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Culture Q&A

The write way

Author Ann Voskamp says reading, list making, and waiting on the Lord are integral to the creative process

The write way

(Photo by Layne Beckner Grime/Genesis Photos)

Last Nov. 19 WORLD ran excerpts of an interview with Ann Voskamp, author of One Thousand Gifts, a wonderful book she wrote while homeschooling six children. She continues to live on an Ontario farm and blog at "A Holy Experience" (aholyexperience.com). Here's what she said specifically about her writing process.

With all the homeschooling you do, the Patrick Henry students here would like to know when and where you write. My husband built a little 10-by-10-foot cabin on the edge of the cornfield, a very quiet, still space. I go out late at 9 or 9:30, after everyone has gone to bed, and early in the morning: All six of the kids get up at 5:30 in the morning and work two and a half to three hours in the barn with Darryl.

When writing One Thousand Gifts you would typically start at 9 p.m. and work until ... About 2 in the morning, and then I got four hours' sleep, and then I'd get some hours in the morning before they started school. It was an intense year. In the month of January, when the book was due, Darryl homeschooled all the kids, did the laundry, and made the meals. I'd come in and say, "I can't do this anymore." He would be, "The Lord has called us to this. We can keep going."

Very cold in January? Oh, yes, very cold. But he insulated that cabin very, very well.

Do you write on a computer? Yes. I've gone through a few lately.

Do you self-edit as you go along? Yeah, I'm not a fast writer at all. I come empty and wait upon the Lord. So it really is all a waiting process, a patient process. I write a chapter, then edit it and edit it and edit it and edit it. I don't think we mine creativity from within. It's bestowed from on high, from God.

As you were writing did you think about your audience? Honestly, I didn't think anyone would ever read One Thousand Gifts. It's quirky and idiosyncratic, and the language—it's not an easy read. But my husband and I both felt that the Lord had used it to change us. And what would show up on the screen would be things I didn't know of.

I don't really know what I think until I write. That is exactly it. I don't know what I think. I view writing lots of ways as a handicap. Other people can live their life and understand it. I have to write it to understand it. Or, I would begin to write a story and not know where it was going to go, and be surprised how the Lord was weaving everything to bring glory to Himself.

That famous line in Chariots of Fire from Eric Liddell: "As I run I feel God's pleasure." Yes, yes. Lots of nights I would run in from the cabin and wake up Darryl to say, "I thought it was about this, but look what the Lord gave us."

What do you do when you encounter what's called "writer's block?" When I do it's important to be reading—three or four different books at a time, so those books begin to have a conversation with each other. Then I begin to engage what that conversation is about, and words come out. If I don't have words, it's a sign I'm not reading enough. I read mostly nonfiction, classics, a lot of C.S. Lewis, contemporaries, John Piper ... a lot of theology because I'm trying to figure out how to make theology very practical, for the kitchen sink, for the moms with a lot of young babies.

Some readers of One Thousand Gifts have made their own lists. Do you recommend that? Yes. G.K. Chesterton says the greatest poetry comes out of lists. List making slows you down long enough to see, and writing comes out of attentiveness, out of the way you see the world, the way you see the sovereign hand of God moving. So the list doesn't seem like literature at all, but it is a practical way of opening your eyes up to your life and starting to notice the things otherwise you would have missed. So I think, while the list itself may not spawn any great thoughts, it will aid the practice of seeing.

When you slow down you pay attention to specific detail, the physicality of things? That all plays into writing. Really good writing, from my perspective, runs a lot like a visual on the screen. You need to create that kind of detail and have credibility with the reader, so the reader knows that you were really there, that you really experienced it, that you know the details. That comes out of seeing.

Let me go back a bit: How did you become a reader and a writer? Because that wasn't part of your family tradition. No, it wasn't. I think a lot of my pain as a child—it was easier to escape into books, into words, than to try to wrestle out what was happening in our family life. Words were a different place to go. So I was a voracious reader. I read all of the books in our public school library. Words were safe for me.

And you started writing? I've always journaled. Shelves in my study are filled with journals. It was a way to process when I didn't know how to talk to anybody about my fears, or what was happening, so I wrote,

When did your blog begin? 2003 or 2004. I had journaled up until that point as a young mom, taking Scripture that I'm reading and laying that down in a journal, and how am I living this out, and where is the sin in my life that I need to confess and work through—so never journaling apart from God's word. Blogging came out of that: If God could use in another mother's life what I was wrestling through, that was a way to go into the world while still being a stay-at-home mom and serving my husband and my kids.

So have you shown your journals to anyone else? No, no, no. Nobody. I still see it as a quiet space between God and me.

But once you started doing the blog, it's not just between God and you: You had readers. I've never had comments. I've never installed a site meter on it. So I was never thinking there was anyone really out there. Now and then you'd get an email, but up until fall 2010, the screen was black. I saw it as a dark, quiet space.

You still don't know how many people are reading? I feel it's like David taking a census. This is for God to do whatever God wants to do. When you write, it's to an audience of one. It's to Him. If He takes it to one person and changes or influences or encourages one person, that counts. Jesus left the 99 for the one.

Watch Marvin Olasky's complete interview with Ann Voskamp: