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.

Two Writers Explore Creative Work and Family Life

Last week I took a quick peak at Twitter while on vacation and saw something that Jen Pollack Michel had posted:

If you’ve followed me or my blog for any amount of time, you know this issue of women (and specifically my wife Maile) having time for creative pursuits is near and dear to my heart. Maile and I have had (and continue to have) conversations about how to divide the housework and care of our six children in a way that gives me ample time to make enough money to pay the bills but also provides her time to write.

Jen and I proceeded to exchange some Tweets, further discussing some various views on the topic. But Twitter, with its character limit, only allows you to journey so far into such things. We decided to continue the conversation in a series of letters in which we would explore creative work, family life, and how to make sure both partners have the opportunity to tend to the creative fire within them. We are also interested in what it might look to explore friendship in this context; Jen and I do not know each other well, not at all really, so this will be an interesting practice in getting to know one another in a public forum.

This is the first of our letters, written by Jen to me. We’ll be sharing them every Friday.

Dear Shawn,

I’m writing this from Toronto in the middle of a summer afternoon. As to the conditions that allow for such an indulgence (!), two of my children are away at camp, two are busily occupied with replacing the batteries to their armory of nerf guns, and one is, as my husband, Ryan, likes to say, “tooting her horn.” (We have a musician in the family. She’ll be off to McGill University in the fall to study clarinet performance.) I am guaranteed, at the very least, another uninterrupted hour in my office.

In terms of finding time for creative work, this summer is easier than previous ones, easier still than the many early years of parenting. I won’t assume that you know much about my family life, so I’ll give you some of the background . . .

You can find the rest of Jen’s letter to me over at her blog.

Some Thoughts on New Berries, Stephen King, and Chasing Your Dreams

There is a broken Lego set on the table, and I can feel a few pieces under my feet, the small ones, the kind the vacuum sucks up without any regard for the incomplete set it has just created. There is an open newspaper at the other side of our large dining room table, and there is my wallet with a one dollar bill folded in the clip. It is a quiet morning, an early summer morning, and through the windows I can see the barely rustling trees that line the alley, the gray-blue humid sky, and the wooden framework above our small back porch that needs to be painted.

Maile is in the kitchen, washing and cutting strawberries. The water makes a pinging sound on the metal sink. She is barefoot, still in her summer pajamas, a kind of airy, blue dress, light as a breeze. It is just the two of us in the open kitchen-dining room.

I hold up a book I’m perusing, a book I’ve read many times before. Stephen King’s On Writing.

“Listen to this,” I say. “I love this story.” Stephen King writes,

My wife made a crucial difference during those two years I spent teaching at Hampden (and washing sheets at New Franklin Laundry during the summer vacation). If she had suggested that the time I spent writing stories on the front porch of our rented house on Pond Street or in the laundry room of our rented trailer on Klatt Road in Hermon was wasted time, I think a lot of the heart would have gone out of me. Tabby never voiced a single doubt, however. Her support was a constant, one of the few good things I could take as a given.

“Sounds like you,” I say to Maile, smiling. I continue reading.

I had a phone call…My wife, sounding out of breath but deliriously happy, read me a telegram…CONGRATULATIONS, it read. CARRIE OFFICIALLY A DOUBLEDAY BOOK. IS $2500 ADVANCE OKAY? THE FUTURE LIES AHEAD. LOVE, BILL.

I think of when I received the email that The Day the Angels Fell had found a publishing home at Revell. I remember sitting down in the study, my back against the wall. I tried to read that email to Maile, but I couldn’t read it without crying, so I just handed my laptop to her, and she sat down beside me and read it, and she started crying, too.

At some point while I’m reading King’s book out loud to her, Maile comes over to the table and perches on the bench, right beside me. She crosses her legs and puts her chin in one of her hands.

“That story about Stephen King and his book makes me want to cry,” she says quietly.

“Wait until you hear this part.”

One Sunday not long after that call, I got another one from Bill Thompson at Doubleday. I was alone in the apartment.

“Are you sitting down?” Bill asked.

“No,” I said. Our phone hung on the kitchen wall, and I was standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room. “Do I need to?”

“You might,” he said. “The paperback rights to Carrie went to Signet Books for four hundred thousand dollars.”

…I hadn’t heard him right. Couldn’t have…I was still standing in the doorway, looking across the living room toward our bedroom and the crib where Joe slept. Our place on Sanford Street rented for ninety dollars a month and this man I’d only met once face-to-face was telling me I’d just won the lottery.

That was Stephen King’s story, but I know it. I can feel it. By now my own throat is aching, because I can imagine what that must have felt like. I am filled with happiness for Stephen King in that long-ago year, when he received such good news. Good news. We are all yearning for good news, aren’t we? We all have that desire in us, to see that we are making our way in something that we love to do.

I close the book and leave it on the table. I trace the wood grain with my finger. Somehow, Maile and I are far, far away from that kitchen.

“What in the world are we doing?” I ask Maile in a whisper, and while I don’t get any more specific than that, we both know what question I’m asking.

Why do I spend so much time writing books? Why is she querying agents over and over again about her own quiet, beautiful book, not stopping in the face of rejections? Why do I keep freelancing when sometimes the checks come and sometimes they do not? Why do we spend nearly every waking moment reading books, talking about books, writing our own books?

Can a life made out of words be enough?

Maile leans over and puts her head on my shoulder, her hand on my leg. Her hair tangles in my beard.

“We’re chasing our dreams,” she says, and her voice is rich with happiness. It is enough. That’s what she’s saying.

We sit like that for a long time, or what feels like a long time, the hot summer morning pooling around us, children waking and coming downstairs, asking for breakfast, the city waking up. Poppy and Leo climb like monkeys up onto the stools beside the island and start eating the berries Maile has cut, their mouths curling in the sour-sweet. Poppy giggles.

“These are new berries,” she says in her squeaky, almost-three-year-old voice.

“Yes,” I say. “Yes, they are.”

* * * * *

My next book releases in only five days. Five days! After all this time, Light from Distant Stars has arrived. I’d be honored and pleased if you’d preorder it from any of these booksellers (or perhaps your own local bookstore not listed below):

Aaron’s Books, Lititz, PA – call 717-627-1990
Baker Bookhouse
Barnes and Noble
Hearts and Minds Bookstore 

If you don’t have the money at the moment, you’d be doing me an incredible favor if you contacted your local library and asked them to order it. Then, you can read it for free.

My Daily Routine, and the Culprit That Throws Me Off

When we’re at home, Leo usually wakes me up around 6:15. Maybe 6:30. We wander downstairs and I grab him some breakfast before starting my morning routine. First, I read from Psalms, then a New Testament passage. After that I read for ten minutes or so from a book on creativity – right now I’m reading Cynthia Beach’s Creative Juices. I hand write an encouraging note and mail it to another writer, and by then Leo is usually working on his own drawings, asking me about colors. I make breakfast for the kids (anything from French toast to pancakes to get yourself a bowl of cereal), and try to head out the door to the gym by 7:45.

Recently I discovered that being active for 45 minutes or so while listening to one of my favorite books gives me a jolt of creativity, so I come back from the gym and try to immediately work on whatever novel I’m currently writing. The rest of the day I spend on the paying gig – co-writing and ghostwriting books for other people.

But there’s something that can really throw me out of my routine, if I’m not careful. Something that gets inside of my head and twists my thinking in knots. Something that leads me to waste time and takes my mind down unhealthy side trails. Know what it is?

Launching a book.

The problem for me with launching a book is that I start to feel like the success of the book will be completely determined by how obsessed I am with it. Have I shared about it enough? Checked my Amazon ranking again? Recounted my Goodreads reviews? Have I sent copies to the right people?

If it gets really bad, I’ll start to equate my book or my reviews or my success with me, who I am as a person, and if there’s a day where any of those things aren’t super-positive, I can feel the blue funk creeping in. The voices that question why I write novels and tell me I’m not a good enough writer.

So what helps me get back on track?

Get off of social media. For the love. And stop looking at reviews. Stop it! And stop caring what random strangers think of the books I’ve written. And write. Write. Write.

This is one thing I say in almost every handwritten letter I have written: The writing journey (aka life) is full of ups and downs, encouragements and disappointments, failures and the occasional success. But the only thing that remains, the only thing that remains true, is the writing itself. The writing will always be there for me. The act of creating, no matter the outcome, is always enough, in the end.

If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here. The discouragements and disappointments would have had their way. But the writing. Always the writing.

And so I keep going. It’s why I’m sitting here writing on the floor of the bedroom in the dark while Leo and Poppy fall asleep. It’s why I’ll wake up tomorrow morning and work on revisions for my next novel. The act of creating is what my life is built around.

And that has become enough for me.

* * * * *

While I was writing Light from Distant Stars, this book that’s coming out July 16th, I kept a daily journal that I would write in prior to working on the novel. In it, I talked about the difficulties I was facing, what I was trying to write, and just sort of my general process. If you preorder the novel now (which is one of the most helpful things you can do for a writer), I’ll email you the 51-page journal. Find out how to get it HERE.

* * * * *

A Look Inside the Writing of a Novel

Photo by John Sanderson of Sanderson Images

It happens in long stretches of disciplined days, where much goes according to plan. It happens in late evenings when the children are finally asleep and Maile is writing in the bed beside me. It happens while I’m waiting at long athletic practices and on the front porch and sometimes in the early mornings when it’s only Leo and me sitting at the dining room table.

This is how a novel gets written: in the cracks and crevices of an ordinary life. In both scheduled and unexpected bursts, until 100 words pile up to 1,000 words, and chapters form and arcs are fulfilled and characters emerge while 80,000 or 90,000 or 100,000 words come together, like atoms gathering.

When I wrote Light from Distant Stars, I decided to keep a journal every day. I wrote a short entry each morning before my novel-writing time, sometimes about life, sometimes about writing. It was a warm-up for me, a time to stretch my mind before diving into that day’s work.

I would like to give this journal to you – all you have to do is preorder Light from Distant Stars from any of the following book sellers:

Aaron’s Books, Lititz, PA – call 717-627-1990
Baker Bookhouse
Barnes and Noble
Hearts and Minds Bookstore 

Then, enter your information here:

…and the PDF of my journal entries will magically appear in your inbox. It’s not available anywhere else. You can’t buy it. The only way you can get it right now is by preordering Light from Distant Stars.

Also, everyone who preorders will be entered into a drawing for a $50 gift card to the bookstore of their choice and a signed copy of four of my other books: The Day the Angels Fell, The Edge of Over There, Once We Were Strangers, and How to Use a Runaway Truck Ramp!

I hope you enjoy the journal! Here’s a little excerpt:

Is there ever a perfect time to begin writing a novel?

For at least the last month or two, I had today, January 8th, earmarked as the day I would begin writing my next novel. Mondays and Fridays will always be difficult days for me to get my writing in – I’m in between co-writing jobs at the moment, which means I need to drive for Uber and Lyft on those two days to make some extra money. Making enough to feed six children is no joke. But I planned on getting up early, writing my at-least-1000-words for the day, and then moving on to ridesharing.

Is there ever a perfect day to begin writing a novel?

Our younger two took longer than usual to fall asleep last night, so I didn’t fall asleep early, as planned. Leo was up multiple times in the night. My (ambitious for me) plan to wake up at five o’clock faded quickly. I had imagined the perfect morning – me, sitting in a quiet living room, children asleep, radiators hot, my fingers gliding over the keys. Instead it was a chaotic morning, making breakfast, waking up the older kids, folding laundry, and trying to get out the door to an 8:30am meeting with a friend.

Is there ever a perfect day to begin writing a novel?

I’ve never run a marathon, but is there ever a perfect day to run a marathon? Do you ever wake up to perfect temperatures, zero mental and emotional qualms, a body that feels ready, all after a perfect night’s sleep? I suppose it happens. I suppose there will be days that go perfectly during the writing of this novel. I suppose.

But this morning was a good reminder to me. I must fit the writing into not-so-perfect days. I must find a way to write through the self-doubt and hesitations. If I am going to write this novel, there can be precious few things I put ahead of it. So, even on a morning that doesn’t go as planned, I push everything else back. Everything else must wait until I get my words written for this day. This is the cost of writing a novel. This is the price I must be willing to pay for the next three months. Four months. Six months.

Now, I begin. And beginning a novel is one of the most wondrous things in the world.

Late on a Friday Night

Photo by Krista Mangulsone via Unsplash

It’s late on a Friday night. Our two older kids are in the basement, watching a movie with a friend. Our two middle kids are in the living room, playing video games. Friday night is the one time of the week where we kind of back off the screen patrol and let everyone unwind. It works for us. You do you.

Meanwhile, I’m in the gliding rocker in the babies’ room, enjoying the peace and quiet and basking in the glow of my computer screen. I say babies, but Leo turns five this summer and Poppy will be three right behind him. In my honest moments, I have to face the fact that we don’t have babies anymore. This is a strange thing. Soon, Poppy will be potty-trained, and we’ll have put 15 years of on-again, off-again diaper-changing behind us. That’s a strange thought. Our first baby is almost a sophomore in high school. An even stranger thought.

When Maile is away, the sleeping life of our older three kids doesn’t change much. They go to bed in their own rooms, at bed time, and the world keeps spinning. But, when Maile is away, I end up sleeping on the floor in the babies’ room. So does Sam. So there are four of us in the smallest bedroom in the house, two of us on the floor (sometimes three if Leo crawls out of bed and decides to join us). But I love it. It’s warm in their room, and dark, and we keep a fan going. It’s a huge conglomeration of blankets and pillows and little bodies and sometimes I wake up with some little person’s stinky-sweet breath right in my face. Or a foot. Or a hand.

Someday, this house will be empty of everyone except Maile and me. Right now, it’s very full. I’ll take it.

It’s been strange, Maile away, on the road, getting ready to speak at a women’s conference in Orlando. I’m usually the one on the road. I’m the one who leaves, who comes home. This has been a good thing for our family. Maybe not for Poppy, who keeps asking, incessantly, “Where’s my Mama?” But for me, I get to see why Maile can’t always take my calls when I’m the one who’s away (laundry, kid-taxi, making food, changing diapers, baths, trying to find time to write, etc etc etc), or why she seems distracted when she does. I understand better why she is simultaneously excited for and annoyed with me when I do go away. I hope she gets to do this a lot. She’s done so much for all of us, so much for me, in the last twenty years. It’s long past her turn, and she has a lot to offer the rest of the world.

In about three months, my next book releases, Light from Distant Stars (do yourself and me both a favor and preorder it now). I can’t wait for you to read it. But to be honest, I haven’t been thinking about it too much, because I’m already deep, deep into writing the next one. Writing novels is a strange thing–I’m watching my writing evolve in front of my own eyes. Each one is a deep dive into something new, some alternate universe, and it changes me. Each novel sets the stage for the one that will come after it, in some tangible way. What a journey.

Well, I was going to work on that novel, but now I’m tired, and the fan is droning on and on, and Leo is asleep. I think I’ll just slide down onto the floor, vanish under a pile of blankets and pillows, and get some sleep. These kids are wearing me out.

Enjoy your weekend. Don’t forget, in the midst of this crazy life, to do something you love to do.

* * * * *

You can now get The Edge of Over There (sequel to The Day the Angels Fell) in paperback! Head here for a list of places where you can order it.