Writers Write. Most of the Time.

HERE’S AN interesting list of claims to consider:

Well, you’re not a real writer. You’ve never been published.

Well, you’re not a real writer. You’ve never been published in a magazine.

Well, you’re not a real writer. You’ve never been published in book form.

Well, you’re not a real writer. You’ve never been published in trade form.

Well, you’re not a real writer. You’ve never been published in hardback.

Well, you’re not a real writer. Your book wasn’t published by a real publishing house.

Well, you’re not a real writer. You never sold more than [pick a number] copies.

Well, you’re not a real writer. You’ve never been published by [pick a publisher].

Well, you’re not a real writer. You just write about [pick a subject].

Well, you’re not a real writer. Your [grammar/ plots/ characters/ settings/ logic / argument/ etc.] is/are an embarrassment.

Well, you’re not a real writer. You got lucky and wrote one decent book that got picked up and sold 3 million copies. Big deal. You’re a one-hit wonder.

Well, you’re not a real writer. You are so prolific your work has lost its integrity. You love money more than the art.

Well, you’re not a real writer. My dog can write decent [poetry/ prose/ fiction/ non-fiction/ etc.].

And the list goes on and on.

At some point during this present summer I read something on a blog (a blog from a fairly “successful” writer) that caused me to remember something I had read years ago about writers always bashing other writers because of… well, things like I’ve placed in the list. So the idea behind the list I’ve just put forth is not original. But it is a bit intriguing in a larger sense, and I’d like to talk about a couple of reasons why I think so.

First of all, the list betrays much of our human weakness to do two things: Judge those who don’t rise to our personal standards as being losers, and judge those who rise above our standards as irrelevant, arrogant fanatics who have lost all focus upon the matter. I see this in Christianity all the time: If you aren’t as moral/spiritual/devoted/etc as me, you don’t really love God, and are in danger of going to Hell (good riddance, by the way). And, if you try to live as more moral/spiritual/devoted/etc. than me, well you’re just a holy-rolling Jesus freak who has lost all practical understanding and perspective on being human in today’s world (leave me alone, by the way). The unspoken claim is much simpler: I’m at precisely the perfect place. My standard is the correct one. Anybody who has a different standard is an idiot.

Most of us can see that in principle this isn’t a good way to view life, but we cling to it anyway. We do it with writing, painting, driving, basketball, football, sewing, cooking, jobs and careers, religion, marriage, raising kids, and anything else you can think of. And it’s pretty sad to admit that we each think we are God and measure things just right. From my way of thinking, this must fall somewhere under the list of no-no’s resulting from the idea, “do not judge.”

Second, there’s a line item for the list that would go something like, “If you were a real writer, you’d write every chance you got.” Uh-huh. Well, that’s pretty close to the blog post I read this summer, but I think the better concept is the claim that “you’d make every chance to write.” By this I mean, some writers would say that if you’re not ignoring everything else in life so you can “polish your craft” or “live your art” then you really aren’t a true writer. God pity me, I can see both sides, agreeing and disagreeing with this idea. Don’t think for a minute that I haven’t wrestled with the dichotomy at least once a month for half of my life.

On the one hand, look at somebody like Thomas Merton. If you read enough of his journals, you figure out that he loved to write. In the rare case where he didn’t have anything sublime to put on paper, he’d (yikes!) complain about his superiors, write words about words, or just make lists of things. Merton was a writer. I think the person who writes the blog I keep mentioning is a writer, too. Many entries a day, every day, about just about anything. It’s not drivel, either. It’s decent stuff, mostly with a point. I liken my view in this paragraph to a comment that was made about a journalist who had interviewed a pop star who got famous for singing. The comment was something like, “I’ve interviewed a lot of singers, and every one of them sang during the interviews. It’s like they couldn’t not sing. But not [this one]. She never sang once. I’m not so sure she really is a singer.” Good point. You can’t stop singers from singing. You can’t stop writers from writing. You can’t stop engineers from engineering and you can’t stop mommies from mommy-ing. It’s the way it is. So, if you don’t write much, if you don’t make every opportunity to write, are you a real writer?

On the other hand, the crux is between the ideas of taking chances to write, and making chances. Believe me that I, for one, take every chance I get. But do I make every chance into a chance to write? Do I make every moment a writing moment? No. Not on paper or computer anyway. Why not? Maybe I’m not a real writer. Or maybe it’s something different. You see a house on fire. Do you dial 911, maybe try to help , or do pull out your journal and pen and start writing? If you did the first two, are you a writer? Some would say not, and some would say that if you do the third you may be a writer, but you’re not much of a human being (which, round and round, eventually means you’re not a real writer. See how the list works?)

I’m rambling, which is by the way one of the things that makes me not a real writer. I have a tendency to mix singular and plural personal pronouns, my vocabulary is small, and I am overly verbose. Got it. Thanks. So to stop the ramble for a moment, here’s the point: If writing, like so many other things in life, is a vocation, then it matters. It matters greatly and you had better take it seriously. But shame on you if you forget this: every such vocation is (at best) a secondary vocation that is trumped by our primary Christian vocation to charity, mercy, compassion, spreading the love of God directly to others, and demonstrating the Kingdom. Sure you can do these by writing (and by almost anything else), and if you can, you must; but there are absolute direct ways to which we are all called. Although these ways differ from individual to individual, if you’re a spouse it means your spouse matters more than your writing. If you are a parent it means your children matter more than your writing. It means that sometimes doing the shopping, or landscaping a yard, or fixing a broken toy or simply talking about the day is your first priority; not writing. So, no, you don’t make every moment a writing moment. You make every moment a Love moment, a God moment. And when possible, those Love and God moments are spent alone with your pen—because you’re a writer. In simpler terms: You are a human first. You are a writer second. This is how it has to be, or else you run the risk of being an inhuman writer.

So, pick what it is that God has made you to be. Follow it. Live it. Love it. Pursue it with a fiery passion—right after you first love everybody you can with all the energy you can. To die to one’s self means, paradoxically, to be willing to die to your vocation. Just read the end of Merton’s Seven Story Mountain. He understood, and the battle was his private little Hell.

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