Omit Unnecessary Words
On the trail of faith and writing.
Jerry B. Jenkins is administering the de facto oath of the Christian Writers Guild. Thirty novices sit up straight in their chairs, raise their right hands, and read together from the immortal words of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
Is it possible to be a writer without being a reader? Yes—but probably not a good one.
We are gathered in a breakout room at the Broadmoor, a sprawling resort hotel in Colorado Springs. There’s the faintest twinkle in the eyes of Jenkins and Andy Scheer, the former Moody Monthly managing editor who is now Jenkins’ writing sidekick, as they recite the words aloud, but the students themselves seem deadly serious. Maybe they are just nervous—each of them has submitted a writing sample in advance, and this is the moment of truth. Jenkins and Scheer are about to put those samples up one by one on the screen at the front of the room, subjecting each to a “thick-skinned critique.” “We’re going to leave a lot of blood on the page,” Jenkins warns cheerfully.
Indeed, by the end of the 75-minute workshop, nearly every fledgling literary effort is drenched in editorial ink, its adjectives and adverbs ruthlessly run through with a felt-tip pen, its passive-voice verbs summoned out of hiding. The aspiring Christian writers watch meekly. As sheep before the shearers are silent, so they open not their mouths. But when the session is over, they each want their transparencies, edited by the masters’ hands.
Thanks to the Left Behind series, Jenkins is evangelicalism’s best-selling author, with book sales climbing ever closer to the hundred-million mark. He is credited, variously, with establishing the commercial viability and mainstream credibility of “Christian fiction,” evangelizing countless Americans through a tale of rapture and repentance, driving yet another nail in the already tightly shut coffin of Christian literary standards, and exploiting fear for profit. What he has certainly done—though this is acknowledged in tones varying from delight to envy to outrage—is make a lot of money by writing books.
This weekend, though, Jenkins is spending Friday and Saturday—two “thick-skinned critique” sessions each day—wading through prose that would tax the patience of many freshman comp teachers. It occurs to me that, unlike most such teachers, Jenkins could be doing anything he pleases, anywhere in the world. But here he is at the Broadmoor—okay, not exactly a hardship post—with 200 people who hope that the Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writers Guild can help them tell their story.
Story is a big word here. “What’s your story?” ask the Guild’s ads that appear regularly in Christian magazines (including this one). Everyone has an answer to that question. At breakfast one morning I sit next to Steve, a man in his fifties from Nebraska who has spent his career as a stockbroker. A few years ago, he says, God told him to “write my book.” It is a book about a 30-year-old executive who has had everything the world has to offer—wealth, his own Gulfstream jet, his own company—but still finds himself with an empty life. “There will be a lot of water symbolism,” Steve tells me; the plan is for the lead character to experience a crisis which leads to his conversion at the climax of the book, a climax which will take place, symbolically enough, in the midst of a flood.
I’m struck by how much Steve’s premise shares with many other Christian novels, which gravitate toward protagonists who are at the top of the world’s game. What will Steve’s hero do after his conversion? Steve’s answer is vague. “You know, I’ve thought about writing this as a three-book series, with this book being the first and the other two being about what happens next.” Personally, I’m much more interested in the second book than the first, because I’d really like to know what a 30-year-old baby Christian with a Gulfstream and a big company would do. Sell the Gulfstream? Acquire his competitor? Steve doesn’t know—at least not yet.
The Christian Writers Guild exists not so much to offer weekend conferences as to enroll writers in a two-year correspondence course with a mentor, usually a veteran of the evangelical publishing world. Every two weeks, there is a new writing assignment, followed by detailed critique. Steve speaks effusively of the value of the course—“I bought this course the same way I buy stocks, as cheap as possible.” For an $800 upfront fee, Steve has calculated it’s only $16 per lesson—a tremendous bargain for someone who gets a personal editor for two years, reviewing, commenting on, and marking up his biweekly efforts at writing. He is a man with a story, just waiting for the time, and the technical skills, to write it.
At the first of Jenkins’ and Scheer’s critique sessions, I sit down next to Maxine, a woman in her seventies who tells me her story. She has spent her life on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. The past few years have brought the losses that come with age—first her 92-year-old mother, then, last year, her husband, a hard-working farmer who died of complications from diabetes. But Maxine glows with grace, not grief. Her mother came to Christ in the last years of her life. Her husband, one foot turned black with gangrene (she describes this to me in some detail), died in her arms, old and full of years and faith. Somehow in the midst of this ordinary life Christ has become radiantly present, and she is here to learn how to convey his presence in print.
For a few minutes, basking in her midwestern grandmotherly warmth, there is no one I would rather listen to than Maxine. I thank her for telling me her story, and I wish her well in her writing. Yet in my heart of hearts I know that no amount of Strunk and White, however rigorously applied, will get a story of a dying dairy farmer with a gangrenous foot published. The fiercely competitive world of magazines and books—even the relatively friendly backwater of the evangelical publishing industry—not only omits unnecessary words, it must also omit unnecessary stories, stories that have been told a thousand times. Later I tell a friend and editor about Maxine and the story she wants to tell. “Yes,” he says, “every Christian magazine gets piles of those submissions, stories of loved ones who have died. Sometimes they’re quite moving—I remember working through a few dozen and by the end I was in tears. But we couldn’t use any of them.”
During a break after the second workshop session I sit down with Jenkins and Scheer. Jenkins is tired—“I didn’t sleep at all last night; when your name is on the event there’s a tremendous sense of responsibility”—and I haven’t asked for much of his time, but he ends up speaking with me for nearly an hour. I comment—gingerly—on the low quality of the writing that students are bringing to the conference. “Pretty thin stuff, isn’t it?” he says. Why spend so much of his time on remedial matters? How much do these writers really have in common with C. S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers, who appear in the Christian Writers Guild’s ads? “We’re very careful not to overpromise in our ads,” Jenkins says. “We never say you’ll be published if you just take our course. We do say you’ll learn the tools of the trade, and if you stick with it you’ll improve as a writer—whatever level you start from. Beginning writers face so much rejection anyway. We don’t want to shatter people’s dreams. I don’t want to be the one who tells someone, ‘You can’t be a writer.’ “
Jenkins has a biblical model in mind—the parable of the talents. “If someone is a one-talent writer, we’ll work with them to double that talent. If they’re a five-talent writer, we’ll work with them too. Good writing is needed at all levels—I don’t want to shortchange the school-cafeteria worker who may only write letters to the editor of her local paper.” As for putting C. S. Lewis in the ads, “Well, it was either C. S. Lewis or me, and it sure wasn’t going to be me.”
Even more gingerly, I bring up the question of Jenkins’ own work, which for all its adherence to the dicta of Strunk and White—Jenkins’ sentences are indeed pared to the bone and his prose clips along at a pace that ranges from brisk to breakneck—has not been widely hailed for its literary merits. “I really admire literary writers,” he says. “I’m not smart enough to be one. I don’t even feel smart enough to read some of them. I feel like I’m a fairly typical person. I write for myself—I write what I would want to read.”
Jenkins’ humility seems too unvarnished to be feigned. This is evangelicalism, I remind myself—our heroes are ordinary people, all the way down, who somehow manage to be ordinary in an extraordinary way. Only someone as extraordinarily ordinary as Jenkins could sell millions of books and then stay up all night thinking about how to serve “one-talent” writers. Once and only once during the thick-skinned critique, a genuinely lovely piece of writing appeared on the screen: “Leaves lacquer the Arkansas landscape,” it began. Jenkins turned to its author and said, “I wish I could write like this.”
But what about developing his own talents? Jenkins has published at least one novel that tries to go in a different direction from his most popular work: ‘Twas the Night Before, a love story that turns on the existence of Santa Claus. But after 60 million copies of Left Behind, he has difficult choices to make. “I feel some sympathy for the college freshman who is playing basketball and is approached by an NBA team offering a multi-million dollar contract. It might be better for him to get a few more years in school. But should he go on playing college ball, risking his ankles, his knees, while that offer is available?”
So Jenkins has decided to leverage his financial success and cultural clout to invest in other people—not just the Christian Writers Guild, which “isn’t making me any money,” he says wryly, but the Hollywood production company he founded with his son, Dallas. “My son thinks the way you do,” he tells me. “He says, well, why not just write what you want to write and let it sell one hundred thousand copies instead of a million?” (The anguished sound you hear is the legions of writers who have written exactly what they want to write and are hoping to sell a tenth of what Jenkins can on a bad day.) “But I ask him, do you want to keep making movies? That takes a lot of money.” Publishers can lose interest awfully quickly when zeroes start dropping from the projected sales of a title. What responsibility, Jenkins seems to be asking, do I have to make the most of my opportunities? Jerry B. Jenkins, too, must omit unnecessary words.
Several months later, I’m at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, a very different sort of conference. The vast auditorium of Sunshine Community Church is nearly filled: 2,000 people listening to Joyce Carol Oates, one of the rare literary novelists whose output is comparable to Jenkins’. Her opening remarks strongly suggest that she has never been inside a megachurch before, or indeed been inside a church of any sort for quite a long time. But the festival, a biennial fixture of the Grand Rapids springtime since 1990, has a track record of inviting surprising headliners alongside more predictable names.
This year the crowds gather for children’s author Katherine Paterson, for Minnesotan novelist Leif Enger, preacher and writer Barbara Brown Taylor, Oprah pick Bret Lott, and—with especially reverential attention, on the final night—Frederick Buechner, who comes onstage looking like a bemused hound dog but concludes his talk with a transcendent valediction forbidding mourning. During the day the festival offers a bewildering array of concurrent sessions. Lauren Winner, author of the candid memoir Girl Meets God, discusses the perils of candid memoirs; Mark Pinsky, a self-described “left-wing Jew” who covers religion for the Orlando Sentinel, plays spiritual clips from The Simpsons; literary funeral director Thomas Lynch explores “metaphors of mortality.” Authors of all sorts are celebrities at this festival, signing books, answering questions, and meeting admirers who want to tell them how their books changed their lives. Enger, looking somewhat overwhelmed, tells me, “I feel like I’ve been spending the whole conference saying, ‘Thank you. Thank you.’ ” One can even meet that rarest of all literary species at the Calvin festival: the working poet.
Evangelical Christianity, as the mainstream media are woefully slow to understand, is a many-splendored thing. It is a long way from Jerry B. Jenkins’ writers-in-training to the world of Calvin College, a Christian Reformed school that is the intellectual heart of what may be the last distinct European-American ethnic culture.
At the Calvin festival, for one thing, I am surrounded by young people. Trim and tall and blond, they throng the workshop sessions and plenary addresses. Some of them are Calvin students who may be attending under professorial duress, but most are out of college. There is almost nowhere in the balkanized world of American culture, not to mention American Christianity, where you can find an even distribution of ages from 20 to 70, but here you can. It’s not hard to look out over the audience and imagine a thousand children who “could actually be disciplined,” as pastor and writer James Emery White recalls his own childhood, “with the threat of ‘no library for a week.’” There’s something unsettling about seeing so many young adults intent on listening and reading. Shouldn’t they be home, I find myself thinking, watching television?
And then there are books—stacks and stacks of books at the tables of dozens of publishers and at least three conference bookstores. Festivalgoers throng the aisles of the exhibit hall, talking, buying, reading. In Colorado Springs, there were—I counted—35 books for sale. Sixteen were by Jerry B. Jenkins. What everyone at the Christian Writers Guild had in common is that they all were, or wanted to be, writers. But what everyone has in common at the Calvin Festival is that they are all readers.
Is it possible to be a writer without being a reader? Yes—but probably not a good one. There were a few readers at the Christian Writers Guild—the author of the passage that elicited Jerry Jenkins’ praise, a retired attorney named Mal King, gave me a slim book by Eudora Welty after we shared an animated lunchtime conversation about southern fiction. But many members of the Christian Writers Guild, coming to writing late in life, have missed something some of us were graced with early on, not even knowing it was grace: books, and books, and more books.
As Joyce Carol Oates speaks, I notice the two people in front of me, both young women—teenagers? college students?—leaning forward, laughing at Oates’ stream-of-consciousness jokes, listening intently to her poems, nodding when she mentions her novel We Were the Mulvaneys. Is there anywhere on the planet where you could find two people more palpably in love with books and words than these two? After the talk I find out their names and a bit of their stories. Sarah Carleton, two years out of Geneva College and now an English teacher at Beaver County Christian School in western Pennsylvania, has brought along Laryssa Joseph, the star student in her junior English class. “My friends are smart,” Laryssa says, “but they don’t read, except for class. But I can’t go to sleep until I read a book.”
What were they looking for? What have they found here? “I think we came because we were looking for depth—something more than you usually find in Christian writing,” Laryssa says. “And every session has been amazing. These writers are genuine. They are deep. They are truthful. I think that’s what I’m looking for when I read—a writer who is truthful.”
Joyce Carol Oates’ voice wavers between the tony flatness cultivated by NPR commentators and an unguarded, New Jersey-inflected hilarity, and her thoughts ramble unsteadily, yet somehow believably, from topic to topic. She is talking about teaching Princeton students to write. I tell them, she says, to go out into the world and look at other people. Don’t tell your own story—most writers have boring lives. And even if you tell your own story once, whose story are you going to tell the next time? Tell someone else’s story.
Suddenly I’m thinking about Maxine, whose husband died in her arms. I wonder if, deep down, Maxine really wants to be a writer. For all of us who write, even for Jerry B. Jenkins or Joyce Carol Oates, writing is work, sometimes deeply satisfying but also draining and at times tedious. Words have not escaped the curse that lies on human work—in fact, most days, most writers will tell you that words are the most stubbornly cussed things of all. To their credit, the Christian Writers Guild doesn’t try to convince their students otherwise—many of their students drop out, Andy Scheer tells me, when they realize how hard they are expected to work. And all writers eventually run up against the stark limits of talent: the things we will never be able to say no matter how hard we try, because we simply weren’t made to say them. Not many of us get to be C. S. Lewis. Or even Jerry B. Jenkins.
But Maxine has a story, and she’s right to want it to be told. It’s a true story—no less true for resembling a thousand others. And it’s not completely ordinary—that black, gangrenous foot is something you don’t hear about every day, even if you’re glad you don’t. Someone, I think, could tell that story. Someone could make something remarkable out of it, something that would last and matter. Something truthful.
I look across the auditorium at the faces of 2,000 readers and writers, and I wonder whom I could introduce to Maxine. Could it be, someday, Laryssa?
It will have to be someone who will omit unnecessary words.
It will have to be someone who knows that no words are, in the long run, unnecessary.