Years ago, back in the Stone Age, I used to write music. I started while I was a student in Austria, namely because I had access to my roommate’s guitar (without his permission) and no access to a radio. Later, when I was back in the U.S., I kept it up and formed a Christian folk band at our college. One of the things that mystified me was that there was no relationship between how hard I worked on my songs and how they were received. Some songs I would labor over for months. Others would come to me in a moment of inspiration, and 20 minutes later I would have a song. And it always caught me as ironic that songs that were almost an afterthought often struck a chord with someone.
These days, I don’t write music anymore. But I do put words together for other reasons. Not only do I write novels and short stories, I write articles and opinion pieces for magazines and newspapers. And occasionally I’ve been known to present a sermon or two.
And it’s the same old story. Sometimes inspiration strikes and the words come easily. A moment of epiphany. In my 40 years of writing, I have had exactly three moments like that; situations where I knew exactly what needed to be said and the words flowed from my pen or my computer like butter. I remember waking up early on a Sunday morning one time after a very vivid dream, sneaking off to my living room while my wife was asleep, and writing a short story that became the kernel of what was later one of my first books.
But the vast majority of the time writing is work. I smile when I think of my early fantasies of being a writer who would sit around coffee shops, writing only when the muse struck, and turning those moments of inspiration into cold, hard cash and adulation by fans. Not likely. Writing is hard work.
But that’s not really the point I am getting at. In all those million or so words I have written, I can never quite predict which books and which ideas will strike a chord with a person. And I have come to the conclusion that having an effect on people, and hearing of their reaction, is the greatest reward I can ask for as a writer.
Back in the 90s, I was an assistant editor of Listen magazine, a publication directed at teaching kids to stay away from drugs, including alcohol and tobacco. I got invited to come to Canadian University College in Alberta for a weekend. I don’t remember what I told them that weekend, but I do remember laboring over the sermon that I gave. Just before we went onto the stage in the very large church, I warned the person in charge that I tended to be very short with my sermons, telling her to not be surprised if I stopped after 15 minutes. She laughed and said, “Yeah, you’ll just be getting started after 15 minutes.” True to my word, 15 minutes after I started my sermon, I sat down. And I quietly laughed to myself as the people on the platform looked at each other in confusion, not sure what to do.
Three years later, I was at a series of meetings in Portland, Oregon, when a speaker got up to present something. And I was floored when she actually quoted from that sermon that I had given that day. I didn’t remember the gist of the sermon–I still don’t remember it. But apparently I had made an impression on one person.
There have been numerous situations when my words–as a writer or a speaker–have impressed someone. And to my chagrin, I imagine there have been some experiences I am not aware of when my words of actions have affected someone in a negative way as well. The important part I always need to remember is that I can never predict which words–and which action–it will be that will have a positive or negative effect.
Most of us will never get rich as writers, and that’s probably just as well. Wealth is overrated. But we can savor the moment of allowing our words to affect someone in a positive way. Our goal should be to have more positive influence than negative–in our words and in our actions.