Finally Getting My Heart And My Body In The Same Place

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And here I am, speaking at my home church. It was a special moment for me.

It was kind of funny…and one of those ironic-God-is-chuckling-at-me moments. At the close of last year’s ladies luncheon at my home church of Kennesaw First Baptist, a friend asked me an interesting question. She was curious how it felt for me, sitting in the audience, knowing that I could be up there speaking. While I was honored that she thought me capable of it, without thinking very long at all, I said, “They’ll never ask.”

First of all, I didn’t think anyone at church really knew who I was, my gifting, or what I do.  I didn’t feel very “seen” or “known”. While I am blessed to occasionally travel to teach to college ministries, to other women’s groups, and in Europe, and while I love, love, love the college students I get to work with every week in Sunday school, I sometimes feel like I haven’t really found my place at my home church just yet. It’s that weird loneliness-in-a-crowd feeling we all have experienced at some point. In fact, my last few years have involved a lot of soul-searching about my identity (Who exactly am I?), about God’s calling on my life (What exactly am I doing here?), and about how to get my heart and my body in the same place…because, while I live in Kennesaw…to be honest, most of the time, my heart has been somewhere else.

And second, while I am not exactly sure what a “ladies luncheon” speaker is, I am pretty sure I am not that. I’m a Bible teacher. A messy one too. I talk about matters of the heart, and our inner world – the complicated, deeply broken places inside each of us that only we and God see – and how God wants to meet us there. I focus on those seasons of life when things get really dark, of what it looks like to walk with Jesus in pain, and how it can cause the ground to disappear underneath us. I wrestle with deep existential questions of the faith that defy black and white answers. And while the goal is to let the struggle lead us to intimacy with Jesus and the joy available to us as we let Him do His work in our hearts…such joy is often seasoned with a lot of tears along the way. Hardly the stuff of polite conversation over chicken salad and fruit.

P1010530So, imagine my shock when the leaders in our church’s women’s ministry asked me to be the speaker at this year’s event. I was incredibly honored. And humbled. And more than a little terrified. Because getting in front of people and vulnerably pouring your heart out, opening yourself up to criticism and risking epic fails in public…it is one thing to do it in another city or on another continent…it is very different to do it in front of people you see every week and who teach your kids’ Sunday school class.

But I gave it a go. Because deep down, even with the fear of failure, even with my concern over whether or not I would be what the ladies expected or wanted…I really do want to be known. I really do want to be at home where I am. I really do want to learn to be fully present where I live, and to also be fully who I am among those I do life with on a regular basis. And somehow I knew that offering my story and gifting to the women in my church and community would be an important step on my journey to all of those things.

And a funny thing happened that day. As I walked onto the platform…at the same time… it felt like I finally arrived home. It has been a long time coming, with many other “homecoming” events along the way, but this was a big one. Somehow, my heart and my body…long in a bit of an adversarial relationship, finally made peace with each other. The experience wasn’t as much about what I do, as being who I am, where I am. I wish I could explain it more fully than that, but…I’m pretty sure I got much more out of that day than anyone sitting in the audience.

Click here to link to the talk I gave , if you would like to hear it. It is titled The Wise Woman. It is in 3 parts. I love how it came out. 

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Blogging 302 – What Makes One A Writer?

As  I continue to interact with people who are ‘writers’ I am finding that this term isn’t exclusively a profession. In fact, I would wager that the staggering majority of writers out there don’t get paid for what they write. Instead, the term writer is a descriptive one. Like how people can be educators, artists or leaders without that also being their day job.

So what makes one a writer then? Here are some of my thoughts on it:

Compulsion – Some people just HAVE to write. They have to communicate. They have to get out what is inside of them in a form others can understand and receive. They have to connect. (More on this below.) They are compelled to write. How else to explain the blogosphere and the proliferation of folks who spend so much time and energy creating? Some people just ARE writers. I suspect if they were transplanted to an illiterate culture where writing did not exist, the thing inside of them that compels them to write in our culture would make them storytellers, artists, actors or some other form of creative. Creatives are those people who must create something. Writing is just the medium some people use. I couldn’t not write at this point in my life. I am compelled. I am sure I am not alone either.

Consistency – Lots of folks start things, maybe go strong for a while, and then…eh…not so much. The blogosphere is filled with blogs whose last entries were months, even years ago. Then, there are those people who have proven over the years, through consistent production, that they are writers. I would suggest that writers show themselves over time by following the same path. It may take different forms over the years and may produce different levels of work in different seasons of life, but writers…consistently write.

Connectivity – Writers, like other creatives, long to connect with others. Even though I have said repeatedly on the blog that even if no one ever read what I write, I would still write and it would still be a worthwhile endeavor, (and this is completely true) – I am pretty sure that every writer longs for someone to read their work. Why? Because writers are striving to connect with others. To find that common ground that unites us. The stereotype of a serious writer is that of an introvert, hermit, hunched over their typewriter/macbook in their pajamas and unkempt hair because they don’t have anywhere to go or friends in the outside world. They may also own cats with whom they talk to way too much. While there may be a ring of truth to this (I have been known to write in my pi’s, but I promise, I am currently fully dressed with makeup on even! And I’ve got friends! And I go outside. Often!) I suspect that many writers defy this mold. Instead, they long deeply to be where people are, even if the connecting point is the written word. Even if their meeting place is online.

Blogging and Writing 203 – Idea Stewardship

How to handle and manage ideas, getting them from head and heart to paper?

In my style of writing, some ideas have a shelf life. In other words, often my ideas are strongly linked to now. To the moment.  To what is going on when they are generated. If I sit on them and don’t work with them while they are passionately on my heart, my desire to work with them disappears.

This affects the pacing of how I write. There are times where an idea pops by for a visit in my heart and brain and I can park it in the wordpress queue. It doesn’t seem to mind if I put it off for a while, just as happy to get some of my time whenever I can offer it. Then there are ideas who are more demanding – wanting something of me RIGHT NOW!!! When that happens, or when certain ideas just seem to be flowing in a “Deanna, pay attention, this-is-a-special-moment!” kind of way, I need to carve out time pretty quickly to work with them or…they go away. The creative spark, the mojo, the emotional investment fades. The idea is lost. Not because I didn’t record it fast enough, but because I didn’t flesh it out and give it life within the window of inspiration. And mojo is really hard to find. At least for this natural nerd.

I suspect other creatives know what this feels like. An idea comes alive and is moving in a moment… and then the energy behind it disappears. As I continue to walk a writer’s path, I am learning how it feels in my heart when the time is “now” – to focus and sit on down at the computer and stay there till my work is done.  And I am learning to recognize which ideas need immediate attention and which can be parked for later.These two things, how ideas feel and what they need from me to steward them well, are higher level writing skills that have only emerged in the last couple of years or so. I would encourage writers out there to spend some introspective time figuring what this looks like for you.

The writing process usually involves two very important parts. First, inspiration (the part I can’t control) – then, perspiration (the part I can control). When I find ways to marry the two, they have the most beautiful babies.

Just because an idea might need immediate attention to craft it properly, that doesn’t mean it needs to be published right away. I may write a series of blog entries a few weeks or even months before they post. Sometimes idea stewardship means having the discipline to sit with it a while, even when it feels like it is burning a hole in my blog queue. This patience allows me to interact with an idea or theme for a longer period of time. The longer I work with it, often, the sharper my articulation of it becomes. And the greater my engagement with Jesus is over the idea in my writing piece, which is often my personal goal in the process.

I almost always revisit things I write in the week or two before I publish it. I may make adjustments or I may not. It depends. It isn’t unusual for me to find sentences that made sense to me in the first writing, when the passion was flowing, that look overdone or nonsensical a few weeks later. Giving myself a longer window of time to interact with an idea often produces a very powerful synergy:

1.The energy  and spontaneity of the moment (my heart)

2. The safety net of time to cool down and engage my logical analysis (my head)

3. The time to work, work, work (my hands)

These are some of the keys to my idea stewardship.

Blogging and Writing 202 – Idea Generation

I guess one of the most basic questions for bloggers is, “How do you decide what to write about?”  While it may be one of the first questions asked, I think it is one of the later questions to be answered. I wrote for years before I truly found what it was I wanted to consistently write about.

Let me explain.

I am not saying that bloggers don’t start out with an idea of what they want to say. Of course they do, or they wouldn’t blog. What I am saying is that for some of us, it takes time and just writing for a while to find the themes that really resonate with others, that seem to flow out of us most effortlessly – or are at least the effort!

I began blogging 7 years ago about stories of what was happening in my life. Along the way, I found that incorporating the spiritual themes I was learning was what really popped out of my writing. Then, as I began to focus more specifically on the actual places in my heart and life where Jesus showed up consistently and powerfully, my writing jumped a level. So did my readership. So did my passion for writing.

I didn’t start out writing like I do now. It took the practice of consistently writing for years, of consciously evaluating what worked and didn’t, of examining what rang my writer’s bell. It has taken time. I also ask for feedback from those whose opinions matter to me.

So, back to the question of how to decide what to write about…my advice is to begin with what is on your heart, whatever that is. I think the greatest sin in writing isn’t in writing badly, but in not writing at all. Then, write consistently, whatever that looks like for you. For me it is at least once a week, and usually at least twice, centered around whatever series’ I am working through at the time. (Again, this rhythm has emerged over the years. I didn’t start out at this pace. It is just what works for me now and is subject to change.) Then, evaluate where your writing seems to come to life, where it seems to move or connect with other people. And then, be willing to be open – to change, adjust and grow.

Now that I know what I really, really want to write about, idea generation isn’t the problem. Idea retention is. (See previous post in this series.) As I go through my life, blog entries along my heart themes seem to emerge naturally in the everyday. My job isn’t really to generate ideas, but to capture the ones that show themselves throughout my normal activities. Then to hone them into a useable form. 

And I generally try to live an idea generating life anyway. I read stimulating books and other blogs. I engage others in honest, deep conversation. This allows me to hear another’s heart and practice articulating mine. I move my body to sensory-stimulating environments – beautiful places, people-watching venues, etc. I walk, run or swim often – these are perhaps some of the greatest idea generators in my life’s rhythms – and I think almost everyone ought to walk or exercise more:) I regularly practice solitude and quiet, giving myself time and space to hear the ideas percolating from within.

Here’s the bullet point summary:

1. Practice writing about whatever – and see what happens. What you love to write about and what you write well about will eventually rise to the surface. 

2. Live an idea generating life – one that is outwardly oriented and inwardly nourishing. This will look different for each person. Then, keep post-it notes handy.

3. Pay attention – to what works, what resonates, what stinks and what you enjoy. Regular self-evaluation is a strong tool of improvement. 

Blogging and Writing 201 – Idea Preservation

I was asked recently, “Do you have a place where you collect your stories and illustrations, to write or speak with later?” This is a great question and I’ve actually wrestled with it for years. I think many communicators, writers and creatives have. Maybe a better way to word the question is, “How does one preserve ideas for later use?” 

If you’ve spent anytime in the creative process, you know how ideas seem to have a life of their own. They show up when they want (often inconveniently) and if we aren’t careful to pay proper attention to them at that moment, they have a way of disappearing quickly. There are few things more frustrating than knowing you had an amazing idea, only to lose it because you couldn’t write it down fast enough, or because you lost the napkin you wrote it on.

Holy ground for me. Lots of places to park ideas till I am ready to get to them. And lots of idea generators right in front of me. Plus a ton of memories.

You also probably know that some ideas aren’t for now, but for later. I often come up with the main points of a blog series months before I actually write it. The ideas may need to germinate a while longer before I am creatively and spiritually ready to tackle them. Practically, there may not be proper time to devote to the project. Parenting has that tricky way of interfering with life…

I sort of have a system for idea storage because I think it is good intellectual stewardship. If God sees fit to give me a great idea, I had better see fit to find a way not to lose it. And I sort of don’t have an idea storage system because it can easily devolve into a control thing. Jesus is the source of my creativity and sometimes trying to control it too much is actually a way to remove the process out of His hands. Part of my creative philosophy involves recognizing that all my abilities and ideas are actually His. I just get to channel them and pass them on. Idea generation for me is a deeply spiritual thing – a spiritual discipline almost.  It goes hand in hand with my relationship with Jesus and flows from my time with Him. I never want to get to the place where I try to write without Him and just from the notes I’ve accumulated. Therefore, an element of it needs to be dynamic, loose and a little messy, a little bit out of my control. Otherwise it loses some of its power. It becomes me writing – and on my own, I’m not really that good. At least that’s how it works in my life.

All that being said however, here are is one practical way I hold ideas till the right time arises to develop and use them.

I have a dedicated space I work in – and I use it to store my ideas visually and in an incomplete form in front of me. Like most people, I have a desk where I park my computer. But I also view this space as more than just that – it is holy ground. My eyes spend a lot of time looking at the corner in front of me, so what that space looks like is important. It will generate or deaden my ideas and thoughts. I have two whiteboards there, a magnet board and lots of sticky notes on hand. As ideas float around, I park them for a while where I can see them, till I can get back to them. Keeping them in front of me is a valuable way to allow my thoughts to develop and percolate until it is writing time.  In a down moment, as my thoughts drift, these ideas find their way back to my mental front burner and when the time is right, get handled. (More on writing when the moment of inspiration hits in a later post.) My idea storage isn’t a file, but the wall space in front of me.

Also, my most recently read books are here. I keep lots of highlighters, colored pens and sticky notes nearby for when a creative moment strikes. I also have photos of meaningful things here. Postcards of important trips. Unusual and funny kid pictures. Verses that are especially vital for me at the present time.  It might be more cluttered than some like, but visually, it is a happy, vibrant place. It stirs my mind and spirit. It works for me. Jesus and I spend a lot of time together here.

I do have to protect it however. Life is crazy. I have 3 kids who try to creep their stuff in here. I have to fight to keep it ordered. When I do however, it does great things for my creative process.

Blogging and Writing 104 – Learn To Write Well

(This is part 4 in a series on the how-to’s of writing and blogging, numbered from the beginning of the series. Previous entries are here: 101, 102 and 103)

Blogging is a dynamic medium. That means you can think it, write it and post it all within a few minutes time. This is great in terms of communicating from the heart and the moment. It is not so great regarding grammar, spelling and sentence construction. Or writer’s regret – i.e. writing something in the heat of the moment you’ll regret later.  I am not stickler for anal-retentive punctuation. Some of my favorite bloggers intentionally don’t use capitalization – or they creatively punctuate for emphasis. And I believe if you are going to write something, please feel free to write substantively or emotionally. All that being said however:

10. Check grammar, punctuation and sentence structure before posting. Many people who read your work don’t know you personally – and their first impression will be the neatness of your work. It is sort of like when you invite a friend to your house but neglect to clean the foyer. It doesn’t inspire confidence in the homeowner.

11. Learn to write clearly understood sentences. I was a former high school science teacher, which meant I graded a lot of science project reports. One of my favorites informed me that “90% of all people were satisfied with the results of their autopsy.” Really?  Something in that sentence didn’t flow right, did it? Feel free to be creative. Short, long, wordy, sparse, rhyming, whimsical, comedic, ironic, poetic, matter-of-fact…Use whatever style suits you. (Hint – I think some of the best writers manage to write exactly how they talk.) But I would suggest that whatever style you use, construct sentences that say what you mean and say it clearly. Don’t make your readers work too hard to follow your point.

12. Read up on how to write well. It should come as no surprise to my regular readers, that if I am interested in it, I have probably read on the topic. This includes writing. Below are two of my favorite writing books and definitely recommended for anyone wanting to improve as a writer.

Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott.  Author and writing instructor Anne Lamott nails it here. While the second half of the book focuses on fiction writing (not my territory, but interesting nonetheless), the first half is solid gold in terms of learning to find your style, getting over writer’s block, identifying what it is you really want to say, the writer’s journey (those of you who are compelled to write will understand this), etc. Plus, it is very, very well written and laugh out loud funny in places, making it a pleasure to read.

Word Magic For Writers by Cindy Rogers This book is an amazing summary of how to write well. It is covers a lot of grammar (in a very engaging, easy to follow and even entertaining way – really:), but it is also about effective communication. All who aspire to be good writers should read and refer to this book often!

13. Please be aware of the cringe factor. I’ve read some blogs and thought to myself, “TMI!” (too much information). I cringe because I know they’ve gone beyond the boundaries of appropriate sharing and know they will probably regret posting this later. (More on this in a later post.) Please, before you hit the publish button and put your thoughts out there for the world to read, think about whether you will regret it later. Or whether your readers will regret it. The tension of course is that many writers want to connect authentically with their readers. Sharing on a personal level can certainly be a part of it. But usually we know when the line has been crossed. Figure out where your line is and try to stay on the safe side.

14. Wait at least a week from the end of the writing process to pushing the publish button. Not everyone needs to follow this. Personally however, I’ve found that I need the time to sit with a topic before I’m ready to release it. I might want to edit it. To think about whether it is too personal or how it might affect another’s perception of me. (I don’t write to please others, but I do need to guard my platform and respectability – or I will lose any influence and audience I might have.) Because I am a spiritual writer, it gives me time to engage my Jesus on what I write, making sure it is true, human, accurate and beneficial. I will often bounce my topics off of other people, to see how it lands with them. This is very valuable feedback. The in-between time, from when I first write until when I publish, is often my favorite part of the whole process. It can feel like an ongoing conversation with the idea I am trying to communicate, like an ongoing conversation with Jesus about the idea He is stirring within me. This process of waiting also ensures that what makes it to the light of day is my best work.

Blogging and Writing 103 – What Are You Trying To Say?

(Part 3 of a series on blogging and writing how-to’s, numbered from the beginning of the series. Click to read 101 and 102)

6. Know what it is you are trying to do with your blog.

It seems to me that blogs often fall into one of many, many categories – you may recognize some of the following:

The mommy blog – with photos, babypalooza stories, recipes and tons of mommy and domestic know-how. The review blog – with thoughts on media. The rant blog – angry writer lets us all know what he thinks about something. The photo blog – self-explanatory. The spiritual direction blog – with believers of whatever faith sharing their thoughts, theology, life, etc. The education blog – the writer knows something about something, so they write informationally – cooking, DIY, shoes, cars, etc. The story blog – someone embarks on some sort of adventure : travel, adoption, getting married, new job, battle with cancer, loss of a loved one, etc and tells the story over time. A writer’s blog – an outlet for someone’s creative juices, where they post their created work. You get the picture.

Of course, few blogs fall cleanly into such categories. They are written by people and people tend to defy orderly categorization. And yet…having some sort of idea about what it is you are doing with your blog is important. For your reader as they decide whether to give you some of their online reading time, and for you as you try to sharpen your writing style.

What is your goal with blogging?

How would you categorize or describe your blog? 

What topics do you write to?

Who do you hope will be reading?

How would you describe your style?

Having brief concise answers to these and similar questions can help you focus your efforts, find your target audience and sharpen your writing style. Everyone should have the freedom to deviate when they choose, but identifying your core writing objectives can be very helpful and clarifying.

Presently, I would categorize Intersections as a spiritual autobiographical memoir/writer’s blog. At times it is my personal website with contact information, references and audio – with a few reviews occasionally thrown in for good measure. One of the things I knew I didn’t want this to become was a rant blog that critiqued others or their work. I want to be a creator, not just a critic or consumer with my online presence. I knew starting out that I wanted this blog to be about idea generation and creativity and the exploration of truth and where it hits real life. I guess my title and tagline say it all : INTERSECTIONS: where roads meet, choices are made, collisions happen and directions change.

It has taken me a few years to figure out where to land – but I feel like I have a good handle on what I’m trying to do here and how I want to go about it. I know what I am trying to say. Being able to articulate my objectives has made me a better writer.

What are some practical applications from having this knowledge?

7. Titles are important – In the modern age, people don’t read less, as is commonly thought. Instead they read differently. They skim. They read broadly till they find what it is they are really interested in, then they slow down. And even then, the skills that have been fine tuned through Facebook, twitter, texting and the internet are not just turned off. People read and leave pages quickly if they do not immediately seem relevant or worthwhile. That means how you title your work is incredibly important. It allows people a chance to  gauge whether they need what you have to offer. A good title can act like a reading speed bump, slowing someone down just long enough to engage. I’ve experimented with this and have found that my creatively or more specifically descriptive titled entries get higher traffic than my straightforwardly titled ones. Use adjectives, ask questions, pick words that grab attention or defy normal conversational use. Brevity can be powerful, as we all know, not all words are created equal. Give thought to the big words that go on the top of the page because they determine whether someone will stay and read – or not. And, make sure the overall title of your blog is interesting/creative/descriptive/intriguing or attention-getting. It, after all, is the most read thing on your blog. It lets your readers know something of your personality, style and objectives right out of the gate.

(If you would like another post with more details about titles and examples, just leave a comment below and I’ll try to get back to this at a later date.)

8. Introductory and concluding ideas are important – When listening to a sermon, most church goers can only recall the first and last things the pastor said. I’ve found the same is true of reading. Beginnings and endings are the front and back door of your ‘writing house’. Think of when you go to visit a friend at their house. At least in my experience, the conversations I have as I arrive and as I leave are often them most important ones. They determine how I remember the quality of my visit. In your writing, first and last sentences or the short paragraphs that surround the core ideas found within them, are what link your readers to a particular article. Take some time and really word-smith the first and last things your readers will read from you.

9. Consider numbering your points – If you write topically, numbering your points may be an idea worth considering. Sure, it takes away from the flow or poeticism of your prose. But if your objective is to impart information, (and this is where knowing your objective is very useful) then you want to make it as easy as possible for your reader to find and access your points. Numbering is a visual handle, allowing your readers to grasp and take away what they need easily.