Five Tips for Christian Writers

 

What does it mean to be a Christian writer? On the one hand, it means no more, and no less, than to be a Christian who writes – the same as a Christian architect, or a Christian doctor or nurse, or a Christian plumber or electrician. On the other hand, there is a difference between writing and other activities, in that one’s faith may be more clearly visible in one’s work as a writer than in other professions; a novel written by a Christian may (and indeed should) give evidence of the author’s faith in a way that, say, a successful surgery or a well-fitted pipe does not. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, for instance, is a profoundly Christian work.

However, it has been my experience that Christians who wish to be writers are likely to err on the side of over-awareness of the integration of faith and writing, and to under-emphasize the element of craft and effort. Here are five bits of advice for aspiring (or learning) writers: point 1 specific to Christian writers, and points 2-5 about the practice of writing in general.

1. Don’t wait for inspiration.

I think there is a real danger among Christian writers to over-spiritualize writing, as if creative inspiration is necessarily a direct gift from God. No. He gives us talents, but we have to develop them and use them. My experience as a writer is that counting on, waiting for, or making too big a deal of “being inspired” leads to bad writing and an inability to revise or to accept constructive criticism, In contrast, application to doing the work bears fruit. There is no substitute for hard work: for putting in the time, day in and day out, week in and week out, to learning and polishing the skills of writing.

Yes, pray – but don’t expect God’s direct guidance on your writing. That’s the surest way to writer’s block (and/or bad writing) that I know of. Include your writing in your regular daily prayers, just as you would include any other work that you are doing. If you wish to specially pray before your writing, I suggest something simple like: “Dear Lord, I commit my day’s writing to you, that I may honor you through my work. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen.”

Then write.

“Orare est laborare, laborare est orare.” (To pray is to work, to work is to pray – attributed to St Benedict).

2. Learn to live with rejection.

If this is your first novel, it is probably unpublishable. It just won’t be good enough; it takes a lot of time and experience to hone one’s craft. If you read interviews with well-known authors, nearly always it turns out they wrote one, two, or three books that never saw the light of day before their “first” book came out. (There are exceptions; they are rare.)

Not God’s Type is my “first” book — but I’d written several hundred thousand words before that, – probably close to a million words or more – in my dissertation, in stories, in unfinished novels, in book and film reviews, in academic papers, etc. etc. Even so, I was able to make Not God’s Type significantly better when I revised it and expanded it for the second edition.

Writing can be seen as a calling but it is also very much a craft and a discipline.

3. Finish what you start. Learn from it. Then move on.

It’s much more important to finish and learn from what you’ve done, than to agonize over getting it just right and thus never finish, and never grow. So, just write, and see what happens. Then write more.

When I first started writing poetry a few years ago, I knew my first efforts weren’t publishable. When I got to the stage of being a bit better, I started occasionally sending out poems to journals. They were rejected. I didn’t put all of my attention on submitting the same few poems, though: I wrote more. And as I looked back at my earlier poems, I was able to see that most of them were being rejected for a good reason: they weren’t good enough. Eventually I started getting a few of my poems published (sometimes after a series of rejections). If I’d gotten stuck on polishing and re-polishing the same first efforts, rather than evaluating them more objectively, assessing what I’d done well and what I could do better, I wouldn’t have improved.

If you are thinking, “but this is my big idea, I have to get it right!”, stop worrying about it. There are a gazillion ideas out there. Writers write; that’s what they do. If you work at being a writer, you will find that you end up with more ideas than you have time to develop! Creative work begets creative work. And you can always go back and revisit your earlier work, pulling out the bits that work and folding them into something better. (I’ve done that with my poetry at times.)

4. Write.

If you want to be a writer, then write. Don’t think about writing, read books and blog posts about writing, and talk about writing – do it. Put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.

If you find that you never “find time” to write, then evaluate what you are spending your time on. If you discover that you are frittering your time away on social media and dumb television or even just excessive amounts of perfectly good television (i.e. gluttony), then it may be the wake-up call you need to change your habits and stop wasting time on things you don’t actually enjoy very much. On the other hand, if your time is occupied in other activities that you enjoy, or productive work, or time with family and friends, then give yourself permission to do those things and stop agonizing over not writing. (Here are wise words from Kelly Belmonte on the subject, from All Nine Muses.)

5. Be reassured: writing isn’t fun.

If you think that writing has to be fun all the time (or even most of the time) to be a genuinely joyful and satisfying activity, you’ll set yourself up for a world of frustration and disappointment, and maybe never discover the true satisfaction of being a writer.

Writing is not consistently interesting, engaging, entertaining, or delightful. It has its high moments, but it also has lots and lots of low moments, when it’s frustrating and annoying and you think what you’ve just written is the most terrible piece of junk ever to be put into words.

I love writing; I miss it sorely when I can’t make it part of my regular routine; I take great satisfaction and even sometimes true joy in creating something that I know is good work. But the process of creating that good work usually involves many, many not-fun moments, when I’m staring at the screen and the words just aren’t working; or when I’m writing or revising while being convinced that this is not very good after all; or when I’m just plain tired after several hours of writing.

I’ve been writing long enough to know that my in-the-moment emotions about my writing are highly unreliable. Usually what I’m writing is not as good as I think it is on a high point, nor as bad as I fear it is on a low point, but somewhere in the middle. In the revision stage, I’ll be able to polish it to the point where I can see, objectively: this is good work.

Don’t be afraid that “not always enjoying the process” means that somehow you’re not a real writer. Rather, consider: do you find the satisfaction of work well done, in the end? (See point 3, which is necessary for this to happen.) Do you come back to writing, even though you know there’s going to be some frustration along the way? Yes? Good! You’re doing it right.

Write on!

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Dr. Holly Ordway is the director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, a poet, and the author of Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms(Ignatius Press, 2014). Her work focuses on imaginative apologetics and Inklings studies, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

Reflections on My Writing

My friend and fellow writer Kelly Belmonte invited me to contribute to a series of blog posts reflecting on writing practice (check out her contribution, and her new poetry book!) I always find it interesting to hear how fellow writers approach their work, so I was glad to put in my two cents, as follows:

1. What am I working on?

My new book, Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms, comes out on October 7 from Ignatius Press (you can pre-order it now!). It’s a thorough revision and expansion of the first edition of my memoir about my journey from atheism to Christian faith, now with the inclusion of much more on the role of imagination and literature in my conversion, and with the account of my subsequent reception into full communion with the Catholic Church.

One of the reasons I’m excited about the new book is that it engages much more fully with literature – in a small way it’s a memoir of my reading life and how books have had such an impact on my life. Each of the 27 chapters has an epigraph, and these epigraphs form an arc of their own that parallels the story told in full in the chapters.

For current work, I am writing a literary-critical book on the modern fantasy novel, as well as quite a lot of academic pieces (book chapters and essays) on C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?

One way that Not God’s Type is different from other conversion memoirs in that it shows the imaginative element, as well as the rational and volitional elements, of conversion to, and growth in, the Christian faith.

3. Why do I write what I do?

For Not God’s Type, I felt that I had a story – through no special merit of my own – that would be helpful and encouraging to readers. I’m actually an extremely reserved and private person, so writing a memoir is not what I would have expected to do! But in the end, the story is not centered on me. As I write in the first chapter:

… this is not, at the heart of it, a story of what I was clever enough to do, but rather of what I was weak enough to have done to me and for me. It is an account of God’s work, a tale of grace acting in and through human beings but always issuing from Him and leading back to Him. And it is the story of my being brought home.

My academic writing in the discipline of apologetics focuses on imagination and literature, because I find this both interesting and very important. For our culture to be renewed, we need to recover the integration of reason and imagination as ways of knowing – that’s a core part of my work as a professor in the M.A. in Apologetics at Houston Baptist University.

I also write as a C.S. Lewis scholar and a Charles Williams scholar – for instance, I’m the Charles Williams subject editor for the Journal of Inklings Studies, an excellent journal that I recommend to anyone who’s interested in the Inklings. I find Lewis to be an extremely important figure in a number of ways: for Christian apologetics, for literary criticism, for creative writing… Fifty years after his death, there’s scope for so much more scholarship on his work and his influence. I’m particularly interested in Lewis as an “integrated” figure, whose academic literary career was essential for, not extraneous to, his impact as an apologist.

4. How does my writing process work?

I take all my writing through multiple stages of drafting and revision. I generally think through a topic for a while, making notes and letting it ‘simmer’ in my mind. Then I’ll start drafting, getting words down without worrying too much about whether it’s exactly right. I’m very much a non-linear writer; I avoid starting at the beginning, since that’s a good way to get writer’s block in my experience, and instead jump into writing sections in the middle or end of my piece. Then, in subsequent revision passes, I fill in the gaps, tighten it up, and get a structure that I like. Once I have the content and structure down, I revise at the sentence level, polishing and refining. I take great pleasure in this stage of writing! It’s a great joy to find just the right word, just the right sentence structure, to make one’s writing really sing.

***

Dr. Holly Ordway is the director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, a poet, and the author of Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (revised and expanded second ed., Fall 2014, Ignatius Press). Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

Answering the Why of Writing

Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body. – Ecclesiastes 12:12 (NIV)

From third grade through my freshman year in college, I played the violin. I got so I could play well enough to sit first chair in our high school orchestra and chamber orchestra. You could say I was a medium sized fish in the proverbial puddle.

Throughout this time, there was never a point when a conductor or violin teacher pulled me aside and told me to read about how to play the violin. I have no memory of anyone telling me to sit there and think about playing. The constant theme drummed into me long before I entered high school was “practice, practice, practice.”

And practice I did. I had the telltale mark between my jaw and neck to prove it. To this day, I keep my fingernails clipped short out of habit. It’s the practice that made me a competent violinist. I was never great, and I didn’t enjoy the practice that much. And that is why, in the end, I stopped playing.

There is no end of books, blogs, and advice pieces on writing from writers for would-be writers. Here’s all I want to add to that pile of words: If it gives you pleasure in the practice of it, keep going.

Sure, we all have some writing we have to do to be a part of civilized society. Lack of pleasure in doing it doesn’t let you off the hook for writing thank you notes or responding to emails or completing term papers.

But beyond those obligations, you have a choice about writing. And the proof is in the practice. Do you love the practice as much as the performance? Do you like it even when you don’t have to do it anymore?

***

Kelly Belmonte is a poet, blogger (http://allninemuses.wordpress.com), and management consultant with expertise in non-profit organizational development and youth mentoring. Her forthcoming book of poetry, Spare Buttons, is available for pre-order from Finishing Line Press.

The Illusion of Measurability

Early last year I wrote about measuring outcomes. I pondered what I needed to measure to determine “success” in the context of writing, and I concluded that the only thing I could truly measure was how many commitments I kept.

In retrospect, that conclusion was a bit unsatisfying.

I find myself now circling back to the question of numbers – hits, views, “likes”, shares, visits – all of those technology-given metrics that place us on the map of social visibility and viability. All of my friends who create content of any sort for the web (which is pretty much everyone I know, whether they realize it or not) are aware of these tangible intangibles, these mini “scores” that measure degree of “success” in this content-driven world.

And many of these friends are coming to the same realization I am: these measures are an illusion. At best, they provide the short-lived satisfaction of a candy bar at 3 pm. when some cheese and crackers might have been a bit better for me. At worst, they serve as a taunting task-master, holding out a golden ideal that I haven’t quite achieved. “No likes on that post? Has no one seen it, or is it just crap? Oh, only 10 likes now? 50? Not good enough! What, 100 likes? Well, that’s ok, but how come you can’t get 100 retweets? What’s wrong with you? What’s wrong with your tribe??”

Crazy-making.

In all this weird yard-sticking, I get the feeling that I am missing a huge part of the story. What of the reader? I mean the person (that one blessed person) who takes the time to read it – and reads the whole thing, not just the tweetable bits. I’m talking about the one who was too busy to comment or like or retweet, but who read it still, and thought about it – the one who connected with my words, who talked about it later with her BFF, who was haunted by a poem or buoyed by a blog post.

Oh, I don’t know if that actually happens – that invisible connection. Not to any scale. How can you know? What happens in the mind and heart is invisible. And that’s what I mean by the illusion of measurability. Because if that true connection is not happening, then it doesn’t matter how many likes or RTs or Favs I get.

Recently I received a great gift: evidence of connection. I was at a conference which had nothing to do with writing, poetry, or creativity. It wasn’t flooded with the usual blogging suspects, my friendly audience, my poetry tribe. Or at least, I didn’t think so. They were lovely people I know through other parts of my life and connect with via the virtual business card of LinkedIn. In the course of one morning at this event, several individuals told me (on their own, unsolicited) that they read my blog posts via LI. And they *really* read them. i.e. They actually knew what the posts were about. I know, because they told me all about them… without me asking.

Why this came as such a surprise, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I had my readers pigeon-holed: here are the people who will like to read about poetry, creativity, etc., and here’s everyone else. It was also a surprise because none of these good folks had ever liked, shared, retweeted, or otherwise “virtually” connected with any of my writing. I had no idea they were looking at my words. No idea. Stunning.

Where I’m at with all of this now? I feel the need to create a completely new set of measurements to capture this “evidence of connection.” Forget about the likes and views, and go right for the jugular, the big enchilada of writer-reader value. Here are a few proposed metrics to capture that value:

# of “ah ha moments” (in reader, in writer)
# of spontaneous visible or audible expressions of genuine emotion (e.g. laughter, tears, joyful outbursts, sighs)

# of real conversations (between writer and reader, between readers, between writers)
% of commitments kept / commitments made (by writer, by reader)

% of bridges crossed / bridges attempted

Stuff like that. I don’t know how one would ever begin to capture those metrics, but they feel more important, more on target, for me than how many Favs I get on my next tweet. Because when it’s all said and done, if these words don’t turn on lights, spark conversation, change behavior, or make someone (even – especially – me) braver, what am I playing at?

***

Kelly Belmonte is a poet, blogger (http://allninemuses.wordpress.com), and management consultant with expertise in non-profit organizational development and youth mentoring. Her first book of poetry, Three Ways of Searching, is available through Finishing Line Press.

DO Cross the Streams

Dr. Egon Spengler: There’s something very important I forgot to tell you.

Dr. Peter Venkman: What?

Dr. Egon Spengler: Don’t cross the streams.

Dr. Peter Venkman: Why?

Dr. Egon Spengler: It would be bad.

Dr. Peter Venkman: I’m fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing. What do you mean, “bad”?

Dr. Egon Spengler: Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.

Dr Ray Stantz: Total protonic reversal.

Dr. Peter Venkman: Right. That’s bad. Okay. All right. Important safety tip. Thanks, Egon.

(Ghost Busters, ref: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0087332/quotes)

I appreciate the timely and prescient advice of Dr. Spengler in the 1984 movie classic Ghost Busters, particularly in the use of particle accelerators when battling ghostly hordes. However, when it comes to the daily battles most of us are likely to encounter, I am obliged to express my dissenting opinion. You MUST cross the streams.

What I mean is probably best expressed in my first post for 12 Most, 12 Most Radical Reasons to Write Poetry:

For most of the first two decades of my business career, I bifurcated my interests between “professional” and “creative.” In retrospect, this was a big mistake and a root cause of much unnecessary tension in my life.

I am a poet and a business professional, and only recently have I realized the benefit of crossing these streams. Now I am a shameless and impassioned advocate for the poetic voice as an integral player in an integrated life. 

What does this mean, practically speaking? A few things. Mainly it means that I apply whatever strengths I have in any area to whatever task is ahead of me. It means taking a strengths-based approach to my life.

When I sit down at my desk to think through the design of a training workshop or concept paper or program enhancement for youth mentoring professionals (my “day job”), I draw on the same set of creativity skills that I use to write a poem. The same exact ones. This is relatively new to me, as I used to think I had to approach business writing from a different part of my brain. It works better now for me, because I am drawing on creative brain matter that is wired very well for conceptual design work.

I’ve always been a decent “dot-connector” in the context of technical design work, but allowing myself to fully draw on my poetic brain, I have freed up constraints which allow me to see a greater range of dots to be connected. The very trait that makes me a poet is also that which allows me to think strategically. This is a revelation to me – and useful to my employer, colleagues, and clients.

Also, with poetry, I now apply my project management skill set to getting published. With a second chapbook to be published this year, and a couple poems to appear soon in respected journals, I am pleased to say this works better. Again, I used to think of writing poetry as “special” – so I approached poetry only through that “special” creative part of my brain. Sure, I wrote a lot, but only I and a few dear (patient) friends were reading what I cranked out. With the application of a broader skillset learned mainly through business, my poems are more polished and reaching more readers.

Not everyone is a poet, but most people have diverse interests in life that sometimes feel like they are competing. I would encourage you, if you feel the tension between such interests, to start crossing the streams. Look at how the strengths in one area of your life can inform and complement another. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to hide huge swaths of who you are in your day job. Let down the walls between your competencies. Give it a try, even for a day, and see what difference it makes.

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Kelly Belmonte is a published poet, blogger (http://allninemuses.wordpress.com), and management consultant with expertise in non-profit organizational development and youth mentoring. She currently serves on the board of directors for Exeter Fine Crafts in Exeter, New Hampshire. Her published book of poetry, Three Ways of Searching, is available through Finishing Line Press.

Flow: Writing and Creative Energy

Creative energy, for me, is like a river. It has been part of my inner landscape for as long as I can remember, its waters first spilling over into stories and art projects when I was old enough to pick up a crayon. Now it flows into written words in a wide range of forms.

Sometimes the river goes underground, taking its freshening waters out of my reach. I’ve learned, though, that when I ‘run dry’, such that I don’t want to write or I feel that I have nothing worth saying, usually it’s because I need to rest, physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. So I wait, and allow the Muse to chide me into giving myself some grace.

Still, I can’t be passive. The river can silt up, grow sluggish, if I don’t make a habit of sitting down at the computer and wrestling with words to get out a paragraph, a page, a few pages – giving myself enough time to write, and not allowing myself to get distracted or frustrated when nothing brilliant appears at first (or at all).

Sometimes the river spreads out into a dozen rivulets, each narrow channel sparkling with potential – yet too shallow to sustain me; I splash about and muddy the waters instead of diving deep or sailing somewhere new. Then it’s time to go upstream, and guide the flow into just one or two channels, deep and strong. It’s easy to get excited about new projects, new books or poems or ideas for my blog – but with my attention spread across so many different things, I can’t sustain work on any one of them for long, and I don’t get anything written. It’s hard to choose what to focus on when any choice means setting aside other interesting projects – but I’ve learned that failing to choose one means choosing none at all.

Oxford canal

Choosing the right projects – ah, there’s a challenge. Sometimes what feels like being stuck is really a case of my creative energy not having the right form and channel. For two years I went through various iterations of a proposal for a book; I thought I had the project completely outlined, all set to go, and yet, I wasn’t wholeheartedly enthused about it. At the end of this past summer, I finally scrapped that project and switched to a different one, and immediately I could tell the difference: I was excited about the project, I wanted to work on it, and I did work on it. And it turned out that some of the material I’d written for the halfway-started book fits perfectly in this new one – my Muse had been stealthily diverting some of the dammed-up water in the right direction, before I realized it myself . . .

I often find it helpful to have two different types of projects going on at the same time. My academic work is a different kind of creative work (analytical, synthetic) than my poetry. These two kinds of writing engage me with words in different ways, and so it is a refreshment of spirit to be able to turn from one to the other.

And yet the deep wellspring of creative energy is the same. This past summer, I devoted all my writing time and energy – all of it – to revising my memoir, Not God’s Type. In about two and a half months, I added about twenty-five thousand words to the original manuscript (nearly doubling it in length) and extensively revised all of the existing material as well. It was an incredibly productive, joyful, and satisfying experience, and I think that the result is the very best writing that I’ve ever done; certainly, when I sent in the final manuscript revision to Ignatius Press, I knew “this is as good as it is in my power to make it.”

I realized at the tail end of those months of writing that, unlike the previous year, I had not written a single poem, nor even a single line of poetry, during the entire summer. And I immediately knew why. In this case, all of the river’s water had been directed into one channel. The memoir required a mix of analytical and poetic thinking, both kinds of creativity woven into one project; every drop of my creative energy went into the writing and revising and re-re-revising of the book.

I am content. I have learned something about the nature of this river, this flow of energy that is not of my making; I’ve learned a little bit about how to be a good caretaker of the river, to use and not to squander it, to guide it as well as be guided by it. I’m writing poetry again, even if it’s just a couple of lines on a Sunday afternoon, enough to keep that channel flowing, not allow it to be silted up with disuse. And I am reminding myself, in this end-of-semester, end-of-year time, when days are short and nights are long, and I am more worn out than I realize, that this is a good time to let myself be carried along on other people’s rivers, to allow myself that grace of rest.

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This post originally appeared on Kelly Belmonte’s excellent blog All Nine Muses (read more here).

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Dr. Holly Ordway is a poet, academic, and Christian apologist. She is the chair of the Department of Apologetics and director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (revised and expanded 2nd ed. forthcoming 2014, Ignatius Press). Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

Bravery

I’m going to be brave this year. That’s what I told everyone the other day on my blog.

Brave. Yeah.

So my first act of bravery was to rewrite a poem I had been preparing for publication so that it was real. It was a nice poem before I rewrote it. But I wanted to go for authenticity. Power. My true voice. None of this “we” business to soften the blow, but “I” and “you.”

Then I read it after rewriting it. And I got scared, because it was no longer a “nice poem.” It was very good, and it was very honest. That’s when my brave really needed to kick in.

It hasn’t yet. I am still grinding the gears. See, this happens every time I write. Every single time. I read it and reread it to make sure it is not going to hurt anyone I love or offend anyone who might love me, or be provocative to anyone who I may not want to provoke. I don’t want to deal with the fall out of such authenticity.

So I prune and polish until what’s left feels soft and looks shiny and might make Hallmark happy but isn’t going to make so much as a ripple in the pond of what matters. Pretty as a kitten, but this cat does not bite.

I am working through the balance that bravery asks of me. What it comes down to is motivation. Blurting out words – any words that happen to be on the tip of my tongue – is not bravery. I’ve blurted out all kinds of nonsense when motivated by fear or anger. For me, there has to be a love catalyst to make it bravery and not simply rashness.

So I suppose my theme for 2014 is love. Real love. Perfect love that casts out fear. That’s what bravery must look like.

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Kelly Belmonte is a published poet, blogger (http://allninemuses.wordpress.com), and management consultant with expertise in non-profit organizational development and youth mentoring. She currently serves on the board of directors for Exeter Fine Crafts in Exeter, New Hampshire. Her published book of poetry, Three Ways of Searching, is available through Finishing Line Press.

Seeing and Discovery: Where Poems Come From (2)

Where do poems come from? Kelly Belmonte has written a series of posts exploring that very topic (read them here), and invited me to contribute my thoughts on her excellent blog All Nine Muses. In my first response, I reflected on the ‘discovery’ aspect of writing poetry.

But the starting point for discovery, for the play of words that I love so much, is nearly always located in the act of seeing.

Many of my poems, or images within a poem, come from a visual image, usually something in nature: a goldfinch landing on a bare twig; light shining through leaves; the view of a canal through a stone bridge’s arch.

That’s one of the reasons I like to walk, when I can: the slow pace of walking allows me to really notice my surroundings, and to stop and stare in order to really take in what I see. Then, later, I might try to show the reader some glimpse of what I see, in words that will open up some of the enchantment I felt:

…I pause beneath a bridge, and watch
The water flowing onward in the light,
Into a living picture framed by stone.

What I hope for, as I work with an image, is to open it up, to be fully present to it, and in so doing, to discover (and express) something of what the image means.

Dayspring

When I was writing a poem for my godson, on the occasion of his baptism, I wanted to write something that connected with the land, with the family farm. I had an abundance of possible images to choose from, but one that kept coming to mind was of fences, which made it into the poem:

Winter sunlight spills past their shadows, across
Fenced fields and pastures, each line the mark and measure
Of a man’s mind.

As I held the image in my mind, in the composition of the poem, I came to realize how important fences are for a farmer: not merely as boundary markers, but as safeguards to keep the sheep from straying, and of ways to divide the farmland into different uses: pasture, yard, vegetable garden. And so the fence became both part of the description of landscape, and also an element that spoke of the farmer’s intentionality and mindfulness in his vocation.

It’s my favorite image in that poem – not least because I also discovered, as I found words for it, that the line fell naturally and fittingly into an Anglo-Saxon-flavored alliterative form. Seeing, and discovery!

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Dr. Holly Ordway is a poet, academic, and Christian apologist. She is the chair of the Department of Apologetics and director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type (2010; 2nd ed. forthcoming, 2014, Ignatius Press). Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

Privacy, Exposure, and Connection

One of the unplanned joys of blogging is the people you meet in the process. I say “unplanned” though, really, writing is all about connection, isn’t it? It’s just that you never know who will connect with you as a result of your words, how, when, or under what circumstances.

 Recently, I had the joy of connecting with Bethany Rohde, first through my posts on Hieropraxis, and then through All Nine, then Facebook. Bethany is a wife, mom, writer, and very thoughtful follower of Christ. She also loves English muffins and reading C.S. Lewis, both of which make her very cool in my book. 

Bethany and I started a virtual conversation about writing, privacy, exposure, utility, and more. With her permission, I share it in part here.

Bethany: I reread your post, “Pen Phobia: Writing Through the Fear.” I love your advice that, “The only cure to the fear of writing is to write.”

Writing privately is my favorite way to process the quandaries, confusion and excitement of life. A question I often ask myself is, “When should it just be a personal journal entry, and when should it be something I share with others?” Of course I’m not going to write anything that uncovers or intrudes upon someone else’s privacy. Those topics are off the table. But beyond that, do you have any thoughts you might share on how you decide that?

Kelly: It’s funny, Bethany, because that particular piece came out of a private journaling session – i.e. “writing practice”. At that time I was frustrated and full of unnamed fears, but forced myself to write anyway. Now that I think of it, many of my pieces for public consumption have started out in private writing practice and/or journaling, or parts of them have. It’s when I feel the most free to explore new ideas. (That said, I write a TON of things privately that will never be seen by the public. They are just for me, or they are crap, and belong in the crap pile.)

I boss myself around quite a bit in private writing. And it turns out, some of what I tell myself, well, it seems useful and I think others might benefit. I run it by a friend first, and if it rises to a certain level (and it’s not just me falling in love with the sound of my own voice), then I share it.

I agree with your intrusion/”do no harm” policy for what not to share. Other measures I generally use to determine if I’ll share something publicly are things like,

1-Will it be useful to others?

2-Will I regret this later? (e.g. Is it unprofessional, not polished, too angry/sad/freaky/etc.)

3-Does it fit? i.e. Thematically does it work for my blog or as a guest post for someone else or as a poem for some journal?

It’s always a judgment call and I find that the more I do this, put stuff out there, the more comfortable I am with pushing the envelope with more edgy things, things I would have pulled back on when I was younger and more concerned about being liked. That’s when it gets real, where people can really connect. The “Pen Phobia” piece is a good example of this. There is so much in there that, in a previous version of my writing self, I never would have said for fear of offending (“crap”!) or exposing myself (meaninglessness…) too much or exploring weird imagery (elephant in fuzzy slippers). But it’s been one of my most read pieces ever. So, sometimes you just have to go there, to those scary-weird places (the places, I would argue, where redemption becomes real).

I think a key thing here is to make sure whatever the content, it is done with excellence. Respect the words.

Bethany: Actually, when you said “crap” in that post, I immediately felt like we were keeping it real. You held a great place in that tension in the tone where overall, it was so anti-sanctimonious but never disrespected the importance of your subject.

I think that is part of my little self-made conundrum: “will it fit?” My little blog of four essays was not intended to be a blog at first.

Kelly: The fit question is sometimes harder with your own blog, since you are the one who can always decide to change what fits or doesn’t. When someone else is putting constraints around the topic, it can help. Fewer decisions to make.

Bethany: I could create a separate blog that is for other topics. But what happened was that no one in my circle of friends/family (besides my brother) had every talked about these issues of intellectual honesty in combination with our faith. I know several people whose journey with Christianity has now brought them to different conclusions about God. I imagine some of that is because of unaddressed doubts, or witnessing some deplorable, hypocritical situation.

So I thought… “There has to be at least one voice in here that attempts to squeak out: ‘Maybe there’s more to this story, Friends.’”

I tried to just write it on FB but it wasn’t working. So I thought, “I can format freely in a blog! And it is literally free.”

So I put that “Personal Question List” about my own journey there instead. And then I had a couple more thoughts… And now, after 10 years of not writing anything but email and grocery lists, I remember how much I adore writing! And now… I’m stuck.

Kelly: I wouldn’t recommend a spin-off blog. That’s a vicious circle. You may want to consider Jeff Goins’ Tribe Writers class. It’s a very supportive group of bloggers at various levels of experience. Once you pay for the class, it’s pretty much a life-time membership. I started it in December and still need to finish up the last bits of it, but have very much benefited from the “tribe” of writers involved. Very encouraging.

Bethany: Well, thank you for your kindness … I am a bit lost if/how I fit in with writing anything outside of my journal, but this helps give me some ideas of what to do next.

 

Kelly: We’re all a bit lost, truth be told…

Bethany: Comforting to know I’m in good company.

The only reason I started sharing my writings was in hopes that maybe… *perhaps* it might be helpful to one person in my circle who read it. (It turned out that it was to one person in particular. I am so grateful to God for that!)

Anyway, I have been reading Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem “Adequacy” over and over these last two weeks. I really want to write my thoughts on it. It would be a good exercise for me and I would just thoroughly enjoy the experience. But this is where my question continues: “Should I share what I write? Will this be helpful to anyone else?” I do think it is going to speak to some of the ideas in my blog essays (how hypocrisy can do the cruel work of blurring the lines between what is “God’s doing” vs. “man’s free-will choosing”).

But also, I want to be able to share some things that are on other less-direct topics concerning God. What I mean is instead of saying, “Here are the reasons why I believe in God…” I would also like to share my thoughts on matters that are perhaps a bit more indirect and less “scary” for people of other beliefs to read and digest slowly.

Besides writing about the poem, I would someday talk about Sensory Processing Disorder, which my son has and has come such a long way in! There is hope! Or I would like to write on how culture can color Christianity a different hue than it really is.

All of this to say: I think you are entirely right that having your own blog space makes it very difficult to decide what “fits!”

Kelly: If God is the creator of all, as I believe He is, then all things can point to Him. Poetry, art, education, mental/physical/emotional health, etc. You don’t need to limit your blog to any subject, per se, but understand your own voice which would come through with whatever you talk about. The more you practice writing (both privately and publicly), the more you will refine your voice. Keep going.

***

Kelly Belmonte is a published poet, blogger (http://allninemuses.wordpress.com), and management consultant with expertise in non-profit organizational development and youth mentoring. She currently serves on the board of directors for Exeter Fine Crafts in Exeter, New Hampshire. Her published book of poetry, Three Ways of Searching, is available through Finishing Line Press.

 

Where Do Poems Come From?

Good question.

Kelly Belmonte has been writing on this subject on her excellent blog All Nine Muses, and invited me to reflect on my creative process, in response to her pieces (parts one, two, three, and four).

For me, writing poetry is seeing and discovery; open reception and active building; a fascination with the words themselves, and a tension between the chosen word and the experience that is always fuller, richer, deeper than what the word expresses.

I feel for words, testing them out, and following where they lead me. I love the way that different words evoke different images, with subtle shifts, the way that sound interacts with meaning in a word. I am fascinated by etymology, the way that a word’s linguistic origin flavors it.

Sometimes the right word often comes only after long experimentation, the testing-out of almost-right and not-at-all-right words until the key clicks in the lock; sometimes the right word comes at once, trailing the rest of the line with it, perhaps shaping the whole poem around it.

The stream runs black between soft banks of snow,

Sleek over tumbled stones. Ice films a fallen 

Branch, caesura in the water’s way 

As it murmurs through the woods and fields. 

The first line came to me nearly complete. I was walking along a brook in the winter after a fresh, heavy snow, delighting in the sharp contrasts of color and texture: the snow piled along the banks of the brook, the clear, dark, moving water; the crisp films of ice. Since I feel a deep connection to Anglo-Saxon poetry, I am drawn to the use of alliteration and assonance to create (or discover) music in a line; that’s probably why I decided that first ‘found’ line was worth building a poem around.

The rest of the quatrain was ‘building’ rather than discovery. Because I write mainly sonnets, the constraints of meter and form shape my choices. The shaping is what makes discovery possible: the testing-out of words and phrases, images and themes, in conjunction with the music of language and the shaping discipline of the form. The very difficulty of sonnet-writing, the need to make the poem work in fourteen lines, with rhyme (sometimes full; more often slant), with meter, creates a crucible in which images and words are tested, reshaped, born into something good – something, indeed, that may be more than I consciously meant.

The word that makes this quatrain work is caesura. It’s a technical term for a pause or break in a line of poetry, and it’s one of the characteristic elements of Anglo-Saxon alliterative poetry. When I hit upon this word, I knew it was the right one. The pause in the rippling water as it came to a half-submerged broken branch seemed an apt image for the pause for breath in the middle of a poetic line, and it connected the poem-as-written with the image that prompted the poem. Finding the word ‘caesura’ was probably related to the choice of ‘murmurs’ (since both have to do with spoken words) but I’m not sure which came first.

As I’ve been writing this piece, and looking again at this quatrain, I can see now another connection that was not in my mind as I wrote it. The choice of ‘caesura’ to describe the slight pause in the water’s flow serves to point out that the winter brook is a wordless poem, as we see in Psalm 19:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;

    and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

…There is no speech, nor are there words;

    their voice is not heard;

yet their voice goes out through all the earth,

    and their words to the end of the world.

I did not have this in mind when I wrote the quatrain, yet it was implicit in the words that I chose: it is a discovery that came from being receptive to the language and the image. I like this connection very much, now that I see it!

When I wrote this quatrain last winter, I intended to develop it into a full sonnet, but it stalled out after the fourth line, so I let it rest. Perhaps now I have discovered the thread to follow to open it out into a sonnet.

I look forward to seeing where it takes me.

***

Dr. Holly Ordway is a poet, academic, and Christian apologist. She is the chair of the Department of Apologetics and director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type (2010; 2nd ed. forthcoming, 2014, Ignatius Press). Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.