What Happens When the Dam Breaks?

I give thanks to God for two encouraging events this week. I needed it.

The first event was a conversation with a friend. We met for lunch and talked for almost two hours. The mutual therapy was very helpful and generative for me. Here is a reconstruction of one part of the conversation:

— [over lunch]

The first part of the conversation consisted of me being pretty down.

Me: I’m not exactly sure what God is doing in all of this, but here is one way that I can look back and make sense out of the past six years. When I moved to Minnesota I vowed to never be a pastor again. I was trying to get my freelance illustration business reconstructed in a new state. For the first time in a long time, I actually had time on my hands. So, what did I do? I decided to finally write my novel!

I figured, “hey, I don’t have any money to give gifts to my kids this Christmas, but I do have some time. Why not finally write the novel we’ve talked about their whole lives and give it to them?” So, I researched best practices for novel writing and learned that many authors set a daily word count goal. That’s what I did. The goal was to write at least 1,500 words every day. I started in June, and by September (maybe October) I had written an 80,000 word novel!

The original plan was to keep it a secret. I didn’t want to tell everyone this grandiose plan and then fail, so I didn’t tell anyone, not even my wife. She found the document on my computer one morning. Busted! So, she was brought into the secret lair.

Those were a fun few months. I would wake up early, as usual, and write until I either hit my quota, or the train of thought was finished. Then, later in the morning, she would read what I wrote. Many mornings she would come stomping down the stairs and into my studio.

“You can’t just leave me hanging like that!”

That was fun.

The process was so fun that I started investigating more about being an author. I joined the Society for Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators and the Minnesota Independent Publishers Association. I met three ladies—collectively called The Book Architects—who read my manuscript and helped me get self-published. They, combined with John Paul Owles, gave me the tools and knowledge to take my novel from a rough draft to a polished, printed book available on Amazon.

The self-publishing bug was also sparked by my Dad’s encouragement to get the Hart Haus Resources material into print and available for a wider audience. So, there I was, at the end of the summer of 2009 with five books self-published (four Bible Studies and one novel), a struggling freelance illustration business, and no platform to share these gifts.

Finances were tough during those days, and I was growing weary of the hand-to-mouth, and feast-and-famine existence that many freelancers experience. It was especially tough to start up a freelance business during the recession of 2008-9. The combination of low finances, the stirring of my gift of teaching through the self-publishing process, my Dad’s introduction of me to Mark Hellmann, and the stirring of the Holy Spirit led me to step back into those scary waters that I vowed to never re-enter: local church ministry.

I started at Grace in January of 2010 with one novel and my first published children’s book (as an illustrator) hot off the presses, the second novel of the trilogy in a rough draft, and a freelance business that I had to maintain after hours to supplement my church salary. In other words, I was a pastor AND a writer/illustrator. A year later I was accepted to Luther to begin a PhD and it all stopped. I built a dam in the river of my creative endeavors. I shut down my freelance business and closed the novels. Those waters have been held back for the past four years.

When I look back on the story through those lenses it makes me wonder if this four-year detour through PhD Land was designed so that I would have the theological perspective I need to rewrite the second book and write the third book in the Nectar Trilogy? Wouldn’t that be weird?

Friend: Oh, man. I can see the dam in the river and all this creativity just pent up behind it. When you graduate, it’s just going to burst. Watch out!

Me: I know. It’s kinda scary. I love to write and draw.

I know you know about the Nectar trilogy, but did you know I have many other novels in my head?

Friend: (he shakes his head and laughs) No.

Me: Would you like to hear one of them?

Friend: Yeah.

Me: It’s a modern day version of the Book of Job…

I then proceeded to tell my lunch companion how, back in 2002, my friend Teddy Johnson wanted to do a stage musical based on the Old Testament Book of Job, but didn’t know how to tell the story. He asked me if I would write the story for him, and then he would adapt it to a musical. That happened just as I was leaving Central and my creative juices were on overdrive. A novel was born.

I asked my lunch companion if he would like to hear the story. He did, so I told it; which took a while…

Friend: (after my frenzied telling of this story subsides, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out his wallet) That has to be made into a movie. How much do you need? We need to start a Kickstarter campaign, or something.

(we laugh)

Me: I know. I totally see it as an action movie in my head, and that’s how I would write it.

Friend: Steve, I have to tell you something. As I watched you during the course of our lunch, you completely changed when you started talking about your stories. It’s like you came alive. Your whole presence changed.

I came alive.

When I was contemplating the move away from Central into the unknown, back in 2002, I read John Eldridge’s book Wild at Heart. He quotes Gil Bailie

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that. Because, what the world needs is more people who have come alive.

Gil Bailie Quote
This is from my journal, just after I read it in the book.

That’s the question, isn’t it? What makes me come alive?

My friend also recommended that I check out Jeff Goins’ site. I did. Goins offers a free copy of his ebook to anyone who subscribes to his blog. It’s called The Writer’s Manifesto. I subscribed, read it, and it brought me to tears. It is simple and powerful.

Writers write, he says, not for fame or money. Writers write because they can’t not write. This is also true, I would add, for any type of artist. I draw and animate because I can’t not draw and animate. It burns inside me.

Stories and pictures constantly swirl in my head. Yet, what completely blows me off the charts in coming-alive-ness is when my visual art, storytelling, and Biblical/Theological teaching come together. I was born to teach people about God and the Bible through art and creative forms of communication.

Five years ago I was a washed out, two-time loser pastor from another state, struggling to pay the bills by cartooning. I had five self-published books on Amazon. Big deal. I was all dressed up and had nowhere to go.

Now, I am three months away from completing my PhD Dissertation in Congregational Mission and Leadership from Luther Seminary (in which I used drawing and animation to help me both learn and communicate the complex theological and theoretical concepts I engaged), I am a rostered pastor in the ELCA, and serve a local congregation that seems to still value what little bits of ministry I have been able to give to it during this grueling four-year process.

I still have to write this dissertation, however. That’s no small task.

That leads me to reflect on the second encouraging thing that happened yesterday morning. I met with my advisor. She told me that I have a massive amount of data and that I will be writing about this for many years to come. What I need to do now is narrow my focus down to one or two ideas and run with them.

I have to remember, she said, that this dissertation is not going to solve anything. It is not going to fix the world. It is not going to communicate everything that I learned or be an all-encompassing treatise on the topics at hand. It can’t be that. It is simply a paper that explores, in a scholarly fashion, one or two aspects of what I think are valuable lessons for myself, the academy, and, most importantly, the local church.

In other words, she said…”just write.”

I asked her, “Do you think I can do this? Can I write this thing by the end of January?”

She smiled. “Absolutely!”

I’m almost there. The dam is still holding, but I can hear the cracks forming. There are shoots of creativity spraying through the chinks like fire hoses scattered across its bulky surface, but the massive lake still holds and presses against it.

What will happen when that dam breaks in the Spring?