Dancing on the Head of a Pen by Robert Benson

by Guest Blogger June 10, 2016

Review of Dancing on the Head of a Pen: The Practice of a Writing Life, by Robert Benson (WaterBrook Press, 2014). Reviewed by Annie Kyle

When I intentionally call to my mind an image, memory, or association with the fairly generic noun dance, what I first think of is a scene from J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. Dr. Englund, teacher of my twelfth-grade honors English class, assigned this novel in the spring of my senior year. She informed us that the dance, the Glass family parents practicing their vaudeville act, symbolized the art and balance of joy in challenging times. I remember this because, living in constant fear of her meticulous and unforgiving binder checks, I took excellent notes. It is to Dr. Englund’s credit, then, that the title of Robert Benson’s book Dancing on the Head of a Pen: The Practice of a Writing Life immediately brings to my mind high school whiteboards and the intimidating word symbol written out in her immaculate handwriting. Skeptical of this “dance” symbol and lengthy title, I ventured to turn the first pages of Benson’s book. It was only a few sentences before Dr. Englund fled my mind, and I began to be very grateful for what I was reading.

Robert Benson grew up in Nashville in a writing family, one which owned its own publishing company. Among other books, he has written Living Prayer, Venite: A Book of Daily Prayer, Digging In: Tending to Life in Your Own Backyard, and Home by Another Way: Notes from the Caribbean. A speaker and retreat leader, he is known for his thoughts on the Christian faith and on writing.

His title describes the writing life as both an art and a craft, and his book sets out to describe the rhythms, techniques, and challenges of this practice. Moving well beyond an ode to art, Benson comes alongside writers with the gentle hand of a pastor. If you write regularly, if you wish you would write, if you think you should write, or even if you used to write some time ago, this book is for you.

Far from writing a simple how-to book, Benson takes a tone of disarming honesty and refreshing humility. In his first chapter he ruminates, “These practices that keep me working may do little more than remind you of how your way of working suits you. But if they remind you to practice more faithfully, more rigorously, more diligently, I will count the dark marks on these pages worthwhile.” The confidentiality of his tone soon made me forget I was reading a published work, believing, instead, I was reading a letter. He fills his book with parenthetical asides and teasingly self-deprecating jokes, which build a gentle camaraderie with the reader. One of my favorite passages describes his own attempts to mask his writer’s block as well as his many methods of procrastination. He knowingly admits, “Every writer goes through stretches of time when it is hard to get up in the morning and go sit down and write.” With an even more surprising vulnerability, Benson admits that he, as a writer, needs to be read. He crafts his book with a holistic understanding of the writing life and from experience: his perspective does not deny the lies and laziness of writing, the mundane tasks or its guilty pleasures.

Consistent in his humility, Benson builds his cause by referencing other writers, and he peppers his prose with quotes and other people’s stories. His own advice comes in the form of personal anecdotes, always with a conscientious caveat for the writer who works in different ways. Some readers may feel he qualifies himself too much. Even so, the care, intentionality, and openness of his words lend him a great approachability and gain him a listening ear.

Benson uses his advantage well: jumping right into the practical, Benson’s advice grounds a writer in reality and sets her on a course with attainable steps. He shares, for example,

If the work is rolling along smoothly when I get to six hundred words, I stop anyway, even if I am in the middle of a sentence. I know I have to come back tomorrow, and I discovered years ago it is better to come back to a place where I have some idea of what I am doing next. At the very least I try to leave myself mid-paragraph, the easier to know how to begin when I come back in the morning.

His instruction includes helpful tips (reframing “writer’s block” as “writer’s pause”) as well as guiding principles (writing in the “company” of great writing). His specificity demystifies the art of writing in an empowering way. While Benson presents an overwhelming task (writing a book), he gives step-by-step leading.

There are two mistakes of the guidance counselor: one is to leave the person without a way forward. Benson avoids this well. The other mistake is to lose sight of the big picture. Benson keeps the reader-writer aware of a larger perspective by exploring both the sacred significance of writing as well as, strangely, its insignificance. The significance communicated in this work could not be more palpable: Benson has a true reverence for writing—I have never been so conscious of the sacred and physical nature of books as I have been reading Dancing on the Head of a Pen: The Practice of a Writing Life. These “ink stains” have new meaning for me. Yet, in characteristic humility, he remembers that there is life outside his own work. He comments, “Last week while reading Buechner, I realized that if I wanted to make a contribution to the literary world, I should do his laundry and mow his grass so he would have more time to write.” Benson does not encourage a writer to hold her writing as the ultimate end, and, in this unanticipated yet refreshing wisdom, he frees the artist from encumbering expectations.

Benson’s book made me want to listen and made me want to write. He dances with the confidence of someone who believes well in the power of the written word. I want the writing life he describes. I want to emulate his artful, clear, and warm style. I want to learn this dance.

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Annie Kyle, Westmont College graduate and English Literature major, lives in beautiful Santa Barbara where she travels on her bike, back and forth many times, from apartment to church office. She spends weekends eating tacos, speaking Spanglish, and obsessively redecorating her apartment porch—the place where post 6pm, you will find her almost exclusively (with, of course, a book, a friend, or both).

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