There’s No Such Thing as a Writer (and other thoughts for those of you thinking about writing)

I’ve been asked by the good people here at Crossway to write a guest blog post to accompany the publication of my newest book, Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian. I’m happy to do so, honored even, and hope something of what I have to say here might be of help to those of you thinking about being a writer.

Anyone Can Write

First off, I want everyone to know that anyone can write. I mean that. Early on in my writing life, a professor of mine in the writing program I was enrolled in told me, “Bret, I see no reason why you shouldn’t be in our program, but I see no reason why you should.” If I had taken his advice—because it was totally clear that he was telling me, as gently as possible, that I should give it up—then I wouldn’t be here and writing this to you today. After having taught writing for almost thirty years now, and after having published fourteen books, I know I will never deliver to anyone the news he or she shouldn’t write. Because it’s not up to me. It’s up to the one who wants to write—it’s up to you—to pursue what that means. So if you want to write, then write.

Read and Read Some More

And read, too! I never intended to become a writer, wanted to be a forest ranger and then a marine biologist and then an RC Cola salesman—really! —until I ended up one day taking a creative writing course at a local community college. I didn’t spend my life dreaming of seeing my picture on a book jacket, but with my nose buried in the book’s pages. I read my brains out, read and read and read, because I cared about what happened to the people, not about the author. It was the people who mattered most to me, and what happened to them. And because of this reading so much, I began to hear what a sentence sounded like, its cadence and rhythm, its music and rhyme, its sound. In school I always got D's in grammar because grammar was an abstract, while I always aced my essay exams, because I could hear what a good sentence sounded like, and could tell a story about whatever subject I was addressing. Reading is, of course and always, an exploration into the world of story. But if you want to write, reading is also a rehearsal with the way words work amongst themselves, the way they create something beyond the sum of their participles and adjectives and nouns and verbs. So read, and read, and read some more.

There's No Such Thing as a Writer

One of the first things I want people to know about writing, too, is that there really is no such thing as a writer. The world has flooded us with too many images of the artiste/auteur who lives a somewhat glamorous, somewhat tragic, somewhat romantic, and somewhat rich and famous life. But the reality is that writers are simply people who pay attention to the world around them, and who choose to put into words what they see, feel, think, and discover, all in an effort to better understand who they are and the world around them. This is because writing is an act of discovery, not an act of announcing what one already knows. That’s what I enjoy best about writing: being able to go on an adventure during which I’ll cover new terrain, come to know new people, and find out what I don’t know, finally, about what I know: about me. Writing a book is about finding out rather than lecturing.

Alone with Words

It’s also a very solitary thing to do. By definition, writing is putting down one word after another, and when you spend the requisite time and attention making sure each of those words is the right one, you’ll have no choice but to be alone with words, and hence be alone. Much in the way a monk might cloister himself away, so someone who wants to write must do with words. Writing is a kind of communing with words, and seeing what they can do, what they can’t, which ways they can go wrong, and which ways they can lead you along the path to that discovery. So if you want to write, you also need to know you’ll be spending a lot of time alone.

Sharing the Discovery

Having said that—someone who wants to write needs to be a kind of word-monk—the person who wants to write also has to be someone who wants to share what he’s done. Writing is an act of communication, an act of sharing with someone else what it is you discovered while on that slow journey toward what a story or essay or novel will deliver you. Just as we believers have been blessed so that we might be a blessing to others, those who want to write must spend intimate time alone with words so that one can then broadcast them—and that discovery you’ve made—to all the world.

Humility before Words

Finally, in this briefest of blogsville treatises on writing, it is of the utmost importance that one be humble before words. They have been around for a very long time, they are very powerful, and they are a gift from God (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” John writes of Christ Jesus), and so humility before the power words have is essential. And it is also of the utmost importance that one works boldly with those same words (“Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace,” the writer of Hebrews exhorts us, “that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”). Again, we as believers have been blessed to be a blessing; likewise, one who wants to write works carefully and intimately with words in order to give them back to the waiting world outside his or her own life. But the rewards—sharing what you have written with someone who then understands what you have seen, what you found, and what you have discovered—are more than worth the risk of cloistering oneself into the quiet and slow and lonely work that placing one good word after another can be.

God bless you in your own endeavors to write, dear reader, and thank you for the time you’ve taken in reading this!

Learn more about Letters & Life | Watch the Video, "On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian"

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