I Feel Called to Write. Now What?

A few weeks back I mentioned I'd be answering some of your questions here on Sayable. Today I'd like to write a bit in response to the question, or a variant of it, I get more than any other: What would you recommend to someone who thinks they're called to write? 

I've written much on this subject before, so if you'd like to read more, just click on the writing link at the bottom of the page. Now I will tell you what I tell every single person, regardless of their obvious gift or visible lack of chops: if you feel called to write, you must read, you must write, you must listen to those closest to you, and you must not think about the outcome too much. 

That seems like a silly answer, but I think the questions behind the question for a lot of people is: "I feel called to write and therefore need to grow a "platform." Do you suggest I do that in blogging? Growing my social media channels? Write books? Where should I publish? How do I get my name out there? What if no one reads my blog? What if I work really hard at it for a year and still no one reads my blog?" 

First, the word "platform" is an awful one and one I wish would never enter the vocabulary of a writer. It steals the beauty of the vocation right out from under its feet, making it about readership instead of readers. We ought to care very much for our readers, those humans with stories and hurts and feelings and intellect. And we ought to care very little about readership, the masses of people reading or not reading. So first, if you feel called to write, root the word platform out of your vocabulary for now. It may become a necessary evil if you get the the publishing a book phase, but for right now (even if that's your end goal), it's just a distraction. Omit it entirely today. 

Next, you must read. Commit to reading both broadly and deeply. Do not only read the authors all the cool people share about on Instagram stories. Read classics (Graham Greene, Toni Morrison, Agatha Christie, and Marilynne Robinson, David James Duncan are classics too). Read poetry (start with Mary Oliver, Robert Frost, Wendell Berry, Billy Collins, Langston Hughes to whet your appetite, move on to Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, and Richard Wilbur). Read short fiction (Flannery O'Connor, John Updike, Barbara Kingsolver, various short fiction in the New Yorker or Harpers Weekly). Read memoir (Madeleine L'Engle's Crosswicks Journals, Jennette Walls, Frederick Buechner, and Annie Dillard). Read popular fiction (John Le Carr, Ann Patchett, Ray Bradbury, Barbara Kingsolver).

Read theology too, but especially if you want to write about theology, make sure you read more of what's listed above. Why? Because if theological writing is the bones on which our body hangs, creative writing is the flesh. It fills out the muscles and fills in the crevices. It takes what is foundationally real and true about God and man, and fleshes it out. If you want to write, you must read.

If you don't want to read, or consider reading unnecessary for a writer, you will run out of things about which to write, you will be a one-trick pony, you will taper off, and ultimately you are not called to write, you just wanted what you thought was a quick way to get noticed. Readers can tell when writers don't read. If you don't read and you can't figure out why nobody wants to read you, this is probably a big part of it. You can't cheat this system.

Next, you must write. That seems silly to say, but it really is that simple. I just finished a twelve week writing mentorship and gave away most of my secrets in it, but generally, just write.

Don't write to be noticed, don't track your readership, don't always be in respond mode to whatever terrible thing is happening online today, don't be preachy, don't care more about your reputation than you care about your readers.

Do be a careful writer, that is, a writer full of care for both the words and the readers. Be, as Eugene Peterson says, a "shepherd of the words." Do write consistently, every day or at least every other. Do hold yourself to a word limit when you're first beginning and make it 1/3 tighter than you want it to be or 1/3 more than you're generally comfortable with. Do learn proper grammar. Do ask those who know you best to give you honest feedback often. Do write about silly things like the heat index and the way a book smells and the feel of rain on your face. Do also write about God, the way you see Him and the things you doubt about Him and the ways you want to see and know Him more. Do emulate (though never copy or plagiarize or paraphrase without attribution) your favorite writers. Do try your hand at poetry. Short fiction. Devotional writing. Do not get stuck. When you get stuck, keep writing. If you can't keep writing, go take a nap, you're probably tired and napping is essential to writing. 

Next, if you really want to write, you have to give up control of the outcome. You cannot care about what happens to the words once they're released. Every writer at every stage and at every age cares. We always care. But the aim must be to not care. You have done the work, you have called it good (hopefully). You have been care-filled at every stage of the process and now your job is to not care. Now you must trust the words to do the work in you and in others. God does that work, through His Spirit, and it is not you.

If you were faithful in the above, then you must trust the words into the world without you to explain them, caveat them, preface them, or try to make the reader understand. If you feel you must do that, then you have not been a faithful writer. This is why it's so important that we are faithful writers before we are faithful publishers. If you want to skip being a faithful writer and move right to the place where many are reading your words, you will cause damage. We only need to take a cursory glance at the Church today and the way it's both talked about online and the way it talks online, and see hordes and masses of communicators who just wanted to preach or teach or publish or get noticed without putting in the quiet work of faithfulness. So, if you really want to write and you believe God has called you to write, put aside any illusions of glory or grandeur, put aside any hopes for accolades or affirmation, keep putting it all to death (for the rest of your writing life), and trust the outcome of your words to God. 

This is the only writing advice I have. Plenty of others have more advice and you should listen to them far more than me. The only thing I have going for me is this little home on the web. It's been here for nearly twenty years (begun in 2000) and I suppose I've learned a lot about the practice we call "blogging," but I've kept myself pretty ignorant of the ways to Grow Your Readership in 100 Days or 10 Ways to Get 1000 Followers in 10 Weeks. I know God means for me to write because when I write like Eric Liddell ran, "I feel His pleasure." It is not simply because I get paid to do it or I am particularly gifted in one way or another. I know God means it for me because in the midst of ups, downs, discouragements, hopes, crushed dreams, highs, lows, failure, success, readers or no readers, respect in the writing community and criticism in the writing community, I still write and I still feel God's pleasure when I write. As long as I am able, I will write. 

I want to close with the poem from our favorite Colonist and white imperialist, Rudyard Kipling (That was a joke BTW. He shouldn't be your favorite.). I first read it when I was 13 and felt the first nudging of desire to write, and various phrases have echoed in my mind since then. I am a firm supporter in letting a piece speak for itself and this poem does. Every writer should commit it to memory—I wrote it on my bedroom wall at 13 and memorized it then. I have changed the last line to writer, instead of man. I think Kipling would be okay with that.

If you can keep your head when all about you   
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;   
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;   
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,   
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   
    And—which is more—you’ll be a writer, my son!