The Real Job of a Writer

As a writer, I sometimes forget what my real job is. When I’m rushed or under a deadline, it’s easy to be fooled into thinking my job is to string words together in some creative way resulting in a variety of desired outcomes for me or the reader. Hopefully both.

the real job of a writerObviously a writer has to actually write. But my job, even before writing, is to pay attention.

Listening with all my senses is my first real job. When I remember nothing begins with me and purpose to stay small in the presence of others (not in a woe-is-me kind of way, but in a you-have-something-to-teach-me way), the writing not only comes more naturally, but is more full and textured.

This listening posture is a lifestyle, not a decision I make because I have a deadline coming up.

Pay Attention to the World Around Me

There are different ways of listening. First, I pay attention to the world around me. My brain is now trained to listen for certain concepts and perspectives no matter where I am or what I’m doing. If I hear something true about faith, grace, or creativity, it’s going to catch my attention and inform my own thinking by either confirming what I already believe or challenging me to see things differently.

Here’s an example.

On my way down to Charlotte this weekend, I listened to Here’s the Thing, a podcast with Alec Baldwin. On this episode, Alec Baldwin interviews Lorne Michaels, creator of Saturday Night Live and the man responsible for launching the careers of Tina Fey, Chris Farley, Will Farrell, Bill Murray and way too many others for me to list out.

From episode 8 of Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin, orginally aired January 30, 2012:

Alec Baldwin: Now you have this great success – you have THE great success – in late night television, and then you have success in primetime television, you’ve produced TV shows particularly now, that have done well, and you have great success in film. But you’ve never worked in cable.

Lorne Michaels: Well, I did with “Kids in the Hall” and I did now with Fred in “Portlandia” which is on IFC.

Alec Baldwin: Do you feel you haven’t been as aggressive in cable as you might have been?

Lorne Michaels: I think at the end of the day…

Alec Baldwin: You’re more comfortable with network – I’ve grown to prefer network because you’ve gotta walk that tightrope and you can’t just go crazy.

Lorne Michaels: Yes, to me, there’s no creativity without boundaries. If you’re gonna write a sonnet, it’s fourteen lines. So it’s solving the problem within the container. I think for me, commercial television and those boundaries, I like it. I like that you can’t use certain language. I like that you have to be bright enough to figure out how to get your ideas across in that amount of time with intellegience being the thing that you hope is showing. Not officially, but you want it to be, “Oh, that was kind of bright.”

After hearing him say this – There’s no creativity without boundaries – I paused the podcast, made a note in my phone voice recorder, and continued to listen. I agree wholeheartedly with Lorne Michaels on this point, something I’ve written about here on the blog and in A Million Little Ways.

I’ve thought a lot about this concept so my ear is now trained to notice it. When I hear it again from different perspectives, I write it down.

Pay Attention to the World Within Me

But there is another way of listening, a way I am sometimes loath to practice. As a writer, I take seriously the job of  listening to my own life. I don’t always like what I hear which is why this kind of listening is more difficult than the first.

The very thing Lorne Michaels pointed out in that interview, the concept about creativity I agree with and have written about myself, is the reality I slam up against in my own writing and life.

I face the limiting factors of insecurity, fatigue, doubt, pressure, and time. For example, today I have to work within the practical limit that it’s March 18 and our kids are out of school again because of icy roads. And I want to point to the external limit and say that there is what is keeping me from being creative today. When really, the lack of a consistent writing schedule lately is forcing me to be creative. Not necessarily in my work, but in my life.

How will I decide to spend these extra unexpected days? How will I handle the unplanned? How will I respond when the schedule doesn’t allow for me to do what I hoped and wanted to do? The easy, uninspired way is to be frustrated. This takes zero creativity. But the real challenge for me is to walk into this day with new eyes – to decide to see, handle, and face the ordinary in a different kind of way.

This is when there is no creativity without boundaries actually matters. It’s easier to face the limits in my writing than it is to face the limits in my life. Feel discouraged in your writing? Be brave! You have a job to do! You’re a writer after all.

But feel discouraged in my living and it gets tougher to pep-talk me out of. Especially when my living is keeping me from my writing. See how twisted this can get?

It’s ugly, but it can also be a thin place – a place where heaven touches earth in a mysterious kind of way because this is your real life. This is where Christ wants to meet me, as I stand in the midst of my own limiting factors. When I am my own limiting factor.

 This is when living is art is living.

Paying attention is the writer’s real job – in my world and in my life. Otherwise, the writing will be empty and meaningless.

If you would like to receive a free copy of Seven Little Ways to Live Art – an ebook that accompanies my full-length book on uncovering the art you were made to live – simply enter your email address here and click newsletter. I plan to send the March newsletter out this week and will include content you won’t find anywhere else.


  1. says

    Are you stalking me? Seriously, your timing with this post…spot.on. I’m currently wrestling through a post in observance of my own life. An observation I don’t care to admit, but need to.

    Thanks, Emily! Your words always inspire honestly.

  2. says

    I stopped writing 10 minutes ago because it was turning contentious. I’ve learned that’s the time for me to walk away and wait as I listen for truth instead of continuing in angry arguments.

    Parenting, painting furniture, and every day moments in my hair studio provide so many opportunities for me to listen to my own voice, thanks for encouraging me to listen for cues in the words of those around me. Seems I always need that reminder!

  3. Lauren says

    I love this! I feel like this applies to visual artists too; our real job is to see just as a writer’s real job is to listen.

  4. says

    Boy, I needed this too. This never-ending Chicago winter, many rounds of illness, and other factors have been clouding my vision these past couple of weeks. I can hear God’s voice calling to me through the blue funk. But I haven’t made enough space in the crazy to sit quietly and listen. As you say, I’m not sure I’m entirely going to like what He has to say. I certainly haven’t been the best version of myself recently. But I do agree that when I face the work He wants to do in me, then I can better communicate His truth on the page. Thanks for the encouragement!

  5. says

    This post is so, so good Emily! :) I’ve been struggling in my writing process, and these words spoke right to the heart of it, for me. I could see you writing a book on writing, Emily! :) (If not now, down the road for sure! :)

  6. says

    So many things, but two I want to mention.

    First, I’m on deadline with third-round edits due on Friday, and wow, is this book really socking it to me. We’re studying Tim Keller’s The Gospel in Life in our small group, and last night’s lesson was on idolatry. I realized why I’m so paralyzed by this book wrapping up. Yes, it’s hard, hard, hard to get it all in place, but a part of me is terrified to stop the tinkering work. Because there are a million ways to tell a story, and who says the way I’ve chosen is best? And under that fear: How will this book be accepted? How will it be received alongside May B.?

    As for limitations, YES! I decided early on in drafting May B. that her reader would play a big role in her developing story. I wasn’t sure of what that would necessarily look like, but I knew it needed to be this way. This one decision really tightened my focus and took the book in the direction it needed to go.

    In looking at what I’ve written (and what my wise critique partners have been telling me this week as I’ve fretted), I need to set some limits now on the way I’m handling this edit round. Just the words and my characters. Nothing else.

    Thank you, Emily. Here’s to good listening. Off to do my work.

  7. says

    I just wrote a post with this same thought (although not nearly as articulate or well). But, yes, it is those days when the plans fly right out the window with that early morning phone call or unexpected task I have to fight frustration. My default is to through up my hands and say, “What’s the use?” Somehow I don’t think that’s what the Father has in mind.
    Thank you so much for this. Your writing is always so timely and wise.

  8. says

    Emily, I’ve relished your blog for months now and never left a comment… but these are such wise words and so right where I am right now! I keep waiting for that “right time” when nothing intrudes, when no one needs me RIGHT NOW, when my to-do list is finished…
    And I want you to know that a woman way over not the other side of the country is reading and listening and praying for you… and for your transition into ministry of a different sort.

  9. says

    This morning as I read that Jonah fled from the Word of God, I found that God continually pursued him. As I have been pondering in my heart, how I have fled from His Word, He pursues me through yours. God bless you my friend – and may you find the time He carved out for you today – to write the Words He’s written on your heart. And thank you … just thank you.

  10. says

    I’m learning this as well. It’s amazing what I “hear” when I really tune in and listen to the people and experiences around me. Instead of flying through life from one moment to the next, I’m slowing down and savoring. This process is an art itself!

  11. says

    Real life is messy and beautiful art all at the same time. I love your words to yourself to me to us. Truth. Thank you for encouraging me with your encouragement to yourself: see with new eyes.

  12. says

    Hi Emily,
    yes, this applies to visual artists as well (as Lauren said in earlier comment)…how important it is to be present each day in our lives and our creative work. I am excited to say that I ordered your book “A Million Little Ways” and look forward to being inspired by your authentic words!

  13. says

    Thank you for sharing this! It’s exactly what I needed to hear today and is a moment that has made me feel less alone. Thanks!

  14. says

    “a thin place – a place where heaven touches earth in a mysterious kind of way because this is your real life. This is where Christ wants to meet me, as I stand in the midst of my own limiting factors.” Oh how I can blame my life for getting in the way of my art making when my life is my ultimate art making. Thank you Emily for letting me know I am not alone if fighting what I should actually be embracing, knowing it will make me a better writer in the end (because really 4 kids? how does one think one word, much less write one when there are 4 kids in my house?)

  15. says

    Friend, I need reminding of this again and again. As a recovering perfectionist {if only in my mind}, my default after all these years is still to see limitations and boundaries as saboteurs instead of the providential and inspiring friends they actually are. One of my greatest skills is resourcefulness. It’s one of the few gifts I’ll shamelessly own up to. And that resourcefulness was born out of lack and is still being refined and strengthened because of lack. It’s time I start applying this more courageously to other segments of my life.

    Such needful food for thought here. One of those posts I’ll be re-reading and rolling around in my head. Thank you.

  16. says

    “When I am my own limiting factor.” Yes, indeed. I haven’t written or posted anything on my blog for about 2 months – largely because I’ve let my doubts and insecurity get the better of me. Thanks for this en-courage-ment Emily.

    • says

      Me too – I wrote an honest to goodness, bare-my-soul blog post about 2 months ago, and not a drop since. I’ve felt I had nothing to say – nothing that anyone else would want to read, anyway. I think I am wasting my desert experience by NOT writing about it….

  17. Mary says

    Thanks for the reminder that we have to stop and listen. I have to admit that if I were listening to the conversation you mentioned, I would have heard the name Alec Baldwin and instantly turned it off, but you prove that by listening to someone we would not ordinarily have confidence in, we can still learn from the conversation. I need to work on my listening skills and this was a great reminder.
    Also, I would like to print another copy of your ebook but don’t have access to the link without subscribing again, is there another way to do this? I love the book and need another copy. Thanks!

  18. says

    I needed to read this today. We also had a other snow day and you are so right that creativity is required to make it all work and create space for the creativity I want to happen.

  19. says

    Literally minutes before I read this, I was wiping away a tear that, once again, the day’s pressing issues had stifled any room for creative space.

    Thank you for reminding that I need to stop seeing myself as a victim of my own life and schedule, but a cultivator of art within certain boundaries defined by this season of life.

    Emily, thanks for being in tune enough with the Spirit to be used by God to help this recovering perfectionist. : )

  20. says

    Emily, you continue to inspire me (as I write to you often about, and most recently in my blog post about being stuck :)).

    It’s funny you write about this idea today, because I feel like ‘paying’ attention in writing and life over the years has changed the way I view EVERYTHING. Down to the most mundane. I was sitting in Time Warner Cable today (ironic because your post talked about cable) waiting with 50 other people who thought the scene was utterly ridiculous (have you ever BEEN to a Time Warner Cable office?) but there is so much to take in there. It’s pretty remarkable.
    Anyways, I am in process of a writing project/book about this very topic you discussed above…maybe you’ll let me interview you as one of the lucky participants / fave author in the project? :) Ha. Think about it…

  21. says

    Thanks for this…recovering from a slight back strain this week and always think…”this is a time to listen.” I like your advice to tune in more often…regularly. “This listening posture is a lifestyle,
    not a decision I make….” Thanks.

  22. says

    Thank you for writing this, I will likely revisit it and sign up for your ebook. I’m feeling discouraged about life and writing and writing and life, feeling sort of irrelevant in it all.

  23. says

    {Melinda} I’m in the midst of edits for my first book (squeal!), trying to keep up with my blog and guest posting … on the list goes. It seems so overwhelming sometimes. I love what you said about a schedule making us MORE creative. I want inspiration to just come upon me when I need it. But I know that I need to write every day, inspired or not. This was a great post for me to read write now. Could relate so much!

  24. says

    This line says it all, hits the nail on the head, drives the point home, convicts me, the guilty, and wraps it all up with a bow in the most unbelievably concise manner – “It’s ugly, but it can also be a thin place – a place where heaven touches earth in a mysterious kind of way because this is your real life. This is where Christ wants to meet me, as I stand in the midst of my own limiting factors. When I am my own limiting factor. ” Oh. My. Gosh. I have been lamenting my life of late- “why doesn’t anything exciting happen?” “why are things so stale and stagnant?” “why wont God answer my prayers the way I want Him to?” and the list, as we know all too well, goes on. It never occured to me to think that this moment in time, this flat-line of a life, is where God wants to meet me; this dry, desert time with no oasis in sight. With not much of anything in sight except for the same-old same-old. I see that I have been and am actively being my own limiting factor. I am walking hourly through the fodder of blog posts, but I am so busy focusing on poor pity me that I am choosing to ignore big, mighty Him. Emily, thank you!

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