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How Do You Know You’re “Called” to Write?

The Bible never talks about a “call to write,” though many writers and artists describe their occupation in those terms. Writing is never mentioned as a spiritual gift in Scripture, nor are writers ever singled out as having strategic roles in the world or Church (unless you count the “inspired stenographers” who actually penned the Bible). This isn’t to suggest that writing is not a God-given talent, that God can’t use writers, or that writing is not a legitimate profession. I just wonder if we make too much out of this “calling” thing.

This Sunday, my son-in-law’s father spoke at our church. Don Fredricks is part of Strategic World Impact, a team that provides humanitarian assistance and disaster relief throughout the world. He really has an amazing story, having left his profession as a teacher (twice) to begin following the call of God into missions. Don’s “calling” has often put him in harm’s way, like recently being placed under house arrest for eight days in Pakistan. He’s been to Guatemala, Haiti, Africa, and other not-so-exotic locales.

Don spoke about God’s affirmation, and how important it is that we know God’s individual call on our lives. We must know He is pleased with us, that He wants to guide us, and will provide for us as we follow Him. Then he asked us to bow our heads and contemplate our own calling. What would God say to you about your pursuits, your passions? But after hearing about Don’s walk of faith, the miraculous escapes and heartbreaking suffering, I just couldn’t seem to muster much enthusiasm about writing. You see, in light of the “call to missions,” the “call to write” seems pretty unimportant.

Once again, it left me asking How does someone know they’re “called to write”? It’s a sticky question, one that people invariably answer differently. But without a reasonable sense of surety that they are following God’s lead, I don’t know how a person can rationalize pursuing such a difficult profession. As much as I remain conflicted, there are three ways I’ve come to believe a person can determine whether or not they’re called to write:

TALENT: Of course, people will say that when it comes to writing, talent is subjective. I disagree. F. Scott Fitzgerald is better than most aspiring authors. As is Stephen King, Anne Lamott, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Of course, with hard work any author can improve. But without raw talent, improving is relative. This isn’t to say that an average wordsmith can’t become better. Nor am I suggesting that good writers are always “found”. But for the most part: Talent gets noticed. Without raw writing talent — an ear for words, patience and discipline in constructing those words, and imagination in telling tales — one cannot confidently claim to be “called” as a writer. Do you have the raw talent to write?

DRIVE: A person may have the raw talent to write, but without the drive you will never be able to tell it. The drive to write is what keeps one plugging away in the face of constant rejection. The drive to write is what keeps one finding writing time no matter what their schedule looks like. The drive to write is what keeps a good writer always striving to become a better writer.  In “How to Become a Writer”  Lorrie Moore gives this blunt recommendation to aspiring authors: “First try to be something, anything, else. …[Y]ou should become a writer only if you have no choice. Writing has to be an obsession — it’s only for those who say, ‘I’m not going to do anything else.'” Do you have that kind of drive?

CONFIRMATION: If we are really called to anything, that thing should bear a stamp of approval from both God and man. When I was shopping for an agent, I remember the frustration of receiving one rejection after another. I recall the day I opened an email from one agent who said that she loved my stuff. I just sat there with my wife at my side and wept. The confirmation of other writers, agents and publishers — heck, that people actually read my blog, leave comments, take interest in my ideas and stories – is mind-blowing, and something I really cherish. And, in a way, it confirms my “call” to write. Do you have evidence from peers and professionals that you are “called” to write?

My own journey toward becoming a writer is inglorious. I started late and have stumbled along. Even after signing with an agent and contracting to be published, I still wrestle with my “call to write.” Is this equivocation consistent with all authors? I don’t know. I do know it comes back to this: Every calling is great, when greatly pursued. If God’s given you the talent to write, the drive to develop that talent, and the confirmation from peers and professionals that you have it, then there’s a good chance you you are “called” to write.

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So how do you know you’re “called” to write? And what other factors do you think help someone determine whether or not they are really “called” to write?

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{ 14 comments… add one }
  • Jessica Thomas August 9, 2010, 10:13 AM

    First, I think we should be careful not to compare ‘callings’. One person may be called to go into the mission field. Another may be called to clean toilets at their church. In both cases, if the person is doing it for God, I think God is pleased, and He will use the work for good. The calling to write, therefore (in my opinion), is as noble as any other (or has the *potential* to be noble, rather).

    Second, we know God can put man’s writings to good use. Look at the Bible. Inspired by God, penned by man. Writing can indeed be very powerful.

    Third, how do I know I’m called to write? I’ll admit, when no one seems to give a hoot about my writing, I do question this sometimes. When I look back at my childhood, though, it only makes sense that God wants me to use my talent for something. I’ve known I wanted to write since as early as second grade. I started journaling in sixth grade because I wanted to learn how to write. I journalled all through college, wrote poetry, stories, etc. I graduated college with Honors in writing, and received much positive feedback from professors, including one who said, “I know I’ll see you on the shelves someday…you just have to be willing to work at it.” I left college thinking I had it in the bag, if I’m being honest. Then God taught me some lessons on humility.

    Here I am, approaching my 4th decade, no novels published as of yet. But I still think God wants me to write, and frankly if I don’t get off my duff and write, I suspect judgement day might go something like, God: “I gave you the ability to write. Why didn’t you use it?” Me: “Errr…I was busy watching ‘Lost’?” Eeks. I don’t want to be in that position.

    • Mike Duran August 9, 2010, 1:09 PM

      Well Jessica, you’re not short on perseverance, that’s for sure. While I think I agree with you about the call to write being as noble as any other calling, in the presence of those who literally lay down their lives for the Gospel, writing just seems rather… trivial. Especially fiction writing. Which leads me to wonder if some callings just aren’t more integral to expanding the kingdom of God. Writing fiction? Ehhh.

      • Jessica Thomas August 9, 2010, 2:26 PM

        Could depend on who your writings touches…who it may save…and what if that person goes on to serve God in miraculous ways.

        There’s poetry and fiction in the Bible. Jesus told parables.


      • Michael Ehret August 11, 2010, 3:41 AM

        Writing? Trivial? Really … ? Let’s think on that for a moment. The Declaration of Independence. Martin Luther’s 99 Theses? MLKs “Letters from a Birmingham Jail”? Writing shapes the world and the people in it. Not trivial at all. I don’t accept that.

  • Jessica Thomas August 9, 2010, 10:18 AM

    Make that “approaching my fifth decade”. Egads. I think I need to reword that altogether.

  • Nicole August 9, 2010, 10:47 AM

    I think Jessica makes a valid point about callings. If God wants it for you, it has value. Having said that, listening to those like your son-in-law’s father takes the “bloom of the rose”. I shrink my estimation of the worth of my writing–as if that isn’t a constant battle anyway.

    But . . . God has been very specific, and limited, in what He’s put in my life. Writing has been there throughout it, from early childhood to now, even though I submitted what talent he might’ve given me to Him in my 40s. Since then, over seven novels, three others started dot my landscape with no end in sight. It’s a compulsion, no matter the frustration, the “value”, the results. It was there then. It’s still here now. It’s God’s direction, it’s His journey in me. Semantics might call it something else, but I’m convinced it’s His call on my insignificant-without-Him life.

  • Steven August 9, 2010, 3:35 PM

    It’s important to distinguish between a call to write professionally and a call to write personally, as a hobby. Some people who write for personal satisfaction may never get published but they can still be called and gifted by God to do so.

    • Mike Duran August 9, 2010, 5:20 PM

      Perhaps that is a reasonable distinction. But there is a pretty big gulf, I think, between a professional writer and a hobbyist. The “calling” to write at the level of “hobby” hardly carries the same weight as someone pursuing publication.

  • Rachelle August 9, 2010, 4:35 PM

    Mike, this reminds me of a quote from Barbara Brown Taylor: “The effort to untangle the human words from the divine seems not only futile to me but also unnecessary, since God works with what is. God uses whatever is usable in a life, both to speak and to act, and those who insist on fireworks in the sky may miss the electricity that sparks the human heart.”

    This, to me, answers the question about “calling” quite succinctly. I believe you’re right: with talent and drive (possibly even in the absence of confirmation) one need not wonder and worry if they’re really “called.” God works with what is. Most writers are familiar with the electricity that sparks the human heart. I’m confident God can work with that.

  • Rosslyn Elliott August 9, 2010, 8:19 PM

    I think we’re all called to take up a cross. Perhaps more than one. That cross may take the form of physical danger and loss, as it does for missionaries and soldiers, or it may assume the form of spiritual suffering for other reasons. I don’t think the suffering of a writer is about writing itself, either as calling or career.

    If a writer’s work has a serious purpose, that writer uses other, deeper forms of suffering she has endured in life to inform her work. Does my life as a writer compare in any way to the personal courage and sacrifice of overseas missionaries? No. But I don’t think that makes the calling less, for me or any other writer. God had me go through other trials–more significant than worry about publishing houses– in order to answer this call and be able to write on certain themes.

    I think the same is true when you look at the lives of other writers. C.S. Lewis knew a thing or two about suffering, even though he was not a missionary in foreign countries. I suspect his writings have contributed to more conversions than any single in-person missionary. Would you take him seriously if he described his writing as a calling? If so, then your question is not really whether it can be a calling, but whether some writers and types of writing qualify and others don’t. And in the case of Lewis, his fiction has influenced more people than even his non-fiction apologetics. So don’t be too hard on fiction.

    Many may be called, but that doesn’t mean we will all be equally proficient or successful. We just do the best we can.

  • Jill August 10, 2010, 10:06 AM

    Such a question. Just as I was going to comment last evening, my children let it be known that they needed me. Wait, that’s happening right now, too. We all have callings, and I do mean that in the plural. Most of us have multiple callings.

    Am I called to write? If I’m not, then I wonder why it’s been weighing heavily on my heart for so many years. I have the drive. Talent? I don’t know. Confirmation? Yes, I’ve had that, occasionally.

    Ultimately, I don’t think I need to go to an exotic locale in order to reach lost people. There are lost people right here in my community, which God has given me a burden to reach, as well as in the Barnes and Noble. Will the book shoppers find books by Christian authors, if Christian books are set apart on a far shelf at the back of the store? Well, that’s another debate, isn’t it?

    And you? You write a stunning chiasm every now and again in your blog posts, like this one: “Every calling is great, when greatly pursued.” Rhetoric–or, the way a message is delivered–means something to me. Writing can be a very powerful tool. The dark side uses it, so why can’t Christians?

  • Kevin Lucia August 10, 2010, 10:55 AM

    “Writing has to be an obsession — it’s only for those who say, ‘I’m not going to do anything else.’ ”

    Well, and there you go. Me in a sentence.

    I’m going to agree with you Mike, but perhaps in a different way. I don’t believe God has “called” me to write. He’s called me to be a godly and loving and caring husband and father who provides for his wife and children. He’s called me to pursue whatever I lay my hands to 100%. To live a life that Honors him, in the workplace, and…as I’ve recently found…at secular writers’ conventions and in the secular marketplace, as I interact with others.

    I know it’s a tired old Sunday School lesson that I’m probably paraphrasing wrong, but it always comes back to the parable of the Talents, for me. God has blessed me with many talents over the years. For a long time, it was basketball, which lead to playing at the collegiate level. Now, it’s writing. I’m the kinda guy that figures: what I’ve been given, I’m gonna go and multiply and invest as much as possible. No burying talents in a hole for this guy.

    But it’s a balance. A tough one. Especially because I was raised by a man of unbelievable work ethic and single-minded purpose, which I tend to apply to everything I do…obsessively. I have to remind myself constantly while it’s a talent God’s blessed me with – and has shown me evidence of in publications and success – that what he’s called me to be in the steward of my family is far greater.

    In eighth grade I finished a novel I really loved and thought: “I want to do this. I HAVE to do this.” By my senior year in high school, I wrote my first “novel” in a spiral Mead notebook – some embarrassing teen drama about sports and love, which bore absolutely no resemblance to my life at that time at all 😉 – and slipped it to my English teacher on the way out of class one day.

    She critiqued parts, praised others and wrote on the last page: “You MUST get published. Don’t let anything stop you. Ever.”

    My personal mantra since then.

    After writing in the closet for over ten years, I started writing seriously five years ago. Four years ago, facing a burgeoning, young family – my CALLING – I started getting up at 3AM in the morning to write two hours every day before everyone else got up, so my obsession wouldn’t impact them adversely.

    I’ve been doing it since. If you were to ask me, “Isn’t that too hard? Ever think of quitting?” I’d probably frown and say, “Run that by me again? I think you just said something in Farsi. I don’t speak Farsi.”

    I write on my lunch breaks at work. I fall asleep running over the scenes in my head that I’m writing the next day. If I don’t write something EVERY DAY- even if it’s just a book review – I get cranky, like a weightlifter or runner or even junkie that needs his fix.

    But it’s not my CALLING. It’s a talent God has given me, driven by a work ethic gifted to me by my father. What I do with it is up to me – again, keeping the whole “whatever you lay your hands to, Honor God” in mind – but my calling – especially with two special needs children – is raising them.

    And, let’s be painfully honest. I have no social life. At all. To me, an exciting afternoon is sitting at Barnes & Noble with a mocha frappe, a good book and my notebook (the kind with paper in it).

    • Travis Thrasher August 10, 2010, 8:06 PM

      Love this blog post, Mike. And love your comments, Kevin. I agree with Kevin that God didn’t “call” me to write. I think that God might be just as pleased with me (or even more so) if I’m taking orders at a fast food restaurant as long as I’m honoring Him. I’ve seen the ministry card used too many times and I hate doing that. But–I agree on Mike’s points and say that I see all three of them in my life.

      I’m fortunate to be published and I tell everybody that it takes persistence not talent to be succesful. Luck and timing are not far behind. Kevin–keep it up. Thanks for this post, Mike.

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