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Writing as a Holy Calling

by Tom Johnson on Jul 9, 2012
categories: technical-writing writing

A Year of Writing Dangerously: 365 Days of Inspiration and Encouragement
A Year of Writing Dangerously: 365 Days of Inspiration and Encouragement

Perhaps because of my blog's title, "I'd Rather Be Writing," many people think this blog deals with creative writing. As a result, I frequently get asked if I want to review books about writing. Sometimes I say yes.

Recently someone sent me A Year of Writing Dangerously: 365 Days of inspiration and Encouragement, by Barbara Abercrombie. So far I like the book. I'm not sure if "dangerously" accurately describes it, but each page contains short encouragement about writing. I welcome this quick, daily encouragement because it usually motivates me to write.

I know that in the field of tech comm, "writing" has been somewhat commoditized, so there's always a tension that rears its head when I start mentioning writing as a worthwhile activity. But in other contexts, "writing" can be just the opposite: a holy calling. This brings me to entry #3 in Writing Dangerously:

3. The Holy Calling

You may find that your friends and family are somewhat less than respectful of your sitting there in your sacred space. They might even refer to what you're up to as "typing" or "your new hobby." Writing is not a hobby. Collecting stamps or coins is a hobby. Writing is a calling.


I believe that -- if you are serious about a life of writing, or indeed about any creative form of expression -- you should take on this work like a holy calling. I became a writer the way other people become monks or nuns.... I was writing's most devotional hand-maiden. I built my entire life around writing. -- Elizabeth Gilbert.

Perhaps it's this sense of the writer's holy calling that binds us together. It's a kind of secret order. As a college student majoring in English, I once joined a group that was banded together like this. The group was called "Writing Fellows." We acted as writing tutors for classes across the disciplines. In our training to become writing fellows, we had to write an essay describing how we knew we were writers, essentially telling the conversion story about our "holy calling."

As a writing fellow looking at my future, I didn't care what my exact career title would be, so long as I could spend all day immersed in words -- shaping ideas, organizing content, styling sentences with rhythm and flow.

The reality is that most technical writing jobs fail to engage any sense of a holy calling. A few weeks of writing dry, step-by-step procedures can suck the writing zeal out of the most passionate writing devotee. As one embarks on a career in technical writing, it becomes clear that not all writing endeavors have the same fulfillment. In fact, many don't consider technical writing to be writing at all.

In a presentation at the last STC Summit on Exploring the Information Ecosystem, Rob Hanna explained that persuasive writing and informational writing rely on two different mindsets altogether, such that a person skilled in persuasive writing (blogs, essays, articles, stories, fiction, letters) might perform below average with informational writing (help topics, reports, proposals, interface text, reference manuals), and vice versa.

Informational writing requires you to structure your content into concepts, tasks, and references. You strip out all the extraneous words and focus on the bare essentials to complete a task. You focus on clear, accurate information -- not on persuading or arguing for an idea of any kind. You add indexes, meta properties, glossaries, related topics, and other navigational aids.

Few people find technical writing a holy calling in the same way creative writers find writing to be a holy calling. For example, in Is Technical Writing Your Calling?, Michael Harvey writes,

Personally, I don't think that writing installation manuals, product guides, or help panels is a calling. It's a job — an enjoyable career if you're good at it. The underlying activity — clearly communicating complex concepts or procedures to help someone get work done — feels close to a calling. Clear communication makes a connection between human beings or between ideas, creates understanding, and promotes efficiency and order. Those are inherently good, if imprecise, goals to pursue.

I think Michael's assessment expresses the perspective most technical writers hold: technical writing provides a worthwhile career but does not connect with its practitioners as a calling. But why can't it be a calling? Technical writers still, in fact, work with words. Why does the activity not summon one's creative energies?

Perhaps the lack of the muse constitutes the real difference between technical writing and creative writing. With creative writing, you may feel an inner muse guiding and styling your words, whispering to you the twists and turns of the plot. You may have periodic epiphanies that give you a glimpse of an aesthetic vision -- something beautiful and true that you can see in your mind and try to reach with words. That aesthetic vision motivates you.

In contrast, technical writers forego the muse. Instead, the subject matter expert plays a kind of pseudo muse and deigns to give you table scraps of information whenever it's convenient for him or her. You gather up these scraps and cobble them together into a seamless patchwork of information that you're sort of proud of, except that no one else sees much value in it.

Perhaps so many people find technical writing careers boring because we forget that users need more than information. Users also need the persuasive / language arts side communication as well, as Rob Hanna described in his dichotomy of writing. You can find ample opportunities to write in this more persuasive mode. For example, the other day I wrote an article for our technology blog on How to Update Your Directory Photo.

Granted, this article seems like a topic in a help system. Still, I elaborated in places, added more images, and included more of an introduction. I made it an article instead of a help topic. A while ago I wrote another technology-related article titled From Local Unit Websites to a Suite of Tools. It provides less how-to information and answers more "what" and "why."

For a non-personal example, look at Inside Google Search. You'll see that the top navigation has much more than a list of how-to articles. There's a tips and tricks section, a stories section, a blog, a playground, and more.

Inside Google Search has more than just how-to information.

Many software companies have technology blogs, and if so, articles about the software products and their uses can provide you with a steady stream of content. As you engage in technology blogging for your organization, you can call forth your creative talents and escape the hum-drum world of procedural writing.

If you have a personal blog on the side, like I do, you have even more opportunities to let down your creative hair and "write dangerously."

Although I don't feel technical writing to be a holy calling, I do still feel the writer's calling from time to time. The more I write, the more energy I feel to write, and I don't much care exactly what the form is. I know that my creative energy will push me toward certain directions at times, and perhaps pull me back at others.

Attitude toward callings

When we speak of callings, it's usually with an attitude of embrace. But with true callings, it might be the case that you despise the work. I'm currently listening to The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan, as I bike to work. It's a 14-book epic fantasy series that has even inspired its own conference (Jordancon). So far (I'm in book three) the protagonist, Rand Al Thor, is a sheepherder called to be the "dragon reborn." His destiny is to lead the last battle against the dark one and be the savior of mankind.

In an interview about the book, Robert Jordan explains that he wanted to explore what it would be like if someone tapped you on the shoulder and told you would be the savior of mankind, even if you didn't want to:

"The first inspiration was the thought of what it was really like to be tapped as the savior of mankind. In a lot of books that have somebody who is the "chosen one" if you will, it seems that the world quickly divides into allies who are strongly behind the "chosen one" and the evil guys. It seemed to me that if somebody is chosen to be the savior, there is going to be a good bit of resistance, both "let this cup pass from me," and a lot of people who aren't going to be that happy to have a savior show up, even if they are on his side nominally. That established, I began to think about the world. (See Sense of Wonder.)

Bringing this back to writing and the holy calling, what if the muse chooses you against your will? Do you push back, refusing to pick up pen and paper to write? That kind of situation seems more fitting of a true calling. A person who wants to be a writer might not be called to be a writer. Someone who hates writing but has the gift of the muse might be a Shakespeare.

I like The Wheel of Time because the main conflict is less about good versus evil and more about man versus destiny. In this struggle, many fantastical characters play a part: myrddraal, drakkar, white cloaks, aes sedai, soulless, forsaken, ogeir, amyrylin, ta'veren-- and more. But the appeal does not come from the conflict with dark friends over the Horn of Valere, or some other quest, but rather against destiny. Thor resists at every turn the mantle of the dragon reborn. He wants to flee from it, to be free of the responsibility. Despite his flight from it, destiny follows him and at times "saidar" -- a creative, powerful life force that shapes everything -- takes over.

There's something appealing about a person who refuses a calling but ultimately walks the path. I guess it's almost a cliché for movies to begin that way -- the protagonist never wants the destiny thrust upon him or her. Only after some pivotal, scarring event does the protagonist accept the mantle and begin the journey.

For all those who have felt the holy calling of writing, I wonder whether their response to the calling comes with open arms, or with dread and despair. If it doesn't come with dread and despair, perhaps it's not a calling but rather something related, such as a "life purpose."

Calling versus life purpose

I've been talking about callings, but how do callings differ from "life purpose" or other terms? Durianrider, a raw vegan cyclist advocate, has some of the most entertaining videos on YouTube about health and nutrition. In one of his videos, he talks about how to find your life purpose.

He says your life purpose "gets you up early, and [is] what keeps you up late at night because you just want to do it -- you can't stop." To find his life purpose, he spent a couple of days water fasting in the bush (he's Australian). He removed all distractions by leaving books and music at home. With distractions removed, he let his own thoughts find their center on their own. After a day, he knew what he wanted to do with his life.

What's his life purpose? He had always known it but never realized it, he said. His purpose is to help people help themselves get fit and healthy, and at the same time, save the animals and planet and humanity itself. It's kind of grandiose, I know. Still, he devotes himself to this message. He has hundreds of engaging, funny YouTube videos as evidence of this purpose. He says that "when you're living on purpose, that is attractive to people. It leads to a life of adventure." All obstacles fall to the wayside when you have this life purpose.

His enthusiasm comes across as infectious. You can tell that his life purpose drives him. Is his life purpose a calling? Is a calling a destiny? Is destiny fate, and how does this concept differ from a mission, inner drive, or vocation? Maybe the exact term doesn't matter so much as the idea.


I've never spent time wandering the wilderness alone figuring out my life purpose/calling. Maybe a figurative 40-day fast in the wilderness would be helpful. But I've felt resounding whispers to write again and again.

Although many people won't find technical writing to be a life purpose, it can be a supporting activity to a larger goal. And if nothing else, technical writing can sustain you financially as you pursue your larger life purpose. If you're really passionate about the profession, though, and about articulating the impossible, I suppose technical writing can connect with you as a life purpose. More likely, the profession is one component of a larger purpose.

Durianrider notes that your life purpose can change. It can evolve. I can believe that. Maybe today the calling involves writing, and tomorrow it involves editing. :)

Whatever purpose drives you, make sure find and identify it, because although finding a life purpose or calling can be difficult, not having one is even more so.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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