This article is the second in a series on the subject of writing, “Why do you write (what you write)?” Read last week’s entry, and check back in each Thursday in May for diverse and interesting responses to this question.
Thanks in part to my participation in a couple of Collegeville Institute workshops, I’ve collected a decent number of friends who write. We talk about writing quite a bit, including lengthy conversations about the topics we tackle on the page. But what I often ponder—and what my writer friends and I rarely discuss—is why people chose to write about what they write about.
To be sure, plenty of writers work on assignment. They have a beat to cover, so they cover it. I know something about this, having written several years of sermon manuscripts following the lectionary readings. The focus of most of my non-homiletic writing, however, is entirely up to me—yet I can’t quite bring myself to say that I’ve chosen to write about what I write about. It seems more accurate to say that the things I write about—often motherhood and marriage and the never-ending attempt to live faithfully in a frighteningly broken world—these things chose me.
This is especially the case with the handful of outlier topics I’ve tackled through the years—often repeatedly. The Peoples Temple murder-suicides, for instance. Believe me, if I didn’t feel a calling to write about the horrors of Jonestown, I wouldn’t. And yet I’ve immersed myself in the story not once or twice but three times over the years. There were things that needed to be said about it that I heard no one else saying, so I dug in and took risks and did the work, even though the work took its toll on me. To not have written about it would have felt like I was neglecting a calling.
Like a lot of writers, I occasionally suffer from envy of my colleagues. I covet the obvious—the book contracts and glowing reviews. But sometimes I find myself coveting the less obvious. I wish I could write about the things my friends write about, and write about so well. I feel a particular twinge when I think of my friends who write about justice. Take Taylor Brorby, a friend I met during the summer of 2014 as part of a writing workshop, Apart, and Yet a Part (check out his latest chapbook of poems—Ruin: Elegies From the Bakken). Taylor writes beautifully and passionately about environmental issues, particularly the ruinous fracking boom in his native North Dakota. His work is smart and persuasive and seems to me capable of having a discernable positive impact on the world. I’m not sure the same could be said about my essays about the spirituality of attachment parenting, if you know what I mean.
I thought about these matters of impact as I was reading my friend Karen Swallow Prior’s new biography, Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist. Karen herself is a writer of fierce convictions who ably uses the written word to further her magnanimously conservative worldview (she is an English professor at Liberty University). I’d never heard of Hannah More before I started reading Karen’s book, and it immediately became clear to me why Karen chose—or was chosen, as the case may be—to write about More’s extraordinary life. More’s cultural contributions to the abolitionist movement in England had an impact on a par with William Wilberforce’s political contributions. Her poetry and plays changed hearts, and the eradication of the British slave trade wasn’t going to be realized until those hearts were changed. The book, in addition to simply being a beautifully crafted biography, presents a shining example of the power of the pen.
The fact of the matter is this: I wasn’t the one called to write about Hannah More. Nor have I been moved (yet?) to write about the human trafficking that persists in the world today. I’ll likely keep writing about modest matters of personal spirituality and domesticity, with the odd culturally relevant piece thrown in as the muses allow.
When I reflect on what I write about and why, and all those other writers who write about very different things, it’s important for me to remember that I’m more than a writer. I’m a reader. The glory of reading is that it’s fairly easy to read broadly—far more broadly than even our most ambitious writers could hope to write. I can keep reading books that tell redemptive stories, books that share sobering facts, books that call for sacrificial changes, books that uncover institutional racism—books that choose me perhaps as much as I choose them.