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. 

The Work of Learning to Love

“You can fall in love with your first draft,” the poet and memoirist Jorie Miller likes to say, “but don’t marry it.” We enter mature and lasting relationships with creative work through revision. Like any healthy commitment, revision demands of us practices that commonly make us groan: balancing the joy of spontaneity and inspiration with the efficacy of restraint and discipline. Attaching ourselves wholeheartedly to the work while also holding it lightly. Exercising humility. Listening deeply. Seeking what’s true and naming it as best we can. Facing the full range of our humanity, from utterly broken to fabulously beautiful. Being willing to grow. Practicing patience, discernment, compassion. Revision requires inner work and thus is a spiritual practice. Through revision’s grueling demands and absorbing joys, we come more alive.

Most people don’t want to make this effort because they don’t realize revision is the work of learning to love. Love isn’t just a feeling; it’s an act of will, consent, and surrender. Love takes time. Love is what brings us and our writing to fruition.

– by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew – from “Living Revision”

How a Publisher Thinks / Vinita Wright – Part 2

… a series of excerpts from Vinita’s Writing for Your Life webinar presentation

 

What constitutes authority: what credentials in the author will the reader respect?

  • In mainstream publishing, for the past twenty years, authenticity has become the new authority. Readers want stories of real people telling the truth about their experiences.
  • Earlier generations of readers were more concerned that the writer had official authority to speak: he was a pastor or a professor who could teach Scripture. In Evangelical publishing, connection to Scripture and correct teaching about Scripture took priority and provided the authority.

 

Mistakes Publishers Have Learned the Hard Way

– by Vinita Wright 2018

The publisher and author cannot tell a reader what she needs.

The reader knows already what she feels that she needs. She sees her need in a certain way, and she uses her own words to name the need. Unless the publisher and author provide material that uses that vocabulary and agrees with how the reader feels, they will not connect to that reader.

For instance, the reader says, “I need to experience God’s joy more in my daily life.” How does an author and publisher translate this?

  •       What does the reader mean by “experience God’s joy more”? That she wants to feel joyful all the time? That she wants to be rid of doubts, disappointments, discouragement? Does she want her daily life to feel more like she feels when she’s at church on Sunday?
  •       The author must dig deeper, to the various issues fueling the reader’s desire.
  •       Perhaps she thinks that a person who walks closely with God never experiences doubts, disappointments, and discouragement.
  •       Perhaps she thinks that home life should be more like church life, and so she is gradually rejecting the gritty details of the typical day at home, believing that they shouldn’t be that important.
  •       Perhaps she believes that God is blessing her only when she feels joy.

The author needs to respect how the reader expresses her need. The book should, indeed, commit to helping the reader experience God’s joy more in daily life. However, in unpacking this topic, the author will open such questions as

  •       What is God’s joy? How is it different from happiness? Is it mostly emotional, or, if not, what else is involved?
  •       Which characters in Scripture experienced God’s joy? Did they experience all the time? What else did they go through? How did they come to view joy, God’s presence, God’s blessing?
  •       What is involved in experiencing God’s joy? Where do forgiveness, honesty, humility, and openness fit in?

The larger the marketing focus, the harder the sale.

A book that tries to reach too broad a market will likely not reach the specific market it fits best. “This book is for people who want to enhance their prayer life” is not a narrow enough focus to find its market. The book will get lost among the thousands of books on prayer. Major book buyers will pass it over because it is not unique. “This book offers seven specific practices to help the young professional pray throughout a typical busy day” will have a much better chance.

Blog posts, sermons, journal entries, popular speeches/presentations, and collections of articles do not translate automatically into sellable books.

If the author is already famous, then he or she can publish all sorts of material and it will sell. But if the author is not among the handful of famous people . . .

  •       She cannot expect to publish a book of her most popular blog posts and sell it successfully. Why would people pay money for material they get for free on your site?
  •       Sermons are presented in person and orally; most excellent sermons do not translate well to the written page.
  •       Journal entries were created privately for the good of the person writing them. This material must be reworked to be helpful to other people.
  •       Popular speeches and presentations are also in-person, which is why they are so well received; like sermons, they usually do not translate well to the written page.

Trends are just that.

  •    Anyone who claims to understand current trends and where they are headed suffers delusions of omniscience. Publishers can do more than put forth their best guesses. Furthermore, a trend today can change in months or weeks, and most book publishers require nearly a year to produce a book, so they are always a few steps behind.
  •    Effective publishers understand that a trend is always a current expression of a fundamental need. If we address those fundamental needs, we will find the readers. If we dress up those needs too much in today’s phrases and philosophies, our books will become outdated quickly.

Very, very few books become bestsellers.

  •    If we base our budgets on the expectation that every book will not only pay for itself but make a fine profit, then our spreadsheets will disappoint and demoralize us year after year.
  •    The market will bear only so many bestsellers across each category. This is true regardless of the quality of many other books that do not become bestsellers.
  •    An effective publisher plans for one or two books in a season to do very well, for most books to do reasonably well, and for a (we hope) very small percentage of books never to pay for themselves. Many religious publishers produce what we call “mission” books: books that we know will not have high sales but that serve our core mission.
  •    Effective publishers plan for most of their books to sell for a long time and steadily. We don’t expect everything to sell high right away but try to ensure that most of our books continue to sell for years. This is what is called “the long tail”—the book that is a success because of its longevity. This is also called a strong backlist.

 

What Is a Literary Agent?

– by Tim Beals, Credo Communications
 
A good agent is more like a coach or mentor than a leader or manager. They are there to guide and encourage, not command and control. Your agent is your business partner, allowing you to focus on writing your best. An agent knows the market inside and out—including both large and small publishers. They know hundreds of editors, publishers, and other industry professionals and get along well with most of them. Most importantly, they know what kinds of material those publishers appreciate and want to see, and they keep up with changes and developments in the industry—and there are many changes to keep up with these days.
 
 
The best agents are good promoters, salespeople, and negotiators. They have extensive experience as an agent and have made many sales, ideally in the same field or genre as your own. The really good ones earn a living almost entirely from commissions, and they charge reasonable commissions (15 percent is the current industry standard). They respond to your work, questions, and phone calls promptly; they are honest, straightforward, and cordial with you at all times.
 
The right agents are willing to work with you if your material needs some editing or rewriting, and they can provide good suggestions for doing that work because they are avid readers and understand what other thoughtful readers expect. They have a good sense of what each of your projects is worth, who is most likely to be interested in it, and how much to ask for it. They get your work out to editors promptly and follow up on every submission, letting you know which editors have seen and are currently considering your material.
 
A good agent continues to present your work to editors even after it has received some rejections. They let you know promptly when they have stopped trying to sell a piece that has been repeatedly rejected, and immediately permits you to market or self-publish that piece on your own.
 
Once your project has been sold, their work continues as they read and negotiate contracts carefully, thoroughly, and shrewdly. They also get you money, royalty statements, and important information promptly, and forward any mail, inquiries, and offers promptly.
Finally, the right agent will support you in your efforts to write what you wish to write, rather than what is popular this month, or what a publisher has most recently asked for. She believes in you and your ability as a communicator, encouraging you to write your best.
She is a cheerleader, an advocate, and your biggest fan.

If we are unwilling to be moved, there’s no way our readers will be moved.

Any discussion of revision points us to a hidden, tender intersection between craft and the human heart. The wisest words about writing I’ve ever encountered come from an introduction by Robert Frost to a 1938 volume of his collected works. “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” A writer’s willingness to be transformed by the process is the foundation of effective writing. If we are unwilling to be moved, there’s no way our readers will be moved. Our searching and discoveries embed themselves in the text; they are the necessary ingredient for revelation. Neither genius nor skill can substitute.

 

This is why we must not just write what we know, as the old writing maxim advises, but also write toward the unknown. The unknown is too vast to conquer in one draft. To write in a way that moves others, writers must repeatedly delve into mystery, risking tears and surprise throughout multiple revisions. There’s a direct link between the sustained openness of a writer’s heart and the creation of enduring literature.

 

Openness to transformation is also essential to nurturing our love affair with writing. Despite our resistance, despite (or because of) all our labor, personal transformation brings us great and lasting pleasure, as does the evolution of our projects. We come most alive when we participate in the transformation of ourselves and our world.

  • from Living Revision by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

When Do You Need a Literary Agent?

– by Tim Beals, Credo Literary Agency

Look for a literary agent when you are in the process of writing a book and have prepared a well-written book proposal that includes two or three sample chapters, not after the book has been completed. You serve your own interests best by taking this approach. If a publishing house is interested in the book you propose to write, the editor will likely want to work with you to shape the rest of the book, and that is made a lot easier if the manuscript is not already written.

If you already have a complete manuscript, however, don’t offer that information to an agent or publisher unless you are asked. Instead, develop a great book proposal and present that. You can then edit or modify your manuscript as necessary to meet the agent or publisher’s needs.

You will also want to seek out a literary agent when a publisher offers to buy a book that you have submitted on your own—to protect your interests and help work out the best deal possible. (A great agent can add up to 30 percent more value to the contract compared to negotiating a contract on your own.) Publishers will frequently recommend or require an agent before they agree to buy your manuscript.

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

Engagement is the Glue

Engagement is the glue that connects you to your fans and drives them to that “inner circle.” Here are five tips to rouse engagement with your audience:

  1. End your blog post or video with a question that encourages a response, like “Those are my views. What do you think? What did I miss?”
  2. If there are specific people you want to target for your audience, like a prospective employer, a possible donor, or somebody who has similar interests as you, go to where they are on the web and look for opportunities to engage. Comment on a LinkedIn post, congratulate them on a professional accomplishment, or mention them in a tweet or post.
  3. When you begin to identify specific members of your audience, include them on a Twitter List to make it easy to monitor their activities and find opportunities to comment and engage with them.
  4. Crowdsource answers. Are you experiencing a difficult problem? Why not ask your audience to help you and then feature their answers in your content?
  5. Be vulnerable. Every now and then, expose something new about yourself. Demonstrating personal courage through your writing almost always elicits an outpouring of engagement and support.

Engagement is also important because it represents a measure that you’re heading in the right direction.

 

– from “Known” by Mark Schaefer

You’re Not In Control

When you choose to participate in creativity by trusting the process and allowing the flow to do what it will, you are making a crucial step as a creator and as a person. It’s very healthy to accept that you’re not in control of most things. You’re not in control of other family members, of the weather, of that project at work, of the way a community program plays out. You’re not in control, and you were never meant to be. You were meant to be a participant, that’s all.

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

Get in touch!