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Well it’s here. It’s a real life, bound beauty of a thing isn’t it?
I would like to talk about how this all got started. This whole book thing. I want you to know, and I need to remind myself because lately English Lessons has felt less like a book and more like something else. More like…a product.
I realize this now as I reflect on my reaction when the final hardcover edition of the book arrived on my doorstep a week and a half ago. Earlier that day I had just received some disappointing news that a book signing for English Lessons had been canceled. Nobody even really goes to book signings anymore, I know this. But I was still disappointed. It was still going to be a good opportunity. It was a good event to add to my list of book promotional things.
I had dreamed of what it would be like to take the tape off the box of the first case of English Lessons, lift the cardboard flaps, remove the packing paper and see the book for the first time. I knew I would cry and yell for my roommate to come look and then call my parents and then take several pictures of the front cover, the back cover and the interior. I would post about it on social media immediately because I just wouldn’t be able to wait and show everybody that “It’s here!”
Do you know what I did instead? I opened the box, took out a copy, looked at it for a second, set it back down and walked away.
I’ve been blogging since 2008 and writing professionally since 2010, but putting out a book is by far the most vulnerable thing I’ve done in my writing life. For this reason, the news of the canceled signing felt very personal, and I let it discolor what should have been a very joyful moment. Something that is my fault alone, not the book-signing scheduler’s.
Somewhere in the last couple of months I have allowed English Lessons to morph itself from a collection of heartfelt essays I worked very hard on to a product I must deliver to the world in a polished manner.
Between the summer of 2013 (when I started writing English Lessons) and today, I crawled so deeply into the hole of my dream that I lost sight of its original purpose. I think this might be how most dreams work when they finally do come true. We get so deep in that we actually have to ask ourselves why we began the crawl in the first place? And, if I remember correctly, I think it began more as a slow walk, then as a trot and at its climax, a run. So why in this moment does it feel like I am crawling?
It may help to return to the source of our dream, so let’s go back to the beginning of the writing of English Lessons.
In Spring 2013, I sat down at 5:30 on a Monday morning before work to write just for fun. I hadn’t done this in a very long time. A friend had suggested I write something that wasn’t for work or for my blog, just for me. I thought I would write about women’s issues. Women in the church or women and beauty. Something like that. Instead, I wrote a story about two people I met while I was living abroad in Oxford. I wrote about the park we sat in, what the weather was like and what we had talked about. I wrote about how we walked to an ice cream shop. I wrote about what I had worn. Navy shorts and a pink top.
For the next several months I continued to get up at 5:30 in the morning on Mondays and write and all that came out were stories from Oxford. This person and that person. This dinner, that party. That walk, that house. These details and memories I hadn’t thought about in years began to play out in front of me and with joy—because no one would be reading this—I wrote everything I saw and could remember.
I had forgotten how much doubt had been a part of my story in Oxford. I spent so much time there thinking about God and questioning him. I pulled out journals from that year and flipped through their pages in awe of the darkness I wrote about that I no longer felt.
I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. I wrote about the pubs I sat in and how the sun sets late in Oxford in summer. I wrote about an apple tree in my backyard and how I rode a blue bike. Each memory I had led me to a lesson I had learned. I remembered the apple tree, the park, the bike because in those moments I had learned something about God or me or others, and the lesson had changed me.
I collected some of the stories into essay form and sent them to my dad to see if he thought there was something there. I hadn’t felt that much joy from writing since I took a Creative Nonfiction Workshop in college. That semester, I wrote an essay called “Like the First Steep Drop of a Rollercoaster.” It was about a waterfall and a bird’s egg. It was about human control, or lack thereof, and it was about death. Writing English Lessons had tapped me back into that way of explaining the world to myself.
After showing some of it to my dad, I wrote more and more seriously, as if someone would read this one day. I showed it to a handful of others, got feedback. I edited. I wrote a proposal. I got a book deal. Last February I turned in the first draft and this January I made the final changes. And just like that, the word part was done.
What was a book was suddenly a product that would be sold at market.
Last Tuesday I visited my alma mater, Abilene Christian University, to do a reading of the book and talk to a couple of classes. Professor Al Haley, the professor from that Creative Nonfiction class and the Writer in Residence at ACU, had put the entire day together and would introduce me to whatever class or group I was talking with. At the reading that night, he talked about “Like the First Steep Drop of a Rollercoaster.”
The visit was so rich. So full and good. I enjoyed every moment of it and I think I know why: I was remembering that English Lessons is a book. It is not a product. Technically, it’s an object that’s for sale, but at its heart is words, grouped together in such a way that they tell a story of a year, of a girl and of a God.
I cannot forget this. We cannot forget this about our dreams and callings. The second our “side hustle” or “passion project” is monetized or becomes a business, this is our temptation. But we have to fight it. We don’t do what we do to push a product. We do what we do because we can’t think of possibly doing anything else. Because we’ve landed where we knew deep down we were headed all along and just because it’s your job now, doesn’t mean it’s not also your heart.
English Lessons comes out in two weeks. I don’t know what will happen. It could be a drop in the pond. It could be a great big splash. I worked in publishing for five years and while there is some method to the madness, I definitely had more days of madness than method. All I can do now is slowly walk backwards out of the hole, crawl if I have to, and tell myself each morning that this thing I am about to share with the world? At one point it was a book. I let it become a product. I’m going to let it be a book again.