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Writer Talk: An Interview With Rob Bell on Writing and Creativity

September 18, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

Last week, I had the opportunity to talk with Rob Bell about writing androb bell creativity. We spoke a few days before the September 2Days with Rob Bell event, where he gathers together with others to discuss creativity, speaking, writing, and teaching. (There might even be a little surfing as well.) Rob was gracious and generous with his time and I enjoyed the conversation with him. Of course, as soon as I hung up the phone, I thought of twenty more things I wanted to ask him about writing and creativity.

About Rob: He is the author of six books (Velvet Elvis, Sex God, Jesus Wants To Save Christians, Drops Like Stars, Love Wins, and What We Talk About When We Talk About God). He was the featured speaker of a series of short films called NOOMA and he has created a series of films based on his talks (Everything Is Spiritual, The Gods Aren’t Angry, Drops Like Stars, and Poets/Prophets/Preachers.) In 2011, Rob was named as one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people. In addition to writing his next book, Rob is working on a project for television.

Here’s our conversation. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Chris Dikes (CD): Let’s start at the beginning, when did you have this inkling of wanting to write or to be a writer?

Rob Bell (RB): In college, I wrote some articles for the school paper, but they were just ridiculous. They were like funny, weird, twisted. I knew that I really really liked putting something on a page and working on it until it was what I wanted it to be. It wasn’t until I was in my early thirties and I had been giving sermons and traveling and speaking and I had a bunch of content that I had this sense that there was a book. So I hired a court stenographer to record me as I spoke the book out loud for a day, but it was just awful. So then I had a writer write up some of the ideas, but then it was more painful, because it was my ideas but not my voice. I eventually came to the realization that I actually had to sit down with a blank screen and start writing. I’ll never forget it. It was so humbling and terrifying because I started thinking about all the great writers out there and all the people who actually know how to write books. So there’s that blinking line on that blank word processing document taunting me, “Who are you to do this?” So I just started in because it didn’t matter that I’d been speaking in public and giving sermons, because I was in a totally different medium. A book is not a transcript of a talk. It didn’t matter what I had learned about speaking with a live crowd. I couldn’t rely on those things I’d learned doing, because I was in new territory and I had to respect this new medium. All that mattered at the end of the page was that I’d been true to my voice and that there was something that compelled me to turn the page. I’m condensing months and months of blood and sweat into just a few sentences. The only way to do this was to become a writer. Every day you take a crack at it and some days you get one word and some days you get a thousand. If you just keep at it, day after day after day after day, if you give it enough time, you might actually have something on your hands. I probably spent ninety percent of my energy on the first book in head games. What am I doing? Is this rubbish? Is this any good? Is anybody going to read this? Am I wasting my time?

CD: I wanted to ask you about that. Cathleen Falsani quoted you as saying, “When I wrote my first book, I spent ninety percent of my time trying to figure out if I was a writer. Who am I to do this?” What did you mean by that statement?

RB: If you start thinking about all the great people who’ve done this, you’re totally hosed. You have to just do this for deeply personal reasons of the heart. There’s something within you and all you know is you have to get it out on the page. That’s the only thing that matters and just being true to that will be a success. If no one ever reads it, you were true to the thing that’s in you.

CD: When you started writing, did you tell anybody that maybe you wanted to write, to be a writer?

RB: My friends and I had started making some short films, called NOOMA, and those were out there. I had been doing sermons and people were starting to listen to the podcasts of those sermons in larger numbers. There were some publishers who said, “Have you ever thought about writing a book?” When I was first asked that, I was like, “What? That’s crazy.” But by the time I was 33, I was like I think I might have a book and at that point I was ready to tackle it. I had written up some of those ideas and I had a pretty good idea, a solid sense, of what the book would be. The question was whether or not I could write it. Somewhere in there I got a book contract, so then I actually had to deliver something. It moved quickly from I need to try this, to I actually need to do this.

CD: Were there things you learned in those early days of being a writer, about the craft of writing?

RB: You have an internal radar that tells you when you’ve found your voice and I found that I had to learn to trust that. I constantly came back to the fact that when you read a book it’s very easy to get bored and close the book and you don’t pick it back up. I could have all the ideas in the world, but if there wasn’t an internal energy, if there wasn’t something crackling, humming, in the pages themselves that made you want to turn the page… There are so many things a book is competing against. So just being in tune with what you’re doing to such a degree that you can tell when you’ve lost it or when it’s cooking. Some of those things I think I’d been picking up with speaking and preaching. There are some of those things like dynamics and tone and volume and some of those concepts are equivalent within writing. It was always best to write more rather than less, because you can always edit. Get it all out. That was the big lesson, to get rid of the edit button. Just get rid of the “Is this good or not good?” That’s step two or three. Right now, we’re just trying to get it all out and see what it looks like. The moment you get it out on the page you now have a very different discussion. It took me a bit to learn how crucial that was.

CD: You had the experience of creating with NOOMA and preaching and teaching. Was it the solitary effort of writing that was so different?

RB: Oh yeah, writing is very solitary. So much of my work had been, “There are lots of people around and this is social.” Writing was this totally different gear and unless you actually sat down alone and typed, nothing happened. An example would be if a pastor is preaching on Sunday. Whether the pastor spends lots of time or only a little time or is very prepared or is not very prepared, Sunday is still coming. The event is still going to happen. There is an inevitability. In writing, all of that inevitability has to be created by sheer willpower. If you don’t actually keep typing, then it never gets done. You have to summon up tremendous reserves of will and energy and you have to believe in what you’re doing because it’s too painful and hard to just write some rubbish.

CD: Regarding feedback, at what point in the process do you share something with somebody? Early on? Later?

RB: Early on I might read a page to my wife and see what she thought. That’s just the desperate ploy of a broken man. That’s a cry for help from a man who wants his wife to say, “That’s awesome.” You know what I mean? I’ve had an agent since before my first book and I would send him something and say, “What do you think?” He’s ruthlessly honest. You want people who are both great fans and supporters and believers of your work and people who are also ruthlessly honest. People who will tell you the truth about it. Over the years I’ve picked up some friends and I know who to show what to and they’ll give me the proper read. I have friends who’ll say, “Dude, totally lost me and I don’t even feel like you know where you’re going.”

CD: Is there an example of how you were headed down one track with a book and you got some feedback that helped you, sent you in a different direction?

RB: On my first book (Velvet Elvis), the first feedback I got from a good friend was, “You have to own what you’re doing here. If you’re wanting to give people a new way to see this, then you have to give people a new way to see this. Don’t tuck in it. Own it and go for it. What’s the biggest thing you’re trying to do here? Then just say it. It’s ok to say it because it’s a book. People get a book because they want to hear what this person has to say. So if this person turns all the nobs down to the left, and sort of says, ‘I don’t know, I just sort of have a couple of thoughts,’ that’s not interesting. What’s interesting is somebody who says, ‘This is what I think. This is it. Here it comes. Get ready. There’s a story I have to tell you and I have to tell you this story for these reasons.’” So that was a huge moment for me, which I continue to draw on. Own up to what you’re trying to do. Books are how we exchange stories and ideas and arguments so own up to it and go for it. So if you’re saying it’s A and not B, then give us your very best shot at A and tell us why A is better than B. Own it. That was huge.

CD: That goes back to the edit button, turning the edit button off. When you get started on a book, what is the inspiration or the driving force, when do you begin to feel like this might be a book? 

RB: There is usually some moment, like the moment of conception. It’s literally like “That’s something.” There’s a distinct aha moment and then quickly a number of other disparate things that have nothing to do with it all of the sudden have something to do with it. So it’s like boom, and then story, story, story, story, quote, statistic I read somewhere, newspaper article, story, insight, truth. Now there’s like six things on that page and yet I don’t even know what they all have to do with each other but I know they all have to do with that one fundamental insight and then it just grows. After awhile it’s like oh, there are probably five major ideas. My last book (What We Talk About When We Talk About God) was like five words; the whole thing falls down to five words.

Sometimes, it’s just tons and tons of content. Like that last book (What We Talk About When We Talk About God), it didn’t become five words until four drafts into it when I realized I couldn’t make heads or tails of all this content. I kept writing myself in circles. It was maddening, the hardest book I’ve ever written.

Otherwise, there’s some sort of internal framework that announces itself pretty early on and then everything sort of collects itself around those major foundational posts. They’re like posts that hold up a house. That’s happened with the book I’m working on right now. There seem to be four, five, or six major things that were like however they ended up arranging themselves those are the things that this thing is built on.

The key, at least for me, is that I carry that stuff around for years and on a regular basis I have a new thought or a new insight and I’ll just type that line into Pages document. Every time I have a thought about it I’ll put it in there and eventually there’s some moment when there’s enough ideas there that it tips and it starts to be enough stuff that it can be organized. Then I’ll look at how does it start, where does it go after that, where does it go after that, oh interesting, and there you have it.

CD: When it comes to your books, is it a matter of doing a lot of specific research or is it more of being open and curious and always collecting material?

RB: For the last book (What We Talk About When We Talk About God) I did quite a bit of reading. But Drops Likes Stars was stuff I’d just accumulated over time and it needed a flow to it. Eventually what happens is if I work on the one idea it starts to lead to the next. It (the material) seems to show me this is the next idea and this leads into that and that leads into that. The order comes from getting to know the different parts. They all seem to know how to get along much better than I do. It’s a lot of just sitting with it and realizing if you talk about this at the end of that, it sort of begins to be about this and everything sort of blends and then you go the next part. That’s just living with it and trying to figure it out. That’s just the hours and hours of finding it. It’s the ideas and logic and then it’s the emotion. Something compels you. It grabs your heart. It carries you along and that stuff just takes time to figure out.

CD: When you’re in the midst of a book, how does it not consume you?

RB: It does. I struggle with it. I’ll think about it all the time. I’ll be doing the dishes and the psychic weight, carrying this thing around… I have a book right now that I’m just carrying with me everywhere I go. The problem is I’ll finally get done with it and I’ll be so happy and then I’ll pick up another one. Sometimes, it feels like a railroad tie, the ones they use to make railroads, and I pick it up and think this thing is the heaviest, I’ve got splinters, but then I can finally set it down. Then I walk across the yard and pick up another one.  I find it easy to be owned by it. It’s always right there.

CD: The other part of being consumed by something, of always thinking about it, at least for me, is that sometimes the ideas come when I’m not in front of the computer and I wonder if I’ll remember the idea.

RB: Each year I’ve gotten better at trusting that when I sit back down tomorrow morning whatever I need will be there. The biggest issue is that I sit back down the next morning. If I’ve just turned in a draft and I have two weeks with no writing, then I don’t sit down and I have a totally different rhythm. I have to trust that at some point I will sit back down and whatever I need in order to do the work that day will be there and everybody just chill out. That’s just taken time for me to trust, to just show up, give it your best, relax, keep hacking away at it, and everything will get created in its due time.

CD: About the video for the last book…

RB: Oh, the cards, the drawing, the sketchbook.

CD: Yeah, I take it you try to gather information in various formats?

RB: Different things announce themselves in different ways. I’m working on a book right now that is one Pages document. It’s like sixteen to twenty thousands words in one document. It just reads endlessly. There’s no different document for a different chapter. It’s just one run-on thing. It just starts in and doesn’t let up.

The book Drops Like Stars, I wrote the first draft by hand. I had a three-ring notebook and I had the paper with three holes. I wrote the book and then I could re-arrange it because I could re-arrange the order of the stack of pages. It just seemed like it had to be written out by hand first. Different ideas take on different forms.

I have a talk I’m working on right now. I got idea paint, so the whole wall in my office is covered with whiteboard paint so I can write on the wall and so the talk is written out on the whole wall. Another thing I’m working on I wrote out on eight and half by eleven sheets of paper and I have them on a clipboard, like an old school gym teacher clipboard. Another talk is in a notebook, like a bound notebook you’d buy at Barnes & Noble, and another talk is in a Pages document. Figure that out.

I’ve written more talks on hotel stationary because somehow I’m there to give a talk and the last form it takes is the paper on the desk in the hotel room. I have a bunch of ideas for a book on the notes in my iPhone and at some point there get to be enough notes that I transfer them to a Pages document. Different things get captured different ways. I don’t know why that is. Different content presents itself to you in slightly different forms so you just try to stay true to that form until it’s time to switch it to something else. Crazy. That’s a mystery right there.

CD: You mentioned writing Drops Like Stars in three-ring notebook. Did you always envision it as a coffee table size book?

RB: Yeah, right away. I was like this, wow, this is something else. This has got to have a visual dimension. I had a pretty good idea of what pictures I wanted, of how I wanted it to look. That book was almost as much visual as it was paragraphs and sentences.

CD: As part of your process, you collect and gather all this information before you begin. When you finish a book, is it significantly different from when you began?

RB: Yes. The last book (What We Talk About When We Talk About God) was night and day different from the first draft to the last. If you’d asked me what the book was about it, I could not have told you after the first draft. There were all these nice ideas but I couldn’t find a controlling idea. Most of the books changed fairly significantly as they went along. For me at least, I need lots and lots of heavy critique and I write lots and lots. And then gradually, as you keep working, eventually something comes out. I would love to sit and type and then be like boom, done, sweet, he shoots he scores. Even when I think that, nice, this is the first book that isn’t going to demand a significant organ from my body, then you turn it in to the editor and he’s like… and you’re like, “You’re right, what was I thinking?”

CD: Do you experience writer’s block?

RB: I don’t experience I have nothing to write. What I experience is I’ve written the stuff but I can’t get it to work. I can’t figure out what goes after and what comes next. I’ve got this section and I like all these pieces but I cannot figure out what’s A and what’s B and what’s C and how to connect to them. My block doesn’t come from not coming up with content. It’s how to make that content be whatever it’s supposed to be so that I go, “Yes, that’s it. That feels like it.” Flow. Flow’s the thing (trying to find it) where I sit there pulling my hair out saying this is crazy.

CD: What would you say you enjoy most about writing?

RB: That feeling when you read through what you’ve written and it hums. It’s just, that’s it, that’s what I’m trying to say. That thing that’s in me, I’ve put words to it. I’ll read it out loud for a friend and it’s pure joy.

The book I’m working on now, I just read a section out loud for a friend two weeks ago. Being able to read it and just throw myself into it and feel it, yes, that’s it. Everyone else can think it’s rubbish, but man, I feel good. I made this. I did it.

Whether it’s great or not I know that’s the best I could do with that and it’s really satisfying. I just squeezed every last bit of life out of that thing I was given and that’s satisfying.

CD: You’ve done one book (Jesus Wants To Save Christians) that was a collaborative effort. How was the collaborative experience different from writing on your own?

RB: He (Don Golden) had tons of ideas, so it was great. He brought lots of game to it. We would sit there and we would start talking and I’d start typing. What about this? What about that? It was a totally different gear, but it was great. It was great to have somebody else doing some of the lifting.

He’d studied under the guy who’d done this pioneering work on the book of Exodus. He had all these insights I’d never heard before and I was like this is brilliant. At some point, I was like we’ve got a book here. Some of it was just running those insights through my filter. We could also add this, do that, do this. That was great fun.

CD: Are there any particular books or authors that inspire you as a writer?

RB: Nick Hornby, Dave Eggers, Christopher Moore, Frederick Buechner, Richard Rohr, Dorothy Sayers. I’m reading a new book by Sarah Miles, a book on the history of surfing, I love biographies on musicians, and I’m reading a book on architecture.

CD: In Drops Like Stars, you wrote, “Do you know that feeling in class when somebody raises his hand and says, ‘I don’t get,’ and you feel so relieved that you aren’t the only one who isn’t getting it? That’s what great artists do. This is what great people do. They ask. They say it. They express it. They put into words what so many others are thinking and feeling and wondering. They affirm that you aren’t the only one having this experience.” Would that describe what you’re trying to do with your writing?

RB: To me some of the greatest writing is when somebody puts something in words that you felt and experienced and you go, that’s it.

Just trying to name things. Just trying to put language to it. Sometimes you don’t have aspirations beyond that. Other times, it’s very mysterious. You’re trying to put words to something and you don’t know why. “Why do birds sing?” to quote a great Violent Femmes song. Creating is so central to who we are. To stand outside of it and analyze it kind of ruins the beauty of it.

There’s a new Moby song, A Perfect Life. Have you seen the video?

CD: I don’t think so.

RB: Wayne Coyne from The Flaming Lips sings on it. In the video they’re wearing these mariachi outfits walking around LA. By the end of the video I have no idea what it’s about and I love it. Don’t analyze it, you’ll ruin it. Just smile when the ghosts on roller skates start skating around them while they sing and don’t even try to figure it out. Just smile.

CD: You’ve been doing these 2Days With Rob Bell events and one of the questions that you pose, or seek to answer in these sessions, is “Does the creative process get any easier?” How would you answer that question for yourself?

RB: I would say yes and no. You do build up muscles and you do build up maturity so you don’t panic earlier. You spend way less time on the head games, freaking out because it’s not coming together. In that sense it gets way better. But you are creating something from scratch and everybody starts with a blank screen. It’s always ex nihilo, making something out of nothing and there’s no way around it. You have to throw yourself into it. So my answer is yes and no. After awhile, you’ve done this enough times and enough stuff came together, you don’t panic. You stay cool in the cockpit.

CD: I recall reading that you’d written a novel or two. What has become of them?

RB: I wrote one called “Millones Cajones” and there’s a second novel that’s pretty well outlined so I’ll be done with that one at some point. The first one was never released. I love that kind of writing. Fiction is awesome.

CD: How was writing fiction different from the other writing you’ve done?

RB: I love it. You don’t have any rules. You don’t have to make sense or have logic. This person just came in. What’s their name? Why are they wearing striped socks and driving a Ford F150 pickup with gold mud flaps? I don’t know why. All that has to happen is that the story keeps moving. I love it. The second one I’m very excited about it and it’ll get written at some point and maybe at some point they’ll be released.

CD: Perhaps this is a loaded question, but do you feel any part of your writing is misunderstood?

RB: I have no idea. The interactions I have are with people who are very kind and very grateful and they say very overwhelming things to me. Somebody who doesn’t like what I do or doesn’t understand it, then it wasn’t for them. What else is there to talk about?


Again, I hoped you enjoyed the conversation with Rob Bell on writing and creativity.

Categories: Writer Talk
  1. October 22, 2013 at 5:59 am

    Thank you for this…I love hearing how other writers create art.

  1. January 1, 2014 at 9:05 am
  2. January 1, 2014 at 9:06 am

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