A Note to Young Writers: Honor Your Obscurity

woman praying--parodic

In the last month, I spent time with two younger women, both of whom had just released their first book. Sarah and Andrea are both fine writers whom I expect will continue to write and publish books. In the short time I had with each of them, I found myself dumping all my writing and marketing advice, talking about websites, blogging, Facebook, twitter. But I forgot to say the most important thing of all: honor your obscurity.

Very few young writers, musicians, artists value their obscurity. For good reason. We know if we’re to be published in any form, we need an audience, a sizeable audience. We know that most of the time we have to find that audience before that first book contract even lands on our desk. And once it does, and the book is out, we’re tasked to keep racking up bigger numbers. But how do we catch the eye and ear of a world that so often chooses the flippant, the crude, the gaudy spectacle over the good, the authentic, and the true?  If we’re the praying sort, we may resort to prayer, remembering the words another writer made famous a few years ago,

“O, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.”

(Oh, dear Jabez, I want to say. How did you get away with that prayer?)

But we do it too, I suspect. The artists’ version would go something like, “O, that you would bless me and enlarge my platform, increase my followers, expand my twitter peeps and keep me from publishing harm so I will be famous, free from the pain of falling out-of-print.”

woman praying--parodic

I can write this prayer because I know these desires. An hour ago I was on a nationally syndicated radio show, and I find myself, now, against my better will, glued to numbers, trying to measure “impact.” While guiltily number-stalking, a stranger writes me on Facebook immediately after the broadcast and asks how he can become a writer and speaker, like me. (He’s in his twenties and he hasn‘t written anything  yet . . .)   Someone else writes to ask me how to build a fan base for her blog.

I do have advice: if you want others to read you and listen to you, you must listen to others. Do for others what you want them to do for you. That will not make you famous; that will make you better informed and more humble.

man reading2

And second, fame is not what you think. Admittedly, I am not the best source here. My moments of “fame” are modest and sporadic. But I still know this: it isn’t what you think. It’s often over in a moment. It brings more responsibility than freedom. And if you’re not careful, it can pollute or paralyze your writing. I have a friend whose first book shot to the New York Times bestseller list.  His agent, his readers, his global fan base now hold their collective breath for his next book. “How do I write under this weight?” he asks me. He has so many others he must now heed and please.

“Honor your obscurity” is another way of echoing Bill Roorhbach’s charge to “honor your apprenticeship.”  Value these months, years of laboring toward your best work with fewer listening in than you would like. This quiet is your wilderness, your blessing. Here you will sharpen your art. You will lean closer to the sounds around you, for the fragile people who haunt the forests you watch, for the small voice that whispers names you didn’t know.

Enjoy the purity of your efforts, making art and worlds and essays out of the sheer love of words, of theatre, of longing and of hope. Enjoy it now before a woman or a publisher sits down beside you filling your notebook with a thousand necessary tasks, few of which have much to do with why you began writing in the first place.

Finally, what do you imagine fame will bring you? For me (and for many writers I know) I hope mostly to be able to keep on writing, to keep using “that talent which is death in me to hide,” as John Milton writes. If you’re doing this now, pouring life into the truest sentences you can make, you’re already famous.

woman writing journal

34 Replies to “A Note to Young Writers: Honor Your Obscurity”

  1. Leslie, thank you for this. We’re discussing this in my writer’s group–the tension between wanting to communicate with others on a larger scale and writing because, as you quote, it is a “talent which is death in me to hide”. For years, I’ve written in the wilderness of obscurity. And I’m still learning how to quiet the inner drive for more readers, numbers, followers, and instead focus on the craft and my love for it.

    1. Kimberly—I so understand this! That tension may never go away, especially when fueled by agents and publishers. But yes, when we look to the rewards that come from the writing itself, we will find more joy and contentment in THAT process, a process we have so much more control over. Blessings as you love, draft and craft!!

  2. Hello Leslie, this such a beautiful post, one I really needed to read today especially. God sent it to me at the right time, so thank you so very much! I am a young writer and writing in the obscurity of the wilderness, as you put it; I love it most of the time – yet the desire to write ‘for readers’ and so that others may enjoy my writing sometimes gets a little too much attention from me and hinders me from contentment in my writing and the stage which I am in right now (also, I find myself judging my literary skills too much on the limited audience I have on my blog and the response I get from my friends). Besides, I’ve not quite realized how this ‘wilderness’ is actually a lovely place to be in. I want to really treasure this time of ‘quiet’ growing and learning and developing a closer love for the art of stories and making them up.

    Thank you so much for sharing this post.
    God bless.
    Joy @ joy-live4jesus.blogspot.com

    1. Joy–it sounds like you are doing many things well right now. Keep listening to your inner voice–and don’t stop attending to other’s response, but sharpen your own creator and editor first rather than relying on friends’ feedback. As your characters and stories flourish, they will beckon to more readers, I am sure. Carry on, Joy!

  3. I definitely needed this post. I freely admit to the vexation of feeling I need to pray the Writer’s Jabez prayer. Thank you for pointing out the blessings of obscurity. 🙂

    1. Rachel—-Ahhh! Love that word—vexation! A perfect description of this tension we live within. But trust the process of writing itself; trust yourself; trust the Lord to bring fruit to your labors. And that fruit may look different than we suppose. Thanks for reading—and don’t stop writing!!

  4. I needed to read this today! My first book just came out, and I’m obsessed with my Amazon rank. Your words knocked some sense into me. I want to keep writing not to become famous, but for the love of writing itself. Thank you.

    1. Karen–congratulations!! That IS truly exciting—a first book! And yes, we simply live in that tension. Just as we have to “fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith”—so it is with our writing. Thanks for reading—and writing back!

  5. Thank you for this Leslie. For all the warnings about frustration in the waiting and rejection in the writing life, one doesn’t find many reminders that it’s a blessing to learn and grow in relative private first.

  6. This hit me where I live, Leslie. Instead of enjoying my anonymity, I am eagerly anticipating the publishing of my first book. I need to step back, and be thankful for the time I have to hone my craft, and listen to God’s voice.

  7. (I’ve just started getting your posts by email. I’m loving them. Thanks!) As for fame, it’s hard not to yearn for it, and think that it might change things – make life easier or better some how. But truth be told, I’d write in obscurity all my life. I just can’t help myself.

    1. April, that’s the truth. It’s HARD not to pine after fame. But I have seen what it can do—and the present struggle, where I am right now, just in between—this is a good place. Even starting out was a good place. There is freedom to be found there. Blessings as you craft and art your work!

  8. Leslie, thank you for such encouragement. As one who just released her first book, your post made me smile. I know I’m in training pants compared to others who have gone before me and some who stand beside me. I’m taking it one step at a time, by His leading, and trying not to get sucked into the numbers game. Thank you for the reminder!

    1. Susan, congratulations on your first book! Truly, that’s huge! Yes, you’ll be aware of the numbers, that’s inevitable, but don’t let them shake or even shape the real work–the next writing. May your words prosper in beauty!

  9. Thank you for your reminder to focus on what’s important: what we’re writing about and who we’re writing for. God’s in control of all of it. If he’s our only reader, how can that be bad?

    1. Jan—haa! So true! But those first books sent us on the path to the later ones . .. We couldn’t be who and where we are now without them. (That’s why some, mercifully go out of print! Sometimes it’s a blessing!)

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