The Word Nerds are happy to welcome Erin Wasinger to the blog today. This is a weird convergence of life as Erin was Bethany’s editor back in Wisconsin, editing the Author Answers column for publication when other authors were answering similar questions. Life has taken them both away from newspaper journalism, but the Word Nerds are thrilled to have her back as an author, talking about the book she co-wrote with Sarah Arthur, “The Year of Small Things.”
WN: Tell us what “The Year of Small Things” is about and what kind of reader will find it appealing?
ERIN: “The Year of Small Things: Radical Faith for the Rest of Us” is the story of two families, one church, in one city (Lansing, Mich.), who commit to 12 small but radical changes in the hopes of growing in love for God, their neighbors, and their church. Our families tackle topics influenced by a movement called “new monasticism” (in short, people who live in downwardly mobile, church-centered communities for the sake of sharing life with the poor). One month it’s hospitality (not the Martha Stewart kind), another it’s finances or caring for the earth. A few months we talk about conversations we feel are missing from new monastics’ conversations: self-care and time, for instance. Committing to these practices are Sarah Arthur (my co-author) and her husband and two boys; and my family: my husband and three girls. In the book, we invite the reader to imagine what their small things might look like, and how they can find community around others who share some of the same values.
Who might like it: Anyone who’s felt like there has to be more to faith but who finds “radical” voices or messages too far out there. Anyone who’s done the radical thing (living in an intentional community, volunteering, Peace Corps-ing it, living in a yurt for Jesus’ sake, etc.) but now feels burnt out, or feels the experience was a lifetime ago. People who love to ask “why” when they see problems in their communities. People who want to “do something to help” but don’t know where to start or have debt, children, jobs, etc. to take care of.
Recovering American dreamers and idealists. Christian thinkers and those who think Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and John Perkins are spot-on, but don’t see any speck of those prophetic messages in their own lives. People who love God but are bored, antsy. In short, do-gooders and do-gooder wannabes.
WN: What was it like to work with a co-author?
ERIN: It was awful and I’d never do it again.
No. Maybe I felt that way maybe once through the whole process (I think it was the 17th time we changed the introduction).
Otherwise, writing in community was amazing. Talking content, this book wouldn’t be what it is without two writers. Our perspectives balanced each other: she came from Duke Divinity, where she lived in an intentional community. I was a Toledo grad who only lives in community if you count small children. That was important for the theological weight and the “this is how you do it in your everyday life” angle. Practically speaking, Sarah was so generous with her experience and gracious in her guidance and suggestions. Having someone reading every revision you write makes you a stronger writer. And having someone there reminding you that chapter 3 is not your Waterloo moment is always a good thing.
In addition, Sarah has way more experience in book publishing than I do, so she was mentoring me all along. Since marketing is part of an author’s gig now, that meant she was introducing me to folks in the industry before we’d even started writing anything. Now that we’re in publicity mode, we get to share the social media burden/ love. It’s fun having someone who also loves the project as much as I do. I’d truly do it again tomorrow with the right person or topic.
WN: How did you background as a newspaper editor prepare you (or not) for the nuts and bolts of working on a book?
ERIN: Oh, good question. Sometimes it was a help, sometimes it was a hindrance. Mostly, working at a newspaper taught me to ask questions — that was the most helpful. I don’t think you can write a book about something as out-there as new monasticism if you’re not someone who likes to ask why things are and how systems work. Newspapers taught me to write clearly and succinctly, to tell stories, and to look for the humanity and gray areas in any situation. And that editors are always, always your friend.
Annoyingly, the most frustrating difference between a book and newspapers is timing. As you know, when you’re assigned a story at a newspaper, you research, interview, and report — mostly in one day. By contrast, a book that reflects on an entire year often takes so much revision that at one point my eye would twitch when Sarah would casually suggest, “I think we need to revisit the introduction.” I really, really like tight deadlines, and two years to write and edit a book is the antithesis.
One more thing I’m just realizing: in newspapers, we can follow stories the next day (or later) when we have more information. In writing a memoir, readers only get a snapshot of (for us) one year of our lives. And I finished that story a year ago already! I have to remember we wrote it to start a conversation, not to be a definitive guide on anything.
WN: Your children have been part of your “years.” How have they influenced this process?
ERIN: Oh man. I can’t think about any part of this “Year of Small Things” experiment without thinking about the kids. They’re an ever-present part of the equation; maybe they’re even something deeper than some outside influence on any process. Every decision considered their growing faith, their physical care, their education, their relationship with our church.
But notice I didn’t say decisions “revolved around” them, though. We’re trying to be clear about growing closer to Jesus. Sometimes the decisions we make really bum out our kids (how we spend our time and money, for one). But they also make sure decisions don’t revolve around me or my husband Dave. I’d love to do certain things that aren’t congruous for us as a family right now. We discern what God’s up to in our lives with that whole picture, the kids, us, our church, our city. That’s the goal anyway. We mess up, too: builds more character, therapy for the kids, fuel for their own memoirs someday, etc.
WN: What books are you loving right now?
ERIN: So many. The most recent ones I’ve been recommending: “A Man Called Ove,” by Fredrik Backman; “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott (of course); and — oh, this one’s tied with Ove for my favorite book as of late — “Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty,” by her granddaughter Kate Hennessy. I jokingly call Day (the co-founder of the Catholic Worker) “the patron saint of ‘The Year of Small Things’” (she’s actually being vetted for canonization in the Catholic Church now); but Hennessy uses family documents to show us Dorothy’s human side, too.
Each of these books, I’m noticing, is about strong characters who find themselves begrudgingly creating community. “Begrudgingly” is a very big draw for me. So is community.
WN: What’s up next for you as a writer?
ERIN: That is a big question. I’m impatient to see myself what’s next. I’m not sure which amalgamous idea will solidify into a book or a project. In the meantime, I’ll just keep reading, freelancing, and asking “I wonder why …” questions about stuff in my world. In short, I’m pre-reporting, doing the work before the work.