On Writing, Reading, and Seeking Direction

I feel I owe regular readers of this blog an apology…or at minimum, an explanation. Save for a passionate and far-too-long-to-be-seemly post about homework in my children’s elementary school, I haven’t written much in about 10 days. Some fine questions in the comments section about my post on gender selection remain unanswered. I have always compared blogging to inviting people, including random strangers, into my living room for conversation, and have always promised that, as a good hostess, I would respond. And would also keep the conversation going. I have been a poor hostess this last week or so.

There’s much beyond, and below, my relative silence. A puppy getting spayed and needing more attention than usual. A daughter finally getting the go-ahead for some much-needed dental surgery, and all of the scheduling and pre-op work that comes with that. A speaking engagement at a gorgeous old stone church in Fairfield County. The usual stuff of family life.

But more than busy-ness, there has been a questioning. A vocational questioning. To put it simply, I got to a place in which I longed to have a job in which people care whether I show up to work or not.

I was born to write, I’ve been called to write, I cannot NOT write. I know these things. But the reality of the writing life is not an easy one. It certainly isn’t a lucrative one, although money has never been why I wanted to be a writer anyway. I can live without earning much by my words. But I do long for readers, recognition, to be considered successful. The hard part about being a writer, of course, is that short of becoming one of the handful of authors who always make the best-seller list, success comes in fits and starts—with much dead silence in between. You get a great book review and feel amazing, and then take a peek at your blog stats and feel like crap. My friend and book editor, who is a fine writer in her own right, told me that it never gets easier, this writing for a living. Never. Her latest book has been her most successful, making a number of “best of” lists and leading to invitations to speak in some relatively high-profile places. Still, she says, it never stops being hard.

The past few weeks have seen the publication of a number of lists, of influential bloggers, influential women, influential writers. I never expected to make such lists. And yet, seeing others—colleagues and friends—make those lists has also been difficult. It has made me realize how far I am, still, from the career I hoped to have when I started blogging and book-writing three years ago. And then, in the aftermath of those lists, when writer after writer said, “We shouldn’t be working for acclaim, we should be working for God alone, and because we love it,” I felt guilty for wanting the acclaim and attention that many friends and colleagues and acquaintances have attained.

Then two upstart, outspoken Rachels (both of whom I think highly of, and one of whom is my close friend) held up their hands and said, “Wait. Just wait a minute.” Of course we long for success and acclaim and recognition. That’s what people do. And hey, why is the advice to work for God alone and not worry about getting recognition so often aimed at women anyway? Women can be ambitious too.

I felt better. And I called a halt to my very short-lived hunt for a part-time job that would come with a paycheck and the reassurance that, if I didn’t show up for work, someone would notice. Daniel and I decided that, even if I found a job that only required my attention during school hours, my being home during the day, able to attend to pets and groceries and chores and sick children, makes our family life run more smoothly.

So I decided I’ll keep blogging after all, knowing that sometimes what I write strikes a chord, and sometimes it doesn’t, and that’s okay. I also have the germ of an idea for a new book, expanding on the ideas in this blog post.

Mostly, though, I’ve been reading, which is what I do when I feel unmoored, uncertain, tired, frustrated. I’ve read Gone Girl (creepy and attention-sucking, with an unsatisfactory ending), The Light Between Oceans (lovely, sad, true), a whole mess of histories of Tudor England, and right now Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by my friend Matt Dicks.

The Christian Century just posted a wonderful article about reading fiction as spiritual discipline. For me, it is just that. More than prayer or worship, reading is where I turn to feel grounded, to seek both the most important questions and some of their answers, for solace and camaraderie and challenge. The article quotes James Baldwin, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

I’ll be back to regular blogging next week. I’ll answer those remaining questions in the comment thread about gender selection as best I can. I’ll keep writing, I’ll keep reading, and see where I end up.




How Much is Too Much for Holiday Giving to Kids?
Let’s Stop Bashing These Christmas Traditions
I Have Three Things to Say About “The Dress”
Why Even the Smallest Good Work is Worth Doing
About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Dave

    > I feel I owe regular readers of this blog an apology…

    As a recent reader of your blog, I’m kind of relieved you took a break. Now I don’t have to feel horribly inadequate that I would have burned out when my kids were the ages of yours if I had tried to juggle everything that you do.

    > But I do long for readers, recognition, to be considered successful.

    I just bought a copy of your book for my Kindle. :)

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      Thank you Dave. Your comments are a never-ending and welcome surprise.

  • http://Www.kewp.blogspot.com Katherine Willis Pershey

    This resonates with me so very much. Grateful for your work here, Ellen!

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      And I for yours. Your Mumford post about your sister was amazing. I should have said that I’ve also been listening to Mumford nonstop, at high volume.

  • RuQu

    It is easy and natural to be jealous when we see others receive something we have worked towards, such as a recognition, promotion, or job. It is helpful to remember two things:

    1) Your quality and achievement is independent of outside recognition. You could write and hide all of your manuscripts in the closet, never to be read, and their quality, for good or bad, would be unchanged for having never been read. Likewise, the quality of your work is independent of whether you or your neighbor is given that one promotion.

    2) Honors, recognition, and/or selection of someone else is not a rejection of you, it is a selection of them. In the case of lists of “10 most X people who do Y,” it merely highlights 10 people who the author was aware of in the field. Their research is rarely exhaustive, and many readers often say “you forgot so-and-so, who is clearly better than #4!” In the case of promotions at work, neither you nor the person/group making the selection has perfect knowledge. Maybe they really are more qualified. Maybe your boss just didn’t know that they weren’t. Maybe your boss knows there is an opening for something you would be better at coming in 3 months. Or, especially in the job process, you were roughly equal to a number of other applicants and it was merely chance that they picked someone else.

    It’s also probably worth keeping the above in mind when you ARE the one selected, to aid in maintaining humility.

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      Thank you Russell. Much wisdom in there…

  • KSP

    Thanks for your honesty and vulnerability here, Ellen. For my own perspective, I keep in my files an email I sent to a friend on 12/29/2005 in which I tell her about a book proposal I plan to write in the next year. That book, my first, will be published next month, 7 years later. That’s supposed to be encouraging. :)

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      It is encouraging. And by the way, if you’re looking for bloggers to review your book and shout from the rooftops how AWESOME it is (because I know you, and the topic, well enough to know it will be AWESOME), please put me on that list!

  • casey

    Every once in a while I get a jolt when some one I know very well gets some fairly public recognition. The most recent of these was my brother being named in a public transportation trade magazine on their list of the top 40 Under 40 up and coming professionals, but in some ways that was easier than the guy I played Ultimate with several years ago being interviewed on a local public radio talk show as the editor of a fantastic resource on presidential debates.

  • Marlena


    As I always say…you are terrifically wise and and a most excellent writer. I share the frustration for you. I desire that you receive the recognition you deserve for your good work. You’re more astute and write better than many. It was only now that I was able to read your Sojourners post about what Shane and Mother Teresa got wrong. You’re a needed voice. God has places for each one of us in each season. I am glad you are continuing to write and I do hope that you run with that book idea. It’s so yours and so needed.

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com Tim

    Ellen, I don’t think you don’t owe an explanation, but I’m always interested in reading whatever you.have to say. You write important stuff.


  • Pam

    As you know, your voice has been very important to me, esp. in the area of reproductive technology and also in bridging the conservative and mainstream Christian views in this area. It’s kind of niche market but that doesn’t make it unimportant. Maybe it’s even more important for those of us who have felt so ALONE at different points in time? But I also know exactly how you feel, in a more general career sense. Just remember God knows who you are and works with you just where you at and that where you are at right now may be quite different in the future. (Says the woman who half the day with her son getting teeth pulled and then had to rush home and meet a deadline — and so completely identifies with the demands of dentistry.)

  • Dave

    > Mostly, though, I’ve been reading, which is what I do when I feel unmoored, uncertain, tired, frustrated.

    When I’m in that kind of mood, one thing I do for inspiration is listen to comedy. I consider comedy to be sort of “concentrated writing”.

    Relating that somewhat to disabilities, one of my favorites comedians is Josh Blue, who has cerebral palsy. He won the Last Comic Standing competition about 5 years ago. If you haven’t seen him and are ever in the mood for some laughs, there are lots of his videos on YouTube, such as http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qMSrpZi_6WM

    Apparently he’s a favorite of other people with cerebral palsy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U0pdmqdb5Uc

    He also had his own Comedy Central Special: http://www.amazon.com/Josh-Blue/dp/B002IACS82

  • DD Davis

    Just discovered your blog from a friend posting your article about being a Christian Democrat. Looking forward to learning more about you. Bless you. And please keep writing.

  • http://www.ministriesbydesign.org Penelope Swithinbank

    Oh what a relief that you have expressed what others – me especially – actually think and feel! Thank you for this encouragement this morning.

  • J

    I don’t know if you read new comments to older posts, but I just saw this entry and wanted to say I’m so thankful you’ve decided to keep blogging! Your writing resonates with me, and I consider you on my must-read list. Still, when weeks get busy, it’s hard to keep up with the writing I love — and I miss posts like this one. But what I really want to say is I am so excited about your topic for your new book! I feel like the church needs to hear from another perspective, one that doesn’t fit on their one-plan-fits-all diagrams and 10-year-mission statements but is equally valuable and necessary. I love your courage to speak up when others’ sound-bytes sound sound (could I use that word any more in this sentence?) but don’t really add up for everyone. Keep speaking truth, Ellen, and know that you are valued and your are making a difference (even if it’s just to this reader struggling to live her life in a truthful, God-honoring way despite living in this sometimes messed up, often too-outspoken-for-her-tastes world). I appreciate you!

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      I do indeed read comments on old posts. Thank you so much for this. Days like today, when I keep getting thoughtful and wonderful comments, make me wonder why I would ever question writing and blogging. I love writing, but I also love the give and take with thoughtful people who challenge me with their insights. I’m fleshing out the book idea and hope to have something concrete to say about it in the new year. In the meantime, thanks for reading whenever you can. I certainly know how hard it is to keep up with even favorite blogs. I often go weeks without checking in on blogs where I not only love the writing, but where the writer is a friend and colleague. That’s one of the good things about the blogosphere I guess…it’s fairly easy to go back and catch up when you have a moment.

      Thanks again and have a happy Thanksgiving!