The Benedict Option: The Last Look
That’s literally the view from my table right now. This weekend I’m reading the page proofs of The Benedict Option, which means this is my last opportunity to change anything in the text before it goes to the printer. It’s pretty nerve-wracking, to be honest. If it were up to me, I’d sit on the manuscript for months, revising, revising, revising. Fortunately, the tyranny of a deadline forces me to make choices and live with them.
This is the first time I’ve looked at the manuscript in a month or so, which gives me somewhat fresher eyes. When it comes to writing books and articles for print publication (versus online), I am a complete neurotic. I don’t like anything I write, and focus on all its flaws, but none of its virtues. So it comes as a surprise to me to discover that The Benedict Option works pretty well. This is not, I hasten to say, due to me, but rather in spite of me. The credit goes to my editor, Bria Sandford. I’ll tell you why.
First, let me say that a prominent Reformed theologian who read the manuscript told me that The Benedict Option does exactly what it needs to do: makes some complex and challenging ideas accessible and urgent for the people in the pew. He wrote:
This is the kind of book I am going to use to get the thoughtful people in my congregation reading and discussing. It is going to be helpful to the very people who have to live on the front line.
As I knew there would be, there were a couple of places in the book where he disagreed with my analysis, even as he strongly recommended the whole book (we’re going to use the formal endorsement he gave the book in promoting it). I told him that I worked hard getting the narrative to appeal to Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians without watering it down so much that it alienated everybody. The chapter I think most people will argue with is the “How We Got Here” chapter in which I outline the history of ideas from the High Middle Ages to today, in an attempt to highlight the path to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. When I turned the first draft of that chapter in, it was over 17,000 words long, which is ridiculous — and still, I was telling Bria that I had dumbed down so much, that I didn’t know how this was going to work, et cetera.
At some point, when we had a better sense of the overall shape of the book, she informed me that the chapter needed to come in at around 7,000 words. I knew this was inevitable, but I had no idea, no idea at all, how to pull this off. But if we cut out this part, then the reader won’t understand that blah blah blah, I protested. But cutting had to be done. Decisions had be be made.
This happened with most chapters. It was painful to have to cut the 14,000-word chapter about the monks of Norcia, in which I introduce basic ideas of Benedictine monasticism and talk about how and why they can work for us lay Christians (Catholic and not) today. I had so much good material from my time with the Norcia monks! But … decisions had to be made. It needed to be 7,000 words or close to it. And so it is now.
Getting to the end of a process like that leaves a writer feeling bruised and battered. But re-reading the monk chapter now (Chapter 3), I see that Bria was right. All I had been able to see were the things that got left on the cutting room floor, the things that I didn’t see how I could ignore and tell the story properly. Now, though, I see that that chapter of The Benedict Option is exactly what it needs to be. It introduces these concepts clearly and, I think, persuasively. If I were a reader coming to monasticism cold, I would find this to be a good introduction: simple, but not simplistic.
I hope this is my experience as I continue through the manuscript. It’s not unusual that I was so close to the raw material that I could not appreciate how the reader would respond to it. This is normal, and this is one of the key roles of the editor: to help the writer tell the story he wants and needs to tell, even if it means helping him get out of his own way. If I had not had Bria to do this for me, the entire book would have been a blog post of Tolstoyan length that might have covered all the bases, but would have been harder to read, and spoken to few people other than my own relatively small circle. As it stands, though, I believe The Benedict Option has the potential to make a real difference in the world.
This is what a good, strong editor can do. Her work brought clarity and force to my book, a force that would have been dissipated had it been left up to me. This paragraph from The Benedict Option, talking about the value of a Rule, speaks to this point:
Similarly, the work Bria did as an editor freed me to tell the story I needed to tell in a way that the intended audience could receive it. In other words, the limits the editor imposed on me (e.g., tell this part of the story in 7,000 words, not 14,000 words, or 17,000 words) made it possible for me to communicate the most important parts of the overall story with greater force than I would have done had it all been left up to me. And now here at the end, I am able to perceive that in a way that eluded me before. My surprise at how well this book works is exceeded only by my gratitude to my editor for making it work. It is no false modesty, not in the least, to say that I could not have done this without her.
So, whenever you read a book that you particularly love or admire, always remember that the writer is not the only author.