A few months ago, one of my ACT prep students, a high school junior, shared his concerns about the future. Having grown up designing buildings out of Legos, he had always dreamed of architecture. Now, with today’s job forecasts, he has succumbed to the depressing outlook for architects and is trying to make peace with another area of study--biomedical engineering. "I was born to build,” he said. “But it won't work for me." On the outside, I listened carefully and nodded. Inside, I wanted to hurl a taupe chair through the library window. How have we reached a pass where a seventeen-year-old must abandon his dreams before even getting started? What do we say to kids who get starry-eyed around librarians and radio announcers, to education majors packing their bags for their parents’ basements as even tenured elementary teachers lose their jobs?
As a child and teen, I never entertained—much less understood—the state of the economy. People grew up to do what they wanted to do, and somehow food and houses magically appeared. I said I wanted to be a writer, so that's what I did, what I aspired to, without apology. At an amusement park, a caricaturist drew a picture of me sitting at a typewriter with a long braid and glasses, the words “Pulitzer Prize” in a dreamy thought bubble. Well, duh, I thought. My childhood is pretty much summed up by a cardboard box full of animal stories and writing awards. Sure, I went through my brief zookeeper phase when our house ran amok with pets, and even in college I took a little detour into child development, but I’ve always come back to writing.
Perhaps it is so typically American, so Jay Gatsby, of me to presume that we deserve to pursue our dreams, to even dabble in the idea of dreams, when the great majority of people in the world struggle to keep their hearts beating one more day. But I believe God gifts us with talents that we can never fully untangle from our souls. My mother didn’t pursue what could have been a promising art career, but she also never fully let it go. Perhaps unconsciously, she has allowed her artistic genius to inform nearly every area of her life: decorating her house like a sumptuous museum, turning a daycare classroom into a wonderland of handcrafted leaves, spiders and bats, and now, at the age of 76, quietly spending her days creating miniscule flowers from Post-its for her quarter-inch scale Victorian greenhouses.
Likewise, the derailed counselor who finds himself in a cubicle will often wander to the coffee pot to ask his coworkers the truly probing questions. The chef-turned-pastor will find as many excuses for potlucks as possible. And as the job market continues to narrow, those not spiritually gifted in home health care or large animal veterinary studies will find themselves largely denying their identities in the work place while seeking to nurture their gifts elsewhere.
Like writers. And, Lord help us, the poets, who have been given (thanks a lot, God) one of the most impractical, unwanted gifts of all. It's debatable whether I have a gift, but I’m better at poetry than just about anything else, and whenever I take on a job that prevents my writing (like when I taught high school English--a job I loved but that precluded any other activities in my life), life feels "off," like I've shut my ears to the Spirit. I know poetry doesn't bring in the dough. I know it’s ridiculous that I feel like J.K. Rowling when my book reaches 98,000 on Amazon. But when I refuse to give my writing the time, the thought, the painstakingly slow chiseling of words, I am telling my Creator that he made a mistake, that his decision to indwell me with a passion for words at birth was quaint but not worthy of my attention, because, well, it's not worthy of many people's attention.
But is God bound by economy, time, or culture? Does he have to follow the rules of what works in the world? The idea of an "audience of one," has grown tired, I know, but it rings truer to me every day that I write. Yes, I write for others. I want to reach people and make them think, feel, or pray in a different way. But whether one, one hundred, or one thousand (astounding for a poetry book) sell, or whether there is a book at all, is of little consequence when I realize I’m developing my talents for eternal use. We know that today there are too many writers and not enough readers. But can there be too many poets in a place like heaven?
It’s not off-base to recommend that writers put a few practical plans in place. There will be bills and children. While earning two writing degrees, I ensured I also got experience in publishing and teaching, and I have never been without enjoyable employment in some sort of English-related field. But in making any choice about career, church, or "free time," the artist, who will usually have to pursue his or her gifts outside of the regular work day, will have to prioritize the time to create. If you're called to writing, it's not just another hobby, like a quick game of Angry Birds. It's a slow, sacred unfolding of whom God created you to be. Give it room.
Tania Runyan's latest book, One Thousand Vessels, was recently published by WordFarm Press. She is currently working on a new book of poems based on Paul's epistles under a grant from the NEA.