Writing Tip: Write Drunk. Edit Sober.

Written by Brandon O'Brien on February 23rd, 2015

The short little quip that is the title of this post—”Write drunk. Edit sober.”—is commonly attributed to Ernest Hemingway. Because the Internet loves a debate even more than it loves a pithy quotation, you’ll find arguments online about whether Hemingway ever said any such thing (here for example). In fact, these debates get deep. One popular blogger believes the exhortation is both bad creative advice and an immoral glorification of substance abuse. That seems like an overreaction.

As far as I’m concerned, “Write drunk. Edit sober,” is excellent advice, whoever said it first. It reminds us of two important facts:

1. Good writing is a two-stage process.

Good writing begins with a first draft, but a first draft is rarely any good. My first drafts are little more than notes—some full sentences, others fragments—all on the same subject, more or less. They may look like paragraphs, but they are actually just loosely related ideas that were once flitting around in my brain and are now pinned to a piece of paper. The very idea of someone reading any of those drafts horrifies me. But they serve their purpose: to get the thoughts out of my head and into the material world where I can manipulate them.

The purpose of editing, the second step in the process, is to rearrange those words, delete them, expand them, so they form a composition. Writing gets all the ingredients on the counter. Editing makes them a dish you’d serve to your guests. That’s because between “drunk” and “sober” there is a span of time. That span of time is critical for the creative process. Write one day. Edit the next.

2. Writing well requires that you silence your inner critic—at least momentarily.

The reason writing and editing must be separate stages in the process is because they demand different disciplines. I would never advocate that you actually write drunk. I do advocate that you write freely, embarrassingly, and without inhibitions in your first draft. Write with the momentary confidence of a man who’s had one too many. Avoid with all your strength the urge to type a sentence only to immediately delete it. Instead, stand on your chair and rant until you’re tuckered out. Metaphorically speaking.

When some time has passed, read what you’ve written in the clear light of day. For me, this stage is where the magic happens. I read what I wrote before, and think Oh, so that’s what you were trying to say! I can work with that. I move paragraphs around. Provide structure. Trim the flabby sentences. Add transitions.

All my best writing begins with editing. All my best editing begins with terrible writing.



Written by Brandon O'Brien on February 16th, 2015

With an initial investment of less than $100, I began a new hobby in 2015. A workbench, a dovetail saw, and a couple of flea-market hand planes have me set up to try my hand at traditional woodworking.

My accomplishments in this noble guild can be summarized briefly: I built the workbench (such as it is) on which all future work will take place. That is all. For the last couple of days I’ve been shaping a lovely piece of rough-sawn and locally sourced poplar into the proper dimensions, from 1.25 inches thick and slightly crowned to 1 inch thick and flat. If there is anything left of it when it’s finished—after I’ve shaved a little off this side then a little on the other side and then, well, a little more on the first side to keep it even and so on—it will become a bench for our foyer. That will be my second accomplishment.

This type of woodworking is traditional in at least two ways. For one, the basic technology utilized in modern hand tools is more or less unchanged since about the 17th century. (If the articles I’ve skimmed are to be trusted.) More personally, two of my great-grandfathers were craftsmen. The television in our living sits atop a chest-of-drawers one of them built decades ago. It is fashioned from repurposed crates delivered to the ammunition plant where Daddy Carl worked. (Handmade of reclaimed lumber. Daddy Carl would have made a killing on Etsy.)

The thing is, though, I am not using my great-grandfathers’ tools, nor did either of them teach me the techniques I’d need to know to use them. My tools are technologically primitive but really rather new. And I’m learning everything I know from videos on YouTube. The word “tradition” comes from a Latin root that means to “hand down.” What I’ve done is more nearly picked up something discarded and put it in my pocket.

But this is what “tradition” and “traditional” mean, for the most part, today. Few people I know learn traditional skills from their elders or in dusty workshops or well-lighted studios. We learn traditional technologies such as planing and canning through our new technologies—tablets and smartphones. Tradition isn’t binding or authoritative. It supplements our sense of tactile connectedness with the past. That’s one sense new technology really cannot satisfy. Tradition is today a selective recovery of artifacts—spiritual or material—carefully curated to complement our lifestyles. This is a definition of tradition previous generations would hardly understand.

I’m not complaining. When I finish my bench, I’ll snap a couple of photos with my smart phone. One of them, certainly, will feature a nearly translucent ribbon of poplar beside the planer and the other will show off the finished product in good light. I’ll post them on Instagram. Probably on #handtoolthursday.


A Job Announcement

Written by Brandon O'Brien on November 11th, 2013

For the last few years, I received the same dreaded question time and again: “So, what is it that you do exactly?”

“It’s complicated,” was the most honest answer to that question. Since 2009, I have completed a doctoral degree, written two books, taught

religion part time at a community college, traveled to speak at pastors conferences and academic meetings, and worked freelance as a writer and editor. And had a baby. And moved three times.

It is for this reason that I’m happy to report I now have a somewhat simpler answer to the question, “What do you do?” As of November 1, I am on staff at New Life Church, and my primary responsibility is to oversee the development of a partnership between New Life Church and Ouachita Baptist University that we hope will lead to offering college courses at NLC next fall.

That’s a little vague, I know. I’ll be able to say more in a month or so. But here’s what I can say for now: I am overwhelmed by God’s sovereign provision. This opportunity allows me to pursue two passions at one—local church ministry and Christian higher education. It’s a job I wouldn’t have had the imagination to design for myself, but it truly feels like this is what I’ve been preparing for all these years.

I can’t help but think of the words of that beautiful hymn, “Has thou not seen how thy desires e’er have been granted in what he ordaineth?”

As work on the partnership with OBU continues, I’ll have lots of opportunity to explore the Bible and theology with the congregation here at NLC. So whether I’m in the classroom or behind the pulpit, I’ll be serving through teaching and putting all that education to good use. And I’ll be grateful that God’s providence is not limited to my view of what’s possible.


The Fall and Family 2: Generational Sanctification

Written by Brandon O'Brien on September 12th, 2013

On Tuesday I wrote about a pattern in Genesis that I find powerful for explaining the human condition: the consequences of the rebellion of Adam and Eve are felt in the family. The most intimate human relationships are where human sin is most acutely evident.

What I didn’t say, and should have made clear, is that God doesn’t defer hope from the time of Abraham until the time of Christ. The church is where God’s family is restored completely. But right there in Genesis, God is already bringing healing and wholeness.

Abraham is the first in the family to follow God. And he isn’t very good at it. He’s faithful with some things—he’s loyal to Lot and generous in his dealings. But the things Abraham gets wrong, he gets really wrong. Twice he claims his wife is his sister because he fears foreign kings will kill him to marry her. He fails to trust God to provide him an heir, so he sleeps with his wife’s maidservant. Abraham struggles to walk closely with God from the beginning of his story to the end.

Isaac, Abraham’s son, is no model Israelite either. But he makes steps in the right direction. Isaac, too, tries to pass of his wife, Rebekah, as his sister. But he only does it once. That means he’s twice as faithful as his dad.

Isaac’s son Jacob is a scoundrel. There’s really no way around that. But Jacob’s relationship with God is more intimate that his father’s or grandfather’s. He wrestles with God by the Jabbok River. Contending with God seems like a bad thing, really. But I think the point is Jacob (whose name was changed to Israel after this episode) realized God was his only hope. Jacob couldn’t rely on his wits to keep him out of trouble. He needed God’s blessing. And he refused to let God leave without blessing him. It may have been superficial faith. But it was authentic faith.

Jacob’s son Joseph was the real deal. He was Israel’s first theologian. He started out sort of a brat, but when he grew up he was the first in his family to be able to identify how God was at work in his circumstances. When he is finally reunited with his brothers in Egypt, years after they sold him into slavery, he told them, “It was not you who sent me here, but God. God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance” (Gen. 45:8, 7). He recognized God’s broader plan in his brother’s sin: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20). Joseph understood the character of God, and trusted it, more than Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob before him.

What on earth is the point? The point is that God worked to sanctify this family generation by generation. They grew closer to God over time, not because Joseph was so much smarter or holier than Abraham, but because God is faithful. And the closer they drew to God the more grace and forgiveness is evident in their families (Gen. 50:15-21, for example). That’s good news. That means the sins of fathers—divorce or abuse or whatever—don’t have to visit their sons and grandsons. It means we are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Not because we are smarter or holier than our parents, but because God is faithful.


The Fall and the Family

Written by Brandon O'Brien on September 10th, 2013

In just two weeks (four class periods; six hours), my Bible survey class and I sprinted through the fifty chapters of Genesis. Tuesday we make our way into Exodus and out of Egypt. We’ll be in Babylonian captivity before you know it.

The benefit of this schedule we’re keeping is that by the time the course ends in mid December, students will have been exposed to the entire biblical story in one semester. It’s a view from 30,000 feet. And as I reported here, that’s more than most of them have ever had before. What’s disappointing about our schedule is that it leaves us very little time to reflect on some of the critical details. If the 30,000-foot view gives students a sense of the terrain, it doesn’t necessarily equip them to traverse it on their own. It doesn’t give us the opportunity to truly abide in any one episode of the story for long.

One thing I wish I’d had more time to explore is this (if you’ll excuse the somewhat grim reflections): when theologians talk about the consequences of the fall of humanity into sin (Genesis 3), we typically talk about the metaphysical effects of that rebellion. We are now, because of Adam and Eve, sinful men and women estranged from a righteous God. That’s true, of course. Paul spends a lot of energy in Romans making this point. What we talk about less, though, are the immediate, mundane consequences of the fall. Men and women are separated from God, indeed. But they are also driven from each other. They realize they are naked, and they are ashamed (Gen. 3:7). And that’s just the beginning.

There are echoes of the fall throughout Genesis. Every marriage in Genesis after Eden is marked by betrayal and manipulation. Abraham and Isaac both lie to protect themselves by claiming their wife is actually their sister (Abraham: Gen. 12 & 20; Isaac: Gen. 26). Jacob loves Rachel more than Leah. Rebekah helps Jacob trick his father into giving him Esau’s birthright. Every sibling relationship is fraught with conflict. Cain kills Abel. Jacob deceives (or takes advantage of) Esau. Joseph’s brothers resent him because, frankly, he’s kind of a jerk.

Yes, the fall severed the relationship between humans and their Creator. But the way humans experience that estrangement from God in Scripture is in the total breakdown of family relationships. The inalienable truth that mommies love daddies and they love their children lasts only a few pages in Genesis. The most intimate of human relationships become the venues in which the consequences of sin are most apparent.

Evangelists work hard to convince nonbelievers that we have offended a just God and need his help to atone for our sins. They aren’t wrong. But maybe it would be easier to convince skeptics of our dreadful situation if we asked them to look first at their family. Surely there’s enough divorce, abuse, neglect, and exploitation to convince even the most skeptical that the Bible understands the human condition.

It is remarkable to me that (if I’m right), the solution the Bible offers to this family problem is not the renewal of the family. It’s the church, the “household of God” (1 Timothy 3:15). It’s the safe place where people injured by their earthly families—and the single and the orphaned and the widowed—find spiritual family to nurture them in the Lord. God’s goal is not simply to make us right with him. He also provides the community in which all our most intimate relationships can be restored and sanctified. Thanks be to God!