Pointing at the Sky
Why does good writing matter, and why does the motive behind the writing matter? Seth and Tsh unpack the previous episode’s topic with Seth’s editor, Stephanie Duncan Smith. The three of them talk about what makes for good reading and writing, why we need better (new) stories, and with Stephanie’s business perspective, the sacramental act of bleeding on paper. This chat’s not just for writers.
City on Fire, by Garth Risk Hallberg
Stranger Planet, by Nathan W. Pyle
Sara Billups on Instagram
The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion
The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
Escaping Into the Open, by Elizabeth Berg
A Burning in My Bones, by Winn Collier
Scroll down for the transcript.
Seth: Welcome to A Drink With a Friend, I’m Seth Haines.
Tsh: And I’m Tsh Oxenreider.
This is from my novel in progress, tentatively titled, The Hole in Corner:
Summer afternoon stretched thick and sticky as bread dough when Clementine was a girl, wandering the aisles of McIntyre’s Mercantile when her daddy ran the shop. She peeked through the boxes of instant rice next to the bandaids to watch neighbors add items to their basket on the next aisle over. Recognizing Miss Marlough by the swish sound of her thighs and polyester pants and Mr. Jenkins by the incessant clearing of his throat. He’d later teach her algebra class and his throat clearing would portal her back to summers going barefoot in the Mercantile, running across the street for leftover popcorn from the movie house, sneaking out back to the alley full of trash cans and old pallets from their store and the ones on either side to play store with the neighbor kids. He’d clear his throat once more and follow with a “Miss Green?” And she’d snap back to the fluorescent lights of math class and wonder how much it cost for a passport to Navisa, to Cambodia? She’d always been a weak, tired girl. Every morning her mother set Clementine’s pills next to a pint jar of water on her nightstand and she’d take them without knowing why. “Weak bones and muscles,” her mother explained.
Clem could play in the neighborhood with the other kids but she never took ballet class or played on the spring soccer team. One school year she took an art class with some of the gray-haired neighborhood ladies down at the county art museum and for nine months she took piano lessons from Mrs. Chou a few blocks over until it was time for a recital when Clem’s mother disapproved of how many hours she’d have to practice. “It’s not good for your circulatory system.” And that was that. For months later, Clementine would reluctantly wave at Mrs. Chou at the Mercantile and she’d nod in reply and walk quickly to the produce for lettuce and carrots.
“What is it I have exactly?” Clementine asked her mother several years later, a teenager in search of autonomy.
Nancy Green sighed, “It’s complicated. A cocktail of issues.”
“Applejack and grenadine?” She knew how to make a Jack Rose from Hemingway.
“More like chronic fatigue and a weak immune system.”
Doctors visits had then become an annual check-up. A rinse and repeat of rigamarole and jargon that took less time than a kettle to boil. The nurse would take her vitals, the doc would come in and look at his clipboard, scribble, ask if there were any new symptoms from the past twelve months, then with insouciance, “Good to see you Green ladies. Keep on up with the meds and we’ll see if there’s any trouble.”
In her mind, he lived at the clinic and slept in his lab coat.
A trip to Yellowstone was her one request for a high school graduation gift. She wanted to pile in the backseat with bags crammed behind her and a stack of magazines and crossword puzzles in the seat pocket in front like she imagined her next door neighbors Kyra and Ben did when they visited cousins every summer. Her grandparents would sit on either side so they could nap leaned against the windows and her mother and father would pilot from the front, travel mugs and trail mix between them. They’d fight over the speed limit and where to stop for lunch. Rosy would step incessantly on Clem’s foot and the motel rooms at night would smell foreign and formidable.
After the graduation ceremony down at the football stadium, the McIntyre Green clan dined at a table for five at the local bed and breakfast where Clem was presented with chicken fricassee for the first time and a box with a new green dress ensconced in tissue. She went to work the next day, green apron over her new green dress. That summer, the station wagon barely left the driveway.
Seth: Tsh, What are you drinking today?
Tsh: It’s making its debut for the first time on the show which I find surprising, and that’s kombucha. Do you drink kombucha?
Seth: I love kombucha!
Tsh: I do too and I can’t believe we haven’t had it on yet. I’m drinking, it’s called Humm Kombucha and it’s from Bend, my beloved Bend where we used to live in Oregon a little while ago. You can find it at Target in Texas. I don’t know if you can find it everywhere in the country but Target of all places. It’s really, really good. Coconut Lime Kombucha.
Seth: That’s amazing. The most amazing things come out of Bend. Have you noticed this? Good people, good drinks, it sounds like a gem of a place in the world.
Tsh: I never heard of it until we moved there and then I hear about it all the time still. What are you drinking?
Seth: I’ve gone highbrow here. I spent a lot of money, drop a lot of coins so that we could talk about this unadulterated, quasi-filtered water.
Seth: I got this little fitness device, this little Garmin because as we’ve talked about, I’ve been moving my body more and needing to keep up with some things a little bit better and one of those things is water intake. Tsh, I gotta tell you, I am woefully inadequate on my water intake and trying to keep up with it, this little watch is telling me all the time that I’m constantly dehydrated. I’m just trying to take care of myself, drink a little water.
Tsh: That’s good for you. I’ve heard that if you are thirsty then that means you’re dehydrated. Meaning if you are thinking about how you need some water then that means you need water, which sounds obvious but if you ever wonder if you need more water, then that automatically means you do. That’s what I remember hearing.
Seth: It’s an oddly human and intuitive way to think about it, isn’t it?
Tsh: Good for you, way to be healthy and adult.
Seth: Thanks. Stephanie Smith, what are you drinking today?
Stephanie: I’ve got here with me a Wegman’s brand plain sparkling water. However, it has a little bit of a mix-tail to it, which I will explain myself. My husband and I just had our daughter who was born in December. This past summer I was very pregnant and I really love my hops in the summer, especially. My husband bought, literally, I think fifteen pounds of hops which have been living in our fridge, I don’t know how for that long. As it happens, you can make hop tea really easily. You just throw some hops, you steep them, like tea leaves. We discovered that if you mix the hops, which is non-alcoholic, it’s literally tea. If you mix the hops with tea flavors it can be very fun. The one that we really like is, I think it’s called raspberry champagne. It’s a white tea and it’s a really nice flavor pairing. I hack up my own system and make little tea ice cubes and then pop them into my Wegman’s brand sparkling water. That is the very long story of what I’m drinking.
Seth: I’m going to have to try that. That sounds amazing.
Stephanie: It’s delicious.
Tsh: I just connect hops with beer so I don’t know what hops taste like outside of beer. What do they taste like?
Stephanie: Super hoppy which is my favorite thing.
Tsh: This is like saying a strawberry tastes like a strawberry. I don’t know what hops tastes like.
Stephanie: I think you have to experience it. It’s bitter, I think ours are citra-hops so they’re citrusy and bitter which is why a sweeter tea is a good counterbalance. Chamomile and hops is another one that’s really good. Straight up hop tea is a lot.
Tsh: I’m going to have to try that. Does it taste remotely like beer at all?
Stephanie: The flavor, the hop flavor, which is what I was after is delicious. Sometimes we’ll go get curry takeout and I’ll be like, I don’t really want a beer, I really want a hop water to be honest. It’s not beer. Don’t let anybody tell you that it’s beer because it’s not. But it is delicious.
Tsh: I’m intrigued because I don’t consume gluten anymore but I did enjoy beer back in the day so I might have to try that.
Stephanie: We can send you some probably from our twenty-five pounds in our fridge.
Seth: I’m in on that, too. I guess what our listeners need to know is that by introducing a third drink this week we are actually introducing a conversation partner for our conversation and it happens to be my very good friend, an editor of two of my two books, which would be 100% of them, and just one heck of a human-freaking-being, Stephanie Smith.
Stephanie: That’s going to go in all of my bios.
Seth: It should. One heck of a human-freaking-being. I think that was actually in the original draft of E.E. Cummings poem but I think he cut the freaking out and just made it human-merely-being. I think he changed the freaking to merely. That’s what happened.
Stephanie: His loss.
Seth: His loss. Today on the show we want to continue the conversation that we had last week which was about writing as a craft, writing for the beauty for the sake of writing. Creating for the sake of creating. It wasn’t just about writing, we talked about all different sorts of things. As we were talking about who could come in and talk about it from a professional standpoint, somebody who reads a lot of writing, who reads a lot of writing for people who want to publish but also just loves the written word. We thought, who better to ask to come talk about the beauty and the art of craft then Stephanie. So, here you are. With that, why don’t you give us a little introduction of who you are and what you are about.
Stephanie: Sure. I’m excited to be here with you both and be in this conversation. I love this topic, I can’t wait to talk about it. I’ve been in publishing for my whole career. I’ve worked at a couple of different houses, most recently as Associate Publisher at Zondervan Books and even more recently, I’ve just joined the editorial team at Baker Books. That’s my current home. I’m a big reader, writer personally for my own personal enjoyment. I also, again, for my personal enjoyment, host an email newsletter called, Slant Letter, which is for writers talking about the craft and the soul of what we do as writers. I figure there’s plenty of other publishing and how to get published and how to publish resources out there so it’s not that but it is about the craft itself and what we love about it and what we can learn from it. In writing, as in life, there’s so many parallels between those two things. On a more personal note, that’s professional, personally, my husband and I live in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania a couple of blocks away from the Susquehanna River. We just moved here over the summer which is a weird time to move but here we are. We just welcomed our daughter, our first, in December. We are in the thick of it and loving it.
Tsh: Congrats on that! And thank you for writing Slant Letter. I’ve been a long-time subscriber for it and to me, it feels like a little reset button.
Stephanie: Oh, that’s great.
Tsh: Whenever you publish, you remind me why I do what I do because sometimes it’s easy for us to forget which is what we talked about last week. Thank you for that.
Stephanie: I love that, thank you.
Tsh: I am curious, Stephanie, in your experience in the industry, most of our listeners are not professional writers but we have a whole lot of readers. I’m curious what your take has been a little bit behind the curtain on what you can see as a reader, what’s different about writing between someone who writes for the paycheck versus someone who writes for the love of it. What do you see that’s different?
Stephanie: I perceive a difference in my work and as I review potential book projects between professional communicators and writers who just love the cadence of a phrase. I don’t want to create a false binary there, there can, and are a lot of people who do both really well. But there’s also professional communicators who do what they do for a living and they love it on that plane but they wouldn’t even self-proclaim to be a writer necessarily. There are plenty of writers who love what they do and hate speaking, hate being on the air, on podcasts, have never been published at all. There’s a full range and quite a mix in between. I would never say one is better than the other. I think, to your question, I don’t know any writers who put themselves through the writing process if they don’t love it. I don’t know anyone who says, “Yes, I will voluntarily sign-up for existential agony and rough draft rewrites and a heaping helping of imposter syndrome…” I could go on. I don’t know anybody who aims for that willingly unless they can’t not do it. If that’s a motivator, if that’s a driver then you should be writing and I don’t care what you do with it. It almost doesn’t matter. If you’re a reader, chances are you probably do love writing because you appreciate it so much and you understand it better than most people do. I also challenge a little bit, people who are huge readers and there’s a lot of them and I bet there’s a lot of you listening who you’re huge readers, you love books, and you have great taste and you very quickly would say, “Oh, no, I’m not a writer.” Maybe not right now but do you have it in you? I would question that.
Seth: That’s good. What do you think, from your own personal writing, what do you think is the motivation behind the best writing? Let me set this up a little bit. We were talking last week about how there are sometimes as writers where we create things just because they’re there. People may find this hard to believe but Tsh and I both have written things, scrawled quick poems, taken scrap lines down, written longer-form pieces that have never seen the light of day and may not ever see the light of day. There’s a particular reason we think we do that, I think. What do you find is the reason behind those writer’s writers that you were talking about, the ones who love the craft, what’s the motivation?
Stephanie: I would be so fascinated to put that question to the writers that I speak to because I think everyone would put their own language on it in a way that would be meaningful. My stab at it would be I think the motivation for entering into that deep, dark cave of the creative process, is it’s two things, and maybe they are the same thing. But a big word that comes to my mind is witness. We just want to witness an idea or a story or a question. The beauty of that too, again, it’s beside the point whether you publish that or keep it to yourself forever. I would imagine that the reason that you two have created these works that have never seen the light of day, is because there was something important enough to you that you wanted to witness by putting it down in print. That’s meaningful no matter what happens to it from there. It depends on the genre, too. I’m a big fiction reader. I’ll never say never, but never in my adult life have I attempted to write any fiction but I hear fiction writers talk about, I don’t relate to this experience, but I hear fiction writers talk about they have visitations from these characters who demand for their stories to be told. To me, that’s a writer sitting down and saying, I have to witness what’s been given to me here. That’s one genre. Maybe for personal narrative it’s I need to process my experience and bear witness to what has happened to me in order to make sense of it, which is also very meaningful. I think there’s just something about when a story or an idea grabs you, you do feel compelled to almost be a steward creatively of that and just see it at all of its angles and all of its dimensions. Writing is the avenue by which you can take a look at whatever it is that is demanding to be looked at.
Tsh: You say that we write to lay witness to something and yet it’s also okay when we just keep it to ourselves. I am curious if, in your experience, you have…I also think that some of why we write is to, you know that quote about we read to know we’re not alone? Sometimes I feel like that’s why we write as well. I’m thinking of the listener here who’s not a blogger, who’s not a published author and yet she wants to write to lay witness to something, and yet she wants to also perhaps connect with somebody else. What do you see bearing fruit by sharing your work but in a way maybe not necessarily for accolades or to be a thought leader or an influencer but just for that knowing you are not alone.
Stephanie: I think that is also a really powerful motivator and one way to process your life’s events could be to keep a personal journal and never share it but that doesn’t bring you into community. If part of the desire is that community, I think it’s really powerful, I’m thinking back even over the past few years having just close friends who have shared with me their personal writing almost like journal entries and it’s brought us closer together and it has been a real gift to be able to witness what somebody’s walking through. That was a really private exchange. This is not like publishing a blog post or putting it out there on the Internet for everyone to see but I think you can even be selective in who your readers are to the point of I just really want my sister to read this or my friend or someone who has a similar life experience or even you want to get to know better. That’s not a thing that people do a lot of but I wish we would do more of it.
Seth: There’s a slowness to what you’re talking about when we’re going back and forth in conversation, this whole podcast is about conversations with friends. I think there are times when Tsh and I both said things and then thought about it twenty-four hours later and thought, man, I wish I would have said this, or I wish we could have riffed here. When you’re writing, you have the opportunity to slow down and methodically think through and process and lay witness to the deeper things. I think that’s something that you have always been good at even with my own writing and saying, okay, let’s slow down. Let’s think about the things we want to process. It’s really a skill that you bring. I happen to know that it’s a skill that you bring to your editorial process because it’s a skill that you hone in your personal life. I know that you’ve written things that will never see the light of day, at least not for a while. I wish they would, selfishly, because it’s beautiful writing. It’s good writing. When you go to the page, the few things that I’ve read that you’ve written, when you go to the page it’s really to express something of another thing that Tsh and I like to talk about which is the deeper, sacramental nature of the world. How God fills all things. Can you talk a little bit about how writing for you is a way of communing with, channeling, thinking about the divine things as they enter into our world into your world?
Stephanie: I love that question and I know it’s a topic that’s very important to you, of course, and it comes out in your writing, Seth. The sacraments are of great importance for me and one of the ways that I think about writing and how it invites us into this sacred space of divine encounter is almost a very literal way. I think of the incarnation is quite simply the Word made flesh and to me, that is the design for how the world was and is supposed to work. God’s good Word speaks life and it becomes enfleshed and embodied in our lives. If you twist that around, if you think about any word that does not become flesh or becomes an un-whole embodiment of that word, that’s where things go sour really quickly. That’s the definition of a lie, for just one small example. I’m really interested in the ways that, I’ve got my bookshelves in my office and I’m really interested in the ways that what I read and the good words and the good works of writers that I read becomes flesh in my life by how I live that out. Of course, I do that imperfectly, like we all do. But that’s the hope. Also, for any writer who is discounting their work or second-guessing knows that those words matter immensely because that’s their potential to literally become made tangible in people’s lives. Back to the sacramental question, God is very much at work in that process and that’s very honoring to God to have our words set the stage for that kind of wholeness in the lives of others.
Seth: I love that, too. Because when you’re talking about the words becoming enfleshed and coming off the page and the sacramental nature of art in general. What I love about this, I know you work in a particular space, more in a faith space of the literary world, but this applies across the board. Good words from fiction, from poetry, from completely secular sources or places, they can do the same thing. As you were talking, I was thinking about this sprawling novel that I read years ago called, City on Fire, and I think about fifteen people that I know have read it and have not had the same takeaway that I have. At the end of this sprawling novel, this character makes this complete life shift. It was a B character. It wasn’t a character that you were expecting the story to actually be about. I still think about that character shift and how the shift was from chaos to something more like order and wholeness. It was a novel that was, again, sprawling, chaotic, 900 something pages. I realized at the end of it that I read the entire thing for the last two pages. I think about that all the time and how my life can actually go from something like chaos to order and that was from somebody that I don’t know if Garth Risk Hallberg has any faith, espouses any faith. I don’t know anything about him, really. I’ve never met him, will probably never meet him but his character did something for me and I think that’s really important about any art or any creative output even if it’s not writing. Even if it’s a painting. Even if it’s writing a letter to your best friend. No matter what the creative output is, it has the ability to embody something that’s designed to encourage someone across the canvas, across the page, across, Tsh and Kyle’s example, across the drywall. It encourages them to be a little bit more human and there’s something about that for me that comes out in the writing process. For other people, it comes out all over the place, in all kinds of different crafts.
Tsh: Stephanie, for me, the sacraments, one of the things I really love about them is that at the end of the day, they’re not really about me. They point to beauty, they make me more human but not because of anything I’m doing. It’s because of what they are in themselves. I think of that when I think of writing. Honestly, in particular, good stories and to take that idea of that we read and write to know we are not alone. To me, that’s what the sacramental beauty of good writing and good reading does. It envelops us into something bigger than ourselves. Other people. The divine. All these things that remind us of who we are in light of all the everything else. To me, that’s exactly what it’s about. It is sacramental both in practice and in the sharing whether that’s literally sharing a letter to your friend or publishing a book and everything in between.
Stephanie: I love that thought so much and I think that’s a very freeing thought to know that it’s not about you and your art is not about you ultimately but it’s a portal to something greater. Have ya’ll seen the movie, Amelie? The French film.
Tsh: It’s been a long time, but yeah.
Stephanie: There’s a great quote from that film and the character says, “He is a fool who looks at the finger who points at the sky.” I think that is just such a perspective shift to remember any artist for any art form is just pointing to the good stuff and has done the work, don’t get me wrong, has done the work to create a frame for that but ultimately it’s just ushering towards something bigger which is really exciting. It makes the work a privilege and an honor but it also takes the pressure off which can be a good and freeing reminder.
Tsh: Maybe that’s ultimately what we were getting at at the beginning of telling the difference between someone who’s writing for the paycheck versus because they have something burning in their bones. Perhaps it’s that little subtle shift, that one degree different in reading something that you can tell was written because they had something in them that they wanted to lay witness to and had this need to share versus pointing to themselves. I think we all, as readers, have read those books before and we know they exist but the ones that probably stand the test of time, the ones we love, the ones that we’re going to be talking about fifty years from now are probably the ones that point to the sky and not back at ourselves.
Stephanie: Yeah. An interesting effect of that too is that if it’s not about you, and I am very much putting my editor’s hat on here, if it’s truly not about you, promote the heck out of that thing. If it’s something that you really believe in, it’s not about you so don’t worry about it. Don’t sweat it. If you’ve created something that gave you life and its core intent is to give life to your readers, please do not hold back on that. I find myself in the position of having that conversation or similar one with authors all the time because I understand it’s really daunting to say please buy my book, as one example, but again if you’ve created something that is supposed to be a gift for your reader, you’re throwing a party, don’t turn your guests away at the door. It’s a gift so give it freely and generously and I think as you’re saying, Tsh, agreed. We’ve all seen ways that that kind of promotion can leave a bad taste in our mouth and I think we’ve all seen ways that it can be really creatively and well done. I think it’s a surprise takeaway from that thought that if it’s really not about you then don’t feel weird about promoting it because look at that sky! It’s amazing! It’s a perspective shift but I think, again, that can be really freeing to realize it doesn’t need to be a big production. It doesn’t need to be unnecessarily about you if you’ve got something really good to share.
Seth: There’s a woman I follow on Instagram, just started following, and I don’t know how long she’s been on it, Sarah Billups. Do you all know Sarah Billups by chance?
Seth: She’s from Portland, Tsh.
Tsh: I’ll have to look her up.
Seth: Maybe there’s a connection there, some Oregonian connection. She dropped this little Instagram video today. Listen, I’m pretty vocal about my thoughts about Instagram and Facebook and Twitter and all those things. Both of you and many of the listeners have heard me rant about this for some time. She had this Instagram TV thing where she was just coming and saying, listen, I’m being really honest with you. I am here because I have something, a book that I hope will be published and I hope you will buy it. But she said that’s not really even the main reason I’m here. The main reason I’m here is because I want to find the people, it’s a searching mission, treasure hunt. I want to find the people who ultimately need to hear what I’ve written, who need to see me point to the sky, who are looking for someone who points to the sky in a way that they’ll understand. She didn’t use that language. She saying I’m looking for the people who feel misplaced, who feel disaffected by xyz, who feel themselves too conservative to be here, too progressive to be there. She’s outlining her reasons for the space that she’s trying to curate for what she’s trying to do. As I watched, I found it really, really refreshing. I didn’t feel like, she’s was upfront, listen, I’m here because I have a book. She was really upfront but she also said there is a bigger purpose, there’s a bigger meaning, there’s a bigger reason why I’m here and it’s not just to shill. It’s not just to hawk some crap. It’s not just to run a grift. It’s actually to provide space for people. When we’re all in this space and we see people promoting their work and sometimes there’s something that feel off about it and then sometimes there’s something that’s very life-giving about it. Because you do this for a living, can you give words to the difference? What’s the difference?
Stephanie: That is refreshing and I think the difference is just that. It’s transparency. That starts even before you’re messaging your audience. It starts with being honest with yourself. I think that’s a constant project and it needs to be a constant project for writers who want to stay in touch with the very first spark that they felt to write. I don’t think that’s a one-time thing. I think it’s a constant task to keep a little tuning fork in your heart and know what’s there. It’s okay to have multiple reasons. I think it’s better to be upfront with yourself and say these are my reasons for writing and these are my personal publishing goals. I hear so many writers that I talk to don’t really know how to answer that question. Their goal is a one-dimensional I want to get published. That can mean anything. That can mean you self-publish. That can mean you publish with a small independent house. That can mean you get picked up by one of the big New York giants. That can mean you sell x many copies or xxx many copies. It can mean anything. It takes an informed decision to know what are your publishing goals? Maybe your goals are, I want to work with a team who understands me. Or maybe it’s, I’ll work with anybody so long as my message reaches as many people as possible. You get to decide but knowing what your goals are, stemming from the reasons that you chose to write in the first place. Really, gently interrogating yourself to find out why am I am not content just writing this for myself or local community? Why is that I want to be traditionally published? I want to be gentle about this but I encounter too many aspiring writers who cannot answer that question because they haven’t confronted it yet in themselves. If you don’t know what your goals are going into the publishing process, I will tell you and any author, you guys can attest, any published author can attest, it will require so much more of you than you ever expected.
Stephanie: On every level. On a pragmatic time level. On an emotional level. It will require so much more of you than you ever expect. Going in with eyes wide open and saying, this is what I’m here for. Then afterward, saying this is great, I’ve been able to stick to what’s important to me and publish according to my measure of success, which might not be somebody else’s and that’s fine. You get to decide. Just be honest with yourself. Really ask those questions, why. Then partner with people who can be good guides for you and help you meet those goals and help you create that vision for you want your publishing to be.
Tsh: I’m curious, with you as an editor but maybe even also as a reader, and also maybe Seth, you think about this, too. What are some books that you want to see out in the world? What are some of the things as those of us who love to read, that you would love to see more of? Fiction or non-fiction.
Stephanie: It’s a fun question, my wish list. It’s really also a hard question to answer because…usually, I’ll try to get more specific for you. Usually, my answer to this question when agents ask, what are you looking for? When aspiring authors ask, what are you looking for, what do you want to publish? My answer is usually, I really don’t care what you write about as long as you feel like it is that message that you can’t not write and there’s a ready readership for it. Writers who are just lit up about whatever it is they have to say. That’s what I’m about.
Stephanie: It’s passion, the passion of the author because you need that to sustain you through the process and it also shows in the power of your work. Also, ownership, which is some of what I was just talking about. Taking ownership of your message and what you want it to accomplish. Those are two huge things for me. Specifically, I’m really interested in books on formation and that can be very specifically spiritual formation but it can also be, it can advertise itself as such, spiritual formation. Or it can not. I’ve published a number of books that are some of my top of mind that I think of in this category that are paradigm shifts for readers that never mention God at all, I don’t think. I think in our current moment, especially this wild year plus that we’ve all had, I see a real urgency for structure that can be trusted and not restrictive. I think we’re all looking for how do we structure what seems like this endless, mark-less span of time? How do we mark our days and bring meaning to our days? Writers who can come at that to say here’s a spiritual practice that could help you with that. Here’s a lifestyle habit that could help you with that. Here’s some mindfulness practices or physical practices, whatever the case may be. Books that can form us and teach us how to bring structure into our lives where we need it in a way that’s life-giving, again not restrictive and not dogmatically fusty.
Seth: I love that. I have some very specific requests, though Tsh, from the market. The market doesn’t really listen to me so I don’t know why. I don’t even know who, I can’t even put a face to the market. I don’t have the market’s phone number. It’s not like I can text her and say, do this. I’ve really been talking about this a lot with various people, you included. I love fiction. I’ve always loved fiction. If I could not love fiction I would choose to not not love fiction. There’s everything about it, I love it. If I could lock myself in a room with fiction and be away from the world forever, I would do it. Wife and kids excluded, of course. That said, I wish that, and to Stephanie’s point, I feel the need to really understand the work of formation, particularly human and spiritual formation. I’m going to separate those for now into two separate buckets. The work of forming a good life, being a good character, a good person that work in the world. The work of forming a robust spirituality and spiritual life, regardless of how you want to tag that. I wish we had more stories like that told through fiction. I know that that exists. I’ve read it. One of the authors that I love that I think does this very well is David Mitchell, the English writer, who connects all his worlds in his exploration of human being in the midst of this very overtly, spiritual, although nondescript spiritual milieu, he does it so well. I just wish there were more of that. We watched, I made my kids watch The Life of Pi this weekend. Amazing book, amazing film. It’s stuff like that. When we watched that I forgot how good that story was and how robust it was from both a human formation and a spiritual formation perspective and then brought together in this beautiful written story and word. It got at it from the back door. One of the things that’s really disheartening to me as I read more and more modern literary fiction, I read a lot of literary fiction. Maybe it’s the genre that I read, I come across these gems like City on Fire. It seems like so much of the modern work is about deconstruction and less about building something of substance that points to beauty and goodness. That’s what I want more of.
Tsh: That’s good. To answer my own question, the phrase that came to mind before I even answered it was, kind of the same thing. What I’m after is more wholesome, magical realism. When I say wholesome, I don’t just mean rated G or no bawdry scenes, although that is much needed. I mean it makes us more whole. Makes us more human and I think magical realism, that’s one of my favorite genres. It’s this genre that helps us suspend belief because I think we all want that a little bit when we read, even if we don’t realize we want it, we want it. But is still grounded in the reality of what we know to be true. We think of some of these stories we love the most that feel a little bit almost out of the ordinary and yet they’re so ordinary they just come alive because of that. It’s not necessarily a Lord of the Rings transporting to another dimension, it’s the Harry Potter, that could actually be right behind a brick wall, and what does it tell us about our own life that makes us feel more, points us more to wholeness. I feel like we just have a dearth of that in our modern writing. This could be a whole separate topic. That to me is what I feel like is missing more of in the space and when you do find them, you hold on to them and they won’t let you go. I think that’s a great way to put it, Seth, these books that deconstruct which we are seeing a lot of in the faith space. They have their space but I wonder if the ones that will really stick with us because they help us remember we are not alone are the ones that help the reader then take the pieces left on the ground where they can start to reconstruct and not leave them with a mess, that they’re standing in rubble. Maybe that’s what we all like a little bit more than we realize.
Stephanie: I want your book list or your shelfie of that genre, Tsh. That sounds amazing.
Tsh: Those are my favorites.
Stephanie: It made me think, I would tag onto to that, too, just more books that indulge play and the play of writing. The one that comes to my mind that I bought for a number of people two Christmases ago after it came out. It is Nathan Pyle’s Stranger Planet. Are you familiar with it?
Tsh: I’ve never heard of it.
Stephanie: It’s comics. The whole concept of it is aliens who are doing human things but don’t know the human language for the daily things we do like flossing and fighting with our partner over what Netflix show to watch. It’s so funny and creative and lighthearted but clever in a way that is not just mindless entertainment. It’s very clever and creative and you can just tell by looking at it, he had so much fun playing in this world. That’s high on my list, too.
Tsh: I’m going to have to look into that.
Seth: That brings us to probably the most important question, do you guys both floss daily?
Stephanie: Oh my word.
Seth: You don’t have to answer that if you don’t want.
Tsh: Oh, gosh. Spotlight. I hope my dentist isn’t a listener. I want to be that person. I floss at least several times a week. Is that good enough?
Seth: That’s great!
Stephanie: That’s very adult.
Tsh: But not as much as I should. What about you? You have to own it now.
Seth: Well, I had to switch to a water pic because the truth was, I’m terrible at flossing but it’s super adult and important. Finally, I was like, screw this. I’m not doing this little piece of string between my teeth anymore and I got a water pic. My dentist says that’s actually just fine if I do it every day and I do.
Stephanie: We’re going to have to talk more about that offline because I got the water pic, used it once and it has terrified me ever since.
Stephanie: We’re going to have to discuss.
Seth: We can definitely do that. I will say that the second time I used it, I accidentally turned it on while it was pointed at my eye and that was not a pleasant experience.
Tsh & Stephanie: [laugh]
Tsh: That’s fantastic. A water pic is my ten-year-olds wish list, weirdly. He has an Amazon list and he put a water pic on. Maybe it’s more fun than flossing, I don’t know.
Stephanie: It has a bright future.
Seth: It’s more fun than flossing, for sure.
I think that that means that we’ve probably come to the end of this episode, now that we know what you’re drinking and how much we all floss. That means we are coming up against this question, our favorite question. Let’s start with Stephanie this time. Stephanie, what’s one thing that you are reading, watching, or listening to that’s bringing some beauty, truth, or goodness to your life?
Stephanie: Reading, watching, or listening. Well, I should say reading. I have been rereading, we’ve been talking about magical realism, I’ve been rereading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. I feel like the past year is a great occasion to re-read old books so I’ve been trying to do more of that. I especially wanted to re-read it because the first time I “read it”, I listened to it on audio. I just don’t like audio because I can’t underline things and I have a very visual memory. If I can’t remember where my underlines are in the book, it’s like I don’t even remember the book at all. I can’t go back and revisit it and find my bearings again. This is embarrassing, but I actually started listening to The Goldfinch on audio and I was like, stop. I cannot not underline this woman’s sentences so I had three hours into listening, I had to call it quits and buy the book, and then when I got the book, I went back and underlined the places that I remembered. I don’t know, I’m finicky. That’s been great. It’s been a classic book on grief and coping. That’s been a good and timely, sobering but really solid book to re-read at the moment.
Seth: I’ve never read The Goldfinch. Haven’t started, haven’t looked at page one of it. I think I even own a copy.
Stephanie: Donna Tart can write about a dog crossing the street and I will be, can I do a Master’s Class on that sentence.
Tsh: I’ve heard some diehards actually like her other stuff a little more.
Stephanie: Yeah, The Secret History is pretty up there.
Seth: I feel really bad. It’s one of those gaps. You have these literary gaps that you have not explored. That’s one of mine. I’m just confessing it to everyone here and if you want to get in the comments wherever you listen to this and curse me out, that’s fine. You do that. You do you, man.
Tsh: I’m a big believer in no shame for people who have read great books because that just means you get to read them still. It’s a very subtle shift in thinking but you know how sometimes when you’re embarrassed to admit some classic that you’ve never read that you feel like you should have to be a responsible human being? To me, the response should be, I can’t believe you haven’t read that yet, oh, what a treat you have in front of you! That’s what I think about what you said.
Seth: I love that. Stephanie and I know this writer and professor named Dan Taylor, Daniel Taylor. Dan’s taught all kinds of stuff. I remember the first time I was sitting with him and I asked him if he had read a certain book and I don’t even remember what it was but it was a classic. The three of us have probably read this book. He taught literature for years at the collegiate level. He said, “Nope. Actually, I’ve never read that.” I looked at him quizzically, what a weird way to say it. He said, “I don’t apologize anymore for the books I haven’t read.” I thought it was so refreshing. Man, there’s the guy that I want to be when I’m Dan’s age. However old he is.
Stephanie: I respect that.
Tsh: I love it.
Seth: Tsh, what is one thing that you’re listening, watching, or reading…listening to, watching, or reading that is bringing some goodness, truth, beauty to your life?
Tsh: I like, Stephanie, that you said rereading because you’re right. I have been rereading more at least in 2021 than I have before. I usually don’t reread books very often because I feel like there’s too many that I still want to read. After our chat last week, Seth, I pulled this off my shelf. It’s probably my favorite book on writing and it’s called, Escaping Into the Open by Elizabeth Berg. Elizabeth Berg is one of my favorite fiction writers. She was one of the first adult writers I got into in high school. I felt like a grownup for choosing to read an adult writer on my own. Her writing is really accessible. It’s not very high brow in all the right ways. This is her writing about, a little bit about the business of it, but a lot more, 90% more about the craft of writing. I appreciate her take because she’s a regular person, if you know what I mean. She was a nurse, a registered nurse for twenty years before she published her first piece in a magazine. Of course, this is back in the day when you had to mail in stuff. The business side of it is a completely different game than it is now but she did it for the love of it, like what we’ve been talking about. She had to get these thoughts out and it turned out she had a knack for resonating with other people in the same way. This is how she accidentally launched a second career is just because she wrote a piece because she wanted to. It’s super short, it’s a great book about writing, I want to say just for fun even though there’s some business side to it. She has recipes in here that she recommends for this is good to pair with this kind of writing.
Seth: Oh, wow.
Tsh: She has fun with writing and I think we need more of that. Escaping Into the Open by Elizabeth Berg. She’s fantastic.
Seth: That’s awesome. I’ve never heard of that book.
Tsh: She’s great.
Seth: I’m not apologizing that I’ve never heard about that book, either. Because I want to be like Dan.
Tsh: Because you haven’t read it yet, you might like it. Seth, what about you? What are you reading, watching, or listening to these days?
Seth: I am actually doing things on all fronts that are bringing beauty, truth, and goodness to my life. This week, I’m not watching TV shows about Mormon murder. I’ve decided to go a little bit brighter this week.
Tsh: Aim higher.
Seth: After some feedback from my wife, in particular. I am reading Winn Collier’s new book called, A Burning in My Bones. I just started it because I just got it last week. It is the authorized biography of Eugene Peterson who is a pastor. People say all the time to me, well now that you’re Catholic are you not going to read my work anymore? I’m like, c’mon on man. Don’t be ridiculous. There are beautiful, wonderful, amazing things that we learn from all kinds of writers, all kinds of people in all kinds of spaces. I’m telling you, first of all, Winn has done something extraordinary. He has gone through Peterson’s journals. He’s interviewed all the right people. He’s painted a portrait of Peterson that I’m not sure anybody’s done before. Eugene Peterson was a pastor, he was a writer. He’s one of those writers that is a little bit unfair because he could write with theological acuity like the sharpness of a knife but he also was a born poet. His sentences are alive and wonderful. This may not be fair but for the average reader, I think to some degree, he hid behind that. He was a very private, very quiet person to some degree. At least later in his life. I think Winn has actually done something really special by painting this more nuanced alive human portrait that was authorized by Eugene before he died. It’s a wonderful book. It’s a great book. I recommend it really for any listener. I don’t care if you are a person of faith, if you’re not a person of faith, if you’re a Protestant, if you’re a Catholic, if you’re the average Buddhist listening. I don’t care. It is a really well-done piece of work that really should be read.
Tsh: Great. I love Eugene Peterson and I don’t know Winn but I know you’re a good friend of his and he seems like the right guy to write this kind of book.
Seth: Yeah, he is the right guy to write the book. Why he wrote the book, and I think this is fascinating. He had gotten to know Eugene a little bit over the years and he had this nagging feeling that somebody needed to tell Peterson’s story and that Peterson wasn’t going to tell Peterson’s story in the complexity. He just called him up and said, I think I’d like to write your biography. Can you imagine as a writer doing that? I could never just call someone and say, hey, I’d like to write your biography.
Tsh: That’s pretty cool though that he did that.
Stephanie: That is the right writer for the job.
Tsh: That’s fantastic. Well, it is time to wrap this up. You can find a link for this episode as well as episode show notes and transcripts at adrinkwithafriend.com. It’s also where you can sign up for our new Substack space for A Drink With a Friend where Seth and I have some pretty fun extra stuff up our sleeves for you in the near future. Again, that’s adrinkwithafriend.com. Also, you can always support our individual work via our newsletters but if you’d like to support this show, you can do so at buymeacoffee.com/drinks, it’s where you can pick up the next round of drinks for just a few bucks which helps keep the lights on around here.
Stephanie, thank you so much for joining us. Where can we find you? Where can people look you up and get to know you more?
Stephanie: Thank you for having me. You can find me at slantletter.com, it’s an easy address. I’ve also joined the Substack crew so there’s a link there. Socials is mostly @stephduncansmith.
Tsh: Very cool. Seth, where can people find you?
Seth: Again, the second week in a row. I’ve made it all so simple, just go to sethhaines.com and you can find everything, including a clean-shaven photo of me and a place to sign up for my newsletter. Tsh, where can we find you?
Tsh: You can find all my things in one spot at tshoxenreider.com, that’s my newsletter and socials and books and all the things. Music for the show is by Kevin MacLeod, editing is by Kyle Oxenreider, and Caroline TeSelle is our transcriber and assistant extraordinary. I’m Tsh, and Seth and I will be back here with you soon. Thanks for listening.