The unfinished work: when good is the enemy of great

Dec 16, 2020Writing

The passing of my favourite fiction writer, Spanish novelist Carlos Ruiz Zafon in June of this year at the age of fifty-five, evoked two distinct emotions within me: gratitude and guilt. The source of my gratitude is easy to identify and simple to explain. The feelings of guilt though, require the acknowledgement of an uncomfortable truth.

But first, the gratitude.

Writers write

In a live webchat interview with The Guardian Ruiz Zafon remarked:

“I work in my studio/office. Long hours. Five days a week, sometimes 6 or 7. I rewrite as I write, constantly. I walk around the room. Talk to myself. Move from the desk to a piano I have in the office. Curse my own limitations. Drink too much caffeine. Consider a career in watching paint dry on walls… Then I rewrite and rewrite again and again. I work for months on end until what I have is as close as it gets to what I set out to do…Writers write. No matter what. And yes, you feel like throwing in the towel. But you don’t. Not if you’re a writer. Because writers write. Publishing, that’s another matter. Stay strong, be true to yourself and work hard. The world will catch up, eventually.”

I’m grateful that Ruiz Zafon never threw in the towel and kept working, rewriting and rewriting, making countless personal sacrifices, as ‘the world did eventually catch up’, with his books been translated into more than 50 languages and selling over 40 million copies worldwide.

I look back with gratitude on the day my friend and fellow U2 fan, Andrew Gilliam, suggested I read The Shadow of the Wind, for it was the start of my journey into the mysterious world of Daniel Sempere and the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

A long obedience

For me, Carlos Ruiz Zafon exemplifies, in the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, a long obedience:

“The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is…that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”

Ruiz Zafon stands alongside others who have added ‘worth to my living’ through their ‘long obediences’. I think of Nelson Mandela, whose gracious leadership was inspiring to a white young adult finding his place in the new South Africa. I think of Pete Smith, my youth leader as a teenager and young adult, whose faithfulness to a local church for many decades provided a place of understanding, patience and discernment, as I (and many others) underwent the growing pains of post school life. I think of my wife Lara, who has graciously walked with me during our twenty years of marriage.

I’m grateful for all those who daily choose the long difficult path. Who make personal sacrifices. Who never relent. Who make the ‘Gethsemane choice’ (Matthew 26:36-46) over and over again, so that I can catch glimpses of a coming Kingdom.

Glimpses that remind me that I can be more than I am.

Glimpses that remind me that I’ve forgotten the sage words of Jim Collins. Cue the guilt.

The great choice

A few years back (in my former life as the leader of a National youth organisation), I held tightly to the following insight from researcher, author, and business consultant Jim Collins:

“Good is the enemy of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great. We don’t have great schools, principally because we have good schools. We don’t have great government, principally because we have good government. Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life.”

The choice of ‘the good’: this is not a choice to do bad, or evil or harm, it is simply the choice to be satisfied with ‘the good’. It is the choice of comfort. The choice of the known. It is the choice without risk. The choice which holds onto the material. The choice which bears no personal cost. The choice birthed in cynicism and powered by fear and justification. The choice which seeks to satisfy all and drowns all dreams in a flood of realism. It is the choice propped up by religious legalism.

The choice of ‘the great‘: this is not a choice driven by the ego or self indulgence. This is simply a choice to relentlessly work out the salvation found in the person of Jesus Christ (Philippians 2:12-13), a choice which leaps from the theological foundation of ‘justification’ towards the sanctified coming of a Kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven. It is a choice which picks up a personal cross for the sake of others (Matthew 16:24-26). A choice which fixes its eyes on the eternal and runs the race marked out for it (Hebrews 12:2). It is the choice of hope. The choice of love. It is the choice fragranced with grace. It is the choice of a foot washer (John 13:13-16).

The unfinished skeleton

When I cast the ‘choice of the great’ light over my life I discovered a few ‘unfinished skeletons’ in my closet. I mention one here.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a desire to write a novel but couldn’t settle on a story. Then last year, in a moment of prayer, I vividly watched a scene play out in my mind’s eye. I knew, like I knew, this scene was part of a larger story which God wanted me to write. So, I said to myself I’m going to write a book this year but as of today, the 8 December 2020, the first draft of my young adult fantasy novel remains an unfinished work.

Have I made good progress? Yes. But I suspect I could have been holding a first draft copy in my hands had I (like Ruiz Zafon) made the ‘choice of the great’ more often. Instead, I chose to stop ‘watching paint dry’ and put on another Manchester United game or the next episode of a Series. I ‘through in the towel’ and for weeks chose not to write, giving in to the voice of fear which whispered, ‘This story is not good enough.” I chose comfort, switching off my morning alarm, and gained some extra sleep rather than enduring the process of ‘rewriting and rewriting’. I ‘cursed my own limitations’, stared them down and then relinquished, instead of leaning into the One who proclaimed, “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (John 18:27).

Through small daily choices, I settled into ‘the good’, missing out on ‘the great’ completed work of a long obedience.

The perfect author

As I commit again to writing my first novel in 2021 (with you as my great cloud of witnesses this time) I’m filled with gratitude knowing that I follow the perfect Author “who began a good work in (me) and will carry it on to completion” (Philippians 1:6).

I take great solace in knowing too that if I bring the guilt of my unfinished skeletons to God, He will by the power of the Holy Spirit, breath new life into them and they will come to life, standing as a vast army, and all will know that this work was done by the Lord (Ezekiel 37: 9-14).

Now, I must go…I have a novel to complete. See you on the other side of ‘the great’.

Oh, and you can have a look at my devotional book ‘the Reason for Me’ here

6 Comments

  1. Matthew

    Cannot wait for the Novel. Here’s to pursuing the great together:)

    Reply
  2. Xavier

    Thanks Matt. Walking together will help us both get there…wherever ‘there’ is.

    Reply
  3. Lyn Myers

    I’m thrilled you’re writing! Well done! I pray your good will become great! God be with you. Lyn

    Reply
  4. Xavier

    Hi Lyn, thank you for the encouragement and prayers.

    Reply
  5. Delme Linscott

    Thanks for this awesome post Xav. We are so looking forward to the Novel and more of your thoughtful and provocative content. God bless you bud.

    Reply
  6. Xavier

    Thanks D. I’m sure it’ll be part of our coffee conversations in 2021.

    Reply

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