At the last minute this semester, I signed up for a month-long workshop with a visiting writer to UNCW, Jason Mott, author of The Returned. The experience has been illuminating on many levels, especially when it comes to figuring out why I write. The entire class was given the mandate of answering the question, “What is the Purpose of Writing?” in ten words or less. Here are my eight words: To reflect and share humanity, good and bad.
Jason also asked that we write a page long explication of our writing philosophy. In the process of writing this, I stumbled upon a question that I have long been subconsciously asking myself without ever verbalizing it: Is writing a calling?
The question first came to me when I read an essay by Scott Russell Sanders published in the tenth issue of Chautauqua, a literary journal. I am working on the editorial staff this semester, so I’m going to plug Chautauqua here and encourage you to purchase a copy (or submit). The essay is phenomenal, entitled “A Writer’s Calling,” but it’s not entirely positive about the position of writing as a calling. In reading the essay, I found that many of my concerns about viewing writing as a calling were addressed. Does naming writing as a calling elevate to a level that is not only inappropriate but also dead wrong?
It all depends on how one understands the word “call.” The problem with the word is that it harkens back to the prophets of old and as such, puts an overly positive spin on something that is more like a job than anything else. To designate writing as a “call” has the potential to sweep under the rug all of the tedious hours spent hunched over a laptop or scribbling on a pad of paper. And worse, it neglects to mention the times when all the writer can do is rearrange words on the page. Then, of course, there’s the work of trying to publish, but let’s not go there. If writing is a calling, it is a brutal one.
That being said, sometimes the call necessitates brutality. I think of Paul, blinded by his calling, later tortured by it. But Paul was exceptional, too. And I don’t think that most writers are exceptional. The handful that are, well, perhaps they were called. For the rest of us, we are simply part of the thronging multitudes of hopefuls, wishing for a calling that may or may not come.
In his essay, “Writing with So Great a Cloud of Witnesses,” Bret Lott describes the privacy of writing, but also speaks to writing (specifically workshops) as being “with our own cloud of witnesses, people who went before us and people who are still among us, whose lives in art—that is, whose giving of fresh and enlivening water through their words—most affect us.” I love this analogy because it is so grounding. We, writers, are among the many, the multitudes of those who are going before, with, and after us. If we are called, then we are among many who have also received the call. We are not Samson or Deborah, but something about what we do matters, even if it is only to inspire those surrounding us, to respond to them and lift them up.
Lott’s essay ends with a line that I think perfectly sums up the “call” of the writer, the purpose of writing and the act of doing so.
“And I am here, however preposterously stupid or sadly self-serving, writing this; trying to find with each word when night is night enough; trying to write, and to be writing.”
Bethany Tap (’12) received her MFA in creative writing from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she also worked as the managing editor of Chautauqua: the literary journal of the Chautauqua Institution. She is currently working on her first novel. She lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, with her wife, Clarissa, and son, Alexander.