Monday, January 26, 2015

On Being a Writer: Discovering Who You Are

When did I first decide I was a writer?

Perhaps it was when I was 10, and wrote a mystery story longhand.

It might have been the summer before I started journalism school in college, and I had to teach myself to type (it was a required skill for journalism). Or later that same year, when I received a B+ on my first class assignment with the note, “Not bad for a cub.” Or when the grader for my American history class gave me an A on a test, with a scribbled “well written essay” at the top of the first page.

I know that by the time I was writing speeches for other people, around 1975 or 1976, I was also writing short stories.

For more than 35 years of my career, I’ve been involved in speechwriting. It’s perhaps the toughest job in corporate communications (or any other kind of communications). You’re writing for another person. To do your job well, you have to write like that person speaks. That means you have to listen more than you talk.

Speechwriting is also a rather anonymous, despite the tendency of presidential speechwriters to rush out with a memoir as soon as they’ve left the West Wing of the White House. Someone else takes credit for everything you write in a speech. That is, unless the speech doesn’t go well. Then it’s all your fault.

Most people in communications hate speechwriting.

If you’re writing for the CEO, you have to keep reminding yourself you’re not the CEO’s friend, or even his or her colleague, no matter how friendly the CEO might seem. You’re there as a professional writer. I’ve seen several careers flame out because the writer though he or she was the CEO’s friend, chatting the CEO up, repeating things the CEO said, sharing the CEO’s jokes. All of those activities tell everyone that the writer has a bad self-image, and is seeking to inflate his or her importance.

I didn’t mind the anonymity. I did mind being at the CEO’s beck-and-call on nights and weekends. I did like the largely solitary work. I didn’t like the politics surrounding the CEO’s speeches. One CEO I worked for was so sensitive that he had one hard and fast rule: no one in the company could see his speech drafts unless they came and asked him face-to-face for permission.

That cut out a lot of requests from people to “just give the draft a quick read,” usually spoken with an ingratiating smile.

Speechwriting taught me to write with a voice, and that the best speeches were the ones that expressed emotion in the right way and in the right places. It taught me that the most critical part of the job was not the writing but the listening. I learned to listen, and listen hard. Speechwriting also taught me to interpret, and how, for example, to translate a rant that I didn’t know how to write into a CEO’s unspoken fear of speaking to a minority audience. And it taught me know when the time had come to confront the CEO about his abuse (you don’t do something like that lightly or without a lot of forethought about the possible consequences).

I had also been around the speechwriting life long enough to know that it is very rare for a speechwriter to write effectively for both the CEO and his or her successor. Too much baggage can get in the way, and usually does. So you have to know when it’s time to do something else.

In On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts, Ann Kroeker (co-author with Charity Craig) says that “writing is more than what I do or coach. I discover who I am.” It teaches you about how you think, how you react, what you believe is important, what cannot be compromised, and what is superfluous.

What you read on a printed page or computer screen, no matter what the subject might be, tells you more about the writer than what is written.

Photograph by Linnaea Mallette via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Better at night

Better at night
than in day that
I come to ask my question
my question to which
I know the answer
but the asking is what
is important, a parched sponge
in need of water.

And the answer comes,
obliterating the question:
I am taken down a path
I did not expect, a path
I did not know

I ask my question at night,
better at night, He answers
my question with day,
confounding the night.

Can I be reborn in the flesh,
can I be reborn in the spirit,
can I be whitened
in pale linen, cleaned,
my heart restored not
to what it was but to what
it was meant to be;
can I be reborn?

Yes, he says, the possible
is an imperative.

Photograph: Study for Jesus and Nicodemus by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937); study painted 1898-1899.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Nice Guys Finish…What?

I’m reading the newspaper one Tuesday morning, and there on the obituary page I see a photo with a story about a local retired executive who had died of cancer.

I stared. I could barely comprehend the words.

I wrote speeches for this man for four years, some of the best speeches I’ve ever written. I loved working for him. He was smart, capable, a quiet kind of leader, and somehow he had managed to work his way through the ranks and arrive at the executive building.

To continue reading, please see today’s edition of the Patheos Work and Faith Channel of The High Calling. The article was originally published by The High Calling.

Photograph by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Cheryl Shireman’s “Cooper Moon: The Calling”

Cooper Moon drinks too much, has trouble holding down a job, and is irresistible to virtually any women in the small town in Michigan he lives in. His long-suffering wife Sally has no illusions about her errant, wandering husband, but she also finds him irresistible, especially when she looks into his eyes. They live in a trailer (mobile home being too fancy a word). Sally works at a local diner. Cooper works wherever he can find employment. 

And then Cooper has an epiphany. He discovers he believes in God, and that God is telling him to build a church. He has no idea where to build it or how to pay for it, but he knows that he’s supposed to build a church. 

Cooper Moon: The Calling by Cheryl Shireman is Cooper Moon’s story. And it’s a surprise. It’s the kind of novel you might expect to find set in the Deep South, like Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop CafĂ© by Fannie Flagg or Crazy in Alabama by Mark Childress. Instead, it’s set in Michigan. Who knew people in Michigan could be as crazy as people in the Deep South? (I can ask that question; I was born and raised in the Deep South.) 

Cheryl Shireman
Shireman keeps us guessing throughout the entire story. Will Cooper build his church? Will he finish it before an irate husband burns it down? And what about the irate wives, none of whom are pleased with Cooper’s new direction? Or the pastor of the big church in town who doesn’t like the idea of competition?  

Carefully and almost joyfully the author weaves these stories together with several others, including the town’s police officer whose wife desperately wants a baby and instead has to deal with her mother-in-law slipping into dementia, and his brother who’s in serious training for a reality TV show, and Sally Moon herself becoming entrepreneurial, and characters (female) trying to dissuade Cooper – some rather strenuously – from his new calling. 

This is one rollicking novel, and you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next. But there is a sequel – Cooper Moon: The Temptation – and Shireman is working on a third novel in the series. 

When I started reading it, I wasn’t quite sure where this story was going to go. But I held on. And I’m glad I did. (And it's currently free on Amazon Kindle.)

The Deep South arrives in Michigan!

Friday, January 23, 2015

A Community of Four – For a Week

The church had never quite had a short-term mission team like this one.

A chemist. A retired engineer. And a PR guy / writer.

Our assignment: An eight-day trip to Eastern Europe, with a whirlwind itinerary: Budapest, Prague, Dresden, Brno, and back to Budapest. We were to interview missionaries, to help with their support-raising efforts; film the world of the mission underway across cities in Eastern Europe; do a short film to help with fundraising to buy a permanent building for the mission in Budapest. And prepare a series of reports that could be used by the mission agency back in the United States.

None of us had been to Eastern Europe before.

The retired engineer – Jack – manned the video camera. I was the writer and interviewer. The chemist – Steve – was the gaffer, trip manager, equipment manager, and general factotum.

We trained for months – studied, planned, discussed, and met. We practiced interviewing missionaries. We pored over maps and some of the history and background of the places we would be visiting and the people we would be meeting. We also spent time getting to know each other. And somewhere in that time the team became a small community.

Once we landed in Budapest, we would have a fourth member of the team – Gary, one of the permanent missionaries. He would be our guide, chauffeur, teacher, answerer of questions, hotel finder, translator, and church and mission office locator (a sort of human MapQuest).

The mission in Budapest was enthusiastic, we were enthusiastic, and our home church coordinator was enthusiastic. The national mission agency and our own church missions committee were less enthusiastic. We were different. They had never heard of such a team before. Was this more of a vacation than a “real mission trip?” A communications team? Really?

Still, we flew to Budapest. We were waiting for our baggage at the Budapest airport when we learned our overscheduled itinerary had just been thrown out the window. Erfurt in Germany had been added as an itinerary stop, about three to four hours from Dresden (and we drove like Americans, not Germans).

Gary, our driver, slipped right into our little community as if he’d been there all along. He explained what we might see along the roadsides and near border crossings in the two countries with legalized prostitution (he was right). He got us through back streets in the dark of night to find our hotels. As we approached one border crossing, he told us to remove our jackets and throw them across the camera equipment, to discourage confiscation by the border guards.

Four countries, eight days. On our way to Dresden, we stopped for dinner at a restaurant in the Sudeten Mountains, where no one spoke English and all conversation stopped when we walked in. (The menu was, fortunately, in Czech and German; my college German was sufficient to figure out what we could eat.)

We were in cities and suburbs, large towns and small. We filmed interviews with almost 20 missionaries. We filmed the building in Budapest the mission hoped to buy. I wrote story and after story. We ate tomatoes together for breakfast, and had a lunch at the McDonalds in Chemnitz, Germany. We walked down Wenceslas Square together in Prague, and across the Charles Bridge.

Our little community worked. We carried each other’s bags and equipment. We became something of a cohesive news crew, especially when we found ourselves right in the middle of the biggest news story in Europe – the murder of 16 people at a high school in Erfurt. It was at that school and the small church nearby whose pastor was ministering to the bereaved families where we met the Holy Spirit.

Most of the writing and film editing work happened after we were home. Did our community succeed at its task?

Missionaries were helped with support, and their video reports sent to their home churches and supporters. The video for the hoped-for mission building in Budapest succeeded in helping raise the needed funds. The people working in the mission were encouraged.

And we, our little band of three plus one, were changed. Forever.

Over at The High Calling, a community linkup has been posted for the theme of the power of community. If you have a story about community, or even just want to read what others have to say, please visit The High Calling.

Photograph of Budapest traffic by Mick Lissone via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Not listening

I listen, at first,
to a presentation, informal,
on the business climate in Brazil,
and I think Rio, I feel the hot sands
of Ipanema and Copacabana
under my feet and the smells
of carnival’s flamboyance
and excess assault my nose until
I turn to the mountain
with its huge statue of Jesus
welcoming all with his arms
rigidly straight, not unlike
his arms on the cross.

Photograph of the statue of Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, via

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Marilynne Robinson’s “Lila”

She is a small child, perhaps three. She is told to sit on the back steps as a punishment for whining. And so she does, until an older woman comes along and takes her into the woods, and to a home not far away. The woman’s name is Doll; the little girl’s name is Lila. Doll becomes the closest thing to what Lila will remember as a mother. Eventually they leave the house in the woods and become part of a great wave of migrant workers in the 1920s, moving from place to place in the United States, going wherever the work is. 

This is the story of Lila, the latest novel by Marilynne Robinson and the third of her Gilead trilogy, following Gilead (2004) and Home (2008). It’s a remarkable work, traveling the mind of a woman from where she is to where she’s come from. 

Like all "Interior" biographies, nothing happens chronologically. Lila recalls her life in bits and snatches, stories and events, and the people with whom she traveled and grew up with. The references to living and working in St. Louis, for example, happen in seemingly random fashion; while we know it was a bad experience, only gradually do we learn what the experience actually was. 

That is representative of the novel as a whole. The streams of Lila’s life unfold in eddies and ponds, eventually fusing into a whole river of memory. This is all coming together because, despite the decades difference in their ages, she has married John Ames, the local pastor in Gilead, whom she meets when she takes shelter from a storm in his church, and she is carrying his child. 

Marilynne Robinson
It’s not only the substance of her memory and life that’s important, but also how she tells the story. She’s had some schooling, once for almost an entire school year when she and Doll stayed in one place for several months. But she thinks differently, and sees differently, and only rarely does she share those differences. Because of what her life has been, she is always prepared to leave, and she knows that once her husband dies, she will likely leave with their child. This image of loss and potential loss, loss with its implied rootlessness, is a shadow throughout the novel. 

Lila is rather amazed at the goodness and grace John Ames extends to her, and it is through that grace that she finds the ability to extend grace herself, to others as well as herself. 

Christianity Today has named Lila the 2015 Book of the Year for fiction, and the novel is one of five finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. 

And with good reason. It’s a wonderful story.

Photograph by Ken Kistler via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.