Saturday, April 4, 2020

Barbara Brown Taylor on the Essentials

When Barbara Brown Taylor spoke at the Wild Goose Arts Festival in North Carolina last July, she identified several essential ingredients of the writing life. Although she is a best-selling writer of Christian nonfiction, I believe her recommendations apply even more to writers of Christian fiction. You’ll find a video of her presentation on YouTube under the title, “Best Practices for New Writers,” but here’s the gist of it. Taylor says every writer needs these things to write most effectively:

A Habit. “For me, a habit means first of all an established place for writing so that when I walk through the door, I start salivating,” she said. It usually means you have a particular time for writing, though some of us can write anytime in odd snatches of time, which means we need to be ready to take advantages of those “found” moments. Your writing habit also involves a medium that you find easiest and most familiar for writing, whether it be a notepad, a computer, or something else. It involves a focus on what you need to write in your daily writing experience—a certain number of words, for example.

A Community. This is an accountability partner (or a small group of partners) who meets with you online or face-to-face to discuss the work you’re doing, give you honest feedback, and share what they write today as well. These are seldom open groups because you need confidentiality to share honest critiques of one another’s work. A Sufi woman is part of Taylor’s accountability community, and she will often question Christian clich├ęs that appear in her work. Her husband is another. He is brutally honest about what Taylor writes on a particular day, and might say, “That’s interesting, but not compelling.”

An Audience. Visualize the person you’re writing for. How do they react as they read what you’ve written today? Taylor says, “For a long time, I wrote for people initiated into Christian language and liturgical life. When I started writing a book titled, Leaving Church, I had a different audience in mind: non-church people or churched people who were frightened to enter churches for various reasons. I started changing my language with that book. So your audience changes, but having a clear focus on the type of people you want to read your book helps to assure that you will.”

A Wound. “Part of my practice is knowing what I’m struggling with,” Taylor says. “What problems come up in my life often enough that I could be in community with other people about them? Someone with a spiritual wound asks questions like, ‘Where is God? Does God play favorites?’ and so on. A shared wound keeps me engaged in a book, and I hope it will keep my reader engaged as well.”

A Voice. This is a very particular choice for the writer.  “What is my point of view going to be?” Taylor asks. “Scholarly? Intimate? Inspirational?” How she positions herself depends largely on what audience she’s writing for. For example, one critic says that the poet Mary Oliver writes primarily from her scars and not from her raw wounds, which affects her style as well as her point of view. What level of education does your audience have? At what stage of life do they find themselves? All of these questions determine the voice you will choose for your work in progress.

A Lineage. Every time she sits down to write, Taylor calls to mind other writers who made her want to become a writer. “I call them the Council of Elders,” she says. “Who made me want to write, and continues to make me want to write well?”

A Guiding Spirit. Secular writers might call this their Muse, but we call it the Holy Spirit. “I believe it’s always important to invite the Holy Spirit into my writing,” Taylor says. This may take the form of a simple prayer: “Help me!” Or it may be a fairly detailed conversation that confesses the writer's need of the Spirit for each day's work. However a writer expresses it, she depends upon a Power beyond her own abilities. Elizabeth Gilbert sometimes says to the Spirit, “If I’m not writing well today, that’s not entirely my fault. I showed up. Now get in here and help me.” Taylor says she expects the Spirit to inspire her work and, when she encounters a block, she believes the Spirit may be warning her that she’s headed in the wrong direction.

Joe Allison writes both fiction and nonfiction, and has been a member of the Indiana chapter of American Christian Fiction Writers since 2010. He lives in Anderson, IN, with his wife Maribeth and daughter Heather.

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