Ministry. What does that word mean? What, especially, does it mean for a writer?
Lately, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. As a writer, and a teacher of creative writing, and a musician more than sometimes, what’s the main direction for all of my work? What am I doing in the world? What is my work doing, and what would I like it to do?
I’m thinking about these things during the breaks I manage to take from obsessing over when I might get news about my second novel, currently on submission. Anyone who’s ever sent work out knows this routine. In your head, you carry a schedule. You’re statistically likelier to hear back from the people who are looking at your work – agents, editors, judges, whatever – on a business day, so call it Mondays through Thursdays, because people sometimes take off on Fridays. Mondays feel like a pretty strong possibility, because people are getting back fresh from the weekend and catching up on stuff. And Tuesdays feel likelier still, because now people have had Monday to get caught up, and they can really dig into their correspondence. Wednesdays are also pretty good. Thursdays feel a bit less likely, but still possible.
And you’re probably also likelier to hear from people during business hours, so let’s say nine to five, although the really peak hours are probably more like midday, between the time when people first get settled in at their desks to the point where they start packing up to leave. So call it eleven to four. So between eleven AM and four PM, Mondays through Thursdays, if you’re like me, you check your email over and over, always bracing yourself for the news that may or may not be there. Every time you check it and find nothing, you take a breath of relief. Then, after a while – maybe ten minutes, or fifteen, or if you’re really stubborn and strict with yourself, half an hour – you gear yourself up and check it again.
(By the way, eleven to four, Monday through Thursday, are the “witching hours,” when you obsess freely. But the other part of this, of course, is that you may not hear during business hours. You might get an email at ten o’clock on Thursday night, or noon on Sunday. You just don’t know, so you brace yourself all the time.)
Obsession is the nature of the game: definitely for me, and I think for most of us who have put our work out there for other eyes. It’s easy to send all our energy into the waiting and bracing. Rejection is tough, for all the reasons we know: the way it makes you doubt your work, the way it makes you doubt yourself. Acceptance can be tough too, though: the blast of adrenaline that leaves you reeling, the giddy rush that feels dangerously out of control. And I find it’s toughest of all to hang onto any kind of perspective during this process, any memory of why-I-do-this, why it matters regardless of what news I get, or when it arrives.
For me, that’s where this question of “ministry” comes in. In my post from a couple of weeks ago, Conversation with the Zhinin, I mentioned some of my struggles with religion. I’ve hesitated to use the word “ministry” to myself, when thinking about my work, both because of its religious connotations and because I get nervous about the self-consciousness or self-importance of the word. It’s become inevitable, though. I have to engage with the question of what my work does in the wider world. How does it shape things? How does it help?
Writing is such an inner process. I sit at my computer and pull the words out of my head and put them on the page, or else I brainstorm and live in my fictional worlds while I’m doing other basic stuff like laundry and cooking. These worlds, these characters, matter deeply to me. But what do they matter to the outside, supposing they get there at all?
In his brilliant book On Writing, Stephen King talks about how we write first drafts “with the door shut,” just for ourselves. Then, when we revise, we hold the door open. We think about how readers might engage with and react to what we’ve put on the page. Imagining that response helps us to re-shape our work to give readers the experience we hope they’ll have.
I’ve thought that, at least for me, writing is something I always do “with the door shut.” These imagined worlds and characters so often feel like they’re just for me. I love them dearly, and working with them – for all its frustrations – gives me profound joy. But when the door does open, when someone else picks up my words and reads them, what happens?
Lately, I’ve been thinking about King’s words another way. In my second novel, my favorite character, the zhinin, is able to reach into other people’s minds and shape their experiences. It’s taken me maybe an absurdly long time to realize and accept the idea that I’m doing the same thing with my work. I don’t have my zhinin’s gift, to take away pain or ease anger or grief in a way that provides instant, almost-magical change, but maybe I do have his ability to open a door. Maybe, when I work, I’m opening the door not just in King’s way, letting myself think about the audience for my work and how I want them to receive it. Maybe I’m also opening a door in the minds I reach.
We know that reading fiction lets us escape from our own problems for a while. We also know it can strengthen empathy, as we step into someone else’s life and situation. Maybe this is a door that opens in a couple of directions. Step out of yourself. Put yourself in someone else’s place. Imagine what you would do and how you would feel, and then take those imaginings and bring them back into your own life, and maybe things there will look different.
Ministry. I can’t, won’t, re-shape the whole world through a book or story I write, as much as I might wish I could. I can’t, won’t, make that kind of change even through helping other people tell their own stories, though in that case it’s a little easier to imagine a ripple effect. But I can make small changes, for one person at a time. I can open a door.
So I obsess about when I might get news about my submissions, and I wonder – often – why I’m brainstorming about characters and worlds while I fold towels and cut up veggies for dinner, when those characters and worlds might never see the light of day, and I’m not sure what they’d accomplish anyway if they did. But I try to remember that in however small a way, I can open a door. I try to remember that this act is a ministry, and yes, it matters.
Photos by Kris Faatz