Writing: Not On The Side

Writing: Not On The Side April 2, 2018

If I’ve been asked this once, I’ve been asked it 500 times: “How do you do it?” And by that my questioners want to know how I have time to teach, write books, take care of this blog, and speak on occasions. I’ve given all kinds of answers — our kids and grown and gone; I’ve been at it for 30 years; it’s fun. Now that I’ve read James Vanoosting’s essay in And the Flesh Became Words, “And Be a Writer — On the Side,” I’ve got another answer:

I don’t write “on the side.” Many take up careers, most often as professors or sometimes editors or pastors, with the plan to write “on the side.” Most editors I know struggle, once they become editors, to write on the side. Not enough time, and the best hours of the day already consumed. And most pastors don’t have time, nor the practice, to write on the side. What might surprise many of you is that the vast majority of professors also don’t write “on the side.” Why?

My explanation is simple: writing can’t be done on the side because, as James Vanoosting says it, “Writing is not pedagogy but an epistemology” (160).

In other words, writing is a lifestyle, a way of life, a way of being, a modus operandi, a way of breathing and eating and drinking. Better yet, writing is a way of learning, a way of coming to know what someone wants to know, a way of discovering.

Writing is not something to do when everything else is cleared off the desk; no, it is something that makes order of the desk. I don’t get up wondering what I will write about, but I write about what I’m wondering. (That’s almost Chestertonian.) In other words, as Augustine spoke of “faith seeking understanding,” so writing is a pen seeking understanding.

Some write about what they already know; those books show up as textbooks. Others write about what they don’t know; those books show up as suggestions, innovations, explorations, experiments, and — here’s the joy — possibly really interesting. FF Bruce wrote about what he knew; Jimmy Dunn writes about what he doesn’t know. That is why the former’s books are standard and solid, and the latter’s suggestive and provocative.

Now back to the “on the side” bit. If a person wants to write, nearly always it has to be a way of life. Some do manage to write on the side, but the vast majority write every day, all the time, and they begin the day in the mind wondering how best to express a thought.

The biggest mistake I see in young professors is the (almost always) mistaken notion that they will write during the summer break full-time or they’ll wait until the Chrstmas break or over the Spring Break. No analogies work completely, but to me that is about like saying, “I’ll not train all year long, and try running competitively over break.” Like running, writing is something that takes constant practice.

And here’s the second mistake I often see: some think they can begin a writing career by writing a book. Instead, it is easier to begin by writing book reviews, magazine articles, and journal articles. It might be easier even yet to begin with a blog — but only if you can add to it daily, or at least five times a week. (Otherwise, no one will read you.) In other words, begin small — writing small pieces so that a daily habit, or a weekly habit, is built. Over time, it can become a genuine habit.

When you look at writers, it is wise to remember that most of us/them began small, and over time the daily routine of writing became a habit. That habit is what you now see; it didn’t spring up one summer break into a full-blown habit.

In other words, writing isn’t done on the side. It’s in the soul, it’s a way of being, and it’s not for everyone. It’s a scribbler’s itch to get it down.

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