I didn’t hit rock bottom when I started out as a writer. Sure, I kept failing and struggling for a few years, but that wasn’t the worst part. No, the rock bottom came when I had experienced a little success, had some potential for even more success in the future, and then everything fell to pieces.
I met with a friend a few years ago when I didn’t know what else to do. As we talked through my fragile little career as a writer, I ended up with this resolution: Well, it’s not like anyone can stop me from writing, and it’s still what I know I need to do. So I’ll just keep writing.
In the weeks and months and years that followed that conversation, I kept writing books, pitching proposals, posting on my blog, and publishing independently. I kept sending newsletters. I kept attending conferences and connecting with my writing friends and colleagues.
I don’t know what it looked like on the outside, but I suspect that some people thought I was super focused and on target. From MY side of things, I felt like a wandering hot mess who couldn’t take my work to the next level—whatever that meant. I’m sure my definition of success changed weekly.
I didn’t do too many things right over the past ten years, but here are two things that I know worked: I showed up and I finished stuff.
I showed up to my desk each day to work on my projects and the work my clients needed. I showed up at conferences despite my track record of failures, and I kept connecting with colleagues and friends in Facebook groups despite my insecurities.
I won’t say that I’ve arrived or achieved success or reached any kind of milestone. Rather, I’m working on giving up these measurements and labels. This is the cliché of all Christian writing clichés. I’ve rolled my eyes when other writers shared it with me. But today, this is the truest and most helpful thing I have learned: My only goal in writing is to be faithful.
For me, being faithful means I show up and I finish stuff.
During a panel on independent publishing at the Festival of Faith and Writing I saw this same thread come up with each panelist, especially with Andi Cumbo-Floyd, Kris Camealy, and Shawn Smucker (see also this). Shawn shared, “Finishing stuff is important.” As those words sunk in, I realized that was at the heart of my resolution a few years back as I discussed my future with my friend. They could each write their own versions of this post, and I suspect that the message of each post would be roughly the same: show up and finish stuff.
No one can stop you from showing up, writing, and finishing stuff. Sure, people won’t read it, editors will reject it, and eager Facebook posts about your new project will slip away unnoticed into the ether. You’ll show up at events and wander around in search of conversations while everyone else seems to know everyone else. You’ll get really close to a big break, and then it will fall apart, never to materialize again—or so it seems.
I’ve been through all of this: the loneliness, the feeling out of place, the failure, the years of not being read, and the gnawing fear that I don’t belong anywhere and that perhaps there’s no hope for me to do anything meaningful or worthwhile.
I kept showing up to write because I couldn’t figure out what to do with myself. I kept showing up at writing events because it was the only place that made sense for me. I don’t know what it means to be successful any more, and there are times when I want to be more successful and times when I genuinely fear success. I know enough people who have suffered through the downside of success to believe that “success” at any level won’t solve all of my problems. Some days “success” just feels like exchanging one set of headaches and risks for another set of headaches and risks.
I don’t know what the best path forward is for myself most days or what the next step should be after enjoying a little bit of success here and there. I think that’s why these words ring true: “Show up and finish stuff.” It applies to any season and situation. Whether you’re just starting out or you’re on the brink of a major break, showing up and finishing stuff isn’t about measurements or goals or accolades. It’s about faithfulness and sticking with the things that God places before us.
To a certain degree we all start out with the same insecurities, struggles, and failures. No one gains experience without a ton of ground work and failure. Every successful writer I know has a very similar story of laboring over their work for years in obscurity. They suffered heartbreaks and failures. They were rejected and ignored. Of course all of these things hurt. They were devastating. Believe me, I could talk your ears off with all of my own stories of heartbreak and disappointment and devastation. How many hours do you have?
They all kept showing up and finishing stuff. And sure, they did other things. They learned and experimented and took risks and networked. That doesn’t mean they didn’t try out some different ways to make connections with readers. However, they did the work and kept showing up because they knew that faithfully doing the work and following through was their only calling card.
I honestly have equal respect for the person who has written several unpublished books and the person with multiple bestsellers. I think both people get it. They know what it’s like to faithfully show up, do the work, and finish. If that isn’t enough right now, I’m not sure what will make things that much better.
May we find the fulfillment and peace we crave in the simplicity of faithfulness. May we never believe the lie that online accolades and paper contracts are the measuring sticks of faithfully sharing the gifts we have been given from God.