• Tom Carlisle

Don't stop believing?

When I was a young Christian at Oxford, there was a popular illustration doing the rounds in certain evangelical circles. It was called the FACTS-FAITH-FEELING train, and it was meant to represent the dangers of trusting your own experience.

If you were led by your feelings, the logic went, and if you let them shape your faith, then you’d lose sight of the truth in Scripture. Instead you were encouraged to make Scripture your foundation, putting your faith in those facts even when they seemed impossible, until your feelings eventually fell into line.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that illustration recently, because it so closely mirrors what I’ve been told as a writer. You labour over a work in solitude, trusting that what you’re producing is important and valuable, until it’s finally ready to release to the public.

More often than not you’ll send something out into the world and it’ll evoke almost no reaction.

That leaves you with a choice.

Either hold on to your experience, letting that indifference shape your perspective - or else hold on to the truth that “I am a writer” and keep plugging away until your genius is recognised.

If you saw anyone else doing that you’d call them crazy. It’s conspiracy theory logic, the logic of election deniers and QAnon devotees, who insist on holding on to their belief even when all evidence says otherwise. And yet it’s become a mark of pride among some writers, who hold up the story of J.K. Rowling’s many rejections as proof they’ll make it if they’re just tenacious enough.

I suppose I’m wondering when that posture stops being admirable and starts being sad. By which I mean, when you’ve been in the game a while - producing material regularly, sending out novels to agents or publishers - and you realise there’s not much of a market for what you’re producing, what should you do? Should you change your angle, or stick it out in the hope that the world finally catches up with you, like they did with Bowie?

Because it hardly needs saying that not everyone can be Bowie.

So much of learning to survive in this business is learning how to make your writing something for your own benefit - recasting it as sustaining, either a lens that helps you make sense of the world or an escape from the tedium of your daily routine. After all, you don’t have to write to market - that’s just one angle.

But then that leaves the question of why you should bother sharing your work - if it’s primarily for your own benefit, then why not just keep it in a journal? To which most people’s answer, I think, would be that they write to connect - in the hope that someone will read their work and think, me too - and even if one solitary person feels that way, it’ll all have been worth it.

I’m not sure if that’s actually true, or just a way of making ourselves feel better. Or perhaps what I mean is, I’m not sure i I’m willing to let that become the dominant narrative in my writing life, the one that leads the FACTS-FAITH-FEELING train.

Ordinarily I’d say, I’m not sure it matters that much. Except this time it does - because after all, as Annie Dillard once wrote, ‘how we spend our days… is how we spend our lives.’

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