Leslie's Words on Writing

Do I HAVE to Be a "Christian Writer?"

The "7 Fear Nots" of Every Writing Project

Ann Lamott, The Unshootable Moon + The Unlivable Sin of Belief

The Slow-Writing Revolt

A Note to Young Writers:  Honor Your Obscurity

What Do I Write About?  Tendering Your Witness

Extravagant Subsistence:  Restocking the Writer's Shelves (and Soul)

"This I Believe":  Creating a Writer's Manifesto

The Art of Bloodletting:  Translating Suffering to the Shared Page

When Throats Are Parched:  Writing (On Deadline) In The Land Of Drought

Beyond Instinct: (Not) Writing Like Weasels

Loving Our Reader as Ourselves

Does the World Really Need Your Story?


For my first eight years as a publishing writer, I had a hot New York agent. She hung with me through high times and low—until the day I sent her my new manuscript, which was overtly faith-based. She dropped me like a potato on fire. I knew that would happen. But I had to obey God and offer explicit Scripture-based hope. Most of my subsequent books have done the same.

I never wanted to be a “Christian writer.” I never wanted to be confined to “Christian readers.” I wanted to write for ALL people, and I still do. But I also know my faith can turn people away. Here is our dilemma: how do we write the truth with integrity, yet speak to all people, regardless of faith? Here are some thoughts that guide me through the thorny “Christian Writers” thicket.

We need not tell all the truth about anything at any one time (even if we thought we knew it). Life, issues, experiences, even under the purview of God, are all complex, multi-layered, paradoxical. Communicating Truth and truths is a process that we engage in over a lifetime, encompassing many possible stages: plowing, sowing, watering, reaping. We need never feel that we have to roll out the entire plan of redemption in any one novel or memoir to make it “Christian.” There’s time. Think of your work as a body of work over your lifetime.

Though I want all people to know Christ, more, I want Christ to be made known.
Because he is found everywhere in life, in all places, in all things, I am not only freed but compelled to discover Him and make some aspect of His being known through twig, creek, moonrise, miscarriage, forgiveness, cyclone, salmon, burial, and supper.

Belief in Christ’s truth-claims do not narrow our art. Christians are accused of being “narrow-minded” because they subscribe to Christ’s radical and exclusive truth claims (“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the father but by me.”) Belief in this claim does not confine, exclude, or narrow our art: nothing and no one is more capacious, more inclusive, more imaginative, more original than Christ himself, who created all things, who is before all things, who binds all things together, who can be found in every cell of creation.

I intend to write only out of calling and passion. I seek that from God, not my agent, not the market, not editors, or even my publisher. This guarantees a wobbly path rather than a sure career. But, face it: there is no sure career in writing except the career of writing from faithfulness, obedience, and joy.

God’s truths are not just propositional and communicable by language: they are experiential, relational, incarnational. I desire to write from a faith that I am trying to live in and out of, rather than a faith I am simply pronouncing. Without lived-in faith, our words truly are noisy gongs. As Joy Sawyer has so brilliantly written,

“ . . . without an ever-increasing, tangible portrait of our God engraved upon our hearts, we reduce our proclamation of the gospel to the “clanging symbol” of language alone. Maybe that is why our message suffers so much when we rely upon mere rhetoric to communicate our faith: it’s simply bad poetry. Just as a poem can scarcely exist without images, we most fully express our poet-God by daily allowing ourselves to be crafted into the image of Christ.

I end here. I believe that writing is a calling, a kind of pilgrimage that takes us, like Abraham, from one land to another, through, of course, wastelands, where the promise of a promised land appears invisible and impossible—-but the writing inexorably, day by night, moves us closer to the city of God. And if we write well and true, we will not be traveling there alone. Others, at first reluctant, will slowly move with us, following our own feet and our words, drawn to the brightness of a city with open gates and lights that never dim.


The 7 Fear-Nots of Every Writing Project

Whenever an emissary from another world showed up in all its effulgence, men and women fell down terrified, overcome, filled with God-brilliance and self-loathing. Our own writing projects, delivered by the other-worldly muse, can inflict and inspire a similar terror at times (Woe is me! Why did I think I could write this novel?). When you’re visited by these angels of brilliance-and-woe, (and you will be!), remember what usually came next, after the Visited fell facedown in the dirt: “Fear Not!” And then words of hope and direction were given to the stricken to lift them to their feet and their new purpose.

Here are 7 tested “Fear Nots” to get you back to your screen and your project:

1. Fear Not!—-That you’re not qualified to write this material. You’ve chosen this material, or it has chosen you, for reasons deeper than anyone knows, including you (unless you’re purely market-driven). Your desire, your interest, your life experience, your questions, maybe even your prayer life may have something to do with this insistent need to address this subject. Trust your choosing and chosenness.

2. Fear Not! —–That you have nothing new to contribute to the world. Listen to Madeleine L’Engle:
“My husband is my most ruthless critic. . . Sometimes he will say, ‘It’s been said better before.’ Of course it has. It’s all been said better before. If I thought I had to say it better than anybody else, I’d never start. Better or worse is immaterial. The thing is that it has to be said; by me; ontologically. We each have to say it, to say it our own way. Not of our own will, but as it comes out through us. Good or bad, great or little: that isn’t what human creation is about. It is that we have to try; to put it down in pigment, or words, or musical notes, or we die.”

3. Fear Not!—–That the article, short story, memoir, sonnet, sci-fi trilogy, whatever form you’re writing in, feels too difficult. Fear is the perfect response before something this grand and complex. This is partly why you’ve chosen it. If it were easy, you wouldn’t grow as a writer.

4. Fear Not!—–That you don’t have enough time to write. Of course you don’t. No one does. But if you are serious about this project, you will find a way to re-order your life: stop watching TV, write while the kids are napping, get up 2 hours earlier than everyone else, take your manuscript with you on vacation. Yes, it costs you ( and it costs others too, you must realize). Did you think otherwise? Count the cost to everyone. Then, if still so moved, cut and carry on.

5. Fear Not!—-That you don’t know where your novel, trilogy, even your memoir is headed. No one you know informs you of the outcome of their lives, do they? How many of your friends know where their lives are headed and how they will get there and who they will be once they’re there? You will not know this for your characters or story until they do. Keep writing day by day, keep listening to them, and you’ll find out what you need at the right time. The writing itself will get you there.

6. Fear Not!—–That you’re not a good enough writer to accomplish your goal. None of us is good enough to finish a project when we start. Some of us aren’t even good enough to start! By the time we finish, though, we have become more than good enough. The struggle, the long hours and the word-wrangling and prayer-wrestling will all get you there.

7. Fear Not! —-That no one will read your work. Someone WILL read your work. Maybe a few friends, the ones you really care about, maybe thousands of strangers. No one knows this when they are writing, and it has nothing to do with the writing. Just get on with the world you are making, and trust that your creation will find the people who need and cherish it the most.

BONUS: Because fears often multiply, one more to put to rest: Fear Not!—-That when this project is done, you will exhaust all your words and ideas. Not so. You may be temporarily exhausted, but never fear! Your best writing keeps the muse coming back. And when she does, return to this list, pick yourself up—-and turn a new page.


Ann Lamott, The UnShootable Moon+The Unlivable Sin of Belief

I write this on the airplane, flying home from Arkansas then Boston, exhausted from long days of travel and speaking, but also light with the joy of so many embraces with strangers now friends.

But when we travel among friends, relatives and strangers, even sitting at home at our desks, we are given so much conflicting news, even about ourselves. 

What do we do? What do we believe? Try this:

 So you discover this morning from a reputable source that a grand nephew twice removed through divorce and adoption--thinks your writing (or your sculpture or your music or your novel) is second-rate and your last book was “whiny.” You don’t know him, and he doesn’t know you, but your relatives who know him a little bit nod sagely at his words and believe him, though they’ve never read what you’ve written or only read certain parts, the parts they are sure about them.

Worried, you decide to try therapy to make sure you’re not harboring ingratitude or a pathetic victim mentality. Or, as a cheaper option, you consider hiring an editor for your next manuscript to eradicate any possible language that might be interpreted as “victim-y.”

 After this decision, which you feel good about, you think, you get an email from a woman who says your last book is the best book she’s ever read and she wants everyone in the world to read it or at least to see it stocked it in all the airport books stores, and would you send some more books with your autograph and maybe even a family photo?  You smile, breathe deeply, read the email over several times and block off time to do this.

Later that day you hear that someone thinks the scarf you wore at last night’s event was “derivative” and rumor has it that you might have even looked fat in that purple paisley  dress when you gave your presentation. Stricken, you drop the scarf in the trash, a bit sad because you did like it, after all, and at dinner an hour later, you eat only salad because you know it’s not just the dress.  

While picking at your salad and checking your email, you stumble across a comment on your recent essay condemning you because you were a bit too mystical to see God in that heap of dirty laundry. You vow to deepen your theology, maybe even enroll in an online degree from a Reformed seminary. And just before you leave for your evening event, you check Facebook and discover that some friends are angry with you for not including them in your latest writing project and others who asked to be in your manuscript are bitterly complaining about their inclusion.

Saddened, you head to your seminar that night, after carefully choosing slimming clothes and a plain scarf. You speak with all the passion you have left after such a day and some people cheer and cry, and afterward a woman tells you you’re better than watching a movie, while an elderly man in the back row falls asleep in the middle of the most dramatic part.

And after many such days, you lie awake on your pillow finally knowing what the unforgiveable sin is---or, rather, the unlivable sin and you vow you will no longer do it, you will no longer commit the terrible sin of belief.  You will no longer believe rumors of madness and mysticism, rumbles of inadequacy and girth, nor reports of laud and praise. You know they are all true in some way, and they are all false in some way as well, but mostly, you know, they will kill you with redirection and indecision.

 In such times, you dose yourself with Ann Lamott:

"Yet, I get to tell my truth. I get to seek meaning and realization. I get to live fully, wildly, imperfectly. That's why I'm alive. And all I actually have to offer as a writer, is my version of life. Every single thing that has happened to me is mine. As I've said a hundred times, if people wanted me to write more warmly about them, they should have behaved better."

And this:

My pastor said last Sunday that if you don't change directions, you are going to end up where you are headed. Is that okay with you, to end up still desperately trying to achieve more, and to get the world to validate your parking ticket, and to get your possibly dead parents to see how amazing you always were?”

And you suddenly know it’s true: the world will not validate your parking ticket so give it up and return to the life you’re supposed to be living.  Your one “wild and precious life” given to you not to be hoarded but to be given away. And when you give it away, however kind you try to be, and whatever form it takes---a painting, a song, a poem, a knitted scarf, a letter, a wooden box----because the world is a crazy place, this will always be true: Someone is always waiting to shoot your moon. Just know that some will be angry, some will bless you, some will betray you, some will be mean and small and some will be grateful and love you for life, till death do you part. 

In all the betrayal, admiration and lights, here is what you do:

You work at loving them all, and you keep on writing (or singing or sculpting or knitting or designing).

You will not be hushed, not by hurt or by hate; you keep on writing.

You will not keep trying to satisfy insatiable people; you keep on writing.  

You will not listen to critics in the shadows afraid of their own lives; you keep on writing.

 You will not let praise erode your stability; you keep on writing (and rewriting.)

Don't let anyone shoot down your moon. Tell the truth. Please God. Love your neighbor. Love your enemies. And for the sake of us all, 

keep writing. 

The Slow-Writing Revolt

“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?

A Note to Young Writers:  Honor Your Obscurity

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.”

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.

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.


What Do I Write About?  Tendering Your Witness

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.

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.

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 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.”

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.)

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].  

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.

Extravagant Subsistence: Restocking the Writer’s Shelves (and Soul)

Our freezer is nearly empty. We’ve eaten all of last year’s fish and meat, which constitutes a near emergency. Tomorrow I’ll close my computer, ignore my writing deadlines and head back out by bush plane and boat to an island in the Gulf of Alaska where I’ve worked in commercial fishing with my family for 35 years.  We were so busy with the commercial season this summer we didn’t have time to put up our own fish for the winter, the wild salmon that will feed us luscious Omega-3 saturated flesh weekly through a long season of dark. We also harvest berries, venison, halibut and sometimes caribou. Putting up our own food stores, which goes by the shorthand term “subsistence,” is a normal and necessary part of most people’s lives in rural Alaska.

“Subsistence” is defined  as “The action or fact of maintaining or supporting oneself at a minimum level.” In Alaska, however, where a subsistence lifestyle is as common as wool socks, it’s evolved into almost the opposite concept. We don’t hunt and fish and grow and harvest simply to live—we engage in subsistence to live well. We have access to cellophane-wrapped factory-farmed meat like everyone else—but it is expensive, saturated with antibiotics and hormones, and has been shipped a very long way to get here. We prefer to harvest wild-grown meat from our own piece of the land and sea. It’s one of the reasons we live here.

This last week I began another kind of subsistence: I started re-reading Gilead, Marilynne Robinson’s wise and extraordinary novel. Her profound musings on the worth of life, as spoken through John Ames, an elderly pastor, remind me how empty my writer’s pantry has become. The authors who have sustained me through the decades—Frederick Beuchner, Annie Dillard, Richard Wilbur, Eugene Peterson, Walter Brueggeman, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Emily Dickinson—have become strangers of late supplanted by blogs, social media, and research for other writing projects. These are all quick, short reads full of good information, but I’ve been achingly hungry without knowing it.

I realize that my writing life is little different than my food life. I’m often so busy on the commercial end of the work—the marketing, creating the next book proposal, the social media—that I forget to do the real subsistence work. While I’m as tempted as anyone else to spend my time feeding on strategies to garner audiences and master social media, ultimately, I’ll starve on such a diet. Fifty-seven Ways to Grow Your Platform, while helpful, will do little to awaken mystery, stir my imagination, provoke paradox, unearth wisdom, deepen my humanness, all of which is why I began to write in the first place. I realize if I maintain a steady diet of techniques, I’ll soon be setting an impoverished table for not only myself, but also for my readers, who come themselves needing sustenance.

Subsistence work is not easy. Rather than grabbing cellophane packages of meat and fish from the meat counter, I have to go out into boats, I have to use knives and muscles, I have to cut off heads, pull out guts, spill real blood.

It’s a physical engagement with the material world. Reading the best writers is not unlike this. It takes more effort to read longer works. Blood will be spilled there as well as we wrestle with the deepest, hardest and most profound stories of dying and living. But this is how we will subsist and be sustained as writers for a very long time.

When I sit down to my first meal of grilled salmon this winter, I will remember where it came from, how it felt in my hands. I will be so well-fed, I will want to write about it, and will set the table for others to join me in the feast. I hope my work will feed others as well as I have been fed myself. With some labor, and yes, some blood, it can happen.

What kind of reading are you returning to for “extravagant subsistence”? How can we make more time for this kind of reading (and for sustaining physical labor)?


“This I Believe”: Creating a Writer’s Manifesto

This I Believe was a series of wildly successful radio broadcasts hosted by Edward Murrow from 1951 to 1955. Murrow introduced the series this way:

“’This I Believe. By that name, we bring you a new series of radio broadcasts presenting the personal philosophies of thoughtful men and women in all
walks of life. In this brief time each night, a banker or a butcher, a painter or a social worker, people of all kinds who need have nothing more in common
than integrity—a real honesty—will talk out loud about the rules they live by, the things they have found to be the basic values in their lives.”

What are the rules we live by as writers? What are the “basic values” in our art? Few of us have taken the time in the midst of our writing lives to identify what we believe about writing, about our work as writers, about its place in the world. I had been writing for decades before I began to form my own credo. Almost immediately, I discovered it was a powerful antidote against the many discouragements we face as writers. And the tonic begins the moment you start composing. But wait! There are rules to follow as you begin.

1. Have fun with it. This IS about ultimate things, but it’s NOT about perfection–grammatical, linguistic, or otherwise.

2. Don’t worry about originality. Many other writers have expressed brilliant thoughts before us. Beg, borrow, and steal from them (with attribution, of course!).

3. Consider it a living document that will grow, deepen, and re-shape as you move further into your art and your faith.

4. Post it somewhere you can see it, so it can prod, re-focus, and inspire you as you work.

That’s it. So here is part of my ever-changing manifesto. I share it with you simply as an illustration. Each writer’s credo will bear the marks of her own passage and thought.

* There is no part of human experience that is not worthy of attention, illumination, and restoration.

* I commit to writing not simply out of curiosity, out of delight in words, or a desire to entertain. All these are good enough motives, but will produce lesser works. My best and most honest writing will be done where my skin meets the world in the thinnest, rawest places.

* Writing is a vocation, a calling, a kind of pilgrimage that takes us, like Abraham, from one land to another, through, of course, wastelands, where the promise of a promised land appears invisible and impossible, but the writing inexorably, day by day, moves us closer to holiness, the city of God.

* Words contain power to slay and to resuscitate. Every work describing the world as it truly is will do both: there cannot be resuscitation without death; there cannot be death without resuscitation.

* Writing is a response back to a word-creating God who invites us–just as he invited Adam–to name all that is, to complete a creation that is still undone, still unfinished. We speak back because creation was intended to be a conversation, not a monologue.

* Writing recognizes that faith and spirit are not disembodied abstract ideas, but are incarnated in the world around us. Our faith calls us to the things of this world—to mud and fish slime, to huckleberries and stingrays— to love them, to speak their names, to find in them the glory that was spoken into their very cells.

* Writing from faith is not an attempt to contain or explicate God, to unravel mystery, the wonders that surround us, but rather to articulate mystery, that it may draw us, first, to the edge of his cloak, then closer . . .

Enjoy the process! And count us in! Share at least one of your own writing beliefs with all of us here. Perhaps we’ll add yours to our own!


The Art of Bloodletting:Translating Suffering to the Shared Page

“The only books worth reading are books written in blood.” –Frederick Buechner 

When suffering strikes, we are often silenced by pain. In such times, the act of writing may feel frivolous, exploitative, or irrelevant. Yet it is these dark, raw places of our lives that most demand our full attention, our most artful labors. We must steward the afflictions God has granted us. We may remain silent in the midst of it, but at some point we must write. Patricia Hampl reminds us of the responsibility that comes with our experiences: “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. 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. I have mucked through some hours and days of writing that were hellish. Re-living 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.

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.” 

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.”

Writing can begin here, 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.

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 suffering onto the pages we share—for the good of all, and for His glory.

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


When Throats are Parched: Writing (On Deadline) In the Land of Drought

Years ago I crossed the Sahara desert the back of a truck. No GPS. No roads, no signs—we followed the train tracks. We did have a crude map with water holes marked. We’d get to the hole or the well—and it would be dry. We’d set out for the next one—and it was dry. Our water supply got lower every day and was closely rationed. At one point we were lost for three days. And we were on deadline—we had to get to Kenya before the rainy season started.

That’s what the writing life can feel like at times, yes? The stations of usual refreshment aren’t open; we’re getting drier and drier; the manuscript is withering. We’re plain out stuck. Here are some sources of “stuckness,” and suggestions to get you moving back to the watering holes!

*You’re STUCK because you’ve been seduced by your own luscious language.

You’ve followed a trail of language, lured by its sound, rhythm, maybe even its profundity. Soon—you’re sunk. In love. In a trap.  No water. No trail, no way out.

*Get UNSTUCK  by leaving the page. Free yourself by taking your core idea (or character) off the page and walking it out in the world. Wrestle with its logic, its meaning, until you can articulate the concept clearly in new language and out loud. You’ll find it much easier to break your “engagement” with your sand trapped manuscript.

*You’re STUCK  because there’s dissonance between form and content.

Maybe you committed to a form or a genre or a particular structure too soon before fully exploring your content. (We do this when hurrying under deadlines!) When we externally impose an ill-fitting form upon our material, we’ll soon find ourselves and our manuscript immobilized.

*Get UNSTUCK  by returning to the exploration stage and really listening to the work itself, teasing out from its deepest levels the organic  form/genre/structure that best illuminates its meaning.

*You’re STUCK because of the limits of your genre.

Every genre is an attempt to discover and construct some form of knowledge. But every genre has limits. Narrative finds meaning through sequence, context, causality. By its very definition it reveals order—and potentially meaning—from the disorder of our lives. But sequence and causality don’t tell the whole story. Poetry relies heavily upon metaphor, imagery, the moment, sensation, but poetry may miss the truths that narrative can discover. Each needs the other at some point.

*Get UNSTUCK by changing genres (for a short time). We need to stay open to new truths as we write. If you’re stuck on the chapter in your memoir about your mother’s death, write a poem about the day she died. If your poem is stalled, try writing a short story or a vignette about something related that happened to you.  You will see, hear, and process memories in new ways when entering a new genre.

Let’s admit it—writing is an unnatural act. Sitting at your keyboard for hours on end every day is like crossing the desert. You have to find ways to rehydrate and rehumanize this most glorious of labors.  So I end with these final admonishments:

*Ask for an extension. Believe it or not, most writers do this at some point. There’s no shame in it. Your editor wants you to produce the best material possible. It’s not always possible, but getting a little more time can magically create a breakthrough.

*Go to bed early. Eat. Exercise. Drink yummy beverages. Be nice to yourself.

(The end of my Sahara story. We made it out, but I never wrote about it—just a single poem. I was too parched to write.)


Beyond Instinct: (Not) Writing Like Weasels

In her much-anthologized essay “Living Like Weasels” Annie Dillard locks eyes and brains with a weasel, launching an essay on calling. Weasels teach us how to live, Dillard writes, embodying an instinctive mindlessness, all energies pointed toward their “one necessity.” One weasel latched onto the throat of an eagle and never let go, even in death, its skeleton attached to the eagle’s chest. The essay ends here:

“I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot tear you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.”  

It’s a stunning close to an inspiring essay. But the beauty of the language disguises the horror of the scene. The weasel latched onto the wrong bird. His actual death was not likely very poetic. As writers and as people of faith, we’re not as horrified as we might be: death is not our final fear, and we understand the larger metaphor of death. But we needn’t seek it out. There are so many ways to die as a writer already; I’d like to save us from an unnecessary demise or two with a few simple words:

Choose the right bird. When you discover you’ve chosen wrongly, let go.

This is a simple way of saying that as writers we labor under more than one calling, more than “one necessity.”  There is the calling to write, the sense of being appointed a wrestler with words, a storyteller, even a prophet at times. But there are callings as well to particular projects and subjects. When we don’t distinguish between the two, we’ll find trouble, maybe even death.

In the last twenty years I have let go of a number of essays-in-progress, articles, even book manuscripts. Despite seeking God’s direction—and feeling that I had found it, two book projects I felt very “called” to pursue, ended up withering. As each  atrophied, I latched on yet harder, spending costly attention and effort trying to revive them—to no avail.

I did not expect success to meet every writing endeavor, but some losses hit hard. We question our worth as writers; we question our very calling. But we often ask the wrong question. Rather than asking, “Am I really called to write this novel (this essay, this book) right now?” we often ask, “Am I really called to be a writer?”  In these moments, we’re not so much rising on the wings of eagles as we are devoured by our own insecurities and disappointments. We may even stop writing altogether. This is the second death—and the least necessary.

The weasel operates by instinct alone. We can do better. We can’t see into the future to know whether a project will ultimately succeed, but we can follow our given passions, testing them thoroughly with research, prayer, and rough drafts. If a project falters, as all seem to do at some point, we persevere until—-we cannot. Then, we pry ourselves loose and let it go.  Not easily, and never prematurely, but our bones will stay hinged, and our musky flesh will live to choose another subject, another day, one that may indeed send us soaring.


Loving Our Reader as Ourselves

We write for so many reasons. As we write, we experience many rewards in the writing process alone, but those personal rewards can sometimes obscure the deepest reason of all to write: to love our neighbors. In our case, our neighbors are our readers, those with faces just inches from our words, their minds and hearts living in the very houses we have built.

How can we love our readers as ourselves? It’s become increasingly difficult to find our way forward here because of our postmodern culture’s obsessions with fame and the self, but here are a few steps forward:

1.     Love your readers by writing beyond yourself.

Write from the self, by all means, but don’t let the primary subject be the self, even if you’re writing memoir. Many of us write to attend to the fragments of our lives and to make something coherent and meaningful from them. It’s a noble enterprise, to pursue wisdom from the chaos of our real lives. We are writing our way home, many of us.  “We are lost in a dark wood and we need stories to help us find our way home,” Scott Russell Sanders writes. But don’t forget that this is also the reason readers read, not to find the way to your house, ultimately, but to find their way to their own true home. Our purpose in writing must be more than self-fulfillment. It must be God-and-neighbor fulfillment.

2.     Love your readers by living a genuine faith-ward life.

God’s truths are not just propositional and communicated by language: they are experiential, relational, incarnational.  Our first job as writers is to write from a faith that we ourselves are trying to live in and live out rather than a faith that is simply pronouncements, words on a page. As Joy Sawyer has written,

“And without an ever-increasing, tangible portrait of our God engraved upon our hearts, we reduce our proclamation of the gospel to the ‘clanging symbol’ of language alone. Maybe that is why our message suffers so much when we rely upon mere rhetoric to communicate our faith: it’s simply bad poetry. . . . .  our deepest joy is experienced when the poetry of our lives begins to be expressed, as the apostle John said, not in words alone, but in deed and in truth.”

 3.    Love your readers by not preaching at them.

We need not tell all the truth about anything at any one time (even if we knew it). Life, issues, experiences, even under the purview of God, are all complex, multi-layered.  Communicating Truth and truths is a process that we engage in over a lifetime, encompassing many possible stages:  plowing, sowing, watering, reaping.  Think of your writing efforts as a lifelong endeavor rather than a tell-it-all right now.

4.     Love your readers by loving the world we’ve been given.

Though I do indeed want all people to know Christ, more, I want Christ to be made known. And because He is found everywhere in life, in all places, in all things, I am not just freed but compelled to discover and then reveal Him through all the lovely, hideous, fascinating and stultifying  things of this world, which are, after all, His. “Love calls us to the things of this world,” Richard Wilbur has written, and our love for our reader will call us out into this God-made world as well.

And so, I end here, out of love for you, dear readers! I want to preach 100 more ways to love our readers—but let us return to the lives and words we’ve been given, aiming toward a poetry of truth, word and deed!

What is one tangible way you will choose to love your readers this week?


Does the World Really Need Your Story?

This week snow fell–again, about a foot, on top of already knee-deep layers. I strapped on skis and went off into a spruce forest near my house, my tracks the first marks on the page of the world.

Starting a new writing project, a book or an article, even a blog post, feels much like this. I see something falling outside my window–an idea, a passion, a glimpse of something true and maybe beautiful. I eagerly strap on metaphorical skis and go out, wondrously lost in a world made strange again. I am confident that I belong here, that I will apprehend something of value and meaning. But the going gets hard. The surface of the snow changes. The skis get stuck. I fall. I discover dozens of tracks before me on the trail, most more graceful than my own. Why am I here?

Doubts track me down no matter where I am. I have learned not to dismiss them. They force me to consider and reconsider. Does the world really need one more story?

Today, I give three responses: two from others, one my own.

1. Your story can bring “healing and illumination” to others.

Katherine Paterson, prolific Newbery award-winning author, says with genuine humility, “I know my gift is limited. I know I cannot stand toe-to-toe with philosophers and theologians and solve for myself or anyone else the problem of evil . . .”  But here’s what we can do, she says, “we who are writers can tell a story or write a poem, and where rational argument will always fail, somehow, miraculously, in metaphor and simile and image, in simple narrative, there are, in the words of Barry Lopez, both ‘healing and illumination.’ Here I see a word of hope and possibility.”

2. Writing your story can preserve your life.

When Madeleine L’Engle’s husband says of her new work, “It’s been said better before,” she responds,  “Of course, it has. It’s all been said better before. If I thought I had to say it better than anybody else, I’d never start. Better or worse is immaterial. The thing is that it has to be said, by me, ontologically. We each have to say it, to say it our own way. Not of our own will, but as it comes out through us. Good or bad, great or little: that isn’t what human creation is about. It is that we have to try, to put it down in pigment, or words, or musical notations, or we die.”

3.  Writing can move us toward the city of God.

If we pursue our stories, honestly and truly, they will send us on a pilgrimage that takes us, like Abraham, from one land to another, from a land of unknowing and darkness, through, of course, wastelands, where the promise of a promised land appears invisible and impossible . . . but the writing inexorably, day by day moves us closer to clarity, to wisdom, to the very city of God, if we allow it.

Don’t waste your doubts. Use them to move you forward into that forest, into the pages of that story that you must write—for yourself, for God and for others.