A few weeks ago I randomly started writing the story of something horrible that happened to my writing career in the summer of 2013. This is the last post in that series. You probably won’t understand the impact of this post without reading the ones that come before it. They’re all really short:
(Yes, I skipped 8 and 13 on purpose because they don’t relate to the story. Also, #1 doesn’t really contain story stuff, but it’s teeny, and it’s the post that got this ball rolling.)
As this amazing opportunity fell through, and the dream slipped through my fingers, my anger was piercing and went only one direction: towards God.
One of the things I often tell my clients is that it’s okay to feel angry at God. We have to process through our feelings, not push them away. If we hide from our true emotions, they always catch up with us in ways we regret. They make themselves known. We have to be brave and look at our emotions, even when they’re uncomfortable. Even when they’re directed towards Deity. “He’s God,” I tell my clients. “He can take it. And He already knows how you feel anyway.”
Because of this, I gave myself permission to just feel the anger. I allowed myself to take a really good look at it–to stare it down, and not be afraid of it. I looked it in the eye, unflinching.
It was all about betrayal.
It went something like this:
After all I’ve done. After the ways I’ve shown Him my devotion. After all those personal, moving moments of allegiance that only He understands. After all He knows about me, and what makes me me, and what my life is, and the things I dream of, and . . . everything I am. After all of this, He intentionally sets up a scenario to crush my dreams? I hadn’t even asked to write a memoir. It just happened to me. The only reason I was doing it was because He wanted me to. He had set this whole thing up, out of nowhere. Viral post. Agent. Memoir. I had nothing to do with it. I had been trying to break in with a novel. This was never my idea, nor my intention. It had come from outside of myself.
This is not my first experience with pain. I’ve felt plenty of pain in my life. I’ve gone through hard things. Really hard things. But this felt personal. It felt to me as if He’d orchestrated the whole thing, made it as plump and ripe and ready to be plucked from the vine as possible–made it look like my fondest dreams were about to come true, within inches, within minutes, one email away–for no other discernible reason than to watch me writhe in agony as it all violently crashed to to ground.
I couldn’t figure out why.
Why is often the crucial question, isn’t it? The thing that keeps us up at night wondering. Sometimes we get an answer, and sometimes we get to wait, and sometimes we get nothing but silence.
In this case, the answer, after a year-and-a-half, has come in waves. It’s arrived in a pastiche of experiences, like any really good answer does. And I don’t have the complete answer, yet. But I have parts of it.
At first, I was so angry I didn’t even want an answer. I resented there being an answer. An “answer” felt so cliche, so reductive. “Well, such and such horrible thing happened, but it’s okay now because look at all the lessons I learned! Look at how it made things all better! Look at how it led to the right things, the magic path, the yellow-brick road! Look, look! Look at how I’ve justified this tragedy and failure and assimilated it into the context of my story! Look how good I am at controlling my own narrative!”
I wanted none of it. I was bitter, and didn’t want it to mean anything.
But those pesky brains we have–they just find meaning and come to understanding regardless.
The first and perhaps most important epiphany wormed its way through my rebellion the night we got that final email from our agent. The one with all the “passes” on the submission list.
Finally, all the hope was dashed. I had been clinging to that hope. There had always been a chance that one of the submissions would come through until that email. Until our agent said “enough.” In that moment, the excitement died. The hope was shattered. A dream was totally crushed.
It. wasn’t. going. to. happen.
What followed that crushing blow was a very interesting sequence of emotions. I was lying in my bed, letting the shock of the finality wash over me. I felt like a dinged bell. As the finality settled in, I felt disappointment and profound sadness, or course. But below that, bubbling under the surface, I also felt shame. I felt shame as if I’d done something wrong, or as if I had something to be embarrassed about. I felt a feeling of humilliation, a sense of “what if people find out about my failure.” There was an immediate impulse to feel like what had just happened was a reflection on me. That the rejection of my book was a sign that I was deficient.
Once I caught myself having thoughts of shame, of wanting to hide, I knew what I’d done. Not only had I been excited to watch this dream come true–not only had I felt the thrill of the opportunity to do with my life what I knew I was meant to do–but I had also let this potential success begin to affect my assessment of myself. I hadn’t seen it happening–its onset was very gradual–but I could suddenly, in the dim light of failure, see that I had started to feel elite, or special, or somehow of more worth because of this dream that seemed to be being realized. I felt like that said something about me. That it had bearing on who I was. That it affected my feelings of worth as a human being.
So, its absence also felt like it affected my worth as a human being.
In that moment, I experienced an epiphany. It’s the kind of epiphany that illustrates a truth we know conceptually, but in a way that we can actually feel. It might sound ridiculously simple, but I assure you it has informed much of my life since then. I realized in that moment that my intrinsic worth had not changed. Or more accurately, I realized that my worth was no different having been rejected by every major US publisher than it would have been if I had sold my book in a major deal.
My worth was exactly the same either way. It did not change. Not even a little bit. The realization was so powerful I found myself whispering the words in amazement. “My worth has not changed. I’m worth the exact same.” Eureka!
The realization broadened. My worth did not change because of . . . anything! It did not shift because of what I did or didn’t do, or what I contributed to the world! It did not change when I failed miserably! I was worth the exact same that morning as I had been the morning after my birth. I was worth the exact same the day I got an email saying my project had miserably failed as I had been the day my agent had so excitedly proclaimed that this project could be a huge success.
I was worth the exact same in that moment as I had been when I’d made horrid, brutal mistakes. I was worth the exact same in that moment as I had been in the moments I’d experienced personal triumphs. None of that–the stuff, the outer layers, the accomplishments, the awards, the mistakes, the errors-–changed my worth in the slightest.
My worth was static.
This realization was breathtaking. I finally got it.
And I got it, in part, because of the seriousness of the failure I had just experienced. It was only in a moment of true dejection that I could still feel my worth–brimming under the surface, breathing, existing, thumping with the beat of my heart–and know that it had not changed. That nothing–not even the most grandiose triumphs or the most degrading tragedies could change it.
It just was. And it is for everybody. This whole idea of intrinsic worth was real! And everybody had it! And it was beautiful! I said the words aloud to myself again: “My worth has not changed. It is exactly the same.”
And then I immediately sank back down to despair and anger. Because that’s how humans work.
I woke up the next morning feeling wretched.
I was going to a huge training on sex addiction. I’d paid a lot of money for this training. It was the third of four modules I needed to become a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist, so I couldn’t skip it.
And would you believe it–those days of training were pretty much a sequence of exercises meant to help me understand what had just happened to me. I spent the entire time feeling annoyed at each major realization. Combined with the epiphany I’d had the night of the email, this training expanded my understanding of so many things–my career, my life, myself–and lots of different little things, too personal and minute to chronicle here. Suffice it to say that at the end of the training, I was really pissed off.
I was mad because I didn’t want what happened to help me understand things. I wanted to feel bitter. I wanted to be angry. I wanted to wallow. I wanted to be mad and immature and childish, and to stomp my feet and yell about how unfair things were. (And for the record, there’s nothing wrong with doing any of those things in the aftermath of a trauma.)
At the end of the training, during the last day, they passed around a mic and had us share what we had gotten out of the training. I didn’t want to do it. I decided I’d pass, or say something really bland like “I learned so much. Thanks for the opportunity,” and pass the mic. Maybe with an eye-roll.
Instead, when I got the mic, for some unknown reason I just got real. I told everyone that I was bitter, and that I didn’t want to have learned anything that week. I mentioned briefly what had happened the day before the training started–agent, hope, rejection and my profound disappointment–and admitted that I hadn’t wanted to learn anything, or have anything make sense. I hadn’t even wanted to come. I admitted that I was angry and resentful. But I also admitted that that experience had allowed me to learn a lot–to see things in the training with a new lens, almost like it was supposed to have been that way. And in closing, I admitted that that fact really pissed me off.
When I finished talking, I looked around and there was a silence. People were crying. Somehow, what I had said had moved people, which was funny because I still felt cold and bitter in my heart.
And then, like a gift, for the remainder of the day I had people–perfect strangers from all over the country–coming up to me saying things like “I could feel God whisper to me that you’re not supposed to give up on that dream–don’t let that setback stop you” and “you aren’t done yet. You need to keep going,” and “this is just the beginning of your journey. You can’t give up. It will work if you keep going.” One lady wrote a list of famous books that had been rejected by major publishers before becoming classics and at the bottom wrote “do not give up!” These people were feeling what I couldn’t, in that moment, feel: that the rejection wasn’t the end. That I was supposed to keep going somehow.
I couldn’t understand what they were saying then–it largely fell on deaf ears. But I remember it all now. And I believe they were right.
Another major shift happened a month or so later. I was sitting in a therapy session–my own therapy session (any therapist worth his or her salt sees their own therapist, imho)–and I was trying to process all of this. I was trying to process the anger. I was still trying to discover the “why.” I had experienced tragedy before. I’d faced many challenges that were brutal and unfair. But this one grated on me. Why had this happened? Why had it even been necessary? Why, if it wasn’t going to work out in the first place, could I not have just been left alone? Why the set-up? The leading on? The Godly signature, as if He wanted me to be sure I knew it was him before He burned it all to the ground.
I just didn’t get it.
My counselor said something that took my anger and focused it, like a laser beam, hot and burning. “Well, maybe God did this to teach you a lesson,” he tossed out.
How half-baked! How utterly pathetic an attempt to explain God’s motivation! “No!” I raised my voice “I don’t accept that. I don’t accept that God would do that. God knows me. He already knows that I would do anything He asked me to. I’ve proved that over and over and over. To set up some scenario like this–dangling carrot of my fondest vocational dreams and then snatching it away tauntingly in order to teach me some life lesson about obedience or faith or His will or timing or whatever–is just . . . mean. That is not the God I know. The God I know loves. He is kind. That would not be kind.” I was livid. My counselor didn’t know quite what to do.”Either God had another, better reason than to ‘teach me a lesson,'” I concluded, “or He doesn’t exist.”
There it was. That binary was the truth. I could feel it clearly: it was one or the other. And I knew of God’s love for me because of a billion experiences in my life, collectively. I knew He was there . . . ergo . . .
I suddenly realized that I hadn’t considered a certain possibility.
There was a reason this happened.
There was a reason this happened that had nothing to do with teaching me a lesson.
It all started coming into focus.
It wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about my learning. This had happened for another reason. Sixteen major publishers had all experienced a confused, tepid response to a book that would have made them a lot of money being proffered by an agent they trusted. Wasn’t that a little odd? Wasn’t that unusual? We were about to be on TV at the time, and these publishers are in a business. They want to make money. Wasn’t it odd that they all, for different reasons–and basically no solid reason at all–said no to this proposal that would have been, as some of them pointed out, something of a sensation that garnered a lot of attention? That would have made them money?
Isn’t that… meaningful?
Memories started filtering in, and I started looking at truths I had been ignoring. Conflicts Lolly and I had had as we worked on the proposal. The feeling of never-quite-hitting-the-mark. I thought of my own lukewarm feelings about the manuscript. The secret dread I felt at, after it was purchased, having to finish it the way we had it outlined. My lack of connection to what we were proposing. Feeling disconnected from it. Feeling a little embarrassed by it. I remembered one time sitting down to write late in the process. I ended up writing a crucial scene that we hadn’t even included in the outline of our proposal. A scene that would have taken the book a totally different direction, and that related to the crux of our story. At the time I thought “well, I guess I can’t include that.” But now it suddenly seemed so obvious that I had to.
This wasn’t about me. It was about the book itself!
The book wasn’t right. The book, itself, was off!
Of course it was Zina.
Months passed. We did nothing. The trauma was too recent. The pain was too potent.
We would sometimes half-heartedly toss around thoughts. We’d discuss how things hadn’t been right with the book. How maybe we weren’t supposed to still do this, or maybe we were. How maybe it all failed so we could start over and get it right. How maybe that’s why it happened.
The thought of starting from scratch felt like a kick in the gut.
It was too painful. Even though deep within us both, we knew that this wasn’t over, we both kinda told ourselves it was. For a while we tried to believe that the kibosh meant we were off the hook. After all, what had happened over that summer was a pretty clear message. Maybe none of it was right. Maybe we could let this dream die, lick our wounds, and move on.
Then Zina, who had so helped us over a year before even get started on the project, called. “I’m going to a retreat on Whidbey Island,” she explained. “Can I stay with you before and after?”
We were thrilled to have her. And she was such a delight. Our girls loved her, and she lulled them to sleep telling them stories of the Tudor Dynasty and trying to explain to Anna how beheading worked. She took us to breakfast, and we took her to the ferry, and the girls loved watching the choppy waves as we accompanied her to the island. Eventually, on our drive back from picking her up from the retreat, she asked the question: “how’s the memoir coming?”
We hemmed and hawed. “Oh, well, we’re still a little shell shocked by what happened. So I’m working on my novel again,” I said. “And . . . we’re not even sure if we’re supposed to write the memoir anymore. It seems like God might have been telling us to give up.” Zina nodded, sagely. And then with a slight touch of that’s so cute she told us like it is. “I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you guys aren’t gonna get out of this. What happened over the summer isn’t an excuse to quit. Every project hits bumps. Every worthwhile book hits a snag.” We both nodded. “You are supposed to write this. Pray about it, sure. Get the feeling back. But I’m telling you, you are supposed to write this book. Nobody else can.”
The words rang true.
Lolly and I were sitting in our living room, across from each other. We had fasted and prayed and we were trying to decide what to do about the book. We’d come together, sharing our thoughts.
“I feel like we’re supposed to do it,” Lolly said. And I agreed. I’d had the exact same feelings. That this wasn’t over yet. That this book needed to get out there.
We talked about various options. Should I write it alone? Should Lolly write it alone? How could we attack this topic in a better way than we already had? We had had discussions like this many times before. We knew we needed to get back into the book somehow. We needed to find a way back into the material that worked.
But this time, with our hearts and minds focused on God’s will, the conversation produced an idea that made us both stop in our tracks.
We could both feel it. “That’s it. That’s it!” we said.
Because of that insight (which I can’t share yet publicly), I could suddenly see the entire book, laid out before me. It was an idea that unified the book, simplified its premise, focused it so perfectly on what we actually wanted to say that it felt as if it always should have been this way.
It was perfect.
And still totally unwritten.
Starting a book for the second time is incredibly daunting.
I just couldn’t get into it. Lolly was able to launch in. She just followed her gut. She wrote 20-30,000 words over the course of a couple of months, while I got nowhere.
Eventually I realized I was trigger shy. Even though we had had our epiphany, I was still sensitive. I was traumatized, and worried that if I didn’t “start it right” we might have to scrap it all again and start over. Those kinds of fears are death for an artist.
So… I just kept not starting. I kept doubting the thing we’d felt. I kept wondering if Lolly’s fluidity of thought meant that she was supposed to write this–that it needed to be from her perspective and I needed to just step aside, assassinate my pride and dreams, and let the process happen.
Lolly assured me that wasn’t the case, but I still wondered.
I wrestled spiritually. I sought a signal that this was what I was supposed to do. I resisted, not out of belligerence or rebellion, but just out of fear. I wasn’t sure I could take the disappointment again. I wasn’t sure if I could handle it.
And then I had another conversation with Zina. She called me one evening, now about five months after what had happened that summer. We chit-chatted. We discussed some of the projects she was working on. We talked about our families. And then near the end of the conversation as if to test her, or to test God, I asked her: “Zina, if I’m going to jump into this again, it needs to be right. What should my approach be? What’s the angle I need to take on this project? How do I make it different this time?”
She thought for a moment and then said a sentence that blew me away. She said it simply, clearly, and concisely. It was the exact approach Lolly and I had come up with. I couldn’t believe she had just said it–as in I actually questioned her about it. “Zina, seriously, had I told you what we were thinking?” I asked. “Did you just come up with that?”
She assured me I had never said a word to her about it.
And there, I realized, was my signal.
So I finally started writing.
That is where I find myself today. 2/3rds of the way into the manuscript, fighting every single day to get this thing done, and done right.
It’s hard. And terrifying.
I wish I could say that I orchestrated this whole blog-story so that I could tell you that everything is resolved. I wish I could tell you that I knew that there was a happy ending to this story, and that all of the fight and struggle and pain and disappointment has been worth it because of some cool thing that is happening.
Instead, I’m bringing you, en media res, directly into the part that’s hardest. The part where I start to question what I’m doing. The part where I start to wonder if I’ll ever make it to the finish line. I’m a marathoner at mile 21. I try to write every day. I work hard. I pour myself into this thing hour after hour after hour. This is the part that nobody sees. This is the part of a book that nobody gets to witness. The author, as the book is wrapping up, trying to get everything in order. Trying to get the final chapters done. Trying to battle his doubts.
I have a lot of doubts. I have doubts in myself. I have doubts in how I’ve presented manuscript. But the one thing I do know for certain–the thing that serves as part of the “why” for all that happened in the summer of 2013–is that this book, as it stands, is exactly the message God wants me to send out into the world. Unlike the first manuscript, this one feels right. It contains important truths. And there are people I have encountered from time to time who, when I’ve heard their story, something whispered your book is for him or you are writing that section for her. And even if this book affects only those few people, it is worth it to me.
I have no idea how it will fair commercially.
I have no idea if it will be published, or if we’ll self publish.
I have no idea who will read it.
But I know I need to get it out there. If but for a few people who need hear the things that Lolly and I have to say, I need to get this book completed and out into the world.
And I want you all to be along for the ride.
A couple days ago, on my walk, the final paragraphs of this post came to me and I stopped. I stood there typing it on my phone in the freezing weather on a small trail near my office, near where I got that first email of excitement from my former agent nearly two years ago. It feels so long ago! And yet, the battle rages on.
If this book succeeds, you’ll have a front row seat. You will see a miracle. You will see the answer to the question “why?” and the answer will be neat and tidy and satisfying. You’ll know that there is reason for everything. You’ll see His hand in this, and it will all make sense. So much sense.
And if I fail, you also have a front row seat. You’ll be a witness. You’ll know that sometimes miracles look like repeated failure. That sometimes the answer is confusion and disappointment. And you’ll see that when I was knocked down, I got up to be knocked down again. You’ll see that I was fearless, and that as I was stepped on and crushed, my sparks made a brilliant light in the night sky.
And that’s what living IS.