Monday, December 22, 2014

Book Review: Dancing on the Head of a Pen by Robert Benson

WaterBrook Press
Colorado Springs 2014

Shortly before moving to England for what I thought would be a year (it turned out to be half that), I signed up for a book review service that promised that so long as my Kindle was charged I would not be without something to read. I received (and reviewed) one e-book and then eagerly went to claim a new title. Seeing a book by Robert Benson on the list, I knew that no other book would do. The only problem? Benson's book was not available in e-format. I had to wait until my return to the States to read Benson's latest.

Robert Benson is a reader's writer. He shares his experiences and insights in a gentle, conversational style that I find poetic. There is an authenticity there that makes his genuine Christian witness shine (all the more since he's not trying to “witness”). At least, that was what I found in earlier titles of his that I had read (The Echo Within and Between the Dreaming and the Coming True), and I was not deceived in thinking that Dancing on the Head of a Pen would be similar.

Dancing is both a reflection and a “how-to” guide for the aspiring (or discouraged) writer; not a “follow these five simple steps and you'll be putting out a book every six months!” guide, but a “this is what has worked for me; maybe something here will resonate with you.” While Echo and Dreaming communicated (at least to this reader) Benson's contemplative spirituality, Dancing witnesses to his inner (and to some degree, outer) life as a writer. As an aspiring (but disorganized) writer myself, I found solid guidance here. It was especially encouraging to me that the same things that intimidate me (like the sheer whiteness of a blank page) were familiar to Benson. And the same siren calls that would lure me from my appointed task continue to find their way to Benson's Tennessee home. I was also pleased to be confirmed in my cut-and-paste approach to putting a text together. (Benson uses an X-Acto knife; I use whatever scissors are around.)

Taking a page from Graham Greene (!), Benson set a daily goal of writing six hundred words: a quota I can just about imagine imposing on myself. Through years of journaling (another practice he strongly recommends), he learned what times of day were better for him to tackle which stages of a project. I loved his metaphor of the three hats: the artist's beret; the faded baseball cap for the grunt work of refining and rewriting; the fedora for handling the business aspects of publishing. Wisely, he warns the writer not to multi-task when it comes to writing and refining: You can only wear one hat at a time.

The most surprising advice I received from Dancing on the Head of a Pen was the rather strong discouragement from talking too much about one's writing project. There's a double risk involved when a writer gets a little too chatty about his or her next book: being talked out of writing it at all (especially if the reason for talking is to find encouragment for the project—or the idea behind it), or saying everything that ought to have been written, and finding, when pen hits paper, that the words themselves have been drained dry in the telling. This also relates to the writer's need for silence—and for its opposite: reading the developed work aloud to an audience, as a way of recognizing where it does or does not hit the mark.

Several of my take-aways from Dancing on the Head of a Pen are destined to appear among my New Year's Resolutions. If you are an aspiring writer, I do not doubt that you will find the practical wisdom that can help you refine your skills or find your voice. Better yet, you will be moved and inspired in your calling.

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