Reclaiming

Grace Is Where I Live: Writing As a Christian Vocation, by John Leax (Baker, 149 p, $14 99, paper). Reviewed by Virginia Stem Owens, author of the novel "A Multitude of Sins" (Baker).

Thinkers have long wrestled with this conundrum: How can we learn what we don't already know? Is personal experience not just the best but the only teacher? Or is it possible to communicate hard-won knowledge to others so convincingly that it carries the weight of their own experience?

In "Grace Is Where I Live," John Leax, poet-in-residence at Houghton College in New York, makes the most promising attempt I have seen to enlighten novice writers, and he does it in a refreshingly lucid prose, unpolluted with the ego that so often finds its way into the best writers' words.

He has, he says, "written the book I didn't have 30 years ago when I needed it"—though he realizes that he would have resisted it then, just as students may today. Why? Because it deals with holiness as much as "how-to." Leax traces the youthful awakenings of his literary gifts to the inner and outer pressures he felt to enter "the ministry" and leave the "nonsense" of poetry behind him. He recounts the lesson that finally freed him: "The self I had to reject was not the poem-making self that brought me disapproval but the praise-seeking self that would have used the ministry to gratify its basest desire."

Autobiography and analogy are Leax's best pedagogical tools. "How could I shape a pattern of meaning and still allow characters freedom?" he asks. The answer is found in analogy. "The story itself is its meaning," writes Leax. "A writer's task is first, to tell it and, second, to trust it."

"But," he adds, "I also live a story I have chosen." Actually, ...

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