writing is hard
"inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us have to work"
When I first started writing, I found inspiration everywhere. The news cycle was rolling, elections were buzzing, protests were organizing, and a deadly virus was rumored to be present in the US. I was frustrated with my undergraduate experience at Moody Bible and in the early process of looking for answers on the East Coast.
Some of my favorite pieces came out of this season—from joining in conversation with Peter Werner and Peter Choi on the Anxious Bench to applying Richard Mouw’s notion of ‘convicted civility’ to a post-George Floyd America in Faithfully Magazine to an essay in Fathom Magazine that put John Mark McMillian in conversation with Charles Taylor to my very first essay in Sojourners that drew from Brian Bantum’s language of existence as a dark body in a “sea of whiteness.”
This inspiration, however, lasted only for a time. Eventually, the blowtorch of inspiration and commentary ran out of fuel.
That’s when I had to become a real writer.
The reality is that, as the painter Chuck Close famously said, “inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us have to show up and work.”
I wish it was otherwise. My job would be much easier if I had an endless fountain of brilliant thoughts and contributions to make. I’d take a month to write them all down, schedule them out, and then vacation for the rest of the year. But, to my dismay, this isn’t the case. Writing is hard.
Between this weekly newsletter, a monthly column in Sojourners, chapter contributions, writing fellowships, research projects, guest essays for other platforms, my work at Interfaith America, and more, I write a lot of words. This is part of being a writer—you write a lot of words in a lot of spaces with the hope of eventually writing a few really good words in a select number of spaces for a modest wage.
But the difference between someone who writes an article and someone who is a writer is not how much you are paid or even how often you write, but the way you engage the world around you each day.
The writer is constantly observing the world around them and asking questions of it. I am not passively waiting for inspiration to strike, but rather I am reading, learning, emulating, note-taking, conversing, and—most importantly—listening.
Of course, there is more to it. The craft of putting words to a page takes a lifetime to master. Like jazz, one must learn the rules of grammar (although, I have avoided this so far) and then when to break them (I jumped to this part) at the right time.
What I am attempting to say, however, is that 1) writing is hard and 2) I love writing precisely because it is hard. It is an endless challenge to actively engage the world, ask good questions, and relentlessly pursue answers. For me, the vocation of writing infuses daily life with the opportunity to find meaning in both the absurd and the mundane.
I thinksummarizes the craft well: Writing “requires talent but, mostly, discipline. It asks for sacrifices and tradeoffs, gives rise to self-loathing, and brings on a good deal of despair. It can be absolute hell, but [writers] love it.”
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Brian Bantum, a mosaic of story in systematic—and systematic theology (Christian Century)
Yanan Melo, the (un)silenced stories of Asian America ()
Danielle Allen, America is in a ‘Great Pulling Apart.’ Can we pull together? (Washington Post)
James K.A. Smith, Something Other than Devotion: Bored with the Renaissance, Surprised by the Contemporary (Image Journal)
You People (Netflilx)
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (Disney+)
Welcome to Wrexham (Hulu)
Thank you for these thoughts on writing. I'm just sitting down to write another reading response for grad school (am I the only one who dreads these supposedly low-pressure weekly writing assignments?) and am feeling daunted by the thought of not saying something dumb or un-inspired. I love the solidarity I feel with your writing here, and the encouragement to practice more.
Keep your writings coming! We all benefit from them.