One thousand eight hundred and twenty days ago, I started writing my book, a memoir about going from atheism to belief. After three complete, from-a-blank-page rewrites; countless feedback sessions from Joe and my agent and brilliant fellow writers, each of which left me wondering whether I should perhaps just give up on the written word altogether; revisions that made me feel like my brain was melting; a reality show; three new babies; and a pitch process that almost sent me into cardiac arrest every time I saw my agent’s name in my inbox…I finally have a publisher.
I know I use this word too much, but there is no other way to describe the pitch process other than to say it was EPIC. When Ted, my agent, first told me that we had multiple offers from great publishers, I was thrilled. My excitement quickly melted into a vague sense of dread, however, when I realized that I could only pick one. I know, I know, good problem to have. But because my writer angst knows no bounds, I had these visions of making the wrong decision and ruining everyone’s life in the process, leaving some poor acquisitions editor so scarred that she’d spit on the ground any time she heard my name.
I prayed for direction, and to my great relief my prayers were answered. God made it clear which house would be the right fit for this project, probably because he knew that I’d turn this situation into too much of a hot mess if he didn’t intervene directly this time. Ted made some calls, we all signed some papers, and now I can finally tell you:
Ignatius Press is my publisher, and my book will probably be released either this Fall or next Spring!
Ignatius? you say. Ignatius Press? The Pope’s publisher? The house that puts out all those works of theology that make you feel like you didn’t know anything about anything until you read this book? They’re publishing you? All I can say is: I KNOW!
Our bookshelves are about half full with Ignatius books, and I’m still having a hard time believing that mine will one day be among them. Let’s see, we have:
- A Brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace by Henri de Lubac
- A Refutation of Moral Relativism by Dr. Peter Kreeft
- Scandal of the Incarnation: Irenaeus Against the Heresies by Hans Urs von Balthasar
…And Jennifer Fulwiler talking about listening to Tupac on her iPod while reading the Catechism.
I keep waiting for Mark Brumley to call and tell me delicately that there’s this professor with five PhDs named Jennifer Fullwider, and, long story short, a horrible mistake has been made. But that hasn’t happened yet, and I’ve given it a few weeks, so I guess I can officially say:
Ignatius Press is my publisher!!!!
I invite you to raise a glass of your favorite beverage to celebrate this moment with me in a virtual toast. Thanks for putting up with my writer drama over the past few years (though I shouldn’t talk about it in the past tense, as if there’s not a whole lot more to come). I love sharing my story with you, and I hope you’ll continue to join me in the adventures that are yet to come!
I’m working on some book revisions this week and next, which means that I’ll be too caught up in the throes of ecstatic joy to be able to write much here other than Quick Takes. I will have such rock-solid confidence in the the usefulness of these efforts — I shall find myself so immersed in hope at the knowledge that, despite the fact that my literary agent has said that my last 1,632 efforts weren’t good enough, the 1,633rd time just might be the charm! — that I will forget all about the fun and instant gratification that come with writing for my blog.
In the meantime, let’s talk about what we’ve been reading lately. I’ve been wanting to share some good titles I’ve found recently, but haven’t had time to craft lengthy, detailed reviews. I know a lot of other folks are right there with me in terms of busy-ness, so I thought we could do a round of Twitter-inspired book reviews, where we share thoughts on recent reads in 140 characters or fewer (not counting the title itself). Here are mine:
Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon:
A tour de force manual for achieving excellence at whatever work you do. Full of fresh insights. Everyone should read this.
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath:
Chock full of interesting ideas. Didn’t blow me away, but lots of solid thought-starters here.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot:
It boggles the mind to consider all the data & stories Skloot sifted through to craft this true story. Informative. Heartbreaking. A++.
Unearthing Your Ten Talents: A Thomistic Guide to Spiritual Growth by Dr. Kevin Vost:
Just started reading this, but so far looks like another informative & inspiring book from Ph.D. psychologist Vost.
Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell:
I didn’t think I was easily offended by profanity, but #$%^! There’s a lot of &*^%$ cursing in this #$%@! book!
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis:
Huge thanks to Simcha for recommending this campus novel. Laughed uproariously, recognized myself to an eerie extent in the main character.
The Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae by Steven Pressfield:
Tragic. Gripping. Staggeringly well written. It is books like this that remind us what it is to be human.
Now, tell me about what you’ve been reading, in 140 or fewer characters! Here’s a handy character counter if you need one. I look forward to reading your reviews!
A good nickname for me would be “Inertia,” because, like the dictionary definition of the word, I tend to “exist in a state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force.”
If my choice is accepting an invitation to go to an interesting social event or continuing to sit in front of my computer, I’ll choose the latter. If I had an idea for a new way to decorate the living room, I wouldn’t do it, even if I had the time or money. In other words, left to my own devices, I tend to do nothing.
As usual, it almost always comes down to fear. I have this personality quirk where I’m always worried about doing the wrong thing and screwing something up, so I find it easier to avoid change, even if it means missing out on good opportunities. (This is also one of the reasons I have such trouble with decision making in general; if I order a cheeseburger at a restaurant, for example, I’m immediately plagued with the thought, WHAT IF I SHOULD HAVE ORDERED THE SHRIMP INSTEAD?!?! Yeah. It’s hard to be me.)
Anyway, I’ve had this tendency my whole life. But then, earlier this year I discovered a book. And everything changed.
It started when Brandon Vogt left this comment to my post asking for book recommendations. He raved about Donald Miller’s memoir A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, listing all the changes he and his family had made after Miller’s book had prompted them to wonder how they could turn their life into a great story (which now has included building a computer lab in Africa). Intrigued, I read the book.
It begins with Miller stuck in a funk after writing his smash bestseller, Blue Like Jazz. He’d written a couple of other books that didn’t do so well, and his life was at a standstill. Then he got a call from some producers who wanted to make a movie out of Blue Like Jazz; and since it was a memoir, that means they’d be making a movie of his life. A Million Miles in a Thousand Years is the chronicle of what he learned in the process. Two guys named Steve and Ben came out to write the screenplay with him, and in one of the book’s first scenes, Steve mentions that they’ll need to take some liberties with his story in order to make it a good movie. Don asked why they couldn’t just use the facts of his real life. Steve replies:
Steve sat thoughtfully and collected his ideas. He scratched his chin and collected some sympathy. “In a pure story,” he said like a professor, “there is a purpose in every scene, in every line of dialogue. A movie is going somewhere.”
That last line rang in my ear like an accusation. I felt defensive, as though the scenes in my life weren’t going anywhere. I mean, I knew they weren’t going anywhere, but it didn’t seem okay for someone else to say it. I didn’t say anything; I tried to think about the philosophy of making movies so my face would look like I was thinking about something other than the fact that Steve didn’t think my life was going anywhere.
This prompted him to start asking: What does a great story look like? What would my life look like if it were an amazing story? He writes:
In creating the fictional Don, I was creating the person I wanted to be, the person worth telling stories about. It never occurred to me that I could re-create my own story, my real life story, but in an evolution I had moved toward a better me. I was creating someone I could live through, the person I’d be if I redrew the world, a character that was me but flesh and soul other. And flesh and soul better too.
He learns a lot about what it means to live a great story, but the lesson that most resonated with me was the one about fear. There’s never been an Academy Award winning movie about someone who lived his life cowering in fear, never taking action because he’s worried about messing something up.
The great stories go to the ones who don’t give in to fear.
The most often repeated commandment in the Bible is “Do not fear.” It’s in there over two hundred times. That means a couple of things, if you think about it. It means we are going to be afraid, and it means we shouldn’t let fear boss us around. Before I realized we were supposed to fight fear, I thought of fear as a subtle suggestion in our subconscious designed to keep us safe, or more important, keep us from getting humiliated. And I guess it serves that purpose. But fear isn’t only a guide to keep us safe; it’s also a manipulative emotion that can trick us into living a boring life.
This was a profound insight for me. Reading of Don’s metamorphosis from couch potato to a risk-taking man of action inspired me to do the same in my own life. My decision-making flowchart used to begin with the question, Is there any risk involved? And if I could imagine the slightest thing that could go wrong, I usually wouldn’t do it. Now I begin with the question, Would it make a good story? And if the answer is yes, I usually do it.
Obviously, asking ourselves if it would make a good story is not the only litmus test we should use for decision-making. We need to consider if it’s prudent, if it’s God’s will, etc. And, as Brandon points out in one of his (excellent) posts on the book, we need to make sure we’re living our story with God, not seeing him as an uninterested editor. But incorporating that question into my thought process has changed my life. Stories inevitably contain both ups and downs, challenges as well as triumphs, and thinking of it this way has helped me get over my fear of making mistakes. Rather than thinking of a risk that didn’t pay off as the end of the world, I now see it as just another part of the story.
Don Miller rewrote his life story by searching for his father and asking a cute girl he barely knew to hike the Inca Trail with him in Peru. What would it look like for me, a suburban housewife with five young kids, to live a great story?
I’ve started saying yes to more social invitations. When I’m pretty sure God is calling me to do something, I just do it, without the usual detour down Overanalysis Lane that leads me to talk myself out of it. I’m less likely to decide to do something out of guilt alone, so I’m better at saying no when I need to. Ironically, it’s made me take myself less seriously (in a good way), since thinking of the events of my life as part of a grander story helps put them all in perspective.
What I learned from this book was to not let fear hold me back; to think big; to expand the scope of what I believe it’s possible for one person to accomplish. I’ve learned to put 100% of myself into every moment, and to let go of worries about whether everything will turn out perfectly.
At the end of the book, Miller talks about a great movie he once saw about a real football team. To his surprise, the screenwriters chose to cover the year they almost won the state championship game, rather than the year they did win it. The screenwriters understood that that year they lost was the better story, because that was the time the team had tried hardest and sacrificed most. As Miller points out: It’s not necessary to win for the story to be great; it’s only necessary to sacrifice everything.
I read a lot of biographies and memoirs about inspiring people who place radical trust in God. (By “radical” I don’t mean reckless or imprudent, but am referring to the difficult, very counter-cultural act of recognizing God’s sovereignty over every area of our lives. More on that here.) From He Leadeth Me to God’s Smuggler, Mother Angelica to The Heavenly Man to The Shadow of His Wings, these true stories are about people from all walks of the Christian life: Catholic and Protestant, consecrated religious and lay people, men and women. And yet they all have distinct similarities in their approaches to life and the Lord.
I found it fascinating to see what common threads could be found in the lives of these incredible people who place so much trust in the Lord, and thought I’d share in case others find it inspiring as well.
1. They accept suffering
One of the most powerful things I’ve read in recent memory is Brother Yun’s story of being a persecuted pastor in China, as recounted in the book The Heavenly Man. After facing weeks of torture, including electrocution, starvation, beatings, and having needles shoved under his fingernails, he was thrown in a box that was four feet long, three feet wide, and four feet high, where he would stay indefinitely. The day after he was put in this mini cell, he felt prompted to pray for a Bible — a ridiculous idea, considering that many people were in prison at that very moment for being in possession of such contraband. Yet he prayed anyway. And, inexplicably, the guards threw a Bible into his cell the next morning. He writes:
I knelt down and wept, thanking the Lord for this great gift. I could scarcely believe my dream had come true! No prisoner was ever allowed to have a Bible or any Christian literature, yet, strangely, God provided a Bible for me! Through this incident the Lord showed me that regardless of men’s evil plans for me, he had not forgotten me and was in control of my life.
Now, the less saintly among us (cough-cough) might have reacted to that a little differently. Had I been tortured and thrown in a coffin-like cell, my reaction to receiving a Bible would have likely been more along the lines of, “Thanks for the Bible, Lord, but could we SEE ABOUT GETTING ME OUT OF THIS METAL BOX FIRST?!?!” I wouldn’t have even “counted” the Bible as an answered prayer since my main prayer — reducing my physical suffering — had gone unanswered.
Yet what I see over and over again in people like Brother Yun is that they have crystal clarity on the fact that suffering is not the worst evil — sin is. Yes, they would prefer not to suffer, and do sometimes pray for the relief of suffering. But they prioritize it lower than the rest of us do — they focus far more on not sinning than on not suffering. They have a laser focus on getting themselves and others to heaven. In Brother Yun’s case, he saw through that answered prayer that God was allowing him to grow spiritually and minister to his captors, so his circumstances of suffering in an uncomfortable cell became almost irrelevant to him.
2. They accept the inevitability of death
Similar to the above, people who place great trust in God can only do so with a heaven-centered worldview. They think in terms of eternity, not in terms of calendar years. Their goal is not to maximize their time on earth, but rather to get themselves and as many other people as possible to heaven. And if God can best do that by shortening their lifespans, they accept that.
The Shadow of His Wings is filled with jaw-dropping stories of Fr. Goldmann’s miraculous escapes from death during World War II, which begs the question, “What about all the people who didn’t escape death?” Fr. Goldmann would probably respond by saying that God saving him from death was not the blessing in and of itself — after all, every single one of us will die eventually. The blessing was saving him from death so that he could continue his ministry bringing the Gospel to the Nazis. He eventually died while building a ministry in Japan, and presumably accepted that God would bring good from his passing, even though there was undoubtedly more work he wanted to do.
3. They have daily appointments with God
I have never heard of a person who had a deep, calm trust in the Lord who did not set aside time for focused prayer every day. Both in the books I’ve read and in real life, I’ve noticed that people like this always spend at least a few moments — and up to an hour or two if circumstances permit — focused on nothing but prayer, every day. Also, they tend to do it first thing in the morning, centering themselves in Christ before tackling anything else the day may bring.
4. In prayer, they listen more than they talk
I’ve written before about my amazement that really holy people seem to get their prayers answered more often than the rest of us. I’d heard enough stories of people praying for something very specific, then receiving it, that I started to wonder if they were psychic or God just liked them more than the rest of us or something. What I eventually realized is that their ideas about what to pray for came from the Holy Spirit in the first place, because they spent so much time seeking God’s will for them, day in and day out.
So, to use the example of a famous story from Mother Angelica’s biography, she had a satellite dish delivery man at the door who needed $600,000 or he was going to return the dish, thus killing all the plans for the new station. She ran to the chapel and prayed, and a guy she’d never met randomly called and wanted to donate $600,000. Her prayer wasn’t answered because she had a personal interest in television and just really, really wanted it, but because she had correctly discerned God’s plan that she was to start a television station on this particular day.
5. They limit distractions
Of all the amazing stories in God’s Smuggler, one of the lines that jumped out to me the most in the book was in the epilogue, when the authors talk about how Brother Andrew’s work has continued in 21st century:
“I won’t even consider installing one of those call waiting monstrosities,” he exclaimed, “that interrupt one phone conversation to announce another.” Technology, Andrew says, makes us far too accessible to the demands and pressures of the moment. “Our first priority should be listening in patience and silence for the voice of God.”
Far too accessible to the demands and pressures of the moment. That line has haunted me ever since I read it. I love technology, but it does come with a huge temptation to feel a general increase in urgency in our lives: I have to reply to that email! Respond to that comment on my wall on Facebook! Ret-tweet that tweet! Read that direct message! Listen to that voicemail! Here in the connected age, we are constantly bombarded with demands on our attention. Periods of silence, where we can cultivate inner stillness and wait for the promptings of the Holy Spirit, are increasingly rare.
One thing that all the people in these books have in common is that they had very little of this pressure of false urgency. It’s hard to imagine Fr. Ciszek coming up with the breathtaking insights about God’s will that he shared in He Leadeth Me with his iPhone buzzing alerts every few minutes, or Brother Yun seeing the subtle beauty of God’s plan in the midst of persecution while keeping his Twitter status updated on a minute-by-minute basis.
6. They submit their discernment to others
People who have a long history of watching the way the Lord works in their lives notice that he often speaks through holy friends, family members and clergy. If they discern that God is calling them to something, especially if it’s something big, they ask trusted Christian confidantes to pray about the matter and see if they discern the same thing. And when others warn them not to follow a certain path — especially if it’s a spouse, confessor or spiritual director — they take those indicators very seriously.
7. They offer the Lord their complete, unhesitating obedience
One of my favorite parts of God’s Smuggler is when Brother Andrew got a visit from a man named Karl de Graaf who was part of a prayer group in which people often spent hours of time in prayer, most of it listening in silence:
I went out to the front stoop, and there was Karl de Graaf. “Hello!” I said, surprised.
“Hello, Andy. Do you know how to drive?”
“No,” I said, bewildered. “No, I don’t.”
“Because last night in our prayers we had a word from the Lord about you. It’s important for you to be able to drive.”
“Whatever on earth for?” I said. “I’ll never own a car, that’s for sure.”
“Andrew,” Mr. de Graaf spoke patiently, as to a slow-witted student, “I’m not arguing for the logic of the case. I’m just passing on the message.” And with that, he was striding across the bridge.
Despite his initial hesitation, Brother Andrew discerned that this was something that God was calling him to do, so he learned to drive. It seemed like a complete waste of time, an utterly illogical use of his resources, but he was obedient to the Lord’s call. I won’t spoil what happened next for those of you who plan to read the book, but let’s just say that shortly after he received his license, it turned out to be critical to the future of his ministry (which eventually brought the Gospel to thousands of people behind the Iron Curtain) that he know how to drive.
I often think of how Mr. de Graaf responded when Brother Andrew was scratching his head about this odd message: “That’s the excitement in obedience,” he said. “Finding out later what God had in mind.”
Obviously we can’t grow closer to God by aping the actions of others, but I find lists like this helpful as a starting point for reflection on my own spiritual progress. I hope you found it helpful as well!