Books Like These – by Frederick Buechner

The following meditation is from a talk on the occasion of the presentation of the Whiting Writers’ awards:


THE WRITERS WHO get my personal award are the ones who show exceptional promise of looking at their lives in this world as candidly and searchingly and feelingly as they know how and then of telling the rest of us what they have found there most worth finding. We need the eyes of writers like that to see through. We need the blood of writers like that in our veins.


* * *


J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was one of the first books I read that did it to me, that started me on the long and God knows far from finished journey on the way to becoming a human being—started making thahappen. What I chiefly learned from it was that even the slobs and phonies and morons that Holden Caulfield runs into on his travels are, like Seymour Glass’s Fat Lady, “Christ Himself, buddy,” as Zooey explains it to his sister Franny in the book that bears her name. Even the worst among us are precious. Even the most precious among us bear crosses. That was a word that went straight into my bloodstream and has been there ever since. Along similar lines I think also of Robertson Davies’ Deptford trilogy, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond, George Garrett’s Death of the Fox, some of the early novels of John Updike like The Poorhouse Fair and The Centaur, John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. I think of stories like Flannery O’Connor’s “The Artificial Nigger” and Raymond Carver’s “Feathers” and works of non-fiction, to use that odd term (like calling poetry non-prose) such as Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm and Geoffrey Wolff’s The Duke of Deception and Robert Capon’s The Supper of the Lamb or plays like Death of a Salesman or Our Town.


– Originally published in The Clown in the Belfry 

Read Your Work Aloud

I recommend you find places to read your work aloud.


A chance to teach, lecture, lead a retreat, speak at a workshop—all these give writers a chance to write a piece we can read aloud to an audience so we can hone our skills and see if what we are writing is worth the time it takes for someone to read it. There is no better way to see how a longer work is coming along than to read a portion aloud to a crowd of unsuspecting folks.


When you read a work aloud, you can tell if the tone of voice holds up. You can spot the holes in a story more quickly. You can tell when the thing is slowing to a crawl and when it is moving too quickly.


You can tell whether or not people are laughing in the right spots or reaching for their tissues when you hoped they might. You can tell when the work drags and when the work sings.


If you read your work aloud and you cannot tell any of those things, you may want to take up watercolors.


– Robert Benson


Whether or Not It Has An Audience

Creative work is also worthy whether or not it has an audience. Much of the work you do will be more for your personal development than for anyone else’s needs. Your task is to engage in the work you are called to do. I’ve written a dozen or more short stories, several of them very meaningful to me. One of them was published several years ago; the rest are in a file that I return to from time to time, but I have no hopes of selling them, and I rarely share them with anyone else. I don’t think those stories are really good enough for an audience, but they were good enough for me when I wrote them. They helped my writing progress, and they satisfied something for me personally, and that’s enough.


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


The Greatness Myth

Writers like to hold up the myth of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road as a paradigm of possibility: He wrote it in three weeks! It was perfect! It’s a great American novel! Kerouac thought so too when he rushed into Robert Giroux’s office in 1955. When Giroux told him the manuscript needed editing, Kerouac insisted it was dictated “by the Holy Ghost” and stormed out. Then he spent six years revising, polishing, and shopping it around before On the Road found a home with Viking.

Why do we have collective amnesia about those six years? We want to slide down a shimmering writing rainbow to the pot of gold. We want to be told we’re a genius; we want to knock an editor’s socks off with a first draft. We’re attached to the idea of Kerouac typing in an ecstatic rush and hitting the writer’s jackpot because that means such ease, inspiration, and recognition are possible for us. Six years of revision tarnish the myth, as do the three years Kerouac spent taking notes and formulating his story before he began composing. Three weeks of fun appeal to us more than nine years of effort.

The myth of On the Road does a disservice to writers everywhere. Good stories rise up from inspiration and labor, over great lengths of time. Your draft, however brilliant, can mature and likely must mature before it engages an audience. That your writing will benefit from more work says nothing about your value as a human being or your skills as a writer.

Every writer needs a healthy, ambitious ego. You need chutzpah to generate an idea and consider it worthy, to get your butt into the chair, to plow through initial and many consequent drafts, and to seek publication. But the desire for greatness to come easily is the ego in hyperdrive. The ego is necessary to write; the ego’s attachments interfere with life-giving creativity. No one can serve two masters.

“The impulse to improve is . . . a sign of humility, of bowing one’s neck before the humbling undertaking of learning how to be worth one’s salt as a writer,” writes Richard Tillingast. In religious traditions, humility is the awareness of oneself as one really is. This direct, honest gaze does not come easily, as any writer who’s experienced the highs of inspiration and the crashing lows of denigration can attest. But an ongoing practice of gazing at what is supports both our stories’ growth and our own. “In humility is the greatest freedom,” Thomas Merton writes in New Seeds of Contemplation. “As long as you have to defend the imaginary self that you think is important, you lose your peace of heart.” The greatest potential for our creative work comes when we’ve humbly acknowledged our limitations, stopped feeding the ego, and applied our energy to the story. Only then is growth possible.


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

Bach’s Secret Weapon

from “Adorning the Dark” by Andrew Peterson


I remember lying on my bed in high school with two cabinet speakers on either side of my head, listening to Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason, getting delightfully lost in the music and wondering how on earth this band of Brits transferred their music to two-inch tape, then to cassette, then to the record store, then to Lake Butler, Florida, to my speakers, to my ears, and finally to my adolescent noggin.

So with just a few chords under my fingers and a whole lot of ambition, not to mention the absence of enough guys in my little town to really start a band, I decided to try and figure out how to make music. I saved up four hundred bucks that I earned mowing yards and stocking shelves at the local IGA and bought a Tascam four-track recorder, a machine I was certain would revolutionize my life—not just musically but relationally, since now I would be able to prove to the girls in school that I was worth something. “You see,” I imagined myself explaining to them, “I can record four separate tracks onto just one cassette, which allows me to play the bass, the guitar, the drums, and sing, then mix it all together for your listening pleasure, ladies,” at which point their eyes would flutter and they would faint to the floor in a pile of crimped hair and leg warmers.

But that was just the recording gear. I also needed a studio. Enter my pal Wade Howell, also known as the Conundrum. He was a football player who was also a part-time atheist, a saxophonist, guitarist, and Dungeon & Dragons gamemaster. Needless to say, we were fast friends. (For the record, Wade ended up going to seminary and is now a pastor and a fine family man.) Our senior year of high school Wade’s grandfather died and left him a single-wide trailer in the woods, where we set up an old drum kit and a few mics I scavenged from the church sound cabinet. After school, while Wade was at football practice, I often sped down the sandy road in my Dodge Omni to the trailer, plugged in Wade’s electric guitar, and pretended I was David Gilmour or Tom Petty. Once, because my girlfriend liked Garth Brooks, I used my trusty Tascam to record the drums, piano, bass, and vocals for the song “The Dance.” What I wouldn’t give to know where that cassette is now.

But after the first few months with the Tascam, the magic was gone. I didn’t want to just record Skynyrd songs. I wanted to make my own. But I had no idea what to sing about, and the few songs I managed to write were even worse than I thought they were at the time. I played them bashfully for my buddies, enjoying the feeling of having made something even though I was inwardly discontent. It strikes me now that I was in possession of an inner-critic even then, which agitated me. I wanted to be content with my lame songs, but I couldn’t be. Whatever pride I felt was in having made something—anything at all—not necessarily in the quality of what had been made. So I shared my songs with the few friends who cared to hear them, and felt good when they liked them, but was discontent without knowing why. Not long after graduation, I joined a rock band and sold the Tascam, figuring that I’d leave recording to the experts and focus on rocking instead.

Fast-forward two years. The rocking was safely behind me. I was now in college, married, and taking serious steps with our band Planet X to record a demo. At the time, I had no idea there was such a thing as indy music. As far as we knew, the game plan was to record a demo and shop it around in Nashville. So Lou, the only guy in the band with any money, bought some gear, and we set out to record our stuff after-hours in the college practice rooms. It turned out fine enough, but it was a far cry from what it needed to be. Eventually the band broke up. I started doing my own concerts, and I realized I had enough of my own songs to record a short album. I borrowed $3,000 from my grandma, took a Greyhound to Nashville (just like they do in the movies), was picked up at the bus station by my old roommate Mark Claassen, and spent the weekend recording my independent record Walk.

It was terrifying, exhilarating, and exhausting. We were in a real studio. We hardly slept. We recorded, mixed, and mastered eight songs in 2.5 days. I took the Greyhound home (a grueling twenty-six hour trip, what with all the bus stops), a twenty-two-year-old kid with a shiny, $3,000 CD in his guitar case and not a dime to his name. Jamie, of course, was all-in, as she’s always been. That little eight-song CD was what I sold at concerts for the next three years, and I’ll be forever glad for the way it paid the rent. But the farther I got from it the more I loathed it. I became painfully embarrassed at my voice, my pitch, and my songs, because I had come to know better. I had toured with Caedmon’s Call for fifty shows, which exposed me to some great music and a much better understanding of what it meant to be a songwriter; I was no longer doing the Florida church camp circuit, but was trying to make a go of a real career, and that meant I could no longer be content with my mediocre best. I had to work at it, learn to be objective, and—this is the big one—to ask for help, help, help.

Which brings me to that day in East Nashville, fifteen years later, when I walked into Cason Cooley’s studio, a warm room strung with lights and fragrant with incense, jammed full of guitars and pianos and books, and sat down with my friends to start a new project. I looked around, thinking about all the other times I had done this very thing, marveling at how little I still knew about it. What do we do first? Do we sit around and play the songs for a day? Do we record scratch guitars? Do we pore over lyrics first? In some ways, it’s like looking at a hoarder’s house and wondering where to begin the cleanup. It’s also like looking out at a fallow field, steeling your resolve to tame it, furrow it, and plant—but you know it’s littered with stones and it’s going to be harder than you think.

I was a grownup. This wasn’t my first rodeo. I shouldn’t have felt that old fear, anxiety, or self-doubt, right? Then again, maybe I should have. As soon as you think you know what you’re doing, you’re in big trouble. So before we opened a single guitar case, we talked. I sat with Ben Shive, Andy Gullahorn, and Cason and told them I felt awfully unprepared. I doubted the songs. I was nervous about the musical direction the record seemed to want to take. I wondered if I was up to the task. I told them about the theme that had arisen in many of the songs: loss of innocence, the grief of growing up, the ache for the coming kingdom, the sehnsucht I experience when I see my children on the cusp of the thousand joys and ten thousand heartaches of young-adulthood.

Then we prayed. We asked for help.

If you’re familiar with Bach, you may know that at the bottom of his manuscripts, he wrote the initials, “S. D. G.” Soli Deo Gloria, which means “glory to God alone.” What you may not know is that at the top of his manuscripts he wrote, “Jesu Juva,” which is Latin for “Jesus, help!” There’s no better prayer for the beginning of an adventure. Jesus, you’re the source of beauty: help us make something beautiful; Jesus, you’re the Word that was with God in the beginning, the Word that made all creation: give us words and be with us in this beginning of this creation; Jesus, you’re the light of the world: light our way into this mystery; Jesus, you love perfectly and with perfect humility: let this imperfect music bear your perfect love to every ear that hears it.

We said, “Amen.”

Then I took a deep breath, opened the guitar case, and leapt.

Not a Moment, But a Way of Life

The Bible’s idea of carpe diem, “seize the day,” or “redeeming the time” is sharply different from the direction to which most people take the ideal—toward the selfish, the short term, and the purely spontaneous. There is no surer foundation, no stronger propulsion, and no more soaring vision of carpe diem than within the biblical or covenantal view of time. Yet just as freedom is not “the permission to do what you like” but “the power to do what you should,” so “seizing the day” is far more than the matter of bare choice—Krznaric’s “that you choose rather than what you choose.” Why you choose, how you choose, and what you choose are all vital and decisive factors in the Bible’s understanding.


As we have seen already, repentance and forgiveness are the key to “redeeming the time” in terms of the past, and notions such as sabbath and sabbaticals are a key to redeeming the time in terms of the present. But what of redeeming the time in terms of the future, as “Carpe Diem” is usually understood? Seizing the day or redeeming future time is rising to life within a powerful matrix of truths that sets out an entire way of life in which the ideal of carpe diem can come to its highest fruition. God calls us in the flux and flow of time and history, and the gift of being able to seize the day flowers from a way of life that weaves together three principles: “Walk before God,” “Read the signs of the times,” and “Serve God’s purpose in your generation.”


Taken from Carpe Diem Redeemed by Os Guinness. Copyright (c) 2019 by Os Guinness. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

When Beginning a New Book

When it is time to begin a book, when the blank pages are waiting and the fountain pens have been filled, I recommend you make the barest of plans you can, just enough to aim at what you are setting out to do. Too little direction and you might miss Medicine Bow. Too much planning and you can talk yourself out of turning into the little unmarked road that leads to the left, along which may be the moment the whole journey will end up being about.


It helps to make a list of the stories you want to tell and events you want to describe or the things you want to say. I find it is better to make a list rather than an outline. A list makes me feel as though I am writing a book rather than taking a correspondence course.


I think it wise to leave enough room to ramble around between stops to see what is there to be discovered. Or perhaps to sit in a square and watch people go by. It will not hurt to drive down a long road and have to turn around.


I like to have enough of a plan to know when one might be well advised to turn west into the sunset or stop for the night. But I also need to give myself the freedom to add a chapter or throw one away, to add a story or save it for another day.


A writer can dutifully follow a well-reasoned outline and end up missing the point. A writer can complete the assignment she set for herself and still not write the work she meant to write.


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


Why Memoirs Fail

Most memoirs fail because of voice. It’s not distinct enough to sound alive and compelling. Or there are staunch limits to emotional tone, so it emits a single register. Being too cool or too shrill can ruin the read. The sentences are boring and predictable, or it’s so inconsistent you don’t know who’s speaking or what place they come from. You don’t believe or trust the voice. You’re not curious about the inner or outer lives of the writer. The author’s dead in the water.


– from “The Art of Memoir” by Mary Karr


Rewrite Time

When the rewrite time comes, you put your gamer on. You jam the gamer down on your head and set yourself to work. The artiste who wears the beret is to be banned from the premises. The work is no longer golden. You are about to try to coax a book from a pile of unruly sentences. Sentences that merely hold some promise is often the best one can say for them.


A chest protector and a set of shin guards turn out to be helpful. Wristbands not untoward. Spikes not out of the question. Some of the so-called golden work must be thrown out altogether, never to be seen again. Other parts must be strengthened and moved and recast and pounded on with great fury until they are right.


A chapter’s worth of pages must be laid out on a table, and sections and paragraphs and lines are moved from one place to another. Chapters themselves get shifted around in search of the order that works the best.


I have a list of words, lovingly referred to as the search-and-destroy list, that I tend to use over and over—weak verbs, lame adjectives, unclear nouns [or “vague nouns”?]. I go through the entire pile of pages with a fine-tooth comb and a decent thesaurus, eliminating weak words and looking for stronger ones.


This is not work for the faint of heart. This work calls for people who do not mind if their gamer gets dirty and sweat stained and faded. What happens in this stretch often results in more words on the floor than on the page.


This is craft, not art. This work will make the book or will break it.


You do not whistle while you do this work. You mutter and scream and growl. You roll up your sleeves and go to work each day prepared to fight with and for each and every line and all that is in between.


I spend a lot more time in my baseball cap than in my beret. Which is one of the reasons I keep two books going almost all the time. I walk to a nearby coffee shop and order a café au lait while wearing the aforementioned beret. I do not like café au lait, but I like being a man who can order one and do so with the accent on the proper syllable. I get to wear my beret for at least six hundred words each day and remember I am an artist.


The rewrite work requires my Yankees cap and my colored pens. I live a part of my day for weeks on end in a literary MASH unit equipped only with colored pens and an X-Acto knife.


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



Your Creative Calling

When you respond to your creative calling, you are doing something that is necessary for the world. It may be necessary in big ways-say a series of newspaper articles that can help shape the consciousness of a generation. Or it may be necessary in small ways-perhaps a charcoal sketch that brings you, the artist, healing. But art is not a luxury. Creative works are called out by cultural and personal needs that are too deep and intuitive to be obvious every time. We know, for instance, that music helps us in ways that we can’t always describe. Poetry and patchwork quilts are also appealing to us at an almost subconscious level. It’s difficult to quantify such quality. It would be impossible to do a spreadsheet analysis of how artistic work helps us.

Any creative work, “artistic” or not, is coming from a deeper place and answering deeper needs that cannot be named easily. In this respect we have to have faith-faith that what we do, whether an arrangement of flowers or a mathematical proof, is worth our best energy.


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


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