Save Your Soul: Stop Writing
A few weeks ago, the writer Glennon Doyle Melton announced on her blog that she’s getting divorced while in the same breath saying that Love Warrior, a book on life and marriage, is still forthcoming. It was a post not unlike most of Melton’s writing: raw, emotive, quaking with transparency and defensiveness at the same time. While she has a questionable view of orthodox Christianity, her words seem to be carried like torches along the hallways and byways of the “wounded warriors” who read her.
I have never been a particular fan of Melton’s writing, but I bear no ill will toward her. Marriage is hard, and I am married to a man who walked through the pain of a spouse’s infidelity and the crucible of divorce. That someone can write a book on marriage in the same year they announce their divorce is not a sin as much as it is a reflection of poor discernment. Although Love Warrior may have beautiful words and compelling stories that minister to many readers, Melton is an example of a writer who has succumbed to the pressure to prematurely make public what perhaps ought to be kept private. Elizabeth Gilbert is another example. Last summer, Gilbert announced her divorce from her husband and then recently revealed yet another self-discovery story—that she’s in love with a woman (the real reason for the divorce).
However, I’m less interested in the personal dramas of Gilbert or Melton and more concerned with what they represent: the altar of personal narrative that readers, writers, and publishers worship at. So many of us give in to the pressure to make public what God is still doing in private. We’ve been consumed by the instant gratification of push-button publishing and platform making. Editors eat up the content. Readers often share or “like” without processing deeply. Writers—even those with pastoral intentions—feel a constant push to produce the next hot thing. There is a demand, and so we supply. All together, we’ve grown fat on a feast of viral blogs, short-lived bestsellers, and pithy articles.
I, too, have been part of the supply to this often-fickle industry.
In the past year, my husband and I have gone through a number of trials: two miscarriages, two cross-country moves, a loss of $100,000 on the sale of our home, a church crisis, the loss of my husband's job, and more. During the process, I produced articles and blogs the way I always have. But recently some friends encouraged me to step back from my writing. “I have often marveled at how detachedly you write about all you’re going through,” said one friend. “I wonder if writing about all this for the public … serves to exacerbate the emotional distancing. Writing inherently distances us from our inner life simply through the process of externalizing and reifying it. I wonder if this might contribute to that kind of detachment.”
She was right. With each article, I was processing a thing and praising God for it without actually letting the difficult thing do a deeper work in me.
For the last three months, I’ve taken a break from most personal writing. This hiatus has been more cathartic for me than any writing I might have done. It has also been a very difficult experience that has left open space for buried emotions to surface, fears to emerge, and unreckoned grief to come forth. It has been a hard work but also a good work.
My distance from writing has given me greater perspective on the supply-and-demand of the publishing industry in which I work. More and more, transparency is the new currency. Writing is all about expressing ourselves, bearing our personal stories, and revealing our hidden secrets. Writers in the church aren’t immune to these tendencies, either. In the last decade, we Christians have made a collective effort to be our authentic, real selves but in so doing, we’ve lost the deepest root of these fruits: true vulnerability (and not the “tell-all blogger” type). Vulnerability is not pretty or publishable. It quakes with smallness and finiteness. It stands before the throne of God and says, “Woe to me” (Isa. 6:5). It cowers under the greatness of God’s majesty and offers quietness, humility, smallness, and stillness. It is passive in the same way authenticity is active.
As writers, we often hand over our souls and stories for the price of approval, advances, page-views, speaking opportunities, and more book deals. But sometimes (not always) the best thing to do is to be silent. To listen. To hear. To experience emotions without immediately finding a place for them. To resist the urge to make a story with a beginning, middle, and end out of our ongoing brokenness and frailty. None of this will sell books, of course, but it will help us to understand the discipline of God, the grace of God, and the hard, deep work he is doing in our lives and will continue to do until we reach eternity’s shores.
To this end, I offer a few gentle admonitions:
Readers, keep reading books, but read the Bible, too. In Scripture there are more words of life than you’ll ever find in the mere dew we churn out in books and blogs, which are here in the morning and gone by noon. Even a beautiful, spacious memoir is but a drop in view of eternity. And please, stop telling every aspiring writer that her book needs to be written. Do you know how much it costs her to believe this? I beg you, stop feeding the machine.
Publishers, I know our blood, sweat, and tears put food on your table, and you don’t always make a lot of money either, but the amount of books that land on my doorstep from publishers is laughable. There’s more in Ernest Hemingway’s pinky finger or Flannery O’Connor’s left hand than there is in most of the books and articles you publish today. I know you feel the pressure of queries and agents and editors and writers, but start saying no. Let the words breathe. No one loses if we slow the machine down a little bit.
Writers, if you feel a constant, pulsing pressure to publish, or if you’re simply weary of the machine and just want to get off, then take a break. If you are becoming emaciated while your readers are growing fat on your story, stop. Put down the pen, step away from the keyboard. Someone else will gladly take your place for a little while. Or maybe your absence will make space for a writer who has been in the deep end for a while, under the discipline of God for even longer, and knows grace in a way that you can’t yet fathom. Regardless of what the publishers or readers say, the world doesn’t need your story. Not right now, not right away, and maybe not ever.
Brené Brown—who has done extensive research on being “our authentic selves”—says that “courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.” I would counter with this: Real courage starts with showing up, seeing God, and knowing he sees us—even if no one else ever does.