One of the most common questions I get when people hear I wrote a book is “How did you go about the daunting task of writing a whole book?” (Other common questions include “Since you’re an editor, did you have to get edited?” and “What tools does every writer need?” Answer: backup files, Pilot fine-tip pens, and large quantities of prayer and chocolate.)
It’s hard for me to answer the question about what it’s like to write a book, because the process was so much messier and less linear than I ever imagined. I’ve been around books all my life, first as a reader and for the past fourteen years as an editor. In that time, I’ve had a pretty straightforward process for tackling books: more or less starting at the beginning and making my way to the end (I have a strict no-spoilers policy).
So I was surprised when I started writing and discovered that my book couldn’t be wrangled into such a neat step-by-step process. It was stymying at first—I couldn’t quite nail down where I needed to go or what came next.
Here’s the best way I’ve found to describe what the writing felt like: at the beginning I was trying to follow a sewing pattern. I wanted rules and formulas; I wanted structure and organization and measurements. But it didn’t work. I had to throw away the pattern. And when I did, I realized that I was actually making a quilt.
And so I wrote stories, one after the other, like quilt squares, not worrying at the moment about where they would go or how they would fit into the whole. Then I literally spread these stories out on the floor of our spare bedroom. That enabled me to see where the overall direction of the book was headed. It also showed which stories didn’t fit with the colors and pattern of my quilt-book. And it helped me see which story squares worked well beside each other. Only then could I stitch it all together.
For someone who likes to know I’m doing things “right,” this approach felt a little like a literary freefall: terrifying at first, but ultimately exhilarating. And it struck me that it’s a little like life, really. So often I try to make a script for my life and follow a step-by-step pattern. But even if I could find such a set of instructions, it wouldn’t work—life just isn’t that predictable and easily pinned down.
God invites us to follow him into a life of mystery and wonder . . . into a terrifying but exhilarating freefall. We don’t know exactly how our life will turn out or where exactly he is calling us; he simply invites us to tackle one quilt square at a time. It’s not until later that we can see what he was creating in us and through us.
Now I should confess at this point that these sewing metaphors are purely hypothetical for me. My maternal grandmother is a master seamstress. She sewed all three of her daughter’s wedding dresses and the accompanying bridesmaid dresses, and she made afghans for each of her grandchildren when we graduated from high school. But much to her consternation, her eldest granddaughter has dropped the sartorial baton. My sewing skills are limited to reattaching errant buttons, and even at that, the backside would make a sparrow’s nest look tidy.
Recently I received a gift that feels like the visual equivalent of what it felt like to write a book. My friend Lory, a quilter and a writer herself, made me a beautiful writing-themed quilt. It’s been put together piece by piece, stitch by stitch, and I can feel the love threaded into every part.
There’s something gratifying about putting love and planning and work into something, whether it’s a quilt or a book or a song or a meal, and then being able to see it or taste it or hold it in your hands. And then to be able to share it with someone else? Well, that’s almost like a piece of glory in your own living room.
When God made us, I have to believe he experienced that same kind of delight in his creations. He stitched together our DNA, planned out hair color and personality traits, and planted dreams and desires in us. And he no doubt revels in what he’d made. His creations are no assembly-line productions; there are no two the same. You are a one-of-a-kind creation, and he is utterly delighted by you.
We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
What masterpiece are you working on as we begin a new year? What would it look like to throw away the pattern and embrace the messy work of creating?