Jul 5th 2011

How to get (and capture) ideas

Ideas are the lifeblood of the creative life. Whether you’re a poet, a pastor, or a professional contractor, ideas fuel your work. But even the most creative folks run out of ideas. So how do we stimulate more? Here are some things I do that seem to get the juices flowing again:

1) Move away from the computer. Sometimes you just got to get away from your laptop. This is hard for me to do, because there is always something to be done. But I find that when I’m in the middle of a all-consuming project, I get ideas on the commute home or on a walk with my wife and kids.

2) Listen to music. I find that music stirs my soul. I can be the world’s biggest crank with nothing in my creative tank. But if I turn on my iTunes playlist or use Pandora, the creative flow begins again.

3) Pray. Actually prayer should be the first thing you do, but it usually isn’t. Let’s be honest. We typically try everything else, then remember, “Duh, I can pray!”. We most reflect the Creator when we create, so His Spirit naturally desires to free our hearts from distraction and let our mind center on what is most important to Him.

4) Read. I find reading especially helpful. But I usually have to keep reading, because the first few pages don’t bring back my creativity. Sometimes it’s a whole chapter. Other times its a web article or blog post.

5) Have a conversation. The creative life can be solitary–you and the computer screen. But we were created for community. Sometimes the best thing you can do is pick up the phone and call a friend. Engage in a conversation, even if its about nothing. Or you might discuss your project and see if they have an angle on it you’ve missed.

6) Edit. When I’m working on a book-length project, I use the write-edit-write method. I start that day’s work by editing the previous day’s work. Fresh eyes bring out new and different angles on the manuscript and start those creative engines.

7) Watch an epic movie. This is difficult to do if you’re at work or on deadline. It’s not like you can ask your boss if it’s okay to pop in Ben Hur and break out the popcorn. But, perhaps you’ve finished your day completely and emotionally spent. It does your mind good to go home and relax with an epic movie whose story might recenter your creative impulses.

What stirs your creative impulses?

Jul 4th 2011

Why the Gospel is Not About “Trying Harder.”

I ran across this clip from Joshua Harris. He explains why the Gospel is more than just trying hard. This is a concept that we must keep reminding ourselves of over and over again. We can’t hear it enough:

Jul 1st 2011

Friday Five Interview: Eric Metaxas (Repost)


Eric Metaxas / Photo by James Allen Walker

Our family is taking some needed vacation time, so I’m posting some classic Friday Five interviews. This interview with Eric Metaxas posted on March 11, 2011. It was the most popular interview on my blog so far. Eric is extremely candid in talking about the process of writing Bonhoeffer and defending his work against critics:

Eric Metaxas penned one of the most celebrated books of 2010, a thorough and grippingbiography of German pastor, Deitrich Bonheoffer. It’s a powerful book that is a must-read for serious Christian leaders, with life lessons spilling out of the pages of Bonheoffer’s highly courageous life.

Metaxas is also the other of several other books, most notably a widely acclaimed biography of William Wilberforce. His writing and career are eclectic—having written for Chuck ColsonVeggie Tales, as well as The New York Times, First Things, and Christianity Today. He is also the author of several children’s books, a noted humorist, and the founder of the Socrates in the City lectures. He appears on places like CNN and NPR as a cultural critic.

I am grateful Eric took time to chat with me for today’s Friday Five:

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Jun 30th 2011

The Opportunity I Won’t Get Back

It was my first year in college and I had an important job interview with a Ramada Inn close to our house. I really wanted this job as desk clerk. I thought dressing up in a suit and handing out keys was pretty cool.

I had an eleven o’clock morning meeting, which meant I had to drive six hours back to Chicago from downstate Illinois on a trip with a few friends of mine. I had the timing worked out perfectly. I would check out of my hotel very early and drive back to Chicago and have thirty minutes to spare.

But the night before, I stayed up way too late. You know what happened, right? The next morning I overslept. I rushed back and was miraculously (thanks to a led foot and the absence of state troopers) able to pull into the driveway of the hotel by 11:10.

I felt pretty good. I’m only ten minutes late. Maybe their clocks are off and they’ll think I’m on-time.

I walked into the lobby of the hotel, adjusted my tie, brushed some lint off of my suit and asked for the manager. I told them I had an appointment.

I waited what seemed like forever. Two minutes later the receptionist returned and said, “The manager just informed me that the interview is over and the position is no longer available to you, because you were late.”

That was it. I didn’t have a chance to explain, to come up with a novel excuse. Just cold hard reality.

I blew the opportunity.

I remember that day like it was yesterday, because it burnished something in my mind. The Bible tells us to “redeem the time,” (Ephesians 5:16). That morning I had communicated to this hotel manager that I was sloppy, immature, and didn’t care.

I ended up with a job at Ace Hardware, where surprisingly, my boss was a stickler for time.

I can’t stress this idea enough to young people. Maturity matters. Being on time matters. Caring matters.

We live in a culture that says goofing off, immaturity, and not caring are actually cool things. And sometimes even the people who love you the most won’t make you grow up. They’ll tell you it’s okay to be late, to live sloppily, and to blow off life as if its unimportant.

But sooner or later it will catch up to you. It did for me that day at the Ramada Inn.


Jun 29th 2011

Creative Tensions: Between the Editor and Your Voice

This is the third post in a series of posts on writing and the creative life. The other two posts are: “Between Annoyance and Passivity“; “Between Authenticity and Plastic.

Today I want to discuss another tension, the one that exists between your unique voice and the hot red pen of the editor. One of the things that is difficult for new writers to understand is that the editor is not your enemy but your friend. I had a good book editor tell me one time, “Dan, you are not Hemingway.” Tough, but great advice. What she was saying is that yes I had talent, but it needed to be polished, just like any other gift. Consider the basketball player who is uncoachable. Can he achieve maximum performance? Or the raw musician who refuses instruction from the maestro. Can he ever get all he wants out of his talent? The answer is always no.

Every writer has a unique voice and style. Bad editors (which are few and far between. I’ve never met one before), hack away and steal the author’s true intent. Good editors seek to carve the rock and bring out the sculpture underneath. I have found my writing sharpened and improved by simply having the willingness to let others into my work. Often my most creative impulses come through after seeing the honest critiques from someone else.

If you hang on to every word and turn of phrase, you will never maximize your God-given gift. I have come to love editors. I realize it’s a unique gift that I don’t have. In fact, for my current book project, I have three people who are going to review every chapter. I gave them one simple instruction: Be Brutal. In other words, I don’t want them giving me smiley stickers and back pats. I want honest critique that will tighten my writing.

Now, does that mean I apply each and every change someone suggests? No. As the author, I reserve the right to say, “thanks but no thanks” to a change. And I do that. If I feel that the word or phrase or section is vital to the overall theme of the project, I leave it in. But not before trying to find another way to say it that is clearer.

Summary: Come to see honest editing of your work as a way of polishing your talent and you will see your writing improve many-fold.

Jun 27th 2011

5 Ways You Can Love Your Church

As a pastor and a lifelong church-goer, I’m in love with the Church. Even though the Church has a thousand problems (and every week it seems another book is coming out extolling those), the Church is still Christ’s beloved bride (Ephesians 5:25-27). And every week, pastors of big and small churches labor to deliver the Word of God. And paid staff, part time staff, and volunteers give of their time and energy to make their church best express the gospel in the community.

So in a sea of angry anti-church blog posts, Twitter rants, and angst-filled books, I want to give five simple ways you can push against the culture and love your church this week:

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Jun 24th 2011

Friday Five: Caleb and Brittney Breakey

As a pastor and author, I enjoy those who are passionate about helping others communicate the truth of God’s love to this generation. Which is why I’m pumped about the young husband and wife writing team of Caleb and Brittney Breakey.

Caleb is an award-winning journalist who has been trained by bestselling authors like Jerry Jenkins and Brock and Bodie Thoene. Caleb is also the proprietor of Calebreakey.com where he trains and mentors young writers. He’s a sought-after speaker at some of the top writer’s conferences in the country, including the Blue Ridge, Oregon, Colorado, and CLASS Christian writers conferences.

His wife Brittney is a graduate of the Institute of Children’s Literature and the Christian Writers Guild.  She also operates Author Turf, a blog exclusively created to showcase authors.

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Jun 22nd 2011

Creative Tensions: Between Plastic and Authentic

This is the second post in a series on writing I’m calling “Creative Tensions.” The first was entitled, “Between Annoyance and Passivity.” It is some advice on nurturing relationships that can grow your writing opportunities.

Today I want to discuss another tension you will need to navigate in your writing, especially if you’re writing (as I do) about your faith and your life. I supposed this advice would fit with those who communicate in other ways, especially preaching.

People connect with other people who seem to be real. That is they are not so wooden and stuffy that the word which come from their mouths (or pens) seem so lofty as to be impractical. My best writing coaches always encouraged me to “show, don’t tell.” For those who write fiction, a person’s character is best fleshed out in dialogue and story. And for those who write inspirational nonfiction, it is best to include real-life examples, allegory, and illustration. Mostly people want to see these principles lived out in real-time, to prove that it can actually be done.

Their is an opposite error, however, in that a writer can be way too “authentic.” What I mean by that is that a writer can use a book, a blog, an article to serve as a place to unload every grievance, perceived slight, and gory story. And perhaps in hopes of being considered “authentic” a writer (or preacher) may enhance areas of his life to seem more colorful than they are.

Where is the sweet spot? I’d like to say I’ve found it in my writing and preaching, but I haven’t. There have been many times I’ve been way too preachy and other times when I’ve been too personal. What is most helpful to me is to have a spouse or trusted friend read through my stuff. Especially if they’re willing to be honest and tell us if the story we told is either unreal or has a bitter edge or is just unhelpful.

Another tool is to go through your writing and see how often you talk about yourself. Honestly, how many times does “I” appear? And are you creating drama out of situations that honestly were rather mundane? Are you spiritualizing every single decision? As a reader, this type of writing gets tiresome.

Now if you’re struggle is to be too preachy, as I was early in my career, then a great tool is to read your work out loud. And then replace instances of the word, “you” with “we.” Replace “most Christians” and “most Churches” with questions like, “Don’t we tend to . . .” The word, “we” adds a layer of personal authenticity, as if you’re including yourself in the wrestling over tough issues. And yet it’s not too much of “I” as to be overly narcissistic.

Summary: Look for the sweet spot between narcissism and inauthenticity.