The Theologist / Natalie Carnes / Craft, Creation, and Writing

The Theologist is your guide to all things writing and publishing in the fields of theology and biblical studies, from finding inspiration for your work to reading the best literature on writing, from overcoming writing obstacles to finding writing mentors, and more. In this latest installation of The Theologist, we interviewed Natalie Carnes, theology professor at Baylor University and author of several books, including Cascade’s Beauty: A Theological Engagement with Gregory of Nyssa (2014).

How do your ideas for book projects typically begin to formulate?

Teaching experiences, previous research projects, books outside my discipline, assigned topics for papers or talks—I find book ideas originate variously. Something sparks a question or elicits interest, and I keep faith with that spark by writing about it. I open a new document and start a series of dated entries that I return to from time to time as I’m reminded of the topic. The idea sort of simmers on the back burner until it thickens into something I can devote my full attention to—or until I can give it the attention it wants. 

Not every idea becomes a project. Sometimes my interest fizzles because I forget to tend to it, or because I do not see where to travel next with it, or because the spark proves less generative than I thought it would be. But enough ideas turn into book projects to keep me busy. And who knows? Maybe the ones that seem dead to me now are only hibernating until the season is right.

What helps you in specifying and narrowing your research for a given book project? How do you manage your intellectual curiosity when it wants to travel in too many directions at once?

Ah, a generous assumption embedded here. Do I manage my curiosity?? My mind tends toward intellectual profligacy. There’s danger in that, but I’ve come to accept that it’s also part of my particular gift as a theologian. So I journal through my profligacy. I write about the strange tangents I’m tempted to pursue or the unlikely associations that suggest themselves, and in my writing, I draw these diverse interests back to my central question, to see if they might speak to the heart of my project. Sometimes I end up abandoning a digression as a rabbit trail. Sometimes a detour becomes its own project. And sometimes byways turn out to be new paths through the project.

What do you look for in a publisher and/or editor when you have a manuscript in the works that you’d like to publish?

The first question I ask myself is what audience I want to reach. Then I consider the books a publisher releases, the series they host, the conferences they attend, the marketing they do, and the price points they list. These are all ways of collecting information about how a publisher might connect me to an audience while also identifying whether the publisher is a good fit for a particular manuscript. 

Concerns with audience take a backseat, though, if the book is part of an academic credentialing process like tenure, at which point considering which publishers “count” for the credentialing institution is paramount. 

I have to say, it’s also wonderful to work with a great editor, but at most academic publishers, the acquisitions editor (your first contact) is not someone you work with much after the book has been acquired.

Are there any activities that help you get your mind off your research and writing? If so, what are they, and how do they help you relax and clear your mind?

There is nothing more effective at directing my attention away from research and writing than my children. Parenting for me has introduced a strong work-life boundary I may have struggled to set without kids. 

I also enjoy beginning my day with a run, which takes me out of my head, where I tend to live a little too much. And I enjoy ending the workday by cooking dinner. On my cooking days, I don’t make anything fancy or that creative. I just find it soothing to settle into rhythms of chopping, stirring, adjusting, and creating a pleasurable, sensory event to gather my family together. The actual dinner may not end up being the idyllic event I imagine, but in the moments I’m cooking, I’m unwinding, listening to good music, and anticipating a time of reconnecting with the ones I love most in the world.

Has your mind changed on any particular topics you’ve written about in any significant ways since you first started publishing your work? If so, how has your mind changed?

My first book was published just nine years ago, and I haven’t had any huge changes of mind since then. But there has been a subtle change. In the epilogue of Beauty, I write that the cross is beautiful only because of the resurrection, that without the resurrection event, the cross is nothing but horror. Now I would soften those claims. I don’t see the cross and resurrection as such distinct events, and I don’t see the resurrection’s relation to the cross primarily in terms of undoing. I see, instead, the cross as already a foreshadow of the resurrection. In seeing the way Love remains perfect love all the way through death, torture, and the worst humanity can manage, we already glimpse the power of the resurrection. The Love revealed on the cross is already death-defying, and the resurrection is love’s vindication.

How would you describe your relationship with work you’ve written in the past? What level of fidelity do you feel to your prior writing, and to what extent are you trying to carry forward what you started earlier?

I don’t feel any fidelity to my past writings! I don’t see my books as definitive statements about given topics. I see them as particular contributions or interventions I’m offering at particular times in service to particular conversations. My present self has grown and changed and lived into new contexts so that it sees things my past self could not. I hope my future self will expand still more.

That said, I do see continuity in my work, what I might identify as some core convictions that have motivated my last decade-plus of theology. First: theological aesthetics is not ancillary to systematic theology but speaks to its central concerns.  Second: theology and the arts should take us into the difficult realities of the world, not buffer us from them, and so, relatedly, the field should draw our attention to the most marginalized and subjugated of the world, where God is constantly drawing our attention. Third: feminist theology is at its core anti-idolatry project, which means it is central to both systematic theology and theological aesthetics.

What have been your biggest breakthroughs in writing throughout your training and career?

Early in my career, I was prejudiced against popular writing. I thought something could be academically significant or widely accessible, but not both. That began to change when I left graduate school and began to reflect more intentionally on writing. I realized all my training had been in ideas and thinking rather than the crafts of my discipline, writing and teaching. As I became interested in honing these arts, I came across some excellent books, including Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing. (I saw Nijay mentioned her as well in his recent Theologist interview!) Reading that book, I saw how many of her examples of excellent writing came from academics I admired and Pulitzer Prize winners who managed to appeal to a broad audience without sacrificing the complexity of thought. Over the years, I’ve challenged myself to distill my ideas to their simplest and most accessible form, and to attend to writing, not just as a vehicle for theological ideas, but as itself theologically significant.

What is the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given about writing?

First, writing is a habit. If you can, do it every day, even if it’s just a few minutes. If you write regularly on a particular project, your mind will keep thinking about it even when you’re not writing. If, however, you wait more than a couple days before returning to a project, you’ll often have to spend some time figuring out where you were in your thinking about it and trying to resituate yourself within it. (I’m noticing that all my writing advice is basically just to write!) 

Second, for your dissertation or first major project, give yourself a large thinker to work with, one you can stretch yourself against and who will open up a world for you. 

What is the biggest mistake young writers in the theological academy make? What advice would you give them for overcoming this mistake?

Passivity and waiting. Don’t wait for large blocks of time to write. And don’t wait until your writing is perfect to seek feedback. Write in conversation with others, ideally in a writing group where you can regularly share work and receive feedback. Also, good work does not just rise to the top. Everything happens through networks. Get to know people; join the conversations in your discipline; and take an interest in the work of others. 

Since your work draws on literary and visual art, what literary and visual works would you say have most influenced you and your thinking, and why?

There are so many! Lately I love reading the prose of poets. Perhaps because their orientation is towards creating images that continue to unfold even after the poem ends, poets can stay with ambiguities and complexities long after those of us in theology are inclined to close them down. Maggie Nelson does this beautifully, as does Carolyn Forché. I love the way their writing is alive to the world, as opposed to writing that retreats from it or wards it off. I aspire to embody that same aliveness in my writing. I’m not there yet, but it’s my guiding vision.

I’m also drawn to art that appropriates given or ancient forms to communicate something new, something that speaks into the complexities of our particular time and place. So I find myself returning again and again to Mark Doox’s reinterpretation of the Virgin of the Sign icon, Our Lady Mother of Ferguson, to think about how it presses us to receive Mary amidst the ongoing crisis of violence against Black bodies. In a different but related way, I love the work of Andy Goldsworthy, especially those projects when he takes a local, natural environment as both his setting and his medium to make something visually arresting and cause you to see the place differently. As I see them, both artists render for us something about what it means to do theology.

Tell us about the role of creativity in your writing process. In what ways might we describe theological writing as a creative act? 

Writing is an act of creation; it’s a craft; it requires imagination and artfulness to do well. So an important part of writing theology is nourishing your creative self. This is self-care, but not in the way it’s sold to us today as bath salts and chocolate. That self-care is a temporary reprieve from the grind of life. The self-care that nourishes creativity is much more demanding and more life-giving. For me, I care for my creative self by reading great fiction, spending time in nature, moving my body, connecting with loved ones, and investing in real rest. Sometimes writing can itself be an act of self-care, one that generates its own energy, but I become depleted if it’s not braided with other forms of replenishment.

Who is your favorite theologian (or two or three) to read, and why?

I still love reading Gregory of Nyssa. He is so unembarrassed in his writing, so present.

I can almost hear his voice when I read his homilies. They are so vivid and weird and full of conviction. 

What book (or books) are you currently reading?

Never just one thing! As I imagine many of us do, I have nightstand reading and desk reading. On my nightstand now I have Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree, and Maggie Nelson’s On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint. On my desk, I have Robin Jensen’s From Idol to Icon, Robert Pippin’s Philosophy by Other Means, and Nathan Snaza’s Animate Literacies

Truth be told, both reading stacks are messier than these lists suggest. My reading veers and lapses in and out of multiple articles and books at a time, with my pleasure books finding their way into my work, and my work books sometimes becoming my nighttime pleasure reads. I love the discipline of theology and yet my encounters with the minds and writings of others is constantly undisciplining me. The centuries-long, culture-crossing conversation that constitutes  theology is beautiful, flawed, insightful, frustrating—and I am always wanting to expand it, to take to it the other texts and art I love, to provoke it to consider what counts as theological and whether, in the end, our paths of fidelity might be blazed through fields we do not count our own. 

Natalie Carnes is Associate Professor of Theology and Affiliated Faculty in Women’s and Gender Studies at Baylor University.  She is the author of three books: Beauty (Cascade), Image and Presence, and Motherhood: A Confession. Currently she’s writing about the reading practices of feminist theology, co-authoring a book with Matthew Whelan on poverty and art, and trying her hand at some cross-disciplinary work with psychology. She lives in Waco with her husband Matthew, their three daughters, a dog-like cat, and an ever-dwindling flock of chickens.


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