Profession or religion?

religionJ.D. Salinger once wrote (in his novella, Seymour: An Introduction), “Do you know what I was smiling at? You wrote down that you were a writer by profession. It sounded to me like the loveliest euphemism I had ever heard. When was writing ever your profession? It’s never been anything but your religion. Never. I’m a little over-excited now. Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die? But let me tell you first what you won’t be asked. You won’t be asked if you were working on a wonderful, moving piece of writing when you died. You won’t be asked if it was long or short, sad or funny, published or unpublished. You won’t be asked if you were in good or bad form while you were working on it. You won’t even be asked if it was the one piece of writing you would have been working on if you had known your time would be up when it was finished […] I’m so sure you’ll get asked only two questions.’ Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions. If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself. I won’t even underline that. It’s too important to be underlined.”

Overall, I believe this is some of the best writing advice ever written. But I’d like to analyze the hell out of this paragraph, and tell you what I think about writing being either a profession or a religion.

First of all, writing is both at the same time. It has to be, if one wishes to be productive at this.

Now, that we’ve settled this, let me tell you about the religious side of writing. You have to approach your desk, your computer, your pen with humility. There’s no place for arrogance. You have to be humble about the words you put on paper, you have to constantly ask yourself if what you’re doing is the right thing. Did you say what you wanted to say or something else?

Then, I think that for most of us the simple act of writing becomes religion. We don’t understand it very well, we don’t understand why some days we’re good and some days we’re not, and to paraphrase Stephen King, we don’t understand why it’s good when it’s good and why it’s not when it’s bad. We develop certain habits, a crazy routine. We need our time and space.

Ever been inside an empty church? It feels as if it’s just you and God. You’re alone, but you don’t feel that way. Solitude and silence are not burdens. Not really.

Writing feels the same way.

Also, we like to believe that we’re doing more than just words. We like to believe in a higher calling, in destiny, in the fact that we’re changing something. We’re altering the world, giving it new meaning. We’re the only ones capable of writing our stories the way we write them.

We give the world everything we have, everything we are, and it might happen that the world will never give us anything in return.

Almost always, making art (as is religion) is about sacrifice. More than just time and energy, so it’s a lot more than just a profession.

But writing is (and should always be) also a profession.

Whether you want it or not, you have to show up at your desk. You have to write. Good stuff, bad stuff, it doesn’t matter. You have to finish stuff. You have to set realistic goals. You have work hard. You need to be patient.

Most famous writers write every day for as long as they can. It’s like a nine to five job. When they don’t feel like it, they do it anyway.

Because, sadly, that’s the only way you’ll ever get better, and the only way you’ll ever produce something worth reading.

It’s incredibly difficult to do this. To keep on writing, no matter what. It’s far easier to just write in those moments of extreme clarity and inspiration, when the story seems to write itself. It’s easy to spend a lifetime waiting for a few moments of inspiration, as if writing is some sort of divine act of creation.

If writing would be just your religion, you’d spend more time waiting than writing.

And, yes, maybe all writers are readers who set out to write that one story they’d absolutely love to read. Maybe we all want to write our favorite novel.


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24 thoughts on “Profession or religion?

  1. Love this Cristian! I totally agree. The classical idea of a muse is a great one for the modern day writer. We are just vessels carrying forth some great story or idea into the world. For that, we should be preparing everyday.


  2. I think the quality of novels would go down if writers weren’t writing what they’d love to read. Reading is a joy, and there’s a great passion in trying to create joy. If you try and write about something you don’t like, odds are, others won’t like it either. There won’t be passion, just the act. There won’t be newness or spice, just a flat story not worth bothering with.


  3. You should approach writing like you approach life… With knowledge and reverence… and nobody can write their favorite story. When you write something you always think you could have done better.


  4. This is my first time coming across this quite by Salinger and it also made me think. I love how you address the way that it fits both. For me, I find writing as my religion. I write when I feel something. To write everyday about something I am not passionate about would only deter my overall work. Would you agree with that? Or do you find writing everyday as a better method for your own collection?


  5. What if though, what if, God did ask us about our piece? Potential dialogue.

    God: “Sweet, you made it my son.”

    Me; “Phew, it was a long road, and I didn’t think I would make it.”

    God: “Hey, I liked what you wrote in that piece for the trade publication.”

    Me: Stunned, “You actually read my stuff?”

    God: “Of course I did. Why did you never publish your journal that you were writing in since you were a kid?”

    Me: “I guess I never thought it was good.”

    God: “That is a shame Matthew. I wish you believed me, when I said you were designed beautifully and weren’t so worried about what other people thought. Do you see them here now? Look around you. These angels, have been around you your entire life. Guiding you through every struggle.”

    Me: “Oh God, how could I have ever doubted.”

    God: “It’s Ok son, you are here now. You are here now.”


  6. Amen.
    Beautifully put — I especially am drawn to the imagery of sitting in an empty church. I’ve done that many times, and often would find it the perfect place to sit and write.
    As for that last line, “Maybe we all want to write our favorite novel.” Yes… so very much yes. I experienced a moment a few months ago, when I found myself getting very upset with the author because the story just ended. Incomplete. I cursed the author, and then took a deep breath, sat down, and hoped that maybe someday someone else will be as entranced by the story as I was, and perhaps putting the energy, sweat, and tears into finishing it would be worthwhile.


  7. Such a great post – perfectly explains what a writer is and does. Beautifully put and I love the idea that the writer is not God, just a prophet translating a bigger idea to the page.


  8. “If writing would be just your religion, you’d spend more time waiting than writing.”

    I spent a good deal waiting for writing to just happen and it didn’t until I decided to do my dutiful “showing up” and not think too much of what came out of me. Creativity is only born from that flow.

    Very well written.


  9. Like religion, writing can be a strange call. Words for some of us are our tools to go on with our lives.
    As to write our favorite novel, I agree. This is, I think, what we search to do, consciously or not.


  10. Thank you Christian for this beautiful post. I have just realised recently that writing is what I have loved doing since I was young but have never allowed myself to. This post puts into words how I feel. I feel compelked after your post to take up a regular practice and see where it takes me. Looking forward to yiur next post.


  11. I’ve heard of JD Salinger, but I can’t recall a word that I read by him. You made me look him up, with your opening quote. Nope, I don’t remember a bit of Catcher In The Rye. Seymour goes on my list to read.

    I love how you handle writing as a religion. Not that it is some all-absorbing worship of our muse, but that writing is larger than us; it has a life of its own; it is a mission. I see now that my writing is my church.

    If the world never gives me anything in return for my writing, that is OK, because writing is not my profession. It is too elusive. I can’t control it. It takes me where it wants to go, when I let it. It torments me when I don’t give it my fingers. My writing gives me more than the world ever will.


  12. Beautiful. Almost every inspirational piece I’ve read on writing always highlights the importance of handwork, the necessity of showing up and writing. That’s the most difficult thing to do at times, but I guess it’s the only way to get better. Well written and insightful, as always. :)


  13. Beautiful piece, and a beautiful analogy. It puts me in mind of Augustine, who had to do so much work to tame the wildness of his mind, and make clear the path to inspiration. Writing is the same way – if you’re struggling, and muscling your way through a passage, you’re tending your garden and preparing it to receive the gift of clarity. If you stay in the weeds, you may never meet your muse.


  14. I agree somewhat with what this is saying, although I must say, I feel like a lot of my writing requires waiting, though most of this waiting is spent in thought about the book I’m working on. I would definitely say that it is very similar to a religion, though its not like I worship writing. Its more along the lines that I am devoted to my writing, like I’m devoted to my faith, (thought the writing aspect is not as strong).


  15. Great advice. This philosophy can be applied to all areas of life. Personal development and expression in any form requires steady perseverance and is ultimately down to the self alone.


  16. This is truly inspirational stuff. I think the religious analogy is a good one, and the persistence you so passionately endorsed really speaks to someone who hardly finds the time to write. Being a writer isn’t what one does, it’s who one is.


  17. I dig it, Christian. The spirit is in you. Salinger’s Semore had a similar kind of magic. Remember, he believed that the world around him was plotting, not against him, but for him. Keep feeding that djinnie within.


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