Postmarked: Dear Jen (26)

Dear Jen

These February days have been gray and wet. This morning the rain has eased off, but the clouds are low and drifting, and the extended forecast is showing ten more overcast days in our future. I’m sitting at the dining room table, which is partially covered by eight folded piles of laundry (one for each of us). Our five-year-old son Leo is coloring in a notebook and eating Cheerios, right here beside me.

I’m trying to figure out exactly how I’m feeling during this gray season—and I can’t quite put my finger on it. I know the days feel fast and short and full. I know our teens have somehow rather suddenly entered a new phase of their lives, and our relationship with them is shifting like ground along a fault line. I know I’m writing a lot of words. In the midst of all this activity, I feel slightly disoriented.

You wrote in your last letter, “Risk is always going to be a part of whatever we do, especially whatever we do as Christians by faith. There is always a risk, in our creative lives, that the work will be misunderstood, ignored, neglected, criticized.”

Risk. I could write about that for a long time, from so many different angles.

I feel like I’m in that phase of my writing life where I’m being asked to double-down, to take everything I might have gained or learned or absorbed, and risk it all again. It’s like I’m seated at a poker table and some cosmic force is saying, You see where writing has gotten you so far. Are you willing to keep going? Are you willing to go all in, again, on writing?

In other words, is the work enough? If I never see substantial returns on my efforts, is the writing enough? I guess it all keeps coming back to those two little words:

Why write?

It is in this space where your words speak so clearly into my current disorientation:

“Are people reading? No matter: serve the work. Are people noticing, admiring? Keep your head down: serve the work. Will there be another contract? Another award? Keep writing. Keep serving the work.”

And it’s interesting to me, that use of the word “serve.” I tend to say “Do the work,” but isn’t what’s required of us in writing much more like serving than doing? With each book, I feel a tangible giving of something to the book itself, something essential, some deep part of me—the hours spent writing? The mental space set aside to consider plot, character, setting? The other income turned down in lieu of hours spent writing fiction?

Serve the work. This is a phrase I will carry around with me for a bit, like a coin in my pocket, turning it over and over until my fingers smell metallic. Serve the work.

Your letters keep grounding me in a very good way. My mind is prone to wander, prone to seek out the trail of fame or fortune. Here, I come back again to what is essential. Thank you.

Kind Regards


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What began as a Twitter conversation between two writers on creative work and family life has become an exchange of letters. Here is where Postmarked began:

Postmarked: Dear Shawn (1)

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In our most recent podcast episode, When Creativity Surprises You, Maile and I chat with author Christie Purifoy about why she got her PhD and then left teaching, what it’s like when writing keeps surprising you, and how to balance (or not) the writing life with other minor things like family, a spouse, and real life. You can check out that podcast episode HERE.