Over the years, as both a writer and a teacher of writing, I have found that the practice of writing provides many opportunities for evangelization and discipleship. Writing encompasses far more than what most people think of as “getting published” (usually meaning ‘books’). Few people will write books (it is hard work!), but many people have the potential to write effective articles, stories, poems, devotional material, testimonies about their own journeys of faith, and so on. Whether published in a magazine, posted on a blog, shared on social media, printed in a parish newsletter, delivered as a talk to a faith-formation group, or just passed around to friends and family, a well-crafted piece of writing can be very helpful in sharing the Gospel or helping people to better understand the faith they profess.
But one thing that is often ignored or unrecognized is the spiritual growth of the writer. I have observed that very few beginning writers—and few writers in general—have given serious thought about how to integrate writing and their life of faith, but when they do, good things happen! And so, I’m going to be writing a series of articles reflecting on the spiritual aspect of writing. I’ll start with the most basic insight:
Your writing is not about you.
Here I’m reframing Bishop Barron’s famous dictum, “Your life is not about you,” to apply it specifically to the work of writing. It’s simple and yet fundamental to a well-grounded spiritual life.
Writing is often a deeply personal and challenging endeavor, and, after a writer finishes a piece, it’s natural to want affirmation and praise. This is a normal and entirely legitimate response; writers need to have supportive fellowship, who can recognize the hard work that goes into creating any piece and can provide encouragement and commendation for doing the work.
Where many writers get into difficulties is in extending this legitimate need for affirmation to become an idea that what they’ve written deserves to be read, or published, or to get praise from readers. That can become a spiritual problem that also interferes with becoming a better writer.
Why do we write? To help readers in some way: to teach them, convince them of the truth, entertain, delight, unsettle, or console them; to make their lives better, richer, deeper, more meaningful, in some way, however small. We are serving the reader. Outside of school, no one has an obligation to read what you write; your task is to produce something that is worth the time and mental energy (and money) that your reader might invest in you. (Now, readers do have certain moral obligations toward what they read, such as to critique it on the grounds of what it is trying to do—one shouldn’t denigrate a picture-book for lack of a developed plot—but that is a separate matter.)
Many beginning writers jump too quickly to submitting their work to a publisher, and then—when it’s not accepted—drawing one of two erroneous conclusions. A writer might think, “I guess I’m not any good at writing after all. I’ll give up,” or, alternately, “The editor just doesn’t appreciate how good my work is.” In both cases, there’s limited opportunity for growth because the writer’s attitude is me-focused.
But what if we ground ourselves in the knowledge that “my writing is not about me”? Then we can move forward. Who is the reader whom we are trying to serve? Do we have the audience clearly focused, so that we can find a good fit for the piece? Perhaps not. How are we serving our audience? What might be causing difficulties for the reader? Maybe there are things we take for granted that the reader doesn’t understand. Perhaps they should understand them, but we must serve the readers as we find them, not as we wish they were. How can we make this piece of writing stronger, clearer, more effective so that it will be something the reader wants to engage with, and finds valuable? This takes a lot of work, but it’s essential.
Real writing is revision; simply to finish a piece is not enough. A complete draft is a step on the journey, not the destination—and real revision means a willingness to re-think and radically reshape a piece, not just tinker with it. That’s where “my writing is not about me” takes on a new level of importance. It is emotionally very challenging to ask for feedback on a piece, knowing that you are prepared to really change it (not just pat yourself on the back) on the basis of the feedback you receive. (It’s necessary to have good critiquers, people who know how to provide useful comments, but that, too, is a separate topic.) Even if you don’t have anyone to give you feedback, you can learn to interrogate your own drafts and revise them—but this, too, is emotionally challenging.
In short, to be a Christian writer, and to do that work well—to serve Our Lord Jesus Christ with this talent that has been given us—we need to cultivate the virtue of humility. It’s difficult, to be sure! But it’s well worth the effort, not only because it will help us to do better work as writers, but because in the process, our own spiritual lives will become deeper and stronger as well.