Writing is tricky business.
Everyone writes things throughout their day, so everyone thinks they can be write (as the staggering number of abandoned blogs testify). And because everyone thinks they can do it, they have a hard time appreciating the work of a writer (even when they like that writer’s work better). For the writer, it’s incredibly difficult to balance the tension between wanting to write something that’s going to benefit people and something that’s going to actually be read (the two are not always the same). Then there’s the constant cycle of self-doubt, feeling like you’re faking it… but maybe that part’s just me. So when a writer finds some some degree of success, people start asking: what’s the secret?
Bestselling author Bret Lott (sort of) answers this question in his new book, Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian. In this book, Lott shares a series of essays blending practical take-aways for prospective writers along with a look at his own life as he comes to grips with the death of his father.
Readers might be surprised to learn that Lott is a Christian. Although I knew of him from my college-job days as a bookseller, I had no idea about his faith. So his opening essay, “Why have we given up the ghost?” was quite a surprise, opening with the Apostles’ Creed and moving into his experiences of God’s supernatural work in the world—all while defining “literary fiction” (which, he says, is distinguished from popular fiction by it’s willingness to “confront us with who we are and make us look deeply at the human condition”).
As he continues through his essays on the relationship between art, faith and the world, precision, influences, and Flannery O’Connor, he takes advantage of the opportunity reorient the Christian writer’s understanding of his or her craft around a Christian worldview.
He reminds us (citing O’Connor), that “The Christian novelist is distinguished from his pagan colleagues by recognizing sin as sin” and of our need to regain the notion of art for God’s sake.
“Art for God’s sake has waned significantly for many a reason,” he writes, “but chiefly and at core because Satan, who is real, has done his utmost to convince us all, believer and nonbeliever alike, to divorce art from God.”
This is so important for all of us to understand—we never “make art” for the sake of making art. No one does this, whether they’re Christian or not. We all point to something else with our art, whether it be ourselves, an idol (be it a created being or a false god), or God. We don’t do this in a schmaltzy, paintings-of-waterfalls-with-Bible-verses kind of way, but by creating art in harmony with God—”art that must encompass the whole of man’s experience, its depravity and triumph both.”
True Christian art, in other words, is neither full of Pollyanna-ish optimism, nor is it utterly pessimistic. It is instead hopefully realistic. It (as O’Connor put it) recognizes sin as sin and never shies away from this point. It never glorifies evil, but instead shows it for what it is.
This is especially helpful for us as we consider the tension of being a Christian writing for the mainstream. How do you write a story involving, say, an adulterous relationship? Where some might focus on the lurid details in order to titillate the audience, the Christian explores the personal consequences.
The damage done is not swept under the rug.
As a writer, the essay that most resonated with me is the third, “On precision.” Precision, Lott says, “is the most important element to crafting a piece of prose—and to crafting a poem, in fact, to crafting any piece of writing, from an obituary to a grocery list to the name you give a new file on your computer.”
So what does writing precisely mean?
To write precisely…you must be there. You must remember you are not writing about this moment, you are not putting words in to substitute for the experience; you are there. And while there, you are paying attention; you are at once that cool mathematician taking in the factors available, inserting variables you don’t yet know the value of, and working them through to their answer, all while being inside the story you are telling, that is, all while being the equation itself.
I realize this notion of precision seems obvious—after all, it makes sense that we’d be trying to pay attention to details. To be present in what we’re doing. To understand what it is we’re trying to communicate. But think back to some of the bestselling titles in the Christian market you may have read in recent years.
Let’s be honest: far too many fail on these points. Some are faithful to God’s Word, but lack the emotional depth of understanding that comes from sitting with a truth. We don’t always think about the punch to the gut a particular truth might be and how to best communicate it. We simply slap people with truth and say “you’re welcome.”
Equally bad is the ungrounded experience that obscures the truth of God’s Word on a variety of subjects. This is the heart of the Love Wins and The Shack brouhahas—these are books that in an effort to connect experientially with readers completely obscured essential truths of the faith with a poorly defined veneer of “love.”
Both of these are to be avoided by Christian writers seeking to be faithfully precise. When we obscure the truth and when we beat people with it, we not only do disservice to our readers, but we dishonor God, who made us in His image. “My writing ought to be precise because I have been made in the image of God, and not blurrily in his image, not almost in his image, not close enough in his image,” Lott writes.
Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian is a different sort of book on “how to be a writer.” It’s a book devoted more to showing than telling. And for many readers, this exactly what’s needed. You can teach certain techniques, but you can’t teach what only experience can. So Lott shares his own and offers readers a glimpse into what made him the writer he is—not to get them to emulate him, but to encourage them to understand their own experiences and use those in their writing for God’s glory.
Title: Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian
Author: Bret Lott
Publisher: Crossway (2013)
Buy it at: Amazon