Before I Write: Five Things

A favorite travel photo from walking across Spain last year. It speaks so much to me about the pilgrimage.

A favorite travel photo from walking across Spain last year. It speaks so much to me about the pilgrimage.

Reading and participating in social media “forums” is a favorite pastime. It’s a good way to learn, laugh and network with others who have similar interests. I participate in groups ranging from Latin American expats to birdwatchers to hikers and writers.

It often bewilders me when I see posts for writers who have difficulty generating writing ideas. Really? It’s a rich world out there. If a writer has consistent difficulty with ideas, it may be time to rethink things altogether. There’s almost no reason whatever for the absence of good subject matter, and outside scheduling conflicts there’s no reason you can’t write every day if that’s your chosen path – not that it necessarily should be.

For me, writing is all about what happens before I sit at the keyboard. It’s about five things mostly.

#1. There Must be an Outline in My Head or On Paper

My pre-writing outline organizational method is pure madness. It involves multiple notebooks in multiple places, various phone applications, Post-It notes, napkins and other scrap paper tidbits.

At 50, my ideas require immediate documentation, or they’re gone forever. I’ve attempted memory techniques, but they’re epic fails. This means there’s a notebook by my office computer, my kitchen table computer, my bedside, in my truck, my briefcase and one dedicated especially for church where so many themes are born.

There’s a notes application on my phone used mostly when I walk, and a dedicated place on the kitchen counter for a stack of random restaurant napkins, wrinkled Post-Its and usually a bank deposit slip or two and maybe a grocery store receipt where I’ve written other random thoughts.  There are both predictable (church, in bed, working out, etc.) and unpredictable (driving, the shower, grocery store, and many other) environments where my ideas get generated, and note readiness is necessary in all these places and more.

Periodically, I review all these caches and gather the dozens of related, if fragmented,  ideas into new groupings. These very rough outlines become the first foundations for blog posts, book chapters and future possible bigger ideas. I mull on them sometimes for hours, other times for months. Then when the inspiration hits, I rearrange the rough foundational outlines into a sensible order, and that’s when the writing may begin. It’s constant chaos until that point, but it’s what works for me, and by the time my fingers hit the keyboard, the writing typically flows pretty well. By that point, it’s almost written in my head.

#2. I Know What Inspires Me

Much of the above leads to the fact that if you’re going to record your inspiration, you need to know where/when/how you typically get inspired.

Inspiration owes me nothing. In fact, it hides around corners and in the dark, and rarely falls into my lap. Inspiration is jealous. It requires that I pursue it, and learn through experience how it ebbs and flows as the tide.

Unquestionably, my best ideas come when I sweat, and it’s even better if the sweat comes outdoors in a natural setting. Neurological research proves this true.

A 2015 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found 90 minutes of walking regularly, especially in non-urban areas, reduces tendencies toward depression and mental illness. Scientists could actually see this at work in people’s brains. Another study used a test group to prove that backpacking and disconnecting from technology boosted creative thinking and problem solving by as much as 50 percent.

Long walks and hikes work best for me. If it’s raining, or if outdoors is inconvenient, a treadmill works fine. My current big project was developed on a 500-mile pilgrimage across Spain and the next one will likely involve a similar adventure. I do believe the best creative ideas flow first as salty liquid through my pores.

It’s not the reason I go to church, and for a time I felt guilty because of this, but I never leave a Sunday worship service with less that a half-dozen good ideas. Since I tie much of my experiential writing to metaphorical and parable-type themes, church and personal bible-reading time always bring anticipation for ideas. It’s often the place where I get the first picture of my future work from 20,000 feet.

#3. Read

This pretty much goes without saying. To create good work, you have to know what good work looks like. You need exposure to what’s good, bad and everything in between.

If I could create a perfect writer-self, I’d be 60 percent Pat Conroy, 30 percent Lewis Grizzard, and 10 percent Larry McMurtry.

You should read books, newspapers, magazines, billboards, business cards, greeting cards – every media you can find. Somewhere in the deep recess of my mind, my subconscious edits social media posts and I just can’t help it. If you’ve used an apostrophe to create a plural, you’ve made me cringe at some point. It hurts so badly. And yes, if you’re a “christian” writer you probably ought read the bible regularly. Two Corinthians has some good stuff, according to Donald Trump.

Another favorite photo from last year in Puerto Cayo, Ecuador.

Another favorite photo from last year in Puerto Cayo, Ecuador.

#4. Travel & Live

I’m never more inspired than when I travel – 10 miles down the road, or 5,000 miles from home, travel brings out my best creative ideas.

Though I’ve been an objective journalist a lifetime, I learned more than 10 years ago in Cancun, Mexico that my creative bent loves new places.

It was during an early-morning run just at the centro came to life when I saw an older, obviously poor, and possibly homeless woman on the street. From the top of her lungs she was yelling at a storefront mannequin as if she saw it possessed. She was obsessed with the figure, cursing, crying in a spiritual battle with a counter spirit she sensed right before her. It was an amazing thing to witness and I was thankful, 2,000 miles from home, to be in that place, at that time, and see the event play out. I felt so sorry for the old woman, but also couldn’t help thinking about all the life experiences that brought her to such a place. Of course, it made me want to write on the spot.

Pat Conroy once said:

“Once you’ve traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.”

It’s true. I’m most alive when I’m traveling.

#5. I Understand My Creative Limits

This is a true product of time and getting to know your creative self.

I can write journalistic-type copy any time of day, but creative copy is a different animal. I’ve worked at it long enough now to know that I have three to four hours a day, about four days a week when I can produce decent work. I also know it must happen between 4 a.m. and 1 p.m. My creative day is toast after 1.

Knowing this also helps me know when I need to do something different.

Today, I desperately need to work on a book chapter, but the creativity’s not there. It would be a total waste of time and I knew it when I woke up this morning. That doesn’t mean I can’t write. It simply means I can shift my focus to something else – a more analytical blog post like this requiring almost no creative juice. And with it, my need to create and express is fulfilled.

***

When the stars align with the things above, I get to do what I love. Someone once said, “The only way I know  what I think or how I feel is if I write it.”

That’s true enough, and after all these years, I’m glad to understand it better.

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On the Topic of Prepositional Phrases in Writing

A few months ago, a pastor/author I’d never heard of contacted me and asked if I’d consider reviewing a book he’d written before it hit the market.

The book’s topic about owning your Christian faith sounded interesting enough, so I said sure,Prepositional phrase and maybe he could reciprocate some time. No problem, he responded, and a virtual handshake deal was done.

A few days later the book arrived, and I carved out some time to give it a thorough read. Just into page two, this paragraph screamed:

“I have long been compelled to write this book because I have discovered solidarity with my fellow second-generation Christians as we search for authentic faith. Children of the church live in a paradox between the biblical knowledge in our heads and the wanderlust in our hearts. Ours is a misunderstood struggle, unknown to those who have been dramatically rescued from enslavement to the world, their faith still fresh.” emphasis mine.

Let’s bypass the passive voice, and save that for another post.

This man is a previously published author, represented by a fairly prominent agent.

Prepositional phraseI read the paragraph several times fighting for comprehension that never came. I read on, hopeful it was an anomaly, only to find it was just the beginning of a literary disaster – in my opinion – which is exactly what he’d requested.

I struggled with a response. Who was I, in particular, to judge this man’s work? I wanted to rip the text apart, and offer an honest reply that it was among the most convoluted things I’d read. My editor would have had a field day with it.

So with respect, realizing he was previously published, and represented by an agent of some regard, this is what I said:

“Dear XXX: Thank you for your contact and book review inquiry. Because I cannot give your book a favorable review, I’d prefer to pass this time. I believe your editor, and your agency have done you a serious injustice, allowing text into a book that’s not yet ready for publication. If you’d like to know my concerns more specifically, please feel free to contact me via email.”

The author did contact me, and I pointed to countless areas in his book where prepositional phrases were rampant. It’s not that prepositions are bad things. They’re just not the best of things, and overuse points to seriously amateur work.

Prepositional Phrase

Every writer does it. It’s a terrible trap, and one I work hard to avoid  (see there) – and it does take work. But to make our writing its best, we should avoid prepositional phrases like the plague.:)

It’s a subliminal thing. When a reader pours through copy permeated with prepositional phases, he/she may not know exactly what is bothering them, but they know something is bothering them. It may not be enough to compel them to toss your work aside, but it may well be distraction enough that they never get a clear picture of what you really mean.

Example:

Incorrect: The opinion of the manager.

Correct: The manager’s opinion.

Another example:

Incorrect: The obvious effect of such a range of reference is to assure the audience of the author’s range of learning and intellect.

Correct: The wide-ranging references in this talk assure the audience the author is intelligent and well-read.

See the difference?

Sentences and paragraphs with too many prepositional phrases, simply lose their point. It’s in there somewhere. The reader just can’t find it, and he can’t pull it from your brain, or what you meant.

Take a look at your own work and see how many prepositional phrases you can eliminate. Then go back and judge for yourself if your work’s not clearer, more concise and more to the point of what you want your reader to know.

What tips do you have for using, or not using prepositional phrases, or better writing in general?

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The Parable of Two Doors: Not a Choice, But a Point of Entry

Door of Perceived Opportunity

Photos by Dana Hoggard Watkins

Joseph had taken every personality profile assessment you can imagine, and multiple times.

Eventually, he thought, the results would come up different, but they never did.

Joseph was driven, intense, introspective and a strategic thinker. He also had a compassionate heart, and the latter only added to his internal drive for change. He’d always believed, that together, with a like-minded group of friends, they could change the world.

He worked at a small company, independently owned, and somewhat entrepreneurial in culture. Joseph loved the diversity in his colleagues, especially because they were smart in so many ways he was not.

For two years, every morning around 7:20, Joseph arrived early for work, each day entering through the front door.

***

For all its forward thinking and self-proclaimed image to embrace new ideas, each day Joseph walked in the front door, he quietly wished his colleagues would turn their culture upside-down and get really radical. He wished they’d take on a genuine “what-if” mentality, because the world was changing, and changing fast.

Some days, Joseph did what he could to impose a new way of thinking, but it never quite took hold, and he wasn’t senior enough to come right out and say some things. Imposition of change never works anyway, he’d learned.

On occasion, when he was bold enough to cross a certain line, his thinking was listened to, but not really heard.

The days, weeks and months went on, and the culture eventually took its toll on Joseph. He’d becoming something he really was not – accepting of the status quo.

So Joseph walked through the front door each day at 7:20 a.m., and privately felt as if he were betraying his own heart.

***

One day, hope arrived.

Before 8 a.m., (everyone in the company was an overachiever), a senior company team called Joseph in to take on a major project for which he’d previously solicited leadership responsibility. They told him to go with it, and to use his own creative gut instincts to get it done.

So Joseph was elated.

Creative freedom was offered, accepted, and now, he started once again to feel true to himself. His strategies were bold, radical and counter to anything that’d ever been done, and he was thrilled with all the possible outcome scenarios.

They might just change the world after all.

At some point, a company client got wind of the culture change to which Joseph had been assigned, and they called senior management with their disapproval. “Things have been just fine for 30 years now,” they said. “Let’s not go and start changing now.”

Yes, the client had been with the company from almost day one – and with that came a certain freedom to call some shots.

***

Quickly, senior management back-tracked, called Joseph in, and asked him to call the client explaining the new approach wouldn’t be so radical after all.

The follow-up meeting brought only one phrase to Joseph’s mind: “Thrown under the bus.”

Door of Perceived Opportunity

***

Prone to sometimes quick and emotional decisions himself (after so much bs), Joseph got up, and walked out the door that gave him safe passage every day.

For years, he obsessed in disgust, and for years he never went back, until one day something prompted him to go back and visit old friends.

His parking space, long-lost over the years to multiple generations of new “idea” guys, Joseph parked in the back lot, and took entry through an obscure warehouse door.

Oddly, Joseph noticed, the back door was slightly cracked.

He was warmly greeted as he walked the warehouse aisles en route to the area where all the real thinking went on. Around the next corner, he bumped into an old adversary who “managed” the company’s entrepreneurial culture.

Then the adversary asked something interesting.

“It’s just you and me here in the back of the warehouse. Since we’re here, would you remind me about the vision you had for the corporate culture change?

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