My favorite writing advice is “ass in the chair.” These wise words come from the fount of Nora Roberts, epically popular writer of romance novels. I’ll cop to having read one of Roberts’ books, and not been more or less impressed than I usually am by mass-market fiction. But that advice, which I encountered in the hallowed pages of The New Yorker, reminds me – simply, potently – that if I want to write, I have to sit down and write.
This is, for me, the hardest part of writing, even if the most simply acknowledged. I love people. I am extrovert. I would rather talk to someone than do just about anything. This love is largely what led me into the ministry, that and a realization that preaching is really just talking to people about God, telling stories about what I’ve read and wondered about, about other people I’ve known.
I am rarely at a loss for ideas. I know people for whom the well dries frequently, but that’s not me. I’m a bit manic in the “thoughts I think about things,” and I read all the time, meaning there’s always something to which I can muster a response. But getting the words on the page in an intelligible form, crafting sentences, deciding it’s time to stop reading and talking to whoever’s in the vicinity, that’s the hard part.
“Ass in the chair.”
Of course, that’s only the beginning of writing, sitting down. It helps me to also have a purpose in writing, to know that I’m trading connection for solitude toward some end, for some reason. It helps me immeasurably to plunk my ass down in a chair that’s in some public space: I write much better surrounded by other bodies, in the coffee shop or the library. My husband jokes about how he helped me to finish grad school on time: he sat next to me and played video games while I wrote paper after paper. Just knowing he was there made all the difference, truly, and since I had absolutely no interest in Madden Football for the PS2, I was able to bask in his presence without distraction.
The other thing I need as a writer is an imagined audience, and that’s shaped how I categorize the writing I do. I’m never going to be a spiritual writer, someone who writes only for a divine audience, or for the pages of my journal, someone who writes mostly as a spiritual discipline. But I am someone who writes about God and church. I have decided, then, that I am a religious writer – a writer of religious, communal, practiced devotion. I write for my religious community, to share stories, to offer instruction, as a sign of love and a means of grace. It’s still work, but it reminds me that in stepping away from the immediacy of conversation or the incoming inspirations of reading, I am not turning away from the connections to others that move and energize me, but only preparing for deeper engagement.
Why do you write? For whom?
Bromleigh McCleneghan is ordained in the United Methodist Church. She’s co-author, with Lee Hull Moses, of Hopes and Fears: Everyday Theology for New Parents and Other Tired, Anxious People (Alban, 2012).