Still True: Lent for Creatives

Two years ago, a half-decade of observation boiled over the rim of my mind into a list of 5 hard lessons I’ve learned about creativity, publishing, and success in the Orthodox media field. I wrote out my list for the company blog in Lent 2018, and because all 5 are still very true, I’d like to share them with you here also.

Lent for Creatives: 5 hard lessons

At Ancient Faith, we believe that the spiritual life and the creative life are woven together. The fact that we are an Orthodox Christian media company is proof of this conviction. We exist to promulgate the Gospel through the work of people who use their creative gifts to affirm and explore the life of faith, in the persistent hope of edifying and encouraging our fellow human beings on their journeys.

During this Lenten season, we are all engaged in spiritual struggle of one kind or another, and it seems a good moment to share what I’ve learned in the last five years about the intersection of creativity, struggle, and media publishing. With this goal, I’ve created a list of five hard lessons we all seem to encounter on our way to producing high-quality books and podcasts. If you have already been published, this list will be familiar. If you are still trying to be published, it may be even more familiar! I pray it will be helpful, no matter which side of that fence you occupy.

don’t be an “idea person.”

Almost nothing will shut you out faster than those fatal words – “I’m an idea person.” Many people describe themselves this way, and in our experience, an “idea person” is one who can come up with an endless list of inspiring suggestions but is not able to follow through on them. An idea is like a flame without a lamp. It burns brightly and then vanishes, unless you provide a wick, some oil, and a vessel to hold the oil. Your idea needs a plan. It needs background research. It needs the ability to make and meet deadlines, foresee and overcome obstacles. You and your idea both need a significant amount of staying power, so that your publisher knows you will put in the effort to bring your idea to life – real life, enduring life, the kind of life that will justify the expenditure of staff time, resources, and just plain stamina required to publish a book or produce a podcast. If you were telling yourself that you could hand your idea to a publisher and staff members would provide the wick, the oil, and the lamp, please stop. No publisher can or will be a replacement for the diligent effort you should have dedicated to your idea before we ever heard of it.

KEEP READING HERE FOR LESSONS 2-5.

Facebook is a stalker boyfriend.

Don’t laugh!

OK, laugh a little. I love laughing!

But this metaphor actually works. Read on. I’ll show you!

The metaphor popped into my head in the car, as I was moseying along between the grocery store and the mall. It sprouted from a conversation with a fellow blogger this week about what kind of reach you get for different kinds of Facebook posts. Reach is strongly effected by post type. You can read about it in many places – here’s Buffer’s take.

To summarize, value on Facebook, as in all social media, is determined by reach, and the type of post you create will directly impact its reach. Live video is the sparkly platinum, top-tier post type on Facebook. Video uploaded directly to Facebook, but not created live on Facebook, is a close second. Posts with images come next, significantly below video, and the lowest form of post, with reach often not discernible to the naked eye, is a post sharing a link to content on another site.

What about text-only posts? (Text only? Is that even a thing anymore?) If I were guessing, they’d fall just above posts sharing a link. Nothing is below a post sharing a link.

Having read the above, you will now easily follow my metaphor. Facebook is a stalker boyfriend.

Stalker boyfriends, also known as the possessive type, creepers, and abusers, love one thing more than any other. They love control. They don’t want you talking to anyone else. They don’t want you spending time with anyone else. They don’t want you thinking or feeling anything outside their control.

Yikes. Yikes!

So what does stalker Facebook like best? Facebook live! That’s right! It’s created on Facebook, by Facebook, for Facebook. It’s you devoting your whole attention to Facebook. Stalker algorithm will reward that behavior all. day. long.

Video posts that aren’t live, and picture posts, are the next best thing. Not really best….I mean, if you can’t do live video, an image post will do. True, it wasn’t created BY Facebook, but it is posted on Facebook, and nobody can see it without Facebook. You neeeeed Facebook for these posts. Facebook will half-heartedly ensure those posts get a response, so you’ll keep making more of them. On Facebook. For Facebook. So that maybe you’ll get excited. And make a video.

What about that lowest form of post? A post sharing a link? You can probably guess what’s wrong with that. A link post is designed to take the reader AWAY FROM FACEBOOK!

No.

We obviously can’t have that.

So, stalker Facebook will prove to you that you should have stayed with stalker Facebook. Go ahead and post your link post. No one will see it. Facebook will make sure of that. You’ll have to stay with Facebook. You should make a meme, or post a video. Your reach will go back up. Seriously. It will be better this time. Just come back. Maybe you’d like to make a live video?

Yikes.

You need a new plan

Ever catch yourself thinking the same thing in multiple situations and realize it’s one of those Big True Things About Life? Here’s one that’s recurring for me:

If your plan depends on controlling the beliefs (and consequently the actions) of other people, you need another plan.

Now think about this without escaping through the word “controlling.” Are you assuming the would-be controller is a bad person? Make them a good person, someone who cares deeply about a worthy cause. What is that person asking of the world?

In my experience, personal and organizational plans for “change” and “awareness” and “saving the world” usually boil down to everyone thinking and acting according to one set of values. That will never happen. We know from history that even total dictatorship can’t maintain uniformity for long. It’s not in the nature of things. No matter how hard you argue, campaign, rant, emote, reason – pick your verb. No matter how hard.

Wasted effort frustrates me. I’m tired of the disappointment it brings. I’m tired of dreams falling apart because the dreamer resisted practicality. How often do smaller, feasible solutions to specific problems fall by the wayside in the mad dash for the panacea?

Feed the person in front of you. Plug the hole you can reach. If everyone did that, we wouldn’t have to save the world.

If everyone did that…See? Even me!

No thank you to the blog marketing tips

Dear Stranger,

If you are following my blog because you have a blog that’s going to increase my blog following, expand my brand, profitize my prose, et cetera and so forth, please do not trouble yourself.

Your cursory glance at my blog indicates that I am building a community of bloggers.

This is true.

We even have a hashtag. #bloginstead.

Also true.

But you missed something.

I’m building the community because I want the community. You know how you do something because you enjoy it, and then you find other people who enjoy it too, and you spend time together enjoying it?

That’s what I’m doing.

I’m not looking for quick tips on expanding my brand so that my viral blog will attract advertisers and enable me to quit my day job and subsist on sponsored posts.

Big nope on that.

Yes, I write books. Orthodox Christian children’s books, actually. I’m doubtful this is the target market your tips and tricks are intended to reach.

Yes, I will talk about my books on this blog. I like writing my books. I like having them published. I’ll never get over the enchantment of seeing them illustrated.

More than that, I like people to buy my books. I hope they read them till the covers fall off, that they find them again when they’re all grown up and hug them spontaneously for all the good childhood memories attached to them.

I market Orthodox books for a living, and I know for a daily fact that people can’t read a book if they don’t know it exists. I know the value of spreading the word and finding an audience and building a brand. All those things. But I see NO value in doing those things for their own sake.

I don’t want to lose the value of being a human person who likes to write, who enjoys talking to friends, and who wants to recapture the kind of internet space where that was, and could still be, possible.

Life is complicated. Intricate. Interwoven. I can’t separate my writing self from my author self, my community-seeking self from my book-promoting self. Not completely. There is one me, and all aspects of my life connect, one way or another. But I can decide what matters most and choose it every time I have the choice.

That’s what I’m doing here. And that’s why I won’t be following your “how to win big in online marketing” blog.

No, thank you.

P.S. If you know the guys on social who believe that a friend request from a total stranger leads to romance, even from a total stranger who looks miraculously like numerous other total strangers dressed as retired admirals and possessing adorable dogs, please inform them that I already have a more-than-satisfactory retired officer and adorable dog of my own. Thank you.

Why Blogging? — This One Life

It has been interesting returning to the blogging space after a few years of hiatus. I have had to confront my former blogging motivations, why I left, and what has changed. It feels a little bit like coming home again, or wearing an old sweater again, or maybe visiting college well after graduation. Things are […]

Why Blogging? — This One Life

If you’re reading this, you probably know that the original #3daysinthewilds, in which a group of intrepid friends leaped off social media and tried to #bloginstead, has grown like a stream running downhill. Now it’s a river, and it’s one I plan to stay on, rowing along with my eyes open for other small craft making the same peaceful journey.

The post I’ve linked above is from Amber at This One Life, one of the #bloginstead pioneers. This post is honest, and I believe MANY bloggers (and former bloggers) will recognize themselves in her look back at why she started blogging. I’m so glad she came back, and especially that she came back AS SHE IS NOW. I believe our redemption lies in communication for its own sake – for the sake of sharing information, perception, faith and hope and love.

Well, I’ve got a hammer

And I’ve got a bell

And I’ve got a song to sing

All over this land

It’s the hammer of justice

It’s the bell of freedom

It’s a song about love between

My brothers and my sisters

All over this land

If I Had A Hammer – Lee Hays, Pete Seeger

The Time Value of Literature

“A classic is a book that has lasted more than 100 years.” –

Famous Person Cited by English Professor Too Long Ago to Remember

But the forgotten famous person has a point.

Today at work, I was talking with someone about a writing project she’s considering, and two books published several years ago came into the conversation. “Of course, they wouldn’t be published now,” I remarked. Times have changed, the publisher’s needs have changed, what the market is reading has changed…the list goes on.

My subconscious mind must have thought this was interesting because the topic recurred in another guise while I was scrubbing a saucepan after dinner.

It began with recollections of a picture book my mama read us often when I was a little girl. The book is called Supposings, by Johanna Johnston, Pictures by Rudy Sayers. See? That’s already something different. Picture books now say “illustrated by” on the cover. Why did that change, I wonder? Is the word “pictures” too specific, or not specific enough?

Everything about this book reminds me of my 1970s childhood. I remember it being read to us, I remember the sunlight inside the rooms of our house and that soft “nap-time-soon” quiet feeling of cuddling on the couch with wiggling siblings, staring at pictures, pointing at things at will, floating along in the sound of our mother’s voice.

The colors in the illustrations and the style of them remind me of the curtains on the landing and a wool plaid vest my mama sewed that still hangs in my closet, simply for love.

I love this book. But if Johanna and Rudy submitted it now, would it be published? Would it be hard-back? (I don’t like picture books to be paperback. Thin and flooooppppy.) Would this simple, childlike journey through an afternoon of daydreaming be considered a plot? The illustrations would be different, wouldn’t they? Even art for children follows trends. Are those trends set more by adults, or by the shifting landscape of a generation raised in front of screens?

Supposings was published by Holiday House, Inc., in New York, in 1967. There was no such thing as self-publishing in those days. That means a New York editorial staff thought this book was a good risk. Would they now?

What was the competition like back then? Were publishers swamped with submissions the way they are now? Perhaps they thought they were, but could their swamp compare with the tsunami made possible by personal computers, internet research, and the lure of social media stardom?

Years ago, my Daddy explained to me what he meant by “the time value of money.” He told me that even if I have a million dollars, if it hasn’t been paid to me yet (or it’s tied up in a trust fund or etc. etc.), then it’s value is changed. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Is there a similar principle for literature? To me Supposings is a classic because it is lovingly bound to a host of childhood memories. My objective analysis of its literary worth will be quite subjective, no matter what. Love is not blind, but sometimes love is not seeing the same object that everyone else is.

Would it be easier to evaluate the lasting literary contribution of a book for adults? I’m not sure. Novels go out of style. So do self-help books. Medical advice? Goodness yes! But at some point in all this analysis, one must confront the reality that a change in criteria is not always a change for the better. Before we can finish judging a book that wouldn’t be published if it were submitted today, we can’t avoid asking whether it should be.

Wishful Thinking on Independence Day

Close up of the American Flag

On this 4th of July, I am pondering the complexity of military service and national identity. As with many human conditions, the outward show of military life is a fraction of its meaning. Because they are the “instruments of foreign policy,” service members are held up as symbols of what is most loved and hated by proponents of various ideologies in our country. They live on the receiving end of assumptions that are more often based on emotion than information.

The crux of military service is an existence that would be unnecessary in a perfect world. Armed forces are the painfully tangible proof that human beings do not treat each other as they should. Many would argue that July 4th is not a military holiday. It is the commemoration of our birth as an independent nation. At some level, we all rebel against the idea that this independence is impossible without military force.

Military life teaches you to engage what IS. You won’t last long clinging to what you WISH would be. Military life is predicated on the understanding that you control far less of your reality than a civilian does. But it also reveals the truth that civilians control far less than they wish to. If I have learned nothing else, I have learned that evil is both totally unnecessary and extremely powerful. Stand in that space for a few minutes today – the space in which you know that evil could be stopped if enough good choices were made, and in which you also know that actual human beings, many of them, would rather die than make those choices.

 

Photo by Samuel Branch on Unsplash

Mercy and Complexity

One of the blessing curses of being a writer is the refined ability to step inside another character’s worldview. You do this so that you can write the character, but the longer I live, the more my brain tries to hop worldviews in real life. To do it well, you must be able to envision motives and emotions for an identity completely separate from your own. But, especially if you’re going to do it in real life, you must complete the exercise without falling into the trap of believing you can actually read another person’s mind.

Although there are genuinely malicious people in the world, I don’t believe they are the majority, or even close to it. Most people, no matter how wrong-headed they appear to their peers, believe there is a valuable or at least necessary reason for their choices. If you are writing this wrong-headed person, or pondering them in real life, you will quickly discover that perception and empathy create confusion.

What’s the first dysfunctional human situation from your own life that springs to mind? (Don’t raise your hand or shout it out. Just think of one.) If you climb out of your own position in the situation and walk around the table, so to speak, it will become harder and harder to decide who is the “good guy” and who is the “bad guy.” It seems to me that the core of our human judgment of other humans rests in whether we think they meant well. Were they trying to do something they thought was good? Were they trying to do harm?

Our cultural paradigm is to solve or explain a situation by identifying a protagonist and an antagonist. We can then support the one and the condemn the other with an easy mind.

But the more you seek the details of human psychological and spiritual complexity, the more difficult it becomes to decide who is the antagonist. “There is no one who lives who is without sin.” We are all antagonists. But all creation is lifted up in Christ. We are all protagonists.

This is not an argument for relativism. There are good acts and evil acts, good motives and evil motives. But we have lost our desire or ability, as a culture, to accommodate the presence of spiritual tension in everyone around us, and in ourselves.

Perception, empathy, justice, mercy – all of these open us to unwanted depths of meaning and accountability. We are too tired and frightened to be attracted by the chance to understand and care for each other. And our weariness and fear are strengthened every day by the failure of our peers to understand us and care for us. That is the cycle that wants breaking, in my view.

-Photo by Akshay Paatil on Unsplash

Acts 16 Now and Then

Close up of metal chain hung across a pillar in a dark room

In one of those turns of thought that sometimes open like a door, I wondered this morning how the Philippian jailer and his conversion in Acts 16 might have been greeted if he were to try baptizing all his household today.

Then [Paul and Silas] spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized. Now when he had brought them into his house, he set food before them and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household.

This is not the only time when an entire household was baptized. Just a few verses before this story, Lydia of Thyatira is baptized with all her household. As a successful business owner, her household likely included servants or slaves. The jailer’s family doubtless included a wife and children. In the modern instance, wouldn’t our first question be whether the central convert had imposed a chosen faith on a collection of dependents who had not chosen it?

Verses such as these are part of the argument for infant baptism, indicating a precedent whereby the “age of reason” or even basic egalitarian agency seem to be missing from the decision to become Christian. What can we make of that now, surrounded by voices declaring that everything, absolutely everything, should be a choice?

Today’s secular western culture would object to this baptism hastily and heartily. Did the jailer’s wife want to be baptized? Did he ask her? Even if he did ask her, did she really feel free to object if she wanted to? Were Lydia’s servants actually converted, or did they receive baptism in the same spirit as they received the roof over their heads and their inability to leave it of their own free will?

Little, if anything, is known about the actual historical people in question. We don’t know even the jailer’s name, let alone the identity of his family members, and Lydia’s household is equally cloaked under thousands of years of lost information. We can’t know what they thought, or why. Speculation is all that remains to us.

Thus, I speculate that this question of consent and freedom is wholly modern. And that it is modern not simply because, at least in the secular west, we no longer own slaves, we allow women to vote, and far more decision and intelligence are attributed to children now than may have been then. (One could argue that we attribute less to them, as they are boxed into a supervised and regimented existence long after their ancient counterparts would have been able to fend for themselves on the streets. But that is a topic for another day.)

The question of whether it was fair for the jailer, Lydia, and others to baptize their entire households is modern because it is based on a modern understanding of religion. Religion now is a legal right, a choice, an act of self-expression, and something considered safe to choose or not choose for oneself or others. In the time of Acts, religion could hardly be called by that name at all. It was almost a default – a powerful, expected force, something no one could or did imagine the world without. The idea of choosing a religion was more a question of whether you guessed right, whether you safely attached yourself and your loved ones to the real God, the right God, the God who could protect and save you and was attentively considering your every move and responding accordingly.

Seen in that light, God was as vital and ordinary as food or water. Stunned and convinced, the jailer would no sooner have decided to convert by himself than he would have chosen to provide any other necessity only for himself, while his household languished and died in want.

It reminds me, surprisingly, of an old Peter, Paul, and Mary recording of a folk song called, alternately, Bahamian Lullaby or All My Trials. The speaker in the song is a mother on her deathbed, comforting her children by reminding them that her suffering will be over soon, and that the Tree of Life and paradise are awaiting her. The religious imagery seems odd to me for a song that became popular in the 1960s, when perceived conventions of every kind were overthrown. Yet there it is. And in this song is a line that speaks directly to the jailer and his family, and Lydia and her household.

“If religion were a thing that money could buy, the rich would live and the poor would die.”

If the jailer, the male and the wage-earner for his family, the only member with something approaching power, were to hear the Gospel and keep it to himself, it would not be a sign of respect for his family’s liberty or self-expression. It would be an act of selfishness, even cruelty, and a direct violation of the generous Christ he had so newly embraced.

This is what we have lost, I think. There is much of the old world that deserved to die, and perhaps nothing more so than slavery and oppression. But in our striving to avoid those old wrongs, we have formed the habit of avoiding too many other things besides. We are frightened of conviction, wary of acting on behalf of anyone but ourselves. It’s as if we no longer trust discernment, or truly believe there is anything beyond the tangible to discern. If everything is personal and relative, our sense of rightness, our faithfulness, somehow becomes a flaw.

Can we even imagine that moment of conversion? Could we step into the wretched prison and hear the hymns? Would we survive the earthquake and the suicidal urge to destroy ourselves before the destructive judgments of our peers can do it for us? What shattering beauty must have been his as the jailer risked his life to bring these prisoners home and bathe their wounds. The world as he understood it up to that point had ended. He had no precedent for men who praised God in shackles, who stayed when they could have escaped, and who offered him salvation when vengeance would have been understandable, even expected. He himself was likely outside the limits of his own imagining. If someone had asked him the day before whether he would risk his life to save two hymn-singing prisoners, how would he have answered? Who in his world could even have formed the question?

And so I conclude that our relativity has, ironically, made us rigid, unable, unwilling to peer outside the acceptable rut. It is our courage that suffers most, in this age of judgmental tolerance and litigated freedom. More even than physical courage, do we lack mental courage? Are we still able to conceive that what we cannot accept exists, that it is even possible for it to exist? Are we able to believe that the common judgment of reality is no more final and perfected now than it was when Paul and Silas lay in prison and were free?

-Photo by Daniel von Appen on Unsplash