Why It’s Important to Write

There are a few reasons that I get writers block.

First is the completely elusive cause that no one understands, the sudden disappearance of all sensible content from the conscious mind. One moment there are dozens of thoughts and ideas scurrying around your mind—the next they’ve vanished, leaving no remnant.

Second is the world of distractions. Writing in my house means that the house needs to be clean and neat (dishes washed, clothes folded, banana peels and tissues picked up off the floor), otherwise it’s a constant battle between my desire for a clean space and my will to write. Writing in a public space means that there are dozens of people for me to observe, and my carefree mind would rather float than write.

The third is like the rusted hinge, the scuff free shoes, the ten year old car with 2,000 miles. It’s hard to do anything cold turkey—diet, exercise, sing, but especially write. I write every day, partially because I love it but also because if I don’t, when I come back to the keyboard all that greets me is a blank screen and the crickets.

I’m learning to write with dogged persistence. Sometimes it’s tiring, often it’s hard, but it’s more rewarding than I would have ever guessed.

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Tomorrow is Thanksgiving

I say thank you to a lot of people: the person who holds the door open for me, the waiter who brings me my drink, the cashier who sells me groceries, and the people who call me every day (“Thank you for calling…”). Not counting the phone calls, I say it at least a dozen times a day, to the person who stands back so I can walk first, to the girl who gives me my newspaper every morning, to the lady who brings donuts to work every few weeks.

I say thank you without thinking. It’s as natural as breathing or blinking or pulling my sleeves down when my forearms get cold. I say it without looking at who I’m saying it to, without considering what I’m thanking them for, without expecting them to take it sincerely, or even respond.

“I’m a thank you machine.”

No one expects me to mean it when I say it, no one asks for clarification, and barely anyone gives a resounding ‘you’re welcome.’ Our culture uses thank you as a filler—when it’s awkward or we don’t know what else to say but we feel the obligation to speak.

We say thank you because someone, somewhere, years ago decided that it was the appropriate and polite response to receiving a service that was bestowed voluntarily (or not). We say it because living in a sphere of entitlement that greets small favors with boorish self-satisfaction is disgusting to us. We say it because 2000 years ago, when Jesus Christ walked the earth, he healed people and praised them for their faith and gratitude.

We barely know what it means to give or receive true gratitude, because we often feel like we deserve what we’re given, and we don’t think it matters how we receive it, because after all, they owed me.

“Often the things we don’t expect shock us into true thankfulness.”

When I was in college, I didn’t have any money. Ever. I was paying my way through school, working constantly, sleeping not enough, and trying not to do poorly in the classes I was working so hard to pass. Needless to say, extras like good shoes and winter coats were optional (disclaimer: my parents love me and took very good care of me and weren’t neglecting me), and I didn’t often buy things for myself that I actually needed, because when you don’t have the money for something… You learn how to live without it.

One day, mid-October I scheduled time to meet with a good friend who was visiting from out of town. When he initially saw me, he looked down at my feet and raised his eyebrows. On my feet was a beat-up pair of hand-me-down Toms I’d gotten in high school and worn consistently ever since. On one foot four of five toes were sticking out, on the other three toes and the side of my foot were open to the chill fall air (a smarter person would’ve worn socks, at least). He commented about my shoes and I shrugged, noting that I’d probably buy shampoo and conditioner before I’d spend the money on shoes.

We hung out all day, ate dinner, and talked about a lot of things, both important and minor. At the end of the day as I was leaving, he handed me some money and said,

“Go buy yourself some new shoes.”

I didn’t look at it while he was standing in front of me, because I’d been taught that evaluating a money-gift in front of the giver is rude. I put it in my pocket, got on the train, and forgot all about it for about half an hour. When I remembered, I pulled it out of my pocket and flipped through the bills.

There were three hundred dollars.

Keep in mind, to a poor college student with a consistent average of fifteen dollars in the bank, all that money felt like the bank of England was cashing in all stocks and bonds. I counted it a few times to make sure it was really that much, then put it back into my pocket and searched for a tissue to dry the water that was mysteriously dripping down my cheeks.

The worst part about it was that I couldn’t say a real in-person thank you. But I think even if I could have, I wouldn’t have known how to do it well enough.

I would have spluttered and turned red and probably gotten out a “Thank you so much,” that didn’t come close to covering the depth of my gratitude or the kindness of his generosity.

But I have a feeling that to him, maybe that would have said it well enough.

It isn’t the carefully manicured “Thank you” that stays in the heart—it’s the messy, red-faced, teary-eyed recognition that reaches the sensitive parts of our hearts and mentalities. What if every thank you we said was for something we didn’t expect, for a gift that felt too large, for the life that we didn’t realize was so fragile but now we’re so grateful we still have?

“Being thankful shouldn’t be robotic—it should be a mindful and genuine reaction to a gift that we’re given that we don’t deserve. ”

It’s Thanksgiving tomorrow. There will be a lot of trite thankfulness, quickly said so we “can hurry up and eat.” If you were giving thanks for something that you weren’t expecting and you didn’t deserve, it might change your style of gratitude.

It might be a good change.

How to Omit Needless Words

William Strunk wrote (E.B White edited and added to) a small book called The Elements of Style. It’s filled with practical points for becoming a better writer, and it’s a necessity for every writer’s tool belt. It’s not wishy washy, indefinite, or outdated, even though it’s nearing 100 years old.

Much of it is instantly applicable, but (in my opinion) nothing more than the directive regarding word usage.

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Writing is any man’s game, but not every man’s masterpiece. Needless words separate the mediocre from the good, and the good from the great.

A few ways to omit needless words (and become one of those great writers):

#) Edit. Seldom is anything slim enough in the first draft. Or the fourth. Or the seventh. Put it aside for a few days, then come back to it. Several times. You’ll be surprised at all the unnecessary words you use.

#) Give yourself a word count. In college I took an editing class. We had a guest lecture from a teacher who gave us the assignment to condense a famous 350 word story into 100 words or less, but preserve the intended meaning. It was difficult, but not impossible. Having a limit is a good way to learn discernment. If you’re thinking does this phrase really matter, it’s likely that it doesn’t.

#) Say it a few different ways. Good writers will come up with several ways to say something before they settle on their favorite, or combine a few of them. This ensures the best content and the best style.

#) Be hard on yourself. All through high school I had a running joke that letting people edit my writing was like watching them kill my children. Morbid, I know. But every writer knows the feeling—watching words get cut is like waiting in line for cake for four hours, and watching the person in front of you walk away with the last piece. It’s miserable, hopeless, and depressing. But when your final draft is slick and clean, it’s worth it.

#) Practice. It wouldn’t be one of my how-to lists if I didn’t tell you to practice. Ballerinas don’t get good sitting on the couch. Chefs won’t improve if they only make instant pudding and grilled cheese. Children don’t learn how to walk without falling over. A lot of times.

Get rid of those words. Nobody wants them anyway.

Purchase The Elements of Style. If you don’t own a copy, you need one. Non-negotiable.

The Runaway Yellow Mustang

One of the bonuses of fall (besides the obvious: spices, pumpkins, orange-yellow-rose, sweaters, scarves, etc. etc.) is that the leaves fall off the trees and you can see what’s been hidden for 7 months. This is especially fortunate for us, as we live on the 8th floor and our windows are surrounded by trees. Across the street there’s a parking lot for an apartment building, and for the first time all year we can see it.

There are a bunch of cars in the parking lot (you didn’t need me to tell you that, I’m sure). Lots of residents exercised adult sensibilities when they were purchasing their cars, and there are rows of gray and black, some silver, several white, and one or two deep maroon.

But one person—one blessed, carefree, personality filled person—has a bright yellow mustang.

 

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Unfortunately for this picture, even though the leaves fell, the trees are still there.

Honestly, it stands out like a sore thumb.

But at the same time, it is refreshing, bright, and, well… Yellow. Which is the color of sunshine and bumble bees (inside the black stripes, of course) and daffodils, all wonderful things.

I continue at the risk of drawing an analogy that’s too complex or far-fetched.

It’s easy to feel like the yellow mustang in a world full of gray and silver cars. Some of what defines me is absolute: my faith, my family, my husband Curtis (he’s very wonderful), my definite introverted personality. Other parts of who I am are a choice: cheerful, buoyant, thoughtful, and careful.

The absolutes are like the parts of the car that it can’t run without—engine, axles, gears, tires (a proper mechanic could lend a lot to this analogy).

The choices are like the aesthetics: leather or upholstery, fancy chrome rims, and the paint job.

The problem with people (myself included) is that we struggle to see past the yellow paint. This in turn makes our interactions with most people about as meaningful as a drive-by speculation on the color of someone’s car. We assume that everything we see on the outside is everything they are on the inside, and go from there.

It’s not practical. It’s not relational. But it’s certainly easier.

Looking past the paint is hard—it takes work, it takes sacrifice, and it’s not always comfortable.

But it’s so worth it, because under the paint people are individual, odd, and beautiful, and so much more than just yellow, or gray.

The color is very important, but the buck shouldn’t stop there.

Delighted by Sunday

This Sunday is for:

Chili and cornbread
Nutmeg scented candles
Cracking the window to let in the fall air
Watching the sun play on the buildings
Writing writing writing
^ Diligence
Eating ice cream till we have to change into sweat pants
Being in love
Optimism
Fall delight

Again and again and again we’re delighted by Sunday.

Seeing What You’re Headed Towards

I work in a rectangular building that was built squarely on a compass. Translation: it faces N,S,E, and W, instead of the half directions.

Yesterday at closing time, there was a grim glowering storm out of the east windows, and a dazzling, orange-yellow creamsicle sunset out of the west windows. My office-mates who sit on that side of the building had no idea that a storm was brewing, 45 feet away.

Sometimes you’re 45 feet away from something delightful. Sometimes you’re 45 feet away from the worst storm yet.

Usually you only see the one you’re headed towards.

Practice looking around you to see more than one thing.