Robert Benson (www.robertbensonwriter.com) writes and speaks often on the meditative life. His thoughts have been featured on NPR’s national program “Studio 360.” Known for his warmth and creative style, he invites readers to seek and savor the sacred that is to be found in the ordinary of our lives. His books include Between the Dreaming and the Coming True (HarperCollins), Living Prayer and The Game (Tarcher), That We May Perfectly Love Thee and A Good Life (Paraclete), The Body Broken (Doubleday), Home by Another Way (WaterBrook), and Digging In: Tending to Life in Your Own Backyard (WaterBrook). He lives in Nashville, Tennessee.
A few years ago, I heard Robert Benson speak at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers conference. As the keynoter, he spoke for an hour or so every evening. He talked a lot about his story, about faith and art and writing and prayer. His words both renewed my vision of doing something different with my writing and motivated me to dust off my softball glove.
Robert’s a huge baseball fan, and when he read from his book The Game, I remembered my own love of softball growing up. I thought of how my big sister and I would spend summer evenings in the back yard with our parents teaching us to field grounders, snag flies, and hit the ball. Those memories are so gorgeous to me that they take on a hazy sort of glow, soft around the edges. I enjoyed reliving them.
One afternoon about halfway through the conference, I saw Robert in a courtyard with a small group of young people. He was throwing a ball with an attendee who had the foresight to bring her glove to the conference with her. The fact that it had never occurred to me to pack my own did not deter me. I walked up and asked, “Can I play?” He grinned and said, “Sure. You can use my glove.” As the young writer and I threw a few, we all talked about our favorite baseball teams and about our writing. Pretty soon, Robert needed to leave for a meeting and I needed to find a quiet place to put pen to paper.
What Robert said that week inspired me and continues to do so even now. Last month, I had the opportunity to sit down with him and have a lengthy conversation about writing and art. He was in town for ICRS, the International Christian Retail Show, for the release of his new book, Digging In: Tending to Life in Your Own Backyard. Because we talked for quite a while, I have more material than I usually do and will be featuring him this week as well as next Monday. It’s a pleasure to share his insights with you.
LeAnne: When you spoke at the Mount Hermon conference, you talked about three things that writers should do. What are they?
Robert: I was taught and I believe that a writer has three jobs: the first is to learn the craft, the second is to find their voice, and the third is to figure out what they have to say. It’s hard for one writer to speak for all writers, because writers operate differently. However for most people the first pile of stuff you write is easy because you’re running on pure talent. It comes out of pure talent, pure joy, and pure exuberance. If you want to figure out how to make a living of this—I love art for art’s sake, it just doesn’t pay very well—then at some point you have to be paid to do it. Otherwise you don’t have time to do it. And if you want to be paid to do this, you’re going to have to learn the craft.
The way to learn the craft is to do it every day on a disciplined, organized, rigorous basis. Do it and get better at it. I knew I wanted to write books when I was 13 years old. I spent 15 years writing corporate communications copy, figuring that if I could ever get a guy to pay me by the hour to write sentences, then I’d learn to write sentences well enough to get somebody to read them if I ever got them published in a book. You’ve got to learn the craft and the only way to learn it is to do it all the time and, frankly, see if somebody will pay for it. If nobody will pay for it, and nobody will listen, nobody will run your columns, nobody will run your essays, you haven’t learned it. Getting the first one published is easy. It’s the next one and the next one and the next one and the next one that aren’t necessarily based on true talent—they’re based on craft. Learn the craft.
The second thing is you have to discover your voice. It takes a while to figure out your voice and the only way to do it is to keep working until you begin to sound like no one else. I discovered I had my own voice within about a six week period of time. When you write corporate communications copy, your job is to take a company’s story and write it in their voice so that when a prospective client or customer reads it, it’s a Rand McNally way of talking or a Wheaton College voice. You have to learn those voices and write the way those companies talk. So, I was turning in some work to six of my best clients and they all kept throwing it back saying, “It doesn’t sound like us.” At the end of six weeks, I was thinking maybe I couldn’t do this anymore. Then it occurred to me: It all sounds like me.
You discover a way that you have—a lilt, a rhythm, a pace, a structure—and it doesn’t sound like anyone else. A lot of times, especially for young writers, the first crowd of compliments is “oh, that reminds me of Fred Buechner” or “that reminds me of Annie Dillard” or “that sounds like…” We don’t actually need an Annie Dillard, we don’t actually need a Fred Buechner, we don’t need a Thomas Merton. We already have one of each. You can tell you’ve begun to find your voice when people no longer say “oh that sounds like...” It’s really a subtle kind of thing. Every once in a while someone will say something nice and compare something I do with someone I admire and that’s a lovely thing. But if it happens very often, it occurs to me that I’m not working very hard, and I’ve gotten sloppy and lazy.
So you’ve got to learn the craft, find your voice.
And the last part is this: you have to figure out what it is that you have to say, preferably that no one has either said or has to say, stories you can tell that no one else can, the stuff you care about that nobody else seems to care about. Annie Dillard said in The Writing Life (I’m paraphrasing): “A writer looking for subjects does not look for what other people love but for what he alone loves.” In the Christian publishing market, I suppose that any of us who can write sentences can probably write Bible studies. I suppose I could do that but then no one will tell the stories that only I can tell.
What I’m interested in is a writer who says, “These are the things that only I can do,” whatever it is. It’s how you get to original work. For me as a writer, for me as a reader, for me as a participant in conversations with other writers about writing, original is all that matters. Publishing doesn’t actually matter. Original writing matters and the only way to get that is to learn the craft, to find your own voice, and to find out what it is you have to say—the stories you have to tell that no one else will tell or can tell. Everything else is derivative.
More from Robert Benson on Thursday.