When I venture out in public, the question people ask me most often is, “Where do you get the ideas for your newspaper columns?”
Usually I reply with something glib such as, “Deadlines.”
I take what I call the Samuel Johnson approach to writing.
Johnson famously said, “Depend upon it Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
Knowing I’m obliged to produce 800 words of printable prose each week tends to progressively concentrate my mind as my deadline day approaches. The deadline is my noose. Terror pops loose an idea from my normal torpor.
But that’s only a partial and, I admit, superficial answer to the question.
I draw ideas from all manner of sources: conversations with friends, news stories, public opinion polls, TV shows and movies, other people’s op-ed pieces I happened to disagree with, curious events from my past, even recycled sermons.
Having done this since the late 1980s, I find that the hardest part now is coming up with something fresh that I haven’t already written 25 times. To that end, I jot down possible topics in notebooks, on grocery receipts or on the backs of envelopes.
Sometimes I’ll run a few of these by my wife, Liz, who’s an excellent writer and a teacher of writing.
“OK,” I’ll say, “here are three possible topics. Any of these grab you?”
She’ll choose one. Or she’ll suggest something entirely different that I hadn’t even considered.
All that said, my preferred means of arriving at and writing about a topic is one I rarely discuss.
Even as I explain it here, I’m leery of being misunderstood or having my words distorted.
In my religious tradition, we believe Christians are indwelled by the Holy Spirit. That means a piece of God lives in our hearts.
This isn’t a radical idea. It’s a standard doctrine that dates back a couple thousand years.
I’m not sure what other major faiths say about that, but they might have some version of it themselves.
We Christians believe the Holy Spirit can guide us when we’re confused, teach us when we’re ignorant and comfort us when we’re anxious.
It’s not an overwhelming force that gives us infallible powers. Not by a long shot. It doesn’t drive us against our will or pole-ax our enemies.
I’ve heard it described, instead, as the Lord’s “still, small voice.” It’s quiet and it’s gentle and it’s good — and it’s easily ignored.
Not always, but often when I’m trying to write, I appeal to the Spirit.
When I write for the newspaper, I’m reaching out to thousands of strangers in varied locations, not only in Central Kentucky but, through the internet, around the country and even the globe.
Some are Christians. Some are atheists. Some are Hindus. Some are Jews. Some are seekers.
I don’t know what their hurts are. I don’t know what they believe. I don’t know what they’re interested in. I don’t know their fears. I don’t even know what amuses or entertains or diverts them.
Frequently, as I sit at my keyboard, harried and a bit perplexed, I pause to clear my mind.
I say silently to that fleck of God who lives in me and who knows every last person on earth and who knows exactly what each of us needs at any particular moment, “Lord, I have no idea what to write about or how to write it. If you’ve got anything you’d like to say, I’m all ears.”
Then I listen.
Then, uncertainly, I start to type what occurs to me. Peck. Peck. Delete. Peck.
I never for an instant think I’m receiving divine dictation from on high. I’m not a prophet, not the loudspeaker for the inerrant word. I don’t have all answers for everybody.
Some days, I may not have answers for anybody, including myself. Always, I may just be a gasbag blowing hot air. I make mistakes of fact and intention.
Yet I do trust that at times, the still, small voice whispers things to me that might touch the heart or the hurt of a stranger 100 miles away whom I’ll never meet.
What I write will be read by thousands, but maybe only one will get it.
But maybe that’s the person the Lord wanted to touch today. And that’s OK.
How do I come up with ideas? Mainly by blind faith.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.