How Writers Find Their Brave

Madeleine L’Engle should be the patron saint of Christian women writers. Any time I start doubting myself, I pull out Walking on Water and feel like I can stop hyperventilating and breathe again. This morning in Walking on Water I read:

“I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius or something very small, comes to the artists and says, ‘Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.’ And the artist either says, ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord,’ and willingly becomes the bearer of the work, or refuses; but the obedient response is not necessarily a conscious one, and not everyone has the humble, courageous obedience of Mary.” (p. 18)

“When the artist is truly the servant of the work, the work is better than the artist.” (p. 24)

“When the work takes over, then the artist is enabled to get out of the way, not to interfere. When the work takes over, then the artist listens.” (p. 24)

Serve the Work. Get out of the way. Listen.


Annie Dillard says something similar in The Writing Life:

“At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it.” (p. 75)

Most days I sit down and write paragraphs of pure junk. It flows so easily. Then I pick back through the rubble like a hurricane victim trying to salvage valuables from the storm. A friend of mine just shared an article with me about how we must first allow the madman to write. That’s what I’m doing these days. Lots of “shitty first drafts” written by my inner madman. (Thank you, Anne Lamott, for empowering us to write what comes first.)

I have a friend who wants to start writing. “How did you get the courage to start?” she asked.

I wrote because not writing was no longer an option. It was more painful not to write than to write. Like plugging a water faucet with your finger, the words were just too pent up. They demanded a release. In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke says that we should only write if we must.

But I am still learning how to get out of the way and serve the work. It takes a certain faith to believe in the word magic. Elizabeth Gilbert has built her entire career on it, writing Big Magic and producing a podcast called Magic Lessons. It feels like voodoo. But Christian poet Luci Shaw instead names the Holy Spirit as her muse in Breath for the Bones.

Sometimes it helps to over-spiritualize things.

When I meet other writers, they ask me if I want to write a book. “Maybe eventually,” I’ve always said. I still feel like I’m in love with the love of writing, like I’m not ready to commit to this as a profession. It is an affair without the commitment and I don’t want to sacrifice the butterflies for the long-term, daily work of love that includes the non-sexy tasks of emptying the dishwasher and hanging the wet clothes on the line. But the time has come.

The Book is asking me to write it.

I was excited at first. But lately I’ve taken cues from my children and become a fantastic whiner. Just what my husband needs.

I made the mistake of going into Barnes and Noble. Thousands of beautiful books full of billions of words assaulted me. I couldn’t leave quickly enough. They seemed to all be harassing me, screaming, “We don’t need any more of these!”

But hanging on my husband’s neck in the kitchen after the kids had finally quieted down that night, I told him about the abuse I had suffered. I echoed the books’ words: “Why? Why does the world need another book?”

“Think about it like this,” he said. “The world doesn’t need another child, either. There are billions. And yet each one is precious—unique—and a necessary and beautiful contribution to the world. And people just keep birthing them.”

This from a man who consumes over 80 books a year and reads for a living. He has narrated a few horrible books in his lifetime. Surely he would save me from myself if I was way off track.

But he believes I can do it. I don’t think I would have even started writing without him as a coach, editor and cheerleader. God knew I wouldn’t venture out without at least one person in the world telling me I could do this.

So I released my inner madman this morning. He’s running all over the page. I’m listening. I lift my hands in terrified obedience–surrender, even.

Yes. I will serve the work.

Here we go.


If you are a writer, how do you find your brave?


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What do Annie Dillard, Madeleine L'Engle, Luci Shaw and Rilke have in common?

2 Replies to “How Writers Find Their Brave”

  1. this was so good! And what I needed today. I keep trying to organize my madman into something more sophisticated instead of just letting him write. and it’s getting me all tangled up.

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