cuckoo chick and Reed warbler mother
Credit: Nature Picture Library/Alamy

Who wants to see a grown man cry? Apparently, it’s good entertainment.

When we play Pixar and DreamWorks movies, my wife stops watching at important moments so she can watch me instead. She likes to see me cry. Better entertainment, I guess.

Like the rest of the U.S. population with kids under ten, we have watched Frozen precisely 1,789 times. The scene where Anna turns into an ice statue and, despite her sister’s cool indifference, saves her Elsa’s life gets me every time.

With a sweet, grandmotherly smile on her face, Megan will drink in my blubbering. This unwanted attention always makes me think of Kramer’s line from an episode of Seinfeld: “Don’t look at me. I’m hideous.”

I come from a long line of male criers. Nothing much I can do about that (or my genetic predisposition for beardlessness).

What can I say?

I’m a sucker for reconciliation and redemption, and Tribe Conference 2017, which I attended this past weekend in Franklin, Tennessee, had many such moments. On Sunday in particular, I was on the verge of tears three or four times.

Tribe Conference 2017
Tribe Conference 2017

I’m not insinuating that the conference was group therapy. To the contrary, Jeff Goins roped in many brilliant people, including Pamela Slim, Leo Babauta, Ryan Holliday, Jon Acuff, and Sean McCabe.

These folks delivered delicious talks that I will chew on for months to come. Tribe definitely delivered in the content department.

But another chemistry, alchemy even, was happening inside of me. I wrote down this line that came like a thunderclap…

“This is what I want to do.”

Anyone who knows me well would interject at this point:

“Um… Isn’t that old news? You have always been a writer. You have always wanted to be a writer.”

True. The one thing I have consistently wanted to do for over twenty years is write books. But wanting to do something and seeing the path forward are two very different things.

To listen in as a crack squad of accomplished warriors discusses the need to drop a certain godawful ring in a certain pool of molten lava is very different than a young hobbit steeling his resolve and announcing, “I volunteer. Entrust this mission to me. I will find a way.”

The question is, “Do I trust myself to finish?”

Jon Acuff compared botched goals and broken promises to ourselves to a troupe of ghosts. They linger at the edges of our consciousness. They loom over new plans. They cause mental static and add to what Steven Pressfield calls “the resistance.”

The very existence of these ghosts makes a case against us: “You’re good at giving up. It’s inevitable, at least for you. Throw in the towel now.”

Earlier this year, I met a former banker who has written and published sixteen books. Granted, this banker left the banking world after he got fed up with the traditional publishing process and founded Morgan James Publishing.

But still… a banker… sixteen books.

What excuse do I have?

Writing books is the one thing I have wanted to do consistently — other than go fishing and travel and eat candy sticks from tiny Marvel-themed boxes — for twenty years. Yet, I haven’t written a book.

Oh, I have finished guides like Melting Chocolate Kettles, Appiness, and Earn What You’re Worth. And I had to compile, submit, and defend my thesis in grad school.

And I even wrote over 50,000 words in November 2012 for Nanowrimo.

Still, I haven’t completed a book-length manuscript.

Why?

Here’s what I have figured out…

I have been so afraid of writing a crappy book that I haven’t written any book.

There, now. It’s out in the open.

I know, I know. This goes against the advice of every published author ever. You have to get through your bad ideas to get to your good ones.

Keep showing up at the same time each morning and inspiration will strike.

Kill your darlings.

All. that. jazz. I know. I know. That guide Melting Chocolate Kettles I mentioned? It is ALL about the myths that stymy our creative output.

Austin L. Church & Shaunta Grimes at Tribe 2017
Austin L. Church & Shaunta Grimes at Tribe 2017

Meeting Shaunta Grimes was one of the highlights of Tribe for me, and I’ll pass on what she shared: Her first novel, which she wrote to distract herself while pregnant and feeling miserable in her own body, was not good.

She has since sold three — count them, three — novels to major publishers.

But by tying off that first dirty diaper, she taught herself the crucial lesson: I can write a book.

I have not trusted myself to write a good book, so I have not thrown myself into the process that will produce a good book eventually.

I can’t sell Novel #4 to a publisher if I don’t write Novel #1. And I can’t write Novel #1 if I so desperately want to tell beautiful stories and change the world with my words that I don’t finish a first draft.

Wouldn’t doing so be a disservice to the perfect vision in my mind?

Naw. That’s my Inner Critic having his way with my dreams.

I have learned to live with the ache in the bones of my heart. I want to be great. I want a place among the tellers of exquisite stories and creators of worlds that might have been. I want your admiration and praise.

Meanwhile, I suffer from imposter syndrome, and I have deposited a belief in the buried vault of beliefs that I do not deserve a place among the greats. I lack the talent, and I am starting too late.

Of course, this collision of true desire and false belief precipitates a rain of Shoulds:

  • I should have finished ten novels by now.
  • I should have turned my back on the business world.
  • I should have practiced more selfishness with my words.
  • I should have sacrificed more.
  • I should have cared about other things less.

I should have fed a solitary, burning raison d’etre. Without such an obsession, marking me like six fingers or purple irises, I am disqualified — from birth.

That is a lie, of course.

I don’t know about you, but I believe in God, in Jesus, and thus in an enemy to the proper, peaceful functioning of the cosmos.

Too many people believe lies about themselves for me not to believe a liar is dropping them, strategically, like cuckoo eggs, into your nest.

At Tribe Conference Jon Acuff talked about cuckoos, and I’m going to steal from him. I heard that great artists steal. Austin Kleon stole the idea from The Internet, and The Internet maybe stole it from Pablo Picasso. So it must be true.

Apparently, cuckoo chicks are the living worst.

cuckoo chick and Reed warbler mother
Credit: Nature Picture Library/Alamy

Cuckoo chicks hatch sooner than the rightful inhabitants of the nest where their mothers deposit them, and they start acting like aspiring dons. They will push the other eggs out of the nest. They monopolize the mother bird’s attention and nourishment. With incessant clamoring for food, they harry mother birds of other species to exhaustion and death.

The liar is the mother cuckoo, and the lies grow into ravenous mobster-chicks.

We feed them. People we love and trust feed them too, usually without intending to, and one way or another, most of our dreams get rolled out of the nest.

We call the rolling out “respectability.” We call it “maturing” or “not going cuckoo for Cocao Puffs because avocado toast is supposedly better because of the oils and complex carbohydrates.”

Regardless, when you find yourself at a “conference,” which is to say a temporary, purpose-built family of weirdos, you gain perspective on the cuckoo chicks.

“Oh, hey there. Wait. How did you get in here? Get out of my #%^&^% nest!”

Maybe the idea of a liar and lies doesn’t jive with you, so let’s reframe my being a hot mess all weekend this way: I started to remember a truer story.

  • My literary aspirations are not only possible but probable.
  • I will put in the work to finish my first novel.
  • That work comes in two forms: writing and platform building. (Publishers are much more amenable to working with writers who have large email lists.)
  • My time is precious, which is why I must exercise what Jonathan Fields calls “exquisite attention.”
  • I must simplify and declutter.
  • I must stop doing things that aren’t working.

Let me pause to highlight something Benjamin P. Hardy said:

“Writers don’t want to do what works.”

Hardy’s words hit me between the eyes. I’ll spend hours, HOURS, polishing one blog post, and I’ll spend five minutes on the title.

Uh… How are people going to discover and appreciate my work if curiosity-piquing headlines don’t catch their attention and if I don’t spend a lot of time promoting my work?

Craft isn’t enough anymore. Being a good writer isn’t enough anymore.

We must also write catchy, “I cannot not click on this link” headlines. Without an effective headline and promotion strategy my post is a palace in the woods.

To keep doing what isn’t working doesn’t signify a staunch commitment to craft or artistic integrity. Persistence in futility is the stupidest of all stupid things.

Or perhaps this question is better: Who or what am I protecting by not mastering the business and marketing tactics that writers now need to prosper?

Yet, we writers often act like a brontosaurus munching leaves while the meteors strike around us. The meteors are live video, YouTube, blogs (of course), Medium, and any other platform with a built-in audience.

So. Catchy headlines. Promotion. I don’t like it.

But if a cardiologist told me that I must cut down on my sugar intake or I won’t live to walk my daughter Salem down the aisle, I would change my diet.

I am going to change. I will invest more time in learning about writing superb headlines and promoting my work. Then, before I can turn research into a yet another stall tactic, I will actually apply what I learn.

Pamela Slim said, “You are a writer. You just need to write.”

I agree, and I will walk that truth another mile: “I will be a published fiction and nonfiction writer. I just need to trust the process.”

Along the way, I’m going to take Ishita Gupta’s advice and make my mess my message.

I have been so afraid of writing a bad book that I haven’t finished a book-length manuscript. I have hedged my bets and used (ineffective) platform-building tactics to distract myself from the biggest part of the real work: writing the words that will one day reside in a hardback book.

Sean McCabe was right: “Any results you see in the first two years are a bonus.”

So here’s what I plan to do, starting on September 24, 2017…

  • I will learn and practice the art of asking for help for 100 days.
  • I will also try to help someone each day.
  • I will document this 100 Days of Help journey on Medium.

I considered blogging about freelancing for 100 days straight, but honestly, that felt like playing it safe.

Every time I thought about this 100 Days of Help idea, I experienced an intense upwelling of emotion. It was like God shook up a can of Coca-Cola inside my chest and popped the tab. Nice. 100 Days of Help it is.

This way, I can be a blubbering fool in public, which is a win for everyone.

I typically shove aside this part of myself. Maybe it’s a family of origin thing. Maybe it’s a male thing. Maybe it’s a “I’m not ready to be transparent because life won’t be the same afterward” thing.

Regardless, I hope my mess enlightens you. Maybe I can participate in your transformation, and we can change together.

I’m asking for your help.

I’ve been crying a lot recently. Pixar movies. The Chef’s Table series on Netflix. Hearing Aaron Dowd say, on camera, that our conversation was his favorite part of Tribe.

I have years of catching up to do as my dreams stage a coup and topple the cuckoo chicks from their usurped perch. I love stories of redemption and reconciliation, and perhaps the one I most need to write involves being reconciled to a younger, more hopeful Austin who knew his words would change the world.

I know what I want to do, and if I don’t see the whole path, I know my next step.

I want to become world-class at asking for help, and I’m asking you: Please join me on Medium for a sloppy ride.

Click/tap the green Follow button.

At the very least you can enjoy watching me cry.

Do you have something you want to finish?

If this article resonated with you, please subscribe to my personal blog. You will get a free copy of my guide, How to Finish Anything.

It will change your life.

— — — — — —

Special thanks to Grant Webster for buying my ticket to Tribe Conference. I promise to make the most of your investment in me, my friend.

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