Writing about those painful personal experiences

“If you have known pain, you have a story.  Tell it.”

“This will be written for the generation to come; that a people yet to be created may praise the Lord” (Psalm 102:18).

Humanity is indebted beyond calculation that in the distant past God told some people to write about their pain.

–Job went through the death of all his children, the loss of all his possessions, and a skin affliction that tormented him.  We have no way of measuring the grief and misery he knew.  On top of that, he was left with a nagging wife and given three burdensome friends.  Eventually, he or someone wrote the story. And we are forever in their debt.

–The story of Joseph in Genesis is a favorite of many.  Sold into slavery by his brothers, he was betrayed and framed and thrown into prison where he was essentially forgotten.  And yet, God brought him out with a mighty hand.  We are so glad someone wrote this.  Moses, we are told (see Exodus 17:14; 24:4; 34:27).

–Someone wrote about Moses’ temper, the Israelites’ shenanigans, and David’s unfaithfulness.  They wrote about Jeremiah’s hardships, Thomas’ doubt, and Paul’s sufferings.  And yes, they recorded Moses’ faithfulness, David’s songs, and Jeremiah’s courage.  Thankfully!

We’re glad they thought to record the dark side.  Think how much poorer we would be had the writers of history chosen to record only the pleasant, “uplifting” events and experiences and left out what Oliver Cromwell called the “warts and all.”

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Something I tell students about writing

“This will be written for a generation to come, that a people yet to be created may praise the Lord” (Psalm 102:18).

What qualifies me to teach writing is not that I’m all that great of a writer myself.  But I love good writing, I work at learning to do it better, and I know some things on the subject worth passing along.

Consequently, I sometimes get invited to speak at writers’ conferences.  As I did this past weekend in Tuscaloosa. (The Southern Christian Writers Conference, the child of Dr. David and Mrs. Joanne Sloane, has been around for nearly 30 years and each June, the first weekend, enrolls nearly 200 students.  Meeting at Tuscaloosa’s First Baptist Church, the SCWC brings in editors and publishers and all sorts of successful writers to teach.  Oh, and they also bring me in.  Just goes to show, I suppose.)

The text from Psalm 102:18 is the Scripture that fuels their writings, the Sloanes say.  After all, we’re told, more people of the future will read our stuff than will our contemporaries.  In a sense, we’re writing history.

Writing a journal is like taking a 30-minute slice of your today and sending it ahead into the future.  I’m big on journaling.  Journals, we are told, are not so much for our children–who presumably are living the same life we are and have little curiosity about how we view today–as for our grandchildren and theirs.  In time, my journal will be looked upon as something of a record of “the life of an ordinary Baptist preacher in the 1990s.”  I’ll not be around to know it, but in doing those journals–I’m through with journal-keeping except on this blog, something that I wouldn’t exactly call journaling–it has often been with a view toward the future.  There’s a strong witness for Christ throughout all 56 volumes.

Anyone can write; you don’t even have to know good English.  However, if you want people to read what you’ve written, knowing how to make subjects and verbs agree and the difference in they’re, there, and their will come in handy.  Most of us cannot long abide poor writing, so while we may read a few pages, we soon lay it aside because of the assault on our brains.

Therefore, however (I love to put those two words together!), you can get on with writing, without waiting on a certification in proper English usage or the muse to inspire you.  Just do it.

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How cartooning figures into my larger ministry (an assignment)

I was speaking to the medical staff at our Southern Baptist International Mission Board at the request of one of their physicians.  She asked that I talk about how cartooning figures into the ministry to which God called me..

“Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us exercise them accordingly….” (Romans 12:6).

As  a young pastor I drew a sharp line to distinguish between natural talents and spiritual gifts.  The first you are born with; the second reborn with.  The first might involve talents for music, art, science, math, etc.  But spiritual gifts–those strengths in our heavenly DNA–would be more along the lines of preaching, teaching, service, prayer, witnessing, and such.

I’ve altered that a little….

It’s all His.  And whatever natural talents and gifts He gave us can be given back to Him and used for His glory.

I began drawing at the age of 5 when Mom put me and my 3-year-old sister at the table with pencil and paper and told us to draw.  I learned immediately that I loved to draw.  The next year, the first graders at Nauvoo (AL) Elementary School would gather around and watch as I sketched.

As a 16-year-old, I took a correspondence course in cartooning.  But mostly I was self-taught.

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The Holy Spirit, my editor

“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, “He had a great idea.  He makes some excellent points. But he desperately needed an editor.”

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 (which is what we are doing on the internet) serve as our own editors.

The result is often embarrassingly bad. I will read something from 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 made a mess of it).

I read those and think, “I wrote that? Man, I need an editor.  Or a wife.”  (Please smile.)

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A few of our articles which went viral

Several years ago a friend who works for one of the online preachers’ magazines and I were having a conversation about what works for pastor-blogs and what doesn’t.

Anyone reading sermoncentral.com and churchleaders.com and such has observed that these programs prefer essays which offer ‘Seven ways to do this” or “Five ways to do that.”  A close second would be “How I learned to love (something we normally despise)” or “Why I came to reject (something we do all the time).” That sort of thing.

I said my goal for the next year was to write something that went viral.

I was being silly.

But it happened.

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Is this the 39th best Christian blog? I seriously doubt it.

One of our colleagues in the ministry has collated a list of the 100 best Christian blogs.  Here is his announcement:

http://redeeminggod.com/100-top-christian-blogs/

Last year, ours did not make his list. This year, we showed up at 39.

Okay, it’s nice, and we’re flattered. But who really knows? And does it really matter?

Personally, I dislike lists of the 100 biggest, 100 greatest, 100 most.  The upside is that such a list might alert readers to some good blogs they had missed. The downside is the pride. “Let me add that to my resume.’  His blog was voted among the most popular!”

Sheesh.

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The pastor intends to write a book, but probably won’t. Here’s why.

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.

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How to stimulate the creative juices and possibly even write humorously

He who would write humorously should spend an hour at Walmart people-watching. She who would write creatively might wish to do the same thing, preferably with laptop or phone in hand for note-taking.

Anyone hoping to write creatively and freshly should take the advice of movie-maker Harold Ramis. “I tell students (on arriving at a party or similar type gathering) to identify the most talented person in the room. And if it isn’t you, go stand next to him.”

Absorb.  Listen.  Remember. (And above all, be quiet.  You’re there to observe.)

I’ve heard of a workshop for creative thinking among executives where the participants play paintball for an hour, then brainstorm on some topic.  They are given a stack of magazines of any and all kinds and given 30 minutes to find every creative slogan or motto, and to jot it down. At the conclusion, they are thrown into small groups and told to adapt the best of those mottos to their own industry.

Creativity can be manipulated. The juices can be made to flow.

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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?”

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How to write humor. (An actual class for an actual writers conference)

In an effort to learn something beneficial to share with my class in 10 days at the Southern Christian Writers Conference in Tuscaloosa, I’ve been working and reading and thinking and worrying.

Mostly worrying.

Here is what I have figured out so far.

I do not know how to write humor.

But I’m not telling that to Dr. David and Mrs. Joanne Sloan who invited me. I plan to stand up straight and act like I know what I’m doing, and hopefully fool them.  Hey, it has happened before. I pastored six churches for 42 years. I know a lot about sucking it up and acting like I’m capable.

By now you’re wondering why I was invited to teach this class when so many “real” writers with impressive resumes are available.  You’re not alone.  I’m wondering the same thing.

The short answer is that I come cheap. The longer answer is that I come really, really cheap. Like, I’d do it for nothing, you know?

Erma Bombeck and Art Buchwald couldn’t come, tied up as they are teaching similar classes on a much higher level. In heaven, actually.

I assume.

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