Kurt Armstrong

kurt-armstrongInterviewed by Thomas Guenther

Kurt Armstrong is a lay minister and handyman at Saint Margaret’s Anglican in Winnipeg, MB. He is a former editor at Geez magazine, the author of an essay collection, and a former adjunct professor at Providence University College, a small Christian Liberal Arts school outside of Winnipeg.

That’s where I first met him. I took his class in my first semester of university. It was initially called Writing for the Media, but the first day he re-christened it Creative Non-Fiction.

Creative Non-Fiction is Armstrong’s strength. In addition to writing for Christian publications such as Geez Magazine, he has written for The Globe and Mail and CBC’s Vinyl Café.

In 2011 Armstrong won a Canadian Christian Writing Award for his article “Jesus loves your penis, son,” a clear and honest piece about developing sexuality and its regularly misconstrued place and purpose in Christian dialogue.

That same year his book Why Love Will Always Be a Bad Investment was published. It contains 17 of Armstrong’s essays on love, marriage, and having children. He writes that these three life events are excellent, but costly. They are full of sacrifice and self-denial, but are worth it all if you don’t quit.

He is married and has three children.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I’d kept a journal since I was 14, but never thought of myself as a writer until I was 27. I was in grad school, and flew to Australia to be best man for a friend’s wedding.

The night before the wedding I scribbled out a toast to the groom, and when I read it on the day of, I had the audience howling with laughter and weeping at the end. I didn’t know my writing had power like that. That was probably the first moment I felt like I could be a writer.

Take me through your writing career from start to present.

I published essays and reflections in student publications and chapbooks starting when I was 18. I studied writing at Regent College from 2002-07, which was when I published my first essay.

After Regent I wrote essays for The Globe and Mail, Geez, Image, Paste, The Vinyl Café, Canada Writes, and Radix, among others. In 2008 I taught Writing for the Media at Providence, as you remember, and that winter I started working at Geez, where I served as Assistant Publisher and then Reviews Editor until 2014.

I published Why Love Will Always Be a Poor Investment in 2011, and have continued to publish articles, essays, and reviews for a wide variety of print and online magazines—probably a hundred or so in total. Now a lot of my writing is for my parish—lectures and sermons, mostly.

What was the reason you wanted to write your book: Why Love Will Always Be a Bad Investment?

I wrote it because I think consumer culture is fundamentally anti-love. It fosters selfishness and disposability, which are anathema to genuine love. I’m trying to defy the myths of consumerism by writing truthfully and honestly about love. What is there in culture that encourages people to stay with something once it becomes difficult or burdensome? Is your job tough? Get a different one. Your car sucks? Buy a new one. Don’t like your career? Go back to school. Hate your city? Move to a better one.

Some of those changes are innocuous, some may be good, but sometimes staying might be best. Getting married is great; staying married is damn hard. But the goodness is deep, and you can only discover it by staying.

What topic or topics do you enjoy writing about most? What are your least favourite topics?

Mostly I’m interested in metaphors, the images we use to think of ourselves, others, and the world, because I think our sense of who or what we are leads directly to certain kinds of behavior. Eugene Peterson says: “The metaphors we use end up using us.” So I suppose I enjoy writing about thought and culture, trying to unmask glamorous-looking, death-dealing metaphors, and trying to re-animate life-giving metaphors.

I’ve written about things like technology, sex, death, depression, love, suicide, consumerism, music, violence and economics: to try to understand how we think, and how we can think better.

I find it very difficult to write about on-the-nose Christian themes, readily recognizable “Christian” writing. Everything I write is rooted in my Christian sense of the world, but I don’t usually think in churchy terms or phrases.

Take me through your writing process from sitting down at the desk, to sending in a finished draft.

I keep a notebook in my pocket all the time, and I scribble thoughts as they come to me. I work part time as a handyman, and often I get writing ideas as I’m framing or running wire for switches or finishing drywall. Pencil and paper is the very best way for me to keep track of my ideas. Some are just thoughts or phrases, others much more fully formed, and I write them in my notebook, however fragmentary or well-developed.

So I always write my first draft by hand. I type that first draft, editing as I go; then I print it out, write my edits on the page, then re-type the edited version. I may tweak a few words or phrases after that, but basically that’s how it goes. On average, I’d guess I spend 10% of my writing time on an idea, 40% on the first draft, and 50% editing and rewriting.

Have you ever tried writing with outdated/classic technology (like a typewriter) just to see what it was like?

No, though I suppose a pencil-and-paper is a bit outdated, and I use that all the time.

Tell me about a piece which you are very proud of.

I wrote an essay called “Jesus loves your penis, son,” for Geez magazine. I wrote it with my very young son in mind, wanting to teach him that his sexuality is a gift, not a curse. I got a fair bit of response to that, not all of it positive, but the fact that it generated any response was very satisfying.

You’ve said that Wendell Berry’s book Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community changed your life. How so?

I like Wendell Berry’s book because I read it when I was first discovering my own writing voice, and I found Berry combined style and substance perfectly. His writing is strong, clear, beautiful, and artistic, but he’s deadly serious about his subject matter. Whether he’s writing about coal power, industrial agriculture, tobacco farming, poetry, or sex, he’s staking his claim with confidence. He wants to change the world. I want to write like that: appeal to the heart, change people’s minds, and resist evil.

You work as a handyman, among many other things, at St. Margaret’s Anglican Church in Winnipeg. How has your work and the people there influenced you as a writer?

Grandview Calvary Baptist Church in Vancouver helped me discover my gifts as a writer, and Saint Margaret’s continuously nurtures my gifts. They paid me to take the time to finish my book, and they hired me to be part-time staff so I could write. Not write church stuff or for church publications; just to write. They told me, “You have a family, they need to eat, so we want to hire you to be here so you have time to write.” Isn’t that nuts? I love this place. The nurture and support they provide is what most writers dream of. They haven’t placed any restrictions on what I write about, and if anything they’ve encouraged me to find ways to spend more time writing. They have influenced me largely by freeing me to work.

How do you deal with writer’s block?

Mostly I write for specific occasions, usually lectures or sermons, so I simply push through writer’s block. I have to write something. I try to be a perfectionist with my writing, but I’ve also learned to be satisfied with “good enough.” There’s nothing like a deadline to force productivity.

What would you say are the most vital attributes or characteristics of a great writer?

Clarity, honesty, and humility.

Who is your favourite writer (if you can choose only one) and why that person?

Hmm…I love Christian Wiman, Marilynne Robinson, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Edward Hoagland, Edward Abbey…but to pick one, I’d say David Foster Wallace. Wallace was a social, relational, and emotional mess, and he was very, very depressed, but mostly because he was so incredibly sensitive. I’ve never read anyone with more style than Wallace. (I love his essays, not his fiction.) Reading Wallace is like staying up two days straight, then drinking six espressos and riding on a roller coaster next to a manic-depressive genius juggling flaming torches. He’s an absolutely brilliant stylist. I mean, he was. He committed suicide about seven years ago.

I think people assume becoming an author is like winning the lottery. How would you describe being an author?

The way to be a writer is to write. It’s not unreasonable to want an audience for your work, and there are plenty of self-publishing options for authors—from handmade versions to high-quality self-published books. Getting work published requires a different kind of effort than the writing itself. It’s not as fun; mostly it’s grunt work, and it takes persistence and patience. But the stronger your writing, the better your odds of an editor publishing your work. It’s fine to pursue publication, but don’t neglect the writing itself. If you write well, you can find an audience. It might not be for fame and fortune, but you can be true to your calling in very modest ways, too.

What’s the biggest or most persistent obstacle to your writing?

Self-doubt. I am the most persistent obstacle to my own writing. My self-doubt is a spiritual struggle. I truly feel called to write, to engage the world as a Christian and enlarge the reach of the Good News, but self-doubt wants me to keep my mouth shut. No question: my #1 obstacle is in my own head. (And soul.)

Rejection is often what stops people from pursuing writing. How do you deal with rejection?

Rejection is never fun. It always hurts. Every single time I send out a freelance piece for publication, I get my hopes up – way, way up. And usually I’m disappointed. It hurts every single time. But I don’t know how to not get my hopes up. Why else would I send out my work? Why would I not hope it gets published? Best way to deal with it is send it out again, and write another one, and send that one out, too. My writing teacher at Regent said, “Always keep the pump primed; always have something ‘out there’ with a potential publisher.” That’s good advice. Even very small successes can be encouraging and affirming. One publishing “yes” can weigh as much as 50 “no’s.”

What sets you apart from all the other writers out there?

I think I find it easier than some to be honest. For instance, that “Jesus loves your penis, son” essay is about masturbation. My parents were embarrassed that I’d write about that, and maybe I should have been, too, but I saw more value in being honest than in protecting my sense of pride. There’s a kind of honesty that puts the writer too much at the center, and there’s the kind of honesty that elicits honesty in others. I strive for the latter.

Also this: I’m a rare bird – hired by a church to be a writer. Not to write on behalf of the church; just to write. They give me a very, very long leash. They honestly let me write about whatever I want. That’s pretty unusual.

kurt-armstrongThomas Guenther is a graduate student studying journalism at the University of British Columbia. He writes feature articles about religion, philosophy, and culture for newsletters and has been published in SEVEN magazine

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