Leave Room for Grace

In last week’s Writing with Caspian lecture/discussion, we got on the subject of “leaving room for grace” in your writing. In the class forums a couple of people had questions about what that even means, so I thought it might be a good topic for a Tuesday letter.

If you’ve written very much, you have likely noticed that the most interesting things about your writing are the things you weren’t planning to say when you sat down to write. Your most persuasive arguments, your most insightful observations, your most surprising plot twists, your characters’ most compelling actions—many of those things weren’t there in your original conception of the essay or story. I have written four novels; only one of them ended in a way that even closely resembled my original idea for the ending. And even that ending didn’t resemble the original all that closely.

Something beyond your conscious mind is at work when you write—rather, I should say hopefully something beyond your conscious mind is at work. To keep that possibility in mind is to leave room for grace in your writing. Too often I set out to answer questions I already know the answer to. Or I look to craft an argument based on ideas I had before I started writing. One way to feel confident that you are mastering a subject is to shrink the subject down to something that you feel you have already mastered. That, friends, is a shortcut to mediocrity.

Some of us have to have an outline before we’ll even start writing. I’m one of those people. But if the end product matches the original outline, something has probably gone wrong. I have probably missed out on some magic. So I write the outline, but I hold it very loosely, in the hope that once I wade in, something better than those initial ideas is coming.

Lee Isaac Chung is director of the much acclaimed film Minari, which won Best Foreign-Language Film at the Golden Globes earlier this week. In an interview with Jeffrey Overstreet, he spoke of this openness to grace in specifically theological terms:

“Sometimes I feel like I’m making films, I kind of pray and make a deal with God . . . I’m going to work with this assumption, but God, I’d like you to surprise me somehow, surprise me in this and show up. As we all go to these theaters and we sit down in the dark and watch these things, we’re all searching. We’re all kind of lost in some way.”


Yes. That sounds just right to me. You proceed with your assumptions about what you’ve started writing, and you pray that God will show up and surprise you. Maybe you’re an absolutely brilliant writer. I congratulate you. Still, if you don’t leave room for grace in your work, you will be limited to the scope of your own brilliance. You can do better than that.

As I mentioned last week, I’ve been reading A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, the new George Saunders book about fiction-writing. In one especially interesting section, he talks about the fact that the highly developed moral sense in Tolstoy’s fiction wasn’t always evident in Tolstoy’s domestic life. Does that make Tolstoy a hypocrite? Well, that’s very possible, but there’s also something else going on according to Saunders, and according to Milan Kundera, whom Saunders cites.

Kundera observes that in the first draft of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, “Anna was a most unsympathetic woman, and her tragic end was entirely deserved and justified.” But the Anna that readers know is much more complex; we sympathize with her and understand something of her struggle, even if we can’t approve of her choices. The universe of the published novel exemplifies that moral expansiveness that Tolstoy is so famous for.

So what happened? Did Tolstoy experience some personal transformation between the time he started Anna Karenina and the time he finished? His wife’s diary suggests that he did not. Milan Kundera has another theory:

I do not believe that Tolstoy had revised his moral ideas in the meantime; I would say, rather, that in the course of writing, he was listening to another voice than that of his personal moral conviction. He was listening to what I would like to call the wisdom of the novel. Every true novelist listens for that suprapersonal wisdom, which explains why great novels are always a little more intelligent than their authors. Novelists who are more intelligent than their books should go into another line of work.

What I’ve been calling grace, Kundera calls suprapersonal wisdom. For you Presbyterians out there, this suprapersonal wisdom is a variety of common grace, available to all writer who remain open to it—all writers who aren’t “more intelligent than their books.”

And what is the path to this suprapersonal wisdom? Even if you pray for it, like Lee Isaac Chung does, you still have to do the work. It doesn’t come magically. George Saunders writes, “As Kundera suggests, the writer opens himself up to that ‘suprapersonal wisdom’ by technical means. That’s what ‘craft’ is: a way to open ourselves up to the suprapersonal wisdom within us.” I would suggest that this suprapersonal wisdom isn’t always “within us,” but often beyond us. I don’t wish to quibble, however. Wherever it’s coming from, you make space for it by doing the work and staying open to the possibility that something better is coming.

Additional reading from the archives of The Habit Weekly:
“It’s not your job to be a genius”
“Be more brilliant: The back-to-school issue”

Season 3, Episode 8: Poet Ben Myers Believes in Re-Incarnation

In this week’s episode of The Habit Podcast, I talk with Benjamin P. Myers, former Poet Laureate of Oklahoma and author of A Poetics of Orthodoxy: Christian Truth as Aesthetic Foundationand Black Sunday.

In A Poetics of Orthodoxy, poet Ben Myers makes the case that Christian orthodoxy provides a “reality-based way of knowing what kinds of poetry, what poetic characteristics, most resonate with true human experience.” Poetry, he argues, is a kind of re-incarnation (not THAT kind of reincarnation), and so works against the disembodying tendencies of the digital age. 

In A Poetics of Orthodoxy, poet Ben Myers makes the case that Christian orthodoxy provides a “reality-based way of knowing what kinds of poetry, what poetic characteristics, most resonate with true human experience.” Poetry, he argues, is a kind of re-incarnation (not THAT kind of reincarnation), and so works against the disembodying tendencies of the digital age. 

Keeping a Notebook + Psalms of Lament

I’ve been reading two excellent books about writing. One is George Saunders’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life. The book consists of seven short stories by Russian writers, each followed by a detailed analysis by Saunders. It’s shaping up to be the best book about fiction-writing I’ve ever read. On Thursday I’ll be doing a webinar-workshop with The Habit Membership in which we’ll work through an especially interesting exercise from that book. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about A Swim in a Pond in the Rain in a later issue of The Habit Weekly.

The second book is Essays One, a collection of essays by Lydia Davis. It’s not, properly speaking, a book about writing, but a good many of the essays in the collection are about writing. One of the best is “Thirty Recommendations for Good Writing Habits” (you can read an abridged version—involving ten of the thirty recommendations—here).

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Special Episode of The Habit Podcast: Writing Psalms of Lament

A couple of weeks ago, theologian, seminary professor, and author David O. Taylor proposed a special episode of The Habit Podcast devoted to the writing of psalms of lament.  He wrote,

I was thinking of ways that this year’s Lent might be experienced more deeply for folks in my own community in light of all the sorrow and loss that people have experienced over the past year… There’s something uniquely beneficial to crafting our own lament psalms in order to help us to become more vulnerably present to God.

I thought a more practical, hands-on episode of The Habit Podcast was a great idea. David has developed writing workshop for his students at Fuller Seminary and for church groups in which he walks participants through the process of writing psalms of lament.

In this week’s episode of The Habit Podcast, David gives an overview of this workshop and challenges listeners to write their own psalms of lament and to share them with others.

I have made a page of resources that includes David Taylor’s worksheet to help walk you through the process, an excerpt on the Psalms of Lament from David’s latest book, Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life, and a link to a guest sub-forum within the Habit forums whereby writers can share their psalms. I hope you’ll share yours.

What Are You Good At?

One of my favorite things about teaching writing is being able to say to another writer, “You’re good at this. Did you know it?” Sometimes it’s obvious to me that a writer has an ear for dialogue, say, or a gift for sensory description, but it’s not obvious to the writer.

In writing, as in other areas of human endeavor, it is important to know what you’re good at and to build out from there. It’s natural enough to want to shore up your weaknesses. But it’s even more important to shore up your strengths.

I once had a student who described a hospital room as smelling like ham and band-aids. I thought that was just about perfect. There were several equally evocative bits of sensory images in the same short piece. My student seemed surprised that I was so excited about those images; she had no idea she was a natural at sensory images. She expected our conversation to focus on the fact that her dialogue wasn’t great. The dialogue wasn’t great, and we talked about that, but mostly we talked about the things she was doing well—the things that could be the basis of a distinct (and honest) voice.

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S3: Ep6: Jen Pollock Michel on The Habit of Faith

It’s release day for Jen Pollock Michel‘s, new book, A Habit Called Faith: 40 Days in the Bible to Find and Follow Jesus.

In this week’s episode of The Habit Podcast, Jen and I discuss the inescapability of seeing what we expect to see, habits as way of creating your own momentum, the stifling posture of spectatorship, and the lessons to be learned from finishing well.

Time to Start Those Valentine Love Letters and Poems

It’s February 9, the last Tuesday before Valentine’s Day, which means it’s time for my fourth-annual Tuesday letter about love letters and poems. In 2018, 2019, and 2020, I ended up giving more or less the same advice to the love-letter-lorn. Now that it’s 2021, I’m going to give the same advice. I make no apologies.

Start with Memory, Not Emotion

Here are two counterintuitive truths about writing:

  1. It’s hard to evoke emotion when you speak of emotion directly.
  2. Your feelings aren’t original. In fact, they are among the least original aspects of your experience. We all feel the same emotions.

Expressing (and evoking) strong emotion is the whole point of a love letter or love poem. And your beloved deserves something as original as he or she is. So what is a love-letter-writer to do?

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S3: Ep5: Tish Harrison Warren Isn’t Afraid to Be Vulnerable

Tish Harrison Warren’s new book is Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.

In this week’s episode of The Habit Podcast, I speak with Tish Harrison Warren about the difference between true human vulnerability and the “curated” vulnerability of Instagram, writing as an inescapable encounter with one’s own weakness, and the under-appreciated gift of receiving well-placed criticism.

Begging the Question

I mostly avoid the “frequently misused expressions” subgenre of writing advice. But for you, I’ll make an exception. This week I want to talk about the frequently misused expression “begging the question” — not because its misuse is a particular pet peeve, but because its proper use speaks to an important concept.

Usually when people use the phrase “this begs the question,” they mean something like “this brings up the question…” or “here is a question that begs to be answered…” As in, “This begs the question: why was your dog even IN a piano bar at 1am?”

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S3: Ep4: Lisa Deam Invites You on a Pilgrimage

Lisa Deam is an art historian and the author of 3,000 Miles to Jesus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life for Spiritual Seekers. (She also blogs at The Contemplative Writer.)

In this week’s episode, Lisa and I discuss the process of writing as a pilgrimage, the human desire to leave signposts for those who come after us, the infamous “long middle” of the writing journey, and the instructive power of inefficiency.

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