How I Feed My Writing – by Robert Benson

I have very specific ways I read to feed my writing.


I consider a day without working the crossword in the New York Times has been lived considerably less than to the fullest. I can live for a day without sunshine, or orange juice for that matter, but a day without a shot at bringing famed puzzle master Will Shortz to his knees is hardly worth living.


I find it better to read autobiography or memoir by day and fiction or history by night. The daytime reading helps me to focus, to concentrate, to do the writer’s work before me on any given day.


On discouraging days Herr Rilke will remind me why I write. The Reverend Buechner will point out that a small episode in my life that I am journaling may well reveal something important if I keep scribbling.


Ms. Dillard will kick me in the pants. “Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio,” she says, quoting Michelangelo. “Draw and do not waste time.” I can hear the rest of her admonition even though she has never spoken to me—“Write, Robert, write. Write and do not waste time.”


The night reading helps me to rest and to wonder and to wander and, perhaps, to dream. I believe I sleep better after sailing the seas with Captain Jack and Dr. Maturin and Mr. O’Brian, after staring down Karla with Smiley and Le Carré, or after wondering with Mr. Foote at the courage of those who charged across a Pennsylvania field on a hot July day at the behest of General Pickett.


Reading these writers gives me time away from the places and things and people I am writing about. The rolling seas, the streets of Berlin, the battlefields of our own sweet land keep me from staying too hunkered down in the work I must tend to on my board tomorrow morning.


– Robert Benson, from “Dancing on the Head of a Pen”

Mistake Number One



The first mistake brands make is they fail to focus on the aspects of their offer that will help people survive and thrive.


All great stories are about survival-either physical, emotional, relational, or spiritual. A story about anything else won’t work to captivate an audience. Nobody’s interested. This means that if we position our products and services as anything but an aid in helping people survive, thrive, be accepted, find love, achieve an aspirational identity, or bond with a tribe that will defend them physically and socially, good luck selling anything to anybody. These are the only things people care about. We can take the truth to the bank. Or to bankruptcy court, should we choose to ignore it as an undeniable fact.


Mike said our brains are constantly sorting through information and so we discard millions of unnecessary facts every day. If we were to spend an hour in a giant ballroom, our brains would never think to count how many chairs are in the room. Meanwhile, we would always know where the exits are. Why? Because our brains don’t need to know how many chairs there are in the room to survive, but knowing where the exits are would be helpful in case there was a fire.


Without knowing it, the subconscious is always categorizing and organizing information, and when we talk publicly about our company’s random backstory or internal goals, we’re positioning ourselves as the chairs, not the exits.


“But this poses a problem,” Mike continued. “Processing information demands that the brain burn calories. And the burning of too many calories acts against the brain’s primary job: to help us survive and thrive.”


from “Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen” by Donald Miller

Raw material

This is why so many inexperienced writers get writer’s block. They try to edit before the generative flow is finished. They start thinking analytically too early, and so the material stops coming. This probably happens regularly to students who are trying to write to deadlines. Especially if you put off writing a paper until a couple of days before it’s due, you’ve got no time to allow the creative flow to generate its material. And the creative flow is important no matter what kind of paper you’re writing. Intuition and vision work just as well for research papers as they do for short stories. You need to tap your deeper wisdom regardless of the topic or purpose of what you’re writing. Yet most of our education about writing has to do with outlines, propositions and so forth. I’d like to see what would happen if teachers began incorporating “free writing”-the quick writing that you do automatically-into homework schedules. What would happen if students were encouraged and trained to tap their creative flow? If they had really interesting material to work with, then the left-brained part of it wouldn’t be such a chore. 

I can’t stress enough that you can trust this flow. You can trust it because it is merely raw material; it is not the finished product that you’re stuck with. Once you consider all your words raw material, you will be much freer to just write whatever comes. And you will also be much freer to do whatever you need to do with what comes. 


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

An opportunity for personal growth

A great many writers are interested in memoir because they understand it to be a spiritual practice. On the surface, writing memoir may seem like a flat transcription of memories, but once you begin writing you discover it is more like call-and-response. You set out to write one funny mishap (say, the time your parents accidentally left you at the gas station during family vacation) and find yourself reflecting on abandonment. You write your reflections on abandonment, including other memories, and discover a rooted belief that all love entails leaving. When you ask yourself what this might say about the sacred, you feel an onslaught of anger that’s been welling since that first mishap. You let your anger rip the page. Upon revision your story grows textured, multilayered. 

The balance of expression and receptivity, of solitude and relationship, that emerges from writing provides an opportunity for personal growth. The core reason for writing may not be to generate an end product so much as to engage in the creative process. 


From “Writing the Sacred Journey: The Art and Practice of Spiritual Memoir” by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew Skinner House

Voice Equals Psyche

Unfortunately, nobody tells a writer how hard cobbling together a voice is. Look under “voice” in a writing textbook, and they talk about things that seem mechanical – tone, diction, syntax. Doh, the writer says with a forehead smack. Diction is merely word choice, what variety of vocabulary you favor. Syntax is whether sentences are long or short, how they’re shaped, with or without dependent clauses, etc. Some sentences meander, others fire off like machine-gun runs. Tone is the emotional tenor of the sentences; it’s how the narrator feels about the subject. Robert Frost said anytime he heard wordless voices through a wall, tone told him what was angry, who bemused, who about to cry. For me psyche equals voice, so your own psyche – how you think and see and wonder and scudge and suffer – also determines such factors as pacing and what you write about when. Since all literary decisions for a memoirist are offshoots of character, I often find that any bafflement I face on the page about these factors is instantly answered once I find the right voice.


– May Karr, “The Art of Memoir”

To Recall and Relive

“Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” writes William Wordsworth in his preface to Lyrical Ballads essentially the opening sentence in Romantic literature. He goes on to say that a poet does not see or hear or feel things that others do not see or hear or feel. What makes a person a poet is the ability to recall what she has felt and seen and heard. And to relive it and describe it in such a way that others can then see and feel and hear again what they have already seen and felt and heard and may have missed.


– Robert Benson, from “Dancing on the Head of a Pen”

A Matter of the Will 


A few years ago I had lunch with a friend in Chattanooga. His name is Chris Slaten, and he’s an excellent songwriter, performing under the name Son of Laughter. I’m envious of his beard. I asked him how his songwriting was going, and since he’s a schoolteacher I wondered where and when he wrote. Did he have an office? He smiled between bites of tortilla chips and tapped his temple. “I do it up here,” he said.

This may come as a surprise to you, that a song could be written in that miraculous space between a human’s ears. It surprises me, even though I’ve done it before. Chris said that the other day he had a doctor’s appointment and he sat in the waiting room with a copy of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. He opened the book for a moment, then shut it and decided instead to work on a song. He stared at a fake plant in the corner for twenty minutes and bent his will to the task. He said he was sure that he looked strange, staring all that time without really moving. But he made progress. He got home, grabbed his guitar, and tested out what he had “written,” then helped his wife with dinner until the next time he had twenty minutes to think—which was, he said, the next morning’s commute to the school.

If you wait until the conditions are perfect, you’ll never write a thing.

It’s always a matter of the will. The songs won’t create themselves, and neither will the books, the recipes, the blue-prints, or the gardens. One of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets, Richard Wilbur, is called “The Writer.” Look it up. Seriously. Right now, go find a computer, Google it, and read it twice. Then head over to a bookstore and buy his collected poems. Keep the book on your nightstand and read one of them each night before you sleep. Writing is always a matter of life or death, he says, and finding the right arrangements of words is like being a bird trapped in a house, trying to find its way through the open window.

When I was in college I wrote most of my songs during class. I often sat next to my friend C.J., who was not only my college roommate, but was the guy who taught me to play the guitar ten years earlier at church camp. The first song I ever learned on the guitar was “Patience,” by Guns ‘n Roses, which starts in the key of C with a whistle solo, and I must say that there are much worse first songs a guy could have learned. C.J., who was hard at work learning to write songs even in high school, also happens to be the guy who introduced me to the music of Rich Mullins. I have happy memories of the music we made at C.J’s house during his senior year of high school. We’d pull out the guitars and Belinda, his mom, would belt out “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’” by Journey. Man, did she have some pipes. The whole family did. Those “na-na-na’s” at the end of the song provided me one of my first opportunities to sing harmony. I was the skinny kid in the background, trying to keep up, trying to learn to sing in tune.

When I look back at those days I’m overwhelmed by their kindness. The Fluhartys encouraged me to sing, to play, to write, even though I was sloppy and flat and overeager. When C.J. graduated high school and went to Bible College, I followed suit, partly because I had nothing better to do.

So there we sat next to each other in Old Testament survey classes, covertly passing lyrics back and forth. I watched the way he wrote his songs, the way he ordered the words on the page, arranging the stanzas so he could keep track of the meter of each line, the way he anguished over the syncopation of the syllables. I had still not managed to finish a song of my own—nothing worth sharing, anyway—but I felt a burning desire to contribute to our little college band’s body of work.

I was a freshman, and fresh out of a pretty intense relationship with a girl. Then along came Jamie. She was beautiful and funny and full of life. She was a junior, and it was impossible to ignore her. We fell in love in a matter of weeks, and I knew without a doubt that if we kept dating we’d be married before you could sing the chorus of “Patience.”

That was what scared me.

I had just started college, I had dreams of playing music with a band, and was utterly unprepared to marry anybody, even if she was beautiful and wonderful and encouraging beyond measure. There were days when I wished I could retreat to a simpler place where there were no big decisions to be made. These are the lyrics I worked on for those early weeks of college.

I take a walk down a dusty road and I

Sink my feet in memories of colder days gone by I don’t want to go, but it’s all downhill

And it seems so easy, I think I will

Go down

Could you tell that I’d been crying When you talked to me today?

I’d been running from the words inside I never meant to say

So come on with me and I’ll walk you around Through the backstreets of this old ghost town 

Come along and you will see

There’s a place where we can be Far away from you and me Way down

I’ll spare you the rest. To be honest, reading it now I don’t really know what it means. Something about memories, something melodramatic about wanting to escape all the questions so we could just hang out like the lovebirds we were. Apparently there was some kind of tearful discussion about our future, but I don’t remember it now.

I don’t mean to diminish what must have felt at the time like a big deal, but the obscurity of the lyric makes it difficult for me to take it seriously. There are two more verses equally vague and earnest, but at the time I couldn’t find the chorus. One afternoon in apartment 418 my nineteen-year-old self mustered the courage to play my unfinished song for C.J. and ask him what he thought. Where should the chorus go? What should it be about? Was this all terrible?

No, he said, it wasn’t a bad start. He liked it in all its “Toad the Wet Sprocket-ripoff” glory. He looked over the lyrics, pointed at the part about the ghost town that ended with “way down” and said, “That’s your chorus. It already has one.” Then he took a bite out of his apple and walked over to the courtyard picnic table with his guitar to work on a song of his own.

Sometimes you’ve done all the planting you need to do, and it’s time to start weeding the garden.

from “Adorning the Dark” by Andrew Peterson

Too complicated

“There’s a reason most marketing collateral doesn’t work,” Mike said, putting his feet up on the coffee table. “Their marketing is too complicated. The brain doesn’t know how to process the information. The more simple and predictable the communication, the easier it is for the brain to digest. Story helps because it is a sense-making mechanism, Essentially, story formulas put everything in order so the brain doesn’t have to work to understand what’s going on.”


from “Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen” by Donald Miller

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