writing from faith & life: tips for the artist’s personal essay


Today we joined Leadership Education at Duke Divinity in Durham, NC in “Writing from Your Life of Faith,” with Sally Hicks, Editor of Faith and Leadership and manager of the publication’s Twitter account.  For many years, Hicks was a newspaper reporter and journalist who did her trench writing amidst endless looming deadlines.  She found writing group critiques as effective vehicles for personal journalism prior to becoming an editor.

The session was monitored by the Rev. Nathan E. Kirkpatrick, Managing Director, Alban at Duke Divinity School.  Hicks asked participants to read two personal essay works for comparison and contrast in advance of the session, both works were heavily quoted as examples in getting to the heart of a story.

The Secret by Kate Bowler

How my grandmother’s story helped me lead as an African-American woman by Debora Jackson

Writing was presented as an essential element and act of leadership and faith.  Through writing we handle change and conflict.  We find ways to express deep longing and need. We are able to find resolution and reflection.   Here are Ms. Hicks’ key points for personal essay writing from faith:

Make a single point well.

Stay sharply focused for essays of 1,000 words.  Identify the main idea with an attention-getting focus.  Have a clear vision and a clear writing style to keep the reader engaged.  Where is your beginning?  What are you motivated by?  Are you trying to make a point or is there some other intent?  Is the story you are trying to tell more than an anecdote?  Where is the point of change or what has occurred that you wish to relate?  Engage readers on a human level.  Note who your actors are, what your illustrations are.  Commonalities exist between a sermon and a personal essay.  The sermon usually emanates from scriptural text, preached to a similar weekly audience, less likely to be generated from personal experience.

Write in your own voice.

The key to the personal essay is that it is personal.  Write in the first person, from your own life.  The personal is the universal.  A personal and unique story touches an audience.  Consider in what way the stories of your life bear witness to the ongoing development of art or faith in your world.  By doing so, we equip readers to gauge their own growth.  Often, the honest and searing truth of reality is more effective and less self-indulgent than we might think.  On Writing Well was cited as a useful reference.  Speak about yourself in a manner that is not abstract or theoretical.  Use author Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir  tips for carnal detailing and uniqueness in bringing stories to life.  Claim your own voice by establishing an element of authority by giving a reader a reason to trust you and believe you know what you’re talking about.  Write humbly, mitigate tone, share your own breathiness.

Leadership literature From Good to Great was also cited.  Humor and self-deprecation are effective tools for socially relevant works.  Stories do not need to be dramatic to be worth telling.  For example, nature writers find the work of God in a single leaf unfolding.  Think about your definition of a powerful or important stories.  Is childbirth any less significant than war? In balancing humor, snarkiness, and sarcasm, Karr was quoted as saying, “Make sure you’re harder on yourself than anyone else in your story.”  Hicks recommends having the confidence to know that if you are personally interested in a story, it is likely that there is something there.  She calls this “faith” in pushing ahead, hopefully with a good editor in your back pocket.  As to timeline in reflecting when there has been enough passage of time to tell a story that impacts others’ lives, one must consider priorities and boundaries.

Karr allows her real-life characters some agency in choosing their own pseudonyms or composites.  Be aware of sensitivities.  Edit your personal details to deflect and obfuscate individual identities where prudent.  Your editor is your collaborator in publishing the best work possible for the publication, always read the publication, seek out the publication style guidelines and read them if you want to write.  Perfect your query pitch as a short and sweet introduction to you and your idea, exemplary of your writing.

Polish for publication.

Turn in clean copy.  Check for typos and grammatical matters.  Errors happen.  Watch for them.  As a rule, don’t present something as true that is not.  Watch your fact-massaging as standard ethical practice.  Fact check.  Print out a hard copy to affirm individual statements, especially in an era of misinformation.  Write to length, writing something short is actually harder than writing something long.  Writing too long is asking an editor to do your work for you.  Write to deadlines as basic professionalism.  Communicate appropriately for submission of unsolicited pieces or pitches.  Wait before bugging editors.  Once you have an assignment, stay in reasonable touch with an editor if you have questions or if there is some focus change.  One’s writing voice develops consistently as one writes.

Faith and Leadership looks for works that help practitioners of faith do their jobs well.   Writing classes and workshops with peer writers and leaders can afford feedback for developing writers.  What’s most important is attentiveness, slowing down, being open to experiences, having an attitude of prayer, recognizing connections, and looking for the unexpected.  Have an imagination for what’s already happening around you.  Use writing as a cathartic way to process experiences that are difficult to let go, Hicks recommends blurting out a first draft without editing too early in your thought process.

Lisa Saint (2011)

A recording is available here or copying this link into your internet browser — https://dukeuniversity.webex.com/dukeuniversity/ldr.php?RCID=dd3cf34421f2515ec4ac828939792636

Sally Hicks can be reached by email at hicks@div.duke.edu or Nathan Kirkpatrick at nek@duke.edu.

Shauna Lee Lange is the founder of The Art Evangelist, a full-service Liturgical Art Advisory specializing in sacred spaces, public places, and creative placemaking.  941.875.5190