A Friend Named Robert

Robert Benson.2

In the winter of 2004, I found myself in unexpected conversations with a publisher about the possibilities of my first book. In unfamiliar territory and attempting to wrap my brain around the strange world of publishing (and particularly, the far stranger world of publishing houses that cater to the religious market), I asked the acquisitions editor if I could talk to one of their authors to get a feel for how their press operated. The editor suggested I chat with Robert Benson, and there were few names she could have given that I would have welcomed more. A year earlier, Miska read Between the Dreaming and the Coming True and Living Prayer, an encounter which moved Robert onto that special section of our bookshelf reserved for our beloved writers, writers who had something of substance to say but who offered this substance with tender care for sentences and stories. We like the writers who do not beat the mystery off the page.

Robert and I chatted on the phone, arranging a meet up at the Frothy Monkey in Nashville, one of his haunts. I stood outside in the March cold, and a large black Mercedes slowed to the curb. As we’ve later rehearsed our meeting, Robert promises me he has never owned a Benz, but that is precisely how I remember it. Perhaps in my subconscious it’s just that Robert seems like the sort of man who deserves to own a Benz, if anyone does. Robert wore black pants, black long sleeve shirt, black shoes, a greying pony tail poking out from under his Yankees cap. He looked like the literary version of Robert De Niro. We ordered coffee, and Robert welcomed me into the writing world. He gave me advice providing a wise corrective for an upstart suffering from the temptation to strive too hard to manage his reputation (a reputation I didn’t even have). “Don’t take yourself too seriously,” Robert said. “simply be thankful when someone will pay you to put words on a page.”

In the years since the Frothy Monkey and the Benz that doesn’t exist, Robert and I have stayed in touch, though not as often as I’d like. A quick email. An off-the-cuff phone call about something one of us has written or just a hello. A couple visits. I now consider Robert a friend, and I trust he would say the same of me. In an email between myself and another good friend, Robert referred to me as “Our man in Virginia.” I like that. Funny what strikes you, huh?

There are a small cadre of writers I deeply respect, for their years tending to the work and settling comfortably into their well-weathered voice. It’s a real achievement in this world to labor, over a lifetime – refusing the fast way (if there really is such a thing), paying honor to the craft, staying quiet when silence is required, keeping clear of the dog-n-pony show as much as possible (and it’s never entirely possible), being a good human, helping others be good humans. It’s also a thing of beauty to encounter a writer who is a storyteller in the old sense. “Story” is all the rage these days, but I’m not sure if many of us know what we’re talking about. True storytellers do not let their too-many words get in the way. True storytellers believe the human experience powerful enough and painful enough and joyful enough to stand on its own, so their pen simply opens up the possibilities for us to hear it and see it fresh. I think most of us are too self-conscious for this kind of simplicity. Maybe we just need more years. Maybe we need more hunger. Robert is a true storyteller.

This is why I wanted to dote on Robert a little. I want you to know how much I admire him, how much I cherish him as one of our good writers. Robert has just released his newest book (or as Robert says, “no one unleashes one of my book upon the market, so much as they come and tell me it is time to give it up…”), and this is one Robert has teased me with for a long time now. Dancing on the Head of a Pen: The Practice of a Writing Life reflects on the intersection of spirit and art. If you are a writer, you’ll find every shade of joy in these pages. If you love reading good words, you’ll cherish this book at your bedside table. If you think about beauty or useful work or being human, Robert will be a friend to you.

Robert has been a generous friend to me. He has encouraged me in my writing when the terrain looked bleak. He’s been an advocate for me. Everybody needs a few friends in their life like Robert Benson, and I’m thankful.

Once Robert told me: “When in doubt, make sentences.” I’ve found this both helpful and hopeful. You can replace “sentences” with whatever your good work happens to be, and it shakes out just as well.

Sermon Born of Cold

The 12º chill did not stop him, though if he had even a lick of sense, it would have. The run was long and frigid, and the hot shower and hot coffee could not wrest the cold from his bones. Still, these were the hours he’d been given for writing his sermon, the words he listened for each week, the words that sometimes arrived as a slow burn but sometimes limped in with hat in hand, apologetic for their plainness.

So he settled by the fire, with his grandmother’s worn, patchwork quilt. He watched the flicker and curled his toes toward the warmth. Whatever comes will come. And it will all be a gift.

Stop Talking

Reading through James, I’m struck by how persistently he warns us of the abuse of words. “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak…” I wonder what would happen if we took this as our motto for one solid day? Would our facebook and twitter feeds come to a grinding halt?

The theology of the first section of James 3 (with its descriptor of the tongue as a fire connected with the flames of hell and the tongue as a restless evil full of deadly poison) might be summarized something like this: if you want to sin less, stop talking.

James provides treacherous ground for those of us who spend our lives wrangling with words, but perhaps James only says something every writer or preacher knows, even if we fail to practice it. Listening must come before speaking. Watching must come before writing. We must receive the gift of another before we have any gift to give. If we are full of only our own words and our own self-absorbed visions, our words will prove to be scraggly and brittle. There will be no life in them. When we are more consumed with pronouncing to another than actually receiving the other, we have lost our way. Our listening should be quick, and our speech should be slow.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, grief-stricken over the capitulation of the German Church to the Nazi program wrote, “Sometimes I think Christianity will only live after this time in a few people who have nothing to say.” When I hear our angry rhetoric and our speed to announce final words…When I watch how we dash past the actual stories that surround us… I wonder the same thing.


I recently heard Marie Howe, Poet Laureate for the State of New York, respond to a question asking her to explore a deep and provocative statement she had offered in a lecture a few years earlier. The words she’d pieced together in that talk were ironic and stunning, something you’d expect from a master poet. I sat upright, glad the interviewer had made this query. I waited to receive a profound truth. Instead, Marie laughed at herself dismissively. “Oh, what a thing to say” — and Marie laughed more, like she had genuinely cracked herself up. “I have no idea what I meant with that.”

I wish those of us who stand behind a pulpit would follow Howe’s example more often. “Wait, everybody. I have no idea what I just said. That sounded good on paper Thursday, but let’s be honest – that’s just ridiculous.”

I wish more of us who put words to paper would be easy with this kind of humility. Since there’s nothing at stake for us, there’s no need for all the shame when our words fall flat and no need to hang our every hope on the validation of … I don’t even know who, I’m so confused these days.

But many of us — and I only use examples from the world I know best — are too busy pimping our words. We’re frantically rubbing our words together like two damp sticks, desperate for a flicker, desperate for someone to notice a spark. We are striving, striving – and we are exhausted.

I wish more of us who put children to bed at night and kiss our lover at day’s end, more of us who work to pay the mortgage and piece together a life, could walk slowly into the present grace, receiving whatever comes, be it brilliance or banality. I wish we would know the joy of receiving the one whiff of fresh cut grass, the one wave of a son looking out the window as his mom drives him off to school, the one hour that asks you to sit a while. To stop all the striving and sit.

But strive we do. Our world’s eaten up with it. We are so fearful that we will be forgotten, that we will be alone. We are so fearful that, after all our efforts, our life will be sand slipping through our fingers. We are so, so fearful. We do not need to be afraid. We do not need to grasp. There will be enough love for us.

When I’m given to jealousy over those who receive more or when I’m left in the corner to doodle with the children while the adults laugh and clink drinks, my impulse is to strive, to fight, to yell all the louder to get attention. This is not the way of love. This is not the way of rest. This is not the good life.

Whatever I’m given will be enough. It will be enough. As Mary Oliver says, “It doesn’t have to be the blue iris, it could be weeds in a vacant lot or a few small stones…”

When we push and pull to craft a name or a platform or a bank account, we end up with less, always less. St. Augustine offered a sobering word to our age: “By striving after more, man is diminished.” I see the world around me diminishing at a frightening pace. I pray to God it will stop. I pray I will stop.

Broken on Good Friday

christ cross stone

In 1983, Eric Wolterstorff died in a tragic accident while climbing the Alps. He was 25. His father Nicholas, a theologian and philosopher from Yale, journaled his sorrow in the months that followed. Among his weary words were these:

I tried music. But why is this music all so affirmative? Has it always been like that? Perhaps then a requiem, that glorious German Requiem of Brahms. I have to turn it off. There’s too little brokenness in it. Is there no music that speaks of our terrible brokenness? That’s not what I mean. I mean: Is there no music that fits in our brokenness? The music that speaks about our brokenness is not itself broken. Is there no broken music?

If we are to walk backwards in our world and if we are to reckon with the true horrors, then we need broken music. We need brave people who are not afraid to linger in the falling-apart places. I do not mean folks who by their disposition only see the bleak, for bleak is thank goodness not at all the whole of it. I do not mean artists who use the grotesque as their shtick or politicians who use our fear of calamity to bolster their power. I mean people who know the Beauty of the world but who also know there is a wasteland in the human soul. People who know Love but who also, deep in their marrow, know how many of our nights and days are overwhelmed by sadness.

And we do not need people to pontificate all these sorrows we know full well but are unable to escape. We need brave souls who will enter with us, who will help us meet our afflictions honestly and help us grapple in the dirt. We need friends who know that we must, like Jacob, wrestle into the cold midnight with an angel or a demon – who can say which just yet?

We need musicians who will sing the song with us – and sometimes for us – that we have not yet been able to sing. We need poets who will write the costly verse, born out of their own travail, and then offer it as gift to those of in such disarray that we are unable to locate the language. We need writers who, after they have cut their skin and their soul and bled onto the page, say, “Come, I’ll walk with you for the next hard mile.” We need preachers who don’t merely give us homilies from on high but who wonder with us if the good news could be true – and then preach with the conviction of one whose very life hangs on this hope. We need the broken ones.

Of course, offering one’s broken self for the healing of another is central to the Christian narrative and to how our faith takes on flesh in every time and place. Good Friday gives us a God broken. A God shattered under a dark sky. A God with us in our bleakest place. A God spilt out as balm for our wound, as hope that points us toward Easter.

Well and True

Fridays are Miska’s and my Sabbath. This usually includes at least an hour or two of one of our more rigorous spiritual disciplines: lying in bed watching Hulu, preferably with a small bag from Albemarle Baking Company in the bed with us. One commercial Hulu runs, over and again, stresses my sabbath experience. In this commercial, a certain cellular provider floods the screen with rapid images and text, highlighting the myriad ways their latest gadget can capture every solitary moment and detail of our lives. The experience overloads the senses.

Amid all the zooming and the pulsing data comes the narrator’s central thesis: “I must upload all of myself.”

Of course, this is ad copy, which means two things: (1) they don’t expect us to take them seriously and (2) what they are saying is sheer nonsense. The compulsion to broadcast our every opinion, our every whim, our every ham-and-cheese-on-rye for crying out loud – we call this narcissism. Of course, withholding yourself because of the meticulous way we are coiffing our public persona is narcissism too. It’s impossibly difficult to get loose of our self-absorption.

This is no theoretical question for me. I must wrangle with how much of my writing comes from a desire to feed the ego and how much comes as an expression of my vocation. In a business where publishers insist you have to build your platform, it’s a messy deal. The publishers have a point of course. A plumber’s gotta find folks who will pay him to fix their sinks, and any plumber who refuses to advertise because of his unsullied commitment to his craft will likely starve. Yet there’s something perverse about a writer or a plumber or a pastor or a real estate agent who are always trying to sell you something, especially when that something is them.

So what’s a person to do? I really couldn’t say, but this is what I’m thinking: the central question isn’t how much to share or not share. The focus isn’t the whens or wheres or hows. The truer question is how will I live well and true?

And this is not at all just about social media. How much of our energy do we give to the people and places we love? How do we interact with other’s expectations (a spouse, a parent, a boss, a pastor)? How do we give ourselves generously – but give in a way that’s truthful so that we’re actually giving ourselves rather than giving some false version of ourselves?

The ad ended with the punchline: “I deserve to be unlimited.” Not only is this false; it is also impossible. We are, thank goodness, all limited. This gracious limitation can set us free from the tyrannies that fight against our longing to live well and true. We are free to say ‘no.’


Saying Grace

You say grace before meals.
All right.
But I say grace before the play and the opera,
And grace before I open a book,
And grace before sketching, painting,
Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing;
And grace before I dip the pen in the ink.
{G.K. Chesterton}
image: mattox


I appreciate those little white styrofoam cups you’ll happen upon near the cash register of small, out of the way diners. These cups have a few dirty coins clinging to the bottom and words something like this scratched in blue ink across the front: If you need a penny, take one. If you have a penny, leave one.

I’d like to hitch a ride with one of those pennies, to discover who was generous and who was in need, who was a little short and who had a little extra. I bet I’d meet a few people worth knowing and hear stories worth hearing. I’d find reasons to laugh and reasons to cry and plenty of reasons to scratch my head at the craziness of it all.

Everybody has a story. And, I’m convinced, everybody wants to hear a story – only some of us don’t know it yet. Or we know it, but we’ve forgotten.

I’m desperate for stories because I’m hungry for life. I’m looking for mercy. I’m scratching around for hope. I’m convinced that there’s something good in you and darn it! there’s something good in me too. I think we tell things in our stories that are difficult for us to say any other way – we discover truths we hadn’t landed on just yet.

Norman Maclean shares my leaning: “A storyteller, unlike a historian, must follow compassion wherever it leads him.” When I scrawl ink on paper or push my nose in a novel, I’m sniffing out beauty. And mercy. And joy. I’m dropping in a penny. Or taking one out, whichever the case may be.

Words. Seeds. Life.

Continuing a trail from last week, I’ve been pondering the creative power of words. Words are not merely tools, functional symbols. Rather, words are like seeds. They can burrow deep; and given the right conditions and good timing, all kinds of life and beauty can sprout.

John O’Donohue, Irish poet, philosopher and former-priest, recorded an interview with Krista Tippet a few months before his untimely death at age 52. Tucked amid the dialogue, O’Donohue asked, “When is the last time you had a great conversation? Not just two intersecting monologues, but a great conversation?”

What an important question, what a disturbing question. O’Donohue went on to describe what, for him, are signals of fertile conversation:

you overhear yourself saying things you never knew you knew

you overhear yourself receiving from somebody words that find a place within you that you thought you’d lost

you experience an inventive conversation that brought the two of you onto a different plane

the conversation continues to sing in your mind for weeks afterwards

This might not be our list, but it gets at something that happens in enlivening interchanges. Something given, something received. The heart awakens. A discovery. Friendship blossoms. We know it when we encounter it precisely because it’s so rare, a gift.

Often our words are merely a means of passing information or making a transaction rather than a conduit for sharing and receiving life. When Miska asks me about my day, she’s typically not hunting for a ramshackle list of hourly events. She’s wondering what I loved, what I hated, where I was bored – and if I caught any glimpses of God or was caught in any moments of wonder. She curious about me, and words are the raw material for the story she’s asking and the story I’ll answer.

I’ve found that you can’t make such conversation happen, but you can till the soil to be ever ready for the seeds. You can create the space. You can hope for the moments where you truly see and hear another – and are truly seen and heard by another.

Writing Notes

The past couple weeks, I’ve had a fresh burst of writing energy toward a new book project (coy look interjected here). I haven’t felt this writing vigor for a while, and I receive the gift with open arms.

But today, once again, I’ve come up blank. Zilch. Nada.

Amid the vast blankness, I’ve been handed time to think again about this maddening art I love. My cursor over on my other page sits there, blinking at me, taunting me – so I defiantly move over here to write down what I want to remember – and, if you are a writer, what I hope you’ll remember.

//surrender the quest for brilliance//

Most writers I know have flashing visions of receiving that gold-embossed envelope (okay, I have no idea if it is actually gold-embossed but that’s the way I conjure the moment) acknowledging, with accompanying accolades, that we have won the National Book Award. However, most of my fantasies are slightly less ambitious (but only slightly). I’d like to receive a phone call from my editor, breathless, over this masterful prose of mine she has just read, singularly unlike the work from any of her other vagabond writers. I’d like for The New Yorker to get in line behind The Atlantic, wrangling to publish this writer (me) who, “writes with unparalleled grit and beauty – a new literary light.” (And, yes, they are free to use my quote)

Dreams are fine things; I’m a fan. However, something gets twisted when we aim to write words that are monumental. Most of life is plain, simple, and most writers are plain, simple people. Our job is to give away what we have. Most days, that’s going to be a little trace of life, a whiff of love. A story here. A question there. Maybe we will stumble upon something that opens up new terrain, or maybe we will just stumble. Whichever, our writing must be true. If we aim for brilliance, chances are we will only create dull fabrications –  because most of our days (and most of our words) are not brilliant but ordinary.

We can hope for brilliance – that’s a good hope, I think. But we do best to shoot for truthfulness and the hard work of simple, elegant craft – and then hold it out to the world with an open hand.

//read…but not like that//

Every writing advice I’ve ever seen says that writers should first be readers. True enough. However, we are tempted to read with a critical eye, comparing someone else’s skill to ours. This is all the truer when we face the deep abyss of our own lackluster writing, sitting there with nothing but the reminder of someone else’s “genius.”

Here’s the deal: every book you read, every article or blog post is not an indictment against you (but this blog post is, definitely). Seriously, we can’t read others through the eyes of what their work says about us. We have to move through our jealousy over others’ successes. Who can say why they succeed and we don’t. Or why they turn a sharp phrase or have such an amazing quick wit or are so freakin’ remarkable. Maybe they’re just a better writer. Maybe the timing was right for them. Maybe the Green Publishing Goblins just have it out for you, and you will always and forever be screwed (well, probably not that).

None of that matters. Really. Though the Amazon rankings suggest different, we are actually on the same team. We are all artisans of beauty, truth and goodness. And, God knows, our world needs all the beauty it can get. Thank the cosmic muse for every good word that finds it way free. And pray that here and there, along the way, you set a few free as well. I bet you will.

//yeah, that//

Cliche alert: Writing is hard work. Annoying, I know. Book club legend has it that Cormac Mcarthy wrote The Road in a single sitting. I doubt it, though that would explain the whole no punctuation thing – the man was in a hurry. (And if it is true, and McCarthy did write The Road all at once, first draft, forget my previous paragraphs – Cormac is a grade-A literary punk and I hope he rots in the very, very bad place for…ever.)

I feel like there’s much more to say here, but “hard work” pretty much sums it up. And my editors have always told me “less, not more.”