The Carpenter’s Masterpiece

a child's drawingMy older brother and sister were wonderful artists. By the time I reached the age of six or seven, I somehow knew that they were artists … and that I was not. Their artwork has progressed and so has mine. I have realized that my main form of artistic expression is words rather than pictures. But during a phase of experimenting with sketching, when I was 17 or so, I showed my mom my greatest masterpiece up to that point. She looked at it and smiled. “Do you remember when you used to cry because your brother and sister drew pictures you wished you could draw?”

She recalled a time that I wished I could draw something they had copied, and I couldn’t do it. I grew frustrated, crumpled a picture smudged with tears, and threw it away.

I don’t recall that incident. Probably a good thing. But I do remember looking up to them, their art. Wishing I could draw like that. I used the same paper, the same pencil colors and crayons. Why was their work so lovely when mine was so amateur?

I did not understand and stayed away from creativity for a long time. I put aside my art book and picked up a writing book instead … but only years later.

Of course, now I can see that many things take time to come to fruition. Even now I wouldn’t say that I see fruit, yet I know my passion lies in writing. And as an artist – at least of words – my greatest inspiration lies in other works of art. Music, most often; photos, drawings, dance – people choosing to express the depth of their soul through arts of various form and style.

I envision a sculptor, a painter, a builder, standing with bare, raw material before them, knowing what they want to create and that it will only be a matter of time before it is done. Perhaps they don’t know exactly what difficulties they will face in their building. Various things come into play – the weather for a house builder. They pray for the rain to stay away during certain stages of construction. The artist prays for inspiration, that their hands will be sure as they move.

But their material is in front of them and they are familiar with it. They know what they want to create and they are sure of themselves and their abilities. The painter does not grow frustrated with his brush, crack it in half, crumple up the paper and throw it away. The sculptor does not push aside the piece of wood when he is only half done. They know that with perseverance and time, their masterpiece will be complete.

I see a Carpenter who put aside His work of building simple piece of wood structures in order to work with His hands and heart to draw out the very souls of men.

It was then as it is now.

He sees the raw materials of our lives. He sees the laughter and the tears, the frustrations, the anger, the sorrows, the misunderstandings. The hopes and dreams that shattered and scattered. But He does not grow angry. His work is sure and steady, his hands adept. Perhaps the things with which He has to work – the souls of men, of you and me, are not always pliable in His hands.

Often we look up in misunderstanding and sorrow, in weariness at the moldings and the makings and cry out, “Why have you made me thus?” Still He continues to work the perfect work He knows His creation will become. For He makes everything beautiful in its time. We might ask for a little more color, for a greater variety of materials, for a bit of time outside the workshop … or a bit more time in the workshop when we are set aside to weather. Still His hands are steady and sure, His movements deft, His knowledge infinite of what He wants to accomplish within us – the works of His hands.

All creation declares what can be made, what we can become, if only we choose to stop and listen and believe in the works of His hands.


Enormous Significance of Stories

Every storyteller … looks out at the world much as you and I look out at it and sees things happening—people being born, growing up, working, loving, getting old, and finally dying—only then, by the very process of taking certain of these events and turning them into a story … does he make a sort of claim about events in general, about the nature of life itself.

And the storyteller’s claim, I believe, is that life has meaning—that the things that happen to people happen not just by accident like leaves being blown off a tree by the wind but that there is order and purpose deep down behind them or inside them and that they are leading us not just anywhere but somewhere.

The power of stories is that they are telling us that life adds up somehow, that life itself is like a story.

And this grips us and fascinates us because of the feeling it gives us that if there is meaning in any life … then there is meaning also in our lives. And if this is true, it is of enormous significance in itself, and it makes us listen to the storyteller with great intensity because in this way all his stories are about us and because it is always possible that he may give us some clue as to what the meaning of our lives is. – Frederick Buechner

Tell me a story, and I will listen. Preach and teach, and I might turn away. Or I might smile and nod, but my thoughts and heart are far away.

But begin to relate a story, and something in me opens up to receive. Some say that all the world is a stage. Perhaps it is true in that a stage is the setting for a story.

All the world. A story.

A thousand stories. A million. A billion times a billion. But somehow one.

In the realm of literature, the word “archetype” speaks to the idea that certain stories, characters, or settings stand as representations of all stories, people, and settings. Certain places or characters stand for so much more than the simple part they play in the story. A tree is not only a tree; it is life or knowledge or the loss of innocence. A river is not only a river; it is cleansing or rebirth or maybe even death. White is innocence, purity.

And the hero of the story — no matter how flawed or how near to death he comes, or even if he does die — sends some sort of thrill through the heart of the reader. Maybe it’s that part in each of us that wants to be a hero. Or maybe it’s that deeper part in each of us that wants to be rescued. That knows we need a hero. A rescuer. In the words of some, a Savior.

So we read a story. A thousand stories. And we look — often subconsciously – for those archetypes. For answers. For meaning. For a hero.

And if we are looking, we find. Even in the most random story. Or the darkest. Or most intentionally meaningless. Somehow the storytellers do communicate meaning. Truth. About life. About ourselves. About a Story that encompasses wordlessly all other stories, even the most meaningless, and infuses them with wonder. So that no one and no story and no chapter or paragraph or even word that we live could be construed as without meaning and purpose. Not when an overarching Story is penned by an all-knowing Author. Not when His words are Life and His message is love, and His story is Grace and Truth.

The Best Stories

Ted Dekker quote

There is one kind of literary device so heavily used in the Bible that many people unintentionally take it for granted. Figurative language. Metaphors and similes and other kind of analogies. Word pictures. …The Bible contains whole books filled with poetry. … God is infinitely intelligent, and since he is the one behind all this figurative language, we must assume that it was and is to this day one of the best ways, if not the best way, to communicate and understand truth.

But what is figurative language, except language that allows the reader to see a figure in his mind and imagine that the subject at hand is like that figure? …

God leans heavily on the human imagination when communicating with humanity. In fact, the use of mental images is God’s primary paradigm for illustrating truth, both through the writers of the Bible and through Christ’s use of parables. – Ted Dekker

A friend of mine, an avid reader like myself, commented that his favorite authors are those who write fiction in addition to nonfiction because they make the best use of analogy and metaphor. They paint a picture with words, bringing those words to life in the mind of the reader — whether writing fiction or nonfiction.

If you’ve been a writer for any length of time, you’ve likely heard the adamant claim that, as a writer, you must “Show, don’t tell.” If you’re in the earlier stages of your writing life, you might still wonder what exactly that means.

Showing instead of telling means painting a picture, using words to open the senses and letting your reader use imagination to fill in the spaces. It means using sensory and descriptive language to wake the reader’s senses. Sights. Smells. Sounds. Tastes. Touches. Textures. It means you’re not using thick, dense wording to explain some vague concept. Instead, you’re telling a story.

If you’re a parent, one of your favorite activities with your children is likely reading them a story, often a story that you loved as a children and are loving anew with your own child. If you look back at that childhood, one of your favorite memories might be listening to your mother or father read or tell you a story, the more realistic and exciting the better. We love stories. It’s in our DNA … or in our soul.

I love fiction, and I’m fascinated and awed by authors who have the ability to portray a story with realistic characters, show the events with sensory language, and weave in truths of life and love, sorrow and hope, loss and redemption, sacrifice and grace. The best stories invoke a glimpse into those pieces of our heart and soul that are so real we recognize them even in the most imaginative tales. They ring with truth. We can see traces of ourselves and of a greater story unfolding all around us. Most of all, the best tales reveal traces of the Author. Of the Greatest Story ever told.

Own Your Story

Brene Brown quotes on worth

“Our lives are a collection of stories — truths about who we are, what we believe, what we come from, how we struggle, and how we are strong. When we can let go of what people think, and own our story, we gain access to our worthiness — the feeling that we are enough just as we are, and that we are worthy of love and belonging. If we spend a lifetime trying to distance ourselves from the parts of our lives that don’t fit with who we think we’re supposed to be, we stand outside of our story and have to hustle for our worthiness by constantly performing, perfecting, pleasing, and proving.” – Brene Brown

We all have our stories. And, perhaps even more so, we all have our stories of fearing our story. Of hiding from it. Of wishing that another story had been our own. Of cringing when we hear that Voice calling into the darkness of who we wish we were not but know that we are. The Voice that asks, “Where are you?”

How can we answer? How can we come out of hiding when we might know where we are, but do not know that ever-more-important thing … who we are? So we run from the majestic, persistent footfalls, foreseeing nothing but our doom. Nothing but a sorrowful ending, because we have fled not only from our stories, but from the Author of those stories. Author of the greatest, overarching story that reads like a tragedy, a comedy, and ultimately a fairy tale all wrapped into one happily-ever-after.

But at that moment when our lungs are ready to implode, and our hearts at the verge of exploding at the pain of wishing that we had somehow written another story with our lives, we stop. We turn. And we find Love. The Voice that had called out into the darkness of our lives, “Where are you?” is the arms that are open to take us into His heart and life.

And in His arms, and in the drenching, life-giving storm of His love, we see the story with new eyes. We see that on the edge and rippling beneath the surface of ever sorrow and every horrific turn, or ever decision that we thought took us further away, it only enabled the Author of Grace to write another line upon our lives.

“You are worthy.

You are called by name.

Your story was penned before you first drew breath.

You are loved.

Your story is beautiful.

For it is Mine.

As you are Mine.”

The Wondrous Gift of Writing

Writer’s Conference Series, Part 5

Books were taunting me. They’d never taunted me before. Fascinated me, yes. I loved books. Even as a child, I loved the hush of a library. I would look around in wonder and ask myself, “Will I ever be able to read ALL these books?”

But the books on my bookshelves, the books on my side tables … they were taunting me. “We’ve been finished. Completed. Published.”

And I couldn’t even open my own manuscript. Or at least, I didn’t want to.

Over a week had passed since the writer’s conference. I had been both blessed and inundated by information and material, and was ready to complete the final draft of my manuscript and send it off to a few prospective agents. I had heard from a friend whose feedback on my book was just what I knew it needed to make it absolutely perfect.

All I had to do was write.

And I couldn’t do it. I tried opening the document on my computer a couple times, but my mind would fog over. I would close the document, feeling incapable and overwhelmed. I tried praying. Tried reading to fill my heart and soul with great writing in hopes that it would overflow onto my own manuscript.

But mostly, I sat in one corner of the couch and told myself, “I’ll never get this done.” And from that location, books taunted me in their finished perfection.

My husband found me there one afternoon. I tried to tell him how I felt. All I managed was, “I feel stuck,” and then the tears poured out. “I can’t do this. I’ll never get it done. I can’t finish this book. Even if I do, no one will want to publish it or take it on as an agent.”

Every hopeless comment I could possibly make about my book came out. And I wasn’t looking for compliments, hoping for my husband to reassure me with just the opposite of what I said. I was stuck. Completely stuck. I could not write a word. Any revisions I tried to add only made things worse.

“Don’t write,” he told me. “Just leave it. You’ll know when you’re ready. The words will come. Don’t push yourself.”

I nodded. I took a deep breath. The fog seemed to lift. Just knowing that someone was there to support me, someone who wasn’t pushing me, or laughing at me, but encouraging me … made all the difference.

The next day, I opened the document again. And I began to write. Within two weeks, I had completed the fifth draft.

Writers, and other artists, struggle with self-doubt. A lot. And there’s never a perfect and complete cure for that condition. But there are friends. Family. A spouse. There are encouraging words and thoughts. There are prayers. There’s sitting beside someone in tears on a couch and saying, “It’ll be okay.”

Because it will.

God says so. In His Word, and in that voice deep within the heart that whispers to us not to give up.

That assures us the best is yet to come.

That reminds us of the wondrous gift writing is.

That calls us to let the heart be filled with dreams, and to tell those dreams

as stories

as words

as poems

as beatings of the heart of a writer.

Mid-Conference Confusion

rays of light through the forest

Writer’s Conference Series, Part 2

Four am. I woke up to the van’s alarm. At a writer’s conference in a lovely mountain setting, I knew the sound might disturb the occupants of nearby cabins. I jumped up to switch off the alarm, checked out the window to make sure the van was secure, and settled back into bed. I had a good two hours of sleep ahead, three if possible.

But my mind refused to comply. It was early morning on the third day of the conference. Questions jumbled into my head. “Where do I go from here?” “Is my book ready?” “What else should I do?” “Which agents should I follow up on?” “How do I know I’m making the right choices?”

How do I know I’m making the right choices?

I tend to be a perfectionist. This trait can be good, and it can be bad, depending on what I’m applying it to. When I’m editing the work of another, it is good to have a high level of professionalism. I have never heard back from an author whose book I’ve edited with a comment like, “You’ve given me way too many comments for improvement” or “I think you over-edited my book.” I’ve also never received negative feedback, and clients are usually very happy with my edits and suggestions.

But when it comes to my own writing, specifically my long-term works (aka books), my perfectionism can be a problem. Anne Lamott’s statement in Bird by Bird comes to mind:

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life … I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”

So I’m not really afraid of dying. But I’m terrified of making the wrong decision about my manuscript. I got the idea for my current work in progress (WIP) in 2012. In 2013, the first draft was complete. Since that time, I have revised and rewritten it after input from friends, other writers, and even an editing client or two. But it’s still not ready. So while finishing the manuscript, I have been thinking about other aspects of the writing process … particularly the publishing.

And I keep drawing blanks.

These days a question for a lot of writers is, “Should I traditionally published or self-publish?” I am not going to delve into that topic here, as it would be a blog post on its own (coming soon). But it is one subject I’ve spent hours of time reading, discussing, and praying about … for the last three years. It still is not clear.

Another question that has risen time and again is, “Should I get an agent?” And on its tail, “How do I know who the right agent is for me?” A fair bit of air time during the conference was devoted to the topic of agents, and my thoughts grew muddied and confused. I’ve been considering the subject for two years now. And it still isn’t clear. (Another upcoming post.)

I had also spoken to an agent the previous day who mentioned that the particular style of book I’m writing is … well, he gave me the word picture of a funnel. Hundreds, thousands perhaps, of writers producing those types of books. They cannot all be published, especially the traditional route.

So that morning, thanks to a rabbit and a car alarm, I tossed. I turned. I rearranged my pillow. I rearranged my blanket. I thought. I prayed. And I grew more confused. I began to cry, as quietly as I could.

“Why,” I asked the Lord, “after so much time trying to find clarity, am I still not sure? I don’t even know how to find the right path for my book, much less which direction to go to publish it.”

It seems silly writing about it now, crying over my book. It’s not like I got a rejection letter or a negative critique. My own thoughts and obsession with making the right choice had me in a tizzy. I knew I had to get to the core of what was bothering me so much. And it came to me.

I was afraid.

Terrified of going in the wrong direction and regretting it later. What if I self-published and ruined my chances for traditionally publishing? What if I signed on with an agent and later discovered he is not the right one? What if? What if?

I was not just afraid; I was paralyzed by fear.

But at least I had seen it. Now what could I do about it? My tears refused to cease as I asked God to help me. I didn’t want to be afraid anymore.

I felt the urging in my heart: Go back to the beginning. The beginning of what? And then I knew. The beginning of my writing journey for the book. It was an experience that had left me in tears in the parking lot of my college campus. That day, sitting in my car, I had begun to write. And those words were the dawning of the book.

A promise was its core. “If I be lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men unto me.”

Self-publishing. Traditional publishing. Blog posts. Facebook posts. With an agent; without one. My mission remains the same. It isn’t really about the questions. Yes, study. Yes, research. Yes, do the homework and the cost-counting. But when all is said and done, I am called to one purpose.

I write to lift up the Cross.