Category Archives: Writing

2017: Year of Creativity

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While lying in bed this morning, nursing Aidan and mindlessly swiping through Instagram posts, God spoke. God can speak through Instagram. I really believe that.

I’d been percolating about my New Year’s goals. Trying to find a more palatable way to present the goal I always have: write more.

Write more. 

Write more. 

Write more.

That phrase is a chorus I mumble half-heartedly. It’s become more of an echo of defeat than a spark of desire.

Yet, deep down, I want to write more. I need to write more. I am most fully alive when I am writing. I’m wired that way.

So when a friend posted about Coffee + Crumbs’ Year of Creativity –a writing challenge and community for mothers–I knew God was speaking to me. Inviting me into something new. Something much needed.

I’ve never been a big fan of “Mommy blogs.” I have an (albeit unfounded) perception of “Mommy blogs” as pages filled with stories of poop and snot and crying-it-out and a space to bemoan that “it goes so fast.”

But for the mothers I know who actually blog, Michelle, Jordan, Lauren, that’s not the case.  Sure, their kids make an appearance on their blogs, but what makes their blogs universally appealing is their vulnerability. They write about life and God and what they’re learning, which may or may not include reflections on parenting and their wee ones.

My goal in writing is vulnerability as well. Being honest with myself. Inviting others into the mess, the questions, and the joy. When you’re vulnerable about any part of your life, there’s a chance it will touch someone else who can say “me too.”

And that’s what happened to me this morning. I clicked to learn more about the Year of Creativity and read,

“What would it look like if you gave yourself permission to be inspired by motherhood?

What would it look like if you gave yourself a little bit of time and a little bit of space to stretch your creative muscles instead of plopping on the couch with Netflix every night?

If you have a desire to:
Make creativity a regular part of your self-care
Rediscover a love of writing
Connect with other creative mothers

…you belong here.”

I read those goals and my heart resounded ME TOO! (and my eyes filled with tears)

That’s just the re-framing I needed. I don’t want to simply write more this year. I want to enjoy writing more. I want to be excited to write more. I want to love writing more.

I want to LOVE writing AGAIN.

And I believe the Year of Creativity can help me get there.

I am the queen of re-naming things. I spent a whole year calling God “Love” because the term “God” held too much baggage.

Instead of a New Year’s “goal” or “resolution,” my New Year’s desire is to fall in love with writing again.  To learn to connect with myself, with others, with God again through this medium.

I’m hopeful–excited even–to get started, to get writing, to get creating. To be a person who creates–creates meaning, creates memories, creates connections. That’s what I want-need-crave-desire for the next year. I want to be a mom-a person-who is fully alive, fully connected, and fully creating.

Here’s to 2017: Year of Creativity!

***

What are your desires for the New Year?

Any moms out there want to join me in the Year of Creativity? The Year of Creativity is an online e-course that you can do at your own pace, with monthly themes and writing prompts, articles and podcasts for inspiration and a private group to share, motivate and ultimately encourage YOU as mom, a creative and a writer. Find out more here and sign up before January 1 to receive the early bird discount.

 

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Losing Words and Finding Friends

The pictures and brief bios of the moms I tutor
at Camino Seguro.
For the last five-ish years I’ve written grant proposals and emails and newsletters and appeals and blog posts on behalf of people halfway around the world that I have never met on a weekly basis.

Last year at Plant With Purpose, in my office alcove, I longed to meet the people whose stories I told.  I longed to get a fuller glimpse into their life than a two sentence testimony or a Flickr photo description.

I moved to Guatemala with a heart open for stories. For people. Hungry for connection and confirmation that I’m where I’m supposed to be.

New people and new experiences offer themselves to me every day in this foreign country. I work with mothers who are learning to read for the first time and kids who live in squatter settlements near the Guatemala City garbage dump.

I get to see them, speak with them, laugh with them, and do long division with them three times a week. I’ve been given a much fuller glimpse into their lives than an emailed testimony, yet when it comes time to write about them, to share a bit of their lives so that you may be compelled to give to the life-changing work of Camino Seguro or to be encouraged by the dedicated people working in a marginalized corner of Guatemala, my words fall flat. Empty.

I can extrapolate a two page report or a $50,000 proposal from a two sentence testimony from “the field,” but when I’m actually living and working in “the field,” silence wins.

I only know that I don’t really know them.

I know facts, yes. Bits and pieces, but they seem insufficient, incomplete.

For example, I know that most of the moms I tutor at Camino Seguro work difficult jobs with long hours—like sorting through trash in the garbage dump or rising in the darkness of the early morning to make and sell tortillas on a street corner bus rides away from where they live, where the money is. I know they live in a dangerous area with an astronomical crime rate. I know most of them are single mothers, have likely suffered domestic abuse, and would do absolutely anything for their children. They’ve sacrificed to send their kids to Camino Seguro, to enroll themselves in primary school this late in life, and to make education a priority for themselves and their children.

Dona Paula and Camino Seguro board member
I know that Doña Paula’s hair usually hangs in a thick, black braid down her back. I know Doña Bonifacia wears pink reading glasses that are broken at the bridge of her nose and she refuses to switch to a new, unbroken pair. I know which moms struggle with multiplication and which moms need an extra push to get going on their work.

I’ve shared two months with them, and yet it feels like I don’t know them at all. I become reluctant to write anything about them.

And perhaps that’s a good thing.

When I write about a friend or family member on this blog, I exercise an exponentially greater amount of thought and care when writing the post than I do when sharing my own thoughts and stories. I read the draft over and over.  I imagine what it would feel like to read those words about myself.

When I fundraise and advocate for people I don’t know, it’s easy to orient my words in a compelling manner without giving it much thought. With words I can befriend them in my mind. I don’t have to fumble with Spanish conjugations or admit I don’t remember any short cuts for long division.

Three of the moms at the recent graduation
from 6th grade.
Making friends in real life takes a lot longer than rounding out a blog post or tacking on a Donate Now button to my sidebar.

The people I’ve met and have worked with in Guatemala are people, not a cause or an ideal or blog material. They’re potential new friends. And I have to admit I’m slow at making friends, at establishing trust, at sharing my own story with others, even when language and culture isn’t a barrier. But as I build trust, build friendship, hope to find myself a home here, I also want to write. It’s what I do.

And so hope you’ll be patient with me as I learn to put the amount of care and thought and time into sharing about my new friends here as I would about my dear friends back home. And I hope I’ll learn to be patient with me, too.

***
Just as I was beginning to articulate these thoughts for myself, I came across this excellent post by D.L. Mayfield on the role and responsibility of a writer or artist in sharing others’ stories. I highly recommend taking a gander at her post, War Photographers, and getting cozy with her blog where she writes about living in the upside-down kingdom.

Keeping it Tight with a Timely Tale

Excerpt taken from Madeleine L’Engle’s delightful book, Walking On Water: Reflections on Faith and Art:

“There’s a story of a small village (about the size of the village near Crosswicks) where lived an old clockmaker and repairer. When anything was wrong with any of the clocks or watches in the village, he was able to fix them, to get them working properly again. When he died, leaving no children and no apprentice, there was no one left in the village who could fix clocks. Soon various clocks and watches began to break down. Those which continued to run often lost or gained time, so they were of little use. A clock might strike midnight at three in the afternoon. So many of the villagers abandoned their timepieces.  

One day a renowned clockmaker and repairer came through the village, and the people crowded around him and begged him to fix their broken clocks and watches. He spent many hours looking at all the faulty timepieces, and at last he announced that he could repair only those whose owners had kept them wound, because they were the only ones which would be able to remember how to keep time.  

So we must daily keep things wound: that is, we pray when prayer seems dry as dust; we must write when we are physically tired, when our hearts are heavy, when our bodies are in pain. 

We may not always be able to make our “clock” run correctly, but at least we can keep it wound so that it will not forget.”

As Christian artists, Madeleine posits, we pray and we write. We write and we pray. And we’re supposed to do it everyday.

I’ve been doing the writing part. If not everyday, then at least every other day.

The best lesson I learned as a creative writing student was to spend 20 minutes a day with my butt in a chair and a blank screen in front of my face. Even if I just stare at the screen. Even if all I write is “I don’t know what to write. I don’t know what to write. I don’t know what to write” for twenty whole minutes.

Because even on the days the “clock” isn’t working properly, it’s a way of keeping it wound for the days when inspiration strikes. For the days the clockmaker returns with his tools and his tinkering.

On the writing front, I understand this. It’s been drilled into me since Freshman Comp. Even in the midst of burnout. In the midst of “hating” all work and all writing, I still couldn’t help but write. Couldn’t help but keep my own sort of time.

But on the praying front I’ve had a harder time with discipline. I’ve whined and I’ve cried, “God why haven’t you healed me? Why haven’t you shown up?” before taking the time to ask for healing or to invite His presence into my life.

I make time to write. Why shouldn’t I make time to pray?

I believe that God speaks to me. That God can speak to all of us in different ways. This week he used a friend to remind me how desperately He wants to spend time with me, to pour out out his love on me.

What if I took time to just “sit with God?” In short, to pray?

20 minutes a day. My butt in a chair. My heart open to the One who loves me.
No notes, no writing–although writing is spiritual for me, this is different from my writing time–just chatting with God. Sitting with a friend. Even if I don’t want to. Even if I don’t feel his presence or can’t hear him speak. I will sit there in anticipation. I will keep the clock wound.

Let Go and Let Flow

When you write for a living–in my case as a grant writer, blog writer, newsletter writer, appeal writer,  e-blast writer, and every-other-type-of-miscellaneous-communication-writer for the non profit, Plant With Purpose–every word counts.

 I budget my time and my words. I only spend time working on projects that could be useful, writing words and sentences that will end up on donor’s screens and mailboxes.

There’s no time for fluff or play when the words I write could impact the lives of families around the world (more on my narcissistic, save-the-world guilt complex later).

Which is why I’ve decided to let go and let flow.

I’ve started a twelve-week challenge to foster creative freedom called The Artist’s Way at Work. The foundation of The Artist’s Way rests on a seemingly useless commitment to writing Morning Pages.

Julia Cameron, the mastermind behind The Artist’s Way, explains, “as it suggests, they’re done in the morning and they’re pages.”

Specifically, Morning Pages are three pages of handwritten (who still hand writes anything longer than a to do list these days?!), free flowing, stream of consciousness (ie purposeless) writing, done first thing in the morning before you’ve even had your coffee.

Insanity, right? 
My first objection was time. Wouldn’t this time be better spent completing a report at the office, writing masterpieces for this blog, working out my booty, or, the best idea yet, getting more sleep? 
When the entire first chapter, the leaping off point of the book, talked ONLY about the importance of Morning Pages the ever diligent student in me decided I better cave and set the alarm a half hour earlier. 
My second objection was pragmatism. How could it possibly be USEFUL to write three pages of brain dump in a notebook? On the off chance my non-caffeinated brain produces anything brilliant or remotely usable, then I’ll have to spend even more time typing up the words that just gave me a hand cramp from writing out in a notebook that the world will never see.
I journal, I do. When inspiration strikes, I write down prayers and thoughts and verses and quotes that stand out to me that may or may not ever see the public eye. But Morning Pages are different. Morning Pages require premeditated mental ascension to the seemingly useless. They require you to commit, to discipline yourself, to an act that in my ‘time and words are money’ mentality seems ludicrous and even downright irresponsible.

But Julia Cameron and her apparently millions of followers swear by the pages as the first and most crucial step toward unleashing creativity.

So I’m doing it. For the past two weeks, I’ve (mostly) written my morning pages everyday. Although sometimes they don’t happen till after a workout or a cup of coffee, I’ve been pretty good about sticking to the regimen. And, you know what, I kind of like them.

After my Morning Pages I feel more awake, more alive, more in tune with myself and with God. About 1½ pages into my self-focused chicken scratch, something shifts. After I’ve exhausted my whining and complaining, I begin to think about serving other people. I begin to talk to God (which I’d also venture to say I’d been doing the whole time). And by the end of the three pages I have not just a hand cramp, but an invigorated outlook on life, a greater sense of purpose, and a sense that God is moving in and through even my petty thought life.

For me the real discipline–and the real reward–is letting go of my compulsion to craft, to polish, to edit my thoughts and words for public consumption. To spend somewhere between 26:03 and 28:37 minutes (not that I’m keeping track) being Aly, uncut and uncensored, and remembering that my worth is not found in my ability to string together coherent sentences or complete a report or article or blog post. That my worth is not found in my own ability to create, but is inherent in me because of the One who created me.  

The great poet, Scott Cairns, who I had the privilege of taking a class with this last semester, said, “Why would you want to write when you already know what you’re going to say? That’s called propaganda. We write to comes to terms with our lives.”

The Morning Pages are helping me “come to terms” with my life. Through them I am reclaiming writing as a journey to self-discovery and God-discovery.

And, so far, I’m liking what I see.

To learn more about the Morning Pages, watch a video explanation here.

Or, if you absolutely refuse to write longhand or can’t even remember how to form letters with a rudimentary object called a pen or pencil, there’s a website called 750words.com where you can privately write the equivalent of three pages of longhand. This site has a ton of cool statistics, word trackers, and can even give you insight into your subconscious and metadata. If you’re like me and love to geek out on words, I highly recommend this site.

***
What do you think? Would you consider writing Morning Pages? What are your biggest objections? 

Writing God In: Thoughts on the Blogging Life

The day my grandmother died, I started a list of details. An inventory of humdrum data to delineate the day, the particulars of a grief observed.



The stockings lay limp by the mantle, the bounty already uprooted. A Christmas day in the mid-afternoon.

We were huddled on the couch, my brothers and I, watching the Motorcycle Diaries—to me a Christmas miracle that they had agreed to be burdened by subtitles—when we got the call.

The details rose up to my consciousness, as unstoppable as grief, as love.

       I sat in the backseat on the passenger side.
       I picked at a hangnail on my right thumb.
       I held my mother’s hand as we walked down the hallway that smelled of urine and antiseptic.
      Colored ball ornaments hung from the ceiling.

I couldn’t feel; could only record.


Above all else, I wanted to remember.

****

“It makes me wonder whether only writers’ minds work this way,” said Brendan Koerner in a fascinating post on the mind of the writer.

He is referring to an excerpt in Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs in which “Buford gets pummeled by Italian riot cops.” Instead of wishing it were over, or merely trying to get through the pain, Buford writes, “mainly I was thinking about the pain. It was unlike anything I had known and I wanted to remember it.”

That Christmas at the nursing home, the grief was unlike anything I had known and I wanted to remember it. Not my grandmother, per se. I’d already stockpiled a million and seven spaghetti-and-meatball-cooking-I-Love-Lucy-watching details about her in the months and years preceding her death. I wanted to remember that day, that pain, those particulars. So I could tell the story.

At the end of his post, Brendan writes, “when your life is given over to telling stories, this is the default approach to every situation. There’s always a little voice chirping in your ear, “Imagine how this will sound on the page.”

A writing mind is an observant mind; a mind hungry for the story.

There’s always another narrative to knit, another phrase to turn over like a butterscotch hard candy in your mouth, clanking against your teeth, spreading sweetness across your tongue.


The mundane begs to be immortalized in my words. The death of a grandmother brings life to my musings. I am a different person by the time the words spill from my lips. I am a new creation as I track details, grant new names, new life.


Almost a year ago to the day, God whispered to me, in the middle of a church service, to “write my love story.” It was a command to share my story, the story of God’s love for me. It was the motivation for this blog, but it was also a command to remember.

To remember the times I couldn’t step foot in a church. To remember the outrage I felt at injustice. To remember the first time I felt a real, a raw, a ragged hope begin to stir in my own honesty.

Writing is an act of remembering. Even more, it is a discipline of thankfulness.

The writing, the blogging, the sharing, is shaping me. It has shaped me—in good ways and bad.

When I want to write God off, blogging forces me to write God in.  And that is good.

In writing I uncover details I’ve forgotten. I remember miracles. I marvel at the threads of goodness pointing to a good God woven through my life.

Writing can transform prayers of pleading into proclamations of praise.

But lately I’ve discovered a downside to writing. I’ve found that blogging has changed my prayers, what I’ve come to expect, what I’ve started to demand.

The whispers of God that I used to view as grace, grace, and more grace have become—like Buford recounted—nothing more than great story material. God gives me a revelation and I’m immediately thinking, “Imagine how this will sound on the page.”

I’ve been desperately wanting God to speak not because I legitimately want more of him, but because I want more to write. I want God to speak so I have something to say.  So I sound smart. So I sound spiritual. So people don’t wonder why I didn’t post. So my blog metrics don’t tick down to just my mother, again.

It’s thoughts like these that make me want to nix it all. Tear down the blog. Rip up my journal. Cry out for forgiveness for manipulating God’s words for my own purposes.

I ask myself, For whose glory am I writing?

The heart check comes back inconclusive: Some days I write from pure gratitude that God would speak at all, that he would allow me to share, that he would use my words to speak to others. Other days I write from a selfish stance, greedy for my own glory.

I forget that it was God who prompted this blog in the first place. God who crafted me with a proclivity for details, with an instinct for recollection, with an unceasing desire to write to write to write until I see His face.

And so I write. And so I pray and ask forgiveness. And so I ask for God to speak.  And, then, in the details, in the remembering, in the recounting, I want to give glory.

I want to write God in, for it is in God that I write. 

Blogger friends, can you relate to this urge to mine every word, conversation, and prayer for good content? Do you think it’s still worth writing about God even if your motives are mixed? How do you stay centered on God’s glory? 

Why am I here?

I’ve started taking a spiritual writing class. It must be good because it’s already spurred a million blog ideas and an existential crisis with just one assignment: why am I here?

Not why-do-people-exist or what-is-the-meaning-of-life, but why am I HERE at this juncture in my life. At this computer in this house with these roommates waiting to drive this freeway into this job to do these tasks.

One answer is this:

February 2006, San Jose, Costa Rica

In class I usually sat in the back, jammed against my neighbor in the filled-to-capacity classroom. There were strange wooden pillars inconveniently placed throughout the room, forcing us to cram together in clumps. Our professor, Don Mike, would pace back and forth like a lion waiting to go in for the kill. His sporadic mumblings sounded like growls and soon he would be roaring. My jaw would clench as my heart pounded. He would reduce my beliefs and upbringing to egocentric self-validation. A means of exclusion. Judgment. My faith was offensive, a stench in the nostrils of the Almighty God. A darkened city on a hill. The tasteless salt of the earth. The hypocritical light of the world. The hair on my arms would stand up and it would feel like I’d swallowed a car battery. If anyone, he’d be the one to know when the church was being ineffective; he used to be a Catholic priest.

He would be panting by now; his gruff voice would crack as he condemned American Christianity and everything it stands for. I felt personally attacked as he recounted the horrors of conquest-driven, smallpox-bearing missionaries and money scamming “Gospel of Wealth” televangelists. The blood of every person killed or exploited in the name of God since the dawn of time would stick in the crevices of my guilty hands.

By this point, the pulsating vein in the middle of his scrunched forehead looked ready to burst. I would forget that he coined himself a “recovering Catholic.” I would forget that he did not hold a monopoly on truth. And while I hated him and everything he was saying, I still began to believe that maybe I was the enemy.

***

That’s part of it. That’s part of why I’m here. Writing this blog. Working at this nonprofit that serves the rural poor. Thinking these thoughts.

It’s the why of a life built around overcoming a stigma that my faith is self-serving, self-fulfilling, self-consuming. It’s a why of a life working to not be the world’s enemy, the poor’s enemy, my own enemy.

It’s not the whole why and it’s not the whole story. But it’s a part. It’s not the best part or the most redeeming part or healthy part.

I’m reminded of a quote by Henri Nouwen (honestly, when am I not?) in Compassion:

“Action as the way of the compassionate life is a difficult discipline precisely because we are so in need of recognition and acceptance… But even setting up a relief program, feeding the hungry, and assisting the sick could be more an expression of our own need than of God’s call.

But let us not be too moralistic about it: We can never claim pure motives, and it is better to act with and for those who suffer than to wait until we have our own needs completely under control.”

Today, HERE, I am grateful to drive into a job that acts with and for those who suffer and for a God that is using my needs, my why’s, my unclean motives, to accomplish His call.