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Digging Deeper and Building Higher: Further Advice for Christian Writers

July 15, 2020


In my last post, I offered five practical pieces of advice for Christian writers. Here I have some more advice to further equip those who feel called to serve the kingdom through creative writing—and to suggest ways for writers (and readers) to grow in their relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ.

Why do we need creative writers? Why not just focus on direct evangelization and catechesis? Consider the parable of the sower (Matthew 13, Luke 8). Here we see the two aspects of evangelization: the seed and the soil. We need to sow the seed of the Word, and some people are particularly called to that task. But the seed needs good soil in order to grow—and here we see the particular value of literary approaches.

Creative writers can fan the flames of a longing for more than the material world can offer; they can bring to life abstract concepts like justice, mercy, and forgiveness; they can call attention to the reality of both sin and goodness; and above all, they can help make the concepts of our faith meaningful. In this culture, many people hear Christian words and concepts (sin, salvation, heaven, hell, etc.) as just empty phrases or religious jargon, not worth a moment’s attention. Restoring meaning to these words is an important task of the Christian writer—cultivating the dry, hard soil of the culture and of individual hearts and minds, so that the seeds of the Word will not be snatched away or wither, but bear fruit.

To do their share of evangelization well, writers must be rooted, grounded, and centered in Christ. We are all called to grow in holiness, to strive each day to be more Christ-like in thought, word, and deed. For writers, this path of virtue leads through the writing process—if we are willing to accept the challenge!

Here, then, are four further pieces of advice that will, I hope, help aspiring writers both in the craft of writing and in the spiritual life—and if you are a reader, not (yet) a writer, there are some words to help you do your share in this work of creative evangelization!

Cultivate true humility.

Humility is a virtue that can be surprisingly difficult to put into practice—especially since many writers are afflicted by false humility.

True humility means recognizing your strengths and weaknesses objectively, accepting both praise and correction constructively, focusing on your writing and not on yourself, and seeking to grow. It is often painful at first, but it leads to a sense of peace and confidence.

False humility means cultivating self-doubt, putting yourself down, comparing yourself to others, and being fearful about growth. It feels virtuous at first, but it leads to envy, resentment, and (paradoxically) pride.

Cultivating true humility includes such practical things as: recognizing that good work means revision (and not expecting perfect writing to happen in one go); seeking genuine, constructive feedback (not just angling for praise); accepting praise with pleasure and satisfaction (but not depending on it); accepting criticism objectively (without taking it personally); making use of feedback to improve a piece of writing (rather than finding 1,001 reasons why the piece was perfect as it stands); and responding to rejections by asking, “How can I make this piece better for my next submission?” (rather than assuming the editor is an idiot or that you are a failure).

Speaking as a professional writer, and as a teacher of creative writing, I can assure you that these attitudes are vitally important. But they are also very hard, and the growth required to get there is often painful. Will you stumble along the way? Probably—you’re human! Go to confession and take heart. This is a path of humility that will keep you close to our Lord. It is also the way that you’ll be able to do truly good work for Christ’s kingdom—and that’s the goal.

Know your audience, and serve them.

Most people think of published books when they think of “creative writing,” but that’s just one part of a wide range of audiences. For example, journaling has an audience of one (yourself), but it can be valuable for self-expression, working through difficult experiences, or preserving memories. Your circle of family and friends can be strengthened and encouraged by stories and poems written for special occasions. Your parish newsletter or diocesan magazine can be a venue to edify and equip your fellow parishioners.

Prayerfully discern for whom you are writing. Then seek to serve that audience. Writing, like any other ministry, is most effective when it takes into consideration the needs of the people it is intended to reach, as well as your own preferences, gifts, interests, and personal boundaries.

It may be that your audience is small and local, at least right now—but if that’s where God has called you to serve, it’s every bit as important as getting a big publishing contract. So be it! True humility involves learning to accept and rejoice in your particular call as a writer, wherever it takes you.

Be in community.

As Catholics, we know that we aren’t isolated individuals; we are part of the Body of Christ, and we need to help and support each other. The act of writing itself is intensely individual, but we need a community of fellow writers and supporters.

At every stage of their growth, from beginner to seasoned pro, writers need people who will provide charitable yet honest comments and practical suggestions on their work, not pats on the back or a few edits to their spelling. Community can take various forms: a structured writer’s group (online or in person), one or two people who will read and respond to your work, people who will pray for you, or some mix of the above. It takes time and effort to form these relationships, not least because providing and accepting feedback is a learned skill. But it’s absolutely essential to have this sort of community and participate in it.

Diana Glyer’s book Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings is a must-read for anyone who wants to form a writing group or learn the skill of helpful feedback.

Be the community.

A thriving community of writers involves much more than just writing—and here, nonwriters can also contribute in vitally important ways.

Writers need readers. So make an effort to read more books and talk about them with friends. This can lead to fruitful evangelizing conversations, and even develop into a ministry, if you start a book discussion group.

Writers need people who are willing to give their time and energy to provide feedback. You don’t need to be a writer yourself to be a top-notch critiquer, as long as you are willing to put in the effort and be responsive to the writer’s questions and needs.

Published writers benefit from being invited to give lectures and workshops (and being paid; the worker is worthy of his or her wages!), and aspiring writers likewise gain from these opportunities to learn from mentors and develop relationships with peers. Organizing events and writing conferences is thus a valuable contribution to ministry—and can provide opportunities for evangelization as well.

Both writers and readers benefit from book reviews and people who spread the word by sharing others’ reviews and news of worthwhile books. We need many more Christian book reviewers, people who truly appreciate good literature and can make discerning judgments on the basis of literary quality as well as worldview and message. Start small, and grow from there. Consider the example of Ashley Canter’s The Family Bookshelf blog—you can read the Word on Fire interview with her here—and ask yourself where your reading tastes and experience can be of value to others. A helpful review can be as short as a couple of sentences on social media, or a paragraph on a bookstore website. Sharing reviews written by other people, as well as news of interesting upcoming books, also helps to build up the community of writers.

Let me close my advice with one last exhortation: build community with the saints too! Here are a few members of the communion of saints who know first-hand what it is to be a creative writer. I invite you to learn about them, and ask for their intercession and encouragement.

  • John Henry Newman – novelist (Loss and Gain; Callista)
  • Pope St. John Paul II – playwright
  • Thérèse of Lisieux – poet
  • Francis of Assisi – poet
  • John of the Cross – poet
  • Robert Southwell – poet
  • Hildegard of Bingen – songwriter
  • Thomas Aquinas – hymn-writer

Godspeed, writers and friends of writers!