Dancing on the Head of a Pen: book review

The enticing title, Dancing on the Head of a Pen: The Practice of a Writing Life by Robert Benson, drew me to request a review copy from Blogging for Books – a site that provides review copies of a variety of books in exchange for an honest assessment. Fortunately, that’s what I aim to provide, whether I’m discussing a new edition of the Bible or reviewing a traditionally published poetry book or a book about the writing life in general, as happens here.

Published by Waterbrook Press, this particular book also appealed to me because the author knows how to write! That might seem to be an obvious prerequisite, but I’ve discovered a new world of newbie writers who blog about writing and sometimes pass along assumptions, rather than reliable information. Conversely, Robert Benson has written many books and knows the in’s and out’s of writing and publishing. So, believe him when he says: “Most of the time, writing a book more closely resembles digging a ditch than participating in some transcendent creative experience.”

How we go about “digging” depends on what we dig. As Benson says, “Any of us – writer, designer, potter, painter, sculptor, architect, and on and on – wisely studies the habits practiced by the artists who inspire us in the first place. Those habits can guide us as we try to learn to do the work ourselves.”

For each of us, the work and surrounding habits will differ, not only from one another but also our own earlier selves as we experiment, pick up ideas, and find workable ways to write and continually improve our work. Most of us, though, will do well to heed Benson’s call to be quiet.

As he explains, “Solitude is likely necessary to be in touch with the things deep inside you. Silence may be required for you to hear what those things are saying to you. Do not be afraid to be quiet. Never be afraid to be alone./ Wandering around in wide-open spaces, especially spaces offered by a blank page, may be the key to making some art of those things found in the silence and the solitude.”

By now, you may be wondering if this book provides a devotional guide or tips on writing or suggestions for establishing your own routine or more than the sum of those parts, and to all, the answer is: Yes!

Once we’ve heard ourselves think enough to know what we’re to write next, we have to decide what type of writer we want to be. Like Benson, “I want to write. I may even need to write. But I want to be read as well.”

Knowing this about ourselves helps us to know whether we want to write for publication. If so, we need to have some type of reader in mind and some idea of whether anyone else might be interested in our chosen topic.

The author says, “When I begin to write a book, I ask myself some questions. Who do I think might read the writing I am about to do? Who do I expect to be interested in the stories I am trying to tell? Who do I hope will discover and enjoy and be moved by them?” And always, “Write for those you love.”

As Benson also says, “A writer has three jobs. Write the work. Make the work as good as possible. Find the work a home and a crowd of folks to love it.”

More than this, however, Robert Benson tells us, “I spend most of my time, metaphorically speaking, as a kind of explorer, out wandering around in the philosophical dark, lost in the spiritual words, searching for a deep something I often cannot even name, following trails leading to dead ends and darkness as often as not.” But then, “The spiritual life is not so much about answers as it is about better questions. Writing can be the same.”

©2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer, authored 26 books in all genres, primarily for Christian and educational markets, before writing the Christian Writer’s Guide e-book on Kindle.

Dancing on the Head of a Pen, hardcover

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