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If I had to give a label to the year that just passed, it would probably be the “year of shouting.” From that internet lady who is always pointing her finger at the cat to both sides of the aisle in the United States Congress and the Senate, everybody seems to be trying to make an emphatic point. But was last year louder than any other? I’m not sure. Sometimes I feel like we are all shouting all the time.
Some years ago, when I was preaching every Sunday, someone came up to me after the morning service and began, “Don’t take this the wrong way. . . .” This is a phrase that nobody really wants to hear. Especially pastors. Especially after the sermon. Painful experience has shown that every time someone says this, there is a high degree of likelihood that you will take it the wrong way, even if what the other person is saying happens to be true.
‘Don’t take this the wrong way . . . .’ This is a phrase that nobody really wants to hear.
In this case, the concern had to do with my tone. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” the person said, “but lately, it seems like you are always yelling at us.” I was bothered by the comment because I knew it was true. I had noticed the same thing myself. Every once in a while, during a blast of prophetic fervor, the detached part me which has the capacity to step outside and listen to the sermon as it is being preached, would ask, “Why are you talking so loud?”
Most of the time, the honest explanation was not that I was angry, or even being prophetic, it was that I was nervous. Some in the audience were beginning to look bored. They appeared to be drifting. One or two were even asleep. Without thinking about it, I tried to compensate by cranking the volume. I probably got the idea from J. C. Ryle’s account of George Whitefield’s ministry. One day as Whitefield was preaching, he noticed a man in the front row who had fallen asleep. Whitefield stomped his foot, and the man awoke with a sudden start. “I have waked you up, have I?” Whitefield said. “I meant to do it. I am not come here to preach to stocks and stones. I have come to you in the name of the Lord God of Hosts and I must and will have an audience.” The man woke up and so did the audience. “The hearers were stripped of their apathy at once,” Ryle declares. “Every word of the sermon was attended to.”
My attempts to follow Whitefield’s example were never as successful. The sleepers occasionally awoke, sometimes with a start, but more often than not, the result was a sheepish grin and a shake, rather than a look of mournful contrition. You can demand that the audience listen but you cannot compel them. Like it or not, “haters gonna hate” and sleepers gonna sleep. Not everyone has ears to hear. But such knowledge never seems to make me less anxious or less loud. In an age where everyone seems to be speaking at maximum volume, I feel the pressure to get noticed.
Like it or not, “haters gonna hate” and sleepers gonna sleep.
Digital culture has not helped matters. Publishing has never been easier. Just pay a few dollars and press a few keys, and before you know it, you have a website. With a click of the mouse, you can push your most reluctant thoughts out onto the stage for all to see. Eventually, you realize how crowded that stage actually is. You thought it would be enough just to put your thoughts out there. Now you find that you also have to get someone’s attention. You must say or do something to stand out from the rest.
The most common strategy is to lean into the extreme. Craft a startling lead. Say something outrageous. Take off your clothes (both literally and figuratively). It may seem like a good strategy until it dawns on you that everyone else is doing the same. Besides, you don’t look all that glamorous naked. So you decide to Photoshop your image. You employ a little poetic license. You favor hyperbole or magnify something at the margin of your story until it looks like it’s at the center. You don’t exactly lie about yourself, at least not consciously, but the result isn’t entirely honest either. What is worse, the steps you’ve taken don’t seem to make a difference. You still fail to stand out from the crowd.
I used to think that writing and publishing were the same. The two are related, of course. But the main difference between them is that writing has to do with art, and publishing is concerned with marketing. I am not saying that publishers don’t care about art. They do. But publishing costs money. Quite a bit of money, it turns out, which means that publishers must concern themselves with selling in order to support the art. This inevitably squeezes publishing into the territory of production. No matter how high its aspirations, as long as publishing depends upon selling for its survival, it has to deal with the cold realities of markets, margins, and cost. Publishing is a world of charts and statistics as much as it is a world of ideas.
Art is something else. Art belongs to the realm of contemplation. It involves work. But it is the kind of work that, as theologian Josef Pieper observes, is “meaningful in itself.” Pieper describes it as “an activity that does not need something other for its justification, that is not defined as producing useful goods and objective results.” Publishing, because it has to do with costs and return, cannot hope to meet this definition.
As long as publishing depends upon selling for its survival, it has to deal with the cold realities of markets, margins, and cost.
One practical implication of this distinction (practical for the writer at least) is that writing is not the same thing as getting published. It’s easy to see how a writer might confuse the two. I always felt that getting published validated my writing. It exposed my art to the world. In the best-case scenario, I got paid as a result. When I started writing, I did not think that I could legitimately call myself a writer until somebody published my work and paid me for it. These days we don’t need a publisher to present our art to the world. The internet has handed the power of the publisher over to the author.
Unfortunately, the fact that anybody can write a blog or record a podcast has not made it any easier for writers to find an audience. It has had the opposite effect. With so many voices speaking at once, ours cannot help but get lost in the clamor. Meanwhile, those who are looking for something to read or hear find themselves overwhelmed by so many options. This is one of the things that makes writing so difficult. We never know whether our labor is going to be “productive.” Will we be able to finish the project once we have started? Will we find an outlet for our work? Will we get paid for it? Even if it does get published, can we be certain that anyone will actually read it? What if, like Emily Dickinson, we die without seeing the bulk of what we have written published? The romantic in me says that it doesn’t matter. I am a writer. Therefore, I must write. But it is often the pragmatist who sits at the keyboard. I am afraid I am wasting my time. I worry that no one is listening. I begin to increase the volume, and it won’t be long before I start to shout.
There is only one solution for this. We need to learn how to view this act of writing as something meaningful in itself. Three conditions must be met before this can be true. First, we need to allow ourselves to be unproductive. It is important to me that others read what I have written, but the absence of a reader does not necessarily make the act of writing less meaningful. Writing has worth all its own apart from being published. I won’t deny that I still want to be published. And I like getting paid. But the real value is in the writing. Second, we need to learn how to take pleasure in our craft. Writing is hard work. It can be tedious. Yet at its worst, there is still a kind of joy that the writer experiences when putting words, phrases, and clauses together to express a thought. The painter takes pleasure in the stroke of the brush and the potter in the feel of the clay. The writer finds pleasure in crafting sentences. Third, we need to stop worrying about whether we will be noticed.
This is easier said than done. Maybe it’s impossible. But the truth is that most of those who write will not enjoy recognition. The majority of people who want to write never do. Of those who do write, only a minority get published. Of the few who are published, only a very small handful turn out to be popular. Keep writing but try to stop worrying. It doesn’t increase your chances of getting noticed. And stop shouting. It isn’t helping your art.