Let It Marinate

21 Jul

I am nearly finished with a project that the author and I have been working on for more than seven years.

Seven years!

When I think about that timeframe, it seems unbelievable. First of all, my kids were 11 and 8 when we started, and now they are 18 and 15 (what?!). The author has lived in three states. The way I spend my time during the work week looks vastly different than it did when we started this project. A lot changes over seven years.

Certainly, we could have finished this project in a shorter amount of time. Maybe we should have. But what this project has taught me more than any other is the benefit of letting a project marinate.

Yes, there is a place to set productivity goals and deadlines. Sometimes these are exactly what we need to keep moving forward, especially when faced with a project that is big and complicated and that sometimes makes you want to give up. Sometimes we don’t have a choice in the matter; these deadlines are set for us.

But I wonder how many times these productivity goals and deadlines are actually a hindrance to the quality of the finished product.

Over the past seven years, there were weeks (and sometimes months) that I did not look at this project. Sometimes these breaks were because I was waiting on the author (this is not a criticism; this is the normal back-and-forth of a project). Sometimes they were because I over-committed (still working on NOT doing this) and there just weren’t enough hours in the day.

But sometimes I didn’t look at the project because when I did, I could not see the way forward. This was unsettling given that the author hired me to find the way forward! In these moments I felt incompetent, which frustrated me further. I don’t like not to be able to figure something out. I don’t like being unable to produce. I spent time and energy feeling anxious and even guilty.

What I began to understand, though, was that these breaks were not a hindrance to completing the project. They were a help.

After a break, I almost always had new insight. What had previously seemed an enigma was now obvious. Often, something I had heard or read or talked about during the time away was exactly what I needed to incorporate to give the project new insight and depth.

The truth is the project needed time to marinate. I needed time to marinate.

  • I learned to accept the uncertainty and messiness of a project at a standstill as a valuable part of its development.
  • I learned to trust that the project would not always be as it was.
  • I learned that, at the right time, I would receive exactly what the project needed to move forward.
  • I learned that it was less about me figuring it out and more about me trusting it would be figured out.

If I can accept these truths about the project, can I also accept them about me?

  • Can I learn to accept my own uncertainty and messiness as a valuable part of my development?
  • Can I learn to trust that, in all my mess, I will not always be what I am now?
  • Can I learn to receive what has been given to me as what I need to move forward?
  • Can I learn it’s not about me figuring it all out but rather trusting that it will be?

Yes, I can learn. Can you?



Doubt: The Unexpected Gift

26 Jan

Image courtesy of vorakorn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Last week I gave a presentation – “The Power of a Polished Message” – to a group of non-profit leaders. This presentation was the third in a series of trainings for non-profits on various topics, taught by various facilitators. Though this was the first time I delivered this presentation, the content had been swimming around in my mind for quite some time.

In fact, about three years ago, upon an invitation to contribute to a blog that serves as a resource for non-profits, I sat down on two separate occasions and hammered out my ideas for what I thought would become the series of blog posts I had been invited to write. The work was all but finished, but guess what?

I never wrote the blog series.

Certainly, there are several explanations for this. The easiest is simply that my life got absolutely insane (Note: this is the first blog post I’ve written in nearly three years, so clearly the never-written blog series for non-profits was not the only thing to fall off the wagon!). In addition to several intense writing and editing projects, I started teaching a college business communications class (I did find time to eek out a post about that), which I absolutely loved (still do!), but that made life, well, a lot more full.

So, the not-so-easy explanation for not writing the blog series is something more personal. As I’ve reflected on it recently, I realize that I didn’t pursue that opportunity with gusto because, honestly, I wasn’t sure I had anything all that helpful to say. My mind was filled with thoughts like, What if people read this and say, “Well, duh, anyone could have told you that!” or “This lady doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” or “This isn’t that helpful” or . . .

The truth is that putting your work out there can be a scary thing. And I was scared.

So, imagine what I thought when I was asked to deliver a presentation on “messaging” for non-profits. “You can take whatever angle you’d like,” they said. “But, if possible, we would like it to connect to the material that was covered in the previous session.”

Instantly, I remembered that dusty old file of notes I had scribbled down for the blog series and thought, Huh, I am pretty sure that what I have already written on this topic is exactly what they want. As I shared with them my main premise, I felt affirmed. Maybe what I have to say would be valuable to these non-profit leaders. I started feeling excited about the opportunity!

Even with this glimmer of confidence, I still felt that familiar doubt creeping in over the next days and weeks.

But, I had committed, and one thing that is true about me – I keep my commitments. So, I pressed on.

The day came for the presentation. I was mostly confident in how it had come together, but I was still engaged in an internal battle to tamp down those pesky doubts. As I began my presentation and got into my rhythm, I started to relax. The non-profit leaders in front of me were not staring at me with blank stares or frowning in confusion or disgust, as I had imagined they might; they were engaged. They were smiling and nodding, and from time to time, I could tell that some of them were having “light-bulb” moments.

Do you know what this experience was for me? A gift.

Here’s the thing. Even if the non-profit leaders didn’t respond as favorably as I had hoped, this experience would still have been a gift. Why? Because my doubts kept me humble and reliant; they pushed me outside of myself.

In my doubt, I could have chosen not to commit or to de-commit. But, instead, I stayed committed even when I wanted, at times, to back out.

In my doubt, I could have chosen to stuff down all my insecurities and put on a confident face. But, instead, I asked for help and prayer.

In my doubt, I could have chosen to discount my experience. But, instead, I shared that experience, hoping that it might help someone else.

I don’t deserve a gold star for this. The only logical response is gratitude that I found myself in a place that pushed me onto this path.

I guess my point in sharing this story is this: our doubts about our abilities (to speak, to write, to whatever) can either drive us to quit or they can drive us to push through. Contrary to what the world shouts at us, our “success” is not only measured in how our efforts are received. In my view, our “success” is also measured by our willingness to be vulnerable, to express our need for help, and to share what we have been given. These are the gifts that sustain us.

Putting ourselves out there is scary. But, denying ourselves the opportunity to be pushed beyond self is scarier because it robs us of the gifts of vulnerability, reliance, and giving back to others.

So, if you are facing something that tempts you to doubt your abilities – professionally or personally – I encourage you to push through, committed to choosing the gifts of vulnerability, reliance, and giving back to others. Regardless of the end result, you will be successful.

Finding the Words

16 Apr

ID-10072080Recently I read Night by Elie Wiesel, the chilling true story of Wiesel and his family being taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp, and then to Buchenwald.  This event in our history is truly one that, in the words of Wiesel, “sprang from the darkest zone of man.”

Every time I read or hear an account of one of these survivors, I am left with a hollow feeling inside.  I mourn that human beings were treated in a way that shattered their understanding of God, their personhood, their relationships, and even their words.

Yes, words.

Wiesel describes in his Preface the responsibility he felt to give testimony to his experience, but that he found it difficult to put it into words.  This makes sense.  After all, how do you describe such heinous acts?  But, that’s not the extent of what Wiesel meant.  He writes of his struggle to record his story:

Painfully aware of my limitations, I watched helplessly as language became an obstacle. It became clear that it would be necessary to invent a new language. But how was one to rehabilitate and transform words betrayed and perverted by the enemy?  Hunger – thirst – fear – transport – selection – fire – chimney: these words all have intrinsic meaning, but in those times, they meant something else. . . . All the dictionary had to offer seemed meager, pale, lifeless.  Was there a way to describe the last journey in sealed cattle cars, the last voyage toward the unknown? Or the discovery of a demented and glacial universe where to be inhuman was human, where disciplined, educated men in uniform came to kill, and innocent children and weary old men came to die?

Language is supposed to free us to express our thoughts and feelings, our experiences. I have written on this blog about how the act of writing about pieces of my personal story has brought a deeper awareness and understanding of those experiences, and even provides comfort as I begin to see how things fit together.  For me, even in the midst of pain and struggle, language has been my ally.

But for Wiesel, language was a betrayer.  His experience called into question every foundation he thought he stood on.  If fact, “called into question” is too benign.  His experience deconstructed everything he believed to be true – even the intrinsic meaning of everyday words.  I can’t imagine.

As writers, we choose our words carefully.  I’ve been know to agonize over how to write something until I find just the right words to express what I intend to communicate.  If I stop to notice, I know that my word choice is certainly influenced by more than just the intrinsic meaning; the words I choose – and don’t choose – are also influenced by my experience.  But during the writing process, I typically don’t recognize this automatic sifting of language through the filter of my experience.  But, it happens.  It happens to me.  It happens to you.  But it didn’t happen for Wiesel.

And yet . . .

Wiesel fought to find the words to tell his story, without which, he says, “my life as a writer – or my life, period – would not have become what it is: that of a witness who believes he has a moral obligation to try to prevent the enemy from enjoying one last victory by allowing his crimes to be erased from human memory.”

Writing is always courageous.  But, what Wiesel did was life-changing . . . for him, and for us.

What can we, as fellow writers, learn from Wiesel’s experience with language?

  1. A richer awareness of the language we use, and why we use it.  The words and topics we choose tell us about ourselves.  I believe that knowing more about ourselves produces more authentic, and potentially life-changing (certainly for us, and often for our readers), writing.  And, really, isn’t change – of mind, of heart, of behavior – a primary desire of most writers?
  2. Greater sensitivity to how our words might be perceived.  How true it is that one’s interpretation of the words we write is intertwined with both intrinsic meaning and his or her experience.  Though we cannot control how others interpret our words, we are wise to clearly define particular words or topics that might invoke interpretation contrary to our intended meaning. Additionally, by seriously considering our readers’ various experiences and viewpoints,  we can anticipate how they might perceive our words and work to address those viewpoints in light of our own.
  3. The assurance that language is ultimately our ally.  Though it can betray us, language is still one of the greatest gifts given to human beings. Like us, language is adaptable.  And, like Wiesel, we can choose to wrestle with language in order to find the right words to express our thoughts, opinions, and creativity.  In this digital age that seems to promote reactive, and sometimes thoughtless, speech,  let’s re-commit to using this gift of language wisely.  Let’s use it to promote truth, understanding, and honesty.  Let’s commit to using words that encourage and edify, and that show respect for those who differ from us.  Let’s treat language like the unique gift that it is.

Still Living Still

21 Feb

Living Still CoverRecently I have been working with an author on another book project.  Engaging in the editorial process has brought back so many wonderful memories of my experience working with author Abby Lewis on her book Living Still.

As I have recounted several times on this blog, working on Living Still was life-changing for me both personally and professionally.  But perhaps what has been the most encouraging is to see the impact that it is still making on those who take the time to read and ponder it.

Every once in a while, I look at what people are saying about the book on Amazon, and I am humbled to have played a part in crafting Abby’s inspired message.

If you have not investigated Living Still, I hope that you will check out this book promo video that Abby created to capture the message of the book.


Humor for Writers

28 Jan

I will admit it.

This list made me chuckle.  Enjoy!

1.  Avoid Alliteration. Always.

2.  Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.

3.  Avoid cliches like the plague. (They’re old hat.)

4.  Employ the vernacular.

5.  Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.

6.  Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are unnecessary.

7.  It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.

8.  Contractions aren’t necessary.

9.  Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.

10. One should never generalize.

11. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”

12. Comparisons are as bad as cliches.

13. Don’t be redundant; don’t use more words than necessary; it’s highly superfluous.

14. Profanity sucks.

15. Be more or less specific.

16. Understatement is always best.

17. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.

18. One word sentences? Eliminate.

19. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.

20. The passive voice is to be avoided.

21. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.

22. Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.

23. Who needs rhetorical questions?

*Originally published in the June 1986 issue of Writers’ Digest by Frank L. Visco

Frank, you make me laugh.

For Writing, For Life

4 Sep

ZWjoNzXcarNl_0The first evidences of fall are here, and I am reminded of how much I love this season.  For me, the fall is about refreshing beginnings . . .new routines, new (cooler!) weather, and new opportunities.

Though I welcome the summer each year with a sigh of relief from hectic school schedules, I must admit that “getting back into the routine” does my heart well.  And though I much prefer the heat to the cold, I remember that waking up to 60-degree weather is heavenly.  And though I need the quietness of soul that is found in familiar pursuits, I realize that I crave the excitement of new opportunities.

Well, I have been given a new opportunity.

This fall, I started teaching Business Communications, a writing intensive class for business majors, at College of the Ozarks.  It has been both terrifying and exhilarating . . . just the way I like it!  Already in the first couple of weeks, I have been both challenged and affirmed.  I’d say that’s a pretty good start.

In determining the best way to teach the “discipline of writing” (that’s the less scary way of saying “grammar and mechanics”), my thoughts raced first to giving my students some general thoughts to consider before we barreled into the tedium of my carefully prepared PowerPoint.

“Great writers have several common attributes . . . ”

  • AwarenessWhat do I know?  What do I need to learn?
  • FocusWhat are the distractions in my life – physical, mental, or emotional?  What can I do to eliminate distractions?
  • Intentionality – Will I choose to take the next step or make the hard choice in order to improve?
  • Willingness to think criticallyAm I willing to slow down so that I can think objectively about the task in front of me?

We discussed how the students’ possession of each of these attributes would increase their ability to succeed not only at our task at hand – learning the “discipline of writing” – but also at “truly communicating,” which, I explained, only occurs when the receiver truly understands what the sender intended to communicate.

In other words, “true” communication – whether it is for the purpose of my class or in life – takes work and a slower pace.

So, if you are a writer, I encourage you to evaluate how deeply ingrained these attributes are in your practice and to make adjustments as necessary.  And, for the rest, I offer these attributes as food for thought, for I believe that embodying them allows us to experience life more fully.

I don’t know about you, but in this hectic age that tempts us at every turn NOT to practice these attributes, I need to be reminded of the simplicity and power of slowing down . . . in my writing, and in my life.


“Life Work”

26 Apr

Life-is-a-not-path-quoteI’ve been thinking a lot lately about the course my life has taken, specifically in the area of work.  And recently, I have come to appreciate the meticulously chartered course that I have walked, realizing with great joy that each step – even those that seemed insignificant at the time – has prepared me for what has followed.

It is humbling.  It is exciting.  And, in some ways, it challenges me.

This spring, several opportunities have presented themselves to me.  In no case did I search or strive for them – they just came to be.  Honestly, it has been a bit overwhelming (in the good sense of the word).  But, as I’ve taken the time to reflect on them – and the experiences that have prepared me for them – I realize that they may just be the logical next steps in my work.  In many ways, I can see that they might just be new opportunities to expand my reach.

I am so thankful.  That is truly the only proper response.  But, I also approach these new opportunities with an even greater sense of responsibility.

With expanded reach comes more exposure.  And with more exposure comes more people.  And with more people comes the reminder that, really, our work – whatever it is – is people-centered.  Our “life work” is an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the people we reach.

Though it has been my current work circumstances that have inspired these “ponderings,” I am convinced that their implications translate into all aspects of life . . . am I living in an others’-centered way?

Do we make a positive difference in the lives of our spouses and children?  What about our friends?  What about the people around us who are hard to get along with?  What about the strangers we interact with in a store or restaurant?

I certainly do not have this figured out – not by a long shot.  But, I do want to be the kind of person – in my work and otherwise – who stays focused on the fact that the “business” we go about each day is simply the means by which we can make a real difference in the lives we touch.

I am thankful that this season of life has reminded me of just that.