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?