Expect to Understand God in Broader and Deeper Ways

All the time I encounter artists who have weathered various changes in their spirituality because of their growth as artists. My own story is not so unusual. As I developed my art, I engaged more deeply with parts of the personality that operate in creativity. I had grown up in a Christian tradition that was void of liturgy or ritual. My tradition had a pretty standoffish relationship with mystery too. But the more writing I did, the more I bumped into mystery and the more I felt it was necessary to a well-rounded faith. The more attentive I became toward life in general, the more important life’s physicality became to me, and I began to feel a need for ritual and sacred objects. The more I realized that my art connected me with other people, the more I longed to liturgy, in which worshipers participate together very intentionally.

– from “The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life” by Vinita Hampton Wright Loyola Press

A List of Christian Trade Publishers

For those of you early in your spiritual writing journey, the landscape of publishers out there may seem a bit chaotic and confusing. Below I have attempted to assemble a list of Christian publishers, starting with “the Big Five” followed by “independents”. It is by no means comprehensive but will hopefully be helpful.

 

The Big Five

  • HarperCollins
    • HarperOne
    • Thomas Nelson
    • Zondervan
    • Amistad
  • Penguin/ Random House
    • Crown / Convergent
    • Riverhead
    • Waterbrook/Multnomah
  • Hachette
    • Faithworks
    • Jericho
    • Worthy
  • Simon&Schuster
    • Howard
  • MacMillan
    • St. Martin’s

 

Current / Former Denominational

  • Abingdon (Methodist)
  • Ave Maria (Catholic)
  • B&H / Lifeway (Southern Baptist)
  • Beacon (UUA)
  • Chalice (Disciples of Christ)
  • Concordia (Lutheran, Missouri Synod)
  • Church Publishing (Episcopal)
  • Fortress (ELCA)
  • Herald (Mennonite)
  • Ignatius (Catholic)
  • Loyola (Catholic)
  • Paulist (Catholic)
  • Presbyterian Publishing Corp. (PCUSA)
  • Skinner House (UUA)

 

Independent

  • Baker (Bethany, Brazos, Revell)
  • Christian Faith Publishing
  • D. C. Cook
  • Crosslink
  • Crossway
  • Discovery House
  • Eerdmans
  • Guideposts
  • Hay House
  • Harvest House
  • InterVarsity Press
  • Lighthouse
  • Moody
  • Nav Press
  • Paraclete
  • Tyndale
  • Wipf & Stock

Book Recommendations for Writing Personal Narrative

– by Rachel Held Evans

 

– “The Art of Memoir” by Mary Karr

– “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott

– “Walking on Water” by Madeline L’Engle

– “The Crowd, The Critic, and The Muse’ by Michael Gungor

All of them will tell you the same thing: what makes a memoir, or any form of narrative writing, work is the strength of the voice, and believability of that voice. So be very deliberate about thinking through and refining your unique and compelling voice.

 

Finding Time to Write

– by Tony Jones

When I was a younger writer, I pushed myself to write every day. My first book was written from 4-7am daily, with a full-time job and an infant. I pushed myself terribly hard. Another book I wrote basically in a weekend, holed up in my church office—when I drove home at the end of the weekend, my fingers were so swollen from typing that I could not grip the steering wheel.

I don’t write like that anymore. These days, I’m much more content to follow my muses and inspirations, to write when I’m feeling energized to write, and to lie fallow for weeks or even months at a time.

For example, I’ve got the idea for my next book, including title and premise. I’ve worked and re-worked the hook with my friend and agent, Kathy, and I think about the book every day. I haven’t written much, however, because it just doesn’t feel like the time is right.

Instead, I’m sitting and stewing, thinking and pondering.

I don’t feel any anxiety about this. Instead, I feel great confidence that I will write the book, and I’ll write it well. But it won’t happen on a timeline that’s imposed upon me or upon it.

In fact, I can feel the moment approaching—the moment when I will rearrange my life around the writing of the book. When that happens, it will change a lot: my sleep and work patterns, what I’m reading, and what I can commit to for my leisure time. But writing a book becomes and all-consuming activity for my primarily because of the mental energy it takes. When I’m writing a book, that book is about all I think about. And because it takes up so much of my intellectual energy, it’s not something that I can flit in and out of. It’s everything.

It’s coming. I can feel it. It’s just around the corner…

The psychology of sharing

There’s a lot of hype about what makes content work in a way that people want to share it. Instead of buying into the hype, let’s focus on reliable research that can provide accurate insight and even competitive advantage as you seek to overcome passivity and build shareability into every piece of content.

If there is any organization on earth that wants to attract page views, it’s a newspaper, so let’s pay attention to what one of the most important newspapers in the world has to say. The New York Times sponsored research that determined there are five powerful reasons people overcome apathy and share content:

  • To be useful. The number one reason people share content is to bring valuable and entertaining content to others. More than 90 percent of study participants said they carefully consider how the information they share will be useful to the recipient.
  • To define ourselves to others. Nearly 70 percent of participants said they share content to give people a better sense of who they are and what they care about. One respondent said, “I try to share information that will reinforce the image I’d like to present—thoughtful, reasoned, kind, interested, and passionate about certain things.”
  • To grow and nourish relationships. About 80 percent of participants share information online because it lets them stay connected to people they may not otherwise stay in touch with. A little over 70 percent share content to help connect them to new people who share common interests.
  • Self-fulfillment. About 70 percent of participants share content because it allows them to feel more involved in the world. The act of getting positive feedback on shares makes people feel valued.
  • To get the word out about causes and brands. More than 80 percent of participants said they share content to rally others around a cause, company, or idea they believe in.

As you read this list, it probably occurs to you that sharing content is a meaningful act, a very personal, intimate, and important gesture. It’s not at all trivial. The decision to share content is often a sign of a relationship. A relationship with the source, a relationship with a network… even a relationship between the person and the content! Igniting content is a symbol of kindness and caring and a reflection of who we are. Pretty deep stuff.

– from “The Content Code” by Mark Schaefer

 

Expect to Become More Attentive to, and Engaged with Life

Creative work teaches you to pay attention, and this is something that few people do well or often. We spend hours and days at a time just trying to get ahead of an impossible schedule or solve one of many problems. We don’t have time to sit and watch what light does to the color of the living-room wall at a certain time in the afternoon. Well, if you are painting a picture with a living-room wall in it, you’ll learn to notice your wall. Or if you’re writing a story that contains an afternoon scene, you will pay better attention to what physical qualities make the afternoon different from morning or evening.

Engagement goes hand in hand with attentiveness. Once you truly attend to the details of life, you will learn how to deal with them intentionally and thoughtfully. Artists talk of being in the flow or losing track of time. This happens when our senses, mind and emotions are completely occupied with the task at hand. Creative work, particularly work done regularly rather than sporadically, leads you right into engagement.

In Christian devotional language, engagement involves living in the moment or finding God in the ordinary. You have little choice but to live in the moment when you are doing creative work. And the ordinary regularly opens up to become extraordinary. This is just one way in which creativity enhances the spiritual life; it gives excellent training in attentiveness and living in the moment.

– from “The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life” by Vinita Hampton Wright Loyola Press

After the Writing Conference: Reflections

By Sarah Arthur

Last June I flew home from the second annual Frederick Buechner Writers Workshop at Princeton Theological Seminary. I had served for the week as writer-in-residence leading twenty students in the advanced writers course; and, like anyone returning from a gathering in one’s Mother Tongue, I was giddy. I wanted to write forever, for all of you, and especially for my students.

But the plane landed and there were diapers.

And email. And national heartbreak.

And all the other reasons for not getting our writing done [insert yours here]. It’s real life, isn’t it? Here we are, back in the thick of things, and if you’re anything like me the vanishing dream of your good intentions feels all-too familiar, like a form of spiritual defeat. Pair that with general discouragement about the cold metrics of publishing and the cruelty of current events, and we’re tempted to think of a writing conference as a sort of secluded island resort: lovely, unforgettable, but we don’t get to live there.

Fight that feeling.

Remember Frederick Buechner’s quote about “the world’s deep hunger”? That hunger for beauty, or courage, or fidelity, or wisdom, or whatever it is that makes you want to be a writer, that’s your hunger too. And when the world’s deep hunger and your deep hunger find themselves imbued with all the gladness of God, the call is clear. You can’t not write. You never will be truly glad until you do.

Meanwhile, here is the world at your door, still hungry. (Small person sitting next to me has just asked for his fortieth grape.) And so we are given a dance, like the tarantella, a whirling dervish of a reel that can both purge the poison of our writerly discontent and pour us out, like the kenotic hymn, to serve the things of God.

The job of Savior, as one of my seminary professors said, already has been taken. So we open our hands, unclench our fists, recognize that while we can dance with the world, we cannot save it. My small son, who is presently insisting that I’m a mommy flamingo (I’m writing while standing one-legged at the counter, right foot propped against left knee), will not arrive at the end of his breath thanking me alone for showing him the only Savior who can redeem his soul. He also will thank books. He will thank utter strangers who put words on a page and sent those words out into a largely unmoved populace. He will thank you who wrote them, you who edited them, the many dozens of people who proofed and cut and bound and sold them.

He will thank all of you.

As do I. A week like that writing conference was an unrepeatable gift. The gift of yourselves to one another, the gift of yourselves to me, the gift of that too-warm classroom with our brains on content-overload and our fellow writers struggling to pair verbs and nouns fearlessly, as if we do this all the time, for a living, in order to live, which of course we do.

Here is the world,” Buechner said: “beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” Write that world. Write those beautiful and terrible things. Write the fear, the courage. Write as if you could salve the hunger, quench the thirst, part light from darkness. Write one-legged at the kitchen counter, amidst the obstinate quiddity of animate and inanimate things, as if a small boy someday will grow up to read your words and climb further into grace.

This is the world.

Be brave. Be generous.

Write on.

_________________________________

Sarah Arthur is a fun-loving speaker and the author of eleven books, including the bestseller Walking with Frodo (Tyndale) and the literary guides to prayer series with Paraclete Press (At the Still Point, Light Upon Light, and Between Midnight and Dawn). Her most recent title, co-authored with friend and colleague Erin Wasinger, is The Year of Small Things: Radical Faith for the Rest of Us (Brazos Press). www.saraharthur.com

Life Itself Has a Plot

– by Frederick Buechner

The alphabet of grace is full of sibilants-sounds that can’t be shouted but only whispered: the sounds of bumblebees and wind and lovers in the dark, of whitecaps hissing up flat over the glittering sand and cars on wet roads, of crowds hushed in vast and vaulted places, the sound of your own breathing. I believe that in sibilants life is trying to tell us something. The trees, ghosts, dreams, faces, the waking up and eating and working of life, are trying to tell us something, to take us somewhere. If this is above all a Christ-making universe, then the place where we are being taken is the place where the silk purse is finally made out of the sow’s ear, and the word that life is trying to speak to us is that little by little, squealing and snuffling all the way, a pig either starts turning into at least the first primal, porcine version of a hero, or else is put out of his piggish misery. At the heart of reality-who would have guessed it?-there is a room for dying and being born again.

How do I happen to believe in God? I will give one more answer which can be stated briefly. Writing novels, I got into the habit of looking for plots. After awhile, I began to suspect that my own life had a plot. And after awhile more, I began to suspect that life itself has a plot.

– from The Alphabet of Grace

 

 

Threadbare Language – by Frederick Buechner

“I shall go to my grave,” a friend of mine once wrote me, “feeling that Christian thought is a dead language—one that feeds many living ones to be sure, one that still sets these vibrating with echoes and undertones, but which I would no more use overtly than I would speak Latin.” I suppose he is right, more right than wrong anyway. If the language that clothes Christianity is not dead, it is at least, for many, dying; and what is really surprising, I suppose, is that it has lasted as long as it has.

Take any English word, even the most commonplace, and try repeating it twenty times in a row—umbrella, let us say, umbrella, umbrella, umbrella—and by the time we have finished, umbrella will not be a word any more. It will be a noise only, an absurdity, stripped of all meaning. And when we take even the greatest and most meaningful words that the Christian faith has and repeat them over and over again for some two thousand years, much the same thing happens. There was a time when such words as faith, sin, redemption, and atonement had great depth of meaning, great reality; but through centuries of handling and mishandling they have tended to become such empty banalities that just the mention of them is apt to turn people’s minds off like a switch, and wise and good men like this friend of mine whom I have quoted wonder seriously why anyone at all in tune with his times should continue using them. And sometimes I wonder myself.

But I keep on using them. I keep plugging away at the same old words. I keep on speaking the language of the Christian faith because, although the words themselves may well be mostly dead, the longer I use them, the more convinced I become that the realities that the words point to are very real and un-dead, and because I do not happen to know any other language that for me points to these realities so well. Certain branches of psychology point to them, certain kinds of poetry and music, some of the scriptures of Buddhism and other religions. But for me, threadbare and exhausted as the Christian language often is, it remains the richest one even so. And when I ask myself, as I often do, what it is that I really hope to accomplish as a teacher of “religion,” I sometimes think that I would gladly settle for just the very limited business of clarifying to some slight degree the meaning of four or five of these great, worn-out Christian words, trying to suggest something of the nature of the experiences that I believe they are describing.

– Originally published in Peculiar Treasures

The Writing Mentor: Frederick Buechner

by Sophfronia Scott 

I’ve never met Frederick Buechner—let’s start there. In case you don’t know him, here’s the quick rundown from his website: Frederick Buechner (pronounced BEEK-ner) is an American writer and theologian, the author of more than thirty published books. He has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and has been awarded eight honorary degrees from such institutions as Yale University and the Virginia Theological Seminary.

He’s also my writing mentor.

How is that possible? The author Dani Shapiro explains it well in her blog on having mentors you’ll never meet: “But in recent years I’ve been accompanied on the journey by a few writers and artists I have never personally known. I keep their books close to me. I carefully write passages from their work into my commonplace books, committing their thoughts to memory, and when I do this, I feel almost as if our souls might be touching through time.”

Frederick Buechner, when I reach out to him through time and space, is such a mentor to me.

I used to think that whenever I wrote about faith I had to do it by stealth because there wasn’t a place for it in today’s publishing world. I’m not good at stealth, mind you.

Inevitably church scenes and Bible verses materialize in my writing. And even when they don’t, there is a gentle assertion of grace—of the good I see in people and therefore the world. I’m certain this all began with an essay I composed for a writing class my junior year at Harvard about the words from Psalm 8 carved into the top of Emerson Hall, the building housing the philosophy department:

WHAT IS MAN THAT THOU ART MINDFUL OF HIM

I walked past those words every day and was struck with a strange but thrilling sense of both humility and exultation each time I read them. When a writing assignment called for a rhetorical essay, those words in stone were, for me, an obvious topic since they were consistently in my thoughts. So I wrote about them. I wrote about the question, its possible answers, and the love I felt was present in every layer of those answers.

Perhaps I did so too fervently.

That’s what my teacher suggested in his notes and my caution grew from there.

It didn’t help that after college I spent my writing life as a journalist where the closest thing I got to writing about faith was reporting a couple of news stories, one about the Mormon church, that ran in the religion section of Time magazine.

Only well-established senior writers tackled the big-thinking essays—I remember a sweeping cover story on evil that was especially controversial. But I didn’t aspire to write such essays, not yet anyway. I was still figuring out what I wanted to write. And on a certain level I had to live my way into understanding what my voice was about and what I had to say with it.

Five years ago my family and I began attending an Episcopal church, and my son and I went on to get baptized together. The experience deepened my spiritual journey in ways I didn’t expect and, because I’m a writer, the thoughts, observations, and emotions connected with my explorations began to surface in my work—first in a short story, then in parts of my next novel and then essays. I felt the caution of old return.

For a long time the only people who’d read the short story, which I eventually titled “Sometimes God Wears Orange Cowboy Boots,” were my pastor and the MFA advisor I had during the semester I wrote it. I’ll admit I didn’t expect to do much with this writing.

In her sermons, our pastor has a particular fondness for quoting Frederick Buechner. I’d never heard of him before, but he seemed to say a lot of things that made sense to me, things like listen to your life because that’s where God is speaking to you.

Out of curiosity I began reading Buechner’s memoirs and what I learned fascinated me: I had assumed Buechner was a minister who happened to write. This is true but chronologically not accurate.

He was a writer first—a writer without any particular faith. He published his first novel to some acclaim while he was still in his twenties. Only after that did he feel called to the seminary. Then, once he’d graduated, he was teaching at Phillips Exeter Academy and starting a religion program there. In assigning books to his students and thinking about what those authors were saying, Buechner came to a realization about his own work and it was in these words from Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation that he and I connected:

“…although many modern writers have succeeded in exploring the depths of human darkness and despair and alienation in a world where God seems largely absent, there are relatively few who have tried to tackle the reality of whatever salvation means…Sin is easier to write about than grace, I suppose, because the territory is so familiar…I was too occupied with my job to think much about the next novel I myself might write, but it occurred to me that, if and when the time ever came, it would be the presence of God rather than his absence that I would write about, of death and dark and despair as not the last reality but only the next to the last.”

There it was—he had put words to what I’ve sought, perhaps unconsciously at first, to do.

I realized I’d found in Buechner and his work a kindred spirit who shared my desire to write about “the presence of God rather than his absence” and is fascinated by the possibility of communicating with the written word the essence of grace. He’s become my trusted companion on this road and a valued one too because he’s traveled it many times before.

The presence of God on any page is unsettling. But when I doubt what I’m writing or feel unsure of how my faith is showing up in the work, Buechner is there telling me, “It’s okay, just keep going. It will be all right.” And when I wonder if I can place such writing in the publishing world Buechner is there telling me, yes, there are a lot of books about dystopia and darkness and violence, but there is plenty of room for books about light.

The writers who have the ability to create such books must go ahead and do it. I believe him because he’s modeled that last part quite well. So I sit at my notebook in Connecticut and I think about the multiple times he has done the same at his home on a hillside in Vermont. I smile because this is a good road to travel and I know I am not alone.

 

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