Recovery Room: I Hear The Voices

Shawn Smucker is a friend and author who self-published the incredible Young Adult novel, The Day the Angels Fell, in 2014. Over the past several months, we've discussed the writing life, shared some of its ups and downs. What's more, we've discussed the subtle addictions of career and "The Voices" that distract us from connection with God. I've asked Shawn if he'd agree to answer a few questions about career, self-doubt, and spirituality, and he graciously agreed.  Perhaps you're not a writer. Perhaps you're a doctor, or lawyer, or restaurant owner, or homemaker. No matter what your occupation, I think there's something here for you. Welcome Shawn to the Recovery Room, and after you read here, visit his website.

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1. Shawn, tell us about your occupation, what you do and how you came into it.

I make a living co-writing and ghost-writing books for individuals and publishing houses. The emphasis on personal platform has led to many publishers seeking out the stories of people who are not necessarily book writers, but who have large followings. This has created a need for co-writers and ghost-writers to help these folks tell their stories well.

In 2006, my aunt was approached by a literary agent to tell her story, so after much work and many sample chapters, the publisher hired me to be her co-writer. One book led to another, and by 2009 I left my painting business to write full time. Seven years and 20 books later, here we are.

2. We’ve had conversations about the struggles of your occupation, the highs and lows. Can you share a little about that?

I always thought it would be emotionally difficult to write someone else’s book and then watch them take it out into the world, sort of like a surrogate mother who gives birth and then has to hand over the baby. (I hope that’s not an insensitive comparison.) It turns out, for me, that’s not the case. I’ve always seen the books I co-write as the other person’s book from the beginning, and I really don’t feel any kind of separation anxiety. I think I've realized that I’m more like a midwife than a surrogate. I coax others' stories into existence and celebrate with them when they take the newborn home. That’s one of the real highs, helping someone tell their story in a way that later makes a huge difference in the life of a reader.

The real struggle for me has been more practical--how does one navigate a life when your income fluctuates so severely from one year to the next, one month to the next? During good years I make more money than I ever thought I would make, but during difficult years we have occasionally (twice) gone 6 - 8 months without making anything. My wife and I have five children (almost six). Not making money for that long can be scary and annoying and stressful. It can quickly lead to voices of self-doubt and judgment.

Nothing has influenced my relationship with God more than my current vocation, precisely because of the ups and downs. One word makes itself known to me during those difficult patches: Trust. And as Brennan Manning wrote, “The way of trust is a movement into obscurity, into the undefined, into ambiguity, not into some predetermined, clearly delineated plan for the future.” And this as well: “The reality of naked trust is the life of a pilgrim who leaves what is nailed down, obvious, and secure, and walks into the unknown without any rational explanation to justify the decision or guarantee the future. Why? Because God has signaled the movement and offered it his presence and his promise."

3. You recently self-published an extraordinary YA novel, The Day the Angels Fell. Can you tell me about that book, about your expectations for it? Can you share how those expectations affected you emotionally and spiritually?

Writing and self-publishing my own work suddenly opened up a whole new world for me, a world of self-doubt and insecurity. I realized I had (have?) a deep, deep desire to be liked. Not just liked, but adored for my writing. (Man, it’s really hard to admit this!)

I guess I’m a little bit like Michael from The Office when he says, “Do I need to be liked? Absolutely not. I like to be liked. I enjoy being liked. I HAVE to be liked. But it’s not like this compulsive need to be liked. Like my need to be praised.”

All of that to say, leading up to the release of The Day the Angels Fell, I started to confront a lot of inner dialogue (I refer to this as "The Voices") that, at the end of the day, tried to keep me from publishing this book. The Voices said “You’re not good enough at writing fiction,” or “No one will like this,” or “No one will care about it,” or “Why are you taking this risk?”

I pressed ahead, raised the money through Kickstarter, and I published the book, but even then I had to come to terms with Seth’s favorite saying: [tweetherder]“This book will not do for me what I want this book to do for me.”[/tweetherder] I wasn’t going to suddenly win a ton of awards or become famous or find financial freedom through the publication of this book. I wasn’t invited to speak with Oprah, and people didn't stop me in the street to thank me for this beautiful work of art I had created.

But here’s the thing. There were beautiful things happening even though the book didn’t do for me what I thought I wanted the book to do for me. I DID get wonderful emails from parents thanking me for the book, explaining to me what an important story it turned out to be for their child, and videos of kids thanking me for the book. I also had a chance to read the book at libraries and in people’s homes and I realized that these people cared about the book and the characters as much as I did! What an incredible feeling!

Writing and publishing this book taught me that the most beautiful part of writing is not in the fame or the fortune but in the small, everyday exchanges that happen between reader and writer. What an exquisite lesson to learn. This reminds me of what John Steinbeck said about his remarkable novel East of Eden while he was writing it: “Even if I knew that nothing would emerge from this book, I would still write it.” This is the mindset I am constantly trying to come back to, this mindset of creating without expectation.

4. From a spiritual perspective, what do you find to be the most difficult part of your occupation? Are there practices you’ve found to deal with these challenges?

I’ve already talked about the difficulty of trusting through hard financial times, but as I spend more and more time on my own writing, I have to tell you, one of the toughest parts of this occupation is shopping a book proposal to publishers. Waiting is a spiritual muscle, and mine is very weak. Compound that with the fact that the waiting is also tied up in someone else’s view and opinion of my creative work, and it’s basically a perfect storm for me.

My go-to spiritual practice in recent years has been silence. Deliberate, regularly practiced, intentional silence. I take into that silence a phrase or a verse that applies to my situation, and I soak in it for five minutes or ten minutes or twenty minutes, and in [tweetherder]the silence God somehow gives me what I need to disable the voices[/tweetherder], to let the stress drift past me. Silence has taught me so much in the last few years. Our world is so noisy. I don’t know how people live without silence.

Also, I don’t know if this is a spiritual practice or not, but it has become one for me, and that would the spiritual practice of taking the next step. Moving forward. Waiting is good and important but there is also a lot of freedom to be found in movement, physical and emotional. So, as I wait to hear about whether publishers are interested in taking my once self-published book and making it a traditionally published book, I move forward. I work on the sequels to The Day the Angels Fell, and in that movement I find freedom from The Voices.

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A Soft Return (Or Hitting the Digital Bricks)

I took a Christmas sabbatical, a time to clear my head and let the cobwebs spread across the old keyboard. Cobwebs don't agree with electronics, or so my brother-in-law the IT maven says, so today I'm pulling out the canned air, spraying down my workspace. Today I'm hitting the digital bricks. This is a sort of soft return, an easy reentry. And as any good book provides a little introduction, a preface, maybe a foreword, allow me a little space to introduce the roadmap for 2016.

I've been working on a journal companion to my October release, Coming Clean: A Story of Faith. I hope it's a helpful tool for those of you leaning into the conversation about addiction, doubt, and the problem of pain. I'll give more information about the journal in the coming days, but know this: on Tuesdays of 2016, I'll provide you with reflections that I hope you'll use as journal prompts. If you want to keep up with these reflections, sign up to receive the blog content in your inbox. (See that maroon box over in the left sidebar?)

I'm also reopening the Recovery Room, a place where guest writers hop in to discuss addiction, doubt, pain, and the process of their own coming clean. Look for these posts on Thursdays (perhaps not every Thursday). The guests writers who have contributed to this series are incredible, and I have no doubt this years contributions will be stellar. (You can read the Recovery Room archives here.)

Amber and I hope to pen a few more Marriage Letters this year, and we hope you'll come along. There's nothing quite like writing personal letters to your spouse to keep the home fires burning. Trust me.

This years resolution? Be a tad more consistent with my Weekend links. On Saturdays, I'll recap the highs and lows of the week, and with any luck, I'll give you something smile-worthy.

It's 2016! Are you ready to get cracking? I am.

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CC Austin OuttakesThanks for stopping in! If you enjoy reading here, sign up to receive my bi-monthly Tiny Letter. If you sign up, you'll receive my free eBook, Coming Clean|Austin Outtakes. The Outtakes share the story behind my latest release from Zondervan, Coming Clean|A Story of Faith.

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The Art of Sobriety

I'm still in Montana enjoying the big sky and cooler weather. While I've been away, Coming Clean entered the world. You can pick up your copy at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Givington's, or wherever books are sold. In the meantime, today I'm sharing this piece I wrote for addiction.com on the the connection between drinking, sobriety, and creative writing. Enjoy.

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Hi. My name is Seth Haines. I am a writer. I am an alcoholic.

There could be no truer way to begin a piece on the intersection of writing and addiction unless I were to confess that, on par, I have an addictive stripe that runs as true and as hot as the Mississippi River. Alcohol? Yes. Words? Yes. Any old thing? Perhaps.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a taste for language. My mother was a literature teacher at the local junior high, and she taught me the power words wield in poetry and prose. I took her message to heart, playing with words from an early age. I stretched language like taffy, spun words together like cotton candy. I sold my first short story at the age of 11 to Jenna Kohler on the playground for 25 cents. It was a piece about the resurrection of frogs in the final days of the world’s spin-cycle. It remains, to this day, some of my best work.

My taste for alcohol developed at a later age. I imbibed for the first time after my 21st birthday — a modest two bottles of banquet beer — and in the years following, eased my way into a penchant for liquor. The more I drank, the more I discovered that either God or my family tree, depending upon your view of the world, had gifted me with a strong German tolerance. It was a fortuitous discovery, if not an epiphanic one, and in it, I became a most accomplished drinker.

I cannot point to the moment when I began to combine drinking and writing. When did I put whiskey and words into a shaker with cracked ice and cocktail them together? I do not recall. But in the years leading up to my sobriety, I wrote articles, poetry and what I’d like to call the Great American Novel (which remains unpublished on my computer desktop), all under the influence. Alcohol became jet fuel for the creative fire. It was the medium for the muse.

Continue reading along at addiction.com...

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Happy Birthday To Me... Again.

On Sunday, I stepped into my thirty-eighth year of life in Billings, Montana. I found a local cafe, McCormick’s—open 7 days, says the pink and blue neon sign—and ordered my birthday breakfast. Two eggs, over easy, toast, bacon. In the McCormick's, the morning light tendrils through the windows, cuts shafts through the slight mist of floating bacon grease. Bacon grease—could there be a better incense of the people? It's a beautiful thing. I opened my laptop and connected to the mccormickcafe network, and when the signal strength bars filled, my Facebook birthday notifications began streaming in. Facebook—I don’t care if Mark Zuckerberg is a socialist; hasn’t he created a platform that makes us all feel inordinately special on our birthdays? On Facebook, every birthday is an exercise in rediscovering that, yes, you actually did hang the moon.

I watched the cafe patrons—the young father stealing his son’s nose, his mother ordering cinnamon rolls at the counter, the old men waiving their hands and speaking in slavic tongues, the fella in the Auburn Tigers hat and the University of Montana sweatshirt shoveling four eggs down his gullet. We were a loose community, they oblivious to my solitary birthday celebration in the corner of the room. I smiled.

It was the happiest birthday. There was no sense of loneliness, only solitariness (the two should not be confused). Amber, the boys, and I celebrated before we left, and it was fantastic. Friends were sending their birthday wishes via the internet, and text message. I felt loved.

A birthday in Montana, eggs and bacon on your plate. Who could ask for more?

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I’m still in Montana, and today marks another sort of birthday. Today, my first book, Coming Clean, hits the shelves. This time, I’m with a few good blokes, and we’ll have a smallish celebration. We’re without internet access, though, so aside from these fellas, I’ll have no idea whether Coming Clean released with the fanfare of a Facebook birthday, or whether it slipped onto the shelves in relative silence. There’s something that feels right about that.

Birthdays bring noise, bring celebration. Birthdays are the day when it’s okay to be the center of attention, to grab the limelight. Self-indulgent treats are occasionally justified. Perhaps a book birthday no different. Sometimes, though, self-indulgence does a body bad. I know this from experience.

In Coming Clean, I offer a raw account of my first 90 days of sobriety, illuminating the ways in which I numbed my pain with self-indulgence. My vice was liquor, but as we’ve learned in the Recovery Room over the past year, many numb their pain with various and sundry vices—sex, eating, puking, achievement, drama, theology. The vices, don’t they crowd out the voice of God? Don’t they distract us from the many ways God hopes to speak to us in our pain?

Today is the birthday of my book. I hope you’ll order your copy. I believe it’s important. But aside from this piece of writing, and a few scheduled social media messages, I’ll be relatively absent from the noise surrounding the release. I’ll be on the river, watching the trout fight against a fly line, and I’ll be thanking God in the quiet. The quiet--it's where I learned to escape vice; it's where I found God again.

Thank you for ordering your copy of Coming Clean. If you’d like to help spread the word, [tweetherder text="Coming Clean, by @sethhaines, is out today! Join me in reading this story of faith? #ComingCleanBook http://amzn.to/1QIsKGH"]CLICK THIS LINK TO TWEET.[/tweetherder] And if you’re more of the Facebook sort, consider sharing this little message:

Seth Haines’ book, Coming Clean, hits the shelves today. Don’t miss his story of pain, doubt, and the kindness of God that drew him into faith. http://sethhaines.com/books

After you’ve let your fingers do the clicking, find your own quiet space and ask yourself this question: is there some vice, some noise distracting me from the still, small voice of God? Is there something from which I need to come clean?

Walk into another sort of birthday, the birth of a new story. You won't regret it. I promise.

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On Pain and Creativity (A Story Nashville Post)

This week, I'm traveling to the beautiful state of Tennessee to lead a breakout session at Story Nashville. I'll be speaking about the intersection of pain and creativity. It was my pleasure to the below preview piece for the folks at Story.

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There are less awkward ways to introduce oneself, but for the sake of brevity, indulge me: I am a Christian drunk. Yes, there’s nuance to unpack, as everyone is so prone to say these days, and yes, I’ve been sober for some time. The truth is the truth, though, and the truth put another way is this: Gin and I are not good dance partners.

For a spell, I enjoyed the thought of writing the Great American Novel, and I gave it the old college try. I wrote in the evenings, always under the influence of gin or whiskey. The liquor loosened the voice of the muse—the Siren?—who distracted me from some very real pains in a very heavy season of life. At some point, the distractions became more more frequent, my lack of presence more pronounced. [tweetherder]Alcohol replaces things, see. Replaces responsibility. Replaces creativity.[/tweetherder] Replaces family, perhaps.

Continue reading at the Story Nashville blog.

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Cover.FrancisThanks for stopping in! If you enjoy reading here, sign up to receive my bi-monthly Tiny Letter. In my most recent edition, I'm discussing the discovery of "The Quiet Sober." Sign up and receive access to my serial eBook, Dear Little Brothers.