What Writing Means to Me (Part 6)

(Continued from Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.)

Prefatory Note: In the last couple posts of this series, I have been telling things that happened 7-8 years ago, when I was a junior in college, recently married, and discovering my desire to write and edit books. I was also starting to get my life flipped upside-down spiritually. (And in every other way, I should say. Can anything not be termed spiritual?) In this installment here, you'll find that we've taken a significant leap forward in time. I am telling about things that happened about a year and a half ago, when I was recently divorced and had been turning my interests to the more intellectual life of the written word. Where this story picks up, I have no longer been asking questions about my dreams for a writing life. Those were dreams that, I guess you could say, had gone safely underground.

About a year and a half ago, I attended a C.S. Lewis conference in Oxford and Cambridge, England. (You can learn more about that conference here.) Before I went to the conference, I had been planning for my life to be about academics -- first with a PhD stint in literature, then on to a teaching post at university, and then on to writing articles that would extend the literary conversation in those academic circles forever and ever, amen.

But I had, a few months prior to the conference, been denied a graduate studies spot at Baylor University. This had rocked my world at its core and left me aimless, confused, and even despairing. I had just come out of a divorce and was living on my own for the first time in my life. I was loving it, as I was getting to make my own decisions about how to spend money, spend time, and spend life. I was getting to decide what my life was going to be about, and I had decided that it would be about academia -- something I had always done well.

In pursuing this goal in the preceding months, I had turned my interest in the novel on its head and decided to pursue programs that would let me think and write about how our theologies of creation affect our theories of creativity about the novel. With a proper determination to do things "right," I proceeded to conduct all the appropriate online research for schools, write all the appropriate e-mails to faculty, and even take a few of the appropriate out-of-state jaunts to visit programs I liked. After all that work, I was positive Baylor was the place for me. I was, I thought, finally on my way to the life God had always wanted for me.

Until I got denied entrance.

Like I said, this completely unglued me. I started questioning all the things you're bound to question in these sorts of situations. Things like "Did I misread God? Do I really know how to hear His voice? Will I ever be able to trust myself to make a big decision again? Does He even care about me anyway? How could He let me get so lost?"

When I had the opportunity about five months later to attend this study conference in England, then -- a conference that was academic at its core and filled with opportunities to hear from PhD after PhD after PhD -- I was ecstatic and intensely hopeful that something meaningful would come from it. I was still caught up in my hopes for an academic life of teaching and writing journal articles. And I was especially excited to learn that the keynote speaker was none other than one of the key figures from Baylor who had drawn me to study there in the first place. I looked forward to connecting with him again and learning from his lecture.

Once I got there, however, God had other plans in mind. The plenary sessions with the PhDs began, and my heart dried up to a crisp. The academic life became dead to me, right then and there, as I sat in my cushioned seat at St. Aldates. What real impact could it have, I wondered, when there are people walking up and down the street outside these doors who just need a real conversation? Who needs the theoretical jargon when it comes to connecting with very real people living very real lives?

It all started to crumble around me, right there on that very first morning, and after that first lecture I sat in my chair and began to cry. At this point, Kirk was good enough to lead me out of the building and down the road to the nearest coffeeshop in order to disassemble what was going on inside of me. Basically, I sat there crying and staring at my dried-up heart on the table until I was finally able to ask the question, Could God really pick my life apart yet again? (And the obvious answer is, of course He could.)

As the conference went on, I realized I was absolutely willing to let Him pick my life apart again, but who even knew what that meant? I thought about C.S. Lewis -- the man around whom this conference had been inspired -- and marveled at his ability to write for the common man. Here was this brilliant man who studied at Oxford and taught at Cambridge but published books that almost anyone can pick up and read and get even today. His books change real lives. They are so accessible, even though they're so smart. There has to be a way to reach more people the way he did, I thought, and I want to be someone who does.

And just like that, my life changed. Gone were my illusions of a life in academia. Gone were my intentions to dissect the classics until I could do nothing but eat, breathe, and sleep them. Gone were my desires to get caught up in conversations only 1 percent of the world was likely to join. I wanted to find the source of bubbling life and offer it to everyone else!

Kirk was a Godsend at that conference (for more reasons than one), particularly by the way he helped me step into my new skin through this whole process. On my own, I wasn't really able to see what all this was supposed to mean. But a couple days into the conference, when we were walking behind Christ Church toward an outdoor French cafe for lunch and talking about how our individual experiences of this conference were blowing the roof off the measly ideas we'd had for our lives beforehand, he asked me to share what a day in my ideal life would look like. Though my idea of this ideal life has changed a little bit since then, at the time I said that I would spend my mornings reading books by great thinkers and jotting down thoughts and impressions about what they said in a journal and then spend my afternoons writing creatively, either in essay or story form.

"Hm. Interesting," he said. "And where would you find time to teach in this plan?"

Um, I guess I wouldn't. That's when I realized I had been trying to fit myself into the life of a college professor without having any real heart to actually do it.

The next week, when we stepped off the coach in Cambridge to begin the second week of the conference, I finally embraced my identity as a writer, and here's what I mean when I say that. Up to that point, whenever I thought of becoming a writer, it always felt like something I was putting on, like something I was trying to be, like a persona. But in the exact moment of stepping down from the coach onto the pavement, surrounded by the old, old buildings of the colleges and the fantastic shapes, sizes, and personalities of its old, old trees, I just knew: I am a writer.

It's not something to be proud or arrogant about. It's not something that makes my life more privileged. It's something that just . . . is.

Later that week, Kirk gave me an antique brooch that's a curio of (we've both decided) Jane Austen. It's diamond-shaped and silver, with the oval-shaped curio in ivory with a black background right in the center. I pinned it to the side breast pocket of my aquamarine-colored corduroy jacket, where it remains to this day. Every time I wear that jacket, which I have since named my "writer's jacket," I am reminded of that transformative moment stepping off the coach in Cambridge and Kirk's good heart toward me in God's surprising plans for my life.