Rethinking Success in the Creative Life: Why Write?

The table is set, and the late-winter night settles on the city. The candles dance, smooth in their movements. The air smells of baked Brie and the wine is uncorked.

There is a knock, and kind faces peer through the glass. I go to the front door, open it, and friends spill in along with the cold. Hugs and smiles and laughter. I’ll take your coat. What can I get you to drink? What have you been reading? Our conversations quickly veer towards books and words and the things that have moved us.

We sit at the table long into the night, our glasses empty. Must nights like this end?

* * * * *

I wander the cold streets of Nashville, fresh from the Ash Wednesday service at an Episcopal church. The night is freezing cold, and the wind whips its way around corners, through alleys, up against buildings. I pull up the hood of my winter coat, my eyes watering. I turn a corner and walk downhill, slip into a hotel, and make my way to the bar.

There, friends. There, a warm drink. There, we wonder about the nature of things, the presence and absence of God, the strange ways we were all brought up to think about things. We move from the bar to a table. I take them in.

* * * * *

I have spent meaningful time with well over twenty wonderful writers in the last two months. Maile and I met up with some friends in Kentucky for a long weekend. Not long after that, I traveled to Tennessee and caught up with a few more friends there. The following weekend, we invited friends over for dinner–writers and small publishing house owners and a couple of my favorite booksellers. These times with creative people were meaningful, saturated with a desire for hope and beauty to find their way to the forefront of our culture.

As I think back on the last few weeks, I am made aware of the fact that each of the writers I’ve talked to and hung out with recently have two things in common.

First of all, every single one of them writes beautifully. Their stories are stunning, their nonfiction work moving. They are very good at what they do, accomplished, and dedicated to the craft.

Second, few of us are able to make a living strictly from these artistic endeavors. Most of us do other things to help pay the bills.

Doesn’t this beg a question? Or two? Or three?

Such as, what does it look like to be successful as a creative person?

Such as, what are my goals?

Such as, why write?

* * * * *

Instead of following those questions too far down their respective rabbit trails, today I’m thinking of all you writers out there, toiling away in obscurity. Writing your hearts out. Revising. Looking for agents and publishers. Independently publishing and marketing your work.

This is good work that we do.

Making money while doing something does not inherently prove or disprove its worth.

Not making money while doing something does not inherently prove a thing to be with or without value.

Why write? Here’s how some authors have answered that question:

“Any writer worth his salt writes to please himself…It’s a self-exploratory operation that is endless. An exorcism of not necessarily his demon, but of his divine discontent.” – Harper Lee

“Writing eases my suffering . . . writing is my way of reaffirming my own existence.” – Gao Xingjian

“I believe there is hope for us all, even amid the suffering – and maybe even inside the suffering. And that’s why I write fiction, probably. It’s my attempt to keep that fragile strand of radical hope, to build a fire in the darkness.” – John Green

“I just knew there were stories I wanted to tell.” – Octavia E. Butler

* * * * *

There is a table that is set for you, writer, no matter why you write, no matter how much money you make, no matter the size of your audience. And all you must do to be welcome at the table, to join in with the banter and the conversation and the laughter and the sadness of all the writers in the world, and all the writers who have ever been, is to pick up your pen, or open your laptop, and write.

Simply write.

In our most recent podcast episode, I make a confession, Maile talks about depression and writing, and we explore the ways and means of revising. You can listen HERE.

If you’re interested in receiving an ARC of my upcoming novel, These Nameless Things, find out how to win a copy HERE.

It’s Going to be Okay: Thoughts on Ash Wednesday and Everything Else

It is the night before I leave for Nashville, and I am gathering things together in our bedroom—clothes and chargers and a book or two. My 10-year-old son calls from the next room. He recently recovered from a bout with both strep and the flu.

“Dad?” he asks, and I come into the room, lean over, kiss his cheek.


“What time are you leaving in the morning?”

“Early, before you wake up.”

“Will you come in and say good-bye before you go?”

* * * * *

Eight hours later, I step gingerly through the dark, lifting my feet over toys and blankets. I lean in over his bed and kiss his cheek.

“See ya, buddy.”

He rolls over.

* * * * *

It’s a two-hour drive to the Baltimore airport, or at least that’s how long it takes when I leave the house at 6:00 a.m. On the beltway, the brake lights glow red, and the sky begins to lighten as the morning comes. On my playlist, Ben Howard plays “Old Pine”:

Hot sand on toes, cold sand in sleeping bags
I’ve come to know that memories
Were the best things you ever had

I think of the kids waking up, getting ready for school, Maile making breakfast and getting everyone out the door. Home feels like a memory, soft and sweet and somehow off in the distance, like a humming sound I can’t quite tune into.

A fog settles over the beltway and the cars creep to a stop. When I get to the airport, the fog is heavier, and while I can’t see the planes coming in, I can hear them approach, like rolling thunder, like some strange apocalypse.

* * * * *

Above the clouds, the blue is the color of cotton candy and the sun glares in through the plastic window shades. I’m in a window seat—there is a guy across the aisle trying to clean up the Coke he spilled all over his tray, his pants, the floor. The guy beside me, in the middle seat, takes out a huge bag of Mexican food he must have bought in the airport and starts eating. In front of me, an old man takes his throw-up bag out of the seat pocket and fluffs it open.

I doze in and out. I write on my laptop. I go back to sleep. I wake up to the man across the aisle. He has just spilled another drink. He mutters to himself.

We begin our descent, and the plane bumps and shifts. We move inside the clouds. We could be on Venus, or under water, or lost. I close my eyes and whisper to myself, it will be fine, it will be fine. The plane plunges again, leaving my stomach behind. It drops again, and there is a whispered gasp through the plane.

It’s going to be okay.

* * * * *

I am in my hotel room in Nashville, and our newest podcast episode is only a few days old. My friend Beth Stedman shares her reaction to it:

And suddenly I’m standing in my kitchen with the Costco items I still need to put away, and the plate of hastily made nachos I’m shoveling in my mouth at the counter, and I’m trying to keep from sobbing.

Minutes before I had been laughing along to the podcast The Stories Between Us because I could relate so much. Then Maile said these words, “It makes me feel like something more is at stake. That something bigger and something badder wants us not to create.” It struck me, so I went back a few minutes and listened to those few seconds again. I started to shake. I hit the 30 second rewind button and listened a third time.

Like a summer storm that comes out of nowhere and just as suddenly stops, a single sob breaks out from my chest. I take the nachos out of the microwave and then another sob, like rolling thunder, with space in between, the sobs come and go.

I go back two minutes and listen a fourth time and then I’m crying.

This is the journey of the creative, isn’t it? Everything around us, every circumstance and rejection and person is telling us, directly or indirectly, that what we are doing is not a crucial, that it doesn’t really matter in the big scheme of things. And yet.

We know.

I read her comment again, sitting in my hotel room in Nashville.

I remember it is Ash Wednesday. I look up local service times.

* * * * *

The Episcopal church parking lot is cold and empty when I arrive, early, and the large oak doors are locked, so I keep walking around the building until I find a side door, and I walk through. It is the entry to the church office, and there is a secretary behind the desk who looks at me a little puzzled. But I smile and act like I know where I’m going, and I find the sanctuary.

I sit in a dark corner of the sanctuary and watch quietly as people come and go, lighting candles, preparing for the service. I am the first person there.

Ash Wednesday, and death is in the air. I think of my friends who lost their son. I think of my friend who recently discovered she has cancer. I think of my grandmother, gone only three months.

From dust you have been made, and to dust you shall return.

After the priest’s moving homily, we form a line that snakes through the pews, in and out of the light. We walk forward, one after the other, and at the front I am led to the left, to the priest who gave the talk. Her eyes are brimming with tears.

From dust you have been made, and to dust you shall return.

I close my eyes. Her fingers trace a gritty, oily black cross on my forehead, the ash of last year’s burned palm fronds.

It’s going to be okay, I think.

* * * * *

After communion—this is the body, this is the cup—I walk out into the cold Nashville night. I walk lonely, quiet city streets from the church to my hotel, and I can feel the cold air especially cool on the gritty cross still on my forehead. I pull the hood of my coat up over my head. I disappear in it, disappear in the city.

We are all marked, every one, though it’s an ashen cross we can’t usually see. We will not live forever. This seems crucial to remember, especially on that night, as I walk through the shadows and the light, as I make my way back to the hotel and, eventually, home.

It’s going to be okay.

Check out our newest podcast episode with Anne Bogel, creator of Modern Mrs. Darcy and the podcast, What Should I Read Next?

What Poppy Told Me

The afternoon sun shines through our windows, bright and promising. The winter has been gray. I help 5-year-old Leo and 3-year-old Poppy navigate their bikes through the breezeway, brushing against the gritty brick all the way to the front of the house where the sidewalk runs wide along James Street.

Back and forth they ride, from the lamp post in the west to the metal gate in the east, a span of two or three row homes. “Here, Dad?” Leo calls out. “I can go this far?” There is the whole wide world, 26,000 miles around, yet they are completely happy to exist in that 90 feet. Pedaling and turning.

I sit on the front steps and read a book. Leo gets cold, parks his bike against the front porch, and goes inside, but not Poppy. She keeps going back and forth, back and forth, humming to herself, her cheeks bright pink from the February air, her hands red.

“Aren’t you cold?” I keep asking. I’m cold. “No,” she calls out, making another lap.

Eventually, she pulls to a stop in front of the steps. “I’m finished,” she says, and I carry their bikes to the back porch. She trails behind me.

“It’s a good day,” she says with a smile, her face glowing and I kiss her icy nose and she giggles and I wonder if this will be one of the memories that sticks, the day she rode bike through a February day, or if it will fade into her past the way most childhood days do.

“It IS a good day,” I reply. How little it takes to please a child. How eager they can be to find happiness in their narrow world.

The Sound of Dirt

My cousin and my uncle, filling in my grandmother’s grave.

Five cousins and I bore the weight of my grandmother’s body, trying to keep our footing as we meandered the short distance from the hearse to the gaping hole in the cemetery ground. Like death and grief, carrying her was heavier and more awkward than I had expected. In the movies, the pallbearers maintain a certain appearance of stoic removal, gliding right along, but there in that small countryside graveyard, I found myself stumbling, breathing hard, trying to find my footing, especially when we got to the grave and had to skirt the sides of the hole, holding the coffin out in front of us. It was a relief, setting her down on the boards and straps that we would soon use to lower her into the ground.

There is something very tangible about death when you feel the weight of it. It’s one thing to view from the distance: the closed coffin, the shiny hearse, the green grass of the cemetery. It’s another thing entirely to wobble under the burden of it, to grip it with your own two hands, to carry your own grandmother to her final resting place.

* * * * *

Weeks before my grandmother died, we sat with her at my parents’ house, asking her about her life. As was usual, she answered our questions quietly and to the point. From where I sat, she looked as she always had: pretty, healthy, happy. But on the other side of her face, the side I couldn’t see from where I sat, a tumor grew. It had spread over most of the side of her head, along her ear, stuck out a few inches at her temple, and crept down her jaw, making it difficult for her to chew.

Even though that side of my grandmother’s face looked disfigured, my mom would often touch it, run her fingers along it. There is a kind of intimacy in that touching, a kind of love almost foreign to our world. What unfathomable grace, to stroke the black cancer where it breaks through the skin, to remember that beneath it is the one who bore you.

When we left my parents’ house that day I walked over to where my grandmother sat and kissed her forehead, told her to enjoy Florida. She would head south in a few days to Sarasota, where she always spent the winter. I had a feeling it would be the last time I saw her. It was a strange sadness.

* * * * *

My son Leo served as comic relief at the funeral. When a long, drawn out line of people walked from the church to the cemetery across the street, he remarked in a loud voice, “It’s kind of like a parade without all the fun stuff.”

* * * * *

My family has Amish roots, and the Amish have long-held traditions when it comes to funerals and burials. The grave is hand dug, the coffin is lowered manually into the ground using straps, and the hole is filled in by the deceased’s loved ones. My family wanted to maintain some of those traditions.

The six of us cousins gripped the straps and eased my grandmother’s coffin into the ground. After it was situated in the plastic container at the bottom of the grave, we lowered a second lid on top of it. Then, I took a shovel from the ground. I bit into the dirt with it, picked up a few clods of earth. But just before I dropped it in, I glanced over at the row of my grandmother’s children–my mom, my two uncles, my aunt. I felt a kind of remorse for what I was about to do.

I tilted the shovel and the clods of dirt fell onto the container surrounding my grandmother’s coffin. The sound of the dirt was hard and stark in the graveside silence. My cousins followed suit. It was a quiet, sunny day, and it felt oddly comforting, the work of digging, of filling. The cold gripped us, and a gentle breeze swept through the stones, out into the cornfield. Wispy white clouds drifted over the countryside, this place where my grandmother had been born, where my ancestors have lived for 250 years. Thirteen generations living on this dirt.

And in all of that space, all of those years, all of that silence, the only sound was that very dirt thudding onto my grandmother’s coffin. The sound muffled as the hole filled.

* * * * *

Leo walked over very close to the grave, watched as the dirt begin to fill up the hole. When he spoke, it was in a wistful voice full of genuine longing.

“I wish I could lay down there with grandma and go to heaven,” he said, looking up at me with big brown eyes.

I ran my hand through his hair, pushed it out of his eyes, and leaned my forehead onto Maile’s shoulder. And I wept.

This is How Books are Written

I’ve been writing a lot of fiction in this rocking chair lately. It’s the one in Leo and Poppy’s room. Leo usually falls asleep in about 27 seconds (he’s recently transitioned into not taking naps, so he’s zonked by about 5 p.m.), but Poppy lays quietly in her bed, under her peach and yellow-colored blanket, her pacifier making little cricket chirps as she drifts off. Her eyelids get heavy. She stares at her tiny fingernails, at the nightlight, at the ceiling.

And as she settles into another night of sleep, I sit here in this chair and type away.

This is the thing about writing that maybe non-writers haven’t really considered, but many of us writers are doing this crazy story-creating or book-writing in the slim margins of our days. Yesterday, Maile walked Sammy to school with Leo and Poppy, then went to a nearby park so that she could write while the two Littles played on the playground. It was cold. It was in the 50s. But she saw a window of time and she grabbed it.

Soon, Sam’s wrestling season will begin, and you’ll find me two nights a week from 6:30 to 8:00pm perched on a rolled up wrestling mat off to the side of the practice room, writing. Many nights, if one of us isn’t too tired, you’ll find Maile and I in bed, both of us on our laptops, working on our stories.

This is how the words find their way home. This is how stories get told. This is how books are written.

* * * * *

Recently in one of our podcast episodes, I told Maile that I will often tell writers to keep going. Keep going. You’ll get there. And she asked me, where is “there.” What does that even mean?

A good question.

And then this afternoon, our two oldest kids brought a few friends home from high school, and they spent the afternoon in the family room, one of them on the piano, one on a guitar, one singing, and one writing lyrics. They worked on making up their own song.

Where is “there”? Where is this writing taking us?

Maile or I may not win the Newbery award, and we may not win the Pulitzer, and we might not win the Nobel Peace prize for literature, but our kids see us creating, they see us fitting the thing we love into our lives, they see that we value creativity, and now they’re doing it, too.

They’re making space.

I think we’re getting there.

* * * * *

If there’s something creative you want to fit into your life, start small. Find a fifteen-minute window here, a thirty-minute window there, a ten-minute slot at the beginning or end of the day. Don’t put it off until you can rearrange your life to do that thing full time.

Get your words in. Draw up your business plan. Start painting or taking photos or fixing up furniture. And watch these things begin to take on a life of their own.

* * * * *

If you haven’t had a chance to listen to our podcast yet, you can check it out at these locations:

The Stories Between Us Episode 2

Apple Podcast

If you missed the first episode, you can check that out here:

The Stories Between Us Episode 1

When I was Afraid of City Schools

I was in junior high when we boarded the yellow school bus and pulled out of the parking lot. We were quieter than usual, I remember that, mostly because we were all a little nervous regarding our opponents that afternoon.

McCaskey High School.

I grew up in the country, first on a farm and later in a house situated on a one-acre plot surrounded by fields. On humid summer nights, I would go for runs on those back country roads, completely at home in that feeling of incredible aloneness, winding my way through corn that grew well up over my head. That dirt, that quiet, that empty sky got into my blood.

I say all of that only to explain how uncomfortable I felt as the bus pulled into the city, made its way in among the row homes and the cracked sidewalks. When we passed the prison, I stared up at its castle-like turrets, its barbed wire and high brick walls. When we got off the bus and walked into the city school where the game was being held, I had never felt more out of place.

I have to be honest and say that I’m sure much of my nervousness came from entering into a space dominated by people of color. My high school had only a handful of young people who were not white. I was comfortable there in my back country school, tucked in among so many that looked like me, sounded like me, believed like me. Going into that city school when I was a kid, I was afraid of those kids because they didn’t look like me.

* * * * *

When Maile and I realized she had reached the end of the line when it came to homeschooling, that she could no longer teach our four oldest kids and remain sane, our immediate thought was, “We have to move.” After all, through various life circumstances, we found ourselves living in the very city I had feared as a child. Except we loved it.

But send our kids to those city schools?

I don’t think so.

So, in the winter of what would be our last year homeschooling, we put our home on the market. Our dear friend and realtor Dave, who has so loyally trekked alongside us through our many moments of indecision, listed the house for us.

One problem, though. We didn’t want to leave the city. We loved it on James Street–loved our neighbors, loved the convenience, loved all the things going on, loved the diversity our kids were growing up around.

But the schools.

Two families helped us right the ship. We invited the Kings over to our house, a family who had made the homeschool-to-city-school transition, and we talked with them long into the night. They told us stories about their kids finding their way in the School District of Lancaster (SDOL), a Title I school (read: full of kids growing up in poverty). And their stories heartened us.

Then, not long after that, my sister and brother-in-law came over with their family, and we spent the evening talking about the city. At one point, Ben asked us, “So, why are you guys moving?” Maile and I looked at each other.

We didn’t know the answer.

* * * * *

“We’ll just take small steps,” we told each other. “We don’t have to make any final decisions yet.”

And the first step was sending our oldest son to McCaskey High School with a friend he could shadow for the day. He came home totally amped up. He loved it. He loved the school, the vibe, the adventure of it all.

We had not expected that.

The second step was to visit the elementary school where our two middle-aged kids would go. We walked the halls of Ross Elementary with them, led by the most wonderful principal, and I found myself totally shocked. This was not the city elementary school I had expected. I don’t even know exactly what I had expected. But the principal knew every child by name. The kids were quiet and respectful. There was art on the walls and we could hear sounds from the music room floating down the hallways.

It reminded me of the elementary school I had attended as a kid. The one out in the country.

I remember walking home with Maile, two of our kids running ahead of us. I watched them navigate the traffic lights, chatting the entire way. They had loved it. Maile looked at me.

“Why are we moving?” she asked.

* * * * *

We called Dave, our realtor. We asked him to take our house off the market. Poor Dave. We’re always doing this to him. The next day he called, as if with one final test. “Are you sure you don’t want to move? I’ve got an offer right at your asking price.

We were sure. We weren’t going to move.

* * * * *

A few weeks ago, I went to school with Lucy on Saturday morning for Tag Day. It’s the one Saturday of the year when several hundred McCaskey students involved in choirs or bands take to the streets and ask the people in our city if they’ll donate money to the music program. Just the thought of going door to door made me nearly sick–I hate that kind of thing. I think Lucy felt the same way.

At school, we loaded up our 15-passenger van with high school music kids and drove to our assigned route. They hopped out, and I couldn’t believe how enthusiastic they were. We went from house to house, but instead of getting the response I expected (basically, “Get off my lawn!”), we were greeted by person after person who loved Lancaster city, loved McCaskey, and couldn’t wait to give some money. We even passed people on the sidewalk who wondered what we were doing (the kids were dressed in choir robes and band outfits), and many of those people pulled out their wallets on the spot.

The kids even sang at some of the houses where we stopped.

Our small group of 12 kids raised over $500 in a few hours.

* * * * *

There’s something to be said about not making decisions out of fear. If there’s a direction you think you want to go but you’re afraid, take the next small step. You’ll find your way.

If you haven’t had a chance to listen to the first episode of the podcast Maile and I recorded about creativity, publishing, and the writing life, you can check that out HERE. Episode 2 comes out tomorrow!