Are You Ever Really Finished?

A good book has no ending.

– Robert Frost

There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.

– Frank Herbert

A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.

– Italo Calvino

Art is never finished, only abandoned.

– Leonardo da Vinci

How do you know when it’s time to let go of your manuscript or project? Do you feel pressured to tie things up or are you able to trust the conclusion to your audience? Please share your thoughts below.

Fearless Writing

by Stephen R. Clark

A friend from church recently shared a meme bearing a quote from Salman Rushdie: “A poet’s work is to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.”

My friend said, “This is you!”

I took it as a compliment, but also as a bit of a challenge. A challenge I confront regularly as a Christian writer.

Several months ago, one of my grandnieces, Ellian Chalfant—an exceptional writer and a student at Gordon College—blogged about last summer’s racial unrest, explaining, “I’ve struggled to find the words to say. I know that as a writer, Christian, and human being I’m called to speak up for my brothers and sisters facing heartbreaking injustices in this country.”

Her bold acknowledgement that, as a Christian writer and fellow human being, she is “called to speak up” kind of smacked me upside of my face.

And then the meme my friend shared got the other cheek.

Why?

Because sometimes writing can be a source of fear and trembling for the writer. Especially when it comes to potentially explosive topics like racial injustice, social ills, sin in general, and so on.

The challenge is related to the caution in Proverbs 29:25—“Fearing people is a dangerous trap” (NLT).

While I get encouragement from readers, I also get pushback. Sometimes the pushback is a little harsh, and sometimes it comes from surprising sources. So, negative reaction is one part of the “fearing people” thing.

Another is sourced in my own heart, the fear generated from the man I am as shaped by a multitude of forces over time. I fear being wrong, making a mistake, looking stupid.

Nearly every time I metaphorically pick up my pen, I wrestle with the thought, “Who am I to write about this? What do I know? There are many others far more qualified than me!”

Writing is a process of exposure. When a writer writes he lays open his heart, reveals what he really thinks about something, and becomes very vulnerable.

And yet, as writers knowing this, we are still compelled to write.

Let me qualify that a bit more. As Christian writers, fellow sojourners on this earth, gifted by the Holy Spirit with a different way of seeing and the skill to share that insight, we are still compelled to write.

I put the question of fear to a group of fellow Christian freelancers. One, Ann-Margret Hovsepian, offered this guidance: “What helps me a lot is the conviction that my job is to serve my readers and not necessarily to please them. If I’m being faithful and obedient to God in using my talents for his glory and pleasure, how readers respond to my writing is none of my business. That doesn’t mean I don’t care what they think, but I cannot worry about it.”

Good answer. Although I assure you, I can worry and do care! Even though I probably shouldn’t. At least not a lot, anyway.

Right around when I posted the question, I participated in a webinar by author Alan Noble on what Christian writing should be. He offered these three principles: (1) God calls us to desire the good of our reader; (2) The Truth exists, and it is beautiful and good and worth fighting for; (3) Hope.

It was startling how closely what he said tracked with what both Ellian and Ann-Margret shared. Perhaps God was trying to tell me something.

For writers like me, the “dangerous trap” of Proverbs 29:25 is to fear writing, to freeze up, to hold back. Yet that verse concludes, “. . . trusting the Lord means safety.”

Jesus was a great instigator of strong reactions. It even got him killed. Yet, we are called to be like Jesus, to bear the image of God, to be a voice in the wilderness. For better or for worse.

I would argue that, most of the time, what we write leads to the better.

Randy Petersen, reflecting on the same unrest as Ellian, wrote this in a blog post:

“We writers will not change the world, except when we do. We can carry on the work we’ve always done—nudging hearts, shining the light on truth, suggesting redemptive scenarios people might not have imagined yet. We’re just wordsmiths, and yet language might be the lever that budges the planet into a different orbit.”

Alan Noble concluded his webinar with this summary: “If your work is truly for the good of your readers, have no shame in sharing it. You are not your writing. Expression is not the point. Your reputation and image are not the point. The good of your reader is the point.”

And then he tacked on this gem from T. S. Eliot, “Take no thought of the harvest, but only of proper sowing.”

So, here we are, Christians and writers. God has called us to write to his glory. To care for the good of the reader. When we write what the Holy Spirit lays on our hearts and minds, it is up to the Holy Spirit to impact the reader. It’s our job to share truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. To hone this gift and ensure that what we write is indeed “proper sowing.”

In his book, Scary Close, Donald Miller shared that when he was becoming too careful as a writer, he developed this manifesto:

  • I am willing to sound dumb.
  • I am willing to be wrong.
  • I am willing to be passionate about something that isn’t perceived as cool.
  • I am willing to express a theory.
  • I am willing to admit I’m afraid.
  • I’m willing to contradict something I’ve said before.
  • I’m willing to have a knee-jerk reaction, even a wrong one.
  • I’m willing to apologize.
  • I’m perfectly willing to be perfectly human.

These are wise words to live by, to write by. Besides, as Aristotle is alleged to have warned, “There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.”

As Christian writers, saying nothing just isn’t an option. As we write, we can do so in the certainty that, as Ann-Margret pointed out, if we are being faithful and obedient to God in using our talents for His glory and pleasure, then, as Proverbs promises, we are safe.

To paraphrase Paul, let us write on toward the goal of serving our readers to win the prize of God’s heavenly calling in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:14).

Ignore This Advice

Ignore all lists of writing tips. Including this one. And including this tip. Or at least take them with a big pinch of salt. I have never met two writers who work exactly the same way: One of the hardest, but ultimately most rewarding, things about writing is that you have to work out for yourself who and what you are as a writer, and how you yourself work best. When you’re starting out, it’s very easy to see a piece of advice by [insert your favourite author here] and think, If s/he writes like this, I must do it that way too. That can be unhelpful, and instead I think that every time you hear a writing tip, you have to decide whether it means something to you, resonates with you, or whether it sounds like the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard. It’s your book, you need to learn to write it your way. Now please ignore this advice.

Marcus Sedgwick, at the 2016 Cheltenham Literature Festival