The Writing Life

Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.

I am a published writer, it’s true: but that does not mean I am a good writer—just read anything I’ve had published! For example, in 2008 I signed a royalty-advance contract with Upper Room Books for my first book, Mud & Poetry: Love, Sex, and the Sacred (2010). I was thrilled beyond what emojis can express. But reading it is like walking through Vietnam in the middle of a nasty war. Split infinitives crouch behind every tree. Commas are buried in the middle of sentences like landmines. Poorly planned paragraphs give the reader an almost visceral experience of being lost in a jungle. At least the book has heart. Cor ad cor loquitur. I was happy recently to find a copy of Mud & Poetry in a used bookstore swarming with underlined sentences, dog-eared pages, and marginalia. Heart speaks unto heart.

 

[Note: This essay was first published by Hillsdale Launch and is reprinted with permission.]

 

You do not need talent to get published, but you do need gumption. You need heart. My senior year at Hillsdale College I think I went a little insane. Pretending to be C.S. Lewis, I wore a bathrobe all day and smoked a tobacco pipe and found a typewriter and slowly lost my mind. At least I was doing the one thing necessary. At least I was writing with all my heart.

To get published, write. You don’t need to be good, just stubborn. It took three years and dozens of rejection letters before my first contract. I took out a business loan and started a house painting company so that I could work in the summers and write in the winters. Since I graduated college in 2006, I have probably spent an accumulated five years doing nothing at all but messing about with words. Believe me, my friend, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about with words.

But of making many books there is no end, and much writing only brings you problems—back problems, wrist problems, money problems, relationship problems, coffee problems. It was not until my back was bent into the shape of a question mark and my bloodshot eyes were practically geriatric that I signed my second royalty-advance contract with Zondervan in 2010 for When Donkeys Talk: Rediscover the Mystery and Wonder of Christianity (2013). A kind of allegory, the book takes readers on a holy pilgrimage into the forests of Christendom. After a brief reconnaissance, we battle modern disenchantment and then enter the darkening pines of the Middle Ages to find a world of deep magic and sacrament. In exchange for reviews, the book was given for free to Protestant mothers in the suburbs who did not at all appreciate the ride. At first, I blamed readers for not understanding When Donkeys Talk, but now I blame myself. My holy pilgrimage through jolly squalid old Europe failed to communicate, and the first job of a writer is to communicate. I will likely be dead before I pay off the advance.

I might be getting published, but I am not a good writer—not yet, anyway. I’ve had dozens of articles and blogs published and I just signed with Ignatius Press for a new book I’m co-authoring with Sam Guzman called The Catholic Gentleman: Be a Man, Be a Saint. It’s scheduled to be released next summer. But I am not a good writer, and for now that’s okay. With every article and with every book, I am practicing. I am still learning how to communicate.

Do you want to write? Then do not own a television. Do not subscribe to Netflix, do not watch YouTube videos, and do not check Facebook. Do not listen to the radio. Do not sleep in. Do not drink more than one beer at a time. Eat meat and vegetables and avoid anything with wheat. Brew strong coffee. Read poetry. Master the five-paragraph essay. Pretend to be C.S. Lewis or E.B. White or your favorite college professor and remember: heart speaks unto heart. Romeo did not woo Juliet with a syllogism. Write like a child at play. Be stubborn and the world will suffer your prose a little longer.

Time is short, eternity is long. The innumerable hours spent peering into a word processor will only spend you. Be spent. You can’t keep your words unless you give them away.

 

Read it in Hillsdale Launch

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