5 Inconvenient Truths about the Writing Life
I get a lot of questions about the writing life from very interested folks. Some romanticize it as if its an easy, dreamy career filled only with paychecks and fame and unicorns. But there are inconvenient truths about writing that nobody tells you until you actually step into it. I don’t write these to discourage you, if God has called you to nurture your gift, but simply to give a realistic view of what to expect:
1) You will not get famous. The truth is that most writers are not bestsellers. And even of those who make the New York Times list, few, if any, would be recognized in Walmart. But if you really have a gift for story or have a message you want to put on paper, you don’t write to be famous, you write because you can’t not write. Sure, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t give me a thrill to see my name on a book in a bookstore or a byline on an article in a famous magazine. Yeah, that’s cool. But the truth is that unless you beat the odds, you won’t ever be famous. You might get a few speaking gigs and some Internet love, but like everyone else, you’ll be obscure. That’s okay, though, because fame is a difficult beast to handle and God will use you best when you are humble.
2) You will not get rich. I always know an amateur writer, because they say things like this, “And I’m hoping, with this book, to pay off my house.” or, “I’m hoping this book will fund a new wing of my church.” Um . . . I hate to break it to you. This just won’t happen. I mean it could happen if every right circumstance happens and you hit the bestseller lists. But those odds are tall. Those outside the publishing world think authors make a killing, that having a book means you’re rich. No, typically the advances and royalties provided a little extra cash and there are ways to make extra money editing and writing articles, but it’s a small percentage of writers who actually support their families solely by writing. (And please ignore those goofy ads that tell you can get rich quick by writing. You can’t.) But here’s the thing, you aren’t writing to be rich, are you? Sure, it’s nice to be paid for efforts, but there are a lot easier ways to make a buck. You write, because you have a gift God has given you, because you want to encourage and inspire, and ultimately because you want to glorify God. (And by the way, it’s such bad form to ask a writer how much he makes per book. I know you really want to ask, but it’s as rude as asking a lady her age. Don’t do it.)
3) You are not Hemingway. At least not yet. If you really want to write, you must know that it’s a journey of learning and growing. The first things you write will be terrible. But you must get them on paper so you can see how terrible they are and improve them to make them less terrible. This is why you might start your writing career, not with a magnum opus of a book, but with small things that give you opportunity to be published, but not widely. You might start blogging consistently to a nonexistent audience. You might start editing your community or church newsletter. You might start writing fundraising letters. I cut my teeth taking sermons that were not my own and converting them to devotionals. I wrote fundraising letters, TV and radio ad copy, back cover copy, website copy. Fun stuff that wasn’t even what I wanted to write. But the practice and the deadlines were good for me. It’s important to realize that you are on a journey, that you are not Hemingway, so you are open to criticism, mentoring, and polishing. If you are not open to these things and you think you are Hemingway, you will not be a professional writer and you will not be read, at least widely.
4) You must fight for space to do your work. Because you will not get rich writing, it’s likely that you will have to write in the margins of your daily life. This means you’ll have to create time and space to do it, in between your job, your family obligations, and your church responsibilities. Jon Acuff, in his book Quitter, calls this “hustling at 5am.” In other words, if you really want to do this, get up early and write (or in my case, stay up late). And you’ll have to constantly discipline yourself and fight for it. There will be times you think it’s unessential or crazy. People will call you crazy. They will think it’s frivolous. But if you have a gift and have been called by God to write, you will have to fight for it, both in time and space. And by fight, I don’t mean being an irascible fellow but someone who prioritizes it above other entertainment options and pursuits. You will also have to fight for resources, coming up with creative ways to fund writer’s conferences and other learning and growing venues. This writing life is not a dream that takes place in your beach house in Cabo. It will involve late nights and early mornings and deadlines and rushed jobs. It will mean lots of coffee, lots of work, lots of times cranking out stuff that you don’t like. Writing is a wonderful exercise, but it takes work. It takes blood, sweat, and tears. But if God has given you this gift, this is what you sacrifice to bring glory to Him.
5) You will not be validated by getting published. The dream of every writer is to be published and to see their work distributed on a wide scale. This is not wrong or sinful or unbiblical. If God has given you a message, you should want it spread far and wide.
But let me assure you: getting published will not validate you. You are not somebody because you have a book with your name on it. You are somebody because God uniquely formed you before foundation of the world (Read Psalm 139). You are somebody because, if you have put your faith in Jesus Christ, you have been chosen, adopted, redeemed and rescued. You’re validation comes from something much higher than a book contract. Your validation comes from a God who loves you unconditionally. He accepts you, before your book contract and after it or if you never get one. On the flip side, getting published doesn’t give rights or privileges or “airs” above other of God’s people. You should still take the garbage out for your wife. You still need to repent and apologize when you sin. You still shouldn’t berate the cabbie or the airline clerk or the police officer. Yes, we know who you are. You are a sinner God rescued from sin.