Soaring with eagles, walking with emus

Listen to the keynote talk

While this was delivered at writers’ conferences, it’s applicable to any career whether pastor, plumber or pyromaniac. Just mentally edit in your particular vocation.

I love roller coasters. I especially love Cedar Point’s Millennium Force It’s one of the longest, fastest, tallest coasters with the steepest drop. It soars to a height of 310 feet then it drops along with your stomach 300-foot at 93 mph! So, when you consider you can wait in line three hours for a five-minute ride you have to be a die-hard roller-coaster lover.

But it’s a pretty good metaphor for publishing! Like the tallest, fastest roller coasters on earth, there’s alwyas a very long wait and once you finally get in the “published-author” car, it’s filled with ups and down, highs and lows and more long waits in line. So, the best advice: Remain seated with arms and legs inside car at all times because it’s going to be a wild ride.

And we have no better precedent of the up and downs than Jesus Christ. His three-year “career” didn’t begin until age 30 and is roughly divided up by one year of obscurity, one year of popularity and one year of animosity. Today, fortunately, crucifixion is illegal in all 50 states but that fact doesn’t take away the excruciating pain of rejection! In fact Jesus quotes Psalm 118:22-23 in the gospels:

      “‘The stone the builders rejected
      has become the capstone;
      the Lord has done this,
      and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” (12:10-11).

So, consider yourself “Christ-like” if you’ve been rejected! Before God can do something “marvelous,” expect rejection and a long wait in line.

My first book came out in 1986, but it wasn’t until the turn of the century that I got picked up by major publishers, appeared on the national TV and radio shows, traveled internationally to Africa, Asia, Australia and throughout US of A, and appeared on the platform with the likes of Liz Curtis Higgs, Jerry Jenkins, Max Lucado, Francine Rivers and Philip Yancey.

But after a very brief time at 310 feet, I and my stomach went hurtling back to obscurity at 93 mph! The Bible describes those highs and lows in Isaiah 40:29-31:

      He gives power to the weak
      and strength to the powerless.
      Even youths will become weak and tired,
      and young men will fall in exhaustion.

      But those who trust in the Lord will find
      new strength.
      They will soar high on wings like eagles.
      They will run and not grow weary.
      They will walk and not faint (Isaiah 40:29-31).

Yes, there are times we “soar high on wings like eagles.” But we spend most of our time, as writers and speakers firmly on the ground . . . walking. And walking is so . . . well, pedestrian.

And so, even if we have moments of soaring with eagles, most of the time, we’re on the ground walking with emus.

So, in the spirit of full disclosure, I want to talk about soaring with eagles and walking with emus.

Emus are flightless birds from Australia. They top out at 6 feet 6 inches and weigh up to 100 pounds. The fastest humans can run up to 15 mph per hours, but emus easily run twice that speed.

So, we will spend our writing career running and walking with brief moments of soaring.

It’s hard to soar with eagles when you working with turkeys: And, of course, I’m referring to editors, marketers, publishers. I’m an editor, so I can say that.

In fact, the only difference between a publishing board and a pub is that people drinking make better decisions!

Here’s an example of drunken decisions at publishing houses Tuesday 12 students and 1 teacher were murdered, 21 wounded at Columbine High School Thursday my book on death for teens was pitched to the pub board of a very large publisher No-brainer, right? No! They said, “We don’t think teens are concerned about death.”

The pub board has obviously been drinking before five!

I’m not going to go as far as Mark Twain who famously said, “A publisher is by nature so low and vile that . . . I wish all publishers were in hell.” Publishers are fallen creatures like all of us and are facing tremendous financial pressure just to stay in business So they deserve our prayers and respect.

But here’s the good news: You probably won’t be as successful as you dream. That may not be good news, but God probably has an even better dream for you. And you definitely won’t be as unsuccessful as you fear. (God has a whole different definition of success and failure as we’ll discover later.)

So, here’s reality check number one:

1. We can’t control success, but we can control excellence

A lot of what is being published is “successful” in the sense that it sells well. But it’s not always “excellent” literarily or biblically. I won’t mention names, but some best-selling authors are not the best writing authors. And some “best-selling” authors are charlatans at best and heretics at worst!

So, sometimes we’re tempted to read a “best-seller” and think I can write a lot better than that Anyone want to confess that? And you’re probably right!

Karen Ball, an agent and former editor with B&H, Tyndale and Zondervan laments, “Christians are the first to accept mediocrity.”

Henri Nouwen, one of my favorite authors, told Christianity Today:

      The evangelical movement has become just a bit victimized by a success-oriented culture, wanting the church—like the corporation—to be successful. On that level, the mystical tradition of communion with Christ is important. “I am the vine, you are the branches. If you remain connected with me, then you will bear fruit.” The fruit is not success?’

So we can’t control success, but we can write with excellence!

And becoming an excellent writer is a long. long ride to the top of the roller coaster. Malcolm Gladwell, the author of Outliers claims it takes 10,000 hours of training to become good at one’s craft. That’s anyone: butcher, baker, candle stick maker and especially writer.

Here’s what novelist Gayle Roper has to say about success and excellence She, incidentally, describes herself as a “mediocre success.”

      Instead of my wanting to write a best-seller, I must want to be the best writer I can possibly be by the enabling of God. Notice that only God and I come into play in pursuing this goal. Since God is always dependable, my goal is attainable if I am faithful. I still might now sell many books, but I can be successful.

I fall into the “mediocre success” category as well. I’ve won a Campus Life Book of the Year award, a Christian Retailers Choice award for a book series, an Amy award for using Scripture in the secular media and four Evangelical Press Association awards for writing and editing and, still, I’ve never been on the best-seller list. So, I’m critically acclaimed and commercially ashamed!

I am encouraged, however, by Mary Lee Settles wisdom: “If you set out to work for money or fame, as Freud said writers did, then you should sell junk bonds or shoot somebody. It’s easier.”

So strive for excellence!

Here are some sub points for reality check one:

Success is based on comparison to other people’s performances. Excellence is based on comparison to Godly perfection. Philippians 4:9 commands to strive for things that are “excellent and praiseworthy. ” Not what people think are “excellent or praiseworthy.” There’s no reason that “Christian writing” can’t be better than “secular writing.” We serve the Creator of creativity. We have a Holy Ghost writer. So, there is absolutely no reason our writing should be inferior to the general market! Except for laziness in our craft and in our walk with God.

I’ll go further and say it is a sin to produce shoddy work for a holy God! And if you don’t agree, take it up with Jesus and His parable about the talents. He doesn’t just hand lazy writers a rejection slip, He, and I quote Matthew 25, “throws that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

So if we ever think This is good enough for a take-home paper, shame on us!

Success is based on changing public opinion. Excellence is based on long-standing standards. There’s a reason “rap” rhymes with “crap.” And there’s a reason Thomas ‘a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ has been on the best-sellers list for 500 years! Why? Because it’s based on rock-solid, biblical principles Most trendy, fad-ish books will be out of print before the ink dries’ Success is based on being at the right place at the right time, catching the cultural wave at the right point and having plain, dumb luck. Excellence is based on a lifetime of training and practice. Virginia Muir, the very first editor at Tyndale House, nails it: “Success is what others give you; excellence is what you give others.”

So, as we soar with eagles and walk with emus remember: we can’t control success, but we can control excellence.

Action point:

We need to be constantly . . .
reading excellent books
reading books on writing with excellence
having our writing critiqued
attending writers conferences
and never, ever being content with what we have written.

If you are content when the book or article comes out a year later, then, you have not grown as a author—or a person—in 365 days.

Reality check number 2:

2. We can’t control altitude, but we can control attitude.

An ancient fable teaches that birds were created without wings, One day God came by and asked the birds to carry a burden It was heavy, awkward, a real burden. But the birds that willing accepted the Lord’s burden, began to feel the burden burrow into their backs and in time, they learned the purpose of the burden: It was a pair of wings that allowed them to soar!

The other birds, who refused to accept their burden remained as flightless birds: ostriches, emus and dodos.

How do we accept the burdens God places on our backs? Do we chafe at the “burden” or allow God to graciously turn them into wings? Our attitude determines our altitude!

One of the reasons that Thomas ‘a Kempis is a best-selling author 500 years after his death is that he spoke timeless truth.

Here’s how Donald Demaray paraphrases one of his letters about attitudes . . .

      In the original ‘a Kempis continues . . .

          A man who loves You and recognizes Your benefits, therefore, should be gladdened by nothing so much as by Your will, by the good pleasure of Your eternal decree. With this he should be so contented and consoled that he would wish to be the least as others wish to be the greatest; that he would be as peaceful and satisfied in the last place as in the first, and as willing to be despised, unknown and forgotten, as to be honored by others and to have more fame than they. He should prefer Your will and the love of Your honor to all else, and it should comfort him more than all the benefits which have been, or will be, given him (3.22).

      I read that after my first big dip in 1998. In 1997, Death & Beyond went into a second printing in just a month. One year later, it sold “negative” numbers I called my editor at Tyndale. “How can a book sell negative numbers?!” She calmly replied, “More bookstores sent it back than sold it.”

      In 1997, I signed with one of the largest Christian booking agencies. One year later, they had booked one speaking engagement . . . at a tiny church.

      In 1997 I had four music publishers interested in my work. One year later, four rejection slips.

      And to be perfectly honest, I had a rotten attitude! So, Thomas a’ Kempus’ advice that I should be “willing to be despised, unknown and forgotten” was a knife to the heart! It was one of those Hebrews 12:11 moments: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”

      Sometimes—often for me—God clips our wings and we find ourselves flat on our tail feathers. Or as my dad used to say—often: “Straighten up and fly right.”

      And so, John Grisham, who by any standard is a high-flying novelist, told Christianity Today:

      We’ve always had the attitude that the fame is temporary. It’s very much like the career of an athlete. There are some good years and bad years, but one of these days it will be over, and we’ve always said that we hoped we would look back and say it was fun while it lasted, we kept our feet on the ground, we didn’t change, and it’s time to go on to something else.

      Sometimes I wonder if God has kept me low to the ground most of my so-called “writing career” so I can be an encouragement to those on the ground as well. A soaring eagle isn’t a lot of encouragement to a walking emu. My best ministry has been when I’ve been my most miserable. Isn’t that encouraging?!

      And, even more important, does God know I couldn’t take high altitudes for very long? It’s much safer on the ground!

      So, here’s reality check 2a: God is less concerned about our written work, than our righteousness; less concerned about our sales calculations than our sanctification.

      J.I. Packer, who is an “eagle” in Christian publishing, writes in Rediscovering Holiness:

          We grow up into Christ by growing down into lowliness. . . . Off-loading our fantasies of omnicompetence. . . . We give up our dreams of being greatly admired for doing wonderfully well . . . recogniz[ing] that we are not likely ever to appear, or actually to be, much of a success by the world’s standards. So the Christian will practice curling up small, as it were, so that in and through him or her the Savior may show himself great. That is what I mean by growing downward.

      And this from Dallas Willard, another high-flying author:

          People who are discontented and angry at God about their day of small things miss the chance for God to do something. Wherever we are—no matter how small or despised that place may be, that is where God can use us and bless us. We may not achieve the dreams of our youth, but we can be sure God will bring us into the dreams he has for us.

      Action point:

      We need send as much time . . .
      praying as writing
      studying God’s Word as studying the markets
      fasting as networking

      Reality check number 3:

      3. We can’t control the harvest, but we can control the sowing.

      If you have your Bible, turn to Matthew 13. I’m reading from the New Living Amplified King James Watkins Version.

          And Jesus spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a writer went forth to present his book proposal.

          And as he pitched, behold, some received in reply, “Yea and verily, thou manuscript doth not suit our editorial needs at this time.” Some proposals were accepted by the acquirer of manuscripts and did hence journey onto the board of publications, but were devoured by the marketing minions.

          And yea, some did triumph over the board of publication and went onto publication and sprang forth, but withered and died in the first printing.

          And some fell among reviewers and the reviewers sprang up and choked them.

          But a few fell onto a fertile demographic market and brought forth sales of a thousand fold and some one hundred thousand fold.

      Sounds similar to the writer of Ecclesiastes who notes:

          Whoever watches the wind will not plant;
          whoever looks at the clouds will not reap.
          As you do not know the path of the wind,
          or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb,
          so you cannot understand the work of God,
          the Maker of all things.

          Sow your seed in the morning,
          and at evening let your hands not be idle,
          for you do not know which will succeed,
          whether this or that,
          or whether both will do equally well (Ecclesiastes 11:4-6).

      Bottom line, you have to sow before you can soar.

      Someone said, “You will miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” (Sounds like something basketball coaching great John Wooden would say. So be persistent. Keep sowing seeds. And most of the time, you’ll be doing more sowing than soaring.

      But keep this in mind: The president of Honda Motors, a fairly successful company, claims 99 percent of their research and development fails.

      Babe Ruth who holds baseball’s record for home runs, also holds the record for most strike outs.

      Thomas Edison failed 10,000 times before successfully creating the incandescent light bulb.

      And from the world of writing these stories of rejections:

      “We regret to say that our united opinion is entirely against the book as we do not think it would be at all suitable for the Juvenile Market in (England). It is very long, rather old-fashioned. . . .”
      Herman Melville’s Moby Dick

      “The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.”
      The Diary of Anne Frank

      “It would be extremely rotten taste, to say nothing of being horribly cruel, should we want to publish it.”
      Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Torrents of Spring

      “. . . the book is much too long. There are too many long speeches. I regret to say that the book is unsaleable and unpublishable.”
      Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind

      And this book went to be listed as one of the most influential books of the twentieth century,but was rejected 38 times!
      Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged

      His work was rejected by 16 agents and a dozen publishers before a tiny publisher agreed to print 5,000 copies of his first novel—most of which were sold from the trunk of his car.
      John Grisham’s A Time to Kill

      There are hundreds more examples of books that were panned before they were published including Christian authors:

      Madeliene L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time

      Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness

      And William Paul Young who finally gave up looking for a publisher and self-published 7 million copies of The Shack!

      So, we can’t control the harvest, but we can control the sowing. Not only do we need to constantly striving for excellence, but . . .

      Action point:

      We need to be constantly . .

      Finally, reality check number 4:

      4. We can’t control eternal effectiveness, but we can control earthly efforts

      Most of our writing is like shooting hoops blindfolded . . . in the dark. We occasionally hear the basketball “swoosh” through the hoop but mostly we have no clue if we’re hitting the backboard or the side of the house.

      But here’s the deal: You can’t write effectively unless you’re writing! Keep writing!

      And remember, you’ll miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t make.

      So, once again from the NLAKJWV, 2 Corinthians 4:16-18:

          For which cause we faint not, but though outwardly, we are facing rejection upon rejection, yet in our faithful writing we are renewed day by day.

          For our light and momentary affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding eternal weight of glory.

          Therefore, we look not at rejection slips and sales figures which are seen, but at the things which are not seen, for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

      Here’s proof of that: Remember my book on death that sold negative numbers. It was picked up by another publisher and released. I received this email several years later:

          I purchased your three The Why Files books in New Orleans this past January when I was there for youth workers training. I have read all three and continue to loan them out to youth who have questions. God has used you in an awesome way. I wanted to share a special way He has used you, though. I read The Why Files: Is There Really Life After Death? because of a house fire in our community which claimed the life of a mother and three of her children. I wanted a better handle on the grief I knew our youth here would be feeling. I know as a Christian the victory Christ has won for us, but you never know what questions teens will throw out at you and I wanted to be ready.

          I finished the book on May 23 and that evening two of my daughters were involved in an automobile accident. Sarah, 20, is home recovering; Jennifer, 19, was called home. Over the last few months, many of the parts of your book have come to mind. I have used it to minister to members of my own family.

          Please know you are reaching people with hope and that with His grace, we are able to serve a very loving, compassionate, and BIG God. Susie.

      Guys don’t cry, but occasionally our head gaskets leak. My head gasket completely blew! But it sent this emu soaring like an eagle! So, soar whether you’re walking, running or soaring: your writing is reaching the heavens and making an eternal difference.

      Action point:

      Keep your eyes on . . .
      eternal reward not earthly royalties
      people’s words not published works
      the Book of Life, not best-sellers lists

      So, in review:

      1. We can’t control success, but we can control excellence

      2. We can’t control altitude, but we can control attitude

      3. We can’t control the harvest, but we can control the sowing

      4. We can’t control eternal effectiveness, but we can control earthly efforts.

      God will use us whether we’re waiting in line, chunk, chunk, chunking to the top, at the top, or plummeting at 93 mp back to earth.

      So, let me pray with you:

          God of eagles and emus . . .

          For those soaring, thank you for entrusting them with lofty opportunities to glorify You rather than themselves. Give them humility to enjoy this flight without forgetting on Whose wings they have soared. Grant them perspective that this heady height is only temporary and not Your eternal goal for them. And give them generosity to encourage their fellow creatures on the ground.

          For those returning to earth from soaring heights, may they praise You for what You have accomplished. Remind them that You give and take away, blessed be Your name. May they continue to trust You and Your perfect plan, knowing it often includes the highest of highs and lowest of lows. May they see this new time not as a failure but simply another season in their lives.

          For those running and walking, and for those who can only stand, give them Your strength and power to persevere. May they not faint with discouragement, may they not grow weary in preparing and practicing the craft. And may they rest in the calm confidence that even now—right now—they are in the center of Your will. And may their desire to know flight never surpass their desire to know the One who is infinitely “high and lifted up.”

          God of eagles and emus . . .

          Whatever we do—whether soaring, running, walking or just standingѿmay we do it with excellence for Your glory.

      And everyone said, Amen

      Copyright © 2012 James N. Watkins
      Photo: David Clode

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