The Writer’s Best Friend is the Trashcan

[I’ve recently come to realize that I have just 10 or so simple mottos for writing that I often bring to mind. I came to see this in the course of thinking about the coming retirement of a friend who planted one of the mottos. As a way of sharing what I know about writing, little though that might be, I plan to add occasional posts to this blog that explore these mottos that have served me.]

“The writer’s best friend is the trashcan,” said the novelist I would never knowingly encounter again.

I heard him speak this line when I was 20 or so. I showed up the way the rest of the small audience had shown up. A collection of young people adequately interested in writing to offer part of an afternoon had come to pepper the seats in an unnecessarily large auditorium in order to hear a published novelist speak. He was no one I knew; his work was unfamiliar. I immediately forgot his name and I am not sure I even heard the title(s) of his book(s). But I should have remembered, because this one line—which he said matter-of-factly, simply in response to an audience member’s question—has remained with me and has been a touchstone of mine ever since. I owe that novelist my gratitude. His offhand comment about the writer’s craft still comes to mind and still serves me nearly 30 years later.

There are two broad ways for a writer to be immature: writing too little and writing too much. The former stage is a big stage; it includes the elementary-school writer who adds “very, very, very” to adjectives to try to pad out the length of her assignment. This same stage also includes the adult who makes an assertion within a professional report that, unbeknownst to him, puzzles every reader of the report except the people very close to him who already know what he means. This stage of immaturity as a writer includes just about everyone who doesn’t want to be a writer, whose gifts are found elsewhere, but who nevertheless has to write from time to time.

The second stage of immaturity is also big. A working, professional writer can function within it and might spend much of a career here. This stage of immaturity sees the writer routinely standing in her own way by giving too much of the energy of her attention to the sentences and paragraphs she has composed rather than the meaning she aims to convey. The meaning is obviously the point of writing, and if that meaning can be delivered with a short piece as well as it can be with a long one, then shorter is better—we all know this much. But in the trenches, it can be very difficult to see which of the passages you yourself have written is not essential to the task at hand.

I became aware I was leaving that second era of immaturity once I found myself cutting complete paragraphs or series of paragraphs from my own writing and doing so with glee. Reading a draft of my work in hard copy, I would see a passage I suddenly realized was an unnecessary side road, and I would draw a great X through that span of text as a mark of victory. Hurray, I had done a favor for the reader! I had saved the reader the effort and distraction of reading that part. When we write a draft, this is necessarily an exploratory exercise. We proceed by feel to find the way to the message. But since the reader does not need to see our entire exploration, not everything in the draft should survive. Writing well involves judgment about what to leave out every bit as much as it involves judgment about what to leave in.

What do I leave out? I leave out anything that can clear the way for the main point of the piece to shine more clearly. Anything that requires the reader to give thought to something other than the main point. I leave out any obstacle such as this that I can see. Passages I cut include elaborate defenses against quibbles the reader is unlikely to raise. They include elaborate descriptions of implications that could be addressed with just one line instead. A passage I might see to cut also includes (here is the big one) the discourse that feels necessary only because it scratches an itch I want to scratch, including asserting a point of view I want to champion or sharing something else I learned in the course of researching the piece, even though the intended point of the piece can do just fine and would even do better without this digression.

How do I leave this stuff out? How do I cut it from my drafts? The answer gets to the weirdest part: I do so by means of a split personality. To grow as a writer is to get better and better at being one’s own reader. And getting better in this way specifically means becoming more effective at shutting off the memory of having written the words in order to receive the work as a stranger would receive it. The capacity is nothing less than dualism—being a writer first, then shifting into a different frame of perception in order to be the reader who can aid this writer.

I don’t know the way to obtain this dualism except with practice. Let yourself see yourself cutting your self’s own work. Let it keep on seeing this. The dualism will develop.

One of the most telling indicators of what to cut is this: the passage in which the “reader” part of my dualism is getting bored. Even with the split personality, I am the reader who is the most invested in my work as a writer. If I myself am not interested in what I have written, no one else will be.

Sometimes the writer part of me will protest the reader’s cuts, so there are tactics. I use the “Save As” command rather than “Save.” I will make my cuts within version 2 of a document while preserving the earlier draft in version 1. This leaves me an out in case I later decide the cuts were a dreadful mistake. (I never decide this.) For large passages I cut, I paste the removed passage in its entirety into a separate document so I can keep that glorious passage and return to make use of it later. (I never return to make use of it later.)

In writing for a print publication, sometimes I have to cut to match the precise space available in the layout. Here, it is not the split-personality reader urging my cuts. Here, the writing has already met the split-personality reader’s approval, and I am cutting it still further. The cutting in this case might produce a work that is less effective and less clear than the slightly longer original. The out I have in this case is the “online version”; I can allow the online version of the piece to use the better, longer version of the text. However, as the print version comes to sit with me, I discover something strange: If I did manage to make my point successfully within the 490 words allowable rather than the 517 words of the previously finished piece, then the 490-word version dawns on me as being the better version, even if I wasn’t able to see this at first.

If it can be cut, it should be cut. Our development as writers involves getting better at seeing what can be shed, what can be left out, what didn’t have to be picked up in the first place. The great writer is one who, among other things, recognizes the great scope and extent of all that need not be written.

And

We have work to do.

That is one of the points I aim to convey with my new book.

As I make plain in the book’s introduction, the work we are called to do in this world is “a work of joy as well as effort, a heavenly work rather than an earthly one.” But we have work to do nevertheless.

Christian gatherings can advance the notion of “faith not works” so zealously as to imply that there is nothing for the Christian to do. We are saved and then we float in salvation for the rest of our time in this life.

To be sure, we are saved by grace and not our own efforts—much of my book explores and advances this very point. But the book then goes on to explore and advance the next point after this, which is that we have been saved and kept here for a reason. The reason relates to this very world in which we still remain.

For God so loved the world..., said Jesus in John 3:16. (I didn’t intend to do so, but I ended up giving a lot of attention in the book to John 3:16. Perhaps we live in an epoch of the church when it is hard to avoid that verse.) And as James the earthly brother of Jesus in his letter later argued, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:20).

This point about our having work to do is so important that Jesus himself raised the point three times in rapid succession. We read about this in Luke chapter 8.

A large crowd had gathered before Jesus, people coming to hear him. As soon as they gathered, however, Jesus told a story, the Parable of the Sower, that revealed the true nature of crowds. Different people hear the “word of God” in different ways, he said. Only a portion consists of those able to hear this word and be lastingly transformed by it. And even for them, even once these believers have heard and been transformed, the benefits of the transformed life—the “crop” in Jesus’ parable—require their commitment and their effort. Depending on the translation, Jesus said it requires them to “endure” or “persevere” (Luke 8:15).

Then, immediately after explaining this point to his disciples (there is no pause in the text), Jesus went on to explain that God does not light a lamp just to keep it hidden (8:16). He expects the lamp to shine. He expects you to shine! This is the reason he made you a believer, so to try to demur from that effort, that calling, is futile to say the least. Returning to the previous analogy, the crop wants to grow. To be a believer and not come out with this by living the life and walking the walk placed before you as a believer is simply the way of fruitlessness rather than bearing an abundant crop.

Finally, after this (Luke’s gospel again shows very little pause), Jesus is told that his mother and brothers are waiting to see him. His response: “My mother and my brothers are those who hear and do the word of God.” (8:21).

Notice the “and” in the latter part of that statement.

The “and” here is vital. The “and” joins the two components of our lives of having been chosen for faith.

There are two components, not one. We are saved, yet that is but one part of it. We then find our way into—or find ourselves already within—the work or the place to which we can give ourselves ... the work or the place of our shining and our persevering.

[PS. I now also see something else about my book that I did not plan or intend: The contents are almost evenly split between the two sides of the “and.” Chapters 1-11 discuss the “hearing”—how one is given belief and remade. And chapters 12-21 cover the “doing”—what we are to do with the transformed life. If the book interests you and you might like a copy, let me send you one.]

Butler

I just completed my reading of the works of the science fiction writer Octavia Butler. I fell in love with her writing a couple years ago when I read her best-known novel, Kindred. Her writing is gripping and harrowing because she writes about heroes who are out of options. Rather than the plucky science fiction hero able to seize on an opportunity to escape the clutches of a fantastic peril, her stories tend to focus on heroes in the grip of a peril that is vast because it is so fantastic, heroes who simply must survive their predicament because the problems that have engulfed them are too enormous for something as pathetic as mere pluckiness to overcome. Thus, Butler’s fiction, even though it variously involves time travel, extraterrestrial aliens, and dystopian futures, feels touchingly and frighteningly closer at its heart to the predicaments of our own lives than even most of the realistic novels I have read.

As I say, I just finished making my way through her stuff. She passed away before I ever found her. Her final book was in 2005 and she died in 2006. After Kindred, I committed to a course of reading all her other works in order of publication, and doing so slowly. Rather than binge-reading, I wanted to let each book sit with me for a while, returning to Butler only when I was ready again.

But here is the thing: Not all of her books are good. At least, not in terms of this one reader’s response to them. Her short story collection is excellent. Either that collection or Kindred is probably her best book. The consecutive novels Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents (little related to the Bible stories of these names) are both excellent as well. But she also wrote books in which I found so little interest that I chose to set them aside unfinished. This point is on my mind, because my experience of her came to an end more quickly than I expected. Her final novel also failed to interest me, and also proved to be one I put aside.

No matter. I experienced the fullness of this writer’s gifts and this writer’s heart. I experienced these things through the fruit of her effort to use the former to express the latter. I was changed by Kindred and I am still changed. It does not concern me that other books, other attempts, did not change me the same way. My love for Butler’s genius that was fed by the works that nourished me is not in any way unfed by the works that did not.

A few points from this:

1. Our lives are not straight-line ramps of progressive becoming. Instead, who we are—the best of who we are—rises up and finds it fullness in moments and in seasons when the idea, opportunity, or dilemma offers the right context for this best self to attain its full extent. Rather than a straight-line ramp, our becoming knows many peaks.

2. We need not be driven to fear by the good fortune of our having succeeded. Success in any endeavor is a result of more than just our effort. The effort was there and it deserves praise, but anyone who has done something surprisingly great knows how important it was that this effort also somehow found the right soil and also the right environment and water to germinate into something beyond that effort’s aim. We need to joyfully keep on planting and it is no discredit if the next effort does not germinate the same way.

3. “What have you done for me lately” is not the relationship between artist and audience. If you are fortunate enough and talented enough to be able to express something out of your heart that can move and inspire other hearts, then this work will always be there. The manifested love will always be there, and nothing will change what love was able to express through your effort and choices. Recall that God is love (1 John 4:8) and God is timeless (John 8:58). Therefore, to be with him and even to be like him, pursue the way of love, and do not worry what pattern your work might happen to make in the course of your life in linear time.

If You Are Faithful, Your Life Gets Harder

In the Parable of the 10 Minas (the parable from Luke that may or may not be the same story as the better-known Parable of the Talents from Matthew), a ruler who was hated left money with his servants before he went away. Upon his return, he checked their books. Two servants had been faithful putting his money to use, one of them earning a factor-10 return on the money and the other earning a return of five times.

A striking detail is how these servants are rewarded.

Luke’s gospel conveys this:

The first came forward and said, “Master, your mina has earned 10 more minas.”

“Well done, good slave!” he told him. “Because you have been faithful in a very small matter, have authority over 10 towns.”

The second came and said, “Master, your mina has made five minas.”

So he said to him, “You will be over five towns.” (Luke 19:16-19)

Notice what is not said? The ruler does NOT say, “Come feast with me and let us rejoice in this success!” The ruler does NOT say, “Divide this bounty with me and enjoy a share of my riches!”

Rather, the ruler entrusts these faithful servants with the care of even more of his precious holdings. Indeed, he gives them a more difficult charge, because managing people is harder than managing money.

In this parable, the reward the ruler gives to his faithful servants is responsibility.

Do you feel that the scope or significance of what you have been given to care for has been enlarged? Do you feel that the importance and/or difficulty of what you are called to do has gotten greater?

According to the pattern described by this parable, that greater duty upon you might be a sign of the Lord’s pleasure. You shoulder much, care for many, or guard a precious and precarious charge because you have shown through faithfulness that you measure up to this important mission.

5 Clues to Finding Your Calling (and 5 Things Your Calling is Not)

As I discuss in my book, You Did Not Choose Me, But I Chose You (mostly in chapters 16 and 20), one of the most fundamental ways God speaks to you or to me is in the fact of the way he made each of us. The reason we are born “again” is because we were also born the first time. Each of us was uniquely made, and that uniqueness is realized partly in each role, place, or purpose we might find to follow in within this world—the ways specifically opened to us by God. In a very real sense, we “converse” with God by following the way he leads, making it more than fitting that we refer to each of these ways as a “calling.”

But how do we identify the callings in our lives?

That is, how do we identify the purposes in our lives for which it is worth saying yes at the cost of saying no to many other things? How do we know the people to whom to say yes at the cost of saying no to many others?

I have some thoughts....

First, what I mean by “calling”: I mean a work, role, or place that God has given you to fill, carry out, persevere in, and even enjoy within this vast plan of his and within this great project of advancing the kingdom of which we are all a part. I mean the purpose so personally meaningful that committing to it—in spite of the difficulty, in spite of the oddness of going a different way—is the way for your best self to live. Many who speak of a “calling” mean simply their vocation or career. I might mean this. I also mean something larger. Your calling might be found within the labor you do each day. Your calling might also be something intimately known between God and you that is mostly unrelated to this daily work. And since you likely have more than one calling (see below), there is room for both statements to be true.

Whatever the case, “hearing” your calling is only the first challenge, and you might be hearing it already. The next challenge is to respond by choosing to go that way.

All of what I have to say here addresses just the first part. Here are five clues to hearing your calling, along five things your calling is not.

CLUES TO YOUR CALLING

What is the calling that calls to you? You might find it in any of the following:

1. The thing only you can do

Or, slightly different: The thing before you that only you can do in the special way you seem to be doing it.

It should be no surprise that your gifts and your nature might have already drawn you near to the thing to which it is worth giving yourself more fully. That is, while such is not certain to be the case, it should be no surprise that your calling might be found in something you are already doing and doing well. (See next point.)

2. The thing to which your choices seem to have brought you, even if you didn’t know what you were choosing

Stop faulting or congratulating yourself over the choices you made that seem to have gone poorly or well. First, since you don’t know the ultimate plan for your life, you are no qualified judge of poorly or well. Second, many of our major choices in life are made in ignorance, often when we are too young or inexperienced to know ourselves or know the implications of what we are choosing. We can choose well or poorly by luck.

And yet, there is more than luck going on, of course. A current guides your life; a will directs your path. God knew where he would have you, and likely you have unknowingly submitted to that current in cases when the best way was unclear to you. I am saying your ignorant choices had an unseen direction to them and even an unseen wisdom. Where have they brought you?

3. The thing that brings you peace

What we mean by “calling” is a role, place, or endeavor that appeals to the best part of you, giving that part freedom and putting that part to use. The experience of the self fully breathing and fully moving in this way is peaceful. The very fruit of the Spirit is peace (Galatians 5:22). In what context do you know peace?

To highlight this clue more narrowly: What do you do that gives you the experience of your worries falling quiet?

4. The thing that makes you happy while making someone else happy

Relationships with other people are lopsided more often than we care to admit. We routinely do work out of obligation or concession to someone else. There is nothing wrong with this. But pay attention to those special cases in which the thing someone appreciates you doing or even needs you to do is the very thing to which you are deeply happy to give your energies and your time.

5. The thing that causes your suffering to relent

For those who carry pain—physical, emotional, spiritual—that pain is often a negative guide. Nearly everything might seem too difficult or pointless to pursue, except for that thing able to overcome the ache, anger, remorse, or sorrow by allowing this pain to recede. The thing able to overcome pain for a time might be unrelated to the pain. Or, it might be directly related, something that gives the pain purpose or meaning, something that reveals this pain to be part of the call.

WHAT YOUR CALLING IS NOT

Now, some cautions about the false ideas and influences that can keep you from your calling:

1. Not just one thing

With respect to the actor Jack Palance, I depart from the movie City Slickers and the line he delivered in that film. His character Curly offered advice about finding “one thing.” I even used that line approvingly once in a talk I gave in a church service. But I am here now to contradict that speech of mine, because we do not each have just one calling in this world. Our lives are more complex than this. Our lives in Christ are richer than this.

Sometimes one calling will predominate for a time, and sometimes a calling will fall quiet because another calling is in season, but even this is not always the case. Our callings call in unison, and it falls to us to find the harmony. Even Jesus had multiple missions (Matthew 4:23).

2. Not the thing other people tell you to be about

They mean well! But all another person can offer you in terms of choosing a direction is the safe way, the lucrative way, or the way that appeals to them. The calling is yours, including yours to hear. The value of counsel comes after you have heard it. Find a guide or mentor who follows something like the same call as you.

3. Not the thing you ought to do, or keep doing, to fulfill others’ expectations

Saying yes to something potentially means saying no to many other things. Emerson said, “To be great is to be misunderstood.” I feel like offering a slight rephrasing: “To be great is to disappoint people.”

4. Not the thing that is easy to give attention to

Your email inbox is not a calling.

5. Not the thing that makes perfect sense

Your rich life will include at least one worthy calling that rings out by joy alone, offering little expectation for where that calling might lead you or what it might mean. At least, I hope for you to have this. As I stated at the start, the very reason we follow these callings is because of the Caller, and what he might show us in the direction of this call. We walk with him along the paths he reveals (Psalm 119:105), experiencing with him the mysteries that are his alone to make plain (Jeremiah 33:3).