John R. Erickson: Writing Should Nourish Readers Like a Well-Planned, Healthy Meal

Writing as a Vocation

I tell aspiring authors that they should have some experience at living life before they try to write about it. They should pursue activities that are likely to involve the basic elements of story material—characters, relationships, conflict, adventure. In my case, I spent eight years working as a ranch cowboy and later operated my own ranch in the Texas Panhandle. Still do.

Those experiences have given me a solid background from which to draw story material, and they also have prevented me from becoming in-grown, which is one of the hazards of the writing business. But beyond that, I must admit that I don’t know where stories come from, why one person finds a diamond and another finds only a pile of gravel. The creative process remains a mystery to me, even though I’m involved with it every day.

What I do know, and have learned over a long career, is that if I follow certain patterns of behavior, I am able to write at least two good books per year—not just two books but two good books. For twenty-seven years I have knocked on Hank’s door, and so far, he has always appeared.

A disciplined approach to writing is an important part of the process. I write every morning, rain or shine, summer or winter, for no more than four and a half hours. I have learned that if I go beyond four and a half hours, my writing shows fatigue. For me, writing is a long distance race, not a sprint, so endurance is a quality I cultivate.

This puts me at odds with the popular notion that the artist is supposed to be a tormented genius—a Strindberg, Nietzsche, or Ezra Pound who goes mad for his art. American popular music has produced an entire pantheon of musicians who used artificial means to sustain their creativity and went to dark places to find inspiration. I never saw the appeal of dying young or thought that art was worth the sacrifice.

The model I use in my writing is not the tormented genius screaming back at the storm, but a mule pulling a plow, around and around, hour after hour and day after day. Pulling a plow is a mule’s vocation. Mine is writing good stories for people who need good stories.

This “vocational model” requires that I go through certain rituals to prepare my mind and spirit for the task of telling stories that will benefit the reader. I follow a regular pattern that includes eating nourishing meals (my wife is an excellent cook and nutritionist), doing physical labor on my ranch, getting adequate rest, and maintaining harmonious relationships with my wife and family.

I must spend time in solitude, attend worship services at our church, sing in the church choir, play my banjo, listen to certain types of music (classical sacred, contemporary Christian, and some bluegrass), read and study the Bible, participate in the life of my hometown (a lot of weddings and funerals), and observe the behavior of animals, especially dogs.

There are other things I try to avoid: fast food, meetings, cocktail parties, television, movie theaters, advertising, and music that is loud, dissonant, or depressing. I try to control my daily intake of what we refer to as “information.” Conventional wisdom holds that we need more information, but I don’t agree.

The electronic age can overwhelm us with images. Some of it might pass as information but much of it is noise. It appears to me that the average one-hour news broadcast contains about six minutes of information and fifty-four minutes of noise. (In The Screwtape Letters, the devil Screwtape boasts, “We will make the whole universe noise in the end.”)

Screening out the noise of popular culture is an important part of my preparation as an author. I do my writing in a small office near my home, and we might describe it as a “sensory-deprived environment.” It has no television, radio, CD player, telephone, or internet access, not even a magazine or newspaper. I have no mirror or pictures on the walls.

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Source: World Magazine