Paul Pastor is an independent author, writer, editor, speaker, and poet. His writings on spirituality and culture blend a love of the Christian Scriptures with wide-ranging interests in literature, ecology, philosophy, and art, and a unique intimacy with the natural world.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I was born in the west hills of Portland, Oregon, and grew up in two rural communities. In Helvetia (“Little Switzerland”), my family lived on multiple little farms where we would do a bit of work in exchange for a reduction in rent. These included a Christmas tree farm and a small sheep farm. From the latter, we could look a mile away and see “Breeze Hill,” where my mother had grown up. Later, we moved to a small logging town called Vernonia in Oregon’s Coast Range mountains. There, we lived alongside a salmon-bearing river, which was one of the most quietly influential experiences of my life. Witnessing the primal lifecycle of those majestic fish, returning to the same gravel beds where they had been born to fight, spawn, and die, felt like I was witnessing an absolutely sacred and wild ritual, the very core of life.
In general, my childhood was shaped by the dual influences of nature and books. I took for granted that other people felt the same sense of connection and belonging—to the century-old orchard where I ate apples and pears, to the new lambs in winter, to biking down streets named for people whose descendants were still farming along with them, to the stacks of books devoured in all seasons from the public library. I was homeschooled, in a method (or lack of method) that allowed for me to pursue what, in hindsight, was a true self-education. I had access to good, “living” books, and adequate time to read and re-read them. In this way, I had a thorough knowledge of most of the Western classics and of the Bible before I finished high school, and had read all of them because I wanted to read them. In this way, though my family had very constrained finances, I feel that my boyhood was absolutely rich. Even its difficulties, I see now, belong. It was all a gift.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
The importance of keeping a consistent journal. I do have decades worth of sporadic written thoughts and records, but it has been inconsistent. The insight and helpfulness of keeping records of your life as you go can’t be overestimated. (I still need to improve in this area.)
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
As a writer and an editor, I hear a tremendous amount of horrible advice about the writing process. This advice always takes one of two forms: an overemphasis on craft at the expense of inspiration, or on inspiration at the expense of craft.
Excellent writing must have real inspiration. You must be writing about something larger and more wonderful than yourself, and do so in ways that are fitting for the subject. When really good, this is not something you do, it is something that happens to you. It is what the old poets called the Muse, and why it was traditional to invoke the Muse by prayer or invitation when crafting a work of writing. It was acknowledged that there is something about the creative process that is wonderfully outside us. We can create conditions that seem to attract the Muse—make inspiration more likely. But it is a relationship. She has no contractual obligation to show up, nor to do things that please us. Often people talking about writing ignore this, making the process all about craft. This is foolish. It tends to produce ornate, “good” writing that lacks soul. It generally produces work that is pleasant, but dead.
But we cannot over-romanticize this, either. Inspiration without craft fails, in every case, to live up to its potential. Because of this, every writer must work—for years—on the excellence of their craft and their ability to use language inaccurate, beautiful, masterful ways. This commitment to craft will then be ready—like a set of sharp tools—for when inspiration comes.
Artists—don’t ignore or dismiss inspiration. Don’t discard the hard work of craft. Both are real and vital. This is the creative way.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
Several are notable, but the death of my brother Christian Michael when I was 8 was remarkably formative for me. He suffered from a rare genetic defect (trisomy 13). He lived three days, and died in my father’s arms, surrounded by our family and friends. In hindsight, it was one of those events (or Events) that shape the remainder of your life by changing, in a basic sense, how you see the world. I saw at that moment that I lived in a world where anything could happen. Nothing was guaranteed. This place was wild. This world would not spare even a baby. The strongest man in the world (my dad) could not prevent the death of his own dear flesh and blood. This was strangely freeing. It also had a kind of beauty to it, for though it was absolutely heartbreaking, our family walked through the grief with a strong community.
It is impossible to overstate the impact of this experience for me. The clarity of what it brought simply gave me—at such a formative age—an odd, backward kind of bravery. It felt (I will use this word again for it is the best I have) freeing. There was a sense of feeling that I now knew the rules of the game of life—there were none, except that love was somehow larger even than death. Everything was “on the table.” Nothing was unthinkable. This, strangely, was a source of energy and hope. In this world, I would choose to live. Truly live. Who knew if I or anyone would be here tomorrow?
The old wisdom calls this memento mori—a “death reminder.” While we look away from death today, it is, strangely, one of our most powerful drivers for living fully and well. Gazing more at death, not less, is a path to living more fully in our lives.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
Not feeling in any sort of competition with anyone else. The idiotic games of comparison that humanity invents! For better or worse, my father had a saying he would often repeat growing up: “Paul James” (this was how I went in my family of abundant Pauls), “our family parallels society—we don’t intersect it.” By this, he meant that we refused to be put in either a subservient or combative relationship with the world—both of which postures meant we were being defined by a system of values in politics, education, business, and entertainment, that was extractive, consumptive, and flawed. Instead, we were running in a course alongside it. Not totally separate, but simply not playing the games we were “supposed” to play … in politics, education, business, or entertainment.
This sometimes led to an unhealthy or frustrating disconnection from others. I will own that. But the freedom from the many ways humans as used in our culture was profound, and for it I will always be grateful. In fact, I expect I will use similar language with my own children.
The gift of this—when such a person is self-driven and possesses real motivation to learn, grow, and produce—is that you get to live more freely in time, choice, and resources than most people in our culture. You can think more “outside” the constraints of your century or your continent. You don’t have to seek the unspoken social permission that is so stifling to creativity. You can be, and from that being, you can do. You are in competition only with yourself—and that tends to allow a wonderful balance of rest and the pursuit of something worth doing. The principle, I suppose, is to see yourself as a free person, under far fewer true obligations than society would have you believe.
Your obligations are to your Creator, to the earth community, to humanity (especially the people with whom you share a sacred bond of blood, place, or social covenant), and to do your best to be useful, good, and beautiful in the world. Everything else is either a means to those good ends or a distraction from them.
What is your morning routine?
I wake between 5:45-6:45 am. 6 is pretty standard. My wife, and artist, is typically working in her studio. I rise, walk out into the morning quiet to let our dog out, and spend a little time looking at the world. It sounds too idyllic, but I wash my face in a little creek that runs by our house and gives short thanks for the water that goes past us, as a symbol for the abundance of life. I then make a pot of tea or coffee. Usually, a kid (we have three) has woken by that time. I like to play a short card game with them, sitting quietly for ten or fifteen minutes and having a positive interaction that builds the relationship. After that point, a quick breakfast—and then it’s off into my day, usually to answer emails and then into a morning meeting or two. I try to begin the day totally free of a hurry. I am not always successful, but when I can be, it sets a tone of “flow” for the rest of the day that is far more productive than a more frenetic pace.
This general routine is sometimes punctuated by periods when I rise about 5, and get an hour or so of creative work or on-deadline work done first thing. When working on a project, my best hours are often the very late or the very early ones. When it comes to writing, I find the darkness is conducive to good creativity, the light to good revision.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
The ability to say what my wife and I call a “holy no.” No can be a bad word in our culture. But not every opportunity or invitation is right. Those who say yes thoughtlessly to everything that comes along tend to be less strategic, more exhausted, and “busy” while still being deeply discontented. Asking intentional questions about what we really want to do and become is really an important quality to cultivate. It shows a knowledge of our human limitations, and the ability to discern what is best from what is good. “No” is not a four-letter word. It is in fact, one of the most freeing words in the dictionary. A well-placed no makes space for some remarkable “No” is not a four-letter word. It is in fact, one of the most freeing words in the dictionary. A well-placed no makes space for some remarkable yeses.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
To be honest, I am not as disciplined as I would like to be. I am not by temperament either very clean or very organized. I tend to like the frowzy, wild, messiness of life. So with that said—I need more strategies!
What I have learned is that a sense of flow and rhythm is really important in creative work. There is always something that can be done, but certain tasks can’t be forced. If I do not have the right type of energy to, say, write crisp marketing copy, if it’s just not feeling right, I will shift to a different task and come back to it later. I will also try to structure my day so that I have periods of deep work when I tend to be at my best—in midmorning and the early afternoon. I will answer emails in the morning, at lunch, and in the late afternoon. I will try to schedule calls at the edges of these times. If I can hold lesser, more “urgent” tasks in their place to preserve at least a couple of hours for the vital creative work I have to do, then I feel I have won the day. In the end, I believe this is more efficient. This schedule generally matches the typical flow of my energy in a day.
But I always hold space for surprises. Isn’t real living mostly made of surprises?
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
As you can imagine, this is quite a question for me. A few that come to mind include the Bible (especially the writings of the apostle John and the older books of Job and Isaiah), The Epic of Gilgamesh, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, The Aleph by Jorge Luis Borges, Dante’s Inferno, Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country, Dostoyevsky’s Crime & Punishment, Fred Buechner’s Godric, and anything by George Saunders, particularly Lincoln in the Bardo. More recently, I have been delighting in the poetry of Marly Youmans, especially The Book of the Red King and Thaliad.
The common theme that all these works have is of some transcendent revelation breaking into life. I think that it the inward storyline of all true stories—revelation. I love great writing—essay, fiction, poetry—because it works with the language of revelation, as seen through the imagination or experience of a particular person, working hard to present the world they know for the sake of beauty and the benefit of others. This is a great gift. My life has been deeply influenced by all this work, in ways that I likely can’t fully appreciate. I am too close to it all—they have become, in some way, part of me.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
Not quite a quote, but I think almost daily of two quotes about the wind First, in the words of Jesus:
“The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
and that line of Longfellow from “My Lost Youth”:
“A boy’s will is the wind’s will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.”
Both of these indicate a beautiful connection between the image of the wind and the type of human life for which I long. Like most poetic images, we can’t say precisely what this windiness “means,” but it carries deep meaning. A “windy” life would have freshness, movement. It would follow patterns, the logic of flow—but for the onlooker, it might be a bit unpredictable. Where does it come from? Where is it going? It is the best kind of mystery.
I try to consider, nearly daily, how my life can be a little “windier.” Can I find some measure of that freshness, that wise childlikeness, in my work and relationships?