why i’m not a freelance writer
I believe in words. I believe in them in a way that’s subsidiary to my belief in God. I believe in words because I believe in God.
I’ve arrived at a renewed conviction of that belief in words over the past month, and as the end of our vocational season at Hope College approaches, I’ve taken the time to reimagine writing’s place in my work.
It began with a conversation on the way to the grocery store with Dave, my father-in-law, over Christmas break. He asked where I picture myself after our term at Hope expires. It’s a question we get all the time from our friends and students and people at church. I have my stock answer, but the quiet hum of the road beneath our tires as we drove to Ric’s made me stop and think and give him a real answer. Isaac Anderson, the pastor and writer-in-residence at Jacob’s Well, whom I met last September, flashed into my head. He gets to be pastor and writer. Yes, I want something like that. Someplace that recognizes writing as a part of God’s call on my life—not merely a hobby—and thus makes a place for it. That sees pastoral work as word-work and invites me to do that work in the congregation. Word-work is more than being the go-to editor for workplace publications. More than writing nicer-sounding e-mails than the rest of the staff. Word-work is dedicating hours and hours to crafting sentences and paragraphs so that ideas take shape and acquire the power to inspire and excite and move.
I explained some of that to Dave. Then we bought a loaf of bread and smoked cheddar and deli meat and drove home.
Later, I recounted the conversation with Dan, told him I wanted to take writing more seriously this year. Give myself over to it. Figure out exactly what it means to be a pastor who writes (or a writer who pastors). He gave his blessing and then gave us a week or two to do some research. In that time, I’ve dreamed with Dan, created more structure and more frequent deadlines with my writing group, and cleared out our library’s shelf on freelance writing. I set aside The Boys in the Boat while I devoured everything I could find about freelancing.
I learned about the $30,000 a year I could make working part-time, about the amazing, flexible hours I could keep (handy, when your day job is the also-unpredictable work of pastoring), about the massive platform I’d have to build in order to even allow myself to think of getting a book published, about the Twitter account I’d have to open in order to build that platform, about the hours I’d have to spend talking on the phone and sending e-mails to make connections to get writing jobs…
The more I read about freelancing, the less it appealed to me. I recoiled at the thought that a platform sells books. I know it’s the same naive thought that every aspiring writer has had: you mean good writing doesn’t sell? But nothing in those books inspired me. Nothing made me want to write. They sucked all the joy out of writing. In fact, all the talk of money sickened me. Of course, it’s everyone’s dream to get paid for doing what we love, but the mere act of assembling words into sentences isn’t what I love.
What I love is gathering words, one at a time, and then watching them take shape like a murmuration of starlings, sweeping and swelling, growing in grandeur, stirring up something within us that can’t be expressed in words, that’s beyond the power of the words themselves.
I write because I worship a God who uses words. I write because he has given us those words, and we have manipulated them and battered them and used them for our gain and emptied them of their beauty and good power and truth. They’ve depreciated beyond belief and we’re stuck now. Stuck with lots and lots of words—literally: empty lots hold billboards full of worthless words—and no meaning, no love, no truth, no beauty behind them.
I write because God calls us as Christians to participate in his enterprise of giving worth back to words. And that’s not a money-making enterprise. People don’t want to pay you to tell the truth. Half-truths, maybe, but not the full, real truth. People won’t pay you for using good words; they’ll pay you for using cheap words.
So I don’t really want to make money writing, I guess. No quick profit for me, thank you very much. If I don’t get to call myself a writer by profession, that’s okay. Because, though it may not compute, what I want to do is participate in God’s redemptive work. I believe in words because I believe in God. And I want my word-work to redeem, renew, reconcile, set right.
This is actually much much harder work than writing freelance articles for forty hours a week. Without wanting to diminish the work of freelancers, because they work very hard to make lots of contacts and get writing gigs and craft really wonderful sentences and then submit it all on schedule, I am convinced that nothing is as hard, nor as rewarding, as gospel work.
By committing to the gospel work of redeeming language, I am committing to caring for words. That means learning new ones and using them well. It means unearthing old ones and discovering their histories and dusting them off for regular use. It means, perhaps, using fewer words and letting them say more. It’s the work, in some ways, not of the artist but of the museum curator who seeks out, frames well, and offers up words that are already themselves works of art.