I’ve always wanted to be a writer. And by “always,” I mean after I stopped wanting to be a paleontologist (ages 4-8) and shortstop for the New York Yankees (ages 8-12), I have wanted to be a writer. In contrast, I never wanted to be a pastor–though I did put it in our “Class Prophecy” in 8th grade, that I would become a wino pastor, imagining that both of those things were equally unlikely. I’m long been curious if any of my classmates remember that.
I first thought about writing when one of my teachers, John Knox, told me I was good at it. Up until then, I loved to read and spent some of my happiest hours getting lost in novels, sometimes all nighters, but I hadn’t given much thought to anything beyond getting an “A” on an essay. Mr. Knox was sarcastic, even a touch cynical at times, and he conveyed through that language, which I already spoke fluently, that I had something. I took an extra semester of grammar instead of American Literature because he told me if I wanted to be a writer, I needed to have my grammar locked in. He was the first person to tell me that you need to know the rules before you start breaking the rules. John Knox changed the direction of my life by identifying a gift I had and helping me to believe in it.
Mr. McAvoy taught the junior and senior English classes at our high school. He was hilarious and insightful and ridiculous and honest. He confirmed for me what John Knox saw, and pressed his conviction that I could become a writer. Mike McAvoy died several years ago. This will sound funny–or maybe it won’t–but in addition to grieving his death, I felt like I had failed him, because I wanted him to see that I had achieved what he believed I could. He wrote me a letter at the end of my senior year in which he told me that I was the most gifted writer he’d ever had in class.*
“All beginnings are hard.” Chaim Potok
I went to college all pumped up to become a famous novelist who would write profound, world-shifting books which would, incidentally, make me rich. I majored in English Literature–then was too afraid to take a single creative writing course. Not one in four years. Even though I’d gone there partly because they had such a strong English department and offered creative writing as its own major.
How does that make sense?
If you’ve ever attempted to write something that someone else will read, you’ll likely have experienced what I’m about to describe, at least to some degree. The inner conflict between “I have the urge to write so people will care about my words” and “NO! Don’t look at it!” Writing school essays can feel like this, but since they are assigned, there’s a sense of “Well, you asked for it.” But writing in the hope that what you say will matter to someone, that it will connect with another person’s life, that’s scary. Intimidating. And then there’s this:
WHAT IF I’M NO GOOD?
That’s what stopped me for a long time. Years. As a wonderful, damaged, cynical and grace-filled friend of mine taught me, “Nothing ventured, nothing lost.” He was pointing out a truth most of us live by. There are, by some estimates, 200 million people in the United States who believe that they could write a book. Safe to say, there aren’t that many published authors, even if we count loosely those folks who have blogs, write for anything that appears as a publication in print, including Hallmark, and the people who can crank out killer office memos.
It’s much easier to imagine you might be great than to find out you aren’t. It’s much safer to believe that you’ll be a writer “someday,” or to tell yourself you would become an author “if only…”, than to write and try to find readers who care anything about what you’ve written.
Writing is scary almost exactly to the degree that failure is scary. I am not a successful writer by most reasonable definitions, which suggests that I have no grounds to be telling of these things–except that I am a writer who is still trying and thus, every day, risking failure. Facing failure. Dealing with failure. And writing more words. So perhaps I can say this as Everyman.
Back to my chronology, I got a little side-tracked from my rich-and-famous dreams by this lifelong obsession with grace. But I also had to overcome my fears in order to write. It took me many years past college to find the courage to try. I found out what I was terrified, and, for a long time, paralyzed to know–I’m not as great as I imagined. Publishers and agents did not weep, fall to their knees, and rejoice to their God above that I had deigned to send my genius-disguised-as-prose to them. Mostly, they sent form rejections, or just ignored my offerings entirely.
That’s a special feeling. To labor on a short story–not a novel, a short story, not a work that could by any stretch of the imagination earn any meaningful money, but to invest a year of spare hours on a few thousand words that you compose and refine and edit and sharpen and shorten and tighten and polish and send…into the void. Into the silence. Into the indifference of a publishing world that doesn’t notice your work, or your words, at all.
Do you cry then? Go back to watching football? Tell yourself they are oafs and ignoramuses who wouldn’t know a great short story if it was attached to a two-by-four and thunked against their skulls?
Here’s what I learned: you do whatever it takes to get back to writing, to keep writing. Every time I started a new story, article, novel, or scribble, I used to write at the top, “A writer writes.” I pray all the time that God will use what I write, but if I don’t actually write anything, then I’m burying my coin in the ground. Jesus told a parable about that. Self-doubt probably accounts for a high percentage of that backyard “banking.”
I spent several years building up momentum. I had a short story praised and considered by the New Yorker. Flattering. In the end they rejected it but never gave me a single negative about it–the equivalent of getting an essay back with only positive comments but also a “C-.” Huh? I found an editor at a great literary journal who showed interest in my work, I submitted a story and finally got back the words, “I love this”…and then she resigned. And the journal failed to honor their commitment to publish the story.
And then ceased publication.
I consider that time period Round One of my match against myself and the world to become a writer. It took years to muster the courage to try, more years to write a bunch of lousy stuff, then to slowly develop my voice and learn to recognize what was lousy and what wasn’t, and then yet more years–actual years, measured in full calendars–to recover from those disappointments. l didn’t acknowledge to myself that I was stopping, I just “got distracted.” I “focused on other things.” But coming back to our handy definition, I wasn’t writing. A writer writes.
Round Two started about four years later. I was puttering around, scribbling a little here and there. I had a short story I’d worked on and completed years before, but nothing is ever really finished when you can open the file and start fine tuning again. As I was tinkering with the ending, suddenly the horizon opened up. In all the time I’ve spent writing, it was perhaps the best feeling I’ve ever had. Up until that moment, I’d never made serious progress into a novel, not for lack of trying, but for lack of finding a sustaining idea. As I’d learned to sort the lousy from the potentially-not-lousy, all of my fits and starts of novels revealed themselves as the former. Now, the vista spread before me of where this story could go.
I should mention now that when I write fiction, I’m not an outliner. Heck, when I write a sermon I’m not an outliner; even then, I simply begin to compose and let the ideas expand. When I’m writing fiction, I “get inside” the story and watch it unfold. It’s almost like viewing a movie in my mind and then transcribing what I see. Almost. Editing is an utterly different experience, more like tightening all the bolts and trying to figure out where the rattle and squeak are still coming from, over and over. But the first draft is simply flowing along with imagination and intuition. It’s being the character and thus knowing what he or she would say.
“I think the hardest part of writing is revising, and by that I mean the following: a novelist has to create the piece of marble and then chip away to find the figure in it.”
Completing my novel took about five years. Or so. I did not break any land speed records. Of course, I was raising four children, pastoring/running a non-profit, and oh, yeah, moving to Nicaragua. Distractions. But all seriousness aside (as my father loved to say), the hardest part, after untold hours of writing and editing, cutting and revising and screaming, was forcing myself to ask people to read it. Eventually I identified faithful, long-suffering reader friends, including one superstar who would read chapters as I felt brave enough to send them and give me great feedback.
Round Three began October 9, 2015, when I finally committed, after years of talk, to starting my blog. Again, not wildly successful, I haven’t gone viral nor even bacterial, but I’ve written, and that’s what a writer does. I’ve been able to express some thoughts, challenge some ideas, spread some hope, and, I pray, express light and love where too much is dim and hateful. I’m not going to get all self-congratulatory here (because that’s probably the one thing worse than the writer talking about writing), but I am grateful for everyone who has read and commented and especially those who have encouraged me. A writer writes, but when enough people say, “Hey, you’re good!” or, “Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like for me!” somehow that makes being a writer seem more real. Validation matters. I believe for nearly everyone who aspires to write, the battle is morale.
As long as I’m doing shout outs, I had a group of young adults (younger than me, for sure!) who expressed enthusiasm as I started posting the chapters of my novel–which was, by far, the scariest part of doing my blog thus far. I thought I might just put up a couple chapters as samples of my work. But buoyed by their insistence–sometimes verging on demands/threats–to see what happens next, I continued through about half the book. We even had a few round-table discussions. They gave me precious feedback, which I really needed to get over the proverbial hump and get my novel out into the world.
So, today, writing this, begins Round Four. As of now, Something Like Faith is available and I have all the expected queasy, second-guessing, maybe-I-should-edit-it-for-ten-more-years thoughts. But I’m not going to do that. I’m going to focus on the pastoral book that I’ve also promised, I don’t know how many times, will be coming out. I’m actually fairly close on that, I simply need to put the pieces together. And I’m going to eat a lot of ice cream…although it’s 7:20 AM.
Thanks, Mike McAvoy. Thanks, John Knox. Thanks, Laura and Paul, for letting me abuse our friendship so much while I sought reassurance, and for your patient and thoughtful feedback. Thanks, Julia, Peter, Natalie, and Chasen, for being young and adult and letting me see the story through your eyes. And thanks for being so demanding–I needed that! Thanks, Kim, for enduring with me so graciously.
*Of course, it’s entirely possible that he said this to 52 other students, to encourage all of us. But his are the words I’ve held on to, literally. I still have the letter.