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Writers on writing

Good writing, say four successful practitioners of the craft, requires discipline, having a story to tell-and often a day job


James Allen Walker, Genesis Photos, Sacramento Bee

Writers on writing
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Wilder Publications, which prints classic books ranging from The Federalist Papers to The Communist Manifesto, and the work of classic authors ranging from Frederick Nietzsche to G.K. Chesterton, puts a warning label on its output: "This book is a product of its time and does not reflect the same values as it would if it were written today."

I suspect that's partly untrue. Every book to some extent reflects its era, but both Nietzsche in his mad nihilism and Chesterton in his Christianity transcended the everyday preoccupations of their era. Conservatives prize the thinking of Hamilton/Madison/Jay, and leftists that of Marx and Engels, precisely because their work in part transcended their times.

Wilder Publications is also kind enough to print this humble suggestion: "Parents might wish to discuss with their children how views on race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and interpersonal relations have changed since this book was written." Well, yes-sometimes changed for the better, sometimes not. Looney Tunes has a similar disclaimer on its DVDs.

And yet, as the song from Casablanca goes, "A kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh. The fundamental things apply. As time goes by." True ideas, those we derive from the Bible, are still true no matter how many years go by. And good writers try to tell the truth, even when their publishers are skittish.

At The King's College in the Empire State Building, I and two of my colleagues, Henry Bleattler and Kiley Humphries, recently asked four writers what they do, why they do it, and when they have time to do it. Two, Bret Lott and John Lescroart, tap into truth by writing novels. Two others, Susan Wise Bauer and Naomi Schaefer Riley, tell about history and religious beliefs.

For all four, the time element is key, and that's why I've divided this feature into three sections. Lott and Lescroart are both graybeards with long, distinguished careers: Their interviews come first and last. Bauer and Riley are still establishing themselves and doing so amid raising young children: Riley has two while Bauer homeschools four (and co-manages two businesses).

The experience of all four shows that good writers have not only talent but also time management skills on loan from God. Only Lescroart is so commercially successful that he can write throughout the day, but he first spent years doing odd jobs, including working as a typist for 11 hours each day in order to have two hours to write.

Part one: Writing while teaching

Bret Lott is a fine writer of literary fiction who hit the bestseller charts when talk show host Oprah Winfrey made one of his novels, Jewel (1991), an "Oprah's Book Club" selection. He is a South Carolina resident and a professor at the College of Charleston.

Q: What is your writing day like? My alarm clock is set for 5:15 a.m. I go upstairs with my coffee cup and I pray. I start out by praying on my knees and I read the Bible. I sit down at my desk and start working. Working means looking at what I have written the day before and going through it and editing it, seeing what is happening and hearing that voice, and then moving forward with it. Things are always in flux, but a good day of writing ends at 10 a.m. I teach two classes and have four independent studies and other teaching.

Q: What was your day like in 1999 when you got the phone call from Oprah? It was a very long very bad day. I had just finished my ninth book (Jewel was my fourth published) and it was a disaster. I spent all morning talking to my agent about this novel that was due a month prior and what a disaster it was. That day at lunch one of my students died.

Q: Just died? He died in his dorm room. He was 51 years old and he had a brain aneurism. When they found him he was reading one of my novels and had just keeled over. All kinds of mayhem kind of broke out and I happened to be answering the phones for the administrative director. . . . All of a sudden this woman says, "Bret, this is Oprah, we are going to have so much fun!"

The first part of my day: the novel did not work. Then this fellow died. I knew immediately that God is the God of all folks whether you believe in Him or not. It kept me very humbled. This guy dies and you realize a book does not even mean anything.

Q: When you write a story like Jewel that is based on real characters, how do you go about synthesizing the reality with the creativity and the fiction? Jettison the facts. Facts drag you down when you write fiction. On the other hand, I wrote about 50 pages of Jewel and thought I needed to know some things: "What was your favorite radio program when young, what was the first new car that you and grandpa ever owned, what is the best dress that you had when you were a teenager." My grandma starts talking about these things and she started telling me about this one time my grandpa took her out on the canoe on this family picnic and he took her into the bulrushes and my grandpa made love to my grandma in the bulrushes. I was sitting in grandma's kitchen listening to this and I was like, "Grandma, I do not want to know that." But, it ends up in the novel. It is true. They were a husband and a wife. They love each other.

Q: Did you always want to be a writer? I did grow up looking at author photos and thinking of the romance and glamour of being a writer. I read my brains out and I enjoyed reading but I had a love of being in the outdoors. My freshman year I went to Northern Arizona University in the school of forestry. Then I went to Cal State Long Beach as a marine biology major because I liked to go to the beach. Then I got a D in a physics course. I had to get a C or better in order to continue in a marine biology major. I quit college and became an RC Cola salesman in Southern California.

Q: Then you decided to get a degree? The only night I had free was Tuesday night and the only course at a little community college that was offered was creative writing. I took this class and I used to wear my RC Cooler uniform to class. The professor was a poet who rode a Harley. This was 1977. He had long flowing hair and John Denver glasses. He parked his Harley right in front of the classroom door. I would walk in, in my RC uniform, and he would just shake his head.

Q: Did he like your writing? I went back to college and then I decided to go to graduate school. He was a professor at Cal State Long Beach and would not even write me a letter of recommendation even though he was my creative writing teacher. I had to scrounge up a couple of letters.

Q: While you were in college, you also became a believer. Yes, I did, when I was at Northern Arizona University. The light bulb of the Holy Spirit went off over my head and after that I was born again. . . . I was a believer before I ever took a creative writing class and my idea of what writing was: an evangelical tool. I could not figure out what is the point of fiction. Fiction is a lie. What am I doing here? I am trying to tell a lie? I had better be in service to the greater good then if I am going to lie. This was a very immature idea of what I was supposed to be doing as a writer. I struggled with this for a long time and I wrote to John White, an old InterVarsity Press author I had met. He wrote back-it is a really important letter in my life-and said, "you must write with the integrity of Christ," which means you do not pander, you simply see clearly and with compassion the world around you. That is your job.

Q: What advice do you tend to give inquirers about writing? A lot of people think that a writer is some wise shaman and they are ready to have wisdom bestowed upon them. No. I tell them I am struggling with the same problems they are. There is nothing new. There is simply the question of how does that guy hold his coffee cup? Why is she thinking about that dress? What does that car look like in the driveway? These are the things that will build through detail to the actual story.

Q: Do people learn how to write in school? We generally write about themes and symbols. That is not where creative writing comes from. Creative writing comes from the child who wants to have a story. Tell me something I do not know. What is happening? Why am I compelled to read this? That is where a story comes from. It is no secret. It's just sitting alone at a desk and seeing the thing happen and writing it the best way that you can.

Q: Some critics do not seem to know what to do with your 12 books, since they are not ironic or cynical. Forgiveness, redemption: This is not the language that the world traffics in. The easy way is ironic aloofness. The hard way, which I think is much more valuable, is how do you find redemption, how do you find worth and value to life. That is not ironic. It is not cynical. People are not sure what to do with that.

Q: What do you think about Christian fiction generally? Christian fiction needs to be tougher. It does not need to have more sex, drugs, and alcohol. It has to offer a real portrait of the terror that believers have to confront and nonbelievers live in every day. -interview by Henry Bleattler

Part two: Writing with children

Susan Wise Bauer also teaches-at The College of William and Mary, where she received her Ph.D. in American Studies-but adds to that the homeschooling of four children. She finds time to write history books that children and adults enjoy reading.

Q: Sounds like your days are busy. What is a normal day for you? We have a master schedule that says what everyone is doing at each hour of each day and that includes which adult is in the house, what each child is supposed to be doing, who is responsible for the kids. My husband and I both do a lot of our work at home so part of our arrangement is that when the children erupt from their rooms at eight o'clock until after lunch, I am on duty. Anything that happens is my problem so that my husband can work.

Q: And after lunch? We swap off. But, as anyone who has kids will tell you, it is not always that neat. It's also something that changes as our children grow older.

Q: More work or less work as your children have gotten older? The homeschooling duties have increased. I have a lot of help. We have a joint household. My husband and I live in the farmhouse where my parents live and we divided it into two. A laundry room joins the two halves of the house. We meet over the washing machine.

Q: Your latest publication, The History of the Medieval World, is volume two of a projected four-volume series in world history. What led you to tackle this seemingly immense project? As a homeschooling mother I could not find a good world history resource. There were plenty of American history resources, especially for elementary students, but nothing that was global in scope. I thought, "Oh, I will write one myself." So, I did. I wrote a four-volume world history for children. One day my editor at Norton calls me up and said, "You should do this for grownups. You should write a history of the world." . . . I said, "I am not a professional historian. I teach writing."

Q: How did he respond? He said, "I would not ask a historian to do something like this." I had no idea what he was talking about until I got into the project and I realized that if you are a dedicated professional historian with a passion for one particular country and topic, you could never do a global narrative because you would feel that you were shorting that area in which you have expertise.

Q: You write with lots of specific detail. One of my role models, historian Barbara Tuchman, said she distrusts historians who make broad sweeping generalizations about human nature. If you cannot find a specific story to illustrate whatever broad generalization you are about to make, you should not make the assumption. I found myself, especially with the first book, reading lots of sources that said things like, "the ancient Greeks prized philosophy." I would think, "Where is the story? Where is the person? Where is the book? How do we know this?" I was always trying to ground those general assumptions in a story. When you are working with ancient cultures there is a limited set of stories which are very old which you use to try to figure out what was actually going on there.

Q: You started studying Latin at the age of 10. You can also read French, Aramaic, Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. What has been the importance of language in terms of research and writing? Most practically, it means that you are not dependent on others to find out what is being written in other cultures. Anytime you are dependent on a translator, you are absorbing the translator's point of view and the author's. It is very difficult to pull those two apart. I wish I had better fluency in more languages than I do, especially working on a world history. It has been quite frustrating to try to deal with primary sources in Sanskrit, which at this point in my life I am never going to learn. To try and figure out what is being said there and what is being imported by the translator is almost impossible to do.

Q: In the two adult history books on which you've worked, what are some of the things that you discovered in the research process that really surprised you about a particular culture or moment? With The History of the Medieval World, one of the things that really stood out to me was the role that religion plays in every country's politics. You do not think of Buddhism, for example, as being a big tool of political domination in the Middle Ages, but it was. Every religion was put to use during the Middle Ages as a way to persuade. No religious impulse-including the ones which are all about detachment and giving up political power-is not used in that way. -interview by Henry Bleattler

Naomi Schaefer Riley's book on religious life at college campuses, God on the Quad, received glowing reviews. She is now writing one book about why university tenure should be abolished and editing another book about pop culture and virtue. Riley, her husband who is also a writer, and their two children, live in New York.

Q: What is a day in the life of a writing couple with two young children? The kids wake up at 6. I drop off my daughter at nursery school, the babysitter comes at 9 or 10, she picks up Emily from the nursery school and is there until 4 or 5, so that gives me maybe four or five hours-maybe two writing hours. Then she goes home, I give the kids dinner, Jason comes home, the kids go to bed, and we start all over.

Q: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer? I was bad at math in school. Academia seemed like a career I wanted to pursue, both because of my family and also it was clear to me from a very young age that my mother had the lifestyle I wanted: She was able to both work and spend a lot of time with her kids. But I like interviewing much better than book research at the library, and I find it easier to write when I don't have to think of everything off the top of my head. A little bit of advice for people who are reluctant to do interviews: The story writes itself once you've called everybody.

Q: What prompted God on the Quad? It started out as one long article about Ave Maria Law School and Patrick Henry College. I turned it in and an editor said it would make a good book. So I started applying for fellowships.

Q: Why this kind of book? There are people who write books much more quickly, but I think the right kind of book for a young person to do is one that involves a lot of research and establishes you as being an expert at something. There are people who start writing memoirs at 23, but I think that this is a much better model for a first book: Pick a topic that people haven't researched extensively enough, and if you have the energy and you can get the funding, go do a lot of research and interviews and then write. That makes you credible, and otherwise at that age you're just not. I wasn't.

Q: What was your timeline for the writing process? I did the research in 2001-2002, and the book was published at the beginning of 2005. So it was a process. It takes a long time.

Q: And not without help. I would come back from each college with tape after tape after tape. I would transcribe all of them, sit there with mounds and mounds of interviews, and think, "Where do I start?" Terry Teachout, a well-known journalist, kindly agreed to be my adviser for this. So I would sit in his office and unload all these stories from my visits, and he would help me think about the themes that I was telling him over and over again. -interview by Kiley Humphries

Part three: Writing popular novels

John Lescroart regularly hits the bestseller lists with his scintillating legal thrillers that feature fallible heroes working amid San Francisco craziness.

Q: When did you start thinking about being a writer? In the 7th or 8th grade, I had a teacher named Mrs. Blew, a believer in the written word. She really drilled the grammar. The bug hit me when she had us write an essay on "What is Democracy?" I got fired up about democracy. The local newspaper published my essay in a big box and a beautiful setting. I went, "This is the coolest thing I've ever seen."

Q: But throughout your twenties you wanted to be a musician. When I got out of school in 1970 I really was taken by the conventional wisdom, which was that no one in 20 years would be reading. It would all be music and magazines. The novel was dead. I became a professional musician, I was a solo player for the first couple of years, then formed a band. I quit on my 30th birthday. I had a ton of demos and a few good songs, but I couldn't put it together to get a record deal.

Q: In your thirties during the 1980s, you decided to become a writer. I got up at 5:30 and from 6 to 8 every morning tried to write four pages. Then I worked my day job from 9 to 5: I was the head of the word processing department at a large law firm in Los Angeles. Then I ate a paper bag meal and did various typing jobs at other law firms until 11. So my day went from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. I did that for six years and published three books. Nobody bought any of them. I was disciplined, but I lived in a sense of panic because it wasn't working. The day job was really onerous. I typed literally 11 hours a day. I had bad carpal tunnel. I had wristbands on and wraps around my elbows. It was intense.

Q: Maybe you could list other jobs you had over the years. How much time do you have? I was a bartender in San Francisco, a legal secretary at the Bank of America, a moving man, house painter. From the age of 30 until 45, it was pretty brutal.

Q: You had a crucial moment when you were 41. We went to the beach and went body surfing. Later that night I was delirious: spinal meningitis. A summer rainstorm had flooded the sewers but they didn't put up any warnings. I was in a coma for 11 days. When I woke up from that, I knew I couldn't keep doing the 16- to 18-hour days plus trying to figure out the novel. I said if I don't make it now, I'll become a lawyer. I took a chance and decided not to just write another book, but a different type of book-a legal thriller.

Q: So you wrote The 13th Juror. It became a huge international sensation-sold four million copies in 1994. That's when I finally quit my day job. I got a check for $630,000, more than I had made my whole life. That will change your life in a hurry.

Q: People call your books legal thrillers, but they're really about how humans survive under duress. I try to find a very good duress point to start the book. My books tend to start when people are happy and that lasts for about three pages. Then they are very unhappy very quickly, plunged into this deep abyss. Then I pile on the physical and moral complication: That is what turns the book.

Q: How do you think through the moral implications? I write scene by scene. I usually know my inciting incident and the issues I'm going to be dealing with, the themes. Then I start writing in scenes. The "show, don't tell" mantra is true. If you just have characters doing things, people reveal themselves and their problems to you in actions. So the action is about character, and things follow organically once you get a good start and you pay attention to the individual scenes. The characters take on a life of their own.

Q: I've been in discussions about the relationship between God's sovereignty and human free will. Seems to me the process is like writing: The writer is the creator, but the characters assert their free will. Yes, you're right. It's a tremendous conflict. Often it will almost stop you dead, because you're trying to shape a plot: If the characters don't want to be in your template, you have problems. You can't force them against their nature. Once you get to know these characters they really speak to the author and tell him or her what they are going to do.

Q: When you're creating antagonists, how do you balance making them believable-not stock villains-while still making readers want to oppose them? Action is character. I try to have several people who are legitimate suspects in a mystery, complicated human people, all of whom have flaws. I have the same kind of flaws occur in people who are factually innocent as in the one person who is factually guilty. My lead guy, Dismas Hardy, is mega-flawed. He has problems being a good father and sometimes he is confused and isn't always sure what the right thing to do is. I deal with most of my characters on those terms-they're living in a veil of tears.

Q: Some would-be writers say they need to be inspired. There's no such thing as inspiration. That's the answer. I mean there's inspiration, but it's not where you start. I'll write recipes, jokes; I'll do anything to get the fingers on the typewriter. There are a lot of socks to be sorted and if you focus on how many socks there are to sort, you'll never write. Don't think about that. I get up in the morning, go into the gym and work out, then get into my desk by 10:30 and write until five.

Q: It's work. The writing itself is work, and it takes dedication. The advice I give to younger people or anyone who wants to be in any creative field: Finish something. Finishing is the most important step of being any kind of creative person, because you only solve the problems by getting to the end. Those are where all of those problems come up, and if you solve those problems, you're a writer, you're an artist. You have to work through the problems of plot and structure until you get a satisfying ending. Sometimes you'll get it and sometimes it will be harder. You have to finish. -interview by Marvin Olasky (Editor's note: This article was edited to reflect that Brett Lott was an RC Cola salesman in Southern California.)


Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.

@MarvinOlasky

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