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.