your own accountability.
  • Consistency is important. For years, I struggled with developing and sticking to a writing schedule. I struggled with procrastination, with the temptation to put other, easier-to-complete tasks ahead of writing. In those days, my irregularity—writing a little on some days, not at all on others—made progress difficult. I became so disconnected from the flow of the story that even on days I spent eight hours at my desk, I might only force out a single stilted paragraph. Now that I have a set routine and regular working hours, I find that, though the words aren’t always exceptional, they do tend to spill out of me with ease. I’ve learned that when you consistently show up for your creativity, it consistently shows up for you.
  • Resistance is real. And it comes in many forms. From the entirely self-induced internal variety (e.g., fear, doubt, anxiety, worry) to actual physical distractions like texts/emails, to-do lists, that little notification symbol on your social media apps, and even other people. Regardless of its shape, resistance can completely derail your progress if you aren’t diligent in combating it.
  • Faith is essential. Control is an illusion. And although I know this to be true, I still have a tendency to hold many elements of my life in a death grip for fear that letting go even a little will result in complete disaster. When I approach my work in this manner, writing from a place of grasping and striving, the words are strained and flat. But when I surrender and acknowledge that there is a power much greater than me at work, writing becomes as natural as breathing.
  • Connections are a necessity. Most of the work of novel writing must be done alone, and therefore, can be a very lonely endeavor. Connecting with other people—specifically those who relate to, support, encourage, or inspire you—is a good way to keep your spirits lifted on tough days and also offer accountability in reaching your goals. The internet and social media platforms are brimming with writing communities and opportunities to connect, however, I have found authentic, in-person relationships to be more valuable. I’ve noticed that too much time behind a screen can make even an imagined world seem distant and unemotional, because when you’re not present in real life it’s difficult to present real life in fiction.

The interesting thing about these five points of truth is that although I considered them from a writer’s perspective, they are all valid for just about any job, goal, passion, or even life itself. Think about it: Life is hard. Life is often full of resistance. Life is almost always made better/easier/more livable with consistency to balance us out, a few good people to help us along, and a little faith to lift us up.

It’s A Gut Feeling

When we were kids, my brother and I had one of those extra-large, super-bouncy bouncy balls. It was about the size of a tennis ball and when we threw it against the driveway, it bounced nearly as high as our house. One summer day, we had the bright idea to use it in place of a baseball, so we ran to the diamonds a couple blocks away, imagining ourselves hitting effortless homeruns over the back fence.

My brother stood at home plate. I pitched. He swung. The ball launched swiftly off the end of his aluminum bat like a torpedo. I didn’t have time to react and dropped to my knees on the pitcher’s mound after the heat-seeking line drive hit me squarely in the stomach. I’d never had the wind knocked out of me before so I panicked, and while my lungs screamed for air, my eyes spilled over with tears. I was sure I was dying, the sheer impact mangling my insides beyond repair.

Obviously, I survived.

Years later, I learned the Greek term, splagchnizomai, the definition of which accurately described the sensation I’d endured on the ball diamond that day. In English, the word translates as moved with compassion. But in Greek, it incites a much more powerful visual. In Greek, splagchnizomai refers to an emotion that is so overwhelming, so moving, you feel it all the way down deep in your guts. Gut-wrenching is another close translation.

I heard the word again late last week when listening to a podcast and while my mind conjured the image of that ball slamming into my gut, my heart reminded me that splagchnizomai is not necessarily the result of a physical action, but an invisible force prodding us into action.

You know the strong stirring in your core that doesn’t let you rest until you DO something about it? That’s splagchnizomai. The persistent nudge telling you to help your neighbor or volunteer at the local soup kitchen or turn off the noise and reconnect with your family? That’s splagchnizomai. It’s there for a purpose, for good, but it requires our attention to acknowledge it and our participation to put it into motion.

What can you do this week to turn your own internal splagchnizomai into actual movement?

The Web of Comparison

Have you ever gotten lost down the social media rabbit hole? You know, that fifteen-minute Instagram check-in that turns into an hour. Or the quick Pinterest search for a new chicken recipe that leads you spiraling into a deep depression because your final product doesn’t resemble any of the pictures. And for that matter, neither does your life. If this has happened to you, you’re not alone.

This game of comparing and critiquing ourselves and our lives based on the perceived outward superiority of others has seemed to take on a life of its own these days. It would be easy to blame all the competitiveness on the influx of cheery, well-framed Facebook photos, but this tendency has been around a lot longer than Mark Zuckerberg.

I can scarcely pinpoint a time in my own life that wasn’t already blanketed with a thick layer of shoulds and supposed-to’s: I should be smarter or faster or more talented. I’m supposed to look like her and think like him and feel like them. And this was well before the internet was a mainstream resource for instilling a sense of inferiority.

As an awkward adolescent, I shed a lot of tears over my inability to conform to the mold that society said I should fit into. As an adult, I have often gotten caught up in the race, sweating and straining and expending exorbitant amounts of energy in an effort to keep pace with milestone occasions I’m supposed to have experienced by a predetermined deadline. As a writer, I have relied on outside sources to determine how I should write, what I should write, and how long it’s supposed to take.

With the prevalence of advice and opinions so widely available to us, it’s easy to get stuck in the habit of asking others how we should be or what we’re supposed to do. Want to be a ballerina, a painter, a poet? Watch a YouTube video. Want to become a better parent, a better Christian, a better teacher? Follow the Twitter feeds of experts in these areas. Want tips for how to be a writer or even a unicorn? Google it. If there’s something you want to do or be or have, you can bet there is someone out there who can direct you on what you need to do to make it happen.

But do you know what YouTube and experts and search engines can’t tell you? They can’t tell you how to be you. Sure, there are nearly two billion Google results with articles and blog posts and books detailing how to be yourself. But no one, not even your spouse or your mom or your best friend since kindergarten can tell you who you’re supposed to be because they don’t know. The only one who can guide you in the direction of becoming the person you were made to be is the one who created you.

So, if you ever find yourself caught in the web of comparison, stop. Stop playing the should be game. Stop running the supposed to be race. Stop looking to others to determine your progress and rest assured in the knowledge that whatever path you’re on and wherever your journey is taking you, the view will not be the same as someone else’s. God has given you beautiful gifts to support your unique purpose. Be bold and embrace them.

Break Out of the Familiar

I was working out in my basement on Thursday morning and had just picked up my yoga mat when out jumped one of those nasty red centipedes. Okay, okay, maybe I was the one who jumped. But he did do that erratic dance that centipedes always seem to do, scurrying this way and that as though looking for the pedestal on Ellen’s Blindfolded Musical Chairs. (If you haven’t seen this on Ellen’s Game of Games, look it up, it’s hilarious!)

I’ll be honest with you, I am a complete girly girl when it comes to bugs and the more legs they have, the more they make my skin crawl. I’m perfectly happy to ignore those that make their homes in the unseen nooks and crannies of my house, but the second they venture into my space, it’s a declaration of war. It’s them or me. And I always come armed.

I’m not talking about a folded newspaper or a wadded up tissue or even a shoe. Nope. My weapon of choice is the BugZooka. (Trust me, it’s a real thing.) My husband bought this marvelous invention for me during a really rainy summer when we were dealing with an influx of millipedes and it is quite possibly one of my favorite gifts ever. (He knows me well . . . the way to warm my heart isn’t through flowers, but a plastic “gun” that allows me to capture bugs from two feet away.)

Back to that centipede. As soon as I saw him, I ran to the utility room to grab the BugZooka. I was gone for five seconds, tops. Do you think he stayed put in that short amount of time? Of course not. But I had paid attention. I knew exactly where he was, I knew in which direction he was headed, and using my quick mental calculation (his estimated speed multiplied by the length of my absence), I knew where he should have been.

He wasn’t there. He was, in fact, nowhere to be seen. And there was absolutely no way I was going to get on the floor to exercise with him on the loose. So I scoured the carpet and looked under furniture until I finally found him. He had returned to the exact same spot where we first met. I quickly sucked him up into the BugZooka and that was that.

Later, as I was thinking about the whole thing, it dawned on me how that little bug had behaved like a full-grown human. You see, if he had just continued moving forward there was a chance he could have reached the safety of my husband’s desk and I may have never found him. But he didn’t. Instead of stepping out into unfamiliar territory, instead of breaking out of his comfort zone, he chose to retreat back to what he knew.

How many times do we do that? How many times along our paths of goal-achievement and growth do we close in on a threshold only to slide back into old patterns because this new place is scary and uncomfortable? Maybe you’re in that situation right now. Maybe you’ve climbed further up the mountain than you’ve ever been, but you feel alone and unsure and you’re looking with longing at the security of the well-traveled trail below.

If so, I urge you to keep moving forward. Push onward and upward, past the BugZooka-wielding crazy lady, and spend some time exploring this new place. After a while you might find it’s not so scary. You might find it to be a better and more beautiful place than that old, comfortable one. You might even realize that in this new and improved place, you’ve also become a new and improved you.

How Joy Becomes Fear

Several years ago, my husband took me to a driving range to hit some golf balls. It was the first time I’d ever picked up a club that didn’t belong to a putt-putt course and after he’d given me a few pointers, I still didn’t really know what I was doing. Nevertheless, I stood over the tee, swung with abandon, and hit several straight, long drives.

“You’re a natural,” he’d said, impressed.

A few weeks later, he bought me a set of clubs as an early birthday gift and by then I had read books and blog articles about stance and grip and etiquette. I’d watched online videos detailing correct follow-through and technique. And after practicing driving, chipping, and putting with my new clubs, I felt ready to tackle an actual course.

We headed out to a 9-hole, par 35 course for what I thought would be a relaxing few hours in the sunshine. It was anything but. I didn’t hit a single ball in the air. Not one. Everything I took a swing at either rolled two inches off the tee simply from the wind of my completely off-target whiff or drove a worm burning path ten yards down the fairway. I was frustrated and confused. How had all my studying resulted in a back slide of this magnitude? In hindsight, I can see that in my eagerness to learn how to succeed, I had also inadvertently absorbed the myriad ways to fail.

I had a similar experience when I started writing. I’d been naïvely optimistic in the beginning. Fearless. If there was a goal to go after, I took a swing at it. I thought it would be fun to write for the local newspaper, so without any paid publishing credits to my name, I sent an unsolicited email to the editor asking him to consider me for a columnist position. (I still cringe when I read that email).

Fortunately, he was a gracious man. He said he didn’t have an opening for a paid freelance columnist, but he did often print what he called citizen columns—submissions from local writers for no pay, just glory. I jumped at the opportunity, pumping out at least one personal column a week, which he then published as promised. I was thrilled to see my name in print and even though I wasn’t getting paid, I considered the exposure good publicity for the online writing business I was working to build.

It was also around that same time that I began to get the notion to write a novel and much like my first foray into golfing, I dove into the project with no real knowledge as to what I was doing. I wrote without concern for genre or audience or structure. I didn’t worry about attracting agents or publishers or readers. But at some point, I decided if I actually did intend to publish this novel, it would be beneficial to learn about these things, so I started acquiring resources. I bought how-to books, subscribed to magazines, and studied craft. I attended a writer’s conference and armed myself with what I thought were the necessary tools of the trade.

I was wrong again. And again all of my research resulted in decline rather than improvement. Like my golf game, my writing suffered. I became so obsessed with doing everything right—using the right process, finding the right words—that I lost the blissful ignorance that had gotten me excited about writing in the first place. In my attempt to become well-versed in the art of writing, I had unleashed the nastiest form of resistance that keeps many of us from ever reaching our goals: Fear.

Now, I’m not saying that some amount of preparedness and knowledge of the basic rules of the game aren’t essential elements—and in some cases, even absolute requirements—for success. But I do think inundating yourself with too much information right at the start can be more detrimental than helpful.

If you’re facing down a goal or want to pick up a new hobby, learn enough to get started, but then give yourself the freedom to embrace some of the child-like obliviousness that comes with being a beginner. Swing the golf club without worrying about how Tiger does it. Start writing without concerning yourself with Stephen King’s process. Figure out what works for you and go at your own pace, because getting ahead of where you are is the surest way to turn joy into fear.