Posted by: Mark Nielsen | February 21, 2010

On Writing & Publishing As a Christian

“God Himself loves artists. However, He is ambivalent about doctors.”

– Leif Enger, in the novel So Brave, Young and Handsome (2008) 

I’m not an expert. I’ll say that up front. But I have many thoughts on turning creative writing, especially poetry, in the direction of Christ. As for publishing (especially poetry), I’m probably as confused as the rest. But I’ll get into that a bit anyway.

Those who wish to read some of my original poetry samples can click here for an index.

I’m a former English professor, and only slightly published as an author, but I am an experienced blogger and performance poet of original works. Anyway, I was offering a Facebook friend some ideas, and thought I would pass them along here as well. So here’s some strategies, and some complaints:

1) Think/see/pray like the ancient Christian mystics did. Independent of your denomination or theology, the God Who Is There is always near us, and can be seen or experienced in so many ways throughout your day. Also, the Bible itself is as much a work of poetry as of prose. Even secular writers borrow images and ideas constantly from scripture, sometimes without even knowing they are doing so.

Just slowly start retraining yourself to think in psalms and symbols a little: the pigeon (or rock dove, for you birders) is a “dirty dove of peace”, the turning leaf is a burning bush, the local Aldi is the well where Jesus met the Samaritan woman, a computer avatar might be angel or demon. I have a number of poems at my blog that make clear but indirect references to God and Jesus in the context of noticing something else in our daily lives. A current book about reclaiming our mystical heritage is called The Naked Now, by Richard Rohr (an extremely evangelical-minded Franciscan priest). A very different way to learn this monkish way of seeing in poetry is by reading the work of a couple of ancient Islamic (Sufi) poets: Rumi and Hafiz. I’ve been inspired by these Jesus-loving Sufis from the 13th century, as have millions of others. According to some sources, Rumi is the “most read poet” in the U.S. these days. Go figger. And yet here we are at war with Islamic fundamentalists. Oh well. Stinks, but this is the world we’ve got. The only one.

2) That battle of writing only when inspiration hits vs. writing consistently is a tough one, I admit. Getting in a journaling habit helps, b/c it forces you to write something a few times a week without worrying whether it is publishable or universal. As you go, you’ll discover things going into your journal that you’d like to take out of there and develop further in a more formal way. I like to think anything worth doing (worth writing) is worth doing badly rather than not at all. Relax and practice forgiveness of your own creative self, in order to free yourself for even more blessed creativity. You just keep tilling the soil and planting. God will make it rain.

3) Over the years, I have discovered some older Christian poets in the English language who have some very contemporary forms and content in their work. Not always easy reading, but rewarding stuff to learn technique and creative theology from. A few examples:

— T.S. Eliot, though he had a “conversion” experience and was not a believer early on. Ash Wednesday and The Four Quartets are his most inspiring longer religious poetry works. A lesser known but very good work is called Choruses From the Rock.

— Gerard Manley Hopkins (1800s) – Roman Catholic priest who really mastered that “poetic seeing” thing in the context of loving God.

— Emily Dickinson (1800s)

— George Herbert (~1633!) – a Church of England minister, surprisingly readable for modern readers.

–John Donne (esp. the “Holy Sonnets” ~1631!). The mid-90’s play and movie Wit (the movie features Emma Thompson in an Emmy-nominated performance) is based in part on John Donne’s poetry and his deep sense of God’s grace. It still shocks and amazes, 400 years later.

There are plenty of other oldies but goodies, and I’d love folks to comment below if you know of any. Most recently, the contemporary poet I’ve been reading most is Mary Oliver, though I admit her theology leans pretty liberal. And Walt Whitman was out there even further, but he sure seemed to love God. So who knows where one will encounter the poetic Christ?

4) Don’t let anyone tell you what’s *appropriate* to write about or not to write about. Language is somewhat arbitrary, even to God, who knows our hearts (both beautiful but sinful). A drunken, foul-mouthed screed against some injustice –while not recommended with any regularity– is still an opportunity to let the Holy Spirit within you express herself about injustice, which may later lead you to a more just reaction. A poem or story with sexual tension or sensual imagery in it can sometimes be a kind of exploration of the natural world, or the nature of love in all its forms: why are we made like this, to think or feel these things?

5) Conferences: I know of two reputable Christian writers’ conferences in the Midwest: Festival of Faith and Writing at Michigan’s Calvin College every other year (coming April 15-17, 2010 — leans slightly toward centrist-to-liberal Xity, but also gets bigger name, more mainstream teachers/speakers, writers and believers like Anne Lamott and Leif Enger… The Message author Eugene Peterson and education/spirituality writer Parker Palmer are among the biggies this year).

Then there’s Write to Publish, put on at Wheaton College each year (also in the spring — leans centrist to conservative; I went last year and found it helpful, also met other writers to trade ideas face-to-face with, and a few agents or publishers to try opening doors with).put on at Wheaton College each year (also in the spring, leans centrist to conservative; I went last year and found it helpful, also met other writers to trade ideas face-to-face with, and a few agents or publishers to try opening doors with).

6) Categories and Marketing: Lastly, for those writing prose fiction, below are two snippets of writer guidelines I stumbled upon today –guidelines that make publication complicated, whether or not faith is a major part of your story.

All the major publishers –Christian and non– have set categories and rules. If your book does not fit neatly into a category, it will have a harder time being published, even if an agent or editor likes it. Here’s an example of the kind of “editing” (some might say it’s head-in-the-sand censorship) that you might need to do to move toward publication in the Christian market:

“Because xxxxxxxxxxxx [publisher name redacted] sells to both CBA and ABA bookstores, we must adhere to CBA conventions. The stories may not include alcohol consumption by Christian characters, card playing, gambling or games of chance (including raffles), explicit scatological terms, hero and heroine remaining overnight together alone, Halloween celebrations, magic or the mention of intimate body parts. Lying is also problematic in the CBA market and characters who are Christian should avoid lying or deceiving others. Exceptions can be made but must be approved by an editor.”

The late Roman Catholic author Graham Greene’s work, which is all about the triumph of faith, would never meet most of the guidelines above. But I love it, nevertheless. I aspire to write like that, not like a shallow suburban hack who just happens to believe in the right kind of Jesus.

Now here’s a guideline from a secular publisher, on fitting into the “historical romance” category:

” The history should be well researched in order to give an authentic sense of period without taking over from the romance. We are happy to consider stories set in ancient civilizations up to and including the First and Second World Wars. What remains ever popular are [Renaissance or Victorian] tales which could see your characters scandalizing high society or being drawn into a salacious underworld inhabited by pickpockets and courtesans!”

So… I currently have a book half done, but it’s set in 1959. That’s post-WWII, but pre-“Contemporary”. I might be screwed. Unless it’s good enough for someone to take a risk on trying to sell on its own merits, regardless of category.

7) Other Options for Exposure

There’s always self-publishing, of course, and/or writing shorter works on the internet or for magazines, to grab some attention and credibility. But all that has only gone partway for most folks I know. Worth doing, but just one step among many. And there are challenges there, too.

For example, I have placed a few nonfiction essays on faith, science and culture at a small but growing, somewhat conservative website and association called Quantum Pork. The contributors/members are good folks, both from the academic world and the religious world, with a few crossover or non-categorized types like me.

I submitted a variation of my recent Super Bowl essay there, and it was accepted. You can read it at the Quantum Pork website. As an association trying to generate good discussion (and maybe a little attention for ourselves), we have agreed to be somewhat open-minded, but also focused, in what we will publish, and what comments or responses will be acceptable. The downside is this: if I’m going to be assigned guilt (or credibility) by my association with the site, then I have to accept that the “useful links” or recommendations elsewhere on the site do say something specific about the basic beliefs of the editors.

For example: we debated recommending Kirk Cameron’s overtly Christian movie Fireproof, which was praised by most evangelical believers for being real and gritty, but panned by the nominally-Christian and secular markets for being artless (and, some said, for a main character whose actions aren’t as sensitive and “pro-family” as the filmmakers claim). I have not seen the film, but as a screenwriter and former television producer, my suspicion (having seen Cameron’s cheesy first Left Behind movie) is that the mainstream opinion is probably accurate. Yet I have agreed to leave our recommendation on the QP site, to keep an open mind and give my associates the benefit of the doubt.

So there we go. In a world where book publishing and reading habits seem impossible to pin down for more than a week, that’s my two cents. We’ll see if I come off looking like a genius, or a fool. But I’ve written it down now and put it out in cyberspace… so there’s no retracting it.



  1. My fiction definitely falls into the category of neither fish nor fowl. It doesn’t come even remotely close to the CBA guidelines (which I despise for their narrowness . . . those people would reject some of Jesus’s parables), and yet faith is one of the primary issues for my characters, so the secular market dosn’t seem too interested. I’ve pretty much reconciled myself to having nothing but unpublished novels.

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