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Faith is Taking a Step: The Writing Life with JoAnneh Nagler

Updated: Jul 1, 2021

“Faith is taking a step when you don’t know there’s a staircase,” Martin Luther King Jr.

Faith—that sense of amazing creative grace that’s so sought-after for those of us who are artists—is so lovingly summed up in this adage. It’s a reminder that what we’re doing as creative people has no path, no trail-lights to guide us, no well-worn road that shows us where to step next. In fact, no one is waiting for our work or pushing us toward any deadline or engrained road of delivery. We are inventing it from inside us with no path, no guideposts, and sometimes, barely a flashlight from our own heart to help us see where we’re going. That’s where faith comes in. And not religious faith either; not that kind—though an argument could be made for the fact that having creative faith is a mystical experience.

So, what does it mean to walk with faith as an artist?

First, we have to take our energy and attention out of external approval and outside the benchmarks of who we think we’re supposed to be, and what we think we’re supposed to do.

We have to forget about outcomes and potential “success” and how fast we think things are supposed to get done, and then let the process of expressing work its way through us.
We have to listen, in the very literal sense of the word, to our own insides—to our heart, our intuition, our own learning and our own callings.

We have to be able to hear those callings without the back-chatter of the expectations of others, or even what we think our society expects of us. When we separate ourselves from the “shoulds” of the world—when we give ourselves those little bits of time to invent and express—we offer ourselves the dignity of working our art as a discovery.

If we think about inventions—which is what we’re really working on in our creative life—they are never birthed into the world fully formed. Not even close.

They have to be dreamed over, sweated over, built, constructed, taken apart, and reworked numerous times before the thing that will really work appears. They need to be crafted, little by a little, by the light inside us, until we begin to see the whole landscape, the whole picture. That’s true both for earth-bound inventions and creative quests.

I’ll give you an example. When I started writing Stay with Me, Wisconsin, my collection of short stories to be published under Flying Ketchup Press's imprint Coyote Point Press (January 2022), I had no idea I was going to write an entire book of short stories. I was visiting friends in Southampton, on Long Island in New York, and I was walking along a grassy path next to a huge bright green hedge. I got something caught in between my toes—a leaf. As I bent down to take grasp it and brought it to my face, I had an image of a man, a cop, sitting in a squad car by the side of the road (I’d seen a cop car hiding in a drive the day before), and I thought of him watching me pick the green leaf from between my toes. Why? I have no idea. It just popped into my head—this thought of a lonely cop who came from someplace else, sitting by the side of the road in a squad car, musing about his life and his losses. And somehow, the graceful hand of a woman picking a leaf from between her toes (by now in my imagination, a woman who’s much older than him, who is grieving her husband’s death) and it touches him. And there in ten seconds, these characters popped into my head. It was amusing. But I started sketching some things on a notepad, and wrote all over little bits of paper and cocktail napkins on the plane, and by the time I got home I had a story. That story started to grow as I gave it time—and regular time. And it became the short story Green Leaf.

I had no reason at that moment to think that I would write a whole book of stories (I’d been writing nonfiction books), but there it was: a story coming out of me. And so I just decided to trust it. A little aside:

I’ve learned that if I want to be happy and not agitated in the world, I need to obey the creative call as it comes to me. To give up my control-freaky linear side and just trust.

I had to say to myself, “Okay, this thing is coming through me and it might lead to more of this, or it might lead me to something else.” And, what I found by giving myself permission to try writing this story, was that I loved writing fiction—it felt like cream in my soul: thick and rich and sweet and delightful. It was full of all the things I care about—beauty and humanity and honesty and feelings. Just there on the page—there it was. And it was still my voice, the same voice I had used writing my nonfiction books, but it was even closer to my heart. And that felt wonderful.

That little act of faith in my ideas and imagery led me to an illumination. I want to write fiction now, forever, for years; that I wholly and truly love it. It makes me feel entirely connected and unified with something good and meaningful. And all that because I picked up my pen when a few little images about a green leaf went running through my head and heart.

So, let’s talk about that discovery process a little more. To work well, our faith needs to be completely entwined with our discovery process. It is a realm of inventions. All of us, artists or not, are inventing our life, our characters, our imagery, our constructions. It’s as if the shapes and sounds and feelings of our souls are dying to come out—I call it “being pregnant with it”—even when we don’t know the shapes of them yet.

Crafting art is a particular invention process, and it is based on the relationship between our faith—that is, taking a step when we don’t know there’s a staircase; or lighting a little light when we can’t see the horizon—and our willingness to work even when we don’t know the outcome of a piece or a process.

That’s the magic dust. To work when we don’t know the shape, when it’s still foggy and unclear and covered with a dusty veil in our hearts and minds. To work anyway.

When we match our willingness to work—to take small steps toward the spark that has asked us to create something—with a belief that we are inventors and discoverers, we can then begin to make peace with our own creative voices. We begin, over time, to trust that our sense of composition will find us, that it will deliver, and it will find a way to complete itself through us.

But we have to give it the platform to birth itself. And that platform is setting aside the time, and doing the work, even when we don’t yet know what it is. To step when we don’t know there’s a staircase. When we do that, we begin to be more fearless in the face of our ideas. We give them voice and a place and the generosity of our time to explore them and get them out.

Faith then, becomes an applicable practice. It is more than mystical dust. It lives in us as the bedrock upon which we will build our willingness to work and deliver our art, piece by piece. To invent and discover and deliver—and then do it all over again.


Coyote Point Press is the literary fiction imprint of Flying Ketchup Press, publishing short stories of the highest caliber. We believe in exceptional fiction that pushes the boundaries of genres and spans emotional landscapes, taking readers behind the masks and under the skin of our evocative, complicated and frail humanity. Our stories will thrill and awaken your heart with bouts of passion, fury and pleasure; tenderness, hope and joy; and most importantly, to every sensual moment that makes us feel fully human and alive.

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