They See What You Don’t See

I’m sending a novel pitch out to agents, and one responds with interest.  This means it’s time to send a full proposal:  synopsis, character sketches, sample chapters, author bio.

Years ago, I forged ahead with confidence and zeal, believing I was hot stuff.  I didn’t need anyone to tell me how to revise or improve my writing.  I was young and smart and perfect and error-free.  Now, after a decade of rejection after rejection, I’ve realized the beauty of humble living.   I’ve realized the danger of an independent spirit that–when left alone and unchecked–makes a person believe they are better and more important than they are.

This time (older, wiser, realistic), I send my chapters to neighbors who respond with the most insightful and clear revision suggestions.  The Local Artist, for example, sees what I don’t see:  unclear sentences, confusing details, unrealistic scenes, clichés.  Her commentary rids the prose of excess and turns each sentence towards its best position.

I want her to now edit my life.  Living with flair means abandoning my independent spirit so others can suggest and revise.  They see what I don’t see. 

It’s hard to let others see your work and your life, offering it up for revision and commentary.  Have you had good experiences when you allow others to “edit” you? 


How to Write a Great Holiday Letter

After years of trying to write good Christmas letters, I realize that my own letters fall into one of three categories. 

1. Too Much Information
2. Too Much “We’re Awesome”
3. Truly Inspirational and Insightful

Too Much Information means I’m telling readers what I ate at every Mexican restaurant on my trip.  Too Much We’re Awesome means I use the letter as a catalog of all my children’s (and pets’) accomplishments.  

I want to inspire and teach, not brag and exhaust. 

Truly Inspirational and Insightful Holiday Letters teach us something.  They inspire us–and even make us laugh–with the insight we’ve gained this year. When these letters (I’m thinking of some of my favorite over the years) arrive, my husband literally sits down with a cup of coffee to enjoy the humor and insight that he knows the letter will offer.

With this goal in mind, we can eliminate any extraneous information that doesn’t offer insight.  With this goal in mind, we can ask ourselves if we’ve designed a paragraph intended to evoke jealousy or prove our worth.  With this goal in mind, we can purify our motivation to love our reader.

If the sentence doesn’t match these goals, chop it out.

As a devotional practice, I use the Holiday Letter task as a way to reflect on my year.  What did I learn?  How did our family change?  What did we overcome?  What wisdom can we offer now? 

These holiday letters inspire.  These holiday letters are worth sending.  And sometimes a great holiday letter will matter more than the cute photo of my children in matching sweaters by the tree. 

You can use the “Flair Checklist” below to help with your writing style.  Enjoy! And here’s a link to the Italian Mama’s sample Holiday Letter.

(How to Write with Flair:  Strong verbs, cool punctuation marks, varied sentence lengths and openings, some garnish, and appeals to your audience.  Order the book here:

Flair Checklist
1.   Do I use vivid verbs?
2.   Are my verbs in their strongest form (cutting board test)?
3.   Do I juggle some secret ingredients throughout my writing (semicolons, dashes, commas, parentheses, and colons)?
4.   Do I “stir the pot” with varied sentence structures and lengths?
5.   Have I embellished my writing with garnish in some form?
6.   Have I analyzed my audience? Do I know them?
7.   Do I attempt to build rapport with my readers?
8.   Does my diction match my intent and my audience?
9.   Have I shown my audience that I understand them and have listened to them?
10. Would my audience feel cared for by me? Do I put in some love?
11.  Do I appeal to emotion in this writing (pathos)?
12.  Do I seem trustworthy (ethos)?
13.  Do I engage the reader’s reasoning skills (logos)?
14.  Do I make use of good transition sentences?
15.  Have I demonstrated the importance of my topic? Do I tell my readers why this writing matters?
16.  Was I able to form an analogy to advance my point?
17.  Did I enjoy the process of writing this? What can I do differently to celebrate the writing task?
18.  Do I offer a unique contribution to the conversation surrounding my topic?
19.  Do I avoid cliché in my writing?
20.  Is this writing memorable?

What advice would you offer for writing great Holiday Letters? 


Feast on the Empty

We’re walking in the woods this Thanksgiving Day, and autumn has starved the whole landscape of color.  

When I look up, I see tree branches stretched toward heaven like coral against a blue sea. 

Tree Branches Like Coral

The branches tangle up in currents of blue and white

Tangled in the Sky

We’re all down here, swimming in a great blue sea.  I’m miniature against an enormous coral reef.  I see it in my mind, and the whole story unfolds in color. 

The emptiness invites the poetry.

When life seems stark, you get to make the beauty yourself.  You feast on the empty. 

Happy Thanksgiving! 


What to Tell Yourself When You’re Nervous

As soon as you launch out into anything public, you might suddenly become very nervous. 

When I speak, teach, blog, or lead, I’ve learned that my nervousness stems from a fear of shame–of rejection–that once removed, sets me free to be myself in front of a crowd.

When I wonder what others will think of me, I get nervous.
When I wonder whether or not I will do a good job, I get nervous.
When I wonder whether or not I should be doing this public thing, I get nervous. 

So I try to stop wondering these things by (and I know this sounds crazy) learning to anticipate the worst that might happen.  Rejection?  Mockery?  I’ve been there and survived (with flair).  I remember that my public offerings represent gifts to the audience I serve. Others might reject the gift, but the point is I’m giving–not receiving–from the audience. I pray God enables it to not be about me.  I also remember that public opportunities are acts of obedience to my calling.  In this sense, I’m performing for a God who already approves, already accepts, and already delights in me.  There’s no earning my own way; there’s nothing at stake. 

Living with flair means going public. 

Journal:  Are you ready to be in public? 


Can You Make This Unfamiliar?

I’m teaching my students how to de-familiarize themselves from their own writing in order to find errors.  It’s a strange phenomenon of writing:  when you write a paragraph and then reread it, it’s as if the brain knows how it should read and somehow blinds us to mistakes.

We need to make the text unfamiliar again.

I invite them to read their paragraphs in reverse order; I encourage them to change the font; I have them read words on paper instead of on a screen; I challenge them to give the writing a 48 hour break.  I knew a man in graduate school who placed a ruler under every line of text in order to detach it from its context.  He could find errors every time.

All day, I remember the beauty and power of the unfamiliar.  I remember why I need to detach from the old familiar contexts.  In familiar settings, coping mechanisms, dysfunctional relational patterns, and spiritual blind spots set in.  But remove me from my settings and get me away from the familiar?  Suddenly I have clear focus.  I can see all the junk.  I think this explains the importance of weekend retreats, marriage date nights, travel opportunities, and simple changes in routine.  This explains why I need to get on my knees, away from my life patterns, to listen to God. 

We makes things unfamiliar in order to see again. 

Journal:  How can we make our lives a little unfamiliar today?


Offering a Blank Page

Just now, my printer chokes and halts.  An orange warning light flickers.  A message alert flashes on my computer screen:  No paper. 

I find the stack of new paper, bend down to fill the printer, and suddenly realize something.  Looking at that new blank page warns me somehow.  It becomes a spiritual moment right here by the old printer.

I consider how only a blank page will produce a clear document.

I know this because I’ve accidentally put used paper in my printer that bore the marks of old essays, chapters from novels, or random printouts from various websites.  When you try to print on paper that’s already filled, the printer spits out gobbledygook.

You just can’t read words overlying other words or paragraphs imprinted atop other paragraphs.  (Gobbledygook really is a word.  It means meaningless, unintelligible, nonsense language.)

Only a blank page will do.  I realize I have a script for my life–words on the page I want–butI long for the willingness to hand God a blank page.  Trying to merge my own narrative onto the one He’s writing produces a kind of gobbledygook:  stress, meaninglessness, and chaos.  If only I might offer the blank page and let another Writer compose!

Journal:  Offering up a blank page seems very freeing, but also terrifying.  What script or story line do I need to clear from my life?


Sending Your Voice Into the World

On the walk home from school, an extraordinary sight greets us.  A beautiful hot air balloon hovers in the morning sky.  (My husband’s phone snapped this photo, but you can’t tell how vibrant the balloon is.  Just imagine!)

I race into the middle of the street, spread my arms wide, and wave at them.  I’m jumping in the air, and I’m calling out, “Hello up there!  Hello up there!”  I realize I’m a colossal embarrassment. I realize this doesn’t make any sense.

Someone on the ground says, “They won’t be able to hear you.”

But still, I shout and wave.  Then, I hear an answer.

“Hello!”  They hear me!  They answer.  They wave and call down from inside the basket.  I see a tiny arm waving to me.  I hear the voice and smile.   Our voices travel across this huge distance.   

All morning, I realize how ridiculous of a notion it was to raise my voice and expect an answer.  But my voice was heard, and an answer did come.

You just never know how far your voice will travel.  You never know who might hear–from no matter how far away or in whatever unusual circumstance–the thing you have to say.

Living with flair means you go ahead and send your voice out into the world.  You have no idea who can hear it and answer you. 

Journal:  Go ahead and say what you want to say today. 


What a Change of Background Can Do

I realize today that I love experimenting with background.  The word technically means the “scenery behind the main object of contemplation, especially when perceived as a framework for it.”  We distinguish objects and circumstances–understanding them properly–because we measure them against their background. 

Live with Flair is my background.  A different background changes how we understand and see. 

I gaze into a deep, clear lake, and I have to capture the apple tree against that beauty.  What’s behind the object–the setting–fascinates me.  It frames and contextualizes.  It tells a story. 

Just as in photography and writing, I think carefully about what background I’m choosing to view my own life against.  What subtext, what ideologies, what memories, what conversations?  Do these frame my life the way I want–in beauty, hope, and joy–or do they obscure, depress, and oppress?

I’m starting to wonder if I can identify sources of unhappiness and despair by asking folks what singular background they view themselves against.  

I chose a different frame the day I started blogging.  I decided to set my life against the background that I’ve been “blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ” and that nothing happens to me today that God doesn’t use to “work out everything in conformity to the purpose of his will.” 

It’s been 510 days of seeing life differently.  God is good.  All the time. 

Journal:  Do I need to change my background today? 


Doing What You Love

Today I remember a conversation I had with my husband years ago.  We were talking about careers and our future.  We asked this question:  “What makes you feel most alive and most like yourself?”  His answer matched exactly with what he was already doing with his life.

Mine didn’t, but I was getting there.  I felt most alive and most me when I was teaching and writing.  So I reasoned that God made me for these things.  In His goodness and creativity, perhaps God made it so that when we are doing what we are supposed to be doing, it will feel like we’re fully alive, energized, and truly ourselves.   

I’m starting to believe that when we find that thing we were made for, it won’t feel like drudgery.  Maybe it won’t feel like work.  

Psychologist Greg Hocott was once asked how he could manage his difficult counseling practice.  He writes, “I think the answer is found in doing what God created us to do. We are all endowed with specific talents and gifts, and as long as we live within them, ‘work’ seems less difficult.”

Maybe this explains why blogging never feels like work.  Maybe this explains why I can’t wait for the new semester to start.  I’ll tell my students that I love teaching and writing so much that I would do it for free.  That’s a good thing, I’ll tell them, because I practically am doing it for free.  Nobody teaches for the money!

Living with flair means finding ways to do what we love.  It means being brave enough to pursue those paths. 

Journal:  Do you love your work so much you would do it for free?


Who But You?

As I prepare my writing seminar, I receive emails and comments from folks asking sadly, “What do I have to write that’s worth reading?  Why would anyone read what I have to write?” 

In Mary Pipher’s book, Writing to Change the World, she entitles a chapter, “What You Alone Can Say.”  She claims, “You have something to say that no one else can say.  Your history, your unique sensibilities, your sense of place and your language bestow upon you a singular authority.  Who but you can describe the hollyhocks in your grandmother’s backyard or the creek outside of town that you fished as a child. . . ?” 

Who but you?

Journal:  What will you write that you alone can say?