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Writing For Your Life Today

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.

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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.

 

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

This video covers the nuts and bolts of outstanding book proposals. Topics include:

  • Identifying your match with publishers and agents
  • Title creation
  • The one-sentence hook
  • The need and the solution
  • Your uniqueness
  • Audience characterization
  • Platform description
  • Proposal organization and style
  • and more

Your presenter, Chris Ferebee, represents Rob Bell, Shauna Niequist, Jonathan Merritt, and many other popular authors. His clients include several New York Times bestselling authors, winners of various Religion Newswriters Association awards, and a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist.

Click here for the video.

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

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