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Thursday, August 19, 2010

For Love or Money

In my never-ending discussions with Christian novelists about improving the quality of what we write, I once offended a successful author by suggesting she might consider writing fewer words in order to write them better. “I am the main breadwinner in our house,” she said. “I have to write three novels a year because I have children to feed.” She seemed a little angry on that point so I let it drop, but I’ve been wondering ever since if it’s okay for a Christian to write novels for a living.

I’m not asking if it’s okay to be paid for a novel, mind you; I’m asking if it’s okay to write a novel for the important difference.

A non-Christian would probably be surprised I even ask the question, but one of the things the unbelieving world has never understood about the Jesus Way is this: God cares more about motivations than results. That’s why Jesus could point to a woman who put only two small copper coins in the temple treasury
and say, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others.” She had one motive only: to give her all to God.

Elsewhere in the
Bible Paul commands a group of slaves to work for their masters “with all your heart, as [if] working for the Lord, not for men.” That reminds me of Jesus’ famous answer to the question, “Which is the greatest commandment?” He replies with a quote from Deuteronomy (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart...”) and he adds another from Leviticus (“Love your neighbor as yourself”), thus showing us the way to love God wholeheartedly is to love our neighbor wholeheartedly. If we think of our work as an act of neighborly love (and we should) this begins to lead me toward an answer to my question. Paul and Jesus would say the way for a novelist to love “with all your heart” is to write “with all your heart.”

Does this leave room for money as a motivation? I don’t see how. It seems to me when Paul and Jesus use language like “all your heart” they mean every little bit of my heart, and to the extent I love and work for any other motivation, I fail to obey that command.

Yet, my writer friend does have children to feed, and I can’t believe the Lord wants them to go hungry. What is she to do?

Jesus answers the question
this way: “ first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” And elsewhere he says, “the worker deserves his wages.” So when Paul tells us to work with all our hearts, and when Jesus tells us to love with all our hearts, they’re not saying God expects starvation. They’re saying write for the Lord (love Him) with all your heart, and He will honor it with everything on earth you need.

At this point, some may wonder what it means to do one’s personal best in an imperfect world. Theoretically, there’s always room for improvement in any manuscript. So at the end of the day it’s the deadline that defines the level of excellence, right? And since most deadlines are established by arbitrary human decisions, who am I to tell my author friend I think three novels in one year is too many?

Again, I think we have to look to motivation. Is she writing three novels a year because she believes that is the best way to serve God? Then let her write with all her heart within the time allowed. But that is not the reason she gave. She said she did it to feed her children. Perhaps she sees her role as their provider as her main “work,” and writing as merely a means to that end. If so, she might believe compromising on the writing is okay so long as she remains true to her main responsibility. But Paul’s command leaves no room for that kind of logic. He said, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart...” The word “whatever” is universal. It applies to writing just as much as it applies to parenting.

Few of us are blessed with the talent and the situation to be able to support a family on a writer’s pay. The rest of us must work at something else and do our writing on the side. The moment may come when you are tempted to compromise your writing in order to write full time. Don’t do it. Whether you are blessed to write as your main job, or whether your job is something else, the Bible is clear: whatever you do must be done with all your heart, as if working for the Lord, and not for men. In other words, write as well as you can, or don’t write at all.

You may have to work a day job in order to write well, but if you give everything you’ve got to both the day job and the writing, if you seek God’s kingdom and His righteousness with all your heart that way, you have Jesus’ promise that everything you need in life will come.

Athol Dickson’s novels have been favorably compared to the work of Octavia Butler (Publisher’s Weekly), Daphne du Maurier (, by Cindy Crosby, Christianity Today fiction critic), and Flannery O’Connor (The New York Times). His They Shall See God was a Christy Award finalist. River Rising was selected as one of the Booklist Top Ten Christian Novels of 2006, was a Christianity Today's Best Novel of 2006 finalist, an Audie Award winner and winner of the Christy Award for best suspense novel of the year. The Cure also won a Christy Award in the suspense category. Winter Haven was a Christy Award finalist and a Romantic Times Top Pick, and Athol’s third novel to win a Christy Award, Lost Mission, is currently nominated for a Clive Staples Award. Athol lives with his wife in southern California.


  1. i may be out of line here, but i find this a tad condescending. why is writing for a living, even if it is for a Christian market, any different than being a Christian banker, Christian lawyer, Christian checker at the supermarket, or a Christian garbage collector? Would you say the same to those people?

    if writing is your craft and not your art, then you have every right to be paid for it, without any need to resort to this kind of twisting in the winds of guilt ... come on guys, life is very different in this crazy economy and i say 'well done' to the successful author who not only took your criticism and remained your friend, but also apparently provides for her family. an honest days work is an honest days work. and God honors that, be it writing or fishing or painting or landscaping. if not for His inspiration, the successful author wouldn't be successful in the first place.

  2. Athol,

    I know exactly what you're saying. The second I start NEEDING the money, my writing suffers, my attitude suffers and the inspiration suffers. For me, I've learned that I can't write (just)for the money, (though I do want to get paid). I have to write for the love of writing, and then the money follows (or not). I've made the decision, (for now), that I do much better if I keep the day job to pay the bills and focus on writing the best story I can.

    Those who start needing the next contract and the money can get in a very bad place of desperation and chuning out less than their best for God because the electricity is getting ready to be shut off.

    Writing is a craft, yes, but I want mine to also be art. At the end of the day, I have to ask myself WHY I am doing this. If it's just for the money, I make much more as a nurse and it comes regularly.

    The important thing for everyone, I think, is to keep the main thing the main thing. It's so easy to lose sight of that and before you know it, you're pressing yourself in a conveyer belt of sausage links, one after another, and not so much nourishing anyone as making them fat.

  3. Anonymous, I'm sorry you found the post condescending, but you clearly didn’t read it carefully enough. It says, "I’m not asking if it’s okay to be paid for a novel, mind you; I’m asking if it’s okay to write a novel for the important difference." May I suggest that you take a moment to think about the difference, and then go back and read the post again? You'll find it's not about whether authors should be paid to write. Of course it’s okay to take money for our work, whether we think of it as a craft or an art! “The worker is worthy of his pay,” as Jesus said. But the post is not about that at all. It’s about whether money should be our MOTIVATION. As Gina said, WHY am I writing?

    Should we write FOR the pay, or should we "Seek first His kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [such as money] will be given to you as well"? The answer is very clear to me: my first motivation in EVERY JOB I DO must be to love the Lord by serving Him. If money comes as well, that must be a distant second.

    So the answer to your question is, yes indeed I would say exactly the same thing to a "Christian banker, Christian lawyer, Christian checker at the supermarket, or a Christian garbage collector." I will say it to any Christian who will listen, because making love for God our first motivation in everything we do is the secret to a happy life.

    Also, I don’t understand your distinction between writing as a craft and as an art. If you go to Webster’s and look up the definitions for both words, you’ll find they mean the same thing.

  4. Athol,
    Thank you for this thought-provoking post. Though I "know" it, I grapple with it sinking into my heart.

  5. River Rising inspired me with the grace and beauty of your story and your writing, Athol. One can see in it your desire to make the Lord the author of your words as you hone them and then, without pretense, allow them life.

    That has to be the goal of us as Christian writers. (Or bankers or homemakers or merely citizens of the world.) We best point to Jesus by tackling any work with all that we have in us.

    As an editor, I often hear, "But I've worked and worked and written and rewritten and now you say I have to do it again!" Well, yes.

    As a writer, I find that God, in His infinite mercy, knew my heart and knew that I wanted to craft the best art possible. And so He has given me time.

    I am sorry for anyone who feels that she must compromise to earn bread. I've been in a place where I had to say, "Now what, Lord? The larder is empty, I'm a single mother, now what?" And always, always, He has provided.

  6. In a related vein: As a part of my job, I help kids write essays and poems for annual contests sponsored by a local philanthropist. One of the hardest things to teach these kids is that they're not writing "for a grade" or "for the prize money" -- they are writing their best, and that requires time, thought, rewrites, new perspectives.

    A few kids have learned (especially those who have been through this process once or twice already) that the effort is worth the end result, which may not be the prize but only be the knowledge they attempted something difficult and finished well.

    For many, just having a poem or an essay they can go show to their parents, the staff, other kids, is just as good as winning the money.

  7. Christians are not the only ones who believe in purity of heart and motivation.

    Don't act like anyone who isn't Christian is just greedy and selfish and couldn't possibly understand.

  8. Aamba, you seem to be offended by my post. I'm sorry. I don't know what I wrote that made you think I'm acting "like anyone who isn't Christian is just greedy and selfish and couldn't possibly understand." If you can show me anything I wrote that says or implies such a thing I’ll change it, because that's not what I believe. On the contrary, I believe Christians are just as flawed as everybody else.

  9. I agree completely with the motivation viewpoint and doing your best in your craft to serve the Lord. I agree with giving your all to whatever you do.

    Here's the minor problem I see in this, disregarding this particular author's response. The way you labor over your writing, Athol, doesn't have to be the same for every writer. Maybe for some it doesn't matter how long they work on a piece, their best is thrashed out in three months' time.

    You need only read the selections of different writers and readers to learn that "excellence" becomes a very subjective term. I know. I know. We now get into all the discussion about "greatness" being defined in the arts. But I will still argue that if God uses the inferior to mock the superior, He can do it. And I think we do have to be careful how and what WE deem as appropriately motivated and conducted as to the Lord. We're not responsible for anyone else's art. Just our own.

  10. Well said, Athol. And thought provoking, which is refreshing to read. :)

  11. I agree with Ane. This is thought provoking. There is so much I want to say about this, but it's so complex. It seems that art will always be undervalued in our culture, but when we start calling it a ministry, the monetary value dips even lower. I like what Athol is saying about our heart's motivation to do something for God, but I also understand how writers can have a hard time thinking about that point when they are expected to write for free or for very little. There does seem to be an attitude out there that says Christians shouldn't ask to be paid very much for their work. I don't know if what I'm saying makes sense, but I do think it's a struggle. I love that Athol tries to focus us on what our first motivation should be, rather than on whether or not it's okay to be paid. By the way, I think it's more than okay to be paid, but it's good to remember the passion that motivated us to join this profession in the first place.

  12. Thanks Athol, for stirring the pot, getting us to pause and ponder the path we're on. That's a good thing.

    The pull to crave success is subtle, and can also corrupt that higher desire to craft and chisel our words carefully. To make those extra trips back and forth, then back again, till we get it just right.

    Definitely not a job to be paid by the hour.


  13. I hear an echo in this:

    "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; this is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her." Luke 10:39-42 (NRSV)

    Thank you, Athol.

  14. Sorry, I didn't mean for that post right above here to be anonymous! I tried to capitalize and "S" and got "saved." Very funny, considering.... ;-)


  15. Yeegads. And it should be "there is need of..."

    Really, somebody needs to get to bed.


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