Back in May, I heard Trevor Herriot read from his latest book, Grass, Sky, Song: Promise and Peril in the World of Grassland Birds, and he also talked about writing. There’s more writers today, he said, less readers: “maybe we’re all becoming writers.” This didn’t seem to discourage him, though. In fact, he had just given us a number of good reasons to be writing non-fiction. Books can be a stand-in for elders, he said, revealing truth inside our lives and others. And we write because it helps us grow up, he said, and mature, and understand more deeply — it’s “a gestational process.” In doing so we try to “delve deeper.” It “guards against cynicism.”
Each of these ideas would be worth exploring further, but I’m not thinking so much from the writer’s perspective today, as from the editor’s. It’s true, there are writers everywhere … 256,875 bloggers using this platform alone, I was just told when I opened WordPress. And yet, thinking over the past year at the MB Herald, I’d also have to say that the need for writers isn’t letting up, and maybe it’s even increasing. We didn’t have trouble filling our pages, so that may sound like a contradiction, but at any point in the year I’d look at the issues coming down the calendar and could feel a bit of a panic unless we had a solid piece in hand as an anchor or something assigned to someone we were sure would come through for us. But it wasn’t always easy to find those pieces, or secure a writer.
Not just any kind of writer. We usually got enough of what I call the “happy thoughts” — an anecdote with a bit of a life lesson attached, a devotional, a piece “giving testimony” to some personal or congregational transformation or touch of God. I hope I’m not sounding derisive, because it’s not what I mean, but these pieces are filler, they’re like sugar — wonderful, but you can’t make a meal of them.
What we need more of are those writers who are grounded in their faith (and because we’re a Mennonite Brethren church paper, connected to this community, or the wider Anabaptist family) who also know something about some aspect of living, a.k.a professionals in the broadest, “competence” sense of the word — be it in parenting, or pastoring, or teaching, or peacemaking, or working with seniors, or seeing movies, or reading books, or doing theology — and who are willing to work hard (for very little money, let’s say 5 to 10 cents a word) to articulate that in a clear and interesting way. It could be a knowledge-based article or theological investigation with experiences to illustrate. It could be experience-based but with a sensitivity that places it in a larger framework. Such writers have to have some nerve, to let their study/reflections be multiplied 16,000 times and sent around the country. So it’s still about growing up and understanding, but also about a willingness to assist in the growth and understanding of others, and with a broad but essentially lay audience in mind.
(It seems to me — and this is an impression, I hasten to add — that our MB leaders in the past did more writing. I’ve heard people in such roles say they’re not writers — so they don’t. It may also be that we haven’t worked hard enough to find and encourage their voices. And there are exceptions, of course — MB executive director David Wiebe often writes an “Outfront” column, and there are professors at our schools willing to turn their considerable academic skills into lay-accessible prose for the wider service of the church. I’m thinking, for example, of Tim Geddert’s helpful piece on atonement in the June MBH, here.)
Bottom line, magazines aren’t dead, and the one I know best — the MB Herald — still needs writers.
Trevor Herriot also said that nonfiction writers write about the things they worry about. So if the MBH runs out of writers for their features, maybe it’s because nobody’s that worried.