You Never Know Who Your Words Will Save

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? NewSeedsCover

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.

Loving_Imogen_Cover

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.

self_pub_integrity_coverThat 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.

-aniko

 

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11 thoughts on “You Never Know Who Your Words Will Save

      • Jonathan, hi! I think you’ve got to do what’s best for you and for the novel. The most important thing is to share the story in the way that best supports your definition of success. Not understanding what I wanted out of my writing/publishing generated a lot of anxiety. It feels good to move away from anxiety and towards joy. The best part is that we get to define that direction for ourselves, and there actually are options – all of which are valid, depending on your goals.

        -aniko

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  1. Aniko, what a lovely post – and I’m so glad that you found my writing to be of some help, which surprises and delights me. And, as if to confirm the premise of this post, the experience of reading this pleased me far more than any sales, awards, or outside vindication possibly could.

    I am so glad that you’ve regained your writing joy!

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    • I’m glad the post gave back a little of what you’ve given to me. May your words continue to have a positive influence on all who find them. Thank you, too, for pointing me to Dan Holloway; his philosophy of art was exactly what I needed.

      -aniko

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  2. So happy to read this post. It filled my heart and my face with smiles. It is so true that you never know whose life your words will save. Words are the most powerful tool in the human arsenal. They have the power to destroy or to rebuild. As writers, words are our curse and our blessing. Sometimes I find my heart is so full of raw emotion that I fear my page/screen will start bleeding and it scares me. The real writing, the art not the fluff, is meant to scare us. Anything really worthwhile in this life is terrifying at first. But….I am beyond merely happy that you have decided to not give up writing. You have a gift dear Anika and without your words the world would be a little poorer. But without words, who are we? Writers write. They may bleed as they write, they may curse as they write, they may howl with frustration as they write, but still they write. You. Are. A. Writer. Your gift is not only for others but for the bliss and direction of your own soul.
    Be thankful for this valley that you found yourself walking through. It is a valley that I know well. But you have come out on the other side and it is not that, that we must celebrate but instead we must celebrate the courage you showed in continuing to walk through the valley and not let the valley swallow you. It takes courage to be true to your soul, true to your heart, true to your mind, and true to your art. I applaud your courage in bleeding onto the screen for all to see. You are a truly beautiful soul and your words are a reflection of that beauty.

    Sending much love!
    x

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    • Kim, it’s lovely to hear from you. Thank you for being encouraging, and for sharing that you’ve had some of the same struggles. It can be tough to remember that we write because it is worthwhile to us, as you say, “for the bliss and direction of [our] souls.” All too often, things that have nothing to do with our gifts get in the way of writing: selling, marketing, perfectionism, blogging, fear of rejection, fear of success, fear, fear, fear! I didn’t enjoy my walk through the valley, but I am glad that it happened because I am finally clear about what I really want, and why. All those fears disappear in the light of being true to my gift.

      I realized I wasn’t following your new blog! Apologies!

      -aniko

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  3. Pingback: I Gave Away My TV & Made My Stories Free | Aniko Carmean

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