Why Giving Up Control is Giving In to Joy

“We think this would work better as fiction.”

I’d submitted my proposal for the second non-fiction work of a two-book contract, and I’d prepared myself for rejection. But I had not prepared myself for the encouragement to do the one thing I’ve always wanted to do: write a novel.

It scared me.

Writing a novel seemed entirely impractical. I had a plan for my career—I was first and foremost a counselor and a coach, and my non-fiction books were to be the magnet for new clients. Novels attract readers, not clients. So novels were not part of the plan.

And yet, there’s a little one who lives on in all of us, and they aren’t interested in planning; they’re interested in playing.

When I was a boy, I would sit for hours in my bedroom, every book taken down from the shelf, surrounded by all those beloved stories, delighting in them. That little boy wasn’t concerned about how to put dinner on the table; he was more interested in staying outside on a warm summer evening, biking up and down the sidewalk as the streetlights came on, until someone finally forced him to come inside, where the dinner on the table was already cold.

That little boy living on in me is fine with giving up control over his success, because he’s never really had any control anyway, nor any success for that matter.

So I surrendered to his passion and started writing a novel. However, it quickly became clear the release of control was just beginning. When you publish non-fiction, you are an authority figure writing about a small corner of the world in which you’ve developed some expertise. Your job is to make a concept completely comprehensible—to create order out of chaos, if you will.

And that feels like being in control.

A novel, on the other hand, will gradually wrest all control from your humbled human hands. Sure, at first you have some say in the story and some power over the plot, but then you conceive of a few characters, and they start wreaking havoc on your vision. As they evolve, the plot evolves with them, so the characters evolve even more, and on and on, until you can barely recognize the story that is supposed to be coming from you but feels much more like it’s coming through you.

Adult-me was more terrified than ever, but little-me was more thrilled than ever. To him, it was like tucking his arms in and tipping his body sideways at the top of a grassy hill on a summer afternoon until gravity takes him and sends him tumbling toward the bottom, carefree about what bumps he might hit along the way.

So we wrapped our arms around each other and rolled down that hill together, and eventually we got to the bottom—the manuscript was complete. We were a little banged up and bruised, but the little boy in me was bursting with joy about what had just happened. He wanted to tell everyone about it.

However, adult-me was having second thoughts.

After finishing the first draft, I went for a walk with a friend and told him it was done. He asked if I’d sent it to my editor yet. I told him I hadn’t, and I was considering never doing so. “I just don’t know if fiction is the way to go,” I said, “I’m thinking about writing a new proposal for a book about following your passion.” I’ll never forget what he said next.

“How can you write a book about following your passion if you’re not following your passion for publishing a novel?”

You see, the scariest thing about a lifelong dream is not the possibility of never living it; it’s the possibility of living it and discovering that it doesn’t live up to its possibilities. The hardest thing is to love something that doesn’t love you back. Here, the little one in me trembles, too. He knows what it’s like to love and to be left lonely. He knows how loud he echoes in silent, empty spaces. We both know that once we share what we’ve created with the world, we will have surrendered our last little bit of control: our quietude. However, we also both know you don’t tumble down a hill because it’s safe—you do it because surrendering to Gravity is the greatest thrill of all.

So, I go home, compose an email to my editor, attach the manuscript, and hit send. I take one more scary step in the transition from nonfiction author to novelist. But somewhere inside of me it’s a warm summer night and the streetlights are coming on and the crickets are tuning up, as I pedal up and down the sidewalk.

I have not a plan in my head,

but I have a heart full of play,

and as the sun disappears burning beyond the western horizon,

there is joy all around.

My novel, The Unhiding of Elijah Campbell, is out now. Click here to order it in paperback, digital, and audio, wherever books are sold. 

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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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About Kelly

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.