I almost quit writing. I was frustrated with the lack of commercial success, stymied by the opaque process of submitting work to publishing houses, and all out of joy. I resented my novel in progress because it represented a burden of thankless effort.
I was tired.
My day job is downtown. Every morning, I ride the train from my chickens-in-the-neighbor’s-backyard suburb to the heart of a city known for launching artistic careers. I stand near the doors, in a small corner where I can lean without getting pummeled by the other people’s bikes and backpacks. I read. Most days, there is another reader making the commute, and for a month he carried the same book with him, intently opening it to read a bit, then looking out the window in thought. His copy was worn, its dog-eared pages scrawled with comments written in multiple colors. I wanted to read that book, I wanted to be absorbed and consumed enough that the noise and human stimulus of a train would fall away. Who wouldn’t?
Now I have my own scrawled, worn copy of New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton. That book was exactly what I needed to read, at exactly the right time. It was a jolt of clarity, and it made me excited about the possibility that I could save my writing spirit. Here is a passage that I’ve bracketed and underlined (pg 111 of the 2007 New Directions edition):
If you write for God you will reach many men and bring them joy.
If you write for men – you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, but only for a little while.
If you write only for yourself you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted you will wish that you were dead.
Clearly, Merton understands what it is to write for the wrong reasons. I didn’t want to be dead, but I wanted my writer’s gift leave me alone, which may as well be the same as wishing it dead. Merton’s ‘epistle to writers’ made me aware that I was unhappy with my writing because I was measuring it against goals that weren’t authentic. I’d forgotten that I write and share for the joy of it, not because of what I can gain in popularity, money, or Amazon rankings. I didn’t yet see how to get back to the joy, but at least I understood that I had somewhere to get back to.
This was the first of three books that saved my writing life.
The second book to save my life is a contemporary collection of fiction, Loving Imogen by Mari Biella. Biella’s prose is beautiful and evocative, and the stories moving, but it wasn’t beauty alone that saved me. It was the fact that the book exists. Biella shared her gift with the world – with me. She could have written it and stuck it in a drawer. She could have sent it to publishers and maybe I’d still be despairing of finding my joy because Loving Imogen wouldn’t yet be available. Instead, she self-published. She gave her words to the world, not knowing who they would reach or if they would be misunderstood, ignored, or loved. The act of sharing her stories is the act of giving a gift to a largely anonymous recipient, who could be anyone almost anywhere at any time. Such a gift will outlast the author, and is an expression of what art should be: an act of timeless, selfless communication. Loving Imogen reminded me that publication matters because it allows the words to reach an audience who may not even know they need those words. How had I gotten so far away from the fresh-minded faith that stories are meant to be shared, not used as tools of self-aggrandizement?
The answer to that question came in the third book to save my writing life, and Mari Biella was the key to me finding it. She posted a review of a book with a unique premise: instead of examining the technical aspects of publishing, why not examine the spiritual aspect, the cri de coeur that propels the artist? This book is Self-Publish with Integrity: Define Success in your Own Terms and then Achieve It, by Dan Holloway. He had me at “integrity,” but the subtitle promised a way back to joy.
Holloway writes (from the Kindle edition, 2013)
The things you get praised for aren’t always the things you set out to do… The problem comes when we [writers] start to set our compass by them, when our direction finder becomes externalised, is no longer the burning desire to communicate those quirky stories whose audience we longed to find. If we’re lucky, we can reset our compass. It’s something I’ve had to do several times. But disentangling yourself from those wrong turns is a monumental task… leav[ing] behind a trail of damaged creative relationships and disappointments.
That was it! Somewhere I swapped out my personal reasons for writing and publishing with … something else. I’d lost my faith that the readers who are meant to find my works will find them, just as I found Merton, Biella, and Holloway exactly when I needed them. To quote Holloway, “It was as though I suddenly looked outside the blinkers I’d been wearing and saw just how far I’d come from where I wanted to be.” Self-Publish with Integrity offers a way to reset the writing compass. All you have to do is give a one-sentence answer to this question:
So what do you want from your writing?
Like a Zen koan, this question appears deceptively simple, but upon examination opens into something deeper, richer, and more mystical. Doing the work to answer this question led me back to joy. I have my one true sentence, my cri de coeur. I have a definition of success that is mine, and only mine. I know what success will look like for me in concrete terms, and it isn’t constrained by how anyone else conceives of success. I feel good again, excited and invigorated about writing and sharing my stories. I know where I want to go, why I want to go there, and how I plan to make the journey.
None of the authors knew their words would help me. They shared freely what had come to them through muse, God, or experience. None of us can know who our words will reach and help, or in what ways they will be life-saving. In Merton’s words (page 269), “…do not think that you have to see how it overflows into the souls of others. In the economy of His grace, you may be sharing His gifts with someone you will never know until you get to heaven.” Even if you don’t believe in God or heaven, isn’t it something to realize that stories and art extend beyond us in ways we can’t calculate, predict, or ultimately know entirely? I think that is beautiful, because it means that even if one person reads my work, it might have an impact. If there is one person, just one, waiting to read the story I’ve been given to write, I must share it with them. Not because I want fame, not because I want money, but because I want to participate in the mystery and beauty of giving.