Four Ways to Untangle Your Writing Life

Image/FreeDigitalPhotos.net There’s something about chaos in my home office that infuriates me.

As I attempted to help my husband install a new computer, the jumbled mess of wires overwhelmed me. Lying on the floor, flat on my back, reaching under my desk, I needed more than a flashlight and my glasses to see where to plug in the cables. I wanted something to calm my frazzled nerves.

At times, I also find myself overwhelmed with the tangled web of my writing life. I have so many projects going at once that I can’t focus on the most important ones.

So, how do we unravel the emotions and confusion of our writing lives?

Stop and take inventory. As I inspected the knotted wires behind my desk, I saw that each wire needed to be threaded back through a narrow space under my desk and poked through a small round cutout in the desktop, before I could connect my new PC. I took a deep breath and thought about my angry reaction to my husband’s request. We had purchased the new computer for my writing needs, and he needed me to crawl under the desk because of his old college knee injuries.

Since I tend to overreact at times, my routine frustration over my harried writing schedule serves as a warning sign for me to stop and reassess my priorities. I try to remember to seek God first for guidance. Have I made too many commitments again? Do I need to redefine the boundaries of my work and my everyday life? 

Make some space. After we pulled the computer desk away from the wall to allow space to work, I found that the electrical supplies to my paper shredder, stapler, hole-puncher, and phone charger complicated my task. I unplugged all of them and moved the equipment, so I could focus on just the computer wiring.

Sometimes I also need to back away from my writing life to gain perspective, especially before making new commitments. My other activities, projects, and life issues contribute to my inability to manage my time. I’ve considered enrolling in the course, “Managing Multiple Priorities,” but I could never find the time.

Sort through the maze. Before I unplugged our old computer, I decided to tag each cord at its connection to each device. Then, I sorted the cables and bundled the wires with plastic ties. 

Prioritizing my writing projects requires more than plastic cable ties. The process motivates me to evaluate my passions and interests to see if each project meshes with my overall plans. My impulsivity often leads me astray. And someone else’s requests can produce unnecessary and avoidable stress.

Go forward. After installing my new unit, I expressed my appreciation to my husband for his help, and I thanked the Lord for giving me the patience and the helping hands I needed.

The writing life offers temptations and distractions daily. I’d prefer to believe that I have my writing life in order. But with every new task, I experience a learning curve. I’m well aware that I’m still a work in progress.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith …
(Heb. 12:1 NIV1984).

Writing Life: Facing a Spiritual Battle

Have you ever been annoyed about someone else’s bad attitude? Then later, you look into the mirror and think, That’s me!

How do we abandon destructive attitudes and thoughts?

The other day, I found myself at my wit’s end—in one of those brutal, self-deprecating moods. I felt depressed and frustrated about being isolated in my home office, even though I needed solitude to work on my writing projects.

Through the years, I’ve struggled with the seclusion that being a writer brings. And often my frame of mind distracts me or tempts me to go back into the workplace for more social interaction and close relationships.

A spiritual battle. This particular day, I decided to pray about how to win this battle, instead of dismissing it. I knew it was a spiritual battle—an attack from the enemy of my soul—trying to discourage me. So, I decided to revisit a familiar passage in the Bible.

I thumbed over to Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (NIV).

As I read the passage, my mind focused on the word “lovely,” and I wondered, How on earth can I find something “lovely” to think about? I wasn’t feeling “lovely,” and nothing around me seemed “lovely” either. But I continued to focus on the scripture, even questioning God’s purpose in leading me to this specific verse.

A way of escape. Struggling with my angst, I carted my portable office outside to our backyard patio (a benefit of working from home). I hoped this scripture could possibly help me refocus—away from my negative thoughts.

As I sat down to read again, a rustle in the branches of our Bradford pear tree distracted me. Two squirrels, playing tag, tumbled from the tree and scampered up the wooden fence, as a large blue jay drove them from his territory.

I enjoyed God’s creation, surprised at nature’s battle right there in my own backyard. The leaves rustled in the breeze, and the sun peeked through the branches, casting moving shadows. Surrounded by shades of green, I settled into my lawn chair.

Lovely. I thought, “This” is lovely!

A lovely thought. The word “lovely” swept across my mind again like a stirring wind. In a sudden and unexpected way, a calm settled in on me, and everything seemed right with me once again.

Then, blessed by the “lovely” moment—bathed in the shades of green and focused on God’s Word—I returned to the peace and solitude of my office to begin my next writing project.

How do you win the spiritual battles in your writing life?

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Three Ways to Focus on Editing for the Web

“Real writing begins with re-writing” (James A. Michener).

I began blogging in 2008, and I’ve visited many websites to determine the most effective way to communicate online. I developed a helpful web-editing checklist below from my research for a writing workshop using three photographic terms—the panoramic, macroscopic, and microscopic viewpoints.

Panoramic View. Begin the editing process by determining the overall, or broader view, of contents and evaluating your audience, purpose, context, and the design elements.

  • Read aloud from the reader’s perspective (not the writer’s).
  • Find main point and sub-points. Can you summarize your piece easily?
  • Examine benefits for reader (take-away value).
  • Use appropriate fonts (not fancy or distracting to your content).
  • Use subheading in boldface type to introduce more points.

Macroscopic View. Take a closer look at paragraphs, word usage, and tone.

  • Place main topics near beginning of each paragraph and sentence.
  • Limit each paragraph to one main idea.
  • Use shorter units of text with more breaks.
  • Use an introduction for a “teaser” paragraph (preview for content).
  • Avoid long texts that break content into several pages.
  • Provide a brief summary or table of contents hyperlinked to each section for text over 500 words. Use lists, hyperlinks, and extra white space for a long document to break up dense patterns of text.
  • Avoid slang, jargon, and inappropriate humor.
  • Use nondiscriminatory language (e.g., bias based on gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age, sexuality, disability).
  • Use common words (appropriate for target audience).
  • Avoid vague words.
  • Use key words to describe the site in the first 50 words of text.
  • Build verbal bridges to connect text (transition).
  • Use action verbs rather than passive.
  • Incorporate single links into content (embedded into the text).
  • Make short, bulleted lists of links.
  • Use “Find Out More” links, when details are needed.

Microscopic View. Zoom in on the elements of grammar, mechanics, and punctuation.

Self-editing should distance you from your piece, so you can examine it without the emotional attachment. You can see your actual words, rather than just intentions. Consider these final ideas to help you edit for the web.

  • Create style sheet/guide with some common problems, to avoid repetitive research of the editing rules (e.g., grammar, mechanics).
  • Find someone to read and edit your work (e.g., critique group, another writer).

Remember: “You write to discover what you want to say. You rewrite to discover what you have said and then rewrite to make it clear to other people” (Donald Murray).

Image(s): FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Do you have any tips for editing for the web?

Sergio: A Memoir from My Writing Life

My writing life continues to take me to places that I never dreamed possible. A few years ago, I decided to go back to college to pursue a degree in writing. And my academic journey gave me the opportunity to study a second language in another country.

In Spain, I learned more than just the language—I learned about their culture, their history, and the every day life of the people there. I also learned things about myself and human nature. Plus, this experience provided numerous stories to share, like this one about my young friend, Sergio.

One of my best language teachers proved to be a five-year-old boy named Sergio, the grandson of my hostess, Beni.

Sergio would sit with me every day at the kitchen table, after the others had finished their meals and retreated to watch television. He enjoyed pretending to be my teacher.

Child Teacher. As Sergio picked up each piece of fruit, one-by-one, from the ceramic bowl on the kitchen table, he would hold it up and wait for me to say the name of the fruit in Spanish. If I didn’t respond fast enough, he would look at me with his big brown eyes and teach me the appropriate word.

“Me-lo-co-tón,” Sergio said slowly, as he held up a peach and waited for me to repeat after him. And after I responded, he would flash his bright smile, clap his hands, and applaud, “¡Qué bien!” [Great!]

Then, Sergio would grab another piece of fruit and continue to quiz me, until he thought I had mastered each Spanish word. When he grabbed a banana, I would always laugh as I responded, “Ba-na-na.” [Sergio didn’t know we used some of the same words in English.]

I bought Sergio candy and toys to express my gratitude to him. One day, I gave him the mini-flashlight that I carried in my purse from home. As he ran to show his mother, he danced around the apartment snapping the light off and on.

Sergio reminded me of my own grandson, Miles, who was just a few years older. And Sergio helped me fend off being homesick, as I interacted with him.

Adult Student. In studying Spanish as an adult, I experienced both humiliation and judgment. My host family often seemed very impatient that I had not mastered their language. And since I was somewhat shy, the looks they exchanged when I tried to speak in their tongue embarrassed me. They would sigh heavily and roll their eyes. Then they would speak slowly with raised voices as they repeated phrases toward me.

I felt ignorant when I couldn’t find the words to express what I wanted to say. But Sergio always responded to me with patience and kindness. He helped me because he wanted to be with me, and we both enjoyed our time together.

Life-long Learner. I suppose I was too stubborn to give up on my goal of becoming bilingual during my studies in Spain, even with the difficulties I faced. I now appreciate the Hispanic population in my own community and the struggles they encounter in a country where most people do not understand their native language.

I discovered some surprises about myself in my efforts to learn another language. My husband, Dan, became more aware of my weaknesses than anyone. I’m sure he’ll never forget the night he walked into our family room at midnight and found me on our carpeted floor in a fetal position—crying because I had received a “B” in a conversational Spanish class.

I laugh when I think of that moment now. But at the time, I didn’t see the humor in the situation. Learning a new language proved to be one of the most humbling and difficult experiences of my life. But it gave me insight into teaching others to write, and I later became a writing instructor. In fact, I discovered that learning to write is much like learning a second language–but that’s another subject for a future post.

And in spite of the hardships and disappointments I encountered during my language school experience in Spain, my most memorable and effective teachable moments came with my young friend, Sergio.

Where has your writing journey taken you?

Five Ways to Handle Stress in Your Writing Process

Are you overwhelmed with stress in your writing life? The book of Lamentations offers a clear word on how to deal with stress. “When life is heavy and hard to take, go off by yourself. Enter the silence. Bow in prayer. Don’t ask questions: Wait for hope to appear” (Lam. 3:28-29 MSG).

1. Go off by yourself. Solitude often seems impossible for me, even with an “empty nest.” But Jesus knew the importance of spending time alone with His Father. When He needed to listen, He would pull away from everyone. Matthew 14 says that after Jesus fed the 5,000, He “climbed the mountain so he could be by himself and pray. He stayed there alone, late into the night” (23).

2. Enter the silence. When we seek God in silence, often the accuser (Rev. 12:10) tries to distract us with fear, like in the story of Hannah (1 Samuel 1). Hanna’s husband had two wives—talk about stress! And her husband’s other wife taunted her year after year, blaming and accusing God for Hannah’s inability to conceive children. Then, when Hannah prayed, her spiritual leader misunderstood her. “Hannah was praying in her heart, silently. Her lips moved, but no sound was heard. Eli jumped to the conclusion that she was drunk” (13).

3. Bow in prayer. Prayer can be as natural as talking with a good friend or as intimate as sharing a secret whisper. It can occur any time of day, no matter where you are or what you are doing. God promises that if we call on His Name, He’ll listen. “And if we’re confident that he’s listening, we know that what we’ve asked for is as good as ours” (1 John 5:15).

4. Don’t ask questions. My questions often interfere with my communication with God—I’m talking, instead of listening. When Jesus taught His disciples, He asked them on several occasions, “Are you listening to this? Really listening?” (Matt.11:15).

5. Wait for hope to appear. Waiting rooms seem to bring out the worst in me, like my impatience or frustration. But waiting does not have to be hopeless. The psalmist speaks of “waiting” in Psalm 40, “I waited and waited and waited for God. At last he looked; finally he listened. He lifted me out of the ditch, pulled me from deep mud. He stood me up on a solid rock to make sure I wouldn’t slip” (1-2 MSG).

Reflection: Matthew 6:30-34 advises, “Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes” (MSG).

So, remember, “When life is heavy and hard to take, go off by yourself. Enter the silence. Bow in prayer. Don’t ask questions: Wait for hope to appear” (Lam. 3:28-29 MSG).

Photo/KarenJordan

What helps you handle the stressful times in your writing life?

 

Embracing Sacred Moments

Lake Cortez at dawn

Have you ever wanted to hold on to a moment in time and savor the amazing experience a little longer?

The radiant fog bank settled just above Lake Cortez at dawn, a stark contrast to the winter landscape surrounding my home. I tried to focus on my writing deadline, but I halted my work to observe the breath-taking view.

The glowing mist at sunrise brought a familiar Bible verse to mind, encouraging me to embrace the moment. “How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone” (James 4:14 NLT).

Such memorable experiences happen when I least expect them, and they vanish without warning. But I always want to hold on to those special moments longer than possible.

The first time I heard my child’s heartbeat, I tuned out everything else, as I wondered about the new life inside me. Etched on the tablet of my heart, I recall those firsts—feeling him move, seeing his face, and holding him in my arms.

Those rare occurrences happen in my writing life, too. When I received my first contract to write an article for a well-respected publication, I held the envelope close to my heart a long time before opening it. Then, I unfolded the letter with great care and examined every word to be sure I didn’t skip any details.

Another momentous occasion occurred in December, as I shopped for Christmas gifts with my grandson Miles. “Wait, wait,” I drew a deep breath and raised my right hand to stop our conversation, so I could read the e-mail on my iPhone.

Confused by the interruption, Miles offered me a wrinkled brow.

“Seriously—wait,” I exhaled. “I’ve got to hold on to this moment.”

I read the message again, basking in the power of the encouraging words. “They like my proposal! And she wants to discuss signing me as a client!” I couldn’t restrain myself from expressing my thanksgiving and praise. “What a great Christmas gift!”

Later that week, my heart raced again when the agent called to confirm her offer. I found it hard to suppress my enthusiasm and joy, so I could listen to her instructions and tell her about my writing goals and dreams.

When my husband, Dan, asked about the details of my phone call, I still couldn’t gather my thoughts because of my excitement. “Maybe I should have taken notes,” I admitted.

So how can we embrace our sacred moments? We know such blessings vanish as fast as they appear, just as morning fog dissipates when exposed to the first rays of sunlight.

We can capture the essence of our experiences with descriptive words and well-chosen phrases in our narratives. And through this writing process, others will also be encouraged to tell the stories that matter most to them.

Photo/KarenJordan

Did my story remind you of a sacred moment in your life? Write that story!