Tag Archives: writing

dutch angles

liz strauss and nancy swanson and a mugwhy do i take the pictures i do?

i can’t take pictures ‘right’. i seldom have a great camera. i’m usually using my phone. it has poor color. it has strange focus. so i use black and white and i set it down. as a result, i end up with peculiar angles on my shots. there are lots of coffee cups, lots of hands, lots of textures and odd angles.

they are called ‘dutch angles’ for reasons that i don’t know. at least that’s what those shots are called in video, the shot from the odd perspective.

i take them that way because of limitations, but they have become a style that others recognize.

i look at lots of things that way, from odd angles. but so do you.

i just know that it’s a strength (at least some times). and maybe you don’t know that your perspective, shaped however it is, is a strength.

but it is.


put it on paper

Last weekend, my friend Paul gave me a pencil. It’s a great pencil. It’s an expensive pencil, at least as pencils go.

It is tempting to leave my new, cool, sentimental, expensive pencil on the desk. It will remind me of a growing friendship. It would be good stewardship.

It would be dumb.

levenger pencil resting on a pad of paperPencils are not made to look at. They are made to write. In fact, given the choice between a really cool pencil on the shelf and a stubby little golf pencil in someone’s hand creating a metaphor that is going to give some young woman freedom to change the world, a smart person would choose the stubby little golf pencil.

On the other hand, if you decide to actually use the cool pencil, amazing things can happen. You can write more words with the cool pencil. You can write more comfortably with the cool pencil. If you have such a pencil and decide to take it everywhere and take notes and write notes to be sent and generate lists of relationships, lists of metaphors, lists of hope–that would really be good stewardship.

Because, Chris and Julien said last week, you have to put it on paper. The great idea, the helpful thought, the business concept, the picture that will help someone understand their business process or their family structure–you have to put it on paper.

It’s Saturday morning. I’m preaching tomorrow morning, something I do two or three times a year. I have great ideas for tomorrow, some ideas that will, I hope, give some moms feeling great pressure to be perfect some hope.

But thinking I have great ideas, writing about those great ideas, that won’t help anyone.

To make a difference I have to take that cool pencil (or this old laptop) and the idea, and put it on paper.

I’ll talk to you later. Go change the world in the meantime. One pencil mark at a time.

maybe wait til it is over

I was in a meeting on Monday night. We were having a discussion. As it finished, the chair moved to the next item. The secretary said, “we need to approve the secretary’s report from the last meeting.”

We laughed and asked and he affirmed that he had already put the approval in the minutes for this meeting and so we needed to do what he had already reported we had done.

I thought about that exchange last night as I sat in a guitar recital at one of the local universities. Ten musicians performing in individually, in small groups, and all together. Classical guitar. Acoustic guitar. Only two pieces wrtten by living composers.

The audience was interesting. There were grandmothers and friends. Given that the friends played in indy rock bands with some of the performers, the ratio of earrings to people was greater on the younger end of the audience demographic.

As soon as I walked in, I started writing a post about the audience.

And then I stopped.

I realized that if I spent the whole concert writing about audiences and stereotypes and speculation about what happened inside people’s heads, I would miss the concert. These students weren’t here to provide background music to my writing. They were live, present. They were inviting me to be live, present.

So I put my pen away (for most of the recital) and listened. And watched. And stopped.

Maybe waiting is important. Maybe I shouldn’t write the post about the recital or the conversation or the person or the product…or the season of life…until I know more, until I’m through it further, until…

Until I know something.

8 ways to write this particular afternoon.

1. Sometimes it is okay to not write.

2. Sometimes it is okay to leave yourself out. (Just tell the story, not how you got there and why it matters so much to you.)

3. Sometimes you need to feel more before you write more. (Just put the draft away. Maybe readers need the mulled version rather than the immediate reaction.)

4. Sometimes it is okay to live parts of life unreported.

5. Brevity, though not obligatory, helps.

6. Sometimes it is easier to write the next post than the current post. (So start both and finish the second one.)

7. Sometimes your heart needs space to catch up with your life. Pay attention.

8. Sometimes you just need to start the tea. (That activity can jar your thinking)

I get up at 6

I set our alarm for 6. I usually get up. In fact, even when I don’t set our alarm for 6, I still wake up.

I started doing this several months ago. I wanted to read. I wanted to write. I wanted to learn to use time to influence lives.

And so I get up at 6.

Sometimes, I talk about that itself as if it is an amazing feat. But it isn’t.

Some mornings I get up and spend an hour looking at my computer screen. I browse through articles that have been gathered for me from 138 other writers. I read short comments made by more than 100 of my friends. I read what people have sent me directly by email. I follow connections made in all of those places to other articles, other people.

In my fogginess, as I drink my first cup of coffee for the day, it seems as if I am doing something useful. I may be. I sometimes find things that are helpful for understanding what is going on in the lives of others. I often am able to write to someone, to encourage someone.

Most of the time this random skimming is just random skimming.

Sometimes, the night before I have made a list: Here are the things I am not going to do in the morning. Here are the things I am going to do.

I’m not going to look at the articles from 138 people. I am going to read from the book of Isaiah. I’m not going to look at whatever comes to me. I am going to reflect on that idea I’ve been working on. I am going to send a note to my friend. I am going to write a short essay about that subject.

And  on the mornings when I get up at 6 and work through that kind of list, I am doing something.

I am learning step by step how to use time to influence lives. Starting with mine.


Getting up at 6 to be up for an hour, that is practice.

Getting up at 6 and working through a specific list of activities designed to sharpen my mind and heart and soul and pencil, that is deliberate practice.

[Deliberate practice]  is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.
Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, page 66.

Just getting up at six is like a kid who sits at the piano for a thirty minutes, counting every moment his seat is on the bench as practice. Working on the hard parts  is like the musician who each day works on the part of paying scales that was hard yesterday.

Does that make sense, my daily coaches and feedback providers? Does that help illustrate deliberate practice?

Saturday afternoon crucifixion

Tomorrow morning I will stand in front of two groups of people and tell them to go ahead and eat little wafers and tell them to go ahead and drink grape juice from small cups.

Today I am thinking through what I will say before and after I tell them to go ahead.

I speak two or three a year in front of the whole congregation. It is an excruciating delight. For me. (For them? I hope not so excruciating).

The pain is because I want to be clear. The pain is because I cannot speak as I used to teach speaking, three points, hopefully alliterative, all moving deductively toward a simple conclusion. The pain is because I don’t want to just speak in front of the congregation. I want to help them understand something from the inside, to be able to think and feel differently.

I want to help people emotionally understand the truth of God’s work.

That’s how I described what a care about a few years ago. And when I go back to that statement, written on the last  of several photocopied pages, I realize that it still is true.

But it is painful to make myself stop and listen and feel and write, to move from a speech to a story to a moment of conversation between me and 200 or 400 people and God. Because somewhere in the middle of the process of preparation, I have to stop. I have to quit. I have to stop thinking about the story and I have to be inside the story, not as the author, but as a character.

And the word “excruciating” is the perfect word, having in the middle of it the same word as leads to the center of the service tomorrow. Crucifixion. A method of dying. An event which is celebrated tomorrow in the middle of our service, in the middle of my words. Somewhere between this afternoon and tomorrow morning, I have to abandon my life so that I and 700 of my closest friends can remember another excruciating delight.

Thanks for listening, especially if you are one of my friends who tells me, “I’m not religious.”  I have to go back to writing now. Tomorrow I’m telling the story of a wedding on either side of the eating and drinking.  Weddings and crucifixions. I have some work to do.

8 ways voice recitals teach writing.

I spent an hour at a voice recital. Ten high school students gathered in the large living room of their teacher and performed pieces for an audience of family members.

Recitals can be nerve-wracking. But they are (or can be) great teaching experiences as well.

1. Performance isn’t always competition, but it often leads to it. Most of the people in this recital are competing with these same pieces next week. This was a friendly, non-judging audience. It allowed the students to actually perform, to get feedback from their teacher, to have parents make comments on the ride home.

Sometimes try out the high-stakes writing on a friendly audience first. Have people who will read drafts.

2. To be a singer, you need an audience. More accurately, sometimes you need an audience, particularly if the kind of singer you are is a singer for. There are many people who sing that are not singers for, just like there are many writers who are not writers for. But if you are for, then you need the audience, you need to find out where the nerves are, where the projection is, what it feels like to have eyes looking at you.

The power of blogging for some of us is that it gives us an audience on the way to other audiences.

3.  A complicated accompaniment can make the singer sound better. One of the pieces was a vocally challenging piece, but it was even more challenging for the pianist. And she handled it with passion. As a result, there was tremendous applause. The singer was great, but the helper fed the audience.

Inviting great responses…and great responders…can make your writing sound even better.

4. Singing out of your area of comfort can stretch you well. One of the singers is not competing in the high school state competition. She knew that she had too many other things happening to add that stress. However, she also knew she could benefit from the lessons…and the recital that came with them. She sang a piece in Italian, one of the languages that she seldom sings. The teacher is far more classical than this student usually needs. However, as a result of this intentional experience, she is building her skills for what she really does.

Writing for group projects or blogs that are outside your usual field, helps.

5. Deadlines sharpen performance. A recital happens at a specific time and place. Your name is on the program. You have to show up.

6. Experience is cumulative. The more you perform, the more poise you have for performing. Even when you forget a transition, the more you have performed, the less traumatic the lapse. Part of the reason is that each time you perform, individual performances become a smaller percentage of your total experience. (Your first solo is 100% of your solo resume. Your second is 50%. Your third is 33%) By the time you have been in several choirs for several years, the idea of an audience has become familiar, and one slightly off performance can be offset by the 98% that have gone smoothly.

Write. Often.

7. Being a student means you are learning. For a recital like this, the expectation is that you are learning, you are not perfect. There will be mistakes, there will be room for improvement, there will be new understandings of how to approach the music.

Acknowledge that you are both skilled and learning. Overplaying the former looks arrogant, overplaying the latter looks silly, being in the middle (I have  learned, I am learning) is exciting.

8. The cookies help the music. There is always a reception after a recital. Cookies, coffee, conversation. The opportunity for the teacher to compliment the student and the parents, and the other way around. The opportunity for the students to encourage each other, to commiserate. Shared experience. It feels awkward sometimes, but it is part of the community of music.

Write together. Offer coffee to others. It’s part of the community of writing.

Does this make sense? What suggestions can you offer me? (Because writing here is usually a recital.)


Today is the national day of listening.

That’s what StoryCorps, in cooperation with NPR, has decided. They are inviting people to set aside an hour today to interview someone that isn’t often asked for their story. They want to capture as many stories, as many voices, as they can. They want to hear from people who don’t often speak, who live out of the public eye. (Here is the national day of listening information.)

I love the idea, but I started to laugh. I thought, “if everyone is listening, who is going to talk?” And then I realized that this is a day addressed to those of us who always talk. It probably should be a doubly-named day, called both, “national day of shut up and let someone else talk already why don’t you.” and “national day of please, you, in the back, arranging the chairs, would you tell us a story? Please?”

Some of us are gifted at filling silences with words, at finding white space and coloring it in, at having the answer for everyone. Some of us aren’t. Some of us step backward when someone asks, “everyone who wants to speak step forward.”

A delightful thing about blogging is that it provides a relatively safe place for some of those quiet voices to find their space to speak. There aren’t deadlines. There are opportunities to erase, to draft, to wrestle, to test before leaping.

Blogging provides a place for the person in the back, arranging the chairs, to tell a story. And the only way that anyone will know is if someone points them out. But at least there is a story.

I mentioned yesterday that one of the things I was thankful for this year is watching my wife and our children grow in their understanding of how God built them. One piece of that growth over the past couple months has been watching Nancy move into this space.

Some of you have read her posts in my Wednesday morning space at GNMParents. A couple of weeks ago, she talked about the letting go that moms have to do:

A friend and I have been talking recently about letting go of our babies. They’re no longer babies, but they are the youngest of our children. Her’s is a boy, mine a girl. Both 17. Both high school seniors.

Each of us has older children. She has several. All graduated from college. One married and a grandchild on the way. I have one older son. Still living at home while going to college. Single but talking about marriage.

Both of us are saying goodbye. Goodbye to high school plays and musicals and concerts and football games. Goodbye to the things that have kept us young–or aged us greatly. (You can read the rest here, please.)

And, before she started guest writing, she started her own blog, “The Hopeful Gardener.”

Here’s an excerpt from the middle of her Thanksgiving post:

We haven’t been able to attend the Santa lighting for the past 8 years, so it was with excited anticipation that we went tonight. As we stood waiting, I sensed the same feeling of anticipation throughout the crowd. There were smiles and laughter. People greeting each other and talking about how great the weather was. And wishing each other a blessed Thanksgiving.

It was almost as though, for just a couple of hours, the challenges and concerns of daily life were suspended. The war in Iraq was forgotten, the failing economy didn’t matter, the anxiety over family gatherings could wait. And everyone could experience a little bit of hope.

For just a couple of hours. (You can read the whole post here, please.)

Nancy and I write at computers in the same home office, just five feet apart. She is a far more deliberate writer than I am, perhaps because she is a far less encouraged writer than I am. I am the one that gets the encouragement, the celebration, the support for “having the right words.” What few people know is how often her insights, her perspective, her understanding shapes my right words. (Not, for those concerned about pastoral counseling, that I come home after ever conversation and say, “Wow, you wouldn’t believe the stupid thing I just heard.” I don’t think that anyway, and there are things I protect her and you from.) But Nancy has a precision of understanding needs and hurt and people that–more often than she knows or I acknowledge–guides me.

And now, this reflective voice, this voice that is evident when you listen rather than when you pressure, this reflective voice is finding a place to talk.

This is a long post. Thank you for taking the time to listen. But use it as an incentive today, if you are me, to celebrate “national day of shut up and let someone else talk already why don’t you.” by pointing to someone else. And if you are Nancy, please celebrate “”national day of please, you, in the back, arranging the chairs, would you tell us a story? please?”


My advent ebook is now available as a FREE downloadable pdf, advent2008, (Right click on the link to the left and save the file to your computer). Or leave me a comment and I can email it to you. It’s also a digital book on yudu.

the next post

It was huge, that post. Not that we care about traffic, mind you, but somehow everyone came. It may have been the Brogan bump, the traffic that comes when Chris puts your post or blog on Twitter. It may be because we had a really trendy word (technically known as a keyword) that everyone was looking for. It may have been because all of our friends linked to that post. Whatever the cause, it was a huge day.

It was horrible, that post. Everything that was cranky, mean-spirited, small, and critical in the last six months somehow got poured into that one 300 word screed. And we would have deleted it but we didn’t. And people saw it. And we just couldn’t delete it then.

So what do you do after a wonderful or a horrible post?

Write like you have been writing.

[I suppose I should offer a disclaimer. This is not intended for people trying to build traffic, to make money from their blog, to blog their business. This is not intended for people wanting to maximize SEO or  ad income. This is for the majority of us who are finding and using our voice.]

When I was starting grad school at the University of Texas, I received an A on my very first short paper in my very first class. Unfortunately, there were no comments. So I asked the prof. He couldn’t tell me much other than, “what you did worked.” I wanted more. I wanted to know how I measured up, why I got the A. As I remember, I tried to figure it out so I could write for the A. What I should have done is to just keep writing like I had been writing. The grade, the bump, the kind remark is helpful, but I should be writing for to help people understand or to help myself understand. To suddenly say, “if person X gave me a shout out for that, I’ll write more exactly like that” is foolish. (which is not to say that I’ve not done that.)

On the other hand, when I had a bad lecture one day, I had a prof tell me that everyone has a bad day teaching. Everyone has a class session where everything goes wrong, where you feel completely unprepared, where you seem to offend everyone. The secret, he said, is to not have two bad classes in a row.

You get to have a bad post. The question is, what will you do with the next one that is more thoughtful, more intentional, more respectful and respectable?

You are, I am, post by post finding a voice, building a presence. There will be highs and lows. There will be wildly successful posts (as measured by traffic) and wildly successful posts (as measured by individual emails that say “I needed that.”) There will be horrible posts (as measured by traffic) and horrible posts (as measured by an absence of grace or of integrity).

The secret is…there is no secret.

Just write the next post.

Write like you have been writing.

This is another occasional entry in the next sentence series. Follow that link for the previous sentence.

always in the picture

This picture is a lousy picture. A good picture would show the choirs singing, up close. An acceptable picture might include part of the choir loft railing, maybe as part of the framing.

But this picture. This is lousy.

It shows the ugly bracket on the back of the railing. It shows the rows of seats in the loft. It shows my knee.

And you can barely see the choirs, the Fort Wayne Children’s Choir and the American Boychoir.

But this is the kind of blogpost I like to read, posts that are written like this picture is composed.

I like to see the writer, to get a glimpse of who they are. The idea of an anonymous writer has an arrogance at a time when it is acceptable to acknowledge your existence. If there is any perspective at all in the piece, any proclamation of that this post is factual and true and must be followed, I need to know how you are sitting. I need to see your knee.

I like to see the context, the rough edges, the microphones and the flag holders. I spend enough time backstage at events that I like to know what the backstage of your life looks like. The conversations that happen off-stage, the side of the service that the choir sees, the view from the balcony–that’s what intrigues me. I need to see where you are sitting.

Of course, I do like to see the choir itself, the object of your attention. And getting that in focus is important. But that is the polished part, that is the part made to look good. And I know now that it is actually pretty easy to make things look good.

So I’m saying that I like to see the writer, to see the context, and maybe to see the subject. And maybe what makes a good post is different that what makes a good photograph. Maybe the standards are different.

But what is really compelling about both a photograph and a post is what is missing from both.

This is a picture of and a post about a choir. And neither of them come anywhere close to what a choir is about:

The singing.

The voices of sixty children from two choirs and multiple states and multiple nationalities and multiple religions singing these words by Moses Hogan: “I may not be all that you are, I may not be a shining star, but what I am I thank the Lord for making me his child.” And those voices rising higher than the arches in the picture and blending and layering.

It’s the singing that makes a choir. And a picture. And a post.

And it’s the singing that you can’t see.

But when I listen to you, when I read what you write, when I look at what you see…

I want to hear the singing.

Because then I won’t care about perfect composition.