A Writing Coach in Your Head

When I was in high school, my best friend – Kathleen – yearned to be a nun. Not just any nun, mind you. She was going to be a hermit nun. And because we were best friends, we did what teenagers do constantly (talk). I learned a lot about some strange religious orders in the Catholic Church – the Carthusians and Camaldolese, who live a hermit life.

And – inevitably – I read Kathleen’s favorite author, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. (She never did become a nun, by the way, and ended up converting to Judaism. Interesting woman. I wish you could have met her! Sadly, she died too young.)

Merton was a beacon for spiritually minded readers in the 1960s (when I was in high school) – and in the 1970s, and the 1980s, and…you get the idea. His most popular book, The Seven Storey Mountain, is still selling well.

I am sorry to tell you that I was bored by The Seven Storey Mountain, and…truth to tell…I’ve always found Merton unreadable. Well, mostly unreadable. When he climbed down from that damn mountain to write about the realities of monastic life, he was wonderful. Sadly, he didn’t do it often enough.

One of his best essays was written to satisfy readers’ curiosity about what a monastery is like. It’s a challenging topic, when you think about it: lots and lots of description – which is usually boring to read. (I often skip the descriptive sentences and paragraphs in books, and I bet you sometimes do that too.)

Merton’s solution was turn the description into a story. (Often the best solution to any writing problem is to turn the task into a story!). Every monk had to take a shift as a night watchman, checking the entire monastery for potential fires. So, one night, Merton took his readers with him.

As he walked through the sleeping monastery, he recorded what he saw – and his thoughts – all in the context of the danger spots for fires (there are lots of candles in a monastery!). You get a feeling for what it’s like to live in a monastery.

Here’s my point. There’s more to writing than thesis statements, transitions, and sentence structure. It’s about being interesting. It’s about life.

And here’s another point. If you’re a voracious reader, you have an expert writing coach living inside your head.

Here’s what I mean. There’s a marvelous book about a female monastery (of nuns): A Right to Be Merry by Mother Mary Francis. I would wager (if it’s okay to make a bet about a nun) that she read Thomas Merton the way my friend Kathleen did – voraciously.

And so she borrowed Merton’s idea of taking her readers on a tour through her monastery – and did it better. You don’t think a book about a monastery can be fun to read? Try A Right to Be Merry.

Her tour is a procession of nuns through the monastery two days before Christmas. So not only do you visit (through words) the various parts of the monastery – you see the nuns happily preparing for Christmas.

Here’s a project for you. Go to the shelves where you store your favorite books. You know them well already, right? I want you to read them again – from a different angle. As you’re reading, ask yourself what problems the authors faced as they were writing. How did they solve them? And – most important – what strategies can you use yourself?

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