Last month I attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Annual Conference & Book Fair in Boston. With over 11,000 writers in attendance, over 500 readings and sessions on everything from teaching creative writing to getting published, and over 650 exhibitors at the book fair, the AWP is easily the biggest literary conference in North America.
This is the third year I’ve attended. I bring home lots of book fair goodies for my students—writing contest announcements, literary magazine samples, little notebooks and buttons and koozies and USBs with literary slogans on them—and I always learn lots about both teaching writing and the business of writing.
Nevertheless, by day two of the four-day conference—though I’m still looking forward to the panel sessions and readings I’ve highlighted in my AWP planner—I’m impatient for it to be over with. It’s not just my usual introverted person’s conference malaise. It’s the feeling I have every time I enter Barnes & Noble, only 11,000+ times worse. Being in the company of that many fellow writers makes me feel so hopeless.
So many authors. So many books. Who in the world will ever read all of them? I ask myself. And even in the privacy of my own mind, I don’t allow myself to ask the logical next question: What can I add to the billions of books already on the shelves, the eleven-thou-drillions of books yet to be published? And why bother?
Whenever I am overcome with one of these fits of writerly despair, I reluctantly remember the Wise Teacher’s remark at the end of his book of the Bible: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecclesiastes 12:12 NRSV). The passage is often preached as a disparagement of all writing but the Bible. As the Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible explains, the “many books” in question are books “of mere human composition . . . as opposed to . . . these inspired writings,” and it is the study of these “mere human books” which “wearies the body, without profiting the soul.” What could be more discouraging to a Christian writer?
In any case, in hope of uncovering some trace of writerly optimism in the Teacher’s words, I went to Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the passage. Here it is in context:
Besides being wise himself, the Quester also taught others knowledge. He weighed, examined, and arranged many proverbs. The Quester did his best to find the right words and write the plain truth.
The words of the wise prod us to live well.
They’re like nails hammered home, holding life together.
They are given by God, the one Shepherd.
But regarding anything beyond this, dear friend, go easy. There’s no end to the publishing of books, and constant study wears you out so you’re no good for anything else. The last and final word is this:
Do what he tells you.
And that’s it. Eventually God will bring everything that we do out into the open and judge it according to its hidden intent, whether it’s good or evil.
(Ecclesiastes 9-14 )
The Teacher—or, the Quester, as Peterson calls him—starts out by describing to his “dear friend” his own writing process: a weighing and examining and arranging not unlike the “orderly account” based on “investigating everything carefully” that Luke tells his own dear friend was his method in writing his gospel (Luke 1:3 NRSV).
Like any good writer, the Teacher seeks to tell the plain truth in just the right words. That, in any case, is what I keep telling my writing students should be their goal as writers.
Beyond that, the Teacher seems to be saying in Peterson’s version, don’t stress about it. Just strive to do what God wants you to do and trust that God will make of it what he wants.
And that, today, is my comfort as a writer, and my prayer: that my hidden intents will be found worthy and that God will make of my efforts what he will.