2015 was the first year for AdamSetser.com and my push to publish something regularly. I’ve had a hard time figuring out what writing means and how I am to go about doing it, and that has led me into some really dark places. But before we get there, let’s recap.
This year we’ve had 2,500 unique visitors and over 10,000 page views, and in the last few months there have been about 200 new folks per month finding us on Google. That’s nothing to brag about (if you’re the type to brag about numbers), but it’s a start. More than the numbers, what means so much to me are the emails I get from you, my readers. As the year has progressed I find more and more of you in my inbox, and that makes me very happy. It keeps me going when writing becomes dark.
So, About That Darkness
I was sitting in my favorite Starbucks with my friend, Thane, doing homework, when it happened. I was hunkered over my laptop, rocking back and forth as if God Himself had descended into my mind, and I pecked away at the keyboard, frustrated that my fingers couldn’t keep up. This was writing, and it felt like a drug. It was January 2012, and ever since then, I’ve been hooked.
The story I wrote that day is, in retrospect, terribly embarrassing (for a good laugh, I’ve put it up on Dropbox for a short time: it’s called ”Dominik”), but it was the necessary jilted start to what has become my labor of love. Through the last three years of my chronic illness, writing has become my primary focus. I read, think, and dream in words, and once you develop a writer’s mind you can’t turn it off. That “always on” mentality is what initially drew me to the writing lifestyle, but it’s what’s also been the biggest drag.
Because all writing does is make you feel things more. You’re more aware of life, of pain and sorrow, of ISIS beheading people, of people doing stupid things, voting in stupid people; and as a writer, your soul mission is to express what people are feeling. You are society’s guinea pig in that while they get to turn away from things, you have to run into the white-hot center of it and then report on what it’s like down there. Being a writer means you go where others don’t, otherwise you’re not a writer, you’re a hack (or, in our terminology, a blogger).
My Coming of Age as a Writer
I don’t call myself a writer, but it’s what I spend most of my time doing. I started out writing stories and spiritual pieces, but didn’t feel like I had anything to really add to the common record…so every time I started a blog it died. Every time I started writing a book, I didn’t finish it. Three tries later—TA-DA!—we have AdamSetser.com, which, this month, is one year old. (And, we have the soon-to-be completed manuscript for my top-secret book on chronic suffering.)
On this blog, I began by only writing stuff that had already been written. I was gung-ho for Information Curation instead of Information Creation. I hid behind the wall of research which comprised my articles. I figured everything had already been said over and over and over, so why should I work hard (i.e., do the hard work of being a writer) to reinvent the wheel? Why not just shirk my writerly responsibilities (and the pain) and just repeat what others had already said? A valid question.
This is where most writers live—meaning most writers are selfish and don’t work hard. I realized I was one of them, my ego not letting me write what’s been written, or create, or think originally, or take risks, and so my writing began to be about me more than about you. I was writing mighty fine work, if you ask me, but it was all answering questions nobody else was asking. So I’ve had to do some deep thinking about my writing—about what it means to write in the Information Age, about what kind of service writing is, about how writing can be distinctly “Christian,” and how I’m personally supposed to find a place (or an audience) in that world.
Let me give you the bottom line before I explain any more of the process. The answer I’ve come to is that I should re-invent the wheel and write about the same old truths that fills human history (William Faulkner called these truths the “eternal verities of the human spirit”)—I should write about these things and seek to own my vocation and create, not just curate. I think every generation needs its slew of writers, but blogs and social media platforms water down the information pool so that it seems like everybody’s a writer, in which case nobody really is.
So we need writers now more than ever, even though there are more writers writing today than ever.
But what is a writer? What is his work and his calling? In my naïvete I thought everyone who wrote and was published was a writer, but that’s not the case. It’s one thing to blather words onto a screen and it’s another to fulfill the vocation of a writer and use those words to help people see.
The Mission of a Christian Writer
This business of seeing is what lies at the heart of writing. To be a writer is to see the world in a unique way and to use your words to share that vision with others. To be a Christian writer is to see the world as it’s meant to be seen (or, as God sees it) and share that. Putting words on paper is the means, not the message.
The message is what we are really reading to find. All writing is trying to promote a vision of Reality which may or may not be True, and it’s the job of a writer to make sure it is true, and to communicate it effectively. Writing is about frames. We all see Reality through a small picture frame, and that frame is our interpretation of it. When I write, I’m not inventing or creating something new, I’m just putting True thoughts into words in hopes that you agree and adopt that into your frame (interpretation) of reality.
So writers deal Truth like gangsters deal drugs—the part that makes writing “Christian” is that I am making sure what I’m dealing is actually True, that it provides you a frame through which you can interpret Reality which actually lines up with Reality, and that it is helpful.
The Quality (and Qualities) of Christian Writing
In keeping with my philosophy of education, I think Christian writing should be of the highest quality. I think being Christian is about seeing God, about seeing perfection and glory and the eternal weightiness of Reality, and I think that we should have to whip language into motion to keep up with the vision it communicates.
Writing is essentially recording thoughts, and while we need silly thoughts, we also need important thoughts. But the job of the writer is to delineate the two and tell you which is which. I have recently stopped writing for another blog for this very reason (which is to say, I’ve put my money where my mouth is, and stuck to my guns about this philosophy of writing), the reason being I wake up in the morning to write my heart out, and anything less than that makes me feel creepy, like I’m cheating. I feel this weight of glory on my shoulders, and it drives me to do my best, to tell the truth, to communicate this weight to my fellow humans, to give them glory, to equip them to think and live in an infinitely complex and wonderful world.
When I write I’m not concerned with catchiness or applicability because I know that will come. First, I’m concerned with seeing, with getting “there” (as God would see things) and then with honestly living up to that vision in my research, tone, and style. I don’t try to be deep or try to be shallow; I try to be clear, and let the writing speak for itself. If I set it as my aim to write about the things that are deep and lasting, (those “eternal verities”) catchiness, applicability, and depth will naturally come, just like money will come to the baseball player who makes it his goal to just knock it out of the park every night.
Christian writing should be great writing (though most of it isn’t), and great writing is truly hard to find. I strive for that greatness, because I feel the same weight of responsibility a cabinet maker does when he builds. I’m far from where I should be as an artist and a thinker, but I strive to live up to this calling and increase my proficiency every day. Like any other work, sometimes I lose sight of my mission in the bigger picture and let the work run me down, but God always reminds me what I’m here to do (sometimes through emails from you), and it’s those times that keep me going. Like Eric Liddell, when I write I feel the pleasure of God.
Making Editorial Decisions: Why I Write What I Write
So with that in mind, should I write with the goal of entertaining or pleasing, or illuminating, or educating…or is there something bigger, a larger narrative where those things are simply parts of the whole? I guess my point is, it’s not up to me to decide. I follow the call of God, falling in behind thousands of writers before me. I fight to be true to their vision as I stand on their giant-shoulders, and I set myself as a writer to the side, letting the conversation happen apart from me and my writerly concerns. I submit my desires to God’s will and write about the things He says are of ultimate importance, even if they hurt me or cause me (in my ignorance) boredom.
When it comes to my writing mission, it’s not up to me to decide. God has called me and prepared me from childhood up to see the world in a certain way, to find passion and glory in certain things, and it’s my job to get out of the way. Contrary to the world’s mission to self-identify and self-actualize, my mission is to lose myself in the Truth, in Redemption, in my work, and let the work drive me to expression. I follow C. S. Lewis who said that the last thing he wants is to achieve “self-expression”; he’s not interested in sharing his “self” with others.
I write to give God a voice, were he to have access to a blog right now. And I know I’ll never measure up to that standard, so I hold in my mind the Truth that I am simply His child and when he sees my writing, he sees the scribblings of a 5-year old. But when it comes to actually living up to my calling, I fight, and I write hard. I submit my writing to His mission, and try to really progress His mission with Him in my work.
For example, there are certain things that are more important than others. It’s funny to blow something way out of proportion, but it’s my obligation as a writer to know what I’m putting in front of you, and to communicate its proportionate importance, (and, of course, also be entertaining without also shirking my responsibility).
Ultimately, this is the story behind my writing: we are born blind, and we are only able to really see when we learn language. Language gives us clear thoughts and the power to understand the world around us, and God provides the Truth which functions like a big frame of reference for everything. It’s the process of education and maturity to actually learn to handle the big stuff of life, to use your thoughts to reach into the heavens and experience God. God is on mission to Redeem the world, and He is doing it through us: our minds, lives, and vocations. As a writer, I’m supposed to fuel that entire process, to come alongside God as the Ultimate Writer and riff on His perfection. So just because I can write something easier to understand or simpler to read (or, simpler and more comfortable to write) doesn’t mean I should. I submit my will to His, and that means I write stuff that hurts, so that by my efforts, He may be glorified and many may benefit. That’s what it means to have a vocation and to fulfill it.
I look forward to 2016, and I pray for continued grace to improve in my abilities, to become more a writer and less a hack, and I pray for courage and guidance as I continue to seek ways to fulfill this calling. The bottom line is, writing isn’t lucrative, the market is flooded, and people are reading less and less. Which all makes writing a tough sell when the work itself is hard, even on its own. But, for all the reasons I’ve listed here and more, I believe it is worthwhile, and I strive to make that belief a reality.
Here’s to 2016.
Alan Jacobs, The Narnian, kindle edition, loc 310. ↩