What Is Lost

An essay, or perhaps a sermon, about writing.

And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said, “All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them”
–from Suzanne, by Leonard Cohen


Man, do writers have it easy.  Set your own hours.  Doodle away on the keyboard for half a day, waiting for the mailman to arrive with your big check from the publisher.  Don’t forget to set aside some time for all the magazine interviews.  Oh, and you have that cushy book tour coming up, too, with all those reservations for five-star hotels and fine restaurants in glamorous cities.

Okay, maybe you don’t think of the writing life that way.  You’re realistic.  You know it’s hard work.  But you’re ready for it.  After all, nobody ever achieved success without putting the old nose to the grindstone, right?
But I bet you still haven’t thought of everything.  You haven’t considered what you have to lose.
Lose?  What’s to lose?  Sure, you’ll have to sacrifice some evenings to get the manuscript done, but who cares about missing a little TV?  What else is there to lose?


Your career, for one.  After all, you just have your day job to pay the bills until you finish your novel.  So when your boss asks if you can work late, you turn him down.  Who has time for that?  You have something more important waiting for you at home–your writing.  Your colleagues think you’re unambitious.  But who cares what they think?  They’ll realize why you were so uninvolved with your work when they see your name on the New York Times bestseller list.

Except that first novel doesn’t sell.  Nor does the second.  And now five years have passed, and you’re working on that third novel, and the boss has passed you over for promotion, and your colleagues whisper behind your back.  Hey, if things aren’t working out here, maybe you could move to a different job.  Except, who’s going to write the recommendation for the distant employee who was never really interested in being in the office?
But not everyone is cut out for a career, right?  You still have your family.  Sure, you spend a lot of time locked away in the computer room, night after night, pecking away at those keys, and when the kids interrupt your writing time, you get so grumpy.  Not that they bother, after awhile.  They find somebody else to read them their bedtime story.  It’s okay, though, once the money starts coming in, you’ll make it up to them.  And after writing for six months, that might be possible.  But after writing for years?  When you’ve been holed away long enough, they forget all about you, the family troll in its cave.  Don’t disturb it, it’s been known to bite.  And the odor!  When was the last time that thing bathed?

You know, never mind the kids, your spouse will always have faith in you.  Your spouse, who was so loving, so supportive when you started this project.  Except, by the third novel, the fourth, the fifth–well, that’s a lot of lonely nights.  And if your spouse finally has enough and walks out the door, who’s really to blame?  The wedding vows speak of sticking together through sickness and health, good times and bad, but they don’t have anything to say about disappearing from the real people in your family so you can spend time with the fictional ones on the page.

OK, sad to say, relationships aren’t you’re strong suit.  No matter.  You’re an idea person, a word person.  That’s why you got into writing in the first place, isn’t it?  Because you love to read.  Books were always there for you when people weren’t, and nothing is better than curling up with a good one.  Are you a mystery fan?  Or do you prefer science fiction?  Maybe you like to read the great novels, really getting into the deep questions about life and love and the beautiful language.  What could be a better complement to your reading than writing?  Yeah, you’ll get to that stack of books later tonight.  Right after you get this paragraph perfect.  Shouldn’t take too long….  Okay, it took two hours, and now it’s late.  Well, there’s always tomorrow.  Or maybe the next day.  Or perhaps next week….

So you’ve lost your job, your family, your personal time.  You still have one, very important thing: your self-confidence.  Nothing’s going to stop you from achieving your goal.  Except those pesky agents and publishers, that is.  Rejection after rejection.  They do pile up, don’t they?  And your optimism drains away with each plot hole you can’t fill.  Why is it no matter how long and hard you work, how many metaphors you formulate, how many scenes you nail, your writing never seems to achieve its potential?  You know it can be better, but you can just never reach it.  Stupid!  How much of an idiot do you have to be not to get it right after three novels?

Eventually your dreams die.  A tree that’s never watered doesn’t bear fruit.  You didn’t ask for much, really.  At first, fame and fortune seemed within reach, but later, all you wanted was to see one of your books on the shelf.  But that victory never comes and never comes and never comes, and the dream withers, and finally you reach a point where even if the success did come, it wouldn’t mean anything after all the failures.




We know from the Bible Jesus was a carpenter.  He found men rough, unfinished, and sanded and sawed and fitted them together, until he built chairs and tables.  And with those chairs and tables, he had a supper, and though it was his last one, the things he had built lasted.

But Jesus must have been something of a fisherman too.  He certainly knew quite a few, to whom he said, “Come with me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  And with him they went.  He pulled men in by the thousands and landed them on his craft, the Good Ship Salvation.

As for me, I believe God is a writer.  After all, when he saw how his first draft turned out, he tore it up, sending a great flood to destroy it.  I know the urge.

He certainly has a way with his characters.  He creates them, breathes life into them, sends them forth onto the paths he has planned for him.  As characters tend to do, they don’t always go the way he intended.  My characters surprise me all the time.  How is that possible, if they’re only fiction?  Sometimes I gnash my teeth at how my characters refuse to behave.  Of course, you have the power to make them do as you wish, but a good writer honors their integrity.  And you know, in the end, sometimes their unexpected choices have made the story stronger.

We were made in God’s image, and when we write, we’re coming as close to God as we’ll ever get.  He’s the author of all Creation, and we’re the author of our creations.  We establish our little world, populate it, people it, allow our creations the freedom to bite the apple, if they dare.  We provide the challenges that will let our heroes shine, and throw in a little romance, villains, and adventure.  We work in some themes and pack the pages with imagery.  And when we get to the end, we provide justice: in a satisfying story, the good are rewarded, the evil punished, and all have a chance to redeem themselves.

And so it is with the book God is writing, the story of Everything.  After all, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  Amen.
Cross-posted on the Writers of Chantilly blog.

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