Ten Pages of Nothing

Sometimes you get a line, a phrase, sometimes you’re crying, or it’s the curve of a chair that hurts you and you don’t know why, or sometimes you just want to write a poem, and you don’t know what it’s about. I will fool around on a typewriter. It might take me ten pages of nothing, of terrible writing, and then I’ll get a line, and I’ll think, “That’s what I mean!” What you’re doing is hunting for what you mean, what you’re trying to say. You don’t know when you start.

Anne Sexton, American poet (1928 – 1972)

Speak the Unspeakable Stuff

We write to expose the unexposed. If there is a door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to speak the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words—not just any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues.

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on the Writing Life

Writing in Riddles

by Randy Petersen

“The desire to write grows with writing.”

That quote is attributed to the Reformation-era scholar Erasmus, though I’ve been unable to hunt down the source. But I found a few other gems from this witty writer.

In his book Adages, Erasmus referred to “those who make a point of speaking obscurely, and in riddles; or those who out of inexperience or a superstitious veneration for unknown words write in such a complicated way that they need a prophet rather than a reader.”

I recognize my younger self in those lines. Sometimes it’s painful to reread stuff I wrote in college.

Erasmus also cites a Greek writer mentioned by Aristotle, saying his “obscurity arose from an ambiguous arrangement of words, since it was uncertain whether the word in question belonged to what went before or to what followed after.”

Why Christian Writers Write: A Meditation

by Stephen R. Clark

Writing is a painful, sublime joy. I think only writers will understand this.

Madeleine L’Engle declares, “The artist cannot hold back; it is impossible, because writing, or any other discipline of art, involves participation in suffering, in the ills and the occasional stabbing joys that come from being part of the human drama.”

The call of writing for writers is both blessing and curse.

A popular quote about writing, and one I’ve used often, is attributed to Gene Fowler: “Writing is easy; all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

I’m not sure how it relates, but it’s intriguing to me that before he became a journalist, Fowler was a taxidermist.

He gets it right on the painful side of writing. Especially when faced with deadlines that reset relentlessly as they do in the newspaper business. Fowler worked on papers in Denver and New York before launching into books and later screenwriting.

The imagery, of course, conjures up Jesus praying and sweating drops of blood in Gethsemane. He is called to a daunting task yet, perhaps, is there an out? No, just as there really is no escape other than writing for a writer.

It’s funny how a writer’s head can be filled with perfect sentences and paragraphs on a topic, but when sitting down to put them on paper or pixels, chaos and randomness breaks out! The thoughts and the words tacked to them scatter into incoherence and have to be wrestled and wrangled onto the page.

It’s exhausting! But a rewarding compulsion.

Novelist and essayist Anna Quindlen counters Fowler’s thought stating, “Sometimes writing is a chore, for sure, but sometimes it is an uncontrollable urge and the antidote to pain.”

Those of us who are writers understand that “uncontrollable urge.” I’ve experienced it often when, because of the daily requirements of life and duty, I’ve been unable to find the time to sit and write. Ideas are always bouncing around in my head like bubbles in a shaken soda bottle. The words pressing to get out.

A friend of mine who is a writer and professor of English, Danny Anderson, lamented on Facebook once, “Was finally able to write something. Yes it probably sucks, but it still felt good to get it out. I find that my best writing tends to be things that only I could write – the downside to that is that it’s probably only me that cares about it in the first place. Oh well.”

All the common emotions that haunt a writer are in his lament. Satisfaction in finally writing. Fear that it’s crap. Delight in getting it out. Doubt that anyone else will like it. Taken all together, his post expresses the pain and joy, the frustration and exhilaration that is writing.

“I know of nothing more thrilling than the arrival of a good idea for a story,” declares Pulitzer winning author Tracy Kidder. I agree, but this is also when the pressure starts to build. The idea strikes, you know it’s a good one, and now you have to deal with it.

The reality is that not everyone can breathe life into words and bring writing alive on the page. Maybe this is the connection to taxidermy. Anyone can stuff a dead animal, but it takes real talent and skill to end up with something that looks realistic — as if it’s actually still living ready to take off. When this happens in writing, the joy one feels is euphoric.

In her poem, “”Holy, holy,” Marge Piercey captures this feeling.

…. From time to time

usually but not always when writing

something would seize me, bear me

up and out of myself as in an eagle’s

talons. I’d almost forget to breathe.

It was never for long. I’d return

shocked, my mind on fire, a rushing

in me, a coming together, clarity.

I know when I’m finally able to get traction on an idea, tame the various components, and herd the thoughts coherently onto the page, it is as if my mind is on fire, and my heart. Poet Seamus Heaney agrees, explaining, “I’ve always associated the moment of writing with a moment of lift, of joy, of unexpected reward.”

There is pleasure in the physical and mystical act of writing, the invisible motion of plucking those just right words out of the ether and placing them perfectly on the page.

John Steinbeck said, “I write because I like to write. I find joy in the texture and tone and rhythm of words. It is a satisfaction like that which follows good and shared love.” Yes, indeed.

Besides the joy and pain, for those of us gifted with this marvelous affliction, writing is something we need to do out of obedience.

Eric Liddell of Chariots of Fire fame was a missionary and a runner. He said, “I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.”

He also advised, “If, in the quiet of your heart, you feel something should be done, stop and consider whether it is in line with the character and teaching of Jesus. If so, obey that impulse to do it, and in doing so you will find it was God guiding you.”

For a writer who is also a Christian, writing is something that should be done, must be done. What we write about is weighed to determine if it is indeed “in line with the character and teaching of Jesus.” And when all aligns — calling, idea, desire, and gift — the outcome is spurred by the Holy Spirit in us, a mighty rushing wind of pain and joy, release and redemption.

We write because that’s how He made us. And it is good.

In his poem, “The Trouble With Poetry,” Billy Collins reveals,

But mostly poetry fills me

with the urge to write poetry,

to sit in the dark and wait for a little flame

to appear at the tip of my pencil.

And so, we who are writers, go through our days, in darkness and in light, waiting for that little flame, not just to appear at the tip of our pencil, but to ignite our hearts and minds with the next thing we are being tasked to share. Article, story, poem, testimony, whatever it is God is nudging us to bring into being and put out there in the world to declare His glory and advance His kingdom.

This is why we write.

Love Letters

by Randy Petersen

If you’re looking here for inside tips on the writing business, you might be disappointed, but you shouldn’t be. I’m recommending a tool for Christian writing that’s absolutely essential.

Not a tech gadget. It won’t correct your spelling or grammar or theology. (I am intrigued, however, by the idea of a Theolo-check feature, where a balloon pops up, saying, “This sentence seems dangerously antinomian.”)

But no, it doesn’t even feel right to call this a “tool” for writing—though without it all your lovely prose will have the subtlety of a clanging gong. Maybe we could call it a program or process or principle, or something else beginning with P.

All I know is, it’s a must-have for Christian writers. Without it, you might as well highlight everything in your portfolio and hit Delete.

Priority. That’s the word I was looking for. It’s far more important than all the tips and tricks, themes and schemes, project-getters, deadline-setters, and detail-vetters. The Christian writer who doesn’t have this, according to one renowned expert, is “nothing.”

No need for further suspense—since you surely figured it out about 100 words ago. What is this indispensable tool/principle/priority?

Love.

You know that, but it’s incredibly easy to forget. Especially these days, when words become weapons. Christians feel embattled. We have so much to fight for, and even more to fight against, it seems. Shouldn’t we use our way with words to show our enemies how wrong they are?

Well, no. Whatever our “ministry of reconciliation” is (2 Corinthians 5:18), it surely involves more wooing than weaponry. Shouldn’t our conversation, spoken or written, be “full of grace, seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:4)? Might our facility with language actually help to turn enemies into friends?

The Most Important Thing

I can hear you yawning. News flash: Christian blog comes out in favor of “love”!  So what else is new? Love has long been on the short list of highly valued Christian principles, along with truth, faith, holiness, humility, and so on.

But love is not just one of the virtues, it’s the top priority for those who follow Jesus. By my count, there are eight New Testament passages that clearly put love in that highest-priority position. Look for yourself. You might find only six, or maybe twelve. But the language is consistent: love isn’t only good, it’s the most important thing.

What’s the most important commandment in the Law? Well, two, actually, says Jesus—love God and love your neighbor. At the Last Supper, Jesus gives his disciples a “new commandment.” This will be the distinguishing mark of his team: love. Paul keeps saying that love is the fulfillment of the law, and there’s that amazing thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians. Without love, we’re toast. Faith and hope, as great as they are, can’t hold a candle to love.

So how can we, as Christian writers, show love to God, to our neighbors, and even to our enemies?

That’s the question to ask. Not, How will I build my platform? Or, What’s the best way to outline an award-winning article? Or, Should I capitalize pronouns for deity? These are all part of the work we do, but the most important thing is love. How will we show love in our work?

The Ephesian Season

The book of Revelation begins with a report card for seven congregations. As you might expect, the church of Ephesus—founded by Paul, shepherded by Timothy, possibly counseled by John—gets pretty good grades for their “hard work” and “perseverance.” They stood up for God’s truth against false teachers. All good.

“Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first” (Revelation 2:4).

The embattled believers fought valiantly in tough times, but they left the most important thing behind. I wonder if we’re in a similar time now, an Ephesian season, if you will. We’re fighting tenaciously for truth and survival, but what are we neglecting?

We mustn’t let love become a casualty of our skirmishes. Let’s use our literary gifts to show and share love. Let’s put forth that first-mentioned fruit of the Spirit every time we put our fingertips on that keyboard, wooing our readers, both friends and enemies, and glorifying our passionate God.

Will you join me in the prayer Paul offered for those Ephesian believers? “I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:17-19).

Delaying Disgust

I never correct anything and I never go back to what I have written, except to the foot of the last page to see where I have got to. If you once look back, you are lost. How could you have written this drivel? How could you have used “terrible” six times on one page? And so forth.

If you interrupt the writing of fast narrative with too much introspection and self-criticism, you will be lucky if you write 500 words a day and you will be disgusted with them into the bargain. By following my formula, you write 2,000 words a day and you aren’t disgusted with them until the book is finished, which will be in about six weeks.

Ian Fleming, How to Write a Thriller