Friday, February 25, 2005

Following the Words

You wield it,
and it digs a path you follow.

I’ve been gone most of the week, reading about writing and trying to follow through. But mostly, I’ve been thinking about where I’m going, why I write. Because it all seems so aimless. Annie Dillard offered the encouragement I needed to hear in The Writing Life:

"When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year."

So I’ve decided to follow the words, to let them lead the way, to give up my need for control and to recognize, in humility, that I don't really know where I’m going.

Monday, February 14, 2005

No matter how much data
we collect, we’re going
to discover what we already know.

Ivolunteered just over a month ago to help the local school district revamp its writing curriculum. They needed a community member and originally asked the editor of the daily newspaper. She couldn’t do it but recommended me. I didn’t have anyone to recommend, so I said yes.

At today’s meeting, the discussion circled around the topic of data collection for close to 30 minutes. How do we find out what teachers are teaching? How do we find out what kids know and don’t know? How do we find out what schools need? It could have gone on forever.

A wise teacher pinned down the problem and brought the conversation back to earth with this insight: “No matter how much data we collect, we’re going to discover what we already know: The elementary schools don’t give teachers enough time to teach writing, and instruction at the secondary schools aims too low.”

We should have applauded the lady for getting us out of that mess of a conversation. Instead, we quietly agreed and moved on to the next topic.

Sunday, February 13, 2005


I write for myself: to calm down,
to clarify elusive thought, to analyze my anger, to dream.
Iused to write for an audience, and I still consider — usually — the weight and effect of each word. But more often than not, I write for myself: to calm down, to remember, to clarify elusive thought, to analyze my anger, to dream.

I write an essay during church, using the scripture or song as composition prompt. I scribble notes on a pad while cooking, while reading, when I wake in the middle of the night. (One sheet of yellow paper on the floor beneath my bed holds a single line, describing the work of a medical researcher, pulling away a layer of skin, trying to find the face of God. I don’t know where it came from or when. But I recognize the handwriting as my own.)

Even now, as I type, I look at the clock and realize I’ve been at this for close to an hour.

And I wonder, will anybody read this?

Does it matter?

Saturday, February 12, 2005

It's worked this way each week for almost a month. Deadline's on Monday. I get to Saturday and realize the piece isn't done. Not even started. And I won't have time tomorrow. So here I am, posting to the blog, finding another reason to put off what should already be complete. Could be a late night.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Satisfied To Wait

In pursuing the dream of supporting myself as a writer, I've unwittingly become a kind of hero to some. No one's actually come up and asked for an autograph, but the frequency with which questions about my success occur makes it feel as if my friends are trying to live their own dreams through me. At first, it was flattering. But it seems there's a certain amount of judgment attached to the vicarious life.

I am sick of this question: "Are you syndicated yet?"

And this one: "How many newspapers carry your column?"

People genuinely want to know how I'm doing. But too often, these questions lead to the litany of advice, the list of things I should be doing and am not. And won't.

I am satisfied to wait, rather than turn even this — the secret pleasure of creation — into a 9-to-5 occupation.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Modern Man

Eighteenth century writer Thomas Carlyle’s definition of the writer: "Men of letters are a perpetual Priesthood, from age to age, teaching all men that God is still present in their life. The modern man of letters, differs from his earlier counterpart in that he writes for money." I am one of those "modern men." But I don't get paid much. And most of the work I do is my own (totally uncompensated). The commercialism of publishing does have power to muddle our motives. It creates an artificial demand for production and too often sacrifices the connection between writer and reader — a kind of communion — that inspires much creation in the first place. I would clarify, however, that writing for pay doesn't necessarily cheapen the craft. It only forces us to more carefully weigh why we write and for whom.

What Do I Do Now?

The good news is that I've been asked to write a book. And the bad news? I won't get paid a cent.

Do I look at this as an opportunity to get my name out there or pass for whatever comes along next?

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Historical Society

I've been commissioned to compose two articles for the city's annual magazine, and each is a local history piece. So I visited the county museum, did my phone interviews, tracked down a couple black-and-white photos. And in the meantime, someone got the idea that I was an expert.

After all, two whole articles. The history of a missing lake. A 50-mile or so section of the Oregon Trail. Apparently, I am a specialist.

So they asked me to be on the board.

There just happens to be an opening on the Canyon County Historical Society and Museum Board of Directors. At Monday's board meeting, it was decided that Eric Muhr was the most qualified person to fill the position.

I meet with the board president tomorrow.

Is this what fame feels like?

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Successful Query

I'm becoming accustomed to the feel of rejection letters. They're short, fairly impersonal and try to get the message across without offending your vanity. I hate them. So when I received the most recent such no-thank-you-missive, something clicked. I couldn't let them have the last word. On a whim, I sent this reply.

Thanks for getting back to me. You're right. What I've sent you in the past has been interesting (though conventional). Here's an idea that I'm sure you haven't already covered — Web-based Youth Outreach: How to Build Interactive Communities. I captain an international chess team that has spent the last year, experimenting with outreach, discipleship and communion on the Internet. We have more than 30 members from five different countries, and most are high school-age boys. We've struggled with issues of invitation (how to get people to join us), investment (thinking about what it takes to move kids from aligning themselves with the group to actually doing ministry and serving others), retention (considering what is required for helping people to feel that the extra work of community is worth their time and necessary for their own spiritual health). I look forward to hearing from you soon.

And it worked. Now the editor wants an outline and an opening paragraph. But instead of elation, I feel fear. I've walked this route before, cobbling together my jumbled thoughts and experience, birthing a full-fledged work. But rejection isn't a one-time hurdle. It hides behind each block of text, each step of the way. And if it comes — as it can — at the end of a piece (rather than at the beginning), the hurt is worse.