It can be agonizing to share what is deepest within you but then be met by apathy or rejection. For me, this struggle has often unfolded in the arenas of art and writing. I spent six years writing my first book, and, like many artists looking to find a home for their beloved project, found myself in the desert of unknowing as I queried agents and publishers. Staying disciplined for over a half-decade was difficult enough. The fruits of that discipline hinging upon the opinions of others was excruciating.
The tension in the creative life—which is not necessarily the life of an artist, but any life that is motivated by soul or spirit, by love, by depth—is that such a way of living is often inspired by obscurity or other-worldliness. Inner freedom can abound in this infinite space, but it’s also the area where someone might experience the most resistance, tempted to judge himself or herself through the lens of worldly results, and is therefore where one can feel most isolated and alone, tempted to believe the lies of the false self. Lies like, “You’re crazy” or “You’re not good enough” or “You’re on the wrong path” or “You don’t belong.”
So, as my project hung in the balance, and as every idea I formulated to get it through those publishing gates seemed to fail, I found myself growing more and more aggravated and beginning to doubt myself. As it goes when someone’s self-worth is on trial, I began to question if I had been duped by the universe, having been inspired by an idea that no one would ever read about; and then whether or not I was really a writer, having no fruit from my labor to prove that my project was worth being read; and then, I suppose, whether or not I was loved all together. It can be a quick fall—from doubt to worthlessness—when I start to question my purpose and belonging in the world.
Desperate for some solution to my publishing woes, I sent a message on social media to Wm. Paul Young, the brilliant and imaginative author who wrote the best selling novel The Shack, thinking that since my book was in a similar mystical vein, maybe he could connect me with an agent or publisher. I didn’t know Paul. I didn’t expect a response. But much to my surprise, he called me within an hour.
He didn’t connect me to an agent. He didn’t connect me to a publisher. But I think he could sense the heaviness on the other line, and he helped me to get back out there and keep creating. He told me something along the lines of, “We are all in the river of God’s affection and favor, but most of us are looking for a boat to climb into or a dock to hold onto.” He said that the “grace of the day” does not hinge on things going our way. It’s always there if we open our eyes to seeing it. This goes back to the Franciscan idea of “affirming God’s presence in everything that is,” as Ilia Delio, OSF, writes.
I had indeed been frantically looking for a boat (which would put me in control) or a dock (which would free me from having to surrender to the river’s flow) to rescue me, something to convince me that I was whole and that my project was good, neglecting the truth that I was already in the river of ultimate wholeness and goodness, which is grace. Paul didn’t set out for The Shack to become a best seller or to even get published. He was moved by a story, an idea, so he wrote the book for his family.
Though this was the first of many surrenders for me, the first of many conversations I had with mentors about my wrestling match with myself in the space of creativity, I found myself continually coming back to Paul’s words over the next several years. When you’re in the flow of the river, enjoying its movement, content with its direction, it’s easier for what is truest of you to also freely flow from within you. And that’s what happened. I rewrote the book. Then rewrote it again. I wrote a second book while looking for a home for the first book. Then I rewrote that one while my first was being edited. And with each writing session, it was as if I was declaring to God that I was daring to trust in the River.
Whenever anxiety about the future seems to creep up and seize my heart or mind, I remind myself that I’m already in the river. I remind myself to choose the waters over the boat or the dock. As the late Irish poet John O’Donahue once wrote, “I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.”