by John Ellis
Waylon Jennings’ wisdom was misplaced. Being a cowboy is a noble profession. Not to mention, a profession packed with the potential for adventure, good old-fashioned sweat, and the riding of horses as an integral part of the job description. And it’s mostly outside, sitting around campfires while eating freshly grilled steak paired with beans out of a warmed up can. Did I mention the riding a horse part? I’m not sure about the monetary remuneration, but, all in all, I see little reason why mamas shouldn’t let their babies grow up to be cowboys. Being a writer, though, is a career choice that should be deterred by the punishment of detention meted out by school guidance counselors to wayward, foolish children with Pulitzer Prize shaped stars in their eyeballs.
Alas, my school didn’t have a guidance counselor to slap silly dreams out of me. To be fair, my school also didn’t have a Spanish teacher that actually knew Spanish, so expecting a guidance counselor would’ve been a tad unrealistic. My point? I became an actor.
Being an actor is not a writer, I know. But bear with me, I’m working my way towards my writing career. In the interim, and by way of a transition, I think most readers will agree that a career as an actor is also a foolhardy choice. In essence, it’s a career in the service industry boring diners at your table with tales of how you got to meet so-and-so movie star on the set of such-and-such movie. “Waiting tables is just a temporary gig,” you boast to the customers. “My friend did a play with an actor who has a SAG agent, and he promised my friend that he’d tell his agent about me. It’s only a matter of time before I’ll have to move to Los Angeles. You should really try the lobster enchiladas. People come here just for those.”
Anyway, I’m no longer an actor, and I even managed to get a SAG agent. I’m now a writer – or, rather, I was. At times, I think I jumped out of the proverbial frying pan into the fire. At least as an actor I knew what I was doing. Case in point – I’ve buried the lede in this post.
While working as a columnist for a fairly well-known conservative website, my editor frequently chided me for burying the lede. And in that sentence, sits my lede: I no longer work for that website. That’s my main confession.
In all seriousness, being a writer (like being an actor) is tough. Far more people imagine themselves a writer than there are writing jobs. I was one of the fortunate few to land a steady gig as a writer, and I gave it up. Because, in many ways, staying an employed writer is harder than becoming one in the first place. Harder existentially, and, more importantly, harder spiritually. It was for me, at least. The cost became more than I could bear.
It’s easy to survey the current social and political landscape and conclude that this current age is more fractured and contentious than previous times. The assumption that we are much more tribalistic than society used to be is understandable. And while I’m not sure those assumptions stand up to historical scrutiny, those assumptions do exist for reasons. We are living through a fractured and contentious time period. We do tend to be harmfully tribalistic. To make matters worse, we live at what feels like the apex of Neil Postman’s Age of Show Business. And that brings me to the meat of my confession: I quit my job, upending my family’s plans, because I became aware that the professional writer John Ellis had deeply compromised the integrity and sanctification of the actual John Ellis.
This isn’t my first blog. It isn’t even my second blog, and, knowing myself as well I do, it most likely will not be my last. For the past six years, alongside my writing job, I maintained the blog A Day In His Court. During that time, I told myself that my blog was my real voice and my writing job was simply a job. Except, it doesn’t work that way.
With the career identity as a writer, I threw myself into the advancement of my career, including, of course, the promotion of my writing, the pursuit of larger audiences (more clicks), and better writing opportunities. The thing is, higher view counts are generally accomplished via controversial articles. Alongside that, stoking the embers of a specific tribe’s anger, fears, and prejudices is a requisite for popularity and success as a writer. In the age of internet writing, nuance is not rewarded, thoughtful contemplation is mostly ignored, and lack of certainty doesn’t garner the all-important Facebook shares. Hot takes and dogmatism are some of the primary tools of the successful online writer. I should know, my articles with millions of views were those that contained flames, fury, and finality. On the other hand, my least read articles were those in which humility poked through; usually, the articles I was most proud of were the ones few read.
Being steeped in the online writing world, chasing views and, hence, money, and working to expand my own brand, I wrote things I am ashamed of and have repented of. While writing for that conservative website, I wrote things that I knew contained shoddy research, manipulated data, and expressed things that I didn’t really believe or agree with.
This isn’t an excuse, merely an explanation, but the website for which I wrote (readers and bosses alike) demands a voice and tone that is acerbic and tribalistic in ways that increase divisions. Under the auspices of new ownership, that voice and tone has become amplified. The drift to the alt-right has increased (if not been completed). And while I do not believe that I ever crossed that line, I am ashamed to admit that during my time writing for the website, increasingly so over my last few months, I chased the clicks (approval) of an alt-right audience that adheres to what I believe is a sinful worldview.
On a much less important note, my ability to be a good employee was impaired by my hypocrisy. Resisting the pull to completely sell-out, I frequently turned down interview requests and associations that would have benefited my editors and publishers. Trying to play the game while not playing the game is being dishonest and unethical towards both sides. Neither hot nor cold, right?
It would be easy to pass off my sins as a writer to being limited to that website. It’s tempting to point to my old blog and claim that, at least, I operated with integrity as a writer on A Day In His Court. Unfortunately, that’s not true. Most often, my lack of integrity regarding my blog looked like silence. Consumed by furthering my career and all that entails – chasing clicks and self-promotion – I shied away from writing things that I knew would alienate myself from both the gatekeepers and audiences I was pursuing. Even more damaging, I placed my identity in my successes (and failures) as a writer, allowing my mood and self-perception to be shaped by my career and not by my standing in Christ.
So, here’s my final confession: I’m no longer a writer. Or, rather, I’m a writer the same way a person who plays softball on their company’s rec team is an athlete. I enjoy writing and plan on continuing to do so. For the foreseeable future, though, I will not be promoting myself as a writer. I will not be pursuing book deals, nor will I be pursuing paid writing gigs. I don’t trust myself. Instead, by God’s grace, I’m going to write in a manner that is characterized by integrity and the desire to glorify God and for the benefit of those I am called to lead – my wife and children. When I write now, I have an audience of four – me, my wife, and my two kids (five, if you count my King). If friends and strangers find what I have to say on this blog edifying, praise God. If not, that’s fine, too. And, if God has professional writing in my future, that’s fine, too. However, I am too old and too experienced to possess the hubris and naivety needed to convince myself that a future in writing will “just happen.” Gideon shouldn’t have put that fleece out. And, in hindsight, I should never have become a writer. Unfortunately, I’m too old to start wearing cowboy boots. At least my customers will get the joy of hearing about me and Sandra Bullock’s conversation about oranges.
Soli Deo Gloria
 Ironically, as I began operating with less integrity in my paid writing job, an argument can be made that I began operating with more integrity when writing for my blog. Except, I wrote out of anger and embarrassment. I convinced myself that I could balance out the ledger.