Have something worth saying. In his book Culture Care, artist Makoto Fujimura tells a story he confesses may be legendary about a Yale student taking Hebrew from the great Old Testament scholar Brevard Childs. The student, discontent with his grades, asked the scholar how he could raise them. Childs’s answer: “Become a deeper person.”
Peggy Noonan writer of seven books on politics, religion, and culture, and weekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal, was at one time the speech writer for the man considered The Great Communicator. In her book Simply Speaking, she says that what moves people in a speech is the logic. The words “Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev” are not all that poetic when taken at face value. But they express something that resonates in the human heart. In the words of Robert Frost, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”
In the same way that logic is what moves people in a speech, logic is what moves people in writing. And to have logic, to move people, we must have something worth saying. In fact, probably about 90 percent of writing is having something worth saying. And how do we get something worth saying? By expanding the world of ideas to which we expose ourselves, and by cultivating a rich inner life.
Decrease your vision. That is, “think local.” Start with your family. Doug Bender, the bestselling author of I am Second: Real Stories. Changing Lives. wrote a book for an audience of one. When Doug’s wife had a miscarriage, it grieved the Benders' little girl. So Doug wrote a child’s book about death and loss just for her. My husband’s favorite seminary professor told his students, “Stop thinking you will go out and save the world, and instead become the best family member you can be, the most grateful child of your parents, the greatest and most dependable encourager in your church, the best contributor to your community.” We influence the world one small corner at a time. Cherish the small.
In the days when Abraham’s descendants had been carried off from Israel to Babylon, their prophet, Jeremiah, sent a letter to King Nebuchadnezzar for the surviving leaders in exile. Jeremiah’s counsel: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce . . . Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile” (Jer. 29:1–7). Seeking the good of the city where we live is always good counsel. So write for your kids, if you have any. Contribute good columns to the local paper. Donate some book reviews for your favorite local web site. Do readings at the library. And do so simply to give back and because you wish to make your corner of the world a better place.
Read or listen. A lot of people say that to be a good writer you have to read. But that is not totally true. Not everyone can read—even among bestselling writers of worth. Bodie Thoene, who has sold millions of books, has dyslexia, which makes it nearly impossible for her to read. My own husband, who holds a master’s degree from a rigorous program, can hardly read without falling asleep, due to a mild form of dyslexia. But he watches a lot of National Geographic shows and keeps up with the news in non-written forms. Some say that Emily Dickinson’s meter draws not on the cadences of authors she read but of hymns she sang.
Those who cannot read can listen. And even those of us who do love to read can benefit by hearing. These days I learn aurally from NPR’s book reviews, the weekly podcast of the New York Times Review of Books, and at least one Audible book per month. In the past six months, I’ve switched my drive time from passive radio listening to more active listening to books on audio. The list has included mostly fiction, such as The Goldfinch, The Invention of Wings, Lila, Gone Girl, and The Fault in Our Stars. But I’ve also enjoyed Unbroken, Quiet, I Am Malala, and Bonhoeffer. I would never have had time simply to sit and read those books.
Write what contributes to human flourishing, not what you perceive as the next hot market. Trying to predict what will sell is like leaning on cobwebs. Just about the time you find a post to rest against, it gives way. By the time you finish writing a book to meet demand, the market will have left you in the dust. So write what you love to write and/or what you can write with excellence. (Sometimes we must write what we do well to pay the bills, even if it’s not our favorite.) Of the twenty or so books I’ve authored or coauthored, the one that continues to bring the most income is Sexual Intimacy in Marriage. There are fifty shades of books available on the topic of sex that sell many more copies than the one I coauthored. I could have turned up the steam and helped people live less fully human lives. And I probably would be making a lot more money. But the world needs more beautiful relationships, not those that are more hollow.
Measure success accurately. If you are a writer, you will be tempted to measure your own success by a number of externals that have nothing to do with your worth. Tell yourself they are lies.
Someone once told me that the only human-made structure visible from space was not the Golden Gate Bridge or the Eiffel Tower or even the tallest building in the world, but only the Great Wall of China. Think of all the amazing structures that “failed” to make that list. But that does not make these structures failures. It just means that when measured by one narrow definition of success, they failed.
As writers, any number of false measures can make us feel like losers. Did our last book fail to earn out its advance? Did we do a book tour? Did the work gain rave reviews in Publishers Weekly and Library Journal? These are not accurate measures of whether we can write. Lots of crummy books have sold big. Many divergent books have made their authors lots of money, but that does not make the books or the authors successes.
At one time, I thought doing a book signing would indicate I had really arrived. Imagine my humiliation when I had to share a book-signing table with a famous person who had a long line of fans lined up out the door while I had nobody. Well, okay, one person. But she probably felt sorry for me. Still, that book itself changed some lives for the good. The humiliating signing experience had no correlation with the book’s success or mine.
So measure not by money or fame, but in influence on human flourishing. And of course, that is impossible to measure. Which is precisely my point.