In the past few weeks, since the launch of my newest book Follow: Your Lifelong Adventure with Jesus, a number of people have reached out to me and asked a variation of these questions:
“How do you become a writer?”
“What did you do to publish books?”
“What’s your writing process like?”
It occurred to me that these personal conversations with aspiring writers are quite powerful: artists helping artists to hone their skill, navigate their craft, share ideas, and learn from one another so that more, and better, writing happens.
So, I’m dubbing this “Writing Week” and sharing some of the best things I’ve learned the past few years “in the trenches” of writing regularly and publishing two books.
I’ll be sharing my own thoughts and journey, as well as insights from esteemed authors such as Jared Dees, Lisa Hendey, Jennifer Fulwiler, and quite a few more well known, well-seasoned, and good writers.
But before we can write…we need to first read.
A wonderfully kind, intelligent, and profoundly wise professor of mine in college, Dr. Eileen Gregory, often told us that good writers – the best writers – were well read men and women who had lots of well loved, thoroughly read books. When you walked into her office, you knew she wasn’t just saying this for show: her desk, shelves, and floor were covered with books, along with a few poking out from her briefcase. She’d reference her favorite books in class, she’d guide us through a thorough reading of whatever text we were working through, and when it came time to write papers, she’d always remind us: good writers read.
At first glance, it may seem odd to say that if you want to write, you have to first read. Why not just sit down and begin typing? Why not just put the pen to paper, scribble out some thoughts, and call yourself a writer? Because as any writer will tell you, the craft of writing is not just about getting thoughts out on paper so other people can see what you have to say…the craft of writing is about telling a story, creating a narrative, painting a picture, and weaving together words that present wise thoughts in a coherent and comprehensible way. To do that well – to be a good writer – you often have to first admit that a lot of other people do that a lot better than you. There are better writers than you. There are better writers than me, and reading their words can help us create and craft our own.
There is nothing more inspiring than reading J.R.R. Tolkien. Sitting down with a cup of tea and a copy of The Two Towers will inspire you to build worlds, let your imagination run wild, and dream dreams for your own characters and their adventures. Reading anything by Peter Keeft (and trust me, there’s a lifetime’s worth of material) reminds me to be pointed, specific, clear, and relatable any time I want to write something that explains or teaches theological truths. Working my way through Flanner O’Conner, especially her short stories, calls me to attention and challenges me to trust that my audience is smart, discerning, and paying attention.
These good authors, and so many others, have influenced my writing. They’ve helped me hone my craft. They’ve forced me to become better.
If you want to write – if you already are writing – then you need to read more. And don’t misunderstand this challenge: I’m not saying you only need to go read theological books if you want to write about theology and the faith. Go read something fun and mindless too, like Gone Girl. Reading that book had no real connection, topically, on what I was writing when I was working on Room 24. But reading it helped me become a better story teller, and allowed me to become crisp and controlled in the recounting of details while describing the setting of my classroom, or a conversation wtih a student. If you want to write fantasy fiction, you should probably go read something historical and seemingly dry as well (I highly recommend Chernow’s Hamilton biography). If you want to write a memoir, go read Aquinas. If you’re in the thick of blogging, go read something really long and drawn out, like Les Miserables (and be grateful you’re only working towards a few hundred words instead of a few million). If you want to write about theology, go read the best theological minds like Benedict XVI and John Paul II and learn, but then also give yourself permission to read someting fun, purely for the sake of letting your mind rest and your theological wheels take a break.
If you want to write, you need to read. And if you want to write really well, it couldn’t hurt to also read about writing itself. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and On Writing by Stephen King would be remarkably valuable to you, not just because they are well written books, but because they explain the beauty, challenge, struggle, and gift of this writing craft and I guarantee you will learn valuable things from them.
Good writers read so they can become better writers. They read to learn. They read to expand their minds. They read because they recognize that a lot of other people have had profoundly good and beautiful things to say as well, and before you write yourself, it may be valuable to see their take on something. Good writers are humble enough, and smart enough, to know that there are better writers than them, and those writers are worth learning from so they can improve their craft.
Happy writing. Happy reading.