A Writer Sees Red

From time to time, this blog looks at something about writing, which can sometimes be as much of a spiritual practice as meditation or prayer or labyrinth-walking.

Writing, though, is usually more intentional than many other spiritual practices. Part of the intentionality is how deliberate the writer must be about word choice and image choice.

Just in case you don’t believe that, here is a short and somewhat playful demonstration:

“Her face reddened” means one thing. (Has she been caught in a lie?)

“Her eyes reddened” means something altogether different. (Is she sad, or about to cry?)

“Her hair reddened” is a whole other thing. (Only her hair dresser knows for sure.) And “her ears reddened” is another shift in meaning. (Likely embarrassed about something — or possibly just caught out in the cold without earmuffs.) Yet, all of these are about redness occurring on the head.

We also talk about “red-handed,” which means something different from “her hands were red.” And a business might be “in the red” but might be saved by a “red-letter day.”

The English language offers so much meaning, often layers of it. It is a gift to find a writer who knows the depth of what’s possible with our language and how to employ it artfully.


Loss of a Heroine, Mary Oliver

I was saddened to see the announcement yesterday of the passing of Mary Oliver, longtime favorite poet of mine and of many others in my circles. What an extraordinary woman and writer! I first fell in love with her over her poem “The Summer Day,” which asks big questions like “Who made the world?” and states big thoughts like “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,” then devotes the heart of the poem to a grasshopper she has happened to meet. That’s the poem that ends with her famous question: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Her close association with and powerful descriptions of the smallest details of nature kept all of her readers grounded, and she was clear in her instruction: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

She left a large body of work, more than twenty collections of poems. The latest, Devotions, was published by Penguin Press in 2017 when she was in her early 80s.

Of course, in all that work, especially work so closely tied to nature, there was bound to be something on death, because she thought about that too. She wrote: “When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real. I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument. I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

She didn’t simply visit. She graced us all with poems that remain with us, reminding us to pay attention, be astonished, and tell about it. God bless you, Mary.


Something I’m Celebrating

These days, getting the mail is not usually something I celebrate. This week, however, I received an unexpected magazine in the mail that gave me real joy.

The publication is called BookPage, and it normally goes to libraries and bookstores to provide to their patrons. It’s full of feature articles on authors, book reviews, and ideas about books that would make good gifts. In the November 2018 edition, Barbara Kingsolver is pictured on the cover; she has a new novel out entitled Unsheltered, which I know I will be reading.

So, I casually opened the magazine, wondering how I came to be receiving it. And there on the inside front cover were ten books under a heading that read “Great Books for Every Reader.” AND THERE WAS MY BOOK!


To say that I am pleased and heartened is inadequate. It helps me want to keep writing! Fortunately, it doesn’t take a lot of encouragement to keep me going — but a little, now and then, is sure nice. I am grateful for BookPage!


First Things First

One of the best things you can do to keep your life on an even keel is to keep first things first. Of course, we learn this (again) every time we take a webinar or read a book related to effective living. But there is no substitute for actually putting the concept into practice.

You might think there can be only one “first thing” in a day, but I have three. If you think about it, you may find that you have more than one also.

The initial “first” is the first thing in my head when I wake up. Over many years of spiritual practice, my mind has been trained to start the day with a thanksgiving prayer. This particular “first thing” sets the tone for the day, and I am grateful to start each day with this attitude.

The second “first thing” occurs when I sit down at my desk to work. My spiritual practice is to open the workday with a short devotional time. Sometimes it is a few Bible verses; sometimes the workday begins with the day’s reading from Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence. This is a resource I highly recommend.

The third “first thing” is the first work task for the day. Like everyone else, my work tasks might number anywhere from five to ten in a day, but there is always one that is the most important to my long-range future. That is the one I start with, even when others on the list appear more urgent. And I never put email or Facebook ahead of that one most important task. An excellent book that can help anyone stay focused on this approach to work is Brian Tracy’s Eat That Frog! The book is structured into 21 chapters on how to stay focused on completing important projects and get more done in less time.

Everyday Spirituality means living close to God every day, living close to whatever you most value, and putting first things first.



Sometimes You Have to Start Over

With Dancing on the Whisper of God safely completed and available, I’ve been working on another novel for many months now. I am both loving it and feeling overwhelmed by it—a sure combination for keeping my interest. But just this week I came to a startling realization: The chapter I’ve been struggling with simply has to be scrapped and I have to start over. I suspect there are earlier chapters that are the same.

I admit to a twinge or two of regret, but sometime more important is there too: an excitement that maybe the revision I have in mind will be strong and solid enough to carry the project to completion.

We are all beset with issues of “historical cost”—that tendency to want to stay with something way past its expiration date on the argument that we have so much invested, we can’t possibly throw it over for something else. But there are times when that’s exactly what we have to do if we are to choose life.

I have decided to trust the excitement that tells me there is a better track over here.


The Value of a Good Book

The monthly newsletter for Parkplace Books, Kirkland, Washington, featured a quote from Oscar Wilde that I want to share:  “It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.”

Is that nothing more than a clever twisting of phrases? Or is there something worth thinking about here? I voted for the latter because of the inherent point about building character.

The various kinds of media engagement have impacts on who we are. Certainly films and songs and social media can affect us deeply, or can be simply passing entertainment. But generally a book requires a commitment of time, of living with one story or one point of view for some duration of time, and that is formative by nature. It subtly shapes the attitudes and outlook of the reader as it broadens his or her experience of life. This, in turn, alters who that person becomes.

There are all manner of books that we can choose to read, but what if we spend time every day (or at least very often) reading the Bible, even though we don’t have to? With no effort on the reader’s part, other than the simple act of reading, the messages, the themes, the guidance, the perspective, the promises of the Bible begin to shape who that person is, how that person thinks, and how that person reacts to life. Or as Oscar Wilde put it, it determines who that person will be when he or she can’t help it.

The next time you are choosing a book to read, maybe it would be wise to consider the kind of person you want to be.


Passive Voice

This month’s The Sun includes in its “Sunbeams” this wonderful thought from an unknown author:

“I must do something” always solves more problems than “Something must be done.”

Not only is this a perfect illustration of the difference between active voice and passive voice—a point about which writers are forever being cautioned—but it’s also a useful reminder for everyday spirituality.

When you think about almost any issue (helping the poor, feeding the hungry, protecting the environment, human rights, stopping domestic violence, shopping local, ending child abuse, animal rights, etc.), the voice you choose for thinking about the issue will determine your level of involvement. Saying “Something must be done” may show that you care, at least a little bit, but it assumes that someone else will do what needs to be done while you remain passive, rooting from the sidelines. Saying “I must do something” puts you in the active role and encourages you to think of specific actions you can take to move the issue in the direction you feel it should go. Here’s a video to help you get started.

And how about your spiritual life? Are you still at “Something must be done” when you reflect on where you are in spiritual practices, in daily or hourly contact with the Divine, in taking care of your soul? “I must do something” raises the level of priority and leads you to specific actions you can take immediately.




Who’s an Author?

Rob Eagar posted a “Monday Morning Tip” this morning making the claim that there is no such thing as an author. Sort of a provocative way to start a workweek for us writers! Here is an encapsulating line from his post: “It’s not the act of writing that makes someone an author. It’s the act of someone else buying what you wrote.” Okay, that’s pretty provocative too.

It appears to be a reality of publishing today – regardless of the route by which your writing reaches print – that writers have to do their own marketing. This is viewed as daunting to most of us, but for some of us, it’s a world of promise. It hearkens back to the words of wisdom most of us heard repeatedly in our youth: “if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.” I don’t mean that major publishing houses can’t do marketing well; just that these days they tend to devote their marketing funds to already established writers.

Maintaining regular spiritual practices can help with the marketing process in more ways than one. First, of course, staying deeply in tune with your spirituality fosters a state of calm for approaching the task. Second, spending regular time in silence helps to clarify in your mind avenues that will be helpful to you and those unlikely to be. Third, and probably most important, frequent prayer keeps you connected with the knowledge that you do not have to go it alone.

So, move forward in marketing what you have written, and become an author – by Rob Eagar’s definition or anyone else’s.


Dallas Writers Conference

This Best Western in Dallas, TX, has been home for two nights so I could attend the Dallas Writers University — easily the best writers conference I have ever attended. My attention didn’t stray a single second! The presentations were clearly focused on helping new writers to get their books published, and the presenters were seasoned professionals in agenting, marketing, publicity, and contracts. Best of all, the attendee list was kept very small, enabling an intimate setting and lots of 1:1 interaction between participants and presenters.

The reason I would fly from Seattle to Dallas for a writers conference can be summed up in one name: Chip MacGregor. This extraordinary agent not only made the material lively and fun when he spoke to the full group, but he also spent private time with every participant to discuss her or his book proposal. I haven’t seen this ever before, and I started attending writers conferences back before the crust of the Earth cooled.

I can’t put my 20+ pages of notes into a blog post, but I can start with a point Chip made early in the day: What is the promise you want to make in your writing? You have to know yourself, know what message you want to convey, and know what your promise to readers is. If all writers would spend some time living in those three questions, they could become much more focused and effective in their writing.



Free Reading

Just this week I added myself to Twitter – at long last, admittedly – and am slowly getting acquainted with it. What an onrush of information I’ve been missing out on!

But the best discovery so far occurred when I was contacted by a woman from the Philippians who has a short story of mine on her website. It is one of four that she has classified as “Inspirational Stories,” and it’s the same story referenced in the “Special Mention” box to the right of this blog post.

What a delight to find my story on her website! I hope everyone in her circle reads the story and also likes it!

If you read it and find it inspirational, drop me a tweet: @JeanGilbertson. I’d love to hear from you!