Stephen Altrogge’s latest book, Untamable God: Encountering the One Who Is Bigger, Better, and More Dangerous Than You Could Possibly Imagine, came out last month. Recently, Stephen and I had a conversation about how to grow in our ability to communicate clearly and creativity.
Stephen: First off, Trevin, do you think Christian writers have a responsibility to write well? Even more than that, should Christian teachers and authors be satisfied with merely communicating truth?
I think most pastors and authors think primarily in terms of communicating information clearly, rather than clearly and with beauty.
Trevin: If we believe that everything we do should be to the glory of God, then of course, someone who takes on the task of writing as a vocation ought to assume the responsibility of doing so with excellence.
You could ask this of any vocation. Do Christian construction workers have a responsibility to do an excellent job? Do Christian servers at a restaurant have a responsibility to take good care of their guests? The list goes on. When a Christian sits down to write, either with a pen in hand or a keyboard beneath our fingers, he or she should work with excellence.
To the second part, clarity is beautiful in and of itself, but clarity isn’t necessarily compelling. I fear that some pastors mimic the kind of speaker who is all flash and no substance, while other pastors mimic the kind of speaker who is substantive but boring.
The first kind of pastor gives too much attention to delivery and not enough to the content. The second kind of pastor thinks his job is done when the right information is transmitted.
We need a balanced approach that takes into consideration the beauty of truth. We’re not making truth beautiful; we are drawing out the beauty that is inherent in God’s truth.
To miss the truth portion is to give people cotton candy. To miss the beauty portion is to give people raw meat and potatoes.
What has helped you, Stephen, grow in your ability to write well?
Stephen: There is no secret formula to good writing. I’ve learned to write well by laying down a lot of real ink and digital ink.
I’ve written a boatload of blog posts – some decent, some mediocre, some just plain awful. I’ve written a number of books. I’ve written articles and tweets and Facebook updates.
Writing is a craft, and like any craft, I’ve gotten better with practice. It’s taken me ten years and thousands of words to to find my “voice.”
When I first started writing, I wanted to be John Piper. But, as most people quickly realize, I’m not in the same ballpark as John Piper. I’ve got my own style and favorite words and writing techniques.
I think I’ve finally learned how to craft a sentence in way that is both true and attractive. Scripture talks repeatedly about the need for diligence and hard work, and these truths apply to writing as much as any other area of life.
I’ve also learned how to write by reading great writers, like Anne Lamott, Stephen King, John Piper, and N.D. Wilson.
What authors have influenced you most as a writer?
Trevin: I love the wit of G. K. Chesterton and the clarity of C. S. Lewis.
I enjoy watching N. T. Wright pen tomes from the ivory tower of academia and simultaneously provide rich devotional material for people without a seminary education. N.D. Wilson is another favorite.
When it comes to ancient authors, I find the sermons of Chrysostom and the confessions of Augustine to be full of good stuff.
Are there any books on writing that you’ve found helpful? Or do you mainly encourage people to read good authors as the best way to improve in writing?
Stephen: There are approximately 84 bajillion books on writing, and, frankly, most of them are pretty bad. I usually recommend that people read four books on writing:
- On Writing by Stephen King
- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser
- Wordsmithy by Douglas Wilson
The reality is, most of us would rather read about writing than actually sit down and do the work of writing. My main encouragement to people would be to read these four books, read a ton of other books, and write a ton of stuff.
Take a lot in, put a lot out, throw a lot away, and repeat.
What kinds of things keep you from writing?
Trevin: Not much keeps me from writing. I don’t write as much as I read, but I always seem to find time for both.
If I go more than five or six days without writing something, my mind begins to flow with ideas, until eventually, I feel like I’m going to explode if I don’t get it out somewhere.
Normal constraints of time, seasons of life, responsibilities at home with family – all these things can keep me from writing. But if you’re passionate about ideas, you’ll find time somewhere in the midst of a busy schedule to make it work.
How are you implementing what you’ve learned about writing in your new book?
Stephen: Writing Christian non-fiction can be tricky when it comes to creativity. The challenge every Christian author faces is trying to communicate well-worn truths in ways that are fresh, arresting, and inspiring, all without verging into heresy (see Rob Bell).
In Untamable God, I made a concerted effort to not just communicate biblical truth, but to communicate the truth in ways that grip the imagination and capture the heart (wow, that sounds really epic).
I also ventured into areas many “inspirational” books tend to avoid, like the fact that throughout Scripture there are numerous examples of God killing people who violate his holiness.
You recently wrote a novel. How was writing a novel different from writing standard Christian non-fiction?
Trevin: Clear Winter Nights is a bit of a hybrid between fiction and non-fiction. It’s a story, but there’s an expressed didactic purpose behind it and the characters’ conversations.
I suppose the biggest difference for me was beginning to realize just how much harder fiction is. Every decision you make regarding a character affects other characters and the story. I didn’t anticipate the level of complexity in doing fiction.
What are some ways you deliberately sought to grip the imagination in Untamable God?
Stephen: I sought to capture the imagination in several different ways. First, I deliberately tried to employ provocative language at points.
Now, I should say, this can be a dangerous tactic if a writer is not careful. In order to stay out of trouble, I only used the provocative language that scripture uses.
For example, in Ezekiel, God repeatedly describes Israel as being a “whore” because of their idolatry. I used the same language in describing our unregenerate state.
Second, I wrote in a conversational, informal tone. It’s difficult for the imagination to engage with dense, academic language. There is most certainly a place for dense language, but I wanted to write in a more conversational, engaging tone.
Finally, I tried to use humor where appropriate. I love humor. When used well, it provides a welcome relief from the constant intensity that some writers use. It also keeps the reader engaged.