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Posts Tagged ‘Bret Lott’

There’s No Such Thing as a Writer (and other thoughts for those of you thinking about writing)

Guest post by Bret Lott

I’ve been asked by the good people here at Crossway to write a guest blog post to accompany the publication of my newest book, Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian. I’m happy to do so, honored even, and hope something of what I have to say here might be of help to those of you thinking about being a writer.

Anyone Can Write

First off, I want everyone to know that anyone can write. I mean that. Early on in my writing life, a professor of mine in the writing program I was enrolled in told me, “Bret, I see no reason why you shouldn’t be in our program, but I see no reason why you should.” If I had taken his advice—because it was totally clear that he was telling me, as gently as possible, that I should give it up—then I wouldn’t be here and writing this to you today. After having taught writing for almost thirty years now, and after having published fourteen books, I know I will never deliver to anyone the news he or she shouldn’t write. Because it’s not up to me. It’s up to the one who wants to write—it’s up to you—to pursue what that means. So if you want to write, then write.

Read and Read Some More

And read, too! I never intended to become a writer, wanted to be a forest ranger and then a marine biologist and then an RC Cola salesman—really! —until I ended up one day taking a creative writing course at a local community college. I didn’t spend my life dreaming of seeing my picture on a book jacket, but with my nose buried in the book’s pages. I read my brains out, read and read and read, because I cared about what happened to the people, not about the author. It was the people who mattered most to me, and what happened to them. And because of this reading so much, I began to hear what a sentence sounded like, its cadence and rhythm, its music and rhyme, its sound. In school I always got D’s in grammar because grammar was an abstract, while I always aced my essay exams, because I could hear what a good sentence sounded like, and could tell a story about whatever subject I was addressing. Reading is, of course and always, an exploration into the world of story. But if you want to write, reading is also a rehearsal with the way words work amongst themselves, the way they create something beyond the sum of their participles and adjectives and nouns and verbs. So read, and read, and read some more.

There’s No Such Thing as a Writer

One of the first things I want people to know about writing, too, is that there really is no such thing as a writer. The world has flooded us with too many images of the artiste/auteur who lives a somewhat glamorous, somewhat tragic, somewhat romantic, and somewhat rich and famous life. But the reality is that writers are simply people who pay attention to the world around them, and who choose to put into words what they see, feel, think, and discover, all in an effort to better understand who they are and the world around them. This is because writing is an act of discovery, not an act of announcing what one already knows. That’s what I enjoy best about writing: being able to go on an adventure during which I’ll cover new terrain, come to know new people, and find out what I don’t know, finally, about what I know: about me. Writing a book is about finding out rather than lecturing.

Alone with Words

It’s also a very solitary thing to do. By definition, writing is putting down one word after another, and when you spend the requisite time and attention making sure each of those words is the right one, you’ll have no choice but to be alone with words, and hence be alone. Much in the way a monk might cloister himself away, so someone who wants to write must do with words. Writing is a kind of communing with words, and seeing what they can do, what they can’t, which ways they can go wrong, and which ways they can lead you along the path to that discovery. So if you want to write, you also need to know you’ll be spending a lot of time alone.

Sharing the Discovery

Having said that—someone who wants to write needs to be a kind of word-monk—the person who wants to write also has to be someone who wants to share what he’s done. Writing is an act of communication, an act of sharing with someone else what it is you discovered while on that slow journey toward what a story or essay or novel will deliver you. Just as we believers have been blessed so that we might be a blessing to others, those who want to write must spend intimate time alone with words so that one can then broadcast them—and that discovery you’ve made—to all the world.

Humility before Words

Finally, in this briefest of blogsville treatises on writing, it is of the utmost importance that one be humble before words. They have been around for a very long time, they are very powerful, and they are a gift from God (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” John writes of Christ Jesus), and so humility before the power words have is essential. And it is also of the utmost importance that one works boldly with those same words (“Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace,” the writer of Hebrews exhorts us, “that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”). Again, we as believers have been blessed to be a blessing; likewise, one who wants to write works carefully and intimately with words in order to give them back to the waiting world outside his or her own life. But the rewards—sharing what you have written with someone who then understands what you have seen, what you found, and what you have discovered—are more than worth the risk of cloistering oneself into the quiet and slow and lonely work that placing one good word after another can be.

God bless you in your own endeavors to write, dear reader, and thank you for the time you’ve taken in reading this!

Bret Lott (MFA, University of Massachusetts) is the New York Times best-selling author of more than a dozen books including Jewel, an Oprah Book Club selection. From 1986 to 2004 he was writer-in-residence and professor of English at the College of Charleston, leaving to take the position of editor and director of the journal The Southern Review at Louisiana State University. In 2007, he returned to the College of Charleston, where he currently teaches. He serves as nonfiction editor of Crazyhorse, and is a member of the National Council on the Arts.

Learn more about Letters & Life | Watch the Video, “On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian”

The Third Dimension of Writing: Bret Lott on Saying Exactly What You Mean

Adapted from Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian by Bret Lott Letters & Life Cover

At the beginning of every semester, I read out loud Richard Brautigan’s short story “1/3, 1/3, 1/3” to my students. I do this be­cause (1) it’s a terrific story; (2) when it comes to learning craft, I place a whole lot more stock in examining well-written work than in yammering on about the how-to of technique; and (3) this story has two of the best descriptive sentences I have ever read.

Brautigan’s writing is funny, beautiful, and strange. He was most famous for his novel Trout Fishing in America, published in 1967, for which he became a counterculture literary icon; he later committed suicide for the reasons people commit suicide: their own overruling of the gift of creation.

But this story and its remarkable voice and precision are still here and still alive.

After I read the story—it’s only four printed pages—I quiz my students, asking them which two sentences they believe are the ones I believe are among the most precise descriptions I have ever read; that is, as all good teachers are wont to do, I ask them to read my mind.

The first sentence is this:

My entrance into the thing came about this way: One day I was standing in front of my shack, eating an apple and staring at a black ragged toothache sky.

The second is,

The novelist was in his late forties, tall, reddish, and looked as if life had given him an endless stream of two-timing girlfriends, five-day drunks and cars with bad transmissions.

These are two of the most precise descriptive sentences I have ever encountered, not for the exactitude of their physical or tangible descriptions; in fact, you’ll find that the physical element of these descriptions may be merely and only serviceable, indeed might even be a bit vague. But I value these descriptions for their spiritual acu­ity. What happens in these descriptions is that a kind of descriptive triangulation occurs, and by triangulation I do not here mean the sort Bill Clinton made famous in his campaigns and subsequent presidency, that surveying of every possible side to be taken and managing somehow to support every one of them. Rather, by tri­angulation I mean the navigation technique that uses the trigono­metric properties of triangles to determine a location or course by means of compass bearings from two points a known distance apart.

First, Brautigan gives us descriptive elements that are a known distance apart; that is, we know what a “black” and “ragged” sky looks like (and if you don’t, you haven’t paid enough attention to the sky). But in giving us that next word, “toothache,” he allows us into the unseeable realm of description, the point to which we need to navigate; he gives us the spirit of the sky and so the spirit of the viewer, a young man eating an apple, the story tells us, who doesn’t know what he meant by living the way he did all those years ago. With this word “toothache,” we have been placed on a three-dimensional grid and know now not only exactly what the sky looks like but exactly the ache and trouble of mystery of a young man’s life.

The same quality of known distances apart holds for the first three descriptors of the novelist: “in his late forties, tall, and reddish.” The fact is that these words are, finally, quite dull, and quite vague. If you were a student of mine and used them in a story to describe a character, I would most likely write “ugh” in the margin, which is usually a sign that I think you’re not actually trying to write well. But if you were to append this last phrase—“and looked as if life had given him an endless stream of two-timing girlfriends, five-day drunks and cars with bad transmissions”—well, if you wrote that, I’d call you a genius.

Because, as with that toothache sky, we know not only what this guy looks like but also the spirit of this man. We could each of us go to a police lineup in which six tall, reddish men in the forties lined up against the wall, and we would know immediately the one with the endless stream of two-timing girlfriends, five-day drunks, and cars with bad transmissions. This is because the description we have been given transcends the physical and leads us into the third dimension of writing: that point when we leave simply seeing something and enter into knowing that something.

For further reflections on being Christian, on being a writer, learn more, download an excerpt, or buy now.

July 1, 2013 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Arts & Literature,Author,Books,Life & Doctrine,The Christian Life,Work & Vocation | Author: Ted Cockle @ 8:44 am | 0 Comments »

On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian (Video)

Why do you write?

How do you start writing professionally?

How do you bring the integrity of Christ to everything you do?

For acclaimed novelist Bret Lott, writing as a Christian necessitates bravery—bravery to look the world square in the eye with the unflinching eye of Christ, refusing to fit into the popular mold or forego quality for the sake of acceptance.

We invite you to watch this short and compelling video as Bret answers common questions about writing, shares about his life as writer, and talks briefly about his forthcoming book, Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian (June, 2013).

Learn more about the book.