Today, I’m thrilled to help kick off the blog tour for Vinita Hampton Wright’s new book The Art of Spiritual Writing: How to Craft Prose That Engages and Inspires Your Readers. I’m excited to share this book for a few reasons:
1) Vinita is a terrific writer who writes both fiction and non-fiction (check out her list of books here).
2) She’s a fabulous editor, with two decades of experience in the field of spiritual writing (I was lucky enough to work with her on Random MOMents, and she made the editing process not only edifying but downright enjoyable).
3) This wise little book is perfect for writers who are putting their spiritual journeys on paper and want some expert guidance to help make those stories publishable. As Vinita explains in the book, spiritual writing that is meaningful to the author is not always writing that is marketable. If you have a story to tell, and you want to know how to tell it so it resonates with others, this book is for you. Read on for a preview, and for a taste of Vinita’s writing and editing wisdom.
Tell us about how you came to write this book.
My colleague and our acquisitions editor, Joe Durepos, asked me to write it. He wanted a book that gave straightforward help to writers. Actually, I think he was tired of sending out tidbits that I’d written on this and that—he would help a writer by sending my file on the difference between personal and public writing, or on something else.
As a preview, what is one bit of advice you offer in the book?
No one needs an excuse to write; so many people seem to need permission or validation, but writing is first of all a personal act, and if a person wants to write, she should just do it. However, any writing meant for public consumption must go through a process, and that’s where many writers fall short. The book is a manual about that process.
As an editor, you probably receive book proposals from many bloggers. How does blogging benefit writers who ultimately want to write a book?
A good blogger knows how to get to the point, how to organize material so it’s easy to follow and easy to read, knows how to come up with a compelling title or first line. Good writing must be organized, concise, and interesting.
Does a background in blogging ever get in the way of crafting a strong manuscript?
If you’re used to writing everything in small bits, you have to change gears sometimes to develop a thought into more depth and length. And bloggers use their own voices in writing, whereas, depending on the book, the author’s voice may not be the primary voice. Or at least the author’s voice can’t be as casual as we usually are when we blog.
You’ve been an editor for about twenty years. How has the “spiritual writing scene” changed in that time?
It’s possible now for any person to put her writing out there for others to read. This can be good in terms of exposure to potential readers, but that means that a lot of material is available that is not well-written and in many cases it’s not been edited. Spiritual writing has become more personal; twenty years ago, many spirituality books were designed to teach—they were more left-brained and formal. Now “authentic” is the buzzword, but unfortunately, to some people “authentic” really means unseasoned and unskilled writing that is emotionally expressive. We need the balance between personal and universal. We also need balance between mere experience written down and experience reflected upon and written with skill.
You yourself write both fiction and non-fiction/spiritual books. What are the unique challenges of each genre?
Non-fiction can develop tone problems pretty easily. If I use “I” it sounds self-centered; “you” can sound preachy, and “we” patronizing. The wrong vocabulary can shift the tone to too formal or too pedantic or too slang. Fiction is much more demanding, I think, in terms of craft. I might stick with a non-fiction book if the writing is so-so but the information is helpful. If I’m not already captured by page 5 of a novel, then I’ll just put it down and find something else. So I sweat a lot more when I’m working on fiction. And creating a good plot is not an easy thing.
Name one spiritual writer you think is a master craftsman/woman.
I’ve been a fan of Emilie Griffin; her book, Turning, about conversion, was a life-changer for me years ago.
Are there challenges to editing spiritual books that don’t come up with more secular books?
Good writing has the same qualities whether it’s about the Catholic faith or about hiking the Rockies. But I think our religious cultures have encouraged people to put on a good public face, even when they are suffering. So sometimes I must push a writer of spirituality to get more honest and write the fuller truth. It’s not our job to make God look good or to protect the reputation of an organization, such as the church. Yet we do get pressured in that direction sometimes.
St Ignatius of Loyola famously wrote that you can find God in all things. One of my favorite parts of the book was when you list all the ways that God is present in the writing life (even during the challenging times). When you were writing this book in particular, where did you find God in the process?
I found God in my own reserves of wisdom and experience. I really didn’t think we needed a book like this—I couldn’t imagine what I would put in it that hadn’t been said many times in many other places. But once I began, all the good stuff bubbled up, and I realized that God had gifted me with an editing and writing career and that these gifts must be shared.
Do you have any favorite patron saints for your creative life?
I so admire Hildegard of Bingen, who was creative on multiple fronts, who was unafraid to be who she was and to use whatever gifts she had.
Name three qualities you think are essential to have if you want to write about spirituality.
1) You must be living what you plan to write about. 2) You must be willing to write a lot and maybe for a long time before any of the material is usable in published form—that is, you must be patient. 3) You must be unafraid—of who you are and what you know, and of what must be written.
The Art of Spiritual Writing is available at LoyolaPress.com, Barnes and Noble.com, and Amazon.com. (If you aren’t familiar with Vinita’s blog Days of Deepening Friendship, check it out — it’s always a rewarding read.)