What does it mean to be a Christian writer? On the one hand, it means no more, and no less, than to be a Christian who writes – the same as a Christian architect, or a Christian doctor or nurse, or a Christian plumber or electrician. On the other hand, there is a difference between writing and other activities, in that one’s faith may be more clearly visible in one’s work as a writer than in other professions; a novel written by a Christian may (and indeed should) give evidence of the author’s faith in a way that, say, a successful surgery or a well-fitted pipe does not. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, for instance, is a profoundly Christian work.
However, it has been my experience that Christians who wish to be writers are likely to err on the side of over-awareness of the integration of faith and writing, and to under-emphasize the element of craft and effort. Here are five bits of advice for aspiring (or learning) writers: point 1 specific to Christian writers, and points 2-5 about the practice of writing in general.
1. Don’t wait for inspiration.
I think there is a real danger among Christian writers to over-spiritualize writing, as if creative inspiration is necessarily a direct gift from God. No. He gives us talents, but we have to develop them and use them. My experience as a writer is that counting on, waiting for, or making too big a deal of “being inspired” leads to bad writing and an inability to revise or to accept constructive criticism, In contrast, application to doing the work bears fruit. There is no substitute for hard work: for putting in the time, day in and day out, week in and week out, to learning and polishing the skills of writing.
Yes, pray – but don’t expect God’s direct guidance on your writing. That’s the surest way to writer’s block (and/or bad writing) that I know of. Include your writing in your regular daily prayers, just as you would include any other work that you are doing. If you wish to specially pray before your writing, I suggest something simple like: “Dear Lord, I commit my day’s writing to you, that I may honor you through my work. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen.”
“Orare est laborare, laborare est orare.” (To pray is to work, to work is to pray – attributed to St Benedict).
2. Learn to live with rejection.
If this is your first novel, it is probably unpublishable. It just won’t be good enough; it takes a lot of time and experience to hone one’s craft. If you read interviews with well-known authors, nearly always it turns out they wrote one, two, or three books that never saw the light of day before their “first” book came out. (There are exceptions; they are rare.)
Not God’s Type is my “first” book — but I’d written several hundred thousand words before that, – probably close to a million words or more – in my dissertation, in stories, in unfinished novels, in book and film reviews, in academic papers, etc. etc. Even so, I was able to make Not God’s Type significantly better when I revised it and expanded it for the second edition.
Writing can be seen as a calling but it is also very much a craft and a discipline.
3. Finish what you start. Learn from it. Then move on.
It’s much more important to finish and learn from what you’ve done, than to agonize over getting it just right and thus never finish, and never grow. So, just write, and see what happens. Then write more.
When I first started writing poetry a few years ago, I knew my first efforts weren’t publishable. When I got to the stage of being a bit better, I started occasionally sending out poems to journals. They were rejected. I didn’t put all of my attention on submitting the same few poems, though: I wrote more. And as I looked back at my earlier poems, I was able to see that most of them were being rejected for a good reason: they weren’t good enough. Eventually I started getting a few of my poems published (sometimes after a series of rejections). If I’d gotten stuck on polishing and re-polishing the same first efforts, rather than evaluating them more objectively, assessing what I’d done well and what I could do better, I wouldn’t have improved.
If you are thinking, “but this is my big idea, I have to get it right!”, stop worrying about it. There are a gazillion ideas out there. Writers write; that’s what they do. If you work at being a writer, you will find that you end up with more ideas than you have time to develop! Creative work begets creative work. And you can always go back and revisit your earlier work, pulling out the bits that work and folding them into something better. (I’ve done that with my poetry at times.)
If you want to be a writer, then write. Don’t think about writing, read books and blog posts about writing, and talk about writing – do it. Put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.
If you find that you never “find time” to write, then evaluate what you are spending your time on. If you discover that you are frittering your time away on social media and dumb television or even just excessive amounts of perfectly good television (i.e. gluttony), then it may be the wake-up call you need to change your habits and stop wasting time on things you don’t actually enjoy very much. On the other hand, if your time is occupied in other activities that you enjoy, or productive work, or time with family and friends, then give yourself permission to do those things and stop agonizing over not writing. (Here are wise words from Kelly Belmonte on the subject, from All Nine Muses.)
5. Be reassured: writing isn’t fun.
If you think that writing has to be fun all the time (or even most of the time) to be a genuinely joyful and satisfying activity, you’ll set yourself up for a world of frustration and disappointment, and maybe never discover the true satisfaction of being a writer.
Writing is not consistently interesting, engaging, entertaining, or delightful. It has its high moments, but it also has lots and lots of low moments, when it’s frustrating and annoying and you think what you’ve just written is the most terrible piece of junk ever to be put into words.
I love writing; I miss it sorely when I can’t make it part of my regular routine; I take great satisfaction and even sometimes true joy in creating something that I know is good work. But the process of creating that good work usually involves many, many not-fun moments, when I’m staring at the screen and the words just aren’t working; or when I’m writing or revising while being convinced that this is not very good after all; or when I’m just plain tired after several hours of writing.
I’ve been writing long enough to know that my in-the-moment emotions about my writing are highly unreliable. Usually what I’m writing is not as good as I think it is on a high point, nor as bad as I fear it is on a low point, but somewhere in the middle. In the revision stage, I’ll be able to polish it to the point where I can see, objectively: this is good work.
Don’t be afraid that “not always enjoying the process” means that somehow you’re not a real writer. Rather, consider: do you find the satisfaction of work well done, in the end? (See point 3, which is necessary for this to happen.) Do you come back to writing, even though you know there’s going to be some frustration along the way? Yes? Good! You’re doing it right.
Dr. Holly Ordway is the director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, a poet, and the author of Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms(Ignatius Press, 2014). Her work focuses on imaginative apologetics and Inklings studies, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.