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.
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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