This is part two of Betsy Johnson-Miller’s interview with Arianne Lehn, Lori Raible, Sarah Scherschligt, Deborah Lewis, and Brooke Herald Steiner, who are members of the Wholly Writers, a writing group that formed after meeting at the Collegeville Institute Writing Pastors, Working Pastors summer writing workshop in 2013.
Click here to read part one of the interview.
The starting point of your writing makes a difference. Some writers say, “I write what I need to write.” It sounds as if all of you take readers’ needs and desires into account. Do you think you come at writing differently, maybe more audience aware, because you are pastors?
Lori: There’s so much noise in the world. I don’t want to simply contribute a few more decibels. Also, some of my struggles had to do with my lack of confidence as a writer. But then I decided that’s not mine to worry about. It’s not about us or our needs. If we believe in the God we say we believe in, then we don’t need to worry about ourselves. But it took me some time to get to that point.
Sarah: My inner critic is a looming presence. She frets about words and the craft of writing, about the quality of the theology behind what I’m writing, and isn’t shy about asking, “How is this going to be received by your congregation?” What I write has ramifications on all levels of my ministry—a ministry that’s always in some way a public ministry. Being attentive to audience is part of what grounds me. I have to admit, though, that part of the gift of this group, and these times away, is that the writing we share isn’t necessarily for a purpose or for an audience.
Deborah: With writing, sometimes I want to write things for the church or spiritual things for non-spiritual people as well as spiritual people. But sometimes I just want to write something and not have people care about categories and just, as you said, write what I need to write. So while I like the way ministry and writing are intertwined, sometimes I also fight against it.
What does the writing process look like for each of you? How do you work when you’re alone, and when and how does the group become involved?
Brooke: I am a mom of three—ages zero, two, and four, so I write . . . sometimes. I get my work done for the church—I write my sermons and newsletters–but otherwise, it’s more a matter of trying to find time to journal or write a little bit. I have been working on a children’s books based on Bible stories. I work on the manuscript and then I share it with this group. They critique it, and maybe a year later, I’ll bring it back to them and say, “Do you have any more changes?”
Arianne: I have a one and a half year-old. I started setting the timer on my phone for 15 minutes every day when she went down for her nap, and I would write for that quarter hour. That became a rhythmic part of my day every day. Surprisingly, that disciplined use of short periods of time launched me into work on some bigger things. I remember reading an article by a watercolor painter who advised artists: “every day you just show up and make some marks.” Don’t be concerned about what the marks are or how good they are or what they’re going to become. Just remain faithful to doing something.
Coming to Collegeville for the first time gave us a healthy, positive model of workshopping that none of us would have had otherwise. When we started our group, and we continued to work with Marge, we made that practice our own. There was a level of trust and a standard of quality that was naturally set for us by our workshop at Collegeville. That process began here at Collegeville, but we hold onto it and it still sustains us. It doesn’t matter if we are all together physically or virtually workshopping—it works.
It can be emotionally difficult to have your writing workshopped. What have you learned to keep in mind when workshopping someone else’s piece?
Sarah: Marge has taught us to be gracious readers. She always finds something lovely in a piece, and she cuts right to the kernel. She pays close attention to what you’re trying to say and draws it out of you. Being a gracious reader means listening to what this person is trying to do with the piece and honoring and affirming that. Then, asking, was it successful? From there, it’s offering suggestions—“Okay, here is how you can do this a little bit better.” The number of times Marge has made me feel like, “Okay, someone is hearing me”—it’s beautiful. And the same goes for my colleagues here.
Arianne: Gracious readers aren’t simply consumers who chew up a piece of writing and swallow. Gracious readers are in a conversation with the author, responding and giving back.
Lori: Marge comes with lots of suggestions on what to read. The art of listening through reading requires a sacrifice of time, and it’s a gift to the person who writes. The give and take is an intimate place to dwell. Marge has taught us that.
Brooke: The five of us have very different voices. When we read each other, the goal is not to try to make the others sound like me. I want to make sure everyone else stays in their voice. I say, “You need to fix this part, but fix it in your voice.” I hear the same thing from them. They’re not trying to make me be someone who I’m not.
Deborah: We’ve learned a lot having Marge meet with us regularly over a period of time. She’ll say, “Okay, but there’s more here.” It’s helpful to have a more experienced voice and somebody who is from the outside reading our work and showing us what’s missing. Sometimes we meet on our own and sometimes with her, but even when she’s not with us we wonder, “What would Marge say?”
What do you think other writers could take away from your experience?
Lori: Writing, for me, is an internal, independent, quiet endeavor. This group has taught me that it shouldn’t always be that way. Participating in a writing community brings perspective and confidence, and deepens one’s voice and brings clarity to the meaning you’re trying to convey. Writing in a community is sustaining and life-giving and the worth the time, money, effort, and sacrifice.
Sarah: I’m not sure every writer needs a community of writers. I think I do. Most writers, though, need a community of gracious readers. If I write something funny, I want somebody to read it and laugh with me. I’m not asking my friends to make sure my piece is perfect for publication. I’m sharing myself with the world through my writing, and here is a group of people who will honor it and accept it and love me in my writing. That’s invaluable.
You started your time together here at Collegeville, and now here you are again. What does Collegeville do for you and your writing?
Lori: I was here in the Butler Center yesterday, and the staff was busy, in and out, and they were chatting. I had my earphones in and my music up loud, and I was writing. At one point I looked up, unplugged my earphone and said, “I’m so sorry. I’m not being rude. I’m just writing.” All of them collectively said, “Oh no, no, no. Don’t worry about it.” It struck me—this place and these people care so much about pastors who write that I didn’t have to apologize for sitting oblivious to them in their space. I felt really important and valued.
Brooke: It speaks a lot that they value people like us so much. It’s almost like my parents telling me, “Eat your vegetables,” and I couldn’t understand why that was good for me until now, and I do the same thing to my kids—unsuccessfully. In the same way, it took a while for me to realize how important my writing is. I am grateful that there are people who realized how valuable it was before I did, so they made a space for me to learn that for myself. It’s an amazing gift that people give their time, money, resources, and buildings to something that they think is important in hopes that others will realize how much it matters.