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Advice to Writers

Updated: Jun 24

I did this interview for the website Advice to Writers website and you can read it on that site here.



How did you become a writer? 

I longed to be a poet first. Who doesn’t? When I was 10, I wrote a serious poem. My teacher read it out for the class to laugh - which they did. When I was 12, I wrote a satirical poem. The teacher read it out because she thought it was beautiful – which it wasn’t. Teenage me wrote secret love poems to my imaginary future husband, despite knowing I only ever fell in love with women, and secret love poems to women, despite believing I would one day marry a man – which, reader, I did. Then, at long last, I realized this: I’m not a poet.


In college, I read Shakespeare and wrote occasional comic verse. In grad school, I wrote an eighty-nine-thousand-word thesis on prisons in Shakespeare, occasional speeches for college feasts, and occasional scripts for college stand-up. In seminary, I wrote a dissertation on biblical metaphor, and a comic version of Shakespeare’s plays. Thus, I discovered: I’m not a playwright.


I’d love to be a novelist, but I have no mind for plots. So, what to do?

I went to ground and found a thing I loved: unearthing world-class, Christian academics/poets/artists and helping them explain how their faith jives with their work. Then, 9 years later, I realized I held the keys to a labyrinth within which people might explore the Christian faith in unfound ways.  I wrote a book to share the keys.


Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). 

Will.

Jane.

Thomas Stearns.

(My tastes are drearily canonical.)


My erstwhile college lecturer, Eric Griffiths, impressed upon me and generations of English students at Trinity College, Cambridge, that we were simply too stupid to write a book. The lunges that he took at my work (and the rare moments of exhilarating praise) were wonderfully formative. The gauntlet he threw down was all too tempting. Yes, I’m too stupid to write a book. I fully realize that. And yet, I take the gauntlet up. 


Wondering if people will think what we write is stupid is crippling. Knowing that they will is liberating. So, whenever I write, I mutter words like this: “Some people will read this and think that it’s dumb. Or weak. Or lame. Or just ho-hum. Perhaps they’re wrong, perhaps they’re right. In either case, I’m still going to write!”


When and where do you write? 

I wrote my first book while pregnant with my third child. Lying on a sofa, feet up, laptop resting on my unborn son. Time was short. Book deal: February. Deadline: May. Two other kids, one other job, and part-time childcare. I wrote like I was running out of time, non-stop. 

They say people cheat to meet an unexplored self: not so much another’s as their own. Writing felt like that. Snatched moments with a lover, picking up where we left off, not quite knowing how it would end. Some chapters I wrote in a day or two, some over weeks. 


Chapter 11 is on suffering and the Sunday before I wrote, my feelings got tripped up. On Monday, I knew I couldn’t work at home, so I went to the church office. (My pastor had kindly given me keys.) But no one was there, so I just sat and cried. That day was a write-off. Back on Tuesday. People barely there. I cried again. What a waste of time! On Wednesday, finally, I wrote. I wrote about Jesus meeting a grieving friend days after her brother had died. She’d asked him to come before, to heal him. But he hadn’t. He’d let her brother die. Deliberately. And then he came. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he said to her, “Anyone who believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” I shuffled the draft off to my editor, convinced he’d shoot it down. To my surprise, he loved it. 


When do I write? Whenever I can. Even in the scraps of time. But when I am wrecked, I let that be ok. It’s the price we pay for writing while human.


Where do I write? Wherever I can be. Lovers don’t mind where they meet. The inner space is what matters. 


What are you working on now? 

Yesterday, I finished a kids’ version of my grownup book. Confronting Christianity is too complex and traumatic for (almost) any human sub-fourteen.  I’m a firm believer in telling kids the truth. But the rape of a Rohingya woman at the hands of soldiers in Myanmar – who also threw her baby in the fire – is more truth than I want my kids to have to hold. And yet ten-to-fourteen-year-olds have big questions too, questions of life and death and love and grief - sometimes more incisive than ours. 10 Questions Every Kid Should Ask is for those kids. When it comes out, my eldest will be 10. She’s fiercely smart and will be ready.


But the kids’ book is a slash and grab at thoughts already processed, a stir-fry of leftovers – with extra cheese. Next, I want to write a dangerous book about the birthing of morality. 


Scholars of various stripes are surfacing an inconvenient truth: that many moral beliefs we twenty-first century westerners hold to be self-evident were actually bequeathed to us by Christianity. We think we have the right to moral outrage – especially against religious folk. But without the God we think we don’t now need, our moral structure starts to slump. As Nietzsche put it in Twilight of the Idols,

“When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident... By breaking one main concept out of [Christianity], the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands.”


Equality, diversity, religious freedom, care for the poor, and sick, despised and marginalized, dig back in the history of thought and these turn out to be inheritances left to us by a first-century Jewish man. As atheist historian Tom Holland puts it in the subtitle of his recent book, “the Christian revolution remade the world.”


Meanwhile, the much-celebrated marriage between secularism and racial diversity is on the rocks. Far from being the worldview of diversity and progress, atheism is the worldview of white, western men and communist regimes, while the most typical Christian is a woman of colour. What’s more, the world’s largest communist regime will soon have more Christians than any other country, and could be majority-Christian within 40 years. 


I recently met a professor of mathematics from Romania who had grown up under communism and inherited atheism as his lens through which to view the world. But in his mid-30s, he started to read more atheist philosophy and become depressed by the utter hopelessness he found. Then, he started reading Christian philosophy and to his own surprise become intrigued. As he stepped into the labyrinth, he was sure to hold onto a twine of atheism. He needed to be sure of the way out. But a few months later, he found he was lost. He’d let go of the cord and given himself to Jesus. I met him when he first showed up to church. 


The book I want to write will chart a course like his. With suicide rates among secular folk five times that of those who go to church each week, even the least religious among us must take stock.


Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

I very seldom find I cannot write. When I do, it’s usually an emotional impasse. But I almost always write in community. Right now, I’m writing opposite my closest writing friend. I just read a thing she wrote. (She thought it was weak: it wasn’t.) She’ll read this for me in a bit. We are each other’s safe pair of eyes, so we can write dangerously. 

You see, I don’t trust my own writing any more than I’d trust a drunk man with my steering wheel. It might feel good in the moment. The drive might be fast – exhilarating even – the near collisions glorious in the retelling.  But near death isn’t fun without the near. To drive my fastest, most hair-raising route, I need a friend who’ll grab the wheel when I’ve veered off too far. 

I say “a friend” because giving someone rights to grab your wheel takes trust: trust in their judgment, and in their love. If you don’t trust their judgement, their eyes won’t keep you safe. If you don’t trust their love, you’ll hide your painfully naked, likely hideous, probably useless prose from their eyes. You’ll tidy up before they come around, and accidentally sweep away the jewels.


What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received? 

My Ph.D supervisor would urge, “Don’t get it right, get it written.” I’ve pinned this to my psyche ever since. If you hone each sentence to perfection, you’ll write one paragraph. If you write like you’re running out of time, you’ll write five pages, and many of your lines will have sprung perfect from the ground. Or near enough. Grab a machine gun and spray the page. Don’t think like a sniper until later when there’s time to snipe.


What’s your advice to new writers? 

Find you running mates. Find friends who’ll grab your wheel. If they live near you, that’s ideal. But even if they don’t, it can still work. Most of my writing community happens via text, as I sit in a coffee shop trading jokes, ideas, anxieties and drafts with my main writing friend. I believe in her when she doesn’t believe in herself. She does the same for me. I need that to write vulnerably. But I have two other running mates, who live at least a thousand miles away. I get to read their work and they read mine. We text to share ideas and laugh and pray. We help each other run our best, cheering success and mitigating failure.


Could I write without my friends? Perhaps. But if I have one piece of advice for a new writer it’s these two words, “Find friends.” That way, when everyone else realizes you were too stupid to write a book, you’ll have some other idiots to hand. And we all need a safe place to land

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