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.

Interesting Articles and Podcasts

Each week, I send articles to a website that sends me a collection of articles to read in a single document for my kindle. This helps prevent me from falling down “rabbit holes” when I should be doing something productive but allows me to keep reading interesting things from around the web. Here are a few of the articles I’ve read this past month:

Jen Wilkin lists nine things to help in studying the Bible: https://www.crossway.org/articles/9-tips-for-making-the-most-of-your-bible-study/

Many of us are still working from home, which can make the work/home lines bleed together a bit too much at times. This article is a helpful look at the benefits of unplugging from work and other online pursuits: http://lauraearnest.com/unplugging/

While we are able to get out and about more these days, spending a couple of hours in a coffee shop may not be optimal or even possible. Here are ways to duplicate that experience of writing (or working) in a coffee shop: https://thewritelife.com/recreate-coffee-shop-experience-from-home/

Although I’ve been a Christian for many years, prayer is still difficult for me at times. Lectio Divina has been one way, through two prayer apps a friend suggested, to focus on the Lord each morning: https://www.24-7prayer.com/ancientprayerrhythms

My garden has never looked better since I’ve had more time at home to tend it. There’s something wonderfully healing about being outside in nature without a phone or other electronic device and dig: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/08/24/the-therapeutic-power-of-gardening

Reading has been a daily habit of mine for decades. However, I’m always reading articles and books on how to cram more reading time into my life. This article was great. https://psyche.co/guides/how-to-make-a-daily-habit-of-reading-more-books

I subscribe to several podcasts, some of which I listen to every single episode and some of which I dip into once in a while when the episode sounds applicable to my life or I want to know more. Here are some episodes I found particularly useful or interesting this past month:

Sarah from theshubox.com has started a new planner/planning podcast, which I love. Here’s her take on building a planning system: https://bestlaidplans.libsyn.com/rss

I just found the Redeeming Productivity podcast this summer and am slowly working my way through the back episodes. This recent episode was helpful in thinking about how contentment doesn’t have to interfere with ambition and productivity: https://www.redeemingproductivity.com/feed/podcast

I have loved all of the episodes of Help Me Teach the Bible with Nancy Guthrie, but I found this one especially fascinating as she talked to Andrew Sach about Elijah and Elisha and their foreshadowing of the New Testament: https://feeds.simplecast.com/TtKQNBCJ

Cal Newport, author of one of my favorite productivity books, Deep Work, started a new podcast this year. This is his kickoff episode. Don’t let the length scare you. He addresses multiple questions in each episode, which means you can listen for 10-20 minutes and then leave it until the next time without losing the thread of a discussion. I highly recommend this for anyone who wants to do focused knowledge work for their job or personal projects. His humor is a bit nerdy, which adds to the fun: https://feeds.buzzsprout.com/1121972.rss

When I’m trying to focus on work or writing, sometimes I need silence and sometimes background music helps. Eric Nordhoff is an artist I discovered recently, whose music is uplifting and great for focusing:

https://open.spotify.com/album/6co8Pt2GpcnqNa17Mbr77C?si=RagH7JKOTuibDTaX5kyeKQ

What are you reading and/or listening to this month?

A Month of Sundays

That fiftieth year shall be a Jubilee to you; in it you shall neither sow nor reap what grows of its own accord, nor gather the grapes of your untended vine. 12 For it is the Jubilee; it shall be holy to you; – Leviticus 25:11-12a

This Sabbath is to be kept holy unto the Lord when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe an holy rest all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts about their wordly employments and recreations,[38] but also are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy. – Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 21.VIII

Our culture, which had become increasingly busy over the last few decades, suddenly came to a screeching halt because of the virus roaming the world. Many people started working from home rather than commuting or traveling. Shopping became a thing of necessity rather than recreation. Family meals, which were often interrupted or even non-existent due to school and recreation activities, became the norm rather than the exception

Everything slowed down and it gave us an opportunity to catch our breath, to regroup, to think about what matters to God, to us, to our friends and family. It has given us time to ask questions: What is the most important thing in my life? How do I spend my time? Are all of these activities and commitments even necessary?

In the Old Testament, the Lord not only set up one day in every seven for rest and worship, the Sabbath, He also set up an entire year, the year of Jubilee, a year in which slaves were freed, property was restored to its original owner, and the land was left to rest from the planting of crops. While the original Hebrew word, yobhel, referred to the ram’s horn used to proclaim the year of Jubilee, the meaning altered through the centuries to come to mean rejoicing. Rejoice that you are free. Rejoice that your property is restored. Rejoice that you can rest. Rejoice that more time has been freed up for worship.

In the 17th century, a group of men created the Westminster Confession of Faith, a document systemizing the theology of the Scripture for the church in England during the reign of James I. In that confession, these men wrote about the Sabbath as a time to rest from ordinary activities each week and turn hearts and minds to worship and rest.

This time of staying at home, of withdrawing from normal activity, of becoming more aware of what is important and what is not, has seemed like a jubilee or Sabbath. While I have been working from home every day, I have had much more time to think, time to take regular walks in the fresh air, time to reflect on what is important, time to see patterns in my life that weren’t always edifying, time to be rather than do.

Instead of only one day of the week, Sunday, to regroup, reset, take a nap, plan ahead, all of my days have had an extra cushion of time in which to rest my mind and heart and body. I have had the time to consider what is most important: to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness”, “to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God”.

The news continues to be sobering, people are still suffering, and all many of us can do is to stay at home or socially distance in order to keep those around us safe. However, we can use the extra time for reflecting, for freeing ourselves from activities that have become a burden, for giving the soil of our hearts and minds a rest from its usual things, for resetting our schedules, and for rejoicing in God and His goodness in the midst of this difficult time.

As our communities begin to open up again more fully and work, commitments, and activities all begin to require more of our time and energy again, let’s make sure that we have built in the rest we’ve discovered during the past several months. Let’s reset our expectations for ourselves and for others. Let’s turn to the Lord for wisdom and discernment as we add back in only those things that help us to seek His kingdom first. And let’s rejoice that His sovereign will is perfect, trusting that all of these difficulties will bring Him glory and us good.

Winter Reflection

Once New Year’s is over and January sets in, I spend more time thinking, musing, and meditating. Winter seems to be more conducive to slowing down and pondering ideas. I wonder if it’s because the cold drives us indoors to cuddle under a warm woolen blanket with a cozy sweater and a hot drink. Burrowing into a pile of warmth leads to more time alone with myself, which is the perfect opportunity to think about all the things I’ve been avoiding or not able to set aside time to deal with in busier times.

Image by janbrokes from Pixabay

I consider my yearly goals at the very beginning of January, as many others do, but then I move on to more profound thoughts. In the early morning when it’s still dark outside, and no one is awake except me and the cat, I have the silence and solitude to meditate. Snuggled in a quilt and woolly robe, I read my Bible and devotional books, jotting down thoughts and contemplating what the author is saying.  Sometimes another book I’ve been reading catches my attention in a richer way than mere entertainment so I focus on making sense of its deeper meaning. 

I think about and pray for my friends and family in those dark hours before dawn, giving the Holy Spirit room to bring certain people to my attention for prayer. I allow my mind to drift and make connections between the things I’m studying and my everyday life at home and work. Meditation allows me to pick up on strings of logic and networks of relationship that I might otherwise miss. Burying myself in thoughts and prayers allows the Lord to speak truth into my heart that I might not hear if I was living at a shallower level or surrounded by noise, real and virtual. 

Current devotional reading

Winter is my reflective season, which produces seeds of wisdom and truth that will yield a harvest for the rest of the year.

Do you find winter to be a good time to reflect and meditate? I’d love to hear about your meditations in the comments!

We Are What We Read

Ochoa 5

When my boys were young, they would bring me “junk” books on our weekly library trips. It wasn’t that the books were that bad, but especially during the school year, I wanted them to read better books. I would tell them that just as our bodies grow and remain healthy with good, nutritious food and just a little bit of “junk”, so our minds grow and remain healthy with well-written, edifying books and a small side of light reading (mostly comic books and thriller type books). We added those type of books in sparingly, and the boys soon learned to read them occasionally rather than regularly. A steady diet of “junk”, whether mental or physical, leaves us feeling sluggish and unhealthy. With so many choices of reading (and listening) on the internet, I’ve started instituting the same rule for my online reading.

To help keep your mind and heart full of enriching words, here are some articles and a podcast I found helpful this week:

Busyness and Rest

Jesus knew the difference between urgent and important. He understood that all the good things He could do were not necessarily the things He ought to do.

Suggested Reading List

If you’re like me and are always looking to dive deeper into various aspects of Biblical and Systematic Theology, this list will keep you reading for a long time.

Don’t Let ‘VeggieTales’ Drive You to Neglect Imperatives

It’s so easy to throw out morals when we seek to avoid moralism. Michael Kruger writes about how to see those morals in the frame of the gospel. Great reading!

On Daughters and Dating: How to Intimidate Suitors

Great article on raising strong daughters. I shared it with my boys with the advice that strong young women with good “walls” are the ones they should seek as wives.

Countering Structural Lie #4: What Does ‘Keeping the Sabbath’ Mean?

True rest isn’t found in “doing,” but in “being” – with the lover of our souls in that intimate, sacred place of communion and surrender.

7 Ways To Make Your Next Vacation More Soul-Nourishing

I plan to incorporate these ideas in my upcoming vacation time.

When Regret Knocks

With only a few weeks left of summer, don’t let regret rob you of savoring those moments you do have.

Lane Tipton on Anchoring our Teaching in the Central Themes of the Bible

Whether you are studying the Bible on your own, in a small group, or teaching it to others, listen to this podcast. Lane Tipton and Nancy Guthrie discuss the importance of teaching and studying the Bible in the context of the big themes God has given us in His Word.

 

 

 

Articles I’ve Read This Week

38d28218-ae06-459f-ab84-df393f1e312bThe internet is filled with many things and none of us have time to read it all. However, I do try to read some of what is being published each week in order to keep up with the conversations that are happening in the world as well as to grow in my understanding and knowledge.

Here are a few articles that I found particularly helpful and/or interesting this week:

The Scale is Not The Boss of You by Lisa-Jo Baker

This is a great article for any of us who struggle with body image and weight. I’ve been listening to Lisa-Jo’s podcast with Christie Purifoy for several months now, and she is such an encouragement.

Best Grief Books

This list of books on grief contains several good ones I knew about and some I had never seen before. I look forward to reading them.

5 Reasons Why You Should Start a Bible Study Group

In the midst of reading and studying Jen Wilkin’s Women of the Word this summer, I am becoming increasingly convicted that regular time in God’s Word is essential and that studying with others is better than going it alone. This article has good reasons why we should start a Bible Study group.

Afternoon Practices to Cultivate Creativity

Since I am at work all day, it is easy to lose sight of what I was meditating on in the morning, writing the day before, or reading last night at bedtime. This article was encouraging to me and gave me ideas for refreshing my thinking and creative thoughts even in the middle of a workday.

Knowing Faith Podcast#49 – A Conversation with Dr. Ligon Duncan

Anyone who knows me has probably heard me talk about this podcast. It covers theology, Bible knowledge and understanding, and more theology. The banter is fun but not mean-spirited and the three hosts, Jen Wilkin, JT English, and Kyle Worley, know their stuff. This is the most recent podcast with special guest Dr. Ligon Duncan from Reformed Theological Seminary. I can’t recommend this podcast highly enough.

 

 

Finding God in the Ordinary – Book Review

Blue-centered Daisy

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.

What Does Your Business Card Say?

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I’ve been making my way through the backlist of the Out of the Ordinary podcasts. After listening to Episode 6 last week, I created a “business” card to take with me to a writers’ conference I will attend this month.

In the podcast, Lisa-Jo Baker and Christie Purifoy discussed how we need to be careful about how we identify ourselves since our roles may change because of life’s circumstances. At the end of the podcast, they suggested that you write a “business” card for yourself, starting with your name and title, Beloved Child of God. Then you can add whatever roles you have underneath, remembering always that first you are God’s beloved child and that everything else flows from your identity in Christ.

When I thought about what to write on my new business card, I started with the idea that my life is hidden in Christ, I am His child, and He has given me all of the things I do each day. Then I wrote these words to describe my current roles outside of my full-time job:

Writer, Thinker, Researcher

What would you write on your “business” card?

Reading the Bible Fast and Slow

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A few weeks ago, I read this article on reading the Bible fast and slow. If you are like me, perhaps you have tried, and maybe succeeded, at reading through the Bible in a year. There is a satisfaction in reading through all of Scripture in one year. However, one thing that irked me was that while I did get a big picture idea of Scripture and how it all hangs together, I would miss many of the details. I would skim so fast that I wouldn’t think about applications, and I wouldn’t go deep.

Tired of skimming the surface of the Bible, I would then decide to focus on one book of the Bible, like the Psalms or Proverbs or Romans, or Genesis, during a year. That was great because I would go deeper, but then I missed that bigger scope.

This article piqued my interest because the author suggested that rather than choose one of these approaches, you can do both at the same time. Each type of reading complements the other.

So, I planned my Scripture reading for 2019, using this idea.  I chose to read through the New Testament over the year, using a plan by the Navigators. I’m also reading along with She Reads Truth, an online Bible reading group that covers several books of the Bible over the course of a year. Then I am slowly reading through the Psalms. I read only one Psalm or a portion of one each day plus I will study a Psalm in depth every week.

By the end of the 2019, I hope to have read several large chunks of the Bible and to have delved into 50 Psalms. I’m going to read fast and slow. What are your plans for reading God’s Word this year?

Reading Challenges for 2019

coffee-2390136_1920Last week I mentioned that I often have difficulty with decision paralysis on what to read next. The problem is never that I have nothing to read. Instead, it is always that I have too many great choices, an embarrassment of riches, in fact. When I rely on my feelings, I tend to waver back and forth over what to choose.

As a result, I’ve decided to follow a couple of reading plans this year. I want to choose at least some of the titles and have them at my house by the end of January. That way when I finish one book, whether a planned or spontaneous read, I can pick up one from the plan and read it without waffling.

I’ve chosen two plans for this year. The first is the Modern Mrs. Darcy 2019 Reading Challenge. I have been reading the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog by Anne Bogel and listening to her podcast, What Should I Read Next, for several years now. Both are fun places to hear about books and book-related topics. I especially like her reading challenge this year.

When you sign up, she sends you a set of worksheets to help you decide what you want to add to your list. Interestingly, for herself, Anne chose three selections for each of her categories, which I thought was a great idea. I may even do the same. Then I will still have some choice based on availability and desire but will have some guidelines, too. The best of both worlds.

A few of the categories the Modern Mrs. Darcy 2019 Reading Challenge are:

  • A book you’ve been meaning to read: The title that immediately came to mind is Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. I have been meaning to read that book for years, but it’s such a commitment at 1000+ pages that I keep putting it off. 2019 is the year! Another option: On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior (I won it in a contest and am dying to start it!)
  • A book you chose for the cover: One possibility is I’ll be Your Blue Sky by Marisa de los Santos. It has such a pretty cover. I need to peruse my shelves and the library for other options for this category. I tend to choose books based on what I’ve heard or read about them, not their covers, so this may be the one serendipitous category.
  • A book in translation: I think I may choose The Elegance of a Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. It’s one of my book group reads for this year, and it’s one I’ve been wanting to read for a while.
  • A book outside your (genre) comfort zone:  This category will be covered at some point this year at work. We are challenged to read a book a month and the genres change each month. This month’s genre is memoir, which is a favorite of mine, but I’m sure that at least one of the genres this year will be outside my comfort zone. Or I can reattempt The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, which I started last year but didn’t finish. Horror is definitely outside my comfort zone. Another option would be to read a graphic novel. One title that sounds interesting is Spinning by Tillie Walden.
  • A book published before you were born:  I found a really fun site with lists of best-sellers from every year in the 20th century here. A few titles I found that would fill this category are: Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn, or A Passage to India by E. M. Forster.

The second reading challenge I plan to complete this year is the one at challies.com. Although it is tempting to choose something other than the light reader category, I need to keep room in my reading life for book group reads, work reads, research reads, comfort reads, rereads, and “just because it’s fun” reads. So I”m choosing the light reader category which is just twelve titles. Categories from this challenge include:

  • A biography: I love biographies so the hard part will be choosing which title to read. Some of my options are: A Passion for the Impossible by Miriam Rockness,  Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxes, Thomas Cromwell by Diarmaid MacCulloch, Luther by Eric Metaxas, or Jonathan Edwards: A Life by George M. Marsden. I will probably read the Thomas Cromwell biography. I have been intrigued by him and his influence on the English Reformation since reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. It is 700+ pages, but none of these are small books so that will likely be my choice. A Passion for the Impossible is the runner up, I think.
    A book about Christian living: I have several books on my shelves that will fit this category. I just need to decide between them.
    A book with at least 400 pages: This should not be difficult to attain. For some reason, the books that most attract me are the big, huge ones. I could count Kristin Lavransdatter for this category and choose something else for the “I have been meaning to read” category. Although, at 1000+ pages, it should count for more than one reading challenge don’t you think?
    A book by or about a missionary: I have Helen Roseveare’s Give Me This Mountain, which I want to read for a couple of reasons. First, I heard her speak many years ago at the Urbana missions conference, and I have never forgotten her talk. Also, after reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver last year, I have wanted to know more about the Belgian Congo during that time period. Helen Roseveare lived through the same events as Kingsolver covers in her book so I am looking forward to it.
    A book from a “Best of 2018” list: This is an easy category because I’ve just started The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah, which fits this category. I’ve had so many people I know rave about this book that I want to see if I think it’s as great as everyone else does. I loved her book The Nightingale, but this one is very different so we shall see. I am also reading Educated by Tara Westover, which would also count for this category.

One other guideline for my reading this year is to read 25% nonfiction. It’s not that I don’t read nonfiction, but my tendency is to read just bits and pieces and not finish nonfiction books. Since I don’t count unfinished books in my completed books list, I don’t have many nonfiction titles. So I will aim to finish at least 20-30 nonfiction books this year. That would give me the 25% (depending on whether I read my goal of 80 or go over like I did in 2018). Also, I would use my time more wisely by reading entire books rather than dipping into multiple books that I don’t finish. I don’t count books that I’m using for research since I rarely read those books cover to cover.

If you are interested in choosing one or more reading challenges for yourself this year, you will find links to more challenges in my article here.

Are you planning your reading this year? Please let me know in the comments.