OCW Summer Conference Director Lindy Jacobs’ Interview with Allen Arnold
“Escape the Creative Desert and Catch a Wave”
Oregon Christian Writers is very happy to welcome Keynoter Allen Arnold to the 2014 Summer Conference August 4th through 7th in Portland. As founder and former publisher of Thomas Nelson Fiction, Allen worked with hundreds of authors and published more than 500 novels. Now at Ransomed Heart Ministries, Allen speaks about the holy art of creating from an awakened heart—the deep pleasure of writing not just for God but with God. Allen has a special place in his heart for the storyteller and is an in-demand speaker at writing conferences around the country. He received the American Christian Fiction Writers Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012. Allen will also co-teach a morning coaching class, “Live Free; Write Free,” with James L. Rubart and mentor authors in the Writing Center.
Summer Conference Director Lindy Jacobs caught up with Allen between a writer’s conference and a men’s ministry event to ask him some questions about his unique message to storytellers.
Lindy: Allen, everyone gives writers formulas for success. We have bookcases full of titles like Writing the Blockbuster and The Five Keys to Getting an Agent. We’re on a tightrope keeping up with our to-do lists: deadlines, blogs, Facebook, and the list goes on. As Christians, we know we’re supposed to let go and trust God, even in our writing, but we want to “do.” There’s the “tyranny of the urgent” . . . and, by the way, writing is a competitive business!
Allen: This is a huge issue. Most writers find themselves overwhelmed and disheartened from the never-ending flow of expert advice on what writers must do to succeed. Each new theory or formula—often contradictory—is like another ten-pound rock being added to the writer’s backpack. After a while, writers can barely walk because of all the rocks they are carrying. They eventually find themselves stuck in a creative desert . . . worn out from all they are being told to do when what they really want to do is simply write.
My cry from the wilderness to writers is one of freedom. A chance for them to breathe deeply, empty their backpack of rocks, and let go of so many man-made rules (here’s what you need to write; here is how you must promote your works; etc.) in order to escape the creative deserts they find themselves in.
There is something we need even more than highly skilled writers or writers who spend half their creative time gorging on social media. While those things may result in well-crafted or well-promoted works, they won’t necessarily lead to stories infused with life. Nor are they ever the foundation for your calling.
It’s more important for writers to take the time to understand the Creator’s motive for extending this immense gift to us. . . and to accept it. God’s primary desire is not that we create works about Him—or even for Him. It’s that we create with Him. His invitation is always toward intimacy.
God gave you this particular calling primarily because He enjoys spending time with you. It is something the two of you can do together. He gives other folks different callings—and speaks to them through those disciplines. You’ve been called to write. And whether your work ultimately reaches millions or is something that no one else ever sees, it first starts as a time of creative fellowship between you and God. When you grasp this, you will never write alone again.
It is the polar opposite of striving and “doing.” It is the art of presence and “being.” And it is the foundation that changes everything.
Lindy: How can we writers maintain a balance of being in this world but not of this world? Don’t we have to pay attention to publishing trends? Isn’t that part of taking our writing seriously?
Allen: After two decades in Christian publishing, I’m convinced the goal isn’t to maintain balance but rather to live a wildly unbalanced life for the things that God calls you to pursue.
When you focus on publishing trends, you become—by nature—reactive rather than proactive. Instead of pursuing the stories God has stirred in your heart, you pursue what you think the market wants. The question is “why” we are drawn to industry trends. Is it to run after something already working in the marketplace because that feels like a more sure way to finally make it than if you wrote the story God has placed on your heart? The lie there is that it’s all up to you to figure it out. It’s creating as an orphan rather than as a son or daughter of God. And, yes, it’s striving.
If that’s not enough, here’s more. You’ll always be behind what is happening in the marketplace. Industry experts can tell you what they are looking for today, but by the time you write it and it hits the marketplace, they’ll be looking for the next new thing. And even if you do crank it out, you won’t be writing from a place of true passion . . . or your unique gifting. You’ll just be making a pale imitation of someone else’s stories.
Taking our writing seriously means first taking our calling seriously. And at its core our calling is an invitation into intimacy with God. What the world needs most is the warmth from the glow off the face of those who spend time with God. It’s the difference in a storyteller who sits around a small campfire telling small stories and a storyteller whose face is glowing so brightly she doesn’t need a campfire to warm the souls of those listening.
By the way, we don’t need to sound more like the world in order to reach the world. The goal isn’t to see what’s hot in the secular world, delete the gratuitous elements, and then add a Christian veneer to it. Instead, we need to create something so utterly original that the secular world tries to figure out how to make a more gratuitous copy of what we’ve created from our fellowship with God.
Rather than looking in your rearview mirror, lead the charge up the hill with the stories God has given you. Instead of chasing trends, set them as you create what God has uniquely given you to write.
Lindy: How does resting in Him help? Is giving God the reins passive, giving up?
Allen: Creating with God is like surfing. The only way to catch a big wave is to wait for it. Yes, waiting can feel passive—especially when the clock is ticking and you’re trying to hit a word count for the day.
But surfers know waiting on a wave is the opposite of passive. You have your board. You are suited up. In the water, board in hand, actively watching. It is the perfect mix of faith and action.
But we can’t create the wave. Oh, we try. But all we can muster is a small splash. That might look pretty good in the baby pool, but it doesn’t count for much in the ocean. We must learn how to wait on waves created by God . . . to follow the rhythm and the timing of God. What’s really cool over time is how the rhythm of our heart will synch with His divine rhythm.
Writing with God isn’t about intuition, knowing the process, or learning more tips and techniques. In fact, if you find yourself feeling more self-reliant because you “have this thing down,” that’s a big red flag. God’s ways are almost always counterintuitive to popular advice or how you did it last time. God offers Himself over formula.
Our job is to watch and be ready. To follow what He sets in motion. That’s why Jesus’ first words to His disciples were “Follow Me” and why we’re known today as His “followers.” Even in the creative process, we don’t decide on our own where to go or when. We wait for His wave.
Once you accept that you can’t make the wave happen, it becomes easy to rest in Him. Then when God creates the wave, you ride and enjoy it. And you rest because you know this experience isn’t something that started with you or is up to you.
Lindy: Thank you for this powerful reminder that our Creator, who gave us our calling, longs to be close to us. We look forward to hearing even more at summer conference in August, Allen!