Creativity Series: Shannon Huffman Polson “Please and Thank You”

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I begin. Fingers moving over the keyboard, because this is my time. I do not have a lot of time. I have to sit down with what is available. I do not have time to walk, and stew, smoke (I don’t) or drink, ponder or worry. I will ponder and worry between words, between phrases sometimes, after I write, always, but first I have to start.

The inspiration? Ideas, experiences, things I haven’t yet made sense of yet but know there is something there. I know there is something there because I haven’t made sense of it. Or because I have, but I’m starting to doubt it. “You live in the midst of mystery,” says Richard Rodriguez, “and you say you don’t know what to write?” Amy Tan says you start from a place of moral ambiguity. Sometimes it takes me a while to weed through the ambiguity of things to the moral ambiguity; that’s the good stuff. That’s where it has to end up.

It is about a mountain. It is about climbing the mountain. I have to describe this. I’m generalizing, not telling the story. It is about feet. I should describe the boots, the socks, the thin socks inside vapor barrier socks inside heavy wool socks inside neoprene lined plastic hiking boots. But I started with the mountain. This part will have to go, yield to the boots. There is time there for a quick worry, a quick ponder. The mountain must still be there. Where will it fit? Around the boots, even if it is so much bigger. It is not the focus. It is only the scene. Now the boots are the scene. The essay is about vulnerability. Vulnerability is the focus. Bigger than, smaller than the mountain, the boots. How do I write that?

The first word has to come from whatever is in my mind. It will not be the first word at the end. But it will set the scene, set the stage, start to move my mind, open up the passages through which course thoughts and ideas, like water, like blood…and occasionally grace. This is what I’m waiting for. Grace. It will only come from moving my fingers, moving my mind and letting my fingers follow, going back and correcting, letting them go forward again. There is something in this lubrication of thought that smoothes the way for grace, on occasion, just sometimes. If it comes, it will come silently– not a flash, not a bang—just a rush of thought like water, sometimes a word, always a feeling of abundance, of beauty. It might be just a glimpse, a mountain through a cloud, and it might linger, like a sunrise.

Elizabeth Gilbert recalls that the ancient Greeks and Romans believed creatives had a genius; they were not geniuses in their own right, but they had an external source of inspiration to be credited (or blamed) with their creations. She suggests the humanist move to consider a person a genius is at the root of creative angst. I like that. The real inspiration comes only sometimes, only if I sit down and start to work. It is not me, but it may come through me. Sometimes it does not. Then I close my eyes, and say: please. I have to also remember when it comes to close my eyes and say: thank you.

The mountain becomes boots, a tent. Then the words move on—the same piece– a woman I met in a hospital… Maunday Thursday Services. It is vulnerability, nakedness. It is boots. Foot washing. Exposure. Cold. Frozen water. Liquid water. Faith. Light.

I worry that what I write will not be good, and sometimes I don’t want to start. I make excuses for the day, and sometimes the next day. I worry that I wont get it right. I worry that I’m deluding myself, thinking I can do this, which can turn to fear, and even terror like…like…like a flash flood in a slot canyon (where did that come from?). It can slump to depression. It has done all of these things. The only way out is to sit down and keep writing, keep waiting.

The only way for grace to come is to sit down and write. It might not come today, tomorrow, or this month. My job is to sit down. To begin. To remember to say thank you, as well as please, no matter what happens. To question what I see and remember, to think of the scene, to think of the story, to think of what is important, and to try to write it as best I can. This is not sexy, or interesting to say, but it is everything. Maybe it is this that is grace itself.

Shannon Huffman Polson is a writer living with her family in Seattle and getting outdoors as much as she can, which is far too little. Her first book, North of Hope, a memoir including mountains, fear and grace, is due out Spring of 2013 from Zondervan. Visit her at

Interview with Matt Rogers, Author of When Answers Aren’t Enough and Losing God

Matt Rogers is the author of When Answers Aren’t Enough (released this April by Zondervan) which is a raw meditative account of healing and searching for God after the Virginia Tech tragedy in 2006, when 33 students died. (Read my review here.) Matt works as a pastor at New Life Christian Fellowship at Virginia Tech and his second book Losing God is due out in November.

Matt took the time to sit down with me and talk about the book and his journey as a writer. Actually, we didn’t really sit down together. But if we had, this is an artistic rendition of what it might look like.

Matt Rogers and Ross Gale fake picture.

RC: The one year anniversary of the Virginia Tech tragedy was last week, can you tell us how the VT family is doing after a year?

MR: The anticipation leading up the anniversary was worse than the anniversary itself. I think subconsciously we were preparing ourselves for the worst and were surprised on April 16, 2008, to find we had experienced more healing in the past year than perhaps we had thought. We’re doing well.

RC: When Answers Aren’t Enough has recently been released, do you think it’s been well received?

MR: I believe so, yes. The two comments I most often get are, “I couldn’t put it down,” and, “I love how human you seem in the book.” I really aimed for raw honesty when writing the book, and I think that is what people are enjoying.

RC: In When Answers Aren’t Enough you don’t hide your emotions, at times it’s very raw. Were those passages difficult to write?

MR: Actually, writing them was therapeutic. I needed a release, a way of getting my thoughts out of my mind and on to paper. That process was helpful in working through the last year.

RC: You talk about the controversy of memorializing 33 students who died in the incident, instead of 32. Cho, the killer, being the one that you felt shouldn’t be memorialized as a victim. In the Zondervan summary of the book it says, “…33 students died in the worst massacre in modern American history.” Were you upset at all that the description seems to imply 33 student were victims?

MR: I got to approve the cover before the book went to the printer, so no, I wasn’t upset. What bothered me last April was the subtle suggestion of the 33rd stone that there is no distinction between Cho and his victims. Cho is the reason for the others’ deaths. We have to be clear about that. But no, I’m not bothered by the mere acknowledgment that at the end of the day, 33 were dead. That’s true. And since I was clear in the book about 32 versus 33, I did not have a problem with the cover copy.

RC: When Answers Aren’t Enough is the second book you’ve written (the first being Losing God), although, it’s the first you published. Tell us about your journey to publication.

MR: I climbed a mountain on January 1, 2006, to spend some time with God reflecting on my life and making some goals for the new year. On the trail, I realized I’d been squandering a gift God had given me, the gift of writing. That day I decided to pursue a dream I had for years, that of writing and publishing a book. Had no idea I’d publish two in the same year. The second, “Losing God,” releases in November.

RC: Can you tell us a little bit about Losing God that isn’t in the summary?

MR: That your life will be utterly incomplete unless you buy it? I’m only half-kidding. I wrote this book because I wanted to offer the solace of personal experience to people afflicted with severe depression. I know what that’s like. When going through my four years of depression, I found how-to books everywhere from authors trying to show the path to freedom. I guess they helped somewhat, but what I really wanted was just to know that someone had been through my pain and made it out the other side with their faith in tact. I wanted a story, a true story. I never found such a book, so I decided to write it.

RC: Briefly take us through the process of writing these books–from conception to revision?

MR: I start with the idea that I flesh out in a very basic outline. I don’t over do it. I don’t like rigid outlines that allow no freedom for creativity once you’ve begun writing. I know some authors like to know exactly where they’re headed. I don’t. I like to be surprised by the Spirit who I believe is carrying me along in the creative process. “Losing God” I wrote in order. I wrote “When Answers Aren’t Enough” like a movie is often filmed: out of order. I then pieced it all together afterward.

RC: What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?

MR: Pray. I ask the Spirit to speak into the void and bring forth something fresh, unseen, as God did at the beginning of time.

RC: Where do you usually write? Do you have a special room or coffee shop?

MR: I write in my home. I need quiet. People who can write in coffee shops confound me. How do they do it? I did, however, write most of Part 1 of “When Answers Aren’t Enough” to the “Passion of the Christ” soundtrack. The mood seemed appropriate.

RC: What does a typical day look life for you?

MR: The only thing typical about my day is that there is nothing typical about it. I work with mostly college students. Their schedules are all over the place; so, therefore, is mine.

RC: Are you working on anything new right now?

MR: Nope. Just looking over the copyedited manuscript to “Losing God” and promoting “When Answers Aren’t Enough.” It’ll be a bit before I start thinking about the next book.

RC: What have you been reading lately?

MR: I just started Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood. And yesterday I picked up a copy of Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian.

RC: What are your top three favorite books?

MR: A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, Disappointment with God by Philip Yancey.

RC: Do you ever experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or anxiety? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.

MR: I am riddled with self-doubt as I suspect most creative people are. But I do not have a choice of whether to write. Once something has tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Write me,” I have to do so. The end result, whether good or bad, is not my business.

RC: What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?

MR: I have a tendency to overwrite, to make a sentence grand rather than good. It took me a bit to settle down, find my voice, and just be me.

RC: Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?

MR: I only wish to write books that, when I come to die, I am glad I wrote them, books I respect and am proud of. Oh, and I’d love to be able to live off my writing.

RC: How do you handle being both a pastor and a writer? Any advice for pastor/writers out there?

MR: Not sure I’ve been at it long enough to offer advice. I only know I love it and would recommend it highly.

RC: Have you had much encouragement of your writing, and if so, by whom?

MR: My editors and my agent have given me the best feedback. To hear “Good job!” from people in the business is incredibly encouraging.

RC: When you talked about the view from Philip Yancey’s window that he wrote about in Reaching For the Invisible God I became very jealous. What was it like spending time with Philip Yancey? And what did you learn from him?

MR: Philip and Janet Yancey are wonderful. No hint of fame about them at all. Very humble. And so gracious. I am deeply thankful for them welcoming me into their lives. We actually didn’t talk much book-stuff. We just talked about our lives.

RC: If you could write any kind of book (besides “spiritual growth” non-fiction) what kind of book would it be and what would it’s title be?

MR: I’d love to write children’s literature, though I have no idea what about. Or what I’d call it.

RC: If you could ask Madeleine L’Engle one question, what would it be?

MR: I wouldn’t ask her anything. I’d just sit at her feet and listen to her teach me about life.