As we kick off 2014 and welcome applications for our summer writing workshops, we are beginning a new blog series on writing and the life of faith. Our first entry is an interview with Lauren Winner. Lauren is an assistant professor of Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School and the author of numerous books, including Girl Meets God, Real Sex, and most recently, Still. Over the past two summers, Lauren has facilitated writing workshops at the Collegeville Institute. She returns to the Collegeville Institute this summer to lead the writing workshop Deepening Words: Writing and the Spiritual Life—A Week with Lauren Winner. In this interview, Janel Kragt Bakker asks Lauren about writing and the spiritual life.
What makes for compelling spiritual writing?
I appreciate a narrator who sees the world in some way that is interestingly similar or interestingly different from how I see the world. I also look for lyrical, beautiful writing; I want to at least have the impulse to underline something I find memorable. Good spiritual writing does not always tie up all the loose ends, but it should offer some insight. If a person can write beautifully but doesn’t have anything to say, I won’t want to read his or her work. These three things together make for compelling spiritual writing.
What is the relationship between writing and the spiritual life?
I know a lot of writers experience their writing as prayer. I don’t, but I find it essential for self-discovery and clearing my own thoughts. A question I’ve been pondering recently is, “What is the relationship between self-knowledge and knowledge of God?” Various Christian traditions have viewed that relationship differently. Somehow, for me, the ability to clarify my own thought and the capacity to pay attention, come through writing. Those processes are integrally part of the spiritual life.
How does your audience figure into this relationship?
There’s a difference between what I write and what I publish. The non-published stuff doesn’t have much of an audience except for God, my computer, and me. As a published writer, my regard for my audience begins with my reading. There are people for whom reading does not occupy a central place in their spiritual life; I am not one of those people. Reading has been and continues to be so crucial in my spiritual life that I see publishing as a kind of gratitude offering. If ten people read something I have written and feel companioned by it, I feel I am repaying a debt of gratitude.
In your spiritual writing, you’re funny as well as deeply serious. Spiritual writing is so often earnest to a fault. Why do you think this is?
This may actually be a spiritual problem more than a writing problem. People are not encouraged to be playful when it comes to God or their spiritual lives.
For several years now I have been practicing, fairly regularly, a mode of praying that comes from Sybil MacBeth’s book Praying in Color. It is basically praying via doodling. I have taught this mode of praying in a number of contexts, and I often ask people, “How might your spiritual life or your relationship with God be different if you did this for five or ten years?” Often they answer that it would be more playful.
I suspect what’s funny in my writing is me making fun of myself. Self-deprecation can certainly be overdone in spiritual memoir, but it has a place and helps create a narrator that people can trust.
What do you see as the hazards of spiritual writing?
Abstraction is one potential danger. And depending on what religious community we come from and who is sending us, some of us come to the task of spiritual writing thinking that there is a set of things that we can’t say and a set of questions that we can’t explore honestly. That’s a problem.
Christian spiritual writing has its own clichés. We have “christianese” and “evangelicalese.” Sometimes words, concepts, and even specific writers become placeholders so that we don’t really have to dig down very deep.
How do you understand the relationship between spiritual writing and preaching? How do these genres overlap and how do they differ?
I love writing sermons, and probably my greatest writing energy in the last few years has gone to writing sermons. In my own writing life, the difference between writing a sermon and writing something else is that my sermons are responses to scriptural passages, and little else that I write directly engages passages of scripture. Through writing sermons I have developed a lively relationship with scripture.
I try to avoid being too “preachy” in the pulpit as well as in my writing. I am willing to be prescriptive on some occasions, but I think that prescriptiveness needs to be earned. The genre of spiritual memoir tends to have less prescriptiveness than sermonizing, and more wondering and musing. But I think you can do a little wondering and musing in the pulpit, and you can also do some non-wondering and non-musing. Conversely, there is also a place for speaking directly in the spiritual memoir.
When I am writing a spiritual memoir, the prescriptiveness tends to come out of another character’s mouth. It is usually they and not I who say the underlinable thing. Rarely do I do that in the pulpit. Also in the pulpit, I shy away from the first person. I will use it sometimes, but I’ve written many a sermon not grounded in the first-person. In memoir the text is my life; in a sermon the text is scripture.
You write in a variety of genres, including academic writing, sermons and spiritual memoir. How do the various genres interact in your life as a writer?
The pure academic writing, which I don’t do a lot of, is probably the most different from other kinds of writing. It allows me to drill down into a highly analytical subject and worry over something more than I would in other forms. When I am doing pure academic writing, I feel like I am exercising a different set of muscles. Having those muscles in shape serves the other types of writing that I do.
I think it is good for writers to have a primary genre, but to do some writing and certainly some reading in other genres. For example, I don’t write any poetry, but I read a lot of it. I keep saying I am going to take a poetry writing class or a play writing class—not because I think I am going to become a playwright, but just to learn something new.
Still, Girl Meets God, and Real Sex are often deeply personal. What are the implications of sharing intimate aspects of your life with others through your writing?
I don’t really think about it, to be honest. I don’t readily imagine myself saying, “Oh, someone just told me they read my book, and they know all about my ex-boyfriend,” or whatever it might be. In reality people don’t remember much of what they read. And it would be the utmost in self-aggrandizing flattery to imagine that people are walking around remembering minute details of my autobiography.
If you asked me about whether or not to include personal information in your writing, I’d say that if you are worried something will keep you up at night if you publish it, then don’t publish that information. But worry about it at the publication stage. Don’t let that question prevent you from doing the writing.
What is your current project?
I am currently finishing a book about overlooked biblical images for God. Each chapter picks an image and says, “What is this image, and what is it doing?” In one chapter, I am writing that God is a comedian. There are moments when God commands or provokes laughter. What does that tell us about God, and what avenues in the spiritual life might open up if we paid attention to this idea?
I can’t imagine writing memoir after memoir. First of all, I don’t have enough to say. This new project is in some ways more akin to writing sermons. I am responding to a scriptural text and then asking, “What does this say about the spiritual life?” Of course there will be first-person vignettes, but it’s not like analyzing the minutia of my own angst.
I don’t think I am a particularly gifted academic writer, but I am good at translating academic work for a general audience. This project is allowing me to research and read in the area of biblical studies, but also on subjects like theory of laughter and anthropology of clothing. So that is just intellectually fun.
Images: Lauren Winner, courtesy of Duke Divinity School.