In my never-ending discussions with Christian novelists about improving the quality of what we write, I once offended a successful author by suggesting she might consider writing fewer words in order to write them better. “I am the main breadwinner in our house,” she said. “I have to write three novels a year because I have children to feed.” She seemed a little angry on that point so I let it drop, but I’ve been wondering ever since if it’s okay for a Christian to write novels for a living.
I’m not asking if it’s okay to be paid for a novel, mind you; I’m asking if it’s okay to write a novel for the pay…an important difference.
A non-Christian would probably be surprised I even ask the question, but one of the things the unbelieving world has never understood about the Jesus Way is this: God cares more about motivations than results. That’s why Jesus could point to a woman who put only two small copper coins in the temple treasury and say, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others.” She had one motive only: to give her all to God.
Elsewhere in the Bible Paul commands a group of slaves to work for their masters “with all your heart, as [if] working for the Lord, not for men.” That reminds me of Jesus’ famous answer to the question, “Which is the greatest commandment?” He replies with a quote from Deuteronomy (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart…”) and he adds another from Leviticus (“Love your neighbor as yourself”), thus showing us the way to love God wholeheartedly is to love our neighbor wholeheartedly. If we think of our work as an act of neighborly love (and we should) this begins to lead me toward an answer to my question. Paul and Jesus would say the way for a novelist to love “with all your heart” is to write “with all your heart.”
Does this leave room for money as a motivation? I don’t see how. It seems to me when Paul and Jesus use language like “all your heart” they mean every little bit of my heart, and to the extent I love and work for any other motivation, I fail to obey that command.
Yet, my writer friend does have children to feed, and I can’t believe the Lord wants them to go hungry. What is she to do?
Jesus answers the question this way: “…seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” And elsewhere he says, “the worker deserves his wages.” So when Paul tells us to work with all our hearts, and when Jesus tells us to love with all our hearts, they’re not saying God expects starvation. They’re saying write for the Lord (love Him) with all your heart, and He will honor it with everything on earth you need.
At this point, some may wonder what it means to do one’s personal best in an imperfect world. Theoretically, there’s always room for improvement in any manuscript. So at the end of the day it’s the deadline that defines the level of excellence, right? And since most deadlines are established by arbitrary human decisions, who am I to tell my author friend I think three novels in one year is too many?
Again, I think we have to look to motivation. Is she writing three novels a year because she believes that is the best way to serve God? Then let her write with all her heart within the time allowed. But that is not the reason she gave. She said she did it to feed her children. Perhaps she sees her role as their provider as her main “work,” and writing as merely a means to that end. If so, she might believe compromising on the writing is okay so long as she remains true to her main responsibility. But Paul’s command leaves no room for that kind of logic. He said, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart…” The word “whatever” is universal. It applies to writing just as much as it applies to parenting.
Few of us are blessed with the talent and the situation to be able to support a family on a writer’s pay. The rest of us must work at something else and do our writing on the side. The moment may come when you are tempted to compromise your writing in order to write full time. Don’t do it. Whether you are blessed to write as your main job, or whether your job is something else, the Bible is clear: whatever you do must be done with all your heart, as if working for the Lord, and not for men. In other words, write as well as you can, or don’t write at all.
You may have to work a day job in order to write well, but if you give everything you’ve got to both the day job and the writing, if you seek God’s kingdom and His righteousness with all your heart that way, you have Jesus’ promise that everything you need in life will come.
Athol Dickson’s novels have been favorably compared to the work of Octavia Butler (Publisher’s Weekly), Daphne du Maurier (FaithfulReader.com, by Cindy Crosby, Christianity Today fiction critic), and Flannery O’Connor (The New York Times). His They Shall See God was a Christy Award finalist. River Rising was selected as one of the Booklist Top Ten Christian Novels of 2006, was a Christianity Today’s Best Novel of 2006 finalist, an Audie Award winner and winner of the Christy Award for best suspense novel of the year. The Cure also won a Christy Award in the suspense category. Winter Haven was a Christy Award finalist and a Romantic Times Top Pick, and Athol’s third novel to win a Christy Award, Lost Mission, is currently nominated for a Clive Staples Award. Athol lives with his wife in southern California.