“Songs require patience,” writes Andrew Peterson in Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making. “Books require endurance. Songs are 100-meter dashes. Books are marathons. You have a lot more opportunity to question your sanity when you’re battling your way through the jungle of a novel for a year.” Peterson writes both songs and books, and he knows the challenges of both.
I’ve read a multitude of books about writing, fiction writing, publishing, book marketing, writing style, writing challenges, writer’s block, and several other categories. Never have I read a book about writing that spoke directly into my soul. Until Adorning the Dark.
I almost didn’t buy it. Not another book on writing, I thought. But I’d heard Peterson perform a few months ago; he was in town for a concert and stayed overnight to sing at a fundraising dinner for my grandsons’ school. He displayed a humility rare in performers today; he was also funny, engaging, and told great stories. Then I saw a notice about the book and bought it.
The book is part memoir and part reflection on why we write both songs and books. It’s also part autobiography. He began as a singer-songwriter, caught a break when he was asked to open for a popular band and then go on tour with them, and was signed to a five-album deal with a record label. Then came the post-9/11 recession. His story-style music was suddenly out of fashion, and the label dropped him. He and his wife also had three young children and no other source of income.
A record industry executive suggested he turn to books, and he eventually wrote the Wingfeather Saga, including The Monster in the Hollows and The Warden and the Wolf King. His music picked up again. A fan of writer Wendell Berry, Andrew and his wife bought a farmhouse desperately in need of work but with acreage outside Nashville. He helped create The Rabbit Room, to encourage other artists and build a community that values music, art and story. That community’s creators have gone on to publish children’s books, fantasy novels, and more; to promote books and music by community artists; and to host an annual conference.
Adorning the Dark is built around six ideas on writing, creativity, and inspiration. Primary is what Peterson calls “serving the work.” The creative process, he says, is profoundly spiritual and profoundly mysterious, and it teaches us that creativity is not about serving an agenda but about serving the work that is before you. Peterson also addresses serving the audience, selectivity, discernment, discipline, and community. What he sings and what he writes come from a faith that is both deep and winsome.
“Time is unfolding like a scroll,” he writes, “and we’re letters on the parchment, helping to make up the words that tell the story. Each of us is a character, in both senses of the word. At times, characters become aware that they’re part of the story, and that brings the realization that, first, there is an author, and second, they are not him. This realization is good and proper.”
After I finished Adorning the Dark, I understood my own four novels and one nonfiction book better. I understood my work in progress even more. This is the kind of book that changes you, even if you don’t fully understand how. It’s a mystery, and that’s what it should be.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish
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