Author Rachel Held Evans on writing and criticism
Author and blogger Rachel Held Evans visited George Fox University March 12 and 13. She took time to speak and engage with the campus and answered some questions from the GFU student body.
Q: Advice for budding writers?
A: Budding writers! Just read a lot, that’s really important. Read everything; read the back of cereal boxes in the morning, read the newspaper, read your textbook… because you have to; read for fun, read fiction, read nonfiction, just soak it all in because there’s no experience in that way that will not be helpful for you.
Try to get a diversity of, as your practicing your writing, try to write some journalism, write for the student newspaper, but also write fiction, also write poetry. All of those will help you in whatever field you settle on. They’ll help make you a better writer.
Q: How do you get over writer’s block or find inspiration again when you’re in that time?
A: Oh gosh, I get that all the time. I call it brain constipation! Having a deadline helps, then I say ‘I can’t afford to have writer’s block anymore, because I’ve got a deadline!’ So, having some sort of really intense deadline helps.
One thing that also helps is, if this is just happening like one day, just take a break and unload the dishwasher, walk a dog or just do some mindless task. Sometimes just even taking a shower really helps. I really get all my great ideas in the shower! So just simple things, ‘I can’t seem to get anything down, I guess I’ll just go to the grocery store.’ And I’ll come back and I’ll be able to write again.
Another trick is to leave something kind of undone and pick it up the next morning. I used to always try, by the end of my writing day, to finish up the last paragraph of whatever I was working on or finish the chapter, finish the blog post. Now, I go ahead and start the next thing and leave it undone so that when I sit down the next morning, I have to finish and it gets me right into it. Because staring at a blank page is the worst thing for writer’s block. But if there are already some words on the page that I’ve started, getting into it is a lot easier. So you’ve got to like trick your brain into getting into a project by simply starting.
As far as like big time writer’s block when I don’t really know what book I want to write next or I don’t know what I want to do with my career next, just taking a lot of time off and spending time with family and friends and traveling, going somewhere, just doing something other than my work.
Q: Since you’ve had public criticism, do you find that the way that you give criticism has changed?
A: Yes! And this is something that’s been really interesting. I didn’t really realize I was doing this to people until they started doing it to me. There’s this tendency when you start to get more popular and people are reading you and you start to develop something of a reputation, for people to treat you as this caricature. And I would go on these blogs where people were talking about me like I was something other than a human being. It was weird and kind of disconcerting and just this almost cartoonish image of this angry, snarky, hateful woman that I really just don’t think that I am.
When I saw how that was being done to me, I realized how I had been doing that to other public figures, particularly in Christianity, certain pastors and leaders that I had been critical of and I’d think they do and say things that are worthy of criticism. In my response to them I had treated them as their caricature, as their brand. I had kind of fed into that, sort of a mocking spirit of people.
I had this idea that they were immune. The really powerful guys, they’re immune to criticism! I can make fun of them all I want. We sort of think of them as we sort of think about the president. You know? Obviously we can satirize him because he’s the most powerful man in the word. I was treating my brothers and sisters in Christ that way. I didn’t really realize I was doing it until people started doing it to me.
So, now I’m still critical of people or at least of their material, but I really try to focus on what they said. I try to offer a response that I think is an alternative and not focus so much on personality. Because it’s not really about them, it’s about what they have to say and I want to address what they have to say and not rake them over the coals at a personal level. Because I’m realizing now that those are my feelings too! If it hurts me, it probably can hurt them too.
They’re not immune. We have this idea that certain people, certain pastors or leaders or public figures are immune to criticism and they’re not. Or immune to hate and they’re not. And thinking of them as human beings has really helped.