Q&A with Rod Dreher on Writing

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.

On Being Uncompetitive and Running to Acquire a Void

I’ve always felt odd for not being competitive. I played sports growing up (baseball, golf, football, neighborhood basketball) but never really cared if I won or lost. Perhaps this is why, save for my four years in college, I haven’t been very passionate about watching sports, either.

This is a strange thing to articulate, though I’m not sure why. To admit being uncompetitive feels a bit un-American, or at least unusual. Thankfully, Haruki Murakami — an esteemed novelist and avid runner — explained his similar feelings in his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running:

“The thing is, I’m not much for team sports. That’s just the way I am. Whenever I play soccer or baseball — actually, since becoming an adult this is hardly ever — I never feel comfortable. Maybe it’s because I don’t have any brothers, but I could never get into the kind of games you play with others. I’m also not very good at one-on-one sports like tennis. I enjoy squash, but generally when it comes to a game against someone, the competitive aspects makes me uncomfortable. And when it comes to martial arts, too, you can count me out.

Don’t misunderstand me — I’m not totally uncompetitive. It’s just that for some reason I never cared all that much whether I beat others or lost to them. This sentiment remains pretty much unchanged after I grew up. It doesn’t matter what field you’re talking about — beating somebody else just doesn’t do it for me. I’m much more interested in whether I reach the goals that I set for myself, so in this sense long distance running is the perfect fit for a mindset like mine.”

I’m no long-distance runner like Murakami (he once ran 62 miles in one day), but I do try to run four miles four to five days a week. To some degree, my motive for running is the same; I want to accomplish my goal of hitting the mileage and pace I like.

But more than that, I run for mental and emotional health. I’ve found that running several days a week and walking the others (I go out the same time nearly every morning) keeps me from starting and continuing the day wracked with anxiety.

This is why I’m not interested in running with anyone. It’s nothing personal —it’s not that I don’t want to run with you — it’s that I don’t want to run with anyone because to do so would compromise the solitude needed for me to quell my anxious heart and mind. 

Here again, I resonate with Murakami:

“I’m the kind of person who likes to be by himself. To put a finer point on it, I’m the type of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone. I find spending an hour or two every day running alone, not speaking to anyone, as well as four or five hours alone at my desk, to be neither difficult nor boring.”

It’s not that I run to avoid people. I love spending time with my family and friends and others when I’ve had sufficient alone time. But unless I spend time alone, I’m nowhere near my best for communing with anyone.

My time alone must be filled with wandering thoughts and not thinking at all. Other than showering, running is the only activity in my life capable of producing that state of mind.

As I run, I don’t think of much of anything. Like Murakami, 

“I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void. … The thoughts that occur to me while I’m running are like clouds in the sky. Clouds of all different sizes. They come and they go.”

A shot of the sunrise on one of my Fall 2018 runs.

Bible Study Doesn’t Have to Be a Chore

Before I wrap up this mini-series on Appreciating the Bible, let me say a final word about Bible study (in case you missed a post, read part 1: Does Your Bible Look Like Brussels Sprouts or Dessert? | Part 2: What is the Bible? | Part 3: Who Wrote the Bible? | Part 4: Why Study the Bible?).

The temptation when reading or thinking about Bible study is to think of it as a chore or just another list of things you should be doing.

But Bible study doesn’t have to be a chore.

Rick Warren has said,

“Reading the Bible generates life, it produces change, it heals hurts, it builds character, it transforms circumstances, it imparts joy, it overcomes adversity, it defeats temptation, it infuses hope, it releases power, it cleanses the mind.”

When you’re Bible-reading is like that, it’s no longer a chore.

Once you have the tools to really read the Bible for yourself and you start to read it regularly, you’ll find this to be a reality in your life. You’ll find that you’re delighting in the Bible more and more, and it’s starting to taste sweeter than honey in your mouth.

That’s my prayer for you. That reading the Bible wouldn’t be a chore but a life-giving practice, so that you would be able to say for yourself, like the great reformer Martin Luther,

“The Bible is alive, it speaks to me, it has feet, it runs after me, it has hands, it lays hold [of] me.”

This is part 5 in the Appreciating the Bible series. Read part 1: Does Your Bible Look Like Brussels Sprouts or Dessert? | Part 2: What is the Bible? | Part 3: Who Wrote the Bible? | Part 4: Why Study the Bible?

Why Study the Bible?

OK, so God wrote the Bible. That makes it important. But why do we need to study it?

Often we come out of study groups saying, “That was a good Bible study.” But what do we actually mean by that?

Does it mean that we learned something or felt convicted at points? Or do we say this because our lives actually changed?

The Point of Bible Study

Good Bible study leads to transformation. It may not happen all at once, but we should be noticeably different because of our time with Scripture.

We’ve already looked briefly at Hebrews 4:12: “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

The Bible isn’t merely an inanimate object that we study and pull information from. It has a life of its own. It acts. It reads us; it pierces to the deepest parts of our being and discerns our motivations.

Since our God is a living God, his Word is alive, and he works through his Word to actively transform every part of our being.

Study the Word to Do the Word

James used striking imagery to highlight our need to be transformed by the Bible:

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.  

– James 1:22–25

James compared the process of studying the Bible to a man looking into a mirror. That’s because, just like a mirror, the Bible has the ability to reveal to you the truth about your condition.

First, he described a man who looks into the mirror, clearly sees the reflection, and then walks away without doing anything. This person is clearly foolish, but he also perfectly represents the way most Christians study the Bible. They read their Bibles, see the truth that demands transformation, then walk away as if nothing ever happened.

James contrasted this fool with the person who looks into the mirror and does something about what he sees. This person reads the Word of God, takes what he sees at face value, and then acts on it. James is clear that this person is the one who will be blessed in what he does.

Here’s why this matters: There is no reward for merely hearing the truth. That means Bible study is incomplete and illegitimate until it turns into obedience and transforms us.

The Key to Spiritual Growth

I remember the first time I was devastated by that reality. It was when I read James 1:18-19: “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that — and shudder.”

By the grace of God, the Bible has that power, which is why reading the Bible is key to spiritual transformation.

Every study I’ve ever read on spiritual growth has the same takeaway: reading the Bible is the number one catalyst for spiritual growth. Trying to grow in the Christian life without reading the Bible is like trying to drive a car without gas. You won’t get very far, and at some point, you just won’t go any farther.

Now, understanding why the Bible is crucial to spiritual growth may actually increase your hunger for it. I found this to be helpful for me.

Why the Bible is Key to Spiritual Growth

Let me explain by looking at the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of bones in Ezekiel 37. Ezekiel writes,

1 The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. 2 And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. 3 And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.”

– Ezekiel 37:1-4

Ezekiel knows he’s helpless to bring this bunch of skeletons to life. He says, “God, I don’t know, but you do.” Good answer!

God tells Ezekiel what it takes to bring the bones to life — his words.

Ezekiel then speaks the Word of God over those dry bones and the unthinkable happens:

And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them … So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.

– Ezekiel 37:8,10

God spoke and enfleshed those piles of bones, then breathed into them the breath of life — all through the power of his Word.

Hope for Spiritual Sacks of Bones

The Word of God is the only thing powerful enough to transform your heart.

That might not mean much to you right now, but one day you’re going to come to a place where you realize you’re not enough to change your life, your heart, your emotions, your children.

If you want to change, if you want to grow, if you want to become more like Christ, you have to read the Bible.

If you want to be transformed from a spiritual sack of bones into a tree that is planted by a stream and prospers in all that you do, you have to read the Bible.

This is part 4 in the Appreciating the Bible series.  Read part 1: Does Your Bible Look Like Brussels Sprouts or Dessert? | Part 2: What is the Bible? | Part 3: Who Wrote the Bible? | Part 4: Why Study the Bible? | Part 5: Bible Study Doesn’t Have to Be a Chore

The Mind-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

Tidying Up is one of the newest bingeable Netflix series featuring a calming host who visits people’s homes to help them “spark joy in the world through cleaning.”

This isn’t your run-of-the-mill home improvement show, though. In fact, it’s a breath of fresh air in the home and garden space. There’s no race against a clock, silly competition, or mention of home values (though there is plenty of clever editing to heighten the dramatic tension between guests). Just minutes into the show, you realize it’s not really a renovation show at all. It’s a show about the humans behind their stuff, something we could use more of in a world increasingly filled with Amazon Prime boxes.

But what’s most different about Tidying Up is its host, Marie Kondo, who radiates empathy and wields enormous influence. Kondo is a big deal. So big a deal, in fact, that her name is now a verb. With millions of book sales and untold millions watching her new show on Netflix, she has an outsized power to persuade hearts and minds.

In many ways, that influence isn’t a bad thing. But despite the good in Kondo’s show and books, her philosophy should give Christians pause.

The Mind-Blowing Success of Tidying Up

Kondo became famous following the release of her 2014 book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. The book sold 2 million copies and landed on the New York Times Bestseller list. In it, she details her tidying philosophy—”Start by discarding. Then organize your space, thoroughly, completely, in one go.”—which she calls the KonMari method. In 2016, she released a follow up titled Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up. Altogether, her books have now sold 11 million copies.

Her success seems due in large part to her approach. That’s certainly true with Tidying Up, where “the ostensible makeover at the heart of every episode simply involves regular people becoming happier and more at ease in their own homes. Kondo doesn’t scold, shame, or criticize” her clients, writes Sarah Archer for The Atlantic. And that’s true. Kondo never suggests remodeling a space or adding new paint. She simply moves from room to room, helping each area bring less stress and more joy to her clients.

Her tactics are genius. To help clients visualize how many clothes they own, for instance, she has them pile every article of clothing onto their beds. The mountain of threads confronts them with just how much stuff they own, and perhaps just how much their stuff owns them. Kondo’s unstated belief that most of us own far too much stuff resonates in a world where we’re all accumulating mountains of things.

But the KonMari method, for all its positive influences, has a major flaw.

When the Joy Doesn’t Spark

Central to Kondo’s method is the idea that we should only keep those things that “spark joy” in our hearts and minds. “Joy,” as she employs it, is more akin to happiness (a feeling) than true joy (a conscious choice). How do you decide which shirts to keep or which heirlooms to hold on to? According to Kondo, you consider them one at a time and ask yourself if the object sparks joy inside you. If so, keep it. If not, discard it. Simple.

But things get complicated when this philosophy is applied to non-material objects, like relationships. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up opens with testimonials from Kondo’s former clients. The first quote is from someone who (after pairing down, we assume) decided to quit their job and open their own business doing something they had dreamed of since being a child. That’s simple and inspirational enough. But things took a turn in the next testimonial:

“Your course taught me to see what I really need and what I don’t. So I got a divorce. Now I feel much happier.”

This person’s marriage wasn’t sparking joy, so they discarded it like an old pair of jeans. And why not, if your driving philosophy is based on what brings you happiness? The problem with making decisions based on what “sparks joy” is that this is a terrible way to live and is, in fact, an obstacle to a happy life for yourself and others.

How Not to Be Happy

The person that makes decisions and measures their self-worth based on happiness is destined to be unhappy. Happiness is a feeling, and feelings are, by definition, fleeting. To experience a feeling—happiness, sadness, anger, frustration, excitement—is to be in that emotional state for a finite period of time. Your feelings start and stop. They change as often as your circumstances. The search for happiness is a terrible guide to happiness because happiness itself is a moving target.

Your circumstances are largely out of your control, no matter how much control you think you have. We can never control our circumstances enough to ensure our happiness. Jobs are lost, loved ones die, people age, buses are late, coffee spills. The things that made us happy yesterday don’t make us happy today. The things we think will make us happy seldom do. And if they do, the happiness never lasts as long as we’d like.

Pursuing happiness above all else is not only unhelpful in the search for happiness, it’s also harmful to others. The person who makes decisions based solely on what “sparks joy” is a person who doesn’t consider others’ feelings or needs—a far cry from the call to count others more significant than ourselves (Phil. 2:3). This is evident in the person who left their marriage because it no longer made them happy. Basing our life on what brings us happiness crowds out the voices of those around us and makes personal pleasure our end game. But as we’ve seen, to search for happiness by only doing that which makes you happy simply won’t work.

Organization Won’t Lead to Transformation

If we’re not careful, we’ll find ourselves nodding to the idea of pairing down and cleaning up without realizing we’re saying yes to Kondo’s broader philosophy. Christians should approach Kondo’s books and show with a healthy amount of skepticism, just as they should when consuming any information or entertainment.

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world,” wrote the Apostle John (1 John 4:1). Christians must test the spirits they see on TV, in books, and in conversation. Take the good and leave the bad. This mentality is critical for being in the world but not of it.

So go ahead and take some organizational tips from Tidying Up, but don’t fall for the belief that cleaning is life-changing. Don’t mistake the organization of your stuff with the transformation of your heart. No amount of discarding, organizing, and folding can change the human heart. Only God’s Word can do that.