The Writer’s Life; Or, How to Succeed in Writing Without Actually Writing

Spoiler: you can’t. Apparently.

Lately I’ve realized I’m more in the habit of thinking of myself as a writer than of actually being a writer. My first publication was in the newspaper in Springfield, Missouri, when I was in first grade. It was an exceptional (if I do say so myself) poem about our puppy Bubblegum, with accompanying artwork. The glowing feeling of seeing my name in print lasted longer than the dog; I’m not sure what happened to Bubblegum but I remember he was too wild for us, so he went… “back.”

In any case, I’ve considered myself a writer since I was about six. So only about 40 years. In the first 20 years of that time I was on the staff of school newspapers in junior high, high school, and college. I participated in every year of middle school writing competitions, and won some ribbons (and didn’t win even more). Edited the high school literary magazine my senior year. Got an honorable mention in an essay contest and went to the winners’ luncheon at the Starlight Room of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel; the keynote speaker Garrison Keillor signed the copy of The New Yorker I’d bought at the airport. Got a journalism scholarship. Interned at a local magazine in Atlanta, at a local Baptist newspaper in Birmingham, and in the foods department (lucky me!) at Southern Living.

Even later, when I went to seminary, I went thinking of myself first as a writer. My poetry fit right into worship: it became prayers and responsive readings. My “creative non-fiction” became sermons.

For the first half of my life, I was a writer: I wrote, and I knew what I was writing for. For newspapers and magazines, for writing contests and worship services.

The second half.

For the last 20 years, though, I have struggled to write at all because I don’t know what I’m writing for.

I used to think of myself as someone who valued creativity above all—but the truth is, I don’t write for writing’s sake. I don’t write because I can’t help myself, or because I love it so much, or because I need to Speak My Truth. If I really valued creativity above all, I assume I would create for creating’s sake… the act of writing would be reason enough.

Instead, give me homework, please; give me a topic and a deadline. Even if I invent it for myself, I need an assignment. I’m learning that my highest values are actually productivity, knowledge, competence, usefulness. Once those pieces are in play, I love using creative tools to do the work; it’s what I love about knitting, too, the creative ways to make something useful. I need to see my writing—however creative it is—as part of something functional, purposeful.

I always assumed creativity itself was the way: the map, the road and the destination. Now I think for me, creativity isn’t actually the journey. It’s the vehicle. I’ve been waiting for my creative journey to start, when what I really needed to do was practice driving.

Following directions.

I’m afraid I’ve spent (wasted?) an awful lot of time trying to figure out the map. As a person of faith I’ve routinely applied a theology to this: the route isn’t a random pathway, but a Plan. The directions aren’t merely instruction, but a Call.

I’m not sure anymore whether I am called to any specific path. Maybe some people are truly, uniquely, specifically called, or maybe our human experience of call is really just a synchronicity of skill, opportunity, and willingness. Today, all I can honestly say is: if I believe in God’s call at all, I believe it is a call we all share to put our abilities to use, joining God at work. What I know for sure, today, is that we are not called to spend all our energy just figuring out our call.

I’m afraid that what I perceived as a Call turned out to be a distraction. Instead of building my skills, I pondered what it meant to be called. Instead of practicing, honing, and growing, I tried—with every new phase of our life, at every move—to figure out what the call was about. I thought if I understood it well enough, then I could finally follow its directions. Of course, every time I thought I had it solved, the conditions changed, and I’d have to start again. Over these years I’ve spent countless hours pondering and puzzling: what I was supposed to be doing as a writer, and what I was supposed to be writing for?

The third half.

That’s a joke—math has never been my strong suit, but even I know there’s no such thing as a third half.

But if there were, I suspect most of us could use as many halves as we can get. (And it’s a lot better on my mindset than to consider this the “last third” or the “final quarter.” Yikes.) If I was a writer for the first half, and I thought of myself as a writer for the second half—what am I going to do with the third half?

I’m not sure anymore if I’m called to be a writer, but in a way it doesn’t matter to me anymore. I’m more curious about how to grow my skills than how to understand my call, because I may never understand my call, but I have twenty years’ worth of skills to grow: from the practice of writing (which I suspect hasn’t changed much) to the process of publication (which is a whole new world). For all the time I’ve spent wanting to succeed as a writer, I’ve spent precious little time writing. In the third half, it’s time for a change.

And, what’s more, in the third half I have to decide (not discover but decide) what the writing is for. If it’s not for the love, and it’s not for its own sake, then it needs to be for something else: for a reader, whether here on the blog or behind an e-reader screen or turning a book page. And to tell the truth, that’s terrifying.

But that’s also what the writing is for: to tell the truth. Maybe that’s the real call. And that can be terrifying too.

Stay well, friends. And stay tuned. 🙏🏻

Written on the 20th anniversary of my seminary graduation and ordination.

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