Just as you receive this newsletter from me, I also receive a few newsletters from other writers and ministries.
This week, I received my friend Karen Mains’ newsletter, Soulish Food. (You can read it below as our guest column.) As usual, Karen’s musings were thought-provoking. One paragraph especially struck me. She talked about “the writing life.” Like a lost pair of gloves, Karen felt this life was something she once had, but had lost somewhere along the way. She’s done ministry with her husband David for decades (they did Chapel of the Air radio ministry, and now run MainStay ministries). The demands of ministry edged out that “writing life” she wanted.
While I have to say that Karen’s notion of the writing life may be a bit romanticized, her description of it twanged something in my soul.
Because I am a few years younger than Karen, and look to her as a mentor and wise woman, I felt a sense of warning in her words. Don’t lose this, she seemed to be saying to me. This writer’s life. Because at the moment, the writer’s life is one I am living, or trying to live. If I listen to my life, I will hear very clearly the call to write.
In order to listen to my life, and to obey God’s call on it, I must say no to certain things, and yes to others. And the same is true for you. You may not be a writer (or perhaps you are), but you are called to some kind of life: being a teacher, an engineer, a mom, a doctor, a minister, or something else. Answering that call means considering very carefully when you will say yes, and when you will say no.
During certain seasons of the year, I say yes to requests to be a speaker or retreat leader. Most writers, once published, get these kind of requests. It’s ironic to me, because I believe speaking and writing are two very different skills. They’re both communication, but then again, so are Swahili and English. And I suppose you can become relatively fluent in both. But one will likely remain your native tongue.
There are speakers who write, and writers who speak. I’m the latter, and the written word will always be my first language and my deepest love. I enjoy speaking, it’s a way to connect with readers and also provides me some income, which is something the writing life doesn’t always give you a lot of.
So what does a writing life look like?
In order to live this life, I have to write. That takes discipline. You do not write only when you feel like it. It’s just after 7 a.m. I’ve been up for an hour, seeing my kids off to school. They make their own lunches while I sit and make a shopping list, drink coffee. I remind my 12-year-old to comb his hair, I remind my 14-year-old about her dentist appointment later this week.
Because my writing life is juxtaposed with a mothering life, those things must be combined. But from the time the kids walk out the door, I get my butt in the chair, and I put words onto a page. It’s one of the most important yeses of the writing life. So many people tell me that they would like to be a writer. But when I ask, do you write? They say, well, not at the moment. Wanting to write and actually writing are two very different things.
The writing life requires discipline. I make time to write five days a week—and I give my best, most alert time (usually from 7 a.m. until noon) to that task. I set goals of 1000 words per day, or more. I read books on writing, read good books in general, to study my craft. The writing life seems solitary, and it is, but it also requires me to be in community—to ask other writers to read my work, to offer feedback so that I can improve it. And to provide that kind of feedback and encouragement to other writers. So, within carefully set boundaries, I do some of that as well.
This weekend, I drove to another state where I led a retreat. This is part of the writing life, too, because the retreat was based on one of my books. Speaking, especially when you do a retreat and really talk to people, seems more hands-on ministry than writing. But really, speaking before a large group creates a sort of distance. In contrast, if you share your soul in the pages of a book, you provide an opportunity for one-on-one ministry, soul to soul connection with your reader.
A writer’s life isn’t just poring over the dictionary or even just writing. As most of you know, I have a new website. Many of my working hours over the last two months have been poured into communicating with the designer, or trying to communicate with her, via e-mail. I only know what I think looks pretty. She taught me a whole new language as we figured out what the website needed to be able to do, how it would function. And we’re still working out a few last glitches with the site.
Karen’s lament of losing the writing life made me more determined to hang onto it myself. Because I don’t travel to speak during the summer, I can spend the next four months living the writer’s life. Which is important not just because I love writing, but because I have a book due September 1.
In your life, you may often wrestle with what to say yes and no to. But often, we don’t feel we have a guide for making those decisions. The question is, what does your life intend to do with you? What is God calling you to? What sort of life do you have, that you don’t want to lose? Or what life have you lost, that you want to find again?