Dancing on the Head of a Pen: The Practice of a Writing Life

Dancing on the Head of a Pen: The Practice of a Writing Life

by Robert Benson


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A compelling combination of advice and inspiration, Dancing on the Head of a Pen will challenge and encourage writers, artists, musicians, painters—anyone drawn to a life of artistic expression.
Digging deeply into his own writing habits, failures, and successes, Robert Benson helps you choose the ideal audience for your work, commit to it, and overcome the hurdles that inevitably confront both aspiring artists and accomplished professionals. Extending beyond the craft of writing, this gentle book moves into a rich discussion on the relationship between spirituality and art. Including wisdom from revered writers past and present, Dancing on the Head of a Pen is a beautiful mosaic of inspiration, practical help, and a glimpse into the disciplines that shape one writer’s life.
Dancing on the Head of a Pen is a pure delight to read. Encouraging, honest, practical, and important. I needed this book.”
—Melody Carlson, author of more 200 books including Finding Alice 
“With deceptive simplicity and an almost seductive easiness in his voice, Benson lays open before us the filigreed mystique of the writing life in all its beauty, its unmitigated angst, and its inescapable vocation.”
—Phyllis Tickle, author of numerous books including The Divine Hours
“Robert Benson’s Dancing on the Head of a Pen is a gem. It is wise, witty, and inspiring—a trifecta seldom achieved by a book on the writing life.”
—James Scott Bell, bestselling author of Plot & Structure

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400074358
Publisher: The Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/15/2014
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Robert Benson is the author of numerous books, including The Echo Within, Digging In, and Home by Another Way. A retreat leader, Benson writes and speaks often on the life of prayer and contemplation, the practice of faith and spirituality, and the art and craft of writing. He is a graduate of and served as an adjunct faculty member for the Academy for Spiritual Formation, a program of The Upper Room. He is married to the literary agent Sara Fortenberry. Benson lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and he dances on the head of a pen every day no matter where he happens to be.

Read an Excerpt

 “I think I have a story to tell. I just do not know how to begin. Can you tell me how to write a book?”
Most often I hear such a comment during the question-and-
answer session after I have given a reading or a talk. The question also appears in some of the letters from people who are kind enough to read my books and kind enough to write me after they have read them.
The question comes up more and more these days. The digital age has changed so many things about the way writers and publishers find each other and ferret out access to sales and media outlets. And more and more the writer must not only make the art but deliver the audience as well. The whole process can seem a little daunting.
I always take the question seriously. I was once in the same spot and grateful for any help that might move me along toward learning to get a story down on paper.
Henri Nouwen was right when he said, “As long as we have stories to tell to each other there is hope.”
Sharing the things I know about how a person goes about telling his story seems only right. Perhaps it is even, as the old prayer book says, a good and joyful thing.

My father came into my office one day at the publishing business the family owned and handed me a stack of cassette tapes and a stack of manuscript pages, and then he gave me an assignment. “I met this young woman in Canada,” he said.
“I liked the things she was saying when she was speaking onstage, and I told her we would help her make a book out of it. I have been working on it some, but I cannot seem to capture it somehow. Why don’t you give it a shot?”
The book I helped the young woman make in those early days of my wordsmithing career is considerably different from the books now published under my own name. But it was the first chance given to me to learn how to make the only art I ever wanted to make—a book.
It was my first ghostwriting assignment. I was nineteen years old.
Many years and many books later, I found myself leaning on my best friend’s doorjamb on a warm afternoon. I
was half conversing about writing a book and half watching the roses blooming in our back garden. Out of one eye I was also watching the fountain beside the path that leads to the studio where I write.
I always enjoy conversations about writing and writers.
To be sure, the first joy of keeping such a conversation going is rooted in the fact that any conversation that keeps a particular writer from the burden of trudging back to the studio and back to writing sentences is a welcome conversation.
The subject hardly matters. What counts is the ability to put enough words into the air to delay the inevitable.
My friend told me about her recent conversation with a sweet woman we both know. Our mutual friend had been thinking she might try to write a book. The two of them thought a book might be down in there somewhere, hidden in one of the stories of her life, but the one who aspired to be the teller of the tale did not know how to begin.
“What should I tell her?” my friend asked. “What does she do to begin? How does one go about writing a book?”

The summer sun dropped down another little bit, and to get it out of my eyes, I shifted from the left doorjamb to the right and went into my best artist-as-teacher pose.
“This is the first thing I would tell someone who wants to make a book.”
And then I began to expound, and the first thing and the other nine or so went on for a bit. I am a writer. Embellishing is one of my gifts. I also know how to stall when my own writing is not going well.
I described the steps I take when I begin to make a book.
Some of them are habits stolen from other writers, writers far better than I am. Some of them are practices discovered on my own after years of dancing on the head of a pen. Some are disciplines I stumbled upon to feed both the caliber of the writing and the work of being a writer.
After some forty years and nearly twenty books, I have learned I do not know a lot about a lot of things, but I do know how to write a book.

Table of Contents

1 Dark Marks on a Page: On a Book About Making a Book 1

2 Follow Your Nose: On Deciding What to Write 15

3 Go to Your Room: On the Discipline of Being a Writer 27

4 Six Hundred Words: On Writing Every Day 41

5 The Jury Box: On Choosing an Audience 55

6 Speed Kills: On Place, Time, and Tools 67

7 Hat Tricks: On Recognizing the Task at Hand 85

8 Under the Influence: On Reading to Write 97

9 Working in the Cages: On Habits to Keep a Writer Sharp 115

10 A Step in Time: On the Value of the Literary Stroll 131

11 To Air Is Human: On Sharing a Work in Progress 145

12 The Finished Line: On Knowing When a Work Is Done 157

On Gratitude 165

A Last Note 173

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