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On Writing Spiritual Nonfiction: an Interview with Essayist Jon Malesic

by Writing Workshops Staff

6 months ago

On Writing Spiritual Nonfiction: an Interview with Essayist Jon Malesic

by Writing Workshops Staff

6 months ago

We're excited to have an interview with Jonathan Malesic, an accomplished essayist, journalist, and scholar whose notable works have graced the pages of publications like the New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post. Jonathan shares insights into his upcoming 8-week course, Writing Spiritual Nonfiction, which presents a unique opportunity to explore the intricacies of conveying spirituality through the art of nonfiction.

In this class, participants will delve into classic and contemporary spiritual nonfiction, ranging from St. Augustine to Meghan O'Gieblyn. Jonathan's course focuses on the craft of self-representation, narrative structure, and the challenge of conveying the intangible aspects of spirituality. Regardless of your personal beliefs, this class aims to enhance your ability to write insightful and engaging essays on matters of faith and spirituality. Join us for a journey into the world of spiritual nonfiction with an instructor who brings a wealth of experience to guide writers in exploring this deeply meaningful genre.

WW: In your course, you guide students in writing about spirituality, a topic often considered deeply personal and sometimes abstract. What strategies do you recommend to writers for effectively translating such intimate and elusive subjects into compelling nonfiction narratives?

JM: The first duty of any writer of nonfiction is to tell the truth. Ideally, every factual claim in a piece of nonfiction will be verifiably true. That ideal, of course, is usually impossible to reach, but we need to do our best. The challenge in writing spiritual nonfiction is that part of what we’re writing about is not verifiable the way the events of a football game are. Religion often involves relationships with beings that can’t be seen. And a fact-checker has no access to your thoughts, sensations, or emotions.

The strategy to write a good essay about these experiences is to anchor them in the elements of narrative: character, setting, conflict, plot, dialog, and so on. I don’t see bright lines separating various nonfiction subgenres. “Creative nonfiction” and “narrative journalism” are not easily distinguishable. Nonfiction that’s well grounded in fact and good storytelling will be successful, no matter the subject matter. If you prove to readers that they can trust you to describe a forest, they’ll be ready to trust you to describe a religious experience that only you have access to.

WW: You point out that the class is suitable for those who are religious, spiritual, or neither. How do you approach the topic of spirituality in a way that is inclusive and engaging for writers with diverse beliefs and backgrounds?

JM: One way is via the prompts I use for writing exercises. I don’t ask, “Write a scene about a time when you felt God’s presence in your life.” That sort of question loads the dice too much in favor of specific types of spirituality. Rather, one of the first prompts is, “Write a brief scene pertaining to religious life (yours or other people’s). Use concrete sensory details to bring the reader into the scene, and then pull back from the scene so you can a bigger point.” If a student wants to write about God’s presence in their life, they can. But they can interpret the exercise however they like.

Another way is through the essays I assign as models for good nonfiction about religion and spirituality. Some of the essays in the class arise from traditional piety; others don’t. I have tried to assign authors who engage with a broad range of religious and spiritual traditions, but it is difficult to cover all possibilities, simply because the literary marketplace has not yet caught up with the full range of religious diversity in North America. There are so many stories about religion still to be published. I hope some students in the class will tell them.

WW: How has your own spiritual journey or personal experiences influenced your approach to teaching and writing about spiritual matters? Can you share an example of how your personal insights have shaped a lesson or module in this course?

JM: I tend to intellectualize my own spiritual life; it’s just how I am. I went to graduate school for religious studies, and I eventually taught theology at a college for 11 years. One of the foundational things I learned and then tried to teach was that a religion is like a language. It has a set of symbols, actions, texts, and beliefs that make possible a nearly-infinite range of experiences and meanings. Just as you can only really experience ennui in French, you can only experience dukkha in Buddhism.

In one lesson in the course, I try to get students to look for the grammatical elements within a doctrine or ritual and then write a scene involving those elements. It’s an exercise that aims to get students thinking about their audience: How much explanation will readers need? How will someone who’s new to this ritual see it? How will someone who grew up with it?

WW: For someone who is just beginning to explore writing spiritual nonfiction, what foundational advice would you offer? Are there common pitfalls or misconceptions about this genre that beginners should be mindful of as they start their writing journey?

JM: I think the biggest misconception is that writing about spirituality needs to be pious. Piety is one way to take religion seriously, but it isn’t the only way. Jeff Sharlet isn’t pious. In fact, he often writes about the religious lives of people he sees as dangerous both to him personally and to the country. But he’s not disdainful; he takes his subjects seriously, with a strong desire to understand them. Sharlet arguably takes religion more seriously than some traditionally pious writers do.

In a way, there isn’t anything special about religion-focused nonfiction and other sorts of nonfiction. Good nonfiction writing about religion and spirituality does the same things that good nonfiction about any other aspect of human life does: It tells the truth about the world in an engaging way.

WW: Given your extensive background in writing and researching spiritual topics, how have you observed the genre of spiritual nonfiction evolving over the years? What contemporary trends or shifts do you think are particularly important for new writers in this field to be aware of?

JM: I hesitate to make bold pronouncements about publishing trends, because the publishing landscape can change so quickly in the digital age. Maybe that itself is the biggest trend: Readers and writers have access to so many venues that it’s hard to say, “This is what is/isn’t being published right now.” I’m confident that good writing can find a home whether or not it’s “on trend.”

Even as North American societies are becoming more secular, there is plenty of appetite for writing about religion and spirituality, whether in publications that publish from a specific faith perspective or not. Secularism means, in part, that you can’t take for granted that readers of mainstream newspapers, magazines, and journals will understand even quite common religious beliefs and practices. They need to be informed through good reporting and storytelling. That’s an opportunity for people with a knack for writing about religion to perform a public service.

WW: The course description mentions the use of classic and contemporary spiritual nonfiction, as well as works of craft and criticism. How do you balance these different types of reading materials, and what role do they play in developing a writer's skill in the genre?

JM: A major unstated goal of the course is to help a student “read like a writer.” (Though I guess I just stated it!) A writer needs to read widely, but more than that, they’ll really begin to develop once they start reading with an eye to how a piece of writing was constructed. In nonfiction, that includes thinking about how the author gathered the facts of the story they’re telling. It also includes thinking about the intended audience. St. Augustine’s audience is not the same as James Baldwin’s audience of New Yorker readers in the 1960s, and neither is the same as the readers of Patricia Lockwood’s London Review of Books essay on meeting the pope. Critics help us understand the effect a writer’s choices have on audiences, including audiences the writer never intended, but who have every right to read anything published.

All of this reading exercise will eventually create a secondary mindset that’s indispensable for a writer. You’re reading along, but your mind is simultaneously running on a second track, picturing the author’s research process or considering alternative word choices or thinking about what the author would do with a larger or smaller word budget. It’s a curse, really. But this curse is essential to being a writer. It allows you to understand what you’re doing and serve your readers so much better.

WW: Your newest book, "The End of Burnout," has been influential in its own right. Has the process of writing and researching for this book influenced your approach to teaching and mentoring writers, especially in the context of this spiritually-focused nonfiction course?

JM: I think you learn something any time you work on a project that’s different from what you’ve done before, or when you work with a new editor or a new critique group. For this book, the challenge was to express ideas that I had developed during my academic career in a format that would appeal to a broader audience. I did so by connecting those ideas to narratives wherever possible.

In the book, I also drew on my interest in religion and theology to analyze the problem of burnout and propose large-scale solutions to it. Religious ideas helped us create a culture of overwork, but other religious ideas can help get us out. And religious communities like the Benedictine monks who live in a remote canyon in New Mexico can offer an alternative way to arrange our lives around something other than work. To show how they can do that, I needed to see the monks’ lives up close.

You can learn more about Jonathan's upcoming Writing Spiritual Nonfiction 8-Week Class, and enroll if you're interested. We would be honored to write with you this year! So, what are you waiting for? 

Instructor Jonathan Malesic is an essayist, journalist, and scholar whose writing has been recognized as notable in Best American Essays (2019, 2020, 2021, 2022) and Best American Food Writing (2020) and has received special mention in the Pushcart Prize anthology (2019). His work has appeared in the New York TimesThe New RepublicThe AtlanticWashington PostAmericaCommonwealNotre Dame MagazineThe Hedgehog ReviewThe PointChronicle of Higher Education, and elsewhere. He has been the recipient of major grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Louisville Institute. His first book, Secret Faith in the Public Square, won a ForeWord INDIES gold medal for the religion category (2009). His newest book, The End of Burnout, was named a Best Book of 2022 by Amazon and the Next Big Idea Club. It is being translated into nine languages. 

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