Being Good Stewards of Our Gifts: Advice for Writers and the Writing We Do

I just got back from Vermont yesterday, which explains the lateness of this weekly post. I was teaching at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference along with many of my favorite colleagues. (By the way, this conference, at least to my way of thinking, is one of the very best.) This morning, one of those colleagues, Dinty Moore, posted this quote from Jane Kenyon: “Be a good steward of your gifts. Protect your time. Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise. Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as you can. Walk.” This quote really resonates with me, particularly here on the cusp of a new school year, and I thought I’d spend some time talking about it in case it also resonates with some of you.

“Be a good steward of your gifts.” We all have our talents, and we should make sure we’re managing them in a way that allows their fullest expression. For those of us who write prose, we might also think about being a good steward of our characters’ gifts. What makes each of them unique? What special talent or gift does each of them have, or at least think they have? Good stories can come from paying attention to what a character does well or believes they do well.

“Protect your time.” This has been an important precept for me throughout my writing life. I need to have that block of time, nearly daily, in which to write. It is, I say without shame, a spiritual time for me, a time during which I can commune with my characters and the stories they’re weaving. I’ve found it’s easier to protect my time by being regular in my habits. Of course, I don’t always succeed, but I try my best to be at my writing desk at the same time, day by day. A regular writing schedule creates more and better work simply by the repetition of your practice. Your characters want to protect their time, too. Think about what threatens their time. Use that in the plot of your stories.

“Feed your inner life.” We need to know what sustains us in those times when we’re not taking satisfaction from the art of writing. For me, it’s reading, exercising, teaching, watching interesting movies, spending time with my wife and our friends, going out into the country. All of these things feed my writing. Each activity is a productive one when it comes to what I carry back into my writing room. What do your characters do to feed their inner lives? What happens if one of those activities is taken away from them?

“Avoid too much noise.” God knows, noise is all around us these days. Noise from social media, noise from the news, noise from politics, noise from texts, noise from emails, noise from our own insecurities and fears. It gets hard to hear oneself think. It gets hard to stand in quiet observation of the world and its peoples. It gets hard to consider the inner life. We all need more silence, more time for exploration and contemplation. What are the noises in your characters’ lives? What do they do on those rare moments when they have quiet? Try writing a scene that has something to do with silence.

“Read good books, have good sentences in your ears.” This should go without saying. How many of us became writers because of the good sentences we picked up from our reading? I know one of the reasons I became a writer was because I heard the sounds of good sentences, and I wanted to answer with some of my own.  What are the good sounds in your characters ears? Do they come from music, birdsong, machinery, water, etc.? Again, what happens if something or someone threatens those sounds?

“Be by yourself as often as you can.” This is an easy one for an only child like me. I grew up having to be by myself a lot. I grew used to solitude, so much so that I still value it. It’s not that I want to be a hermit. I love social interaction. I love being with the people I love. Still, I refresh my energy from my times alone. When I’m alone, I’m more able to think, more able to contemplate, more able to imagine. What do your characters do when they’re alone? What do you learn about them in those alone times that you can’t know when they’re with other people?

“Walk.” I’ve already made mention of the role of exercise in my writing life. I run five miles every other day. On the in-between days, I work with weights, but it’s the running that really connects to my writing. As I run, I slip into my subconscious from where I can more easily access the dream world. I dream my characters’ lives. I hear what they say. I see what they might do. I hear lines of narration.  What physical activity does the same for you? What exercise do your characters engage in, or dream of doing? How can physical movement figure in your plots?

So there you have it: a quote that contains so much good advice, not only for our living, but also for our writing lives and the actual writing we do. Keep doing the good work.

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