The Saviors of Literature? Neurohumanities vs. Psychology

neuro vs psych

Gregory Currie’s NY Times Opinion piece argues literature is dependent on psychology to prove its merit and use.

He isn’t satisfied by leaning on the adage of faith (or even mystery, although so much of literature is ambiguous and mysterious), but rather wants the facts proving literature’s benefit:

Everything depends in the end on whether we can find direct, causal evidence: we need to show that exposure to literature itself makes some sort of positive difference to the people we end up being.

That will take a lot of careful and insightful psychological research (try designing an experiment to test the effects of reading “War and Peace,” for example). Meanwhile, most of us will probably soldier on with a positive view of the improving effects of literature, supported by nothing more than an airy bed of sentiment. I have never been persuaded by arguments purporting to show that literature is an arbitrary category that functions merely as a badge of membership in an elite. There is such a thing as aesthetic merit, or more likely, aesthetic merits, complicated as they may be to articulate or impute to any given work.

While he admits this may take some time, I find the dichotomy between “everything depends” and “casual evidence” shaky. And I doubt psychologies role in the matter.

On the more advanced side we have Neurohumanities. Which are pressing for similar cerebral answers.

Neurohumanities is the ultimate response to—and rejection of—critical theory, a mixture of literary theory, linguistics and anthropology that dominated the American humanities through the 1990s. Critical theory’s current decline was somewhat inevitable, as all intellectual movements erode over time. This was exemplified by the so-called Sokal affair in 1996, in which a physics professor named Alan Sokal submitted a hoax theoretical paper on science to Social Text, only to unmask himself and lambaste the theorists who accepted and published his piece as not understanding the science.

She anticipates that neurohumanities influence will begin to seep into the actual culture of art:

It’s not hard to imagine a future when neurohumanities and neuroaesthetics have become so adulated that they rise up and out of the academy. Soon enough, they may seep into writers’ colonies and artists’ studios, where “culture producers” confronting a sagging economy and a distracted audience will embrace “Neuro Art” as their new selling point. Will writers start creating characters and plots designed to trigger the “right” neuronal responses in their readers and finally sell 20,000 copies rather than 3,000?

Creativity Series: “God, the Artist, and the World” by Judith Hougen


When I was sixteen, my father retired from the military, initiating the last move of my childhood to a small town in Wisconsin. I was once again the new kid, the outsider seeking a space, a community, to call my own. That summer, I found myself drawn to night skies, the warm swirl of darkness and stars freed of suburban glow. Laying in the front yard of our home, surrounded largely by farmland, there was something about vastness that eased my loneliness, my wretched anonymity.

I remember cool grass under my shoulders, the sawing of crickets, and a growing sense of immensity. In that space I contemplated my life and the God whose existence I couldn’t shake. That scene remains for me a picture of longing, an attempt to grapple with, to reconcile, the random awkwardness of my small existence with an expansive and patterned universe.

In my life as a writer, I find myself back in that yard, metaphorically speaking, my face toward the heavens, earth solid beneath my back—my human form caught up in both realms, negotiating these two wonders. For me, this is a picture of the artist of faith in the world.

Catholic theologian and philosopher Gerald Vann says that, by its very nature, humanity has a “duty” toward both the physical and spiritual worlds. He writes, “Because of his psycho-physical nature, man is a mediator. To his ontological status as the midpoint between the world of matter and of spirit there corresponds a mediating function: to incarnate—to give material expression to—spiritual reality and to spiritualize or humanize material reality.” At her best, the faith-filled artist embodies these two dynamics. Human life is a divine invitation to be fully alive in both our physical and spiritual natures and to experience these two natures as fully alive within each other.

What I experienced on those summer nights is the incarnational nature of reality, a world where “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” where God relentlessly upholds creation as a point of spiritual access and relationship. That this is the case is no small matter for the artist. In my writing, I see the physical and spiritual as inextricably fused. My work, then, as a mediator is a call to recognition, to a wide and penetrating vision, and to live as fully as possible in both spheres, enfolding both within my writing. Great artists rightly recognize and express the spirituality of the material and materiality of the spiritual.

Such a vision invites me to a certain posture toward my writing practice. I traffic in meanings, and incarnational reality signals, if nothing else, that the universe is rife with meaning and significance. I remain open and sensitive to how meaning will impress itself upon my work, not attempting to create or impose it. Meaning is already present because God created both language and the world. It is intuited and received, not conjured.

But there are difficulties in this largely countercultural approach to creating. Writers often are encouraged to adopt a production mentality about their work. Writing is a product obtained by exercising dominance over language and ideas, a doing-unto the text. And, generally, we have been rewarded for the outcomes of this kind of approach. In my younger days, writing was a way to accrue social and academic capital, something to prop up my identity. Even now, I can become overly invested in the results, restless and demanding, too attuned to the winds of social media, and find myself despising the beautiful hiddenness that is a crucial element of the writer’s path. Such a posture is at odds with Vann’s vision of our role as holy mediators. Caught in that place, I sense a deep-down hunger for the solidity of a star-laden summer night.

To immerse myself in this greater vision is part of my calling, and for that I need a more contemplative approach to life and writing. I need to learn how to be quiet and to breathe, to move slowly and pay more attention, remembering that small details matter and learning to truly see them. Flannery O’Connor, an unashamed fan of staring, touches on this more contemplative way of being and working, saying, “The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you will see in it.” Through such careful seeing, she says, “The artist penetrates the concrete world in order to find at its depths the image of its source, the image of ultimate reality.”

We were made for mystery, and that mystery is the expansiveness of the world, the Spirit, the love and meaning that is each moment’s possibility. Writers of faith must trust and lean into other powers to accomplish their art. In such an atmosphere, our work with words becomes a gift, a gratitude.

I’m a long way from that teenager in the Wisconsin countryside, living in St. Paul these days, but looking back I see a beauty in her and her quest to reconcile the worlds around and within. I identify with the goodness she sought, alone on the lawn as the stars pressed close, her implicit recognition of meaning in a spiritually charged world.

As I work and write amid the determined movements of early spring, I know I cannot control the night sky or the first shoots of green that still slumber beneath my feet. Mystery is all. What I can do—and what I believe is my vocation—is to cultivate vision, to be a loving witness as I mediate earth and heaven, holding the tensions of clay and spirit, scatteredness and order, and out of such holding to find words enough to glimpse the glory of what is.

Judith Hougen is an Associate Professor of English at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota where she has taught writing for twenty years. She has written two books: The Second Thing I Remember (poetry) and Transformed Into Fire (spiritual formation). When not endlessly grading, she works on her own writing, currently a collection of essays on faith and the writing life. She blogs at Coracle Journeys and lurks on Twitter at @JudithHougen.

Creativity Series: “Tossing Ferdinand Magellan” by Tyler McCabe


Most writers I know have a pet metaphor for this station, the ultimately strange role of writer, and I suppose I do, too, though lately I have grown suspicious of it—or rather, him. I am considering tossing Magellan.

I think he originally occurred to me during a college entrance exam. I recall composing a long flowery rant about the writer as an explorer; I wrote something like, “an explorer sees the world as an oyster into which he readily forks his tongue.” (My youth blinked past the innuendo.) I hyperventilated on about, yes, lapping at that goodness.

And once I stop blushing, I admit there’s some truth to that because the world is sweet. This is a world that repays exploration.

I think Tolkien had this exploration in mind—a kind of discovery of the real—when he wrote his bit about humans refracting “a singular White,” and although I think he probably wrote that sentence like I wrote my entrance exam essay, missing its problematic undertones, I think he probably wrote it in earnest as I write (generally) in earnest, and perhaps he even wrote it next to a window overlooking sea like the one I write by now, because who can deny witness to the light shattering over water and the salt-clean air and gulls in pines, bleating? The world is sweet.

I’m sure Magellan thought so, or he wouldn’t have died trying to circumnavigate it.

But I no longer think of writing as a true exploration of a beautiful world, a discovery of the real, and here’s why: having created this art for some time, it’s occurred to me that the vista out my window is a variegated color beyond the written word. I experience the complex color sea, and I can write a sea-like sentence, sure, add rising and falling sounds, a certain swish, harp the moribund S, but I cannot write the sea as one actually experiences it. The ocean—human experience—is ornate beyond serifs.

To Tolkien I say: this white light burns my eyes.

Which isn’t to raise any more controversy than this: the writer, if anything, is not the explorer as we tend to think of him, Magellan at the prow of his ship, laying his plans upon his desk, drawing up lands as he encounters them. Something stranger is in art happening. The writer is parting darker waters.

Considering this Christianly, I’ll hijack for a moment the story of God giving Adam reign to name Earth’s animals.

And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

This might be the most important parade in the entire Judeo-Christian tradition. So I apologize for this quick and somewhat distorted analysis: I believe Adam was, like any writer I can bear to be friends with, a little bored and lonely, and luckily for him, God intended all along that Adam not only explore the sweetness of the world, but alter it, reconcile himself to it, leave his shadowy strange mark on it: beginning with a syllable. Crow.

For the creator-artist and the viewer both, art is an extra mode of knowing that is just as likely to muddle Tolkien’s light as it is to coax it into spectrum. That is why we call some books good books, and also why we can’t pick The Best Book Ever. It is why we writers feel there is something left to be written: because we are not exploring the actual world in words, but through playing with words coming to situate ourselves in the actual world.

Playing with words, we organize the world, fillet it, direct it, sharpen it, slow it down, speed it up, deceive it, chop it into manageable pieces or amass it into unspeakable wonders.

Most writers will tell you they are in love with words themselves—I am in this camp—and I will venture a guess that most of us get into this business not because we are looking out windows on beautiful vistas that compel us to record them shoddily, but because the last paragraph of “Dover Beach” is so rhythmically compelling. Because the opening sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude gives us goosebumps.

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

The best creators are Adams—transfiguring one blackwing flurry into crow, for love of that open sound, soft punch.

All this to say, my first metaphor’s soured. A writer isn’t really an explorer discovering the world; what she offers is other-worldly. Her work transforms the world.

Then again, I may be tossing Magellan unfairly. Words are elastic. Maybe I need only revise the way I imagine him. Sure, a creator is like Magellan as I can picture him now: stepping from the dock and sliding off the map, returning from uncharted space, notebooks full, and changing the way we relate to the world, for better and worse, muddling and concentrating that foreign light.

Tyler McCabe is the program coordinator of Seattle Pacific University’s MFA in Creative Writing program and managing editor of Image journal’s bi-weekly e-newsletter ImageUpdate. He has also written for Ruminate and SPU’s Etc. magazine.

Creativity Series: “What it is to be Us” by Kyle Burton


From the moment we acquire as toddlers the capacity to interact with our world, the best way to understand it is to imagine. As children we play with toys—blocks, dolls, action figures—or, if without the luxury, turn a stick into a sword, the empty lot into a dessert, a few trees and a bush into the queen’s enchanted forest.

We intuit onto plain bushes, plastic, rocks the properties of grandiosity and wonderment. We project. Because we have no other means by which we can peacefully come to terms with the complexity of human existence.

Instinctively, we understand the futility of that bush, of that rock—of us—because though we may not have yet cohered finding a dead spider, furled up in the corner with the mortality of our loved ones, ourselves, we, instinctively, understand the limit of life. Our play, our imagination is one of the few processes unscathed, as a notion, by time. Of course, we may one day lose it—to disease, to the world—but to lose something is not to see it break.

The role of the creator is the role of the human. Whether one believes that to be a reflection of a Creator-capital-C or an exercise of coping, creation, if it is true, is something only of the most synchronized of us. Synchronized with self, with nature; with order, chaos, complexity, spirituality, reason, ideation; ambiguity; with phenomena, commonality; with beauty, empathy.

Creation is not something we merely stumble upon, nor is it something we can shape. It is Stephen King’s “fossil”. It is Emerson’s Intuition. The ability to capture the human experience, however one sees fit, render it wonderfully, and communicate it to one’s fellow man is a privilege withheld from many. Most, probably.

Unfortunately, not all people can write a captivating story, paint a stunning picture, or, more tragically, bare children. Obviously, such people are no less human. In fact, in large part, once we grow up and refine our sense of imagination near indistinguishable from reality—or a version of it—we tend to reinvent those very people. They allow for communication. They open bridgeways.

We do not exist for the purpose of our medium. Art did not exist before man. We create art so that we could continue to exist—so that, instead of telling another our experience, our feeling we can provoke in them what is to be us.

But let us widen the scope. Art is certainly not the only form of creation. Rather, the venues for imagination are innumerable. Wider still: “imagination” implies a degree of conscious decision making, which isn’t necessary. Instead, any activity in which we aim to make something new—or anew—is creation.

To create is to exert in about the only way absolute control over an element of your life. Unintended incidents (spilling paint on a canvas and being called postmodern, accidental pregnancy, etc.) do not invalidate that control. The acts of painting or sex possess an intrinsic element of control. We do not fault Sex for the baby bump, and we do not fault Painting for the tasteful splotches. We who participate are at fault, thus the term unintended. We failed to properly seize control in our choice.

Creation is how we ensure longevity—lineage or cultural. What does civilization value of a people? Its technology?—long forgotten, abandoned, or improved upon. Its politics? Its history? Its art? Any of the four, plus others, could be argued. Their connection: each has been created as a means of conglomeration, of understanding. Not history?

I once had a brilliant American history professor who told us that historians formulate a narrative around occurred events in order to assert over a historical era a relevance as they see best fit. Politics, then. Well, here in America, these disparate, hostile party lines politicians and news networks would have us believe unconquerable—they don’t much exist. Extremist identifiers—socialist, fascist, bigot, etc.—are tossed around as a way to also create narrative. Perhaps it’s an American thing, but goodness we love an arch with respectively admonished and beloved bad guys and good guys. In that, creation is equally accessible for bad and good.

As a junior in high school I lived in a good home, in a good suburban neighborhood, went to a fine public school, and could claim as my life’s greatest misfortune only moving from Minnesota to Missouri halfway through the ninth grade. Yet, I desired instability. I relished the idea of turmoil introducing itself into my world. I felt it necessary.

In eleventh grade English, when the rupture never came, I invented it. My teacher’d assigned us a personal narrative assignment. Perhaps, given the assignment’s title, cheating it with a lie is impossible.

Because I lied, hard. I fabricated a dramatic and powerful story of being attacked at a friend’s house and then rescuing a girl friend from being raped by one of the attackers. Our lives had been in substantial danger, and I happened upon getting us out of it. It was the type of story scoffed at, if presented as fiction, for absurdity. When presumed to be true, it scored wealths of tears. This was not a singular incident—neither in that class nor among close friends. It was exhilarating.

I envisioned the stories so thoroughly, they blurred with memory.

I confessed, to the close friends, not because I grew troubled by my envy of grim disturbance, nor by the guilt of lying. I confessed because I accepted that I didn’t feel all that bad. I do not at all like deceiving those for whom I care, but that’s not what the lies had been about.

I’d stumbled upon, within myself, a need for outlet. Reconnected, I should say, as childhood friends and I recollect now with profound nostalgia our games—unfilmed movies, really, where I essentially directed, and always played the villain. I feel a lot of power in destroying, and my writing reflects that. Part of it is a bleakness (surprise!), I can admit. But the greatest part is my impermeable belief that all of us are a sum of performances and that the sum is no less true than any offered opponent.

We may not all be conscious creators. But we all are a collection of creations, learned or constructed, and to mimic this formation, as is the role of the creator, is therein utterly of mankind. Cheers, my fellow players.

Kyle Burton lives in Missouri. He lived in Minnesota. He’d go back to live in California if either he could afford to or Oregon didn’t selfishly persuade him otherwise. He watches movies. He writes. He writes about movies (Imperfect Movies). And he watches some more. Perhaps one day we’ll say ‘make’. He graduates from Mizzou in May, and is waiting to hear back from MFA programs. He played football for a long time, his best friend is about to play in the NFL, and he will resort to fist-to-cuffs if anyone belittles Adrian Peterson’s greatness. Even his girlfriend. Who’s a loathsome Bears fan. If he were to try to sum up himself succinctly, he’d say: ‘I can’t. But that’s what the writing’s for.’ (Check out his Best of 2012 Compilation.)

Learn more about the “With Flames Upon Their Head” Creativity Series by clicking here.

Creativity Series: “Three-Part Harmony” by Nancy Nordenson



In the beginning, you have an image, a question, a word that won’t leave you alone. It keeps coming back. Knock, knock; here it is again. You pull out a notebook and make a note. A day or two later you scribble something on the back of an envelope. On an index card. Scratch, scratch. A thought comes to you in the shower, an idea at the grocery store. You send yourself an Evernote note, an iPhone note, a to-do list reminder (“think more about…”). These memoranda are hydrogen and oxygen, carbon and phosphorus, nitrogen and sulfur, elements of life ready to ignite into something that never before existed. You mix this with that, stir and shake, shape and fill out. You concentrate and daydream. You write and write. You save and delete words at a ratio of 1 to 10. A paragraph, an essay, a short story begins to emerge. One day it will stand on its own. It will be a single united whole that would bleed if you cut something out. You will call it good as you put down your pen and pull back, waving and watching as it goes on to have a life of its own.


But for now, you have further to go than your prowess with words can take you. You may be creating a paragraph, an essay, or a short story, a book or a novel if you’re lucky, but you are not the creator of the heavens and the earth. You pray a prayer of humility and proceed. Layers of created order draw you deep and high; clues beckon like golden keys waiting to unlock hallways through what calls to be explored. You strap on a light as you walk into the darkness. Now and always you ask, What’s really going on here? On one hand you write “mystery” and on the other hand “the known”; you want handfuls and handfuls of each, gathered together, mingling, heaped and overflowing on your writing desk. But the weight of discovery is not yours alone to carry. The Christ’s ancient promise holds: ask and you will receive. You empty your hands of what you’ve found and now hold them open. You listen for the still small voice that is not yours. You wait. It is not a secret truth that you seek, but a quickening, a veil dropped, even just the first breadcrumb of a path forward and through. When the word—the Word—finally comes you pick up your pen and write some more, stir and shake again, your eyes closed, your head bowed.


The stakes just got higher. You jumped the track, caught a wave, launched skyward on the see-saw’s pivot. You’re not just creating a paragraph, an essay, or a short story, a book or a novel even, but something bigger. The words catapult you into the realm of participating in the ongoing creation, new hearts, new minds, the world as yet to be. Words alive in the eternal now, fruitful and multiplying, where will they go? What will they do? How will the words catalyze, how will the words comfort, how will the words change even you, the one who laid them down on the page? Theological debates rage on whether God’s creation surprises him or not, but indeed the words you’ve written surprise you. “This chokes me up,” a reader says. Me too, you think but don’t say. “After this, I see things differently,” says another. You nod, feeling the shiver. The words, no longer a product, become teacher, guide, and friend. “I don’t feel so alone,” says yet another. You nod again, walk away from the desk, and rest.

Nancy Nordenson lives in Minneapolis and writes about the intersections of thought, beauty, and faith in everyday life and work. She is the author of Just Think: Nourish Your Mind to Feed Your Soul (Baker, 2004), holds an MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University, and is currently finishing a book on the nature and experience of work. Her essays have appeared in Indiana Review, Comment, and Under the Sun, among others, and have received multiple “notable” mentions in Best American Essays and Best Spiritual Writing.

Her essays have also been anthologized in The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God, edited by Leslie Leyland Fields (Cascade Press, 2010), and Becoming: What Makes a Woman, edited by Jill McCabe Johnson (University of Nebraska Gender Studies, 2012). When not scribbling on a creative project, reading, cooking, or daydreaming, she can usually be found earning a living at her medical writing desk. You can contact Nancy at her website,, or follow her infrequent tweets @NancyNordenson.

Learn more about the “With Flames Upon Their Head” Creativity Series by going here.

One of the cool things about being me is that I have a lot of really cool friends. Who also write books.

Strangely enough, a lot of my friends are coming out with their own books. I’ll share a few now and some more later.

I really have been searching for a book like this for a long time. Go here to read a sample.

Tyler speaks for and to the millennial generation and produces a convicting book about an important subject everyone needs to hear. “Holiness is not just some fine ideal destined for generations past; it’s the unyielding pursuit that defines every Christian life.” Read more here.

After her parents are killed in a rare grizzly attack, the author is forced into a wilderness of grief. What? Yeah, go here to find out more.

One Day at a Time by Evan Kingston (Guest Post)

This Series is about the challenges writers face while working a day job and trying to make it as a writer.

Today’s post is from Evan Kingston. He lives in St. Paul, MN. He runs the frozen department in a grocery store, writes literary romantic comedies, and maintains The Oldest Jokes in the World, a blog about the relationship between humor and literature. He is currently the Fiction Editor for Red Bird Chapbooks.


Over the past year, I’ve received dozens of correspondences from agents and publishers regarding my first novel, Half Drunk. There’ve been short emails, letters on gorgeous stationary, and messily photocopied half-sheets; many have mentioned “the current state of the publishing industry” while others have taken a kind moment to draw attention to “the many admirable qualities” in my work. But they’ve all said, “No, we’re not interested in your novel.”

I usually read them right after I come home from my morning shift at the grocery store, when I check my mailbox and inbox before heading out to the library to write for the afternoon. And with each one I get, I can’t help but wonder why I don’t just stay home, to relax and/or wallow. It seems, for a moment, like giving up would be easier.

I worked hard for a long time on Half Drunk. The novel was my MFA thesis, and I composed its five drafts over the course of four years, workshopping it through a half-dozen classes before concentrating on it one-on-one for a year with my incredible advisor, Sheila O’Connor. In part, each rejection feels like a rejection of the time I spent on it, a letter letting me know all those lonely hours in the library were wastes of sunny days.

Even worse, they sometimes feel like rejections of a whole part of my life. A literary romantic comedy about addiction and recovery, Half Drunk is based loosely on my struggles with alcoholism. In detail, the connection to my real life is very loose: the plot involves magical strains of marijuana I’ve never smoked, a villainous rapper named Dr.MC I’ve never fought, and a 100 ft bike jump into the Mississippi River I’ve, thankfully, never jumped.

But the larger themes—my exploration of how we finds the strength to change our lives within those parts of ourselves that are ultimately immutable—are some of the few things I have from the drunken years of my early twenties that are worth sharing. At my most despairing, the rejection letters feel like a refutation of those hard earned lessons.

They really make me wonder why I even bother. But even when I can’t think of a good reason to, I go to the library and write anyway. I don’t need an answer; all I need to do is think of the alternative.

In my early twenties, I didn’t have a daily writing routine and regularly excused myself from the few commitments I made for myself. As I’d worked my way through a BA, my binge drinking grew steadily worse, but rarely so bad that it interfered with my class assignments. The moment I graduated, though, I stopped writing and took up drinking like it was my calling. I considered myself a writer, but was less interested in actually writing than in acting like I thought a writer should act: sometimes vain, sometimes depressed—but always drunk.

When I did manage enough time between hangovers and buzzes to sit down at my desk, I mostly just scribbled notes for novels I was sure would prove my genius once I found a little more time. Whenever I forced myself to make the time, I tortured a few sentences—dissecting and reassembling them with slightly different punctuation, just to change it back and see how it would feel if the main character had a different name—until, unable to find the perfection I thought would let me move on to the next paragraph, I quit to the bar. Once there, I drank until I could forget the work I should be doing so I could more easily brag about being a writer (though I often overshot and blacked everything out completely).

As fun as I tried to make it all look, I was miserable. I wouldn’t change, though, because I wanted something to change me: I told myself I would start a new short story once a magazine accepted the one I’d written as an undergrad; I would cut back on my drinking once I found a nice girlfriend; I would finish the first chapter of my masterpiece once inspiration hit me with a better first line. Chalk it up to addiction or immaturity, but I just couldn’t understand that no girl would want me until I sobered up or that I’d never know what the right first line was until I’d written through the first chapter, all the way to the end of the book.

I hope it doesn’t ruin the end of Half Drunk for you, but through a series of personal events I still don’t fully understand or remember, I finally quit drinking. In part, I think I realized I needed to be sober to make it through the school—but then I also remember looking forward to how much more authority my drunken rants would hold with an MFA behind them. It was more than just school: I’d thought of a hundred good reasons to quit over the years, and various friends had plied me with a dozen more, but I never lasted more than a few weeks. I’m still not sure why this time stuck. It involved a strength I was sure I didn’t have—a strength I still think isn’t my own—so all I can say is that God helped me, and besides that, I just tried to stay sober one day at a time.

As it is one of the few activities I’ve tried that is as hard as quitting drinking, I try to think about writing the same way. The part that is under my control is showing up to the page every day and doing the work. Whenever I skip a few days in a row, I can’t help but feel like I’m blacking out my chance to be great, rejecting myself before anyone else has the chance to. I know I can’t just wait for something to happen to me that will change my work into something publishable. All I can do is study my craft and be as present, honest, and exacting as possible every day.

I believe that, as with my will for sobriety, the inspiration that will make my work great needs to come from something greater than me, something ultimately out of my control.

In any event, it is totally out of the control of publishers and agents, so I don’t let what they have to say keep me from doing my part. They have their own part to play, and hopefully, one day, that will involve writing me checks instead of rejection letters. But I can only reach that day by writing one day at a time.

Also read: Writers Series: “Writing for a Living” by Amanda Fanger

Grant to them even now glimpses of your beauty

O God, whom saints and angels delight to worship in
heaven: Be ever present with your servants who seek through
art and music to perfect the praises offered by your people on
earth; and grant to them even now glimpses of your beauty,
and make them worthy at length to behold it unveiled for

Thank you for this great and mysterious opportunity for my life.

Through Jesus Christ our Lord,

I’ve watched you trying to teach and you are really not very good at what you do

This is from an essay by Kim Stafford about success and failure:

Some years ago, during a graduate-level writing workshop on a cold November night, a student asked me at the break if she could talk with me after class. “Of course,” I said. After the second half of the workshop, which I felt it went pretty well, the others melted away into the rain and she sat down to face me.

“I have been watching you trying to teach,” she said, “and I have to say, you are really not very good at what you do. People come to a class like this to make structured progress on their writing, and all you really have to offer is exercises to make new beginnings. I thought someone should tell you this, in case you have other options for a career.”

As she spoke, I felt my heart rattle, heard my mind fill with the sounds of clank and clunk as her words shifted the gears of despair. Yes, said a voice within me, you are probably right. My teaching is bad, and I am bad. Far from being a surprise, your assessment finds companion thoughts buried deep in my own mind. I have long known what you are saying.

Several weeks later, this student asked me to write a letter of recommendation for her. I got out a crisp sheet of bond with my college’s letterhead, and produced a glowing assessment of her skills and prospects. She got into the MFA program of her choice and now seems to have a thriving career. My failure and her success are both by-products of what is truly at work in each of our life episodes: survival, learning, forgiveness, and change.

Kim makes a list of his respectable accomplishments and then describes how they’re also failures. I do this, too, and I don’t have nearly as many accomplishments.

Isn’t that like your worst fear as a teacher? It would be mine. But in general, it’s like a constant general fear that someone is just going to call you out as not very good at anything.

Writers Series: “Writing for a Living” by Amanda Fanger

This is a new series (different than the Creativity Series Part 2 that’s coming). You might be asking what’s up with all these serieses? I don’t know, they’re just fun to do. For this Series I asked some writers about the challenges they face in their daily lives while working a day job and writing. Thanks for taking part.

Today’s post is from Amanda Fanger. She grew up on a farm in Central South Dakota where she was homeschooled. She works for her hometown newspaper, reporting news and doing marketing, and tries to keep all the fictional stories in her head from spilling over into her workspace. On the side, she plays piano, reads, rides horseback and blogs about how she’s applying life lessons to her writing. Visit her at, Twitter, and Facebook.

Journalism. Fiction. Blogging.

I’ve been told that I’m one of the lucky ones who gets to write for a living, but I view these three as flaming torches – each torch representing a branch of my talent – that I must juggle while being careful to avoid burn.

For about as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer; my mindset has almost always been focused on becoming a published fiction author. It’s always been a passion burning deep within me.

The week before I graduated home-schooled high school I landed a writing job at my hometown newspaper. (I can only think God was responsible for getting me into the journalism field because of the specific series of events that happened within a precise timeframe.) It was a dream come true and a weight off the shoulders of a very apprehensive 18-year-old who had no idea what she was going to do with her life. I had prayed and God had answered with a telephone call from the newspaper’s editor.

She heard I liked to write. I heard she needed a reporter. She was borderline desperate for help and I was completely frantic for want of a direction in my life. The two of us struck a deal.

When I came to the newspaper, I had to totally rethink the way I wrote. Up to that point, I wrote fiction for my eyes only and with a deadline of someday. But journalism was a very different beast and I suddenly found myself writing for thousands of eyes with a deadline of Tuesday or else.

It was trial by fire, to be sure, especially because I hadn’t gone to journalism school and all I know of newspapering came from ‘on the job experience.’

During my first few years, I sometimes fumbled and the torch burned me, searing an endearing lesson into my hide. But all of the pain felt worth it when, in 2009, I was named Outstanding Young Journalist by my statewide newspaper association.

Finally, after five years into my career at the very newspaper that gave me my start, I realized I’d lost sight of what had drawn me into writing in the first place; fiction. My dream of becoming a fiction author was still as real to me as ever.

Finding my muse once more, I tried to pick up on my stories where I’d left off and failed. The stories had moved on and I was forced to start from scratch.

As frustrating as it was to realize that part of me had forgotten how to write fiction, I also discovered that I’d gotten better; there were lessons about writing that I’d picked up from the newspaper. I now wrote in a consistent voice; brought characters to life on the page; and my brain was exploded with new ideas for background and settings after being given the opportunity to hear so many real-life stories first-hand while reporting.

Excited by what I’d discovered and the possibilities I knew awaited, I threw myself into the frenzy of the work and started a blog, hoping to share my newfound knowledge with other writers. Looking at my increasing number of blog followers, I take comfort that at least these few readers have found worth in the words I write.

Although I report hometown news, write fiction and blog about it all, when people ask me what I do for a living, I say I’m a writer because I cannot imagine my life without this daily task.

There is simply a fire burning deep within me that won’t let me stop.