When Maile Told Me Something I Didn’t Want to Hear


When I first got married, it was mostly because I thought Maile was smart and gorgeous and she loved to read as much as I did. And also for the sex. Seeing as how I was brought up in the Puritan ideals of abstention, the sex was a major consideration.

But now that we’ve been married for nearly fifteen years, there’s something else I love about her: her honesty. She is my most loyal critic, as well as my greatest supporter, and in a world that will all too quickly inflate you with meaningless praise, an honest, loving critic is worth more than I ever could have dreamed.

* * * * *

I spent two solid months this summer writing a novel for my children, a book about the things that concerned me when I was a kid, a book about friendship and adventure and dying (I was a melancholy child). I poured myself into that book, to the point that I was emotionally exhausted when I finished. Mentally worn out. And slightly depressed that it was over. Someday, I hope you will read this book.

But I have a fatal flaw for a fiction writer – more than one actually. In real life I avoid conflict, and that carries over into my writing. I protect my characters. No matter how hard I try, they get along too well with one another. They make responsible choices. They lay low.
This is not a good recipe for creating engaging fiction.

* * * * *

When I returned to blogging about a month ago, you all welcomed me back with open arms. I was away for nearly a year, yet you came back, too. More importantly, I’m enjoying myself again because at some point during my break I got over my obsession with numbers. I no longer get panic attacks if I don’t have a post lined up for the next day. I no longer feel the heart-rending disappointment when a post flops.

Still, I felt a sense of unease. This isn’t really what I want to write, not forever, I told myself at night, staring at the ceiling high above. I want to write fiction. I want to be a novelist.

But a sneaking suspicion had begun to grow in my mind, one that I pondered ever since finishing the book for my kids. And when I didn’t have the strength to say the words out loud, Maile said them for me.

They came after I expressed my novelist frustrations to her one morning. We were making the bed. I went on and on, complaining about my weaknesses as a fiction writer, my unhappiness with the plot of the children’s book I had written. Then she said something, something that I had been thinking but did not have the strength to admit out loud. Something that, if I had let it, could have hurt me deeply.

“You might not want to hear what I have to say,” she said in a kind voice.

“No, go ahead.”

“Maybe,” she said, “just maybe, you’re not a novelist. Maybe you’re a nonfiction writer. That’s your best writing. That’s what people respond to.”

I took a deep breath. Sometimes the truth about ourselves hurts. Sometimes it isn’t exactly what we want to hear.

“I’ve been wondering the same thing,” I admitted.

* * * * *

I wonder how many of us spend our lives trying to be what we want to be instead of embracing who we are? I wonder if this contributes to the truth behind Thoreau’s famous quote that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Maybe we’re desperate because we’re dishonest with ourselves and with each other about who we are.

What would happen if we were honest with ourselves? What would happen if we listened to the loving voices that speak into our lives, the voices of those who love us, those who can sometimes see what we cannot, or will not, see?

Of course there’s a flip side to this coin, the truth that life is a struggle, a journey, and that anything worth having takes some work, some perseverance. Don’t give up on your dreams. Etcetera, etcetera. But maybe the one thing standing between you and the life you were meant to live is a dash of humility, a small measure of honesty, and a mustard seed of hope.

The hope that who you are, who you were created to be, is enough.

31 Replies to “When Maile Told Me Something I Didn’t Want to Hear”

  1. Hey Shawn
    Your post this morning might as well had name attached to it. Thanks for confirming what I thought I already new. We tend to think that we alone are going through different issues and nobody would understand. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Shawn.

  2. I’m reminded of a Snoopy cartoon, one of the ones where he’s writing on top of his doghouse, and he says something like, “I want one character and nothing to happen to him.”

    Recently, I’ve been giving up my novel dreams as well. My writing gifts are in journalism–telling someone else’s story–and in the 800-word essay. Poetry keeps me going, but I’m not sure I’m good at it.

    Glad you have your wife in your life!

  3. Have you ever considered creative non-fiction? It’s a relatively new and hot genre combining the literary beauty of fiction with the factual accuracy of non-fiction. There’s a website, creativenonfiction.org, that tells more.


    PS I still think you need to do a readable narrative of the Christiana Riot and a meditation book (illustrated with your photos,) Sigh.

  4. While I can’t comment on your fiction writing; I can comment on your non-fiction that I’ve read (including your blog posts).

    It’s incredibly engaging. You have a way of connecting the reader to the situation in a very real way. You put us there in incredible detail that doesn’t dull the story (which is important), and you tell a compelling story, and you have a point to your story even in the little things. I’ve never moved from VA to PA after a failing business, I’ve never traveled the country in Willie, I wasn’t in the woods when you buried Hope, and I wasn’t in the van when the kids screamed with joy at the ultrasound results. But I feel like I’ve lived through all of those experiences.

    Enough said.

  5. From what I have read of your writing, you are a storyteller. So maybe the stories you are telling aren’t fiction, but that’s okay. Because I personally think that stories make the world go round and it doesn’t really matter if they are fiction or not.

  6. About 10 years ago I realized that given my line of work and the production of my hands, I was probably not meant to be the novelist I always wanted to be. My stock in trade is coming up with great ideas, and then giving them away to others to write. It goes against every grain of a writer’s being to do that. But when I consider the jobs I’ve always ended up in in publishing, and the role as an innovator and idea person that keeps coming back to me, I have learned to embrace giving away ideas and being ok with it. And who knows…maybe one day God will make it work out for me to write them myself. But not for now.

  7. Shawn,

    Wow. What a fantastic post. Polarizing. I applaud your ability to absorb this news and examine it closely for any truths it may hold for you. It is an act of courage that I daresay most people dare not summon. After all, it isn’t the fictions we fear in our life the most, it is the truths. Without a doubt this is a source of many a writers hidden fear. Bravo my friend.

  8. Shawn,

    Hello friend! I’m curious about a few things…Why assume we (the readers) are not already ‘living the Life we were meant to live’? Also, what if Maile is wrong? What if the joy you are seeking through writing fiction is not too far down the path? What are you using as your reference point in order to accept Maile’s input as “true” for this particular issue? I’m guessing that there are times when you don’t accept her input as ‘true’…what about this particular situation is convincing you to accept her ‘truth’ as your ‘truth’?

  9. The Next Great American Novel…how many of us have that carrot dangled before us? Thanks for the perspective; appreciate this point of view.

  10. Hi, Ryan. Let me see if I can answer your great questions. I’ll go rapid fire since you asked so many.

    – I’m sorry if I inferred that every reader (or any reader) is not living the life they were meant to live. That would be assuming a lot on my part, and it would also be assuming we can live a life other than the one we’re currently living. If anything, I’m talking about the trajectory of a life, which I think we can change, or at least think about.
    – Maile could be wrong. I could be days away from writing the next best-selling novel. Or maybe I already wrote it.
    – Why should I seek a joy in writing fiction when there is a joy right here in front of me in writing nonfiction? This is close to the heart of what I was getting at – seeing the joy in life as it is.
    – I haven’t accepted Maile’s input as true as much as I have accepted that her input matched up with what I was already feeling and didn’t have the strength to verbalize.
    – Same as previous answer.

    It’s an interesting conversation, isn’t it? I’ve had a lot of thoughts since I wrote this piece last night, some of which are completely opposite to what I wrote!

  11. As long as you enjoy the end result, it doesn’t matter what category it falls into. I find fiction extremely draining myself. But it’s also the most fulfilling. But as Andrea said, stories are stories–and stories are what bring us together.

  12. Shawn – maybe you’re not a novelist. . . yet. Maybe there’s a season of non-fiction writing and a whole lot more living to do before the novels will be what you want them to be. I believe you’re gifted enough to get where you want to be – just don’t beat yourself up in the process, okay?

  13. So, how do we, then, achieve our greatest potentials? By building on our natual talents and ablities, or working hard to get better at the things we struggle with?

  14. I appreciated your honesty in this piece. I think there is easy honesty and there is hard honesty and this felt more vulnerable to me, which is harder honesty.

    I have several thoughts on this about you. I’m not sure I agree that you are not a novelist but at the same time, I know that sometimes life and self works this way.

    One thing is you might not be the novelist you envisioned. You might eventually turn into a novelist that you never had expected and your years of heavy non-fiction writing will contribute. Who knows.

    Sometimes we make hard line distinctions that we might not always need to make, creating fixed identities, when in actuality we often change and morph through our lives. Maybe you are doing novel work “right now.”

    Also, if you were the novelist you’ve always dreamed of right now, you would have nothing left to go after. As well, Oscar Wilde said one of my favourite quotes which is “The only thing worse than not getting what you want, is getting it.” If you were writing novels you were happy with right now, with great conflict, etc, you might be surprised at how THAT couldn’t even satisfy you. And how much would you need God?

    Lastly, Maile and you might be right. I’ve had similar experiences in my growth, realizing I liked the idea of something or really wanted to be something that wasn’t in the cards for me. Sometimes it works that, say, in your instance, you might just really like to READ fiction but your calling isn’t to write it. And sometimes our callings, like James Hillman describes, are more like gentle pushings in a stream, landing on a bank we didn’t anticipate.

    Ultimately, your writing career isn’t done, so who knows. I’m not sure have to hurry up and define what kind of writer you are. I do know that it feels nice to define ourselves in ways we’ve always wanted. So it’s hard to let go of that and trust the process. Some identity stuff is grounding.

    I don’t have time but i can also identity with the frustration around not being what we’d hoped, or more so, in my case, feeling as though one must be in a calling that one doesn’t necessarily consciously choose. But I gotta go.

    1. You know me so well, my friend. So many facets of what you’ve said are thoughts I’ve had in one way or another since posting this. But thank you for always speaking into my life with kindness and patience.

  15. Thanks Shawn! This is spot on. I felt so out of place growing up, but during my college years I learned it wasn’t what others thought of me. It was how I thought of myself. I was always trying to be something else rather than what I was. And it turns out, what I was (and am) was my greatest strength. I wish I had learned it earlier. But, sometimes it takes the hard stuff of life to help us learn. As an adult, one of the greatest things I’ve learned is that I can’t even fathom the depths of love God has for me, but I can start to look at what Scriptures claim I am and start to see myself that way.

  16. I love Maile.

    Sometimes we NF writers think we need to write fiction. That’s what serious writers do, right? I’m pretty sure my fiction attempts are “limited” to picture books, which I love writing. Six hundred words is enough, though…

  17. Mr. Shawn, I am definitely a green horn in blogging, but for me it seems one of the most powerful and most attractive qualities of a blogger is honesty and pure vulnerability. I am able to connect with the humanity and authenticity. Then I want to know more. As I continue to follow your work in recent months I am liking it more and more. You have the touch. I like your style. Thanks for putting yourself out there, Shawn. Thanks for writing.

  18. Shawn,

    This is dear to my heart because I feel the same way about my lovely wife as well. She has spoken into my life and helped me realize so many areas where I need to man up and grow and become more like Christ! Thanks for sharing and encouraging all of us!

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