This week I’m featuring writer Robert Benson (www.robertbensonwriter.com), whose books include Between the Dreaming and 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.
LeAnne: When I heard you speak at the Mount Hermon conference several years ago, you talked about writing as art. I had been writing for magazines for a while and had attended several Christian writers conferences by then, but that was the first time I’d ever heard anyone in the Christian market refer to writing as art. It was a breath of fresh air. In the Christian market, the message is emphasized more than the art. Is there a way to balance the two?
Robert: There are writers and there are authors. Writers write sentences; authors make books. Writers write enough sentences that go together that they finally end up a paragraph. And then they end up a story, then a chapter, and then [writers] end up with a book that looks remarkably like this thing that is made by people who are authors. They look so similar it’s really hard to tell the difference but they are not the same thing. One is a message packaged in such a way that it can be sold on the shelf where people sell books. It’s propaganda, or it’s instruction, or it’s how to, or it’s teaching, or whatever else. It’s not art. It’s not writing. It’s not done by writers—it’s done by people who own typewriters. Those are two different things. Does that make sense?
Now I’m not making a value judgment. There is no value judgment being made by me about authors who write books, who have messages that they want to get out that end up being packaged between a hardcover and a spine. That’s a lovely way to do something. I’m glad for those people.
But writing is done by artists who learn the craft, find their voice, and figure out what it is they have to say that no one else has to say. That crowd of people is a smaller crowd of people. For one thing it’s a very hard life. My life is lovely—I’m not whining or complaining—but it’s not easy work. The hours are terrible. There’s a quote that goes like this: “Most people aren’t writers and very little harm ever comes to them.” But the people who are writers—it’s not an easy thing to do. It’s the only thing I would do. But if you’re going to do it, the art is all that matters.
And if you want to write, there are two questions you ask of your work. You write something and when you get to the end of it you ask, “Does this scare me to death?” Does it scare you because it’s so self-revelatory and honest that you’re afraid someone will think less of you? Does it scare you because you think it’s so out there and pushing the edge so hard that you’re afraid you’re going to get into trouble? Because if you start down this rabbit hole, the book that comes out the other end of this is going to be really scary? Does it scare you because you think you can’t sell it to anybody because you think it might be too good? So the first question is: Does it scare you?
The second question is: Does it make you gasp? Nearly everything that was ever any good scared the writer to death. And it made them gasp. It was breathtaking. It’s scary to go into the room because you’re afraid you’re going to mess it up. You think, “Oh, I’m so close to something, if I could just get it right. I can hear this in my head and if I could just get it close to right.”
Now if the answer to both of those questions—does it scare me to death and does it make me gasp—is yes, it doesn’t guarantee that what you’re going to end up with is actually any good. I will say this: if the answer to either of those questions is no, then the chances of ending up with anything that’s any good are slim and none. If you get one no or two nos, then I can guarantee it’s not going to be any good. But the craft, the work, the profession, whatever word you want to use, is in those two questions.
Generally my sense has always been that art is best served if [the message] is basically ignored. Because if you get [the art] right somebody will put it between two covers. Because editors are dying to read artistic work again. They got into this business because they read one of those and it changed them and it shaped them and they grew up saying, “I want to be a part of that.” And when they find one, they will put it between two covers. And nobody knows but you who made it, the audience that you manage to find, and the person who bought it from you.
The reason these books are not published a lot in religious markets is because not enough religious writers have the nerve and the gumption and the discipline and the dedication to write them. If you hang around religious publishing and people who write in this area long enough, you’ll hear someone start complaining that the stuff being published is not very good, that nobody publishes artistic work. The reason nobody publishes the artistic kind of work is because not enough of it is being written.
Which now gets us back to the original question—the part about the message. If you want to make art that is somehow connected to your faith, the trick is not to make it good Christianity—the trick is to make it great art. The reason you don’t get great art from writers who happen to be Christians (I prefer that way of saying it to the phrase “Christian writers”) is because they don’t have enough nerve or enough discipline, or they don’t work hard enough to find their voice, or they don’t actually learn their craft, or they don’t make things that scare them, or they don’t make things that make them gasp. They fall down not on the theology or the message side; they fall down on the art side.
It’s too easy for those of us who try to do this kind of work to say, “The market’s not interested, the publishers aren’t interested, the stores aren’t interested.” It’s just too easy. We’re letting ourselves off the hook. What we have to do is write something great. Most of us give up too soon and blame it on [publishers] and say they don’t want it. And it simply isn’t true.
More from Robert Benson on Monday.