Sometime shortly after the Y2K bug did not end civilization, my girlfriend handed me a novel called A Widow for One Year by John Irving.
I’d read many novels before, and I’d enjoyed them, but Widow was different. It deeply attuned me to what is sacred and sad, hilarious and hard, beautiful and broken, lovely and lonely, grueling and graceful about being human. The book humanized me. All of that to say, overnight, a dream was awakened in me.
I wanted to write a novel.
At the time, I was working on a Masters thesis, shopping for an engagement ring for that girlfriend of mine, and generally obsessed with having as much fun as possible in whatever time was left over. Suddenly, though, fun meant skipping a party on a Saturday night to stay home and write. I can’t remember how much I ultimately wrote because, eventually, I married that girlfriend and we had our first child while launching our careers. At some point, I buried the novel on a long-lost hard drive and I can’t even remember what it was about. I stand by that decision. I had a family to start and a career to get off the ground. My energies were needed elsewhere.
What I question is how deeply I buried that dream in my psyche.
When I was pitching Loveable, one of the acquisition editors described our passions as “the things we never knew we always wanted to do.” Yep. You can have a passion for writing a novel for twenty years and not even know it. You can have a passion for anything for a lifetime and not even know it. Why? Because of what we believe about our passions. They’re not practical. They’re a luxury. They’re selfish. They’re silly. They don’t matter. They’re not lucrative. They’re not applauded. And on and on.
We bury our dreams beneath a bunch of quite reasonable reasons for burying them, and eventually we forget they are there altogether.
In August of 2020, after publishing True Companions, it was time to pitch the second non-fiction book of a two-book contract to my publisher. I was confident in the concept and hopeful the publisher would approve it, but also prepared for disappointment. I was not prepared for what they actually said: “We think this would work better as fiction.”
It was a dream come true, so of course I jumped at the opportunity, right?
I told them I must not have been clear enough. I revised the non-fiction proposal and resubmitted it. Why was I now actively working to keep my dream buried? Perhaps because one of the only things worse than not chasing your dream is chasing it and not catching it. A heart full of hope is easier to handle than a heart broken by disappointment.
We preserve the possibility of our dreams by not living them.
So, I submitted a second non-fiction proposal, confident this time my publisher would see the light. They didn’t. Their feedback was unchanged: “We still think this would work better as fiction.”
The dream within me began to stir. Could I? Could I really? Could I really write a novel? I sought the counsel of my trusted agent. She cautioned me that most authors have several novels in the drawer before they master the craft well enough to actually pull one off, but she encouraged me to get started anyway. So, I did. And her reaction to the early pages fanned the embers of that old dream of mine:
“Your characters. They’re alive. Keep going!”
And writing The Unhiding of Elijah Campbell became the greatest thrill of my creative life. I would plan for the characters to do one thing and they’d do something entirely different—something somehow more real and more truthful and more meaningful than I’d had in mind—and I’d feel like I was the only one in the theater on opening night, watching a heart-rending story unfold before anyone else gets to see it.
Then, six months later, the first draft was done.
I went for a walk with a friend a couple of days later and told him I’d finished it. He asked if I’d sent it to my agent yet. I told him no, and I might never send it. He asked why. I told him publishing a novel just didn’t make sense for me at this point in my career. I wanted to publish a book about pursuing our passions. He looked at me and said, “How can you write a book about pursuing your passion if you’re not pursuing yours?” Touche.
Steven Pressfield says there is a malevolent force in the universe called Resistance. He says its sole intent is to keep us from living the lives we are here to live, and he writes, “The danger is greatest when the finish line is in sight. At this point, Resistance knows we’re about to beat it. It hits the panic button. It marshals one last assault and slams us with everything it’s got.” I’m not sure what Resistance is—probably some amalgam of our wounds and shame and fear and ego—but I’m sure it didn’t want me to show the manuscript to anyone.
Our dreams are relatively safe experiments in being human, until we drag them out into the light for everybody to see. Then, they have to dance with our fears.
In the end, I didn’t write a book about pursuing our passions. Rather, the book itself is a living example of one guy pursuing his, twenty years after the idea first enthralled him. I’m really proud of the shape this long-buried dream of mine has ultimately taken in the world. And I can’t wait for you to read it.
Elijah’s story has made me a more peaceful, forgiving, and faithful human being. I believe it will do the same for you, too.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.