Conversation with a Creative: Meet Dr. Karen Swallow Prior

Photo by Lashonda delivuk

Photo by Lashonda delivuk

Last month I started a new feature in which I interview creatives one by one, seeking to learn  their creative strategies and lifehacks, what creativity means to them and how they combat fear. You guys seemed to really be inspired by John Carl (if you missed it click that and catch up!). Today I'm thrilled to be back with my second creative conversation. Dr. Karen Swallow Prior is an author, professor, thought leader and let's be honest--mad cool fashionista. We sat down in August and talked about writing, running and trolls. Enjoy.

HS: What does creativity mean to you?

 KSP: Creativity is a human expression of being made in God’s image. But while God creates out of nothing we who are made in his image create out of materials. So for me creativity cannot be separated from the materials that we draw from. That’s why as an educator and a reader I think it’s important for creative people—people who want to be creative—to fill their stores with good material. I don’t labor under the illusion (that many do) that creativity is simply “inspired.” For me, as a writer, I think i’m going to be the best writer I can be by reading the best [writing] I can read. That [principle] applies to other arts as well. [It’s important] to learn from the artists who have gone before us, to continually refresh our stores with others’ works and ideas. We don’t create out of nothing; we create out of community.


HS: Can you further unpack that connection between creativity and community?

KSP: We don’t create out of nothing; we create out of the materials and ideas that have come before us. That’s a kind of community. Community can be physical— the people you’re surrounded by —but also community [can be experienced] from art that has gone before us. There’s influences to draw from and the influence we have on others. That’s part of community too.


HS: So what have you been reading lately? 

KSP: My reading is suffering from this digital age (laughs). I’m reading a lot more short pieces, blogs. Then I read the books that I teach for class. I really only read a few new books a year. So I do most of my pleasure reading in the summer. I’m finishing up now, a book I’ll be teaching, Imagining the Kingdom by James K Smith. It’s the second in a series. It has to do with how our habits and practices shape our thinking and desires.


HS: One thing I’ve noticed about your writing is that it is prolific. It seems like you’re publishing an essay every day. How do you do it?

KSP: I don’t feel like I’m ever “off.” I can’t shut off my brain. I run every day and that’s when I’m thinking about my writing or refining something I’ve been working on or I’m listening to audiobooks or podcasts. I run in the morning and then I’m writing or teaching in the afternoons and then writing more in the evenings. It has become a natural rhythm.


HS: Do you have any strategies for combating writer’s block?

KSP: I have too many ideas. That’s my problem! So I definitely have a problem with having too many ideas and not having time to write about what I want to write about. I don’t enjoy 80% of the writing. I enjoy having the ideas and I enjoy editing and revising. The actual creation of writing and getting the first draft down is painful and unpleasant. The researching part is easy because I can google (laughs). Shaping the work is really hard. Making the connections—I have to think really hard about making the connections. Sometimes something is intuitive to me and making it clear and articulate is difficult. Somewhere between the idea and putting it all together is the painful part. The polishing is the fun part. For example, the Cecil the Lion/Planned Parenthood article—my editor called. I said “I’m really busy, I don’t think I can, let me think about it. Let me think about it this morning.” I couldn’t see what I could say. I went running. And while I was running a phrase came to my mind. I texted my editor and i said “I think i have it” and we talked on the phone. The phrase was “willfull ignorance.” I had to run several miles before it came to me and then I had to run several more to flesh it out. As I was running another idea came to me. I had so many threads of thought it was hard to focus it. Back to community. The stereotypical writer/editor relationship is antagonistic. But I love my editors. I’m blessed to have good editors. i love being well-edited. The writer/editor relationship is one of the best examples of community and iron sharpening iron. I get to a point where I’m trying to make these connections. One of my editors will reorganize my paragraphs. Being well-edited is when someone takes my raw materials and makes it sharper and clearer. It makes my writing better. That’s one of the reasons I don’t want to have my own blog. As an academic we have the process of peer review and it’s very healthy for the most part. In popular publishing the editing process is the parallel. Someone else with perspective is balancing and proofing. They’re the gatekeepers, judgers and assessors that come into play before it goes out into the world.

my husband and i went to dr. prior's book signing of course. :)

my husband and i went to dr. prior's book signing of course. :)

HS: I was curious if there was a deep connection between your running habit and your writing. It sounds like there might be.

KSP: I really believe in balance. (That’s one reason I’m excited Liberty is hosting Bernie Sanders). So much of my life is in my head: teaching/reading/writing. I’m not an athlete, I’m not good at anything physical, but running gives me something physical. To be outside balances and takes away some of the stress of my brain. Same with taking care of the animals: the horses and the chickens and Ruby and Lucy (See her Instagram to see photo proof of all!).

HS: What does your writing routine look like?

KSP: It’s very, very unorganized. I’m working around teaching so it’s not the same schedule every day. During the semester I try to build my writing into it. I really need to be more organized.

HS: Your first book for non-academics came out in 2012. You’ve been a professor and academic for quite some time. Can you talk about the shift to becoming a sought after voice for Evangelicals and an author? How/why did this shift occur? Are these goals you had always wanted to achieve?

KSP: Since I was in college I wanted to be a syndicated columnist. I was inspired by George Will. This was before the Internet was invented (laughs). I always imagined being a columnist for a newspaper but that was before I went on to become a professor. This was when I was an undergrad english major writing for the student paper. I didn’t know I was going to go on and be a professor. When I began teaching my students helped me. Because of my approach to teaching—putting life and literature and my faith together—that began to be a driving message—how those things connect. Thus my Twitter handle: lovelifelitgod. Booked was inspired by students who asked me for reading recommendations. It was inspired by their desire to read more. It took several years to get a publisher for Booked. Right around the time that I got the publishing contract for Booked, I was contacted for a new christian women’s blog. It was a total coincidence. Social media has allowed this to happen for me. When I was trying to get a publisher I wasn’t on Twitter yet; I was writing notes on Facebook. A student encouraged me to join Twitter.

HS: And the rest is history! So on the topic of social media--you know, when you first dreamed of becoming a columnist you probably couldn’t have imagined the instantaneous feedback you get now on social media. And the trolling…what’s your approach to that?

KSP: Even though I never could’ve imagined trolling in social media form like we have today, it’s my academic studies that prepared me for it. My specialty is the 18th century english novel. The whole development of the english novel was trolling. A writer would write a novel like Pamela and then another writer would write their “anti-Pamela.” There were all of these spin-offs. This sort of thing has been in print culture since print culture was created. This antagonistic dialectical development of ideas—it’s the same thing on Twitter. Instead of 1000-page novels it’s 140 characters. So in terms of things that have happened to me, controversies and attacks, it’s not personal. They don’t even know me. When they don’t even know you, they’re basing some critique off of one thing you wrote. I don't take it personally. There’s real damage that can be done. But most of the damage is done to the people who do that sort of attacking.

HS: How was Booked conceived? Is it an idea you had in mind for a long time?

KSP: The idea for the book came to me from a book called How Movies Helped Save My Soul. Before the book came [in the mail] I was walking. I thought to myself, “how literature helped save my soul. I could write that book. That goes back to the community. We’re all influenced by the things we surround ourselves with. That’s why it’s a good idea to surround ourselves with good things.

HS: What is your advice to a young aspiring memoirist?

KSP: The memoir genre is big now. A lot of people are saying it’s overdone. I would caution one to keep that in mind. It’s really important not to tell your story until you know how that story ends. I’m not a big fan of memoirs by really young people. It depends. There has to be a sense that that story in your life, that that story has ended before you write your memoir. It’s the same thing with like a Christian, radical, dramatic conversion. It’s dangerous to propel people out into leadership or on a platform before that story has been able to take root over time. Don’t be in a hurry to tell your story. The other advice I would give: every one’s story is a part of someone else’s story. it’s important when telling your story to handle other people’s stories with care.

HS: What is the best advice you’ve received in your career (and/or journey as a writer)?  

KSP: The best advice I received about writing a memoir, was to, in the drafting form, to tell more rather than less in drafting. You can always take stuff out. That changed Booked for me. When I handed in the draft my editor wanted me to tell more of my story. Be honest and vulnerable without being overbearing. I naturally would’ve been more reserved.

HS: Who are your mentors?

KSP: The early mentors in my life were pastors who cultivated my leadership skills when I didn’t know I had them. I have to give credit to two or three pastors who saw me doing things that I never would’ve seen: leading, speaking. Never would’ve ever! They get credit for seeing that in me.

HS: Any closing thoughts?

KSP: I would never want to have to rely on my writing as my livelihood. Not to say that other people couldn’t or shouldn’t do it--and even though time is always an issue. In talking with other writer friends who are trying to make their living from writing, I find it very freeing to not do that, to be able to write, as I want, in the limited time I have. I write out of passion rather than financial need. People criticize writers for constantly promoting, but it’s how they make a living. This is what they have to do. Whether you have a “day job” or write full time, there are going to be sacrifices you make. You have to choose which sacrifices.

Dr. Karen Swallow Prior is author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and Fierce Convictions: the Extraordinary Life of Hannah More. Did something in this interview resonate with you? Share it in the comments!