Living a Life That Has No Rational Explanation
Maile and I stood in the kitchen, February sunlight streaming through the windows. We were reviewing our current and near-future financial situation. Andy Squyres song, “You Bring the Morning,” played in the background:
You bring the mountain so I have somewhere to wander
You bring the ocean so I can walk on water
You bring the wilderness so I can learn to hunger
I feel you like a phantom I can't explain your wonder
I listed off the various projects I have lined up, enough to get us through May. Optimistically. A few months. Ish. I can’t really explain to you where the work has come from, almost continuously, for the last fourteen years. I’ve never figured out a good way to market my co-writing services, not in a way that gets a return. All I do is work hard and wait and hope.
I have young writers who ask me how to make a living as a writer, and when I give them the real answer, that I kind of have no idea, that it’s a lot of waiting and hoping and sometimes doing other odd jobs to pay the bills, they look at me with skepticism, like I’m hiding the map that leads to buried treasure.
“But where do you find these projects?” they ask. “Where do you get work?”
I sigh. “Word of mouth?” I suggest. “Write a lot?”
“How is this life even possible?” Maile asks, shaking her head in disbelief, looking over our income and expenses for the next few months. “How can a family of eight live like this?”
“I don’t know.”
“Seriously, though,” she says, half laughing, half desperate for an answer. “Only insane people live like this.”
Back in 2017 or 2018, when the work was not coming in continuously, I remember revising almost the entirety of my novel These Nameless Things in between Uber and Lyft fares, parking in the shadows of a Lancaster or Philadelphia side street, resting my laptop on my legs, and wrestling with the fate of a man who lived at the edge of Dante’s Inferno.
Those were long nights.
I remember so many times, when we were getting down to the end of my last month’s payment for a project with no income on the horizon, I would get a random call from some stranger saying they heard I help people write their life stories and would I help them and yes they know it costs a lot of money but they want to go ahead with it. And I’d show up and they’d give me, a stranger, a large check and then I’d work with them for six months.
Or a publisher would call. Or a literary agent. Their client needed help writing their book. Could I step in?
And Maile and I would just shake our heads and laugh and wonder if it’s actually possible to live a life like this. Not just a few years, but an entire life, with all its varying seasons.
There are wonderful upsides to this life. There are days at home with Maile and the kids, afternoons of reading, days when I meet with friends over coffee or get to work on a novel all day long. It’s a dream.
But in exchange for that comes the uncertainty. Children in college and school activities and an unexpected colonoscopy or dental appointment that takes a chunk of change. The never knowing for sure where next month’s paycheck might come from, or the next, or the next. And even when I manage to have six months’ income lined up, there’s always the knowledge of that endpoint, and questions about where the next project might come from.
The current end date is always in the back of my mind, always drawing closer.
At the end of the day, if this life of ours that we’ve cobbled together is nothing else, it is a life of trusting God. One of our favorite quotes, a motto really, comes from Brennan Manning’s book, Ruthless Trust:
“The way of trust is a movement into obscurity, into the undefined, into ambiguity, not into some predetermined, clearly delineated plan for the future. The next step discloses itself only out of a discernment of God acting in the desert of the present moment. The reality of naked trust is the life of the pilgrim who leaves what is nailed down, obvious, and secure, and walks into the unknown without any rational explanation to justify the decision or guarantee the future. Why? Because God has signaled the movement and offered it his presence and his promise.”
And then there’s the inspiration for the name of this Substack page, from John Irving’s book A Prayer for Owen Meany:
“If you’re lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it.”
Last night, I left a session with a client, feeling the pressure of only a few months’ income remaining. I prayed hard all the way home, and when I pray these days it looks and sounds like this: You know the situation God. You know what we need. If you want me to get a normal job, I will. But we’re trusting you’ve got this under control. It sure would be nice if one of these potential projects would come through.
Last night at midnight I got a text from a potential client. They want to move forward, want to get started as soon as possible.
To be fair, I have prayed that prayer many times before and all I’ve heard was silence. But in that moment, I laughed, shook my head in something like disbelief, and showed Maile the screen of my phone with the text on it. I didn’t even say anything, just held it up so she could read it. She laughed.
And we walk on, without any rational explanation. Trying to find the courage to live it.
After reading my friend Lore Wilbert’s most recent post, I realize I also have this to say: Thank you. To you, to everyone who has read my stuff over the years. From when I started blogging in 2010 to when you showed up and helped fund my first self-published book to when I released five novels and a memoir in five years. And to those of you who pay your $7 every month to read this little corner of the internet. Especially to you. Some of you have been along on this ride for many, many years. And I appreciate you.
If you happen to get over to The Speckled Hen in Strasburg, you might notice that our daughter Lucy’s very first art show is taking place there. Here are a few of the pieces that are hanging on the walls, all of them for sale. She’d be absolutely thrilled if you’d swing by there and purchase one.
I love, love, love this. All blessings to you and Maile and the whole Smucker clan.
This is so relatable. We don’t make a living from writing, but could easily describe our life as one “with no rational explanation”. There have been so many moments of wondering how it’s going to work, but also so many moments of miraculous provision. It reminds me of talking to one of our mentor couples and the wife speaking wistfully of their poor seminary days, not because it was enjoyable to be financially insecure, but because actively trusting God and seeing him provide in such tangible ways is pretty amazing (even when it’s also amazingly uncomfortable).