ACW

ACW

Friday, 12 January 2018

Is writing a selfish activity? By Andrew J Chamberlain

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.


7 comments:

  1. Thank you. I find this helpful and intriguing, and as you say, applies to all of life, not just writing.

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  2. Very interesting. I mentioned yesterday, in my acw post, that writing often helps me work through things I see and hear about (selfish) but also they might help others to work through similar situations (selfish). I also really like your point about taking time away from others E.g. family, which would be a challenge for anyone really committed to any job. Finally, I often find the whole idea of self-promotion a difficult one re biblical commands to be humble. I'm sure there's a happy medium, but I've yet to find it! A very thought provoking post!

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  3. Thanks to both of you for your comments, these are difficult issues, and I write about them partly to work these issues out ad share any ideas I have, and partly to see what others have to say. Your point about self-promotion is an interesting one Deborah. I think a lot of Christians are uneasy about marketing in general and marketing themselves and their work in particular. I have had to get used to it. The only insights I have on this is that I try to create something that I genuinely think is valuable to people (and so am hay to talk about) and I also think personality has a lot to do with this, some people can talk about themselves and their work very easily, others find it harder. I try to find ways of promoting my work that suit my personality.

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  4. Yes, identified immediately with this dilemma. When I first started writing, I kept asking God WHAT he wanted me to write. I never got a direct answer but I did hear Him say during prayer times: 'Just start writing - whatever cones to you - and I will tell you when I am ready to use you.' I had written two secular novels and lots of short stories before, five years later, I found myself writing spiritual poetry. Shortly after that, I was asked to do a monthly column in our church magazine, then a thought for the week for a radio show, a reminiscence project with a Christian festival ... and so on. I still love writing novels but God gives me other stuff too now. I think I had to hone my writing skills before he was ready to use me. It can be hard balancing all the different types of writing but I'm not complaining!

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    1. I think as well Fran, there's a lesson here for the rest of us around timing. It seems from what you are saying that your period of preparation was five years, for most people five years would be a massive amount of time to wait to be 'useful', but in terms of the apprenticeship that I think writing is, it's quite reasonable.

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  5. So interesting. My writing suffers a lot from doing things which are not writing, which I don't just feel I 'should do' but I want to do them - family stuff, housekeeping, stuff most writers love to cite as 'I hate ironing' 'my house is a tip because I am writing'. It also suffers because we are encouraged to keep a blog, etc! And review each others' books ... Although I never aimed to 'be a writer' I began writing - mainly because I felt there were things to say through fiction, to the mainstream, for God, by writing not 'Christian novels', but novels which were informative enough (as in the 'a good enough parent' phrase) about being in the Christian community, and not idealising it or condemning it ... writers from other faiths do this really well, Christians not only less so, but also not at all due to various factors! Anyway, the impulse to write is not 'to be a writer' but 'to do this specific writing'. A solitary, intensive, task. It's a slightly different problem, but it works out the same: shall I shut myself away and write - or shall I do all those things which keep the family going? And the stuff at church, volunteering for all those tasks?

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    1. I think so many of us can identify with this, it's probably true that typical Christians, by which I mean the church attending, job doing, house making, rota filling, dependent supporting, volunteering Christians find they don't have too much time left for discretionary activities like writing.

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