Stephen King’s Advice for Preachers

Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing, is popular among writers seeking to improve their craft. But it wasn’t until I read Maggie Zhang’s article, “22 Lessons from Stephen King on how to be a great writer”, that I realized preachers could learn a lot from King too.
Read the full list of practical advice for yourself.  These are the points, though, that I believe are especially helpful for preachers:
1.     Stop watching television.  Instead, read as much as possible.
As a college chaplain, when my students are obsessed (still) with Grey’s Anatomy, it is valuable for me to be culturally-clued in enough to know what they are talking about.  But King makes a great point when he says that television is “poisonous to creativity.”  He says “writers need to look into themselves and turn toward the life of the imagination.”  Preachers do too.  I often find myself wishing that the church of today could be more creative in a way that moves beyond the latest guru’s “outside the box” thinking.  Reading good literature, creative nonfiction, and poetry awakens our imagination, sparking insight and ideas. Sermon writing can only benefit from such a practice.
2.     Tackle the things that are hardest to tackle. 
Tackling difficult texts and issues makes us dig deeper as preachers.  King says, “stories are found things, like fossils in the ground.”  Sermons should be found as well.  Preachers need to not only dig exegetically deep into the text, but also within ourselves and the life of our listening community.  The preacher who doesn’t dig deep doesn’t discover  or preach anything new.  During the sermon writing process, preachers would be wise to remember Robert Frost’s advice, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
3.     When writing, disconnect from the rest of the world.
King suggests, “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”  This is especially important for preachers whose first sermon draft can be inhibited by fear of what others will think.  I try to write my first sermon draft just for myself.  No one else will hear or read this first draft.  Only after I have gotten down what I feel called to preach do I open the door to the editing process. The result is a sermon that is more authentic and true.
4.     Don’t be pretentious.
“One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones,” King says.  In the preaching genre, I relate this to using big churchy words, or religious jargon that only the (ever decreasing) insiders will understand. As a college chaplain ministering among the most religiously unaffiliated generation, I know that even the word “ecumenical” needs to be defined.  On the other hand, some of the church’s traditional liturgy resonates deeper than words that are more contemporary.  For instance, when a young person hears the words, “You are dust and to dust you will return” and receives the sign of the cross in ash on their foreheads after listening to a sermon on death—you can bet life suddenly feels more precious.  It’s pretentious to withhold such experiences from our community.  But they need to be translated for today’s society.
5.     Take risks; don’t play it safe.
At a preaching conference, I heard Dr. Brad Braxton say that the American pulpit could use a healthy dose of courage and I agree. We pastors are human beings who desire to be liked and loved just like anyone else.  But this oftentimes leads us to play it safe in the pulpit. In our fear over upsetting someone, we avoid taking risks, being prophetic, and digging deeply into difficult texts and issues. King says, “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”  I’m convinced the same is true of preaching.
6.     Don’t try to steal someone else’s voice.
It may be good practice to imitate the style of another writer or preacher.  But, for the sake of authenticity, it is crucial that the preacher’s voice in the pulpit is the same as his or her voice out of the pulpit.  I’ve known pastors who have a “preacher’s voice” in the pulpit—sometimes big and booming, sometimes sing-songy, always false.  People are hungry for preachers to be their real selves in the pulpit.  Anything else just feels put on.
7.     Have the guts to cut.
“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribblers heart, kill your darlings,” King says.  Your “darlings” are the words, phrases, stories or illustrations you adore as a writer or preacher, but that don’t serve your larger message.  Kurt Vonnegut says, “If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.”  This is painful when we have written something we love.  But it is so important.  For the sake of clarity and effective delivery of our creative, surprising, deeply dug message, we preachers need to be our own ruthless editors.

In the Valley of the Creative Process

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I am in the middle of writing my sermon for our upcoming Baccalaureate service. I have a great beginning, a muddled mess for a middle and no conclusion. Yet the day is fast approaching when I must deliver this creative work. So I am feeling anxious.

Last week I listened to a podcast on “Overcoming Creative Roadblocks” that hit home. During this podcast, Todd Henry talked about the creative process as having a U shape. Any sort of work you have to do, or project you want to complete is like a hike down into a valley. You start out on one side and looking across you can see the other side clearly. You can see your objective. Over there across the valley the sun is shining and the birds are chirping. It sure is going to be great when you get there. So you set off with all the momentum inspiration brings in the beginning.

ImageThen you get to the bottom of the valley and here your objective is obscured. Things get confusing. You can’t see as well. Maybe the trees are thicker here, the path becomes treacherous and you’re approaching the uphill climb. You start to hear scary animal noises and you wonder if you’re going to make it out of this valley alive. You start to question yourself, your sense of direction, your intuition. Should I have even started this journey to begin with? Things don’t look good right now.

According to Henry, we often tell ourselves that the most difficult part of a creative project is getting started—all I have to do is get started and then the rest will just come, we think. Or we tell ourselves that the hardest part is finishing the project, getting to that place of completion. But, Henry asserts, the truth is that the hardest part of any worthwhile endeavor is when you are right in the middle. Because here, in the middle, is where fear and self-doubt arise. You start telling yourself things like: I can’t do this. This is impossible. I suck at preaching. Things that are, in reality, only minor obstacles appear to us here, in the valley, as huge and disastrous. My outline isn’t working. I’m doomed! My printer is jammed. God has cursed me!

So what we need here is motivation to keep going, to keep pushing ourselves forward. We need narratives in our head that aren’t based in fear or self-doubt. We need a way to positively confront the hurdles we meet when we get to this place.

It is here, in this valley of the creative process, where I find myself relying most on my faith. In fact, if I did not have faith when I got to this valley, then I think I would probably quit. Instead, I have come to trust that if I give the Spirit enough space and time, if I work hard and open myself to where the Spirit is leading me, then eventually God will guide me up and out of this valley.

A friend introduced me to a poem called “The Woodcarver” written by Chuang Tzu and translated by Thomas Merton. It has become one of my favorites. I keep a few lines of it taped over my desk so I can see it whenever I find myself discouraged or in need of inspiration. The poem tells the story of a master woodcarver who was asked by a Prince to carve a bell stand. The bell stand he produced was beautiful, so beautiful that everyone who saw it said it must have been made by spirits. When the Prince asked the Woodcarver to tell him how he produced something so beautiful, this is what he said:

I am a workman:
I have no secret. There is only this:
When I began to think about the work you commanded
I guarded my spirit, did not expend it
On trifles, that were not to the point.
I fasted in order to set
My heart at rest.
After three days fasting,
I had forgotten gain and success.
After five days
I had forgotten praise or criticism.
After seven days
I had forgotten my body
With all its limbs.

By this time all thought of your Highness
And of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work
Had vanished.
I was collected in the single thought
Of the bell stand.

Then I went to the forest
to see the trees in their own natural state.
When the right tree appeared before my eyes,
The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
All I had to do was to put forth my hand
And begin.

At this point in my sermon writing process there are lots of dangerous distractions, intimidating thoughts, self-defeating messages swirling around. The Woodcarver reminds me to guard my spirit, to stay true to the task of preaching God’s Word, to open myself to the Spirit’s guidance through prayer and meditation, so I can climb out of this valley with a worthwhile, meaningful message for our graduating class. It will be two more weeks until this Baccalaureate pilgrimage comes to its conclusion. May God guide you in all the creative work to which you have been called, as I pray the Spirit guides me in mine.

 

[Feature Image:  Jeff Turner]