[Editor’s note: A few weeks ago, Lancia E. Smith at The Cultivating Project shared an in-depth interview with author Ben Palpant about his new book, Letters from the Mountain. We enjoyed it so much that we’re sharing it in its entirety here, with Cultivating’s permission. We hope that Lancia & Ben’s conversation inspires you in your own creative work, and if you find yourself wanting to hear more from Ben, you can find Letters from the Mountain in the Rabbit Room Store.]
Ben Palpant is the author of a beautiful new book written for writers and for all those who labour to create art. While written to his own daughter, Letters from the Mountain could just as easily have been written to any one of us. The language throughout this book is kindhearted and careful, but it is also brave. It openly names the dangers and challenges we face as we labour to be faithful in our calling. Ben’s previous works bear this same signature of finely crafted words that inspire, reveal, encourage, and commune. Letters from the Mountain will be referred to countless times by those looking for guidance and a kindly light cast on the sometimes dark and hard paths we follow. This interview gives you a glimpse of the man behind the book. We are honoured to share it with you.
Happy reading and many blessings to you!
Lancia E. Smith: Ben, over the past few years you’ve written several volumes of work in the genres of poetry and memoir, including one that I have particularly loved—A Small Cup of Light. You also authored and created a writer’s journal (in two versions) that can be used alongside your newest release, Letters from the Mountain, a memoir of writing craft and the pursuit of living well. Was there a genesis incident that sparked the idea for Letters, or did it begin to emerge more as ideas persistently bubbling up?
Ben Palpant: Everything else I’ve written has had a genesis moment, some idea that knocked on my heart louder than the rest. This one was unique in that I didn’t write it originally as a book, but as letters to my daughter. It was just a matter of practicality, really. She went off to college and we still had stuff to talk about. She’d email me her questions about creativity and faith or she’d call me on the phone and off I’d go with a long-winded response. After quite a while, I started wondering if these exchanges would be helpful to my former students or others who wrestle with the same questions I do, so I started compiling them into topics more formally. To be honest, this book started out as an uncompiled collection of random thoughts in the style of Pascal’s Pensées. Since I’m not nearly as profound as Pascal, it was just a frustrating experience for early manuscript readers. Good editors set me straight.
Thinking back on this, I can say that this book is actually the continuation of a life-long conversation that started when my daughter was tiny. As I recount in the book, I caught her scrawling on a shiny blue rental car when she was three years old. When I snatched her up and gave her a fatherly exhortation, she was genuinely surprised. Her beautiful big eyes brimmed with tears and she said, “But Daddy, I was just painting a pretty picture.” I knew then and there that she was going to need some help channeling her creativity. It was certainly one of those moments (and I had many of them) when I realized that telling her to stop wasn’t a satisfactory answer to creativity’s impulse—an impulse God gave to her. What’s more, she’s always been very observant, and she’s always asked questions of me that required some thought. Since I was growing into the writer’s life right in front of her, she watched me and asked me questions. And now, twenty plus years later, those conversations have been published so she can access them anytime and, Lord willing, give them to her kids someday when I’m not around to talk about these things in person. That’s the hope anyway.
LES: Letters from the Mountain is an especially beautiful edition with lovely paper, cover design (with French flaps) a delightful design layout, and fabulous font use. It is so compelling aesthetically that it makes this paperback edition more desirable than many hardcopy books ever are. As I understand it, you designed the book as well as wrote it. You also designed both versions of your journals for writers and the book Honey from the Lion’s Mouth. It is not common practice for an author to design their books as well as write them. Would you tell us about designing your books and what has drawn you to that? How does that activity influence the way you see the final product of your writing work?
BP: Rabbit Room Press has always impressed me by their intentional pursuit of beauty, from content to design, so I was honored when they asked me to design the inside and outside of the book. What a rare opportunity for an author. I think many authors care about what their book looks like and feels like (as they should), but not many get to do anything about it. I started studying font design and cover design many years ago in an effort to learn how to maximize a book’s impact for a reader. It’s amazing how the little, overlooked decisions (like the amount of page margin or space between letters) change the way a reader enters the reading experience. Why did I start studying design? Probably because I wanted to submerge myself into the holistic writing life, not just put words on a page.
For me, the process of writing looks like this: I start with an idea. Then I put words on a page, one at a time, to try and recreate that idea as faithfully and vividly as I can in another person’s mind. After I’ve got a good idea what the book is going to sound like and feel like to a reader, I start thinking about the cover. When I’m stalled in my writing or frustrated or tired, I start working on the cover design. It’s a refreshing break from thinking in terms of words all of the time. I probably churned through fifty different cover ideas during the process of writing this book. None of them made the final cut, but the process helped me get a sense for what I wanted to say in the book and how I wanted to say it. When it comes to my creative process, content feeds design and design feeds content creation. I can tell you that getting involved with the design of the book has given me an even greater love for the final product. Every author feels a kind of parental joy and excitement and nervousness when their book gets released into the world, but I think those feelings are augmented by my involvement in every aspect of the book, not just the content.
LES: How did you become acquainted with the Rabbit Room Press and what led to choosing them to publish this new work?
BP: The road to Rabbit Room Press was circuitous. I’m not sure I trust my memory at this point, but I didn’t actually send my manuscript to them directly. I sent it to a fellow writer for feedback. That author had connections to Rabbit Room Press and suggested it might be a good fit. I didn’t know much about them at the time. All I had heard about (and valued from a distance) was the Rabbit Room community and Hutchmoot (their annual conference). So that author passed it along personally to them and that’s how it started. Once they’d read the manuscript, they reached out to me. Rabbit Room doesn’t publish many books in a year and that’s one of many reasons I like them. They’re not interested in cranking out books, but instead really care about the author/publisher relationship and they want to stay invested in the authors they publish. That requires a depth of trust on their part that I really admire. It also means there needs to be a fair amount of ideological and personal alignment and, in the long run, a kind of friendship that goes beyond the printed page. I like everything about that, and I consider myself lucky to have partnered with them in making something that we hope will be a treasured gift.
LES: You have invested much of your life writing with the concern to teach, not preach. Why does it matter to you to teach people to write well?
BP: I have taught for over twenty years. The longer I’ve taught, the more I feel like I have to learn. One of the lessons that I learned early in my career by watching great teachers is that they don’t talk at us, they talk to us. Poor teachers have something to say, great teachers have something to give. They may give it in various ways with various degrees of intensity and vigor, but in the end, the spirit behind the teaching is always a matter of gift. I’ve tried to imitate them in my teaching and in my writing. This book is more didactic than anything else I’ve written (outside of Honey From the Lion’s Mouth), but I tried to utilize everything I’ve done before (memoir, poetry) to make it feel more conversational than a typical teaching book. It also helped that I was talking to my daughter. I suppose there have been many times that I’ve talked at her, but I’ve found it hard to talk at people with whom you have a relationship. Most people talk at each other because there’s no shared relationship. They may feel like they have a certain amount of authority, but that’s not enough to compel someone to listen. People are compelled by relationship and relationship can be developed by the way we speak to one another.
This might be a digression, but it seems worth mentioning. One of the hopes I have for this book is that it would help writers jettison a platform-building mentality in favor of a gift mentality. It’s not about what you can get from your audience or from a publisher, but what you can give. That heart change will affect not only what you say, but how you say it. The tone of your writing will change because you’re not trying to shoulder your way into the public discourse. You’ll stop trying to talk over everyone else and start writing/speaking/creating differently. It’s no less authoritative. In fact, it’s a kind of strength that’s secured by something deeper than public recognition or praise. It’s the kind of authority I imagine Christ had when he walked the earth. Matthew 7:29 says, “he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” I’m sure there’s much to unpack in that verse, but I think one of the differences between Christ and the scribes is that he spoke to people and they spoke at people. The difference is palpable, and the effects are lasting.
But I still haven’t truly answered your question. Why does it matter to me to teach people to write well? I suppose it’s because once a teacher, always a teacher. But it’s also because my daughter needed these intimate conversations to help her along the way. Maybe others do too. We’re all somewhere on the mountain. I have more experience than some who are following me and I have much less than others. I see this book as a way to create cairns, little stacks of rocks that serve as markers to point travelers in the right direction. Everything I put in these letters was gleaned by following others who are further up the mountain than I am. Nothing in this book is original to me.
LES: One of the deep refrains in Letters from the Mountain is the essential call to not simply write well but to live well. How does writing well feed a life well-lived? How does a well-lived life inform and feed writing well? Are there measures we can use to assess what makes for a well-lived life?
BP: Just this evening, during dinner, my daughter and I were talking about this very topic. We shape words, but forget that the words shape us in the process. There’s a circular nourishment that happens in a writer’s life. The manor in which one lives daily life dictates the kind of words—even the tone and trajectory of those words—that one writes on the page. At the same time, the way a person writes and the content of those words shapes the way he thinks and feels. Jesus said that what comes out of us is simply the heart’s overflow (Mt. 12:34). That goes for writers and artists in particular. How we view life, how we wake up and engage life, and how we respond to daily frustrations or obstacles dictates the kind of art we produce. Likewise, what an artist creates will shape his outlook on life. There’s a clear correspondence. Sin, for example, doesn’t just impact us spiritually or relationally, it also impacts our creativity. The health of one’s body and one’s friendships and one’s marriage all have their impact on creativity. Or that relational collapse leads to poor creativity. Rather, that you should expect a correspondence between your life and your creativity. If you want to create lasting and generative work, you should try to live accordingly.
LES: This statement in your chapter titled “The Writing Life” captures something essential to the call of what we do in Cultivating and The Cultivating Project.
“Christians waste a lot of energy trying to impact culture rather than investing in people who create culture. Such labor requires that generative writers be patient in their perspective, intentional in their work, and charged with a transcendent vision.”
There is a counter-intuitive work asked for in investing in individuals rather than trying to impact an entire culture. It is costly work to labour deeply over a few people rather than superficially over many. How do you, Ben, anchor yourself to do this costly work of investing in a few when the world at large so persistently says success is measured by numbers and head count rather than marks of transformation?
BP: Okay, I’m no Latin scholar so don’t take my word for it, but I believe that the Latin word cultūra ( from which we get the word, culture), comes from cultus, which, according to the inter web, is the perfect passive participle of colō (“I till, cultivate”). That’s just a sesquipedalian (I just discovered this word and loved it so much that I had to drop it into this interview. Isn’t it gnarly?) way of saying that I think the garden is a helpful metaphor by which to live when it comes to culture care. Good gardeners tend to the ground right in front of them, and they beautify it by their patient labor. So when it comes to cultural cultivation, I till the metaphorical ground in front of me. Or at least I try. That mentality keeps me from thinking about the entire garden called the world and it prevents me from thinking that gardening is about my publicity. My job isn’t to parade myself or my work, it’s to cultivate the world (especially the people) around me in hopes that God would use me to beautify whatever and whomever I impact. That seems to me to be an ambitious enough project without complicating it with a drive for success or fame.
LES: In your writing career, you pay concerted attention to the issues of remembering and how we frame the narratives of our pasts. This is reflected not only in A Small Cup of Light, but in Honey from the Lion’s Mouth, and your volumes of poetry. One of the remarks that lingers with me in Andrew Peterson’s new book, The God of the Garden, was made by his counselor who said, “I’ve never met anyone who could correctly interpret their own childhood.” Why is accurate remembering so significant to you and why do you share that publicly?
BP: I think there’s a difference between remembering our past and interpreting it. Throughout scripture God calls his people to remember. The act of remembering is a matter of faith. When Moses was preparing the people to live in the promised land, he often used the phrase, “Do not forget.” In Deuteronomy 4:9, he says, “be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.” Someone once told me that best practices for faithful living require driving forward while watching the rearview mirror. God’s faithfulness in the past enables us to trust him for the unknowns ahead of us. His reliability is reinforced when we remember and there’s no other way, certainly no short cut, to building faith.
One of the hopes I have for this book is that it would help writers jettison a platform-building mentality in favor of a gift mentality. It’s not about what you can get from your audience or from a publisher, but what you can give. That heart change will affect not only what you say, but how you say it. The tone of your writing will change because you’re not trying to shoulder your way into the public discourse. Ben Palpant
And for clarity’s sake, let me just say that God calls us to remember the hardships and not just the miracle moments in life. I wrote A Small Cup of Light largely for myself, to help me remember the story of my health collapse and the lessons I learned along the way. As the years progressed, those things were fading from my heart. Those were some of the most difficult times of my life, a kind of crucible that I don’t want to relive, but that I should still remember. At the most basic level, the old maxim is true: those who forget history are bound to repeat it. That being said, I’m well aware that memory is a complex issue. Andrew Peterson’s book is a wonderful example of how to remember well; meaning, how to remember the past without thinking that your perspective is infallible. If your readers haven’t read The God of the Garden, I highly recommend it.
Somehow, God knows how to redeem our fallible memories and our broken pasts in a way that is beautiful. Maybe not yet, but certainly someday. In the meantime, we try to remember the past as faithfully and as accurately as possible without revising it, twisting it, abolishing it, or ignoring it. Memory always has a filter. We see through that filter and we should take care that the filter is clear. The only trustworthy filter is God’s word. Faithful and accurate remembering, then, depends upon seeing the way God sees. I think that’s one reason why God gave us the Bible—so we could learn to see. The interpretation of what we’ve seen will be skewed in proportion to our distance from God and our ignorance of his word. And we won’t see the whole picture until the other side. Indeed, we see through a smudged window right now, but someday, we will see clearly. “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).
I’m no scholar and I don’t pretend to have this whole memory thing figured out, but that’s my stab at it so far. All I know is that God tells me to remember and to tell the stories of his faithfulness. That’s why we have a Joshua Basket in the middle of our table. When the Israelites crossed the Jordan river, God told the priests to gather 12 big rocks from the river and build an altar so that when their children saw the stack of rocks and asked, “Dad, what are these rocks for?” they could tell their kids the story of what God had done. Our Joshua Basket has some, not all, of the key events in our life. Each rock has a date and a short description. The birth of a child. The death of a loved one. The accidents and the miracles. These rocks helps us commemorate the sad and the joyous markers in our story. Notice that I didn’t call them “bad” and “good.” That’s an interpretation only God can assign, I think. Some events that I would have called bad have been important moments in what turned out to be really good. Interpreting what God was actually doing in and through the event is difficult to do accurately. But we can certainly remember what we saw and try to see with biblical eyes, not simply our own.
LES: Ben, you hold something unusual in common with two of my favorite writers, S. D. Smith, and Malcolm Guite. You each had childhoods spent in Africa. S. D. Smith spent formative years in South Africa as a boy, and Malcolm Guite was born in Nigeria and lived there till he was 10. How did your years in Kenya shape the way you see the world and does that inform the way you write now?
BP: Wow, that’s a question much too big to tackle adequately in a few short paragraphs. I’m sure they would agree with me that those formative years are so deeply important that it’s difficult to explain. I tend to get tongue-tied when someone says, “So you grew up in Africa, what was that like?” Your question is better than that, but I still feel tongue-tied.
The three of us are what sociologists call Third Culture Kids. We tend to make ourselves at home rather quickly wherever we are, but we never feel settled inside unless our circumstances rhyme in some way with our childhood. I didn’t have any idea at the time that wandering clay footpaths through quiet countryside would shape me in significant ways. At the time, I just thought I was living a boring life in a forgotten part of the world. It wasn’t very romantic. Nevertheless, I think my childhood shaped me in three distinct ways: it wired me to live at a certain speed, to see people a certain way, and to value certain things more than others.
Here’s the short explanation to each of those.
Speed of life: My childhood was a slow experience. There wasn’t much rush because there wasn’t much to do and there wasn’t anywhere to go that you couldn’t reach on your own two feet. We had our fun, don’t get me wrong, and we ran as much or more as any kid does these days. But we weren’t driving at 60mph from one one event to another, shoving food down as fuel before rushing off to another activity. Cooking our meals took time. We had no microwave. We had a little Ford Escort, so our transportation was limited. We lived on a shared generator, so late night activities were also limited. Those shaped me. I think they have shaped the rhythms and the depth of my writing.
Now don’t get me wrong. I like my microwave and my Toyota Highlander and my electricity. I’m writing this right now on a computer that’s a technological miracle I would never have dreamed of back when I was a kid and I’m not that old, no matter what my kids say. I’m also writing this late at night beneath a lamp that can run until dawn if I so wish. But I don’t wish. I’ll go to bed shortly. Nevertheless, these things have a shaping affect on my children that they do not understand because it’s “normal” to them.
People: The small community in which I grew up valued people, especially (so it seemed to me at the time) the elderly. One of the biggest culture shocks for me upon returning to the United States was the way we treat old people, even parents. But people in general mattered very much. Front doors were always open so that anyone could enter at any time and one never knows when one will entertain an angel (Hebrews 13:2). They gave themselves a fighting chance to entertain at least one angel in life by entertaining whoever passed through. Around my neck of the woods, we tend to only entertain ourselves. Is that too strong? Probably. At any rate, having people over is a rare occasion (and I’m as guilty as anyone). So the way we speak to or at each other is formed largely by our social media and not formed by intimate conversation over food. I think that difference has impacted the tone of my writing.
Valuing certain things: An affluent culture like ours will inevitably invariably overvalue certain things that are cheap and undervalue other things that are priceless. It will also increase our appetites. No longer is a Tonka truck satisfactory on a kid’s birthday. Now, the floodgates of the local toy emporium must be opened wide for a child’s appetite to be assuaged. I have found that my appetite has grown to excess just as my children’s have. Still, there’s a part of me that values simplicity and quiet and stillness (nourished in me by my childhood in Africa) and those probably make their way into my writing in ways that are hard to identify.
LES: In the way that you live, teach, and write, you model something essential to living a whole life and writing with significance—the importance of the company we keep. How do you personally cultivate the relationships that nourish your life and give it meaning? Do you ever need to discern where to draw lines in relationships that are not life-giving?
BP: I’d like to deflect this question—a really difficult and profound one like these others you have given—with some cupcake questions that I’ve been waiting for without any sign of reprieve. Questions like these:
BP: What’s your favorite color? Blue, thanks for asking. I know, not very original.
BP: Do you believe in vegetables? No.
BP: What’s your favorite hobby? Fly-fishing. I can’t wait to fly-fish in eternity. I’ll be able to actually catch something.
BP: How many dogs do you have? 2
Okay, I think I can get back to your deep questions now.
I’ve given about half of my life to a small classical Christian school and nearly twenty years to one small church which has allowed me the rare opportunity of planting deep relational roots. I made the decision many years ago to try and stay put for as long as I can for the sake of myself and my family. I’ve experienced my fair share of relational hardships (whether the cause or not), but the process of sinning against each other and deliberately pursuing repentance and forgiveness is the glue of healthy life in community. That’s certainly true of marriage, right? Even in these close communities, I gravitate toward some people more than others. I suppose that’s natural. But I try to cultivate relationships with people who make me better as a human being and most of the people around me do that.
Regarding your last question about discerning where to draw lines in relationships, I always found it difficult to notice when some people impacted my life negatively. Other, more godly people had to come alongside and point it out to me. As I got older, I started to notice the traits that godly people held in common and then I tried to hang out with them so I didn’t get swept into the other relationships, even though they might be more attractive. What were some of those traits? They pray more than me. They love reading the Bible more than me. They’re more thankful than me. They serve without complaint, unlike me. They do their duty, unlike me. They’re also more generally down to earth than me.
LES: On Jonathan Rogers’ podcast for The Habit you mention the desolation of longing that music can evoke in us. I have certainly experienced that with music, but also in passages of literature, in photography and films, and in the garden. It is an unexpected stirring of a memory of the Home for which I am made but am yet in exile from. I know many who have pursued that longing in destructive ways, but is there a faithful way for us to cultivate that “longing for the other side” and have it serve as a kind of compass pointing the way Home? Is there also a way to strike a counterbalance to that longing by being able to accept with contentment what is good right in our present midst?
BP: It doesn’t take much for me to feel that way! The way the clouds hung low and rolled in over the hills today made me stop in my tracks. Lines of poetry. The unadulterated happiness and love in my kids greeting me. But yes, I feel torn by the longing and it usually keeps me from doing my duty. The answer to this question probably goes back to the previous answer I gave to your last question. Godly people help me lots. They have the same longings, but they keep working faithfully without complaint. Duty isn’t a four letter word to them. They are my counterbalance. I think it also helps to find activities that are fulfilling and help you feel like you did something beautiful, that something you’re doing became a kind of bridge between the now and the not yet. Writing does that for me. Gardening. Drawing or painting. Reading Steinbeck or Li-Young Lee or William Saroyan. But you still have to do the dishes. If you let transcendence have its sway, you’ll end up being unfaithful in what God has put right in front of you. That being said, I don’t think it’s a bad policy to get your work done so you have margin to enjoy the transcendent.
LES: One of the most prevalent elements to your writing, and something evident on every page of Letters from the Mountain, is the presence of love. You use a voice that is personal, familiar, and feels as if you are leaning forward to get a little closer while you write. You demonstrate something that Jonathan Rogers talks about in his two part blog titled “Love Thy Reader.” Transformative writing is rooted in love. This same idea is the premise of the splendid book, Charitable Writing, by Richard Gibson and James Beitler III. When we write from the position of loving the reader, how we phrase things and how we organize them shifts. We are less concerned with being impressive than with our message serving our reader and being clear. But writing as a craft is done largely in solitude. When we are writing we are not generally in the company of others. How do you cultivate a practice of loving your reader when the work is done somewhat in a vacuum, and when you can’t see the faces of the people to whom you are writing?
BP: Well, you’re very kind to say that. That tone is thanks, in part, to my editors who know what I desire and can help me achieve that tone. I love that picture of leaning forward to get a little closer while I write. That captures the honesty and intimacy and vulnerability that I’m trying to achieve in my writing. I’ve learned to do that over time by purposefully selecting two or three people for whom I’m writing the book. They don’t know it (except in this case, obviously), but having them right before me while I write a poem or a story helps me tailor my words for them. C.S. Lewis achieved a rare kind of simplicity and beauty and intimacy by writing for his nephews and nieces. Lewis Carol did the same. I think it’s a great practice and it keeps us from trying to reach a certain demographic. Writing for an age group has always been a trap for me. I start writing for the wrong reasons and then the quality of work falls off dramatically. Choose a couple of people. Write for them and you’ll find that your work is not only better, but it will minister to more hearts than just the two or three people to whom you wrote.
LES: Letters from the Mountain reads like a long benediction for the writing life and the craft of living well. In fact, you close each chapter with a benediction. Why did you choose to close the chapters that way? Would you close us out here as fellow craftsmen and writers with a benediction for us as we go forward to tend to our living?
BP: A benediction is simply a gifting of a blessing. I used to give a benediction to my daughter when I put her to bed. Sometimes I still do it when she’s home for a visit. It seemed fitting that I would continue that relational habit in my written letters to her and I can’t think of a better, richer, more helpful benediction than that same one for you all, my fellow craftsmen and writers. It comes from Numbers 6:24-26 and stands tall among the many benedictions throughout scripture. I’d like to break it up in a different way in hopes that it might impact us in a new and refreshing way. This is my gift to you:
The LORD bless you
and keep you;
The LORD make His face shine
upon you, And
be gracious to you;
The LORD lift up His countenance
And give you