Home > Writer Talk > Writer Talk: In Which I Talk Writing With Sarah Bessey

Writer Talk: In Which I Talk Writing With Sarah Bessey

Sarah Bessey. I’m not sure how or when or where I first stumbled upon her blog, but I Sarah-1-300x199remember being struck by what she had to say and I’ve been reading her posts ever since, whether it be her thoughts about God, faith, the church, her husband and family, books she’s read, or her love for Doctor Who. It’s well worth a dive into the archives of her blog. When she wrote the following, I knew I wanted to speak with her about writing, “Sometimes I feel like I just need to suck it up and lean in and all that crap. But then I realise that I’m sick of striving and I’m ready to relax into my own life. So now I’m remembering what I love to do most. My three priorities are my family, my writing, and my community. Everything else has to fit around those things, I’m afraid.”

Jesus-Feminist-Cover-copy-2About Sarah: She’s been blogging since 2005, she has written for a variety of other sites and publications, and on November 5th, her first book, Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit The Bible’s View of Women, will be released. She’s already at work on her second book, tentatively titled Recovering Know-It-All: How a Cynical Follower of Jesus Fell Back in Love with the Church. She’s the mother of three young children and resides in Western Canada, although she and her husband briefly lived in Texas (another thing to like about her). One more thing about Sarah, which you’ll notice as you read the interview, she likes to laugh. A lot!

Here’s my conversation with Sarah Bessey, in which we talk writing. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

***

CHRIS DIKES (CD): Let’s start at the beginning. What led to you wanting to become a writer? What got you started writing?

SARAH BESSEY (SB): Oh my goodness. I wanted to be a writer pretty much my entire life, right from the time I was about seven years old and in grade two. I’d always fancied myself as a writer or identified myself as a writer. I wrote constantly throughout my childhood and through high school, but never actually became a writer. In my twenties, I ended up going on to do marketing and development for financial institutions and all these other things. I thought of myself as a writer and wanted to be a writer, but I never actually did it. I think I had it tricked out in my head that it was something that smart people did when they were guaranteed success.

In 2005, I started blogging, more as a way to keep up with people. My husband and I had just left ministry in Texas and I had a lot of friends back there. I started my blog, more just to keep them up to date with what we were doing and where we were going. I found I really loved the outlet, being able to write again without a lot of expectations or pressure. But I didn’t think of it as real writing, even though it was.

In 2008, I was pregnant with my second child and my husband said to me, “What I really want is for you to walk out your life as a writer. I want to encourage you to do that so I’m going to buy you a ticket to this Christian Writers Conference. I want you to go and meet people who are writers and learn how to do this part of your life.” I was like, “Fantastic, thank you so much.” We scrimped the money together for airfare. I flew all the way to the conference and it was pretty much the most miserable three days of my life (laughter).

CD: You’ve blogged about that before, haven’t you? I seem to recall reading about it before.

SB: I have. (Note: Here’s that post.) It was so incredibly ridiculous. I’m an introverted person anyway, but particularly a few years ago. In those days, there weren’t a whole lot of bloggers. I definitely felt as a bit of a pretender and that silenced me even further. And I wasn’t really involved in any sort of online community. I just wrote what I wanted to write whenever I wanted to write it. I ended up going to this conference and not talking to anybody and sitting through these publishing sessions and having them basically take away all of your dreams (laughter). They told you about the chances that you’ll never be published, that it’s all about platform and networking and all these things that I completely lacked. Then they said that the only thing that supersedes all of those things was a super amazing voice. I was like, “Crap, I don’t even have that.” (Laughter). The very last night there I ended up having this real- again my faith background is more charismatic- big charismatic night back in my hotel room where I was crying and just said to God, “I quit. I am obviously not meant to be a writer. I am none of this stuff. This is never going to happen for me. I quit writing. I quit trying to be a writer. I quit identifying as a writer.” But I really felt as if I heard from the Holy Spirit that night, saying, “That’s fine, you may never be published, nobody may ever read a single word you write, but I still made you to be a writer so go ahead and write.” That was the point where I really felt like I gave up any expectations and any hope. That was the point where I really felt I was free to write. I stopped hoarding all of my stories. I stopped hanging onto things. Whatever I had I just did it. Put it out there. After about three years, I found my voice. It took me three years of writing every day without any expectations of anybody reading what I wrote.  To be honest, I’m still surprised anybody reads it besides my sister. She’d read anything I wrote (laughter). So I didn’t really feel like I became a writer until I quit being a writer, if that makes sense.

CD: In those early days of blogging, were you trying to learn things as you went or were you just putting it out there?

SB: Pretty much just putting it out there. As for blogging, I’m not someone who does posting schedules and has a clear idea of where they’re going. I’m very undisciplined. It’s really atrocious (laughter). And that’s the reason my blog is all over the place because I write about whatever I’m thinking about or wondering about or wanting to explore. I don’t know what I think about something until I start to write about it. A big part of my blog has been me writing through my life. There are positives to that and then there’s things that make me want to go back and burn down some portions of my archives because it’s so different than how I think or feel or express myself now. But I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am now without that place. That’s why I leave them up there. If nothing else, it serves to remind me to be careful next time before I put something out there (laughter).

When I first started blogging in 2005, there wasn’t a whole lot of community. At the time, I was really interested in the emerging church discussions that were happening in the United States and in the UK and Canada, so I was writing about some of the stuff I was wrestling with and hearing. A lot of the things they were talking about made me feel a little less crazy. But it didn’t ever develop into a blogging community for me or a group of people that I felt I worked alongside of. When I had my babies, I kind of started stumbling into the mum blogging community, but I didn’t really fit there either because I liked to wrestle a lot with theology and politics and all that other stuff. So I never really felt that I fit anywhere. Sooner or later though, I ended up kind of finding people who were just as all over the map as I was and I let the blog be what it was. I figure if there’s something that people don’t like that day, they’ll find something another day that works for them. I write about being a mum and a wife and my marriage, but then I like to write about feminism and my own relationship with God and my own journey and church. So it’s all over the place, which I can understand can be frustrating for some people who want to know what they’re going to get every time, but that’s not life. I don’t live my life very compartmentalized and the blog is more just about my life than any one topic. Again, that’s probably wrong.

CD:  What are some of the lessons you have learned as a writer in either blogging or in writing your first book (Jesus Feminist)?

SB: I’ve learned different things on each side because they’re such different disciplines and mediums. Part of the reason I have loved blogging is because it suits me temperamentally. It works for me and how I like to write, for someone who’s more undisciplined. There’s things I’ve learned, like go ahead and write it when you’re furious but don’t publish it till you’ve calmed down (laughter).

One of the other things I really love about blogging is that it’s accessible. There’s no gatekeeper to it. When in the history of the church has someone like me ever had anything remotely resembling a voice that people can listen to? Never. It’s been a huge amplifier for voices that have been disdained or not listened to or just not noticed. Not just for women in the church but for a lot of people’s experiences in the church. And it has given us a platform and a voice that we never would’ve had. I feel very loyal to blogging and to the medium of blogging. Even the fact that it’s accessible and it’s free and anybody can get at it. It feels a bit subversive.

CD: When you went from blogging to writing your book, what were some of the things you learned in writing your first book?

SB: The value of secrecy. I learned the value of holding things as an artist a little bit more closer and really wrestling with them. Having a bit more weight and intention behind what I was doing. I learned about how to develop an idea for a long length of time as opposed to a quick post for a thousand words. When you’re thinking about a book, you actually want to get into one specific thing and just work with it. It was beautiful. I really enjoyed it, even if at times it was really frustrating. I think something else I really benefitted from was having other people care about it. I blog and I put stuff out there and it’s fine, but with writing a book I had somebody come alongside me and take what I’d done and say, “This is great, but here’s how we can make it even better.”

CD: Along those lines, at what point in the process of writing your book did you ask for feedback or get feedback on how to make your book better? What sort of feedback did you get?

SB: I pretty much wrote the entire book on my own. I’m not someone who sends off a chapter to someone to ask them to take a look at it. I feel like I’m not ready for them to read it (a chapter) until I know where I’m going with the rest of it. It took six to nine months to write the whole entire thing. When it was finished, from my point of view I was like, “It’s so beautiful and it’s ready to go.” (Laughter). I sent it off to the publishing house and they assigned an editor to read it. She was like, “It’s a good start.” What they ended up doing was moving things around and helping me see how certain ideas worked better at the front than at the back. It took me until the middle of the book to even use the word “feminist” and they were like if this is a book about feminism, we might want to start with that right out of the gate. It was really helpful.

CD: Where did the idea for the book, Jesus Feminist, come from?

SB: To be honest, it grew out of my life and the work that I was already doing online. For me, I became really interested in women’s issues in my late teens and early twenties. I became involved in moving out of issues that just pertained to evangelicalism and moved into more global issues that affected women. I met a lot of people in my real life who were very tuned into that. They cared about whether girls went to school in Afghanistan, about girls who were in Uganda, about women on the streets of Mexico, and about the women on the streets in our own downtown. Not only in terms of how to care for them but in terms of the systemic things that held them back. I started writing about it because that’s what I always do. It (Jesus Feminist) just kind of arose from there. For me, the book is less about Christian feminism and more about the kingdom of God and what it looks like when we are all walking in fullness and freedom together. I see it as this kind of a love letter, maybe a provocative love letter, to the church that I really love to come outside. I grew up in a home that really valued me. I have a great relationship with my parents. Even in the churches I grew up in it was equal and open and affirming. My own personal experiences have been really positive. But I knew that was different than how a lot of people experienced things. The global voice of women really mattered to me and it’s bigger than just lady preachers. It grew out of that. When I was thinking of writing a book, these things were kind of coming together in that vein and there was nothing I wanted to write about more than how much I believe in us and how I long to see people rescued and restored and redeemed- what things look like when all those things come together. That to me was the starting point for everything in my life. I may write about other things and other books but the starting point for a lot of my own personal growth was this stuff. It was understanding who I am as a woman in God. That’s the jumping off point for my life and that’s the jumping off point for my work.

CD: On your website, you’ve noted you’re already at work on a second book, tentatively titled, Recovering Know-It-All: How a Cynical Follower of Jesus Fell Back in Love with the Church. Is that still a work in progress and what is it about?

SB: It’s absolutely still a work in progress. I’m still very much in the outlining, plotting, and dreaming stage. Now that I have both of these streams going (blogging and book-writing), I really feel like the blog scratches my itch to just write. I look at my blog as my lab. I can get in there, be a little bit messy, experiment with things, and try on different things I want to write about and talk about. And something that has personally mattered to me a lot in the last ten years is in my journey in the church and falling back in love with the church after being quite estranged from the institution. I wrote through a lot of those things and that’s the idea of the second book. I want to write through that experience but I’m still not sure how it’s going to come together. I’m still in the putting it together stage.

CD: What is your process for writing a book? You mentioned the idea for Jesus Feminist arose from your life, but was there a lot of research involved or reading what other people had written on the topic?

SB: I’m still figuring out what works and what doesn’t work for me. I don’t do a whole lot of research ahead of time because I’m doing my research in my life. I’m writing about things I’m already really passionate about. I’m usually not walking into something totally cold. For instance, with the second book, over the last ten years I’ve done a tremendous amount of reading and wrestling and research and planning and crying and everything else about the topic of church and community and what it means to be the body of Christ and what it means for me and my real life. What I usually end up doing is starting out with an outline of where I want to go, the things I want to talk about, the points I want to make sure that I cover, the things that are most important to me, and then I just start writing through them. Usually, I’ve internalized a lot of the research at that point so that I can at least write through it a bit. And once that initial draft is done I go back and I find my research and I make sure I’m saying it the right way and that I’m not a crazy heretic, although that’s debatable (laughter). I try not to read a whole lot of people who are writing on that same topic at the time that I’m wrestling with the book because I feel like it can obscure my own ideas and my own voice. Even though I’m aware of them and may have read them in the past, at the time I’m writing, I’m not reading them. Sometimes as a writer, you can read something and internalize it and wrestle with it to the point that you feel like it’s your own, but really it’s not. I feel like I did all that reading and wrestling and internalizing over a ten year span and now it’s my time to write it, to actually put out what I want to do and not to take in anymore. I’ll wait until I’m at the end to make sure I’ve got all my ducks in a row. I want to have things that are well researched and well done, but at the same time, I’m not kidding myself, I’m not an academic. People aren’t reading my stuff to formulate to their pristine seven point arguments.

CD: What do you find the biggest impediment to your writing, particularly when it comes to writing your books?

SB: I think when I’m trying to write for someone other than my own self. There have been times where I would think I need to have all the disclaimers and I need to make sure that I’m putting everything in place for every single critic who will read it and tear it apart and barbecue me. That’s just the quickest way to stifle what it is you want to say. You can’t be writing for people who fundamentally disagree with you because no matter what you say they will criticize it and then you end up not saying anything.

And honestly, I write almost everything for my sister. She gets my jokes and assigns good intent to the things I say and she wants to hear what I say. She’ll read it and interact with it and we would wrestle with it. She might disagree with me but it’s coming from a place of relationship and a place of love. When I write now I try to write with that in my head instead of writing for all the people who are going to assume the worst. I find that thinking about who I’m writing for can be something that can choke me out.

Sometimes, I find if I’m writing too much and not living my life enough I have nothing to write about. Writer’s block and  that place where I’m feeling stuck and where I feel I have nothing to say, it’s usually because I have nothing that I’m living and nothing I’m experiencing and nothing I’m taking in. You can’t really write out of an empty well. That’s usually a big signal to me that it’s time to stop beating my head against the stone wall. I head outside or I clean my house (laughter). I get out with my kids. I take a little bit of time off from writing, which is why I’m so undisciplined as a blogger. I can’t write every day and on order (laughter), I’ve got a life to live. With the book, all that comes into play, because it requires so much more long game and depth and thinking and having an endgame in mind. So for me, having a really rich well to pull from is a pretty big deal. I can’t write about church and community when I’m not making time for church and community in my life.

CD: What do you find that you like least about writing?

SB: Hmm, to be honest, I love it. I know it’s not very fashionable to say and everybody says they hate writing and they love having written, but I really love it and I always have. I think that’s because I haven’t had a lot of expectations tied to it. I still see myself as a really small person who’s mucking around and having the time of her life. The fact that anybody reads it just blows my mind. I love it and I love the work I do. Sometimes, it’s hard for me to make space for it because life is really full and I’m a mum with three young kids and I’ve been trying to write on the edges of my life a lot. That can be hard when you have a lot of things going on. Making the space to write and making the room to write can be hard, but it’s a good way to spend your life. It’s a really good way to spend your life. I couldn’t be happier with it.

CD: What’s the part you like most about writing?

SB: I feel most myself when I’m writing. I feel like it helps me notice my life. And it makes me really aware of my life. I remember reading Luci Shaw talking about poets having this slender antenna that kind of combs the air, picking things up, and learning things. I feel like being a writer has conditioned me to go through life with that antenna always out, watching for things, seeing things, noticing things. Not because I’m looking to appropriate it for material, but because it fills me, because I notice now, and it’s part of how I see the world now. I love going through my life like that. I love the community that arises among writers, among people who love words and love to wrestle with words and love to read. I love when people interact with stuff I write. I think that might be the difference between someone who’s a writer and someone who likes to write in their journal. If all I wanted to do was wrestle with my own thoughts all the time, I’d write a journal, but I love the pushback and the refining. That’s what separates someone who’s writing for themselves and an artist, because you want people to interact with it, you want to illicit emotions, you want to connect with people. I love connecting with people and it helps me do that.

It also helps me figure out what I think. A lot of times, it helps me write through my life because then I feel like I see my life as its happening and it helps me shape the narrative of my life now, instead of letting someone else do it for me.

CD: Sometimes, I don’t know what I think until I sit down and write it out.

SB: (Laughter.) It takes another writer to understand. My poor parents sometimes look at me blankly.  Prior to being a blogger who put her entire life out there for anyone and their dog to read, I was a really private person. I didn’t trust a whole lot of people. I was really private. I think my parents have had whiplash more than anything else, putting everything out for anyone to take a look at. What?! And you’re writing about that on the Internet.

CD: Last December, you did a week long series of posts on books, ten favorites in a couple of different categories- (Here’s those series of posts.)

SB: (Laughter.) I think I burnt down Pinterest with that.

CD: What are the books or the writers that inspire you as a writer?

SB: I could talk about that all morning. I read a lot of poetry. Maybe it’s because I loved it as a teenager and I rediscovered it as a young mother. At times, it was hard to pick up a book that was super thick and stay with it the whole time. I love Luci Shaw, Mary Oliver, W.S. Merwin, a lot of those. Other writers Anne Lamott, Mary Karr- from a memoir writing perspective because she’s so unflinchingly honest and a fantastic writer-, Lauren Winner- how she wrestles through her faith and life and somehow manages to make the most personal experiences of her life universal-, Shauna Niequist- she makes writing look really effortless or it sounds effortless to read her work but you know it’s not. It took a lot of work on her side to make it that accessible and effortless, especially her last two- Bittersweet and Bread and Wine. From a fiction perspective, I really love more western writers. I love to read English lit, but when it comes to things that inspire me in my writing- really spare prose, like Marilynne Robinson’s books. Some of the old western ones, Song, Plainsong, and Eventide. I really love a lot of our Canadian writers because I grew up reading them. They gave me a really strong connection to land and to place. I’m marinated in that kind of writing. You don’t read W.O. Mitchell without really emerging with this really strong sense that where you live matters and where you live shapes you. I feel that as a western Canadian kid who grew up in the prairies and then moved out west to the mountains, it changed how I saw the world and a lot of those writers helped me find my way.

***

I hope you enjoyed my conversation on writing with Sarah Bessey.

You might also be interested in my conversation with Rob Bell on Writing and Creativity.

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Categories: Writer Talk
  1. October 21, 2013 at 1:34 pm

    A fascinating interview with an incredibly gifted woman! And I can’t wait til those books come out …

    • Chris
      October 23, 2013 at 8:41 am

      Thank you for reading!

  2. October 21, 2013 at 6:28 pm

    I loved this interview. I read Sarah’s blog and loved her teaser today…had to come and read the whole thing. Thank you!!

    • Chris
      October 23, 2013 at 8:42 am

      Great! Glad you enjoyed!

  3. October 22, 2013 at 10:30 am

    Fab interview – thank you!

    • Chris
      October 23, 2013 at 8:43 am

      Thanks for reading! Glad you enjoyed.

  4. October 22, 2013 at 3:49 pm

    I felt so inspired by many of Sarah’s comments and will definitely be pinning this so that I can return on the days when I hit the writer’s slump. Thank you both!

    • Chris
      October 23, 2013 at 8:43 am

      Thanks! Glad you enjoyed

  5. October 24, 2013 at 5:05 pm

    I really enjoyed this interview with Sarah. As a fellow blogger and writer, there was much wisdom, insight, and encouragement for me to take away and ponder. Thank you!

    • Chris
      October 26, 2013 at 7:48 am

      Great! Glad you enjoyed it.

  1. October 24, 2013 at 8:54 am
  2. October 25, 2013 at 1:14 pm

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