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Monday, October 31, 2011

NaNoWriMo, Writing and Blogging

Once again I'm going to participate in the event known as NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. The challenge is to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. That works out to 1,667 words a day, every day ,for the course of the month.

I did it in 2009 and it was awesome. It started me on the path to becoming a professional writer. Not that I'm making tons of money, but since successfully completing NaNoWriMo I have published an article, a book and become a contributing writer for a content providing company. So I make my living by writing. That's pretty cool.

This year I'm upping the ante, so to speak. I'm going to continue writing for my day job (about 2,000 words a day) plus I'm going to try to get a non-fiction book drafted by the end of the year (goal of 1,000 words a day) and I want to edit a previously written work to be ready for eBook publishing by November 11th. On top of that I want to write another 1,667 words a day on a fiction book that's been trapped in by brain since the summer of 2010. I'm not sure what will give out first, my brain, my fingers or my keyboard.

I may be a bit less prolific in my writing here, but just know it's for a good cause.

Are you going to NaNoWriMo? What motivates you to write?

Friday, October 28, 2011

Preaching the Parable of the Good Samaritan pt. 5

As Christians and Americans, it's out of character for us to ask for help. But it seems like that's what Jesus was teaching in Luke 10. When he was asked to interpret the command: "Love your neighbor as yourself." He came back with the story of the Good Samaritan. The key thing is that the Samaritan is the neighbor to the person who was robbed. So the question posed, "Who is my neighbor?" gets answered with the Samaritan. Essentially, Jesus is saying that loving your neighbor means being willing to be weak and receive help from them. Which shouldn't be surprising since he sent out his disciples without shoes, coats or wallets to beg and preach.

The question that remains, then, is how we can show love to our neighbors the way that Jesus teaches. What real, practical things can we do to love our neighbors?

  • Ask for help when you need it. If you're like me, you often try to do something on your own when it would be much faster and easier to just get some help. Knock on a door or ask someone passing by to help you carry in your groceries. Have a work day where you invite your neighbors to help plant your garden. Find out who's a mechanic on your block and ask them to help you change your oil. 
  • Let other people be the expert. When a church is planning activities, they usually decide what they think the neighborhood want, so there are a lot of harvest parties in October, for example. What if we invited the neighbors to a planning session and asked them what they want to do? What if we asked them to help set up and tear down? What if we delegated responsibility to them (for their party)? 
  • Support local charities. Your church can't do everything. But good is still being done in your neighborhood. Find the local charities that are doing things that you can't do right now. Maybe there's a homeless shelter in your neighborhood and you don't have the resources to run one yourself. Support what they're doing, help them with volunteers and even money. Don't worry about whether people are coming to your church, worry about whether or not they're getting the help they need. 
What other ways could we show neighbor-love like Jesus taught? 

You can catch up on the previous posts here: 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Preaching the Parable of the Good Samaritan pt. 4

How can churches be weak as a means of showing love? If the point (one of them, at least) of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that we show love by being willing to receive help, then how can we love our neighbors today?

It's clear that Jesus sent out the 72 in the beginning of Luke 10 as shoe-less beggars, and that was his chosen evangelistic strategy. Do we dare do the same thing today?

Our modus operani is to swoop in on a community with all the money and all the answers. We have the big building, we have the food for the poor, we have the programs for the families, we have the well-produced worship service. We have people come to us for what they need and we become, in a way, a clearinghouse of services that people can receive.

This has been the mode of the church for centuries. The Catholic Church was, perhaps, the only stable institution in medieval Europe. If anything good was going to happen, it was going to happen because of the power and stability of the church. But, even after the break from Rome in the Reformation, most churches still hold the identity of being the place of power in a community. The building of a steeple is a not-so-subtle reminder to the surrounding people of where the power and the money are located.

But Jesus came along and called his people to eschew the position of power for one of weakness. Priestly robes were exchanged for beggar's rags. The disciples hobbled in to town after town searching for a person who would give them shelter and food. In exchange, they shared the message of Jesus. The news that the kingdom of God was near. I can't help but wonder if the means by which they went out was a stronger proclamation of God's kingdom than the words that they said.

How can you and your church be weak to show love to your community?

Catch up on parts 1, 2 and 3 of this series.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Preaching the Parable of the Good Samaritan pt. 3

What do you do when the point of the passage is obscured by what people think it means? This week I've been looking at how to preach an incredibly familiar passage like the parable of the Good Samaritan. One step is to break through the blinders of familiarity and let people see the passage afresh.

People think that the Good Samaritan story is all about how we should show mercy to those who are in need. We should be like the Samaritan and, in fact, that's what Jesus says at the end. We should go and do likewise. But the expert in the law wasn't asking about showing mercy, he was asking the identity of his neighbor. More than that, the rest of the chapter (Luke 10) doesn't have much to do with being merciful. But, there is a common thread woven through the chapter that might give a clue.

The first part of the chapter details Jesus sending out the 72 to prepare the way for him. They are to go out without sandals, a cloak or a purse -- no coat, no shoes and no wallet. Most places today would refuse them service immediately just because of their appearance. They were going out in complete weakness and dependence. Jesus' missionary strategy was to send out homeless beggars.

Then, after the parable, we get the story of Mary and Martha where Martha is mad that Mary is not doing any of the work. Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen well and it won't be taken from her. Jesus tells Martha that effort doesn't necessarily make him happy, but relationship does.

I think the two threads of weakness and relationship come together in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The way the story is set up and the way that Jesus questions the law-expert make the Samaritan the neighbor to the person who was robbed. In answering the question of the law-expert ("Who is my neighbor?") Jesus makes him admit that it's the Samaritan.

Loving your neighbor, true relationship and with it true evangelism, come not from a position of power, but from one of weakness. We show love to our neighbor when we are willing to receive help from them. We engage in true relationship when we put people over tasks and things and we share the good news by being weak and relying on the kindness of others.

Is this a fair interpretation of the parable? Why is this interpretation often avoided or ignored?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Preaching the Parable of the Good Samaritan pt. 2

If familiarity breeds contempt, then we must hate a lot of what the bible has to say. Yesterday I talked about the familiar interpretation of the Good Samaritan parable. But how do we get around the familiarity and get to the point that is actually being made?

I started thinking about how parables work and one of the main tools that make parables effective is the reversal of expectations. Another kind of lesson-story that uses the same device is fables. So I started the sermon by recounting Aesop's famous fable, The Tortoise and the Hare. The hare mocks the tortoise for being slow. The tortoise challenges the hare to a race and soon they're off. The hare runs far ahead and stops for a rest while the tortoise plods on. The hare wakes up and dashes off only to reach the finish line just ahead of the tortoise and win the race. That just goes to show you that rabbits are faster than turtles.

Changing the ending of the Tortoise and the Hare story brings about a sense of unfamiliarity. But that's the ending that people expected to hear. A rabbit is clearly faster than a tortoise. The fable gets its sharp point by reversing our expectations and creating a sense of disorientation. In the book, Made to Stick, authors Chip and Dan Heath refer to this as violating a schema; which means that standard expectations are exploded and replaced with the new idea. It's a very sticky way to communicate an idea, but it only works the first time you do it. When the fable or parable becomes the schema, violating it is difficult.

So, my first step was to make everyone aware of the schema, the presuppositions that exist around the parable of the Good Samaritan. We assume that the point of the story is to tell us to be good people and help those in need. We assume that we should mimic the Good Samaritan in the story -- and that is one of the points that come from the story. But the weird thing is that Jesus is using the story to answer a question - the question is "Who is my neighbor?" The words of Jesus at the end of the parable, "Go and do likewise." Don't really answer the question. They tell us that we should be merciful, which is good, but that's not the answer that the expert in the law was looking for.

We'll have to go back a bit to find the answer to the question posed.

How do you violate schemas to make points? What do you do when the violation has become the new schema?

(Note, book links earn me a small commission)

Monday, October 24, 2011

Preaching the Parable of the Good Samaritan pt. 1

How is it possible to say anything new about the most familiar parable in the world? Yesterday I faced that question as I preached the parable of the Good Samaritan to the Oregon City Church of Christ. I was honored to fill in while the ministers were away and I continued their series on the parables of Jesus. I chose the Good Samaritan, in part, because I already have a familiarity with it, but that familiarity was the first hurdle I would face.

It's possible that the parable of the Prodigal Son is as well known as that of the Good Samaritan, but that's only to say that they are among the very few stories of Jesus that have infiltrated popular culture. It's common to hear a news story about a Good Samaritan who helps someone in need. There are hospitals all over the nation named after the compassionate deeds of a character in a story. We hear this message and have our immediate expectations about how it ought to be interpreted.

The Good Samaritan is obviously a story about why we should take care of people on the side of the road. We need to look after the weak and injured among us. Even a lowly Samaritan did the same and showed mercy on an injured, naked man. And we leave it at that point. Our familiarity prevents us from seeing any more than just the beginning of the point.

I believe that what we've turned into the main point of the parable is a secondary point and that Jesus was wanting to communicate something more by the telling of the story. But I'll dig into that a bit more tomorrow.

How do you deal with familiarity when you teach on common texts?

Friday, October 21, 2011

How to Be Successful when You're a Failure

So there was the guy named Rob Kroese and he wrote a book. The book was about angels, the apocalypse and bad restaurants in Southern California. Rob submitted the book to a bunch of agents and the response he got was "are there any vampires in this?" Vampires were pretty big at the time (I guess it's zombies now). So without the requisite vampires, he decided to try the self-publishing route.

Rob used his blog to get a few hundred people to commit to ordering the book. Once he had enough interested people, he printed the book using Amazon's self-printing service which gave him access to the Kindle store. He sent free copies of the book to lots of top reviewers on Amazon and secured lots of high ratings (well deserved) and also put his book on sale for $0.99. So he sold a lot of books and got a lot of good reviews.

Amazon noticed his success and picked him up as a publisher through the Amazon Encore publishing house, so his sequel to the first book is all official and stuff. But he never would have had the sequel if he didn't reject the notion that he was a failure.

The short answer is that you can be successful on your own when other people label you a failure, but you have to work hard at it. Rob busted his butt marketing his own book to get to the point where Amazon took notice if his work. Not too shabby.

How have you been labeled a failure? What hard work can you do to change that?

(Note links to the books earn me a small commission and earn Rob some royalties)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

How to Get Better at Everything

Whenever I'm asked for advice on cooking, especially by younger cooks getting started, I say that you have to make bad food to make good food. I love making bread, but in learning how to make amazing bread I've made some inedible loaves. I learned from those experiences and applied that to future bread. The same is true with everything in the kitchen. I won't know what I should avoid if I don't make any mistakes. Every time I cook something (even when it's delicious) I'm always thinking about what I would do differently the next time.

When you're presenting, you need to have the same attitude. Make mistakes. Make them big and bold. I know how to put together a good PowerPoint presentation now because I've created some truly awful ones in the past. We're talking bullet points filling the screen and animations on every page and then, the coup de grace was when I didn't embed the font for the Greek words I put into the presentation. They just looked like misspelled English and made the presentation look even worse. I learned a lot from that experience. It was bad.

You can see it here:

But that was four years ago and I've learned a lot since then. So much so that I won the Microsoft PowerPoint competition in the best use of graphics category. You can improve in your use of PowerPoint, or anything that you're working on. But only by trying and making mistakes do you learn to improve.

What have you learned from your mistakes?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Do it Yourself and Know what's been Done

Pork Belly
 If you prepare something from start to finish, you know exactly how it's been done and what it takes to do it. This is as true in the office as it is in the kitchen.

Lately I've been cooking a lot. I'm on a diet that restricts sugar intake so I've had to make some things that I wanted to eat. Did you know that most bacon is cured with sugar? That's tough because bacon is also delicious (and without the sugar, totally acceptable in small quantities on my diet). So, the solution is to make my own bacon. I ordered a pork belly from the butcher and created a brine in which to soak the bacon. Half of the eight pound belly is going to be pepper bacon and half of it regular. After three days in the brine, the belly is removed, dried and then cold-smoked to produce that distinctive (American) bacon flavor.
Brine for the Bacon Cure

I also took some time to make a cheesecake, from scratch. Another one of the diet restrictions is on flour (mostly I can't eat white things), so instead of a typical cheesecake crust, I processed some almonds into almond flour and then filled it with the sugar-free cheesecake filling. I topped it with a homemade chocolate sauce. It was incredibly delicious. The worst part was waiting for it to cool completely after cooking.

Orange Almond Cheesecake
The whole point is that when you do things from the ground up, you get to know what's in them. You know every last ingredient of your food, if you make it yourself. If you create your own presentation, you know everything that's in it. There are plenty of pre-packaged presentations that you can grab for a few bucks, but they are the same as pre-packaged food. There's a lot of empty calories.

Pre-packaged presentations ramp up the production values. They have tons of glitz applied to make them look "professional" but the truth is most professional presentations are simple and straightforward. Look at the famous Apple Keynotes for which Steve Jobs was so famous. They aren't filled with flashy animations, but simple pictures and text. The real power comes from the presenter knowing exactly what's next in the presentation and speaking to that point.
Cheesecake topped with a chocolate sauce
 Don't look for the easy way out. It's only easy on the front end. The work you put in at the beginning will be rewarded at the end with a much better product, in no small part because you know every ingredient in it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Learn to be a Lean Mean Fighting Machine

The best fighters have, what appear to be, inexhaustible supplies of energy and motivation. Look at physical fighters like Bruce Lee or social fighters like Martin Luther King Jr. and you see a constant resolve that doesn't waver. They almost appear superhuman in their ability to press the fight.

It takes time, effort and energy to fight for what you want. It's not easy and it's not comfortable. It also takes endurance. Endurance that must be built up over time through practice. Dr. King didn't start his crusade for civil rights at the beginning of his career, but rather once he had developed some endurance in his life through pastoring and speaking. He worked with small movements first and then built up to the Million Man March. He didn't start at the end. Bruce Lee spent his life in training and preparing for combat. He worked, behind the scenes, more hours than we will ever know, to prefect that effortless, tireless appearance that he's remembered for.

Start with one habit, one trait, one practice that you need to develop in order to be the best at your job. If you need to get better at public speaking, go to Toastmasters. If you need to work on your writing skills participate in NaNoWriMo. If you need to learn how to use PowerPoint better, find some tutorials.

In the end, you won't have the inexhaustible energy if you don't practice being exhausted now. Push yourself to the limit in this moment so that your limits will be greater when you really need it.

What's your training regime?

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Craft of Writing in a Digital World

Writing is now less important and more important than it's ever been.

Words are cheap. Words can be pulled out of nothing and transmitted around the world in a matter of seconds. Some truly terrible sentences are propagated and even celebrated through media like Twitter. The ephemeral nature of online communication translates into a lack of care in crafting the words and a lack of interest in how they appear. A text message or a Facebook status is here for a moment, but soon eclipsed by the next one in an unending procession. Why take time to word-smith chaff?

Words are eternal. Even in the digital age, especially in the digital age, words don't go away. The blog post you wrote when you first learned about blogging is still archived online. Google has been scanning books in an attempt to leave no words behind in the digital revolution. I've been reading a scanned copy of Les Miserables that I was able to download for free. The greatest works of literature are available in an instant.

What this means for the craft of writing has yet to be determined, but one thing it does not mean is that writing is dead. Writing is still a necessary skill and those who can write well are still rare treasures for society. However there is a much larger signal-to-noise ratio that is in danger of drowning out the good writing.

Writing well in a digital world means learning to write in the Facebook voice or the Twitter voice. They aren't anathema to writers, but rather a different form to be mastered. They don't preclude other forms in the same way the magazines haven't replaced books. The internet hasn't destroyed libraries. Writing in a digital age is still a craft to be mastered by those who have the talent and the time to develop it.

Painting didn't die out when new paints were invented. It wasn't destroyed when photography was created. The art form evolved to meet the new realities of the technology. Writing is no different. We have different paints and brushes with which to craft words, but we are still artists and there is still a need for our art.


Friday, October 14, 2011

Give up to Get More

What you are unwilling to try is always impossible. Have you uttered the words: "Oh, but I could never do that." in response to the cool things that your friends are doing? You're right. You will never be able to do those things, unless you give up.

Give up the notion of the "American Dream" that somehow is supposed to guarantee everyone a job, a house, two cars and 2.5 children. Give up the idea of success that's based on working yourself into exhaustion so that you can retire and sit around doing nothing. Give up the concept of money as the only way to achieve your goals. Give up. Stop. Don't be normal anymore.

I can't tell you how many people have listened jealously as I told them about spending a summer in Ireland. Most often, the response something like, "I wish I could do that, that would be so cool."

Then why not? What's stopping you? We volunteered on a farm in exchange for room and board. We worked little side jobs for entertainment money and we just did it. It's not hard to live a life of adventure, it's just hard to give up the life you have to do it.

What do you want to do that's impossible?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

How to Make Time for what You Want to Do

We all crave more time for the things we really want to do, that project that we've been dreaming about or that vacation that we hope to take. All it takes is time.

There are only a certain number of hours in the day. And we are bound to use some of those hours to make money for living. We use other hours for sleeping and general life-maintenance. What we're left with often doesn't feel like enough to do anything else. We collapse into our chairs and watch some TV before stumbling to bed and then we rise to do it all over again.

Yesterday Lifehacker had a great article on the true cost of commuting. In which they point out that the real dollar value of driving just one mile to work adds up to almost $800 over the course of a year. So living farther away from work to save money on housing is often a losing proposition since the money is just evaporating into your transportation.

What was fascinating, though, was all of the comments from people saying that it was just impossible for them to change their commuting lifestyle. They have no other jobs, the housing is too expensive, they can't bike where they live, and on and on. But the real problem isn't any of those things. The real problem is that they aren't willing to give up.

If you want more time in your life you must give up. Give up the thought that you must own a home and have a "nice" car and have a "real" job. The needs of housing, transportation and income don't have to look normal. Like Dave Ramsey says, "I don't want to be normal; normal is broke." Normal is also time-broke. You have to give up being normal if you want to get your time back.

If you find a job that is 30 miles closer to your home you automatically save $24,000 a year in transportation costs. So if you have an average American salary of $40,000 a year and you commute 30 miles to work every day, you could get a job within walking distance making just $16,000 a year and still pay the rest of your bills. You could save an hour every day in driving time and work less to boot. But, you wouldn't be normal.

What are you willing to give up?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

5 Ways to Learn a New Skill Today

One of the biggest objections that I get when I advise people to add visual presentation to their presentations is that it takes too much time to use the software to create a good slide deck. They argue that the time is better spent refining the existing presentation rather than adding something new.

That's true, for the presentation that's due tomorrow. But, for the presentation after that, and the next one, it's the willful retardation of development. If you think that you should stop learning new skills and focus on refining the skills you've got, you won't advance in your career. You're done. Enjoy the coast to retirement.

But, if you're hungry to grow and to get better at what you do, you have to be adding new skills to your repertoire, almost constantly. It's not an option. The option you do have is to choose which skills to add. And, perhaps the most important, is the skill of learning skills.

So, how can you learn a new skill, today?

1. Become a Beginner
Try something that you've never done before. It's frustrating and confusing, but you'll be creating new neural pathways that will open your mind up to learning in general. Learn a dance or pick up a skillet and try to flip the veggies in the pan. You will fail, but that's a part of learning new skills. Be awkward and clumsy and figure out how to do something new.

2. Become an Apprentice
Learn a skill from someone who knows it well. Ask the computer guru how to use keyboard shortcuts. Check with your uncle who's a carpenter and get some lessons on finishing that old table in your garage. Mobilize the resources you have at your disposal and turn them into new skills. People are the best teachers and learning happens best in relationship. So, learn a new skill from someone you know and trust.

3. Tweak what You Do
Take a skill that you already know how to do and make it better. One example is in the video below. You already know how to tie your shoes (I'm guessing), but do you know how to tie them the right way? Terry Moore explains in this video how you can tie your shoes correctly and how it benefits. It's a small change, but even small changes help to re-form your brain into a learning machine. Plus your shoelaces will look better.

4. Get Stuck
Necessity is the mother of invention and it's also the step-mother of new skills. If you're stuck, your brain will start cranking in some new and interesting ways to help you find a way out. Think of it as the MacGuyver principle, you're locked in a room with a toothpick and some hydrochloric acid; now get out. One way to do this is to make a meal from only what you have on hand. Figure out how to substitute and fudge to make something that you've never made before. Force yourself into situations where you have to use your creativity to get out of it and you'll learn some new skills.

5. Learn the Principles
I love watching Alton Brown's Good Eats because he doesn't just give the recipe for some food, he gives the principles behind the recipe. Armed with those principles I can then apply them across a range of situations. Learning about the Maillard reaction (the magical moment when food turns golden brown) helps me to make not only better steak but also better toast, bacon, roasted squash and chicken salad. Every skill has an underlying principle. Understand what that is and you will have unlocked the door to that skill.

How can you learn a new skill today?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Creativity is Work

I don't know why, but I've found myself answering the question: "How do you become a writer?" Technically I'm a professional writer at this point in my life. I make my living by writing articles for various websites. I didn't intend for this to be my job, but it's working for me, for now.

Part of the answer to the question of how I became a writer is that we had no other way of making money and we were desperate. We were living in Ireland for the summer of 2010 and we had no way of being legally employed. We were volunteering on a farm, but that only provided shelter and food for us. So I scoured the Internet for jobs I could do online from a trailer next to a horse pasture. What I found was writing how-to articles.

I'm with a major content provider (sometimes called a content mill) that connects writers with projects en masse. I'll tell you more about it privately, if you want me to. Basically I get to write the titles they give me and submit them online in exchange for being paid online. It's not a glamorous gig, but it did give us some beer money while in Ireland.

When we came back I started looking for other jobs, but I couldn't find anything that would offer the same pay and flexibility as I already had. So I kept with it. I'm now writing about 25 hours a week and that pays most of the bills that we have (along with my wife working too, it's not a lot of money). It may not be the highest paying job in the world, but there's one thing that it gives me that most other jobs can't: I work on the craft of writing and get paid for it.

Every day I have to sit and write about 2,000 words of text. Every day I interact with copy editors and receive critique on my work. Every day I comply with guidelines to get my work approved. Every day I hone the tools in my writing toolbox.

Being creative is like a muscle. If you don't exercise it, you won't have any endurance. But, if you do work it, even if the work is boring, treadmill work, the muscle gets stronger. You can do more and do it longer.

There's a heady rush that every creative person feels when inspiration strikes. It's beautiful. I had an epiphany last night as I was working on an outline for a new project. I spent a moment to just bask in the light of inspiration. But that doesn't finish the project, or even start it. The one thing I've learned about being a writer that it worth of being passed on to others is this: do it. Write. No excuses, no re-scheduling, just write.

How do you exercise your creativity?

Monday, October 10, 2011

30 years of rejection, one day of celebration

His work took thirty years to be recognized as valid, but last Wednesday Dan Shechtman was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his discovery of non-repeating crystals. To those outside the chemistry world the actual work isn't terribly exciting, a scientist looked at some molecules through an electron microscope and saw something he didn't expect to see. Something that wasn't supposed to be possible. He saw crystals with a regular pattern that doesn't repeat. To put it another way, they are crystals that show symmetry when rotated one-fifth of a circle. That's not allowed.

When Dan shared his work with other scientists he was rebuffed. He was proposing that the very definition of what makes a crystal needed to be changed. Yet, he insisted. He showed the structure in different materials, he re-created his experiment and he kept stating what he knew to be true. It only took thirty years.

People like Dan are tough to emulate and easy to praise. His long-lived endurance in the face of the entire scientific community is beyond the limits of normal humans. We love stories like Dan's because it means that we might be right, even though everyone else says we're wrong. But we don't like the story that Dan had a year ago. That's the story of a man who spent twenty-nine years fighting for what he knew to be right, but without any fruit. That story is horrifying. That's the story we tell as a cautionary tale to college Freshmen who want to major in philosophy. You'll waste your life. You have to face reality some day. So many other people can't be wrong.

But what if they are?

What if you have the next revolution in chemistry locked in your brain? What if the next great novel is in there? What about the next great sermon? What if?

What if it takes you thirty years? What then? Do believe in it enough to keep going?

Friday, October 07, 2011

It's like Woodstock, but for word-hippies

This weekend I'm headed to the Portland literary festival, Wordstock. It's the largest literary festival in the Pacific Northwest and it's held for two days at the Oregon Convention Center. I'm going, in part, to learn about  the business of writing. I'm attending a workshop on that topic and I'm hoping to make some good connections in the business. I don't really know what to expect, but I'm excited to branch out in the community and learn more about what it takes to be a professional writer.

Have you been to Wordstock? Are you going?

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Two Types of Creativity, Firefly Teaches Us about Productivity

Copy Blogger had a great post yesterday about creative types as seen through Firefly, the short-lived series from Joss Whedon.

The captain of the ship, Serenity, is Mal Reynolds. He's cocky, cool and inventive. Mal is always cooking up a new scheme for making money and when things get tough, he improvises a way out. He leads with passion and inspires followers to do more than they thought possible. He can't be constrained by rules, so he flies out beyond the reach of the rules, yet his own code of honor guides everything he does.

Zoe Washburne is Mal's first mate. She served under him in the war and now she continues to take orders on the Firefly-class ship. She's loyal, calculating and direct. While Mal is pondering new ideas, Zoe is putting things into practice and getting results. When things get tough, she sticks to the plan and gets out through sheer willpower. She works best by taking Mal's crazy schemes and making something concrete out of them.

Typically creative types are either a Mal or a Zoe. Mals are the entrepreneurship that go out on the edge and push the envelope. Mals are Steve Jobs who was so good at challenging the status quo. Zoes are the doers that implement the dreams of the entrepreneurs. Zoes are Steve Wozniak who provided the technical skill to create what Steve Jobs thought up. Neither Mals nor Zoes work well on their own. They need each other, if possible, and if not, they need to develop the skills to compensate.

Mals need help sticking with one idea long enough to make it a reality. Too often they are moving on to the next idea before the first one (or dozen) are even over. They require the discipline to stop, wait and see if the idea will work before moving on to the next big thing. They need to devote time to production rather than just imagination. The great idea won't do anyone any good if it never exists. Specific blocks of time need to be set aside for doing the work.

Zoes need imagination sparkers. They are great at implementing ideas, but they need the kernel of the idea to begin with. Practicing brainstorming or finding good sources for new ideas in news sources feeds Zoes the new ideas they need. They also need to know when to give up, if an idea isn't working and can't be tweaked, it needs to be abandoned. Zoes are loathe to give up ideas at all, they will fight to the last. Zoes need to learn some people skills, the focus on ideas alienates people. They don't see why those around them are not doing the job and they don't take the time to listen. Zoes need to stop and listen.

Which one are you? How can you be better at creating?

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The Pursuit of Not-Happiness

What if the Declaration of Independence is wrong? What if, 235 years ago, when Thomas Jefferson wrote out the combined thoughts of the delegates gathered, they missed the point? At least in part.

The second paragraph starts:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
I won't get into the first two rights, but "the pursuit of happiness" seems to be, shall we say, a bit much. How is that so core to our country's identity that we had to include it in the declaration of rebellion against the British crown? Yet, it seems to be true.

Happiness is what people want. Commercials tell us that we're not happy without the product that they offer. The ratings for well-being for our country are based on how happy people are with the performance of the President or the stock market. Individual success is determined based on how happy we appear to be. We relentlessly pursue happiness, which stays always just out of reach. It's fleeting, like most emotions.

This pursuit, this American right, has crept in to religion. Doctrines are constructed from the Archimedean point of God wanting us to be happy. All else hinges on that one belief.

What if it's not true?

In an article at Psychology Today, Melissa Kirk reflects on the question: "Is happiness even the point?"
"It made me wonder if our culture's seeming obsession with the pursuit of happiness misses the point entirely. Not that we shouldn't seek balance, but happiness? Why is happiness so important, and is it, in fact, even sustainable? And if we were happy all of the time, how would we learn to surf the waves of our emotions, and to gracefully dance with our shadows?"
Happiness isn't an end. It's a waypoint on the journey, but so are pain, sadness, mourning, anger and all of our other emotions. We react to life, we learn, we grow. Sometimes we feel happy in all of that, but that's not the point. Just like sex isn't the point of marriage, happiness isn't the point of life.

How does it change our culture if we stop pursuing happiness? How does it change your day today?

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Connect with People not Technology

Today brings the launch of another iPhone iteration (the iPhone 5, if you're that far out of the loop), and it reminds me about how we ought to be using technology.

What happens is that we fall in love with our things.
"I love my iPhone."
"I love my Android."
"I love my TV."
"I love my computer."
Or, we end up hating the technology when it doesn't work right. Either way, we're connected to the stuff in an emotional way. That's because people are meant to create emotional connections.

Our brains are a mishmash of cross-wiring. We don't just remember facts, we connect all of our senses and emotions to the events surrounding those facts. We don't remember a person's face, but we have a complex web of feelings and impressions that surround that person in our mind. Human beings are, of necessity, emotional creatures. Our emotions work to help us identify danger or repeat good experiences. They connect us to community and protect us from isolation.

Unless we start applying our emotions to things instead of people. It's not bad to love the tools you use. As a carpenter about the difference between hammers. He'll pick the one he loves, the one that's served him well. The one that's on its third handle since he's owned it. But loving our tools over and above people is a tragedy.

All the technology that surrounds us gives us an unparalleled ability to connect with each other. We can text, Skype, Facebook and email all the time, from anywhere. But an ever increasing part of the emotions that we feel are being applied not to people but to things. We divorce humanity from technology and we lose the point.

I'm not saying we should get off Facebook or stop watching TV, but we should use technology with our eyes open. We know what it is and we know what it's doing. If we use it as a tool and we use it to connect with people, then it helps us all. But if we let our emotional connections stop with the things, we are impoverished.

Monday, October 03, 2011

When is PowerPoint Unnecessary?

What if PowerPoint is not the answer to every preaching ailment and the solution to every communication problem? I recently came across this blog post over at entitled "Has PowerPoint become Unnecessary?" In it, Kent says that he has never seen any real benefit from including PowerPoint with his sermons.
"I can honestly say that the only thing that has been lost when the powerpoint wasn’t available was the time I may have spent preparing it."

PowerPoint is not always necessary with a sermon. For thousands of years, preachers communicated the gospel without the use of images or extra technology. It's not necessary.

But things are different. People are different. If anything, we are more visual now than we were just fifty years ago. Removing a visual channel of communication is, in my opinion, hurting the message of preaching. It's not necessary to the end product the way that scripture is, but it's important the way that a microphone is.

Looking at Kent's argument, in which he says that there are often technical difficulties and time spent in getting PowerPoint to work correctly, the same could be said for microphones and sound systems. The batteries on a wireless mic go out at the wrong time, the feedback is constant and unavoidable, the system is expensive and needs to be run by someone. It's all a headache that's added on-top of the task of sharing the word of God. But, it's necessary so that people can hear the message. We, as preachers, put up with the problems of microphones so that the congregation can hear the word of God.

Over time, something happens, we get used to it. It becomes a part of our preaching technique. We learn to use a hushed whisper, knowing that the mic will amplify it. We don't shout, because we know it will be to loud over the sound system. We know to get to the auditorium a few minutes early so the sound guys can wire us up. It's no longer a hassle, it's just what we do. And, without it, we could preach. Microphones aren't necessary, but they are incredibly helpful in amplifying the message we've worked so hard to prepare.

PowerPoint isn't necessary, but, it is very helpful in amplifying our message.