Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Overcoming Writer's Block

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Writer's block is a common illness. Most of us suffer from it at one time or another. It is a unique form of fear—exposing our true selves to others—that hides in nearly everyone's closet.

Even if you don't think you write all that often, it's surprising how often life calls upon you to put pen to paper, or fingertips to keyboard. You might have to write a simple email or a brief report at work. It might be something as short as a Facebook status or as long as a dissertation.

When's the last time your boss asked you to give a presentation? How often do you write in your journal? Have you started your life history yet? How often are you called upon to—start hyperventilating—give a talk?

I hear a lot of people say, "I can't write" or "I'm not a writer." But how often do the circumstances of everyday life require you to write? For many, it's more often than we'd like. You can't run forever.

There is help, of course. Consider these words from the Book of Moses:
And then began these men to call upon the name of the Lord, and the Lord blessed them; and a book of remembrance was kept, in the which was recorded, in the language of Adam, for it was given unto as many as called upon God to write by the spirit of inspiration; and by them their children were taught to read and write, having a language which was pure and undefiled. (Moses 6:4–6; italics added.)
There is a promise in those verses to those who call upon God. They are promised that they will write by the spirit of inspiration. I am very grateful for that promise.

You and I witness this almost every Sunday. A new deacon, for example, gets up to give his first talk in sacrament meeting. He has written the talk himself, with little help from his parents. He prayed for help when he wrote it and he prayed for help when he gave it. Though his voice may be quiet or halting, you can hear the touches of inspiration and power that come through the words he's written. It's a fulfillment of the promise given in Moses. We can count on that help, if we call upon God in faith.

One reason why writing is so scary I think is because writing is commitment. There is something about it that requires a decision, a commitment, to put ourselves out there. When we write anything, whether we realize it or not, we are saying, "This is who I am." That is scary.

I wrote a novel about 20 years ago. I didn't like it when I was done so I set it aside. There really wasn't that big of a problem with the book. The big problem was me. And giving up too soon on my book and myself.

For years I've read about successful writers who get to a point in their writing where they just trust their inner voice. I've wrestled with that in the past. But now I think I know what they were talking about. I've learned to ask, "What's next?" and then listen. The answer always comes.

The difference between how I used to write and how I write now is simple: I trust that voice when I write, and I don't believe that voice comes from me. I think it comes from a Divine source. Not that my writing is always divine, but that the inspiration behind it often is because I ask for it.

When I was in 3rd or 4th grade, I wrote a story called "1983" (not to be confused with George Orwell's 1984). I am grateful that my mother saved this and a few other papers from my childhood. I think I can remember the night I wrote it. I sat at our dining room table. I wrote "To Dad" at the top of the first page. It was four pages long, illustrated (see the illustration from page 4 above). I remember giving the story to him. I don't remember what he said, only that he smiled and was complimentary.

I don't think it was a school assignment because there are no marks on it. I just wrote it because I wanted to. I wasn't afraid. The story had lasers and a giant hand and a character named Dick (well, it was the 1960s). And a rather gruesome ending, I am sorry to say.

I remember that I didn't have a lot of social fear in those days. I had some but not a lot. I was content to be who I was and to express it. The incongruity crept in a couple years later and I went into hiding.

But I've kept writing. I did well in writing and literature classes in high school and college. I have a bookshelf full of journals. I majored in English and took up writing as a career. I love it. It is an endless pursuit. I never tire of writing nor will I ever retire from it, though I may receive advice to the contrary.

Overcoming writer's block is a simple formula for me. Ask. Trust. Receive. Do something about it. Repeat.

It always works. It takes patience, but it never fails. Correct principles correctly applied always work. If we are patient enough to apply them.

I wrote another novel last year. I am in the middle of the fifth draft. I believe in this book. I believe in myself. It's working. I haven't had this much discretionary time in 15 years. I plan to not waste it.

A kind mother in our ward read the third draft to her eight-year-old daughter a few weeks ago. The girl made her mom stay up quite late one night to finish reading it so she could find out what happened. It still has plenty of wrinkles, but I am ironing them out daily, relentlessly. Relentless, I have discovered, is what makes things happen.

In other words, don't give in. Never give up. Keep trying to express what's inside of you, in whatever form is best for you. Writing is the universal way to do that.

When was the last time you sat down at the dining room table to write a story, just because you wanted to?

Stop worrying about what other people will think. You are a fabulous person. You deserve to be heard.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Praying with One Eye Open

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Years ago, when I was working at an electronics company as a writer, my boss told me this story.

He said that they invited the pastor of their church and his family to join them for dinner. After they said grace over the food, my boss's son spoke up, pointing out a transgression of one of the pastor's children, a daughter if I remember right.

"She had her eyes open during the prayer!" he said.

My boss chuckled and asked, "How could you tell that she had her eyes open during the prayer unless you had your eyes open?"

The boy had a clever answer: "Well, I had one eye opened and one eye closed."

Isn't it funny how we pick out our own weaknesses in others and condemn them? Maybe you remember this scripture from Romans 2:1:
Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things.
Why do we do that? I think we do it to try to skirt responsibility for our own actions. It is difficult to forgive others and to take responsibility for our own actions when you are judging them or blaming them.

The best thing we can do is to stop judging them. But how?

We don't judge unless we first have pride in our hearts. Pride exists, at least in part, to protect our egos, the overinflated part of ourselves that pops with barely a pinprick.

We don't blame others unless we first judge them.

We don't get angry unless we first blame others for our difficulties.

The key is to deal with our pride—then downstream troubles seem to fade away.

The antidote to pride is humility. Humility comes from honesty and integrity. That is, the willingness to look at ourselves clearly and to see ourselves as others do, especially those who are closest to us. Part of humility is the willingness to ask yourself and others, "How can I be a better parent or husband or wife? If you are willing to listen to the answer, either from the Spirit or from a friend or spouse or family member, then you will make progress.

I know that some think that as soon as you recognize humility in yourself, you lose it. But I don't believe that is true. Remember what the Savior said about himself? "I am meek and lowly of heart"? (Matthew 11:29.) I don't think Jesus lost His humility by recognizing these qualities in Himself. How can you become truly humble unless you can recognize what it is and see it (or the lack of it) in yourself?

The next time you are watching to see if someone else is praying with their eyes open, remember something that Jesus said:
And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:3–5.)
I hope I can become more humble and learn to not judge others. I've got a long way to go, that's for sure.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

What She Learned after Raising Her Children

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Recently a high councilor spoke in our sacrament meeting and shared the following 20 points on raising children. They were from a beloved aunt, dated December 22, 2010, and are well worth your consideration if you're still raising kids or grandkids:
  1. Remember that people are more important than projects.
  2. Always drop what you're doing and listen when your children need to talk.
  3. Expect the best out of them.
  4. Never allow disrespect. You respect them and expect the same. No, demand the same in return.
  5. Love them unconditionally no matter what.
  6. Listen as long as you plan to speak.
  7. Pray before you handle a difficult problem and ask God to guide what you do and say.
  8. Be honest, even if it hurts.
  9. Be fair to those you deal with.
  10. Remember that when you die, it won't be about earning money. It will be about what we do with our lives. What we'll have left is what we really are.
  11. Forgive your children when they say things that hurt you (and they will hurt you), realizing that they [don't have] wisdom yet. 
  12. Stop and take time to laugh with them and play with them. You'll regret it if you don't.
  13. Always tell them the truth, not matter what, and they will always want to seek your opinion.
  14. Don't excuse your children for their bad behavior. Do what is best for them, not what is best for you. Ask yourself, "If I allow them to continue doing this, will it hurt their life?" If you answer yes, nip it in the bud before it blossoms.
  15. Teach them how to work. Don't hand them things. Teaching them how to work hard is one of the best gifts you could possibly give them.
  16. When you give things to them, do it expecting nothing in return and they'll give you everything they have that matters most in return.
  17. Don't compare one child to another. They're all different and they'll remember that you said one is organized and the other isn't, and never forget it! Or that one has great hair and the other doesn't (just examples). They don't remember the compliment. They'll remember what you said they weren't good, at even if you [don't remember saying] it. All you said was the other child was good at something. They'll automatically think that means that you think they are not good at that. Complicated but true.
  18. Be patient with them when they make mistakes. Remember that God did not put a 40-year-old brain in a 16-year-old child. They'll learn, even it's the hard way.
  19. Don't smooth the way too much or you'll cripple them.
  20. Realize that they are normal children with gifts just like other kids. Normal, but not superior to others. All of God's children are equal in His eyes.
I hope you enjoyed these tidbits of wisdom as I did.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

You Don't Know What You Can Accomplish

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Last week, we went to a local restaurant as an entire family—all of our kids and grandkids. The restaurant had an arcade, too, and after dinner, we played a few games. My wife and I were playing skee ball. You can score between 1,000 and 10,000 points per shot, depending on where the ball lands.

While we were playing, my four-year-old grandson came along.

"Do you want to try?" I said to him.

Of course he did.

I handed him a ball. Without much thought, he threw it and up the ramp it went, and it landed smack dab in the 10,000 ring! One try, that's all.

He did not realize what he had done. I was laughing so hard, I could hardly talk for several minutes. When I leaned down and explained what he had accomplished with one shot, my little grandson wore the biggest smile. He was surprised, but also pleased with himself. I was stunned and thrilled for him.

I've noticed over the years that we can often accomplish far more than we think we can accomplish.

But, more often than not, we tend to limit ourselves. We believe the negative things we hear and accept them as true. Things we hear as children, teenagers, and even young adults. Things like "You can't do that. You're crazy." Or "Why don't you pick a different major. What are you going to do with that one?" Or "Why don't you try something more practical." We listen to our teachers and leaders and friends and siblings and parents and we find a safe zone where all attempts to stretch beyond our limits are hidden from the view of others. We back into our shell and close it tight.

When you're four, you haven't usually absorbed the negativity that floats freely around you. You are innocent and pure and see no reason to not try. But when you are 34 or 44 or 54, you are more and more guarded. You don't want others to see your weaknesses and you usually do a great job of camouflaging them. You are less and less inclined to try new things. You hide your true self from others, wearing what some call the social mask. You even hide yourself from yourself.

I was like that for most of my adult life. Then certain things came along that have shaken me to the core, things that forced me to believe in myself and to trust God like never before. I am sure the Lord has placed you in similar circumstances. Your strength and your willingness to try new things has grown out of loss and trials and even devastation, from pain so acute we hardly know how we will survive, and from facing those trials with faith.

In the aftermath of trials, we often learn that we can accomplish more than we thought we could, that we can be more than we thought we could be. We are often surprised at what we can do, like my little grandson was.

I believe you have a spark of divinity in you and that that spark can be fanned into a flame. I believe that the Lord is stretching you so that you can know that there is no end to what you can do if you believe in yourself and Him.

There is no reason to be hard on yourself. Yes, evaluate and change and repent when necessary, but don't beat yourself up. There is every reason to believe in yourself if only you will just be yourself.

I believe in you. I think you can do anything you put your mind to, "for with God, nothing shall be impossible" (Luke 1:37).

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Eulogy for My Shoes

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These are my "bishop's shoes." They were the best dress shoes I have ever had. My wife and I bought them at Dillard's in the Provo Towne Centre the month after I was called as bishop. That was in December 2005.

But they are "plumb wore out." There was some good wear left on the soles, but the tops had holes in the them and the insoles were broken down to the point that the shoes were uncomfortable to wear.

I threw them away yesterday. They were too worn out to give away. They had far exceeded their life expectancy. I gave them a proper burial in our garbage can. (I also threw away a brown suit that was worn out beyond repair.)

I think I came close to walking (and sometimes running) about 500 miles in them, over the last five years. I was sad about giving them up. (I am probably the most sentimental person in our family.) I felt ungrateful to just dispose of them without a proper funeral. Consider this blog post a funeral for my shoes. In fact, here is a little eulogy for them.

After a courageous battle with life, a pair of vegetable-tanned Ecco dress shoes passed away March 7, 2011. They were born sometime in 2005. After a brief visit to the Springville Transfer Station, they were buried in the Bayview Landfill, 7 miles northwest of Elberta, Utah. The unnamed shoes were fraternal twins. They served their owner faithfully and without complaint for over five years. They will be greatly missed. There will be a permanent viewing on this blog, but no services will be held. In lieu of flowers, remembrances can be made to the missionary fund of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Why My Wife Needs Romance

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I'm not sure I really understand what romance is and how it all works. But I understand a few things about it, and I'm fairly certain what it is not.

It all started with Rome.

Rome, akin to Romance, is a city in the central, western region of Latium in Italy. Romance, in capitalized form, can refer to languages, as in the Romance languages French, Italian and Spanish, which all came from Latin.

A romance is also a medieval tale of chivalric love, with elements of legend, adventure and the supernatural. In fact, the German word for novel is Roman (pronounced roh-mahn). Chivalry comes from cheval, the French word for horse, and refers to a chevalier, a mounted man-at-arms in medieval times—a knight in shining armor!—known for bravery, gallantry, and nobility in battle and, on the homefront, self-sacrificing gallantry towards women. The modern and usually trashier version of the chivalric tale is the romance novel, which in its more explicit form is the kind of pornography that more often appeals to women than men.

The Romantic Era, which lasted from the late 1700s to about 1900, was a reaction to the Age of Enlightenment (1700s). The Romantic Era was a period that expressed through music, literature and visual art that strong emotion was valued as the authority through which we experience our world, above rational, orderly thought.

That's the academic version of romance. Most of it does not apply to my wife. She does not know French or Italian, nor has she studied medeival literature in depth nor has she to my knowledge ever read a romance novel. But she knows what romance is and she likes how it makes her feel.

I have collected over several decades some nonscientific, anecdotal evidence of what romance is, at least to my wife. I have arrived at three simple conclusions. Let's see if those conclusions match yours.

My wife loves to be swept away by a romantic moment, be it real or imaginary, and she loves it when I express genuine, heartfelt emotion towards her, especially when it requires some thought and preparation by me—thinking about her when I don't have to think about her, so to speak. She also loves it when I pursue her, when she has clear evidence that she matters to me more than anyone or anything in the world.

Here is a personal story. My wife loves long-stemmed, red roses. I am not sure I understand all the reasons why, but do I need to? Anyway, I have to leave for work usually at 5:30 AM, sometimes without seeing her before I leave. On Valentines Day last month (a Monday), I went to a store before I left for work and bought her a fresh bouquet of long-stemmed red roses, put them in a vase and left them on the kitchen counter along with a card full of lovey-dovey words that I really meant. She had to admit that in her morning fog she walked by those roses several times without noticing them, but when she finally did, she was thrilled to find them.

Why?

Well, it was a romantic moment and a surprise wrapped into one. She knew that I hadn't forgotten her love of red roses and she knew I had to plan and make an extra effort to accomplish the feat. As a consequence, she felt pursued and fully assured of my love for her, once again. It made her quite happy.

Why does my wife need romance? She could be happy without it. She could be happy without me. But nothing fulfills a woman more than knowing that she is truly special to someone else and that someone is devoted to her. Fulfillment can come in a lot of ways. Romance is not the key to happiness but it sure helps a relationship.

The world would be a much happier place if all men understood this and lived it. That's the ideal. That's heaven.  

That's what I know about romance. I bet your wife feels close to the way my wife feels. It's tied up with the need to feel special, loved and assured. Often. It's tied up with knowing that I understand how she wants to be loved and that I willingly comply. I am thrilled to comply.

I'm in the game and I play to win.

And I don't do it to "win points." I do it because I adore my wife. To me, she is the most beautiful creature I have ever laid eyes on. I admire and appreciate her so much. I want her to know that I respect her and that her feeling loved is about as important as anything to me.

And how does all this make her feel? Towards me? Does she wonder if I love her or if she is number 1 in my life? Do I need to tell you how happy my life and marriage are?

Ladies first, except in romance. Men must, must, must lead out in romance. If you do, you won't be sorry. Neither of course will your wife.

(It takes two. If showing love to your wife in this way does not work in your marriage, you are not alone and I am very sorry. Please read my disclaimer—see the tab at the top of this blog.)