I had the pleasure of speaking today about the writing life with Chris Horst and a band of writers from HOPE International. (As you probably remember, Audrey and I traveled to Rwanda this summer with HOPE, and I’m excited to continue exploring what a partnership with this incredible organization can look like.)
Chris had asked me to share my experiences as a writer, and I thought to condense some brief thoughts here for you. If you are a writer or know a writer, I hope these can be helpful. But as you’ll note, I’m very deliberately calling these words for writers, rather than tips. I guess I’m agreed with the antipathy of William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, toward giving “tips.” “I don’t do tips,” Zinsser once said. He thought of tips as shortcuts. If tips could improve a piece of writing, they couldn’t make you a really good writer. Good writing, Zinsser said, is “a matter of character.”
So here are three words for writers (not, of course, to be confused with tips):
As I told the writers from HOPE today, it’s important to give ourselves the permission to cultivate a unique writing process that works for us, even if looks nothing like Mary Karr’s. I, too, wish I could imitate the process of brilliant writers and import their genius. But the truth is: the thing my writing needs is my voice, not Mary Karr’s. And in order to find that voice, I have to cultivate a process that makes intuitive sense to me. I’m not, for instance, a mad-dash writer (with the exception of this blog post, of course). If words were lollipops, let’s just say I lick a long time. I’ve had to honor that about myself and give myself the necessary time to create. Often, this looks like doing an initial draft of a project, and then putting it on the back burner, letting it simmer for several days. When I come back to it, I bring a new willingness to see its faults and a fresh commitment to making necessary changes. (There is prayer involved in the simmering, too.) But you may be nothing like me. Maybe you don’t lick your lollipops. Instead, you devour them nearly whole. If you write best under the harrowing nearness of a deadline, good for you! Write as only you can. Give yourself permission to do it in ways that defy every supposed law the writing gods dictate. Find and follow a process that works, and when it fails you, give yourself permission to throw it out and begin again.
Chris asked a question about when I made the decision, not just to write, but also to publish. (And let me say: without willing editors and publishers, my decisions would actually have mattered very little. Special thanks to Katelyn Beaty at Christianity today and Dave Zimmerman, formerly of IVP.) Nevertheless, I do think the decision to publish, especially back in 2011 when we moved to Toronto, had a lot to do with God nudging me toward risk.
If there is one thing that seems true in life (the writing life, the spiritual life, life-life) it seems to be this: there is no way to grow but to risk. In terms of writing, I had to risk the public sound of my voice telling my personal stories. Even this week, I am praying for the continued courage to risk, and it sounds something weird like this: God, give me the courage of assertion. Especially in my current book project, I see hesitancy, apprehension, and equivocation—which signals I’ve backed away from the things that I see and think and hope others to agree. There is yellow cowardice on my pages: in mumbo-jumbo, in unmasticated Scriptural text, in the razzle-dazzle of poetic hollowness. So these are the hard questions that I need to ask: where have I refused to draw my conclusions? And why am I scared of my own assertions? Writers need courage: to write, to publish, and to keep writing and publishing.
As Anne Lamott likes to say, the only things writers really need to do to write is to sit their butt in a chair. Yeah, something like that—and also Hemingway’s gorier version about opening our veins and bleeding on the page. The writing life, at least for me, is a mercurial as Toronto weather. Some days, the sun is brilliant and bright, and my page is as optimistically blue as the sky. Other days, it is gloomy and dark and grey, and I want to drink copious amounts of coffee and read the most recent posts of my favorite home decorating/lifestyle blogs. (Here and here and here.)
The writing life is hard. Words are unwieldy and fidgety. The moment you try pinning them down, you have World War III on your hands. So what are you going to do about that? Cry? Eat cake? (Yes, of course you will, especially if there are leftovers from your Canadian Thanksgiving celebration.) But then somehow, you are going to have to get back at the creative habits that keep you from permanent despair. You are going to take your pen and paper and hammer out a thesis for your next piece, defying illegibility and your own laziness. You are going to structure an outline for your next chapter, weaving something coherent from the stack of books and articles and Scripture you’ve been reading. You are going to take to the keyboard when it’s time to draft, hushing your inner critic who clamors snidely that you have nothing worth saying. Beat it, you will tell her as you get back to the task at hand. You will seize pockets and stretches of time because this is how writing gets done: one word, one sentence, one paragraph at a time, each wrested from your own fear and set in broad daylight, looking like a gummy, wrinkly newborn. No new baby is cute: and neither is your work.
So quit your crying, and keep at it.
Because your voice is valuable.
Because there is courage God is growing in you.
Because you can grow in godly character with your butt in the chair. (Eating too much cake, however, can diminish those results.)