Highlights from the Frederick Buechner Writers Workshop

Frederick Buechner Writers Workshop

Here is some not-to-be-missed wit and wisdom from the speakers at this year’s Buechner Writers Workshop, which I attended last month. Good stuff, whether you’re a writer or a reader. Enjoy!

Philip Yancey:

Unless I write with specificity and passion about my own experiences, they won’t resonate with people who have had similar experiences.

I can write in opposition to the church’s abuses and distortions without being in opposition to God and the gospel.

I don’t regret any of my past bad experiences–they’re great material! That’s one of the redemptive aspects of writing.

In the gospels, people ask Jesus direct questions 183 times, and Jesus gives direct answers just three times. Most of the time he either asks his own questions in return or responds with parables. Christian books are often full of propositional statements, but comparatively little of the Bible is propositional. It’s mostly stories.

From a session called “In good company: Collaboration and the writing life,” with Jennifer Morrow, M.Div.; Tim Ross, M.Div.; Miriam Perkins, Ph.D.; and Mindy McGarrah Sharp, Ph.D.

The idea of the lone genius is a myth. More often, creativity thrives in pairs. We often interact more deeply and openly with a single person than with a group. You can’t hide in a pair!

Your creative partner can provide encouragement when you face rejection or painful feedback on your writing. It’s easier to hear truth and suggestions from a friend who loves you and expresses things graciously.

Remind each other to celebrate milestones, whether that means turning a project in or just completing the one hour you committed to write this week. Remind each other to rest and take a Sabbath.

You and your writing partner have to balance a commitment to write with flexibility for the times it doesn’t work out. You have to care not just about the work, but also about each other’s context. “How are you?” is a powerful question. Don’t just ask “How’s your writing going?”

A writing partnership can help you discover your authorial voice and where that meets readers’ needs. You can’t develop that voice without hearing from readers. You can’t just imagine your readers, so a partner can help represent them to you.

Jonathan Merritt:

When you write, don’t be pushy. Some people get so bossy they “should” all over themselves.

Be a surgeon through your writing, not a savage. The best writers can slit your throat and you won’t even know it.

Upworthy, the most successful site on the internet, has identified four ingredients that get people to click and read articles: humor, authenticity, conflict, and curiosity.

Take 10 to 20 percent of your article to empathize with the opposing viewpoint. Be aware of how you are perceived. If you are seen as a more progressive writer, reach out regularly to conservatives as well.

One good writing exercise is to look at current trends and find a connection somewhere in them to your topics of interest. You can use whatever is in the news now to talk about your interests.

Kathleen Norris:

Be hospitable to your readers. The Rule of St. Benedict says, “Receive all guests as Christ.” Inhospitable language makes the reader feel small and the speaker feel self-important–“I’m in command of these big, imposing words that project my authority.” Some pastors preach sermons that don’t give any indication to listeners that the preacher is a fellow human being! Pastors sometimes prefer to use a “stained-glass voice.”

I do not envy pastors who have me in their congregation! But I do try to let my editorial brain rest during worship.

Frederick Buechner said that the word God speaks to us is always an incarnate word. We should therefore shun language that is spectral and too ethereal and instead use the language of concrete, everyday experience.

I try to be aware of the broadest possible audience when I preach–not just the faithful, but the kid whose grandma dragged him to church.

My Jewish editor asked questions about my writing that forced me to better articulate my Christian faith. So I would highly recommend that you find a Jewish editor, too.

The body of Christ is not a group of like-minded people. It is not a club unified by a common interest. It’s the incarnational story of the gospel that unifies us.

People come to church for the relief of language that they don’t hear anywhere else.

Jeff Chu:

By telling our own stories, we’re always telling others’ stories too. What are the implications for others of telling your story?

Every reporter is always a character in telling others’ stories, even if we don’t mention ourselves specifically in the story.

Even telling the truth can hurt the subjects of our stories. They may not like how they are portrayed. It can be uncomfortable to see your own words in print. So what is our responsibility to our subjects?

Who do you include and exclude from the frame when you write? The narrative of American Christianity is largely about personal salvation, but other cultures focus more on how Christianity leads to communal liberation.

Our interactions with each other and the story-telling we do as part of that inevitably “bumps” us in a slightly different direction than we would have gone otherwise. It’s a chain reaction of influence.

Every story can be told and heard from many different viewpoints.

The most powerful stories issue invitations. They prompt us to ask, “What else?” and “What next?”

A reader, a source, a subject, a story, is not a commodity.

Full authenticity does not necessarily require full disclosure. What you choose to write about may be true, but it also may be devastating to the people involved.

Mickey Maudlin:

Publishers used to market books primarily to book sellers and not do much direct-to-consumer marketing. But now book stores are in decline, and publishers have to get the word out directly to readers.

The hard truth is that, as an editor, I’ve had to turn down many, many beautiful, rich, insightful books, because they won’t sell. Editors have to be risk assessment officers who ensure that they make a good investment.

Aim to be a half step ahead of your readers. If you’re a whole step ahead, people may not be talking about your topic yet and may not be interested. And if you’re right in step with people, they think they already know about your topic. You want to be half a step ahead, writing about a subject people are wondering about.

I think books are the communion of saints. They are a way that saints can share their ideas and their very selves and have soul-to-soul communication with us.

4 thoughts on “Highlights from the Frederick Buechner Writers Workshop

  1. I loved the part about writing partners where you remind each other to celebrate milestones- the end of a project or writing one hour like you committed to. Big and small milestones count! I also loved the idea that books are like the communion of saints. Lovely.
    Thanks for sharing the highlights!

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