Katherine and I met at the Boston writing center, Grub Street. She captivated me when she told me about her book project, GRACE WITHOUT GOD: THE SEARCH FOR MEANING, PURPOSE, AND BELONGING IN A SECULAR AGE. Katherine spent three years observing, researching, and writing about the twenty-five percent of Americans who are “Nones”—the term sociologists use to describe the religiously unaffiliated. Her book tells the story of the many ways the so-called Nones are creating new approaches to ethics, culture, community, and ritual and how these changes are affecting the fabric of American life.
As an author who uses religion in her own writing yet has complicated relationship with organized religion, I was fascinated by how Katherine could talk about the idea of finding grace in such a down-to-earth, accessible way. I asked her to write about her experience writing her nonfiction book for the Deb Ball. I think her essay will be inspiring to everyone who is attempting a big project and fears her or his own limitations. Please welcome Katherine.
If you haven’t already, pick up a copy, or RETWEET/SHARE this post to enter to win one! (US only; details below.)
This month my first book, GRACE WITHOUT GOD: THE SEARCH FOR MEANING, PURPOSE, AND BELONGING IN A SECULAR AGE, was published by my wonderful publisher HarperWave. I’m thrilled that my book is coming out, in large part because I never believed I could finish it.
There were the normal logistical hurdles most writers face: things like raising kids, moving to a new city, other work responsibilities, and that steady drumbeat of modern-day busy-ness with which we are all too familiar.
But there was also something else. I was writing a book about religion, one of the biggest, most complex topics in the history of the world—and one I had never formally studied. And I was trying to capture a huge societal change, which many researchers, demographers, and journalists were penning their own articles and studies about every day. It didn’t take long for me to feel like I had gotten in over my head: Who was I to write about something so big, complex, and important?
I soothed my anxiety by hiding out in a thicket of dense books and articles. I checked out academic tomes from the library, downloaded social science articles from the Internet, and watched obscure lectures on YouTube, staying up late into the night until my eyes burned and I had to turn off the light.
My research soon became a vicious cycle. The more books I checked out, the more books I learned about (damn bibliographies!), propelling me on a never-ending loop to and from the library as I buried myself further and further in the thoughts of others. In addition to all that reading, I was also traveling to interview people so I could write about their stories of religious loss. In this way too, I was letting the reporting subsume me. At one point my young daughter said earnestly as I tucked her into bed, “Maybe you could finish your book faster if you stopped going to so many places and talking to so many people.” Truer words had never been spoken. Research and reporting were certainly important aspects of my book, but I couldn’t keep living like this. My editor needed a draft. I had to start writing. And that’s when I really lost my way.
There’s a saying that writing a book is like driving in the fog with your headlights on. You can see only a few feet in front of you, but you can make the whole trip that way. Often after a day of being stuck in my writing, I would lie awake at night thinking cynically, You could also drive yourself into a tree and total your car.
I had learned so much, but I still felt I knew so little. I became certain that I needed a degree from divinity school, a three-month sabbatical at a lush writers’ retreat, classes in everything from Scrivener to Reporting 101 to get those 90,000 words onto the page. The feelings of doubt and uncertainty were so great that I often thought I should quit writing, return my advance, and find another vocation. Thank goodness for my husband, who propped me up more times than I can count with his blend of pragmatic philosophy (Worry only about the process, not the product) and Crossfit-style commands (Don’t talk. Don’t think. Just do it.). And thank goodness for the other helpers along the way—the thoughtful and talented writers, editors, friends, and family members who read drafts, suggested people to interview, and emailed articles they thought relevant. With each small expression of kindness, enthusiasm, and support, I gained a little bit of courage.
The more I engaged with people about what I was trying to write about, the more I realized that no one was looking for a compendium of religious history from the past 2000 years—at least not from me. What a relief to stop checking out books from the library and start cutting huge chunks of block quotes from my manuscript! I could write something that moved me, that spoke to me, that came from me—and hopefully it would move others in turn. Wasn’t that the point of writing a book after all?
And so I dug in and wrote my way through the fog by putting tight parameters around my narrative and plunging deep into the narrow space I’d created. My book would not be a sweeping history of religion. It would be made up of smaller stories, which, taken together, would speak to something larger. I would synthesize highlights of all the books that I had read and all the people that I had met. But my own voice, not a mishmash of others, would light the way.
I read a beautiful quote in an article recently: “Artists remove themselves in order to return.” I now see that all the time I spent so deep in research and reporting was hard but necessary. I had to leave myself to figure out what I believed and valued. I was on a journey, not only to examine the broader subject of religious loss for the book I was writing, but also to learn something deeper about myself. Maybe that’s why the process was so difficult for me. It wasn’t the enormity of my topic that was getting in the way of the story. It was me not believing I could tell it.
GIVEAWAY: RETWEET on Twitter, and/or SHARE on Facebook by noon (EST) Friday, July 1st to win a copy of GRACE WITHOUT GOD: THE SEARCH FOR MEANING, PURPOSE, AND BELONGING IN A SECULAR AGE (US only). We’ll select and contact the winner on Friday. Good luck!
Katherine Ozment is the author of GRACE WITHOUT GOD: THE SEARCH FOR MEANING, PURPOSE, AND BELONGING IN A SECULAR AGE (HarperWave). She is an award-winning journalist who has worked in publishing for more than twenty-five years, including as a senior editor at National Geographic. Her essays and articles have been widely published in such venues as National Geographic, The New York Times, and Salon. Born in Arkansas, she has lived on both coasts and now resides with her husband and three children in Chicago.
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