On the day of my fortieth birthday I had finally ripened enough to know what I wanted to be now that I was all grown up: a writer. Specifically, a Christian writer.
Two letters I had written to the newspaper had been published which resulted with a call from a reporter in Los Angelas who saw one of them and wanted a quote from me for an article he was writing. This helped me realize that I had a voice and that my voice could be helpful in informing other people.
I began to study the art of writing as well as the work of publishing. I subscribed to Writer’s Digest magazine, voraciously devouring every issue cover to cover. WD became my go-to source for learning the business of publishing as well as the craft of writing.
One day, a full page ad caught my eye. Christian Writers Guild, a well established writing program based in Colorado Springs, CO (of course!!) touted a two-year apprenticeship writing course called, What’s Your Story? I signed up for the two-year program and proudly earned my certificate of completion. I blogged about my positive experience in a post titled , Roger and Me, a reference to the mentor I was assigned to during the course. And though I learned so much from Roger and CWG, there began a distant disquiet in the far back corners of my mind during that time: What if I’m not Christian enough to be a Christian writer?
I starting blogging around then as well as dipping my pen into the inkwell of freelance writing. (You can view a list of writing credits clicking HERE). Compelled to write on issues of faith and Christian spirituality, I nonetheless felt a steady tension about forging a writing identity as a Christian writer. It was like having a low degree fever that makes one feel achy yet still functional. Am I cut out for the Christian writing scene?
A true piece of writing is a dangerous thing. It can change your life. – Tobias Wolff
With renewed vigor, I forged ahead with developing my voice and reputation as a woman who writes on issues of faith. I submitted articles to Christian publications, I read books by progressive-minded authors and even attended a conference or two that gathered together the growing tribe of heretics that I was becoming fond of.
My writer identity began to flourish.
Yet there was still the internal censor to contend with, that inner guide who is steadfast in pointing out how mismatched I was for a Christian audience of any type. The evidence seemed to correspond with my inner critic. I would peruse the back covers of authors who seemed to be like me and began to realize that I lacked the credentials they possessed.
- I am not an educated woman. At least formally.
- I have no ministry accomplishments. At least formally.
- There is no grand testimony found in my life story…at least formally.
Like the time I decided to blog about my shifting views on same-sex unions. I had decided to be public about my changing mind on the controversy of same-sex unions. It was a deliberate break from keeping my views to myself, for I knew that there was a possibility that going public would have consequences. I decided Screw it, I don’t want to hide my changing views about homosexuality to preserve my space as an emerging Christian writer. And so, with a bit of chutzpah, I pushed the publish key to herald to the blogosphere that I was a Christ follower who accepted same-sex unions and gay orientation as normal rather than unnatural. Be bold, I thought. Be that writer who doesn’t play it safe.
“Tell it true, tell it strong,” became my ethos.
Forward I went in forging my path as a writer. “What do you write on?” people would ask when I told them that I was not only a professional house cleaner (at the time) but also a writer. “I write on issues of faith and Christian spirituality,” I’d reply having rehearsed how to define my writer self when called upon. Unclear and always unsure of what that meant, it was, after all, the kinds of caves I was exploring through my blog posts and freelance articles. My readership was slowly growing and the all-important platform was steadily being built. Whatever kind of Christian writer I was becoming, there was certainly a readership gravitating to the things I had to say. I decided to stop worrying about if I was Christian enough or whatever and just write honest and bold. Fears on my writing path were monsters to be slayed.
I took the advice of writing guru Ralph Keyes deep into my heart:
Good writing is honest, alive. The more honest and alive our writing, the more we show ourselves. The more we show ourselves, the greater danger we’re in. The greater danger we’re in, the more scared we are. Hence fear is a marker on the path toward good writing. Ralph Keyes The Courage to Write
I was thrilled when after five years of hard work an author I admire invited me to coauthor a work. YES! This was the break I had been hoping for and dreaming of. The author had several books out and a firm relationship with a large Christian publisher.This author knew me, my views, and loved my writing voice. I was honored to be invited to join in the project.
We had greenlights all the way with the Big Publisher. Until one day one of the members of the publishing board googled my name. Fair enough. They need to know who I am. They found this blog and discovered that I have sometimes used naughty words when writing….and that I openly support same-sex unions.
Total deal breaker.
I was crushed. After I stopped crying, I thought hard about my decision to be transparent about my views. Had I been foolish? Ought I have kept my changed mind about same-sex unions on the downlow?
No, I decided before the tears had even dried. I do not regret telling it true, telling it strong.
The next day I wrote the editor we had been working with to express my gratitude for the opportunity and to also affirm that I understood the company’s decision. “Your publisher has their convictions to live by, I have mine,” I wrote. “I want to be known as a Christ follower who accepts our gay brothers and sisters and same-sex unions. Obviously we are not a good fit together and I am glad this is now realized before we had proceeded further.”
Being axed by this publisher became a defining moment for me, a life shaping experience to my writer identity. It forced me to pay attention to what was becoming apparent to some of my friends: Pam, you are not a Christian writer. Stop trying to be one.
I have now come to view that episode in my life as a bullet dodged. What if the publishers found out about my blog’s content after the book came out? What if bookstore owners did? I began to hear stories of books pulled from circulation when a bookstore or distributor became leary of an author, like my friend Kathy Escobar who had a book pulled within weeks of being published. Her crime? The distributor realized Kathy was titled as a pastor on the cover. Nope. No women pastors allowed through their gates.
Our beliefs, when spoken out loud, can get us into trouble with the thought police.
Her story confirmed to me that it was only a matter of time before my blog and public voice would get me blacklisted from the Christian book arena. In fact, not too long after that, a local Christian bookstore owner here in Portland told me to leave his store when he heard me tell another customer where to buy a copy of The Shack (a Christian novel considered highly heretical in many conservative circles). Our beliefs, when spoken out loud, can get us into trouble with the thought police.
One of my fave bloggers recently wrote a kickass post about her views on the Christian book industry. Her point of view is authoritative since she is a Christian writer experienced with the Christian book market:
Christian bookstores have developed a reputation for producing a highly sanitized customer experience, purging from their shelves any language, content, or theology that doesn’t meet their uber-conservative standards. Walk into your local LifeWay and you will find plenty of Precious Moments statues, specialty Bibles, Veggie Tale movies, and Thomas Kinkade prints…but little trace of art or literature that intrigues, agitates, and inspires—as true art should! The Christian bookstore experience is, in a word, safe. Butsafe is not how Christians are called to live, and safe is not what artists who are Christians are called to create. In fact, based on LifeWay’s own standards, the Bible itself—which includes profanity, violence, and sex—should be banned from the shelves.
What most people don’t realize, however, is that the problem of sanitized Christian bookstores extends far beyond the inventory on the shelves to create an entire Christian subculture that is so sanitized and safe it often fails to produce art that is relevant to our culture or our lives. (emphasis by the author) From Rachel Held Evans
There is so much to say here to what Rachel is addressing. Words have power, they are the vehicles for ideas and beliefs. What we believe affects how we live, move and have our being. The collective of any group thinking and behaving the same way is how culture is bred and enforced. Books are not just books. They are cultural markers. Books that do not match so-called Christian culture (which is grossly mistaken for kingdom of God culture) become cancers that have to be eradicated. Thus, the Christian book market is in danger of being a propaganda machine that keeps us from thinking (or behaving) outside of what is considered normative Christian beliefism.
Propaganda invites passive agreement; change writing invites original thought, openheartedness, and engagement. Change writers trust that readers can handle multiple points of view, contradictions, unresolved questions, and nuance. Mary Pipher Writing to Change the World
Where then is the prophetic power of the heralds and writers? The town criers become the town mutes when their voices are quieted by the spirit of fear.
When Christian culture has become inherently stifling to it’s artists, storytellers and writers, than it is time for the artists, storytellers and writers to create new access points for telling it true, telling it strong. For me, it has also meant I must abandon the hope of becoming a published Christian writer and instead aim for Just Being a Writer. An honest, bold, fearless writer who says out loud what is simmering beneath the veneer of conscience. It’s why I wrote my first book, Unladylike: Resisting the Injustice of Inequality in the Church. It’s why I happily published with a small, assisted self-publishing press. It’s why I look ahead to the many other books that lie in my bones, knowing they will become realities for I no longer am waiting or looking for permission.
Never has there been such a time in the history of humankind–or the church!–to be a writer, artist, musician, poet or prophet. Technology has made accessing the public square available to anyone. I do not have to strive to become a Christian writer, to fitting myself into a role that I do not occupy very well. Instead, I am running the gauntlet of just writing as the writer I am meant to be. The only gatekeeper I contend with now are Readers. They will always be my most important gatekeeper as they decide whether or not to let me and my dangerous ideas cross the threshold.