A couple of weeks ago, I was in Santa Fe, New Mexico for the first of five ten-day residencies that are part of the low-residency M.F.A. in Creative Writing at Seattle Pacific University (held concurrently with and on the same campus as the Glen Workshop that Robert attended and wrote of last Friday. The Glen Workshops and the M.F.A. share a number of people and characteristics, including a commitment to explore the entirety of the human experience, including faith and mystery, and a lot of faculty members, including the director, Gregory Wolfe.)
I’m a new student once again, having been accepted into the latest creative nonfiction cohort. Ahead is a two-year road of residencies and sending thick packets of creative work and annotations and papers to my mentors, and I’m relishing it, albeit with a gleam of trepidation in my eager eye. But that’s not what I’m writing about here—plenty of time for that later.
Here’s what I want to say: as part of the residency, we have “craft lectures” in each of our genres—discussions about some aspect of the work of writing. There was quite a number of graduates in nonfiction (eight?), and they gave most of the lectures in our genre, all wonderfully helpful. But two were given by the faculty in our genres, Paula Huston and Lauren Winner. Paula gave a wonderful lecture on virtues and vices that I’m still mulling over daily (including reading through my notes several times), but what Lauren said keeps coming back to me, too.
Lauren’s lecture was on revision, something I, too, don’t do well. I actually rather enjoy it, but having spent years writing on tight deadlines as a freelance magazine writer (after work, of course), I don’t often carve out time for revision. I figure out what an editor wants and then I do it. I am a highly productive writer, in the truest sense: I produce a lot of published writing. And I don’t mind saying I’ve derived a great deal of pleasure from that.
In her discussion, Lauren dismantled this ideal. As she pointed out, productivity is the idol of our culture. And it’s one thing to talk about productivity at work (after all, a measure of actually producing something is what most of us are paid to do). But when producing becomes the aim of everything, we ourselves become diminished.
For instance, Lauren pointed out, we often think of revision as a process that produces multiple drafts, each of which moves us progressively closer to the final draft, the final product. Not so, she challenged us. What if we thought of revisions as fruitful, not productive? In other words, what if we thought of the writing process much closer to how we ought to think of the spiritual life: an “intensely inefficient” process that nonetheless bears fruit? Writing, she said, is a process of discovery, and since revision is the largest part of good writing, revision is meant to help us discover, not just get closer to something that’s “done.”
That gave me pause, since it is the intense inefficiency of both revision and the spiritual life that always vaguely frustrates me. I have been in the habit—as I think many of us in the Western church have—of thinking of Christ’s injunction to be fruitful as, well, an injunction to produce a lot of fruit: bushels full, so we can be picked clean and give others joy.
Obviously a tree is not fruitful if it is not productive in some way. If we never produce anything, well, we’re not bearing fruit. And in the same way, if a “writer” never actually writes anything—and this is a whole lot more common than we’d think—then she is not a writer, in the same way that an artist who doesn’t make art is not an artist, nor is a lawyer a lawyer without lawyering, or a governor a governor without governing.
Yet in the great syllogism of life, p implies q, but q doesn’t necessarily imply p: fruitfulness implies productivity, but productivity doesn’t imply fruitfulness. Those of us who grew up around them know that what’s true about fruit trees is this: they don’t produce fruit all year round. In fact, for most of the year, they do other things that don’t produce anything you can sell out of a crate by the side of the road.
What do they do? They grow, little by little. The sap runs through them. They soak in the sunshine and the water and they make food from it. They stand strong as children climb in their branches. They provide shade to people who might want to sit beneath with a picnic and a book, and they sometimes even let teenagers carve hearts into their branches in the first blush of puppy love.
In other words, they quietly grow, and they quietly endure, and they quietly bless.
Revisions aren’t going to do that for most people, since much of the kind of revisions that help us discover the piece (like trying to write from another point of view, or write a mess of new beginnings to the piece, or tirelessly writing it all out by hand) aren’t going to be seen by anyone. But what they do—and what I’m starting to learn—is grow the writer. They are the sunshine on the leaves that starts the process of photosynthesis that nourishes the plant. They are the leaves themselves, that let the tree provide shelter to the picnicker, and they are the bark that let others lean on them and think through their own love and life. They are what makes the writer a patient person, one willing to do things that don’t have a clear end point or desired result, and to do them just out of love.
The best writer, I’m starting to think, sees writing as a predominately spiritual practice, not just a predominately work-producing one. She is the one who experiences through her work the growing process that makes her into a full, strong, richly fruitful person, who bears her fruit in her season. Her leaf also shall not wither—and, incidentally, whatever she does will prosper.