This past summer I attended the writing workshop, A Broader Public: Writing on Religion for a Secular Audience at the Collegeville Institute. After writing for Catholic Moral Theology for a few years, I decided it was time to learn more about what I was doing. I thought the workshop would be a fairly technical affair, teaching specific skills about professional writing. Instead, I discovered the following five things, each of which has deepened my understanding of writing.
- Think “I am not worthy.” One of my favorite moments of Wayne’s World (yes, I definitely grew up in the 80s) was when Aerosmith appeared. The whole bit is funny, but when the band shows up, both Wayne and Garth shout, “We’re not worthy, we’re not worthy.” When I was accepted into the writing workshop, my excitement immediately turned to panic when I saw the list of attendees: a Catholic theologian whose work I highly respected, a scholar from Harvard, several pastors, and a lawyer. It was the theological equivalent of Aerosmith.When we finally gathered in July, Don Ottenhoff, the Executive Director of the Collegeville Institute, said that Collegeville was not a place of rivalry and competition, but of community and support. There was a collective sigh of relief. Apparently, we had all worried that it would be a weeklong attempt to discover our place in the pecking order. Instead, everyone took Don’s words to heart and supported and helped each other in the midst of daily vulnerabilities. It was a week of gratitude, not fear. I still thought, “I am not worthy,” but it was because of people’s kindness and generosity rather than their pedigrees.
- Wrestle a bear. Writing has never been easy for me. I steered away from it throughout my schooling, graduating college with a math degree. I went to graduate school in theology, believing that if I could just finish and get a job at a teaching college, I could avoid writing. Now, after more than a decade of writing professionally, one would think it would be easier. It is not. Trying carefully and precisely to articulate an idea or explain an issue is like wrestling a bear. Words are overwhelming, stronger than me, seeming to control what I write. They shove my ideas around, force me to say things that I don’t quite want to say, or follow a line of thought that I do not want to pursue.Almost every day at the workshop, we had to wrestle bears. “Here is a topic. Be back here in 30 minutes with a blog post.” “You have time this afternoon to write a post. We will review them after dinner.” It was demanding, but, as I looked around, I realized everyone was struggling with words. It is not that writing became easier for me; I just accepted that it would be work. Sometimes, I might be strong enough to say clearly what I want to say, and, sometimes, I won’t be able to do this. Either case requires wrestling bears. If I care about what I’m saying, I have to be ready for the struggle.
- Get lost in the woods. The Collegeville Institute is near the Saint John’s Abbey Arboretum. Every morning, I got up and headed into the woods. Despite reviewing trail maps carefully, I got lost every day. Not totally lost, but not-knowing-where-I-was-on-the-trail-or-where-it-would-end kind of lost. As I walked through the woods, I realized I was also walking through what happened at the workshop. I was able to follow others’ thoughts like trails, get lost in them, and arrive somewhere new. I could, by meandering through the woods, keep from being trapped in my own head and find the beauty of new places revealed by others.
- Get a new name. I once took my daughter to hear a talk by Andrew Clements, author of Frindle. One of Clements’ lines was that everyone could be a writer since all that is needed is “free words on cheap paper.” I thought it was a nice sentiment, but nothing more. Midway into the workshop, the editors-in-chief of Religion Dispatches were talking about writers. After a brief exchange, Lisa said, “You are writers.” We had, it seemed, all thought of ourselves as people who wrote, but never considered ourselves “writers.” The new name confirmed that this identity was part of who we are. It affirmed what we do, encouraging us in the work.
- Start Conversations. Elizabeth Drescher, one of the facilitators of the workshop, argued that writing is communal in nature. I have come to believe her insight more firmly every day. Writing is not the solitary expression of an idea, but a contribution to a larger conversation. I partially knew this, since my academic training encouraged me to read extensively before I wrote; but in blogging, the communal nature of writing becomes unavoidable. Before I blog, I have to read other people’s posts. Otherwise, whatever I write risks coming off as uninformed and disconnected, and is easily ignored. Blogging also requires me to link to other online writing, so that I can indicate how my contribution relates to others’ contributions, and so that readers can easily follow these connections. Finally, readers occasionally respond to what I write, prompting me to reply. This conversation typically begins a further exchange. The experience of blogging makes clear what I think is true of all writing: it is the beginning of a conversation and not the end of a project.In academic theology, we too often find ourselves having to focus on getting writing done, meeting professional standards, and having our work accepted and published. It is easy to lose the relational sense of writing. My experiences at Collegeville helped me better understand this. We must be grateful to others, get lost in their ideas, and start conversations with them. Only then will we have the courage to live up to our responsibilities as writers and wrestle to say something good, true, real, and beautiful. As a Christian, this makes sense to me. We are made to love others, and, in loving others, we come to know the God who loves us.