Sing it, Lamb Chop!

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This is the song that doesn’t end. Yes, it goes on and on, my friend.”

If you never watched the fabulous Shari Lewis perform with her puppet Lamb Chop, you might not know this delightful ditty from her Emmy-winning show that ran on PBS from 1992-1997. My youngest daughter enjoyed watching it as a toddler, and since I got to join her in front of the television, this song found its way into my permanent recall bank.

For better or worse, the tune takes over my head every time I have a task that seems never-ending.

Which is my way of introducing my topic today: platform building.

You see, platform building for a writer doesn’t end when your book is published. Instead of thinking of platform building as the first step toward publication, I now see it as the task that underlies the entire creative, marketing, and career development process. As long as you write, it doesn’t end.

But instead of looking at that task as an overwhelming, time-consuming responsibility, I’ve chosen to see it as the lifeblood of what I do.

My platform is my path to accomplishing the work that gives my life meaning. In my case, I want to bring people into closer communion with God’s creation, and I do that through the written word, telling entertaining stories about nature, and in particular, about birding and dogs.

Using this perspective motivates me to continue, and expand, my platform-building. Here’s a quick snapshot of what that looks like for me.

My first book – a small treatise about finding meaning in life – led me to discover my own passion: writing about engagement with nature. To market that first book, I gave retreats and workshops about identifying what you love and what God calls you to; as a result, I added speaking opportunities to my platform. Then I began writing my Birder Murder Mysteries, a light-hearted series about a birder who finds bodies (incorporating my own passion for birding and mystery). To sell books, I began reaching out to birders around the country (and the world!), connecting with them online, attending birding events, sharing information and becoming interested in conservation issues. That influenced additional books in the series, and led to more interaction with like-minded nature-lovers, which has both enriched my writing and my life with speaking/marketing opportunities and new friends. Six years after my first Birder Murder was published, I now have plenty of ideas for future books and venues to market them, as well as a list of birding hotspots to add to my bucket list of personal adventure.

My memoir about my dog is building a new addition to my original platform, giving me more places to talk about nature and to sell all of my books. I’ve begun volunteering with my local Humane Society because of it, and I now see all my writing as advocacy work for improving the human-nature connection. Yes, I know that my platform building doesn’t end, but neither do the rewards I’m finding when it comes to new experiences, learning interesting things, and contributing to my world.

What joys are you finding in the never-ending task of platform building?

The Story of My Life

whisperingOne of my favorite parts of speaking to audiences is telling them the true stories behind the stories.

When I talk about my murder mysteries, I talk about the incidents in my own life that inspire plot lines and settings. While I haven’t personally murdered anyone (nor do I plan to), my fictional characters’ motives and subterfuges stem from simple human traits we all share. Who hasn’t experienced confusion, envy, jealousy, greed, the desire for revenge? Just because the extent of my envy might be a girlfriend’s new hair cut doesn’t mean I can’t extrapolate that feeling into the murderous intent of a killer, right?

Okay, that might be quite a bit of extrapolation, but you get my drift.

Where the real fun comes in, however, is sharing with readers the snippets of my experience that I insert right into my novels. For instance, in my third Birder Murder Mystery, my protagonist goes on a weekend birding trip to Fillmore County in Minnesota, which is based on an actual birding trip I took to that county many years ago. Spending time with other birders not only gave me a chance to add to my own life list of birds, but it provided some snappy, funny conversation that I then used in my book. I’ve found more than once that real life makes for the best fiction.

Another example: in my fourth Birder Murder, my characters are in Flagstaff, Arizona on the campus of Northern Arizona University. The setting was inspired by a trip I took with my middle daughter to tour the NAU campus when she was making college plans; the hair-raising flight into the city, the conversation with an old hippie cab driver, and the fact that NAU is surrounded on three sides by graveyards, all come directly from my trip. As a mystery writer, how could I NOT set a murder mystery where everyone KNOWS where the bodies are buried?

The most transparent example of how my writing chronicles my own life is, of course, my new memoir about how my dog helped me overcome anxiety, including a fear of dogs. Yet even since the book was published in April, I continue to find nuggets of meaning in my own story that I didn’t recognize while I was writing it: we adopted Gracie on the day before Easter – the eve of Resurrection. So now I tell audiences that my dog not only helped me experience my own spiritual and physical renewal, but the book about her is also changing my career in unimagined ways. Too bad I didn’t know that part already, because it would have been a nice epilogue…gee, maybe that’s the next book.

When I share my real stories with groups, I realize that the writing advice I first heard as a child is true: write what you know. I just didn’t understand how I could make my own experiences book-worthy…until I threw in the imagination to make my own stories part of someone else’s.

In what ways does your writing chronicle your life?

 

Overwhelmed by Your “To Do” List?

Photo/KarenJordan

“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it” (George Bernard Shaw).

Buried beneath a mountain of paperwork? Paralyzed by some impending deadlines? Dreaming of a week on the beach?

I considered a “real job” until I read the job description: “Ability to work independently and multitask.”

I love to work independently. But I tend to hyperfocus most of the time. And I struggle with multitasking all of the time. So, I passed on that job opportunity.

I’m not so sure multitasking works well for my daughter Tara, either. She seems frustrated at times when I call as she prepares dinner—holding a screaming baby, listening to a whining preschooler, dealing with two squabbling little boys, and talking on the phone, all at the same time.

I can’t even concentrate on my writing projects at times with dishes in the sink or a hamper of dirty laundry waiting on me. And if the phone rings, I lose focus completely. Then, when I start worrying about all the details of my life, writer’s block paralyzes me.

Revelation. I woke up early one morning overwhelmed with my “to do” list. So, I decided to take an early morning walk at sunrise.

As I walked down the street toward the lake, the view of the sunrise surprised me. And I forgot about all of my worries as I soaked in the beauty of the dawn. I tried to capture the moment with my camera.

After pausing a few minutes to admire the view, I continued my walk. Most mornings, I enjoy listening to the sounds of nature as I walk the trails near my home. But since I took another route to the lake, I decided to listen to my favorite radio station.

Imagine my delight as I encountered the lyrics to “Light Up the Sky” by the Afters: “You light up the sky to show me that you are with me ….”.

In an interview with cbn.com, Matt Fuqua, vocalist/guitarist for the Afters, says, “The story behind Light Up the Sky is a part of the story of all of us … [It’s] a picture of what it looks like when you make it through [a] really challenging time, and you look back and see how God was using all of those things for good and that you were never alone.”

Reflection. God drew my attention to the majesty of His creation as I observed the heavenly canopy of the sunrise reflected on Lake Cortez, glowing through the trees near my home the next morning.

Did God light up the sky to show me that He was with me?

I couldn’t deny it. He opened my eyes, and I could see evidence of His Presence all around me.


How has God revealed Himself to you?

Photo/KarenJordan
YouTube/theaftersvideos (“Light Up the Sky” by The Afters)

 

Today’s Chapter

I was on the phone with my sister today, trying to encourage her past the terror-induced paralysis that had overcome her ever since she quit her job in order to have time to get her house ready to sell and then to sell it and move with her husband from Colorado, where she lives, out to Arkansas to be near me. She was supposed to have put her house on the market back in May, when she quit working, but she had so much to do—cleaning the carpet upstairs, painting the porch, replacing some windows, regrouting the tile in the bathrooms, getting rid of stuff, selling the cabin up in the mountains, fixing the solar panel on its roof so that it was sellable, and on and on and on—that she just couldn’t seem to get started on any one task.

House_Collapsing“I can’t do this,” she kept wailing.

“What can’t you do?” I asked. “What do you mean by ‘this’?”

“This whole thing. The move. It’s just too much for me.”

In a sudden life coach epiphany, I saw what her problem was. She was stymied by the enormity of “this”—the future, the worry about whether they were making the right decision to move, the overwhelming impossibility and complexity of the move, with all its imminent troubles and certain catastrophes.

“You’re worrying about the wrong ‘this,’” I told her. “What you need to concentrate on is today’s ‘this’: cleaning the upstairs carpet. You can do that.”

Her situation reminded me of my novel, how I kept getting a particular species of writer’s block in which I was seized with a paralyzing certainty that I wasn’t going to be able to figure out how to make the plot come together in the end and thus couldn’t seem to move forward. In my mind, the novel became a huge problem, overwhelmingly complex and unwritable, that I worried about constantly. Then I started scheduling a rigidly regular time, every morning from five to seven, to work on it.

“Just sit down at the computer and take up where you left off,” I told myself. That was three months ago, and I haven’t stopped writing since. It was like magic, as if my sense of the novel as a whole just fell away and I started seeing just the chapter I was in.
“That’s what you need,” I told her. “Make yourself a list of everything you need to do, include the smallest task, everything. Then figure out a time each day that you can devote to accomplishing one of the tasks on your list. Don’t try to do any more than just that one task. If it’s like my novel, you’ll progress through more than one task at a time.”

Chapter-1“That reminds me of that thing Jesus said about how we shouldn’t worry about tomorrow, that each day has its own trouble and we should just concern ourselves with that.”

She is wise, my sister.

“That’s exactly it,” I said. “Concentrate on today’s trouble, today’s chapter, and the rest will work itself out.”

We hung up encouraged, I think. Both of us.

Training Your Writing Life

056A new puppy joined our family a year ago.

Yes, he was that cute. All puppy smells and fuzzy bums and soft little pads on his feet.

Such a baby! He could hardly run in a straight line back then. He kind of hopped and flailed with his feet, and somehow he made progress.

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There were a lot of other things he had to learn.

Like going outside to do his business.

And how to get along with the big dog.

And how to play with the cat.

 

026But he learned all of those things (although he still makes mistakes).

As he reached the ripe old age of ten months, things got interesting. That’s the adolescent age for dogs. He lost all brain power and forgot everything he had ever learned.

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The rest of the family was ready to give up on him.

But patience and consistency are the keys.

My writing life is much like training a new puppy. Is yours?

Do you sometimes feel like you can’t do the basic things like write a sentence, or come up with a verb other than “was”?

And then there are the “big dogs.” Those multi-published authors can be pretty intimidating sometimes, no matter how nice they are. And whose heart doesn’t start beating faster when you see your agent’s name in your email inbox? Or when the phone rings and you don’t recognize the number?

Have you learned to play with the “cats” in your writing life? You know – your peers who are traveling this same trail with you. Have you made friends, or are you friendly rivals? We’re all in this together, and it’s good when a friend has your back.

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Or have you passed that beginning learning stage, and are now in the throes of your writing adolescence? Sometimes I feel like my brain has forgotten how to write.

But I keep telling myself, just like with the dogs, and with my children as they were growing, my writing life is growing, too. It needs patient training and consistent discipline.

Without it, I’ll never get past the flailing puppy legs stage!

Here are the steps I’m taking:

1) A dedicated writing time every day. It’s like punching a time clock. I write from 10:00 to noon, and then from 12:30 to 3:00.

2)  A dedicated writing place. My desk is in a corner of the family room, with a view of the creek that runs behind our house. This time of year, birdsong accompanies my writing music.

3) I stay in contact with friends who are ahead of me on the trail, and can encourage me along the way. I also stay in contact with friends who are just starting out on their own writing journey, encouraging them and sharing with them what I’ve learned.

4) I take chances. I try to market myself, even though I dread talking to strangers. I try to write stories that stretch me as a writer and as a person.

 What steps are you taking to help yourself grow beyond the puppy stage of your writing?

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5 Things the Theater Taught Me About Writing

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe smell of popcorn takes me back…backstage, that is. From 1998 to 2007, my husband and I, along with several other talented individuals, performed thousands of shows to enthusiastic crowds in two small-town Texas theaters. The experience taught me enduring lessons about creativity, professionalism, and making a living through the arts. These tenets apply to your writing life and other creative endeavors, as well. Here are five things the theater taught me about writing, in no particular order:

1. Word of mouth is the best publicity

Our audiences, though small, were passionate. We provided quality entertainment and our most ardent supporters talked about us…a lot. They brought groups, gave their friends tickets, and sometimes drove hours to see us. Though we bought print ads, paid a few publicists, and had a large email newsletter, the theater’s best advertisement was—without a doubt—word of mouth. 

It’s the same with promoting your writing. Today’s readers are consumers, just as our season ticket holders were. They long for quality and consistency. They’re busy, and they need a reason to keep reading past the first few lines. And when they are delighted by what they’ve read? They’re the most loyal, vocal folks around. Because we live in an instant-communication society, bad word-of-mouth spreads fast. Make sure your writing product is stellar, and great publicity will follow.

2. Give the audience what they want

One of the owners of the first theater in which I performed often said, “Give ‘em hamburgers!” He meant that we shouldn’t mess with success. If tickets sold quickly for a 1950s music revue, we wrote another similar show. Of course, we also experimented and pushed boundaries (otherwise, all of us would have grown bored). However, we changed our product in small increments. We also created special experiences—behind-the-scenes tours, holiday packages, giveaways—for avid supporters. Cast members even called our VIPs (those folks who came to the theater over and over) on their birthdays and anniversaries, which the VIPs greatly appreciated.

In your writing, think about creating a memorable experience for the reader. How can you provide extra value (giveaways, incentives, free resources) in a professional, winsome file3691295046962manner? In what ways could you creatively and tangibly thank those who willingly support you and talk about your books?

3. Leave your ego at home

Most of the performers I worked with over the years have been gracious, humble, and diligent. A few, however, turned me off with their arrogance, over-the-top demands, or lack of discretion. The most successful artists, long term, are those who go out of their way to thank people and who treat the sound technician as well as the venue’s owner. Those are the performers who are offered more opportunities.

Ask yourself: am I approachable, warm, and thankful for the opportunities life has given me? Or I am on a mission to impress everyone I meet, in order to “build my brand”?

4. There are no small parts, only small actors

So said Constantin Stanislavski. When you perform a small role with professionalism and excellence, the people in charge notice–and they’ll eventually give you more responsibility.

The same goes for becoming a better writer. If an editor asks for a 400-word piece, I’ve learned to take it seriously and do my best work. In this age of instant access, anyone can read your work at any time, from anywhere. Who knows what small beginnings might lead to larger opportunities?

And, finally, in related wisdom…

5. Know when to stop

On stage and in writing, creatives need to develop an important skill: how to bring a something to a close. In the theater, we say that last line, spin on our heels, and exit, stage left. In writing, we find the right moment, the right phrase, the right word, and that’s it. The end.

This post is a reprint from Tweetspeak Poetry.

Watch Your Words: A Mother’s Day Reflection from Nature

Photo/KarenJordan

Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.  (James 1:9 NLT).

I glanced up the hill behind our home, and I had eye contact with a doe as she watched over her fawn. As I continued to water my wilting tomato plants on my wooden deck, the doe stepped closer to check my reaction to her movements.

I remained painfully still while watering my plants. Any sudden movement from me would have caused the doe and her fawn to scamper beyond my sight.

A few minutes later, I turned my head to redirect my hose toward another plant. When I looked back up, I saw the deer walking quietly away from me, grazing on the grass and plucking leaves from the low-hanging branches.

Without any words, I understood this message from nature, loud and clear, “We feel safe here if you don’t make any sudden moves to threaten us.”

Reality check. As I observed the doe and her fawn, I recalled a recent conflict with my daughter Tara, mother of five children.

How many times have I chased away my children with my impulsive words or quick temper? Too many to count.

Without outlining the nitty-gritty details of my personal life, I’ll “plead the Fifth Amendment” here—on the grounds that my answer may be self-humiliating.

Good word. So, I’ll just quote the wisdom of the Bible.

And now a word to you parents. Don’t keep on scolding and nagging your children, making them angry and resentful. Rather, bring them up with the loving discipline the Lord himself approves, with suggestions and godly advice. (Eph. 6:4 LB)

Am I cautious with my movements and reactions as I relate to my own children and grandchildren? I’m working on that one.

After I expressed my concerns and expectations to my daughter about a situation with one of her children, I regretted my hasty response and unsolicited advice. So, I offered a heartfelt apology, hoping and praying for her forgiveness. I realized that my emotional reactions often bring unintended consequences.

Reflection. Sometimes our silence speaks more clearly than our words. I know my voice can scare away an animal or bird, but sometimes I forget that just one inappropriate word can also repel a child, friend, or loved one.

We often use our written and spoken words to express our thoughts and feelings. But at times, we fail to guard our choice of words or listen to others. As a writer, I know the importance of editing my words. But often, I forget to consider the power of my spoken words, and I fail to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. (Jms. 1:9 NLT)

When the doe appeared in my backyard again, I knew to be quiet. Opening a squeaky door or stepping on the dry, parched leaves would propel her to run to a safer place with her fawn.

As I watched the doe scamper away with her young a few minutes later, I thanked God for the lessons He sends me in nature for my own family and for my writing life. I offered a prayer of thanksgiving for being exposed to His truth expressed in nature and in my everyday life. Then, I asked Him to help me release my children and all of my expectations once again.

What concerns and expectations do you hope to release to God? 

How to Craft for Your Crowd

reading boysAudience. 

Every writer knows that keeping the audience in mind is essential to effective writing: you don’t include high tech specifications or advanced optical principles in a children’s picture book about microscopes, just like you wouldn’t fill your historical thriller fiction manuscript with footnotes citing the research behind your story.

But other than considering what your audience expects in style or format based on genre, how often do you start your writing project by putting the reader first, instead of the story you want to tell?

Over the last nine years (and eight books) as my writing career has developed, I’ve noticed a subtle shift in how I craft my writing. Whereas my first book – an exploration of Christian vocation – was the book I wanted to write covering what I’d learned from researching and reflecting on Scripture, I didn’t understand how to make it compelling reading for my audience, even though I sincerely wanted to communicate my own enthusiasm on the topic with my readers and believed they would benefit from it.

Big surprise: even with a national publisher, the book did not do well. I needed to regroup, and start over by clearly defining my audience, and putting their need – be it entertainment, information, or inspiration – first. Only then could I take the story I wanted to write and frame it meaningfully for my readers, because if it didn’t answer their need, they wouldn’t read, no matter how much I wanted to share it.

I had to put others first. I began to pay more attention to what readers liked to read and why, rather than focusing on what stories I wanted to tell.

I applied that approach when I created my Birder Murder Mystery series. As a bird-lover and mystery fan myself, I knew there were no cozy mysteries about birdwatchers; I knew if I wanted to satisfy that audience, I’d have to weave together a specialized knowledge of birds, engaging characters that reflected the eccentric personalities who enjoy the sport, related issues of conservation, and accurate depictions of place. That meant I needed to do research to fill in the gaps of my own knowledge to craft stories that met those demands. Using that formula, I’ve written six books in the series and acquired a loyal readership that enjoys “virtual birding” with my protagonist.

Likewise, with my girl-meets-dog-and-finds-healing spiritual memoir, the first task I completed was examining my experience to identify how others could relate to and benefit from it. By putting the need of others first, it helped me organize the book’s content: a blend of memoir, current research, spirituality, and humor. Otherwise, I may have written a straight narrative of how I learned to love our dog, which would be a nice story to share, but not unique enough to warrant publication.

The next time you sit down to start a writing project, ask yourself these questions first:

  1. What does my audience need from me?
  2. How can I be of service to my audience with this writing project?
  3. How do those answers help me craft my content?

I think you’ll find that putting others first is not only considerate, but a great way to write a book your audience will value.

Honor One Another

?????????????????????????I’m a member of the “Me” generation. Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I heard a lot about the importance of self-realization and doing your own thing. I wore mini-skirts and flowered shirts, watched “I Dream of Jeannie” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” When I was in college, all my girlfriends focused on finding careers, not husbands; if you yearned for less than having it all – a family and a career – you were considered a dinosaur, obsolete, and terribly naïve.

Contemporary culture was all about making yourself the most important person in your world.

It was also totally NOT what my Christian faith taught. I grew up on the Golden Rule, the Lord’s Prayer and the admonishment to always put others first. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves,” instructs Philippians 2:3. For me, the high school student striving to be class valedictorian, that piece of Scripture held no allure; as I recall, I was more likely to follow the advice of Thumper’s mother in the Disney movie Bambi: If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.

As a result, I was a very quiet high school student when it came to discussing my classmates.

Fortunately, maturity applies not only to age, but to faith as well. Marriage and motherhood obliterated any drives I’d had to compete with others as the instinct to care for my family took precedence. I didn’t think twice about putting my children or husband first – that was just the way it was, and no matter how trying or exhausting it seemed at times, I have never regretted it. In the eyes of some of my college companions, I sacrificed a career to stay home with my kids, but I took comfort from Hebrews 13:16, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

They have pleased me, too, and God continues to let me reap the fruit of putting others first. In fact, I’m reaping that fruit in a whole new way this year – I’m finding that when I put others first in my writing career, great things happen. As a memorial to my parents, I offer author programs to senior communities, who welcome me with open arms and lively discussions. As a service to fellow authors, I’ve started to organize group booksignings, which are eagerly scheduled by harried bookstore managers. I frequently donate books or talks to charities, which raise needed funds for them and expand audiences for me. I ask myself what other writers might need from me in the way of guest posts or book reviews to accomplish their own objectives.

Honor one another above yourselves,” Paul writes in Romans 12:10. Like so many Scripture passages, these are words to live – and work – by.

(Tomorrow, Jan explores how putting others first is also a key approach to the writing craft.)

Creation: The Writer’s Privilege and Calling

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Easter is over. Strands of pink and yellow plastic grass are strewn all over the living room. Painted eggs will be peeled and mashed into egg salad later today. The kids are shipped off to school bleary-eyed, nursing sugar hangovers. I look around at the disaster of a house I just cleaned for company, sigh, and sit down to write.

The blank page on my computer screen stares back at me, cursor blinking at the top. Write. It is time to write. But I am empty, hollowed out, barren. I am still winter, even though yesterday at church, everything around me screamed spring. I look out the window and notice signs of new life. The lilac tree has fresh buds. The grass is becoming crisp and green.

Easter is my favorite holiday. My heart pumps fast every year. On Resurrection Sunday I get caught up in the story of Jesus in spite of whatever else is happening in my life. I can be downhearted, exhausted, bored, or troubled. Easter morning is bigger than my emotions. Easter is always bigger than me. My knees can’t help but bend. As a person of faith, how can I not be moved by Christ’s sacrifice for me and his ability to conquer death?

But today my life is back to normal. I have my to-do list. I’ll match socks at the bottom of the laundry hamper. I’ll make myself something to eat, and take small bites as I wonder where the excitement went, and how it can leave so quickly. I’ll write because of deadlines. It is my work. It’s what I do.

The blank computer screen studies my face, and I think about my feeble attempts to create something from nothing. The book of Genesis comes to mind.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.  And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. -Genesis 1: 1-3

And God said… God used words to create the world. For writers, this profound truth is even more precious because we are word people. This is what we love and it is baffling and exhilarating that God used the same method. Creation brought order out of chaos through words.

But God doesn’t stop there.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. -John 1: 1-3

Jesus is the Word in the Gospel of John. And through his life, death, and resurrection, God continues to create. He creates new buds on barren trees in the spring. He creates a desire in a person’s heart. He makes us new creations through faith in his Son. And as his creation, we participate in the awesome privilege of proclaiming Jesus, both with words and in being the word to a world that a lot of times looks everywhere but to him.

And we get to sit down at the computer and play with words. We start with nothing and hope it turns in to something. We have all these words and thoughts and try to put them into some kind of order that will hopefully makes sense, and more importantly, bring glory to God.

It doesn’t always happen but when it does, its magic.

Easter. Through Jesus’ resurrection God makes all things new. He creates. He is always creating. Words are an essential part of how he does it. Doesn’t it just blow your mind that we are in the same business?

So, when you go to write and instead sit, look, start, stop, put words down, and erase, do this: Look outside your window for signs of creation. Look for new life because it is always there somewhere. See fresh buds on the trees as the world wakes up to warmer days and the promise of sun-kissed skin.

When you write, when you create, you participate in something bigger than you. You are emulating your creator, the one in whose image you were first created.

The one who started it all with words.

What a privilege.

What a calling.

I open the window nearest to me, and let the warm spring air in.