Magazines 2018 Mar - Apr Lessons in writing and faith

Lessons in writing and faith

08 April 2018 By Karen Stiller

Karen Stiller recently gave a presentation at the Ottawa Word Guild writer’s day, on lessons she has learned about writing and faith. Here is an edited version of that talk.

Karen Stiller recently gave a presentation at the Ottawa Word Guild writer’s day, on lessons she has learned about writing and faith. Here is an edited version of that talk.

My writing life and my life of faith have been part of each other all along. I am a writer who writes Christian things. Faith Today reports on developments that impact the Church in Canada, and tells stories about Christians and their faith and their life. I interview all kinds of artists, teachers, pastors, leaders, politicians, and lay people whose faith is the central piece of their lives. I’ve gone to places like Cambodia and Senegal, Uganda and South Sudan to report on what Christians are doing in those hard but beautiful places. All of this work, and I know I am so privileged to say this, has strengthened my own faith.

My vocation as a writer feeds my faith. My faith feeds my vocation as a writer. But also, some lessons I have learned about writing are also lessons I have learned about faith.

This is hard work. It is hard work to be a writer. A fire in the belly is a requirement. Writing is not easy. It’s hard work to be good. It’s hard work to get better. And it’s hard work to be published. And here we have our first clear and messy intersection with faith and writing. I personally do not find it easy to be a Christian, and certainly not to be a minister’s wife. It is hard work.

I am a cantankerous person, or so I’ve been told by people in the know. The Spirit has to do a hard kind of work on me, almost constantly. And I don’t very often find the Church an easy place to be. I am rebellious and critical, suspicious and put upon. Chief among sinners, I roll my eyes at the wrong moment. I find it hard to love people. It would be easier to drop out.

I am raw material. I am a work in a halting, slow progress. I am severely edited, daily, so my soul can grow in grace, eventually. The Great Editor who loves me, is trying to make me better.

This is true of faith. And it is always true of writing.

Your best writing is never your first writing. That is never the case, and that is always true. As so many super smart people have said, over and over again: Writing is rewriting. Your first draft is not as good as it will eventually be. Master writer John McPhee in his book, appropriately called Draft No.4, calls the first draft “that first awful blurting.”

Your writing is raw material for a really long time. And so are you.



Always tell the truth. All of this confession and realization of our true state of things is so much easier when we are real and authentic and transparent, in both our writing and our faith.

Hiding is hard work, especially when there is so much to hide. Which brings me to the next thing that is true of faith and of writing. It is better for everyone if you are as honest as you can be, as often as you can be.

Writer Anne Lamott says: “If something inside of you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act—truth is always subversive.”

Tell the truth in faith and in writing. When we tell the truth about ourselves, that is when God can work. When we tell the truth about ourselves, that is when others know they are safe with us, and can listen to us talk about our God.

Next month I graduate with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Non Fiction from the University of King’s College, at Dalhousie in Halifax. It has been a wonderful two years of hard work. I’ve written a manuscript entitled The Minister’s Wife. It is a spiritual memoir in which I explore themes like envy, forgiveness, marriage and parenting.

All along the way my work was dissected by my mentors and my cohort groups. It was so frightening. They were so gracious. They loved my bad stories. They helped me tell my truth, and they forced me to tell it better.

In an essay called Write Till you Drop the fabulous Annie Dillard wrote: “…the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

Be honest in writing and in faith. Tell your truth. Confess your lies. And especially be honest if you are bold enough to write aboutfaith. Do not hide. Do not disguise. Do not cover up. Don’t preach. Ponder. Don’t explain. Explore.

It is your weakness that makes you strong. Don’t be afraid of that.

You can’t do it alone. It is also true of faith and writing both, that although we do them ultimately alone, we desperately need each other. Writers need writers. People of faith need people of faith. Group together. Find honest people who like you enough to tell you the truth. Read each other’s work. Critique with kindness, but tell the truth.

Join a church and make yourself go almost every Sunday, even when you don’t feel like it. I don’t believe that the forest glade or the ocean or the meadow, however beautiful, are churches. Yes, you  may find God there. But those places are easier than church. Do the hard thing more often than the easy thing.

And as a writer you need other writers face to face, but you also need other writers perched on your bedside table, stacked on the corner of your desk and lounging in your living room, waiting for you. Read well, widely and deeply. Read a poem before you write a feature story. Soak in the tub of someone else’s metaphors. Drink the warm broth of beautiful adjectives someone more skilled than you wrote.

Won’t you write better on a day you begin with a poem by Scott Cairns? “…The bread was breakable, the wine was red and wet, and met the tongue with bright, intoxicating sweetness.” Or Malcolm Guite writing about Easter Morning: “He blesses every love that weeps and grieves. And now he blesses hers who stood and wept. And would not be consoled, or leave her love’s Last touching place, but watched as low light crept Up from the east.”

Take huge and horrible risks. These are the bold and dangerous things we do in our faith and for our writing. This is us pushing through the fear and deciding that that is not what will define us as Christians or as writers.

And of all the fears that get in our way as writers, I think it is the fear of failure that holds us back the most. We are so easily crushed. We are tiny flowers under foot.

We compare ourselves with others. We all do it. We envy… the new book, the great blog, the viral post, the article, the award, the checque.

Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird, her great book on writing says: “If you continue to write, you are probably going to have to deal with [envy] because some wonderful dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful …undeserving writers you know – people who are, in other words, not you.”

Dear friends, we will envy one another. I have learned this, in writing and in faith. I envy other minister’s wives who seem so good at it. I envy people who seem to experience rapture the moment worship music begins. I envy people with fewer questions and smaller doubts and nicer, ironed clothing. I envy other writers. It’s okay. Confess it, and then move along.

Fight fear. Move out of your comfort zone. What are you so afraid of? What fear is holding you back?

During my last two years doing my MFA, I was continually pushing through fear. It was a constant digging deep to push myself further and keep going. I quickly learned we almost all felt that way. No one was in their natural habitat. We were all vulnerable and afraid. But for the sake of our work we were all taking this huge and horrible risk.

In faith and in writing, we must stop being so afraid. Be foolish for God and for your work. The only comfort zone I want regularly in my life is the leather couch on which I recline, covered by a chocolate brown fuzzy blanket, with a pillow, to watch Netflix at least three nights a week.

Get rid of all the other comfort zones so you can be so faithful, and so you can be a writer.

And may our wild and creative God, who beautifully and amazingly and graciously used words, and is the Word, bless you in faith and in writing. Amen.

Karen Stiller is a senior editor of Faith Today magazine.