How I Write - Conversation Transcript
Transcript of How I Write Conversation with Scotty McLennan
So, this evening we’re going to be to talking with Scotty McLennan or William—I didn’t even know that’s your first name…It’s Scotty, Scotty McLennan, Dean of Religious Life here at Stanford. And he has a long career both as a minister, as a lawyer, as an activist, and as a minister of campus ministry. He has also, in the midst of that, been able to work on and write two books: Finding Your Religion When the Faith you Grew Up On Has Lost Its Meaning—came out in 1999—and a co-author with Laura Nash of Church on Sunday, Work on Monday: The Challenge of Fusing Christian Values with Business Life, which came out in 2001, unfortunately, too late for the CEO of Enron and other corporations. Now, as someone involved with religious life on campus and ethics, he also has the occasion to do all kinds of other writing, and—one that I’m really curious about is the sermon or speaking at various kinds of events, where he would be called upon to say words of comfort or celebration or whatever it might be. As that form of writing or even his most recent writing—or I imagine most recent—op-ed piece that he published in the San Francisco Chronicle on the traditional Christian definitions of a just war and whether or not the current, upcoming war fits that definition. So, welcome, Scotty, this is “How I Write.” What I’ll do is we’ll have a little conversation back-and-forth and then we’re going to open it up and you ask any kinds of questions about Scotty’s writing, about writing in general or whatever. We have a video camera going, and we’re going to be using the microphones. It’s not so much that we can’t hear each other so easily in this room, but we’re tape-recording this and—I should announce—one of the things that we do is transcribe these and post them on a website with clips of the video. And the first one is up: the talk with Eric Roberts. And all you need to do is go to the Undergraduate Research Programs (URP) home page, go to “How I Write” and right on the home page it says “New” and you’ll see a little introduction, the transcript, and you can see, we take clips of Eric talking about writing a textbook or how to write without using gendered language, any number of different issues that he dealt with in his talk. And eventually we’re going to have—we have already something like 12, 15 talks that we’re going to put on the website. So that’s why we have the video, that’s why we have the microphone. So the way I open up generally, is just, is there anything that you want to say about writing, and about your relationship with writing?
SM: Well, it is an amazing process. It’s something I never meant to be—a writer—so I somehow feel privileged and I’m wondering if I really should be here, but I have written a couple books and I do end up doing a lot of writing. I did it as an attorney as well as as a minister. Let me stick a little bit about writing these books that I’ve been able to produce and some of the habits that I have developed in that process, and then let’s see what kinds of questions you might have after I have said that. I find that I really need to set time aside, ideally two or three hours in the morning, to write; and it’s a real discipline to do that because it’s hard to set that time aside. I’m supposed to be working on a third book right now and I’m not getting that time, even though I made it as a New Year's Resolution to do. And I think you need—when you’re writing—to be constantly coming back to this material on a daily basis and literally thinking about it in the shower. That’s a useful way of thinking about it, and it is indeed what I do. The shower’s very helpful; walking my dog at night is very helpful. But you need to be working this material all the time. I also find that part of the discipline is sitting down at the computer—and I do use a computer most of the time—staring at the screen until I can start writing; because if I don't get myself in front of that computer, and get in the place where I write, it’s hopeless, it’s very difficult to start. And there can be times where I sit there for half an hour without a lot happening. I do use a method going back to my high school training and my legal training confirmed this of quite a bit of research ahead of time, taking notes, and then producing some kind of outline before I start writing; but at the same time the books that I’ve written have been trade books, not academic books. So I’ve worked in a commercial environment with an agent who has worked with me to produce a book proposal before I even write the book, so there is quite a bit of writing back and forth and checking back and forth with the agent who I’m pretty active with in the process, including throwing away a first summer's work, you know, “this isn't going to work in the commercial market.” I also have in front of me—a sort of religious or superstitious dimension—a sheet that I put together for myself on writer's attitude, with little personal inspirational quips, and a picture next to it—this first book I wrote which had a metaphor of climbing the spiritual mountain—of this gorgeous Himalayan mountain. So I needed those to inspire me. And then I am amazed at how often the writing takes over once you get the engine turning over, things can flow in a way that are quite unexpected, even though there’s been quite a bit of research that’s gone into this, working with notes, but things happen in ways that are quite unexpected.
HO: What are some of those quips?
SM: Well I just happened to bring along the sheet.
HO: Yeah, I’m curious about what you use for inspiration.
SM: Well, they’re my own…
SM: Nothing special. It’s just I say them myself before I started writing this book. I’d been dealing with this agent a little while, [and asked] “What is it that you do to try to get to a commercial audience, or to try to, you know, get a book out there generally?” So they’re probably rather platitudinous, but the first one is “Live and breathe my passion.” And the second is “Imagine I am talking to someone in my office” (because I do a lot of counseling and one-to-one work with people in my office). And I always, although I probably should be listening to the people as they speak to me, it seems I always have plenty to say in that context, so say it now on paper! Thirdly, I say, “Write poetry: make every word count.” And for me one of the greatest authors in terms of beauty of his writing is F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I think of The Great Gatsby, for example. It’s just this beautifully constructed piece of work. So I say here to myself “Think Fitzgerald.” Fourth—this is a list of nine—so tell me when it’s enough. Fourth is “Get out on the edge: take risks as you write.” Fifth, for me, I say, “This is the life of the spirit we are talking about here,” and therefore I feel I need to stay in touch with that spirit and hopefully be inspiring to others. Sixth, “Think about the audience: students and other searchers”—this was for this book Finding Your Religion—“students and other searchers on retreat, trying to change their lives.” So, to fix the audience in mind as I’m writing. Seventh, “Sing God's Glory.” Eighth, “You bore, you die.” [laughter] And ninth, “Write from the top of my head, and the bottom of my heart.”
HO: Great, and you look up, and every once in a while you say, “Hey, I lost it, and this reminds me”?
SM: Absolutely. Quite a bit.
HO: That’s great. And, you know, we’re interested in that one about, you know, “Talk as if someone’s in your room or write as if you’re talking to somebody.”
HO: And this is something that I think a lot of people—this is an important little turning point for people—the idea of writing as talking or intimate communication. And I was wondering, when you finish writing, let’s say you have a chapter, do you read it out loud, do it read it to someone, does someone else look at it even, or do you read aloud to yourself to get that sense of whether or not you’re communicating with someone?
SM: When we get to sermons, yes, I always read sermons out loud, and really do think about my audience, and in the saying of them I often change them. In writing this book, there are two audiences that I would read to and, in one case, send the manuscript to. My wife is always my best critic and help in terms of certain parts of my writing, and then with this book, I had a very active editor at Harper, San Francisco. And I would send off a chapter to the editor, and he would red ink it as if I were back in high school. And I’d see all these little changes, and do this, and don’t you mean to do that, and you really need this, and you should drop that; and I remember coming to a page where there was this little delete mark and then it was drawn all the way down the page, and I’m saying “Delete the a whole page?! Do you know how long it’s taken me to produce—how many showers I’ve stood in—to produce that page?!” And then I turned over to the next page, delete, slash, the whole page. I was going through page after page, and dozens of pages, and I’m saying “I can't do this!” You know, I can’t, but so in that process back-and-forth with another human being not reading it right to, but in having him review carefully what I was writing. And of course my agent this summer was really, “Just throw the whole thing out,” and basically said start again. So, that’s tough. But Fitzgerald had it really tough when you read what his editor did to him with Great Gatsby. And he wrote, I think, ten times as much as ultimately was produced.
HO: And you’re actually quite fortunate to have had an editor like that, because for a lot of trade publishing now, and certainly for scholarly books, I think you don't have editors who intervene. It’s more like a glorified copy-editor. Well, this sentence, a comma should be here, that type of thing. So that was really very important on your part. Well, you know, so this is a whole book, now you started off with a major proposal, right?
HO: And now, you know, this book comes out in ’99. You've been working, doing lots of different types of writing, as you know, even legal writing—I want to ask about that too, legal writing and sermons. But I want to get to this whole thing of writing this book. It’s wonderfully written, I've read it, and it’s very interesting and reveals a lot about religious instability or transformation for individuals in America. Where did you come up with the idea? Did you say, “I think I’ll write a book.”
SM: Well, it’s all serendipity. I was in a group with some ministers with a spiritual director who helped all of us be more courageous about the way we spoke publicly about our own spiritual life and being real public about that. And an interviewer for the Tuftonia, the Tufts alumni magazine, asked to do an interview with me in terms of what it was all about to be the university chaplain at Tufts. And I just let it rip in that interview; I just said anything that came to mind, tried to, you know, sort of, taking a risk, being out on the edge. And it turns out one of the alums that read that article was my agent, who turned out to be my agent. She writes me and says “There's a book here, you know, if you are willing to write a book.” And at first I said, “No, I don't write books, and I don't have the time to write a book.” And she said, “Why don't you try and get a sabbatical?” So I tried to get a sabbatical, and they turned me down. So she said “Why don't you take, you know, just a weekend to work out a proposal?” I said, “A weekend, I don’t know.” And basically what happened was after a weekend, and getting back to her, and her continuing to excite me about it, and the summer coming on—as you were saying, some people write during the summer—I was able to kind of get hooked on the idea. But it was nothing planned.
HO: Well, that’s interesting because that’s an example of, I guess, literary entrepreneurship—on her part. She saw a book, she went after, and she actually got you to write it. But, you know, having worked on that one, was the second book your own initiative or again somebody approached you?
SM: Does the audience want to hear that I have some initiative? The answer is “No.” Again, I got a call from a colleague who was writing a book, doing some work on business ethics. She needed some help because she just got another job to work with a corporation, doing some writing for them. She’s on a grant, and she’s got some deadline. And she says, “Can you help me?” And I was moonlighting at Harvard Business School from Tufts University, where I was university chaplain, I was teaching business ethics over at Harvard Business School. And in that particular year—we lecture for three year periods and then I’d be off for a while and then they’d call me up and say, “You want to come back?” You know, it was in one of these off-periods that she called. And I said, “Sure, I’ve got a little time; I could work with you on this.” So, I was set up to run around the country doing research with various organizations that were trying to merge business and spirituality. And then I had a summer that followed that I could do writing. And, total serendipity again.
HO: Well, I mean, all that goes to show is that the assignments that students get when a professor says, “Write a paper,” it’s just the beginning of a book, you know, somebody’s inviting you to do something, and who knows where it might go.
HO: Do you find it particularly difficult to write a large-scale project as a book? Did you take it chapter-by-chapter; did get overwhelmed by the size of it?
SM: Well, when I was working with a co-author, I wasn't as overwhelmed because it was her idea originally, I was working with her, I had concrete tasks—go out and do this research, summer, write it up—but when I was writing my own book it did seem rather overwhelming. But luckily what had happened was the basic outline for the book came out of a sermon that I had given on “finding your religion” or “finding your spiritual path.” So I had a basic outline already from that sermon. A nine-point sermon—you’re not supposed to write nine-point sermons, by the way, for those of you who’ve done Preaching 101; three points at the most—but anyway, this is a nine-point sermon.
HO: It’s the five paragraph essay.
SM: And so I had nine chapters, in effect, if I could flesh them out. And in that sense I think you’re right, it was a chapter at a time. Take, you take bite-size pieces. I had the big picture, and I had had that big picture actually before I got the call from the agent.
HO: Now, you write at home?
HO: Not in your office at work?
SM: No, no way to write at work. Work is…I can’t really do any thinking at work. It’s just too many interruptions, too many things happening, I’m scheduled very tightly during the day.
HO: Mainly meetings, no emails, planners?
SM: Emails are my death. I just, I don't know how to deal with email. It’s always overwhelming.
HO: But in your office, though, or at home?
SM: I do a lot of the emailing at home, and in my office, whenever I can.
HO: Well, Paul Robinson, for example, in the history department—I don’t know, I guess it’s another one of these vows or preferences—he does not do a single stitch of writing on campus—email, letter, notes, anything. He only writes in his office at home. But you have an office at home, that’s where you do mainly your writing?
SM: Yeah, yeah.
HO: And you like to write in the morning. Really early in the morning?
SM: Yeah, although, honestly, I'm a night person, so a lot of the work I do—sermons, lectures—traditionally I have done late at night between about ten or eleven and two or three in the morning. But when it came to this book, I tried to set myself a morning schedule. I haven't quite figured that out yet, how best to deal with the fact that I basically am a night person, but you get tired when you stay up to two or three in the morning.
HO: Well, and you don’t when you get up early in the morning and write?
SM: But, you can’t, so, if I’m on a writing schedule I want it to be in the morning, and I want to try get six, seven, eight hours of sleep.
HO: Now, do you have a particular ritual you do before writing? Does everything have to be set up a certain way? Do you have everything thrown in different directions? I mean, people have—I am drawing this from the responses that a lot of people have given.
SM: Not a particular ritual. I have a ritual of getting up, which is get up, get into the shower—because that’s where the creative energy flows—and take some time in the shower, and getting ready, and coming down, and eating breakfast. So there’s a ritual that way. Sort of a, getting prepared. My desk is usually messier than I wish it were, but not a total mess. If it’s a total mess I can’t stand it. But I say, besides the shower and the taking my time to get going in the morning, no real ritual.
HO: Now—I’ve been holding back—I want to ask about writing the sermons.
SM: Something I’m sure most of the audience wants to work on. So this is the important part, listen up.
HO: I am sure they’ll be submitting papers, sermon report papers. But as a particular genre, what’s the stylistic approach that you use? How do you come up with the sermon? It is, you take something from scripture type thing?
SM: Here's the way it works best, which I do maybe fifty percent of the time, which is there’s something called a lectionary, which is the Bible is divided up into lessons for each Sunday in the year. There’s a three year cycle, and you work your way through the Bible in three different ways over those three years. So, you know, I’m preaching this coming Sunday, I pick up the lectionary, I figure out what’s the lesson from the New Testament, what’s the Old Testament—or Hebrew Bible—lesson, and the psalm or the epistle of Saint Paul that may be involved; and ideally I sit and meditate on that lectionary passage. When I am really doing this right I have time in the morning after that shower and breakfast, to sit literally for twenty minutes, usually on the floor, I close my eyes, something I learned in India with a Hindu priest, sort of a meditational posture; and then contemplate that passage that I’ve just read. Later in the day I will go to the library and do research on it: what’s the historical background, what’s the critical commentary on this passage. And then I will proceed to—oh, I’ve taken a bunch of notes—I’ll go back and I will try to outline the sermon, usually, ideally, again, with one point, like the centerpiece of a wheel with spokes going off it. And try to basically write something that drives home one point. Then I sit at that computer, and I’ve got a deadline. I usually am doing this on Fridays; I’ve got a day to do it. So, it sometimes slips over into my weekend, as my wife knows, on Saturday, but Sunday morning comes and, you know, I am supposed to be up here in the pulpit.
HO: You don't do an extemporaneous Sunday?
SM: No, I was told once that you should spend an hour of preparation for every minute that you speak. And early in my career I used to do that: if I was preaching for fifteen or twenty minutes, I’d spend fifteen or twenty hours preparing. For a long time, until quite recently. Now I would say I am a little bit better. I probably spend a half an hour for each minute that I speak. So, quite honestly, when I first got into the ministry I didn't think I was going to be in a preaching ministry because it seemed to me a waste of time. Who would spend that much time to stand up there and have most people on a Sunday morning going like, like this [dozing off]? Listen to him. So…
HO: Well, try lecturing. [laughter] And especially a 9 a.m. class. But now, is there a certain stylistic approach that you have for writing a sermon? I mean, is it something that’s a spoken approach? So, it’s a very oral…
SM: Absolutely, I’m always thinking, whatever I’m writing that is going to be said. And that’s why I also take what I have written, stand up, in the mirror or looking out the window, and speak it through, and then often do a lot of changing as I speak it, thinking of that congregation out there, because it is a very different style of writing than writing for a book, or writing for an op-ed or something.
HO: And now, just to give a little comparison. Legal writing, briefs, mainly, right?
HO: Has all of its own conventions, its own language, et cetera. But how did you approach doing that and were there perhaps similarities with some of the other writing that you’ve done?
SM: Well, they do get a little bit confused, sometimes I think perhaps not in positive ways. Because legal writing is, on the one hand, creative in having to be very persuasive, but not creative in the sense that you need to know every possible legal citation that can be brought to bear on each sentence that you’re writing. So you’re constantly…talk about research, the research that goes into that and then the careful citation and the careful reading of cases and statutes and so on in order to be able to make those persuasive points. In a way it’s quite formulaic. You’re trying to say what people have said before many, many times, but in a way that is convincing for your client.
HO: There’s convincing arguing in a legal paper; making a point in a sermon. So there’s this, kind of, question of fashioning an argument, persuading people in the rhetoric, including persuading people in a sermon. How do you formulate that argument, or formulate it and then sharpen it?
SM: And that's where they get confused, I’m not sure in a positive way. I do often write a sermon—having talked about the one point and so on—I often do write sermons that are not that, that are linear sermons, that make an argument, with a number that reflects… For example, the piece that ended up in the San Francisco Chronicle recently had six different statements or arguments about why this potential war in Iraq is not a just war, ticking through six traditional criteria of just war. So in a way that was very legalistic; you have policy statements, or the legal argument that you are going to make, you have your facts you’ve marshaled, and the data that seems critical to this particular point, and you try to state it as persuasively as possible, and then go on to the next point—and it had come from a sermon I had written, actually, and delivered a week before. So the sermon was delivered, some people said “you ought to get that out somehow.” I sent it out to a bunch of newspapers, and the San Francisco Chronicle said, “Yeah, we’d like to do something with this, but you really need to reshape this; cut it at least in half and reshape it into a, give it a more crystallized argument.”
HO: And, once you write…well, that’s a piece that perhaps gets some controversy.
SM: Oh yeah, that piece got…the head of the Republican Party in San Francisco was not happy and wrote in the next day. I've gotten lots of email.
HO: And I was wondering how, then—and this might happen in sermons also—that you get into exchanges with people, and basically get into dialogues with people through writing. And how have you been able to fashion that? What’s been your experience with that?
SM: Usually, again, trying to be careful in response, especially if it’s a public dialogue, to marshal the facts, be clear about the arguments, not say more than I need to be persuasive. Be humble, I hope. I found myself in this article in the Chronicle trying to say, “now, wait a minute, who are you to say this isn’t a just war? I mean, President Bush is a practicing Christian. He, in the State of the Union Address, he tried to lay out why he thought this was a just war.” So, a little humility here.
HO: And, you know, these are rhetorical modes that students, a lot of people get into, about how are you going to get involved in a controversial topic in ways that focus on the issue rather than on other things, like, attitude, for example. Let me ask you now—I’ll open up the floor soon to people’s questions—but now I know very often you are called upon to speak—you know, the relationship between speaking and writing, but—speak, you know, at, um…
HO: Commencement—that might be a more formal speech that you write—but, you know, memorials, where, you know, we had a memorial; or happy occasions. Now, do you have, like, a series of prepared statements in your mind?
SM: No, no. Every one of them is fresh. It seems to me every time whether somebody has died, it’s important to find out as much as possible, if I don’t know the person, or if I know the person, you know, to really think through the qualities of that person and so on; and to think, to be very clear about the family and whose friend and who’s there and contextualize it. What are their needs, what’s their philosophy of life, et cetera, et cetera. So, and weddings, the same thing, you’re trying to speak to a couple, I might do a short homily about my hopes and dreams for their wedding. Now that's set sometimes in a formulaic context. For example, the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer is really the basis for most Protestant weddings. And we have a set form that we use in weddings at Memorial Church, but each couple that I work with wants to deviate from that in certain ways, and wants me to say something personal to them, and that’s always fresh.
HO: OK, let's open the floor.
A: Hi, Scotty, you talked about Fitzgerald as being, kind of, your hero in modeling your writing, crafting words and sentences. Could you maybe say a little bit more about how—other than the research reading—how reading impacts your writing process? Are there different stylistic heroes for maybe the different genres that you write in; are there certain, kind of, philosophical heroes, lines of argument that you like to follow as you work through your writing?
SM: Yes, there are a number of different heroes depending on the kind of writing. For example, having just come off a season now of looking at Martin Luther King's life, as we do each year around the national holiday, I am always saying, “Oh boy, if I could, you know, in just the smallest way, write and speak the way that man did.” And I will look for stylistic elements in his sermons and try to incorporate those into mine. There are poets that I find particularly powerful, especially at some of these ceremonial occasions where it seems that there’s just the right poem. Or if it isn’t appropriate to do a poem, I will try to write something that’s poetic because in these public moments I really feel I have two or three minutes often only to speak and every word has to count. So I’ll look often to the Romantic poets in England, the Wordsworths, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, Shelley. They’re very inspirational to me. Sometimes to American poets like Emily Dickinson, who’s spare and really powerful, or Frost. So, I will look to other sources like that and then try to style what I am saying on what they have done.
HO: Do you read other sermons?
SM: Not that much, I'm sorry to say. The chaplain when I was in college, William Sloan Coffin, was such a wonderful preacher, and an anti-war activist, and a civil rights activist. So I do love to read his sermons. He is by far the best white preacher I have ever heard. But, no, for some reason I don’t read a lot of sermons.
HO: No Jonathan Edwards?
SM: Sermons are…I tried to stay away from, as I said, preaching for a number of years. I probably should read some more sermons; I’d be a lot better preacher if I did.
HO: You’re still ambivalent about the whole question of sermons?
SM: Yeah. I think it’s a…I was ambivalent for a number of years about going to church. I thought, “Is this really a useful thing to do?” My early years of ministry were socially active, community based, a legal ministry using my law skills to help low-income area Boston. And doing a lot of counseling, counseling ministry; I spent a lot of time in mental hospitals. I was a chaplain of a mental hospital and so on. So the idea of standing up and pontificating in the pulpit was not my early ministry.
A: You are touching right to the point that I wanted to ask you. How do you approach your preaching? I mean, you described to us that fifty percent of the time you go to the scriptures. Can you say more about that and more about the other fifty percent?
SM: It’s a wonderful discipline, I feel, to go to the scriptures, partly because there is a teaching function and responsibility, I think, of clergy to help work through the liturgical year and work through the Bible for a congregation. So I do take that seriously both as a responsibility and as a discipline because there is something, there is a text to struggle with, to meditate on, to do research on, to think about what is its relevance to people now. And that it’s sitting down at my computer, staring at the blank screen until something is happening. But the other fifty percent of the time, there are things working on me, issues that I’m struggling with: the war in Iraq. And so, that particular Sunday, I went to the scripture saying to myself, “Boy, I hope there is something here that will help me think through the war in Iraq.” And some of my preaching teachers, back, and for example, the preacher at Harvard—the university chaplain there, Peter Gomes—would say “you always go to the lectionary and let it move you; you’ve got to really be careful about topical sermons,” where you have something working with you and feel like you have to somehow have the lectionary manipulated, in the worse case, to fit your point. But, in truth, fifty percent of the time it really is something that’s working on me that I want to preach about. And sometimes I’ll abandon the lectionary and go somewhere else, and I don't have a problem actually going to non-Christian sources as well. And I think probably that’s important because you want to hear from your preacher not only what’s happening in the tradition—in terms of the lectionary—but also what it is that’s moving that person, some of these quips here of your passions, what is it that seems really important, what’s working with you at a particular time. So, that’s what I do the other fifty percent.
HO: You say you stare at the screen. I think a lot of people have that experience. How long do you stare at the screen? What happens that something clicks for you?
SM: Sometimes it can be fairly long. I mean, for me fairly long means fifteen, twenty minutes. Often it’s a matter of just doing something, just typing something, and getting, like revving the engine up. So there will be a little bit of intellectual doodling sometimes that will get me going.
HO: Like free-writing or uh…
SM: Just, you know, what came out of the shower, I’ll just try to start going with it. I'm serious about showers—you know, I’m interested that other people have said that—but it’s really the most…the most interesting material comes in the shower.
HO: Well—and I’ve said this other times—there's actually been some scientific research in terms of relaxation, it’s like of like alpha-wave type state. But there’s also been research about heat on the back of people’s head. And I had one honors student who swears that he wrote his thesis coming out with a laptop with the sun shining on the back on his head, and he would follow the course of the sun to make sure that it was always shining on the back of his head. He won a medal, I mean, he didn’t…I said, “What happens if it rains, but you know…”
SM: Heat lamps, heat lamps.
HO: [laughter] That’s probably right. So there is some, you know…it’s not a myth. There’s some real basis to it.
A: Have you experienced really lengthy writer's block ever? And if so, how did you get out of it? I mean, I’m talking months or weeks.
SM: I think I need to say, “No.” I haven't experienced it in the way I hear others sweating it out, just not knowing how to get going again. But maybe my kind of writer's block is saying, “I just can't get back to my writing. I don't have enough time.” Like right now, I made this New Year's Resolution that I’m going to spend two to three hours every morning writing. I did that for two weeks in January, and I haven't gotten back to write a word since. So I probably am in a kind of writer's block, but I would say that it’s based on the conditions of my life: there’s just too much going on. I can’t get through my email; I can’t do what I need to do. You know, I work all the time, how can I write? So that may be a kind of writer’s block. What would my suggestions for myself would be, “Get some discipline back in there, and just clear the deck for a couple of hours in the morning, and, you know, put the world out there, and get up and take that shower and go and sit in front of the computer.”
HO: That’s your tenth one: “clear the decks…” What’s the…what are you trying to write? What’s the issue of topic?
SM: This next book is going to be called something like “Life's Bottom Line: Finding Meaning at Work.” And it’s going to be based on a course that I taught for about ten years at Harvard Business School, where we used novels and plays and short stories to try to look at business protagonists lives not just in their workplace but in their private lives and how they go…which is the beauty of novelists, they show you people and they keep trading that and turning them like a find diamond so that you see them in all aspects of their life, their sex life, their work life, their failures, their successes, with their children, with their parents, with their bosses, et cetera. And I'd like to write a book, which works through a number of these novels, and plays, and short stories, which seem to have lessons about how to develop virtues, and avoid vices, and to develop character in certain ways. But, again, great art always shows you that we have foibles, and none of us are perfect, we have our Achilles’ heels, and so on. So I hope the book will sort of kick up—it’s a pun—kick up that Achilles’ heel at the end of each chapter and drive into the next chapter, saying well maybe this next person was able to solve that issue in their lives, but then there was this other issue, and, by the end, hopefully, I’ll have some prescriptions for how to live a good life.
HO: Well, we’ll see. We just got you excited to get back to work on the book, right?
A: How do you—you talked about pontificating—how do you couch, kind of, what you want to say in a manner that is not so preachy, so that people will accept it? You know, and you talk to people, and you start out as telling them what you want rather than putting it into a story so that they realize it themselves. But what are some recommendations and how do you approach that?
SM: Right, well you said part of it right there, which is stories. And I'm not great at stories, but I know you have to tell stories, stories of people's lives, sometimes stories of my life, although you have to be careful about that—you want to be authentic, but not boring people with your own life story. But that's the most important way, I think, is to be willing to be transparent oneself, and know and tell stories that have a real impact about life. The philosophical statements, the theological statements, the principles, the ethical points that one might make, if they’re not storied, have very little impact. So, I find people going away from sermons and a couple people who will send me sermon clips in emails. The things that they remember from the sermon are the stories, and then sometimes the point that was related to the story.
A: In the electronic age, can you comment on the creative process for you compared to earlier days of typewriting or pen and paper?
SM: Yeah, I still do find that in certain places I don’t want to have the computer. I really do want to have a yellow pad and just write longhand. And those places are mountaintops and sides of lakes and looking out particularly beautiful windows, and sitting alone in a café, or those sorts of things. While the computer is—even though I have a laptop, I tend to not carry it around with me, it sits in one place—and so I go to that place to write and I sit, the sitting facing the screen and so on. How does the writing differ? I can get on a real roll off it when I’m writing longhand that is hard to get on when I’m sitting at a screen. But there’s a temptation at the screen to edit as you go, while I can write more fluidly, often, longhand. But then I do tend, with longhand, to go back and look at the page and edit it and do a lot of crossing out, and it’s kind of a mess to get onto the computer eventually.
A: Do you ever use a search engine like Google? And—not say inspiration—but say, you can do better than that. Some people use computer to at least come up with samples, and then, I can write better than that, to get out of the writing block. Do you ever use a search engine like Google?
SM: I use search engines, and I use Google all the time for research purposes, and to try to find a facts that I think are relevant. But I never have used it to go find a poem…well, sometimes I do actually. If I am thinking, “Wow, there’s an amazing Emily Dickinson poem. What was that?” Yeah, I will get to it that way. Or a particular biblical passage, I’ll use the search engine to go there. I’m not sure if I can say that I am really using it for writer's block purposes, but, yeah.
A: I was wondering what the text of your sermons look like. Are they note form? Do you write out full sentences? Do you include, you know, pause and anecdotes, that sort of thing?
SM: Right, mine tend to be—ninety percent of the time—full-text sermons: carefully crafted, word by word, spoken, crossed out, and rethought as I am speaking them, and then back to the computer, make the corrections, and so it’s all very much what I’ve written before is what I say. Including sometimes, I’ll make notes to myself, “Pause, here,” and underline a word for emphasis. So, they, if you look as I am actually preaching it has those kinds of directions to myself as to say it as well. Probably ten percent of the time, partly out of boredom, partly our of challenging myself, or in certain kinds of contexts I’m asked to preach in—I was asked to preach last year at a Catholic mass, here at Stanford, at 4:30 in the afternoon, a big congregation, the priest always steps out into the middle of the chancel without any notes and speaks. So I said, “Well, I'm this Protestant guy who usually gets up in a pulpit with a thing in front of me, but there are plenty of Protestants who do just as this Catholic priest does and have notes or nothing and just stand up and preach.” So I said, “I’m going to do that!” So I challenged myself to get up there, and I ultimately worked a sermon, which I had thought a lot about beforehand and thought through the points, and worked it down to a note-card with five points on it, that I knew how they would expand back out, and as I stood up I put the note-card in my pocket and did it. So, and I've done that in a variety of circumstances, but I am not as comfortable doing that, but it’s a good challenge. I think to do that well, though, you still need to put in the same amount of work, and the best way to do it is this center point with spokes coming out from it, if you will. And if you have the one point—those sermons work best, I think, with one point. If they’re linear, and you develop points, I can lose myself along the way. But if they have one point and you’ve thought enough about it that you’ve got, say, a dozen stories and anecdotes, and historical points, and logical points, or whatever that you want to collect, then as you’re preaching it, knowing with time limitations and memory limitations and everything else, you’re probably only going to use four or five of those twelve points, but it can be very powerful because you’re seeing how the congregation or audience is responding, how you’re feeling at the time, how you’re developing it. And, in the very context—the sun may be coming through a window on one side of your face and not on the other—you’re able to have a freshness about that, even though you carefully researched these twelve points and only coming up with four or five of them at the time.
HO: Do you save your sermons? Do you have a file?
SM: Oh yeah.
HO: Well, that's another book. Any other questions?
A: What do you think about Julia Cameron's “morning pages” approach to writing? Have you ever used that at all? And I think I heard you say or I think I might that you had a meditational practice in the morning, and do you sometimes feel that that could be competing with your writing?
SM: You need to say more about Cameron.
A: Oh, Julia Cameron's approach to “morning pages” is that you try to write for, you know, thirty, forty-five minutes every morning as soon as possible after you get up. You know, fresh ideas on your mind, and, you know, maybe three pages in a journal or whatever it happens to be.
SM: I like that idea, and I should get on it tomorrow. [laughter] I said earlier that when I am writing, I try to set time aside in the morning after a shower and a good breakfast, and then without anything else interrupting it, except meditation can be better than a shower, to sit for twenty minutes with a text or sometimes just in, what I call, “Eastern meditation,” emptiness, just trying to empty myself completely. So, yes, that’s a great idea.
A: Are you familiar with Natalie Goldberg?
A: And some of her writings, Writing Down the Bones and Waking up in America.
A: She was a Zen student, and she still is, and she’s becoming a teacher. And Kedigiri Roshi, who was one of her teachers, said “Natalie, writing is your practice. Don't sit in the morning, write.” And, of course, now she’s sort of going back to the writing. But I was kind of curious because I’m a little competitive; you know, I want to sit in the morning but I want to write, so it’s kind of hard.
SM: Yeah, I don't sit well for more than about twenty minutes, so it probably is not a big issue for me, but the twenty minutes can be very helpful for the writing.
A: Yeah, also I’d like to go back to what this gentleman was asking about in terms of writing on a computer versus longhand. Do you find you can write a lot faster when you’re on the computer?
SM: I don't think so. I mean, I think probably I write at about the same speed in both settings. It feels even a little faster longhand, actually, because…I’m not quite sure.
HO: Well, you had described something of the editing function, you know, the editing center in your brain. And it’s one of the tantalizing things about computers because they look like text, like it’s printed, and then you get tempted to want to make it polished, whereas writing longhand, it’s sloppy, so you don't care.
SM: I think that's right. In some ways longhand is a little bit more fluid feeling to me. And also, when I do longhand it’s often in these really wonderful settings that feel really creative versus sitting at my basement looking at a computer. I mean, and now I don’t have a basement so my computer’s actually, you can look out a window. But when I wrote this Finding Your Religion book I was down in a basement. It’s nice to get up on a mountaintop, and then not have the computer but just longhand.
A: Very interesting, thank you.
A: What you said reminded me very of what Larry Eifert in the design division says about design. He does not use the computer all the time. But he says that handwritten sketches, the ambiguity of that, is very important. . . He said that his handwriting reflects that space much better, they say, they call it “design space.” Like designing a bicycle, you draw ten circles around it, and then get conversion on top of each other. To me, that’s sort of more like covering design space. So maybe the handwriting’s much better because it represents your “thought space”, if you will. You don’t have that kind of inventive like tablets that you can write on. It does not provide that physical interface that some say seems to have something to do with how your axes think in the brain. Or at least there’s people arguing about this. So what you said is very much a Clark study experience.
SM: There’s one thing, though, about a computer—this maybe goes back to your previous question—that I find very useful—I learned this from another writer—which is the thesaurus function. If I am struggling with a word, to hit the thesaurus and get some fabulous words that I didn’t think of for that particular…
A: Some people use Google that way including for spelling. If you use spelling you have too much, who likes it, you have four hits on one then you know maybe that’s right but it may be wrong.
SM: Yeah, that kind of Google function of finding words that I can’t find but that may be there on a thesaurus can be very helpful to get you moving.
A: A quick look-up over a large database. Again, that, that doesn’t say much…
HO: Although we should, you know, remind the undergraduates here that when you and I went to college we actually did cut and paste and then you’d have to retype the paper after you’d cut and pasted it. And, you know, once you get to the stage of the actual writing on the computer, it has really done a lot to make writing a lot easier and a lot faster, when you get to that space. But, you know, the pad seems like generating ideas and thinking.
SM: Pads are good for outlines too. I find, if I am going to be outlining something, either to expand on in writing or for a short talk where I know I don't want to write it out because of the engagement with the audience, I find I do better on a yellow pad tablet to prepare that outline than I do to go to the computer and try and prepare that outline. I don’t know why that is.
A: I think it’s basically two-dimensions to this. Microsoft forces us to write linearly.
HO: It’s interesting. Now, next quarter, just before we all finish up, we’ll be hearing from Professor Sapolsky, Biological Sciences, who writes about science and writes about science for broad audiences, George Fredrickson of the History department, who’s written a number of books about race, racism, American history, and Paula Moya of the English department, who has written about Chicano literature and questions of identity in politics and is the head of the CSRE right now. So those are the three folks who we’re going to be hearing from next quarter. So, unless there’s any more questions. You’re welcome to stay and talk with Scotty. Oh, I had this one other question. You had this kind of interesting, strange experience of being a fictional character of Gary Trudeau, a cartoon character. I wonder, you know, how has that affected you, and how has that affected you maybe in terms of your role as a minister and as a writer?
SM: This is, again, one of these serendipitous things that’s happened in my life, having gone to college with somebody who ended up being a cartoonist, and as a roommate who took his roommates and put them into a cartoon strip, into Doonesbury. Charlie Pillsbury, one of our roommates whose nickname was “The Doone” gets his nickname and part of his last name as the title of the strip. But it's been a great privilege because I love the strip, and Gary is both a good friend and I think a wonderfully creative and effective artist and commentator. It’s sometimes problematic to be a walking joke in one’s life.
HO: Many of us feel that way.
SM: And at Tufts, when they would do the tours around on campus and get near the chapel, the student tour-guide would often say to people, “We have a cartoon character in there who is our university chaplain.” So that wasn’t really how I wanted it to come across. But I think in terms of my own writing and the whole process, Gary is inspirational. He is somebody who has an uncanny ability to see what’s happening in the culture, and to often be ahead, it seems like he’s almost ahead of the culture. So this character, this Reverend Scott character, is doing things and often I say, “Oh wow, I should pay attention and maybe be doing that!” You know, he had a web page up long before I was thinking of having a web page; he was involved in sanctuary movement for Central American refugees in the early 80s, and the divestment movement for justice in South Africa, and so on. It was sort of simultaneously with what I was doing, but it was inspirational and helpful. So, it's been a privilege.
HO: All these serendipitous things from a minister. It must not be serendipitous…
SM: It's grace!
HO: Alright, thank you very much. [clapping] Please come next quarter!