I was once told: “You’re not conceited, but humility doesn’t suit you either.” I’m not usually very vocal about any achievements I’ve made. A parent of a child I’ve taught in church for several years stopped me at church the other day to ask me if I really wrote books. I don’t broadcast it when I’m interacting with others. Still….. I’m equally unafraid of acknowledging when I am proud of something. My books are special to me. They have helped heal deep, deep wounds within me. And I am not afraid of saying such, because I know that, by talking about certain subjects, it opens the door to healing, not only for me, but for those I’m talking to. I don’t really “work” at writing. It just sort of happens on its own: I pick up a pen, or turn on the computer, and words just magically seem to appear before me. But I do work in the aftermath. It is dang hard, yet dang necessary, to get Ingram, the world’s largest distributor, to come on board if you are a self-published author. Getting a book into Barnes and Noble without a house behind you requires tiptoeing around at least ten miles of red tape. Marketing costs a gazillion dollars. Giveaways are expensive. After paying for posters and copies of the book to sale, signings are expensive. Press releases and press kits drive me nuts. Obtaining interviews and press coverage is like trying to find a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. And yet…. I have finagled my way to accomplishing all of these things for “The Character.” I am proud of everything that has been accomplished for this book, and the work that went into it.
So, sure, it’s hard to keep my ego from swelling just a bit.
But I’ve had my limit: this is where I step aside, where I’ve done had my share of the credit. In fact, actually, while I may have had something to do with promoting the book thus far, I didn’t actually have much to do with the writing itself. I wrote it because Ash wouldn’t leave me alone. I saw him in my head for a long time before I wrote anything down. He didn’t speak. He was just there. I grew comfortable with him. I liked him a lot. But I didn’t know what he wanted. Then, one night, I just started writing. The end result was what would come to be chapter eight in the book. I sent it to my fiance, whose response was unlike any he’d previously displayed toward my writings. Joe reacts to my writing in a sometimes off-hand manner, and I can’t usually tell what he really thinks of the pieces (for years, I didn’t think he even liked “Mountains of Hope” or “Me,” despite his assurances to the contrary). Without telling me, he forwarded the piece to a co-worker who also writes, and then continued to tell me that it was something different and wonderful. Meanwhile, I had started to think the same thing. Ash still was bugging me. He was still hanging around, which meant that his story wasn’t over. Scenes came to mind, mini-stories that I needed to write, a voice kept prodding me forward, nagging at me to write more. I didn’t have an outline but I didn’t want to make one, either. I didn’t think I really needed one; there was a sense that I already had a better kind of help with this book. I couldn’t let go of the story. So, I kept writing. But not in an organized fashion, as I usually do. Instead, I just wrote out the short “scenes” that kept playing in my head, with total disregard for order (I had no idea whether the scene I was writing would be first chapter, last chapter, somewhere in between). I didn’t know how they tied together or if they would tie together. Still, I have learned to heed the voice that shadows me when I write and so, eventually, I cried my way through the rest of the scenes that needed to be written. I was un-able to re-read the book. I could read sections of it, but I could not read a chapter, start to finish. That had never happened to be before. I write books so that I have books to read—I usually re-read books multiple times. But I couldn’t with this one. It was too close to home. In fact, I found myself startled and surprised that I had written some of the scenes at all. The writing had been cleansing for me, and I ended it by saying a prayer that thanked God for all the Ash-es that He’d sent my way through the years. I thanked Him for the pen, and for this story.
It was edited. I submitted it to a handful of carefully selected publishing houses. Three rejected it and the others, I never heard back from. So, in Feb 2010, I had it released through CreateSpace instead, vowing to do the marketing myself. I marketed it the best I could, celebrating victories along the way as I managed to get it into Ingram and Barnes and Noble.
Soon, though, it totally left me behind, and took a life of its own. I first became aware that the book was a lot bigger than me when people whose names I did not know began e-mailing me, writing heart-felt and tearful notes that I will cherish for the rest of my life. The things they wrote made me hesitant to even utter the words “thank you”, so incapable I felt of having written something that would evoke such strong emotions within strangers. I read the e-mails in almost a detached sort of way, and often found myself re-reading them just to make sure that they were talking about my book. Sometimes it felt like I was being given these wonderful accolades for something I didn’t really do. After all, I had known from the first scene written that it was special for me, but I had not dreamed of this kind of response.
Fast forward nine months.
Thursday afternoon, I received an e-mail from one of the publishing houses from whom I never received a response. This particular publisher is a Christian house who releases exceptionally high quality books, and does extremely effective marketing for their authors. In 2009, they only published 9 books from new authors: annually, they only accept 3% of submitted manuscripts for publication. Furthermore, they have an outstanding reputation in the industry and with their authors. The acquisitions editor called me. This is the voicemail she left on my phone, verbatim: “Hi, Tiffini. I have spent the last few days reviewing your manuscript. Your writing is just beautiful. You’re very engaging, and I love the way you’ve handled this very difficult subject matter. We are very interested in this project and would like to offer you a publishing contract. I will shoot you an e-mail with further information, but I’m also having the formal offer mailed to you today, so you should receive it on Monday….” She followed this mind-boggling voicemail with an equally stunning e-mail, which read: “Tiffini – I just sent you a voicemail! Sweet little phone operator you have there :). Thank you for the submission of “The Character.” Since I started doing my review of it, I have been unable to stop reading!! The writing is breath-taking and the story….it hurts my heart to read. But you’ve done a beautiful job with even the most difficult scenes. I’ve also checked out your website and am very impressed with what you’ve done so far with marketing. We are very interested in picking up this manuscript and I’m pleased to offer you a publishing contract for “The Character.” The formal offer is being UPS-ed to you today, so you can look for it on Monday. Please take your time to review the contract and let me know when you have questions. We look forward to working with you!”
Most writers work forever to obtain a publishing house. You pretty much have to have an agent, who may, or may not, be able to bring on board a house. If you’re a first-time author, who has already given away first rights by self-publishing a title, you can pretty much forget about it. I gave a half-hearted effort at finding a traditional publishing house for “The Character.” Frankly, I’d seen enough “pink slips” for “Mountains of Hope” to make me wonder if my writing was any better than a high schoolers. I’d taken very harsh criticism of it, and did not think I could emotionally handle being lashed out at for the content of this book. It is a sensitive subject with a distinct audience. I knew that, and I knew that the reaction of a publishing house could easily break my heart into a thousand pieces. Frankly, I didn’t want to risk it. Self-publishing allowed me to have full control (I like control): I designed the cover, I marketed it, if someone criticized it, it would not be the opinion of a respected publishing house editor who would, I feared, rip the book the shreds. I sent the book the handful of houses that I thought might accept a book like this one, and then decided that I was fine without a house. The book was selling, reviews were beyond my imaginings, and all was good. I didn’t really try, not nearly as hard as I did with “Mountains of Hope.” All my efforts have gone into marketing the book with the limited resources I have.
But the feeling that this book was bigger than me, and bigger than the conservative expectations I had for it, lingered. Jeremiah 29:11 reads: “I have plans for you, declares the Lord.” This is His book. This is His work. I didn’t write this book the way I have always written: it’s the only one recorded in first person (I was terrified, and very reluctant, to writing a first person novel). It’s the shortest one. It’s the most intense, and close to home. Several of the events in the book are my memories. God directed me to write this book, He gave me the necessary encouragement (Ash), He told me which scenes to write and when to write them, He gave me the plot and, most importantly, He held my hand through the writing so I would have the courage not to abandon it altogether. And He led me to this house, and made me submit it despite my fears. His timing is perfect. He put the book in the hands of the person who needed to read it. All I see is my little world, the familiar faces at church, the ones at the girls’ classes. In every direction, my vision eventually runs out and i can’t see what’s over the hill. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next half hour. And I don’t know the name of every person who needs help. Some of the people I do know need help, but I don’t know about it. Moreover, even f I did know the name of every person who needed help, I wouldn’t be able to help them all. I wouldn’t even be able to help most of them.
But God sees all. He knows the name and the story of the woman in Alaska who needs to read The Character. He knows the name of the teenage boy in Nevada who needs it. He knows the name of the girl in New York who doesn’t need it today, but will next year. He knows the name of the woman in Hawaii who needs it. It’s not that I think my writing is powerful, it’s that I know He is. He can take something ordinary and transform it into something that’s …. well…. extraordinary. I don’t know what His plans are for The Character. It’s doubtful that I’ll ever be asked for an interview by Oprah. I doubt one Sunday night I’ll be listening as Andy Rooney makes a review of the work. God doesn’t need television, and He doesn’t need fame. I think what He wants is the book printed so that people I don’t know will pick it up. And, beyond that….He loves me and He knows that the glowing opinion of a publishing house editor makes me feel, possibly for the first time, like a truly respected author. He knows that that heals things deep within me. He knows that the promotion of this book would require me to talk about its subject and my past, and would further heal pieces of my heart.
My heart has been bleeding—sometimes profusely, sometimes hardly at all—since I was the little girl who was afraid to speak. What gave me the greatest solace was believing that God was still there, still watching. I never doubted that He held my hand. But I thought that the great plan the Bible told me He had required me to work: I thought it was going to be in the volunteer work I did with the kids. I thought it was going to be me reaching out to someone else. For some reason, I didn’t really believe that the plan would be this beautiful gift from God to me. I always thought of myself as some kind of assistant to God: He told me what to do, I did it, and people felt better. I felt better knowing that I helped others feel better. And that, I thought, was the plan.
But the life that “The Character” has been given makes me think otherwise. I was happy that I’d been given Breathe and Alight: they are my biggest gifts, and I thought they were the primary ones. In short, I never saw this coming.
God is the God of power. But He’s more than that. He’s also the God of compassion, and that brings tears to my eyes. What was sometimes hard for me to remember was that, in addition to all the things that He is, He is primarily the friend that everybody wants. And just like a friend, He cares about my heart and about righting the hurt. We all know that you can be traumatized after an event, but somehow, we think you’re supposed to heal within a certain amount of time. Life moves on, and you’re expected to move on too. I’m good at playing catch-up. I can use my shoulder to push through the pain, find constructive ways of dealing with it, spend my spare time waiting for an Ash to show up and tell me what to write to ease the nightmare. And I never forget that God is there, and that His eyes are perfect.
I don’t know what God’s plan is for this book.
I don’t know what He sees that I don’t.
I don’t know if His reason for giving me this publishing contract with this Christian house is because He is trying to, once and for all, stop the bleeding or if it’s because there’s someone out there that could be helped by knowing she’s not alone. Maybe it’s both. Maybe it’s for a completely different purpose. I don’t know. But I do know that this is His work, this is His book. I happily acknowledge that I did all I could do — but that doesn’t deserve recognition: it was just a wrinkle in the pond. God only does good, He doesn’t do anything that’s not good. He gave me a spirit of faith that has helped keep my trust in Him strong, even when things were ridiculously hard. While I’m human and I don’t always follow it, and while, regrettably, I’m sure I often behave in ways that cause Him sadness, He gave me the ability to recognize His voice, and the courage to often follow it. I cannot express how grateful I am for that. Happiness is something that can come from any number of sources. I was very happy when I received that e-mail and that voicemail. I am happy every day when I wake up and see my girls. Sometimes happiness is complete absent from my life. There have been seasons where happiness seemed to run from me, every time I’d get close to it, always staying just beyond my reach. But joy is something different. Joy is peace: it’s knowing that even when I’m sad, even when I cry, God is at work and, as long as I trust Him, and hand it to Him, happiness will circle its way back to my face. Joy is the reassurance that I’m safe, and the only one that can make me truly safe is God. Joy comes from not from simply knowing but believing simple truths, like there is One who is waiting to uphold His promises, like the one that says, “Come to Me, all of you who are heavy burden, and I will give you rest.”
My writings are precious to me. They mean a lot, they are my way of clinging to something good through the storms. Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain: writing is my way of dancing, despite the thunderstorm that may surround me. I did not create writing. And the success of The Character is not my doing. I’ve accepted all the credit I can take. It isn’t fair of me to shine in the limelight when Abba is the one who gave me the inspiration and the courage to complete it. Without those ingredients, the book never would have been written.
And, now, it’s my turn to write a fan letter to God.
Thank You for your comfort, thank You for this book, thank You for the plan You have for it and for letting me be a part of this plan. Thank You for the healing that this book has brought to me and to anyone else whose life it may have enriched. Thank You for dreaming bigger than I do, and for aligning things, in Your perfect timing, to make those dreams reality. You are mighty and strong, but, right now, I thank You for being gentle and compassionate and sweet. Thank You for keeping Your word, and for letting me watch as Your dream unfolds. Though I know it’s Your word to me, tonight, my heart sings Isaiah 55:12 back to You, a reminder of what You give, and how beautiful You are:: “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hill will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.”