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.

 

Temporary Imbalances

The creative process often leads to temporary imbalances that other people may not tolerate well. There’s some craziness to the creative life. You may be terrifically energetic for a time and then shift to low energy and mild depression. Some of this flux goes with the territory. There are times when you need help with the imbalance because it has become unhealthy or dangerous. But today’s culture values a certain perception of “balance,” and it allows for little craziness or fluctuation. People will reject your apparent imbalances as negatives that need to be corrected. And when you don’t share their concern, they will likely judge you, which is a form of rejection.

Creativity takes you places that are weird to others. Don’t be surprised when others reject you for being different, asking too many questions or expressing yourself in ways that are unfamiliar to them.

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

“Influencers share stories because they want to build bonds with people”

In his book Fizz, word-of-mouth marketing expert Ted Wright concludes that those who ignite content are intrinsically motivated. “Influencers share stories because they want to build bonds with people. For them, that is the reward, and it comes from a place deep within them. If they think what you’re selling will be interesting to people they know, that is all the motivation they need. You cannot buy their interest—or their approval—with discounts or rewards.”

– from “The Content Code” by Mark Schaefer

“How to Prepare a Non-fiction Book Proposal” – video training

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The Art of a Book Proposal

– by Angela Scheff

So you’ve been writing for years and have decided to finally put a proposal together to secure an agent and/or send it to a publisher. You’ve spent hours upon hours honing your craft, playing around with tone, figuring out the point-of-view, developing a solid structure, and so on.

If you’ve put this much time into writing, please do yourself a favor and don’t simply fill out a proposal template in a single day. Spend time considering how to best convey the information publishers and agents need, and put it in your own style.

Your proposal is often the first taste the publishing world has of your writing. Use it to introduce yourself and your writing and set yourself apart. This doesn’t mean you don’t make the information clear, but rather, spend the time thoughtfully considering your audience, your competition, and the best possible way you can word your overview.

A well-written proposal will leave agents and editors alike wanting to read more of your writing.

King Lear

– by Frederick Buechner

There would be a strong argument for saying that much of the most powerful preaching of our time is the preaching of the poets, playwrights, novelists because it is often they better than the rest of us who speak with awful honesty about the absence of God in the world and about the storm of his absence, both without and within, which, because it is unendurable, unlivable, drives us to look to the eye of the storm. I think of King Lear especially with its tragic vision of a world in which the good and the bad alike go down to dusty and, it would seem, equally meaningless death with no God to intervene on their behalf, and yet with its vision of a world in which the naked and helpless ones, the victims and fools, become at least truly alive before they die and thus touch however briefly on something that lies beyond the power of death. It is the worldly ones, the ones wise as the world understands wisdom and strong in the way the world understands strength, who are utterly doomed. This is so much the central paradox of Lear that the whole play can be read as a gloss if not a homily on that passage in First Corinthians where Paul expresses the same paradox in almost the same terms by writing, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:27-28), thus pointing as Shakespeare points to the apparent emptiness of the world where God belongs and to how the emptiness starts to echo like an empty shell after a while until you can hear in it the still, small voice of the sea, hear strength in weakness, victory in defeat, presence in absence.

I think of Dostoevski in The Brothers Karamazov when the body of Alyosha’s beloved Father Zossima begins to stink in death instead of giving off fragrance as the dead body of a saint is supposed to, and at the very moment where Alyosha sees the world most abandoned by God, he suddenly finds the world so aflame with God that he rushes out of the chapel where the body lies and kisses the earth as the shaggy face of the world where God, in spite of and in the midst of everything, is.

– Originally published in Telling The Truth

Why You Must Love What You Write

– by Sophfronia Scott

I was walking around my yard in a bit of a daze. The day before I had finished the novel revision I’d been working on for months. Like the crazy woman I am, instead of resting I was trying to organize my thoughts for the next novel. But I felt like I didn’t know how to steady myself in the real world after being in my novel’s world almost nonstop for so long.

I decided to go for a walk in the woods at Fairfield Hills, a campus-like park near my home. As I headed for the hiking trail I saw a friend from my church—he’s my co-teacher, in fact, for the 8 th and 9 th grade Sunday school class I’m teaching this year. He was there to go jogging and he stopped to tease me, saying he almost didn’t recognize my face because I wasn’t smiling. I said, “This is my thinking face. This is a thinking walk.” Then I told him I’d just finished my novel.

“Oh!” he said. “Then you’ve just lost a lover.”

I totally didn’t expect such words from him: he’s a retired Marine, a guy who’s as button down, spit and polish as you can get. But there was an odd truth to what he said. It made me think of the monk and writer Thomas Merton—I’m in the process of reading all of his journals—and at one point he writes that he’s missing his novel. Of course those were the days when a writer only had one or two precious hard copies of a manuscript and once you sent it out it was gone until the publisher returned it. He said he missed his book; he wanted it back. He spoke of it like it was an old friend. I didn’t think of myself as attached to my book in this way but began to wonder about it as I continued my walk.

Then a phone call on my cell—it was a new Vermont College of Fine Arts student, about to embark on his first residency in the MFA in writing program. He wanted advice from me, a recent graduate, about how to get the most out of the program. I asked him about his aspirations, how he saw himself as a writer, what he wanted to write. He told me he’d written short pieces but wanted to develop the skill of writing longer work. He’d started novels but had never been able to finish them. He said he often lost interest in the story and wasn’t sure if it would be interesting to anyone else.

I spoke and I realized what I was saying to him was the answer to where we both were—he starting to write and me having completed a big project.

I said, “You’ve got to love what you’re writing.”

This is so true. A novel takes such a long time—months and years. How else can you stick with it unless you truly loved your story and loved your characters? Where is the fun and energy to keep you going if you don’t love what you’re writing? I know it’s tempting to want to follow publishing trends and write in whatever genre happens to be hot at the moment. But if you don’t love the work it will be a punishing exercise and the results will show it. The reader can tell. If there’s no affection a reader can put a book down and forget about it as easily as you might during the writing process. But if a reader can sense love it will feel as though they’ve stumbled on a secret, and he or she will feel closer to you and your work because of it. One of the best critiques I received on my novel manuscript—and believe me, it kept me going when the revision process got tough—came from a reader who said, “I can tell you love these characters.”

Interesting side note: This same reader also said, “I could feel your love of baseball.” I smiled at that because while I watch the World Series every year, I don’t have a particular love of baseball. However I have a dear friend who does, and I wrote the baseball parts with him in mind thinking I wanted him to enjoy it whenever he read the book. So I was channeling someone else’s love, but the love was still there.

That day I stood there in the woods with my phone to my ear watching the truth of what my church friend had said unfold before me. I thought I was walking around out there because I was trying to think through the start of my next book, but what I was really trying to figure out was this: how do I fall in love again? It almost seems impossible to do but I know it must be possible. I suppose have to be patient with myself, and patient with my heart. I’m thinking now if I court the new novel gently, putting in the time I know it requires, the love will manifest.

What will you do to find the love in your next piece of writing?

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