To touch the world, be a writer

I’m a sucker for a great beginning of a book.

Here is how Kelly Gallagher kicked off his outstanding work Teaching Adolescent Writers:

You’re standing in a large field minding your own business when you hear rumbling sounds in the distance. The sounds begin to intensify, and at first you wonder if it is thunder you hear approaching. Because it’s a beautiful, cloudless day you dismiss this notion. As the rumbling sound grows louder, you begin to see a cloud of dust rising just over the ridge a few yards in front of you. Instantly, you become panicked because at that exact moment it dawns on you that the rumbling you’re hearing is the sound of hundreds of wild bulls stampeding over the ridge. There are hordes of them and they are bearing down right on top of you. They are clearly faster than you and there is no time to escape. What should you do? Survival experts recommend only one of the following actions:

–A) Lying down and curling up, covering your head with your arms.

–B) Running directly at the bulls, screaming wildly and flailing your arms in an attempt to scare them in another direction

–C) Turning and running like heck in the same direction the bulls are running (even though you know you can’t outrun them)

–D) Standing completely still; they’ll see you and run around you

–E) Screaming bad words at your parents for insisting on a back-to-nature vacation in Wyoming

Gallagher, who teaches high school in Anaheim, California, says experts recommend C. “Your only option is to run alongside the stampede to avoid being trampled.”

Then, being the consummate teacher, he applies the great attention-grabbing beginning: “My students are threatened by a stampede–a literacy stampede.”

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If you plan to write, you will need an editor. Even if it’s only yourself.

“And when He comes, He will guide you into all truth…”  (John 16:13)

A publisher once sent me a book to review for unknown reasons.  The writer at one time had belonged to a church I had pastored, so maybe that was it. (Later, I was to learn that publishers ask authors to give them a list of people they want to review their book and comment.  So, clearly, it was the writer’s idea.)

My review was not what they had wanted. I said, “The writer had a great idea.  He makes some excellent points. But he desperately needed an editor to help him.”

They never replied and never again asked me to review anything.

An editor can be a writer’s best friend.  It is not politeness that prompts authors to praise their editor in the preface of their books.  A good editor can cut through the verbiage, point out flaws in reasoning, find inaccuracies, and question claims. A good editor can spot a weakness in the plot and suggest a dozen ways to make the book better.

Most of us who try to write and then self-publish usually serve as our own editors.

The result can be embarrassingly bad. I will read an article on this blog written weeks earlier and spot typos or awkward sentences (the result of my attempts at self-editing, when I tried to cut out excess verbiage or redundancies by combining sentences and ended up making a mess of it).

I read those and think, “I wrote that? Man, I need an editor.”

I sat in a hospital room reading a book while the patient, a family member, was napping.  Gradually I became aware that the author of this book desperately needed an editor to have gone over his manuscript.  I was struck by one sentence in particular:

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The pastor says he intends to write a book. Here’s why he probably won’t.

The pastor said to me, “When I retire, I’m going to write a book.  I have all these great stories and experiences I’m itching to tell.  That’s what I’m going to do.”

I said, “No, you won’t.”

He was taken aback.

“Why do you say that?”

“Because I’ve heard it too many times.  Preachers who have not written anything more than copy for the church sign think that when they hang it up, they’re suddenly going to transform themselves into authors. And it’s not going to happen.  It never happens.”

“Why do you think that is?” he asked.

“No one can go a lifetime without writing and suddenly flip a switch and write an entire book. Especially one worth reading.”

He agreed to give that some thought.

Let me say up front that I’m no authority on this subject.  I’ve written hundreds of articles but only a few books (seven actually).

For thirty years, I’ve written for Christian magazines.  A few of my articles have made it into seminary textbooks.  And I’ve published books of my cartoons, one series of which sold over 300,000 copies.  But only late in life have I written what Dad once called “an actual book,” meaning a volume of only words and no cartoons.

All my life, I have written. As a seminarian in my mid-20s, while pastoring a small church on Alligator Bayou some 25 miles west of New Orleans, I wrote a devotional column for our weekly newspaper.  That was exactly 50 years ago, and I’m still typing away. I write for this blog, have a page in each issue of Lifeway’s Deacon Magazine (“My Favorite Deacon”), and am always working on the next book.

To all the pastors who want to write that all-important book of memoirs when they retire, I have a few words of counsel:

1) Read constantly. The point is, this is how you learn what good writing looks like.  And just as importantly, you learn to recognize terrible writing.

The would-be writer who does not read much will turn out material amateurish to an embarrassing degree. Teachers of music and poetry speak of amateurs with no knowledge of the basics showing them compositions which “God gave me.”

A few years back, when someone sent me several cassette tapes of songs they had written direct from the throne of God, I passed them along to my favorite music professor (who happened also to be our minister of music).  Later, I asked, “What did you think of my friend’s music?”  He was quiet a moment, then said, “Joe, it’s junk.  Trash.  It’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard.”

Yikes.  My problem then was going back to my friend and giving him the bad news as tactfully as possible.

There is no substitute for learning the basics of writing. And nothing accomplishes this more than reading a great deal of excellent writing.

2) Write a great deal.

“I don’t have time now,” the pastor says. “But after I retire, I’ll have lots of time.”

“I beg to differ,” I say.  “You have plenty of time now.”

Pause. No response.

“You have the same amount of time everyone else does–168 hours a week.  It’s a matter of priorities, of deciding what to do with your time.”

I once asked Pastor Larry Kennedy how he found the time to write books. We were neighboring pastors, he at Amory and I in Columbus, Mississippi.  He said, “I get up early and write an hour every morning.”

That’s how it’s done. You find slivers of time wherever you can, and you write. And if you cannot “find” them, you create them.

If nothing else, Pastor, open your Word program and write for that, things you never intend anyone else to see. You’re practicing, trying to learn the craft, to “find your voice,” as they say.

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Making a difficult subject more enjoyable: What good writers do

Winston Groom, known to most as the author of Forrest Gump, was a well-respected writer of historical stuff including Shrouds of Glory, Shiloh 1862, and Vicksburg 1863.  What makes Groom’s Civil War books different from most is the stuff he inserted into the narrative. Like these, for instance….

ONE. Rebel General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a case study in a hundred things–ego, confidence, brilliance, foolhardiness–caught up with Union Colonel Abel Streight near the Georgia line. Flying a flag of truce, Forrest invited Streight to surrender.  Now, bear in mind that Forrest was out-numbered over three to one.

General Streight agreed to surrender if Forrest could convince him that he had a completely superior force.

Forrest was ready.

He had arranged for his soldiers to haul the only two pieces of artillery they possessed around in a circle, across and behind a high cut in the road, so that it would appear to Streight that whole batteries were being brought up to the front.

Finally, Streight gave in. “How many guns have you got? There’s fifteen I’ve counted already!”  Forrest said, “I reckon that’s all that’s kept up.”

Sensing the futility of his position, the Yankee colonel handed over his 1,466 troops with all their horses, artillery, and equipment. When he learned that Forrest had only 400 men and two guns, he demanded that his men and arms should be returned and that they should fight it out.  Forrest laughed, patted him on the shoulder, and said, “Ah Colonel, all is fair in love and war, you know.”

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How to write boring articles and preach dull sermons

My friends who read the title will think, “Well! Finally something Joe knows a little about!”

Every preacher, I imagine, knows about dull sermons. Anyone charged with turning out multiple sermons a week over decades will certainly produce his share of messages dead on arrival.

I’m thinking of a Christian leader/professor of past years who turned out book after book and built a reputation as a leader/writer/professor of note.  He was off the scene by the time I was thirty, so I never saw him when he was in his prime or I in mine. But, repeatedly, I came away from his writings thinking, “How dull. Why was he considered such a wonder?” My quick answer is that the standards were different in the mid-1900s. Denominational publishing houses turned out books not for their sharp content or even sales figures but for other reasons. In a word, he was “safe.”

Now! The challenge on penning something about dull writings and boring sermons is to keep from being dull myself. But, always one for a challenge, let’s see how this goes.

My recipe for articles and sermons that are DOA….

1. Spout platitudes.

Given a choice between a catchy turn of phrase and an old saying you’ve heard a thousand times, go for the latter. Faced with telling either something exciting you saw yesterday or an uninteresting rehashing of something Charles Spurgeon said 150 years ago, Spurgeon wins without a runoff.

Never meet a cliche you don’t like.  Pepper your sermons/writings with old bromides, common sayings, and everyday wisdom.  Likewise, shun (like the plague?) any expression that would challenge the reader/listener to question his presumptions, analyze his ways, reconsider his beliefs.

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How not to write humor

Don’t try too hard to be funny.

Don’t announce that you are now being funny.

Do not force it if this does not come naturally to you.

Find your own way of expressing the humor you feel in life.

Remembering that the best laugh comes from the surprise at the end of a good story, therefore, experiment with the best way to say that.

That’s also how to remember a good joke or story you’ve heard: Remember the punch line.  If you remember that exactly right, you can recall the rest of the story by working backward in it.  But the greatest single thing about telling a joke is getting the punch line right.

Again, though, surprise your hearers with it.

My granddaughter was six and we were at the swing in her front yard, doing what grandpas and little darlings do. We were singing and laughing and cutting up. At one point she said, “We’re being silly, aren’t we, grandpa.”  I said, “Yes, we are. Why do we like to be so silly?”

She said, “It’s a family tradition.”

Complete surprise, totally out of left field.  And a perfect story. It’s brief, it’s cute (people love children stories), and it fits any number of situations.  I tell it when I’m talking to seniors about their grandchildren, when I’m talking to groups about humor, and when I’m preaching on the family (“That’s a great tradition to have. What is your family tradition?”)

In telling it, however, I must not let myself signal ahead of time that “Okay, cute story coming up” or “Speaking of family traditions….”

Just tell it. The story will do the work.

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The creative process: What little I have learned

“In the beginning, God created….” (Genesis 1:1)

Real creativity is a God thing.

When you sit down to write or draw or whatever, remember that your Muse (the Spirit of God, the Original Muse!) has read it all and seen it all and inspired much of it, so He is your greatest Resource.

Those who want to learn to write should surround themselves with good writing (i.e., excellent reading material) and get to know inspired writers.

Those who want to think creatively should occasionally plant themselves among off-the-wall thinkers, people whose minds push the boundaries in every direction. They will loosen you up.

And then, pull back and spend a lot of time alone, thinking.

Go to bed thinking about whatever is bugging you, inspiring you, burdening you, pestering you, charming you, or puzzling you.  Your subconscious will keep at it while you recuperate.

If something occurs to you in the middle of the night, you absolutely must get up then and write it down.  If you plead that you are sleep deprived and insist that “this is such a great insight, I’ll surely remember it in the morning,” the single thing I can guarantee is that you will not remember it when the night is over.  Iron-clad promise.

You must get up when the idea occurs.  Write it down.

I am not suggesting you should live with the people whose minds are all over the place, whose thinking knows no limits, who challenge everything. Do this and you will soon lose touch with reality.

Just once in a while, associate with free-thinkers.

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For the pastor who wants to write, we have three suggestions

Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Write this for a memorial in a book and recount it in the hearing of Joshua…’” (Exodus 17:14).

Pastors say, “When I retire, I’m going to write a book.”

It’s like a mantra.  What are you going to do in your retirement, pastor?  “Write a book.”

And he thinks he will.  A book of his best sermons.  A book of his most memorable stories.  A book recounting the headaches, heartaches, and blessings from all the churches he has served.

That’s the plan.

Most never will write that book.  And the big reason is inertia.  It’s so hard to make ourselves do something we’ve never done before.

So, to those pastors who intend to write a book when they retire, I have three suggestions.

Step one: Get to it now.     Don’t wait until retirement.  Start now. 

This is the hardest.

Make yourself take the first baby steps. Open your computer.

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A great story can actually change your life

“And without parables (great stories!) Jesus did not teach” (Mark 4:34).

I once sat through a long session of a convention of realtors just to hear a motivational speaker.  The story with which he opened quickly became a mainstay in my arsenal of great illustrations and sermon-helpers.

Time well spent.

I’ve read entire books and come away with one paragraph that became a staple in my preaching thereafter.  It was time well used and money well spent.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the best-selling “Eat, Pray, Love” (which I do not recommend, by the way), attended a party and heard a story which became one of the defining principles of her writing career.  “Sometimes I think this man came into my life for the sole purpose of telling me this story, which has delighted and inspired me ever since.”

That’s how it works.  One story, a lifetime of benefit.

Gilbert says the man told of his younger brother who was an aspiring artist.  Living in Paris and struggling to get by, he seized every opportunity to get his name before people.  One day, in a cafe’ he met a group of people who invited him to a party that weekend at a castle in the Loire Valley.  This was big stuff and he eagerly accepted the opportunity to hobnob with people of wealth and influence.

This would be the party of the year, they said.  The rich and famous would be in attendance, as well as members of European royalty.  And, they said, it was to be a masquerade ball where everyone went all out on their costumes.  “Dress up, they said, and join us!”

All that week, the little brother worked on a costume he was sure would knock them dead.  His outfit would be the centerpiece of the ball, the one sure to generate the most interest and conversation.  When the day came, he rented a car and drove three hours to the castle.  He changed into his costume in the car and walked up to the castle, head held high, confidence and excitement exuding from the pores of his skin.

Entering the castle, he quickly realized his mistake.

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A great illustration of the importance of a good church

Robert Caro had a problem.

He was researching and writing an in-depth biography of Robert Moses, the highly acclaimed “master builder” of New York City, who lived 1888 to 1981.  Originally, Caro thought the book might take a year.

He was wrong. Bad wrong.

After a couple of years working on the book, his income ran out and he had to find a way to support his family.   They sold the house.

After a couple of years, that money ran out.

He kept working.

In time, he was embarrassed when friends would say, “What are you working on?” and he would tell them he was still on the same book.  “How long have you been working on that book?”  He would mutter, “Five years.”

Five years.  Caro felt like a failure.

The original publisher, the one that had advanced him $2,500 with the warning that no one would want to read a book on Robert Moses, finally cut him loose.  He signed on with another agent, a good one, and in time ended up with a 1300 page book that won the Pulitzer.

A 1300 page book.  It won the Pulitzer.  Don’t miss that.

But long before that, while Caro was in the throes of writing and researching and feeling alone…

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