Practice, Practice, Practice

The old joke goes like this: A visitor stops a local on the streets of New York and asks, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” The New Yorker replies, “Practice.”

Every morning before school, Gwyn practices piano. She’s a musical kid; when she was four she begged for lessons and we made a family commitment: Piano would be our means for nurturing Gwyn’s natural interest. But Gwyn’s enjoyment of music, her inherent musicality, and her fantastic ear don’t add up to a love of practice. Practicing is hard, so we routinely endure the pre-practice, baby buffalo huffing with arms crossed. Practice is Gwyn’s means to screen time (read: bribery), and most days she needs our physical proximity on the piano bench in order to stay there.

Why bother with all this effort? (more…)

Adding to the “Sum of the Universe’s Order”

“A complete novel in a trunk in the attic is an order added to the sum of the universe’s order.” Or so Annie Dillard believes. This is a peculiar metaphysical statement: Creative work makes a difference regardless of audience. How is this possible?

I posed this question in my newsletter a bit ago and received some remarkable responses. Today I’d like to share Liz Olds’ story. (more…)

Prying Open The Crack

Sometimes a theme rises up from our days, uniting otherwise random events. Consider these, from my last week:

  • I’m at a parenting class on how to use nonviolent communication with our kids. Like many parents I use coercion and shaming—instinctively, impulsively—and only recently am I coming to see this. The instructor draws a flow chart: Your kid does something that stimulates you. You can go down the path of control by judging the situation, thinking up a strategy, and demanding action, or you can go down the path of connection by observing, feeling your response, identifying your need, and requesting action. I’m amazed by how hard it is to take this second path.
  • I’m reading my church newsletter. The interim pastor has written a column challenging us to ask ourselves during this time of transition, “What do we notice?” Our habit is to see a change and jump to an opinion or judgment. He encourages us to first simply observe.
  • I’m leading a class in a tried-and-true writing exercise: Begin with an object from childhood. Describe it in detail. Only once you’ve brought it fully onto the page, allow it to lead you to other memories. The class, as always, is profoundly moved by what emerges.
  • I’m doing Centering Prayer, my candle lit, my knees on the floor. Ideas for this column pop into my head. They’re good ideas, but I remember Thomas Keating’s advice: Even should the Virgin Mary Herself tap me on the shoulder, I’m to say, “Not now, dearie; I’m doing my Centering Prayer.” I observe my thoughts then let them go.

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Praying Like a Novelist

The most well-known fiction-writing exercise comes from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, in which he asks us to describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war—but without mentioning the son, war, or death. The goal is to inhabit a character so completely that you see how they see, and you bring to bear on your seeing their history and loves and losses. It’s a great practice. When I’ve used the exercise in classes, I add other scenarios as well: Now describe the barn as seen by a teenage girl who’s just developed her first crush. Now describe it as seen by a weary farmer who’s recently gone bankrupt. Now by a weary cow…

Fiction writing is an exercise in empathy, or perhaps a state beyond that—a thorough imagining our way into the lives of others. (more…)

Finding Value in your Creative and Spiritual Endeavors

I can’t tell you how often writers hand me pages and ask, “Is this worth it?” All creative and spiritual endeavors ask of us time and energy. In our outcome-oriented way, we want some sense that our work (both the process and the product) will have value.

Ken Wilber, Buddhist and Integral Theorist, recently turned my understanding of value on its head. I suspect that, if we apply his ideas to our creativity and our spiritual practices, we’ll radically shift how we think about their worth. (more…)

The Challenge of Receiving Love

Regardless of what you think of the Christianity of my upbringing, its one unambiguously worthy value is that of loving others. “Love your enemies,” “Love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and with all your strength,” “Love your neighbor as yourself”: Pouring love into the world is Christianity’s core mandate. For five decades of church-going and three decades of serious spiritual practice, loving others has been my orientation and effort.

So when my friend Michael Bischoff cavalierly told a crowd, “What matters is the degree to which we can receive love,” my jaw dropped. (more…)