Letters to Literary Christian
Dear Ms. Alexander,
Washington Post, May 27, 2007, book review of Holy Matrimony by Tim Farrington
March 28, 2004
Subject: Writing help
Where do you start? I admit most of my writing is poetry, I have a few short stories. How do you know if you're any good! Also, I'll admit most of my stuff is not Christian....not bad mind you, just no reference to Christianity. I will look at the webpage.
Thank you for talking to me!
I had encouragement from a fourth-grade teacher, but after that I didn't do much creative writing for years. I'd dabble now and then, but "real life" would intervene, and I'd try to get back to a more practical life. I did discover that there was a practical way of using my writing talent, so I became a business writer.
But how did I get into creative writing? I'd always had this nagging
feeling that that's what I was supposed to do. In my first marriage,
my husband thought that I was just wasting time, and wasting my MBA degree,
so I set my creative writing aside. But when that marriage ended, I re-evaluated
my desire to write creatively. I took a community college course in short
story writing. The instructor of that course really encouraged me and
convinced me that my talent was worth developing. I joined a writing
critique group that was formed by some members of that class. I wrote
short stories (none published.) Then I attended a writing conference
and found out that few editors buy collections of short stories: novels
are what they want. So I decided to write novels. And now I'm
I wish I could make my writing career be more inspirational, by telling you that I've seen my writing published in a slew of literary journals and by New York publishers. I've had a couple of novel excerpts published in some very small journals, but I have yet to sell a novel.
Yes, the rejection has hurt, and sometimes had laid me flat out on my back in bed, and yet, I still feel that I'm doing the right thing. I can see improvement in my fiction writing. I've taken other community college courses and attended other writing conferences, and each time I learn something that helps me improve as a writer. I'm convinced that someday I'll write well enough to see my words published.
And I've learned to be both artistic and practical: I set aside an early morning hour or two almost every day to write in my journal or work on a novel. The rest of the day is devoted to family (I have a husband and one son at home (my older son is in college)) and to earning a living (I have two business writing clients which generate a good income). And church and volunteer work. I have a full life, but when I start feeling overwhelmed and practical concerns start to cut into my fiction writing time, I know it' s time to reevaluate my priorities and cut back in some area, so that I can still maintain that early morning writing time.
Every writer you talk to will have a different system that works for her. The biggest step is not trying to come up with a schedule - the biggest step is to take your God-given talent seriously and commit the time, effort, and money necessary to develop that talent.
The most disturbing thing I found out about my creative writing was,
despite that first creative writing teacher's encouragement, I was NOT
very good at writing, and had so very much to learn. This was a terrible
blow to my ego, and I was disgusted with God for awhile, because I'd
naively thought that if God gave me a gift, it wouldn't take the world
very long to see that fact. Instead, I found out that God gives some
of us the rawest possible talent, and it is up to us to work and work
at developing that talent into something useful. I'm 15 years into writing
seriously, and just recently discovered
That's pretty much the writing journey for me: feelings of grandeur alternating with feelings of disgust with my amateurishness. If you can keep writing despite your vacillating moods and periods of self-doubt, I believe you can learn to be a wonderful writer.
If the creative life is such an emotional roller coaster, why do I keep writing?
1. I feel that I'm called to write. I still feel this even despite the lack of concrete evidence, such as an agent's or editor's interest.
2. Writing is therapeutic for me. Many times I don't know what I think or feel until I write it down.
3. I feel closer to God when I write. Sometimes writing is like prayer, and I feel God's presence.
4. Writing helps me mature and grow as a person. After all these years of refusing to quit my creative writing, I deeply understand concepts like perseverance and faith.
So, my blessings on your writing life.
Step one: Dare to be a bad writer. If you're willing to write pages and pages of truly terrible, amateurish dribble, then you have what it takes to learn to be a great writer.
Don't feel too discouraged by what might seem like a lack of interest in the essay contest. Here are a few thoughts about that:
I wager if you had been sponsoring a contest for best story, you would have received many entries. Lots of people have stories in their drawers waiting to be sent out. Few write essays especially ones reflecting on their art. Of course, that's the whole point. They should do a little thinking about the why and wherefore of their writing.
I've noticed in many things I've undertaken vis a vis promoting art that it's an uphill battle to gain an audience among Christians. Part of the problem is that such endeavors are foreign to them. Another problem is that like all Americans, Christians are extremely busy and there are a host of competing (usually less demanding) entertainment options (the let's stay home and watch a video syndrome). Now that I'm aware of this struggle for their attention, I've decided I'll have to work harder than I'm normally inclined to with such things as advertising and individual invitations. Just one example of this: every year the Conference on Christianity and Literature sponsors a writing contest for undergraduate writers. The only way I can get my best writing students to enter is if I tell them that I will mail their work in for them. Even after that, on average I have to nag each student 2-3 times to bring the story or poem by my office before it actually comes to pass.
I used to think that because I was undertaking to do something to enrich and deepen the Christian faith that this meant "God is on my side" and that automatically meant "I will see bountiful results." I now realize what a naïve set of assumptions I was working from. I think about how even Jesus's popularity ebbed and flowed. Most of the crowds who followed him apparently were sensationalists who wanted to see a trick or a cure and then were gone. I've decided that trying to be a literary Christian means struggling on the basis of faith (not evidence or tons of positive reinforcement). I do it because it's the right thing to do. God will decide how to use it and maybe it won't be in my lifetime. Another example from my recent life: I just taught a workshop on creative writing called "Matters of Spirit" in Ouray, Colorado. I was the fiction writer; Scott Cairns was the poet. Scott is the best or close to the best Christian poet in the country. He had three students. I had two. Now that looks pretty demoralizing, doesn't it? But I had to decide that this game is not about numbers and so did the woman sponsoring the workshop who took a loss on the whole thing. I told myself I'm going to do my best for my 2 students and give them all kinds of attention they wouldn't receive in a normal workshop of 12-15. And nothing changed the fact that I was in a spectacular setting (in the San Juan mountains), teaching what I loved, with a chance in the afternoons to pick Scott's brain and learn more about poetry.
I think your website is valuable and needed. The hardest concept I have conveying to my students isn't anything about writing technique. It's that there's such a thing as genre writing and then there's writing for the ages which we call "literary." The students tend to be skeptical of this distinction as if it's some elitist plot. One of the huge drawbacks of postmodernism is a "leveling out" (Kierkegaard's phrase for it) of everything. It's all "whatever", as if all creative expression because it's sincerely meant is equally good and who am I to judge? Your site can help students and others see the light: that there is writing by writers who invest MORE in every way in its production (time, energy, soul, originality) and therefore this writing has more staying power than the latest Danielle Steele opus.
I will promote literarychristian.com wherever I can. As I mentioned, I'll start this fall with my Fiction Workshop and have my students visit, read, and respond. I'll also be going to a regional meeting of the Conference on Christianity and Literature in Tulsa the first weekend in October. If you have a flyer with the latest info on the site, I can hand them out to that audience (about 100 will attend). You could send the flyer to me by e-mail and I can print the copies myself.
By the way, I assume you were at the Calvin Festival since that's where I found your flyer? The first time I went to the Festival it was the greatest a-ha experience of my writing life. That's when I thought there are others like me and also that I was for the first time finding writers who could serve as role models. That was back in 1996 when Madeleine L'Engle and Annie Dillard were the featured writers. My second a-ha experience was finding Image magazine on a rack at a Barnes and Noble around the same time. Who knows what other surprises may be further down the road? It is a journey worth making, and it's good to know that we're not doing it alone.
Blessings - al
June 18, 2002
I have deliberately waited until after the June 15 deadline to send you my essay below as I do not wish to be considered for the contest prize. I already own and have enjoyed Ron Hansen's Faith and Fiction and would rather not compete with someone else who might like to acquire the book.
I do want to convey to you that I am very grateful and excited about your website (I picked up your handout at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing in April). For the past five years I've been teaching creative writing at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas, and the Literary Christian website is something I can definitely use with my classes, having them explore the site and discuss what they find there.
I am also very happy that you have provided through the contest an opportunity to encourage thinking about how the fiction writer who is a Christian should proceed. I've been considering this issue for 20 years, which is how long I've been a Christian. When my conversion came my writing changed nearly overnight but not necessarily for the better. Everything was so easy before: I just wrote dark stories of hopeless, emotionally stunted people and my agent and the editors she dealt with loved it and printed the stories in large circulation magazines. When I changed (and I was clumsy about it, I must admit), I no longer found much interest from the literary establishment in publishing my work.
Over the years, I've tried to eliminate dogmatic presentation, and I have crept back into publication, though its mostly been at high quality Christian literary journals such as Image and Mars Hill Review. I am satisfied with this, especially since I am now able to have a part in training a new generation of writers,. These young people may be the ones who go out and write the stories and novels that have a larger cultural impact. In the end, I think one has to say being a Christian writer isn't about mega-sales and appearances on Oprah. It's about doing the work prayerfully and to the best of one's ability.
Thanks for this opportunity to share my thoughts.
04-16-02, Jim McClelland, author of a book about his baby son Lorens transplant:
Loren was born April 6, 1998, and almost immediately was sent to Arkansas Childrens hospital. More on than off, Loren spent the next 4 1/2 months in the hospital....Loren was diagnosed with Hurler Syndrome, with a life expectancy for 5 to 10 years. From the start, Kim referred to Hurler Syndrome as a termial illness. I didnt really think of it that way because of treatment possibilities....My stupidity was pointed out on Friday, September 17, 1999 when Kim informed me that Loren had rejected the transplant...Strangely, Im not blaming God for this one.... We were allowed to make it to the finish line, only to be harshly slapped back to the beginning again. If the current course of treatment is unsuccessful, we will be forced to make decisions no person should be required to make.
To read more about baby Loren, go to:http://www.crystalisland.com/loren/journal.html
12-04-01, Mary Stafford: I have written approximately 20 articles and devotionals over the past eighteen months. I have my own website www.daybreakmsm.org where my work can be reviewed. My focus now is how to go about getting my website and my writing exposed more effectively.
"what power has love but forgiveness?
in other words
by its intervention
what has been done
can be undone
what good is it otherwise?"
-William Carlos Williams