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Inspired by Art: The Value of a Deep Listener
San Francisco Writers Conference San Francisco Writers Conference
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: San Francisco, CA
Wednesday, October 13, 2021


Wilhelm Lehmbruck, The Fallen, 1915


Ever feel like this in your writing life? I sure have! 10 years writing almost full-time on novel #2 and it kept failing. A whole new draft every year, failing. Until Garth Greenwell, reading it yet again, made an offhand comment that changed everything!

Hear about this on “Fireside with Blair Hodges,” and be encouraged! (link is below) It’s amazing how we can come through a dark tunnel and into the light with a little help from our friends!  Someone who listens deeply.  Like Garth. Someone who’s not afraid to say, the rest sucks, but those 14 pages you wrote on Zaccheus are wonderful.

I wasn’t writing anything about Bible characters, but those 14 pages on Zaccheus, what spoke to him.  I turned off my computer, slammed the door and never went back to it. I was so depressed.  But then I remembered how free I felt writing those pages.

I bought a pen and a notebook and wrote the whole manuscript of This Is Why I Came in 3 months. All Bible characters!

In Lehmbruck’s sculpture The Fallen, I saw myself in utter futility. But I also saw what could be Adam. I wrote the chapter in about 3 hours.  “Adam the Maker.”  I made him be me, and made him be The Fallen.  It worked. I wrote the whole book in 3 months.  It sold to Counterpoint with only one sentence cut.  Garth was astute and he was right.

Do you have a deep listener in your writing group?  Among your writer friends?  In your editor? Deep listening is golden.

Deep listening is also how, as writers, we sew things together.  We link an ancient biblical figure to a 20th century sculpture and we then write a 21st century novel. We link languages: Hebrew, German and English. We transcend space because we link the Middle East, Germany and the United States. Why?  Because art moves.  It will not be contained by time or place or language.  This is what we want to be part of.  This act of linking.  Of sewing.  Of transcending our own time and place and language. To be swimming alive in that larger human stream.


I had the beginning of the “Adam the Maker” with the Lehmbruck, but how would it end? I needed a rotation. Suffering is never interesting on its own.

Do you remember early in this column how I suggested collecting images you love? And recall the suggestion to collect details that you love, even from a painting you might not otherwise even like?

Well, I love van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece.  And I had the enlarged two details –one of the head of Adam and the head of Eve.  They stand, full body, on opposite sides of this very complicated painting.

But lifting out these two details and placing them side by side, I had my ending.  I saw in their eyes what they saw in each other. This profound recognition, even though strangers.  Even though they are looking across a very complex painting

Van Eyck paints this powerful and beautiful mystery of recognition. Of being seen by another.  Of finding oneself in the eyes of the other.  As if coming home.

This gave me a moment of insight. That maybe my Adam, in seeing Eve, would come to see that perhaps he was wrong.  That maybe he is not “the maker” after all. This felt exactly right.  Exactly the rotation I needed.  For Adam to experience that he is not the measure of all things. This simple yet profound moment when we realize we are part of something larger than ourselves.  And that this something is good, beautiful.  Perhaps even benevolent, generous and kind. To be known by this other. And I let Adam, who, in the biblical story names but does not make all the animals, name this other, which he does.  He makes up a new word.  One that has never left our language.

Hubert and Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, 1432, detail

Hubert and Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, 1432 detail


“Adam the Maker” is short, like all the chapters in This Is Why I Came.

You can read it on the book’s website:


 But I recommend the Fireside podcast with Blair Hodges because he is truly a deep listener. As a result, I learned a lot about my own book from talking with him.

In past posts I’ve maintained that the reader completes the novel, the viewer completes the painting, the listener completes the symphony. This isn’t a sentimental, untrue notion.  You can really see this happening in our conversation. It’s embarrassing.  So, well… we laughed a lot!

The podcast runs on all the platforms.  I start reading the Adam chapter at 8 minutes but the process is discussed before that.

See Fireside with Blair Hodges at https://www.firesidepod.org/episodes/rakow


-Write that moment when you felt most discouraged in your writing life.  Give this experience to a fictional character.  You can change all the particulars:  the gender, the situation, etc.  Just keep the feeling the same.

-Write that moment of discovering, like Adam, when what you thought was true wasn’t true at all.

-Write that moment when you finally found what or who you were looking for, even though you couldn’t have named it or him or her at the time. Write that profound and surprising moment of recognition.


  1. Change it up a bit: If you like sculpture look at paintings.  If you like Renaissance art, look at art that is made today. If you mostly look at western European tradition, look at art from Africa, the Middle East, Asia.
  2. Use the interview as a tool: If you know a deep listener see if they will interview you. Pick out the 3 best parts.  Make a single page document. Add your photo.  When submitting to agents, include it.  Or if you have an agent, see if she/he wants to use it as another resource for getting your book to the right publisher.  Sam Dunn (Failing Paris and other great books) did this with me for The Memory Room and my agent loved it! So ask.
  1. On the novel’s website, you can see that I used these same details of Adam and Eve from the Ghent altarpiece to write a chapter about Joseph. Images can inspire different projects. So keep them near you.  If you love it, you’ll use it.

A theologian with graduate degrees from Harvard Divinity School and Boston College, Mary writes with deep feeling and a Mary Rakow Get Inspired by Art questioning faith. This Is Why I Came earned outstanding reviews in The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Commonweal, Christian Century, O Magazine, Ploughshares. It appeared on reading lists for courses at both Princeton and Yale.

thisiswhybook.com–Art & Novel

maryrakow.com–Art & Editing

https://www.instagram.com/prayers_for_our_time/–Art & Psalter

https://www.facebook.com/Psalter Art & Psalter

© Mary Rakow 2021

The San Francisco Writers Conference and the San Francisco Writing for Change conference are both produced by the San Francisco Writers Conference & San Francisco Writers Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit. The SFWC Director is Laurie McLean.  For registration help, contact Richard Santos at registrations@sfwriters.org. For SFWC sponsorship opportunities, contact Carla King at Carla@carlaking.com
The SFWC website is: www.SFWriters.org

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