As Christians, we need stories and poetry that nurture our faith and nourish our imaginations—literature that explores the rich nuances and complexities of human life, including its frailties and flaws; tales that give us images of the good, the true, and the beautiful; stories that invite the doubtful or curious to consider the truths of the faith. The literary treasure-house of our tradition is very well stocked, and we should avail ourselves of its riches, but we always need additions to the treasury, new perspectives, stories and poems that respond to the particular needs of our own culture and times. We need writers!
Indeed, creativity is part of the imprint of the image of God in the human being. As J.R.R. Tolkien put it, “We make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”
So, being a creative writer is a vocation, and an important one. Maybe you’ve been wondering if you are called to be a writer. Do you see what’s being published, and wish for something better? Have family and friends complimented you on your writing, and said “You should be an author”? Are story-ideas bubbling away in your imagination? Perhaps you feel this way yourself, or know someone who fits the description.
Great—what’s next? The whole idea of ‘being a writer’ can feel very mysterious.
In my experience as a teacher of creative writing, I’ve found that many Christians are eager to write, but have a hard time getting going (or sustaining their writing). Many new writers have ideas or habits that are getting in the way of their growth, so that they get discouraged and give up. Here are five practical suggestions that will help you grow as a writer—and also grow in your faith.
Include your writing in your regular daily prayers, just as you would include any other work that you are doing. It is a good idea to pray before you begin writing. I suggest something simple like: “Dear Lord, I commit my day’s writing to you, that I may honor you through my work. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen.” Or you might simply pray, “Lord, prosper the work of my hands.” Then get to work.
Don’t wait for inspiration.
Pray, but don’t wait until you ‘feel inspired’—if you depend on that, you’ll get discouraged when the rush of creative energy subsides. Even the most brilliant idea takes a lot of work to develop. Furthermore, many great books, stories, and poems grow out of seemingly small or mundane ideas. Remember the mustard seed (Matt. 13:31-32). Think about your interests, your potential audience and their needs, what people have asked you to write, what you’ve done in the past that you’d like to explore again. Generate various ideas and do some test-writing on them, to see which ones you’d like to take further. Then work on those.
Learn the craft.
As a Christian writer, your faith should infuse and shape your work—but in order to have a positive effect on potential readers, it needs to be worth reading!
Too often Christians take the ‘good enough’ approach to creative writing. If it has the right values . . . if it presents the Gospel . . . if it has Christian ideas in it . . . then it’s good enough, even if the writing is so-so, the plot is weak, and the characters are cardboard. But this sort of writing won’t draw in a skeptic or reveal beauty and truth to a doubter. It won’t help to develop a fellow Christian’s sense of the beauty of our faith.
Christian writers are called to show forth the truth, goodness, and beauty of our faith both in what we say and in how we say it. We need to be able to show the richness of our faith, not just plug in the right talking points in a dialogue. Writers need to learn how to use the right word in the right place at the right time; how to set a scene, how to create a compelling character, how to explore a difficult theme; how to engage with the audience; and much more. Learn how to tell a good story; learn how to write so that your work is compelling and worth reading for its own sake. Then you’ll be able to present Christian ideas in a way that’s both effective and convincing.
This is the case whether your approach is to present these ideas explicitly and directly (as, for instance, C.S. Lewis did in the Chronicles of Narnia) or implicitly and indirectly (as J.R.R. Tolkien did in The Lord of the Rings). The direct and indirect approaches are different methods; one is not superior to the other. What both have in common is that they only work properly if the story itself is done well—and both Lewis and Tolkien model for us the kind of dedication to the art and craft of writing that we need.
Having high standards is important, but it can also be discouraging for new writers. Take courage! Learning the craft takes time and effort—and there are no short-cuts. One of the maxims of St. Philip Neri was that “we must not wish to do everything at once, or become a saint in four days.” Perseverance and diligence are essential in both the spiritual life and the writing life.
Writing is something you learn by doing. Your early work won’t be any good; that’s okay. How else are you going to learn? Think of sports or playing a musical instrument, and how much time and effort you would have to put in before you could play well in a big game, or perform a solo at a recital. Write, write, write—and work on revising what you’ve written to make it better. This is what working writers do. (Trust me.) And by offering up this work in prayer, you’ll be growing in your own spiritual life as well.
Writers write. They also read! Reading both widely and deeply will help you grow tremendously as a writer. You’ll see the different ways that great writers tackled the same sorts of challenges you’re facing, and you’ll get a deeper and more intuitive grasp of what you can do with language and form.
Don’t just read modern works in your favorite genre. Read the classics; it will break you out of imaginative ruts you didn’t even realize you were stuck in. Go upstream: read the books that your favorite authors read. Read both fiction and nonfiction; get a sense of the way that different genres and forms work. Read non-Christian authors: there’s much to learn there as well. What are the unaffiliated, the skeptics, the ‘spiritual but not religious’ folks reading? Read there too, so that you can find out what the themes and ideas are that people are drawn to, and struggling with.
And read works by the great Catholic authors, so that you can refresh your mind and be nourished—and so that you can see the way that these figures have spoken to their time and culture, and how they continue to speak to our own.
These suggestions won’t make you a writer overnight, but they’re worth doing, and they’ll help you grow in the process. And even if you don’t feel called to be a writer, you probably know someone who loves to write—a child, a student, a friend, a family member—and who could use a bit of encouragement. We’re all in this together, part of the Body of Christ. And we need writers!