I am a writer. Most days I believe it. I have that badge that all real writers have: rejection letters from magazine submissions failed attempts and false starts, a loud inner critic and writer’s block. But also, I have moments where I write something (often on my blog, but also for sermons) and I know my words hit home. I share myself and others find themselves in what I’ve written. I haven’t written anything long form, because I don’t know how —I’m afraid of it—I’ve never done it, and feel too scattered to engage a topic in a sustained way. One day, I will find my literary muse and produce something beautiful to offer the world. Until then, all I have are my eclectic musings on faith and spirituality and vocational frustration (my most popular blog posts have been about making fun of Christian music and bad job interviews).
But enough about me. Isn’t this supposed to be a book review? You are right. The book is called Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew. She teaches memoir, essay, and journal writing at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, is the recipient of the Minneapolis State Arts Board artists’ fellowship and has been a Minneapolis Book Award finalist. She is the author of Writing the Sacred Journey, On the Threshold: Home, Hardwood and Holiness and the novel Hannah, Delivered.
Andrew has a heap of helpful advice for would-be-authors on writing,—clarifying and communicating the story, and the whole revision process. By this, she doesn’t mean revision in the sense of copy editing, getting your grammar in order, all your “i’s” dotted and “t’s” crossed and your modifier’s grounded. Instead, Andrew speaks of revision as the complicated but profound journey of creativity, where a writer engages their work and dares to see it anew. This involves both holding our work lightly and engaging it wholeheartedly. It means doing the inner work required to know what we are trying to say, what we are afraid to say, and what we dare not say. In the end, revision helps us clarify our message and transcribe our truth to the page in a way that is both self-aware and inviting.
Andrew has thirteen chapters which guide her readers through the writing process—from the rough first draft, through rewrites and enduring discomfort, reframing, strengthening, restructuring, and attention to language. She has us ask hard questions of our writing, like what is the inner story and subtext? And what is our story asking of us?
So, I took uncharacteristically too long reading this book—in part because I didn’t have a piece of writing I was currently working on. However, I did write some shorter things (e.g. sermons, blog posts, book reviews) and did use some of her suggestions. One of the insights from Andrew that I found particularly helpful is her idea that writer begins their drafts and the work of reworking of projects under a cloud of privacy and unknowing (63), but as we engage the work of revisioning, we increasingly open ourselves to our audience. So the act of writing is a pregnant solitude which allows us to press in to our creative flow, but the re-writes and revision bring about a context for communion with our readers. She writes:
Here’s the trick to sustaining a joyful, healthy relationship with writing through revision and beyond publication. Never abandon your space of curiosity, freedom, and love. Our work may travel outward to meet an audience. We may meet the audience as well, which is a tremendous privilege. But the source of a writer’s well-being is that safe place where we can be intimate, honest, and adventurous. We neglect it at our peril (66).
This was a profound insight for sermon writing (did I mention that Barbara Brown Taylor writes the forward?).
Throughout the book, are toolboxes designed to help authors engage their work, and exercises to do in your writer’s notebook to engage the process of writing—e.g. wrestling with your inner critic and discovering what your story is asking of you. Because I didn’t have a sustained project I was working on, some of these exercises weren’t helpful for me, though I underlined a butt ton and there are things I’ll come back to when I have something to work through. The ‘spirituality’ piece is the inner-work necessary for good writing to emerge. One day I’ll get there. I give this four star. – ★ ☆ ★ ☆