Friday, November 4, 2011

I Know Where the Wild Things Are

Henri Nouwen couldn't sit still.

One of the great spiritual masters of the 20th century, one of my heroes, the writer who has illuminated the spiritual life for millions of people, couldn't sit through a sermon without tapping his foot and squirming in his seat. He once described the noise of our inner life as akin to monkeys jumping around in trees, and I'm willing to bet that he was primarily describing his inner life. He also said that in order to profit from our internal worlds we must be willing to go into our room, close the door, sit in silence, and wait for the pounding of beasts on the door to stop. Richard Rohr observes that when the Spirit thrust Jesus into the isolation of the desert, the first thing to show up were the wild beasts.

One of the problems of being a writer is that we live in the world of the wild beasts. The wilderness has become our zoo. There are days and weeks when we not only can't bear the incessant pounding on the door, but we invite the beasts in and make them tea.

For me, the beasts usually take the form of accusing questions, and the hairy one that shows up the most is this: "Who are YOU to write this?" Who do you think you are, addressing a topic that is way over your head? Who are you to write at all? What do you have to share with the world?

For a while I had no answer, which guaranteed one thing: procrastination. I realized a few years ago that I procrastinate out of fear of failure. When I'm finding a hundred other things I could do besides working, it means I'm afraid that when I sit down at my laptop that I will have nothing worthwhile to say. At least if I procrastinate then I don't have to face that reality, and better, if I do write something and people don't like it, then I can excuse it by saying I didn't spend that much time on it.

At other times I have responded boldly to the demon-beast of rhetorical questions. I have slapped him with my qualifications, my talent, my education, my past successes. And for a while he would retreat back into the woods and I would get some writing done.

When I was writing Introverts in the Church, and the interrogation beast would come and snarl "Who are YOU to write a book about introversion? You don't have a degree in psychology. You're not a professor. And, for that matter, who are you to write a book about the church? You just got out of seminary 6 years ago, and you've been ordained for 3 years. What do you know?" And I would retort, "I went to good schools and I'm smart and I have insight that others don't have! I have lots of ministry experience! People tell me I'm a good writer!"

But I never won that argument. The beast would come back with some sharp-teethed friends and overpower me. I tried to convince myself that I was the only one who could write that book, but I, and he, knew that I was lying.

There has only been one answer I have ever given that has kept the beast at bay. I had to admit that yes, there are people out there who are more qualified than I am to write this book. There are people who have more insight into the topic and who know more than I do. There are people who could write a better book than I will. That is all true. But I am the one who is writing it. I am the one who is getting up every morning and writing for 4-6 hours. I am the one glued to my desk chair pounding out junk.

After the book was released, I encountered at least 50 people who said they had often thought about writing a similar book, but they never got around to it. Some had even started it but never finished it. And I don't doubt that some of them could have written a better book than I did. But do you know what the difference between a writer and a non-writer is? Writers write. We put in the work. We do the sweating and the bleeding and the crying and the demon-battling.

Do you want to be a writer? Then write. A musician? Then play. An artist? Then create. A leader? Then lead .

The beast can't tell you you're not a writer when you shove a manuscript in his face.