Learning to Listen

Have you ever noticed that there is a deep inner peace that descends when you truly listen to someone? Think about it. You focus on what they are saying, sifting through the verbal noise to the subtext that is being laid bare. You take a back seat, allowing them to drive the conversation so that you can lovingly respond. There is a strength in this passivity, a calm in conceding control.

Isn’t that exactly what we are called to do with the Lord?

My world is loud. My email constantly demands my attention – four different accounts for four different reasons. My job revolves around communication and social media, the deadly noise of an electronic culture.

We’ve forgotten the value of letters and phone calls, the connection that comes with face to face. We’ve forgotten how to have a conversation longer than 140 characters, and we sure don’t remember the bond developed by vocally sharing the depth of our thoughts, our hearts. As writer’s we get to connect the gap, to share vulnerability on the page and communicate with the world around us. All too often, I fight that vulnerability. I fight to speak without letting people see the depths of my heart. But as much as I have been called to use my voice in some form or fashion, I must first be willing to listen to my audience of One.

Kariss Lynch oceanI remember a crowded beach in California. Surfers rode the waves, entertainers lined up around the boardwalk, and this misplaced Texas girl walked with my group enjoying the show. About sunset, I found myself alone near the water, the waves roaring in to kiss the shore over and over. All other noise dissipated, and I truly listened.

I see and hear my Creator in the waves and the ocean – His power, His gentle nature, His vastness, His beauty. And I can hear His still small voice in the waves that lap the sand, asking me to drown out the other noise and just listen. He speaks in the quiet moments. He answers when I truly surrender.

Shadowed Kariss LynchWe can’t discern His voice and direction until we give up our need to control and sit back as He shares His heart and mind. I love the childlike faith of Samuel in the Old Testament and the way he simply answers the Lord with “Here am I.” Then He listens and obeys. I want to be defined as a person who delights to do what God desires, who uses my gifts for His glory, who writes without fear. But my surrender comes first. As I finish up my third book, enter a season in between contracts, and pray through what’s next, I want to make sure I am listening more than I am telling the Lord what I want. I want this in between season to be marked by a quietness of spirit as I rest, dream, pray, and enjoy where the Lord currently has me.

With no beach nearby, I’m learning to find my ocean moments in the roar of the big city. He speaks most when I commit to listen. And I’m tired of the noise. I’m sitting on the shore, listening to His voice whisper in the waves.

The Beauty of Lying Fallow

harvested fieldLying fallow isn’t just for fields. If you want to find kernels of ideas to jumpstart your next writing project, you might be surprised to see how much you can glean from the already harvested fields of your finished projects.

Just as farmers routinely allow sections of their fields to remain unplanted for a season in order to replenish the land’s fertility, writers need to leave past projects alone for a time in order to get a fresh perspective on their work – a perspective that often reveals the kernels of ideas that somehow got hidden beneath the framework of that finished work. Every writer knows many ideas that pop into the head during the research and composing process end up getting tossed out in the pursuit of a tightly woven story or narrative. That’s part of the discipline of self-editing: you mercilessly cut out your own words that you might have lovingly slaved over because you realize that, in the end, they don’t make your work stronger.

Ouch. The truth hurts.

The good news, though, is that those same words, those kernels of ideas, might be able to take on their own life in another season of your career–as long as you can find them again. That’s why it’s a good idea to keep your notes from a writing project after its completion. Yes, it means you’ve got bulky files sitting unused on a shelf, or on your computer, but it doesn’t mean you’re a hoarder who just can’t let go.

sproutIt means you know that as soon as you get rid of those notes, you’ll find yourself looking for that funky little idea that didn’t quite fit the last manuscript, but would be an amazing starting place for a new project…now that you’ve had some fallow time to let that kernel of an idea begin to sprout all on its own in your subconscious.

I used to think that if I wasn’t working on a new project, I was losing time. Now I realize that my imagination needs as much of a rest as any physical landscape that is cultivated for production. What’s even more delightful is to browse through my bulky files of old projects and find new inspiration just waiting to be gleaned from the rubble of a field I thought I had fully harvested. I shouldn’t be surprised – the Biblical injunction to leave the field fallow in the seventh year was not only to improve its productivity for later, but to provide sustenance for the poor who were free to eat of what was left. In other words, the field might have been harvested, but even in its fallow season, it could give nourishment.

For writers who feel depleted after the long haul to publication and market, it’s reassuring to know that imagination is already replenishing itself.

What kernels have you gleaned from harvested fields?

Cutting Out the Frivolous Stuff

song sparrow singingLast week, during a series of presentations on writing-related discoveries, which I always make first-year composition students do at the end of the year, one student said, “I learned that writing shorter is harder than writing longer.”

“Why’s that, do you think?” I asked.

He thought before answering.White-crowned-Sparrow

“Because to make something shorter, you have to make all these decisions. Like, what’s important and what to get rid of. And then, after you take stuff out, you have to change other stuff to make it sound right.”

“You mean, you have to revise—like, you know, re-see it,” another student chimed in.

“Yeah. It is like that,” he said. “Like seeing that it could be a different way and still be what I wanted to say. Maybe even better. I never thought of that. I always used to think revision was just fixing stuff.” The two students grinned with that mixture of embarrassment and pride students always have when using the language of the course.White-Throated_Sparrow

That night I led a professional development session for graduate faculty on the subject of assessing final projects.

“Everything students hand in is a draft,” I remarked in passing, “and drafts are hard to grade. If you want your students to revise, you have to trick them into it.”

Field_Sparrow“How?” one professor asked.

“Lots of ways,” I said, “but the most successful way for me is to give maximum word limits on assignments rather than minimum word limits.”

“How does that make them revise?” she persisted.

I knew that being made to write short did force students to revise, but it took me a second to come up with a reason why on the spot. “I guess it’s like when you fill out an online application and have to answer a question in a little box that limits you to only so many characters, including spaces,” I told them. “What you write is always way too long. So you have to keep paring it down, getting rid of unnecessary stuff, often the parts you’re Harris's Sparrowproudest of, so you can get down to what’s essential. And, in the end, it’s not only shorter but better. Or, anyway, I always think it is. In my experience, the same thing happens with students when I give them word limits. I get all these emails, begging me to let them go longer. But I never do. Not one word. So they have to revise. And what they turn in is lots better than what they turn in when they’re just trying to fill pages.”

Everyone wrote that down—the most useful grading takeaway, even though it wouldn’t be relevant until they started building assignments the next semester.

The next day, at an end-of-year luncheon of honors English students, my department chair asked those about to graduate to share the moment they realized they wanted to study English, and two women talked about learning to write short.

lark sparrow“Being forced to cut made my writing so much better,” one said. “I knew how to improve my writing after learning that.”

“I had this revelation that every sentence matters,” said another. “That was the moment for me.”

Finally, yesterday, my novel workshop students were talking about their revision strategies for the three chapters I’d be grading at the end of the semester.

“I’m cutting out a lot of frivolous stuff,” one said. “That’s the main thing I learned in this class: You don’t need half the stuff you write.”Chipping_Sparrow

As always, whenever I have one of these clumps of similar messages, I figured it wasn’t just coincidence—or the more obvious reality that people were saying back to me what I’d been preaching all semester—but the Holy Spirit weighing in on the ssavannah sparrowubject. It seemed strange, though, that the Holy Spirit was interested in revision.

Then it occurred to me that I’m the one who needed the cutting message I’d been preaching. My own novel is a frivolous (and practically unpublishable for a first novel) 130,000 words.

There’s no getting around it, I told myself. You need to cut another 30,000 words.

That doesn’t begin to answer the question—if you’re still wondering—of why cutting words from my pages might interest the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it’s that, as I like to tell my students, revision is a key part of the creative process, and God has always been into that. Separating light from dark, water from land. Fiddling with it, examining it, considering, until it’s good, or very good.

Or maybe God’s interested in revision for the same reason he pays attention to sparrows: namely, all of his creation—birds, us, our minds, words, our little improvement plans—fascinates and delights him.

(PS: To whatever fellow birdlovers are out there, I saw all the sparrows pictured this morning: song, white-crowned, white-throated, field, Harris’s, lark, chipping, and savannah. I feel so blessed!)

Facing a Change?

Photo/KarenJordan“Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed … ” (1 Corinthians 15:51 TNIV).

I first noticed this scripture many years ago displayed on a wall mural in our church nursery. I laughed at the clever inference to the care of the babies. But the verse prompted me to research its biblical context.

I discovered differing opinions about the end times. But I also found Someone who never changes: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8 NIV).

Possibilities. Change is inevitable. And many times it arrives when least expected—like an illness, untimely death, or even an opportunity you never dreamed possible.

“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future” (John F. Kennedy).

Politics. Politicians also promise us change. But their promises often prove to be just as empty and meaningless as their rhetoric no matter how well intended.

Such shallow commitments remind us of what the Bible says about keeping our word:

And since you know that (God) cares, let your language show it. Don’t add words like “I swear to God” to your own words. Don’t show your impatience by concocting oaths to hurry up God. Just say yes or no. Just say what is true. That way, your language can’t be used against you. (James 5:12 MSG)

Projects. I embrace change at times, especially with my writing projects. The writing process requires many revisions. Some people believe writing is just a three-step process—pre-writing, writing, and re-writing. But most writers agree that each of these steps involves much more.

For instance, the beginning of the composing process includes things like brainstorming, asking questions, researching, outlining, and other pre-writing strategies. Even the simplest blog post requires multiple revisions. The first draft of this post needed a lot of editing and changes.

Promises. The Bible also reminds us, “… in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye … we will be changed” (15:52).

But even though God’s Word promises change, it also encourages us to “… stand firm. Let nothing move you … ” in our faith (15:58).

So when you face change or resist it, remember, “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (15:58b).

What changes are you facing right now?

Honesty is the Best Policy

SavedbyGracieReaders often thank me for sharing my personal story of battling an anxiety disorder in my memoir Saved by Gracie: How a rough-and-tumble rescue dog dragged me back to health, happiness, and God.

“You’re so brave to have written this,” they say. “I’d be embarrassed to share something so personal.”

Honestly, it never occurred to me that I was being brave in recounting my experience with anxiety. I lost all my privacy boundaries when I gave birth to my third child in a room crowded with medical personnel. Once you’ve had an audience of strangers watch you push a child down the birth canal, there’s not much left that can embarrass you.

Another reason it surprises me to be described as “brave” is that all I’ve done is tell a true story about the ways my head, body, and spirit responded to taking a shelter dog into our home. It’s also true that I didn’t want the dog, but when I realized how the dog was helping me change my life for the better, I immediately wanted to tell that good news to other women who might be suffering with anxiety as I had.

First and foremost, I wanted to share my story to help others. I’d learned something new and valuable, and even though the therapeutic value of animals has been a popular research topic in recent years, I wanted to frame that information in a fresh way that would encourage readers to make that information work for them, too. Basically, I used myself as the proof in the research pudding.

And here’s where a true story encounters craft: it is the writer’s challenge to make the story simultaneously personal AND universal .

We all have experiences that are common to the human condition, yet people relate most deeply to the universal when it becomes intensely personal. Over the years of my writing career, I’ve learned that it’s the writer’s intimate voice and transparency (I’m talking about total honesty here!) that are key to combining the universal and personal. For example, if you tell me you’ve had a traumatic experience, I can nod and say “so have I,” but unless you give me the details of how it personally impacted you, I won’t be looking for similarities in our stories. That means you, as a writer, have to seek out and name the personal aspects of the universal that will engage your readers. You have to dig up the reality – expose the heart and soul – of the experience you want to share.

Make no mistake – digging in your life can be painful for you and those around you. With luck, though, it will be ultimately illuminating and healing, too.

And when you do that with your own story, you give your readers the permission, and hopefully, the courage, they might need to be honest with themselves in their lives. Honesty really is the best policy for a writer, because it’s the key to connecting compellingly with your audience as you make the universal very personal.

How do you approach the universal in your writing?

Facing Our Fears as Writers

Photo/TaraRoss

We’re going to have to let truth scream louder to our souls than the lies that have infected us. (Beth Moore)

I’m forced to face my fears and weaknesses in many areas of my life, particularly my writing life.

Resistance. What fears haunt you as a writer? I have a long list of my own. Writing for publication demands strength and stamina! We should expect to face resistance, right? Each new project, goal, or idea, may trigger memories of intimidation, shame, rejection, failure, regret, or setback. Or we may even fear the price of our success.

Intimidation. Fearful to let anyone see your first (second or third) drafts? Even the best writers produce shoddy first drafts. Anne Lamott offers an entire chapter on this topic in her outstanding instructional book on writing and life, Bird by Bird.

That’s why we RE-write. And that’s why I recommend finding a critique group or someone who can (and will) edit your work. I’m grateful for my writing friends who are honest enough to wield their red pens and hack on my stuff.

My husband Dan serves as my Editor-in-chief, although most of writers do not advise asking a spouse to edit. But I’ll reserve that debate for another post. Although, I welcome your opinion on that subject in the comments space below.

Shame? Perfectionism and the fear of judgment and criticism can stifle our writing life. Our inner critic may be harder on our work than any reader or editor. “Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough” (Dr. Brené Brown).

Rejection? Wow! This can be a monumental hurdle for writers! But many famous authors were rejected before succeeding, like C.S. Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

If you’re a Christian writer, here are a few encouraging words from Beth Moore, “The next time you feel rejection’s sting, remember God’s words to Samuel: ‘It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me’” (1 Sam. 8:7).

Failure? Many writers never pursue writing for publication for fear of failure. But I agree successful author and blogger Jeff Goins: “The cost of not pursuing a dream is greater than the cost of failure.”

Regret? Our mistakes can yield valuable lessons. But we don’t want to focus so much on our missed opportunities or disappointments that we lose sight of hope and dreams for our future.

… I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead …  (Phil. 3:13 NIV).

Success? Do you fear having high hopes? Afraid of taking risks? Or maybe you’re counting the cost of success, and you don’t think you have what it takes. Could your fear be the stumbling block that’s keeping your from moving forward?

Setbacks? How do you endure setbacks in your writing life? I’ve learned a few survival tips on the walking trail and on my writing journey. But as I face my fears and take one step at a time by faith, I’m able to go the distance.

And now, … one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received … Then the God of peace will be with you. (Phil. 4:8-9 NLT)

What challenges have you faced and what fears have you overcome as a writer?

I’m a Glutton for Information!

French bulldogSelling books and signing them is a happy experience for any author, but if I had to name my favorite part of the writing process that leads to publication, it would be doing the research that goes into my books.

I love doing research. In high school and college, I was the student who jumped for joy when the instructor assigned a research paper. I couldn’t wait to dig through the library for books, or hunt down obscure magazine articles. These days, research is even more expansive (unending, even!) thanks to the internet, but I love it, along with the hands-on research I encounter in the course of writing manuscripts. I’m just a glutton for information, I guess.

In celebration of that nerdy writerly trait, here are a few of my favorite research moments.

  1. I got a personal, private tour of a donut shop. Need I say more?
  2. I spent hours in the dark one night with some good friends checking nets for owls to band. We never got one, but I did get to wear a really cool headlamp while we strung up nets in the woods and told funny stories to pass the time.
  3. I took a firearms safety course and learned how to shoot a gun. I put 19 of 20 shots into the center of the target, so you can call me Eagle Eye from now on!
  4. I puckered up for a kiss from a French bulldog at a Pet Expo and posed with rabbits running an obstacle course. (Yup, that’s me and the bulldog above.)
  5. I spent a week in January at one of the world’s premier birdwatching areas in southern Texas. It was sub-zero and snowing back home in Minnesota at the time, which taught me the critical importance of timing when it comes to planning research trips.
  6. I took my husband on a very special summer date night to watch 300+ Chimney Swifts go to roost in an old chimney stack at dusk. It was a breathtaking aerial display and possibly a once-in-a-lifetime event as the populations of these birds dramatically decline.
  7. I met a World War II veteran who worked as an ordnance officer, which led to learning about camouflaging British air bases to hide them from Nazi bombing raids.
  8. I got to sit in the mixing booth of Prince’s Paisley Park Studio while interviewing a pre-eminent Christian composer as he completed mixing his musical tracks for a new CD.

Do you count your research as one of the best parts of your writing pursuit? What is your favorite research moment?