About leslieleylandfields

Leslie is the author/editor of 8 creative nonfiction books, including The Spirit of Food, Surviving the Island of Grace, and Parenting is Your Highest Calling . . . and Eight Other Myths. As a columnist and cover story writer for Christianity Today, and as a speaker with Ambassador Speaker's Bureau, she writes and speaks around the country on theology, culture, family, literature, and food. She lives on Kodiak Island, Alaska, where she works in commercial fishing with her husband, her daughter and five sons.

Don’t Write to Heal and Other Truths about Writing from Affliction

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Dear writers, don’t we know already that we are to write into our darkest moments? My writing students have heard me say this 1000 ways: Enter the forest, dive into the wreck, face your toothy, hot-breathed dragons, open the closet, hold hands with your enemies, etc. We may remain silent in the midst of them, but at some point we must write. We must steward the afflictions God has granted us. Patricia Hampl reminds us why: “We do not, after all, simply have experience; we are entrusted with it. We must do something—make something—with it. A story, we sense, is the only possible habitation for the burden of our witnessing.” Dan Allender, in “Forgetting to Remember: How We Run From Our Stories,” tells us what happens when we ignore the hard events in our lives: “Forgetting is a wager we all make on a daily basis and it exacts a terrible price. The price of forgetting is a life of repetition, an insincere way of relating, a loss of self.”

How then do we begin to write from within our afflictions? And how might the practice and the disciplines of writing offer a means of shaping our suffering into meaning for both writer and reader? Forgive the brevity and oversimplification, but here’s what NOT to do and why:

1. Don’t write to heal. Really. Our therapeutic culture urges us to write into our pain as a means of self-healing. Newsweek’s article, “Our Era of Dirty Laundry: Do Tell-All Memoirs Really Heal?” rightly questions this cultural assumption. One friend assumed I wrote my most recent book, Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers: Finding Freedom from Hate and Hurt primarily as a means of self-healing. Not so. Writing into our pain can be hellish at times. Know that returning to re-live an experience with language and full consciousness is sometimes worse than the original event. Recognize that writing into affliction brings its own affliction. And even more importantly, recognize that when we are predisposed to heal ourselves, we will not be fully honest in the writing. Healing will likely and eventually come, but only as we engage with the hardest truths.

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2. Don’t write to redeem, to turn inexplicable pain into sense and salvation. We want to bring beauty from ashes. We want to make suffering redemptive to prove its worth. But this is God’s work, not ours. Our first responsibility is to be true to what was, to witness honestly to what happened. Our job is not to bring beauty out of suffering but to bring understanding out of suffering. Poet Alan Shapiro argues that “…the job of art is to generate beauty out of suffering, but in such a way that doesn’t prettify or falsify the suffering.”

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3. Don’t write for yourself alone. This is not just about you. You are working to translate suffering to the shared page. Buechner reminds us of the universality we should be striving for: “…all our stories are in the end one story, one vast story about being human, being together, being here. Does the story point beyond itself? Does it mean something? What is the truth of this interminable, sprawling story we all of us share? Either life is holy with meaning, or life doesn’t mean a damn thing.” One of the greatest compliments I have heard from the book and the telling of my own story is, “You told my story.” Writing begins in the self but should consciously move us beyond ourselves, to place our story into the larger stories around us, and ultimately, into the grand story that God is writing. The most powerful work comes from a “self that renders the world,” as Hampl has said—not just the self that renders the self.

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Life is holy with meaning. Pain is holy with meaning. Don’t miss it. I pray for you the strength and faith and wisdom to begin to enter those hard places and to translate your afflictions onto the pages we share—for the good of All.

How have you been able to translate your suffering into your writing?

The Slow-Writing Revolt

exhausted-woman-Writetodone.com“Nice piece on that Huge Famous Blog, Allie,” you say to your friend, sincerely.

“Oh yeah, that thing. I just dashed that off, after two other pieces I wrote that day.” She tosses her perfect hair and regards her French nails.

“Really? How long did that piece take you?” you say, curious, but knowing you’re about to feel sick.

“Oh, about 37 minutes. Of course posting it all around the world took a bit longer. And then answering all the fan mail. That took about 3 days.”

“Yeah, I hate it when that happens.“ Weak smile trying to hide your nausea and the fact that it took you all day to write one short piece. You leave smiling, stomach roiling.

I confess: I have been Allie a time or three, but I’m mostly the other. Which is a problem. This week, for instance, I have four articles due in the next two days (Yes, this is one of them.) Not to mention a sermon to write, and three other presentations. It was the same last week. I’m not alone in this kettle of fish. A Facebook friend messaged me saying she couldn’t talk—she had three articles due that day. Others tell me the same.

So here we all are hunched over in emergency mode every day, madly chopping and grinding, tossing posts and articles and reviews out into the void. We’re generating twice as much content as we used to, in half the time.

What’s happening? We all have Facebook pages we’re trying to fill. Many have daily blogs they’re trying to fill. Surrendering that impossible task, now they’re filling them with other writers’ work. So now we’re all writing for our own blogs, plus our friends’ blogs, plus all those other publications we want to be in. And the book we’re writing? Oh yes, we’ll get to that, as soon as we finish this last little post. Behind all this is fear . . . a lot of fear. That we’ll disappear if we’re not on stage all the time. That we’ll be forgotten. That we’ll be invisible. That our platform won’t be big enough. That we won’t land another book contract.

Enough. I’m about to revolt.

Here’s what I’m preaching to you and me today. And I’m sorry I’m not saying it beautifully or lyrically with a grand metaphor that lights it all on fire. That’s what happens when you write too fast. Here’s the message: Slow down.  M a r i n a t e.    Wait.     Sometimes even—-stop. Sometimes even—-say No.

We’re losing our way when nothing matters but the deadline. We’re losing our way when nothing matters but the byline. We’re wasting words. Sometimes we’re writing junk we don’t mean. Sometimes we’re just writing junk. We need to quit saying yes to people just because we want to fling a new piece out into the world for its five minutes of fame, if we’re even that lucky. Write to raze hearts and inflame lives. Mean every word you say. Stake your life upon it. Make your words worth every minute of your reader’s time. Anything less is ashes you have no time for and the world has no need of.

Take this, for example. I needed to write this in an hour, with a dash and a pinch of salt over my shoulder. Instead, against all intentions, I have taken three times longer. Not for the craft of it (apologies), but for the heart of it, which did not find me until the second hour. When we don’t give ourselves time to wander and to wonder, we’ll lose the truer words that want to be found and must be said.

Someday soon I hope the conversation will go like this:

“That was an amazing piece you wrote, Allie. You really nailed that review. I’m going to buy the book.”

“Really? That’s great! Yeah, it took me a week to write that. I just had to marinate in it for awhile.” She pulls at her frizzy hair and nibbles on her nails.

“Wow, a whole week! Good for you!”

“Oh, I don’t mean to brag or anything.”

‘No, that’s okay. That’s really inspiring,” you say. You think a moment, then blurt out, “You know, I’m going to ask for an extension on my essay. I think I need a little more time on it.”

“Of course! They’ll give it to you. You’re one of the best writers I know. They don’t expect you to be fast!”

Will you join me in this revolt?

Sentencing Ourselves to Pieces: Read a Whole Book!

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theguardian.com

I wrote an essay in my sleep last night–about books. Everyone in my dream was holding a book open, some paper books, some e-books, but all tilting their heads, reading thoughtfully. Books were not dead, the page would live on as a vital and treasured source of knowledge and experience. It was a good world. It was a good essay. It was a good dream. I kept pondering whether I should wake myself up to write it down. I did not, concluding that my slumbering self would surely remember an essay of this import.

I know what happened. I made the mistake of watching a 2010 documentary on the future of education just before bed, and paid particular attention to one interviewee’s prognostications about the book. Marc Prensky, the author of Digital Game-Based Learning, who describes himself on his website as an “internationally acclaimed speaker, writer, consultant and designer in the critical areas of education and learning,” says this about books and kids:

You don’t have to read them (books) to take in what’s in a book. . . If I said to kids, “You know, you don’t have to read all that much. But what I’d really like you to read are these few things and these excerpts, and these parts, and then I’ll tell you why you should read them. . . And no, you don’t have to pore through Silas Marner as I did in high school. There are very few books you have to have read.”

(I confess I would have been more willing to grant his pain in high school had he named The Brothers Karamazov or War and Peace. Silas Marner clocks in at a mere 200 pages.)

Let me understand this. If a writer’s work is truly important and excellent, it earns the exalted status of being pieced and excerpted. And then I wonder about the writers whose work rises to this esteem. How did they arrive at their insights, brilliance, and genius? Through an education built on carefully selected snippets?

We have forgotten why we read, I fear. We need information, yes. We need knowledge and discernment more. We need imagination far more. We need beauty and possibility even more. Without these, we are sentenced to a single spirit, a single mind, a single life.

This is what I used to say when books lay on every shelf and people at least aspired to read. We need to read whole books for far more important reasons now. College students can no longer attend to an entire lecture without Facebooking. We text through our meals, we interrupt our visits for every vibration in our shirt pocket. We finish very little single-minded or single-handed. We are sentencing ourselves to pieces, dividing our language, our hours, our very selves among multiple media, shrinking our thoughts into bits and tweets, excerpts and texts. We cannot attend. We no longer seek silence. We have lost our ground of being, and cannot remember what holds us together.

Last week I walked into a first grade classroom. The kids were sprawled on the floor, cross-legged on the carpet, leaning over their desks, all with a book in hand, faces inches from the page, intent. SSR time, Silent Sustained Reading. For twenty minutes every day. Were these the faces in my dream?

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k-12news.com

Maybe college classes can do the same. Maybe we can, as well. Silent. Sustained. Reading. Maybe we will remember back to first and second grade, why we read books then, from beginning to end. Why we write them. That slow immersion, that aching marinating in a world of such light, drama, and color, whose ending would bring delight, even wonder, and always an appetite for more. We always longed for more of the book, never less.

“Why are we reading if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed?” asks Annie Dillard in her excellent book, The Writing Life. Why indeed? Why are we writing if not to do the same? But don’t stop reading with this quote. Read the whole book. Read as many whole books as you can. Sentence yourself again to beauty and whole-hearted delight.

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So You Wanna Be Star? Join a Constellation!

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At 10:30 pm this week, I discovered that the northern lights were ablaze. I learned this not by looking out my window, but by seeing photos friends had already posted on Facebook. And of course, some of the best photos were taken right in front of my house. Disgusted, and excited, I peered eagerly out my windows over the ocean for any faint remaining glimmer. Nothing.  Not to be defeated, I proclaimed a “Northern Lights Search Party” and yanked my sons out of bed. (They were both still awake, reading sneakily by flashlight.)

We jumped into the car in various states of deshabille, and drove to the top of a mountain up a switchback road, passing–count them–30 cars on the narrow gravel passage coming down. The whole town was out tonight!

At the top of the mountain, beneath massive windmills, we scoured the black horizon for the shimmering waves of light–but saw only blackness, and then, something else.  As our eyes shifted to night mode, they  appeared, faint at first, then growing in intensity until we all gasped–a swimming sea of stars, like the night ocean alive with phosphorescence. Living on an island, under the heavy clouds of a maritime climate, we seldom see the stars. We bathed in their glory together for a long moment while the windmills strong-armed the sky overhead.

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None of us are entire strangers to the stars. Every time we fling our book, our blog post, our music, our photographs out into space, we feel we’re launching a ship to the moon. We aim our hottest work, our sparkling, shattering words out into the universe, and then we wait. We wait for the world to come to us, to drive up the mountain to see us, to beckon to our dazzling light. We wait to become a star.

I would like to say I’m different, but I’m not. Somewhere inside even the most capacious heart, there’s a longing to be known. And outside the heart, our writing bosses command us to expand our platform. Inside and out, we begin to crave that far-off glittering goal, forgetting our real experience on the nights we gasp at the real cosmos. Those nights, save the sun, there is no single star that knocks us down. It is the panoply of stars that takes our breath. It is the collectivity of uncountable galaxies and star-clusters that lights the black sky and plows us down into worship and humility. It is their sheer density and magnitude that teach us our size, and then make us glad to be small.

We are small. We are one among millions of talented, smart, creative others. Lucky us–we get to learn from them all. And the whole world does not come to us. Just a few.  But there still is so much gladness here: that we pursued ideas. That a journal has taken our story. That our blog made someone laugh. That we got to discover new truths. All this, good. All this, happy. Will there be more? Who knows! Just keep at it.

But listen closely. I am not saying dim your lights to take your small quiet place in the choir. Don’t be afraid to be brilliant and bold, to stake out your own corner. Don’t be afraid to question the lights already hung. But know, no matter how dazzling and original you are, you are surrounded by sizzling stars and a radiant moon that itself borrows light from another. Be glad of this.

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Be glad of this. Yes, go ahead and shoot the moon. Aim high. Go ahead and hope you’ll be a star, but better, join a constellation.

I tell you true, when it happens that my own words hang among shining smart glorious beautiful writers and artists and thinkers and creators . . . there is little better joy. I am in awe of them all. They are my constellation. I’m happy that this little northern light of mine gets to wash in their light and shimmy and shine in their midst.

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Angelina Jolie and the Burden of Our Neighbor’s Glory

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When Angelina Jolie announced her elective double mastectomy surgery, my mother-flesh cringed. She did it for her children. Who will not laud Jolie’s courage, and, if nothing else, at least her intent? Only those who have not felt the weight of their neighbor’s glory.

Our neighbor’s glory is heavy, and it presses upon us everywhere, even in the most joyous moments and places.

This spring, I felt its weight again. At my son’s college graduation, I almost could not lift my chest for air, nor could the other thousand parents sitting in graduation finery beneath the California sky. The moment we all feared came at last: his name was read, and his parents walked slowly to the dais, took the offered diploma and stumbled down while we crumpled our programs under his absence. Just months before graduation, he was killed in an accident near campus. We could hardly bear the weight of even the thought of such grief, but I saw prayers running down faces beside me, prayers pressed into clenched programs, prayers kneaded into tissues. Every one of us watching carried those parents across the stage.

There is more. The dignified woman calling each graduate’s name with such gravity and care, who had proudly handed diplomas to twenty classes, had just been diagnosed with a terminal illness, one of the most terrifying diseases known. This was her last graduation. We lifted her with our eyes and helped her speak each name.

And most of us knew that this year the women’s basketball coach lost her husband to cancer just before the birth of their first child. 

This is our daily witness, is it not? Finality and commencement, beginning and ending, sorrow and celebration, risk and sacrifice lock hands over a diploma, a basketball, a surgeon’s knife.

We do it for the other. For the many others who live with us and beside us, our neighbors.

After the ceremony, later that day, we met our son and his six roommates and all their families at the beach and one hour later, we were building human pyramids in the sand. What a silly thing to do, I thought, what a California cliche, even as I laughed and snapped photos of these young men kneeling on their fathers’ backs.

And then the fathers kneeling on their sons’ backs.

And wait! The mothers were not forgotten. We, too, pressed our knees into our sons’ backs and held steady in the sand for a moment.

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I don ‘t know if we were just having fun—or if we were enacting something more that day. I think maybe something more.

This is truly how we stand in this world: our knees pressed in the bodies of those who have gone before us, beneath us. Our childrens’ knees in our own backs. The Bible talks about this as the “cloud of witnesses” whose words and lives hover over us and form the foundation beneath us.

These silly photos, then, are the truth of our lives. We neither stand nor kneel alone, no matter how much independence and self-reliance we claim, and I have claimed a lot. There are so many beneath us. So many noble, humble, simple, wise people. Even the ones who have hurt us, whose weight and knees have broken our backs, or whose substance has crumbled beneath us. We would not be ourselves without them. We would not be our limping but still kneeling selves without them. And we would not offer our backs to others without them.

C.S. Lewis writes, “The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back; a load so heavy that only humility can carry it and the backs of the proud will be broken.”

I hope as I write and as I live that I can keep my place, steady. I hope I am not too heavy for those carrying me. I hope I am humble enough to hold strong for those I am bearing.

I hope all these things for you, as well.

And while we get tired sometimes—yes, often, every day—the photos tell the fuller truth:

Who is lighter than our children, for whom we would cut off even our flesh?

Who is lighter than our neighbor?

Whose back and knees are not made exactly for this?

Shameless: How to Fail a Book Signing (but Not the Writing Life)

“Art is born out of humiliation.”  W.H. Auden

I had a fantastically unsuccessful book signing in a big box store not long ago. (Yes, signings still occur, despite the takeover of social media.) Afterwards, licking my wounds, I turned to a book on my own shelves, Mortification: Writers’ Stories of Their Public Shame. In it, Margaret Atwood, Rick Moody, Billy Collins and a constellation of such literary brights offer up the most companionable ignominies and embarrassments. (Fittingly, I bought the book used, online, for a penny.) My own parade of humiliations that night were paltry next to theirs. Still, couldn’t I do better?

Two weeks later, an Internet search on “book signings” confirmed my suspicions. According to several book signing experts, I did indeed do everything wrong. First, I missed the Webinar on “The Seven Steps to Turn Yourself into a Celebrity.” In another  article, I violated nearly every one of thirteen steps, beginning with, “Decide, in advance, what sort of clothing you want to be seen wearing by your reading public.”  (Did I do this? No.) Step #6 advised bringing along a printout of your manuscript for fascinated readers. (Really?)  My most egregious error was the last step: my failure to inform the store managers that I would be the bookstore’s official greeter while I was there. Nor did I walk around with several copies of my book introducing myself to everyone in the store, as he advised, pressing my own books and bookmarks into their astonished hands.

I would rather demonstrate the wonders of Balinese kitchen knives through the Christmas season at Walmart than resort to such tactics.

We all know we need to successfully promote our own work. But when we sacrifice leisure, sleep, money, and most costly of all, time with our families so that we can write, none of us makes these difficult choices to be stalkers or hawkers with a leer and a bookmark. We write because we believe in our deepest-down spirit that God has called us to keep naming the world. We write to serve a meal to the famished, to dress the wounds of the betrayed and lonely. We write to offer hope and a story to the depressed. We write to offer clear thinking in a muddled marketplace. We write in humility, in insecurity, in desperate prayer.

And when our book releases, shall we then don our best barracuda suit, polish our teeth, slick back our hair and begin the hard, shiny sell, suctioning ourselves to every unfortunate person who innocently wanders into a bookstore? Did any of us sign up for this?

Let’s take a breath. We don’t need to sell. We don’t have to sell out or sell ourselves short, or sell our own snake oil. We need to offer. We’ve just spent two to three years composing, listening for God; we do indeed have something to offer. We offer our work, and, more importantly, we offer ourselves. In all of our promotion, we need to think, how may I serve others? How may I serve my readers? We might end up giving books away—a lot of books. We might do some speaking gratis. We might end up on the short end of the accounting sheet. We might end up praying with a stranger. But at the end of the day, the year, the decade, we’ll count it differently:

We got to give. We got to give more than we knew we possessed. We got to be part of a global conversation. We got to know new readers, who taught us more than we knew. We got to pray for strangers who became friends.

Don’t listen to “sell-a-ton-of-books” schemes when they violate who you are and what you’re to be doing in this world. Go ahead and “fail” a book signing if you must. Be a real writer, without shame.

They Also Serve Who Drink and Weep

Coming home .. .. The writing life takes me away from home often. I write this the day after returning from 2 weeks of travel, home to Kodiak Island, to my husband and sons and daughter and Yorkshire terrier who badly needs a groom. I walk through my door and want everyone to kiss me as if I have just been born, as indeed I have.

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I am home, but I cannot stop thinking about her, the woman I met on the plane. It was the fourth and last plane of the trip. I was almost there. I edged down the aisle and saw her—crying. Sobbing on her phone. My eyes went dark, my heart tightened. As I stepped past her, I heard her say, “They just told me. I have pancreatic cancer. He gave me 3 – 6 months to live. I don’t want to die!” and she dissolved again into weeping, running her hands through her hair.

She was beautiful, dark-skinned, dressed in expensive jeans, a leather jacket. Her phone was pink. She gripped it so hard, hanging on to whoever was at the other end. My seat was one row back and one row over. I could see her profile, hear every word. I looked around desperately. A woman was dying! And we were calmly sitting in our seats, buckling our seat belts against death—and would soon follow all the safety requirements, while she was no longer safe. What do I do?

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Men sat in front of her, and in back, each one with the bland face we wear when we pretend we don’t hear because we too are afraid. I wanted to do this too, but there was an empty seat beside her. She would be alone this entire flight with no one .. .. And how could I forget what I had prayed that morning? In the hotel room, on my face, wanting this day, this one day, to have a pure heart, to serve someone . . . “May your kingdom come, Your will be done .. May I hear you and serve you this day . . ..” and off I went into another day of terminals and planes—and there she is near me, still crying, the seat beside her empty.  I have work to do—a chapter is due, edits for an article are due, but the seat beside her is empty.

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Shaking, I unbuckle my seatbelt, lift my bag and stand beside her. “Is it okay if I sit beside you?” I smile. She looks up at me, surprised, with her ruined face and nods, trusting, like a child, her eyes again filling with tears. I sit, she watches me settle. “What has happened?” I ask her and it pours out, but there are hands now to catch what falls, our shoulders touch, I stroke her arm, and we mourn and grieve and sit together in the shock of it. She is young. She knows Jesus, but she doesn’t want to die she cries again and again through a twisted mouth. I silently scream to Jesus to give me the words. I need them when I am writing, but I need them even  more now … .and they come. At one point she grasps my hands and says, “God sent you to me.” Mostly I am there to cry with her, to drink chardonnay with her. I know the chardonnay will wreck me, but had she offered me whiskey, I would have drunk that too.

It wasn’t much. I write all this not for anyone to say, “Oh, what a great servant you are!” Because I am not. How many people have I not seen and walked past? How many have I seen and still walked past? But this is instead about this wondrous, terrifying God we serve, who has asked one of his daughters to die a hard, early death, and who asked another selfish frightened daughter to sit with her in her fear and aloneness for a short time. It was so little. And she staggered off the plane to walk into the end of her life—and I staggered into a car taking me to stages and microphones.

Here is what I remember : “They also serve who only stand and wait.” John Milton wrote in his sonnet “On His Blindness.” I was going to speak on podiums, in many places, before many people for two weeks, but none of that mattered then. Of all I did on that trip, perhaps this mattered most: “They also serve who only sit and weep.”

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Can tears really be enough? For that day, for that hour, yes. God will provide another servant, and another for every empty seat beside her.

Do we dare ask this each morning? “May I hear you and serve you this day.” Yes, dare. Then watch for the empty seat. Bring tissues. Drink wine if you must. Become a child. Give whatever you’ve been given. Sometimes it will be words. More, it will be your presence and your tears.

And the kingdom of God will come near.

A Note to Young Writers: Honor Your Obscurity

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In the last month, I spent time with two younger women, both of whom had just released their first book. Sarah and Andrea are both fine writers whom I expect will continue to write and publish books. In the short time I had with each of them, I found myself dumping all my writing and marketing advice, talking about websites, blogging, Facebook, twitter. But I forgot to say the most important thing of all: honor your obscurity.

Very few young writers, musicians, artists value their obscurity. For good reason. We know if we’re to be published in any form, we need an audience, a sizeable audience. We know that most of the time we have to find that audience before that first book contract even lands on our desk. And once it does, and the book is out, we’re tasked to keep racking up bigger numbers. But how do we catch the eye and ear of a world that so often chooses the flippant, the crude, the gaudy spectacle over the good, the authentic, and the true?  If we’re the praying sort, we may resort to prayer, remembering the words another writer made famous a few years ago,

“O, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.”

(Oh, dear Jabez, I want to say. How did you get away with that prayer?)

But we do it too, I suspect. The artists’ version would go something like, “O, that you would bless me and enlarge my platform, increase my followers, expand my twitter peeps and keep me from publishing harm so I will be famous, free from the pain of falling out-of-print.”

woman praying--parodic

I can write this prayer because I know these desires. An hour ago I was on a nationally syndicated radio show, and I find myself, now, against my better will, glued to numbers, trying to measure “impact.” While guiltily number-stalking, a stranger writes me on Facebook immediately after the broadcast and asks how he can become a writer and speaker, like me. (He’s in his twenties and he hasn‘t written anything  yet . . .)   Someone else writes to ask me how to build a fan base for her blog.

I do have advice: if you want others to read you and listen to you, you must listen to others. Do for others what you want them to do for you. That will not make you famous; that will make you better informed and more humble.


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And second, fame is not what you think. Admittedly, I am not the best source here. My moments of “fame” are modest and sporadic. But I still know this: it isn’t what you think. It’s often over in a moment. It brings more responsibility than freedom. And if you’re not careful, it can pollute or paralyze your writing. I have a friend whose first book shot to the New York Times bestseller list.  His agent, his readers, his global fan base now hold their collective breath for his next book. “How do I write under this weight?” he asks me. He has so many others he must now heed and please.

“Honor your obscurity” is another way of echoing Bill Roorhbach’s charge to “honor your apprenticeship.”  Value these months, years of laboring toward your best work with fewer listening in than you would like. This quiet is your wilderness, your blessing. Here you will sharpen your art. You will lean closer to the sounds around you, for the fragile people who haunt the forests you watch, for the small voice that whispers names you didn’t know.

Enjoy the purity of your efforts, making art and worlds and essays out of the sheer love of words, of theatre, of longing and of hope. Enjoy it now before a woman or a publisher sits down beside you filling your notebook with a thousand necessary tasks, few of which have much to do with why you began writing in the first place.

Finally, what do you imagine fame will bring you? For me (and for many writers I know) I hope mostly to be able to keep on writing, to keep using “that talent which is death in me to hide,” as John Milton writes. If you’re doing this now, pouring life into the truest sentences you can make, you’re already famous.

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What Do I Write About? Tendering Your Witness

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Like many of you creative writerly types, I have a new book or essay idea about once a week. Any casual observer will know when this happens. My eyes gain x-ray vision, I will wear mismatched clothes for a day or two. I’ll start pulling books from my library, organizing them into Useful Research Piles, and I create a new folder on my computer, into which I start shuttling and dumping uncountable necessary articles and links.

But it is not long before the writing deadlines I am already under reassert their authority. I follow meekly to my office to tending my previous fires that once sent me into fevers, but with a new light gleaming from my forehead.

Some of those gleams turn into books, essays, and blog posts. But some of them sputter into oblivion, snuffed out by the realities of life, the most pressing of which is—There Is Never Enough Time.

running with clock

The question we all face is: Out of a plenitude of possibilities, yet with limited time and energy, what do we choose to write about? How do we decide?

The stakes are high. If it’s books we’re talking about, for me it’s at least 2 years of immersion in the writing, and then once the book is released, several more years follow of spreading the word. So I had better love it, believe it, and be willing to soap any box with its message.

woman on soapbox

How do we decide, then? I have followed a simple rule most of my writing life: TENDER YOUR “BURDEN OF WITNESSING.”

The phrase here is not mine. I’ve lifted it from Patricia Hampl’s wisest of words, “ . . .  For we do not, after all, simply have experiencewe are entrusted with it. We must do something—make something—with it. A story, we sense is the only possible habitation for the burden of our witnessing.”

What has God entrusted to you? What “burdens of witnessing” have been given to you?  Start here.  My first book of prose was about commercial fishing women, because there I was, in the midst of a life I was trying to live and understand, mostly unsuccessfully. I moved to memoir next, writing about my life on a wilderness island in Alaska, then onto other topics I had “witnessed”: motherhood, unplanned pregnancy, the spirituality of food, forgiveness of my schizoid father. I have never regretted a single project.

When you write as a witness from these hard places, you immediately avoid one of the greatest weaknesses of beginning writing, and even “successful” writing: writing without “mattering.”  Over the years, I’ve met students and writers who can fashion beautiful sentences in their sleep—–but talent and beauty alone does not make them “matter.” Without heart, without an urgency that comes from deeply lived experience, your words on the page will only be words on a page. (And, take note: Because they matter to you doesn’t automatically make them matter to your readers. You must make them matter to the reader as well.)man reading book

There is yet another reason for doing this. And forgive me now for going sermonic on you, but I pull it out now because I know you are reluctant to excavate the stash under your bed and in your closets. One of the graces of believing in a God who inhabits the hearts of his people is the certainty that all events—celebrations, dirges, dangers, and feasts—come to us through His hands, and they are hands with purpose. They are hands that intend our trials to be tended and eventually tendered for the good of others. The New Testament spells out the program: God, who is the “God of all comfort,” comforts us in our troubles for this purpose, “so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” Pass it on, brothers and sisters.

Don’t worry if there’s blood. As Red Smith has written, “For my money anyway, the only books worth reading are books written in blood . . . “ [Red Smith].     bloody book

Write about what you MUST write about. Write about what has been entrusted to you alone. Write about what matters most to you. Write about the things you cannot turn away from. Write about the hurt, the cheating, the doubts, the hopes, the comfort, the sickness. Our time is short—make it count.

Tender the witness you’ve been given.

All the World’s A Page: The 9 Woes of the Writing Life

At work in the world, on the world of the page.

At work  on the world of the page.

Recently at the end of a creative nonfiction class I taught, a student came to me with a helpless shrug of her shoulders. “I want to write. I want to be a writer. That’s what I want to do with my life.” I felt a gush of pride that I had managed a convert, but pity came next, then fear:  What had I done? I immediately knew I needed to fill in what I left out from the class script, the off-stage notes that turn out to be the most important. To her and to any other aspiring writers, I offer the cheerful remainder here (to be read in a sonorous voice, because the warnings are real):

 Woe #1: You will see too much.

You will no longer be able to ignore the woman in El Salvador sitting among the garbage, the man carrying a sink onto a bus, the arguing couple behind you in the restaurant. A writer is charged with keeping attention, with bringing words to the invisible, the unspoken, the troubling, the ridiculous. But even as you take note, do take note: the best words you find will not be enough.

Woe #2: You’ll lose a lot of sleep.

You will welcome nightly visitations of the muse, inviting her with an open notebook beside your bed. You will be so hungry for words you will gladly trade your necessary rest for a single cutting sentence, a vivid metaphor, a line of pretty poetry. You will be tired often because of it and you won’t always be happy.

Woe #3:  You will gradually be divested of your most cherished stereotypes and grudges.

Your entrance into others’ lives and stories whether actual or fictional will bring a disconcerting complexity and humanness to the unlikeliest and unloveliest people. If you’re not careful, you may even be tempted to forgive.

 Woe #4:  You’ll give away your privacy.

All the world’s a page. To keep both of yours turning (world and page) you’ll need to appear on every platform you can beg, borrow and thieve, telling and giving all at any hour of night or day, without modesty or reserve. You will give most of yourself away. A special woe to those tempted to write memoir.

 Woe #5: You will read for pleasure less and you will like fewer books.

Once you take language and books seriously you will be unable to turn off your writer and editor’s eye. Writing that once offered distraction and escape will seldom survive the mental red pen, shrinking your list of favorites. You will give up on bestsellers. You will feel culturally stranded.

 Woe #6: You will spend far more money than you make.

For every writing project you undertake, you will buy a shelf or two of books and you’ll subscribe to literary journals and magazines as if they kept you warm and fed. Which they will, but the metaphor breaks down when the temperature drops below freezing and you’re eating oatmeal for dinner and the bills are past due.

 Woe #7: You will not be content to live in the present only.

In your pursuit of what is real and true, you will excavate the past as eagerly as the present, breaking down closet doors, piecing skeletons together, retrieving abandoned diaries. You will find nuance and revolution that disturbs the status quo. Others will be annoyed and will try to keep you quiet. You may not be invited for Christmas dinner.

Woe #8: You will no longer be satisfied in writing for yourself.

Once you find an audience, however small, you’ll write by an open window instead of a mirror. You’ll carry your readers with you. You’ll care too much about the truth for their sake. You’ll want to heal and help. You’ll see how small you are. You’ll keep writing anyway.

When I began a tentative writing life thirty years ago, I was never formally wooed nor “woe-d.”  If I had, would I have continued? I know the answer. It comes as the final “woe” and I write it now to my student, who is still watching me with undimmed eyes:

Woe#9: Woe to those who hear, who touch and who see, yet who drop the pen and turn away from the open half-written pages of a world still waiting to be finished. Many stories will be lost. Yours will not end as it should. This woe is far worse than the others.