Recently I was asked how I go about writing a devotional book. I answered that “going about” is a good way to put it, since I do not approach such a project directly or in any deliberate way.
Rather, if I get what seems like a good idea, I wait to see whether other similar thoughts begin to gather around it, until eventually a huge ball of related ideas is plunging downhill with such gravity and magnitude that I know it simply has to turn into a book. I wouldn’t begin a sculpture without having a sizeable block of marble in my studio. Similarly, a book requires a certain creative mass. It’s a bit like the story I heard about a university which, when it was first being constructed, didn’t build any sidewalks. Instead they waited to see where students would walk, and then they added the pathways accordingly.
So I’ve never set out with the deliberate intention of writing a devotional book on a certain subject. What happens instead is that I keep a journal—not in any disciplined way, just jotting down thoughts as they occur to me. After a while, I notice that a lot of my thoughts seem to be coalescing around a certain theme, at which point I begin to wonder if I may have a book in the works. At that point I start to consciously explore this theme, thinking and praying more deliberately about it, doing some research, gathering material, and so on. It’s a very natural, organic process that I can easily pursue in the midst of other activities, or while writing a different book in a later stage of composition. Before I know it, I’ve gathered a mass of notes, and I’m probably already seeing a shape to the book: a way of approaching the theme, chapters, maybe a title, etc. And pretty soon I’m ready to start typing.
One virtue of this process is that I’m initially capturing my thoughts when they’re fresh-minted, hot off the brain and uncensored. Rather than writing about a subject, I’m just writing, just free-expressing. Often this produces the deepest, most vigorous thoughts and expression, and often the wording from my journal is more or less exactly what goes into the final book. And then in the course of writing, many new thoughts come to me, so the old and the new play off one another.
Finally, it’s a matter of going over and over what I’ve written until every sentence expresses exactly what I want to say, and is as beautiful and/or serviceable as I can make it. During this period, I’ll try out some passages on a few friends, and especially on my writer friends, a great little group I’ve been meeting with for 25 years. Only then, after gathering some feedback, and improving the thing until I can no longer see anything more to do with it—only then do I approach a publisher.
Perhaps I should add that the source of all my writing is contemplative prayer—just daily resting in the Lord and letting Him inspire the thoughts of my heart. Whether I’m working on fiction or nonfiction, my writing flows from deep within.
One exception to the pattern I’ve outlined above is my book The Gospel According to Job. While I’d long been fascinated with the book of Job, I’d never thought of writing about it myself. Then one evening while out for a walk, the whole idea for the book came flooding into my mind in the space of about five minutes. You can read more about how I wrote that book in a previous blog post, Quitting the Blame Game: Reflections on The Gospel According to Job.
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