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Today’s guest post comes from my friend Adam Navis. Adam is the Director of Operations for Words of Hope and is also studying the intersection of faith and writing for the focus of his D.Min. studies at Western Theological Seminary.
For my Doctor of Ministry studies at Western Theological Seminary I spend a lot of time thinking about writing and writers. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about what it might look like to write with a pastoral perspective. But today I would like to address a myth that stops a lot of people from writing: the myth of The Writer.
The Writer is the tortured soul in a beret, chain-smoking cigarettes, and bent over a cafe table, scribbling furiously in unlined notebooks. The Writer is the mystic who takes dictation from the divine. The Writer is the artist starving in a low-rent garret, the misunderstood genius, the lost soul. The Writer is David Foster Wallace, wandering the halls of academia, erudite and ahead of his time. It is Jack Kerouac’s mythic single scroll on which he wrote On the Road. The Writer is the reclusive J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee. It is J.K. Rowling’s outlines for Harry Potter on restaurant napkins. It is Hemingway’s alcoholism and machismo. It is the self-destruction of Edgar Allen Poe, Hunter S. Thompson, Spalding Gray, and again, Hemingway. It is the casual yet acerbic wit of Twain. It is the socially minded Russians: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn.
These writers, we believe, were real writers, not because they wrote, but because they embodied their art, they danced with the muse, they were doubly and triply blessed by God. They were a breed altogether different than the common man or woman. In fact, they stopped being people and they became something else, they became The Writer. And we who struggle to put words on the page are unworthy to even stand in their shadow.
However, this caricature is neither helpful nor accurate. It is not helpful because it makes writing into a kind of country club of the damned. You are required to have some malady or depression or addiction to be a writer (not true). It is not accurate because most writers do not understand their work as an act of genius. They see themselves not as The Writer, but just as a person who writes. And because of this they contain within their ranks not only various personal preferences (like whether to write in the morning or the evening) but also a wide spectrum of gifts and abilities and self-understandings.
Because they are people, they (and their writing) are affected the things that affect all people: by sickness, the weather, changing seasons, hunger, thirst, or lack of sleep. They are busy raising families, paying bills and worrying about how long it has been since they changed the oil in the car. They have church obligations, distractions, diets, and stiff backs in the morning. They have favorite television shows, sports teams, restaurants and vacation spots. Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Telegraph Avenue) begins writing at 10:30 pm to accommodate his children. E.B. White (Charlotte’s Web) wrote in silence while Stephen King (Carrie, The Shining) edits to heavy metal. Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451) wrote everyday, while Sheri Reynolds (The Rapture of Canaan) needs to take breaks from writing altogether. Gary Schmidt (Ok For Now) has won the Newbery Honor twice, but still teaches. C.S. Lewis’ wife died of cancer at 45. Flannery O’Connor had lupus. Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned. Tolstoy had 14 children.
I believe we want to see people who write as something magical because it makes our lives easier. When the Holy Spirit nudges us with an idea that might make a good book (or article, or blog post), but we have judged ourselves as lacking some key element of genius, we excuse ourselves from even trying. And we therefore don’t have to risk failing.
The truth is, this isn’t something we do only to writers. Every day we forget that people are people; that all of us have the same needs, wants, fears, and hurts. We do it with politicians, pastors, doctors, actors, judges, mothers, waitresses, billionaires, teachers, musicians, Kardashians (um, I’m not sure if Kardashians are people….) But we do it for the same reason that we make writers into Writers: to make our lives easier. For if people stop being people and become instead “democrats,” “customer service,” “the elderly,” “undocumented workers,” “women,” “Latino voters,” “bottomed-out movie star,” or any other of the thousands of labels and caricatures that we apply, then we get to start treating them as less than complicated, beautiful, broken, children of God. There are many implications of this, but my point today is this: there is no such thing as “The Writer” just as there is no such thing as any of the labels I’ve listed above. All there is are people. People who get out of bed in the morning and do things. Some of them write and some of them do not. If you want to be one of the people who write, go ahead.