When Your Calling and the Market Collide – by John Backman

I am writing a book on self-denial.

Go ahead, laugh it up. I do. In Brian’s recent interview, Susan Salley of Abingdon Press asked us to consider why someone would pick up our book. Can you imagine someone picking up a book with self-denial in the title? Me neither.

And yet, in the depths of my deepest self, there’s a decided push to see the project through. The push has all the earmarks of—to use an unfashionable word—a calling.

This dilemma, I suspect, comes with the territory of spiritual writing. There’s what the market wants: what will sell, what readers will read, what will grow our platforms and our careers. And then there’s what God (the Universe, the One, Ultimate Reality, etc.) is asking us to do. Unless we meet the market, our writing goes nowhere; unless we follow the divine nudge, we go nowhere.

Can you do both? What happens when you can’t?

The obvious solution is to find the place where your calling and your market meet. That’s good advice on many fronts, and there are usually several ways to connect the two. Maybe, for instance, you recast your language for broader appeal without sacrificing the integrity of your message. Maybe you hone your definition of market.

With the self-denial book, I’ve had to do both. Since the title couldn’t include self-denial, I’m using the term giving your life away, which is actually more precise and maybe a shade more palatable. As to market, most readers will turn off at any whiff of self-denial, but you know who may not? Catholics. Self-denial, especially in service to others, is part of the Catholic tradition.

But this isn’t just about one book. The tension between calling and market can extend to every corner of our spiritual writing. Consider:

  • What if your calling lands you in a tiny market segment, writing books that a few people find life-changing but many others ignore?
  • What if your spiritual practice calls you to model a slower, more reflective way of life even as the blogosphere demands you post weekly? (It’s why contemplatives make lousy bloggers—well, this contemplative anyway.)
  • If your writing touches on current events, how do you fill your blog with deep spiritual insight into the news of the day when that insight can take weeks to develop?
  • What happens when your heart prompts you to write about wildly divergent topics, yet a clearer focus to your writing would strengthen your brand?
  • What if you must speak some hard truths into the world even though half your readership won’t appreciate it?

Here too there are workarounds. In terms of social media frequency, for instance, Brian has mentioned building an inventory of tweets and blog posts to maintain a regular publishing schedule. But sometimes the workarounds don’t quite work, and we are left with the tension.

The bright spot, perhaps, is that we spiritual folks are good at living in tension. We know that sometimes tension spawns insights we never would have expected. Those insights can eventually make our writing—and our lives—richer.

So maybe we use the workarounds, but don’t default to them too fast. Maybe we live with the tension until the tension yields something. What about you? Have you experienced the tension? How do you live with it, or into it?



About the Author

A spiritual director, contributor to Huffington Post Religion, and associate of an Episcopal monastery, John Backman writes and speaks about contemplative spirituality and its surprising relevance for today’s deepest issues. He authored Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths) and his articles have appeared in numerous faith-based publications. He has presented at a range of conferences, including the Parliament of the World’s Religions.


Writing in Life’s Storms – by Patricia Raybon

My husband is probably sick, but I’m writing a book proposal. Not despite him being probably sick. But because he is probably sick. It doesn’t make total sense. But I keep on writing. I’m supposed to be at a writing conference in Michigan—supposed to be teaching there now.

Instead, we’re going to doctors. We’ve scheduled an MRI. It got unscheduled. We scheduled it a second time. It got unscheduled again. We scheduled it a third time–because my husband is probably sick. So while we wait for tests to tell us, either way, I sit down and write. Just like I’m writing now.

And that’s the point. Writers write not because the moment is perfect. We write because it isn’t. Learning that changes everything.

I wasn’t thinking of such when I sat down to write this week. I’d spent months thinking about a book proposal idea. I never could find time to work on it. Or so I told myself.

Then a writing friend mentioned she’d come back from four days at her family cabin, “just writing. No phone. No TV. Just me and the dog and the computer.”

Hearing that, I actually got despondent, feeling writer envy of someone who has time to write and a getaway to write it in. Then something switched.

Reading a book by one of the ancients—in this case, Brother Lawrence of France—I decided, on a whim, to see when his book was written. During a writing retreat? At a writing conference? At a family cabin without cell phone service or interruptions? No.

His book was written while France burned. Or at least while France seethed. Assassination. Treachery. War. During the 1600s, when the absolutist, power-hungry and young King Louis XIII seized control, grieving the French soul and soil, Brother Lawrence wrote. He wrote anyway.

So did the Apostle Paul. He wrote despite persecution, chains, evil emperors—all targeting Christians as “superstitious” heretics. Yet he wrote. Dictating. Composing. Inspiring. And his epistles today are still treasured by believers.

Thus, writers write. We write anyway. Therefore, Shakespeare wrote—anyway. Mozart composed—anyway. Emily Dickinson scribed—anyway. Phillis Wheatley , the first African American poet to be published, rhymed—anyway. Despite being stolen into slavery from West Africa at age 7, and taken to Boston in 1761—an era when black slaves were forbidden by violence to learn to read or write—she was taught the craft. Anyway. So she wrote.

The purpose of art, and the making of it, said Pablo Picasso, “is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”

At the same time, said Doris Lessing, “I think a writer’s job is to provoke questions. I like to think that if someone’s read a book of mine, they’ve had—I don’t know what—the literary equivalent of a shower. Something that would start them thinking in a slightly different way, perhaps. That’s what I think writers are for.”

We’re probably weakest, in fact, when we’re writing about perfect moments—always so rare for most of humanity. But let the thunder roll, the clouds gather, the rains drown out hopes and hearts, and then, our writing matters.

Today, as political fear mongers dump on news journalists—even beating them up in public—political writing hasn’t stopped. Some argue it’s stronger and better.

George Orwell, author of the classic novel 1984, explained: “When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”

The lightning is flashing, in other words, and people are explaining the reasons why. In those times, then we writers write. Then we teachers teach. Then we artists paint. Then we dancers dance. Then we composers make music. Then we sculptors sculpt. Indeed, then we doctors heal.

Words are medicine, for sure. And my husband? Doctors are still at it. Still eliminating possible problems. Still searching for solutions. Still poking and prodding, looking for their medical answers. But he’s not waiting on them. He bought himself a cane and he’s out walking. Anyway.

I walk with him. Then I come back and write. One book proposal? Actually, I wrote two. My agent likes both of them. I’m believing one or both will get published.

Meantime, I go to my desk to write. Just as you. Then let storm clouds roil and downpours fall. Our writing is seed. May God bless it to grow. Anyway. And always. Even now.

Patricia Raybon is an award-winning author of books and essays on bridge-building grace and faith.

©2017 by Patricia Raybon


Understanding Why People Share Content

Understanding why people choose to share content sheds light on how you can adjust your strategy and carve out a competitive edge by embedding shareability into everything you create. Think about content you recently shared. Why did you do it? Do any of these reasons ring true?

  • It made you look cooler, smarter, funnier, or more relevant—providing you with a personal psychological benefit.
  • The content struck some strong emotional chord. It made you laugh, cry, or otherwise feel something so profound it deserved to be shared with others.
  • It’s practical or timely. Sharing the content will help and inform your friends.
  • You found a new idea and can’t wait to be the first to share it.
  • You feel deeply connected to the author and you want to support them.
  • It represents an achievement. Maybe you or your company were mentioned in the content and it makes you feel good to show this representation of your status.

– from “The Content Code” by Mark Schaefer

Exercises for a Writer’s Formation

Name Your Gifts

For the next five minutes, write about what gave you joy as a child. Write quickly without analyzing or editing.

Take another five minutes and describe the most glorious or satisfying event of your high school life.

Try to remember the last time you were involved with a project that so captivated your attention that you lost track of time. What were you doing?

If five people closest to you-whether friends or family-were to tell you honestly what good things you have brought to their lives, what qualities or gifts would they list?


– from “The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life” by Vinita Hampton Wright Loyola Press

Sarah Arthur’s Top Ten Tips for Getting it Done

– by Sarah Arthur

Q1: What is that one thing you must start/finish/work on? (Or, to put it in graphic terms, if you were to die in an epic car crash this afternoon, what would you regret never having finished?)

Q2: What’s keeping you from getting it done?


I’m not naturally inclined toward getting my writing done. So what I’m presenting comes after fifteen years in this business. We are fully competent adults at getting things done in other areas of our lives (e.g., running errands, mowing the lawn, parenting, ministry), and yet writing is this BIG MYTHIC THING that paralyzes many of us. We assume that inspiration will strike, and that’s when we’ll write. But most of the time, writing doesn’t just happen. As Anne Lamott says, it’s “a debt of honor” that either we keep by getting our butts in the chair, or we don’t. (Here’s a great interview with Anne Lamott about this and other aspects of writing.) In short, most of the things that keep us from sitting down to write are internal, not external. With that in mind, here are

Sarah’s Top Ten Tips for Getting it Done:

1. Prioritize your writing as more than just a hobby. If you can’t shake this project, it’s probably because you are being called to write it; and if you’re being called then it’s worthy work: it’s a job. If you think of it as a “job,” budget your time and finances accordingly.

2. Set aside designated writing time / make an appointment with yourself. If you have a dentist’s appointment, do you go? In my family this takes serious heroics (dentist’s appointments and writing) especially regarding childcare, but we make it happen because it’s important. It’s my calling, my job.

3. Accountability. Tell your loved ones & friends what you’re doing. Your goal is to have at least two people ask you in the next few months “How is the writing going?” Join a class or a writer’s group (even if it’s virtual). Or, like I do, meet with a friend for a writing date once a month: the goal is not to read & critique each other’s work, but to put your butts in the chair and to know that you’ve written nonstop for two hours at least once this month. Since your friend is counting on you, you’re more likely to show up.

4. Think in small chunks. If you have it in your head that you are WRITING A BOOK it can be overwhelming. Instead, give yourself word counts or page goals or sections, and don’t feel like you have to complete one thing before you can chronologically move on to the next thing. One small bit at a time.

5. Think like a binder or a scrapbook, not like a finished book. Yet. Here’s where it gets real for me: I write in Scrivener, which operates on a binder concept; but you also could create an actual 3-ring binder for your project. That way you can move material around, write non-chronologically, tackle the Acknowledgements if you’re stuck on something else (invent people to thank, if you have to), and not get hopelessly lost in endless word processing documents that are impossible to navigate.

6. Set deadlines. Even if they’re arbitrary, based on personal benchmarks (e.g., “I want to have this drafted by the time I’m ____” or “by the next writing conference.”), deadlines are super motivating. Especially if money or treats are involved.

7. Hold your work loosely. No combination of words should have the power to bind you–not even your own words. If you can’t “kill your darlings,” do what I do, which is give them a Time Out (lift that tricky paragraph or episode or story into a separate section of your binder, or into another document). And then move on to the next thing. You can always come back to that material later if you think you might need it. (You won’t, but it can be comforting to think it’s still there if you might.)

8. Think outside the desk. Changing where you write might be the break-through that you need (a coffee shop, a different location of your house, the kitchen table, your bed, someone’s cabin). Frederick Buechner wrote for a season in a Sunday school classroom of a church. I once finished a manuscript by escaping to a friend’s guest house for a week. Another author I know takes her fifth wheel to a campground and drafts her next novel in 1-2 weeks. ONE-TO-TWO WEEKS. Okay, ignore the insanity of that timeline and focus on the campground, where no one cares if you’re antisocial, as long as you silence your dog (my advice: don’t bring your dog); and everyone, not just the novelist, looks like they haven’t showered. Also, give yourself permission to take a break from the work: do something else entirely, something mundane, like fold the laundry. Your subconscious is still working, and sometimes you might have a breakthrough while you’re not working on the work you’re supposed to be working on.

9. Write as if you’re someone else. At heart, writing is not about expressing yourself (mucho bad writing has entered the blogosphere with that in mind); it’s about forgetting yourself. Maybe I’m weird, but when I pretend I’m someone famous (like Anne Lamott or Maya Angelou or Frederick Buechner or C. S. Lewis) my words are suddenly competent or funny or eloquent or articulate. If we write like the “masters” of our craft, eventually we can begin to improvise on their style and develop our own. But this takes time–and it takes reading many voices, reading all the time. Oh, and one slightly embarrassing side note: often when I edit, I read the manuscript out loud with a British accent. Yup. Amazing how intelligent your words can sound–and how obvious those moments of bad grammar can be–when it’s Hermione Granger saying them.

10. Give yourself permission to pick the low-hanging fruit while it’s ripe. Sometimes–rarely, but sometimes–inspiration will strike, and you have to write while it’s pouring out of you. So do what you need to do: take personal days or sick days, eat the awful snacks that keep you going, stay up till 4 in the morning, whatever it takes. The farmer doesn’t apologize when the strawberries are in, right? So harvest that stuff. Right. Now.

How about you? What’s your top ten list for getting it done?


Winning in the Face of Information Overload

– from “The Content Code” by Mark Schaefer


Let’s take a look at how a content ignition strategy can work in even the most desperate marketing situations. I was asked to provide a marketing strategy for a client in an extraordinarily difficult situation. The well-known global brand was entering a new market with high content saturation dominated by three established competitors. In terms of content marketing, one leading competitor had dominated every platform, every subject, and every content style to the point where trying to compete seemed hopeless.

The client called me in to do content marketing triage, and after a few months of intense research and deliberation, I presented three tactics to provide this company some room to maneuver.

  1. Focus on sub-categories.

The competitor had overlooked new demographic subsets who were coming into the market and eager to use their products. When I did research on these segments, I found a wide open opportunity. The competitor had no content targeted to these personas. We set about dominating the under-served channels with amazing new content served up especially for them.

  1. Explore different types of content.

YouTube first floated the idea that different types of content, when combined together in an ideal mix, are extremely successful in building an engaged audience for the long-term. The three types of content are:

  • Hygiene content: This is the content that serves the daily health of your audience. This content makes them aware of your brand and helps them connect to you when they need you most. This is the specific, short-form content that is most likely to turn up in organic search results. An example of hygiene content is a series of how-to videos from a do-it-yourself store like Home Depot.
  • Hub content: While hygiene content might get somebody to your site, hub content is intended to keep them there. This could be a series of articles about a more in-depth topic, or perhaps a serialized story, that makes people want to go down the rabbit hole and stay on your site. This could also be “evergreen” content that people seem to love and read month after month. An example of hub content is the addictive and thrilling adventure videos produced by Adidas Outdoor featuring daredevil athletes using their gear. Hub content lifts subscriptions to your content, spurs engagement, builds brand interest, and may even lead to brand loyalty.
  • Hero content: Hero content is something brilliant, dramatic, and bold that transcends the normal day-today Internet offerings. This is the content that creates viral buzz. A famous example is the epic videos Nike created to celebrate the World Cup. The most recent one, “Winner Stays,” playfully captures the schoolyard fantasy of young soccer players who morph into their favorite global stars. This type of content is difficult to produce. Nike was intentional in spending millions to create this hero content with the goal of creating massive brand awareness and dominating the conversation around the world’s biggest sporting event. The video received 100 million views.

It’s important to understand that each type of content plays a role in the overall brand-building plan. One way to carve a place for yourself is to create content in a category your competitors might be missing. In the specific case of my client battling three big competitors, we learned that there was an opening in the hygiene content category that would allow us to capture a niche that leads to search engine traffic.

  1. Focus on social transmission.

Here’s the mistake most companies make: They check the box on content and then forget about ignition. Content isn’t effective if it doesn’t move. People have to see it, engage with it, share it—or you’re wasting your money. By putting the emphasis on exposing your content instead of simply producing more, more, more, you create a powerful new marketing competency in the information era.


– from “The Content Code” by Mark Schaefer

Life Itself Has a Plot

– by Frederick Buechner


The alphabet of grace is full of sibilants-sounds that can’t be shouted but only whispered: the sounds of bumblebees and wind and lovers in the dark, of whitecaps hissing up flat over the glittering sand and cars on wet roads, of crowds hushed in vast and vaulted places, the sound of your own breathing. I believe that in sibilants life is trying to tell us something. The trees, ghosts, dreams, faces, the waking up and eating and working of life, are trying to tell us something, to take us somewhere. If this is above all a Christ-making universe, then the place where we are being taken is the place where the silk purse is finally made out of the sow’s ear, and the word that life is trying to speak to us is that little by little, squealing and snuffling all the way, a pig either starts turning into at least the first primal, porcine version of a hero, or else is put out of his piggish misery. At the heart of reality-who would have guessed it?-there is a room for dying and being born again.


How do I happen to believe in God? I will give one more answer which can be stated briefly. Writing novels, I got into the habit of looking for plots. After awhile, I began to suspect that my own life had a plot. And after awhile more, I began to suspect that life itself has a plot.


– from The Alphabet of Grace

The Writer in Me

by Maya Gaines


When I was a young girl my grandmother Anna Delores Freeman would often take time to talk to me about life. My grandma was a very sweet woman who believed in pointing out the good in everyone. She was the type of woman who would not only give her last to help others but would also borrow from what ever you had just to make sure that a need didn’t go unmet. Her generosity was inspired by her love for Jesus Christ. Her talks were so powerful and profound that even someone with the lowest self-esteem could walk away from a conversation with Mother Freeman feeling like the most valuable person in the room. Seeing her example inspired me to want to be the best person that I could be.

She had this way of encouraging and disciplining me all at the same time. She would say to me “Stay sweet in your soul baby. Stay sweet in your soul.” Most times when I heard these words it was because my conversation and actions were not in line with what I was being taught. I didn’t realize it then, but she was like a Shepherd taking her staff and guiding me her little lost sheep safely back to green pastures.

At the age of fifteen I became pregnant with my oldest son. At that time there was a lot of fear and concern that I would end up quitting school if I were to go through with the pregnancy. I was a freshman in high school with at least a 3.0 G.PA and was taking all college prep classes. My mother was devastated she couldn’t imagine her youngest baby having a baby. I was terrified I couldn’t bear the thought of taking the life of another human being. I came up with this plan I would go to my grandma because I knew that she would never approve of this decision to end the life of an unborn child.

To my surprise she didn’t respond quite the way I thought she didn’t start a war with my parents and come to my defense. Instead she upheld her beliefs with a spirit of peace. She corrected me in a way that she hadn’t before. She said may we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly Not she said God forbid it. In that moment she taught me that you don’t cover sin with more sin. She held me accountable for my actions and covered me with an unconditional love while restoring me through prayer.

Although my grandma had made it very clear that abortion wasn’t nor should it had ever been an option. She still didn’t have the final say. I will never forget the instructions I was given at the clinic. They said make sure that you do not eat anything after midnight if you do you could die during the procedure. An appointment was scheduled for me to come back first thing the next morning. I didn’t sleep at all that night. Around 6am I ate me some breakfast and then went back to my room and laid down.

I told myself that if my mother wouldn’t allow me to have my child then she would also know what it was like to lose a child. I grabbed my stomach and told my unborn child that I wasn’t going to let him leave here alone. I almost didn’t have my son and if it weren’t for what I now believe to have been an angel I probably wouldn’t be here today. While I was lying on the table saying what I thought would be my last prayer. The nurse looked at me and said why are you here. I believe I started crying that’s when she told me to get up and get dressed. She escorted me back to my mother and we left. This wasn’t the first time I had attempted to end my life, but after that day I knew that surely God had to have a purpose and plan for me.

There were a lot of things from my childhood that I was warned not to talk about when I was growing up. What I couldn’t say I wrote down in diaries and in poems. Although I knew that I didn’t have the power to go back and change the past I thought that maybe I would be able to write me a better future. Life for me became much like a script being acted out by a bunch of characters. Growing up I wasn’t very good at handling sad situations. I found them to be awkward because I never knew the write words to say, so I would write letters to express my thoughts with the hope that something I wrote would make someone feel better.

It was in high school that I really begin to see how my passion for writing was helping others. I would have friends come to me after reading something that I had written and ask me how I knew what they were thinking or how they were feeling. The truth is I didn’t know I was just writing what was in my heart at that time. I didn’t realize at the time that I was already being used by God as an instrument of healing for many of my hurting peers.

I know what it’s like to feel pain that can’t always be expressed out loud. I know what it is to want to cry out but for the sake of not wanting to be judged, misunderstood or even worse blamed you remain silent, trapped by your own opinion of how others may react. Because of the example of my parents who supported and stood by me I also know firsthand what God’s grace and mercy looks like. I write because writing for me is freedom. It’s that powerful voice that speaks for us when we have no words to say.



What Does the Writing Life Require? Hard Work and Patience.

Ten years ago, I was a secretary.

I sat at a desk all day and smiled, welcomed visitors, and answered questions. The work was not mentally difficult. It was both big-picture and detail-orientated, visionary and practical. I learned transferrable skills—like programming, planning, logistics, and finance. I had supportive supervisors and worked amid a loving and good community with an important mission. But every afternoon, I snuck away from my desk to cry.

I had a job. I had insurance. I worked with amazing colleagues. What was wrong with me?

I didn’t want to be a secretary; I wanted to be a writer.

I knew how I’d gotten to that desk. After earning two prestigious degrees and landing a post-divinity school clinical pastoral education residency, I’d served as a hospital chaplain for twelve months. Neck-deep in secondary trauma, I had carried patients’ stories—their lives and deaths. After a year of swimming through other people’s crises, I needed steady ground.  So, when my alma mater posted an opening for a desk job, I leapt at the opportunity.

But nearly a month in, the comfort of a stable nine-to-five job turned into a daily existential crisis: What was I doing here? What was my purpose? Why was I not doing what I really wanted to do with my life?

I’ve known that I wanted to be a writer since I could hold a pencil. I was too young to form complete sentences, but I longed to create beauty. Between childhood and adulthood, those creative dreams dissolved into worries about what was employable. I knew I needed to attend college, major in something useful, graduate, and earn a salary.

Being a writer, I’d been told, was not a realistic career path. So I’d opted for safety—and, therefore, misery. Then, a candid professor and mentor encouraged me to turn my tears into work. She urged me to embrace my boring, stable desk job as an opportunity to use my mornings, evenings, and weekends to build my next life.

I bought a composition notebook and wrote, “J. Dana Trent, Freelance Writer,” on the cover. When I wasn’t at my desk job, I spent hours at bookstores, studiously scribbling notes on those pages from Writer’s Market. I studied genres, publishers, agents, and outlets. I pored over acknowledgments to glean where authors had been and how they’d made their way. I wanted to follow their bread-crumb trails. I quit being shy. I reached out to people who were doing what I wanted to do. I bought them coffee and sought their wisdom. Slowly the next steps emerged.

With help from that tribe of mentors, I landed two short articles in my school’s magazine. I hustled; I wrote book reviews and attended book launch parties. Though my path was long and winding, it brought me here: I’m now the author of three books, with a fourth coming out in late 2019.

Scholars say that it takes 10,000 hours to master a craft or roughly ten years of “practicing” something—perhaps as a hobby, gig, or passion project.

“Patience is a virtue,” my mother used to say. “Patience is a requirement,” I now add.

Ten years ago, I was a secretary. Now, I’m a writer.


The Rev. J. Dana Trent is a graduate of Duke Divinity School and professor of World Religions and Critical Thinking at Wake Tech Community College. An ordained Baptist minister and former hospital chaplain, she has been featured on Time.comReligion News Service, Religion Dispatches, as well as in Sojourners and The Christian Century. Her fourth book, Dessert First: Beginning with the End in Mind, releases in September 2019 from Chalice Press. It chronicles lessons on life, death, and grief from the bedsides of the dying, including her mother. Dessert First illumines what dying teaches us about living.

Dana is also the award-winning author of books on wholistic wellness and multi-faith spiritual practices: One Breath at a Time: A Skeptic’s Guide to Christian Meditation, For Sabbath’s Sake: Embracing Your Need for Rest, Worship, and Community, and Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk. She is a certified group fitness instructor and teaches for the YMCA. She and her husband, Fred, are longtime vegetarians and live in Raleigh, NC, with their orange tabby cat.


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