Don’t Let Them Squash Your Creativity

With all the roles that many of us have to fill throughout the day—friend, employee, spouse, parent, consumer, and so on—the creative self can be one of the most fragile. Even though for many of us the creative self is deeply embedded and even essential to our sanity, it is also easily crushed.

Many forces stand ready to squash the creative self. You no doubt have been struck by these enemies. Even the most successful people are prone to these creativity crushers. To name just one example, there are the naysayers. These are the people who tell you, either directly or in some other dismissive way, that you just can’t do it. You’re not good enough. Or you’re not as good as you used to be. Who do you think you are? Nobody asked for your creativity.

Growing up, I always felt vaguely embarrassed about wanting to be a writer. I feared that if I said too much about it, I was simply opening myself up to mockery. It felt so pretentious to want to write a novel. Who was I?

So I hid it. I wrote my first novel almost secretly. When I would go off to write, I would be vague with family and friends about what I was doing, telling them simply that I had work to do. In college, I was so paranoid about my roommates reading over my shoulder that I developed a secret coded language in which I could write when others were around, which I then had to decode later.

Today I am still tempted to let my creativity be squashed, not so much by naysayers, but by other enemies such as procrastination, the pressures of life, fear of rejection, weariness.

Yet the words, the ideas, keep bubbling up. When the ideas come, I think, I have to write this. Why is no one else saying this? I find myself writing as fast as I can, letting the momentum carry me. In those great moments, the creativity blasts right through the doubts, tiredness, discouragement, and second-guessing. I write. I create.

This semester I am working with an outstanding group of writers in a course I am teaching in the new M.A. in English program at Azusa Pacific University. The theme of our course, which I write on the board every week, is, What is possible for me as a writer?

Part of our work involves breaking down obstacles that discourage creativity. I will mention only two of them here, which stall many writers:

1. Nobody cares whether you create or not. The world is not asking for your work. Nobody is out there saying, “The world is a diminished place because you are sitting there not doing your writing.” If you don’t write, they won’t know or care. The world will go right on.

2. The market is already glutted. Mountains of work are already being rejected every day. So who needs you in there adding to that pile and struggling to compete?

Harsh, I know. I’m reluctant to even mention those things, but for many writers, it’s not as if these dark thoughts don’t already plague us fairly regularly.

So why keep writing?

Let’s look at that first obstacle. The world may not be asking for your work and may not think they need it, but the world in fact may be a diminished place without your writing. Think of your favorite author. Would your life be diminished if that writer had not written the books you love? Of course. For example, I love the novels of Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner. Some of the most meaningful hours of my life have been spent with their words flowing through my head. The world would be a much shallower place if they had let obstacles to writing stand in their way, and for both of them, there were many obstacles.

You may or may not have the wide impact of those two writers, but picture one reader who reads your words at just the right moment, who is challenged, inspired, or entertained by exactly what you have to say. You have made the world richer for that reader, and perhaps many others, even people who haven’t been born yet. Write for those readers. It’s worth it.

As for the second obstacle, the glutted market, it’s true. Amazon boasts around 8 million books, more than the world needs for a lifetime. Online and print magazines, newspapers, website, blogs and other sources have an almost infinite number of articles, videos, lists, and other material available. There is no shortage.

And yet, as a reader, don’t you still find yourself searching for something new, something that fills a particular need that sometimes you can’t even articulate? Be the writer who writes that for someone else.

As a writer, I have known the joy of connecting with readers. Not as many as I would like to have connected with, of course. But I have known the fulfillment of connecting with that individual reader who gets what I’m doing, who loves it, who needs it. That’s what keeps me writing. I’m not willing to let anything crush it.

Quit Griping that “Everybody Gets a Trophy”

I’m tired of hearing about the “Everybody Gets a Trophy” generation. When I recently heard someone use that phrase again, I wondered, was it just my imagination, or were people constantly using that cliché to describe today’s generation in their teens and twenties?

I Googled “everybody gets a trophy” and came up with nearly a million articles, blogs, news stories and other items that use the phrase, so I guess I’m not imagining it. I read through some of the endless news commentaries and blog posts about this “syndrome,” as some of them call it, and I ended up even less convinced about it than I was before.

The basic concept is this: These young people are the spoiled products of a self-esteem culture in which they (or at least their parents) are afraid of failure. In order to prevent these delicate egos from facing any hint of mediocrity or failure, their parents put them on soccer teams and baseball teams and other activities in which everybody gets a trophy regardless of any lack of talent, achievement, or actual victory over the other team.

Because of this, the kids grow up thinking they’re far more talented than they really are, and they expect unqualified approval in every area, from academics to sports to the world of employment. Coddled and arrogant, they fail to learn how tough life really is. Their weakness of character erodes our entire culture, but someday they’re in for a rude awakening.

What utter nonsense.

As a college professor, I have spent years interacting with people in this generation. As a parent of teenagers who play sports, I have spent years watching what happens with the trophies. I simply don’t buy the usual “everybody gets a trophy” analysis.

Let’s start with the trophies themselves. My son and daughter have played on many teams in several different leagues over the years. They have played competitive softball, baseball, basketball, football, soccer, and probably a few other sports I’m forgetting. They do get trophies in most of those, or medals, which amount to the same thing. On most of the teams it is true that everybody gets one of these, win or lose. The trophy or medal is bigger or better if the team wins the championship, but everybody gets something regardless of the outcome.

The thing is, kids are smart about these things. I have never seen my kids or any of the other athletes interpret these medals or trophies as signs that they are all winners or that the loss of a game or championship is somehow not a failure. They understand failure. They know who the good players are and who the bad players are. If they’re not as good as the other athletes, it certainly doesn’t take the withholding of a trophy to make that clear to them. They know. Their teammates will make it clear to them in many ways, and so will the coaches, and so will the spectators. It’s absurd to think that a trophy or lack of a trophy changes that.

What, then, is the purpose of giving a medal or trophy to everyone? My own kids have their medals hanging in their rooms and the trophies are displayed on shelves around the house. These are not signs of egotistical triumph. They are mementoes of being on the team. My daughter also has her softball caps from her various softball teams displayed on the wall on one side of her room. They’re a way of remembering the experience.

I once worked at a magazine devoted to the sport of trapshooting. At a national tournament, I worked at the booth where we gave out metal pins that commemorated the event. Most tournaments gave out such pins, and competitors would attach those to their caps or shooting jackets as a way of showing how many tournaments they competed in. They were eager to get those pins, and when we ran out of them one day, they were angry until we got some more. They were meaningful, but they did not signify success. They were simply a souvenir. That’s the way it is with the trophies.

The men and women who coached my kids were certainly not interested only in the athletes’ self-esteem. They worked them hard. They taught them. They punished them. They encouraged them. They wanted them to win. My kids have plenty of trophies, but they have also tasted plenty of failure.

Regardless of what generation we’re in, life offers abundant lessons on how to handle failure. I wouldn’t be too worried about a few extra trophies being handed out.

What I Wish Someone Had Taught Me About Writing

What is the best way to approach a writing task, whether as a professional writer or a student? Do you procrastinate until the last minute and then start writing on page one and hope for the best? Or is there a better approach? My friend and APU colleague, Tom Allbaugh, confronts that problem in a very helpful guest post this week. Dr. Allbaugh is an accomplished writer who is celebrating the release of the second edition of his excellent writing textbook, Pretexts for Writing. I think you will enjoy what he has to say.  

What I Wish Someone Had Taught Me About Writing

By Tom Allbaugh

In the first chapter of Pretexts for Writing, I tell a story about when I was a student in a freshman writing class. I tell of how I waited, like most students I see today, until one or two nights before the deadline to get started on my research paper. Even though this was 1974 and I had to write on an old typewriter, I pretty much started by sitting down to write what I hoped would be the final draft.

Teachers call this “top-down writing.” We see it all the time in the movies. The writer starts typing without planning, hoping that inspiration will show up. In the movies, of course, the writer becomes rich and famous. In real life—in my life, for that first college assignment—I struggled to complete six pages. I didn’t even think about my main point until well into that “final” draft.

Many of my students have told me that they like that I tell this story. They say that it helps them connect with my ideas. I’m glad that my plan to demonstrate an idea also serves the second function of connecting with my audience.

Why Didn’t Someone Tell Me?

Today, I do often wish that someone had taught me that writing needs to be planned. A plan can be simple and personal, but it will usually involve us in generating ideas, thinking about genre, and making audience considerations.

The writers I know or have read about in interviews sometimes discuss their composing process, and their approaches can be idiosyncratic. We know, for example, that C.S. Lewis took long walks. Beethoven did this also, planning his works as he went. Looking at his fragmented writing in his notebooks, with his scratched out notes and revised ideas, anyone can see the years of work it took him to sketch out his symphonies. Some have suggested that it took this composer a lot of digging to connect with his unconscious. Getting the unconscious into the writing act is perhaps what prompted Ernest Hemingway to stand at his typewriter at chest level and Mark Twain and Truman Capote to both write lying down.

Especially among creative thinkers, planning usually has this “mental” element to it, but it will also allow writers into the more conscious work of considering the kind of writing being attempted and who their audience is.

When I started out in college, I wouldn’t have thought like this. At eighteen, I worked from the belief that writing an argument or a research paper or a novel required only inspiration and self-expression. This is also probably why the research paper task always seemed so daunting to me. None of my teachers ever told me that I should probably plan what to write about. As early as the fifth grade, I was told about revision and that I should write an outline. But outlining is an organizing strategy and, suspiciously, does not always allow for other kinds of planning.

What I Know Now

Today, even in those rare instances when I get inspiration, I still know enough to allow myself time to generate more thoughts before I start. The planning can vary—brainstorming, free-writing, or conversation will work—depending on what I am writing. There’s much room for variation. Probably the only exception to this rule is when I write a journal entry.

But this is what I wish I’d been taught from the very start. So I have organized Pretexts for Writing to begin with planning, with what writing and speech teachers since Aristotle have called “invention.” This opening, I hope, will encourage thinking about different aspects of planning.

Thomas Edison is supposed to have said that his work involved about 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration. I may be off on his numbers just a little, but his point is clear. Inspiration is over-rated. But just getting to work and making some plans, I can usually encourage and generate some inspiration.


Fiction or Non-Fiction: Which Is More Rewarding to Write?

I have written four novels and four non-fiction books. People have often asked me which

In order to sustain my writing momentum when working on a novel, I have to work on it every day.

type of book I prefer to write. I recently read an article in the New York Times in which novelist and non-fiction writer Sally Koslow answered that question about her own writing. She wrote, “While I’m writing, whatever genre I’m committed to becomes my favorite.”

For me, it’s just the opposite. Whenever I’m working on a novel, I am certain that it was never this hard doing a non-fiction book. When I’m working on non-fiction, I long for the luxury of getting lost in the fictional world.

Ultimately, which one do I prefer?

Here are some differences to consider:

1. One of the joys of writing fiction is that I get absorbed in the world of the novel during the months or years that I am working on it, even during the hours when I’m away from the work and doing other things. The events of the book keep swirling through my brain throughout the day, and no matter what I’m doing—walking across campus, eating dinner, watching TV, I am likely to have a scene start playing in my head or bits of dialogue come to mind that demand to be written down. Non-fiction books don’t take over my brain in quite the same way. Even though the non-fiction book is often on my mind, it remains at a bit more of a distance when I’m not working on it.

When I am writing a non-fiction book, everything I see and hear, from articles and Facebook posts to conversations with friends, seems to connect to the book's big idea.

2. One of the pleasures of working on a non-fiction book is that while I’m writing it, everything I see, read and hear seems to connect itself to the book’s big idea. If you have ever bought a car and then suddenly noticed lots of those same types of cars everywhere you go, then you know the kind of thing I’m talking about. Once I get going on a book, I suddenly see aspects of my idea everywhere—in news articles, Facebook posts, conversations with friends, pastors’ sermons, TV shows, songs on the radio, and lots of other places. I love collecting all these ideas and trying to make sense of it all.

3. It’s harder for me to sustain my writing momentum when I’m writing a novel. The world of it is more fragile. When I’m writing a novel, I have to work on it every day in order to sustain the forward motion of it. That is not so true with non-fiction. I can be away from my non-fiction book for a few days and easily pick up where I left off. It will eventually grow cold if I set aside for too long, but short pauses in working on it are not as disruptive as they can be for a novel.

4. Some people assume writing fiction is easier because the novelist can simply “make it all up” and write whatever he or she wants. Novelists know it doesn’t work that way. The world of the novel must be internally consistent, and I have to make endless choices about points of view, when to reveal things, what to leave out, what to dramatize, what to summarize, where to begin, where to end, and so on. Writing a novel is not simply “telling a story” as many people think of it. It is a carefully constructed puzzle, often structurally more complex than a work of non-fiction.

So which one do I prefer? I am tempted to take the easy way out and say that I can’t choose because I love them both. But if pressed, I would have to say that ultimately, I would rather write a novel.

Of course, I am arriving at that conclusion at a time when I am under contract for a new non-fiction book and am hard at work on it every day…

Pretend Someone is Watching–and Other Tips to Help Your Writing

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post that compared the discipline of running to the discipline of writing. That struck a nerve with some readers who have never even put on a pair of running shoes. I am following up this week with three more crucial disciplines from running that help me as a writer. Unless I follow these habits in both running and writing, I can’t get anything done.

1. Take It In Segments.

When I start my morning run, I can’t bear the thought of all that territory that lies ahead.  I follow a regular route that winds along some horse trails and streets through parks and neighborhoods near my house. However, when I’m out there, I don’t think of myself as running one long route. That would feel too overwhelming.

Instead, I run a series of segments. First there is the warm-up walk from my house to a certain driveway one street over. Then comes the segment that takes me to the end of my neighborhood. Then there is my run through the park. And so on. I can do those little segments. Each one by itself feels manageable. If I think about how far it is to the end of the run, I might be tempted to quit. I run one part, then another, and then another. Eventually, I reach the finish line.

When I’m writing, I follow a similar discipline. I don’t sit down and think of myself as writing a book. That’s too daunting. I don’t even think of writing a chapter. Instead, I think of one small part—maybe a paragraph, or scene, or anecdote—that I know I can do. I work on that. Once I finish it, I work on the next bit. Momentum builds, and so does my confidence. Before long, the ideas flow freely.

2. Pretend Someone is Watching.

This one may sound a little weird, but have you ever watched a group of kids around the neighborhood playing basketball or some other sport, and one of them is announcing every move like a TV sports announcer? Do you ever hear that announcer in your head when you’re playing sports yourself? Sometimes when I’m running, especially on days when my motivation is lacking, I pretend this is more than just some regular daily run. Instead, it’s a momentous race, and everything—say, the fate of the world, or my country—hinges on my reaching the finish line. People on all sides are cheering me on. I barely have room to run. They’re all watching. I’d better not screw this up.

With writing, I also sometimes envision an audience. Some writers I know think of specific people they are writing to. I have done that, but often I write to an idealized audience. It’s the type of reader who is leaning toward me, listening with anticipation, ready to engage my ideas. I don’t want to let that reader down. I want to hold up my end of the conversation.

Writing can be a lonely task, with just me and the computer in a quiet room. Imagining an audience reminds me that if I do this right, that pretend audience might become real if I stick to my work and get the words down on the page.

3. Get So Lost in the Work that Time Slips Away.

When I’m running, the worst thing for me to think about is the running itself. If I’m thinking about my breathing, or my feet, or my movement, that over-awareness makes the run seem much longer. The best runs are the ones in which my mind is thinking about everything except running. As I daydream or plan, the time slips by, and once I break out of that deep concentration, I might be surprised to realize that the run is half over. I may not remember much about the last mile, but I ran it anyway. The work is done.

With writing, the key is not to focus on fretful thoughts such as, “Oh, I should be writing. WIll I be able to do the writing? I am worried about the writing.” Instead, I need to let myself get close to my ideas. Let the images and language lure me in. Shut out all distractions and let my mind get absorbed in the world of the writing project. When I create conditions that help me get lost in the work, I look up an hour later to realize the paragraphs that had seemed so daunting are now on the page, and I am ready for more. That won’t happen if I’m checking Facebook every ten minutes, or writing emails, or answering text messages. I need to be surrounded only by the words. The computer. The books and other materials I need for research. A calm and energetic mind. A determination to sit there until the words begin to flow.

I wish you well as you run the race of writing.


What Running Reveals About Writing

Photo by Mike Warren

I run several mornings a week, but there is a point in the running process when I just don’t want to do it. Those moments of resistance taught me something important about another activity that is important to me—the discipline of writing.

By the time I have been out on my morning run for about 15 minutes, I start to feel pretty good. By then I’m warmed up, physically and mentally. My breathing is settled, my body feels that smooth running rhythm, and my mind is lost in the solitude that running allows. At that point I don’t care if it rains or whether it’s cold or hot outside. I am committed to the run by then, and I will finish it no matter what.

In all my years of running, I don’t remember ever regretting coming out for my run once I am past those first 15 minutes or so. By that point I am always glad that I’m out there and that I didn’t let any excuses hold me back.

When I say that I never regret the run, that is not to say that I “enjoy” it. While I do enjoy being outdoors by the foothills near our home and the feeling that I’m doing something that’s good for me, for the most part running is difficult and painful, and I’m always glad when I reach the end of my course. It’s physically draining and takes time out of my day. But once I finish, I also feel a small sense of triumph that I have gotten the day off to a good start.

For me, the hardest part of the running process takes place about an hour before the run. I wake up early, have breakfast, sit on my recliner and drink coffee and read the newspaper. In those groggy but comfortable moments, I sometimes think, I just can’t do that run today. My mind seeks excuses not to do it. Is it raining? Do I have an early meeting at work that would prevent me? Should I sit here and drink a second cup of coffee and forget the run?

I have learned that this is not the time to make my running decision. Intellectually, I know I’ll be fine once I’m out there, but emotionally I’m still fighting it. I have learned to ignore those urges to skip the run. I turn off those thoughts as I get off the recliner, get dressed for the run, and head out. It takes awhile to convince myself I’ve made the right choice, but if I can just resist the excuses long enough to get outside, then I’ll be glad I did it.

Running Lessons Applied to Writing

Something similar happens in the writing process. Once I have been writing for awhile, say half an hour or so, my brain gets fully engaged in the project, and I don’t want to stop. Writing is “enjoyable” only in ways similar to how running is enjoyable. I’m glad I’m doing it, but it’s also difficult and painful at the same time. I never regret writing once I am fully absorbed in it.

The most dangerous part of the writing process is the half hour or so before I start writing, and the first twenty minutes or so of sitting at the computer, before my brain has fully engaged. As with running, it’s the transition from the comfortable world to the world of the writing project that the lazy part of my mind wants to avoid. If I can resist the urge to give in to excuses not to write (and there are thousands of them, from emails that “need” to be written to household chores that “need” to be done first), then I am likely to have a productive writing period.

With writing as with running, feelings are my enemy during those transition times. I have to anticipate that I will not want to do it, and I have to prepare myself to do it anyway. I can’t claim that I always win this battle, but I have gotten better at it once I learned to identify and fight the thinking processes that prevent me from pushing forward.

Forty-Seven Different Endings? Some Lessons from Hemingway about Revision

For the past several weeks my students and I have been immersed in the novels of Ernest Hemingway. I have had the pleasure of teaching a course on him and William Faulkner this semester. In most literature courses, we study only the final, published drafts of novels and other works of literature. That gives us the chance to enjoy the final masterpieces, but it doesn’t reveal much about the torment the author went through to make the book as good as it is. How many revisions did it go through? How many false starts were there? How much bad writing did the author produce before he found discovered the right way to tell the story?

A new edition of Hemingway’s masterpiece, A Farewell to Arms, was published earlier this year that sheds light on his careful, sometimes agonizing writing process. Depending on how you count them, Hemingway produced up to 47 different endings. The exact number is tricky to determine because some drafts use bits and pieces of other drafts and therefore are not completely distinct from one another. The editors have grouped the 47 drafts under nine categories, such as “The Nada Ending,” “The Religious Ending,” “The Live-Baby Ending,” and so on.

Examining these very different endings reveals much about the creative process of writing a novel. Here are a few points his methods illustrate:

• Even very good writers are capable of very bad writing.

Hemingway may be a brilliant, Nobel Prize-winning, best-selling author, but some of these drafts are just bad. One of the “Nada” endings, for example, says, “That is all there is to the story. Catherine died and you will die and I will die and that is all I can promise you.” The first of three “Funeral Ending” drafts says, “When people die you have to bury them but Continue reading

Five of the Eighteen Reasons I Write (by William J. Torgerson)

Editor’s Note: This post is the third in a series that features former students of mine who have become professional writers. I asked each of them to focus on the topic, “Why I Write.” Today’s post is by Bill Torgerson, whom I first met when he was one of my writing students at Olivet and who is now an award-winning screenwriter, novelist and writing professor. His first novel, Love on the Big Screen, is set at a fictionalized Olivet in the era when Bill and I were there.  (To see the first post in this series, by Dr. Michael Clark, scroll down or click here. To see the second post, by John Small, scroll down or click here.)  

Five of the Eighteen Reasons I Write

By William J. Torgerson

Professor Joe Bentz was the first person I ever knew to be actively working on a novel. When I was his student at Olivet Nazarene University just south

of Chicago, I was an English teacher who wanted to be a basketball coach because I’d long understood I couldn’t play professionally.  I had no plans to write, but I’d heard that Joe’s house was wallpapered with notes for his book.

As a country kid from Indiana, I found Professor Bentz’s ambition exotic, as if he were a space traveller who’d gone to Mars and come back to tell me about it. Professor Bentz was the first person to encourage my writing. I wrote an essay in his class about a bad date, and he told me I should send it out for consideration for publication. Over fifteen years later, a revision of that essay appeared in my first novel. Upon receiving Joe’s request to write this guest post, I was quickly able jot down eighteen reasons I write. Here are five of them:

  • To Stand Out. Even when I used to think of myself as worth noticing because I could shoot a basketball from a long distance and make it go through a hoop, I was an everyday writer.  At first, I wrote because it was a way in addition to basketball that a girl would take notice of me. Even though I’ve always thought of myself as a latecomer to writing, I realize that even as a middle school student I wrote (by hand on paper!) regularly for a specific audience: a girl I liked. I revised like an obsessive-compulsive madman.
  • For Mental and Physical Peace.  I have a high-octane mental and physical motor.  There’s something about intense workouts and at least a page a day that allows me to get as close as I can to relaxing.  When someone asks me what I do for fun, one of my first thoughts is that I run. Writing gives me a mostly positive act toward which to direct my addiction prone energy.  When I write, I am somehow able to empty my mind just enough to get some sleep.
  • Because I Can’t Stop.  I received Prof. Bentz’s request to do this guest post via my iPhone at 5:08 PM when I was wandering around an outlet mall and my family was doing some school shopping. I could not stop Continue reading

This is How I Know I’m a Writer (by Michael Clark)

Editor’s Note: This post by Michael Clark is the first in a series that will feature former students of mine who have become professional writers. I asked each of them to focus on the topic, “Why I Write.” 

Dr. Michael Clark has had an inspiring journey as a writer. He has worked professionally as a journalist, a high school English teacher, and now as a college professor. I first met him at Azusa Pacific University, where he became editor-in-chief of the student newspaper while I was faculty advisor. He had extraordinary energy and drive. Once he graduated and became a newspaper reporter, I thought his career was set for life. He was good at it, and he could have stayed with that work for as long as he wanted to. He married another of my talented former students, Heather (Murphy) Clark, an Honors student who became a teacher and is now a part-time college instructor. Michael felt the urge to try teaching, so he completed the education and other steps necessary to move into that career. Once again, I thought he was set. Then he felt the urge to earn a Ph.D. in creative writing and pursue fiction writing. He applied to universities across the country and was accepted at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. It took courage for Michael and Heather to move their young family a couple thousand miles away to pursue this dream, but they did it, and once Michael finished his Ph.D., he was hired as a writing professor at Point Loma Nazarene University, where he now teaches. 

This is How I Know I’m a Writer

by Michael Clark

I’m a writer. This is a reality I have finally accepted. I do not have a large number of publications. I may not be very good at it. I can’t really tell. But I am a writer nonetheless (if for no other reason than I use the word nonetheless unreservedly).

How do I know I’m a writer? Simple – it’s what I do. Two full novels written (unsold), a third well underway (40,000 words and counting), and more than 20 short stories (mostly on my hard drive) that I would show other people attest to the simple fact that writing is more than my hobby. My body of work is solid and continues to grow, whether or not anymore ever sees the light of day. This is how I know I’m a writer.

I have a stack of rejection letters, like every other writer I know. They’re from journals, publishers, and agents across the country. I have a spreadsheet that keeps track of all the times I’ve been rejected and accepted. According to this ledger, I’m deeply in the red. This is how I know I’m a writer.

When I hear stories of famous authors who struggled to find a publisher before they were finally granted a book, I am unabashedly soothed by them. The fact that Elie Wiesel couldn’t sell Night for years gives me hope, not that I will ever be Elie Wiesel, but that I can continue to try. This is how I know I’m a writer.

I simultaneously love and hate with the way I say things.  I want the ability to revise my conversations as they happen and fully expect that every time I try to put things into words the result will be fantastic. It is a frustrating way to live. This is how I know I’m a writer.

Every aspect of the world around me has the potential to be told. To live and breathe not just in the moment I witness it, but on the page and for much longer than it would have otherwise. Thus, I am alternately interested in everything and overwhelmed to the point of shutting out those closest to me. This is how I know I’m a writer.

I often forget to eat, but I never go long without coffee. This is how I know I’m a writer.

I live in San Diego, three miles from the ocean, but I spend more time in a chair wrestling with the next character, the next scene, the next story than I do in the water. This is how I know I’m a writer.

People tell me that fiction is a dying form and it makes me nervous to the point of feeling like a poet. This is how I know I’m a writer.

I only find mathematics understandable if it is part of a narrative with tension and great character development. When I studied math, I often critiqued the lazy form of word problems. This is how I know I’m a writer.

If you are my friend, part of you might just end up in a story. If you’re my close friend, I might just kill you in print. This is how I know I’m a writer.

I write because it is comparable to breathing. When I do it, it is so natural I don’t think about the fact that I’m doing it. When I don’t do it, it’s pretty much all I can think about and I feel like I’m holding my breath. This is how I know I’m a writer.


Michael Dean Clark is an author of fiction and nonfiction as well as a professor of writing at Point Loma Nazarene University. His work, most of which is set in the San Diego area, has appeared in Fast Forward, Relief (where he later became the fiction editor), and Coach’s Midnight Diner among other publications. He is currently at work on his third novel-length manuscript and will move on to number four as soon as he is done. He’s sort of obsessive that way. When he’s not writing, he is likely herding one of his three children around or speaking to his wife sarcastically because sarcasm his love language.

You Will Have to Neglect Something: Make Your Choice

I used to think that if only I could get organized enough and follow the right disciplines, I could find a way to fulfill my goals and obligations in my personal and professional life without having to leave work undone or relationships unsatisfied.

I no longer believe that. I now believe that time and energy are so limited that I will have to neglect something important to me. I simply have to choose what that will be. Will I write less than I want to? Will I devote less time to my family than I want to? Less time to my church? Less time to my students?

The Limits of Our Attention

A group I am in is studying the book, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In one section he discusses the idea that attention is a limited resource but crucial to creativity. Since we have only so much of it, we must decide where we’re going to put it. Then he makes this memorable point:

“Another consequence of limited attention is that creative individuals are often considered odd—or even arrogant, selfish, and ruthless. It is important to keep in mind that these are not traits of creative people, but traits that the rest of us attribute to them on the basis of perceptions. When we meet a person who focuses all of his attention on physics or music and ignores us and forgets our names, we call that person ‘arrogant’ even though he may be extremely humble and friendly if he could only spare attention from his pursuit.” (10)

As we pursue our passions, few of us want to be perceived as selfish, arrogant people who care only about our writing or our music or our art or whatever other work we feel called to do. Better to be a generous, well-rounded person who cares about others but also makes a meaningful contribution to our field. However, with the truly creative person who brings about a groundbreaking change in a domain, Csikszentmihalyi writes that “it is practically impossible to learn a domain deeply enough to make a change in it without dedicating all of one’s attention to it and thereby appearing to be arrogant, selfish, and ruthless to those who believe they have a right to the creative person’s attention” (10).

Is he right? I am writing this in the midst of the Olympics, which I have been watching occasionally. One commercial I saw shows athletes training vigorously, and in voice-overs we hear them tell some of the things they have given up. “I haven’t eaten a dessert in two years,” says one athlete, and others say they have sacrificed television, burgers, etc. The list they give focuses mostly on trivial pleasures, but I’m sure many of them have also sacrificed more important things also, such as spending time with family, hanging out with friends, and so on.

At certain points in life I have practiced the kind of focused discipline those athletes are talking about. While I was still single and in graduate school trying to finish my dissertation, I gave up television for a couple years, dedicated one room of my apartment to nothing but a computer and dissertation materials, and set rigid hours for working on the project until it was finished. Even now, when I write a book, I commit to working on it at least a little every day until it is finished.

Deciding Where to Set the Limits

As a writer today, I am willing to sacrifice for my passion, but I will go only so far. I believe all of us make trade-offs, but we don’t always knowingly make them. Often we simply slide into letting things get out of balance in one direction or another.

The choice I knowingly make now is that I am not willing to sacrifice my family for my work. When my son says, “Let’s go play soccer in the backyard,” I go. I take him and his sister to their sports practices. I take long walks with my wife. I have more writing projects than I can ever complete. I want to get to them. I do the best I can with those projects, and I get some of them done. But I know that I will simply have to neglect some of them.

My teaching also holds me back. So does my church. So do my friends. So do my other interests. So be it. I care about those things and intend to give each of them some of my Attention. When I teach American literature, I sometimes teach authors who had writing as their only priority, even when it brought shipwreck to their personal lives. They were creative people. They made a contribution to literature. The cost was high.

For me, writing has an important place, but as much as I love it, it doesn’t get all of me.