Like many of you creative writerly types, I have a new book or essay idea about once a week. Any casual observer will know when this happens. My eyes gain x-ray vision, I will wear mismatched clothes for a day or two. I’ll start pulling books from my library, organizing them into Useful Research Piles, and I create a new folder on my computer, into which I start shuttling and dumping uncountable necessary articles and links.
But it is not long before the writing deadlines I am already under reassert their authority. I follow meekly to my office to tending my previous fires that once sent me into fevers, but with a new light gleaming from my forehead.
Some of those gleams turn into books, essays, and blog posts. But some of them sputter into oblivion, snuffed out by the realities of life, the most pressing of which is—There Is Never Enough Time.
The question we all face is: Out of a plenitude of possibilities, yet with limited time and energy, what do we choose to write about? How do we decide?
The stakes are high. If it’s books we’re talking about, for me it’s at least 2 years of immersion in the writing, and then once the book is released, several more years follow of spreading the word. So I had better love it, believe it, and be willing to soap any box with its message.
How do we decide, then? I have followed a simple rule most of my writing life: TENDER YOUR “BURDEN OF WITNESSING.”
The phrase here is not mine. I’ve lifted it from Patricia Hampl’s wisest of words, “ . . . For we do not, after all, simply have experience; we are entrusted with it. We must do something—make something—with it. A story, we sense is the only possible habitation for the burden of our witnessing.”
What has God entrusted to you? What “burdens of witnessing” have been given to you? Start here. My first book of prose was about commercial fishing women, because there I was, in the midst of a life I was trying to live and understand, mostly unsuccessfully. I moved to memoir next, writing about my life on a wilderness island in Alaska, then onto other topics I had “witnessed”: motherhood, unplanned pregnancy, the spirituality of food, forgiveness of my schizoid father. I have never regretted a single project.
When you write as a witness from these hard places, you immediately avoid one of the greatest weaknesses of beginning writing, and even “successful” writing: writing without “mattering.” Over the years, I’ve met students and writers who can fashion beautiful sentences in their sleep—–but talent and beauty alone does not make them “matter.” Without heart, without an urgency that comes from deeply lived experience, your words on the page will only be words on a page. (And, take note: Because they matter to you doesn’t automatically make them matter to your readers. You must make them matter to the reader as well.)
There is yet another reason for doing this. And forgive me now for going sermonic on you, but I pull it out now because I know you are reluctant to excavate the stash under your bed and in your closets. One of the graces of believing in a God who inhabits the hearts of his people is the certainty that all events—celebrations, dirges, dangers, and feasts—come to us through His hands, and they are hands with purpose. They are hands that intend our trials to be tended and eventually tendered for the good of others. The New Testament spells out the program: God, who is the “God of all comfort,” comforts us in our troubles for this purpose, “so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” Pass it on, brothers and sisters.
Don’t worry if there’s blood. As Red Smith has written, “For my money anyway, the only books worth reading are books written in blood . . . “ [Red Smith].
Write about what you MUST write about. Write about what has been entrusted to you alone. Write about what matters most to you. Write about the things you cannot turn away from. Write about the hurt, the cheating, the doubts, the hopes, the comfort, the sickness. Our time is short—make it count.
Tender the witness you’ve been given.