The origin of ideas

I was the guest of a book club this week, the tenth I’ve visited on behalf of This Hidden Thing. Like the nine previous, it was a very enjoyable and stimulating experience. It’s one of the easier tasks of a writer’s life: you show up, answer questions, listen with appreciation and sometimes surprise to what your work has loosed in others, eat great food, and return to your work encouraged.

One of the questions I get most often is “What’s the origin of this book?” or its variation, “Where do you get your ideas?” I really should have a more fluent and coherent answer figured out by now, but I usually fumble around with a whole bunch of things that threw themselves into the mix — like a wish to feature Winnipeg (my home city), an interest in the notion of secrets, and my research in Mennonite history. Continue reading

Writers wanted

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.

Writing editorials

It’s Saturday and I’ve finally got a reasonable draft of my last editorial hanging on the line.  

For anyone who doesn’t know, I’ve been working this past year as interim editor of the MB Herald, a 36-page monthly magazine, print run 16,000, which goes into the homes of  members of Canadian Mennonite Brethren churches. For some years I worked as associate editor, and then I “retired,” to do my own writing projects, but in January 2009 I returned to fill in while editor Laura Kalmar was on maternity leave. I’m wrapping up my term with the December issue, which is underway; Laura returns for the January issue.

I’ve enjoyed being back for the year, except, I’d have to say, for the editorials. Many kinds of writing, there’s a structure or strategy about them, and once you figure it out, it’s not so hard. But I’ve never quite figured out the formula that would get me easily through an editorial. In our particular magazine it sits near the front, so it often acts as an introduction to the issue’s theme, but it’s also expected (I assume) that one might have an opinion/position of some sort on some aspect of the topic, and now and then about other things as well. The bits of advice I’ve picked up from other editors is that it should express a view but also be open-ended. Or something like that. 

Good editorial writing may be a gift, or a temperament. Fellow editor Doug Koop (ChristianWeek) doesn’t seem to find it hard and does a great job, and I always admired the rolling through still firm style of former MBH editor Harold Jantz.

In the editorial on the line, I’m weighing in on the recent MB study conference held in Saskatoon. I opined (a word I’m using in honour of another editor friend who was fond of it) that it was a good event but we need to address how our having too little time talking together in a large group setting relates to the value we say we put on “community hermeneutic.”  

The trouble with editorial writing is I have to figure out what I think, and it has to be “true,” not just there for effect. It has to be what I’m willing to commit to saying. What I think about a matter is the hard part and I can only write my way to it — but it involves too many starts and stops and procrastinations and re-writes and then revisions. This quote from one of writer Flannery O’Conner’s letters says it best: “Like the old lady, I don’t know so well what I think until I see what I say; then I have to say it over again.”

Eventually I’ve been happy enough with most of them. But now the last one’s on the line, almost ready, and I’m glad. 

(Re. hanging on the line: this is one of those little writing tips I’ve learned along the way. Once you have a draft of something you have to find a way to see it freshly when you come back to it. It helps to spread it out on the floor or table, or hang it up, and maybe read it backwards — last page first, I mean, and so on. It also helps to switch the column widths from draft to draft, or change the font.)