Nobody prepared me for the identity crisis that is “no longer being a student.” I’ve been working as a full-time brand journalist for two weeks now, and I’m face-to-face with the reality of indefinite work and what that means. Not being someone who wants to climb the corporate ladder, I’m having to redefine what growth, progress, and success mean. I’m not being graded. I’m not building up for the “next thing.” I’m just here, somehow blessed to be doing work I’ve always wanted to do, and that’s all. Living in a new city. Not sure what it’s all for.
And the thing I most have to wage war against is my pride.
It’s true that being a writer is one of the most humbling occupations. I had some really hard days these weeks grappling with “what’s the point?” questions that, upon closer examination, actually asked “what’s the point for me?” As someone who, previously, has mostly served in an editor capacity, making the shift to writer is tricky. I must confess that my heart’s hackles rose with both attack and defense when I realized I had much to learn about this industry’s particular style. It was just several days in and I was already questioning everything because the writing didn’t feel honest to who I was. It didn’t feel like me.
And God in his mercy grabbed me by the shoulders and said, “This is not about you.”
I have to see this niche writing process as learning to craft a different kind of vessel in which to usher stories into the world. And at the end of the day, this writing is not about me. These articles are about other people and for other people. I’m in this role to tell the stories of others and to learn an abundance from the work of their hands and their unique mode of being in the world.
It is selfish of me to worry whether the reader can see me in the writing. If after reading these stories, readers only see me and my words, then I have utterly failed as a writer.
The same ought to apply to literary writing. The authors I admire most are those who help me see something or someone else in a new way, be it challenging or affirming. They may let me examine their personal thoughts and internal landscapes, but the good writers are always operating with something beyond self. Bluntly, selfish writing, or writing that sets out to draw attention and acclaim only for the isolated self, is bad writing, and readers can feel the difference even if it appears unassuming on the page.
In an essay titled “Zen in the Art of Writing,” Ray Bradbury meditates on why writers write, underlining many of the dangers he’s faced in the writer life. And he holds back no punches.
“It is a lie to write in such a way as to be rewarded in the commercial market,” he says. “It is a lie to write in such a way as to be rewarded by fame offered you by some snobbish quasi-literary group in the intellectual gazettes.”
It’s a lie because it’s not true. If we seek fame, glory, a byline, recognition, affirmation, etc., we are not being true to our calling. What is a Christian writer? What is a Christian artist? We have been entrusted with seeing and sharing deep levels of beauty. We have been given the gift of redemptive storytelling. We bear the weight of revealing darkness in light of hope, balancing lament and love. To twist those things in order to gain something for ourselves is not at all in keeping with how the Lord wants us to use our words. And self-seeking is ultimately unsatisfying.
Bradbury goes on, “We hear a lot about slanting for the commercial market, but not enough about slanting for the literary cliques. Both approaches, in the final analysis, are unhappy ways for a writer to live in this world.”
To slant is to care more about what others say or think than the truth in one’s work. For my situation specifically, to slant is to care more about how others see me than how others see the people in my articles. Bradbury may not be a Christian, but he’s getting at something crucial to the Christian faith found in 1 Corinthians 13.
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” —1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (ESV)
I thought my work “didn’t feel honest to who I am.” Turns out, without love, I am nothing.
Lord, teach us how to write. Teach us how to love.
(Note: I’ll acknowledge that one nuance to these reflections is the fact that we often conflate “honesty” or “authenticity” with “truth.” But I’m still thinking through how to articulate that difference.)