A Writer’s Notebook

Keeping a private journal or notebook is essential for many writers. Virginia Woolf, W.H. Auden, Madeleine L’Engle, Anais Nin, Susan Sontag, and many others wrote regularly in a notebook, journal, or diary. These private places allow writers to work through ideas, grow in their writing, muse on the world around them, and capture snippets of conversation, turns of phrase, and other bits and pieces they notice in daily life. Notebooks can also contain the outline for a new book or article, lists of words, themes in formation, and more.

Madeleine L’Engle wrote, I have advice for people who want to write. I don’t care whether they’re 5 or 500…if you want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you. Where you just put down what you think about life, what you think about things, what you think is fair and what you think is unfair.”

A few ideas of what to your notebook can contain:

  • Keep a record of your thoughts and ideas and life as they change and grow.
  • Gather words, phrases, pictures, poems, images, quotes, articles, and more for your future writing.
  • Reflect on things in a safe, private place.
  • Record events, feelings, conversations, reactions, words, and more so that you don’t forget. We tend to rewrite our past thoughts and feelings in light of our current circumstances. I am often a bit shocked by what I was actually thinking and feeling in a past time, but I cannot deny those things if they are in my journal in black and white.
  • Writing regularly with no thought of grammar or style keeps a writer’s creativity flowing and captures fleeting ideas that might have been lost if they were thinking too carefully about them.

But what is more to the point is my belief that the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles. Going at such a pace as I do I must make the most direct and instant shots at my object, and thus have to lay hands on words, choose them and shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink. I believe that during the past year I can trace some increase of ease in my professional writing which I attribute to my casual half hours after tea.

Virginia Woolf

Whether you keep a digital or paper notebook, whether you write it in at a certain time of day or scribble in it sporadically, do find a way to capture the glimpses of life and love and thought and feeling before they are lost.

Here are a few books and an article for inspiration and help in keeping such a journal:

A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf, excerpts about writing from her diaries, selected by her husband Leonard Woolf

A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

“On Keeping A Notebook”, Joan Didion’s essay in her book Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Do you keep a writer’s journal? Do you prefer a digital notebook or a paper notebook that you can stick in your pocket? I’d love to hear how you capture your ideas and noticings.

Writing in Difficult Times

A journal with paper that doesn’t allow the ink to bleed through and a roller ball pen are my tools of choice when writing by hand.

Like most of you reading this, I have been home a good deal over the last several months, in order to help keep my loved ones and other people in my circles healthy and safe. You would think that with all of this extra time at home (no commute!), I would have been writing up a storm. Alas, it seems that the same conditions that are keeping me at home also seem to be stopping up my creativity.

However, I have been writing and hanging out with writers long enough to know that creativity is not something that always strikes like lightning. Instead, thoughts and ideas come when you cultivate the right conditions for them. What are these conditions? Here are a few that I found help me create a conducive atmosphere for writing:

Noticing
A good writer notices things—the color of the sky, the sound of a dog barking in the street, the conversation in a restaurant, the way a girl skips home, the feel of a fuzzy kiwi in your hand, etc. Writers also notice the way the world works with all of its contradictions, surprises, ruts, pleasure, and pain. They then take these noticings and turn them into ideas for stories, essays, poems, and more.

Recording ideas
No matter how much noticing you do and how many ideas rise to the surface, unless you record them somehow, they could slip through your fingers and be lost. Find a good way to record your ideas and the things you notice. I use several methods to retain ideas. I have a notebook with a pen clipped to it. It’s small enough to keep with me most of the time so I can always jot down a thought as it occurs. I also use the notes app on my smart phone for the times when I don’t have my notebook handy. In a pinch (usually when I’m driving, which seems to be a great time for writing blog posts in my head), I have resorted to talking into my phone and recording my thoughts or the ideas taking shape. Then I can work with them when I get home.

Routines
A good writer develops routines. Writing only happens when you sit down in the chair on a regular basis and put something on paper. Find the time and place that works for you and make it part of your everyday life. The following quote says it all:

Serious writers write, inspired or not. Over time they discover that routine is a better friend than inspiration.

Ralph Keyes

Transition Rituals
Oftentimes, writing requires changing gears from your daily tasks to reaching down into your mind and soul to transform your ideas and thoughts and noticings into something new. This can be a hard transition, and oftentimes a little ritual of some sort can help. Lighting a candle, brewing a cup of something hot, putting on certain music, or picking up a favorite pen can all be signals to your brain that writing time has begun.

Planning
While some writers don’t need plans to write, others find that planning is the key to bridging the gap between ideas and words on a page. I fall into that camp. If I sit down to write without any plan at all, I sometimes will merely stare at a blank page or produce only garbage. Planning seems to be an essential part of writing for me. This is not true for every writer, but if you are having difficulty getting words on paper, try brainstorming several ideas and then sit down and work on an idea a day. Just having something in mind going into your writing session can be the difference between a blank page and a rough draft.

Tools
Choose your tools wisely. If you prefer paper and pen, choose smooth paper that feels good and a pen that doesn’t make your hand hurt or smear on the paper. If you choose digital, feel comfortable with your keyboard and make sure your computer or tablet or phone has the space to contain what you want to write. If you’re writing outdoors or off the grid, make sure your device is fully charged. Having enough light helps as does having a comfortable chair and sturdy desk or table.

Focus
Finally, good focus makes a difference. We live in an age of increasing distraction, but successful writing requires the ability to focus for substantial amounts of time, using deep thought and hard work. A book that I have found helpful in re-teaching myself how to focus well is Cal Newport’s Deep Work. He doesn’t have any easy answers. Work is still work, but Newport does give you the tools and practical frameworks for learning to focus for longer and longer periods of time, which can make or break your writing routines.

I hope these ideas are helpful with inspiring you to create words and articles and books and poems. Do you have any tips for creativity? Please share them in the comments.

Christ is Risen!

MOST glorious Lord of Lyfe! that, on this day, 
Didst make Thy triumph over death and sin; 
And, having harrowd hell, didst bring away 
Captivity thence captive, us to win: 
This joyous day, deare Lord, with joy begin; 
And grant that we, for whom thou diddest dye, 
Being with Thy deare blood clene washt from sin, 
May live for ever in felicity! 

And that Thy love we weighing worthily, 
May likewise love Thee for the same againe; 
And for Thy sake, that all lyke deare didst buy, 
With love may one another entertayne! 
   So let us love, deare Love, lyke as we ought, 
   –Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.by Edmund Spenser

Giving Ungrudgingly

 

In my devotional yesterday, I read the exhortation by David Clarkson in the photo above.

I took his advice while doing my morning study in James and started meditating on this verse:

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. James 1:5

I read it in several versions and was struck by the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) version, where the translators used the word ungrudgingly in place of without reproach.

When I had first thought about the verse, I focused on the generosity of God, but after reading the CSB version, I focused instead on the manner in which God gives to us–ungrudgingly. No matter how often we ask, no matter how many times we beseech Him for wisdom or any other good thing, our Heavenly Father never begrudges us our requests.

How unlike me, I thought. My husband or my children ask me for something and while I may choose to give to them or do something for them, in my heart I begrudge the time or effort it takes. At work also, I may begrudge helping someone who needs my assistance because they interrupted a project or because I felt weary at the end of the day. I even begrudge my cat’s need to play sometimes when I have an agenda that doesn’t include that time. On the other hand, our God never begrudges giving to us. He never gets tired or grumpy when asked for the umpteenth time to give as I often do. I suspect the same is true for many of my readers. 

So, how do we learn to give without grudging as the Lord gives to us? We ask Him for grace and mercy and strength to have a cheerful heart while giving, whether it is giving to another person or serving God Himself. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 9:6-8:

But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work.

God will make all grace abound towards us and give us a sufficiency so we have an abundance for every good work He has given us to do. Whether I have work for His kingdom or a work of devotion and prayer, an errand for my husband or a listening ear for my sons, a helping hand for a friend or even energy to care for my kitten, the Lord gives me an abundance so I might give cheerfully and ungrudgingly, and He does the same for you. 

Will you join me in striving to give generously and without reproach this week, knowing that we have the overflowing riches of our Heavenly Father from which to draw?

Singing in the midst of fires and floods

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Image by Ylvers from Pixabay

When life is hard or the way forward seems dark, singing can often lighten the load, if only for a few moments. In Colossians 3:16, Paul writes: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. (NKJV)

The Bible is full of songs, particularly in the book of Psalms, but the old hymns, the ones that the church has been singing for generations, also tend to be full of sound theology and Biblical truth. While there are many hymns I love, one that especially helps in times of sorrow is How Firm a Foundation.

1 How firm a foundation, you saints of the Lord,
is laid for your faith in his excellent Word!
What more can he say than to you he has said,
to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?

2 “Fear not, I am with you, O be not dismayed;
for I am your God, and will still give you aid;
I’ll strengthen you, help you, and cause you to stand,
upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.

3 “When through the deep waters I call you to go,
the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
for I will be with you, your troubles to bless,
and sanctify to you your deepest distress.

4 “When through fiery trials your pathway shall lie,
my grace, all-sufficient, shall be your supply;
the flame shall not hurt you; I only design
your dross to consume and your gold to refine.

5 “E’en down to old age all my people shall prove
my sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love;
and when hoary hairs shall their temples adorn,
like lambs they shall still in my bosom be borne.

6 “The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to his foes;
that soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.–“K” in Rippon’s Selection of Hymns, 1787

While we don’t know for sure who penned the words to this hymn, it’s almost certain that Isaiah 43:1-3 was in the author’s mind as he wrote the words.

Isaiah writes:
But now, thus says the LORD, who created you, O Jacob,
And He who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by your name;
You are Mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned,
Nor shall the flame scorch you.
3 For I am the LORD your God,
The Holy One of Israel, your Savior; Isaiah 43:1-3 (NKJV)

As I read and sing these words, I am assured that the Lord is with me, and that no matter how difficult times will get, whether floods or fire, storms or attacks, He has called me by name and I am His forever.

This verse and the hymn do not promise us an easy way, but they do tell us that we have a Redeemer, who goes with us, who will be our refuge and fortress (Psalm 91), who will never forsake us (Hebrews 13:5), who will save us in the end, even if we must walk through fiery trials and the waters of sorrow now.

Are you passing through deep waters right now or walking through the fire of affliction? The Israelites walked through the midst of the Red Sea and were not drowned for the Lord held back the water (Exodus 14). Daniel’s three friends walked in the midst of the fiery furnace and they were not even singed for an angel or perhaps even the Lord Himself walked with them (Daniel 3).

Go to Jesus. He is your refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble (Psalm 46).

Flee to Jesus. He will never leave you nor forsake you. You are His precious child and He has not saved you to destroy you, but to refine you and remake you to conform to the image of Christ (Romans 8).

Trust in Jesus. He has called you by name, you are His forever, and no one can snatch you out of His hand (John 10:28-29).

Sing to Jesus. Sing hymns and spiritual songs to yourself, sing them to your children, sing them to your friends who are suffering. Use the words and the truths they contain to comfort your heart and strengthen your resolve to walk with the Lord, knowing that whatever trials you are facing, whatever sorrows are overwhelming you, however thorny your pathway and however steep your road, that God Himself walks with you and helps you to persevere to the end.

What hymns and spiritual songs bring you comfort in times of need? Please share them in the comments so that we all may have additional truths to hold us up in difficult paths.

 

Finding God in the Ordinary – Book Review

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I first heard about Finding God in the Ordinary by Pierce Taylor Hibbs while listening to the podcast Mortification of Spin. As the author spoke about his book, I knew that this was something I would love to read since looking for God in the small things is an activity I have long practiced.

My copy is a beautiful hard-bound book with a lovely cover and easily readable fonts. However, the treasure is in the words. Pierce Taylor Hibbs takes ordinary events like drinking coffee, shadows, dust, birds on a telephone wire, snow falling, wind, and light and shows the reader how to find God in these every day, ordinary events.

It’s not just that his prose is delightful, but his choice of words approaches poetry in many places within these essays. And his references to the Trinity, creation, language, God’s majesty and providence, and other theological subjects within his musings about “ordinary” events so enrich those events that I will never look at dust floating in the air or shadows on the grass the same again.

Let me share just a few quotes:

In the greatness of God, the smallest of things is given tremendous weight. p. 6

The beating heart of the Trinity is thumping underneath every human word, no matter how trivial or commonplace. p. 16

While darkness is an arena for the light of faith, it is the Lord of light himself that brings our feeble faith to fruition. pp. 26-27

Mistakes are not just markers of our depravity. They are more than that. They are the triune God’s spadework in the soil of the soul. They are opportunities for the great gardener to tend our lives and help us grow. p. 32

I highly recommend this book and plan to re-read these essays over and over again.

His Love is All Around Us

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Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Almighty Father, Thy love is like a great sea that girdles the earth.
Out of the deep, we come to float for awhile upon its surface.
We cannot sound its depth nor tell its greatness, only we know that it never faileth.
The winds that blow over us are the breathing of Thy spirit;
the sun that lights and warms us is Thy truth.
Now Thou does suffer us to sail calm seas;
now Thou dost buffet us with storms of trouble;
on the crest of waves of sorrow Thou dost raise us,
but it is Thy love that bears us up;
in the trough of desolation Thou dost sink us,
that we may see nought but Thy love on every side.
And when we pass into the deep again, the waters of Thy love encompass and enfold us.
– Anonymous

From The Book of Comfort by Elizabeth Goudge, p. 265

Book Review: Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons by Christie Purifoy

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I finished reading Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons this afternoon and want to run out and shove this book into the hands of all of my friends. Instead, I will tell you all about this wonderful book and know that if you love it even half as much as I did, you will have a new favorite.

As I’ve been reading the book, I’ve been looking at her book suggestions on her blog, listening to some of her podcasts, and thinking, “Here is a kindred spirit.” She writes about many of the books I’ve loved and the thoughts I’ve thought and the truths I believe.  Plus, she celebrates and loves Advent and Christmas even more than I do.

Let me tell you a bit about the book. Christie Purifoy, her husband, and three children (plus one on the way) move into an old farmhouse called Maplehurst in late summer. The narrative follows their first year in the house as they are dreaming dreams, planting gardens, mending broken things, inviting neighbors, and welcoming a new baby.

The memoir is full of truth, beauty, and goodness wrapped up in every day living. Christie meditates on faith and God’s promises, eternity and tomorrow, dirt and tomatoes. Other books I’ve read about homes and gardens were enjoyable, but I think that Roots and Sky hit something deep inside of me because of Christie’s constant reminder of the Lord and His work in her life and in ours. Her metaphors are lovely and get at truths that are often hard to encapsulate.

Here are just a few of the dozens of quotes I underlined:

Our lives are stories built of small moments. Ordinary experiences. It is too easy to forget that our days are adding up to something astonishing. We do not often stop to notice the signs and wonders. The writing on the wall. But some days we do.

Homecoming is a single word, and we use it to describe a single event. But true homecoming requires more time. It seems to be a process rather than a moment. Perhaps we come home the way the earth comes home to the sun. It could be that homecoming is always a return and our understanding of home deepens with each encounter.

I see how each season lies tucked up inside another. How fall’s warm yellow is hidden within summer’s cool green. How even the scented explosion of spring lies sleeping within winter branches that seem brittle with death.

What if gratitude is more about seeing the face of God? Of locking our eyes on his and remembering where our help comes from? Perhaps gratitude is not only a discipline but also a gift, one we are given in special measure just before we pass through the door to suffering.

It reminded me of three books I love all wrapped up in one: The Magic Apple Tree by Susan Hill, The Crosswick Journals by Madeleine L’Engle, and The Country Diary of an English Lady. Christie Purifoy has a new book coming out next month. I can hardly wait to read it.

What books have you read that touch your soul and fill your heart with singing?

O Come, Emmanuel

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A devotional I have been reading this year for Advent includes the O antiphons, the prayers of the Christian church, which they prayed during the Advent season for centuries. Traditionally, they were sung each night from December 17 through December 23 in preparation for Christmas: O Sapientia [O Wisdom], O Adonai [O Lord], O Radix Jesse [O Root of Jesse], O Clavis David [O Key of David], O Oriens [O Dayspring], O Rex Gentium [O King of the Nations], and O Emmanuel. A fuller explanation and translations can be found here.

One of my favorite hymns during this season is O Come, O Come Emmanuel. With it’s haunting melody and beautiful words, it rings with the longing and expectation of the world for the coming of the Savior. Each year I sing it, thrilling that Jesus has come, that He did not leave us in our sin and misery but came to save us from ourselves and our rebellion against Himself. I rejoice that He will come a second time in glory and majesty. The hymn comes from those antiphons. Each one tells us something about Christ and then says “come”.
Centuries before Christ was born, the prophet Isaiah wrote:

Arise, shine; For your light has come! And the glory of the Lord is risen upon you. 2 For behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, And deep darkness the people; But the Lord will arise over you, And His glory will be seen upon you. 3 The Gentiles shall come to your light, And kings to the brightness of your rising. – Isaiah 60:1-3

His prophecy was fulfilled in Christ, who said in John 8:12: I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.

O Light of the World, You whose glory shines brighter than the sun, come. Lord Jesus, come to us in the darkness of sin, in the darkness of the long December nights, in the darkness of our selfishness and loneliness and bitterness. Come and heal us. Come and make us like You. Come and make us shine as lights in the darkness around us. Come…

May your Christmas be full of the One who came to save us and may your New Year be full of His mercy, grace, and peace. .

Penny Plain by O. Douglas

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I had another blog post planned for today, but I just finished Penny Plain by O. Douglas and had to share about this new to me author.

I had heard of O. Douglas, a pseudonym for Anna Buchan, because my boys and I have long loved John Buchan’s books. I still enjoy reading about Richard Hannay and his adventures, especially Mr. Standfast. Did you know that John Buchan is the father of spy novels? His first, The 39 Steps, was written in 1915 but set just before World War I. The first time I read it, I couldn’t put it down. It’s so full of hair-raising adventures and last minutes escapes that you find that you must read one more chapter to see if Hannay escapes the current tight corner.

Anyhow, because of my enjoyment of Richard Hannay, I had read about Buchan’s sister, Anna Buchan/O. Douglas, and had seen her books reviewed by other middlebrow novel enthusiasts. However, until this weekend, I had never read one for myself.

I downloaded Penny Plain for free onto my kindle. (As an aside, while I still adore real books, being able to read out of print, unaccessible books is one of the definite upsides of the digital book revolution). I’ve spent the last two days in Scotland with Jean Jardine and her three brothers, whom she is bringing up by herself after the death of her parents and her aunt.

It’s a charming little story with wonderful characters and a happy ending, the best kind of book. Jean is making do with little money but lots of books and love when Pamela Reston comes to the village of Priorsford to escape the social whirl for a while. The book is set just after World War I and the sorrows of the loss of so many young men come across from time to time. In a way, it is more poignant than a modern novel about the losses because the author knew those aching gaps in a way we modern readers never will.

However, the book itself is upbeat and tells about the kind heart of Jean, her genius for helping others, and the way her life takes an unexpected turn as a result of her kindnesses. Also, there are numerous quotes from Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson, and poetry, which I will have to track down to their sources one of these days for the sheer fun of it. I love books that are full of quotations.

Just a few bits to give you the flavor of the book:

“You know the people,” said Pamela, “who say, ‘Of course I love reading, but I’ve no time, alas!’ as if everyone who loves reading doesn’t make time.”

She has been nowhere and seen very little; books are her world, and she talks of book-people as if they were everyday acquaintances.

She was glad she lived among people who had the decency to go on caring for each other in spite of lines and wrinkles—comfortable couples whose affection for each other was a shelter in the time of storm, a shelter built of common joys, of “fireside talks and counsels in the dawn,” cemented by tears shed over common sorrows.

It wasn’t sad to be old, Jean told herself, for as the physical sight dims, the soul sees more clearly, and the light from the world to come illumines the last dark bit of the way….

The other rooms are lovely, but they are meant for crowds of people. This says tea, and a fire and a book and a friend—the four nicest things in the world.”

If you love books with kindness and laughter and true values and happy ever afters, even in the midst of life’s sorrows, then you will enjoy Penny Plain.