Ten years ago, I printed up business cards with the title Writer under my name thinking that if that’s what the card says, that’s what I am. Now, I don’t have to read that card to know that writing is my job, but some days, at the end of a writing session, I’ll leave my desk with doubts about whether I’m called to this work. Well aware of the needs and problems crying for attention, questions about the value of putting words, my words, on paper ring in my ears.
I know that I’m not the only writer who frets. One of my writing program classmates got this response when she typed writer/copy editor into her online tax form: Please enter a valid occupation. One of the faculty, an award-winning children’s author, admitted, “To this day, whenever I write down writer as my profession, I imagine the person on the other side of this transaction changing it to unemployed.”
Recently, I received affirmation for my call to writing at the Seattle Repertory Theater’s premier of How to Write a New Book for the Bible, by Bill Cain. The play, originally written as a memoir, is based on Cain’s experiences caring for his dying mother. The main character is also named Bill; flashbacks portray Bill’s and his brother’s childhood as well as his parents’ relationship and his father’s death. “These are exquisite human beings,” Cain says in the Rep’s magazine, Encore, “and I wanted to ritualize in some way the wonder of their lives as a way of celebrating them.”
Not that Cain’s parents didn’t have their flaws or that his family was perfect. There are plenty of scenes of conflict between the parents, misunderstanding between the brothers, and feelings of inadequacy and failure. A classic struggle emerges when Bill’s widowed mother’s health begins to fail and she needs help to remain in her home. Just like Cain, the playwright, Bill is a Jesuit priest as well as a writer. Perceived by his mother and brother as not having a “real job,” Bill gets tapped to be the live-in caregiver.
Cain explains that his ministry as a priest is “to go into the world, find the presence of God there and celebrate it.” He thinks that’s a good description of what those working in theater do as well, bringing attention to what is “neglected and holy.”
In the second act, this moment of reflection by Bill took my breath away. “The jobs of writer and priest are closely related. In both, you point and say, Look. Look there. That person you haven’t noticed—he, she matters.”
The writers I most admire do this in their writing, pointing to the people, places, and issues that we don’t notice—and that matter. Bill Cain’s play pointed to the value of writing and left me with a useful query to guide me in my work:
Who or what that is neglected and holy am I to call attention to?