Monthly Archives: August 2011
Does having a superpower mean life is easy? On the contrary, it means a life of struggle. Every superhero, no matter how invincible, runs into an enemy or situation which pushes him to the limits of his power. On this blog, I’ve compared the ability to write to a superpower, because it can be used in a variety of situations to help others and to change the world. Yet like any superpower, the ability to string words together often leads to a life of struggle.
On his blog dedicated to the craft of writing, Jeff Goins asked whether or not writing is hard. It’s not that the physical act of writing is hard: you simply sit at a keyboard and type. Rather, it is the mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of writing which make it so difficult at times.
The Mental Struggle
My favorite superhero is Batman. He is a normal man whose super-heroism results not from some exceptional power, but from his own courage, determination, and ingenuity. Batman is smart. Whenever the other, more powerful members of the Justice League are powerless to deal with a crisis, Batman is the one with the quiet confidence and mental clarity to devise a solution.
Sometimes having exceptional abilities can be a real liability. Superman is so used to being able to smash his way to success that he can become uncertain when those powers are not enough. Batman, on the other hand, always has to get by on his own wits and determination.
It’s the same for writing. There are people who seem naturally gifted at stringing words together, but those writers often become crippled when the words don’t come easily. Every writer has moments of doubt and uncertainty. Are my words powerful enough? Am I making myself clear? Am I really saying anything that hasn’t been said before? It is the writer who can push through this uncertainty to get something down on paper who ultimately ends up changing the world.
If you don’t know what to write, write something. Even if you throw it out later, the act of writing itself can help you focus your thoughts and arrive at a solution. Even Batman’s initial plans usually fail, but he learns from his mistakes and ultimately triumphs.
The Emotional Struggle
My son Caleb’s favorite superhero is Spider-man. Spider-man is smart like Batman, as well as being blessed with a variety of superpowers. Yet Spider-man is often emotionally conflicted. He struggles with the fact that some people question his motives or blame him for the unintended consequences of his actions. He also worries that the people he loves will be hurt by his poor choices.
Like Spider-man, every writer faces an emotional struggle. Will other people like what I write? Will they think I’m clever, or stupid? Will they call me a hack? It is that fear of being misunderstood that leads many writers to give up before they start, or to keep what they write to themselves. But what good is a superpower if it doesn’t benefit anyone?
Spider-man inevitably pushes through his emotional turmoil to do the right thing. You’ll need to push through yours to do the write thing. (Hmmm, will you think that pun was clever or corny? Maybe I should change it … oh, never mind!)
The Spiritual Struggle
Every superhero struggles to keep his or her secret identity secret, but a writer can’t hide behind a mask. A writer can’t even hide behind a pseudonym. The writer must inevitably bare his or her own soul in the process of writing. It can feel like standing in front of a crowd naked, or perhaps wearing brightly colored spandex. Writing makes you vulnerable in a way that goes beyond the mere risk of embarrassment. If you bare your soul on paper, and others don’t like what you write, it can feel a little like being rejected by someone who really knows you well. It is this fear of rejection which is perhaps the greatest struggle a writer must face.
That’s why it’s so important for a writer to tap into the source of his superpower. Without a source of inspiration, without a motivation higher than our own need to be liked, we can find it easy to hold back, play it safe, and stop short of writing with real power.
So is writing hard? You bet it is. But if we can work through our mental, emotional, and spiritual struggles, we can use our superpower to make a real difference in the world. Remember, heroism comes not in the mere exercise of a superpower, but in the superhero’s triumph in the face of a momentous struggle.
Question: Which of these struggles do you find most challenging?
A well-known Christian evangelistic tract begins with the assertion that “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” I’ve seen it parodied in a variety of ways over the years. For example, someone cautioning Christians not to become overcommitted to church activities changed it to “the church loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” I think we can go even broader than that: everyone will love you, if you follow their wonderful plan for your life. It may be the church, a youth minister, a small group leader, a soccer coach, a ballet instructor, a schoolteacher … you name it. These people and groups all tend to have a wonderful plan for your life, and they will all love you to the extent that you follow their plan.
This is, of course, perfectly natural. The people who devote their time to various activities or ministries do so because they enjoy and believe in them. The athletic coach believes that the sport he or she is coaching can teach kids principles of sportsmanship, fair play, discipline, and endurance. The youth minister is passionate about reaching young people for Christ. The church small group leader is excited about building community and a deeper understanding of the Bible. The pastor is committed to ministering to his congregation and the community at large. All of these people believe in what they’re doing, and all of them need help to accomplish their goals. Coaches need parents to bring kids to every practice, to help with snacks or fundraisers or coaching a particular position. Ministers and small group leaders need volunteers to help with various aspects of ministry, and they need committed “congregants” to show up to receive what they have to pass on. Teachers need parents to donate school supplies, make sure homework gets done, help with class projects or field trips, etc.
All of these people need help, so all of these people need you. They each have a “plan for your life,” a definite idea about how you could best be spending your time, and as far as they’re concerned, that plan is “wonderful.” The more you follow that plan, the more they will see you as the model parent, or parishioner, or volunteer. In short, the more time and energy you give them—the more you help alleviate their stress and overcommitment—the more they will “love” you.
Again, all of this is perfectly natural and understandable. The problem is that you have a finite amount of time and energy, and more “wonderful plans for your life” than you can possibly keep up with. If your family is involved in only a couple of activities, you can quickly find yourself overwhelmed by the competing demands on your time.
Most of us try to deal with those competing demands by setting priorities and limiting our level of commitment to each activity, but it’s there that the battle begins. Saying to the coach, teacher, or minister that you can only give this much involves the risk that he or she will only “love” you that much. It means you will be viewed as less “committed” or “dependable” than other volunteers who are willing to give more to that particular activity. It means you will feel the guilt of remaining silent when someone says, “Can anyone help with this?”
Ultimately, limiting your level of commitment to the various “wonderful plans” available to you requires an exceptional level of commitment. If you long to be a good mother, it can be tough to say “no” to chaperoning that field trip—particularly when some other mothers are present at every school activity. If you pride yourself on being a good father, it is painful to feel like the only dad who is not helping coach his child’s team. If you long to serve God faithfully, it can be heart-wrending to think you’re not faithfully giving your time to the church. You begin to wonder what those other moms, dads, and churchgoers think of you. Do they question your commitment? Your love for your kids? Your love for Christ? Faced with those self-doubts and insecurities, it can be easier just to “do a little more” than to keep saying no.
Of course, the trouble is that every decision to “do a little more” is a decision to have a little less time for something else, and therein lies the cost of overcommitment. What are you giving up so you can better follow someone else’s “wonderful plan” for your life? Are you sacrificing dinner as a family for a fast-food meal eaten on the run? Are you losing sleep so you can get a little more done? Are you becoming increasingly frazzled and unable to focus on any one thing? Are you giving up time in prayer and personal Bible study so you can be there every time the church doors open? These are all very real costs we must pay in order to “do a little more,” and because there are few people pressuring us to eat with our families or get a good night’s sleep, we find it easier to pay those costs than suffer the sideways glances of the overcommitted people all around us.
As the school year begins again, you’re likely to have all kinds of “sign-up sheets” passed in front of you. Let me caution you to think long and hard before you add your John Hancock to someone else’s “wonderful plan” for your life. What you see as a limited commitment, they may see as a pledge of your life, fortune, and sacred honor. Be careful to remain as resolute as Mr. Hancock was in resisting tyranny: namely, the tyranny of the urgent. It’s all too easy to choose the urgent needs of other people’s “wonderful plans” over the truly important things in life. Make that mistake, and you’ll miss the depth of soul and depth of relationship that make life truly wonderful.
Question for my students: What literary device did I use in the last paragraph of this post?
Question for the rest of you: What have you had to say “no” to? How did it cost you the approval of others? Was it worth it?
Update: For more on the need to simplify and focus on what is important, see this excerpt from my devotional, Feet to Follow, Eyes to See.
My ten-year old daughter, Alexa (affectionately known as Lexi), took up the violin a little more than eight months ago. Today, she and her fellow students played at a local nursing home to entertain the residents. Here she is “fiddling around”:
All week I’ve been making the case that writing is a superpower. I’ve supported that claim by showing how the ability to write has given me—and can also give you—opportunities to succeed in school and in the working world. The danger of recounting my career history and citing it as evidence of a “superpower” at work is that it can easily sound like I’m bragging. I’m not.
While my story includes its share of unique opportunities and career successes, I have not yet written the great American novel or New York Times best-seller. I am neither rich nor famous. I am not implying that the ability to write is, by itself, an automatic guarantee of success in life. I am merely making the case that if you can write, you will always have opportunities to use that skill to help yourself and others.
The thing about superpowers is that they are all dependent on a source. The source of Superman’s near-invincibility is our solar system’s yellow sun. The source of Spider-man’s amazing abilities is the radioactive spider bite he received. The source of the X-Men’s wide array of powers is their possession of a mutated gene.
It is interesting to note that every one of these comics feature story lines in which the heroes are in danger of losing their superpowers in some way. Just survey the recent spate of superhero movies to see this: Superman Returns, Spider-man 2, Fantastic 4, and nearly all the X-Men movies wrestle with what happens to superheroes when they lose the source of their superpowers.
Like other superpowers, writing is also dependent on a source. Great writing is a skill that can be learned, but it’s worthless unless the writer has something worth saying. The Greeks believed that great writing came from patron goddesses known as the Muses. Later writers have spoken of the need for “inspiration.”
The uninspired writer is a pitiful wretch plagued by such torments as “writer’s block” and the terrifying blank page. The writer who finds his inspiration finds joy in the exercise of his superpower, and bystanders marvel at the wonders he accomplishes. Take away a writer’s inspiration, and he becomes as powerless as Superman in the presence of kryptonite.
My source of inspiration is my relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ. I recently wrote about how that relationship began and what it means to me over at the Feet to Follow blog. That relationship is the lens through which I see the world. Its stamp is on everything I write—even the simple family anecdotes or trivial observations which are not explicitly “religious.”
So if at any point these autobiographical reflections and this extended “superpower” metaphor start to sound boastful, remember that I am well aware of the source of my superpower, and without Him I can do nothing.
I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in Me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without Me. (John 15:5 HCSB)
In my previous post, I told you how I wrote my own job description by starting a side-business that utilized my writing superpower. While it was a nice little source of supplemental income, it was too labor intensive ever to become much more than that. Around the time I was letting that business wind down, I came up with an idea for using my superpower to aid in the ministry of my church. I had no idea I was once again writing my own job description.
I approached the senior pastor of my church with the idea of writing a weekly curriculum based on his sermons. I wanted to create a way to help people in the congregation prepare for each week’s sermon by studying the passages and sermon topics ahead of time. It was really just a vague idea and I wasn’t sure how I would implement it, but I asked my pastor if he would be open to my developing such a curriculum.
My pastor then explained to me that the church’s small groups had been asking him to provide them with summaries of his sermons and questions for discussion. They wanted to be able to discuss the sermon during the week following the sermon, while I was wanting to create a curriculum that would let people prepare during the week before the sermon. Still, there was enough similarity between what I had offered and what the small groups were asking for to prompt the pastor to suggest I begin writing those sermon summaries and discussion questions. Better still, the church was willing to pay me for this work!
The pastor had intended for several years to write books summarizing the theme of each year’s sermons, but he had never been able to find the time. Now all of a sudden he had a young man who was writing summaries of his sermons—summaries that his congregation really seemed to appreciate. He soon approached me about co-authoring his books.
A year after I had stopped bussing tables to begin a “real job,” my superpower had enabled me to leave my real job for a “dream job” in which I got to work from home, set my own hours, write about things that interested me, and feel like I was doing something important. I ended up writing six books which the church published itself. That church has continued to publish books and teaching materials ever since.
Eventually, I reached the point where that “dream job” came to an end. But it had already planted the seeds for two more work opportunities—one of which was another “dream job” I’m still enjoying to this day. I’ll tell that story in my next post. In the process, I’ll also demonstrate that someone will always have need of your writing superpower.
If you can write, you can find work even in a down economy where jobs are scarce. With a little creativity, you can write your own job description.
A couple years after I graduated college, I found myself in career purgatory, biding my time bussing tables at a local restaurant and wondering where in the world I would find a “real job.” But I also knew how to write, and I used my superpower to start a little side business called Cyrano’s Custom Calligraphy. “Entrepreneur” and “small business owner” sound a lot more impressive than “busboy,” don’t they?
The inspiration for this business came from Cyrano de Bergerac, a play about a brilliant poet and expert swordsman whose one fatal flaw is his grotesquely long nose! Cyrano loves the fair Roxanne from afar. Roxanne has eyes for Christian de Neuvillet, a handsome man whose soul is simple and whose words are clumsy. Knowing he does not have the poetic soul to capture Roxanne’s heart, Christian asks Cyrano to help him woo her. So Cyrano stands in the shadows beneath Roxanne’s window, pretending to be Christian and wooing her with poetry that springs from the love in his own heart.
Knowing that, like Cyrano, I could lend my words to those who struggle to express their feelings, I began peddling “Beautiful Words, Artfully Displayed, to Touch the Heart of Your Roxanne.” My customers typically wanted to give a unique and personalized gift to someone: their mother for Mother’s Day, their spouse for an anniversary, and so forth. I would simply ask them how they felt about that person, and then I would try to convey those feelings in a way that sounded both eloquent and sincere. Once I had gotten their approval of what I had written, I would print it using some attractive font or layout, then frame and matte it to create a nice gift the recipient could display somewhere. My customers would often tell me that I had written the very things they had always wanted to say but didn’t seem to know how to say.
Now, Cyrano’s was never much more than a fun side-business that generated a little extra income. Once I found a “real job” that began taking more of my time, I stopped doing it. Then again, I had also begun a new writing project which soon supplemented my income and which eventually turned into a “dream job.”
I’ll tell you about that in my next post.
[This is the third part of a lecture designed to inspire high school students to love writing. In my next post, I’ll give another example of how writing lets you “write your own job description.”]
I’ll let you in on a little secret. Doing well in school—particulary college—is not about how smart you are or how much you know. It’s about mastering certain skills. I wasn’t always the most diligent student, but I knew how to take tests well and I knew how to write well. Learning to write well means learning to reason well, learning to move from premises to reasonable conclusions, learning to support your ideas with relevant facts, etc. So if you write well you’ll often look smarter than those who know more than you do.
This isn’t just about looking like the smartest kid in school; it’s about being able to do something with the knowledge you have. There are plenty of brilliant people out there who can’t communicate what they know to anyone else. They may have smarts, but they don’t have a great deal of influence. It’s the brilliant people who know how to communicate their ideas who achieve academic renown. Perhaps that’s why most Ph.D’s and advanced degrees are awarded on the basis of a scholar writing a dissertation.
The need to write well doesn’t end after the degree is awarded. New professors learn very quickly that writing is the key to their survival. The academics who keep their jobs are the ones who write articles, papers, and books which get published. They are expected to “publish or perish.”
[This is the second part of a lecture designed to inspire high school students to love writing. In my next post, I’ll show how writing lets you “write your own job description.”]
It’s okay if you answered no to some or even all of those questions. I understand. Writing can be hard work, it’s not as glamorous as being a rock star or Hollywood actor, and it may seem a little on the “brainy” side. Just be aware that if you think that way, you’ll end up looking as clueless as Lois Lane is about Clark Kent.
You see, the writer’s mild-mannered, corrective-lens-wearing exterior masks a wonderful secret: writing is a superpower.
If you learn to string words together effectively, you’ll find yourself capable of doing all kinds of things which are beyond the reach of mere mortals. Learn to write, and you’ll never be out of a job. Learn to write, and you’ll have people offering you jobs designed just to take advantage of your talents. Learn to write, and you can influence others, develop a following, change a life, even change the world.
[This is the first part of a lecture designed to inspire high school students to love writing. In my next post, I’ll show how writing lets you “rule the school.”]
It’s true. I have a superpower. I can’t fly, I’m quite sure bullets won’t bounce off my chest (though I’m admittedly too chicken to test the theory), and the only locomotives I’m stronger than are those that come in HO scale. My hands don’t stick to walls or sport adamantium claws, my eyes don’t shoot lasers, and while I sometimes lose my temper, it doesn’t result in my suddenly looking like Lou Ferrigno. Nevertheless, I have an ability which, if used responsibly, can have a huge impact for good in the world: I can write.
How is writing a superpower? I’ll explain that in an upcoming series of posts I wrote to inspire a high school English class. Hopefully they’ll inspire you as well.
What inspires me? What makes me want to use my superpower for good? Primarily my faith in Jesus Christ and my desire to bring him glory. Secondarily my love for my family and my desire to share their stories. Finally, my love for seeing words strung together skillfully helps me find inspiration in any great piece of writing. Given these three sources of inspiration, and the recognition that I have the “great responsibility” to use my “great power” to benefit others, this blog will consist of my “musings on faith, family, and life with a superpower.”