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Three Ways to Know You’re “Called to Write”

At a recent writer’s conference, I spoke to someone who was, in their own words, trying to figure out whether they were “called to write.” It was a strange question to hear from someone… at a writer’s conference. I mean, the fact that they would invest so much time and money just to see whether or not they were called to write said a lot about their passion for the subject.

Anyway, it’s a question that gets asked a lot by aspiring authors. I’ve whittled my answer to this question down to three.

But first, a distinction needs to be made between between being called to write and being called to publish. Long before I’d ever felt a desire to pursue publication, I began a journal. I took that journal seriously and, even though I intended no one else to read it, I strove to write it well. That journal eventually blossomed into two journals. For now, those journals are collecting dust on the bottom shelf of a book cabinet like fossils from a bygone era. At the time, I was “called to write” them. Their circulation, however, was another story.

Likewise, it’s possible that there’s a writing project heavy on your heart whose circulation should be limited. The compulsion you feel to write the story should in no way be the determinant as to how many people read it.  Some may feel “called to write” simply as a means of catharsis. Others may feel “called to write” to simply provide bedtime stories for their children or grandchildren. These are just as much “callings” as are others. However, there’s a big difference between writing for personal growth or your circle of friends and family, and whether you will begin investing time and money in pursuing broader, more professional, range of publishing. Don’t confuse the call to write with the call to publish.

So when I speak of the “call to write” here, I’m speaking more in terms of pursuing professional publication. Having issued that qualifier, here’s three ways that you can know you’re called to write:

1.) TALENT: You’re good with words. You’re naturally imaginative. Without prodding or coercion you think about framing things in literary or narrative form. You are not intimidated by the prospects of sitting down and gathering thoughts and images into a cohesive cast. In fact, you are strangely challenged by the prospect. Perhaps this started when you were a child. You were the storyteller of your group. You loved to see the sparkle in other kids eyes when you told a tale. Perhaps you enthralled your parents and siblings with your flamboyant antics. Then again, maybe it’s the ability you have to find solace in ideas, to retreat into your office or easy chair, to derive unusual satisfaction investing hours in the unraveling of a plot or a thesis. You finish reading a great novel and something rises up in you saying, “I can do that.” You are inspired by a great film and leave the theater saying “I can do that.” Whatever the case, there is at least a kernel of writing talent, a seed that you water and cultivate, a spark that you fan into flame. Yes, yes. It may be raw and juvenile. But it’s there.

Of course, people will say that when it comes to writing, talent is subjective. Readers find virtue in all kinds of things. It’s true… to a degree. And with hard work any author can improve. But without raw writing 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.” Many great writers labor in publishing obscurity. But for the most part: Talent gets noticed (see #3). 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 to write.”

2.) 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? Then you might be “called to write.” One of my first big confirmations as a writer came in the form of a rejection letter. I’d been trying to get something published in a professional speculative fiction magazine. After several form rejections, I finally received a personalized email from the senior editor extolling the virtues and outlining the problems they had with a short story they were declining. It was bittersweet, but hugely encouraging. I knew I was on the right track. That rejection stoked my drive to be published. If you are are not easily dissuaded, if you can weather professional critique, bad reviews, and rejection, and continue getting up for more, then maybe you are “called to write.”

3.) 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 published writers, agents and industry professionals is huge in determining your “call to write.” If  readers — and those whose living is to sell to them — can’t vet your writing, you’re in trouble as a professional writer.

Sometimes confirmation will happen along the way; we will write a story intended only for limited personal circulation only to discover it’s good enough to enjoy a bigger circulation.  William Young, author of the mega-best-seller The Shack, originally wrote the story as a parable for his friends and family. But he found their response so overwhelming that it forced him to consider broader publishing. The rest is history. Do you have confirmation from a larger circle than just your mother and BFFs that your writing is good? Do you have confirmation 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  are “called” to write.

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Question: Do you think there’s a difference between a “call to write” and a “call to be published”? 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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{ 19 comments… add one }
  • Morgan L. Busse November 2, 2012, 6:01 AM

    I love how you distinguished the difference between called to write and called to published. A couple years ago I came to the place where I had to decide whether to keep writing. As a mother of 4 young kids, I could find a whole lot more to do with those precious few hours I was giving to writing. But I couldn’t let go. I loved to tell stories. But was that enough? Especially in view that my particular genre was not being published by anyone at the time (fantasy for the adult Christian market). Was it worth the time and energy?

    Two things occurred that made me keep writing, even if I never published: encouragement from my husband, and the desire to leave this story for my children someday. Not only did this keep me writing, it pushed me to write the very best book I could. Through my story, I would be leaving my faith behind. And that was enough for me.

    God had different plans and now I am published author. But I had to come to the place where I was fine if I never published. Even now, I doubt my “call”, especially when negative reviews come in. But God doesn’t make mistakes, and so therefore, at this point, I am also called to be a published writer.

    Thanks for sharing that you still wrestle with your calling as well. I think many writers secretly do, but perhaps are afraid to say so out loud.

  • Elizabeth Seckman November 2, 2012, 6:16 AM

    Came over from your guest post on Rachelle’s blog. Your topic made me yell (in my head) that’s what I’ve been saying!! Looking around your blog…you have so much good info here, I decided to stick around a while.

  • Elizabeth Seckman November 2, 2012, 6:20 AM

    Oh, and as for the calling…you’re so right about that too. If I couldn’t ever publish a single thing, I would still write. It’s an inner bliss thing.

    • Jon Mast November 2, 2012, 6:06 PM

      This is where I’m at right now, too. I write for my blog, sure, but I have only a small drive to professionally publish. However, I do have a HUGE drive to write write write!

  • Veronika Walker November 2, 2012, 6:38 AM

    I’m still testing the waters of publication, and probably will be for quite some time. But whenever I find myself doubting if this is God’s will for me, I ask myself: if God asked you to give this up, for good, how hard would it be for you to do it?”

    I never really get a direct answer because I start crying.

    Guess that’s answer enough.

  • Johne Cook November 2, 2012, 7:55 AM

    I think disciples of Christ should be Christ-followers first and chase publication second. I see many who are trying to be ‘Christian novelists’ because they think that’s where a market is, a way to fame and fortune. I’m concerned some put the cart before the horse.

    If writing is God’s mechanism of using your specific gifts and talents and perspective and voice to reach the lost in this limited window of freedom and relative prosperity, treating writing only like a business may be a mistake. (I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t take our craft seriously and skimp on that IN ANY WAY. I’m merely suggesting we may be missing out on blessing and ministry by trying to be a Published Author with all the high profile acclaim and ego boost we attribute to achieving that goal.)

    If we are disciples of Christ, we have two overarching marching orders: to love God and our neighbors, and to create disciples for Christ. Those are universal Christian mandates regardless of our gifting and preference. But what we do with our day job and our gifting leaves room for personal expression and ability. I wonder if we sometimes aren’t chasing the dream of being a published novelist when God may have larger plans for a writing ministry that might be more effective with a smaller profile. In short, insist on the highest quality of writing but accept that not all writing must expect financial compensation and accolade to be used by God effectively to impact people who need Him.

    If you’re writing for your livelihood, excellent – do what you to to the best of your ability and get paid as well for it as you can. But if you’re called to a slightly (or radically) different writing ministry that doesn’t pay well (or at all) and doesn’t contain the probability of having your name in lights in order to be ministry-effective, I argue we should be open to that. (Full disclosure – I am paid to write, but the business given to me at the moment is writing technical communication. It is important and helps society, but wasn’t what I dreamed of when I was a kid. But this is what is before me at the moment, and I do it as well as I can, and I provide for my family and impact the lives of people I will never meet, and I do it gladly, especially in this economy.)

    In short, give your writing to God with no strings attached and see what happens. Pray for God’s will and then do that thing as well as you can. And be open for a change if God directs. Putting God first is always good, never bad, and usually surprising.

    • Coble November 2, 2012, 4:33 PM

      Johne, this all says very perfectly what I would say and what I’ve gone through being a writer at this point in my life.

  • Patrick Todoroff November 2, 2012, 9:16 AM

    Good article, Mike. And an excellent distinction between ‘writing’ and ‘publishing’.

    My personal experience is that many writers are seeking affirmation. I guess we all want confirmation of personal worth. Unfortunately, whenever I’ve encountered Christians seeking a sign of their ‘call to write’, they seem to be asking for a divine guarantee of commercial success. I always tell them, and myself, to keep writing. Writers write. It’s what they do. Promotion is from the Lord.

    I agree with Johne. Ultimately, you’ve got to obey God and pursue your calling, give the writing to Him, then leave it in his hands. It’s all His anyway.

  • Jill November 2, 2012, 9:40 AM

    Confirmation can be really tricky. If I were to go by confirmation alone, I would say I have little talent. I’ve had confirmation from writing friends, even published writing friends, but from the gods that be–those in the publishing world and creative-writing-degree world–I’ve had virtually no confirmation at all. That’s all right. I have to look past that to get at the truth. In my case, I feel God is calling me down a different writing path. So I would hesitate to tell anyone that confirmation/affirmation means that much. The confirmation must come from somewhere inside each person–the place where the muse resides. If the writing muse is absent from her little harp stool, then the writer might want to look twice at her “calling”.

  • D.M. Dutcher November 2, 2012, 10:09 AM

    I think way too many Christians used “being called by God” as an excuse for being passive in their life choices, and not taking responsibility.

    There’s this weird belief that God has this master script for an individual’s life fully written out up in heaven, and the individual believer isn’t really so much to live their own life as to try and intuit the script and act out their part. This leads to a tremendous amount of second-guessing and self-sabotage, because it’s impossible to know the script. I’m not saying that it’s impossible to be guided by God, nor that we shouldn’t pray or seek wisdom, but we’re His sons and daughters, not His actors; we try to mirror Him, but we also lead our own lives and must make our own decisions.

    Your question with writing shouldn’t be “Am I called by God to do so?” It should be “Am I good at it?” “Do I like doing it?” “Do I have the drive and discipline to do so?” “Can I afford to spend the time and money at becoming better at it?” and many more issues. I think people may have a calling, but it’s really only in a potential or general sense that’s more about a person’s nature than a step-by-step outline of how to live life. To discover it is to be honest about yourself, and your nature and talents. But even then, there’s nothing wrong with trying something, or doing something because you enjoy it, are fairly skilled at it, or have fun at it.

    It may be a reality check-you find that you like drawing for fun and can do a webcomic some people like, but it’s impossible for you to produce art quickly enough or with enough skill to make a monthly comic or get accepted by Marvel. Or maybe you do have a lot of skill, but you just can’t give up your current situation to go eat ramen in NYC for two years to try and get noticed because you have children with a man you are completely in love with. But I think these are the ways God leads you, by helping you to realize what precedence an activity has in your life.

    Worrying about whether or not God has called you can be a way of avoiding these things, and also a way of mollifying often painful truths. It hurts to think your writing isn’t very good (and believe me, I know how that feels) and it hurts to think you can’t make a living off of something you love to do. But I personally think the agony of being in limbo over whether or not your writing at this very moment fits the invisible script is far worse. We have to trust in God that He gives us wisdom, but also trust in ourselves and our own judgment.

    Otherwise it’s like that old joke about the guy being rescued from a hurricane. He’s on his house as the waters rise, praying to God to rescue him. A boat passes by, and asks him for help. He says “No, I’m waiting for God to rescue me.” Another boat passes by, as the waters keep rising. The man on the roof says the same thing to it. Soon, one last boat passes by, and the water is up to the guy’s neck, but he still says “No, I’m waiting for God to rescue me.”

    Of course, he drowns and dies, and in heaven he angrily confronts God. “I prayed and prayed and prayed. Why didn’t you rescue me?” God replies, “What do you want me to do? I sent three boats.”

    Sorry for the novel, but I agonized over whether or not God was calling me to do something too, and this is what I learned from it. Mike’s list of criteria are valuable questions to ask yourself, but I wanted to add about the dangers of the invisible script.

    • Patrick Todoroff November 2, 2012, 12:21 PM

      Nice one, D.M.

      • D.M. Dutcher November 3, 2012, 6:32 PM

        Thanks, now if I could only travel back in time and say this to myself I’d be set. A lot of the advice I seem to give is “I did this, don’t do it!”

  • Cindy Jones November 2, 2012, 10:16 AM

    Enjoyed reading this very much, thank you for sharing.

  • Jon Mast November 2, 2012, 6:11 PM

    I love your distinction between being called to write and being called to publish. There’s so many uses for writing, and professional publishing is only one use.

    I’m a pastor. I wrote a sermon every week for my small congregation. I study God’s Word, I find ways that it applies to the flock, write, and memorize. Week in, week out, and only a few people get to hear it. Yet, I am writing — and have been called to write — for this spiritual family.

    It also might good to point out that God has given us freedom. We are to do all we do for the glory of God — but there’s not necessarily a “calling” for each of us. The hardest decisions for us as Christians is choosing between right and right. I’ve got talent to write. Should I pursue professional, full-time writing or being a pastor?


    Both are good. Both are God-pleasing. Right now, I’m convinced this is the way that I can serve God best with the talents he’s given me. That may change. And that’s ok.

  • Catherine Hudson November 3, 2012, 5:14 PM

    I agree! There really is a difference between the call to write and the call to be published – and both may have a lot to do with timing. I simply HAD to write my first novel. It haunted me until it was finished (10 years after starting – but then, I had three babies in that time).
    The call to publish was one I resisted – I think a small part of me still resists. I’m not there yet – but still the call remains. And what can we do but plug away at the job until we get into print. Then a whole new world of work begins!

  • Kris Richards November 5, 2012, 4:53 PM

    For me, I don’t really think about the publishing part. I am a story-teller. Like a photographer with a gifted eye, I love noticing stories that others might pass by. I especially like bragging on God when He clearly does something. Usually, something bangs around in my brain until I let it out. It comes out swiftly, like a pent-up flood in a single outburst. I may chew on it over a few days and tweak a few things, but it’s out there. Then, I see where He leads as to how this story will be told. It might become an article in a magazine, on a website, in my blog, in the newspaper, or… in a book one day.

    Oh yes. Frequently the story invites further inquiry and I get asked to speak on it. So it’s just about seeing the story, grabbing it, framing it, and throwing it out there. If God wants to get it published, He’ll let me know by the bites and requests I’m getting.

    A gift opens the way for the giver and ushers him into the presence of the great. Pr. 18:16

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