I go to a church where people occasionally stand (or remain sitting) and bring a prophetic word. And I suspect the inspiration they receive that prompts these outbursts may be of identical substance to the inspirations that seem to compel us writers to feel what people call “in the zone,” as if the words we write are coming from elsewhere.

I was having lunch with Charlie Gregg, a pastor and pastor’s kid. He’s witnessed probably thousands of what church folks call “words of knowledge” and also written plenty of sermons, devotions and stories. He agreed with my comparison and added, “I feel most convinced that the promptings are from God when I’m in worship.”

Perhaps that’s a universal experience. If so, and if we could all find a worshipful (or thankful or open-hearted) attitude to write within, we’d likely be more open to the spirit’s instructions.


Morty Sklar founded a publishing venture called The Spirit That Moves Us.

That’s the spirit I mean.

As most earnest writers would agree, we write because we have to. We get depressed when we don’t. Something tells us to write down what we see, feel or imagine. After we’ve followed that direction, something tells us, “Develop that more, you haven’t told the whole story.” When we ask, “What’s the whole story?” something says “You’re only going to learn that by telling it well.”

In the end, when we’ve created a story or poem or essay that seems to transcend what we know and what we intended and that teaches us something new, we probably feel closer to the joy God knows in creation than anybody other than creators can feel.

Maybe the something that urges and compels us is what we Christians call the Holy Spirit. If so, we should pay more attention to that advisor.

On, I read: “I’ve puzzled over a riddle for some time now. It goes like this: Those who call on Jesus for salvation are given the Holy Spirit. It’s through the Spirit’s power that we, simple jars of clay, are able to shine golden and do wonderful things beyond our human capability. So, why do Christians, who claim access to the original creator, so often produce poor art?”

One reason may be that Christians tend not to value their imaginations as much as they value order and discipline. Art can be messy.

I suspect most artists could get diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. But, at least in most cases, I wouldn’t consider that condition a disorder. I’d call it a blessing.

When I start to pray, after a few seconds, my mind drifts, and the prayer gets left behind. I’ve tried meditating. My mind refuses to shut down, or even relax. Now, “prayer warriors” and avid pursuers of meditation would no doubt assure me that practice would bring control over my wandering mind. But so far I haven’t felt God urging me to dedicate myself to lengthy prayers or daily meditation. I have, though, sensed him telling me to write most every day.

I suspect we artists were created to scatter more readily, to be more self-propelled than other folks, and to resist imposed structures. So, maybe our best road for inching or rushing closer to God is the same road that will lead us toward better paintings, songs or stories. Maybe, since God appears to have designed us to make art, we’ll never find peace or please God any other way.

Or maybe I’m nuts.

A selection from Writing and the Spirit, by Ken Kuhlken


A Masterpiece

Long ago, in Chico, California, I was with students in a taco shop after a creative writing class I taught at the state university a few blocks away.

A student, a black-haired beauty incongruously named Mord, said, “Writing is so hard, I wonder if it’s worth our time to maybe spend our whole lives writing stories and maybe not make any money with them.

“Why do you do it?” she asked.

“I have this dream,” I said, “that if I write enough stories and work hard enough, one of them will be a masterpiece.”

“Okay, but how will you know it’s a masterpiece?”

“Maybe I won’t,” I said. “But somebody who reads it might tell me it moved them to have a better life, or to see the world more clearly.”

Later, in Tucson, Arizona, Jonathon Penner, a writer and professor, asked, “How do you think we can draw the distinction between art and commercial or hack writing?”

I thought a while and said, “Beats me.” But over the years I’ve discovered a better response.

Art, I’ll contend, isn’t the creation but the process of giving all our powers to make a creation as superb and honest as we can. The creation may become what we call great art, good art, poor art, or lousy art. But art it is, if the creator gave it his or her all.

And our powers aren’t only about innate talent or developed skill, I’m convinced. The power we have, the one that can make our efforts transcend our talent and skill and birth a masterpiece, is the power to get inspired.

From Writing and the Spirit

Isaiah’s Rules for Writers (1)

In State of the Union, I suggested that Isaiah, in chapter 61, while prophesying the ministry of Jesus, may have also offered career advice to us writers.

Suppose he did, and suppose a writer who decides to follow the prophet’s advice chooses to start with the assignment “proclaim the good news to the poor.” Now the writer may ask, “What exactly does this mean to me?”

Let’s say she’s writing a novel. In the context of a novel proclaim could mean present by example in the life of a character. The content of the good news she proclaims could effect a change for the better in the character’s actions, situation, or attitude. Since the good news as a whole is way too broad of a theme for a single novel, this writer will need to ask herself exactly what element of the good news she feels most passionate about. Maybe she deeply values freedom. Perhaps freedom from fear, or greed, or lust, or vanity.

Basic knowledge about her novel’s main character and the good news she means to present can give her what is commonly called a story arc.

The story arc in the film Tender Mercies: Mac is a country singer whose life has fallen into ruins on account of guilt and alcohol. Then a woman’s love and faith help deliver him from overpowering guilt. His life rises out of the ruins. Here the good news of freedom from guilt is proclaimed in a simple story so well done it won five Oscars.

Suppose our writer wants to proclaim a piece of good news that Jesus offered during his Sermon on the Mount: the merciful are blessed because they will receive mercy. Say a character’s conflict is that she suffers under an abusive husband. Maybe she flees to protect herself and her children. Now the writer could imagine a dozen ways the character and her kids might get blessed with mercy. As soon as she picks one way (or more), she has a story arc.

Warning: the story arc isn’t a roadmap. It’s more of a compass, to consult when lost or unsure of the direction.

When a good ballplayer steps up to bat, she quits thinking about her swing and just swings. Likewise, a good writer stashes analysis and preconceptions in the back of her mind, then lets go and lets the story take on a life of its own.

In the Bleak Midwinter

My dad loved Christmas. He even raised poinsettias. I believe they were the only plants he ever raised. Whatever time he could squeeze during the season, he drove us around to wonder at vistas of lights, and to buy a thick and symmetrical tree. The presents he gave us were always thoughtful. Then he died, late one Christmas night long ago.

Perhaps his dying on Christmas is the reason my emotions reach deepest during each December, and why I have become something of an expert at minimizing the stress the season commonly delivers.

In case some advice might help writers and other driven and sensitive folks, I’ll note a few of the attitudes I find most helpful.

Most importantly, we ought to give up any idea of accomplishing much of anything during this month. Sure we can continue working, but without expectations. Because not only will shopping and entertaining or being entertained add to our normal workload, but old friends may drop in, home for the holidays or prompted by high or low spirits. If we let go of expectations and give the season over to appreciation of the best of what it can offer, by year’s end we might feel rejuvenated rather than wrung out.

Those of us who are physically capable ought to walk a lot, especially if we live in blizzard-free regions. Not only can walking relax us and burn calories, allowing us to feast with more abandon and to consume more seasonal goodies, it can also free us from traffic jams. Ever since I got stuck for an hour trying to leave a parking lot, I conclude my gift shopping with a morning’s walk to and from a mall about a mile away. The gifts I buy that day are small and light.

I begin shopping early by getting my groceries at Target. Not so much variety but who needs 500 brands of tomato sauce. And while there, I take a few minutes, wander away from the grocery section and browse an aisle or two for gifts.

Though I’m skeptical about what we call progress, shopping online is a treat. Let the UPS guy do the driving and parking. And if we care to do a bit for charity in the process, we can start from a link offered by our favorite non-profit, such as Perelandra College.

And Christmas songs can shift our perspective from any kind of woes toward more universal themes, if we go for the old hymn-like sort. Even if we’re not inclined toward the spiritual in general or toward Christianity in particular, the best of them are mellow and uplifting. My current favorites are The Roches version of “Unto Us A Child is Born” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Oh Holy Night”. Both available on Itunes.

And I’ll take the liberty of recommending my favorite Christmas poems, T.S. Elliot’s “Journey of the Magi” and “In the Bleak Midwinter” by Christina Rossetti, which has also been set to music. James Taylor did a lovely version, available on Amazon Mp3 and iTunes

If I can get an evening alone during the week before Christmas, I’ll light a fire and spend a couple hours in the living room, avoiding my computer and phone while I listen to whole of Handel’s “Messiah”.

And, since I’m both driven and forgetful, each day I remind myself not to expect to accomplish anything except to enjoy the season and embrace some gentle thoughts and good will.

Those employed (or self-employed) by a Scrooge should tell him or her to lighten up for a few weeks. If you get fired, move on.

And if you’re called to create a blog post, don’t kill a bunch of time revising. You might even want to re-post one from last years, as I have here.

May God bless us, one and all,


Okay, We’re Ransomed, Now What?

We Christ followers believe we were ransomed, bought out of imprisonment, and granted freedom.

So what does this mean to us writers (and by extension to every believer)?

I suspect the answer depends upon our level of gratitude. The casually grateful can, I suppose without much pang of conscience, proceed to follow the money, the acclaim, or whatever they prize. The moderately grateful are likely to now and then use their work in a way that honors the gift of freedom. And the radically, wholeheartedly grateful may echo the attitude of William Cowper when he wrote, “There is A Fountain Filled with Blood”, “Redeeming love has been my theme and shall be till I die.”

I know writers who profess to Christian faith yet whose work gives not a shred of corroborating evidence. No doubt part of the reason is, characters who act in ways Christ advocates are generally not very dramatic.

An early novel of mine features two sisters. One is beautiful in every way, thoughtful, gentle and giving, a lay sister with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. The other is prideful, impulsive, thoughtless, seductive but disloyal. I sent the manuscript to a friend who a successful writer friend. He suggested I get rid of the good sister. He loved the bad one.

Writing in honest accord with our beliefs is a challenge and a half, and it may become a liability if our goal is to prosper or even survive on our writing income.

Often I have felt the need to choose: either write something with which I hope to earn a big check, or work at a day job and write the stories I feel called to write.

“Feel called” is a tricky concept. If we choose to apply it, wisdom dictates we ask ourselves some tough questions, so many in fact I’ll leave the topic for now and pick it up again later.

For now, perhaps this poem by Billy Collins will inspire us with more wholehearted gratitude.

The One

The good news is, we are God’s art, called to acts of love and beauty.

The bad news (for us writers) is, contrary to legend, and with rare exceptions, we are obliged to actively promote our books.

Having some time ago added marketer to my vocations, by now I’ve concluded that I would rather become a rare exception. I mean, though I sometimes enjoy marketing, I prefer to write.

I’ve also concluded that the key to becoming an exception remains what it was fifty years ago: find the right agent (i.e. The One).


Ellie, a fine writer, won an unpublished novel contest. Though an agent took on the novel, it didn’t find a publisher. Her second novel didn’t find a publisher. When she completed the third novel, she self-published, took a marketing class, and developed an online book launch strategy. Among visitors to her book launch was a certain agent who appreciated her efforts and asked to see the book. She soon got Ellie a $2,000,000, two-book deal.

John had published several novels but wasn’t earning enough to support his family. He was with a good agent, but decided he needed to find a more effective one. After sending queries and finding interest, he flew to New York and interviewed several agents. The fellow he chose increased his annual income from $10,000 to over $1,000,000.

Not that signing with an agent assures fame and fortune. For a dose of reality, click here.

Or, consign reality to the shadows and trust that fame and fortune awaits if you: (Step 1) find an agent who adores your work, and who (Step 2) finds an editor who adores your work and who (Step 3) convinces the marketing department you are a cash cow.

Meanwhile, here’s a sound strategy: (Step 1) compose your very best work, (Step 2) revise with exceptional patience and extreme care, (Step 3) ask and answer, “Who needs my book? and (Step 4) seek, with all your spiritual and intellectual resources, ways to reach those readers and/or The One. Then, (Step 5 and so on) persevere with enthusiasm and prayer, as though your eternal reward depended upon it, whether or not it does.


i’m and artist and so are you

An Artist?

“We are God’s art, created in Christ Jesus to do works of beauty, which God has prepared in advance for us to do.” Ephesians 2:10

“So God created mankind in his own image… male and female…” Genesis 1:27.

We are made in the image of the master artist, the creator of all creation, to create works of beauty.

Though we may not be called to quit our day jobs, run off to Tahiti and paint our impressions of the islanders, we are meant to view our work and our lives from an artist’s perspective.

Whether our goal is to provide announcements for a church newsletter, to make of our home a refuge from the storm outside, to save stories and lessons from our lives, to create happiness by loving well, or to compose a novel or film masterpiece, we are called to approach those projects with attitudes guided by the motive of creating works of beauty.

John Keats, in “Ode On a Grecian Urn”, wrote “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all you know on earth, and all you need to know.”

Real beauty, whether in the eye of the creator or the beholder, is an expression of love.

Christ insists, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works [works of beauty] and glorify your father who is in heaven.”

We are created in the image of God so that we can make art of and through our lives so that our art can draw people to God. And because God is love, we can draw people to God by helping them love better, which is best accomplished by loving them better.

In my novel The Good Know Nothing detective Tom Hickey and his sister Florence, who works for evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, are on a road trip when she asks:

“Tommy, do you want to know why I fell for God?”


“It’s all your fault,” she said.

“How so?”

“See, when you really know love, when you find yourself being truly loved, you can’t help thanking God.”

A tiny sob issued out of her. Then she scooted closer and kissed her brother’s cheek. Tom sat speechless, wondering if his heart might explode.

Florence rode with her head on her brother’s shoulder. As distant headlights approached, she said, “The thing is, when you truly thank God, you sort of feel him smile. Then you fall for him. That’s all.”