The Writing Life

My childhood vision of the writer’s life was shaped by black and white movies of the 1940’s. The writer is something of a rogue and adventurer. He doesn’t really work except when he writes. When he does write, it is in a burst of creative inspiration or is sparked by prophetic outrage. It is all “Stop the presses!” and “Thus saith the Lord!”

As is the case with all childhood fantasies, the reality is something else. Writers are mostly introverts who stand on the sidelines and observe. The work is solitary, often tedious. There are few bursts of inspiration, though I will admit to occasional moments of prophetic fervor. Those moments are usually cut by the editor.

I started writing in college. Not very well. Not very often either. I wrote one piece a year, usually submitting it to HIS magazine. There was no such thing as email, so I had to wait a month or two for the rejection letter to come back in my self-addressed stamped envelope. It usually took me six months or more to get up the courage to try again. In those days, the writing life felt mostly like my love life in junior high school. Each attempt began with a transcendent vision of glory and ended in humiliation.

I used to worry that the editors who considered my submissions would read them with snickering ridicule and make fun of my work. I pictured the editorial team clustered around a table (it was always a circular table for some reason) pointing at my manuscript and laughing (not in a good way). A couple of decades later, when I served as a consulting editor for an evangelical magazine, I discovered that this was pretty much the case. At least, sometimes. “These people want to write for us in the worst way,” the managing editor once said. “And they usually do.”

The writing life really is a lot like junior high. There is a small handful who occupy the highest seats at the cool kids’ table in the lunchroom. Then there are the rest of us nerds huddled on the periphery trying to edge our way closer. There is not enough room for everybody. Those of us on the outside never seem to be wearing the right clothes.

When I started writing seriously and regularly, my dream was to publish an article in Eternity magazine in which I quoted Annie Dillard. Everybody was quoting her in the 1980’s. But Eternity ceased publication and Annie Dillard seems to have stopped publishing too. But I still love her work. Sometimes I pick up her books when I get stuck.

I have been writing for thirty-three years. I feel like an amateur. But I’ve learned that you can’t really trust your feelings. Especially, where writing is concerned. “The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.” Annie Dillard said that.



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