How did you become a writer?
I’ve always loved to write. I was in a poetry program in college and took a writing seminar there, too. I found a binder of creative writing from that time, and I probably should have been forced to read it before I graded any of my college students’ writing. It was terrible! I wrote my first book, Taught by America, to try to understand my experience teaching elementary school in Compton, California. The first version of that book was stolen out of my car (manuscript and backup disks and computer!), so I had to write it all over again, which taught me the importance of revision. I write to try to make sense of the world – or, if not to make sense of it, to help bring a better world into being.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I am a voracious reader. I love novels. Right now I’m reading Sherman Alexie’s new memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. I recently re-read Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, which is magical and beautiful and devastating. I also read a lot of critical theory and visual theory – Sara Ahmed and Ariella Azoulay and Judith Butler, for example. One of my biggest influences was my mentor in graduate school, the late theologian Gordon Kaufman. For him, theology was a constructive enterprise, akin to art. He taught me that words make worlds and that our creations have material affects. Everything we write or speak or construct – whether that’s “God” or a new law or a novel – must be evaluated ethically and in community.
When and where do you write?
I do my best writing in the morning before the censor in my brain wakes up to tell me everything I type is stupid. I have a beautiful office in my house (with a window seat!). I write at a desk while wearing noise canceling headphones. I often play a single song on repeat.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a new book. It’s top secret, but I can give you a hint: I’m doing a lot of thinking about kinship as a practice.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I have a friend who is an artist, and she shows up at her studio to make art every single day, and she’s been doing that for decades. Her discipline and commitment inspire me. She once told me “being blocked” is a myth, and ever since she said that I stopped believing in writer’s block. I’ve been afraid when I’ve come to the blank page. I’ve been distracted (now more than ever in this political climate in which I keep refreshing my news feed as if reading the news will somehow change something). I’ve avoided writing. I’ve believed the voices in my head that tell me there’s no point in creating anything new. But a block? I get in my own way – but I’m not sure that’s a block. It seems to me to be more of a habit, or a decision to center my fears instead of my hopes, or a choice to fall toward despair and away from creativity.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
I took an amazing writing workshop with Nick Flynn, and he taught me a very physical method for revision (which he learned from Carolyn Forché). He encouraged me to cut up my manuscript and tape it back together – and this was a revelation for me. (You can read about it on Powell’s blog here). But some of the best advice I’ve ever received is from my husband: Put your butt in the chair and write. That’s the real magic: show up and stay put.
What’s your advice to new writers?
My advice to new writers: Trust yourself. If you hear that voice urging you to the page, listen to it. Make time in your life to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Believe you have something to say. The world is waiting for your words. We need your voice so we might imagine new possibilities and a more just and life-giving world for all beings.
Sarah Sentilles is a writer, critical theorist, scholar of religion, and author of many books, including Breaking Up with God: A Love Story. Her most recent book, Draw Your Weapons, was published by Random House in July 2017. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Yale and master’s and doctoral degrees at Harvard. At the core of her scholarship, writing, and activism is a commitment to investigating the roles language, images, and practices play in oppression, violence, social transformation, and justice movements. She has taught at Pacific Northwest College of Art, Portland State University, California State University Channel Islands, and Willamette University, where she was the Mark and Melody Teppola Presidential Distinguished Visiting Professor.