writing, Charitable Writing, words, Wheaton College

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You’re, Like, a Writer 

At work and at play. So write into virtue.

Even if you're not scribbling up a Moleskin over coffee, probably the main thing you do for work is write. Do it better — and to make yourself better.

You are a writer. In fact, you are probably a professional one. If you stop to think about it, you’ll realize that writing is one of the regular activities that your job entails.

Whether it’s jotting notes, composing messages to colleagues and clients, drafting proposals, filing reports, or assembling presentations, we write our way through the workday. While few of us are novelists, poets, or journalists, many of us do to some degree write for a living. And thanks to the internet, we write when we’re not working as well, continually and even prolifically. At work and at play, we are writers.

You are also a Christian, one who is called to be an “imitator of God” (Eph 5:1). How is all of this writing that you’re doing serving that purpose? For most of us, the answer is probably not much, at least in circumstances where we aren’t speaking explicitly as Christians. That was certainly the case for the two of us. After teaching at a Christian liberal arts college for a few years, we had the unsettling realization that not only how we taught writing but also our own approaches to writing were woefully thin on spiritual practice. We prayed to start our writing classes, and we prayed to start our writing sessions, but from that point forward, we were going it alone. 

Thus began a collaborative exploration of how Christians in the past understood the relationship between the writing life and the spiritual life. Our key discovery was that for many Christians in earlier periods, writing was inescapably bound up with spiritual formation. In other words, not just what they were writing about mattered, but how they went about the task of writing mattered. What our spiritual ancestors realized is that the act of writing could be an opportunity to grow in the virtues that Scripture teaches, such as patience, generosity, hope, and love. Much more is at stake when we write, we came to see, than just getting our point across. Growing in writing and growing in virtue go hand in hand.

When we’ve shared this message with friends and students, our listeners’ first response has usually been smiles and nods. It sounds so lovely, doesn’t it? But quickly the scope of our argument sets in, and the questions begin: Do you really mean that all of my writing needs to reflect my Christian faith? What’s this got to do with my lab report? My email to my boss? My hilarious tweet? Here, we double down: All of our writing indeed presents occasions for growing into the virtues, for all of our writing entails connecting with those whom Christ calls us to love — our neighbors.

This may, we recognize, sound like a daunting task. And indeed we’ve concluded that it’s impossible to accomplish all at once and all by ourselves. Thankfully, the Christian life was never imagined as a one-time, pass-fail assignment. It’s not something that you complete on your own. 

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Christian tradition has long taught that God would be present in all of our undertakings, however mundane or sublime.

Likewise, writing is an activity we may undertake with the help of the saints, living and dead. Our Christian traditions and communities abound with able guides who stand at the ready to model for us what it means to write into virtue. Some are the local “servants of the word” (Luke 1:2) — the teachers, pastors, mentors, and friends — whose writing (or counsel on writing) you revere. Others wait patiently for us on the walls of churches and art galleries, in the books of authors ancient and modern, in theologies and spiritual devotions, and above all in the words of Scripture. As we go about our daily writing duties, keeping such examples of virtue in view may do us good.

 Writing this way often takes more time, but the benefits are worth it, in spite of the busyness we all face. In fact, we want to extol the virtues of what Louise DeSalvo refers to as “slow writing.” We have a particular sense of “slow” in mind here, and it is neither “slow” in the sense of plodding along as if time didn’t matter, nor is it “slow” in the sense of a perfectionist crawl. Rather, slow writing involves multistep procedures that play out according to rhythms of activity, contemplation, and rest. Such rhythms make room for the practices that good writing often requires: prewriting, drafting, sending writing out for feedback, and making revisions. However — and just as importantly for our purposes — slowing down in such ways creates opportunities for us to listen and respond to our neighbors, and vice versa. Slow writing lets others join in. 

But slow writing includes more than just our friends, peers, colleagues, and mentors — more than the neighbors of our writing communities. Slow writing also includes God. That may sound more than a little pretentious, we know. Yet the Christian tradition has long taught that God would be present in all of our undertakings, however mundane or sublime. 

In Liturgy of the Ordinary, Tish Harrison Warren argues that the “grand, sweeping truths” of Christianity — the stuff of “doctrine, theology, ecclesiology, Christology” — can and should shape how we live the average day. We are proposing that the lesson applies to our writing lives as well. All of your writing, however mundane, represents an opportunity to cultivate the virtues that Scripture enjoins. Indeed, the more mundane the better, for one of our tradition’s “grandest” truths is that the ordinary parts of our day are in fact charged with meaning, purpose, possibility. You don’t need to be writing a sermon to write as a Christian. A memo will do, as will an email, a birthday card, or a tweet. 

We are all writers now, many of us professional writers in one way or another. Our proposal is that we can also be Christian ones.

Essay by Richard Hughes Gibson and James Edward Beitler III.
This piece contains material adapted from the book Charitable Writing: Cultivating Virtue Through Our Words by Richard Hughes Gibson and James Edward Beitler III. Copyright 2020 by Richard Hughes Gibson and James Edward Beitler III. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press.

Slow writing involves multistep procedures that play out according to rhythms of activity, contemplation, and rest. Such rhythms make room for the practices that good writing often requires: prewriting, drafting, sending writing out for feedback, and making revisions.

This story is from Common Good issue
07.
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