In the Margin: Adventures in Freelance Scheduling

by Randy Petersen

I scurried across the Wheaton College quad, rushing to a play rehearsal in the spring of my sophomore year. An old friend was approaching from the other direction, someone I’d known well as a freshman but hadn’t seen for a while.

“Great to see you, man,” I launched without breaking stride. “How are you?”

I was expecting a quick “Fine,” as we both hurried on our ways, but he slowed up and said, “Not too good.” Clearly he needed to talk.

So I stopped, and we talked, and the chapel clock rang out the hour as I stood there and listened. My frantic race across campus had stopped cold, but I was confident that God wanted me right here, being there for my old friend.

Wise Ways

I got to rehearsal fifteen minutes late. My cast-mates were finishing their warmups under the wise and caring eyes of the director, Jim Young. Head of the theater department, Jim was one of the greatest saints I’ve ever known.

“Sorry I’m late,” I told him, “but I think you might approve. I saw an old friend who needed to talk, and I sensed that God had brought our paths together in that moment. I decided it was best to stay there and be a friend to him, even if it made me late.”

Jim saw my sincerity, I think. This was not just a sophomoric excuse. What’s more, it fit with what he was always teaching us, in theater and in our faith—paying attention to others, living fully in each moment, being open to God’s leading. He wasn’t mad, though he might have been a bit bemused that I was using his own ethos to justify my tardiness to his rehearsal.

Calmly he replied, “Perhaps next time you could leave earlier, to allow time for anyone God brings into your path.”

Stop and read that sentence again, because there’s wisdom in it that I’m still unpacking.

Yes, live in the moment. Yes, listen for God’s guidance. Yes, stop and help people along the way. But if God has cast you in a play, get to rehearsals on time. If God has given you a writing assignment, meet that deadline. Create margin in your schedule so you can keep in step with the whims of the Spirit and still get your work done.

Lord Willing

There’s a pertinent example in the book of James, though I’ve been misreading it for most of my life. The author chides those who confidently announce, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.”

This has led many of us to an almost superstitious reluctance to talk about future plans without appending the words Lord willing. As James says, “How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow?” (James 4:13-14 NLT).

Only recently did I notice the words stay there a year. This is not about going to a barbecue on Saturday. It’s a long-term business venture. This means uprooting your life, going to a different city, and working there for a year. And why? To make money.

From the text of this epistle, we know that the original recipients included some wealthy business owners. James urges them to care for the needy, pay their workers well, and not expect special treatment. We get the idea that these folks made decisions based on money. Profits meant more than prophets. (Hey, see what I did there?)

James suggests a different priority: “What you ought to say is, ‘If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that’” (v. 15).

Freelancers often make decisions based on profitability, at least in part. Will I get paid enough to make this job worth my while? That’s a reasonable consideration. But James invites us to add another checkpoint. What does the Lord want?

Many of us have done work for free, or for minimal pay, because we felt that God wanted us to. And I imagine others share my experience of saying yes to a high-paying project—a no-brainer from a profit standpoint—and regretting it later. We should have asked that second question.

Micro and Macro

Now let’s pull this whole thing together.

As Christian writers, going about our work and our lives, we might think in terms of micro-guidance and macro-guidance. If we are asking what the Lord wants when we take on assignments, that’s macro-guidance. We can confidently say we’re on a mission from God. So when an interruption comes on deadline day—say, a friend we haven’t seen for a while—we can have the discipline to say, “I’m already working on what the Lord wants, so let me call you back tomorrow.”

Better yet, we can tap into the wisdom of my theater professor and build some margin into our schedules. That might allow us to follow the micro-guidance of some minor interruptions while still being macro-guided to meet the deadline.

Addendum: I wrote this piece shortly before the Coronacrisis hit, and I realize that many people’s lives have changed drastically. Perhaps you have more “margin” than you want. Yet you’re still making micro-decisions every day, though these may be quite different from your previous daily decisions. Let me suggest this might be a good time to work through the balance of micro-guidance and macro-guidance. How is God using these daily decisions to shape your future life and career?

 

Writing with Honesty . . . and Humility

by Randy Petersen

I’ve been reading—and loving—the 2019 book Write Better by long-time InterVarsity Press editor Andy LePeau. Buy it for yourself. Read it. Memorize it.

Here’s one gem, out of many, from a section on persuasion.

. . . [H]onesty means showing humility. Despite our carefully researched evidence and excellent use of logic, we might still be wrong. As finite, fallible human beings, all of us should always be willing to learn, to have our minds changed, and to have our most cherished beliefs challenged. We need to be careful, then, not to overstate our conclusions. We should be confident but not cocky.

Vocation Now and Later

by Stephen R. Clark

Whenever the idea of Christian vocation is addressed in an article or conversation, there’s a well-known quote attributed to Frederick Buechner that almost always comes up: “Vocation happens when our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”

Actually, as Buechner himself explained in an interview¹, it’s not a direct quote, but it captures the essence of what he was getting at.

As Christian writers, imbued with God’s image, we all want to know why we’re here. What we’re supposed to be about. For what purpose did God create us?

And we tend to spend a lifetime seeking “the” answer to that question.

In the meantime, we write and live and move and have our being, going about our days, doing our best to please God and enjoy Him for now and here, longing for over there.

This we call our Christian walk.

God-shaped

In the process of living our lives and doing our writing in the light of God’s Word, we seek to be better people. To be Spirit-filled, God-shaped, Christ-redeemed creations.

We care about those around us. Go to work and do our writing as well as we can. Give money to those in need. Do acts of service. Treat people well. Grow where we are planted.

As we do these things, our writing vocation and purpose take shape through our humble, clumsy service to God.

Perhaps we even recognize that our “purpose” is not singular, but rather a series of purposes, a multiplicity of callings. All, of course, anchored in Christ connected by His will flowing through us.

From time to time, our thoughts turn to heaven. “What’s that going to be like?” we wonder.

Honestly, I’m not sure Christianity has done a good job of revealing what heaven and the new earth will be like.

What it won’t be like is how it is cartoonishly characterized: you’re sitting on a cloud wearing a halo and wings strumming a harp. The Bible does, however, refer to us reigning with Christ. It mentions streets, cities, dwellings. All of this implies activity.

Frankly, I’m really hoping there will be books. I think there’s going to be a lot of time to catch up on my reading!

Foreshadowing the new earth

A couple of years ago I read a really great book, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity by Nancy Pearcey. I strongly recommend the book to everyone.

On the topic of Christian vocation, Pearcey states, “In our work we not only participate in God’s providential activity today, we also foreshadow the tasks we will take up in cultivating a new earth at the end of time.”

As Spock would say, Fascinating!

This means we’re going to have stuff to do over there on the other side. Stuff for which we are perfectly suited, that fits to a T our created personalities, that extends our unique giftings into eternity!

Wowza! That sounds, well, darn fun!

And how we live now, all we do here on earth in this short time we have, prepares and shapes us for the rest of our eternal lives.

Holy vocational education!

Going back to Buechner, he explained, “When you are doing what you are happiest doing, it must also be something that not only makes you happy but that the world needs to have done. In other words, if what makes you happy is going out and living it up and spending all your money on wine, women, and song, the world doesn’t need that.”

This helps sift down the possibilities for us in terms of what we’re made for. Wanton carousing isn’t something this earth or the new earth needs.

Glorify and enjoy

The Westminster Shorter Catechism says, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”

In this we find further guidance when it comes to vocation as well.

We seek to do that which pleases God, serves Him and provides us a sense of enjoyment—joy, satisfaction, contentment—in the process.

Add in the context of Luke 10:25-37, where the double commands to “Love the Lord your God” and “love your neighbor as yourself” are clarified in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Clearly, what we do must also benefit those around us.

So vocation is not about us having our fun, doing what we want, living our truth, even if it’s not hurting anyone else. How we live here on earth, what we do now, has eternal consequences.

And so our vocation doesn’t end at heaven’s gate, because death for the Christian isn’t an end. It’s a new beginning to a new life . . . and a truly glorious career!

So, how’s your on-the-job training going?

===

¹ Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, “Frederick Buechner Extended Interview,” May 5, 2006

 

Four Questions for the Scrupulous Writer (plus two more)

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even yourself.

George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” (an essay published in 1946)

Pandemic Frustrations

by Randy Petersen

Where are the words when I need them?

This is my first pandemic, and I’m frustrated. I want to help, but I’m not sure what to do. My stock in trade is language. I want to craft sentences that provide comfort or hope or clarity to those who need it. But I’m drawing a blank.

As a Christian writer, I feel even greater pressure. I am called to love others, and words are generally the way I do that. So where are the words now?

Maybe I’m just cranky because all my activities have been canceled and there are no sporting events on TV, but I do get tired of the platitudes. Facebook seems awash in shallow sentiment. I don’t want to add to the emptiness. Yes, I love the lyrics to “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as much as any theater guy, but I long to create a new message for this unique time.

Is this just an inconvenient attack of writer’s block, or is there something about this crisis that disables creativity?

I know it’s absurd to complain about this, when my neighbors are troubled by illness and fears of illness, fears for loved ones, loss of jobs and income, the freefall of retirement savings, etc. No need to cry over my spilt mojo. But maybe you’re feeling something similar.

If so, my writing friends, let me share the things I’m telling myself.

Platitudes. I don’t like them, but most of them were created for times like this. And they carry enough truth that they often help people. For years, my pastor has said, “We don’t know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future.” Now I want to hear that every day. So don’t be afraid of those truisms. Unpack them. Refresh them. But don’t dismiss them.

Permission. One of the most important things a communicator can do in a tough time is to give people permission to feel what they feel. This is especially true among Christians. Are you frightened? Depressed? Frustrated? Lonely? Angry with God? If you as a writer express your difficult feelings, you’ll have a host of readers thanking you for putting their confusion into words. Don’t tell folks how they should feel. Feel what you feel, and be honest about it.

Purpose. Writers often have a prophetic gift. Not predicting the future, but explaining the present in light of larger truths. The last word of the overquoted but always appropriate Romans 8:28 is purpose. We get to connect perplexing events with God’s purposes. Often people focus on each day’s troubles without seeing the growth that God intends.

Peace. We have the power to speak peace into troubled hearts. In the 1870s, a lawyer/poet named Horatio Spafford responded to a personal tragedy by penning “It is Well with My Soul,” and succeeding generations have found comfort in those lyrics. We can use our wordsmithing gifts to craft a deeply needed message of assurance. Avoid false promises—“It’ll all be over next week”—but keep offering the powerful promises God gives us. He will be with us, always, in this world and the next.

 

 

Speak. . . what?

 

At the end of King Lear, one character laments:

“The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”

How many philosophical debates has this passage sparked? When circumstances cause grief, should we react emotionally or rationally? How are we, as Christian writers, to use our words?

We’d love to hear how you’re coping with the current pandemic, particularly with regard to your writing. How do you decide whether you speak what you feel or what you ought to say? Please leave a comment below.

Be sure to check this spot again next Tuesday. Randy will share some more thoughts on what to do when our words have trouble flowing in times like these.

 


Don’t miss: The Benefits of Being a Freelancer in a COVID-19 World

The Benefits of Being a Freelancer in a COVID-19 World

by Ann Byle

While the world reels thanks to a microscopic virus, we freelancers are in our element. Nobody is questioning our life choices anymore. In fact, we are about to become the experts on how to balance work and home. The benefits are legion.

  1. The learning curve doesn’t exist. We figured this out long ago, so there’s no need to learn how to balance work and family. Been there, done that.
  2. Introverts are no longer weird. Now that so many people are working from home, the world may finally get it. We like working this way, and that’s okay. As Jim Reeves sang, “Welcome to my world, won’t you come on in?” As long as you practice social distancing.
  3. Our workspace is already set up. We’ve got our home office well organized, whether it’s a dedicated room, a corner, space under the stairs, or the recliner chair. We’ve got writing utensils, paper, space for a hot beverage, chargers, and dark chocolate all set.
  4. We can do phone interviews with ease. We’ve been calling folks for interviews for years, so it’s no big deal to pick up the phone and talk, not text.
  5. Email as a professional tool is old news. Freelancers have been emailing interview requests, professional communications, and queries to editors for as long as we’ve been working. Nothing new here.
  6. Interruptions won’t kill us. Working from home can be an exercise in overcoming interruptions, but we’re used to it whether from humans or animals. We simply move on and keep writing.
  7. We can provide excellent content without interruption. Our work continues because content is still king. While our editors may be moving home, they still need the content we provide in a timely manner. We’ve done so for years and that’s not about to stop.

While our worlds may not have changed that much, let us keep others and their needs in our hearts and prayers.

 

 

 

Stay Innocent

[After telling the story of a little boy who donated blood to his little sister dying of leukemia even though he thought he would die in the process. . .]

Sometimes you have to be that innocent to be a writer. Writing takes a combination of sophistication and innocence; it takes conscience, our belief that something is beautiful because it’s right. To be great, art has to point somewhere. So if you are no longer familiar with that place of naive conscience, it’s hard to see any point in your being a writer.

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird (Anchor Books, 1995)

10 Tips for Dealing with Distractions

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

If they gave out gold medals for procrastination, I’d have a display case full of them.

When you’ve freelanced fulltime as long as I have—nearly a quarter of a century—you learn and develop many useful skills. Nobody plans to get good at procrastinating but. . . hold on, my phone just buzzed. Sweet! Someone from church just forwarded a recording of the group that sang yesterday. They were so good! Oops, that reminds me that I forgot to email my friend that document I’d promised her. It’ll just take a second.

Good. That’s done. Wait, let me just get some water. . .

You may have heard the joke about how writing is 5 percent talent and 95 percent avoiding distractions. It can certainly feel that way. What can you do to shift those numbers and improve your focus?

  1. Identify your distractions so you can anticipate them and have a game plan.
    • Are you a perfectionist? Just start somewhere. You can edit later.
    • Are family or friends vying for your attention? Let the people close to you know that you need some undisturbed time for an hour or two or five.
    • Do you think of constant connectedness (online) as normal? Do you feel like work and family and life pull you from the Internet instead of the other way around? Decide ahead of time how much time to spend online.
    • Are you stressed about unmet obligations? Schedule those tasks to make sure they get done (and to reassure yourself they will get done).
  1. Start early. Give yourself the advantage by getting some work done before the first distraction comes along.
  2. Make sure you’re rested, comfortable, hydrated and fed (but not stuffed) so you can settle into your writing without interrupting yourself.
  3. Aim for privacy and silence. I don’t recommend working in a café unless people-watching is part of your research. If you don’t already have a home office, carve out a corner of your home as your writing nook—or go to a library. Don’t listen to music, or keep it soft and not too varied.
  4. Sign off all social media, close your email program, and turn off your phone, resisting the urge to check it. It’s a rabbit hole you will not easily or quickly climb out of. Emergencies should be the only exception.
  5. Simplify the assignment by breaking it down into smaller tasks. Tackle the hardest part first. Productivity experts talk about “eating the frog,” that is, doing the difficult thing rather than wasting time dreading it. And if you have to eat two frogs, they say, eat the uglier one first. (Ugh!)
  6. Take breaks. Pay attention to how tired you are, if you’re starting to hunch over, if you’re slowing down, if your eyes are feeling dry. Take five or ten minutes to stretch and refresh yourself and then keep going. Do not open Facebook!
  7. Keep your workspace organized so you don’t waste time looking for things. If you need reference books or notebooks while you work on your article or book, get those out ahead of time, and move anything unrelated out of the way.
  8. Reward yourself. There’s nothing wrong with giving yourself an incentive. You may decide that for every hour you write, or for every 2,000 words, or for every chapter, you will treat yourself to something. It could be a snack or money you put in a piggy bank. Or perhaps the completion of your project earns you a movie night. Make it fun but realistic.
  9. Keep a running distractions page in a notebook or Word document. I recently spotted this trick somewhere so I haven’t tried it yet, but it makes sense. As you’re working, if you remember something that needs your attention, scribble it on a notepad or quickly switch tabs on your computer and add it to a separate document you can refer to later.

If you try all these techniques and still find yourself distracted and restless, stop and ask why. Are you tired? Sick? Afraid of failure? Lacking passion for your project? Take time to deal with what’s bothering you, pray, and ask someone else for help if necessary. Go for a walk, or work on a hobby to regroup and refocus. The time you spend recalibrating is less wasteful than sitting in front of your computer feeling uninspired and writing nothing.

We can’t eliminate all distractions, but having a game plan and sticking to it can mitigate their effect.

Enlarge the Circle

If you want to write, you can. Fear stops most people from writing, not lack of talent, whatever that is. Who am I? What right have I to speak? Who will listen to me if I do? You’re a human being, with a unique story to tell, and you have every right. If you speak with passion, many of us will listen. We need stories to live, all of us. We live by story. Yours enlarges the circle.

Richard Rhodes