My 16 Top Movies of the 21st Century

Short story short: The New York Times released a list of the best movies of the 21st century. The list is wrong, but it’s fun and interesting and, more to the point, inspired some friends of mine to come up with their own lists.

You can guess where this post is going.

So here’s my list, but I’ve made a change: I’m going to list 16 movies instead of 25, for no better reason than that I can more speedily come up with 16 titles rather than 25. I’ll also include year 2000 in my list, even though, as my friend Hal explained, that year technically doesn’t belong to this century. I, like Hal, do not care.

Pan’s Labyrinth dir. Guillermo del Toro

The best film of the 21st century: A brutal fantasy that joins together wonder and terror in an unforgettable story.

There Will Be Blood  dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

Daniel Day-Lewis, the greatest screen actor of the century, gives his best performance.

No Country For Old Men dir Joel & Ethan Coen

Cited by many as THE best movie of the century, a flawless masterpiece of crime and punishment.

Cast Away dir Robert Zemeckis

Tom Hanks is the best movie star of the New Hollywood era, and this, his best performance, is a criminally underappreciated metaphor for existence and dignity.

The Prestige dir Christopher Nolan

Not Nolan’s most ambitious movie (Interstellar) or his most important (The Dark Knight), but certainly his most compulsively watchable, and rewarding.

The Lord of the Rings films dir Peter Jackson

The most important movies made in the 21st century so far. An era-defining trilogy.

The Incredibles dir Brad Bird

Best animated film of the century, and Pixar’s best product not named Toy Story.

Calvary dir. John Michael McDonagh

In a just world, both Calvary and Pan’s Labyrinth would have been Best Picture winners. Here is the most profound religious film of the century, a parable of forgiveness and frailty.

The Passion of the Christ dir Mel Gibson

There’s simply no other film quite like it.

The Social Network dir. David Fincher

David Fincher tells the story of Facebook as an utterly absorbing tale of dorm room betrayal and east coast elitism. Perhaps the most rewatchable movie ever to not win the Oscar.

Grizzly Man dir Werner Herzog

Far and away the greatest documentary of the century, following the life and psychosis of grizzly bear-friend Timothy Treadwell.

Arrival dir. Dennis Villeneuve

A science fiction masterpiece.

Moneyball dir. Bennett Miller

A sports movie that utterly transcends every border of its genre.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind dir. Michael Gondry

I admire this film more than I like it. Like “The Passion,” it’s a film that defies comparison. A one-of-a-kind achievement.

Pride and Prejudice (2005) dir. Joe Wright.

Perhaps the most gorgeously photographed romantic drama of the 21st century. Its delicious performances and intelligent script spawned years of imitators.

Spider-Man 2 dir. Sam Raimi

I agree with the late Roger Ebert–this is the best superhero film of the pre-Dark Knight era, and in some ways, it passes Nolan’s movie.

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Does Conservative Theology Empower Abuse?

Here are three things that I believe are true and that are important for honest people to admit:

  1. It is a moral travesty when religious people or organizations use their beliefs, influence, or infrastructure to hurt, control, or manipulate other people.
  2. Theologically conservative organizations have been guilty of doing this, many times, often with disastrous, multi-generational consequences.
  3. For people who believe in things like inerrancy, the exclusivity of Christ, and the necessity of the local church, the costs of using the faith in this sinful, abusive way are exponentially higher, and thus, it is a greater tragedy when it is those people who engage in it.

All these points are, I believe, completely true. You won’t find me denying any of them. As someone who was raised in theologically conservative evangelicalism, I don’t think there’s any question that all three points are correct, and further, that theologically conservative evangelicals like me should be in the business of confessing them and working accordingly.

But here’s something I’ve noticed. I’ve noticed that, for what feels like a growing number of younger professing Christians (whether they use the word evangelical or not), there seems to be a 4th statement that holds a lot of weight with them. You could put it something like this:

4. Because theologically conservative institutions and people have been guilty of this abuse, it follows that theologically conservative doctrine empowers and facilitates such abuse.

I completely reject this statement for many reasons, most of which would probably be easy to guess for readers of this blog. But what’s interesting to me is that this 4th statement is, for a lot of young religion writers, so self-evident and so important to their worldview that to deny it amounts to nothing less than an instinctive valuing of theology and ideas over human beings at best, and at worst, an ambition to likewise abuse, control, or manipulate others with our religion. Arguing with this 4th statement is almost always construed to be really arguing with the first 3. The only reason (they say) that someone would dispute statement 4 is because they’re really living in denial of statements 1-3. Either you don’t really believe that theologically conservative churches or institutions have hurt others (in which case, you’re simply in denial of reality), or else you don’t believe that such hurting actually matters.

There’s a lot going on here in this dynamic. Part of it is understandable. If you’ve been hurt by theologically conservative churches or people, it’s not hard for a reasonable person to understand why the theology you encountered in those settings might seem endemic to what you suffered. But is that the only reason this dynamic endures? I don’t think so. I think something else is happening as well, and it’s something rooted not in authentic experience, but in an ideology-driven, nakedly political equivalence.

Here’s a strong example of what I’m talking about:

https://twitter.com/d_l_mayfield/status/877246876340199424

If you read through the thread for the context, you’ll discover that what’s being talked about is a missionary who abused children, and was (allegedly) protected from exposure by people and institutions connected to his mission. Mayfield’s “main” takeaway from the story is that fundamentalism–by which she means the conservative theology of both the missionary and the people who protected him–is inherently abusive. The implication is that if the missionary or the institutions over him weren’t fundamentalist, if they weren’t all aligned together on a particular side of the doctrinal scales, such a cover up would either have not happened or else not happened to the extent that it did.

Mayfield is hardly the only representative of this belief. Almost anytime there is a scandal involving theologically conservative evangelicals, a reliable group of voices tend to make the same point, either explicitly naming Calvinism, or fundamentalism, or complementarianism, etc etc. The message is always the same: These incidents happen because people are victimized by traditionalist theologies or churches.

What’s going on here? After all, the notion seems logically faulty on its face. The Roman Catholic Church is hardly a bastion of “fundamentalism,” yet it endured one of the most widespread abuse scandals in modern history. The vast majority of abuse cover-ups do not occur within the context of any religious community, and the common factors shared by such scandals are almost always more related to power structures and financial control than to worldview. You have to assume that progressive evangelicals like Mayfield who lay such harm at the feet of fundamentalism know this. So why make the connection at all?

One theory: Attributing endemic abusiveness to theology is a handy way of avoiding doctrinal arguments, and of marginalizing theological opponents.

After all, if fundamentalism empowers and enables abuse, if it’s the theology of choice for those who want to coerce and harm others, why on earth would you need to spend time figuring out if the Bible really says what the fundies claim it says? Why waste precious seconds thinking about what’s true when you can know for certain that those who believe opposite of you do so for nefarious, ulterior motives?

This is precisely what I mean when I talk of things like “polarization.” The essential characterizing of polarization is not that people disagree with each other. It’s that they use such disagreement as the grounds for attributing the worst possible motivations to those on the other side. You don’t need to be told how often this happens in politics. But it happens a lot in theology as well, and especially in a culture that increasingly prioritizes personal narrative and “my story” as the only authoritative touchstones for knowledge and truth.

Engaging both Scripture and the world honestly means allowing for two things. First, all human beings are sinful and, apart from preventative grace and normal means of restraint, all of us tend to seek our own good at the expense of others. This is a Christian doctrine, not a challenge to it. The idea that people in our theological, political, or social tribes are somehow less prone to this tendency, or the idea that those outside our tribes are more prone or are somehow inevitably given to it, are both heretical ideas. There is no hint in Scripture that people who know the truth are automatically more holy because of it. In fact, Jesus taught something close to the opposite.

But a second thing is also true. Objective truth is real, and human beings who behave wretchedly are not automatically wrong about everything they believe because of it. “The people who believe this hurt me” is not, in fact, an actual evidence against an idea. It’s only evidence against a person. We all live beneath our  best ideals, and this fact does not actually mean our ideals are false. This is why “fundamentalism empowers abuse” is not only wrong, but deeply deceptive. It implies that a theology’s truth claims are irrelevant compared to how its practitioners behave. It’s true that the world knows we are Christ’s because of our love, but that doesn’t mean the world will know who Christ is because of it. There are realities above and beyond our daily obedience of them.

Again, the three statements I laid out at the beginning are totally true, and I believe them. We have to humbly accept our own failures, and those of our tribe. But statement #4, while increasingly popular in a “post-evangelical” age, is not honest thinking. It may engender a lot of empathy in a narrative-oriented age, but its fruit is merely polarization and shoddy thinking.

Virtue and Signaling

One of the responses I keep seeing to the Southern Baptist Convention’s statement about alt-right and white supremacy goes like this: “I agree that racism is bad, but this just feels like political correctness. It seems like the SBC just wants liberals to think they’re good people. Why aren’t we condemning all forms of racism, like [insert group here]? This just reeks of virtue signaling.”

Of course, the proper response to this objection is to ask the person saying this, “Do you mind explaining to me in this context what the difference is between virtue signaling and being virtuous?” That’s the correct answer because the burden of proof is on the one making the accusation of virtue signaling to explain why condemning a politically active group of racists is by definition performative, but condemning abortionists, LGBT lobbyists, and doctrinally wayward churches is not.

But too often, I see friends try to respond to this accusation by saying that it’s not virtue signaling, because racism is a serious threat, it matters how we as a denomination respond to it, and our black and brown brothers and sisters in the faith need to hear us call sin against them what it is. That’s all true, of course, and it all matters. But I don’t think that it’s the best response to the charge of virtue signaling, for two reasons. The first reason is pragmatic, and the second reason is philosophical.

The pragmatic reason is simple. If someone is trying to argue that denominational statements against racism or the alt-right are virtue signaling, you’re not going to get far with them by using arguments that emphasize how brave or necessary such statements are. You see, the trouble with accusations of virtue signaling is that when the stakes go up, the accusations get stickier and stickier. By saying this issue is just too important not to speak up on, you are merely ceding the fact that “liberal media” (by which most people who say this phrase mean everybody who is not in their sociopolitical in-group) determines what’s important to talk about. Like a conspiracy theory, it’s a vicious cycle: Of course you think it’s important to talk about racism, because that’s what the media keeps saying, and what’s important to you is being on the right side of the media, etc etc etc. You can’t defeat this line of thinking with logic, because it’s designed to entail every single response you can give to it. It’s a faith commitment, not a rational deduction.

The philosophical reason is more important, though perhaps less obvious. What makes virtue signaling morally dubious is the fact that it’s basically a synonym for hypocrisy. People who virtue signal are essentially performing virtue for the approbation of others. They either don’t really mean it or else don’t mean it as much as they’re letting on. They want to be known a certain way, and their desire to be approved far outweighs their intellectual commitment to what they’re saying.

That means that the person who is accusing you of virtue signaling because you explicitly condemned racist speech or attitudes is actually changing the subject. The subject has changed from racism, and those who promote it, to you–your motivations, your morals, your authenticity. Here’s the thing: Once the subject is changed in this way, it can’t un-change on its own. Once the issue becomes the where the info came from, instead of whether it’s true or helpful or necessary, that’s it. The conversation has calcified. We aren’t talking about black people, or white supremacy, or theology, or American culture anymore. We’re talking about you.

It’s this rhetorical move that has to be thwarted at all costs.

Part of the reason American racial politics are not better than they are is that both the Left and the Right have tried to change the subject in this way. When the conversation threatens to become about undue economic hardship in redlined black communities, conservatives have too often said, “But look at how liberals have benefited from gerrymandering!” When the conversation threatens to become about Planned Parenthood’s absolute ravaging of urban communities, liberals have too often said, “Conservatives only care about babies until they’re born!” The movement away from racial justice issues toward the motivations of those trying to parse them out is a cultural and political feature that has been devastating, because it has been so effective, and so few people know how to quit its cycle.

If I had 10 seconds to be broadcast on all major TV networks to say whatever I wanted to say to America, I’d say: “Jesus offers life, and don’t be afraid of finding truth outside your tribe.” The intense, life-crushing political polarization of our culture grinds the mechanisms of actual positive change to bits. And it’s due in large part to the fact that people actually believe “But what about them” is a good, morally responsible argument.

It’s not.

My Father’s Best Gift

My father’s best gift to me was his obscurity. In the 20+ years in which he pastored churches and his children grew up, he never published anything other than a newsletter article, spoke anywhere other than a church pulpit, or was known by anyone other than those who had met him or us. Whatever the opposite of a “celebrity pastor” is, that’s what Dad was in those years. And it was the best thing that could have ever happened to a son.

I was a man when I first encountered the pressure that is on ministers to create something for people to remember them by. And in my life I’ve known some sons of pastors and ministers who did indeed have large platforms, impressive CV’s, and the like. I’ve known some children of these “celebrity” ministers. Of all these children I’ve known and talked to, not one of them expressed gratitude for their father’s celebrity. Most of them loved and admired their dads, yes. Most of them weren’t bitter and resentful (with some exceptions). But none of them actually said they were glad their dads were as famous and accomplished as they were. In fact, most of them who still tender-hearted toward their fathers and faithful to the gospel intimated that it was despite their fathers’ successes, not because of it.

Don’t read some imprecatory analysis into this. I write only what I’ve seen. For this pastor’s son, coming to grips with my own Dad’s struggles in the ministry has not always been easy. There’s been temptation to blame hard seasons of life on him, or on the church, or on God, or on myself. Obscurity is not an elixir. Life is hard and painful and mysterious no matter how many people know your name. The problem of suffering is history’s great equalizer.

But I do know that my Dad’s obscurity has taught me something I’m not sure I would have learned otherwise. It’s taught me that what most people, even Christians, mean by “success” is perilous. Success for the celebrity pastor might mean failures for the celebrity pastor’s son. Failures for the struggling yet faithful minister might mean success for the son. My own life might have even to this point looked very different if Dad had valued his own success the way some of the books and conferences wanted him to. But he didn’t. And now, in his 60s, with no book contracts to his name and none on the horizon, with no legacy of expertise to leave behind for strangers, the whole of my Dad’s faithfulness is known only to the objects of it: His savior, his wife, his children, his flocks.

I cherish my father’s obscurity. In the moments I find myself not aspiring to it, I aspire that I would.

 

Proud

I’m grateful that my denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, overwhelmingly passed a resolution at their annual meeting today condemning the white supremacy of the so-called “alt-right” movement. This was the right resolution at the right time for the right reasons, and it was the right decision to pass it. The resolutions committee’s decision not to take action on it last night created a storm of controversy. I’m glad it did, but it would be a mistake to singularly focus on the delay. The point is that Southern Baptists have made it explicit where they stand when it comes to the resurgent racism of a nativist, faux-conservative, viciously hateful group.

I’m sure there are people reading this who think my denomination doesn’t deserve laud here. After all, do you really get credit as a traditional evangelical body for saying that people who sling the most vile slurs and employ disgusting rhetorical tactics should be rebuked? Of course, in a sense, nobody deserves credit for that. It should be self-evident. But if the history of the Southern Baptist Convention teaches anything, it’s that people who are right about the deity of Christ can nonetheless be totally, abjectly wrong about the humanity of those with different skin. The point is not that Southern Baptists are great people for denouncing the alt-right. The point is that, for a denomination whose very founding was bound up in theological justifications for the destruction of other human beings, the real gospel–the gospel of the “one new man,” who wasn’t white and didn’t die to found a white church–that gospel has not been utterly lost.

For that, I give thanks.

photo via Craig Garrett

Would You Leave Your Church Over Politics?

Question: Would you, Christian, ever be so disappointed in the political views of your pastor or fellow church members, that you found yourself unable to even bear going to church anymore?

To be totally honest, before today, I would have dismissed this theoretical as too ridiculous for serious contemplation. It seems to me self-evident that the kind of people most likely to regularly attend church are not the same kind of people who would just decide to stop going over an election. That feels intuitive to me. I don’t believe I’ve ever met a person who admitted to abandoning their church over red vs blue.

I did however see this Twitter comment today.

Now of course, the problem with writing in response to posts on social media (and the reason I usually don’t do it and tend to look down at the practice) is that Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, et al, exist in uniquely strong cultural vacuums. I’m sure the author of this tweet is telling the truth about hearing from all those people who’ve quit church since Donald Trump was elected. But I’m also sure that the people she has heard from do not represent any kind of serious movement or trend. When something written about a handful of people gets a lot of shares on social media, it’s easy to mistake something that merely reverberated in your particular slice of Twitter for something with actual consequence and meaning outside the internet.

Here’s the thing though: I do worry that the notion of leaving your church over political disagreements is one that can sell easier right now than it could have 20 years ago. In fact, if you’re paying attention to what’s going on inside college campuses, for example, finding out that there are some Christians who can’t bear to attend church because of who the President is shouldn’t stun you. It bears the stamp of the hyper-polarized, relationally recalcitrant age we live in.

Not only that, but it also seems to comport with a trendy spirit toward the institutional church, particular amongst younger religious Americans coming out of a conservative Christian childhood. It’s a spirit I’ve written about before in regards to the “purity culture” debates. The fastest way to get hip young evangelicals to heap praise on your blog is to write about how dangerous and worthy of suspicion the local church is, and to insist, contra the backward-minded (and probably Trump-voting) fogies, that if a church ever betrays your trust or makes you feel unhappy, you should leave–that church at least, and possibly faith itself (if doing so helps you get your groove back).

If you know this kind of culture within evangelicalism, then it’s hard to read about adults who can’t attend church post-election 2016 with much empathy. And that’s not a good thing, because there is something prophetic to be said about the way some church leaders and ministries turned their backs on their own theological identity in order to sell their politics. It’s good that people are grieved over that.

The problem though is that this response to sin and failure within the Body of Christ is simply trafficking in one kind of consumerism in response to another. Yes, many Christians do not have a consistently Christian politic. Yes, there are hypocrites in the church, some of them leaders. Yes, there is much to be ashamed. Yes, yes, yes. But none of this should be a surprise, and none of it is a caveat to the importance of the church. To stand over and above your brothers and sisters in the faith and say, “Your political sins disqualify you from my presence,” is to turn the entire gospel of the church on its head. It’s an intensely therapeutic and self-oriented relationship to the Christian faith.

It’s also giving politics way too much credit. The failure of many of us evangelicals has been to let politics subsume our Christian theology and identity. We’ve been “Christian conservatives” instead of conservative Christians. But that failure won’t be remedied by merely allowing our faith to be subsumed by a more progressive or more contemporary politic. Christians who cannot allow themselves to be in the same church as those who hold opposing political beliefs are, whether consciously or not, looking for a religious faith that is ultimately subservient to their politics.

One of the glorious benefits of Christian church membership is the opportunity it gives us to be shaped and formed, with others, by truths and practices that we did not create and that we cannot co-opt. And this process begins immediately in the local gathering of the church. When you find yourself worshiping and praying and confessing and hearing and singing alongside those who in any other walk of life would be an utter stranger to you, you are experiencing not just more inclusive relationships, you are experiencing spiritual realities that transcend even human relationships. When the bodies that share your pew but not your politics recite the same covenants or the same creeds as you, the idea that we are all the sum total of our own ideas explodes.

But all this is lost in a religious culture that understands church and spiritual disciplines as just more possibilities for self-actualization. The idea that a stodgy institution, filled with hypocrites and culturally illiterate patriarchs, actually deserves a self-crucifying kind of loyalty is not one that you’ll find in the pages of bestsellers. In the age of merciless autonomy, life can and should be blown up and traded-in for whatever works today. Eat, pray, love–what, to whom, and with whom you want! Spiritualized versions of this, even if accompanied with harrowing first person narratives of the horrors of old time religion, are no better in the end.

Evangelicalism could use better politics. But first, it needs members. It doesn’t matter how well we know the social justice implications of the kingdom if what we mean by the “kingdom” is merely the sum total of our individualistic lives. The church is imperfect, not despite me and you, but precisely because of me and you. Keep that in mind the next time you think of politics and feel tempted to skip Sunday.

Bernie Sanders, Christianity, and the “Price” of Citizenship

Read this David French write-up of an appalling episode today between senator Bernie Sanders and Russell Vought (seeking to be confirmed as Deputy Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget). Sanders’ grilling of Vought’s theology is distasteful, yes, but it is also borderline unconstitutional, since the clear implication of Sanders’ conclusion is that Vought’s religious views disqualify him from the office.

So what gives? I can think of 3 possibilities as to why Senator Sanders would do this:

  1. The senator genuinely doesn’t know or understand that Christians believe that those who aren’t Christians are, at least in some meaningful sense, “condemned” because they lack faith in Jesus Christ. It could be that senator Sanders honestly has no idea this theology even exists, and assumed that Vought’s sentiments were extreme, fringe, and bigoted.
  2. Senator Sanders does understand what Vought means, but he believes this theology is genuinely dangerous to pluralism and tolerance, and that those who believe in it are, by extension, threats to the social order.
  3. Senator Sanders understands the theology, and doesn’t really see such religious belief as inherently dangerous to the public. He does, however, believe that secularism, not religion, is the “fair” and “neutral” position, and that it’s best for everybody if those with political power do not take their religious beliefs with them into the public square. Laying personal theology aside is, Sanders reasons, the cost of citizenship.

Looking over those possibilities, I think:

  • If scenario #1 is true, then that means the Democratic party nearly nominated a man for the presidency who doesn’t understand the most basic meaning of the country’s majority religion–and, perhaps even worse, despite years in public service, he has never bothered to figure it out.
  • If scenario #2 is the case, then we have to admit that a senior senator in the US’s most important legislative body, and a presidential contender with a national political party, sincerely believes that orthodox religion is incompatible with American democracy, and certainly incompatible with leadership of said democracy.
  • If scenario #3 is true, then the implication is that senator Sanders, and perhaps some of his colleagues, believe that secularism is an appropriate, and the only appropriate, public religion.

I’m not sure which scenario I believe. But here’s the thing: It doesn’t really matter which one is true, because in the end, they all mean the same thing. They all mean that a candidate for public office was openly asked to relinquish the unanimous teaching of his 2,000-year old faith in order to serve the American republic. They all mean that an elected official ridiculed and questioned the patriotism of orthodox Christian teaching, and did so likely knowing he could count on impunity from his colleagues and his constituency. They all mean the pitting of basic religious conviction against citizenship.

Look, I’m not trying to be melodramatic. I’m not trying to scream persecution, and I’m not even trying to score a partisan point. But this episode matters, and it matters not only because of where and how it happened, but also because there are sizable numbers of people who insist day by day that this kind of ideological pressure cooking just isn’t happening. “That’s just silly,” they say, when presented with new evidence of focused attacks on religious liberty. “Christianity is a majority religion. You have privilege on top of privilege. You’re just mad you have to share with somebody else now.”

Sorry, but when nuns are sued to sell contraceptives, and when nominees for public office are interrogated in confirmation hearings about whether they actually believe in their religion–that’s not just “sharing” privilege.

One more thing. I happen to know quite a few friends and peers who are both Christian and fans/supporters of Bernie Sanders. Here’s my challenge to you: Say something about this. Don’t let it fly just because you like the idea of free community college, or because you’ve seen through the whole “GOP=Christianity” facade. Capitalism is not orthodoxy. I get it. But if your partiality for economic redistribution means you’re OK with religious tests being applied for public officials who have the misfortune of their convictions, you’ve simply repeated the mistake of your Moral Majority ancestors, only on behalf of a different tribe.

Some Advice for Writers

Recently a few friends of mine have asked me about writing, and for some perspective and/or advice on how to get started doing it seriously. I’ve given the same advice enough times that I figured it might be helpful to put what I most frequently say here as a kind of reference.

As always, none of this advice is gospel, and don’t be surprised if some of it doesn’t end up working like I say. In a real sense, the best “advice” I can give anyone who wants to write is to immediately stop looking for writing advice, and just write. If you’re an aspiring writer, and you’ve read more books in the last month on how to be a writer than other kinds of books, you’re doing it wrong, and you may be in a lamentable state of mind where what you really want to do is be known as a writer–instead of, you know, actually writing.

Nonetheless, there are some helpful things you can do. Here they are:

-Read, read, read.

This is always my #1 piece of advice. There’s no such thing as a writer who doesn’t read. If you don’t particularly care for reading, the actual craft and discipline of writing will elude you. If you enjoy reading but you don’t read widely–say, if you read a handful of books every year, mostly all in the same genre/author/length/etc–your writing will reflect this.

Read widely, and read, as Alan Jacobs says, “at whim.” Reading and relishing 1 good book by a talented author will probably do more for your own writing than reading 3 books on how to write. It’s been said that “leaders are readers.” It’s even more true that writers are readers.

-Write, write, write

It’s exactly like it sounds. Try to write every day. Register a free blog. Or just open Word on your computer and start writing. Glean writing ideas from your own reading (don’t put too much stock in artificial “prompts,” like the ones you find inside journals; they can be useful, but focus more on prompting yourself through interacting with what you’re reading).

-Figure out what you’re most interested in, and write more about that.

One of the mistakes people make when they try to start writing regularly is that they think being a good writer means being able to write about anything and everything. Not so. Most of the best writers are not really “generalists” that can churn out solid essays on everything from politics, to movies, to literature, to fashion. There’s nothing wrong with having thoughts about a lot of topics, but don’t fear the beat. Embrace the fact that you don’t have unlimited time or (most importantly) unlimited thoughtfulness. Find the one thing you want to talk about more than others, and sharpen it.

-Pitch your ideas to editors, not robots

In general, don’t bother wasting your time with “Submissions” portals. Find editors who work for places you admire and introduce yourself. Do as much “networking” as you can think to do (but don’t network at the expense of your actual craft). This will do 2 things for you: It will greatly raise your chances of having a pitch accepted, and it will put you in contact with people who can improve your writing.

-Go analog

The demise of paper and pen has been highly exaggerated. Invest in some analog writing tools and use them to capture ideas. Physical writing tools come with much fewer distractions, which is nice, but even better, they reduce the process to the essentials of the craft. The literary life is beset with temptations to vanity. Even writing itself can become more about announcing to the world that I’m a Writer than about the word. Analog processes can help you do some self-accountability. If you’re not willing to write unless you can tweet out your stuff within seconds, you may not be in it for the right reasons.

-Embrace failure and inferiority

Your pitches will be rejected. Your blog won’t be Retweeted. Your writing won’t catch the eye you hoped. You will feel like an impostor, like a joke, like a horribly misled little soul that has deluded itself. You will wonder with disgust and anxiety why you can’t write like your favorite authors.

Embrace it. Live with it. You’re not the world’s greatest writer. You probably won’t write a bestseller. That’s OK, because words are valuable and beautiful and worth it even if they don’t fly off a shelf or garner a big advance. You’ll keep coming back despite all the frustration, not because you love attention, but because you love to write. You need to write. Those words have to get out.

If that’s you, then congrats: You’re in the right line of work.