if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it…
if you’re trying to write like somebody
forget about it…
if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you’re not ready…
when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.
there is no other way.
and there never was.
—Charles Bukowski, excerpts; So you want to be a writer
It’s always been stirring around down there, deep inside. I’ve felt it, shifting, twisting, struggling to get out, to get told. And always, when I looked down inside to check things out, there was a small persistent voice that came. No. Not now. Don’t do it. Not this moment. It will come when it gets here, the story you need to tell. Not right now. One day, it’ll get here. You’ll know. It will come on its own, it will speak its own voice, and when it does come, you won’t be able to keep it silent.
And I remember it all so clear, looking back. How that first journey was, to my first and only book. It was an impossible and hopeless dream, that I had back then. And I never got in anyone’s face about it. Nah, I figured. Ten million other people are out there in the market, frantically hawking their words to whoever they can get to listen. They got formulas, they go to seminars, they got all kinds of time-tested ways of making things work, when it comes to selling your book. I instinctively recoiled from all that noise and hassle. I don’t want to walk out there in that loud and messy market. And I thought to myself. Just sit in your little corner and write. Write your heart. It’s a long shot, but maybe you can make the market come to you.
It was a spectacularly naive game plan. Looking back, there was almost zero chance that it would work. But I never fretted much about it. I focused on what I wanted to do. Write. Write and post. And in those first few years after my marriage blew up, that was pretty much the focus of my life. Tell your story. Throw it out there. Someone who knows someone will eventually have to notice.
And a few years in, here comes a prophet, striding along, leaning wisely on his staff. Gray-haired and gray bearded. Well at least salt-and-pepper-haired and bearded, back then. He was a man I have known all my life. Jerry Eicher. A well-known writer of Amish fiction, Jerry had broken into the market in his own unique way. He won some sort of writing contest, I think. And he connected with Harvest House, his publisher. And he got a slew of books written and published, all without an agent. As of now, he has sold over 800.000 books, total, from a series of titles, which dwarfs the sales of my book. Our connection goes way back. We were both born in Aylmer, the same year. All the way up to second grade, we were neighbors, then Jerry’s family moved to Honduras with Peter Stoll and his group. We connected sporadically over the years. And when I started writing and blogging, Jerry read my stuff.
And he’s the man who first came striding through the wilderness, to show me the way. At least the way he knew. We communicated off and on, via email. And Jerry offered to connect me with his guy at Harvest House. I’d appreciate that, I said. One way or another, I will get published someday. I know that as surely as I’ve ever known anything in my heart. I forget the guy’s name at Harvest House, the one Jerry connected me with. I sent him a few of my blog stories. He got quite excited. Harvest House would publish me, he assured me. And I dared to believe, dared to hope, that all of it was happening as I had dreamed it would.
Jerry’s friend took my stuff to the board at Harvest House. He urged them to publish it. But a couple of people on that board shook their heads in horror. We can’t put writing like this on the market. It’s not sweet enough. Amish stories have to be sweet. And the sad message came back to me. Harvest House won’t publish you. And it seemed like the twilight of my dream had come, as the darkness settled and night closed in. I felt the disappointment, all the way down deep. But still I sat at my desk, and still I wrote and wrote and posted my blog. That’s all I knew to do.
I had always believed. Someone who knows someone who knows someone will get me connected. And in that dark hour, that’s exactly what happened. The Harvest House guy was extremely disappointed. And we talked one night, on the phone. And he told me. “I know an agent, a good friend of mine. Let me talk to him about this.” I was pretty disillusioned by the Harvest House board. My stories weren’t sweet enough. What kind of a moron would say such a thing? I didn’t know Amish stories were supposed to be sweet. But I thanked the guy. I would appreciate that. If this was how the publishing world worked, well, I might as well just keep posting on my blog. None of my blog readers had ever suggested such an inane thing, that my stories weren’t sweet enough. So I didn’t expect much to develop from the guy’s agent friend. Still, one always clings to a sliver of hope in a time like that.
A few weeks later, sure enough, here comes an email from the agent the guy claimed he knew. Chip MacGregor, the only person in the publishing world I still communicate with today. He asked to talk on the phone, which we did. He didn’t seem like a wordy man. Almost shy and quiet. He asked for some of my stuff and other info, and I sent him what he wanted. And then he just disappeared for a few months. Hmm. I sure wonder what that was all about, I thought to myself. There’s sure not much fuss or hassle going on. And as always, I sat and wrote and wrote and posted my blog.
The rest, I guess, is history. About eight months later, Chip brought me an offer from Tyndale House. They wanted a memoir. I don’t know if I can write one, I said. Which was true. I didn’t know, and actually doubted that I could. I might have heard of Tyndale House before, but I had no idea that they were as big and respected in the industry as they are. When you look at the publishing world and publishers, and all the would-be authors out there, when you look at an equation such as that, you’ll know I had no clue of much of anything back then. I had about as much chance of getting published by Tyndale as I had of getting struck by lightning on a clear day. Maybe less, even. I know that now, looking back.
It all came together, then, and the book came out and took off and did some crazy things. I won’t go over all that again. That little journey has been well documented, right here. The thing is, what happens after you get something like that accomplished? I didn’t know, really. Enjoy the ride, I guess. Then in late 2011, a small nudge from Chip, in an email. Tyndale would like to check about the possibility of another book. The sequel. I was freaked out a good deal by that, but once again, I said. I don’t know if I can write one, but I guess I can try. So I went off and tried for a while.
It did not go well at all. When writing my first book, all the way through, I told myself. You’re not “writing a book.” You’re writing on your blog. Talk to your blog readers. They’re the ones you’ve always talked to. So I focused on that, when the going got tough a few times. Focused on speaking to my readers. And mostly it worked, pulled me through. Still, my “manuscript” was one big mess. Stories ran together, or out of order. There were few chapter breaks, and no chapter titles. I just spewed it all out and sent it in. My Tyndale team took it from there. And I have always given those people all the credit in the world. I wrote the words, and they cut and fused the book from that. They could not have done a more professional job. I wouldn’t change ten words in the book if I could.
Back to the sequel. That’s what you do, when you write a successful first book. Get the second one out while the market’s hot. The time-honored formula. And that’s the main reason most sequels are just flat out flops. You can’t force real writing. You can nudge it along a little, maybe, but you can’t force it. And I could not find my voice, to come out right with a second book. I went down dark roads, that had been lurking in my subconscious mind for decades. That little torrent was unleashed. And it did not go well.
So I told the people I was talking to back then in the publishing world. I’m pulling back. I’m going back to where it all started, and just speak my voice on my blog. Maybe another book will come one day. I believe it will. But maybe, too, it won’t. I’m fine with whatever comes, either way. It’ll just be what it is. That’s what I told them.
And that’s what I’ve done, ever since that day. Just rolled along, and lived. And come close to dying at least once, maybe twice. Not being dramatic, it’s just a fact. And I wrote it all on my blog. Up and down and through deep dark places and over great soaring mountains. I walked through it all. And I’ve always been pretty honest about it, right here where I can speak my voice. Here, I am comfortable. Here, I just write my heart. Here, I trust my readers enough to speak to them straight. There is no filter between me and them.
And I gotta hand it to Chip, my agent. We’ve always stayed connected, loosely. We’re Facebook friends, and I’m a faithful reader of his blog. He’s got the best insider’s perspective on the publishing market out there. Some of what he says I should do, I pay no attention to at all. Like attending seminars and joining a writer’s group and treating your writing as a business and working so many hours a day and producing X amount of words. I never have done any of that, and I never will. It’s just not who I am. Don’t get me wrong. I love the money my book brought me, and I wish it had been ten times more. But money had nothing at all to do with the reasons I wrote it. Look. You can write for any reason you want to. It’s none of my business. But I’ll tell you this. If you’re writing for the money, it’ll show up in your words. It has to. You’re a mercenary, not a writer.
Chip writes a lot about market trends, too, and I find all that more than fascinating. So we stay connected, loosely, like I said. He sends me an email once in a great while, just to “see how you’re doing.” In other words, any writing coming through the pipeline in the foreseeable future? And I always smile, and tell him. Thanks for checking. Right now, I’m good. And as each new year came in, lately, I emailed him. I can feel things stirring down there. Maybe this will be the year I can get you something. I’ll let you know when it gets here. And I gotta hand it to the man. He has never, never, pressured me in any way. I’ve always respected that about him. He has left me alone when I wanted to be left alone. Letting me know he’s there, of course. But otherwise, he hasn’t bothered me much at all.
And now, it’s today. Five years have passed since Growing Up Amish was released. Six, since the summer I wrote it. That’s a long time, for a rank new author to just disappear like I did. And it’s not that I haven’t thought about it often along the way, about writing the second book. I don’t like the word, sequel. Second book is better. And I’ve looked inside myself, and thought about things. Why doesn’t it come churning out, like the first book did? Why can’t I just walk on down that road, and crank it out?
A big part of it, I think, was fear. Well, a lot of it was. You get to thinking. There’s a quarter million people out there who have read your story, your quest to break away. They read your innermost feelings, they know who you were and what you did. They know how you hurt people, in your past. Something like that can freak you out, when you stop and actually absorb it.
A part of it, too, is just you figuring out who you are. My book did some pretty crazy things, it brought me honors and some acclaim. And I had to sit down and figure it all out. Am I a “writer?” Or am I just a guy who goes to work in his pickup truck every day, and writes evenings and weekends in his spare time? The high accolades proclaimed me a “writer.” A new and singular voice.
But my gut instincts told me. I’m the guy in the truck, going off to work every day. Do not ever talk down to your people. Their blood will always be your blood. Don’t talk yourself up. Respect where you came from. And speak your voice from where your heart is. I went with my instincts. And I’ve tried hard to stay true to who I know I am.
But mostly, I think, the second book hasn’t come because it wasn’t time. There’s a whole lot of reasons as to why. Part of it may be because my father is still alive and fairly alert. My book pierced him pretty hard. It hurt him. A great lion of the Amish people, in his final years, when he should be basking in the honor of his life’s work. And here comes his son, writing to all the world about his father’s human flaws. How fair is that? Who deserves such a thing? And what do you think the second book will be about, a lot of it? Yeah, it’ll be about my Dad. The struggles we had, even since Growing Up Amish came out, to face each other and speak real truth. That was a hard row for both of us. But especially for him, I think. What is the ethical thing to do? I don’t know. I guess you just tell the story.
And jumping around a little bit, here. We’re in late August. More than half the year is gone. I turn fifty-five next week. Next March, I’ll have ten solid years of writing under my belt. Which is nothing, compared to Dad at that age. He had tens of thousands of pages printed by then. I got one book, and this blog. My father was the real writer, if you look at production. Whatever. This is not where I meant to go, here in this paragraph. It’s so easy, to meander off sideways down bunny trails.
What I set off to say was this. This year is more than half gone. And this has been one of the freest and wildest years I’ve ever seen in my life. All of it comes from the sheer joy of living, after the death angel came real close to getting his wish, last November. He lost, though, and had to lay down his sword. And I came out of that dark place, I came back to where life was, and realized. I was never afraid, back there. That seems so strange. But it’s true. And I lifted my face to the heavens and raised my arms in triumph and fiercely exulted. And shouted out, to anyone who would hear. I AM NOT AFRAID. I WILL NEVER BE AFRAID AGAIN.
It changes things, when you look death in the face and feel no fear. It changes everything, when you get back. And I’ve written about it until y’all must be getting sick of hearing it. Hear me one more time. I’ll shut up, soon. I promise. But anyway. At first, I kind of sat back in wonder. And I wondered if it would last, this new knowledge. Could it last? It waves, sure, some. But mostly, the fearlessness grows stronger. The path to freedom more real.
And that’s what almost all of my adult life has been about. A relentless quest to be free. Free from cultural chains. Free from legalistic bondage. Free from fear. Free from shame. Free to walk before God and speak my heart honestly to Him, and to my readers, right from where I am. Free to live, just live, and free to go get counseling when I get nudged to. I will be free, I will be free, I will be free. That has been the battle song of my heart, for about as long as I can remember. And yeah, I’ve been beaten and battered around a good bit. I’ve lost a lot of battles. It doesn’t matter. I’m still standing. And I have never wavered in my unrelenting quest.
And in this year of freedom, lately there came something else. The writing I had kept pushing off came stirring. I’ve known the road I need to walk for some time, now. I’ve known the story line, the setting, what needs to get told. I just never got up the nerve to start walking. About a month or so ago, I emailed Chip. I got something coming, inside me. I’ve been real happy with what’s been coming on the blog. I’m writing free and relaxed. I think I’ll have something for you, soon. And I asked him. What do you think the market will be like? Can you show my stuff around? He emailed back. There are plenty of publishers out there who will be very interested in seeing what you have to offer.
And that wasn’t a guarantee of anything. The market is there. That’s all Chip was telling me. Send me your stuff. And he also needs an updated bio, four or five suggested titles, and forty or fifty pages of actual writing. Good grief. I got no problem with working on the writing. But all that other stuff is just tiresome. I’m not sure I even know what a bio is. Just tell your publisher people to go look at my blog. I got everything posted there that you’ll ever need to know about me. Ah well, let me get those fifty pages worked up, and then we’ll talk, I emailed back. You can shop what I write to anyone you want.
I don’t know. It feels almost like I’m starting all over again. Except this time I have a record. Last time, I didn’t. We’ll see how it goes, I guess. Maybe lightning can strike the same place twice.
Moving along, then. A few weeks back I got a message from my gray-haired friend, Jerry Eicher. He was coming through the area that Saturday afternoon, and wondered if I wanted to meet. Of course, I said. Let’s get together at Vinola’s around five or so.
I arrived early and sat at the bar. And soon he came walking in. I stood and greeted him. And he sat at the bar with me. Give him the nonalcoholic “Ira,” I told Amy the barmaid. She smiled her dazzling smile. And she got all busy juicing oranges and throwing other things together. She filled a large glass and poured in the mixed juices and some seltzer water, threw in some cherries, then shook it all up. Jerry lifted the glass and tasted. That’s my special drink from Amy, I told him proudly. She named it after me. How do you like it? “It’s good,” he said. “I really like it.”
We ordered greasy bar food, then just sat there and talked. It’s been a while. I respect Jerry’s take on the publishing market almost as much as I respect Chip’s. And he told me. “You were so lucky that Tyndale got hold of your book and published it. They had the credibility to market it to both the Christian and secular worlds. Not a lot of publishers have that kind of credibility. They got it done.” I am grateful, I said. I always will be. And we talked. I told him. I’ve been very happy with the blog writing lately. The new writing’s stirring in me, and I’m working on getting started on my second book.
He nodded. “You know,” he said. “You could just take a bunch of your blogs and make a book out of them. That would sell. Your writing’s that good.” But the blogs are out there for free, I protested. Why would anyone pay for what they can get for free? He scoffed. “People aren’t going to go dig them out. The blogs disappear, down the line as you post new ones. If you put the best ones in a book, that book would sell.” I thought about that for a moment. You know what? I said. There’s been at least one publisher who approached Chip with that very idea. I told him no, because I want to try to write another real book. Maybe if my stuff doesn’t get picked up, my fifty pages, maybe then I’ll go back and make a book out of the best blogs. Hmm. I hadn’t ever considered that seriously before. We’ll see.
And we just talked along as our food came out and we ate. Jerry has seen a lot, when it comes to the publishing world. Way more than I ever will. It’s always fascinating, to hear his perspective. I told him. The Amish fiction market has collapsed. He agreed. He’s still writing those books, but you have to be established, these days, to get your Amish fiction published. Most of the fly-by-night authors are long gone. My words, not his. I’ve always been suspicious of the genre. But I respect Jerry. I always will. He’s the one who opened the door to the publishing world to me. I don’t forget a favor like that.
And I’ve thought about things a lot, since Jerry and I talked at Vinola’s. I’ve made noises, here and there these last few years, about a second book. But even as I was writing those noises, I could not feel it inside me, that anything was coming soon. Now, it’s different. And now, I’m telling you.
Something is coming, soon. And no, it’s not something wicked this way comes. It’s something real will finally be written. And it’s like I told Sam, my counselor, last session we had. We talked, and nothing was off the table. And I told Sam, there at the end. I can see the path to where I need to go. I can feel the chains breaking from me. But still, that path needs to be walked. And hard things need to be faced. Real hard things. I’m focused on the destination. I’m not sure how I’ll get there. But I’m not afraid to start walking. That’s how I feel right now, about a lot of things. Including my writing. Including my second book.
So I guess I’ll be taking a little side trip, here, real soon. I won’t be posting on the blog as regularly as I have been. Oh, I’ll check back, once in a while. I always have. I’ll tell you how it’s going. If I get stuck, I’ll come back and tell you that, too. And if my stuff gets rejected, I’ll just throw it out for free right here on my blog. We’ll see how it all goes when I get there.
I remember so well when the journey of the first book started. I wrote about it back then. I called it a shining city on a hill, the place where I was going. And it was just that, in all the ways I could have imagined. The thing is, I look back on it now and realize the cold hard truth in what King Solomon wrote, long ago. The man knew what he was talking about. Because in the end, all of it was vanity, that shining city, all of it was a weariness of the body and the mind. From where I am today, I can see that and say that. Not from where I was back then. It was a vision and a dream. It was a beautiful gleaming place, whatever else it was. And today I know. There will never be another shining city like the first one.
But still, the vagabond traveler blood in me stirs. And as the sun sets and twilight closes in on one more chapter of my journey, I see it way out there on the horizon, out there in the hills. A distant light glowing. So faint, but so clear. And now, I turn my face to those hills and walk.
And I believe, like I always have. One more shining city waits for me to get there.Share