Figure Eights

I picture the creative process traveling the figure eight curves of an infinity sign. We begin in the world, where a travel adventure or newspaper headline or grave illness or moral conundrum sets the mind’s gears grinding. Quickly the work moves inward to the incubating privacy of a journal or notebook. We remember; we research; we imagine. We gather thoughts. Eventually words amass on the page. Sometimes they seem golden, sometimes lackluster. Always they’re fragile, raw, and embarrassingly self-centered—rightly so, since mucking around is necessary before anything truthful or timeless can appear. Our private writing is therapeutic and transformative.

Slowly, gradually, we massage the words, granting them sequence and shape. We develop characters and ideas until they acquire some spark. We dig under and around and within our scenes, struggling to present them in the clearest, most honest light. But words are not simply a means of self-expression; they communicate, they bridge one soul to another, one culture to another, one era to another. Eventually we emerge from our protected space to consider an audience. When we want the heart of our story to connect to the heart of a reader, or if we want our story to have artistic merit, we open the transformative process to others through our literary choices. A first draft is always skin-deep, whereas revision digs in. Hearts reside in the hidden fathoms of the body. True beauty is both within and without, in striking balance.

Finally our work travels that figure-eight path out into the light. Revision transforms an interior monologue into a spirited dialogue. Our language grows considered and considerate. Rather than imagining some monolithic audience as I write, I try to picture myself and my work moving toward full participation in community. Community holds us accountable. The possibility of a reading community invites us into artistic practice, because what makes writing artful is a hospitable, compassionate, challenging connection with others. This isn’t about pandering to a market; it’s about forming genuine relationships. This is why Nathaniel Hawthorne called writing an “intercourse with the world.” Conversing through print requires skill and hard work—well-constructed scenes and characters, developed themes, clear organization, intentional pacing, a strong voice, correct grammar, clean mechanics. With maturation, the work can interact independently with others; it can land back at community, where all spiritual journeys arrive.


from “Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice” by @Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew @Skinner House

Good Habits: Whatever Happens



And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

—Romans 5:3–5


Divine love designed us with the capacity to develop character out of whatever happens to us. The teachings of parents and church have played a role in the kind of people we have become. But let’s not discount all the “stuff that shouldn’t have happened”—the trials and problems we have suffered and worked through year after year.


Holy Spirit, I remember going through [blank]. Help me linger with that memory. Open my eyes and heart to whatever growth or wisdom developed in me during that time.


from “small simple ways: an Ignatian daybook for healthy spiritual living” by Vinita Hampton Wright, Loyola Press


Putting a book together is interesting and exhilarating. It is sufficiently difficult and complex that it engages all your intelligence. It is life at its most free. Your freedom as a writer is not freedom of expression in the sense of wild blurting; you may not let rip. It is life at its most free, if you are fortunate enough to be able to try it, because you select your materials, invent your task, and pace yourself. In the democracies, you may even write and publish anything you please about any governments or institutions, even if what you write is demonstrably false.

The obverse of this freedom, of course, is that your work is so meaningless, so fully for yourself alone, and so worthless, that no one except you cares whether you do it well, or ever. You are free to make several thousand close judgement calls a day. Your freedom is a by-product of your days’ triviality. A shoe salesman – who is doing others’ tasks, who must answer to two or three bosses, who must do his job their way, and must put himself in their hands, at their place, during their hours – is nevertheless working usefully. Further, if the shoe salesman fails to appear one morning, someone will notice and miss him. Your manuscript, on which you lavish such care, has no needs or wishes; it knows you not. Nor does anyone need your manuscript; everyone needs shoes more. There are many manuscripts already – worthy ones, most edifying and moving ones, intelligent and powerful ones. If you believed Paradise Lost to be excellent, would you buy it? Why not shoot yourself, actually, rather than finish one more excellent manuscript on which to gag the world?


from “The Writing Life” by Annie Dillard




Business has a fierce, insidious enemy that, if not identified and combated, will contort our company into an unrecognizable mess. The enemy I’m talking about is noise.


Noise has killed more ideas, products, and services than taxes, recessions, lawsuits, climbing interest rates, and even inferior product design. I’m not talking about the noise inside our business; I’m talking about the noise we create as a business. What we often call marketing is really just clutter and confusion sprayed all over our websites, e-mails, and commercials. And it’s costing us millions.


Years ago, a StoryBrand client who attended one of our workshops pushed back. “I don’t think this will work for me,” he said. “My business is too diverse to reduce down to a simple message.” I asked him to explain.


“I have an industrial painting company with three different revenue streams. In one division we powder-coat auto parts. In another we apply sealant to concrete, and in another we have a sterilized painting process used specifically in hospitals.”


His business is diverse, but nothing so complex that it couldn’t be simplified so more people would hire him. I asked if I could put his website on the giant television screen so the entire workshop could see it. His website was thoughtful, but it didn’t make a great deal of sense from an outside perspective (which is how every customer views your business).


The man had fired a fine-arts painter to create a painting of his building (was he selling a building?), and at first glance it looked like the website for an Italian restaurant. The first question I had when I went to the website was, “Do you serve free breadsticks?” There were a thousand links ranging from contact information to FAQs to a timeline of the company’s history. There were even links to the nonprofits the business supported. It was as though he was answering a hundred questions his customers had never asked.


I asked the class to raise their hands if they thought his business would grow if we wiped the website clean and simply featured an image of a guy in a white lab coat painting something next to text that read, “We Paint All Kinds of S#*%,” accompanied by a button in the middle of the page that said, “Get a Quote.”


The entire class raised their hands.


Of course his business would grow. Why? Because he’d finally stopped forcing clients to burn calories thinking about his life and business and offered the one thing that would solve his customers’ problem: a painter.


What we think we are saying to our customer and what our customers actually hear are two different things. And customers make buying decisions not based on what we say but on what they hear.


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


Good writers practice and study and practice some more. They may not call it practice-they may simply keep writing, day after day-but in fact they are practicing every time they write. Good writers figure out what they need to do to develop their raw gifts into sentences and paragraphs that will move readers.


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

What’s the Difference Between Marketing and Publicity?

– by Jana Burson


Curious about the difference between marketing and publicity? One of the earliest explanations I remember hearing, maybe even as far back as college, was this: Marketing is bought and paid for; publicity is sought and prayed for.

To dissect that a little further, marketing is placement that is paid for on TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, websites, blogs, etc. This placement can be an ad, advertorial, promotion, a blog tour or more. Another easy way to think about marketing is that it is guaranteed placement.

Publicity, on the other hand, is not purchased placement. It’s obtained when a publicist pitches your book to TV, newspapers, magazines, radio, websites, podcasts, etc. for coverage or review. Coverage depends on several things, including a publicist’s relationships, the quality of the content being pitched, and timing.

Don’t think though that publicity is FREE. The actual space or coverage might not have a price attached to it, but it often comes to fruition following tireless hours of pitching, follow-up and relationship building along the way. A good publicist is always worth their fee.

In the publishing industry, the publicity department often sits under the overall umbrella of marketing. Thus, when the marketing representative at your respective publisher refers to the marketing budget, they are including publicity.

A well-rounded launch campaign for a book will have components of both marketing and publicity. If both are done well, they should complement each other and in turn bolster the sales of a book.

For more on publicity, see my interview with a publicist here.

Charm Them – by Mary Karr

However you charm people in the world, you should do so on the page.  A lot of great writers rebuke charm, and I don’t mean the word to conjure a snake charmer pulling off a trick with a poor dumb animal whose fangs have been torn out. Too many writers relate to their readers that way, which results in some dull, hermetic books written just to satisfy the artist’s preening ego. Charm is from the Latin carmen: to sing. By “charm,” I mean sing well enough to hold the reader in thrall. Whatever people like about you in the world will manifest itself on the page. What drives them crazy will keep you humble. You’ll need both sides of yourself – the beautiful and the beastly – to hold a reader’s attention.


Sadly, without a writer’s dark side on view – the pettiness and vanity and schemes – pages give off the whiff of bullshit. People may like you because you’re worm, but you can also be quick to anger or too intense. Your gift for charm and confidence hides a gift for scheming and deceit. You’re withdrawn and deep but also slightly scornful of others. A memoirist must cop to it all, which means routing out the natural ways you try to masquerade as somebody else – nicer, smarter, faster, funnier. All the good lines can’t be the memoirist’s.


– Mary Karr, “The Art of Memoir”

When Preparation meets Relationships meets Opportunity

I remember one client, Jerry DeWitt, who had been a Pentecostal minister for twenty-eight years. After reading the work of and meeting Richard Dawkins he eventually became an atheist and, as a result, lost everything and was ostracized by his family and friends. He wrote a deeply moving and inspiring book called “Hope After Faith” documenting his experience. As we struggled to come up with ways to get attention for the book – as well as for his important ideas – Jerry threw out the idea of one day hosting a “church service” for atheists. We ultimately encouraged him to host that service in the Deep South during the week of the book’s launch. As it was being coordinated, I happened to have lunch with a friend in New Orleans who occasionally freelanced for the New York Times. I mentioned what was happening. The next day he emailed me: Please, could he attend and would we mind if he wrote about it for the Times? CNN made the same request.


That’s what happens when preparation meets relationships meets opportunity. Asking a reporter in New York City simply to write about some book that was coming out (or the rising trend of atheism) would likely not have worked. But when something as provocative and unusual as hosting an atheist church service in the Bible Belt? The most important outlets in the world ask if they can write about you.  They ask your permission.


– Ryan Holiday, “The Perennial Seller”




One spring I attended the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and was privileged to hear Jane Yolen speak. Yolen, the author of over a hundred children’s books, identified herself as a Jewish Quaker. She spoke on the hazards of addressing spiritual questions in books for children, explaining that children’s book buyers are primarily public schools and libraries, which tend to shy away from spiritually inclined literature. Nonreligious publishers are often unwilling to take on material that might prove controversial. Yet as Yolen pointed out, children ask spiritual questions: Where did Rover go when he died? Why do some people attend church and not others? Who is GOd? Yolen argued that we do wrong by our children when we censor stories that might aid them in their seeking. 


After Yolen’s lecture a member of the audience asked, “To whom do you think children’s authors should be accountable for the moral quality of their books?” The questioner was concerned that indoctrinating content might wind up in her children’s hands. Yolen responded fiercely, “Every writer has three respondsibilities: first to the story, second to yourself, and finally to your audience. 


I often think about Yolen’s three commandments. Although they apply to all creative writing, they hold particularly true for spiritual memoir. Thinking first about the audience rather than about the story or about yourself is a frequent but misguided habit among beginning writers. At some point (about draft three or four), it’s important to be accountable to your audience. You want your story to be welcoming, accessible, gripping, and transformative. Considering your reader’s response helps you construct a story that accomplishes these things. 


But through the early stages of writing, your primary audience is yourself. Write to satisfy you. If you think first about your readers (about what you have to teach them, whether or not they’ll buy the book, or if they will like or condemn your message), you begin to mold your writing to your expectation of readers’ reactions. You do a disservice to yourself when you avoid risky topics or skirt deep levels of honesty.


What intrigues me about Jane Yolen’s priorities-and why I believe them to be particularly relevant to spiritual memoir-is her placement of the story first. What does it mean to be responsible to the story? For writers of spiritual memoir, story is not something born of the imagination or of history; it is the very stuff of our lives. It is the aching and questing of our souls. Although seemingly mundane, ordinary experiences contain within them a vivacity, a sense of wholeness, and a will beyond our own. In other words, our spiritual stories bare the world’s holiness. This ought to be obvious, but religious traditions of all persuasions have a tendency to canonize certain stories and certain people’s lives. In the process of honoring these stories, we forget to honor the revelatory qualities of our own stories. When memoir writers are responsible to the story, they nor that which is vital and true-the spirit-within their experience.

When you are chatting idly with the neighbor and she asks you whom you’re writing for, it’s easier to say “readers who are struggling with grief” than it is to say “me!” But there is a third, more subtle answer-one that is at the source of your drive and conviction: “I write for the story itself.” Of course, you don’t say this to the neighbor because she would think you’re crazy. Writers rarely even acknowledge it to themselves. But the answer is there nonetheless, prodding writers along. How many hundreds of times have writers declared, “My story needs to be told”? And it does-for its own bare sake. We are compelled by our encounters with pain, doubt, rebellion, and revelation to dialogue with these memories and release them from the bonds of our bodies onto the page. Even an unpublished, unread memoir exerts influence on the world. Stories, in and of themselves, matter.


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

Creativity: Name Your Gift



The LORD spoke to Moses: See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: and I have filled him with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft. Moreover, I have appointed with him Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and I have given skill to all the skillful, so that they may make all that I have commanded you.

—Exodus 31:1–6


Part of our formation as spiritual people involves the gifts God has placed within each of us. 


What are your gifts? Are you an artist? Good with money? An expert organizer? A personality that attracts young people into stimulating conversations? A person who has a strong but gentle way with children? The ability to teach or instruct? A knack for solving problems?


Name one gift that you recognize in yourself and bring it to God in your prayer or meditation.


God, I recognize this gift in myself: help me nurture and use it well.


from “small simple ways: an Ignatian daybook for healthy spiritual living” by Vinita Hampton Wright, Loyola Press

Get in touch!