by John Ellis
Most actors hate auditions. All actors hate the interim time period between the audition and finding out the result of the audition. I was no different.
During the days after an audition, working as an actor before the prevalence of emails, I was always worried that I wouldn’t hear the phone ring and, so, I would compulsively make sure that nothing was too loud in my apartment. Never mind that nothing in my history with phones presented any evidence that there was even the slightest danger that I wouldn’t hear the phone ring.
During that interim period, like many other actors, I would concoct all sorts of reasons why I wouldn’t land the role as a defensive mechanism to guard against disappointment and discouragement. Of course, all the while, no matter how much I would try to convince myself that the director had good reasons not to cast me, my anxious hope would continue to grow.
All that to say that when I received the email today telling me that Crossway’s publication committee was passing on my book, many of my subsequent emotions were not a new experience for me.
Funnily enough, the farther along in the audition process, the harder the “no” lands. Making it to the final round of an audition increases an actor’s hope to a level that makes the “no” harder to hear. The sport’s cliché “second place is the first loser” has a much deeper relevance in theatre. At least the team that loses the Super Bowl still gets paid. Having made it to the “final audition” for Crossway, my “loss” feels bigger than if I had never heard back from them to begin with.
And in careers like acting and writing, therein lies the irony – what should be encouraging (having your talent validated at least to a degree) is often a bigger discouragement than never having your talent validated to begin with.
Frankly, some of what I felt and am feeling is embarrassment and shame. In fact, after reading the email, one of my initial impulses was to sit on the news for a couple of weeks and not tell anyone else. I wasn’t even going to tell my wife. I didn’t (don’t) want to talk about it, preferring to process my “feelings,” the rejection, and my next moves by myself. I think this raises three questions: 1. Why Am I Spilling My Guts? 2. What Happened? 3. What’s Next?
Why Am I Spilling My Guts?
At the beginning of my acting career, I somehow landed a small role in a major motion picture starring one of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars. I was elated and assumed that my dream of becoming a movie star and winning Oscars was just around the corner. I told everyone about my role. Unbeknownst to me, the film’s editor ended up liking me so much, he kept my performance for himself inside of his editing room. I found that out the hard way when I took a bunch of friends to a screening of the movie.
As the end credits rolled, I wanted to be anywhere else in the world but in that movie theatre. My friends, unsure of what to say, made nervous jokes about my noticeable lack of screen time. I laughed, because what else was I supposed to do?
That night, I learned to be very discrete about possible victories/successes until those victories/successes are in the bag. If you’ve spent any amount of time around actors, you know how difficult that is for us to do. Actors like being on stage, even when they don’t want to be on that stage.
However, it was a lesson I learned and a lesson I’ve mostly adhered to over the subsequent years. So, I wasn’t excited about publicly announcing the possibility of a book deal, because I wanted very few people to know about it due to the very real possibility that it would never happen.
The thing was, I had backed myself into a corner. As I wrote the chapters’ initial rough drafts over the winter and spring months, I posted those rough drafts to this blog. After receiving the first email from Crossway, I made those posts private. For really no good reason other than having never pitched much less published a book before, I wasn’t sure about the comfort level publishing houses have if the spine of the book’s content is available for free on a blog. Not wanting to risk it, I hid the posts.
The thing was, while writing and publishing the initial rough draft, the blog posts created more of a stir than I anticipated. I received many emails from strangers, acquaintances, and friends asking me questions, telling me how much my story resonates with them, and sharing their own experiences growing up in the Christian school movement. Several people told me that they were waiting for the series to finish before sharing them with friends and family members living in open rebellion against God. Other friends complained after I made the posts private because they hadn’t finished reading the series. I felt like I owed people an explanation for why I made the posts private.
Not having any social media accounts with which to disseminate the explanation to our friends and family, I asked my wife to post something on her Facebook page explaining why the blog posts were no longer available. This meant spilling the beans about Crossway much sooner than my past experiences deemed prudent.
Because of that, I believe that I owe another explanation to my many friends and family members who have expressed excitement about the possibility of a book deal, have encouraged me, and have prayed for me. And, to be completely frank, I would rather write about it at length than talk about it at length.
Back in April, I decided that it was time to cash in one of my industry contacts. I asked a good friend of mine for the email of one of Crossway’s managing editors, a man that my friend knows. After he graciously complied, I sat on that email address for two months.
Realizing that I was stalling in order to avoid the possibility of hearing “no,” I finally sent an inquiry to Crossway.
Briefly introducing myself while dropping my friend’s name in the hopes that the managing editor wouldn’t simply delete my email before reading it, I gave a short summary of the book and attached the Word file containing the book’s Introduction. Utilizing the tools of the defensive mechanism that I had acquired as an actor, I convinced myself that was that. I told myself that I would never hear back.
Lo and behold, I received an email two days later from one of Crossway’s acquisitions editors. In summary, he told me that the managing editor had passed along my email and that he found the book interesting and needed, and believed that there was an audience for it. In the email, he asked if we could talk over the phone. To appear “cool,” I waited a couple of hours before hitting send on the response I had composed in the seconds after first reading that initial reply from Crossway.
That was a Friday, and we set up a time that following Tuesday to talk over the phone. It was then that I made the blog posts private. I also decided that I should check out Crossway’s website and learn about the company. While having read many of their books, I was mostly unfamiliar with how they operate.
While poking around Crossway’s website, I discovered that not only had I violated almost all their submission guidelines, I had pitched a genre that they don’t even publish. While it was encouraging that they had reached out to me despite my amateurish pitch of a genre outside of their mission statement, I was curious about how the coming phone call would go.
The phone call went well. The editor told me that while the book is outside of Crossway’s normal publishing parameters, one of his jobs is to find books that he believes are interesting and have a potential audience. He then works with the author to massage the book enough for it to be published by Crossway.
After telling me his ideas about changing the book into half memoir and half practical theology, he asked if I would be willing to do that. Even though I had zero idea of how I was going to do it, I told him that I’d be happy to make the changes (something else I learned in theatre – never say “no” to the director; do your best and let someone else decide you can’t do it). He concluded by asking me to send him the manuscript and that after reading it he’d email back with suggested changes and edits.
True to his word, I received an email three weeks later with suggested edits and changes. He asked if I would be able to rewrite the first five chapters by the end of July, in preparation for Crossway’s publication meeting in August. Again, unsure of how I was going to do it, I said I could do it. And, by God’s grace, I did it.
He liked the rewrites, sent me a few questions to answer for the pitch, liked my answers, and finally told me that he would be taking the book before the publication committee.
This morning, he emailed me to let me know that while the publication committee appreciated the book and believes it to be a potentially important and useful story for evangelicalism, it was too far outside of what they normally publish.
My disappointment aside, I am grateful for the time and energy the Crossway editor invested in me. Under his guidance, not only did I learn more about the publishing industry, I believe that my book is now a better book, regardless of what happens moving forward.
At this time, specifically this week, I don’t have time to put much energy into my book (I really don’t have time to write this post, but, well, I didn’t choose the timing). An already truncated week made even busier by out-of-town guests and being scheduled to preach this coming Sunday, I am punting on the questions involved in “what’s next?” However, there are some prayer requests wrapped up in those questions.
First and foremost, pray that I will find and place my identity in Christ and not in a book deal. Secondly, pray that I will be faithful to keep my hands on the plow that God has given me this week and not be distracted by my disappointment and discouragement.
As far as long-term prayer requests, I am forty-three years old and am not naïve about how “foolish” it is to pursue a career in the arts. I’ve been down this road before, and while I’m proud of my achievements in theatre, it’s next to impossible to carve out a legitimate career within the arts without asking loved ones to compromise and make sacrifices.
In His merciful providence God took away my theatre career. I am not convinced that He did so for me to pursue writing. However, I’m also not convinced that I shouldn’t pursue writing. At this time, I am at a loss as to what I should pursue and what I should do. Please pray that my fear and discouragement won’t paralyze me from making any decisions.
People rarely find success the first time they pitch a book to a publishing company. It would be arrogant of me to think that I should be the statistical anomaly. That being said, it’s rare to get your book pitch before a publication committee. It would also be arrogant of me to assume that it will happen again for me anytime soon. I don’t know if I have the energy to pursue the book further, but I’m not convinced that my lack of energy isn’t a manifestation of feelings of self-pity. On the flip-side, I am acutely aware that at times I like being on stage for self-serving reasons, and I’m not convinced that my desire to pursue writing isn’t an idolatrous attempt at an end-run around God’s removal of theatre from my life. I simply don’t know, don’t trust myself to be able to answer honestly, and have a growing and suffocating awareness that time is running out for me to develop another career. Pray for wisdom when I do interact with the larger and smaller questions involved in what’s next.
And that brings me back to my first prayer request. One of the great and sad ironies of my life is that my story is evidence of how far God goes to pursue and save His children and yet I still frequently fail to remember that my primary identity is as one of His beloved children. I continue to attempt to define myself in ways that reveal that my identity in Christ is often secondary in my heart and mind. While not unimportant, my vocation, my career, should run a distant second or third or even farther behind my identity as a Christian. While navigating important decisions, it’s imperative that I find and place my full identity, assurance, and self-worth in the fact that I am Christ’s and Christ is God’s. And that’s a concern and prayer request that I believe many of my brothers and sisters in Christ struggle with and need God’s grace to live out.
If the only thing that comes from my almost-book deal is that I become more like Christ, it will be of far more eternal value than the actual book deal, even though I’m struggling to believe that in my heart.
Likewise, Christian, no matter what you’re struggling with, no matter the discouragement, your Heavenly Father loves you and has promised to work all things out for your good, and that “good” is that He is making you more like Jesus for His glory. Trust in that promise and keep your eyes on Jesus, the Rock of your salvation.
Soli Deo Gloria