You learn a lot if you write a book. And some of what you learn is about the subject matter. Putting it all down coherently makes you see the gaps in your knowledge.
But you learn more about yourself. You discover new levels of self-doubt. ‘Why did I ever think I could do this?’
You are soon back at school, thinking of excuses for not handing in your homework on time. You learn how very easily distracted you can be. And how easily pleased. Only to be disappointed again when you read your genius passage through the next morning.
The process of writing involves self-discovery of the most humbling kind. ‘Now I know why there are so few books on this subject’ you say to yourself – again, and again and again.
And you learn about others. You learn about the people you share your life with and their capacity to be loving and supportive and encouraging. You marvel as you see them express an interest in yet another micro-iteration of an idea that lost its shine some while ago. And you learn about your editor’s tact and wisdom and patience. Well, how do they put up with writers??
It’s when you try to write that other authors, real ones, rocket in your estimation. Anyone who has published something longer than 4,000 words is your hero. You read other people’s books with eyes open wide in stunned disbelief – ‘how did they do that!’ You read a single chapter – ‘wow!’ You read sentences and wonder at how so much was crafted into so few words so elegantly. And then you return to your own lumpen, tired and turgid prose and blush with the anticipated embarrassment that one day people might read this stuff.
My first book, Barefoot Disicple, had been commissioned by the Archbishop of Canterbury as his Lent Book for 2011. No pressure, then. Sooner or later the archiepiscopal eye would be cast over the whole thing and the Foreword written. Of course it felt like waiting for an essay to be marked.
I read the Foreword on a computer terminal in a cupboard in a London retreat house. I remember walking away afterwards; my feet hardly touching the ground. Heavy irony here: the book was about having your bare feet firmly on the ground. Hubris was just down the corridor. I thought myself out of it. ‘What about the reviewers?’ I asked myself. ‘What about the real readers? What will they think?’ I was down to earth again with a bump. The right place to be.
Six months later it was published. Then there was the launch. It was a celebration. But none of it was about the content, the words. It was about the existence of the book. Suddenly, it was born. Da-da!
As if. The struggle forgotten, I had to learn how to sign copies. Signing it seemed like cutting an umbilical cord. No wonder my signature was shaky.
After a while emails and cards from readers, strangers to me mostly, began to arrive. Now it began to feel real. People writing back. People taking part. The book was living its own life. Not only born but grown-up and wandering free. We were both liberated.
Someone sent me the notes she had written after each session her Lent group had spent with the book. A few days later she emailed again. ‘I forgot to send you the prayer,’ she wrote. And there is was, A Prayer for Barefoot Disciples. Astonishing. The heart of the book transposed to the language of prayer. What better fulfilment might any text have?
Here is the prayer. The whole book in one sentence, fourteen short lines. How did she do that! I don’t know. But I am delighted, Sue Page, that you did. Thank you.
A Prayer for Barefoot Disciples
Lord Jesus Christ,
we follow you
as you empty yourself of power,
gaze into the eyes of need and pain,
and tread the way of humility
all the way to the Cross.
Teach us how to walk,
shedding the shoes of pride and conceit,
ceasing to complain,
delighting in the life you offer
and learning more of what it is to be humbly open
and alive in your love.
We ask this in the name of Your Father
and the power of Your Spirit.