Foreword This Week
November 19, 2019
Reviewer Melissa Wuske Interviews Andrew T. Le Peau, Author of Write Better: A Lifelong Editor on Craft, Art, and Spirituality
Whether or not you consider yourself religious, chances are you feel the strong conviction that you are unique and a certain destiny awaits you if you can only discover your calling. The catch, of course, is that it’s not so easy to figure out what that calling is. For Christians, this longing is usually recognized as a search for the mission assigned to you by Jesus—though even he doesn’t make it crystal clear what he has in mind for you.
This week we meet Andrew Le Peau, a man who describes his calling this way: “I think it is to glorify God with words, whether written or spoken.” And as the associate publisher for editorial for many years at InterVarsity Press and author/co-author of many acclaimed Christian titles, we can assume that Andrew is fulfilling the role Jesus had in mind for him.
In his latest book, Write Better: A Lifelong Editor on Craft, Art, and Spirituality, Andrew offers all manner of sage writing guidance, but he also reveals himself to be an extraordinary man of God. In her review for the November/December issue of Foreword Reviews, Melissa Wuske calls the book “revelatory,” noting that the book “is not about writing for Christian audiences, but about how writing affects the writer’s spiritual life.” She calls it “an eye-opening look at how the writer’s life and the Christian life can be one and the same, showing that the two realms enrich and challenge each other.”
Melissa jumped at the chance to interact with Andrew for this interview. Thanks to InterVarsity for helping to make it happen.
Melissa, take it from here.
Your editorial career spanned more than forty years. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen during that time—in writing, in reading, and in faith?
Goodness! What hasn’t changed? From blue pencil to word processing; from print to digital displays; from a Christianized culture to postmodernism (or perhaps post-postmodernism!).
The internet has changed the way people read and write—perhaps that’s an understatement. What are some of the effects of these changes, both good and bad?
Regarding writing and reading, accessibility has been a huge boon to writers and editors. With so much information digitized, in a few keystrokes we can track down books, articles, quotes, and facts that forty years ago could take days and weeks to research. Information is truly democratized.
All is not paradise, however. We have tradeoffs. Today as readers and citizens we are drowning in data yet are in desperate need of wisdom. We have accelerated life (including our reading) to such a pace that it is hard to take time to stop and reflect. Even our habits of reading short snippets make long-form writing a challenge. Yet in such a complex world, we are kidding ourselves if we think we can live by sound-bytes alone.
One way I have tried to deal with this is by focusing my reading in books. I tend to stay away from magazines and newspapers (print or digital) as well as radio, TV, and social media to keep up with the news, though all these media have value. Obviously I believe in the importance of the open flow of information (and I hear about significant events anyway and can follow up if I wish), but what is reported on today will almost never be remembered or have much significance next week.
Books can take a longer and more measured view on what mattered in the past, what matters now, and what will matter in a year or a decade. Books also help strengthen our ability to think through issues in a more sustained, reasoned way that fights against the sometimes trifling and impulsive urgency of the moment.
What books have you read recently that has been helpful in this way?
One of the most important and fascinating is Factfulness by Hans Rosling. He details with data and stories how the world is much better than we think in many realms, even though much work remains. Another excellent volume is *Them: Why We Hate Each Other—And How to Heal *by Ben Sasse. He gets us outside the most recent news cycle to see deeper issues. Two others are A History of Western Philosophy by C. Stephen Evans and The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege by Ken Wytsma.
And how has the life of faith changed over your career?
Our Christianized culture has faded away in much of Western society (though segments of the American South are exceptions). As with the digital revolution, this has had mixed results. Two opposite impulses seem to be at work at once. On the one hand is the impulse to be accepting of a greater range of religious belief and expression. On the other hand is the impulse to expunge religion from the public square rather than see it as having an equal (though not privileged) voice alongside others.
What does that mean for writers who come from a faith perspective?
I think the impact generally has been to turn faith into just another preference, like toothpaste or being a vegetarian. One doesn’t suggest in polite company that we have been in touch with ultimate reality. Yet without a sense of the transcendent, our lives are so much flatter. Boredom then leads us to seek flashy but finally unsatisfying experiences.
The challenge for writers who want to express something of their faith is to vividly portray the world people experience in their everyday lives and at the same time communicate the deeper world beyond our senses. As others have noted, the interest in zombies, vampires, aliens, superheroes, wizards, indeed all of science fiction and fantasy, point to our desire to fill a landscape stripped bare by a secular, preference-driven mindset.
The most vital part of your book is the section about the connections between writing and spirituality—not just how to write for a Christian audience, but that some people are called by God to write, that they are sharing a message that’s bigger than themselves, that the process of writing changes their relationships with God, etc. How did you come to discover the richness of this connection? How did you see these realities enrich the life and writing of the authors you worked with? How did it change your role as an editor?
How did I become aware of these dynamics? By observing authors, by watching as an editor how they dealt with their insecurities and their successes. Sometimes their lack of confidence made them resistant to advice, erecting walls that made them reluctant to hear what might make their manuscripts better.
For other authors, their insecurities led them to eagerly desire counsel from editors and others. Some remarkable authors were secure and also had a profound sense of their own humanity and limitations that made them open to listen to others—to their readers, their students, their fellow travelers in life. They always wanted to learn. I so admired people in their fifties, sixties, and seventies who were still growing and changing. I always hoped I would be like them.
I also saw how success could have positive and negative results. When their books sold well and they got rave reviews in person and in print, authors would often start to listen less to others. I found few who, when successful, could embody confident humility. And they were a delight to be with, to work with, and to learn from.
That’s why I emphasize the spiritual disciplines of listening and gratitude so much in Write Better. These are the doorways, I think, to confident humility. When we make a point to regularly listen to God and others, we are admitting we don’t know everything. When we regularly say thank you to God and others, we acknowledge that we are not self-made people. We owe a great debt to many others, for who we are and for what we have. Expressing gratitude to God and others is a way of being honest about the good in me (confidence) but is also honest about the fact that I am not the source of that good (humility).
What is your top advice for a person of faith who wants to begin writing? And what is your advice for more seasoned writers who want to experience more connection between their faith and their writing?
For both groups it is this: Follow your passions. What are you interested in? What do you find yourself doing even when you don’t have to? Some people start organizing things (whether it’s their cupboards or a committee). Some are always finding ways to make new, interesting meals. Some inevitably connect with people in need and provide resources, comfort, and friendship. Some get a kick out of different cultures or languages.
Then, as I just mentioned, listen to what others say about you. What are the offhand comments they make about your interests, how you spend your time, what you’re good at? These can be clues to your passions. Sometimes we are just too close to ourselves to have a clear perspective on what we are like. Most of the books and articles I’ve written have come from somebody saying, “You should write that.” I couldn’t see it was a passion until someone else pointed it out.
The examples from published works that you use in the book are a delight to read. What are some tips for writers about learning to read like an editor?
Reading as an editor is very different than reading for pleasure or for information. As an editor I always have a critical hat on—How can this be improved? Would that be misunderstood? But I also notice what is good, powerful, insightful, and beautiful. I encourage authors not to change those things.
This habit also makes me aware of how something is put together, why it works well, or why it doesn’t, even when I’m reading for myself and not for work. The downside of reading editorially is that I can get distracted with mistakes or problems I see. The upside is that I notice not just when something is good but also what skills and tools of the trade an author used to make it so good. I then take note of that so I can do the same in my own writing or to pass on the tip to my authors.
What’s your favorite part of the writing process? Which part do you dread?
I am probably unusual because I like almost every aspect of the writing process. As a lifelong learner, I love doing research. Sometimes in the middle of a project, for example, I realize that to get a certain paragraph or page right, I’m going to need to read a couple books. But that’s no burden. It’s a bonus.
I enjoy drafting too. It’s still hard work, but if I’ve been doing my research well and taken notes along the way, I’ve got the essence of a partial draft in my notes even before I start formally writing. Trying to find the right order for the material, filling in gaps, even cutting extraneous material can satisfy my creative impulses.
Then comes copyediting, refining, unearthing errors, reworking awkward sentences, finding just the right word. That’s rewarding too. I began work as a copyeditor, so this is not foreign territory for me. Of course, living in fear that readers are going to find some huge (or minor) gaff is a form of motivation in its own perverse way.
Often in the middle of the writing process, I, like most authors, have doubts about what I’m working on. “This is lame,” I think. Or “There’s nothing original here.” “That is such bland writing.” “You’re going to get cut to ribbons.” I don’t like those feelings, but I’ve learned to expect them and just keep working hard. By the end, I’m usually content with the result even knowing it’s not perfect.
Featured Reviews of the Week
Things She’s Seen, by Pat Esden (Lyrical Press): “Things She’s Seen is a flashy, troubling depiction of abusive power. In its variegated darkness, it brings home the healing message that sometimes, real families are the ones people choose themselves.” Review by Karen Rigby.
The Boy with the Butterfly Mind, by Victoria Williamson (Floris Books): “An excellent story for any young reader who has ever felt that they are the cause of their family’s problems.” Review by Catherine Thureson.
Garden to Glass: Grow Your Drinks from the Ground Up, by Mike Wolf (Turner Publishing): “Garden to Glass brings foraging behind the bar, opening up a new way to craft cocktails and playing with the seasonality of botanicals. It also forwards basic gardening etiquette in an insightful, inspiring, and educational way.” Review by Katie Asher.
Science/Autobiography & Memoir
Handprints on Hubble: An Astronaut’s Story of Invention, by Kathryn D. Sullivan (The MIT Press): “Handprints on Hubble is an involving, inspiring personal account of creating Hubble, the telescope that changed Earth’s view of the universe.” Review by Susan Waggoner.
Lethal Savage, by Dave Edlund (Light Messages Publishing): “At every turn, Peter relies on his quick thinking and interpersonal skills to save the day. He’s a blockbuster hero, capable with self-defense and weapons but fueled by compassion and intelligence.” Review by John M. Murray.