What Am I Working on Next? Well...

So what are you writing next?

I get asked this quite a bit. Who knew such a simple question would be so fraught? On the one hand, Yay that people are interested in what I have to say! On the other hand, baked right into the question is the assumption that I should be working on something new. I, too, would like to have a new project brewing. The problem is, I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know so stop asking me! But wait, no, keep asking! Maybe that will move this process along!

Six long years elapsed between the release of Sabbath in the Suburbs and God, Improv, and the Art of Living. I’m greatly enjoying marinating in the practice of improvisation, traveling around to churches and other organizations to share the principles of improv and connect them to life, leadership, and team dynamics. Heck, I’m still getting invites to talk about sabbath, which is very gratifying, even though I currently give myself a solid C+ in that area of my life. Still and all, I sure hope the time between books two and three is much shorter than six years. That means I need to be on the lookout now for the threads that will weave together into that next book.

But I also don’t want to push things. One of the things I appreciate about improv is the emphasis on trusting the process: taking the next faithful step even if you don’t know where you’ll end up. We’ve all probably had those cringe-worthy moments that come from trying too hard, or from rushing the cake out of the oven even though the toothpick doesn’t come out clean. So I’m making it a goal to trust that the right thing will come when it comes.

But how do you know when the right thing is the right thing? I know writers who can crank out a new book every couple of years. I don’t understand how they do that. Good for them, I guess—my stuff seems to need to ripen much longer. Or maybe they’ve learned something I haven’t yet, about risk and setting big audacious goals and trusting yourself to meet them. I tend to wait and amass ideas and snippets until I pretty much know where the project is going to go.

What if I said, “I’m going to build this bridge,” in faith that the plans and materials would come? Or maybe that’s just not my way, and can that be OK too? Gah!!! Mind in knots! (As Robert De Niro said when giving out the screenwriting awards on a recent Oscars broadcast, “The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing. Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination, consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing, and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.”)

Last week, a colleague posted this quote from author Susan Orlean in a writers’ group on social media: “For me, writing is really just learning about things that interest me, and then trying to convince you to find them as interesting as I do.” My friend adored this quote (as do I) and said, “Not sure what's next [for me], but I wonder if we gave ourselves permission to indulge our weird interests a little more instead of trying to catch the wave of the next big thing or impress other people, we’d have more fun writing and [paradoxically] grab more readers?”

Thank you, Internet, for the right thing at the right time. My friend is absolutely right. And it broke open this whole next-book thing for me. I’m currently workshopping some rough material with a small group, wondering if that can turn into a larger project. Who knows if it will, but I'm sure having fun. I’m also back to regular journaling (Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages), turning over the soil and sowing some seeds.

I recently discovered a new-to-me podcast in which actor Adam Scott and comedian/writer Scott Aukerman geek out about their love for the band U2 (the podcast is called “U Talkin' U2 To Me”?), which later morphed into an REM podcast called “R U Talkin' R.E.M. RE: ME?” Their enthusiasm is charming and infectious, and the show seems to have little utility in terms of their careers. They do it because they love it.

The podcast is a little… flabby? (they could use an editor), but they’re so likable I kinda don’t care. They recently had a live show in San Francisco that featured an REM cover band from Buffalo called Dead Letter Office. They managed to keep a secret from the band that REM guitarist Peter Buck would be on the show to play with the band and also do an interview.

Scott Aukerman, Peter Buck, and Adam Scott.

Scott Aukerman, Peter Buck, and Adam Scott.

Here’s the episode in question. The first part is a prelude to the live show, in which they’re in the studio and are (verbosely but earnestly) describing in great detail the many machinations they devised to keep Peter Buck a secret from the band until the moment he walked out on stage. It’s a moment of pure delight in the spirit of Susan Orlean: indulging one’s enthusiasms, and creating an experience in time. Not because you hope for a big impact, but simply because it’s fun for you, and you hope, your audience.

A few of you dear readers are writers yourselves. For those of you who aren’t, and who’ve stuck with this post this far, I wonder about the connections to your own life. I wonder if you, like me, try to divine the next right move, even though your deeper self knows better: that chasing after “right” can feel forced or inauthentic. What would it look like to lean into your own idiosyncratic joys and share those with the heart of an evangelist? To be, like Mary Oliver, a “bride married to amazement”? Maybe we’d all realize that the outcomes are mere by-product, and that process is everything.

I don’t know what I’m writing next, but I know that’s my task for the moment.

~

Thanks to writer/pastor colleague Heidi Haverkamp for the Susan Orlean quote and rumination… to check out the wonderful enthusiasms of her heart and mind, here are her books.

Gratitude... and a Pre-Announcement Announcement

The following was sent to my email newsletter earlier today—to receive content like this right to your inbox, about twice a month, subscribe.

“Increasingly I discover that being alive involves taking a chance, acting on less than certainty, engaging with life. All of this brings change, and for me the process of change is life. I realize that if I were stable and steady and static, I would be living death. So I accept confusion and uncertainty and fear and emotional highs and lows, because they are the price I willingly pay for a flowing, perplexing, exciting life.” 

-Carl Rogers

I heard this quote on a podcast while driving to a women’s retreat I led over the weekend. Carl Rogers was an American psychologist and one of the founders of modern psychotherapy as we know it. I was so struck by this quote that I pulled over to jot it down so I could refer to it later. It seemed a perfect segue into a weekend of considering improvisation as a spiritual and life practice. When we say Yes-And to what the world offers us, in a spirit of curiosity and possibility, we often find ourselves in a life that’s flowing, perplexing, and exciting. 

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It’s also a deeply meaningful message for me personally. This week marks the beginning of my fifth year of ‘free-range’ ministry. That ministry has included writing, speaking, a couple years of managing social media and communications for a global non-profit, and now, approaching my third year of leadership and ministry coaching. Not to mention running coaching, the side hustle for all my side hustles. Life is often hectic, but it’s a grand improvisation and I love it all. 

Over the last four years I’ve spoken at some 70 retreats, conferences, workshops, and guest preaching opportunities. Wow! That’s a lot of seeing the church in action, and I’m grateful for the bird’s-eye view. Add to that the wonderful perspectives I get teaching medical students at George Washington University once a month, and a new role as parish associate at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Herndon.

There’s plenty to fret about in the world, but spending time with so many fine groups of people, and being inspired daily by coach clients, reminds me that, as Carrie Newcomer says, the things that have always saved us are still here to save us. 

Speaking of those connections… I’m excited to offer a teaser of a new initiative I’m rolling out in March, called Living Improv. These are short video conversations about how people engage with the challenges and perplexities of life in a spirit of improvisation. Some are clergy, some are not; some have studied improv, but many have not. These videos will be accompanied by a short reflection by me, plus some questions for reflection/discussion. You don’t need to be reading God, Improv, and the Art of Living to engage with these videos… but if you’ve been looking for an opportune time to get a book study going, this is it!

The videos will be released via email newsletter, so subscribe if you want to receive them.

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I am beyond grateful to each of you for these bonds of connection and curiosity we’ve forged over the years. Thank you for your wisdom and companionship.

Onward!
MaryAnn

My Friends Make Stuff: Three New Books to Check Out

I’ve been meaning to share about these books for a while—each deserves its own post—but in the spirit of #WorldsOkayest, here’s one quick post that introduces all of them to you. Check them out and give these writers some love!

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First is Patrice Gopo’s All the Colors We Will See: Reflections on Barriers, Brokenness, and Finding Our Way. I met Patrice at a writers’ workshop in the summer of 2017 and was blown away by her wonderful writing. These essays explore issues of identity, race, and immigration, which makes them super zeitgeisty, but with such beautiful prose that the book feels timeless. Patrice is the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, who grew up in Alaska, spent some time in South Africa, married a man from Nigeria, and now lives in the American South (Charlotte).

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Second is Kevin Cloud’s God and Hamilton: Spiritual Themes from the Life of Alexander Hamilton and the Broadway Musical He Inspired. Kevin moves thematically through Hamilton’s life and looks at major events through the lens of big themes such as grace, sin, forgiveness, etc. He weaves together aspects of the musical with vignettes from Ron Chernow’s book. (Sadly, copyright issues prevent him from quoting from the musical directly… though you can sing the songs in your head for free as you read!) Anyone who’s been intrigued by Hamilton, not just because the mega-blockbuster musical is catchy and brilliant, but also because his story has such deep resonance, will want to pick up this one. And if you’re a preacher toying with the idea of some Hamilton sermons—and really, why not?—this one’s essential.

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Third is Grandpa’s Tent, a lovely picture book by friends and fellow clergywomen Mary Davila and Sarah Kinney Gaventa. This book explores death and dying in a thoughtful yet age-appropriate way, as a young girl comes to terms with her beloved grandfather’s illness, death, and memorial service (which can be a scary and confusing ritual for young children to witness). The illustrations by Paul Shaffer are warm and distinctive, and I love that the family happens to be bi-racial and not a thing is said about it—representation matters; kudos for that. My children are out of the age range for picture books, but this one will stay on my shelf, because you never know when you’ll have a little one in your life who needs these compassionate words.

What are you reading these days?

Do It For Chicago!

It’s finally here—book launch day. Many of you have already bought God, Improv, and the Art of Living; some of you are reading advanced copies and reviewing it, and some are even blogging about it, or pitching articles to various websites and magazines about its content. I’m thrilled to have my tiger team by my side.

I want you to be a part of the team too--and it's for a great cause. 

Patricia Madson's Improv Wisdom features a great definition of an improviser that guided me throughout the writing of God, Improv, and the Art of Living.

An improviser is
someone who is awake,
is not self-focused,
and is moved by a desire to do something fruitful
and to give back,
and who acts on this impulse.

It’s the last part—wanting to give back, and acting on it—that’s my focus today.

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I spent three weeks in Chicago over the course of writing this book, taking classes and attending shows at Second City. (Thanks to the Louisville Institute for the grant funding that made it possible!) Chicago is the improv capital, as far as I’m concerned, and it also happens to be one of my favorite cities.

And so, just for today, I am donating $4 per book sold to Chicago Lights. Founded in 1964, Chicago Lights seeks to support and meet the needs of children, youth, and adults facing the challenges of poverty in Chicago. I am excited to support the city that has given so much to me personally, and was so foundational in the writing of my book.

Here’s all you have to do:

1. Purchase the book TODAY, May 8, from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Eerdmans Publishing Company, or your favorite independent bookseller.

2. Send me a screen shot of your receipt—either email maryannmcdana@gmail.com or send it through social media—Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. You have until midnight EDT.(You can obscure or crop out any personal info you don't want to share.)

I’ll do the rest!

You get a great book, and we do a beautiful thing for a beautiful city, together. Happy Launch Day!

My Book Is (Almost) Here!

I am so excited to share that God, Improv, and the Art of Living is now available for pre-order. (It will be released in early May, but why wait?) This one is the result of many years of incubation, mulling, exploratory blog posts, group work, and personal exploration. ...And improv class. ...And play.

Is this book for you? Here’s what my publisher (Eerdmans) has to say about it:

The central principle of “yes, and…” in improvisational theater has produced a lot of great comedy. But it also offers an invigorating approach to life in general, and the spiritual life in particular. From Moses to Ruth to Jesus, scripture is full of people boldly saying “yes, and…” as they receive what life throws their way and build upon it.

Pastor, speaker, and improv aficionada MaryAnn McKibben Dana blends scripture, psychology, theology, and pop culture in a wise, funny, down-to-earth guide to improv as a practice for life. Offering concrete spiritual wisdom in the form of seven improvisational principles, this book will help readers become more awake, creative, resilient, and ready to play—even (and perhaps especially) when life doesn’t go according to plan.

Years ago I had a friend who liked to say, “Life is not a riddle to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.” We are all improvisers, whether we realize it or not. We improvise in order to get through the day. We improvise when life surprises us. We do it without even thinking about it. This book, I hope, will help us all do it better. (And I’ve included individual and group exercises so you can reflect and play—with others or on your own.)

Writing this book been such an intense and wonderful journey, and a long one, that it almost doesn’t seem real that there’s a physical product at the end. I remember when I was in labor with our firstborn, it was such a complete mind and body immersion in the work—the labor—that when I heard her cry for the first time, there was this instant of surprise: Oh yeah, all this effort had a purpose! 

I’m feeling a little bit like that. Improv is so much about the experience rather than a destination. Life is like that too, no?

That said, I can’t wait for you to read the book. I’m also nervous for people to read it. Sabbath in the Suburbs had such an autobiographical component, and it was daunting to think about people reading it. This one is less personal, but the vulnerability is still there.

The book’s foreword is written by actor, author (Angry Conversations with God), and former Groundlings member Susan E. Isaacs. It was a true delight to see how deeply she got it:

McKibben Dana invites us to approach life as a chance to discover with God, with all the mess and surprise that comes along with it. What if God isn’t an immutable taskmaster but a creative collaborator? What if God’s answer is “Yes And”?  What if God is asking us the question: “What do you want?” It’s a terrifying and freeing invitation. It’s also a step toward maturity.

Thank you all, dear readers, for walking alongside me in this process… which is only just beginning (again!). I hope you’ll read and laugh and learn and think and play.

And buy a copy for a friend too…

Civil Rights: History, But Not Yet Past

This month at the NEXT Church blog, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Here's my contribution--cross-posted here. Check out the whole series! I have a lot of friends these days who are reading books about the rise of fascism in Germany. I will leave it to the reader to consider the reason for consuming such reading material, and any resonances between that time period and our modern day. (For now, I am content with occasional binges of The Man in the High Castle on Netflix, which imagines a world in which the Allies lost World War II, and a small band of dissidents imagines a better, more peaceful and compassionate world. They call themselves the Resistance.)

Rather than fill my Kindle and nightstand with the history of Nazism, I’ve decided to focus my heavy reading on the civil rights era in America. At the beginning of the year I resolved to read Taylor Branch’s three-volume series, beginning with the 1,000-page Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963.

Some time after undertaking this project, a friend informed me that there’s a summary book that condenses this history into one volume. But I’ve committed at this point. As for how long it will take me to read almost three thousand pages? I can only promise that it will be less time than the 14 years that comprise the movement Branch chronicles.

At last year’s NEXT Church National Gathering in Atlanta, I heard loud and clear our call as an 89% white denomination to undertake conversations about race and racism, however uncomfortable these conversations may be, and however much some may push back at us for “dwelling on the past rather than moving on.” As I read Branch’s careful accounting of the ills of white supremacy, I consider today’s travel bans and border walls, and Iowa Congressman Steve King’s odious comment that “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” Meanwhile many of us carry signs and risk arrest, and we rejoice when the judicial branch puts a check on bigotry through legislative executive order. And I marvel at the truth of the words, attributed to William Faulkner, that the past isn’t dead — indeed it isn’t even past.

Like many of us, I knew much of this history only in the most cursory way. We studied civil rights in school, and I remember my AP Government teacher arranged for after-school showings of the magnificent documentary Eyes on the Prize. (He felt it so important for a bunch of white suburban smartypants to see it that he offered two additional points on our entire semester grade if we watched the whole thing. In retrospect, it was so wrenching and transforming I would have done it for free.)

I did not know, or perhaps didn’t remember, that Martin Luther King Jr.’s first major troubles with the law came when the state of Alabama tried to get him on charges of felony tax evasion related to his work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. What ultimately saved him was his incredibly meticulous record-keeping; attorneys and accountants working on his behalf were stunned at the painstaking way he kept track of his expenses. I think about my haphazard financial records and how they would not hold up to such scrutiny. And I recall how African-American friends talk about learning from a young age that they must always, always “be better.”

I also offer my own confession, prompted by a section about the 1957 Civil Rights Act, signed into law by President Eisenhower. The bill was watered down as to be almost useless (though that didn’t stop Strom Thurmond from filibustering it for some 24 hours). Many civil rights leaders refused to support it because it was so weak. Yet King and other civil rights leaders ultimately signed on. As Roy Wilkins put it, “If you are digging a ditch with a teaspoon and a man comes along and offers you a spade,” he said, “there is something wrong with your head if you don’t take it because he didn’t offer you a bulldozer.”

As I read this section, I remembered King’s injunction that justice delayed is justice denied — and yet here he was, putting his stamp of approval on an almost useless bill. Here is the confession: I felt welling up in me a sense of self-righteous “gotcha-ism”: See! Even a civil rights icon acknowledges that progress is slow, and sometimes you take what you can get rather than hold out for real justice. Take that, Letter from a Birmingham Jail!

Except there’s a big difference at work here: I am white, and King was black. Yes, in the struggle for civil rights, sometimes the progress is slow. But there’s no way for me as a white person to push for baby steps and partial measures without getting tangled up in my own motivations: Am I really on the side of the angels, or am I trying to preserve my own sense of comfort? As an ally, it is my call to listen to the voices of people of color and follow their lead in terms of strategy. When they say it’s time to turn up the heat, we do. When incremental change is called for, they alone drive that, not my desire to placate white America.

When my kids come home from school every January with photocopied handouts about Martin Luther King Jr., I like to ask them if they knew what his profession was. The older ones are used to it by now, and sigh as they say, “He was a preacher, Mom, like you.” In my defense, I want them to know that the struggle for civil rights — whether it’s justice for the descendants of enslaved Africans, or the right of transgender people to use the bathroom with which they identity — is work we do in light of our Christian faith, not independent of it. But it’s also a sinful pride, I admit: a desire to hitch my wagon to one of the great heroes of the 20th century simply because we share a common vocation.

Reading Branch’s book, I catch a glimpse of King’s frail humanity as well as his gifts for ministry (prodigious beyond my own though they were). He soared and he struggled. He felt a strong sense of God’s call, and he wasn’t always sure which strategy was best. In that way, he resembled all of us who have had heavy hands laid on our head and shoulders, who try to do God’s will yet often muddle our way through.

The struggles of 2017 are different, yet frustratingly similar. King was a pastor, like me. But that also means I am a pastor, like King. And it’s time for me — for all of us who lead Christ’s church — to make that real.