A Multitude of Infirmties, Part IV: The Aimless Journey

My pastor Steve Wells has been going through the story of Joseph in Genesis, his series of sermons revolve around the idea of, “God’s dream for your life,” and how that can often times put you in conflict with yourself, your family, and the world around you. Last week Steve preached on how Joseph suffered through an incredible journey of trials ultimately to end up where he could serve God in a place where his innate talents and the culmination of his life’s experiences found their true purpose. Before he was Pharaoh’s highest counselor, Joseph was beaten, betrayed, enslaved, imprisoned, disowned, harassed; keeping his integrity in all these moments helped refine Joseph into a man that could be trusted. Joseph is not a brilliant man. Joseph is not a wholly capable man.

But Joseph is reliable.

And it is his reliability in the use of his gifts which propels him forward in his story.

Steve says, “God has a dream for your life.”

And I want to believe Steve; all of me to the depth of all I have the potential to be, wants me to believe him.

Suffering six months of unemployment cuts through my trust in that statement. For the last decade I have been striving to become an author who could support himself and his family through the written word. Up to this point in my journey, I have failed to attain that goal.

And so, I think that it is appropriate to ask the question, “What is God’s dream for my life?” What is the purpose of the hard work into the gifts of rhetoric, oratory, and the written word if I cannot ferment these gifts to a livable wage. These tens of thousands of hours I have put into being an effective storyteller and I have yet to reach a sum of monetary value on my work that allows me to do anything more than pay an occasional water bill.

I am lost on an aimless journey. My circumstances took me out of vocational ministry and God planted in my heart this truth -That I am a storyteller. I am a writer.

I’m not a writer because I chose to be.  I am a writer because when I’m not writing I feel worthless.

When I’m not writing or working on writing I feel like I’m failing. Failing to be as good as I can be. Failing to provide for my family. Failing to work harder than others.

Writing is the foundation of my self worth. The act of storytelling allows me to believe that I matter.

My life journey is propelled forward when I move you (the reader) with narrative. Your joys and sorrows in my work, they are what give me value.

That isn’t a healthy perspective of self-value. I know that. I know that the journey of life is meant to be experienced, not just lived. But I cannot change that within me rests an inconsolable need to shape the world around me. To help you feel the great enthusiasms of my heroes, to be wounded by their pain, and experience life at its top when they triumph.

I’ve always wanted to be a champion. I’ve always wanted to inspire people. But mostly, I want my work to matter. I want it to matter to you. And I can’t make you like it. I can’t make it move you. All I can do is show up every night, after my children and wife are in bed, to a place where I have no one to keep me accountable but myself, and get to work stringing words together. I don’t have a boss who will dock my pay if I don’t hit those thousand words a night. I don’t have a manger who will take me through my writing and say, “Hey, this is good, but let’s stay away from this.” It’s all up to me to succeed and because I am not succeeding, I have only myself to blame.

I don’t have a compass for my life’s journey.  Navigating this career is a lot like trying to find water in the desert with a divining rod – I’ve seen people do it, but it looks like a magic trick when they do – and as I’ve already said, I’m no magician. I want to be great and I’m pretty sure I’m not there yet.

A writer’s competition for greatness isn’t found in his peers, it’s found in the dead.

Shakespeare, Bradbury, Steinbeck, Melville, Hemingway, Tolstoy, Cormac McCarthy, Updike, just to name the greats you’ve heard of. Their phantoms are ever present on the mind of the aspiring writer.

“If I could only write in a beautiful simplicity like Steinbeck…”

“If I could only paint an October tragedy like Bradbury…”

“If I could only dare like Melville…”

“…craft beauty with language like Shakespeare. Then I’ll be good enough.”

If I could only support my son’s college tuition with royalties…

If I could only pay the mortgage with that novel advance…

Would those things make me happy? Probably not.

Would they give the weight to my work that I’ve always wanted? No.

Because to me, ashamedly I admit, nothing is ever good enough. The heart of my writing is split between a burning desire to be great and an unshakable dissatisfaction in the work I produce.

I think that Steve is right. God does have a dream for my life- a dream rooted in faith, hope, and love toward the service of others in the name of Christ Jesus. A dream that will satisfy this mind and soul of mine which have been forever discontent toward anything but the very best. So I suppose that like Joseph, I will simply keep striving. I’ll keep working through my self-doubt.

Right now I’m wandering, though putting one foot in front of the other each day. Striving. Seeking. Hoping to find the place where I’m called to serve with the gifts I’ve been given. Doing all of these things with an unyielding dedication that is simply content in this – If I fail as an author, it will be because I lacked a high enough talent, not because I refused to throw myself into the furnace of dedication.

I’m wandering right now, on a seemingly alien landscape, and I’m clinging to the notion that Steve mentioned of Joseph – that while all these things are happening, “The Lord was with him.”

I hope the Lord is with me. I trust that He is, but the razor of doubt is cutting away at that all the time.

 

I am wounded by doubtl. In this way, confessed to you, I am infirm and lame.
But, I rejoice in this: “love covers a multitude of infirmities.”
Yours and mine.

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Brad Ellison – Zen Baptist, Writing Mentor, and Chosen Brother

This is Brad Ellison –

Master of the Kubrick stare.

Master of the Kubrick stare.

Yeah. Drink up all that ferocity for a minute.

Don’t worry if you feel like he’s kicking your courage in the teeth, it’s okay, that’s the normal mammalian reaction to such a predatory visage.

Take comfort in this, dear friends: The first time I met Brad was at the Karaoke meet and greet that the Freshman of Hardin-Simmons University are asked to attend during their orientation week on campus. And I know what your thinking, a man such as this must have stood above all others, wearing a crown stitched together by the foreskins of weaker men, and demanded that we all bow before him and collectively sing mighty rock anthems of the 1980s. I can see how you’d think that when you look at that picture. Hell, I’ve known the man for over ten years, and when I see that picture even I get a little nervous, like he might show up at my house and demand that we machete fight to the death while naked and covered in the war-woad of our fathers.

Those things did not and have not happened (YET!) , no the first time I met Brad Ellison he approached me while wearing black cargo pants, a Led Zeppelin t-shirt all slathered in a leather trench coat, and said, “Hey, you wanna do this thing?”

My first reaction was to ball up my fists and get ready to rock and roll with this mountain of tremendous flesh in a brawl that would have brought down the walls of Valhalla itself. But then I realized that he was actually asking me if I wanted to sing a song with him. I smiled, nodded, and chose the song which would cement our friendship for the rest of time.

I picked, The Great Pretender by The Platters –

Because that’s how I (lamely) roll.

Four months would pass before we’d see each other again, when we were introduced to each other again by our mutual friend Will Clapp.

Over the next three years we build a friendship which helped him survive loneliness and me conquer my bigotry, racism, fundamentalist ideology. It is easy to say that I would not be the man I am today without the calm and taciturn nature Brad ushered into my life. I was an untempered piece of iron that Brad Ellison helped (along with others) to forge into something sharper, something more beautiful, and something more useful to the world around me.
Brad Ellison, and I say this with no hyperbole, is the single, shining reason that I became a capable writer. Upon reading an incredibly bad Batman short story that I wrote, Brad looked at me and said, “I don’t even know what’s going on here. I mean, Seth, you know I love you, but I’m not even sure if this is American English that I’m reading.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen is how Brad Ellison elicits care to the people he loves. An unbridled honesty that cuts right through all the games ‘friends’ play with each other. He could see that at the root of me I was a storyteller, but that I had no freaking clue what the parts of speech were, how to put them together, and fuse together a narrative that engaged a reader. It was on that day that Brad clapped his gigantic hand on my shoulder and vowed that if I was willing to do the hard work it was going to take, he’d teach me.

I told him that no one outworks me.

He said, “We’ll see.”

Over the next four years he put me on a rigorous reading regimen: Les Misérables, Musashi, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Shining, Always Out Numbered, Always Out gunned, those were the first five novels and short story collection that I ever read. And upon doing a tally of all the works he required me to read, I have counted seventy-one novels, forty-eight short stories, and seven collected anthologies which I took into my brain. All of this was tacked onto me settling into a two-thousand word a night writing routine that I’d email to him every single day for the first year of our student/teacher relationship.

I won’t lie to you, those first few years I was terrible. I was an adjective addict. Tenses punched me in the face. And the gerunds, my Lord the gerunds.

But slowly, with each plodding step forward this mind of mine began to transform into something sharper.

Through Brad Ellison’s patient tutoring I went from being someone who lies on paper to someone who fills empty, white pages with stories that move people.

Without him, I wouldn’t be a published author. He was there through all the doubts, reminding me every so often that I once said, “Brad, no one outworks me.”

Above all his wonderful qualities, the best and most endearing aspect of my friend is that he believed in me.

I’ve suffered his best right cross. And he is the only person to stuff my single-leg wrestling take down that I’ve used to take men bigger than him to the ground. We’ve wrestled with one another physically, emotionally, and intellectually; and we’ve both come out stronger men for it.

The Reverend Kevin Sinclair is Sir Bedivere.

Brad Ellison is Sir Gawain.

Green Knights don't stand a chance.

Green Knights don’t stand a chance.

 

A man, such as I am, has been afforded friends of the highest caliber and none can say that they are higher than my friend and chosen brother, Brad Ellison.

I was the best man in his wedding, and he is one who makes the world a stranger and more miraculous place.  He is my favorite author, and you can buy his fantastic short story, The Devil’s Right Hand here. It’s worth every penny.