I can’t tell you how excited I am to be writing this post. My godmother and incredible author Ellen Morris Prewitt tagged me to participate in a conversation about the writing process along with real honest-to-goodness authors who have agents and head shots and books on Amazon, and I am over the moon. I’ve been strutting around the apartment with all kinds of confidence. I’m a writer y’all. It’s a thing. People know me.
Ok, the delusion of grandeur has passed. But this is seriously on par with receiving a note back from Madeleine L’Engle encouraging me to keep writing after I told her about my stories in a fan letter somewhere around 1997. Ellen is a former attorney and fashion model turned author (Do you not love her already?), and for the past several years she’s been working as a writer of blogs, novels, short stories, and a beautiful devotional book on her practice of turning found, broken, and discarded objects into crosses. She also founded the Door of Hope Writing Group in 2007 with people who have or are currently experiencing homelessness in Memphis, Tennessee, and they’ve just published their first book, which Ellen edited. Incredible. You can learn more about her, read her blog, and hear her short stories at her brand new website here.
Now that you know the why, here’s the what. These are my responses to the four questions all us writers are answering.
What am I working on at the moment?
Most of my writing hours these days are dedicated to papers, sermons, and a Bible study that a committee of hopefully very gracious and easy-going folks will review to decide whether I get to be commissioned (and eventually ordained) as a deacon in the United Methodist Church. The papers are responses to sixteen basic theological questions (Oh, two pages on “Who is God?” No problem! I’ll just jot that down when I’m done with the two pages on “What is the nature of evil.”), but the sermons, Bible studies, and blogging are what makes my little heart go pitter-patter. For the past year I’ve preached about once a month for one of the most wonderful congregations I’ve ever encountered, and I write occasional pieces for an awesome organization in North Carolina called Women Advance. I also keep up my personal blog here at Such Poetic Justice, which I started last fall when I was craving a writing outlet outside of essays for grad school. It’s been more of a joy than I could’ve imagined, and I’d love to dig into it more deeply and to dive into the waters of books one day, but that will have to wait for another season.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Well I work in two very different genres—blogging and sermons. One is meant to connect with a reader on a screen and one is more of a community experience. Many preachers I know can sketch out an outline and offer a glorious message from the freedom in between the bullet points. Maybe it’s the English minor in me, but I have always been clearer and sounded more like myself in ink. Writing sermon manuscripts (which I generally memorize through practice and use as a security blanket reference as I preach) is a devotional process. Blogging can be a time of devotion as well, but it carries less pressure. I don’t have a deadline (at least, not on Such Poetic Justice), I don’t have to look people in the eye when they read my words, and I don’t have the pressure of people expecting me to explain God. (PS- No preacher can do that. God is inexplicable. Preachers just do our best to find new and meaningful ways of pointing back to Scripture and the saints and saying, “It’s sort of like this, but better.”)
All those disclaimers aside, the common thread in almost all my writing is the same as the one that led me into social work and ministry. I am struggling to find answers to the questions: what does our faith have to say about how we live together in this world and what does how we live together in this world have to say about our faith? At its heart, I believe our faith is more loving and more sacrificial than my comfortable little life would lead you to believe (Exhibit A: Jesus and that whole crucifixion business), and my writing is the necessary thinking-it-through that helps me to literally practice what I preach. Making it public also helps my readers and me stay accountable to each other as we inch toward Jesus together. I’ve been greatly inspired by authors and bloggers Jen Hatmaker and Rachel Held Evans in this process, and I’d highly recommend anything they’ve ever written (especially Jen from her book Interrupted onward).
Why do I write what I do?
Because I need to work it out.. I’m the definition of an external processor. As my stepfather aptly described me, I hear something for the first time when it comes out of my mouth. The little turns of phrase and “but what if we looked at it this way?” rabbit trails that circle around in the back of my head need to be followed to their logical conclusions in order satisfy my curiosity. Sometimes that leads to something meaningful and sometimes it just convinces me that there really was nothing there in the corner of my eye so I can let it go. When I feel that I’ve stumbled upon something that could move conversation along, could clarify an issue, or could help someone, I share it. In sermons I’m far more careful to try consciously to keep all the language and stories strictly in service of the message, but on my personal blog I’m a little more self-indulgent. Sometimes I write just to get it off my chest.
How does my writing process work?
Fits and starts. I have learned not to put off inspiration because my memory’s not that good, and I don’t know when the flow is going to dry up and leave me without even that thing that seemed like a good angle that I thought of at work the other day but can’t remember because I never wrote it down. Anne Lamott has said she always carries a pen with her for this very reason, and she warns us fellow writers that we should too. “Vital to writers; carry pens. Insights, images are gifts. Or God will say I’ll give that idea to cute old Anne Lamott–she ALWAYS has a pen.” (PS—if you don’t follow her on Twitter you are missing out, loves. She’s full of adorable, heart-warming snark like this). My pen is the notebook app on my iPhone and a hodge-podge collection of Word documents on my laptop.
Posts on my personal blog occasionally will begin from a request for a certain topic to be addressed (that’s how my entry on dating came about), but the vast majority come from a phrase or question I can’t shake or something that’s been in the news lately. The biggest source of interest for me is exploring a facet of something that has been overlooked or ignored. What voice hasn’t been heard? What’s the other side of this coin? What about that side-effect that we haven’t addressed yet? My analytical side takes over, and I just ride it where it takes me. This is also often how the pieces I pitch to Women Advance begin, but once I work with the editor to finalize the concept, it becomes a bit more journalistic. I spend more time researching and calling or emailing sources to confirm and the personal musings are toned way down, but the process of simply putting pen to paper (fingers to keyboard?) is basically the same. I have a stage of word vomit (classy, I know) and then I try to organize, edit, and elaborate on whatever I initially came up with.
Writing sermons is a very different matter. As a Methodist, I work from the lectionary. That means I have about four options of Scriptures to preach on for the week (usually a passage from the Hebrew Bible [or Old Testament], a Psalm, a Gospel, and an Epistle [one of the letters in the New Testament]). It’s a crap-shoot, but I find it keeps me honest. Choosing my own material makes it far too easy for me to decide what I want to say and then find a Bible verse to back it up. With the lectionary, I have to dig in and listen. Sometimes I immediately connect with the message, sometimes there’s just dead air. So I read a bunch of translations, I check out the footnotes in my study Bible, and I write down everything that I find interesting. I write down what I like, what I don’t like, what really speaks to me, what seems completely bizarre, what I want to know more about… My preaching professor in seminary taught us to play with the text, and I love the part before the real business of writing where I get to just let my imagination run wild. There is always some point in this seemingly random meandering through the text where enough of my little doodles come together to click into a big picture. The challenge usually becomes deciding which train of thought to hop onto. One of the most important things I learned in seminary was this phrase: “the inexhaustibility of Scripture.” There is no one meaning for any passage. Scripture doesn’t get tired and stale. And no one ever corners the market on what it means. It’s so much bigger than any one perspective, and it can take a deep breath and infuse some fresh life into a community no matter how many times they’ve heard someone preach that exact passage. You just have to get well enough acquainted with it for it to loosen up and give you the dish.
It works out to be a nice balance of autonomy and assignment that keeps me connected to the work.
As a newcomer and amateur in the writing scene, I’ve struggled to think of folks who I could invite to share their process (at least folks who aren’t swamped with work or finals at the moment!) so I invite you dear reader, to join the conversation.
What do you write? Why do you write it? How does it get from your heart to the page?
Comment, blog, and let me know.
I’m excited to hear from you!