Conor Sweetman

A Literary Community, a Kingdom

Conor Sweetman
A Literary Community, a Kingdom

It is not good for a writer to be alone.

It’s necessary — for a time — or else the work won’t get done. We can both attest to that. But once the paragraphs have been arranged, the sentences refined and word choices agonized over, most writing is meant to be shared.

Then what? Clicking “submit” or “publish” or “send tweet” doesn’t form a meaningful connection. It simply makes the opportunity for connection possible. And social media can sometimes make a writer feel more connected than they really are.

What writers long for is to be known. As writers who tend to focus on chronicling and interpreting our experiences, we want our work to find a home in someone else’s heart.

The rapid movement of social media makes this challenging. Any individual piece of writing can spread farther and faster than ever. But even with the best of intentions, the information flows relentlessly, and many readers move on to the next thing before getting three minutes into the article they’ve already clicked.

On the other hand, a writer may get a word of appreciation, or see a new insight into their work referenced in a tweet, but deeper conversation remains elusive.

When we attended the Festival of Faith and Writing in April, we saw the talent and generosity of writers burning brightly — and their lamps help light our own.  

The festival sparked an affinity for discussing essays and poetry that we love with other writers. Seeing where those threads of conversation might go. Recognizing in our own work how something we’ve read has helped sculpt our own thoughts. Asking other writers how their writing evolves as they interact with the ideas and style of writers they admire and respect. 

Both of us returned with fresh inspiration — to write more, to tackle new genres and to somehow pass on what we felt. Generosity and exploration emerged as motivating forces in our discussions. We wanted to celebrate works that meant something to us and help other people make new discoveries of their own. And we wanted to learn from writers whose work had taken up residence in our souls.

And so we started Tributaries, our monthly email newsletter, to celebrate great writing and to build community around it.

Social media, and Twitter in particular, introduces us to many of the pieces we feature. We then invite ourselves and our readers beyond the constant churn to really consider a timeless, high-quality work with the attention it deserves.

Our decision to release each issue early on Sunday mornings reflects this. The timing may seem counterintuitive, but we chose it in hopes that readers will take some extra time they may not have during the week to consider the contributions of our guest slowly and thoughtfully.

In our third issue, our guest Alia Joy wrote, “That’s where creation happens, in the universality of human experience, thought, and emotion.” That thought really captures what this project has come to mean. Even when the details of particular events diverge, there is a connection between us that exists on a deeper level and, paradoxically perhaps, it’s in the specifics of our individual stories where we find the strongest connection. That’s when we recognize the Imago Dei in each other.

Not many of us are bird-watchers like the subject of “Lord God Bird,” which was Ashley Abramson’s featured selection. But we all know what it feels like to experience the divine come to earth. To see something so far beyond our ability to comprehend that we’re left simply to utter, “Lord God, look at that.” We all know what that feels like, even if it comes to each of us differently.

Our desire to celebrate and discuss great writing in a public setting has a long and beautiful history that neither one of us were much attuned to.

 The act of writers responding to their peers’ published work in print or online has always existed, both for good and for ill. Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Lionel Trilling and others fired salvos back and forth in the pages of The Partisan Review, The New York Review of Books and others in the mid-1900’s.

Taking aim at a possibly more uplifting target than these 20th century literary figures, Tributaries joins that tradition, with a conscious decision to focus specifically on what’s good and beautiful in the work of our contemporaries. It’s intriguing, but ultimately not surprising, to find ourselves floating downstream in this wide river of public criticism that sprung out of the ground far behind us.

In her essay “Why I Write,” Didion described writing as ‘imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. 

Publication is an audacious act. As writers, we are saying to others, “Listen to my experience. Hear my ideas. They are worthy of your time.” We believe they have value sufficient to compel others to read and consider them, to be molded by them and respond to them. That’s what we’re asking our Tributaries guests to do.

We dialogue not only with the thoughts of other writers, but their style as well. We consider ourselves poetry lovers, but also novices — “amateurs,” or “lovers of” in the French. So it was a blessing to invite Carolina Hinojosa-Cisneros as a guest and have her help us better understand what made her selection, “The Slaughter” by Quina Aragon, so moving.

Quina hadn’t experienced such an in-depth analysis of her writing, and she shared that Carolina’s observations helped her better grasp her own work.

“It affirmed the gifts and burdens I believe God has given me, and it has pushed me to want to grow even more in my craft,” she said. “It felt so affirming to see that writers I admire actually admire my writing as well.”

Brian Doyle’s essay “Joyas Voladoras,” chosen by Nick Ripatrazone for our first issue, is a remarkable piece of writing to explore stylistically. Doyle manages to weave commentary on hummingbirds together with profound insight into the nature of the human heart, and the impact is shattering. Ripatrazone helped us, and our readers, dig into how Doyle accomplished the feat. 

From a scriptural perspective, the most direct inspiration for Tributaries — although it wasn’t consciously part of our thinking as we developed the concept — is Phillipians 4:8. Eugene Peterson’s idiomatic translation has a poetic ring to it:

Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.

In addition to “the beautiful” and “things to praise” found in the structure or style of a work, The Message includes another word that resonates when you consider many of the pieces we’ve discussed over the past six months: “authentic.”

While sometimes overused, especially in a certain Christian cultural context, the inclusion of “authentic” in this verse is striking. It points beyond “true,” which is often code for doctrine or presuppositions, to the human experience.

We’ve discussed numerous written works that delve deeply into anxiety, depression, injustice and grief. Without fail, these unflinching portrayals of the author’s experiences read more like Psalms than church service testimonies. We’ve found in our conversations with other writers, as well as with Tributaries readers, that these pieces have opened up space to think and feel differently about their own difficult experiences.

These works, and our conversations, seem to be living up to our goal of helping people feel less alone in the world, thanks to their authenticity.

While we don’t exclusively interview writers who are Christian, or only discuss works by Christian writers, the community we’re creating is marked by Christian character. We focus on what’s authentic, true and written with excellence and beauty. We don’t ignore pain but we shift our eyes — and hearts — away from the bickering and strife that tends to dominate the news cycles and social media.

The world abounds in anger. Much of it is righteous, because there’s a lot of brokenness in the world and we’re not healing it quickly enough. But sometimes the outrage harms rather than helps.

From the beginning, we have wanted Tributaries to put the true, pure and authentic into the world. We want to celebrate what’s good, and to stir up empathy and hope.

It’s only fitting to end our meditation on this project with the words of a guest, Ashley Abramson:

“Discussing works of other writers adds a sense of urgency and vitality to the larger conversation of Christian art, and art in general, reminding us this work isn't just for ourselves, but for the coming of the Kingdom, for the sanctification of the saints. Discussing other writers' work points us back to the larger story, the narrative we're all chipping away at with our words and stories.

By John Hawbaker & John B. Graeber
Founders of Tributaries

Photograph by Charis Wong