One of my old pastors used to be fond of pointing out how many areas of creative tension there are in the Christian life: the tension between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’, between the community and the individual, between the work and rest, retreat and advance. He believed that finding our way through this tension was a central aspect of the Christian life.
Recently I realised that there is another example of this creative tension that applies particularly to Christian writers, and it’s to do with the inherent self-interest that writing demands of us.
Our writing requires us to shut off the demands of others and to expend our resources: time, money, attention and energy, on our writing, our project, our own interests. This requires a conscious choice to reject engagement with others.
This approach to writing doesn’t seem to sit very well with the biblical injunctions that we love our neighbour as ourselves. Who is our neighbour? If it’s our family and others we spend most of our time with, or depend on us, then are we living up to this injunction if we lock ourselves away to pursue our own writing interests? (I’m portraying the act of writing here in a deliberately provocative way, but I hope you will see what I’m saying.)
Against this we have that inspiring, frustrating calling – that itch to write. We don’t want to give up on it, however hard the process, and furthermore we may feel that our writing is also an injunction from God, a calling to which we must respond.
How do we deal with this dilemma? I don’t think there’s a simple solution to this challenge, but there are some reflections that I’ve found helpful.
First, we are told that there is a time for everything on the earth, and so the question of how much time and energy I put into anything, including writing, is a question of balance, of everything having its moment. I accept that I can’t simply go to one end of a spectrum to find the solution, the best I can do is to hover around the perfect answer, following it as it changes with time and circumstances.
Secondly, I can reflect on my calling to try to focus it. God might have called me to write, but to write what? Refining and defining a calling is hard work, but if I can be clear on what that calling means to me right now, I am more able to work out what part it should play in my life. Connected to this, I think any writer of fiction needs to work out what they think the value of writing fiction is, and even what the value of entertainment is, to God. As a writer of fiction, if I can’t work this out honestly in my mind, I will never believe I am spending my time wisely because I will view the work of a storyteller as trivial or insignificant.
Finally, all of this helps me respond to my original question. Is writing a selfish activity? My answer is: not necessarily - even if I am writing only for myself, after all a spiritual journal can be a private and valuable thing. However, if I declare that I am writing for others, this imposes a helpful discipline on me to write something that others will find genuinely valuable.
If I can do all of this, I am very close to solving my dilemma, because I am able to both fulfil my calling, and loving my neighbour by blessing them through my writing.
Andrew Chamberlain is a writer and creative writing tutor. He is the presenter of The Creative Writer’s Toolbelt, a podcast offering practical, accessible advice to creative writers, and author of The Creative Writer’s Toolbelt Handbook containing the best advice and insight from 100 episodes of the podcast.