About patty kirk

Patty Kirk is the author of The Easy Burden of Pleasing God (IVP 2013), two spiritual memoirs, a food memoir, and a collection of essays entitled The Gospel of Christmas. Raised in California and Connecticut, she lives on a farm in Oklahoma and teaches writing just across the Arkansas state-line at John Brown University, where she is Writer in Residence and Associate Professor of English. She and her husband, Kris, have two college-aged daughters, Charlotte and Lulu. In addition to writing and teaching writing, Patty's passions are cooking, gardening, watching birds, and running on the back roads.

Reading as a Writer

Dickens_Great_Expectations_in_Half_Leather_Binding I just returned from a trip to England during which I read, for probably the fourth or fifth time since my childhood, a book I have always loved: Dickens’ Great Expectations.

Part of my goal for this read was to physically experience the book’s setting. To trace Pip’s steps through the dirty London streets and walk along the Thames where he rows his boat to check on Magwitch. To shop in Covent Garden where Herbert Pocket goes to get the best fruit to welcome his new roommate. To visit the Temple courts where Jagger lives and works. To see with my own eyes Newgate prison—which doesn’t exist anymore, I’m sorry to say, although there is a sign marking where it once stood.

My bigger goal, though, was to read a book I had long loved in a completely new way: as a writer reads. Reading as a writer is a kind of dissection, really—not just of the work, to figure out how it works, but of my own psyche as a reader. What is it that has always enthralled me about this book? I ask myself. Why have I returned to it again and again in the course of a lifetime? I examine the story, the details, the transitions, the very sentences of Dickens’ masterpiece, looking for applicable clues about how to make my own writing successful.

There’s no better writing teacher to be found, no better course of instruction or writing program, than a book you loved as a child and continue to love in adulthood. For me, that’s Great Expectations and Robinson Crusoe, The Good Earth, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, and the dark fairytales of Helena Nyblom. And works of nonfiction like Helen Keller’s autobiography and Jade Snow Wong’s account of growing up the fifth daughter of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, and a hagiography I wore out as a child called Little Pictorial Lives of Saints. There are more, each one a teacher with the rare pedagogical skill of educating not by presenting something new but by confirming and demonstrating old truths.

Reading as a writer, I learned from Dickens that even the most honorable characters are most engaging and memorable in their failures and absurdity. I knew this. We all know this. It’s why Peter and Thomas are my favorites of Jesus’ followers. And it’s why Esau is so impossible to hate. (I don’t know how God manages it!) Through their faults, they become more believable, more real. Jesus himself, though without fault, becomes 100% human in moments when he seems least likeable, such as when he balks at healing the demon-possessed daughter of a Canaanite woman who argues that “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (Matthew 15.27 NRSV).

Great_Expectations_(1917)_1Each character in Great Expectations is a surprise. Miss Havisham experiences remorse. Estella confesses genuine emotions to Pip. Jaggers ends up being as much a father to fatherless Pip as he is a heartless professional. Pip moves from fear and repulsion toward Magwitch to concern and compassion. Through such surprises, Dickens helps me find the life-giving contradictions and winsome growth opportunities in my own characters.

Dickens also taught me how to keep my reader focused through blunt meta references to “the last chapter” that I would never have recommended to my own students. He was writing serially, after all, so his readers would have needed more help remembering what had gone on in the previous issue than the contemporary reader of the assembled chapters would need. Still, it’s a helpful technique. And referencing one’s previous remarks and chapters is certainly freeing.

Students in my writing courses often complain about my “reading as a writer” assignments. I’m always wanting them to apply what they learn from their favorite writers—or from one of my favorites—to their own writing, and I’m never pleased with their flowery, laudatory assessments of their favorite books’ writerly techniques.

“You’re reading like a literary critic!” I rant. “You’re reading like a teenager in love. I want you to read like a writer!”

It is the hardest way to read, I think, but surely, once you’ve read a book the first time through, the most useful. Once my students get how to do it, they thank me.

“Don’t thank me,” I tell them. “Thank the author!”

In case you’re wondering, reading as a writer won’t wreck the book for you. To the contrary: Discovering what made you love a book gives you a new appreciation for it—so much so that, if you’re anything like me, you’re eager to read the book again soon.

Today’s Chapter

I was on the phone with my sister today, trying to encourage her past the terror-induced paralysis that had overcome her ever since she quit her job in order to have time to get her house ready to sell and then to sell it and move with her husband from Colorado, where she lives, out to Arkansas to be near me. She was supposed to have put her house on the market back in May, when she quit working, but she had so much to do—cleaning the carpet upstairs, painting the porch, replacing some windows, regrouting the tile in the bathrooms, getting rid of stuff, selling the cabin up in the mountains, fixing the solar panel on its roof so that it was sellable, and on and on and on—that she just couldn’t seem to get started on any one task.

House_Collapsing“I can’t do this,” she kept wailing.

“What can’t you do?” I asked. “What do you mean by ‘this’?”

“This whole thing. The move. It’s just too much for me.”

In a sudden life coach epiphany, I saw what her problem was. She was stymied by the enormity of “this”—the future, the worry about whether they were making the right decision to move, the overwhelming impossibility and complexity of the move, with all its imminent troubles and certain catastrophes.

“You’re worrying about the wrong ‘this,’” I told her. “What you need to concentrate on is today’s ‘this’: cleaning the upstairs carpet. You can do that.”

Her situation reminded me of my novel, how I kept getting a particular species of writer’s block in which I was seized with a paralyzing certainty that I wasn’t going to be able to figure out how to make the plot come together in the end and thus couldn’t seem to move forward. In my mind, the novel became a huge problem, overwhelmingly complex and unwritable, that I worried about constantly. Then I started scheduling a rigidly regular time, every morning from five to seven, to work on it.

“Just sit down at the computer and take up where you left off,” I told myself. That was three months ago, and I haven’t stopped writing since. It was like magic, as if my sense of the novel as a whole just fell away and I started seeing just the chapter I was in.
“That’s what you need,” I told her. “Make yourself a list of everything you need to do, include the smallest task, everything. Then figure out a time each day that you can devote to accomplishing one of the tasks on your list. Don’t try to do any more than just that one task. If it’s like my novel, you’ll progress through more than one task at a time.”

Chapter-1“That reminds me of that thing Jesus said about how we shouldn’t worry about tomorrow, that each day has its own trouble and we should just concern ourselves with that.”

She is wise, my sister.

“That’s exactly it,” I said. “Concentrate on today’s trouble, today’s chapter, and the rest will work itself out.”

We hung up encouraged, I think. Both of us.

What My Students and I Learned This Semester in Creative Nonfiction Workshop

Big Thing #1: Neatening the messy truth never works. Nürnberg Prozess, Büro für Druckschriften-HerstellungStory: A sweet-hearted student wrote a moving essay about her difficulty with “being held” following her father’s death. She began her essay with an amusingly awkward forced hug—an assignment from her Family Sexuality class to practice “hugging until relaxed”—and concluded with her “surrender” into her friend’s arms at the hug’s end. Everyone loved the essay except for its conclusion.

In a conference with the student after workshop, I explained what I thought was the problem: the resolution just wasn’t as concrete and thus convincing as the wrenchingly funny opening scene. “Did this surrender really happen?” I asked. “It sounds like you’re lying.”

I didn’t really mean to accuse her of lying, only to convince her of that disparity in concreteness. Turns out, though, she had lied—not intentionally, of course, or even with intent to deceive but just to simplify the messiness of her struggle into a more satisfyingly redemptive conclusion. There’d been no surrender in that hug. After we both recovered from her surprising lie—as much to her as to me—she revised the piece to reveal what really happened, transforming a good essay into a publishable one.

Application: Tell the truth, don’t prettify it.

Big Thing #2: Contrary to the usual creative writing mandate to “Show, don’t tell,” most good writing requires both.

Story: Two students who particularly explored this truth were a chemistry major and a woman from a missionary family in Kenya. Both wrote from a knowledge-base completely foreign to us, thus running into a classic writerly problem which the missionary-kid characterized as “balancing explanation with story.” Explain too much, and you end up with a boring commentary on what happened; explain too little, and readers get lost. As the chemistry major said, “The audience cannot read your mind.”

Throughout the course, the students tugged at the delicate membrane between showing and telling, testing the delights and dangers of being too baffling or too, as I call it, “explainy.” By semester’s end, both consistently wowed us with their work, delighting us especially with a close-up of cosy Nairobi teatimes and a wacky book review/lab manual hybrid on the chemistry of poisons.

Application: To take us somewhere we’ve never been—which is, after all, every creative nonfiction writer’s job—you need to show AND tell, judiciously.

Big Thing #3: Scheduled, specific assignments not only motivate idea-less students but—counter-intuitively—often result in their most creative work.

Story: Several students struggled with motivation and, as one put it, “finding something to write about” for the course’s ten pieces. The first six assignments were pretty narrowly defined and came one right after the next; pretty much everyone found those fun, easy to write, and creatively empowering. Open assignments with longer deadlines were more challenging.

Application: If you’re stuck, give yourself an assignment. And a due date.

Embarrassed_Father_-_Vintage_family_PhotoBig Thing #4: Learning to write better teaches humility.

Story: Several students identified “taking criticism” as a struggle in the course of the semester. Here’s a reflection from one student’s revision account: “I was pretty judgmental of the big guy, so I tamed that part down. It felt mean when I looked at it again. I don’t think I lost anything at all, the scene wasn’t really about him anyway.” The student’s introspection and writerly focus say it all.

Application: Find yourself some honest readers, then pay attention to them. It’ll help your writing and your soul.

Malassezia_lipophilis_3_loresLittle Thing #1 (Big Thing #5): Clichés are like fungus: ubiquitous but strangely more embarrassing and disgusting than most other writerly ills.

Story: Student after student confessed to clichés. They hardly needed to, since I routinely point them out in class. Even their revisions had clichés—as do my own, unless I’m super vigilant. In class, I put quotation marks around their clichés in Google to convince them. The phrase “inextricably linked,” for example, gets “About 715,000 results (0.15 seconds).”

In a way, clichés are wonderful: someone’s once-creative, collectively approved wording. That said, clichés remain the bane of good writing—Oh no! That’s “About 3,160 results (0.51 seconds.)”

Application: Look again. And again. They’re there.

Loved, Chosen, and Writing (for the Forseeable Future) at 5 a.m.—A Lesson from Anne Lamott

Anne-Lamott-2013-San-Francisco--Wikimedia Commons--ZboralskiI just returned from Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing, featuring such diverse writers as Luci Shaw, Richard Foster, Rachel Held Evans, and Anne Lamott and offering sessions on everything from how to write a book proposal to self-publishing, writing about trauma to writing novels, writing children’s books to writing faithfully about sex. Some sessions were practical, others funny, some heady, some worshipful. All inspired and challenged me. Several offered strategies I’ve taken to heart and will pass on to my students.

The best advice, from Anne Lamott, was the simplest and hardly new or profound. She must have said it twenty times during a characteristically hilarious and solipsistic one-hour interview—which surged pell-mell in and out of her various addictions, the gift of desperation, her cellulite-pocked thighs, people she appreciates (those who give her even more cream for her coffee, for example) and those she avoids (e.g., those who claim you can’t have fear and faith simultaneously), her love of desserts and coffee with massive amounts of cream (Did I mention that already?), the interminably lost and sought jetliner on CNN in her hotel room, and the good news that we’re “loved and chosen” (a refrain I’m already aware of reiterated apropos to nothing that I could tell but nevertheless causing tears to start from my eyes each time)—and it was the same advice I’ve encountered whenever I’ve heard her talk or reread her wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird. Still, like that loved and chosen refrain, it seized me anew each time she said it. It was this: All it takes to write is to sit down and do it.

She put forth several ancillary recommendations. That you can’t wait for your toddlers to start school or your teens to leave home. That you don’t need an office, just a door that closes. That you have to say no, nicely, to the dogs, cats, and kids at that door, who are attracted like heat-seeking missiles to your lap (or thighs or cellulite, I can’t remember). That all one needs—not only in writing but in everything (“Anything I know about anything,” she observed, “applies to everything else.”) is structure and discipline. That, for the past four years, she’s turned off her cellphone and written every day, at the same exact time (9 a.m.), no matter what.

“Give me an hour!” she kept demanding—as if she were our mom and we her teenage wastrels—and pointing out all the junk we waste our time on each day. Though I’ve written and revised and published five books, I still need this reminder, this goad to get after it.

“You’ve got an hour! Give me that hour!” she yelled, as though we would be writing just for her.

And truly, inspired as I was by that simple call to quit dallying, I really feel as though I’m writing, right now, for Anne alone.

Farmland_and_Airbus_Beluga_near_Cop_House_Farm_-_geograph_org_uk_-_446678I planned out that hour—or maybe two, since, as she said, you’ll really only get forty usable minutes out of an hour, only an hour and twenty minutes out of two—all the way back to Oklahoma. In the seats at my gate, on the tarmac waiting in vain to take off, back in those airport seats after deplaning because of weather in Chicago (Who knew you couldn’t take off on a runway perpendicular to the wind direction?), through the murky clouds over Illinois and Missouri and Arkansas, in the car snailing the empty roads at midnight with my cautious husband.

“I’m gonna write as soon as I get up,” I told him. “Before I run. Before I do any grading or reading. Get me up at five, when you get up, but don’t talk to me. Just give me my coffee and let me write.”

Don’t worry: I’m a morning person. And with our dogs living outdoors and daughters away at college, I can write in my non-office—the living room—without even the closeable door Lamott requires. If my gaze strays from my computer screen, I’ll see the sun turn the horizon pink. Every single day. At this rate, I’ll get my novel drafted before summer’s end and revised and sent off sometime before moving on, loved and chosen, to a heaven of no distractions from what I should be doing.

All Blogged Out: A Rant (Fair Warning)

Scream--Annemarie BusschersThe other day a fellow writer from way in my past—semi-famous, author of many highly regarded books—friended me.

It was so exciting. To be remembered by someone I had admired long ago but hardly knew, someone whose books I have on my shelf.

As soon as I accepted her friendship I was invited to like her author page. Then read her blog. Which explained everything.

I don’t want to be a partypooper here about the self-promotion mandate. Really I don’t. I know that publishers these days demand that writers have author pages and blogs and followers and all that. I try to be, in fact, dutiful, in my way. But it must be said. Something about all this facebooking and author-paging and blogging just stinks.

It reminds me of how, at my university, some colleagues and I used to convene every year to plan women’s events. Multiple times, meeting upon meeting, to schedule and scheme and come up with funding and talk about decorations and cookies and such. Then, when the day came for whatever it was to happen—the reading group, the tea, the birdwatching we had so arduously planned—there we’d be again, the five of us, the only attendees.

How does one find time to write books when there’s forever a blog post due? Not to mention reading all the other writers’ blogs that I say I’m following—and that, if I were  truly friend-worthy, I would be commenting upon. Confession: the only blogs I willingly visit are the ones I land on after a Google Images search for a very specific recipe, one that looks like a dish I remember from my childhood, or some stew of lentils I’ve been fantasizing about, or some bizarrely complicated goodie I said I’d cook up for one of my ever ravenous daughters.

All this to say—am I the only one who feels this way?—that blogging, which appears to be de rigueur in the world of publishing these days, slurps up my writing time like an old dishrag, and sometimes I fear that the only ones who read what I write are fellow writers (more generous ones than I am) obliged, as I am, to squeeze it out when I should be working on my current writing project and between all the other things I do to actually support myself. (That sentence doesn’t work, I fear…) Those who follow me—I’m sure of this—do so for the same reason I follow that writer acquaintance of mine: because I was asked. I’m not going to buy any more books of hers than I’ve already bought. Having heard an interesting writer interviewed on Fresh Air, I’ve never gone to his author page or read her blog. If I’m interested enough, I ask for the book in Barnes & Noble. And when they don’t have it—they never do!—I order it for cheaper anyway on Amazon.

Here’s how it goes with buying books and me. In the ideal world that used to be, I heard about a book or picked it up from a bookstore table or shelf, I read a few pages, I bought it and brought it home, eventually it made its way to my bedside table and into the stack to wait its turn, and then, one happy day, I turned over and reached for it and started to read. In that perfect world, it is a perfect book, and I can’t stop reading till it’s finished. Then I tell my sister, off in Colorado, about the book on the phone. And in a few more days I lend my copy—though it has a swollen edge from my having accidentally let part of it sag into the bathwater—to one of my colleagues. Then I assign it in one of my classes. No blogs or author-pages or anything like that. Just hear about it, buy it, read it, lend it.

I’m not feeling very encouraging today, I’m afraid. Maybe this post will generate some useful discussion among us writer-blogger-authorpagers, though.

(Feel MUCH invited to chime in if you’re not a writer. It would cheer me immensely.)

What Stories Teach Us

Woman readingI just finished reading two novels that I ended up loving but started out hating. Or, not exactly hating. Just struggling to keep on reading.

Both were assigned reading. One was a friend’s favorite novel: David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. After repeatedly recommending it, she finally sent me a copy all the way from Germany. I couldn’t not read it. But it was a challenge. It’s about training dogs, I kept thinking through the first hundred pages. I like dogs, (we have four of our own), but how could this book have been such a bestseller? Right around then, though, the dogs and characters coalesced into a gripping mystery, and I read all night long.

The same happened with Randy Boyagoda’s Beggar’s Feast. A colleague organizing a conference featuring the novel’s author asked if I’d participate in a panel discussion of its “Christian elements.” The assignment made me leery. If there’s anything I can’t tolerate in fiction, it’s a sermon, which I assumed the presence of discernible “Christian elements” would comprise. When I sit down—or, more often, lie down—to read a novel, I want to be entertained. If there’s a message, I like to discover it myself, as with Jesus’ parables. “If you want to preach,” I tell my fiction workshop students, “write devotionals, not novels.”

My colleague’s new to our department, though, and I didn’t want to alienate her. Plus, running a conference is hard work; I wanted to offer support. Accordingly, I said I’d read the novel and, if I liked it, join the panel.

So, I started Beggar’s Feast, the syntactically gnarled tale of a boy mistreated and abandoned by his benighted family who subsequently fights, smarms, and schemes his way through the docks of Ceylon to become wealthy and powerful. A Ceylonese Horatio Alger, minus (thank God!) the moralism: Boyagoda’s protagonist, the self-named Sam Kandy, is no tractable boot-black. He despises everyone, even his own children, and murders two wives in the course of the story. Indeed, he’s such a baddie I’m struggling to discover Christian elements in his exploits.

tree diagramWhat made me dislike the book initially was that it was so hard to read. Those gnarled sentences— barrages of images so jumbled and knotted they defied sorting into logical wholes, even by someone who makes her living sorting sense from mangled prose. It was so linguistically maddening to follow this boy’s experiences—worse than Benji’s in The Sound and the Fury—that I decided my difficulty must be Boyagoda’s fault. That, though the novel was roundly acclaimed, he was incapable of writing a sound sentence.

Even as I thought this, though, I knew it wasn’t true. For one thing, despite my struggle to pin down what Boyagoda’s sentences were saying, their images and rhythms and little imbedded amusements carried me forward in a narrative that grew increasingly gripping. And, as the story developed and Sam sorted himself out, the prose did too. Soon I wasn’t laboring but just lying back, enjoying what happened next.

It eventually occurred to me (I’m slow, I know) that the sentences’ incoherence mimicked Sam’s, that a person so broken early on would likely perceive and express life brokenly, especially at first. What’s maturity, after all, beyond the accrual of coherence? As I progressed through the novel, I increasingly sensed and trusted, beneath the verbal chaos, Boyagoda’s guiding hand, shaping Sam alongside my experience of his story.

I hate devotional writing that’s just one long metaphor, but I guess that’s what this is. These two reading experiences reminded me of life—of how often I wade through a slew of confusing and often vexing mundane events unrelated to (or, worse, antithetical to) what’s really important only to realize, much later, that it was all relevant, every bit of it, all its elements, positive and negative, part of some bigger vision.

We are, each of us, part of a better story than we’re sometimes aware of, a story that unfurls only slowly, only slowly displays its meanings. Life may seem pointless or muddled or just plain wrong at times, but beneath and behind and above and within it all is its capable Writer, pulling us toward him.

Confessions of an Introvert Writer

crowded HallI have a writing conference coming up, and I’ve been trying not to think about it. Although I spend a good part of my work week happily among colleagues and teach big classrooms full of students with enthusiasm, I’m an introvert at heart, most content in front of my computer at home or out in my garden, alone. The thought of being among clots of strangers in some vast hotel lobby fills me with dread.

Anyway, I was thinking about how much I hate conferences and reminding myself of Crowded Wikimania 2009 welcome dinnerhow wonderful it’s been, on occasion, to stumble across a fellow God-lover among the strangers assembled there. The topic of faith comes up slantwise through some serendipitous comment about someone’s having read something in a church book club. Or maybe I notice a woman ducking her head briefly before lifting her fork to eat.

Such chance believers typically turn out to be quite different sorts of God-lovers than I am, which makes the encounters all the more thrilling. They refer to their pastor as “Father.” Or they go on about some pet business of politics important to their faith that I don’t give a rip about. Sometimes their God is barely recognizable as the God I know. Still, I want to sit next to them when I see them enter my next session and to eat my overdressed salad from a Styrofoam box at their table and to suck their occasional thoughts about God into my own.

FOUNTAIN_SQUARE'S__SITTING_WALLSYes, I’m that piteous stranger you meet sometimes at conferences whom you can’t seem to shake. Know this about me: I am in some sort of heaven, sitting there beside you, accepting the M&Ms you offer from the little bag you got out of a machine. We are siblings, you and I. We come from the same home.

I figure that’s how Abram the Hebrew—literally, Abram the Foreigner, the first instance of the word Hebrew in the Bible—must have felt that day after rescuing his cousin Lot and a bunch of other Sodom and Gomorrah inhabitants who’d been taken captive. When the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah come out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh, they bring along their friend Melchizedek, another king like them but also, we’re told, “priest of God Most High” (Genesis 14:18 ESV). Later, the writer of Hebrews will describe Jesus himself, repeatedly and at length, as a high priest “in the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5.6, 5.10, 7.11, 7.17 NIV).

Melchizedek brings out bread and wine for them all to share—Catholics memorialize the event by mentioning Melchizedek during the Mass—and then he prays this prayer:

Abram, may you be blessed by God Most High,
the God who made heaven and earth.
And we praise God Most High,
who has helped you to defeat your enemies
(Genesis 14.19-20 NCV).

Wow. Imagine hearing that from a stranger! Imagine being a stranger among strangers yourself in the Valley of Shaveh, a place Abram’s never been before, a place where he’s so unlike everyone else, so alien to their values and practices, that people refer to him as “the Foreigner.”

Hearing Melchizedek’s words, sharing bread and wine with him, Abram must have felt himself, for a moment at least, at home. As a person of faith—which the author of Hebrews defines as one who welcomes God’s promises and acknowledges being a foreigner and stranger on this messed up earth—Abram suddenly finds himself, for a moment, where all the faithful want to be, in “a country of their own” (Hebrews 11.13-14 ISV). Not, that is, in “the land they had left behind” or even in the one in which they find themselves, but in “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11.15-16 NRSV).

Priests of God Most High. That’s who we are when we acknowledge God among strangers, whether at a conference or among our readers. And however strange and foreign we might feel ourselves to be, we are where we belong.

Stalled and Happy: How to Keep Writing When You’re Not

John_Bourne__Woman_and_ChildHaving written five nonfiction books and countless essays, I’m now at work on a novel, and it’s going well. When it’s going at all, that is. Often it isn’t. Going, that is.

Nonfiction, for me, advances briskly and pretty much according to plan from the moment I have a picture of the completed book in my head. When I sit down at the computer, I know what I’m going to write.

Fiction, by contrast, develops in spasms or spurts. Like a living creature. Like a daughter, to be specific—one day cuddling on my lap, trying to figure out which one of us loves the other the most, another day slamming the door and refusing to talk at all.

This is not a new observation. Countless novelists over the centuries have reported that their characters seem to have minds and lives and schedules and intentions of their own, that they and the novel’s resulting plot shapeshift continually throughout the novel-writing process.

So it is, in this case, with my novel. I seem to be discovering my characters’ stories rather than inventing them, and my discoveries come on their own unpredictable, unschedulable timetable. Some days I can’t stop writing to make a pot of tea or eat lunch or speak civilly to whoever happens to be around. Other days—or weeks, even months—I have nothing whatsoever to write.

I used to find this timetable upsetting. I found, that is to say, the stalled part of the timetable distressing. And, while the spasmodic spurts were exciting, they were also hard to keep up with and seemed always to come when I was nosing some deadline or needed to be reading and responding to a looming stack of students’ writing or looking after Christmas guests. Never has it been the case with this novel, as it was with my other books, that I could sit just down at the computer on my designated writing days and simply write. Instead, I’m either frantically trying to set down a scene—before it evaporates from my brain, as I always fear it will, never to return again—or else I’m sitting before a blank screen, incapable of writing altogether. Idealess. Sceneless. Wordless.

All this to say, I have devised a simple method for getting through this problem that really works for me, and I thought there might be someone out there struggling with the same problem who might profit from my experience.

Before I reveal my method, though, let me just say that I do not consider my problem to be writer’s block. I refuse to let myself call it that, in any case. And I’m deep down convinced it is not writer’s block. (I’m protesting too much. I know that. Don’t point it out to me.)

But consider: I am progressing. I have characters, a plot, twenty-eight chapters, some eighty thousand words securely anchored in my hard drive. (And backed up on half a dozen USBs in case of theft or a house fire or accidentally substituting an ancient draft for the most current one. I’m kind of maniacal about the possibility of losing everything and not being able to start over again.) However slowly and erratically this novel seems to proceed, I’m nevertheless inching along toward completion. And the stalled moments, I like to think, are as important to my progress as the precious periods of frenzied writing. When I’m not writing, I’m thinking. Or, that is, not thinking so much as just letting the child poke around in the world I’ve created and experience it and respond. I need to forget about the whole project for a while and give her space and time to grow up and become someone I like.

Enough of that monstrously mixed metaphor. (Is the child the novel itself or my protagonist or the writerly impulse in me or what?) On to my method of taking advantage of the weird stopping and starting that is how this novel has been toddling forward. It’s simple, as I’ve said. Hardly worth writing about, except that, for me, it’s been transformative.

Here it is: When I’m stalled, I reread from several chapters back, correcting as I go. It’s like a magic charm. Long before I catch up to where I stalled, I invariably have new ideas, new words, and, before I have a chance to think about it, I’m frantically writing again.

I call my method recursive—that is, it progresses by means of looping backwards, as in cursive writing. Or, more exactly, as with those lines of loops we were made to draw when we were first learning cursive writing, before we ever got to stringing the loops together into actual words and the words into sentences and the sentences into our second grade stories.

Or it’s like bicycle-riding, in which progress forward depends on looping our feet backwards, over and over again.

One worry: This recursive method of writerly progress violates a primary rule of many resources out there on novel writing, and it’s a rule I have promoted to my students over the years—namely, squelch your inner editor and save revision for when the draft is done.

But, oh well. You gotta do whatever it takes to keep moving along.

The Trick to Becoming an Author

Pavillion_d'Armide_by_A._Benois_05The other day, a colleague asked me if I thought the burgeoning popularity of memoir-style books of the sort I had published had to do with the fact that the people who read them wanted to write such books themselves.

Reflecting on what he asked, it occurs to me now that—the underlying argument being that my writing’s appeal had nothing to do with my writing itself but only the envy of my readers and that the underlying argument of my readers’ envy being that anyone could write as well as I could—I should have gotten offended. But I didn’t. (Thanks, surely, to the Holy Spirit, who tries to protect me, usually in vain, from bouts of narcissism that make me think I’m a great writer and cause me to take offense at any reminder that I’m not.)

I didn’t get offended, too, because I knew, as anyone who’s ever published a book of any sort does, that what he said was true. We know it from the people who show up in our doorways wanting publishing advice. We know it from acquaintances who know about our good luck as writers and come up to us in the grocery store, or sitting at the vet’s office, or walking to our cars after church, and want to tell us their latest book idea. We know it from the mail we get when our books come out. Fast on the heels of a fan email, if not within the fan email itself, comes a question about how to get the fan’s own work published.

Everyone these days has not just a story in them, as they used to say, but a published book—even though it’s rarely written or even begun. All it takes to write a book, the would-be writer hopes or believes, is an idea and the need to tell it. What happens between that and getting something published is a trick they plan to learn from established writers.

But there is no trick. Just the arduous and time-consuming work of writing and rewriting and sending stuff out and waiting and trying to believe there’s a chance that someone who makes a difference in the world of publishing likes it and finding out there mostly isn’t (or, if you really are lucky, that there might be a chance with some major changes to what you’ve written) and then writing and rewriting again. That’s the part no one wants to hear or even know about. That to be a writer is to write. Period.

They’re like Simon the Magician, that guy in the book of Acts who—though Luke makes clear that he’s a genuine believer—tries to buy from the apostles the trick of touching people and thereby filling them with the Holy Spirit.

“Just teach me the trick of getting published!” EveryWriter begs. Often, as Simon does, they even offer to pay for the trick.

But there is no trick.

Sermons on Simon’s story often go on about how wrong-headed Simon was, thinking to buy the Holy Spirit, and sometimes they posit that Simon wasn’t really a believer at all, even if Luke says he was. But such sermons miss the point, I think—whether it’s the gift of writing we’re talking about or of imparting the Holy Spirit. Being a servant of the word, or the Word, is not a magic trick. You have to get out there and do it.

Hard Work--George Herriman 1907-11-24That said, I remember having had the same response to other writers’ writing—not just to their memoirs but to their novels and even textbooks. I’ve thought to myself, if they can do it, why then so can I. And so began this article and that book. So began my current writing project, a novel–my first. So began, indeed, my entire career as a writer.

If others can do it, so can you, but don’t sit around hoping to discover some trick to make it happen effortlessly. If you want to write, if you want to inspire others, if you want to fill them with good news, with the very spirit of God, you’ll just have to get out there and do it.

Inspired

As a teacher of writing and a writer myself, I’ve long been in the habit of examining others’ writing for what it has to say about the creative process. Nonfiction, my primary genre, lends itself most naturally to such scrutiny, since the solipsistic Scarecrow--Daniel Schwenwriters who tend to write in this genre love to write about what they’re up to. The writing of memoirists and essayists thus provides valuable glimpses into the process. In nonfiction workshop, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is my go-to handbook.

As I blogged last month, I’ve been listening to the Bible on my iPhone while I run. Since I run in five to ten mile chunks, I’ve heard whole books at a time and am making my way quickly, if haphazardly, through the text, following not the order of the Bible’s original organizers but spurious impulse (or, as I like to think, the Holy Spirit). Listening to scripture aloud, I’ve become newly appreciative of the almost constant reverberations between biblical accounts. The echoes of one story in another, of one biblical author’s phrasing in the voices of others, of the words of Hosea and Isaiah in the mouths of John and Paul and Jesus. The Bible is a masterpiece of intertextuality, a tapestry of voices in sentences that mesh and thicken from one chapter to the next.

I don’t know whether it’s because of the biblical writers I’ve happened to choose thus far or because of my new way of “reading” the Bible—that is, hearing the words aloud rather than reading them from a page—or just my old habit of paying special attention when writers mention writing, but I’ve noticed that the biblical writers talk a lot about writing. As such, the Bible offers considerable insight for me and fellow writers about our line of work.

Forgive my foray down a path we Christians like to avoid in considering the Bible—namely, the exact nature of divine inspiration that led to its composition in the first place—but one biblical writer after the next, from Moses to Isaiah to Jeremiah to John, describes the initial inspirational moment pretty much exactly as I’ve experienced it myself. An urgent voice—sometimes identified as God’s, sometimes an angel’s, sometimes unspecified—commands, “Write this down!” For these ancient writers, writing was not a choice—not a career goal or the desire to influence or educate others or even a matter of passion—so much as a dutiful response to that voice. An idea rises like a vision in the mind and the voice says, simply, “Write.”

“A writer,” I tell those who say they want to be writers, “is someone who writes.”

The most common writerly methods in scripture, which several biblical writers go out of their way to explicate, are the same ones I recommend to my students: in the words of Luke, “after investigating everything carefully from the start, to write an orderly account” so that readers “may know the truth” (Luke 1:3-4 NRSV). Careful investigation and organization are what convince.

Regardless of genre—whether they are writing poetry, chronicles, stories, or philosophical treatises—the biblical writers take pains, as Paul assures the recipients of one of his letters, to “write you nothing other than what you can read and also understand” (2 Corinthians 1:13). Nothing show-offy, though the words of scripture are often as artistic as they are true. No erudition for erudition’s sake.

And though their accounts and rhetorical goals are diverse, the biblical writers share, it seems to me, one essential writerly skill: they tell what they actually see and hear and smell and taste and feel. Unlike my students, who would rather explain their thoughts, the biblical writers are, to a person, concrete. Here’s Jeremiah (whose repetitive ranting could be boring, were it not so vivid) showing, not merely telling, how ridiculous it is to worship idols:

Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field,
and they cannot speak;
they have to be carried,
for they cannot walk.
Do not be afraid of them,
for they cannot do evil,
nor is it in them to do good.

(Jeremiah 10.5 NRSV)

Wow. Like scarecrows in a cucumber field. I wish I had written that!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy students typically define creative writing as writing that doesn’t have to follow any rules. Grammar rules, especially, are irrelevant. When I talk about sentence-level problems in their writing, they roll their eyes. In poetry workshop, many abandon the sentence altogether, writing instead in fragments. Creativity, in their view, constitutes the opposite of order.

The biblical writers, by contrast, seem to model their creativity on that of God himself. The creation, as described in Genesis, is a work of separation and sorting, of repeating and omitting, of drafting and considering before declaring anything “good.” Again and again, the biblical writers are selective in what they opt to tell. They keep only the best episodes of a given narrative—key conflicts, the rising action—and leaving the rest mysteriously, sometimes frustratingly, elliptical, in this way to engaging the reader’s own imagination and mental processing. There’s never a pat moral to the story. As hard as we Bible-readers try, we can never read the Bible as a straightforward primer or even a narrative account of holy living, cleansed of all confusing or upsetting or unholy details. Rather, it portrays real life—convincing in its familiarity—and real characters, the holiest of whom, as we ourselves, struggle and fail and fail again.

For writing instruction, I’m learning, the Bible is unsurpassable. Even better than Hemingway.