Recently someone asked me how I got started with writing and if I could give any advice on how to begin. Here is the bulk of what I wrote in reply, cleaned up a bit for the blog. ~Elizabeth
I will try to answer your questions to the best of my ability. But you should know I don’t make money from writing; it’s all ministry. I don’t know if that affects anything for you.
To answer how I got started in writing: it was an “accident,” almost like a cosmic joke. Seriously though, I never thought of myself as a writer. But when we started the missionary journey, I started writing some in our newsletters. Then when we actually made the move, I would just record funny or crazy culture shock stories, anything that was going on.
By the end of the first year in country I realized not only did writing do something for my soul, I was seeming to connect with people through it. I began to take it seriously and tried to set aside a bit of time each day to do it. Then in that second year I was asked to write an article for our organization’s annual magazine.
At the beginning of our third year in Cambodia Jonathan and I were invited to write for A Life Overseas. Then a year later I was invited to write for Velvet Ashes. So it all just kind of snowballed from the initial recording of daily life here. I do still find it life-giving, especially when I write for my own blog, as there is less internal pressure to “get it right” or to be inspiring. But I also see writing as a ministry of encouragement.
That’s the formal part of my adult writing story, but I can pick out the threads of this tapestry many years into the past. I remember as a young child wanting to be a fiction writer when I grew up. In high school I wanted to be a Christian singer/songwriter, and I tried my hand at writing lyrics. But I don’t think they were any good! At university I served in youth ministry, and for one teen girls’ class I wrote plays about the women we were studying in the Bible. I had so much fun with that, and so did the girls. It’s a pity I lost them!
I never would have considered myself a writer, though I remember emailing silly stories about young motherhood to my best friend when I was a young mom and still lived in the States, and she once told me I was so good at that and how she wished I could use that skill someday. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but it must have been more than a bit prophetic. So I think the writing has always been there inside me in some capacity.
Which brings me to something important: if you are a writer, because that’s who you are and who God made you to be, you will always be a writer. The size of your audience doesn’t affect your identity as a writer. I think that’s massively important, and I borrowed that bit of wisdom from International House of Prayer musician Misty Edwards. So much of what she says about prophetic singing and worship leading applies to writing too, and I’ll type my notes from her onething 2015 breakout session at the end of this note.
For me writing is vocational – “an expression of worship,” just as you said. And I personally try to write out of the healed places in my life, not my current, gaping woundedness. I have definitely gone through un-free seasons, seasons where I was bound by fear of others’ opinions of me, seasons where I really had to seek God about my social anxiety and my need to please others. For the most part now I do feel free of that crippling fear, and it is a wonderful feeling. But of course I long for all of us to be free of competition and comparison, of envy and jealousy and insecurity.
So advice on getting started? Write. Just write. Write what’s on your heart and do NOT think about the audience. The audience comes later. The art comes first. Don’t think about who’s going to read it, don’t think about whether it’s any good. As you practice, you’ll get a feel for which types of writing you enjoy and which types you might be better at than others. You’ll find your distinctive voice.
Later on, make sure you’ve got a good grammar handbook (The Elements of Style is a good one), and make sure your style is following the rules where necessary, only “breaking” the rules on purpose, and also easy for a reader to follow. I am very picky about grammar, spelling, and punctuation (which is how I got the role of editor at A Life Overseas, which I love, but also another accidental job). And the rules of writing are important. Those things kind of reside in my gut now, because I wrote a lot of essays and reports in both high school and college. They are not automatically gut-level, but they can be trained into us.
The other part of style, the overall content and flow, is probably also trainable, but I find it to be gut level too. I like pretty words, and I like pretty paragraphs. I do think there are guidelines for developing those things, but I tend to function by gut anymore, so I might not have great advice on that. I know you can take workshops for that kind of thing in some places. The best advice I have is to read quality writing and literature, and you’ll start to get a feel for good structure and flow.
Then how to go public with it? That I have even less advice on! My writing journey was all accidental. Jonathan bought our blog domain six years ago only as a way to disseminate our newsletters. We never meant for it to take on a life of its own like this. But that meant that from the very beginning I had a place to write, with a few prayer supporters to read it. It grew organically, I guess. And then writing on other bigger blogs helps expand your personal reach and it all becomes one big muddled mess that I can’t tease the particulars out of!
So should you get a blog domain? I don’t know! People nowadays also use Facebook as blogging. You know, the long statuses where people don’t have to leave the Facebook app. Anne Lamott is famous for those. (She’s got some salty language, but her book on writing, Bird by Bird, is an absolutely essential manual.) So you could dip your feet in the waters by sharing your writing, the writing you feel really confident about, in a Facebook status. You might even say you’re just starting out and wanting to share things.
Or you can submit various pieces to various collective blogs (those are usually non-paying) or print magazines or newspapers (which sometimes pay — my best friend is a writer who does that sometimes, but I don’t really know anything about that personally).
Don’t ever forget that some things are just between you and God, and that’s still writing. I’ve got lots and lots of words that never see the light of day. They are just for me and God in the secret place.
In the same vein, just because something is uber-personal and you think it’s just for you and God, don’t assume it’ll never see the light of day. A lot of writers say some of their most impactful work is stuff they thought was just for themselves. I remember a story like that about Twila Paris and “The Warrior is a Child.” I wrote a poem on grief that I thought would never be public either. Jonathan has published things like that too. So keep writing privately no matter what, and you never know what might be of the greatest use to someone later on!
The following Misty Edwards quotes were recorded as quickly as I could write them down, so they may not perfectly represent her teaching or her message. If so, the mistake is all mine — but even so, I received so much encouragement from her talk and am grateful to have heard her speak.
“God could speak Himself audibly. But He chooses to speak through us. He chooses to use our voices and He chooses to break in to our world with words.”
“The main way He speaks to us is language. Mental images, pictures, words, imagination, that’s how God speaks.”
“We must be familiar with the language of scripture.”
“If you are an artist, because that’s what God made you to be and that’s who you are, it doesn’t matter who is watching, you are still an artist.”
“When you’re doing what you’re called to do, you feel alive and connected to God.”
“Don’t worry about the source of your inspiration if it’s grounded in Scripture.”
“Sing like yourself. It’s easier on your voice. Don’t damage it by singing like others! And breathe from deep within your belly, not your head.”
“This is all something we practice.”
“Don’t be afraid to collaborate.”
“Create. Don’t copy-cat.”
“The quality of our art is important.”
“What to do when you mess up? Because you will mess up. Find safe people, to get some perspective, to get out of your head. Laugh at the little mistakes. When you don’t, you put yourself in a prison. Don’t quit. And remember that God is not displeased.”
“Major on the majors, minor on the minors, don’t argue about small details, don’t lose friendships over arguments.”