Writers, Stop Writing About Writing

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This might be hypocritical. It’s likely a bit odd and possibly (probably) pretentious. Some might refer to it as Meta. I prefer to think of it as Inception-like. As a writer, I have some things to write about writers writing about writing.

Writers writing about writing, while not always pretentious, can reach levels of pretention previously only dreamed of. Sometimes this shows itself as melodrama. “I write because I must.” “The pressure of pain begins to build until, of a sudden, it burst forth like lava from a volcano . . . and I write.” “Publishing a written work is like sending a child off to school for the first time, every time.” “Writing is a grueling, thankless task, but I have no choice. I am compelled”

Gag me. Nobody wants to hear about the travails of the writer, not even other writers. (In fact, while you’d think other writers would be the most empathetic we are in fact the least inclined to care about your moaning.) If it’s so awful, quit, for all our sakes. You’re not compelled against your will; you write because you enjoy it, or at least something about it. And with all that whining, methinks what you love most is the attention not the craft.

Other times, and more often, the pretension shows itself as constancy. That is to say it keeps showing up, because writers won’t quit writing about writing. A short roll of the eyeballs around the interwebs will reveal a dozen daily new posts by writers about writing. Some writers have blogs devoted to writing about writing.

Give it a rest. Your subject matter is tired. Your craftsmanship suffers because of redundancy and a limited pallet. And you become difficult to trust because, well, you never write about life. And life is the stuff of writing, not writing itself.

The last incarnation of pretension is uppityness. When Stephen King writes a book about writing I read it cover to cover and then start over. And it is marvelous. When a thirty-something, barely published, Internet composer of public journal entries does so, it’s uppity. Stephen King can tell me to “kill my darlings”, not many others can. They ought to be figuring which of their own darlings to off.

You know what’s remarkable? How little the truly great writers say or said about writing itself. They just wrote. And so should we. They didn’t cogitate on “the life of the writer”; no, they lived life, digested it, and regurgitated it in words and stories and essays. They learned and responded. They read and read some more. And they wrote. And so should we. Maybe, someday, we’ll be good enough to write about writing, but if we are we’ll probably be too busy living and writing to notice.

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Do You Imitate The Creative Generosity of God?

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When it comes to giving and receiving gifts, I have a one track mind. When people ask me for a Christmas list, the list I give them is books, all books, and nothing but books. And when I start shopping for gifts, my first thought is, What have I read lately? I have to work to be creative here, otherwise my gifts will all end up having dust jackets and ISBN numbers. Maybe you know someone like me. Every year you get the same generic card with a hastily scrawled signature, the same subscription to the jelly-of-the-month club (you don’t even like jelly), the same kind of hideous tie with Walt Disney characters on it. Money was invested, but certainly no thought! None of us want to be that kind of gift-giver. But, as a Christian, have you ever thought about why creativity generosity is a good thing? Here’s the short answer: creative generosity reflects the character of God.

If you were to catalog all the ways God has blessed you in the last week, the last month, the last year – how creative has God been as he lavishes his goodness on you? Think of examples from every sphere of life: favor with a co-worker or client. An evening of joy and rest with your family. A vacation that refreshed you in body and soul. A good conversation with a friend. A sermon that spoke to you or a song that brought your hope. God’s goodness is not one-size-fits-all, nor is it a short playlist set on “Repeat” mode. In countless ways –often small and unnoticed by us – God litters our lives with expressions of his creative care. “The LORD is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works,” David says in Psalm 145:7.

There are two ways we respond to the creative bounty of God. First, take notice of it! Look for those small kindnesses of the Lord that brighten everyday life. An example: recently I realized at 8:30pm that I needed a prop for a teaching I was giving the next morning at 8am. I ransacked my house but couldn’t find what I needed. I called a friend – no success. A second friend thought he might have it, but wasn’t sure where to find it in his storage shed. He gave me permission to come try my luck. I don’t want to be up all night looking for this, I thought as I drove to his house. Please let me find this quickly, Lord. I stepped into his building, and the first thing I saw was my prop, sitting out on a bench in plain sight. Was it life-changing? No. Was it a genuine expression of the care of my Father, who knew it would stress me to be up late looking for my prop? Without a doubt. He is kind in all his works.

But there’s a second way we respond to God’s creative generosity. Imitate it! Look for the small ways you can bless those around you. If you have someone stay the night at your house, leave a chocolate on the guest room pillow. Do a little investigative work to find out their favorite dessert and serve it. Discover that daily chore that your spouse hates and take it for them. Make note of the book a friend says they want to read, and buy them a copy (sorry, the bookworm is back). Our days contain hundreds of opportunities to show creative kindness and generosity to the people God brings into our paths. And those actions, done in faith, have a deeply theological value: we are imaging God, our Creator who providentially orders all our days, and our Redeemer who graciously uses every situation to bring about good in our lives. He is kind in all his works, so be eager for opportunities to be kind in all your works.

“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph. 5:1-2).

Is Your Communication From You or About you?

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Every writer writes about himself. Every preacher preaches about himself. It’s what makes communication personal and accessible. Without including ourselves in our work it would be cold and distant and maybe even dishonest. Like in so many other areas of life, though, the self threatens to play too much of a role. It seeks to take center stage and be the story instead of a means to the story. So the question is: when you write or speak, is it from you or about you?

What is your aim when you blog or tweet or write or preach? Are you seeking to elevate yourself (about you) or to offer something of value to others (from you)?

If you are seeking to elevate your self you will use yourself as the primary positive example. You might make a point to lay out “seven ways I . . .” or “three essential steps I take to. . .” on a regular basis as if your ways are the best ways and with assumption people really care how or why you do what you do. To top it off your work will be littered with needless details about yourself and your life. You will drag out otherwise helpful examples into soliloquies about, well, you.

On the other hand, if you are genuinely seeking to offer something helpful to others you will include both positive and negative examples about yourself. All the stories you share will be with a distinct purpose. They will connect ideas with people, take people to the right emotional place, unveil relational realities, or exemplify a point that needs a story to give it life. But none of the stories will make you the center. You just happen to be the one who encountered some truth bigger than you. You emphasize those parts of the story that back up your point and then you move on without lingering so readers or hearers can think about you. The point of the story is the point, and you are not.

This is a hard balance to strike. We are self-centered people so of course we make ourselves the center of what ought to be communication of great big truths. It’s why most of us shouldn’t write memoir or autobiography (that and the fact that only spectacular writers can make those genres interesting). We can’t write an essay about family or love or Jesus without making ourselves the center let alone one about ourselves.

Our goal, as communicators, is to connect readers and listeners to something greater than themselves, something transcendent. We are not transcendent. God is, and so is the immeasurable litany of truth He has provided for us to unpack and explore and wonder at. So when we write or speak all we need to do is lead people to those truths like a tour guide. The guide at a museum is not the center of attention; he is the one who shows people what should have their attention. That is the job of the communicator. 

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Seven Standards for Good Writing

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What is good writing? This book isn’t very good. That one is. But what is this “good”? Some might say good writing is only a matter of preference, but that gives too much power to one with limited taste. If you only like theology books then Pat Conroy’s heartbreaking novels won’t seem so good to you. But you’d be wrong.

How can I call an opinion about a subjective form wrong? Well, because there are standards by which I can argue. Yes, each standard is open for debate, but combine them all and a sieve of sorts is formed to sift the poor works and let through the quality ones.

Writing is good when its purpose is good.

A work designed to deceive, glorify evil, or lead people astray is never good no matter the craftsmanship. Ornate devilry is still bad, no matter how intricate. However, a work designed to prod, move, encourage, inform, explore, or express truths has the necessary purpose to be truly good. But a good purpose is only the starting point.

Writing is good when it fulfills its purpose well.

If a writer writes a humor piece that isn’t funny it isn’t good because it failed at its purpose. If he is trying to inspire action but instead elicits yawns, f a work is supposed to explore and instead criticizes or is supposed to be fair-minded and instead is partisan they aren’t good. Writers shoot at a target of purpose, and their work is only as good as their aim.

Writing is good if the thinking behind it is good.

Writing is not a motor skill; it’s a mental one. All the grammar and vocabulary in the world will not make a good writer out of someone with a clumsy or flabby mind. Thinking must exhibit truthfulness, creativity, brightness, depth, insight, expression, curiosity, emotion, and more. Different works will emphasize different traits, but all must be in the mind of the writer for the work to be good.

Writing is good if it expresses good thinking well.

Does the reader know what the writer wants to communicate? Has it moved her so that she feels the emotion and bears the weight of the questions? Are the truths clearer now than they ever have been? And was the reading experience a memorable ride, if not altogether fun? For a work to be truly good it must offer a glimpse of the writer’s mind and soul.

Writing is good if it is technically proficient.

Language is a toolbox. Actually, language is Home Depot. To write well one must know how to make use of it, all of it. This isn’t limited to grammatical perfection. That just makes you a good proofreader. I mean the ability to combine description, metaphor, dialogue, similes, verbs, adverbs, analogies, and more into just the right structure so that when a reader comes it across it she must stop and take notice. Proficiency is the ability to maximize this storehouse of wonder we call language.

Writing is good if it isn’t self-conscious.

Admittedly, this is more of a feeling than anything technical, and it is particularly true of fiction. If a piece of writing gives the reader the sense that the author is trying to hard, is holding back, or, on the other hand, is forcing things it isn’t good. Writing must feel natural and like it is flowing to be truly good. The effort of the author must make ease for the reader. Otherwise it’s bad writing.

Writing is good when it makes the reader both more conscious of self and less self-conscious.

The best writing shows us something about ourselves we otherwise would not have known. It inspires questions to make us dig and feel and squirm. But even as it does this it makes us willing to expose ourselves to its work instead of being embarrassed or protecting ourselves. When we have read something great we feel both more whole and more bared than ever before.   

These seven standards combine into a whole. None can be removed and a piece of writing remain good. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, but maybe it will be helpful to you in your own reading and in conversation.

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Stop Fueling and Start Driving

America values two things more highly than just about anything else: creativity and productivity. Once one might have said wealth or ease were the highest cultural values, but in the past several years a discernable shift has taken place. Entire genres of literature are devoted creativity and productivity. Conferences and webinars are built around them. Seth Godin and others like him helped to make these values valued and now ride their wave. People devour TED talks and blogs in a hunt for inspiration and to learn the latest life hacks and new ideas.

A strange thing has happened, though. Two values built on invention, innovation, and formation have been subverted for the sake of consumption. Instead of becoming more prolific in the production of goods and services in a creative manner we have become consumers of information. We have settled for intake instead of output because it makes us feel like we are involved in creation and production without actually doing any of the hard work.

Creativity literature — all those books, seminars, conferences, blogs, and TED talks — should be viewed like fuel for a car. If you are heading a road trip, getting from point A to point B, you need fuel. But it’s driving that gets you there. Gas up the car and nothing happens; turn the key ignition and hit the highway, then you’re going places. Somewhere along the line we confused filling up the car for actually traveling.

And like fueling, consumption of creativity literature should be a tiny portion of how we invest time and effort. It has value. It does provide inspiration and motivation. It stocks with ideas and gives us what we need to do the work, the driving. But without hitting the gas nothing is ever actually produced. Our ration of consumption to production should be 1/5 or 1maybe even 1/20. For every TED talk you watch or hour you spend reading David Allen or Seth Godin you should produce 5 blog posts or spend 20 hours on that project, be it a work of art or a business proposal.

If you want to be more creative or productive nothing will improve you faster than work. And consumption isn’t work. More often than not, it’s a sorry, rationalized excuse for “creative activity.” You know what inspiration and motivation that aren’t put into action are? Nothing, they are nothing, just noise and a stimulating mental massage to convince you that you are doing something worthwhile. All that fuel in your tank is nothing but latent energy until you fire up your engine and drive.  That’s when creativity and productivity actually happen.

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Short Story: The Fall

Last week I invited people to try to write a short story. Here’s what I came up with. (If you’re using a reader you may need to click through.)

The Fall

Anyone Want To Write A Short Story?

I like stories. Correction, I love stories. I love novels, short stories, fantasy, western, the whole lot.

I would love to read your stories. So I’ve got an idea. Over the next week, let’s write some stories. Your story can be about anything. Spiritual, secular, sci-fi, whatever. And don’t make it any longer than 1,500 words. This is your chance to have some fun and be creative. Don’t freak out about making it too perfect. This is just for fun.

When your story is done, upload it to scribd.com and post the link on this post. I’ll read as many as I can and post the links to some of my faves. I’ll also write one and upload it.

So what do you think? Are you in?

Would the Psalms Survive Our Criticism?

After the recent brouhaha (I love that word) over Jeff Bethke’s “Why I Love Jesus and Hate Religion” video, I’ve been doing a little more thinking about criticism and creativity. See, I love sound doctrine and I love creativity, and I don’t think that the two are mutually exclusive. But for some reason, us Reformed folks have gotten a bad rap, at times, as being anti-creative and anti-art. I think that part of the reason is because we don’t always treat creativity fairly.

Systematic theology is a wonderful thing. I love Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, and I think that I’ve probably learned more from that book than from any other. But, when it comes to interpreting a song or a piece of poetry or spoken word, we have to use our theology carefully. We need to interpret and critique the piece on it’s own terms rather than immediately plopping all of our systematic theology on top of it.

This is how we read the Psalms. When I read that in Psalm 17:8, “Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings,” I don’t say, “Well God is spirit and doesn’t have wings!” I understand that the Psalm is poetry and is painting a picture of how God acts, not a physical description of God. I don’t put all my theology on top of the Psalm, I let it first speak for itself.

A song can only say one thing. It can’t say everything and it can’t make every qualification. There are going to be some sharp edges to a song. A book or sermon can make qualifications, a song or piece of poetry cannot. Jeff Bethke couldn’t say everything about religion in his video so he only said one thing: that Jesus is against false religion. Our temptation is to first run creative pieces through the grid of all our systematic theology and then point out the places that it falls short. That’s probably not the best way to do it, and it will probably end up frustrating the artist.

I think a better way to do it is to look at a song, or any other creative piece, and first ask, “What is the author’s main point here? What is he or she really trying to say?” Then, after the main point has been determined, we should ask, “Does this agree with the Bible?” So, for example, in Derek Webb’s controversial song “What Matters More?”, he says:

If I can see what’s in your heart
By what comes out of your mouth
Then it sure looks to me like being straight
Is all it’s about
It looks like being hated
For all the wrong things
Like chasing the wind
While the pendulum swings

‘Cause we can talk and debate
Till we’re blue in the face
About the language and tradition
That He’s coming to save
And meanwhile we sit
Just like we don’t have give a sh** about
Fifty thousand people who are dying today

What is Derek Webb saying? What is his main point? Because if I’m going to be fair to him, I have to critique exactly what he is saying. It seems that he is saying that we Christians tend to get all hung up on the wrong things. We get so focused on sexuality and homosexuality that we miss the fact that 50,000 people are dying of hunger. He doesn’t seem to be specifically saying whether homosexuality is right or wrong, but he is saying that it occupies too much of our attention.

So what does the Bible say about Webb’s song? First, it says that hating another person is always wrong. Webb gets that right. It also says that Christians should care for the poor and the hungry. Caring for the poor really is important. Webb gets that right too. But, the Bible also says that our sexuality is REALLY important. Those who willfully engage in homosexuality will not inherit the kingdom of God. That seems like a pretty big deal to me. If I fail to tell people, I could send them to hell. That’s what Webb gets wrong.

There is a place for dealing with specific word choices in the song, but I don’t think that is the place to start. I think we need to deal with the main point first.

When I read these lyrics I’m tempted to bring all of my theology to every line of the song. For example, I could talk a lot about the language and tradition behind Christian sexuality. And there probably is a place for that, but that’s not the main point of the song. I want to be fair to Derek Webb. I want to be fair to his song. I want to be fair to Jeff Bethke, and fair to other artists.

So for us Reformed folks, let’s preserve our passion for sound doctrine and the Bible. I’m not in any way suggesting that we should abandon sound doctrine or that words don’t have meaning. But let’s also be fair to those who create art. Our critiques and endorsements should always flow from the Bible, but they also should address the main point of the piece.

In Defense of the Video That No One Seems To Like

Yesterday I posted the above video by Jefferson Bethke on our blog. I posted it because I liked it, and I thought it was well done. The video has gotten a lot of attention on the Internet (not because of me) in the last couple of days, and not all of it has been positive. Today both Kevin DeYoung and Jared Wilson wrote thoughtful, helpful, insightful critiques of the video, pointing out that Jesus is not opposed to religion, and was actually very religious himself. The Friendly Atheist blog has also posted some critique of the video, as well as a number of other sources.

So let me offer a few of words in defense of the video, because I actually think it’s very good. I’m a songwriter who cares very much about creativity and sound doctrine. I love to see them blended and fused into something beautiful and doctrinally sound.

One of the first rules when it comes to interpreting a song, or any creative work for that matter, is that it must be judged on it’s own terms. In other words, the content must be interpreted based on the author’s intent. The first line of the piece is “Jesus came to abolish religion.” To that I say, “Oh really? Tell me exactly what you mean by the word ‘religion’.” Because the meaning of the entire piece depends on what Jefferson means by the word “religion”. If I’m going to critique it, I need to critique his meaning of religion, not my meaning of religion.

The critique of the video generally runs along the lines of this: Jesus was not against religion. That’s a false dichotomy that Jefferson is creating.

But I think that the wrong question is being asked. The question everyone seems to be asking is: was Jesus against religion? The answer to that question is: yes. And no. And maybe. It all depends on what you mean by the word “religion”.

But the question that everyone should be asking is: was Jesus opposed to religion as defined by Jefferson Bethke? The answer to that question is a definite yes. Jesus was opposed to self-righteous, man-made religion. Jesus was opposed to those who exalt man-made rules over the true, life-giving religion of God. The entire piece must be interpreted through that lens. You can’t separate out pieces of the song and say that they are doctrinally incorrect unless you first view the song through the lens that Jefferson intended. Every use of the word “religion” in the piece must be connected back to the original definition of the word “religion”.

In this piece, Jefferson is not talking about the Mosaic law. He’s not talking about the church as biblically defined. He’s talking about sterile, God-less, Christ-less religion.

So do I hate religion? Yes, if it’s a religion that leaves Jesus out. And that’s exactly what Jefferson is talking about. He’s not attacking the church. He says that both explicitly and implicitly. He’s not creating a false dichotomy between Jesus and religion. He is highlighting the real dichotomy between Jesus and man-made religion.

Now why do I even care about this? Because sometimes us Reformed folks, in our passion for sound doctrine and the Bible, are pretty agressive in our critique of artistic works. And in some ways, that’s very good. But I always want to make sure that our critiques are gracious AND that we critique the artist on his terms, not ours. I think that’s where some of the critiques are missing the boat.