Recently my phone chimed with a message from a friend. It was one sentence: “Why did you write a book?” Such a seemingly simple question, but I thought about it all day before answering. There are so many reasons I wrote my first book, and few of them are simple to explain. I loved to read from a very young age, and loving books led me to want to be an author. That one’s pretty easy. But the whys of writing this particular book get more complicated.
I began writing Being Called Chaplain in early 2009, but I had no idea then that it was going to be an actual book, one other people would read. At that time I was writing because I had to; I could do nothing else. My world was in turmoil. My faith was in tatters. I was a few months into my first real job, in a new city where I had known no one before moving there, and within two weeks I suffered the deaths of two people I loved dearly. One was a pediatric patient I had been visiting for months in the hospital where I served (and still do) as chaplain, and the other was one of my favorite seminary professors and a good friend. When I lost them, all my usual coping mechanisms felt insufficient. I didn’t know what to do, what to say. My counselor at the time suggested writing a letter to the deceased, so I did. And once I started writing, I couldn’t stop. I wrote a response to my letter from my friend’s perspective, as I imagined he would write it. I wrote to God all the things that felt scandalous to say out loud, all my anger and fear and doubt.
The writing helped. Singer Anna Nalick wrote in her song, “Breathe,” words that describe my experience perfectly: “If I get it all down on paper it’s no longer inside of me, threatening the life it belongs to.” That’s how I felt in those early days. I wasn’t writing because I wanted to be an author at that point; I was writing because getting all that was inside of me down on paper felt like the only way to survive it. Then one night I went to a meeting of the writers’ group I had joined not long before, and since I hadn’t written anything else in weeks, I shared with them some of that raw therapeutic writing I was doing. Their response surprised me. They were beyond encouraging. Some of them said exactly what I didn’t even know I needed most to hear. What they said was, essentially, “Me too.” And suddenly I didn’t feel so alone.
Have you ever felt that way when you hear a song, or read a book, or watch a movie, or look at a painting – that the artist somehow knew exactly what you were feeling and brought it to life? It’s an exhilarating experience, the feeling of being exposed and recognized and embraced and understood all at once. I’d had that feeling a few times, but always as the one on the receiving end of the art. This was the first time I got to experience it as the one creating the art for others. Immediately I was hooked. I dared to think maybe there were other people outside my writers’ group who might connect with what I wrote, who might need that “Me too” experience as well. I listened to the feedback of my fellow writers, and began crafting those naked thoughts into something that could one day perhaps be a book.
And it turns out I was right. On a pretty regular basis, I get messages from people who have read Being Called Chaplain. Some of them I’ve met in real life; some I haven’t and likely never will. But all of them had felt or thought some of the things I admitted to thinking and feeling in the book. And reading my experiences let them know they weren’t the only ones, that even ministers go through these things and we’re allowed to say so. As one recent reader wrote to me, “I loved your book mostly because of how real you were, saying things that most people keep hidden for fear of their vulnerability and what others will think of them. And, of course, I love the prayers you spoke. I will think of you when I get stuck or nervous.” When I get stuck or nervous, I often call to mind the words of Anne Lamott or Frederick Buechner or Kate Braestrup or other authors I love. The fact that some stranger out there will be thinking of my words to get them unstuck, well, that’s just nothing short of magical. It’s what keeps me writing.