Behind the Books with Richard Lischer

Richard Lischer's courageous new memoir -- Stations of the Heart -- is a touching and sensitive search for meaning in the wake of a child's death. Fate dealt Richard a crippling blow when his son Adam called in 2005 to explain the ugly return of  the melanoma his body had harbored, news that began to unravel the bright future his son seemed destined to have. The heartbreak that ensued barely gave Richard room to come to terms with it all before, in three month's time, Adam passed away.

But in that concentrated period, through the furious, processing-haze, Richard learned a series of valuable spiritual lessons, as well as a renewed understanding of man's place on earth. A teacher for over three decades, Richard stepped down from the lectern in Adam's time of need and returned dutifully to the pupil's chair, discovering new facets of despair and hope by watching his son exhibit strength, resolve, and acceptance in his final days. The result, though shadowed by loss, is a powerful and moving portrait of the unbreakable bonds between father and son, and the lessons gleaned from every station of life.

With time, writing and reliving the past can prove to be its own form of catharsis. In that vein, we asked Richard about the habits he's formed around writing and reading. Richard is also the author of Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey Through a Country Church and The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence, and has served as a Professor of homiletics and ministry at Duke Divinity School since 1979. In this installment of Behind the Books, we learn of the "delaying tactics" that writers can't help but employ, his passion for Augustine's The Confessions, the formative impact of books, and how writing and reading is "but an exercise in being human."

BIOGRAPHILE: What’s your writing routine? Where, when, and how does it happen?

RICHARD LISCHER: I wish I had a routine!  When I am free of teaching obligations, I will write a couple pages every day.  The day begins with a good breakfast and a few “delaying tactics” (we all have them) followed by the confrontation with the computer screen.  I write into the afternoon and then do other things.  In mid-evening I edit and revise what I have written that day.  That session often goes late into the night.  It is followed by the reward of snacks, mindless TV and finally, bed.

Despite the usual advice, I have noticed that writing x number of pages per day does not make a book.  I have done that but, lacking a core purpose and being emotionally unprepared for my task,  I wound up scrapping much of what I’d written in Stations of the Heart and starting over — several times.

BIOG: What writers have influenced you most?

RL: Although I write essays and memoir, I think novelists have had the most influence on my writing.  I love Graham Greene above all; his style is inimitable.  Once I read pages and pages of A Burnt Out Case and couldn't find a single adjective.  I also love everything by Ian McEwan, Kafka, Conrad, Chaim Potok, everything by John Updike, Kingsley Amis, John Knowles, Walker Percy,  Flannery O’Connor, Alice McDermott and the spare precision of Marilynne Robinson.  Also many non-fiction writers, but especially, Joan Didion.  I also like the Victorians, e.g., Edmund Gosse, Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf.

BIOG: What genre do you read the most? Does it change often?

RL: Modern fiction, British.

BIOGRead any great biographies or memoirs recently?

RL: Jon Krakauer can really tell a storyI recently read and enjoyed, Love’s Work by Gillian Rose.  Also Breathing Space by Heidi Neumark;  Plan B by Anne Lamott.  I am looking forward to reading David McGlynn’s A Door in the Ocean. 

BIOGApart from the Bible, is there one book you return to again and again, whether because it has a resounding spiritual message or is simply a pleasure to read?

RL: Augustine, The Confessions — both for its message and the pleasure of it.  I continue to read it and to teach it.  Augustine writes with the consciousness of a modern.  He allows the reader to enter his mind as he works.  I put Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s  Letters and Papers from Prison in the same category, though for different reasons.  Also, The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton and The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day.

BIOGWhat classics would you read if you had all the time in the world?

RL: I would go back to works I was introduced to in my college days.  I would sit in a comfortable place and read Plato, the Greek tragedians, especially Sophocles, and I would re-read the great novels of Dostoyevsky. They probe the great human themes, and what is writing or reading but an exercise in being human?

BIOGIt’s said that people either read to escape or read to remember. Do you fall into one of these groups?

RL: For me, neither.  I read for pleasure, but most of all, I read to be formed by others:  formed in my thinking by encountering the insights of others, and formed in my writing by means of imitation and admiration.

BIOGTo the aspiring writer, what advice would you give? What advice helped you become the writer you are today?

RL: My advice is to keep working at it and, as you do, take time to study the writing of others. Disciplined imitation is very important.  I learned a lot about writing from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life—not so much about its technical aspects, but her book opened my eyes to a few huge principles of writing that helped me a lot.  Plus, she pumps you up on every page!  Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird was also painlessly instructive.  In the end, it isn’t advice that helps me as much as encouragement.  A little encouragement keeps me running a long time.

BIOGFaulkner said a writer needs three things: experience, observation, and imagination. Do you use all three equally, or rely on one over another?

RL: I can’t break it down, but I wouldn't argue with Faulkner! I also think certain personal qualities are necessary. You have to believe in yourself and have a single-minded devotion both to your subject and to your craft.

BIOGWhat’s next on your reading list?

RL: Rousseau’s Confessions;  William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience.  I am presently writing a book on religious autobiography and memoir.