Thank You for Reading: Or, Why I Write
I have always been a bit of a nonconformist. In high school I took pride in not owning name brand clothes. Rather than “sell out” to peer pressure—like students I secretly admired and envied—I found fashionable clothes at thrift stores. Of course, I couldn’t afford name brands if I wanted them, but the narrative I told (and sold to) myself was that I was better than the kids wearing Abercrombie & Fitch. “Look at me and my shirt that has no $50 label; I don’t need that special label to fit in.” Ah, the logic of adolescence.
Today’s post feels a bit similar. Perhaps I haven’t grown out of that adolescent logic. Seeing writers share year-end reviews of various kinds, like top posts from 2023, highlights of books read, etc., I feel ambivalent. Sensing the push to do the same, I also pull back from that pressure to fit in. At the same time, unlike my 16 year-old self, I have realized my “nonconformist” self is often just a mask for insecurity. I don’t want to write a “top posts of 2023” simply because that is the hip thing to do, but I also don’t want to not write that because it is the hip thing to do. Both are inauthentic. This admission exposes a more fundamental question: Why do I write?
Why do I write?
Offering an answer to the question “why do I write?” is also one way I want to say “thank you” here at the beginning of 2024. Thank you for reading, for opening those emails (which are almost always way to long for an email), for liking, for commenting, for sharing, and for encouraging me with how my writing has moved you. Thank you for your part in giving me reason to answer this question anew.
It’s hard to believe I’ve been doing this for 2 years now (or almost; my first newsletter was January 27, 2022 when it was a part of my local counseling practice). The decision to start this newsletter was unquestionably capitalistic. I already had a blog for my counseling practice website, but I hoped a regular email with counseling resources and reflections would add value for potential referral sources.
Here in January, 2024, I am a long ways away from that motive. I confess to some remaining degree of capitalistic drive, fueled by deep gratitude for those of you who signed up for monthly and annual paid subscriptions. That communication of value for my writing has certainly helped affirm my sense of vocation, and I aim to sustain that value.
Still, I would keep on writing apart from any financial incentive, so that can’t be the whole or even most of the answer.
Do I write for the likes and shares and subscriber increase? Here too I sense the ambivalent insecurity between, on the one hand, looking down my self-righteous nose at those who take more strategic action to grow their reader base—offering incentives for paid subscriptions, paywalling posts etc.—and on the other hand, feeling jealousy when I see writers with greater objective metrics of success (eg overall number of subscribers, growing at a more rapid rate, etc.). I’m both ashamed to admit I look at those metrics and ashamed to admit that I feel shame for doing so, as if I can’t just admit that and move on. Insecurity abounds.
Insecurity: the creator’s crutch
Four years ago a StrengthsFinder coach asked me two questions. First, she asked me, “Have you published anything?” When I answered in the negative, she asked me, “Why not?” Some dialogue followed from my vague insecurities like, “I don’t have anything unique to say” and “why would anyone bother reading yet one more blog/article/book?” The coach dismissed all of those answers. They were (and are) just excuses.
In response she asked another pointed question: “If just one person reads and benefits from what you write, isn’t that worth it?” I had a hard time saying no to that. But there was an additional implied question underneath: am I willing to write for that one person, or do I need to reach more?
The answer to that last question is always in flux, revealing the cracks between my ideal and real self. Part of me desires many readers. Another part of me feels conflicted by that desire: is that pride, or humble desire to bless others with what God has given me? If it’s any degree of the latter, it’s surely a larger degree of the former.
To be a (lower case c) creator at all, of any kind or manner of thing, is to walk the tightrope between imaging God and seeking to be god. There is no avoiding that tension. I cannot wait for pure motives before creating with words. But what I can do is be prayerfully attentive to my motives while writing, even as I am attempting to do right now. Eugene Peterson’s words stand as an ever-needed reminder:
“Writing is not a literary act but spiritual…In writing, I work with words…But not mere words…but words…as carriers of spirit/Spirit. The moment words are used prayerlessly…something essential begins to leak out of life.”1
Writing for myself
I love reading private diaries of authors, especially when I can find entries about their work of writing. I’m fascinated by what writers wrote confidentially to themselves about writing and being a writer. For example, I recall reading an entry in Søren Kierkegaard’s journals where he admitted to self-consciously wondering if his journals would ever be published, and how that thought influenced his journal writing.2
At the end of 2023 I was reflecting on a journal entry from a different author, Thomas Merton. It reminded me of another important, even essential answer to the question of why I write. What follows are excerpts from an entry written on May 21, 1960 when Merton was 45.
“I wonder if the time has come for me to cease writing for publication. Before this, the idea has come to me in passing and I have never really taken it seriously. I have not been able to. Now I think it is getting to be possible and necessary. Not to stop writing altogether. On the contrary, to write what I really need to write to myself, not what the readers of some magazine would like or what “my readers” expect. But to write better, write less, go deeper, further afield. Think more. Write better — or perhaps not. But to reach further into areas I do not yet know, to write tentatively about them in order to begin to understand them better.”3
Write what I really need to write to myself. Go deeper. Think more. Write about areas I do not yet know in order to begin to understand them better. Those reasons for writing appeal to me. And they also challenge me. Would I write even if no one else is was reading? That StrengthsFinder coach encouraged me to write for even just one person. Merton’s wisdom tells me that one person can be me.
But writing in the era of the internet is different than 1960. Substack offers space to write for deeper understanding in community. I write about spiritual abuse, reformation, theology and therapy, and I write tentatively because I am not an expert. I think out loud, and I love being able to invite readers in to that process. Your thoughts, questions, feedback, pushback mean a great deal.
What to Expect in 2024
So once again, thank you for reading. Whether you signed up because of my focus on spiritual abuse, or were interested in reflections on therapy and spiritual formation, thank you for sticking around. I will continue to alternate between a general range of reflections in Theology & Therapy and posts focused on spiritual abuse in Thesis 96. Most of my Thesis 96 posts from 2023 were part of a larger writing project on spiritual abuse healing in the Gospel of John, and I am now to the point where I need to do more editing than writing. So I hope to return to and continue the original purpose for Thesis 96 of providing apologetic tools for advocates and survivors.
Quote from Eugene Peterson
“Heuristic writing–writing to explore and discover what I didn’t know. Writing as a way of entering into language and letting language enter me, words connecting with words and creating what had previously been inarticulate or unnoticed or hidden. Writing as a way of paying attention. Writing as an act of prayer.”
Where can you ask the “why?” question for this new year? Perhaps that relates to your vocation and occupation, whether at home or school or office. Or perhaps it’s a side hustle or hobby. In the spirit of thinking out loud, please feel free to share thoughts below about your “why”!
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Eugene Peterson, “Fyodor Dostoevsky: God and Passion,” in The Classics We’ve Read, The Difference They’ve Made, edited by Philip Yancey (McCracken Press, 1993), p. 27.
If I find that reference I will come back and add it, I haven’t been able to locate it yet.
Thomas Merton, A Search for Solitude: Pursuing a Monk’s True Life (The Journals of Thomas Merton Vol.3, HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), p. 392.