Scraping the Ceiling, Dredging the Depths

I can't recall the exact location of this road...

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“Everything seems so close together…all the good and bad things in the world.” Mary McDonnell, as Claire, in Grand Canyon.

 It’s been one of those weeks when the euphoria of success smacks up against the frustration of conflict and crisis. Christian was riding high on the success of a research story he’d promoted that went international—until something happened over the weekend that caused him to spend much of Saturday putting out fires.

In my case, it was my own fault. When you go on a crusade, you have to expect to take hits. And I did expect it. But I’m one of those people that lies awake nights brooding over conflict. I can’t seem to separate what I believe from who I am. When a person calls me ignorant, it doesn’t just smart on the surface; it burrows down deep and rattles the foundation of my self-image.

At the same time, I was participating in a novel critique contest. Opening yourself up to criticism is sometimes energizing, often mind-stretching, but always terrifying. The other writers’ comments were a mixed bag, but the authoritative voice—a literary agent—had this to say: “There is a nice voice here; the writing has talent. But I’m caught up in all the technicalities of the situation. … I don’t get a great sense of the protag. That said, I’m still intrigued enough to want to read on…”

It should be a shot in the arm: an agent used the words “nice voice” and “talent” when speaking about something I wrote. And it is—don’t get me wrong; for half an hour you almost couldn’t scrape me off the ceiling.

But near misses can be more daunting than silence or the form rejection. I start thinking, Am I supposed to be writing fiction, or am I just wasting my time? Am I not turning myself into a creative jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none? Shouldn’t I just focus on the nonfiction, the stuff I sell steadily? The work in which I know I’m making a difference in the world? Am I ever going to break in to fiction? Is it even worth the struggle?

It’s almost adolescent, the trembling fingers, the space jump from the mountaintops to the depths of the valley and back. I’ve spent the last week or two in a constant state of anxiety, good and bad circling each other and melding into a single whole.

In the end, these tremors are a positive force. This week, they sent me back to the documents I haven’t read in years, searching for the source of my antagonists’ unshakable certainty that I’m off base. Turns out I was right all along. And then I had a musical inspiration. On Friday I spent an hour and a half at the piano at church, and I came out with something complete—short, but complete. I floated home on a cloud of gratitude and discovered an email from my music editor…

Well, it’s not quite time to share that yet.

This is the life I choose—to borrow an old cliché, “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” are lock-stepped in an eternal dance. Writing is an act of faith. I pursue excellence, I pursue the skill to communicate truths that people are desperate to hear. I pray for discernment of what I should be spending time writing, and then I go do the best I can, generally without any guarantee that my efforts will bear fruit, knowing that some will take issue with what I’ve been given to say. But I do it anyway, because I have to. I wouldn’t be me without it.

4 thoughts on “Scraping the Ceiling, Dredging the Depths

  1. (You do have a nice voice, by the way, both in your music and in your prose.)

    I think the thing I struggle most with in writing is how hard it is, and how much editing everything needs–I can compose a piece of music and then change/rip/rearrange it to shreds, and sew it back together way stronger than it was to begin with, but with the written word it somehow hurts so much more to throw out words and sentences and paragraphs and whole pages just to strengthen the whole. (I totally do that, and it kills me–I’ve got pages and pages of Word files in a “rejected material” folder, just because I can’t bring myself to send them permanently into the ether…)

    And I never buy that whole “jack of all trades=master of none” theory, especially for an artist of any color and ESPECIALLY for a writer. For an artist, everything we do informs our art. Your blogging will make your music better, your music will make your fiction better, and everything that makes YOU a more complete person will also make you a more complete artist.

    Aside, of course, from all the butt-kicking work that has to go in too, but musicians know about that. 🙂

    Hang in there! (I’d love to read your novel!)
    and by the way, BRAVO taking down the close-minded knowitalls on your other post. 🙂

    • Jennifer, that’s a great perspective, and so true–that everything informs our art. You’re right, they do build each other up and reinforce e/o.

      I’ll contact you “offlist” for the rest. 🙂

  2. The ever-elusive “They” say that you need to spend 10,000 hours honing a particular talent to become truly proficient.
    So what happens to those of us who enjoy many mediocre talents?? Heaven forbid we suffer to become “jacks of all trades”… Do we give up everything that might distract us from developing skill in a chosen field?

    Or we spend 10 hours per day doing our “special thing”, and perhaps we can squeeze other talents and hobbies into the remainder of the day. You know, besides cooking, cleaning, family time, and sleeping….

    I think if you’re feeling led to become a fiction writer, then you need to travel that road for awhile. Rejoice in the validation, and be confident that you’ll find your market.
    Some of the most inspirational, life-changing books were works of fiction.

  3. Your last paragraph says what’s really important for you and all of us engaged in creative works. The only question we need an answer to is “What is God’s will for me here and now?” As long as we are doing that, we are fine.

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