THE ECHO WITHIN: Sometimes to find our true calling, we have to be willing to lose the one we have

Note from Christa: With the subtitle of Finding Your True Calling, I expected Robert Benson’s book THE ECHO WITHIN to be one of those spiritually introspective [navel-gazing, as my agent calls it] tomes disguised as a this-could-fit-in-my-pocket gift book. But, if I already stood on solid ground as far as my own true calling, I wouldn’t be asking to review books about how to find it. This book is different, and Robert’s voice is clear, so much so that I could imagine him talking to me over coffee. His words have the same effect on me as my yoga class. They cause me to stretch, to pay attention to myself and my weight in the world, and to allow myself the luxury of quietness, even in the midst of chaos.

The Echo Within by Robert Benson is a profoundly affecting, honest look at the myriad ways we are drawn into our life’s best work.

Written out of his own lifelong search for and response to the calling voice of God, Benson recounts his discovery of the meaning of vocation, work, and purpose through the ups and downs inherent in family life, professional choice, and spiritual experience. With clarity and insight, and in the elegant prose for which he is known, he gently invites and encourages readers to find such deep truths for their lives as well. In particular, he illuminates the way for readers to explore:

  • ways to sense the Holy in our pursuits, both in the pursuits themselves and within ourselves.
  • how to fall into our vocation and chart a course toward it at the same time.
  • how to love the work we do, and the process of doing it.

For anyone beginning a new career or sensing a needed change in their life or wrestling with a transition suddenly thrust upon them, Robert Benson delivers wisdom, humor, and heart in what he’s learned about listening for The Echo Within-and how it can help us discover our calling.

Frequently Asked Questions:Writing

Where do you get your ideas?
Second things first. On a few occasions, a publisher has asked me to write a specific sort of book, and so I have.
But generally, and most often, I find myself writing about the things that catch my eye or my ear, the things that quicken my spirit in some way, the things that seem to be calling to me at a particular moment in time.
Some particular thing will keep coming up in conversations with people for weeks and months, or a bit of a question will keep turning up in my journal for a few weeks or months, and I will begin to see stories that I want to tell that connect to that thing. I will start to write the stories themselves, and along the way, I will begin to discover what it is that I am actually writing about.

How long does it take for you to write a book?

It takes about a year most of the time. Some books go a little faster and others a little slower, but this is a rough sketch of the pattern.
I spend about four months writing what I refer to as the ‘hand draft.’ I call it that because because I write it by hand. Then it takes about two months to type and edit and rewrite what I have written so that it is in good enough shape to show anyone.
The next step is to send it off to the fine folks who will edit it and publish it, and that gives me a couple of months or so away from it. When it comes back, I generally have a month or so to rewrite it according to the notes and suggestions that they have made.
It goes to the copy editors from there and they usually have it for a month. Then I get it back and have about a month to make the changes that have to be made.
By the time that it is finished I have written it five or six times.

Do you have a particular time that you like to write?
I like to be up and in my studio with my second cup of coffee between four and five every morning. I like to write when my mind is clear and the world is quiet. The longer the day goes on, the more distractions there are. I try to be finished with the writer part of being a writer by nine or so. By then, the business part of being a writer has snuck in under the studio door and there are telephone calls and letters and such that have to be done, and I find that I usually cannot write any more that day.

Do you use a computer or do you write by hand?
I write the first draft by hand in little sketchbooks. It makes me go slower. Writing fast, at least for me, leads to bad writing. In fact, once I have typed it all in and have a clean hard copy, I actually paste it into a sketchbook and do the next three rewrites by hand as well.
My idea of a hardware upgrade is a fresh bottle of ink.

Do you use an outline to plot everything out before you write?
Usually I start with little more than two or three stories that I think I want to tell because they seem to be related to some thing I have been wondering about. Or I have a question that has come to me that seems to point to something that matters and those stories seem to be connected to the question.
I begin by telling those stories to myself, on paper, to see if the story begins to tell me what it means. After a few stories, I have a sense of what the other stories might be, and the thing begins to take shape. When the stories are told, then I can sit down and shift them around and make an outline so that I know what I am actually writing.

How did you decide to become a writer?
I grew up in a family of writers and poets and letter writers and artists and musicians of one kind or another. And our family owned a publishing business that I worked in for some ten years or so, spending most of my time around creative people. At our house, a kid who wanted to be a writer was encouraged to try it.
When I was thirteen or so, my father brought a young singer-songwriter to stay at our house while he was in town to record an album. I got to go back and forth to the studio for the sessions and when it was time to release the album, they asked me to write the liner notes. When the record came out, I took one look at my name in print and I was hooked. It took a long time before I was able to be a writer full time, but that was the beginning of it.

Who is your greatest influence as a writer?
In the beginning, it was my father, who was a fine storyteller and speaker and writer himself.
Next, it was a crowd of poets – Wordsworth, Coleridge, and later Rilke and Gibran. I still reread Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads and Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and some of Gibran’s work several times a year. The things that they wrote about the poet’s place in the world and the work a poet is called to do never fails to make me want to stand up and salute something. It also makes me want to sit down and write something.
Finally, I was introduced to the work of Annie Dillard and Frederick Buechner and Thomas Merton. They are the guiding lights for me as a writer. I spend most of my days trying to write one sentence that would be so good that you could slip it into one of their books and no one would notice that it had been written by someone else.

If you were not a writer, what would you be?
Several cheeky answers come immediately to mind – even more lost than I am; even less worthy to have space on the planet than I am now; a man without a web site.
Seriously – though I was more serious about the above answers than you might expect – I sometimes wish that I was a baseball coach and a teacher. I also have a hankering sometimes to be in the restaurant business, which seems a little odd. Evidently there is a genetic reason for this, I have two sons who cook in two very fine local restaurants.
Poet is a large word to me – it includes painters and singers and photographers and essayists and novelists and landscapers, as far as I am concerned. I was made to be a poet and if I had grown up under the influence of something other than the printed page, I would have ended being a poet still, just working in another medium.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
I was taught that a writer has three jobs : Learn the craft. Find your voice. Discover what is that you have to say that no one else can say.

The last one takes time and miles and experience. It is a thing that one grows into, by and large, and is best discovered not only by writing but by living one’s life at some degree of attention for the things that catch your eye and your ear and your spirit.

Finding your voice takes time as well. It takes a considerable pile of pages to begin to know what is truly yours and what is not.
The first one is the only thing that you can actually do to help with either of the above. To paraphrase the advice from Michelangelo to a young artist, ‘Write, Antonio, write. Write and do not waste time.’

Write every day. Write whatever is given you to write with all the art and craft you can muster. Watch the faces of your readers and listeners when you can, the look on their face will tell you if you have turned the phrase or not. Take any job that anyone offers you that will pay you to learn the craft.

Read only good writing, never bad. If you can write better work than the the work that is in what you are reading, stop reading it. Read Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke and The Writing Life by Annie Dillard as often as is necessary to keep your spirits up. They are preaching to the choir but that is the best way to get the choir to stand up and sing. Or sit down and write. And writing is the only way to become a writer.

Do you have any advice for people who have a full time job and want to write full time?
Pick a time of day and a place where you can write. Tell everyone that you have to tell that these moments are for writing and nothing else. Lock the door, hang a sign on the window, barricade yourself in. Write a few hundred words each day, no more, no less. And do it every day.
Writers produce sentences. If you are not producing sentences, and then paragraphs, and then books, you are not a writer, you are a dabbler. Which is not a bad thing, but it is a good thing that you already have a job.




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