Amanda Cleary Eastep
The 2018 Festival of Faith and Writing began with a BAM and a YES as poet and Newbery Medal recipient Kwame Alexander hooked nearly 2,000 writers, readers, and educators and sucked us in like the swift and thoughtful free verse of his young adult novels. His own story–that of his upbringing as the son of professors and bibliophiles and of his journey, not only to publication but to Newbery author status–shook me up.
I felt a little like I imagined he did after the car accident that rolled Kwame and his family over and over on the road one day, sending boxes of his father’s beloved books for the city book fair strewn across the road like litter but, thankfully, sparing all of the most important characters.
He shared the importance of saying Yes–to opportunities, certainly, but more so saying yes to your words and to your work. In doing that during his writer’s journey, he exhibited a dedication and determination that writers (and anyone else pursuing a goal or calling) need to have as much as they need to have creativity or skills or sharp pencils.
As he relayed the story of the time he needed to support his wife and children and traveled up and down the east coast selling his books at farmers’ markets, I guarantee all of us imagined ourselves behind a folding table, maybe with a colorful banner and bowl of bite-size Snickers, wondering if that sales tactic could work for us.
But, of course, it probably wouldn’t. Because that’s Kwame’s story. Mine would look different (maybe like how my dad used to sell my band fundraiser candy at work).
Yet, what I could take from Kwame’s experience to inspire my own was his belief in the value of his work. (A belief tinged with some arrogance, perhaps, as he admitted to not realizing the equal value of the early tutelage of his college professor, poet Nikki Giovanni.)
Whether or not we writers believe in our work or not, we do often believe God (or cosmic compulsion) has called us to write. And as much as that may be true, a call to write doesn’t always lead to publication.
Herein, lies a lesson in humility.
In her book Humble Roots, Hannah Anderson talks about how a “sinking down,” or true humility, can actually lead to confidence. She also explains that our emotions are not the measure of God’s call.
Your belief that God couldn’t possibly call you to write or evangelize or advocate for children in foster care means nothing, especially when we’re talking about a God who routinely does above and beyond all that we can ask or think. By the same token, your belief that you should preach or plant a church or lead a social media empire means nothing, especially if you lack gifting, [why do early episodes of American Idol spring to my mind?] experience consistent failure, and are regularly told to seek a different path.
Emotional humility–understanding that God is greater than our heart–solves both these extremes. Humility reminds us that the lack of confidence does not determine whether God has gifted us and called us. Humility also reminds us that the presence of confidence does not mean that God has gifted us and called us.
The majority of successful writers, I would guess, aren’t factoring God into anything, and many wouldn’t exactly be described as humble. And who doesn’t love stories of now famous writers who suffered scores of rejections before their books eventually became classics? In fact, most writers will realize some measure of success (however we measure that) sheerly through the hard work of writing and marketing ourselves.
But if you’re a writer and a follower of Christ, it can become easy to form so many little gods.
The god of the number of your social media followers (kind of ironic).
Of your words (your editor will be the first to pull down that idol).
And even of your dreams.
Does this mean God is a dream killer? A big meany dictating rejection letters into the ears of unsuspecting acquisitions editors? No.
But I do imagine God being a lot like Kwame Alexander’s father. He surrounded his son with gifts…of books and words and reading and story…
To the point that Kwame hated books.
Saw his father’s gifts as punishment.
Grumbled against him when–after they had all crawled out of their upside-down car safe and sound–his father made him gather up all those precious books scattered across the highway so eventually they could be delivered to kids who lived without.
As he grew up, Kwame pursued a different path, until one day in college, he realized it was time to say Yes…
To writing (organic chemistry will do that to a person)…to his calling…and to his father.
The day Kwame won the 2015 Newbery Medal for his book The Crossover, he called his father to tell him the big news.
“Dad, I won the Newbery!” he said.
To which his father replied, “Yeah! We did it.”