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Monday, July 8, 2013

"Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, on Being a Christian" (Bret Lott)

TITLE: Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian
AUTHOR: Bret Lott
PUBLISHER: Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013, (192 pages).

What is life like as a writer, in particular a Christian writer? It is not simply writing that has Christian label on it. It is also not primarily about an author who happens to be a professed Christian. Describing literary fiction as writings that confront us as human people and to cause introspection and reflection, this book examines both the "letters" of authors as well as the "life" of the authors themselves. Do Christian writers believe that God is working through their writings?

Right from the start, the author's awareness of God is as simple as praying for enough gum for an oversubscribed children's program, or sufficient T-shirts for all. On the one hand, one finds it hard to explain what is happening. On the other hand, there is something inside that seems to tell us that God is behind all the supernatural acts. Letters is about what is written. Life is about reflecting what has been written, and how our own person plays out in the open field of life. For the sake of clarity, Lott helpfully defines some of the important words, like epiphany, enlightenment, compassion, even paganism. He reflects on Christian publishing industry, how it strives to balance between financial sustainability and stated mission; the place of novels and life.

He reflects on the relationship between the artist and the public. For the artist, it is a time of being blessed to bless others. From the crafts described in Exodus 31, Loft reflects on the different skill sets among Israel who combine their talents to build the tabernacle. It is an act of worship that comprises creativity, diversity, shrouded in activities to honour God. Lott argues that we relate with the public through our faithful proclamation of God in our lives through our works, and for writers, through their literary or artistry skills.  Instead of writing in a manner that says: "What Would Jesus Write?" we ought to adopt a mode of "I know who I am" and to let that identity, seen through the richness of this relationship with God overflow through our works of art.

Precision is an art. Aim to write something that challenges ourselves to go beyond our perceived limitations. More importantly, precision's starting point is something real, preferably from our own experiences. Writers too can face moments in which they question if their works are truly making a difference at all. Lott urges patience, for precision writing is about waiting too. Then, there is the part about writing that influences people, just like how the questioner can influence the answers, or the observer influence the ones being observed. Lott makes a criticism of "Creative Writing" workshops, accusing them of being most "unreal." The irony is, it is less impromptu and more restrictive in terms of creativity. It is like taking a very private matter into public spheres. In other words, such workshops alter the results and make it less authentic than desired. Truth is, creative writing can only be cultivated through a life of continuous writing. A good workshop is one that gets out of the way between budding writers and their writings. Using the example of Flannery O'Connor, the "de facto patron saint of creative writing," readers are treated to a good dose of the power of O'Connor's writings. Like the "dethroning of the writer," a kind of the writer must decrease that the writings may increase. O'Connor is also a testimony of humble writing, as it is quite often she is condescending upon her own self, making fun of self in order to bring out the influence of the writings. Just like the art must be above the artist, so the writings about the writer. Humility is the essence of good creative writing, the kind that touches readers and lives. More importantly, for Christian writers, it is about letting our writings exalt the divine God.

So What?

I was blown away by the insightful observations of what creative writing is, and what it can generate. It is so true that writing needs to grow out of the seed of personal experiences, and be bathed with much humility and precision. In many ways, writing is about telling the story of self, in words. The three words that the author had written on a student's paper, "will have had" is a delightful invitation for me to ponder about the future, the present, and the past, all in three words. As I see Lott taking these three words personally to share about his late father, I am also led to think about my own father, who had passed away three years ago. Writing is not about words. It is about storying one's life. I learn that it is necessary to have literary mentors, just like the writer's respect for Flannery O'Connor, Raymond Carver, John Gardner,  and others. Writing is not simply about putting words on paper. It is about putting our life in black and white, in a very colourful world. Good writers will not only aim to write well, they will write as often as possible, with respect for life, for people, and for words. More importantly, even as writers seek to write as best as they can, to put right stuff as much as possible, there will also come a time where they need to confess they have been wrong. Humility is about learning. It is about admitting we are wrong when we learn of it. It is about keeping humble even when we are right.

Thank you Bret Lott, for reminding writers at large, how important it is not to be worried about quantity, but to concentrate on quality; not to be worried about the lives of other people, but to let our writings direct any anxieties to God above, to shine a light into the crevices of our soul, that through our writing, our soul lights up to bless others, especially our readers. May our writing shine a torch of clarity and hope for readers all over the world.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Crossway Publishers and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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