I recently listened to audiobooks of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option and How Dante Can Save Your Life. I was familiar with Rod’s blog, which I’ve followed off and on, but had never read any of his books. I was surprised at how much his writing moved me, especially with the Dante book.
Because I liked his style and was impressed at the scope of The Benedict Option (which David Brooks has called “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade”), I reached out to him on Twitter to see if I could ask him some questions about writing. He agreed and gave me his email address. Below is a Q&A based on our correspondence.
Grayson Pope: Based on the acknowledgments, it looks like The Benedict Option was the result of about a decade’s worth of writing, reading, and conversations. But how long did it take you to complete the manuscript once you sat down to write the first words?
Rod Dreher: I signed the book deal in January 2016, and completed the final version of the manuscript in late October. The process involved constantly working with the editor, submitting chapters, taking notes, rewriting, etc. The [manuscript] was locked in late October, but after Trump’s shock victory, we had to go back in and do some fast rewriting of parts of the politics chapter.
GP: How many hours in a typical workday do you spend writing? How many editing?
RD: I have a weird schedule, which is to say, no schedule at all. I work from home, and write around the errands I have to do for my wife and kids. I am not working on a book now, so my schedule is a lot looser than it would be were I at work on a book. I’d say, though, that I spent about 10 hours each day focused on writing. My job at the magazine doesn’t actually involve editing; “senior editor” is a courtesy title.
GP: You seem to have a knack for finding online sources. How do you curate and/or keep track of all the things you find online; do you have a system or just simply bookmark things for later?
RD: No system — I just bookmark things for later. Some stuff is sent to me by readers who know my interests. I also write about books that interest me. One great source of ideas for me: the Mars Hill Audio Journal.
GP: I’ve been unexpectedly moved by your writing. I’m now listening to your Dante audiobook. The introductory section covering what happened after publishing The Little Way shook me, and I found myself choking back tears during a morning walk. Did you learn to write like that or is it something that comes naturally? If it’s learned, which writers were most formative?
RD: Thanks so much for your kind words. My writing doesn’t need a lot of editing, I’ve found. I never edit anything on my blog before posting (for better or worse). Not sure why I can pull off smooth prose like that. I honestly can’t say to what extent I learned to write like that, and to what extent my natural gifts have been honed by lots and lots of practice. Probably more of the latter; blogging has been very good for me in that way, though I think that I would be well served if I had to do more disciplined writing under the yoke of an editor.
I think good writers have to first be (or at least also be) good readers. In general, I like reading the long-form journalism in the New Yorker. Tom Wolfe was also an early inspiration for me, as was Truman Capote. In all honesty, though, I have no method. I read very widely, and just sort of absorb it all. Sometimes people tell me, “You should teach writing sometime.” I wouldn’t last five minutes in front of a class. I genuinely don’t know how I do it. It sounds immodest, maybe, but I’m just being honest. Nobody has ever asked me these questions, so I haven’t had to think about it much.
GP: What one or two things do you wish writers would stop doing?
RD: What do I wish writers would stop doing? Writing hot takes. I’m guilty of this, because it’s my job. But it’s pretty terrible for developing the restraint needed to think about things before popping off. Similarly, I wish writers would lift their heads out of the trough of the present moment and look to the horizon, so to speak. I find that the older I get, the more reading history has to teach me about understanding how ephemeral our cultural moments are, but also how some of the changes that are happening now are REALLY BIG DEALS — but many contemporary writers are so temporally parochial, if you follow me, that they (we) don’t get it. Also, I wish writers would think twice about rushing to live in the same big cities, to join the same monoculture.
GP: What are the easiest and hardest things for you about being a writer?
RD: Easiest thing about being a writer? That I have managed, by the grace of God, to get to a place where that’s what I do as a living. I am acutely aware of how rare this is. I have no serious obstacles in front of me to living out my vocation. The hardest thing by a million miles is SELF-DISCIPLINE. You see that the two things are related, I trust. I have boundless energy for writing, but I am horrible about self-discipline. Just think what I could do if I could stay focused!
GP: What will writers need to know or do in the next 10 years to navigate the changing publishing landscape?
RD: That is an impossible question to answer, I’m afraid. Underline “afraid”. This is something I think about a lot. There is no security in this business. None. I’m in a very good place right now, but there’s no reason it should continue. I am always, always thinking about my next book, not so much as a creative project, but as an act of building a wall between my family and me, and our financial ruin. Does that sound overly dramatic? Maybe it is. But I have lived through four or five rounds of layoffs at newspapers in my career, and it’s scary as hell. I remember how my dad, who was a child of the Great Depression, never felt secure financially. I’m not that guy, but I’m on that spectrum.