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These are just a few of my musings about faith, formation, culture, and life.


Filtering by Category: The Writing Life

The Perils of Publishing - And Why You Should Write Anyways (Part IV)

Jen Michel

Perils of Publishing.jpg

This is the fourth in a series I’m writing on the perils of publishing. Truthfully, I think this series could be broadened to include any area of our lives where we experience temptation. To catch up on the conversation, start here where I engage with Michelle DeRusha, who announced that she is quitting book writing. Continue to the second post, which introduces John Owen’s 1658 Of Temptation.Owen, a Puritan pastor and theologian, wrote three classic works on sin and temptation, which were re-published by Crossway in 2006 under the title Overcoming Sin & Temptation. In the third post, I remind us that while we are called to “watch and pray,” our resolve alone will not rescue us from temptation. Writes Owen, “Until we are tempted, we think we live on our own strength.” Below, in this fourth post, which continues to reflect on Chapter 1, “The Nature of Temptation,” I explore the means of temptation which Satan uses.

Last weekend was unusually busy for our family. (It’s why I never got this post written last week!) Our eldest graduated from high school, and the following evening was the school prom. Because our children attend a small, private school in Toronto—and the graduating class included only 68 students—it was possible for one of the families to host a pre-prom event for both students and their parents. (I say possibleonly because my own high school graduating class of more than 400 students would have made such an event impossible. I say possible—granting that most houses, including my own, would not accommodate a quarter of these guests.)

I’d breathed a sigh of relief when we pulled up to the house, noting that it was hardly the largest or most imposing on the street. (The host family lives in one of the most exclusive ravine neighborhoods in downtown Toronto.) But when we entered the front door and were ushered by “staff” through the marbled hallway out the back door, I understood that we’d entered a kind of portal, one that opened onto luxury belonging, not simply to the lawyers and the doctors and the bankers, but to the monied families of political and social importance. 

It was hard not to gawk. The terraced private backyard, each level accommodating tens and tens of guests. The indoor and outdoor swimming pools. The white tablecloths. It all bespoke a wealth so far out of reach that in one sense, I hardly fought a covetous impulse. On the other hand, I knew something else: that Toronto—its ambition, its elastic material want, its “desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life”—can seep into my skin whether I like it or not. I am formed by this place, formed for good, formed for ill

Loving Toronto as I do, there are still are days I dream of moving to rural Iowa, dream of settling down to an obscure life where no one cares to know what degrees you have, what car you drive, what vacation you’re taking, what brand you’re wearing. I dream of a world less tethered to the spectacle of wealth and power. In that blue-jeaned, flannelled world, I imagine myself free of the temptation to buy and consume, to climb and impress. In that flat and grassy stretch of land, the sky wide and high and limitless, I imagine myself holy.

I think we all do this. It’s a bargain we all try making, thinking that a change in our circumstances is a change for good. (As far as the writing life goes, I think we often tell ourselves that we could do this work of writing if it weren’t for the clamoring, climbing world of social media!)

John Owen has something to say about this, of course. (And maybe you’ll be surprised to hear him say that, with regard to temptation, sometimes a change in circumstance can be a change for good.)

In chapter 1, Owen explores three means that Satan uses to tempt his people; some of you will be familiar with his “world, flesh and the devil” formulation. 

1.    “Satan tempts sometimes singly by himself.” Owen is quick to acknowledge that evil is not something impersonal. However strange to our post-modern ears, Christians have historically admitted the reality of a personal devil and his vast droves of minions. There are writers who have done much good to enliven our imagination about this reality (I’m thinking of The Screwtape Lettersby C.S. Lewis) and others who have done less (I’m thinking of Frank Peretti’s series This Present Darkness). I get that it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that this world is one “with devils filled,” that we have an “adversary the devil [who] prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). Although there have been a few singular events in my life to convince me of the truth of spiritual forces of evil (I can tell you those stories if you’re interested), I confess I don’t think about this often enough, even when it comes to temptation. 

To admit the reality of Satan, the adversary and enemy of God’s people, is, for one, to admit that we can’t simply arrange our circumstances to be free of temptation. We are vulnerable to temptation anywhere at any time because Satan wills for our corruption. I don’t have to go to parties at big fancy houses to be tempted by greed, and neither do I have to be scrolling through Twitter, as a writer, to be tempted by the desire for approval. Satan is at work, injecting “evil and blasphemous thoughts of God into the hearts of the world,” writes Owen, and to fight temptation properly, we must pray for protection and look to actively resist him.

The good news of the gospel is, of course, that the devil is already defeated, that we who are in Christ have nothing to fear. “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world,” (1 John 4:4). 

2.    “Sometimes Satan makes use of the world.” As Owen explains, not all temptation originates with the devil behind the proverbial bush. Satan doesn’t always need to whisper blasphemous thoughts into our ears. Sometimes he just needs to get us to the local mall. Unless you’re living under a rock, to live in this world is to be seduced constantly into a friendship that, in reality, is hostility towards God. 

Regarding the world of social media, there is incredible temptation there, simply by virtue of its nature. There is temptation to compare ourselves with other writers. There is the temptation to traffic in outrage. There is the temptation to belittle and dehumanize. It’s a world where approval is quantified and publicized, where hostility becomes virtue. It’s a world that values the loud, the exaggerated, the knee-jerk, a world made for the quippy, the snarky, the self-aggrandizing. Yes, dear writer. While you might have to swim in the polluted water of social media, you are going to need regular lolls on the beach to be away from its noxiousness. If you sometimes wonder why you’re falling prey to the petty temptations of the writing life, I ask: how much time are you spending on your phone? 

3.    “Sometimes he takes in assistance from ourselves also.” In this last point, Owen wants to say: even if we could be rid of the world, we can’t be rid of ourselves. Satan often finds “a sure party within our own breasts.” And this is to say that temptation cannot simply be handled by re-arranging our external circumstances. (I can take myself to Iowa, but I am, after all, still taking myselfalong.) I am subject to greed, to anger, to lust, to disordered self-love because I have a crookedness about my nature, a bent toward valuing myself above others, above God most of all. 

To be sure, there’s a lot of wisdom in staying attuned to our external influences and to searching out communities and contexts that contribute to our spiritual health. But sin isn’t simply about falling prey to external dangers and temptations. What needs the most re-arranging is our inner world because as Jesus reminded the Pharisees—who remained hypervigilant about external pollution—sin is a matter of the heart. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. There are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone,” (Matt. 15:18, 19). 

I was reminded of this recently in a conversation with my spiritual director, Beth, as I confessed to her how vulnerable I am to an inflated sense of self-importance, to thinking that I am more needed in the world than I am. It often leads me to say unreasonable yeses in my life and to assume commitments that I don’t have capacity for. I shore up my own self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy by staying unreasonably busy, by making sure that I am needed by others. “I just need to have clearer boundaries, maybe even develop a rule of life,” I told Beth tearfully. I imagined setting down on paper the infallible criteria for discerning the invitations and opportunities and for hearing God’s voice—some externaland objective criteria. Now, I don’t think that’s a bad idea. A rule of life can be a helpful guide and guard rail, preemptively making decisions about our priorities and time before temptation comes. But, Beth and I both knew that a rule of life couldn’t alone deal with my inner world, the appetites and disordered love that drive the busyness in the first place.

That’s why we need practices that lead us to examine our hearts. It’s why we need solitude as well as community, why we need most of all regular formation by the Word of God which reveals us to ourselves—“the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).

When temptation comes, it may come from Satan, from the world, or from my own crooked heart. But when it does come—and I do fail, I have this continual hope: “We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” (1 John 2:1). 

The Perils of Publishing - And Why You Should Write Anyways ( Part II)

Jen Michel

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Last night, my church hosted a book launch party for the release of Surprised by Paradox. It was equal parts wonderful and horrifying. The wonderful was, of course, to have a room full of people I know and love show such warmth for me and such enthusiasm for the book. “Who said a prophet isn’t accepted in her hometown?” I quipped as I stood to talk and my friend, Wendy, whistled from the second row. The horrifying was being the center of that kind and genuine attention. I’m not trying to be falsely humble here. It’s just plain awkward to gather a group of people to celebrate your work. When do the lawyers and emergency room doctors and stay-at-home moms and Home Depot clerks get to throw parties for their jobs well done? 

SBP Launch Party.jpg

Some people are saving lives. I’m just writing books.

This is the second post in a blog series I’m calling, “The Perils of Publishing — and why you should write anyways,” a series I began in response to author Michelle DeRusha’s blog post, “Why I’m Quitting Book Writing.” For all her love for and commitment to writing, DeRusha has concluded that the industry of book publishing is a place she can’t thrive.

I’ve sometimes wondered the same.

But as I already said in the introduction to this series, I feel called, not just to write, but to write books. That seems to make it imperative to me to find ways of making this work work—hence the idea for this blog series. I asked you to come along for a conversation about the perils of the publishing culture, and I promised that I’d draw in John Owen’s 1658 Of Temptation, published by Crossway as a larger collection entitled Overcoming Sin & Temptation: Three Classic Works by John Owen (2006).

Today, I’m posting some quotes and reflections from the preface where John Owen begins by addressing the Christian Reader: “If you are in any measure awake in these days wherein we live . . . I suppose you will not inquire any further after other reasons of the publishing of the ensuing warnings and directions.” Owen seems to think that many of his readers will immediately see the need for some systematic teaching about temptation. He describes his cultural moment as one where “a spirit of error, giddiness, and delusion goes forth with such strength and efficacy”; where “there are such divisions, strifes, emulations, attended with such evil surmises, wrath and revenge, found among brethren”; where temptation is constantly leading to “partial and total apostasy, in the decay of love, the overthrow of faith . . . [and the decline in] personal holiness and zeal for the interest of Christ.” Given the conditions of our times, writes Owen, we’re going to have to talk about temptation. (Are we sure he’s not talking about his 2019 Twitter feed?)

Similarly, given the conditions of our times, especially in the world of Christian publishing, we’re going to have to talk about temptation. To bandy about words like platformbrand, and tribe, some of us will immediately see the inherent temptations in those words. The temptations of self-preoccupation and self-promotion. The temptations of vanity and ego, of jealousy and competition. The temptation to build our own personal fiefdom, rather than the kingdom of God. These are not unlike the temptations that Jesus himself faced when confronted by the devil in the wilderness. Jesus was tempted to take right things, good things, by very wrong means. 

Many of you confirmed in your comments to the first blog post of this series what is good about writing. You write for the joy of expressing truth and connecting with readers who are grateful when you’ve named something for them. You write to find out what you think and to think more coherently. As you write, you find solidarity with your fellow human beings. You write because it makes it feel more like you. You write, and sometimes you get glimpses that it makes a difference, that someone lives with more hope, more faith, more self-understanding, more empathy than before. You write because those words feel timeless, even immutable in a way that you aren’t.

These are some of the many joys of writing, but you also named many of the griefs.

You feel grief that you have to rely on the publishing gatekeepers to get your words in the world. You write but are underpaid. You write in the margins of your day, which feels too limited and constrained an exercise of your creative energies. You feel the burden of responsibility for the stories you tell and the people they involve. You hate the pressure of building a platform and finding followers. You wonder if your words matter in a world glutted with the “shrill cacophony of public opinion.”

Some of these griefs might easily dissuade us from writing or might easily tempt us to do the very good work of publishing by very wrong means. 

What advice does John Owen offer? It’s simple but worth remembering.

Count yourself vulnerable to temptation.

“But now, reader, if you are among them who takes no notice of these things or cares not for them—who has no sense of the efficacy and dangers of temptations in your own walking and professions . . . I desire you to know that I write not for you.” In other words, as it relates to our discussion here about Christian publishing, if you think yourself safe from the perils of anxiety, greed, self-protection, and vanity of this work, you are the most vulnerable to falling on the own sword of your own words.

To exercise your proper sobriety in this work judged by likes and retweets, advances and book sales, count yourself unreliable, rather than steadfast. Know that the problem isn’t with other bloggers, other writers, other authors, other speakers. It’s with you. It’s with me. Look to confess daily to God the sins that you know and the sins that you don’t. “Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults. Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me,” (Ps. 19:12, 13). Then, get yourself in a community of people who will love you, even whistle at you from the second row, but know you well enough to know that you’re not all that. In that broken, beautiful church community, sign up to serve in the children’s ministry. Take a meal to a new mom. Visit someone who is sick. Do something generous with your left hand that your right hand wouldn’t even take notice of. Practice some invisibility in your local church community so that when it comes time to publish your words for an audience, you’re a bit weaned from the thrill of being noticed, listened to, even admired.

Count yourself vulnerable to temptation. As you do, practice the glorious both/and of writing. Count this work good—and count on needing the help of God for doing it. Because though we may be unreliable, he is not. As Owen reminds, we have a “faithful and merciful High Priest, who both suffered and was tempted and is on that account touched with the feeling of our infirmities.”

What spiritual practices do you engage that help you to “count yourself vulnerable to temptation”? 

The Perils of Publishing - And Why You Should Write Anyways (Part I)

Jen Michel

Perils of Publishing.jpg

I am releasing my third book next week, which makes a recent online conversation rather relevant to me.

Several weeks ago, Michelle DeRusha published a blog post entitled, “Why I’m Quitting Book Writing.” She is the author of several books, including her most recent True You: Letting Go of Your False Self to Uncover the Person God Created. Her decision to abandon the world of traditional book publishing was certainly no impulsive decision, especially considering that she would be required to return the advance on the next book she had been contracted to write. DeRusha explains:

“I’ve learned the hard way over the last ten years of writing and publishing that staying whole and healthy in this vocation is, for me, not a simple matter of willpower, nor is it a simple matter of surrender. It’s not about trying harder or surrendering more. Believe me, I’ve done both.” 

She continues:

“I can’t separate my self – my whole, true self – from the platform-building, from the push to attract and attain more followers and subscribers, from the Amazon ranks. I can’t separate myself from what often feels like a relentless drive toward bigger, better and more. I can’t separate myself from wanting to be known, affirmed and recognized by the “right” people.”

DeRusha has expressed what most Christian authors have felt, including me—which is to say the seeming impossibility of writing for other souls while trying to keep hold of your own. It’s a mighty vortex, this roaring demand to find fans and followers, to grow a platform, and to sell your brand. (I would add that it’s additionally harder as a woman without the institutional support that many male authors enjoy.) 

 How do we write without losing our soul?

After I finished writing Surprised by Paradox, my third book in five years, like DeRusha, I, too, wondered if it wasn’t time to take a break, possibly even abandon the work altogether. In part, this was simply owed to fatigue. The words were spent, and I was spent with them. But I don’t think it was a simple case of burnout. There was a bone-deep discouragement about the work, about all that it required of me and the little it seemed to return. Of course I have enjoyed the process of writing three books and being asked to speak about them. But there have also been many days that I have half-fancied working retail. 

I entered a period of discernment. I don’t know that this looked like anything other than keeping myself open to the voice of God on the particular question of my calling. What did God want me to do? I was happy to change course—happier still if it meant fluffing pillows at Restoration Hardware and buying throw pillows with my employee discount. I pursued the normal course of my spiritual practices—Scripture reading, prayer, fellowship, spiritual direction, service—all the while keeping my ear low to the ground, tuned to the whisper

And as is often true with God, he did not thunder his will from the heavens—THOU SHALT WRITE!—nor did he move my fingers involuntarily across my keyboard. But in small, ordinary ways, he confirmed that this is what I meant to be doing: that I’m meant to be an author, meant to stretch my writerly legs in the longer form of books, meant to do this work whatever the cost, whatever the return.

I wonder if you, reader/writer, have ever felt this way, too? Despite all the hassles and heartaches of the writing life, you know, somewhere deep in your bones, that you’ve got to stick with the work of words. It’s the way you make sense of the world and yourself in it. It’s your spiritual practice of paying attention, of naming, of loving. On the one hand, you know the sick and self-preoccupied pleasure you take out of the likes and the retweets and the shares of your posts. On the other, you feel the pleasure of God when you spin words, and, by unexpected grace, they sometimes turn to gold.

 Tempted as you are to the solutions of either and or, you know that what you really need is a both-and. You understand that you’re both corrupt AND called.

How are we going to keep at this work? What’s going to keep us grounded? Having read DeRusha’s post (and knowing that her decision couldn’t be mine), I was pondering those questions for myself when I picked up an old/new book from my bookshelf, which I bought years ago off a table in some church foyer. Published by Crossway, it’s a compilation of three classic works by John Owen, the long dead Puritan pastor and theologian, entitled Overcoming Sin & Temptation. I’d read the first work—“Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers” (and written about it here), but I’d never finished the book. It has seemed like a good time to pick it up again—

Even share it here with you.

 Though it’s a busy launch season for me (or maybe because it’s a busy launch season for me), I want to read and blog my way through Owen’s second work, “Of Temptation, the Nature and Power of it.” I’ll be sharing these reflections every week, and I’d love to have you join the conversation. And by this, I really mean conversation.

 So, first question: what is our greatest JOY in writing? And what is your greatest GRIEF?

Why Aren't Men Reading Women Writers?

Jen Michel

Tyler Daswick, a senior writer at Relevant, was not reading books written by women, an omission he confessed in his recent article, How Six Weeks of Reading Books By Women Affected My Thinking. Daswick—“a Straight White Dude”—described his regretful neglect of female perspectives and his hope “to be an ally for women amid the current social climate.” Although his piece was obviously well-intentioned, it caused offense. And because Relevant said it did not accurately represent their editorial perspective, the site chose to take the piece down. Daswisk himself has responded to criticism on Twitter by apologizing and admitting he has much to learn. I’m grateful for his humility.

Quite honestly, I only wish more men would follow Daswick’s example in trying to read women writers more widely. He is certainly not alone in his “ignorance,” even his “complacen[cy] toward that ignorance.” As Dr. Albert Hsu discovered in his doctoral research (Hsu earned his PhD in educational studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is senior editor for IVP books), women read relatively equally between male and female authors (54%/46%), while men, on the other hand, are much more likely to read male authors than female authors (90%/10%).

Why the discrepancy?

According to Daswick’s article, it’s to be possibly blamed on the chicken-egg cycle of men’s ignorance of women authors. Because men don’t read women, when they ask their male friends for recommended titles, their “dude friends” offer no help. Daswick admitted he felt amiss when looking to expand his library: “I didn’t know where to find books [written by women] on my own.” This led to his aimless wandering into a local Barnes and Noble where he purportedly encountered a second problem: accessibility. When he has finally exhausted all of the recommendations his female friends have given him, none of which were stocked, he finally selected—drum roll!—Dead Witch Walking.

Daswick was never clear about the kind of book he might have been looking for, but it simply can’t be the rarity of books written by women that accounts for men’s failure to read them, nor can it be the impossibility of finding them. A simple google search turns up the names of women who have made literary history, who have snagged coveted literary prizes, who most recently made the diversity of lists to applaud the great books of 2017, including CT’s Book of the Year, Liturgy of the Ordinary­—written by Tish Harrison Warren.

Women writers aren’t a rare species of hippopotamus, glimpsed only at dusk by keen eyes behind binoculars.

Why don’t men read women writers? I suppose that question is best left to the men for answering. I can only speculate. In some cases, theological convictions about gender roles—and who is permitted to teach whom—surely play a part. A man who questions the permissibility of a woman behind a pulpit might equally question the legitimacy of a women behind a page (specifically in Christian non-fiction publishing). It would certainly prove interesting if we could understand, by the data, how much or how little our theology drives our book-buying decisions.

Perhaps what drives the discrepancy, even among those of more egalitarian ilk, is the assumption (again, in Christian non-fiction publishing) that women aren’t writing serious books. Books by men are presumed to have more theological heft than books by women. A friend recently told me of a bestselling book by a celebrity (female) Christian author that she’d skimmed in an hour. “It would have been better as a paragraph,” she concluded. And truthfully, I know exactly the kind of book she means: heavy on syrupy, self-deprecating anecdotes, light on analysis, biblical or otherwise. Some would say we have a crisis of fluff in Christian women’s publishing.

On the one hand, I want to say: yes. Christian women who write and speak for a popular audience are often met with the unfortunate expectation that they be witty, vulnerable, and inspirational (not to mention pretty). These qualities of personality—and not the more solemn tasks of research and sustained reflection, biblical or otherwise—are often the standards of “success” in terms of book sales or speaking invitations. Unless we look Stich-Fix cute and divulge the “hot mess” of our own lives, we’re afraid no one will listen.

On the other hand, I want to say: no. I think these pressures—to be artificially intimate, to deliver the lowest-hanging fruit of insight, to exude enviable “cool”—also face many male writers and speakers. The itching ears of contemporary society have a bottomless appetite for the superficial. Fluff is a more likely a human crisis, not a female one. And further, a cursory look at the women writing at major Christian blogs will turn up a host of “serious” Christian authors who endeavor to say something meaningful and lasting and true.

What is different, of course, is the range of embodied experience women writers bring to their work of words. We birth and suckle babies, for example; we “drip”, as Daswick wrote, with femininity. To be sure, a male reader might not fully understand the grief of a shuttered womb, but he can practice that great human effort called empathy. And this isn’t simply necessary for him to become more worldly-wizened. It’s deeply necessary for him to read the Scriptures, where salvation is likened to labor, where redemption is described as an act of housekeeping, where God, Israel’s mother, cries out for her comfort. As long as the male experience is considered to be universal (and female experience alien), we’ll be missing a lot of good material for our preaching and teaching. More importantly, we’ll have a diminished view of God and his work in the world.

Christian men—of all men—should be the most literate when it comes to reading the work of women writers, knowing that we image God best in our complementarity of male and female. So why aren’t men more widely reading women writers?

Let’s ask them.

As an aside, I'll be moderating a panel at the Festival of Faith & Writing in Grand Rapids in April. Joining me will be Al Hsu (InterVarsity Press), Robert Hosack (Baker Books), Katelyn Beaty (author of A Woman's Place) and Tish Harrison Warren (author of Liturgy of the Ordinary). If you plan to be in Grand Rapids and are interested in this conversation, check us out!