Holy Week Musings, Part 1—Qualifying at the Cross

Gustav Tores "Crucifixion of Jesus"

Gustav Tores “Crucifixion of Jesus”

Our oldest daughter was 25 years old a couple of months ago. But she still calls me “Daddy” from time to time, and I love that. It takes me back to those days when our three girls were small, utterly un-self-conscious, and therefore, hilarious—a source of endless entertainment.

There was a brief season of time back when she was around three and our middle daughter was just an infant, in which I’d settled a small office in a modest little one-story building in Edmond, Oklahoma. The offices in the building were all arranged on either side of a long central hallway. My office was located near the end of the hallway, toward the back of the building.

I was just launching an effort to support my family through freelance writing and things were pretty lean financially. Extraordinarily lean, actually. The best parts of the best days back then would be the times my wife would bring the girls up for a surprise visit to my drab, Spartan little work space.

I would hear the chime that indicated someone had opened the front door of the building, quickly followed by the rising sound of stumpy sneakered feet hitting carpet at a full gallop down the hallway. A few seconds later, my daughter would burst through my doorway with a giant smile, a giddy “Hi Daddy!” and body language that shouted, “I’m here! Isn’t it wonderful!”

And it was.

My sincere response was always one of delighted welcome. Outstretched arms. A hug. A gathering into the lap. A breathless request for the latest news from her world.

She was too young—as she was charging down that hallway—to have ever once considered that I might be on an important phone call, or in a bad mood, or upset at her for some act of disobedience I’d heard about earlier in the day.

Those things never entered her mind. No she approached with wild, confident abandon—and usually with a request ready on her lips. “Can we go get pizza tonight? Mommy, said it’s up to you.”

There is a thoroughly biblical, immensely powerful secret to effective prayer hidden in those treasured little moments with my first-born. Allow me to explain.

In my journey of growth and discovery as a believer, I have learned that seeing answered prayer—experiencing daily, miraculous incursions of heaven’s power into our circumstances—is a simple thing involving three spiritual principles.

Together, these three elements have revolutionized our life as a family and enriched our relationships with God in countless ways. They are:

  • The Law of Gratitude
  • The Law of Asking
  • The Law of Heart Confidence

I won’t elaborate much on the first two principles here. I will simply point out that dozens of scriptures exhort, even command, us to “ask.” And that many of those same scriptures encourage us to blend our asking with thanksgiving. Here’s just one example:

 The Lord is at hand; therefore do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. (Phil. 4:5-7)

There is extraordinary power in a grateful heart. And we must get this deep into our understandings . . . God wants us to ask!

“But doesn’t He already know what I need?” many wonder. Yes, but he commands us to ask, anyway. “You have not because you ask not . . .” James reminds us.

It is the third of these principles that too few believers understand—the principle of Heart Confidence. You’ll find it here:

 Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)

The testimony of scripture is that it not the neediest or the most desperate who see miraculous answers to prayer. Nor is it the most pious, or self-disciplined, or “deserving” who find heaven’s windows flying open when they speak. No, it is those who approach and ask with the most confident hearts that see mountains move.

Take in the words of James with fresh eyes:

 “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. (James 1:5,6)

The mystery of the power of heart confidence is embedded in the familiar words of First John 3:21,22. There we’re told that “if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God, and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him.”

The equally valid inverse corollary of that biblical statement would be this: “If our hearts do condemn us, we have no confidence before God, and do not receive from him anything we ask . . .”

This is at once a great mystery and a liberating truth. It means that disobedience, or sin, does indeed damage our prayer effectiveness, but not for the reason we assume.

We think God disqualifies us from getting answers from Him when we sin. The truth is, we stop getting answers because sin persuades us to disqualify ourselves. How? It robs us of heart confidence—the only prerequisite to answered prayer!

This is why the enemy of our souls spends almost all of his time and energy accusing us and reminding us of all the ways in which we fall short. Satan (the accuser of the brethren) knows what many of us do not – that our heart confidence is the key to keeping the windows of heaven open so God can move his promises and provision into our lives and circumstances.

I’ve discovered that most believers’ attempts at prayer are entangled by a dozens of disqualifying thoughts:

“I’ve sinned.”

“I haven’t done enough.”

“ I haven’t followed through on that commitment.”

“I haven’t had a quiet time in weeks.”

“I screamed at my kids.”

“Other people get answers because they’re better Christians.”

 Amid this hailstorm of self-accusation and condemnation, many believers give up on even making a request of God. They tell themselves they need to get their act together and become a little more “deserving” first. Then they’ll petition God for help.

Those who do manage to make it to God’s throne slink in on their bellies, laden with guilt and an overwhelming sense of unworthiness. When their prayers prove to be ineffective, they’re not surprised.

I know this pattern because I’ve lived it. But I’ve been set free. I’ve learned that when Proverbs 4:23 warns me to “Guard your heart with all diligence, for out if flow the issues (forces) of life,” that it means I need to guard and protect my “heart confidence” because it is the key to my connection with God.

When I’m convicted of sin, I confess it (1 John 1:9), count it as covered and paid for by the blood of Jesus, and mentally re-assert my legal standing as righteous before God.

I have also worked hard to renew my mind to a wonderful truth about Christ’s work on the cross. We all know that Jesus suffered for our sins, literally having our sins laid up Him as he was crucified. Most of us are aware that Jesus bore our sicknesses and infirmities, that we might know health and healing.

But have we ever considered the fact that Jesus suffered the ultimate in rejection by God that we might experience the acceptance He knew as the Son of God.

In his extraordinary book, The Atonement, the late Bible teacher Derek Prince wrote:

 In His final moments, Jesus was given sour wine or vinegar, which was bitter. This may have been intended to keep Him from losing consciousness. By accepting this sour wine, Jesus symbolically drained the bitter cup of rejection to its dregs. No human being has ever experienced such total rejection as Jesus experienced on the cross.

Prince built that truth into this powerful faith declaration: “Jesus suffered my rejection so I might have his acceptance.” I have purposed never again to insult the enormity of Jesus’ sacrifice by approaching God on the basis of my own worthiness (or stunning lack thereof).

Yes, I still fall back into the trap of disqualifying thoughts from time to time. But I’ve learned to fight for my heart confidence. To feed it and strengthen it with God’s Word. To attack undermining, disqualifying thoughts with scriptural truth.

And I have learned to recall that picture of a three-old running full-tilt down a hallway into my delighted, open arms.

May I encourage you to do the same?

Fly to Him, child of God. Run as fast as your little feet can carry you. Know that you are accepted, loved and unspeakably welcome. Then with grateful mindfulness of all He has done for you in the past, pour out to Him your requests.

This is the secret of heart confidence. It is the secret of power in prayer.

Men: You Are Not What You Earn

Fishing

Simon Peter said, “I’m going fishing.” (John 21:3)

Peter and friends were relieved but a little disoriented.

The sense of relief came from the knowledge that their leader—whom they’d seen arrested, beaten and crucified—was alive and had appeared to them several times. The problem was the disciples weren’t quite sure what they were supposed to do with themselves now.

Jesus had said something about “waiting,” but waiting had never been Peter’s strong suit. So, after another full day of standing around shooing flies and staring at their own sandaled feet, Peter hit the wall.

“I’m going fishing,” he muttered as he grabbed his bag and headed off in the direction of the lake. The other disciples looked at each other for a few seconds then shouted, “Dude! Hold up! We’re coming, too!”

Fishing was not a hobby for Peter and company. It was what they did . . . what they knew. It was the way they fed their families. And feeding his family while turning a tidy profit had always made Peter feel useful . . . valuable.

Like most of us, these men derived their sense of identity from what they did. And their sense of worth from the degree to which they succeeded at it.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to provide for yourself and for those who are counting on you. In fact, we are hardwired by our Creator to work, produce, build and achieve.

The problem is that from an eternal perspective, we are so much more than what we do. And what we earn is not the measure of our value as men. When we fall for the trap of measuring ourselves by our salary or bank account or car or watch, we are set up for a devastating fall through job loss or a business failure.

So what is the proper measure of your value?

The answer is: What the God of the universe paid to acquire you as a son. That price was Jesus. In good economic times or bad; employed or job hunting; your value remains the same.

You are a prince of God—loved, redeemed and called to eternal usefulness in an eternal kingdom.

 

 

The Surprisingly Sage Wisdom of Bill Withers

 

“But everything in life boils down to this riddle: Are you what you think you are?”—Bill Withers

Came across an amazing interview with 76-year-old music legend Bill Withers in the most recent issue of Garden & Gun. (What? You don’t know about Garden & Gun? It’s only the greatest magazine on earth.) Withers is about to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

G-G Bill WithersReaders of a certain age will know Withers’ music well. He was huge in the ’70s and early ’80s. Ain’t No Sunshine still holds up after all these decades. DC Talk covered Lean on Me a few years ago.

What struck me about the interview was Withers’ humility and deep, plainspoken wisdom about life.

He uttered the quote above in response to a question about whether he knew early on that he had what it takes to succeed in the music business. I want to put “Are you what you think you are?” on a t-shirt.

Withers came to that business relatively late in life—after a nine-year stint in the navy in the ’60s. Then, after 15 years of success, at the height of his popularity, he walked away from the music industry and never looked back. Why?

Most of my dreams came true; and some of my nightmares, too. I had a pretty good run. And by then I had a family and some kids, so I went about trying to do a good job at that. Without even thinking about it, I just went ahead with my life.

In other words, he recognized that remaining a success in the music business and succeeding at being a husband and father were incompatible goals. So he chose family. Very cool.

On being inducted into the Hall of Fame, he’s grateful but not letting it go to his head . . .

I feel it’s healthier to look out at the world through a window rather than through a mirror. With a mirror, all you see is yourself and whatever is behind you.

If you have a moment, do read the whole thing.

G-G

 

If a Book Falls in a Forest . . .

Attention Span

Sometimes I wonder about the futures of those of us who are called to write.

I’ve been writing long enough to remember back when the explosion of niche-y magazine options on the newsstand prompted concerns about shrinking reader attention spans. The thought was that we were creating a generation of people who couldn’t be bothered to read anything longer than the typical magazine article.

There was a funny bit of dialogue in the classic ’80s movie, The Big Chill. The character played by Jeff Goldblum is a frustrated novelist whose current paying gig is writing for People magazine.

“So how about you, Michael? Tell us about big-time journalism.”

“Where I work we have only one editorial rule: you can’t write anything longer than the average person can read during the average crap. I’m tired of having all my work read in the can.”

“People read Dostoevsky in the can.”

“Yes, but they can’t finish it.”

Indeed, shorter books (and shorter chapters within longer books) quickly became the accepted convention in the battle to keep people reading.

Then the internet came along and the modern attention span’s jackhammering into ever-tinier bits began in earnest. The length of the typical blog post made magazine articles seem impossibly long.

Then familiarity with Twitter’s 140 character limit made most blog posts seem too demanding of our limited time. Now Instagram captions are making 140 characters feel like a long reading commitment. In recent months most people’s Facebook timelines have become mostly pictures, links to videos, and one-line aphoristic slogans.

Today most magazines are filled with pictures, not words. There are a few exceptions of course—publications aimed directly at the few remaining true readers.

For years I’ve received a quarterly publication called the Claremont Review of Books. Here’s a typical spread:

CRoB Spread

On more than one occasion I’ve been observed reading this publication in public and been asked by a fascinated stranger, “Where are the pictures?” Or heard, “Wow! So many words.”

Please understand, I’m not being snobby or elitist here. I understand. I feel the pull. I feel the itch in my brain whenever I’m asked to focus on one chunk of text for more than a minute or two. It’s happening to all of us. I have a home office filled with books I’ve ordered in the last year or so that I haven’t cracked open yet.

I teach that for most things in life–especially spiritual things—scarcity is an illusion. But the one thing that is truly scarce is attention. We have entered what has come to be called “the attention economy” and it is fundamentally defined by “attention scarcity.”

Did you make it all the way to the end of this blog post? Congratulations! And thank you!

You see, the thing that haunts the writer’s soul and stalks the quieter moments is the prospect that one has poured important truths in artful ways onto pages that no one will ever read.

If a book falls in a forest and no one ever reads it, did it ever really exist?

Our President is the King of Horrible Ideas

baby02

So embarrassing.

In his ongoing quest to make Jimmy Carter’s one catastrophic term seem like a four-year festival of victory, awesomeness and genius, the current occupant of the White House just continues to come through.

This week we read that the President thinks it would be a grand idea to make voting compulsory. Washington Post: President Obama endorses mandatory voting.

“Other countries have mandatory voting,” Mr. Obama said at a town hall-style event in Cleveland, Ohio, citing places like Australia. “It would be transformative if everybody voted — that would counteract money more than anything.”

The president continued, “The people who tend not to vote are young, they’re lower income, they’re skewed more heavily toward immigrant groups and minorities . . . There’s a reason why some folks try to keep them away from the polls.”

Perhaps. But there’s certainly a reason some folks desperately want them at the polls. One party/ideology benefits greatly when the easily bamboozled and bribed vote in larger numbers. One party/ideology thrives on convincing the gullible that they can have free stuff with other people’s money and that we’ll never, ever run out of other people’s money.

One party/ideology benefits when the mal-educated, the unassimilated and the uninformed show up at the polls. (In related news, we also learned this week that only 35% of adult Americans can name all three branches of government.)

For some time it has been an unquestioned article of faith among left-liberals that when more people vote, better government results.

anarchists

Pardon me. Could you kindly direct us to the nearest polling place?

“Faith” is the wrong word here because faith holds fast where there is merely no sensory evidence. Liberals hold their belief—that pure democracy will somehow produce good outcomes for “the common people”—in the face of mountains of contrary evidence.

The word for this is delusion.

There is a reason Mr. Obama cited only Australia in support of his argument. Actually his precise words were, “Australia and some other countries . . .” So, who are those “other countries?” Below is a map of all the nations of the world that have already embraced Mr. Obama’s grand idea of compulsory voting:

Compulsory_voting.svg

Ahhh, Latin America, bastion of stability and corruption-free government. And we see you over there North Korea!

Australia is the only one in this group that isn’t either an economic basket case, a liberal-fascist dictatorship or both. Funny how the President didn’t point to all the excellent government the citizenry is enjoying in Thailand or the Democratic Republic of Congo in his remarks.

Many other countries have tried mandatory voting in the past—usually during some fascist-dictator-y phase in their past—but have since abandoned it. They learned the hard way that idiots tend to vote for idiotic politicians.

Governor Ventura

A former Minnesota governor.

Senator Franken

A current Minnesota Senator.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nevertheless, this president’s banana republic-ification of America continues apace. And we have a whole new generation of potential voters who get their news from Jon Stewart.

Oh, and San Francisco wants to lower the voting age to 16 because . . . Democracy!

We’ve Seen This Before, Pt. 3

1666

It’s been a while since I’ve submitted an installment of my runaway hit blog series “We’ve Seen This Before.” An email flooded in this week asking if a new installment was in the works (thanks, honey) so I thought I’d tap out another one of these little exercises in historical perspective.

I wrote the first of these back in September of last year when the nation was fully in the throes of the Ebola panic. As you may recall, at the height of EbolaFest 2014 (U.S. headquarters, Dallas, TX), a lot of folks were convinced that at least three of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were already saddled up with their steeds impatiently pawing at the ground.

So, if you need to catch up on this series, you’ll find parts 1 and 2, here and here. And now for Part 3 . . .

Maidenhead, England–1660s

For this episode, I want you to imagine you’re living outside of London in the middle part of the 17th Century—let’s say 1660.

From your vantage point just outside one of western civilization’s largest cities, you are increasingly certain that all four of the world’s wheels have come off and that the planet is careening out of control down history’s freeway on rims—sparks flying—as God the Driver laughs maniacally with His hands off of the steering wheel.

Today,  historians politely refer to this period as The General Crisis—a period characterized, as Wikipedia tells us, by “a widespread break-down in politics, economics and society caused by a complex series of demographic, religious, economic and political problems.”

But in 1650 this era is more commonly known to you and other people living through it as simply, “All the poop, hitting all the fans, all the time.”

Speaking of the Horsemen . . .  War, Famine, Pestilence & Death pretty much own the 17th Century like a boss . . . actually like four, cruel, remorseless, sadistic bosses.

Drab Four

Jerks.

War

Beginning in 1618, the “Thirty Years War” starts as a slap fight between Catholics and Protestants in Germany but soon engulfs almost every nation on the continent and drowns everyone in blood. People obviously won’t start calling it “The Thirty Years War” until it is officially over in 1648 and someone does the math.  Prior to this, everyone in Europe just calls it “Life.” . . . “In Hell.”

The war bankrupts all the participating nations; leaves one-third to one-half of the population dead in many regions; devastates the local economies and agriculture; and just generally tees everything up nicely for the next rider . . . Pestilence.

Thirty years of war wasn’t enough, however. On your little island, and all over the world, its still all wars and rumors of wars all the time. In quick succession, your home country, England, experiences the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1639–51), The Protectorate civil war (1653-59), and the Glorious Revolution (1688) is just a few years away.

Scores of other bloody, little wars rage around the world, as well. France is in a full-blown civil war called The Fronde (Oh, the French. Only they could come up with such a precious name for an ugly war.) You read in The Times that the Ming Dynasty in China has collapsed, after ruling most of Asia for three centuries.

Pestilence

For a couple of hundred years you and your ancestors have been watching plagues sweep through Europe and England–wiping out appalling numbers of people each time. Cheerily labeled The Black Death, this scourge has killed, by some estimates, 200 million people. It’s hard to say because the few people who can count that high keep dying. In one particularly busy five year period, it kills nearly 50 percent of Europe’s population.

In your own neck of the woods, you watch the plague tear London a new one in 1665, killing roughly 100,000 people.

Great_plague_of_london-1665

The healthiest thing in this picture is the guy smoking.

As if Nature weren’t already being enough of a complete rectum,  you and the rest of the inhabitants of the northern hemisphere are also contending with completely off-the-hook, too-outlandish-for-Hollywood climate change, leading to lots and lots of awesome . . .

Famine

Scientists in the 21st century will have an adorable name for your era—“The Little Ice Age.” The world experienced a period of ridiculously cold weather throughout a 300-year period beginning in about 1550. That’s right, everyone everywhere pretty much froze their hindquarters off for three centuries. But Nature has saved the very worst of it for your generation. Climate researchers point to 1650 as the “climactic minimum” of the Little Ice Age.

Minimum being a technical, scientific term for being able to walk across the Thames River every winter because it is frozen solid.

It's a good thing we have central heat and well insulated hou . . . oh dang.

It’s a good thing we have central heat and well insulated hou . . . oh dang.

For your entire life, not only have winters been bone-crunchingly long and cold, but the summers have been absurdly cool and short. Think puny harvests and outright crop failure. And not just for a year or even two. But year after year; decade after decade. The world is a cold, cold place and no one alive can remember when it wasn’t.

Economic Collapse

On top of everything else, the price of everything you need to survive is soaring. One of the things that made The General Crisis of the 17th century so chock-full of crisis-y goodness was runaway inflation.

End Times Expectancy

Not surprisingly, this perfect storm of misery, cataclysm and death has you and everybody else convinced that the End of Days is at hand. You’ve not only read The Apocalypse of St. John—you’ve been living the movie, over and over—Ground Hog Day style.

Numerous candidates for the Anti-Christ are put forth in widely circulated pamphlets and condemned from countless pulpits.

Of course, you’re taking all this in from your vantage point in Maidenhead, England—a few miles west of London, population 500,000—in the Year of Our Lord 1665. Toward the end of the year you look at your day planner and realize that next year is 1666.

Could this be it? Will this be the year? It would have to be wouldn’t it? The flipping Mark of the Beast in right there in the date! And don’t think that others in this era haven’t noticed. In fact, the English poet John Dryden has declared the year 1666 an annus mirabilis, a “year of wonders,” precisely because of the foreboding 666 number in the year.

So you enter the new year filled with dread and expectancy. Horrible day follows horrible day. But it’s the normal horrible, you know, Black Death, war, inflation, cold and political turmoil. You’re beginning to think you’re going to get through this year without any extra-horrible wonders. Then September rolls around and . . .

London burns down.

great fire

Wait . . . what?

Yep. That’s right. On the night of September 2 you look to the east and it looks like the sun is rising 12 hours early. But not to worry, it’s just massive, uncontrollable fire roaring through the heart of London. It will burn for three days. And before it’s done the beast will have devoured 13,200 houses and 87 churches, including the jewel in London’s crown, St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Here in the year 1666—the year of wonders—you watch one of the world’s great cities go up in flames. And as far as you know in that moment, all the other world’s great cities are probably burning, too. This is it. Didn’t St. Peter say it would be “by fire next time?”

Think we’re living in crazy times? Perhaps. But crazy is relative.

We’ve seen this before.

God is Smarter Than We Can Imagine

Quantum Mechanics

It’s impressive to think God knows THE future.

But it’s staggering to consider that, in fact, He knows every possible VERSION of the future, driven by the moment-by-moment choices of more than 7 billion humans exercising the gift of free will.

Which reminds me that Romans 8:28 does not say, “God causes all things.” (full stop) But rather that He “causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”

There is an ocean of theological significance in the placement of that period. And comfort in knowing that whether or not those around you choose to do things God’s way or not, He has calculated the outcomes and is finding a way to do you good.

Impressive indeed.

A Few More Thoughts for Aspiring Writers

IMG_0097As a follow up to my previous post, here are a few more thoughts about writing well, followed by some links leading to additional food for thought.

1. Never sacrifice clarity on the altar of creativity.

When you’re writing for an audience—when you self-consciously care about what the reader thinks about what you’re writing—it’s tempting to strive for innovative, flashy ways of getting your message across. But your message can easily get lost in the effort to be fancy.

A couple of years ago I tweeted this advice after a session of editing a young writer’s work:

Writers. Thou shalt not be confusing in the quest to be clever.

Writing that doesn’t effectively transmit your ideas or information—no matter how colorful—is not good writing. In the oft-cited words of the prison warden in the movie Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

2. Keep sentences short (for the most part.)

Whenever I’m editing the writing of novice writers, much of my time is spent blasting crazy-long sentences into smaller chunks.

Why break up a long, compound, complex sentence into smaller, easily digestible bits when you can string everything you want to say into a long chain of clauses and phrases; because readers never get mentally weary or need you to get to the point—they being able to absorb an infinite amount of detail and keep it all straight, and all?

Because smaller bites are more easily digested. And despite what your 9th grade English teacher told you, it’s okay to start sentences with a conjunction. (That last one did.)

3. Shun clichés.

Cliches are sets of words that are so routinely jammed together in conversation that you can finish the phrase without it actually being spoken:

  • Read my lips . . . The bottom line is, at the end of the day, if you want to go whole hog on writing as good as gold, then you’ll want to avoid clichés like the plague.
  • It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know you’d give an arm and a leg to be back in the saddle.
  • Be a babe in the woods where you let sleeping dogs lie.
  • Go back to square one like a kid in a candy store.
  • Go back to the drawing board and take the bull by the horns and burn the candle at both ends when you’re down in the dumps.
  • For all intents and purposes the jury is still out on whether you’re bigger than life or blind as a bat.

That’s all for now.

Some Links

Be a better writer in 15 minutes: 4 TED-Ed lessons on grammar and word choice

23 Websites that Make Your Writing Stronger (fiction-centric)

Advice for Aspiring Writers

don-typing

Got a call this week from a dear old friend from our Minnesota days. Wasn’t it just the other day our kids were small and we were taking turns hosting sleepovers?

It seems their offspring, like ours, had the chutzpah to grow up and plan productive lives of their own. (Kids can be so insensitive.) He was calling because one of his young-adult girls had recently expressed interest in becoming a writer. He was hoping I could share a few insights or practical words of wisdom to help her get started.

I actually get this question or some variation thereof quite a bit. A few times per month someone reaches out to me by phone, email or social media in search of advice. Some, like my friend’s daughter, want to pursue writing as a calling. Others believe they have a book in them that needs to get out. Some have experienced an extraordinary life event and have repeatedly been told by friends and loved ones, “You need to write a book about that.”

Of course, I’m always happy to dip a ladle into the exotic bouillabaisse that is my life experience and dole out a steaming, savory cup of crackpot sagacity for a hungry enquirer. However, I’m sure most of these askers are profoundly disappointed once they hear my advice. I can see it on their faces. That’s it? That’s all you’ve got?

I suspect my honest answer is far too simple to be satisfying.

How simple?  The essence of the advice I give aspiring writers can be found in the two-word reminder I once put on a Post-It Note and stuck on the front of the monochrome monitor of my IBM PC XT compatible (a whopping 640k RAM) 30 years ago when I hadn’t written anything longer than a 60-second radio commercial or a two-minute newscast.

The handwritten note said, “Writers write!”

designI’m not the first to have used that reminder as a motivational pointy stick for self-prodding. It’s a novelists’ proverb that has been passed around among aspiring writers since Jane Austen was in a training bra.

The meaning is that countless people think about writing. Multitudes speak frequently about their plans to write. But precious few ever sacrifice the time, push through the pain, and actually put words on paper (or screen).

Pain? Oh, yeah. I’ll get to that in a moment.

But just know that the first rule of Write Club is: “Don’t talk about Write Club. Just write.” You may be bad at it at first. (I was. Reading my early stuff now induces a grand mal cringing-wincing episode in me.) But you’ll get better. No one may pay you for what you write at first. But you’ll be banking experience and learning the craft.

Back in the Late Cretaceous Period when I first started writing, there were no blogs and no self-publishing opportunities on Amazon. There have never been more venues in which to write; and it’s never been easier to have your writing “discovered” by others than there are today. But the writing has to get done. Which brings me to this . . .

Writing is sometimes often almost always painful.

New Acquaintance: “Do you enjoy writing?”
Me: “Oh goodness, no.”
New Acquaintance: (shocked-confused face) “Really?”
Me: “No. I don’t like writing. But love having written. Do women enjoy childbirth?”

Writing is EasyWhich brings me to another of my favorite proverbs for writers: “Writing is easy. All you have to do is stare intently at a blank screen until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

In other words, if you wait to be infused with inspiration to start writing, you’ll likely never start. You just start slogging. Slog long and persistently enough and inspiration has a way of sneaking up on you.

So here it is. The secret sauce. The mysterious alchemic formula I’ve used to write 37 published books (most of them anonymously, as a ghostwriter), two of which became New York Times non-fiction bestsellers.

  1. Put rear in seat in front of keyboard.
  2. Lay one word down after another until you have a whole sentence.
  3. Keep creating sentences until you have a paragraph.
  4. Keep building paragraphs until you have a full page.
  5. Repeat.

I’m sorry. I truly wish it were sexier than that. It’s just not. Thus, the truths described above winnow out about 98% of all aspiring writers. They are also the reason I’ve been able to make a pretty good living writing other people’s books for them over the last 30 years.

Of course, if a person is willing to put in the time and hard work—has the “fire in the belly”—there are some practical things one can do to get better, faster. There are a few hacks, tips and tricks in the craft.

design-2One thing I’ve noticed over the years . . . Really good writers tend to be readers. In fact, I’ve never met a gifted, successful author who wasn’t a voracious devourer of books.

More specifically, it’s helpful to read good writing. Read over your head. Read above your pay grade. Read outside your usual interests and preferred genres. Read genius writing that’s so good it’s actually discouraging. (The discouragement will wear off, but the genius will rub off, and germinate in your soul.)

Here’s another pro-tip I wish I’d learned sooner . . .

Yes, “writers write.” But then they re-write. And then re-re-write. You never do your best writing on your first pass. The best, most productive writers create a rough draft—the operative word there being “rough.” They don’t try to perfect a sentence before moving on to the next one. Likewise, they don’t try to perfect a paragraph before moving on to the next.

write edit

They write quick and dirty, loose and ugly, just to get the basic ideas, concepts and thoughts down before they evaporate. The goal is flow, not perfection.

Your brain will fight you on this. Seriously. It will engage you in fierce, dirty, krav maga combat. To win, you have to continually reassure your brain that you’re going to go back over those sentences later. But that for now, it’s vital to just keep moving forward.

I delicately describe this first draft exercise as, “throwing up on paper.” The more artful saying among experienced wordsmiths is “Write in haste. Edit at leisure.”

Finally, there are some books on the art and science of writing that have helped me a lot. Some of these I dust off and re-read every few years. I’d recommend starting with The Elements of Style. It’s indispensable. You really do need a firm grasp of the “rules” of good writing—even if you ultimately end up breaking them. It’s okay to break the rules but it’s not okay to not know when you’re breaking them. Or why you’re doing so.

Once you’ve internalized those principles, I’d move on to the “sequel” so to speak, Beyond Style: Mastering the Finer Points of Writing.

The quickest way to start getting paid to write words is to become skilled at marketing and direct response writing. To learn this craft I’d start with the ancient but still-relevant books of John Caples, the original Don Draper. See here and here. I also recommend Robert Bly.

For aspiring novelists and screenwriters, I recommend Robert McKee’s, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting.

The fact is, all effective writing—no matter what the genre—involves story telling. It seems the human mind is wired to take in, remember and be impacted by information presented in story form.

Do you have a good story to tell? Are you prepared to tell it well? I’ll pull up a chair. Others will too.