“Write for your friends…and for people you might want to be friends with.”
Ashes from the flames / The truth is what remains / The truth is what you save / From the fire / And you fight for what you love / Don’t matter if it hurts / You find out what it’s worth / And you let the rest burn.
Not long ago I had the chance to chat with Andy Crouch, the former executive editor of Christianity Today, about writing as a calling. He told me that he never set out to be a writer. His path to the flagship publication of the Evangelical world began with writing down some thoughts about young adult ministry from his time working for InterVarsity at Harvard. He only intended for a few friends to read it, but his writing resonated deeply with them. They shared it with their friends, who shared it with their friends, and it eventually caught the attention of an editor at Christianity Today.
A decade later, he found himself on staff at the magazine. But after writing four books and countless articles over the years, Andy told me that he hasn’t moved away from the initial impulse behind that first piece. Write for your friends, he told me, and for people you might want to be friends with.
For someone who harbors dreams of being a staff writer for The New Yorker or The Atlantic, it felt like he’d thrown a bucket of cold water on me.
Sometimes, however, a cold shower does a body good. As I reflected on what Andy said, it began to feel comforting. I had stumbled on a profound truth about control—or the lack thereof. I could spend my life trying to climb the ladder to one of those elite publications, or I could do my work with contentment and let the chips fall where they may. Andy was right. In the end, the only thing you can do is write for your friends. But the beautiful fact is that that’s the only thing that matters.
I’ve been reminded of this recently by songs from two of my favorite rock bands. In a track called “If The House Burns Down Tonight,” Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman writes about a time when he evacuated his home in San Diego during a particularly brutal season for wildfires in southern California. Foreman is by all accounts an accomplished artist, with ten Switchfoot albums, a slew of hit singles, and a variety of solo projects to his name. But with “the smoke piling up in the rearview mirror,” he sings, “I ain’t never seen it any clearer. If the house burns down tonight, I got everything I need when I got you by my side.”
He looks at his wife in the seat next to him, and the world narrows. It all boils down (or rather, “burns down”) to relationships, to the one he loves.
What is it that we will leave behind?
Foreman’s experience raises the question of legacy. What do you want to leave behind? What do you want to be remembered for? “I want to still be standing when it falls apart. I want to be a shoulder for the broken heart,” sings Colony House in the song “Remembered For.”
Again, it comes down to how you live with the ones you know and love. “Everything else, you can set it on fire,” the song continues. “Don’t want to be defined by all these things I’ve done. I’d rather be remembered by the ones I love. This is what I want to be remembered for.”
I love these songs because they are rock and roll anthems. They’re loud and energetic and free, and yet they defy the spirit of rock and roll. In them, music artists whose very calling is to create surrender the pursuit of worldly acclaim or the artistic high as ends in themselves. Instead they celebrate the profound freedom found in valuing smallness, covenantal commitment, and individual acts of love.
I think this is a large reason why Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is such a compelling read. John Ames’ epistolary writings for his young son are meaningful not because they’re full of brilliant, Pulitzer-winning prose, but because they comprise an incalculably great gift from a father to his son. The book’s literary merit stems from the fact that it is an act of love. The relationship at the heart of the story makes it beautiful.
So I ask again: what do you want to remembered for, o writer?
Is it the book manuscript? The click-throughs? The cover story? Those are great, but without love they’re nothing more than clanging drums and electric guitar distortion. I’m with Switchfoot and Colony House. Let the rest burn. You can set it on fire.
The conclusion of “Remembered For” says it well: “To live in love. To love in depth. Let wonder take away my breath. To give until there’s nothing more, this is what I want to be remembered for.”
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